The drive had been incredibly quiet; the only sounds registering in her ears were those of the quiet whir of the engine and the smooth shifting of the gears. Ayumi was grateful for this silence. She found solace in it, and she knew that Jackson was extending more than just physical aid in thwarting her blind date from hell. As they turned the corner, she reflexively held herself as she looked outside her window, finding the warmth of the guard's jacket which he had draped over her shoulders a numbing consolation from the cold harrowing thoughts that plagued her.
In the driver's seat, Jackson gripped the steering wheel as they waited for the light to turn green, his eyes scanning ahead for a well-lit place where he could stop the car, get the medicine kit out of the trunk and tend to whatever he could of Ayumi's injuries. He didn't allow himself the time to look her over before getting into the car, all he could think of was getting her out of the club as fast and as far away as possible, an idea to which he thought she would agree whole-heartedly. Spotting a lone bench under a bright street lamp, he parked the car in front of it, all the while Ayumi wondering what was going on.
Unbuckling his safety belt, Jackson calmly spoke. "I'm going to get the medicine kit from the trunk, Ayumi-san."
"It's really not—"
She barely had time to utter protest, he had already gotten out of the car and to the rear of the vehicle.
"… Necessary…" she voiced dejectedly. Letting out a sigh, she eyed the digital clock on the stereo face. Forty-five after midnight. Ayumi cringed. Her parents may get the wrong idea and think that she liked the scumbag they set her up with, being out so late. She dug into her purse for her cell and dialed home.
"Hello, Mom? Listen, I ran into Nanami-chan at the restaurant, and since it would be late by the time I get home from here, I decided to just stay at her place tonight."
"No, Mom, I don't like him… not in the least bit. He was so… unpleasant…"
She inwardly laughed. That was the nicest thing she could say about her date. Her door opened and Jackson stood in the light with the kit in one hand. Ayumi didn't really want him to hear the conversation.
"Please don't, Mom… I really don't want anymore blind dates…"
Embarrassed at his abrupt intrusion, the guard stepped back and looked away, trying to listen instead to the wailing of an ambulance siren that just passed the nearby intersection.
"… I just wanted to check-in with you and Dad, I'm at Nanami-chan's, okay? So please don't worry about me, I'll see you two tomorrow, okay? All right… Love you, too, Mom. Goodnight."
Jackson waited for her to acknowledge him. "I'm sorry, Jackson-san. I didn't want my parents to worry," she petered out.
"I understand." He stepped forward and opened the car door all the way. "Let me take a look at your wrist."
"I-it's really not that bad."
"It won't hurt for me to look at it—"
"But really, I'm fine."
She held the wrist that still had his handkerchief around it to her chest so protectively that he couldn't believe her.
"Please, Ayumi-san, just a look—"
"It's okay, really!" she chirped with false gusto, even trying to smile. Jackson saw through it, pausing to look into her wavering eyes that couldn't withstand the weight of his stare.
Letting out a nervous sigh, she gave the slightest of nods and remained as still as she could, her eyes now trained on the borrowed cloth that served as a rudimentary brace for her wrist. As he crouched down in front of her, she refused to let him know how painful it was for her when he manipulated through the little knot she had tied, and she bit her lip at his frowning reaction as he held her wrist against the light, gently turning her forearm to inspect for more bruising. Was that anger she could see on his brow that radiated heat through his fingertips against her skin? She could only guess. Ayumi just wanted Jackson to finish as quickly as possible before he learns just how badly her evening turned out to be.
He could tell she was guarding, the habit of biting her lip a telltale sign of the truth. "Ayumi-san," he said, looking past her shoulder, "what's that?" Turning her head, she was completely unprepared for the move Jackson made with her wrist, a painful gasp escaping her throat as she returned her gaze at her injury. Gritting his teeth at the confirmation of ligamentous injury, he held his silence as he opened the medicine kit and took a small roll of bandage out. As he wrapped the small wrist that looked as if he could snap it like a twig, he furtively glanced up at her.
Her lower lip was back in the bit position.
"I'm sorry I tricked you like that. I had to know how bad the injury is."
As he finished placing the metal fasteners on the wrap, a splash of liquid landed on the back of his hand, forcing him to lift his gaze back at her.
"I'm really sorry… I didn't mean for it to hurt so much."
Ayumi's lips bent into an unexpected smile, her head bent down over her wrist. "No, no, I… I don't even know why my eyes are leaking…"
The guard reached his thick fingertips to her face, brushing the warm fluid across her cheek framed by a thick lock of hair. Halfway through the gesture, her face winced.
Quickly retracting his touch, Jackson's eyes widened in indignation as he gathered the lock of hair covering her cheek and tucked it behind her ear, not caring for his forwardness if it meant discovering why she was so reluctant to let him inspect her. Allowing him to tilt her head to expose her left cheek to the light, Ayumi inwardly gave up. There was no use in hiding now, her savior who was growing angrier by the second was too observant to miss painful details. Barely brushing his thumb across her cheek, Jackson could feel the swollen margins of her cheek, her left eye cringing shut as he gingerly palpated the center where the blow had been most severe. Beside himself, he let her go and quickly stood, Ayumi finding it hard to lift her gaze to meet his eyes against the lamp light.
"Where else, Ayumi-san?" his gruff voice said.
Jackson didn't wait for her to blink her tears away, raising his voice a few decibels louder, disregarding the hurt and confusion in her eyes. "Where else did he hurt you?"
"Damn it! I can't do anything if you don't tell me!" he spat out, crouching down once more and gripping her shoulders as if to shake the truth from her.
"He slapped my face and twisted my wrist when I tried to get away, and then you came," she said loudly, her voice quivering with subdued sobs.
Jackson became livid. "Why didn't you tell me before? What else are you hiding from me?"
"My foolishness!" she cried, retracting her bandaged wrist against her chest, wanting to curl into a ball and hold herself in and from the sting of the cold, from Jackson's dissecting stare and from the pain of the assault that she herself allowed to happen because she assumed her date would be somewhat of a respectable man. How bitterly wrong she was. She expected more reprimand from the guard, steeling herself for his words to mince into her. Much to her surprise, she was given the luxury of her first impulse, the guard pulled her into his hold. It was just as well; she no longer had the strength to hold herself up.
"I'm sorry for being rough… my line of work doesn't exactly require me to be easy on people… it's kind of difficult for me to be soft…"
Despite her tears, she let out a tiny chortle. She didn't know about the difficult part, but it was enough for her to know that he could be soft. Imagine that, she thought as a few more tears fell from her eyes. He wasn't much of a fairy, not in the least bit; he toted a gun instead of a wand, and he certainly looked better in a suit than a godmother's dress. Apart from the almond extract accident, he'd done nothing but help her, and that evening's act of valor earned him a medal of honor by her book; any minor act of roughness was certainly forgivable with his consistent track record. Sure, she got slapped, maybe tossed around a little. But despite it all, she was lucky that those were all that happened. She let herself sag in relief at the thought. It was over.
"Ayumi-san," he quietly addressed, his voice a low rumble to her ear against his chest. "Are you sure… he didn't do anything more to you?"
Pausing to blink, she replied. "No…" She felt his hold on her tense slightly as she pushed away to look at him. "He did… something much worse than a slap to the cheek."
Jackson steeled himself for the worst, watching with bated breath as she dropped her gaze to the buttons of his collared shirt.
"He fed me really bad food."
Inside the conference room, all airs of professionalism and scientific formality were flung aside with the dress shoes against the wall and white coats onto the backs of leather chairs. With such a complicated deadline and very little sleep, Yoshikawa and his colleagues voiced their collective thanks for the late night delivery of gourmet coffee and éclairs to the lab, Yoshi personally delivering the much-needed caffeine and sugar rush. How could the lab run out of coffee? The lab coordinator sighed inwardly as he took a sip of his espresso. He ought to pay more attention to the purchase orders on his desk. For now, there were matters more pressing. At least the coffee was good. The youngest white coat of the engineering triad got up from his seat, clearing his raspy throat for the others' attention.
"Okay… so… I took the liberty of taking the layout design from Honda-san over here, who's just a nod away from passing out, and because I am the most awake among the three of us, I will go ahead and give you the specs and wiring."
A mumble of thanks came from the two other engineers who sank into the leather chairs like jellyfish. Those who were comfortably lounged on the floor sat up to look at the flat panel wall in front of them, a three-dimensional hologram of the immersion chamber coming into view.
"We've always run the chamber with a large control panel to modulate the current, for in the past, we always had to adjust it. It's not so much a problem now. Because we can't really hang around to wait for the… event to happen, we've made it so it can be prepped for use at a set current within thirty seconds."
"The old wiring made it bulky and too complicated to hook up to the control panel, but that served us the purpose of being able to modify the gradient as needed. However, since we pretty much have a consistent current-to-substrate mix, all that's needed is to pre-wire the chamber to the voltage of choice. The voltage can be set by remote control, or over-ridden manually through a small control panel we've designed into the wall of the chamber."
Oohs and aahs.
"Now, to achieve quicker solvation of the substrate mix, we've added these little jets to mix it all in, sort of like a jacuzzi."
"Fill time for the chamber falls within twenty-five seconds of the total thirty it takes for immediate usage, and the remaining five will be for the charge to activate the substrate to optimization."
"These are all the modifications Honda-san and Nishimoto-san have made."
A round of applause.
"And these are the modifications I made to the interior of the chamber."
"I went with porcelain tops for these plastered seats because marble gives off radiation, even if it is extremely slight. I figured the most inert is the way to go."
"This side of the chamber has a flat panel screen that's substrate and waterproof, it controls every kind of media she'd like to see or hear..."
"From the local news…"
"To the internet. The same voice-activated operating system in the foyer of the main house will be installed, so no mouse needed to browse or send email. The computer is linked to the bodyguards' cell phones should any kind of emergency arise, and a data link is established with the main computers of this lab the moment the chamber is activated to be filled."
With a grin, Yoshikawa stood from his seat, walked over to the sheepish engineer and gave him a high-five. He, like everybody else in the conference room, was greatly impressed. Each person on his team not only possessed intellectual expertise in their field, they also channeled awesome ingenuity into their craft which only propelled their research by leaps and bounds. Pleased at the modifications presented, the lab coordinator took his cup of espresso and raised it to the presenters.
"To a job so remarkably done!"
Collective toasts soon followed, and despite the fatigue that settled like a cloud over the engineering team, smiles of satisfaction spread across their faces as their colleagues gave them congratulatory slaps on their backs. While they all celebrated over the new plans for the immersion chamber, Yoshikawa walked over to his courier bag and took out a thick stack of bound papers, placing them quietly on the conference table. He was going to let his team know that there was so much more work to be done, more planning for the future… but not right now. He settled contentedly into his chair, musing. Let them be happy for a few minutes more…
"Please tell me… is there something I can do… to ease this burden from you?"
"My life has been nothing but learning…"
"… It is what I do best."
The fire within Mitsui was somewhat tamed, her chaste kiss a sweet surprise to his lips, a reaction he didn't think would happen. When she withdrew, he opened his eyes to find her gazing intently at him, oceans of blue intent on engulfing his soul as she placed her palm over his heart which threatened to leap into her hand at any second.
"Your lips… taste of restraint, Mitsui-san."
Her smile took away every word he wanted to utter at that moment, helpless as he watched her look at her hand against his chest.
"I think I understand now… why you are feverish. It's because of this," she said, moving her thumb across the fabric of his shirt. "And the tingling in my fingers…" she trailed off, taking his hand and entrapping it between her cheek and palm. "This is what causes it…" He nearly let out a growl as she guided his hand on a languorous descent down her throat, clenching his jaw as he watched her eyes slide shut, the expression on her face a mixture of curiosity verging on pleasure, as if she had never felt the touch of another.
Not in this way…
The pulsing heat against his palm made his own blood hum with feral need. Mitsui was at his limits, and he was about to let all restraint go when she suddenly opened her eyes.
"Please, Reiko… I am only human..."
"I would like to know… I want to learn… how you make me feel as if… as if I have electricity running through me… will you teach me?"
"…Will you show me?"
He could've sworn he was being seduced, but he knew that was not her intention. She was all innocence, and he was the fire that would consume her. Did she know what she was asking? The cerulean glow in her eyes never lied. When was she going to learn that he could never deny her anything? His voice cracked, almost as if in pain. "I don't want you to regret anything… I love you so much that I… that I want this to be perfect for you… I want to do this right…"
She let go of his hand which remained at the crook of her neck, eyeing the scar by his chin. "Please tell me how I can help you make this right."
He took a deep breath as he held her gaze.
"Will… will you stay with me… and be mine for the rest of my life?"
"And never leave me lonely?"
He knew that he was exposing his insecurities, and it took a lot of another kind of control to repress the memories of abandonment. He had experienced what hell was like, and he never ever wanted to go through it again. He had a ring on his finger, so did she; they meant nothing without the commitment behind them. He was willing to show her just how weak he was without her, if it meant having the privilege of going home to her everyday.
"Then… will you marry me?"
"A lifetime with you for your tuition?"
Mitsui suddenly was gripped with the similar fear of rejection weeks ago, when he found the ring in his vest pocket, anxiousness sweeping over him as she continued to smile, the silence she held burrowing through him like a slow bullet as she plumbed the depths of his eyes. He was not above begging.
She answered him with a calming stroke against the scar she wished she could heal. She whispered. "When would you like to get married?"
Reiko welcomed his response, the way he clung to her was so desperate, the shooting guard embracing her just enough to let her breathe. He would hold himself off, needed to control himself, all for moral preservation. // Because she deserves that and much, much more than I can give… //
In the silent seconds that followed, she understood the happiness that she only read of in books, its meaning truly indescribable and only comprehensible once experienced. When he thought his breathing had finally recovered, Mitsui felt soft lips brush against the shell of his ear as she stirred in his embrace.
"Yes… I love you, Mitsui-san… my answer is yes."
He wordlessly hoped that she would forgive him for showing weakness, the way his eyes betrayed comfort and relief in the guise of hot, silent tears.
After spending three hours preparing the menu for his event in two weeks, Yoshi leaned back in his seat contently as he read over the list once more. With a new pastry chef in the wings, the dessert portion of dinner shouldn't be a problem, and with a few phone calls to his vendors, the job should go smoothly. It also helps when one's vendors are also close personal friends. Releasing a sigh, he put his pencil down with a grin. Now that that was finished, he got up to go to the kitchen and help with the prep for the dinner rush when the phone at the reservation desk rang. He hoped it was Jackson, he needed to know if all went smoothly with the fairy godfather business.
"Hello, this is Yoshi of—… yes, hello, dear…"
A few more moments and Jackson walked through the French doors of the restaurant, nodding at the old proprietor as he waited for him to finish his call in the foyer. Turning his head at the gasp Yoshi made, Jackson pretended not to be interested in his conversation.
"I… I… what can I say, I'm speechless!... Yes, that would be fine! I'll make the calls, consider it done!… Yes… Do they know?... Oh… Well then, you know best, I'll leave that to you! I will talk to you again very soon, dear. Call me if you need anything, all right?... I'll see you soon, goodbye!"
Jackson quirked up a brow. "Can I bother to guess that that was Nakamichi-dono?"
"Indeed." Mischief sparkled in the old proprietor's eyes, a glimmer that ominously warned the guard of scheming. "So, how'd things go?"
Jackson pursed his lips in thought before replying. "Well, I got her out of her date, if that's what you mean." He didn't want to include the unpleasant details of sleazy dates and battered pastry chefs unless he asked for them.
"Excellent! Was she happy?" he asked him expectantly, Yoshi motioning for Jackson to follow him to the bar for a drink. The guard waited for the proprietor to fill his cup with hot barley tea before replying.
"She was quite… relieved."
The smile on Yoshi grew. "I knew you were the right man for the job."
Jackson looked down at this cup before taking a sip. Indeed… As the hot liquid swirled down his throat, he recalled what happened after Ayumi's collapse, the funny face she made at his incredulous stare after being told of her vexing jaunts into culinary pseudo-delights. It was hard not to crack a grin, he was glad she was a resilient woman who could lighten up even the dourest of moods. It took him five stoplights later to realize that the mood she was trying to cool was his.
Would she rather brush off the assault and her injury to placate him? When they got to her niece's apartment and found out she wasn't home, she would've resorted staying in a hotel room just to prevent Nanami from walking away from a party and coming to open her front door for her. He refused to grant her request of being driven to a nearby hotel, when she was probably safer in Nanami's apartment and less vulnerable to other maniacs who might just want to take her out for another tasteless dinner. Rather than risking any of those possibilities, he did what any bodyguard would have done to protect his charge. He picked the door lock with a master key, pushed the door open with a little force and ushered a very shocked Ayumi into the living room, as if breaking and entering homes was as easy a skill as breathing. Noting how flimsy the deadbolt was on the door, he instructed Ayumi to apologize to her niece for him for breaking into her apartment, and that he would install a better lock system for her apartment the next day, a task which he completed before meeting with Yoshi at the restaurant. If she was to be rescued and protected, he was going to do the job properly. She was the old man's cherished pastry chef after all.
