Disclaimer: I don't own any Azumanga Daioh characters.

Note: Bit by bit. The gratuitous sex scene has been edited from this chapter. Unedited version will be available later on fosff dot net.

Chapter 3

"I'm not blaming you for the accident itself, Go," Koyomi voiced sharply into her cell phone as she turned down into the stairwell of a subway station, "I'm saying that your response was disreputable…Uh huh…And what're you doing now?...That's disreputable! You didn't tell anyone?...Who did-" The sudden sound of shattering glass on the other line caused her to frown and cant her head. As the subway roared into the station, she lifted her hand to plug her other ear.

"What was that noise?" she demanded in a louder voice, her scowl only deepening as she listened to the stumbling reply of her coworker, "All right. Just separate out the lanthanides from the others and put them in the- what?...Yes, the casings too. Look, I really can't talk about this right now. I'll get there first thing in the morning but in the meantime just get it cleaned up…Yes…Yes, I realize that, but you're not listening to me. I said just get it cleaned up, save what you can, and we'll work with it later…Are you arguing with me?...Thought so. All right? It's mass-mass stoichiometry. Not that difficult. Get done what you can and I'll be there tomorrow."

Koyomi snapped her phone shut and tucked it into her handbag just as the subway came to stop and slid open its doors. She waited for the flood of people to spill from the nearest train, then slipped her way inside along with the others who had been waiting to get on.

Ten minutes later she stepped from the subway and made her way with the crowd up to the city streets. At 6:20 in the evening, she was already late for the gathering that Ryou had planned. She had canceled three appointments in order to make time for the dinner arrangement, and she had just barely left from her last appointment in time. Five minutes more and the 'fashionably late' excuse wouldn't work.

She had only gone three blocks when her cell phone rang again. Grumbling under her breath, she yanked the phone out and flipped it open.

"This is Koyomi," she answered into the device.

"Hey, where're you at?" Ryou's naturally optimistic voice sounded up from the other end.

Koyomi raised an eyebrow into a cynical arc.

"Sorry, Ryou, but I'm not going to be able to make it tonight," she replied matter-of-factly, "The lab called and I have to go in."


Ryou's suddenly crestfallen tone caused Koyomi to crack a small grin. Ryou was always such an energetic, upbeat man that sometimes she found it fun to ruin his mood, knowing full well that he would bounce right back a few minutes later.

"Yeah, I'm sorry. Maybe next time," she said without hint of a real apology.

She rounded the corner of the block, and up ahead saw the neon blue sign designating the entrance of Piper's bar and lounge. Outside of the lounge there was a short line of people waiting to get in. Such people usually waited in vainas Piper's generally operated by reservation only.

"That's what you said last time, and the time before that," Ryou replied. The softened sound of his voice keyed in to a sense of genuine disappointment. By that time he should have been used to Koyomi standing him up, but every time he couldn't help but hope for a difference.

"Don't bitch to me about it. What did I tell you?"

"Yeah, yeah. Busy week. You can't work all the time, you know."

"Work is what I do. I have a career, not a job. If I didn't want to do it then I wouldn't have stayed in school for twenty years."

Koyomi passed the line of people outside of Piper's and made her way to the double doors at the front. Bringing out her ID from her purse, she showed the card to the man standing there behind a podium. The man glanced at her name, then checked a list on a digital clip board in front of him. After marking her name, he nodded for her to go in.

"Yeah well, that 'career' is eating you alive. When the boss said that he wanted one hundred percent from his workers, I don't think he meant one hundred percent of our professional and personal lives."

"You're one to talk," she replied with an evident smirk, "I distinctly remember coming into the lab one morning to find a certain young man fast asleep at his desk."

"One time!"

"Actually, it was twice."

Remembering that the reservation had been for six, Koyomi passed through the main lobby of the bar, past the karaoke rooms and dance floor, and then all the way towards the back where separate booths for larger groups had been set up. All of the booths were set on raised areas of floor, each of one of them filled with parties varying in number from six to eleven. On the lowered portion of the floor were rows of shoes belonging to the individuals occupying the booths.

"Whatever," Ryou sighed. "I never get to see you outside of work anymore. Ever since you took that second- actually make that your third job- at the school-"

"I don't need to hear it, Ryou. If I hadn't been able to handle the job then I wouldn't have volunteered for it."

"You sure about that? This isn't an image thing."

Koyomi made her way down the first aisle of booths, checking the shoes until she came to a familiar pair of worn tennis shoes placed among two pairs of heels and two pairs of evening-formal men's shoes. She stepped up to the booth to which the shoes corresponded and looked inside.

Sitting at the far end of the booth were two young men and their dates. The men were dressed appropriately in casual evening suits, one of which had the sleeves rolled to the elbows, and the women were dressed in older fashion cocktail dresses that reminded Koyomi of something rather like film Noir. On the table in front of them were one half-empty bottle of wine and a partially-eaten sea food appetizer.

At the near end of the booth was another man dressed in a pair of slacks and a white collared shirt, his jacket folded on the spot beside him. The man's dark brown hair was accented with a tinge of red and his nose tipped with more of a slope than most other Japanese. The smooth structure of his face and a faint scattering of freckles gave him an attractive, boyish appeal. Presently he was twisted away from the others at the table with his head gently ducked, one hand holding a cell phone to his ear.

"Tell you what. When I start to feel like I can't handle things," Koyomi said and clicked her phone shut. Stepping up behind the man with the cell phone, she rested a hand to his shoulder and leaned down to speak parallel to his ear, "You'll be the second to know."

"Agh!" the man started and jerked his head towards Koyomi who laughed and straightened back up.

The others at the table turned from their conversations to look at the new comer. One of the men chuckled and lifted his wine glass.

"Well look who finally made it. This is Koyomi?" he asked, slowly moving over to make room.

