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White Butterfly
By Rob Barba

 


White Butterfly
By Rob Barba
Characters (c) 2000 Robert R. Barba/Mitsukai Digital Design

The Past, on a cold Christmas day in December:

Hokosaki Hagane stood atop the Sony building in the Ginza, watching the
snowfall. It was a beautiful day, where the city was drenched in a fine
blanket of snow, hiding the dirt of city life and showing the pristine white
that was all it ever could be. It made the air tingle with promise, with
the brightness of the future that could only come through the hope of
humanity.
Too bad such a fate was never meant for him, he thought to himself with
tons of bitterness. Today was Christmas, an originally foreign holiday that
meant many things to the Japanese. To the aggregate, it was an imported
gift-giving holiday, a way to bide the snowy time with family and loved ones
and share Christmas coffee and Christmas cake together while passing out
gifts. To foreigners and Japanese Christians like himself, it meant the
anniversary of the birth of the Son of God, He who had watched over the
world since that very day.
And so close to birth was death, he thought to himself, the tears
rolling free of his ducts but freezing against his cheeks. To the distant,
detached part of his mind, the tears burned and stung only for a second
before slipping into the eternal coldness that everything entered in the
end. A part of him would have liked to join everything else in that deep
abyss - it would be so simple, just a mere leap from the top of the gray
building to the paved expanse of Yuraikucho-dori below - but he knew that
wouldn't be the answer. He had to be strong for someone, even though he
wondered who would be strong for him.
((Who will be here for me?)) he asked himself, looking towards the gray
skies and pleading to God for some sort of answer. Yet as the old saying
went, God works in mysterious ways, which usually meant that answers weren't
going to be forthcoming in the obvious manner - which was going to do him
scant comfort right now.
Reaching into his wallet, the tears coming more and more, he pulled out
a slightly worn picture, one that was weathered through the best kind of
aging - that of love. In it was he and a girl with a smile that could light
up the darkest night, a delicate yet sunny beauty with long dark hair and
expressive light brown eyes.
Mashiro Shiori, the girl that was so complete in his life, she that was
everything to him. Shiori, the person he'd grown up with and was destined
to grow old with. Shiori, a woman he could not, for the life of him, live
without. In an instant, tears blurred his face to the point of incoherency,
and Hagane let out a low moan. "Shiori...."
Within his mind, the memories screamed at him, even as the
American-style holiday music wafted up to him from the buildings below:

"Hagane-kun," Shiori teased him with a kiss, "my family's only going
to be gone for a couple of weeks, really! Otosan and Okasan want to take us
all skiing, since we haven't gone in a while." Her face momentarily
scrunched in thought, before it returned to its normal bright self as she
announced, "I know! You could come with us! My parents just adore you and
my father's always said he wants to get to know the man who's going to be
his son-in-law someday."
Hagane blushed at that; even though he hadn't thought that way just
yet, everyone they knew was certain that such an event was sure to happen
within years. "I appreciate it, Shiori-chan," he responded, smiling at the
kiss she'd just planted on him. "I wish I could go with you, but I promised
my parents that I would help them organize the charity drive our church is
doing this year."
"That's so chivalrous of you," she responded, the pride and love she
felt for him washing off like waves. "Well, it's like the English saying
they taught us in class the other day: 'absence makes the heart grow
fonder.' I'll promise not to have too much fun without you if you promise
to miss me, okay?" Without waiting for an answer, she laughed, wrapped her
arms around him and held him close, taking in the warmth of his body as she
said with words that took up every part of her soul. "I love you, my
someday-to-be husband, my Hagane."

The wind whipped across the rooftops, the chill factor splashing briskly
against his face but paling in comparison to the darkness that he felt in
the corner of his heart. Yet still the specters of the past few days reared
their grisly features at him, taunting him with the cruel hands of fate.

"Son," Hagane's mother said as she handed him a bowl, "will you take
this up to Asayake? She hasn't eaten anything all day, and I hope the miso
will do her some good." Within a day before the Mashiro family left on
their trip to Hokkaido, Shiori's sister came down with a bad case of the
flu. Plans for the trip would have been cancelled, if Hagane's mother
hadn't offered to take care of Asayake while they were gone. It worked out
well, as she adored him as though he were already the brother-in-law he was
going to be, and since she was only a couple of years younger than he and
Shiori, they treated her as an equal.
"Sure," he said, taking the tray from his mother. Once up there, he'd
keep her company and-

A high-pitched scream from upstairs made him drop the tray and race
towards the guest room, followed in short order by his mother and father.
Once in the room, they found a hysterical Asayake recoiling from the
television and sobbing, "No, no, it can't be true...."
As his mother moved to console the girl, Hagane turned his attention
to the tube to see what was the matter. Once he did, his own world
descended into the deepest pits of hell. Onscreen a dour newscaster
pronounced doom on the lives of two young people. "...again, our top story
is that JAS Flight 1021 has crashed in the Tsugaru strait enroute to
Sapporo. JASDF and USAF navigation radar from Misawa indicate that the
plane, a DC-10, crashed into the sea around ninety minutes ago. At this
time it is believed that there are no survivors, though a spokesman from the
National Maritime Safety Agency stated that search teams will be operating
around the clock...."

Tears, what few warm ones there were that managed to splash against the
picture of him and Shiori, held fast, reminding him of the hollow, empty
future that lay ahead. This was supposed to be a time of joy, of laughter
and love, a period to spend with one's family and friends. Instead, he'd
spent the day at a funeral, seeing the urns that held his beloved Shiori and
her parents placed in the family spots in the temple columbine near their
home. His own family was sick with grief, with none of the holiday cheer
that was normally there. But that wasn't the worst part.
Hagane forced himself to wipe the tears from his eyes, put the picture
away and focus his attention on the other person that was up here with him.
She too stared into the uncaring sky that overlooked Tokyo, the cartoonishly
festive glitter on the streets below seemingly sucked dry by the eternal
expanse of the gray horizon. There was a fragile beauty in her face,
features that resembled, though not perfectly, Shiori's. In her, there was
so much promise, so much that echoed the lives of the Mashiro family in the
wounded vessel that was Mashiro Asayake.
As much as his heart screamed, the pain she felt was a thousand times
worse. While he had lost his girlfriend, *she'd* lost her entire family and
was now alone in the world. "Asayake," he whispered silently, feeling true
empathy for the girl.
She turned and looked at him with baleful eyes, windows to the soul that
seemed to scream how much she wanted to die and reunite with her family. He
shuddered, knowing those thoughts were his only a few minutes ago.
Unconsciously she took a step back towards the railing, her body already in
motion.
"No!" he cried, leaping towards her, fearing the worst. Taking her in
his arms, held her fast, refusing to let the last link he had to Shiori slip
from his hands. "You're not alone, Asayake. You're not alone. We'll make
it through this together, I promise."
"I don't have anyone!" she sobbed, burying her face in his jacket. "I'm
so alone."
"You're not alone. You have me and my family." As he said this, he knew
it was a lie. Not the part about his vows; of course his family would take
her in, and he would be there for her in every way he could. But she was
right: she was alone in the world now, the last of her clan.
In many ways, he was the same way. The one true love of his life was
gone, and something elementally within him knew that he could never love
again. It wasn't simple exaggeration, but the honest and complete truth.
((This I vow, my truest love. Wait for me in heaven and I will meet you
there in time. I must stay here for the sake of your sister, but I will
never have another.

((I will never love again....))

}|{

The Present, on a cold December eve a week shy of Christmas:

"And so Hideoshi tried as usual to charm me - you'd think by now that
he'd realize that hitting on his teacher is a no-no, even if he's only a few
years younger than me. You know, sometimes I think teaching high school
students after just barely getting my degree was a really dumb idea and-"
She stopped in mid-speech, then pointed an accusing fork at him. "Hey, are
you listening to a single thing I'm saying?"
Hagane looked up from his dinner plate, feigning grand interest in the
fettuccine. "Oh, yeah, student being a prick. Yeah, Asa-chan, I caught
that." He looked up at her and smiled wearily, the rumpled look in his eyes
appearing to be that of exhaustion. "I'm sorry, I've just been working on
this new project, and trying to figure out some of the PERL and CGI coding
is really knocking me for a loop, *especially* the parts where I have to
program in English." He grinned at her. "You know, you shouldn't complain.
Your job is far more exciting than mine, and makes an impact on the world -
all I am is just a webmaster for Beats! Records."
Asayake rolled her eyes, displaying mild annoyance. "I've told you a
million times, you're *wasting* your art design degree! You should have
opened your own design studio and went freelance, not work for some
heartless corporation! You could write your own ticket that way, do
whatever you want! You oughta quit and start your own business!" In mock
anger, she shoveled a forkful of risotto in her mouth, giving him a dark
glare. This was an old conversation that the two had, certainly not the
first time.
"Yeah, I know," he moaned gently, having heard this argument from her -
and several others - before. "It's just...well...." Another fork went
straight into the mouth, forestalling any further debate on the subject.
She smiled at him kindly. "Yeah, I know. I don't understand, but I
know."


As dinner continued, silence reigned between the two, both taking time
to either look at the glittering jewels of the Shinjuku skyline, or at each
other. Time had been kind to both, and it clearly showed. Over the course
of the past ten years, Hagane had filled out and matured, going from an
earnest and handsome teen to a striking young man who seemed to exude a
natural ease, so much though that people thought him to have, as the old
saying went, the ease of the Buddha. In truth, though, he was far more
different than those who knew him to be, and those who knew him well tore
their hair out over this fact.
However, it was Asayake that had truly changed. When she'd come fully
into their lives, she'd been nothing but a coltish, gangly girl, her body
just adjusting to the changes that came with puberty. Over the course of
the passing decade, she became a beautiful young woman, a smart, vivacious
and cheerful person who'd become the pride of both her deceased and foster
families. She had grown to love the Hokosaki family as she did her own, and
in many respects she was now the daughter they'd never had. She also kept
close tabs on Hagane, as though she was doing it in Shiori's memory.
"You know," she pointed out, "I was talking to Kenshin on the phone, and
according to him he's thrilled that the whole family's going to be home for
Christmas. I don't think we visit enough, you know." Unusual for Japanese
families, both Hagane and Asayake moved out into their own apartments when
the graduated from university. He had an apartment in the trendy Motomachi
district of Yokohama, while she moved slightly father south to Yokosuka,
near the school she taught at. Still, the pair had regular dinners
together, and were frequently found in the others' company.
"Of course he's glad. He's a teenager and the only one left at home.
When I'm over, he has someone to joke around with, and when you're over he
has someone to help tutor him in his cram courses! Then, there's the epic
marathon of games on the Playsta, and...." Hagane picked up his glass of
wine, took a sip of the red liquid and said, "Man, I'm stuffed. I think
I'll need to walk off dinner. If you've got the time, care to join me in a
jaunt over in the Shinjuku Gardens? I heard they did some new landscaping
for the winter months."
Without even glancing at her watch, she chirped, "Sure! I've got a
couple of hours before I have to catch the last train back. Lead the way."
As both rose from the table, she looked again into the Shinjuku skyline and
the section of Tokyo, lightly covered with the falling snow.

}|{

A short time later, the pair walked amongst the tastefully decorated
grounds of the Shinjuku Imperial Botanical Gardens, the festive displays of
the park now being sheathed in a light spatter of snow. All around,
children were building snowmen and playing at snow fights while their
parents watched with joy; a few other sorts were either walking or taking
pictures, all enmeshed in the dance of life that was usually to be found
here.
As they walked down one of the pebble-laden footpaths, the two of them
felt very at ease with one another. Perhaps it was because they'd spent the
last decade or so in a foster-sibling relationship, or maybe it was because
they'd known each other for so long. In any case, they got along so well
that quite a few people who knew them remarked every so often that they
would make a good couple; something that he would laugh gently about and
correct them; he was long since off the dating market.
She rested her head against his arm, closing her eyes and just being
glad to be there. She'd often remarked that they didn't spend enough time
together, even though the demands of her job required her to be busy with
her academic discipline on a regular basis. "You know, I was thinking," she
began, her words crisp and precise, as though she were reciting something
that she'd intended to say for quite some time.
"Hrm? Didja say something?" he asked, drawn out of whatever reverie
that his mind currently was in. Instead, he found her looking at him in an
unusual way, one that he'd never seen on her face before. Concerned, he
asked, "Hey, you okay?"
"I'm fine. I'm better than I've been in a while." Turning away from
him slightly, she looked up and asked, "This is mistletoe, isn't it? How
beautiful. What an amazing thing for them to plant mistletoe here."
He looked at the plant, with something on his mind. He'd heard
something about it once, but he couldn't remember off the top of his head
what it was exactly. "I could swear I heard something about this plant
before, but I don't remember what it was," he announced, his mind already
thinking about it.
"Well, I heard that there's an old Western legend which says-" she
began, but was immediately cut off by his next words.
Snapping his fingers in triumph, he smiled. "Aaa! Thanks for reminding
me. The druids of England believed it to be a powerful medicine, and a
symbol of peacemaking, like the rose is an ancient symbol of secrecy. Kind
of odd, considering the plant's a parasite, like fungus."
"No, silly!" she exclaimed, appearing to be agitated by his words. "I
didn't mean *that* legend! I meant the *other* one - you know, where two
people who-"


