The day went on, dull and uneventful. Yet it was after regular school hours that came what Kazuto looked forward to the most. During the afternoon, the kendo team gathered in the memorial hall, down on the basement level. Shouts echoed loud across the gymnasium as the young practitioners yelled in unison at the whoosh of wood cutting through the air. They wore their mandatory black gear—or Bogu—which covered their shoulders, torso, and groins, long black skirts stretching down to their ankles while masks of screen mesh shielded their faces. They were rehearsing a few basic movements to warm up, waving their bamboo sticks with both hands at the shout of their captain.
Then came the practice duels. The students lined up along the edge of the wooden sprung floor to step forward in pairs and challenge each other. Here, and like on most occasions, Kazuto faced Raisuke, always under the watchful eye of the rest of his team sitting on one side. His friend took the initiative, going at him with everything he got. Kazuto kept his cool and blocked his thrusts with ease, never losing sight of the movements of his bare feet. But it wasn’t before long that Raisuke lost his patience. Soon, they found themselves pressing their swords against each other’s while circling at arm’s length.
As he pushed Kazuto around the ring, the skirts of his fencers swaying at his moves, he tried to provoke him by yelling, “Come on, Kazuto! Is that all you got?”
Sensing a deeper meaning in his words, Kazuto sighed and opted to focus on the match. For a brief moment, his usually indifferent eyes turned into those of a hungry lion—as he threw a precise blow at his forehead with lightning-like speed. “Men!” he called his move as he smacked his sword on Raisuke’s helmet. The student acting as the referee awarded him the point, and Kazuto gained applause from his classmates. While he thought little of his abilities, he still let a slight smile slip behind his helmet.
Once their time at the gym had ended, Kazuto and Raisuke sat in a row of retractable bleachers, untying their helmets and keeping their armors on their bogu bags. “I wish you weren’t so lazy, man,” Raisuke barked at him. “Why did you reject the captaincy? You’re worth much more than just a Chunken!”
“You know the spotlight doesn’t suit me,” Kazuto replied. He had the middle position in his team during local tournaments, placing third out of five players. Having to win his duel to avoid a defeat or secure a good start was enough for him to deal with, never having lost a single duel in a competition. A captaincy, he assumed, entailed too much responsibility. “And it’s not like we’re going to win the tournament just because of me,” he added as he finished packing up. He then stood up, ready to leave. “I’m visiting my brother, so say goodbye to Nozomi for me, would you?”
“Do it yourself. You have some time until her club’s practice ends.”
Kazuto turned his gaze at the court, which was now taken over by the Judo team. There, he saw Nozomi performing a takedown by throwing her body against an opponent, her right leg crossing in front of her foe’s hips as her left one moved behind the knee while placing her hand on the floor. “She’ll only scold me for not telling her about last night, and I don’t wanna upset her,” he concluded. “She’s busy with her part-time job and pre-university courses.”
“Unlike you...” Kazuto paid no attention to his words. Without doing as much as looking him in his eyes, he held onto his briefcase and bag and headed back upstairs, ready to leave. “Look, if something’s wrong, we’re here for you, Kazuto,” Raisuke pressed in. “Don’t shut us down.” But Kazuto kept walking away.
Before leaving the facilities, he took a few minutes to enjoy the light southbound autumn breeze from the balcony on the second floor overlooking the outdoor court. He glanced at the sky, the sun getting low as the shade of the school building hovered partially over the small cement field. A soft hissing sound demanded his attention, coming from the bow shooting range below. A young woman wearing a white, short-sleeved top and dark blue, wide-legged pleated trousers was holding a bamboo bow with her left hand. It was Saori Yoshimura. She drew the string back as far as she could with the glove on her right hand and lifted her elbow, taking a few moments to aim—until she released the arrow. Her shot was formidable; she hit the small yellow circle in the center of the target. Beside her was her twin brother Hayato performing the same procedure with equal success alongside other kyūjutsu practitioners. It seemed they enjoyed traditional Japanese martial arts as much as he did. What he failed to notice, however, was that Saori was gazing at him as soon as he left the balcony, an uneasy frown drawn on her forehead.
* * *
Long after returning home and having a snack, Kazuto went to visit his brother. He was resting in the Keio University Hospital, which had become the focus of media attention that day. The whisper of the nightfall was upon its main entrance, the lights inside the rooms across the diverse wards providing clarity for the dozens of cameramen and journalists waiting outside. Kazuto pushed through the thick crowd with some effort, and once inside, he announced himself to a receptionist. Following a brief trip in the elevator, he accessed the fourth floor, bumping into nurses going in and out of the rooms where those injured during the incident the night before rested. Their relatives, for their part, were outside, either standing near the walls or moving around in circles.
