Showa 60 – Act 1, Scene 3, Page 1- [27/04/2016]

It took a few days to get home – a few night stops at villages that recognized the Juuyuushi symbol or my clan mon, villages that were unfailingly allied with the cause. By the time I was back in Okutama, I needed a long soak in the hot springs and nobody to drop on me with questions about Harry McArthur’s death. Typically, I got to do neither, with the town magistrate requesting my immediate presence in his chambers.

“Okita Kanon, why was I reached with news that McArthur’s apartment was caught in a violent explosion, and that you somehow survived the ordeal? Do you have no honour to die with your friend?”

I grit my teeth together. This pompous bastard was tiring from the moment he opened his mouth, but to suggest something like that in his second sentence was infuriating. Riled up, I slammed my hands down on the table. “This insistence you have with acting like we’re still living in the old ways is pathetic, Magistrate. We don’t have the manpower to sacrifice ourselves in battle, and I’m the last of my bloodline. You can’t afford to lose me.”

A smirk spread across his fat face. “Oh? But we can afford to lose one of our best healers because you weren’t willing to take care of a few loose ends?” He flicked a paper fan open and started wafting it towards himself. “You are becoming more arrogant in your advancing years. Maybe you should just quit and become a housewife already.”

Resorting to petty insults was his trademark; he knew I could kill him, but wouldn’t. I’d be exiled, and the plan would be a lot harder to execute on my own, especially with my nine other comrades hunting me. “Just direct me to whoever has the next mission.”

“That would be me.”

I turned to find a young man, short but toned, with a shock of light brown hair. It reminded me of why brown was literally ‘tea-coloured’ in Japanese, because the way it sat on his head was like someone had dumped a cup of the stuff over him.

“Mochizuki,” I said with a stern tone. “Thanks for doing nothing in our last mission.”

He laughed, in a way that sounded hearty but forced. “You fail to realise the art of the ninja is sometimes simply to observe and reconnoitre.” Mochizuki walked towards me and pushed me back against the desk, trapping me with both of his arms. His face, his shochu-smelling breath were too close. “Kanon, the blade should weigh heavily on the soul. But yet it seems not to affect you.”

I hit him with a palm strike to the solar plexus and then followed up with a right hook to the face. He staggered backwards, clutching his cheekbone. Probably broken. “I’ll repent for my sins when this country is ours again. Until then, I’ll kill as many damn people as it takes.” I drew the dagger strapped to my belt, the blade a foot long and single edged. “I’ll start with you if needs be.”

The coward backed away, pressed himself up against the wall. He was as much warrior as I was a god. With a slight laugh, I nicked his flesh with the dagger and then sheathed it. The mistake I made was turning away from him. What happened next spread out across time like honey on bread. I heard the slight click of his sword being unsheathed, and propelled myself away while projecting a false image of myself – the blade swung low and upwards, decapitating the false self and just catching my real cheek. The hot flush of blood seared across my skin, and as I hit the floor, everything came back into focus.

You bastard! You could have killed me!” I screamed, launching myself towards him. I took hold of his sword arm and hit it hard with my palm, rage surging. I felt the bone crack underneath and swung back around with a kick, launching him through the screen wall and into the next room, where one of the Magistrate’s courtesans was enjoying tea. Mochizuki’s shoulders caught the table and flipped the hot kettle’s contents over himself, along with the dango the courtesan had set out neatly on a plate.

Okita, wait… I was just…

My right fist hit him so hard my entire body shuddered as he tried to get up, the thin metal of my gauntlets probably the only thing that stopped me from breaking my hand against his cheekbone. I grabbed him by the collar, pulled his bloody face to within inches of mine. “You’re a disgrace. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you right here, you pathetic worm!”

He pointed back through the hole to where our fight had started. “Anayama. She… I… we… just please. Don’t put her through that.”

I turned around to see the youngest member of our little group. Kiriko Anayama was little more than sixteen, a prodigy with some of the rarest dimensional magic in existence but woeful in stature and clumsy by nature. I grit my teeth and relinquished my grip on Mochizuki’s collar. Anayama was smitten with him, and she hated me. Nothing worthy of fear, but she refused to speak to me directly, even when it really counted. “He’s all yours, Anayama.

She walked past me as though I didn’t exist, and started tending to Mochizuki’s wounds. As she dabbed at his bloody nose with a handkerchief, she shot me a glance of pure vitriol. That was my cue to leave, clearly. I disappeared from the Court of the Magistrate and headed up to the onsen, hoping that I could maybe relax a little, and find somewhere to deal with the wound on my face.

