Just Another Word for 'You'
Tokimeki Memorial Girl's Side First Love
Himuro Reiichi x Heroine
By Gabihime at gmail dot com
Part Four.Five: All I Have to Do
Part I: Serve, Smash, Volley
With his feet planted firmly just behind the baseline, as if he were a weathered stone that nothing between heaven and earth could induce to move, Himuro Reiichi eyed the small form across the court, doubled over with her hands on her knees, her racket gripped loosely in her left hand. Without any motion or sound of warning, his eyes narrowed and he rose suddenly to serve, his body curving seemingly effortlessly as he lifted the old wooden racket over his head and sent the ball whipping like a whirlwind toward the opposite court. Once across the net, the ball dropped like it was made of lead and spun so hard as it met the court that it might have left a mark on the paint before bouncing directly at her face.
Midori, although exhausted from running from sideline to sideline for hours chasing Himuro's viper quick serves, read the ball as it approached her like a fury. This was the Coach's nightmarish Kick Serve, which had knocked her out cold more than once. She shook the sweat from her face with a quick toss of her head at the same time as she stepped backward, twisting her body to get out of the way of the incoming ball's murderous bounce. She had read the ball right and got her racket under it in time, but the ball was heavy. The Coach's balls were always heavy, as if he had some arcane way of imparting them with extra mass.
It was almost too much for her backhand alone, and it would have been easier if she had tried to return it with a two-handed backhand, but the Coach had forbidden that. If she was to return it all, it had to be returned with the long, beautiful left-handed backhand.
Returning the Coach's Kick Serve was like catching a comet in a butterfly net, but somehow she did it, forcing all the will she had left in her body into the dozen muscles that felt like they were torn apart returning that ball.
She was still panting, the sweat dripping down the side of her face and into her shirt collar, struggling to find her footing again after her dancing to get behind the ball, when she felt something singing by her like a bullet. Her head turned automatically to follow it, whipping like she'd been slapped. The ball ground itself into the court again and then sprang up, ringing the cyclone fence behind them like a chorus of bells as it stuck momentarily before falling back to the earth like a star.
She looked back across the net at the coach in his nondescript black and grey tracksuit.
She did not think he had taken one step during their practice.
Midori dropped somewhat unceremoniously onto her bottom and then flopped backward onto the court like a dead thing. She lay there with her arms and legs spread out, as if she might have been making a snow angel, and felt the stored warmth of the court that they'd been playing on for hours. The Coach had a way of charging the ground up with latent energy, or perhaps that was just the sun.
Himuro approached the net slowly and deliberately and considered the number of balls he had served to her throughout their four hour practice. The court was littered with them, and they studded the ground like fluorescent dandelions. Looking down on her flushed face from over the barrier of the net, her exhaustion was palpable.
"All right, Yumeno. That's a satisfactory amount of service return practice for today. Go clean yourself up and then we'll talk about today's performance."
The girl in the rumpled pink tennis dress nodded slowly, and then commenced to wriggle to her feet like an inchworm, flashing a long and unexpected view of her panties in the process. He turned away immediately and regarded the sky.
"Perhaps it might rain," he observed.
There wasn't a cloud to be seen.
Himuro was sitting in an old wooden chair in the hallway near the dressing rooms, carefully going through a training log filled with cramped notations, when he heard a blood-curdling yelp. Such a yelp could only come from the throat of his protégé, who might be elegant and powerful on the court, but was often a clumsy disaster in her regular life. Himuro had become familiar with this sound as the hallmark of calamities both great and small, and without a second thought he was on his feet and through the door of the girl's dressing room.
This late in the day on a Saturday the dressing room was empty except for Yumeno Midori, who sat helplessly on her bottom on the floor, thankfully clothed. Her locker was open in front of her, and her shoes were in disarray on the ground. One of them lay on its side, and two glimmering tacks had tumbled out of it like buried treasures.
On the bottom of her socked right foot, a red stain was spreading.
She looked as if she were about to burst into tears, not from the pain, which was probably not much compared to the muscle aches she experienced regularly from his brutal training, but simply because she was overwrought and exhausted, a good-natured girl who had no idea how to properly respond to bullying. Himuro frowned almost imperceptibly. This girl who was such a prodigy on the court was really hapless when left to her own devices. To bully her was like tying a firecracker to the tail of a small, three-legged kitten.
"No," he said deliberately in response to her trembling lower lip. "Tears are forbidden," he declared.
She sniffled alarmingly in response, but he was gratified to see her marshaling herself and struggling not to cry. At last she nodded resolutely, her mouth set in a determined line that was somehow incongruous with her continued sniffling.
"Now," he said, satisfied that she was no longer in danger of dissolving into pitiful wailing, "We will see to your injury."
And without further warning, Himuro Reiichi bent down and scooped her up as if she might have really been a kitten, and leaving her shoes behind, made for the auxiliary medical room that was in the gymnasium.
"Coach," Midori was squeaking in distress, her cheeks blooming a rosy pink, "It's all right. You don't have to carry me. I can walk!"
"I wouldn't advise it," he said shortly. "Even a small puncture wound can become troublesome if it gets infected."
"But Coach, I don't want to put any strain on your knee - "
His knee, it was the injury that had put an early end to his promising professional career. Even now he walked a little more slowly than he might have. It wasn't obvious to most people, but this girl was astute, and she had watched him for a long time. He limped.
"My knee," he said, "Is not your concern. Worry about your own knees and your own feet. I think you will discover that your tennis is very disappointing if you can't move around the court the way you want to."
