Chapter Three: Partners

“Ha!” Makoto thrust out his fist like a harpoon. He quickly pulled it back to his waist and punched with his other hand. “Ha!”

Buffeted by Okinawa’s sea breeze, he concentrated on his form as he practiced his kata. The deep orange sun dipped into the sea beyond the horizon.

“Aren’t you done yet?” asked a high-pitched voice coming from behind him.

 

Partners

 

“Just about.” Makoto straightened his posture while closing his eyes. He slowly breathed out as he relaxed his muscles, finishing his training.

“Hurry up, it’s time for dinner. You’re coming, right?”

He turned to the familiar voice, finding a bronze-skinned thirteen-year-old girl staring impatiently. The wind tousled her spaghetti strap top and loose cotton shorts, granting rhythmic peeks at her tanned belly button.

Makoto grabbed the towel he had placed on a nearby rock and wiped his face. “You could’ve gone back earlier if you’re hungry, Mashiro. You don’t need to wait for me.”

“I like watching you train. This place is great for pictures too.” Mashiro hopped down from her seat on a large rock. The camera slung from her neck bounced off her developing breasts.

“Sure is.” Makoto looked at the ocean.

This was his favorite spot. The small rocky area jutting out of a seaside cliff gave a perfect view of the shoreline. It was a bit hard to reach, requiring visitors to do some rock climbing, but the trip was totally worth it and always gave the fifteen-year-old Makoto a sense of accomplishment.

He took a deep breath, inhaling the moist, salty air. “Feels like all my worries get washed away.”

“What worries?”

Not really thinking of anything specific when he said it, Makoto rambled an excuse. “It’s not something a kid would understand.”

“Talk about stuck-up. You’re only two years older than me.”

“Two years you’ll never catch up to.”

“Who cares? What matters is what’s in here.” Mashiro tapped her temple with a finger.

“As if that means anything.”

Makoto knew she was a very smart girl. She read books he could not understand and got perfect scores on school exams, the ones she bothered taking at least. Working part-time as a tour guide and photographer, the girl saved money to buy a multitude of books. With no internet in their area, books were her only access to information, and the girl sought them voraciously. Makoto could not help but be impressed by her diligence.

But it was all for naught. They lived in a small community with a single school. The few teachers working there were absent most of the time, and none of the graduates ever went to universities in the city. Her father’s meager pay as a janitor at a U.S. navy office could not cover the cost of sending her to college. Even with her wits, the chances of Mashiro ever making something of herself were slim to none. That was simply how the world worked.

“Just watch, Makoto. One day, I’ll be big.”

“Like a sumo wrestler?”

“No! Something like a hero.”

“Aren’t you too old to be saying things like that? I’m getting embarrassed just listening.”

“Shut it!”

“Stop watching those cop dramas. They’re messing with your head.”

“Mind your own business!” Mashiro stuck her tongue out and smacked his shoulder.

They climbed down the cliff and walked to the main road leading to their village. On the way, they passed some old folks giving them odd looks. Noticing their gaze, Mashiro frowned.

Makoto gently took her hand. “Don’t worry about it. Some people just don’t know how to let go.”

“I know.” She bit her bottom lip. “I know that. But it’s so annoying! Just because we’re a bit darker than they are! It’s not like I wanted to be born this color!”

“Just ignore them, okay?” Makoto tightened his grip, making sure she felt secure.

“…Okay.”

The war had been over for decades, but some Japanese people still blamed Ryukuans for siding with the U.S. back then. Even though most of the people alive at the time were gone, discrimination against those with darker skin lived on. That was another of the many hurdles between Mashiro and her dream.

They arrived at Mashiro’s house and saw her father in the dining area chatting with a skinny man wearing glasses. The small house only had two main rooms: the kitchen, which doubled as a dining room, and the bedroom. Her father, a mild-mannered man with slightly drooping eyes, beckoned them closer.

