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Sweet Silver Lining

By TK_Grimm

Drama / Romance

First Impressions


It's very easy to get settled into a routine in life only to lose it in the blink of an eye. You kind of take the everyday, regular things for granted. Then bam, they're suddenly not there anymore, and you're left looking around wondering what the hell happened.

One minute, I was playing guitar in the garage with my best friend's band, the next I was sobbing on the floor with my cell phone in my hand. The garage floor became the hospital, and the hospital became a fresh grave all in a matter of fleeting moments passing before my eyes. There was no pause button, no rewind, no fast-forward, and yet each second lasted a year, and each hour passed faster than minutes.

I was eighteen when my mother died in a car accident. She wasn't role-model of the year or anything fantastic like that, but she was my friend, and she was my home. Despite her going through boyfriends and ex-husbands faster than an alcoholic goes through a bottle of wine, the two of us stuck together. I didn't judge her, and she didn't judge me. We looked out for each other and made our difficult life possible.

Now I was left in a difficult situation. Mom and I had never really been all that well-off. We weren't poverty level, but most of the time we did have to live paycheck-to-paycheck. That being the case, she didn't have any trust funds or anything to leave me with, and her meager life insurance policy only covered the cost of her funeral and burying her. With no money and a small, part-time job in retail, I couldn't afford to live on my own, despite being a legal adult.

My mom's parents were an obvious choice to most, but not to me. They were standoffish and made it clear they would prefer I find shelter elsewhere. My best friend was a fulltime college student living in a dormitory who only got to visit me once every couple of months, so she wasn't an option either.

That left me with one remaining option, and frankly, I was lucky this option even existed. There are plenty of times in movies and the like where people don't know where their estranged parent is. My mom had never denied me contact with my father. She just took me with her when she left, and I lived with her my whole life because it was familiar. I never considered my father an option, not really. We spoke in emails and the once or twice a year phone call. It was more than most stories similar to this, but still wasn't a lot.

I didn't have a choice, though. I called him up, and he answered right away.

"Chizuru?" he asked. "Is that you?"

I twisted my fingers into the fabric of my skirt. "Hi, Dad."

He sounded so happy, even with his heavy Japanese accent. "Well, hello! How are you? I haven't heard from you in so long. I mean, I try to leave you to your own thing, but it's so, so nice to get a phone call from you."

Maybe I'd neglected him a little. But he wasn't an active part of my life, so honestly… talking to my father just became a sort of low priority. I felt bad about it pretty often. He tried, after all. But he lived in another country, so, since I didn't have to interact with him on a daily basis…

"Hey… Dad?"

"Yes? What's wrong?"

I felt tears prick the back of my eyes. Not again. "M-Mom," I said, unable to stop the stutter caused by the quivering of my lower lip. "She's—"

I told him everything. It was hard. I couldn't even get through the first sentence without bursting into tears, and by the end of it, I was sobbing. I had a runny nose, my head hurt, and my eyes felt swollen and puffy. Even my ears were ringing.

"I'm so sorry, Chizu-chan." His voice was thick. Did her loss hurt him, too?

"I don't know what I'm gonna do," I said, sniffing and wiping at my eyes to no avail. I had a pile of tissues on the kitchen floor around me. I don't know why I didn't pull out a chair. It was easier to slide to the floor. "I'm not in college. I don't have anywhere to go."

Dad didn't even hesitate. "You'll have to come live with me."


But what? But a lot of things. My father was a Japanese ex-military veteran who lived in Kyoto, Japan. I was a half-American daughter living across the ocean who had a different name and was born out of wedlock. Claiming me would be difficult enough, and that was just one hurdle.

In addition to being thousands of miles away, Japan was extraordinarily different from America. Supposedly, I spent the first four years of my life there, but I only remember a few small bits and pieces. Flashes, familiar feelings, vague memories… that sort of thing. Not enough to know the language beyond yes, no, and where is the bathroom? 'Culture shock' didn't even begin to cover it.

"I won't force you," he said, a little awkwardly. "But… if you have nowhere else to go, I'd love to have you here. I've always wanted you here."

A part of me loved my father and would never argue otherwise. But I still didn't know him. After my mom left, I never met him in person. I always just understood that Mom and I were a two-person show. That Dad was out there, was a friend (who occasionally sent money to my mom to support me), but he was barely more than a stranger, in the realistic sense.