"Oh, I should let Ayumi-san know that I'll really need her in the next two weeks," said Yoshi, cleaning the wine glasses with a small hand towel. "Things got a lot more complicated in the last few minutes."
Jackson took a good look at the old man behind the bar, the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth always heralded some secret scheme that signaled for him to be mentally on his toes. "Oh? And why is that?"
A happy sigh escaped the proprietor's throat, his smile deepening. "Well, you know how it is… nixing menus that took hours planning for something much grander, making arrangements, those sorts of 'raising-the-bar' things."
"Must be for a special customer," Jackson mused before taking another sip of his tea, waiting to see if his companion would take the bait.
Replacing the wine glasses on the rack, Yoshi kept on smiling as he turned to meet the large guard's gaze. A nod was all he gave him.
Jackson returned the grin. The old man knew how to play this game.
Brushing her hair with mechanical repetition, Ayako stared blankly at the picture frame on her desk, the happy and possessive hold of Miyagi around her shoulders proudly displayed in the photograph. Who would have thought that she'd end up marrying the same guy she considered a hopeless jock in high school? The notion made her smile absently. Time had changed Miyagi into a more responsible man, someone who kept his sense of justice and knew when to give, to compromise and to take. Each time she had her doubts, he did something incredibly simple or even foolish to prove himself worth of respect and love. She stopped brushing her hair and sighed.
Miyagi had changed into a beautiful person.
And I can't help but love this man…
With the wedding in two weeks, Ayako's nerves were frazzled with gown fittings, invitations, flower and seating arrangements, dinner menus… She closed her eyes and groaned. Neither her mother nor Mrs. Miyagi was helping to calm her down, their fussing and persistent pursuit of wedding perfection drained her mentally. And if the photographer wouldn't mess up so much with the pictures, she wouldn't have been so tired from going back and forth to the studio and back to work where she had a mountain of things to do edit and transcribe. It was no surprise that no one bothered her much at the TV station, lest they incur the fire-breathing wrath of a bridezilla. She was thankful for quiet moments like these.
Until her cell phone rang.
"Oh hi! I haven't heard from you in a while!"
"Oh… I'm sorry to hear to that. I guess my plan on taking you on a guilt trip got turned on me."
"Saturday night? Let's see… other than going for a final fitting before dinner, I'm free then. What's up?"
"That sounds like a great idea! Do the other girls know?"
"Sure, I'll let the others know. Hold on, let me get a pen to write your address down—"
"O-okay, I guess picking me up is easier… so Saturday night then?"
"At seven, come hungry, got it. Wow, I'm kinda excited about this, I miss being with my girls so much! It'll be a great break from all this wedding planning."
"Don't worry, I think Ryota would like the idea of me being with so many beautiful ladies! As long as they're not men, he's a happy!"
"No, thank you! I'll call the girls right away. See you on Saturday!"
Taking a long emptying swig of an energy drink purchased from a vending machine, Miller let out a sigh before crushing and tossing the can into a nearby trash bin. Cradling his helmet against his side, he ran his glove-free hand through his hair. If that day wasn't the fullest of surprises, he didn't know what was. Not since he was in college did he get news handed down to him, one shock after the other, but those were different. This was of the pleasant kind.
Unzipping his motorcycle suit to mid-abdomen, he let the heat from his skin cool off in the evening wind, the cold breeze a calming contrast from the adrenaline-charged ride he took to get up to the peak of the hill where his motorcycle was now parked. He smirked. What a way to end this crazy day…
He wasn't prepared to have a meeting with Mitsui with the rest of the guards in the living room so early in the morning, at least not at seven in the morning. So when he asked for consent for Reiko's hand in marriage, he was nothing short of speechless with only a toothy grin to convey his assent. All the guards witnessed how sincere and serious Mitsui was, not to mention nervous, with the way he was holding his breath, and the rigid back that bent ever so politely low towards them. Miller's grinning nod gave the shooting guard some sort of relief, his approval obviously taking some weight off his back. He expected Jackson to be less than indulgent even though his permission would be unquestionably granted, but Fuji… Fuji had a field day with Mitsui.
"And what makes you think you're worthy of her, Mitsui-san? Do you know what hell we went through, what hell she went through just for you?" he spat out as he leaned back into the sofa, arms crossed as if to reject any kind of reason Mitsui would give. The other guards gaped at their colleague while Mitsui stood before him, absolutely mortified and looking as though he'd turned liquid and would splatter to the floor at any second.
"Well?" he prodded impatiently.
"I realize that she had to endure a lot in the past—"
"What, and just knowing that qualifies you to be with her?"
Mitsui was just poleaxed. "I-I just want to make her happy—"
Jackson interjected sternly. "Fuji, that's enough—"
It was then that the young guard broke into laughter. "Mitsui, I got you so good! You should've seen that horrified look on your face!" Fuji folded in laughter, hugging himself as he sank into the couch. "I'm sure the third camera caught that look… wait till I show Nakamichi-dono!"
They ended up chasing each other around the servants' house, and above the threats and jeers that came from the top of their lungs, Miller and the rest of the guards knew that Fuji was never going to let Mitsui live this down.
Where is that dolt? Miller scanned around him, trying to listen for the revving of a motorcycle engine. He and Fuji had agreed to meet up here from the house, one of the few chances they had to play with the toys that Reiko gave them. Sighing, he fished for more change from his pocket and looked at the vending machine once more. He'd better take advantage of quiet evenings like these; the next few days were going to be busy again. Miller grinned. "Not that I really mind," he muttered to himself.
Sure enough, his colleague made it to the rendezvous point, speeding towards the vending machine then abruptly stopping, fast enough that motorcycle teetered on the front wheel from the halted momentum. Miller shook his head, laughing. "You're such a show-off."
Shoving off his helmet, Fuji bared his teeth with the most rakish grin. "Hey, I learned from the best!" Catching the drink Miller vaulted at him, he was about to remove one of his gloves when both guards turned their heads at the unexpected sound of a purring engine.
"Friends of yours, Miller?"
Eyeing the driver and passenger of the vehicle, Miller quirked a brow at the sky blue and racing orange suits the riders donned, their attention caught by the inquisitive looks the young guards threw. They stopped a few parking spaces away from them, and it seemed that the two were in some sort of disagreement, for neither of them seemed to want to dismount, their helmets shaking at some unheard conversation.
Miller leaned towards Fuji. "Never seen suits that bright before." His colleague took a swig of his drink, and before Fuji could open his mouth to say something, they heard footsteps against the cobblestone path to the vending machines. Both held their tongues as they watched the rider in the orange suit unglove a hand, dig for change in one of the suit's pockets, and hurriedly deposited them into the machine. Miller knew exactly what Fuji was thinking: why did the rider still have the helmet on? Maybe he just wanted to buy one drink, leave and drink it someplace else? It made no sense to Miller, for any seasoned rider knew not to carry more than what was needed while riding.
Fuji turned to his best friend and grinned. "I bet you they're gay!" he managed to say below hearing range.
Miller frowned at him. "Stop betting your money on stupid stuff."
"Aw, come on! I still need to win that money I lost when you won that stupid race!"
"Forget it, man. That money's staying in my pocket!"
As the two men bickered, the orange suited rider flipped the visor up to glance at their direction, only to quickly shield wide eyes behind the visor. Collecting the drinks, hurried footsteps ran back to the waiting rider.
"Why did we even come here? We're gonna get busted for sure!"
"Sshh! Just drink real fast and don't look their way. I'm sure they'll leave us alone."
"… I'm too nervous to drink this now!"
"It's only tea, not beer! Come on, you don't even have to drink all of it. Weren't you the one who wanted a drink?"
"Yeah, but now I'm really creeped out, because if those guys find out who we are—"
"They won't. Besides, they don't even know who we are!"
"Yes, they do."
Taking off the matching blue helmet, swan-like neck craned and eyes strained to discern the identity of the preoccupied men who had the other rider on edge.
Turning her head quickly to her friend, she blinked at the unbelievable odds that out of all the people they could possibly run into, it had to be them, here of all places, and in their riding suits of all garments!
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?!"
"Wha-, hey, I tried telling you earlier, but you insisted that I go get the drinks!"
"How am I supposed to see their faces under that dim lamplight?" The helmet was replaced back on her head.
"No wonder you didn't take your helmet off… Take your last sip, we have to go."
"You mean, my first and last sip."
Miller paused his little squabble with Fuji when he saw the orange-clad rider's helmet come off, eyes widening at the sight of luminescent locks of hair tumbling down the rider's shoulders. Miller sensed that something was amiss when he noticed the cryptic posture the two riders held, the orange suit never turning to reveal even a profile for him to see. Fuji noticed something entirely different in the form of two shiny coins that reflected dully under the lamplight on the cobblestone pavement.
"Hey, he dropped his change."
By the time the orange rider had secured the helmet, Fuji was already by their motorcycle, Miller noting the near tense reaction of the driver. Fuji was too stealthy for his own good.
"Hey man, you dropped your change back there."
The second that was spent looking at him in shock felt like an eternity, praying that the visor was dim enough to conceal stunned eyes. "K-keep it," was the shaky reply. A craning neck at the other rider made it seem like the driver was strung tight as a bow. "Hurry up and get on!"
Fuji may not have the hawk-like powers of observation that Miller possessed, but his ears never forgot a sound made by any object or person. Provided, of course, that the guard was well-rested and awake. Peering into the visor of the driver, he squinted. "Hey, do I know you?"
Answered only by eyes large as headlights, the driver started and revved the engine once the passenger was seated. Fuji wanted an answer. "Hey, wait a minute," he said, grabbing the driver's wrist, to which the reaction was a startling retraction, almost as if his touch burned, the eyes that looked at him holding inexplicable anxiety. The back tire burned a rubbery streak as they turned the vehicle and sped off, prompting Fuji to step back and run to his motorcycle. Miller was at a loss for words.
"Nope, definitely not gay," he said loudly as he put on his gloves and grabbed for his helmet.
"What are you talking about?" his colleague demanded as he mimicked Fuji's actions.
Starting his engine, Fuji balanced the motorcycle off its stand. "I'm willing to bet," his muffled voice said, "that those two know us more than they want us to recognize who they are."
Groaning, Miller keyed his engine to life. "I suppose I'll let myself get roped in. Again. Tell me why we're going to tail them."
"Because, even when muffled, I could never mistake Sayuri's voice."
Miller was taken aback, knowing very well that whenever her name was involved, Fuji's concentration never wavered to hone in on her. Gritting his teeth, he followed Fuji's motorcycle out the parking lot, eventually taking the lead and speeding through the straightaways, deftly hugging the turns in an effort to gain on those who gave chase. As he pulled away from Fuji, he grinned at the thought of an almost cosmic law regarding Sayuri: wherever mischief and Sayuri were, the person practically joined to her at the hip would also be there.
If there was one thing that Miller disliked, it was being left in the dark without answers or explanations, and if Miki really was Sayuri's orange clad passenger, he wanted to know why they hid their identities and fled from them like criminals. As he flew through another turn, he crouched like a tiger that was ready to pounce through the clearing of traffic, their prey's suits clearly visible at the approaching intersection. A wicked smile spread hidden behind his helmet, his eyes alight with determination.
Miller would have his own field day after all.
Letting their wives migrate into the living room, the pair of coaches cleared the dining table of used dishes and cutlery, the ladies giggling and teasing them with winks and flying kisses. Miwa rolled his eyes before giving his wife a secret grin, while Sato played along and blew kiss right back. Once a week, the couples would have dinner together, alternating between their houses, and it was decided early on that the men cleaned up after the women. Neither coach could object.
"So which dirty deed do you want?" Miwa asked, bringing the stack of dirty plates to the counter.
"How about I wash, you rinse and dry?"
Sighing as he poured liquid soap onto a sponge, Sato smirked. "So guess who called me the other day?"
Miwa grinned before replying. "The stork who mistakenly brought tidings of a new baby to my doorstep instead of yours?"
"Aw, come on! You're beginning to sound like you don't want that little one growing in the oven right now."
"Hey, don't get me wrong, I think it's great! I just wish I could predict what kind of food she's going to be craving at two in the morning…"
Sato could only laugh.
"Anyway, I give up. Who called you?"
The volleyball coach carefully handed him the steak knives. "The most celebrated shooting guard of your coaching career."
Miwa was pleasantly surprised. "Really? What's the occasion?"
"He said he and the boys were trying to get some sort of get-together… I'm surprised you didn't get the same phone call."
"I probably did, I just haven't checked the answering machine since I'm too busy trying to catch up on the sleep I lose every time I do one of my late-night trips to the grocery store."
"Well, make sure you check, 'cause I don't want to be the only old goat going."
"Old? Sato, we're far from old. You're what, thirty-five?"
"I guess not too old to make babies!"
Sato triumphed in seeing his friend flustered to the roots of his hair as he rinsed the next plate he was handed.
"Well, whatever… anyway, when's it supposed to be?"
"This coming weekend."
A bout of silence passed between them until the last of the dishes were rinsed and put up. Leaning against the counter, Miwa looked outside the window. "Man, I can't believe years have passed since Mitsui-kun played for me…"
"You're telling me," Sato answered, tossing his buddy a hand towel. "Talent as rare as comets will never again grace my team such as his girlfriend had."
"Theatrics don't suit you, Sato," the basketball coach laughed. "But you're definitely right about Reiko-chan… hey, whatever happened to her?"
"I don't know… I lost touch with them awhile back."
"Well, I'm sure we'll get caught up this weekend."
"So you're going?"
"Why not? By the time I get back, my wife will want more hot sauce to go with the cheesecake I have to buy at one in the morning."
Sato almost pitied his friend. "Wait, I thought you said two in the morning."
"You heard right. One in the morning is for appetizers. Two in the morning is the main course."
"I'd hate to ask what's for dessert."
Miwa pushed off the counter and headed to the living room, Sato trailing behind him. Glancing at his wife, Sato caught the wink she shot him. He was about to say something funny when he turned his head to Miwa, the basketball coach's gaze resting lovingly on his wife, her abdomen barely showing signs of her pregnancy. A pat to his shoulder jolted him from his stare.
"Man, keep that up and she'll be pregnant every year."
Miwa was embarrassed yet again. Score one more for Sato.
"Hey, guess what?"
"I got invited to a party this weekend."
"Oh. Who invited you?"
She could tell from the moment she had said the word 'party' that he was a bit saddened by the possibility that she would choose the party over the plans they made for that weekend several weeks ago. She sighed and ran her fingers over his buzz-cut hair.
"Have a little faith in me, silly. Of course I am not going to go."
She smiled faintly at the crinkling of the corners of his eyes as he grinned in relief, holding her even closer against his chest. She understood his possessiveness well, and it never fully manifested itself until he held her in his arms, away from the world, all to himself. It wasn't because he didn't trust her that he had this insecurity of being chosen over something else. She knew that he loved her so much that the gentle yet firm way he held her against him was his unspoken plea for comfort he sought in her time and again. Because of grueling basketball practices, schoolwork and upcoming tournaments, quiet moments between them like these were becoming fewer and farther in between. She heard him sigh once more and she lifted her head at him.
"I feel a little bad for monopolizing you away from your friends… I know you want to spend time with them, too."
This was true, too. The last time she had gotten together with her girlfriends, they were all dressed like goddesses and paraded before a sea of tuxedos. It was all so fun, the playful deception of the auction and the results of the party afterwards, especially the flustered face of her boyfriend whose face matched the flaming sheen of his hair. He never once left her side that evening, mumbling something about wolves and meat hooks. Even if they did see each other everyday, whether it be on the court or him walking her to classes, indulging him with kisses and hugs was a reward in itself that both of them longed for at the end of the day. That was, of course, if they could find the time.
"I got a few calls from the guys myself."
"Some kind of get-together. An old school reunion, Miyagi said. I dunno."
"Don't you want to go? You haven't seen them in a while."
He bent his head to kiss her lips. When he relinquished them for air, she found his eyes locked intensely on hers. That was his reply.
"All Haruko and no friends makes Hanamichi an unsociable boy."
It was always cute whenever he pouted.
"How about just making an appearance? After all, practice on Saturday will be done by two. Then you should be done with your homework by six…"
He cringed at the 'homework' part. If his girlfriend was anything, she was a slave driver when it came to getting schoolwork done. She was the only reason he was passing school. Even doing well.
"… So if you just show up for an hour or two, every one will be happy to see you, and you'll have the rest of the evening and Sunday to do as you well please."
"Are you sure you don't mind me hanging out with the guys?"
She smiled and shook her head. "I'll go have fun with the girls until you call me." She watched him slip in a thoughtful gaze and reassured him with a kiss on his nose. "Remember, the team is off on Sunday." She nuzzled the crook of his neck like a cat getting comfortable on its master's lap, and whispered. "That's a whole day…"
His eyes glazed. "Of you and me?"
She nodded contentedly against his shoulder, slipping slowly into drowsiness. "Of you and me…" Why did he have to feel so comfortable? She knew muscles were supposed to be hard, but whenever she found herself in this position, his musculature served as cushion that somehow yielded to her touch. "… And whatever Prince Hanamichi wishes to do," she added hazily.