“Mashiro, Makoto, this is a coworker of mine, Seiju Kunimoto. Sei, this is my daughter Mashiro and our neighbor Makoto Kaburagi.”

Seiju smiled and bowed slightly. “Nice to meet you.”

““Nice to meet you too,”” said the pair.

“Is that an RX-78?”

Mashiro brandished her rather large camera, complete with zoom lens. “Yes! It’s a gift from Dad!”

“That cost me an entire paycheck…” said her father.

Seiju chuckled. “But this is a good camera. I have an ASW-G-08.”

“Isn’t that the latest model!?”

“Yup. I use it to take pictures of birds near my home.”

“I do that too!” said Mashiro, stars in her eyes. “What kind of bird?”

“All kinds, but get this. I even have pictures of Japanese night herons.”

“Wow!”

Not following the conversation, Makoto and her father could only shrug.

The two amateur photographers nerded out a bit more while dinner finished cooking. Seiju and Makoto would be joining the family for the meal. Makoto was a frequent guest at the Oogi family dinner table, as his parents were often away from home selling local products in the city.

Mashiro’s mother started bringing plates to the table. “Sorry to interrupt, but dinner’s ready.”

“Thanks Mom!”

The simple meal consisted of of grilled fish and goya chanpuru served with steaming white rice. The food was cheap and barely enough for all of them, but the meal warmed Makoto’s heart like always.

The next day, Makoto helped the fishermen in the morning, completed his household chores around noon, and continued his Ryukyu kempo training after lunch. Mashiro joined him midway and finished an entire book while occasionally peeking at his kata. This standard routine had continued unchanging for the past few years.

Life was simple but peaceful. Makoto loved it, and no matter how much Mashiro complained at times, he knew she did too.

Three weeks later, Makoto and Mashiro came back to a scene straight out of Mashiro’s favorite cop dramas. Several uniformed men escorted her handcuffed father towards a military jeep parked in front of her house.

“Stop!” Mashiro rushed forward and grabbed the man restraining his father. “What are you doing!?”

“Mashiro!” said her father. “Wait, she’s my daughter!”

The unformed men calmed down after hearing that. They released her father, allowing him to speak to her.

“It’s okay.” He got down on one knee, leveling their sights. “I’ll just be out for a bit. Your mother is out shopping. Tell her about this when she comes back.”

“No!” Mashiro embraced her father’s neck.

“What’s the matter?” asked a grey-haired man inside the jeep. He spoke in Japanese with a thick American accent. Most of the officers stationed at the island were fluent to some degree.

One of the uniformed men turned to face him, stiff as a board. “Oogi’s daughter has returned, Admiral.”

“Hm.” He opened the rear door and got out of the vehicle. “Girl, we’re here to arrest your father. It’s unfortunate you had to see this, but we have no choice.”

Makoto watched from the sidelines, unsure what to do. He desperately tried to process the situation, but thinking was not his strongest suit.

Mashiro let go of her father and faced the American officer. “On what charges!?”

The admiral looked at her curiously. “What’s your name?” He was rather soft-spoken for a military officer. His deep-set eyes, sharp nose, and pristine white uniform gave him a solemn air.

“Mashiro Oogi. And you are?”

“Ah, excuse me.” He kept his hands locked behind him as he spoke. “My name is Curtis Butler, a U.S. Navy admiral stationed at Camp Taylor.”

“An admiral..? That means the allegation against my father is serious, or you have too much free time.”

“Your father is charged with espionage. It warrants my attention.”

“Sir, that is-” A subordinate officer stepped forward, but Butler casually waved off his concern.

Mashiro snorted. “Espionage? Are you crazy? My father doesn’t have the guts to do something like that!”

Makoto felt a little sorry for the belittled father, but he had to agree.

“Evidence was found in his work locker and inside your home,” said Butler.

“What kind of evidence?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“You’ve got the wrong man.”

“I understand you want to trust your father-”

“It’s not about that. Dad isn’t that capable. He can’t even hide having an extra beer from mom. You think someone like that can be a spy?”

