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Crying Man

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Friday, October 22, 1999

 

At last the Airbus A340 reaches peak altitude and the Kanto countryside is obscured beneath a substantial layer of iridescent cloud cover. Akira's inner ears pop one final time, achieving equilibrium with the cabin pressure. He gazes vacantly to his left, where nothing but a thin pane of silicon separates him from a free-fall into oblivion, toward the patchwork world far below. His eyes anxiously flit to his right, where the stately German gentleman he met only earlier this week sits by his side, perusing a Chinese journal of technology — and then dart back before they're noticed.

From the outer pocket of his roughed-up handbag, Akira retrieves a tan folder addressed to him, and he reviews the thin bundle of paper within: his copy of the contract he had asked Frisch to provide back on Tuesday. As well as he understands the legalese outlined here — which is not nearly as well as he ought to — this agreement guarantees that Misato will be issued her scholarship once Akira completes the tour of the West Bank facility. Both he and Frisch stamped this prior to boarding, and so they are legally bound.

Akira is thankful that he never mentioned the scholarship to Misato (with any luck, neither did Sayaka), since the method of delivery, outlined here in depth, involves several degrees of separation. Despite Frisch's verbal frankness about the source of the money, the man is far too proper to entertain an under-the-table exchange. Instead, the funds will be funneled from his private estate through third- and fourth-person entities, and finally bequeathed to Misato via the smokescreen of a philanthropic publicity stunt for her entire middle school. Meaning, yes, other students will benefit; Frisch will expend even more money in the interest of Akira's cooperation than the already agreed upon, and suspiciously unreasonable, amount.

Frisch's tenacity both impresses and horrifies Akira. If he were wise, he would have assumed shady motivations at the onset and never needed Haru to try, and fail, to convince him of this during their long, arduous discussion on Wednesday. But Akira is not wise. Not about things like this.

After putting the contract safely back into his carry-on, he regards his open-palmed left hand. Silently, the gauze-wrapped thumb and forefinger admonish, This is the sort of self-destructive stupidity that got you into this mess. He should have let Sayaka treat it instead of refusing her help. Under the bandage and ointment, his first and second digits continue to peel and blister; the pain is dull and persistent. All things considered, the burning is insubstantial, and he'll live with minor scarring at worst.

Akira breaks out of his daze a bit and starts to let himself notice how awkward and cramped the situation is. He would have expected a man of Frisch's socioeconomic status, much less one interested in wooing another to his organization, to spare no expense on the flight arrangements. Surely business class, at the very least. And yet here they are, crushed together in the sinistral column of the suffocating coach section. Earlier, when he received his ticket from Frisch, he felt tempted to point out its economy grade, because surely there had been some mistake. But that would have been unbecoming, unthinkable. Still, as he struggles to find a measure of comfort in that claustrophobic window-side seat, part of him wishes he had said something. His shoulders bump against Frisch's for what feels like the hundredth time, resulting in another automated under-the-breath apology. For now, he settles for crossing his arms in an X configuration, hands bracing his arms toward his center, reducing his shoulder-breadth just enough to—

He glances down, and, no, he and Frisch are still touching. The only way his legs fit the space is if his knees splay. And since Frisch is of similar height and proportions, the same goes for the German, as well. Akira tries to wedge both his knees into the left corner, but he has to contort himself so severely that he knows it isn't sustainable. So he returns to the way he was.

Only now, Frisch stirs from his meditative state, looking up from his reading and pulling his half-frame glasses down a tad. “Would you prefer the aisle seat, Dr. Katsuragi? If you'd find that more comfortable, I really don't mind.”

Akira bites his lip, debating for a moment whether or not to ask. It spills out regardless. “Frisch-san… Er, Director—”

“There's no one here for whom you need to put on airs, Dr. Katsuragi. Just 'Frisch' is fine.”

The lump in his throat grows thicker. He starts fingering the pendant, seeking his center. “Frisch,” he forces out — despite his distaste for honorifics, the name feels oddly sharp on the tongue — “do you… normally travel this way?”

The German stows his glasses into a front pocket and smiles. “You were expecting more luxuriant arrangements, Dr. Katsuragi?”

“You…” Akira debates whether he should go on, but the impishly inviting twinkle in Frisch's eye soon settles it. “Just from the little I've seen, you don't exactly seem averse to, well…” He would hate to say 'flaunting your wealth'. But he can't think of anything that's all that much better, either.

Frisch closes his journal, keeping his place with a hooked finger. “I think I understand well enough. I can imagine that this must be quite mysterious to you. But it's actually rather simple. Would you believe, Dr. Katsuragi, that this”—he gestures at the economy-class environs—“is how I normally travel?”

What an odd thing to say. Akira doesn't know what the correct response would be, so he just nods politely.

“It has the advantages of keeping my profile low and travel costs down, of course. And there's another aspect to it, as well. Which I may tell you about later, as I think you would appreciate it.”

Curious. Very curious. This would feel like an evasion if not for how believably it was intoned, little different from the times, say, Haru delayed a sensitive matter to be discussed after work, somewhere more private than the office. Frisch continues to exhibit a befuddling, utterly fascinating mixture of aloofness and overfamiliarity. Akira, at a loss for anything else to add at this time, simply hums in the affirmative, and the conversation comes to an abrupt close. Frisch returns to his reading.

The rich brown pools of Akira's eyes wander, anxious and a-quaver, eventually settling upon a scrawny knee. His right knee, the one still touching Frisch's left. A single incidental point of sustained contact. It should be nothing, yet the shadowed recesses of his mind give it enhanced significance. As his heart beats with escalating haste, torrents of plasma rage through soft flesh and tough sinew. He becomes aware, far too aware, of his own sensual radiance. Where two people touch, a conduit forms through which energy passes from flesh to flesh. His into Frisch. Frisch's into him.

He forces his gaze out the window again. Akira feels entirely too awkward, trapped in this tiny space by synthetic seating and Frisch's broad, warm body. Ensuring his shoulders are pulled in tight, and clutching the memento of his great-aunt, he tries to wrap his errant mind within the blanket-like expanse of white cloud. But it's no use. The illusion of freedom is all the exterior vista provides. He's anchored here and can't escape.

Akira could accept Frisch's offer and switch seats. But he doesn't hate his discomfort quite enough to make it someone else's problem. Maybe he could even like it, if only he… if only he relaxed just a little. He tries to focus on his breathing.

Slowly expand the diaphragm to full capacity. Hold. Slowly release the spent air through the mouth. Repeat.

His clutch upon himself gradually loosens, until at last their shoulders touch again.

Frisch gives no indication of noticing, as usual, but Akira's reaction is, typically, overstated. His heart snaps back into a jog. Electricity pools under his breastbone, until it overflows and rises up into his throat, curving out to caress the rims of his pectorals. The usual flag of arousal raises itself, to be swiftly and subtly maneuvered into a less obvious orientation.

He feels ridiculous, like he's fourteen again and his body is overreacting to everything. But that's just making excuses. Isn't it?

A sense of guilt diffuses through him. A sentiment not only undesired but perhaps, also, unjustified. Akira has remained by Sayaka's side for all this time, never straying nor even, to his best recollection, so much as contemplating the option. It’s the very least he can do for being such an unpredictable, unreliable partner… a spouse characterized by either scarcity or excess, and never the right amount.

That hadn’t been the case before things went pear-shaped. He doubts himself about many things, but, of this, he is certain. He put her first, always her first. Her needs superseded his own. He dared not strain her comfort zone, no matter the cost to himself, no matter what ate away at him from within. Because he would rather it be like that than again risk losing her.

Akira had transiently tricked himself into thinking that it was possible for them to return to a more idyllic state, while also having learned and grown from their battered journey together. Perhaps even now this is not an entirely unreasonable possibility. Misato is probably a wash at this point, but if he really wanted to he could potentially still patch things up with his wife. Sayaka is nothing if not endlessly forgiving. Of course, if it were that simple, he wouldn't be sitting next to Lukas von Frisch en route to Tel Aviv right now. The emotional reality remains much as it was the night of their fight. Even the physicality of it lingers upon his fingers.

