The mastermind behind this plot derives no material profit from it. While several people, places, and events exist in reality, everything that follows should be digested with a healthy dose of suspicion.
I cannot write bromance or erotica to save my life.
There was a reason people liked to call me Gozen behind my back – sometimes, they slipped and called me that even to my face. Gozen Tomoe, one of the most famous female samurai warriors known for her talent in sword fighting, had brought down many men in combat, before rumor had it that she retired and became a nun. On any other occasion, I might have found the moniker amusing, recognition that I had slain many men in the battlefield of college academics. But in this crowd, where I was the only girl in a project team of four guys and three-fourths of the graduating class was male, I knew it was not a term of endearment. If anything, it was a mild insult.
Who cared though? Four years of college life with these dolts was finally drawing to a close. Next month I would be joining a prestigious construction company that was headed by a woman, thank God, and hopefully people there would stop branding me as a man-eater. The fact was that I didn’t tolerate people who only slowed me down, regardless of whether they were male or female. Someday, maybe somebody would figure that out.
“Yanai,” a familiar voice called out, and I looked up from packing my things. His smile was warm, even though his eyes betrayed the stress we were all feeling at the end of term. “Ando’s organizing a small party later. He was wondering if you could come.”
Oh, Sakurai Sho. I could tell a mile away that Ando had extended no such invitation and that Sakurai had merely invented that explanation. I smiled in what I hoped was a properly apologetic manner. “I can’t tonight. I have part-time work.”
“Maybe you can catch up? The party isn’t starting until 9PM. Ando says he’s got to rush a final paper by tonight so that’s why we all have to wait for him-”
“I really can’t, sorry. Please thank Ando on my behalf though.”
I maneuvered my way outside the classroom, slipping into my backpack. Sakurai followed me, looking no less determined than when he had first approached.
“How’s work going?” He fell into step beside me, holding the straps of his backpack. We joined the human wave of students who were slowly emerging from their respective classrooms. “They’re still not letting you onto those gondola things to clean high-rise windows?”
I’d spoken with him at length about what my cleaning job entailed. In retrospect, there were many things I had told Sakurai that I shouldn’t have. But his presence had been a comfort when we were making our semester-long project, because he was the only person in our team who treated my ideas with respect and didn’t shoot them down immediately just because they were my ideas.
On a particularly bad day, I had been crying over my report outline in the computer lab at three in the morning, because Ando had said it wasn’t giving our project the right angle for the final presentation and therefore I had to re-do it. Before I could dry my tears Sakurai was suddenly sitting next to me, watching me type a completely new outline just hours before the deadline – comforting in his easy silence, with his jacket slung over my shoulders, his large eyes completely understanding, and the iced coffee he had gotten me from the vending machine two floors down sweating onto the table right next to my rejected outline.
I smiled at Sakurai. “They’re still keeping my feet firmly planted on the ground. Not that I should complain. The owner of the company I’m currently working for turned out to be friends with someone from the HR department of my new company. He put in a good word. It was a lucky break.”
He shook his head. “You worked hard for it, Yanai.”
“I got lucky. I didn’t think they’d hire me, not when I have an Economics degree. It’s a bit far from Engineering.”
We walked in companionable silence with the crowd that didn’t seem to be rushing for once. It was the last day of the school year, and I could already see a few people suffering from separation anxiety. The couple walking right in front of us was being particularly affectionate, with their hands around each other’s waists as they strolled forward leisurely, looking every bit like lovers in Ueno Park and not students in a crowded walkway in Keio.
I cleared my throat. “How about you, Sakurai? Will you be continuing work at Johnny’s?”
He pulled a face. “I can’t help it, can I? We’ve debuted. It’s not like I can leave the other four to deal with the group on their own. And it’s not like I can rejoin normal society that easily either.”