“I hate to tell you this, but most spies keep their work secret from their families.”

“Where did you find the evidence inside the house?”

Butler sent her an appraising look. “…Underneath a tray inside a kitchen cabinet.”

“That’s strange! Mom regularly uses that! If Dad was really a spy that could hide his identity from his own family, he would put it somewhere else! He also wouldn’t be stupid enough to hide incriminating evidence in his work locker!”

“Mashiro, was it? I’ll keep that in mind.” He signaled to his men.

The escorts grabbed her father and led him to the jeep.

“Wait!”

Mashiro tried to chase after them, but Makoto embraced her from behind.

“We can’t go against the soldiers, Mashiro! They’ll kill us!”

“I don’t care! Dad is innocent!” She struggled with all her might as the jeep pulled away. “Ah, that’s right! Admiral Butler!!! Kunimoto! Seiju Kunimoto!!!”

The vehicle carried her father off into the distance, leaving behind only a trail of exhaust.

Makoto explained what happened to Mashiro’s mother. She decided to call a friend for advice, which resulted in her sitting on her hands in fear of the military. Makoto could not blame her. The U.S. military was indisputable in Okinawa. Even the Japanese government rarely intervened in their affairs. Only a fool would challenge them.

After hearing her mother’s decision, Mashiro disappeared into the bedroom without a word. Her mother still prepared dinner, but a shade of despair loomed in her eyes. An hour later, dinner was laid out on the kitchen table like always.

Makoto knocked on the bedroom door. “Hey, it’s time to eat. I know it’s tough… Erm, I don’t actually know, but… Your father will be alright. You should eat and cheer up, I mean, that doesn’t sound right… Argh, what am I saying!?” He unconsciously smacked the door in exasperation.

The door slowly swung open, revealing an empty room.

Makoto rushed out of the house, barely explaining the situation to Mashiro’s mother.

Where could she be?

She couldn’t have..!

Makoto imagined Mashiro storming over to the U.S. navy base, demanding her father’s release. Stories about violence were not uncommon, and rumors had circulated of children being abused by drunk soldiers. The image of Mashiro encountering such a fate made his spine freeze.

No, Mashiro isn’t stupid.

Maybe…

He dashed down to the beach and over to the familiar cliff. Ignoring the small cuts he got from sharp rocks, he scrambled up to his favorite spot.

At the very edge of a rock overhanging the ocean sat his childhood friend, hugging her legs.

“Jeez, you scared the hell out of me.” Makoto took a seat beside her.

“Sorry.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

“I couldn’t do anything…” Mashiro buried her face in her knees, her shoulders jerking. “They took Dad, but I couldn’t do anything! He didn’t do anything wrong! I know it! But I just watched them take him!”

“That’s not your fault.”

“I know! It’s Seiju Kunimoto’s fault!”

“Who?” Makoto remembered Mashiro screaming that name as the jeep drove away.

“He was the only visitor we had recently! Who else could’ve planted evidence against Dad!?”

“That guy…” Makoto recalled his skinny, spectacled face.

“I knew there was something strange about him! He’s supposed to be Dad’s coworker, right? That means he’s a janitor too. How can he afford the latest model of this camera?” Mashiro embraced the camera on her chest as if it was the most precious thing in the world.

“Maybe he used his bonus.”

“Dad doesn’t get a bonus.”

“…Uh, right.”

Makoto did not believe Mashiro’s accusation. He understood it was tough for her to accept that her father might be a criminal. In fact, even he could not imagine that gentle father as a spy. But a setup was too far-fetched. That kind of twist belonged in cop dramas, not reality.

“I don’t know what to do, Makoto…” While grasping his forearm, Mashiro looked to him for help, teary-eyed and red-nosed.

He felt tempted to hug her but held back. Instead, he decided to console her with words. “If we only knew where this Kunimoto lived, maybe we could-” He regretted saying that upon feeling Mashiro’s grip tighten.

