It wasn’t Fujisan, but it was beautiful.
For someone who should be frankly too jaded to spend much time on the touristy sights, at this point, Fujiko found herself unable to look away from the snow-capped peak in the distance, sunset glow and all. She’d filled her fancy little DSLR with images, only partly because it was the obvious thing to do in case someone confiscated and checked it. (The real camera didn’t look anything like one.)
A long and busy week was winding to an end. She’d crossed off most of the names on her list of contacts, and progress was being made. It satisfied her workaholic side. Almost. There was also the trek to prepare for, though. And it was starting only three days away. There was just one place left on her itinerary for the day. Then dinner; then to retreat to the hotel and memorize all her maps.
She fell in behind the local women on their way to the monastery, who were catching up on each other’s lives and current affairs. Earphones plugged into nothing, Fujiko paid attention to the cadences of their speech. She knew little Nepali and less Tibetan—no reason not to pick up some more.
One of the older women was talking about a granddaughter in America. The granddaughter had somehow made it through college, and now showed no signs of getting married. Instead she was determined to become a famous singer. The grandmother had her back to Fujiko, but Fujiko could hear the smile behind the words anyway.
Fujiko’s steps faltered for a moment. She hadn’t thought about her mother in a long time.
The bells guided her up the flights of stairs, and she was grateful for the small new exertion. But she was unsettled now, and fumbled through her prayers, bowing and murmuring mechanically. Suddenly the sincere faith of the other women in that space was suffocating, their quiet strength too familiar.
She ran up more stairs, to the third-floor courtyard. It was quiet, the valley opening out before her eyes in ripples of blue-green. The beautiful snowy peak was veiled with clouds. There was a fine, energising bite to the air. She turned up the collar of her jacket and leaned against the parapet.
And didn’t even realise she’d taken out a cigarette and was even about to light it, until she was interrupted by a cough from behind.
“Sorry,” she said around the cigarette, flicking the lighter closed, and turned. One of the monks had climbed up and was now standing by the stairs, a softly disapproving saffron statue. “I was just about to head back dow—”
The cigarette fell from her lips. The failing light showed a long face, finely arched brows, and tonsure.
“Fuck me sideways and call me daddy,” said Fujiko. “Goemon?”
The monk blushed and frowned at the same time.
She was glad to see him. It would not be an exaggeration to say that her heart leapt. Many memories, unwelcome in their intensity, were pushed aside by this bizarre spectre. She’d long thought that Goemon was secretly vain about his hair, and the shock of seeing him altogether without his signature locks—and Zantetsu—was sobering.
She thought for a second that perhaps he was in disguise and it was a bald cap, one of the more mundane latex wonders in Lupin’s collection.
“You look well,” said Goemon, sounding miserable.
“You look… well,” said Fujiko. She hadn’t seen him in months. Coincidentally it was almost a year now since their trip to Osorezan, a trip without Lupin and Jigen. Yes, those memories were nicer. Much nicer.
“I have been training,” said Goemon. As if she couldn’t guess that. “You’re here for a job?”
She wouldn’t ask about Lupin and Jigen. She shrugged. “Kind of 50/50 work and pleasure.”
His face, which was this close to ideal for a monk, darkened. Incredible, considering how dark the nights got in the hills. “You’re not travelling alone,” he said, touching at the interrogative. But only touching.
“There’s five of us,” said Fujiko, pulling at her collar again. “But the pleasure’s all mine.”
She could see him trying to work it out. It did something to his pupils. She shook her head. “I’m going trekking, Goemon.”
He looked like he was ready with a follow-up question, or several, rapid-fire style. Ultimately he held his tongue. Stood there, with his long face and long body and long silence.
Fujiko hated when things got awkward. The novelty of his appearance had faded. She’d lied, of course. It wasn’t 50/50 work and pleasure. The maps wouldn’t memorize themselves, and she wanted to beat the Saturday night dinner crowd at the place she’d just decided on. With a small, polite nod, she made her way to the staircase.
“When do you start out? On the trek?”
“Wednesday morning,” said Fujiko, not looking over her shoulder, and walked downstairs.
On Sunday morning Fujiko woke before the alarm, drooling on the spine of her notebook. It was half past six when she started her jog, breathing deep of the crisp air. A girl no older than nine or ten waved at her, cycling up the village path. Fujiko grinned and waved back. She’d become a known face in the old neighbourhood thanks to her daily workouts… and living next door to a school.
(Kids know all kinds of interesting things, and are always up for gossip.)
