Dimensions: the Quarter Piece

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Chapter 1: Akari Makoto

Akari Makoto stared up at the large necklace in the display. “You know,” She started, directing her words to the jewelry store owner behind her. “This actually looks like the Hope diamond. Very impressive imitation.”

“Oh, thank you—”

“Did you hear it was stolen from the Gallery last night?” She interrupted, a sweet smile marking her face. “It was horrible. Seven guards were killed.”

“I heard about that.” The owner said gravely. “I was distressed to learn of the loss—it’s such a magnificent piece.”

Makoto spun to face him, whipping out her badge. “Yes, I’m sure you were, Mr. Hodges. I’m Detective Akari, I’ve been assigned to this case. I was hoping you could explain to me why our security cameras caught you stealing the Hope, you killing the guards, and you disarming the alarm? We lifted your fingerprints all over the place.”

Mr. Hodges blanched. “I don’t—”

“You also left your gun behind.”

Mr. Hodges’ eyes flashed to the corner of the room. “No, I—” Then he stopped.

“We have the evidence, Hodges. I’m bringing you in.” She took one step forward, only to come face-to-pistol.

She froze. Panic reached her as her difficulty with self-defense came to mind.

“Yeah, whatever, I took it. I killed the clowns parading as security, whatever. A twelve-year-old girl with a badge isn’t going to get in my way. I’m not going with you. I’m gonna bury you in my back yard and then I’m gonna take my diamond and book it. By the time you’re registered as missing, I’ll be long gone. Getting the picture?”

Makoto smirked. Forget the doubt, fake the confidence. “Yeah.”

In a second, she’d disarmed the jewelry shop owner and jammed her foot into his knee, shattering the bone. She was really lucky it actually worked, too. She was failing her martial arts class. She mentally high-fived herself.

“And here’s the picture.” She shifted the gun to her other hand, pulling her phone from her pocket and replaying the voice recording. Because who actually used voice recorders anymore?

“Hear that?” She asked as his confession floated through the air. “That’s called self-incrimination. There were no security cameras, Mr. Hodges, it was a private event. There were no fingerprints, you obviously wore gloves—in fact, the only trace you left behind was the cotton fibers from said gloves.” She shook her head with a smirk. “Friend, you could have gotten away with it.”

And—drop the mic—case closed.

She yanked handcuffs from her pocket. “Now I’d like to introduce you to my own personal brand of jewelry.” She clicked them over his wrists. “I call them 10 Life Sentences.” Makoto lifted him to his feet and pushed him to the door. The pride she felt as a 5′2 girl man-handling a murderer was almost shameful.

“How did you know it was me?” He growled, jerking against her.

“Simple,” Makoto guided him directly into the hands of the police, who were waiting outside. “I found the curator in the closet and you weren’t invited to the party. Who better to give historical information about a gemstone than the uninvited jewel smith?” She wanted to add that he was the easiest case she’d had in weeks, but she didn’t feel like mopping up his tears.

“That doesn’t mean I stole it.” He snapped.

Makoto smirked. “You dropped a picture of your daughter in the display case. Probably when you pulled your lock-picking kit out of your wallet.” She held up the incriminating picture. Then she grimaced. “Ebola. Tough break. Even the paper value of the Hope probably wouldn’t save her, though, I’m sorry.”

He crumbled into the police car, practically in tears.

Makoto turned away, seeing the real Hope Diamond in the display case of the fake one. She smiled in satisfaction of her own work. Granted it had been a standard Nancy Drew. But who didn’t love a good old fashioned diamond theft?

“Detective Akari.”

She faced the approaching officer. She was giddy with excited energy, but seeing as it wasn’t exactly a professional attitude, she curbed it and bit her cheeks in an attempt to contain her grin. “Detective Copper.” She greeted. “We done here?”

He nodded shortly. “Absolutely. You cracked the case in 48 hours. That’s the best I’ve seen from Anderson’s. Tell Savvy I’m impressed, got it?”

Makoto practically glowed. It didn’t matter that Hodges was desperate, sloppy, and made rookie mistakes all over the place. It still counted as a case, right? “Will do, Detective. Thank you.”

She was interrupted in her half-walk, half-skip to her vehicle when the Police detective called her back. She turned to give him her attention, confused.

“Easy on the smiles, kid.” Copper warned with an amused expression. “Not many people appreciate someone who loves crime as much as you do.”

Makoto drew herself up taller, feeling completely serious as she said, “I don’t love crime, Detective. I enjoy ending it.” The melodrama was strong within her.

With a roll of his eyes, he tipped his hat to her and returned to his squad car, whistling cheerfully.

Makoto climbed into her personal hunk-o-junk vehicle, plugging in her music. She was the daughter of Japanese foreign relations ambassador Akari Hiroshida. Her older brother was in the American Army through bad terms, and her younger brother was still in high school.

Makoto was enrolled in Savannah Anderson’s Academy of Deduction in Oregon. Her friend in the Police force, Detective Brian Copper, was married to Savannah’s sister, and therefore had a good relationship with the students and staff of the college.

When she walked into the president’s office, Savannah Anderson was already talking to someone.

She looked up as Makoto approached, smiling a greeting.

Makoto flashed her a quick grin and stood at attention.

Savannah continued her conversation with the young man she was in conference with. He was tall—taller than both women in the room, and of Asian heritage like Makoto.

At the conclusion of their discussion, the president turned to Makoto, stepping around the boy and holding her hand out in his direction. “Akari Makoto, this is Kido Tadashi. He’s joining your class schedule.”

Makoto fixed an obnoxiously bright smile on her face. Why settle for normal when you can scare people? “Fabulous. Glad to have you, Mr. Kido.” He was a narrow-eyed, tight-lipped, high-nosed guy who probably couldn’t get out of bed without someone lifting his covers for him.

He smirked. “Thanks.”

Savannah nodded toward the door. “Please excuse us, Tadashi.”

He nodded and left the room, but not before issuing Makoto an amused grin. She flinched at the danger lurking in his dark eyes. He was not someone she needed to be hanging around with—based on the cost of his clothes and the shine of his book bag, he was used to treating the people around him like cockroaches.

She glared at the closed door behind him. She didn’t like him. She didn’t like people who acted like they deserved only good things in life. He seemed like the kind of person who only expected the best for himself.

“Miss Akari?” Savannah called. “I assume you’re here with information on the Hope Diamond case.”

Makoto fixed her business face back on and smiled at the president. “Yes, ma’am. I concluded the case and handed off the culprit.” She couldn’t help but be proud of herself. It was a big break for her.

Savannah’s eyebrows rose slowly in surprise. She checked her watch. “37 hours, well done.”

“36, ma’am. And thank you.” Makoto responded, straightening her shoulders.

Savannah smiled. “Good job, Detective Akari. You will find your report graded with a B tomorrow morning. I’m impressed with your dedication—at this rate, you’ll raise your 2.8 average in no time.”

Physical average, that was. Her academics were stupendous.

Makoto nodded pleasantly. As long as she was moving upwards, she didn’t care how quickly she moved. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“You are excused.”

Makoto quickly slipped out of the room, only to jump nearly a foot when she found Tadashi lounging by the wall, waiting. What kind of cave-dwelling, shadow-lurking, internet-stalking creep-face waited outside of doorways to freak people out?

She felt her expression scrunch into a scowl. What did he want? She stalked down the hall, aggravated further to find him following her. “Can I help you?” She asked darkly.

“I overheard you talking to the president.” He said shamelessly. “You had the Hope Diamond case?”

Makoto resolutely ignored him, walking on as though he weren’t there.

“Yeah, I heard about that one. Hodges, right? From The Jewel Smith down on 7th?” Tadashi questioned.

Makoto didn’t falter, though internally she might as well have exploded. Sure, it was an easy case, but how could it have been that easy? How did he even know about it? She couldn’t even concentrate enough past the frustrated screaming in her brain to ask him. “Get lost, Kido.” She shot back stiffly.

“What, you’re mad that I solved it on first guess? If I were you, I’d be more mad that it took you 36 hours to solve it and compile your evidence.” Tadashi responded arrogantly, keeping stride with her.

“You want to know why I’m mad? You’re a rich kid, easily evident despite your poor attempts to dress like one of us lower-class students, and you’re clearly used to getting what you want, judging by that disgusting smirk. So I’m going to do you a favor and tell you that I don’t want to be your friend. So please stop talking to me.”

She wasn’t normally so nasty. She usually didn’t care about the people she ran into, and if she did, she was never cruel to them.

“You trying to show off your skills of deduction?”

“I don’t need skills to see that you’re wearing Armani and Rolex, Kido. Stop following me.” Makoto grumbled. Seriously, what did he want?

“Uh-huh. How’s this for deduction skills—you’re Akari Makoto, daughter of the Japanese foreign relations ambassador Akari Hiroshida, so you are in fact a rich kid yourself. Not sure what you’re trying to gain by trying to pass as a ‘lower-class’ student.” Tadashi tucked his hands into his pockets.

