The Runaway Empress

Chapter 21

Kimiko stood in front of her mirror, observing her reflection. Her eyes were fixed on her neck, where the absence of a red choker was very much noticeable. To herself, at least — not that anyone else would notice. She'd ceased to wear that certain piece of accessory upon returning to Japan — she trusted Kuroko to keep his word and wearing the choker was just a bitter reminder of her last year in Teiko.

Her phone by the bedside table rang, and she went over to pick it up. There dangled a cute raccoon keychain at one end of her phone — a tiny fluffy ball of black-and-white fur that Midorima had given her yesterday. She chuckled at the remembrance and muttered something about the greenhead being such a loveable tsundere.

[From: Mother]

[Hey, sweetie, how are you?]

Kimiko smiled as she typed a reply.

[To: Mother]

[I'm fine. How are you and dad?]

[From: Mother]

[We're doing fine, as well. Good news, Aku-chan! Your dad's request to be reassigned in Japan has been approved!]

"Oh?" Kimiko murmured as her fingers flew over her touchscreen keyboard.

[To: Mother]

[Really? So when are you going to come home?]

[From: Mother]

[Hopefully, by the end of March.]

Just in time before the start of the new school year, she thought.

[To: Mother]

[I see. That's great! =^_^=]

[From: Mother]

[Just in time for the school year. Anyway, have you decided on a school yet?]

[To: Mother]

[Not yet. Though I have one in mind.]

[From: Mother]

[That's okay. We'll just talk about that later, ne? Later, sweetie, mom has to go to work now! Take care always.]

[To: Mother]

[Hai. Love lots to you and dad 3]

After sending her last message, Kimiko shoved her phone in her pocket and went out of her apartment and into the slightly cold February morning. She wandered aimlessly around the streets of Tokyo for hours, going into various sports shops and bookstores, even hanging out for a while in that certain rooftop arcade where she and the team used to frequent after Kuroko introduced it to them. Nothing much has changed about it aside from the fact that the photocopier machine in the corner was now replaced by a newer one.

She leaned on the railings and watched several middle-schoolers play on the DDR.

"This is nostalgic," she said to no one in particular, taking a sip from that weird drink that Murasakibara had introduced to her. She wasn't there when Kuroko and the rest of the gang first stumbled to this place — she had been busy helping Akashi with some club work — but she had Kise narrate the whole story of their escapade after Akashi had punished them for disobeying his orders, and the matter of the photo booth was mentioned. She remembered laughing at the part where Kuroko was momentarily forgotten by everyone only to find out that Murasakibara had been blocking him from view since the beginning.

When four o'clock rolled around, Kimiko decided to go and pay a visit to a certain bluenette. Practice was already underway by the time she made it to Seirin, and no one would have noticed her standing in the gym's entrance if not for the bundle of fur that she was now carrying in her arms.

"Woof, woof!"

Kimiko giggled quietly as she held Nigou at arm's length to stop the puppy from licking her cheek. The members of Seirin's basketball team paused for a moment to stare at her.

"Kimiko-san," Kuroko appeared beside her, and his teammates noticed that she wasn't the least bit surprised at the phantom's sudden appearance.

"For a minute there, I thought you were the dog," Kimiko joked. She nodded to Riko in acknowledgment after sending Kuroko back to the court. Nigou was following her as she took a seat beside the older girl.

"I apologize for intruding on your practice," she said, looking straight at Riko.

"Ah, it's fine, it's fine!" Inwardly though, Riko was a bit unnerved at her golden eyes and how their intensity reminded her of the Rakuzan captain. The girl seemed nice, though.

"Your team is pretty good," Kimiko commented after some period of silence.

"Th-thanks," Riko stuttered, feeling oddly pleased at being complimented by Teiko's former assistant coach. If Riko felt a bit insecure at Momoi (and that was only because of the fact thar she had a bigger cup-size), Kimiko was on a whole other level.

