At the urging of K.Wyse, I give you...
Part IV, Chapter 3
"Taiki, this is Zachary Coruni, Jaden's brother."
The brown-haired man adjusted his glasses somberly as he regarded Zach with a piercing but not exactly unfriendly gaze. "Hello," he said in perfect English, "welcome to Japan."
Zach shook his hand impersonally, feeling like a beetle under a magnifying glass and hating it. "Thanks. May I offer you my congratulations on your engagement? You're very lucky – Ami is a wonderful person."
She glanced sharply at him, surprised by the sincerity of his tone.
In the meantime, Taiki replied stiffly, "Thank you. I'm well aware of my good fortune, I assure you."
Ami transferred her gaze to her fiancé, wondering why he sounded so hostile. If anyone had the right to be annoyed at the moment, it was her.
Taiki, when he noticed her glinting sapphire eyes fixed on him warningly, exerted himself to be more gracious. "Will you be staying with us for the duration, Zachary? We would be honored to have you."
"Just Zach is fine. And while I appreciate the offer, I've already made arrangements," he responded.
When Rei heard what those arrangements were, she let both him and Jaden have it. "You two are unbelievable! You're here for Ami's wedding, not a business trip!"
"I told you months ago that he could stay at my apartment," she went on, glaring at her hapless boyfriend. "But did you tell him? No, you let him go ahead and make reservations at a hotel."
"Does he even know a word of Japanese?"
Well, Ami thought, maybe he's been studying Japanese on his own. But why would he ever do that? she wondered. Jaden just shrugged, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he tried to look properly cowed and submissive and failed miserably.
For his part, Zach said defensively, "Of course I know Japanese!"
His brother smirked now. "You can say 'thanks,' 'goodbye,' 'can you speak English?,' 'sorry, do I know you?,' and 'go to hell.'"
Taiki, who was wondering if he would ever get used to Rei, raised his eyebrows when he heard the last item on Jaden's list. Perhaps because of his subtle disapproval, Ami found herself on the verge of giggling and hurriedly stifled the impulse.
"Really advanced vocabulary," Rei told him wryly. "You're going to cancel those reservations and stay at the apartment."
Zach paled at the thought of spending a month living in the same apartment as Rei Hino. "Rei, that's really nice of you, and I appreciate your offering–"
"Good," she said decisively, "it's settled." With that, she bustled off to supervise the proceedings.
The blond-haired man looked helplessly at first Jaden, then Ami. "Your cousin is a steamroller," he informed the latter in an appalled whisper.
Ami couldn't hold back her smile. "Yes, I know. Don't worry – she spends much of her time here, helping me with the wedding preparations, and with Jaden here as well, you'll have the apartment to yourself most of the time."
Still unconvinced, Zach searched desperately for an escape route. "Hey, Jaden, why aren't you living with Rei?"
His response was a gloomy sigh. "I wish."
"Because Jaden and Rei are not married and not engaged, it's therefore considered inappropriate for them to live under the same roof by the social standards here," Ami told him helpfully.
Zach was about to confirm that they were in the twenty-first century but decided against it, at least at the moment, since Taiki was still looking on stiffly.
"Besides, Rei doesn't bite," Jaden said encouragingly. "At least, she'd better not bite you, or you're a dead man."
"But Jaden, I'm your favorite brother, aren't I?" he asked teasingly.
"You're my only brother, Zach."
"Well, all the more reason not to kill me..."
As they walked off companionably as Rei beckoned, Taiki turned to his fiancee with a befuddled look on his face and inquired, "Is this customary in your country?"
Ami towed him over to the towering stack of presents she was supposed to be opening. "Is what customary in the U.S.?" she asked innocently, wishing he wouldn't refer to it as "your country." He made it sound like it was another planet.
He paused. "You...didn't notice anything odd about the conversation that just transpired?"
She just laughed and kissed him on the cheek. "No, nothing."
Ami woke up two hours later than usual due to the strains of the previous day and, consequently, took her usual, predawn swim around nine o'clock. She was only on her fifth lap when a shadow fell over her and the glistening surface of the chlorinated water.
Once she reached the other end, she stopped, treading water easily, to see who had come in – Yaten, perhaps, or more likely it was Seiya. Or really, it could be any one of the illustrious wedding guests staying with the Kous, she reminded herself, or it could also be...Zachary Coruni. She jolted in surprise at that and disappeared underwater for a minute.
