Usual warning applies: if you haven't read the first two fics in this series, Next Gen and Farewell to Arms, GO READ THEM FIRST. Yumeko does refer to events that didn't happen in those stories, so you may also want to get familiar with the crossover "Three Knights," which is on the page in my profile. No, it's not done yet.
As was the case with finishing Next Gen, I didn't intend to write anything after FTA; I was hoping to be able to concentrate on 3K. But wouldn't you know it, before long I came up with this story, Half Moon. A bit of a jump here -- it takes place almost a full year after FTA ends -- but I think you'll be ok. Plus it's a one-shot! Written between January 2007 and January 2008. Rated M for some disturbing scenes later on.
It was a sweltering mid-July evening in MegaTokyo. Except for the occasional group of teenagers walking down this street in district 6, the streets were deserted, most people having either gone to bed or taken refuge inside their air-conditioned apartments.
The semi coming down the street didn't look out of the ordinary; it was white and unmarked, with several nondescript bumper stickers on the back. It inexplicably stopped in the middle of the street, a door on the side of the cargo area of the truck opening. A man was heard yelling, followed by a figure being shoved out. The unknown person lost her footing and fell to the asphalt as the semi pulled away in a hurry, as if the occupants had someplace to be. The teenagers who witnessed this took a look at the figure who'd been shoved from the truck, then just walked away, carrying on as usual.
The girl from the semi pushed herself to her feet, not bothering to wipe the dirt from her hands or knees. She appeared young, about fourteen or fifteen, with short, spiky copper-colored hair adorning her head. A long, thin ponytail sprouted from the back of her neck, coming down to her waist. She was only clad in an oversized, sleeveless tee, and green plaid boxer shorts.
A pair of yellow eyes looked up at the sky as lightning flashed, followed several seconds later by a rumble of thunder. The girl looked around for a moment, confused, before dashing into an alleyway to take shelter from the coming storm.
Get lost, and stay lost, the men who'd shoved her from the semi had said. It was the only way to keep anyone from knowing who she really was. The only way to stay safe from those who would use her for their own evil purposes. But she knew none of this. All she knew right now was that she was cold and had no place to sleep.
That was all she knew, until a red-eyed brunette, 19-year-old Yumeko Asagiri, found her.
"Bubblegum Crisis – Half Moon"
Written by Amanda Stair
"All right, that's good! Let's call it a day!" Linna yelled out, clapping her hands together once. "Good job, everyone! We'll see you all again on Tuesday."
I watched with amusement as the group of leotard-clad girls in front of Linna and me all went for their duffel bags and bottles of water and headed for the locker room, several of them grumbling about how they would never get used to the new girl coaching them.
Who was the new girl they were talking about? Me, of course.
I'd finally went and gotten a job, a real job, although if I could have lived off being a gymnast, I would have. But everyone had said I needed to know what the so-called 9-to-5 grind was all about. Working alongside Linna at her gym, leading workouts and giving tai chi and gymnastics lessons seemed like the only kind of job I'd want; Lord knew what would happen if you tried to stick me behind a desk all day, crunching numbers or some shit like that. Hell would freeze over before anyone could make me an OL!
Getting an armful of medals at the Olympics definitely seemed to give me a boost in the career department. Linna said that ever since word got out about me working at her gym, membership practically doubled. I think she was being sarcastic, but comparing the crowds from several years ago to now, maybe she did have a point. The smell of sweat in the air definitely was more pungent than before, and despite my well-known reputation as a girl of ice when doing her routines, the newer members still complained about my hard-ass way of going about things. But that was how I was. That was how Linna had been when she began training me as a ten-year-old, and despite my incessant complaining back then, I knew with the benefit of hindsight that that was really the only way to go if you truly wanted to be the best. Now, most of the women and girls here weren't looking to be world-level gymnasts. They just wanted to keep in shape. But if they wanted to stay in shape, I was the one to make them keep at it.
"You'd think I had a whip in my hand, the way some of them look at me," I laughed as I took a sip from my water bottle.
"You ARE pretty hard on them," Linna admitted.
"A workout isn't supposed to be something you just go at half-assed and daydreaming," I lamented, tossing a towel over my shoulder as we followed the others to the locker room. "I just wish some of them would take it more seriously."
"That's why you're here, to make them take it more seriously."
"I've been here six months. The girls who've been here since then know what I'm all about. The others are a little slower to pick up on it."
"Or quit," she joked. "Some people just don't prefer their exercise routine to be like boot camp."
"They don't like to feel the burn. They think going through the motions is supposed to be enough. It's just damn frustrating."
"I know, but you'll always get people like that, Yumeko. And remember, there's a fine line between respect and fear."
"They're not afraid of me," I protested. "I'm hard on them, but I'm not overbearing."
"Look at yourself on tape sometime," she laughed, pulling off her headband, followed by her top. "Let's hit the showers, ok? I'm beat."
After we took our showers and changed into our regular clothes, I helped Linna close up the gym, then sterilize the exercise mats and go over some paperwork, making sure all the bills were paid and all that crap. I usually got to the gym at 10 AM and left at six, but if I decided to stay and help Linna out with the extra stuff, sometimes I wouldn't get to leave till eight or so. This went on five, sometimes six days a week, depending on what she scheduled me for. Gymnastics wasn't just a hobby for me anymore; now it really WAS a job. But I didn't mind it. This made it a lot easier for myself to stay in shape as well.
I'd been in several competitions since the Olympics, and the 2057 Japan National Gymnastics Championships had just been last week. Once again, I'd gotten medals, but only two this time: one for the uneven bars, and one for vault. I hadn't placed on the beam or on floor, which was surprising, considering that I had gotten the gold on floor the year before in Nairobi. Two medals…and neither were gold. My medal for the bars was silver, the one for vault, bronze. I frowned to myself as I walked across the street to a neighborhood bar to unwind for a little bit before heading home. I wasn't used to not getting gold. It was an uneasy feeling that was spreading in my gut. My leg wasn't starting to let me down, was it? Was I getting lazy in my workouts somewhere? The thoughts darted around in my head, colliding and making my head hurt as a result as I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer. I'd come a long way with my leg since it had been shot through almost two and a half years prior. I knew I should've been happy that I was able to walk again at all, let alone get to the Olympics and win medals. I should have been grateful.
But to think that my leg might be starting to deteriorate… No. I refused to let myself think about that. As long as I could do what I loved, it didn't matter. I'd gone through far too much to let myself think that way, to start to feel sorry for myself and go into a downward spiral like I had the year before. If two guys hadn't come into my life and helped me when I hit rock bottom, show me where I'd gone wrong so badly…who knew what might have happened. Only thing I knew for sure was that if I hadn't met them, I probably would've been dead in a matter of months, from an OD or another self-inflicted stab wound, at the tender age of eighteen.
I was nineteen now. I'd just had my birthday last month. Adults always said that at eighteen or nineteen, life is just beginning, that you haven't even begun to experience what it's like. Life, love, finding your own person, who you really are.
Well, they weren't Knight Sabers.
Since I was sixteen, I had been leading two lives: one as a student at Kihi Senior High and one of the top gymnasts in the country, if not the world; and one as the purple Knight Saber. Until the summit in March '55, I'd managed to keep them at least somewhat exclusive. But an attack on the convention center by two powerful, souped-up Boomers changed all that. The old me died that night, lost in a hellish trial by fire, the new me waking up five days later, wounded, no memory of the event. Over time, those memories came back, piece by piece, as I slowly recovered and learned to walk again. I never did manage to remember everything that happened that night, but as far as I, Mom, and the others were concerned, I remembered all I needed to. It was probably for the best that I didn't remember the actual explosion when the second Boomer had targeted the place with a beam satellite.
But still…what I did remember had almost driven me insane. Panic attacks, the occasional blackout, the paranoia that someone was watching me – although that had, in the end, turned out to be true – and losing Michiko in the process. Trying to put it all behind me in Sacramento, when I was in fact only repressing it all, and then getting addicted to hydromorphone in my own form of coping... It almost destroyed me. The lingering guilt over Michiko, my anger at Genom and Boh and anyone who'd wanted me dead…it had almost swallowed me whole, and only after I'd tried to kill myself and blacked out on Bert had I realized what I was going to lose if I'd kept going on the path I was taking. And then, for him and Craig to discover me stealing painkillers from Sylia's mini-pharmacy…that was the final straw. Even before then, I had admitted I needed help, but I hadn't wanted to admit I was an addict. If they hadn't discovered me, I probably could have kept going, my addiction getting worse until… No. It didn't happen. I had gotten help, once I returned home and admitted to Mom that I was addicted. I had my life back now.
