Notes and Disclaimers: I’m sorry to say that this story is not for you, the reader. It is for me, the reader of Hana no Asuka-gumi. As a result, it’s probably not even something you can follow without work – it’s basically a re-visitation of some of the places and people who were important in Asuka’s life.
The title can be read two ways, both are applicable, but one is more so.
All characters in this story, with the exception of Yukina, are the property of Takeguchi Satosumi, Feel Young Comics and all the many copyright holders for this 18-year-old (and brand new) manga series. Check out Atarashii Hana no Asuka-gumi in Feel Young monthly and join the gang. ;-)
Positive comments are always welcome at email@example.com. Negative comments ought at least to be creative, because they will be graded and returned to you with criticism.
Worldshaking Fanfic is a major supporter of Yuricon, a celebration of shoujai and yuri in anime and manga.
WSF also supports the Fanfic Revolution, because fanfic doesn’t have to suck.
New Year’s Resolution
“Yohko,” Asuka answered out loud before she could stop herself. She didn’t bother glancing around – there were too many people, and too much noise for her slip to have been noticed.
“Yohko,” she muttered once again, under her breath. There was no rhyme or reason to it – the voice came to her in crowds, when she was alone, at night or during the day, indiscriminately. And each time, it was as if the woman herself stood right next to her. About half the time, Asuka found herself speaking to Yohko before the reality of the situation came back to her. But always, the voice was so real, so compelling – so alone – that Asuka wanted to reach out and…
She scanned the crowd around her, trying to distract herself from the face which appeared unbidden, but never unwanted, in front of her. Mostly young couples; well groomed, nicely dressed, upwardly mobile men and women who were there at the shrine to pray for the kinds of things that young couples have always prayed for throughout time.
She shuffled forward with the line, taking in the lanterns and braided paper decorations in the courtyard. This little corner of Shinjuku was always busy this time of year. What impulse had prompted her to join the crowd at the Hanazono Shrine was obscure, even to herself. But she had long ago ceased to question her instincts. Years of street fighting and survival had taught her that her intuition was her strongest and most reliable quality. Recently, Asuka had turned those skills – and her penchant for leadership – towards a new set of challenges; but the business world would never hold one ounce as much interest for her as life on the streets of Shinjuku had. All she knew for sure was that her instinct had led her here to the Shrine, so here was where she was supposed to be.
It was her turn now. Asuka pulled a coin at random from her pocket. The 500 yen piece flashed gold in her hand under the bright lights. She hefted it for a second and with a quick flick of the wrist, threw the coin into the offering box where it slid through the metal slats without a sound. She smiled at that, stepped up and shook the braided cord, then put her hands together twice. She closed her eyes and bowed her head and waited, but nothing came. Nothing ever did. She simply had no need of gods, or wishes or prayer or…. She lifted her eyes to the traditional offerings arranged around the shrine and lowered her hands.
She moved away to let the next person have her turn, following those who had preceded her to the booth where another coin gave her a slip of paper. She hesitated for a moment, then unfolded the paper and read the inscription.
Very Bad Luck
Asuka stared down at the paper for a moment, then folded it up and moved to the fence where many other unlucky fortunes had already been tied. She felt tired and her eyes were stinging in the cold air.
“No luck, huh?” The voice came from behind her. Asuka turned to find herself being addressed by a young woman, a little taller than she was. She nodded shortly and turned away to twist the fortune in the traditional knot.
“Me neither,” the girl deftly wound the paper around the wood. “It’s kind of worrying, really…I’m hoping to pass my college entrance exams this time. It’s the second time, you see, and I really don’t want to have to do this a third time.”
Asuka looked up into the young face, this time noting the bags under eyes that were meant to be bright and clear and the lines on the brow. She’d seen it before – the telltale signs of stress that would age the girl before her time.
“Mmm,” Asuka said noncommittally. She really didn’t feel like talking at the moment. She rarely did. Stuffing her hands into her coat pockets, Asuka walked away from the shrine, wondering again why she had come in the first place. She felt less nostalgia for her old haunts than she had expected. After all, Shinjuku looked this way before she came, it looked the same as when she practically lived on the streets, it would look this way long after she ceased to be.
“So, uh,” the voice followed her, breathless as the girl ran to catch up, “what did you pray for?”
Asuka didn’t turn as she spoke. “Nothing.” She paused, then said, “For a friend.”
The girl huffed as she matched her steps to Asuka’s quick pace. “A friend? Is she sick?”
“She’s dead.” Asuka’s voice was bland, but the words hurt even as she said them.
The girl sucked in her breath audibly and Asuka realized how cold she had sounded. Oh well. There wasn’t any reason not to be blunt about it – Yohko was dead and that was that. Nothing had brought her back yet, and nothing was going to.
“Mmm.” Asuka turned at the corner, heading for the Kabukicho.
The girl seemed intent on following her and Asuka didn’t have the heart to drive her away. She thought of the dozens of girls that had followed her over the years, as she had wandered through these streets at night; the damsels in distress who needed a friend in a tight spot, the lost souls that were >this< close to the edge and were looking for a hand to pull them back.
*Something in the air,* she thought, *right, Yohko? I was one of those girls once – and you held out a hand.*
But even as she thought it, she knew it was never true. Whatever Yohko had seen in her, Asuka knew that Yohko’s kind of help was more about taking than it ever was about giving. And then her thoughts began the slow, familiar twirl into memories and emotions that had never made any sense at the time and still didn’t now, years later.
Memories of Yohko filled her mind – words she had come to live by and advice she used daily, alongside memories of betrayal and harsh words, derision and the buried truth that they both could feel and had no idea how to address.
*You know why you can never beat me?* Yohko teased her heartlessly. Asuka didn’t answer.
“C’mon in! Winners all the time – big winners here!” The voice sounded right in her ear, startling Asuka out of her reverie. She shrugged the man off and moved into the middle of the street, out of the path of the hawkers for pachinko parlors, hostess clubs and game centers. A lone girl, huddling into a windbreaker against the cold, tried to hand her a flyer for a restaurant, but Asuka just shot her a tight, knowing smile and moved on.
