§ § § - May 7, 2007

Leslie stared at him, greatly startled by the question, even though she knew he'd asked it of Roarke the day before. She just hadn't thought it would be the first one he'd ask her, now. Her face overheated again and she wondered if they were going to make each other blush the entire time they talked. "I don't hate you," she said, knowing perfectly well it was a lame response and that he probably wouldn't believe it anyway.

"I don't know, that isn't how it came across to me," said Hachiro, and she detected a plaintive undertone in his voice. It made her uncomfortable and she forced herself to stand still. "I've heard back, mostly from Michiko. I know you and I haven't really gotten along, but…well, seems to me I bring out the worst in you."

Boy, do I feel stupid. Leslie, abandoning the idea of walking, settled down on the edge of the fountain, reminded out of nowhere of the first day she had been on the island so many years ago, wondering what her future held in store. She had probably sat in almost this exact spot, and the view from here brought back the memory in force. "I suppose you do," she admitted reluctantly. "But—well, it's not that I hate you, really. It's just that…some of the things you've done, the decisions you've made, have been…" She groped for the word she wanted, then abandoned the sentence, unable to find anything suitable.

"Stupid," said Hachiro, startling her into staring directly at him. Every time she looked at him, she was hit anew by the vast difference between his current appearance and her memories of how he'd looked in his teens and that last time she'd seen him when he tried to talk her into reciprocating his emotions. He was the same height, but the full head of black hair had all but vanished, and what remained was graying with enthusiasm. He had gained some weight, the majority of it in the overhanging gut that made him look about six months pregnant (this thought she carefully kept to herself, feeling uncharitable for even allowing it entrance into her mind). His voice sounded the same, though, and when he spoke again she made a point of concentrating on his face. "I've done some stupid things in my day, and believe me, I know it."

She made a neutral noise, encouraging him to continue, and he did. "I spent a long time neglecting my responsibilities, especially to Myeko and Alexander and Noelle. I kind of ignored my family for years. I…uh…I've been…" His hesitation lasted so long that she thought he wasn't going to bother completing the thought, till he muttered, "Fantasizing. About you, if you want to know the ugly truth."

She had planned to ask him to sit beside her, but this last statement made her so uneasy that she decided to let him stand. He gazed across the lane with his hands shoved into the pockets of his Bermuda shorts, his face a mask of gloom and resignation, while she tried to think of some response. Unable to come up with much, she decided to ask her own big question. "Then why did you treat me the way you did, back in high school, if you really felt like that about me all this time?"

"How else was I gonna make you notice me?" Hachiro's voice was full of self-mockery, and Leslie bit her lip, still unable to understand this rationale, but figuring he wouldn't be able to explain it—at least, not to her satisfaction. Yet she persisted.

"You must have known that was just going to make me dislike you more and more," she protested. "It's pretty obvious that treating someone like dirt won't exactly sweeten their opinion of you."

Hachiro threw his hands in the air in defeat. "I was a brainless teenage boy whose hormones were dictating every move I made. That's all I know to tell you. I can't explain it. I wish I could, but I honestly don't know."

Leslie laughed, shaking her head, surprising herself as much as him. "Well, I guess it makes sense, in a bizarre way." He grinned, and for just a few seconds they shared a tentative levity, before another question occurred to her. "I've wondered for ages. What was it that drew you to me in the first place?"

"Well, I thought you looked kinda lost in that newspaper picture I saw of you, the first week you were here. I guess you could say it struck a chord with me. I, uh, I always used to feel sort of lost within my own family." He glanced at her, finally lowering himself to perch with ill ease on the edge of the fountain, leaving about five feet of space between them. "I know, it sounds really dumb. It wasn't remotely like what you went through. But see, it's the way I was raised. This whole traditional Japanese thing. My brother knew exactly what his duty was within the family, as the firstborn. My sisters knew they all had certain expectations they were supposed to live up to…"

Leslie nodded. "I know about that," she said. "Michiko explained it once to Christian and me. I never really understood about it till she told us."

"Did she?" Hachiro relaxed, shifting on the fountain's edge to face her a little more fully. "That saves me having to spell it all out, so you might understand. I got more leeway because I was neither the firstborn nor the only boy. Trouble with me is, I took too much advantage of that leeway. I went a little wild, I guess, at least for a traditionally raised Japanese boy, and I'm sure my parents didn't always know what to do with me." He sighed and looked into the water. "Now that I look back, maybe if I'd had something I had to live up to the way the others did, I wouldn't have been so careless and irresponsible."

"Mmmm," murmured Leslie. "I guess there's such a thing as too much freedom."

