Title: Power

Author: Aki

Website: N/A

Email: cawei@sas.upenn.edu

Manga: Menkui

Category: Romance

Rating: PG

Summary: What exactly is the so-called power of love?

Author's note: This is set in the world of Menkui, meaning everyone being in love with one of the Karasawa brothers and totally fine with that is apparently par for the course. Yes, yes, this is a mushy, poorly written (in 2 days!) fic, pardons begged in advance. I just love Menkui.

Every morning this time the hallways fill with bustle. Chattering, complaining, Ne-ne-ne-do-you-think-you-passed-I-think-I-failed. I usually come early, because I hate to be a part of it. It's bad enough in between classes, but it's worst in the mornings. And I'm not a morning person anyway.

"Aiiii no chikara ni, shiiinjiiruuu yoo-oo," * the obnoxiously cheery melody drifts over from somewhere down the hall. It's the boy from Class 2, the one who wants to be a pop singer for Johnny's Jimusho. Minekura Something. He won't make it, though, he can't dance.

I hate people who are in a mood good enough to be able to sing songs like that. I hate the stupid pop industry that puts out the same kind of canned music to us every day, like catfood. And most of all I hate how they're all a big fat lie.

What power of love? Hasn't done squat for me lately.

I kick my locker shut. "BAM!" But nobody even looks around. They're all used to me by now. Saeki-kun. Little Chikage, he's got such an angel baby face, haha, too bad he's got such a big, bad, temper. That's right. Stay out of my way.

"Oi! Chikage!"

Something I have no control over jumps up in me at that sound. Here goes, here goes. There is some kind of power to it after all. The power to make me infinitely miserable. I look at my hallway slippers in half-way resentment. I won't look at him until I have to.

The ones I've beat up before call me Saeki-san. Everyone else calls me Saeki-kun, or they used to, until Kotori started yelling "Chikage!" down the hall. It spread in our homeroom like a cold. He doesn't have any respect for boundaries. He doesn't get why they're there.

He stops next to me, slightly out of breath. Only Kotori can get out of breath, going down a hall. He gets flustered at everything. He smiles at everyone. Everyone used to call me Saeki, but everyone's always called him Kotori. Because that's what he is.

I won't look up, I won't look up.

"Chikage, what's wrong?" I can feel those round dark eyes peering up at me from under the corner of my sleeve. Somewhere underneath those eyes a worried frown is beginning to surface, I just know.

I look up.

Damn you, Minekura. Love isn't about having power. It's all about losing it.

"Iya, betsuni. Let's go, the bell's gonna ring."

I pick two fights in the afternoon and win both, holding my breath.

* "Believe in the power of love." This is not from an actual Jpop song that I know of, but it bloody well could be. ~Aki ................................................................

Near my house is a park. It's not a special park or anything. You might pass it a hundred times without looking; I did. It's just about big enough for two benches and a swingset and a couple of dusty trees. In the summertime you feel sorry for those trees. They droop as if the heat has beaten them, too. There's only one thing interesting about this place, really. But you have to look hard to see it.

Jii-san comes to this park every day at the end of the afternoon. I used to wonder why he did it. It couldn't have been to look at the scenery. This is Tokyo, after all. If you wanted real trees, you had to go over to the Meiji Jingu. And he doesn't bring a newspaper or feed the pigeons or anything, he just sits there.

He's not really my Jii-san, but he should be somebody's. It'd be a real waste if he weren't. His clothes look neat, but old, like he's just gone on wearing them for the past few decades. His hair is all grey, but he's still got a lot of it. He doesn't wear glasses, and has these kind eyes, which is kind of surprising because most of the old people I know are pretty nearsighted and grumpy. And he's got really brown skin which looks kind of thin and has all these fine wrinkles running through it. They crinkle deeper when he smiles.

The park is about five blocks from my house. I pass it on my way to and from school every day. That's how I knew that Jii-san always went there. Not that I really noticed, though, before. He was just part of the park, like the swingset. Really scared the crap out of me, that first time he talked to me.