Her steps carried her quickly, but aimlessly, through the brightly lit streets. She was filled with a new appreciation for the gem-bright signs, the noise, even the seediness that hid beneath it even more seediness and downright filth. She saw two women walk a drunken salaryman off the street and into a club – from which he would surely depart lightened of all his cash. She grinned at the façade of an onabe club she remembered; her smile slipping away as she remembered the fate of the young girl who had come looking for her older sister and found only the grim reality of Shinjuku nightlife.
She entered a game center randomly and threw away some time and money trying to shoot her way through a demon-infested temple. The competing sounds of the machines around her dulled her mind and the concentration needed to play the game shut out the insistent voice in her head. For these few moments, at least, she could be alone.
She had no idea how much time passed there. The game was hard and she was out of practice. Round after round slipped by as she moved through the labyrinth, fighting an ever-growing variety of enemies.
She could do this – she’d done it before. The labyrinth at Ranjuku Detention Center hadn’t had been infested with demons, but the enemies had been much more real. Asuka’s eyes unfocused for a moment, remembering the Trump, Black China, the Usagi…all the many crazy, but completely real and incredibly dangerous enemies she’d fought to get to the center of the labyrinth…all to find Yohko.
*Are you lonely? We’ll be friends.* Yohko’s voice asked for the millionth time.
She turned away from the game mid-round, tired of the repetition, and slammed into the girl from the shrine. Surprise filled Asuka’s face – she’d completely forgotten her.
“Uh, hi!” A nervous smile followed by a nervous laugh. “I, um…I…”
“What are *you* doing back here?”
The voice was shrill and, immediately, part of Asuka sighed with exhaustion and disgust while the other part thrilled at the familiarity of the scenario. She turned, one hand at her side, one hand already balled up in her pocket.
“I came to visit.” Asuka kept her voice calm.
“You think you can just waltz back in here like that, like you own the place?” The woman who spoke was backed by a half dozen hard-looking faces. Asuka looked up into the dark, sullen eyes that she remembered so well.
Helolin had not aged well. Her eyes were sunken and tired-looking, her face worn. The girl who had accounted herself a great beauty had been replaced by a woman who had seen better years. Asuka thought of saying as much, but decided it was unnecessary. Every glance in the mirror for Helolin would be far more painful than anything she could ever say.
“Well – aren’t you going to say something for yourself?”
“Long time, no see.” Asuka smiled slightly.
Helolin’s face reddened unpleasantly. “Kuraku Asuka, you’re still a brat.” She spoke over her shoulder to the women behind her, “Get her.”
Asuka didn’t want to destroy the game center – she broke and ran. Crouching under a wild blow, she slipped past two startled gang members and blew out of the arcade at a dead run.
Turing a corner, she could hear Yohko’s voice again, keeping pace with her as she ran. *The most important thing,* the older girl said confidently,* is to finish the fight. Running away won’t help.*
She didn’t mind the fight so much, but she’d prefer to not involve innocent bystanders, she told Yohko.
Innocent bystanders…oh, no….
Asuka turned a corner onto a dead-end. Spinning in place, she sped back around the corner onto the main street.
In the middle of the road stood Helolin and her gang, in what would have been a pathetic attempt at intimidation, except for the struggling figure held by two of the girls.
Helolin sneered nastily. “Nice, the way you bolted and left your friend, Asuka.”
“She’s not my….”
“Shut up!” Helolin spit with anger. “I don’t care who she is.” She turned away and slapped the girl sharply across the face. “She got in the way. Now, are you going to face me, or are you going to run away, again?”
Asuka pulled the coin from her pocket. Helolin flinched visibly and one of the women who held the girl let go with a jerk. Asuka recognized her – this coin had broken her nose. Obviously, *she* remembered, as well.
All of a sudden, Asuka was angry. This was ridiculous, fighting like children in the streets.
“Life with the koushinkai hasn’t been good, has it Helolin? You look like hell. Toki blown you off for someone cuter yet?” She knew she had hit a raw nerve when Helolin blanched. In that moment, Asuka struck.
The coin whipped out on its chain, striking the hand that confined the strange girl. Asuka’s knee found a target in Helolin’s stomach and her elbow one in another woman’s neck. The girl from the shrine wrenched herself free and, to Asuka’s surprise, turned and placed two solid punches in her captor’s face, then swept the feet out from under the woman with the broken nose.
In a matter of moments, it was over.
Asuka dusted herself off, wiping the blood from her lip where a ring had caught her and torn the skin. The girl from the shrine rubbed her arms where she had been held, but stood, shaking with adrenaline, by Asuka’s side.
“Bye, it was nice seeing you again.” Asuka turned away with a wave, ignoring the crude threats and taunts from behind her. She glanced to see if the girl was following – she was. They left the scene at a brisk pace, taking a winding and unpredictable path through narrow streets.
A few blocks later, Asuka stopped and leaned against a wall, catching her breath. She looked up at the other girl, who stared at her for a moment, then broke out into a crooked grin.
“Old friends?” she asked with a laugh, which turned into a cough. She wrapped her arms around her midriff where a kick had caught her in the ribs.
‘Welcoming committee,” Asuka answered with a slight smile. “I’m a VIP around here.”
“The reception was a bit rough,” the girl said. “Do they provide food and drink, too? And if they do, can we eat without getting poisoned?”
Asuka laughed at that. “I know a place we can get a drink.”
The club was thoroughly unremarkable in every way. “Club Friendship” could have been any club in any sleazy part of any city. The girl from the shrine hesitated before she entered the elevator.
“You sure about this?” she looked at the two men who already occupied the car; both obviously tipsy.
“A friend of mine runs it.” Asuka assured her.
The door opened and they entered a pleasantly appointed, but not overpowering club. The sign over the door read “Members Only,” but no one but the bartender was visible from the door.
Asuka led the way. The bartender looked up from the glass she was wiping with a smile for customers. When she saw them her smiled faded, her eyes widened and the glass fell to the counter where it bounced and rolled.