Did my leg still hurt? Hell yeah, when it was rainy or snowy outside. But thanks to the help I'd gotten, I knew that I didn't need to resort to morphine to help with that. If it bugged me, I could just go get acupuncture done, or get a massage, and if it still hurt afterward, usually a couple ibuprofen helped out.
I grunted to myself as I took a sip of my beer, half-listening to the baseball game on the TV in the corner of the bar. I couldn't really complain. I DID still have my leg, even though it wasn't as great as I wanted it to be. Maybe I HAD gotten lazy, and that was why I'd only gotten two medals at Nationals and no invitation to Worlds this year. All I could do was shrug it off and try harder for the next competition. Nothing I could do about it now, bitch as I might.
"You're quiet today," the bartender observed, wiping the inside of a mug with a rag.
"Long day," I said with a shrug.
"What's the leg say? Is it gonna rain?"
"Yup. Started aching just before I left the gym. Shouldn't be long now."
"No karaoke then, huh?"
I smirked. "Not tonight. Maybe this weekend if I'm feeling feisty. And if I hear another comment about how I should follow in my mom's footsteps, you're gonna be singing soprano."
"I wasn't gonna say nothin'," he protested innocently.
"Sure," I teased, taking another pull from my beer. That was one thing I'd taken with me when I left California: a newfound love for karaoke. Most of the time, whenever I stopped by here on my way home from work, I'd do a round or two. Most people wanted me to do my mom's songs, and I sometimes relented and did, but I didn't like being compared to her. I may have been her daughter, but I was no singer. That was her thing. Gymnastics was mine. End of story.
Once I polished off my beer, I paid the bartender, bid farewell until the next time, and left, pulling on my helmet, getting on my bike, and taking off down the street. I couldn't help but smile every time I realized I had my own place now. I still lived in district 6, only a short distance from Mom's apartment, actually, but after I finished my 'treatment' for my addiction it was decided I needed a place of my own, especially since I had just gotten a job at Linna's gym. It was one way, Sylia said, for me to learn to take some responsibility…not to mention that arguments with Mom after my treatment had almost made me relapse. It was nice, having a place of my own to go to. Sharing a bedroom with Mom never did afford me much privacy, and after having had a bedroom of my own in Sacramento for the better part of a year, I admit I'd been spoiled. And now I had more than just a bedroom to myself. It was similar to Mom's apartment, with one bedroom, a small bathroom, and another room that basically had a kitchen on one half and a living room on the other half. Small, but it was all mine. And I was happy to have it, even if I did have to use almost half of my paycheck for rent.
It was dark by the time I pulled into the parking lot by my apartment building and climbed off, pulling off my helmet and shaking out my hair, although it was tied in a braid. I'd been growing it out since my return home, and instead of being just past my shoulders like I'd always had it, now it was almost down to the middle of my back. At this length, it was just easier to keep it in a braid or ponytail. I guess I was just too lazy to go get it cut, although part of me was curious to see how long I could let it grow before I went insane and finally got off my ass to REALLY go get it cut. But right now I was alright with it as it was.
It wasn't until I went upstairs to my apartment that I realized I hadn't grabbed anything for dinner yet. Remembering there was a little place down the street within walking distance I could stop by, I set down my helmet and turned and left, locking the door and jogging down the stairs and out of the building, just in time for it to start raining, as my leg had told me earlier. I wiped my bangs from my eyes as I walked down the street, seeing the shop I was looking for approaching on my right. I grinned and licked my lips, anticipating the shrimp tempura I'd soon be devouring.
Passing by an alleyway, a flash of color caught my eye. I turned my head and looked down, bending down to get a closer look at what it was that had gotten my attention.
The flash of color had been hair, an orangish-copper color. It was spiky, with a long ponytail trailing down the owner's back. I blinked; owner? No…this was a girl! I was looking at a girl!
The copper-haired girl looked up at me, blinking in confusion as a pair of yellow eyes stared at me. It was apparent she hadn't been out here for very long; she still looked relatively clean, although she was drenched and shivering. She was only clad in an oversized sleeveless T-shirt and green plaid boxer shorts. She had on no shoes and no socks.
"Maybe running away in your pajamas wasn't a good idea," I pointed out, trying to make a joke.
She hugged her knees, pulling them closer to her as she shivered.
I crouched down on my knees. "Do you understand me? Do you speak Japanese?" She nodded. "Good. So what're you doing out here? It's cold without a jacket or shoes."
"They told me to get lost," she said in a small voice.
"The men in the truck. They pushed me out and told me to get lost."
I frowned to myself. "Were you kidnapped?"
"I don't know," she said. "I don't remember anything, only waking up in the truck and then the men pushing me out into the street."
"Do you remember your name?"
"One man called me Emi."
"Ok, Emi," I said, "I was just getting something to eat. Would you like anything?" She nodded. "Ok. I'll go get something, and then I'll take you to my place so you can get dried off. How long have you been out here?"
"Not long. I was pushed out just before it started raining."
"Good. I'll be back, ok? Just sit tight."
No longer going at a leisurely pace, I headed to the shop as fast as I could and ordered shrimp tempura for myself and a bowl of udon for Emi. She needed to get something warm in her. Once the food was done, I paid and ran back to the alley, with Emi still in the same position as before.
"Here," I said, handing her the bag with the bowl of udon in it. "This is yours. I'm gonna take you to my place now, ok? Just follow me."
"This is mine?" she asked, hugging it to her body to warm herself up.
"Yes, that's what I said. Now come on. I bet you're starving."
After giving her my jacket, we both headed down the street together, back to my apartment building. Once we were inside, I let her sit at the kitchen table and gave her a towel to dry herself off with. She did so, rubbing her head with one hand while scooping up the noodles with the chopsticks in the other hand.
"Once you're done eating," I suggested, "go take a shower. At least that water is hot. And I'll give you some of my clothes for now. They might be too big, but we can go shopping tomorrow and I'll get you some that fit. On second thought, Nene's about your size. We can go to her place and borrow some of her clothes."
"Who's Nene?" she asked.
"My aunt. Well, not really my aunt, she's a friend of my mom's. And maybe she can help me figure out what to do with you."
"What to do with me?"
"Yeah. Somebody must've reported you missing. And you obviously have amnesia, so you can't tell me where you came from. But right now I guess we should just get you cleaned up, warmed up, and get some sleep before we do any of that."
"What's your name?" she asked. "You didn't tell me your name."
"Oh, I guess I didn't, did I? I'm Yumeko."
I laughed. "You told me already."
"Are you going to tell me to get lost too?" she asked, looking worried.
"No," I assured her. "I'm gonna help you find your home. Don't worry."
The next morning, after I'd fixed up both of us some breakfast and got her dressed, Emi and I headed off for Nene's place, me lending my bike helmet to Emi. She still couldn't remember anything, which puzzled me; as far as I knew, only soap opera characters could have such complete amnesia. I'd hoped that she might've recovered some sort of memories overnight, but when she got up, she was still as oblivious as she'd been the night before. I was hesitant to just drop her off at a hospital and let the people there deal with her; she needed personal help, not people to shuffle her around.
"Sooo…you need help finding out who she is?" Nene asked as we walked in, trying to make certain of my request.
"Yeah. I don't even know if her real name is Emi. Could've just been something those guys called her off the top of their heads."
Nene eyed Emi for a moment, who was thumbing through some of the magazines on the coffee table. "What do you say? I'd peg her at about fourteen."
"I'd say thirteen," I said. "Fifteen at the oldest."
"Alright. I'll do a search on the computer and see what comes up in the missing-persons file. But you know, if she's disappeared in the last three days she won't come up in the system. Can't file a report until then."
"I know," I retorted. "But somebody needs to help her."
Nene sighed and sat down at her desk, her fingers flying as she opened up a server and typed in the necessary information for her search. Meanwhile, I sat down on the couch next to Emi, peeking over her shoulder to see what she was reading.
"Oh no, that's a computer magazine," I groaned. "Pick something better. Here." I handed her a gossip magazine. "Anything but that mumbo-jumbo."
"But I don't want to read that," she replied.
"What kind of teenager are you?!" I remarked. "You don't want to read the latest on who's divorcing, who's hooking up, the scandals on the sets of the latest TV shows?"
"You ARE weird."
Nene laughed to herself from her chair, not taking her eyes off the computer screen. "Yumeko, if she doesn't remember anything, of course she's not going to be familiar with any of that! Besides, with you being Priss' daughter, I thought the last thing you'd be interested in is celebrity gossip."
"I'm not, but normal teenagers aren't future hackers in the making," I said, motioning to Emi, who was still absorbed in her computer magazine.
She sighed. "I'm not finding anyone matching Emi's description. You know, she could just be a runaway."
"You can't be a runaway if somebody ditched you from a truck!" I snapped.
"How do we know that man wasn't her father?" she queried.
