Tastes Like Home
by Renée Gendron (@reneegendron)“Left.” Iracem Mota jabbed her finger in the air towards an alley. “We can’t let them get the pharmaceuticals. They’ll keep hundreds alive in the Good Lands.”
“Like I don’t know that.” Tabiki Watanabe jerked the hovercar to the right. “That’s the wrong way.”
“No. It’s not.” She changed the angle on the side view mirror. Flashing yellow and red lights spun. The Corps. “Cops are right behind us.”
A series of hundred-year-old skyscrapers stood to her left. The windows long lost their polish, the steel girders leaned a little, and cheap restaurants and second-hand shops lined the street-level while substandard housing occupied the remaining sixty storeys.
Tabiki took a second sharp right, gunned the accelerator, and narrowly missed a cluster of pedestrians. “There’s a shortcut through here.”
“Why do you never listen?”
“I listen. You’re wrong in this case.”
Sharp words lacerated her tongue. “You didn’t listen in Okino.”
“I did listen. I was right on everything, except the time.” His voice carried no sense of smugness, only his usual, casual, matter-of-factness that spoke truth to power.
Her thoughts blurred with nightmarish memories of the ambush. She was across the street, behind a pile of rubble, ready to attack a tank. Tabiki lay low in an alley, pulse cannon on his shoulder. Two minutes ahead of plan, the love of her life ran out from the alley, stood alone in a darkened street, and raised the pulse cannon. He struck the tank, but the second tank blasted his position.
She blanked out for minutes, her mind shutting down, her body number, and her heart in survival mode. When awareness returned to her, she dragged Tabiki two hundred metres away and gave him mouth to mouth resuscitation.
The event marked her DNA, a trauma to be passed down from generation to generation.
Her stomach lurched, and her thoughts wobbled from left to right and back to left. A wave of nausea consumed before. Drawing in long breaths, she braced against the front panelling. “Watch out!”
“I see them. I see them.” He swerved around a series of dumpster bins, overtook a transport truck, and headed for the giant wall that penned the city.
The windshield whippers shoved the deluge off the windshield, but still, the road ahead was blurry. The air was thick with ozone, chemicals, and some metallic taste from thousands of destroyed buildings and tanks that no scientist or rebel could identify. The Sendai City Council’s only response to the metallic taste was to change the warning on the blimps from moderate irritation to severe respiratory aggravation.
She sucked in a long breath, clearing a bit of nausea but not the hunger. Cold sweat poured from her, and she turned up the heat.
“The windows will fog,” he said, “and the medicines will spoil.”
“The drugs are in chilled coolers. They’re safe.” She removed a rag from the passenger door’s pocket. “It’s better I keep wiping down the windows, then us breathing in that crap.”
He sucked on his cheek the way he did when he refused to concede a point.
Sweat cascaded down her back, adding to the overall stickiness of the humidity. “How long to the gate?”
Three Mega Corps. cop cars streamed in from the side streets, blockading the road. Officers in full-on hazmat suits with oxygen tanks stood behind opened car doors. Guns were drawn.
Tabiki drew in a long breath. His fingers tightened around the steering wheel. “Hang on.”
A thrill shot through her then was trampled by an overwhelming sense of dread. She forced her eyes open to look death in the face. She reached for the single pistol between them and placed her twitchy finger on the trigger. Years of street fighting and scavenging kicked in. If she missed one shot, she would be dead. Tabiki would be dead. Everything she ever cared about would be dead. All or nothing, the way she had survived until this point.
Her breathing slowed. Everything around her slowed. The blur of the skyrises become clear. The logos onto the cop cars forming a blockage came into focus. The squareness and stiffness of the cops’ shoulders sharpened until they were squarely tarped in bright-yellow plastic.
This one shot. A kill shot to survive. A missed shot to die in a blaze of unglorified futility.
Tabiki drove the hoover car towards the Mega Corp vehicles and took a sharp left to an alley. Another hard turn, and the gates to the city were in sight.
“Won’t be long.” He shot her a glance. A glance that conveyed twenty years of emotions. From the first time, they met when they were ten years old in a soup line, to their first kiss, to the daily struggle to find bread and supplies, and dodge the AI tanks, and run faster than the acid rain, and evade the Corp cops, and fighting the street gangs, and rallying to unite the street gangs into a formal resistant. And. And. And. And. And. And.