Hachiro nodded. "Even when you think you want it, you really don't. I was sure as all get-out that freedom was exactly what I wanted, and I was smug about it. Gave me kind of an ego, so that I thought I could get anything I wanted. Then I asked you out and you said no, and it blew my mind." He looked at her again, and she read pure bafflement in his eyes. "How come you turned me down?"

Leslie smiled and let her gaze fall onto the dirt lane, seeing in her mind's eye the day Hachiro had cornered her at her stubborn locker and asked her out. "I felt obligated," she said. "I guess, for at least the first two or three years I lived here, I felt as though I were here on sufferance. I knew Father had promised my mother he'd take care of me after she and my sisters died, but I didn't sense an especially warm welcome from him. He as much as said that if Mom's fantasy hadn't turned out the way it did, he'd have refused her request. I took it pretty personally; I felt like a nuisance that he'd suddenly gotten stuck with, and I must have subconsciously decided to try to lessen the burden on him as much as I could." She met Hachiro's fascinated gaze. "I really wanted to help Father in his business, but I thought at the same time that even that was a privilege I had to earn—which it was, because I started out as a lowly go-fer." The memories of those first few weeks flooded her mind and she let out a laugh. "Boy, let me tell you, I screwed up all over the place."

Hachiro laughed too. "No kidding, why?"

"I was under a lot of emotional stress. I'd been afraid I wouldn't make friends; your sister and the other girls put paid to that quick enough, but I still sensed a certain distance from Father, and on top of that, I was hopelessly in awe of him and a little scared of him too. Plus, of course, I missed Mom and Kristy and Kelly—my sisters. I wanted to do well in school, and I was groping academically for about two weeks or so when Father first enrolled me. I ended up playing a little catch-up because my eighth-grade class in California was a bit behind the one I joined here. So I had all that going on, plus I had almost no social skills, thanks to my birth father and his peculiarities. And I wasn't even fourteen yet and hadn't really started thinking much about boys."

Hachiro reared back a little. "Whoa." His face reddened again, though not as luridly as before. "So I guess when I barreled up to you that day and asked you out, it kind of overwhelmed you."

"You could say that," Leslie agreed, peering at him. "Why did you take it so badly when I turned you down? It was like you held a permanent grudge against me."

"That sense of entitlement." He snorted at himself. "Like you said, I had too much freedom. I loved being able to do whatever I wanted, with no restrictions. My mother's always been soft-spoken and never raised her voice at any of us, even when we were being our most aggravating. I looked at her as a pushover, and took advantage of that too. I didn't really have to do much of anything I didn't want, except for school. So when you said you were planning to spend the weekend working for Mr. Roarke and Tattoo, I couldn't believe you'd rather work than hang out at the beach. Made no sense at all to me."

Leslie grinned. "I see. Maybe I sensed that. I mean, I knew you were totally bewildered that I'd rather work than play, but like I said, I felt that I needed to start repaying Father for being willing, or at least having agreed, to take care of me. So tell me…were you responsible for the fact that I never got asked out by another guy for the rest of my days in school? Because I wasn't."

"Geez, c'mon, that's impossible. Yeah, okay, I remember complaining about what a drudge you'd turned out to be—wanting to work and not have your weekends off. I told some of my pals at the time, and they had more or less the same mindset, that working was something only losers did. But I didn't go around deliberately telling every guy in school that you didn't date." He eyed her for a moment, then said with an insight that surprised her, "I think it's because everybody knew you were Mr. Roarke's ward, and Mr. Roarke being who he is, that probably kind of intimidated them."

Leslie pondered that and smiled wryly. "Y'know, come to think of it, you might be right. That never occurred to me for some reason."

They chuckled, then fell quiet again, their questions on that front answered to their mutual satisfaction. Then Leslie, letting her thoughts trundle on, frowned a little. "So okay, we've established all that. You knew I couldn't stand you, and yet…well, from everything I've ever heard, you still wanted to be my boyfriend or something."

"I was in love with you, Leslie," Hachiro broke in, stilling her and meeting her wide eyes with a solemn self-deprecation. "And in spite of everything, including my own efforts to kill off the emotion, I still am, to at least some extent. Don't get all upset," he said quickly, raising both hands as he saw her begin to shrink involuntarily away from him. "I know you don't feel the same way and you never did. You made that more than clear that one time after I divorced Myeko." They both reddened again with the memory. "But it still didn't kill off the feeling. I really don't know why, and it'd probably take a shrink to figure it out, which I'm not interested in doing right now. But I figure we might as well call it what it is. That's why I wanted to talk to you."

"It is?" she asked blankly.

