Minoru sat on a half-buried log and watched the bonfire as it burned in the stone circle he and the others had set up. It was late, and the gathering had wound down for the night. The Kudo was anchored just offshore, sails down and all but the topmast lights darkened. He could see the lights of Tokyo beyond.
It had been an active day. Kaldera had guided the boat into this small cove, and was pleased to find no one else here. The island would be theirs, at least for today.
Everyone moved their gear ashore, holding it above their heads as they waded in. Though Kaldera had set up his large camping tent, it was a warm night, and Minoru decided here by the fire would do for him. Kaz seemed of the same mind; his sleeping bag, equipment and guitar were nearby.
Once all things were in readiness, it was time for the hike. Kaldera led the club along the island by paths that he knew well; none of the others had ever been here before. He fortunately went at a measured pace, stopping every so often to show off certain topographical points of interest, as if the island were his home.
Yasukuni was an intriguing place, Minoru thought. The ground sloped up from the wide beach, and the hikers passed through sea grass. Then things went nearly straight up; the path Kaldera chose was rocky, but climbing gear was not required. Minoru watched how Kaldera navigated the narrow, winding paths and right up the rock itself in some places. He had thought with some amusement that Kaldera displayed the agility of a mountain goat. It’s good that we’re all in decent shape. I found myself being pushed a little by what Kaldera got us into.
Minoru been worried about Aimi; she was second in the line, with Minoru behind her. She looked fit, but he wondered if Aimi could keep up the pace. Minoru realized quickly Aimi would be fine; she seemed genuinely enthused about the hike, and where Kaldera was leading them.
The only sign of any habitation on the entire island was on a patch of open ground, which faced the sea: a small stone monument, set up by whom no one knew, to remember those killed in the war. There was a Shinto shrine that bore Yasukuni’s name on the mainland that honored the war dead, though it was a matter of political controversy for some. This seemed to be a more personal memorial, however.
Someone had been there recently; the remnants of a bouquet of flowers lay before it, some of the now-dead blooms partially scattered by the wind, plus the remnants of two sticks of incense.
Taking a small leather pouch from his knapsack, Kaldera withdrew several sticks of his own and set them in the ground before the stone. Lighting them, he and the others bowed before it and paid their respects, and drank in the strong scent of patchouli.
The hike returned to its previous tenor again, as Kaldera led them to the summit, a high, prominent rock well above the rest of the island. Here, the going was harder, and each had to provide a hand up to the one below. There was just enough space at the peak for all to stand or sit.
Minoru could not get that view out of his mind: they were high above the ocean; the crashing waves below looked spectacular, but sounded so faint. He looked out across the Pacific; to his left and right as well as forward there was nothing but water, sun and sky. Everyone remarked on how beautiful and wild this place was, and Minoru noticed how his friends looked--all sweaty from the strenuous hike, but joyful at the accomplishment, and its reward.
The return went equally well, and all took a swim to cool off once back at the beach. They then scoured the shoreline for driftwood; dinner followed, a simple meal that under Kaldera’s hands was filling after the long day. Music followed, with Kaldera and Kaz on guitar and Minoru on shamisen. Everyone joined in the singing (at least the songs they knew); some were from Kaldera’s prodigious catalog of tunes, along with native folk and popular songs.
Minoru thought about this as he paged through his book, the pages illuminated by the flickering fire. “It was many and many a year ago/In a kingdom by the sea/That a maiden there lived whom you may know/By the name of Annabel Lee…”
Footsteps muffled by the sand were approaching, and Minoru closed the casement that was his book. As he placed it beside his shamisen, Kaz stepped out of the darkness in a t-shirt and jeans, his feet covered in sand from his walk. “Kaldera’s disappeared,” he said as he sat on the log beside Minoru.
There was no hint of concern in Kaz’s voice, and Minoru didn’t have any, either. “I think he has gone back up there,” he replied.
Kaz nodded and poked at the fire with a stick, then tossed a thick chunk of wood from the small pile nearby. He stared at the flames, which were not needed to reflect his expression.
“Is anything troubling you, Kaz?” Minoru asked after some moments of silence. “You are very deep in thought; in fact, you have been much of the day.”