Wednesday and Thursday passed as a numb, myopic blur. Akira received prompt counsel from Haru, but he was in no state to benefit from it, sound as much of the advice may have been. Akira was like a dull edge, utterly useless, able to provide little more than irritation.

As for Sayaka ― in the wake of their fight, Akira and she spoke as little as possible. Her expression was weighed down with guilt; her eyes darted away for fear of provoking further conflict. They said almost nothing to one another, and the silence was pregnant with longing and loathing and every kind of tension there is.

Then, much as now, the feeling of bitter resignation cast a long, dark shadow. It was clear that there was no point to fighting the good fight, not anymore. He's done it long enough and not without cost.

Long ago, when rifts began to appear in his and Sayaka's shared hopes and dreams, he let his loyalty to her overwhelm fidelity to himself. The powers that be saw fit to punish him for his sacrifice, cursing him to live the rest of his days with incurable madness. Madness that is, at times, thoroughly enjoyable, but just as thoroughly destructive. (This alone would be more than reason enough to despise his father's God — and, for that matter, all deities said to intervene in human affairs.) In exchange for his foolish attempt to adapt to the cracks in the foundation, for putting sentimentality before prudence, the life he ought not to have brought into the world made a devil of him and turned a blind eye to her mother's instrumental role in everything.

Akira knows that Sayaka feels guilty. But though she's apologized for many things, she's never apologized for that. Not in any way that feels true and complete. She probably doesn't even know how anymore; her guilt has long since become an amorphous force of nature, something that transcends the limits of language. If he were someone else, perhaps acts of kindness would be apology enough. Alas, he is not, and all these years he's needed nothing more than for her to tell him what happened back then. Tell him why the Sayaka he had fallen in love with, and by then known for years, suddenly started violating the dream they had built together. Even if he can suss out the reasons, he needs to hear it in her words, in her voice.

But he expects he never will. Maybe it would even be easier if her memory remains contaminated. Easier to move on, that is. That will happen, won't it? Frisch was right, surely. Akira needs to accept the inevitable. That's why he's here. Because he needs another option. He needs a new future.

His fingers dig tight into his arms. He's going to cry again.

No, not here, not now. Must fight it. He struggles to focus on his breathing again. Don't think about how much you would miss her and how a huge piece of you would be gone forever. Don't think about the priceless gift she gave you, showing you after years of doubt that you were capable of romantic love after all. Don't think about the private choir lessons, or the hikes in the mountains, or the personal shrine tours, or feeding the ducks or watching the koi or the cherry blossom festivals, or the first few times we made love, or the wedding, or—

Akira grits his teeth. NO. That's all in the past. The good times are gone. They're over.

Focus on the now. What do you feel, right now?

The answer is the same as yesterday, and the day before that, and the night before that. Pain. Anger. Irritation. Impotent, meandering hatred. But most powerfully of all, the flight instinct. The urge to escape overwhelms all else.

……To escape Sayaka and Misato? To escape himself?

Yes, that's precisely it. He's let himself become trapped within the walls formed by years of accrued, nameless guilt. Sayaka's guilt. And some of his own, too. But those walls are coming down, aren't they? Whether he's there or not, the walls will come down. Sayaka can't stop it; she won't stop it.

The toy. The phone call to Taro. The awkward physiological response to Frisch. A long-ignored part of Akira's identity seems to have decided that it would be ignored no longer. Time has a way of catching up. Sayaka knew about this for twenty years and she elected to do nothing. Tuesday's date was hardly the first time, after the initial reveal, that he attempted to bring it up in some way. Over the years he's tried to gently nudge her many times, countless times, but he eventually took a hint and let it go. (Far more pressing concerns back then, besides.) If Sayaka refuses to engage with this part of him, other outlets can be readily found. Akira knows that he's a frequent object of desire. Superficially he may seem oblivious, because he has grown so used to lusting eyes that they usually produce little more feeling than mild annoyance (or, less often, amusement) and can be easily ignored. But if he were so inclined, if he at last decided that, yes, straying from Sayaka's side was in the cards…… it would so easy to find someone to enable him. This knowledge is frightening, but also comforting.

His shoulders relax, the top of his right arm pressing into Frisch's left. He lets himself enjoy the warmth this time. Frisch is a difficult person to read, so Akira has little trouble accepting that this attraction is another form of delusion and certainly won't go anywhere. But Frisch doesn't have to know what he's thinking. The bisected landscape of his mind may be Hell, but it is, for better and for worse, his Hell and no one else's.

 

*********

 

After nearly eleven hours of cramped tedium, they arrive at Sheremetyevo International Airport for a brief layover.

Frisch escorts them to a fancy business lounge and tells Akira to make himself at home and help himself to the refreshments. Then, as Akira watches in silent resignation, Frisch settles at a table and starts to barricade himself. The high-tech laptop computer comes out first. The satellite phone he used during the flight stays in its bag this time, but in its place he produces two different cellular phones. In no time at all, Frisch is speaking with a contact in a language Akira doesn’t know, as he navigates his e-mail client through countless, equally enigmatic message headers. By the time he finds what he’s looking for and opens a giant spreadsheet attachment, Akira looks away. It’s none of his business. And even if he could read it, he doubts he would understand any of it anyway.

Despite providing intriguing company at first, Frisch has spent most of their time together in a state of unavailability: attached to his devices, attending a CEO's myriad concerns. The man is the essence of workaholic, but nothing suggests he begrudges it. He doesn't seem stressed out at all, as many people in a similar position might be. No, Frisch seems to be entirely in his element, surfing effortlessly on top where the pressure cannot crush him. A man as important as Frisch can't afford to be anything less than tireless, besides.

Akira is reminded of his own often-intense work ethic ― spending ridiculously long hours in the office and the lab, in dogged and passionate pursuit of his goal, unhindered by his own physicality. He wishes he could be privy to whatever it is, exactly, that Frisch is doing, but the man has been conducting all outward communications, verbal and written, in languages with which Akira lacks familiarity. If he had to guess, he'd assume this was entirely by design, too. Haru's paranoia must be getting to him at last.

Upon locating a couch long enough to accommodate most of his height, Akira at last makes himself comfortable, as Frisch had insisted. He tried to get some sleep on the plane, but the most he could manage were shallow, unsatisfying dozes that invariably left him more achy and irritable than he’d been before. Despite the cozier environs, he doubts he’ll do any better here. May as well try, though.

He forces his eyes shut and attempts to calm himself. But every key clack, every mouse click, every unfamiliar cluster of phonemes that reaches his ears just hone the ill-defined, persistent sense of irritation he’s been feeling ever since his initial boyish awkwardness from being around Frisch dissipated. Grumpily, he turns onto his side, facing toward the back of the couch.

Akira didn't expect unbroken attention from the man, but after their dinner together, earlier this week, he certainly expected more than this. He doesn’t need much. Just enough to affirm that what happened earlier this week wasn’t one-off and nothing more than Frisch feeding him whatever words would result in his cooperation. What an unearned sense of intimacy that encounter produced, reduced now to little more than soul-searing isolation. After all this time together, Akira doesn’t know any more about Frisch, who he is or what he does. He’s been kept at arm’s length. Practically ignored. Does he really matter at all?

It's been impossible for Akira not to obsess over the notion that someone so powerful would give him such personalized attention. Especially since, after so effortlessly alienating himself from family and friends once more, he feels he has nothing else. This is it, his sole lifeline. If Frisch doesn't pull him out, he'll surely drown. Who else, now, stands any chance of reacquainting him with the sense of self-worth he knows he has somewhere within him? Just tell me again, he thinks, how much ISTAA needs me. Why it has to be me and no one else. Why sacrificing this weekend to fly out here will be worth it. He rubs his cross with nervous vigor. So much unresolved tension and anxiety holding his mind hostage. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. These thoughts he’s having, he doesn’t deserve them. But he doesn’t know how to get rid of them either.