"Coach," that one word response was a little melancholic, filled with worry, and a mild indictment. She used that one word dozens of times each day, to say dozens of different things. He thought she had finished speaking her piece, because often that was all she said to him, just 'Coach,' like it was the only word she knew, but then she surprised him, because she kept on going shyly. "I just feel like I ought to worry about you. You spend so much time worrying about me, it seems like the least I can do."
"The least you can do," he answered with a short grunt, "Is to get better at tennis."
At special training camp that summer she ran further, jumped higher, and lifted more weights than any of the other players, including the other regulars on the girls' tennis team. Himuro devised a special training regimen for her that was more challenging even than the one for the regulars on the boys' tennis team, and was pleased when she beat one of the better regular boy players in straight sets after she was challenged.
Still, he could tell she was tired and somewhat discouraged. His training schedule was brutal, but worse than that, it was lonely. She did not train with the other girls. She did not even train with the other boys. None of the girls sat with her when they went to eat together in the cafeteria, and Himuro always ate his food alone in his room, unwilling to fraternize with the players.
But one boy, the dark-haired star of the boys' tennis team, Suzuka Kazuma, had noticed her loneliness and her wavering resolve. He had seen them talking and laughing together the night previous, long after lights out, sitting under the bright lights of a tennis court amid a sea of loose yellow balls. Midori had been laughing like a little girl, waving her arms around while she narrated a story, likely the memory of one her catastrophic accidents, which were only funny in hindsight.
He did not ever find them funny, and so he never laughed at them.
But the handsome sun-bronzed Suzuka laughed like an idiot, throwing his head back and showing all of his teeth.
Himuro simply stood back in the shadows quietly and observed.
The next day, after her grueling run, but before service return practice, during the time usually allotted for lunch, he called her to his room to have a very serious conference with her.
They both sat together on his floor laid with tatami mats and he could not help but notice a glow in her cheeks that had not been there the day before.
I hope that I caught this dangerous situation in time, Himuro thought, his mouth turned down at the corners. No. I know this girl. I know her tennis. She will not disappoint me.
Midori's stomach growled loudly, and he uncovered the plate of sandwiches that stood between them and pushed them toward her.
She needed no further invitation and was soon happily munching on a sandwich and looking blissful, although this fare was nothing extraordinary: cucumber and celery sandwiches, something he was always feeding her to get her into condition.
In fact, she seemed so perfectly content to sit across from him and gobble up a whole plate of celery and cucumber sandwiches that the entire lunch period might have passed that way, had he not broken the silence between them.
"Yumeno," he began seriously, using his best disciplinarian voice. "You broke curfew last night."
It was as if Midori had frozen on an atomic level, the sandwich triangle halfway to her mouth. She sat there, completely immobile, as if she had become a very lifelike statue of a high school tennis player.
Himuro frowned, and continued. "This afternoon, you will have additional repetitions of both sit-ups and push-ups as punishment for this infraction of training camp rules."
At this pronouncement, Midori seemed to relax at last, coming to life again, apparently relieved, as if she had feared a much worse punishment.
"Coach," she answered penitently, "I'm very sorry. I know I shouldn't have been out so late - "
"Yumeno," he cut her off, because he was not yet finished indicting her. "I was hoping we would not have to have this conversation, but it is better that we have it now than wait until it is too late." He paused and let this warning sink into her skin before taking a deep breath and speaking low and with unwavering resolve. "Love is forbidden."
The girl looked as if he had struck her, her face turning first pink, then red, then purple, her eyes wide with what might have been tears standing in the corners of them.
He had meant to give her a short, sharp, shock, and he had done so. It was best to act now while she was still vulnerable from the blow and likely to listen to his advice.
"Yumeno, you swore to me that you were willing to work as hard as necessary to reach the world stage," he began slowly, reminding her first of the vow they had taken together on an empty tennis court, as the snow fell. "If you want to follow the path of tennis, there is no way you can follow the path of love. It may seem cruel, but there is no room in your life for a man. To be competitive on the world stage," here he lowered his voice even further, and it came out gritty and ominous, "you have no conception of the hardships you'll have to face. It will make these days seem like an easy fairy tale. No romance could withstand such pressure. Either you will break, or it will break, and either way, your tennis will suffer. If you want to compete on the world stage, you must be willing to give your life to tennis."
As he had been speaking, low and deliberate and direct, she had begun to recover, and the purple despair was leaving her face in favor of the rosiness of her earlier elation over the sandwiches, and he knew he had to act quickly if he was to make her understand, because she had already begun to wriggle in place. She was ready to interject, but he would not let her.
"You must understand," he said, keeping his voice firm and even, trying hard to control the emotion that was building in his chest. "When you swore to me you were willing to go as far as you could, you took my hand. You put your trust in me. You put your trust in the belief that I would be capable of pushing you and your tennis into the future. The world deserves to see your tennis, but it never will if you let yourself be distracted by anything. If you let a man take your hand, he will want to pull you toward him, and that will pull you away from tennis. I will never let go of you. Tennis will never let go of you. So you must decide whether you will let go of him, or find yourself pulled apart."
After having delivered this terrifying ultimatum, Himuro expected her to be quailing where she sat, but instead she seemed ready to burst, leaning forward, her cheeks rosy, and there were still small tears in the corners of her eyes.
"Coach," she exploded like a firecracker, scattering her nervous enthusiasm around the room like confetti, "But what if," she leaned forward further, over the plate of cucumber and celery sandwiches, "What if ," she took a deep breath and then let out all her pent up feelings in a dizzying shout, "What if the man I love is you? Then I don't have to be pulled in two directions, just in one."