“Tomoko-san!” said a man, also waving at her. Fujiko kept the smile plastered on her face. It was Bhuwan, proprietor of the bar she’d had dinner at her first night in Darjeeling. A big-chested, boisterous man, he, too, was full of stories, and just as generous with them as with the free drinks. He was also unmarried, and had sandwiched this bit of information between some highly technical descriptions of the local flora and fauna.
He was dishy, Fujiko thought. Honestly. Why had she gone for such a silly fake name? But it wasn’t as silly as the other fake name. (It was amusing that people thought her real name was Mine Fujiko.) She watched him as he ran on ahead in his hoodie and shorts.
The shorts did a lot for his ass.
She jogged steadily, pausing at the usual spot to do some free-hand exercises. A teenaged couple was perched on the stones, girl and boy, stuck together at the sides, their feet dangling over nothing. They’d let their fluffy-necked mountain dog off the leash. Fujiko indulged the excitable dog, sharing her routine. It jumped and yelped around her for a spell. Then it trotted back to the teenagers, and the girl gathered it to her side without a break in her conversation.
More people had appeared in the meantime, some headed to school, many to work. SUVs and jeeps rolled past, packed full of tourists. The overall pace was slow, yet confident.
Fujiko speeded up to compensate for the easier downhill walk. As she turned with the bend in the road, the last of the shredded-cotton clouds parted, and there was that snow-capped mountain again. It took her breath away—whatever was left after cardio.
She took a few more pictures, this time with her phone, from the terrace of a small roadside diner.
“Please let me buy breakfast.”
Fujiko lowered the phone. Instead of a few pictures, she’d taken a dozen.
“You stalking me or something?”
“I eat here every day,” said Goemon, standing on the very edge of the wooden planks. It was his way of being impressive, and she supposed it wasn’t too blatant. He’d traded in the robes for track pants and a t-shirt. She could stare and be rude, or stare and make him blush. She chose to stare.
“I’ve been here a while,” she said. “Didn’t see you till last night.”
“I was at another monastery. There was a seminar.” Goemon circled around her and stepped into the diner. She followed. It was true that she was hungry.
Inside, it was dark, only one of the mountain-facing windows cracked open. She took in the sparse but tasteful decoration. The calendar on the wall behind the payment counter had a painting of a galaxy. A man was slumped at one of the tables. Fujiko’s eyes skipped over his silhouette. Force of habit. But he was just asleep.
The woman who took their orders smiled more at Goemon than at her. Fujiko was amused. “Manju is an honest, law-abiding woman. If only she knew some of the things you’ve done…”
She’d expected one of his adorable blushes, or a brusque dismissal of her teasing. But his face fell, and stayed that way. His ears stuck out a little. She’d never had an opportunity to notice. “Why don’t you tell her, then.”
“Oh Goemon, I was just pulling your leg.” Fujiko stretched back in her chair to peer out the window, her gaze drawn irresistibly to the mountain.
She had a feeling something had happened, something more dramatic than Goemon finding himself in dire straits for the umpteenth time because he’d been thinking with his dick. (So different from Lupin. So similar.) But if he wasn’t willing to volunteer details, she was perfectly fine not knowing. It wasn’t anything to do with her, and she’d be damned if she felt bad about it.
What did they say these days? Don’t do emotional labour for men!
Not that she’d made a reputation out of giving much of a fuck. (Pun intended.) Just as well.
Manju returned with food and they ate in silence, Goemon chewing slowly on his cabbage dumplings, Fujiko making quick work of the pork. The rest of the day sprawled ahead, lazy and resplendent with possibility. The weather was blessedly clear, so she could go hanggliding in the valley. She could go for a drive up to the border. Any border. She could have a big lunch somewhere expensive, linger over it, read a book.
What was it like, having a nine-to-five job? It was hard to imagine. She’d lived to be 30 off her wits alone—eh, those and some luck. She hadn’t done too shabbily, she thought, all things considered. Incited a coup here, bankrupted a museum there. She’d played at every profession in the world, a star actress no one’d heard of or given awards. She’d made friends along the way, too.
She looked at Goemon. It was possible he was just lonely, but he was the one who’d kept turning down jobs with the gang. She was on the outside, and she could see... She could see...
Goemon was still eating when Fujiko got up, coolly walked to the counter and laid down some cash. “Back to work for me. See you, space cowboy.”
She was always leaving, wasn’t she? It was its own aesthetic. Its own ethic. She was always riding a motorcycle into a garish sunset, riding it over the wasteland of some man’s voice. She was Alexandria, and Alexandra, and Mine Fujiko, and a woman whose real name no one knew anymore.
