B012.c The Empty Dragon – Act 1

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July 15, 2010

“… and a Happy Birthday, to youuuuuuu!” the chorus of voices finished their song just as the last of the glittery confetti rained down on Koharu’s carefully styled hair.

Still, she wasn’t too put out about it – she was far too busy smiling and bowing, thanking her friends and her family for the (expected) surprise. It hadn’t been too hard to figure out what was going on, when Chihiro and Haruka had insisted on taking her to the spa and the hair-and-nail salon. It was her birthday, after all.

When the three of them got back to her family’s house, her parents and the rest of her friends had been waiting, immediately starting to sing and throw confetti at her, while her grandfather was playing on their piano, the cheery melody filling the small, homely building.

Smiles and hugs were exchanged all around, as Koharu’s mother (whom people kept saying she took after most heavily, even though she honestly didn’t think they looked that similar) guided her into the living room, where her grandfather was already waiting, a whole pile of presents awaiting her on the dinner table, along with a gorgeous, heart-shaped strawberry cake, a second, smaller heart – her namesake – formed atop it out of strawberries and whipped cream.

Koharu just stared, not having expected that many, not nearly. It was her sixteenth birthday, yes, but those had to be at least two dozen presents – even if all her family members and all her friends, including absent ones, had given one each, it would still be too many.

A pair of arms wrapped around her from the side, followed by a kiss to the cheek.

“Surprised, much?” Chihiro asked, grinning like a loon, her face barely five centimetres away from Koharu’s. “C’mon, stop staring and start opening them!”

Koharu rolled her eyes at her best friend’s enthusiasm, but went to work straight away, indulging her by ripping open the present at the top of the pile, the one that said ‘From Chi-chan!’

There was an album booklet in it, and nothing else. Sakura Wind’s new album, Rising Moon.

“Ohhh, I’ve wanted this one since forever!” she exclaimed happily, until it sank in. “Wait, why is there just the booklet?” She looked at Chihiro with a confused expression, only to be given a continued grin and a wiggling of her eyebrows towards the next package.

Frowning, she picked it up and unwrapped it… to find the album’s empty case. Light dawned.

“You tease,” she hissed, though she couldn’t keep the smile off her face entirely. “You just split up your gift into as many packages as you could, didn’t you?”

Chihiro just grinned. As did everyone else who was watching, even her grandfather.

Koharu narrowed her eyes. “She got you all to do it, didn’t she? That’s why there’s so many presents – it’s just a few that you all split up!”

“Well, dear, you do always tell me how much you love unwrapping gifts,” her mother spoke, trying very hard not to break out into laughter. “So this time, you get extra ones to unwrap them, as a gift from all of us!”

Koharu rolled her eyes as she went back to unwrapping her gifts (it really was fun), slowly assembling them.

***

Finally, after unwrapping no less than twenty-five packages, Koharu ended up with a grand total of six presents; Sakura Wind’s music album (three packages) from Chihiro, a hand-made Lady Light mug (one package) from Takama, the complete trilogy of ‘All Aces Arise’ anime adaptations (seven packages) from Haruka and Ai, a real katana from her grandfather’s collection (two packages – a not-so-subtle reminder not to slack off on her kendo training), a jewelry set (five packages) from her parents and the complete collection of the latest Dragon Sentai manga series (seven packages) from Kira, Seto and Aoshi. The spa and beauty treatment was a collective seventh gift that everyone had chipped in for.

From her, everyone got hugs and kisses (except for the boys, her parents would have a coronary if she so much as gave a boy a smooch on the cheek in front of them) and dire promises to come up with something suitably ridiculous for their birthday presents, too.

Afterwards, they disposed of the wrappings and got to the serious business of eating that delicious-looking, heart-shaped strawberry cake. It was as delicious as it looked, and then some.

Koharu was sitting at the head of the table, of course, with her friends immediately to her left and right down the sides, while her parents and her grandfather – who’d stopped playing the piano and joined them at the table – sat together at the other end of the table, giving the young people a little space; mostly, they were busy talking amongst the three of them, the kind of boring, comfortable talk that only adults can have the patience for.

She and her friends, meanwhile, were talking about the important things in life. Like the upcoming new licensed super sentai movie, or how the Mishima’s team’s former ace, Kingfisher Red, had been disgraced and left the team, after that sex tape (which none of them would ever admit to having seen while within earshot of the adults) of her had been leaked onto the internet.

They were just in the middle of discussing which other member of the Kyoto team was worthy of becoming the next Kingfisher Red – would another member ascend? Would they bring in someone from another team? Or someone completely new? – when the doorbell rang.

Koharu’s mother looked at her. “Did you invite anyone else, dear?”

“No, I didn’t. I wonder who it could be…” She rubbed her hands as she rose from her seat – maybe Minato had found time to come over, after all, which would, of course, mean more presents! “I’ll get the door!”

She skipped towards the front door, smoothing out her skirt and shaking out her hair – Minato was a cutie, and she wanted to look her best for him – and pulled it open with a wide smile.

“Hey M-” Her greeting died on her lips as she saw the persons standing just outside the door.

Right in front of her, standing so close he must have stood just a nose length away from the door, was a solidly built man wearing the uniform of the Kempeitai. Dull green pants, heavy dull green overcoat and a matching cap, with an armband on his left arm bearing the crest of a howling wolf’s head and a katana strapped to his wide belt. His face was tight, lined with wrinkles that made him look older than he probably was, his black hair neat and flat, to the point where it almost looked painted on.

