It was quiet in the car on the ride back. Khota was clearly seething, and no one blamed him in all honesty. He had approached Rika Minami fairly and openly and despite the respect he had shown her, she had treated him like a child. A stupid child at that. They were half-way home when he spoke.
“I must apologize,” he said quietly. “Especially to you,” he turned to Saeko, who had held his hand since getting into the car. She had said nothing, merely lending him her support. Letting him know she was there for him.
“I. . .I should not have let her anger me,” he told them. “I told myself I could handle her attitude, and once I was actually shooting she would be willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. That she would see that I wasn’t bragging or exaggerating, and then I thought she would ease up and be serious with me. I shouldn’t have expected that I suppose. That was my error, and I am sorry that I have exposed all of you to this.”
“If you would drop me at my home, Saya, I would appreciate it. I will not be good company today.”
“All the more reason for you to stay with us, then,” Saya said firmly. “Where we can keep you out of trouble.”
“I won’t be in any trouble,” Khota assured her. “I won’t leave my house today. Or tomorrow, probably. And you will not enjoy my company,” he added darkly. Again, Takashi didn’t miss how very correctly and politely Khota was speaking. It was a sure sign that he was furious.
“I’ll stay with you a while and then go home from there,” Saeko told him, but he shook his head.
“I would prefer you not see me like this,” he told her softly. “I don’t like it.”
“Then do something about it,” she replied evenly.
“I plan to, I promise,” he told her.
Saya reluctantly instructed Hari-san to take them to Khota’s house, hating the idea the whole time but seeing no way to make the stubborn boy change his mind. He was clearly doing his best to contain his anger, but she could understand how being treated that way would affect him.
It had the same effect on her, after all.
When they arrived at his house, Saeko merely followed him out of the car, despite his protests.
“I will stay with you,” she said flatly.
“All right,” he sighed. He wasn’t going to fight her, or take his anger at Minami out on her either. Anyone but her.
“Thank you, Saya,” he bowed slightly. “And for the invite,” her added. “I had a great time.”
“We’ll do it again,” she promised.
“I look forward to it.” He closed the door and waited for the car to leave before turning to Saeko.
“Come on,” he told her. She took his hand and the two walked to the front door and then inside.
She had never been here, she realized. They always met wherever they were going to go, or he came to her house and escorted her from there.
She was surprised at the size of the house for starters. It was a large, two story affair of western design. Upon entering she found herself looking at a beautiful receiving room, what Americans would call a foyer. Removing their shoes, the couple proceeded further into the house.
“May I get you something?” Khota asked.
“Are you having anything?” she asked.
“Water for me as well, then,” she replied. He got two bottles of water from the kitchen and returned. He did not open his.
“I have something I need to do,” he told her quietly. “It may take a while.”
“I’ll go with you,” she said simply. He looked at her for a moment, clearly measuring what he would say and do.
“You either trust me or you don’t, Khota,” she said gently. “Please don’t shut me out.”
“No,” he sighed. “I won’t do that. I can’t do it. Not anymore. And there’s no one I trust more. Come on, then,” he held out a hand and she took it gladly.
He led her to a door off the kitchen that led down to a small basement. When they reached the floor she was shocked to see a small gym set up there.
“This is where I kill my demons,” he said simply. “Much like you use your father’s dojo. Have a seat if you want,” he pointed to a comfortable looking chair along the wall. She did as he bid while he went to a side area and changed into a pair of baggy sweats and an equally baggy ragged sweat shirt. He walked back onto the floor and stopped at a heavy bag.
Without warning or preparation he hit the bag, hard. The bag moved a good bit more than she thought it should have, but perhaps it was lighter than she suspected. She mostly conducted such workouts against mannequin style practice dummies and had never used a heavy bag.
As he continued, she noted a fine sheen of sweat appear on his forehead. His face was a mask of concentration at first, but as his blows fell faster and harder, increasing with almost every shot, his face took on a more sinister look. His brows furrowed together, marring his normally pleasant features. His mouth went from a grim set line to a near snarl as he continued to increase both the speed and power of his punches.
Soon the bag was swinging freely from repeated blows and Khota began to wade into it, meeting the bag as it swung his direction, his punches slowing and then stopping the bag, only to make it start again. The raw power he exuded as he worked was almost palpable, as was his anger.
No, not anger, she corrected herself. Rage. She remembered that he had once been the target of bullies, as recently as last year in fact according to both him and Takashi. While Minami-san may have had a perfectly good reason for her actions, they had hit Khota so very hard because they had seemed like the actions of a bully.
She realized with a start that Khota had elected to leave the range because he had been on the verge of erupting against her, which would have been ruinous at best. Despite his anger, rage, he had maintained enough of his sanity and his discipline to recognize that he needed to remove himself from temptation, and had done so.