Across the plate of cucumber and celery sandwiches, Coach Himuro Reiichi said nothing, and they sat there staring at one another, Midori panting as if she'd just run up a dozen flights of stairs, her face glowing with triumph because she'd finally said what she'd meant to say.
Himuro Reiichi said nothing, and simply stood, and silently left the room.
He could think of no other way to deal with such an unexpected development than to simply run away from it. He had never expected that his star player, so carefully nurtured and raised, might look with warm eyes toward him. He was accustomed to shutting people out of his life. He was dour, he was mostly silent, he was unfriendly and forbidding, and outside of tennis even he had to admit that he was very boring.
He had no idea what it was that she wanted from him, and was terrified to find out.
He had planned everything out carefully, had copious notes covering the next several years: what she ought to eat, when she ought to exercise, what she ought to wear, when to begin developing her rising shot, what type of speed training would be best to improve her reflexes, whether he thought she was drinking enough milk, or ought to have more soy in her diet come next March. He was sure that he had prepared for every eventuality, considered each problem carefully, and devised solutions to all of them.
But this -
He had no idea what to do with this.
And so he walked.
He walked and he walked and he walked.
He walked for hours, in methodical circles along the training camp's running trail, around the tennis courts, filled with players practicing through the afternoon and into the evening, when the dinner bell rang, and finally he sat in the dark on an empty tennis court and looked up at the stars.
It was very late when he at last went back to his room, long after curfew had been called, so he knew he would be safe from an awkward encounter with Yumeno Midori.
The best thing to do, he had decided, was to pretend that her outburst had never happened. If she brought it up, he would studiously ignore it.
He was good at ignoring things, like the knee that now ached from so much walking.
He slid the door open silently, and then closed it behind him, prepared to strip off his warmup suit and pour himself a drink.
But there on the floor, was something he had not expected to see.
She was flopped over on her side, sound asleep, her arms wrapped around a familiar object that he immediately recognized as his tennis racket. She was sleeping with her face pressed against the strings.
Beside her, carefully covered, was the plate of cucumber and celery sandwiches. She had eaten exactly half of them, although he could hear her stomach growling even as she slept.
He would have to have his racket restrung.
Over the next few months, things were much the same as they had ever been, although they were a little different as well. Sometimes his hand lingered on her back as he corrected her posture. Sometimes they sat together after practice and shared the cucumber and celery sandwiches that she had learned to make.
When Suzuka Kazama intruded on Midori's training, Himuro chased him off the courts, and Midori only shrugged in sheepish apology at the star tennis player.
Her form improved. Her endurance improved. Her will grew even stronger.
It was as if someone had lit a flame deep in her chest.
And the National Tournament approached.
Through the common black magic of a school girl's charms, Yumeno Midori secured a promise from him.
After the Nationals were over, he would give her a kiss, her first kiss.
It seemed to him, these days, that she hit a lot of aces.
And there she stood, like a queen crowned in laurels, having bested the most talented players in the nation to rightly claim the title of best girl's singles player. Habataki Gakuen had won national accolades, and it seemed like flower petals rained down from the sky on her as the crowd enthusiastically cheered for their fresh-faced idol, the girl who had shown them tennis worthy of the world stage.
She crossed the court to shake hands with her opponent and he could see that she was crying, crying with happiness, and with relief. And then she turned and smiled, and he knew that here in her moment of triumph, she smiled for him, that she smiled for the both of them.
He watched her as she crossed the court, and knew in his heart who she was coming home to.
But then she was running, her mouth open and her terror very real, and he had no idea why, why now, at this moment, when the world was ready to open up before her, did she look so afraid.
And then he saw that there was a tall figure lying on the ground, very pale and very still.
And then he realized that the body on the ground was the body of Himuro Reiichi, that he had chosen this particular moment to die of a massive heart attack. He was dead by the time she got to him, had crumpled up like crepe paper in the rain, so she didn't even have a chance to share any final sweet words with him.
It was very tragic, and her bitter tears watered the hard ground of the tennis court that day.
Wait, Himuro thought, as he stood there watching Midori weep piteously over his dead body, I didn't have a heart condition, I had a knee injury. Why did I just drop dead?
"It's the most appropriate way for this story to end,"explained his dead body. "This way we aren't here to hold her back."
"I'm not really that concerned about holding her back any more," Himuro protested, throwing his hands up in frustration. "Besides, isn't killing me off a little extreme?"
"I don't like this ending either," interjected Midori, halting her sobs over her coach's dead body long enough to voice her own thoughts. "I think we ought to get married instead."
"We're not interested in your opinion," Himuro and his corpse were this time in perfect agreement.
Part II: The Deep, Still Night
The cold, wet night air was perhaps the only thing that was keeping Midori awake at this hour. She had just had an exhausting day: first in classes at the university, and then in observation at the hospital. Her feet ached from standing so long, and her mind was numb from all the information she had tried to cram into it this week.
As she plodded along in the driving rain, she could not help but reflect that although she knew she would be glad to see her bed again, it was depressing to come home to a cold, empty apartment. She didn't even have a cat to greet her, because the lease forbid it. For Midori, who was used to a warm home filled with noise and activity, the solitude was perhaps the worst trial of all.
And this was the reason, maybe, that she was willing to spend such long hours at the library studying, or working in the labs, or tagging along on floor rounds like an abandoned puppy. Although it was exhausting, it saved her from the emptiness of dark, lonely rooms.
