I haven't updated in forever so I don't expect many readers, but those that do read, thank you for sticking with me this long! And Cappie, thanks for checking up on me.

Chapter Thirteen: Coming of Age

Rio, 16

About the year I turned eight, and Setsuko died, we started this horrible decline downhill. Forbidden from school, it worsened. Then my brother died. I became a true recluse. We cut ourselves off from the world, completely.

It was Sayuri and I who embraced our melancholy universe inside that insipid mansion, guarded by a dense and fortified forest. In our loneliness we bled out work that would cover the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Ken descended into depression, Sayuri descended into madness. They fought and screamed, and despair held high over us like a perpetual cloud.

I visited the graves of my siblings in-between fasting for sadness' sake and painting. The carnations still bloomed over Setsuko and thrived over Souta, as if 6 feet underground were a place I should be, a place more promising. I wondered if the world underneath was what the religions said it was, or if it was just a nothingness where no one who resided there felt anything. Sometimes I longed to find out, but I hadn't the guts to ever attempt to..

I shouldn't say that I completely shut myself off from the world. It's a little inaccurate. In fact, I still had some semblance of a social life: guards and maids became the surrogates for Souta, Setsuko and lately, Ken. We would all sit under the lamp light of the library and grumble about the issues we'd been dealing with for years. Sometimes, we'd play poker or bridge while we gossiped (we had some older maids, so I had to learn). Other times, we would exchange stories.

This particular conversation veered into protest against Sayuri's erratic behavior.

"Master Ken is being driven to suicide. Look at what that woman's done to him." She inclined her chin toward the ceiling, as if it would play back for us all the spite, the outright malice, and give us more to complain about. The woman in question was somewhere in the dark brooding over a canvas, high up on some mountain floor like a hateful beast in hibernation. We were free to blaspheme against her for the time being.

The woman who said this shook her head at the memories and idly rearranged her apron. The butler next to her said, "He never told me right out, but he was a man from a lower family."

A red-bearded, blue-eyed man said: "Yeah, his mother was poor and his father left when he was eight. He'd had to take care of her all the time, cooking and cleaning. Then Sayuri came round, fixed him up real nice, and they got married."

I remember my surprise at finding we had a Scottish butler in here. I didn't know it in my youth, but our mansion was quite the melting pot before the majority of them were fired.

"She was rebellious, her mother told me. She got pregnant with Souta when she was seventeen. That's why she had to marry Ken, even if he didn't have a cent in his pocket. If she didn't, it would only mortify the Hikaris even more. She was never popular with her mother to begin with, so that really was the cherry on top of the cake there," one of our more garrulous maids chimed in.

"Seventeen?" I inquired, astonished.

"Aye."

"Ah, Souta was such a quiet thing," a dark-haired maid dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. "He never cried or anything. Always so peaceful in his crib. Was the most well-behaved baby you ever saw. It's so hard to remember in detail, though—that damnable woman hides his baby pictures for some reason—like she can't stand the sight of them."

The garrulous one interposed again: "Where are all the family albums? Where are all the portraits and the like? She locked 'em all up 'n that chest o' hers! Either that, or she burned them up."

The mentioning of the chest confused me at first, but it came to me that, on the occasion that I was beaten in her room, I'd seen a chest that appeared like a dark apparition with a key hole for teeth. There were articles in there, I think. Were our albums in there also? All of Souta and Setsuko's baby pictures? Photos from Sayuri and Ken's wedding? Or Sayuri when she was pregnant?

"Did you see the albums?" I asked anyone interestedly. "Any pictures?"

The Scottish man rubbed his red, stubby chin. "Aye, I seen a little bit. Not your brother, or your sister, though. Some a' Sayuri, some a' Ken, on their wedding, and her brother, the one that offed himself, with his mum 'n ded."

"Sayuri's brother killed himself?" A maid blurted. "How?"

"He hung himself in his bedruhm closet, Master Ken told me." The Scottish man nodded gravely to the woman's disbelief.

"Ev'ry thin goes wrong here," an elderly man suddenly proclaimed through the ragged lips and wide gaps between his broken teeth, peering up at the lamp light. "They's cursed."

I narrowed my eyes and he noticed.

"Oh, ahm sorry!" His fingers retreated into his palms and he looked at me sadly. It wasn't that he'd said it and forgotten of my presence at this table, so much that it was true.

**

I hadn't set foot in the East Wing for years, so it was an odd feeling to be on that ground again. The place felt dead yet alive with things I couldn't touch, like Souta's presence and the memories of childhood. It was almost as if they were being relived every day here, and the hall missed me. I knew I missed it.

The faded crayon marks on the doors were still subtly noticeable. Blue for the "Sage of Sleep". Red for the "Saint of Tears". Yellow for the "Second Hand of Time".

I dreamed about this. Walking down a hallway, alone. It was so dark, and I knew I lost something. But what it was remained a mystery to me. So I thought about Souta's fuzzy penguin and Mrs. Cat. They didn't provide the answer. And that's when I knew. I realized what I'd lost—him. It was an ominous message that Souta was hanging on a fraying, unstable thread far above my head, waiting to fall.

The fuzzy penguin and the cat could still be in the closet.

I ceased my walk and reversed my path up the stairs to find them. How foolish of me to have never taken them out, and just let them collect dust like that. It was deplorable. How would Souta's memory progress then? His face would begin to blur and every word he said to me that I'd taken the incentive to remember would lose their clarity and authenticity. That couldn't be allowed to happen.

I ventured up to the second floor, where my bedroom was. I was faintly curious as to why there were few signs of life there. All of the guards were gone but there were some maids and butlers still walking about somewhere. Their footsteps were still resounding throughout the house. Faint, but there.

In my room I found said penguin and cat in the closet where they were unjustly abandoned, including the dust-filmed art piece known as "Angel of the Night". I placed them carefully into an old treasure box that belonged to Souta in his youth.

Setsuko's school uniform. I thought it was still tucked in my pillow case.

With that in mind I started to list all of my sibling's possessions that I could remember. In minutes they were all congregated in a pile on my bed.

Surveying my accomplishment, I felt somewhat better about the whole sour ordeal. Being able to cherish these things and hug them like they were mine brought some comfort.

I was reminded that I hadn't slept in my bed for months.

All of a sudden I heard faint murmuring on the floor above me. I began to imagine that Sayuri had just fired someone and that they were arguing over it. The voices rose a few octaves, and I grew worried. The violence between my mother and father was already excessive.

There were maids screaming and hollering in an outraged coterie in Sayuri's room. This was shocking because the only people who've ever set foot in Sayuri's room were obviously Ken, Souta, herself and me (and I had no right to be there in the first place). Guards, maids, and butlers were not allowed in under any circumstances. It was customary for Sayuri to enact strange policies, so the reason for this arrangement was beside the point. No one was allowed in there. Period.

"Get off of her! Get away from that damn whore right now!" I heard Sayuri cry with astonishing vehemence.

No one was listening to her, so she started kicking them away. There were others crowding around the door to watch the spectacle. As I wanted to do the same I drew nearer, but the crowd would not permit me to see.

My father squeezed out of the throng as something made a sharp swish sound. Ken cried out and tumbled to the ground. His strength having been brought to nothing with a knife lunged in the back of his thigh, he resorted to dragging himself across the floor. The shouting reached an all-time high as dozens ran to his assistance. I watched, stupefied, as his struggling body left a road of blood in its wake.

