I woke up slowly. My hand went to my sword, hanging next to my bed, before I even opened my eyes. When I did open them, I saw Ling standing in front of the mirror, brushing her hair.
“What the fu—what time is it?” I asked groggily. I had been having trouble getting to sleep. Butler’s screamers were still wailing up a storm that only we could hear.
“Five A.M.,” Ling reported. “Derek woke me up, told me to give you that—” she pointed to something on my dresser. “And then ran off. Something about rabbits.”
Musashi’s grave…dammit. After a moment, I managed to blink the sleep out of my eyes and focus on the object on my dresser. It was small, and white, and…
It was a bead.
Fully awake, I picked it up. It was what I thought; a white plastic bead, matching the seven on the leather strap I normally had tied to my ponytail (I hung it on the wall before I went to bed each night). They had originally been ceramic, but one bad fall and half of them shattered. So now, they were plastic.
I switched on my desk lamp and turned the bead over in my fingers, trying to read the inscription on the inner edge.
“’Courage in the face of adversity,’” I whispered, smiling. Short and to the point.
I attached it to the leather strap with the ease of practice, and quickly combed my hair, getting out the knots that come from a fitful sleep. Once it was done, I tied it up in a ponytail, weaving my blue ribbon through it at the same time. Then I attached the leather strip—with its eight beads—to the elastic band I used to hold the tail in place.
“What exactly did Derek say he was going to do?” I asked, admiring my new decoration in the mirror.
“He said he had a job, something about crazed rabbits. Someone probably used them for some new drug test. You know how it is.”
I frowned and turned to her. “And he didn’t ask for my help? I figured after yesterday’s debacle, he’d want all the help he could get.”
She shrugged. “He said to let you sleep. Besides, he had Adam with him.”
I suppose I was grateful he hadn’t woken me up earlier than he had to, but it still hurt. We had been fighting together for years. I understood why he thought I would prefer to sleep in, but he should know me better than that. I would much rather spend the time with him, even if it was just chasing after feral bunnies on a bad drug trip.
“That’s all right, I guess. Did you want to do anything today? I think there was a movie—”
“Sorry,” she interrupted. “Can’t. Have to help a friend of mine move. That will probably take most of the day. Although after we might catch a movie, if you wanted to…”
“No, no, that’s fine,” I said quickly. “I don’t want to butt in. Go have fun.”
She rolled her eyes. “I doubt it’ll be fun. But thanks anyway.” She left without another word.
It was too early for anyone else to be awake. With a sigh, I grabbed my sword and water bottle, and headed for the roof. I used the stairs, so I didn’t run into Ling again.
I ran up thirty-one floors at a quick jog, and was nearly out of breath by the time I reached the top. I had improved a lot since I moved in; I’m pretty sure the power package had something to do with that, but how much, I wasn’t sure.
The sun was coming up already. We were only at the start of autumn, so the nights were still short. The light got in my eyes, but I ignored it easily enough.
Once I made sure no one else was around, I started my stretches. It’s a bit embarrassing to do in front of people, and after that one time a fey’s homunculus was peeping on me, I always make sure to check.
After my stretches, I started on some unarmed katas, or martial arts forms. Those took a while, but I eventually moved on to my standard knife katas, including two knives at a time. It’s rare that it becomes relevant, but I am always very, very thankful for the practice when it does.
Then I pulled out my sword.
Sword katas always make me feel more relaxed. I feel elegant and in control when I’m swinging a sword. Things are simple, the answers are clear. Now the blade goes this way. Higher, faster—I make some mistakes, but at least I can see that. Not like when dealing with people. I always say the wrong thing, insult my friends or compliment my enemies.
But swords are easy. Find the enemy and cut them. This is how you block, this is how you feint. This is how you make the killing blow.
My mother hates my sword, hates what I do with it. She married into the Akiyama family, and not for our dying name. She loved my father, although she never liked this part of him either. She likes to remind me that it was his honor and his sword that got him killed.