She lived on the second floor of an old building that had an exterior staircase, and she was in the habit of getting the house keys out of her purse before climbing the stairs. The light above her door was inoperable and apparently beyond repair, and although she had asked the landlord to replace it many times, he had so far taken no steps other than to reassure her that it would eventually be replaced.
She paused on the lowest step of the metal staircase and sorted through her keys. Behind her, in the alley that ran next to the old building, she heard a rustling, as if a cat was among the garbage bins.
It was not unusual to hear stray cats in the alley, but Midori was the sort of girl who gives until her pockets are empty, so she resolved to bring down a saucer of milk for the alley scavenger. Having found her key, she was about to begin climbing the stairs to fetch the saucer of milk when she heard another sound, a sound that made her turn on her heel and charge heedlessly into the dark alley.
It was a low, quiet moan. It was the kind of moan that only comes from the throat of a human being who has been pursued by pain and horrors through exhaustion until complete and utter collapse. She had heard that moan before, in the emergency room, or in the wards of the hospital with terminal patients.
The alley was very dark. Not even the feeble light from the street penetrated the shadows, so Midori was forced to fish in her bag for the small flashlight she carried in case of emergencies. This was clearly an emergency. As she swept it slowly over the ground and the walls of the alley, she never worried that what she found might be dangerous to find. She did not worry about this because she never worried about such things. It was perhaps not bravery. It was not a lack of fear, because sometimes she was quite afraid of the dark, or things like ghosts, or boogeymen. It was simply a lack of forethought. She charged ahead into situations regardless of consequences. One of her nicknames at the hospital was "the stupid girl."
Against a wall, between two rubbish bins, she found him. He was all curled up on himself, his long limbs bent as if to shield himself from further harm. He was dirty and harried and bleeding and barely conscious.
She was down on her knees in an instant, the flashlight clenched in her teeth to light the scene as her hands moved like swift water, tracing over his body to grasp the state of his injuries. In her hand was the small utility knife that she kept in her purse, and she used it to cut away the crimson stained fabric of his shirt over the worst injury. He had a gunshot wound in his upper right chest. The wound had bled quite a bit, but she thought the bullet had clipped him, not become embedded in the flesh. The wound was clean, and the bleeding had mostly stopped. She didn't think any bones were shattered. She was sure his ankle was sprained, but she didn't think it was broken.
She discovered something else during her examination as well. He was wearing a shoulder holster, and there was a heavy side arm pressed against his body. She wasn't familiar enough with handguns to have identified what kind it was, but as her fingers brushed against the steel she could feel that it was subtly warm, although whether this was from the feverish heat of his body or because it had been fired recently, she could not say.
She bit her lip and then shook her head, returning her attention to her patient. He could be moved safely, she thought. He had to be moved from the alley, in any case.
"It's all right," she murmured to him as she gently grabbed him around the middle and began to slowly drag him toward the stairs to her apartment.
As she pulled him along, his eyelids fluttered open and he spoke suddenly, in a low, hoarse voice.
"No," he insisted sharply. "Leave me."
"I can't just leave you," she protested, continuing to tug him along. "You obviously need medical attention. You've been shot. I'm going to get you upstairs and then I'm going to call an ambulance."
"Not an ambulance," he barked, and she wondered if he was hallucinating. "Not the police. Don't call anyone. Leave me."
She was spared further argument because he lapsed back into semi-consciousness, and she silently struggled with him until she got him to the bottom of the stairs.
He was tall, nearly 190 centimeters, she estimated, and she was short. Sometimes at the hospital they called her "the short idiot girl." She was short, but she was determined. Mustering all her will, she heaved the injured man onto her back, staggering under the weight, and then began the long, slow climb of eighteen endless steps up to her apartment door.
He needed her help. There was nothing else to do but provide it, whether he wanted it or not.
The pale fingers of dawn were just creeping across the sky when he at last regained consciousness. She had stripped him down to his trousers and dressed the wound on his shoulder and bound his sprained foot before leaving him to sleep on her bed. He was beyond exhaustion and slept despite the fact that she had no pain medication to give him.
Because he had insisted - perhaps in a delirium - she had not called an ambulance. His wounds, although serious enough, were such that she could treat them with the first aid kit she kept under the sink. The worst was the gunshot wound, but it had fortunately only done surface damage. Other than that, he had a number of minor bruises and lacerations, as if he had run hard and run long, or been in a lot of fights.
She had sat on the floor beside his bedside during the long, quiet night, monitoring his breathing. If he had taken a critical turn, she would have called an ambulance immediately, no matter what he had told her. Even if he was in some kind of trouble, it was better to be alive than to be dead.
As she sat next to him, passing the time by counting the faded marks of old scars on his body, she sometimes let her gaze wander to his face. He had come to her wearing glasses, glasses that were somehow miraculously not broken, despite his terrible adventures. They lay on the bedside table now while he slept the sleep of the dead. It was a face that might have been hard, a face that she had a hard time imagining smiling. It was a face marred by worry and pain.
She wondered what color his eyes were. She hadn't been able to tell in the darkness of the alley, even with the aid of the flashlight.
The gun, still in its shoulder holster, lay beside his glasses on the bedside table. She hadn't known what to do with it, but she had had to take it off of him to treat him.
Midori sat on her bottom with her arms clasped around her knees and wondered what kind of man he was.
When he awoke, it was slow at first, as he groggily looked around himself in an attempt to understand where he was, but then it was if an electric current had passed through him. He sat straight up and swiped his glasses off the table, and before she could say a word he was on his feet. He stumbled once, feeling his ankle twist under him, but then he steadied and set his teeth.
