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Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-2 up 20140729)

Posted: Tue Jul 29, 2014 11:48 am
by azumeow
Damn, that hurt. I'm gonna have to start reading after the dream. I've read Lilly's arc-painful as that was...

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-2 up 20140729)

Posted: Tue Jul 29, 2014 11:54 am
by brythain
azumeow wrote:Damn, that hurt. I'm gonna have to start reading after the dream. I've read Lilly's arc-painful as that was...
Honoured to have gained another reader! There's a sort of loose order in the Main Index—the order in which I wrote them, or chronological order for some people who like to check on that kind of thing. But you're welcome to read whatever you find interesting. :)

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-2 up 20140729)

Posted: Tue Jul 29, 2014 2:56 pm
by edruil
So, I haven't read any of your other works. I picked this up this morning because I was bored at work and didn't have anything to do.

Three hours later, I'm done reading it and goddamn has it hit me right in the feels. I was once in a relationship very like Kenji and Naomi's, and I too took a long time, a very long time, to let go and move on with my life.

It's incredibly eerie how well you have captured in words the potency of feelings I haven't felt in years. Reading this piece drew them out of me and made me remember. It was a sad experience, but an incredible one.

Bravo, sir. I will be following this story, and will be looking into your others very soon

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-2 up 20140729)

Posted: Tue Jul 29, 2014 8:39 pm
by brythain
edruil wrote:So, I haven't read any of your other works. I picked this up this morning because I was bored at work and didn't have anything to do.

Three hours later, I'm done reading it and goddamn has it hit me right in the feels. I was once in a relationship very like Kenji and Naomi's, and I too took a long time, a very long time, to let go and move on with my life.

It's incredibly eerie how well you have captured in words the potency of feelings I haven't felt in years. Reading this piece drew them out of me and made me remember. It was a sad experience, but an incredible one.

Bravo, sir. I will be following this story, and will be looking into your others very soon
Thank you very much! That's very encouraging—not all my relationships have been quite as dire, and I've had to make some guesses along the way. :)

Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-3a up 20140801)

Posted: Fri Aug 01, 2014 3:26 am
by brythain
This is the first section of the third instalment of the second part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which he starts work in Tokyo and thinks about various kinds of farewell.

This instalment occurs around the same time as this part of Rin's arc and also this part of Miki's arc.

Kenji 2: The Sound of Wings—Year Three (Part 1)
(April 2012-September 2012)

Kyoto was Dreaming, Hamamatsu was the City at the End of Time, and Tokyo was sometimes like Hell. It’s how I remember it, how it had to be. I had changed from angry mad person to sane sad person.

To explain my time in Tokyo, I have to say things I cannot say. You have to understand, I had friends who would not want to be known. So the friends that you, my readers, already know will seem to have much more of my life—when actually they had less. It is a small price to pay for us to defend our cherry blossoms.

So this account, it’s the account of a man cut loose and trying to prove himself. And not all of it is pleasant, not all of it was easy.

These memories are taken from my redacted log entries, from 2010 to 2015. I call them ‘The Sound of Wings’. Some of those wings are dark and comforting, like the shadow of night.


April 2012:

I’m dreaming, and I know it. “Arm the Wave Motion Gun,” I shout. The mighty spacecraft ‘Yamato’, my command, responds. We go dead in space, our propulsion baffled and channeled to the front. I turn to my closest companion, she whose name means ‘True Beauty’, and she smiles. But there is heat everywhere, white light, the faint smell of dust. Her fair hair turns black, she melts like snow, she is nothing and I am gone.

I sit up and write this in my log. I have a dream log. It isn’t always used. I have used it a lot these weeks. It’s kept on my phone, and there’s a message for me too: [Sydney still nice. Miss you. Check your email. Love, N.] I want to cry, but I have things to do. I compromise. I will go back to sleep, to try to dream, again.

I’ve read her email. In it, Naomi has written: [Dearest K, I’ve left Sachiko’s pearls safely in box on my shelf. Seemed more respectful to keep them in Japan. I’ll wear them only when home. Send her my regards as always. Love, N.]

My first thought is: which shelf? But I’m just being slow—it must be the shelf she keeps her little treasures and stuffed toys on. And my second thought hits me while I’m unprepared, like a train: It’s only been two years, yet Naomi wrote ‘always’; but she’s not here this year and I have to do it all alone.

I have to visit my sister’s grave alone, I repeat to myself, like a robot. Like the mindless reflex of a dying animal, I reach out, trying to think about company. Who can I humiliate myself by asking? The Fist is too far away, and she never knew Sachi. Shizune is closer, but there’s a creepy symmetry there; if I jump off a roof because of her, it’s Hakamichi 2, Setou 0.

There’s not much choice, really. Weak, weak, whispers old Kenji. Asking her of all people? Ruthlessly I lash out at my old self: at least we know her, and she’ll take it seriously. Sachiko deserves no less.

I actually have two choices left, but I share a lot more now with one of them. The time for regrets is past, I tell myself, as I pick up my phone and call Natsume.

“Kenji? What a surprise! How are you?”

“Ah, this one’s doing OK. Sorry to disturb you, Natsume.” I take a deep breath, then decide to continue before I shamefully lose courage. “I have a strange request to make.”

“As long as it’s not illegal or obscene, I’ll consider it. This one’s not occupied with that much at the moment. I start work at the Shimbun officially on 1st May.”

It’s the 15th of April again. Cool, relatively dry. The little stone marker has not changed, but there are new flowers next to it again. Somehow, I smell tea, as if somebody has been sitting there conducting a tea ceremony. That makes me strangely less sad, as if it makes Sachi more alive. Perhaps wherever she is, they love her well enough to have tea parties.

Natsume looks at me seriously. Her eyes of different colours are very striking behind the thick glasses, almost as thick as mine, but less reflective. She grasps my elbow, as if to provide support. It comforts me.

“Hey, little sister,” I say softly into the silence. “Naomi’s not here this year, but she sends her regards, and Ooe-san… ” —here, I feel my arm squeezed gently— “… that is, Natsume, has come to pay her respects too. I miss you, and I apologise again for not being the best brother you could have had.”

Of course there’s no reply, but the air feels lighter. There’s a breeze. I sense somebody watching, but I don’t see anyone. The grounds are strewn with pale pink petals. Every year, new ones are born and fall. The cycle begins again.

Natsume and I have a quiet little lunch together later. It’s so awkward without Naomi. I realize I have never really spent time with this person alone. She is like an owl, her eyes focusing sharply, reading her world, taking notes. She can strike at any time, she can be grouchy, but also decent. A bit like Sachiko was.

“Thank you for coming, Nat.” I have deliberately cut her name short, the way she likes it. It feels hard and foreign to say it like that. “It means much to me, that Sachi has family and friends.”

“It is my honour to have been asked,” she says, very properly. “I too am your friend, Setou-san, Kenji—you are friend of my friend, so also mine. Also, you are not crazy anymore, and I think of you as a good man.”

There’s not much I can say about that. I don’t think I am such a ‘good man’. But I smile at her, really thankful. I offer to see her safely home to Osaka after our lunch. How else should one spend a day, if not to buy happiness for another, or to pay for one’s own?

May 2012:

For Golden Week, before work really starts for either of us, I invite Natsume to join me at Hamamatsu. The Black Dragon has something to give me over dinner, and he has said I can bring a friend.

Nat turns up in an elegant brown outfit. She is not as streamlined or graceful as other girls I have known, but she has put things together well. Her hair is undyed as always, her dark hair and black-rimmed spectacles contrasting pleasantly with her spring-season complexion.

The Dragon is a little surprised, narrows his eyes, when he sees Nat. “Oho,” he says, “It’s an interesting heterochromia you have. Very striking. What other organs are affected?”

I can feel myself turning pale. The Yamaku community knows a lot about disabilities, and we learn to treat each other as people first, with conditions to be managed. But apparently my uncle has no qualms about being blunt.

“Professor Setou-san is well-informed. This humble very junior newsperson had no idea about the learned professor’s wide range of interests.” I can tell that Natsume is a little bit upset, but also that her instincts have latched onto my uncle as a source of interesting things.

His fine eyebrows rise. “Ooe-san, there’s no need to be so polite, although it is flattering and you are clearly well brought-up. Your father is a good university man at Osaka, and I know of his reputation. And you are my nephew’s good friend, and I have come to trust his judgement.”

He has? Why? I haven’t had much contact with him at all. I don’t have much time to think about this, but clearly Nat and he feel comfortable, because she is already telling him about her genetics. He’s nodding along, while I try to eat at a politely slow rate.

It’s a qualified success, I decide by the end of the meal. Later, when I share all this with Naomi, she smiles a bit wistfully. “Your uncle’s pretty charming. Nat seems to think he’s a great conversationalist. I wonder if you’ll be like that some day too.”

Me? Ha ha. I very much doubt it. But it’s a nice thought. More troubling is the envelope the Black Dragon gave me while Nat was out of the room. “Your father is proud of you. There is a fund in your name, with five million yen in it; I bet him you would last three years in your new job with at least one promotion. He accepted. It’s all yours if I win. Half of it is yours if you last at least two years, promotion or not. And this is yours, anyway.”

I have thanked him, deeply, feeling unworthy. There’s a cheque for million yen here. I feel like throwing it away, but if it’s my uncle’s, I should keep it. I’m not meant to have a happy life. Maybe I should give it to Yamaku, but I think they’re rich enough.

