Chapter 5

Multitudes of green and brown hues ran past her in a torrent as the car sped by a grove of trees that lined the road. The sky, which was stark blue, reminded its spectators that it was noon. Inside the plush sedan, in the middle of nowhere sat a very distressed Fuuko. Wallowing in the pool of shame, she held her purse close to her body as if it was a shield that can deflect the mortification that she was beginning to feel. Pacifying her nerves proved to be quite difficult considering that the source of her humiliation was just inches away from her. Her first attempt, which was to ignore, was the only thing at her disposal. It seemed to have worked for about half an hour but her tolerance for pain was not so high, rendering it useless as time passed. Her neck was nearing its limit as pain was slowly creeping its way down to her shoulder blades. Apparently, turning your head 180 degrees over your shoulder wasn't exactly comfortable.

"Are you really going to sit that way until we reach the hotel?"

Her thoughts were jarred as the man spoke beside her. Finally giving in to the throbbing pain in her neck, Fuuko carefully tilted her head to her side allowing her strained muscles to stretch and gather oxygen. Shifting her weight to her right thigh she turned her attention towards the driver.

His arms stretched slightly in front of him as he was holding the steering wheel. Throwing a sidelong glance, two amber eyes met hers with a familiar intensity. His pale lips formed into a tight line.

"No," Fuuko tersely replied, her expression a mixture of anger and embarrassment.

"Look, I know you hate being in the same place with me. I get it, but I have no choice. I was the only one who came alone with a car," he explained as he placed his left hand on top of the gear stick.

"I didn't say that I hate being in the same place with you. I was just… just… you know…" her words lost as her eyes cast downwards, "A-And where did you even get that idea?" she stuttered while fidgeting with the strap of her purse.

Ichi rolled his eyes, "I can tell by how you've been avoiding me. The way you sit doesn't exactly invite a friendly conversation. It's a mystery how you've endured to stay still in that position without having to move an inch."

Offended by his remark she snapped back, "I'm sorry, Okay! I didn't mean to give off that kind of vibe. I haven't seen you for a long time and I didn't know how to act around you… especially after what happened," she felt her cheeks warm up and bowed her head to hide the blush that was about to appear. She expected him to reply but heard nothing. For a while they were silent, the low hum of the engine dominated her hearing. Patience running out, Fuuko peered behind her lashes to check up on him. Except for the occasional turns, Ichi sat very still with his shoulders stretched horizontally and his gaze locked straight ahead, his head unmoving.

Feeling the indispensable need to speak she started, "So… where are we going?"

"Debuya Hotel," he answered impassively, "it's a forty-five minute drive from the cemetery. Their food is one of the best, both here and abroad. The owner is a friend of mine and he offered his place for us to dine in."

"Oh," was the only response she could muster. With her recent behavior in mind, she was overly conscious of opening a new topic for discussion. 'I'm such a doofus!' She internally scolded herself, 'It's not enough that you're late once, but TWICE? Great. Just great Fuuko. And to top it off you're stuck here, in this car with this pompous ass,' she lamented as the earlier events kept on replaying.

"God, I thought you left me," she said, slamming the door shut. "You could have waited for me near the entrance. I almost freaked out when I couldn't see anyone out there."

"Took you long enough," a sonorous voice greeted her.

Puzzled by the mysterious voice she turned around to see who it was. Amber eyes met her gaze. Her eyes turned into saucers.

"You?"

Ichi raised an eyebrow at the insinuation, "Were you expecting someone else?" he asked, his tone betraying a hint of sarcasm.

"Y-yes. I-I mean no," words jumbled at the tip of her tongue as she continued, "Uhmm… I-I was looking for my ride home. I must have mistaken your car for ours."

"You don't say," he replied, amused by Fuuko's bewilderment.

A deep blush highlighted the contours of her face as she realized the error that she had committed. Laughing nervously she reached for the latch of the door and began to pull, "Silly me. Anyway, it was nice seeing you again. Sorry for the intru—"

Her body shook as Ichi's tenacious grip brought her back to her seat. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Excuse me?" she inquired incredulously, her eyes moving from his face to his hand tightly grasping her wrist.

"There are no cabs, no cars, no train and no people in sight. Where do you suppose you might find another means of transportation?"

Fuuko frowned.

"Unless you plan on walking from here to your apartment, then, BE MY GUEST," with that he released Fuuko's wrist.

