CHAPTER 17

Yuzu couldn't believe what she had just heard. The stupefied blonde looked down, at the document Itsuki referenced, in shock thinking, 'WTF!'

Mei took in the sight of the confused blonde and then shifted her attention to her cousin. 'Is he really going to do this?' Mei thought to herself as she noticed Yuzu's hand started to tremble. Without consciously thinking, Mei moved closer, trying to more closely examine the documents that her distraught love looked like she was about to drop to the floor.

Yuzu felt like her whole world was crashing down around her as she read the words on the piece of paper over and over… 'Child Custody...Plaintiff...Defendant…'

"Yuzucchi, Mei what's wron-"

Harumin was cut off as Mei gently placed her palms on the shocked blonde's shoulders to guide Yuzu closer towards her best friend and then spoke.

"Harumin, please take Yuzu inside, Itsuki and I have some things to discuss."

As Mei reserved all of her kindness and gentleness for Yuzu in that moment, she simultaneously channeled all of her shrewd chairwoman tenacity and aloof displeasure toward Itsuki.

Harumin looked over Mei's shoulder and saw Itsuki smirking at her as he stood in the doorway. He still seemed to underestimate his younger cousin.

Soon, Harumin's eyes trailed down to the piece of paper Yuzu was holding precariously. Her eyes went wide as she realised what the paper was for. It took all her restraint to refrain from lunging at Itsuki and wringing his neck.

Turning to lead herself and the blonde chef inside, Harumin spoke one last time before the door was closed.

"Call me if you need anything Prez."

Harumin's eyes locked on Itsuki's and he felt a chill run down his spine. But trying to keep his composure he gave a wink and a wave as Harumin and Yuzu went back inside.

"Hey, what's wrong with Yuzu-chan?" Matsuri asked as she glanced at her childhood friend who looked like she had just seen a ghost. All eyes were on Yuzu as she sat down with the paper still in her hands.

Gently taking the paper from her friend Harumin placed it in the middle of the table for everyone to see.

"WHAT!?" Matsuri was the first to speak as she read the paper.

"He's got to be joking!" Himeko was the next to speak.

"No, this has to be a misunderstanding." Sho was the next to grab the document as he skimmed the contents.

Yuzu sat at the table in a daze, she felt like she had already hit rock bottom and now this!?

'Seriously?! Can I not catch a break? Life can't really be this cruel.' But before Yuzu lost herself in a sea of self-doubt she shook her head. 'This is my life, not some twisted Korean Drama!' Then, suddenly calming thoughts of Ume interrupted her mild melt down. It was if Yuzu could sense her mother's presence surrounding her, 'You got this Bub.'

"Mama?"

Yuzu turned her head to the side as she felt a small hand grab on to her.

Looking into her daughter's eyes made Yuzu's heart clench even more. Yet, sensing her mother's encouraging presence the previously frazzled blonde attempted to recenter herself so she could get a better handle on the situation. After all, who better to advocate for Haruka's future, then the woman who had raised her as a single mum?

The thought of anyone taking her baby away made her feel physically sick. After the roller coaster of the past five years, Yuzu openly acknowledged she wasn't perfect. Yet despite her downward spiral into alcohol and drugs, and all the grief that had come with that finally in the best position of her life professionally. Her personal life was just starting to brighten up too. Just as she was about to succumb to self-pity an indescribable rage overcame her instead and before she knew it, she found her body moving on its own as she headed back towards the front door with everyone following her.

"Wait Yuzucchi, don't do anything rash, he could use it against you!"

Harumin tried to reason with her friend as she saw the clear determination in her emerald eyes as she rushed toward where she and Harumin had left the pair of Aihara cousins.

"No one is taking my…."

Yuzu swung the door open just as she went to finish her sentence. But the rest of the words died on her tongue at the sight in front of her. Itsuki and Mei were nowhere to be found. Just as the bewildered blonde was about to shift back into panic mode her cell phone vibrated in her pocket. She shakily snatched it and read, 'Yuzu, I'm taking Itsuki back to the mansion where my legal team awaits our arrival. -Mei'

BACK AT AIHARA MANSION….

As the Aihara cousins' limo pulled through the estate gates Itsuki remained confident. He assumed Mei had brought him to the mansion to privately beg him to drop his custody demands. Little did the small time drug hustler realize he was more like a lamb being guided into the lion's den. He silently smirked at his cousin who was calmly seated across from him. Mei's legs were crossed and palms planted firmly on her lap after having sent a brief text message. As she silently observed Itsuki Mei wondered, 'Has he always been so obnoxious? If it weren't for his physical features, I'd never believe we were related.' The raven haired woman shuddered as she thought about the unscrupulous man staring back at her.