Riko feels quite intimidated. Not only with her looks - the girl looks perfectly elegant — but with her talent, even though Riko haven't seen it yet, whatever that is.

Who wouldn't? As Kuroko had told everyone in passing, this girl was probably the only person — aside from their coach Shirogane Kozo and former captain Nijimura Shuuzo in Teiko — that the Kiseki no Sedai knuckles under. Akashi Seijuurou included.

"Man, I miss this," she heard the chartreusette murmur. At Nigou's whining, Kimiko tore her eyes from the court and paid attention to the puppy by giving it a nice scratch behind the ears.

"Nigou likes you a lot already... Momoi had quite a difficulty making friends with him," Seirin's coach commented.

Kimiko laughed and placed the dog on her lap. She looked at Nigou's Kuroko-like eyes. "Well, what can I say? Animals love me."

There was a short water break and Kuroko went over to where Kimiko now sat crosslegged on the floor on one side of the court, playing a variant of fetch with Nigou using a basketball. She would send the ball rolling with a flick of her finger and the dog would run after it and return it to her by pushing it with his nose.

"Ya, Tetsuya," Kimiko greeted the bluenette as he sat beside her. Seeing his master, Nigou ran to him and proceeded to give Kuroko's face a washjob. Kimiko was amused.

"Okay, Niguo, that's enough," she said, and the dog obeyed instantly. The dog's obedience to Kimiko was something Kuroko expected, seeing how the two bonded quickly. Kimiko has always been good at handling pets.


"Just 'Akumi', Tetsuya."

"But Kimi—"

She poked his nose. "A-ku-mi."

Kuroko sighed. "Akumi-san."

The girl pouted. "Fine."

"Akumi-san, will you be watching the Nationals tournament?"

"Yeah. Seijuurou told me to go to Kyoto this Saturday. Looks like I will be staying with him and his team for a week." She shrugged. "I would've preferred heading straight to Wakayama but Seijuurou didn't want me to stay there alone."

Kuroko smiled at that. "Akashi-kun is just worried for your safety, Akumi-san."

"Hmp," she snorted. "He's a worrywart."

"Later, Akumi-san." Kuroko stood up as she nodded and he went back to training. After all, there are only three days left to polish whatever needs to be polished and then they will be off to war.

"Yo," Kagami said with matching salute to Kimiko who was waiting for him and Kuroko outside Seirin's gym after they finished training. She returned his salute with a smirk then with one swift move, stole the ball from the redhead's hands.

"Borrow," she said as she dribbled it lazily.

"Can't you just ask like a normal person?" Kagami said in exasperation.

Her smile turned devilish. "Who said I was asking?"

Kagami facepalmed.

Kuroko merely smiled at his two companions.

"Can we go to Maji Burger for a while? I'm starving," Kagami requested. Then pointing to Kuroko, he added, "And this one here needs his daily vanilla dose."

"It's not a drug, Kagami-kun."

"Suuure," Kimiko drawled, knowing perfectly his addiction to those vanilla milkshakes, but went with them anyway. However, they did not expect to bump into Kise along the way.

Actually, more like they heard him first before they saw him.


The yellow blob in the distance turned out to be none other than Kaijou's ace, waving a magazine in his hands high up in the air.

"Baka! Don't be so noisy!" Another voice said, as equally loud as Kise. Said person delivered a kick to the model's backside, effectively sending him flying forward.

"Itai, Kasamatsu-senpai!"

"Shut up, you idiot!"

Needless to say, their audience was amused, confused, and bewildered at their sudden appearance.

Upon reaching her side, Kise immediately hid behind Kimiko's slender form. "Akumicchi, Kasamatsu-senpai is being a meanie!"

Kasamatsu froze at the girl's presence.

"Kasamatsu-senpai," Kuroko greeted Kaijou's captain who was internally grateful for the interruption. "What brings you here?"

"This idiot says he has something to say t-to h-her." Kasamatsu cursed himself for feeling uncomfortable with women. He remembered that joint party that the team had went to once, and how that ended up in disaster.