Koharu froze as she looked into those cool, though not unfriendly eyes, like black windows into something she didn’t want to see or even know about; her thoughts were busy trying to figure out what a member of the Wolf Brigade was doing at her home.

“Good afternoon, young Miss,” he spoke with a calm, clear voice. “I am Captain Kazuki, of the Military Police. I assume you are Lu Koharu, daughter of Lu Ning and Lu Akimi?”

She tried to answer, opening her mouth, but no sound would come out – at least her teeth didn’t chatter. But still, speech was beyond her, so she closed it again and elected to just nod.

The man nodded, giving her a smile that didn’t reach those dark, sad eyes. “Please step aside, young miss,” he spoke, again not unkindly, though even in her current state, she knew it was not a request, even if it was phrased like one.

She stepped aside, holding the door open as the man cleaned his high black boots on the mat, before he walked in, followed by the others – three more men in the uniform of the military police, though with normal military jackets instead of the Captain’s overcoat, and without the Wolf Brigade’s emblem on their armbands (theirs only sported the characters for ‘soldier’ and ‘law’, as usual).

What… why… Koharu was thoroughly thrown for a loop, not knowing how to proceed, so she just closed the door and followed them into the living room.

Walking into the room, she saw everyone frozen in varying degrees of shock and horror, staring at the Captain, not even noticing her as she circled around him, stopping halfway between him and her friends, her hands wringing the hem of her skirt.

The man ignored the teenagers at one end of the table, his strange gaze zeroing in on her family… and then just on her father.

“Mister Lu Ning,” he spoke softly, dipping his head in what might be considered a bow. “Mrs Lu Akimi. I’m afraid I have to ask you two to accompany me.” He kept looking at her father, his gaze calm, while Koharu felt her own heart go crazy, beating harder and harder, her eyes flickering from her ashen-faced father, to her deathly pale mother, to the calm, paradoxically kind-looking man in the uniform. “You are under suspicion of treason during wartime, and aiding and abetting the same, respectively.”

Koharu should have screamed. She should be freaking out. She should beside herself at the charges levied against her parents – charges that would almost certainly result in their execution. Her father should be screaming and denying the charges, her mother should be crying and… and…

And nothing happened. A great, cool calm washed over Koharu, draining all those emotions away before her heart could even start to really speed up. Her shoulders relaxed, her jaw going a little slack – and she wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the room, except for the policemen, just… relaxed. Koharu looked around in a daze, seeing that her friends, save for Chihiro and Aoshi, had nearly passed out, and even they were at least as dazed as she felt. Her parents were no better off and her grandfather had actually fallen asleep, fallen forward to rest his head on the table.

One of the policemen had grown, suddenly standing almost half a metre taller.

“We… we didn’t do… do anything… wrong,” her father protested weakly, causing Koharu to slowly turn her head back to look at him. He still looked pale, but much, much calmer, though even whatever was being done to them could not banish all the panic from his eyes.The Captain shook his head, and made a short motion with his left hand, and the two normal-sized men behind him stepped forward, pulling her parents up onto their feet.

“That will be for the judges to determine,” the Captain spoke, his voice unchanged. “Let’s go now.”

Koharu watched, dazed, as the policemen guided her parents into putting on shoes and light coats, idly wondering how the men could stand the crushing heatwave outside in those military uniforms.

Is that really something I should be wondering about? she mentally chided herself. She should be… should be… something. Something different than what she was now. But her thoughts were so… slow. Like tree sap, oozing through her head without really moving at all.

Finally, the men of the Kempeitai turned to leave, including the… the man, the Hosuto who Koharu thought might, maybe, be the one making her not care about it.

“Wait a moment,” the Captain said, suddenly, and turned towards the enlarged man. “Turn it down a bit.”

The man looked oddly at him, but obeyed without protest, shrinking down by a quarter of a metre.

At the same time, Koharu felt her mind pick up speed again, become less…suppressed.

“M-mom? Dad? What’s going on?” she asked, feeling untethered, as if the ground was dropping away beneath her. She took a step towards her parents, but hesitated, too scared of the men flanking them to close the distance – but then their leader gave her a gentle shove from behind, just enough to make her stumble, imbalanced, towards her parents.

Her mother wrapped her arms around Koharu, hugging her tight.

It barely felt like anything, the odd effect that was keeping Koharu – and several of the others, she was sure – from freaking out reducing it to a mostly mechanical gesture.

“It’s alright, my baby, it’s all alright,” her mother whispered, her voice thick with tears and worry. “This is all just a big misunderstanding, it’ll all be cleared up soon, you’ll see.” Her words, at least, made Koharu relax a bit; she could tell that her mother was telling the truth.

Her father touched Koharu’s back, rubbing it gently. “Take care of your grandfather until we’re back,” he said with a shaky voice, in spite of the calming presence of the  hosuto.

Koharu nodded, tears in her eyes, barely holding herself back from melting down in tears, and only thanks to that man denying her the meltdown, holding onto her mother for dear life regardless – until she heard footsteps from behind her – heavy ones, had to be the Captain’s – come closer. Then her mother disentangled herself from Koharu with gentle, but firm motions and… they simply left, taking her parents with them.

Only the Captain lingered, turning around on the doorstep to look at her, then past her, at the banner saying, in bright pink letters, “Tanjobi Omedetou, Ko-chan!”, which the others had put up in the hallway for her to see, when she came back. Then he looked at her again, his dark eyes heavy and sad. “Hell of a day for this. I’m truly sorry, young miss.”