My grandfather, of course, loves her. He was always a bit of the black sheep of the family. More than anything, he hated the fact that we were a ronin house. He never liked samurai in the first place, he would always say, but when the Tokugawa family fell, we should have died with them. It made no sense to preserve a ronin house.
I almost believed them. For a long time, I despaired, convinced that honor was dead and that the Akiyama name would die with me.
I don’t believe that any more.
I sheathed my sword without even noticing; I had finished my sword katas by instinct. I was sweating profusely, and finished off my water bottle in one long drink. With nothing else to do on the roof, I headed downstairs at a brisk jog for a shower.
After I got out of the shower, I texted Laura. She was busy too; she was doing something with Lizzy, apparently. It was strange—I had always hated Lizzy, not just because how she monopolized Derek’s attention but because she refused to speak anything other than Japanese to me, even before I understood it. But I’ve been warming up to her a little. Yes, she was still annoying and not very smart, but she was clearly genuine. I just wished she would talk to me in English.
With no one else to call, I sat down on my bed. What should I do? I couldn’t go to a movie alone, and honestly there wasn’t anything I was interested in watching. I had forgotten all my books and shows at home, and didn’t really want to deal with my mother. If I were interested in anime, I could have looked through one of the billion or so Ling had on her shelf, but I wasn’t that bored. Besides, she hadn’t actually given me permission, and I didn’t want to bother her with asking. I would call Seena, but since she became a vampire, her schedule was probably all twisted into knots.
I slowly realized that there was someone I could call. My exercise had taken longer than usual, probably because I was so tired, so it was about seven. Flynn would probably be up shortly; most athletes get up earlier rather than later.
But did I want to? He was still too confusing. He seemed nice enough, and Lizzy kept encouraging me to do something, but I just didn’t know enough about him. Could I really trust him?
I was overthinking it. I wasn’t asking him for anything important; I just wanted some company for the day. A couple hours, nothing more. It was no big deal.
Ten minutes later, I finally managed to send a short message asking if he wanted to do anything. I had re-written it a couple dozen times.
To my surprise, I got a reply within a minute.
He was busy. Something with friends.
I laid back on my bed and sighed. Everyone had friends, people they were doing things with. All I had was Derek, and even he had abandoned me.
I shouldn’t be so negative. He had intended to give me the day off as a gift, not a snub. I might as well make the most of it.
I warmed up my laptop and started trawling through the message boards, especially the one that Flynn had said started the Composer meme. I wasn’t able to find much—I’m hardly a technology wizard. But I did find the first person to use the name ‘the Composer.’ His screen name was ‘the conductor of the cacophonic steel chorus,’ which wasn’t a name I recognized. I sent him a private message, out of curiosity more than anything else, asking him where he got the name idea.
I wouldn’t get a response right away, of course, so I spent some more time online, checking updates on my favorite sites. The giant alley crawlers we had dispatched were already headline news on the kind of pages that care about that sort of thing. Obould had written a short blurb on the subject, and promised to publish his results once he was finished dissecting the corpses.
After about two hours of all that, I had enough, and headed out.
It was still pretty early, especially for a college town. There was almost no one on the streets except for a few dozen scattered teachers. I left AU without even looking around. There’s some stuff to do inside the Springfield wall, but not much. Mostly just the library, which I had little interest in.
I stopped by the intersection where the biters had attacked; it was already bustling again. A few of the stores had boarded-over windows, but their doors were open and customers came and went.
The regenerative nature of Domina City is really amazing. I’ve never been anywhere else, but everything I read made it clear that if this had happened anywhere else, the entire area would have been condemned.
I didn’t bother checking out Triple I. Half of those buildings were ash, and the rest skeletal remains. The burners had been thorough, and trying to capture them had given them a lot of time to play around. Thankfully it was mostly smaller businesses, rather than the massive apartments ‘scrapers of the Middle City, but a lot was lost regardless.
“Hey, sweetie, looking for someone?”