June 2012:

It occurs to me that other people too must have graduated by now. The Fist has had a ‘gap year’, so she has another year to go—unless she has done something like me. I have not asked. But I do begin to wonder about the other people I have known. The Yamaku community is small, and we do talk about each other. I think all private schools are a bit like that.

I still speak with Naomi about her life in Sydney. She is learning a lot about what she calls Oz culture. It is supposedly not like the western culture we used to talk about, although there are some similarities. But she is distracted, and I cannot talk about my work to her. She senses that. Although she understands, it is hard. Indeed, we have already given each other up. That too is hard.

And yet, I can see her joy when she opens her birthday present: the little e-book reader I’ve sent her way through the mysteries of the Net. It makes me happy, as if it’s the one thing I’ve done all month that’s of any use.

“Kenji, it means a lot to me, that you still think of me and remember my birthday,” she says.

“How could I not, Naomi?”

Indeed, how could I not? I dread the day, if it ever comes, that I forget.

July 2012:

I work at one of the little government bodies that orbits a new star. I think my Ministry has been one for only five years or so. People make jokes about how the Japanese army is armless. I have known Tezuka. It isn’t funny. That woman is an artist whose kick would break your arm off if she felt like it.

We defend the sakura, the cherry blossoms that represent our people. Where other armies use stars to indicate ranks, we use the stylized little blooms to remind ourselves what we’re doing. I am only a civilian within this part of our defensive array, but like any piece of hardware or software, I know I can make a difference.

It’s unfair. I’m on covert deployment. On Sea Day, I am at sea. Naomi is home, for her first break, the mid-year recess that I think is of four weeks. She asks if I would be free to join her, for she has missed me. I cannot, because it’s my duty, my work. She is disappointed. I cannot afford to be.

In the end, we have ten days together, because there is time off for being deployed for two solid weeks, night and day. She has spent the first two weeks with Nat; there is not much left for me.

Gently, one night, we embrace in a park in Saitama. She has chosen, asked me in fact, to go for a visit to Sachiko’s resting-place. I can hardly bear it. The time is short, so terribly short, and the next time she will be back is a year away. When did Kenji get so soft? Her kiss is a farewell even worse than our parting a few months ago. We could die of this, or at least, I could.

If anyone reads this, they’ll see I’ve not quoted her words. I can’t. My fingers just stop moving when I try to remember them, because I see her face instead.

Before she returns to Australia, she hugs me very tightly. “Kenji,” she says, “I will never forget you and you will always be my friend. Maybe you think I’m just saying it, but it’s true. When Satou went off to Scotland, Nakai gave up, and I can understand that. But they’re not friends anymore, I think. We are.”

This part, I’m putting down. When she said it, her face was in my scarf. I couldn’t see her eyes. But I felt her eyelashes blink. And my scarf was damp.

August 2012:

I’m so busy with my work that I only think of my tiny apartment as a slot that I fit into, like a flash drive. I get home, upload, feel my little LED light up with nutrients as I eat cold meals. I’ve tried to repay the Inoues for their hospitality, from what my uncle passed to me. They have sternly declined. Instead, they’ve thanked me for making Naomi happy.

I don’t know what to say, and when I finally move all my stuff out, all I can think of is to get them some simple presents: a basic but not-so-ugly ikebana flower arrangement that I’ve made for Yumiko-san, a coffee-table book on the history of technical writing for Hiroto-san. I can’t insult them by giving too much, but I spend some time making sure that all their electronics and communications are up to date. It’s what a son would do.

At the end of August, Naomi sends me a message with a fat attachment. The headline reads: ‘First implantation of prototype bionic eye with 24 electrodes’. Apparently, some Australian scientists at the Royal Victorian Eye & Ear Hospital have managed to give some vision to a blind woman afflicted by retinitis pigmentosa. Naomi adds: [If your eyesight ever gets this bad, I’ll make sure you get this, so you can still see me.]

[Are you still taking your meds at the right doses and times?] I ask, and receive the answer: [Your stupid app reminds me all the time! How could I forget? Thanks, Kenji!]

As I eat my cold soba and a lousy sandwich, I reflect that everyone should know at least one person cares for them. And I think of my sister. I’m not one to waste food, but I can’t eat any more that night.

September 2012:

I’m in Tokyo, right? Nakai and Ikezawa have probably graduated along with Shizune, so I’m not likely to find them even if I wanted to do so. But there’s one person I might be able to find. The Net is a magical place.

There we go, I mutter to myself. An address for a little art gallery, and I have some free time. It’s in a part of town I don’t normally go to, full of arty things. Naomi’s mother would have loved it, and I instinctively look for something that will serve as a gift.

Disappointment. When I get to the art gallery, it seems to be closing down. It’s nearly empty. FOR SALE signs are everywhere. Big discounts are offered, but there are very few pieces left. I carefully test the door, which opens. A stern-looking elderly woman is standing behind a counter, apparently propping herself up with a look of discomfort on her face.

As I step in, she greets me. “Good evening, honoured visitor. This humble person must apologise for the lack of interesting articles. Regrettably, most of them have already been sold.”

“Good evening, this undistinguished person’s family name is Setou. I was wondering if you knew an artist named Tezuka? It is possible that she exhibited here some time ago.” — or at least, that’s what the search engines tell me.

“Ah, that is correct. She was an interesting person. Her larger pieces have all been sold, mostly to private collections. There are only small sketches and some studies and other little pieces left, if you are interested.”

Was. I hope nothing bad has happened to her. She had been my friend, like a brother, for many months at Yamaku. I wince inside, remembering that I had thought her to be male all that time. “Please, there is nothing I would not be interested in. Tezuka was my friend from our schooldays, respected gallery owner.”

“This one’s family name is Saionji, although most people call me Sae. I have a partner you may recognize, Setou-san, if you are from Yamaku. You might have known him as Nomiya-sensei.”

Yes, indeed. Never thought much of him, loud voice and no doubt a lot of passion for art. But I have to smile, because it was all so long ago, and I’m not old Kenji anymore.

“Yes, Saionji-san,” I reply, “He was a teacher who taught Tezuka. May I impose on you to show me Tezuka’s remaining works? If it is not too much to ask, would you happen to know where she now lives?”

A sad little smile twists the corner of Sae’s face for a while, and I fear the worst. “Rin Tezuka left us a while ago. We still send income from sales of her work to her bank account, but her whereabouts are currently unknown. She was a rather special young lady. We heard she had been in an accident, and that she had recovered fully and was living with a friend. But that is all we know.”

She moves painfully, as if she has arthritis, like Natsume. “Come with me, Setou-san, perhaps what you see will bring you good memories of her. I hope you find her, because that one needs friends.”

I recognize Tezuka’s—Rin’s—work almost immediately. Up close, the strokes are powerful, evocative. There’s a small incomplete painting of a right foot with a butterfly perched on the long second toe. The butterfly’s wings are like stained-glass windows—purple, pink, orange, all with black lines between the little patches of colour. If this is from life, she must have been painting with only one foot.

The other piece that catches my eyes is a delicate study of a limb. I don’t recognize it at first, because it looks almost like a piece of driftwood, desiccated, dark, damaged and worn. Then I feel many emotions—horror, sadness, and the recognition of something very precious. I’ve seen that stump before, but only once, because its owner seldom reveals it.

Sae is standing quietly, although discomfort wracks her features at times. She breaks the silence, “You have a good eye, young man. Nobody has looked much at those pieces.”

“My thanks, senior lady. I am only a civil servant, I have to take beauty where I can find it.”

She laughs, her breath rattling wetly in her throat. “True, true. Beauty doesn’t last, and the dreams of artists too easily turn to dust. I will give you an additional discount, since you are Tezuka’s friend and also a servant of the state.”

In the end, I buy the two pieces without haggling, as well as a small study of a cherry blossom and a charcoal sketch of a flower arrangement. That last one will be a present to Naomi’s mother.

As I make arrangements to have the sketch sent home—well, not home, but I can’t help but make that mistake—to Kyoto, Sae looks sharply into my eyes. “If you ever see Rin, ask her to forgive silly old Sae and give her my blessings. It would be a great kindness. Let this one be honest with you, Setou-san: I have not long to go, and I have some regrets that will always be there. But some of my regrets can be cleaned away, and if you could help me, I would be very grateful. Thank you for coming here.”

It’s too much for me, almost. But I understand how she might be feeling. So I nod, and I take her hands in mine for a while, and I bow before taking my leave. “Give my regards to Nomiya-sensei,” I add politely. You might as well say these things while you can.

When I get back to my little hole in the wall, I put the cherry blossom study up on the empty wall above my cluttered desk and say a little prayer for my late mother, brother and sister. Nobody should lose so much, and whatever can be saved, should be.

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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-3b up 20140804)

Posted: Mon Aug 04, 2014 12:37 pm
by brythain
This is the second section of the third instalment of the second part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which he thinks he's sorting his love-life (real and imaginary) out at last.

This instalment occurs around the same time as this part of Rin's arc and also this part of Miki's arc.

Kenji 2: The Sound of Wings—Year Three (Part 2)
(October 2012-March 2013)

When a transition comes, it’s often hard to say when it has actually happened. Only in hindsight is that possible, and I’m not alone when I say I didn’t see something coming but I knew when it had passed.

My time in Tokyo was like that. So many things happened. It was hard to see it when it was happening to me, it was easier to look back and realize something had occurred.

