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Removed: The Nogiku Series, #1

Removed: The Nogiku Series, #1

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Removed: The Nogiku Series, #1

Length:
399 pages
5 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Sep 10, 2013
ISBN:
9781940599014
Format:
Book

Description

Can she piece together the truth before Earth's last city tears itself apart?
 
It's easy for Sanaa to ignore the first signs of trouble. After all, she's living her dream with a job and life she loves. But when she's reassigned as a data analyst for a mysterious, well-connected man, she starts to piece together the alarming reality. Corrupt clans vie for control of the city, desperate for a ticket off the dying planet.
 
As war looms between the clans, Sanaa's new boss sends her to train with Jiro, an expert swordsman. Forbidden to share the dangerous secrets she's learned with her family, she confides in Jiro, bringing them closer with every word, strike, and parry. Together, they realize that Sanaa's boss is keeping secrets of his own.
 
When the truth comes to light, the war and Sanaa's world could be changed forever. To save her family and forge a new peace for her city, Sanaa has no choice but to risk her life for the human race.
 
Removed is the first installment in the Nogiku Series, a saga of post-apocalyptic sci-fi romance novels set in future Japan. If you like tenacious heroines, sizzling chemistry, and unique post-apoc settings, then you'll love S. J. Pajonas' dystopian adventure.
 
Buy Removed to decode the hidden truth today!

Publisher:
Released:
Sep 10, 2013
ISBN:
9781940599014
Format:
Book

About the author

Stephanie (S. J.) is a writer, knitter, Capricorn, Japanophile, and USA Today Best Selling author. She loves summer, downtempo beats, yoga pants, foxes, owls, dogs, sushi, pasta, and black tea. She lives outside NYC with her husband, two great kids, and her dog who always wants to play. When it comes to her work, she writes about everyday women and uncommon worlds. Find her online at https://www.spajonas.com


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Removed - S. J. Pajonas

Chapter One

It’s New Year’s Eve 3103 in Nishikyō, and I’m ready to celebrate my twentieth birthday with my two best friends. Well, almost my twentieth birthday. It’s actually tomorrow, yet I always tend to think of New Year’s Eve as my birthday because that’s when I go out with Helena and Miko. This way we can eat, drink, and be merry as much as we want because everyone but essential services has tomorrow off from work. On the second of January, plans start back up in earnest. No more time off after this — there are too many things to get done before colonization begins next year.

People in my ward, Ku 9, have been prepping for New Year’s Eve for the past week. Walking by the local Japanese restaurant the last two mornings on my way to work, I could hear the old men and women chattering away while pounding and making mochi rice cakes. My aunts buy mochi from them and eat it on New Year’s Day after going to the temple for our first visit of the year.

The streets are cleaner than they have been in months. In fact, I’m sure every apartment in the ward is completely clean. I know I wasn’t the only one on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor this morning. At home, we divided up the work. Aunt Kimie cleaned the bedrooms, and Aunt Lomo got the bathroom. After I was finished, I ran into several neighbors in the alley outside while taking out the trash, and they were all sweaty and dirty, sleeves rolled up to their elbows. Some traditions just never die.

I take a shower, trying my best not to mess up the bathroom, and pick out my new favorite kimono to wear tonight. I bought this one a month ago with some extra money I had set aside. For having been passed down through so many consignment shops, the kimono is in excellent shape. I only had to repair a few ripped seams under the arms, and I consider that a blessing. The silk fabric is a lovely, bright amber with a darker burnt orange hashmark design that makes the freckles on my nose stand out.

I have to admit I’m quite attached to those freckles. They remind me of my mother. My mother was Japanese. From her I got my most favorite features including my straight black hair and the freckles. She also gave me her thin figure which I was fine with until two years ago. My Aunt Kimie says I look just like her. My father gave me his wit that always makes Aunt Lomo laugh, his English pale skin, rounder eyes, and the temper I have to keep in check at all times.

Once I’ve twisted my hair back in a knot, put on a little makeup from Aunt Lomo’s beauty stash, and pulled on my white socks, Aunt Kimie comes into my room through the rice paper screen and helps me into my kimono.

Ah, Sanaa-chan. Twenty. Where does the time go? You’re so grown-up now.

She sniffs, and oh boy, she’s stopping herself from crying again. I give her a quick hug.

Don’t cry, Aunt Kimie. You do this every year.

Don’t make fun of your aunt’s New Year’s Eve tradition, Sanaa-chan, Aunt Lomo calls from the other room, and we both laugh.