Somewhere in the last two seconds, her brain shut off, and her body forgot to breathe.
The sun-blocking city gates loomed in the too-close distance. Guards in their bright-yellow uniforms patrolled the area, armed with laser pistols and energy cannons. Water pelted the windshield, adding a blurry layer to the scene, confusing reality from nightmare.
“Always together,” he said.
She squeezed his hand until every knuckle in hers popped. “Always together.”
The dense cityscape of metal and concrete gave way to clusters of two and three-storey buildings. The landscape was dented from shells, the trees and vegetation burned from plasma, and the dwellings hastily constructed out of wood easier to pack up and leave.
Tabiki glanced in the rearview mirror. “It looks like we lost them.”
Her pulse tripped, and she closed her eyes to centre herself. “I think so.”
“Are you all right?” He squeezed her hand.
Yes. No. Yes. Never. Always if he was around. “We’ve been through worse.” She collected stray locks and tied them back in a loose bun.
The engine wheezed and sputtered. The bright lights of the Corps. cars flashed through the haze and sheets of rain.
Speeding past the hamlets, they reached a stretch of no-man’s land. Relics of recent and distant wars littered the landscape. Rusted scraps, too far gone to be of use, spread red-coloured stains on the ground even acid couldn’t wash away. Unburied dead lay in bleached bones, staring at the sky in dismay for their abandonment.
These were the Good Lands. The lands where people could have a marginal living if they kept out of sight of surveillance blimps, raiders and avoided diseases. The Bad Lands still had the living dead wandering, aimless, hopeless, restless, and wanton.
Tabiki tugged on his collar. “Two hours until the first stop.” He brought her hand to his lips. “We made it through another mission.”
“It’s not done yet. Still need to deliver the meds.”
The rain ceased once they crossed the inland divide, a series of valleys that marked the barrier in climate zones from coastal to the interior. The air was less humid, more laden with barren dirt. The sky was less sullen grey, more an unyielding brightness that parched everything it caressed. Trees replaced concrete and dust, but they had an eerie silence to them. The monkeys, insects, birds, and snakes long ago, having felt the desolation, quit this part of Nippon en masse.
Rocks lay strewn at the base of each tree, and browning undergrowth carpeted the area. Relics of different times littered the area—a rusted car, an abandoned war robot, a doll with jet-black hair and onyx eyes staring blankly at the sky.
She pointed to a series of stacked stones in a copse of trees with yellowing leaves. “Here’s the turn.”
He slowed the vehicle and made the turn. Branches touched the doors and roof. The headlights shone against yellowing leaves and dark-brown branches. Still, Tabiki drove forward until they reached a small clearing where two dozen people in modest clothing and armed with twenty-year-old laser pistols encircled them.
A few people looked down their weapon’s sites. Some lowered their weapons, and others looked on with concern. Three continued to grip their weapons like it was the last thing keeping them alive. An elderly man spoke over his shoulder.
A fountain of joy overflowed in Iracem. She lowered the window. “Pedro! So glad to see you.”
An elderly man with more white hairs than dark brown approached the vehicle. His eyes held both wisdom and wariness, but the smile on his face indicated he hadn’t been hardened by life. “Iracem?”
Tabiki had just stopped the cat when she sprang from it, bounding towards Pedro and pulling him into a hug. Pedro, her mentor for years, her grandmother’s friend, a figure in the resistance Pedro, the man who became family when she had no family left. Greetings exchanges, she released her hold.
Pedro patted her pat and let his hands fall to his sides. “Tell me of news in the cities.”
She gave her head a little shake. “Another time.”
“That bad? Are there still food riots?”
She gave a slight bow and circled to the trunk of the vehicle. “Time to think of brighter days. We bring gifts.” She removed a box from the trunk. “The latest pharmaceuticals. This box will help you fight the spring fevers, the winter coughs, and the scourge of the Bad Lands.”
“Thank you, child.” The crack in the old man’s voice was strong enough to break another piece of Nippon away. “Come, we feast.”