Again, not all of it was pleasant or easy; some of it was very hard. To fall in love, to fall out of love, who can say when it has really happened? Maybe how lonely you feel, that’s the main factor. It’s why my sister died, after all.

These memories are taken from my redacted log entries, from 2010 to 2015. I call them ‘The Sound of Wings’. Some of those wings are signs of danger, the only warning you get before an owl strikes, or before you look at a battlefield and see the corpses and the ravens that feed on them. But wings can also lift you.


October 2012:

Saitama is not far from Tokyo. As part of my job, I get to plan little trips for schoolchildren to appreciate how engineers defend Japan from all kinds of misfortune. These two facts are the reason why I end up visiting the Metropolitan Area Water Discharge Facility with a bunch of kids in mid-October. It’s cool and dry, and there we are in the guts of the storm drainage system.

Schoolchildren? Hai. They’re first-year students from Yamaku, and I volunteered for this assignment because… Yamaku. We always give back to those who helped us. It is the Japanese way. Noisy, active teenagers, mostly fifteen years old. But even they shut up when the staff open the huge doors and show them into the flood chambers.

Normally nobody gets this far, although there’s even a tourist facility that shows people around further up. The thing is fifty metres down and more than six kilometres long, after all. It’s like a temple on the inside; you could drop a temple into it, actually. How big is it really? The guide tells us each pump can move 200 tonnes of water a second. Each of the water silos is 70 metres high, lit with ghostly fluorescents that make it look like some supernatural anime come to life.

These kids are ten years younger than I am, and I’m not the sort to hit on children. Old Kenji reminds me that not long ago, I was one of them, and I did. So, as the guides do their job, I find myself approaching the substitute teacher, who is—to my surprise? … dismay? I’m not sure which—an old, old friend.

“Err, what… how come… it’s nice to see you, Shirakawa-san,” I end up saying lamely. It is her, isn’t it? I recognize the way she stands. Also, her perfume.

On her part, she gives me a lively smile. “Setou-san! You can call me Yuuko, surely? When Miyagi-san told me to take this class, I had no idea I would be… ah, seeing you!”

It all flows into the Edo River, I dimly hear the guide say. The lady before me is familiar, I know her, I use her name, but she is a stranger. No, she is not. I’m unbalanced, my feet are not on stable ground.

Long-sleeved calf-length black dress, pale blue jacket. Conservative dressing. There’s a little thinness to her, as if she’s not been eating so much lately. “Yuuko, you look tired,” I say, listening to myself from a distance as I put foot in mouth again. I seem to recall a recent news article saying Japanese teachers work about a 100 hours of overtime each month.

She laughs softly. “Ah, yes, a bit tired. But I’m only a substitute teacher because the Academy’s got a temporary shortage. So, not so bad. How are you, Kenji?”

How am I, Kenji? Or maybe, how am I Kenji? I don’t know. But I’m talking anyway: “Not so bad. Working as an engineer for the government is stable. We do things like walk around in gigantic drains and prevent conspiracies aimed at putting terrible things in the drains.”

I’m joking too much. I feel nervous. But when she smiles, it makes me feel better. I risk a closer look. Her hair used to be long and soft, floppy, over-conditioned. But it’s now tied up in a foxy red-brown ponytail, like Miki’s. And… she’s not wearing glasses? Must be contact lenses. Minimal jewelry and make-up.

“You’re looking good,” I add, “even if you’ve not had enough sleep.” She does. Her big eyes lift, creasing downward at the corners.

“Ah, you’ve learnt to flatter girls, Kenji? Eh-heh, must be Inoue-san’s influence… how is she?”

Ow. Hurts. That’s the first thing I feel. I lose my breath, like someone’s punched me. “Hng. She… she’s gone to Australia to do her Master’s.”

Yuuko looks at me, speaks with concern in her voice: “You miss her a lot, I think? Errr… you look like also haven’t been sleeping. Better take care of yourself! Come, help me look after the kids… some of them may disappear into your storm drains!”

When she says, “Come, help me look after the kids,” I cannot help but feel that I would like to do that. Then I realize what she means. The students, you silly fool, Kenji! And I also, suddenly, feel guilty. I feel like I’m cheating on Naomi.

It’s night as I’m writing all this down. Around me are the faint smells of living in Tokyo, hydrocarbons, machinery, fragrances, humans. I’ve had a good day today. But I’ve also had a lot to think about. And Yuuko’s given me her namecard. Her email address has not changed, it’s still <>. I used to think that was pretentious, but I now know it’s just her.

I miss Naomi as if all my muscles are tight and need a massage. I miss her as if my heart keeps forgetting to beat. Maybe that’s what’s happening. I have no oxygen in the brain. I need to go out and walk. But in my mind’s rebellious eye, I catch a glimpse of Yuuko Shirakawa.

November 2012:

She’s slim and tanned and tall. Athletic build. Her deep brown hair is slightly red-tinted in the setting sun. It’s short, sweeping neatly down to sharp points, just below the neckline of her simple shift-like dress. Her dress is white, with vertical sea-green stripes. Her eyes appraise me, darkly burning. “We should have sons. It’d be nice. See you around, Kenji.”

I press her hands in mine, and she walks away. At the top of the stairs leading to the girls’ dorm, she turns and waves. My heart calls out to her, “Don’t go. Please, don’t leave me. If this chance isn’t taken, there is no chance.” But she enters the high tower, white-walled, with many windows but no face. She’s gone.

Gah! I wake in my lonely bed. My phone is pulsing. It’s Naomi, calling from Sydney. Why do I feel so disappointed, then? And who was that girl? My mind feels so messed-up.

“Hi, Kenji! Wake up, it’s Sunday morning!”

“Hey, Naomi.”

“What’s the matter?” she asks, her tone shifting into concern. She peers out at me from the screen, her face miniaturized by technology, a pocket version of someone I used to know. “Are you OK?”

“No, it’s nothing. I just miss you quite a bit. That’s all. Or something like that.” My brain is putting things together as I scribble the bits of my dream down. That imaginary girl: bits of all the women I’ve known, maybe.

“Something like that? A girl could get hurt hearing such phrases! You’ve been too busy to call?”

Our conversation’s degenerated over time. We don’t talk the way we used to, and when we do, it’s all forced. Our relationship is tired, it’s on artificial life-support. Someone needs to pull the plug.

“Have you been taking your meds?” Hey, that’s a good point. I can’t remember. Shit, I could die here, not knowing. But I don’t feel different. Let me check. Oh-oh.

“Hmm, thanks for the reminder, Naomi. It’s always nice to know someone cares.” Even if they’re just doing it out of habit, maybe? Or am I being cynical? I’m Kenji, after all.

She looks sad. “I do care, Kenji. We’re still friends, you know.”

“Yeah. Sorry. Too many things on my mind.”

“If it helps, you can always share those things with me. Unless they’re your government work, of course.”

“No, nothing like that. Thanks.”

Eventually, it dies, like many of our conversations these days. And probably, our friendship. Was there ever love? Did I imagine it? I probably should look at my drugs. I probably should do some work. I slump back into bed.

December 2012:

My 24th birthday feels very lonely, the day after we celebrate the Emperor’s birthday. After work, I decide to go to church. I have no idea where to go, but I end up at a small white hexagonal building in western Tokyo. [Ōme Church], the sign says. [Dedicated to the memory of St Thomas Kozaki, Martyr of Nagasaki.] Huh.

I try to find a quiet spot. There isn’t one, there must be 200 people at least. Why so crowded? What am I supposed to do? It’s been too long a time, I can’t remember. I close my eyes, think about Mother, Masaru, Sachiko. All gone. Naomi too. Oh damn, it’s Christmas Day, how could I forget? No wonder it’s so noisy here.

I walk out into the open, out of the space of narrow roads and suburban homes. There’s beautiful scenery around here. The sun is setting. That must be the Tama River. This is a valley. I find a rock to sit on. I’m not a Catholic anymore, I guess.

On impulse, I take out my phone. Not that there’s anyone to talk to, though. My phone’s still off, I turn it off before I start work everyday and turn it on only when I get home. Wait, here’s a message. More than one, actually.

INOUE: [To our dear Kenji, warm wishes for your birthday. Keep in touch. Inoue family.]

N: [Hi Kenji, happy birthday! Forgot you’d be working today. Call me when you get home?]

YS: [Happy birthday, Kenji! Do visit Sendai soon! Maybe we can catch up?]

Nat: [Hello, Kenji. Will you be at home this evening?]

I reply briefly to all of them, then switch my phone off. I stand up and stretch my legs. Best be getting home. Maybe I’ll stock up on meds on the way back, also maybe alcohol. Ha, old Nurse-san would be so pissed off to hear that. Curiously, I wonder how he is.

With some sort of defeated bitterness, I realize I don’t have many friends. I can literally count the birthday messages I’ve received on the fingers of one hand. Then again, not many people know it’s my birthday.

When I get home, it’s about 2100h, in the form my military colleagues like to use. I walk up the narrow street, my briefcase heavy in a damp hand. The lighting is poor here. I don’t see them until I’m very close.

“Fuck! It’s him, he made it home! Hey, shit-for-brains, didn’t it occur to you to keep your damn phone on?”

That voice sounds a bit familiar. I squint in the bad light at the three people before me, one tall, maybe as tall or taller than I am; one scruffy, shorter; one completely unidentifiable but standing in a very odd way. When I recognize them, I drop my case on the pavement. My face is too tired, cold and inflexible to smile. It is probably going to crack.