Aunt Kimie turns to my wall drawers and opens the top one she knows contains my obi sashes. Which one? The cream?

Yes, the cream. I love the cream colored obi with the fan design. This was also my mother’s, one of the many things I inherited from my parents when they died. Aunt Kimie wraps the long, heavy silk around me and ties a drum bow in back before wrapping a silk cord around my waist. She hands me a fan I tuck in to the front, in case the evening gets hot.

Aunt Kimie smiles at me and sighs, giving my face a soft pat. Have fun tonight. Be a good girl. Eat a lot of food and don’t drink too much.

Auntie, I say with a groan. Aren’t I always responsible?

Of course. Still. You know I always say it.

I purposely leave my everyday bag with my tablet in my room, grab my small, red purse, slip into my sandals at the door, and wave as I head out for the night.

Don’t wait up!

The streets of Ku 9 are filled with people. This may be the Science and Engineering Ward but the local council always sponsors gatherings here for those who don’t want to travel on New Year’s Eve. The sidewalks are a colorful, moving wall of people in kimonos and other citizens in normal Nishikyō wear, the double-breasted gray tunic shirts over loose pants of the same material break up the assault of bright colors swirling around me. I edge past a young couple carrying a small boy who is dressed up in his own little kimono and hakama, wide-legged pants (he is adorable) and head directly down into the transitway before I get sucked into people watching.

Ku 7, the Entertainment Ward where Miko’s family izakaya is located, is two wards away. It’s not a long ride on the train, but so many people are heading to Ku 6, the Japanese Ward, that the cars are filled to the brim. I have to wait for two trains to go by and hope I can get on the next one.

Ugh, I’m going to be late. I hate being late.

I check the tunnel over and over until a train finally comes. Nishikyō Transitway Authority runs more trains this time of year but it’s never enough. With the possibility of having to shuttle around over six million people on the biggest holiday of the year, you’d think they’d run the trains non-stop. Have they learned nothing in the past three hundred years? Apparently not because these big holiday delays happen again and again.

When I finally get on a train, it makes every stop between Ku 9, Ku 8 (the Extinction Ward where people in normal clothes get off the train to work), and then Ku 7 where I exit at the second stop and head straight for the izakaya.

Most days Izakaya Tanaka does normal business from 10:00am to 3:00am. It’s a long day but izakaya staff and Nishikyō workers on multiple shifts enter and leave at all hours. Night and day have no meaning when the city needs regular maintenance. Even though the lights brighten and dim to maintain normal circadian rhythms, your night is someone else’s day and vice versa. It’s not like anyone sees regular sunlight anyway. The domes that protect us from the elements block out all light and most radiation.

Stepping up to the large picture window at the front of Izakaya Tanaka, I tap on the glass and wave my fingers at Helena who is standing right inside. She jumps up and down with a girlish scream, sake sloshing out of the cup in her hand.

Welcome! All the staff shout at me as I walk through the door.

"Good evening," I say back as Helena jumps at me with a forceful hug.

Happy birthday, Sanaa-chan! Helena’s face is bright and gleeful. She’s probably been laughing and chatting up these people standing right by the door for some time. She’s so outgoing and, gods, so tall! My neck hurts looking up at her sometimes, but I’m a measly 160 centimeters tall and she’s at least 180 centimeters. Tonight she’s twisted her long, blond, curly hair up and is wearing a bright pink kimono which suits her pale complexion nicely. Her cheeks are a little flushed, but that could be the sake too.

Thanks, sweetie. You look gorgeous, as usual. Where’s Miko?

Behind the bar with Sono. Where else? Anyway, you’re late. I thought you’d be here by 7:30? I was ready to call in a search team. Helena knows how much I hate being late.

Trains were packed, and Aunt Kimie was giving me the sad eyes as I was on my way out.

She helped you get dressed? Your new kimono is lovely.

Thanks, I say while smoothing out the front. The hurried walk from the train loosened up the obi a little. I hope the bow holds up all night. Let’s go talk to Miko. Maybe if we’re loud enough the men sitting at the bar will leave.

The place is packed, and it’s only 8:00pm, a long way to midnight. I think the staff is going to have to start queuing people up outside soon because they will overflow capacity at any moment. Looking over at the string of private rooms along the side wall, I can tell by the shadows on the rice paper screens they are all occupied. Usually Miko’s parents open them up on New Year’s Eve to accommodate more people, so the rooms won’t be occupied for much longer.