Restless, he sits up at the left edge of the couch, letting all his psychic energy bear down on the pure white totem. When the knuckle of his thumb starts to hurt, he tries to distract himself by going through his bag. He didn't bring any fancy devices. The cell phone is still at his office, sealed away in the duffel bag, and Akira has readjusted quite easily to its absence. It wouldn't have been much use on this trip, anyway, since his service coverage is limited to Japan. He could have brought one of the work laptops, but thought better of it and didn't wish to lug around any more than necessary. So his carry-on just has various odds and ends: some mail to process, student papers to read, journals to catch up on… He wanted to bring the ISTAA report along, along with his own papers for cross-referencing, but his monograph is way too hefty to make that idea feasible.

He takes out one of the tan folders and starts flipping through it absentmindedly. Research papers to assess and grade. Ranking intellectual growth and effort with a cold numerical denomination must be his least favorite part of being a teacher. Numbers lend themselves best to problems far removed from the convoluted realities of humanity. Maybe that’s why he’s a theoretical physicist in the first place. The pursuit is complicated enough to push the limits of his mind, but, ultimately, it leads to astounding clarity. Proofs do not lie. Formulas do not deceive. People do.

No amount of being mentally honed by a demanding discipline seems to help when it comes to deception of self, however. This week abundantly proves that. Not just where he and Sayaka are concerned, either.

This past Wednesday morning… Despite knowing better, despite half his conscious processes advising against it, Akira sat adjacent to Misato at the kitchen table with his own breakfast, and he asked her just how much she cared. Not directly, of course. He was too cowardly to ask such a thing directly. But that was the meaning hidden behind his words.

“Misato, something's come up… I have an opportunity to travel overseas this weekend, and―” For a brief moment, he considered mentioning the scholarship, but something stopped his tongue. Instead, far less compelling justification wriggled out. “I know the timing is terrible, but there’s… a lot riding on this. For the future. So… um… I was wondering, how set you are on the idea of interviewing me for your project? If it’s important to you, Misato, I'll stay. No problem at all.”

She didn't turn to look at him, nor did her expression show any indication of change. “Yeah, sure. Go do your thing. I don't care.” A gut punch of nonchalance.

Akira had no words beyond, “I see.” The rest of the meal was spent in silence. He wanted to cry then, though he knew he didn't deserve to make any fuss over her response. As much as he'd hoped that, by then, Misato might give him something — anything — he also knew that this, his daughter showing no trace of any disappointment, was the only possible outcome. And it merely crystallized his feelings that the past month had been illusory and all for nothing, and that his offspring had harbored no love for him in quite some time.

Haru's efforts to control the damage came too late. He tried to get to Akira as early that morning as possible, to the point of calling him at home before work, but it had been a sleepless night. Akira could scarcely function enough to go to YTD, let alone divulge his inner demons in gruesome detail. And, given the extra sensitivity of Tuesday's events, he especially couldn't do it with the possibility of anyone aside from Haru hearing. As a result, things had to be put off until early afternoon, when their schedules fortuitously freed up around the same time. Haru's home would be empty for about another hour, so Akira agreed to meet there.

Akira took a seat in the Yakumos' kitchen. Haru poured some sake out for them both, and the two men began to talk while Haru made dinner preparations. Akira had been here at least as recently as last May, but, emotionally, that may as well have been a lifetime ago. Certainly, at the time, Akira wouldn't have seen Haru doing this. The domestic sphere of Haru's life had evolved considerably in such a minute interval. Watching with detached fascination, he commented, “I didn't know you could cook.”

“What, you think I'm too old to learn?” Haru replied.

“No, it's just… ironic, is all. Don't you remember what you were like freshman year?”

“Of course I remember. A man's allowed to change and grow, isn't he?”

“I suppose so.”

“Mind you, I'm not a very good cook. But the results are edible, at least. And I'm slowly getting better. Takes a lot of work, though. ……We can't all be naturals, you know.” Haru looked over his shoulder pointedly. “Aren't you bored, just sitting there?”

“A little.” Akira stared at his left hand and the two fingers wrapped in gauze. “Not sure I would be much use to you, though. Hurt myself worse than I thought, last night.”

“Ah, yes. Are you planning to tell me how that happened? Or do you have another artful dodge in your pocket?” Haru gave Akira an expectant look, then started scrubbing a daikon in the sink.

Akira flexed his hand, staring vacantly into the hollow formed. He tried to find the right words, but every possible explanation that came to mind was far too ridiculous and surreal to actually verbalize. …He had intentionally hurt himself? Was he even someone who did that?

Turning off the faucet, Haru audibly sighed. “How about we start from the beginning, then?” He dried off the daikon and set it on a clean cutting board. “You still haven't told me what those messages from yesterday were all about. I think I deserve to know, for all the worrying you put me through.”

Akira twitched, his face cringing in dread. He turned away, raising a hand to his countenance, trying to hide from Haru's perceptive eyes. Why did I agree to this? “It would've been so much easier to talk about this if… if…” He gulped. “…if you'd been there right away."

“Akira-kun, I called back within a half hour!” Haru set his preparations aside and pulled a chair. “What do you expect, me to be on 24-7 standby for you? That's just silly. You know I have things going on.”

Akira did feel silly. But he couldn't deny that irrational, puerile sense of betrayal, either. His free hand clutched at the fabric of his pants.

“Akira-kun, what was so pressing that you couldn't call me back? What changed?”

Akira didn't have a real answer to that. He started biting on the end of his thumb.

Haru sighed once more. “This has something to do with the date, doesn't it? There's no way it can't.”

Just hearing the word “date”, Akira's innards churned in dismay. “Yes, that was it. Sayaka and I—” Trying to steel his nerves, he started circling his thumb over Kaworu's cross. “We made each other upset. And it was mostly my fault.”

“Just what did you do?” Haru asked.

“I…” Akira covered his face again. “I expected too much from her.”

Haru raised an eyebrow.

Moisture started to seep from Akira’s eyes. “I thought, you know… with how well things had been going between us, maybe I didn't have to be afraid of the past anymore. You know that Sayaka never truly accepted everything about me… that she almost dumped me after I first told her, and…”

“Told her? About what?”

Akira tilted his head, giving Haru a penetrating look.

It took Haru a moment. “Oh… Oh!” he intoned in recall. “Yes, sorry, a bit slow on the uptake there. Well, Akira-kun, you know I don't really 'get it' myself… But being as it's completely irrelevant to our relationship, I never actually needed to.”

“That's fine, Haru. People don't need to understand.” He wiped his face and cracked a weak, ephemeral smile. “I'm not even sure I do. But Sayaka… I've known all this time that she never really so much as accepted that part of me. Like her mind wants to justify it away as… I don't know… youthful experimentation, or a dumb mistake, or anything else. The idea that it wasn't just a passing thing, that it actually has consequences for who I am, and for our own relationship… Even though, in the big picture, this information changes nothing, it's those little details, Haru… I think they scare her.”

Haru listened thoughtfully, a moderate frown on his face.

Akira wasn't sure why, but he felt the courage to keep going. “So much that I've had to completely hide that side of myself for half my lifetime. I was sick of it. And at the same time, I felt so good about myself, about us, that I deluded myself into thinking that things might be able to change.”

Haru let his index finger caress his chin. “I'm going to guess that, whatever you said or did, Sayaka-san did not react favorably.”

The shame and the pain burst free, and Akira cradled himself reflexively, his forehead dropping onto the table. He couldn't hold it in any longer. As he cried, he wondered how it was even possible — that his lacrimal glands still worked, after all the abuse they had recently taken. It was absurd; it didn't make sense. Nothing made sense.

