The Runaway Empress

Chapter 23

Akashi opened his eyes as he listened to Mibuchi's usual lunchtime prattle. They were done eating, except Nebuya, that is. He clasped his fingers and rested his hands on the table.

"...of course, they are in love!"

Hayama snorted. "How is that even possible? They've only just met..."

"And they were enemies in the first place! If it was a basketball game, I'd say that they are on opposite sides of the court," Nebuya grumbled, shoving a burger in his mouth.

Mayuzumi shot him a flat look. No shit. "We know what the word 'enemies' mean; you don't have to say the second part."

"But isn't it possible to be friends even though you're enemies? Like, on-court, they're enemies, but off-court, they're friends?" Hayama asked.

Mibuchi stopped to think. He glanced at Akashi, then back to Hayama. "Of course, that's applicable to basketball, but I'm not sure if that applies to war or politics as well." He leaned back in his chair. "That aside, why can't you just accept the fact that they are indeed in love?"

"Because they aren't!"

"Ko-chan, just shut up."

"I won't!" came Hayama's protest. A challenging look was in his eyes. "Not unless you can offer a sound explanation on how they fell in love with each other in just three days."

"But love isn't like that!" Mibuchi moaned.

"Then what is it like?" Rakuzan's small forward shot back.

Somehow, Hayama's question sparked Akashi's curiousity. Enough for him to break his silence.

"Indeed, Mibuchi, what is it like?" he said, surprising everyone when he joined their conversation.

"Wh-what do you mean, Se-Sei-chan?" Mibuchi stuttered, feeling his captain's piercing gaze on his person.

"How do you know if a person is in love?"

.

.

.

Cue awkward silence and weird stares from his team members.

Of course, when do you hear Akashi Seijuurou asking casually about love?

Never.

.

.

.

Except today.

.

.

.

"Pinch me," Mibuchi whispered to Mayuzumi, eyes wide as saucers.

PAK!

"I said, 'Pinch me!'" Mibuchi screamed, rubbing the back of his head where Mayuzumi had whacked him with his light novel. The phantom merely shrugged.

"It hurts, right?" Mibuchi nodded. "Then it served the same purpose, doesn't it?"

Meanwhile, Hayama and Nebuya punched each other at the same time.

"Fuck, it hurts!"

"IT'S REAL!"

At the head of the table, Akashi leveled a menacing look at his teammates and they immediately stopped their antics.

"Just answer the question, Mibuchi."

Their demon captain was back.

"Ah, well..." Mibuchi struggled to find the words to explain it properly to Akashi. "It's simple, really..."

"Is it, really?" Mayuzumi murmured beside him, but Mibuchi ignored him.

"When you're in love with someone, you want that person to be always by your side. By simply being with that person, you feel happy, like you're walking on cloud nine. You feel complete — the kind of feeling you get when you finally find that something that you've been looking for for so long. You feel strong — strong enough to take on everything or anything that the world throws in your way. You feel secure and safe. That person's happiness is your happiness as well. You want to protect that person, because when that person gets hurt, you get hurt as well. It's like you're sharing emotions. Of course, you would want protect that person because that person is the one to whom you've entrusted to take care of your heart."

Akashi was silent as he took in Mibuchi's words.

Still he has to make sure.

One more question, then.

"How does it happen?"

Mibuchi blinked, the thoughful expression on his face replaced by one of surprise and confusion.

"Huh?"

Once again, Akashi ignored his teammates' stares, especially Mayuzumi's.

"How does a person fall in love?"

"You're awfully inquisitive about this, Akashi," the grayhaired male said, opening his light novel.

"Could it be that Captain is — ITAI! WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM, MUSCLE GORILLA?!"

"Are you suicidal?!"

"What — Oh." Hayama laughed nervously as he realized that Akashi might have killed him for asking that question.

Akashi Seijuurou?

In love?

Yeah, when hell freezes over.

"I owe you one," he muttered to Nebuya.

Akashi cleared his throat, and Mibuchi jumped in his seat.

"R-right! Just a minute, Sei-chan...!" he cried. Geez, Sei-chan is too demanding... Akashi closed his eyes, waiting for him to answer the question.

With much hesitation, Mibuchi began. "The truth is, I don't know the answer to that..."