We push our way through the crowd saying excuse me and smiling over and over again. Miko is barely visible over the top of the bar. She must be back there unloading multiple boxes of sake. They will need it tonight. Standing between two men, I lean as far over the bar as possible without letting my feet leave the ground.

Miko-chan! I yell while I reach out and tap her on the head.

She pops up with a big smile, her chin-length, straight black hair getting caught across her face in the movement.

"Sanaa-chan, Otanjōbi omedetō!"

"Arigatō. Hey, where are your parents?"

Miko crouches back down and unloads the last of the sake from the boxes. She always works New Year’s Eve until her mother relieves her at around 11:00, but Miko never tends bar. The legal drinking age, and age of adulthood, is twenty in Nishikyō, and she is more than able to tend since she turned twenty-one two months ago, but she has a heavy hand and has declared herself terrible at it. They leave the bar to Sono.

Mother is at home. She was cleaning today, of course, and she knocked into something under the sink and water went everywhere. You can only imagine how that made her feel on New Year’s Eve.

Yes, indeed. Miko’s mother is a real worrywart. Miko rolls her eyes at me, and I smile. We’re all pretty immune to Mrs. Tanaka’s constant nagging at Miko — first, when she was in school, to get good grades, and now, to find a nice boy before she dies an old maid. Miko recently had her hair cut to a short chin bob with a fierce line of bangs across her face, and the change from long hair to short nearly sent her mother into a fit. That’s probably why Miko did it, though.

Anyway, Miko continues after she hands off bottles to Sono, so she’s back at the apartment with maintenance and will be here later to relieve me of my hostess duties. My father is in there… She points to the nearest private room. With two men I’ve never seen before and two cute brothers around our age. Her face lightens up, a twinkle in her eye. Miko is a serial dater. I think she’s had at least twelve boyfriends already. Twelve boyfriends she never introduced to her parents hence her mother’s old maid worries. Amazingly enough, she is unattached right now. (Those boyfriends don’t last long.) It’s New Year’s Eve. Let’s get ourselves some boys.

I can almost imagine Miko rubbing her hands together and plotting ways to interfere on this meeting, and I’m inclined to let her. I haven’t had a steady boyfriend in two years and little opportunity to date since I started working full-time. My work friend, Chad, and I meet up at a love hotel once a month or so for drinking and just sex, but it’s not the same as really dating. Watching Miko go out and have a good time makes me realize what I’m missing out on. A New Year’s Eve boy would be fun and exciting. Fun and exciting is what I want this year.

Miko, you’re ruthless! What about me? Helena pouts and drops her head.

We’ll find someone for you, too. It’s a magical night. Anything can happen. She wipes her hands off on a bar towel and smooths out her kimono. She’s wearing her favorite jade green kimono tonight, but her purple and gray obi is new, a birthday gift from her father. Mr. Tanaka spoils her, and she takes full advantage of it. They’re a tight family. Miko’s taking over Izakaya Tanaka before her family leaves for Yūsei, our colonization planet, and will hopefully open a similar place on our new home world if they can get the permit. They’ve been working on the negotiations for years.

Let me come around the bar and get a good look at you. You’re wearing your new kimono. She scans me from top to toes before giving me a hug. I love it. Orange is the perfect color for you. Even Miko towers over me though she’s only about 10 centimeters taller. I feel small when I’m not sitting down next to them. Helena’s already been here an hour, and, as soon as these two men clear out from the end of the bar, those seats are yours. Miko turns and eyes the men sitting right behind us, and they laugh at her.

Okay, okay, Miko-chan. We have a party to go to anyway. They get up to leave, smiling sweetly at her. Bet they were thinking they would try to make Miko their New Year’s Eve date.

As Helena and I take our seats with Miko at our back, the private room behind us opens up, and we turn to look. Mr. Tanaka emerges in his traditional gray kimono and black hakama, wide-legged pants with two men in their mid-forties right behind him. Both are wearing black kimono with family crests on them and black hakama pants but one has longer, graying hair tied back in a ponytail, and the other’s hair is short, cropped and gray, and he has a distinct scar on his chin.

Mr. Tanaka bows to them, and they bow back. Behind these two men are the brothers our age Miko referred to earlier. The older one is around twenty-four or twenty-five and his brother a few years younger. Yes, Miko, they are definitely cute but the younger one is more my type. He is seriously handsome with longer, floppier hair than his older brother, a strong chin, and what looks like a white streak in his hair just over his ear. He reaches up and tucks his hair back before turning and spying the three girls staring from the bar.