“Hey, Miki. Hey, Nat. Ah, didn’t expect visitors. Errm…” So lame, so lame, Kenji. Like the old days.

“Hello, Kenji. Brought friends and something to celebrate. You know MM, obviously. This is Misaki Kawana, whom I see you do not quite recognize. We’re celebrating a sort of reunion and decided to look you up. Next time, keep your phone on?”

“Yes, Nat. Sorry, Nat.” I wasn’t expecting anything, but now I’m possessed by the guilty need to be nice. I bow towards the third girl, the one with evening-coloured hair. She gives me an awkward nod, just before I’m hit by a truck.

“Nkhhh!” I manage, with whatever breath I have. Miki’s been working out a lot, or I’ve gone skinny. Her hug is typically thoughtless. Her ponytail hits me in the ear like those things they hit horses with. And then she pulls out of my weak half-embrace.

“Bastard! Hurry up, let us in, it’s cold! You said you’d be home by half past eight! Happy birthday!”

And that’s how I have celebrated my 24th birthday. I have friends. It has been a happy event. I have three pretty girls snoring away in my bedroom while I type this outside on the couch. I don’t care, I’m happy.

January 2013:

I’m alone on New Year’s Day, but I have memories that will help. All kinds of memories. Time to log them.

At the break of dawn, day after Christmas, I hear a shout. “Kenji! Where the hell did you get that?”

I guess it’s every male civil servant’s dream to wake up with a sexy tanned girl all hot and flustered next to you on the couch. But reality is different. I grunt and try to keep my mouth shut because I know it stinks of overnight booze.

I open my eyes, and then it sinks in what my mistake has been. I’ve left Rin’s artwork standing around. She’s seen the deformed limb, her own left arm, that Rin painted.

“Ah, Rin did it. Gallery closed down. I saved the painting. Guessed it was you.”

My eyes focus badly. She is right in front of me, and her eyes are burning. Or gleaming. Or something.

“Well, you can’t keep it. Please, Kenji?” She sounds scared. Instinctively, I grab her hands, and half-miss. She only has one, after all. I end up with that one in both my hands. The other one clubs me, accidentally, I think, on the nose.

“Argh. Ouch. Sorry, Miki. Of course you should have it. I just didn’t want anyone else to have it.” This is true. Kenji would go to hell to protect that picture. “Did the others see it?”

“See what?” says a sleepy woman, five-foot-nothing in bare feet. Striking blue-tinted hair. It’s Kawana, and she has a photographic memory or something, if I remember rightly. Damn.

Miki cradles my head before I can move. She whispers sharply into my ear, “No, don’t tell them. It’s still in brown paper. I was curious.”

Kenji can think fast when his head is going to be ripped off by a beautiful goddess who is very upset. “Ah, Misaki, apologies, was just telling Miki about her Christmas present. Nat’s got one too, but I don’t have one for you, very sorry.”

“I do?” Damn again. Natsume’s joined this circus. I’ve no time to think how compromised I look with Miki Miura all over me, whispering into my ear. I’ve other things to juggle now.

I feel a moment of sadness at giving another piece of Tezuka artwork away, and then mentally surrender the butterfly to Nat. “Yeah, bought some of Rin Tezuka’s art at a gallery sale. One’s for you, one’s for Miki.”

Naomi’s mother liked hers, I remember. Also, I’m not going to give the cherry blossom one away. That’s mine. And also Naomi’s, I surprise myself by thinking.

Misaki Kawana’s a bit disappointed, but she’s OK. Nat loves the butterfly, but for some reason, she loves the details of Rin’s foot just as much. Miki? Miki gives me a peck on the cheek and looks very happy, and that’s one of the memories that really helps.

The other is from quite some time after I’ve said goodbye to my surprise guests. Wearily, I turn my phone on just before I start work. It’s 0800h. There are two more messages.

Shiz: [It’s your birthday. Happy birthday. Hope work is going well. Chicago getting cold.]

N: [You didn’t call, and I’ve been sad. But there was a surprise for you, so I guess you’re excused. Please call.]

I reply to the first one, which is warm in its own stark way. Then I step outside the office for a while and call Naomi. As I wait for the call to connect, I reflect: dammit, Kenji, you’ve surrounded yourself with a feminist conspiracy. I can’t help laughing. I hope it doesn’t lower my chances of promotion.

“Hey, Kenji! You gave me a birthday present, so I got Nat to give you one back. Did you have a good time?”

“If you mean the dark chocolate peach pizza and the sake, they were fantastic. Nat brought friends, in case you’re worried we got up to mischief.”

She laughs, sounding perhaps a little relieved. “I’m glad. Who else did she bring?”

“Misaki and Miki. Didn’t she tell you?”

“Oh, those two.” There’s an odd silence, as if she’s about to tell me something. I wait for a while, then send her a picture of the sakura on my wall.

“That cherry blossom was drawn by Rin Tezuka. Bought it for you. It’s on my wall now.”

She breathes in sharply. “It’s very pretty. Thank you.”

“I’m really very grateful that I didn’t spend Christmas all alone. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. It’s the first Christmas I’ve had away from home, and I felt a bit sad, because you’d be away from home too, and it’s your birthday.” She laughs, of all things, and suddenly I feel nice and warm.

“Back to work, now. I’m happy we got to talk, Naomi.”

“Me too. Be good, Kenji.”

As she cuts the connection, I think to myself about being good, and what that means. If it means anything at all, of course.

February 2013:

[You’re drunk] says the text on my phone.

I text back: [Well, in the morning I’ll be sober.]

[Old Churchill joke, Kenji. So why are you texting me? I have a consultation soon.]

[Because I miss the days when somebody bothered to run things well.]

[Oh. Thank you, I suppose. Better not for you to talk about work.]

[Nah they don’t bother tracking my comms.]

[You think? Anyway, nice to hear from you.]

[Why are you my friend, Shizune?]

[You ask everyone so bluntly? No don’t answer that. Maybe it’s because I value friends. You once picked up my books for me.]

[I did?] Oh yes, I did. When I forget things, it’s because I haven’t recalled them.

[Yes. Young girls don’t forget the kindness of seniors. Besides, you remind me of someone else, sometimes.]

[Ha. Thanks for deflating my ego. Have a great day.]

[Happy Valentine’s Day, Kenji. Thanks for your earlier compliment.]

It says a lot that on Valentine’s Day in 2013, the first person I text is Shizune Hakamichi. I don’t have a crush on her or anything. I just felt when I woke up this morning that I should try something nice. I’m scared to try this with Nat. Or Miki. Or Yuuko. The truth is that I’m terrified to try this with Naomi. I’ve become commitment-phobic. I don’t want to lose something the way I know I’ve lost her.

We’re doing all these things for each other. Why? What’s the point? But it would be horrible to tell her that now. So we stretch out the pain, keeping it bearable until it finally comes to the end of everything between us, whenever that is.

She calls me, anyway. Does she feel the same way? For two or three hours of expensive comms time, we pretend we’re the way we were two or three years ago. It hurts, Naomi, I want to say. I don’t want to hurt you too, I feel like saying. So many things unsaid. And in the end, we’re still attached by the thin thread of our story.

I think Nat and Miki had something going. I don’t know. What if Naomi’s really all alone? Don’t I owe her anything? Is that a clever way to think about it?

In the end, I throw myself into database construction. I put everything I know about all the women I know into the database. Who should I be talking to, really? I work and stare at the screen until I realize I have spent eight hours of office time doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I’ve missed lunch, too. My co-workers already think I’m crazy, but they are also crazy, so I don’t care.

Fuck. The damn thing comes up with one suggestion that’s got about 40% advantage over all the rest. Like a drowning man, I stumble out into the choking pressure of Tokyo’s chilly night and take that suggestion.

“Hello, Yuuko?”

It feels bitter to be doing this. It’s the betrayal of one’s best friend. But if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.

March 2013:

“Happy birthday, Rin Tezuka! Happy birthday wherever you are! Tokyo ate you up, you’re gone, so sad! But life is great because everybody got a piece of you! Ha ha ha!”

I’m up on a roof on 13th March. It’s Wednesday night. My phone is off, I’m a free man. I’ve not taken drugs for three weeks and I feel sooooo clean.

Mother’s even talking to me again! How wonderful! Time to celebrate. I take another swig. One-man manly picnic, best ever. Is this roof flat or sloped? Canted or decanted? Ha ha, Kenji makes English joke, better than Lilly Satou. Why? Because anything is better than that Scottish joke! Ha ha.

On impulse, I look at my phone. [Kenji, have you taken your meds? Call me?]

Haha, top feminist conspirator, won’t put out for men, fuck off! I delete the number, smirking like a devil. Next on the list? Oho, the one-armed bandit! No no, those will steal all your money. Next? The funny-eyed one! Better not to try, they say if you look in her eyes you will turn to stone. This is so funny! I throw my phone off the roof. Oops.

In the morning, everything sucks. I’m late for work. I get a black mark. My promotion chances are finished. Oh well. And I need a new phone.

When I get home, I still have no phone, but I have a shitload of personal email. I have enough memories of being an idiot to record this entry in my log. I would delete it, except I need to remember what an idiot I’ve been. I do my log first, and then look at the email.