And with that he turned around and left, closing the door behind himself, just moments before Koharu’s brain caught up to the situation, whatever had been keeping her down now gone.

She cried out, loud and shrill, and ran to the door, throwing it open, looking for her parents, she had to find them, had to find, to…

They were gone. There was no one outside, no one on the street, not even a truck or something that was driving away in the distance.

They were gone.

***

July 24, 2010

The stocky, broad-shouldered guard looked up at the sole clock in the bare grey room, then he looked at Koharu, and nodded. “Booth four. You have fifteen minutes,” he told her, his voice gruff and distant.

She nooded meekly, never raising her head, much less meeting his eyes. Not that she could do that very well right now, her eyes being almost completely red from lack of sleep and nearly ceaseless sobbing. She’d done what she could with some make-up, to hide the bags under her eyes, to give her cheeks a little more colour than they’d had lately. She’d washed and brushed her hair three times, put on her best school uniform, the expensive one they’d bought for only special occasions.

It didn’t seem to help much when she’d looked into the mirror. Her auburn hair, which was always a great source of pride for her, and attracted so many compliments and looks for how exotic it looked, was without luster, lacking its usual volume despite her best efforts. Her light brown eyes looked wrong, the way they were rimmed in red and slightly swollen.

Still, she hoped that she didn’t look too horrible – she didn’t want her mother to worry anymore than she already would.

The door closed behind her, as she entered the visitation room. She hadn’t even noticed herself walking through it, nor did she bother to look at any other person in the room; she simply went to the fourth booth and sat down on the uncomfortable plastic chair, using both hands to smooth out her skirt (much longer than she liked to wear), before she looked up.

Her mother was looking at her from behind the reinforced glass which separated them and she looked even worse than Koharu, her black hair being in disarray, her face lacking even the help of make-up to hide the marks of her own grief – as well as several rather nasty bruises along the left side of her jaw as well as on the corner of her left eye.

Koharu’s eyes widened at the sight of the bruises, while her mother just looked at her despondently, looking on the verge of tears as she studied her daughter’s grief-stricken face.

After wasting almost an entire minute just looking at each other, they both reached for the earphones at almost exactly the same time, something which would’ve ellicited amusement in her mother, before, what with how Koharu always insisted that the two of them were nothing alike.

Not so now.

“Koharu, my love,” her mother began, her voice shaky and rough, like she’d been screaming for a long, long time before this. She sounded so incredibly worn out. “How… how are you doing?”

“I’m…” She couldn’t say fine, or well. Those would be such obvious lies. But neither did she want to tell her mother that she’d spent the five days since her birthday and before that phonecall curled up in front of the television, trying to distract herself from the fact that her parents were to be on trial for charges of treason and yet sobbing more than she actually watched anything. Or how she’d spent the three days after that screaming, crying and locking herself in her bedroom, not even bothering to eat anything, no matter what her grandfather or Chihiro tried to get her to take at least a little care of herself, until her grandfather had finally just dragged her to his dojo and forced her to train with him, pulling her – slightly – out of her fugue. “I’m… dealing with it.” She tried her best to smile for her mother, but it only resulted in something shaky and barely noticable.

Her mother kept looking straight at her, her gaze unwavering, like she was trying to drink in her appearance, like she was some kind of lifeline for her. “Your… I mean… did they, did they… release his… his…” She choked, unable to say the words, unable to actually say it out loud.

As if that could make it not be true.

“No, but… they sent his ashes to us. We… I mean, grandfather and I, we put them… put them into the, the family plot,” Koharu replied, as fresh tears appeared in her eyes, reminded of how the tiny plastic box had arrived in the mail on the very day after the, the… on the day after. So efficient.

Akemi lowered her head, her long hair falling forward to hide her face as she sobbed softly, her thin shoulders – looking so much more thin and frail than they usually did, which said a lot, as her mother was, even on the best of days, far from an imposing figure – shaking as her hands, both of them, clenched so tightly around the earphone her knuckles turned white and the white plastic groaned, threatening to crack.

Koharu didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to do, she’d barely managed to gather the courage to come here. So instead, she tried to change the subject to something, anything else.

“Grandfather… sends his best, his best wishes and he says, he says he’s so sorry for…” her voice croaked again, unable to say it out loud still. “He wanted to come, too, but they only, only allow one visitor per, per week.” She’d tried to get her grandfather to go, didn’t feel up to coming herself, but he’d gotten angry, angrier than she’d ever known him to be, so much so she’d briefly wondered whether he was going to slap her for the first time in her life; but he’d only insisted that she go, that it was more important for her to speak to her mother than for him, that they both needed each other.

“How is he doing?”

Koharu shrugged. “You know him… he’s keeping it all together. Calm. Steady. Without him, I… I don’t know, I’d have fallen apart already,” she admitted quietly.

This finally elicited an, admittedly very faint, smile from her mother. “Yeah, that’s my… that’s him,” she said, quickly editing that word out of her sentence. Koharu still heard it, faint as it was, and it hurt nonetheless. “You gotta take care of him, too, alright?” she continued on, as she lifted one hand to gently rub one of the larger bruises on her jaw.

Koharu looked at the blue and purple spots, her nails digging into the fabric of her skirt. “I will, but… mom, what… what happened to you? How did you get those?” She looked like she’d gotten into a knock-out fist-fight… except her knuckles were pristine.

