“Maybe he’ll even add it to the final tournament this year,” Ren says, giving me a smile. He leans forward, rests his elbows on his knees, and traps me with an unblinking stare. “We have to go out with a bang, right?”
I smile and nod along with his statement, but it sounds like a thinly veiled threat. My heart beats faster. Let’s go out with a bang. Now Ren has repeated the same line from the Pirate’s Den—and even though it could still mean nothing at all, my mind jumps to a different conclusion. Whatever it is that Zero’s group is trying to do—involving so many international cities, involving Hideo’s life—it’s going to happen on the day of the final tournament.
And now he knows I’m involved.
A couple of hours later, as I meet Hideo in a private car, I still haven’t shaken off my conversation with Ren. He could’ve been speaking literally. But that music track was no accident. He knows I was in the Dark World tracking him—or, at the very least, he knows I was also there in the Pirate’s Den during the same time.
If Hideo notices my troubled thoughts, he doesn’t mention it. He seems distracted, too. Even without our Links connected, I sense a certain unease in him, something that turns his eyes distant, the same thing that made him break away from me that night at his home. I debate telling him about my conversation with Ren, but then decide against it. It’s too vague. I need to dig deeper.
It’s a slow drive through the rain. A couple of hours later, we arrive in the wooded outskirts of Tokyo, where the city gives way to gently rolling hills and narrow streets of neat, three-story buildings, their elegantly curved roofs painted black and red. Pines line both sides of the road. A single pedestrian wanders down the sidewalk, and a gardener is carefully trimming a nearby hedge—but aside from the faint clip-clip-clip sound of his shears, it’s quiet. The car finally pulls up to a house at the end of a street, where round bushes and rocks adorn the front path. Pots of flowers line the pathway in neat rows. The porch light is on, even though it’s still late afternoon.
Hideo rings the doorbell. Someone’s voice comes from the other side, muffled and female. A moment later, the door opens to reveal a woman dressed in a tidy sweater, pants, and slippers. She blinks up at us through glasses that magnify her eyes. Then her face crinkles in delight at the sight of Hideo—she utters a small laugh, calls out to someone over her shoulder in Japanese, and then holds her arms out at him.
Hideo bows, lower than I’ve seen him bow to anyone. “Oka-san,” he says, before wrapping her in a warm hug. He gives me a sheepish smile as she stretches up to pat both his cheeks like he’s a small boy. “This is my mother.”
His mother! A warm feeling overwhelms me, bringing with it a flutter of emotions. I blush and follow Hideo’s example, bowing as low as I can. Hideo nods at me. “Oka-san,” he says to his mother. “Kochira wa Emika-san desu.”
“This is Emika,” my translation reads.
I murmur a bashful hello and bob my head respectfully. She smiles warmly at me, pats my cheeks, too, and exclaims something about my hair. Then she ushers us both inside, away from the world.
We remove our shoes by the door and put on slippers that Hideo’s mother offers us. Inside, the home is sunny, cozy, and absolutely immaculate, lined with framed photos and green potted plants, clay pots, and odd, metallic sculptures. A bamboo mat and rug cover the living room’s floor, cushioning a low table with a teapot and teacups. An open sliding door reveals a lush Zen garden. Now I see why Hideo designed his house in Tokyo the way he did; it must remind him of here, his true home. I’m about to comment on how lovely their home is when an automated voice comes on over speakers somewhere in the ceiling.
“Welcome home, Hideo-san,” the voice says. In the kitchen, the stove turns on under a teakettle without anyone touching it.
His father comes out to greet us moments later. I look on, fighting down a tide of envy, as the couple fusses over their son with all the enthusiasm of parents who don’t get to see their children nearly as often as they would like.