Still… what choice did I have?

Sweet Silver Lining

TK Grimm

Chapter One:

First Impressions

My father's name was Isami Kondou, but I didn't have the slightest idea how to spell it. 'Dad' was about as close as I could manage. I never had to call him by his name before, much less write it, so it never seemed like a big deal.

Naturally, there were no planes that went from my home to Kyoto, so I instead had to fly about to San Francisco, California, switch planes, and then fly another twelve hours over the Pacific Ocean to get to Osaka, Japan. Osaka is only about an hour south of Kyoto, so I guess it could have been worse.

My father paid for my one-way ticket, and he made arrangements to ship my possessions to his home. I only kept a few of my mother's things. All of the furniture in our little house was hers, but I didn't really see any point in me keeping it. It was hard, watching our life get packed away and sent off to various donation centers like that.

I had a closet full of clothes, a computer, and two guitars to my name, as well as a cell phone but fat lot of good an American cell phone was going to do me in Japan. I sold it and figured I'd just get a new one in Kyoto.

I'd seen pictures of him, but I never actually knew just how tall my father was. Dad was a good head higher than most of the other people in the airport, making him very easy to spot. His pictures did him justice—he was a handsome man of thirty-eight years. He had hazel eyes and dark brown hair.

Dad was wearing normal-looking clothes, but so was the rest of the airport. I guess I didn't have to worry much about kimonos and stuff like I was thinking. Still, his hair was a bit odd. It was short in the front but a bit longer in the back with the long part pulled into a topknot at the back of his head. It certainly wasn't a style you'd see in America, at any rate.

I was surprised my father spotted me so quickly. When Dad saw me, his face lit up like the Fourth of July, and he gave me a brilliant, megawatt smile as if it was the happiest day of his life.

For some reason, that just made me want to cry. It wasn't that I was upset to finally meet my father, it's just that it was even more solidifying proof that my mother was gone. She was gone, and I was left behind in a foreign country with no friends and no future.

Something must have shown on my face as I approached my father, for I watched his beaming smile slip momentarily before he forced it back up again. "Welcome, Chizu-chan," he said as he looked down at me. I didn't inherit any of his height. "How was your flight?"

Even though he had a pretty thick accent, my father spoke English really well. That was a relief, because I hardly knew any Japanese. Supposedly, it was one of the hardest languages to learn, too. I was kind of hoping most Japanese people knew English. Boy was I in for a surprise.

"It was very long," I said. I'd managed to suppress my tears, but I couldn't keep my sorrow out of my voice. I guess that would take practice. "Were you waiting long?" Security took a while to get through, but luckily no one pulled me over to search through my bags. That had yet to happen to me on a plane, and hopefully it never would.

"No, not long," he replied.

We kind of… stood there awkwardly for a while. I wasn't sure what the right protocol was here. In America, I guess the normal thing would have been to hug him and get to know him or something. But I wasn't sure if my dad had ever even been to America, despite one of his parents being American. Was it appropriate to hug a long-lost parent in Japan? Should I bow or something? I knew they were a bit more reserved here, and since he was generous enough to put a roof over my head, I didn't want to commit some kind of faux pas right in the first day.

Thankfully, Dad broke the silence with a cheerful comment. "Well, my car's right over here. It's about an hour drive to Kyoto, so we can chat on the way. Is Chizu-chan hungry?"

I used to think he was babying me when he spoke in third person like that. Then I learned it was proper grammar in Japan. It sounded silly to me, though. I brushed it aside. "No, thank you. There was food on the plane."

"Sou desu ka," he said quietly.

He was genuinely trying, though, so I felt bad. "Um—w-we can get coffee or something though, if you want." Dad turned around and gave me a strange look, as if he didn't quite understand. My eyes widened, and I stammered awkwardly. "I-I mean, tea? Do you guys not stop at places for drinks here? I'm sorry…"

"Oh!" he said, his eyes widening in realization. His face settled into an easy smile, and he nodded. "Yes, we have, uh, Starbucks! Just like America. Does Chizu-chan want coffee?"

Not really. But why not, I suppose. "Yes, please."

"Hai," he corrected with that same smile. He held up one index finger when he said that, looking a bit like an instructor. "And coffee—kohi."