"Hey! Asayake! Hagane! What a surprise meeting you two here!" someone
called out just from the distance, as a pair of figures waved from over by
the man-made lake.
Hagane waved to his friends, beckoning for them to come over. "Hey,
Hikome! Aoi! Fancy meeting you two here! I'd thought you two would be at
your family's place or hers or something." Hagane and Asayake stood waiting
while the duo walked up to catch up. Hagane and Hikome were close friends
since childhood, and Hagane had to admit that his friend's wife was a far
nicer person than the last person he'd been dating. Hagane had meant to ask
Hikome about what had ever happened to her - Kogimi, or something like
that - but once he'd found out from Aoi that Kogimi had screwed Hikome over
big time before she left, the inquiry remained unasked.
It was Aoi, who always seemed to have an odd air of ghostly beauty about
her, who answered. "We plan to, but we have to do some research for our
next novel - we're writing one about modern day Tokyo, so we're scouting out
some locations - not to mention the fact that we wanted some time to
ourselves. In the meanwhile, his parents volunteered to watch our daughter
for the interim, as long as we're there for Christmas with the family."
Hikome smiled. "By the way, I never got the chance to thank you for the
job you did on designing our official website for us. If it had been either
of us, we would have been there forever!"
Hagane scratched the back of his head in an "Aw schucks" mannerism. "I
think you two would have figured it out eventually. I just thought that you
didn't have to cough up a few hundred thousand yen just for a Flash- and
Shockwave page that I could have done for dinner and a couple of beers.
'Sides, we've been friends since we were kids, so I couldn't charge you for
the site."
Hikome and Aoi smiled as one. "I appreciate it," he remarked. "I'm
telling you, you really oughta start up your own web design firm one of
these days. What you do is certainly better than anything I've seen
before."
"That's what I've been telling him for the longest time," Asayake piped
up, suddenly feeling left out.
Aoi immediately noticed the other woman, sensing that they'd interrupted
something. "Oh, I'm sorry, I hadn't noticed that you had a date. Our
apologies."
"Oh, it's not a date, it's just me an' Asa-chan going out for our weekly
dinner together." Somehow, he suddenly realized that might have been taken
the wrong way.
However it sounded, Asayake took it in stride. Sort of. "Nice seeing
you two on such a beautifully snowy and romantically moonlit night." The
subtlety couldn't have been done better if it was delivered with a
sledgehammer.
Hikome looked around at the spectacular scenery of the park. "Actually,
I think we were looking more into the etherealness of the place than-" He
was nudged in the ribs softly by Aoi and immediately shut up.
Fortunately, Hikome's wife wasn't as dense. "Yes, now that you mention
it, it *is* a romantic night. Well, my husband and I were just about to be
going," she added with another gentle nudge to his ribs. "When you get a
chance, we'd love to have you two over for dinner sometime. We'll see you
later, and it was nice seeing you two again." As fast as they could, the
pair beat a hasty retreat back to the koi pond.


Finding it odd that his friends had to leave so abruptly, Hagane
wondered aloud, "Hrm. I hope we didn't mess up a romantic night for them."
Asayake just sighed, her breath crystallizing in the night air. "No, I
don't think it was *their* night that was ruined." Glancing at her watch,
she added with a twinge of sorrow in her voice, "Look at the time - I've got
to get going."
"But I thought that you didn't have to go for another couple of hours."
It was odd timing, seeing as she wasn't usually prone to rashness like this.
She yawned involuntarily, and that gave her the perfect excuse. "I'm
feeling a bit tired, to be honest, so I think I'll call it an early night."
"Well, I was going to suggest that we go get some coffee - this cold is
killing me - but if you need to get going, you should get going. Let's head
off to the train station."
"Thanks," she responded, taking his arm again, though seeming to walk a
slight distance away from him this time. "Tell you what: I know this lovely
coffee machine just by the train tracks. Perhaps that should do it for us?"
He laughed, a bright note against the bright stars. "You always did
have a way with words."
"Of course. I'm a teacher, remember?" ((It's just a shame I don't have
a sense of timing,)) she mentally added.

}|{

Aboard the train on the way back to her home, there was nothing but the
simple sounds of her discman playing her favorite sort of music, drowning
out the steady thrum of the train racing down the tracks. Some might say
that the sort of music she listened to, not the typical JPop that most of
her friends listened to, but ethnic music from other nations, was probably
worse than the thrum of the tracks and the cacophony of the crowds. But the
music was a reminder of her past, an enthusiasm that she'd inherited from
her sister, as Shiori had also been a fan of what was termed "world music."
((And that's just the problem,)) Asayake thought, her thumb tabbing the
control pad over to the next song. ((As much as I love and miss my sister,
she's exactly the problem.)) Asayake tried not to look forlorn, but what
could she do? It was a hard thing to admit - that she was in love with a
man that was not only her sister's last boyfriend, but also for the last ten
years had been her foster brother. She wasn't sure when she fell in love
with him, only that to her, he'd come to symbolize the ideal boyfriend, the
sort of guy who was loyal, loving and faithful...even when the object of
that affection had long since passed from the earth.
Part of her felt dirty for it. Did she have a right to chase after
Hagane? Did he even feel the same about her, or did he look at her like a
kid sister, the ever-present reminder of his love for Shiori? If tonight's
comments to Hikome and Aoi were anything, combined with his disinterest in
the kissing legend of the mistletoe, clearly that's how he saw her. He
might never see her as she wanted him to: a woman in her own right, one that
would gladly spend the rest of her life with him if only she could get him
past her "rival".
That, she knew, was the truly unfair part. Bad enough her "opponent"
was her older sister, a girl that he loved, even ten years past her untimely
demise. But it was worse that even if it hadn't been her sister that she
was up against, she was up against a powerful memory and a man who kept
faith with those cherished recollections; that gave her nothing to fight
against, no leverage whatsoever.
((Neechan, I wish I could get your advice, though I'm not sure if you
would give it to me,)) she mused, playing the last song over again, a
Mexican mariachi song that was one of her sister's favorites. ((Would you
hate me for how I feel about him? Could you ever forgive me for how I want
him so much, how I so very much want to be the one he loves?)) But Asayake
knew there'd be no answer from Shiori, no sign of yea or nay. So the
silence continued, and so did the music pouring through the headphones into
Asayake's ears, one of the few things that she had left of her sister...
...other than the man she loved, a man she wasn't sure if she could ever
have, for the simple reason of her sister's legacy.

}|{

Usually, Hagane's usual path was to take the JR and get off at the
Motomachi station, just across the street from the Sega Yokohama Joypolis
and about five blocks from his home. Instead, he chose to get off at the
Ishikawacho/Chinatown station, a good mile away from where he lived. He
only did that when he needed to do some thinking, and a brisk walk down the
seaside park always did him a world of good. Tonight he would need that
walk, because he had a lot on his mind to think about.
He'd managed to somehow piss Asayake off, and that wasn't a good thing.
She was dear to him, very important to his life. But as of late, things
were changing, situations he couldn't comprehend or put words to and that
truly unnerved him.
He was seeing her in a new light, and he wasn't sure if that light was a
good thing. She'd changed over the years into a beautiful young woman with
traces of Shiori that he could see in her, but also her own self. It was a
good thing that he'd remembered the stuff about mistletoe from his college
days, or else he might have done something inappropriate - and that would
have likely damaged their friendship beyond repair.
"I can't believe I'm becoming attracted to her," he muttered aloud,
stopping by the seaside railing and watching the dark waters of Tokyo bay,
while in the distance the Bay Bridge lit up like a string of ivory spires
and glittering pearls, a visual fantasia that brought joy to most during
this holiday season. To him, though, it perfectly explained exactly what
was going on in his mind, a thrust of white bliss against the darkness of
his current struggle.
It made no sense. He was beginning to fall for her, and that was a
no-no on several levels. For one, how could he betray all that he felt for
Shiori? Though she was dead these past ten years, he made a vow, a promise
that he would see no other; it was a promise that he'd kept, much to the
dismay of many a female friend of his. But that vow was important to him,
and for him to abandon it would be, in his mind, criminal.
Secondly, the person to abandon it for was Shiori's little sister? What
kind of person would do such a thing? There was something clearly wrong
there, and it had everything to do with the fact that the girl he fondly
called Asa-chan was the younger sister of the girl he'd loved for so long -
and to make matters worse, Asayake had spent the last ten years practically
as *his own* sister! She was very much the daughter that his parents never
had, and even his little brother Kenshin always referred to her as
"Asa-nesan", older sister.
Lastly, how did she feel about him? With his luck, she probably thought
of him as an older brother, and for him to betray that trust that they'd had
since the beginning.... He didn't even want to think of the fallout from
that; it hurt too much.
((And yet...and yet, whenever I look at her,)) he thought, his mind
floating back to the original section of though, ((all I see is a beautiful
woman that I dream about, a person that I love being around.)) Hikome told
him once that marriage to the perfect person was the best thing that could
ever happen, and Hagane found himself idly wondering more and more if the
girl he'd grown up with might fit that bill.


Continuing down the pathway towards the end of the park and the building
on the corner that housed the Yokohama Doll Museum, there was a blur of
white that seemed to be just slightly out of place with the rest of the
snowy landscape. Sitting on a dark rock sculpture was, of all things, a
butterfly. It wasn't a very big one, probably about the size of a 500-yen
piece. But it was awestrikingly beautiful, if at the very least because of
its coloring: mostly snowy white, with its wings rimmed with a brilliant red
and two matching spots of the same hue on its upper wings, as though it were
imitating the national flag.
As he watched it flutter its wings once, he wondered why it was here:
chrysalises slept through the winter, never hatching until spring; that was
clearly months off. Additionally, how it was still alive in this slightly
uncomfortable (even by human standards) weather was incomprehensible. But
regardless of how the butterfly hatched, it was likely to die soon anyway;
even if there were some sort of nourishment around for it (which there
wasn't), butterflies had life spans only long enough to procreate and that
was it.
Still, there was something bothering him about the whole thing, and it
was simply that another beautiful thing was destined to die around the
holiday season. That was something he couldn't abide; if there was one
tenet of life that he tried to enforce as much as possible, it was that
nothing was going to die on the holiday season due to his indifference or
negligence. In fact, his pet cat, Noel, was the direct result of such
intervention when he found her as a kitten, rummaging around in a trash bin
not far from his home. Maybe the butterfly would die soon enough, but he
wasn't going to allow it to die while he was around. Maybe it was stupid of
him to be worrying about something so small, but...Shiori would have done
something, and that was reason enough for him.
Looking into a trashbin over by the rock, he found, oddly enough, a
discarded thermos, a bit beat up, but hopefully large enough to accommodate
a resident. As he popped off the top, intending to peer inside and see the
condition of it, without any sort of fanfare, the butterfly lifted off the
dark rock, took to the air, then flitted without ceremony straight into the
thermos, where it remained as he loosely closed the lid again and tucked the
cylinder into the inner pocket of his coat. Even if he had the container,
he hadn't given a single thought of how he was going to get the insect in
there.
((Well, that problem's solved at least,)) he thought to himself as he
continued home, his rescuee snug in its temporary traveling bin.

}|{

As Asayake walked into her apartment, she took one look at the table,
and the tears came fresh. There, in a vase, was a set of flowers that he
had bought for her two days ago, just to cheer her up after she had a bad
day. She loved the flowers very dearly, but they reminded her of why they
were there, which in turn started the mobius of anguish over again.
She quickly checked her answering machine for anything new; there was
nothing save for a message from Hagane's mother asking if Asayake would be
willing to go out and help her complete the Christmas shopping this weekend.
Asayake made a mental note to call her back, then an idea hit her. She
picked up the phone, dialed a number, spoke a terse but heartfelt message,
then hung up and walked away from the counter.
Looking out the window, she whispered a solemn wish to the stars above,
something from the depths of her heart: ((I don't care if it's not the right
thing, but I can't deny how I feel. If the kami can hear my plea, all I
wish for is to have Hagane as my love, maybe my husband if I'm worthy.
That's all I ask for.)) Clapping her hands together, she promised the
ancestors and her parents she would do what she could to try for such an
event, and taking one final look, she invoked her sister's memory.
((Neechan, I don't know if what I'm doing will make you uneasy in the
afterlife, but I love him. All I can do is promise that if I become his
wife, I will be the wife for him that both of us want to be. Please give me
your blessings, somehow.))
Feeling an exhaustion wash over her, Asayake made for her bedroom, not
seeing the solitary shooting star race across the nighttime sky.

}|{

Walking into his apartment, Hagane was greeted by the other major girl
in his life - his pet cat, Noel, who mewled gently as she rubbed against his
leg, begging for attention. A runt, she never grew past her kitten size,
even though the veterinarian estimated that she was about two years old;
sometimes that came in handy, he thought. Looking down at her, he answered,
"In a few seconds, girl." Walking over to the kitchen table, he noticed the
roses that a female friend had gotten him recently - actually, too many of
them; so he gave half to Asayake since she loved flowers so much. Fishing
the thermos out of his jacket and hoping that the butterfly was still alive,
he popped it open, relieved as the delicate creature did its nimble dance in
mid-air for a few seconds, darting around the vase of ruby-red roses before
alighting on the petal of one, as dainty as a fairy.
Inwardly, he smiled; he wasn't sure how much good he did, but at least
something wouldn't die due to his negligence. At his leg, Noel continued to
purr, as though she were giving assent for his act of kindness. "C'mon," he
said to the tabby, as he took his jacket off and put it on the coat rack
near the front of the apartment, "Lemme check the answering machine and see
if there's anything up, and then I gotta get to bed. Early day tomorrow."
Heading over to the answering machine, he began the regular ritual of
listening to messages that he mostly ignored, anyway:

*BEEP* <> *CLICK*

*BEEP* <> *CLICK*

*BEEP* <> *CLICK*

*BEEP* <> *CLICK*

*BEEP* <> *CLICK*

*END OF MESSAGES*

The last message made him feel a lot better. The least thing he wanted
to do, no matter how he felt about her, was to get her angry at him. No
matter what, he'd always love her and be around for her; she would always be
family to him, despite the condition of relation. Feeling a bit more
cheerful, he pressed the purge button on the machine and headed off to bed,
Noel following in tow.
It was right about then that someone knocked on the door. He paused at
first, wondering if it was actually his door; the next-door neighbor tended
to have guests over at all hours of the day. But a second later, the knocks
sounded again, clear this time that it was his entry that was being knocked
on. Trying to figure out who would be visiting him at this time of the
evening, he went to the door, saying, "Look, I was about to crash, so you-"
He never got to finish his comment as something slid off his door
crashing into his room. Hagane looked down, and found that it was a girl,
looking fairly tattered and very much worse for wear. Her skin shading blue
with the coloring of second-degree frostbite, she gazed back at him with
dilated blue eyes and said in a weak voice, "Tasukete," in what would have
been overdramatic if it wasn't for the fact that she bore some sort of
bloody slices on her back, the blood staining her white fuku tunic. Not
able to further say anything, she passed out in the doorway, snow blowing
into the home.
Hagane didn't even have to think. After all, he saved a butterfly, and
frankly, those were pretty insignificant creatures; he saved a cat, and that
was higher up on the importance chain. This, however, was the life of a
young girl, seriously wounded and freezing to death. Instantly, he pulled
her in the house, with a little bit of help from Noel, who grabbed part of
the girl's legwarmers in her teeth and began to pull as well. Managing to
get her on the carpet on the floor, he dashed to the closet, pulling out the
spare futon and some blankets. Setting her on it and making sure she was
covered up, he dashed into the kitchen to heat up some soup, then went into
the bathroom to make sure that he had his first aid kit handy. Something
told hjim that sleep was going to be the least of his problems tonight.