Haru knew this side of him quite well. He was one of the few people allowed to see it at all. Patting his friend gently on the back, Haru, not wanting to be a voyeur to Akira's pain, gave him some space and resumed work on the Yakumo dinner. Akira ran dry rather quickly, quite unlike the previous night, when the inability to stop crying had prevented him from getting any real sleep.

“You're running on fumes, aren't you?” Haru asked, scraping vegetables into a boiling pot and setting the lid on. “Need to take a nap or something?”

Akira shook his head, impulsively reaching for his sake. “No. I don't want to burden you.”

“Stop sounding so Japanese, Akira-kun. It doesn't suit you.” Haru set a timer and returned to his chair.

He smiled weakly at that. “I'm sorry that happened, Haru. I wish I didn't do that so much…”

“Well, you already know what Risa and I would say, and we already know what you would say in response, so I guess there's no point in saying anything further on that matter.”

“I suppose not.”

“So…” Haru laced his fingers in his lap. “There was a bit of drama during what was supposed to be a romantic get-together. Is there any reason to think you two can't work it out?”

A frown. “After our fight last night… I'm not sure I want to.”

“There was a fight, too?!” Haru's eyes gaped wide. “Is this something that happened later?”

Akira nodded.

“Like… a fight fight? Raised voices and everything?”

Akira sighed under his breath. “Yes, Haru. It was a real fight. I feel terrible about it, but I was so… so…” He gulped. “I just couldn't hold it in any longer.”

“It's been so long since I actually saw you blow a fuse that it's hard to imagine.” Haru scratched the back of his head. “Just what happened, Akira-kun, for things to get that bad? What aren't you telling me?”

Akira, still stooped over with shame, glanced obliquely at his friend. “Honestly? It would be impossible to recount all the causes. I'd let myself become either blind or numb to them, but there's so much wrong, Haru…” He turned away. “Everything is just so broken. I don't have hope for anything now.”

Haru leaned in slightly. “Fights happen, Akira-kun. You don't think Risa and I have our moments? But it's just part of our process. I know we've all been taught to just put on a brave face and bear adversity without complaint, but I also know that you know you don't have to do that with Sayaka-san. You two should be getting those skeletons out of your closets. So what if it takes a few fights to clear the air?”

Akira rubbed the bottom of his nose, sniffling, struggling for something moderately productive to say.

Rubbing his friend's shoulder, Haru said, “Don't be scared of this. You probably feel like a jerk, but it's okay. You can work through this. It can still mean something — your progress with Sayaka-san…” After a moment's consideration, he added, “And with Misato, too.”

“…Misato?” Akira murmured, shifting in his chair. Immediately, he began to nervously caress his aunt's cross.

Haru rightfully suspected that something was amiss, and Akira was, characteristically, unable to conceal the truth about what he'd done that morning. No sooner had he finished his account that Haru's gentle compassion exploded into perplexed ire. “Akira-kun, why the hell would you do that? What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

Akira trembled before Haru's harsh tone and gave himself completely to self-pity. “So what if Misato doesn't want me? That's her right.”

“You're an idiot.” Haru started pacing the room, gesticulating. “Of course she wants you. You're her father, the only one she has. You know damn well why she didn't put up a fight!” Sighing with exasperation, he cried, “And you had to get the UN involved in your personal drama? Really? Whatever happened to calling things off with them?!”

“I never agreed to any such thing.”

“You certainly implied that you did.” Haru stalked off to the common area and quickly returned with a cordless receiver, which he shoved in Akira's face. “Call her, now. Call it off.”

“‘Her’—?”

“Tatsuta.”

Akira pulled away. “I don't have her number on m—”

“That's not much of an obstacle. I e-mailed her contact information to myself after getting it off you. Just a quick login away.”

It took Akira a moment to recall what Haru was talking about. Right, he had wanted to look into her using his old friends in high places… “Tatsuta isn't assigned to me anymore, Haru. The trip was arranged by someone else.”

“So what? She's on the inside. She can get the message wherever it needs to go.” Haru set the phone down on the table. “I'm not going to let you put this off any longer, Akira-kun. I know you too well.”

Akira rose from his chair, wiggling the numbness out of a leg. “What if I were to tell you, Haru, that I actually wanted to go?”

His friend frowned deeply. “I'd tell you that you have responsibilities to your family and friends to which your own desires are secondary.”

“A big boost to her college fund helps Misato far more than help on a single project she doesn't even need me specifically for. You know she'd be happier working with Risa.”

Haru crossed his arms. “If I were a lesser man, I would try to convince Risa to become suddenly unavailable.” He checked on the soup. “But that poor girl needs grown-ups she can actually depend on, so you know I won't.”

Akira stared at his feet and continued to fidget with the pendant. “I'd stay if I could, Haru, but I just don't trust myself. I keep imagining how Sunday might play out. Over and over again. Every possibility is one where I make everything worse. So, it's better if I'm not here at all. It's better if I'm helping Misato from afar.”

Haru set the range on low heat. “Keep telling yourself that, Akira-kun.” He started emptying tiny measuring spoons of spice into the pot. “Maybe if you think it enough times, it'll become true.” At last, he set the lid back on, slightly off center, and faced Akira once more. “Don't you realize how full of shit you are? You're scared and you want a way out. If it's not one thing you're escaping to, it's another. Isn't it?”

Akira withdrew further into himself.

“Wouldn't you just love to be shipped overseas and never have to deal with your family again? Or with me, for that matter? Who needs a conscience, am I right?”

“Please stop,” Akira whispered, clutching his head. “I just agreed to a tour of one facility. Nothing more!”

Haru prowled the kitchen, haphazardly opening drawers and peering into cabinets. Snorting in disdain, he said, “Whatever they've told you, Akira-kun, don't believe it.” His perusals get increasingly frenzied. “Gods damn it all, did Risa find every last one?!” After circling upon himself momentarily, he seemed to have a moment of epiphany, and finally carried a chair to the bookshelf in the next room.

Akira let himself zone out, enjoying the reprieve, only to be shocked back to awareness by the click of a lighter. “Haru?!” he blurted, glancing up. For the first time in months, Haru was nursing a cigarette. “What are you doing…?”

Haru folded a piece of paper towel into a makeshift ashtray and tapped into it. “You think you're the only person allowed to turn his back on personal progress? I can't always be the strong one.”

Akira felt so horrible he couldn't bring himself to criticize, apologize, or anything in the middle. “I should go…” he whispered, fighting back tears. His body seemed to float toward the entranceway on its own.

Haru's hand stilled him. “Not just yet. If you're really going to entrust yourself to these UN people, even if it's just for a couple of days, there are some things you should know.”

The smell of tobacco was overwhelming, so Akira put some additional space between them, then faced his friend and waited silently.

“I'm probably just wasting my time, as usual,” Haru said, “but if I didn't tell you what I'd learned, I'd never forgive myself. I wish I had gotten this out of the way earlier, but you were doing so well, Akira-kun, I didn't want to risk anything that might have thrown you off balance. I know you too well.” He soothed his clearly bedraggled nerves with a long drag. “I've heard back from a couple of my old acquaintances. I think you've heard of them. Jumpei and Kouki. I wasn't really expecting much to come from giving them Tatsuta's name, so the encrypted e-mails I got were pretty shocking.”

…Encrypted? Akira mouthed in surprise.

Haru's eyes had an alarmingly distant expression. “The reorganization that the UN is going through is actually a very big deal. It's like the entire thing is being rebuilt from the inside out, and it's happening on a level where no one can really say or do anything about it. There's tons of money and influence creeping out of the deepest, darkest corners. Those being newly appointed to positions of greatest power frequently have shady allegiances. A lot of underground fraternities and crime syndicates are involved. Even small fry like Tatsuta — I don't know if you got any weird vibes from her, but she has ties to the yakuza, apparently.”

One of Akira's eyebrows went up. “That really doesn't surprise me. But… Haru, I'm not sure how I should respond to this. I guess I have to wonder if you hear how you actually sound.” He frowned.