Heterochromatic eyes glared sharply at him.

"BUT! That's the way it is supposed to be!" Mibuchi continued, hoping that this will somehow appease the redhead.

And maybe it did, because Akashi raised an eyebrow in interest and nodded at him to continue.

Mibuchi sighed in relief. "To put it simply, love happens naturally, without you noticing it. It's like waking up in the morning and you suddenly realize that you truly love that person. Love is not logical — you love someone just because you love them. You don't love someone because you find them attractive, or wealthy, or intelligent, or something. Love doesn't have to have reasons or explanations. It just happens. At least, that's how true love works — no causes, no ulterior motives..." Fearing that he was sounding stupid, he nervously asked the contemplating Akashi, "People fall in love without reason. Without even wanting to. You can't predict it. That's love... D-do I make sense, Sei-chan?"

To and utter surprise for the third time, Akashi was smiling as if he had just figured out the answer to the world's most complex puzzle. Mibuchi felt his heart skip a beat.

His teammates was thinking of the same thing.

"Yes, Mibuchi, your words make perfect sense." However, Akashi seemed to be somewhere far away, his thoughts wandering to something else. And before they could ask him about it, the bell rang, signalling the end of their lunch break.

Not again, Mibuchi thought. He remembered a similar incident, when the three of them — Hayama, Nebuya and him — had challenged Akashi to prove his winning streak. It was during the game of poker when Mibuchi had asked Akashi about his life in Teikou, and the enigmatic redhaired male looked like he was about to say something about an important person in his life when Nebuya had interrupted, breaking the spell and thus preventing Mibuchi from learning more about their secretive captain.

Mibuchi felt like screaming in frustration.

Oh well, better luck next time, then... I wonder when will that be?


Akashi thought about Mibuchi's words over and over until he arrived home. Sipping his evening tea in the private comfort of his room, they still echoed in his head, giving him lots of things to reflect on.

Love... He toyed with the cup in his hand, and recalled his phone call with Kimiko after his father spoke to him about his participation the Nationals tournament.

The one where she had asked him if he loves her.


**Two days ago (03 February 20xx)...**

It's just like him to get in the way of my happiness, Akashi thought as he retired for the night. His high spirits from spending time with his beloved horse were quickly dampened by his father's words. He suddenly felt tired and weary of everything. He needs a reprieve.

Her phone rang three times before she picked it up. There was a rustling sound and Kimiko's slightly muffled and sleepy voice came over. Suddenly, Akashi felt guilty for calling at twelve midnight. No one with a sane mind does that.

But then again, Akashi Seijuurou never considered himself as a perfectly sane person, either.

Still, he felt bad.

In his head, he could see her sprawled on her bed, lifting the phone lazily to her ear. "Moshi moshi~ Kimiko Akumi speaking~"

Akashi's lips quirked in a soft smile. She didn't even bother looking at the caller ID. However, it vanished as he realized that he was disturbing her rest. "Akumi," he said as he laid his head on his pillow.

"Hmmm?" she mumbled sleepily, then as realization sink in, she said in a surprised voice, "Seijuurou!"

"Sorry. I probably woke you up?"

"...Not really. I was just about to sleep, though. Why?"

"Nothing." I just wanted to hear your voice. "I'm sorry. I will hung up now so you can rest."

"Well, I won't probably be able to sleep right away, so maybe we can just talk until one of us falls asleep," she suggested.

"How have you been?" Akashi asked after a short pause. Already he could feel a bit lighter.

"Hmmm, I'm fine. I visited Teiko earlier — they're headed for the Nationals this year as well. Shirogane-san sends his regards, by the way."

"Teiko has won the Nationals even after we graduated."

"No surprise there – Coach Shirogane trains his players like hell."

Akashi smirked as he recited their former coach's favorite saying. "Nothing kills the young."

Kimiko laughed.

"How about you, Seijuurou? How was your day?"

One of the things that Akashi missed about Kimiko is the little conversations they have, just like this. Those four words take on a different meaning when they are coming from her. What sounds so annoying coming from his father's mouth has a different tune when Kimiko is the one saying it. Same question, but the difference was like night and day. His father's was cold as ice, hers was warm as fire.

"It was fine. My teammates have taken to stalking me whenever I'm holding my phone."