For several heartbeats Asuka and the bartender stared at each other, neither saying a word.
Finally, the bartender took a loud breath, pasted the smile back on her face and said, “Yo, Asuka. Long time…”
“…no see, Miko.” Asuka waved and stepped up to the bar. She took a seat and put her elbows on the bar in front of her, as the girl from the shrine seated herself.
Miko reached out and touched a cut on Asuka’s forehead. “How long you been back?”
“Couple of hours,” Asuka replied. “Helolin wanted to say hi.”
“Pfft, her.” Miko made a derisive noise. “Toki Masamune tossed her for a younger woman. She hangs on the fringes of the local group and waits to be noticed.”
“I figured as much.”
“Wait,” the girl from the shrine asked, “that woman who attacked you – you’re saying she’s a gangster’s ex-moll?”
“Yes.” Miko turned to Asuka and asked, “Who’s this?” Her shoulder gestured to the stranger casually.
Asuka shrugged. “No idea. Met her at the Hanazono Shrine.” She turned to the girl. “I’m Kuraku Asuka.”
The girl did not seem put off by the lack of formalities. “Morioka Yukina.”
“Doumoto Miko, but you can call me Miko-sama.” The blonde bartender ignored the sound Asuka made and asked the two women if they wanted something to drink.
“You did pretty well during that fight,” Asuka said to Yukina, after Miko had served them drinks and given them towels to wipe the dirt and blood off their faces.
Yukina looked pleased. “Thanks! I’m glad to see all that karate practice wasn’t for nothing. That was the first fight I’ve ever really been in, outside a dojo.” She snapped her fingers reflectively. “Kuraku-san…I’ve heard that name before…” she concentrated for a few moments, then shook her head in defeat. “Nope, can’t place it, but I’m sure I’ve heard it somewhere….”
At that moment, Miko returned with a large plate full of edamame to munch on. “So, what brings you back to town, Asuka?” she asked, as she laid the platter and an empty bowl on the bar.
“Business.” Asuka paused. “And I wanted to see you and catch up.”
*I came back to see you,* Yohko’s voice said in her mind.
“Hmmm, what’s it been, three years?” Miko chewed thoughtfully on the salted soybeans. “Yeah, about that, I guess.”
“So, what’s up?” Asuka emptied a pod into her mouth.
“Let’s see…I dunno. Business is booming, as you can see.” The blonde gestured to the empty club. “I like to keep it low key.”
Asuka did not ask how she paid the rent, or the protection money, or anything. She knew that Miko had her ways, whatever they were. And that it was probably best that they avoid the topic in front of a complete stranger.
“How are Kaze and the gang?” Asuka could see their faces so clearly in her mind, it was as if she had never left them. Ten years had passed and her memories of the women of the Omoteban were as clear as her memories of Yohko.
*Don’t be weak – it’s disgusting.*
“Kaze is working on something or other.” Miko laughed. Asuka knew exactly what she meant. Whatever Kaze was working on belonged to the same realm as questions about Miko’s income. “Mizu is in computers now, Yamamori is married and in Osaka, Hi is married with a kid…”
“Kid?” For some reason Asuka just could not picture punked out Hi, the pyromaniac, with a child.
“I know – weird, isn’t it?” Miko continued, “I guess we’re all somewhere or other. Where have you been?”
Asuka considered as she drank. How much to tell Miko? How much in front of Yukina? “Well, you know I failed out of Police Academy, right?”
Miko spewed her drink across the bar – thankfully not in their direction. As she coughed and spluttered, Yukina and Asuka attempted to mop up the mess, until Miko batted their hands away and did it herself.
“I guess not, then.” Asuka gave her friend a tight smile. “Well, I applied, but they said I was too undisciplined. So, now I do…training.” She glossed over the kind of training. No reason to bother with tedious details of her career. In their kind of lives, details were usually best avoided.
The three women munched contemplatively on edamame for a few minutes.
“What about Hime?” Asuka asked suddenly. “You didn’t mention her.” She cast a suspicious look at the blonde. “Is she alright?”
Miko shrugged expressively. “As far as we all know. She left for America a few years ago. School, she said, and because she needed to get away. She’s not much of a letter writer. We spoke once or twice, but you know how it is. If I ever see her again, it’ll be like we were never apart, but…”
Asuka and Yukina nodded in understanding. The girl from the temple didn’t know any of these people, but she seemed content to listen without interrupting.
“Oh!” Miko interrupted herself. “But you won’t know this…Kazuga….”
“Hmm?” Asuka’s interest was piqued. What gossip could there be about the dedicated lieutenant of the Zenchuu Ura?
“When Hime left – Kazuga followed her. Went to America with her.”
“Truth. Mizu was there when Hime finally left the Zenchuu Ura for good. The four of them were in the room, Hibari on her throne, Kazuga, Hime and Mizu, waiting her turn with Hibari.
“Hime announces her intention to leave, not just the organization, but the country, and Kazuga makes this strangled noise and falls to her knees. Everyone thought she was sick, but she wasn’t. Right there in front of her precious Hibari-sama, Kazuga just loses it entirely and tells her that she’s leaving too, for personal reasons. And that was it.
“We all went to see Hime off at the airport, you know, and there was Kazuga, three paces behind. It was weirder than anything I’d ever seen before or since.”
“Kazuga was in love with Hime,” a low whistle issued from between Asuka’s lips. “I wouldn’t have expected that….”
“Yeah,” Miko said, “Who knew?”
“I didn’t know, but it makes a lot more sense of things, like why Hibari worked so hard to keep Hime at Headquarters and why Kazuga backed her in the regional war.”
“Yeah.” Miko fell silent for a moment.
Asuka started to speak, then paused. “Do I even want to ask how Hibari is?”
“Probably not, but…she’s the same as ever. Runs the school and the organization and the gangs are still around. Even the Omoteban is around. The current leader is Kai – she’s Hibari’s new favorite. But you know, she’ll never get over pining for her old Minister of the Left, Kuraku Asuka.”
