~ Seasons ~

Part 2: Winter / Summer


3.17.10


"And we thought that tutor had been trouble."


Winter

The sun hung low in the sky, a couple hours away from true midday. The air was crisp and as fresh as Naru had ever smelled it out in the countryside far away from the cement and smog of downtown Tokyo. The noise which was utterly unbearable at times in the city was the opposite of the country where all you could hear out among the rolling hills and wide open pasture of the country side was the occasional gust of wind and the tinkling laughter of one Taniyama Mai…who was late…again.

Naru knew Mai sometimes dreamed of the countryside, wanting to live outside the city limits for a year or two maybe, just to see if the grass really was greener… Metaphorically or physically, he knew she wasn't really that picky, but to make everyone else wait while she stood on the second rung and hung off the farm's tall fence was irritating because everyone else wanted to be on the road early to get back to the city before darkness obscured the roads.

Yet there she was, happiness incarnate, basking in the glow of the sun and looking like she was a beautiful nymph that had been lured out by the call of nature—the true call of nature, just enjoying the earth and it's endless offerings. It was really rude, and uncalled for. Especially because it was the dead of winter and somehow, the sun was out and Mai had somehow packed a lightweight outfit for their overnight case.

"Lin," Naru said, prompting his assistant.

Lin merely looked at him in askance.

Naru didn't say anything for a moment testing Mai's preposterous theory.

Lin started to become aggravated at Naru having said his name for no reason. "What?" Lin asked in a clipped tone, clearly having no idea that Naru wanted him to honk the horn or rev the engine to get Mai's attention—and possible get her into the car. Both, maybe.

Naru wondered at Mai's theory which she had been talking about earlier that day: something about how all Naru had to do was say Lin's name and his assistant would innately know what to do without being told. Well, here was the perfect time to prove her wrong—only she wasn't anywhere nearby. Instead, she was hanging off the side of a chopped up carcass of a tree. In that poor excuse of a shirt that clung on by tiny straps, and was that shirt that thin or was Mai really not wearing a bra? He really needed to sit her down and have a talk about appropriate attire. She was clearly losing her bearings on what passed for business and what qualified as casual wear.

And those stupid, nonsensical (though maybe sexy) sandals that had a ridiculous bow accenting the top of her foot and a peep toe front that displayed lime green toenails with flowers on them.

How did he know they had a peep toe front or even what that particular style was called? Because she had forced him to take her shopping after she had taken the brunt of a particularly nasty ghosts assault. And by nasty ghost, he meant smelly, disgusting, non-hygienic spirit that dumped a load of sticky, and putrid goo on top her, but not before she had shoved Naru out of the way of what she thought had been a potentially deadly attack. Had she known this was going to happen, she'd have shoved him into it, helping the ghost, or so she'd told him rather threateningly. Hindsight was 20/20.

Mai hopped off the fence, probably having reached her limit of sun soaking. She skipped over to the van, a swing in her hips as she practically glowed with happiness. How she managed that after a ghost hunt was beyond him.

"Late again," Naru scolded, eying her with the vanity mirror set in the sun visor he'd flipped down. The indirect eye contact diminished the withering look he had, but unless he wanted to crane around in his seat, it would have to suffice.

Mai stumbled into the open doorway of the van. She met Naru's cross expression with a patient one of her own. Her hair, longer now, a tad past her shoulders, lifted off her shoulders as a breeze gusted by.

Smiling brightly, she said, "But you waited for me."

Scowling, Naru said, "Next time, I won't wait."

With a languid and satisfied expression on her face, Mai climbed into the back of the van and promptly collapsed, draping herself across the bench seat with a sigh. Rolling onto her side, Mai's tempered expression slowly slid into a quiet look of contemplation.

"After all the waiting I've done for you, I'll think you'll wait forever," she said calmly and with a finality that startled Naru at how serious she sounded. It was a dangerous tone. Naru flipped the sun visor back up, ending the conversation and ignoring her. He clicked his seatbelt on and suggested she do the same.

She pretended not to hear him and their game of ignoring and annoying each other started over again. It was rapidly beginning to get old.

Reaching, she hefted her bag onto her stomach and fidgeted in her shorts' pocket, searching for something. A little panicky at first, she relaxed as her hand stilled in her pocket. The glint of metal caught Naru's eye as she turned it over and over again in her hand, thinking that he couldn't see her from his angle. She had been mostly right, except she had forgotten the most obvious….the rear view mirror that always hung from the ceiling gave him an easy view to her lap, and of the ring.


The trip weighed long and heavy on Naru's mind. It wasn't enough that Mai was with another guy. No, there just had to be a ring, that extra little cherry on top of the cake of 'Taniyama Mai—no longer devotedly yours.'

