Heaven Within Hell (Part 1)
The snowfall was pretty heavy, covering Shibuya in a white duvet. The city was so beautiful, the stuff of dreams. The best part was, I was safe and warm inside my apartment, all by myself listening to some tender J-Pop melodies. It looked so harshly cold outside, but I wasn't the least perturbed. I was just glad I wasn't stuck outdoors.
Unlike a friend of mine at that time.
Such comfort put me in a fine mood. I was about to start dancing by myself to a particularly catchy song when the doorbell rang. Who could it be? Both my mother and father were working parents who often had to spend days at a time at someplace for business, and as a result I had my fair share of days when I had the apartment to myself. This was one of those days. Being a latchkey child was something I had long gotten used to.
Anyway, I doubted that the person at the front door was either of my parents, since they wouldn't be back for another two or three days. I took a gander through the peephole, and imagine my surprise to discover that it was my aforementioned friend.
"Hi, Neku," she muttered sheepishly when I opened the door.
"Shiki, were you out building snowmen?" I said jokingly, coaxing her inside. Her clothes were partially wet, presumably from being caught in the snow. She hurriedly unraveled her scarf, which was soaked through. She must have been itching to remove it.
"All I need is one snow cone and I get it plus a year's worth of interest," she smiled, seeing the lighter side of her mishap.
"Heh, that's the weather for you!"
"The snow came so suddenly," she said, "If you don't mind, could I stay here for a while, at least until the skies settle down?"
"Yeah, that's fine with me. Make yourself at home."
This was Shiki Misaki. How I got to know her is a bit of a long story. But the truth, believe it or not, is that both of us had died before. We had been cast in the UnderGround, a place for souls to gather and play the Reapers' Game, a competition to see who was worthy to come back to life. She was one of my partners in the Game. I wouldn't go into too many details for fear of boring you, but despite the setbacks that I had encountered, by the end of it all we were reincarnated, alive and back in our hometown.
Shiki is the greatest friend a guy like me could ever ask for. We're always there for each other and we get along extremely well. When we're not hanging out with our other friends, sometimes we go to have a coffee or ramen, and it rocks when it's just the two of us. We talk about everything under the sun, and chatting so freely with this dream girl is one of life's most luxurious privileges.
Oh… Did I spill the beans? I said "dream girl", didn't I? Well, I wouldn't take back my words or dispute them, for that's the truth. Shiki has been my romantic interest for a good while now and for a good reason. Her personality is so warm and kind and she cares about my welfare. Whenever I'm troubled and I need a listening ear, I know I can rely on her to ease my worries. She's done so much for me, made me who I am today, that it was only natural that I fell for her.
I had never been able to tell her the truth, though. It would remain under lock and key within my heart until the time was right. The problem was, whenever the time was right, I didn't have the guts to say it out. I hated myself for my cowardice, but today, I promised myself, would be a different story… a milestone of achievement in the life of Neku Sakuraba!
With the door closed and locked behind us, I brought her to the living room. Central heating made fireplaces unnecessary, but it was comfortably warm all the same. Shiki looked like she needed more than just warmth, though. Perhaps a hot bath would be more like it.
Shiki in a hot bath… Oh man, it was hard not to think about her frolicking in the shower!
She was plain in face, a bit of a klutz and a lot of other girls could beat her in many areas hands-down, but I didn't care. To me, she was pretty. Beauty in the eye of the beholder, huh? Classic case of that. So it was easy for me to envision how she could be totally hot underneath those baggy, misshapen winter clothes she was wearing, but… did I really have to think about such thoughts at a time like this?
Nonetheless, I still kept my cool. "You're drenched, Shiki. You can use our bathroom," I offered, "I'll find some spare clothes for you."
"Ah, that'd be good. Thanks, Neku." She said it so matter-of-factly that it was difficult to wonder how she could be comfortable knowing she would be, albeit for several moments, naked at a guy's place.