It was around three in the morning when the girl began to rise from the
proverbial deathbed. Moaning slightly, she sat up, arousing Hagane from his
tired slumber in the chair nearby. On his lap, Noel blinked her sleepy
eyes, yawned once then moved to a sort of strange perching place on his
shoulder, which was a convenience for her size. As the girl began to get
up, he moved to her side and said, "Don't move. You were hurt by someone
and your back was torn up pretty badly. Just lay on your front for a while,
so you don't agitate your wounds. Are you hungry?"
She looked at him and nodded, unable to speak. There was fear in her
eyes, one that made him wonder what had happened to her. Were there some
bazoku out there, acting even more like punks than usual? Was it some of
the less well-behaved gaijin out there? Or was it some hardened criminal,
hoping to do God knew what to her?
A few minutes and a couple of bowls of miso soup later, she was able to
sit up with some difficulty. Wearing one of his sweaters to replace her
ruined shirt, she looked at him with gratefulness. Meaning to bow deep to
him, she yelped in pain once then stopped, figuring he would understand.
Thinking for a second of what to say, she finally spoke, her voice that of a
slightly afraid teenage girl who'd found herself in an unlikely safe haven.
"Thank you very much. I don't know if I would have...would have...." She
turned away from him and started to cry. "Excuse me," she said after a few
seconds of deep tears. "I'm so afraid...."
"You don't have to worry. Whatever attacked you out there isn't going
to get a second chance, not while I'm here, anyway. Also, if for some
reason we have to call the police, there's a koban down the street and they
can be here in a heartbeat." Shifting in his chair, he did ask, "So what
happened to you? Should we call your parents, let them know you're okay?"
"I will speak to the police tomorrow when I get a chance," she replied,
though it was clear that was something she was afraid to do - could going
outside be *that* dangerous for her? "As for my family...they died years
ago. I am alone in this world save for an older sibling that I haven't seen
in years."
"I'm sorry," he answered, wishing he could take it back.
"I have nowhere to go right now, and I'm afraid of what will happen if-"
She cut her own words off, shivering at the thought of something clearly
horrid. Turning back to him, her eyes filled with wild fear as she nearly
shouted, "Please let me remain here overnight! Please! I'll do anything,
whatever I have to." Slightly shivering, but clearly now with a different
sort of fear, she slowly and painfully made to take off the borrowed
sweater.
The implication was clear. Hagane quickly motioned for her to keep the
top on. "No, that's not necessary. Believe me, I'm not that kind of guy.
You obviously need help, and it would be unfair of me to take advantage of
your time in need."
She gave him a nervous smile in return, though it was clear that she was
relieved that her life wasn't about to be made worse. "Thank you very
kindly, sir. You have a high degree of nobility and honor to be so gracious
to a girl who has little to offer you."
"It's Christmastime. Peace on Earth and all that. Look, we both need
some sleep, and tomorrow we can talk about it before I go to work. Then we
can figure out what's next for you, okay, Miss-"
She smiled at him with the grace of a girl who'd just discovered her
samurai in shining armor. "Kocho. Shibane Kocho, age 16. And you are?"
"Hokosaki Hagane, but you can just call me Hagane. Now get some sleep,
since you need it more than I do-" he yawned, looking at the clock, "-and
frankly, I need some of it myself if I'm going to be going to work tomorrow.
Good night, Kocho-san."
Despite her pain, fear and injuries, she gave him a warm smile, the kind
that touched him in a way that he hadn't felt in years. "Oyasumi nasai,
Hagane-san."

}|{

A few hours later, Hagane woke up to some unusual smells. It took him a
few seconds to identify exactly what it was, something uncommon around his
home: breakfast. Opening his eyes, Hagane found an interesting surprise:
perched on his nose, as though embracing him for his kindness was the white
butterfly. It looked at him with golden, multi-faceted eyes for a few
seconds before flitting off and away, and out the door. He softly laughed;
perhaps the insect was thanking him for his kindness. Then as another scent
of breakfast wafted into the room, it was clear that someone else was
thanking him as well.
Sure enough, there was a knock at the bedroom door. Without really
waiting for an answer, the door slid open and Kocho poked her head in. "I
thought I'd pay you back for your kindness by making breakfast. You didn't
have much in your fridge, so I risked a run down to the store. I hope you
like an American-style breakfast, because that's what I'm cooking." She
smiled and said, "Take your time getting up and getting dressed, it won't be
ready for at least another half-hour or so." She slid the door closed and
went back to whatever she was doing.
Sure enough, Hagane took that as the hint to get up. Injured girl or
not, she was a guest in his home, so he had to be more courteous. Secondly,
she was a stranger, and he'd heard tales of some high school girls setting
up various scams lately, from teenage sex blackmail to outright con-artistry
and even outright theft in one or two cases. Somehow he didn't think a girl
with wounds as serious as she had was capable of that, but perhaps that
might have been the reason she was being chased; pissing off the wrong sort
of people will tend to do that. In any case, he had to be at work in a
little over an hour, so up it was.


About a half-hour later, he sat down at the table, to find it covered in
breakfast dishes, for the first time since he bought the Western-style item.
On it was pancakes, hashbrowns, sausages, scrambled eggs, and various other
dishes he couldn't name, along with various other foodstuffs. Over by the
stove, moving slowly but with purpose was Kocho, finishing up cleaning.
Setting down the dishcloth, she sat at the other chair, smiling and saying,
"Eat, please - I owe you so much, and this was the least I could do. I hope
it meets with your pleasure."
Hagane wielded his fork and knife and dived into the food. The first
bite was like a slice of heaven, a complete symphony of delight to the
tastebuds. The second bite was even better, and the successive ones better
still. He remembered a time he graduated from high school and as a
graduation gift his family took everyone to southern California for the
weekend. There at various places he got to experience Western breakfasts,
with their oversized portions and unusual styles of cooking. This, by far,
outdid them all. "This is great," he said with his mouth full, so wishing
to give compliments that he hadn't even noticed he wasn't finished chewing
yet.
"Thanks," Kocho replied, daintily taking a bite from an egg-based dish
that he vaguely recalled as "Eggs Benedict." "It's not often that I get a
chance to cook, or even that much of a chance to show off my talents," she
replied. Looking at the flower setting on the table, with its resident
seated there in its dual-hued beauty, she admitted, "You know, I've never
met anyone who had a pet butterfly, especially in the winter."
"The story's a bit more complex than that," he answered with an empty
mouth this time, and then explained how he came across the white butterfly.
After a minute or two, he segued into his own question: "Speaking of
stories, I do believe we have yours to touch upon."
She sighed, for what reason he wasn't sure. "There's nothing much
really to tell. My parents are dead, and I haven't seen any of my other
relatives in years. I've mostly spent my time wandering around Japan trying
to learn what I can and become the best I can be at, though I'm not sure
what that is. Since I don't have a family, most people would look on me as
a burden, even though I have a trust fund that I've had since I was a child
that I use to get me by. That and a few smart investments that my parents
made when I was just a baby keep me alive."
"So what happened to you yesterday?"
"Well, you might find this funny, but since I've been alone, I've worked
as a sort of wandering hero-type - a sort of girl teen 'Tora-san' if you
will. I'd like to say that I've done what I could for people, but I've also
found in the process that some people can't be helped - or dealt with
peacefully." She stopped, then banished the dark thought away. "But as to
why I'm in town, I'm searching for something, though I'm not sure yet what
it is. I realize that doesn't make much sense, but there you have it, and
as the old saying goes, "If you say that, it's all over."
"So, what about the meanwhile? Where will you stay? What will you do?"
"I don't know, to be honest," she replied. "I learn things pretty
quick, so I don't have exactly what you'd call a formal education. But I do
believe that hopefully I can settle down when I find it that I'm looking
for. But I think I should focus more on healing at the moment than
continuing my search."
"Well, I'm probably crazy for saying this, but you can stay here at
least until your back heals. But I want you to report your problem to the
police. If someone attacked you, they could attack others as well." As he
said this, a part of him wondered why he trusted this strange 16-year-old
girl, especially in light of what he was thinking earlier. However, there
was something about her that he couldn't pinpoint, something that just
seemed to warm him to her presence. Perhaps it was her plight, or maybe her
cheerfulness despite all that she'd been through the previous night.
Whatever it was, she likely wouldn't be here for too long, so there was
really no need to worry. After all, she admitted she was a drifter, and it
was rare when a drifter settled down.
((I of all people should know that.)) He was a different kind of
drifter, the sort that coasted through life without a firm anchor, likely
because his had been taken away from him earlier in his life. Had he known
that losing his beloved Shiori would have done this to him, he probably
would have jumped off the Sony building that day had it not been for his vow
to protect Asa-chan. But there was so much lost that day ten years past,
and there was still unknown if he'd ever get that trait back; perhaps it was
lost for good, buried in the sands of time and lost in the cold Tsugaru
strait.
Fortunately, an interruption from Kocho stopped that all. "Look, I
don't want to be any more of a burden to you than I already have been. If I
need to go, I should go. But if you'll allow me to stay, at least let me
find some way of repaying your kindness."
"It's not necessary, believe me. This is the time of peace on Earth
and-" He was interrupted by the chime of the clock on the wall. "Shit!
I'm going to be late for work! Look , I'll talk to you later, Kocho. If
you need to get a hold of me, my work number's speed-dialed on the phone.
Gotta go, bye!" Leaping from the table, he grabbed the coat off the hangar
and his laptop bag before racing out of the apartment and towards the train
station.
As he left, she looked at the door with a face that held both sorrow and
happiness. Whispering to herself, she said, "Hagane, I wonder if you really
know what you've gotten yourself into," then began to clear the table. She
had a lot of work to do around the place, as well as find herself another
set of clothes and prepare for his return tonight. She had a lot of plans
indeed.

}|{

Asayake walked into her classroom with a minimum of disruption for the
day - so far. As always, she wondered how she managed to get this position.
She'd applied for the position of a teacher next door at the elementary when
she was suddenly recommended to take over for the Literature teacher who'd
suddenly had to retire after an unexpected heart attack. Well loved by his
students, she wasn't sure that at her age she was going to get the job at
all. The principal of the school, unsure of how an untested girl would work
as a teacher, gave her the job on a probationary status, doubtful that it
would work out.
That was six months ago. Now, her skills had won her the respect of her
peers, her age won her the friendship and trust of the girls in the class,
and her looks...well, she'd heard rumors that she was number one on the list
of teachers the male students would most like to date. Judging by the
occasional student that propositioned her, the rumors were likely true.
Walking to the markerboard at the front, she said, "Okay, today we're going
to discuss a couple of modern classics today in class.
A hand went up, followed by a firm-yet-friendly girl's voice that
offered, "Well, I think we should discuss _Norweigan Wood_. That's a recent
enough book that's considered a classic." Asayake smiled, looking at the
girl that was reputed to be the school bully, of sorts. Unlike most high
schools, the one she taught at had a girl as the person considered the
campus heavy, and that came in handy as she was a friendly sort who
apparently only got into fights when someone deserved it - or on a more
regular basis with her rival...
...the class rep. "Perhaps we should cover the works of Mizuki Shigeru,
instead," the class rep suggested in her soft voice. Her voice was
beguiling, as it prevented one from hearing the real steel in her, the only
person on campus who would stand up to the bully on a regular basis. While
the two had never actually come to blows that Asayake knew of, she did know
that both were fighting for the hand of one particular boy, a guy who sat
between them and looked as though he was caught between the anvil and the
hammer.
"*Figures* you'd think that, spooky girl!" the tea-haired teen sniped.
"At least *I* think! I'm not sure *you* do that!" the dark haired girl
returned.
"I think all the time! I think of how I'm going to get rid of you!"
"You wouldn't do that, 'cause my Koketsu-kun wouldn't let you! So
there!"
Looking completely bemused and a more than a bit mortified, the boy
half-moaned, "can you *please* argue about this later? We're in class right
now!"
That was clearly a cue for Asayake to get involved. "Seijitsu-san,
Aino-san, if you two are going to fight, take it out in the hall! If not,
can we get this class started? Since no one can think of a single thing to
cover in this class, I recommend that we cover the story of _Zashiki Bokko
Hina_, and-"


Class was suddenly interrupted by a group of white butterflies flitting
into the room, each pure white and delicate as the snow falling north of
here in Tokyo, the sole difference was that each of these had different
color accents, though the markings were the same. Two of them, the purple
and blue ones spiraled around the room for a couple, while the green-marked
one just seemed to be content to land on the window, sitting there and
appearing to watch its wingmates.
Hikari groaned. "Not *more* of them!" Turning to Hikage she snarled,
"I have no idea how, but this is clearly *your* fault!"
But the class rep, Hikage, was equally puzzled. For reasons that no one
knew, the girl seemed to have an affinity with butterflies, especially a
group of black-and-coral ones that inexplicably followed her around during
the sunnier months. "No...these ones aren't like the others. Believe me,
these are entirely different." To Asayake's surprise, Hikage watched them
intently, as if she was divining some sort of purpose or reason for them.
Odd enough they were here; odder still that this simple country girl who was
living with her foster family should take such an interest in the gossamer
beings before her. After a few seconds, though, she turned away, relief in
her features. "Weird, really weird," was all she said, and nothing more.
Hikari made a rude comment in reply, to which the argument between the
pair continued again, disrupting the class once more. However, that wasn't
the things on Asayake's mind, now. No, that belonged to the flight of
butterflies, that fluttered-by and landed straight on the desk, joined by
the third. They stared at her as one with their golden eyes, a second set
of students glancing at the sensei. As the first class began to rally
around Hikage and Hikari's latest argument, the insects seemed to be more
enrapt by the teacher, and as she stared back at the things she got a
definite sense of unease, a feeling akin somehow to being stalked, though
that was clearly just as impossible as butterflies existing in the winter.
She'd probably feel better when she called Hagane at lunch and made
plans for tonight. ((There's that new romantic comedy playing at the Toho
Cinema, I wonder if he'd like to go....))