Even as she regretted what had happened at the firing range, and the hurt she could see in his face even when wearing that terrible, wonderful snarl that had caught her eye the first time she had seen it at the diner, she smiled.
He continued for nearly thirty minutes before he stopped. She noted with concern that his hands were bleeding and rose, going to him and leading him to the small sink along the wall. She washed and dried his hands gently as he worked to control his breathing, then opened a small first aid kit on the wall and treated his injuries. As she applied a small bandage to a spot that continued to bleed, he spoke.
“You are quite welcome, my love,” she said without thinking, and felt him tense. She continued to apply the bandage before turning to face him. His eyes were intense as he looked at her.
“Yes,” she simply. “I love you.”
“Why?” he asked her, clearly confused. “Can’t you see how I am? Saeko I’m. . .broken! I’m damaged, somehow. And why would you of all the girls in Fujimi want. . .want me?” she could almost hear the anguish in his voice and it tore at her heart.
“I watched you wrestle a demon today and win,” she told him first. “You were tempted to attack Minami-san because she was being a bully. I don’t think she intended it that way, but it looked that way, especially to someone who is sensitive to such things.”
“But you overcame that urge and simply walked away, Khota. You won. I watched you exorcize your inner turmoil against that poor bag,” she grinned and he laughed in spite of himself, “instead of doing something you would regret later. You worried. . .you told me that you were haunted by the fear that you would harm someone who didn’t truly deserve it. And yet, when faced with what your damaged psyche might recognize as someone deserving, you ignored it, and walked away.”
“You. Won.” she placed a hand to each side of his sweaty face. “I am so proud of you, my lovely, lovely, terrible man,” she kissed him soundly.
“I. . .I don’t. . .” Khota’s eyes were watery suddenly as she pulled back to look at him again. “I can’t. . . .”
And suddenly he was crying, his head buried in her shoulder. She cradled him as she would have a child and let him cry, whispering to him and stroking his hair as years of abuse and loneliness poured forth from him. Her own eyes ran wet and she could feel tears slipping down her cheeks as she rocked him gently back and forth until finally he raised his head.
“I need a shower,” he said suddenly, and she laughed.
“Yes, you do,” she admitted. “Go and take one and I’ll make us something to eat.”
“Probably nothing here to eat,” he admitted. “I mostly eat out or order out or drink protein shakes. There are some menus on the refrigerator and I have an account with all of them. Order what you want and have it delivered. I should be cleaned up by the time it gets here.”
“As you wish.”
She watched him go up the stairs before collecting the clothes he had left behind. When she turned, she took a good look at the ‘gym’. She hadn’t done so before, intent on watching him.
There was a weight bench, with free weights racked behind it and alongside in the floor. A spring bottom ‘attack’ mannequin that showed signs of abuse sat in the corner, and a foam target board was mounted along the far wall backed with a heavy sheet of plywood. She went closer and ran her hand over first the ‘dummy’ and then the board. Both showed indentations that could only come from a wedge point blade.
Had he mislead her, all of them? Did Khota know the sword, after all? An icy fist seemed to grip her heart for a moment as she thought about that possibility. Had she given her heart, made confession even, to someone who had beguiled her that badly?
Then she saw it. Lying on the floor, behind the ‘dummy’. She eased behind the mannequin and retrieved the broken blade knife. She estimated at least one third of the point end had been broken off cleanly. She looked for the rest but the point was nowhere to be found. From the look of what remained, it had been a tanto blade, which sported a katana-like shape. A strong design that would penetrate a car door with enough power behind it. A deadly weapon in the hands of someone who knew how to use it, without question.
But it was not a sword.
So, he doesn’t know the sword, she sighed, happy to have been right. But this knife is high quality. It took a great deal of strength to do this, or else a great deal of abuse.
Or a great deal of anger.
She heard water running though the wall and knew that Khota had gotten into the shower. She set the blade back where she found it and went up stairs, shutting off the light when she reached the kitchen.
Saeko had chosen pizza, knowing it was a favorite of his. The dinner arrived and Khota was still not there so she set the box on the dinner table and went looking for him.
There were several rooms downstairs, but he was not in any of them. Two were clearly offices and one was a large formal dining room meant to entertain guests. Another was a living room with furniture covered in sheets for protection, obviously used only rarely. She ventured up the stairs after that.
The first bed room was obviously a guest room, as was the next, the two sharing a bath. She stood in the hallway looking. Two doors left. She chose the one on her right and went there. As she got closer she realized the door was slightly open. Grinning, she eased up to it, peeking inside.
Khota was standing by his bed in his underwear and nothing else. She watched him for only a second before she saw him stiffen, ever so slightly.