Uniforms are killer in the summer, before they let you switch over to short sleeves. The collars feel too tight and itch and your arms sweat and your back has sweat running down the middle where you can't reach and everything feels stuck to you. And it's a good eleven blocks from the school to my house, with no real shade except for the occasional awning and the electric fan in front of the ramen-ya. One day coming home it was so hot that the air was rippling off the sidewalk. My shoes felt like they were melting. And I decided I'd had enough of walking in the heat. No one's timing me, I thought. What the hell. Mom wouldn't even have the air-conditioning on at home.

So when I got to the park I just dropped my bag and plopped down under one of the trees on the side facing away from the street. It didn't make much of a difference, though, because you can see the street from just about any angle in the park. Even the shade under the trees was still hot, like it was too lonely to do much good. That's just the kind of park you get in the city.

I was so hot and so mad I didn't even open my eyes when I sat down. And then Jii-san said, "What's wrong?" Not, "Hello," or, "What's your name, young man," but "What's wrong?" Like he already knew. Like he just thought I needed to tell someone anyway.

I wanted to be rude, because it was so damn hot out and it was none of his business. But Mom drilled it into us when we were tiny. You had to be polite to old people, she said, because they'd been in this world so much longer, and because you still had more time left. We didn't get it, or at least I didn't. Maybe Chihiro did. It's hard to tell because he's such a good kid, you never really know if he asks 'Why?' After all, old people can be just as stupid and stubborn as young ones.

And it was hot as hell. I was holding my breath so hard I could feel the blood rushing to my face.

"Nothing," I was going to say when I let it out, except that he was looking at me when I said it. What came out instead was the truth. How Kotori was so stupid that he couldn't see what kind of a person he was. How he couldn't even see what kind of a person I was, didn't know why I was so nice to him or so protective. How stupid, stupid Akaiwa of all people had seen, and had the nerve to try and take Kotori all for himself, when everyone knew that he was kind of public property. Like a friendly neighborhood dog, too big-hearted to give himself to any one family.

Everyone felt that way about him. Whether you teased him or flirted with him or protected him or yelled at him, you knew that you did it for one reason: So that those bright black eyes would turn on you and fasten, like buttons, in a kind of helpless way. It was his biggest charm, apart from his all-around niceness and total lack of guile. He cooked and cleaned for his brother and probably had since he was twelve, but he also made you feel like he needed someone to get him through the world.

And for a long time, I'd really believed that I was that person.

It wasn't as stupid as it sounded, I told Jii-san. After all, I was good at taking care of people. At least, I could take care of myself. They might laugh at me for being small and call me Chibi-kage or girly, but they always took it back. I made them. And I took care of Chihiro too, or at least I used to, until he started spending all his time with Shinobu. And Shinobu was MY friend! What kind of world was it?!

And, because Jii-san still hadn't said anything, I added, "And you know, the worst part is, he doesn't need me anymore." He didn't; he had Akaiwa. Akaiwa, who was fast enough to dodge my kicks but too slow to dodge Kotori. Whose cool only cracked when facing those helpless black eyes, round as a sparrow's. Chihiro didn't need me, and Kotori didn't need me, and it was so hot and I was so angry that I almost wanted to cry. It hurts not to be needed, I said finally.

Yes, Jii-san said very gently. Yes it does.

And then I cried.


"Chikage, you're the only one I can really talk to about this stuff, you know?" His voice is high, riding on a wave of gratitude. "Not just about him, but everything. Even--you know."

He blushes so easily you wouldn't think it was real if you didn't know him. This kind of person shouldn't exist in the twenty-first century, at least not in high school. Sometimes I can't believe he's for real even though I do know him, have ever since we moved from the countryside to Tokyo eight years ago. He was the first person here to learn my name.