"There was more than one man," Emi spoke up. "I don't really recall what they look like, though. They just wanted me gone."
"What exactly did they say?"
"'Get out of here, brat. Get lost. Go on.' That's all he said."
"When did the one man call you Emi?"
"When I first woke up. I opened my eyes and looked up, and there was a man standing over me. He said, 'Oh, you're awake, Emi. 'Bout time.' Then a minute or so later, the truck stopped and he and the other men shoved me out."
Nene stood up and walked over to us on the couch, sitting down on the other side of Emi. She started separating her hair, as if looking for something. "Did you hit your head or suffer any other injuries, Emi?" she asked.
"No. Nothing hurts."
"She didn't have any bruises," I said. "Had a couple scratches on her hands and knees though, probably from getting shoved out of the truck."
Nene frowned to herself, continuing to examine Emi's head. "Being under extreme stress can sometimes cause a person to lose their memory completely, but that's extremely rare. And it looks like she doesn't have any head injuries, so I'm not sure what else to think."
"What do we do, then?"
"I'd normally recommend you take her to a hospital so the people there can take care of her. But right now, it looks like what she needs is some normalcy. As far as she knows, you're her family. It might be best for her to stay with you for now, until we find some more information about her."
I nodded. "That was my thinking too. She doesn't need to get shuffled between doctors who see her as just another patient." I motioned towards her clothes. "I had to lend her some of my clothes, but you're closer to her size, so I thought we might be able to borrow some of yours for her to use."
Nene cleared her throat. "Well, I…I'm in my forties, in case you forgot," she said dryly with a small laugh. "You might want to take her to the mall or something for some more age-appropriate things. And what's wrong with her using your clothes?"
"In case you didn't notice," I said, giving her an arched look, "I'm five-foot-four. Emi here is probably four-foot-nine, tops. I had to give her a belt with those shorts just to keep 'em up. And, uh, my chest is bigger too, so my tops are too big, too."
"Do you need money to go buy her clothes? I could lend you some," she suggested.
I smiled shyly. "Yeah. My paycheck's only big enough for one person. I can't afford clothes shopping for another!"
"Well, as long as you don't dress her in short-shorts and bikini tops, I trust your taste in clothing," she teased.
"I think she can choose her own clothing."
"Yes, I can choose," Emi agreed. "Yumeko will help me."
"Yeah, I'll help. Of course."
"Are you going to get bikini tops?" she asked innocently.
"Me? No," I said, smirking, more in Nene's direction than hers. "I did wear something like that before I got my scars, but since I have them, I don't wear them anymore."
"Scars? On your stomach?"
"Yeah." I lifted up my shirt to show her.
Emi's eyes widened as she craned her upper body for a closer look. "What happened to make you get those?"
"Close contact with sharp objects," I said cheekily, lowering the shirt. "Don't worry, I got them a long time ago."
"Did it hurt?"
"Yeah, it did." I noticed Nene giving me a look warning me not to say too much, but I went on and added, "But they're all healed up now. The long one's my favorite."
"Why is it your favorite?"
"'Cause it looks cool," I chuckled. "Gives me personality, though I think Aunt Nene here might say I have more than enough of that to go around."
"You sure do," she agreed.
"Are you gonna keep looking for stuff on her?" I asked.
"Sure, but you know, she can't stay with you forever. As you said, your income can't support two people."
"She'll stay with me as long as she has to. And if it's for longer than I thought, then I'll make HER get a job."
"What kind of job can I do?" Emi asked.
"You're young, so legally you can't do a lot, but you could probably walk dogs or babysit or something."
"There's Boomers for those," Nene pointed out.
"Not everyone likes it that way though," I grumbled. "I'm sure somebody out there would prefer a human."
"I'll help you, Yumeko!" Emi promised. "I don't want to put you out!"
"I'd rather you put me out than go back out onto the street. You'll get killed out there. Someone's gotta look out for you." I dismissed her with a wave of my hand. "I'll do what I can. But first things first, you need some clothes."
Nene started typing on her computer again. "I'll transfer 40,000 yen to your account so you can get her some clothes and such. And don't worry about paying me back. I can spare it."
"That's too much," I protested.
"No it's not!" she laughed. "Have you seen how expensive clothing is nowadays? It's crazy! Now go, and I'll let you know if I find anything worth following up on."
"All right, all right." I ushered Emi towards the door. "Thanks, Nene."
Once we said our byes, we left and headed down to the main floor on the elevator. As we exited the main doors and headed into the parking lot towards my motorcycle, Emi commented, "She seems like a nice lady."
"She is. She's nice to a fault."
"Can I call her Aunt Nene too?"
"No. You can call her Miss."
"Miss Nene? Okay."
"Y'know, you're really…what's the word…permissive, accepting about some things," I sighed. "I'm gonna have to teach you some street smarts."
"What do you mean?"
"How to listen to intuition, why men are the scum of the earth and should never be trusted, and probably self-defense lessons would be a good idea too."
"What about men?" she repeated. "Why are they the scum of the earth?"
"I HATE men," I growled. "I'll give you the 'why' later. But simply put, except for a few rare exceptions, they're bastards. ALL of them. It's time you learned that straight away."
The obvious first choice to go to get Emi some undergarments would have been the Silky Doll. However, I wanted enough money left over from what Nene had given me to be able to buy Emi more than two or three outfits, as the bras and stuff there were definitely on the more expensive side. So instead, we took the subway to the Geo City Mall. At the lingerie store there I got Emi measured, then bought a couple bras and about ten pairs of underwear – you can never have enough of those, I guess – and followed that up with visits to all the clothing stores we could find.
I quickly learned Emi liked to keep her clothes simple. She didn't like any sort of design on her shirts or quirky sayings; she just liked her shirts either one solid color, or with horizontal stripes. One time-consuming aspect of this was that once she found a shirt she liked, she had to try it on in every single color available. The same went for her jeans; every color available, and also kept simple, no bellbottoms or skinny jeans, just a classic cut. We ended up getting her eight shirts and three pairs of jeans, and after a similar amount of time in the shoe department, she got a pair of basic white tennis shoes, and a pair of sandals with a flower decoration on the top.
"Are you sure those aren't heavy?" I laughed, looking at her. With all the bags Emi was carrying, one might've thought she was ready to topple over. But she walked with as steady a stride as ever, like the bulk of the bags didn't bother her at all.
"They're alright," she replied.
"I can carry some of those, y'know."
"But you bought them for me. The least I can do is handle them myself."
"Are you sure? My hands are both free if you need help."
"I'm ok," she said with an innocent smile I was quickly growing accustomed to. How could someone ditch a girl like that into the street by herself? The answer was simple enough: a bastard. Only a bastard would try to hurt a girl like that. Of that, I was convinced.
"This would be a good first lesson in being aware," I pointed out, pointing at her bag-clad arms. "Right now, you would make a perfect target for a predator. Both arms are used up right now, so if someone were to sneak up on you and attack, you wouldn't be able to defend yourself. So here, give me some of those bags so you have one arm free."
She took in my words for a moment, then handed me the three bags on her right arm. "Good. That's better. Another thing to remember is that you need to have your keys out before you're at the door. That's another time for predators to strike, when a girl is fumbling through her purse for the keys."
"But I don't have any keys."
"My point still stands. Also, if you're walking somewhere by yourself, make sure to take a look around every once in a while. That's to make sure that no one is following you. If they're aware you know they're behind you, they won't be able to make a move. They prefer to attack those who are unaware."
"Why would people attack other people?" she asked.
"Who knows. Robbery, rape, sometimes even murder just for the sake of murder."
"Is that how you got your scars? From being attacked?"
I grimaced to myself. "…Something like that," I said slowly. "But it's not something I want to talk about, especially here."
"Okay. Can you tell me why you hate men, then? You said you would explain it to me later."
"Let's get to the subway station," I suggested. "I'll tell you while we're waiting for the subway."
We went down to the bottom floor of the mall, which essentially was the subway station itself. It was crowded with people, as usual, but I motioned for Emi to follow me to a spot under the stairs, where nobody was really hanging out at.
"Why do you hate men?" she asked again.
"They're bastards," I said without hesitation. "Just about all the men I've met in my life are after one thing, and the fact that I refuse to put out just gets them riled up to try again. They like the challenge, I guess. I've been fending them off since I grew tits, which means I was…about thirteen, I guess."
"How old are you now?"
"Six years? But surely if you said no, they would take the hint."
"They're men. They never take a hint," I grumbled. "They think a woman'll eventually get tired of saying no and just say yes just to get the guy to leave her alone, but I'm not like that. If they keep asking, I'll shove my 'no' in their face…or their balls if shoving it in their face isn't direct enough."