"Somehow, I'm excited to meet your teammates... They seem like an interesting bunch."

"A center who talks like he has a built-in megaphone in his throat, a shooting guard who thinks that he is a lady, a small forward who's always on a sugar high, and a phantom who reads light novels about aliens... An interesting bunch indeed."

"Not much of a difference from our team in Teiko, ne?"

"Aa."

"So what is your problem, really?"

When he didn't reply, she gave an indignant snort. "Seijuurou, I told you before, didn't I? If you have a problem, you can always talk to me about it." Another period of silence. "C'mon, Seijuurou... Is it... It's your father, isn't it?"

Akashi sighed, and Kimiko gave a triumphant "Ha!" He can already see her grinning smugly.

"What did he do to you this time?"

Akashi suddenly felt like laughing at himself. Seriously, Seijuurou... He shifted uncomfortably on his bed. "It's nothing, really," he said, trying to dissuade her from pursuing the topic, even though he perfectly knows he won't succeed.

"It's about the Nationals, isn't it?"

Akashi gave up. God knows how Kimiko is once her curiousity has been stoked. And he never liked being interrogated, especially when she's the one asking the questions. He might end up saying something that he'd rather not let her know. He can't even lie to her.

"Nothing's changed with Father and his expectations. As an Akashi, he expects me to win the championship. My loss at the Winter Cup made him to be greatly disappointed with me. He said that if..." Akashi trailed off. He shook his head and forced himself to continue, "If I didn't, he'll send me abroad, and it's goodbye to basketball as well." He let out a weary sigh. "Not that I am pressured by it — all my life I was expected to be the best in everything I do — I just... sometimes I just feel tired from it all. I don't know if it's worth it."

Kimiko was silent on the other end of the line. Maybe she has fallen asleep, and Akashi was grateful for that. At least, she didn't hear what he had said — especially the last part.

Unfortunately, she was still awake.

"Seijuurou?"

"Hm?"

"Thank you." Akashi blinked. Thank you for what? "Thank you for telling me this." Things like this are not what Akashi would just tell everyone — not even Kuroko, who was understanding most of the time — and that's already saying something. He smiled to himself as he understood it then.

Trust.

Breathing becomes easier whenever she's with him. And just the simple act of telling her all this seemed to lighten his burden considerably. He became a bit calmer, his thoughts a bit clearer.

Kimiko's voice retained its usual cheer and mischievousness as she giggled, bringing normalcy back to their conversation. "Oh, come on — I can't believe he said that to you. I mean, against them, I'd still place my bet on for the championship title for this year's Nationals. And I'm not saying this to comfort you or whatever. It's a fact. And I'm not playing favorites, either. Don't go doubting yourself now, Captain." The last part was stated cheekily, reminding him of the times when he constantly reminded her not to call him that as it irks him strangely when she refers to him as such. It gives him a vague sense of alienation, as if his position in the team was somehow a barrier between them. And he hates it.

But this time it did not — strangely, the thing that had done nothing but irritate him in the past had become a sort of solace for him. Instead of becoming a barrier, it became the string that held him to her. And somehow, knowing that Kimiko had complete and utter faith in him is just overwhelming, because it is faith based not on his abilities or his ancestry, but based on who he is as a person.

"It's Seijuurou to you, Akumi."

"Hai, hai," she answered with a laugh. Then her voice turned serious again. "Seijuurou, I know it is rude — foolish even — of me to say this, but you know, I really hate your father."

This surprised Akashi, of course.

"I hate him for even considering the possibility that you would even lose in the Nationals when he should've been putting his trust in you, and for even threatening to take away the most precious thing your mother has given you. I swear, Akashi Masaomi is the worst father of all."

"His actions are justified by the belief that we Akashis are absolute in everything we do. I've failed once already — he has reason enough to doubt me."

"But still! How can be so heartless? Would it kill him to let you know that he is proud for having a son like you? Would it go against your family motto if he would just show the least of a fatherly love to you?"

"It was the way that we were brought up to be. Athough I wonder why a kind person like Mother even came to love a person like him."

"So you mean to say that such loveless upbringing is an Akashi thing?"

"Yes, it seems to be the case. That or he was just as obsessed with perfection and victory just like all the Akashis before him." He winced inwardly when he remembered that he had once been like that, too.