"What time is it? How long have I been here?" he asked, low and quiet and serious, running one hand through his hair to push it out of his face as he cast about for his shoes. He located them without her assistance, and had sat to lace them before she could respond.
She glanced at the clock on the wall, her teeth grazing her lower lip as she answered, "It's around six in the morning. You've been here around four hours, I guess."
"Four hours," he said lowly, and then he swore.
She got to her feet and wrung her hands, "You really shouldn't put too much weight on that ankle," she cautioned. "Without x-rays I can't be absolutely sure it's not fractured."
He ignored her and stood again, grabbing the shoulder holster and handgun from the bedside table, and then seemed to be looking for his shirt.
"Ah," Midori flushed, raising her palms up in a sign of guilt, "I had to cut it off of you to treat your shoulder wound."
The tall man frowned and seemed to be about to say something when he turned his face sharply, as if listening, and then time seemed to slow down for her as she heard a strange clicking sound she had never heard before, and then she was on the ground and he was on top of her as the morning exploded around her. The room seemed shaken by an unseen wind that shattered picture frames, splintered wood, and left holes in the walls and doors. It was only at this moment that Midori realized that the rain and thunder and whirlwind had been gunshots.
The taller man was already on his hands and knees, with one arm around her middle, dragging her along with him to the bathroom.
He pushed her up on top of the sink and said, "Open the window. As fast as you can, open the window and crawl out of it."
"But there isn't a balcony out there, only a ledge," she protested, even as she struggled to undo the latch and push the window open.
He was sitting on the bathroom floor, his back pressed against the wall, and in one brief glance over her shoulder she saw him load a clip into the bottom of his gun in a smooth, brief motion. It was beautiful.
Then he leaned around the corner and fired several shots rapidly.
Later, he would explain to her that such an action was suppressive fire, not meant to actually cause any casualties, just impede the progress of their enemies and buy a little time.
"It doesn't matter if you have to jump," he spoke coolly, between gritted teeth, "It's a choice between a certain death here and a possible death out the window."
It was a point well taken. Midori shoved the window open and climbed out onto the ledge, and the cold morning drizzle had soon wet her pajamas so that they stuck to her. The tall man squeezed out the small bathroom window after her, and looking down below them, seemed to carefully consider the layout of the alley before looping his arm around her waist again.
It was a choice between certain death and an uncertain one.
The next few hours were a rabbit run across the city, with the tall man dragging her along behind him. The drizzle and the morning fog gave them some cover, but her slippers were trod to ribbons and she at last left them behind to go barefoot. He frowned at that, but said nothing. There was nothing else to do. They were pursued.
After what seemed like an endless chase through the foggy, tangled maze of the city, he was at last assured that they had lost their hunters and so, limping, he led her to a place of safety.
It was the basement of an apparently abandoned building.
He flipped a switch and she was gratified to find that at least a few scattered bulbs flickered to life. The building might be abandoned, but at least it had electricity.
Without a word, he dragged her over to a worn out armchair and pushed her down into it. Then he pulled a pair of handcuffs out and cuffed her ankle unceremoniously to the chair.
This accomplished, he sighed audibly and sank to the floor where he sat, his arms crossed over his knees, and stared at her grimly.
"Um," she began haltingly, because her wet pajamas were still clinging to her, and her feet were cut and dirty from their long flight across the city. She had simply done as she was told, and been dragged along for hours now, because they had been running for their lives. But now she was handcuffed to a chair.
It was perhaps not the best development.
"It's nothing personal," he said simply. "It's for your own safety. I can't let you go. They'll kill you. That's why I told you to leave me where I was."
Midori bit her lip and asked, "Who'll kill me? Who's trying to kill you?"
The tall man shrugged as he got to his feet, as if having the information wouldn't do her much good.
"The White Crow," he said simply. "A yakuza boss."
She shivered in her wet pajamas and huddled up, drawing one leg to her chest and wrapping her arms around it. She couldn't draw both legs up because one of her ankles was handcuffed to a chair.
The tall man with hair the color of sunset deepening to night brought her a basket with bandages and antiseptic in it.
"Clean yourself up," he said.
It was perhaps surprising how quickly Midori became acclimated to her new life of being handcuffed to an armchair, although she didn't stay handcuffed for all that long. As if he realized that handcuffing her to a chair could not really be a long-term solution, he brought a length of chain and padlocked one end to a leather cuff around her ankle and the other end to the wall.
He told her his name when she asked the same way he had told her the name of the White Crow: in short, clipped syllables, completely devoid of emotion. He didn't appear to be interested in her name, although she volunteered it. He usually referred to her as only as "hey you."
She thanked him for his courtesy, because he had made sure that the chain was long enough for her to visit the bathroom and sleep on a narrow cot in one corner.
He had frowned at that and said, "You're a very strange girl."
It was one of the other nicknames they had given her at the hospital.
The very strange girl.
He was often gone at all times of the day and night, and she became accustomed to patching him up when he came staggering in. He was never in as bad a shape as he had been the first night she had met him, but he often gave her a run for her money, and she wondered what it was that he was up to that left him in such a state, but she never asked.
She thought he appreciated it, the fact that she never asked, but she wasn't sure.
One day, while going through a pile of cardboard boxes that lay forgotten in one corner of the basement, she found something that made her heart flutter, and she had soon clasped it to her heart and run to the end of her chain to exhibit it to him.
"Ah, Reiichi, I'm so happy," she had confessed, a rosy flush spreading across her cheeks, "You're a policeman!"