She winced at the imagery. "Do they get it then?"
"Sometimes. But other times it'll just get them pissed off. And if you're not careful, that's when the shit really can hit the fan."
"What does that mean?"
"It means someone's gonna get beat to a pulp: the guy or the girl. Usually it's the girl who ends up in the hospital, getting a rape kit done, while the guy disappears and never gets caught."
"Has it ever gone that far with you?"
I sighed and sat down, Emi taking a seat next to me. "Don't repeat this to anyone, ok?"
"It's…it's gotten close," I said, letting out another sigh. "Twice I've come close to being raped. Didn't happen, but it was still too close for comfort. The first time, I was depressed and accidentally got drunk on some vodka-spiked punch. The guy hosting the party took me upstairs and tried to seduce me. I was down to my underwear by the time I came to my senses and beat the shit out of him." I hadn't exactly come to my senses – I'd actually had a blackout, but I was loath to try to explain those to Emi – but it was as close to the truth as I could get right now. "I don't really remember it, but…but it bothered me for a long time. I didn't even tell my mom about it until much later."
"What about the second time?"
Again, I couldn't tell the truth, so I had to come up with something close to it. "…Some friends and I had gotten into an argument, and I ran out of the building and went to a bar to unwind and get ahold of myself. Some guys in that bar had other ideas, though, and they started to hit on me, like the usual bastards do. But as I tried to fend them off, they all attacked me at once…" I closed my eyes and inwardly cringed at the memory. "They held me down on the floor while the main bastard stuck his hands up my shirt and tried to pull my shorts down. One of my friends intervened at the last moment, though, and shot him in the leg…"
Emi drew in a sharp breath. "Oh my God…that's terrible. But you were okay?"
"Physically yeah. Mentally I couldn't believe it happened again. I felt violated all over again. I told that friend not to tell the other friend what happened, because I was afraid he'd overreact. It was just…a personal matter to me. I didn't like anyone knowing those things about me."
"These friends…were they men too?"
"Yes, and they were the grand exception to the rule. They were great guys…and I fell in love with one of them, the one who saved me that day, actually, though I'd started to crush on him earlier. Once I told him how I felt – this was later – he admitted he'd felt the same way towards me, and we dated for a while."
"Are you still dating?"
I shook my head. "He, uh…he was only in town on business, and eventually he had to go home. We try to keep in touch, but it's hard." All of that was a lie, and as much as I wanted to keep in touch, aside from a certain old man, I didn't know of any interdimensional airline carriers to take my letters to him. I wondered…did Craig ever think of me? Or was he too busy with his own affairs back in his world? I knew I'd never see him again, but every now and then I had a sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe…
"Yumeko? You're spacing out."
"Huh? Oh, sorry, I was just thinking about him…"
"You miss him, don't you?"
"Yes. I do." I nodded and stood up. "I do…"
Emi offered me a kind smile as we went to the subway platform to wait for our train. "Do you have pictures of him?"
"I have one with me, actually." I set down the bags, dug out my wallet, and pulled out a picture of me with everyone else I hung out with in the other world. "That's him," I said, pointing out the brown-haired man standing between me and Sylvie.
"What's his name?"
Emi took the picture in her free hand and stared at it for a moment, taking in everyone's faces. "Everyone looks so happy," she said wistfully. "You look happy and sad at the same time, though."
"That was a rough time in my life," I said, taking the picture and putting it back in my wallet. "I can honestly say that if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here. I thank them every day for coming into my life when they did."
"Maybe you can all have a get-together sometime," she suggested. "A reunion."
"Not as easy as it sounds," I warned, though I found myself smiling at the thought. "But I would love that." I looked down the tunnel as I heard the screeching of the train wheels against the tracks. "Here comes our train! Stand back!"
It was only 8:30 in the evening when we finally got back to my apartment, but I was pooped. I was ready to turn in early, but I still needed to grab something to eat for a quick dinner and take a shower. After digging through the fridge, I grabbed some turkey, lettuce, and cucumbers and slapped them together between two slices of bread.
"Want me to make you one?" I asked Emi between bites. "Or do you want something else?"
She bent down and took a look at what the fridge had to offer before taking out an egg from its carton. "I think I'll have one of these," she replied.
"An egg sandwich? Okay. Do you need help making it?"
The look she gave me told me she indeed did. My eyebrow twitched in annoyance, then I sighed. "Ok, it's fairly easy," I explained. "You heat up one of the burners on the stove, then crack the egg into the pan, and when the underside is cooked, you flip the egg over with a spatula, and when that side's done, you put the egg between two slices of bread and eat. Think you can manage that?"
"Sure," she nodded, beaming. "That sounds easy. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to eat my sandwich and see what's on the news first before I go take my shower. If you need any help, just holler."
I took my sandwich into the living room and sat down on the couch, turning on the TV. After flipping it to a news station, I munched on my sandwich some more, listening to the usual stories about gridlock on the Bayshore Highway, how the crime rate rose another five percent in the last year, and Boomer problems. I smirked to myself at the last one. Dontcha think we're working on that?, I laughed to myself in my head as I took another bite of my sandwich.
The smell of a cooking egg reached my nostrils at the same time the noise of a ringing telephone got to my ears. I stood up, sandwich still in hand, and picked up the receiver. "Hello?" I said, only to be greeted with a familiar face on the monitor. A raven-haired, shades-wearing girl, yawning lazily. "Xania!!" I exclaimed, quickly switching to English. "Isn't it the middle of the night there?! How are you?"
"I'm doin' ok," she said, yawning again. "And yeah, it's late, or early, depending on how ya look at it. But that's alright, I couldn't sleep anyway. How're things over there?"
"Oh, I'm still slaving away at Linna's gym," I joked. "Gotta pay the rent somehow. And I took in this girl last night also. Her name's Emi, and I just found her in an alley near here. Some guys had just dumped her off, and I felt sorry for her, so I'm letting her stay here for a while until I can find something out about her."
Xania frowned to herself and held her chin in between her thumb and forefinger. "Uh, what about her parents?"
"That's the thing. She has no memory of anything. Farthest back she can remember is waking up in the truck she was dumped from."
"Amnesic, huh? That's just super," she said dryly. "I don't know the laws there, Rosho, but I'm pretty sure what you're doin' is kidnapping."
I sighed and scratched the side of my head; even a year after she could've stopped calling me by my California nickname, she still kept at it. Talk about old habits dying hard. "I call it being a good Samaritan," I said with a crooked grin. "I couldn't just leave her. She'd have been killed before too long. And don't talk to me about hospitals. I already went over that with Nene."
"Hey, I agree with ya," she said, nodding, "but I'm learnin' all sorts of stuff bein' in college for this social worker shit, and this is what the law says. I've gotta know this stuff cold by the time I graduate."
"That's not for three more years."
"Yeah, but I've gotta start memorizin' it now." She huffed. "Did I tell ya what I'm doin' right now?"
"No. What are you doing?" I asked, curious.
"I'm trackin' down my parents. I'm in San Jose right now readin' up on their files before I head to the prison to pay a little visit."
I almost dropped the receiver in response. For the longest time, Xania had been adamant about never wanting to see her parents again, that they were dead to her. Why would she want to see them again now, ten years after she'd been taken out of that house? Closure? No, closure was a myth, or so it was said, but…
"Seriously?" I finally stuttered. "You're…you're really gonna go see them?"
"Yup," she nodded, her face the picture of determination. "I just want to ask them somethin' before I toss them out of my life for good. The 'why.' That's been buggin' me for the last…shit…last ten years now. I know I probably won't get the answer I want, but I want to at least hear their side of things."
"But you never wanted to hear it before," I pointed out. "Why now?"
"Honestly, I don't know. I don't—"
A scream from the kitchen interrupted us. I spun around and jumped out of my chair when I saw flames erupting from the stove, Emi holding the pan in mid-air by the handle with both hands. "EMI!!" I yelled, running towards her. "What the hell did you do?!"
She shrieked again, and I took the pan from her and practically threw it in the sink. Turning on the faucet, I cranked it up to full blast, letting cold water run over the now-burnt pan and egg as I turned off the stove and threw baking soda over the flames to extinguish them.
"What happened?!" I snapped.
"I'm sorry," she said meekly, eyes watering as she pulled her hands away from her mouth. "I only turned away for a second to look for the spatula, and suddenly the pan caught fire."
"You need to have everything out before you start cooking," I sighed, exasperated. "How about you just have a regular cold sandwich, ok?"
She nodded quickly. "Okay. I'm sorry."
"I heard you the first time. That was my fault. From now on I'll show you how to cook stuff, ok?"
Emi just nodded again as I let out another loud sigh and went back to the phone. "Sorry," I apologized.
"What was that?" Xania chuckled. "What DID she do?"