“It’s crazy, right?” Haru said. “This is some real Illuminati-level shit. If it weren't coming from Jun-kun and Kouki, I wouldn't have even given it a second thought.” He placed the cigarette to his lips again and inhaled deeply. “Just think about how many people in the organization itself are turning a blind eye to this takeover because, hey, conspiracies aren't real! It really is perfect, isn't it?” He raised the cigarette again, but stopped himself, and just stared at it this time.

“If your friends know about this, why don't they do something?”

“Oh, they are, in their own way,” Haru said. “But they have to be really careful. Neither have terribly influential positions. It seems that people who stand in the way of the corrupting influence just … disappear.”

Akira pocketed his hands. “So, what does any of this have to do with me? You're going to tell me that they want my research for something nefarious, right?” He snickered derisively.

Haru's expression honed in on Akira, turning deadly serious. “They're building a new military in secret. For what, I can't say. But I do have it on good authority that this ISTAA of theirs is not as philanthropic as it wants you to believe. By all indications, the two seem to be connected.”

He had never mentioned “ISTAA” to Haru. That meant his sources were at least somewhat reliable. “So, then—”

“ISTAA is a front for the research and development of the new UN Military's weapons, armor, vehicles, and gods know what else.” Haru snuffed his cigarette and eased himself back into a chair. “When you were in total disbelief about them taking interest in the S² engine — your instincts were absolutely right. They don't care about bringing clean, free energy to people. They just want to turn you into the next Oppenheimer.”

Akira's face contorted. “You mean… an S² bomb?”

“Don't act so surprised, Akira-kun. You knew from the very start that it was a possibility.”

He felt angry all of a sudden and he wasn't really sure why. His fists curled tight in his pockets. “You can't be serious, can you? There’s no way you and your insider buddies can know all this for a fact. Just how much of what you've told me is guesswork and hyperbole? At least half? You can't scare me with lies, Haru.”

“I may have put two and two together in some instances,” Haru admitted, “but if I'm trying to 'scare you' it's because I'm scared as hell and you should be, too.”

Akira shook his head from side to side, chortling insincerely under his breath. “If these people are the frightening band of cultists and criminals you're making them out to be, then, really, what do my own choices matter? They'll get what they want, with or without me.” He threw his head back, trying to keep the tears from falling. “I could destroy all my research and kill myself…”

“You know I would never suggest such a thing!” Haru said.

“…but what would that accomplish besides maybe delaying them a bit? My paper's already out there. I can't retract it. Someone with the right kind of talent would be able to continue my work. If they exist, the UN will find them, sooner or later.”

Haru was finally at a loss for words. He wrung his hands in silence.

Akira dabbed at his eyes. “So what happens in those silly books you read? What does the protagonist do at a time like this?”

“I don't know,” Haru muttered. “Sometimes he pretends to go along with the conspiracy, only to help take it down from the inside. But you know I can't in good conscience suggest you do that.”

“So what, then? What can I do??”

“Leave this fight to the fighters, Akira-kun. You have your own problems to worry about. Tell the UN in no uncertain terms that you're not interested in anything they have to offer you. Be there for Misato on Saturday no matter what. Help us take down that ugly cement wall on Sunday.” He took a deep breath. “And hold onto some hope for you and Sayaka. I know you're feeling angry and hurt and you just want to give up. But keep fighting. It’s not over yet.”

At that time, Akira let himself feel a glimmer of optimism momentarily. But quickly, all too quickly, it was overshadowed by the looming terror of what Frisch might be hiding and the inescapable sense that whatever the man wanted, he would, eventually, get. Akira wasn't sure just how much he believed Haru's intelligence, but it was hard not to be scared by it all.

Akira wasn't so naive that he'd never considered the possibility that his ideas might be used for terrible purposes, but actualizing the technology had always been so remote that there had been little impetus to mentally prepare himself. Besides, if scientists let fear of technological misappropriation limit humanity's frontiers, so much less would ever change for the better. So much was contingent upon finding a reliable, renewable energy source, wasn't the risk worth it? He wanted to believe it.

The remainder of that week made very little sense to him. He wanted to act upon Haru's suggestion with all his heart, but too many forces were pulling him in too many directions. There was no way to logically sort through them all or put together an altered course of action. And so, numb and befuddled, he let inertia carry him forward. It wasn't the right thing… but there was no right thing anymore.

Just when he thought his life made sense, it all crumbled before his eyes. There's nothing he can trust now, not even his own feelings. He's already tired of being pushed around by this storm. He wants something, anything, to anchor him down.

Is that thing Frisch? He had strange thoughts about the man as soon as they met and he still cannot shake them. They're uncomfortable. But also alluring. If Frisch represents, at least in part, the unknowable threat of Akira's work being used in a way that violates its creator’s intent, then maybe… just maybe… Frisch could be the only way to get that control back.

The German, sensing he's being stared at, returns Akira's gaze, and Akira quickly looks away, pretending his eyes hadn't been lingering. It's unconvincing, he can tell, as Frisch issues a good-natured chuckle and returns to what he was doing.

Abruptly, Akira’s heart begins to race. He clutches the cross, hoping it will soothe him. Instead, he’s overwhelmed by a nebulous feeling of oppression. The atmosphere is heavy as lead, crushing his ribs, slowly asphyxiating him. There’s no time to come to an understanding of this. He must escape.

A minute later, he leans over one of the sinks in the men’s bathroom, dousing his face. Capillary-dilating heat, then spine-tingling cold ― a refreshing jolt to the system. As he dabs his face dry, his eyes chance their way into the mirror, but immediately avert. It’s too much, like staring into an open wound. He feels so obvious, and his stomach turns in revulsion.

 

*********

 

By the time they land in Tel Aviv, night has fallen and the sleepless city glows with neon exuberance. During the ride to the hotel, Akira gazes out the window, rather taken with the sleek modernism that passes by. To think this is all he’ll see of Israel while he’s here: little more than an assortment of sweeping, tantalizing blurs. He's never been in this part of the world before, and under ordinary circumstances he would want to stay and explore for a day at least. Visit the prominent scholarly institutions, if nothing else.

The language barrier might be an issue, though, and he has no way of overcoming it himself. Frisch seems to be quite the polyglot, but the man is under no obligation to provide for Akira's extracurricular whimsies. Still… Even though Akira knows it’s already late and there’s an early morning ahead…

“…It feels like such a waste,” he says. “Just passing an amazing place like this right by.”

Frisch issues a low, sharp chortle, apparently amused. “I heard no such complaint about Moscow.”

Akira shrugs. “I’ve been through there before. Not recently, but still.” He gazes through the glass again. “There’s just something fetching about this city.”

“Quite so. Well, do recall, Dr. Katsuragi, that there will likely be some time on Sunday morning before the flight back. Customarily, on trips to Qumran, any spare time should be spent at Kalya. A simply delightful kibbutz. The best way to experience the Dead Sea, if I might be so daring.”

The Dead Sea. He’s heard about it, of course, but — scrolls aside — mostly in its capacity as a tourist trap. “Would that really be the best use of the time, though?”

“Dr. Katsuragi,” Frisch says, “it would be a true pity to have been so near the Dead Sea, yet not floated upon it. The greatest waste of all, perhaps.”

Akira’s of no particular mood to argue. It’s hard to tell if Frisch is even being completely serious, besides. On an impulse, he checks his watch. Five in the morning? That can’t be right. His eyes dart toward the front console of the cab, hoping for a local time.

“Six hours’ difference,” Frisch offers with a smile. “I understand. It’s been a long day for us both.” As Akira adjusts, the German adds, “Even after all my years flying, it still amazes me, you know. How feats of engineering can so daringly defy not only gravity, but the turn of the Earth itself.”

Suddenly so talkative? What a change from before. “At the end of the day, we’ve done nothing more than break reality down into its constituent parts and manipulated variables until the desired outcome was achieved.”