She considered her options. Her frown deepening as reality hit her. 'Damn it!' she cursed to herself, 'why him?' Casting an uncertain look she sighed as she limply leaned against her seat.

Ichi noticed the sudden change in his passenger's countenance. Knowing her, she might be busy thinking about her nitwitted stunt a while ago. He chuckled inwardly. How long has it been since he had witnessed her childish blunders firsthand? 'Too long,' a voice in his head answered. He examined her closely. She had changed too much. Her exuberant aura, her incandescent smile and her unguarded laugh were all gone. In place was this brooding, listless form whose frame was too frail to support her bereavement. She was right. It's been so long since they've seen each other. 'Well. At least for her,' he thought. The last time she saw him was at Koto's birthday party three years ago, but for him, it was just last year. He could remember it clearly, as if it had only happened yesterday. She was standing in front of a tombstone, her face stoic as tears streamed down from her bloodshot eyes. The familiar faces of his friends and family stood near her, crying and grieving for the person buried underneath. The usual comfort brought by the warm air of March was of no use against the numbing desolation felt by the mourners. Ichi hid behind a tree as he witnessed the requiem silently. He flinched as the memory came pouring in. Pain, sorrow and regret; these were one of the many things he felt as he watched the scene before him. Nevertheless, it was nothing compared to the amount of guilt he was harboring. From the moment he received that call, he knew that somewhere in his heart he wished for this to happen. Deep in his soul, enshrouded by the understanding and happiness was his desire for malevolence. He never thought he could wish something as horrible as death to a person whom he treated as his brother. Truly enough, jealousy can be a poison that can corrode even the strongest metal. Pushing all this in the back of his consciousness, he raised his arm up to his chin to check the time. They were a few minutes away from the hotel. Up ahead a traffic light blinked red, signaling Ichi to put the car into a halt. In the corner of his eye he saw Fuuko staring at him.

"Hey, Ichi… do you think… " she paused, doubt lingering in her voice, " …do you think Aunt Hanabe hates me?"

Surprised by the sudden query, Ichi turned towards her.

"You've seen her. The way she acted around me, it feels like she doesn't even want me there," she trailed off.

The red light turned into green and Ichi concentrated on his driving. The speed of the car accelerated as the engine revved catching up to its former momentum. He sighed, "As I've said before, don't let it bother you. She's been like that ever since…" hesitation etched in his intonation, "Daiya died."

Fuuko brushed a strand of her hair away from her face as she peered behind the window, "Still… I hope we can talk like before," she said, remembering the face of the pale woman. Those eyes, which were once filled with vigor and authority, were now empty, void of emotions other than contempt –and hate? Yes, it has to be. No matter what Ichi said, in her heart she knows that something was wrong. Albeit her detached glance she can sense anger and reproach. But to whom was it directed? To her? Fuuko shook her head as she tried to impede her rising apprehension.

The figure of a white edifice slowly came into view and Ichi guided the car into a sharp curve bringing them face to face with the façade of the building. The 40-storey structure stood proud in the middle of a wide expanse of vast greenery. The car rolled to a stop in front of the entrance wherein two pillars settled to support a semi-circle arch. A valet clad in maroon was waiting as the car approached. Upon seeing the man Ichi killed the engine, took the keys under the steering wheel and unfastened his seatbelt. Fuuko did the same, as she reached to unclasp hers.

"Wow. Your friend must be really rich," Fuuko muttered under her breath as she struggled to get off the car.

Ichi smirked pushing the door outward.

The valet gingerly opened Fuuko's side of the car, a neat smile plastered on his face. "Good afternoon ma'am. Welcome to Debuya Hotel," he slightly bowed. Making her way outside, Fuuko pulled the hem of her skirt to straighten the creases that had formed during the ride, and then she turned to the valet. "Thank you," she offered, Ichi stepping in beside her as he handed the keys to the valet.

The man readily took it and after a curt bob of the head he announced, "Enjoy your stay at Debuya Hotel Mr. Shinpo." Ichi regarded him with a nod then proceeded with a swift gait with Fuuko following behind.

"Impressive," commented Fuuko, "I take it that you're a regular customer?"

"Not quite," he confessed as they strode past the entrance hall.

A one-way glass door that separated the outside from the lobby opened automatically; a waft of cool air greeting them as they advanced. The main lobby was a spacious room that rose about 30 feet high. The floor was matted in a thick and sturdy dark-brown carpet while the walls were painted in beige –perfectly complementing the impression of the room. In the background, a soft instrumental music played, evoking a cozy feel to the atmosphere where a number of people sat down in those mahogany wood chairs as they wait for their acquaintances. Ichi slowed his paced as he passed by a tall desk wherein a receptionist bowed in their direction.

