L-chan's notes:  This is just a little idea I had, and for now, will remain a one-shot, although someday, I might want to turn it into a full-length Rei/Sana story.  I hope you enjoy this, and please review!  Thanks. ^_^

Disclaimer: Kodomo no Omocha was created by Miho Obana.

First Loves, Second Chances

The bar on the corner was dark and nearly empty, even though it was still early in the evening.  It was surprising, considering the activity going on just down the street.  But that was why he'd chosen this place.  For its anonymity, for its depressing atmosphere, and for its location.  He was a masochist, but not enough to actually stand outside the hotel, hoping for a glimpse.  The past should remain in the past, he told himself, signaling for another whisky.  That's why I'm not living there.  I'm just visiting.

The television behind the bar was muted, and Sagami Rei glanced at the screen through his tinted glasses.  After a frenetic commercial for a new line of flavored crisps, the evening news began.  He immediately recognized the hotel on screen and groaned silently.  Of course it's the lead story.  "Would you mind turning that up, please?" he asked politely, and the bartender complied with an affirmative grunt.

"Well, you'd have to be living under a rock not to know what's happening here today," the female reporter chirped excitedly, gesturing to the building behind her.  Several other reporters and camera crews were visible in the background.  "We've gotten word that the wedding ceremony of award-winning actress Kurumi Asako and enigmatic heir Chiba Hyosuke has ended, but the party inside is just beginning.  We hope to be the first to bring you a picture of the happy couple, so until they make an appearance, we'll go back to the studio for...."

Rei stared down into his half-empty glass and sighed.  It was official.  He hadn't expected anything different.  But hearing it made it real.  Asako was finally out of his life for good.  Why don't I feel relieved?

He asked for another drink and wondered how many more it would take before he stopped feeling... whatever it was that was making him feel like he'd been punched in the stomach.  The television newscast was flashing old photographs of Asako and her fian—husband, pictures he'd seen too many times before.  "Thanks, you can turn it down now."

"Might be a game on," the bartender muttered, flipping through the channels.

"Sounds good."  He didn't care.

The door opened, letting in unwelcome shouts of street noise from outside, and a young woman entered with all the stealth of an elephant.  Her auburn hair was twisted in an elaborate coronet of braids, and she was wearing a large, ugly blue men's windbreaker over a puffy pink dress that looked more like a frothy dessert than a comfortable garment.  Her head was bowed slightly, but Rei could see that she was wearing sunglasses very much like his.

"Good evening," she greeted the bartender and his lone patron with a saccharine cheer that made Rei's teeth hurt.  "I'd like a whisker, please."

"A whisker?" the man behind the bar grunted.

"Yes, like that," the woman replied, pointing to the glass in Rei's hand.

"You mean whisky?"

"Right, whisky.  What did I say?"  She perched on the stool two away from Rei's and gave him a smile.  "Any good?  I've never actually had whisky before, but that's what they always drink in the movies."

He knew her.  It had all come flooding back as soon as he heard her make that ridiculous malapropism.  "Sana-chan?"

Kurata Sana peeked over the rims of her sunglasses.  "Oh, no, I've been discovered.  And I thought this was such a good disguise."  She didn't sound disappointed in the least to have her identity revealed, and she smiled again as she shrugged sheepishly.

"Sana-chan...."  He didn't know what else to say.  He hadn't seen her in years.  Not in person, anyway.

She pulled off her sunglasses with clumsy grace, and he saw recognition light up her hazel eyes as her memory connected his face to a name.  "Rei-kun!  Is it really you?"

"Unfortunately," he replied with a tentative smile of his own.  It felt strange, like wearing someone else's shoes.  It was tight and pinched, not belonging to him at all.

If Sana noticed, she didn't say anything about it, as her happiness to see him was her first priority.  "Rei-kun!" she exclaimed again, scampering off the stool and giving him an awkward hug.  Awkward because while she clung to him like the little girl he remembered, he couldn't bring himself to return the embrace with more than just a couple of gentle pats on her back.  "Why don't you ever write or call anymore?  Where have you been hiding?  What are you doing now?  Did you really go to Los Angeles?  Is their Disneyland better than ours?"