Makoto gave him such a long, unimpressed, annoyed look that he actually fidgeted in discomfort. “I have bodyguards.” She informed him simply.

With that, she walked away.

Behind her, she could hear Tadashi laughing softly. Hopefully he would take her statement as the threat that it was intended to be and back off.

What were the odds that he was following her because someone put him up to it? What were the chances that he knew things about her because it was his job to?

Tadashi exceeded her expectations. For the next two weeks, he acted like he didn’t even know she existed.

It suited Makoto just fine. She never once had to bring one of her father’s bodyguards to school with her to scare him away. Eventually she forgot about him. Though to be perfectly honest, he’d never been much of a concern.

She’d had far better things to be worried about, like getting good grades in karate and not shooting her firearm instructor.

But then, two and a half weeks later on a Wednesday, he showed himself again. She was sitting in class, taking notes in shorthand.

“You’re going to learn a lot of things about eyes in this chapter.” Professor Jax announced, drawing a line on the whiteboard. “Dilation, pressure, movement, expression, injury—all useful in the field of deduction.”

Makoto heard a barely-audible tap on the door, and looked up. Who she saw made her drop her pen. The metallic clatter wasn’t enough to distract her from the knee-shaking terror that filled her entire being.

“...Pupils dilate in response to a positive reaction to a visual stimulant...”

There was a man standing at the door. A boy, actually, but you couldn’t tell by looking at him. He wasn’t very tall but he was muscular and always masked by a deadly scowl. His face was aged with anger, his eyes darkened by hatred.

Fear struck Makoto dead in the heart.

“Three hours after death, eyes will lose so much pressure that they lose their shape entirely...” Oh, that’s good to know. Nice to get a mental image of what she would look like in three hours.

It was Sakuza, Makoto’s younger brother. He was staring right at her, his eyes burning with rage. She blinked, feeling her hands begin to shake.

“...down to the right for memories associated with imagery.”

Professor Jax kept talking, but Makoto wasn’t listening. She was fixated on her brother.

He raised an index finger, crooking it at her in signal for her to go to him.

She shook her head. What mouse would run into the open arms of a lion?

His anger darkened and he made a neck-wringing motion with his hands.

“...Will be assigning partners to you for the following project—and they will remain your partners for the entire semester...”

Makoto stood up before she could stop herself. Professor Jax looked up in surprise but kept talking. She fled the room, entering the hall and facing her brother. “What’s wrong?” She asked, her voice unsteady.

Sakuza grabbed her by the ear, jerking her down the hall.

Makoto bit her lip to keep from screaming in pain, hobbling after him as fast as she could. Her first inclination was to bash his head through the closest window. But the first time she’d done that, she’d been banned from the internet for a month by her father due to the press she’d gotten for smudging the name of a foreign relations diplomat.

Sakuza began speaking rapidly in Japanese, accusing her angrily of planting stolen money in his bank account. Because obviously she wanted to steal money and give it to him.

Makoto gaped at him. “Sakuza, I never—” She was cut off by a sharp slap to her face.

Her body grew hot with anger and she slowly straightened. His hands clapped over her shoulders, squeezing hard enough to bruise. “Why did you plant the money? You want me to go to prison?” He demanded, slapping her again.

Once—twice—three times.

Makoto closed her eyes, breathing heavily.

Don’t fight back. Don’t fight back. Don’t fight back. “I didn’t frame you, Sakuza. The money is there because you stole it.”

Her bravery was rewarded with a punch to the gut, dropping her to the floor. Makoto moaned, writhing in pain. What could she do? She couldn’t hurt him. Not without suffering more consequences than he was worth. She couldn’t verbally placate him.

The only thing she knew how to do was read him, and while it didn’t seem to offer much ammunition in the circumstances, she did it anyway.

It took a solid thirty seconds of breathing deeply and squinting like a 56-year-old woman to be able to actually see anything past the breathtaking (literally) pain.

His dark hair was gelled, but unkempt on the right side where he’d repeatedly run a nervous hand through it. He was wearing his least favorite jacket, the one that ’made him look like the retarded guitarist in a boy band from the 70’s.′

A set of their father’s keys was in his pocket, along with his phone and a thicker-than-usual wallet.

The suede of his jacket on his shoulder and hip was rubbed in a way that she saw as an unmistakable indication of a heavy messenger bag, likely his favorite duffel bag.

He’d gotten scared. Someone had scared him and he’d grabbed the first jacket he could find, packed up his clothes, and took the keys to their father’s second vehicle. He was planning on running.

“You liar!” Sakuza kicked her. “You framed me and I’ll prove it.” He kicked her again and then stormed away in a rage.

Makoto gasped desperately for air, tears pricking at her eyes. Growls grated past her teeth as she curled into herself, crying tears of pain.

Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. He will not fail you or forsake you.

Makoto slowly crawled to her knees, her muscles shaking. Tears dripped off of her skin, leaving puddles on the floor. Her own brother. Her own seventeen year old brother didn’t care if she lived or died. And yet her father still called it rude when she suggested that she wouldn’t be buying her brother any Christmas presents.

My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that they have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear. Fear the One who after He has killed as authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him.

Makoto hobbled weakly back to class and paused in front of the door. She straightened her back, despite the incredible pain she caused in stretching her stomach.

She pulled the door open strongly and returned to her table, only to find Kido Tadashi sitting in the other seat.

She gave him a confused frown.

“We were assigned as partners.” He explained distantly.

“Huh.” Makoto mumbled, squinting her eyes shut and trying to ignore the pain.

In history class, Makoto was in so much agony that she could barely focus. She reached into her backpack and discreetly took painkillers. They probably didn’t have a problem with painkillers on campus, but she wasn’t exactly sure.

“The KGB had several caches during the Cold War, and they had them all over the place. The caches stored weapons, equipment, and money.” Professor Spade started, not paying enough attention to the students to see that one of them was trying to keep her lunch down.

“The caches were hidden in secret locations and protected by various security measures. KGB operatives were given directions to them by their handlers...”

Makoto blearily scribbled her notes into her book, slowly feeling the effects of the pain killers, finally able to straighten up. She seriously needed to do something about her reptile brother.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

That evening, she walked into the rather large mansion that she called home, being careful not to disturb Sakuza as he slept on the couch. The news was playing on the TV, loud enough to wake a deaf man but having no effect on her brother.

She paused on her way to her room to watch the small fishing town’s heroes—Ronin and Crossfire—fighting a tall man in blue.

Entranced, Makoto watched eagerly.

Ronin was tall, muscular, the bigger of the two—clearly trained to live up to his name. He was highly capable of facing any Variant set against him.

The smaller, but still obviously muscular Crossfire was a mixed martial artist who seemed to possess a degree of enhanced strength, over qualifying him against your run-of-the-mill bank robber.

Makoto never understood why he seemed to be more of a sidekick to Ronin, rather than equally in charge of his own actions. He appeared to be the more fearsome opponent. Not that she was a sidekick equality activist or anything.

The next day, Makoto approached her field partner after first period.

“Chester,” She called, commanding his attention. She had to speak up considerably, considering he was literally a foot taller than her and had a hard time hearing anything past his personal theme song that he was always playing in his head.

He turned to her, shrugging his backpack on. “Hey, Makoto, how’s it going?” As usual, he looked sharp and uniform, which was a rare occurrence for a college student with no life.

Makoto shrugged, glancing over her shoulder. Her eyes fell on Tadashi, who was lurking around the corner. He glanced at her and promptly spun away, leaving.

She returned her attention to Chester. “I finished the Hope Diamond case the other day.” She’d meant to tell him earlier, but he’d been cramming for two tests for the past three days and she mercifully refrained from distracting him.

His expression brightened. “Really? That’s awesome—that oughta boost your grade, right?”

Makoto grumbled. “Not that it matters, with my only high grades being academic scores. My physical grades have me six feet under.” In most high schools and colleges, the PE classes really didn’t matter, but for a prospective detective or investigator, who’s to say someone’s life couldn’t one day hang in the balance?

Chester gave her a sympathetic look. “Dedication and motivation, Makoto. Work hard—you’ll get there.” He looped an arm around her shoulders in a supportive shrug.

She grimaced. “Thanks, Chester.” She said genuinely. She felt bad about using him as a confidence booster.

He winked at her. “Don’t thank me—you’re the one who’s got to get her grades up. Enjoy your day.” He shuffled away, out to find his next class.

Makoto sighed heavily, leaving the building to head for 2nd period advanced calculus. She never dreamed she’d reach the day where she preferred math over karate.

Suddenly, a hand came around her mouth and jerked her backwards, a sharp prick striking the back of her neck. Makoto’s eyes rolled back and she crumpled to the ground.

Bright light pointed directly into her eyes.

Cold chair. Wet floor.

Makoto squinted her eyes to see past the obnoxious LED. She could hear someone moving around in front of her, their footsteps echoing off the walls.

Stone room.

