The Runaway Empress

Chapter 6

Kimiko Akumi awoke as the plane landed in Tokyo International Airport hours later. Stepping on Japanese soil once more made her smile. On her way to her old home, she felt unusually happy. She even chatted a bit with the cab driver, pleased to converse with someone in her native language once again. She carried a faint accent by speaking French for a year, and though it annoyed her, she was certain that it would disappear soon enough.

Her apartment was just the way she left it, having had someone clean it for her before she arrived. The electricity and water were already restored, and the fridge and cupboards were stocked with a month's worth of food and drinks. Feeling not the slightest bit of tiredness, she unpacked her luggage — mostly clothes, the rest of which she had sent here ahead of her, and the housekeeper had already unpacked them. She proceeded on making dinner — curry — to satisfy her hunger.

The rhythmic sound of the knife as she chopped the vegetables calmed her nerves. She had been thinking of how she was going to face them again. Truth be told, she was somewhat nervous, not that she'd say that aloud. She was fine with meeting them.

Except for him.

'Ne, Tetsuya, have you already fulfilled your promise? It's been a year...'

She sat alone at her dining table, a plate full of steaming curry in front of her. She ate absentmindedly though, just shoveling spoonful after spoonful of curry in her mouth, as her thoughts wandered back to the past. In the very same table, Kuroko had come to her and made a promise, an oath.

Teiko's phantom sixth man sat across her in her tiny dining table. It was the day before he handed his own resignation letter to their captain, and had decided to inform their ex-manager about it. His face was full of remorse as he caught a glimpse of the red choker around her slender neck, hiding the bruises that he was sure would be there.

"Akumi-san, I apologize for causing you trouble. You got hurt because of —"

"Tetsuya, what I did and what he did is none of your fault. I acted against him, and he reacted accordingly. He was no longer the Seijuurou we knew — he's someone else that had taken over when Seijuurou was threatened with the prospect of defeat when he faced against Atsushi. They all changed — I no longer knew them."

Kuroko nodded in understanding. His eyes hardened with resolve. "I know what I have to do now. I'll defeat them and bring them back. I promise. In a year, I'll bring them back."

A rare soft smile graced her thin lips as she looked at the kindhearted boy in front of her. "A shadow that will become their light..." she said thoughtfully. "Just be sure, Tetsuya, that you will not stray off the path. Humans have this tendency to forget the ambitions they set out with, and corrupt themselves to no end."

"I won't, Akumi-san. I give you my word."

"Then, I'll give you my trust. See you in a year's time, Tetsuya."

The next morning, Akumi decided to go out for a walk in the park near her home. It was a nice Sunday morning, and she had nothing to do inside her apartment. She knew she was deliberately postponing their confrontation for as long as she could, but she knew that it was inevitable. Fate had already decreed it.

She sat contentedly on one of the park benches, near the streetball court where a team of youngsters were playing a game quite noisily. She watched with amusement as one of them slip through the double-team that was guarding him, and did a lay-up. Finding herself annoyed at the screen that was obscuring her view of the game, she decided to go to the court itself.

She had been standing there at the entrance for a few minutes unnoticed. As one of them made a three-pointer, the ball rolled to her feet, and that was when the boys saw her.

They stared at her wonderingly, and one of them piped up. "Nee-san, would you mind throwing that ball — Oww! Itai! What was that for?"

The one who glomped him on the head glared at him then said, "Are you seriously asking that pretty lady to touch that ball? You crazy or what?"

Amused at their bickering, she bent and picked up the worn-out basketball in her hands and dribbled it a few times, earning surprised looks from her audience. Cursing her choice of clothing for the day — a dress and a pair of low-heeled sandals — she aimed for the hoop and smirked as it went in neatly. A boy who was standing near the ring retrieved the ball, eyes wide as he looked at her and back to the ball then to the ring in amazement.

"Woah! Nee-san knows how to play ball! Sugee na!"

"Amazing! How did you do that, nee-san?"

"And she's outside the court, too!"

Akumi smiled at their words. How nice it was, the innocence of youth. Just then, her eyes caught sight of a baller on one of the boy's wrist.

"Ne, by chance, are you guys from Teiko?"

"How did you know, nee-san?" They were now looking at her a bit weirdly, as if she was a supernatural being or something.

She pointed at the baller. "I assumed so, since you were wearing the school's symbol."

"Ah..." The boy nodded in understanding. "Yeah, we're from Teiko, and we're members of the basketball club. We're still in second string, though, since we're still first years.

"No one has made it to first string on the first try, except them."

'Them' being the famed Kiseki no Sedai, who came from Teiko itself.

"Is that so? Saa, you were all good, just a little more and you can get to first string," she said sincerely.

Another boy who had been staring at her for quite some time now stepped forward, then faced his friends as he jerked his chin at her. "Doesn't she look familiar to you guys?"

The others looked at her, confused, then as if they'd been clubbed in the head, they chorused. "It's her!"

"Eh? So you noticed?" She held back a laugh. "I guess it must be the hair..."

"Kimiko-senpai, is that you?"

"Man, she really is beautiful!"

The youngsters crowded around her, awed as they came face-to-face with another person who was considered as much as a legend as the Kiseki no Sedai themselves. After introducing themselves, they practically begged her to teach them a few tricks and pointers to improve themselves, resulting to Akumi asking them to perform several drills to asses their strengths and weaknesses and giving them their individual training menus. Under her watchful eye, she barked orders at them and smirked in approval as they followed each and every one of them without complaint. By noon, they were already sweating and panting heavily.

"Kimiko-san, don't you have anything to do today?" One of them asked as they rested in the shade of the trees. It was too hot in the court right now, and they were supposed to be having lunch but were too tired to move.

"Hmm? Doushite?"

"I was wondering if... you could... ano... if it's not much of a bother —"

"You want me to train you, is that it?"

"Ha-hai."

"I think I have the time. Can't disappoint my kouhais now, can I?"

"Yosh!" The boys pumped their fists in the air. What a tale they would be telling their clubmates tomorrow — to be trained by Kimiko-senpai herself is like winning the lottery.

Akumi whipped out her phone. "How about some lunch, though? You need to recharge your strength — I've a lot things to make you do later this afternoon." She dialed a number. "How about some curry, guys? My treat."

They were about to protest but then the call went through and she was already making her order. Seven orders of curry, lemon juice, and some dango for dessert. They arrived minutes later, and they ate hungrily. Akumi asked them about Shirogane-kantoku, about the present regulars, and the state of the basketball club itself. The boys answered eagerly, and the chartreusette was pleased to know that things were going well — her former coach was taking care not to have a repeat of what happened to the Kiseki no Sedai in the past, although Teiko was still a force to be reckoned with in every competition they participated in.

She continued training them until six in the afternoon, and they insisted that they walk her back to her house. She was amused at the sentiment, and remembered how the Kiseki no Sedai used to do that before. Looking at the young boys around her, she prayed that the flames in their eyes, that burning passion for the sport, will never die, that they will play because they love the sport, and not just because they wanted only to attain victory.

They thanked her greatly, their hands clutching the sheets of paper where she had written their own training menus. Inside, she could hear their loud voices as they compared their menus with one another as they slowly walked to their own homes. That night, she dreamt of the past, back when they loved basketball with all of their hearts, when they would step onto the court with smiles on their faces, back when basketball was fun and winning was not everything.

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