Two police officers stood guard outside Yoshiro’s room when Kazuto arrived. He peered out the ajar door, bumping into a series of men dressed in suits asking Yoshiro a few questions, then nodded at him amiably as they walked out. When they strode past Kazuto, he couldn’t help but notice the man who preceded them; he was bald, well along in years, and had both a mustache and a padlock beard that framed a hard mouth. But what struck Kazuto the most was his severe gaze, his pale green eyes burning with purpose and commitment. What interest could such a man have with what had happened to his brother? He sensed it would be better not to know.
As he stepped inside the room, Kazuto ran into his older brother lying in a bed in solitary, the backrest fixed at an obtuse angle. White sheets were covering his body, connected to several tubes that provided him with serum and other nutrients he needed. A cast spread across his right hand and forearm, fastened to his shoulder by a sling, while a cannula stuck out from his neck there where the surgical procedure had been performed. This wasn’t the Yoshiro he was used to seeing. He looked as weak as if a simple breeze could take him away. The skin on his face was pale, enclosed by a greasy, unkempt dark hair, while his exhausted amber eyes displayed sharp eye bags beneath them. Kazuto rested his gaze on the leather seat in one corner of the room but moved toward the small window in front of it.
He stood beside Yoshiro as he worked his choppy and hoarse voice, urging himself a smile. “How’s school?”
“Same as usual,” Kazuto replied monotonously. “Not that it matters, since you’re always getting yourself into trouble. You could have died.” Yoshiro looked away from him in embarrassment. Kazuto wondered if he would ever understand how he felt every time he received a call from the police station or a hospital, the uncertainty that invaded him at his potential demise.
Kazuto shook his head, and his gaze then flicked up to the TV screen mounted atop a wall. There, he saw an anchorman speaking over a split-screen displaying the clash between rioters and police the night before on one side, the reporters waiting outside the hospital on the other. “As we await for Cytek CEO’s departure,” the anchor began, “let’s recall the words of his former head of HR, Uchida Takeshi, about the leak of his company’s documents a few days before his tragic passing during the downing of flight 518.”
One of the feeds cut to a roll of footage showing a black-haired man standing before a lectern. The long scar across his face, Kazuto reflected, gave him a grim look as he said, “This whole affair is nothing more than a malicious campaign by the Arab nations who, due to the low prices of oil barrels, resort to humiliating methods to discredit our company.”
“Your brother is lucky,” said a female voice out of the blue.
Both Sugiyama brothers shifted their gaze towards a junior nurse as she walked in. She wore the typical white uniform and grabbed hold of a medical chart stock with her left arm, a stethoscope encircling her neck. “His trachea should’ve been broken given the pressure his neck took,” she elaborated, then began taking notes in her chart. Kazuto then gazed at the deep purple bruises around his brother’s throat as she added, “We can’t say the same about his wrist, though.”
“Don’t worry,” Yoshiro replied as Kazuto rested his eyes on the cast covering his right wrist. “I’ll screw it up again so I can end up here to keep enjoying the pleasure of your company.” He flashed a cocky grin on his face, the nurse blushing in response and shaking her head as if the man in front of her were hopeless.
“I-I’ll be back in a wink,” the nurse muttered as she withdrew from the room.
Kazuto was left stunned. His brother was relentless with beautiful women. Or not so beautiful women. Or simply women. Hayato seemed to read his thoughts. “Hey, this way you don’t get to babysit me like when I got the swimmer’s shoulder thing. Even Kotori was jealous of how close we were.”
“You know she wouldn’t have dumped you if you weren’t so stubborn, right?” he answered. His brother took part in his school’s swimming team back in the day, winning many competitions until repeated injuries to his shoulder forced him to quit. Although such cases were often related to poor stroking techniques, Yoshiro’s had nothing to do with it. Instead, it had been a matter of over-intensity while practicing. Since his parents were busy with their duties, Kazuto took a major role in his care.
He chuckled at the memory as he drew his attention back to the TV. The bald man he had bumped into before took over it, hurrying off a tide of microphones and cameras on his way to the limousine. The kanjis at the lower third of the screen read: “CYTEK’S CEO, TSUJIMOTO KENTARO, VISITS VICTIMS OF THE ATTACK.” A rush of sudden questions assailed Kazuto’s mind. Why had such an important man visited his brother? Did it have something to do with the fact the bruises on his brother’s neck weren’t the work of a regular commercial prosthesis?
As the nurse set foot in the room once more, Kazuto asked her, “How much longer will he stay here?”
“One more day,” she answered enthusiastically. “His recovery rate is remarkable. Given the severity of the injury, he’d normally have to use that cannula for the rest of his life. It’s a miracle.”