"Kohi," I repeated.

He nodded. "Very good!"

My father and I went to the Starbucks in the airport. He explained that it would be easier since we could get on the bypass and go straight to Kyoto afterwards. So we sat across from each other at a table. I ordered a hot chocolate, and my father ordered some kind of green tea.

"None of your things have arrived yet," he explained to me. "But I tracked the packages, so it should only be a couple of days. Do you need to go clothes shopping?"

I shook my head. "I should be okay for now. I brought most of my clothes in this bag." I gestured to the suitcase on my right. I had my acoustic guitar in one of those cases that looked more akin to a duffle bag. It was strapped to my back. My essentials were in the suitcase (or my purse), but the rest would have to wait until it arrived at my father's house.

"So… what's Kyoto like?" I asked, trying to make conversation.

"Ahh… Kyoto is very beautiful," Dad said. "There's a lot of history there. It was the capital before Tokyo. It's a big city—plenty of things for you to do there. School, too; did you finish school?"

"I finished high school," I said. "I didn't go to college or anything though."

"Sou desu ka," he said, nodding his head. "There are many good universities in Kyoto, if you want to go. Once we finish your paperwork so your guardianship comes back to me, we can get you enrolled."

I didn't know much about tuition in Japan, but in America, it was obscene. That was the biggest reason I didn't go to college right after graduating. I didn't want to be in debt for the next ten years.

I quickly put a smile on and tried to keep my voice light so I wouldn't discourage my father. "That's okay, Dad. I don't really know what I want to study yet. And I want to get settled in first. I can't even speak Japanese."

"Oh, Japanese is very easy!" Dad assured me. "I can teach you right now. You say hai for yes, iie for no. When we get home, you say tadaima!"

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"It's like… I'm home!" he said. Smiles came easily to my father. I never knew. I was kind of jealous. He seemed like such a happy man. "And to welcome someone home, you say okaeri."

"O-kai-ree," I repeated.

"Okaeri," he corrected, giving a slight roll to his 'r'. It wasn't like a full on Spanish roll. It more so blended the 'r' sound closer to an 'l' sound.

"Okaeri," I said again.

He beamed at me. "Very good!"

I made a small smile and took a sip of my hot chocolate. It was September, so it wasn't nearly cold enough to warrant hot chocolate, but I was a firm believer that hot chocolate was good all year round, and balls to anyone who disagreed.

"I'm very happy you decided to come live with us, Chizu-chan."

I nodded absent-mindedly. My brain was on auto-pilot, which tended to give out automatic polite responses. "Thank you for letting me live with you."

"Of course," he said simply. "You're my daughter."

My heart had withered and a few times over, and not just because of my mom. But somehow, with that comment, I felt warm. Some small spark of life was rekindled in there, and I could feel it longing for nourishment and growth.

When we finished our drinks, I followed my father out of the airport and into the parking lot. He drove a newer car, but the fact that it was a Honda was the extent of my automobile knowledge. It was gray.

The bypass looked just like any bypass did in America. We were driving on the wrong side of the road, which was a little weird to me, but whatever. Of course Japan had to be one of the few countries in the world that drove on the left. There were skyscrapers behind us and in the distance ahead, and traffic was as bad as any major American city for much of the drive.

What should have taken an hour ended up taking two. We had a lot to talk about, though, what with getting to know each other and all.

"So you are a musician?" Father asked.

I nodded. I was on the passenger side, and my luggage was in the backseat. My father's car was very clean. "Yes, I play guitar and picked up a little ocarina at a convention."

"Oh! Very good, very good. But you only have a guitar?"

"I have an ocarina, too."

"What is the ocarina?"

I kind of thought he would know since The Legend of Zelda was a Japanese game, but I guess that was a stereotypical assumption on my part. I fumbled for a moment, unsure of how to describe it. "It's like a small flute. I'll show you later."

"Sou desu ka," he said with a sagely nod. I was beginning to understand that sou desu ka must have meant I see or is that right or something along those lines.

"What do you do?" I asked. "For work."

He glanced at me briefly before switching his eyes back to the road. "Ah, I haven't changed. I still run a dojo in Kyoto. Shieikan."