The photo was off a young, bright, serious looking Himuro Reiichi, standing next to another cadet with curly brown hair. They were both wearing crisp looking uniforms, although the other cadet took away some of the decorum of the photograph by hanging his arm around Himuro's neck and flashing a victory sign.
Himuro, who was sitting in the old armchair that she had originally been handcuffed to and trying to read, looked up when she brought the photograph over, and his face softened momentarily.
"Why are you happy that I'm a policeman?" he asked quietly, and he seemed very tired.
"Because I was worried that you were a criminal," she volunteered enthusiastically, still admiring how he looked then, so clean and serious and moved with the spirit of his responsibilities.
"I am a criminal," Himuro responded dryly. "I was suspended from service. I used to be a police inspector, but now I'm not anything, not anything sanctioned by the law. But I can't leave the White Crow alone." He gestured idly to the handgun that lay on the side table close at hand. "I don't even have a license for that gun." He paused and considered her. "Do you think a normal police inspector would keep a girl chained up to a wall in a basement for over a month?"
She thought about it.
He shook his head. "Don't answer that."
"Why are you so focused on the White Crow?" she asked quietly, the photograph still clasped to her chest.
"He's killed a lot of people, both directly and indirectly," Himuro said slowly.
"Did he kill this person?" she asked softly, her hands folded over the photograph.
Himuro looked away, and she knew the answer from the pain that flashed across his face.
"They say that when you start out for revenge, you dig two graves," she spoke tentatively. Her feet were cold on the cement of the basement floor.
When he turned to look at her, his eyes burned emerald fire, like flame lit over boron. "I'm not interested in revenge," he said. "I'm interested in justice."
It was a late spring night when he finally turned the keys in the padlocks and let her loose from the ankle restraint. He pressed a ticket and a passport into her hands.
"I'm sorry," he said shortly, never one for long speeches or effusive sentiment. "Be on this boat when it sails. I wish," he turned away from her and gave her his back as he finished quietly, "I wish it could have been different."
"You're going for the White Crow tonight, aren't you?" Midori's voice was soft, although she couldn't hide the tears that were building in her heart.
He didn't answer her directly, only said, "There's a little money to get you started in that envelope. I'm sorry I got you involved in this. If I fail, then they'll come here, tonight. You must be on that boat when it sails." He brushed his hand across his forehead, pushing the hair out of his face. "I've run out of time. I'm sorry."
It was her turn to steel herself, quietly and calmly, to choke the tears off, and to stand resolute.
"I won't run," she said simply.
He wheeled to face her then, his frown severe, and she could hear the anger in his voice. He was not used to being defied. "You will be on that boat."
"I won't," she answered calmly, and found it wasn't terribly hard to stand up to him at all. "I'll be right here, waiting for you to come home."
"You will be on that boat if I have to drag you there myself," he had raised his voice, something she had never heard him do. He stepped closer to her, an attempt to intimidate her into compliance with the use of his considerable height.
She put her hands on her hips and stared him down. "Even if you put me there, I'll just come back here to wait."
"Midori, you stupid, stubborn girl - " Himuro growled, his large palms gripped her shoulders to give her a hard shake, but then she was crying, she was crying and she had wrapped her arms around his waist and was laughing at the same time.
"Reiichi, Reiichi," she laughed as she cried into his shirt front, "That's the first time you've said my name. It's the first time you've said 'Midori.'"
Taken totally aback by this sudden embrace, Himuro's defenses were felled, and he awkwardly patted her head. She held onto him for a long time, crying and hiccuping, but at last she let him go, giving him a last, strong squeeze.
As she stood back and wiped her hands across her eyes, she smiled.
"I'm going to wait right here, Reiichi," she repeated resolutely, and it was as if she had written her decision across the wall in her own blood. "Because I love you."
He covered his face with his hands, pushing his glasses up with his fingertips as he did so.
"I don't want them to kill you," he spoke quietly, the emotion in his voice strangled and tight.
She put her hand lightly on his shoulder and squeezed it. "Then don't let them. This is something you have to do, right? For justice, not for revenge. Bring the White Crow to the police station in handcuffs." She frowned briefly. "I won't let you go to die."
He held her then, as tightly as he could, as if he would break her into pieces and then hide them where they couldn't be found. Then he leaned down and brushed his lips against her forehead before stepping back.
"You're strong," he said slowly, as he looked at her, standing so short she might easily be mistaken for a middle school student. "Stronger than I am."
She smiled at that and wrapped her arms around herself.
"I have to be," she said. "I carried you all this way, didn't I?"
He laughed then, a strange laugh that she had never heard before, the first laugh that he had ever let her see, and then let his broad hand come to rest on her head.
Part III: Kimi ni todoketai omoi wa hitotsu / Wanting My Heart to Reach Yours
"He's coming to now, MASU-san," Midori chirped happily, peering into the open coffin.
Masuda flicked his cigarette ash onto the thick carpet, disregarding the disapproving look of the priest in attendance as he shrugged, "He'd better, considering how much we had to shell out to the church." He tapped the side of the coffin lightly with his foot. "REI, are you alive yet?"
At this summons, the third member of their party sat up groggily from the coffin. His hair was mussed and falling into his face, and his glasses hung on by only one ear. Still, despite all this, he no longer appeared dead.
"Keep your voice down, MASU," the former corpse answered slowly, his eyes scrunched closed as he straightened his glasses and tried to push his hair back into place using only his fingers. "I've got a terrible headache."