I glanced up and realized I had taken a shortcut into a dark alley without even noticing. A couple dumpsters were open nearby, and the six ghouls who had been partaking of their contents were starting forward, fierce grins on their faces. They surrounded me quickly, cutting off my escape back to the daylit street.
They were pretty heavily modified. In addition to the nighteyes and the internal cannibalism buff, they had pale skin, large fangs, enhanced jaws, and steel claws surgically bonded to their fingers. These were not homeless people trying to save money on food. They were dangerous predators, who probably killed multiple people a day.
It was like God was trying to cheer me up.
I didn’t bother with a warning; I would have just lost the advantage of surprise. I left my bag partially unzipped for exactly this kind of situation. I reached inside and grabbed the hilt of my sword, drawing it out and slashing the closest ghoul without hesitation.
He screamed and stumbled back as a deep cut blossomed on his chest, but he wasn’t out yet. As I dropped the bag and sheath, I stepped forward and made a great horizontal swing. I separated his head from his shoulders without too much difficulty. The trick is to aim between the vertebrae. It’s still hardly easy, but there’s minimal resistance that way.
Even before his blood began to fountain, I kicked the corpse away and started at the second one, on my left. His instincts were good enough that he managed to dodge my first blow. He stepped inside my swing and tried to get at my chest with his claws, probably trying to reach under my rib cage and towards my heart.
I simply released my katana with my left hand and swatted his wrist. He retracted, the same instincts that had saved him before dooming him now. Now I stepped inside his swing, and plunged my sword into his heart.
I spun away just as one of his companions slashed at me. He ended up hitting his friend’s corpse instead, but he just cursed and tossed it aside. But that gave me an opening, and I carefully cut his wrist, rendering it useless.
I would have followed through, but two of his allies were coming from behind me to either side, likely hoping they could grab my arms and end this quickly.
A quick backstep left me behind them rather than the other way around, and I got the one on the right in the heart before he even realized what was happening. The one on the left tried to attack while my sword was still in his friend, but I whipped out one of my smaller knives, meeting his claws and cutting into his fingers.
He cried out, clutching his bleeding hand, which left me enough of an opening to withdraw my katana from his companion and give him the same treatment, only from the front.
The ghoul I had injured before, the one with the newly gimp left hand, tried to feint at me a couple times with his right, but I wasn’t fooled. This wasn’t my first waltz; I knew what trick they tried next.
Sure enough, when I faked overextending myself, he whipped forward his left hand with all the strength he could muster. He might not be able to flex his fingers with the tendons cut, but there were still sharp claws at the end, and he had more than enough muscles in his arm to propel them with deadly force.
I ducked under the sloppy blow and stabbed him in the throat with the same knife I had used moments earlier. He died gurgling in surprise.
One more. Where was—
I saw him, standing behind one of the dumpsters, moments before he opened fire with a small boxy handgun. Low caliber, but still enough to kill me pretty easily.
But, again, this wasn’t my first waltz.
I threw the knife at him quickly, and immediately dodged for the dumpster. The blade didn’t get him, of course; it was hardly balanced for throwing, and even if it was, killing someone with a throwing knife is harder than it looks.
But, it served its purpose, as he tried to dodge and shoot at the same time. His shot went wild, and by the time he managed to get his wits about him, I was already there, and I stabbed him in the throat with my blade without a word.
I cleaned my sword quickly, then sheathed it and slung the bag over my shoulder again. I took a few minutes searching the bodies, but as expected they didn’t have much of value. I took the gun, though, and the extra bullets the ghoul had on him. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
As I collected my knife—undamaged, thankfully—I pulled out my phone and dialed MC.
“Hello, Miss Akiyama,” her fake voice greeted me as warmly as possible. “What can I do for you today?”
“I just killed six ghouls in an alley off Abigail and Celestia,” I said, skipping the pleasantries. “The intersection where the biters attacked. Is there a reward or anything?”
“Nothing was posted,” she responded. “And no one is reported to have gone missing in that area.”
“Well, if they had been here a week ago, they’d be dead or screaming.”