“We have more deliveries to make.”
He draped his arm over her shoulder. “You cannot be the only one who brings gifts. We’d be terrible hosts. Besides, it’s not wise to make deliveries on an empty stomach.” Pedro flashed a warm smile to Tabiki.
Tabiki helped others in the encampment pull camouflage tarps over the vehicle and caught up with Irachem.
Pedro led them along a narrow trail that wove between branches. The further away from the road, the greener the underbrush. Deeper in the forest, tight circles of rocks lined the base of trees, the stones damp from condensation. Rings of vegetables grew around the base of trees, and chickens pecked the ground. Metre-tall Indio chickens pecked the ground.
Light-brown and yellow camouflage were stitched together and draped over the lush green treetops. A cluster of huts stood nestled among the tallest trees.
Seated on a long outdoor table set for twenty, Tabiki and Irachem were served shrimp soup and chicken pie.
Irachem leaned against Tabiki and let the weight of the day ease from her shoulders. Friendly faces looked at her, a familiar fishy smell filled the night’s air, and the conversation turned pleasant. There were no harsh words over conflicting strategies, no bitter words over casualties and starvation, no vitriol over which corp to strike next.
Smiles, and relaxed shoulders, and her childhood language of Portuguese filled the night. Fish and seasoning and laughter between comrades fille the night’s air. A kitchen table spread out for twenty where all were welcome, and the woes of the day and the grind of existence were hung up to dry outside of the copse of trees.
Here, among friends and family, flavours that made everyone one at home.
Salt and fish and warmth and love rolled around her tongue. Through watery eyes, she gave Pedro a heartfelt smile. “Mãe’s recipe. You remembered?”
“Hard to forget such a delicious recipe.”
“Where did you get the fish?” Years ago, she spent Saturday afternoons with her mother at local markets, finding the right ingredients and negotiating prices. At the time, she resented so much time wasted in the market. Today, she’d give up ten years of her life for another hour with her mother wandering the markets.
The soup was not too salty, not too fishy, not too laced with paprika. It was perfection on a spoon. With each taste, a memory of her father—Pai— and sister surfaced. On the day of her mother—Mãe’s—death, Pai took Iracem and her sister out to eat after the funeral to a Brazilian restaurant. That soup was oversalted and canned, lacked passion and flavour.
Tabiki angled his back to the table and pulled her closer. “Why the tears?”
Surprised, she dabbed her eyes. “We always made fish soup on Tuesdays.”
“The restaurant,” he whispered and drew her in a hug.
She nodded and pressed her eyes shut. The pink neon signs of the Brazilian eatery were still as bright and vivid as the day her mother died. Her Pai brought her and her sister to this hole in the wall Brazilian place that claimed to serve authentic Brazilian food. Only the recipes were altered to some weird-tasting fusion food, the chef wasn’t interested in not burning the food, and the bench so hard that she hurt her bum.
“The soup we had in the restaurant was so horrible, Pai vowed never to return and to perfect Mãe’s recipe. We used to make fish soup every Tuesday. I miss Mãe.”
Tabiki pulled her closer.
“There’s so much sorrow in your eyes.” He leaned his forehead against her.
She leaned into him, pressing her eyes shut for a moment and abandoning herself to the warmth of his embrace. Her body trembled, and he held her closer. Her breath faltered, and he pressed a kiss to her temple. She was overwhelmed by tastes and savours and smiles and touches she’d never feel again, and he held her, strong and true. He held her.
“I’ve been emotional lately.” She pressed a kiss on Tabiki’s cheek and straightened. “Sorry. You were saying?”
Pedro looked on with sympathetic eyes. “Your mother was a special lady. She’s missed by many. As I was saying, we’ve established trade networks. We’ve got some routes further north near Sakata.”
She took another spoonful, letting the liquid tickle her tongue before swallowing. “That’s really good.”
“It’ll take years to rebuild…” Pedro cleared his throat. “But there’s a chance. Get resources, remain independent, and fight.”
Iracem nodded, the only way she knew how to keep her emotions at bay. She dug into her chicken pie, and one tear escaped.