Finally, they arrived. Itsuki followed his younger cousin into the conference room Sho had set up prior, for impromptu business meetings at the mansion. Itsuki's confidence soon started to wane as he noticed several individuals, he didn't recognize, waiting for he and Mei to join them at the conference table. Miscellaneous documents and photographs were strewn across the table and Itsuki felt his chest tighten as he awkwardly sat next to Mei. His palms started to sweat so he hid them beneath the table as the first gentlemen who appeared to be the man in charge addressed him directly.

'Aihara Itsuki, my name is Hirayama Akihiro. I, along with my colleagues represent Aihara Mei-san. Please review the documents presented before you, as they pertain to both your vested interest in the former Chairman's will as well as the upcoming custody case you have brought against Aihara Yuzu-san.'

Still in shock, Itsuki's heart was practically audible as he skimmed a collection of surveillance photos, embezzlement charges and even a few depositions from some of his drug clients. But just as quickly as he had panicked, Itsuki recalled his back up plan if he were ever to be caught in his shady business deals by his stern younger cousin. He recomposed himself, steadied his heart rate and smirked at Hirayama.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE APARTMENT…

Yuzu spent the rest of the day with Haruka, her phone on 'Do Not Disturb.' She had finally followed up with Mayu a few hours earlier and was thankful her sous chef was so reliable and trustworthy. Mei's brief text had put the young chef's mind at ease temporarily. But as soon as her daughter fell asleep, Yuzu suddenly felt a shiver down her back, a queasy sensation that something wasn't quite right.

Ironically, the odd feeling lingered with Yuzu as she received a most unexpected phone call. Ordinarily, given her present state of mind, the blonde would have ignored the call, letting it go to voicemail. Yet, she felt compelled to answer.

RING RING

"Yuzu-chan?" A strangely familiar, voice greeted Yuzu on the other line.

"Udagawa-san, is that you? I'm so sorry for striking you the last time we met! I was …"

Before she could complete her apology, Udagawa interjected.

"I totally understand my friend. So much has happened, unintended deception and good intentions gone astray. I just want to help make sure that my mistakes don't hurt anyone else anymore."

As Yuzu listened to her former boss, she just became more confused.

"What are you trying to tell me Udagawa? You're being so vague. Am I supposed to know what you're talking about?"

Yuzu was already on edge, the additional uncertainty in her former boss's voice was almost unbearable.

"Boss, boss? Still there?" Yuzu could hardly believe what she was hearing. It sounded like muffled crying in the background as Udagawa cleared his throat.

By this time Yuzu had walked into the kitchen for a cold glass of water, eagerly awaiting Udagawa's response.

Suddenly, it was as if the floodgates had opened as Yuzu listened to Mei's ex husband pour out his heart to her over the next hour. His revelations shook Yuzu, but she remained silent, intent on not missing any details. She hadn't realized how much Mei had sacrificed over the last ten years.

Once Udagawa was silent, Yuzu finally responded.

"Thank you for trusting me with this information Udagawa-san. I really needed to hear the entire truth. I had no idea."

Udagawa, was silent. He could hardly believe he had revealed his deepest secrets to his former employee, even though she had become like a younger sister to him. But when Itsuki had contacted him via text earlier that day Udagawa shifted immediately into 'fight or flight mode' and the hormones drove him to reach out to Yuzu, without even thinking. Would the blonde be the answer to his prayers?

Before, hanging up the line Yuzu remembered a song Haru had shared with her after she had managed to crawl out of her downward spiral.

"Hey Boss, please take a moment to check out this link I'm about to send you. It's a video to a song one of my dearest friends shared with me after I had just pulled my life back together. Promise me you'll listen to it, ok?"

Taking a deep breath, still sitting at the kitchen table, Yuzu scrolled through her phone and found the link she wanted to share. Almost immediately, Udagawa saw the link appear in their message thread and clicked on it.

"Thanks for hearing me out Yuzu-chan. It helps getting all of that off of my chest. I am clicking on the link now. I haven't heard from Mei. Please give her my regards and I want you to know that I will do whatever I need to do to ensure my past mistakes don't wreak havoc on your future."

Before Yuzu could say another word she heard a click on the line indicating Udagawa had hung up.

Since the link she sent was still on her phone ( watch?v=HSgEvM3aptw) the blonde decided to listen to the song again. 'It'll be a good reminder.' She thought as she put her earbuds in and left the kitchen to return to Haruka's room, while listening to the song, Ambling Alp by Yeasayer.

'Now kid I know I haven't been a perfect man

And I've avoided doing things I know I can

But if I've learned one thing to tattoo on my arm

Or burn into my thumb it would be that

You must stick up for yourself son'

She quietly entered, seeing her daughter still fast asleep hugging her cherished bear. As Yuzu approached the bed she noticed a bit of dried up drool on the bear, indicating that Haruka was indeed fast asleep.