“That’s right. The Japanese night heron! The Japanese night heron!” Mashiro shook him by the shoulders.

“Whoa stop! You’re not making any sense!”

“He said he took pictures of that bird from his home! It lives in thick forests or low mountains near bodies of water. In this area, the only place like that with houses nearby is Lake Namu!”

“There are only a few homes there…”

“Right! We can check them all out easily! Kunimoto told me he lived alone, so we can check it out while he’s at work.”

“But wait, it’s just some bird right? What if it just happened to fly by his house?”

“They’re endangered. The chance of one randomly flying by your house while you have your camera out is essentially nil. Normal people don’t carry around cameras this big in their homes.”

“So you knew you were abnormal, huh.”

“That’s not important right now! Anyway, we have to check out the lake. You’re coming, right?”

“…Yeah, sure. But we have to wait ‘til tomorrow morning. We need to make sure this Kunimoto is out for work when we go.”

“Got it.”

After agreeing on a plan, they returned to their houses. They regrouped at dawn and headed to Lake Namu. Finding Kunimoto’s house was far easier than Makoto had imagined.

“Kunimoto? Sure I know him.” The old lady at the first house they visited nodded her head. “He’s that weirdo living on the other side of the lake.” She pointed to the shore across the water.

They thanked the old woman and followed the shoreline to Kunimoto’s house. The building was much larger than expected, definitely not something one could afford on a janitor’s salary. Removing their shoes at the entrance, they cautiously went deeper into the building. Inside, they found exactly what they were looking for.

“This is crazy…” Makoto stared at the half-burnt American flag strung up on the living room wall. “He’s not even trying to hide how nuts he is.”

“But this will help prove Dad’s innocence.” She snapped pictures of the rather unique decoration.

“What’re you talking about? This is the motherload!”

“No, this is just circumstantial evidence. Just because this guy’s a sicko doesn’t mean my father isn’t a spy. But maybe there’s something else hidden in the rooms.” Mashiro wandered off into one of the house’s many doors.

Makoto continued to look around the main living area and noticed something on the far wall. “Whoa, look at all this.”

Cutouts of old newspaper articles about Japan’s activities in the war were posted on a corkboard. He read through some of it, amazed by how much hatred the Ryukyuans garnered from mainland Japanese after siding with the Americans. He could understand why they still got odd looks for their skin color decades later. It was also the reason why Ryukyuans rarely married mainlanders, thus preserving their genetic traits.

A scream echoed from one of the rooms. It was Mashiro.

Dammit!

Makoto bolted towards the sound’s source.

He had been naive. They should have been more careful, especially after seeing what was inside Kunimoto’s home. Even if Kunimoto was away, they should not have let down their guard. What if he had allies? What if one of them was hurting Mashiro this instant?

He turned a corner and saw three doors, one on each side and one at the end. Voices came from the farthest room. Without considering the danger, he sprinted forward, grasped the doorpost, and pulled himself inside.

Mashiro was sitting on the large bed, shuffling backwards. A blond-haired man in casual wear approached her, his back turned to Makoto. Luckily, the enemy was too focused on Mashiro to notice his barefoot steps. Mashiro locked eyes with Makoto but merely bit her lip, not crying for help. She desperately controlled her fear to preserve the element of surprise against the mysterious enemy.

Not wasting that chance, Makoto snuck behind the much taller man and kicked the back of his knee, forcing him into a kneel. He then struck the man’s nape with a straight punch, the move he had practiced thousands of times atop that cliff. The enemy fell, his face hitting the edge of the bed before he rolled to the ground. Makoto stepped over him and pulled back his right fist for a finishing blow, but Mashiro called out to stop him.

“That’s enough! He’s out!”

Returning to his senses, Makoto noticed his rough breathing. He had only performed two basic moves, but the tension of real combat had sapped his energy. He loved practicing karate but had never used it to intentionally hurt someone before. Although it looked like a fighter’s badge of honor, the scar on his right eyebrow was just a product of him jumping in front of a fist headed for Mashiro as she tried to break up a fight between young fishermen months ago.

