Chapter 5:

To the Beat of the Fireworks

This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table

-Fior Deniev, 15 years old-Bookmark here

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.Bookmark here

For the first time in seven years of traveling to Japan through the door, I didn’t feel like I was being cooked by the summer heat. It wasn’t because I was going shirtless or the Empire had warmed or anything like that; rather, the thing I could feel above all else was my own heartbeat.Bookmark here

I checked my pocket-watch - 6:14 PM. There was certainly enough time to go to the pawn shop and have the offering exchanged for yen before I returned to meet them at the Hachiko statue. Besides, if they were already in Japan, they probably were doing some shopping already, and I didn’t know what shops they frequented.Bookmark here

Sigh.Bookmark here

What was I so nervous about? I couldn’t pinpoint it - was it the fear of having them turn down the proposal to establish trade? Or was it the fear of having our friendship sour into something political? Could it be something else entirely?Bookmark here

That’s right - deep breaths. Breathe In. Breathe Out. In. Out. Just as Alistair taught me seven years ago.Bookmark here

Regulating my breathing was only a temporary solution to the problem - I was sure that the agitating thoughts would return once I met up with them. It would be best if I went to the pawnshop ahead of time; perhaps doing that would take my mind off my worries for a bit longer.Bookmark here

Strolling through the festive, crowded streets around the Shibuya Crossing, I once again found myself in front of the door to the familiar pawn shop nestled in an inconspicuous alley. Right on cue, the shopkeeper opened the door, now sporting a neatly trimmed beard.Bookmark here

“You’re here early, aren’t ya? … Wait, aren’t there supposed to be three of you?” he grunted.Bookmark here

“Whether they are here or not is not your concern,” I replied.Bookmark here

“Y’know, that might’ve been the first time I’ve heard you speak. Ya need to work on your Japanese. Well, if you don’t want me to, I won’t pry into it.” he motioned for me to enter the store, holding the door open as he turned to face the inside of the store.Bookmark here

“Makoto! Get off the computer, we’ve got ourselves a customer!” the shopkeeper shouted. Moments later, I heard the sound of footsteps moving about above me. When the thuds ceased, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a girl shorter than me.Bookmark here

“... Who’s this?” she asked, taking the lollipop out of her mouth.Bookmark here

“The customer.”Bookmark here

“You’re joking, right? All the customers you get are middle-aged men or old geezers. There’s no way -” she trailed off as I held up the ruby pendant that I brought to sell.Bookmark here

Turning to me, the shopkeeper scratched the back of his head. “I’m sorry that she’s a bit rude. Makoto’s my granddaughter, ya see. She’s here ‘cuz she wanted to go to high school in Tokyo, but her parents didn’t want to pay the rent for an apartment. So she’s livin’ here with me.”Bookmark here

Makoto took the pendant out of my hand and sat down behind the desk, staring through the magnifying lamp as she turned the trinket around in her hands. As she examined the pendant, I quietly stared at her, trying to figure out what made her feel so familiar to me. Then it clicked.Bookmark here

She had an appearance that fit Irette’s personality. Her hair was cut short in a boyish style, and her clothes were in what seemed to be Japan’s typical masculine fashion. She had an athletic build, her shirt’s lack of sleeves revealing her toned arms. If I were to describe to someone the antics Irette had done over the years, they would imagine this girl, rather than a black-haired, delicate-looking girl.Bookmark here

“Are you done staring?”Bookmark here

“Ah - I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to -”Bookmark here

She stared me down as I backed up apprehensively, unsure of what to do. Did I not apologize enough? Should I do that bowing on the floor thing I occasionally saw the men in suits doing on the street?Bookmark here

“Nah, it’s fine, I’m just joking. I know I’m a catch. Anyways, this’s probably worth sixty thousand yen,” she chuckled, turning to her grandfather. “Is that a fair price?”Bookmark here

The shopkeeper leaned over and took the pendant, turning it over in his hands and inspecting the silver chain. “Yeah, seems fine to me.”Bookmark here

As Makoto began plucking 1000-yen bills out of a box underneath the register, the shopkeeper turned back to me.Bookmark here