"Is that so? Ryou-kun, what is so important that you had to drag your captain all the way from Kanagawa with you?"

How did she knew that I am Kise's captain?

"This!" Kise was about to show her the magazine but Kagami interrupted him.

"Can we guys talk about this inside?" He jerked his thumb at the fastfood joint across the street.

"So you were saying...?" Kimiko asked Kise once they had ordered their food. She was seated at the head of the table for six, Kuroko and Kagami on her left, Kise and Kasamatsu on the other.

Kise gave her the magazine that was opened to a certain page. "Its official release is on Saturday, but my manager was able to get a copy in advance. He was very happy with the results!"

The girl was quiet for a moment as she sipped on her coffee, thumbing through the glossy pages of the magazine. "Not bad..." she mused to herself.

"You're a model?" Kagami asked with his mouth full of burger.

She eyed him with narrowed golden orbs. "Don't talk when your mouth is full," she admonished, making him blush in embarrassment. "As for your question, no, I'm not a model."

"Then why did you —"

"Ryou-kun asked me to. It's a one-time thing," she answered nonchalantly.

"Akumicchi looked really beautiful in these though," Kise said as he passed the magazine to Kuroko who was silently asking for them. He and Kagami looked at their pictures together. All in all, there were ten shots of Kise with Kimiko, donning several brand labels of jewelries, perfumes, clothing, and even sports equipment. They were for an article about possible gifts that one can give to their loved ones this coming Valentines.

"Those shoes look nice," Kuroko said, pointing at the ones that Kise was wearing in one of the shots.

"Where?" Kagami looked at where his partner was pointing, then nodded. "Yeah, they look awesome..."

"Ne, Kagamicchi, do you have a date for Valentines next week?" Kise suddenly asked.

"Why, Ryou-kun? You want to ask him out?"

Both Kise and Kagami choked on their food. "WHAT?!" they exclaimed in unison.

Kimiko met their bewildered eyes with a calm gaze. "In perfect sync already."

"Akumicchi!" Kise protested. "I was just asking!"

"Defensive," she replied.

"I'm not!"

"Yes, you are."

"I'm not!"

At his noisiness, Kasamatsu, who had been quiet all that time decided to intervene. "Oi, Kise, you're disturbing the other customers with your loudness."

The blonde instantly calmed down. "Sorry, Kasamatsu-senpai."

"Kise-kun, sometimes I wonder if you had swallowed a microphone or something."

"Kurokocchi, that's mean."

"Back on the matter at hand," Kimiko said, resting her chin on her palm. "Who got a date for Valentines?"

A collective shaking of the head answered her question.

"Figures," she chuckled. "You guys are too obsessed with basketball to think of other things."

"I think I'm taking Momoi-san out for a date," Kuroko said.

"Oh?" Her gold eyes glinted in amusement. Satsuki will be overjoyed.

Kise said it for her. "Momoicchi will be ecstatic!" Everyone in their circle knows the pinkette's obsession for the bluenette.

"I just want to thank her for everything she has given me," the phantom said with a small smile. "How about you, Kise-kun?"

"Nah, I don't have a girlfriend since entering high school," he answered. "How about you, Captain?"

Kasamatsu glared at him as if to say, 'Have you forgotten who you are talking to?' Kise's eyes widened as he realized his mistake and apologized before Kasamatsu kick him again. "Waah, gomenasai, gomenasai! I forgot that you are afraid of girls!"

There was a pause, and Kise covered his mouth with his hand.

"...Afraid of... girls?" Kagami asked slowly.

PAK! A hand landed on the back of Kise's head.

"You don't have to say that out loud! And I'm not afraid of them — I'm just uncomfortable with them!"

"Don't worry, Captain. We don't bite," Kimiko said with a smirk.

"Akumi-san, that's hardly reassuring," said Kuroko flatly, seeing how Kasamatsu had stiffened when Kimiko addressed him directly.