Pedro’s cheeks pulled back in a smile. “It’s hard to forget the recipe when she took it from my Belinha.”
“That’s not true.”
“Of course, it is. In the first winter in the war, your mother and my Belinha were strategising a counter-offensive. They came to heads one night, and it looked like our cell was going to collapse. We couldn’t let our best strategists walk away from the cause. It would have been the end of everything. Everyone in the camp was hungry. We hadn’t eaten in days.”
Iracem smiled inwardly, comparing how Pedro told the story and how Mãe told it. Pedro told it matter of fact, Mãe added more flare.
Pedro pushed away his empty plate. “The decision was made to use most of the available resources to have one full, satisfying meal. Weeks on half-rations turned many of us temperamental and weak. There was all sort of bickering in the camp, pettiness, and shouting matches. Frustrations, really, over the same inability to gain in the war. Your mother and my Belinha decided to cook as many dishes from back home as possible. Volunteers were to cook their favourite dish and serve it to others. Belinha and your mother were beside one another, each cooking chicken pie. Belihna swore that your mother stole her secrets.”
Tabiki pinched his lips the way he did when he was engrossed in a story. She smiled inwardly. He was the same, man or child. He loved a good story.
A dreamy look covered Pedro’s eyes. “Sure, it was a huge gamble on limited resources. But it brought everyone together. That night, there were no petty rivalries, no bickering, no squabbles over who was first in line to take a field bath. Only stories and songs. The next day, your mother and my Belinha came up with the strategy to push the Corps back in Osaka. It was the first significant victory in the war.”
Pedro’s eyes shined. His wrinkled cheeks curved in a smile that melted forty years from his life. “Eat my Belinha’s pie.” He winked.
She laughed. “I’ll happily eat my Mãe’s pie.”
She and Tabiki stayed up with Pedro until the minuscule hours of the morning, discussing possible trade routes, connections with other resistance groups, and ways to skirt the Corps. Cops.
After a breakfast of stuffed bread and a warm açaí smoothie, a long farewell to Pedro, she and Tabiki took to the hovercar with her behind the wheel.
She put the craft in drive. “Where?”
“Mogami first, I want to visit my grandmother.”
Her thoughts pressed down her heart, shoving it past her feet, weighing against the accelerator. She steered the car through the thick forest and emerged onto a series of pocked goat trails. “You never told me your grandmother was there.”
“It was too risky.” The heaviness in his voice could anchor a ship.
“I share everything with you.”
“So do I.”
“Except that your grandmother is only two hours away.”
He held his hand up the way he did when he didn’t want to hear anymore. “She didn’t want her presence known.”
“Even from me? After I risked my life stealing corporate secrets to help her?”
“You know she’s grateful.”
She swallowed past the bitterness that soured her words. “Years, Tabi. We’ve been together for years. My mother died protecting her.”
“You know she loves you.”
“I know. But she should have told me.”
Laser blasts shot by them. High-pitched whizzing blew past either side of their vehicle. A blast landed against a boulder, ending in a cloud of dust. The car rocked left with one close call, and a second blasted landed under them, launching the vehicle three metres higher.
Iracem startled and pressed her foot against the accelerator. The vast expanse before them was an unending landscape of dunes and rust heaps and long, high-noon shadows against the parched ground.
“Where’s your pistol?” he asked.
She removed it from the small of her back and handed it to him. “It won’t be enough to stop them, and there aren’t that many charges left.”
“I know.” He loaded the charge into the weapon.
A series of pulse blasts shot around them.
Tabiki pointed to the mound of rusted metal ahead. “Head for those tank heaps.”
“That’s a tight space.”
“I know. Full speed.”
She ran her tongue along her lower lip, ignored the twisting in her gut, and gunned it for the tanks. The sides of the hoover craft grated against the long-defunct tanks, slowing down her vehicle.
Tabiki lowered the window and leaned out of it, pistol aimed at the Corps.
She pressed all her weight into the accelerator, but the car didn’t go any faster. “Can’t.”
He shot three rounds, ducked inside, and hung out of the side again to release more rounds. “Try again.”
The sides of the vehicle scraped against metal and slowed their forward momentum. The driver’s side mirror dangled from its wires. Vapour hissed from the engine.
