Takashi stood in the receiving area for the Tokonosu Airport ferry, waiting to see Khota Hirano coming through the gates. As he stood there, a man with a large cowboy hat, similar to what he had seen in old westerns from America, blocked his vision, coming to a stop right in front of him. Takashi moved to his left so he could see, only to have the man shift again to block him. Takashi moved back to his right and again the man with the hat moved.
“Sir, I’m-” he started, then stopped, his jaw dropping.
“Khota?” he goggled and his friend’s tanned face broke into a wide grin.
“Khota, what-I almost don’t recognize you!” Takashi exclaimed. “You look great!”
And he did. Khota had lost weight while he’d been gone, and had toned up a good bit as well. He had also gained three inches of height over the summer which made him look as if he’d lost even more weight. He was leaner now, though still solidly built, and had a tougher look about him. Takashi noticed a scar running along Khota’s right cheekbone, disappearing under the western shirt he was wearing.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“Ah, cut myself shaving,” Khota shrugged. “Good to see you, man,” he grinned again. “How was your summer?”
“It was pretty awesome, to be honest,” Takashi admitted. “Lets get your bags, man. Saya is outside with her car. We’ll take you home.”
“Ah, it’ll take a minute, and. . .I already arranged for a ride, Takashi,” Khota hedged. “I appreciate you guys being here, but I have a lot of stuff that came back with me so I had to hire a van to carry it home.”
“Well, let the van carry it, and we’ll follow them, then,” Takashi suggested. Khota seemed to consider that for a minute, then nodded.
“All right. That sounds workable. It’ll take me a few minutes to get everything done. Meet you outside?”
“Works,” Takashi nodded. “See you out there.”
It was almost thirty minutes before Khota appeared, just as a van pulled up to the curb behind Saya’s car. Two men got out and hurriedly loaded Khota’s things, then waited for the car to lead them to their destination. Khota got in the back seat with Takashi and Saya, who immediately noticed the changes.
“Wow, Khota, you’re looking good!” she said, smiling. “America seems to agree with you!”
“I made a lot of progress there,” he said quietly.
“Find the school you wanted?” Takashi asked as the car left the airport.
“Eh? Oh, well, no, I probably won’t end up going to college there after all,” he shook is head. “I suppose it’s possible, but. . .right now I’m seriously looking at the SDF Military Academy, or perhaps the National Police. I’ve got some time to figure it out,” he shrugged.
“Wow, that’s a big step,” Takashi observed.
“I know, but. . .it just hit me over the summer, I guess,” he shrugged again. “And like I said, I haven’t made any decision as yet.”
The three friends spent the next twenty minutes catching up until they arrived at Khota’s house. It was a very impressive two story structure with a gated drive.
“Nice,” Takashi whistled, having never been there before.
“Thanks,” Khota smiled. “Well, I need to get this stuff unloaded, and then I’ll need to check the house over. There was supposed to be someone taking care of it so it should be okay. Once I’m done I’ll call you guys. Maybe we can meet up somewhere for dinner?”
“Sounds good,” Takashi nodded after looking at Saya. “Sure you don’t need any help?” he offered.
“No, no. I’m good.” He smiled suddenly. “It’s good to be home. I think this year will be a better year. For all of us.”
“Yeah, man!” Takashi bumped fists with him and then Khota was out, talking to the men in the van.
“Wow, he’s really changed a lot over the summer,” Saya observed once he was gone.
“We probably seem that way to him, too,” Takashi pointed out. “And we have changed, come to think of it.”
“True,” she nodded. “Well, lets call Saeko while we’re waiting, I guess.”
“Okay,” Takashi nodded. “She might want to get dinner with us too.”
Khota met Takashi and Saya at a small diner that was popular for western style food about two hours later. He had ditched his hat, his hair combed back in a new style, leaving his now tanned face showing more clearly. He had showered and changed clothes after his long flight and look much less tired.
“A friend of ours is coming to join us soon, Khota, I hope that’s all right,” Saya told him as he sat down across from the couple.
“Of course,” was all he said, nodding. “So I understand you guys have begun studying the sword, now?” he said, smiling.
“Started, yes,” Takashi nodded. “It’s. . .a work in progress.”