Makoto, at last able to see past the light, looked up into the face of a middle aged, crabby-looking man in whom she detected the beginning stages of Parkinson’s. He smiled darkly at her. She doubted he even knew he had the disease. His lips moved, but she didn’t hear any words.

Makoto hesitated. She couldn’t hear anything very clearly, for that matter. Temporary hearing loss, probably due to the concussion they caused when they knocked her out—no, wait; they gave her a sedative.

Chemically induced delirium?

The man sighed in frustration and held his hands close to Makoto’s ears.

She jerked away violently, but he followed her motions. He didn’t actually need to box her ears, she was already disoriented. Points for efficiency, though.

A second later, all of her hearing came rushing back.

Sound came rushing back with the force of running face-first into a wall, bringing to light a whole new level of discombobulation. After a mind-numbing dizzy spell, Makoto stopped her head from rolling around on her neck and fixed her glare on her captor.

“What did you do?” She demanded, realizing that from the heavily rushing sound of water behind her that they must be in a cavern behind a waterfall.

“What do you want from me? Why does this keep happening? Did you know that this is the seventh time I’ve been kidnapped in the past six months?” Makoto grumbled, testing the ropes that bound her hands.

Stupid ropes.

The man rolled his eyes. “Keep quiet.” He turned to the other man in the cave. “Did you send the picture?”

“Yeah. They’ll be here any minute.” The other guy said distractedly.

Picture. Of her? They wanted someone to take the bait—they wanted someone who would rescue her? They kidnapped her so she could lure someone to them? How original. Makoto twisted around, seeing the waterfall. But why didn’t they just text an invitation to a meet-n-greet with whoever they wanted? “Why am I here?”

They ignored her.

“Hello? Guys, seriously—this is ridiculous.” She complained, jerking at her bonds. Her efforts promptly got her a gun in the face.

She froze, staring down the barrel of a pistol. “Diseased maniac.” She muttered, remaining still. Just then, someone burst through the waterfall with tremendous noise. Makoto paused as two people approached, coming around on either side of her.

On her left, a tall man wearing head-to-toe dark blue—Ronin.

On her right, a slightly smaller man completely covered in black and red—Crossfire.

Makoto’s captors stared at them with awed smiles. Were they fans or enemies? “You’re here.” He laughed in disbelief. “You’re actually here—this is incredible.”

Ronin turned to Makoto, dropping a hand on her shoulder.

She almost died—both of the coolest people in the city were there for her.

For her.

She sank back in her chair.

It wasn’t a new feeling.

Not at all.

She’d run into them seven times before.

Each time she’d been kidnapped, it’d been them who pulled her out. No, she wasn’t dying because she couldn’t believe they cared enough to rescue her, but because eventually they would get tired of pulling her out of trouble over and over again.

“Sorry.” She whispered.

Ronin looked over her head to Crossfire, who promptly knelt, grabbed Makoto’s chair, and hurled her out into the waterfall. She didn’t blame him. It was bound to happen eventually.

They’d finally gotten tired of her.

Time to kill her.

She never guessed she would die by waterfall, though.

But it was fitting.

Very Sherlock Holmes.

Makoto screamed, immediately getting a mouthful of water. She choked, feeling the current shove her down toward the river.

Water was overrated and utterly evil.

But then hands were on her arms, and she was free from the chair. Arms wrapped around her and then she was flying out of the waterfall, landing in someone’s arms on the shore.

Crossfire set her down, watching her roll away, shivering and coughing.

Great.

Wonderful escape plan.

Awesome. Glad to be saved by you guys.

“Why?” She choked, glaring at him. “Why do I keep getting abducted? What makes me part of their plan?” It was dangerous, stressful, inconvenient, and, frankly, annoying that she kept getting mixed up in the criminal dealings of people she had nothing to do with.

Did she just have a face that screamed ‘acceptable loss’?

Crossfire turned and pointed over his shoulder.

She could have filled a dictionary with all the words he never said.

Following his gesture, Makoto saw an old diner parking lot.

And, parked right out front, was...her car? “Is that my car? How did my car get here?” Who broke into her car and drove it to her?

“Go home.” Crossfire said, his voice low and vibrating through his voice modulator. She could have sworn that he was laughing at her.

Makoto wrung out her jacket, glaring at him. “If this happens again, I deserve answers.” She said darkly, turning and stalking to her car.

Seven times in six months.

Different captors, too.

What was it about her that attracted criminals? It never seemed to have anything to do with her father’s occupation. He never heard about it and none of her abductors ever mentioned him by name.

It was like she was a fun person to kidnap or something. Makoto grumbled to herself, driving back to the college. She should hire herself out to law enforcement agencies as professional bait.

\*/

“This is your next case.” Savannah Anderson said, handing Makoto a small file. “You’ll be following a legend.” The manila file that backed the ridiculous statement contained no less than half of a newspaper article that was no big lead to start from.

Makoto blinked at the president. “Sorry, what?” It was punishment. It had to be punishment. She might as well have handed her a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and ordered her to find Cinderella’s glass slippers.

“As a detective, you solve mysteries. You understand this, don’t you?” Savannah asked, raising an eyebrow. Like twenty-three-and-a-quarter words on a torn piece of newspaper was a full mystery. It would have made more sense to first find the rest of the newspaper and then try to find a mystery within it.

Banking on the likelihood that her reflexive snark would be less than appreciated, Makoto blinked at her. “Yes.”

“That includes disproving theories and possibilities. You’re going to find out if this is just a legend.” Savannah said, further extending the file.

It was definitely punishment.

Makoto took it, aghast. “How old is it? What if I can’t find any leads?” Because the one she was provided with definitely wasn’t a lead. It was half of a footprint that she had to chip through three feet of cement to get to.

Savannah shook her head and returned to her desk. “For the sake of your career as an investigator, I would hope that you find some leads.”

For the sake of your career as a private detective/founder of a college of deduction, I would hope that you find more fabric with which to fabricate a mystery out of thin air.

Makoto narrowed her eyes and tucked the folder under her arm, fully intending to accept the challenge. The bologna case may have been a joke, but she fully intended to deliver the punchline with a fully completed casefile. “Yes, ma’am.”

She spent the whole rest of the day in the library. She deserved extra credit for being able to pick up the case and find anything at all relevant. The legend seemed to be a popular one in that small town, only originating about fifty years ago.

It was said that if the quarter piece was found, worlds of knowledge and life would be presented to the wielder. How was that different from any regular book?

When Makoto realized that she had no idea what the ‘quarter piece’ was, she had to look that up, too.

As evident from the definition, the quarter piece was composed of four coins. They were made from neither silver nor gold. They weren’t made of metal at all.

The first one was emerald. A deep, beautiful, rich green. The second was pure crystal. Clear through except for a spider web pattern deep inset in the center.

The third one was a deep blue sapphire. And the fourth was blood-red Pyrope.

All four of them glowed with shining light, originating from the center of each coin. They were about the size of a silver dollar, but about a centimeter thick.

It all sounded a bit too mystical-magical to Makoto, but it was her assignment. She could laugh at her president after she’d awarded Makoto a 4.0.

She kept looking, trying to see what made the four of them a quarter piece. It was referred to in single form, so there had to be a fifth piece to connect them all, right?

Eventually she learned that there was a long malachite piece that attaches to a belt with four slots in it for the coins. Why would someone willingly wear something so blocky and heavy?

But still, Makoto didn’t quite understand. Find the quarter piece—which was actually five pieces, not four—and gain some kind of supernal wisdom?

Completely psycho, she thought to herself, rolling her eyes. She put the book down and found another source, this one citing all of the recorded adventurers and their findings related to the legend.

The most successful one was a sailor. Her name was Angelika Heilner. She had found all four of the pieces, but she hadn’t found the malachite.

Heilner had gotten increasingly closer to finding the piece, as her logbook stated, but then one day she went missing and was never seen again.

Fortunately, her parents still lived in Oregon.

Makoto found multiple other, less successful, explorers of the local legend, but none of them were as recent as Angelika Heilner.

Makoto returned the books to the shelves and checked her watch.

She’d spent six after-school hours in the library.

She was kind of surprised that no one had come looking for her—particularly Chester, who was the only one to whom she was close enough to call a friend.

She picked up her backpack and trekked across campus to the coffee shop that her field partner commonly frequented when doing homework.

She found him while she was ordering her beverage. It was no surprise that he had chosen the coffee shop instead of the library. It was somewhat risky for him to be in the library just lounging around, considering the librarians were likely to revoke his borrowing privileges.

It was the reason Chester Strapps kept a roll of tape in his backpack. He was in the habit of cutting the plastic jackets off the library books because he hated the sound and he liked to feel the texture of a hardcover. He would use the tape to reattach the jackets before returning the book.

It had certainly not gone unnoticed by anyone who inspected the re-taped book jackets, considering he didn’t use the same type of tape that they always used.

Makoto collected her drink and went to join him. “Hey, Chester. You almost done?” She asked, sitting across from him. He had indeed snipped the jacket off of his book and was absently stroking the hardcover’s spine.