“You should be careful with the dogs,” said a man, and bought her a drink. She’d gone to a new one this time, but she was running out of bars the longer she stayed around these parts. This one was full of foreigners, and mostly white foreigners at that. There was a small group of Italians laughing uproariously at something on their phones. A German woman and a Dutch woman were comparing experiences of local train travel. The Dutch woman’s male companion was shooting looks in Fujiko’s direction. Increasingly unsubtle ones.
“Careful with the dogs?” said Fujiko, resorting to the classics. Answer a question with a question, and most people are just happy to talk more about themselves. Give away nothing.
“A man got eaten alive by a pack of mountain dogs just last year,” said the man. He was American, middle-aged, and stank of desperation. His beard was carefully shaped to hide the weak chin. Fujiko played with the rim of the glass. Her nostrils flared as she rolled the liquid around in the glass. She wanted to laugh. But not over the man who’d been eaten alive, no.
“Oh no,” she said. “He was a local?”
“Yeah, yeah, local. Worked in one of the hotels. Was late getting home, is all. They tore him to pieces. Some say they weren’t dogs at all.”
Fujiko let her glance slide, as the man fixed his on her fingers’ play. One of the Italians was hungry, why wasn’t he getting his food? The world was unfair.
“What could they be if not dogs?”
“Beats me,” said the American. “Hey, don’t mind me saying this, but it’s so cool you’re travelling on your own as an Asian woman. Independent women are so cool.”
“Uh huh,” said Fujiko. “Oh, I think you just dropped something?”
The man turned his head in the direction Fujiko was tilting her chin. Then he looked down at the floor. Fujiko slipped off her bar stool and away.
(Only an hour or so later, the American would find himself in trouble for having pocketed the Dutch man’s watch, and soon the local jail.)
The cold night air was good. Fujiko was walking, that was what she did. An independent Asian woman. She found herself window-shopping. Tea, rugs, jewellery, baked goods, woollen hats.
She’d somehow survived her childhood and gone through her young adulthood like a meteor. Burnt through the atmosphere, killed some dinosaurs. She’d joked about it, but she honestly hadn’t thought too far ahead. And neither had Lupin. They’d had that in common.
What was the difference?
The difference was unspeakable. Fujiko stopped in front of one shop, the angle of the display case and the configuration of street lights suddenly capturing her face, one harsh slice of it.
She smiled at it. She bought a woollen hat and went back to the hotel.
Access to the roof was barred from the guests. That was where Fujiko ended up, not being one of the usual guests. The pinpricks of light along the hills echoed the smattering of stars in the sky. Someone was playing music very loudly further down the valley, and the sound floated up. Dance music that made her want to dance. Firecrackers erupted in the inky dark.
She’d rarely danced for fun in her 20s, she remembered. (Wasn’t it fun? said Lupin in her head. Fuji-cakes, are you saying all of it wasn’t for fun?)
She cast out the Lupin voice and sat down on the edge, gloved hands feeling the solidity of the surface. She sat the way she’d seen the teenagers that morning. Dangling her feet.
Someone sat down beside her.
“You are stalking me. Is training that boring?”
“Training is fine,” said Goemon. The omission was telling.
“I give up. What’s going on? Why go this far?”
Another constipated silence. Fujiko sighed.
Goemon looked at her, and at that moment Fujiko jumped.
It would come back in fragments, later. The soft wind going whiplike. Goemon’s preternatural reflexes only grabbing hold of her left boot, a curdled scream that was drowned out by one huge whooshing firecracker explosion. The happiness that bubbled up in her lungs as she swung from the parapet, secured by the rappelling cord and the harness under her jacket.
She was laughing as he pulled her up. She saw that he was so angry he’d half-considered cutting her free to plummet down to her death. Like one of his useless objects.
“You screamed like a baby,” she said, wheezing. She was lying flat on the concrete. “A tantrumy baby.”
“This is not funny,” said Goemon. “Why—what is wrong with you?”
“It’s very funny. I was testing my equipment, you dolt. That’s why I was on the roof. I’m a pro,” she was wheezing again, “Fessional. Fuck!”
She now understood that the pressure on her lungs was because of Goemon, who was wrapped around her torso, like the fastest-growing weed, or the prettiest ribbon. And he was deadweight, his long chin was sticking into her sternum, and he was shaking.
“Hey,” she tried again. “Hey. Did you actually think I was... Hey, Goemon, I’m fine.”
Goemon made a noise that could have been a sniffle, then sat up, releasing her from the vacuum seal of his anguish. He peered down at her. “I can see that,” he said, and she could see he wanted her. Badly.
She wanted him, too. So it wasn’t so bad.