Zhangjiajie City, Hunan Province, China.
Kento opened the gate of the old courtyard house, his feet shoved hastily into a pair of plastic sandals. A small overhang kept him out of the drizzle. He held a bowl of hot noodles with a round, white baozi perched on top of it. Breakfast.
Ryo looked sheepish, standing in the alley next to Kento’s uncle with a battered backpack and muddy sneakers. His hair had gotten long again, and rain had stuck fine, black strands of it to his cheeks.
“Good trip?” Kento asked his uncle in Mandarin, handing Ryo the dumpling. Ryo took it automatically – he was too easy going – but he held it like he had no further plans for it.
“It went very well. He’s a nice boy,” Uncle Heng said, closing the umbrella as he stepped over the high threshold into the courtyard. “We had no trouble.”
He meant the police, Kento knew. Heng had a government license as a tourism guide, which was a pretty good gig to have in a place like Zhangjiajie, one of the most beautiful and bizarre places in the world. After Ryo had called yesterday from Changsha, and Kento had started to explain the train system and the restrictions on a tourist visa, it had just been easier for his uncle to go out and bring Ryo back.
“Welcome to the Middle Kingdom,” Kento said, switching to Japanese.
“Uh, yeah -- it’s nice,” Ryo said.
“Nice?” Kento put his hand to his chest. “Just nice? This is the center of the world!”
Ryo pressed his lips together, eyes wide like he couldn’t decide if he should apologize or laugh. He opened his mouth – probably to apologize – and Kento pulled Ryo’s hand up to stick the baozi in instead.
Ryo snorted. He looked healthy, sun-tanned and bright-eyed. A little bit of dark barbecue sauce stained the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away with his thumb. Kento grinned, satisfied.
“Come on,” Uncle Heng called. “Don’t miss breakfast.”
Uncle Heng and Aunt Lan lived in a traditional courtyard house, a siheyuan. They came in all sizes, but this one was small and cozy. The courtyard had just enough space for a soggy vegetable garden, a chicken coop, and a few empty clotheslines dotted with plastic clothes pins. The uneven paving stones were more than five hundred years old, and puddles had formed in the depressions worn by centuries of footsteps.
“Sorry,” Ryo said quietly, “I didn’t mean to cause more work.”
“Eat your bao,” Kento said.
“I just mean – your uncle had to come get me – ”
Kento frowned at him until Ryo hesitantly put the dumpling back in his mouth. Kento sighed. He put one hand on Ryo’s shoulder and lifted the other thoughtfully (still holding the noodles).
“It’s true,” Kento said sadly, “you didn’t call ahead. And with me and Mama and Chun Fa and Mei Ryu and Auntie and Uncle all here, you’re going to have to shack up with Mei or me. I’m a little cuddly and I snore, but Mei drools rivers, so you should probably pick me.”
Ryo shot a few glances around the courtyard like he was looking for a hidden audience. His shoulder was tight under Kento’s hand, all muscle and bone with none of Kento’s bulk. He still felt guilty. Kento tightened his grip until Ryo seemed to smooth out a little, grounded, and he swallowed a bite of bao, finally.
“BUT,” Kento held up his finger and his noodle bowl a little higher. Ryo stared, transfixed. “We’re happy to have you because we already have a job for you.”
“For us.” Kento put his arm around Ryo’s shoulder and pulled him into the west building of the house. No more rain water seasoning for his breakfast.
“Uh, what is it?”
“We,” Kento said, grinning as he pulled Ryo into the house, “are going to be running a guesthouse.”
Auntie Lan had come down for breakfast. Uncle Heng hurried in when he saw her sitting next to Mama, bundled up in blankets, her eyes sunken above her hygienic mask. She was waiting for Uncle Heng to take her to the TB dispensary where a public health official would observe her taking her medication. Monitored treatment was China’s new policy on eradicating tuberculosis.
Despite all of this, Auntie waved happily – though weakly – at Ryo with his rain-dappled coat and half-eaten bao. It helped that Ryo was skinny and young and that his jacket was wearing at the elbows. Auntie loved defenseless young people.
The other defenseless young people at the table – the youngest of Kento’s four siblings – gave Ryo a skeptical once over: Chun Fa from behind Mama’s sleeve and Mei Ryu from behind a thirteen year old’s slouch. They didn’t understand why Mama had been so excited to get Ryo’s call yesterday, or why she’d immediately started slapping Kento’s red cheeks, wearing a gleeful smirk. To them, Ryo was just Kento’s Tokyo friend who had worked in the restaurant for a summer and a winter and who had needed to be taught by young children to prepare Changsha-style stinky tofu.
Kento ladled out a bowl of watery rice porridge for Ryo, while Ryo watched Auntie with concern. It gave Kento a chance to load Ryo’s bowl up with pickled vegetables and tofu and hot sauce when he wasn’t looking. Ryo gave his full bowl a baffled glance, but it had been a few years now since the youja invasion of Japan, and he had learned to accept his friends’ mothering.
He did look pretty sad about the hot sauce, though. Kento gave him a little punch in the shoulder: Man up! This was Hunan, where food wasn’t food until it set your mouth on fire. Even Kento was feeling it. The ‘Hunan-style’ cooking he ate at home had been tempered by more than 80 years of mild Japanese cuisine. He had already eaten more peppers in five days in Zhangjiajie than in a year in Yokohama.
“Auntie,” Kento said, “This is my friend, Ryo. He’s going to help me with your house in the mountains.”
Auntie’s voice had been used up by coughing, so it was Mama Xiu, sitting a few feet away with the healthy glow and strong shoulders of a wushu master, who translated Auntie’s whisper into Japanese. Mama said, “She is very grateful that so many people have come to help her. But she is worried that you are taking too much time away from work or school.”
“It’s okay,” Ryo said. “It was a temporary job. I wanted to help.”
Kento didn’t comment. All Ryo’s jobs were temporary. The last Kento knew, Ryo had been working at the Tokyo fish market, biking in several hours before dawn (about the time Rowen was going to bed in the apartment he and Ryo shared near the university) to prepare his employer’s wares using a knife visually indistinguishable from a samurai’s katana. Once, Kento had seen him use a table saw to cut apart a side of tuna weighing over 100 kg.
Ryo had worked a lot of these ‘temporary jobs’ since graduating high school. He’d started out at Kento’s family restaurant, which was why he didn’t need to be introduced to Mama or Chun Fa or Mei Ryu (and why Mama had resorted to happy cheek-slapping when the call had come in from Changsha). He’d spent a summer with the park service near his hometown and a semester shelving books at Rowen’s university. Cye’s cousin had gotten him the job at the fish market, and Ryo had seemed to like it. But every time Mia or Rowen asked (as concerned second generation intellectuals) Ryo would allow as how he was thinking about a college degree – next year.
Kento didn’t worry the way Rowen and Mia did. Most of his relatives worked jobs like Ryo’s; Kento was the one breaking form. His biggest fear was that everyone could tell that he wasn’t meant to be a college student. So far he’d taken three hiatuses related to his parents’ restaurant, his oldest (but still younger) sister’s tuition, and now his Aunt and Uncle and their tourism business. College was a luxury, and he couldn’t work on it when anyone in his family needed him. If he stayed too long in China, he was going to have to retake mineralogy and structure during the fall semester, and he’d probably need to borrow money from Mia (again) to pay the field trip fees.
“If you’re sure,” Auntie said, through Mama.
“I’m sure,” Ryo said. “Thank you for the food.”
Auntie and Uncle left for the TB dispensary in the back of a bicycle rickshaw. Kento’s offer of help was turned down because they didn’t want to bring Ryo. Even if all his paperwork was in order, it was best not to tempt Chinese officials, who were well known to nitpick or fabricate regulations, taxes, fees. And Heng would know – he’d given Kento an entire list of similar techniques for use in the mountain guesthouse.
Kento took Ryo and his bag upstairs to the small storage room-slash-guest room with Kento and Mei Ryu’s futons laid out. Ryo stopped in the hallway, surprised by the framed photo of Mao Zedong hanging on the wall, Mao’s bizarre gray hair wrapped around his shiny, square head like a flying saucer. Candles and dried flowers rested on a narrow table under the photo
Kento hustled him along. Ryo was not the first foreigner to be confused by the Chinese relationship with Mao. A lot of people had died from famine and persecution, but to many people in the working class, Mao was the man who had given China to the people.
They went into Kento and Mei Ryu’s room. Dim light came in through short windows near the ceiling. Auntie and Uncle had off and on electricity; this was an off period. Ryo dropped his bag and rolled onto one of the unmade futons, landing face down on the pillow.
“Hey, how do you know that’s mine?” Kento asked, mock affronted. But Ryo had chosen correctly – he’d planted his face in Kento’s pillow, not Mei Ryu’s.
“It smells like you,” came the muffled answer.
“Been sniffing me, huh?”
“Whatever.” Ryo used ‘whatever’ as a stand in for any communication that seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Here, it probably meant “I don’t know why you’re asking me that,” or “Maybe if you bathed more often, you wouldn’t be so easy to smell.”
“What do I smell like?”
Ryo breathed in like he was really thinking about it. He lifted his head and gave Kento a frustrated look. “I don’t know. Like a mountain is supposed to smell, I guess.”
Kento beamed at him. Who knew what a mountain was ‘supposed’ to smell like, but Ryo had grown up in them; it had to be a good smell. Kento knee-walked to the edge of the futon, falling bonelessly onto Ryo as Ryo yelled and tried to throw him off. This turned into wrestling, which turned into advanced wushu. Ryo was skinny but elegant. Limbs flew; bodies flipped. Kento’s sheets spread hopelessly across the floor.
Kento had 30 kg on Ryo. The bout ended where it had started, only rotated 90 degrees, with Kento on top and Ryo’s bony hip digging into Kento’s stomach. Kento went spread-eagled and boneless. “Dead man’s weight style Secret of the Tang Dynasty.”
“Ugh,” Ryo said. His breath was coming into Kento’s ear. “Is your family going to come up?”
Kento lifted his head; it was an odd question. “Don’t think so.”
Ryo hooked a leg around Kento’s knee. A shove of his hips flipped Kento over, and Ryo went with him. He ended straddling Kento’s rib cage, his tangled, black hair falling down around his face. He stared at Kento until Kento started to feel self-conscious.
“What didn’t you like about the fish market?” Kento asked.
Ryo frowned. “What?”
“I mean, why did you leave?”
Ryo pushed the hair out of his face with both hands and stared at the wall. He was probably the worst liar Kento had ever seen, and he hadn’t even said a word yet. This is what happened when you raised your children on an empty mountain with only deer and tanuki for company.
“I wanted to help,” Ryo said. Kento lifted his eyebrows. That didn’t sound like something that should be a lie, but Ryo’s body language was telegraphing bullshit all over the place. “Mia said you’d left school again.”
“It’s a thing that I do,” Kento admitted.
“Don’t you want to graduate?” Ryo’s forehead crinkled into a worried frown. For all he’d been dodging Mia and Rowen’s collegiate peer pressure, he seemed to have taken it to heart. College was for winners.
“Don’t you?” Kento asked.
