8 min read

CHAPTER 01 : Fujiwara Eika

Cello as a plus one
The Butterfly Koi
🍥
Eika

Archival footage: DBW advertisement 1 (15-second clip)

Fujiwara Eika sits up into the frame, her hair disheveled. She puts an elbow over her face and stretches, a baggy blue and white polka dot sleeve falling down her arm.

Cut to her feet sliding across tatami, then onto a wood floor, the hem of matching polka dot pajama pants dragging around her ankles. Finally, she comes to a stop in front of a pair of feet covered in red fabric.

Smash cut to a fabric strawberry that is noticeably taller than her and at least as wide, with no face and with arms completely covered in red fabric. The strawberry is wearing a frilly white apron, and holding out a tray with a full traditional Japanese breakfast. Eika tips her head to the side and smiles broadly.

Red title card with the words “Kinoshita Diet Breakfast Water.”

* * *

No matter how often I visit the Helios lab, being here on a Saturday always feels deviant, like I’m trespassing on forbidden ground. The Experimental Magitech team’s workbenches, normally littered with tools and half-finished Syphon panels, are clean and dark, standing like sentinels along my path to the damper room. To my surprise, the work-in-progress light outside the carbon-reinforced door is unlit. I slowly edge the door open, wondering if Misora is even here. Did I get my days mixed up again?

“Mi-chan?”

Misora is seated at the conference table in the room’s center. Instead of her usual professional attire, she’s clad in running tights, a half-zip top, and sneakers. She has access to the Helios car service as well as her father’s drivers, so if she chose to come here on foot, it’s because she’s still stuck. A sheet of magipaper is on the table in front of her, and I can see she’s been sketching out designs. She pushes the paper at me.

“It should work. I’ve gone over it again, I’ve run the simulations, and everything connects. So why doesn’t the power flow? It’s like I’ve built a pile of sopping wet kindling: it looks right, but it can’t catch a spark.”

I set the basket I’m carrying on top of the magipaper, deliberately blocking the sketches from view.

“How about some sustenance?” I suggest, responding to the frustration in her voice rather than her actual words. “I had a DBW shoot yesterday, and they left all these nice protein bars and fruit in my dressing room.”

She plucks a mikan from the basket and removes the peel in a single long spiral. “I’m afraid coming here today was a waste of your time.”

“Can I top up the powerbanks?” I ask, casting about for a way to be helpful. Misora has her own magic, of course, but it recharges slowly. She’s commented more than once that if regular people are gasoline, I’m more like rocket fuel. Then I remember that I was here just yesterday.

“Yes, please do,” she replies, much to my consternation.

“Mi-chan! I left you with hours of reserves yesterday. When did you get here today?”

“Early.”

“Taehyun is going to think you don’t love him, if he’s always waking up alone.”

“Probably not.”

Toyama Misora is one of my oldest friends, but sometimes I feel like I can’t read her any better now, after all these years, than I could in kindergarten. I sincerely believe Mi-chan would do anything for me or Ha-chan, but heaven forbid we know her true feelings about her boyfriend.

“Where do we go from here?” I ask.

She sighs as she stands and takes the mikan peel over to the compost container. After it decomposes, it will be cycled into food for the plants that fill the damper room, ready to absorb any dangerous rogue magic.

“I’m not sure,” she replies, a rare admission of defeat. “I can engineer a battery all day, but getting the body to respond is something else entirely. We need someone who specializes in biology.”

“Oh,” I say, suddenly understanding her reluctance. A hire requires money. While the Denali project is supposed to be a joint venture between Replenish, my charitable organization, and Helios, only Helios has deep pockets. Unfortunately, as a major corporation, they’re also a lot less invested in the idea of a battery that will help people on the low end of the magical ability distribution. Their focus is on the next big Gamestasis hit, not access for the marginalized.

Misora has her head tipped back against the headrest of her chair, eyes scrunched shut in thought. Her portable chimes, the sound that I know, from our years of friendship, indicates a text from her mother, Helios’ CEO. She reads the message, then looks up at me, widened eyes gleaming with newfound confidence.

“Mi-chan! I’m dying here, what is it?”

She turns her port toward me, the screen showing a link to a breaking news article: U.S. PRESIDENT SIGNS MAGIC BAN. “They actually did it, the idiots.”

“And?” I feel chagrined to not follow why she’s so pleased by this.

“Maybe we can pick up an American magitech engineer for cheap. I’ll bring it to the board.”

* * *

The sun is shining bright in a chill sky on the day my family does their best to co-opt magic.

Like most family appearances, we’re all sharply coiffed and perfectly framed as philanthropic for the opening ceremony of the University of Tokyo’s new Fujiwara Center for Applied Magic. The classrooms and labs of this building are nothing more than an accessory to the image of it all: a snapshot for the press to sell the story that Fujiwara Heavy Industries is springing into the future of energy.