I didn't remember that. Then again, I never really asked Dad much about himself or his life when we talked over the years. He always asked about me, though. "What kind of dojo? Like, fighting?"

He chuckled, a deep, resonating laugh that made him sound like an old samurai from an Akira Kurosawa movie. "Kendo," he said. "The way of the sword. I have five live-in students and many others who come for classes."

My eyebrows rose at that. "Live-in students? As in, they live at the dojo?"

"Iie," he said. "The dojo is where I teach, where they train and spar. The house is next to it, and some of my students live there. We have… grounds? It is a very big house."

My eyes widened even further. I never imagined my father was this well-off. I suppose if he owned a dojo, he made a living from every enrolled student. And the five living there full time probably brought in money, too, and likely also helped with household chores. Still, I had foolishly assumed it would be just my father and I, like it was with my mom. I never imagined we would be living with other people.

"So… there are five other people living in your house?" I asked.

"Yes!" my father said cheerfully. "You will meet them soon. They speak a little English, but they will probably all help you with your Japanese."

I shifted in my seat a little. All of the comfort I'd built around my father's easy-going personality was quickly fading away at the prospect of living with five strangers. I may not know my father quite yet, but he was still a direct blood relation. These other five were not.

"Are there any girls?" I asked.

"Ah… no," Father said. He even looked a little awkward about it. "No, they are all young men."

My jaw dropped. "Young men?"

"Ah," he nodded. "I believe the youngest is seventeen."

One year younger than me. That meant the others were all older than me. I was going to live in a dojo in a foreign country with a bunch of older men. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and wish I was back home in America. I'd take my chances in one of those homes or something…

No… no, this was definitely better than that… Still.

"Don't worry," Dad said, sensing my obvious trepidation. "They're a good group. Three of them are close to your age."

"So… it's just you and your five students?" I asked. I was hoping that was the end of the surprises.

"Two more," Father told me. "Hijikata Toshizo, the assistant master. He lives there, too. And Inoue Genzaborou sometimes stays. He trains at the dojo and is our groundskeeper."

Seven. Including my father, that meant eight strange men, most of which were older than me, living in this place I was now forced to call home because I had no other option.

I was doomed.

Shiei Hall was the name of the dojo my father owned. I say dojo, but I mean the connecting house as well. The architecture looked like a mix between traditional Japanese styles and themes with slight modern influence. It wasn't a giant mansion or anything, but it was a fairly good-sized house. The size of which only a lawyer or surgeon or something equally important could afford in America.

It had a garage, though, and there was one other car—a black Toyota—on the other side. It seemed strange to think that eight men survived with only two cars, but Kyoto was a big city. There was probably a lot of public transportation.

The garage was on the same level as the street, but we had to walk up five or six stone steps to access the rest. Shiei Hall stood on a good plot of land for a country as crowded as Japan. We were in the outskirts of Kyoto in an area my father called Mibu. There were a few other homes on about an acre or two each around this one.

The dojo was on the right, and the house itself was on the left and then angled back into an L-shape behind the dojo. There was a well-tended Japanese garden between the two and one of those wooden walkways on the side of the house with a railing.

A man wearing old-fashioned Japanese clothes was sweeping outside the front door of the house. I admit to staring for a moment. He looked like he just walked right out of a movie. He was wearing some of those baggy pants that I later learned were called hakama. His shirt looked more like the upper half of a yellow robe tucked into his dark, dust-blue pants The sleeves were tied back with some kind of white rope while he swept. His most notable feature, however, was his hair—he was actually bald on the top of his head, and he wore his long black hair tied up in a topknot just like a samurai from way back when.

To be honest, he was a pretty cool-looking old man.

"Ah, Gen-san!" my father greeted. He and the old man bowed to each other with friendly smiles. They spoke in Japanese, and I didn't catch a word of it. Finally, my father put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Gen-san, kochira wa watashi no musume desu. Chizuru-chan desu. Chizu-chan, this is Inoue Genzaborou. You can call him Gen-san. He is our groundskeeper."

I held out my hand. "Nice to—"

Before I could continue, my father gently pushed my hand down with an amused smile that made his eyes crinkle a bit. He shook his head and lightly pushed my shoulder, bending down slightly. I quickly understood his meaning.