“You’ve been in the library all day, haven’t you?” He glanced up at her with a curious look. “Local records room?”

Makoto raised an eyebrow. “Yeah...” For someone who avoided spending copious amounts of time there, he sure had it down cold.

He went back to his book. “You smell like old ink and Mrs. Hut’s perfume.”

Mrs. Hut was, indeed, the librarian in charge of the local records room. She’d probably detained him once or twice to lecture him on his annoying tendencies.

Makoto smirked. “Well done, Chess, can we go?”

He shut the book and frowned at her. “Where? You got a new case?”

She nodded quickly. “Yeah—Mrs. Anderson—” she broke off, lurching to the side and nearly falling off her chair. Her eyes were wide and fixed unblinkingly on a pencil that sat next to Chester’s hand.

He looked down at it in surprise, and then immediately looked horrified. He snatched it up and stuffed it out of sight, into his backpack. “Makoto, I’m sorry. I forgot about it.”

Most people would give her a weird look and continue to use the pencil, but her whack-job friend took her strange fear in stride and did his best to keep her pencil encounters to a minimum, even if neither of them understood it.

Heart pounding, Makoto shook her head. “It’s alright.” She said shakily. “I’m fine. It’s stupid.” Who was afraid of a pencil? Who in their right mind looked at a pencil and then had a seizure for no apparent reason? She was a bag of loose screws.

He shook his head. “No, it’s legit. Now tell me about this case.” He said distractingly, giving her a chance to think about something other than the pencil. He was lying, of course. Neither of them knew what it was about, which by definition made it not ‘legit.’

She started out slow, explaining everything that she had learned, until her voice was strong and steady, and she was once again talking nearly too fast to follow. He appeared to be listening to the roller-coaster her tone was riding as she ejaculated with animated expression every little detail that had enraptured her.

Chester raised his eyebrows as she concluded. “You’re kidding. Magical coins?”

Of everything she’d just told him, with all of the history and exploration and locations, all he could get from the information was ‘magical coins.’

Nevertheless, he had a point. She shook her head. “It’s crazy. Absolutely psycho. But it’s the case President Anderson gave me. So we gotta follow it up and get my grades up, which means come on, let’s go.”

Not at all caring about the possibility that she was overstepping her boundaries as friend by imposing to the max, she grabbed his backpack, ignoring her knowledge of the blasted pencil inside, and ran for the door. Snatching up his book and coffee, Chester sighed and ran after her. Even he had no idea why he put up with her.

He usually just conjectured that while she provided plenty of reasons to shake his head and roll his eyes at her, she was too stubborn to give him enough reasons to actually justify calling her an intolerable maniac.

One day she would have a ceremonial pencil burning.

“Where are we actually going?” He demanded, approaching her car as she threw his pack into the back. There was a metallic smack as it hit the seat and she winced, flashing him an apologetic grimace as she realized that she’d probably just snapped his laptop in half.

His lips pursed into a straight line as he regarded the discarded backpack and then fixed her with an unappreciative stare.

She plowed on anyhow. “We gotta talk to Heilner’s parents.”

“Angelika was a very private person until she started after the Legend of the Quarter Piece.” Mrs. Heilner, Angelika’s elderly mother, began.

She had salt-and-pepper hair and a smile-creased face, probably in her late sixties. Her chin shook as she sent Makoto a polite smile, and she folded her arthritic fingers in her lap.

“What happened after she started exploring it?” Makoto asked, her voice soft and gentle, discreetly studying the living room. It was big, with hardwood flooring and pastel colors. Everything was clean and orderly, decorative knickknacks placed elegantly around the room.

Southern, she determined. Before the northward journey to Oregon, the Heilners must have lived in the South for some time, solely based on their obvious regard for materialistic items of no importance.

It was pure supposition, of course, but she was never one to pass up an opportunity to shoot a barb in the direction of the closest southerner.

It was something that confused Chester greatly—she wasn’t even American. It wasn’t like she had some ancestral grudge against the South like most territorial families. The farthest South she’d ever been was Utah.

“She knew it was dangerous. She knew her life was at stake. She knew there was competition in the search for the Four. So she wrote and she spoke to us. She told us everything she found and where she found it and what she did with it. She didn’t want to risk getting killed without making sure to arrange her legacy.” Mrs. Heilner smiled softly, eyes filling with tears.

Mr. Heilner reached over, putting his hand on her knee. “Angelika was smart—she always knew how to get someone off her tracks. But she was also smart enough to know that one day she would probably be caught. So she told us everything and drew maps and took pictures. It didn’t mean anything to us—we had no idea what was going on, we weren’t there with her. But we have the information she gave us.”

“She knew we wouldn’t make heads or tails of it.” Mrs. Heilner laughed tearfully. “She didn’t tell us for us to use. She told us so that we could give the information to someone who could understand it.”

Makoto leaned forward eagerly. “Would you give us the information that Angelika gave you?”

Mrs. Heilner looked to her husband, who nodded. “It’s not like we’re keeping it for sentimental reasons.” He said slowly as the woman got up and shuffled to the bookshelf. “Angelika may have gone missing while searching for this legend, but that doesn’t make it the thing we remember most about her.” The skin around his eyes crinkled as he seemed to be remembering daughter in days gone by.

“I didn’t know her,” Chester spoke up softly, with a small smile. “But she sounds amazing.” He was better than Makoto at handling sensitive social matters with delicacy, anyway.

Mr. Heilner smiled appreciatively as his wife returned with a thick brown folder, stuffed beyond containment with pages of various sizes and materials.

“Thank you.” Makoto said, accepting the folder. “Unless you would like us to stay, I think we’ll get out of your hair. At the conclusion of our investigation, Mrs. Heilner, I will return your file.”

“Thank you.”

“What is this?”

Makoto was at home, curled up among her pillows, reading through Heilner files. She looked up to find her father holding a few of the pages.

Being in the Akari mansion was like walking into Japan. English was rarely spoken and the décor was entirely imported, excluding a few chairs that Makoto had ordered out of desperation.

No matter how hard she tried, she could never convince Chester to sit comfortably on her father’s mats without complaining about pins and needles in his legs.

Granted, it was immensely amusing to watch him walk around limp-legged, ankles rolling under him until he ended up collapsed with his head between his knees.

“Research on my latest case.” She responded, going back to reading. She prayed with religious fervor that he would put the papers back and go on with his evening rather than invoking yet another argument about her career choice.

He sighed. “Put it away, Makoto.”

She blinked at him. Statistically speaking, she had better chances of getting out of an argument by playing innocent rather than reacting with rebellious obstinacy. “I can’t—this is my case.”

“Makoto.” Her father glared at her. His deeply-set eyes held conflicting expressions of impatience and affection. “At some point you’re going to learn that there’s no point in fooling around in a man’s world. Put the files away and get dinner going.” He said the words, truly meaning them to help her. He genuinely wanted her to escape the stress and frustration of fighting day to day for something as trifling as respect.

He just didn’t seem to understand that it was a battle that she had long since grown used to fighting—in her own home, no less.

Makoto ducked her head to her chest, fighting back tears. She was used to her father demeaning her. She was used to his constant sexism and lack of faith in her. She knew he loved her more than anything. Sometimes it looked like love to the one who sent it, but by the time it reached the recipient, it was so distorted and corrupted that it no longer had its intended effect.

Day in and day out he treated her like she was less than human simply because she was a woman.

“Yes sir,” She muttered, knowing there was no point in fighting back or getting angry. She wouldn’t be giving up on her case—certainly not. But she could make him dinner and distract him for an hour so she could go back to studying.

As they walked out of her room together, Hiroshida turned to his daughter. “Your brother will be home in an hour. Best clean up his room before he gets here and makes a bigger mess of it.” He rested a hand on her shoulder with a solemn nod that unmistakably read, ‘we both know and are happy to do anything to keep your demonic brother from stabbing one of us in the back.’

Except that Makoto was of the opposite opinion—that she was well aware of her demonic brother’s violent and criminal tendencies, but was more inclined to throw him out on the street and make him brawl with life like everyone who needed a lesson rather than hand him everything for the sake of making her father’s life easy.

The kind thing to do would be to make him work for everything he expected to receive.

Makoto’s jaw tightened. Maid service. Of course. Women and housekeeping. One day she would grow a spine and stand up for herself in her own house. But she just didn’t have the energy.

Hiroshida parted from her, going to his study, leaving Makoto to continue to the kitchen. Her chest swelled with rage at her mistreatment, while her eyes went watery with hurt.

Makoto had no problem following orders. She had no problem taking care of a house that she was responsible for. Being the only residing woman in the enormous mansion was a pretty good definition of being responsible for it. Not entirely, for it was her father’s mansion, but she was in charge of the ‘womanly touch’.

She had absolutely no problem cooking dinner every night. Both her father and her brother were horrible cooks and they’d probably die of food poisoning if they ate their cooking for a week. One time she’d taken a sample of her brother’s meat gravy to chemistry class and was somewhat disturbed to find that it tested positive for antimony.