In fact, she was probably more comfortable with it than I was. What was it about the steady hissing noise from a showerhead that contained such seductive implications? My hands were quaking uncontrollably, as though I was under some bizarre spell… her spell. Wasn't this whole situation a bit… cliché? Wasn't it the stuff of romantic comedy movies and comics, not real life? Yes, this was stupid of me to even think this way. I had to grow up.
Just when I felt like I was in control of my emotions, the bathroom door opened ajar and Shiki's dripping hand stuck out, beckoning me over.
"Um, Neku? You forgot to give me a towel, genius. And clothes, for that matter."
In my haste I must have forgotten all about it. I actually had the towel in my hands but I had been busy literally walking around in circles and suppressing my dirty thoughts that I had not actually picked out which clothes she could wear yet.
"I-I got the towel b-but I'm still l-looking for clothes," I stammered, staring pointedly at her outstretched hand. How nice it would be to see around corners. Then that door which she was using as a shield would be useless and she would be none the wiser… Of course, as she was currently defenseless, I could simply force my way in and she would be all mine… Argh…! Not another crazy fantasy!
Focus! With tremendous willpower, I handed the towel to her waiting hand and it whipped back inside. When the door shut, I let out a sigh of relief. One hurdle dealt with…
"Be sure to find something in my size!" she called.
"O-Okay… I'll try, but I can't make any promises."
Shiki and I were of approximately equal stature, though she was shorter, slimmer and mercifully less muscular (Shiki with bulging muscles would be horrific, not that I was muscle-bound myself, but you get the picture). My clothes would probably fit her best. There was a dress shirt in my cabinet that I kept for formal occasions like dinner with relatives. Maybe she could use that.
Wow… Shiki in a dress shirt and nothing else and showing a lot of leg… What an incredibly tantalizing image…
No, no, no. How many times did I have to remind myself to behave? I was able to give her some clothes, but she said that as the snow didn't soak into her underwear, she didn't need to borrow any. So thank goodness for this small favour as I didn't want to rummage through Mum's private stuff. That would be just… no.
Fast forward to a few minutes later, when Shiki was out of the bathroom and fully clothed in that dress shirt and one of my long pants, which were loose and barely managed to cling onto her hips… A part of me was secretly waiting for the moment when they'd fall off, assuming that this was bound to happen. Still, now that she wasn't bare-bodied at the very least, I was mostly glad, because I didn't know what sort of impulse would come over me if she remained in there for too long. We were sitting on the couch in the living room and she was in a sunny mood as she ruffled her hair dry with her towel.
"It's not a great day to go out today," she remarked, smiling, "but sometimes it's nice to just kick back and relax at home where it's nice and warm."
"Yeah," I agreed, "I was doing just that. Everything feels like you're suspended in time and you just want the bliss to go on forever."
"And it's so gorgeous out there," she gushed, gazing out the window at the many snowflakes tumbling down like bits of cotton candy. "It's like watching a moving painting."
We just sat there in silence, enjoying each other's company, the snowbound cityscape framed in the window sill and looking like a postcard from an alpine country. The mental turmoil that I was suffering earlier was quickly forgotten.
"Neku…" Shiki's voice had taken on a whispery and very mysterious air.
She turned to face me and there was a dewy look in her eyes that hinted at… an urgent need? Slowly, like a panther moving in for the kill, she edged closer in my direction.
"Um, Shiki?" I was sweating bullets from seeing how physically close she had come to me.
"I'm not disturbing you, am I?" she asked softly, looping the towel round the nape of her neck.
"Your parents are out again, aren't they?"
"Yes…" I drawled out the word, mind racing as I tried to guess what she was planning to do.
"Oh, good." She wedged herself into my frame and by now I had no way of slowing down the hormones that were now rushing through my system. I was powerless. "We have this whole place to ourselves, Neku… and it's warm… and so romantic…"
What could I say to that? That was certainly an observation that I agreed with, but all that came out of my mouth was a stupid-sounding "Um… huh?"
"Neku… close your eyes."