“How cold,” Frisch comments. “You struck me as being a bit more whimsical than that.”

Akira shrugs. “Depends on my mood, I suppose.”

“As you’ve no doubt observed, I spend most of my time on conference calls and pouring over spreadsheets. If that’s all my work was, it would be dull beyond compare. But the payoff, Dr. Katsuragi — that’s what keeps me here.”

“Payoff?” Akira says.

Frisch strokes his mustache. “Wonder. Awe. Watching as the bounds of human understanding and capability are pushed further and further. My vantage point is a rare one. Not unlike that of a gardener, beholding the once-barren earth that buds and blossoms from his careful ministrations.”

“Is that how you see yourself?” Akira asks. “…As a gardener?”

It’s then that they arrive at the hotel, and the thread of the conversation is lost. Although Akira finds it unnecessary, he does not protest when his luggage is taken inside for him, to be brought all the way to his room. The exterior and lobby speak to needless extravagance, a far cry from the cramped conditions that brought them here. Perhaps Frisch can only thwart what’s expected of him so much.

As Frisch checks in, Akira stares into a coin-filled fountain, hands tightly pocketed. His eyes soon wander across the lobby. It’s pleasant enough, but just… far too fancy. Overembellished. Trying too hard to impress. Even the potted plants, which provide a welcome visual reprieve, seem to all be chosen on the basic of how exotic they look. He wanders a bit deeper in, and sights what looks like a miniature arboretum in an arcade leading to another wing of the hotel. While staring into it, his brain tugs on a discarded thread.

‘Gardener.’ At first glance, the comparison seems harmless, even cute. Few pastimes seem more innocent and pure. He thinks about Sayaka, and her devotion to the flower beds that blossom year after year. His own reluctance about helping, for fear of doing more harm than good. On deeper contemplation, however… a good gardener needs to be willing to do harm on purpose, don’t they? It’s not all about nurturing the plants you’re trying to grow. It’s also about removing the ones you don’t want. Uprooting them… leaving them to wither and die.

If Frisch’s organization is, ostensibly, a nursery for scientists and their research… then who or what are the weeds?

Before he can dwell upon the thought for long, he hears a voice call for him.

“Ah, there you are, Dr. Katsuragi!” Frisch approaches, key cards in hand. “I don’t blame you for wandering off. It’s practically a museum here.”

Akira accepts the key and murmurs a thank you.

“I would recommend turning in, Dr. Katsuragi” Frisch says. “Wouldn’t want you to be so bedraggled in to the morning.”

Akira barely looks Frisch’s way. “I’m tired, I suppose. But I doubt I’ll be able to sleep.” He prods his cross, fearful that he’s already said too much, but too wound-up to keep it bottled. “What about you, Frisch-san?”

Frisch smiles. “I did not plan on sleeping just yet. I typically don’t require much.”

“I see. More work for you, then?”

“Hmm.” Frisch strokes his mustache again. “I suppose, given this state of affairs, I could indulge you a small taste of the Tel Aviv nightlife. That’s what you’d wanted, if I’m not mistaken.”

Akira pockets his hands again. “I suppose.”

“I know just the place. It’s not far, either.”

 

*********

 

The pub is small and cozy, with an earthy atmosphere. Frisch leads him to a table for two hugging a stucco wall. Akira at first sits without thought. Then he starts looking around.

Given the hour, there are a solid number of patrons. Perhaps to be expected, though. Wouldn’t be much of a sampling of “the Tel Aviv nightlife” if people weren’t out and about. The type of people, though… Decidedly not the sort Akira is used to seeing in Kyoto bars, groups comprised entirely of men, winding down and bonding socially after a hard day’s work. The only similarity is that there’s not a woman to be seen anywhere. He senses intuitively that the regular patrons are not here for professional reasons, but for… rather more personal ones.

Akira absentmindedly tugs on his collar. His throat feels thick and dry. The air feels much warmer than it did a moment ago.

“Is the environment not to taste, Dr. Katsuragi?” Frisch asks, sensing Akira’s discomfort. “Would you prefer to leave?”

Akira doesn't answer directly. “Why did you bring me here?”

The German smiles. “The owners brew their own, available only here and one other location. Nowhere else in the world. It’s the finest in Israel I’ve yet found.”

“That’s…” Akira gulps. “That’s really the only reason?” Frisch is doing it again, making him uncomfortable when he obviously didn't have to. Why?

Frisch remains unfazed. “Does the patronage bother you? If so, I admit I made a rare misjudgment.”

“No,” Akira abruptly corrects, “it’s not that. It’s just… you could have mentioned it in advance, at least.”

“For what purpose? This isn’t a gay bar, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Akira flinches in spite of himself.

Frisch rests his chin on steepled fingers. “Everyone is welcome here. But for that very reason, you will naturally see more of the people who are less welcome elsewhere. While Tel Aviv is ahead of the curve in that regard, there’s still progress to be made.” He straightens up again. “You are a pariah yourself, are you not? That’s why I didn’t think twice about bringing you here. Because you know all too well that long quest for acceptance, marked by one arbitrary rejection after another.” And with that, he reaches into his pockets, producing a cigarette and lighter. As before, he helps himself, ignoring Akira’s clear signs of discomfort.

Akira reflexively turns away and stares into a window in the roof, as if that will remove him from the situation somehow. He doesn’t know how to feel. Frisch’s armor-piercing comments make him feel foolish, petty — and more importantly, exposed and vulnerable. Much more than he is most of the time. What’s your game? he wants to ask, but he’s not sure he wants even a halfway sincere answer. Nor is he sure who he’s more afraid of — this man, or himself. “I need a drink,” he mutters.

“Good, good. That’s why we’re here. Shall I make the choice for you? Do you have any preference?”

“Something hard,” Akira says. If he only gets a little drunk, he might do something stupid. Too drunk — he’ll feel far too sick to do anything.

Frisch nods elegantly and goes to the barista, leaving a trail of burning tobacco in his wake. He returns with a single large bottle, Hebrew script on the label, and pours both of them a glass. Sitting down again, he raises his. “A toast, then, to later today, and what I hope will lead to a pleasing arrangement for us both.”

Akira clinks halfheartedly. Sampling the brew, it’s not quite what he wanted. It’s perfectly fine, but it doesn’t taste particularly hard. A glance at the label seems to confirm this. Did Frisch mishear him, or did he intentionally ignore him? No matter; there’s no use complaining. Akira would struggle to order anything on his own, so this will have to do.

“I never did apologize,” Frisch says abruptly. “For my reticence during such a long journey.”

“There’s no need,” Akira responds. “I came into the picture late. You have things to do. I understand.” How formulaic and customary. Not to mention transparent. Frisch can surely see straight through it.

A breezy chortle. “Dr. Katsuragi, you needn’t burden yourself with such formalities. Not here and not now.” The German sips from his glass, then dabs the stray droplets tenderly off his mustache. “I wonder, might a change in more than scenery help?”

“Hmm?”

Frisch suddenly switches from Japanese to his native tongue. “You said you were uncomfortable speaking German in your homeland, but what about now? This entire time, I’ve been waiting to hear you.”

Something about the man feels fundamentally different now. His overall manner is much the same, uneasily straddling meticulous verbosity and casual overfamiliarity. But, somehow, Akira can immediately sense that Frisch is more assured, speaking at a faster clip and far more brusquely. There’s no way he can compete with that. And yet…

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Akira says in his best German. “I’m a bit out of practice.”

“Almost no accent. That’s very unusual. How young did you say you were at the time?”

Akira fumbles at the back of his head. “I’m not sure. Three or four when we moved to Düsseldorf, I think.”

“Yes, that definitely would explain it,” Frisch says, nodding to himself. “In any case, while we’re here, you can get some practice in. I assume this is one skill you don’t wish to lose.”

“No, no. Definitely not.”