Ryo didn’t answer. Instead he fell forward, blocking out the light with his hair and his body. Kento’s cheeks stung like his mother had just finished pinching them. Even for Ryo, whose physicality could border on the indecent, this was too much.
Ryo’s thumb traced the shell of Kento’s ear, sending a jolt down his spine. Kento looked into Ryo’s face and saw uncertainty. This was the moment for Kento to bring them back to wrestling. Kento’s hands locked around the backs of Ryo’s knees like he needed something to hang onto.
“I don’t want to talk about – life,” Ryo said, the frown still on his face.
“Why not?” Kento said, strangled. He had too many siblings not to be acutely away of the unlocked door five feet to his right.
“What would I even go to school for?” Ryo’s breath smelled unattractively of hot sauce. Kento tried to focus on that.
He couldn’t picture Ryo studying to be a historian or a doctor or an engineer. He could picture Ryo better in the field, next to Kento as they walked up and down rocky outcrops in floppy hats and ankle-high boots, looking for faults and folds, but the picture got fuzzy again when he moved back to the classroom. Ryo didn’t like talking or reading or sitting still. He hated offices. The only eloquence he’d learned was through his body, martial arts.
“Physical education,” Kento guessed, but there was a classroom part to that too. Impulsively, he blurted out, “Dance.”
Images popped into his head: Ryo moving across a dance floor, body twisting to the shape of the music. Modern dance, with a dark stage and sleek costume. Partner dancing, Ryo’s hand tight against a woman’s shoulder blade, leading her with the same natural grace with which he moved a sword. Ryo would be lost in it, Kento knew. Ryo didn’t do anything with his body halfway.
It was a pretty fantastic vision. And there was no way Ryo would go for it.
“Dance isn’t a major,” Ryo said skeptically, distracted enough to pull back. His thumb left the shell of Kento’s ear, and Kento lifted his head, following it.
“It is, I swear.”
“Who would I be helping? Why go to school for that?”
“Because it’d be beautiful. I’d watch it. I’d watch it all day.” He tugged at Ryo’s knees. “Come back down here.”
But Ryo seemed to have gotten over whatever mood he’d been in, soured by Kento’s insistence on talk about the future. Ryo never wanted to plan for that. He seemed confused that life wanted more out of him than demon-fighting. Mystical armors should come with a pension.
“Please,” Kento said. He could see from Ryo’s face that he wasn’t getting anywhere, but one of the reasons that he and Ryo got along was that Kento, more than anybody, spoke Ryo’s language, the language of the body. So Kento stopped asking with words. He moved his hands up Ryo’s hips to his rib cage, feeling the rise and fall of Ryo’s breathing.
Ryo’s frown smoothed out. Kento helped him get his jacket off, and Ryo let himself be pulled down as Kento’s heart started beating double-time, heat pooling in his stomach. Ryo’s hot sauce breath brushed against Kento’s lips. Kento grinned, laughing as their teeth clicked together.
“Is this what you wanted?”
“Whatever,” Ryo said agreeably and kissed him, open-mouthed. Kento couldn’t imagine Ryo had quit the fish market for this, but if he had, Kento would take it.
Kento struggled to hold onto his half-formed determination to keep everyone’s clothes on. Half his family was downstairs. He didn’t know where this was going, or how Ryo had known Kento would be open to this – had he said something about Ryo’s martial arts that went beyond professional admiration?
Or maybe he hadn’t picked Kento at all, not in particular. Maybe he wanted to feel good. Maybe he did this with many people. Ryo was most expressive with his body, not his words. Unwillingly, Kento pictured it – Ryo in a clinch with burly fishmongers, with Rowen’s college coeds, with Rowen. He wasn’t sure who he envied – the people putting their hands on Ryo or Ryo for finding it so easy to let them.
As he thought these things, Ryo was licking into Kento’s mouth, Ryo was sliding his thigh between Kento’s legs and bearing down. Kento gave back as good as he got, hands everywhere he could reach. It was wonderful.
Ryo went for the button on Kento’s pants -- holy shit -- and found Kento’s hand around his own, stopping him. He looked up in surprise like a bubble popping, and Kento gasped out, “Sorry.”
“What?” Ryo said. His breath was loud in the quiet room. His lips were swollen, the collar of his shirt stretched to one side.
“We're – we’re supposed to go out for groceries.”
Ryo pulled back, running his hands over his hair. “Oh.” He looked embarrassed. “Yeah.”
“Unless you, uh, did you need to lie down or clean up or something? I can go with Mei.”
“No, it’s fine.” Ryo looked at his backpack.
“Don’t unpack. We’ll leave for Wulingyuan tomorrow, and after that for Yuanjiajie.”
Ryo didn’t make eye contact as Kento held up his jacket. Kento felt like every nerve was firing, and he wanted to reach out and touch – well, everything he’d just been touching. He gave Ryo’s arm a squeeze instead, lifting his eyebrows, and said hopefully, “Later?”
Kento wavered, but that was – there would be time to solve that after groceries. This hadn’t been a part of any version of Ryo’s visit that existed in his head -- though possibly it had been part of the one that existed in his mother’s – but now that Kento knew it was possible, getting his hands on Ryo had become essential. He wondered if he could get Mei Ryu into a different room tonight.
Kento wrenched open the door, glancing back at Ryo with every step, making sure he was still there. Ryo looked away with an uncertain smile, rubbing a hand over his head self-consciously. Kento stepped into the hallway and froze.
There was Mei Ryu, sitting against the wall, sulkily running a toy jeep over the bare floor. Chinese houses didn’t have a divide between inside and outside the way new Western-style buildings did, and one side of the hallway was simply open to the outdoors. Mei Ryu’s cheeks were flushed with embarrassment.
Kento’s face went hot in a mirror image. They stared at each in mutual horror. Kento had had this conversation with his mother, against his will; he didn’t want to have it with the rest of his family.
“I heard nothin’,” Mei said, clearly meaning the opposite.
“What are you doing up here? I thought Mama wanted you to weed the garden.”
“She said I could go with you to the market.”
“Not a chance! You ride too slow.” Kento remembered suddenly that Uncle and Auntie had only two bicycles. If Mei rode one, Ryo would have to sit on the back of the other. He might have to hold on tightly to Kento as they passed over the frequent pot holes.
“I’ll tell Mama,” Mei mumbled, staring at his jeep. He shoulders crept up like he already regretted it.
Kento dropped down in front of him and smacked him upside the head. “Hey!’ he said, pointing at Mei Ryu’s face until he looked Kento in the eye. “You want to get into an ‘I’ll tell Mama’ battle?”
“No,” Mei Ryu said. “I just don’t want to garden.”
“Fine,” Kento said, thinking about bicycle real estate or the lack thereof.
Ryo came out of the room, having changed his travel shirt to another in his bag. Kento gave Mei a warning glare. Mei rolled his eyes, but his shoulders were hunched: threat received. He thumped down the stairs after them in a series of pouty hops, hands shoved into the pockets of his comically oversized windbreaker.
Auntie’s bicycle was bigger than Uncle Heng’s, a pale, blushing pink number with a lowered bar for riding in skirts. Kento claimed it willingly and looked to Ryo to accept the obvious ribbing. But Ryo had the same distracted melancholy look on his face that he’d shown up with, though there was a red mark on his neck darkening into a bruise. Kento lost a few moments staring at it and wanting.
“Ugh!” Mei said.
“Right.” Kento snapped back to reality. “Ryo, you get to ride on the back. You know how to do it?”
The ride into town went like Kento hoped. Ryo slung an arm around Kento’s hips at pot hole one, and it was glorious distraction from there on out. Kento threaded the gaps between buses, cars, trucks, mopeds, tricycles, bicycles, and donkey carts, while Mei Ryu followed behind, shouting if Kento chose a particularly daring gap. Nobody could go quickly in this traffic, and over short distances Kento (and Kento’s thighs) had as much pick up as any vehicle on the road. The only other thing you needed to navigate Chinese traffic was the fighting spirit to glare down an overloaded cargo truck and win.
Of that, Kento had plenty.
They found a street market between two office buildings, the paving shiny in the damp weather. Sheets of plastic over scaffolding kept off some of the rain. Sides of meat and poultry rested on tables where strips of paper tied to fans kept away flies. Fishmongers sold freshwater fish and shellfish from Hunan’s lakes. Fresh vegetables, still caked with dirt, were piled high on blankets and in boxes. There were shoe stalls and hat stalls. Stalls for snacks and candy, stinky tofu and noodles.
Kento taught Ryo the Chinese hand signs for numbers as they went. Many sellers spoke local dialects or spoke Mandarin with such a strong Hunan accent that the number signs were essential. Ryo was better at haggling than Kento had expected for someone whose favorite sentence was “Whatever”. But Ryo had been fending for himself for longer than Kento who, for all his responsibility as clan heir, had always been cushioned by family on every side.
Ryo’s strategy was to outwait his opponent, the whole while wearing a skeptical grimace that seemed say, ‘There isn’t enough kung fu in this radish to keep me interested.’ Kento discovered this technique the first time he’d turned to Ryo to consult on an outrageous price (an important part of the two-man haggle strategy). Ryo had blown Kento’s whole plan by plastering himself against Kento from collar to kneecap under the pretense of looking over his shoulder. Only Ryo’s grimace of kung fu boredom had saved them from Kento’s sudden loss of any bargaining ability whatsoever.
Kento grinned so hard at the next stall, he ended up paying double for a sack of garlic. He had to elbow Ryo away, and Ryo went, coming back with a fried pancake filled with egg and onions that he was willing to share, so fresh it burned Kento’s tongue.
Mei Ryu trailed behind them. He’d pulled something out of his giant pockets and was fiddling with it, head down, as they moved through the market. Kento eventually realized Mei had found some firecrackers, which he was trying to light and drop onto the sidewalk or into the gutter. This was not too surprising – firecrackers were easy to find in China. On many mornings, you could see them laid out on the sidewalk in front of hotels as part of a celebration for newlyweds. Most passerby didn’t even bother detouring around them.
Luckily for the pedestrians walking next to the gutter-slash-public toilet, Mei’s lighter wasn’t working. Neither were the matches he’d stopped to buy. His knuckles turned white; the match snapped against the box. Mei swore.
“Mei!” Kento said.
“Fuck off!” Mei flipped around to walk backwards, shielding his hands from Kento.
“If somebody loses a foot, I’m taking yours off!”
Mei ignored him. Kento gritted his teeth. Once upon a time, Mei Ryu had been a sweet kid, right? Right? He wondered if Mei thought he had successfully blackmailed Kento into letting him act like this, and Kento started to put down the bags of groceries they’d bought. Mei glanced back and his eyes widened. He started moving slowly away, preparing to bolt.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ryo said. “He’s not going to be able to light them.”
“He’ll figure it out.”
“He can’t – um,” Ryo said. Kento shot him a curious look. Ryo held out his palm and traced out a vertical line followed by two stacked horizontal dashes: Jin, benevolence. The guiding virtue of the Wildfire armor. Kento’s eyebrows went up in surprise.
“You? You brought your orb?”
Kento’s orb was locked up in a box in the family shrine in Yokohama, and Kento was glad. No matter what the monk had done to purify them, the nine armors had been made from the body of an emperor who hungered for conquest. Kento enjoyed violence plenty on his own; he didn’t need a demon’s ghostly bones twisting that into something darker.