"Do it… I wanna give you a nice surprise…"
My gut feeling told me that this was a little too soon. Such a stage wouldn't come until after I had confessed my feelings to her and she reciprocated, and after we had gone out for a considerable amount of time. This was starting to feel a little fishy… But on the other hand, if she actually was in love with me – and I hoped so – and she was using this chance to be aggressive and solidify me as her boyfriend… then I would be an idiot to push her away at a time like this.
Two hard choices were hanging in the scales of an imaginary balance. Which one would I go for?
Shiki said something that hardened my desired course of action.
"You're going to feel extra special after this…"
E-Extra special? ! What did she mean by that? Needless to say I wanted to find out… So the balance tipped, and I closed my eyes.
The warmth of her breath… I could feel it on my face and the sensation was making me dizzy. Any moment now and she would close in with a sweet but passionate lip lock. Ah… the much-coveted taste of forbidden fruit.
But all I got was a prod to the forehead, accompanied by her saying one word, "Beep!"
My eyes snapped open, and I found a giggling Shiki with her finger jabbed into my forehead. She was nowhere near kissing me at all.
She said another word, triumph thick from her voice. "Gotcha."
Aw man. She was just messing around with my head. My gut feeling was spot-on after all. As she collapsed on the couch, giant guffaws filling the room, I glared at her with a look of mock annoyance.
"So do you feel 'extra-special', Neku?" she laughed.
"Extra-dumb more like." Not to mention extra-disappointed…
"Well, you only have yourself to blame for getting your hopes up so high! You really are a dummy, ha ha ha!"
Seeing her in such mirth got me in the mood for some naughtiness myself. Not that kind of naughtiness, of course, but the playful innocent kind. "Looks like someone needs to be taught a lesson," I said, looming over her like a thundercloud, eyes narrowed in anticipation of my mischievous deed.
"Wh-What are you going to do?" she asked, residual laughter lending a goofy look to her face. Her arms scrunched up close to her body, as a sort of defense mechanism. But nothing would save her from what was coming to her…
"Oh, nothing too traumatizing," I chuckled evilly, "I'm just going to… tickle you to death!" I pounced on her, hands attacking her weak spot: the sides of her ribs. As my fingers played the piano with her bones – tickling the ivories would be an alternative and apt expression – she was almost driven insane with laughter.
"Eek! Ha ha ha stop it ahahaha!"
"That's your extra-special treatment!" I smirked, filled with a sense of sweet revenge as I cherished the way she was writhing in snake-like throes. A few attempts were made by her to pry my hands away to try and cut her torture short, but with her body like she was holding an electric eel in her hands, her strength was extremely feeble. She couldn't save herself.
Tears were welling from her eyes. "Ha ha ha ha! God, Neku, th-this is – ha ha! – t-t-too m-much! Ha ha ha!"
I ramped up her agony by moving my hands further up to her armpits. Now she was practically falling apart and her voice was getting alarmingly loud, but this was fun and I couldn't stop myself. Seeing her in such a helpless, weakened but laughing state was immensely satisfying, especially after the trick she pulled on me earlier.
"N-No seriously s-s-stop! Ha ha ha ha ha…! ! !"
Tickling her was like wrestling a crocodile. She was struggling quite ferociously, although it wasn't out of anger, of course. It was tiring work, and eventually I gave up and let her go, slumping into my seat with my muscles as frazzled as hers. We lay where we sank on the couch. Both of us were gasping for air, but we were also chuckling together. Because though our childish little play session was exhausting, it was certainly fun.
She sat up with some difficulty. "I'll get you for that next time," she said, her breath coming out in short pants.
"Aren't we supposed to be even now?" I asked, smirking.
"Oh, you wish!" She playfully gave me a weak slap on the arm.
"Then the vicious cycle would go on and on and on…"
"Well, it's partly your fault to begin with," she giggled, standing up from the couch – she looked like she was headed for the bathroom. For some obscure reason, my eyes happened to look at her feet as she walked away, and she had barely taken two steps when her right foot got caught behind her left. I heard a yelp from her as her forward momentum was causing her to quickly lose balance, and I instantly knew I had to catch her or else she would fall flat on her face.