Sayuri emerged from the crowd like the leader of a pack of vicious dogs, heaving in unprecedented fury, her brilliant blue hair strewn about her in a wild fashion, and beads of sweat and foreign blood upon her forehead and chest. Her high heels were nowhere to be found; she was barefoot like some savage caveman, and her clothes shown evidence of being pulled and ripped at the seams.

The crowd persisted in obviating her from attaining her object, a ready knife in her tightly clenched fist.

My heart was thudding out of my chest. I was left to consider if Sayuri had finally lost her mind.

Ken lunged and landed on me with a desperate shout. I fell down with him as the noise intensified. Sayuri screamed obscenities about him and Kayako that I won't relay.

"She...she'll..." he choked and spewed blood, tainting my white gown. It pierced my understanding that he had been stabbed more than once. Blood stains I hadn't seen before were appearing everywhere, as if he were a punctured water balloon. I began hyperventilating. My breathing became labored and no coherent thought could emerge.

Ken managed to stand and tried to drag me down the steps with him. I could see no benefit from this—he was obviously the one in danger; he had no business trying to save me from a woman whose only target was him. Nonetheless he cried, "She'll kill you, too! She'll kill you, Rio! Come on!"

A butler ran to Ken's aid and slung his arm over his shoulder to assist him down the stairs. "I'll get you out of here, sir," he bravely announced.

"Someone get Kayako! Someone—!"

I cried out when I saw that he'd been stabbed through the hand and the upper region of his left shoulder blade, in addition to places on each of his thighs that were, again, new to me.

He screamed again, "Run, Rio! She'll kill you!" as he clumsily limped down the steps with the butler in tow.

Sayuri tried to chase Ken but was withheld by the maids. She slashed this way and that, but they held fast.

Ken ran out of the house with the butler, but outside I heard him holler "Don't follow me!", and the butler obeyed. He closed the door behind him and ran up to retrieve me just as Sayuri was winning the struggle.

**

Immediately following the barbaric violence I was apprehended by one of our more muscular man-servants. We called him Kinniku because all he was made of was muscle. Those who knew him longer were allowed to call him 'Niku', which alone means 'meat' or 'beef'. He muttered a gruff apology under his breath and escorted me to a vacant room in the servant's quarters. "Stay here, Miss Hikari," he grumbled with a grumpy, out of breath tone. "They're keeping her upstairs, so you don't need to be afraid anymore.."

For my safety? Or to keep me quiet and out of the way? It was at this point I knew he really wasn't sure what he should be saying to me.

"She's keeping me here so I don't run away and tell someone what happened, right?" I observed as composedly as I could manage.

"I don't know where Master Hikari is...but I'm sure he's gotten help. Those wounds...they were many, but didn't seem like the fatal kind. That'd be fixed from a few weeks in the hospital, I think. He's recovering, I'm sure of it, Miss Hikari, no need to worry!" His voice boomed with ridiculous emotion, and though he was so physically domineering, he was emotionally lacking. He wanted to grieve. My father's disappearance left him to think the worst.

"I know my father's alright," I said, perhaps even more foolishly than he did. I tried to lower the seriousness of the situation by taking myself back to the time when Sayuri had cut him while she was slicing vegetables, but that was Souta's testimony and the event never caused such pandemonium to erupt.

"She's the devil," he began bitterly, "But your father is a good person. He didn't allow Sayuri to completely destroy him—and for that I respect him. I know God wouldn't smite a person like that."

My cynical world view wouldn't allow me to agree.

For two days I was trapped within the servant's quarters, looking drearily upon the vast meadow outside my window that seemed tainted with gray grass and and even darker sky. My mood worsened things, made the colors appear grotesque. Even knowing this, I couldn't shake it off.

At night, my guardian's folded, full arms would soften as he dozed off; it was almost adorable to see those hardened black eyes turn cloudy with sleep and then slowly close. Even in slumber he was alert, hearing out for any intruders. This was when I felt it safe to sleep myself.

The mornings were silent and eerie. The fray was still too strong in my mind. Initially, the hours drew on in silence.

I was brought back into the land of the living by a sudden exaltation, followed by excessive chatter downstairs. Having no access to the door I took to the window instead, where I noticed there was an odd pair at the entrance. I tensed considerably.

The gates flung open freely, owing to the absence of guards. Two men walked up the causeway and into the forest. Some ten minutes later, they were at our front door. This both frightened and intrigued me, so I followed suit of the other interested maids and butlers as they descended down the steps to the base floor. The man who arrested me held guard over all my movements and followed very closely.

At the door all was a great spur of commotion and indistinct conversation. Through this confusion I managed to glimpse at a maid hiding a knife in her apron. Were these men that much cause for concern, or had the events of this week left everyone excessively paranoid? The latter seemed more viable than anything.

After Sayuri deemed that they take up random occupations, the doors were opened to the newcomers.

One was a rather handsome-looking young man who fashioned the common policeman garb, though his air was that of a much higher, prestigious rank. I wondered what his history might be. Judging by his appearance alone he seemed about in his late twenties. I was quick to lose my interest in him when his gruff looking friend arrested my attention.

'Detective Saehara' read his name tag. Despite being hardly out of the teenage bandwagon he dressed in a similar manner to Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, which really drove in the notion of a inexperienced junior. All he needed was a magnifying glass and a hat on his head.

In a second their ID's were unfolded, displayed before Sayuri (though I couldn't read them), and shoved into their pockets. The older, sophisticated one took charge of the situation.

"Mrs. Hikari, we would like to ask you a few questions."

She clutched her hip. "Yes?"

He cut right to the chase. "Mrs. Hikari, where is your husband?"

Silence. It took a second or two to answer, which was uncharacteristic of Sayuri. Her replies (her insults likewise) are often prompt. I deduced a clever lie was being conceived.

"I haven't the slightest idea."

I felt her composure beginning to wane with that statement; I would have expected her to come up with something better than that.

Saehara blinked. "Mrs. Hikari, you are under suspicion for your husband's disappearance. We would like to inspect your house while interviewing you and your subordinates. Refusal will result in your immediate arrest."

Sayuri silently acquiesced and started down the hall. They both entered and the unnamed police officer closed the door behind them.

Detective Saehara and his unnamed friend walked through the halls stiffly on the way to the drawing room. They glimpsed at the portraits and artwork of long-gone family members as they passed.

Our personal staff returned the dark, suspicious looks as they worked around the house, pretending to polish the knights poised against the walls or dusting objects that didn't need dusting. The Detective seemed rather disinterested in his surroundings and only kept his sight on Sayuri's back, as if she were going to make some threatening move any moment. His companion, however, was off in another world.

To my perturbation he was fascinated by everything he saw in our home—in particular, the paintings and statues of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. We even had a few Samurai warriors carved from black marble here and there, and they really made his eyes pop. I believe one of my great grandfathers made them, or maybe a great uncle. Truth be told, I don't remember.

"This house is so powerful," he whispered to Saehara, who ignored him intently. "The Hikari ancestry is simply magnificent, don't you think? A secluded mansion on a hill top harboring such astounding work—it's simply something out of a dream!"

Sayuri turned into the drawing room and layed the snake-like elegance that was her body on a red velvet couch. Her legs crossed each other and she folded her hands on her lap with precision. The policeman and his companion ensconced themselves as well, but I stood by the doorway, waiting for the fiery inquiries that would finish us all and burn our lives to the ground.

"I wish I had your artistic power, Mrs. Hikari." He smiled cheerfully, only for it to be downplayed by a displeased frown on her part.

Sayuri shook her head, "No. No you don't."

Detective Saehara took the initiative. "So tell me, Mrs. Hikari, the exact circumstances pertaining to the last time you saw your husband. We would also like to know why you never notified us of his disappearance—a servant came in with the news."