“He means we’re both terrified,” Saya confirmed, looking at the menu. “If it wasn’t for Saeko-chan, we’d have both chickened out by now.”
“Probably,” Takashi nodded.
“Well, I got you something while I was in America,” he told them, picking up two of the three tubes he had brought in with him. “They aren’t assembled yet. I think you’ll find them useful, though.”
“Thanks, man,” Takashi said, taking his. Saya placed hers in the window while Takashi opened his. What he found was a black blade of some kind of plastic, in the shape of a katana.
“Wow,” Takashi low whistled. “Khota this thing is awesome!” he said. “Dude, thanks!”
“Yours is the same Saya-chan,” Khota smiled at her, then nodded to Takashi. “I hope it helps. I know that you probably use a wooden blade, but. . .well, these things are all but indestructible. Made of ba-” he broke off as he felt someone behind him and tensed. Neither of his friends noticed as they both looked up and smiled.
“Saeko-chan!” Saya beamed. “Please join us. Saeko Busujima, this is Khota Hirano. Khota, this is Saeko.” Khota stood at that, and Takashi noted that he was now almost an inch taller than Saeko. He really had shot up over the summer.
“Busujima-senpai,” he bowed. “A pleasure.” Khota didn’t stammer or hesitate, nor did he seem red-faced. Takashi felt as if he was seeing his friend for the first time.
“Hirano-san,” Saeko returned the bow. “May I join you?” she asked politely.
“Please do,” Khota waved to the bench seat and Saeko slid into it until she was facing Saya. Khota sat down beside her, careful not to touch her.
“Oh my, Takashi-kun,” Saeko said suddenly, eyeing the blade he was holding. “That is very nice indeed,” she almost whispered. “May I?” she asked.
“Don’t bother,” Khota told her softly, picking up the third tube. “This is for you, Busujima-senpai, assuming you will allow me?” he asked. She looked at him.
“In appreciation for taking such good care of my best and almost only friend all summer,” he smiled slightly, extending the tube to her. “I did not know if you would be interested in something like it, but since it seems you are, this is for you.”
“Ah. . .Hirano-san, I do not know what to say,” Saeko looked at him, and Takashi and Saya exchanged a look. They had never seen Saeko unsettled before.
“Thank you will suffice,” Khota’s smile broadened. “If you put up with Takashi all summer, I’m sure you’ve earned it,” he added.
“Hey!” Takashi tried to sound offended but only ended up sounding like he was trying not to laugh.
“I do thank you, Hirano-san,” Saeko nodded, gingerly taking the cardboard tube from him.
“As I was saying, the entire thing is made of ballistic reinforced nylon polymer, or words that sound like that,” he shrugged. “I admit I know less than nothing of these things, but I was told that it’s balance would mimic the real thing fairly well. Many use it in practice because of it’s balance, and I also observed a mock battle between two people using them earlier in the summer. They both assured me that to be hit with one stung.”
“I imagine so,” Saeko said absently as she pulled hers from the tube. “It does feel quite well balanced.”
“The guard is separate, and can be attached by simply sliding it over the blade and into place,” Khota told them. “Otherwise, it’s a one piece, molded construction.”
“I am honored that you would think of me, Hirano-san,” Saeko told him softly. “I am in your debt.”
“Not at all,” Khota assured her. “Takashi told me you were a very close friend of his and Saya’s. As they are two of my only three friends, I am appreciative of your treatment of them. Not to mention,” his eyes twinkled slightly, “that your training might prevent Takashi from having another hospital stay.”
It was Saya who laughed first, trying to cover her mouth to keep the noise down. Takashi was shaking his head ruefully and Saeko had also covered her mouth, laughing softly behind her hand.
“Dude, for real?” Takashi had a wounded expression on his face. “Not back a whole day even?”
“I’ve missed you, Takashi,” Khota grinned, lifting his water glass in salute. “I look forward to the new year.”
“Well, it starts all too soon,” Takashi sighed. “And joy of joys, Miyamoto will be in our rank this year.”
“I’m sorry?” Khota frowned. “I thought Miyamoto was a year ahead.”
“She was held back this year,” Saya said quietly. “We don’t know why.”