“Woah,” Tabiki said. “I said close, not smashed.”
Fingers coiled around the steering wheel, she placed her hand on her lower belly and sucked in air. A wave of nausea hit her, rocking her insides this way and that. “It is close, and I didn’t smash the car.”
The dent in the hood and the vapour seeping around said otherwise. She tried the starter button, but the engine gurgled.
“Can you fix it?” He swung the door open and used it as a shield.
“I think something’s been knocked loose. I’ll have to see.” She grabbed the tool kit in the back seat. “Cover me.” She ducked out of the driver’s side door under a series of blasts and opened the hood. The engine was hot, fluids leaked, and there was an unmistakable smell of smoke. The smoke she ignored, the fluids, she patched with duct tape, and as for the hot engine—that she let aerate under the midday sun in the middle of nowhere known for its crushing heat.
Three energy blasts fizzed by her ear, exploding against the boulders to the right. Thousands of dust particles clouded the air and watered her eyes. One shot shattered the rear window of the car, sending a spray of glass. A second shot blasted through the windshield, pelting the raised hood with shards.
“Are you hurt?” Tabiki shot three rounds. “What do you have?”
“I’m fine. The hood stopped most of it.”
“Most?” Still firing rounds, his eyes met hers.
She ignored the stings in her forearms and the rivulets of blood from the shrapnel. “Only scrapes. It’s an overheated engine.”
He had the same look in his eye he got when he didn’t believe her but chose to say nothing. “Any water in the back?”
She retrieved a handkerchief from her back pocket and fanned the engine. “We’ve only a litre left between us to get to Mogami.”
“Spit and piss.”
He shot off another two rounds. “It’ll have to be yours.”
Muttering, she lowered her trousers and relieved herself on the engine. Steam rose and warmed all her intimate parts.
Energy blasts pulsed around her, leaving charred scars on rocks.
Head down, she hurried to the driver’s seat and tried the engine. It didn’t turn. “No luck. Need you to try.”
He tossed her the pistol, and it was her turn to use the door as a shield. She shot three rounds, wounded one Corp and dogging a thunderstorm of bolts.
“Try now.” Tabiki crouched behind the passenger door, and he extended his arm towards her.
She tossed him the pistol, slid into the driver’s seat, and tried the engine. A low hum gathered moment, and the engine sputtered to life. “Get in.”
She and Tabiki slammed their doors shut, and she stomped on the accelerator. Once clear of the derelict tanks, Tabiki leaned out of the window and fired more rounds.
A fireball lit up in the rearview mirror, but she didn’t stop. She pressed forward, pushing the old engine as fast and far as it would go.
“That’s it. I’m out.” Tabiki eased into the passenger.
Too many unspoken words danced on her tongue. The tension in her shoulders increased tenfold, and she swept her gaze over the vastness of the Good Lands ahead.
“We’ll make it.”
“Hmm.” It was the only sound she could make. Every few minutes, she risked a glance in the rearview mirror, searching for any yellow spark, any light that didn’t belong, any movement that was too fast and too sleek for any vehicle belonging in the Good Lands.
“Turn at the stone,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“That’s O bāchan’s marker.”
Days-long tension in her lungs eased. Not enough for a full breath, but enough to give her courage.
They followed the rocky path, along a river, past a thicket that was blocked by fallen logs. Irachem stopped the car, got out, and placed her hands on the side of the car in preparation for being searched.
Tabiki got out of the car and raised his hands above his head. “It’s me. Tabiki Watanabe.”
The energy in the air thinned as blaster after blaster was turned off, leaving behind a distinct ozone smell. A captain camouflage gear stepped out from a tree holding her Series 403, no-recoil, no-charge time blaster with its nuzzle angled to the ground. “We weren’t expecting you.”
“There wasn’t time,” Tabiki said. “We’ve meds.”
The captain motioned for her platoon to search them. The infantryman who frisked Irachem did so with enthusiasm, squeezing all of Irachem’s fleshy bits and taking extra time to smooth over her lower belly.
Irachem forced her features to remain placid, despite the harassment and the humiliation. “Is this necessary every time?”
The captain lifted her chin. “Every time there’s a tuga.”