Her first reaction was to fall on her knees and thank God that none of them had actually eaten the gravy.

Her second reaction was to search the kitchen for the very lethal poison. After a wall to wall sweep, she finally identified it in one of the seasoning jars. It didn’t really surprise her, considering all of her experience being abducted, that someone would plant poison in her cooking things, but she did casually interrogate her brother nonetheless.

Back on the subject of cleaning, she didn’t mind picking up the living areas and doing the shopping. It really wasn’t horrible that she had to incorporate that into her day.

What she hated was their treatment of her. They treated her like less than a maid—they treated her like a machine; meant to function perfectly, on schedule, without feelings.

Sakuza abused her physically. He had serious anger issues that he always brought out on her. He had been arrested multiple times for assault against others, but Hiroshida’s diplomatic immunity fished him right out of a court hearing and back into government-paid private school.

But ‘picking up house’ didn’t universally mean cleaning your seventeen-year-old brother’s room. Makoto moved sluggishly through straightening the horrific mess, grumbling to herself.

How did her mom do it?

She shook her head in disbelief.

Akari Suki died when Makoto was only seven. Makoto didn’t know how she died, or why, but it would have made more sense to her if someone told her that Suki ran away, instead.

No wonder her older brother, Takeo, left.

There were so many days where she wanted so badly to leave. Get up and walk out. Be around people who wanted her around—as a friend, not a cleaning service. People who supported that she was capable of thinking for herself rather than waiting for the right man to come along and put her life in order.

And many times, she did. She just got up and walked out. But she sought council in Chester and a few of the other people at college. Most times she didn’t even give them specifics. She just told them that she needed help not giving up on her faith.

Chester was the only one who knew about the verbal and physical abuse from her father and brother.

Takeo had known, too, obviously, but, as much as he had been her protector while he was around, he was no longer there to help her.

Makoto paused in taking a handful of clothes to the laundry chute and pulled her phone from her pocket. She clicked on her chat box with her field partner and typed two simple words:

Sexism again. - AM

Not five seconds later, a response was fired back:

Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. - CS

Makoto choked out a small laugh, eternally grateful for her friend.

Do you have those on auto-reply when you don’t want to deal with me? - AM

She was touched by his constant effort to remind her that she was just as important to God as any man was.

Never. But I did go looking and have it ready for you. - CS

Chester was a saint. He wasn’t some perfect friend, always considering others before himself. But he made time for his friends because he knew what it felt like to get the brush-off.

He was just like Takeo in some ways, and she really appreciated that about him.

He lived on campus, under the charge of the RA, since his parents both abandoned him so they could chase their international monster truck competitions.

He had a lot of friends at college, and you could know him for two years before you realized that the absence of his parents really messed with him. Most days he was perfectly optimistic. But there were some days that he seemed to have lost all hope, and those were the days that Makoto was there for him the most.

He’s talking about me fooling around in a man’s world again. - AM

She typed out, grabbing a stack of notebooks off the floor and shoving them neatly into the bookshelf.

Must be Tuesday. - CS

Chester responded. And then:

Call me if you need to, Makoto. If you start for one second to believe the lies, call me. - CS

Makoto shook her head, putting her phone in her pocket. She didn’t respond. She didn’t know how to coherently enunciate her eternal gratefulness to him for making an effort to remind her how important she was. Tears pricked at her eyes, but the pressing matter of preparing supper motivated her to blink them away and get to work.

She left the room, taking the dirty dishes to the kitchen to start dinner. She was halfway through tossing a salad when someone cleared their throat behind her.

Makoto jumped, spinning around. It was rare that someone got the jump on her, considering her fiercely-trained awareness.

Her eyes narrowed to find a man leaning against the counter, watching her cook.

Her hand immediately closed around a large kitchen knife. “Who are you?” She demanded. “Why are you in my house?” She knew why, at least. He wanted her tied up in a chair in front of a camera so that he could wage a personal smackdown against a couple of overqualified crime fighters.

He didn’t answer, only grinned.

Makoto’s eyes narrowed. “Please leave.” Seriously, she was in the middle of cooking.

The man straightened, going towards her. “I don’t think so.” He was bound and determined to burn the zucchini.

Makoto raised the knife threateningly. “I asked you to get out. I suggest you do so. Before—”

“Before what? Before Ronin catches me?” The man winked at her, and then Makoto froze before groaning. As if it hadn’t struck her before, it was just sinking in that, no matter how hard she tried to fight back, she was spending the night in his mom’s basement with a crust of bread and a badly tied rope around her wrists.

“Again?”

The knife was jerked out of her hand and then everything went black. Again. Where was Takeo when she needed him?

II // Ghosts

There was blood beneath her fingernails. Strangely, the first question she asked herself wasn’t about where the blood came from, but why she could see her hands in the first place.

The eight times that she had been kidnapped before that time, Makoto’s hands had always been tied behind her back. Someone had finally gotten smart and realized that not being able to see one’s hands was probably the worst mistake one could make.

She lifted her head slowly, throbbing pain pulsing through her skull. The guy who took her had hit her in the head. What had he done that for? There were far more efficient ways to knock someone out without risking them awakening in a state of incomprehensive stupor.

When she moved, she felt the ground sway. Flinching, Makoto threw her arms out to steady herself. Her knuckles smacked against wooden bars. But she couldn’t see them. Why couldn’t she see them? And who used wood anymore?

Makoto shook her head, rubbing her eyes.

Eventually, the blurriness subsided.

She was in a wooden box. It looked like a wooden dog crate. It was bolted to the stone ceiling of a cavern, hanging on a rope. The whole system was absurdly rickety, and she was far more concerned about the integrity of the structure than the plan her captors had for her.

Then again, it was entirely possible that both fates were one and the same.

Peering out over the sides, Makoto found that she was strung up over a bottomless pit, the ledge standing only three feet away—but too far to reach.

She sat deathly still, afraid of the rope snapping. She could hear it creak and strain with every breath she took. It was way too Indiana Jones for her taste. “What do you want from me?” She screamed into the emptiness, but no one answered.

Nine times.

Nine times she’d been kidnapped for no apparent reason. That was absolutely ridiculous. It would make sense because her father was a political diplomat with money, except that he never acknowledged that she’d ever been kidnapped. Not once. “Well? Why am I here?” Nothing. “Hello?”

And sure, fine, she had proved to be adequate bait for Ronin and Crossfire, but why did everyone in Podunk, Oregon look at her and go, ‘oh, hey, she’s the type of girl that would catch their attention.’

Just as her inner voice of sarcasm faded, realization struck her and she smacked her head against the bars and then instantly regretted it. For a second she remained paralyzed as the box wavered and the rope seemed to screech in protest.

Of course they’d chosen her.

She was the daughter of a man who got a copious amount of press on a day-by-day basis. If the masked crime fighters didn’t come after her of their own initiative, Hiroshida would contact VALOR and employ them to rescue her.

They’d chosen her over Sakuza, Takeo, or even Hiroshida because she was a small woman, perceived as an easy target. And, as was apparent by her track record of nine captivities, they were right. She was easy to capture and detain.

She was an easy target with money, power, and publicity behind her.

They never wanted her. All of those people who knocked her out and tied her to a chair only wanted the opportunity to duke it out with a couple of VALOR’s finest.

Makoto smirked and leaned carefully against the side of the box. If they never wanted her in the first place, then she had no leverage. She was useful only until the guys showed up, which meant she had absolutely nothing to lose. She found it extremely comforting. She was at ground zero and there were no unknown variables.

The sound of stones clattering against stones echoed off the wall. Makoto’s heart pounded, despite how calm she still felt. She breathed deeply, willing her body to get on the same page as her brain.

Home. I want to get home. I’ve just got to formulate a plan that gets me out of here alive and I get to go back home.

Makoto closed her eyes calmly. Shutting off her visibility of the rest of the world helped her think. Even though she couldn’t see anything in the pitch-black cave, she still found a level of concentration simply in the act of closing her eyes.

When she opened her eyes, she couldn’t stop staring. Hovering in front of her was a swirling, glowing ball of red mist.

The moment she registered that she had truly seen it, it disappeared, casting the cavern into darkness once again. “What was that?” She called loudly. They were doing something. They were taking action and she needed to be in the loop. If she didn’t know what they were doing, she couldn’t defend herself.

She quickly brought her shirt collar up to her mouth, for fear of some kind of gas they might have released to immobilize or kill her.

The box that she was in must have finally decided to croak, because when she leaned against its rails, splinters detached from the wood and slipped into her skin. She hissed at the pain, muttering angry insults at her prison.

She was a special guest, couldn’t they give her a comfortable cell?

The smell of copper drew her attention back to the blood beneath her fingernails. Where did that blood come from?

She hadn’t fought her captor—he’d apprehended her without struggle. And then she’d been unconscious until waking up a few minutes ago. Hadn’t she?

“Stop panicking.”