It hadn't bothered him before because no matter who she had been with, she had always put him first. She was always there—in his life, hanging on his every whim, and word. Even as independent as she was, she was always attentive to him, and now he was finding the absence of her growing into a large unsatisfactory void—a vacuum of space she'd left behind where he suffered without her.

He was merely left with the rare times she came around the office "to tidy up," or to "make sure Lin-san ha[d]n't lost his mind because heaven knows, [Naru] never talked to him." He was paraphrasing, of course. She actually was much nastier and more practiced at cutting him down after the years she had spent in his presence.

Now, Naru had to be content with watching her. As she left his life. As she only grew more breathtaking by the day—and it wasn't her looks he cared for. It was that easy feeling of life that she wrapped around herself like a security blanket that she would so easily share with anyone else without a second thought.

Once again, she was leaving.

Eyes bright and a hint of a redness blooming on her cheeks was telltale enough. She was going to see him.

"See you all soon!" Mai yelled, skipping backwards as she dug for something in her purse. Always skipping now, that girl, as if mere walking was too plain for her and not energetic enough to match the passion of life within her.

Naru couldn't fathom how one person could so perfectly encapsulate what it meant to be alive, but there she was, a deity in her own right, disguised as human and clad in raggedy jean shorts and beige camisole with bad hair. In that moment, he hated her. Hated the way he was so drawn to her and how she pulled him out of his comfort zone of having no one and having nothing left after Gene was taken away from him. Hated how she was threatening to fill his spot because she was the same kind as Gene, obnoxious and meddling and stout in her beliefs and utterly unafraid of him. An equal in bearing, not in intelligence, but more than a match in sheer perseverance.

She had no idea the trouble she had caused, the upheaval she'd inspired in his life, the turmoil. She pulled her phone out and hastily flipped it open, brightening at whatever she saw on the screen. Probably a rainbow, or something equally frivolous. She tapped a few keys and put the phone up to her ear. "Hey," she said eagerly. "I was just going to call you..." She half-turned, waving goodbye at them again.

"Disgusting," Takigawa said, voicing Naru's thoughts aloud.

Naru hung out the passenger door, seated and hand resting over his knee as he hunched forward. He said nothing, but by this point, everyone already knew how he felt about his assistant and how she affected him.

Takigawa, never one to hold things back, told him, "You're losing her."

Wordless, Naru nodded, silently agreeing.

Yasuhara leaned against the side of the car watching Mai fade in the distance. "It's that new guy right, the firefighter." It wasn't quite a question, more a statement of fact.

"Yeah…Shit. A firefighter! How much worse can it get? He saves kittens and grandmothers on a daily basis! You're royally screwed, my friend." At least you had a chance when she was with the blond guy that she brought to my last gig. He was nice, but I could tell that he wasn't someone she was going to stay with. This new one is trouble. He's..." Takigawa shuddered. "...nice. He's perfect!" He finished disgustedly.

"And Naru thought that tutor had been trouble." All three men looked startled at the feminine voice. They all gawked at Ayako while she obliviously looked to where Mai had been far down the street. Finally, she realized all three were waiting for her to say something when they hadn't known she'd been there the whole time. "What?" she asked pointedly. She jerked a thumb over at Yasuhara. "He's my ride home. You guys are so blockheaded. How did you not see me standing here this whole time? Dense, the lot of you," she complained.

Yasuhara merely raised an eyebrow. "You saw the ring, Naru?" He asked without pretense. Yasuhara lacked his normal formalism and joking demeanor. The man was entirely serious with a stern expression on his face, which fit him even more naturally than his usual jester-like nature.

Again, Naru nodded. Lifting his head, he spoke. "She keeps slipping it into her pocket, but I've seen it."

Takigawa's face crumpled into an expression of shock. Big brother mode kicked in full force. "A promise ring—right? Right!"

Yasuhara looked away, trying to hide his worried expression and Naru ran a hand through his hair, the first sign of aggravation either friend had seen on their boss in a long while.

Yasuhara turned to him, contemplative. "What are you going to do? You need to make your move quick. Before this situation gets too tricky." Yasuhara, the chess-master, the master manipulator was emerging, Naru noted somberly. Not that he would let him help more than he already was.

Naru smiled, the familiar sliver of malice lining his slanted grin. "You think that I should go to her and break apart her engagement. That's low, Yasuhara, even for you."

"All's fair..." Yasuhara pointed out gravely.

Naru sighed. "She'll hate me."

"She's going to hate you either way. One way makes you a coward. The other way makes you a home wrecker. Which would an idiot prefer?" Yasuhara ventured demurely.