A lot of them are from Naomi Inoue. I feel a horrible sense of guilt. She is wondering why I’ve not spoken to her for three weeks. I want to tell her that I’m a retarded adolescent. I was a man, but now I’m nothing. I peer at my alcohol stash and feel like vomiting. A few minutes pass. Then I throw all the bottles out. About a month’s salary, there.

Kenji, you need to be a normal person, I tell myself. Kenji, you’re on drugs for life, how the hell are you going to be a normal person, I laugh at myself. Silly Kenji, talking to himself while talking to himself.

The next day, I apologise to my boss and promise not to let the institution down. He yells at me, “You fucker, you let the people of Japan down. Don’t ever do that again, slacking off, coming late, acting like a kid. Fool! Go! Apologise to the people who’ve been doing your work for you.”

I bow deeply and slink away, shaken. It’s all true. But one of my co-workers shrugs and says, “Setou-san, at least you had the courage to apologise to him. Not everyone has that. Maybe you can be a better person.”

It’s Spring Equinox on 20th March. It’s also Yuuko’s birthday. I’ve ordered flowers and chocolates over the Net. Although it’s a holiday, I don’t have the time to go up to Sendai and back. I don’t want to visit Yamaku either. But it’s a start, or perhaps a restart.

I think of Naomi again. It’s been four weeks now, since I last spoke with her, answered her messages or emails. Oh, stupid, stupid Kenji. Maybe it’s not the courage to break our ties that I need. Maybe it’s the courage to make them right.

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Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-4a up 20140807)

Posted: Thu Aug 07, 2014 1:18 am
by brythain
This is the first section of the fourth instalment of the second part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which he reaches several conclusions, and begins to plan for the future.

Kenji 2: The Sound of Wings—Year Four (Part 1)
(April 2013-September 2013)

It’s hard to work for the Man, especially for people like me. But this is Japan, and working for the Man is sometimes the only way to help those you need to help. And Japan is a funny place. We are sometimes rugged individualists. We are sometimes faceless bureaucrats. At the same time. It is not like America.

Reading back through my earlier logs, I always marvel at how dumb I was. If you read this, you probably feel the same way. You probably have figured out many solutions to all the problems I had and all the feelings that gripped me.

Yeah, I was dumb. I was paralysed. Sometimes I was on drugs, or not on drugs, and it was hard to tell which was better. But looking back makes one clever, and being in the storm itself makes visibility low.

What you’re reading is taken from my redacted log entries, from 2010 to 2015. I call them ‘The Sound of Wings’. Sometimes we are all owls, blinded by the light of day. But in the day, we can all see further, and that gives us hope.


April 2013:

Saitama again. Strangely, Natsume again, the girl I don’t easily call ‘Nat’. In the air is that faint, ever-present scent of well-prepared tea. So many familiar things in one place, and also familiar, the sensation of buried grief.

“Some things, Natsume, can’t easily be let go.”

She remains silent for a while, the wind whipping through her now long, still tangled, locks of messy brown hair. That moment gives me insight. Some women remind me too much of Mother, of Sachiko, to inspire anything but melancholy in me. If Shizune’s hair were brown, if Natsume’s hair were shorter, they’d remind me of my losses all the time.

Three years now, and the grief is still there. But it’s crystallised, hard, like a diamond under my breastbone. I don’t weep for Sachi any more, because I believe she would have kicked my ass if she could, to see me wasting my life as I have. Absent-mindedly, I bend down and brush fallen cherry blossoms off her grave marker.

“Kenji, we’re not really friends, are we? But let’s pretend we are, because I think we should be.”

I look up in surprise. What the hell, Ooe-san, what do you mean? “OK, maybe we’re not so close,” I say, “but you’re a part of my life too!” I’m not sure if I’m joking or not. She is a part of my life, whether I want her to be or not. And that’s half-and-half now.

“Yes, I think perhaps you miss Naomi, and so you need Naomi’s friend. That is mainly it.” She looks back, soberly, her off-eye glaring amber in the weak Spring sun. Then she continues. “We all have choices. A month ago, I told Naomi to make hers. Two months ago, I told MM I would always be her friend, but not a lover. I’m not a very nice person, you know.”

I have nothing to say. To be talking about such things so directly over my sister’s grave, that’s not friendship. It’s rude. And it is hurtful. I rise and take a step back.

She doesn’t let me. Her right hand has locked onto my left, and it would be unseemly to struggle here. “What?” I hiss at her. I put all my pain into it. Objectively, I am proud of that hiss. Subjectively, I feel that most of my life has left me with one breath.

“Naomi told me that you helped her make her choice. Which means you made a choice too. I’m grateful. Thank you, Kenji.”

“I made it long ago, Natsume. I just didn’t know it then.”

“You made that leap without a safe place to land. It takes courage.”

I’m not a hero. I’m not that brave. I have possibly a chance with Yuuko, and that is what allows me to act like this. In a split second, I decide to tell Natsume the first of two things. “Nat, I’m not so brave. You remember Yuuko Shirakawa? I met her again last year. She gave me her number. Maybe that’s a landing spot.”

She raises her eyebrows, peers up at me with that owlish gaze of two different colours. “Well, not-so-brave man, you’re maybe more honest than brave, but that’s good too.”

So I tell her the second thing. “Something else. If Naomi didn’t love you, or if I didn’t trust you, I’d have fought you for her. But I saw it in your eyes.”

“Saw what?”

“I saw you looking at Miki, and missing Naomi instead.”

She regards me gravely. “You didn’t talk to her for a month. She told me. She missed you very much, wanted to know what was up with you. You’re a bastard when you want to be. Stupid too. If you married her, everyone would be happy except me. Her parents hate me, you know.”

I’m too sad to say anything deep. So I look down at Nat, two short-sighted people gazing into each other’s eyes like blind lovers, and I whisper, “Tell her I said hello. And goodbye. And tell her I told Sachiko that it’s all for the best.”

Nat’s holding my hands, my palms facing down as her stubby fingers grasp my wrists from below. Anyone would think we were very old, close friends. But that is the kind of love that rivals have for each other when they realize there’s nothing to fight over, nothing more.

“Why not tell her yourself, Kenji?”

“I can’t. Not brave enough.”

“She loves you too, you know.”

“Yeah.” It’s the last bit of air in my lungs. The very last bit.

“Friends, Kenji?”

I breathe in again. It hurts to be alive, but everything feels clearer, sharper. When the process is complete, my world will have changed forever.

“Yeah. Let’s do that.”

She lets go of my wrists, gently, as if she has forgotten she was holding them. We have a quiet lunch, as we did in the previous year. But this year, I do not escort her back to Osaka.

May 2013:

It’s been five years since Naomi and I began to love each other. All that is over now, ended. She has flown back from Australia, her one-year Master’s programme done. She’s moved south to Osaka, to be with Nat. And we have spoken, and exchanged promises of friendship, but we know that it is the kind of friendship that is not what we once had.

June 2013:

I look at my calendar. Time has passed quickly. Every April, I remember my lost family, and now I will add my lost love to that remembrance. Every June, it has been Naomi’s birthday. This June, what should I do?

It would be wrong to do nothing. So I call Natsume’s apartment. I wish Naomi, my friend, a happy birthday, with all my heart. We are both sad, because of what we’ve lost. We speak for a short while, where once we would’ve spent whole evenings. Then our conversation winds down to its end.

“Kenji, thanks for the painting. And thanks for calling. At least we’ve not lost that. June and December, every year, OK? And April?”

“Only if you want, Naomi. That is all I ask.”

“Understood. Take care, Kenji. Nat sends her regards.”

“You also, please. My thanks to Natsume.”

After that, I sit in my room quietly for a while. I gaze blankly at the blank wall above my desk, Rin Tezuka’s cherry blossom now gone. Finally, I look down at my notebook computer, insert a little symbol into a timeline I maintain. Slowly, slowly, time will wash everything away.

July 2013:

“Hey there! How have you been? How’s Shirakawa? I suspect she won’t think I’m a good influence on you.”

The woman who’s just flung herself into the seat opposite mine has a single long, neat, jet-black French braid. Her glasses are serious ones, with thick deep purple rims. She is dressed in a way that says, “I’m a working person, no time for anything else.” But I know her better than that.

“Hah. Well, I told her I was visiting you and she said she doesn’t mind us being friends.”

“Oh shit, Kenji, you’re in deep trouble now.”

“I am?”

“Yeah, that’s the way women are, y’know.” She laughs, producing a sound somewhat modified since the pub-crawling days of our youth. “So, what have you been up to?”

“Not much. How much do you want to know?”

“You take the fun out of everything, info-specialist-engineer-san. Hey, what I really wanted to know was about Tezuka. Rin. I never got the full story from you.”

“Why? I didn’t know you knew Tezuka that well.”

It’s hard to see a blush on that tanned cheek, but Miki’s sidelong glance is very revealing. Oho, there’s another kind of interest there, I think. Or maybe not…

“Kenji, this isn’t for the grapevine, not that you’re connected to it or anything but… oh fuck, if I’m going to tell anyone it’s going to be you, I guess.” She looks at me to see if I’ll contest this or protest. I stay silent, silenced by the expression on her face. “I’m living with Rin’s parents, these days.”

Damn. It’s as if Kyoto is tugging on the hooks it sank into me a long time ago. “Rin has parents?” I ask, a bit stupidly. “I mean, what are they like, and where?”

“Tsushima. They’re from an old Korean family, I think. Nice people.”

“But how? Why?”