She ignored him, an idea already forming in her head. Kuroko paled while Kise gulped as they recognized that certain smile of hers whenever she was scheming something.

Kise held Kasamatsu's wrist, pulling him up as he rose from his seat. "Ah, Akumicchi, we will be going now — Kanagawa is a bit far and we have —"

Her smile turned to a full-blown smirk. "No one is going anywhere until I say so." Gold eyes locked on Kasamatsu's confused ones. "Care for a short walk, Captain?"

One and a half-hour later, Kimiko plunked herself on a park bench with a sigh. With a grimace, she gazed at her four companions before zeroing on the black-haired boy. "Just how uncomfortable with girls are you?!"

He only glared at her.

She had dragged him to several establishments where Kasamatsu would be forced to interact with females, such as a salon, a tea house, a restaurant, a mall... And every time one of them would ask him a question, Kasamatsu would stutter with his answers.

"I don't know! All I know is that I don't know how to deal with them!"

Kimiko had probably asked him the same question several times during their venture, but instead of becoming frustrated or angry, a knowing smile would play on her lips before she dragged him off to another place.

She stood up and patted his shoulder. "No stutter this time." Even Kasamatsu hadn't realized it until she pointed it out as he stared at her in surprise. "And no flinching upon contact," she added as she smiled wider.

"How did you do that, Akumicchi?" Kise asked, equally shocked as his captain. "Did you cast a spell on him or something?" Her foot connected with his shin. "Oww!"

"Do I look like a witch?" Kise shook his head. "There's my answer." Turning to Kasamatsu, she said, "At least, you can tolerate another female aside from your mother. And that's me. Today is an accomplishment, after all."

"I'm not sure if I should thank you for that," Kasamatsu grumbled in reply.

"You're welcome, Yukio-senpai," she said cheekily.

"I haven't thanked you yet! And who told you can call me by my first name?"

"I do what I want," she answered coolly, grinning at the fuming captain before her.

"Great, another brat," he muttered, making her laugh. He sighed. "We haven't even introduced ourselves to one another properly."

Kimiko stopped, then held a hand out to him. "Kimiko Akumi. You know that by now."

"Hmp. For formality's sake," he said as he shook her hand. "Kasamatsu Yukio — and that's Kasamatsu-senpai to you."

Kuroko, Kagami, and Kimiko accompanied Kise and Kasamatsu to the train station, bickering and teasing one another on the way there. This time, Kasamatsu was joining them. Before they boarded their train, Kimiko waved at them one last time, and with a merry shout of "See you at the Nationals, Ryou-kun, Yukio-senpai!", the trio also went on their way home.

On the train to Kanagawa, Kasamatsu asked his kouhai, "So that's the girl?" At Kise's affirmation, he turned his gaze through the glass windows. "She's weird."

He can talk to her in straight sentences, and he no longer feels the need to run from her. Weird, indeed.

"Isn't that your teammate from middle school, Seijuurou-sama?"

Heterochromatic eyes flickered to the car's rearview mirror for barely a second before returning to the magazine in his lap. His hands holding it in place was so tight that he was already crumpling the edges.

"Aa." His sharp and short reply discouraged any more questions from his chauffeur.

Akumi, he thought. His left eye, which had dulled a bit after the Winter Cup, glowed with renewed brightness.

Under Akashi Corporation was a slew of different businesses ranging from electronics to real estates to hotels and restaurant chains, fashion labels to resorts and sports equipment facilities. To say that they are the ones ruling the business world of Japan was an understatement.

In his hands was one of the things discussed at the board meeting earlier that afternoon. Majority of the products featured in the list were under their company. Akashi didn't give any hints, but Kise Ryouta already has a bright future ahead of him as one of the favored models by the different companies under the Akashi conglomerate. Akashi was proud of him, yes, but that doesn't mean that Kise had the right to drag Kimiko in this mess.