I remember he had said something of the sort before. He had the habit of studying in family restaurants a week or so before exams, and because we were teammates, I would always have to stalk him there for a question or two. He had always been buried in piles of books and poorly-written notes. There were times when the last train would already have left, and we would spend the rest of the night talking about lessons and sometimes things that didn’t have much to do with lessons. Once, twice, I hadn’t wanted to spend the rest of the night dozing with my forehead pressed onto a cold tabletop, and Sakurai had insisted on walking me home.
So maybe, just maybe, there was one thing I would miss from the past four years.
“I wish you well, Sakurai,” I blurted out before I could help it. He looked at me with a hint of surprise, and I tried to smile up at him, sincerely this time. “You’re really hardworking, you know. It’s people like you who make it far in life.”
He was struggling not to smile, but I could see that the corners of his mouth had lifted and there were little stars in his eyes. “I could say the same thing about you. It’s people like you who make a difference, Yanai. People like me can only watch while you go out there and happen to things.”
I shook my head to tell him he was exaggerating, but by that time he had already started laughing. Our conversations had always contained thoughts like this – how we were both useful to the country and to the planet because of our sincere intentions, and how someday all our struggles would make sense.
I exhaled and hated how my throat had dried. There were so many memories of him that would haunt me months or years from now, I was sure.
“Kana, I was wondering,” Sakurai abruptly said, catching my elbow as I was about to walk out of the building, “do you think you’d let me see you again? I know you have to adjust to your new job and everything, but it would make me happy to see you once in a while.”
He searched my eyes with a small, hopeful smile, warm fingers pressed against my arms. “What do you think? If we want it to work out, I know it will.”
He had told me that before, too – once. His knee had been nudging my side and his lips had been pressed against the small of my back, and in my tiny, rundown apartment where morning sunlight was beginning to creep in, he had told me that if we wanted it to work out, it would.
I smiled in what I hoped was a properly apologetic manner. “We wouldn’t be good for each other, Sho. You know I can’t deal with your line of work, and besides, I have my own career to think about. You need someone who’ll stay by your side all the time, and that’s just not me.”
Blinking, I chose to stare at the first button on his top because I couldn’t look straight into his eyes. “We’re not good for each other. It was just a one-time thing.”
His smile was sad as his hands fell to his sides. “Why do I feel like you've told me that before?”
“I haven’t,” I corrected him. “But we both knew I would.”
A couple of girls passing by had started to notice and were openly pointing at the pair of us.
“Anyway, I really have to go, or I’ll be late.” Trying to look nonchalant, I playfully punched Sakurai’s shoulder. He didn’t even flinch. “Give ‘em hell, Sakurai. All those people who hurt you. You said you’d make them pay for making you feel like shit.”
“I told you that?” His face broke into a tentative grin. “Well, I’m glad that at least you take note of the things I say.”
I tilted my head and settled for a wordless smile. I would always remember the things he said. They were the only memories of him that I could take home with me.
Sakurai exhaled and ran a hand through his hair. “If you’re not coming along for tonight’s party, then I’ll let Ando know. In case you do change your mind, we'll be at Ando’s parents’ hotel. Give me a call if you’re going.”
“Okay,” I nodded. We both knew I wouldn’t be there tonight. “Sorry about making you the messenger.”
“No problem,” he said, raising a hand as he began to walk away, back towards the classrooms. Before he was out of earshot, he turned around with his mouth caught in an unsaid word. We stared at each other for a long moment.
“Take care of yourself, Yanai.”
Sakurai disappeared into a group of giggling girls who were walking towards my direction. He didn’t look back, not even once. I stood there for a while, staring at the place where he had been standing just seconds ago. What had I been expecting, as I was watching him walk away? Did I hope he would look resigned or maybe disagree with me and insist, one more time, that we could make it work if we wanted to?
But maybe, Sakurai was just like me. Maybe, like me, he didn’t tolerate people who only slowed him down, regardless of whether they were male or female.
I clutched the straps of my backpack and continued walking outside the campus, not once looking back.