“That’s it!” Yukina stood up from her stool in excitement. “That’s where I know that name from!” She turned to Asuka and Miko, practically jumping up and down in place. “I was there that day – at the Budokan, where the Mikoto 5 was playing. And Miyabe spoke for the first time in public – to call *you* to the stage. Oh my god! I remember now!” Yukina laughed with relief. “I *knew* I remembered that name. Miyabe was so beautiful…I was a huge fan of his. I remember him kissing you,” she grinned as Asuka’s cheeks flamed at the memory, “in front of us all. And I was just as jealous as everyone else. But you know,” she reflected, “there was some weird stuff that happened, some war thing and we were supposed to track you down and I thought it was strange, so I stopped being a member of the fan club.”
She laughed at herself, but said, “Miyabe really was gorgeous – those lips were…wow. He was so pretty he could have been a girl.”
“He was a girl,” Asuka said calmly.
“What?” Now it was Yukina’s turn to blush.
“’His’ name was Tenshi and she was a council member of the Zenchuu Ura. That’s why ‘he’ rarely spoke.”
“But he kissed you! In public!” Yukina protested.
“Well, yeah, but that was to make everyone angry so they’d hunt me down and…” Asuka stopped talking with a long exhale. “Anyway, it was a long time ago now.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Yukina said. “Miyabe was a girl?” She seated herself again and became immediately lost in thought.
*You joined the Zenchuu Ura for power, but you’re not any stronger for it. They haven’t made you stronger – they’ve made you weaker.*
Asuka ripped herself away from Yohko’s words by turning to Miko. “Anyone else?”
“Sure,” the blonde laughed. “We could be here for hours while I tell you all the gossip.”
“I’ve got time,” Asuka assured her.
“Well, so, you forgot to ask about Kurenai.” Miko’s smile was not a nice one.
Asuka grinned back at her friend, remembering her self-proclaimed arch-enemy with something approaching fondness. “Let me guess, Ranjuku Detention Center?”
The blonde shook her head, “Better.”
“Prison?” Asuka asked, her eyebrows raised.
“Better!” Miko was having fun at her expense, but Asuka played along.
The dark haired girl spent a moment in thought, pondering the fate of the ex-lieutenant of the Zenchuu Ura. She saw in her mind’s eye Kurenai’s scarred face scowling with unearned superiority. Even after all these years, Asuka felt nothing about having destroyed everything Kurenai had possessed; her beauty, her position, her gang. “I give up.”
“Wakkanai. In Hokkaido.”
“What?” Asuka and Yukina stared in amazement. Wakkanai – the northernmost town on Japan’s northernmost island. An exile more complete than any detention center or jail.
“Yeah, her father got transferred and she had to go.” Miko laughed nastily. “You should have *seen* her beg Hibari to let her stay.”
*I hate you, but you’re my only friend.*
“She wasn’t as capricious as she seemed, you know,” Asuka said.
“No,” Asuka got up from her stool and ran her hands through her hair. “Hibari.” She walked away towards the toilet without another word.
Miko and Yukina sat in near silence while she was gone – the most comfortable option for these two strangers.
Asuka returned and Yukina stated that it was her turn. She slipped away quietly, leaving Miko and Asuka alone by the bar.
“Why’d you come back?” Miko asked suddenly.
“I wanted to talk to you,” Asuka responded just as sharply.
*I came back to see you.*
“I’m serious, Miko. I have to tell you…” Asuka laid a hand on the bar, but Miko turned away quickly.
“Just shut up, okay? She’s dead and there’s nothing more to say.”
“She…” Asuka kept her voice calm through an effort of will. “She talks to me.”
“Shut up!” Miko shouted. “Just shut up!”
“Miko, she talks in my head and I can’t make her stop!”
*We’ll be friends, right?*
“Asuka, you idiot…” Miko’s voice became choked with emotion, but she stood her ground, bar towel over her shoulder, fists clenched on the bar surface.
“I…I wanted to apologize,” Asuka said hurriedly, reaching out to grab an arm. “I’m sorry I put you through…everything I put you through. I…I was…Yohko…”
“Gods, Asuka, shut up already!” Miko tore her arm fiercely from the other woman’s grasp. “Do you think I didn’t know? What kind of an idiot do you think I am?”
“Miko, just listen for once. I had to come back, and tell you, because I never did before.”
Miko shook her head angrily. “I’m not listening.”
“I loved her, Miko. We…if only we realized we were in love she’d be alive now.”
Miko’s face was white with anger. “You are a complete idiot. She would *not* be alive, you moron. She would be dead or in jail, and you with her, because Yohko was a psychotic, two-bit criminal who had the Yakuza after her and love does *not* save the day.” The blonde panted with the effort of getting the words out, her eyes red in the low lighting.
Asuka stood, staring directly into those angry eyes, her own expression hooded and distant.
*I didn’t want to be your friend.*
“You’re right,” Asuka said quietly, her voice filled with sadness, “But you’re wrong too. Everything Yohko did, she did because she didn’t know what else to do. Everything I did, I did because I didn’t understand. Only when it was too late. And not enough.” Asuka wiped away tears that spilled across her cheeks. “I was so in love with her, I would have gone to Hell, if only she was with me.”
*I wanted to be you.*
“And you came back to tell me that?”
Asuka looked up in surprise. “Yes. I needed you to understand that, because…because you’re my friend.”
‘Then you’re an idiot, because I already knew it.”
“She talks to me, Miko.”
“She’s dead, Asuka.”
“She talks to me.”
“Let her go.”
Both women looked up quickly at a noise. Yukina stood, frozen at the edge of the room. Asuka wondered how much the girl had heard.
“It’s getting late,” Miko said, “I’d better close up.”
Asuka glanced at the clock on the wall. The time was obscenely early – she was being dismissed.
“Yeah, I guess I’d better be going,” she said, her eyes searching Miko’s face for something.