“Correct. If you would like to send me their pictures, I could check the wanted notices.”
It was a bit grisly work, getting the mug shots of the dead ghouls, but I had been forced to deal with far worse in the past. I sent them to MC and waited for her to finish searching.
“The leader had a bounty,” she said finally. “Only fifty dollars dead, I’m afraid. But it is something.”
I sighed. “Can you have that transferred directly to my account?”
“Certainly. Of course, there will be a six hour wait, in case you are trying to take credit for someone else’s kill.”
“Of course. I understand. When will the ‘sarian cleanup crew be here?”
“Now,” a voice from behind me said.
I turned to see an older baseline man, dressed completely in black except for a red stripe on his hat and white rubber gloves on his hands, walking into the alley. He set a large briefcase on the ground.
“I’ll take it from here, Miss,” he said warmly. Kind or not, it was clearly a dismissal, but I looked around with a frown. Where was the rest of his crew?
He chuckled at some private joke as he opened the case. I saw that it was packed with carefully secured objects I didn’t understand the purpose of; feather dusters, empty vials, filled vials, and other things. “I’m not actually the cleanup crew,” he admitted. “I’m the forensic man, here to make sure there was no foul play.” He indicated the mouth of the alley. “So I’m afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave the scene.”
I frowned at first, but when I held up the phone to my ear to ask MC, she spoke. “He’s genuine. The cleanup crew will be there shortly.”
I hung up, nodded to the CSI, and headed back to my dorm. I wasn’t covered in blood, but my clothes were certainly stained. Thankfully, one of the gifts of the toy maker was a spray can of genetically engineered…something or other that ate away blood, letting me get rid of stains without having to resort to bleach.
Emily stared at me a little oddly as I entered the lobby, but she just shrugged and went back to her magazine. When I reached the elevator, though, she spoke up.
“Once you change, head to Laura’s room,” she called without looking away from her reading. “She said they needed help rearranging the furniture.”
I sighed, and nodded, though she didn’t seem to care. I entered the elevator and pressed the button for the ninth floor.
Ling wasn’t home, as expected, and neither were Adam or Derek. Fetch quests can take annoyingly long, especially when the MacGuffin can run around. I threw my gi in the hamper—I’d deal with the stains later—and put on some jeans and a loose black t-shirt. It was force of habit. I don’t think I had anything that I wouldn’t be able to fight in. I made sure to bring me sword with me; again, even when I wasn’t expecting trouble, things always went wrong.
There were a couple people on the elevator when I got back on. They tried to engage me in conversation, but I found it difficult to even smile politely, so they quickly stopped trying and chatted among themselves. I felt relieved when I got off on floor six.
Laura’s room was…number sixteen? Yes, that was right. It was a few yards down the right hallway. The whiteboard was covered in Lizzy’s handwriting, inviting people in using about six different languages. I sighed and knocked.
“It’s open!” Laura called. I pushed open the door.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AKANE!”
I blinked. What?
Everyone was there, even Lily and Flynn. Derek, Adam, Lizzy, Laura, Ling… There was a large birthday banner hanging from the ceiling, and a small stack of presents on Laura’s desk. At least I think it was Laura’s. It was the side with less posters, anyway.
“I thought…” I couldn’t find words.
Derek stepped forward, grinning broadly, and placed a small paper crown on my head, the kind you find at kiddie restaurants. “Sorry I had Ling lie to you, but this took a while to set up.” He pulled me into the room gently. “C’mon, you only turn nineteen once.”
I got hugs and birthday wishes from everyone, though I was still a bit dazed. I had never had a birthday party before, not a real one. Before I met Derek, I was always that crazy girl who thought she was a samurai. Even after, pretty much my only friends were Derek, Lizzy and Seena—and I didn’t particularly like Lizzy, and Seena was often busy.
“Oh, there’s someone else!” Ling said, handing me a phone. Frowning, I took it.
“Happy birthday, Akane!” Lori’s voice chirped in my ear. “Sorry I can’t be there in person, but Derek has my present for you.