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Showa 60 – Act 1, Scene 2, Page 4 – [20/04/2016]

The coffee maker burbled away in the corner of the kitchen, sending out the unmistakable scent of rich Colombian coffee. Trade was an odd thing in Tonlist. Ships went in and came out, but these were heavily vetted. Floating ports out in the Sea of Japan and the Pacific were where the international ships offloaded their goods, the goods were checked and then sent on separate ships to their respective ports. It didn’t really make sense to have coffee branded from the outside world, but then very little ever made sense here.

Riley came up behind me while I was taking cups from the cupboard, his presence in the room small but unmistakable. “Are you sure you wanna try sneaking up on me?”

“I… uh… dammit.” He laughed awkwardly. “Would that be a bad idea?”

With a shrug, I turned. “I might have reacted out of self-preservation and broken your ribs with my elbow. And I can’t exactly take you to a hospital.” Pressing my hands into the countertop, I leaned back. “You can approach me from this side though.”

I had to admit, toying with him was amusing. And in spite of him being still in his teenage years by technicality, he wasn’t necessarily unattractive. He leaned on the island counter, closing the gap between us. “So what exactly do you do?”

Sometimes, it surprised me how forthright he could be. This was one of those times. I turned back to the cups, turned my back on him and moved them over to the coffee maker. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said, and knowing he’d reply with something predictable like ‘try me’, added, “And even if you did, it’d be dangerous for you to know.”

“So I’m guessing you’re part of these rebel groups I hear about,” he said, coming around my side as I poured the dark coffee into the cups. “Sabotage, assassination, subterfuge.”

I muttered a soft curse in Japanese under my breath. There weren’t meant to be stories with that much information. “Guess all you want, Riley. I’m not telling you anything.” I poured one cup, passed it across. Poured another and kept it for myself. “Questions about me are preferable to ones about my chosen career path, thank you. What the hell do you do, anyway?”

“Try to avoid conscription mostly, given that I have a chronic pain disorder.” His reply was curt, bitter. Almost as biting as my question, so I probably deserved at least that much. “Doctors can’t figure it out. None of it makes sense so they just give me medication and send me to a physiotherapist and hope for the best. The military, however, doesn’t see that as a barrier to taking up arms, apparently.”

He took the milk out of the fridge and poured a drop into the coffee, before offering it across to me. I declined; in Harry’s honor I took my coffee black, no milk, no sugar. No fuss. Riley rolled his shoulders until his back made a sound like a twig breaking underfoot.

“Anyway, I stay at home.” He continued, holding the coffee mug close to his face, staring at the murky beige. “Study. Write things. Go for bike rides when I feel healthy enough to get out of the house. That’s my life. Glamorous as shit.”

Whatever excitement I had felt on being invited into his house was now gone – there was no tension, no undercurrent of nervousness. Just pity.

“You’d have to do something pretty impressive in my society,” I said, probably a little bluntly. “To call you a burden would be an understatement. But… if you could hold your own in a defensive fight and do something of worth, you might be considered average.”

Riley’s face morphed from shock to hurt bemusement, his mouth pulled into a smirk as he let out a single chuckle. “For someone so cute, you sure are tactless. You think I don’t feel like that anyway in my society? You think I enjoyed working my ass off through school just to be told that I probably wouldn’t be able to hold down a steady job?” His voice had risen, his hands shook. He stared me dead in the eyes, and for the first time I felt something spasm through my gut. Not fear, but some kind of discomfort. “Whatever, it’s not like you’d get it. Nobody does, because nobody else has this kind of situation.” He downed what was left in his cup and dropped it in the sink with a clatter. “Thanks for the coffee.”

As he slammed the door on his exit, the whole house seemed to shake. Tactless? That was the first time anyone had ever called me that, and it was one-hundred percent true. What I said wasn’t nice – but then I hadn’t told a lie. In my society, things were like that because they had to be. Anyone who couldn’t support themselves and others was a burden, and they were cast out. It was risky, of course; if the outcasts were captured, they could reveal secret information. So sometimes, my group had some more… morally questionable activities to perform.

I sipped the coffee. It was tepid and the bitterness was far too harsh, adding a little kick to the discomfort I was feeling. Content with what I’d had, I poured the rest down the sink, and wandered over to the chalkboard in the corner. I scratched down a simple note and went to change into my usual mission gear. I needed something a bit more comfortable than these Arlandrian clothes if I was headed home.