"Oh, you understood that?"
"W'll, duh. I did take a first-year Japanese course. If I didn't understand what 'Ittai nani o shita?!' meant, the teacher would shoot me!" she laughed, quoting what I had yelled in Japanese to Emi.
"Nice to know I had some sort of good influence on you," I said, managing a chuckle of my own, trying to get my heart settled back in my chest. It had practically leaped out of my throat at the sight of the flames in the kitchen. "Did you memorize the kana alright?"
"Yup. The kanji are hard too, but I guess I just gotta practice. The teacher said I'm one of the best students in the class, and that she's looking forward to seeing me in the second-year class next month."
I smiled. "Well, that's great, Xania. You should be proud."
"How would you say that in Japanese? The lookin' forward to next month thing? I know the tanoshimi ni shiteiru part, but what about the rest?"
I grinned; some things never changed. "Let's see…it'd go something like raigatsu ni wa ni-nen no jugyoo ni Xania-san o miru no wa tanoshimi ni shiteimasu. But if she said 'August' instead of 'next month,' you'd replace the raigatsu with hachigatsu."
"Gotcha." She paused to yawn again. "Damn, I need to get back to bed."
"Yes, you should. I know how you like your sleep," I teased. "Let me know how things go with your parents, ok?"
She grunted, but nodded. "I will. I'll call ya in a couple days, ok?"
"Ok. See ya later."
"See ya. Bye."
I hung up and turned my attention back to Emi, who had managed to make her own turkey sandwich without destroying the refrigerator. I showed her how to let the pan soak for a while since she had burned it, then told her she was free to watch TV while I took my shower.
"Think you can keep the place intact while I'm in there?" I joked.
She nodded. "Yes," she mumbled.
"Emi, it's ok. I'm not much of a cook myself. I've burned things too, everyone does. You should see my mom when she attempts anything more complicated than bacon and eggs!"
"You'll show me next time?"
"Yes, and every time. It just takes practice. I'll be out in a bit."
Once I was in the shower, I sat down and hugged my knees, letting the water pour over me as I thought. There was definitely more to this than met the eye. Why would a group of men just ditch an amnesic girl in the street and tell her to get lost? How had she lost her memory to begin with? How did they know her name, if that was her real name? And how the hell did she stay so happy and hopeful through it all? Emi was definitely stronger than her looks would lead one to believe, and yet something about this whole situation just reeked.
Damn, I have to work tomorrow, I thought. After work I'll ask Nene for her help again. There's no way a girl could've just gone off radar like that, even if this is Tokyo. Somebody must be looking for her.
"You have to go to work?" Emi said the next morning, struggling to fasten her bra.
"Yeah. Money doesn't just come falling down from the sky," I quipped. "I don't like mooching off my aunts or my mom. They've done enough for me."
"Can I go with you?"
"Unless you want to do Spinning classes all day, I don't think it's a good idea." Aside from that, which was completely true, I hadn't had a moment to myself since I'd taken her in. I had to have some space, although I didn't like the fact that going to work seemed like the only way to do so. Still, part of me was worried about leaving her alone in my apartment all day, the least of which was her potential to burn down the apartment with her cooking.
She finally figured out the clasps on her bra, and once she had that on, she quickly found the shirt she was looking for and pulled it over her head. "Yumeko, can I ask you something?"
"What is it?"
She nodded towards my leg, as I was about to pull my sleeve on. "What happened to your leg?"
I looked down at the large pink scar on my thigh. Despite the fact that my long stomach one was my favorite and that I'd gotten that one and this one only minutes apart, my leg scar was my least favorite. It was ugly, and I had a matching one on the other side, but that was only part of it. I had recovered from my stomach wound in a fairly short period of time, but my leg wound…recovering from that still seemed like an ongoing process. It would never be the same as it was before, never mind that I'd managed to get to the Olympics even after the injury. It had changed everything…
"…Why do you ask?" I finally responded, pulling the sleeve up over my knee and adjusting it.
"Well, you have the scars, and I noticed you only limp when it's raining outside, like it was when we first met. And you wear that blue thing over it too."
"I was shot," I said, heaving a sigh. "My left thigh is mostly metal now because the bullet pretty much destroyed the femur. It took me four months to be able to walk without a brace. As for the sleeve, I don't really need it except in bad weather, but when people see the scars they start asking questions. I'd just as soon avoid being bugged about it, so I wear the sleeve to cover them up."
"And nobody asks about the sleeve?"
"Not really. I'm an athlete. Athletes wear them all the time. So seeing me with one doesn't raise any red flags."
"…Who shot you?" she suddenly asked.
"You mean what shot me," I corrected blandly. "I was shot by a Boomer. As you'll soon learn, some Boomers go crazy and go raise hell in the streets. There was one time where I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that's when it shot me."
"Boomers? You mean those human-looking mechanical things like the ones we saw at the mall yesterday?"
"That's them. Not all look like that though." I pulled on my sneakers and tied the laces. "The ones the Army uses are bigger and meaner and a lot more dangerous when they go crazy."
"What happens when they go crazy? Who takes care of that?"
"The police usually can't do shit, so that's when the Knight Sabers come in," I said with a grin.
"Five women in powered suits, with weapons capable of taking out Boomers quickly. Lots more efficient than the police."
"Why don't the police have such suits?"
"Don't ask me," I shrugged. "I don't know anything about that. All I know is that I'm gonna be late if I don't get a move-on."
Emi's face fell. "Are you sure I can't come with you?"
"You'll be fine here by yourself," I assured her. "If anyone comes knocking on the door or calling, and they ask for me, just tell them I'm out. I'll be back around six or seven if nothing else comes up, and if something does, I'll call and let you know, okay?"
Annoyance clicked in the back of my head as I drove to the gym for another long, sweaty shift. I hadn't had to check in with anybody about my whereabouts since I lived with Mom. And although I had suggested Emi could get a babysitting job if money got tight, I felt like I was the one doing the babysitting, and it was a full-time job! She was like a toddler; I couldn't turn my back for a second, at least not until I taught her some basic life skills, which she seemed to lack. And also like a toddler, she was very curious, asking all sorts of questions about everything…and I hoped that my answers to her inquiries regarding my leg were enough to satisfy her, as well as warn her not to ask again. I didn't need to remind myself, yet again, about the state my leg was in. I was reminded every day of it; didn't need others to add to that.
Once I reached the Beehive, Linna's gym, I pulled my bike into its usual parking spot and yanked my helmet off, shaking out my hair. Taking out a band, I held it in my mouth while I pulled my hair back. Taking out the band, I wrapped it around my hair and secured it in a ponytail. Now all I had to do was go in, clock in, and change into some more appropriate attire.
One jerk had other ideas.
"Hot no matter what time of day it is," Masahiro wolf-whistled, approaching me as I walked up to the main entrance.
"It's Tokyo," I replied blandly. "Always hot this time of year."
"I meant you, babe," he said with a grin.
"Y'know, I can't even tell anymore if you're still interested in me, or if this has become some sort of running gag," I groaned, pulling off my motorcycle gloves. "Reminds me of Leon with Mom, but at least he had his limits."
"Some men can't handle strong women. Me, on the other hand—"
"—have learned how to take a knee to the crotch properly. Still drop in two seconds."
He didn't seem to get the hint. "I thought you were hot when you were fifteen. Now, you're just smokin'. I'm almost surprised you ain't got a guy yet, but I think I know why that is."
"It's NOT because I'm saving myself for you," I snapped. "Trust me. If you were the last guy on earth, I'd much rather die a virgin."
"You know I can show you a good time. You just need to give me the time of day so you know what you're missing out on."
"Piss off? Ooh, someone's cranky," he cracked, that perverted grin still pasted to his face.
"I don't have time for this." I shifted my stance, spreading my feet apart slightly. He didn't notice. "I'm never in the mood to deal with you, but right now I'm REALLY not. And if you try to blame that on PMS I'll guarantee THIS knee to the crotch will make you sterile, if you're not already."
He moved to block my knee, but he didn't anticipate me making a different move. It was true that using my knee was the usual way to deal with things, but even Masahiro, it seemed, had learned to anticipate that move. Instead of raising my knee, I thrust with my left fist, finding its target in his gut. He let out a wheezing noise, gasping for air as he took a step back, grabbing his stomach. I smirked and made an uppercut with my right fist, hitting him square in the jaw. He was heavy enough that he didn't exactly get sent into the air, but he did stumble again, falling onto his back, one arm still over his stomach, the other moving to cradle his jaw.
"No wonder Tsubasa used to beat you up," I said, cracking my knuckles. "You never do learn. Three years of this crap, and you still don't know when to get the hint I am NEVER, EVER, going to sleep with you. Try all you want, give me all your best pick-up lines, none of it's gonna work. I HAVE a man I like, and even my first impression of him told me that he was more of a man than you'll ever be. So just stop."