Hachiro nodded. "My wife, Lani? She jumped all over my case last Friday, when Tom—you know, Tommy Ichino—sent me home and told me flat out that I needed to devote the proper amount of time to grieving my father's death. She started digging, and the whole sordid story came out. At which point she handed me an ultimatum. I had to come here and do something about those ongoing emotions once and for all, or else I might just as well not go back to her and our kids." His gaze was solemn. "And believe me, Leslie, that scared me."

She blew out a breath. "Well, that's a good sign," she said. "It shows that Lani really means something to you, and she's not just a stand-in for me."

She watched Hachiro freeze as he turned this over, and a slow smile lit his somewhat jowly features. "Yeah," he murmured. "Yeah, that's right, isn't it?" Then he looked at her and the light in his eyes guttered. "But how can I feel like that about her and then feel the way I do about you?"

Leslie shrugged. "Lots of people love two at the same time. I'm not going to ask you about Myeko. That's just between you and her. But why do you still feel this way about me? You know I'm married, and I'm very much in love with Christian and always will be. So, knowing that, why can't you concentrate everything you have on Lani?"

Hachiro said nothing, his face blank, but Leslie could see the struggle going on in his head for the answer. Her mind began to probe again, going over what they'd already said, and his explanations for his actions in high school came back to her. That sense of entitlement, he said. Entitlement…maybe he… "I think you want me because I'd made myself unattainable," she said without thinking. "Because you caused me to hate you in high school for the way you treated me, and then I got married to Teppo and left here, and then you got engaged to Myeko…I wasn't available to you. And then I turned you down when you wanted Father to make me fall for you." She came to with a start when she heard Hachiro draw in a sharp breath beside her. He looked stricken, but she knew she couldn't stop now. "And because we're both married now, I'm still unattainable. I've always been unattainable to you in one way or another, and your feelings persist because you still want what you can't have."

He wanted to deny it; there was no mistaking the flame of indignation that exploded into life, in his eyes and in his reddening face. She watched him grapple with her words, fighting them, then gradually coming to terms with them as their truth sank in. She knew when it did; he sagged where he sat, making his gut stick out more. He wrapped his arms around it as though for protection, and sighed, "Yeah, I think you're right. The question is, how do I stop wanting what I can't have?"

Leslie shook her head. "I don't know. I would've said that distance, lack of proximity, would do the trick. Out of sight, out of mind and all that. But you've been doing that, haven't you?" It hit her then. "Omigod…th-that's why you never come back here!"

Hachiro's gaze was sad. "Yep, that's the real reason. I know how close you and Michiko are. I know she's not here all that much either, just during the summer, but that's usually when I take my vacation too, in August. I could've brought Lani and the boys here then, except…I just…I didn't want to see you, even accidentally. I was really trying to get over you, Leslie. I knew it wasn't fair to Lani, and I didn't want to lose her. I still don't. And with the way you hated me, and remembering the last time we saw each other…"

"I wouldn't have been…" Leslie began to protest, but her voice died, even as both she and Hachiro understood the truth.

"Yeah, I think you would have," he said gently. "You'd have been cold at the very least, rude at the most. You'd have put me in my place, and I'd have deserved it, even though it would've made me miserable. Not necessarily because I knew you'd never love me. I figured that out years ago, after that put-down you handed me between my divorce and your meeting Prince Christian. I think I…" He paused a moment, frowning, as if puzzling the best way to phrase it. "It's just that I…I thought I blew it so badly that I couldn't even be friends with you." She opened her mouth, and he shook his head, cutting her off before she could speak. "To be totally honest, I knew I couldn't be friends with you. You said so that time."

Leslie stared at him. "I did? When?"

"That last meeting we had. You put it in so many words, and it hit me so hard that I never forgot exactly what you said. You told me I managed to destroy whatever chance I might have had of being anything more than friends, and that even that was questionable."

"Oh." Now that he'd said it, her own words came back to her, perhaps not precisely as she'd spoken them, but she did remember saying something to that effect. She cleared her throat and looked at him with some shame. "I was really hard on you, I guess."

"You were only trying to make me face up to what I owed Myeko and Alexander and Noelle," Hachiro said, shrugging. "I just wasn't ready to pay attention at the time. All I could hear was that I screwed up so much, I didn't even get to be friends with you. So I overreacted and got off the island in one almighty hurry. I was humiliated, to be honest with you. I felt like the lowest thing that was ever born."

She grinned and offered, "But you did leave Myeko the support check before you went. I still remember how shocked she was when she found it."

"Yeah? Can't say I'm surprised. In a way it was a relief when she got remarried, since we had a proviso in our divorce decree that if she remarried, I could stop sending support. I'd met Lani by then and we both wanted a big family."