Frisch taps his cigarette into the ash tray. “About my apology…” He takes a drag. “You’re under no obligation to accept, but I felt compelled to offer it regardless. Anyone can see that you are being crushed alive by your circumstances.”

Akira glances away and sips from his glass. “‘Anyone’, huh?” What a horrid thought. Attempting to inject some levity, he jokes, “Are you trying to suggest that you, a CEO, have feelings of humanistic compassion?”

Frisch seems to find sordid amusement in this. “Granted, in my line of work, empathy is generally discouraged, except in those cases when it can be used to achieve the desired results.” He pours more of the brew for himself. “If you are a callous manipulator for long enough, Dr. Katsuragi, it's quite easy to become numb to what you're doing, because that is the only way to continue doing it.” Staring into his glass thoughtfully, “We're all just trying to get by. And the human animal thrives on paradox.”

It’s not clear to him what exactly Frisch meant by that. Why he felt the need to say it at all. He’s not sure he wants to know. At the thought of thriving upon paradox, Akira embraces his cross. A symbol he should, by all rights, despise, and yet it serves as an emotional crutch, one he can’t imagine living without.

Unlike the last time they wined together, Frisch does not stay silent on the matter. “I was under the impression that it was Russian Orthodoxy that was brought to Japan, and yet it's a Greek cross that you wear.”

Akira conceals the object completely within his palm and averts his eyes. “You're not mistaken.”

“The topic makes you uncomfortable, I see, but it's hard not to be intrigued. I wouldn't have taken you for a Christian, nor someone who would wear an important spiritual symbol for frivolous reasons.”

“Your impression is correct.” He sips from his glass again, taking down more than he intended. “I … I don't really know why I wear this thing.”

“Surely,” Frisch says, “you must have an inkling. No?” Unprompted, he gives Akira a refill.

Akira stares at the dusky fluid. He eventually gives in and lets more of it trickle down his gullet. “I started wearing it so long ago. I don’t know if the reason even matters anymore.”

“If it didn’t matter, Dr. Katsuragi, the subject wouldn’t result in such immediate withdrawal.” Frisch finally snuffs his cigarette. “I hope, for your own sake, that you have someone to whom you can bare your soul.”

He rubs the cross between thumb and index finger. “Do you?”

Frisch laughs. “You assume, Dr. Katsuragi, that I have a soul to bare.”

After that, the space between them churns and bubbles with silence. Akira puzzles, unable to decide if Frisch was evading, self-deprecating, or something else. A minute passes, maybe more. Frisch, typically, yields no sign of discomfort. But eventually Akira’s tongue becomes restless.

“This cross…” He traces the edge of the object with his thumb. “It once belonged to my grandmother's sister. That side of the family had wealth at the time, so they got to see a lot of the world. The story goes that my great-aunt picked up the cross during an actual visit to Greece.” In his mind’s eye, he can see Aunt Kaworu’s beautiful handwriting, garnishing a page of her journal opposite a watercolor of a Grecian beach. “She found it simple, beautiful, and elegant.”

“That it is,” Frisch agrees. “Zinc aluminum alloy?”

“I wouldn't know, really…”

“So you wear your great-aunt's cross to honor her memory. She was important to you?”

“I suppose,” Akira says. “I never had a chance to meet her, but I always felt drawn to her. The things she left behind. She was the only person in the family who seemed sort of like me.”

“A sense of connection is important,” Frisch says. “Keeps one anchored in a chaotic and largely uncaring world.”

The words have little effect. Akira has rarely felt as disconnected as he does now. Frisch doesn't seem discouraged, though. “Earlier, Dr. Katsuragi, you seemed to find it curious that I would ride economy class. After all, I could surely afford not to.”

Akira isn’t sure what this has to do with anything, so he remains silent.

“The reason for this is, at once, both simple and convoluted. You see, while I was born into the aristocracy — branded by it, even, when my parents named me — I have never felt connected to it. This is a feeling to which you can relate, yes? Rather than growing up knowing that you belong somewhere, you learn, more and more, that you actually belong nowhere at all. A stranger in your own land.”

A sense of utter surrealism has started to envelop their table. Akira feels the buzz of the alcohol amplifying beneath his skin.

“Forging alliances with the other bluebloods. Frittering away fortunes on displays of excess. Looking down upon the proletariat with delusions of superiority. If that is not how you want to spend your life, then it is difficult to view any of it as a plus. A life not actually lived, but one spent in chains. A gilded cage is still a cage. I was expected to act against my nature, day after day, year after year. To marry a stranger, to perpetuate an estate. To use and abuse the less powerful, and think nothing of it.”

Frisch pauses momentarily to light another cigarette, and he breathes from it long and deep. Turning to Akira with a piercing, overly intimate expression, he goes on. “You are common, my peers would say. Below my notice. Socializing with you like this degrades me.” Another drag. “But they inherit esteem rather than earning it through actual talent or ability. Clearly, their opinions are not to be taken seriously.”

Akira returns Frisch’s look for a moment, and it’s both exhilarating and terrifying. He stares into his lap, where he wrings his hands anxiously. “Why are you telling me this…?”

“Because you, Dr. Katsuragi, are a veritable genius, and I am honored to breathe the same air as you.” Frisch lifts his glass again, expecting another toast, and Akira reluctantly provides it. “Individuals such as yourself are not below the rich and powerful. Quite the opposite. You are the true chosen ones. And it is with that boundless, uncaged potential that I prefer to mingle. Far outside any fortress of self-importance. Far away from the inbred, myopic aristocracy.” He pauses for another drag. “There, Dr. Katsuragi… is where I drop my anchor.”

Is there anything he could possibly say, in response to this, that would not risk needlessly exposing himself in some way? More than he already is, anyway. What’s the right way to think or feel under such strange circumstances as these? Is Frisch lying? Is he telling the truth? Either feels equally valid, but Akira doesn’t know enough about this man to know which is more likely. Or just what, for that matter, Frisch intends to gain by talking about such things at all. Saying he doesn’t have a soul to bare, and then, completely unprompted, going ahead and baring it? If the intent is create a veil of confusion, through which it’s impossible to diagnose intent, then it’s working.

One thing seems clear, however: Frisch is dangling lures and trying to get Akira to bite. To what end? …Who can say?

He wishes he could stop thinking, stop fighting. Just give in and engorge himself, whatever the cost might be. Simply let the tidal pull of this man and his ineffable charisma draw him closer, and closer.

Akira downs another quarter liter, and taps his glass for more.

 

*********

 

Frisch takes them to their rooms, adjacent odd numbers. Hanging onto Frisch’s every motion from the corner of his left eye, Akira swipes his door and finds his luggage waiting inside for him. He stands in the open doorway, hesitant. His alcohol-tinted delirium has other ideas.

Frisch interrupts whatever is percolating in Akira's mind, saying, “You have lots of questions, I know. There will be plenty of time on the ride over to deal with them.”

Akira silently mouths, Why not now?“…What if I can't sleep?” He realizes after the fact how childish he sounds, and curses himself under his breath.

“A most unfortunate scenario. I need you fresh and alert in the morning, after all.”

Akira glances away. “I can't make any promises…”

Pushing a stopper under his door to hold it open, Frisch looks back over his shoulder and asks, “Do you struggle with insomnia, as well? I could give you a mild sedative.” He doesn’t wait for the answer, instead venturing deeper into his room and rummaging through one of his bags.

Akira wanders into the other man’s doorway, his eyes drifting vacantly toward the enticingly large, empty bed. Intense yearning clashes violently with a sense of revulsion that writhes in his belly like a den of snakes. He can only stare, frozen, hoping his body doesn’t betray him. Words emerge from his throat as if spoken by someone else. “I avoid drugs. They tend to disagree with me.”

Frisch steps up to Akira with a small brown glass bottle. “I've seen you imbibe alcohol,” he says with a wink. “In any case, it wouldn't be quite correct to call this a drug. Melatonin occurs naturally in the body. Take only half a pill if you're worried.”