He choked a groan from escaping his throat and closed his eyes, holding her a little tighter at the sinful thought of tasting the skin of her clavicles. He was hopeless; he was a young, healthy man with the whole world in his arms. Was it unnatural for him to hunger for her? But as sweet as she was, he only let himself get as far as she would let him, and she allowed him enough caresses to tide him over. He would do right by her, but he knew that until he could do that, she would always be a self-renewing feast of sumptuous delight and he a starving man restrained at the arms with only the scent of her skin and the kisses she would drop him like crumbs to remind him of what she truly was in his life.
He shifted as she drowsily released the arm entrapped between her and his chest to wrap around him, his hand absently reaching for the base of her spine and stroking it lightly, his mind deep in thought, of the woman in his arms, of the future he wanted, and of the things he would do to attain it.
"Okay, lift on the count of three. One, two—"
Yoshi could only thank God that Mitsui and the younger guards showed up when they did to help out with the catering crew. The old proprietor's mind spun with lists of things to do, and setbacks like being short on hands added more grey to his hair. He thanked the younger men before going back into the kitchen where culinary masterpieces waited to be created by his hand. Heading over to the spice rack, he took out several bottles and small glass bowls. Eyeballing measurements, he sighed as he mixed them with a spoon, a smile ghosting his lips. It had been ages since he got himself this fired up; with every one else involved giving the utmost of their craft, he knew he could give no less than his finest. Tickling the sense of taste was his forté after all.
Outside, three men were laughing.
"You've got to be kidding me!"
Two heads shook in laughter.
"So what'd you do?"
"We caught up to them—"
"And had them cornered—"
"But they sure could move fast!"
"Yeah, they disappeared into this café—"
Mitsui was beyond surprised. "You guys make this sound like a James Bond movie!"
"Why were they running to begin with?"
"No one knows about their two-wheeled guilty pleasure, not even their closest friends, and I guess it goes without saying to keep this on the down-low."
"So guess what this Double O Seven does?"
"Aw, come on, Fuji, don't—"
"He finds Miki-san in that crowded café, trying to shed her suit off—"
Mitsui was still shocked. Miller was very red.
"But before she could do that, he picks her up and throws her over his shoulder—"
"Not even caring how she's screaming her protests—"
"Oh God…" Miller swiped a hand over his face.
"What, now you're suddenly embarrassed that you caged her between you and the bike and kissed her senseless?"
Mitsui's jaw slackened in awe. Miller was often the more reserved of the younger guards, and to hear him carry Miki around like a caveman was so totally unexpected.
"Damn it, Fuji, why are you always embarrassing me?! It's not like you didn't catch up to Sayuri-san either!"
"Yeah, I did, but she knew escape was moot the moment I caught her hand. And besides, we were too busy watching your performance with Miki on the sidewalk."
Mitsui was now laughing. "And what did you do with Sayuri-chan?"
Fuji grinned wickedly. "Since Mr. Smooth over here already took the Neanderthal route in getting the girl, I had to do something less dramatic."
"And what would that be?"
"Kiss now, ask questions later."
The shooting guard let himself laugh out loud and hard, to the point of clutching his abdomen as he watched Miller swat his colleague with a table leg that he had somehow unscrewed off during Fuji's tirade, and Fuji somehow narrowly avoiding the makeshift weapon as he ran away from Miller. Mitsui wasn't worried; if Fuji was quick to fire incriminating words, he was just as quick on his feet when pursued.
Looking around them in confused awe, Akagi and Miyagi were careful to avoid the crews of delivery men busily carting fresh produce and meat products up and down the inclined walkway at the side entrance of the restaurant. It took them a while to get to the French doors of the front entrance, there were so many trucks that blocked the driveway and people milling about like busy ants. Finally arriving at the foyer, they wondered why the reservation desk was empty.
"Where'd everybody go?" Miyagi asked, looking through the vast emptiness of the dining room.
"Let's go check the kitchen."
Following Akagi, the point guard briefly allowed memories of his anniversary dinner with Ayako wash over him as they approached the piano bar. He grinned as he swung his gaze to the private banquet hall, remembering how happy Ayako was that he liked his surprise, and how he nearly cried at the fact that someone like him could have someone like her in his life. Miyagi shook his head faintly, trying not to turn into a pile of mush at the thought that he would be marrying the same woman next week.
"Oh God, please don't tell me you're thinking dirty thoughts again."
Miyagi shot the towering center a scandalized look. "What the hell makes you think that?"
"Man, every time you get that look on you and you're shaking your head, you're always thinking about her, and when you're thinking about her, it can't be pure," Akagi deadpanned.
The kitchen doors swung open the moment Miyagi's fist connected with Akagi's shoulder, the force enough to make the center wince and leave a nice bruise the next day. Ayumi's eyes grew wide at the scene, and she was ready to break them up.
"Boys, don't fight!" she said, stepping forward to force them apart. "It's too early to be brawling!"
Akagi did her the favor of side-stepping away from his irritated teammate, but not before landing a quick swat upside Miyagi's head. "Don't worry, Ayumi-san, we're not brawling." He ignored the glare Miyagi shot him. "Anyway, I brought that thing you requested."
"Thank you so much, Akagi-kun! You've saved dessert! I didn't think Nanami-chan would send it express, you're wonderful!"
Akagi smiled. "I'll get it out of the car. Where do you want it?"
"Oh, just give Takumi-kun the keys, let them take that monstrosity out. Thank you so much for doing this for me, I really appreciate it!"
She motioned for them to follow her into the kitchen, the athletes eyeing their surroundings with interest. Finding Takumi, Akagi gave him the keys and waiter left the kitchen.
"What is that thing, anyway?"
She laughed as she took out two saucers and teacups from the cupboard above the prep area. "It's an industrial-sized chocolate grater."
"What?" they chorused.
Sliding two pieces of cake onto dessert plates, she smiled. "The one they had broke this morning, and we have about five more pounds of chocolate to grate." Grabbing two forks, she handed them to both athletes and placed their treats in front of them. "Please try this, I've been having second thoughts on how it tastes. I think my taste buds have become desensitized to the flavor, so let me know what you think."
As they quietly dug into the desserts, Ayumi took a thermos by the sink and poured them some dark brew that permeated the air around them with a foreign exotic aroma. "Here you go," she said with a grin.
Mumbling thanks, Miyagi took a sip of his drink and was instantly addicted. "Wow, what is this, Ayumi-san?"
She tapped her index finger against puckered lips. "Sshhh, that's a secret weapon."
Only nodding, Akagi was too busy taking sips from his cup to compliment.
"Well, the cake is definitely delicious. But this," the point guard tapped his teacup, "this is crazy good!"
She was pleased with his reaction. "Glad you like it, Miyagi-kun!"
"Can I have seconds?"
She paused in thought.
"… I'm sorry, Miyagi-kun. You're only supposed to have just one, otherwise…"
Miyagi gave her a weird look. "Otherwise what?"
The kitchen doors swung and the proprietor strolled in, quickly seeing the thermos in front of Ayumi, mouth suddenly gaping when the old man trained his gaze back on her. "Ayumi-san, you didn't!"
Before she could answer either of them, the wait staff along with some deliverymen barged through the service doors, bringing with them the noise of an open market.
"Yoshi-san, the lamb meat you ordered is here! I need you to sign—"
"Watch the eggs, Akira, you'll break 'em all!"
"Hey, wait a minute, I ordered eighteen of these, where's the rest of—"
"Where do you want this, Ayumi-san?"
And on they went, filling the kitchen with bodies and deliveries and noise that the two athletes stood from their seats and edged their way to the walls, trying not to get in the way of people carting vegetables and ingredients to and fro. Amidst the noise, Akagi heard his girlfriend's aunt over the milling chatter around them.
"Thank you so much again, Akagi-kun, Miyagi-kun! I promise I'll give you more on your wedding day!"
With that, they finally made their way out of the kitchen, looking dismissed. Walking out of the front doors and through the parking lot, they found the keys Akagi had given earlier to one of the waiters in the ignition. Getting in, they stared wordlessly at the chaos of delivery trucks before them.
Finally, Miyagi broke the silence.
"… She never did answer my question."
Akagi only grunted.
Another moment passed, and Miyagi's eyes bulged out of their sockets and looked at the time on the dashboard.
"Ah shit, we're late, Gori!"
Quickly strapping themselves in their seats, Akagi drove off and headed into town, cursing softly after glancing at the clock.
Neither of them wanted to disappoint.
Years ago, the friends had quietly promised themselves, tens, perhaps a hundred times, that if ever Mitsui, or any one of them for that matter, needed any kind of favor, help or support, they would give it in a heartbeat. Miyagi once questioned Akagi when it was that all of them had gotten to be close friends, or how that phenomenon even came to be. For the center, it was really very simple. Being teammates had no requirement of being friends; no rulebook had it printed in black and white. But with time came familiarity, and familiarity an awareness of one's motivation. The time they spent practicing and playing with each other had evolved that awareness into respect and understanding, rising to a new level with each year that passed.
So when they had witnessed the devastation that was Mitsui a few years back, they stood quietly behind him during that memorial service, with the blackness of the shooting guard's suit and the vacuous stare in his eyes the only proof of his existence, and their imaginations could not fathom the despair he endured. At one point, they even wished for that which Mitsui warred with to be tangible, because beating and kicking someone senseless would have been a more perceptible, gratifying way to show that they had each others' backs. But depression was something one couldn't physically shake off with a grab of the shoulders; it was more complicated than that. And now that their teammate and friend was above and beyond that state, they would only propel him forward and fuel him further away from it. It was why Sakuragi was so intent on helping Mitsui to find Reiko again, and why Akagi, Miyagi, and even Rukawa dialed their fingers to the bone and ran around town to find him.
"Miyagi," the center addressed as he turned at the intersection. "Do you remember when Mitsui called you about this?"
His companion nodded absently. "Yeah, why?"
"Did he sound a little… weird to you?"
Miyagi blinked at the idea.
"… Come to think of it, he did sound a little insistent."
Reaching their destination, Akagi parked his car in front of the rendezvous point. After getting out of the car, they were greeted by a very relieved Mitsui, and not far behind him trailed Nakamichi Reiko's senior bodyguards, all three exchanging handshakes and greetings. Looking past them, Miyagi found himself staring at a very familiar sign outside the limestone establishment, which raised all the hairs behind his neck in suspicion; if Gori was already suspicious, then Miyagi's instincts were screaming 'Def-Con Five' at Mitsui's sincere grin.
Miyagi's mind reeled at the possible schemes that were plotted against him. This happened to him before. After all, he was getting married next week, and if this was supposed to be some out-of-the-blue bachelor party, he wanted to know what he was getting into. Hell, maybe even Akagi was playing devil's advocate and was in on the whole thing, whatever it was.
As they entered the foyer of the building, the suddenly skittish point guard prayed that it would be nothing that Ayako would be upset over.
Because he might just forget the pact that he made with himself to protect his friends on that rainy memorial service and inflict much bodily harm.
And if she ever found out, his bride-to-be might just exact the same justice on him.
They were all giggling with girlish delight as they filled the limousine with excited chatter, chugging glasses of champagne and nibbling on strawberries. Much to their amusement, it was suggested that they have a 'silk petal party', and all of them would have to wear silk dresses from a dress rack that was wheeled before them. Each dress was styled differently but of the same fabric and hue of silk, a simple yet deceivingly ornate motif woven tastefully into the fashion of each dress.
"It's like being gorgeous flowers belonging to the same Goddess family!" Kaname's voice out loud when they had all emerged from the dressing rooms and examined themselves in front of the full-length mirrors. They would've all said more if it wasn't for the eager stylists that emerged from out of nowhere to usher them into the next room, and all of a sudden they were being primped and sculpted into living works of art, with a very satisfied foreign man of small stature voicing what they assumed words of approval as he inspected each and every one of them. He gently tugged on a sleeve here, smoothed out an imagined crease there, sweeping his gaze over each dressed doll from head to toe.
The stylists all laughed when he started spouting words they couldn't understand, so excitedly with the clapping of his hands that they misunderstood the praise he showered all of them by joining him in applause.
The ladies were all given light cashmere shawls that matched the color motif of their dresses to protect them from the chill of the evening wind.
"Gosh, Reiko-san is sooo crazy!" Ayako said with a laugh. "Only she would think of something like this!"
"Yeah, but this is out-of-control ballin'! We look like movie stars! Was it like this when you had your anniversary, Ayako-chan?"
She nodded dreamily. "God, she was like my fairy godmother, she gave me a dream-come-true that I would've never thought of my wildest dreams!"
"Wow, are these houses? They look like palaces!" Miki crooned, careful not to plaster her face against the window.
"Wait a minute," glinted Sayuri suspiciously. "This isn't just a get-together like she's letting us on to!"
"I mean, think about it… out of the blue, she gets us all together, dolled up for some sort of 'themed' party… and what could the occasion be?"
It took a few seconds before Miki's eyes grew wide as headlights at Sayuri.
Ayako was still confused. "What?"
"What's happening next week, Ayako-chan?"
All eyes were on her.
"… My wedding?"
"It can't be!"
Nanami sat back in her seat with a grin on her face. "She got you again, Ayako-chan. She's throwing you a bachelorette party."
The driver of the limousine jumped slightly at the shrieks of excitement that erupted from behind the dividing glass. He thanked God that they had reached their destination, for he wasn't sure if his ears could handle more feminine eruptions of glee, no matter how beautiful the women were.
"Thanks for your time, I know how busy it is for you, but what I have to say is of paramount importance."
"Not a prob. So, what can I do for you, Yoshikawa-san?"
Clearing of throat.
"Um, yes… This is…"
"I mean, what I meant to say is… first of all, congratulations."
A grateful grin.
"And… I need to talk to you about…"
"… After your wedding…"
"Okay… you mean the reception?"
"… I mean, after that, when all the guests have gone home…"
"Why the hell did I agree to this again?"
"Because it's a present for you, dummy, so try to act grateful."
"You've been awfully slack about this, Gori. God only knows what you guys are going to spring on me!"
"What the hell are you talking about? I have no clue what's going on in Mitsui's noggin', so don't act like I know what's going on."
"Aren't you the least suspicious? I mean, what's with this get-up?"
"Would you please calm the fuck down? Think about it. If he wanted something nasty to happen, we wouldn't be in these suits. Hell, we'd be in the seediest strip joint in the shadiest part of town if that was what he had in mind!"
"…Yeah, I guess you make sense… but that still doesn't explain why we're in Swanktown Central. I mean, look around you! This ain't the jungles of Kanagawa anymore, Gori! I know Mitchy makes some good dough, but damn, can he afford to rent out this place? And there's something else…"
"… I can't seem to stop thinking about Aya-chan…"
"That's old news, Miyagi."
"… No… no, I mean, yeah, she's always on my mind, but… ever since this afternoon, all I could think of is Aya-chan."
The bulky center held his tongue as he and Miyagi walked towards the rest of the men clad in the same attire. Of all the things that came out of the point guard's mouth, it was this that struck a deep nerve. He knew exactly what he was talking about, because no matter what he looked at or did to distract himself, he couldn't stop thinking of his girlfriend. All that time they were given their suits, he replayed the events earlier that day over and over in his head, and all he could think of was that cake Ayumi fed them, interspersed generously with torrid thoughts of Nanami that left him wiping sweat off his forehead.
The chocolate grater…
"Akagi-kun, looking sharp, man!"
Grins and acknowledgments.
"Shit, we look so friggin' fancy!"
"Check it out, it's Coach Miwa!"
Cat calls and whistles.
"Whoa, and here comes his date!"
"You're only supposed to have one…"
"What the hell?! Coach Sato!"
Akagi practically wrenched Miyagi away from Coach Miwa in the middle of their handshake. "Sorry, Coach, excuse us for a bit." The point guard never had the chance to protest.
"Miyagi, remember what we ate earlier?" the center said, glancing warily around them.
"What the hell?… Uh, yeah, the cake Ayumi-san gave us."
"Do you remember the tea she gave us?"
Miyagi didn't like the panic in his friend's eyes. "Yeah, what about it?"
"Do you think there might've been something in it that's making us flip out?"
"Oh shit, you feel it, too?"
"Damn it, I can't even think straight!" The towering center wiped the cold sweat from his brow. I want to see Nanami so bad…
"Why didn't you say something earlier?" Miyagi said as he began to pace around.
"Do you think it would've helped any if I did? You do enough whining for a whole freakin' zip code!" Akagi knew he was losing his cool, but he knew better than to lose it in front of his friends. Taking a deep, purging breath, he exhaled and dug in his pocket for his cell phone, scrolling the directory for the person's number who can tell them why their brains were clamoring for their girlfriends.
She was sought out in the expanse of the living room and was led to a room with oak double doors. After quiet introduction, she was ushered in and her eyes wandered around the vastness of the bedroom.
"Thank you so much for coming."
"What are you talking about? Thank you so much for having us! This place is so extravagant, and gigantic!"
"I take it you were treated well at Antonio's shop?"
"Sweetie, we wouldn't look like this if we weren't! So wait a minute, what about you? I was a little worried when you told me you had to go ahead without us. Everything okay?"
"I had to make sure a few more things were ready."
"Is there something you're supposed to be telling me?"
A tilt of the head.