"Yeah!" Ryou replied and snapped his phone shut. Beaming like a kid on his birthday, he shot to his feet and reached for Koyomi's hand to help her step up into the booth.

Koyomi slipped off her heels and stepped into the booth, taking the seat that Ryou had once occupied. Ryou shoved his jacket over and sat beside her, taking up the wine list from the table and holding it out.

"Does my name precede me that much?" Koyomi inquired jokingly. She took the list that Ryou offered and opened it to the first fold, glancing briefly to the selection before turning her attention back to the other five. "I trust that Ryou has at least been saying good things."

"Very much," one of the women, a curvaceous number with short hair and a lilting accent, spoke up, "He tells us that you're a teacher and a psychologist at the same school. Is that right?

"Yes," Koyomi nodded with a modest grin, "It's a lot to handle but I enjoy it."

"All those kids though," the second man shook his head, helping himself to another glass of wine, "I'm not sure if I would share in your joy so much."

Koyomi shrugged and set the wine list down.

"There are those students who have a little too much energy for a classroom setting," she said, "You really just have to learn how to deal with them."

"I'm sure that hanging around Ryou has given you plenty of experience in that area," the first man chuckled and nudged Ryou with his elbow.

"I'm not that bad," Ryou smirked and rubbed his impacted shoulder.

"No," Koyomi conceded with a soft laugh, "He's definitely not the worst I've seen."

Later that night, Koyomi dragged herself up the familiar steps of her house. She hadn't meant to drink so much, but the wine she had chosen had been of a particularly good year. She approached the front door and fumbled her keys from her purse. After a bit of sorting, she selected the appropriate key and slipped it into the lock.

Coming up behind her, Ryou leaned forward and placed one hand against the door, circling his other arm around her waist. He canted his head and smiled against her neck.

"Are you gonna let me in this time?" he murmured though the daze of good feelings caused by his own previous intake of wine.

Koyomi frowned as she unlocked the door and tucked her keys back into her purse pocket.

"Do I ever?" came her terse response. She reached out and clasped the doorknob against her palm.

Ryou shifted his hand from the door frame and closed his fingers about Koyomi's wrist, gently pulling it away from the knob.

"Why not?" he whispered.

Koyomi paused when she felt the man's lips press against the curve of her neck. She stiffened at the touch and closed her eyes, lips parting to release a gentle exhale at the continuation of their roundabout game.

"Because," she replied in an equally soft whisper.

"Because why?" Ryou straightened and shifted Koyomi around. As soon as he was able to look her in the eyes, he tightened both arms around her waist and pushed her back against the door. Every time he asked her questions that required answers from a personal perspective, she dodged them with professional skill. This time he would not allow it.

Koyomi placed her hands to the man's biceps and pushed gently as she felt her back press to the door. There really was nothing wrong with Ryou. She was attracted to him on several levels and found him to be a very personable young man, perhaps too much so. He was attracted to her, and that made her quite uncomfortable.

"Because I can't," she said, her tone dropping to an even softer octave.

"Because you won't. What's wrong? We've been round and round with this and each time it's the same thing. I know it's not because you don't like me."

"You wouldn't-," Koyomi stopped herself with a brief shake of her head, "You couldn't understand."

Ryou sighed. Leaning his weight further against her, he lifted one hand from around her waist and reached for the clips at the back of her head that presently held her hair in its bun. One at a time he removed the clips and let them fall to the ground, subsequently bringing Koyomi's hair down around her shoulders.

"All right," he relented, sifting his finger tips back through the soft length, "Is that what you want? Just leave it at that?"

For a moment Koyomi was silent, slipping her eyes shut once more to the feel of those fingers against her scalp. She knew that Ryou was only trying to offer her an outlet, and she also knew that he could not help her. As well as she was aware of these things, she could not go on for the rest of her life as she had been for the past several years. She was thirty-four years old and still single, nowhere near getting married or even deeply attached to anyone. She had never imagined herself the type to grow old by herself, and the only way to avoid that reality was to take a step in the other direction.

"No," she stopped Ryou just as she felt him begin to pull away. Carefully bringing her hands up, she alighted her palms to his cheeks and bade him to look at her. There was silence as she studied him through the thin frames of her glasses, the pad of her thumb skimming gently across his lower lip. In that instant a voice at the back of her mind screamed that she should let him go, yet it was already too late. There were some things that could only be discovered through direct interaction. She pulled him closer and canted her head.

Ryou stilled himself long enough to receive an unspoken confirmation that he was not crossing any lines. He let himself be drawn in, constricting his grip around the shorter woman and pulling her up against him.

Koyomi snaked her arms around Ryou's neck as she was taken into the firm circle of his arms. Initially their lips grazed, and within the next instant she pushed herself further andturned the transparent touch into a fully formed seal.

For a moment that had been years in the making, Ryou felt as though another piece of his dream had fallen into place. He had been pursuing Koyomi fromthe very first glance he had gotten of her.It had taken him several months just to get a greeting out of her and several more to get a conversation. All the while, he had never been dishonest to her about his feelings. He had always been confident that he could make her happy, but she had never allowed him the chance. Now as he held the object of his affection securely within his grasp, finally getting to feel those lips that he had been dreaming about for so long, his mind became saturated with thoughts of just how lucky he was.

Koyomi couldn't remember the last time she had been kissed. She hadn't realized how much she had missed that delicate warmth, an exclusive sensation that could only be translated from one person to another. In that moment she knew that she had not made a mistake. This was what she wanted.

She parted her lips to the kiss and clenched one hand into the cropped length of Ryou's hair. With her other hand she reached behind her and twisted the knob of the door. The door swung open and she stumbled backwards into the house with Ryou fast in tow.

Note: Yes, Tomo's appearance is coming up.