}|{

In the apartment, Noel climbed up onto the table, taking playful swats
at the butterfly. The cat found the insect curious and a delight to play
with. In turn, the delicate creature swooped and spiraled around her paws,
nimbly dancing around the cat as she gave chase following it around the
apartment and beginning to get in the way of Kocho's vacuuming.
Finally, Kocho had enough. Picking up the kitty, she looked Noel
straight in the eyes and said, "Now, I don't mind you playing with the
butterfly, but at least take the time to be more polite about it, okay?" As
she looked at the cat, Kocho's blue eyes, already rare for a Japanese girl,
changed over to an even rarer hue - the same golden tone as that of the
butterfly. Something elemental and primal changed in her for a second, and
the feline yelped in fear.
"It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you," Kocho said, holding the cat
close to her and stroking her fur. After a few seconds, Noel calmed down
and began to purr, accepting this strange human once more. As she set the
fuzzball down, she said, "Now I have to get back to work in cleaning this
place for our Hagane-kun tonight. Just be more careful, daijo?"
Noel seemed to nod. A second later, the cat watched as the butterfly
returned to its nesting place on the table flowers, but the feline gave no
chase to it.

}|{

So far, the day had gone pretty smoothly. Hagane had managed to make it
to work on time, and good thing, too - the web server that handled the sites
for Beats!' enka artists division crashed, and while no one really listened
to enka anymore, it was still somewhat important to have online. So, Hagane
got straight into the nuts and bolts of the system, not even waiting from
some twidget from the IT department to get there. Sure enough, after making
a few adjustments and some software workarounds, he got it up and running,
just as smooth as always and much to the relief of the corporate heads.
He had just sat down in his office a couple of hours later when he
received a knock on the door. Surprisingly, it was old Mr. Yokobue Take,
one of the studio musicians, and a recording artist in his own right. A man
in his early fifties, Yokobue-san was surprisingly adept at the modern music
scene, which was probably the main reason he was the head studio musician at
a JPop record label, and not just a performer for the label's New Age
subsidiary - which he was that, too. It was also said of Yokobue-san and
his wife that since they had no children, they tended to mother all of the
younger, teenage performers at the label, especially the young and innocent
talents whose managers wanted them to stay that way. "Good morning to you,
Hokosaki," he said in that gruff-yet-kind voice that always made him seem to
be like a grandfather.
"Good morning to you, sir," Hagane replied, turning on his computer and
preparing for yet another day with the website. "What brings you down
here?"
"Well, first off, I wanted to see if my good friend Takaki over at the
Ariyashi Institute called you. He needs some freelance work done, and while
I don't know much about web design or whatever you call it, I do know that
enough people say you're good enough to have your own company. So I took
the time to recommend him to you when he mentioned it the other day."
Well, at least that mystery was cleared up. "I thank you very much,
sir. I don't know if I'm ready to strike out on my own, but I will give
your friend a call back and be more than happy to assist him in whatever he
needs."
Yokobue nodded. "You're more than welcome. As for the second reason,
well...."
A timid girl popped up from behind Yokobue. "Um, hi, Hagane," the young
lady said, smiling at him timidly and already breaking into a blush. She
was Magami Suzume, a timid little thing that would be just your typical high
school student if it wasn't for the fact that she was one of the hottest
JPop stars on the charts at the moment. Surprisingly (and almost as though
she had a split personality), she was much more forceful and charismatic as
long as you put a microphone on her hands; otherwise, she was the na?ve and
timorous girl she was now. Living the life of a pop star to a certain
degree, she had her own apartment in the Suginami ward of Tokyo, far away
from her family who remained behind in Hokkaido; she would have been
completely alone out here had it not been for the fact that she lived a few
blocks from the Yokobue home. "Um, hi, Hagane. I, was, um, well, I was
walking down here with Yokobue-san, and he, well, um, I, that is...."
The phone rang, and Hagane's assistant moved to get it. In the
meanwhile, he was going to have to figure out how to get out of this one:
she was clearly going to ask him to dinner again, something he didn't want
to do. Granted, she was a nice kid and a very talented individual, but he
wasn't attracted to her. He saw her as someone to look out for, but nothing
much other than that. But how was he going to get the point across to her
without hurting her feelings? She looked very much the type that had never
been rebuffed before, if only because she'd likely never asked anyone out
before.
Fortunately, the next couple of sentences seemed to have solved that.
"Yo, Hagane, you've got some girl named Kocho on line one for ya. Oh, and
your girlfriend's on line two for you as well." There was mirth in his eyes
as he said, "Hey, two girls at once. You've really got the luck, you
magnificent bastard, you. You have *got* to hook me up some time, man!"
Without saying anything, Hagane looked back at Suzume evenly, though not
unkindly. In her eyes flickered the instant of her heart breaking, but she
didn't reflect in her voice too much as she said in a measured tone,
"Well...I was going to ask you if you wanted to come to have dinner with me
sometime this week...um, because I need...I need help fixing my computer.
It's not working right, and you're the only one I know who's good enough to
fix it."
"Sure. As soon as I have some free time, I'll be more than happy to
help you out on that," he replied honestly and earnestly, hoping his tone
would give her a way out of her pain.
She smiled cheerfully, but everyone noticed that her eyes were already
beginning to well with tears. She then leaned over and gave him a kiss on
the cheek. "You're a dear, Hagane-kun. Well, I have to go see my tutor for
my classes. Can't be a music star if I can't keep my grades up!" She
dashed out of the room before anyone could see her cry. Yokosue merely
nodded a respectable agreement to Hagane for letting her down so easily,
then headed off to see what he could do to console the girl.
Hagane felt bad. ((I hadn't intended it to go that way, but....)) He
wasn't even sure how to complete his thoughts; that wasn't a good sign. Not
knowing what else he could say, he picked up the phone and tabbed on line
one. "Hagane here."
<> The voice on the other end seemed to be more cheerful
than she'd been in the morning, and he could even imagine the girl's smile
as she cradled the phone in her hand. <>
"Well, I don't have anything set in stone, so, sure, we can do
something. I should be home around six or so."
<>
Hagane shook his head, wondering how he'd managed to turn down Suzume
just a second ago, yet completely agreed to this stranger's invite. Not too
far away, Hagane's assistant was about to make some smart-ass remark about
it all; a dark stare silenced it. Tabbing the second line active, he said,
"I'm sorry about the wait, Asa-chan. What's up?"
<>
"There's no need to apologize, really. I didn't think you were being
snappy at all, really. Don't worry about it."
<>
He almost agreed to it, eagerly, but then suddenly remembered the
earlier one. "I would love to, really, but unfortunately I said I'd help a
friend fix a busted computer. Apparently they can't do anything without my
expertise, so..." Part of him felt guilty for lying to her, but the fact
was, part of him couldn't bring himself to tell her. Granted, if she heard
he had a date (of sorts), she would likely just congratulate him and figure
out what to do next. But another part of crawled up from wherever, telling
his consciousness that revealing his evening plans would be a very costly
mistake that just might lose her; if by some reason she did have feelings
for him, one date with another person (even if it wasn't a date, not really)
could ruin everything. "You know how it is, ne?"
On the phone, she sounded a bit disappointed, but it wasn't really clear
why. <> she
asked. <> A pause marked only by the drumming of her
fingers against something in the distance, and she spoke again. <>
"I don't see a problem with it so far," he admitted, and he didn't;
hopefully by then he should have this problem with Kocho solved that he
could ask for her assistance, as she would be better equipped to deal with
the wandering teen more than he was. "Wednesday sounds perfectly fine to
me."
<> She giggled giddily, reminding him of the bygone times when
Shiori did that just before she proclaimed her love for him; did that say
something about how Asayake's felt for him? <>
((Oh.)) He could hear her words in his mind: (("I just miss having my
'big brother' around, you know?")) "Of course. Well, I wish I could stay
on the phone longer, but I have to get back to work. I'll talk to you
later, okay?"
<> she mock-threatened, the faux
hulking clearly hard for her to express on the phone.
"Yes, ma'am!" he responded smartly. "Gotta go. Ja mata." Once again,
his assistant made to prep for a biting remark, and Hagane silenced it with
a retort of, "If I hear a single comment out of you, you'll be doing the
English website design. In fact, why the hell am I tearing my hair out over
it? You wanted to learn the trade, well here's your chance. Enjoy?" A
small case containing a CD-R was flung, with the precision of a
techno-ninja, towards the assistant who caught it, looked at it, and then
treated it as though it were the vilest thing in existence.
"English?! But I don't speak a single word of it!" the assistant
quailed.
"Damn...I guess you'll have to just learn then. Hope you paid enough
attention in your high school classes." Saying no more but breaking out in
a victorious grin, Hagane returned back to his earlier endeavors, all the
while hearing the music of both the radio and the cursing of his assistant.

}|{

Asayake closed the panel on her cell phone, instantly regretting that
she didn't say more. ((Maybe saying it over the phone is the coward's way
out, but at least I would have told him how I feel. Maybe, maybe I can tell
him tomorrow. My heart just aches when I'm not with him, and I don't think
it's due to melodrama!)) She sighed; things weren't getting any easier, but
maybe that was how love was? She didn't ever remember it being this hard
with any of the boyfriends she had before. Then again, she realized, they
were just boys to flirt with and occasionally kiss; Hagane, on the other
hand, was a man that she found herself wanting to spend more and more time
with, maybe the rest of her life.
"Hey! Asako!" Asayake turned around and noticed the dark-haired gaijin
walking towards her. The English teacher at the school, Alice was a nice
enough (if a bit perplexing) British girl who'd come to study a year of
Japanese at Tokyo Gakuen University and loved it enough to stay here.
Always with a smile and a happy note in her voice, she was definitely what
she termed "a wee bonny lass," whatever that meant. Fortunately, today she
was just enough off the happy drugs to see that something was bothering her
friend. "What's the problem? You look just a bit down." Before Asayake
could answer, Alice smiled and nodded sagely. "No, let me guess: boy
troubles, right?"
"Sort of," Asayake admitted slightly. Looking at her friend, she asked
an earnest question: "Have you ever been madly in love with your brother
before?"
Alice blanched instantly, but recovered just as quick. "You know, there
are licensed therapists who can deal with that problem for you."
"No!" she stammered instantly. "I mean...oh, you're never going to
understand, but...." Asayake immediately went into her quick-fire
explanation of her life with the Hokosaki family after they took her in, and
how she'd come to be like their own child; she eventually led up to her
current predicament. As she went along, she found new depths of her feeling
for him; there was a true passion in her voice, a firmness and clarity that
she'd never realized she had before. To the casual passerby, there was no
doubt: this was a woman truly and utterly caught fast in the steel-firm yet
dulcet grip that was the force of love.
After she'd finished her tirade, Alice stood there for a few minutes,
watching the school children slowly pack up and get ready for the remaining
half of the school day. "You know, I understand how you feel, Asako. There
was a man back in Bristol that I loved, but I left behind because I wanted
to stay here. Not returning to Gray is one of the few regrets I'll have in
my life. You should make sure there aren't as many in yours, because if you
leave regrets, there'll be naught left save pitiful wishes and dreams.
Chase your dreams now, cherish your hopes."
Asayake looked at her friend with newfound respect. She'd never known
that Alice could be so deep; perhaps she should have known better. "Thank
you for caring, my friend. How can I ever repay you?"
Alice smiled, then made the kind of scheming face that only a gaijin
could. "Weeeeeellll...I do have tickets to go to the movies tonight, but
unfortunately Toji bailed on me, the wretch - ooh, is he going to *pay* for
that! - so since I figured misery loves company, you can supply dinner and
I'll supply the tickets, ne?" She looked at the Japanese woman
conspiratorially and said, "'Sides, you might get some ideas from it - it's
that new sexy American romance movie that just started in theatres this
week."
Asayake nodded with a similar cast in her eyes; that was another movie
that she'd wanted to see this month. "Deal. So I'll see you after classes
and we can figure out where to meet?"
"Done and done," Alice said, as both women headed towards the school
building, as the warning bell rang.