She grins, more like the Fist I once knew. “Always the questions, pizza-face. Seriously, Rin asked me to check on them and they were nice to me, and somehow, after a while, I kept visiting and then I moved in when they asked.”

I know how that feels, to have family when your own is gone. “That must be wonderful. But what happened to our friend?”

She tells me, and I feel relieved and happy that at least I know what’s happened to my old friend from Yamaku days. The rest of our conversation is about Nat and Naomi, and even there, I find some peace of mind.

“Thanks for the company, Miki. And thanks for all that you’ve told me.”

“Hey, you going to be here long?”

“Clearing my leave, just a couple more days.”

“Wanna visit Tsushima?”

I agree, and I will never regret that I did.

August 2013:

It’s the hottest August that I can remember. On a hunch, I do a little search. In all the 138 years Tokyo has been keeping records, the weather is indeed the hottest it’s ever been. There’s a heatwave in much of Japan.

That won’t matter so much soon, I hope. I’m off to Sendai tomorrow, because I have a date, and another week of leave. Besides, I haven’t tasted grilled ox tongue for years. It still feels strange to be chatting with this lady, this much less familiar voice, but it feels good.

“Parts of the mountain are still out of bounds here, Kenji. I thought maybe we could… perhaps try… Sakunami Onsen?”

I’m a bit shocked. The Yuuko I knew would never have suggested a visit to the hot springs. But I’m not going back to Yamaku anyway, because that is my past. I want to do something new.

A week later, I can log this: I’ve never had a better time in Sendai.

September 2013:

I guess that if one day someone reads my logs, they’ll find a big hole here. In this month of September 2013, I am making plans for the rest of my life. Some of them are quite silly. Some of them will be obvious in a few months’ time. But the funny thing, the big monstrous joke of this year is this: I need to contact Hisao Nakai. Ha ha ha!

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Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-4a up 20140807)

Posted: Thu Aug 07, 2014 2:43 pm
by dewelar
Finally catching up with (and enjoying) this again. You're too quick with these sometimes :) .

One thing I wanted to note from a couple posts back: Sae's family name is Saionji, per the VN. Granted, I'm not sure if that's her own family name or her late husband's, but you probably should clarify why she's now Ishihara (or if that was an oversight :wink:).

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-4a up 20140807)

Posted: Thu Aug 07, 2014 8:15 pm
by brythain
dewelar wrote:Finally catching up with (and enjoying) this again. You're too quick with these sometimes :) .
Edit: *grin* the problem of having too much backlog… when you catch up, it all comes out at once! The piece you just read was actually cut in two so that it wouldn't be this huge 8000-word monster. I always wanted Kenji to have his own story… and so did he. :) The second part is now up after some editing. Thanks for your appreciation!
One thing I wanted to note from a couple posts back: Sae's family name is Saionji, per the VN. Granted, I'm not sure if that's her own family name or her late husband's, but you probably should clarify why she's now Ishihara (or if that was an oversight :wink:).
Argh, I realise that I over-edited from head-canon. I had her husband's name as Ishihara and I knew she hadn't married Nomiya. But she wouldn't give her husband's name as her family name; you're right, of course! :)

Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-4b up 20140808)

Posted: Fri Aug 08, 2014 2:29 am
by brythain
This is the second section of the fourth instalment of the second part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which Kenji's future begins to take shape in several expected ways (or not).

Kenji 2: The Sound of Wings—Year Four (Part 2)
(October 2013-March 2014)

I could feel the real me crystallizing. I think that humans are fully formed at eighteen, but they don’t know it until they’re about twenty-five. And this part of my log brings us to that point in my life.

When Naomi was my wings, I felt lighter than air. I was not surly because I had escaped surliness. That’s not my thought, it’s from some book, a play maybe, that she lent me. I can’t remember its title. It was about a fighter pilot, dead by his nineteenth year.

But when she wasn’t the burning fire of my life any more, she weighed me down. It wasn’t her fault, it was mine for not understanding that. A ship full of holes drowns you faster than no ship at all.

What you’re reading is taken from my redacted log entries, from 2010 to 2015. I call them ‘The Sound of Wings’. In this segment of the log, the machinery finally begins to repair itself, and my first quarter-century draws to a close.


October 2013:

I’m back in Sendai on the second weekend in October, the one which leads to Sports Day. This time, my mission requires avoiding Yuuko, and meeting an old contact. He’s wary and suspicious about the whole thing, but I appeal to his natural sense of curiosity, and it draws him out enough to meet me at the Shanghai. I’ve done my research; Yuuko doesn’t come here at all.

My old neighbour succumbs to a good meal with a little bit of sake on the side, and we tell each other stories. I’m a bit surprised as to how little he knows some of his former classmates, and then realize that he was only at Yamaku for a few months. Somehow, it had seemed longer to me.

“So Rin moved in with me.”

“You’re an over-fortunate asshole, Hisao. You had this endless parade going on and you didn’t share any of it!”

“Kenji, frankly, I thought you were crazy. I avoided you. I wasn’t the only one, you know. You were this hikikomori, recluse kind of guy with garlic breath and borderline alcoholic behaviour. Also, extensive conspiracy theories and a habit of forcing other people to listen to them.”

“Well, not anymore.” I suddenly feel sad. Is that how everyone remembers me? Then Naomi is doubly a saint for having invited me into her home five years ago.

“I didn’t really mind that much. At least I knew there was always one other person on the same floor. But to get back to your point, it was not endless, it was not a parade, let alone an endless parade. In Tokyo, it was just me having an apartment and people crashing there all the time!”

“And most of the time,” I interject, as I begin to giggle with silly teenager humour, “The average number of hands per person in your apartment was ONE.”

Hisao looks confused. Then he realizes what I mean and punches me half-playfully on the shoulder. “You shouldn’t make fun of our friends, dammit. You were at Yamaku much longer than I was!”

“Speaking of friends, I need some manly assistance.”

He looks cautiously at me. “Does it involve progressively larger amounts of alcohol?”

“It can if you want.”

“What is this about, Kenji? You’ve never asked for that from me. We have never been very close friends, even though we’ve been on first-name basis for a long time.”

“I need a friend at Yamaku.”

He’s good at looking confused, but I see right through him. Hisao Nakai is a master at playing a dumbass even when he’s not being one.

“Why? You could always come for a visit. We welcome our alumni back all the time. You want a teaching job? All you need is a teaching certification.”

So I tell him why. And I wonder if he will agree. He’s always had some scruples. But he’s a friend, and there’s nothing really immoral about what I’m asking.

He finally says that he’ll help. I’m logging this because it marks the point at which my Operation Hunter Gatherer really begins.

November 2013:

The point really is this. I have a lot of computing power. I have choices to make. You crunch the data, and make the choices. That old reptile brain, that old soft tissue in the skull, it doesn’t help. It’s compromised, too complicated.

But hey, maybe the choice is complicated. No, it isn’t. Version 1 said to call Yuuko Shirakawa. Version 2 said to persist. Version 3 gave me a supporting cast. Call Hisao Nakai, Version 3 said.

Where did the software place Naomi? Basically, if I killed Natsume, Naomi would be #1 choice forever. But I can’t kill Nat. It’s not what I do. I wouldn’t know how to do it. And I call her Nat now, she’s someone with whom I promised I’d be friends. So, no killing. Not even with drones.

Especially not with drones. Bloody Americans, soiling the soul of their machines. Japanese drones still have soul. They would not dirty themselves spying for Kenji. Yeah, maybe I’m wrong. But we Japanese, we imagine the soul even while materialist. Like something from a final fantasy.

See, that’s it. Kenji knows computers, is good at their games. But he’s lost with the human soul, with human games. Damned Kenji loves Naomi, and he’s thus forced to be friends with Nat. And he is indeed her friend, because Nat is a nice person for all that she doesn’t think so.

But what about the Fist? Isn’t there anything going there? The software says no. Why does it say no? Because the Fist is not stable with men. Or men are not stable with the Fist. It’s profiling, that’s what it is. Evil profiling. But it works. And Kenji is a man. Oh my God, why? I like the Fist.

We have rules here, young Kenji, Version 3 also. Old Kenji insists women are evil. Because Mother was good, and nobody’s like Mother. New Kenji insists Kenji is evil. Because of Old Kenji. So, stability, peace, being rational. But we, we say that our life’s goal is to protect the cherry blossoms.

I take another swig of my Laphroaig. Ten years old, costs a fortune. Thank God I brought ice up with me. It tastes better with ice. It has the soul of Japan, even though it is a foreigner distillation from Scotland. I can even scent the seaweed in it. It’s like a dream of nori as it wraps some fantasy fish-egg and gossamer rice. Or sashimi chilled on its bed of daikon, bitter white radish like the shriveled bits of a drunken spectre.

I laugh weakly into the sudden stiff breeze. I can even think like poor lost Naomi when I want to. All that literary shit which we used to love chatting about. And yet, my thoughts are more suited to poor lost Lilly Satou. They’re all lost, Naomi to me, Lilly to Hisao. Poor us, the men left behind. I turn to Hisao Nakai, hidden in the shadows, a tumbler in his hand.

But of course, he isn’t there. Only me, alone on the roof. With ghosts and shadows and an urgent need to pee.

December 2013:

[Hello, Shizune] I text, my fingers a little stiff, early in the morning. What time is it in the Windy City? I have no idea, although I could find out. [Happy birthday.]

I can imagine her phone vibrating, her slightly irritated look, those strong fingers reaching decisively for the offending instrument… [Kenji. It’s not my birthday. Are you drunk again?]