“I guess,” Ryo said. “I mean, I didn’t bring the orb.”
“Oh,” Kento said, impressed. He’d never been able to use the power of the armor without wearing it, much less without having the key to it in his pocket. “Well – thanks.”
Kento left Ryo in the town square with the groceries so he could go find a box to tie to the back of Mei Ryu’s bike to carry everything. He left the pink bike with Mei Ryu, who was pouting next to a stone lion, eyeing Ryo with distrust. Since Mei couldn’t know what Ryo had been doing with the armor, the glare had to be about the making out. Kento’s current plan was to just ignore him.
When Kento got back, Ryo had been absorbed by a group of women practicing Tai Chi with red paper fans. They stood in a grid in front of a boom box, performing a set routine to blasting instrumental music. Some of them were graceful, some were clumsy. But together, their movements dominated the square.
Ryo had been adopted by two women near the back, both Mama’s age, who were cooing with delight at the ease with which he dropped into the lowest moves and out again. He had a beautiful frame. Kento needed to convince him to take up dance.
One of the women had given Ryo her fan, and as Kento walked up, he brought it to the ground in a smooth arc, snapping it shut at the moment it brushed the stone. The women spoke a constant stream of Mandarin to which Ryo periodically nodded or shrugged as he moved through the dance. He looked calm, smoothed out by the act of bending his body to the routine.
Mei Ryu was squatting over the groceries and the pink bike, and he let out a weary sound as Kento rolled up, a large crate strapped to the rack over the back wheel.
“They won’t believe that I’m not Chinese,” Ryo told him, when Kento waded into the sea of fans. A disruption in the synchronicity rippled out around him.
“Is this your friend?” asked one of the women. “He doesn’t speak Mandarin.”
“He’s Japanese,” Kento said.
The Chinese woman frowned, and the look she gave Ryo was disbelieving. She poked his cheek. “No, look at him – he looks Chinese. He’s too good looking.”
“They don’t believe you,” Kento told Ryo. “To Chinese people, all Asian people are Chinese. If your ancestor made the mistake of leaving China, Chinese people forgive you by assuming you are still Chinese.” He grinned. “Also, they say Japanese people aren’t as pretty as you.”
The Chinese lady frowned, taking back her fan. “Bring him back tomorrow. If he does not practice Tai Chi, he should. Look at him! There is a men’s practice earlier.”
“You’re supposed to come back tomorrow,” Kento told Ryo, grinning. Ryo looked wistfully at the group of women as together they snapped their fans out towards the sky. “You really liked it?”
Ryo shrugged. “Whatever, I guess. I just – it made it easier to feel – ” He stepped forward, taking Kento’s wrist and pulling Kento’s arm out like he was about to teach him the first move of a kata. He spread his other hand over Kento’s chest.
Mei Ryu groaned, but Kento ignored him. Only Mei would think this was incriminating. Distracted and irritated, Kento didn’t notice the warmth spreading out from Ryo’s hand, or the way that the sounds and colors around him had become sharper.
Then he fell through the surface of the square and into the earth.
Or that’s what it felt like. Everything went crisp and over exposed and then dark as he fell into the packed dirt underneath the square. It was cool and damp and heavy against his skin. He could feel the tiny pieces of rock and clay, mixed with the remains of the plants that had put their roots here, before the square had been built over it. Farther down, he sensed the harder, stronger limestone bedrock, laid down in an ancient ocean.
There was an echo down here, a resonance, like a hammer tapped against one end of a table that vibrated at the other. Kento could feel it spread out away from him, fading with distance into blurry shadows. Mountains rumbled somewhere far away, crushing together so inexorably that they had nowhere to go but up.
With all this came energy and strength, spreading out from his chest to the tips of his fingers and toes. It was a slow, sedate energy, powerful and methodical. An urge to walk up mountains and swim across oceans. He’d forgotten the armor felt like this. His clearest memories were of distrust.
Coming back to the square felt like being woken up on a cold morning by someone ripping the blankets off the bed. His skin goose-pimpled in the open air, and he staggered forward. Ryo caught him.
“You get it?” Ryo said, watching Kento anxiously. Nobody was looking at them oddly; barely any time had passed.
Kento wanted to walk home carrying the bikes on one shoulder and Ryo on the other. He spread his hand over Ryo’s shoulder, resting his thumb in the warm divot of Ryo’s collarbone.
Ryo’s connection to the armors stunned him. Was this how he felt every day? Maybe this was why all Ryo’s jobs were temporary. Because Kento’s past was Ryo’s present.
“I get it,” Kento said. Ryo closed his eyes in relief.
On the way home, they stopped at a small convenience store, empty except for a bored cashier reading the newspaper. Mei stayed outside with the bikes. The aisles in the back of the store were barely big enough for Ryo and Kento to stand together without knocking office supplies and plastic sandals off the shelves.
It was the most privacy Kento had had all day. He looked over at Ryo, absently poking through a bucket of pens and pencils printed with knock off anime characters. Ryo looked surprised when Kento slipped a hand around his waist and pulled him in. He pushed Ryo back against the shelves, and a cascade of plastic wrapped notebooks covered in cats crashed to the floor. Kento swore. Putting them back felt almost as loud as the crash.
Kento went to the front to pay for the things his Aunt needed, cheeks hot and sneaking looks at Ryo, who kept looking away and grinning.
“Your accent – where are you from?” asked the cashier, a middle aged man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He didn’t look up from his newspaper.
“My family is from Hunan, but we live in Japan,” Kento said.
The cashier looked interested. “Is that difficult? I’ve heard the Japanese are very insular.”
“I don’t have any trouble,” Kento said, but he admitted, “Nobody believes I’m Japanese though.”
Kento usually played that for laughs, but it bothered him more than he’d admit to a stranger. He had an uncle who had lived in America for twenty years and called himself American. Kento’s family had been in Japan for eighty, but no Japanese person would let Kento get away with calling himself Japanese. Even his friends would look surprised before humoring him.
One of his professors had actually asked Kento if he was getting his degree to return to China. It had not occurred to the professor that when it came to civil service, Kento’s heart might belong first to Japan.
“Well, of course not! You’re Chinese!” The cashier sounded relieved. He tapped his newspaper, folded several times to fit onto the small counter space next to the cash box. “Are you a student? You know their school books are controlled by their imperialist government. They tell many lies about China.”
“It hasn’t been imperialist for a long time,” Kento said, knowing that now was the time to walk away. He sometimes had this conversation in China, but just as often, Chinese people were interested and friendly and wanted to feed him proper Hunan food to show him what he’d been missing. Standing next to him, Ryo looked politely curious. His cheeks were flushed, and his breathing was only now coming back to normal.
The cashier rang Kento up, slapping at the keys of a big electronic calculator. “10% discount,” the cashier said. “And you must take this, too. For free.” He pressed his folded up newspaper onto the top of Kento’s purchases. He looked up at Ryo, his expression a mix of disdain and sympathy. “You live in Japan too?”
Kento pulled Ryo out of the store.
He browsed the newspaper as Mei and Ryo put the rest of the groceries onto the back of the bike, Mei complaining that his bike was too heavy now. Kento was looking for what had inspired the cashier’s patriotism. The article around which the paper had been folded was a small one on the front page of the international section.
Kento read the headline feeling like a stone was sinking in his gut. Japanese Textbooks Downplay War Crimes, the headline read. Kento’s first thought was: I don’t want to read this.
For most of Kento’s life, economics had been bringing Japan and China together in search of mutual gain. The post-Mao government was more liberal on business, and both countries spoke of building a Sino-Japanese friendship. But as that ‘friendship’ grew, it had rattled the skeletons in the closet – or put another way, it had revealed that the closet was exactly where Japan meant for its skeletons to stay.
Kento’s family, spread out as it was, had access to Chinese, Japanese, and American rhetoric on Sino-Japanese history. That information had filtered through family members to Kento as he was growing up – from his Mama, who valued education above all things, and from his Grandfather, who had been a man of Chinese-descent living in Japan in the 1930s and 40s.
It had been difficult for Kento, initially driven by a pro-China fervor of justice, to reconcile the idea that Japan was his home. That he loved the Japanese people, and he would rather live in Yokohama than in Hunan -- even when his school teachers taught him that Japan had entered World War II to ‘liberate Asia from Western aggression’ and made Kento hold buckets in the hall when he protested.
Kento rubbed his hands over the creased paper in his hands, smearing ink on his fingers. The article was about textbooks, updated versions of the ones Kento had used in school. The author had acquired his own copies, and he applauded the inclusion of several previously forbidden topics – mentions of the comfort women of Korea, the Nanjing Massacre – but they weren’t enough.
Only a few years ago, the Japan Democratic Party had published a list of ‘deplorable textbooks’, which included those accused of glorifying China and castigating Japan. It was the very same year that the Prime Minister of Japan had made the first formal apology of any kind for Japanese aggression during World War II. Yet, only a year before, Japan’s Justice Minister had called the Nanjing Massacre a fabrication and had been part of a campaign to remove crimes of the Imperial Army from Japanese textbooks.
“What is it?” Mei said. The rain had picked up again, and Ryo and Mei were holding the bikes, waiting for Kento. Dark rain spots dotted the newsprint. Mei leaned over his bike to read it.
“What?” Ryo said.
Kento looked at Ryo and saw something different than he’d seen before. Ryo was like an abandoned backpack on a train platform – might contain books, might contain explosives. Ryo had not been raised with the different viewpoints of Chinese, Japanese, and American news coverage. Ryo’s textbooks had talked about ‘advances’ instead of ‘invasions’ and blamed the death toll in Nanjing on Chinese resistance, if they mentioned it at all.
If Kento wanted to know how well that censorship had worked, he had a type specimen right here. Ryo was a product of that education. Kento just had to ask.
“Japanese textbooks don’t teach children what the army really did in the war,” Mei said in Japanese, craning his neck. “The Nanjing ‘Incident’! What a joke.”
Ryo looked confused.
“The Nanjing Massacre,” Kento clarified.
Ryo shifted, repositioning the bike to rest against his hip. A rain drop hit him in the eye, and he blinked, licking his lip. “I don’t know what that is.”
Kento was thrown. He had been bracing himself for justification or dismissal. He hadn’t imagined Ryo could have missed it entirely. “It refers to the people that the Japanese Army killed after they took Nanjing.”
Ryo looked confused. “You mean, the casualties of the Chinese Army?”
“No, the Japanese army killed hundreds of thousands civilians and soldiers who had laid down arms. They rounded them up, gunned them down, and tossed them in the river. Or worse. It happened every day for six weeks.”
Ryo shook his head. “That can’t have happened.”
“It did!” Mei said.
“Does it say that in the paper?”
“Everywhere it says that,” Mei said.
“There are photographs,” Kento said, “and witnesses who testified at the military tribunal. Mama has books that record these things; she can show you, but they’re in Chinese.”
Ryo’s lips pressed together uncertainly. “But the Chinese press is controlled by the government, isn’t it?”
