A/N - Sorry this took so long. I've been dealing with some personal issues lately.


Part Eight - Another Promise

One finds salvation in the oddest of places.


She stormed into the Oikawa's apartment like a hailstorm on a Florida beach full of tourists. She desperately needed to pound something to a pulp to diffuse some of her rage. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the entire apartment she could punch without suffering the dire consequences. She growled furiously and settled for slamming the door. It closed like a whip, and she felt the air rush past, grabbing at her hair and raking across her face. The rotund slam that resulted was even more gratifying, in more ways than she could ever explain.

Not only had Hiroaki said things she didn't want to hear, but most of what he said was too true to be ignored. And she hated him for it, but she could still taste his breath in her mouth and feel his velvet lips against her ear, and she didn't know what she wanted anymore. He was confusing her emotions and smearing them together until they all became the same unidentifiable color. It was turning her into a breathless emotional wreck. She wanted something with alcohol. Lots of alcohol.

"Good afternoon, Suko," A board sounding voice drifted over to her from the area of the living room, "Please refrain from slamming doors. You know that could cause property damage."

She faltered for a moment but quickly recovered from her alarm. It was only Yurkio, home surprisingly early for a weekday. If she wasn't so incensed about her drama with Hiroaki she might have wondered why, but at the moment, nothing seemed to be registering in her mind. As an afterthought, she decided check the living room, just to make sure he was the only one home.

To her relief, it was indeed only Yurkio. He was seated on one of the ivory colored sofas with a pile of reports spread out in front of him on a glass-topped coffee table. He always looked elderly and drained when he was working and today was no exception. There were deep circles under his eyes and his raven hair hung across his forehead in gaunt strings. Yurkio was living proof of how malicious his father could be, and in that respect they had something in common.

When she had met him back when he was 18 he had been much different. He had laughed at things and told her jokes. He used to enjoy himself once in awhile. But as the years passed, he moved up the ranks in his father's business until work became an obsession for him. The easy-going and witty Yurkio Oikawa had disappeared into the ever replenishing stacks of papers he had been shackled with. This wasn't a man with any interest left in marriage or her, and she knew it. He was married to his tax returns and sales records, and she would never fit in.

He looked up when he heard her approach, and she greeted him with a curt 'bonjour'. To her credit, she did notice that his eyes lit up briefly when they fell on her, but the spark was gone as soon as it appeared. When she blinked, they were back to dull again. He dipped his head and submerged himself in the papers again.

Without looking up from the page he was on, he spoke, "Care to regale me with the tale about why you skipped school this time?"

"No," She barked testily, surprising even herself with the ice in her tone. She had never, in all her years of living with the Oikawas, spoken to Yurkio like that. But she also found that she didn't particularly care what he would think of her anymore. She was seventeen, almost eighteen, and saying what she truly felt for once was like eating her first potato chip in ten years. It was so deliciously salty on her tongue, and she savored every bite of it, but now that she'd had one, she couldn't possibly deny herself another.

"My, what an unsavory remark," He still hadn't looked up from his work, "Please, elaborate on the occasion of your distress?"

She knew he wasn't really going to listen to her, so she supplied him with something extremely vulgar muttered under her breath in French. With that, she turned to walk out of the living room, but she had hardly taken a step when she heard the rustle of him setting his papers down.

"Come back here," He said it with the utmost courtesy, as if he was making a comment about the weather, but she knew it wasn't a request. It was a command.

She did so, with only a scanty hold on her ignited temper, and he could see it in her melting eyes. She needed something to avail her anger at Hiroaki on, and he insisted on being in the line of fire. It did give her mild satisfaction to know that she had successfully distracted him from his beloved work, but that wasn't enough.

"What the hell was that all about?" He asked quietly.

Apparently he knew more French than she gave him credit for. She had no good explanation, so she said nothing at all.

"You really can be a little brat sometimes can't you? A little French princess who expects people to fall at your feet singing the praises of your beauty, and you still haven't realized that beauty has a price," He continued airily, "But then again, you are only a girl. A girl I will somehow have to turn into a respectful wife. No matter how impossible it may seem."

Either someone had put something in his coffee, or he was just as ready for a showdown as she was. He never said things like that to her, but then again, they were both saying the things they never thought they would. Things they had always wanted to say, but had not for the sake of propriety. And if she had meant every word, perhaps he meant what he had said just as much. Perhaps it could all be attributed to stress, but either way she had been called a child one too many times that day. If it was a battle he wanted, she was more than willing to make it interesting.

"I'm not sure I want to marry you, Yurkio," Her reply was just as calm and disinterested, but it was the equivalent of a reciprocating blow and it was effective.

"Since when do you think it matters what you want?" His eyebrows furrowed together into a scowl, and then she knew what the problem was. Yurkio was just as much of a pawn as she was in his father's game, and he was just as unhappy. It didn't matter what either of them wanted, and he refused to let her remind him. He'd rather keep his denial, but she wouldn't let him throw up the walls now.

"Is that the way you feel then?" She went for a nerve, and words she didn't know she had fell from her lips like acid, "Your father wants you to marry me, and so you will?"