Hideo’s mother exclaims something about making us a snack and bustles off, leaving her glasses on the table. Without missing a beat, Hideo picks up the glasses, follows his mother into the kitchen, and gently reminds her to put them on. Then he opens the refrigerator door to see that there aren’t any groceries in the fridge to make a snack with, either. Hideo’s mother frowns in confusion, telling him that she was sure there was something. Hideo talks to her in a low, affectionate voice, his hands on her shoulders, reassuring her that he will send for groceries right away. His father looks on from the hallway, coughing a little, the sound indicative of something chronic. I shift at the sound. Neither of his parents is old, but they seem frailer than they should be at their age. It stirs unpleasant memories of my own.
When Hideo returns to my side and sees me watching him, he just shrugs. “If I don’t remind her, the house system will,” he says. “It watches out for them when I’m not here. They refuse to accept a servant.” His voice is light, but I’ve heard him enough times now to detect a deep sadness running underneath it.
“Have your parents always lived here?” I decide to ask.
“Ever since we moved back from London.” Hideo points out the decorations on the side tables. “My mother has been learning how to make clay pots since she retired from her neuroscience work. The metallic sculptures are my father’s, welded together with leftover computer parts from his repair shop.”
I pause to admire a sculpture. Only now do I see that each piece, although geometric and abstract, seems representative of their personal lives. A couple walking arm in arm. Family scenes. Some of the sculptures depict his parents with two boys. I think back to the portrait I’d seen in Hideo’s own home. “They’re beautiful.”
Hideo looks pleased, but I can sense the quiet, dark side of him returning the longer we stand here, as if coming home had given that side of him the fuel it needs to exist. He stares out the window for a moment. Then he nods at me. “So, Emika,” he says, giving me a small smile. “Have you tried an onsen yet since you’ve been in Japan?”
“A hot spring.”
“Oh.” I clear my throat, my cheeks turning pink. “Not yet.”
Hideo nods toward the door. “Want to?”
• • • • •
AS THE SUN starts to set, Hideo takes me to a place overlooking a set of mountains, where a bathhouse sits encircled by cherry trees in full bloom. I watch him carefully. His mood has improved since our arrival, but it hasn’t rebounded completely back to his usual self. Now I walk quietly beside him as we approach the entrance to the bathhouse, wondering how I can cheer him up.
“You come here often?” I say as we approach the entrance to the bathhouse.
Hideo nods. “This is my private onsen.”
The waters of the hot spring are still and calm, a cloud of steam hovering over it. Smooth rocks encircle the edge of the spring, while cherry blossoms drift down from the trees, coming to rest on the water’s surface. One side of the spring overlooks a mountain range, where the ridges are just now catching the last rays of the sun. The other side overlooks a river.
By the time I step toward the spring in a robe, Hideo is already in the water. I’m glad for the heat; maybe it can cover some of my blush, which is already threatening to burn up my face as I study his damp hair and bared muscles. I clear my throat, and Hideo looks politely away, giving me time to remove my robe and sink into the hot water. I close my eyes and let out a small moan of relief.
“I’m never leaving,” I murmur as Hideo comes to join me.
He brushes damp locks of my hair behind my shoulders, then pushes us to a corner, where his hands grip the edge of the spring on either side of me. My face feels as hot as the water now, and I become keenly aware of our bare skin brushing together.
“What do these mean?” Hideo murmurs, running one of his hands along the length of my tattooed arm. His fingers trace wet lines along my skin.
In a contented daze, I look down and straighten my arm so that we can see the full length of my tattoos. “Well,” I whisper, “the flower is a peony, my father’s favorite.” My fingers drift away from my wrist, and Hideo’s fingers follow. “The ocean wave reminds me of California, because I was born in San Francisco.”
Hideo’s hand stops near my elbow, on an elaborate, geometric sculpture rising out of the waves. “And?”
“An Escher structure,” I reply. “I’m a fan.”
Hideo smiles. “Good choice.”
I smile, too, keenly aware of his warm touch against my arm. My hand travels higher along my tattoo, pausing briefly on a series of stylized feathers floating up into the sky, then on that sky transitioning into a field of planets, their rings tilted like a vintage vinyl record, which then transform into stripes of sheet music, upon which a melody is written.
“Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ aria,” I finish. “Because, well, I fancied myself as one.”