"This is such a nice place," whispered Fuuko as they made a right turn along the corner. Three pairs of elevators met them and Ichi pressed the up button.

"Indeed it is," he agreed. "It's the pride of the Debuya family." The elevator to the far left dinged then parted in the middle. Ichi took a step in, beckoning Fuuko to follow suit. "They've spent millions of dollars for its construction," he pressed another button for the 6th floor, "I remember being here last year, the opening was so grand. Even I have to admit, they have outdone themselves that time."

"Last year?" Fuuko questioned. "You went home last year? I thought you were in New York that whole time?" A creased formed at the bridge of her nose as she stared at him.

His eyes widened a bit by the uncalled slip, "Ah-Uhm yes. As a matter of fact I was. They've sent me an invitation I could never refuse so I flew in the next day," he explained calmly, removing any tinge of surprise.

Fuuko looked down contemplating on what she heard. "So you had time for social gatherings but you didn't have time to come to the wake," She stated surly.

He glanced at his reflection against the shiny surface of the elevator before replying, "It's not a party, if that's what you meant. I didn't come here to revel and have fun. I came to meet business partners to discuss proposals."

'Yeah right.' She mentally rolled her eyes at the thought.

The elevator dinged once again and the 6th button glowed orange. Their reflection was halved as the elevator doors parted. This time Fuuko was the first to step out from the elevator with Ichi tailing behind as she stormed through the hallway.

"Hey! Will you stop walking too fast?'" demanded Ichi, trotting as he made an effort to catch up to her.

She suddenly stopped and turned around, "Oh? Was I too fast? That's weird? In gym I was always the last one in running?" she said innocently, bringing a finger in her chin. "You know what, maybe I'm not fast, MAYBE you're the one who's slow. Tut tut tut tut," she wagged her index finger in the air. "You must be getting old sachou."

Vexed by Fuuko's fulminate snootiness, Ichi raised his eyebrows. He opened his mouth to retaliate but Fuuko had already started to walk ahead. Seeing this, he snapped his mouth shut and followed her silently. After a few hurried steps they reached the end of the hallway and was met by a podium were a maitre d' stood perusing a guest list. Hearing a couple of footsteps he shifted his attention towards the two as they approached. His face flickered with recognition upon seeing Ichi and smiled showing his pearly whites.

"Mr. Shinpo Ichi?"

"Yes," he confirmed.

The maitre d' beamed as he felt relieved by his arrival. "Good afternoon sir, ma'am," he glanced at Fuuko then back to Ichi, "It's a pleasure to have you here. The rest of your party has already moved to the drawing room. They are expecting you to join them after your meal. I'll have one of our staff escort you later," he explained. "For the meantime please follow me." He swiftly left his post and led them both across the dining area. After arriving at their table Ichi thanked him as he excused himself to leave.

Being the gentleman that he is, Ichi pulled a chair from the table allowing Fuuko to sit down. She saw this but did not make any move to do so.

"Are you going to sit or what?" Ichi waited impatiently.

Not wanting to make a scene Fuuko obliged as she carefully took a seat but did not thank him as a sign of protest. Ichi noticed this so he quickly sat down across the table. From where he was sitting he continued to inspect Fuuko. Like before, Fuuko tried her best to avoid eye contact. Despite looking down at her purse Fuuko knew that Ichi was watching her. She can feel his eyes thoroughly examining every inch of her that her skin started to tingled. 'Is he… Is he looking at me?' She stole a glimpse at his observer. Pools of amber eyes stared back at her with so much profoundness that she had to look away. 'Why is he looking at me like that? Can't he tell that I'm being bothered by it?' Fuuko bit her lower lip as she dealt with the unwanted attention. Little by little she felt herself getting anxious, what's bad is that he not talking is making it worse. 'Gah! I can't take this anymore! I feel like I'm on display. If he doesn't stop staring then I'll give him a piece of my mind!'

With determination simmering in her system she raised her head and started, "Ichi I—"

"Good afternoon," boomed the waiter as he carefully placed a menu in front of them. "Welcome to Debuya Hotel's restaurant. Our specials for the day are; for appetizers, we have Roasted Tuscan Vegetables, Roasted Artichoke Fonduta and Three Cheese Focaccia. For our main course, we have Lobster Ravioli, Smoked Salmon and Mediterranean Grilled Chicken. And lastly for dessert, we have Apple Cranberry and Chocolate Hazlenut Crostata. Please take your time in choosing your order," he recited watching them with a pen and a small notepad in hand.