“We have to get out of here, Mashiro.”

She nodded and crawled off the bed. He checked her for injuries, patting her shoulders, waist, and hips.

“Hey, that tickles.” She squinted with an oddly bent smile.

Hearing such composed words, Makoto finally sighed in relief. Then he noticed Mashiro face twist in fear. She opened her lips, but before her voice made it to his ears, Makoto felt something coil around him from behind. Like a tree python strangling its prey, thick muscular arms robbed him of freedom and lifted him off the ground.

“Dammit!!!” Makoto flailed around helplessly, but the enemy’s hold was too strong.

“Let Makoto go! You criminals!” Mashiro slammed her tiny fists against the man’s torso to no effect.

Focusing power in his arms, Makoto tried to free himself. He screamed his lungs out in a final full-powered attempt, but even that proved futile. “Get out of here, Mashiro! Forget about me and run! Run!!!”

This later turned into an embarrassing memory for the teenage boy.

Makoto and Mashiro were sitting beside each other on a bench inside Admiral Butler’s office. Neither of them were restrained. They just sat there, quietly watching Butler sign paperwork. After letting them simmer a bit more, Butler put the documents inside his desk drawer and stood up. Both children stiffened as he approached.

“I believe my subordinates have explained the gist of the situation, correct?” asked Butler.

They nodded at the same time while sending furtive glances at the American’s face.

“Good thing Petty Officer Redfield didn’t suffer any major injuries.”

Makoto stood up and bowed deeply. “I am very, very sorry!”  

“Hm. Don’t worry about it. It’s partly his fault for getting knocked out by a teenage boy.”

“Makoto is strong!” said Mashiro, who also got on her feet. “I mean, he is strong, sir!”

Butler laughed lightly and placed his hands on their shoulders. With a gentle nudge, he urged them back to their seats. “You don’t have to call me sir. You’re civilians, children at that. You two should be in school studying, not playing detectives.”

Neither Makoto nor Mashiro attended school regularly. They simply had more important things to do, like earning money.

“But Dad got arrested! And I…”

“How did you find out where Kunimoto lived?”

Mashiro explained her deductions and everything that happened before they were caught by the navy investigators sent to Kunimoto’s residence.

The admiral nodded curtly. “Impressive. I can see why you don’t attend that school. Must feel like a waste of time to you, correct?”

Mashiro blinked several times before nodding hesitantly. Makoto himself could not believe an adult would openly say something like that about school, as pathetic as the one in their community was.

“Um, about Dad…” said Mashiro.

“You don’t have to worry about your father. He’s currently going through processing, but he’ll be released any moment now.”

“Really!? Did you catch Kunimoto?” asked Makoto.

“Yes. The fool came to work as usual. He probably thought he got away scot-free after setting up Mashiro’s father. He confessed to everything after five minutes of interrogation.” Butler shook his head as if disappointed. “He isn’t a spy. Just a self-proclaimed patriot. He applied for janitorial work even though he’s actually quite well off. Employing someone like that was a mistake on our part. The janitorial interview isn’t exactly the strictest one we conduct. No offense.”

Mashiro shook her head, not minding the minor slight against her father’s work.

“That’s great! Right, Mashiro?”

She wrapped his hand in hers and nodded, grinning happily.

“Thank you,” said Butler. “It would’ve taken a bit longer to get to the bottom of this case if you didn’t shout out Kunimoto’s name. However, you two should never do anything like this again.” Butler turned to Makoto. “You seem to be the one with more restraint. You should watch out for your girlfriend and stop her from doing things like this.”

Makoto’s face turned beet red. Butler smiled, mistaking it for embarrassment from being seen as a couple, but the real reason behind his reaction was shame. Makoto knew Butler meant well, but being labeled as ‘the one with more restraint’ felt like being called a coward. No, it was exactly that. He was just a coward who could not move an inch without Mashiro pulling him along.