“So, how old are ya, anyways? Could’ve sworn you were just a little kid just three years ago, but now you’re tall as a tree!”Bookmark here

“I’m 15 right now, but I turn 16 in two months’ time,” I replied.Bookmark here

Upon hearing me reveal my age, Makoto turned to me in a hurry and leaned over the counter, her eyes lighting up.Bookmark here

“Yer the same age as me but yer taller? I’m taller than all the boys on the basketball team, y’know? Ya gotta tell me yer secret to being so tall! How much milk do ya drink? Do you take any supplements? How tall are yer parents - ” Realizing that she had slipped into her accent, she clapped her hand over her mouth and backed up.Bookmark here

“… Anyways, here’s your money,” she said meekly, blushing.Bookmark here

I nodded, taking the envelope of cash and putting it in the cloth knapsack I had brought. Checking my pocket-watch as I left the pawn shop, I found that I still had time - 6:36 PM. Behind me, I could hear the shopkeeper teasing his granddaughter.Bookmark here

Where can I kill 24 minutes?Bookmark here

-----------------------Bookmark here

Turns out, the answer to my question was “shooting gallery”. Not having had time to play the festival games the prior year, I had decided to head to the festival early to calm myself down with some fun. Absent-mindedly, I managed to clear out most of the gallery with the toy gun before the stall owner shooed me away. Bookmark here

Walking down the street towards the Hachiko statue with a bag of prizes in hand, I could feel my heartbeat’s pace picking up again. To put another bandage on the problem, I had started working my way through the candies from the bag of prizes - the soda-flavored ones were surprisingly tasty. Nevertheless, I worried that I would have a panic attack when it came time to propose writing trade agreements with them.Bookmark here

“Ah - that’s not fair! You went to the festival without us!”Bookmark here

Alistair’s voice cut sharply through the rumbling noise of the crowd, startling me. I turned around, trying to spot him; there was still a distance to go before I reached the Hachiko statue, and he didn’t seem to be near me. The people around me seemed to have heard his voice as well, turning to each other in confusion.Bookmark here

“Can I have some of the chocolate in your bag as a ‘went-to-the-festival-without-us’ tax?” Vell’s voice was the next to ring out.Bookmark here

Finally arriving at the Hachiko statue, I found the answer to the mystery. Alistair was holding up a metal cylinder, bigger than the flash bombs he had previously used, but still small enough to fit within his hand.Bookmark here

“Neat little gadget, right? I call it a voice cannon,” Alistair chirped, “It lets me ‘throw’ my voice where I want it to.”Bookmark here

Handing a bar of chocolate to Vell, I opened my mouth to say something but quickly closed it in hesitation.Bookmark here

When should I bring it up? Would I have time to set the foundations for trade after the fireworks?Bookmark here

“Do you have something to say?” asked Vell.Bookmark here

“No… it’s nothing. I’ll tell you guys later.”Bookmark here

“If you don’t have anything to say, can we get going already? You might’ve had something to eat already, but I’m still starving!” Alistair moaned.Bookmark here

“Have you gone to the pawn shop yet?” asked Vell, holding out her hands expectantly.Bookmark here

“How much money did you get? Is it more than last year?” inquired Alistair.Bookmark here

Nodding in confirmation, I took the envelope out of my knapsack, causing their eyes to light up in excitement. Counting the bills one at a time, I gave them each 20,000 yen, eliciting a sigh of relief from Vell. She folded several of the bills before putting them into her purse.Bookmark here

“Now that we’ve got the money, let’s get going!” Alistair checked his wristwatch. “We’ve got an hour until the fireworks start, so taking out the time it takes to get to the rooftop garden, we only have a half hour to get our food and have fun.”Bookmark here

Suddenly, Alistair broke out into a sprint towards the festival grounds, weaving his way through the crowds of festival-goers.Bookmark here

“Last one to the festival grounds buys roasted chestnuts for everyone!” came his voice from far away, carried to us through his voice cannon.Bookmark here

Vell followed suit, dashing headfirst into the masses after flashing a smug look at me.Bookmark here

“Wait for me!” I shouted. As I chased after them, I realized the worries I had in my mind had momentarily faded into the backdrop. The friendly atmosphere must have subconsciously assuaged my anxiety, I thought. Bookmark here