“So are the Japanese textbooks!” Kento felt like his heart was breaking. The image of Ryo dancing, mind subverted to body, had lost its appeal. Ryo’s isolation wasn’t beautiful anymore; Kento wanted him to be aware of the things around him. Kento said, furious, “There are stories like this throughout history; it is not impossible for anyone! And instead of understanding that, the soldiers who did this are enshrined at Yasukuni for their service to Japan.”
Ryo shrank back, shaking his head, a deep frown marring his forehead. The pink bike had slipped down his thigh, tipping precariously until Kento thought he might drop it.
“Can we just go back?” Ryo said.
“Of course you don’t want to talk about it,” Mei snapped. Kento blamed Ryo’s ignorance on Japanese education, like a child who had been raised by bad parents. Mei had no such soft spot. To him, Ryo was someone who had come to China unannounced and tainted Mei’s admired eldest brother within an hour of arrival. Mei had been waiting all day for a weak point that Kento was not protecting.
Kento suddenly realized that he was yelling at a Japanese national about Japanese war crimes in a Chinese street. Ryo’s ignorance hurt Kento; it was too humanly fallible for the depth of Kento’s admiration, but Kento didn’t want to see him beaten in the street by China’s ‘angry youth’ – fenqing, a catch-all term for China’s restless, patriotic young men, identified by their vocal criticism of Japan.
“It’s fine,” Kento said. “We can go. It’s getting cold anyway.”
The ride back was slow with Mei’s heavy crate. Kento didn’t feel motivated to weave through traffic as he’d done on the way here. Ryo’s arm around his waist was heavy rather than exciting.
“What’s wrong?” Mama asked when they got back and were unpacking.
“Nothing, Mama,” Kento said.
Ryo pulled the vegetables out silently. He didn’t answer well when spoken to and had to be directed with hand signs to put things away. Kento wondered if the revelation could have been that shocking when Ryo didn’t believe it anyway, if he’d layered the information over already and his discomfort now was with Kento for shouting.
Kento wished he’d never read that newspaper article. The past was the past.
All of a sudden, a sharp bang like a gunshot came from the courtyard, followed by a rat-atat-tat of explosions, echoes ricocheting off the stone walls. Beneath it, the sound of chickens screeching.
Kento ran for the door. Mei Ryu stood in the courtyard in a hanging cloud of blue smoke just beginning to drift on the wind. There was a scorch mark on the side of the crate they’d strapped to his bike, and Chun Fa was curled up by the steps, hands wrapped tightly over her head, her startled shrieks hidden in the cries of the chickens.
Mei looked at Kento in disbelief and then at the lighter in his hand. He’d finally gotten the firecrackers to work.
Part II: Wulingyuan.
They packed up silently before breakfast. Ryo didn’t talk, and Kento said things like: here’s where the futons go. Thank you. Mama made breakfast.
Kento wasn’t sure why things were strange, or rather, why they were still strange. He told himself he wasn’t holding Ryo responsible for crimes committed before he was born. But when Kento turned to Ryo and opened his mouth, nothing would come out. Ryo felt – foreign.
After breakfast, they would take a bus from the train station to Wulingyuan, the base village for most of the tourism in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Kento caught Mei Ryu throwing some things in a duffle bag and tapped his shoulder. When Mei looked up, Kento said, “You aren’t coming.”
Mei face turned mulish, but something in Kento’s face must have said no sass. Mei threw down the duffle and went downstairs.
Kento looked over at Ryo, who was sitting on top of the futon he’d folded, staring at the floor.
It frustrated Kento, and he didn’t know why. Maybe it was that Ryo was the one who was still stunned silent half a day late. Kento may have started the conversation, but he didn’t get to decide when it was over. There were two people involved now. Or maybe it was that Kento couldn't decide between wanting to take care of him and wanting him to hurt.
This, he decided, grumbling to the laundry pile, was why no one ever wants to talk about hard stuff.
Kento pulled Mama aside outside of Auntie’s room. “I’m not bringing Mei. Can you find something for him to do here?”
Mama had an armful of dirty linens, and the look she gave Kento over the top of it was not deeply impressed. “Just you and that boy? You know I like him, but you’re going there to run a guesthouse, not to get some privacy.”
Kento opened his mouth like a fish. It seemed stupid that he’d forgotten what it would look like to Mama. “It’s not like that, Mama.”
“Oh, isn’t it. Why come all the way here? I remember how much he hates spicy food.” Mama shifted the linens to one arm and touched Kento’s cheek. “I thought he was going to help you answer your question.”
“Mama,” Kento groaned in protest. ‘His question’ – that’s what Mama called it when she was talking to him about boys and girls. The conversations were always embarrassing. Kento had liked girls plenty as kid, and it had taken him a long time to figure out what Mama meant.
Which basically boiled down to this: Kento had liked boys a lot too. Once, in a fit of boyish adoration, he’d made his younger brother Yun dress up as Susumu Kodai, the hero of Space Battleship Yamato, and over the course of a month, had fake-married Officer Kodai no less than fifteen times. Thanks to Mama, Kento would never forget.
Mama’s favorite aunt was Aunt Dong Mei (like most of the elderly Xiu aunts, she was really a cousin) who lived in Yokohama with her partner. It meant that to Mama, men living with men and women living with women were normal, were family. Even if she had also been raised to believe that you should never talk about the details where people could hear.
“No, Mama, but he’s my friend. And something’s wrong, ok? I can’t deal with Mei, too.”
“If this boy keeps you from taking care of the guesthouse, you have to send him home or send for us to takeover, alright?”
“Of course. Family first. Unless he catches TB too.” Mama slapped him upside the head, and Kento ducked in to kiss her on the cheek. “Thank you, Mama.”
At breakfast, Ryo ate his rice porridge plain without Kento to fill his bowl with Chinese condiments. Quietly, he said, “Can we find an international phone?”
Kento’s grip on his spoon tightened. “Why? Do you want to go home?”
For the first time in twelve hours, Ryo shot Kento a look with some emotion in it. “No. I want to talk to Mia.” He added in a mumble (he was still the worst liar), “She wanted to know when I got in.”
“Ok, sure,” Kento said, relieved and surprised to realize he was relieved. He wanted Ryo to stay. “There’s one at the train station.”
The Zhangjiajie train station was a swooping, futuristic building in front of a wide public square, all windows and white paint. One of the convenience stores in the lobby had a phone booth in the back. Kento helped Ryo with the instructions and waited in the doorway as the call rang through.
“Hi, Cye, it’s Ryo. Yeah, I’m here. It’s fine. We’re going to – uh – run his aunt’s guesthouse. I don’t know. Wash things and cook, I guess? Hey, is Mia there?” Ryo looked up at Kento in the doorway and frowned. He tugged at the door, but it got caught on his backpack, and he had to give it two good yanks to get it closed. Kento jumped back out of the way.
He shoved his hands in his pockets. Sounds of the crowded station flowed around him: announcements, conversations, greetings, constant footsteps. Inside the booth, he heard Ryo’s muffled voice say hesitantly, “Mia, uh, do you know anything about Nanjing?”
Kento closed his eyes. He didn't -- he didn't want to spend another day on this. He didn't want to have to listen to a friend decide whose culture better deserved belief. He didn't want to have to argue to be believed.
The booth was silent; Mia was doing all the talking. Kento wondered what she was saying, if she would say that Beijing had exaggerated the death toll. Ryo had his forehead propped on his hand staring at the table top. He had to know Kento was standing there looking at him. Ryo had to be choosing not to look back.
Kento felt like someone had drawn a line around him and put up a sign in that said, “Chinese over here!” Rather than ask Kento, Ryo was in the booth calling his Japanese friends to find out how a good Japanese should deal with the Japanese past. Which was funny because normally coming to China made Kento feel more Japanese. Everything was different. Even the crowds were more crowded.
He checked the time on the booth’s clock. The bony old man at the counter held up five fingers, frowning until Kento waved his understanding.
The five minutes ran out. Kento paid for five more. A few minutes later, Ryo nudged open the door with his foot. He held out the phone, the spiral cord between handset and body stretched to its limit. When Kento took the phone, Ryo leaned back on the stool, pushed into the corner as far as it could get from the door (not far). He looked upset, but also – confused.
Kento picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“And how are you?” Rowen asked with exaggerated inflection. There was an ironic lightness to his voice that told Kento he’d been a part of Mia and Ryo’s conversation. Kento swallowed unhappily. Now all of his friends were turning into mystery backpacks on train platforms with who knows what inside. He was afraid he about to have the conversation he’d had yesterday four more times.
“Fine,” Kento said.
“Right. So, uh, war-time atrocities, in grotesque detail. Not my ideal Saturday morning.”
Feeling alienated, Kento wanted to disagree on principle -- well, sorry for bothering you -- but Rowen was echoing Kento’s first reaction yesterday pretty perfectly. You shouldn’t forget the awful parts of history, but it wasn’t clear what you were supposed to do instead. Most people didn’t have a lot of opportunities to apply a lesson like ‘don’t use a city for bayonet practice’ on their average day. Okay, History, thanks; I’ll – try not to do that today.
Instead there was just this: turning your friends into people you were afraid to talk to because they might make you sad.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Kento said.
Ryo was staring past Kento into the crowded station. He had the same not-there look he’d had this morning but with redder eyes. Rowen didn’t sound like Mia had been giving the ulta-nationalist perspective. At the same time, he didn’t sound like he was taking it the way Ryo was, like a gut wound.
“You take care of him, ok?” Rowen said. “His tiger’s worried about him.”
Kento set his jaw. What about me. “He’s got a mystical armor. He doesn’t need taking care of.”
Ryo started out of his daze. He said, a little horrified. “You have to take care of your aunt.”
Kento hesitated. It mattered to Kento that Ryo had remembered that. When he looked down, Ryo looked -- a little less foreign than he had this morning.
Ryo had grown up largely unsupervised in a cabin seven miles from the nearest town. He knew how to preserve fruits and sew buttons and build a table, and he could go a whole day without saying more than a few words to anyone. Yet given the choice, Ryo had elected to live in Mia’s crowded house, then with Kento’s family in Yokohama, and now with Rowen in an apartment the size of Mia’s closet.
It was like Ryo had come to the city and discovered that what he’d been missing all his life was other people.
Kento didn’t want to think about that. Because it sunk a hook into the part of Kento that needed other people to need him. Because Ryo had remembered that they were out here for Kento’s sick aunt, not for Ryo. And Kento was still mad.
“You know he takes everything ten times harder than a normal person,” Rowen said. “Whatever part of his brain handles brain chemical dosage must think he’s a sumo wrestler. Look, just let him do some manual labor until he feels better. Does this guesthouse have a leaky roof?”
“He’s fine,” Kento said. Even though he wasn’t sure Ryo was fine, but it wasn’t Kento’s fault that Ryo hadn’t told him any of what was wrong. He’d told Rowen and Mia and Cye instead, so why was Kento supposed to take care of him? He looked at Ryo. Ryo had the same constipated expression most people saved for their embarrassing parents. “Your roommate says you want a hug.”
“Whatever,” Ryo mumbled.
“He says whatever,” Kento told Rowen.
“Yeah, because that’s help—”
“Get me Cye, please?”
“Fine, fine.” Scuffling on the other end of the line. The sound of the receiver being picked up.
“Hello,” Cye said. “Ready to come home yet?”