Naru eyed him with a skeptical look. "And you're saying she'll accept my feelings?"

Yasuhara let out a short burst of laughter. "Hell no! But you should at least let her know. No regrets at the very end. She's going to hate you, but at least you let her know. She deserves that much after all you've put her through, don't you think?"

"Shouldn't you be saying that I owe it to myself?"

Yasuhara grinned. "I'd be lying—you don't deserve it. We both know that. And that's not my type of pep talk. I lay it out in the open, no pretense needed. Saves everyone a lot of grief."

Naru remained silent before he sighed again, curling his hands into fists. From the front door of the office, Lin marched out with a bundle of papers tucked under his arm. Mai's absence had left a certain lack of organization in the office, a telltale sign that she hadn't been to the office for awhile—due to school or so she said. The loss of her was becoming increasingly evident. Like a solitary gravestone on a lonely hill. Obvious, stark and unnatural.

Lin came around the driver's side of the car without addressing either man. He knew something was going on, but would wait for Naru's askance.

Naru swung his feet back into the car, silently dismissing the two before he spoke. "See you both—all," he corrected, remembering Ayako, "tomorrow. 10 O'clock sharp," he said in his casual business tone, unlike heartache hadn't just been the topic of conversation.

He pulled the door closed sharply and Lin started the van.

Spurred into action, Yasuhara pushed off the van and wrenched the door back open. Ayako looked startled, but nodded in approval. Yasuhara's gaze flickered over him warily, searching him for an answer. "What are you going to do? You won't just ignore this. I know you too well."

They stared at each other for a few moments, locked in a standoff. Finally, Naru just shook his head and closed the door again, saying "10 O'clock. Don't be late."


It was early. There hadn't been a client in over a week, so the office should have been quiet—had S.P.R.'s good-for-nothing Irregulars not dropped by. Naru briefly considered giving Yasuhara a stern "talking to."

"And she's been with him for over eight months ever since spring and that tutor." Takigawa said the last as if it was sacrilegious.

"He is dangerously suave." Yasuhara whispered conspiratorially.

"An angel and a devil all in one," Ayako agreed. "I'm worried about the girl."

Naru knew what they were doing. He frowned, setting his head against the desk hard.

Outside the office, they paused at the heavy thud heard in Naru's office.

Ayako went on in a mock-whisper, phase one complete. She gasped. "I'm worried about her virtue. He's a firefighter for goodness' sake. If that doesn't make her panties fall off, his amazing, and wonderful chest will. Did you see his hair? Oh my. She won't be…uh, pure."

Takigawa grimaced. "Sounds like it's your undergarments that we should be worried about, old woman. And who are you to talk about purity for marriage?"

The sound of glass shattering against a wall was distinct in Naru's office. "Likewise," the miko growled.

Naru didn't get up to go yell at them. That's what they wanted and then it would be just like this, 'Oh, hi, Naru, I didn't know you were here. You were so quiet.' They would as him if they heard what they said and he would lie and try to kick them out. It sounded like one of Takigawa's schemes as Yasuhara would have been far more cunning and crafty.

But they would give up soon when he ignored them for just a bit longer.

A click was heard, followed by resonating footsteps. Naru heard Lin's placid, baritone voice. "If you all wouldn't mind. Naru and I are trying to work here while you are gossiping away like old women. Naru knows the situation and speaking so plainly of Taniyama's personal life is not only callous, it's cruel. Please think of whom you are really trying to help here and when you figure that out, think again on who you are indeed hurting in this situation. I, myself, have not gotten an ounce of work done since you've been here. Congratulations, you have proved quite the distraction."

Naru sighed and clasped his hands in front of him. He hadn't gotten anything done, either, since they'd been here. If Lin was angry, then they must have crossed a line. Lin's patience rarely broke and if it did, his anger was normally well-deserved.

Awkward silence stretched on.

"Oh, hi, Lin. We didn't know you were here. Uh, you were…so quiet…we're sorry," Takigawa's voice wavered into guilt. "And you said this would work. I could have come up with something better!" So it wasn't Takigawa's plan.

Ayako's?

"I'm running low on ideas." A low male voice said. Yasuhara.

Yasuhara? It had been Yasuhara's hair-brained scheme? He certainly was out of ideas if that moronic plan was all he could think of.