Kaz set the stick aside. Resting his forearms on his thighs, Kaz laced his fingers together and continued to stare into the fire. “I am not troubled, not really,” he replied at length. “I do have a lot of thoughts that are crises-crossing inside me, though; I don’t know how to deal with them.”
“You know Kaz,” Minoru said, “you can discuss it with me. We are alone right now; the girls have gone back to the boat, and I think they’ll be sleeping there. Kaldera certainly would never repeat something he felt was meant to be private; I will not, either.”
The silence continued. Kaz closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. As much as he did not wish to share these thoughts with anyone, including Minoru he had no choice.
Kaz turned and looked at his friend. In the firelight, Minoru’s wild hair looked even more so, but his gaze was that honest, direct one he used with his friends. Over the several months of their relationship, Kaz knew that Minoru had a different mask he used, for those he wished not to disclose too much to. Here was the other.
“I appreciate that,” Kaz told him, “but I am afraid this is something that may hit too close to home. I do not wish to anger or upset you, in any way.”
Minoru smiled. “You could not do that, my friend,” he responded. “I believe I have an insight into what you are concerned over, but I wish to hear it from you.”
“Then perhaps you can help me understand my feelings.” Kaz turned back to the fire, and stared at it. “You have had a long friendship, and relationship with Asuka,” Kaz continued, “so you at least would know what I am talking about.”
“I assume so.”
“Asuka is a very interesting girl,” Kaz said, his tone of voice now abashed. He lowered his head and continued, “I like her very much; she is intelligent, she is kind to everyone, and I’m glad that she and Aimi are friends. Even Mei seems to have been won over by her; and,” he sighed, “she is very beautiful.”
“That she is,” Minoru replied, “in all respects.”
“Then why,” Kaz asked, turning to Minoru, “do I feel the way I do?”
Minoru sat up and faced him. “You are attracted to Asuka, am I right?” He asked. “Please, don’t be afraid to say it. I will not take offense.”
“I guess that’s it,” Kaz said. “From the moment you introduced me to her,” he explained, “I couldn’t stop looking at her. Not in a bad way, believe me--I just couldn’t get my eyes off her. It’s not just her body--it’s everything about her.”
Minoru chuckled. “Asuka attracts attention,” he admitted, “I was aware of it from the earliest of my memories. She could gain it by doing nothing at all; but do tell me more.”
Kaz again looked back at the fire. He was thinking of how Asuka looked in her bathing suit, how stunning she was as she stood at the bow beside Aimi. Then later, when she changed for the hike, Kaz worked it so he got behind her in the line. He stared at Asuka, in her t-shirt and tight hiking shorts as she walked ahead of him. He did indeed enjoy the hike, and not just for the view.
“I have too much on my mind,” he suddenly shouted. “I can’t talk of this; I am ashamed of what I’m thinking!”
Minoru’s hand rested his shoulder; immediately Kaz felt the tension dissipate. “I now understand,” Minoru replied quietly, “but there is something missing from this conversation, a salient point that has not yet been made.”
Kaz turned and saw Minoru’s face directly. The expression was one of understanding, but strangely it had also become sad. “What’s that?”
Looking him in the eye, Minoru leaned closer and said, “Asuka is my oldest and dearest friend, yes; but Kaz, there is nothing between us, other than that friendship—there can never be.”
Kaz was stunned. “But I thought--”
“--think nothing of it,” Minoru cut him off. “Asuka wishes for much more than what we have, to be sure.”
Minoru slid down into the sand and rested his lower back against the log. “I love her, as much as Poe loved his dear wife Virginia, as much as the writer he chose to be loved the Lady Ligeia; but it ends, as I’ve said, there.” Looking up at Kaz, he added, “The door is open for you. Now that you have unburdened yourself, may I also do the same?”
“Sure,” Kaz replied, relieved that Minoru was not angry with him. “What have you to confess?”
Minoru chuckled and looked up at the sky. “I have felt,” he said, “very much the same strong, deep feelings you have for Asuka—only they are for Aimi.”