"Both of you? I guess you got what you wanted," Leslie said lightly.

"Did we ever," he agreed, rolling his eyes and making her laugh. "We'd talked about it shortly before we got married, and we agreed that we'd go for three boys and three girls. So she had Liam and Cody and Zachary, boom-boom-boom, and we expected the next one to be a girl, but we got Griffen instead. And then Tyler came after him, and we had five boys all of a sudden, on top of her two from her first marriage. I knew Noelle was feeling surrounded and I couldn't blame her when she quit coming to visit. By the time Lani got pregnant after Tyler, we were resigned to getting boy after boy after boy. She was so relieved when we found out we were having Olivia, I agreed when she begged me to stop having kids."

Leslie laughed. "Well, either Olivia will feel as surrounded as Noelle always said she did, or else she'll be the family princess, and she'll never have a date till she goes to college because her older brothers'll beat the tar out of any boy who dares to even look at her."

Hachiro laughed too. "That's about what we figured. She's already pretty spoiled and cosseted as it is. Aaron—that's Lani's oldest—got her this goofy little outfit last Christmas that said PAMPERED PRINCESS on the front. We just roared."

They let their chuckles wind down before Hachiro heaved yet another sigh and planted both palms on his thighs. "So tell me about yours."

"My kids?" Leslie said in surprise, and he nodded. "Well, you probably already know all about them, there wouldn't be much to tell."

"Not really. Oh, heck, I know you've got triplets and all, but I don't know much else. I suppose Michiko figured it wasn't my business or something."

Leslie grinned and shook her head. "She stands up for me a lot more than I think she should. Well, we have two girls, Susanna and Karina, and a boy, Tobias. They'll be three next month. Thank heavens, Karina's fully toilet-trained, and Susanna's not too far behind her. Tobias struggles with it a bit, but he's mastering it. They look much more like Christian than me, thankfully. Tobias has my eyes, but that's about it."

"Three next month?" Hachiro asked, and she nodded. "That makes them about six months older than Tyler." He pulled in a breath and studied her with some apprehension. "I, uh…I thought…" He stopped, then shook his head and looked away. "Naaah, never mind, I don't think it'd work."

"You don't think what would work?" she prompted, curious.

"You told me we'd never be friends," Hachiro said candidly. "I don't see any reason to assume things could be different."

"I…I'd…" Leslie stuttered, caught herself and stared across the lane, embarrassed. "I was too hard on you back then. We were younger and we still had a lot to learn, both you and me. And one thing I needed to learn—more than once—was how to forgive, to let bygones be bygones." She watched herself twisting her wedding and engagement rings on her finger, feeling foolish and at fault, and a lot of other things she couldn't put a name to. "You think a friendship is out of the question, and as late as this morning I'd have said the same thing…but our talk has made me see some things. I think we could be friends." The last six words came out in a slow, soft, tentative voice; she was aware of him leaning over in order to hear her better.

"Huh," she heard him say, and the derisive tone of his voice made her stare at him. "I still have more than just platonic feelings for you, you know. You sure you want to risk it?"

Leslie regarded him, realizing the derision was self-directed, and asked after a minute or two, "Do you really think we'd have been compatible as more than friends?"

"How do you mean?" he wanted to know.

"I work for my father," she reminded him. "You didn't like the idea of Myeko getting a job. How would it have been any different with me?"

"You'd have stopped working when you had kids. Isn't that what you did?"

"For about three months, yes. But then I went back. I mean, if I'd had any job other than the one I do, I probably would've remained a stay-at-home mom and been very happy about it. Camille's always been like that—I'm surprised you and she didn't hook up." She snickered when Hachiro rolled his eyes.

"Camille was always too abrasive for me. When we were little kids, she was a real tomboy, did you know that? She'd play with the girls, but she never touched a doll, and if there were boys around, she'd play with them instead. And she fought like any boy, too. Get her mad, she'd throw fists all over the place, and nobody was safe then. She was never my type." He caught her amused gaze. "What'd Prince Christian say when you decided you wanted to go back to work?"

"Oh, he knew I was going back. He understood that I really love working with Father, and that it would drive me crazy not to do it. He knew, because he loves tinkering with computers probably as much as I love helping Father grant fantasies. We were able to work things out so that I could still care for the babies as much as possible, and Father worked with us too. I was able to bring them to the main house, and we'd all sleep over in my old room during weekends. It went well."

"Special case. You're working for your father and everybody was willing to make compromises. Myeko wasn't. She wanted a full-time job with the paper, and who cared if she left her kids with strangers. That really bothered me."