“In a few weeks. That’s when my cousin can take over.”
“Good, we’ll have a party,” Cye said, amused. “How are you doing?”
It felt good to be asked about himself. It was like there was a Team Kento and a Team Ryo on the other end of the line. Kento wondered what Cye thought about the Nanjing ‘Incident’. Cye had great uncles who’d died in the war. Maybe one day, when Kento had had a lot of rest and alcohol, he’d ask. “I’m fine.”
Kento glared at the wall in lieu of Cye. He was trapped inside three square feet with the root cause of most of his feelings. He looked at Ryo, at a loss. Ryo noticed. He pushed up and past Kento to get out of the booth, the door creaking in protest. Kento grabbed at him as he went by, but Ryo shrugged him off.
“I’m here,” Kento said. “Do you know why he came? I didn’t know he was in the country until he called from Changsha.”
“Why are you whispering? Is he right there?”
“I don’t know – he’s outside the booth somewhere.”
“Ah, like a lion with its prey,” Cye said dryly. Kento snorted. “Is he in the way? What happened?”
“Nothing happened. He just – he told me he came because he wanted to help, and he was – you know Ryo. It was really obvious there was something else. And now he’s upset, he’s really upset.”
“Talking about rape and murder is going to upset anybody.” Cye sounded disapproving, a definite touch of you-brought-this-on-yourself. Kento felt that little Chinese! Right here! sign pop up again by his feet. “He told Mia he’d never heard about the Nanjing Massacre before. He wasn’t sure it was real.”
So much for Team Kento. He asked carefully, “Are you?”
“Yes,” Cye said. He added uncertainly, “Though – I didn’t know all those things Mia said. She’s the historian. I knew more than Ryo, I guess.”
“Okay. It’s just – most people move on. We can’t change the past.” Kento didn’t want to sound callous or ridiculous, so he didn’t say, how come he gets to be upset when I’m not? Or maybe, what’s wrong with me that I’m not heartbroken?
“He got promoted,” Cye said thoughtfully. Kento took that in slowly. That doesn’t sound like a temporary job, Ryo. “And you know Mia and Rowen – well, all of us, Seiji too – I think we each had a ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ conversation with him. You don’t do that. Maybe he missed that.”
“Joke’s on him then. The first thing I did was try to convince him to major in dance.”
“In dance?” Cye paused. “That would be fantastic.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. He didn’t even believe me that it was a major.” He doesn’t believe me about a lot of things.
“Kento, you’re still the only person who doesn’t pressure him about it.”
Kento thought of himself as the joker and the muscle and maybe as the guy who always remembered where Rowen left his keys. He hadn’t thought of himself as a haven. But then, earlier, Ryo hadn’t said, ‘I don’t want to be taken care of.’ He’d said, ‘You have to take care of your aunt.’ Like Ryo wouldn’t mind it, but he knew there were too many people in line ahead of him.
“Kento,” Cye said. “About -- I believe you. I don't -- know what else to say.”
“Okay.” Kento didn’t know what to say either. “Thanks.”
Kento found Ryo sitting in the corner made by the side of the phone booth and the glass wall of the train station. It was dry outside but cloudy. Kento crouched in front of him and put one hand on Ryo’s leg above the ankle. Ryo’s jeans were damp from splashing through puddles.
Ryo looked up. Kento shrugged, the best way he could express the limbo it felt like they were in.
“Time to go?” Ryo said.
Ryo spent the bus ride staring out the window, not even blinking when someone sat behind them with a burlap sack full of screaming chickens. Kento had never realized how difficult it was to talk to Ryo. Usually they just wrestled.
Lush green walls rose up around the road. Every so often they passed the mouth of a valley, the mountains fading to blue in the distance. Every bit of flat land was taken up by rice fields and old houses. Water buffalo, pigs, and chickens wandered in paddocks enclosed by simple log fences.
The village of Wulingyuan was a spot of steel modernity in an old world countryside. The buildings had fronts of white stucco or tile, and the streets were populated with taxis and buses bearing logos of touring companies. At the end of the main street, a nine story pagoda with a dark, tiled roof marked the entrance to the park.
Kento had thought they might take the walking trail up from the park entrance since all the supplies would be delivered by bus. That didn’t seem possible now. He bought two bus tickets all the way to the top. They would take a big bus halfway up and then transfer to a little bus at the main trailhead.
The roads hugged the mountains like coiled snakes, and the bus drivers drove their unwieldy, top heavy vehicles like a surgeon in a Ferrari. Every hairpin corner gave the bus a noticeable lean towards the valley and sent its passengers swaying into each other, clinging desperately to the hand straps hanging from the ceiling. It only got scarier as they went up and snow started to appear under the trees.
Ryo nearly fell into an old woman when his leather hand strap had too much give. He was curled over her, the muscles in his arms and back quivering with the effort to pull back against the momentum of the bus’ turn. Kento put an arm around Ryo’s chest pulled him effortlessly in, and that’s how he spent the rest of the bus ride with an armful of Sanada Ryo. Ryo smelled like cedar.
The guesthouse was just off the road, nestled in pine trees. The windows were boarded up from the end of last season and the door secured by padlocks. They stood shivering in crunchy, half-melted snow while Kento got the door open. It was dark as a cave inside with the windows all boarded up, and Kento and Ryo had to root through their bags for flashlights as soon as they stepped inside.
The sun set as they wandered through the house, lifting up dust sheets and checking for broken windows or other damage. There were two bunkrooms and a few private rooms. In the center: a common room with a bar. Rooms behind the bar held a kitchen and living quarters for the house manager.
Dinner was canned soup on a propane burner. There wouldn’t be fuel for the generator until supplies were delivered in the morning. In the meantime, there was a little pot-bellied wood stove for heat. Ryo started it up while Kento went looking for bedding. He came back dragging a futon from the manager’s bedroom, blankets and pillows tossed on top.
“I’ll go get another one from the bunkroom,” he told Ryo as he dropped the futon by the stove.
“No, it’s fine,” Ryo said, pulling on an old, heavy sweater and a second pair of socks from his backpack. “There’s not room for two in here anyway.”
Kento looked between the futon and Ryo. It was wide but not that wide. “Are you sure?”
Ryo shot him a frustrated look. His skin reflected red light from the open stove. A gas lantern on the floor gave the rest of the room a dim, blue glow. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Kento hesitated. “You seem uncomfortable? With me.”
Ryo held the back of his hand towards the fire the way some people would absently pet a cat. “I don’t think I am? I guess – I feel like I’m supposed to say something, and I don’t know what it is.”
Kento gritted his teeth. “When you say that – when you call Mia and Rowen across an ocean instead of asking me, I feel like the crazy Chinese person in the room.”
“You kind of seem like the crazy Chinese person,” Ryo said. “I mean, you are mad, right? I’m doing something wrong.”
“Your job isn’t to make me not mad!” Kento said angrily. He sounded like the crazy Chinese person in the room. He shoved his hands under his elbows. “Is it that you think I’d make it up? That I just buy into party propaganda because my great-great-grandparents used to live here?”
“No.” Ryo stared at him. “I don’t believe you because it’s 300,000 people. You’re my family and I trust you but I wish you were crazy.”
The open door of the stove abruptly belched out a ball of flame the size of basketball that burst into sparks over Ryo’s head, illuminating the room with a flash of heat and light. Ryo jumped like a startled cat. The sparks settled onto Ryo’s sweater like stars and gradually turned black as they cooled to ash.
Kento stared, stunned. Finally he said, “I’m not a crazy Chinese person.”
“Okay,” Ryo said shakily, miserable.
“And I’m not even – I’m not Chinese. I’m Japanese.” As Kento said it, it didn’t sound quite right. That wasn’t the answer to what Kento was, but it was more right than ‘crazy Chinese person’.
“Okay,” Ryo said.
“So... I’ll get another futon.”
“You don’t need to,” Ryo mumbled, dropping his chin into the neck of his sweater. Kento stared at him in surprise. Ryo glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “Do you... do you want a second futon?”
Kento thought about it. “I don’t know what to... do with you in the same futon,” he said slowly.
“Yeah, with you! Are you going to – ” Kento spread his arms and mimed pulling a body towards him. He could feel the heat of the open stove against his cheeks. “—you know?”
“Uh,” Ryo said. Even in the weird light, it was clear he was turning red. “Do you want to?”
Kento opened his mouth – nothing came out. He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to be the one to figure it out. Feeling like a coward, he shot back, “Do you?”
Ryo put his hand in front of the stove. He opened his fingers, and the flames flickered through them, playing havoc with the shadows of the room. “No,” he said softly. Kento’s stomach sank. “I can’t. I just—I don’t understand how people do the things they do. It’s all I can think about and it’s like – bees inside my skin.” He turned suddenly, looked at Kento with a worried expression.
Kento didn’t want to feel like they’d been forced into the roles of their ancestry - the guilty and the victim, as though Ryo owed Kento an apology for Japan’s crimes against Nanjing or Kento were capable of accepting it if he did. That didn’t make sense. They, uh, jeez, they loved each other – that’s what Ryo meant by family, right? -- and maybe Kento had been knocked out of the warm, fuzzy crush space he’d been in, maybe he couldn’t get that back, but he didn’t want either of them to be the spokesperson for an entire people.
“I’m not angry with you,” Kento said. He was saying it to himself too.
“You can be angry. That’s not what I’m scared of.”
Kento frowned. “Scared?”
Ryo wrapped his arms around his knees. “Did you imagine yourself being there? The first time you heard about it?”
Kento couldn’t remember the first time he’d heard about Nanjing. He’d grown up fundamentally knowing that human beings were capable of unimaginable, baffling violence, and not on the other side of the world or a hundred years ago but right next door and in living memory. That Ryo was torn apart by the horrors of Nanjing didn’t mean that Ryo was a better person, just that he was more recently shocked and more… tear-apart-able. Rowen had been right about that. It was, weirdly, one of the reasons Kento wanted to see Ryo dance.
“I think everybody has to,” Kento said. “You wonder if you’d run away, if you’d stand in front of your mother, if you’d hide somebody, if you’d fight back. You wonder whether it’d do any good.”
Ryo shook his head. “That’s not the part I imagined.”
“Can we just go to sleep?” He dropped his head onto his knees. He sounded exhausted. Kento was exhausted too.
Together they unfolded the blankets and made up the bed. They used canteens they’d brought to wash up a little and brush their teeth. Ryo closed the door of the stove and turned down the gas lantern.
Kento laid down first, putting the burden of decision on Ryo again and feeling guilty about it. Ryo dropped to his knees on the side of the futon, and Kento saw the indecision on his face. Ryo was really honestly messed up about this whole thing, and that meant something to Kento. It meant a lot, he realized.
He forced himself to lift up one arm, and Ryo hesitantly lay down against Kento’s side, letting Kento wrap an arm around his shoulders. He felt Ryo relax muscle by muscle, and Kento relaxed muscle by muscle with him.
He’d started to doze when Ryo suddenly spoke. He was whispering, enunciating carefully like he had to get this all out and it was difficult: “One of the soldiers testifying said he felt like he was killing pigs. He tied people together with barbed wire and lit them on fire.” It must have been something Mia had told him. “Even if you believe that a person is like an animal, that their pain doesn’t matter, how do you enjoy that? I wouldn’t do that to pigs. I’m scared to death of that. I can’t sleep thinking about it.”