Embarrassed, I practically glued my arms to my sides and bent down at the waist to bow instead of try for a handshake. I didn't know what to say, though. I didn't speak Japanese.

"Say hajimemashite," said my father.




The old man, Gen-san, made a soft chuckle.

My father was still smiling—I could hear it in his cheerful voice. "Good! Now you say your name, and your family name first. Then add desu!" He cleared his throat and gave a demonstration by bowing to me and saying, "Hajimemashite! Kondou Isami desu."

I tried bowing to Gen-san again. "Hajime-mashite." By my third try, I was better. "Yukimura Chizuru desu."

"Very good!" my father said, which made the corners of my lips tug upward. "Now you say douzo yoroshiku!"

"Douzo… yoro…" I trailed off, unable to remember the rest.

"Douzo yoroshiku," my father repeated.

"Douzo… yoroshiku."

My father made a noise of approval, and Gen-san smiled politely at me. He dipped into a bow of his own and said, "Inoue Genzaborou desu. Douzo Yoroshiku. Gakusei desu ka?"

I blinked in confusion and turned to my father. Gen-san looked at him, too, and Dad merely chuckled and scratched the back of his head. He said a few things to Gen-san in Japanese that I couldn't follow.

When he finished, Gen-san nodded. "Sou desu ka."

My father started to say something else, but at that moment, a loud crash came from the dojo. I turned toward it with a look of confusion, but no one came out. Gen-san said something in Japanese that made my father give a hearty laugh. He bowed to Gen-san, who bowed back and resumed sweeping the floor.

"This way, Chizu-chan," Dad said as he walked toward the dojo.

I didn't want to go into the dojo. It sounded like there were people in there. "Um, Dad?" I asked. "Can we go to my room first so I can put these bags down?"

"Oh, don't worry about those," he replied. "We'll have the boys take them to your room. Come! Come meet them. They speak more English than Gen-san, don't worry."

Small consolation.

With a weary sigh, I adjusted the strap of my purse and followed my father, pulling my suitcase behind me. The thing had wheels, but I still didn't want to drag it along any more than I had to. At the same time, making random guys carry it for me didn't seem like the best way to make friends, either.

Not that I wanted to make friends. I wanted to disappear. But apparently my father was a social butterfly, and I never knew. Fate was cruel.

My father stood by the doors for a moment before he glanced at me with a wink. He then turned back to the double doors, put his hands to the handles, and slid them both apart at the same time while he said a very loud greeting of sorts in his booming, samurai voice. He certainly sounded like the master of a dojo. I couldn't help but gawk at him a little.

The room inside exploded. I heard a slur of Japanese from several different voices, and the only words I picked out that I recognized were, "Kondou-san" and "okaeri." He replied to many of them, but I couldn't see any faces since I wasn't standing in front of the door like he was.

"Chizu-chan," Father said, drawing my attention. I looked at him, horrified. Here it was—he was going to introduce me to the crowd of young men living in our house. Oh god…

Without looking at any of them, I walked over to my father's side. I kept my eyes on the ground and bent into a bow right away. "Hajimemashite," I said, proud that I remembered how to introduce myself. "Yukimura Chizuru desu. Douzo…" my eyes widened, "yoroshi…ku?"

I heard one of the boys make some sort of snicker, and I felt my face heat up. My father, on the other hand, proudly clapped. It made me happy before, but now I felt a bit more like a performing circus animal than a daughter that was being praised.

"She started today knowing no Japanese, and now Chizu-chan can already speak some on her own," my father said. Japanese grammar was strange—I wasn't sure if he was addressing me or the guys. I kept my head down.

"Your pronunciation is very good," said a voice in front of me. I chanced a glance up, and my breath was caught in my throat. The boy directly in front of me looked about my age, perhaps a tiny bit older. He had neck-length black hair that partially covered his left eye. The hairstyle was considered 'emo' in America, but he wasn't wearing eyeliner and didn't look the type otherwise, so I tried not to make the assumption.

"Thank you," I said, having finally found my voice.

He bowed to me and said, "Saito Hajime desu. It is… nice to meet you." His accent wasn't as thick as my father's, nor as deep. He sounded… calm. Tranquil. There was some sort of soothing quality to his voice that I had not expected.

I tried my hand at pronouncing his name. His compliment toward my pronunciation gave me enough courage to attempt it. "Saito… Hajime… san?"