“Really?” Kaz grinned. “I knew,” he replied, and he pointed at Kaz. “I knew right away, you would say her.”
“Is that bad?” Minoru asked.
“No! It is wonderful,” Kaz replied. “I always felt you two would get along well. There is something about Aimi that is indeed special. I’ve known her as long as you have Asuka, I think.”
“That is accurate," Minoru replied. “Aimi is beautiful, too—physically yes, but I was attracted by her mind from the start. The short discussion I had with her near her parents’ shop in Ameyoko confirmed what I’d felt. She is so open, yet not completely naïve--there is a great intelligence within her, and an empathic one. I too could do nothing but watch her today; she has such a love of life, and she infuses it into everything and everyone she touches. But I am surprised,” he added quickly, “that you and she did not become involved, you being the ‘boy next door’ and all.”
Kaz laughed and sat in the sand beside Minoru. “It never crossed my mind,” he said, as he locked his arms under his thighs. “We were just so close. Mei as well; they’re more like sisters to me than anything. We have spent that much time together, played together, talked about things together. That’s how it is.”
Minoru grinned as he looked heavenward. “Oh, the cunning stars,” he intoned. “I think,” Minoru chuckled, “that we will have some work on our hands, Kaz, to facilitate the directions of our personal wishes. This,” he added, “will prove to be a great challenge.”
Aimi pulled the wool blankets around herself as she settled into the lower bunk. It had gotten too chilly for her on the beach, even with the fire, and so she waded across to the Kudo. After removing her bathing suit and toweling off, she quickly pulled on her school track pants and a tank top, and burrowed under the covers. The boat was anchored well fore and aft, and there was barely a swell.
She had enjoyed the day, from the sail to the hike, as well as the campfire. Aimi had not been camping in years; she and her parents had gone on occasion when she was younger, but in recent years there’d not been the time, or the money. She wondered what tomorrow would bring; her guess was they would have to sail back, as Kaldera indicated he had some things to do Sunday evening. Add to it, Aimi had never really been far from her parents, so it would be good to see them again, and the others.
She was just drifting off to sleep when Aimi heard a splashing in the water near the boat. She listened; someone else was coming aboard. There was the movement of the aluminum ladder as it thumped against the hull; then a quiet, barefoot step along the deck to the closed hatch. “Aimi,” a voice called, “are you in there?”
Aimi sat up. “Yes, Asuka,” she responded, “come in.”
The hatch door opened and Asuka carefully stepped down into the darkened cabin. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m going to have to turn a light on.”
“That’s okay,” Aimi replied, and covered her eyes. A click, and the one overhead light in the cabin came to life. In addition to the bunk beds on the Kudo, there ran the length of the starboard side a padded bench, plus a table for those who wished to take their meals below. Right now, much of the gear brought for the trip was stacked there.
Asuka closed the hatch and came down, dripping wet in her bikini, a towel over her shoulders. “It’s too cold out there,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind some company.”
“Not at all,” Aimi replied. She watched as Asuka dried herself off, disrobed and pulled a sweat suit from her equipment bag. As she dressed, Asuka said, “It’s been fun today, hasn’t it?”
Aimi nodded, but there was something in Asuka’s voice that didn’t sound right, and she said so. “You sound a little upset,” Aimi added, “if I may be so bold.”
Asuka looked up. She was sitting across from Aimi on the bench as she pulled on her sweats. “Well,” she replied, “yes and no. The no part is the larger one. I have had a wonderful day today; but something just happened with Minoru, again.”
“What?” Aimi looked closer at Asuka, who was now hiding her face in her hands. “Did you have an argument?”
“No.” Asuka looked up, her face confused. “I was hoping to be with him tonight, on the beach, if you know what I mean.”
Aimi smiled. “I do,” she replied, “and I don’t think anyone would have been surprised by that. But you said, ‘again’ just now. How do you mean?”
Asuka sighed. “I think you know how much I love Minoru,” she said, “and I do, deeply; but especially recently, anytime I try to get close to him, he pushes me away. Not in a mean way; believe me, he is most considerate. But he keeps doing it.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I don’t know.” Asuka stood in the low cabin, careful not to strike her head on the ceiling. “I am afraid I’ve done something wrong, or have hurt him,” she said, “and it is upsetting me to no end.”