Masuda shrugged again and waved a hand lightly as if he was not particularly surprised. "That figures. You did let a goblin hit you right between the eyes with a spiked club."
With his glasses back in place and his hair brushed mostly out of his eyes, the man in the coffin seemed to finally become aware of his surroundings. He frowned at the coffin he was still sitting in.
"We did not obtain the Dragon Pearl?" he asked, although his tone made it clear that he already knew the answer to his question.
"Of course we didn't," Masuda said, rolling his eyes. "When you went out like a light, MIDO-chan and I had no other options but to lug your body all the way back through the Volcanic Cave, over the Wild Plains, and back to Castillian Town to the church, and believe me, REI, these guys aren't running a charity operation."
The priest in attendance gave Masuda a sardonic smile before returning to looking holy.
Himuro pushed his glasses up his nose with two fingers and then crawled out of the coffin, which promptly vanished. On his feet again and looking more in possession of himself, he cleared his throat. "Of course I appreciate your efforts on my behalf. It is inevitable that I sometimes fall in battle, being that mage classes are not suited to soaking damage."
"Which is why you shouldn't do things like try to cover MIDO-chan," Masuda grunted. "She's got more hit points than you do and better defense. There's a reason you're supposed to stay on the back line, REI. You're built like a house made out of matchsticks."
"REI-san can't really help it though, interjected Midori, who had gotten to her feet from where she had knelt beside the coffin, attending Himuro on his most recent deathbed. With nimble fingers she brought up Himuro's status screen to display to the both of them, "He's got the permanent 'TRUE LOVE' status, so he always acts to cover me, whether it's a good idea or not."
Himuro was mortified to have his status screen displayed so genially without his permission, as if Midori had chosen to exhibit his underwear to the public at large, and with a flurry of sputtering and fast fingers, he dismissed the window. It didn't matter to Masuda one way or another whether Himuro was suffering from True Love or Insanity. The status effects seemed similar in his opinion.
"It seems like every time we're about to get ahead in terms of having a little jingle in our pockets, REI goes and checks himself into the coroner's office," Masuda cast a vague look at the priest, "Sorry, the Holy Church, and we say goodbye to all our gold."
"I would like to remind you, MASU, that we spend the bulk of the money we acquire on equipment and healing items that are for your use almost exclusively," Himuro shot back.
"That's because I'm the vanguard, REI. If you'd like to try being the vanguard and see how long you last on the front lines wearing your big purple dress and hitting goblins with your broomstick, then you can be my guest," Masuda answered nonchalantly, waving Himuro idly off.
The girl in the feathered velvet cap fluttered her hands as she got between them. Normally the two of them were the best of friends: long-time party members, companions devoted to one another's welfare and best interests, experienced, level-headed adventurers used to the give-and-take of monster hunting and questing. They had a long standing reputation of being an excellent duo.
But every once in awhile they got like this and fought like children. Such fights usually ended up in them both sullenly pouting. She tried her best to defuse these situations when she could.
"REI-san, MASU-san, please don't fight," she began in her best conciliatory manner, "MASU-san, you know that REI-san appreciates the risks you take on the front line, and MASU-san, I know you know that REI-san doesn't keep getting himself killed on purpose."
She felt Himuro glowering behind her and scrambled to amend her statement, "I mean, REI-san has the least hit points out of all of us, so it's reasonable that he's the one most likely to end up in a coffin. MASU-san, you can't think that REI-san appreciates being dead all the time, do you? It's very difficult for him, I'm sure. I hate being dead, and I know you must hate it too. Just think how REI-san must feel."
At last Masuda threw up his hands in defeat, "I admit," he said, "I doubt he likes it. I think what we should concentrate on is coming up with a strategy that minimizes the time REI spends dead."
"I think we can all agree on that," Himuro conceded drily.
Having paid the priest his butcher's fee, the three of them left the Church, still discussing the problem.
"We don't have any Golden Apples, so we can't increase his hit points, therefore the easiest way to make REI-san more survivable is by increasing his defensive rating," Midori suggested sensibly, her head bobbing as she walked between the two taller adventurers.
"The only snag there is that mages can only wear dresses, which don't have the greatest defensive rating," Masuda said, ruthlessly pointing out the reason that Himuro's defensive score was so pitifully low. As a rogue, he could equip most weapons and armor, save the heaviest class four armors that only knights and heroes could equip.
"I do not wear dresses," Himuro interjected seriously, although his nerves were obviously worn a little thin from his recent encounter with the afterlife, "I wear robes."
Masuda eyed Himuro's sweeping purple habit sidelong and said only, "That's a matter of opinion."
Midori laughed nervously in an attempt to keep them from further baiting one another and made another suggestion.
"I know a lot of the mage armors are a little weak defensively, but some of them are enchanted and provide special benefits," she said. "We should check the bazaar and see if any unusual robes have come in lately. We might find something that'll do the trick."
Neither of them had an objection to this course of action, although Masuda found it pertinent to point out the sorry state of their purse.
Midori merely winked at him and reminded, "It never hurts to look."
At Castillian's Grand Bazaar you could always find a little bit of everything. There were stalls selling radishes and garlic right next to the stalls of alchemists who sold potions that held the secret to eternal youth.
As Midori had suggested, after only a little searching, they turned up a piece of armor that really seemed tailor made to their needs. The was a problem however. Said robes were baby pink and had sequins and spangles sewn into them, were adorned at the neck with a ribbon and pom poms, and had frills along the bottom hem.
"It's called the Radiant Robe," Midori announced, reading the item information window she'd called up. "It'll double your current defensive rating, REI-san."