She could feel someone’s breath on her face.

She shrieked, lurching backwards and causing the box to sway violently. The rope shuddered as it was pulled far tighter than it should have been at its level of weakness.

Dark laughter floated to her as she tried not to have a heart attack. “I know why I’m here.” She stated evenly.

“Do you now?” The man asked with a scoff.

“I know my usefulness is about to expire.” Makoto returned.

“Noir.” A new voice, thickly modulated, growled through the chamber, followed by the lights flicking on.

She cried out, the light searing her eyes. Her head throbbed in protest and the box gave a jerk as tendrils of the rope snapped and recoiled. An exclamation of panic tore up her throat with enough force to strip the soft tissue raw and make her voice break.

When she could see, she found Ronin and Crossfire on one end of the room, and a man with wings on her side of the room.

Makoto groaned at them in disgust. “Can someone please just set up a meet-and-greet website?” She was so sick and tired of being dragged into the middle of these stupid fights for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

“Hush now. Your job is done.” Noir said, turning away and proceeding to ignore her.

“Yeah, I know. And by now my vegetables are definitely burned. Thanks a lot for making this a productive delay.” She shot back.

Ronin and Crossfire approached slowly. “Let her go, Seeker.” Ronin ordered.

Was his name Noir or Seeker? Maybe his real name was Noir and his evil villain name was Seeker. That made sense, didn’t it? Makoto didn’t even know what made sense anymore. She had just watched glowing red smoke vanish before her eyes.

In the next second, Ronin had his hand thrown out, and then a bubble of black dropped over Seeker. Pure black, completely solid, no light. It looked like a black hole in the middle of the room.

Ronin nodded Crossfire toward Makoto, his arm shaking.

So, wait, Ronin had powers? Makoto stared at the black bubble, ignoring Crossfire’s hasty approach. It was no surprise, what with him working for VALOR. What kind of power was that? Was it lethal? Was it some kind of transport? Just pain inducing? Or was it just targeted light removal?

“Makoto.” Crossfire’s calm, modulated voice pulled her out of her reverie.

Her eyes fell on him, unable to keep from studying the intricacy of his suit. Despite having met him eight times before, she’d always been in the middle of...falling through a waterfall, running out of a burning building, or diving out the window of a moving vehicle to get a real close look at his uniform.

The body of the suit was a black nylon-Kevlar-type material. The torso was in the American Civil War style, the buttoned panel in front and tall stand-up collar. The pants were black tactical pants with pockets and holsters along the legs, tucked into knee-high combat boots.

A deep, blood-red obi encompassed his waist, securing multiple firearms, knives, and ammunition magazines.

Two red-handled katanas were strapped to his back, and a black helmet covered his head. The electronic visor that covered his eyes was a matching blood-red.

The suit looked high-tech and functional, but not well armored. Nevertheless he looked absolutely fierce, completely capable of instilling fear and lowering the confidence of anyone who dared challenge him.

“H-how do you know my name?” Makoto gasped. She was envious of his threatening demeanor. The effect he had and the effect she would have in his same uniform would be very different. He looked terrifying. She would look like an emotionally-unstable, tactically-incompetent heroine from every action movie ever made.

It was infuriating.

Crossfire reached out, grabbing a bar on the box. “I’ve saved your life nine times now. A bit of research was warranted.”

Oh, he had a personality, did he? That was new.

Makoto leaned toward him, boosting the angle of the box until she was hanging over the ledge. “Why does everyone want to fight you?” She whispered, desperately hoping he was a chatty guy who wanted to talk about criminal psychology.

But he remained silent, pulling a sword from his back.

“Crossfire?” Makoto pushed. She began to wonder if there was no good side in the room. The guy who kidnapped her, Noir, was evil, that much was clear. But who was to say that Ronin and Crossfire had golden moral compasses, either?

But then he went still. Deadly, deadly still. And then his head tilted just slightly, as though he may be glaring at her.

“What?” She hissed, completely confused. Had he heard her thoughts or something? Okay, fine, you work for VALOR and you haven’t neglected to rescue me every time I’ve needed you—that’s enough for me to accept that you’re good.

She was grasping at straws, but it was possible that he was telepathic.

“I’m not Crossfire.” He said, and then with a flick of his wrist, he sliced the top off of the box.

Oh. So she’d misunderstood his hesitation.

With a snap, Makoto was falling. Plummeting into the abyss, certain death her only fate. She felt a scream pass her lips but all she heard was her heart pounding against her chest. In slow motion, she watched her hair whip past her face as gravity pulled her down.

And then stopped.

The warm hand tightened around her fist and pulled her up sharply. Makoto fell against not-Crossfire’s chest, panting and shaky. A little warning would have been nice.

She began to collapse, fear sending her body abuzz with adrenaline, but he held her more tightly, tucking her into his side as he turned to route their path out.

“Crossfire was my brother.” He continued, his computerized voice lower and cracking.

Oh. A soft spot. She wondered how many times she’d off-handedly called him Crossfire over the weeks—how many times she’d rubbed salt in the wound. Sympathy rushed through her, distracting her enough to lower her heart rate just enough to stop her chest from hurting. She couldn’t offer much to him for what he’d lost and what he had to be strong in spite of, so she simply worked her fingers into his hand that was supporting her arm and gave it a squeeze.

“What happened?” She breathed, looking up to find Ronin and Seeker locked in combat. She knew about sensitivity when it came to brothers.

She had a soft spot in her heart for Takeo, even though it hurt to speak or think of him since his departure.

Not-Crossfire pulled her with him as he skirted the room, sword extended to defend them at a moment’s notice. “He died.” The ninja-guy responded harshly. He’d been killed. The words never left his mouth but they were as obvious as the ocean was wet.

Best to forget the matter and let Crossfire’s brother mourn in peace.

Makoto let him silently proceed to guide her to safety, wishing and determined to learn how to protect herself in the future. She was failing her physical courses—and because of her neglect to get good scores, she kept getting kidnapped.

But, try as she might, she couldn’t up her game. She couldn’t get through ten minutes of gym class before she had to stop and vomit or pass out.

But when the ninja-guy led her out of the cave and along the rocky mountain wall that completely surrounded their little fisherman village in Oregon, Makoto had to ask—“What do I call you?”

Ninja-guy took her by the waist unexpectedly, lifting her up and settling her on a platform. “Hold on,” He warned, reaching for a lever. It was a gurney that was built to lower boats into the water.

As she slowly started to rise, he looked up at her. “In the high chance that you’ll see me again, you can call me Hybrid.”

Oh, ha-ha, very funny, smarty pants.

Hybrid. That would take some psychological conditioning. How long would it take for her to stop associating this hero with the name Crossfire? Even the press thought he was Crossfire.

Makoto watched Hybrid grow smaller until she was over the top of the cliff, at level with the city. She climbed off the platform and peered back down, but Hybrid had disappeared back into the cave to help Ronin.

She felt a little bit of guilt as she realized, since she was involved in the trouble she kept getting in, she ought to help them clean it up. Granted, she’d more than likely get in their way, but it was kind of selfish not to try.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have the confidence to climb back down the mountain face and make it safely back to that cave. Especially since the gurney controls were at the bottom for some reason.

As Makoto walked her way back to the tiny city, she examined herself. As she expected, no lumps, bruises, or scratches.

Akari Makoto was someone that people could know everything about and yet know nothing about. You could have known that she was a very sarcastic person with failing PE grades but above-average intellect and never know that her injuries are never visible in broad daylight.

You could know that she lost her mother when she was young and that she spoke fluent English, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese and not know that for her entire life, you could only see her injuries in the dark.

From the earliest days that she could remember, Makoto had never had a visible injury in the daylight, no matter how much her hurting body tried to convince her that she was one big bruise.

But when she was in a completely dark room, her body lit up like an x-ray. It wasn’t exactly like an x-ray, though, because bruises and swelling and scar tissue showed up, too.

Ever wonder why Makoto only had guy-friends? Guy-friends don’t invite their gal-friends over for sleepovers. She’d never accidentally reveal that her body had its own flaw detector.

One time she had walked into her bathroom, turned off all the lights, and had been able to study a hairline fracture in her forearm.

She could never go out at night.

She could never have too much of her skin revealed, in case of a power outage or a kidnapping with dimly-lit cave imprisonment.

The strange ability made no sense. How did it benefit her? It hid all appearances of pain in the day and ensured that she could never spend the night at a friend’s house. It also made every doctor in the world look at her like she was nuts when she had to go to the hospital because, no, seriously, I’ve been shot and there’s a bullet swimming around in my appendix.

So, was she like Ronin, with supernatural abilities?

Makoto didn’t know. She didn’t consider ‘glowing flaw detector’ to be a talent. At least, not one that could benefit others. She tugged her sleeves down over her hands and crossed her arms.

Maybe it was a metaphor. People see her as indestructible with zero weakness, but as soon as the lights go off all of her hidden pain illuminates.

It was a stupid metaphor and therefore false.