I mumble something and he doesn't notice, staring down into his bento like the answers are tucked under the rice somewhere. He likes to sprinkle black sesame seeds on top of it. He told me it's because his brother always eats it that way. Something about the artistic contrast. All I know is, it's a good thing they're there.

"I know I shouldn't get jealous, but I just can't help it," he goes on. "It just seems like he's always surrounded by girls. And a lot of them are really pretty, too," he adds, a little wistfully but mostly with honest appreciation. It makes me want to go beat someone. "And I'm really, you know, ordinary."

"Well, does he pay them any attention?" I ask, counting sesame seeds. I am up to twenty two but can't remember if I got the one in the corner next to the takuwon or not.

"No-oo," he says, slowly, as if it weren't totally obvious that the prettiest girl in the world would have serious trouble making Kotori look ordinary. Kotori makes his brother look ordinary. Kujaku-senpai knows it. He's the one who said to me, But peacocks can't fly.

"He actually looks kind of annoyed when they show up," he says, "But I can't help thinking that he'd like one of them better." His head slumps down onto his arms, until only the stiff black thatch of hair faces me. Kujaku always jokes that a cow licked his head all over when he was born.

I glare at him, as if he's Akaiwa himself. "Well, if he does, I'm going to knock his teeth out." I almost wish he would, so that I could. But Kotori would be heartbroken. He looks alarmed at the bare thought. Anxious. Akaiwa may worry, but only Kotori always looks anxious. As if he's sure that someone will leap out of the bushes--the lockers--and take Akaiwa away. When they're together, he doesn't dart his eyes, but turns his head from side to side sometimes. I wonder if it's because he cares what people will think of him, or of Akaiwa.

"You wouldn't really, would you?" He's already pleading with me over the imagined scenario.

"You couldn't stop me, and I wouldn't pull my punches either." Damn. I forgot what number I was on. Now I'll have to start over from the beginning.

"Chikage, you're too protective of me," he huffs. "I can take care of myself too, you know? I hit him last time, didn't I?"

"Not hard enough." Fifteen, sixteen.


"All right, I won't hit him unless he does something really bad to you, ok?" I say. And do not add, Just let me decide what really bad means.

He doesn't hear the unspoken sentence. He never does hear them, the long silent conversations I hold in my head. Maybe that's a good thing, too. Or I might've lost my best friend a lot sooner than this.

"Thanks, Chikage. You're a lifesaver. A real pal." He grins.

It hurts to see him crying.

It hurts more to see him smile.

I look away. And lose count.


Some days I walk around the park. I don't want to have to walk by him, even if I know he won't mind, that he may not even turn his head. But some days, I stop by his bench under the dusty trees with the patches of grass and the greyness of the streets all around us. And we talk.

We talk about a lot of things, about the weather, about school, about the economy. About the future, which is still so many shadowy shapes to me. He says that the past is like that too--not carved in stone, unchanging, but a bunch of flickering pictures that change every time you look at them. It makes me think of a kaleidoscope that you turn over and over, until you find a pattern that you like.

I talk about how I haven't punched out Akaiwa yet. Sometimes I talk about Kotori, and he listens. He listens quietly, but you can tell all the words are filling up somewhere behind those kind eyes. He always sits on the bench and I sit under the tree, mostly looking down while I talk, feeling the flow sinking into those fine wrinkles and seeping under that brown skin. After I talk to him I feel lighter, emptied somehow. As if I've poured the feelings into him and he's stored them away for me. Tupperware for the soul.

I don't really talk much normally. And apart from Kotori, no one really talks to me. Jii-san's a geezer but he never tells me that I'll understand when I'm older. That always annoys me. And he doesn't talk about the past- -his past--very much. That makes him different from most old people too. They can't get enough of the past and try to trap you in it, too, if you stand still long enough.

I asked him once why he doesn't do that, and he told me that the past was too precious for him to open up very often. Like an expensive dress women unwrap every now and then, running their fingers over the rich fabric, then put away again, knowing that it's there. Besides, the real thing is what you do now, he said. Everything else is just shadows and dreams, what might be and what could have been.

