A/N: I'm on a roll this week… fatigue can do that to you. I've had a bunch of project work, a working dinner with a bunch of supervisors, and an interview for a promotion, all in 48 hours, all on less than 5 hours' sleep for the past two days. When it rains, it pours. ;-;

Fatigue and overcaffeination, when combined in moderation, combine for some nice ideation. So yeah, another chapter.

On with the show!

5: Color Saturation
Sengawa-shi, Mitsutomo-chome 481, 4th floor (Tokiwa residence)
Wednesday, October 4th, 200X
2:34 AM

The extra workload had fatigued her, just as it would fatigue anyone else considering her schedule. Kyoko rubbed her dry eyes under her glasses, fighting the physical desire to close her eyes despite the numerous cups of green tea coursing through her system.

I can't wait until this Classics exam is over with, she thought, penning out treatises and theories on the Tale of Genji. Softball season is on and we have schoolwide common exams… to top that off, the Student Council needs figures pronto.

She resisted an old urge, spotting her camera at the far corner of her desk. Its cartoonish sticker smiled back at her, not really looking her in the eye, but not really looking away from her, either. Only recently would she take photos of the pages, then load the photos in her computer and transcribe the notes that way. It had taken a lot of practice to wean that old habit. A lot of practice and a lot of coaching.

"Genji sent Yugiri to Tamakazura with a message from the emperor to summon her to the court," she wrote in her notes. "She had been friendly enough in the days when he had thought her his sister, and it did not seem right to be suddenly cool and distant. She received him at her curtains as before. He had not forgotten the glimpse he had of her the morning after the typhoon. Now the situation had changed, and he had come provided with a fine bouquet of purple pantaloon to attract her attention. But her answer was careful. The ribbons of his cap were tied up in a sign of mourning for his grandmother." This places the significance on the symbology of flowers and plant life for the Heian court, propagated by Chinese influence by what we now call the bellflower-

A brief buzzing noise marked an E-mail on her cell phone, set to vibrate. She picked it up, wondering who would be trying to reach her so late.

"Kyoko-san: I won't be able to come to the budget meeting tomorrow. I'll be at the base hospital and can get mails. –Shinji," she read out loud. "He's going back to see his father again, huh? I guess he isn't getting better…" Kyoko was all too familiar with having a parent in the hospital; her mother was in a car accident when she was younger. She only remembered the photos she had taken if the hospital, the orderlies, the doctors, their likely frowns covered by surgical masks.

Kyoko hit the OK button on her phone and paged through her address book, composing an E-mail to explain that she would be absent from the committee meeting and afternoon softball practice tomorrow.

Narashino GSDF Base
Access Gate 1-B
3:23 PM

The bus had deposited her right in front of the gated access road to the Narashino military base. Unfamiliar with the area, she hadn't expected Narashino to be in such a populated area. Are these all base housing? she wondered as she walked the few steps to the guard shack, manned by a GSDF military policeman. I wonder if Shinji lives on the base or around here with his parents?

"Can I help you, ma'am?" the guard asked politely.

"I'm actually here to see someone who might have come here a few minutes ago, Shinji Kazama… would it be possible for me to come and see him?"

"Let's see here," the guard checked a clipboard. "Kazama, Shinji… he signed in a few minutes ago. Do you have an access pass or clearance?"

"I have press credentials…" she flustered with a smile, digging out her Jindai Student Council Press Secretary badge. Well, it works at Tigers games…

The guard examined the pass. "One moment; let me get Mr. Kazama's clearance contact on the phone." He stepped back into the shack and dialed a three digit extension.

Wow, I didn't think that would actually work.

"Sergeant Nakayama, this is Otsuka at Gate 1-B. I have a Ms. Kyoko Tokiwa asking for access in reference to Mr. Kazama. I'm at extension 342 and will have her waiting with me. Thank you." The guard hung up his phone and shook his head. "Voice mail. I'm sorry, Ms. Tokiwa, but I can't let you on the base without proper access. We're on a higher alert because of the recent explosion."