Like greased lightning I jumped from the couch and lunged at her. Her arms were flailing comically as she tipped over, but there was nothing funny about the prospect of her bashing her nose into the floor. I grabbed her from behind and pulled her towards myself, and she was thus saved.
Cold sweat oozed out of my entire skin like an itchy rash. That was a close call. She was a naturally clumsy girl, but I hoped that would be the last time such a thing happened!
It took Shiki a few moments to shake herself out of her stupor. When she did, she twisted round in my grip to face me. "Th-Thanks, Neku. I thought I was done for."
"D-Don't mention it…"
In the snap of a finger I realized that my arms were still circling her waist. I was gazing at her face, and she was so close to me. Dangerously close… She was so pretty…
"You l-look pale, Sh-Shiki," I gulped, "Y-You're okay, right?"
"Um… yeah… But you're blushing, Neku…"
"Is it that obvious?" We were still locked together in this awkward embrace.
"Yeah…" Her speech was petering to a slow, barely audible murmur. "…really… obvious…"
We were getting so distracted gazing into each other's eyes that our thought processes were gradually weakening. Intense eye-contact with someone of the opposite sex whom you like a lot had this peculiar tendency to generate strong feelings of… attraction? Yes, that had to be what we were feeling. Even if it was just a friendship supposedly without any form of romance, it was only natural for the affection already present to develop into something far deeper.
Whether Shiki thought of me as a potential boyfriend I had no way of knowing, but the way she stayed silent and in a dream-like state was something of an indication that she probably liked me more than I thought. It was awfully good to know.
"So… it's really… clear on my face?" I said slowly.
"Uh-huh… Every detail…" By now it was evident that we had no clue of what was coming out of our mouths.
"You know… y-you're blushing too… a little bit…"
There was a slight "eep" from her as she became aware that her face was turning red. She freed herself from my arms in double-quick time and scooted off. "I… I need to use the bathroom!" The last word was already muffled as she vanished inside and slammed the door.
Was she angry? No, that couldn't be it. I just saved her life! Embarrassed just like I was, perhaps, but not angry… I hoped.
I didn't do anything to make her mad, so my conscience was clear. Did I accidentally grope her? My hands were on her waist, after all, but I doubted it…
In her rush to escape her predicament, she had left behind the towel she was using to dry her hair. I gulped to recall that it was the very towel she used to wipe her body after her bath. Her naked body… Damn, these urges were super-strong. The fluffy cloth sat in a damp, crumpled heap on the couch where she was sitting.
Hmmm… she would be in there for thirty seconds, at least… More than enough time for me to satisfy one of my greatest but sadly most perverted curiosities. I wanted to take a whiff of it. Just a short one to see how her body scent was like… Vanilla-flavoured, perhaps, with a hint of guava?
But no, I had to restrain myself. How could I even think of doing such things? I was no better than a lecherous old man. She would be back soon enough anyway, so even if I stooped low enough to do it, I would get caught and she would chop my head off.
I breathed a heavy sigh. How was it that my affection for Shiki was now evolving into a maniacal obsession with her? It was perfectly fine to fantasise about your crush feeding you grapes in not even a form of undress, but what I almost wanted to do was simply ridiculous… I was glad I stopped myself in time or I would probably never forgive myself. Probably.
I sauntered over to the window to look at the outside surroundings and clear my messed-up mind. What was previously a heavy torrent of snow had turned into a fully-fledged snowstorm. I could just about make out some shapes trapped underneath the accumulating snow, but otherwise there was nothing to see apart from a plateau of whiteness. The wind was pounding against the window relentlessly but strangely enough noiselessly. I was aware of the sky becoming darker and darker. Night was beginning to fall upon Shibuya.
"Oh my goodness… will you look at that!"
Shiki's voice startled me a little. She had apparently finished with whatever she was doing back there and had come to join me. Whatever embarrassment she had suffered earlier was now gone. It was as though nothing had happened.
"The snow is really heavy," she remarked, staring in awe at the city being swallowed alive by the beast that was Mother Nature. "I don't think I can get back home in this state."