Aimi pulled back the covers and motioned to Asuka. “Come in, if you wish,” she said. “It’s warm in here, and I have a feeling you need someone, as I did last night.”
Asuka’s expression was a grateful one as switched off the light and slowly picked her way in the dark to the bunk. There was just enough room in it for the two of them; once the covers were wrapped securely about themselves, Aimi pulled Asuka to her. “Talk to me,” she said quietly, “just between us two.”
Asuka rested her head on the pillows beside Aimi. “Well,” she said, “Minoru has told me that he is afraid of destroying our friendship, if we become intimate. I admit, I may have been too forward about that in the past, but I was trying to go slow, and ease him towards it.”
“He may just not be ready,” Aimi replied, “and it is true I understand that things change between friends, once they’ve had sex.”
“I’ve heard that, too,” Asuka said, “but I can’t imagine it. Not in this case. I know how I feel for Minoru, and I’ve been there for him at the worst times of his life. When Ebissan died, Minoru was devastated; I’d never seen anyone hurt so much. He still does, and from what he’s told me, he doesn’t get along with his relatives, either. He’s shut himself off, except to myself, my family and Kaldera; and now the club.”
Aimi felt Asuka’s arms slide around her neck and waist, and she tightened her hold on Asuka. “You do care very deeply for him, that’s easy to see,” Aimi replied, “but sometimes that’s all you can do. When someone has lost a love, be it a family member or a friend, it can be very hard. It can take a long time. I’ve seen it in my family; I at least understand what Minoru is feeling, thought I can’t say I know for sure.”
Asuka listened. She felt a slight wave brush against the Kudo, the sound of Aimi’s voice, her breath along her face. “I suppose so,” she finally said. “You are right, Aimi; I’ve been so self-centered, thinking only of what I want for myself.”
“You do think of Minoru, though,” Aimi replied, “and you do think of others. Don’t feel bad over it. I think it best that you let it lie for now--when Minoru is ready, he’ll let you know, and then perhaps you will also know more of what you will face in the future.”
She felt Asuka‘s head move, and her lips go to her cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered, “for not judging me.”
“I cannot judge you,” Aimi told her, as she returned the kiss. “You are my friend, and there’s nothing to judge.”
The two drifted off to sleep, gently rocked by the boats movement in the water, the anchors holding the Kudo, and themselves securely.
Mei slid closed the door of her bedroom, after one final trip to the bathroom. She was wearing her old football jersey and began to brush out the ends of her hair in preparation for bed.
“I hope this is not an inconvenience.”
Mei smiled as she looked behind her. Midori was sitting up in bed, her knees to her chest, in an old Asahi beer t-shirt that had belonged to Mei’s father.
“Hardly,” Mei replied, “I’m glad your folks let you stay over.”
“Yeah, Mom and Dad are cool about things like that,” Midori replied as she watched Mei continue to work on her hair. “I don’t think I’m gonna tell them about this, however.”
“I can understand that.” Mei soon finished with her hair and came over to the bed. “We can keep this quiet,” she added, “however you want to play it.”
Midori smiled as she watched Mei climb into bed beside her. “I honestly don’t care what anyone thinks,” she replied. “I’ve dealt with my background all my life, I can deal with this. I will talk to Mom and Dad about it, eventually. But right now…”
Midori slid down beside Mei as the bedside light was put out. In the dark, the two found each other and embraced.
“Thank you, Midori,” Mei whispered, “for being here. I never realized how much I needed another in my life until recently. I’ve tried so hard to go it alone, just with the few friends I had. But I’ve wanted, and needed more.”
“Don’t worry,” Midori replied, her voice also as quiet as she could make it. “We all need that someone in our lives, and I know what it’s like to be alone, totally alone. When you find that one, it makes it all worth it.”
The two kissed one another on the lips, then Mei slowly turned Midori onto her back. As Mei slid over top of her, Midori reached out and pulled the covers over their bodies, and Mei slowly brought herself down, and into the arms that would envelop her.