Kento could feel Ryo’s heart beating furiously against his ribs. He realized Ryo had been asking himself an entirely different set of ‘What if?’ questions than Kento had. Ryo hadn’t imagined himself as one of the fleeing Chinese civilians but as one of the murderers. He’d asked himself: Would I do that? How could I? What would it take for me to do that?
And maybe those questions were more devastating for Ryo than Kento’s would have been. Because Kento knew exactly what Ryo would have done if he’d been on the Chinese side – died on day one putting his body in front of someone else. It wouldn’t have changed the death toll except to increase it by one, but Ryo would still have had his soul.
“I don’t understand,” Ryo whispered. “The virtues of our armors are part of bushido. They’re the virtues of the Japanese people.”
“The soldiers in Nanjing weren’t virtuous people,” Kento whispered back. “You aren’t like them.”
Ryo shook his head. “But I am like them. There were too many soldiers for them not to have just been regular people before. If that’s true, why would I have escaped? I thought – I’m a virtuous person; I fought demons. But who has to decide if a demon is human? Were the Japanese soldiers like youja to the Chinese people?”
Kento didn’t have an answer, and it was scary the way responsibility was scary that Ryo might be looking to him for one.
Ryo took a shaky breath, hiccupping into Kento’s shoulder.
“I love you – a lot,” Kento said abruptly, surprising himself. His pulse jumped towards the roof, and he closed his fist in Ryo’s sweater, terrified. Ryo froze. “That’s not a good answer, sorry. I just – remembered, I guess.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Ryo said.
Kento felt that fear too. For him, it didn’t come through history but through the armor of Hardrock, tainted by Talpa’s ambition and by the power it gave Kento for destruction. He’d put that fear as far away as he could when he’d left the armor in his family’s shrine and closed the door.
“You can’t hurt me,” Kento said, staring at the dark ceiling above him. He felt for the first time in a day and a half like he wasn’t a crazy Chinese person. Or not just a crazy Chinese person. Or like maybe being a crazy Chinese person wasn’t so bad. “I’m a rock. The worst you can do is turn me into magma, and you know what, I’m a geologist. Magma is great.”
He felt Ryo’s chest shake with a hesitant laugh. Ryo’s hands were clenched up against Kento’s rib cage, moving restlessly. He still had bees under the skin. Kento pulled the heavy blanket farther up over their shoulders and wrapped both arms around Ryo tightly, determined to stay this way no matter how uncomfortable it got. He felt a little spot of cold as Ryo tucked his nose against Kento’s neck.
This was okay. Kento could live like this.
“Have you seen what’s back there?” Ryo burst into the kitchen, nose and cheeks red. He was bundled up in his heavy sweater and a pair of gloves they’d found in the back room. He’d been outside taking the covers off the windows.
Kento looked up from where he was cooking noodles at the stove, wearing a red apron decorated at the front with a big-eyed puppy eating chrysanthemum flowers. He hadn’t seen Ryo since they’d woken up and divided up the to-do list. He’d practically thrown Ryo out the door. His Mama and his aunt were counting on them to open this place up in time for the high season. Kento didn’t fail family.
Ryo dodged around the stacks of supplies taking up space in the kitchen. They’d been delivered with the first bus: fuel for the generator, bags of rice, dried noodles, flour, salt, peppers, dried vegetables, fresh vegetables, canned foods, soap, snacks, candies, soda, water, paper-wrapped cuts of chicken and pork.
Ryo pointed wordlessly towards the back door. He’d found the lookout point. Kento’s chest puffed up proudly. He drained the pasta, and followed Ryo outside, pulling on a coat as he went.
It was hard to see from the road because of the trees, but the Xiu Family Mountain Guesthouse had been built on the edge of a sheer cliff nearly a kilometer tall.
Kento followed Ryo down the short, wooded trail to the lookout behind the guesthouse. The trees were green above the snow on the ground. He stopped at the railing and took it all in, the crisp air, so different from the sooty pollution of Zhangjiajie City. Kento slapped both hands against his chest and threw out his arms.
“Beautiful!” he roared into the valley, and cupped his ears to catch the echo.
Giant rock pinnacles dotted the valley, blocky sandstone towers rising from the green carpeted valley floor. Each pinnacle was topped by a forest just emerging from winter. The forests at their base were already into spring. Some of the rock towers were hundreds of meters tall, some as high as a kilometer so that their tops were the same level as the plateau under Kento’s feet. The precarious monoliths gave an observer the eerie suspicion that each one was about to topple. Early morning sun caught on the spots of green clinging to small ledges and cracks.
It was one of the most beautiful places on earth.
“How did they get there?” Ryo asked.
“Well,” Kento said, beaming. To a geoscientist, to ask about the rock pillars of Wulingyuan – ha! It was like a red flag to a bull.
He was glad it was only Ryo here and not a frowning professor, disappointed that Kento had dropped out of school to make gross generalizations about science to the uninitiated. Well, tough. Kento loved making gross generalizations to the uninitiated. He liked drawing them pictures, too.
Kento pointed at the tan rock visible on the cliff faces. “That’s sandstone. When you think of sand, imagine a tiny piece of mountain pulverized by rain and rivers. Rivers wash the sand away and dump it in the lowest place they can find.” Kento cupped his hands above his head – a river with a load of sand – and whooshed it down to his knees. “The sand in these pillars was dumped into a sea in the Devonian period – that’s after land plants evolved, but before dinosaurs and flowers.”
Kento was proud of his layman’s version of the geologic time scale. People didn’t care about Carboniferous or Silurian; just tell them where they were in relation to dinosaurs.
“Okay,” Ryo said. His breast misted in the cold air. “Uh, flowers aren’t land plants?”
“They’re the newer, better land plants of the future! But that’s another lecture.” Kento laughed. Ryo’s nose wrinkled like he wanted to laugh too but for very different reasons. “Now,” Kento went on, “all rivers are in a constant battle with the mountains to bring the surface of the earth back to sea level. The higher up a mountain,” Kento threw his hands in the air, “the faster the river can flow down it.” He let his arms fall, swinging past his hips. “In the plains, the river has a big, dull butter knife and it works slowly and wanders. In the mountains, the river has a katana, and the higher up the mountain goes, the deeper and sharper a gash the river leaves.”
Kento had another gesture all set up for this, but to his surprise, Ryo tentatively held his hands out like he was holding a sword, feet planted properly and shoulders framed like the swordmaster he was. He brought his imaginary katana down in a killing slash – mountain gutted from mountain sternum to mountain pelvis.
Kento stared at him. Ryo’s face scrunched up in embarrassment, and he turned away laughing the laugh of the pleasantly self-conscious. Kento grabbed his shoulder and shook him happily. “Yes! That’s it exactly!” He snatched up a handful of crunchy snow, mixed up with twigs and brown leaves and slapped it onto Ryo’s shoulder. “You’ve earned your white belt, my student. I’m so proud.”
Ryo laughed, nose still scrunched up incredulously.
“Pay attention!” Kento said. “We aren’t done yet. Are you listening? Well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll go on anyway.” He spread his arms out like he was tracing out the flat surface of a table. “You see how we’re on a plateau up here and a lot of the pillar tops are the same height as us? Hey, Ryo, over here! We’re standing on an old surface – a plain that used to be down there where the valley is. Then something happened – India running into Tibet maybe – and we popped up to mountain height. That’s when the river’s katana cut through us like butter – right to the base of the valley.”
Kento gave Ryo a nudge – time for another river katana demonstration. Ryo shook his head: not a chance.
Kento was undeterred: “That’s the story of Wulingyuan and of the Grand Canyon of the American West. Flat plain, then uplift, then river like a knife through butter. But the Grand Canyon has a lot of shitty rock in between the strong rocks, which is why it has that stair step look. At Wulingyuan, we’re one big block of very old, very strong sandstone, so we can hold up a kilometer of vertical cliff face no problem.
“What you’re looking at out there are the bits that were left behind when the river cut down. Eventually they’ll fall down, maybe a million years from now, and this guesthouse won’t make much money. But until then, the strength of that old sandstone gives us a hell of a thing to look at, right?”
“Right,” Ryo said. “You really love this stuff, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Kento’s grin stretched into a self-conscious wince. He laughed at himself. “Yeah.”
“What are you going to do when you graduate?”
Kento shrugged. “I wanted to be the expert who tells you the earth you’re standing is trying to kill you -- you know, all of Japan basically. But a lot of those jobs want a PhD, and wow, that’s six more years of school. I have my parents and the restaurant and my siblings.”
“I bet your parents would want you to go.”
“Of course, they do. But just because someone wants to make sacrifices for you, doesn’t mean you should let them.” Here, Kento glared meaningfully at Ryo, veteran of over-eager self-sacrifice.
“Okay,” Ryo said skeptically, blatantly ignoring the glare. And then he said, “At least you can go.”
Kento eyed him, sensing deep waters. “Why can’t you go?”
“I’m too dumb for school,” Ryo said. There was an implied obviously.
“What? How do you know that?” Kento waved a hand at the gorgeous valley to his left. “You understood that stuff I was saying.”
“Yeah,” Ryo said sharply, “because it was really dumbed down. I’ve seen what people in school actually work on, and it’s impossible.”
“That was not dumbed down! It was properly explained. Sure, I removed some jargon, but you can’t expect to start at black belt. Wait, what do you mean you’ve seen what people work on?”
Kento leaned forward, eyes narrowing. Ryo looked away. Kento took a step forward. Ryo took a step back.
“You,” Kento said dangerously, “live with Rowen, a graduate student in astrophysics.”
“Yeah,” Ryo said mulishly. “So?”
Kento threw up his arms to the sky – a plea for heavenly patience. Then he smacked Ryo upside the head like he was Mei Ryu and Kento had just caught him booby-trapping the service entrance.
They spent the day pulling the covers off the windows, removing dust covers, organizing linens. Ryo unpacked the snacks, candies, tea, and coffee onto the shelves behind the bar. Kento gave him a pen and a sheet of small white labels to apply prices. The guesthouse catered to international customers, and the prices Ryo was writing down were at least ten times what Kento had paid for them. Most of that markup would go to the Public Security Bureau and to the officials who ran the park.
They ate lunch late in the guesthouse’s closed-in porch, which had a pot-bellied stove of its own. There was a chalkboard also, still marked up with the rules and notices of last season. Kento had started updating it but had somehow diverged into a step-by-step diagram of the tectonic history of southern China. Now there was a cross-section of the earth’s crust under a notice that said: “CHECK OUT 10 AM.”
It was starting to really get out of hand (annotating the Pacific Ring of Fire) when Kento thought to check on his audience. Ryo seemed to be paying attention, leaning back against a pile of large, colorful cushions Kento had unearthed from a closet. Ryo’s sweater lay next to him on the floor; they were both still warm from dragging around mattresses and wooden shutters.
Kento pointed the chalk at him. “What’s a craton?”
“Uh.” Ryo froze with an onion half in, half out of his mouth.
Kento slumped in exaggerated despair.