When she surfaced, she was spitting out a mouthful of pool water, and he was looking down at her in concern. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," she muttered. "What are you doing here? Aren't you tired?" Belatedly, she recalled Jaden blithely informing her that he'd woken up at four due to jetlag.
He shrugged, extending his hand to help her out of the water. "Not really. I got up at some ungodly hour, raided the kitchen, and accidentally woke up Rei." He shuddered comically. "After about five cups of green tea, she muttered something about sightseeing and dragged me over here, probably to pick up Jaden."
Ami had been engrossed in the dilemma of whether to ignore his hand and get out herself, but she decided the best way to go was to accept the hand and slop water all over his arm. "I see," she said, smiling sweetly as she took his hand and let him hoist her out of the water.
She discovered it had been a very bad idea when something that felt like static electricity coursed through their joined hands. She was teetering at the pool's edge now as he stared down at her with an unreadable expression, and she felt suddenly awkward and vulnerable in her bathing suit, as bathing suits had the unfortunate tendency to be skintight.
"Morning," Jaden greeted as he walked in.
Zach yanked his hands away reflexively, and Ami, who had already been off-balance, fell backwards into the pool with a little shriek.
When she'd fallen, she'd sent a huge geyser of water over the blond-haired man at fault, and Jaden stared wordlessly at the spectacle of Ami splashing towards the edge with murder in her eyes and Zach opening his eyes cautiously to look down at his drenched clothes. Rei chose this prime moment to enter and stared at her cousin, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's brother. "Should I even ask?"
"No," Ami and Zach chorused simultaneously.
He turned to her, blushing slightly. "I'm really sorry. That had to hurt."
'Tell me something I don't know,' she thought, glowering at him.
Then she replied icily, "I'm fine. Thanks so much for the help, Zach."
He paused in the middle of wringing out his shirt and gave her his best smile; she had to be all right if she could still play the ice queen. "It's not my fault you're a klutz, Mizuno-Anderson."
Rei sighed, exchanging a glance with Jaden. So much for hoping they would finally be on friendly terms. "Okay, you two, let's just go, shall we?"
"I need to change," Zach pointed out logically, peeling off his sopping-wet shirt.
Ami, in the meantime, had wrapped herself in a thick white towel and was attempting to make her escape. "Well, I'll just leave you to your sightseeing. Have a nice day!"
"Not so fast," Rei said, grabbing her wrist. "Don't you want to come with us, Ami?"
She sighed as her cousin pulled her aside, wondering how to word her response on how she would rather jump into a pit of vipers. "Of course, that would be nice, but I'm...rather busy today, with – with the wedding preparations."
The purple-eyed steamroller raised her eyebrows. Both of them knew that the flowers, the guest list, the food, the dress, the shoes – everything has been finalized, and that Ami's schedule for the final month before the wedding encompassed only the interminable, inevitable social meetings. Before she could say anything to that effect, however, Zach drawled impudently, "I'm sure they can get along for a day without your indispensable presence."
Ami spun around to find her face about four inches from his chest, then quickly transferred her gaze pointedly to the wet shirt in his hand.
At that moment, Jaden came over to add his two cents' worth, smiling disarmingly. "Come on, Ames, it'll be fun," he wheedled. "We hardly ever get to spend time with you, and once you're married, you won't be visiting the U.S. often."
She winced as he laid on the guilt. "All right," she capitulated, "I'll go. But we have to be back in plenty of time for dinner, and you'll probably want to take naps before that." She and Rei exchanged amused glances when the two blondes hotly denied her claim that they would fall prey to jetlag.
"You say so now, but you'll see when you start zoning out in the afternoon," Rei said knowingly before she added, "Get a dry shirt on before you catch a cold, Zach!"
Ami smiled as Zach went off sulkily with Jaden to borrow one of his shirts. "Where were you planning on taking them today?"
"Hm...around," Rei said vaguely. When she saw the alarmed look on her cousin's face, she amended hastily, "Around Tokyo?"
Her cousin made a disbelieving sound.
"Come on, Ami, they're guys. All they want to do is eat and, at best, admire the samurai weaponry."
"I don't know why I still bother to hope that something, anything in my life will go smoothly," Ami muttered.
"I really want to see the Meiji Jingu Shrine. Do you think we can go there today?"
Both women spun around to see Zach standing there with an eager expression on his face and a dry shirt on.
