Sleeping Scholar of the Forest

The summoning ring of the telephone echoed through the room.
To Shuuji Shiraishi’s1 dulled mind, the noise sounded like it was coming from somewhere far away.
Which would be why he didn’t react.
But when his answering machine switched on, and the mechanical message began in a woman’s voice, he was finally pulled back to reality.
‘This is Mori from Takara Publishing.
Thanks for all your help.’
Mori must have figured he wasn’t home, and started to leave a message, and it was Shuuji’s body, rather than his mind, that reacted to her voice.
He picked up the receiver.
“My apologies.
This is Shiraishi.”
“Ah, you are home.
Were you asleep?” Mori asked in a good humored tone.
“No, I wasn’t asleep.”
“Good then.
I wanted to talk about your next job.”
With Mori, even small talk moved quickly on to work topics.
Shuuji was a book designer, and Mori was the editor-in-charge at one of his publisher clients.
Shuuji had been with Mori since just about the time he’d started in this line of work, and it was no exaggeration to say that she was the one who’d made him into a one-stop book designer.
That was why, even though it’d been six years since he’d become a designer, he still couldn’t say no to Mori.
“That front cover the other day went over really well, Shiraishi, did you hear?”
Mori launched into the conversation all on her own, but she must have noticed Shuuji’s lack of response, and asked her question to double check.
“Sorry, my head isn’t really working…” Shuuji answered honestly.
Usually, his mind switched over the second he started talking to Mori, but today, although he could hear Mori’s voice, none of what she was actually saying was making it into his brain.
“‘Is something wrong?” Mori asked.
Shuuji’s mumbling and his weird tone of voice must have made her wonder if he wasn’t feeling well.
“Uh, yeah, yes, I do have a bit of a fever.”
He hadn’t even checked his temperature, but he couldn’t tell her the real reason, so he went along with her suspicions.
“So you weren’t sleeping, you were just staring off into space, huh.
Maybe we should leave shop talk for next time then.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, that would help.”
“I understand.
I’m not in any rush myself, so how about Wednesday, two days from now?” she asked, and Shuuji’s eyes reflexively found his wall calendar.
Shuuji knew it was the fourteenth day of the month, but he had no clue what the Wednesday two days from now would be.
“Today… What day is it?”
“You don’t even know what day it is? You are sick, huh,” Mori said, dumbstruck.
“Today’s the fourteenth of July, so two days from now will be the sixteenth,” she told him, in easy to digest specifics.
“Ah, okay.
That’s fine then.”
Having been told the date in concrete terms, Shuuji’s dazed mind finally came to grips with it.
“For today, you get some rest, and get better quickly please.”

