The Runaway Empress

Chapter 2

"Are you defying my orders?"

"But Seijuurou, you're being unreasonable!"

There was a crash as her clipboard was thrown carelessly to the hardwood floor, echoing in the silence of Teiko's first string gym as its members can only look on at the argument between their captain and their manager.

"Kimiko-san, I'm fine, there's no need to —" A certain tealhead began to say but he was cut off as she glared at him as if daring him to continue.

"No, you're not fine!" She was almost shouting, but she didn't care. The coach was nowhere to be found anyway. She gestured at the other players, her glare now back on him. "So what if you no longer need Tetsuya to win your matches? You just can't demote him back to third string for that very reason. How ungrateful can you get?"

"The time that Tetsuya is needed is long past. He needs to go back to where he truly belongs. He is only a shadow after all. A shadow that ceased to exist when its light became too bright." He said that in a calm voice, but it was laced with venom.

"Tetsuya is a human being, not a tool to be used and disposed at your will!" Her gold eyes was now a dark shade of sienna. Her usual composed demeanor was gone, replaced by a snarling lioness. "You all have gone arrogant with your superior abilities! Not only you but the rest of the team as well!" She laughed bitterly. "Oh wait. You lot can hardly be called a team anymore. A team works with one another on the court, not compete with one another on who can score the most points! I don't even get why you bother to play anymore."

"Are you done with your speech?" he drawled, as if he was dealing with a fly that annoys him.

"Mark my words, Seijuurou. That arrogance of yours will cause you your downfall. You will know defeat in a year's time. And when that time comes, I will be there to laugh at your demise." She picked up her clipboard and stormed away, only to be grabbed and spun around forcibly. She had no time to react when his hand closed tightly on her throat, cutting off her air. Gold eyes met red and gold. Around her, she could hear the other members call out her name while someone, Shintaro, she presumed, tried to stop the redhead.

"Try to stop me, Shintaro, and I'll make sure you'll come next."

"Akashi-kun!" Only the tealhead was brave enough to lay a hand on their captain, but he paid dearly for that. With a thud, he fell to the floor when their captain swatted him as easily as air knocks down a house of cards.

By that time, she was barely conscious as he did not relinquish his vise-like grip on her neck. Taken by surprise, she had been unable to fight back. The last words she heard before her world turned black was from Akashi himself as he seemed to sneer at her powerlessness.

"My orders are absolute, remember that."

Heterochromatic eyes fluttered open as Akashi Seijuurou awoke from his slumber. He gazed up at the ceiling for a few moments before looking at the clock on his nightstand. It read three-fifteen AM, two hours and a quarter early from his usual wake-up time.

After a few failed attempts to go back to sleep, the boy finally gave up and got up from the bed. Slowly, he padded across the carpeted floor and went out to his balcony. It was still dark outside. Stars can still be seen dotting the early morning sky, faint but still there. In the distance, a horse whinnied.

Maybe it was the horse that did it as he remembered for a fleeting moment of a time long ago when they rode together, or the fact that it was dawn when people tend to recall sentimental things, but Akashi found his thoughts drifting back to his dream earlier. Sitting on the chair by the railings, he reflected on it with a frown etched on his face.

"Where could you be right now?" he muttered softly to the wind.

It's been a year of hide-and-seek, but she had practically erased her existence. Akashi had almost considered hiring a detective to find her, but decided against it. That would be taking things overboard.

Akashi looked at his right hand. Smooth skin, unblemished not even by the constant dribbling of a basketball, long fingers that can be easily mistaken for that of a pianist, a hand that is regal and elegant.

The very same hand that had almost choked her to death, he recalled bitterly.

Back then, he remembered looking down at her crumpled figure with disdain as he walked away, not even allowing anyone to help her. Now, however, as he finally regained his senses, he was ashamed of how he had treated her that time. If only he can turn back time and do it all over again.

But that would be impossible. Absolute he might be, but the past was something that not even he could rewrite. His Emperor Eye can only look forward, not backward. The future is something that can be altered easily with the smallest of actions, but the past is a different matter altogether.

On his final year in Teiko, he had made a lot of mistakes. Sure, he led the team to victory, brought honor to his alma mater, upheld the Akashi's way of excellence and perfection, but it seemed to dull in comparison to the 'stupidities', as she had called it in her resignation letter, that he had committed with the awakening of his Emperor Eye. He enumerated it on his fingers.