Every muscle in her face pinched.
Tabiki shrugged off the soldier frisking him. “What did you call her?”
“You heard me.” The captain squared her shoulders. “The tuga’s got us in this mess.”
“After all the times she’s risked your life to help?” Tabiki stepped into the captain.
Irachem’s chest swelled, and her stomach lurched. She stepped towards Tabiki, but the soldier who frisked her yanked her back.
“She’s clean, captain,” the soldier said. “Fat and clean.”
Tabiki scowled. “We’ve brought you medicines, and you insult us? You insult my O bāchan with such behaviour. We’re in this together, to bring down the Corps. It doesn’t do us any good to fight amongst ourselves.”
The captain drew her lips together in a straight line. She cocked her head to the side, and her troops fell back to their defensive position behind the fallen tree. “Open the gate.”
Irachem released a slow breath, but the tension in her shoulders remained. She sunk into the driver’s seat, waited for Tabiki, who muttered a string of curses in Japanese and Portuguese, and drove down a dusty trail until it opened up into an encampment of tents and trailers. She parked the vehicle, and Tabiki hopped out with the energy of a ten-year-old. She followed him a respectful distance behind, ignoring the curious and hopeful looks of those in the camp. Some she knew by name, most she didn’t, but they all wore the same discoloured clothes of those who had been at the fringes their entire lives.
“O bāchan,” Tabiki bowed in front of an elderly woman with streaks of silver in her hair. Wise in the eyes with a polite smile, she returned his bow. “It’s good to see you.”
Quiet words were exchanged before O bāchan peered around Tabiki to Iracem. “It is good to see you, child.” She approached and pulled Iracem into a tight embrace.
“Tell me good news.”
“Your guards are so effective they nearly stopped us from entering.”
Soulful dark eyes met Irachem’s. “Did they hurt you?”
Irachem shook her head.
“It’s the third time we’ve moved camp in three months. There’s a leak somewhere, but Captain Domen hasn’t been able to find the information.”
Irachem tugged at the front of her shirt, not that it removed the creases or splotches of dirt. “We’ve medicines.”
“That is good news.” She motioned for Tabiki and two soldiers to remove the supplies from the car. “Tell me better news.” O bāchan dusted her hand against Iracem’s lower abdomen.
Heat scorching Iracem’s cheeks, she leaned into O bāchan. “He doesn’t know yet.”
Delight blossomed in O bāchan’s dark eyes. “You must be hungry.”
O bāchan straightened and led Iracem and Tabiki to her tent. A modest tent with one cot and a table for two with a third chair pulled up to it.
Fighting a wave of nausea and fatigue, Iracem plunked into a chair. O bāchan served miso soup, the perfect thing to ease Iracem’s stomach. With just enough salt to quash a wobbly stomach and enough heat to warm her from the inside out. The taste brought her back to the earlier days of the war, where meat and fish were scarce, but the crops were yet untouched by battle. With enough onion to fortify the blood and miso paste to enhance the flavour, a sense of camaraderie filled her. In the early days, when everyone was confident, the war would be over soon, and deep friendships formed—like the one she had forged with Tabiki.
Irachem finished her bowl with an audible ahh and eyed the larger bowl.
Captain Domen scowled at Irachem, but O bāchan served Irachem a second helping and leaned into Irachem’s ear. “I put some ginger in this recipe. It should help.”
“It does, thank you.”
“How is it Sendai?” O bāchan asked.
“Not good.” Tabiki slurped his soup. A contented expression descended on his face. He helped himself to another bowl of soup, the way a five-year-old does when reaching for his favourite candy. “Everything is in short supply.”
“We must find away,” O bāchan sipped her tea, “for the free folk to prevail.”
Tabiki picked up sushi with his chopsticks. He took one bite and pressed his eyes closed, his expression somewhere between ecstasy and bliss. “There’s always a way. We need to keep a step ahead of them.”
Fortified by the soup, Iracem helped herself to a second bowl. “How can we stay ahead of them if we are always scrounging to survive?”
“Get smarter,” O bāchan said. “Cultivate better contacts in the Mega Corps. Send some of our own there.”