Kazuto looked back at the screen as the voice of a journalist grew louder, inquiring the bald man with her microphone. “Tsujimoto-sama, what comments do you have on CERU’s role in covering up the truth about the radiation levels in Fukushima and the experimental treatments performed on the refugees?” The man dismissed her with his hand as he shut the door of his limo.
Something clicked in his mind as he stared at his right arm. “There is no such thing as miracles.”
Kazuto’s response left everyone in the room speechless. The nurse stared at him in disbelief, thinking for sure he was an ungrateful person given his brother’s fortune. But Kazuto wouldn’t take such luck for granted. He suspected there was something far less fantastic behind it, something alarming.
Yoshiro didn’t hide his annoyance over his words. “There we go again. Can’t you just be grateful once in your life?”
Kazuto felt displeasure rise inside him. “Don’t you think there’s something odd in all this? And don’t start lecturing me like you were Dad!”
“If I don’t, nobody else will. I just don’t want you to waste your life. “
It wasn’t as if Kazuto didn’t know his brother had rejected that benefit to favor him. “If this is about my studies, then relax. I won’t throw away the scholarship they denied you—”
“It’s not about that!” Yoshiro yelled louder than Kazuto would have expected. “I was the one who refused it, who chose your future above mine! And I don’t regret it.” He then coughed a little, and Kazuto sensed an uncommon nuance of seriousness in his tone. “Life’s too short, and we’re too young to wail about everything, Kazuto. We have to try to find our place in the world, whatever it may be.”
“Says someone who seems to want to kill himself every chance he gets,” Kazuto grumbled sharply, failing to keep the frustration out of the edge of his voice.
Yoshiro’s mouth gave a downward twist. “Maybe, but at least I’m giving it a try. When you grow old, you will end up regretting not having enjoyed your youth. You have to live, Kazuto.”
Kazuto’s eyes widened in disbelief. Those words had meant something to him a long time ago before his parents died and the world went to hell. But above all, he couldn’t understand what was going on with him. He was delving into the kind of discussion he sought to avoid, all because of a strange urge he felt to vindicate his beliefs. “Where?” he began, no longer able to stop himself. “In this immutable and unfair world where people struggle every day to get what they need, full of poverty, misery, and war? Where their lives are rigged since they’re born?”
His brother frowned at him in response, a strong flash of anger arising in his face. “How about forgetting those shitty rationalizations of yours for a second?!” Kazuto stood frozen. He was ready to reply at one moment and then pressed his lips together to say nothing the next. He had seen his brother losing his temper only a handful of times, never once with him. As Yoshiro looked him straight in the eye, he could sense the exasperation building inside him. “Everything’s not over just because our parents died! Think the world is a mess? Then stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something about it for a change!”
Kazuto felt a lump in his throat. Tears were coming to his eyes, blurring his vision. He couldn’t understand why, but he felt what his brother had said was having some effect on him. He gazed down at the floor, lost in his own thoughts. Was it possible the way he saw the world was, in fact, misled? Had he allowed the death of his parents to affect him in such a way his mind was closed to any other possibility?
But in the end, he knew he didn’t have the strength to move on within him. Disgusted at himself, he clenched his right fist and looked away, trying to avoid the piercing gaze of his older brother. “I...” Kazuto hunted for the right word, which struggled out of his mouth as he finished, “Can’t.”
“Bullshit!” Yoshiro retorted, his patience wearing thin. “Just stop making excuses and set your mind on it at once!”
Kazuto had no reply, feeling his arguments slide away as he recognized what he had said as the true state of affairs. He stared at Yoshiro as he sank back into deep contemplation. After a while, his brother let out a long breath, massaging his temples as he recalled an important thing. “Look, I need your help,” he began, his manner a mix of resignation and concern. “Kotori called me yesterday out of the blue, saying she needed help with something. She sounded worried. She’s staying at a hotel in Minato.”
Kazuto gaped at his brother, not having expected that. “You... gotta be kidding me,” he said, wiping his watery eyes with his hand and looking dazed. “Hadn’t you broken up badly with her?”
“What’s past is past. Just listen to what she has to say. Do me this favor, and you’ll never hear me complain about your life choices again. Deal?”Yoshiro grabbed the cell phone on the table next to his bed, seemly wiling to text him the address. For a moment, Kazuto felt compelled to look for a reason, an excuse to say no to him. Maybe he wasn’t the right person, unable to settle his own problems and, therefore, those of others. Yet none satisfied him. Instead, he found himself looking at his brother once more, his eyes staring back at him with pity. "C'mon, Kazuto. You have to take control of your future. It’s all we have left. And it’s not just gonna knock on our door one day, you know?"