Yasuhara spoke louder, undoubtedly at Naru, in an anger he rarely heard from his friend. "If some narcissistic idiot would get off his ass and just say something to the girl he loves! You think that he's the only one affected by this?" Yasuhara tried to temper himself, the effort evident in his voice. "Lin-san, I apologize for the intrusion on your space, truly." His voice grew louder, directed once again at Naru. "But while he continues to act like a child, pretending he's unaffected by this, he's been making the rest of us miserable. You've been punishing us like we're the ones that are really making you upset! Like we've been wronging you! Why don't you grow up and admit that even you can be hurt and unhappy? That even you are human and can suffer like the rest of us. I pray I'm spared from such delusions. But Naru, you stop moping about it! And save us all from your idiocy and do something about it!"

A loud slam echoed through the office. Obviously, Yasuhara exiting.

Naru tried to relax the tense cord of muscle he'd become, winding tighter and tighter at every accurate barb Yasuhara had said.

The quiet click of Lin's office next door came through the wall. It was followed by the soft exit of Takigawa and Ayako.

Or so he thought.

A polite knock was heard on his door. He initially thought Lin, but when he looked up, the silhouette through the glass was feminine. His heart rate skyrocketed, then immediately eased up when Ayako slipped in.

"We're going to get Yasuhara…make sure he's all right." She tucked a long strand of hair behind her ear. A nervous gesture, and Naru wondered what it cost her to brave him and come into his office to say all this. She looked up at him, resolute and firm, but with gentle eyes. The mother habit that Mai always spoke of. "We're worried about you too. I know you aren't terribly good with the whole emotional aspect of friendships or anything, but please know that we're here, and we care." Her eyes were dark with emotion, not tears. Naru inhaled through his nose, not saying a word.

Her usual caustic attitude was diminished beneath obvious concern, and it jarred Naru. He'd have preferred her anger, then he would have known how to react. Her concern was unexpected and he wasn't sure what to do with it.

"We've watched you grow, seen the shadow of Gene, bless his soul, slowly lift from you. It was Mai that did that. Well, mostly. Maybe finding him provided you the closure, but it was Mai who filled that void, and you know it. We won't press you anymore about this. I can't imagine how painful this is for you, especially so because you deal with everything on your own. But hear my last plea. Just learn to be happy, Naru. That's all any of us could ever ask for. I don't care how you do it, but find it. Find your happiness. With, or without her."

Ayako slipped back out the door just as quickly. She went to Lin's office, apologizing again, and asked the Chinese man if he would drive them around to find Yasuhara. They both left in a hush of silence, leaving Naru alone in the office to contemplate Ayako's words, Mai's life, and his happiness. We're they really all that interconnected?


Days later, Yasuhara still hadn't come by the office. Naru knew it wasn't because he was mad any longer, but more likely, Yasuhara felt guilty and was really angry at himself. He was that type of person to agonize over something they said later, especially because Yasu knew just how to cut a person the deepest. That was why Yasuhara always did his best to maintain his cheery, and calm façade. The man knew the power of his words and nearly always restrained them. It was why Yasuhara, more than the others was one of the most dangerous among them, if not the most.

Lin had actually refused to come in to work today as it was a Sunday, but Naru knew it had more to do with Madoka's threats than with him actually minding working. Naru had gotten the same emails about working less, but things had to be done around the office.

It also had the benefit of having Mai around the office because she had offered to come in upon calling in to find him answering the phone. She brought him breakfast and had dallied around the office all morning while the rain and cold of winter clouded the atmosphere outside.

Mai casually came into the room, a soft smile on her face, and the smallest line of her neck peeking out over her teal scarf.

The silver glint of ring on her finger was no longer being hidden from him since she knew he knew. She set a new brew of tea down beside the cold and stagnant one.

Unwelcome or not, Naru couldn't get Ayako's words out of his head. It gave him the courage to cover Mai's hand with his own, a brush of warmth curling on the edge of his nerves.

Though she was startled, Mai unconsciously moved closer as he turned her hand over to look at the ring perched on her finger. He let her hand drop and looked up at her.

"Another one?" He was, of course, referring to the slew of men in her life. (Three men constituted 'a slew' to Naru.)

Diverting, Mai pulled at the ends of her hair tentatively. Mai feigned ignorance, saying, "The last haircut made me look like a mushroom head, so I'm letting it grow out a bit."

Naru scowled. "I'm not talking about your haircut—though it's nice," he said, trying to recover from how disdainful he sounded. He stood, turning to face the window as he bolstered his resolve.

Mai moved to stand next to him, staring out the window as well. She knew a fragile moment when she saw one, and could weigh this one in her palm. Naru, unsure, was a fleeting experience at most.

Wanting to make the most of it, Mai tentatively slid her hand into his. His hands were freezing, and Mai moved to cover the same hand with her other one to warm it.

Naru turned to the side, facing her and about to say something.