“I’m sorry.”
He apologized one final time, and the phone call ended.
Shuuji’s gaze stayed on the calendar the whole time.
If today was the fourteenth, that meant it had been exactly one week since Koutarou Seno,2 the man Shuuji had been dating for six years, had disappeared, gone right out from under him.
Seeing Koutarou off to work last week Monday morning was the last time they’d been together.
Koutarou had been driving to his job when an oncoming car going over the speed limit had crossed the center line and crashed into him.
He’d been unconscious for two days, and on the morning of the third day he’d passed away, having never woken up.
Maybe because he wasn’t able to be there when Koutarou had died, it felt utterly unreal.
He hardly remembered this past week at all, and he’d even started to feel like everything had happened in a dream.
But Koutarou was gone, that was reality.
They saw each other basically every day, and when they couldn’t meet, they’d check up on each other with phone calls, but neither of those things had happened in a week now.
He couldn’t help but notice it, even if he didn’t want to.
The fact that they were always together was so natural, he never imagined there would come a day when Koutarou wouldn’t be there.
What was he supposed to do now? The whole idea had never even crossed his mind.
He only ever thought about the good times.
But he’d been dragged out of that dream and back to reality, and a deep sense of loss stole over him.
He’d cried so much he’d practically shriveled up, but his tears flowed again.
Days like this scraped the meat off of Shuuji’s frame, which was only 170 cm and maybe 50 kilos to begin with.
The lines of Shuuji’s body had always given a delicate impression, but in the past week, he’d become increasingly ephemeral.
He was a bit plain, but actually his face was quite nice, and it was in those features that the unhappiness that now enshrouded him was plain to see.
Shuuji’s apartment was a studio in an upscale building, and once he’d put a work desk and a bed in there, there was no more room for a sofa.
Whenever Koutarou came over, they’d always lean up against the bed and sit next to each other on the floor.
There was plenty of space for Shuuji, with his small frame, but it was probably a bit tiny for Koutarou, who was 180 cm, although he always seemed to be enjoying himself.
When they met, it was always in each other’s apartments.
Then three years ago, they’d added one more place, a research lab and vacation home Koutarou had purchased on the edge of town.
They spent just about every weekend there, and that last time he’d seen Koutarou off, it had been in that house.
“That house… What’s going to happen to it?”
A question he never intended to ask anyone slipped from his mouth.
Shuuji was the only person who knew Koutarou had bought the thing, aside from the businessman who’d acted as an intermediary.
The fact that he’d been able to buy the house – which had run into the several millions of yen 3, including renovation costs – in one lump sum at only twenty seven was proof that Koutarou’s company had treated him extraordinarily well.
He was such an excellent researcher he’d gotten numerous invitations from universities and corporations both within Japan and overseas.
But Koutarou had wanted to create a place where he could do whatever research he wanted, and where Shuuji would always be by his side.
His research at the company had gotten to the point where he’d started spending the night there, and he wasn’t able to meet with Shuuji anymore. So I figured I might as well make my own lab, Koutarou had said with a smile.
There was no one to get in the way in that house, and the place was like paradise as far as the two of them were concerned.
He had more memories with Koutarou there than he did even in this room… The instant he realized that, he got the urge to see it again, just one last time.
He started dressing so quickly, his earlier lethargy seemed like a total lie.

– – –

The vacation house was in Okutama,4 about a two hour drive from the heart of Tokyo.
Before, Koutarou would pick him up in the car on Friday night, and then drop him off at his apartment on the way to work Monday morning.
But that day last week, Shuuji had stayed behind in the vacation house.
He’d been working on some stuff with a looming deadline that morning, and he wasn’t going to finish it in time if he left with Koutarou.
If that day had been like normal, if he’d been able to finish his work a little faster, maybe Koutarou wouldn’t have gotten in that accident.
Shuuji’s regrets pained him.
Shuuji had a license, but he didn’t own a car, so first he stopped to rent one, and then he headed for Koutarou’s condo on his own.
He knew Koutarou wouldn’t be there, of course, but he wanted to see that place too, one last time.
He arrived at the condo, and parked the car on the street.
He’d intended only to look from the car window, but when he saw the building, his body naturally got out of the car.