"Well . . . yes," She could tell she'd hit something when his voice took on an unfamiliar choked tone, "You know that, Suko. Honestly, what's come over you?"

"I could ask you the same question," She glared and decided to get to the problem that had been bothering her since she met Hiroaki, "Do you love me?"

"Why does this matter to you all of a sudden?" He hissed, "How is love relevant to marriage? Marriage is a power game that the rich play at."

"Answer my question, Yurkio," To be honest, she already knew the answer, but she wanted to hear him say it. For both of their sakes. She would not be denied the truth now.

"No," He said at last, "I don't, and I don't see why I should. Love is irrelevant."

There had once been a time when she would've seen no flaws in this logic, but now she wasn't so convinced that love was meaningless. It was just something she'd never experienced, and just because she didn't understand it didn't mean it didn't exist. It could be the only thing worth anything in this world.

"It's that man isn't it?" He said abruptly, raw triumph shimmering in his eyes, "The one from the pet store who saved you. How often have you been seeing him?"

All of a sudden she found herself backtracking. The last thing she wanted was for this to turn into an interrogation, and she definitely didn't want to get Hiroaki involved. As much as she currently hated that man, every bone in her body screamed to defend him.

"Hiroaki doesn't have anything to do with it," She spat his name like it was poison in her mouth, but she couldn't keep the waver of panic out of her voice. He went for the opening in her armor mercilessly.

"Oh, I think he does," Yurkio had the upper hand now, and he knew it, "My father will kill you with his bare hands when he finds out."

Natsuko couldn't believe what she had just heard him say. She knew he was angry, but that was downright malicious. His father wasn't a man to be trifled with. If he ever caught even a whisper about her outings with Hiroaki, he'd break her neck without remorse.

"Why would you tell him?" She whispered fearfully, "We both know he would do it. He's killed for less."

"Because I wont be made a fool of!" Yurkio stood up and shouted so loud she was sure they had the neighbors attention now. In two steps, he had crossed the room and towered over her, "People expect things of me Natsuko! I'm always being scrutinized for mistakes! What will they think of me when they know my wife is fooling around behind my back!"

"So don't marry me!" She snarled with equal venom, "There are plenty of other girls in this world!"

She didn't know where she was finding the strength to keep fighting him, but she did know that she couldn't let him win. Not now. They were both in it too deep.

"My father chose you, and I wont disappoint him. Your pretty enough to satisfy me, and I thought you were more submissive."

"Don't give me that. You know the only reason your father chose me was to have his revenge on my family," She ignored his wrathful look and let the words pour out, "He's nothing more than a criminal and a blackmailer. You shouldn't have to do what he tells you to."

"He's my father god dammit!" Yurkio looked murderous now, "But I suppose you wouldn't know anything of it! Your father sold you to keep his money."

And that broke her.

"How dare you!" She screamed, "How dare you! How dare you!"

Her mind was no longer connected to her body. The animal caged inside her erupted out. She bared her teeth and sprang at him, intent only on causing him pain. She didn't care anymore. Everything hurt too bad to care. And she was still screaming, as if that would make it all go away.

The rest was a blur. She knew she landed two punches, one to his jaw and the other to his chest, and she thought she heard him howling, but she wasn't sure because in the next two seconds something crashed into her that knocked the world off-kilter, and she toppled backwards, smacking her head into a wall.

It took her a few dazed moments for her to realize several important things. The first, and most distressing, was that she couldn't breathe. In her still slightly crooked vision she was able to make out Yurkio, still standing, breathing heavily and staring in horror at a rather large object in his hand, and then her second realization came. The reason she couldn't breathe was because he had hit her with whatever the object was right in the center of her rib cage.

For a few panicked moments no air came and she thought she was going to die, right there on the living room floor. She put her hands to her throat and focused on making her ribs expand. It was excruciating, but the effort yielded oxygen. Something made a nauseating rattling sound in her lungs, but she had air, and that was all that mattered. Yurkio looked absolutely horrified by what he was seeing, and what he'd done.

"My God . . . Suko, I . . . " His voice cracked and the words died on his lips. No apology would be sufficient for his actions.

The unknown object dropped from his hand and slapped to the floor, but he didn't seem to care. He moved toward her with terrified, guilt-stricken eyes, but she held out her hands to keep him away. She'd die before she let him touch her again. He stopped and didn't try to come any closer, even though he was desperate to assess the extent of her injuries. His anger had gone out like a candle in the wind, but hers was still there, simmering in every feeble breath she took.

She had to leave before she did something even more stupid. Shakily, with one hand pressed against the wall for leverage, she got to her feet and started wobbling to the door. He watched her leave in speechless sorrow. He didn't dare to try and stop her now.

She weakly slammed the front door behind her for the second time that day and slouched against the wall, partly because of her boiling anger and partly because she could barely breathe. Gingerly, she pressed her palm against the spot, as if that would numb the pain, and listened to the shallow wheeze of her own breathing. Something wasn't right. She felt like she was breathing through a straw and spots of black were dancing across her eyes. She was going to pass out soon, and she knew that wasn't good.