Mai interrupted him. "Can we agree not to talk about him? Or anyone else in my life—or your life for that matter, should it ever happen."

Naru nodded, silently agreeing, but wouldn't look away from her.

The office was quiet enough that they could only hear the patter of rain against the windows, and the ratcheted sound of each other breathing. The intimacy of such an experience wasn't lost on either of them. Naru could tell that Mai was just as affected, and slowly, ever so slowly leaned down towards her. When she met his eyes with a weighty resolve filling her eyes, he closed the distance, briefly touched his lips against hers. That ghost of a touch curdled in her stomach, pleasure and apprehension mingling with joy.

Mai sighed happily and Naru felt his tentative hold on sanity break like glass falling against tiled floor, shattering. She still cared. That much was obvious. The way she kissed him back and pressed into him spoke of her encouragement. She was warm, a bit rough on the technical aspects, but more than eager. They shifted and he leaned her back until her thighs hit the edge of his desk.

He parted from her. "Stay with me."

Three little words, unlike any Mai had ever imagined shifted the atmosphere of the room. Like the ground had just evaporated from under her feet. She paused, and Naru leaned down to her again, tugging on the scarf at her neck gently. Willingly, she sunk into him again, pulling at the edge of his shirt. She accepted another kiss and Naru's stomach tightened when he felt her hand slip up his side, gentle and eager.

Her voice was disjointed when she finally said something. "Your desk, ah, isn't how I imagined this—well, I have, but not for the first time," she said firmly, but with a small smile on her face.

Naru felt his familiar smugness reemerge. Mai's own grin grew wider when she recognized the smirk. "So you've imagined this then?" He asked with a hint of suggestiveness.

Mai chuckled, popping open a button of his shirt. "And you haven't?"

"Would you prefer your desk?" Mai pulled on his lapels and laughed all the louder as she tugged him down for another kiss.


Nighttime. Definitely not Naru's favorite time of the day. As much as others thought he would be more fond of the night, they were wrong. He enjoyed the morning. The time of day when he get up early, prepare for the day, begin work for long hours…oh and daylight, which was particularly underrated. Naru liked being able to see things clearly. Nighttime washed things out and made them indistinct. Things like moronic teenagers who walked out in the middle of a crowded street in front of his car.

Naru stomped on the brake hard, tires screeching and locking as the back end of the van fishtailed on the wet pavement. He held his breath as he skid to a stop mere feet from the small group of teenagers that had walked out into the middle of the road at night without a thought or care of consequences.

Nerve-wrecked, but controlled, Naru wished for a moment that Lin was here so that he could drive this second-hand storage vehicle. Sadly, Lin was in his homeland visiting family for his cousin's wedding. And Naru was almost flattening schoolgirls into pancakes with S.P.R.'s white storage van. Idiots.

Upset with himself at getting distracted, Naru considered laying on the horn until they were off the road and out of sight, but he refrained, instead staring up at the ceiling, praying for patience from his deceased twin. Naru reluctantly tried to swallow his anger at the teenagers. Anger was always his first reaction, his instinct. But having lost family to a car accident or whatever the police had ruled it as, he knew better than most that the tragedy that could have happened would have been horrific… and it would have been him on he other side this time, instead of in front of the headlights like Gene. The guilt would be unbearable. He sighed heavily setting his head against the steering wheel, trying to calm himself. The steering wheel creaked under his firm grip.

On second thought, he was glad that Lin wasn't here. He'd never let him hear the end of it—or let him drive again. Naru had been in one accident and Lin reminded him every time he got behind the wheel.

Heart rate still thudding, he decided to take the side streets back home rather than venture the Tokyo main thoroughfares, especially with his nerves already frazzled.

According to the radio, he made the right decision. Traffic in the residential area was an easy drive that put him through on the other side of the financial district and into the local nightlife area without any heavy traffic.

The area he drove through now was full to the brim with a younger crowd. It was a Friday night, after all, and most people his age were going out with friends, not working until 11 o'clock. Not quite the red light district, but this area was only a hair less seedy with the bars and late nightclubs strewn about. Even the drunks were abundant tonight. Naru thought he saw a man vomiting in the back alley. Classy, that.

Naru stopped at the light taking a moment to take in the unfamiliar terrain. Neon lights and a heady atmosphere that begged short dresses and the occasional working girl on the corner. The streets were dark, damp from rain, and low-lit street lamps dotted the strip that diminished the imperfections of people's faces. It was a breeding ground for sin, meant for late-night binge drinking and a poor excuse for courting women. Naru wasn't opposed to a little sin. After all, he believed in psychics and veritable magic in the eyes of his parents' religion. Technically, his abilities would classify him as a biblical witch, especially because they had no term for psychic back that far, or was that a prophet? Could prophets move things with their minds? Naru had never thought on it before then. He'd have to do some better research just in case the topic ever came up.