“Why…” mumbled Mashiro.

Butler’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, his lips tightening into a line.

“Why is it so wrong? I just wanted to prove Dad’s innocence. I just wanted to do the right thing.”

“What you wanted to do was praiseworthy, but it wasn’t your place.”

“Because I’m not a military officer? Because I’m just a dumb kid!?” Mashiro bit her lip, a habit of hers when things did not go her way.

Uh oh.

Makoto had a bad feeling. Mashiro seemed to be going into one of her justice streaks.

“You’re hardly dumb,” said Butler, ”but those reasons are partly correct. To put it bluntly, you don’t have the power to do anything. Meddling with affairs beyond your station will only cause trouble for others, like what happened at Kunimoto’s house.”

“Then give me that power! You’re an admiral, right? You should have more than enough to go around! I’m sick and tired of being unable to do anything! I endure weird stares everyday, work my ass off to buy books cityfolk read for free, and I can only watch when Dad gets arrested for something he didn’t do! It’s unfair! This is stupid! How can the world be like this? Why can’t I do anything to change it!?”

“Mashiro, calm down.” Makoto held her trembling shoulders.

Butler looked downright shocked by her sudden outburst. For Makoto, it was nothing unexpected. Mashiro had been bottling up her feelings for a long time. After the tension from the incident dissipated, her frustrations came spilling out.

A knock at the door interrupted their talk. “Sir, I brought Oogi-san as ordered.”

“Come in.”

Mashiro and her father finally reunited, marking the end of the incident. Butler apologized to everyone once more before bidding them farewell. Their simple yet peaceful days returned once again.

Or so Makoto thought. But fate had other plans.

It happened on a day just like any other. Makoto and Mashiro returned from their favorite cliff, not knowing what awaited them in Mashiro’s tiny house.

“Your parents have already given their approval.” Butler held out his hand. “What do you say?”

Mashiro stared at his hand and then turned to her parents, who stood behind her. They both smiled at her and nodded. A tinge of sadness could be seen on their faces, but their hopefulness overshadowed it. They knew just how valuable this opportunity was and how hard Mashiro worked for something like it.

“Didn’t you want power?” Butler’s gentle voice dominated the dining room.

“I do.”

“Then be my daughter. You’ll have the best of everything. That said, we won’t be a real family. Your real family is still here. You’ll be able to use my name for your justice. Not to brag, but I’m an important man.”

She took his hand and gripped it firmly. “Okay. But I have a request.”

“What is it?”

“I want to take Makoto with me. We’re partners.” She turned to Makoto. “You’re coming, right?”

With no hesitation, the girl tossed aside her old life and grasped her dream. Despite that, she did not want to leave him behind. That was when Mashiro became truly irreplaceable to Makoto. The emotion was not romantic. That would come later when the girl matured into a young woman. It was a feeling similar to a deep respect, bordering on worship. The boy of fifteen knew it was odd to see a younger girl in such a light, but he could not help it.

And that was why he shook his head. “No.”

“That’s how it is.” Mashiro faced Butler again. “We come as a pair. You get both or… none… Eh?”

“I’m not coming with you, Mashiro.”

“What’s with that? Don’t joke around! Didn’t you want to get out of this place too!?”

No, I just want to be with you.

To stand beside you.

That’s why he could not let her keep pulling him along. He had to get to where she was with his own feet, just like how she carved her own path through courage and perseverance.

“Calm down. I’m not coming with you, but I’ll be going to where you are. So wait for me.”

Mashiro fell silent as tears gathered in her eyes. Without letting them fall, she wiped them away with her wrist and smiled brilliantly.

“I’ll be waiting!”

She did not wait long. Three years later, Curtis Butler hired a young but talented martial artist named Makoto Kaburagi as his daughter’s personal bodyguard.

 

Next Chapter

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