"A-ha! So you were scheming all this time, I knew it!"
She shot her friend a triumphant little grin and watched as her eyes glanced down parquet. When she caught her gaze once more, she knew she hid so much more.
"… May I confide something with you?"
"Of course, anything…"
"And if I may… I would like to ask for your understanding… and pardon, in advance."
She narrowed her eyes playfully at her. "You'd better spill, missy."
They were getting impatient. Sakuragi couldn't stop glancing at his watch, Miyagi was close to making a trench with all the pacing he did, and Akagi's teeth were nearly worn down from all the ice he ground in his mouth. Mitsui had told them that the entertainment would be out in a minute or two, and that was enough to string out a little more fortitude. He went through so much trouble after all.
Rukawa was the first to leave the servants' quarters and go to the lawn where they were directed, all of them surprised at the outdoor décor and the lights that gave the tented pavilion on the lawn an ethereal glow. Kogure nearly ran into Rukawa's back as he idly stood to look at their surroundings, his eyes blinking behind his glasses as he regarded the lavish setup before them. Under the pavilion was a line of tables with champagne flutes and buckets of what looked like champagne on ice. It was odd that no one else was around, and they were all very surprised to be led into the adjacent mansion across the lawn. They supposed the party on the lawn would be a later venue.
It was expected that a group of more than twenty men would make a lot of noise as they followed an old man in the same dress suit as theirs, the whole lot too preoccupied at the enormity of the establishment they were in. The twenty-foot ceilings only amplified their voiced wonderment, their noise suddenly becoming echoes of voices and footsteps as they suddenly stood speechless at the sight of lovely ladies dressed in heavenly robes of floral silk, the men's eyes peeled wide.
A few seconds after eye contact, there was a clash of dark suits against a field of fragrant feminine flora that made Yoshi blink at the imagery, like the clashing of dark and light waves, a moment worth catching on film. Questions filled the room, pleasant sighs and smiles swirled around.
Not until he was given the signal did Yoshi announce the crowd to follow him through the front door. Both parties were confused. It seemed like they were going through doors that led to grander and grander rooms, and now they were leaving through the entrance?
They were led through a lush solarium which was lit beautifully with paper lanterns of floral hues, flowers seeming to bloom despite the cool season.
"They're the same as our dresses!" Haruko remarked as she beamed at Sakuragi. He could only grin back.
After being led through the maze of greenery, the ladies were thrilled at the spectacular décor in front of them, making the men look at each other in puzzlement.
"Wait a minute, didn't you see this already?" asked Miyagi, who in Ayako's opinion, seemed to be abnormally glued to her side the entire time since they all saw each other in the living room. Not once did he break contact between them, and his touch had a little more grip against her skin, as if he had no intention of letting go. She tried not to dwell on it, instead letting a small smile grace her face, the lights of the scenery glowing in her eyes.
"I've been getting news all day, and this… this is definitely news to me."
"Ladies and gentlemen, if you would please follow me," requested the former butler.
They did as they were told, shrugging as they made their way to the laid-down parquet of the pavilion. Their heads turned to the music that came from a balcony overlooking the lawn, the tremulous melody of violin strings piercing the night air, and all were spellbound. Knowing there was something more than met her eye, Ayako chanced to look towards the servants' quarters. All of a sudden, water began to leak from her eyes.
"… Aya-chan? What's wrong?"
Miyagi wanted to pry more about her tears, and immediately followed her gaze.
Every one who saw marveled, the men gaping at their host who gazed at them gratefully, a man of the cloth to one side, Mitsui's family, and four familiar bodyguards waiting in the wings. The moment the white of her dress came into view, the rest of the silken beauties released whimpers of surprise and joined Ayako in the waterworks.
He found her seated fast asleep, head pillowed against her forearms on one of the prep tables in the kitchen. He moved to wake her but hesitated, his eyes lingering on her flour-streaked cheek and the childlike serenity of her sleeping face. With the old proprietor taking care of loose ends at the Nakamichi estate, Ayumi had to hold down the fort at the restaurant, and with the elaborate designs and meticulous décor of the cake and pastries, it was no wonder she was tired. Jackson frowned at the bandage that was coming undone at her wrist. Glancing around, he found three notes left beside her sleeping head, all congratulating her on a job well done and thanking her for working so hard. Yoshi's kitchen crew and wait staff have been working for him for years, and to compliment her spoke volumes of her work ethic. The old man was lucky to find someone so dedicated to her craft. With one wedding down and one more to go, she would need her strength and sleep if she's to give thrice the effort she doled out today. It was time to take the pastry chef home.
"Ayumi-san," he cooed, placing his thick hand against her shoulder.
"Hm?" She blinked drowsily before turning her head to the rousing voice, disoriented. "What time is it?"
"It's late, I'm going to drive you home."
Her face crumpled sleepily at his words. "Home is an hour away… here is comfy."
He nearly let out a laugh. "You're going to need a chiropractor in the morning if you keep sleeping like that."
"… Can you schedule the appointment then?"
"Come on, I'll take you home."
"…Just how late is it?"
"A quarter past one."
For a moment he thought she fell back asleep, but then she slowly sat up straight and blinked a few times.
Left wrist favored.
"I need to call Nanami-chan… her place is a little closer than mine… and it's too late to go home…"
"I have her number, would you like me to call her ahead for you?" he said, taking out his cell phone. Glancing once again at her as he scrolled the directory for her niece's number, he found her nodding back to sleep. "Ayumi-san?"
"… Jackson-san… please… just let me stay here… Cinderella doesn't mind working hard…"
"You really want to sleep in the kitchen?"
"… Why're you so nice to me…"
"… Best-dressed godfather…"
Jackson's smile flattened to a thoughtful line as he stepped forward to peer into her face. She was so out of it, she barely felt the brush of his handkerchief against her cheek, wiping away the evidence of her efforts. He watched her sleep for a while, silently thinking of how he was going to pick her up without waking her. Either way, he wasn't going to let her sleep in the kitchen.
Snaking his hand just below the hollow of her throat, he pulled her gently up until her head was up and resting against his hard abdomen. Supporting her back with one arm, he hooked the other under her legs and lifted her up from her seat, leaning back a bit to let her head lull against his chest with only a whimper for protest. He sighed as he looked down on her, frowning once more at her wrist which she cradled protectively even in her sleep. Once he had her secured in the car, he went back inside to grab something to drink and locked up the restaurant. He tried calling Nanami's number, but no one answered, and after he had installed that new lock system in her apartment, breaking in would be much more difficult. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, he called Sakai's cell phone instead.
"It's me… listen, I don't know if I'll be back at the house tonight… no, I'm not in trouble, I just have to get Ayumi-san to bed— no no, it's not like that, I meant I have to take her home… I feel bad, she told me to just let her sleep in the kitchen, she's so far gone and I don't know where to take her… huh?... Hey, why didn't I think of that, it would cut travel time in half… Could you disarm the alarms for me?... thanks, Sakai… yes, but if I leave her there, she's going to be startled if she finds herself alone in a strange house… I know, I know, like I said, it's not like that, all right? Thanks again, I'll see you tomorrow."
He opened the driver's side door and got in, closing the door quietly before turning on the engine. Taking one more look at his new charge, he drove off to her accommodations for the night.
Mitsui was afraid to blink.
"I… I can't believe this is happening."
He could only stare at her, sitting at the edge of the bed, still in her gown, looking down at the ring on her finger. She finally looked up at him with coy eyes, and from the way her shoulders rose to take a deep breath, he knew she was nervous.
Good God, so am I…
He walked to where she was, never taking his eyes off her. Kneeling down before her, he took her left hand and kissed each knuckle, eyes sliding shut, relishing the sigh escaping her lips.
"You did all this for me…"
"You are so beautiful… why do I even deserve you…"
She tilted her head at him before bestowing a chaste kiss on his forehead.
"Because I love you."
On the nose.
"Because you love me."
Taking initiative, he kissed her full on the lips, his hand clutching the back of her head and his arm embracing her tightly. He leaned her back onto the softness of the bed, his tongue urgent to explore her mouth. Hearing a stifled moan in her throat, he pulled back just enough to see the heated flush on her cheeks and caught the shy smile she gave him. Kissing her once more, his hands roamed her clothed body until his deft fingers found the zipper and pulled it undone, the tips of his fingers felt like they could catch on fire with the heat of the skin on her back. From the moment he saw her on the lawn, his fingers itched to unravel her gown from her creamy skin; he barely registered what the minister was saying.
Reiko had a hard time focusing on anything other than his lips that were wreaking havoc on her senses as he kissed and tasted every inch of skin on her face, her neck, nibbling at the shell of her ear. She thought he was branding her with each kiss, that the room had become noticeably warm. Not until he had completely taken her gown off did she feel the heat somewhat dissipate into the air between them, but her temperature surged once more at the realization of her nakedness and the weight of her husband's stare, his eyes following each line, curve and contour of her body. Unable to stand his eyes, she brought her arms up reflexively to cover herself, only to have them pushed away by his strong arms and pinned lightly against either side of her. He bit back a growl when she finally met his heavy gaze, and when she took a deep breath, the deepened hollow of her throat was suddenly irresistible.
Mitsui felt as though his heart could burst. How many times had he imagined this, dreamed of this sight before him? She was so beautiful, she smelled so sweet… so delicious… His eyes drank her in, and when he finally looked back at her face, her eyes averted away from him, her cheeks blushing furiously. Leaning forward, he tilted her face to him until she met his eyes.
"Do you know what you are to me, Reiko?"
She shook her head slightly.
"You are the most precious person, the one I'd do anything in the world for."
He kissed her breathless once more, pulling slightly away to let her catch her breath as he rested his forehead against hers.
"You've given me heaven and earth when you said yes."
The hollow of her throat fell prey to his mouth, a gasp escaping her lips.
"I don't think you knew what you were asking when you said you wanted to… learn… from me…"
His hand brushed against the skin under her breast, relishing the silky softness against his fingertips before he cupped it entirely, his breath hitching upon hearing the breathy mewl she released. No, he thought as he caressed it gently, his other hand stroking light circles against the skin of her clavicle. He refused to teach her anything until she felt the ecstasy he experienced in touching her, until her nerves transmitted nothing but pleasure throughout her body.
Over and over and over again…
Mitsui kissed her mouth once more before engulfing her taut mounds.
He would show her how she made him feel.
How powerless he was with just one smile.
How boneless he felt with every kiss she returned.
How helpless he was to feel her skin sear his, how frustrated to the point of insanity that he couldn't react the way he wanted to.
Yes, tonight she would learn how to feel…
His head whipped up at her incoherence, his pupils dilated at her throat before constricting with unhindered lust at her face, waiting for her to open her eyes. And when she did, his look stole her breath as he ground out a word from his mouth.
Reiko's brows furrowed slightly, confused and a bit alarmed at his feral gaze. Did she say something wrong? By the time she blinked, he was ravaging her throat, shocked at how quickly he moved and how her eyes could only register blurry images of her surroundings. She could do nothing but shut her eyes and ride the drugging caress of Mitsui's lips.
"Again," he urged raspily below her ear before licking the skin there. His throat rumbled in recompense at her fingers that lost themselves in his hair. Mitsui plundered her mouth again, his grip on her tightening slightly at the tentative brush of her tongue against his, her hands leaving his hair and stroking his sinewed back with sparks of pleasure than ran the length of his spine. Only when he returned his mouth to her breasts did she find nerves to her vocal cords, writhing and heaving beneath him.
Never once did he think his name uttered from her lips could drive him insane, spoken fuel to the fire within him, stoking his senses to hypersensitivity as blood rushed to his head as he looked up at her, tongue devouring the sweetness of her. Her back arched in response, offering more of what he took hungrily.
"Again, love… say it again…"
Reiko's eyes finally cracked open when she felt his arms tighten around her abdomen, the side of his face pressed against her chest. He looked a mixture of pleasure and pain, and her fingers wove into his hair as if to soothe him. "Hisashi?" she questioned and he looked up at her, her eyes so full of concern and lips gorged and red from his greediness. Mitsui couldn't leave them alone.
"I've never heard you say my name," he said before kissing her again. "I never thought it would feel so good to hear you say it."
She was too dazed to reply when he withdrew, scant inches from her face.
He grinned sinfully.
"Yes, my love... just like that…"
He provided her many, many more reasons to say his name that night, over and over, with breathtaking ecstasy and bliss behind each caress he gave. It was no shock to him that he was the one learning so much from her; how he could get so stimulated with just his spoken name was beyond him. Mitsui took his time, knowing that what he endured in the past, the emptiness and restless nights it took for this moment to happen were nothing compared to the reward she offered.
She said yes.
She was his.
Pleasure so exquisite, it was almost painful.
"I love you…"
He would show her just how much.
And he would never ever let go.
It was the best sleep she had ever gotten in her life that she could remember.
It was also the most embarrassing and awkward way to wake up.
Ayumi sat by the window of a bakery she had discovered during a delivery to an event she catered at her niece's university. The old couple who ran the place had been so sweet to her then, and the baker's wife always gave her the freshest bear claws and cream puffs out of the oven. From the moment she stepped into the bakery, she was treated like family, and they never failed to give her a mug of her favorite tea. As she sipped absently at the hot brew, she stared at the landscaping crew across the street that manicured the lawn and gardens of the university, her thoughts so far away from where she was now.
She couldn't recall how she got on that bed, nor could she remember having checked into a hotel like she thought she did when the sun's rays peeked through heavy curtains and teased her eyes open. Letting out a sigh, she closed them and snuggled her face into the pillow, only to snap them wide open when she felt something yank at her midriff until her back hit something warm and solid. Her heart lodged in her throat and she willed herself not to scream, fear streaming itself into a thousand questions in her head. Since when did she turn into someone who slept with a stranger? When did she even meet any guy in the past twenty-four hours? Was he that nice that she jumped into bed with him? She rolled her eyes at that last thought. With her luck lately, that would never happen, nor would she let it. If she was of sound mind, that is. She must've been drugged, taken to some hideaway where the owner of this arm across her middle most likely had his way with her. Shutting her eyes once more, she bit her lip to calm down, taking in an even breath before looking down at the arm that held her captive.
It was black sleeved, and as she eyed the silver cufflinks closely, she deduced the man was wearing formal evening attire.
What, was he that eager he couldn't even take his evening coat off?
Perhaps it was too much to hope that the man still had his pants on. With the zipper up.
Holding back a huff, she lay perfectly still, wondering just how she was going to extract herself from the clutches of this man whose face she didn't even remember. Her thoughts digressed to what kind of hypnotic drug she was given, trying her best to recall if she had strayed from her intended path home to some bar on the way. Just as she was about to pinch the sleeve fabric between her fingers and pull the heavy arm off her, her captor tightened his hold on her and sleepily nuzzled the back of her neck, a deep voice rumbling words she couldn't make out. Not only was the man ridiculously strong in his sleep, he sounded like a giant!
Plan A was out the window. She grimaced as she tried to relax into her pillow. It would take a while to think of Plan B; it wasn't like she was going anywhere. After what seemed like an eternity of feeling the rhythmic expansion of his chest against her back, she realized that she still had her clothes on, more importantly her underwear. After the initial relief, curiosity began to eat at her and she wanted to see just who it was that had her trapped like a bug in a jar.
Suddenly, she got her wish. The man had unlatched his arm from her and rolled away. Taking a deep breath, she ever so slowly inched toward the edge of bed, and she was almost out when he had rolled back towards her, his arm instinctively moving to yank her back to her prison.
Of course, she nearly whispered out loud, this type thing only happened to her. Ayumi swore to herself that if and when she got out of this, she would move town and change her identity. The man burrowed into the spot on the pillow next to her head, and this time she understood his muffled words.
When she thought about it, it was kind of cold.
It would take another eternity for her to work up the courage to turn from her position and face her sleeping captor.
Air from his lungs came out as light puffs of steam from his mouth as he ran down the winding turns of the main road, the soft morning rays of the sun against the side of his face. It wasn't because he had trouble sleeping in the past few nights that he chose to run, and it certainly wasn't because he found a way to wake up in what he thought was one of the most embarrassing situations he'd ever been in. He would run because he was simply out of shape, and because if he kept his body tired, it would eventually give up and cave into sleep. This was the logic that he forced himself to think, like a repetitive prayer uttered in the hopes of being understood.
It definitely wasn't because he turned drunk red at the thought of waking up next to Yoshi's pastry chef.
Her body flush-fit against his.
Her face inches from his own.
Beautiful chestnut eyes wide with surprise.
He stopped his run abruptly, mouth slightly open and lungs heaving for air, the morning was so quiet that the only sound he could hear was his own labored breath. He pressed a button on his watch to halt the stopwatch function, noting that he'd only been running for an hour and a half. Closing his eyes, he shook his head as if to shake his thoughts clear before continuing down the path toward town, resuming the stopwatch once more.
Another half hour later, he had reached the northern end of the university campus, where the pungent smell of freshly cut grass was overpowering. He swung a knowing gaze at the bakery and smiled at the old man sweeping the sidewalk of the bakery, always fastidious at keeping his establishment tidy. Approaching the baker, he was greeted with a grin.