Sayuri replied, "There was an argument, followed by a physical confrontation. I'd caught him in a compromising position with our maid-servant, Miss Kayako. I was appropriately outraged. And I hadn't notified the proper authorities because there was no cause for such action. My husband ran off with her. I don't think he went far."

They both raised their eye brows at this. I could only gape at her treacherous fib: if this 'compromising position' is insinuating that Sayuri caught them in bed together, that was an outright lie. Ken fled the mansion fully-clothed.

The Detective turned to me after jotting in a little notebook. "Is this correct, Madam?"

I considered briefly the consequences that would befall me should I betray her, and said, "Yes."

"About this 'physical confrontation'...did he or Miss Kayako retaliate?"

Sayuri laughed. "I will admit here and now, that I was being more physical than anything. He was about to hit me when a butler—Mr. Takada is his name—restrained him. Then he aided him in his escape."

I bit my lip pensively. I'd have to remember to say goodbye to Mr. Takada when I got the chance.

"And what happened after that, Mrs. Hikari?" asked Detective Saehara.

"Kayako shouted a curse at me and retreated from the premises with my husband."

She did not. No one will speak about what happened to her. I've asked around, and those that know won't let a word leave their mouths. Kayako feared Sayuri like one would fear a totalitarian dictator. She'd never direct any ill will toward Sayuri—physical or otherwise.

"Do you have any idea where we might locate him?"

"No." She said sharply. "And that's been eating away at me as well. He has nowhere to go, and neither does his little mistress. They both lived here for quite a long time, you know."

"I understand that you own quite a lot of property around the city of Azumano," began the policeman. I found it quaint that he'd completely derail the subject like that. "Last I heard, you bought the museum—"

"Ah, yes." she said, as if presented with a completely new possibility, "He could be in any of those places, perhaps maybe a cottage or a resort—we'd go to those places on special occasions. Did you check any of them, Mr. Hiwatari?"

Hiwatari smiled, and it rubbed me the wrong way. "Yes we have. I'm sorry to say that he's still nowhere to be found, which is why we had to contact you. You are being quite honest with us. We deeply appreciate this. In fact, I think we'll find your husband in no time. Hopefully, you both can sort this thing out through some old fashioned marital counseling."

She crushed her cigarette between her lithe fingers. "Preferably through an old fashioned divorce. And the court proceedings for separation of property."

They were both taken aback by her hostility. Hiwatari narrowed his eyes. "On that note, after we interrogate every maid and butler and search the house from top to bottom...we would like it if you came with us."

She did not reply, but exhibited the intention to leave the room.

Saehara pulled out a pair of hand cuffs from his coat pocket. "We would also like it if you wouldn't make this difficult."

**

Sayuri, Mr. Takada and I were taken to the police station.

Last I saw her, Sayuri was nonchalantly smoking a cigarette in a holding cell. Mr. Takada went with Hiwatari for questioning. I was interrogated by Det. Saehara.

"I'd like you to remember your childhood, Miss Hikari. Can you explain to me what it was like?" He sat on the metal chair opposite me and turned on the recorder. I broke eye contact. It probably wasn't very smart to do that, because these days the men of the police department are trained to read everything on a person's face.

"It was—okay," I can't exactly say wonderful. That would be too outrageous. "Before I was five, I'd already been to Spain, Italy, China, India and a lot of other countries...and I met so many people and made so many friends..."

"But around the time you turned six, that changed, didn't it? They started attending social gatherings closer to home, am I correct?"

"Yes."

"Why do you think that was?"

"I don't know. Sayuri and Ken were rich, and rich people get bored easily. They probably didn't feel like traveling any more."

"Or, just to give you a possibility—maybe your mother was suffering from depression—as she often did?"

"Excuse me?"

"I happened to pick up some things from the former servants of your grandparents. They said that in Sayuri's youth, she was often—if I can use their exact words—"moody and irritable", and she took a lot of prescription drugs—Prozac, migraine pills..."

"I didn't know that. Neither of my parents mentioned anything of that nature to me."

"Not even the servants?"

"I'm afraid not."

He looked doubtful, of course, but I was lying to the best of my ability.

"Forgive me for bringing up this disconcerting subject—but can you tell me what you remember about your brother, Souta?"

"He was—"

What could I say about him that wasn't incriminating?

"...He was a very caring brother. He always made sure I never got hurt or got into any trouble. If I had problems with someone, he'd deal with them for me, and he loved Setsuko very dearly too. We were always playing. We did everything together."

"That's very sweet." He was horrible at faking empathy. "Do you think you can tell me about Setsuko?"

"Umm...she was very happy. Even when Souta and me were down, she knew how to cheer us up. She never bothered with sadness, really. Setsuko was just—bubbly, you know?"

"Hm."

I was continually questioned on my childhood, my brother, and my sister—almost every aspect of my life. When he finally decided that I'd given no information of particular use to the case against Sayuri, I was released.

**

Hiwatari and Sayuri had been conversing in the holding cell since 4 o' clock in the afternoon. Now time drew on painfully, reaching midnight with sweat from the stuffy atmosphere of a closed-off room and tears of anger, frustration, and denial to accompany it. It was understood that she would be detained until further notice. Sayuri seethed at the acknowledgment. She didn't have time for this.

In an attempt at a moral anecdote, Hiwatari began: "My dear mother was—"

"Spare me. I could care less about your mother," Sayuri spat.

"Touchy." His lips stretched out into a cruel smile, and he spread his hands out on the table where the files lay untouched. "Trust me, Mrs. Hikari, I know more about you than you can imagine. You often get out of things by exerting your will as a dictator or blinding men with your looks. These dense cops don't stand a chance against a conniving tramp like you—but I do. You're negligent: if you'd walked your youngest daughter home from school, she wouldn't be dead. Your son turned into a hermit and a basket-case because of the things you forced him to endure. I also know that what happened to your parents wasn't a coincidence. You're working your way up the food chain. Just months before their deaths, they changed their will and stipulated Souta as their heir. He's dead. It passed on to Ken, since he's the next male. Now he suddenly disappears? Oh, and don't even get me started on your daughter. Those bruises she has? I know she didn't do that to herself."

But she was resolute; he could accuse her of murder, negligence, child abuse and what have you, but she wouldn't say anything. If he wanted to waste her life in this cell, then she was more than obliged to reciprocate. As it had been all day, their one-sided conversation ended in a stale-mate, and he left for momentary refreshment.

Sayuri had resorted to muttering to herself in those lonesome minutes, when Hiwatari was out getting coffee or just relaying his frustration with her obstinacy to others.

When he reentered, she expected an argument to ensue, but he said nothing, nor did he look at her until he had gotten comfortable. He set a manilla folder on the metal table and sat down. His voice was composed. "You are being indicted for two counts of attempted murder, three intentional torts, (though these should be the least of your worries) and corruption of a minor. Through the arduous work of a brilliant lawyer, some of the lesser charges may be dropped, but I assure you, you'll be doing some time for your attempted murder charges."

Her eyes went cold.

Added Hiwatari: "Miss Kayako Kasuga will be testifying."

"So..." The absence of a cigarette was weighing more on her nerves than the prospect of going to prison. "You found her, but not my husband, I deduce."

"Her state is critical."

Sayuri's eyebrow quirked. "I hope you're not thinking of laying that at my feet, Commissioner. I didn't hurt her that bad."

"A confession. However small, I'm glad to see we're making progress." Hiwatari smiled. Then it faded. His demeanor turned gravely serious. "Forgive me for being the bearer of bad news..." he began.