“You can come in,” he said quietly and she jerked back from the door. How had he known? Had he seen her?
“I know you’re there,” he called louder. Shaking her head she walked to the door and pushed it open.
“I ordered pizza and it has arrived,” she announced.
“Okay,” he said simply, turning to face her. She looked at him then. This was the first time she had seen him in any way undressed.
She had expected to see softness in him for some reason. She honestly didn’t care what he looked like, dressed or not, but what she saw was unexpected. While he was what people would call ‘husky’, there was no softness in him. His arms bulged with muscle, as did his legs. Muscles that he hid with baggy clothing and a slouching posture, always camouflaging himself, hiding his true self in plain sight. He didn’t look like a body-builder or a gym rat. His muscle had been earned in labor, probably in learning his craft. His stomach, though not cut with ‘sixpack’ abs, was hard looking. Solid. Khota was very solid. Powerful.
Powerful enough to snap a tanto blade in half, at least.
As her eyes poured over him, she saw something else as well.
“What happened here,” she asked, running her hand along an ugly scar. It began, faintly, just below his jaw line and then down his neck, across his shoulder. It then ran down his side where it turned much worse, disappearing under the waist band of his boxers. It had obviously been a serious injury, and only crude stitches had been used to close it.
“One of them fought back,” he told her, shrugging. “It’s nothing.” He pulled his pants on, then his socks. Standing again he took a tee from the bed and pulled it over him.
“That does not look like nothing,” she noted carefully. “And it doesn’t look as if a doctor treated it, either” she raised an elegant eyebrow.
“Well, not a real doctor with a license or anything,” he admitted. “Hard to go to the A&E in America with a wound like that and not have to do some explaining. Brian’s mother sewed me up. Friend of hers provided some antibiotics. It’s okay now,” he shrugged again.
“Is she a nurse?” Saeko asked.
“Combat medic,” he replied. “Retired. She lost a leg in Iraq some years ago. An IED exploded under her HumVee when she was doing MEDEVAC.”
“I understood about half that,” she admitted, smiling.
“Improvised Explosive Device,” he provided, smiling in return for the first time since they had left the range. “A jury-rigged mine. Her Hummer, a military vehicle, ran over it and set it off while she was working to evacuate wounded men from a battlefield area. The rest of her crew and the two men they were carrying didn’t make it. She woke up in Germany missing a leg.”
“That’s horrible,” Saeko said.
“It’s war,” Khota shrugged. “It always costs.” As he gathered his things she looked around his room. It was neat and orderly, with only the clothes he had stripped off on the floor, and he was gathering them. A few models decorated his shelves, along with numerous books and the almost required manga books that all teenage Japanese boys seemed to have.
The posters on the wall were sparse. One band she recognized, another she didn’t but assumed was American. One of a huge blue robot on it’s hands and knees, another of soldiers facing what could only be a space ship trying to land in a city, and one of a motorcycle. Others were detailed prints of various weapons, disassembled for viewing and identification.
“Not much to look at, but it’s home,” he grinned and she looked at him.
“It’s orderly and clean, which I admit I expected,” she shrugged.
“You did?” he asked.
“You are nothing if not meticulous,” she told him. “And I do like a man who pays attention to details,” she added almost saucily. He smiled broader.
“I’m all about details.”
“What is Executive Solutions?” she asked as they ate.
“It’s a private military organization that specializes in anti-terrorist operations,” he said without the normal pause he might once have used. “They also train some military special forces for western nations that are allied to the U.S.”
“And this. . .CAT?. . .course?” she asked. “Tajima-san seemed greatly interested in that.”
“It’s the ES Combat Assault Tactics course,” Khota again replied without hesitation. “The same basic course that most of the free world’s elite commandos go through in order to gain admittance to their nation’s special forces. A few of the civilian law enforcement SWAT, or SAT for us, units go through it when they can get a slot.”
“And you completed this course?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said simply. “Over the summer.”
“This was the class you finished before going on your. . .hunt,” she observed.
“Yes,” he said again.
“From Tajima-san’s reaction, this course must be well known,” Saeko said after another minute.
“It’s highly sought after,” Khota told her. “Hard to get into and harder still to complete.”
“How did you get into it, if I may ask?” she wanted to know.
“I know the owner,” Khota shrugged. “Brian and Briana’s father, Marshal Mitchner. Former commando. He trains American commandos for certain missions. And he runs Executive Solutions.”
“It was his training camp I went to last year,” he explained. “I became friends with him and his family and he invited me to come back for CAT because he knew I was thinking about the JSDF or the SAT. He thought it would be a big boost to my resume to be able to say I’d had the course. Which it would, of course,” he nodded. “It was a very great favor.”