Akira begrudgingly accepts the small tablet. He stares at it momentarily, then glances back at Frisch and on through him, deep into the room, so he can be overwhelmed by that exhilarating feeling of visceral disgust once more. There's no point in taking any chances. He swallows the whole pill right then and there, so much saliva built up on his tongue it goes down easily.

And then comes the moment to break away, say good night. But it doesn’t happen. He’s suspended there in front of Frisch, unable to move. His glistening brown eyes, quavering with excitement, lock with Frisch’s icy blues, which refuse, intrepid, to turn away. His breath hastens, his whole thoracic cavity is pounded like a drum by the anxious plasma pump within its walls, his lips contort into a boyish smile that bares the slightest sliver of crooked dentition. He drowns in the pale pools, so cold yet too hot to handle, burning within their handsomely aged frames. Utterly seized, he cannot escape. He doesn't want to.

An artery in his left buttock throbs at irregular intervals. There's an itch above his right eyebrow but he ignores it. His body feels fuzzy, distant, to the point that he’s not even certain whether he’s engorged or not. And yet, somehow, he’s completely thrall to his flesh, right this very moment. I want this, he tells himself. I want this. I've wanted this longer than I've known. He doesn't even know exactly what it is that he craves so desperately, but now that he's found it and it's right here looking him in both eyes he won't let it escape. He must consummate. He can't suffer in deprivation any longer.

After some number of excruciatingly long seconds pass, Frisch at last relaxes his expression. With a smooth and soothing smile, he simply says, “Do get some rest, Katsuragi. We have an early morning upon us.” As he backs into his room, he bows and says, “Good night.” The door closes softly.

Akira is dumbstruck. Frozen in perplexity. What just happened? He doesn't know. It's surreal. He was so sure that the outcome would be different. There was not an iota of doubt in his mind that Frisch desired him. Akira knows the look. Female, male; young, old; he knows the look. Frisch didn't allow his body language to be coarsely obvious he has class but he wasn't exactly subtle, either. This wasn't a delusion, surely it wasn't. It couldn't be.

So, then… why? Is this a game? What is Akira supposed to do? Check to see if Frisch’s door is actually locked? Knock? Wait a while first, then tell Frisch that he still can't sleep… as if he were a small child seeking solace from a parent?

Akira feels too vulnerable out here in the hallway. He swipes his door and wanders within, taking his inebriated haze with him. His clothes seem to fall off his form, article by article, until he’s standing in front of his suitcase in boxer briefs and socks, debating what to do next. Ultimately, he strips down completely and collapses onto the bed. He feels tired, dreadfully tired. But agitated, to the point that he surely cannot sleep. Not yet.

Frisch, back there… He didn't use Akira’s title, for the first time. Frisch speaks very methodically, so it’s hard to believe that it was a slip of the tongue. Was it a message, then? Some sort of acknowledgment? That he sees Akira as more than a professional to recruit into his organization? That, perhaps, he too…

These thoughts are so inappropriate. Disgusting, even. He feels gross for having them. But Sayaka's not here, he must remind himself. She's not a concern. It’s only him. His mind, his body, and whatever the confluence of both desires, whether she likes it or not. That's how it was between him and Taro. Akira didn't have to apologize for anything, to anyone. What they had wasn't romantic by any means, but it was still life-affirming, a genuine connection, and he misses that. It ended before its time.

Akira doesn't understand why any of this is happening. He and Sayaka have had their differences before. Akira has been erratic and vulnerable before. He can't remember ever trying to be unfaithful in any seriously considered way. Fidelity wasn't even a chore, because his erotic senses didn't seem to even acknowledge that other people existed. Perhaps Taro flickered as the ghost of a possibility now and again, but his psychic ward made the possibility highly improbable, and then he left for America and that was that. But now… Now…

Akira fishes into a hidden compartment in his luggage, where forbidden traveling companions have been hiding, out of Sayaka’s sight. The toy is sleek and black, and thick as Taro had been, which was… well, far from shabby. Akira has been attempting to maintain himself this whole time… trying to hold onto that feeling, once enjoyed so shamelessly. As he rinses the fuzz off, warming the silicone with hot water, he wonders if there was any possible way to tell Sayaka about his desire, and his interest in sharing it, without instigating a mutual meltdown. A futile thought. They'll never make love again; he's sure of it.

Thinking about it makes him feel both deeply angry and excruciatingly sad. He lies supine on the bed, looking to the ceiling to keep his tears contained, and brings his knees high. Goes through the familiar motions of slathering lubricant where it’s required. The anticipation brings him back to full stiffness. Controlling his breathing, he begins the slow, delightful process of insertion.

Eagerly, his hands get busy, working his erogenous zones with yearning roughness. He cries out, making no attempt to control the volume of his moans, hoping desperately to be overheard. It feels heavenly, but he'll never forget the weight and warmth of another person and how that truly completed the experience. Through the fog of his memory, his moments with Taro remain vividly intact. But, now, his mind substitutes his old friend with the unknown quantity in the room next door.

Utterly overwhelmed by the older man's statuesque figure, overwhelming charisma, and flamboyant eroticism, he surrenders himself to the fantasy completely. I want you inside me, all of you, right now. He imagines the German's weight and texture and smell, the sensation of having someone bigger and stronger pushing him down, doing to him as he pleases. Do me harder than you’ve ever done everyone. I have so much lost time to make up for.

It doesn't quite make sense to him, why someone like Frisch would instigate his sexuality anew. So few ever have that Akira has sometimes wondered what was wrong with him. After he arrived at university, he tried dating — his own sex, the opposite sex too, but no one felt right, no one made him feel anything. Only Sayaka, after he had stopped looking altogether. And only a few days ago, he believed he was perfectly happy with her. The melding of flesh and emotion, it was true bliss, wasn't it? But it wasn't complete; it wasn't enough. If he couldn't be himself with her, did he really want to be with her at all?

As Akira’s wrist begins to hurt, and his pleasure nears its inescapable acme, he imagines how delectable it would be to flaunt such a scene to Sayaka. Just let her watch in nauseous, irate jealousy as another male ravages her husband. Akira would laugh bitterly at her, and remind her that this could all have been hers, if only she hadn't been such an idiot.

By the time he's about to finish, his mind has come full circle — Sayaka wearing the present he’d given her, savagely driving it into him, while Frisch watches from a safe distance with tangible interest. Sayaka curses him as she thrusts, recounting in detail how vile he is and how much she hates him. He can’t fight back even if he tries, as his limbs are bound, so tightly it cuts into his skin. And then, she strikes him across the face, hard enough to leave a mark. But there’s no pain, only the epitome of fetishistic bliss.

Climax at last arrives, long, intense, and messy. He lies there for a time, enjoying the lingering sensations that throb throughout his body. But soon it’s evident that, despite obtaining physical release, he’s still backed up mentally. Getting too sleepy to worry about it, though. The supplement he got from Frisch must be working.

He washes up and voids his bladder. Catching himself in the mirror, he can see, even in the dim light, that he seems to have slapped himself rather hard. Akira runs a finger over the mark tenderly, a sense of ill ease burrowing into his chest. No matter. He sets his alarm and crawls naked into bed.

As he lies there on his side, he lets his fingers wrap tightly around his cross. Right now, he has no other guide and no other source of reassurance. Despite the near certainty that it's nothing more than a molded piece of metal, it somehow possesses the power to soothe his nerves. It really shouldn't. His great-aunt is dead. Even if there were a Heaven, humans don't become angels when they're received at the gates. The guardian angel he was promised could never be her. And he grew apart from God so quickly, any guardian that might have been appointed would have been revoked decades ago. He's alone. Completely alone.

Soon, he drifts into unconsciousness, toward a night of dark dreams doomed to be forgotten after waking — then inevitably revisited the next time he sleeps.