}|{

((Ah, to finally be home,)) Hagane thought, stepping into his apartment
and preparing for a long relaxing time after a hard day's work with a simple
crash on the couch, a small meal, and maybe some time on the TV before-
"Welcome home!" a voice cheerfully called out, taking his jacket and
laptop from him before he could complain. "You look like you've had a very
hard day. Sit down and relax; dinner is ready and on the table. So, how
was things for you?"
Part of him seemed bewildered for a few minutes, trying to place at
which point he'd stepped into Wonderland. However, a short second later,
reality caught up with him as he reminded himself that the girl, Kocho, was
staying with him at the moment. For a second, a detached part of him felt
as though he was coming home to something that he should have had already by
his age: a loving wife, one that would care for him always. ((But Shiori's
long since gone now,)) he mentally chided, ((and Asa-chan, well....)) He
shook his head of that notion; there was no need to continue down that
avenue of thought.
Taking his stuff and putting it away, she said, "Well, I've had an
interesting day. Went down to the police and the people who attacked me
were caught and I have to go down to the ward precinct tomorrow in order to
file charges. They asked me for some information, so I gave them yours as a
friend's I was staying at. I hope you don't mind."
"Um, no I don't really." He was a bit confused at first looking at her
face, searching for some exterior motive, but couldn't find one. Her eyes
were so trusting, so sweet and innocent, despite the life that she'd hinted
at living. Then it was when he noticed she was wearing the last thing he
had to remind himself daily of his love for Shiori - her fuku. A white
tunic with a golden tarflap and indigo skirt, it fit the girl beautifully,
being exactly her size. But of course, there was the fact the only school
around here that wore that fuku was the one that they had all attended. She
had no other clothing with her when she arrived, and she didn't seem the
type to stick to fukus constantly, which meant that she had to have gotten
that out of his closet. "Whe-where did you get that?"
"I got it out of your closet. The question is: what are you doing with
it?" She cocked an eyebrow at him and rightfully so; it did look pretty odd
that a single guy like Hagane should have a teenage girl's school uniform.
"It was the last thing I had of an old girlfriend before she died," he
admitted. "I keep it to remind me of her and of how much I love her still."
The look on Kocho's face was priceless. "Oh...oh, I'm so sorry! Let me
go take it off! I'm so terribly sorry; it's so insensitive of me to be
wearing this!"
The realization that he had it still, combined with Kocho's earlier
comments made him wonder if keeping it was doing him any good. Certainly he
had other mementos from her, and maybe holding on to a fuku of hers might
not be a good idea, especially since Asayake didn't know about it. Also, to
be honest, as Kocho had just demonstrated, there were plenty of ways to
misconstrue the whole thing. It was time to let it serve other uses; it
likely would someday, anyway. With a tortured sigh, he said, "No, it looks
very good on you. Go ahead and keep it; you look like you need the
clothing, anyway."
"You mean it?" When he nodded, she spun around in it, looking at
herself in the hallway mirror and for a split-second, acting like a normal
girl her age instead of the dark and tortured soul she'd been the night
before. As she spun, something suddenly dawned on him: though she had
tea-colored hair and blue eyes, her face and frame was the near-likeness of
Shiori at that age. Perhaps it was his mind playing tricks on him, or the
reminder of Shiori with a dazzling young girl in its folds once again.
Whatever the cause, her memory surged into his head and was surging through
with the gentleness of a clouds brushing against his face. He found himself
whispering her name, barely audible; for a rarity, he was able to blink back
the tears that usually came with a moment like this.
Meanwhile, Kocho soon stopped, however, as her back wounds wrenched and
dropped her on the floor, wincing. Moving to her side to help, Hagane asked
with genuine concern, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," she seethed through clenched teeth. "My back seized up; it's
clearly nowhere near healed enough for me to go dancing, so that ruins
tonight's plans for us. I guess we'll just have to go see a movie instead,
okay?"
"A movie, after dinner? You make it sound as though we're going out on
a date."
"Well," she replied enigmatically, her blue eyes boring through the
depths of his own, seeking for the person so deep within. Something felt as
though he were being drawn into her eyes, being drawn inexorably closer to
her, a satellite dragged into a larger body's gravity field, despite all the
other forces of nature that would normally allow for escape.
His lips met hers in a soft kiss, one that soon turned into a deep,
heartfelt expression. After a few seconds, she let go, shrinking back from
him, his mind still unable to realize what he'd done. She blushed
furiously, then looked up at the ceiling. "Well, it was your fault - you
put that there."
Stupidly, Hagane looked up and saw the sprig of mistletoe that he'd put
up just a couple of days ago. He'd hoped that he'd get a chance to use it,
but with a girl a decade younger than him wasn't exactly what he had in
mind. ((Then again, she's awfully sweet and....)) He clamped down that
line of though immediately; she was far too young for him to be doing
anything like that with, and besides, it had been an accident. As long as
she thought he wasn't taking advantage of her, he'd be alright - in fact,
after last night, she should know by now that he wasn't that type of person.
He hoped. Offering her a hand up as he stood himself, he tried to think of
a way to explain it. "Well, um, I was thinking of the traditional purposes
of the mistletoe - you know, Peace, Goodwill, and kindness."
Kocho seemed to recover from the incident, not moving away from him, but
instead stood her ground. "I always found that funny, considering the
mistletoe is a parasitic plant, ne?" Before he could respond (considering
he'd been thinking just that thought the previous night), she continued
with, "Well, let's have dinner before it gets cold." Taking his arm in
hers, she led him to the dinner table, where they would have a pleasant
dinner together, chatting about lives and who they were.
The oddity of it all never once reached Hagane's mind: he was acting no
different than a guy on his first date, getting to know the girl better.
Considering said girl was his (even if temporary) roommate, the situation
made it even more off the pale.


Not too far from the table, the white butterfly watched the pair as it
sat on the television remote, seeing all that happened. It fluttered its
wings once, though it did not move. Instead, it turned to look at Noel,
busy laying down on the coffee table next to the remote. The cat looked
once at the butterfly, nodded her head in sleepy agreement then drifted off
into slumber. As if understanding, the delicate insect took to the wing,
choosing a place much closer to the action - in particular, from the vantage
point that was the top of the coat hanger. As it landed there, it watched
the two, yet the emotions that the bug had, if any, could not be discerned
within its golden eyes.

}|{

"That had to be a great movie. Thanks. I don't know what I would have
done without some company tonight," Asayake replied, taking a sip out of her
coffee as the pair sat on the outdoor terrace of the local coffee shop,
watching the comings and goings of people walking by the mall. The Pacific
Coast Hotel and Shopping Mall in Kawasaki, although not sizable, was
significant in that it had a Western-size movie theatre complex in it. With
more than two movies playing at once, it was one of the more popular
theatres in the Kanagawa region, even though it had yet to be considered as
trendy or important as the eigas in Shinjuku, Ginza, or Ikekebukuro. Still,
people went there in droves, both for the movies, and to watch as the crowds
went by.
"Well, sitting in your place by yourself really wouldn't have helped
you," Alice countered, tipping her glass of Irish coffee in salutation to
her friend before downing a sup. "You needed more than that, and I was only
too happy to provide, especially since I had the tickets on hand. I just
hope that it gave you a much-needed injection of confidence in the old
mindset. If you really want your man, then you should go for it. And if
not," she said, turning her head at just the right time, "you can't have
that guy, 'cause I think he's cute."
"Well, you can have him, because I really prefer my...." Asayake
paused, stopped for a second before looking once more. "Oooh, I think I
must be seeing things."
Alice never took her eyes off the person she was watching. "Why do you
say that?"
"I could swear I just saw my Hagane...with another girl. And she was
young, too. High school type."
"Maybe he just swings that way," Alice blurted. When she saw the nasty
look on the other woman's face. "Hold on, I was joking, okay? But here's
something that I wonder if you've given thought to: what if he's already
taken, and he never told you?"
"He would have told me. We're very close," Asayake retorted.
"Then if you're so close, why are you here tonight with me, and not with
him?" When Asayake didn't have an answer for that, Alice merely sighed and
said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way, Asako. Look, I'll be right
back. Don't give up, everything will turn out okay in the end, I know it.
Just believe." Momentarily placing her hand on Asayake's shoulder for
comfort, it was all she could do as Alice momentarily stepped out.
Asayake, in the interim, continued to watch the pair, too far from a
distance to easily discern their identities. She could solve it by any
number of ways: she could walk over there, she could call his cel phone, or
she could call his house. But the truth was, there were such things as
coincidences, and there was also the fact that part of her feared a truth
she didn't want to admit: that perhaps Alice was right; that Hagane did in
fact have another person in his life and she was merely deluding herself.
But that sort of thought brought on dark spirits, concepts of dying and
death. She wouldn't' go so far as to end her life without him, would she?
Surely there was a way to live without him? This wasn't some drama on the
terebi, this was real life.
And as she blinked back tears, Asayake began to fear real life for the
first time.


From not too far away, a trio of impossibly alive butterflies watched as
they perched on a nearby lamppost, gossamer ravens watching for a telltale
sign of what was to come. What was clear to them was impractical to know;
what they thought of was alien to most minds. They watched their particular
subject like a rat in the maze, wondering what would happen next.
Eventually, as she left for the evening, the trio took to the wing, headed
not in the direction of where Asayake went, but rather towards another
section of Yokohama, off to report their latest findings to their own
leader.

}|{

In the dark of Hagane's apartment, it was the wee hours of the morning.
Hagane himself was asleep, thinking about the surprisingly pleasant evening
that he'd had, and dreaming of possible times to come. Unaware to his
conscious mind, his brain was currently intermixing his feelings for
Asayake, imprinting them in the depths of his heart, but also finding that
there was a young street urchin that had somehow become more prevalent in
them than she'd been last night.

Noel was also asleep, dreaming of whatever it is cats do.

However, not all of the inhabitants of the apartment were dreaming the
peaceful slumber of the night. Within the main living space of the
apartment, court was being held in session.
Suspended in the air within floating globes similar to their own wing
hues, were the four white butterflies, all poised before Kocho. Their
golden eyes glowed with an unearthly light, and in strobing, sinewy patterns
that seemed to hint at a form of biophotoelectric communication that was
unavailable to normal members of the butterfly species.
Seated before them, dressed in a borrowed shirt, Kocho spoke to them
silently, a bare whisper that seemed to imply as though she were in
communion with the dead. "So far everything's going well. If this
continues, I will be in my proper place soon."
The one with red-accented wings fluttered once, then strobed a quick,
hurried burst of light.
Kocho turned to it. "I think I'm entitled to my happiness. I've been
hurting for so long.... Don't you all want your own lives, your own chance
at love?" Red "commented" once more, and Kocho answered, "Yes, I know. I
remember. And I wish it had succeeded for you, believe me, I wish it had.
But all agreed that we would never deny each other our chances, should they
ever arise, remember that?"
Purple blinked a long single flicker, a steady statement whose intent
was clear only to Kocho.
She looked at Purple with sad eyes. "I know it's not easy. And I know
that you told me it wasn't going to be that way. But I have to try - if I
don't, that will be the one big regret I'll always have."
Blue and Green flittered off a small storm of flashes, clearly
indicating some sort of urgency in their "speech".
Kocho nodded. "Yes, I know about the other girl. She seems familiar
for some reason - I wish I could find out more about her. But I think that
they're just friends, and that she's not as close as you think she might be.
In any case, it won't matter much, soon. The Celestial moon is coming, and
if I succeed..." She paused, wondering what to say. "Promise me we'll all
stay together, no matter what? No matter what happens, you're all my
dearest friends, and I love you so much."
The four butterflies fluttered in unison, landing on Kocho's shoulder in
a gesture of comfort. She smiled, then yawned. As the four took to the
air, she stretched and prepared to make ready for bed, as Red took its usual
place on the kitchen flower vase, and the others crawled underneath the door
towards the outdoors and their rendezvous with Asayake's home.

}|{

Over the next few days a pattern emerged: Hagane would wake up to a
great breakfast made for him by Kocho, then would rush off to work. She
would meet him there during the course of the day, and they would take lunch
together. Asayake would call to see how he was doing, but would end up
having to leave a message for him, hoping that he would be free for the
night. Of course, it would be in vain, as Kocho would have something
planned for the night that would keep her and Hagane busy for that night,
having the time of their lives together. Of course, during this, there
would be a slight touch, the movement of a hand closer than where it
normally would be, an embrace held for a second longer than normal, looking
deeper and deeper into eyes that showed promise and invitation.
For Hagane, he was outwardly more cheerful than he'd been in quite some
time, and several of his friends noted upon it. They didn't know why, but
he seemed to be lighter in step lately, and many wondered if the schoolgirl
that came to see him often had much to do with it. Only his best friend
Hikome, who didn't know the full of what was going on, remarked that he was
lately has happy as he'd been in the days when Shiori had been in his life,
so long ago. Hagane took that to heart, and began to wonder two things: if
it was right that he should still want to pursue Asayake; and if the answer
to his happiness was right under his nose, in the form of the girl who'd
moved in with him.
Yet, his dreams at night were still of Asayake. Although he knew he was
being drawn more and more into Kocho's web, the girl he'd grown up with and
loved was there, a palpable thing that could not be denied. He'd gotten her
messages, and though he wanted to call, too many things got in the way.
When she called him, he was glad to hear her, though his heart cracked a
little when he heard the tinge of sorrow in her voice - it made him want to
take her in his arms and do his utmost to banish the sorrow from her,
utterly. Yet he found himself drifting closer to the mysterious schoolgirl
in his home, seemingly unable to stop it...or not even sure if he should.
Asayake, on the other hand, was sinking in a morass of despair and fear.
She'd seen the butterflies several times over the course of the next few
days, and they were really beginning to disturb her, especially in light of
the fact that her butterfly-loving student Hikage referred to them as
"definitely creepy." So far, she'd tried everything short of buying a can
of bug spray - and that was planned for the trip home. She was definitely
being creeped out by those butterflies, pretty or not - and the fact that
they shouldn't be alive much less active at this time of year old made it
worse.
Worse though, was the fact that something told her she was losing
Hagane. He hadn't called in the past couple of days, something unusual for
him. Several of people who'd known him and her said they were sure they'd
spotted him out on the town with a lovely (if a bit young) woman, but they
weren't sure if it was him because he wasn't his usual dour self. Even she
wasn't sure anymore: the one time she managed to have a short conversation
with him, he was laughing and carrying on more so than he usually did around
her. He said Noel had been nuzzling him, but for a second he could have
sworn she heard a voice in the background, one that sounded familiar. While
two and two didn't always add up to four (especially with some of the
students in her class), the fact was that in this case, the possibility that
Hagane was forever closed off to her was a chilling thought, even worse than
the butterflies.
As for Kocho, things were falling perfectly into place for her. Hagane
would be hers, completely and totally, and that other girl would be left out
in the dust. It was a shame, she had to admit, but the fact was that the
other girl didn't move fast enough, and certainly Kocho was, as she'd told
the butterflies, entitled to some joy in this dark, dreary world, right? If
there was one constant in life, it was that love was there for a reason, and
that no matter what, it always won in the end. She was entitled to that, as
was any other person.
Yet, no matter what she did, he always seemed to gravitate towards that
other girl. He'd never mentioned her, but Kocho knew better. She could see
it in his faraway looks; in the way he spoke to the person on the phone the
other night. Even the one time they kissed, she realized that he wasn't
entirely kissing her for her; a part of him was kissing his mystery girl.
She knew that in time, she would have him completely, but time was running
out, the clock was ticking and the sands were racing towards the bottom of
the hourglass. Something had to be done soon, she had to react fast.