Sayuri knew where this was going. She closed eyes and her chin faced the ground. "I don't want the details," her voice came in a low murmur.

"Are you so sure of what I was going to tell you?"

"Our family is fraught with personal tragedy. This is hardly something to be surprised at."

Hiwatari's face expressed sympathy, an emotion unfamiliar to him. She had been putting up a fortress of a front, but the remembrance of her ill-fated children brought down her last wall. His unspoken revelation was just something less likely to heal over time.

Sayuri lifted her head and edged toward the end of the seat, and in so doing she was allowed a better look at the station through the glass. People seemed to be in a panic, picking up and putting down the phones, accepting calls, ending them. The officers jogged rather than walked, and mouths moved at a quick pace. She saw one officer throw his hands up in the air as he retold some terrible event and grabbed at this and that to dramatize it. And then she caught her daughter, writhing with her every limb and sobbing, as Det. Saehara stood over her, patting her shoulder.


2 years later

Rio, age 18


Thumbing through the newspapers around September and early October of 1985, you'd only see this:

Mysterious Artist Dies

New Addition To Hikari Tragedy: Ken Hikari, Husband And Father, Dies At 43

Tragic End To Great Man: In Memory Of Ken Hikari

Burning Building Collapses On Man and Child, authorities say. More on B3

And, perchance, walk down the street and happen to overhear things like this:

"....He cheated on her and wouldn't you know..."

"...I can't believe that he's dead..."

"Well, I can believe it; they're jinxed..."

I know I did. I read obsessively over him, meticulously underlining, with a worn-out yellow and pink highlighter, all the lies I could find. I wanted to address the press and correct all the misunderstandings, but there were too many facts staring back at me in black and white...

Chicago Sun Times – Ken Hikari dies : Tokyo, Japan. The world was shocked and dismayed at the untimely death of Souta Hikari, 14, at the hands of an extortionist organization that carried out assassinations for their clients. The group, who carried the name 'Yakuza', an organization similar to the American Mafia, executed a mass slaying at the Azumano Museum, home to more than 30,000 precious works, including the work of the Hikaris from centuries before. Now what was once thought of as a stroke of extremely bad luck for the Hikari family has been solidified for millions of people around the world. On August 23rd, in a last act of chivalry, Ken Hikari, 43, ran into a burning building after hearing the cries of a little girl trapped inside. Fireman Masahiro Takahashi claims that he saw Ken Hikari with the little girl in his arms. "He found her in the closet," the bereaved fireman reports, "We sent people up there with a ladder, but the building collapsed—"

New York Times, September 3, 1985 – Claims of infidelity before husband's untimely death denied by Sayuri Hikari; police say otherwise—

The testimony given to me by Det. Saehara was this: "He ran in there to save a little girl. She was trapped in her bedroom closet. But when he finally managed to retrieve her, the building was too weak to sustain itself."

Afterward, he sat down with me and rubbed my shoulders. I collapsed onto him, and I wept.

I think Sayuri was the first to know. I saw her looking at me expectantly as Saehara began, "Miss Hikari, I know this is difficult to accept..."

The funeral arrangements were small and preceded those of Setsuko and Souta. He assumed his place beside his son and daughter, under a bed of red carnations. I remember telling her that should I die before her, I wanted to be laid next to Souta. I received a slap across the face for foolishly bringing up my impending death when we were already grieving. As further chastisement, he was buried next to Souta, which would only leave me Setsuko as a partner in death—and doubtlessly, when Sayuri died, she would want to be buried next to her favorite—leaving my final resting place next to the woman I loathed more than any living creature.

Sayuri, like a faithful widow, wore black all the time—in dress, in demeanor, in mood. She entered her forties with a passive bitterness that went without notice. Her baby curls began to turn gray. She was thinner, nearer to menopause than any woman at her age should be. Barren and empty, no longer able to bear children for me, even if she wanted to. Her beauty had grown old, but retained itself, eerily. I could still see her young face. The face from 24, when I was a child, and the face from 30, that barely looked any different, or 36, when there was only one crow's foot at the end of every eye.

Now that I felt I was reaching that crucial moment too soon, Sayuri became outdated to me. She had outlived herself. It's hard to look at her some days.

I'm five feet four. A humble height to me. My hair relaxed into mermaid waves, no jungle-thickness, no tight Shirley Temple curls to make me groan and tear at my scalp. The color had faded into a greenish aqua, as opposed to the bright blue I used to have. I have a pianist's hands, and nails that grow too fast and break just as quick. I haven't given up my penchant for frilly white frocks and dresses. The pendant has, by now, paled its own ring around my neck from never being taken off. My skin is pallid and my veins show. I look in the mirror more nowadays, noticing the change, saying to myself every time, "What a piece of work."

I tend to abstain from wax, glass and clay. These materials have an ominous vitality I don't appreciate. When I make something out of clay, I imagine it dancing in the night and going still only when I wake. I fear that my sculptures stare at me with the moonlight illuminating their blank, barely outlined eyes, like the creature of Frankenstein. Painting and sketching remain my only vessels.

Sayuri will churn out work every now and again, but her talents are put to better use in the throes of misery. One of her paintings, a snowy landscape called 'Kuro no Kumo,' had the most profound effect on my consciousness than anything I had ever seen. The black clouds drew me in and made me feel I was slipping inside. Interestingly, she'd rather read the newspaper on the couch than dabble in her aesthetic abilities.

On a lighter note, my muscular, emotional guardian seems to grow kinder to me day by day. Whenever I'm sick, he's there before I can even call for assistance. Migraines run in my family, so whenever I get them, I can't emit the slightest groan without seeing him at my bedroom door with a pillow, a glass of water, and two pills. "Take them," he always says. "Lay down and rest."

"I'm fine," would be my usual reply, and he would retaliate, "No, lay down, there's a good girl. Now take these. Take them, it'll make you feel better. Why don't you ever take them?"

He is in his late thirties, but Kinniku is one of those people whose face you can easily reconstruct back to youth, like Sayuri's or Ken's. He was very attractive then, and he retains some of his boyishness even now.

Speaking of guards, Sayuri had started accepting applications for every personal servant in the spectrum—cooks, maids, butlers, guards, chauffeurs, and whomever else. Naturally, hundreds applied for the job. We have too many new faces here, and I'm determined to befriend all of them.

I had almost forgotten about the trial.

The judge was relatively approachable to everyone but Sayuri. One can imagine her reading all about us in the newspapers, imbibing all the lies, the distorted half-truths, all the aspects of our lives improperly represented. Believing that my brother was a schizophrenic, believing me a mute seized in grief, believing my mother was psychotic and homicidal, believing my father was an adulterous scoundrel who finally redeemed himself in a burning building... There was validity to these claims, but no one ever knew the whole story. People are crazy for a reason. Likewise, we're all dying off for a reason, but this is beyond the public understanding, as it draws on an old fairytale some 400 years old.

But I digress.

She looked on me in the witness box with pity, but her eyes took on seething anger whenever the lawyer who represented my mother tried to say anything. Indeed, the odds were against her more than any of us could bear. That was to be expected.

What wasn't expected was the leeway Sayuri received.

She served 30 days in prison, was put on house arrest and probation, and had to pay Kayako's family for the damages. Kayako only suffered from a sprained ankle, a small cut on her shoulder, and a few bruises from being pushed and shoved around from all the chaos. Yet Sayuri coughed up what would be twenty thousand dollars in American money for those baby bites. When we were younger, my brother and I were whipped repeatedly with poison ivy—we had lacerations that felt like the flesh of our backs would tear open and expose our spines. We received no compensation of any kind, and now that he's dead, and I, whom fate's good graces had never known, doubt either of us ever will.