On the sidewalk, Naru watched as a taller man stumbled and weighed down heavily on his smaller date, clad in a short red cocktail dress and painful-looking heels. With all her strength, she fought to balance on the heels, hold the man up with his arm tossed haphazardly over her shoulder as she tried vainly to flag down a taxi on the curb.

Naru's foot came down hard as he realized the girl stumbling under the weight of the man was Mai, his illfated assistant. Luckily his foot was still firmly on the brake; Otherwise, he would have rear-ended another car. And then he would have to explain to Lin the reason for the new car sitting in the lot, and not their trusty van that Lin seemed to have an affinity for.

Naru put his hazard lights on and pulled off the side of the road, directly in front of Mai, who was frantically signaling for cabs. Thinking sluggishly, he thought about tossing the door open and telling her to get in, but from the heavy scowl lining her face, he thought better of it. She would never get in the car, especially not after what had happened last week.

Shutting his door behind him, he got out and came around the backside of the van to see her resolutely standing firm under the weight of her… her what? What was the man to her?

"I hope for your sake that he isn't some vagrant you took pity on," Naru said accusingly.

Mai actually half-laughed at him (though the other half was still a leery scowl). "It's Tetsuo."

Naru eyed the man, studying him in true scientific fashion, slow, lingering as if to take everything about the man in. The man hiccupped and sluggishly mumbled something over to Mai. From her expression, she didn't understand it either.

Looking back at Naru, Mai scowled at him. "Stop judging him. It's not anything like you think, and he's awake, just drunk." How she managed to look formidable with an intoxicated full grown man hanging over her still baffled Naru.

He didn't say anything when she sent him a challenging look. Both sat in an awkward silence, searching for something to say, listening to the din of the traffic.

Naru against his better judgment offered her a ride.

Mai quickly shook her head, rearranging her grip on her unbalanced beau. "No way.I meant—sorry, I mean, no thank you. We'll catch a taxi."

Naru glared at her skeptically, pursing his lips. "Any longer out here like that and the police will take him in. Just get in the van. The taxi ride home from here will cost you a day's pay."

"I don't get paid so little now, you know. This boss actually likes me," Mai countered as she teetered on her heels again. Looking around Naru, Mai frowned at all the taxis flying by. Looking back at him, she sighed, "Okay, I'll take the ride, please."

She stumbled forward, Tetsuo walking haphazardly, but unhelpfully. Naru walked forward and caught the man under his other shoulder. With slapdash coordination, together they loaded him into the bench seat in the back.

Before he could say a word, Mai climbed into the back with her fiancé and shut the door behind her.

Naru got in the car and they slowly, started towards her place. "You still live in the same place?"

"Same area, different apartment. I'm only a block down from where I used to live." She said, staring at the side of the metal van. Her reflection bounced as Naru hit a pothole. He glanced back, Mai sitting comfortably in the little red dress with Tetsuo's head in her lap. She was silent for a long while.

"What did you mean earlier when you said it's not what I think? How do you know what I was thinking about your beau?"

Mai's serious expression didn't change when it shifted back to him. "Because I know you. I know you were thinking he's just some alcoholic bum, but he's not. I told you it's not what you think. I meant it."

Naru paused. "Then what's the occasion?"

Mai didn't say anything for a bit, then sighed wearily. "He passed all his training today. He's not a rookie trainee firefighter anymore. He was promoted like a graduation, so his company took him out to celebrate tonight. They're all like that right now, but I couldn't carry them all home, so I called their wives and roommates and told them to pick them up while I took him home."

Oh. The rest of the drive was silent, and walking Tetsuo up her stairs proved difficult as he was heavy and the staircase could barely fit the three of them side-by-side. Naru held him up outside her door as she fumbled for her keys and together they got him in her apartment and dropped him onto the couch at Naru's unspoken insistence. He was not putting that other man in her bed.

Mai wandered into the kitchen to get some water. He heard the water tap turn on as he stared at the man laying on Mai's couch, all his dark hair and probably equally dark eyes. A good-sized scar lay horizontal across the man's cheekbone, likely from a fight or something close to it. Naru knew the wounds and the way it hadn't been stitched together, probably only butterflied closed. One of those manly men who thought stitches were unnecessary.

"Can you see if he'll drink this while I go change out of this?" She handed the water glass to him and Naru barely paused before he set the glass onto her coffee table next to the man and followed after her.

Naru pushed open her bedroom door that she hadn't closed all the way. He leaned just on the inside of the doorway. Mai eyed him in the reflection of her standing mirror.