I didn't understand Japanese honorifics. I figured out that Saito was his last name and Hajime was his first name, but my father said most people address each other with their last name, unlike America, which is far less formal and conservative.

The boy looked at my father, but Dad merely gave him his beaming grin and an encouraging nod. He switched his dark eyes back to me. "You can call me Saito-san."

He was looking at me expectantly. Was I supposed to… thank him? Or… maybe I should say what I wanted to be called? I wasn't sure. I must have fumbled for too long, because he spoke again.

"Do you want… to be called by your family name?"

"Um… Chizuru," I said. I bowed again, just in case. "Please use my given name."

"Chizuru-san," Saito-san repeated. "Wakarimashite."

I hadn't the slightest idea what that meant. Apparently, I wasn't expected to reply, because Saito-san turned and stepped aside.

Another boy took his place, this one looking young and exuberant. His short hair was a dark brown cut in an array of messy spikes. He had blue eyes, which implied contacts, but they were very nice. Like Saito-san and Gen-san, he was dressed in old-fashioned Japanese clothes. He looked a bit sweaty, as if he'd been practicing when we arrived.

He beamed at me and said, "Hello!" He spoke the next part slowly, as if testing each word. "My name is Toudou Heisuke. It is nice to meet you!"

Because he'd said it in English, I wasn't sure if Toudou was his first name or his last. Still, I bowed and said, "Yukimura Chizuru desu. Douzo yoroshiku." I was getting better at it.

"I think we are the same age," he said. "Maybe. You can call me Heisuke. Oh! Heisuke-kun. Call me Heisuke-kun, okay? I will call you Chizuru-chan."

"O-okay, Heisuke-kun." It sounded like hay-skay, so it was pretty easy to pronounce. The 'coon' at the end was another honorific or something. Heisuke must have been his first name, then.

A tall man suddenly put his arm around Heisuke-kun's shoulders and leaned down with a wide grin. "Oi, oi! Don't take up all the pretty girl's time, Heisuke!"

This man was tall and very muscular. He wore a green cloth tied around his forehead like a headband. Like most Japanese men, he had narrow, dark eyes and black hair. His hair was a spiky, unruly mess like Heisuke-kun's, but a darker color.

"Nagakura Shinpachi desu!" he said, beaming at me in excitement. "Douzo yoroshiku!"

Another man, who stood on Heisuke-kun's other side, heaved a sigh while he smiled at them. "You two should try to talk in English around her. Think about how she feels, having never heard our language until today!"

Of all of them, this man had the least accent to his voice. He spoke English really well. His hair was also died red and kept in a loose, low ponytail with bangs parted on the side of his face. His eyes looked hazel, like my father, but I wasn't sure if it was natural or fancy contacts like Heisuke. I also wasn't sure if colored contacts was a fashion trend in Japan or if these guys actually had vision problems.

"I'm Sanosuke Harada," he introduced. "Sanosuke is my given name. Harada is my family name. But you can call me Harada-kun, okay?"

I quickly bowed. "Arigato!"

Harada-kun smiled at me. He had a gentle face and demeanor. He seemed like someone who was genuinely caring, like my father. "Can I call you Chizuru-chan?"

I raised up from my bow and nodded to him. A prompting look from my father made me correct myself and say, "Hai."

"You're a fast learner," said Harada-kun. "You'll pick up Japanese quickly."

"I hope so," I said.

There was one more in the dojo. Nagakura-san and Harada-kun looked like they were in their mid to late twenties, but Heisuke-kun, Saito-san, and the third boy were the ones who appeared my age. His natural Japanese hair had been dyed a reddish brown and fell to his shoulders with part of the back pulled up into a knot like Gen-san and my father. He had very bright, vivid eyes like Heisuke-kun and Harada-kun, but his were green.

When he caught my eye, the corner of his mouth twitched upwards in a smirk, and he tilted his head slightly to the side, looking as if he were laughing at me without any actual laughter. He said something in Japanese, and my father answered with a happy smile and patted the boy on his shoulder.

"Sou desu ka," the green-eyed boy said. He eyed me up and down and then his lips twisted into something akin to a more sinister kind of smirk. "Your Japanese is ear-gouging. I can hardly stand to listen to you."