Akimi averted her eyes again, her hand stopping mid-motion. “It… it’s nothing. D-don’t worry about me,” she said weakly. “As long as you’re alright… as long as I know you’re taken care of… I’ll be fine.” She smiled that frail smile again.

She felt her breath catch. Liar. You’re not fine. Why won’t you tell me? But she didn’t press the point. Neither of them had the strength to bear that, not right now.

“O-of course I’ll, I’ll take care of myself. That’s a silly thing to ask of me…” They both looked away from each other, eyes downcast.

Koharu raised her eyes first, searching her mother’s face, what little of it she could see past the stringy, messy hair and the bruises.

There was one question she wanted to ask, above all others. One question she needed to ask, that she had to know the answer to.

Was it true? Did you and Dad, did you really commit treason? Her father had been convicted of it, her mother had been convicted of aiding him, but not to the extent where she deserved the… where she could be convicted of treason in full.

If only she knew whether it was true. She didn’t know why she needed to know, not really. It wouldn’t change the facts. The court had made its ruling, and they almost never took it back. But at least knowing, she thought, might give her some small measure of peace.

She opened her mouth to ask the question, but found that she just couldn’t say the words.

Even if her mother hadn’t looked like she might shatter at the slightest push, Koharu didn’t think she could have asked the question.

She wanted to know. She didn’t want to know. She wanted to ask her mother. She didn’t want to.

They both stayed quiet, the unspoken question remaining between them, until the guard came and told her she had to leave.

“Take care of yourself, mom. I love you,” she said, too worn out to even cry.

“You too, dear. I love you so much,” her mother replied, looking up at her again. Her lips formed a brittle, but loving smile, as she briefly met her daughter’s eyes.

Koharu smiled back, as much as she could; then she left.

***

July 31, 2010

She raised her sword in a desperate block, barely managing to deflect the blow aimed at her right shoulder, which would have taken her out if it’d hit; even so, the impact was so strong, her hands went numb, causing her grip on her weapon to loosen.

“Too slow!” her enemy shouted, not giving her a chance to recover. He struck low, but it was just a feint – as she brought her sword down to parry, he reversed his grip and smacked her own weapon instead, knocking it out of her hands.

Before she could even register his moves, he’d brought his sword up, putting the tip to her throat.

“You lose. Again,” he told her with a grin, looking up at her sweaty face.

Koharu rolled her eyes as she took a step back, rubbing her shaking hands together. “Like that’s a surprise. I’ll never beat you, grandfather,” she complained with a pout. “You’ve been doing this for like, a hundred years.”

“Since I was five – so, eighty-one years, now,” he corrected her with a grin – he was used to her complaining about her lack of chances in fighting him. Then he walked to the nearest wall and put the wooden sword he’d used on its frame.

While Koharu flapped her gi  a bit to create a cool draft, she noticed with a little bit of satisfaction that his hands were trembling a bit, too – clearly, he wasn’t beating her as easily as he used to.

Of course, that might just have been due to his own advanced age, rather than any improvement on her part, but Koharu firmly believed in the right of teenagers everywhere to go with whichever version of reality they preferred.

She giggled at the silly thought. What an inconsequential thing to focus on, these days.

How does he even manage to distract me like that, again and again… Her mood briefly soured, as her thoughts were drawn back to her parents again.

The week since she’d visited her mother had been… hard. She’d gone back to school, due to her grandfather’s insistence, where her friends had tried, very hard, not to bring up the elephant in the room. She was also quite sure that they’d talked to their classmates, to have them lay off of her. No one had brought it up, no one had even alluded to it.

She’d still felt their stares, the whole time. Looking at her out of the corner of their eyes, whispering behind her back. Not obviously, no, but she was perceptive enough to notice regardless of their efforts.

The fact that two of her best friends – Kira and Haruka – were no longer allowed to associate with her by their parents did not help, at all.

The ringing of the telephone in the small office of the dojo pulled her out of her morose thoughts before she could get lost in them again and she turned to go and get it.

“Wait, let me get that,” her grandfather interjected. “You should sit down and drink some water.” He smiled, ruffling her hair (she flailed weakly at him, but her arms were still too tired to put up a fight) as he walked past her, his long, thin beard trailing over his shoulder like a wispy cloud. His smooth, bald head shiny with sweat.

Koharu grumbled something even she herself couldn’t understand, annoyed how he’d switch from pushing her through brutal training, only to pamper her right after when it came to small stuff like that.

Still, she sat down at the edge of the room, plopping gracelessly onto one of the thin cushions lined up along the wall, underneath the row of student names inscribed on short wooden boards, picking up a water bottle to drink from.

She’d barely swallowed a first gulp of water when she heard a thud from the adjacent office.

“Grandfather?” she called out. “Did you drop something?”

There was no reply. Maybe he hadn’t heard her through the door.

Koharu got up and walked to the office, sliding the door open to check on him.

“Did you drop something, Grandfather? That sounded h-“

She stopped as she saw her grandfather lying on the floor, one hand clutching the earphone, the other clutching at his gi, over his chest, his body twitching as he stared up at the ceiling.

“Grandfather!” she cried, all but leaping to his side and down on her knees, as she reached for… reached for… her hands stopped, not sure what she was supposed to do.

“A… Akimi…” he whispered, his eyes not seeing her. “M-my… Akimi…”

“What? What are you talking about? Grandfather? Did something happen to mother? Grandfather!” Koharu’s vision began to swim as she grabbed the hand over his heart, shaking him. “Grandfather, what’s wrong? Grandfather!!!”