In short, something had to give, something had to break.
And on one of the most joyful days of the year, it did.

}|{

The day started out simply enough. Hagane woke up to the morning,
prepared to stay the whole day out of the apartment because he had some last
minute shopping to do - ((it figures I'd wait until Christmas Eve to get all
of my shopping done!)) - as well as plan for tonight...and what a royal pain
tonight was going to be. It was supposed to be a time of joy and delight, a
time when his whole family got together and celebrated all that there was
for Christmas, as well as go to church...but tonight would be filled with
troubles, trials and tribulations, the type he hadn't had to deal with in a
while, certainly not in front of his family.
The fact of the matter was that he woke up this morning and realized
that in just a few short days, the mystery girl that had come into his
house, fearing her life, came into more than his house - she'd come into his
heart. He was falling for Kocho, completely and utterly, with no way to
slap the brakes on, nor at this point any reason to, really. He knew
nothing about her other than the few details that she gave him, and that was
now a moot point. He'd accepted her, clearly and totally, and in the
fullness of time he knew that acceptance and attraction would blossom into
full and total love.
He also knew that there was symmetry involved here; he knew she felt the
same. She'd been the one to initiate the kiss the first night, it had been
her many a time (though he admitted that he did it as well) that had brushed
a hand close, held a glance too long. Last night, when she kissed him
goodnight - and no soft, girlish kiss was that - she hinted that there would
be more to come, of a possible long time filled with joy for them.
The problem was going to be two-pronged: first, how was he going to
introduce her to his family? She was a decade younger than him, and to be
honest, still of high-school age; his kid brother Kenshin was probably older
than her. How was his family going to react? Give an extra decade, and no
one would blink an eye. But this wasn't an extra decade, this was here and
now, and his, her - their - lives that were being talked about. Granted,
while marriages between people his age and hers weren't unheard of -
something like that happened just a few months ago down in Hiroshima, he
read in the paper - it was still uncommon enough that it would raise
eyebrows. Most people would say that she should be concentrating on
finishing high school, not having a family.
Family. That word brought the other problem into sharp view: not his
own family, per se, but the one person so inexorably tied with them. He
loved Asayake, he knew that deep in his heart. But that love was not paid
in kind, and he had to realize the truth. She loved him like an older
brother, cherished him like the boy that had loved her older sister ten
years back. There would be no life for them together, and God had provided
that reality by bringing another into his life.


Walking into the main part of the apartment, he found a mild surprise -
the usually bright and chipper girl wasn't wide-awake and ready with
breakfast. Instead, he found her asleep on the couch, half-buried in
gift-wrapping, ribbons and bows; several small gifts (and quite a few large
ones, too). He guessed that they were mainly for him and Noel; he didn't
know of anyone else they'd be for. Picking her up gently, he placed her on
his bed, tucking her in and letting her sleep, with only a slight kiss on
the lips to let his feelings show. Watching her there, she seemed so
perfect, right in a place that after this holiday, she would likely be from
now on at night.
He tried not to think of much more about that as he left his home,
headed outdoors for the cruel fate that awaited those who dallied until the
last minute to complete their Christmas shopping, even in a country where it
wasn't as fanatical as in America.

}|{

He wasn't the only one that had to learn that lesson. Also leaving her
apartment on this day was Asayake, determined to find the one thing that
would be perfect for Hagane. Though it was the holidays, the fact was that
it filled her with a terrible dread. Something, though she wasn't sure
what, told her that everything would end tonight. The omens were about -
she'd cracked her favorite coffee mug this morning - and the butterflies
were about, those cheerful little symbols of doom and madness that seemed to
follow her like a glistening, floating funeral shroud. There was nothing
she could do about them, as they'd even survived the repeated bug spray, and
now seemed to thrive even more, taking a perverse pleasure in her despair.
But the insects were secondary in comparison to the personal crisis that
she was dealing with. Never in her world did she have the fear that she was
holding now. It was Christmas, a time of joy, yet things were almost as
dreary as they'd been ten years ago when her family died. Back then, she'd
lost a valuable part of who she was, and now she possibly stood to lose
someone just as important to her. Assuming, of course, that she'd ever had
a chance with him in the first place.
((Maybe Alice is right,)) Asayake thought as she boarded the JR and
headed towards the Kawasaki district of Yokohama. ((Maybe it's time to do
something bold and daring, my only chance to do what I can.)) A strange
idea came into her mind, and it was so beyond the pale, it had to work.
((Either that or it will drive him from me forever, and I don't know what I
would do if that happened.))
Should she do it or not? At best, it would be a vindication of the love
she had for him; at worst, it would shame her family's name and make her the
laughing stock of her foster family. ((So many decisions, and I don't know
which one is right....))
She fought back the tears that threatened to stream down her face at the
mere possibility of losing the man she loved forever, even as thin as her
chances were at the moment. She didn't need to ask herself why love was as
fickle and painful as it was to her right now; it was just a simple truth
that it was the way it was, and no force on this Earth could tame it. It
was merely her problem to be under this particular Sword of Damocles at the
moment.


Heading towards the direction of a particular store that she preferred
to shop in, she was surprised to one of her students also around and
shopping. Actually, it was quite a surprise, because she'd always figured
that particular student to be more organized in her life - far more
organized that Asayake herself, truth be told. "Hello, Aino-san. What
brings you here this early in the morning?"
Hikage looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, sensei, I...um, I forgot
about Christmas. Didn't know it was tomorrow. Actually, until last week, I
really didn't know what it was. We don't celebrate it...where I'm from.
It's a pretty odd human...er, gaijin holiday, ne?"
Asayake had no idea what to say about that, so she continued on with her
line of thought. "So, buying something for Amanogawa-san?"
Hikage nodded. "Hai! He's my best friend, so I have to - I guess the
rules say so. Also, I have to get something for Hikari, too. I'd rather
not, but Koketsu-lun suggested it as a peacemaking gift, he called it." As
the pair continued on towards the particular store, the student asked, "So,
sensei, what are you here for? Buying something for your boyfriend?"
Suddenly it was the older woman's turn to blush, and Hikage gave the sort of
look that made her seem centuries older than she appeared to be, but it soon
disappeared as she added, "That's so sweet, I think. You're a very lucky
woman, sensei."
As Asayake opened the door to the store, she asked, "How so?"
"Easy! You're such a beautiful woman, one filled with confidence and
intelligence. It's no wonder your boyfriend is in love with you - you'd
make any man lucky to be with you. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if any guy
would be thrilled to marry you." Hikage looked around the store, then found
the area that she was planning to buy Koketsu's gift. "Well, I've got to
get going, sensei. It was nice talking to you, and I hope you have a Happy
Christmas! See you after the break's over! Ja ne!" The girl all but
sprinted off as she began her search for the perfect gift.
As she went off, Asayake watched her student with new eyes. She was an
intelligent girl, but never seemed very versed in the ways of social
interaction; an irony, considering her family name. Yet it was clear there
was some sort of sage wisdom about the young woman, and to have it come out
at such a time as this was curious, yet welcome in any case.
A full second went by before she found herself not where she wanted to
be...but instead, where she needed to be. She barely heard the high-pitched
and pleasant voice of the sales clerk asking if she needed assistance;
instead, she found herself staring mind-numbingly at the gift. To be
honest, though, it wasn't just the gift, it was *the* gift.
Asayake adjusted her glasses, looked again at the gift, then gave the
clerk her most earnest attention. "Yes, if you would - I'd like to see that
set, if you don't mind."

}|{

Kocho rushed back to the apartment she shared with her soon-to-be
boyfriend. She'd raised some eyebrows at her latest purchase, but to be
honest, she didn't give a damn. After tonight, she would be human again and
for good; being such, she would have to have to be more careful afterwards.
There was so much to catch up on in life, and she didn't plan to start a
family until she was in her mid-twenties...well, physically, anyway.
Besides, she couldn't have been the first girl her "age" to buy something
like that, could she?
Behind her, the white-and-red butterfly flew easily, her escort during
her shopping time. It was unknown what the butterfly was feeling, but if an
insect could have emotion, the jittery little thing would have been
radiating sheer tension for what was about to occur that night. By the time
the midnight bells chimed, lives would be changed forever...and perhaps not
for the good.
Reaching the apartment complex, she took one last look at it from the
outside. Turning to the butterfly, she said, "This is the last time I'll be
looking at it as just as guest - as we'll all be looking at it. After
tonight, this will be our home. You, me, and the rest of our sisters." The
butterfly said nothing, but merely glowed once. "Of course I'm confident!"
Kocho chirped. "Nothing could go wrong! What could possibly go wrong?
Now, let's go inside. I could use your help making dinner for me and him,
you know, and...."

}|{

Purchasing the last of his presents, Hagane headed home. With a little
luck, he'd have enough time to wrap all the gifts, then get ready to head
over to his family's place. It was going to be a bit of a tight schedule,
but he could ask Kocho with a little bit of the wrapping while he hit the
shower. If worst came to, he could stand to be a bit late; his family
wasn't sticklers when it came to promptness, thankfully.
As he trudged through the JR train station and headed for his particular
train track, he hoped he wasn't going to be late. His plan was to meet up
with Asayake around the Shinagawa station, then take the Chuo line to his
family's place. They did it so often, neither he nor she called to confirm
if the other was going to be there or not; it was a matter of calling should
one of them *not* make it there on time. And he wanted to be there. He had
to tell her about Kocho, introduce her to Asayake and try to make her
understand that this was going to be the girl in his life - and make Kocho
understand that if that was the case, she was going to complete her
education; settling down also meant finding one's place in life. But more
importantly, he had to confess to Asayake how much he loved her and hoped
that she wouldn't stop respecting him for that.
((If the cards of fate had played differently, it would be her that I
would be welcoming into my life permanently tonight,)) he mused. ((Then
again, I could go back farther and say that it would have been Shiori-chan
here, and it would make all of this so moot.)) He consoled that thought by
trying to convince himself that this was the right thing, that this was the
best thing for everyone concerned, and that it was better to take the
certainty of a girl he knew he was being attracted to and was responding
back, rather than risk it all courting the girl that was for all intents and
purposes his younger sister.
So why did a part of him feel like tonight was going to be the biggest
mistake of his life?
Why, indeed, the question came back to him as he stepped aboard the
train, headed towards home and the next step of his destiny.

}|{

"It is time," a voice spoke, the tone of someone with utter certainty
in her words.
"Yes, it is," another agreed, just as fervent as the first.
A third voiced concern. "I hope she doesn't hurt too much. She's been
hoping for so long, and for it to be taken away from her...."
There was a rustle, as though someone was shaking one's head. "No, she
knew there was going to be a chance this was going to happen. She's gotten
closest of all of us, yet I don't think she'll succeed. We're not cut out
for normal life anymore - we have another destiny."
The third voice was unconvinced. "But out of all of us, she deserves
this! She really does!"
The second cut off the complaint, though not unkindly. "Yes, I'll give
you that much, but we deserve our peace as well, and we cannot achieve that
until we've accomplished our goals. I don't think I need to remind you,
we're nowhere near that." The voice was prim but comforting, and very sure
in the belief that eventually the truth would out in the end. "Now let us
go. I have a feeling our sisters will need us soon."
"But what if she succeeds?"
"We'll be together, always. We made the promise when we came together.
We make that promise when we come across a new person, just as we did when
we came across her and you before her. No matter what happens, we will
always be together."
"That isn't fair," the third voice said, sounding nigh close to tears.
"It's not fair at all."
As one, the first two voices said. "We completely agree. But what is
destined is destined."
That having been said, three white butterflies with colorful accents on
their wings took to the air, heading towards where they knew the next act of
this play would be.