You'd think that with a charge as serious as attempted murder, it wouldn't give one just 30 days in prison, but sadly, with enough money, nearly anything is possible. The one hundred thousand bail was paid in full, and the stab wounds were miraculously overlooked by the bribed mortician, who falsely claimed that the fire had "singed the body down to its constituent bones, leaving no trace whatsoever of flesh"; in addition, Sayuri held no wake, claiming, even to me, that there was simply nothing left of my father.

We were not on speaking terms for nearly a year thereafter, but it was mutually understood that Sayuri had practically murdered my father, or, at the very least, driven him to his death, and that I, again, was powerless and would remain so as long as I lived in this abyss.

After my father's death, I had started to garner something of a public image, displaying my family's artwork at absurd galas, ballroom parties, prominent hotels, museums, libraries, and even a yacht or two. Sayuri didn't want them—they provoked terrible memories, so I was to rid the house of them. The sole solution to a problem in her eyes was simply depriving it of employment or throwing it in the trash bin, but I thought maybe a lighter atmosphere would distill the dark spell she often casts on the inhabitants of her home. But like the insufferable vampire she is, she wouldn't hear of such a stupid request.

"If I die or get thrown in jail again, you have my blessing to burn this house to the ground," she said once.

Humor, however dark, was largely unfitting of such a woman.

Sayuri and I were the last of a dying breed, so she became very adamant in my initiation into the world of courtship. The quicker we acted, the more chance we had to perpetuate our lineage before it was too late. I seriously doubted I would find a marriage mate in the exceedingly snobby, supercilious world of upper-class Tokyo. I assumed that she wanted me to marry someone of high rank—but money and prestige often turned people from humility, compassion, empathy, and open-mindedness. Rather than a strong financial background, I wanted more of those qualities in a man. Something that brought me back to the way Souta used to be.

Sayuri said that was all good and well, but at the end of the day, the world revolved to make a profit. However true that proved to be, it didn't dissuade me from my initial opinion. Later I was to find we would come to an unprecedented compromise.

The initial step was to make me attractive, so she started to primp me. I was taught how to do my make-up—what colors went with my complexion, how much to apply, ect. She gave me possibilities regarding my hair. I could braid it, relax it, dye it. Disagreement, as always, was futile: If I didn't like what she did with my hair she would shave it off and find me a wig.

The second step was proper education. Not only was I to be beautiful, but I would have to fill all that empty space in my head with things I saw no need in learning. I received tutors that educated me in useless subjects like Latin, Greek, French, the piano and the violin. Sayuri briefly considered sending me to a private school, but either she or I could die by then, so this idea was dropped.

Wanting an immediate way out, I pleaded to be artificially inseminated, but Sayuri shook her head in repulsion and said, "The curse can only be broken by a full-blood Hikari—the man has to marry into our family for the spirits to consider his progeny full-blooded."

I quivered with disgust at the thought of going to bed with someone for only his seed and tried obstinately to withhold tears.

**

"I've got a surprise for you," she deadpanned as we were walking down the hall one day. With my still-freshly bitter feelings and my father still newly dead, it was hardly a time for surprise, but she wouldn't be denied, even when I made apparent my distaste for anything she thought I'd like. She hooked her arm around my own and brought me down the stairs.

There were four men waiting at the door.

"For you," she smiled, pretending she was capable of a genuine one. "We're to have dinner with them tonight."

I stared at her. It was the only thing I could do without crying out in rage.

"Hullo. My name is Lian Hideyoshi. It's nice to meet you." He bowed, thank goodness, because I certainly wasn't going to give him a handshake in this state of shock.

"Lion? Like the animal?" I asked stupidly.

"Yes, that's the pronunciation, but it's spelled differently. It's L-i-a-n. Unusual, I know," he chuckled.

Instead of humoring him with fake respect, I decided to observe him.

Lian had all the marks of an upper-class snob. Tanned, perfectly proportionate in body, manicured hands, an expensive suit that put the others to shame, and shiny black shoes. I suppressed an awful urge to laugh. He must have thought I would be like him, polished and up-to-date like some 23rd century robot. My hair was a mess; I smelled of dust and old, far from jasmine or rose or some other silly flower; my eyes were dim and dejected from grieving; overall, you could say I didn't look like I was all there.

"Oh." I made a half-hearted bow to him (though I should have done a curtsy) and nodded to the others to introduce themselves to me.

"They are all respectable gentlemen from Tokyo and Osaka." Sayuri interjected.

"My name is Eiichiro Matsuda," the one to the right of Hideyoshi said. The one to Matsuda's left in turn said, "And I am Yu Maruyama," and bowed. The last one, I was to find, was the most unobtrusive and easily forgotten one of all. "I'm Satoru Ueda..." he muttered, slightly blushing.

"He said he's Satoru Ueda," Hideyoshi repeated for me, as if he had barely whispered his own name and I had hearing deficiencies. I could see that Hideyoshi was already at work trying to undermine the others. Matsuda laughed. Yu Maruyama patted Ueda's shoulder. "It's alright, man. We all get nervous."

The elongated table bore our four young bachelors, mother dearest, and me. We had bowls of uneaten salad, plates of uneaten caviar, bottles of the most expensive and untouched wine...yet no one dared to grab for food, though the plates were in front of them, the silverware wrapped delicately in white cloth, waiting for usage. At least, that's what I was forced to conjecture until Sayuri reminded them that there was food on the table. First Matsuda quickly snatched a slice of garlic bread and tossed it onto his plate, afraid he might be caught taking our food, then Hideyoshi reached for the steaming pot of Soupa Touscana and poured it carefully in his bowl. Yu Maruyama took the bold move of smiling at me as he procured his own plate and began serving himself. Not even the graceful smile of a dashing young man, or the self-assured petty one of a rich son, but an informal, pass-you-by-in-the-hallway smile from school. I thought he must be the most superficial one of them all, excessively polite, but all a sham to get into my bank account and my panties. His dark violet eyes made me uneasy. When he smiled it was as if he knew me.

Yu Maruyama told my mother (who singled herself out as the questioner, when I should have taken that role) that he was an orphan formally adopted into a wealthy family who prospered in the steel industry. His father owned his own company and branches around greater Japan and seven other countries. He ultimately hoped to be listed as the primary heir, but he had competition because his father's nephew started living with them after his aunt's death, and his father has since taken to his nephew greatly.

His lankiness was another thing that didn't sit well with me. It appeared that he ate infrequently or simply forgot to feed himself half the time. Sometimes when he stood to get himself some more salad or wrapped his bony, vampire-fingers around his glass and drank I thought he might collapse onto himself, he was so skinny.

Anyway, onto Eiichiro Matsuda, the slightly annoying and attention-starved one of the group. He hailed from an upper-middle class family of lawyers. His father, Soichiro Matsuda, was a former district attorney. Surprisingly enough, he knew little of law, and more of crime, as before the dinner, when they were all given a tour of the mansion, he pointed out surrounding wall art featuring warriors and would describe, in lurid detail, all the things they would do to their victims or the supposedly redeeming act of Seppuku. Seppuku wasn't always carried out with a sword, he said. They sometimes poisoned themselves with cyanide, which I suppressed to remark was probably a lie. On several other occasions he interrupted Lian's self-centered speeches to impose his own, in an attempt to catch my interest. I knew Matsuda was an idiot to the core, and I hadn't even known him for more than twenty-five minutes.