"I understand," Kyoko nodded, more than a little dejected. I guess I should have asked Shinji if I could come see him and his father. I'll try him tomorrow. She bowed politely. "Sorry to waste your time."

"Not at all," the guard bowed back. "If you don't mind waiting, I could-"

"Kyoko-san? What are you doing here?"

Shinji, clad in a GSDF track suit, ran in place behind the gate. A taller man in similar clothes jogged beside him.

"Shinji? What are you doing? I thought you were going to see your father?"

"Yeah, but it's not visiting hours until 4:30 and the school track was closed this morning."

"I got your E-mail last night – well, more like this morning – and I was a little worried that you were up so late. I wanted to drop by and see how you and your father were doing. You've been taking on a lot of extra work lately."

"Oh, sorry to have worried you," Shinji looked aside a little bit. "Sergeant, can she come along for a while and see my father?"

"So long as you're vouching for her, Shinji. Is this one of your classmates?" Sergeant Major Nakayama nodded to the gate guard. "You can let her in, Otsuka; put her on my clearance roster for the day."

"Kyoko-san, this is Sergeant Major Nakayama of the Ground SDF," Shinji introduced her. "He's been helping me train since the start of summer. Sergeant, this is Kyoko Tokiwa-san, a classmate of mine. She's on the Student Council as well." Shinji stopped running to stretch his legs.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Tokiwa-san," Nakayama shook her hand with a brief bow. "Shinji tells me you're in charge of coordinating your school trip. It must be a real challenge working on plans for that many students."

"Oh, it's a challenge, but we have some great people on the job. Right, Shinji?" Kyoko shot a friendly glance over to her classmate.

"Huh?" he asked, leaning into a hurdler stretch.

"She just paid you a complement, Shinji-kun. This is where you humbly thank her." Moriyama grinned at the barb.

"Oh. Thanks, Kyoko-san. Sorry, my mind is a little bit elsewhere."

"We were just finishing up a few laps, Tokiwa-san. I hate to delay you, but if you don't mind waiting, we can escort you to the officer's quarters for a drink and something to eat while we shower and clean up. Unless you don't mind the sweat."

"Oh, don't let me trouble you. I just wanted to make sure everything was going all right with Shinji and his father. I haven't seen him since the Post Festival last year and I wanted to see how he's doing after the accident."

Shinji stood up from his stretch and looked over his shoulder, towards the base hospital. "He's doing okay," Shinji said rather unenthusiastically, almost dispassionate. "He's getting better as things go along."

"Oh, I see," Kyoko said, a question in her voice. "Well, tell him we all said hello and hope he gets better really soon."

"So how about cleaning up, Shinji?" Moriyama looked between Shinji and Kyoko. What's that look in his eye? she wondered to herself. He looks like a lion watching over his cubs… "Let's not delay the lady on her way."

"See you in class tomorrow, Kyoko," Shinji managed a weak wave, turning back towards the internal part of the base. Moriyama turned to lead him off, brushing past Kyoko and staggering her a little.

"Oh, excuse me!" he exclaimed, reaching down as if to steady her school bag. As he ostentatiously brushed dust off of the leather bag, he tilted his head a few times, signaling her closer.

"Stay a few steps behind us if you can," he mumbled, a calm, commanding air to his voice. "Get a pass from the gate guard. If you get lost, ask to be sent to Regional Command Office, room 2-B. Wait for me there. You should be here a little bit longer." He stepped back. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Tokiwa-san," he said in a normal speaking voice as he turned towards Shinji. "Please be careful on your way home."

"Um, yes…" she said curiously.

As they walked off, she couldn't resist the urge to take a photo. She centered the lens on the sergeant and Shinji, walking off in the shadow of a building, and held the button down until the familiar chirp of the shutter release went off. She pushed a button to preview the image, rewarded with the taller man talking with his hands, explaining something to Shinji, who simply looked back up at the older man.