It took me no more than five minutes, but the whole time, the guilt over the look that Riley had given me pressed into my chest. Like every strap and buckle on my outfit was far too tight. In spite of how I looked, I went upstairs and found him laying on his bed, the room a haphazard mess. “Riley. I’m leaving. I… just thought I should apologise. What I said was uncalled for.” I sat down next to him on the mattress, looking away. “But you probably won’t see me again, so I didn’t want you to dwell on it. You’re a good guy; keep questioning things and you’ll do well.”

As I was about to leave, he grabbed my bracer, and turned to me with oddly distant eyes. “Don’t head directly south. That direction… I have a bad feeling about it.”

I nodded with a gentle smile. “Thank you. Take care of yourself, Riley.”

He rolled over again, still curled up on his bed. There was something a little unnerving about his next words, even though I had no idea why. “You too, Kanon. Make sure that’s your choice.”

— S C E N E   E N D —

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Showa 60 – Act 1, Scene 2, Page 3 – [13/04/2016]

His body was completely frozen under mine, save for the rise and fall of his chest with his rapid breaths and the flicker of his eyelids every so often. Whether or not he believed I could kill him – and I definitely could – was irrelevant to him, his mind forged by Arlandrian morals and clearly debating what to do in the situation.

“You know, this would be more convincing if you at least made it look like we were doing something illicit,” I said, brushing a rough hand around his face, along his neck. “Is everyone in this country as hypocritically puritanical as you? How old are you even anyway?”

“I-I’m eighteen,” he said, guiding his hands nervously around my body with confusion evident in his eyes. “You?”

“Twenty. Surprising, isn’t it?” I said, gesturing to myself. We were both hit with the mixed blessing of looking younger than we actually were. With a smirk, I pushed my hips into his and watched his teeth sink into his lower lip. “So, I suppose I should start this little history lesson. It all changed in the 1850s. The Americans – as in, those who invaded and conquered the United States and won their little war of independence – came over when Japan closed itself off and tried to force the country open. We refused.”

“Isn’t… isn’t America a really long way away?” he asked, leaning over behind my neck and putting his lips against it. “I wouldn’t think they’d have any interest in this place.”

Even with my self control, the sensation was pleasant and I struggled a little to keep my tone even. “You’d think so, right? But no. They came back with an army, and demanded one final time. The Emperor’s stubborn refusal – though sensible in his own mind – led to an all out war. A war we lost entirely. The Emperor became the Americans’ puppet.” Seeing Riley freeze again, I moved one of his hands to my waistline and gave him a nod. “Later on, some rebel groups tried – and in a few cases, succeeded – in assassinating the invaders’ top military brass. Perry, the leader of these troops, seemed to think the Emperor had betrayed him. So he had him executed in public, for all to see.”

The young man’s fingers traced just underneath my waistband, not quite wanting to go through with whatever was going on. I let him stew a little longer. “Wow, that’s uh… I… well, it’s bad, right?”

“Very bad. Without a central force to control the clans, everything descended into one final war, which the Japanese had no chance of winning. Perry enlisted the help of the British, the Russians and the French who dealt the final blow.” I ran my hands up under his shirt and scratched lightly along his back with my fingernails, listened to him practically whimper. “They then cut the country up like meat into different ‘colonies’. A few other countries got involved too. Before long, most of Japan was portioned out, the original Beaconsfield Treaty was enacted… a few revisions and then here we are.”

His face was suddenly pretty serious. “That’s… really strange hearing it from you.” He sat up and moved away from me. “So you’re saying this whole place was united, once upon a time? And that it was stolen in a war?”

I nodded and propped myself up on my elbows. “It was united after a war that lasted almost two hundred years. And then another two hundred years passed and we had that.”

He stared into the distance thoughtfully, and then stood up, tucking his shirt back into his jeans. “C’mon, we’ll go to my place.”

My eyes widened. Didn’t this kid know the rules? Providing shelter to an ‘outsider’ was considered treason in Arlandria, regardless of age. Even if he wasn’t 21, he could still be executed or put in prison for an indefinite period. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

“Screw the rules. My place is out of sight of the usual patrols, my parents are divorced and my mom is away in Technis on business for a few weeks.” Riley offered me a hand, which I took. “I’ll help you. I know it’s a dumb idea, but you seem like you’re in trouble and I can’t sit by and watch that – regardless of whether you’re an outsider or not.”