"You can wait as long as you need, Shiki," I said, "It's dangerous to be outside at the moment."
"It's getting late…" She glanced from the window to the ancient clock in my living room and back to the window again. "My parents would be worried that I'm not home yet. Neku, I hate to impose upon you any further, but… as it looks like the snow wouldn't stop anytime soon…
"…can I stay over?"
"Whuh?" Shiki was asking to sleep over at my home? Hey, wait a minute… This wasn't good at all; it was very dangerous. My parents were out and the only people in the apartment would be Shiki and I. I was a healthy young man dealing with an onslaught of puberty-related problems, so having her here would make things worse for me. I was frightened that I might do something to her… But I couldn't simply chase her out…
"Just for tonight, Neku!" she pleaded, hands clasped together in a praying position. "I promise I'll be good!" She grinned cheekily. The funny thing was, it was I who was supposed to promise to be good, not so much the other way around. Oh wait, that wasn't funny. It was a very serious matter!
"Well… um…" I was still hesitating. Shiki was the person whom I cared about the most in the entire world. The last thing I wanted was to ruin our friendship with a single costly mistake on my part.
"Please? I can't go out in this weather."
"That's true… Of course you can stay, Shiki," I said, swallowing a lump that had gotten stuck in my throat. "Just… don't expect it to be five-star material."
"Thanks!" she beamed gratefully. Her smile was one of the cutest things about her.
She immediately fished out her cell phone, typed a text message with blisteringly fast fingers, and punched the "send" button. Moments later it chimed the presence of a reply.
"That's Mum," she muttered, scanning through the message she had just received. "She said it's okay that I could stay over at a friend's house."
Suddenly I was gripped by panic. "You didn't tell her it's me you're staying with, did you? !"
"Relax." She patted my arm. "I didn't mention any names. She's used to me having the occasional sleepover at Eri's place, so this is no big matter. What's more, I'm sure she'd understand, seeing how bad the snow is."
That hardly put my heart at ease, but as long as her parents didn't know that their daughter was spending the night at a boy's house, then I should be able to get through this painfully aphrodisiacal ordeal and live to tell the tale. I mean, I can't date Shiki if her parents kill me…
"Oh yeah, Shiki, I forgot to get you your drink." I zipped into the kitchen and opened the fridge, absent-mindedly grabbing a couple of cans of green tea. I returned to the living room to find Shiki relaxing on the couch. "Dad just bought this really good green tea, and it tastes great chilled! Here, have one."
"Green tea? Man, I love green tea!" She took the can from my outstretched hand and proceeded to pop it open as I took my seat next to her. I did the same but she had already taken a sip from her can.
"Nothing quite like it, eh?" I grinned, relishing the refreshing taste as the tea flowed over my taste buds. "I know it's cold outside and we should be having nice warm cocoa instead, but… I simply had to let you try this!"
"Hmmm… you know, Neku… Maybe it's just me, but…" She paused to look at her can of tea with a slightly quizzical look.
"Something wrong with the tea?"
"Ah, it's nothing. Nothing wrong at all!" She took a generous swig from her can. The way she put it, it seemed like the tea might have tasted a little off, but that was impossible. Dad had bought them only a couple of weeks ago and they were still fresh, far from expired.
"If you're sure it's alright, then… where were we? Oh yeah, Dad got these while he was on a business trip. You can't find this particular type of green tea anywhere in Shibuya."
"Really? You sure? 'Cause… the tea is a bit weird, you know…"
"Does it taste weird?" I looked at my can. Written in bold white lettering on a dark green background were the product name – some fancy play on Japanese words – and various other details. I was sure I picked the right can for her, since our cans looked alike and my tea was alright, so did it mean that I had picked out a defective can?
I sought to check and reached for her can, but to my surprise she jerked it out of my way, clutching onto it like a possessive child. "No!" she cried, "I said it's weird but that doesn't mean it's no good. It's awesome." She tipped the mouth of the can fully into her mouth and in several gulps it was completely empty.