She had no doubt that his threats against her parents were real, but she was not about to crawl back into that apartment and apologize to a man that had hit her for their sakes. Her parents had never sacrificed anything for her sake as far as she was concerned. That was that, and if she thought more about it, she would only cause herself more pain. Now, there was only the problem of where she went from there.

Instantly she thought of Hiroaki. Would he still want to speak to her after their fight? And even if he did, did she have the courage to face him? The answer was yes. She was a vain and selfish liar, but she wasn't a coward, and she didn't intend to become one. Besides, she had no relatives that she knew of living in Japan, so there was nowhere else to turn. He was her only hope.

The first time they met, when he dropped her off at her apartment, he'd given her his number. He had been worried about her, and he hadn't wanted her to go to home and find nobody home. She'd laughed off his concern as frivolous protectiveness at the time, seeing herself as fully capable of handling herself and the world with one hand tied behind her back. She'd never needed to call him, then or any time since, but she still remembered his number, and she still remembered what he'd said to her.

"If you reach the top and find yourself all alone, give me a call."

He knew she was far too prideful call him for help, even if nobody was home and she was bleeding to death on the spotless carpet, so why had he said that? Had he known something else might happen? Surely, he didn't expect this exact scenario, but there was something about the way he said those words made her remember them. Something about his manner suggested that he didn't know why he said it either, but she knew why now. Even then, he knew her more than he was aware.

She would have to call him, and she would have to apologize to him, even if it killed her. There was only one problem. She had his number, imprinted on her memory for reasons that she didn't want to examine too deeply, but she didn't have a phone. She was just beginning to curse her rotten luck, when a ray of unlikely providence struck her.

The door to the apartment next to hers opened Mrs. Inoue appeared in the hallway. Natsuko hadn't exchanged many words with the Inoues since they moved in, but they seemed like nice enough people. If nothing else, they were certainly better than the crotchety old Mr. Matsuda who used to live there. They were a young, newly married couple who lived in relative silence next door to them. The few times they had spoken, both of them had been exceedingly polite and kind to her.

Hitomi Inoue was a pretty woman with long ebony hair that spilled down to the middle of her back. She was about ten years older than Natsuko, and her delicate face and large dark eyes reminded her of a porcelain doll. She was also about six months pregnant with their first child, giving her steps the slightest hint of a waddle these days. That delicate doll's face held a look of concern now. No doubt, her argument with Yurkio had carried through the thin walls.

"Miss?" She gasped upon taking in the appearance of the younger girl sprawled out in the hallway, "I heard shouting. I came to see if you were alright."

Natsuko groaned and licked her dry lips, "You wouldn't happen to have phone I could used to call someone to come get me?"

Hitomi nodded vigorously and disappeared into her apartment to retrieve a phone. She returned with a cellphone and a glass of water. Natsuko excepted both gratefully. Her stomach was turning painfully, but she forced down the water to sooth her parched throat. Her other hand remained pressed firmly against her ribs, and the other woman noticed.

"Are you sure you'll be alright?" Hitomi asked, "It sounded bad in there."

Natsuko nodded at met her eyes. An unspoken understanding passed between them. They both knew what Yurkio had obviously done, and there was no need to say it out loud. Saying it just made it all the more horrible and all the more real. The pity in Hitomi's eyes was almost unbearable to look at. She turned her head and pretended to be immersed in studying the Chardonnay colored carpet. In times like these she truly missed the taste of red wine.

"I will live," She was a practiced liar, but she couldn't help feeling guilty when she lied to this well-meaning woman, "It'll all be fine once I call H- . . . my brother."

Fingers trembling, she dialed the number written across her mind and brought the receiver to her ear, keenly aware of the fact that Hitomi was still watching her. How could she have this conversation without it sounding suspicious? The static dial tone turned into a buzzing ring. Once. Twice. She bit her lip and glanced nervously at the other woman. Three times. She heard the phone being picked up before the fourth could begin.

"Hello?" The sound of his voice nearly made her lose her nerve.

"Hiroaki," She gasped with relief and fear and frustration.

"Natsuko," She could tell he meant to be cold to her, but he could not mask the concern in his voice, even on the phone, "What's that matter?"

"I . . ." She paused, took a slow, steadying breath, and screwed up her courage, "I think I need help."

"Well why are you calling me?" He snapped, "Don't you have a fiancé to help you?"

"Hiroaki," She repeated his name in a voice of desperate supplication, "Please."

Those were the only words she could think to say, and she threw emotion into each syllable. She refused to beg for his hospitality, but this was coming pretty damned close. It was demeaning, and further pleading was beyond her, so she resigned herself to this final gambit. If he refused her, she would not press him again.

She heard his audible sigh on the other end, "Where are you?"

"In my apartment building," She murmured, toning down her triumph beneath cottony layers of relief and regret.

"Meet me at the doors," He spoke tersely and hung up.

She folded the cellphone closed, and smiled faintly at Hitomi, "He will come for me."