Narashino Regional Command Office, Room 2-B

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Tokiwa-san." Nakayama walked into his office in his freshly-pressed uniform, his rows of combat decorations solemnly bright against his khaki-colored shirt. "Thank you for coming; I'm glad we didn't frighten you off."

"Well, we're all just curious about Shinji, and most of his friends know his father. We're worried about him. He hasn't talked much about the accident, and it's like he's not himself anymore. Even Ono-D and his friends are clueless."

"Tokiwa-san, Secretary Kazama was injured in an accident attributed to mechanical failure on one of our Type 96es," Sergeant Major Nakayama explained as he poured her some tea. "We haven't released the details to the media yet, but we have a press release slated for release soon. There's no undue circumstances, and thankfully, no deaths as a result of the accident. However, Shinji's father was, without a doubt, the worst injury of all the casualties."

Kyoko shuddered involuntarily. "What happened to him?"

"When the joint of the 96 gave way, it struck and ignited a gas line that was refueling an AS next to it. This caused a rapid vapor explosion, and the Secretary was thrown clear just before the worst of it. However, he suffered some severe second-degree burns. He's in the intensive care ward now. Shinji is on his way over to the base hospital as we speak."

"Oh no…" Kyoko's expression turned to notable sadness. "I wish I had brought flowers for him or something…"

"Secretary Kazama will be fine, don't you worry about that," Nakayama extended a hand to pat her on the wrist. "We have some of the best medics and doctors at Narashino, and Tokyo University's medical school has provided a team of burn specialists. The SDF takes great pride in its safety record, so the Secretary is assured the best care. It's Shinji I'm concerned about."

Kyoko nodded. "He really did change after the accident. He's stopped… well, he's stopped being Shinji. People have seen him working out and volunteering for more committee activities. He talks even less to people now, and I haven't seen him pick up a copy of AS Fan in the past two weeks."

"Exactly. I met Shinji when he was younger, when I was commanding a platoon of construction troops. He'd always expressed interest in joining the SDF, but as time went on, he became very serious about it, especially after the Post Festival. Shinji wasn't in it to one-up anyone or prove himself anymore. I started working with him on and off, and I felt some hesitation at that point. I understood where he was coming from. He wanted so bad to live up to something, but had no need for it anymore. Before the accident, I was expecting him to tell me he wasn't interested in going into the military anymore. He was asking about colleges, career choices. Then afterwards, he came into my office and said 'Sergeant Major Nakayama, I'll do what it takes to be a good soldier. I want to go to the Defense Academy.'"

Kyoko warily wrapped her hands around the hot mug of tea. "Shinji really did want to live up to his father's hopes and dreams, even go beyond them. I was there when it all went down at the Festival. He really did surprise us all, but I guess this is just him doing it again."

"Tokiwa-san, I'll be frank," Nakayama leaned forward in his chair, folding his hands together and looking her directly into the eye. "I love my country and I love my job. The SDF is a vital part of Japan's role in the international order, but it is a somber duty we take up. SDF members are forbidden by law to wear their uniforms in public. We are forbidden by the same law to deploy without the orders of the United Nations. The JSDF is not a force of warmongers. We are defensive forces. We protect our shores. We need someone who thinks the same way, and I cannot have Shinji wasting his life, his energy, and his emotions in this job."

Kyoko blinked. "Sergeant… I don't know why you're telling me this."

"It's because someone needs to reach out to him, Tokiwa-san. I'm not asking you to be his best friend; in fact, I'm not asking anything of you at all. I don't have that right, and I certainly can't – and wouldn't – order you to do it. But as far as I can tell, you're the first person to worry about him. I know it's in a professional context, and there's nothing wrong with that. You're his classmate and he's volunteered to undertake certain responsibilities for your school trip committee. While his commitment to self-improvement is admirable, he needs to focus more on being part of the committee. The more work he does without people backing him up, the more he sees himself as a lone soldier, someone fighting for his own reasons. If he is ever going to learn how to be a team player, someone has to show him the way. You have access to him more than I do, and you…" the sergeant paused uneasily. "You aren't the idol he looks up to."