I strode past a group of stunned girls, who'd been wanting to go into the gym but were blocked by Masahiro and me, and inside, fuming. With a start like this, the rest of the day was only bound to get worse. Seeing that mug tended to do that.
As like any other day, Linna and I led the class in warm-up stretches, followed by a dance lesson. After that came a beginner's yoga lesson, which was followed by a different group for advanced yoga. By the time I got to leading my tai chi class after a lunch break, I was aching inside. Tai chi was supposed to be relaxing, and most of the time it was, but the teenage, immature part of me still longed to hit something. I could've done part one of the form a hundred times, and it still wouldn't have released my pent-up frustration from this morning as much as just hitting something would have. Unfortunately, I had one more tai chi lesson to lead after this one before I'd have my chance to let it out during a karate lesson.
That last lesson before karate about killed me. The students seemed to pick up on my frustration too, for they frowned like I had while they were going through the movements. It actually somewhat amused me, especially as I walked around and pushed everyone over in turn; if they had been concentrating like they were supposed to, I shouldn't have been able to. But to be fair, they could've done the same to me, but I wasn't a student like them. I was the only one allowed to do the pushing!
Once the tai chi lesson was over, that group of students left, and a group of teens and twenty-somethings in gis and white belts came in. After they got into their positions, they all bowed simultaneously. After the obligatory warm-up, I decided to try out something different. I couldn't have done it if Linna were with me, but fortunately for me, at the moment she was taking a phone call in the office, so here was my chance to do that 'something different.'
"Line up," I ordered. "I'm gonna test you all out today."
"But Yamazaki-sensei didn't say anything about a test," a scrawny guy around my age, who was standing in the front row, protested.
"I'M your sensei today," I said, hands on my hips. "You've all been practicing your moves on the air and on pads. But today I want you to try them out on a living being. Me. See if you can get through my defenses and actually land a blow."
Everyone gasped, but I put up a hand to stop them from protesting further. "Don't worry. You won't hurt me. Trust me, I've taken hits from SOBs worse than a bunch of wusses with white belts."
"But Asagiri-sensei—" one girl started to say.
"Don't think it's fair for someone like me to take on beginners like you? Is that it?" I grinned evilly. "I'll go easy. But I don't want you to. Come at me with what you've got. I want to see if any of you have actually been serious about this. Let's see if you're worthy of that yellow belt you want to earn next month."
"No buts!!" I barked. "Dammit, just attack me! You can bet I'll be the only person you'll meet who's gonna stand back and let you take the first punch. Take advantage of that. Do it!" I pointed at the guy who'd protested first. "You. Come on."
I didn't even practice karate, but I had led more than my fair share of lessons alongside Linna. And although I didn't officially have any sort of belt, with my fighting experience, this group was still screwed. They knew it, and I knew it, and I didn't give a damn. It was a chance to let out my frustration AND truly test them out. I hated people who just went through the movements. This would at least weed out the fakers from the real McCoys, if anything.
The guy in front of me finally let out a holler and did a full-on charge, like a rampaging bull. "Oh please," I sighed, sidestepping him, turning around in time to see him spin on his heel and fling a fist in my direction. I casually blocked it, and was even able to push him back, as he'd overextended himself and as a result, left himself off balance. Like the rookie he was, he was too busy concentrating on the fist I had in my hand to try to do anything with his free hand, which was a mistake. I plunged my left fist into his stomach, hearing the air get expelled from his lungs with a strange gasp as he took a step backwards, stunned. I frowned and crouched down, doing a spinning kick, sweeping him off his feet and making him land on his back on the mat with a hard thud.
"Oh crap," a girl gasped, looking horrified as she noticed I was eyeing her now.
"Come on," I said. "You're next."
"You said you'd go easy!"
She looked at the other students around her for support, but was only met with similar horrified looks. She turned to me again, walking up to me like she was walking up to the guillotine to meet her fate. However, she didn't have to worry as much as the guy I'd just left sprawled on the mat behind me. I managed to get behind her with hardly any trouble, delivered a chop to the shoulder, and swept her off her feet in the same way I'd done earlier.
The two girls after her were dispatched pretty easily, which disappointed me and wasn't helping any to soothe my temper. Were they learning nothing in this class?! Maybe they were all just here for appearance's sake after all. That pissed me off. Luckily for me, another guy was up next. It was easier to beat up on guys than it was girls; not to be stereotypical, but the girls gave up a lot faster. At least the guys were tougher, or at least looked to be. Wouldn't exactly be manly to give up to a girl after three punches, even if that girl was your sensei. Just wasn't done.
"I hope you can take a punch," I jeered.
"I've taken my share," he deadpanned, getting into a fighting stance.
"Let's see if you can throw any, then."
Unlike the first guy, he wasn't defeated after throwing only one punch. This guy could throw 'em, but he couldn't hit me for shit. Of course, I was a good blocker, and he left his torso wide open. I threw out a roundhouse kick, hitting him square in the side, stunning him for a moment. He grunted and grabbed his side briefly, then came at me again, throwing up a kick. I stepped back, but it was close enough that I could feel the air moving in front of my face as his foot missed its mark. I smirked and grabbed his leg and gave it a yank. He yelped and gave two hops on his remaining leg before losing his balance and tumbling to the mat.
"That's not all you've got! Get up!" I ordered.
He scrambled to his feet and, again, overextending himself, threw a punch at me, his face twisted in anger. I swatted the arm aside and wasted no time in thrusting my fist into his face, a crack filling the air as I apparently broke his nose. "Getting too emotional," I said bluntly as he put a hand to his nose and let out a curse. "You're not thinking. Now try it again."
"I'll show YOU emotional!!" he snarled, getting both fists ready, when another voice entered into our fight, effectively stopping it.
Linna ran up between us and broke us up, turning to my opponent. "Oh God, did she break it?"
"Hell yeah she broke it!" he snapped.
"Go to the nurse and she'll take care of it." She turned to the other students. "You're all dismissed for the day. And Yumeko," she said, turning to me, looking none too pleased, "a word in my office, please. NOW."
I just smirked and did as I was told, following behind her as she headed to her office, motioning for me to shut the door behind me. "What on earth was that?!" she demanded, her voice calm but still angry. "They're white belts! What were you thinking, trying serious moves on them? You know they can't handle that!"
"Sick of the posers," I said. "Thought I'd try them out for real."
"I know you don't like the 'posers,' but that's no reason to test them out like that! They're still white belts, and they still have a lot to learn."
"Well, now they know just how much they need to learn."
Linna let out an exasperated sigh and shook her head, throwing up her hands. "You're incorrigible!"
She pressed her lips together, looking ready to start on what would be a long lecture, when the phone on the desk rang. Even before she turned around to see who the call was from, I recognized the name on the caller ID: Stingray, Sylia.
"Sylia?" she said, picking up the receiver. "Yeah… Uh-huh. Sure, we can come right away, just need to change. Ok. …See you then." She hung up. "You got a break. Sylia wants everyone at her place in an hour."
"Job offer?" I speculated.
"Probably. She's not the type to make social calls, after all. Let's take a shower and head over there. And this isn't over, by the way. I'm still not happy about you taking out whatever frustration you have on the students."
"Well, I already beat up on Masahiro, and he went down as fast as he ever has. Problem was, I wasn't done beating up," I quipped.
Linna and I were the last to arrive at Sylia's penthouse. Nene, Mackie, and Mom were already there, sitting on the couch patiently. I gave a nod to Mom, who just nodded back as I took the pot of coffee that Sylia had provided and poured myself a cup, adding a packet of sugar before settling into a chair.
"Been a while since we've had a job," I said, taking a sip from my cup.
"Yeah, well, I always said hell would freeze over before Genom lets there be peace on earth," Mom said, chugging from hers before setting it down. "Even with Madigan dead, there's still Quincy to worry about."
"Are we all settled in?" Sylia asked, walking into the living room and taking a seat next to Linna. Everyone nodded. "Good. This job is a little different from others we've had before."
"How so?" Linna asked.
"It's nothing that has made the rounds in the press yet, but as another step in the fallout from the summit and our raid in San Francisco last year, the UN has asked Genom to hand over the OMS."
"The OMS?" Nene gasped. "Really? I don't believe Genom would actually hand it over though. It would seem like something they deem way too valuable to let go of."
"Be that as it may, the UN still wants it. And so, a couple of nights ago, Genom made a delivery. Or attempted to, should I say. It was intercepted by an unknown group, and it was stolen."
Mom did a spit-take. "Stolen?! Oh, well, that's too bad for Genom, isn't it!"