I gave a light chuckle and shook my head. This one had a bit of a hero complex it seemed; letting his own personal morals get in the way of his safety. It was naive, and stupid… but endearing. “You’re sweet. And you’ve convinced me. Let’s go to this place of yours.”

The house was pretty nondescript – detached, ‘craftsman’-style with its wood paneling and gables. Small windows were covered with blinds, and the garden was pretty enclosed with imported fir trees. It was, for all intents and purposes, an excellent safehouse. Maybe not the most resilient to attack, but definitely a good place to lay low. I didn’t admit it, but I was impressed.

He led me inside, through to the kitchen, where he took a beer from the refrigerator and cracked it open. I was pretty sure by Arlandrian laws even I wasn’t allowed to drink, but here he was taking liberties again. “Get one yourself, if you want.”

“I don’t really drink,” I replied, “Have to keep a clear head in the event of the worst happening.”

“Suit yourself.” He pulled himself up onto the countertop, shuffled til he was comfortable. “So why did you look so upset when I found you?”

I frowned and folded my arms. “My gua-, no, my best friend was murdered because he was taking care of an ‘outsider’. His apartment was under attack by a heavily-armed militia, and to keep me safe, he… that idiot, he…” I tried to stop the tears, but it was already too late. “He left the gas to leak after he cooked breakfast. He knew we were compromised and once I was out of the blast radius… he set the whole place alight. Blew the apartment clean out.”

Riley’s eyes widened. “Holy shit. I… I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I lied, brushing the tears from my eyes. It wasn’t fine. wasn’t fine. Everything still hurt like hell. I hadn’t really even mourned McArthur properly yet. But there was always a way to start these things. “Can I make coffee?”

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[//next]

413 – An Ode to Homestuck

A young man sits in his bedroom. It just so happens that today, the 13th of April, 2016, is the final chapter of the hypertext webcomic Homestuck. Though it was five years ago he joined the journey, today it finally ends!

As of ten minutes ago I watched the end of Homestuck. I am both so happy and so sad at the same time. This comic, this piece of fiction has been such a huge part of my life for such a long time. It’s rekindled and helped the forging of friendships, it’s been a constant source of jokes and conversation topics, story ideas and shenanigans.

I’m here, in Japan, at 11pm at night, soaked in tears and yet with a huge smile on my face. On one hand, I’m sad to let this adventure go, to see the book finally close on what is the longest piece of hypertext fiction in human history. But on the other hand, I’m glad for what it brought me in my life – a cast of unforgettable characters, a labyrinthine story with so many spaces for you to fill in the blanks and – being facetious – a really good way to remember all the signs of the zodiac.

This story has inspired me in so many ways – it allowed me to believe that creating a massively expansive, detailed universe, with so many strange mechanisms and weird creatures and social systems is possible; it inspired me to write characters with depth, characters who even in their finest moments could still be a horrendous jackass (looking at you Vriska Serket), characters who even at their best were still neurotic and second-guessed themselves (Jake English comes to mind, but practically everyone fits this at points). It inspired me to focus less on the world itself, and more on how the characters interacted with the world around them – sometimes dramatically, sometimes inconsequentially, and sometimes hilariously.

At this point all I can say is thank you. Thank you Andrew Hussie, for creating this world. Thank you all the wonderful artists and writers and animators and voice actors who helped bring this world and the fandom to life. Thank you to all the fans whose sense of humour, whose occasional madness and whose sheer dedication helped fill my blog pages and mind with hours of entertainment.

Screenshot 2016-04-13 23.38.39

On a more personal level, thank you to my good friend Marlee for introducing me to it in the first place and sending me reams of fic, thank you Amii for helping sustain my interest and dealing with all my Striderisms – as well as being the best Vriska around – and thank you to everyone who ever put up with my incessant ranting about it.

Though the ride is over and the Gigapause (and all the other pauses) are dead, the memories of these past five years will live on. I know the fandom will be nostalgic for more – if not now, then in some time. I know that with projects like Hivebent, Hussie will continue to feed our hunger for more of his complex world. And I know that through cosplay, art, fanfiction and more, the fandom will carry on.

The question we need to ask ourselves?

Because frankly, that’s the best fucking question anybody ever asked.

Showa 60 – Act 1, Scene 2, Page 2 – [06/04/2016]

The last time I ever saw the man who had stolen the name of Harry McArthur, I was running. Barely dressed, with my bag over my shoulder and my weapons stowed. His face contorted in the shape of the word ‘run’, his left hand outstretched towards the window. This was no drill. We’d been found – not by the military, thank the gods, but by a certain group of militant racists.