***

August 3, 2010

Koharu stood in front of the old, wide grave in a black funeral kimono, her hair done up in a simple braided knot, her teeth dyed black for the occasion.

Not that she was overly cognizant of her looks, as she looked down at her family’s plot, a grave that now contained the ashes of both her parents, and her mother’s parents.

Her mother had been killed in prison, murdered by several other inmates in the showers. For being a traitor to Japan and the Emperor.

Left to bleed out on the cold, wet tiles.

Her grandfather, the last living family she had, had suffered a heart attack upon learning of the death of his one and only child.

Now she’d put both of their ashes to rest, after the wake of the last day, to join their spouses in death, when it had been denied to them in life. Her grandmother had been thought barren, unable to bear children. She only managed to get pregnant very late in life, and died giving birth to her mother.

Her father’s family, if he still had any, lived somewhere in China. She’d never met any of them, as her father had fled the Sovjet Union long before she was born. Even if they were still alive, she didn’t even know any names.

Now there’s just me, she thought, feeling strangely calm. Though maybe ‘worn out’ was a better term.

Rain fell down on her head and shoulders, a light drizzle, as she heard a few people talk in the distance. The official funeral was over, the guests who’d come – some those of her and her mother’s friends who hadn’t cut ties with them yet, most of them former and current students of her grandfather.

Everyone had been wonderfully sympathetic and kind, offering her kind words and promises of support, in spite of all the bad business.

It should have moved her heart, it would have moved her heart, especially seeing Kira and Haruka, and their families, attend the funeral, if only it wasn’t too broken now.

Koharu looked down at the stone plate that covered her family’s ashes and wondered just where it had all gone wrong.

***

August 15, 2010

“Koharu? Koharu, open the door!” A tiny, slender fist pounded the door to the dark apartment.

Koharu tried to ignore the noise as she sat in this sorry excuse for a home, curled up with her back to the wall, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and the television running on some show… she wasn’t even sure what she’d been watching these last few hours.

“Koharu, I swear to God, I will kick this door down!” Chihiro insisted. There was a scuffle, and voices talked. “We will kick the door down!” she corrected herself.

She turned the television up higher and ignored them.

Someone kicked the door. It wasn’t a very strong kick, but enough to be heard over the sound of the television.

Then another.

And another.

Finally, Koharu got up, the blanket sliding off as she walked across the room, using only the light of the television to see where she was going – not that there was much for her to trip over – and into the small hallway, where the door was shaking from Chihiro’s continued, if pathetic, kicks.

It was kind of adorable, really, imagining the slight girl who could barely hold up a sword try to kick down a door, and it brought a little smile to her pale lips.

She waited for another kick before she opened the door, so Chihiro wouldn’t lose her balance or hit Koharu instead, pulling it open.

Outside, Chihiro was balancing on one leg, the other raised in preparation for another kick.

“Oh, finally!” her best friend shouted, before throwing herself at Koharu to wrap her arms around her, giving her a crushing hug.

Koharu groaned at the force of it, but she didn’t complain – Chihiro felt nice, and warm, and soft. She felt herself relax a bit, just thanks to that, as she lowered her head to give her shorter friend a kiss on the top of her head.

“Hi, Chihiro,” she spoke, her voice sounding strange and rough even to her own ears; she hadn’t used it in a week.

“Hi, you big stupid idiot,” Chihiro mumbled wetly, burying her face in Koharu’s chest.

The morose girl looked up past her friend, to see who else had come with her, and saw Aoshi, Minato and Ai standing there, the former two leaning against the balustrade.

Koharu’s cheeks pinked slightly at the sight of Minato, as he smiled at her with such a sweet, concerned look on his face. He really could make her blush at any time, just by smiling. And there she stood looking like a scarecrow, her hair and face a mess, while he looked, damn, he looked as good as ever, making her feel all warm inside.

She averted her eyes before it became too obvious. Instead, she refocused on the tiny, sobbing limpet that had attached itself to her.

“I still need to breathe, Chihiro,” she whispered.

Chihiro let go and took a step back, rubbing her eyes on her blazer’s sleeve. “You’ve had me worried, you big stupid idiot,” she complained, while the boys standing behind her blushed.

“Uhh…” Ai began, though she shut up again, blushing as well.

“What is it?” Chihiro looked over her shoulder at her other friends, noticing their blushing faces. Then she turned and looked at Koharu again, and instantly went red with embarrassment. “Koharu! You’re… indecent!” she screeched in outrage, staring at her friend.

Koharu looked down on herself, needing a minute to remind herself of what she was wearing… she hadn’t paid attention in a while. The reason for her friends’ behaviour became instantly clear, as she was only wearing a white shirt that barely reached her hips, and yellow panties.

“Oh,” was all she managed to say, feeling herself flush hot. Minato was seeing her panties right now. While she was wearing them.

With a squeal, she turned around and fled into the apartment, turning right rather than left into the living room to get into her bedroom, where she quickly pulled on the first skirt she found in her clothes drawer (she didn’t own any pants), a long, flowery thing she’d bought on a whim a year ago. She also briefly used a brush on her hair, to make herself look at least remotely presentable.

When she came out again, the lights had been turned on in the apartment, and her friends were in her living room.