Miko stared hard into Asuka’s eyes, past the guilt that plagued her friend, past the broken heart, and saw the loneliness that she never let *anyone* see. For a brief moment, Miko’s anger flowed out of her, leaving her desperate to reach out and comfort her friend. But she knew that the attempt would be rebuffed, most likely mocked. In all their years together, there was little that had ever been said between them of importance. She wasn’t going to let that change now – not this way. She cared far too much about Asuka to let her become weak. The blonde hardened her heart and turned her attention back to the glass she wiped.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Without another word, Asuka moved towards the door, throwing her overcoat on as she crossed the floor.
“See ya,” Miko called out.
“Bye.” Asuka closed the door firmly behind her. Miko stared after her friend for a solid minute, then sighed and turned back once more to the glass in her hand.
“I guess I should be going, too, then.” The voice startled Miko out of her thoughts visibly. She had completely forgotten the newcomer.
“Yeah,” she said, passing a hand across her forehead. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s not…anyway, it was nice to meet you,” Yukina gave a short bow as she paused in front of the door. She looked at the blonde, then over her shoulder at the door. “Um, I know it’s pretty impertinent of me to ask, but – should I go after her?”
Miko shrugged. “Do whatever you want.”
“Oh, okay then.” Yukina bowed again and opened the door. As she stepped through Miko’s voice, barely audible drifted towards her.
“But if you feel like hanging out, try the dry riverbed.”
Yukina nodded without turning back. “Thanks. Good night.”
The door closed, leaving Miko alone in her club.
The night was cold; cold and bitter. Asuka’s teeth were clenched against the tearing wind, numbing her ears and nose, and making her eyes sting with tears.
Yeah, she thought, it’s the cold.
Her steps lead her nowhere in particular. She wandered by the water, towards dark loading docks. She passed the shadowy hulks of warehouses, not seeing anything much, but unconsciously searching for an old wooden building that didn’t exist anywhere anymore, except in her memories. Castigating herself for her weakness, she found the grim, grey, cement structure that stood in its place.
Maybe she should have prayed here, instead; left incense and sake for the wandering spirit that hadn’t been at that shrine with all the young executives.
“Yohko.” She spoke out loud without shame. “Yohko, are you here?”
*Are you lonely?*
“You have no idea. Yohko, I miss you,” tears fell down her cheeks.
*You’re such a crybaby.*
“I know, I know. You always said that. But that’s who I am. And you loved that about me, right? You told me so.”
*The way you* felt* with your whole being – I wanted to be able to do that.*
Asuka buried her face in her hands.
*I came back for you.*
“But why? Why won’t you leave me alone? I can’t take this anymore. I need…” but Asuka couldn’t say it. She wouldn’t even allow herself to think the words.
She felt it before she saw it.
Asuka, her eyes raw with tears and the cold, could just make out the figure silhouetted by the lone overhead light. She knew who it was, and knew without fail that it couldn’t have been her at all.
Yohko’s eyes burned with intensity; burned as if the flames that had consumed her body were licking at her, pulling her in, even now.
“I know,” Yohko said. She smiled; Asuka could hear the smile in her voice, even if she couldn’t see it. “You want me to leave – to let you go. But I can’t, I… I’m too selfish. I always was, you know that.” As she spoke, Yohko’s voice became stronger, more real. Asuka covered her ears and closed her eyes against the apparition.
Yohko continued inexorably, speaking the words they had both thought so many times, but had never had the strength to say. ” I played you for a fool because it pleased me to do so – to know that I had that kind of power over you.”
“Shut up!” Asuka pleaded. “I don’t want to hear that from you.”
“Of course not,” Yohko laughed at her. “No one wants to hear that they were a fool. But you were the biggest fool of all.”
Asuka fell to her knees, fists pounding against the cement. “Shut up! Get out of my head!”
“I’m not in your head, stupid.” Yohko laughed again. “Look at me.”
Asuka screwed her eyes shut, keeping her head down.
“See? Even after all this time, you are so easy to manipulate, it’s sick. I wanted you to leave Hibari – you know why, right? So I told you that it made you weak. And you left. I wanted you back in, because I thought it would be funny to torture Kazuga, and you went like a good little sheep.”
Asuka’s forehead was pressed against the cold, rough cement now, her body shaking with misery.
“You were perfect, every time. The best. I never got tired of using you. If only you had been a guy…it would have been perfect.”
“I don’t believe you,” Asuka insisted, her voice unrecognizable even to herself. “You did it because you loved me, because you were jealous of me – you told me so.”
“Right until the very end, you were perfect.” Yohko’s voice was insinuating. Asuka could hear Yohko’s boots against the hard ground as they approached. “I only wish…”
Yohko’s form cast Asuka into deep shadow, as she blocked out the single light. “Then again, I never let the rules bother me much then and they hardly apply now.” A hand reached out and took Asuka’s chin. She tried to resist, but there was no way she could fight this. It was, after all, what she had wanted for so long, even when she had been too young to realize it.
“No, no, Asuka, you mean ‘Please, yes…’” the last two words were whispered, pleading deliciously into Asuka’s ear. The breath that blew was warm, so were the lips that followed. The warmth lingered on Asuka’s ear, even when the lips moved to her jaw. The tears that flowed freely were wiped away with a gentle thumb, then warm kisses bestowed upon her eyelids and brows.
“Yohko…” Asuka breathed, but her words were silenced with a caress, then by lips warmer than any dead lips had the right to be.
Asuka wanted to pull away, but more than that, she wanted to be lost in that embrace. Even as the cold truth screamed at her from her rational mind, her whole being was consumed by the apparition that relentlessly took control of her will.
“Yes, you would have been perfect.” Yohko’s smile was warm, approval in every line of her face. Asuka smiled into her dead friend’s eyes, once again basking in the one thing that had made life worth living so long ago.
Yohko lifted Asuka to her feet, walking her smoothly towards the bulk of the warehouse, hands wrapped around hands, arms entwined in a way that would have never happened in Yohko’s life. Yohko opened the warehouse door and entered, drawing Asuka along with her. They walked half the length of the building. Taking in the crates and shelves, Asuka noted that the content of the warehouse seemed to be building materials. She was not paying attention to where she was walking, so when she bumped into Yohko, it was only because of the girl’s quick reaction that she did not fall.