My jaw dropped. I stood there in shock while several outbursts of, "Souji!" rang out around us. Apparently, the others had thought his words rude as well, including my father.

"Mah, mah," the green-eyed boy said with a teasing smile while he held up his hands in motion of surrender. "I was only joking."

"Then next time make it sound like a joke," grumbled Nagakura-san, the man with the green headband. I was quick to learn names, but faces were another story. Luckily, all of these guys seemed to have fairly unique appearances, or at least a trait or two that stood out about them, that I could fall back on.

The green-eyed boy ignored him. He kept his gaze on me while he folded his arms across his chest, still giving me a sideways sort of grin, as if he were laughing at some private joke. "Okita Souji desu. Yoroshiku."

I didn't particularly want to, but I bowed to him anyway. Since he said my Japanese was ear-gouging, I decided not to waste any of it on him.

He noticed. "Ne~? She's gone quiet."

"Chizuru-chan is probably scared of Souji," Harada-kun said disapprovingly.

Okita-san's grin widened to show his teeth. "She should be."

I looked up and over at my father, hoping he would find this as disturbing as I did, but he merely smiled and reached over to ruffle Okita-san's hair as if he were a child. "Look out for her, Souji. I'm counting on you!"

I fully expected Okita-san to be just as venomous when addressing my father, maybe even swat his hand away, but instead, he actually preened under the attention and said, "Hai, hai. Orenimakasero."

"Yosh!" Dad said, sounding pleased as he withdrew his hand from Okita-san's head.

"Chizuru-chan!" said Heisuke-kun, drawing my attention back to him. He was the youngest one with the bright blue eyes. He seemed to be an excitable sort. "Do you need help carrying your stuff to your room?"

"Yes, please," I said gratefully. I moved to offer him the long handle of the suitcase, but Heisuke-kun merely pushed it back down and then picked up the suitcase with little difficulty. My eyes widened at the display of strength. "U-um! Isn't it heavy?"

"It's not too bad," Heisuke-kun assured me.

Harada-kun, the man with the long red hair, smiled at me and said, "It would be bad for the wooden floors if we dragged the wheels on them."

My eyebrows rose as understanding swept over my face. "Oh, okay." I guess if Japan was the sort of place where people didn't wear shoes inside, it made sense that they didn't want wheels on their floor, either.

"Heisuke, will you show Chizu-chan to her room, please?" Father kindly asked.


"And help her get settled in, too."

"Hai! This way, Chizuru-chan."

"O-okay," I stammered. I tore my gaze away from the other boys—men—and followed Heisuke-kun away from the dojo and back to the house. He held my suitcase with one hand and pulled open the front door with his other hand. It creaked a little. He held it open for me, so I thanked him as I stepped inside.

"Leave your shoes here," he said.

I saw a neat row of shoes on the side of the entrance area. I looked down at my sneakers and used my foot to pull them off without undoing the shoelaces. A quick glance at Heisuke-kun's feet showed he was actually wearing a pair of white socks with the big toe separated from the little toes. I guess the dojo took the old-fashioned uniform rule kinda seriously.

"Do you use Tennen Rishin-ryu, too?" Heisuke-kun asked me.

"Do I use… what?"

Understanding lit Heisuke-kun's face. "Ah… It is the… kendo? The sword your father teaches."

"Oh," I said. "No, I don't fight."

"Ah~," he said, nodding. "Because you're a girl?"

My head whipped around to stare at him. "That's not the reason!"

His eyes widened, and he quickly waved his free hand in a placating gesture. "Gomen! I didn't mean anything by it! I'm sorry!"

He didn't seem like he meant to be sexist or anything. I decided that Heisuke-kun was just the type of boy to speak without thinking. I nodded and made a small smile. "It's okay. I understand. No harm done."

"Thanks," said Heisuke-kun, sounding relieved. He adjusted the suitcase so he was carrying it with both hands. I think the weight was getting to him. "I'll show Chizuru-chan to your room."

The sooner I learned Japanese, the sooner their weird grammar would stop bugging me.

Our socks made soft taps on the wooden floor. The hallway was very clean, without a single speck of dust. I honestly pictured the home of eight men to be more of a pigsty, but I was way off. Hopefully they all pitched in and didn't leave all of the cleaning to poor Gen-san.