There was a rustling as she shifted in her bed. "Hey, maybe you'll be the one to change that!" she suggested enthusiastically. "You will be the one to change the Akashi family for the better. Someone who'll introduce the concept of love to them. Ne?"

Akashi snorted. "I don't think me and love will get along quite well." I haven't even thought about marriage yet.

"Oh please, you're the most caring person I've ever met — it's just that you have a unique way of expressing it. You love selflessly — too selfless that it's bad for you sometimes. You just don't see it — you're too busy looking out for others to look at yourself and notice."

"I —"

"You love me, right?"

His mismatched eyes widened at her sudden question, and Akashi was thankful that they were talking on the phone and not face-to-face because he was not sure how to answer that.

Do I?

Before he could even ponder on that thought, Kimiko continued, "And you love the team also. And we love you as well. We're 'family'. Family love each other, right? Even though your blood family is really not that great... So don't tell me that you're incapable of such a thing. Even your hair color states otherwise."

He suddenly felt stupid. Of course, that's what she meant. Familial love, of course, of course — friendship, companionship, camaraderie — of course. What kind of 'love' was Akashi thinking when she said that about the two of them? He brought a hand to his crimson hair.

Well, red stands for love, passion... And anger. And war. And violence. He wondered how the same color can represent such two conflicting ideas at the same time.

"I do. I do love you." Though I am not sure in what context of the word. "And the team," he added almost as an afterthought. Akashi loves Kimiko as a friend, as family, but whether or not he loves her more than that, he's still not quite sure.

How does one even find out?

Because Akashi was somehow curious as to what the answer might be.


However, after listening to Mibuchi's explanations, if they were indeed true (it seemed that he has to trust his friend's words on this), then it seems that Akashi already has it figured out.

Akashi is many things, but a coward he is not.

Later that night, he would sleep contentedly with a smile on his lips and a peaceful look on his face. And the last thought he would have before he falls asleep would be, So that's how it is. Funny how I realized all this just now.


"KUROKOCCHI!"

Kagami frowned at Kaijou's ace who suddenly materialized at their school gates. What the hell is he doing here? Don't they have practice? Seirin's training has just ended.

Beside the tall redhead, Kuroko stopped and stared at Kise, who was looking mildly distressed. "Is something the matter, Kise-kun?"

"Kurokocchi, can I talk to you in private? It's about Akumicchi..."

Kuroko glanced up at his light. "Kagami-kun—"

"Sure, sure," Kagami replied, for once able to read the situation. Even though he and Kuroko are friends, there is always that something between the phantom and the Kiseki no Sedai that separates them from the rest — something like a mythical bond... "I'll be going to Maji's, then. Ja."

"See you tomorrow, Kagami-kun."

"Ah," and he went on his way, leaving the shadow with the copycat.

"So, Kise-kun, what is it that you want to talk to me about?" Kuroko asked as he followed Kise to who knows where.

"Let's get to Midorimacchi first. Then I'll explain everything," Kise replied, totally serious. Kuroko was curious. If Kise was like this, then it must be something major. He remembered Kise mentioning their former training manager-slash-coach. "Did something bad happened to Akumi-san?"

Kise fiddled with his phone in his pocket. "I don't know if what happened was exactly good or bad... Oh, there he is — Midorimacchi!"

Sure enough, there by a lightpost near the intersection stood Shutoku's shooting guard, a slightly wilted rose dangling from his right hand. Hearing Kise's voice, Midorima looked up, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his fingers, and acknowledged the newcomers once they were within hearing distance.

"Kise, explain," Midorima demanded, a bit annoyed at having to rush after practice just because of a hysterical blonde.

"Can we sit down first?" Kise asked, seeing as this could turn into a lengthy discussion.

Kuroko, ever observant, pointed ahead of them. "There's a children's park over there. By this time, it must be vacant. We can talk there privately."


Perched on their individual turtle statues, Kise began to speak. "So, this lunch break, Akumicchi suddenly called me while I was with Kasamatsu-senpai, Moriyama-senpai, Kobori-sen—"

Midorima interjected. "We get it Kise, you were with your team. Then?"