“This is the place,” Yohko said matter-of-factly, pointing to the ground. “Yuuki was right here,” she shifted her finger. “And I was right here.”
Asuka stared; overwhelmed, appalled. “D…did it hurt?”
Yohko was silent for a moment, letting her outstretched arm sink. “It did, a little. I couldn’t breathe and I was so tired. Yuuki was already dead, but I didn’t want to die, really, so I hung on, trying to breathe, but there was too much smoke and…”
Asuka felt tears threaten again. “You didn’t have to die. You could have come out, taken my hand. You didn’t have to die!” The last was shouted. Asuka grabbed Yohko angrily, ready to hit her, or be hit, but the other woman didn’t move.
“I did though. It was my day to die.”
“Idiot,” Asuka spat. “Why did you have to leave me like that?”
Yohko turned to face Asuka, her eyes still burning. “How can you ask me that? I did it for you!” The older girl took a step backwards, freeing herself from Asuka’s grasp. “I did it so you could have a life, so you’d move on.” She smiled sadly.
“Then why did you come back?”
“I came back for you.”
Asuka couldn’t take it. She launched a fist at the face she had loved for so long, shouting. “Don’t say that! Why did you go then? ”
But Yohko had always been fast. She parried the punch neatly, lifting a knee into Asuka’s stomach, then catching her as she doubled over. “I can’t believe you fell for that *again.* You never learn.” She deposited Asuka’s hunched form on the cold ground. “Listen, kid. I left you for you, but I came back, for me. Then you wouldn’t let me go, for you, and now I have to stay, for me.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Asuka gasped. But it did and she knew it. She collapsed backwards on the warehouse floor, feeling the brittle cold through her clothes.
Yohko sat down next to her, playing her fingers through Asuka’s hair. “Look, it’s all really pretty simple. I have to go, but I can’t until you let me go, right? But I don’t want you to, because…I’m scared.”
Asuka said nothing.
Yohko blew out a breathy sigh. “It’s not like it was…I’m not scared of dying, of being gone. I’m scared that you’ll forget me.”
“I’ll never forget you.”
“But you will. You have to. You can’t hurt forever.” Yohko stood up suddenly and took a few steps towards the door.
Asuka leapt to her feet, but Yohko waved her off. “Miko’s right, you know. Ya gotta let me go.”
“I want to, Yohko, but…I’m scared I’ll forget you.” She looked into Yohko’s eyes and knew that the gap between them was widening even as they stood there.
“You won’t though, right? Because you’re so weak, it makes you strong.” Yohko said smugly.
“Yeah, whatever.” Asuka grimaced. “You’re still a jerk, with all your psychobabble. It doesn’t mean anything, you know. It’s all just talk.”
“And you’re still a brat.”
She was fading. Asuka forced herself to not reach out, to not move.
“I loved you. I still do.”
And she was gone.
“Dammit.” Asuka ground out the curse. “Yohko, you asshole, I’m not going to let you go until you say it back!” she screamed into the echoing darkness of the warehouse.
Without Yohko and whatever infernal light she had brought with her, Asuka was virtually blind. She felt her way to a wall and followed it, with much tripping and cursing, aiming for the dull glare of an emergency exit sign. At last she found herself back on the deserted dock.
She walked away without looking back. Yohko wasn’t there anymore.
She was never really there at all.
Asuka could no longer feel her little toes, or several of her fingers, but she refused to move out of the wind. The port was closed, with only a few foreign ships showing any signs of movement. The wind was brutal, scouring all thoughts from her mind except one.
“Damn, it’s cold.”
Asuka whipped around at the familiar voice. The woman that stood there was older than she by a few years. She shivered in a leather jacket and gloves, tugging a scarf over her nose.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” the woman said. “Surprised, but pleased.” She looked Asuka up and down, shaking her head. “You look just about frozen to death, Asuka-chan. How about some coffee?”
Asuka nodded and followed the other woman to a motorcycle parked at the beginning of the pier. They rode in silence for mere minutes until they found a convenience store. Asuka bought two coffees and joined Yukari in front of the store. They drank, leaning on the bike, trying to stay out of the wind.
“You’re looking good, Asuka-chan.” The older woman smiled approvingly.
“You too, Yukari-san.” Asuka meant it, too. Yukari had always been lovely and graceful beyond her years…now, maturity had added the last measure of beauty to an already lovely face.
“So, what brings you out here in the freezing cold?” Yukari’s voice was light, innately happy. Just listening to Yukari speak made Asuka feel less burdened by her own thoughts.
“I don’t know,” Asuka sipped at the hot can of coffee. “I just wanted to visit some of the old places, I guess. What about you?”
“Oh,” Yukari waved a gloved hand vaguely. “It’s a little ritual I have. I like to get out to see the ocean every New Year morning. I just happened to pick the harbor this time.” She turned her stunning smile on Asuka. “I’ll consider myself lucky, since it means I had a chance to see you again.”
Asuka found herself smiling back at the woman. There wasn’t really any way to resist it, her smile was too compelling. “What have you been doing with yourself over the last few years?”
Yukari shrugged. “What does anyone do? I fell in love, got married, the usual.”
“Is it usual?” Asuka asked quietly.
“For some of us,” Yukari smiled once more. “I suppose I have you to thank for it.” Her eyes sparkled. “I married Yasuhiro, you know. He got tired of waiting for you.” She laughed and Asuka, who felt mortified at the idea that anyone had waited for her, relaxed a little. Clearly the other woman did not consider herself in any way second best.
“The Silver Ghost Leader? Why was he waiting for…me?”
Yukari laughed. “I *told* him that you really didn’t notice! Don’t you remember, he told you that he’d wait for you?”
Asuka shrugged. “Yes, but I thought he was joking.”
“Of course you did.” Yukari agreed. “And thank you for that.”
Confused, Asuka had no idea what to say. Happily, Yukari didn’t seem to mind the silence. The two women sipped their coffee in silence, Asuka brooding once again, about her inability to understand the human heart; Yukari smiling with what was an obviously pleasant memory.
