Hinata was almost at the door of his shop when his attention was disrupted by a pair of middle-aged ladies elegantly dressed in a modest komon kimonos and obis to suit the mild autumn weather.
"Chikafuj-kun, come, come." One of the ladies beckoned with a downward flick of her manicured hand.
He forced a polite smile and greeted Honda-obasan (as he termed Honda-san's mother) with a respectful bow. She was one of his regular patrons whose preference were for simplistic komons and elegant accessories. He noticed the young-girl's daisy hair comb holding up her coarse hair. She had purchased it from him the week before along with other cute items. It made him wonder who were buying books and the price they were paying for them.
The woman next to Honda-obasan was the quiet and demure wife of Sakamoto-san, who always stood a few steps back and held herself less conspicuous with her downplayed komon of drab gray and little pattern to the fabric. Her hair was practically tied up in a bun with strip of cloth.
"Ishikawa-san's son has returned, but he hasn't left his house. Asako-san said the man went to his room and hasn't come out. I feel for the poor dear," said Honda-obasan, her eyes peering into his with a hint.
Hinata's forced smile widened, seeing where this was heading. "I'm sure he will surface when he is ready."
"Poor dear. Must have seen a lot and having to deal with those foreign brutes. Someone younger would be a friendlier ear to him."
Hinata sighed. "Of course, if he is willing to talk to me."
"If you could talk to him, find out what is bothering him, it would help Asako-san so much. You're a good boy. Dai-chan would be proud of you." Honda-obasan cheerfully pulled at his cheek like he was a kid.
Hinata managed to wiggle out of the cheek pull. He made some excuse to return to his shop and breathed out a sigh of relief when he closed the shop door behind him.
"That obasan." He sighed again.
"My mother trying to bait you into giving her gossip again?"
Hinata smoothed down his kimono and stowed his folded umbrella in the blue-white bonsai pattern china pot near the glass panel door where the kanji for his and Honda-san's shop was professional painted in gold.
"Honda-san, I'm sure your mother is only concerned for Ishikawa-san's son," he answered the man who was a perfect image of a stoic gentleman wearing a straightforward necktie between a single button navy vest, which ran the length of his lean torso. His grey long sleeves shirt was properly secured around his wrists with brass cuff links and his matching suit pants was a good match for his long legs.
He was seated behind the wooden chairman's desk that served as their shared shop counter.
The brass shopping till (detailed with an engraved exaggeration of vine leaf patterns) was propped up on one corner of the desk. It was still rung-up with Honda-obasan's sale. Hinata sighed, wondering what his uncle was thinking when he had paid for the expensive London made till, which was worth more than the shop itself.
"Of course and I'm sure she's willing to openly share her concerns with all the other women of the village," Akira Honda commented with an expressionless voice.
He succeeded the store from his deceased father. This allowed his mother more time to idle with Sakamoto-san at Ishikawa's sweet store. The three wives of the grocery, book shop and sweet store were all childhood friends as such everyone in the village cheekily nicknamed them the _Three Little Maids From School_, in reference to the satirical American stage play that a visiting theatre troupe from Koumi had performed in the Community Hall onetime.
"I've no doubt she asked you to befriend Ishikawa-san's son in order to pick his brain about the war," he continued, his attention lowered to the open book he was reading.
Hinata glanced at the book's foreign printed text, which he recall Eiji saying was English. It was as alien of a language to him as German. At least with Mandarin he could guess a word or two from the Kanji.
He frowned. There was no doubt Akira was as much of an academic genius as Eiji, but his assumptions of his mother was disconcerting.
"She did no such thing. Even if she did, it wouldn't be appropriate." He closed discussion on the matter with his answer and moved their conversation to safer topics.
He observed Akira's mild mannered features as they talked. The man was as handsome as Eiji, with dark almond eyes relaxed behind thin-framed glasses that were balanced on a button nose. A gentle curved jawline supported thin lips and ran an oval outline up to a small set of ears made obvious by his tidy short crop of black hair.
Akira raised his eyes, so his attention was fully on Hinata. He brushed aside strands of his fine fringe from his brows and readjusted his glasses to gain a better look at his shop partner's slender face, full lips closed with a demure expression and soft round eyes. Hinata was his perfect image of a Yamato nadeshiko.
"Are you still pining for Takaki-san?" he calmly asked.
Hinata sighed and returned his comment with a forced smile. "He's still alive until I know for sure he isn't."
Akira closed his book with a sigh and stood to be next to Hinata. Both of them were hidden behind a rack of precisely hung Japanese clothing and western fashion of trouser-pleated skirts, A-line dresses padded at the shoulders, trousers of practical grey or khaki cotton, shirts and single breasted jackets that could be refitted or easily tailored.