Of course Lian stole back his show again, and proceeded to tell me that he was half-American, half-Japanese (as if I couldn't come to that conclusion myself) and he, like Maruyama, wanted to inherit his father's automobile business. He said the only difference between Maruyama and himself in terms of the inheriting problem is that Honda stands in his way, and not a single, alternate beneficiary. His father is heavily considering incorporating, and as of late he had been worried about it.

I did an amazing job of droning out the rest of Lian's life-wasting monologues, but lent my ear to the quietly told, concise biography of Satoru Ueda, undoubtedly the most humble of them all. Satoru Ueda came from a family of wealthy doctors; thus, he was currently at work on his doctorate in medicine from a prestigious university in Kobe. Sayuri was not satisfied with this little speech, however, and asked him additional questions. As a result he revealed he was 6'2, Norwegian and Japanese, and his favorite color was white. "Why, you remind me of my daughter, there," she said encouragingly. It was apparent she favored him over the others, but I wasn't sure what to feel about him. I was still searching for a fixed impression that Lian, Matsuda, and Maruyama gave me almost immediately.

Ueda's blondish hair betrayed his Asian heritage, but one could never mistake it: it lay extant on his face—his slightly stretched-out eyes, small lids, small nose, modest smile, heavy accent. He would always return my small, occasional glimpses, and then force his attention back to his Miso soup. I decided he was adorable, but not quite husband material. If he could manage to articulate a hearable sentence without being prompted to raise his voice or contribute to the conversation, I might consider having him over for dinner again tomorrow night.

As I've mentioned before, Sayuri was the inquirer, and the young bachelors jumped to the questions like they were on a game show. I wouldn't be suffered to speak and neither would he, so maybe that was why Ueda was faintly more appealing than the rest.

I couldn't say that Maruyama was as narcissistic as Lian and Matsuda, but he had a smug, complacent look on his face that I wanted severely to blot out. He answered on time, smoothly and without reflection, like he rehearsed this all weeks earlier. Nothing perturbed him, even as Lian was gaining on the competition, derailing Matsuda from the fight, much to Matsuda's childish irritation.

Suddenly able to take no more, I asked to be excused for a bit, but Sayuri bid me sit down; if I wanted a drink she would have someone fetch me one. I stood again and said that unless she planned to have someone fetch me a restroom I'd have to be excused. Lian's eyebrows were raised and Matsuda gaped at my thoughtless disrespect, but I cared nothing for it. I took my leave as soon as I knew she had no reply to make.

Much to my immediate disgust, we both met up in the bathroom, and before I could utter a word, I received a hard slap across my face. I took a moment to recover, and then said, "Nicely played, mother. What kind of impressions will they leave with tonight, I wonder."

"You know why I never liked you? It's because you're a whiner. Setsuko was the good one; she never asked questions, accepted things like they were, and obeyed me unconditionally. Souta was better than you still. He accepted my power without any thought of an insurrection. He knew what was at stake if he kept chasing meaningless things like friendship and romance. But you...you'll never be satisfied. Just because we're rich doesn't mean you should expect a life of grandeur. We're Hikaris, so just deal with it."

"I didn't say anything like that!" I cried, on the edge of tears. "I hadn't complained since they came!"

"Don't bullshit me. I see it plain as day in your eyes. To think you'd have hardened yourself to cruelty instead of always shuddering and weeping under it. This is life."

She saw further protest in my expression. "I could've just picked someone out for you—the dullest, most conceited, big-headed man I could find—and force you to marry him. Arranged marriages are still commonplace in prominent families. Is that what you want? I'm already compensating for your total lack of feigned interest. Be grateful for once."

"Just...why now?"

"You've come of age. It's time for you to make perhaps the biggest decision of your life."

Before we reintroduced ourselves to the table again, Sayuri pulled me aside. "They're here to impress you, but you have to step up your game, too. Be interesting, be mysterious, be alluring, be whatever. Just reel one one of them in. I've already checked out their families, so now you have to help me judge them by their personal attributes."

"I can't—"

"Remember: I don't have to do this." she snapped.

Again at the dinner table Sayuri was the dominant one in the conversation. She asked them what hobbies they had, their prospects for life, their view on marriage, and so on.

Lian dished out wryly, "You're a very protective mother, Mrs. Hikari. But there's no need: we're all good men here. You can trust us with her."

They all chuckled. She replied, "Yes, I'm afraid I have been a little too inquisitive of you young gentleman, forgive me. It's just that, since my dear husband's passing, I feel I need to take up his mantle."

"I heard you wore the pants in the relationship, Mrs. Hikari."

At this point, I could see that Lian was singling himself out for elimination. Sayuri became defensive, but made a facade of understanding and no appearance of offense. This was the mildest form of her scolding, never to be used on someone she knew intimately, like myself. "You're quite mistaken, Mr. Hideyoshi. My husband provided for me in every way a husband should. I terms of 'who wore the pants', my husband suffered no competition." She smiled. Matsuda shaped his lips into a ridiculous 'ooh'; Maruyama embraced a sly half smile and continued disinterestedly swirling the spaghetti into a spindle around his fork; Ueda coughed.

What a gathering.

For the next few days, I was to receive an excessive amount of attention and a overflowing dose of gifts. The majority of them were from Lian and Matsuda. I got a yellow rose and a teddy bear from Maruyama, along with his overbearing, all-knowing smile, and a modest, but expensive diamond necklace from the ever modest Ueda. I appreciated that Ueda could see right away that I didn't desire any of the gifts—and maybe Maruyama was on to that too, because he didn't give me anything else but that rose and the teddy bear. But I think that Sayuri wanted me to judge their merits based on how extravagant the gifts were. The men, seeing this, showered me with material affection not for my own approbation but solely to please her, as they knew that the only trail to my heart was through my domineering mother.

However, Sayuri wanted to get down to the real business of this whole husband charade: elimination. She brought this up almost the minute they had all gone.

"Hideyoshi. That boy pries. Chuck him." She commanded as we were strolling idly through the hall to reach the only place of relaxation she accepted beside her own bedroom—the patio.

"Already eliminating potential husbands, I see." I tried to keep my voice as emotionless as possible, though inwardly I was seething. So much for giving me my own options.

"Listen, I know troublemakers when I see them. The other three don't seem more promising, but no matter. If none of them do for you, then I'll have another four men at the front door by tomorrow. Men are simply lining up to marry you—they're practically leaving engagement rings at the front gates."

A blush assaulted my pale cheeks, making me look like a sick alien. Me, my unworldly self, would hardly know what to look for in a man—and Sayuri's input on the matter wasn't even an option in the advice department. "I don't know what to do."

"Tell you what—" Sayuri seated herself on the lawn chair and crossed her legs, intimating that I expand the awning to keep her from the dreaded sunlight she obstinately denied her needing skin, "Hideyoshi is a conceited, paparazzi dirt-bag, Ueda might as well shit out his vocal chords, and Matsuda is an idiot. Maruyama... That boy's a clown. He thinks he has the world in the palm of his hand. I remember being like that once.."

"...So the reason why you didn't insult him as bad is because you identify with him."

"No. It's because I'm still investigating into him."

That was the most she said where Maruyama was concerned. It soon turned to Ueda, the quiet doctor-to-be.

"He is kind, I can see that. But he may have only come here to see how we live, or if the rumors are true, like Hideyoshi."

"I don't think so. He told me once that the reason why he doesn't talk is because the more a person reveals about themselves, the more vulnerable they are to disappointment. I guess he needed to know that people like him exist."

Sayuri at first seemed to consider this in depth, and then responded: "So you're merely an object of interest to him," but still retained that distant-eyed expression.