The gentle breeze had become a violent, forceful wind by the time she jogged up the steps to the mansion. Her black hair whipped around her face, becoming wild and knotted. Her skin felt greasy and grimy, and she knew she smelled like sweat and a moldy old cave.

She paused by the door to contemplate the sky. She’d been taken while making dinner at 4 o’clock. Either she’d only been there for a few hours and night was just starting to fall, or she’d been there all night and morning was still dawning.

It wasn’t dark enough for her to need to hide, but depending on which direction the sun would be moving, she decided to go inside and see for herself.

The clock on the mantel said 7:30.

The date on her computer said it was still June 7th. She leaned back in her chair, turning her desk light on. Her head ached dully, brain feeling like a block of wood.

Had her family even noticed? Did anyone even know that she had been taken? Makoto sniffed at the air. The vegetables were definitely still burning, and yet nobody was screaming for her to stop trying to poison dinner, so, clearly, nobody could be bothered.

She glanced at her bedroom door.

She hadn’t made dinner. She’d let Sakuza get home without having made dinner. While she was perfectly okay with letting him starve, she knew he wouldn’t be ecstatic about being made to wait.

She’d tell him to get over it, he’d add to her glow-in-the-dark canvas of bruises.

Makoto swallowed hard, knowing that there would be consequences. Oh well.

~ 10:18 PM ~

Makoto dropped her head into her hands and just sat there at her desk, trying not to let herself become too downtrodden about her less-than-ideal family situation. What would moping cure? There had to be a more applicable way to make things change.

She found herself praying, very seriously and very desperately pleading for the patience and strength and endurance that she knew that she needed from God to live in her own home.

After that she practiced her karate by herself. She may not have been good at it, but it was better than nothing against her brother.

When Makoto grew tired of perfecting all the ukes and geris, waiting for her doom, she chose instead to investigate Angelika Heilner’s documents. It was technically homework, anyway.

Dragging the box across the floor, Makoto sat cross-legged and pulled a couple of files across her lap. They were all water stained and sun-faded, the pages warped and crinkly to the touch. If she focused on it, she could detect the faint smell of salty seawater.

For the next four hours she sat, reading quickly, soaking in loads of information that she was somehow able to process through her fearful anxiety. It was amazing the levels of functionality she’d been able to achieve through stressful circumstances.

She’d been good at it since long before her brother left.

If Takeo had been there, he would have noticed she was gone, for one thing. Then he would make dinner and cover for her until she returned. If she was gone for too long, he would discreetly arrange search party and drag her back home kicking and screaming.

And then he’d sit and let her talk or cry or do whatever she needed to do to recover, and he’d make sure she never faced the wrath that Sakuza had prepared for her.

The next day, she approached Chester in the hallway after the first class of her day, handing him a notebook. She knew she had bags under her eyes, darkened by her lack of sleep and yesterday’s makeup, but since he didn’t give her a look that said ‘holy cow, go clean up—you look like a goblin,’ she didn’t really care.

“What’s this?” He questioned, giving both her and the notebook a dubious look. He was holding it like a snake would slide out between the pages and laugh at him.

She tapped it pointedly. “This is a copy of my notes from half of the information packet that we retrieved from the Heilners yesterday. I think you should look it over and see if you get anything from it that I didn’t catch.” It was undoubtedly true that she had missed something, especially considering she was up studying until 1:30 before her brother finally snapped.

He nodded agreeably, tucking it in his bag. “You’re right—that’s entirely possible. What with your ability to get failing grades in every class that challenges your neural capacities and everything.” He teased.

Makoto’s glare darkened and she punched him in the arm. That wasn’t even true. She was a genius. “Keep yammering, Chess, and I’ll force feed you my lunch box.”

He raised his eyebrows, knowing she could never bring herself to hurt him. And even if she tried, she wouldn’t be able to because it was the physical classes that she was failing. And also because she couldn’t reach him without a ladder. “The pink unicorn one?”

She punched him again before rolling her eyes and stalking away with an amused huff. If she’d stayed close, she would have cracked a smile or started laughing, but she’d rather maintain the illusion that she was completely serious about the lunch box.

Chester was so full of it. He thought he was so hilarious.

She would admit it, too, if it weren’t for the highly-rational fear of blowing up his too-big ego.

“Hime.”

Makoto was snapped out of her daze when she noticed Tadashi approaching her. Immediately, a hesitant frown took the place of her mocking scowl.

He stopped right in front of her. “Did you finish your half of the presentation last night?” He asked with a deadly blank stare.

She cast her mind back to the previous night. She had just been opening the presentation on her computer to finish it up when Sakuza had stormed into her room and proceeded to bruise her femur and crack three ribs. So, essentially, no, she had not. Makoto kicked herself. “No, sorry. I was busy.” She apologized meekly. Busy wondering why the guy who kidnapped her was nicer than her brother.

Tadashi sighed heavily, irritation flashing across his face. He brushed past her, forcefully knocking shoulders and nearly shoving her to the ground. “Every time.” He muttered in passing. “Every single time I get a female partner, I end up having to do all the work.”

Indignant, Makoto bristled at the words, so obviously meant to anger her even though they were hidden under his breath. It was a rare occurrence that she treated someone that she hardly knew with such barbarity, but sometimes the rubber band of patience just snaps. She whipped around, unable to control herself.

How could she? She faced chauvinist sexism at home—why should she have to put up with it at school, too? By someone who didn’t even know her, no less. He couldn’t look at one mistake she made and think that it constituted everything that she was made of. He didn’t even know her.

If Takeo wasn’t there to stand up for her, she’d have to stand up for herself. “Excuse me?” She demanded, hands on her hips.

Tadashi stopped, but didn’t turn to face her. He was incontestably no stranger to conflict. It wasn’t surprising, considering his familiarity with his own unbridled tongue. “You heard me.” He said simply.

The small woman’s eyes flashed with fire. Heat burned beneath her skin like she’d so recently become used to feeling. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like that anger had become a common visitor. “It’s possible I misheard you. Would you like to correct my horrible suspicion of what I think I just heard?” Her voice shook with emotion, and it made his shoulders jump with a scoffing laugh that made her even angrier.

Tadashi turned and looked her in the eye with a smirk that almost looked forced. “I stated a fact. Every time I’ve gotten a female partner in the past, their incompetence forced me to do the majority of the work assigned to us. Are you one of them? Or have you held yourself to a higher standard?”

His words brought the illusion that he hadn’t intended to rile her, that he had merely, if insensitively, expressed objective truth. His tone and expression, however, were certain indicators that he knew exactly what effect his statement would have on her defensive temperament.

Makoto didn’t even know how to react to that. Was a punch in the face warranted? He didn’t give her the chance to decide, either. After that, he just turned and walked away, leaving her to stew angrily in the hallway.

She shook her head, spun on her heel, and kept walking. No need to rise to her own defense against someone who didn’t care to listen or see reason. Knowledge was knowing exactly what to say to prove, if forcibly and violently, her point to great efficiency. Wisdom was keeping her Christian reputation and keeping her trap shut.

She stalked down the hallway, not at all liking his superiority complex. Was Chester the only man on earth who gave women genuine merit? Maybe Tadashi had just had a bad day. Maybe someone ran over his cat. Maybe someone spit in his sandwich. Or maybe she was denying a truth that everyone but Chester was trying so very hard to tell her.

Makoto shook her head quickly as the depressing, suffocating thoughts began to press down on her like a ton of cement. She couldn’t let her brain take over like that. It wasn’t true that she was intellectually hindered because she was a woman. For once, the truth was kinder.

But she couldn’t help it. She wanted to leave. She wanted to go somewhere where no one knew her. She wanted to be able to face the sexism from someone who couldn’t hurt her on a personal level.

If not that, she wanted the ability to tell those people exactly what she was thinking and back it up physically if she so desired. Why did the wrongdoer get to experience the pleasure of violence, while the innocent one could only sit and take it?

Images of Sasebo, Japan flooded her mind. She’d lived in Sasebo for 14 years—long enough for her to develop long-term memories of the place.

She remembered it being majestically amazing, but she was younger then, with Takeo around to protect her from the horrible things that she had to face currently.

She wished she could go back, but she knew that it would be different—it would never be the same again. A place you love is just a place without the people you love.

But she could still picture it in her mind as though she were looking at it through the window.

A flash of red jolted Makoto out of her reverie. She stopped still, her joints locking. The red smoke—the swirly, circular mist floated in front of her face—just like it had been when she was staring at it from the inside of that rickety old box.

The longer she stared at it, the more it flickered and faded. And when she reached out to touch it, it disappeared entirely.

What on earth was happening? That was twice in two days. Surely she’d cracked.

Makoto blinked rapidly, as though clearing the image from her mind. Upon quick inspection of the hall, it appeared that none of the students had witnessed the occurrence. It wasn’t surprising, really. Even prospective investigators could be so unobservant.

She tried to forget that she herself had seen it, and continued to her classes. That was beyond bizarre. Either she was losing her marbles or...or something supernatural was happening that she couldn’t begin to imagine.