The auditorium of the new building is a dark contrast, decorated with cedar strips arranged in elegant leaf patterns between columns of acoustic paneling. Warm spotlights along the edges of the room make the space feel cozy. If only Mi-chan or Yuuto-kun had been able to join us today, they would have appreciated the atmosphere. From my front row seat, I discreetly angle my port to snap a photo to share.

My older brother Isao leans over to whisper, close enough that the frame of his glasses touches my ear. “Now is not the time for your self-promotion.”

“Today is important for the family,” I say softly, responding to the anxiety under his snipe. Then I tap the shutter button.

It’s a long opening ceremony, with speeches from the mayor of Bunkyo ward and the president of the university. Next, a lecture on the intersection of magitech and the future of medical research from my ex-girlfriend Sayuri’s great-uncle, the one with the Nobel prize. The speeches are similar, about hopes for the future and the joys of collaboration, but there’s enough enthusiasm for their words that the audience seems invested by the time Kimiko-oneesan and the other representatives get up on the stage to cut a symbolic ribbon.

Afterwards, we all file through the wide hallways and emerge in the atrium, where the windows now show a darkened sky. The lights look like small stars, sparkling in the high space above.

Isao-oniisan catches my arm before I can go more than a step inside. “Don’t bother anyone tonight. The people here have better things to do than talk about your nonsense.”

I keep a pleasant expression on my face, even as the chill in his tone puts tension in my back.

“Don’t worry,” a voice behind me says. “I’ll keep an eye on her for you.”

Ahead of us, Kimiko turns back and catches Isao’s eye, so he leaves me and my rescuer alone.

“I’m glad I’m not the only black sheep at this event,” Johjima Haru says to me, sotto voce. He’s wearing a suit, but as usual, his tie is loosened and the top button undone. It gives him a rakish air, and triggers some fond memories, too.

I smile, relieved to see a familiar face. “My younger brother was able to excuse himself by virtue of living in Hong Kong.”

Haru grabs two champagne glasses off a passing tray and hands one to me. “Tell Yuuto-kun that if I have to be here, the East China Sea is not nearly enough of an excuse.”

“He wasn’t willing to buy a ticket for his cello just to be my plus one. But I’m sending him photos of the acoustical set-up in the auditorium to make him properly regret missing out.” I show Haru the photo of the room, which came out remarkably clear even with the low lighting causing my port’s camera to auto-select a high ISO.

“Nice. So, I hear you’re going by Fujika now.”

With a bit of a nudge from my management company, the pop portmanteau of my name has been gaining traction online.

“It seems that typing less is what makes people happy,” I reply.

“Hmmph,” he says, taking another sip of champagne. “What else have you been up to since I last saw you, Fujika?” Left unsaid: that the last time he saw me, I was slipping out of his apartment in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. That version of me feels like a lifetime ago.

“Less than you might expect,” I say lightly. “Aside from work, just some yoga and mindfulness practice.”

Haru laughs, then starts coughing intensely, and his face turns bright red.

“Wrong pipe,” he finally croaks out. “You? Fujiwara Eika? Mindfulness.

I turn to catch a passing waiter and request some water. As Haru gulps it gratefully, I lower my voice. “It helps me with—you know.” We’ve known each other long enough, and well enough, that I don’t have to spell it out for him. I’ve always had a hard time staying focused.

“Hmmph,” he says again.

“Besides,” I continue, flashing him my sweetest and most innocent smile, “the yoga has made me quite flexible.”

He grins in delight at this, then downs the rest of his glass. “Well, Fujika, thanks for always being the most interesting thing in the room, but I’ve got plans tonight. Let’s catch up another time, when there’s more fun and less—” he gestures at the crowd— “of this.”

He pulls out his port, taking a moment to tap something into the keyboard. After a beat, my own port buzzes, and his updated Near Mi profile and contact information—Johjima Haru, Director of Emerging Market Strategies, Johjima Pharmaceuticals—pop up on my screen.

“Just in case you lost my info,” he teases.

And with that, I’m alone again.

Around the room, there are so many people I don’t recognize, all suits of gray and black gathered in small groups. Kato-sensei, Sayuri’s great-uncle, is looking at me when I glance his way, but his eyes slide right off me with disinterest.

The champagne suddenly feels acidic in my stomach as I see myself abstracted out: the scion turned celebrity trying to change herself as much as the world. No wonder Kato-sensei won’t meet my eyes.

I take a moment to send the auditorium photo to Yuuto-kun and another message to Mi-chan, though it stays unread like the one I sent earlier today. Since we ground to a halt on Denali last month, her focus has been pulled onto another project, and I still haven’t heard anything from her about whether she’s gotten permission to hire another engineer. She might be in Seoul, too, now that I think about it. When was that trip planned for?

Near Mi pings my port again, this time with a foreign name: Cameron Green, Magitech Engineer.

If Mi-chan isn’t here to move the project ahead, I’ll do it myself.

Comic Postlude