Most of the walls on either side of the hallway were more akin to sliding panels. Heisuke-kun called them fusuma. Some of them were open part of the way, some were closed, and some were wide open, allowing me to see inside the rooms. It was certainly very traditional in terms of Japanese housing. I couldn't find a single chair, for example…

At the end of the hall, there was a fork. To the left was a short hall, maybe five feet long, with a closed wooden door at the end rather than another of those fusuma things. To the right, the long hallway continued.

Heisuke-kun gestured to the left with his chin. "That room has a staircase that goes upstairs." He turned to the right. "Those rooms down there are mostly bedrooms. Kondou-san and Gen-san made a room for you upstairs."

"Okay." I wasn't sure what to say.

Heisuke-kun didn't seem to mind. He cheerfully headed over to the door and opened it. He held it open with his foot while he waited for me to enter first. I ducked my head and entered quickly. I felt bad that he had to carry my suitcase all this time.

The room was square-shaped with a tall grandfather clock against the nearby wall. There was another door over there, but the only other thing in the room was the wooden staircase. Heisuke-kun began ascending the steps, so I followed quietly. They creaked a little under our weight.

"Um… how old is this place, Heisuke-kun?"

"I'm not sure exactly," he admitted. "It's been rebuilt and updated a couple of times when some sections get old or worn. Been here a couple hundred years, I guess. Kondou-san would know; you should ask him."

I nearly tripped. Couple hundred years? No wonder it looked so old-fashioned. If they just updated and replaced stuff that was too worn, then this house probably hadn't changed much otherwise. I wondered how many people had lived here before. I couldn't begin to imagine all the history that I was standing on.

At the top of the stairs, there was a T-intersection. We could go left or right, and either way was a hallway. Heisuke-kun took me to the left. "Your room is right next to mine!"

Heisuke-kun was very friendly. He seemed like he might be a bit of a spaz, but I wanted a friend too badly to care. I smiled at him and nodded, waiting for him to show me.

He led me down the hall to the left, and we didn't stop until we made it to the last room. "Kondou-san picked this one especially for Chizuru-chan. I hope you like it."

I hoped I did, too. Heisuke-kun didn't open the door this time, so when he continued looking at me, I took it as my cue to do so. There were no doorknobs on these sliding doors. Instead, the handle was more of an indentation in the middle of the door on the right edge. I touched my left hand do it and found it easy to grip and slide to the left.

The first thing I noticed was the sunlight. It poked into the room through open windows and a partially open fusuma door on the opposite wall that appeared to lead outside to a balcony. Just outside the windows were leafy tree tops that allowed tiny moving rays of sunshine into the room.

"In the spring, these trees have pretty pink flowers," Heisuke-kun told me.

Even I had heard of Japan's famous cherry blossom trees. I wished it was springtime now just so I could see them. "It sounds beautiful," I said, picturing them in my mind.

"They are very beautiful," Heisuke-kun agreed.

I stepped into the room as my eyes adjusted to the light. I had a bed in the corner of the room. Thankfully, it was a modern one with a mattress and sheets, not one of those old futon things the Japanese used to sleep on. I don't think I could have handled that. The opposite corner, on the same wall as the door that led to the balcony, was a closet that had a sliding door. It was open, so I could see space to fold and hang my clothes.

As for furniture, I had a small wooden desk and a chair. An empty bookshelf was propped up against another wall. The walls were mostly bare, but that meant there was room to add decorations of my choosing, I guess.

"Where do you want your suitcase?" Heisuke-kun asked me.

I felt bad that he was still holding onto it even though we'd entered my room. "Please set it by the closet so I can unpack it."

"Hai." He did as I asked and then stretched his arm while looking around my room. "Do you want some help unpacking?"

Truthfully, there wasn't really anything to unpack except for some clothes. "I don't have much right now," I said. "Just some clothes. But the rest of my things should arrive in a few days."

"Okay, I'll help you when it gets here."

As I pulled my arms out of the guitar bag straps, I watched Heisuke-kun roll on the balls of his feet. He looked bored and a little anxious.

"You don't have to stay, Heisuke-kun," I told him. "I can unpack my clothes now. You can go back to the dojo if you want."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," I told him. "Thanks again."

He smiled at me. "Anytime."

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