Later on I realized that maybe even dreams could be too painful.


They fight. You'd think any couple as love-love as them would get along all sweetness and dream, peaches and cream, like Minekura would sing. But somehow Akaiwa's always getting jealous or Kotori gets insecure or upset because Akaiwa doesn't trust him or talk to him. Kotori's got a sense of justice, too. He might let people step on him, but he'd complain about it all the while.

The thing is, Akaiwa's not a big talker. And Kotori's shy about bringing things up. He wants to solve things on his own, but the trouble is, he doesn't. He just thinks about them until they start to look worse than they are. If I don't work to pry things out of his mind he comes in with red, scummy eyes the next day.

Every time they fight I feel this little bit of hope inside kicking, like a rabbit in a box. Maybe now he'll see what a jerk Akaiwa is and dump him. Maybe Akaiwa will find Kotori too tiresome and go after someone else. I know Kotori would hurt if that happened, but I could get him through it. I definitely could. Some part of me knows, though, that the way they fight and hurt not because one person doesn't care, but because both people care too much. Not much hope in that.

One time I went to Akaiwa's house. I don't know why. Maybe I wanted to ask him to stay away from Kotori or beat him up or something. One of his sisters opened the door. It was the second oldest, I think. Or maybe the third, I'm not sure. She had short, layered hair and looked a bit like Akaiwa, especially when she smiled.

Somehow I'd never totally believed that story about his sisters. I thought it was just some sort of cover-up for the despicable things he was doing behind Kotori's back. What Kotori believed didn't matter; he prefers believing people. But when that tall, pretty older woman's face showed up after I rang I knew that every word was true. The rabbit of hope dove deep underground.

"Are you looking for Kaname? I'm sorry to tell you he's not at home," she said nicely. Another sister, maybe a little younger than me, peeked around her.

"Are you Nii-san's friend too?" she asked. She had straight, short hair and a perky nose. She looked like the kind of girl I always thought Chihiro would like. "Wow, I'm so happy he's at this school! He's never made so many friends before."

I felt my ears going red and said something about homework and asking later, then fled. Their amiable voices chased me down the driveway and into the street.


"I had a dream once where I killed Akaiwa." Above head, the leaves are still, waiting for me to go on.

"I don't really remember how I did it. Just the part where he was lying on the ground, and his eyes were looking up at me but I knew he was dead." The eyes are what I really remember. Sometimes I'm afraid I'll walk by him in the hall and he'll look at me like that, like he knows that I killed him.

"...Do you think that makes me a bad person?"

He seems to think about this for a moment. "Well, have you killed him yet?"

"Of course not!"

"Well, then, you're certainly not a murderer. So, you might be a good person."

I twist against the trunk and feel the bark catch at an errant thread. It's not the answer I wanted. But at least it's not the one I was afraid of.

"But, what if I could kill him? Or if I could save him but didn't?" My voice sounds almost triumphant, exposing my evil thoughts for inspection, confident that Jii-san will be horrified at last.

"Well, what if you could?" His smile dips a finger into my thoughts, creating ring after ring of rippling doubt.

Above head a breeze whispers to the tree, and all the leaves sigh back.



"Oh, it's you. Saeki-kun." He says it offhand, but keeps half an eye on me.

Osamu says that it really shows how I want to hit him every time I see him. I don't think that's the only reason why Akaiwa looks at me that way. He looks at me with deep down distrust that he tries to hide. Only, Akaiwa sucks at hiding things. He always used to look blank, which is one of the things Kotori thought was cool about him. But I think that was just because, before Kotori, he really didn't care much. He still doesn't make big expressions--it's like his face is still stiff from disuse--but it's easy to see the changes.

All you have to do is watch how he looks at Kotori.

Maybe that's the power of love, the power to change people. It sure changed me. I fight twice as much now as I did before I knew. But maybe I do it just so Kotori will stop me. All I know is, I can't hold my breath forever.