In truth, Ueda interested me not because of his profuse silence, but his reason for it. It occurred to me that idea would be advocated by Souta, were he still alive to give me the cold shoulder for my benefit. But I told her otherwise. "I wouldn't like to think so. I hope we might connect on a deeper level, because none of the others are doing it for me."

"Well, then that settles it. I'm eliminating one man a night from this day onward. And the first to go—"

The next day I awaited their arrival by walking around the house. From a distance, I heard the muscular guard Kinniku (whose real name was Jun Moriyasu) say, "Have a nice trip, see you next fall," to someone who grunted in dissent. The person muttered something about a lawyer and evidently left, because I didn't hear him afterward. The reason didn't come to me that very moment, but when he came in he was so pleased with himself and seemed almost relieved. His biceps contracted in joy, he breathed in the air with his massive nostrils—and then noticed me on the staircase with my hands folded innocently over my white gown, tilting my head like a curious cat. "Was someone giving you trouble?"

His face went red and he failed to give me a proper answer. "Oh, Miss Hikari! No, no one was giving me trouble! You don't worry about that—no one gives me trouble!"

"Except for maybe me, what with my constant headaches." I smiled.

Kinniku's expression relaxed; he seemed to be studying me intensely. "You never give me trouble, Miss."

**

Sayuri often only addressed them by their last names, which is actually disrespectful, but you couldn't bother her about a trivial thing like proper names. I adopted this habit of calling them by their surnames. So, as such, there was Yu Maruyama (who pressed his first name), and Satoru Ueda.

I was alarmed that Lian and Matsuda didn't show up to dinner the next night, so I inquired into it. She simply told me: "Don't miss them."

Yu and Ueda knew from my reserve that I despised being taken outside my home, so we all agreed to a picnic just outside the mansion.

It went well for a while—Ueda could be more easily provoked into conversation now that there was no Lian or Matsuda to deal with. Though, as often as Sayuri is the bearer of misfortune, she also proves to to be the bearer of bad news. I could feel this from her silence that she had something pressing on her that concerned me.

"I'm not much of a wine drinker," I said as I eased the cork from the bottle with my thumb and forefinger.

Ueda looked like he was going to reply, but Maruyama added, "Me neither. I don't see why people need to drink to have a good time."

"You're young yet," Sayuri tore a grape from its cluster of siblings, "Some people need a drink to have a good time." She indicated herself with her narrowed eyes as her tongue studied the initial, sour flavor of the grape.

"No kidding," Maruyama murmured, his eyes on me.

Sayuri and I left to go get some wine. I was pinching the cork when, all of a sudden, I heard myself say: "What do you think of Yu?"

"I see he's grown on you. His charm makes me wary—it's like he has nothing else to offer but a good personality. This is about money, too."

I frowned. "We're all rich here; can't see how it would matter."

"I'm not talking about your financial future, but theirs."

"What do you mean?"

Sayuri's expression creased into seriousness. "I probably should've told you this earlier: around the time I was pregnant with Souta, your grandparents stipulated in their will that, if I was to inherit their fortune, I would ensure it to the next male heir immediately. It passed on to Ken, who ensured it to Souta, but now that they're both dead, the legacy is yours as of now, but you stand to lose it...and I'm biding my time..."

"What? You...you think you're...?"

"It's only a matter of when."

"Then...if I marry...and you die...all that money would be my husband's? I'm obligated to give all of my money to him—to pass it on to him immediately?"

"In accordance with the will, no portion of it is entitled to you by law—at least not permanently, anyway. As concerns the will, you're only eligible for "holding", not procuring. They put too much faith in Ken and Souta; hence, you cannot inherit the fortune. That's why I need you to help me judge which of these men has the most integrity."

My hands slid from the bottle. I was at a loss at how to lament this.

"Women in this family, up until now, have been looked on with prejudice. We perpetuate the curse, so the right to our fortune has been taken from us. Thus, the fortune only passes to male heirs. It's been an pervading law in our family for centuries."

"What were my grandparents thinking? It's as if the spirits started killing all the men off on purpose! Right when the Hikari family is down to just two women, our last humiliation is all of our life savings being seized by an outsider!" I cried.

"Yes, just as if I died before Ken, he would've had complete control over our estate—even though he was your father, he wasn't a full-blood, nor was he born into the family."

"Then shouldn't we debate this in court?"

"The amendments to the will were made final and have been in effect since Souta's birth; I had no right to contest it then, being a 'carrier'—it was undeserved generosity to be included at all. It beat being disinherited. And I don't even want to think of the publicity that will ensue if I take this to a district justice. I'm already on probation and house arrest. I'm sick of dealing with the government. And with that Hiwatari bastard on my back, I can't change the will without looking suspicious. He already thinks I came up with some convoluted plot to kill my parents so I could get their money—and now he thinks that I denied Souta medical help and was responsible for Ken's death so I could get the fortune back from him. If I contest the will—they'll think that you're next on the list."

"I'm starting to understand this now. Your parents probably had my uncle Kojima as their heir, but when he died..."

"...I was seventeen when I found out Souta was on the way. My brother's death only exacerbated the situation." She began. "After my brother's death, they had no one else to invest in. It would take too long for Ritsuko to have another child and wait for him to find his Sacred Maiden before we all died off—and this is just assuming she would have a boy. So the only course of action was to accept my pregnancy, marry Ken into the family, and hope that things would work in our favor until Souta came of age. Of course, that was too much to hope for."

"Now it's up to me, isn't it?"

"You and your spouse. He becomes part of the Hikari family and therefore, another bearer of the curse. You must not tell him this—ever. You understand? That's where I made the greatest mistake with Ken." She hesitated, poised on the edge of a confession. "Other than, of course, nearly taking his life."

I tried, and failed, to hide my angry tremoring. "Any other things I should know about?"

"Nothing—no, wait. You understand if you marry one of these men, they have to chuck their last name and accept yours. Usually it's the other way around. Other than that, I don't think I missed anything—" She poured herself a glass, "Unless you'd like to discuss the birds and the bees."

"No thanks."

I sat back down on the blanket, finding that Ueda and Yu had exercised patience until our covert discussion had come to a close. I felt so sorry for them, courting a woman like me, a woman who came with no benefits (unless my virginity was really that special to either of them) and only offered them the inheritance of an undesirable curse.

Trying to get my mind off of everything but the immediate present, I commented, " You know, I always call you Ueda, never by your first name. I'm sorry about that."

Ueda smiled, weakly as always. "It's completely fine with me."

"'Satoru' denotes intelligence, doesn't it?"

He blushed.

For some reason, that name had a profound impression on me. The thing was, I didn't like 'Satoru' as a whole. I would like a variant of that name better, something like—Satoshi.

The sensible, well-mannered Ueda appealed more to my mother, while the mysterious, ever-smiling, laid back Yu appealed to me. I found that it was probably because of his childishness—not that he was immature in any way—but the freeness of his spirit, his unworried nature, was what had transfixed me. I had had the pleasure of taking a stroll with Maruyama through the forest, and there we discussed marriage—not as it was about to happen, but the concept of it. "Marriage is a bonding, but you don't have to become that person or constantly adhere to their wishes to make it work—I personally think its more about maintaining your identity, the way you were before the marriage, and carrying it on like that," he said. "Just because you and I are two different people doesn't mean we're not compatible. Opposites attract for a reason."

I appreciated these thoughts and thought to myself: if I married him, I think I would enjoy at least a glimmer of happiness. If all fell down eventually, at least I can rejoice in the memory and be glad that it happened. Happiness doesn't come naturally to me anyhow. I might as well take a chance.