“After you left, I realized something that I hadn’t realized before…something about life being too precious to waste.” Yukari spoke so suddenly that Asuka jumped. “All those years as the Silver Ghost’s mascot…all those years being protected by Yasu, it was like I had forgotten how fragile life and love are. Yasu saved me and I never really repaid him for that.
“But, I watched you, Asuka-chan. I watched you in your struggles, I watched you get stronger every day. But after Yohko died, the light in your eyes was dulled. And one day, after you left, I looked into my own eyes and saw that same thing. And I realized then, that if I let my heart grow any colder, I’d never be able to be warm again.”
Asuka stared. “What are you saying?” she rasped through a tight throat.
“Your heart died that day, didn’t it?” Yukari looked Asuka in the eyes. “I know, because we’re so similar, you and I. You kept smiling at us, but inside, you didn’t really feel anymore.”
“We’re similar?” Asuka felt tears slide down her cheek although she couldn’t have said why. Something in Yukari’s voice touched her deeply, despite the banality of the words.
“More than you can possibly know.” Yukari’s stripped the gloves off her hands and reached out to hold Asuka’s shoulders. And suddenly, Asuka knew what she meant. In the cold, as a faintest white against pale skin, she could see the marks and she knew what she and Yukari had in common.
Asuka shrugged, letting Yukari’s hands slide off. “That was a long time ago.”
“Not so long,” Yukari smiled sadly, pushing her dark hair behind her head. “Asuka-chan? Why are you here? What are you looking for?”
Asuka finished her coffee and tossed the can away. “Something, maybe nothing. A resolution? I don’t know.”
“Love?” Yukari pressed.
Asuka smiled bitterly. “No. Not that. I had that and it killed two people, and it almost killed me. I think for some people, falling in love and getting married just aren’t the usual.”
“Perhaps not,” Yukari agreed. “Can I give you a ride anywhere?”
“Yes,” Asuka said suddenly. “Yes, I’d like that.”
The dry riverbed was much as Asuka remembered it. The ground was sere from winter cold. Wind howled loudly through the pillars that supported the overpass. Asuka leaned her back on a pillar and lifted her face to the wan sun, just breaking over the horizon.
As the wind cut across her face, she thought of the many hours she had spent here as a student. Nighttime and day, she had found solitude, contemplation, and comfort here, even when she was at her lowest. This place had been where she spoke her mind to friends and strangers, where she had begun and finished quarrels. It had been her place of business, her office. It was where she had found life, the second time around – and where she had tried to lose it once again.
*Making up stories again?*
*I found you here*
“No, you found me in Shinjuku on the streets with a broken hand.”
*I saved, you right – that deserves something.*
“What did you save me from?” Hibari? You gave me to her…twice. Myself? You dragged me into that mess with the Koushinkai. And you made me love you – what part of that was saving me?”
*I saved you from being alone. ‘We can be friends, right? You’re not alone.’ I meant all that*
“As long as I was useful to you.”
*Asuka, will you do something for me?*
“What do you want me to do for you?”
The voice continued to whisper; lies that made her want to die, lies that made her ache for the speaker, made her desperate for a touch, even a strike, from Yohko’s hand.
“Who’re you talking to?”
Asuka looked up at a vaguely familiar face. It took a few moments to realize that Yukina, the girl she had met last night at the shrine, had found her.
“What are *you* doing here?” Asuka snapped, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
“I’m not sure, really,” Yukina’s smile was lopsided, embarrassed. “I just thought you shouldn’t be alone.”
“Afraid I was gonna kill myself or something?” Her tone was nastier than she intended, but she wasn’t in the mood for chitchat.
“Um, I’m not sure.” Yukina shrugged. “I think I’m stepping into something that’s none of my business, but…”
“You got that right.” Asuka glared out over the riverbed at the houses crowded together as if against the chill of the morning.
“BUT,” Yukina insisted, “I think I’m right. Anyway, you kind of dragged me into your business with your friends, so…
“So, nothing.” Asuka snapped. “No one told you to follow me.”
“Oh, yeah. True.” Yukina laughed. “Well, okay, you got me there, but I still think I’m right.”
Asuka let the corner of her lips rise. Whoever she was, this girl had some fire in her. “Yeah? Well, do whatever you want.”
“I think I’ll stay. And talk. I feel like I’ve known you forever, but I don’t know really anything about you at all, except that you have really strange and violent friends. I’m almost afraid to ask what you do for a living, because I’m guessing it has something to do with illegal activities or something. So I’ll talk about myself, because I’m pretty average and not at all illegal or violent.”
Asuka sank into a squat, her hands thrust into her coat pockets. Yukina’s voice rambled on and, try as she might, Asuka’s attention didn’t wander, even for a second.
“This is the thing,” Yukina was saying, chafing her hands together. Although the rising sun had brought with it some genuine warmth, the shadows under the pillars were long and chill. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. When you think about it, your mother goes through a great deal of pain and effort to bring you into this world – all because she loves you, right? And then, for the rest of their lives, your parents worry about you, suffer when you suffer, rejoice when you rejoice. Even if they can’t say anything about it, because they’re your parents.
So, really, when you think about it that way, you don’t have the right to try and kill yourself, no matter how bad it gets, because they’ve worked so hard and gone through so much to see you to this point in your life.” She looked down at Asuka, her eyes dark and intense. “Right?”
Asuka nodded, and stood up, stepping away from the pillar into a narrow band of sunlight. She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun. How many times had she told how many other girls that very thing? “Your mother went through a lot of pain and suffering to bring you into the world, because she loves you.” How many others had she drawn back from the brink with these same thoughts? Really, too many too count…too many who shouldn’t have needed a complete stranger to tell them that they belonged to life, not death.
As Yukina spoke, Asuka’s mind filled with memories. The hospital lights, too bright; faces staring at her with concern, but not understanding. The horrible raw beauty of a mother giving birth. Her own hands; one wrist extended, another clutching the utility knife she would use for the second and final time. Her hand and wrist and the hands and wrists of dozens of other young women, driven to despair by the bullying and ostracism of their peers. How many times had she been the one to stop those knives from taking a life?