"Ah… Good stuff." She breathed a sigh of satisfaction, having downed the entire can. "I've never tasted tea like this before… I mean, it makes my head feel like it's floating and everything… ha ha!"
"Um… Shiki?" What was she talking about?
Shiki was beginning to act a bit weird… Her speech was slurred, her cheeks were flushed, and she had a glazed look in her eyes that made her look like she was out of it. What was going on?
Something was wrong… Call it a hunch, but could it be the tea that was causing her to act this way? I swiftly grabbed the can out of her hand, and this time she didn't resist, instead leaning back into the couch with her head lolled backwards, grinning stupidly.
I took one glance at her can of tea and froze.
No wonder she was acting like a total idiot. What she had drunk… wasn't tea.
After all, would tea come packaged in a can with the brand name "Heineken"?
That's right. It wasn't tea. It was beer! My hands were shaking upon realization of this fact. How could I have given her one of Dad's beers? I was supposed to give her tea! But when I stopped to think about this, everything fell into place and made sense.
My father loves beer a lot, though he's always careful not to get too drunk by limiting himself to only one can a day. Like a lot of people, he likes his beer cold, so he stores his cans of Heineken in the refrigerator. However, the green tea he brought back happened to be packaged in cans that had almost the exact same colouring as Heineken's famous green-and-white motif, and these he placed in the fridge together with his beer. So it was only natural that I mistook one of his beers for green tea. It didn't help matters that I wasn't really paying attention in the first place.
And the beer I had taken for tea I gave to Shiki.
She was laughing softly to herself. "Whew…! What a rush!"
Ugh… Looking at her now, I could safely say she was drunk. Only one can and she was already swaying like this. She wasn't the type to hold her alcohol very well, was she? I guess not.
I wasn't too sure, but I heard from somewhere that drinking cold water could help a drunken person regain partial soberness. That could help return things to normal somewhat. An inebriated Shiki… She seemed harmless now, but I had a bad feeling… Alcohol had a nasty reputation of transforming the nicest, most rational people into raving maniacs. Finally rid of her virtuous restraint, there was no telling what she would try to do to me. So before she reeled me into her world of temporary madness, I thought it best to recover as much of her sanity as possible. I got up from her seat to get a glass of ice-cold water.
But she had other ideas, or rather she thought she had other ideas, because I doubt that her brain was in full control of her body now. She lunged at me like a football player in an attempt to tackle me.
"Whuh? !" I saw her in time and turned quickly to brace myself. She hooked her arms round my waist and yanked me back, the two of us spinning in a bizarre pirouette before crashing back onto the couch. I ended up lying underneath her. All the while she did not let go of me.
"Where're you goin', Neku…?" she drawled, the words coming out in a jumbled mess.
"J-Just want to get s-some cold water…"
"But I'm booooored…" She buried her face into the crook of my neck, hugging me tightly. "I want you to stay here and keep me company."
Oh no. This wasn't good at all. Our bodies were obscenely close. It would be so easy to embrace her and touch her and do this and that and everything, but though the thought was tempting, I simply couldn't do it. No. I didn't want to abuse her trust.
Someone had taught me to "trust your partner". As her partner in the Reapers' Game and in daily life, making sure this trust stayed was the least I could do. I was determined not to let myself get carried away and do things that I would later regret.
Those were my personal rules that I wished to abide by. However, given the circumstances I was now in, simply sticking by my principles would take a whole lot of effort. Having the girl of my dreams press her body against me was… how could I put it in words? It was certainly an incredible feeling. She was so bold too, seeing how she was pushing herself closer and closer. I would be lying if I said this didn't feel good.
"It's snowing outside and I can't go hoooome," she said lazily, "so I wanna stave away the boredom while I'm here." Her finger traced circles on my chest.
Gwoooh! It was already hard to resist her when she was sober, but now that her protective mental barrier had come down and she was decidedly unhinged, I had fears that I wouldn't be able to escape this ordeal without one or both of us mentally scarred for life…
She was going to have to stay over for today too. How long would I have to deal with her? All I knew was, this was going to be a very looooong night…