“How did you get fish?” Tabiki popped a second piece of sushi in his mouth, and a serene expression descended over his features. “It’s just like you used to make it.”
Bliss fogged his eyes, and he sighed.
O bāchan smiled. “It is my recipe.”
Tabiki selected another piece of sushi. “Where’d you get the fish?”
“Other groups are seeing the wisdom of collaboration. We buy fish from a group in Kitakata in exchange for helping them access certain corp files.”
“Seem a lopsided traded.”
“Not so lopsided that you can’t stuffing your mouth.” O bāchan laughed.
The corners of her eyes crowded with tears. “Sushi rolls.”
One piece of sushi was a rare treat. A second piece was reserved for a birthday party or commemoration of all those fallen in a war. But a full sushi roll was reserved only for mid-level Corp managers or higher.
Years, no aeons ago, on a log next to a travelling sushi bar, Tabiki served her a piece of salmon sushi. She had taken it from him with chopsticks. They sat, arms extended, chopsticks outstretched the way they had on their first date. Only a few thousand Yen to their names, they splurged on seafood when they had been surviving on rice, Goma-ae, and kiriboshi daikon.
Salmon was a once in a six-month splurge, and they splurged on some sketchy street vendor who peddled his cart from neighbourhood to neighbourhood among piles of rubble, dodging gangs and Corps. soldiers.
Chopsticks touching, his gaze softened. Rich, dark eyes held her gaze. The edges of his mouth rounded in a shy smile, the same smile he had on that date. There were a few extra lines around his mouth, his features filled out from age, and his body told of scrapes, accidents, and battles, but his boyish, shy smile remained. A smile that wrapped her in a warm blanket and pulled her to him, whispering words of comfort.
Emotions slammed in her throat, and tears threatened to overflow. She popped the piece of sushi in her mouth and swallowed it to push down the sentiment.
He handed her another piece of salmon sushi, again with his chopsticks. Three more pieces were passed this way, each little white square topped by a pink strip, carrying a precious memory. The first was about their first proper outing together. The second was about the frustrations they felt. The third concerned their hopes, the fourth about their dreams, and the fifth about their dreams together.
Tabiki poured Iracem some tea.
O bāchan smiled. “I’ll be reinforcing the trade routes to Nikaho.”
“How’d you get past the wall?” Tabiki asked.
“The same way we also do, bribe someone.”
Irachem took one last piece of sushi from Tabiki and motioned for him to take the rest. “That’s really dangerous.”
“If we don’t risk, we won’t win,” O bāchan said.
Tabiki eyed another piece of sushi and chopsticked-it to Irachem. “You have enough food, water, weapons, and medicines to hold out here.”
O bāchan cradled her teacup. “If no one comes looking.”
“We need to rebuild our numbers and salvage what weaponry we can from the Good Lands.”
“That takes too long for these old bones.”
“O bāchan,” Tabiki said, “the situation has stabilised in the cities.”
Despite cataracts, O bāchan had lost nothing of her insight. “Has it? How many millions go without?”
Iracem ran her tongue along her lip. “It takes all our resources to steal our supplies. To raise more resources to wage a proper campaign against the Corps…”
“It’s worth it.” Tabiki squeezed her hand. Long gone was the boyish look in his eyes. In its place was the steadfast resolution of a man in his prime, a man with every reason to fight and live and see justice. “I have one more reason to fight.”
Heat travelled the length of her body, boiling over in her core and settling deep in her cheeks. “How?”
“You’ve been hungrier, sneaking in naps, every part of you is more sensitive.”
“You’re not upset?”
He looped an arm around her and pulled her to his lap. “Why would you think I’d be upset?” His lips curved in a smile she hadn’t seen in years. A smile that knew no hardships, no injuries, no anxiety-filled nights evading the Corps.
She rested her head on his shoulder. “With so much going on.”
He splayed his fingers along her lower abdomen. “Without a reason, we are all lost.” He fed her another piece of salmon sushi. “I have three reasons to fight with all I’ve got.” He inclined his head to O bāchan, squeezed her, and he tapped her belly.
“As long as it has chicken pies and salmon sushi, I’m in,” Iracem said.
He barked in laughter.