"Well, hello, Jackson-san!" he said with an outstretched hand. The guard happily shook it.
"Good morning, sir. I see you're out and about again. Done with the baking?"
The baker laughed. "The boss decided to show up today and help out."
"I see." Jackson briefly excused himself before turning around and taking his shirt off, the article drenched in sweat that he had to wring the perspiration off, dripping small streams onto the ground.
Evidence of a good run.
"This is a first that I've seen you go for a run," commented the old man, "and it looks like you've outdone yourself, all the water in your body's on the sidewalk! Come inside and meet my wife, ask her for one of those orange bottled drinks my grandkids leave in the refrigerator." The old man paused and gave Jackson the once over. "And don't wear that wet thing anymore. I'd better find you a fresh shirt, otherwise the boss might get the wrong idea," he said with a wink. After hearing laughter bellow out of brawny bodyguard, the old man propped his broom by the glass windows and bid him to follow. Once inside, the baker's wife was promptly introduced to Jackson, with amused giggles and blushing apologies for the state of his undress mingling with the cinnamon aroma in the room.
"Papa, the grandkids' shirts are on the lower drawer of the dresser," she said at her husband's retreating back. The baker turned back to her suddenly, his nose sniffing in the air.
"Did you put those apple and cinnamon bear claws in the oven or did I, Mama?"
"Neither of us, Ayumi-chan did."
Jackson stiffened at the name, the old man's wife not catching the surprise on the guard's face.
"All right, big fella, let's get you some Gatorade before you dehydrate. Wouldn't want those poor muscles of yours to dry out."
She laughed at the sight of blood rushing to his face as she left the pastry case and disappeared into the back kitchen.
He ran a hand through his sweat-slicked hair. This certainly wasn't good. He reeked of sweat, was practically drenched from head to toe, and the old man might have to take out his mop and clean up after him. He didn't need the shirt, really. He just wanted to smell something other than the grass they just chopped outside. Surely, it couldn't be the same Ayumi whose body was caged between his chest and arms not too long ago… He shut his eyes at the thought. And wasn't 'Ayumi' a common Japanese name? There must be more than one person in this town named Ayumi, he was sure of it. As if to distance himself from any chance of his surfacing insecurities manifesting themselves, he walked to the far end of the pastry counter and leaned against the side of the pastry case, facing the stairs where the old man ascended, his back to the kitchen entrance, arms crossed against his muscled chest. He didn't like being half naked in public, regardless of how nice and friendly the old man and his wife were. He was thankful that the bakery was empty. Seconds ticked by and wondered if it was too much of him to ask to use their shower.
The old man came down the stairs all smiles with a shirt in hand, and not a moment too soon, familiar laughter rang from the kitchen, a voice he knew well getting louder and louder, carried by footsteps that came closer and closer.
"Here's the drink you requested, sir."
Curtly, Jackson thanked the baker and took the shirt, donning the garment hastily before turning around to meet the sudden shock in Ayumi's eyes. He couldn't stop from turning red. What could one say when embarrassment like lightning struck twice?
"… Th-thank you very much…"
The baker's wife emerged from the kitchen with a small tray of pastries and coffee mugs. "What did I tell you, Ayumi-chan! Still don't believe me?"
"Believe what?" asked her husband.
"I told her that there was a shirtless man with the physique of a Roman god waiting for her to quench his thirst."
Guard and pastry chef gaped at the older woman smiling sweetly at them.
"Now, dear, you mustn't play Cupid. It's hard enough to get Ayumi-chan to visit us, let alone help, and the last thing we need is to chase her away." It came out as sweet-talk more than a reprimand. Ayumi wanted to vanish into thin air.
"Young man, this is Ayumi-chan, goddess of everything sweet. Ayumi-chan, meet Jackson-san."
She was first to move and play along, offering her hand out for a handshake, hoping that he would do the same for the sake of saving them more embarrassment. Her mother wasn't the only one trying to set her up. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Jackson-san."
"The pleasure's all mine, Ayumi-san." The hand in his was trembling as he gently shook it, her unease easily betrayed.
"Now that we're all acquainted, why don't we have some breakfast before the rush of students come in?" suggested the old man. "You don't have to go anywhere soon, do you, Ayumi-chan?"
"N-no, Jii-chan." She cursed herself. That was not the answer she wanted to give! She secretly prayed for Jackson to gently let him down.
"May I wash my hands first?" the guard asked.
"Sure! Bathroom's up the stairs to the left."
When Jackson left, Ayumi peered outside and chewed on the inside of her lip, searching herself for a ghost of an idea of how to get out of the bakery as fast yet politely as she could. What were the chances of meeting him at this bakery and time of the day? Looking up to the sky, she silently asked God if He was laughing at her. Why couldn't he refuse? It wasn't like she didn't know the man; unlike all the other men she was introduced to, he was actually pleasant, a good person worth knowing. And perhaps that was why she wanted to get out of there: he was someone whose friendship she cared about, because he was nice and didn't expect anything of her. Why, of all the things to drink in Yoshi's kitchen, did it have to be the tea from the thermos? Never mind waking up with his arm coiled around her waist like a boa constrictor; it was her fault for leaving that thermos of tea out from which he drank half a mug's worth. She didn't believe her friend who sent the tea from Peru when she claimed it was the closest thing to pure aphrodisiac, so potent that consuming more than two cups would drive a man insane. She scoffed at the idea, laughing at her when she added that it only worked on men. Otherwise, it was just a calming hot cup of tea for women that left a spicy tingle in the mouth. Ayumi wished she had put a label on the thermos saying 'biochemical hazard'.
As the couple chattered about pastries and grandkids, Ayumi thought back to the quiet mornings she had in the same bakery, when her mother had been much more aggressive in setting her up with ridiculously dunce and egotistic dates, when all she wanted was space and time to pick up the pieces of a love she so painfully lost…
"Isn't that right, Ayumi-chan?"
She turned and blinked at them. "Huh?"
"Yoshi-kun at the French restaurant in the hills, you work for him now, right?"
"Yes. Well, not permanently anyway." Ayumi smiled at the couple who smiled back at her, the old man telling her that he could change Yoshi's mind about hiring her on full-time. She was reminded of why she came to this bakery every week in the first place. The thought of running into Jackson today suddenly wasn't so awkward anymore.
"That's okay, Jii-chan, I still have a catering business to run. We sort of have an agreement is all."
Because I'm really here to forget…
The old lady arched a playful brow. "Oh? And what sort of agreement is that?"
"The 'securities and exchange' sort."
She giggled at the faces they gave her, stopping when Jackson's built physique descended down the stairs.
"I'll get that."
"I'll get that."
Old and young pastry master looked at each other and laughed. "Mama, please entertain Jackson-san for a bit while I help Ayumi-chan with the bear claws."
Excusing herself, she stood as the guard was seating himself, the tension between them evaporating with the small grin that pulled the corner of her mouth. While the baker's wife poured him tea, he shot her a quizzical look, to which she mouthed a silent reply.
She took her grin with her and followed the old man into the kitchen, leaving Jackson all alone to face the grilling he was going to get from the old woman.
"Mom, they're here!" Ami hollered at her parents in the kitchen. Dressed in her Sunday best, she bounded after her parents to the SUV waiting for them outside. Greeted by Miller, they filed through the opened passenger door and strapped themselves in.
And off to church they went.
At the cathedral, old teammates gathered together in a huddle round their jittery friend, Akagi shaking his head resignedly.
"I mean, what if she changes her mind? Dude, I'd be so totally fucked!"
Mitsui laughed and punched his shoulder. "Language, Miyagi! You're in church, for crying out loud! She won't change her mind. And besides, you're getting ahead of yourself, that happens after the reception, you're not even past the ceremony yet."
"I'm just saying," he faltered, running a nervous hand through his curly hair.
"Man, don't worry about it. You should be so lucky, you get to marry your high school sweetheart. Not too many people get to say that in this world."
Chorus of assent.
"So just chill, all right? And don't forget to say 'I do' when the priest asks you. We all know how starry-eyed you get whenever you see her," Kogure smirked.
"Speaking of which, the holy man is here, we better get ready."
Just before they got through the tall doors of the church, Miyagi called out to his friends.
"Guys, I just wanna say, you're the best bunch of people I've ever had the privilege of knowing. Thanks for being here with me on the most important day of my life."
They all gave him a brotherly hug followed by slaps to his back, with Akagi laughing and wincing at him. "You've done it now, Miyagi. You're paying for my dental bill with all the cavities you just gave me."
"This is so damn touching, it's giving me the fuzzies!" teased Sakuragi, his broad shoulders shaking with laughter.
"All right, folks," led Akagi through the door. "Let's get Miyagi married."
The pews were packed with people, more friends than family, and when the organ played, the air in the cathedral changed to that of majesty and grandeur, the hairs on Ami's back standing on end as she watched her brother and his friends walk single file down the aisle. She returned her brother's wink with a wide grin, and she admired how tall and handsome all the groom's men were. Her breath caught at how beautiful the bridesmaids were, her now sister-in-law smiling sweetly at her as she secretly waved at her. And when the bride finally made her way down the aisle, she was star-struck with awe at Ayako's pristine gown that shimmered brightly against the light of the cathedral's chandeliers. It would become the basis of every one of her wedding dreams.
Miyagi nearly forgot to respond to the priest as Kogure predicted, jolting out of his focused reverie at his bride. Ayako's brows raised at him, eyes expectant of his reply.
"I-I do, oh my God, I do!"
Hushed laughter erupted from the witnesses in the pews, with the groom's men rolling their eyes and grinning madly, the whole scene caught on digital video for posterity to witness again and again.
Spring had erupted beautifully throughout the town of Kanagawa, with the first tips of dew-kissed leaves glistening in the early morning sun. The first blossoms from the magnolia trees that lined the main driveway of the neighborhood looked like snow caps on lush foliage, and birds filled the air with songs of the season.
She did not feel as serene as the scenery outside her window. Not when she felt bile rise up her throat every time she saw, smelled or even thought about anything that resembled food. Even water made her sick.
She couldn't understand this irritability. Perhaps her body was protesting the daily routine she's been forced go through? Or maybe it was the amount of food they've been asking her to eat? Everything was measured to the milligram, and if she snacked, she had to jot it down on a piece of paper or call someone at the lab to make sure the data was collected. She never had a problem before, and she frowned at this. Calling to her dog, she led the way out of the bedroom and down the stairs.
Reiko found her husband scampering about the kitchen, shirtless with only his bottom pajamas on over the sink, paring the skin off a Granny Smith apple into one long curly strip. She would've let herself smile if it weren't for the wave of nausea that hit her, and for this she felt guilty because from the looks of it, Mitsui was trying to give her breakfast in bed. She tried not to look at the tray with the plate of eggs and pancakes, and was about to silently go back to upstairs to bed when her dog barked and gave away her presence.
Swinging his head at the dog by her feet, he sucked in a gasp. "You're supposed to still be sleeping!"
"… I can go back upstairs and pretend I didn't see anything?"
He laughed and placed the paring knife down. "No sweetheart, don't leave. Just… I just wanted to do something nice for you," and then sheepishly, "you know, trying to make myself look good."
She flashed him one of those smiles that made his heart sink to his guts. "But you already look good," she said, her eyes straying to the muscled planes of his chest. It stroked his ego that she thought of him so; being physically pleasing to her eyes was a very good thing. Perhaps more for him than for her. He returned a grin.
She almost forgot about the unsettling of her stomach until he offered her a forkful of eggs to which she reacted wide-eyed and had her running to the nearest bathroom by the den.
He raced after her to find her crouched over the toilet, her bout of vomiting had apparently passed as quickly as it had come. "Reiko…?" She had a hand over her mouth, brow furrowed and seeming in pain. Taking a hand towel, he bent down to wipe her mouth, and she looked so embarrassed.
"No, no… maybe it was the way I cooked the eggs—"
"I… don't think it's the eggs… perhaps I should see Dr. Yoshikawa." She stood from her crouched position, only to fall forward and lose consciousness.
He caught her on reflex. "Oh my God, Reiko!"
Carrying her in his arms, he took her to the kitchen and punched the intercom button so hard the box nearly broke. Mitsui didn't want to think of what could've happened if he wasn't there to catch her fall. As he waited for one of the guards to answer, he assessed her breathing and pulse.
"Yes, is everything all right?"
"Please come to the kitchen, Reiko just fainted!"
It was so quiet in the lab that only the low whir of the air conditioning system could be heard. All white coats huddled around the flat screen panel that showed odd tones and shades of gray, with numbers and letters on the margins of the screen. It seemed that all of them had been holding their breaths, their eyes transfixed at the small masses projected on the screen.
Yoshikawa was first to breathe.
To the untrained eye, one might assume that they were merely looking at a TV screen with fixed static. But in the eyes of this group of scientists, they were looking at a miracle.
"It's not really a surprise, is it…"
"… But I thought that measures were taken…?"
Shake of the head.
"I never imposed it on them..."
Another bout of silence.
Yoshikawa ironed out his brow before turning his back to the flat screen to face his colleagues. "Gentlemen… when we took this job, we were told to be prepared for the unexpected… that we would always have a new challenge with each step toward success…" He turned his head back and nodded at the screen. "And this, gentlemen, is our biggest challenge yet."
Sighs erupted from the huddle of white around him. They all had the same thought in mind.
Clearing of the throat.
"I have copied you guys on some of the ramifications of the electric current on migrating cells and problems we will face with the immersion process… Honestly, I expected this sooner, but… regardless, the chamber will not be the only thing leaching her body of energy, and this," he said, turning his attention back to the flat panel screen. "Is our newest project."
Lungfuls of breath.
"I tied the bell once, and I'll do it again. Please find the new directives in the folders. And," he hesitated with a sigh, "pray for me… I'm no longer facing a cat outside. Should things go badly, I would like for my epitaph to read, 'valiantly faced and fought a tiger to the death'."
Sympathetic grins graced the faces of his colleagues as they parted to give him way. Just before he crossed the threshold of the conference room, he turned at the call of his name.
"Yoshikawa-san… he will be tame."
At that, the lab coordinator smiled and sought the pacing animal outside.
Shooting pool had become a three a.m. ritual with him and the resident radiologist of the hospital, as well as the few outgoing interns from the hematology wing. The pool table had been given as a gift by the wife of the hospital's biggest benefactor, a sweet old lady who was half-Japanese, half-French and spoke with a thick French accent. With downtime in the wee hours of the morning, it was a God-send.
"So what's new with you, Kiminobu?"
"Actually, nothing at all."
Chalk to stick.
"Oh? No developments with that cute resident in the ER?"
"She definitely knows I'm interested now."
A silent 'wow' erupted from his companion's mouth.
"I need details, stat."
Kogure hesitated for a moment.
"Doctor, he's not responding," said one of the interns.
"Check the pulse."
"All right, all right, I'll tell you!"
"We got him back! Stabilize with the IV drip…"
Someone handed Kogure a cup of coffee.
Kogure took a moment to sigh.
"Oh no, Kussmaul breathing! This is gonna be good!"
He made a face. "Very funny. Anyway… so… she had just finished suturing this skateboarder's cut on his hand… and I just happened to walk into the room to get a bag of saline…"
"The prognosis is looking fair so far."
Dr. Kiminobu rolled his eyes. "So I asked her if she needed any help with anything, even offered to throw the used cotton in the trash…"
His audience was hanging on every word.
"And then… I don't know who left a stool sticking from under the bed, but I didn't see it and tripped—"
"And my head hit the corner of the cabinet."
All eyes were on his right temple and the thin gash surrounded by a bruise.
"Her hands were on my head even before I opened my eyes from wincing in pain… and I became her next patient on the bed."
The radiologist brought a hand over his eyes. "This is sounding like a very bad porn movie…"
The interns laughed.
"Aw, knock it off. She means more than just that, come on now…"
"Okay okay, sorry 'bout that. We're overworked, underpaid, undersexed, it's a late weekend and we're a bunch of men with no dates. So go on already."
"Then she cleaned the cut on my head… and I apologized for being a klutz… she told me it wasn't my fault, and that she should've been more observant and put the stool away."
Kogure got up and stood against the window to watch the lights that made the city glow like jewels. "After that, she said she was sorry for not being able to heal the cut faster, then offered to get the saline for me, even hook it up for my patient."
"Now that's service for you."
"What a sweetheart!"
"She's a keeper!"
He grinned. "So I told her that she didn't have to do any of those things, but that what would really help me heal faster is a good nutritious meal served in a nice restaurant, and that her being there would assure proper patient compliance."
Everyone was cheering for him at this point.
"And?!" The radiologist was practically gripping the edge of the pool table.
"And then passengers from a six-car pile-up wheeled through the ER."
His colleague cursed, the interns shook their heads in their hands and wailed. Sighing, the radiologist shrugged.
"At least she knows you're interested. What did she say before the pile-up arrived?"
It was Kogure's turn to sigh. "I think I stunned her with the suggestion, and after I said 'please', she just looked at me with her mouth slightly open, like I just swallowed a sword."
The radiologist turned his gaze to the ceiling. "The prognosis suddenly turned from fair to guarded."