As she distantly listened to the professor drone on about blood types, Makoto pinched her sleeve carefully, finding it damp. That explained the stinging ache in her arm and the smell of copper.

Even though it was somehow impossible to see any physical injury in the light, Makoto still bled. But without the visible wound, it looked like her skin was hemorrhaging. She’d freaked one or two unknowing witnesses out when she was considerably younger.

Most of her friendships as a young child ended with someone thinking she had a horrible contagious disease and estranging themselves from her as quickly as possible.

That was why her fashion choices included fully-covered legs, arms, and feet. On a normal day, the only skin visible was her face.

On that day, for instance, she wore a black skirt, black leggings, tall black boots, a red long-sleeved shirt with a black leather vest, and black fingerless gloves. Granted, she was trading the general opinion that she was afraid of sunlight for the appearance of some kind of emo-goth, but it was better than everyone knowing the truth.

Apparently, though, her arm was still bleeding from her encounter with Sakuza. She was okay with that injury, though, because it had come about through her own counter attack. He’d gone for her shoulder with a penknife. She’d cut off his lunge with an upper block and a reverse punch to the solar plexus—thank you, Kamawan-Sensei—and Sakuza had ended up smacking his head against her wall without oxygen in his lungs.

Of course, she’d caught his penknife on her forearm, but it was a dull blade and she’d prefer it to a stab in the shoulder, where her entire right arm would have to wear a sign saying ‘out of order.’

Over the next two days, Makoto spent an unhealthy amount of time chasing the case of legends, trying to ignore how much it made her feel like she was losing her mind. It didn’t help that Tadashi was constantly nagging at her like some annoying cat to complete the entirety of their partner assignment as punishment for her neglect that first evening.

Of course, she essentially told him to stuff it.

Finally, after pulling two all-nighters, her search led her to an old cemetery on the wharf. An eerie mist rolled over the tombstones, sending chills down her spine.

She wished she had brought Chester.

No. She shook her head. It’s just a cemetery. Chill out, Makoto, you can do this.

Still, it would have been more comforting with Chester. Or Takeo.

She reached into her bag for her flashlight, tightening her other hand around the knife in her sleeve. Honestly, though, what was she expecting to find? Some vengeful spirit? Right.

Chill out. Relax. It’s alright. She told herself, not at all believing the words.

Clicking on her light, Makoto passed between a number of old, crumbling tombstones. The words etched into their faces were chipped and deteriorating, falling away as time chewed at them slowly. She found some new ones, still freshly carved.

Her eyes roamed the stones and the ground around them. She didn’t know what she was looking for. Perhaps she could have done more research.

Angelika Heilner’s logbook had simply said, “Where the dead are watched by the tides, so the spirits by evening rise. An answer hidden among them there, you can’t miss it but explorer beware.”

The creepy-weirdness of the riddle had clearly gotten to Makoto a little bit.

She sucked in a deep breath. It had taken longer than it should have to glean the location from the riddle, she realized as her flashlight shone over a particular tombstone. She stilled, her shoulders dropping as her eyes skated over the words that were etched carefully into the tombstone.

Instantly all of her hesitation and fear vanished as she dropped to one knee in front of it. ‘Akari Suki,’ the engraving read.

It was polished marble, ebony as the blackest night. Much like that night. It reflected mirror images of its surroundings.

While Suki had died in Japan nearly ten years before they moved to America, Hiroshida had had her ashes buried in Oregon. She didn’t know why and she hadn’t even been made aware of it until months after he’d buried them. When she had asked him about it, he’d refused to give her an answer.

Makoto tried not to cry as she beheld the burial place of her mother. The tombstone was much too beautiful for such a horrible thing. She reached out to touch the wonderfully smooth stone, hating how it seemed to be a thing of perfect beauty.

It seemed to her that something that was the marker for someone’s death should be horribly ugly and a sore thing to look upon. Or, better yet, no tombstone at all. What was the point? You don’t need a grave marker unless you’re going to go back and dig up the coffin.

Why dwell on some materialistic reminder that someone’s gone from your life?

But then Makoto froze.

Beneath her mother’s name, beneath the note that proclaimed what she meant to the world, beneath the dates of her birth and death, Makoto finally read the note that had been there as long as the grave had.

“Where the dead are watched by the tides, so the spirits by evening rise.” The first half of the very same riddle, engraved on her mother’s tombstone. How had she not noticed it before? What kind of engraving was that, anyway?

Was that...did that mean something?

More importantly...Makoto realized with a shock as she read it again. What does ‘so the spirits by evening rise’ mean? Dread hit her like a cinder block to the face.

A terrible iciness chilled her skin as a windy, swirling voice reached her ears. “Why are you here?”

She spun on her heel, immediately falling backwards. This isn’t happening.

Hovering before her in full, glowing glory, was a ghost.

This. Is not. Happening. Makoto stared at the nearly-transparent apparition, her mouth fallen open in shock. It was a man, who looked to be about middle-aged, with a permanent scowl darkening his features. What kind of Scooby Doo legend is this?

He was staring straight at her, striking fear into her very being and tying her stomach into nervous knots.

Don’t stay and chat, you idiot, run! Makoto got to her feet, turning instantly and running through the graveyard. She was mortified to find more ghosts coming from each grave that she passed. Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out.

She jumped over a headstone and crouched there, panting heavily. She felt tears of fear fill her eyes as she tried to control herself. Her chest burned and her stomach churned. Hours of PE class resurfaced in her memory, when, every day, without fail, she’d exert herself for a good fifteen minutes and then excuse herself to throw up.

Now is not a good time to wimp out.

Help me, she prayed. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts.

“Boo.” A dry, flat voice taunted.

She shrieked, spinning to find a ghost in her face. Tripping over herself to get away, Makoto ran for her life from the dead. Not that death was a huge concern—apparently there was life after death. If the ghosts did kill her, she’d definitely be visiting Sakuza.

No. Wait. Everything she based her faith on contradicted what she was seeing. What she was running from? How could she be so stupid?

Makoto screeched to a halt and spun around, finding an entire graveyard full of ghosts flying straight at her, flickering in and out of existence.

She stood stock-still, telling herself she was facing her fears in order to find the truth, but only hearing her own whimpers of terror. She forced herself to keep her eyes open—and it was a good thing she did.

As each of the ghosts hit her, they passed over her harmlessly, nothing but transparent illusions. Either that or they were actually ghosts. Even if they were real, how is a transparent being going to harm a corporeal human? It was kind of impossible.

But who kept doubting the impossible when in the face of a ghost, anyway?

Driving away fear with logic, she narrowed her eyes at the ghosts. Since she’d determined that they weren’t actually spirits of the dead, she gave them a long, cold stare. If they weren’t their own being, that meant they were projected. There were multiple ways of projecting seemingly transparent figures into a foggy night—a reflection in glass, an actual, movie-style projector, for starters.

Makoto, comforted in the knowledge that they couldn’t hurt her, stepped closer to a nearby headstone.

She knelt, brushing the grass away.

Sure enough, half buried in grass and fog, was a small projector. When she looked, all of the graves were outfitted with ghost projectors.

They weren’t ghosts.

They were guard dogs.

Makoto shook off her irrational fear, marching back to her mother’s grave. She couldn’t believe she’d been suckered by a couple of Obi Wan Kenobis.

The swarm of ghosts flew back toward her, following her with voices of warning and threats that were supposed to scare her away. They only irritated her, and for the first time—and probably last time—in her life, she rolled her eyes in exasperation of ghosts.

“You shouldn’t be here.” The first one growled. “Haven’t you heard this graveyard is haunted?” The speakers must have been around somewhere. Probably on the projectors. She wondered if they were pre-recorded or if someone was speaking into a microphone.

If the latter was the case, then she had to look for cameras, too.

“Zip it.” Makoto snapped, dismissing their attempts at being scary and kneeling next to her mother’s grave. She followed the light of the projector to see a woman who looked nothing like her mother. She wasn’t even Asian.

Randomly generated faces. “Whoever designed you should have done their research.” She said darkly.

She couldn’t believe it. She was standing in a dark graveyard, talking to computer-generated ghosts like they were actual people.

She tossed her foot back to do military-about-face, but was more clumsy than she gave herself credit for. She crashed to the ground, slamming into the headstone and gasping as it gave way. The stone snapped back, laying almost flat on the ground.

As it did, the ground beneath her opened up and she was falling into darkness. Makoto screamed in surprise, arms and legs flailing in panic.

She hit the dirt with a heavy crash, knocking the breath out of her lungs. Makoto gaped in pain, arching her back as she writhed on the dirt floor. What next, zombies?

She froze in terror as footsteps sounded above her. Ghosts didn’t have audible footsteps. Please don’t be fake-zombies.

She crawled back against the wall of the pit, staring upwards in total fear, wondering who was there and if she was safe from them.

Shadowed by the light of the moon, a dark face peered over the lip of the hole.

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