[No, I’m sorry. I forgot to wish you seven months ago, and you wished me a happy birthday last year. So it’s not fair. I have to make it up to you.]

[Tsk. Didn’t Nurse tell you to lay off the alcohol? But nice of you to think of me. Wait, how do you know my birthday?]

[Aha, I have my sources. No, I won’t give them up.]

[Suit yourself. Thank you. Keep in touch, maybe I’ll see you in summer.]

[Maybe. Enjoy the cake.]


I cut the connection. Random acts of kindness are better kept random. She likes cheesecake. It’ll take her a month to get through the Totally Turtle Cheesecake that I’ve ordered online for her. I estimate the damn thing weighs in at 6000 kcal for the whole cake. Thanks also to Hisao, my partner in this ‘crime’. Ha ha. Kenji and Hisao, a pairing only some demented person would think natural.

My actual birthday is spent in Hamamatsu. The Black Dragon has, in his good-natured way, grumbled for quite a while about his delinquent nephew not visiting. This time, he raises both his eyebrows eloquently. But he is too well-mannered to remark on the fact that here I am with yet another lady.

Yuuko is very impressed with my uncle. Isn’t everybody? I feel a little pang of jealousy. But my surrogate father-figure is clever. He keeps telling her what a promising person I am, while drawing her out on matters of history. How on earth does he do it? He’s making both of us feel like the most fortunate people ever, just because we know each other.

“How old are you today, respectable nephew?” It’s an odd question, phrased in an odd way, towards the end of a wonderful dinner. I suspect the subtext is that I would be respectable if I… if… oh, the cunning fox.

“Twenty-five, honourable uncle.” And so is Yuuko, I realize.

“They say that one is made into steel by twenty-five, highlighted in silver by fifty, decorated in gold by seventy-five, and a finished work only at a hundred. I don’t believe it myself. I can’t imagine ever finishing my work. Heh.”

He sips at his chilled sake, sitting over a pot of fuming dry ice, as we sit in traditional fashion in one of the most expensive restaurants on the waterfront. We wait for him to continue, because he is clearly not done.

“It means that if you’re going to get married, nephew, it’s good to do it soon. Shirakawa-san, this old university-person should apologise for being so blunt, but he is my nephew, and I confess to having a kind of distant fondness for him. Maybe you also might have a bit of that? He’s a decent fellow, his work is already considered respectable apart from a habit of arriving at the workplace late at times.”

The old fox grins, reminding me of Mutou-sensei and Nurse-san all at once. It’s a manly conspiracy, I swear.

When we finally get back to the Dragon’s lair, he tells us to make ourselves at home and vanishes into the labyrinth. His household staff have prepared a guestroom for us. My phone has several birthday messages on it, but they can wait.

“That was… a very pleasant dinner, Kenji. Ah, your uncle, he’s very kind, he’s a nice man.”

She smiles as she begins to remove the bindings—clips? pins? I have no idea what all that stuff is—from her hair. It gleams softly brown-gold in the honey-coloured indirect lighting. Behind her is a panel of black enamelwork, looking as if it is designed to frame her. On impulse, I raise my phone and take a quick picture.

“Kenji! What was that for?” Her eyes are opened wide, her hair is just beginning to swirl around her shoulders.

“You’re looking so beautiful I had to take a shot.”

“Eh, it’s only the lighting. It puts one in… the mood?”

“The mood for what?”

“Ah, ah…” she seems stumped for words. Me, I’m wondering what too. “For thinking aesthetic thoughts?”

That’s a good way to put it. We spend the night thinking aesthetic thoughts together. And then later, anaesthetic thoughts bridge the gap to morning.

January 2014:

Back to work, and the sudden realization that I’ve a bunch of messages I’ve not replied to for a week. Oops.

Shiz: [Happy Silver Birthday! Many thanks for delicious cake. Had to share with postgrad room. One slice = 440 cal fat, 800 cal total. Bad Kenji! How did you get my address?]

Bad Kenji indeed. [Hey, Shizune, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I can’t imagine you fat. Address? Net is a magical place.] I feel unreasonably happy that our plan worked out, and forward the message to Hisao. He’ll get a kick out of that, although she’s not supposed to know about his part in our little surprise.

N: [Hello Kenji, happy birthday to a very dear friend! Am working in a consultancy firm round the corner from Nat’s office. Do keep in touch. Visit some time?]

Sigh. In the past, she’d have called to tell me such things. But that was in the past, I suppose. It doesn’t make it not-bitter. But sad resignation beats painful sorrow any day. ‘Old roses locked up in old rooms,’ as the poet said. [Thanks, Naomi! Maybe in March?] That’s Yuuko’s birthday month. I could bring her down to Osaka for a holiday.

The answer’s quick: [Hey, I thought you were giving me the four-weeks treatment again! Hope everything’s good with you. March is good; let us know and we can get the spare room ready.] It brings a little smile to my lips, that doesn’t quite reach my eyes. Just friends, that’s all.

Fist: [Hey, Kenji! Happy birthday, have a great one. Never really thanked you for the painting, so here’s a picture in return! Don’t worry, nobody else gets stuff like this from me. Ha!] I scroll down, and then act like a very guilty person. Thank God my boss isn’t in my cubicle. [Miki, don’t you know how to use NSFW warnings? Thanks! You look wonderful, but you did even in that business suit you wore the last time.] I note, however, that her pose conceals her left arm.

Nat: [Happy birthday, Kenji. You’re always welcome in Osaka.]

Ha. Maybe I will drop by. But I’m really not so sure about my new-found stability. Would it survive? In the past, I lived with Naomi, and Nat came visiting. Now, all is different, and the past is another country. Which reminds me: I have a country to defend. Work, work, work.

It’s a cool night when I leave the office. This is Kenji, I think to myself, Kenji in his second quarter-century. He dresses soberly, except for the bright scarf, which is all about defiance and magic. He wears thick glasses, the same magic that hides Superman in plain sight. He laughs at the game they made about Yamaku, where they changed everybody’s names and yet left everyone so recognizable. He wonders who gave them so much information.

But Kenji, walking carefully down the street in the colder shadows of the Tokyo night, must be a better man. He used to tell himself that, but now he can do it. Look after the heart, look after the eyes, eat well, master the senses and the appetites. Sounds a bit Buddhist, all that. Never mind. Whatever it takes to get better.

In the past, there was no real plan. But now there must be. To protect the cherry blossoms, one must know them well. And gather them into an invisible net, a web of protection. So tonight, and every Wednesday night we check on Rin at Hisao’s old apartment, until we’re sure she’s safe. It’s just an exercise, training for the future. And besides, Hisao approved it.

February 2014:

I feel a southward twitch as Valentine’s Day looms. Kenji is stubborn, and will go to Gifu instead. But not before he sends a happy birthday pic to his friend in Nagasaki.

[Kenji! Cute/disgusting! I had no idea your scarf was so fucking long. Or that you could do cool things like that with it. Thanks for birthday wishes. Officially I’m as old as you are now. Heh. Enjoy your Valentine’s Day. XO. M.]

XO? Oh, XO. Ha, Kenji’s been mixing with too many SDF personnel. Or thinking of cognac too much, that decadent French stuff. Back to work, back to work, and then to the clearing of leave in the second week of February.

“Gifu, Kenji? Why are we going to… ah, Gifu?” She manages to look perturbed without wrinkling her forehead or raising her eyebrows at all.

“Shirakawa-san, maybe you could tell me.” I hate to do this to her, but Kenji knows that Yuuko has secrets of her own, and he knows she won’t talk about them without some persuasion.

“Ah. Kenji… um, do we know each other that well?”

Damn. I’m sure we know each other in ways many other people don’t. We’ve gone through a lot since high school, and that’s about ten years since we first met. Maybe we could start with some simple Yamaku-style questions.

“Yuuko, do you know why I was sent to Yamaku?”

“No, maybe, I can’t remember… did you tell me?” Actually, I can’t remember telling her, because I only found out the truth some time after I ended up at Yamaku.

“I have a congenital heart problem. It wasn’t managed well, but now it’s under control. Also, funny ears and very bad eyes, but you already know that.”

“Oh! It’s good that it’s under control, but no, I didn’t know. I thought you maybe had a tumour in the brain or something. Would explain a lot,” she muses.

This is something I’ve noticed. At times, Yuuko acts like a nervous, neurotic, anxious person. At other times, she is snarky, witty, sharp, in command. There’s a reason for that, I’m sure of it, and I need to hear from her what it is.

“How about you?”

“This is about getting to know each other better, is it?” She seems a bit upset. “Wow, Kenji, you really aren’t one for being… tactful with a lady. But that’s OK, I knew that about you ages ago.”

“You did?”

“Do you remember Lilly Satou?”

I must confess, this question takes me completely by surprise. Especially in the light of my recent dealings with Hisao. Some kind of expression must show on my face, because Yuuko suddenly gives me a tension-relieving grin and continues, “Don’t worry, everyone remembers that tall blonde girl. We used to… work together a lot, because she was very involved with the Braille part of the library, had many good suggestions. And we talked a lot about boys… how tactful or tactless some of them were. Your name came up a few times.”

There’s no hesitation, no anxiety in her voice as she tells me all this. Anybody would diagnose some sort of bipolar disorder, I guess. I don’t know anything about psychology—I deal only with artificial intelligence, not natural.