Koharu couldn’t help but think about how out of place they looked, in their expensive clothing (Kira and Minato never left their home wearing anything less than designer clothing), standing in a tiny two-room apartment whose living room was smaller than her bedroom used to be. It was barely large enough for a low table to sit around and a television, as well as a tiny kitchenette in the back (Koharu mostly just ate instant meals, so only the microwave and the fridge saw any use).

The fact that she hadn’t cleaned up since moving in a week and a half ago didn’t help make it look any better.

“Koharu…” Chihiro looked at her as she came in, her face overflowing with empathy. “I… I didn’t know… that they put you into a place like this.” Her shoulders sagged and she looked miserable… as if any of this was her fault.

Koharu shrugged. “You know how it goes. I’m a minor, so the state is ‘managing’ everything my parents and my grandfather left me, until I turn twenty. Until then, they pretty much own me,” she explained bitterly, looking down at the dusty floor. “I’ve got to live here until I turn twenty, and I have to go to the nearest school, not the one I used to go to.”

“You’re… you’re not coming back to school?” Chihiro asked in a tiny whisper, looking utterly despondent.

“It’s the law,” Minato spoke up for the first time, and like every time he spoke, Koharu couldn’t help but watch him do it, watch the way his lips m-

Focus, Koharu. Focus!

The object of her affection continued on, oblivious to how hard it was for her to actually concentrate on what he was saying. “Wards of the state have to go to the nearest available public school. Even if our school was the one closest to this place, it’d still not be eligible, as it’s a private institution,” he explained calmly, with the confidence of a policeman’s son. He was preparing to study law, she knew.

Koharu knew a lot of stuff about Minato.

Chihiro wrapped her arms around herself, looking ready to cry. “This ain’t fair. None of this is fair,” she complained.

“No shit,” Kira interjected, running her fingers through her long hair, the brown colour of which was about the only part of her appearance that matched her twin brother. “This is all… unbelievably fucked up.”

“Language,” Minato admonished her reflexively.

“Oh, fuck no,” Kira refused. “This is so completely fucked up!” She stepped up to Koharu, putting both hands on her shoulders, her face twisted up in a mixture of anger and worry. “None of this is fair, to you, to your ‘rents, to your grandfather, to anyone. So… don’t hesitate to ask, if you need anything, ok?”

Koharu averted her eyes again. She’d never had trouble meeting peoples’ eyes before (other than Minato), but now…

“Th-thank you. But you should really not worry, too much. I’ll be fine,” she lied lamely. It didn’t ring true even to her own ears.

Much less theirs. They just rolled their eyes, not even bothering to disagree with words.

“This is too awkward,” Minato complained. “How about we all sit down? We brought some snacks and drinks.” He held up a plastic bag she hadn’t even noticed before.

“No thanks, I’m not h-” Her stomach growled loudly, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten in… she wasn’t sure. A few days, at least.

She flushed hard at the incredulous look Minato gave her and just hustled over to the low table, sitting down quickly.

There were chuckles and grins around her, as the others sat down, and then snacks were handed out. She didn’t protest again.

***

Two hours later

“And don’t you dare shut yourself in again!” Chihiro threatend as she stood on the doorstep, wagging a finger in front of Koharu’s face.

“Yeah, sure,” she replied with a soft smile. She just couldn’t stay too dour while Chihiro – who was almost a full head shorter than her – was trying to be serious.

The diminuitive girl snorted, then gave her a hard hug. “I’m there for you, alright? Any time. We’ll help you get through this,” she spoke with perfect conviction.

“Ok,” Koharu answered, though she couldn’t bring herself to muster any enthusiasm. Or hug her back.

The others expressed similar sentiments before they left, walking away, seeming… not happy, but relieved. Relieved that she was alright, after a fashion, perhaps.

Only Minato remained and, in spite of her mood, Koharu found herself blushing again, both at being (mostly) alone with him and at the memory that he’d seen her in her underwear.

“Koharu,” he began, then stopped, looking unsure.

Her blush grew a little hotter. “Y-yes?”

“I… I just wanted to say I’m, I’m really sorry for what happened to you… you deserve better,” he said softly, without his usual cool, calm air.

“…” She couldn’t muster any words, for more than one reason.

“I just… I hope you don’t let it beat you down… losing your parents, your grandfather… just, don’t bottle it up, and call when you need it, ok? I’m, we’re here for you.”

She blinked as her vision grew wet and hazy, she didn’t want to lose it in front of him, of all people.

“Th-th-thank you. I… will… keep it in… mind,” she had to force the words out, her fist clenched tightly, trembling. “I… I’m sorry, I… I need some time…”

He nodded, biting his lower lip. “Of course. Of course. Have a… I mean, see you next time.” He reached out, briefly, touching her shoulder, but pulled back before doing more.

Then he left, as well.

Koharu closed the door, almost slamming it closed… but she didn’t. Barely. Then she turned away from it and went into the dark living room (it only had one window, and one which opened into the inner courtyard of the quadratic, hollow apartment complex, so there wasn’t much sun to be had), which was now quite completely clean.

Chihiro hadn’t been able to resist cleaning duty. It would have been comical, how her best friend the neat freak had looked physically pained at the disorderly state, twitching nervously before Koharu had finally allowed her to clean it up; it should have brightened her day, and it had, a little bit.

But even that memory didn’t help at all now.

Koharu was still shaking, barely restraining herself as she knelt down at the table, facing the silent television. One of the few luxuries that had come with the apartment. Would be hard to deliver the news and ‘historical’ videos to her, otherwise. It could even be turned on remotely, so she didn’t have much of a choice in at least listening to whatever the government wanted her to.