Kise huffed at being interrupted in his narration. "Okay, so I greeted Akumicchi and asked her how was she doing when she suddenly asked me about the magazine. She was wondering if I somehow left it with her but when I said no, she suddenly sniffed and began mumbling strange things. Something about Akashicchi kissing her and —"

THUD!

Kise cast a nonchalant glance at his friends who had fallen off the turtle statues and nodded as if in agreement. He looked up at the sky. "Yes, that was my reaction as well. I can't believe that Akashicchi could do such a thing. Don't you think so?" He looked back at them and only then did he came to his senses.

His eyes widened as he looked down on the two who was struggling to sit up.

"MIDORIMACCHI! KUROKOCCHI! ARE YOU ALRIGHT?!"

And in his panic to get down and help them, Kise slipped and fell down as well.

"AAAAAH...!"

"Kise-kun, you're too loud," Kuroko grunted.

Midorima scoffed. "Serves you right, idiot."


When the trio had recovered, they decided to sit down on the benches instead of going back up there.

"What now?" Kise wondered out loud.

"Akumi-san might not be pleased with you sharing it to us," Kuroko said.

Midorima hummed in agreement. "Akashi won't be pleased either."

Kise shuddered as he thought of the ways his former captain could use to kill him.

"But Akumicchi sounded like she was crying! I'm just trying to help her!"

Kuroko sighed. This is indeed troublesome. The trio paused as they thought of the best thing to do in this kind of situation. After a moment, the blonde's scared whisper reached their ears.

"Do you think Akashicchi f-forced Akumicchi, ne?"

Midorima glared at him. "Akashi wouldn't do such a thing."

"Midorima-kun is right. That is below Akashi-kun."

"B-but—"

"Kise-kun," Kuroko said, a warning tone in his voice. "Akashi-kun won't do that to Akumi-san."

Still, he wasn't convinced. Kise stood up from his seat and faced them. "Have you forgotten how Akashicchi used to corner Akumicchi back then? There are several times when I thought he was going to kiss her!"

Kuroko and Midorima frowned at that. Of course, Kise was talking about Akashi's other self, who was overly possessive over the chartreusette, using all kinds of manipulation and even threatening her when Kimiko tried to leave the club during their last year in Teikou. Akashi's other self seemed to have taken a liking to backing Kimiko against a wall or just simply pulling her to him when the girl was being her rebellious and stubborn self.

The bluenette shook his head. "Kise-kun, Akashi-kun is not like that anymore."

"Fine," Kise muttered after some time. "But how do we explain their actions?"

Surprisingly, Midorima was calm about the whole thing. At Kise's question, he sneered at Kise. "Don't tell me you haven't noticed it when we were still in Teikou?"

"Hah? What do you mean, Midorimacchi?"

"Hmp, and you tell me I am dense..." he said, recalling the time when Kise had called him 'blind' for not realizing Momoi's feelings for Kuroko.

"Then please, Midorima-kun, tell us."

An indiscernible look passed in Midorima's viridian eyes. Twirling with the stem of the rose now devoid of thorns, he closed his eyes as he enlightened his oblivious companions.

And for once, he was straight to the point, no beating around the bushes or hiding behind cryptic words.

"Akashi and Kimiko are in love with each other. They just haven't realize it yet. Or maybe they had already, but haven't acknowledged it for some reasons."


That afternoon, Kimiko was somehow expecting Kise to come over to her apartment to ask her for more details on the—that thing— that happened between her and Akashi. Sitting on the floor of her living room, her back to the side of the couch, she stared lifelessly at far wall, too tired to do anything.

She's still unsure on what to think of the kiss. Heck, she's not even sure on how she was supposed to react! True, she found it funny at first, but then, that's because her mind was not properly working that's time. After Akashi kissed her, she had been feeling like she was high or something.

On that comparison, she groaned and buried her face on the coach. Just great — now I'm thinking that Seijuurou is some kind of a drug. Maybe thinking is a bad thing as well — I just keep on having all these outrageous ideas.

"Pull yourself together, Akumi," she growled to herself, standing up. Deciding that doing household chores might help keep her mind away from THAT incident, and so she busied herself with cleaning the whole apartment, which only took her a few minutes, much to her annoyance. She tackled her laundry next, which was sadly only several pieces of clothing, easily taken care of in just half an hour. Standing in her kitchen, she saw the refrigerator and got an idea.