From the base of the building, he looked up at Koutarou’s room, which he could never enter again–
“Hey, you must be Seno’s friend, right?”
At the unexpected question, Shuuji turned in surprise.
A man he thought he’d seen somewhere before was standing behind him.
“You don’t remember, huh.
We actually met once before, right here as a matter of fact.”
“From the same lab as Koutarou…”
He remembered that much at least, after being given a hint, but he still didn’t really know the man.
Koutarou hadn’t introduced them that day, and he’d only told Shuuji they were from the same lab because Shuuji had asked him about it afterwards.
The company Koutarou had been working for rented out whole floors of this building to use as company housing.
This man lived here too, he’d heard, so it wasn’t surprising they would meet.
“What are you doing here today? You know about Seno, right?”
“Yes…” Shuuji answered, with no strength in his voice, and weighed his excuses in his head.
Saying that he’d just been passing by was unnatural, but neither did he have any reason to be dropping by an apartment that didn’t have an owner anymore.
“I was wondering what to do with some things I borrowed…”
“And your feet just brought you here, huh.”
Shuuji’d made up the story on a spur of the moment impulse, but the man nodded like he understood.
“Well I guess you can just keep them.
Not like there’s any estate to pass on.”
“But, what about his parents?”
Was it alright to just do what he wanted with the man’s things even though they weren’t blood related? He hadn’t actually borrowed anything, but he ended up giving voice to his questions.
“I don’t think they took anything,” the man replied, quite confident for some reason.
“Why is that?”
“They hired a company to clean out the apartment, and I heard they told them it was alright to dispose of all the stuff in his private research room.
They didn’t come by to see it, even once.”
The man must have been surprised too, because he explained it all with a bitter smile.
Shuuji was so shocked by Koutarou’s parents’ attitude that no words came immediately to mind, and then he was furious.
Koutarou never had anything to do with his parents, he’d told Shuuji once that they hadn’t had a normal parent-child relationship since he was little.
But even so, they were still parent and child.
Shouldn’t they have at least visited him in the hospital to see if their only son was going to survive? Shuuji’s expression grew stern without him knowing.
“To hear that and get mad, you really were friends, huh.”
“What?” Shuuji asked back, inadvertently rude, caught off guard by the man’s sudden statement.
“No, it’s just that I didn’t really believe Seno had any friends.
He didn’t really hang out with anyone, after all.”
“Even with people at the lab?”

“He never once ate with us, or went for drinks, or anything.
He could’ve just said that he had a friend like you, someone who knew the private parts of his life, you know, I would have understood why he never hung out with us.
I mean, I was the one who’d been in the lab with him the longest.”
The man’s bitter smile hinted at the attitude Koutarou must have taken in the lab.
It wasn’t really Shuuji’s fault, but all he could do was flash a bewildered smile and apologize.
“Well, all researchers are weird in some way or another, but he was really different, even in that crowd.
It wasn’t just that he didn’t hang out with anybody, he didn’t seem to have any interest in people, I guess.
He always looked composed, even when he was by himself.”
“That much… was probably true.”
Certainly, Koutarou was always saying that about himself, that until he met Shuuji, he hadn’t had any interest in what other people were doing.
Ordinary people noticed what others thought of them, what society thought of them, and tried to match their surroundings, but Koutarou never did anything even remotely like that.
“He was beyond genius though, I guess.
And now that amazing talent is gone.
The engineered skin he developed was just about to finally make it out of the approval process too.”
“Is that the kind of research he was doing?”
“He never told you about it?”
“It seemed like it would be hard to understand…”
So Shuuji had never asked after the details.
He did feel like he wanted to know everything that had anything to do with Koutarou, but it probably would have taken days to get to an explanation Shuuji could make sense of.
If they had to waste the precious hours they spent together on that, he was fine not knowing.
“It probably would be difficult for the general populace, I guess.” The man nodded in understanding.
“What I can say is that thanks to the fruits of his research, regenerative medicine in Japan has taken a huge leap forward.”
Maybe it was because they’d been in the same lab, but a hint of pride was added to the other emotions showing on the man’s face.
“That big…” Shuuji’s words stuck in his throat with surprise and deep emotion.
He’d known Koutarou was a genius, but he hadn’t known how much other people valued him, because Koutarou himself had never spoken of it.
Hearing it from a person like this made him realize Koutarou’s talents anew.
“Our company will be worse off without him too.
There isn’t anyone who can take over his research.”
Maybe because they’d been standing around talking for so long, the man made a display of noticing the time, and then expressed his condolences to Shuuji on the loss of his friend and left.
Watching him go, Shuuji remembered something.
He had met the man, back when he and Koutarou were still just friends.
If they’d met afterwards, surely Koutarou would have said frankly that they were lovers.
Koutarou had never paid attention to things like society’s opposition to his having a male lover, or the question of what people might say.
He only ever looked at Shuuji.
That was one of the things Shuuji loved about him.
Shuuji bit his lip, trying not to start crying again, and quickly got back in the car.