Never mind what anybody else done

Stick up for yourself son

Never mind what anybody else done

Oh Max Schmeling was a formidable foe

The Ambling Alp was too at least that's what I'm told

But if you learn one thing you've learned it well

In June you must give fascists hell

'Man, I forgot how much this song resonated with me back then.'

Yuzu, smiled a small smile as she remembered how hard she thought life was back when Mei had initially left and how mad at the world she had been.

They'll run but they can't hide

You must stick up for yourself son

Never mind what anybody else done

Stick up for yourself son

Never mind what anybody else done

Stick up for yourself son

Never mind what anybody else done

Stick up for yourself son

Never mind what anybody else done

Despite all the curveballs life through at her, no matter that she had crashed and burned, she had managed to pull herself back together. She just needed to remember that she could do whatever she set her mind to accomplish.

And when those thunder clouds are cryin'

(In the skies, in the skies)

And when those fireflies keep shining,

(In your eyes, in your eyes)

Keep your mind on the time,

With your ass on the line,

Keep your fleet feet sliding

(Side, to the side)

'I'm never giving up again. I have two loves to fight for now.' Yuzu felt a renewed sense of purpose and confidence. Any doubts that had surfaced because of Itsuki's custody claims started to disintegrate.

Now the world can be an unfair place at times

But your lows will have their compliment of highs

And if anyone should cheat you

Take advantage of or beat you raise your head

And wear your wounds with pride

You must stick up for yourself son

As Yuzu, slowly joined her little girl and cradled both she and the treasured stuffed animal, the newly invigorated emerald eyed chef thought to herself, 'Mama, thank you for always being there for me. Your unconditional love saved me.'

Never mind what anybody else done

Stick up for yourself son

Never mind what anybody else done

Stick up for yourself son

Never mind what anybody else done

Stick up for yourself son

Never mind what anybody else done

'Now, it's time I rescued myself, Mama.''

As Yuzu thought back to Haruka's birthday when Ume had played paparazzi and caught several precious moments, a single tear drop fell from Yuzu's eyelash as she asked in a whisper, "Mama, you knew all along it would be Mei by my side, didn't you?"

-Knock Knock-

Yuzu slowly lifted her head to see Himeko standing at the door with a concerned expression on her face as she spoke in a low tone.

"Yuzu can we talk for a minute?"

BACK AT AIHARA MANSION

Revitalized by thoughts of his back up plan, Itsuki surprised Mei and her battalion of lawyers as his posture straightened and he declared,"None of this rubbish will see the light of day!"

Then, the crude young Aihara had the audacity to stand and slide up to Mei and whisper in her ear with a devilish lilt in his voice, "I know about Udagawa-san."

Mei's eyes widened as she registered what her cousin had just said.

Turning her attention to her attorneys Mei politely asked her legal team to leave them alone for a few minutes.

Once the door was closed Mei looked at Itsuki with pure determination in her eyes as she spoke "What do you want Itsuki?"

A FEW HOURS LATER….

Yuzu let out a frustrated sigh as she closed her bedroom door, it was way beyond midnight but the information that Himeko had just shared, twisted Yuzu's stomach in knots and her mind reeling.

"Damn you Mei!" Yuzu muttered to herself as she gripped her heart.

With her eyes widening Yuzu looked down at her hand, old memories of the time she and Mei had spent together when they were younger flooded her mind.

'Why does she always have to try and do everything by herself?' Yuzu thought as she threw herself onto the bed and looked at the ceiling.

Everything seemed like a dream and Yuzu had only one thing that would assure her that everything that she and Mei went through was real.

Shuffling over to the side of the bed Yuzu slowly opened her bedside drawer.

"Huh?"

Yuzu had a confused look as she saw an envelope. Grabbing it she recognised the handwriting as Mei's.

Yuzu felt her heartbeat quicken and her palms become sweaty as she held the envelope above her head and stared at it intensely. She could see the shadow of something inside, Yuzu felt her heart sink as she knew that shape anywhere.

"Mei's ring?"

Hundreds more thoughts ran through Yuzu's mind. It had truly been a long day and she wasn't sure how much more her heart or mind could take as she contemplated, 'Should I open it?'

Her heart raced as Yuzu started to fear the worst. Had Mei come to the realization that what they had shared, the connection they had forged in their youth and confirmed when they confessed their feelings had all been a farce? Then, the emerald eyed beauty shook her head as she wondered, 'When did Mei leave this here? Why would she put it in my drawer?'

Following a deep sigh, clenching the unopened envelope, terribly drained and at her wit's end, Yuzu dragged herself to the kitchen for a glass of water but stopped with her hand on the refrigerator door as she thought,'Seriously, I need a shot of courage or something.'

As she opened the refrigerator door she looked at the bottles in the door of the fridge. She immediately shut the door and sat at the kitchen table with her head hung low, with both hands stroking her temple.

Suddenly, the tense silence of the room was interrupted.

RING, RING.

TO BE CONTINUED….