All of a sudden, the door to the lounge opened, and Kogure's heart skipped a beat. She was standing in the doorway in her white coat, her eyes trained directly on him.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," her dulcet voice said, "Kiminobu-sensei, may I have a word with you?"
They all watched him walk to the door and close it gently behind him. As soon as they were both in the hallway, every one in the room vaulted to the door and pressed an ear against it.
"I'm sorry to disturb your pool play."
"No no, it's actually a pleasant surprise."
"I'm making my last round before my shift ends, and since you became a patient of mine recently, I wanted to see if you were feeling okay."
Can you be any sweeter?
"…I… Yes, I feel much better, thanks… Um, listen… about what I said earlier…"
"Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that as well."
Heart, calm down, calm down…
"I'm afraid I work the rest of the PM shift for the next two weeks, so unless you plan on starving till then, you're going to have to be a good patient and eat your greens to heal faster."
Kogure tried not to let the disappointment show on his face, simply nodding at her words as a show of understanding.
"If it's any consolation…"
A pair of theater tickets.
"A patient came by to give me these out of appreciation, and she wouldn't let me refuse them. I work that night, so I can't really use them. Perhaps you can go?"
For a brief moment while she spoke, he had hoped that she was asking him to go with her. He quietly took the tickets in his hands. Going alone would make him feel empty, just as not being able to have dinner, or not having any sort of contact with her. He took a good look at her, peered into the eyes he knew better than his own. Was he going to let it end like this?
This is about being on the offense.
With nothing to lose but the girl to gain.
"I'm glad you're feeling better." She looked down her watch. "Well, I've got to go. Enjoy the tickets, Kiminobu-sensei, and have a good night."
After receiving an apologetic smile from her, he watched her walk down the hallway, away from him and a missed opportunity.
Behind the door of the lounge, heads hung and shook in disappointment.
He ran towards her as she turned her head. Kogure willed his lungs to take even breaths as he shortened the gap between them.
"If—If I get you that night off… will you go see the show with me?"
Her eyes widened in surprise. "… You can do that?"
"Yes, yes I can."
There were perks to being the hospital director's good friend. After all the times he's saved him from failing medical school and being served divorce papers by his wife, it was his turn to call in a favor or two. "If I make it happen, will you go to the show with me?"
A moment passed before a smile bloomed on her face. "If you can get me the next night off as well, I'll pay for dinner."
Relieved beyond words, Kogure let out a quiet laugh. "I don't think I can let a lady pay for dinner."
She beamed at him and giggled, thrilling him to the bone. "Okay then, if you make it happen, I'll think about letting you pay for dinner."
"So is that a yes?"
She extended her hand out for him to shake. "Deal."
Kogure took her hand in his and sealed their agreement, holding onto her a little longer than he should have, not that she seemed to care. She was too busy smiling at him in disbelief.
He watched her go until her grinning face disappeared behind the elevator doors. He went back to the lounge eventually, not knowing if he floated there or walked, the floor didn't seem to stay under his feet. Greeted by hopeful faces with held breaths, thunderous cheer erupted from the lounge, prompting the nurses on the floor to come by and shush them silly.
And hush they did.
Fuji found it funny to see Mitsui fuss so much at Reiko, and he was wondering why he was carrying her in a bridal hold against him. Sakai was fluffing a pillow on the chair, and Mitsui let her down onto it as if she would break. Miller caught up to him as he made it to the veranda, and he nearly let out a laugh when Mitsui sounded like a waiter, waiting on Reiko hand and foot.
"Are you sure you don't need anything? Water? Juice? Food?"
Reiko shut her eyes and laughed. "I am sure. May I please have a few moments with them alone?"
It was the shooting guard's undoing. He relented. "All right… but if I hear the slightest sigh from you, I'm coming over."
All three of them laughed as he reluctantly left. Turning her head to the guards, she beckoned them to sit.
"So," started Fuji as he scooted his seat closer towards hers, "what's this all about?"
"The way he's looking after you, Nakamichi-dono, we might have to start looking for another job."
She grinned and shook her head. "With the way he is now, I may need you to save me."
Fuji switched onto sentry mode. "Has he hurt you in any way? Because if he did—"
He was silenced with her hand against his arm. "No, Fuji-san. Not at all. He is just a little overprotective, that is all."
Miller shrugged. "There's nothing wrong with that, I don't think. He's being trained to be one of us, after all."
She looked past their shoulders. "Where is Mr. Jackson?"
"Probably saving the pastry chef again," Sakai snickered. "Should we wait for him?"
"Perhaps you can relay all this to him." She looked down at her hands. "I… I have not been well lately, as you all know…"
Suspicion had all three men holding their breaths.
"And I am expected to have many bouts of weakness in the months to come."
Sakai's face was first to show concern. "… What did they tell you?"
"Are you going to be all right?"
"Is there anything we can do?"
Reiko loved the sincerity of her bodyguards. "Well, I… may need you to help Hisashi… with some encouragement. He has been so worried about me lately, and… I am beginning to fear my condition."
"Can you tell us why he's worried?" Miller asked, his voice so quiet it was almost a whisper. Reiko had always been a reticent person, and in their years of service, it took much coaxing for her to disclose any discomfort if she thought it would bother them.
They watched her gaze fall to her lap once more, her fingers fidgeting with the ring she wore. When a tear escaped a corner of one eye, their hearts sank, but when she smiled and let more tears fall unhindered, they were confused.
"Nakamichi-dono, please don't cry," cooed Fuji as he fished for a handkerchief from his pocket, only to find that Miller had already beaten him to it.
"Can you tell us more of what they told you at the lab?" asked Sakai. All three were now leaning closer.
"I… Yoshikawa-san said it was going to be difficult to do any more training from now on…"
Sakai reached out to rub her back in consolation.
"So I am going to have to stop…"
The younger guards knitted their brows in response.
"… Because he said I will have to reserve my energy… and…"
Miller gently placed his hand over hers. She held onto it.
"I might endanger more than just my life."
Fuji quickly shot a look of concern at his younger colleague. He would never forget that rainy night on the exercise lawn, when she took all four of them down, knocked two of them out cold and bruised Miller's ribs to a point where he couldn't breathe. Did the lab coordinator predict she would lose herself again? That she would run away and get injured again? He hoped to God not.
"Nakamichi-dono, we know how important it is for you to move… but… we have to do whatever we can to protect you from bodily harm… we don't want you to get hurt."
Reiko nodded through her tears with a ghost of a smile. "I know, Fuji-san. I know…"
Sakai supposed he was hanging around Jackson too much, because he was getting one of those funny suspicions. "What else did Yoshikawa-san tell you?" he asked.
"… That I should not be put under any stress… that I might sleep a lot..."
"I'll make sure to have a pillow around at all times, if it helps," offered Miller. It earned him a smile.
"It is not necessary, but Hisashi would be very happy if you did."
The older guard gently prodded on. "Have they discussed what to do with the toxin build-up?"
She shook her head. "They are trying to modify the process… they are afraid of how it might affect the little ones."
Fuji put his best encouraging face on. "I'm sure there'd be a way to—wait a minute… what did you just now say?" His tone sounded a little somber than he meant it to be, eliciting more tears from their charge, the worried smile on her fair face widening sheepishly.
Sakai and Miller were frozen in shock, while irritation slowly invaded Fuji's features. He became uncharacteristically inquisitive.
"When did you find out about this?"
"… Yesterday morning."
"And you're just now telling us?"
"I am sorry…"
"Fuji, stop –"
His colleagues were taken aback by his demeanor.
"Nakamichi-dono, you may be my boss, but you're almost family to me, after all this time and all we've been through…"
"And I know you're married and happy now, but I gotta know… did you want this to happen?"
"… I… I thought it would happen much later…"
"Do they know what will happen to you if you go through this?"
She was obviously becoming more troubled by his inquiry, the sudden grip Miller had on Fuji's shoulder forced him to hold his tongue.
"Know your place, Fuji," hissed his colleague.
"My place is to protect her!" Fuji roared. "How do you expect me to do my job, Miller?! I can't protect her from something like this!"
"Come on, Fuji, you're overreacting!" Miller shouted.
Sakai tried to calm things down. "Gentlemen, remember that she said no stress…"
Through some stroke of fortitude, Fuji held his peace for several moments before glancing at a tear-streaked Reiko. He bowed. "… I apologize, Nakamichi-dono. …I very well know I don't have a say in anything you decide." He stood up and turned to leave. "I didn't mean to sully my father's reputation by my boorish outburst. I just wanted to make sure that this is what you wanted, because…" He slowly stood erect, gaze kept at the ground. "I don't want to visit my father's grave again to tell him that something happened to you under my watch."
They watched Fuji walk away in silence, guards and charge looking at his retreating back and the shoulders that carried more than just the weight of his father's legacy.
She found him sitting in the solarium among the ferns and orchids, fiddling with something in his lap.
He started, but was quieted by her hand gesturing that he stay seated.
"I hope I was not interrupting something."
"No, not at all. It's just something I was playing with."
A closer look at the object made the corners of her mouth turn up.
"I'm really sorry about earlier… it wasn't my place to say anything."
She gazed down and reached for his shoulder to console him.
"How… how far along…"
"…Do you think I will make… a good mother… as good as mine was?"
He took her hand in his.
"Maybe even better."
"…I promise to be very careful…"
"…And stay out of trouble."
"So please do not worry… and forgive me the risk I am taking."
"You're right about me worrying, but you're wrong about having to ask forgiveness for having a family again… You're making me an uncle, after all."
"I mean, look at these cool booties I've knitted…"
"I am still very surprised that you know how to knit."
"My little brothers and sisters had warm feet because of me… and, they were very well-looked after."
"So as long as I'm around… I will make sure you and your family are safe. You're practically a little sister, after all."
"But… you will have to excuse me if I don't hold back in my sparring sessions with Mitsui-san."
Grinning, she shook her head.
"He shouldn't hurt… much."
Yoshi had thrown a private party for the year-old twins at the restaurant, and every one of Mitsui and Reiko's friends were invited. As laughter and conversation filled the restaurant, he busied himself with placing the desserts in the trays for the waiters to carry out. When one of the dessert plates fell, he paid it no mind, instead picking up the pace and hurrying the waiters to serve the hungry guests. After the fourth broken plate, Ayumi caught Yoshi leaning back against the counter with a pained look on his face. She hurried to his side.
"Yoshi-san, are you all right?"
He looked down at his hands. "I—I don't… I can't grip the plates for some reason…"
"Please rest a little, Yoshi-san, I will take care of dessert from here." She ushered him out of the kitchen and behind the wine bar, making sure that he was seated comfortably on a bar stool. "Just be one of the guests and mingle, okay?"
The proprietor suddenly grasped her forearm, aggrieved expression on his face. "Ayumi-chan… my hands…" They were trembling with fear.
"You're just tired, that's all," she said, taking his hands within her reassuring ones. "You've been up since five, and you've been milling around nonstop. I am going to make you some tea, okay? And you're going to have some of this delicious cake you made. I will be back with your cake and tea, and if I see you doing something close to work, you're in big trouble, mister!"
Seeing the old man's mood lighten, she walked back to the kitchen and did as she said, and somewhere along the way she bumped into Jackson. Gasping, she tugged at his sleeve and grabbed his hand, pulling him into the kitchen.
"Jackson-san, I need your help!" she whispered into his ear.
He couldn't hold himself from being on high alert. "What is it, what's wrong?"
"It's Yoshi-san! He said his hands have been giving him some trouble, and he couldn't hold onto the dessert plates… could you please look after him for me, just until I get all the desserts served to the guests?"
She didn't have to ask. "Of course, where is he?"
"At the bar. And, please try to cheer him up, he's pretty distraught."
"It's not a problem, let me know if you need any more help."
To everybody else walking around, they looked like a family having a fun picnic underneath the shade of the trees in the park. To Reiko, the simple event was one that gave her immeasurable mirth. Bouncing her daughter on her lap, she giggled happily at the high-pitched endearments she whispered to her, all the while Mitsui taking pictures of everybody on the picnic blanket, especially of Fuji taking a nap with his son. It was no laughing matter for the guards; the twins wore them out more than any sparring session or training day they had with either Mitsui or Reiko. When the daughter had finally quieted down and napped deeply, the grown-ups sans passed-out Fuji sat closer together.
"So what did they say about Yoshi-san's condition?"
"Carpal tunnel syndrome. His surgery went well, and he's recovering nicely. Ayumi-san has been the running workhorse behind the desserts, and the restaurant has never sold more of them now that she's there all the time."
"Her cakes are always delicious."
All heads turned at Jackson's calm bass voice. Because Fuji was asleep, Sakai stepped up to the cajoling plate. "So, Jackson, care to tell us where you were late last night?"
"I… was out."
"Saving a damsel in distress."
It was no surprise that he had to explain himself to his bug-eyed audience. None of them knew of his moonlighting arrangement with the old proprietor and his pastry chef.
"So you just fly by, grab her from her dates and drop her off at home?"
Hulking shoulders shrugged at them. "Yes."
"Just like Superman," remarked Reiko softly. Mitsui just grinned and made slow circles against her hand in his. By this time, Fuji had roused and parked his rear right next to the older guard.
"What did I miss?" he blinked sleepily.
That woke Fuji up. "You mean Ayumi-san? Yeah, she's a keeper. Isn't she, Jackson?"
He was getting more embarrassed with each second. "I fail to see how any of that is your business, Fuji."
"Oh? Well, I think it is my business when you ask me for the keys to my bike out of the blue just so you could get her out of a date at a nearby restaurant."
Jackson wasn't going to win this one.
"Nakamichi-dono, you wanted to see me?"
"Yes, thank you for coming at such a late hour."
"Is everything all right?"
"Better than I have ever dreamed it would be."
"Earlier, I… could not help but feel your hesitation to move forward in life, Mr. Jackson."
Big and burly as he was, he felt small under her scrutiny, those eyes of blue that had been so fresh and innocent now an unbearable pair of azure flames, all-consuming and knowing.
"Perhaps it is not my place to say, yet… it seems as if you feel guilty?"
"Sh-she's just a friend."
"I do not recall asking what your relationship with her is."
He couldn't bring himself to explain, not in the scant seconds she gave him.
"It is all right to tell me that, Mr. Jackson, so long as it is true."
His lips remained pursed, the crease on his brow not going unnoticed. She smiled again and it took the jumpy edge off him somehow.
"Please do not let anything hold you back from happiness, Toshiro nii-san. Midori nee-san would not have wanted you to be unhappy, and neither do I."
He opened his mouth to say something. Nothing came out. She reached out and held his hand, the smile on her face never fading.
"I feel as if… I'm betraying her."
Reiko shook her head. "Perhaps you are the only one questioning your loyalty? Moving on does not have to mean you must forget the people you loved."
"But… it wouldn't be fair to Ayumi-san… because I'm afraid I will always compare her to Midori."
"Daddy told me before a piano recital once that people are able to love in different ways… and that was why I did not have to give up the violin even if I loved the sound of the piano."
That made him grin and nod.
"For a moment, I thought that maybe… maybe your service under my family is holding you back?"
The grin disappeared. "I beg to differ."
"I know that you choose to stay my guard because of your promise to my sister."
"It is as you say, Nakamichi-dono… but it's a little different now."
"And how is that?"
"I don't know how to explain it… it's not that I—I think… I think I'm a coward. Because being here is safe and predictable... and, things go awry when she's around. I know exactly what to do when faced with a dozen opponents in hand-to-hand combat, but when it comes to her… I'm completely defenseless."
"What are you trying to defend?"
He sucked in a deep breath. "My sanity… maybe my self-control."
She blinked and the guard felt her hand squeeze his.
"Does seeing her make you happy?"
For the first time in her life, Reiko saw the lead guard struggle within against something he seemed to fear. The air around him was suddenly so heavy.
"I—yes, but it doesn't make me that happy… no. Not at all."
When did he ever speak with such contradiction?
"And I'm just helping Yoshi-san out… the restaurant just won't stand without a pastry chef of her caliber."
She nodded to show comprehension, though she knew he was the only one trying to convince himself. She glanced at the grandfather clock before patting his thick hand.
"Toshiro nii-san, you are your own man, intelligent and kind and understanding. I do not think you are a coward at all. However, I am convinced that your hesitation is partly rooted to the name under which you serve and the people who loved you in the past. If… if there is even just a fraction of a chance that you might be happy if you let yourself go, then by all means, do what you must to attain happiness."
Jackson felt something loosen inside him, a warmth that surged from his chest and spread to the blood in his veins. He was being given a blessing he wasn't asking for, and it bestowed the oddest sense of relief that made every breath easier to take. He watched the corners of her eyes crinkle from the smile she beamed at him.
"Be happy… this is your new directive, Mr. Jackson."
She got up from her seat with a little help from him, giving her a tug to ease her to her feet. The sigh that escaped from her lips told Jackson of just how much their little talk took from his charge.
"Thank you again for indulging me with this small chat."
The small smile on his face made the hope inside her blossom.
"The gratitude is all mine. You should get some sleep, Nakamichi-dono, It's getting quite late. I hear you're expected at the lab quite early tomorrow." With a pause, he leaned closer to whisper. "And you can tell Mitsui-san to stop eavesdropping behind that marble column… He ought to pay more attention to the lights and how they cast shadows."