"It just seems to unfair to him…" Kyoko looked into the dark green murk of her tea, her troubled reflection looking back at her. "Shinji really has a passion for Arm Slaves. He really wants to join the SDF… isn't that his choice?"

"It is indeed," Nakayama nodded. "But at this point, it's not really a choice. It's a path that has no forks or detours along the way. Tunnel vision and having a goal are two separate things; Shinji needs to learn that lesson."

Kyoko took a sip of her tea. "I don't know what I can do, but I am worried about him. We're worried about him," she corrected. "I know a lot of what he's going through from my own experience… but that's a very different experience."

"I won't pretend to sympathize with you or Shinji, Tokiwa-san. But I can only say that I hope you'll consider that Shinji is too bright to be squirreled away into never sharing his passion with the world, rather than being confined within Japan's borders. That is no way for someone with his drive and intelligence to be kept. My hopes are high enough for Shinji that I am not above denying myself and the SDF another recruit."

"I can talk to him at class tomorrow," Kyoko offered. "I'll do what I can… I can always give him something that he has to do with other people." She looked up, a little bit more brightness to her expression. "That's a good start, right?"

Nakayama nodded. "I find it curious that one of his friends didn't try to come here yet," he remarked ironically. "After meeting you, I can tell that what he lacks in quantity is made up for in quality. That's what really matters."

Kyoko walked out of the office, her mind still abuzz. I don't really want to say "poor Shinji," she thought. I know he wouldn't want to be pitied. He's too proud for that. But still…

"I know a lot of what he's going through from my own experience…" Sometimes tunnel vision is all you've got…

As an afterthought, she took a photo of the door to the Sergeant Major's office. The gold-leaf kanji characters read "Sergeant Major Kazuya Nakayama, Honshu Regional Command, Recruiting. 2-B."

The Tokiwa Residence
1994 (exact date unknown)
Late evening

The flashbulb went off for the seventh time in one hour. "There she goes again," Ryoko Tokiwa remarked to her husband over a joyful child's giggle.

"Mama!" the young Kyoko dashed up, holding a camera that was way too big for her tiny hands. "Look! I took a picture of Doraemon from when daddy took me shopping last week! See?" She held up a photo, one of several rolls of film her father had picked up that evening from the nearby photo shop. "And here's one of the garlic that was on sale for a hundred-fifty yen a kilo! And here's a book shop! Daddy bought me a book abound pandas!"

"Really?" Ryoko bent down to look at the photos. "That's amazing!" She leafed through the photos. "What's this one?" she asked, holding up a small print of the cheerful Kyoko holding up the book she had bought.

"That's 'The World of Panda Bears!'" Kyoko exclaimed proudly. "It was written by Hazumori Kazumori! It's forty-six pages long and it has photos of Ling-Ling, a panda given to the Americans by China! Kodansha published it in 1991."

"That's amazing!" Ryoko exclaimed in the way only a mother could, just as the camera flashed once again, its film cycling with a low whirr noise.

"Oh no, I'm out of film!" the little girl exclaimed. "I took that picture of you with my book and now I'm all out. I'll go get some more!" With that, Kyoko dashed up the stairs of their house to her room.

"She's really doing so much better," Ryoko remarked to her husband. "I didn't think that she'd take so well to that camera."

"It's a small price to pay," her husband Takuto remarked, watching their nine-year old daughter trundle upstairs. "She's getting better every day and we might even be able to start her in a public school if she keeps learning at this rate. I wonder if she could take a picture of financial analysis so we could invest for her college fund a little bit better?" He chuckled at the joke.

"I just hope this really does help her in the long run," Ryoko wondered. "A year ago, she barely knew how to spell her own name."

To be continued...