They didn’t get a lot done the rest of the afternoon. Kento made a joking grab for Ryo – ‘revenge’ for inattention – and they spent the rest of the day it in the backyard practicing wushu on the stone patio they’d cleared of snow.
With the generator fueled, the wall heater in the back room was on, and there was enough room for two futons. Kento was staring at the empty floor space, having an attack of uncertainty when Ryo walked in from the bathroom and took two steps directly into Kento’s space. Kento automatically opened his arms.
“Hi,” Ryo said, hooking a hand in Kento’s sweater.
“Hi,” Kento said. “Are you – how are you feeling?”
“Better,” Ryo said. “Thanks.”
Kento wondered which had been better – the talking last night or the honest but mindless labor of today. (It was kind of irritating when Rowen was right about things.) But Kento didn’t need to measure himself based only on what was good for Ryo. The talk had been good for Kento. “Hey, so we have enough space in here – ”
Ryo hooked a foot behind Kento’s ankle and dropped him on the bed, neatly answering the single futon question. Kento dragged Ryo down and flipped them over. A little too easily, actually. He was starting to notice that Ryo reliably lost these wrestling matches, even the ones he started.
“So what are we doing?” Kento asked, feeling his heart beat against his throat. “Are we making out? Pants on, pants off?”
“Can’t we just see how it goes?” Ryo’s hairline was wet from washing his face, and Kento stared at it, mesmerized by wet skin. He was close enough to smell Ryo’s soap. It was kind of – woodsy.
“Uh, sure,” Kento said, distracted. “Just – let me know what I’m getting into. By the way, when we wrestle and you lose, is that your way of asking me to be on top? Do you like being held down?”
Ryo stared at the ceiling past Kento’s head, turning red. “You really talk a lot.”
“You thought I was quiet?”
Ryo gave him a look. “I live with Rowen.”
“Okay, fair. Hey, you’ve done this before, right?”
Ryo shifted his knees apart so that Kento fell firmly into the cradle of his pelvis. He gave Kento a deeply offended glare. “No one ever makes me talk about it.”
Kento laughed. “So your technique is ‘I’m gorgeous, let’s go’?”
“Yes!” Ryo said and then flushed like he’d been tricked. It was a good look on him. He put his hands over his face and mumbled, “Doesn’t that work for you?”
“I’m not gorgeous.” Kento grinned.
Ryo pulled his hands away slowly, looking Kento over with a frown. He put his hands around Kento’s bicep – he needed two to get all the way around – and squeezed. Kento rotated his shoulder a little self-consciously and flexed. His bicep tightened, forcing open Ryo’s fingers like a chisel opening a rock. He tried for nonchalant: “You like that?”
Ryo rolled his eyes. Still too much talking, apparently. Kento grinned again.
He wrapped his hands around Ryo’s wrists and pushed them down into the mattress. He let his whole torso press down onto Ryo, his arms lying along Ryo’s over his head. Ryo took in a sharp breath, his pupils blown – easy to see with his blue eyes – and a flush spread down his neck. It was an intoxicating rush of power and control. The sort of thing that used to scare the hell out of Kento.
“I dunno,” Kento mused breathlessly, “I could just keep you here and make you talk about your feelings all night.”
Ryo lifted his head and put his teeth on Kento’s jugular. Kento momentarily lost track of his limbs.
“Okay,” he gasped out. “Okay.”
Kento woke up in the dark. He was alone, and Ryo’s side was cold. Moonlight illuminated an empty room. He grabbed his pants and a flashlight but didn’t turn it on. With the windows uncovered, he could see well enough to navigate the shadowy shapes of doorways and furniture.
The door to the patio was open. Cold air brushed against Kento’s bare feet.
Outside, Ryo stood on the steps with his back to the door, silent. The moonlight had turned the landscape into stark greys and whites. He was watching a stone statue in the yard – a dragon with a mane of crowded, bony spikes around its ridged face. Bone white antlers rose from its head and feathery whiskers hung from its snout. Behind its head, a big, armored pipe of a body ran across the yard and into the trees near the cliff.
Then it moved.
Which made sense, Kento thought blankly, since there hadn’t been a dragon statue in the courtyard six hours ago. Claws scraped against the earth, stone lips ground apart, and a cloud of misty breath was expelled through dark, curving teeth.
Ryo didn’t react. His hands were in fists shoved under his elbows. He had his sweater on and thick socks on his feet, shoved into plastic sandals.
“Ryo,” Kento whispered urgently.
“Just ignore it,” Ryo said. He was giving the dragon a flat, unimpressed stare. He didn’t look surprised; he looked harassed. Kento gaped at him.
“It cannot be avoided,” came a hoarse, hollow whisper. It was coming from the dragon.
“Hello?” Kento said. He had his hand inside the house, feeling around for the bo staves they’d been practicing with that afternoon. “What can’t?”
“Kento,” Ryo hissed.
“Prizes won. Consequences of victory,” the dragon said. Its Japanese was fluent; Kento was impressed. “I came to pay my respects. So little magic in the world these days. So few ancient things.”
“I’m a geologist, buddy. Don’t talk to me about ancient,” Kento said. “You’re lying on a piece of rock that’s two orders of magnitude older than the human species. It’s older than you.”
“Be silent. I didn’t come to the Mountain of the Rightful Emperor for you.”
Ryo flinched. “I’m not interested.”
“Not interested? It’s not about interest.”
“Right,” Kento said, “you can get out of here.”
Now that the dragon was moving, Kento could see it wasn’t really made of stone. As it moved, its armor and spikes would shift, revealing glimpses of softer flesh underneath. Its eyes were the best target, deep set but large, reflecting the moonlight like cat’s eyes.
Kento’s hand closed around a bo staff with studded metal tips. He walked into the courtyard flipping the staff with his right hand and catching it with his left. The stone was cold under his feet.
“If it’s not dangerous, it can leave.”
The dragon hissed, clouds billowing out from its nostrils and condensing on Kento’s clothes as frost. Kento spun the staff so he was holding it like a spear. He walked slowly towards the dragon’s face. It reared up, but its legs were short and its pony-sized head was still in reach.
The fog rose, curling around him and hiding the forest and the house in white. He could see the vague shape of the dragon’s head above him, unmoved. He jabbed out sharply with the staff, aiming for the eyes.
“Kento!” Ryo, sounding muffled and far away.
The staff deflected with a scrape of metal against stone. It had hit the dragon’s eye ridge. The shadow of the dragon reared up in the fog. A coil of armored body appeared out of the mist and slammed into Kento’s legs. He rolled over it, stony knobs digging into his back. The dragon moved and Kento ran with it, corralled by serpent coils. He was on dirt and loam now, dodging trees. He saw the shadow of the head in front of him and he ran forward, vaulting over its back.
He got close a few times, but it would always fade back into the mist. They were covering too much ground; he didn’t know where the cliff was or the house. After a little while, he stopped trying keep up and started just trying to get away from it, looking for a place without dragon coils and mist, but he couldn’t find a bit of clear air.
He ran and dodged for a long time before the mist finally started to clear. The dragon was gone. A few feet in front of him, the dark silhouettes of the trees ended and the ground sloped abruptly away – the cliff.
He stumbled back hastily. He could see the valley ahead of him through the trees, the vertical faces of the pinnacles bright in the moonlight. It wasn’t the view from the guesthouse lookout. He turned around – more trees. Nothing he recognized. He set off away from the cliff, looking for the road.
After a few dozen feet, the ground dropped off again. Thirty meters away, he could see another cliff looking back at him – he must be on a promontory of the main plateau. He picked a different direction and started walking. Almost immediately, he hit another cliff.
Kento tried a different tactic. He stuck to a meter or two away from the edge, keeping hold of trees in case he slipped. He followed the ledge around, looking for the spot where the promontory connected to the plateau. His feet were so damn cold. His breath came out in a misty hiss.
A few minutes later, he looked down and saw his own foot print in the snow. It had to be his – who else would be out here barefoot?
“Shit,” Kento said. God damn magic dragons. He was on top of a rock pinnacle.
A few laps around confirmed it. Kento left the bo staff in the snow. It wasn’t going to help. He found a spot mostly sheltered by pine branches and free of snow and curled up against the trunk of the tree. He pulled his long sweatpants down to wrap around his feet, and tucked his hands in the sleeves of his sweater. He waited for daylight.
He dozed a little without meaning to and dreamed of Ryo’s hand on his chest pulling him down into the earth, feeling the strength of the rock and the slow, sandpaper slice of the river cutting him open.
When he woke up, the sky was pink at the edge of dawn. He wasn’t as cold as he was expecting, but he was stiff, so stiff. It was hard to stand up and move towards the edge of the pillar.
He made himself walk around the pillar again, just in case. Waiting until dawn had seemed like the only possibly thing to do last night, but now it felt like an act of denial. What good was daylight! He was still stuck on top of a kilometer high column of rock with no way down. He couldn’t even imagine a way down. Ladders? Rope? No good! He wasn’t a good enough rock climber to pull it off even with the right equipment.
He went back to the plateau side of the pillar and looked longingly at the mainland. He couldn’t see a path, but maybe it was hidden by the trees. He could wave frantically if he saw someone and hope there was a helicopter close enough to come get him before his toes fell off or he died of exposure.
Kento swallowed down panic; a helicopter would cost a fortune. Neither his aunt nor his parents could afford to pay that. Kento had gotten into this; other people shouldn’t pay the price. He paced, his arms wrapped around himself. His feet hurt and they were leaving bloody marks in the snow. Think, Kento. What the hell are you going to do?
As he paced, he remembered how easily Ryo had pulled him back into the power of the armor that day in Zhangjiajie. Kento had put his armor away. He hadn’t needed it or wanted it. It didn’t belong on earth.
He really needed and wanted it right now.
Kento looked out at the empty plateau, close enough to jump if he were fully armored. He sat down cross-legged far enough from the edge that he could see the mainland clearly but there was a thin tree or two keep him from a deadly fall. He put his hands on his knees and took a slow deep breath. It didn’t seem to help at all.
He thought about what his family would think if this became a huge expensive hullabaloo. It had to be possible to get a person down from a rock pinnacle, but every scenario Kento could think of happened to the tune of money, money, money. He thought about what his parents would do if he died. Mourn awfully and for a long time. Kento didn’t doubt they loved him, but he did wonder if death would be less inconvenient than paying a million yen for a rescue operation that was Kento’s fault.
He slammed his fists into the ground in frustration. He imagined he’d shaken the narrow pillar right down to its foundations, but it was a fantasy; he couldn’t feel anything at all.
The snow was melting into his pants, and he was shivering in the wind that made it through the trees. He put his face in his hands and tried to think about – nothing. Instead, he thought about who would fix Yun’s bike before he had to go back to school or who would take Chun Fa roller skating if Kento didn’t come back. Who would Rin Fi yell at when she was right and her professors were wrong? He remembered Mei Ryu sighing loudly as Ryo put his hand over Kento’s heart.
He thought of the way Ryo had been so willing to listen to Kento talk lovingly about the earth and its history, the only thing the armor had given Kento that had never been tainted by violence. He must have looked ridiculous, acting out the ancient battle between water and mountains and gravity – and then he remembered that instead of laughing, Ryo had gutted a mountain for him with an imaginary sword.