}|{

Asayake nearly vibrated her way to the JR station, completely overcome
by tension. For the first time ever, she was doing something so over the
top, it had to succeed. However, she refused to admit to herself the truth:
that this plan she had was in and of itself a trap, a downward spiral with
no way out save for the meat grinder at the end, should she fail to grab
that brass ring. But that wasn't the important thing; no, that idea was
simply that she was throwing abandon to the wind, making a final decision in
her life that didn't feel preordained or made her out to be so much
wallpaper.
How would her family - both of them - react to what she was doing? she
wondered for a second. Her parents were strict about sticking to the normal
path of life; they wouldn't have appreciated this. Shiori, Asayake decided,
would have been a mixed bag, as while her sister tended to be a bit of a
risk-taker (or as much as a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl could have been),
but then again, the adult Asayake was trying to take the man that once been
Shiori's ideal. As for her foster family, they would certainly approve; the
Hokosakis were very creative and valued a bit of risk-taking if it meant
pursuing one's dream; there was also the fact that if she succeeded, she
would be more than just a token daughter to them. Kenshin would be
thrilled; for most of his life she'd been an older sister to him, and to
have her as a complete part of the family would be ideal in his eyes.
But the most important thing: how would Hagane react? ((Hopefully, if
he's like any other guy....)) A wicked smile came on her face, and she
tamped it down immediately. At least if it worked out to the best, she
wouldn't be going home to change, as she wouldn't need to. They could see
his family later, say, like the next morning. And again, if the cards
worked out correctly, the news they would be bringing to their family would
be more than enough of a reason to justify why they weren't there on
Christmas Eve.
Granted, the whole thing had the markings (to the casual observer) of an
idea so out of whack with the wa of life, it was almost as if it were some
clich? plot device in a story, not some half-baked and barely thought-out
idea that was being committed to by someone who should know far better.
Nevertheless, she hurled herself heedlessly, the act to move first and think
later now far overlapped in her mind. Tonight, either everything would fall
into place like the pieces of a puzzle...
...or it would shatter like a fragile egg, disgorging the remnants of a
tattered life onto the world stage, and possibly the end of that life
itself.

}|{

"Tadaima!" Hagane called out, as he got home. The packages were set
down on the ground, with Noel instantly crawling into one of them to see
what treasures were hidden within. With any luck, he'd have enough time to
prepare for everything; the train had gotten him home a little more ahead of
schedule than he'd expected, and that meant enough time to sit down with
Kocho and prepare her for-
"Hagane-kun." Kocho strolled out of the kitchen, into the living room.
She was wearing nothing but an apron and a smile. "Are you prepared for
tonight?" All he could do was to look at her, completely agape and not
believing what he was seeing. Taking some small pleasure in that, she
waltzed up to him seductively, tracing the line of his jaw with her finger.
"I know you had plans to go home and meet your family, but that will have to
wait until tomorrow. Tonight, there's something more important that needs
to be done."
"Needs to be done?" a faraway part of his mind cooed.
Kocho nodded. "Yes. Tonight, we're going to ensure that I'll be here
with you always, my Hagane. After this night, nothing will ever separate
us, ever again." In one move, she abandoned the apron, standing before him
complete and total, vulnerable and waiting for him. "After tonight, I will
be nothing more than the woman that will be here for you always." With
that, she approached him, pulled him down and brought her lips to his in a
forceful show that she meant to have him.
Caught be surprise, he tried to pull back. "Kocho, what the hell are
you doing? What's going on?"
She looked at him with a raptured joy in her eyes. "Why, don't you
know, silly? You and I are going to sleep together, the sooner the better."
Hagane's eyes nearly popped out at her directness. "What brought that
on?!?" Gently, she began to unbutton his shirt, but he moved her hands away
from it, much to her pouting disappointment. "Tell me right now what's so
important about this sudden directness!"
The look on Kocho's face turned to one of bewilderment. "But don't you
want to?"
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't, but I'd like to think that I know you
well enough that you wouldn't throw yourself at me for no reason!"
"Oh, there's a reason," she breathed, beginning to undo his shirt once
more. "It's a good one, too. Simply put, after tonight, after we've
consummated our relationship, I will never leave your side again, my dearest
Hagane. It took me forever to find you again, and I can't afford to lose
you once more. Once this is done, I never will."
Her words sank into his mind, speaking with a voice one long since dead.
Blinking his eyes and looking at Kocho in a new light for perhaps the first
time, he asked in a stunned voice, "Who...who are you?"
"It doesn't matter now," she responded, leaning into him for a kiss.
"But after tomorrow, that answer will simply be: your wife." With that, she
laid another kiss on him, just as the door opened again and another voice
called out, "Hagane-kun! Are you ready to-"


Asayake burst into Hagane's home, ready to work with her plan. It was a
good thing that he'd given her a key to his place some time ago; up until
now, she'd never had the need to use it. But now she had - and in that one
time, she was very sorry she ever had. "Ha-haga...Hagane...you...."
Hagane realized someone was at the door and broke from the kiss Kocho
laid on him, turning to the door and seeing-- "Asa-chan? Wha-what're you
doing here?"
She didn't answer him. She merely stood there in shock, gazing at the
scene. Her worst fears were confirmed all in great detail: not only had he
someone in his life now, she was right there with him, sans clothing and
ready to go. She was even involved in a kiss with him, right under the
mistletoe tied to the ceiling, no less! She looked a bit young, but that
wasn't the point. The crux of it all was that just as she'd finally decided
to do something about it, the sobriquet had been taken away from her
forever. It didn't matter that he hadn't known, but it did, because she
never told him. Now, that option was forever closed to her, the lone path
to her happiness forever cut off by a girl young enough to be one of her
students, standing brazenly there, all but marking her territory.
Instinctively, Hagane reached out a hand to her. "Asa-chan...." Then
his mind cleared, and immediately he realized several things all at once,
and what a mixed bag of reality it was. "It's not...it's not what you
think...." These words were made into a lie simply by Kocho leaning closer
to him, but looking back at Asayake, partly in challenge, but also as though
there was something familiar about her, something that seemed to be the
right size as the hole in Kocho's mind.
Asayake didn't know what to believe, but she did know that in one fell
swoop, she'd just lost everything in her world. Looking at him one final
time, as though she were burning him into her mind, she gazed at him with
bare expression on her face. Her eyes welled with tears, hot enough to mist
her glasses against the cool air coming into the apartment from the slightly
ajar apartment door. Turning slightly, she whispered, "Ai shiteru,
Hagane-kun. I'll love you forever." Without even skipping a beat, she was
out the door, running as fast as she could, her feet leading her with her
mind currently on shut off. She had to get away, get away to wherever there
would be escape from this all.
((Escape...have to get away...never going to be far enough away, never
going to be close enough....)) Her mind was no longer clear, but instead a
jumbled morass of cacophonies as pain and fear fought for dominance in her
mind, reason long since having taken asylum in another part of her cerebrum.
To her, it didn't matter where she was going to end up, or what was going to
happen in the next few minutes, as the world had just lost every bit of
meaning to her.


Hagane stared at the open door for just a second, his mind playing
Asayake's last words to him over and over again. It dawned on him that the
thing he wanted most in his world had just opened the door for him - and
here he was, about to slam it shut! He looked again at Kocho, who was
reaching over for a sweater, muttering, "Damnable woman...ruined a perfectly
good sensual moment. Now I guess that the mood's spoiled, I'll have to wait
until after dinner, won't we, anata?"
((Anata.)) The word played in Kocho's voice in his head, then played
once more, only through a filter of Asayake's voice. Kocho's was more
direct, sounding as though he was some mere possession for her to have,
while Asayake's was the promise of love and life. A love that had just
walked out on him, because he was standing here in an impossibly stupid
situation. "No," he responded, his voice surprisingly firm to her. "No,
and not again. I'm going to look for Asa-chan." Instinctively, he was
already back at the coat rack, pulling his jacket on, looking out the door
where she'd been just a second ago, and watch the first sign of a new
snowfall. This was no time for a woman to be outdoors, and certainly not
the woman he loved, one who apparently loved him!
"What?" There was the shock of betrayal in Kocho's voice, the look in
her eyes frantic. "You can't mean *her*, can you? What can *she* offer you
that *I* haven't already since you've known me?"
Hagane wheeled on Kocho, and for the first time, there was certainty in
his voice. "Kocho, I'm fond of you, don't get me wrong; if not for what
just happened, likely I would stay with you forever. But I've loved that wo
man - Mashiro Asayake - for years now. She and I have been there for each
other through the good and the bad, and she knows me like no other! I can't
let go of Asayake, Kocho - I wish I could make you understand that. To do
so would be the biggest mistake of my life!"
Kocho reacted like a bullet at the mention of Asayake's full name,
though it bored through her. However, she had the presence of mind to ask
the most important question: "But what about me? What about us?"
"I don't know. If you mean a relationship, I can't, not now that I know
she loves me, too. As for friendship, you'll always have that, and you're
welcome to stay as long as you wish. It's a cold comfort and likely not
what you want, but as of now it's all I can offer you. I'm sorry." Not
looking at her anymore, he went out the door, hoping that he would be able
to find the soul-destroyed woman before something stupid happened.


As he shut the door behind him, a voice spoke from behind Kocho. "We
told you this would happen. I know it hurts, but you should have expected
this." The soft flap of gossamer wings rent the air, and four butterflies
landed on the table right next to where the girl stood. The purple insect
moved forward, direct in its tone. "I've watched it happen to us all.
You've come the closest to succeeding, but destiny has kicked in. You have
to accept it."
"You didn't' tell me about this!" Kocho turned to face the four
butterflies, anger and betrayal in her eyes. A tear began to well in one,
and her fist shook with a coiled anger. "You lied to me, Murasaki," she
addressed the purple butterfly. "How could you not tell me?"
Instead of Murasaki, the blue butterfly spoke. "An omission is not a
lie and you know it. But we did it to help in your quest - had you known,
would you have done it?"
Tears began to fall, her skin blotching with the rivers of sadness.
"No, Ume, I wouldn't have," she answered. "I would have left things alone.
And yet, I had to try - I love him so much, and to have not done something
would have been wrong!"
"That's right!" Green spoke up in a comforting voice. "I'm proud that
you did your best!"
"Suu, don't be patronizing," the red butterfly snapped. "She doesn't
need that right now."
"Stop being so mean, Kaenko! You're such a bully!" In what would have
been comical, Suu stuck her tongue out at the red butterfly, the long
proboscis unfurling out for only that reason.
"Girls, stop that!" Murasaki thundered. Turning back to the human,
Murasaki asked, "Well, the next step is yours. But you realize now that one
path will forever close the door to you and a normal life."
Kocho stared at the space where Hagane had been, and before him,
Asayake. Without them, this place was empty. It then occurred to her that
this was the truth: it was they who were meant for each other; she was
nothing more than an interloper. Looking at her companions, she whispered,
"So be it." Slumping to the ground, she began to cry, weeping for the
second and likely final time she'd lost the man she'd loved.

}|{

It took some searching to find an open bar in the Chinatown district of
Yokohama, but she found one. Several hours later, as the barkeep closed the
establishment so he could go home to his family - it was Christmas after
all, and even though the Japanese weren't religious about it, a holiday was
a holiday - she'd stopped at the local convenience store and picked up a
couple of extra bottles. She appeared to be sober enough to get away with
the purchase, and now here she was, sitting here and watching the rest of
the world go by.
Asayake wanted to go so much to where it all began, to where he'd
promised her that he'd always be with her. However, the Sony Building was
miles away in the Ginza, and she didn't have the time - or the sobriety
levels - to make it that far. There was also the fact that the building was
likely closed, due to the holidays, and if it wasn't, the security there
wasn't as lax as it was here in this building. She wouldn't have been able
to get to the top of the building if she went there, not at all.
So here she was at the top of the WAVE Records building in the Motomachi
district of Yokohama, sitting on the edge of the eight-story building and
watching as the snow fell, blanketing everything in a pristine white - the
color of funerals, the color of death. It was a symbolic color, that of
loss; she had plenty to mourn the loss of on this night. It had been a
decade ago that her family had died, and it was a sort of perverse symbolism
that on this occasion, now the most important thing in her world - her
chance to be with Hagane - had also died.
Someone would tell her that he wasn't worth that much, that there was so
much more for her out there and that she would find the person that she
would be destined for, but she didn't believe it. She didn't like to admit
it, but she realized now in retrospect that everything she'd done in her
life was just for him. She'd gone into teaching, because of all the times
he'd needed some help here or there in research for a project, and a teacher
seemed a natural fit; though it wasn't what she wanted to do in life, it was
more respectable than her desired choice. She'd spurned many the advances
of a man, all in the hopes that she would be able to end up with the person
that she wanted most of all; she hoped over the years, that as he too,
spurned many a girl, that he was just waiting for the right moment to ask
her. They'd been so close for so long, many people had already thought them
to be a couple; when told otherwise, those who exclaimed how perfect they
looked numbered legion.
But everything was wrong. Everything was so damn wrong. Instead, her
life was going to look a lot like this rooftop - under construction and
unstable. However, unlike this place, her life was never going to be
finished. She would never get to be the joyful, bright and repaired place
this would be. Instead, she would be in a constant state of decay, never
knowing the pleasure of hearing him call out her name with love.


"Asa-chan."
She didn't even look. "Go 'way. I'm busy being drunk and miserable on
a day when I should be happy."
"So sitting here getting plastered is going to make it better?" He
laughed, and she wondered where she heard that laugh before. She also
wondered how a security guard would know her name. "You know, we've done
some silly things in our lives, you and I, but I have to admit, standing
here in the snow on top of a construction site on Christmas Eve is not one
of the most normal of them. My parents are going to wonder where we are."
(("His parents?" Could it be?)) She wanted to look, but she was afraid
to. She might turn and find out it was a security guard - instead of *him*.
That, and the fact that the alcohol was making her just a bit tipsy; the
world had just started spinning a bit and even though there wasn't much snow
about, it somehow seemed to be flying from multiple directions. "Why don't
you go back to that girl? After all, she's got so much more to offer you -
she's got a bigger chest than I do, and she's only sixteen!" Asayake
blushed at that; it was a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.
"There's nothing to go back to, Asa-chan. Kocho is just a friend."
"A friend that's trying to get into your pants," she slurred, dropping a
small sake bottle onto the ledge. It bounced once, then fell back against
the rooftop, cracking slightly.
"No, just a friend who didn't understand who I really want in my life."
The voice came closer, and for a minute, she could imagine that he was
standing right behind her. She shuddered; it was the closest he'd been in
weeks to her, and she wanted him closer. Was it really him?
"But she was there for you, right there!" Devil's advocacy, Asayake
knew. Would this be countered, or would this final, possibly booze-induced
dream just melt away like so many of her hopes?
"This is hard enough for me to say, as is. All my life I've thought
that I would hold the line in Shiori's memory, never want or need another.
But for some time now, my mind has been changed by one woman, one that
showed me there's still so much of life to live. I thought I was never
going to end up with her when Kocho walked into my life." There was an
extended pause, as though the person had either left, or was contemplating
the next path of thought. Asayake wasn't sure how to deal with that
silence; it felt too ominous and hulking.
The dark cloud dispersed as he continued. "But over the course of this
week with Kocho, it only confirmed something in my mind, something that I
would have realized too late if it wasn't for you."
She turned her head a little, looking slightly behind her and seeing
someone all-too similar, though it was still a bit fuzzy to confirm totally
if it was him. "And that is?"
"I love you, Asa-chan, but I've never had the courage to admit it.
More than you know, more than I ever thought I would love another woman.
But the fact remains," he said, slipping his arms around her, "by every bit
of me that has ever lived, I love you with all of my heart."
"Do...do you mean that?" Her mouth formed a small o of surprise as the
words she so longed to hear were finally spoken. The truth had set her
free, and slowly, she turned to face him, to get a final confirmation of it.
Instead, her lips met his as he moved closer to her, two hearts finally
coming together as one. Gently, as they kissed, Hagane had the presence of
mind to pull her away from the ledge - what the hell was she doing on the
roof of a building under construction, anyway? - and towards the safety of
the snow-topped roof.
"C'mon, let's get you inside," he said, breaking off the kiss. "We'll
freeze our noses off in this weather."
She held closer to him. "I just want to stay here with you, my Hagane.
Always with you."