"Hey." Just looking at him makes me start to seethe. I always hold my breath when I'm really mad, in case I say something really, really dumb. I don't care what I say to Akaiwa, but by now it's just habit. The first time I walked in on the two of them kissing I held my breath so long that everything went dark at the edges and little flowers of color started to explode in the middle. Then I yelled at them anyway.

"If it's nothing, I'm just going to go meet Kotori for lunch, ok?" He edges around me, then puts up an arm as my hand snakes out to grab him.

I let out the words just before my chest starts to hurt. "Don't be in such a rush." I didn't really plan this out. What the hell is there to say, anyway? Stay away from Kotori, he's mine?

But he's not. And Akaiwa knows it. That's why he can look down at me as if he knows I don't like him, and doesn't care. He isn't scared of me. He doesn't have to be.

Why am I always stuck looking up at people? Whose idea of a joke was it to make me so short and girly-looking? Did I ask for this body? If I were taller, if I looked more cool, that menkui would've fallen for ME instead!

What if I could kill him?

My breath explodes out.

"What makes you so sure you deserve him, anyway? He says you're a jealous jerk." Ok, so he never put those two words together like that, but it's not a lie. I'll make him listen to me, anyway. "You don't trust him, you hurt his feelings and you've got girls crawling all over you like flies. You aren't worthy of being that special to him!" I can't seem to stop my mouth, anymore than I can stop my fists in a fight. I feel like a punctured balloon, hissing and leaking air. "I care about him more than you do and I'd never make him cry!"

Only he doesn't seem hurt, or even surprised. He just looks at me. "You're probably right," he says.

And walks away.


"Life isn't fair."

He seems to think about this for several moments, then nods. "No, probably not."

I snort. "Definitely not."

"Well, really it depends on whose definition of fairness. We rarely get to see the whole picture, after all."

I lean hard against my palms, letting the pebbles and roots shape themselves into my skin, willing them to leave marks. Sometimes I think that if I just sit there long enough, I'll be able to stop punching people and learn to breathe and smile like a Buddha. That's how he got his wisdom, isn't it? Sitting under a tree.

"Why does a person love someone anyway? And if they don't love you back, isn't love really just a kind of torture? I mean, they only talk about the power of love when there's a happy ending in it somewhere."

He smiles. Jii-san smiles a lot, but not like he's making fun of you. More like a "Life is odd, isn't it?" kind of smile. He never laughs though. At least, I've never heard him. Smiling, nodding, gently like a music box doll I saw in a store. It's soothing to listen to his rhythm. It's so much quieter than mine.

"Yes, it does seem like there ought to be a little more system to it. You think love should be more... mathematical?"

It sounds startling when he puts it that way. I think about it in my head:

Axiom I:

Friendship + Devotion = Love

But in that case Kotori would have to be in love with ALL of us.

No way. Akaiwa's bad enough. Taichi or Watase? I'd flip for sure.

"I hate being the one left out."

He nods.

"And what has Akaiwa done to deserve him, anyway?" I shove the resentment back into my voice, temporarily discolored by wistfulness.

"Well, what has Kotori done to deserve you?" he asks reasonably.

"Kotori?" I lean back into the tree, slowly. If anyone were to look from my street they'd think the old man was talking to a trunk. "I dunno, he's just himself. Like...caring. And honest. And loyal."

"But I would think that many of your friends would have those qualities."

"Yeah, but none of them are Kotori." Even as I say it I realize it doesn't make much sense.

"It would be nice if everyone we cared for cared for us in equal measure," he says matter-of-factly. As if it were a truth he'd long ago accepted.

"Love does have power, I think. But not, unfortunately, the power to make someone love you back." And he stares at the tree, as if he's seeing someone else. In that moment I feel the ghosts of his other life, the existence outside the park, rise up fluttering before me. But before I can even reach out to grab at them he starts to talk again, this time about the upcoming festival, and the origins of bon-odori.