Her enthusiasm hadn't dampened over the years.  It was one of the qualities he'd always found so refreshing about her, and he was glad she'd never lost it.  He'd worried that she'd become disillusioned and jaded.  It happened far too often to the young ingénues in their business.  But she seemed just the same as she'd been when she was eight, or twelve, or fifteen.  "Which question would you like answered first?"

Sana now claimed the stool right next to his and picked up her glass.  "What are you doing here?" she asked.  It wasn't one of her original questions, but he could hear the curiosity in her voice.  Then she took an ambitious swig of her whisky and choked as the amber liquid burned its way down her throat.  "Oh, blech, that's terrible," she coughed.  "May I have a peach juice instead?"

Rei laughed, and if smiling had felt like wearing the wrong shoes, then laughing felt like he was in the wrong body.  But this time, it was strange in a good way.  The tightness in his chest lessened.  He watched as she chased her whisky with a long drink of cold juice.  "What are you doing here?" he said, deliberately sidestepping her question.

But she was too clever for him.  "I asked you first," she replied with a teasing singsong.  And as he was figuring out what to answer, she was distracted in typical Sana fashion.  "Hey, you're still wearing the glasses."

He pushed the sunglasses back with a practiced gesture of carelessness.  "They've sort of become my trademark," he said.  "And they come in handy for negotiating.  Never let anyone see what you're thinking."

"Smart," Sana replied.  "Never let anyone see what you're feeling, either."

She really was too clever, and now he realized that her distracted observation about his glasses was a sneaky way of getting him to open up to her.  "I guess you could say that."

"I just did.  But I'm your friend, not someone trying to screw you over with a contract.  You don't need to have your defenses up with me."  She pulled his sunglasses away, and he blinked as his brown eyes adjusted to the light in the bar.  It wasn't as dark as he'd originally thought.

"You're right," he said apologetically.  "It's just a habit."

"So is your evasiveness.  Are you ever going to answer my question?"

"Which was...?" he stalled, but another rare smile threatened to quirk the corners of his mouth.  How does she do that?  It was as if she had an innate talent for finding him at the lowest points of his life and making it her personal mission to draw him out of his melancholy. 

"Why are you here?"

Rei swirled the whisky in the bottom of his glass, taking one last second to enjoy his pride before it vanished.  "I guess you heard about Asako."

"Naturally.  Why do you think I'm dressed like this?"  Sana held open her tacky oversized jacket and revealed more of her cotton candy-inspired frock.  "I was a bridesmaid."

"Really?"  It explained why she was on this street, and why she was dressed like a contestant in a bizarre beauty pageant.  "But I heard there's a big celebration at the hotel.  Why aren't you there?"

Sana shrugged and began pulling the pins from her tight hairstyle.  "I'm tired of wedding parties," she said, shaking out her long tresses.  As the braids untwisted, her auburn hair fell down her back in thick waves.  "This is the third time I've been a bridesmaid this year.  First, for Aya and Satoshi, then for Fuka and Akito, and now—"

"Fuka and Akito?" he repeated.

She nodded and combed her fingers through her tangled hair.  "Weddings are a big trend this year, I guess," she giggled, but it didn't sound like her heart was in it.  "I'm sure next year everyone will be having babies, and I'll be going to those parties, too.  Maybe I should start shopping for gifts now.  Avoid the rush."

"Wait, back up," he said, holding up a hand.  "You're not with Akito anymore?"

"Goodness, no," she said.  "Not for years now.  That was a schoolgirl thing."  She gave a wistful smile of her own and got a faraway look in her eyes.  "It was odd, though, watching him get back with her.  But you're not supposed to end up with your first love, you know.  That's why they call them that.  Otherwise, they wouldn't be your first love, would they?  'First' implies that there's someone else coming."  She still chattered away like she used to, but her rambling words came from a more mature perspective.

Rei let her words sink in as they each sipped from their glasses.  His pride took another beating, but it was used to it.  I always thought I was her first love, he thought, casting an inconspicuous glance at the woman who used to innocently call him her lover.  But he'd never felt that way about her.  He'd been hung up on Asako since college, even though he'd never been first in her life.  He'd never been able to compete with her career, no matter how much he'd tried to accommodate her wishes.