Fuuko relaxed and began to read the menu. 'Thank god for the waiter," she sighed with relief.

"What was that?" asked Ichi as he looked at her, menu spread wide open in the table.

"Oh. Nothing," Fuuko shrugged, "I was about to ask when the waiter will arrive."

Seemingly convinced with her explanation Ichi browsed the menu. "I'll have a Roasted Tuscan Vegetables for appetizers and a Baked Oysters for the main course," he ordered as he closed the booklet.

"Won't you be having any desserts sir?" added the waiter, scribbling down his orders into his notepad.

"No, that would be all."

"And what about for the lady?" the waiter turned to Fuuko who looked a tad bit undecided.

"Uhmm… Hmm… What should I get?" She mumbled as she stared at the menu intently. "Ah! I know. How about this one? No wait. If I get this one then I wouldn't be full as much if I order this one. I wonder… Oh maybe if I get this one. No. that's too spicy," she mused tapping her fingers at the table.

"She'll have Three Cheese Focaccia for appetizers, Mediterranean Grilled Chicken for the main course and the Strawberry Shortcake for dessert," barked Ichi as he grabbed the menu from Fuuko.

"H-Hey! I'm not yet done," she stammered.

The waiter, who was a bit surprised hesitated to write it down, "A-Are you sure sir?"

"Absolutely," Ichi grinned deviously as he handed the menus to the waiter.

The waiter looked at Fuuko as if searching for any objections but she just sat there quietly as she gawked at Ichi. "O-Okay then," he smiled nervously, "The appetizers will be served in a few minutes." He quickly wrote Ichi's orders, gathered the menu and then left the table.

"That was rude," she said tartly.

"May I remind you Ms. Kameyama that I have waited for you for about," he paused to look at his watch, "at least two hours without having any breakfast or snacks whatsoever. Now, what I did was to simply speed up the process of you choosing the food that you would want to eat, and if you have a problem with that then I can call the waiter back and ask the maitre d' to tell the rest of our company to wait a few hours so that you can pick your own food accordingly –in a SLOW manner. So what do you say? Shall I call the waiter?" Ichi cocked his head to the side.

Fuuko stared back in disbelief. "N-No thanks," she conceded. A smirk lurked in his face. 'What a jerk,' she thought as she crossed her arms above her chest.

After twenty minutes of waiting the waiter came back with a tray in hand. "Roasted Tuscan Vegetables for the gentleman," he said as he placed a plate of scorched vegetables in front of Ichi, "and Three Cheese Focaccia for the lady," another plate of hot bread came and Fuuko cannot help but stare at the appetizer as she felt her hunger taking over. "Please enjoy," he grinned as he left them.

The two did not talk while they ate, probably because Fuuko eluded any signs of discourse out of spite and Ichi –well, he might not be talking because he was just plain hungry. The cold war lasted until Fuuko finished her dessert.

"How's the food?"

Fuuko tilted her head towards him. "It was nice," she said, wiping the corners of her mouth with a napkin. Surprisingly, she liked the food that Ichi picked out for her.

"We should be meeting the others now," he said as he checked his watch again.

"Wait. Aren't we going to pay?" she opened her purse.

"No need. I had it all arranged," he casually waved his hand to dismiss her from paying. Just then, a man approached their table.

"Mr. Shinpo," he momentarily bowed, "I hoped you enjoyed your lunch."

"Yes. Thank you, the food was outstanding," complemented Ichi.

"Are we ready to depart?"

Ichi looked at Fuuko. She stared back and nodded as she stood up. "Yes we are," replied Ichi.

"Then please follow me, I shall be escorting you to the drawing room," the man said as he beckoned the two to follow him. The man led them out of the restaurant passing through the same hallway that they've walked on a while ago. Reaching the elevator he pressed the up button, hauling them to the 10th floor. The elevator chimed and the door opened. The man proceeded to walk hastily as he accompanied the two into a lounge were a receptionist kept waiting. The man whispered something to the receptionist and the girl nodded in return.

"Mr. Shinpo, Ms. Kameyama," the receptionist bowed. "Your parents are having tea at the moment, if you could please follow me I'll be your guide from here," the receptionist gestured towards the corridor. Ichi and Fuuko moved forward with the receptionist leading the way. They stopped in front of a door and the receptionist knocked before turning the knob.