A few hours later, they were walking around the shrine, admiring the grounds. Most unhappily, Ami found herself walking with, of all people, Zach, because Rei and Jaden were strolling ahead of them holding hands and looking soulfully at each other every so often.
She didn't really know why she was in such a foul mood – it was a beautiful day, she didn't have anything to worry about, and Zach was being the perfect guest now, amusing and interested in what they were seeing. The third part was probably why, she decided. Why couldn't he be a pig and say something stupid and touristy?
Just then, he turned to her with a wide grin and urged her to look at something. She regarded him seriously instead of the specified object, smiling politely. Inwardly, her emotions were in a torrent: he looked like an eager little boy with his fair hair, shining eyes, and enthusiastic expression. It saddened her to remember that Taiki had never showed such enthusiasm towards anything in his life, including her.
But she loved Taiki. Maybe he was reserved, even a little cold at times, but he certainly wasn't a deplorable rake, she reminded herself. She really didn't want to think about her previous experiences with Zach; every time she did so, she got a headache. So she was going to act in a mature fashion, as she'd been doing fairly successfully so far, she thought, and genuflect once he was gone.
"So, have you been here before?"
Ami, startled out of her pensive reflections, looked up at him. "No," she answered simply, glancing away under the pretense of admiring a stand of trees to her right.
Zach rubbed the back of his neck, which was turning as red as a boiled lobster, unbeknownst to him. "Hm. Uh, do you like it in Japan?"
She tried, she really tried, not to stare at him as if he'd said something really idiotic – but he had, so he deserved it. Her verbal response was somewhat more diplomatic. "Yes, I've been living here for six years, and I plan to spend the rest of my life here, actually."
His face reddened until it was the same color as his neck. "Oh. Yeah. Well, I mean, was it hard when you first came here?" he tried again. Once he'd said it, Zach felt like hitting himself upside the head.
'Wow, Zach, that was brilliant,' he congratulated himself sarcastically, 'remind her of what happened right before she transferred. Why don't you just ask her exactly how she felt when she saw you kissing Christie in the bookstore? Oh, I forgot, she already told you with explicit detail so you'd know exactly what a jerk she thought you were!'
"Well, it was a change," she said quietly, unaware of what was running through his mind. "But it wasn't too hard – I spoke Japanese fairly well, if not fluently. As you can see, I improved and adapted to everything else. Some of the customs are a little old-fashioned; the Kous, for example, and many of their associates are very conservative. But I liked coming back."
She was telling him more than she had planned to, but she continued anyway, because something inside her wanted so much to explain her feelings. "Once I saw Tokyo, right after I left the airport, it was like coming home, even though the U.S. will always be my home, too. There was a sense of familiarity in the streets, the skyscrapers, the people.
"But it was strange, too, seeing so many Japanese faces around me when there were so few of them in the U.S. You'd think that I would have felt perfectly at home, but the truth is, I got used to being surrounded by American faces."
He smiled in relief and amusement. "But you're lucky to have two places you can call home."
Ami's smile was bittersweet and tinged with wistfulness. "Do you think so? Yes, I'm lucky, on some counts. On the other hand, I left my parents and all my close friends behind: Rei, Jaden, Mina, Lita, and Nevin...and many things that were familiar to me. I've never felt like I've belonged anywhere, Zach; I always feel like I'm caught between two worlds, neither of which I can ever fully belong to." She glanced up at him, feeling a jolt of shock at how familiarly she had spoken to him: she had spoken to him as if they were still teenagers confiding in each other about their innocent dreams in the hall outside his room.
His face was a study of sorrow and sympathy but no empathy. "I'm sorry, Ami."
She tried to turn away, wanting to break out of this intimate rapport they had somehow established, but his eyes were oddly hypnotic. "Well, I'm sure many people who have been transplanted from their mother country feel similarly."
"Ami, Zach, what are you doing?" Rei called.
They held each other's gazes for a few more seconds, then Ami turned from him and walked away.
AN: Again, apologies for the delay, and thank you for K. Wyse for informing me of my evility ;), which made me update. It's getting late and I have to wake up early tomorrow, so I'm too lazy to look up who said it, but I believe a reviewer mentioned that she'd expected more fireworks between Ami and Zach once they met again. Well, I think they haven't really worked out their feelings about the past, but Ami I feel would always be scrupulously polite – nevertheless, the inevitable confrontation will occur sometime, but maybe not as tumultuous as expected :) Hope my view makes sense; I'm always open to suggestions, criticism, and, of course, praise ;)