And now, here in the place where she had given that very lecture – your parents love you, you have to live – was a complete stranger holding out that same lifeline to her.
Yukina’s voice retreated as images flooded Asuka’s mind. The continued beatings on the street after her return from the hospital; her determination not to let them defeat her ever again. And the day, too hurt and tired to move, hunched into a corner of an alleyway, when Yohko found her and saw how weak she truly was. Yohko saved her from herself, at the price of everything she had ever been.
Asuka looked over her shoulder at Yukina, who had fallen silent.
“Did you think I looked that likely to commit suicide?” she asked.
“What?” Oh, no,” Yukina barely looked up, her eyes unfocused. “No, really…I was just talking to myself.”
“I did once, you know.”
Yukina’s eyes widened as Asuka spoke.
“When I entered junior high, I was bullied so badly that I tried to kill myself. But I didn’t succeed.”
“I haven’t, yet, but sometimes,” Yukina looked down the riverbed and sighed heavily. “Sometimes it seems like a good idea. I’m so damn tired.”
Turning around to face Yukina, Asuka could see tears glittering in the corner of the other woman’s eyes. “Yeah,” she agreed, “but it doesn’t really make it better.”
“How would you know? I mean, you didn’t do it – so maybe it would have been better if you did.” This came out as a harsh snap but Asuka didn’t flinch.
“Because when someone goes and kills themselves for your benefit, it doesn’t make it any easier for you at all.”
Yukina stopped rubbing her hands and joined Asuka in the sun. The temperature had risen considerably in the last hour – today would be as warm as yesterday was cold. Asuka unbuttoned her coat.
“Your friend?” Yukina asked at last.
“Yeah.” Asuka thought about it for a second. “Yeah. She went back into a burning building, not to rescue anyone or anything, but because she thought that if she stayed alive, she’d get me killed.” Asuka laughed humorlessly. “And she was right, too. She was really bad for me, but I loved her so much that I didn’t care. She was really bad for everyone who knew her.” And Asuka could see Yuuki, dead from smoke inhalation, pulled from a pile of rubble mere seconds before Yohko’s body was found.
“She’s the one you were…talking about with your friend at the bar?”
“Mmm. Yohko was Miko’s half-sister. They hated each other, mostly.”
“Miko cares about you a lot.” Yukina offered. “She told me where to find you.”
Asuka opened her mouth to say something smart, but Yukina asked, “So, you hear her voice? In your head?”
Nodding, Asuka started walking away. “I can’t let her go and she can’t leave.”
Yukina followed, opening her coat and letting the sun warm her body. “Did she answer you? You asked her what she wanted you to do for her, when I came up and interrupted.” She put out a hand to stop Asuka and turn her around. Looking into Asuka’s almost-black eyes, she asked, “Did she answer you?”
Asuka looked up at this almost complete stranger for a long moment. “Yes,” she said slowly, “she did.”
The line at the shrine was even longer now that the sun was bright. The sky was full of white clouds, and the breeze had died down. Families lined the streets as they made their way to the shrine for the annual visit. Casual acquaintances chatted along the queue, shuffling forward slightly every few minutes. The braided paper decorations hung still in the unusually warm air.
Asuka stepped up and clapped. Her eyes closed, she bowed her head. Yohko, I’m here. Praying for real. For you. Just like you wanted. I hope you find peace. Opening her eyes, she looked into the shrine and whispered, “I loved you. I still do.”
In her head came the faintest whisper of a memory. * I didn’t want to be your friend, Asuka, I wanted to be you. Because…* the voice wasn’t audible anymore, there was just the vaguest sensation of the words in her mind, *because I loved you, too.* And then there was nothing.
She moved away from the shrine and waited for Yukina to say her prayer. After debating with herself for a long time, Asuka gave in and bought a new fortune.
“Very Good Luck!” Yukina shouted, waving her paper at Asuka. “What did you get?”
“Regular Luck,” Asuka said with quiet satisfaction.
“Come on, drinks’ are on me” Yukina said, tucking her arm into Asuka’s and heading off to the Kabukicho
Yohko was gone, Asuka thought to herself, but Miko was waiting for her.
And she belonged to life…not death.
“Look, Kaze and some of the others’ll be by in a little, if you want to wait.” Blue eyes met brown in a steady gaze, then a small smile broke across the blonde’s face. “They’ll be glad to see you again, even if I can’t wait to get rid of you.”
Asuka let her gaze linger a little longer on Yohko’s half-sister, then nodded solemnly. She turned to Yukina and gestured to a table. “Whaddaya want to drink?”
Several hours later, the club was filled with young women, all rowdy and laughing in the raucous way old friends do.
Asuka stood in the middle of the crowd and lifted her glass. “To absent friends,” she said. As one, the women all lifted their glasses and drank.
“And to friends that are here,” Miko insisted. “Old and new,” she added with a hint of a wink in Yukina’s direction.
A few definitions of fairly obscurish terms:
Onabe – Women who cross-dress as guys at “host” bars. The word has a convoluted etymology: There is a kind of pot called a kama which was used to represent a gay guy – “stirring the kama” was slang for anal sex and gay men who crossed dressed became known as O-kama (like Mr. 2 Bone Clay-sama, from One Piecewho, in the manga, wears a jacket that says “Okama Way” on the back.) So, as an analogous term, women who cross dressed were called after another kind of pot, O-nabe. So, it really has no meaning and is sometimes seen as having pejorative connotation. But people still call the clubs onabe bars.
Koushinkai – “Business Group,” i.e., local Yakuza group.
Zenchuu Ura – Hmmm, how do I describe this? The Zenchuu Ura is the central organization around which the entire story of Hana no Asuka-gumi is written. In the center is the certifiably insane Hibari-sama. The ZU is, all at once, a school, a semi-criminal organization, the central government for all the girl gangs of Tokyo and a multimedia empire that creates and promotes pop idols.