“Perhaps because of her behavior?” Khota suggested.
“I can’t see that being the reason,” Saya shook her head. “Whatever she did was outside of class. No reason for that to be a factor.”
“Well then, I suppose we shall live in interesting times, as the Chinese like to say,” Khota shrugged. “Don’t let it bother you.”
“I don’t intend to,” Takashi assured him. The waitress arrived just then and the four of them ordered, Khota insisting on paying for all of them.
Soon the foursome were eating traditional western food, including burgers for Saya, Takashi, and Saeko, and a steak with potato fries for Khota.
“I’m hungry after my flight,” he semi-apologized. “They served a meal, but. . .truthfully, they shouldn’t bother. That stuff was all but inedible,” he shook his head.
“Don’t mind us,” Saya said around a mouthful of burger. “We’re hungry too!”
Talk continued around the table as the trio caught Khota up on everything that had happened while he was gone. Then, Takashi looked at his friend.
“What about you, Khota?” he asked. “How was your trip?”
“It was good,” the other boy nodded, finishing up his plate. “I enjoyed most of it very much and all of it was. . .informative. I stayed longer than I intended to, but with my parents in Europe all summer it didn’t matter. To be honest, I almost stayed there,” he admitted. “Were it not for you two, and Morita, I probably would have.”
“Wow,” Takashi’s eyes widened. “That must have been some trip.”
“It was,” Khota nodded. “It was difficult at first, I admit. I had studied English in preparation for going, but. . .many areas of the States speak their own dialect, much like the regional dialects here. And sometimes the word you use in one region means something all together different in another.”
“There are a great many issues in America that are different, yet similar, to what we see here in Japan. Where our people are often divided by rank, class, or caste, in America there are essentially three divisions; race, wealth, and region. The last one is often difficult to work out,” he admitted.
“Yet you liked it there enough that you were tempted to stay,” Saeko observed.
“Yes,” he admitted. “I. . .the group I was part of accepted me without reservation. Made me a part of their circle and allowed me to become a part of their. . .tribe, almost,” he shook his head. “I can’t really think of a proper word for it, but. . .it would be akin to brotherhood, though that is too restrictive since there were women there as well. I just can’t think of a better way to put it.”
“It sounds interesting,” Saeko noted.
“Very,” he nodded in agreement. “I already made plans and reservations to return next year,” he admitted.
“Thinking about staying next time?” Takashi asked.
“I suppose it’s possible,” Khota shrugged. “It’s a long time until then, Takashi, and a lot can happen between now and then. There are people here that I would miss, though not many. I’ll have to decide. . .I’ll have to decide if I can miss them that much, I guess.”
“I can’t imagine what kind of trip that must have been!” Takashi shook his head. “I’ve never been outside of Japan!”
“I’ve been lots of places, mostly following my mom around when I was younger,” Khota sighed. “But this was the best trip I’ve ever taken, by far.”
“So what all did you do while you-” Takashi began, then saw Khota tense up. Before he could ask why, a shadow fell across the table.
“Now what are two lovely cherry blossoms like you doing with a pair of chumps like these?”
Takashi looked up to see three men, older than himself or Khota, standing by their table. One stood at the front, the other two behind and to his sides. A cigarette was hanging out of the speaker’s mouth despite the plethora of no-smoking signs around the diner.
“Move along, losers,” Saya replied before anyone else could speak. “The cherry blossoms aren’t interested.”
“Smart mouthed little bitch, isn’t she,” the speaker said over his shoulder. “We can fix that.” His two ‘friends’ smiled. One had a gold crown or some other dental work on his upper front, similar to what ‘gangsters’ would sport in America.
“I think you’ve said about enough,” Takashi said evenly, looking up at the man. Below the table, his hand wrapped around the plastic sword that Khota had presented him with. He had never bothered to put it back in the tube it had come in and it was laying alongside his leg, between him and Saya.
“Oh, one of the boyfriends is gonna fight!” the speaker’s eyes widened. “What about the other one?” he turned to look at Khota. “Will he try to protect his whore t-”
Khota literally exploded out of his seat, so fast that Takashi didn’t even realize he was moving until the speaker was already doubled over.