Suppressing a giggle, she took the elbow he offered and both walked out of the vastness of the living room and into a refining lightness of the mind.
For the protected, a window to the past closed, and hope burgeoned.
For the protector, a door to the future opened with the promise of a new beginning.
That following week, her mother had scheduled four blind dates for her, each a day apart from the other. Ayumi nearly lost her wits over the bowl of pralines she was preparing while her mother chattered excitedly on the cell phone.
"I just know that you'll find at least one of these men agreeable, Ayumi-chan! They're all from good families, have high-paying jobs and graduated at the top of their class. I picked them myself!"
She cringed at the last statement.
"Mom, I'm really busy at the restaurant, I don't think I can go—"
That calm, stern tone. Ayumi's every undoing.
"Dear, I just want you to be taken care of, being alone is dangerous! Do you remember what happened to you when you came home from that date in the city?"
How could she forget? She couldn't hide the bandage from her parents, and instead of blaming the date, they blamed the fact that she came home alone without anybody to watch over her. She chose not to tell them about Jackson, there was no need to pull his name into the chaos of her family life. It was enough that he's helping her get out of the dates. Pigs had to fly before she'd ask him the perilous task of walking her to her doorstep and haphazardly meet the parents. Jackson looked strong, but he couldn't be possibly that strong to withstand the cosmic phenomenon that is her parents.
"Mom, that was because my date—"
"Yes, he's to blame as well… and I thought he'd be nice enough to walk you home… Mommy makes mistakes in picking, too, you know."
You have no idea…
"So your first date of the week will be tonight at seven, Gazebo's Restaurant. I suggest you wear that glittery gown to go with those new shoes I got you, okay? Mommy's gotta go, Book of the Month Club meeting, you know… Ayumi-chan, are you listening?"
I'm sorry, I was too busy contemplating my last will and testament—
"Yes. Seven. Gazebo's Restaurant. Got it."
"Good! Good luck, dear!"
The ghost of Nanami's voice rang loudly in her head as she put her cell phone down, her earnest plea to move in with her and end the hell of blind dates. Why was it she let her parents bully her into these dates again?
The forgotten stove.
The water they left running in the kitchen.
It was suddenly so noisy in the kitchen, as it would be, with all the chattering of the kitchen staff, the bang and clatter of pots and pans, and the sizzling of meats that made her head scream for solitude. She mechanically took her apron off, washed her hands, dried them and walked out of the backdoor, into the back parking lot where she held herself and fought the urge to cry.
Through the kitchen window, the old proprietor's watchful eyes saw the struggle within her and he frowned as he shifted his gaze down his hands. His recovering hands, not even hands with the strength of youth could make Ayumi feel better. Taking his time to grasp the telephone in his hand, he dialed a number he knew by heart with the other.
"Hello, it's me… listen, I need your help…"
He could only go on the information Yoshi had overheard in the kitchen. Glancing at his watch, he let out a rough sigh. The blind date must be really blind, he couldn't look to his watch to see how late he was. He hoped Ayumi wasn't holding her breath.
A timid man in a pin-stripe suit entered the restaurant with a small bouquet of flowers, the arrangement shaking slightly at the sight of Ayumi. Jackson couldn't blame him; one look at her caught his breath, and undoubtedly, the blind date's as well.
An awkward introduction followed, with the man hitting his head against a light fixture, then bumping into a waiter carrying drinks which spilled all over Ayumi's lap.
"Oh my gosh, I am so sorry!" he blubbered, taking a dinner napkin and dabbing at the moisture on her dress. "I apologize I was so late… God, this isn't how I wanted you to meet me..."
His discomfiture made Ayumi smile. "It's okay, it was an accident."
"I—I just wanted to make a really good impression, that's all…"
From his lookout, Jackson frowned at the fact that Ayumi was being too nice again.
When the entrées arrived, her date had gotten more comfortable and was acting more confident, even managing to make Ayumi laugh with some mundane joke. Or so Jackson imagined.
When desserts and coffee were finally consumed, the man reached for his wallet and left money for dinner as well as a generous tip, the waiter's face had gratitude written all over it.
She made a move to stand up and so did he, rather gracelessly, quickly losing the confidence he earned so slowly with each nod and smile Ayumi showered him.
"Thank you so much for dinner, Yaminobu-san," she said with a bow.
"Ah, th-thank you so much for even coming out to meet me! I—I… thank you so much!"
He looked to be in his early to mid-twenties… thick jet black hair that matched his shiny dress shoes… around a hundred seventy centimeters.… a build of around one hundred and fifty pounds lean… right-handed… hands nervously rubbed against his sides, grabbing at the hem from time to time. Jackson lowered his binoculars and squinted at the swinging doors of the restaurant, watching the awkward man's movements.
"M-may I call you again?" he stuttered.
She paused to think. Taking the clumsiness aside, he was a very polite and nice man, slightly younger than she, but overall and so far a gentleman. Be that as it seemed, she knew she couldn't commit to anything further than a first meeting. She still had three other people meet, and if she was lucky, they'd be as nice as Yaminobu. If she was luckier, her mother would call off the other dates and just leave her to forget how wonderful and perfect her life was in the past.
"Um… Yaminobu-san… you are a very nice person, and I had a pleasant evening—"
"But?" The man was already dejected and expecting rejection.
"… I am still trying to forget a very… um… someone from the past. And because you've been so kind to me, I want you to know the real reason why I have to decline your request…"
Jackson felt uncomfortable watching her talk. He couldn't hear what was being said, but the way her eyes looked to the ground… and the furrow across her brow spoke of a pain much deeper than any physical wound could inflict.
It struck him that he knew nothing about his charge.
The man's head slowly hung low and his shoulders slumped when Ayumi finished speaking, and with another bow from her, she walked away to the intersection and disappeared among the many bodies that crossed the street.
Although there was no cause for him to intervene this evening, Jackson felt as though he had failed her. That even a strong, stalwart man could not protect her from the strange painful emotion that crossed her face.
It would bother him to sleeplessness that night.
He was sent on an errand to pick up food from the restaurant by Reiko, a special meal for the little ones made especially by Yoshi. As he approached the kitchen doors, he could hear laughter and giggling coming through the crack between the doors.
"He was so mean to her, I mean, fire-breathing mean! He kept going on and on about, 'If it wasn't for the money I provide for you, you wouldn't be alive', and, 'How could you tarnish our family name by failing that exam?'. So I did what any respectable waiter could only do… I pretended to trip on his leg that was sticking out and by the time I got up from the floor, he was delectably covered in the special house sauce Yoshi-san makes, quite superbly, might I add."
Laughter rang out.
"Minus the meatballs."
Yoshi shook his head as if to disapprove, but he condoned the mishap as an innocuous event. The harsh man really did deserve it; he disturbed all the other patrons' dinner, yelled at all the waitstaff, and talked down to his own flesh and blood as if she were a mere dog. Had his employee not done anything, he would've asked the man to leave.
In the corner stood Ayumi with an amused grin, her fingers white with flour, no doubt taking a break to listen to waitstaff heroics. It was as though no sad emotion ever graced her face, she was the picture of rainbows and daisies.
Yoshi was the first to recognize Jackson and acknowledged him with a nod.
"Takumi, are those lunches ready for Jackson to take home?"
His name made her head turn to the guard. The delivery boy looked at the to-go boxes and shook his head.
"Um, we're waiting on the desserts… Ayumi-san?"
She smiled. "Give me ten more minutes and I'll have them out of the oven."
The wheels in Yoshi's mind turned. "Well then, you have ten minutes of nothing to do, Ayumi-chan. Why don't you help me behind the bar?"
"Let me wash your hands and I'll be right there," she chirped on her way to the sink.
When she turned the corner to the bar, it appeared that Jackson was also wrangled into cleaning the wine glasses. He waited for her to greet him, studying her closely.
"Hello, Jackson-san," she said, smiling at his thick fingers that didn't fit through the mouth of the glass he was holding. "I thought this was my job."
He shrugged with a forced grin. "Yoshi-san had to make a phone call, I guess I'm the captive guest." She craned her neck to look at the reservation desk, and sure enough, he was chattering happily on the phone.
"Ten minutes with you can't be all that bad," she teased.
Jackson grinned genuinely. She was completely different from last night's sad face. For a few minutes, they worked in silence, she taking over the glass streak buffing, he placing the glasses upside on the rack overhead.
"How is your wrist, Ayumi-san?" he managed to say without stuttering. He didn't understand why it bothered him being too comfortable around her in silence.
"It's much better now, thanks for asking," she beamed down at the glass. "Who would've thought that putting it to work would make it heal faster…"
He nodded and said nothing, trying to pour his concentration on replacing the glasses on the rack as if he was defusing a time bomb. Or perhaps he just didn't know how to ask her what was said last night before she parted ways with her clumsy blind date?
"I'm glad things went well last night," he said in a very quiet tone. A side glance at his companion caught the blink of her eyes and the startled ripple that disturbed her happy features.
"Same here," she finally managed to say, buffing the nonexistent smear on the side of the wine glass she was holding.
"I hope there won't be more in a while," he prodded in a roundabout way.
"Um… actually… I've been scheduled to meet three more." Ayumi looked down, before giving him a small apologetic smile. "I'm so sorry, Jackson-san. I know you take it upon yourself to watch over me." She looked so crestfallen. "My mother seems to have gotten desperate. You don't have to look after me, I know you have other work to do."
Jackson stilled. He watched as her tongue quickly peeked through her mouth to wet her dry lips, its pink hue reminding him of the pink slip of dismissal.
"The person I met last night, Yaminobu-san, was a nice person and all, but I have a feeling he won't be calling again." She flashed a weak grin. "Maybe the rest will be just as nice."
He was unconvinced and more unwilling to rely on hope that she wouldn't get hurt again if left to fend for herself.
"So what were the magic words of deterrence?" he asked, trying to keep his tone light.
She lifted her eyes to the lake, taking her time to find the right words to say. Her fairy godfather expected and deserved no less than the direct truth. "I told him that I am trying to forget someone in my past… that as long as the ache remains within me with each thought of him, I wouldn't be able to consider being with someone else… because it would be unfair for anyone to be with me, thinking that I have them in my heart, when all the while I am looking back at how colorful life was with that person, and how bleak it is now without him."
Whatever was shredding her heart was picking at the surface of his, because she sounded exactly how he felt about Midori. He didn't know how much in common he shared with the pastry chef, and he suddenly wished he didn't ask. The tear that escaped her eye lanced an old emotion in his chest, and her quick reaction to wipe it away and smile through it all softened his eyes with sympathy. He reached for his handkerchief and handed it to her, meeting her surprise with a wordless nod. Footsteps from the reservation desk got closer and closer, and Yoshi relieved Jackson of his part-time bartending, unaware of the stark revelation between the two.
Mitsui sat in the silence of the kitchen, with a shot of whiskey at hand instead of coffee in the morning. He had been watching the lead guard and his wife through the door blinds conversing quietly by the edge of the lawn since six, and he couldn't help the strings of jealousy from being plucked within him. They hadn't stopped talking since, and because their voices were so hushed and discreet, he had no idea of what was going on. Thank God the twins were still asleep. It's not like Jackson was making advances at Reiko, in fact he kept a three-foot distance between them. But he was once told by his wife that Jackson was enamored with her sister Midori, and he had no cause for concern before. That was, until he saw a picture of Midori.
Ever since then, he surprised himself at just how obsessive and possessive he had become of his beautiful wife.
The dog found him and barked to be let out. The corners of his mouth turned up at the opportunity to open the back door and finally go outside to investigate.
By the time he was within earshot, Reiko and her guard had concluded their conversation and Jackson sincerely apologized to him for taking so much of Reiko's time. Mitsui noticed the tired lines under the strong guard's eyes, and he calmed himself the moment Reiko's hand clasped his.
Half an hour later in the quiet of their bedroom, he would find out just how stupid and insecure he was acting.
The second blind date had a goatee and wore his sunglasses the entire time during dinner. He was very much into hip-hop fashion, sporting a diamond chain necklace and an oversized Rolex on his wrist. She was glad that he didn't wear earrings to go with his flashy outfit, but any redeeming hope she had was snuffed the moment he smiled at her. His upper teeth had a white gold grill across them.
Negative five hundred brownie points.
So much for mother's hand-picked cream-of-the-crop.
He kept insisting they go to a club that he was convinced she would love, and he had no ears for her polite refusal. The moment his hand grabbed her wrist was when Jackson appeared into view, startling the rapper wanna-be with his vise-like grip. By the time her blind date regained consciousness, Ayumi was nowhere to be found, and a very angry maître D made sure he paid for their expensive dinner as well as the damages incurred.
Cradling the cup of latté in her hands, Ayumi thanked Jackson once more for the drink. Knowing how often her rescuer liked to drink tea, she was surprised that he chose to give her a stronger source of caffeine. He joined her on the bench overlooking the local skating rink, watching the few people on the ice practice figure skating routines. Ayumi gave some thought to why the guard picked this venue as their temporary place of refuge, and she came to the conclusion that it was the least likely place for her blind date to find her should he be in 'date rage', and that it was quiet enough to hear the person next to you speak. Luckily, the practice music coming from the speakers was Beethoven's very soothing Moonlight Sonata. Whether Jackson knew this or not, it didn't matter to her. She knew she would be safe.
After watching a pair of figure skaters successfully skate synchronous triple axles, Ayumi broke the comfortable silence between them.
"I think I'll go be a nun," she mused, her eyes following the skaters making figure eights.
Jackson let out a snorted laugh. "Where did that come from?"
Her sigh blew a few wisps of hair out of her face. "Well… if I become a nun, my mother can't set me up on blind dates anymore… she'll have to fight the Pope. Then you'll have your evenings all to yourself again, and I'll finally be able to play videogames in peace."
"You play videogames?"
"Only the girly ones."
"The ones that involve you dancing, playing the guitar and tennis." She rubbed a finger against the shell of her ear. "Now if they could only make one that forces you to do sit-ups, I can get those abs of steel I've been wanting for Christmas."
He was quite amused. Apparently, Fuji and Miller weren't the only ones playing videogames.
"I'm sure they can provide videogame consoles in that room of the convent with your name on it."
He heard her laugh, and it was the first real laugh he's heard from her all week.
"What about Yoshi and your catering business? Stomachs all over Kanagawa will miss you."
"You don't suppose you know of an abbey where the nuns need fattening, do you?"
"Not really… then again, I'm not very familiar with nuns or abbeys."
She shrugged. "I've come to love working with Yoshi-san. He reminds me of my Grandfather. Oh! But don't tell him that, I think he would much rather prefer to be referred to as an uncle."
"My lips are sealed."
He watched the corners of her eyes crinkle with the wide smile she gave him, her head turning to look at the skaters slide across the ice near their bench. As he looked down at the slender fingers that wrapped around her warm cup, he took a deep breath and leaned back in his seat.
"You know, all this time I've been shadowing you, I still don't know who the person I'm guarding really is."
Her eyes blinked to widen. Turning to him, she met his steady gaze before he turned to look away.
"I apologize for being so forward… I guess it's just a necessity in doing my job."
She asked if he could explain how it was he did his job.
"Well, for starters, I have to know what the person does for a living, who that person associates with, the places she goes to and when she goes. It gives me insight on what the person sees throughout the course of the day, and it helps me to plan for any possible threats or obstacles."
Ayumi made an impressed face. Pausing to look up, she said, "I'm really hoping not to inconvenience you anymore with these silly dates, but I'm guessing you require that kind of information from me?"
He grinned and nodded.
She copied his lax position on the bench. "Okay then… so you already know I'm some sort of pastry chef… and that I work at Yoshi-san's from time to time. Let's see… I often cater luncheons for university functions, and after those I often stop by the bakery across the street to say hello to the baker and his wife."
Jackson grinned at the memory. He never thought anybody could ask him so many questions in one minute.
"On my spare time, I go for long walks in Shibuya… there's a small café I frequent where I read the newspaper… and, hn… that's about it, really. My life is quite boring. And I like it that way."
The guard took a moment before replying. On the ice, another synchronous triple axle.
"I know it's none of my business, but… why do you keep going on these blind dates if you hate them so much?"
"To appease the parentals. Sooner or later they're going to have to accept the fact that maybe a life of quiet is what I want… they think that finding a man to marry me will solve all my problems."
"Do you have any problems?"
She sighed. "No… no, not really." She sounded so sure to herself, but Jackson wasn't buying it. "It's either suffer a little with the blind dates, or risk another heart attack with Mom or nervous breakdown with Dad."
Jackson understood the importance of preserving family. He had been trying to preserve one since the day he was employed. But something was a little irritating to him about her choice of complacency. Like an itch he wanted to scratch in the corner of his mind, he wanted to know more.
"… Do you think there's a chance you might find someone they'd approve of, you know, so they can stop worrying?"
She smiled dejectedly at him, embarrassed and surprised that he was thinking along the same lines she was before. Maybe even now. "The thought has crossed my mind, but lately… well, as Yoshi-san would put it, the pickings are just so slim."
Jackson chuckled as he nodded. "I guess this Yaminobu-san's heart will be irreparably broken."