His father's words still echoed in his mind.

"She is the picture of elegance and sophistication. While Kise Ryouta captivates his audience with his cheerful and warm smile, this new model attracts the eyes of everyone by drawing them in by her mysterious and exotic beauty, especially her eyes."

That's quite the compliment from the head of the Akashi Corporation that surprised the majority of those in attendance. No one dared to comment, of course.

No doubt his father would order a background check on her, and Akashi would have to get to her first and dissuade her from continuing this thing before his father presents his deal to her. Even Kimiko would have a hard time to resist Akashi Masaomi's deals; not that Akashi would like to find out.

Because if she did accept, no doubt she and Kise will be together more often, and there's no way in Hell that Akashi is letting that happen. Not if he can help it.

He stared at the pictures in deep contemplation. There were ten of them, depicting the pair in different themes ranging from simple casual to sweet to lazy to adventurous to sexy in accordance to what product they were advertising.

Some of the pictures can be deemed innocent and harmless enough. There was one of Kimiko holding a phone to her ear, Kise off to the side behind her, phone in ear, a boquet of red roses in hand. Stuff as mundane as that did not rouse anything in him.

However — he looked at the next one, and his eyes narrowed in annoyance — pictures of this sort did.

In one of their shots for a perfume brand, it shows Kimiko in a red dress, her back to a pool table. Kise stood in front of her — too close for Akashi's liking — and he was holding her hand, as if inhaling the tantalizing scent coming from the skin of her wrist. Kimiko's smile was sly, while Kise was smirking smugly as they stared each other in the eye, as if provoking the other to act.

Akashi turned the page. No, he is not certainly jealous. Jealous is for the insecure. What he feels is anger. Anger at seeing someone trespass on his property. And that is just plain unforgivable.

"To the station. I'm going to Tokyo."

"But Seijuurou-sama —" His glare, visible in the mirror, was enough to shut up the poor man. "Ha-hai."

You're mine, Akumi. The empress belongs to the emperor alone.

Kimiko entered her dark apartment quietly. The moment she closed the door though, a chill passed through her.

She is not alone.

As silent and as fast as she could, Kimiko removed her shoes, preferring to go barefoot to avoid making unnecessary noise, then grabbed the baseball bat that she kept near the shoe rack. It was a safety precaution that Akashi had once suggested, and the feeling of the metal bat in her hands gave her courage and confidence to be able to deal with this intruder.

In the darkness of the living room, she can make out a silhouette of a person seated on her couch. She forced herself to silence her breathing as she inched her way towards the unknown person.

"Put down the bat, Akumi."

"Seijuurou?!" Kimiko exclaimed in disbelief. She hurriedly turned on the lights and set the bat on the wall. "You could have at least turned the lights on, you know," she complained as she settled on the armchair on his left. "You almost gave me a heart attack."

"I apologize."

Kimiko, who was yet to look Akashi in the face, noticed the magazine lying open on the glass table in front of her. Gold eyes widened in recognition. "Where did you —" She stopped as Akashi met her gaze. Slowly, the redhead rose from his seat. He had shed his coat, his immaculate dress shirt making the crimson red of his tie, which was loosened a bit, to stand out. There was an ominous gleam in his mismatched eyes as he approached the chartreusette who was frozen in her seat, her fingers digging into the armrests of her chair. Her brows were furrowed in uncertainty to his actions. His gaze held hers in place as he stopped in front of her. He bent forward, bringing his face close to hers, close enough to feel her shallow breathing on his lips. His hand cupped her cheek, his thumb caressing the soft skin of her face.

"...Seijuurou...?" she said in a broken whisper, golden eyes filled with confusion.

A lazy smirk graced Akashi's lips as he brought them to her ear. He felt her shiver as his warm breath tickled the inside of her earlobe.

"Akumi," he spoke into her ear, rolling her name off his tongue like velvet, voice saccharinely sweet, "tell me, what am I to do with you?"

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