Slapping the speaker in the groin as he got to his feet, Khota slammed the handle of his steak knife, hidden in his left hand, into the speaker’s throat as the man doubled over from the groin shot. Gagging, the man fell slowly into the floor, choking.
Stunned at first, his two henchmen were finally galvanized into action and began to reach into their coats.
“Don’t,” was all Khota said, standing his ground.
The one on the right pulled a knife, the blade springing out even as he swung. Khota’s left hand came up like a shot and blocked the stroke, his right fist slamming into the inside part of the other man’s forearm even as his left hooked around the arm, holding it in place. The sickening crunch of bone could be heard throughout the diner as could the man’s screams as he saw bone protruding from his arm, clearly broken in two. Khota continued to hold the arm while lifting his left foot and kicking the side of his attacker’s knee with his American style boots. Another sickening pop filled the diner, and the second man joined the first on the floor, screaming.
The final attacker was also moving, but Takashi had finally gotten over his shock at seeing Khota moving and was on his own feet now, plastic bokken swinging. Takashi used the flat of the ‘blade’, slamming it into the nose of the final aggressor, using his right hand and shoulder to add force to the blow while his left maintained his grip.
He didn’t know if he’d broken the man’s nose or not, but he knew from experience that a blow like that would fill your eyes with tears and leave you blinded. The man swung his left hand, holding what looked like a police baton, in a blind motion. Takashi merely ducked beneath it, then slammed the plastic katana into the man’s right knee the same way. As the tough pulled his weight off that leg, almost hopping, Takashi took a page from Khota’s book and drove the handle of his new favorite toy straight into the other man’s groin using a two handed grip, which effectively ended the fight.
“Holy shit!” Saya was the first one to speak, surveying the damages. She looked to Takashi, who was standing over the man he had put down, watching him closely. She glanced at Khota, then did a double take at their friend.
Khota looked like a wild man for just a few more seconds, eyes blazing with the kind of raw, naked violence you usually only saw in movies. His hands flexed, knife still in his left hand, blade hugging his forearm in a reverse grip, and he was looking at the first man he’d put down as if he had something more permanent in mind.
Saya suddenly had an image of Khota with bared fangs, growling over a fresh kill. She had to shake her head to clear the image away.
“Hirano-kun,” Saeko’s quiet voice almost floated across the table. “Would you let me take that for you now?” she asked, her hand moving slowly and gently to the knife he was holding. Khota’s focus shifted to her and Saya heard Saeko’s sharp intake of breath as she saw the same look in Khota’s eyes that she herself had seen.
Then, just as quickly as he had erupted, Khota was calm again. He turned his hand and offered the knife to Saeko handle first, smiling.
“Serrated edge is no good for this kind of thing anyway.”
“Jesus, kid,” Rika Minami was shaking her head as Takashi tried to explain what had happened. SAT had received the call because of the violence so she and Tajima had rolled in ready for bear, only to find four teenagers, two of whom she knew personally, standing over three known gang members.
Severely injured gang members. Possibly permanently crippled gang members.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Takashi said for at least the fifth time. “Those three started it.”
“According to witnesses, your friend threw the first punch,” she reminded him.
“They were threatening Saya and Saeko,” Takashi stood his ground. “They shouldn’t have,” he added, daring her to dispute him.
“No, clearly they shouldn’t have,” Rika sighed. “There is no way, no way, anyone will believe that two high school kids did this,” she sighed. “Do you have any idea how dangerous this was?” she demanded. “Two of those punks had hand guns, Takashi,” she informed him. “If they hadn’t underestimated you, they might have used them!”
“They were threatening Saya and Saeko,” Takashi repeated, slower this time. “And we should have the right to defend them, and ourselves. Not to mention sit in a diner and eat a simple meal without being accosted by riffraff.”
Rika fought down a grin at how much Takashi Komuro had seemed to grow and mature over the last. . .not even a year, she realized. The boy she had met in the hospital that was trying so hard to stay out of trouble had become a man that trouble seemed to follow.
“Go home,” she ordered him. “Don’t tell anyone your name,” she added. “Any of you. You’re all under age, so your identities are protected. I don’t think these three will be able to retaliate any time soon, but they may have friends. I’ll look and see.”