– – –

Thanks to his detour, the sun had entirely set by the time Shuuji arrived at the vacation house.
He opened the door with the key he hadn’t quite been able to let go of, and an unfamiliar, chilly air washed over him.
It’d only been a week since he’d been here, so that wasn’t any different than usual, but Koutarou was gone now, and today was the only day this place had ever felt so bleak.
Bearing up under the loneliness that collected inside him, Shuuji headed for the stairs to the second floor.
Originally, this vacation house had been an ordinary two-story building.
After he’d purchased it, Koutarou had made the first floor into a lab and storeroom, and had remodeled the second floor into private living space.
Shuuji never stopped on the first floor, he only ever passed through it on his way to the second floor.

But today, he halted at the bottom of the stairs.
The research lab was off to one side, and something was going bump in there.
Now that Koutarou was gone, there shouldn’t have been anyone in the house or the lab, but an unfamiliar mechanical whirring slipped out from under the door.
Koutarou’s death had been sudden, so it wouldn’t have been strange if some research equipment was still operational.
And if that’s what it was, it was up to Shuuji to stop the whirring.
Spurred on by a strange sense of duty, Shuuji opened the door to the lab for the first time in his life.
The light from the hallway shone into the room.
It acted like a spotlight, highlighting a white capsule almost two meters long sitting in the center of the gloomy room.
The noise was coming from the capsule.
Even if he wanted to cut the power, he didn’t know where the switch might be.
As he was staring at it, wondering what to do, the capsule started making a different noise.
After a sort of kachink sound, like a lock being released, the top of the capsule started to separate from the bottom.
Which was how Shuuji realized the capsule had a lid.
The lid opened about ninety degrees and then stopped.
What was in it? Before Shuuji could take a step, a black object appeared from inside.
He immediately realized it was the head of a human being.
A sound came out of Shuuji’s mouth, but it didn’t form any words, and his breath caught in his throat.
A scene he could only assume was a dream spread before his eyes.
What Shuuji was staring at so hard that he couldn’t even blink was the face of the man he loved most in the world.
Those graceful features looked cold when expressionless, as they were now.
But even so, Shuuji couldn’t be mistaken.
The naked man sat up in the capsule and looked slowly around at his surroundings, and then he noticed Shuuji.
His expression completely changed, and he flashed a gentle smile.
Time stopped, but only around Shuuji.
Koutarou always smiled at him like that.
And now that same smiling face was right here.
Even that taught body, without a bit of pointless flesh on it, was the same one Koutarou had held him with so many times.
That calm voice he loved so much called his name, and Shuuji wanted to rush over to him instantly.
But his feet didn’t move.
Koutarou shouldn’t have been there, and being called by him threw Shuuji into chaos.
His whole body went rigid, and he started to feel like he was experiencing some kind of respiratory distress.
Koutarou had met his end in an accident a week ago.
Shuuji had never heard of him having a twin brother, and even if one did exist, they weren’t likely to be this identical.
So given all that, who was this man who looked like no one so much as Koutarou?
You must be surprised, huh,” the man said, obviously noticing Shuuji’s confusion, and flashed a wry smile.
“I… died, didn’t I?”
Shuuji understood he’d been asked a question.
But the words had no meaning, and wouldn’t get into his head.
Of course, he wasn’t remotely able to investigate the contradiction in what had been said.
The man leisurely pulled himself from the capsule, and approached Shuuji, who was still silent.
He didn’t have any clothes on his lower half either, it was like he’d just been born.
That was the kind of thought Shuuji had as his consciousness faded.

白 shiro, white; 石 ishi, stone; 修 shuu, scholar (also the kanji for the given name Osamu); 士 shi, warrior or respected man (also one available kanji option for a samurai).
Shuuji’s given name as a whole word can also mean ‘a master’s degree.’ 瀬 se, rapids; 野 no, field, or the wilds; 康 kou, peace; 太 ji, plump; 郎 rou, son; (jirou is a fairly typical masculine name ending, it just means, like, ‘healthy boy child’) several hundred thousand dollars okutama is a town to the northwest-ish of tokyo.
wikipedia tells me it has nice weather and a pretty waterfall.

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