“It did? But you were saying something about yourself?” It’s not very polite, but I have the feeling she’s distracting me from something.

Indeed, she looks at me to see if I’m serious, and then reads my expression accurately this time. “Ah… yes. Sorry. I have a minor disorder. Recurring inner ear problems. Not like yours, but I have to do a ear-canal reset now and then or I get dizzy and… bump into things. Very distracting.”

Something clicks at the back of my mind. “It’s a Shirakawa Canal effect, is it?”

“It’s… amusing to you?” She has an odd expression on her face. “Well, not life-threatening, unless I need to do a canalith repositioning to avoid dropping a pile of items. Carrying stacks of books, trays of items… all that’s meant to be therapy. Doesn’t work well though… I’m one of the ten percent who get vertigo even after all that. Not funny, Kenji-san.”

“Errr… no offence meant, Yuuko. It’s just that I used to live near a place called the Shirakawa Canal.” I find myself desperately explaining things, because I really don’t want to offend her. She looks and sounds as if she’s ready to drop a stack of books on my head. And she’s adopted a formal tone too.

“Apology accepted. It takes me a lot of concentration to… talk to people, you know.” She doesn’t sound much appeased. I hang my head a bit, to show how apologetic I am.

“To answer your question about Gifu… well, you’ve been doing research, I suppose. Yes, my family is from there. Long ago… my ancestral home, we lived in what’s now Seki City.”

“Where they made swords and knives?”

“I knew you’d been doing research. Yes, we supplied Nobunaga 450 years ago. But that’s… history! Nothing to do with us now. Why the interest?”

“I just wanted to visit Gifu with you. The snow’s great, they say. But very cold.”

She appraises me with a very frank stare. It’s not a Shizune look, or a Miki in-your-face look. It’s more like an I’m-thinking-about-you-seriously look. Her eyes come together a bit, like a frown without any wrinkling.

“You need extra warmth besides just a scarf and a thick coat, Kenji-san?”

Indeed I do, and it’s very nice to have it for almost one whole week. And she knows a lot about Gifu too. And other things. Our first Valentine’s Day together.

March 2014:

Decisions, decisions, Kenji. Hisao has done his part of the deal, and I can’t make him give information it would be unethical for him to obtain. But I now have to ask him for one last big favour, because I can’t think of anybody else.

To my surprise, he agrees. “Never done it before, Kenji. Seeing as it’s one of my favourite people, I’ll do it. But why the secrecy?”

Security clearances have been on my mind quite a bit. But I know where I want to be on that day. And it’s not a place for big crowds, not to mention all the other problems I’ve been considering.

“This and that. Need to avoid some people.”

“Heh, I can respect that. But don’t you have anyone else?”

“No, not at all. Thanks for agreeing.” I look him in his digital eye. No, I don’t, Nakai-san. I haven’t many friends, unlike you. But I smile. He’s just being his usual tactless self. And I can respect that too.

A week after that conversation, the few days of leave I have left become even fewer. No, I’m not going to Osaka. But it’s Yuuko’s birthday, and I head up to Sendai again for a long weekend.

She meets me at the train station, in the afternoon, dressed in dark blue jeans and a comfortable-looking dark silver-grey top. And high heels. It’s a combination I’ve not seen before.

“Happy birthday, Yuuko!” We hold the embrace for a while. It’s warm and comforting. The weather’s a little chilly, and I don’t see cherry blossoms in Sendai yet. Come to think of it, even Kyoto isn’t blooming yet, although some of the flowers have started opening in Tokyo. One should keep track of such things.

“Where to now, Captain-san?”

Ha. If she only knew. But my life at work and my life on leave are two different things, mostly.

“The Shanghai, actually.”

“The… Shanghai…? Why there?”

“Because it’s a place we have fond memories of?”

“Um. Well, maybe.” She looks a little disappointed. I hope it doesn’t last.

When we get there, the place is deserted. I look around, suddenly feeling anxious. It’s Thursday, the day before Spring Equinox, so Yuuko would expect more people to be here.

“That’s odd. Such… lack of service.” She frowns, as if it’s a personal insult.

I guide her into the dimness of the café, my hand trembling in the small of her silver-clad back. “Hello?” I call out.

“Irrashaimase!” a tenor baritone voice sings out, giving the customary welcome. What? This wasn’t in the script.

Yuuko’s looked up, a shocked expression on her face. I think mine has a similar look.

“So sorry for the poor service, I’m new at this job. And so is the chef, and also, our slacker assistant who was supposed to warn us you were here.”

“Nurse-san?” she whispers.

“Ah, no, no. Today, Manager-san is more like it. And Chef Akio is… ah, there he is. We’re preparing an early meal, since you’ve not had lunch and have no intention of eating dinner here. Where’s that damned boy, though?”

“Here, Kaneshiro-sama!” So that’s where Hisao went. Dammit. I hate it when I lose control of an operation. I begin to laugh, because my friend is wearing a frilly apron.

“Usher our visitors to their seats, quickly! Mustn’t keep our honoured guests waiting!”

As an aside, he whispers to me, “Also, there’s a time limit. The proprietor doesn’t mind doing this for old customers, but it’s bad for business.”

“You… planned this?” Yuuko says, disbelievingly. She’s not sure whether to laugh or to cry, it looks like.

“Apparently so,” I say, still a bit dazed.

Those bastards. It’s a masculine conspiracy. Executed with masculine disregard for style, but still quite effective nonetheless.

At the end of our meal, the lights go out. And the candles come on. Mutou-sensei—well, Chef Akio for today—appears, looking very pleased with himself. “Hello, Setou-san. I see you’ve done well for yourself? Nice catch you have there. Hello again, Shirakawa-san, we always do our best for our colleagues.”

On the trolley that he’s wheeling, there’s a cake. It’s not that large but it looks very solid—a cheesecake thing, dripping with caramel sauce and chocolate bits. Two larger candles and six smaller ones are on it. Hisao whispers, “Sponsored by Hakamichi Industries, probably. From our friend in Chicago, who still doesn’t know who leaked her address.”

I’m willing to bet that it comes to about 1600 calories for the two servings. But I’m still nervous. There’s a bill to be settled, other stuff that needs doing…

“And now for the grand finale,” announces ‘Manager-san’. “Ahem, Setou-san, your medicine-box for today.”

Still a little shocked, I accept the little container. It takes me some time to realize what I’m supposed to do. Stupid Kenji, as usual. I gingerly unscrew the child-safe cap and tease out the cotton-wool packing.

“Yuuko Shirakawa,” I say, “Will you marry me?”

The ring sparkles in the flickering candlelight, its single stone clear blue and then deep red. The old name for Sri Lanka was ‘Taprobane’, and this stone is named after that. The other ancient name was ‘Serendib’, and I hold my breath, thinking of the serendipity that has brought us together here.

“Ah… um… that is to say… you silly person… of course, yes!”

prev | next

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-4b up 20140808)

Posted: Fri Aug 08, 2014 3:53 pm
by Serviam
Now I'm imagining Hisao being voiced by Brad Swaile, whispering sotto voce "Just as planned."

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-4b up 20140808)

Posted: Fri Aug 08, 2014 4:35 pm
by Oscar Wildecat
“Yuuko Shirakawa,” I say, “Will you marry me?”

The ring sparkles in the flickering candlelight, its single stone clear blue and then deep red. The old name for Sri Lanka was ‘Taprobane’, and this stone is named after that. The other ancient name was ‘Serendib’, and I hold my breath, thinking of the serendipity that has brought us together here.

“Ah… um… that is to say… you silly person… of course, yes!”
Finally! Everybody have a piece of Lemon Pretzel Cheesecake! :D

This saga has achieved, for me, the highly improbable -- turn Kenji into a likable, sympathetic character...

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-4b up 20140808)

Posted: Sat Aug 09, 2014 3:59 am
by brythain
Serviam wrote:Now I'm imagining Hisao being voiced by Brad Swaile, whispering sotto voce "Just as planned."
Actually, that sounds fun but unlikely… I always think of Hisao as being influenced by Mutou and Nurse to do more than what he signed up for… :)
Oscar Wildecat wrote:This saga has achieved, for me, the highly improbable -- turn Kenji into a likable, sympathetic character...
Aw, that's a great compliment. There were days I felt a certain lack of sympathy towards him, I must admit. :)

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-4b up 20140808)

Posted: Wed Aug 13, 2014 11:45 pm
by YutoTheOrc
Pardon my bluntness and manners, but; You brilliant bastard! I loved it, absolutely loved it. So far you've yanked my emotions around, from crying to smiling, from anger to grief. You my friend, are a connoisseur of emotional writings. Bravo, Bravo! I would like, nay would love, to read more of this! I can most certainly assure you, I will read more of your fantastic writings! I bow to you! :D

Re: Sakura—The Kenji Saga (Part 2-4b up 20140808)

Posted: Thu Aug 14, 2014 12:16 am
by brythain
YutoTheOrc wrote:Pardon my bluntness and manners, but; You brilliant bastard! I loved it, absolutely loved it. So far you've yanked my emotions around, from crying to smiling, from anger to grief. You my friend, are a connoisseur of emotional writings. Bravo, Bravo! I would like, nay would love, to read more of this! I can most certainly assure you, I will read more of your fantastic writings! I bow to you! :D
*grin* Kenji, is that you again?

Seriously, thanks very much for that encouragement. I've no choice but to try to do better—I must acknowledge the role of so many forum colleagues in helping the process along! :)