"And what about you?" Sana asked, breaking into his thoughts.  "You and Asako," she clarified when he gave her a blank stare.  "She doesn't talk about it."

She wouldn't, unless she could find a way to make everything my fault.  "We were fighting all the time, and I couldn't take it anymore.  That's why I left.  Yes, I was in Los Angeles," he said before she could ask again.  "I wanted something different.  But I hated it there.  So, I came back."

"That is the shortest, most pathetic excuse for a story I have ever heard," Sana said with a scolding wag of her finger.  "I'm sure there's a three-hour movie in there, at least.  Possibly even a mini-series."

"Maybe I'll tell you about it someday," he promised, and she nodded.

"But, you know," she said, looking down at the bar instead of meeting his eyes, "that's not what I meant.  Why are you sitting in here by yourself, making a good go at getting drunk, on Asako's wedding day?"

He tried to put it into words, how he needed confirmation that it was well and truly over, that he was punishing himself for not moving on and proving that he could, that he didn't know if he was still in love with her or just fooling himself.  "I don't know," he finally answered, and it struck him as very funny.  Or very stupid.  Or both.  He laughed and asked for refills on their drinks.  "I'll take care of hers.  Just keep the tab going."  The bartender did so while grumbling under his breath, annoyed to be taken away from the baseball game.  "Nice guy, huh?" Rei whispered loudly.

"How long have you been here?" Sana asked with suspicion when he was still chuckling over his drink.

"A while.  What do you know about this what's-his-name, the mysterious heir?"

She gave him an odd look as she tried to figure out what he was talking about.  "Chiba-san?"  He nodded.  "Not much.  His family is loaded, of course.  I think he's in charge of their company division that makes all those tacky monogrammed souvenirs that tourists buy.  Keychains, pens, mangoes—"

"Mangoes?"

"You know."  She thrust out her arm and made an unclear gesture that had nothing to do with mangoes.  "You put them on the refrigerator, like this, and they stick."

Rei blinked at her and then laughed again.  "You mean magnets."

"Right, magnets.  That's what I said."

He shook his head in amusement at her oblivious assurance.  "Same old Sana-chan."

Now she looked insulted.  "It's been seven years, Rei.  You stopped representing me when I was fifteen, and then you dropped off the face of the earth.  So I don't think you're qualified to make a judgment like that."  His jaw dropped at her harsh accusation, and hers did the same.  "Goodness, where did that come from?" she said, obviously embarrassed.  "What did he put in this juice?"

"That's what you get for drinking the hard stuff," he said, and that elicited a smile from her.  "I'm sorry, Sana-chan.  I should have kept in touch."  More unresolved issues.  His life was littered with them.

She waved her hand with a dismissive air.  "Oh, well, it's all water under the ladder now."

"Under the bridge," he corrected her.

"What bridge?"

"The expression.  It's water under the—"  He stopped when he realized she'd just been joking.  When she giggled, he found himself laughing with her, and, this time, it had nothing to do with the alcohol.  "It's really good to see you, Sana-chan," he said quietly.

"Just 'Sana,' please," she said with a weary roll of her hazel eyes.  "'Sana-chan' makes me feel like I'm ten years old.  It's bad enough that I still live with my mother.  Now, you want to talk about someone who hasn't changed...."

"Still with the little red car?"  She nodded.  "And the squirrel?"

"Two squirrels.  It makes dinner much more interesting.  You should come over sometime."

"Is that an official invitation?"

"As official as you'll get.  So, what do you say?  I'm sure Mama would like to know you're still alive."

"Okay," he agreed, and she gave him another of her sunny smiles.  "One more round?"

"Set me up."  The bartender complied with his usual brusque manner, and Rei and Sana shared a complicit look as they clinked their glasses in a silent toast.  "I think we're bothering him," she whispered.

"Yeah, the nerve of paying customers coming into this establishment and expecting service."  His original intention of getting drunk didn't seem to be playing out the way he'd thought it would.  He still felt relatively sober.  Then again, he'd probably wake up tomorrow with the hangover to end all hangovers.  "You never answered my question."  She tilted her head in confusion and waited for him to elaborate.  "What are you doing here?"

"I already said.  I didn't feel like a party."

"But why are you here, instead of out with a boyfriend?"  Rei wanted to kick himself for asking that, but in his present state of near-inebriation, he'd probably miss.