"That was careless," Linna said. "Genom leaving something like that so unguarded? There must be more to this."
"Your assumptions would be correct," Sylia said, nodding as she took the kettle of tea that sat next to the coffee pot and poured a cup. "Anyone would expect Genom to deliver something of this much importance under the highest amount of security necessary. And yet it was still stolen. The information that I've received tells me that there is a possibility that this was an inside job by Genom to prevent the UN from getting its hands on the OMS."
"What kind of information?" I asked.
"For starters, the truck delivering the OMS was only occupied by humans. No security or Combat Boomers or anything like that. Even if it wasn't public knowledge that the OMS was to be handed over, it would still be likely that others within the company besides the most senior in the company would be aware of it."
"It might not have been an inside job, though," I said. "Other places would probably kill to have that thing."
"You're right. But there's no evidence to suggest anyone other than people within the UN or Genom was aware of the transfer. That's not to say your theory isn't possible, but we ought to explore the most possible avenue, and that is that this was an inside job."
"So where do we come in?" Mom asked, cupping her chin between her forefinger and middle finger in thought. I knew the look on her face; it said she didn't like where this was going, and honestly, I had an inkling as to what our role was in this as well.
"Our job is to secure the OMS and ensure its safe delivery to the UN."
"So the friggin' UN is our client this time?!"
"That's right. Our job is to retrieve the OMS, and if we can't ensure its safe delivery, then it is to be destroyed, but only if there is no other option left."
"Wouldn't that be a shame," I drawled dryly.
Sylia gave me a look. "This is not a job to be taken lightly, Yumeko," she admonished. "You're aware of the importance of the OMS, right?"
"Yeah. It's what controls all the Boomers. But I don't think anyone would blame me for wanting to 'accidentally' shoot the thing to bits." Mom gave a shrug, like she would probably do the same thing, but Sylia ignored her.
"Our fee is one-hundred million yen," she said, turning to face everyone, making them all draw a collective gasp. I swore I could almost see yen signs flashing in Linna's eyes. "That ought to tell us how important this is to the UN. We are getting fifty million up front, with the rest upon completion of the job." She looked at Nene. "Nene?"
"Yes?" she said.
"I need you to look up any Genom-related companies. Check and see if there has been any unusual activity within any of them within the past seventy-two hours. Given the urgency of this job, I need you to report back to me every hour with your findings."
She nodded. "I guess we have a long night ahead of us," she sighed with a smile, scratching the side of her head.
"I'll help out," Mackie offered.
"Good. I was going to ask you anyway."
"Anything the rest of us can do?" Linna asked.
"No," Sylia said. "I'll let you know if Nene comes up with anything. For now, just go on as normal, but let me know if you hear any unusual rumors or any chatter on the streets."
"It's Tokyo. There's always something unusual going on," I joked, but bit my lip when Sylia gave me another one of her patented stern looks.
The meeting wound down pretty quickly after that, and while Nene and Mackie headed to the computer room to go digging, Linna, Mom, and I headed down to the parking garage to our respective vehicles. Both of them looked like they were in deep thought, and even if I looked like I was acting casual, so was I. This was definitely an odd job if there ever was one. And the fee told me that this was not only an important job, but a very dangerous one as well. Hell, it was the OMS. I would expect it to be dangerous. It would definitely be odd if there was no danger to it!
"Do we even know what this thing looks like?" I asked, putting on my biking gloves. "Obviously if it could be stolen that easily, it can't be all that big."
"Who knows," Mom said, pulling on her helmet. "We'll wait and see what Nene digs up."
"Digs up… Ah damn! I forgot!"
"About what?" Linna inquired.
"Emi! I told her I'd call if I was gonna be running late!"
Linna and Mom both looked at me, curious. "Who's Emi?"
"She's this girl I took in a couple days ago. Got dumped from a truck and has no memory. Nene's been looking at the missing-person reports, but nothing's come up on her so far."
"Maybe you should have her meet Sylia. She could probably find out something about her," Linna suggested.
"I dunno. Emi's pretty shy. Sylia might scare her off."
"She'd scare anybody off," Mom quipped. "You left this girl at your place by herself?"
"Yeah, but I told her what to do if anybody calls or knocks on the door."
"Good, good." She paused. "I'm goin' out for drinks with Max and Hiroshi tonight, otherwise I'd ask you to come along."
"Thanks, but I should check on her, make sure she's ok. She's probably worried."
"You're acting just like a mom," she chuckled. "Worrying—"
"HEY! I am NOT!" I protested.
"You'd make a good mom!"
"No I wouldn't! I'd be terrible! I don't even know how to change a diaper!"
"Neither did I! But that's not the point here. Still, I'm glad you're worrying about her. Somebody needs to."
"I know. It just sucks that at the moment, I'm all she's got."
My stomach growled as I drove home, and despite the fact my stomach was growling, I had no idea what I was in the mood for. I hated that. Everything seemed good to me at the moment. I figured I would just ask Emi what she wanted and I'd just go along with that…as long as it wasn't egg sandwiches.
"Yumeko! You're home!" the copper-haired girl exclaimed as I walked in the door and tossed my helmet on the couch. "What took you so long? You said you would call!"
"Sorry," I said lamely. "My mom and some of her friends stopped by the gym as we were closing down. Just couldn't get out of there!"
"I mentioned them to you, and they'd like to meet you. But I told them you're a little shy, so maybe another time." I sniffed the air. "Bleh. Still smells like egg."
Emi just chuckled to herself. I lifted an eyebrow in response; what was she up to? "That was my doing," she admitted.
"Uh, yeah, I know, I was witness to the whole thing. Didn't think the smell would stick around though. Anyway, what did you feel like eating for dinner? Everything sounds good to me at the moment."
She put a finger to her cheek in thought. "Hmm…I don't know. I was too busy waiting for you to really think about food."
"You're not a puppy. You didn't have to sit by the door and wait."
"Oh, I wasn't! I sat on the couch!" I slapped myself on the forehead and let out a low groan. "I was worried!"
"I know, I know," I groaned. "Sorry. Anybody come by?"
"Good. Now what're we gonna do for dinner? I'm gonna start eating the table if neither of us thinks of something."
"Well," she suggested, "how about we go to that place you went to that night you found me?"
"No, no, I was thinking something with a little more…meat. There's a hamburger place about two blocks down. Let's try that out and see if we find anything good."
Emi just smiled. "Okay!"
It was a nice evening, so rather than take my bike, I decided we ought to walk the two blocks to the burger joint. Judging from the crowd in the restaurant, it seemed like everyone else thought it was too hot to use their stoves too. Now that I was here, I started thinking a bowl of soumen noodles sounded nice; it was cold, the perfect summer meal. But that didn't have meat in it, and I really wanted something I could gnaw on. A hamburger seemed to fit the bill just fine.
It wasn't until after I ordered for myself and Emi that I realized a lot of people were still waiting. At least a half dozen people were at the other end of the counter, waiting for their order numbers to be called. They started to get upset, but I just shrugged. It was the dinner rush; the cooks were probably frazzled.
"The chef Boomer has been running slow lately," the manager said, trying to appease the customers, to little avail. "It's going as fast as it can."
The guy next to me cracked his knuckles. "I'll MAKE the piece of shit go faster."
"Don't you think I've tried that?! Just makes it worse."
I sighed. Looked like this would take a while. And I was just as hungry as ever, and with the seconds and minutes ticking by, it wasn't easing any. "I wonder if it knows that there's a lot of people waiting," Emi mused.
"Probably not. I bet it just has its mind on the next burger," I said, grimacing. Food service…was there a worse job? Dealing with angry customers all the time, standing over a vat of oil…it was one job I was glad there was Boomers for, even if they did have a tendency to break down at the worst times, like this one. Well, it running slow was better than it going berserk. Had to grant that. But the people around me weren't worrying about the chef Boomer being overworked. They just wanted their food.
"C'mon, man! It's been twenty minutes!!" another guy roared.
"I'm sure it's doing its best," Emi tried to assure him.
"Well, kid, its best isn't damn near good enough. I ain't cuttin' no Boomer any slack!"
I just sighed. Boomers can be a lot more human than you think, I thought, turning my head when I heard the manager gasp.
"Hey! It's going!" he cheered. People leaned over the counter to look into the kitchen to see if it was true. I did likewise, and sure enough, the chef Boomer was plugging away, getting burgers done and wrapping them up in hardly any time at all. The manager barely had time to grab the ones that were done before the Boomer made more and piled them up.
The line whittled down quickly, until finally Emi and I were at the head of the line. By that time, the manager was saying, "Okay, that's enough burgers. We don't need that many. …Really! You can stop!!"