What did I tell you? Miko whispers. The older one’s mine. A slow, seductive smile comes over her face, and I do my very best not to roll my eyes. Miko has her sights set on him. He’s done for.

But I’m watching the younger brother. Yes, just my type, I can tell already. Strong and confident in the way he holds himself. I love longer hair on men, and that black kimono. Sigh. I love men in kimono. His eyes are on me and now that we’re staring at each other, my breath is slowing, slowing, slowing down until I’m holding it and not breathing at all. I don’t blink. I don’t move. I am completely entranced.

It’s a good thing neither of these two are my type, Helena whispers at me, but I barely hear her. The younger one has turned from me at the behest of one of the other men, the two brothers bow to Miko’s father, and turn to exit the izakaya through the back door. No! Wait!

No, wait. He’s looking at me again before he goes. Did I say that out loud? I don’t know. Smile, Sanaa.

I smile, trying not to be too eager nor too subtle. I’m usually at one end of the spectrum or the other and know nothing of moderation. Moderation? What’s that? No clue.

A smile brightens his face for a moment, but he’s gone. They’re all gone.

Whaaaa… Who are they? I ask Miko. I must know. Those few moments made me unable to speak properly.

Miko shakes her head. I have no idea but I’m going to find out.

I stare after Miko as she follows her father to the back office. She won’t be gone long. The place is too packed with people to neglect the staff on a busy night like this.

Sanaa-chan? Helena snaps her fingers in front of me. Wow, look at the spell that came over you.

Heat rises to my face, and I wish the izakaya was a little cooler. Reaching into my obi, I pull out the fan I placed in the folds after Aunt Kimie wrapped me up, open it, and fan myself until I feel calmer. His face is now permanently burned into my memory.

Sake and food would be good about now, I say as I motion to Sono. Sono’s been working at the izakaya for the past eight years. He’s a sweet man, close to sixty years old, who refuses to stop working. And why would he when he has the best memory for faces and what they like to drink?

Happy birthday, he says as he leans forward and gives me a peck on the cheek. "Tofu teriyaki, rice, and daiginjo sake?" Sono always suggests I drink the highest grade sake on my birthday, and I have for the past two years. I shouldn’t have been drinking illegally, but I love sake. Aunt Kimie and Mrs. Tanaka came to an agreement that I could drink at the izakaya as long as I never got sick drunk. I kept a strict eye on how much I consumed so I wouldn’t have the privilege taken away. Now I’m an adult.

Of course. I tap on the bar and indicate to Sono the food should be hastened. I need a distraction from the handsome one I had a mental affair with in the span of ten seconds.

Same for me, Sono, Helena says and then lowers her voice to whisper, bring the sake first. I think Sanaa may need it.

Without moving left or right, he reaches down into the bar back and puts two small cups on the counter and a whole chilled bottle of sake between them. That man is always prepared. "Kanpai, ladies."

Helena pours sake for us both and lifts her glass. I match mine to hers. Happy Birthday and Happy New Year.

You, too, Helena.

Kanpai! We clink glasses and drink. Delicious.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so distracted by a guy before. Not even Chad.

I blink and try to pull myself out of my head. Well, Chad’s just my work friend. We’re not dating. Helena raises her eyebrows at me, and I burst into a laugh before taking another sip. I don’t consider sex once a month dating, especially since I have no feelings for him… at all. And I could never date someone I worked with again. Remember Joshua? What a mess that was. Anyway, Chad and I are not even remotely compatible.

I have only ever been seriously interested in one guy before tonight (Chad doesn’t count). Joshua, another guy I was head-over-heels in love with when I first started working, was a six month trial of patience. He had two distinct personalities: eager to get into my kimono or barely knew I existed. He’d take me out to the movies, to the love hotel where he’d be so eager for sex he wouldn’t even take my clothes off, and then the next day, wouldn’t acknowledge my presence. It was maddening. I would think I was being used for sex then he would declare he loved me in front of our friends. Two days later, he’d blow me off. Finally, I told Joshua to go to hell, and he started dating someone new the very next day. What an asshole.

I tap my foot, nervous energy bubbling over down my arms and legs, straight to my hands and feet. When is Miko coming back?

Helena eyes me, and, as she’s about to needle me more, Miko returns to us.