“N-no, it’s okay, I understand.” I was a little worried about what kind of present a Dagonite would give me, but I put that on hold. “Calling is enough.”
“I’m really busy, so I have to go, but I’ll call again later, all right? Have a great day!”
“Thank you,” I whispered. She hung up.
“The twins were supposed to come too,” Derek apologized, referring to Simon and Seena. “Not sure where they went off to.”
I wasn’t really all that upset that I didn’t have to deal with the sibriex today, but I was upset that I wouldn’t get to see his sister. Oh well. I’m sure they had a good reason. She always did.
Lily set up the cake, a small white-frosted dish with nineteen candles, on a folding table. She spread out the paper plates and smiled at me. “Did you want to do the cake first, or presents?”
I was at a loss. I…could barely think. “Presents,” I managed. That way while we were eating the cake, we could examine the gifts I got more closely.
Derek carefully sat me down on Lizzy’s bed, where I could see the pile of presents. Everyone else—seven in all—sat on the other bed or stood. Flynn seemed hesitant, but eventually sat down on Lizzy’s bed next to me. I didn’t say anything, but I was grateful. It felt weird sitting there alone.
“The first one is from Lori,” Derek said, bringing over the box in question. I took it; it was heavier than expected. I sort of just sat there for a moment, not really sure what to do.
“You can open it,” Adam pointed out. Quiet laughter rippled through the room.
I blushed and started ripping open the package. It was…
A cell phone?
“She said you told her about how you hate your current phone,” Derek explained. “This is a top of the line model. Waterproof, large memory, and it will take a bullet and keep working.”
“I…” I glanced around at the expectant faces and blushed again. I put the box to the side. “Remind me to thank her in person later.”
“Mine next,” Ling insisted, grabbing a long and thin box. I opened it, and found a rather elegant silver necklace. Just the chain, though. There was a place to add a pendant, but I didn’t have anything.
“Thanks,” I said honestly. I wasn’t really sure when I would have a chance to use it, but I liked it. I carefully packed it away again, and placed it with the cell phone.
The rest passed by in a bit of a blur. Laura’s present turned out to be a pendant to go with the necklace; it was a simple onyx stone, my birthstone. Lizzy cheerfully handed me The Art of War (in Japanese, of course), all the while rambling on about how it had managed to capture the intent and feel of the original Chinese. Her rambling was also in Japanese, so everyone else just looked politely confused.
Lily gave me a black gi, and I vaguely remembered mentioning to her months ago that I only had white ones. Her memory could be scary at times.
Her boyfriend, on the other hand, gave me a sharpening set. It was very high quality, I’ll admit, but I had a billion of the things. I just smiled, thanked him, and moved on.
Flynn gave me a pair of absolutely beautiful earrings, each with three onyx stones inscribed with the kanji of my name. I couldn’t resist; I put them on right away, earning murmurs of approval from everyone else. I hugged him, but withdrew quickly when I realized what I was doing.
Derek was last. “Here,” he said, handing me a lightweight bag. I frowned. Normally, he gave me knives and other practical things, but this didn’t feel like that. I opened it up gingerly.
It was a panther.
A plush panther, I mean.
Adam raised his eyebrow. “A stuffed animal? Really?”
But I smiled. Panthers were my favorite. He really did know me perfectly.
Maybe it seems odd, but that was about when I decided that I wasn’t going to let him go with just being friends. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but in a good way. He was in love with Lizzy? Fine. That just made it a challenge.
“Thank you so much,” I said, hugging him warmly. “I love it.”
I’ve never failed anything I’ve set my mind to. Perhaps it wasn’t the wisest course of action, but I had made my decision. No more pussyfooting around. The heart wants what the heart wants, isn’t that what they say?
Lily slid off the bed. “Now, its time for cake!”
Behind the Scenes (scene 27)
The leader of the ghouls stole some important documents, which is why the reward was higher for him alive. Now they probably won’t ever find them.
I guess Buxom Babes Monthly will just have to re-take their centerfold shots.