"Geez, what's the matter with you today? You've got the energy of a dead cat. You and that jerk have a fight again?"

He doesn't bother answering, just pulls his things limply out of the locker and then shuffles off in the direction of class. I give up on trying to interview him in the din of the hall, and hurry us off so we can sit down and talk.

He slides into his desk and immediately buries his head in his arms. "C'mon, Kotori, spit it out already. What's on your mind?" I can't help but feel upset. This is the worst I've seen him yet. Ever since he started dating Akaiwa it's like his mood is attached to a big, fast pendulum. He's always been a bit like that. We had a discussion once after Chemistry and decided that his ground state was cheerful, but that he was easily excited.

"It's really over this time."

"What?" He'd spoken so softly I really wasn't sure whether I'd heard him or not. I shook him by one unresponsive shoulder. He wriggled, as if trying to burrow into the desk.

"It's over, Chikage! He's really had enough! He told me that we shouldn't be together anymore..." His voice trails off, as if that's all he can manage at the moment. And on one hand I'm starting to see red--how DARE he, that bastard?--but inside, the rabbit is pummeling away with his strong hind legs. Just let it happen, it drums, this is your chance!

Suddenly, a voice that sounds just a little bit like Jii-san breaks up the beat. How odd, it says, now why would Akaiwa do something like that? When you know he just about goes nuts if he can't see Kotori every single day...

"Did he...tell you why?" I ask carefully. Steady, steady, Akaiwa's not the type to blab.

A sniff. Oh gods, don't cry. You'll drown the rabbit. "No. He just said it wasn't a good idea." Sniff. "I knew it...that he'd lose interest eventually."

I look wildly around, as if Akaiwa will pop up beside me and explain what is going on. Could he really have given up so easily? Isn't this a sign? Maybe they really weren't meant to be! Words come ringing back like a returned echo.

What if I could save him, but didn't?

"Baka. Don't be so upset. If he really feels that way then he...doesn't deserve you anyway. Didn't he pull this stupid stunt before?"

His head snaps up. "I don't care!" The fierceness in his voice makes me jerk my mind back like fingers from a hot stove. "As long as he cared about me, it didn't matter." He fades back into depression. "Besides, he's the pretty one. It was probably me who didn't deserve him."

I can't bear it. "Look, Kotori, don't worry, ok? I'm sure he didn't mean it."

"He did." Sniffle. "I could tell."

And before I can say anything else, class starts.


I run the six blocks, bag banging against my shoulder blades. I couldn't find Akaiwa before I went home, no matter how I tried. I tell myself I'll call Kotori the second I get home. Either way. I've just got to find Jii- san first. When I talk to him it'll all come clear.

I'll know what to do.

But when I get to the park, he isn't there. I look at the empty bench as if it's sprouted wings and flown away in front of my eyes.

He's always here. For a second I forget all about Kotori.

What happened?

But no one steps out to explain, and after ten minutes he still doesn't appear. I realize that I don't even know where he comes from, or where he lives. He's always here when I come.

I go home, helpless. I don't talk to anyone. My head is full of shadows, possibilities parading around making promises. They tease me and whisper, What if?

I don't fall asleep all the way until false pre-dawn invades the dark outside.


I scrub at my eyes as I stand on the doorstep. They feel like they'll stick together if I blink. Please, let it be Akaiwa who opens the door.

No such luck. It's the oldest daughter, the one who really looks like a model, ready to go to work. Sheesh, no wonder that menkui likes him. Just look at the gene pool.

She blinks at me. "Goodness, are you here to see Kaname? It's so early, I'm not sure he's ready yet."

"It's ok, I'll wait," I mumble.

"Please, come in. Have you had breakfast?"

"No, please, don't bother. I'll just wait out here." I resist her coaxing and settle down on the stoop. My head feels light and heavy at the same time. I'm going to fall asleep in class today for sure.

"Chikage? Izzat you?" He looks a little tousled, eyes shadowed and still heavy with sleep. He doesn't look as miserable as I would like.