“My goodness, Khota,” Saeko smiled fondly at him. “You really are something. Most high school boys would be bragging about something like that to anyone who would listen.”
“I know,” he nodded. “But after everything else I just. . .I figured I would just let it lie. Somehow it wasn’t important anymore. Not the course, I mean, but anyone knowing it. It’s just not a big deal.”
“You just keep impressing a girl, Khota-kun,” she told him, rising from her chair. Walking behind him, she draped herself over him, chin coming to rest on the front of his right shoulder. Without conscious thought her hand trailed down to caress his scar beneath his shirt. She could feel it easily through the material of the tee shirt he wore.
“I’m glad,” he said honestly. “I’m also very grateful that you’re here,” he admitted softly.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she promised, kissing is cheek softly. “I promise. Well, other than the bathroom,” she almost giggled. “Be right back.”
“Okay,” he nodded.
Saeko went to her bag and got her phone before going to the bathroom. Once inside she turned the water in the sink on and called her father.
“Daughter?” Kage answered at once.
“Yes, father. I wanted to let you know that I will be staying at Khota’s house tonight. He has. . .he had a very rough day and he needs me.”
“Very well,” Kage said slowly. “I trust you of course, and know that you can take care of yourself, but. . . .”
“It isn’t like that, father,” she smiled into the phone. “If it were, you know I would tell you. No, he simply needs my company. And truthfully, I need his as well. I will be home tomorrow in time for my class.”
“Very well, Saeko,” she could almost see her father smile. “Pleasant dreams.”
“Indeed, father,” she smiled as she cut the call and put her phone away. “Indeed.”
“I can’t believe her,” Saya said as the car pulled away from Khota’s house. “Why in the hell would she do that?”
“I don’t know,” Takashi admitted. “I thought she kinda liked him, to be honest. Her anger came out of left field from where I was. Totally unexpected.”
“She’s supposed to be a ranked sniper, according to Khota,” Saya mentioned. “And while I don’t know much about shooting, I should think that what he did isn’t. . .well, typical.”
“It’s not,” Takashi shook his head. “And the last five rounds he basically made an X on the target. I guess to prove that he hit it all five times that round,” he snorted. “I had no idea he knew which end of a gun the bullet came out of.”
“He’s not a braggart,” Saya nodded in agreement. “Did you see Saeko stand up to Minami, though?” she grinned suddenly. “Was that awesome or what?”
“She was protecting him,” Takashi nodded. “He’s a lucky guy. I know how that is from experience,” he winked at Saya who reddened a bit but smiled.
“Well, good for her, I say,” Saya continued. “I don’t know what it is about him, but Saeko seems to really be into Khota.”
“I think part of it is what we saw today,” Takashi observed.
“The shooting?” Saya frowned.
“No, the way he walked away from Minami after that ration of shit she tried to serve him. Some might have fought back against her. He just walked off. He was basically telling her that he didn’t have anything to prove to her, or anyone else for that matter.”
“Well, I’d say he doesn’t,” Saya said.
“Not a damn thing,” Takashi agreed. “I really do wish I’d never said anything to her about him,” he sounded bitter. “I thought I was doing him a favor.”
“You want to watch a movie?” Khota asked.
“Right now I’d like to borrow one of your shirts,” she told him, her face only slightly red.
“What? Why?” Khota looked confused.
“I need something to sleep in,” Saeko told him simply. Khota’s face ran a gamut of emotions, ending in near panic.
“Saeko, that’s. . .I mean it’s great. . .no, that’s not what I meant, well. . .I mean it is, but what I meant was that . . .” he stopped as she pressed a finger to his lips.
“No need to panic my warrior,” she almost whispered. “You need my company tonight, and I need yours. That’s all. We will not venture any further than holding one another and sharing our kisses.” She kissed him then as if to make her point.
“Ah, okay,” he seemed to calm down. “You know, it’s not that I don’t want-”
“I know,” she smiled again. “I can, um, tell,” she reddened. It took him a second to realize what she meant and then he pulled his groin away from her, red faced.
“I’m sorry!” he said at once. “I didn’t. . .I mean that just kinda happens, and. . .no, no, that’s not what I meant to say, dammit. What I meant was-” she stopped him again, this time with another kiss. When she pulled back, she was smiling again, very softly.
“If I didn’t have that effect on you, I’d be worried,” she told him honestly. “Now, I need to shower too. Shirt?”
“Right,” he nodded. “Shirt. Got it. Shirt,” he said again as he almost stumbled away, heading for his bedroom. “Shirt!” he called back over his shoulder.
“Yes, shirt,” she nodded encouragingly, trying not to laugh. Then she followed.