There was a roaring at the edge of his hearing. The sound he’d heard in his dream: a scraping, tumbling, burbling water sound. Muffled in cotton like he was hearing it through a shell held to his ear. A warmth started to spread from his chest out to his hands and toes, and it made him so comfortable sitting on top of a snowy mountain that he fell asleep.
Kento opened his eyes in darkness. His head echoed with the minute footsteps of people walking across him.
He stepped forward into sunlight. The bright light blinded him, and he threw up his arm. He heard a metallic clank. Startled, Kento came fully awake, squinting against the brightness. Dark orange armor covered his arm. There was a helmet on his head, and his right hand was closed around a heavy, segmented staff.
He was wearing the armor of Hardrock.
“Oh!” somebody said.
There was a little blonde boy and his blonde father staring at Kento in awe and disbelief respectively. The father was frozen with his camera pointed towards the sky over Kento’s head.
Kento looked around. He was on a boardwalk surround by tall, thin trees. The rock walls of a canyon rose on either side. There was a burbling stream nearby. A little ways down the path, enthusiastic shopkeepers shouted out deals from their souvenir huts. And just behind Kento, in the direction of the father’s camera, a lone rock pinnacle towered into the sky.
Kento was wearing the armor of Hardrock at the main trail head of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area.
The little boy was talking to him, the father too. Kento thought they were speaking English. He shrugged his lack of understanding. The father pointed at the camera and then at Kento and his son. He held up his fingers, rubbing them together: How much?
Kento stared at him. He dropped the staff into the crook of his elbow and held up ten fingers.
The father held up four. Kento: nine. The father: five. Kento held up eight and flashed it twice. He needed bus fare.
The father gave him a thumbs up and a handful of one renminbi paper notes. Kento stuck them under his arm guard as he dropped to one knee beside the beaming blonde child.
He made 20 more RMB walking to the bus stop, earning territorial glares from the touts hawking souvenirs.
The bus ride was weird. He felt the whole bus lean as he got on. He didn’t fit in a seat. This was the first time he’d been in a situation where he could compare the armor to everyday life. It turned out it was heavy. He was probably doing the passengers a service, lowering the center of gravity on those hair-raising turns.
There was a fire burning outside the guesthouse. No dragon, no Ryo. Kento stopped in front of it, lost, like he was a pinball finally come to rest. Last night was a surreal blur.
“Kento!” Ryo was coming out of the trees. He had Kento’s coat over his sweater, and he’d stopped to put on shoes, but that was definitely one of the swords of Wildfire in his hand. He skidded to a stop in front of Kento, looking him up and down in confusion and relief. “I thought you didn’t – ”
“Me either.” Kento knocked a knuckle against his helmet. A one renminbi note fluttered to the ground.
Ryo stared at it.
“Hey,” Kento said quickly, “when that dragon was here – you looked like you’d seen it before.”
“Yeah, it -- things keep visiting me. They always act like I’m about to go back to the netherworld.” Ryo grimaced. “They all call me the emperor. Like the dragon – when it said that thing about the mountain.”
“The Mountain of the Rightful Emperor. It’s the name of this plateau.”
“Oh.” Ryo’s shoulders sagged with relief. “Are you going to take that off?”
Kento looked at his armor-covered hands. It was like being thrown back in time. As much as he had ever distrusted the armor, he couldn’t deny the gratitude he felt that it had come back when he needed it. An old friend, flawed but loyal. “I don’t know if I could get it back, and I need it to kick a stone dragon’s ass.”
Ryo put his hand over Kento’s. The armor’s weight lifted from Kento’s shoulders, his legs, his head. A little rolled up wad of cash bounced to the ground. Ryo opened his hand and gave Kento a large, cloudy sphere that sparkled orange in the sunlight. The armor orb.
“Thanks,” Kento said stupidly. “How—?”
Ryo shrugged. He looked like Kento had just asked him about being the weird kid in school. The fire crackled and popped behind him. With his armor off, Kento could feel the heat of it through his pajamas. He looked suddenly to his toes, terrified they’d be frostbitten and black. They looked okay. Even the cuts on the soles of his feet, when he lifted them, looked healed.
“What’s wrong?” Ryo said, worried. “What happened?”
“Nothing. I’m okay now.” Kento moved closer to the fire. The ground there was wonderfully warm under his feet. “Does Rowen know about the dragon?”
“There’s a youja foot soldier outside our door,” Ryo admitted reluctantly. “Nothing bothers me at the apartment anymore. Or at Mia’s since ‘Blaze is there.”
“There’s a what outside your door? Did you tell anybody about this?”
“It doesn’t do anything! It just stands there!” Ryo protested.
“Well, did you give it a forwarding address?”
“I mean, did you tell it you were coming here?”
Ryo stared at him, face red. “No.”
Kento had thought the story of the armors was over, closed. The youja had been sent back to the netherworld and the gates shut forever. Instead, Ryo was being visited by dragons and tengu and tanuki, and he had a permanent youja guard outside his door. He looked down at the glinting, orange crystal in his hand.
“Okay,” Kento said, half to himself, “we’ll go down today and call Rowen. He can tell your guard where you are. They’re youja, an ocean can’t be that big a deal, right?”
“Are you serious?”
“Of course, I’m serious! If we can’t put the armors away, well, fine. I’ve been jerked around by them before – but I’m the boss here. Not a mystical armor, and not a dragon either.”
“I keep telling them no,” Ryo said quietly, “but what if I have to go back?”
Back to the netherworld, to be emperor of youja. No wonder Ryo cared so much about what evil normal people could do. Kento wondered where the hell that dragon had gone off to. He could fight a dragon.
“You don’t have to go back,” Kento said automatically. Ryo gave him the same skeptical look he’d worn when Kento had told him he wasn’t too stupid to go to college. Like there was no evidence Kento could present to change what Ryo knew in his bones.
“What if there’s no other place for me?” Ryo sounded heartbroken. He waved at hand at the fire. The fire waved back – falling down to the logs before leaping back above Ryo’s head. “None of you still do this stuff. I can’t stop.”
Kento remembered the pot-bellied stove belching out a fireball when Ryo was upset. And yet, that was not so different from Kento’s love of the earth. That came from his armor but it wasn't from youja. “Where did you wake up when we were scattered all over Japan?”
“Mt. Fuji,” Ryo said.
“Yeah, a volcano on earth.” Kento gestured at the valley behind the trees. “The netherworld isn’t a planet – there’s no tectonic plates, no magma, no stars, no oceans. Your fire comes from the earth.” Kento held up his orb. “My armor came back, too, and I’m not doomed to live in the netherworld. I have forty relatives that live within an hour of my house, and a younger sister I haven’t taught to roller skate; I’m definitely stuck on earth.”
Ryo was looking at him hesitantly – uncertainty layered over carefully controlled hope.
“You’re afraid you don’t belong here; that there’s something wrong with you,” Kento said. “Well, there’s something wrong with whole human race, remember? The good people and the cruel people are the same people. I’d rather try to sort it out with you here, okay?”
“Okay,” Ryo said, “but – ”
Ryo crossed his arms. “You have to finish school. Get a PhD.”
Kento blinked. “That’s not – ”
“You’re in this with me, right? If the dragon comes back, you’d fight for me?”
“Of course.” Kento’s fist clenched around the armor orb. He felt an answering echo under his feet. But this wasn’t supposed to be about him.
Ryo was on a roll: “And you said that living on earth is just as real as the armors and the youja and the dragon?”
“Alright, then I’m in it with you. The same as the dragon – when your PhD shows up in the backyard and tries to drag you off, I’ll – hit it with a stick.”
“That’s not the same.”
But Ryo was nodding to himself, satisfied. “Yeah,” he said, “it is.”
Kento felt a little light-headed. He had geared himself up for taking care of Auntie and Mama and his siblings and Ryo. Ryo coming back at him with the same blind-sided him.
Ryo frowned. “Look,” he said, “I’ll – I’ll learn to dance.”
Kento choked on a laugh. Ryo had finally found it, the curve ball that Kento hadn’t been prepared to hit. Three strikes – you’re outta there. “That’s the sacrifice you’ll make if I let you help me go to school? You’ll stay on earth and you’ll dance?”
“Yes,” Ryo said seriously. “Is that enough?”
Kento burst out laughing. He dragged Ryo in by the lapels of his coat – Kento’s coat. “Yeah, okay. But hey – do you think you’d wear my coat whenever I asked, too? Or act out geology with me until we look like idiots? I also like it when you lose wrestling matches just because you want to make out.”
Ryo rolled his eyes, cheeks flushing.
Kento gave his coat a tug. Ryo sighed loudly.
“Okay,” he said.
Kento lifted a fist towards the sky: victory.
It took two visits to the valley (after finding some shoes) to get Rowen on the phone, but slowly Kento pulled the details out of him – of the midnight supernatural visits and of the youja solider who’d appeared on the doorstep. Eventually, Rowen was convinced to stretch the phone cord out the door and recite an address to the unresponsive soldier. Kento listened attentively, making sure that the youja would know that Sanada Ryo had relocated to the Xiu Family Guesthouse, Yuanjiajie, Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Hunan Province, China.
“I feel like an idiot,” Rowen said when Kento asked him to point west.
“Tough cookies,” Kento said.
The youja foot soldier showed up two days later. It was just suddenly there one morning by the stoop, its dark lacquered armor lightly frosted, a note attached with a thin, red ribbon and signed by the Lady Kayura. Ryo went back inside grumbling and self-conscious. Kento surprised himself by looking into the empty shadows of the youja’s helmet with a warm feeling of gratitude that it was here.
The dragon didn’t come back.
They got the guesthouse put together and cleaned up. Their first guests were a group of retired Danish teachers and their guide from Beijing. Kento had forgotten to clean the geological diagrams off of the welcome board, and he was startled when the teachers asked for a pre-dinner lecture given through the translator. Ryo did not help with the geological gestures, but his refusals entertained the guests as did Kento’s increasingly dramatic pleas. Though it meant the tea service was several times delayed when Ryo was laughing too hard to carry the tray.
The youja never moved during the day, appearing no different from a decorative suit of ancient armor, though it was always someplace slightly different in the morning. Kento accepted full credit from their guests for posing the soldier each evening, and made his Uncle Heng proud by charging extra for photos.
He kissed Ryo in every dark corner and in the kitchen over steaming noodles and frying vegetables. He worried incessantly about the armor’s effect on their hearts, about what it would mean if they could never put it away, and whether he could ever finish a PhD and keep his family afloat at the same time – even with Ryo’s help. And he didn’t know what Ryo could really do except remain optimistic (not always his greatest strength).
He also realized that he’d started a new habit – when he was worried, when he was scared, he’d imagine Ryo on a future dance floor – just like he’d promised. Kento didn’t know anything about dance styles, and he was pretty sure he was making one up because dancing looked a lot like wushu in his head. But the point was, this was the new place Kento went to feel better. And he burst out lauging one day over breakfast when he realized that of all the parts of the ‘deal’ they’d made after the dragon came, this was the one he’d decided was non-negotiable.
At night in the dark, Kento said these things to Ryo, and Ryo hesitantly talked about his own fears in return. It felt, strangely, a lot like not being afraid.