"Absolutely not," Himuro denied, throwing his arm out to slice the air decisively.
"Aren't you concerned about the party's well being, REI-san?" Masuda gently needled. "You put an awful lot of strain on MIDO-chan every time you get killed. She's got that same crazy status effect that you do."
Himuro's displeasure sounded only as low grumbling, but then he seized upon his last line of defense, "I can't possibly wear that robe. It's obviously made for a woman. There must be an equipment restriction."
Midori bent her head again and paged through the item's description, and then turned up with a bright smile on her face. "No, it really doesn't have any gender restrictions. Anyone in a mage job class can wear this robe." She sighed, apparently quite relieved. "I know it looks very silly, and I'm sorry you have to wear it, REI-san, but I'd much rather you look silly and be well, than look serious and be dead."
Masuda leaned forward and took a gander at the item information window himself and let out a low whistle as he tapped lightly on the part of the display directly underneath the currency sign.
"It seems like the Radiant Robe is a little out of our current price range though, MIDO-chan."
Midori seemed unperturbed as she fluttered one hand at Masuda lightly.
"Oh, don't worry, MASU-san," she insisted brightly, with another girlish wink. "That's the easy part!"
Near the open part of Castillian's market square, Midori commenced unequipping her armor. As soon as Himuro realized what she was about, he put himself in between her skin and the viewing public.
"YUME-san," he sputtered indignantly, "You cannot simply change your clothes in the middle of the street."
Midori shrugged and continued about her business, as she knew, and Masuda knew besides, that however much Himuro might have objected to her actions, he was not willing to lay hands on her to stop them.
"Oh, I'm not changing clothes," she assured Himuro lightly, "I'm just taking some off. Besides, ENTERTAINERs have to be prepared for a quick costume change under any circumstances."
Secretly, Masuda thought it was lucky that he didn't have to treat Himuro for the 'High Blood Pressure' status effect regularly, given the combination of Midori's attention-getting class (and undergarments) and her pleasing, if flighty, personality.
In the end, Midori did actually change her clothes, right there on the street. Her costume change mainly consisted of her squirming out of her regular velvet tunic and skirt and into a mostly transparent, swishy cape and gauzy pantaloons trimmed with little golden bells. Her terminal, forbidden clothing layer, the 'fairy bustier' was quite obviously on display in such a costume, so Masuda thought she'd been truthful with Himuro. She wasn't really changing clothes so much as just taking some off.
Jingling all the way, she flipped a red top hat over so that it sat on its crown and plopped it right down in the middle of the clearing, setting up a donation window directly above it.
Then, making sure that her electric mandolin and her nymph microphone were equipped, she threw up both her hands and shouted, "Hello everyone, and welcome to YUME MIDO's guerilla live!"
At this announcement the small group of interested onlookers that had gathered cheered, and Masuda watched as one young man elbowed another and said, "Isn't that MIDO, the singing princess from the Kingdom of Cloveria?"
Midori lost no time bursting into song and dancing in place as she played a long lick on her electric mandolin. At the end of her first song, the crowd, considerably bigger by this point, erupted into applause, and a wild voice shouted out, "MIDO-CHAN, I LOVE YOU!"
Masuda found he had to physically restrain Himuro from investigating the source of this disturbance as the princess's self-appointed security detail. Although not very formidable in a physical fight, Himuro was perfectly capable of knocking the head of a regular villager in with this staff, and Masuda did not relish explaining such a turn of events to the town guard. In the end, Masuda had to restrain Himuro four more times.
Although Himuro might appear very in control of himself, when it came to the subject of Yumeno Midori, Princess of the Kingdom of Cloveria, Masuda found that he was forced to be the level-headed one.
Midori performed twelve songs in her guerilla live and gave two encores. At the end of her show, after the last fan had been granted her glorious curlicue autograph, the top hat was so bulging with cash that Masuda had no worries that they'd be able to afford the Radiant Robe and a lot of other sundries besides.
Midori was elated that her show had been successful, but completely exhausted, and she collapsed into an unsuspecting Himuro's arms. Himuro's mouth turned down at the corners and he reprimanded her, but Masuda did not have to be clairvoyant to realize that the tall, serious mage was actually well pleased to carry the exhausted princess on his back, gauzy pantaloons, jingling bells, and all. Masuda rolled his eyes, but did not comment. There was no reason to comment. If he actually commented on all the occasions when he might have commented, the world would have suffered a deluge of his comments and been destroyed.
And so Masuda was left to collect Midori's hat full of money, and lead the way back to the market stall, where his strange little party might come to own the rare treasure that was the Radiant Robe.
As is probably pretty obvious at this point, this is the obligatory episode filled with everyone's wacky dreams. Himuro's dream is first, Midori's dream is second, and Masuda's dream is last. I had a great time writing this chapter. It was exciting putting it together, and thinking about which sections said what I wanted to say in the best way, and which ones complimented each other the very best. Several sections did not make it into the final chapter, as ultimately, I only needed three parts. Sections cut from this chapter include: a Magical Girl story, a Super Robot adventure, and naturally a Shinsengumi/Warring States/Some Period Japanese Drama.
I hope the fact that this chapter is a sequence of dreams doesn't keep you from enjoying it. has been planned this way for a very long time. We will return to our regularly scheduled story in chapter Five, which I will begin writing immediately, I promise, Moth XD.
Edit: If you haven't seen it yet, you might want to go back to the Tokimeki section and tick the ratings to All, so you can see M rated stories, because lo' and behold, there is one.