Grocery shopping.

A quick shower and Kimiko was off to the nearest supermarket.

Once there, though, she immediately regretted her decision.

I take back what I said. Maybe I should have stayed at home.

What reminded Kimiko of Akashi was buying tofu in the supermarket. She was choosing them when the thought of Akashi came to her quite naturally. She was not really that fond of tofu but ever since he came into her life, she somehow acquired his love of tofu, even learning how to cook his favorite tofu soup. Before she knew it, she was standing there, lost in a daydream. How long this went on, she had no idea, but a woman's voice saying, "Excuse me" brought her back. She was blocking access to the tofu section.

Kimiko stopped daydreaming, apologized to the woman, dropped the pack of tofu into her shopping basket, and brought it to the cashier along with her other groceries—shrimp, milk, vegetables, and crackers.

While waiting in line at the cash register, Kimiko found her thoughts drifting to him once again. She was still figuring out the reason behind the kiss and the only logical explanation that she could think of was that Akashi had feelings for her.

NO! She mentally shouted, shaking her head. The thought was just absurd. Seijuurou can't possibly... right?

Right?

At least that's what she found after hours of searching the answer on the internet.

The internet is an not a reliable source, she finally decided as she stared at the search results displayed on her laptop screen. I'll never trust Google again.

Akashi never confessed to her, that much was certain, and they had continued their close-friends-by-label-but-more-like-lovers-by-behavior-but-not-quite relationship all the way until Akashi changed. Kimiko was not sure if she should include the claims of his other self about her being his empress. The memory brought a sudden shiver through her as she remembered the insane look in those gold and crimson orbs as he told her that.

I don't want to see that side of Akashi ever again.

She sighed. All this thinking is making my head ache. Just why in the world did Seijuurou kiss me?!

Kimiko's thoughts had reached this point when the cashier picked up her grocery basket.

She went back to her apartment with a bag of groceries in her arms. Changing into shorts and a tank top, she proceeded to the kitchen and began preparing dinner.

Kimiko wondered. But what if he does? Love me, that is... What am I going to do? What SHOULD I do?

Absentmindedly, she chopped a lot of ginger to a fine consistency. Then she sliced some celery and mushrooms into nice-sized pieces. The Chinese parsley, too, she chopped up finely. She peeled the shrimp and washed them at the sink. Spreading a paper towel, she laid the shrimp out in neat rows, like troops in formation. Next she warmed a large frying pan and dribbled in some sesame oil and spread it over the bottom. She slowly fried the chopped ginger over a low flame.

I wish I could meet see Seijuurou right now, Kimiko started thinking again. Then hopefully, we'll get this mess all sorted out. But at the same time, I'm scared — scared that it will change everything between us.

She shook her head.

I hope not.

She put the sliced celery and mushrooms into the frying pan. Turning the gas flame up to high and lightly jogging the pan, she carefully stirred the contents with a bamboo spatula, adding a sprinkle of salt and pepper. When the vegetables were just beginning to cook, she tossed the drained shrimp into the pan. After adding another dose of salt and pepper to the whole thing, she poured in a small glass of sake. Then a dash of soy sauce and finally a scattering of Chinese parsley. Kimiko performed all these operations on automatic pilot. This was not a dish that required complicated procedures: her hands moved on their own with precision, but her mind stayed focused on Akashi the whole time.

When the stir-fried shrimp and vegetables were ready, Kimiko transferred the food from the frying pan to a large platter.

Oopsies, she thought. It seems like I made dinner enough for five people.

Lost in thought, she failed to notice the amount of food that she was cooking.

Sighing, she said out loud, "Oh well, what's done is done... I guess I'll just eat as much as I can then finish the rest tomorrow..."

She took a can of pineapple juice from the refrigerator, sat at the kitchen table, and, still lost in thought, proceeded to eat the steaming food.

Her doorbell rang.

Kimiko suddenly felt nervous. What if it's Seijuurou? I can't face him yet! When the doorbell rang a second time, she took a deep breath and went to the door.

She closed her eyes, twisted the doorknob and pulled.

Please let it be Ryou-kun...

A loud cry of "AKUMICCHI!" was enough confirmation.

She let out a sigh of relief before opening her eyes.

Only to see that Kise was not alone.


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