"Yeah. Sorry to bother you so early." The formula tumbles from my mouth, heedless of what's supposed to come after.

"What're you here for?"

I lose my temper. I'm not a morning person. Especially not after two hours of sleep. "What do you think, idiot?"

Behind him, his sisters' voices suddenly die down. Shit. "Here, come out and talk," I say, pulling him onto the stoop and closing the door.

"What? Hey, I'm still barefoot."

"Forget about your feet!! Listen up! I take back what I said about you yesterday, so hurry up and go apologize to Kotori, ok? He probably cried his eyes out all last night."

He squints at me. "You don't look so good either."

How can he be so calm? What's wrong with him? "Did you hear me? I told you to tell him you take it back!! Kiss and make up already, got it?"

He doesn't budge. "No."

"NO?" I can hardly believe my ears.

"You were right. I don't...deserve him." And finally, on that last word, his voice cracks and his face cracks too, just a little. But enough.

"Look. Um. I shouldn't have said that yesterday." A pause. "It isn't relevant, anyway."

He looks at me, confused. "What do you mean?"

"I mean I'm not saying what I told you was wrong or anything." The round was destined to be his but damned if I was going to lie down. "But it really doesn't matter if it was or not."

All of a sudden I really don't want to do this anymore. There's only so much resolve I can squeeze out at a time. And I really don't WANT Akaiwa to have Kotori, anyhow. But I'm here, and I want to be able to look Jii- san in the face, rabbit or no rabbit.

"Look, my point is, he really loves you, ok? And any idiot can see that you're crazy about him. So regardless whether I think you're a champion ass or not, if you just cut him off like this it's going to kill both of you. So don't be a stubborn jealous jerk, tell him you were just trying to do what was best for him but screwed it up somehow."

He's gaping. I've never seen that look on him before. It's a little island of triumph in the slow-moving sea of resignation.

"If you hurry, you can probably catch him on his way to school. You know the route he takes by now, right?"

He blinks once more, then determination washes over his face like a wave. Tight-lipped, he dashes back into the house without a word. "Kaname? Did your friend leave?" I hear just before the door closes.

I feel tired, and my steps are loaded with fatigue. It really wears you out, fighting with yourself. But the greater weight of choice is gone. I start to feel better when I see Akaiwa dash by me before I even make it to the gate.

Inside, I let out a breath, and the rabbit.

It's amazing how happy I am to see it go.


It's not too hot today. They ate outside and I made a point of not watching them go through their make-up make-out. Surprisingly, I didn't even spend too much time imagining it. It actually hurt less that way. I even laughed when Iwao teased him when he came back, blushing all the way to his collar.

Going home I walk by the park, looking for Jii-san. I want to tell him what I did.

He's not there again. Instead, there's a woman in an apron whom I've never seen before, holding a small box and staring at the swings. She turns around when she hears me. In her hands is a small, flat white box.

"Oh! You must be the boy Father was talking about."

"You mean Jii-san?" I ask stupidly. It occurs to me, too late, that I don't even know his name.

"He told me that you'd come by at this time. He wanted you to have something."

I'm missing something, obviously. Why is this woman here? 'Father?' His daughter, then?

She has a kind face, too, but she doesn't look like him. She's the same age as Mom and looks like a housewife, although her hair is long and straight and pulled back in a ponytail. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and says, "I didn't realize he'd made a young friend," smiling at me a little sadly. "Here, this is for you. It's a photograph, from when he was young."

I take it dumbly. "Where is he? Is he alright?"

She looks startled, then presses her hands to her mouth, one over the other. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I haven't told you." She clears her throat softly, but I know what she is going to say. The knowledge has arrived in my mind with the light box in my hands.

"Father passed away last night. It was very peaceful. In the afternoon he said he felt very tired and took a nap. He said he wouldn't be going on his walk any more and asked me to give this to you in his place." She shuts her eyes and sigh, a quiet little uncomplaining sigh. "And then he just woke up once, and after that..."