I leaned over the counter again, blinking in surprise at the sight of the mountain of finished burgers that had piled up by the Boomer. There were only two people in line behind us, and I could only assume they wouldn't be able to eat the extra two-dozen burgers it had made. "Went into overdrive," I remarked.
Emi just giggled.
The manager had so much left over that he shut down the Boomer to keep it from wasting any more product, and put the remainder in the heater to make sure it didn't get cold or dry out or whatever. In the meantime, me and Emi sat there and enjoyed some medium-rare hamburgers, not how I liked them, but they were still good nonetheless.
"Now if only we could get quick service like that all the time," I quipped. "Never seen a Boomer spontaneously speed up like that before."
"Maybe it got its mojo back," Emi laughed.
The line took me by surprise; Emi didn't seem like the type to make quips. All I could do once I stopped gaping in shock was to laugh with her and enjoy my half-raw burger. Still, it was strange, but lots of things in this town were strange. I couldn't help but wonder if the OMS was in action, but dismissed that thought quickly; whoever had stolen the thing wouldn't bother to use it on a chef Boomer to make food faster. Didn't make sense. If anything, I was surprised that there wasn't a horde of them going crazy in the streets. Maybe they hadn't figured out how to work the thing. But even so, it was a matter of time.
As a Knight Saber, I had to expect the unexpected. But it certainly didn't hurt to expect the obvious, either.
I had to work again the next day, and so once again I had to leave Emi alone in my apartment. She begged again to come with me, but I stood my ground. "I have tomorrow off," I said. "We can hang out then. I want to take you to a couple places, but my work isn't one of them."
"What kinds of places?" she asked.
"If I told you, it would ruin it. You'll like 'em though. But right now, I oughta get going."
Emi looked like a lost puppy as I left. I felt bad – I should've been doing more to help her find any family that was sure to be looking for her – but I couldn't really do anything. All I could do was keep her safe until Nene got back to me with any information that she found. And then I remembered the current OMS job, and grimaced. She'd be too busy looking up crap on Genom-connected companies to even bother with information on Emi. I sighed to myself. Maybe I'd have to find her a part-time job after all.
During a moment of downtime at the Beehive, I told Linna of last night's events at the burger joint, how the chef Boomer had been going slow one moment, going into overdrive the next. "That IS odd," she agreed, taking a chug from her water bottle. "But when you make Boomers cheaply, that can happen."
"Part of me actually thought the you-know-what was involved in it," I laughed. "But that'd be a waste of time."
"Well…" She grinned. "Some people do like a good burger."
"But no one there looked like a baddie. I checked everybody out."
"Bad guys don't have a three-foot-tall sign saying 'I'm a bad guy.' They look normal enough."
"Well, if they gave themselves away, it'd make our job a hell of a lot easier."
"True, but then we'd practically be working for free if there was no element of danger to what we do. And Sylia can't afford that. The suits are expensive to maintain, and between the damage you and Priss take—"
"I'm not as bad as I used to be," I protested.
"You're still your mother's daughter!"
"What was the last major injury I got, huh? I bet you couldn't tell me!"
Linna smirked. "Oh, let's see, the broken arm in February," she ticked off on her fingers, "the bruising you took against those five BU-33Bs in April…"
"Those don't count."
"Maybe not compared to the summit or your stabbing, but we get worried when you get hurt, you know. Priss sometimes wonders if you get yourself hurt on purpose so that you'll have an excuse to take morphine again."
I bristled at that suggestion. "I was in rehab for that! Why would I want to relive that? And if she really thinks that, she can say it to my face instead of having me hear it second-hand from you. It's not something I'm proud of, and I know she's been holding it against me ever since I told her I needed help. I know she was disappointed. She needs to get over it."
"She's your mother. She feels partly responsible."
"Why? I got addicted in Sacramento. Nothing she could do from across the ocean. I made my own choices, and that was a bad one. I told her that lots of times, that it was a choice I made. I'm not a baby anymore."
"No, you're not," she said, nodding sagely. "But you did grow up pretty fast. All parents want to keep their children from growing up, from knowing the savagery that the world holds. You learned that earlier than most, and you show it."
"I still wouldn't change a damn thing though…except for Michiko. I still…feel bad for letting her down," I said softly, wincing at the memory. Knowing how her life ended wasn't something I liked to dwell on, although a quick glance at my stomach would've served as a quick reminder. "Took me a long time…to accept that there really was nothing I could have done." I then quoted something Bert had said to me on the subject. "…We're only human."
I could remember the expression on his face as he berated me, trying to get me to see that despite my insistence, I couldn't have done anything. I couldn't have known what was going to happen when she decided to walk home that day instead of getting a ride from me. But she was my best friend; I felt it was my duty to have known. And Boh had been after me, not her. And it was only after I'd returned home that I finally understood him, finally admitted that he was right. I wished I could tell him I was sorry for being a stubborn brat. I'd said so in the letter I'd written to him during my time in rehab, even if he'd never see it. I wished I could tell him that wasn't the real me that he saw. I wished…
"Huh? Sorry," I said quickly.
"Yeah. I was just thinking that…there's a lot I wouldn't change, but some things I wish I could. I don't care about being hurt in the summit, but…I do care that the shit after that led up to Michiko dying. And…" I let out a breath. "I know she knows I'm sorry. And I'm sure she forgives me."
"It was a rough time," Linna said. "And you're stronger for it. You've learned from your mistakes. It's time to move forward now."
"Hell of a way to get stronger, though."
Breaktime was over, and we both headed back to the main part of the gym to lead our respective classes in their workouts. The conversation loomed in the back of my mind, though, as I went through the tai chi workouts, then the karate class, smirking when I caught sight of the guy whose nose I'd broken yesterday. Served him and his damn arrogance right. But I had to admit, I used to be like that, and somewhere deep down, I probably still was.
After the gym closed, I helped Linna disinfect the mats and tidy up, but before she dismissed me for the evening, she reminded me that she still wanted to discuss what happened yesterday.
"That's not appropriate behavior, especially for a sensei," she chastised. "I don't care if you had a run-in with Masahiro on your way in. If you're still angry with him, take it out on something or somebody besides the students. We have real punching bags; don't use the students as such."
"Okay, okay," I said, hiding a grin. "I think you said something like that before we had to go over to Sylia's."
"Well, I'm saying it again, because with you, repetition seems to be necessary."
"All those concussions warrants repetition," I said dryly, which didn't amuse her in the least, judging from the look on her face, but she didn't say anything. She dismissed me with a wave of her hand, and I made sure to hightail it out of there before she decided to lecture me any further.
Tonight I was actually in the mood for cooking; I wanted spaghetti, and fortunately I already had all the ingredients at home, so I didn't need to stop by a grocery store on the way home. I figured Emi would like a home-cooked meal, and learn that there was other stuff she could make besides sandwiches, and other stuff to eat besides burgers at restaurants. Me and Mom had almost lived on take-out when I still lived with her, due to the self-admitted fact she was a bad cook, so after I'd gotten my own place I'd made sure to learn to cook at least a few things. Didn't mean I'd sworn off takeout though. It was a quick solution for when I felt lazy and didn't want to do anything kitchen-wise, as was the case last night.
I opened the door to my apartment, half-expecting Emi to come running to the door as she'd done yesterday, but instead I saw her laying on the couch on her side, looking at the TV but not really watching it. "Hi," I said, walking up to her. "What's wrong?"
"Stomach hurts," she mumbled.
"Damn. I hope it wasn't that burger from last night."
"Don't think it was. Just started hurting a few minutes ago…"
"Did you take anything?"
She shook her head.
"I was gonna make spaghetti for dinner, but if your stomach hurts I guess that wouldn't be a good idea. I'll make some soup. Does that sound good?"
"Sure. Are you going to have some too?"
"Yeah, why not?"
I found a can of vegetable soup in the cupboard, and in a couple minutes I had it heating up on the stove. "It'll be ready in a little bit. It just…"
The beeping of a pager cut into the conversation, making me jump and wince. I hadn't expected it, but then again, I never did. I checked the message on it. "God dammit!" I swore.
"What's wrong?" Emi asked, holding her stomach as she pushed herself up to an upright position.
"Um, nothing. I just have to go," I said quickly, grabbing my helmet.
"Why? You just got home."
"I know! But this is something that can't wait. The soup'll be ready in five minutes. Make sure to turn off the burner, ok?"
"Good. I'll be back." With that, I was out the door and running down the stairs, cursing to myself. The message on the pager didn't tell me there was a rogue Boomer on the loose, but I still had to get down to Lady 633 as soon as I could, for it told me that Nene had tracked down what company was likely involved in the OMS heist…and that we were going to be paying a visit.
This oughta be fun. Another knock-down-drag-out battle with Genom. Just how I like to spend my evenings, I thought flippantly as I took off on my bike.