"No boyfriend," Sana answered nonchalantly.

"No one serious?"

"Nope."

There was that feeling of relief he'd been looking for since he sat down.  But it came at the wrong time.  Why should he care if she had a boyfriend or not?  "Then...."  He gestured toward the ugly blue jacket still covering her pink bridesmaid's dress.  "Whose coat is that?"

She glanced down as if she were seeing the windbreaker for the first time.  "This?  I don't know.  I borrowed it from the costume department at the television station.  It's my disguise," she finished with a conspiratorial whisper.

"Very clever."

"Thank you."

Rei knew he should drop the issue, but something made him press for more information.  "So, why don't you have anyone?" he asked pointedly.  "I mean, you're a beautiful, vibrant young woman.  I'd think men would be knocking down your door to take you out."  Maybe he was drunker than he thought.  He had no right to pry into her personal life, but it did strike him as strange that a lovely actress would be lacking for male companionship.  And what was with his calling her beautiful, even if it was the truth? 

"I'm only twenty-two," she said.  "I don't want anyone serious right now.  I've got the rest of my life for that.  Besides, it would only interfere with my work schedule.  And then there's the whole fame angle.  'Does he really like me, or does he just like being seen with me?'  I don't need that.  No, not me.  I'm perfectly happy with the way things are."

It sounded like a rehearsed answer.  It was too bright and casual, like she was tossing the words out without a thought, but he'd known times when she was only pretending.  She could slip on her actor's mask and say that everything was all right, even if she was crumbling inside.  He wondered if this were one of those times.

But I can't ask.     

As Sana downed the last of her juice, a ringing sound came from within the jacket's folds.  "Damn, they finally realized I'm missing," she muttered.  She pulled a cell phone from the pocket and nodded to herself when she read the display.  She punched the button and grinned mischievously at Rei.  "Sana can't come to the phone right now," she said in a flat monotone, mimicking an impersonal voice mail system.  "Please don't leave a message, and please don't call back.  Have a nice day."  The protesting sounds of the caller were silenced as she turned the power off.

He watched her stand up and zip the oversized jacket over her dress, covering most of the ruffly pink monstrosity.  "Got any exciting plans for the evening?" she asked.

Rei gestured vaguely at the empty bar.  "This was it."

"Well, if you can tear yourself away, would you like to have dinner with me?"  Sana gave him a concerned look, almost like a mother would do.  "You should eat something.  If you go to bed without eating, you'll have a miserable night, and an even more miserable morning."

"Sounds like you speak from experience."

Her sheepish expression gave her away.  "That is a long and very embarrassing story.  But, if you come with me, I might tell it to you."

"That's the best deal I've had in weeks."  He pulled some bills out of his wallet and laid them on the bar to pay for their drinks.  The bartender noticed this movement and gave the two of them a disgusted look before clearing away their glasses.

Rei slid his sunglasses back on and reached for his coat.  "Great service in here, eh?" he mumbled sarcastically as he walked with her to the door.  "Doesn't even know he had the pleasure of meeting the remarkable Kurata Sana.  Your manager must be doing a terrible job."

"Yes, he was.  That's why I fired him."

He wasn't expecting that.  "So, you don't have a manager, either?"

"Not at the moment.  Why, know anyone who'd like the job?"  Sana gave him a teasing grin and slipped her arm through his as they stepped out onto the sidewalk.  He tried not to think about how much he liked it.  It reminded him of old times and kept them from feeling like strangers after all these years.

"I think I might," he answered seriously.  "He's got plenty of experience, but he can be unpleasant and moody at times.  And he has a bad habit of committing his charge to too many projects."

She laughed and affectionately squeezed his hand.  "Sounds perfect."

It did. 

This was the first step in reclaiming his life.  Starting over.  Moving forward.

After all, she'd brought him back from a dark place once before.  Maybe she could do it again.  

~Fin~

Quick note:  Yes, I put "Aya and Satoshi" instead of "Aya and Tsuyoshi."  That's on purpose.  I don't know what happened to poor Tsuyoshi.  Satoshi and Hyosuke are my own characters and are not meant to represent anyone in the Kodocha series.  I hope that clears up any confusion.