"Is there a reason your in my room? Have you been hiding these perverted tendencies all these years?" She mocked.

"I was going to offer to help get your zipper." Naru frowned.

Mai smiled sardonically. "It's a side zip, but thanks for the offer." She looked at him, but when he didn't make to leave, she started to pull at the zipper on her dress in an obvious suggestion: get out.

When he didn't budge, she said, "Aren't you going to leave?"

Naru didn't back down. "Not when you're offering a free show."

Mai zipped the dress back up and stalked over to him, shorter now that her heels had been kicked off.

Mai poked a finger into his chest. "Don't be vulgar, or perverted. And how can you say that? My fiancé is in the next room if you've forgotten. This is my house—apartment—and you won't disrespect me in my place. Otherwise you can get out."

"I'm not the one undressing in front of other men."

Mai's face lit in a bright red.

"OUT," she growled, shoving him further backward.

"Classy. He's a keeper, Mai." Naru said, as they passed her unconscious fiancé on the couch.

Mai grit her teeth, lips pursed in refusal to admit she was wrong about him. "He runs into burning buildings everyday to save people. I'd say he's a keeper," she said fiercely. "You, on the other hand, come uninvited into my room. That's real classy. You're just because you're mad that I left you at the office. Well, sorry for having some morals and not wanting to cheat on my fiancé."

Naru inhaled sharply at her harsh judgment, narrowing his eyes at her. She set her hands firmly on her hips, defiant. "You still love me."

Mai abruptly pulled Naru back into her room and away from her fiancé. "Shut up," she whispered vehemently. She glanced back out the hallway and they heard the dull sound of snoring. Turning back to him, she scoffed. "So full of yourself."

He stepped closer. "And yet you're not fighting me," he said rather curiously. Naru took another step closer, cornering her. "Why?"

He leaned down, slowly in askance then kissed her when she didn't back up (not that she could as a wall was behind her, he admitted).

She even seemed to be enjoying it before she roughly shoved him off. "Now, of all times, you make a pass at me." Grabbing his arm, she dragged him down the hall, past her fiancé and out the door. Letting him go roughly, Mai stepped out after him and closed the door behind her.

Without a pause, Mai stood on tiptoe and with a hand behind his head, pulled him down again. She kissed him this time. It was her initiating and Naru felt a certain pride in that as she let out a shaky breath. Abruptly, she turned and went back inside without another word and shut the door.


Summer

It was Sunday again which made him happy. And hot, which made him cranky. The office should have been quiet...but like usual, it never was. Voice grated on his ears again from outside Naru's office.

"I can't believe you. Yasuhara-san, I'm very impressed. She's beautiful, and from what you say about her, intelligent as well. When did you ask her, if you don't mind me asking?" Masako wiped her lips primly with a napkin after she took another sip of tea.

"A couple months ago. You know when Mai broke it off with the guy—the firefighter."

"—Oh yes, I definitely remember that—"

"Right after that," Yasuhara explained.

Naru hated how they seemed to mark their calendars by the events happening in Mai's life, rather than remembering conventional dates. Strange to say the least. If Mai had anything to say about it, she would label it disturbing. Speaking of the girl...where was she?

The front door opened with the sound of bells chiming over the top of it. The soft footfalls of his favorite female assistant was back…we'll technically not assistant. Mai hadn't taken the spot back with her, nor had she decided to work with Naru again.

"Masako, Yasuhara, what a pleasant surprise. What are you doing here?" She didn't sound surprised at all. Wary, actually, Naru noticed. The girl had grown wiser over the years, after all.

"Discussion the wedding," Yasuhara said pleasantly. Naru swore he heard Mai choking. Ever since her last relationship, Mai seemed to have developed an aversion to anything reminiscent of a lasting commitment. She wouldn't even allow Naru the privilege of the title boyfriend-not that Naru minded...much.

"Congratulations," Mai said awkwardly, trying to cover her tracks.

"Perhaps, if you sound more sincere next time…" Yasuhara suggested slowly. Mai muffled an apology.

"Are those for Naru?" Masako asked, and Naru silently thanked the medium for her quick diversion of sending Mai on without further retribution from Yasuhara. Things weren't entirely on the up and up with the spectacled male. He seemed to be waiting for an apology that Naru stoutly was denying.

"Ah, yes. In fact, I should get them to him. I'll see you guys before you leave?" Mai offered, sounding grateful.

The medium's measured tone was hard to hear for Naru. She spoke quietly enough that he couldn't hear. He only knew that Mai had responded in turn, and from her footsteps was headed his way.