"A lot of mothers want to get out of the house and have contact with other adults. They can't get all their stimulation from talking to the baby and watching scuzzy daytime talk shows and reading Murder, She Wrote novels. As much as we moms love our babies and want the best for them, we have to take care of ourselves too—or else, if we break down, then what happens to the baby?"

"Fine, but does that mean they have to work?" Hachiro demanded, frustration rising. "Lani hasn't worked since Liam was born, and that was her choice. She got her adult stimulation from seeing friends regularly, and that was plenty for her. What's wrong with it?"

"I'm sure that's a great choice for lots of mothers, especially the ones who can afford not to go back to work in the first place, and for those whose jobs were crummy affairs that they don't miss once they quit. I could have afforded to stay home with the triplets, and if I'd had any other job, like I said, I would have. I'd have quit the casino or the restaurant or a hotel-maid job if that's what I was doing, and I'd have been glad about it. But I like this job. I love this job. Other new mothers happen to like their jobs too, even if they can afford to stay home, and still others would love to quit, except they have to work to make sure their income covers their expenses. Everyone's different, Hachiro. Now I'll admit that I don't understand women who froth at the mouth to get back to their high-powered corporate careers after they've had a baby. Personally, I think it's stupid to value office politics and high-stress CEO decision-making over raising the child you elected to give birth to. But there are those women who thrive on that kind of lifestyle and go ape if they have to be out of the loop, for whatever reason."

"Yeah, yeah, I suppose so." He met her gaze in challenge. "So do you value your job more than you do your kids?"

"No," she said, ire unexpectedly rising, "I certainly do not. I love my job, but if I were forced to make a choice between my job and my children, I'd choose my children. Does that satisfy you? Not that it's any of your business."

Her glare stopped him from going any further, and they stared each other down for a long thirty seconds before Hachiro released a loud, close-mouthed sigh and crumpled in on himself in concession. "Okay, okay. I guess I see the point you were trying to make. We'd have really clashed on the job issue, wouldn't we?"

"Yup," Leslie agreed, smiling a little. "And that's just one example. Who knows how else we'd have found ourselves at odds?" She took in his stance; he had rested an elbow on one leg and had bowed his head, running his hand along its bald top. "We had too much contrary history between us, and we disagree on one major point—major enough that if we'd had a relationship, it could have inflicted some serious damage. It sure killed your marriage to Myeko. You're a little too old-fashioned for most women; you needed somebody like Lani who didn't put working as one of the highest priorities in her life."

Hachiro laughed. "I guess you got me pegged pretty good. So what you're really saying here is, give up this ridiculous daydream I've got about being more than friends with you, and settle for the olive branch you're trying to extend, and go back to Lani and appreciate her and my kids and my life more than I've been doing."

"Bingo," Leslie said, grinning. "Well put. So does that help at all?"

He regarded her seriously. "Look, I can't shut it off like a light switch. It's gonna take some time for me to completely refocus and stop having these useless feelings about you. But I've got a good start on it, and I think it'll be safe enough to bring the family to the island to see my mother and some of their other relatives who're here, and not have to worry about making a total jackass of myself if you and I happen to run into each other." They both laughed, and he arose and extended a hand. Leslie got up and shook with him. "Thanks for letting me clear the air and get my head on straight."

"Always happy to help," said Leslie. "Say hi to your mother for me, and take my greetings to Lani when you go home. I'd like to meet her sometime."

"This summer," Hachiro promised. "I'll bring the whole crowd here for a vacation, and you and Lani can get acquainted." He blew out his breath. "That is…if my mother doesn't sell the house by then. If she does, I don't know where the heck we're gonna stay, with so many of us to feed and shelter."

"Michiko didn't mention selling the house. Well, hey, there's plenty of time to discuss it. Maybe you can work something out, but you could suggest to your mother to keep the place for a while, at least long enough to let you bring everybody on vacation. I bet she'd love that. How well does she know your kids?"

"Probably not well enough, but I'm fixing that. Just wait till school lets out for the summer. My mother won't know what happened to her peace and quiet."

Leslie joined in his laugh, and again they shook hands. "I'm sure your mother'll be more than happy to give up her peace and quiet to have her grandchildren livening up the place again. Well, I gotta get home with my husband and kids. Take it easy, and see you around, huh?"

"Sure thing," he said, smiled, and then sauntered away down the lane. Leslie strolled back toward the main house, grinning when she heard Hachiro start whistling in the distance. She herself was amazed to realize how much better she felt. After all these years, who'd have thought she'd make a new friend out of an old enemy?

More to come in July…and this won't be the last you hear of Hachiro and his brood!