"Well, so did I," another voice answered, "but sometimes things get in
the way." Both Hagane and Asayake looked up and found Kocho standing there,
surrounded by the four butterflies. Hagane instantly recognized his pet, as
did Asayake her three "stalkers". Fully aware of what she knew they saw,
she smiled. "It took me so long to get back to you, my love. I thought I
would reach you in time. But I guess life must go on, mustn't it?" As she
said this, Kocho began to change. Though her face and body remained intact,
her hair darkened quickly, and her eyes changed from blue to hazel,
revealing her true face, a face they hadn't seen in years.
"Shiori," both adults whispered, unable to believe what they were seeing
right before them.
Behind Shiori, white wings grew, human-sized white butterfly wings, with
pale yellow trim. Behind her, just as equally surprising, the butterflies
also began to change shape. Shiori merely waited for the insects to
complete their metamorphosis into people, before she continued again. "I
suppose a name like Shibane Kocho - White-winged Butterfly - should have
been a tip-off, but I guess not; my disguise was too good, I suppose.
"I had to come back, Hagane. You were in too much pain without me,
hurting too much, and I couldn't exist without you. I found a way, my
friends and I." She motioned to the four women behind her, who merely bowed
politely. "We've been wandering, helping where we can, just as I said. But
I knew that sooner or later, I would end up back here to return to you. I
thought that I might have to win you back from another woman, but I never
thought the other woman would be my younger sister." As if seeing her
sister for the first time, she added, "Asa-chan, you look very different
now, very beautiful. And I have to commend you for your taste in men; after
all these years, he's still quite a guy."
"T-th-thank you, neechan," Asayake whispered, still not sure if she
could believe what she was seeing or if it was the alcohol. Never once did
she think to realize that if she was hallucinating, it was a problem for her
*and* Hagane.
Shiori walked over to both of them then embraced them warmly. "I love
you both so much, and I'm sorry if I jeopardized everything you two have
together. I never meant to do that. I want you to be happy, the both of
you, and have a long life together - certainly longer than I did, at any
rate." The three of them stood there in the snow, for the longest time,
holding each other and letting the old wounds of the past heal. It had
taken ten years for them to get to this point, but here the three were, and
it was long overdue.
After embracing both of her loved ones for quite some time, though, she
let go reluctantly, looking at them with ageless, sad eyes. "I have to go
now," she answered in a heartbreaking voice, the tone of someone not wanting
to leave but knowing she'd overstayed her welcome.
"Your time on earth is done?" Hagane asked, wanting to reach out to her
and hold her still; though he knew his destiny was now with Asayake, he
would always love Shiori...and was very much attracted to Kocho, as well.
"No, not by a long shot, but I can't stay here. I'd just be in the way,
even though you said I could stay for as long as I liked. Frankly, you two
have a life to build together, and it would be hard to do that if I was
around. Also, there's others out there that need my help, others that could
use the aid of we, the Shibane Kocho. So I'll just take to wandering
again." She walked over and joined the rest of the butterfly women, looking
far more comfortable with them, as though that was where she truly belonged.
"But don't worry, though - I may come to visit from time to time." She gave
them a kind smile, then looked to her companions for a sign they were as
ready to go as she was. "I think we should leave the pair alone, don't you
think?" Looking back at them one last time, she whispered a final,
"Remember, I love you both," and in a flash of light, all five women were
gone.


Hagane and Asayake stared at the space where the five butterfly women
had been, now filling with a steady stream of snowflakes. She was the first
to speak: "Did that truly just happen?"
Wordlessly, he nodded yes. "God gave her back to us, if only for a
time - a Christmas present of sorts," he commented wryly, "and she gave us
each other." With that, he kissed her again, running her hands through her
hair, holding her as close to him as she could, though he knew that she was
just a bit on the inebriated side.
She eagerly, hungrily joined in the kiss, knowing that now and forever,
it would be him that was there, that this was all too real and something she
so very much wanted. They continued like this for quite some time, having
broken the barrier that kept them from being who they truly wished to be to
each other. There was a tender joy in their passion; a peace and serenity
both had not felt in a long time.
After a few minutes, though, Hagane looked into her eyes and said,
"Well, I guess I'll have to call my parents and tell them that we're going
to be running late."
"Don't bother," she answered. "I called them this morning and told them
we wouldn't be able to make it tonight. But we'll be there tomorrow
morning, first thing."
He looked at her curiously. "You called ahead? This morning?"
((It's now or never,)) she told herself. Nodding slowly, she reached
into her pocket, pulling out a small gift. "Merry Christmas, lover." A
beatific smile came onto her face; how long it had been since she wanted to
say that, and now it was truth. But would the rest pan out? "Open it now;
it's part of your Christmas gift."
Doing as bidden, he unwrapped the gift, and found a small case. Opening
it, he exposed to the air a pair of platinum rings. He looked at her, and
surprisingly, found her on the ground, genuflecting and looking up at him.
"I'm not too good at this," she smiled gently, "but I understand this is
how people in the West ask for somebody's hand in marriage." At the
completion of her words, the look on his face was priceless; a confused
glance that she knew she'd be teasing him about for years to come...and she
knew there would be years. Getting up from the ground, she looked at him
and said, "Don't answer just yet - wait until after you get the rest of your
gift."
"Rest of the gift?" he parroted, already thrown slightly how much out of
whack his world was thrown on this day.
"Yup," she purred, putting her arm around his and pointing unsteadily
towards the rooftop exit - in retrospect, getting drunk was not one of her
better ideas - "Take me home, anata, and I'll show you the rest of it."
"What are you up to, Asa-chan?"
"Let's just say I'm going to make sure that your attention doesn't
wander anymore from where it's supposed to go, ne?" She looked at him
again, with eyes overbrimming with love - as well as an emotion that he'd
never seen in them before, desire.

}|{

Hikome and Aoi were ecstatic. "Congratulations, you two! When's the
date?" Aoi asked, as she set dinner down on the table. It was mid-January,
and the pair had finally accepted the dinner invitation over their friends'
place.
"We don't know," Asayake admitted. "I hadn't exactly planned on getting
pregnant, but it happens. Personally, it's a good thing I'm resigning from
my teaching position at the end of the school year, so I don't have to put
up with that 'unwed mother' scandal crap. It's not like Hagane-kun and I
aren't getting married; we just decided to wait until after the baby's
born."
Hikome looked to his old friend. "But is that wise, with all these
changes in your life so soon, you two? Last month, you two were just close
friends, and now look at you - she's expecting, you're engaged, both of you
are quitting your jobs and *now*, of all times, you decide to become a
freelance artist?" Hikome ran his hands through his thick mane of black
hair and laughed joyfully. "Just plain nuts: now *that's* the Hagane I know
and am happy for."
Hagane merely shrugged a non-answer. "Well, in any case, Beats! was
supportive enough of my own company that they lent me some seed money in
return for some long-term web development. They've also stirred up some
names for me - I have the Ariyashi Institute, Hodawara Heavy Machinery, and
Saotome Foodservices asking about my prices. I think we'll do fine, in
fact, I'll say that within a year, the White Butterfly Web Services Company
will be one of the biggest tech names out there," he crowed proudly. "Plus,
with that, it gives Asa-chan plenty of time to get adjusted to her new
career...which I owe you two for again, thanks a million."
Aoi smiled warmly. "Well, our publisher has been dogging us forever to
find an artist we're comfortable with for some illustrations in our next
book, maybe do a manga or something. If we can help our friends, so much
the better, right?" Aoi turned to Asayake and asked, "So, if I may jump the
gun a bit, have you two thought of names yet?"
Asayake looked down at her flat and toned stomach. She had yet to show;
that wouldn't be for months down the line, but the tiny life was there,
something she could feel. Returning her attention to her friends, she
answered, "Well, we were thinking Shibane if it's a boy, but we haven't
decided yet if it's girl; we're trying to decide if we prefer Shiori or
Kocho as a name."

}|{

Outside the windowsill, five white butterflies listened with rapt
interest. Nevermind the fact that the snow was falling on this gray wintry
day, or that it was cold enough that no insect should survive outside, the
quintet of delicate beauties sat there, eavesdropping on the conversation
indoors.
Suu turned to Shiori, and had she been human at the time, the
green-accented bug would have hugged the yellow-hued one. "They're going to
name the girl after you! That's great, Shiori-chan!"
Shiori inclined a wing towards her friend. "We don't know that, Suu.
It could be a boy."
Ume, the blue one, spoke up. "I think it'll be a girl. Good fortune
always brings one."
"Yeah, whatever," Kaenko, the red one, snapped. Turning to Murasaki,
she asked, "Well, what now?"
Murasaki flapped her wings once, turning her head as much as the
insectile body would allow and faced the air with golden, multifaceted eyes.
"There are others that need our assistance. We were brought back to the
human plane to right wrongs and help those in need-"
"Just like a wandering samurai!" Suu chirped. Kaenko gave the smaller
butterfly a dark stare and Suu shrunk into the corner of the windowsill.
"Sorry."
"As I was saying, there are others out there that need us more than your
family does, Shiori. You're our leader now, where shall we go next?"
Shiori moved over by Murasaki and also looked into the sky. "The snow's
getting heavy again."
"Well, I hear the weather's better down by Okinawa this time of year,"
Ume pointed out, "and there's always someone there who needs our type of
assistance."
Shiori nodded, or at least as much as a butterfly could. "Good idea.
Let's go, ladies." With that, five pairs of wings beat against the
wintertime air, carrying their otherworldly cargo off into the distance.

}|{

Author's Gossamer

This was written as partially cathartic, partially to celebrate the
holidays. It's a fusion of various Japanese legends, but also based
partially in real life, through the events that I went through when I was
younger - the death of my first girlfriend, and the subsequent friendship
I've had with her twin sister, who I'm so close to I regard her like my own
sister.

The year was 1986, and I was fifteen when my half-Japanese, half-British
girlfriend, Lysa (pronounced "Lisa") told me that she was going to fly back
to England to see her parents for the holidays. For various reasons, she
and her twin sister Allysen ("Allison") were living in the LA area with
their aunt and uncle. Well, Ally caught a bad case of the flu (not to
mention the fact that she didn't feel much like going), and remained behind.
I was at Ally's place helping her wrap gifts when her uncle got a call that
Lysa had been in a debilitating car accident with a truck on a British
highway. The driver of the truck was completely drunk, and he, sad to say,
survived with barely a scratch. The people in the other car, with the lone
exception of Lysa, died instantly. Lysa held on in traumatic condition
until she died at 0014 GMT, 24 December 1986.

It took years and years for both Ally and I to recover from Lysa's death.
Unlike the events in _White Butterfly_, what resulted between us is a deep
bond that transcends friendship; she's more of a sister to me in many ways
than my own flesh-and-blood siblings. I don't think I would have made it
without her, nor her without what I did to help. "Out of the strong came
forth sweetness," says a line in the Bible, and the passing thirteen-plus
years have certainly done that. Without her strength, there would have been
no sweetness of life in the end. But in my mind, throughout the years,
Lysa's always been there, and my love for her has never wavered, even though
there have been other women in my life since.

There are other people in this story who have analogs in real life, but I
won't take the time to bore you with the details. I just hope that this
story, though not the typical Yuletide fare, entertained and made you think.
But lastly and more important, for those of you who will be spending time
with your loved ones this Christmas, enjoy it, because that time is
precious. For those of you who drink during the holidays, for God's sake,
please don't step behind the wheel, lest you put someone else through the
hell that I've endured.

Peace to you all this holiday time.

--Rob
00Dec13
Mililani HI

PS - If any of you are wondering what Kocho's self-reference to "Tora-san"
was, it's a reference to actor Kiyoshi Atsumi's legendary Otoko wa Tsurai yo
series of films in Japan (many of you might know it by the unofficial but
better known moniker, Tora-san). Well beloved by most of Japan's populace,
the 48-film series is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the
longest-running film series as well as the origin of the Japanese maxim, "If
you say that, it's all over" (roughly equivalent to the English "If at first
you don't succeed...." though it can be used in other meanings as well).
The series ended in 1996 when the actor passed away; with his death almost
went the film studio that produced the series, so dedicated were they to it.
For more information, please see
~http://www.kt.rim.or.jp/~como/japan/news9608.htm ,
or for a more detailed
selection on the series and actor, also see
and
, respectively.
PS2 - Kudos to you who noticed the _everblue...._ and _Hikage_ cameos. ^_^



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