Hinata cursed his rapid heartbeats when Akira tenderly stroked his cheek. He grabbed his hand before it could move further down his face. If Eiji wasn't in his heart, there was no doubt he would have accepted Akira's feelings and they would be dating. As it was--
"Please, I've already told you that it's no good. My heart belongs to Eiji-san."
"He's dead, Chikafuj-kun, otherwise you would not be making a journey to the family Ohaka. I'm here for you right now. Will you not accept me?" Akira's voiced quivered, betraying desperation to his question.
"I'm sorry." Hinata sighed with remorse and pulled away to resume his usual shop business.
Akira heaved with a deep sigh and dropped the matter. He returned to his place behind the desk and opened his book to continue reading.
A short while later the shop bell jangled to announce an incoming visitor. Hinata gasped when he recognised the soldier who had handed him Eiji's letter.
"You!" He accidentally blurted and slapped a hand over his mouth.
"Yuri-san." Akira acknowledged the man nonchalantly, not moving from his position behind the desk and attention from his book.
"Yuri-san? Are you Mei-chan's big brother?" Hinata softly asked the man who was no longer wearing a uniform, but donning a western long sleeved shirt, slacks and boots. His forehead was hidden behind a cap. The crude silver scar was visible, showing its full length down the side of his neck.
Yuri-san answered with a nod. "My father said I to take you to your family's Ohaka in Koumi."
Hinata nodded and suggested that now was a good time. It would clear the air between Akira and himself. Akira had reluctantly agreed to watch over the shop in exchange for dinner. Hinata nodded and picked up his day umbrella.
Yuri followed Hinata out of the shop, taking note of the man's slender figure in a kimono.
_"He's really Takaki's wife."_ He thought to himself as he observed the way Hinata walked with a meticulous posture and balletic strides.
He had seen a lot of women during his time of war, but none of them moved as elegantly as Hinata. Eiji's romantic yearnings for the man was understandable.
Yuri drove Hinata to his home in his pick-up truck, so they could gather Eiji's urn, water pail and offerings. They then travelled along the dirt street, stirring up clouds of soot behind them as they left the village.
They drove past green pastures, fierce bushy canopy of fiery red, orange, blood-red and yellow maple and plum trees growing proudly along the sides of the bumpy road they travelled over. A few times, Hinata had to hug Eiji's urn tight to his chest from falling as he suffered Yuri's maniacal driving from the passenger seat. He wondered if this was how it was travelling in the army.
Yuri was silent as he drove. Hinata wasn't keen to break the man's concentration. His eyes couldn't help steal glances at the scar on his neck, wondering if Eiji also suffered similar scars since. His heart raced when his mind was flooded with memories containing their life. He stubbornly held to his hope for Eiji being alive despite taking a journey to his grave.
"We're almost there." Yuri's voice broke through Hinata's thoughts.
Hinata's eyes fluttered open to the sight of the sun gently setting behind an irregular outline of the Tengu Mountains. He yawned, not realising he had fallen asleep.
The truck navigated its way along an off-beaten track to a manicured grave site amongst colourful growing cherry blossom and plum trees. It skidded to a halt before the site with clouds of dust settling over a gravel path.
"I'll wait here," Yuri said, leaning back into his seat and lowering his cap over his eyes to get a bit of shut-eye.
Hinata left the truck with the urn lovingly held in one arm and the offerings and water pain in the other. He performed his abulation at the site's entrance, and soberly made his way to his family's Ohaka nestled within an idyllic setting of nettle bush and young pink-white cherry blossom trees. Eiji's name was freshly etched into the granite tablet holding his uncle's and other ancestors. He sighed when he saw his name in red next to Eiji's.
He shook his mind free from dark thoughts and performed his duties of cleaning the grave and placing his offerings. His hands trembled and tears slipped out of his eyes when he lifted the stone to where his uncle and relative's urns were.
The thought of letting Eiji go into the underworld finally hit him.
He hugged the urn to his chest with his stubbornness of not letting go. This wasn't right. Eiji was meant to live a life with him; they would grow old and pass on into the underworld together. His heart pounded his chest, stirring blood to his head. Tears stung his eyes and made his cheeks flush as a hot mess.
"I miss you." He cried over and over, clinging to the urn.
The sun had long set when he finally let go, carefully placing the urn next to his uncle's. He sealed the grave and lit some incense, calling his lover's name in a prayer.
"Wait for me Eiji-san." Hinata closed his prayer.
He rose and gingerly made his way back to the pick-up truck.