She waited quietly, counting the seconds, imagining that it’d take her friends a few minutes to leave the apartment building; it was huge, after all, fifty storeys of twenty-five apartments each, one of many concrete behemoths that the state ran ‘for the needy’.

Most of the people who lived in them were needy because of the government’s actions, but that was a detail they didn’t advertise.

And Koharu was just trying to distract herself now, so her friends would be far enough away for her to be sure none of them would hear anything.

After nearly five minutes of keeping it in, she finally cracked, bending over as her fist hit the table hard enough to make the glass of water that still stood atop it jump.

A long, low, shrill sound escaped her mouth, starting to build as she punched the table again.

And again.

And again.

Her hand hurt, but she barely paid attention to it as the shriek turned into a scream, and then the scream into hoarse groans once her breath ran out.

They didn’t get it.

They just didn’t get it.

She hadn’t lost her family.

It had been taken from her. Her parents hadn’t died, they’d been murdered. Her grandfather too, if indirectly.

Her family had been murdered. Everything in her, everything she’d learned growing up, it demanded revenge.

She could do nothing about it.

She didn’t stop screaming for a long time. No one came to check – it wasn’t an unusual occurance, in this place.

***

September 1, 2010

Koharu had, at times, passed by South Mishima High, on foot or driving by in the car or the bus. She’d always… well, she’d always sneered at it, and at the people forced to go to school here. It was one of four (North, West, East and South) state-run middle and high schools run exclusively by the government, and the only ones who went there were the poorest of the poor and, well, people like her. Wards of the state.

There were people who sold their homes to afford a private school for their children, rather than send them to one of these.

Now she was here, wearing the plain school uniform that was used in every state school across the country – black pantyhose, brown loafers, a white skirt and a white jacket, over an equally white shirt and a differently coloured tie depending on which school you actually went to. Hers was vermillion.

Other students were passing her by while she stood at the gate to the school grounds, few of them paying her any attention as they walked into the blocky, white building. It wasn’t an ugly place, she mused, but incredibly bland, except for the tall banners that lead from the gate to the front entrance of the school building, on the left and right of the paved path, sporting various traditional japanese motifs, from the four beasts to specific scenes from myth. They were the only breaks from the school’s colour scheme of white, white, more white and some sploshes of vermillion.

It was nothing like the school she used to go to. The Himaru private school was built in the style of European and American private schools, the old ones. More mansion than anything, with lots of trees around it, expensive landscaping making it look like it came right out of a fairy tale.

This place looked like it came out of a central planning office.

Which it did.

Even the artwork wasn’t really any different; the same motifs repeated over and over, at every one of these schools.

No use stalling, she thought to herself, taking a deep breath. Her first day at school. In the past, she’d have groomed herself for the occasion, made sure her hair and her face were in top condition, maybe even used some make-up.

Even if she’d felt like doing it, the binder full of rules and regulations that’d come with her apartment stated quite clearly that make-up was strictly forbidden. Even hairstyles were regulated. She had the choice between loose and straight, a braid, a knot, or a braided knot. Absolutely no dying your hair (not that she’d ever done that before). No piercings, except for earrings, and only for girls.

Hell, there were even regulations on appropriate underwear. Koharu really, really, hoped that they weren’t going to regularly check on that.

She shook her head, banishing those thoughts. She had to get to class.

***

A boy was watching her the whole time she sat in class. He wasn’t even being all that subtle about it.

She’d first noticed him after introducing herself to the class – though it was the start of the new school year, she was the only one in her homeroom class who hadn’t been in it for at least a semester now, and so there’d been a lot of obvious attention to her. At least some of it was most likely because, at a glance, she was the prettiest girl in the class room, even though she hadn’t been taking care of her appearance for a good month now.

In the past, she would have loved that.

However, after she’d finished her introduction, and their homeroom teacher, a rather off-putting man with a thin goatee that was just plain trying to hard, had told her to sit down (she was sure he was checking out her ass. It was just creepy) and she’d walked to the only free seat left in the bare classroom, a table and seat in the far back and right, mercifully right next to the window, she’d noticed one student in particular who was… paying more attention to her than the others, even after she’d sat down and the teacher had started class. Even afterwards, the boy kept looking at her over his shoulder, often for a whole minute or two at a time, as if sizing her up for something.

At least the actual lesson only covered a subject she’d already passed back at her old school, so there was no need for her to pay attention. It didn’t seem like anyone was expecting the teacher to even ask questions, he was just droning on and on at the front, usually with his back to them.

She tried to ignore the boy, at first, but it just didn’t work, so she decided to take a closer look at him in turn.

He was… unassuming. Taller than average by quite a bit, which showed through even while he was sitting. He was thin, but not too much so. His face was long, with a slightly hooked nose, and he had really short black hair, cropped down to a few millimetres. He wore the same uniform as every other boy in class.

What stood out, though, were his eyes. They were green. Really, really green. They spoke of foreign blood, much like her own.

It made her wonder whether he might have a story not unlike her own.

Even so, though, she did not enjoy being sized up like a piece of meat, so she gave him a glare. He smirked in response, but turned away, pretending to focus on the teacher’s lesson (she doubted anyone in this class actually did focus on that).

Class passed by without incident after that, aside from the boy crossing eyes with her now and then, briefly, before turning around to look forward again.

She did her level best to ignore that.

***

Now she wasn’t just being watched. She was being followed.