“Khota too?” Takashi asked, refusing to abandon his friend.
“Yes, Khota too,” Rika sighed. “No judge or prosecutor in this city will think twice about this before dropping it. ‘High society girls threatened by thugs, beaten up by high school boyfriends’? Yeah, that’s a no brainer. But for Christ’s sake Takashi, and my alcohol intake, stay out of trouble,” she pleaded.
“Uh, this might not be a good time,” Takashi thought of something. “But, ah, Khota was, uh, he was thinking he might be interested in joining the police forces. Maybe,” he added, looking at Rika almost hopefully. “Think you might talk to him about that sometime? Maybe?”
“Hirano-kun, are you all right?” Saeko asked quietly as they watched Takashi ‘deal’ with the police.
“Fine,” he nodded from where he was leaning on the fender of Saya’s car. “Wonder what that’s all about?” he said, nodding to where Takashi was talking to a female SAT officer. He sounded as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“I’m afraid I don’t know, other than trying to ensure that neither of you go to jail, I suppose,” she offered quietly.
“We aren’t going to jail,” Khota told her. “If we were, we’d already be in handcuffs and on our way there. Those three are criminals,” he nodded to where the last man was being loaded onto an ambulance. “I guarantee it. That’s why she’s giving Takashi a tongue lashing instead of carting us off. That and Takashi knows her fairly well, I’d say,” he added
“How would you know that?” Saeko asked.
“Look at their body language,” Khota shrugged. “Takashi is almost challenging her authority, and she’s scolding rather than lecturing. Watch her shake her head. And look, there’s an eye roll. She’s talked to him before.” He snapped his fingers suddenly.
“She interviewed him after the thing with Hisashi Igou,” it finally hit him. “That’s how he knows her, I’d bet.”
“It is,” Saya walked up after having gotten off the phone with her mother, assuring her that yes, she was fine and that yes, as soon as the police were finished she would be home. “We met her at the hospital in fact. Her name is Rika Minami. She’s a friend of Shizuka-sensei’s,” she added as Rika and Takashi walked toward them.
“Pinky, can you not keep him out of trouble?” Rika demanded, looking at Saya.
“In his defense, they started it,” Saya replied.
“Is that right?” Rika turned her gaze to Khota Hirano. “An entire diner full of people say someone else might have thrown the first punch.”
“Bad lighting,” Khota shrugged, unconcerned. “His back was to them, they couldn’t see. Only natural to assume I did it. I was responding to his threat, though, officer. I even asked, nicely, that his two friends not attack us.”
“You did?” Rika’s eyebrow rose again.
“Promise,” Khota nodded, making the ‘cross my heart’ sign. “Didn’t work though,” he added after a second. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, everybody’s sorry,” Rika shook her head again, hands in the air. “What am I going to do with you kids!” she exclaimed.
“Well, I’d actually like to talk to you about-” Khota started.
“I know!” Rika cut him off. “He already told me,” she pointed at Takashi. Khota looked at Takashi, who raised his own hands in a symbol of peace.
“Dude, just puttin’ in a good word for you, that’s all,” he promised.
“Thanks, man,” Khota smiled. “I appreciate that.”
“Go. Home.” Rika ground out. “All of you,” she glared at Khota. “And I’ll talk to you later,” she said reluctantly. “Assuming you don’t kill anyone,” she added darkly as she headed back toward her vehicle.
“Hirano-kun was quite correct in his assessment it seems,” Saeko was the first to speak.
“How’s what?” Saya looked as if she was trying to catch up. “What’s that now?”
“Hirano-kun had worked out quite nicely how things would go,” Saeko told her, grinning. “Well, except for that last part, about the job,” she added with a snicker. “I don’t believe he saw that one coming, did you?” she asked him, smiling.
“Ah, no,” Khota admitted, standing. “I didn’t. I need to pay the bill,” he thought suddenly.
“GO HOME!” Rika shouted across the way, shaking her head at him.
“I should leave a tip at least,” Khota mused. Loud enough for Rika to hear apparently as she simply pointed over their heads without looking. The message was clear.
They went home.