It’s as I suspected, she says, pursing her lips and narrowing her eyes. "A few weeks ago, my parents were talking about getting an omiai involved in my love life."

What? Helena and I both say at the same time. Why would Miko need a matchmaker?

Yeah. You know mother and her crazy idea I’m going to die an old maid. Well, I said, ‘Fine, yes, hire the damned omiai and we’ll see where it gets us.’ That, she points to the empty room, is where it gets us.

Really? They’re arranging a marriage for you? Helena pales, her eyes wide.

No, no. Just some dates, but… She stops and thinks for a second with a faraway look in her eye. He is kind of cute, ne? And from an influential family. Hmmm.

The wheels turn in Miko’s head. Influence is good when you run a place like Izakaya Tanaka. She may have better luck getting the permit they need for colonization with help from his influential family.

What about the brother? I ask, and I hope I don’t sound desperate at all because, boy, do I suddenly feel desperate. I should have gotten up and talked to him, or something! Anything. But the moment was over so quick.

Miko smiles at me. She’s been trying to set me up on blind dates for a year now. She keeps thinking I’m stuck on Chad, which I’m not. I just don’t want to hurt his feelings. Miko is remarkably good at reading minds.

The older one is Yoichi. He’s twenty-four. The younger one is Jiro. He’s twenty-two.

Jiro.

Now I have a name.

My father suggested they come back after midnight so I can meet him. ‘Firsts of the New Year’ and all that. I never knew my father was such a sap. But by the way her shoulders melt and her breath puffs out, I can tell she knew this already. She only needs to think about how her father has always doted on her.

Firsts of the New Year are all of the traditions we do on New Year’s Day to make the year go smoothly. I may not have grown up in Ku 6, the Japanese Ward where the majority of Japanese in Nishikyō live, but my aunts have kept some of these rituals alive in our home. Like the extensive cleaning we do before New Year’s Eve and our first temple visit tomorrow, we have also put much stock in the other New Year’s traditions. Each year we eat our first dinner together on New Year’s Day, and I sit down to write the first letter of the year to each of my aunts on my beloved rice paper stationery. I wrote them my first letter when I was almost five and it was mostly scribbles, but I know Aunt Kimie and Lomo have kept every single one of them hidden away in their drawers as if they were sacred poetry.

So it’s possible I may see Jiro again after midnight. I will have to keep my cool until then.

Miko goes back to work checking on the last occupied private room. After a minute of silent sake drinking, Sono arrives with our food. The kitchen staff is fast tonight.

While we make our way through our tofu and rice, Helena and I talk about work. As kids, we both enrolled in the city fast-tracking education so we could earn more as young adults and enter the work force early. She was originally going to be a doctor but she faints at the sight of blood, so she chose massage therapy. I chose to be an engineer like my father. My mother, a chemist, was also intelligent like my father. They died in an explosion before I turned two, a completely freak accident.

I haven’t seen you around the past two weeks, and it’s winter break for most of us, Helena says pushing her plate aside.

I volunteered to cover other people’s shifts. You know my aunts don’t do anything for Christmas anymore.

"I would have liked to see you."

Helena’s parents are such a mystery to me. She still lives at home because they are never around, very much in their own world. Helena spends a lot of time with Miko when I’m busy, and I wish I could be here at the izakaya more often.

I know. I should have taken the day off anyway. Work was stupidly boring with no one around. I ended up babysitting some lab work on composite material while working on schematics. I fill up our cups again.

On the fast-track, I threw myself into my studies as hard as I could so I could get a job on the Colonization Committee, and I love it there. I may not have had the biggest social life on record but I’m pretty pleased with how well I did for myself. Since I’m settled in, I want something fun to happen this year now that I’m an adult. I have about an hour to think about what I’ll wish for at midnight, but I think I’m going to wish for love this time instead of prosperity. Prosperity has gotten me pretty far already.

Our attention is brought to the door as the staff all shout Welcome! to Miko’s mother. She enters the izakaya in a flash of dark red kimono, her short, graying hair perfectly swept back in a beautiful silver comb.

Girls, she says, approaching us. Otanjōbi omedetō, Sanaa-chan. Her birthday wish is punctuated by a quick kiss on the cheek. You’ve grown up into such a fine, young woman. Kimie and Lomo must be very proud.

Arigatō gozaimasu, Mrs. Tanaka. She has always insisted on us calling her and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Tanaka, though I’ve tried to call her Tanaka-san on occasion. I think she likes the westernization a little bit more.