I felt the glass slice through my clothes as I barrelled through the window, the warm sensation of blood across my skin, the wind in my hair. I hit the ground with a roll and kept running. People were around now, and I was obviously an outsider. Chinese and Koreans were rare in Arlandria, so it was unlikely I’d be passed off as one of them. If I could get to cover, I could hide, could arm myself.

But as I reached the far side of the street, a few steps into a damp alleyway, I was frozen in place. The apartment went up like an incendiary bomb, a wave of heat and glass and bricks flew from where I had been sitting merely minutes before. The shockwave knocked me onto my backside, the emotion didn’t let me get back up. McArthur had decided to play the hero – I thought I’d been able to smell gas after he’d finished cooking. He knew we’d been followed… he set the whole thing up as a trap and a distraction in one.

The whole sensation made me sick to my stomach, dizzy with shock. For what felt like the first time in my life, I didn’t know what to do except run. Everything moved past in a blur, everything was so dull I wouldn’t have realized if the ghost of my father had shown up to give me a lecture on taking care of myself. By the time my calves started burning enough to shake me out of my stupor, I was out at the point where the suburbs began splintering off into farming villages, the traffic now practically non-existent. I collapsed to my knees and rolled down an embankment to an overgrown strip of land next to what once had been called the Kumano River.

Everything hurt, more so than any injury I’d ever experienced. I felt like a child, lost and alone in a world that was definitely out to get me. I just lay there, hoping to whatever gods would listen that no-one would find me. No doubt there were reports of some Japanese woman on the run from the site of an explosion. But at least that didn’t match my usual description among the soldiers.

The clouds filtered by as always, white, grey and – sometimes, when the light caught them right – light blue. My breathing slowed, my muscles ached less. I tried channeling what energy I had left into healing, even though it was an art I was unfamiliar with. It wasn’t like the faint anesthetized hum of McArthur’s touch, it was painful, sharp spasms as flesh and muscle regenerated and stitched themselves back together courtesy of cellular memory.

That was when the tears came. I tried stifling the sobs by biting down on the polyester sleeve of the torn and bloodstained hoodie, but the sound was still evident. Hollowed by the experience, the only thing that seemed to fill the space left by him was sadness. Eventually, I managed to control myself enough to search my bag for the map of the safehouses in the area, somewhere I could at least attempt to get some rest until the danger died down.

There was an abandoned farmhouse not too far away, or some kind of building in what seemed to be fields. That was good enough. As I stashed the map and pulled myself up, I noticed a teenage boy was stood on the road’s edge, leaning on the handlebars of a mountain bike. He looked pensively at me, his dark eyes surrounded by skin so thin it looked bruised. He had messy brown hair, some of which was pulled back into a choppy ponytail.

“Hey,” he said, flat and nasal, “You alright? You’ve been down there a while. Wasn’t sure if you were getting up.”

Something about his tone irritated me. “I’m fine. I just wanted to be alone.” I ascended the steps so I was stood just behind him. “Shouldn’t you be in school? You look barely fifteen.”

“I should ask you the same thing,” he said, climbing off the frame and turning to face me. “But then again, outsiders can’t really attend school, can they? Least not in Arlandria.” He smirked and turned to set down the bicycle frame on the ground. I used the opportunity to draw one of my daggers and move behind him, the blade to his throat.

My hands were shaking as I held his head back. “You tell anyone about this, and I’ll end you, you understand?”

He turned his head towards me and shrugged. “Attractive or not, you have terrible people skills. But I won’t tell anyone – provided we can have a conversation.”

I almost burst out laughing. “I threaten to kill you and your response is to try and talk to me? What’s your game, kid?”

He stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets, turning towards the mountains. “I know this land was never really ours. I know there’s a history that was buried, a fake story put into place. I figure you’d probably be the one to ask.”

The look he gave me when he turned back made my heart skip for some reason. His brown eyes seemed to glint in the light, and his young face was tinted red at the cheeks with sunburn. Something made me trust him, something in that wistful expression. I took his hand and dragged him down into the grass, where we’d be hidden.

“Okay, you want to know the real story?” I pulled him down to the ground until our faces were almost touching, his nose against mine. His face went even redder, his eyes trying to look anywhere else. “Then listen carefully, boy. This knowledge could get you killed…”

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[//next]