A few heads turned towards them and Fuuko recognized her family sitting with the Shinpos as they sipped tea.

"Good! They're here!" yelped Koto as she immediately set her cup down to embrace Fuuko.

As Koto was squeezing Fuuko she turned her head above her shoulders, "Onii-san what took you so long?"

"Sorry, we got lost on the way here," he lied as he strode towards his mother to hug her. Fuuko glanced at Ichi as she realized that he was covering for her.

"Ara! Is that so, we should have waited for you then," replied Ichi's mother.

"No, it's fine. It all worked out in the end anyway. By the way, where is Dad and uncle Satoshi?" he asked as he scanned the room.

"Unfortunately they had a meeting scheduled ahead so they left early. I hope you wouldn't mind that Fuuko?" Fuuko tilted her head towards Ichi's mom and smiled, "Not at all auntie."

"Now that we are all here shall we get down to business?" the woman with a jet black hair intruded, authority cemented in her tone.

Koto released Fuuko and went back to her seat while Fuuko bowed. "Sumimasen," she said as she cautiously approached her family and seated herself beside her sister.

"As I was saying, Fuuko should probably start to settle all of her responsibilities here so that she can leave by the end of the month. I'll be calling Eric later to ask him about the details for—"

"I beg your pardon?" Fuuko interjected. The woman looked at her grimly.

Ichi's mother turned to her, "Didn't your mother tell you?"

Fuuko shook her head and stared at her mother, pleading for answers. Her mother strained her back and looked her in the eyes, "I'm sorry Fuuko, I haven't told you this but Mrs. Shinpo wants you to continue your studies in Europe." After hearing this, Ichi shot his mother a dubious look then returned his attention to his aunt.

"That's right," continued the woman, "I have arranged for you to study in Paris under the care of my friend Eric Weber. I called him a few weeks ago and he was happy to take you under his wing. This man is amazing; he's been in the fashion industry for so long. I'm sure he can teach you very well."

Fuuko swallowed hard, "B-But I already have a teacher auntie, her name is Akishiro Fujiko. Fujiko-san is a well renowned hairstylist here in Japan. She's really good at what she does and I'm learning a lot from her."

"Oh. You mean that woman who you work with?" She picked up her cup and took a sip. "I know that girl," she declared with contempt, "In fact I've heard a lot about your friend. For someone who acts haughty and all-knowing you wouldn't think she'd be hiding a shameful past."

"Hanabe," Ichi's mom interrupted but she ignored her as she continued, "Did you know that she had an affair with her boss. What a disgrace. I bet she did that for her career. She acts so calm and confident around people but she can't fool me."

Fuuko's blood boiled at what she heard and she gripped the arm of the chair she was sitting at.

"I don't know what you see in that woman, and I don't care if she's good at what she does, but I don't want you associating with her. She obviously isn't a good influence on you."

This was the last straw and Fuuko stood up instantaneously as her fist balled up to her sides. "Mrs. Shinpo, I appreciate the help that you are giving me and I am happy that you were thinking of my well being, but I can't accept your offer," she looked at her directly. "I am perfectly content where I am right now and I believe that I can manage to succeed with my own efforts. I don't know what you heard about Fujiko-san but I can assure you that she is a respectable woman. She is a hard working person who is decent and dedicated to her work and someday I hope to be like her. If we don't have anything more to discuss then I wish for me and my family to be excused," she bowed her head quickly and spun her heel towards the door.

Fuuko's sister also rose up and bowed, "Thank you for the tea," she said as she scurried towards her sister.

Mrs. Kameyama's eyes went wide at the scene and she covered her mouth with her hands, her husband saw this and nudged her at her ribs. Returning from her shock she said, "I-I think we should be going now. Thank you for the meal."

Ichi rose, "I'll accompany you outside auntie," he said hastily.

"It's okay son," Mr. Kameyama said as he patted his shoulders.

The couple gathered there belongings and exited the door leaving the Shinpos behind, too stunned to talk.

"Now that's entertainment," Koto whispered to herself as she took a bite from her cookie.

o0o

wohoo! Another chapter done. Gosh! Writing this chapter was hard. To be honest I think this chapter was sorta boring. What do you guys think? I hope it wasn't as bad as I think it would be. Anyway, comments, complements and critiques are welcome! I hope to get strength from you reviews.