With the way things are now… what are the chances they’d turn me away?Bookmark here

As expected, being the one to start running last, I was the one who had to pay for the roasted chestnuts. I got in line at the chestnut stall while Alistair and Vell went ahead to start gathering their festival fare. Thankfully, the line was short, so I didn’t have to wait long.Bookmark here

“Sorry to make you wait! Here are your 3 bags of roasted chestnuts!” The stall operator said, handing me larger bags than I expected. Now that my arms were full with the piping hot packages, I would have to either find a bigger bag, grow a third arm, or give up on having any food tonight.Bookmark here

“On the off chance, do you have any paper bags that I could use to hold these chestnuts?”Bookmark here

“I’m sorry, dear customer, we don’t have any.”Bookmark here

Damn… Where are those two anyways? They better be willing to hold their own food…Bookmark here

Walking through the festival grounds, I found Vell first, in the line for candy apples. A smirk spread across my face as I noticed her still-empty arms. This was an opportunity for payback.Bookmark here

“Boo!” I shouted in her ear.Bookmark here

Hyah!” she shrieked, leaping away from me. After regaining her composure for a few seconds, she gave me a smack in the arm. “What was that for?”Bookmark here

“For making me hold all these chestnuts. Here’s yours, by the way.” I answered, dropping the bag of chestnuts into her hands.Bookmark here

“Wha - this is massive! Did they not have smaller packages?”Bookmark here

“Nope. Anyways, while you’re in line, get me one too.”Bookmark here

Knowing she wouldn’t refuse my request, I walked away to go find Alistair. He was nowhere to be seen, even though I looked through the food stall aisles twice. However, I did spot people carrying plastic bags walking away from the okonomiyaki stall. Perfect timing - I need to get my own food anyways.Bookmark here

I got in line for the okonomiyaki stand, making a mental list of the things I wanted to order. Vell’s buying me the candy apple, so I’ll check that off… Okonomiyaki, ikayaki, takoyaki, yakisoba… Would I be able to eat it all?Bookmark here

Finally, I reached the front of the line and ordered an Osaka-style okonomiyaki. As I waited for the order to be packaged, I felt Vell tap my shoulder.Bookmark here

“Where’s Alistair?” she asked.Bookmark here

“I don’t know where he is - thank you, can I please have a plastic bag?” I replied, turning to the stall operator mid-reply to receive my order. Putting the roasted chestnuts, the okonomiyaki, and the candy apple into the bag, I began looking around the food stalls again. After completing most of my festival shopping, I spotted him at the katanuki tables, working away at the candy mold with a bag full of festival food by his feet.Bookmark here

Vell spotted him as well, and a devilish grin spread across her face. She took the extra package of chestnuts out of my bagand tiptoed over to the katanuki tables. With the steaming hot package, she touched Alistair’s neck, causing him to yelp in surprise - and break the mold he was working on.Bookmark here

“Oh, come on! I almost had that one, too!” he groaned. “I haven’t managed to finish a single mold in any of the years I’ve been here - this is an insult to the precision of a mechanic!”Bookmark here

“How many have you failed this year?” I asked, eyeing a stack of cracked molds on the table beside him.Bookmark here

“... Let’s not talk about that. What time is it, anyways?” Alistair glanced down to his wristwatch, before looking back at us nervously. “It’s 6:47. We’ve gotta run to the roof.”Bookmark here

Bags full of festival food swinging, we dashed through the crowds of festival-goers out of the grounds and onto the main street. In our way was the scramble crossing, forming a formidable river for us to cross. Forcing our way through the flow of pedestrian traffic was an ordeal - and yet, none of us looked panicked about being late to the rooftop park. Glancing over at them as I slid between two passers-by, I saw a look of enjoyment on their faces. Surely, all that mattered to them was that we stayed friends, I thought.Bookmark here

Finally arriving on the rooftop garden, the fireworks show began with a single blue firework and the accompanying thunderous crack. As we watched the spectacle from a bench, each one burst into a beautiful flower of light to the tempo of my racing, fearful heartbeat.Bookmark here

Real Aire
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