"Oh, and Mai, one of your friends called. Michiko, I think," Yasuhara said, pondering on the last thought.

"You've met her before. It's Michiru," Mai scolded. "She's been around here. Don't pretend you don't remember her. Though for her to call here…must mean it's pretty serious."

"I would think so," he agreed.

"Well, thanks." Mai shut the door behind her and smiled warmly at Naru. She circled around the desk, slowly, as if worried he'd reject her advance at any minute. When he didn't, she draped her arms over his shoulders from behind his chair and laid her cheek on his head.

"You seem tense," she mused tentatively.

"Do I?" he countered, solemnly.

"It could be me—or maybe it's the white-knuckled grip you have on your coffee mug. Hm?"

"It's nothing."

"Only if you want it to be," she offered. But Naru knew what that meant. It was a silent threat. Tell me, or suffer the difference later.

He sighed miserably. "What did you mean when you said that it must have been important for Michiru to call by the office? You know your friends are welcome to call here. Just not during business hours," he added as an addendum.

Mai sounded surprised. "That's what you're bothered about? I thought you were mad about them mentioning Tetsuo—uh, sorry. I know you—never mind! Forget I said anything." She unwound her arms from his shoulders, standing up straight.

"You're skipping the point."

"You're really worried about why I think it was weird for her to call here?"

"I don't see why you said it was 'important for her to call here.'"

"Are you trying to pick a fight over nothing?" She growled. Naru's fingers clenched and unclenched in his waning patience. Mai wandered out from behind him and perched against the edge of his desk in front of him.

She didn't say anything for a while. Slowly, she measured out her response, not wanting to offend him, knowing just how easy it was to do so. "If my friends call here, it does mean something. Naru, they are frightened to call here. You hate them." So much for going light on him. Utter failure.

Naru tried to hide the offended sound in his voice. "I do not hate them."

"Maybe hate is too strong. You just think very, very, very little of my friends."

"I do not hate them," he repeated.

"Them? Just like that. What are there names?"

"Your friends like me," Naru said, trying to sidetrack her.

Mai remained silent and that was answer enough.

"Michiru doesn't like me?"

Silence.

"Yuuri?"

Again, nothing.

"…the… other one?" Mai whipped around to fix him with a harsh glare.

"And you wonder why they don't like you?"

"Why?" He asked offhandedly, trying to hide that he actually was a tad bit curious. "They used to like me," he said sourly, defending his honor.

She shrugged, tugging her hair up into a quick and messy bun. "My friends don't really like you that much." The comment which years ago wouldn't have bothered him drew him up short.

He tried to think of something to refute her and her irritating claims, but nothing came to mind.

Pointing at himself, he finished lamely, "They think I'm good-looking,"

Mai rolled her eyes. "And mean, and rude, and moody—and you don't have the excuse of being a female—and you keep me at work too late—sorry, kept me at work late, and never complimented me, and you called my friends stupid, ignorant cows—to their faces I might add." She ticked off each remark on her fingers. He noticed that she was almost running dangerously low of said digits. She looked up at him sourly, dropping her hands. "The list goes on. I can't imagine why they don't like you though. You're always so charming," she finished drolly.

Naru returned her scowl until her fierce glare melted into a dazzling smile. "I like you better when you're offended. It's a nice turn of the tables," she said happily as she dropped into his lap. She stretched up to him and pecked him quickly on the cheek. Out of her pocket, she fished a small cardboard box and opened it, plopping a chocolate-coated candy stick into her mouth. Naru was suddenly a little more distracted than he cared to admit as she rolled it around against the inside of her cheek.

She craned her neck and glanced out the window behind him. "Gosh, I love the summer. It's amazing—and the weather is so beautiful. Want to do a picnic this weekend? I could use a day out in the sun. Maybe a little sake—maybe a little bikini? Naru—hey, are you paying attention to me? Naru."

Naru really hated the summer, but for this—for Mai—he was willing to compromise a bit, if only for her to do the same. He wilted under the heat, especially in the past when he had worn his mourning clothes. Black absorbed the heat and made him hide out in the office more often that he would admit. Not that he'd ever admit it—to anyone.

Maybe if he worded it tactfully, he could talk Mai out of the park and subsequent heat and into the flirty little frilled skirts she was so fond of and back into the office. Or maybe the opposite. He wouldn't be averse to talking her out of the skirt and into a little heat. Surely, she couldn't be reluctant to that, but just in case, Naru kept a small strawberry flavored case of pop rocks on the arm of his chair within her easy eyesight. Chance favored the prepared mind, or so he'd read somewhere.

He didn't really expect her to resist him, but… it couldn't hurt.


~ Seasons ~