The knowledge sloughs off of me like water on hard-baked dirt. "Thank you, ma'am," I say, wondering what it is, wondering if I have to open it in front of her. I want to be alone, while understanding sinks in. But she is looking through the grass and the grey streets to recollection.

"He was a very good man," she says softly. "He's not my father, but I was very fond of him, and so were the children. And he kept his mind the whole way, all the way past ninety."

Children. So I was right. I feel a little better, knowing that. "He's..he was your husband's father?"

"Not exactly. You see, he adopted my husband, but there was no difference really, except for their genes. They were just like father and son. My husband was proud of him. He served in WWII, did he tell you?"

"What? No." And I feel, keenly, how little I know of the old man who sat on the bench every day.

"Yes, the fighting was almost over when he got there, but they were stuck for a few months before they could all come home. And when he returned to Japan he had to help out with the demilitarization of the industrial zones and the restructuring of the bombed sites. He couldn't go home, but he never complained. Do you know why he adopted my husband?" She changes the subject randomly, it seems to me.

"No. Was his wife unable--?"

"No, nothing like that. He never married. It seems that while he was away, his girlfriend took up with someone else instead. A friend of his, actually." She shook her head, the ponytail waving behind her. "It's a common tragedy, but sad all the same. He adopted my husband soon after. Can you believe, it seems he actually kept in touch with them, too. Can't beat childhood friends, I suppose. It's the three of them in that picture."

"He never told me..." I was numb. What must he have thought of me and my stupid complaints?

She looks at me kindly, and it makes me feel terribly, terribly young, and shallow as a dish of water. "Don't feel badly over it, he never told me either. I don't think he ever complained about it, really. I heard it from my husband. And I know that Father must've liked you very much. He specifically told me to send this to you, and to tell you that he was sorry he wouldn't be able to meet you. You brought a lot of interest to his last days, I'm sure." She patted at her eyes, and said, "He asked to be cremated, but the service is going to be held on Thursday. You're welcome to attend."

She names the time and place and I can only nod, knowing that I won't go. This is the only place I could ever meet him. I thank her again, and she goes, and I look down to see the sunlight and shadows wavering over the white lid of the box.

First things first. I sit against the trunk of the tree and look up at the bench.

"Jii-san, I did something today." From the other side of the street it looks like I'm talking to an empty bench. But I don't care.

When I'm finished I lift the box from my lap. It's very light, and about the size of a manga tankoubon*. It looks like it used to hold jewelry.

Inside is a picture, yellowed with age. I hold it up and thin fingers of light fall on three faces. Two of them belong to men. I recognize the kind eyes, although the smile is a little less gentle, a little more bold and bright. His teeth are very white even in the faded photograph, startlingly so, and it strikes me that I have never seen them before. The woman is pretty and laughing. Jii-san has his arm around her, but she is looking at the other one. They are all young and full of life and the awareness that they have all the time in the world.

Underneath the photo is a small note. It says,

My conclusion was, The power of love does exist.
I believe it will help you to do the right thing.
Trust the power of time will stop the hurt:
Remember, only this moment is real.
Go on looking for happiness.
I enjoyed our talks.

When I finish drying my tears I stand up and bow to the bench. Then I go on my way home. It seems that I am walking it for the first time, head empty of everything in the little pause before grief rushes in. I feel everything: the breeze on my face, the smell of someone's lawn. The sound of car door shutting in the distance. Most of all I feel the day stretching out before me like the street, and at the end of it is stitched another day. And another. And another, like a city whose blocks just keep going.

Somewhere down that line I'll be able to smile at the two of them together.

Jii-san was right. It will take time. But less than a lifetime's worth. Maybe even less than I think. After all, the past is like a kaleidoscope.

I think tomorrow I'll tell Minekura he has a nice voice.

* A tankoubon is the volumized form of manga, not the serial magazine size. ~Aki