Classes had ended without any further distractions (as welcome as they might have been) and she’d packed up her stuff, dodging a few girls who seemed like they wanted to talk to her… she really didn’t feel like trying to make new friends here.

Instead, she’d gone into the cafeteria, and gotten herself a meal there (food was free, at least). It wasn’t half bad, lots of rice, steamed vegetables and some seafood. In her, admittedly limited experience with cafeteria food, it was actually pretty good.

She’d taken her tray and sat down at an empty table in the otherwise crammed cafeteria, not even pausing to think about why this one table might be ignored, when all others were packed; the school had way more students than she was used to; there’d been nearly fifty in her class! Her old school rarely had more than twenty per class, if that many.

So she’d sat down and started eating, trying to ignore the stares she was getting… it was getting more and more annoying, new students couldn’t be that rare here! It was the start of the freaking semester!

“Don’t be too mad at them, it’s not often that something interesting happens around here,” an amused voice said at the same time as its owner sat down on the opposite side of the table, at the same time as when someone brushed by her, briefly touching her back.

“What?” she asked in surprise, looking up to see the green-eyed boy from class sitting there, without a tray, while a girl a little younger than either of them sat down on her side, as far away from the two of them as possible.

“I said, it’s not about you, it’s about you being new. They’ll lose interest soon enough,” he explained with a mischievous smirk, drawing her attention back to himself and those impossibly green eyes. “Though perhaps they’re just curious because you’re sitting at a reserved table.”

“You’re sitting here, too,” she replied, not sure how to react.

“That’s because I’m one of the people it’s reserved for,” he replied as he leaned forward, elbow on the table, and his chin on his hand.

She frowned at him, not really sure whether he was saying the truth or just pulling her leg. Who ever heard of cafeteria tables being reserved for students?

Deciding to just not play along with whatever this guy wanted, she picked up her tray and stood up. “I’ll vacate it then. Excuse me.”

“Hold it,” he stopped her by raising his free hand. “I never said you weren’t welcome here, Koharu. We’re not so different, after all.”

Her frown deepened, but there was something about the way he spoke, about his serious eyes, contrasting the flippant way he sat and talked, that made her sit down again.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re both half-bloods, and we both had our families taken away from us by the Emperor’s lackeys,” he replied. “And we’re both very, very angry.” His eyes were boring into hers, as her breath hitched, and she threw a scared look around; but there wasn’t anyone near enough to hear it.

“Are you crazy!? You can’t just say that out loud, you’ll get in trouble!” she warned him in a harsh whisper, but he just continued to.

“Your concern is touching, but you don’t need to worry,” he said, gesturing around. “Look at them.”

She briefly did, and it couldn’t have been more different to before. No one was looking at her, or the table. “What the hell is going on?”

The boy held his hand out across the table. “My name is Yamashita Osamu. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Koharu. Oh, and the quiet cutie over there is Hiraki Umeko. Don’t mind her, she doesn’t like to talk much.” He nodded towards the younger girl quietly eating her meal.

She looked at his hand as if it was poisoned, starting to feel more than a little uncomfortable with this whole situation. She opened her mouth to say just that, when he interrupted her again.

He wiggled it, continuing to look her in the eyes. “It’s not poisoned, you know?”

She flushed a little – was she really that obvious? – and took his hand, shaking it. “Lu Koharu… which you already knew. So, what do you want?”

“I wanted to ask you whether you’d like to get some payback,” he said with a grin, and dead-serious eyes. “You got honest eyes.”

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13 thoughts on “B012.c The Empty Dragon – Act 1

  1. I hate February. I really, really do. It’s always one of the worst months for me.

    Anyway, this is obviously not complete yet. There will be a second, likely shorter part that’ll actually bring payoff, but I want to finish “From On High” first. Plus, I need to get to work, like, now. Running out of time here.

    From On High is not too long, it ought to be finished tonight (I’ll sit down to write after work) or else tomorrow, and I’m going to have the whole of Tuesday to write and catch up with the amount of chapters I promised for this month.

    I really hate having to write it all at the last moment like this, but well… typical February, really.

  2. I really hope at some point you get the opportunity to build up some buffer, if for no other reason than to save yourself stress when life happens…

  3. Well, I had no idea this world’s Japan was so dystopian. Interesting.

    On another note there is a pint where you spelled Sovjet Union Sowjet Union. Is that intentional, like the switch from Soviet to Sovjet?

  4. It’s been said that treason is hereditary, that if a person turns traitor then it is all but inevitable that their children, siblings, cousins, and all other blood relations will betray you as well.

    Perhaps that has something to do with how the government treats the family of those they call traitors.

    • Well, obviously it has to do with how the government treat the traitors’ family! What were they thinking letting them live.

      Remember kids: dead people can’t betray you.

      • Wasn’t there an evil overlord rule about this? Don’t leave anyone alive to seek revenge?

        The evil overlord approved method would be to tell Koharu that she was being moved in with a distant relative in another city. Then wait a couple days for her tell her friends, before making her disappear.

    • I don’t think her parents were traitors. I think that this is part of a program that is trying to trigger manifestation. Whether it’s a governmental program, or whether someone else (such as the Gerfarten)is using the government to do the dirty work, I don’t have sufficient evidence to guess.

  5. You know, I wasn’t convinced that the people running Japan were evil until I got to the part about them turning on the TV whether she liked it or not.

    Before that, I was willing to entertain that her parents really were criminals, and that the government was mostly honest.

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