The only matter of business remaining was to inform Sayuri of my decision and, consequently, Ueda. She had promised me that ultimately it was my decision, so I tried to go out on a limb here and trust her for once. That night, I visited her bedroom, having been given unexpected permission to enter.

Nothing had really changed—maybe a slighter accumulation of dust, perhaps, but nothing more than that. Sayuri was, and always will be, a static creature.

I said this bluntly: "I like Yu better."

"I can see that. He's a child, like you," hitting the nail on the head, "And I can't conjecture you with a man like Ueda anyhow. His prospects are too high for your standard of living. Now that I think about it, I'd like it better to have this child suffer rather than Ueda. He's too smart to be ruined by a brat like you—in a house of the living dead, condemned to the very last cell in his body for the rest of his shortened life. You don't deserve him."

This was Sayuri's way of telling me that she would rather me marry Ueda—by telling me that I didn't deserve him. I think I managed to ignore her comments well. "I guess the only thing left for me to do is tell them both."

"I know that boy. Yu."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I know I've seen him before. He looks so terribly familiar it weighs on my mind."

"Is that such a bad thing? You probably saw him in the street."

"No, when I think of him, I think of your old school. Is he a classmate of yours?"

"I know I've never seen him before the day he first came here. Maybe he knew Setsuko? Or he was one of the children in Setsuko's school?"

"No, you fool. He falls into your age group. So either I saw him as a child in the street or I saw him around the time Souta was in middle school..."

"Does it give you an odd feeling?"

"What?"

"Ken said never to ignore your odd feelings. Does it make you feel like that?"

"It's funny that only after my parents, my daughter, son and husband die that you take account of my odd feelings." She turned away. "I had an odd feeling about my brother first. A week later, he was dead."

I pondered on my pillow about what she said. Since Sayuri was known for only discussing dark matters, it was easier to shove that familiarity concept to the back of my mind. So what if I was about to marry a man that used to attend my school or someone she had seen around Azumano? I would rather wed a local than some kid from Osaka or Okinawa or some other place.

I guess the only real reason I considered Yu above Ueda was because he resembled Ken and Souta both in appearance and personality, though his mannerisms were from a much younger, naïve Souta that I barely remembered even existing. The thought even entered my that if he shared their appearance, he was even worthier of being the father of my child because I would likely bear a child who would express his genes.

I fell asleep not sure why it was so important that I wanted a son who looked like Souta.

**

I sat on the steps, waiting for Ueda. I decided that I would call them separately instead of both of them at once. I knew that Maruyama was too fond of me not to relish in the victory and rub it in his face, even if he only insulted him with his usual smug smile. I must have sat for an entire hour on those steps, feeling, above all else, conscious-stricken and terribly anticipating Ueda's reaction to what I had to tell him.

The knock penetrated the cold, lifeless air like an alarm. I took my hands from my eyes and stared at the door, thinking of Ueda behind it. Wishing that Ueda would know why I called him here and leave.

"Hello, Satoru." I had to make sure to call him Satoru—after all, it would probably be the last time I'd see him, so it was imperative to shun his last name. He would always be Ueda to me, simply because it was easier to say and it sounded better to me, but he deserved that final formality. Though, I could sense his distance with me: I was Miss Hikari to him. The Rio he would never know.

"Hello." he muttered predictably, with a slow, sad smile. I thought then that he knew.

"I have to tell you something."

Thoughtful, reserved Ueda stared at me. He didn't blink. "I'm not the one, am I?" Then he smiled. Genuinely. My heart started to pain, but no expression came upon me so he could know this.

"I'm sorry.." I blurted out.

"It's because he's child-like, isn't it?"

"What?"

"I'll tell you the truth: when I first saw him, I thought he couldn't possibly be rich. I was always taught that to be well-mannered, we had to keep our opinions generalized, our style new, our complexion immaculate...we had to be—but this has never been said to me—" He paused, formulating his words. It was the first time he had ever spoken without provocation. He rarely asked me questions, and never provided explanations beyond a sentence. His disappointment must have given him strength to speak up. "You know he's...he's freer than any of us—in our world, where we're raised to be perfect, we would hardly know what to make of him."

"..Can you tell me that I've made a bad decision?" The tears were welling, my eyes beginning to sheathe themselves in transparent silk, little streams waiting to overflow.

"I can't tell you," his smile faded, "I never thought I had much to offer, so...who am I to tell you he's worse or that I would love you better? Odds are, I wouldn't. I have no experience in love. I couldn't teach you anything—I'm so wrapped up in my—my rich, sleazy, medical-student world I—"

My lips pressed into his cheek and I fell into his arms, now fully crying like a despairing idiot. I had no idea what I was doing, but I don't think he did either, even as he instinctively rubbed my shoulders and stood still like a statue shocked dead by Medusa, staring ahead at the wall. "I didn't mean to upset you.."

Had Souta said something like that before? I kissed him on the cheek again because I felt he had.

Ueda pulled away from me. Not with disgust, but a powerful tenderness I had no idea he ever had in him. He wanted to stare at me, to imbed his sadness deep into me. I trembled and suddenly forgot why he was here—but I knew I didn't want him to leave.

"I know you. You're young, inexperienced, confused—me," he laughed bitterly. "I have a father like your mother. And like your mother, my father wants me to make the biggest decision of my life in the span of a few days—just to alleviate some petty financial worries of his because he thinks he's getting older... I couldn't control a lot of things when I was young, and from the way you're looking at me now, I know you must feel the same—or at least similar. I really think that even if Yu isn't a good choice, Sayuri will know. She's like my father in another way too: she smells a bad investment when she sees one. Either way, I'm sure that it'll work out somehow. And I'm happy for you."

I could have kissed him for those monumental words, but I chose instead to slowly break the tight hold between us and smile sadly back at him. I couldn't think of a more appropriate response. I hadn't even the sense to wipe my own tears. But he raised his gentle hand and wiped them for me, as flat-faced as the person I met just a couple of days ago—wary to make eye contact, often embarrassed over some scenario that only happened in his mind—the shy nothingness of Ueda. If ever Souta had come down from whatever world he was in (Nirvana, Hades, Heaven) and infected someone with his spirit, it would have been him. Because, as it came to be with Souta—first love, then emotionless. It always kept me hungry for something I could never get enough of.

"Let me get this straight," Sayuri pinched her nose after Ueda had gone and I possessed the composure to face her, "You chose this happy-go-lucky fool just so he can impregnate you with a replacement for your dead brother?"

The dam broke on me and I had to leave. Otherwise, I might have collapsed at her knees.

I would call on Yu the next morning.


Author's Note: As regards this story, I am going by the anime time-line. Meaning, I start from 2003 (when the anime was released in Japan and the U.S), and establish the chronology from there. I find I'm in better agreement with the years that way. Now, some information regarding Kei Hiwatari: he is not Satoshi's stepfather. This is Kei Hiwatari senior, Satoshi's stepfather's father. I deduced the younger Kei could not be used for the scene when Sayuri is arrested because since he (spoiler) presumably died around 2003, when he was 26, at this point in the story his age can be backtracked to eight in 1985, the year Sayuri was apprehended and the year Ken died.

This is the first time I ever revealed what year it was, so maybe things are starting to clear up a bit. Now to Detective Saehara (Takeshi's father), of whose age I've designated about 22 years old in 1985—this would make him 40 in 2003, since they never specify his age and I think he looks about that old. I might start labeling her age and year from now on. If the readers would like that better, then please tell me so. ^ ^