Miko comes out of the kitchen and bows slightly to her mother before they embrace in a small hug. Mrs. Tanaka is much more formal than Miko’s father.

Miko-chan, I’m here to relieve you early. The restaurant is not too busy. You should spend the time now with Sanaa and Helena.

Helena and I were so absorbed in our conversation we didn’t realize the bar has quieted. This happens every year right before midnight. The majority of people eat and drink up and then head out to spend the last hour before the New Year at a temple or private party.

In long-standing tradition, Miko, Helena, and I will stay here till around 12:30 and then visit the little neighborhood shrine two blocks over before Helena and I head home for the night. Miko will stay behind and help with any stragglers until they close up at 3:00.

Instead of moving to a booth from the bar, we snag the last open private room, and Miko invites in the young guys who were at the bar to come sit with us. A few more girls show up from the shops down the street, and they join us too. But I park myself next to Helena, nod, smile, and do my best to make small talk because I am definitely not interested in any of these guys. I’m daydreaming and wondering where Jiro and the other men went to after they left the izakaya.

Helena catches sight of the clock on the wall, and one of the guys reaches into his bag, pulls out his tablet, and switches to the Nishikyō News Service. They are already streaming the midnight countdown from Ku 1. A huge crowd of people mill about the Administrative Ward’s central plaza, decked out in every possible kind of party clothes, but mostly kimono since Nishikyō is seventy percent Japanese.

Only three minutes left in the year 3102. I’ve decided I’ve been prosperous enough. This year I will wish for love, and I’ll make sure that I don’t look at any of these guys when I do because, oh gods, not in a million years. I’m not kissing any of them when the clock strikes 12:00. No, thank you.

One minute left and Miko fills up cups around the table. Helena is tucking wayward strands of hair back into her twist. I am replaying those ten seconds of eye contact with the mysterious Jiro in my head again. Obsessing. I’m already obsessing over it.

Twenty seconds left in 3102. I’ll be twenty years old. I can move out and get my own place soon, and in two years, I’ll be on a ship and hibernating for the long voyage to Yūsei.

Five seconds left. Four, three, two, one.

"Happy New Year! Akemashite omedetō!" We all clink glasses and drink. Miko, Helena, and I get involved in a three-way group hug that makes us laugh and laugh. I’m glad I didn’t have to make eye contact with any of the guys at the table because I love these two the most.

Wishes, Miko whispers at each of us.

We close our eyes, bow forward a little, and clap our hands in front of our face twice in a prayer position.

Please, gods, bring me love and happiness this year. Bring us all love, excitement, and happiness this year. Surely, we deserve it.

Chapter Two

After we’ve gulped down our sake and eaten a little more rice, Helena, Miko, and I grab our purses and head out to the street. It’s around 12:15am, and people are milling about either heading home or to another party.

In the old days before the last of humanity were all confined to the domes of Nishikyō, everyone would stay up until dawn and then drive to the nearest coast or outlook to watch the first sunrise of the year, but that tradition is long gone now. The lamps will come up like they do every morning mimicking the sunrise of where we all live now, an area in North America in what used to be called Canada. At this time of year, daybreak won’t be until around 8:00am.

I thought it was supposed to be cooler tonight, Helena says taking out her fan and creating her own personal breeze.

Me, too. The forecast was a low of 7ºC tonight, and Nishikyō Dome Control were going to turn on the fans after midnight. It doesn’t feel any cooler, though. Only about the same 21ºC Nishikyō always is in winter.

"Come on, girls. Let’s hustle to the shrine and get our omikuji. My father wants me to get back to the izakaya quick so the cute boy can come back and woo me." She lets out a laugh that borders on evil. This Yoichi has his work cut out for him.

I’m so tired. After all the talking, eating, and drinking, I’m about an hour from falling asleep. I’m used to long days at work and early bedtimes. My routine is boring sometimes, but it’s the way my life is right now. I guess I won’t be seeing the younger brother, Jiro.

This neighborhood shrine, nestled in between two gift shops, is such a sweet little spot. I’ve often seen the owners of the shops sweeping the front steps or placing rice in cups inside as offerings. I think this space actually used to be an alley, but a long time ago, the neighborhood got together and built the shrine. The floors, walls, and vaulted roof are all dark, composite wood, and a small tatami straw mat lies in front of the prayer area near the back. The doors are swung open, and, inside, a few people are getting their omikuji, little paper slips with fortunes on them, from the machine

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