One, letting Daiki run wild with that ego of his. This was the catalyst, he knew, the one that started the chain of events that eventually he and the others would come to regret. Not that he was blaming the tanned ace of Touo, but if only he had put an end to it just as she had suggested... But it's too late to do that now, isn't it? Which brings him to the second one.

Ignoring her warnings. His pride had seen to that. He was the captain, while she's just a mere manager, what can she know about the team? But that's where he is greatly mistaken. "You're wrong. Once a man completely believed he was right, that he will never err, he was already wrong." Her intelligence and sharp wit had always rivaled his. Blinded by arrogance, he didn't see the bonds that held the team together as it snapped right before their very eyes.

Moving on to the third one.

Falling to Atsushi's taunts. If only he had shut that purple giant with a glare instead of accepting his challenge, then maybe he wouldn't have awakened his other self by force. But then, he didn't, and look where it led him.

Fourth, disgracing Tetsuya. Ah, this one... Although the tealhead had accepted his fate with that usual pokerface of his, Akashi had seen tears fall from his eyes as he turned away to leave the first-string gym. Tetsuya was too polite, too meek, to even try to question about this sudden injustice on his person. Even after all the things he did to their phantom player, the boy didn't hold a grudge against him, or for anyone for that matter. Tetsuya is too kind, too pure a soul to taint himself with such things. It was her, who had retaliated instead, pouncing on him out of nowhere, defending Tetsuya and his position in the first string. Which led to the fifth and greatest mistake he'd ever done in his whole life.

He had almost killed her that time. Had he let go of her a minute later, she would've died. As it was, she fainted easily, probably due to the yelling she'd done earlier, and he had tossed her away like trash. Worse, he left her there on the cold floor, and as if that wasn't cruel enough, forbade anyone to bring her to the clinic.

Akashi felt like cutting off his right hand.

If he can promise to gouge out his eyes, then cutting off one of his hands is not a big deal, is it?

No, he thought, getting a hold of himself. The real Akashi Seijuurou would not think like that. It was his other self who makes outrageous proclamations like that. Gouging out his eyes would not have given them victory had they lost to Shotoku that time (not that it would happen, though — he was sure of their victory against Shintaro's team), just like cutting off his hand would not exactly earn him her forgiveness, if she would even allow him to apologize for his actions. Knowing her, she would just laugh in his face and say, "Why do you think I'll have a need for that bloody hand of yours? Do you want me to have it preserved as a decoration in my room?"

Yes, she's just like that.

He closed his eyes with a tired sigh. He missed her sarcastic remarks and snarky remarks on just about everything. When struck by the mood, she will talk in circles to confuse you and to answer your queries with a question of her own. But there's no denying that she's a really good manager. Did he even mention that his 'training from Hell' originated from her?

When he opened his eyes once again, the sun was already making its slow ascent from the east, bathing the grounds of the Akashi's residence in a soft warm yellow light. Birds are already singing their own melodies as they welcomed the new day. Around him, the Akashi residence is slowly coming to life — the maids beginning their morning cleaning, the cooks preparing breakfast, the gardeners watering the plants...

He slowly rose from his seat. It's almost time for him to start preparing for the day. He went through his tasks on autopilot — shower, eat breakfast, brush his teeth, get dressed for school — and then he was on his way to Rakuzan High. Inside the limousine, he took out his phone and typed the same message he had done ever since she resigned.

"Where are you, Akumi?"

Sending it to the email address that she had used during middle school, he pressed send. Although he was not sure whether she still used it or not, he continued sending her messages, like it was already a sort of some ritual.

A ding confirmed that his message had been delivered.

Somewhere in the other side of the world, a similar sound alerted a golden-eyed girl who was busy fixing her hair in front of a mirror. With a smirk, she picked up her phone from the table and opened the message that she had been receiving ever since she 'disappeared'. With an amused smile, yet having a trace of bitterness in it, she just read it. She didn't bother replying — there was no need. Throwing the gadget carelessly on the bed, she continued with her activity.

Satisfied with her ponytail, her fingers strayed unconsciously to her neck, tracing the long-gone marks that had been branded into them a year ago. In her mind, they were still there — a mottled black and blue against her pale skin. She put on the red choker that she had worn ever since — a reminder — although why she did that, she exactly don't know. She just did.

Pulling her suitcase behind her, she locked the door of her apartment for the last time. Hailing a cab to the airport, she smiled to herself.

It's time to come home.

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