The male skater lifted his partner in the air and held her up against her taut abdomen, like something a sculptor would forever immortalize into art.
"I guess he knows how I feel… but I hope I get over it soon. I know there's a life of happiness out there for me, and for the most part, I'm living it right now," she said, a small grin forming at the corners of her mouth before lifting her cup of coffee at Jackson, "one sip at a time."
A good while passed between them in silence, the sound of skates grinding against the ice punctuated the crescendo of piano notes that boomed throughout the arena.
"He must've been a remarkable man to have this much hold on you."
She turned to look at him with these questioning eyes of alarm. Perhaps it was a bit too much prodding. "I'm sorry. It's none of my business. I won't say—"
"He was a simple man with a quiet strength in him," she interrupted, her eyes softened and back on the pair of figure skaters who flitted across the rink. "He was the one who encouraged me to do my catering business after taking a bite of a chocolate cake I made… I wasn't even interested at him at first… He was just someone who frequented the small restaurant I part-timed in. My folks met and liked him… Nanami even called him 'uncle' when the thought wasn't even in our heads…"
Why did it become so hard for him to breathe and listen to her at the same time?
"He always seemed to be there for me, whenever I needed help or I was in a bind. One time, I forgot my umbrella, and he happened to be passing by the restaurant. He shared his umbrella with me and walked me home. It was a big enough umbrella to shield two people from the rain, but he pretty much let me have it because he didn't want me to get wet." Ayumi laughed. "Sounds like a Police song, huh?"
Jackson just nodded, half of him wanting for her to continue, the other wishing he didn't have a heart.
"I didn't realize I loved him until—"
Her abrupt pause made the guard turn his attention to her. Her gaze was still on the rink, but she was miles and years away from him.
"It was snowing when I got the phone call from him. He said to meet me at some address… it turned out to be a hospital. He was smiling at from his hospital bed, all these IV lines and plastic drip bags around him. He told me that he was really happy that I came to see him, and when I asked him why he was in the hospital, he told me had Hodgkin's lymphoma. At the time, I didn't know what that was, and he told me that he was going to be okay, said not to worry because he'll be fine. I stayed with him the whole night, talking about anything and everything that came to mind. When visiting hours were over, I didn't want to leave… because I had a really bad feeling something bad would happen if I left. I came to see him early the next morning, and so many doctors were around his bed. When I could finally get to talk to him, he was so weak that it was difficult for him to even speak. He reached for my hand and told me that if it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't have known how to love, and he told me how much he loved me…"
On the ice, the male skater swung his partner into a flawless triple axle in time to the music piece.
"I didn't know… that all that time he spent with me, the long walks and the laughter we shared together… all of that was borrowed time. He told me he was sorry for not telling me that he was sick, but he didn't want to die without telling me how fun I was to be with, that everything I touched turned into gold, and that I was like a superhero in his eyes."
Jackson wasn't even aware that he was holding his breath until she moved to wipe her tears away. Reflexively he reached into his pockets and was completely disappointed at himself for not having a handkerchief at hand.
"At his funeral, none of his family members came. I found out through his lawyer that he had no other living family members… I remember crying so hard when I thought of how truly alone he was, and I was too late to realize just how much he meant to me." Her tears poured like a stream at this point. "I guess what makes me really sad… is that despite being told how happy he was to be with me, he couldn't tell me that he was alone all that time, that he was sick, that he didn't have much time left... And it's not like I could've done anything to stop him from dying, but… I felt as if he didn't trust me enough to burden me with his problems."
Ayumi was now leaning her elbows against her lap, slouched over with her hair spilling over her shoulders, her coffee completely forgotten. Jackson was bold enough to have prodded this far, so he didn't hold himself back in getting up from his seat to crouch down in front of her, taking his thick fingers and wiping the tears from her flushed cheeks. The gesture made her shut her eyes and she hung her head even lower.
"I know it's really selfish, Jackson-san… but I really wanted to be there for him, not just for the happy times… I wanted to be the one to take care of him, to be the first one he saw in the morning and the last person he saw at night… Right before he died, I was holding his hand, and he apologized again for making me sad, and he told me that I was the strongest person he knew, and that he… that he loved me beyond words… that somewhere, someone out there was going to be the luckiest man in the world because I would love him."
The guard knelt on one knee and pushed her shoulders up enough so that her head was at level with his. He saw with a melancholic fascination all the sadness she'd been hiding in that smiling mask of hers, and the guilt that weighed her down that she couldn't sit up. Jackson brought his sleeved arm to wipe at her cheeks again, then pulled her into his embrace. Stupid him for letting her get this far, stupid him for not knowing how to make her stop crying.
"I think he had it all wrong, Jackson-san," she whispered hoarsely, "he was the one who was truly strong, and I was a weak nothing without his encouragement. All I touch either ends in disaster or makes people diabetic."
He let himself grin through his frown.
"And I'm not a superhero. Not even close. If I was, I'd fly counterclockwise against the earth's rotational direction and turn back the clock, and tell him how I felt about him… okay, so I watched way too many Superman movies growing up, but… you know what I mean."
She was doing it again, trying to lighten the mood when she was at her lowest. She quieted down, finally noticing that she was being gently rocked back and forth, lulling her into a calm she was foreign to.
"Would… would it be all right for me to hold you like this for a while?" he asked, his voice so deep it vibrated against throughout her.
She sniffed. "I should be the one asking you that, Jackson-san." She could barely reach her hand to her face to swipe at her eyes, he was so big.
"So I'll take that as a yes?"
She nodded, the warmth of her breath against his neck making him sigh guiltily.
"I'm sorry for embarrassing you like this in public… but… you don't know how grateful I am that you're here."
He didn't know how long he held her in his arms, but upon hearing that, he didn't feel so guilty anymore.
Mitsui thought he was on the verge of collapse by the time they reached the bakery in a record time run. He was resting his hands on his knees and bent over, trying to catch his breath he left two miles ago. The baker was quite happy to see them, and the wife was even happier to see three handsome young men crowded by the pastry case. They were introduced to her, and a tornado of questions flew from her mouth as her husband rolled his eyes and tended to the kolaches that were in the oven.
She went upstairs and came down with towels and fresh shirts for them with the logo of the bakery imprinted on them. "We had a morning bonanza for the students last week, and these were door prizes," she chimed as she served them tea and coffee. The kolaches were so good after a morning run.
"Jackson-san, do you know where Ayumi-san has been?" the old man asked. "She said she'd be here today, but when I called her number, all I got was her voicemail."
The men looked at Jackson. The lead guard was deathly calm, thinking of the worst and hoping for her safety. "Did she mention where she was the last time you spoke with her?"
The baker looked down at his tea cup. "Let's see… I recall her saying that she'll be visiting her niece after she takes care of a few things at home. I'm just a little worried, she always calls when she can't make it here."
"Please excuse me for a moment," Jackson said abruptly, pushing away from the table and through the front door.
"I wonder what's going on," Mitsui mused. After swallowing a bite of his kolache, he took his cell phone and called his wife. "Hello, Reiko? We're at the bakery, but listen, I'd like you to make a few phone calls, if you don't mind…"
"This is Jackson."
"Hello, this is Ueno Nanami."
"Ueno-san, is everything okay with Ayumi-san?"
"Yes, she's fine… it's just… she's been worried sick about Grandpa… he had a heat stroke while working outside the garden. He's home from the hospital now, but she's… I don't know… she's really worrying me."
Nanami opened the front door to let Jackson in, the house smelling of something freshly baked, with a hint of something fried on a skillet. As they walked through the living room, books were on the floor, flipped to pages filled with flowers and plants.
"I've been trying to help her watch Grandpa while she deals with Grandma… I'm sorry the house is such a mess."
It wasn't really a mess. He'd seen books all over the floor before with the twins babbling over the pictures and Mitsui pointing to them, but this household had no toddlers as an excuse. They heard the sound of pots breaking outside, and they hurried out the backdoor.
"Grandma!" Nanami cried, rushing to the elderly lady with blood on her hands. Crouching down, she helped her to her feet. "Grandma, what happened?"
"I just wanted to water the plants, but Ayumi-chan wouldn't let me, she said that she'd do it herself! The orchids can't wait, Nanami-chan, they'll wither!"
Jackson let Reiko's friend reason with her grandmother and walked past them to look for Ayumi. At first she was nowhere to be found, but when the guard heard a whimper, he found her hidden and crouched down by a row of potted rosebushes in full bloom, her arms holding her knees against her chest. He let his footsteps strike the wooden walkway deliberately, and he was concerned with the lack of reaction to them.
"Hey," he cooed, crouching down and putting a hand on her shoulder. "Have you seen a cat around here?"
Slowly lifting her head, she blinked the tears from her tired eyes and finally looked at Jackson. She finally showed astonishment. "Jackson-san! What are you doing here?" He was already wiping her cheeks with the square cloth produced from his pocket.
"Ueno-san told me that she heard a mewling sound in the garden, and I thought maybe there was a lost cat in the garden." Her brown eyes widened with confusion. "And lo and behold, there is!" his bass voice resonated. He moved his hand to her head, stroking and cradling it gently.
"I'm sorry," she bleated. "This is the second time you've seen me cry, and it's so embarrassing," she moped, burying her face against her knees once more.
"The fourth time."
She watched him grin, the handkerchief brushing her face once more. "The first time was the almond extract, which I am still extremely sorry for… the second was after that date I flushed down the toilet."
She paused to think, then sniffled a smile. "I crouch corrected… How did you know my world was falling apart today?"
He shrugged. "You know, gut feeling," he said, helping her up to her feet. "We superheroes have that hard-wired into us." He gave her some time to recollect herself as she looked at the wooden deck. Moments passed by.
"… Okay… all right. I'm ready for another onslaught." She blinked, then flashed him a cheerful face. "My game face is on, let's go."
She led the way into the house, prevented her mother from trying to put meat on a skillet that was full of burning oil, and managed to pick up the books on the floor while she was at it. From the master bedroom, her father was yelling for his wife to stop fussing, and Ayumi told her niece to calm Grandpa down and give him some water. All the time Jackson was looking on at the ladies tending to the elderly man, a pair of admiring eyes crinkled happily at him.
The third date was quite amusing, he was a percussionist for the Philharmonic orchestra, and he made her laugh with his jokes. This time the venue chosen for them was a Brazilian restaurant that served delicious fire-roasted meat on long steel skewers. The connoisseur in Ayumi was delighted in the cornucopia of flavors that engulfed her tongue with every bite.
"What's so amusing?" he asked before sipping from his wine glass.
She shook her head. "The herbs they use are quite flavorful, it's really good."
"Oh good, I'm glad… At first I was worried that they'd make us bite off the meat from the skewers with them holding it."
From his seat in the coffeehouse across the street, Jackson had to consciously loosen his grip on his coffee cup at the sight of Ayumi laughing. It was so sincere, unlike all the other times she was with other dates he watched over, as if she was relaxed and comfortable.
Like when she's with me.
Why was he reacting like this? Shouldn't he be happy for her?
He was glad that they were seated by the windows, it was easy to watch what was going on. He scrutinized every observable detail of the man seated before Ayumi. He was a few inches shorter than the guard, not as muscular, with slender fingers that were calloused, no doubt from holding mallets. He spoke with his hands, gestured throughout their conversations and was very animated with his facial expressions. A sigh escaped his throat when he looked at his watch. Dinner was taking thirty minutes longer tonight and counting. The guard leaned against his propped hand as he watched some more, seeing Ayumi bend down in her seat to pick something up from the floor.
When the man finally paid for the bill, Ayumi followed him outside the restaurant where they spent a few minutes talking some more. There was a point when the man raised his hand to rub against the back of his head, looking embarrassed for a bit. Jackson surmised the man asked for a second meeting. His eyes roved to Ayumi, her head angled to look down at the sidewalk and a small smile on her face. She seemed to be thinking about something, taking a long pause before opening her mouth to speak. And when she did, the man reacted with nods and his hands digging into his pockets. She ended with a bright smile, giving her date a very polite bow, and she turned to cross the street toward the coffeehouse where Jackson was.
Upon entering the establishment, he stood to greet her, but was taken aback by the quick glance she gave him as she walked hurriedly to the ladies' room. Something wasn't right.
He waited outside, listening by the door for clues. When the sounds of coughing became apparent, he broke through the door. "Ayumi-san!"
After another fit of coughing, Jackson heard the sound of a flushing toilet, and a second later Ayumi emerged from the stall she was in with a hand covering her mouth.
"Ayumi-san, are you all right?"
When she nodded, he took the silk chiffon scarf from her neck and turned on the faucet. Slightly wetting it with warm water, he wiped her mouth tentatively and she took the garment from him and did the rest of the job. By then her eyes came out of the watery haze that threatened a downpour of teardrops. She was determined not to let one drop fall.
"I wish you weren't so watchful and caring, Jackson-san," she thought out loud, now looking down at her wet scarf in hand. "You wouldn't have to see or smell the vomit from me."
He shook his head. "Don't worry about that or this scarf. I'll get you another one." Taking a few tissues from the tissue box by the sink, he wiped the skin over her jaw bone. "So what happened?"
Ayumi didn't know how to describe the perversion she saw in that brief moment she bent over to pick up the soup spoon she had knocked over. She knew that she would just want to hurl all over again and hide in the smallest, inconspicuous crack or crevice she could find. She's only been kissed once, and though cognizant of the workings of the sexual act, she had never seen a male's sexual organ before in her life.
That is, until she picked up the soup spoon.
If it had been an accident and her date just left his fly open, that was one thing. Seeing something stiff and erect emerging from it was another. And it left her totally disgusted.
"I feel dirty, felt dirty the moment I realized why he was trying so hard to make me happy… apparently, he was very happy at making me happy…"
Jackson simply nodded and remained quiet as he led her out of the coffeehouse, paid for his coffee and a bottled water, and opened the car door for her once they were outside. The whole time, he wanted to punch something. Before getting in the driver seat, he fished for his phone and called Sakai.
Mitsui let out a yawn as he walked down the hallway to check on his children who were still sleeping soundly at that early hour. Going back to the bedroom, he placed a soft kiss on Reiko's temple and grinned at the mumble she made. It would be another hour before she rose from bed.
Marital bliss made Mitsui a much more responsible man, not that he wasn't already. He called the engineering firm he worked for and asked his secretary if he still had his job, and nearly dropped the phone when she asked him why he was asking her, since everybody at the office knows that he was on leave.
A very long leave.
A few emails and several faxes later, Mitsui resumed working for Pinnacle once more, but this time working from the house. Shortly after the twins' first birthday, he found out that Reiko's bodyguards had something to do with his employment status and the laxity of the occupational constraints his company had over him. Sakai then told him that Pinnacle was owned by the Nakamichi Corporation. He was basically told that he could never get fired.
Not wanting to be a slouch, he worked on projects his secretary sends him, and his boss was nothing short of pleased with his work. When Reiko told him he didn't have to work anymore, he laughed at her before tickling her to the ground.
"You already rule my heart. Let me at least have some dignity and do my share of the wagon-pulling. Daddy is capable of making some money to put food on the table," he said.
She kissed him and let him do as he pleased.
Placing the coffee in the coffee filter, he turned the coffeemaker on and let the dog out the back door. He was about to go upstairs to take a shower when a blinking light from the flat screen in the foyer caught his eye. Turning it on, he read a message from Fuji that nearly made him laugh out loud.
Rendezvous at the meeting ground (servants' quarters) at 1500 hours for surveillance training.
Dress in black.
Tardiness will require a beating as disciplinary measure.
Fuji still wasn't over Reiko having a hard labor because Mitsui got her pregnant. Going up the stairs as quietly as possible, he took a shower and dressed quickly before returning to the kitchen. He had a dog to walk, some blueprints to work on, a wife and kids to take to the Yoshi's restaurant for lunch, and Fuji to deal with.
It wasn't a packed day, but he knew Fuji was going to give him a beating whether he came early or late, he'd find some reason to spar him breathless whether he liked it or not.
Whoever said that whatever doesn't kill one makes one stronger had no idea what it was like to be in the shooting guard's shoes.
Ayako and Miyagi haphazardly ran into Akagi and Nanami at an electronics store. They ended up at the teahouse around the corner to chat and catch up with what's going on in their lives. After listening to Ayako and Miyagi talk happily about their recent anniversary, it was Nanami's turn to speak.
"Well, nothing much is going on with me, except my poor Aunt Ayumi's oppression."
"What?" they asked in unison.
"Well this is news to me," remarked Akagi, bringing his teacup to his lips. His fiancée sighed in frustration.
"Grandma and Grandpa are driving her nuts! Thank God I was there when Grandpa had a heat stroke. Grandma's already bullying Ayumi-chan with all these blind dates she sets her up with, and it doesn't help that Grandpa's not feeling well. Good thing Jackson-san was there the other day and helped calm her down."
The men looked at each other. "Really? Jackson-san?"
"Yes, and if it wasn't for him, I don't know how I would've gotten Ayumi-chan back into the house."
"How did he even know to go to your house at that time?"
"I asked for Reiko-chan to give me his number. I didn't know who else to call, and Ayumi-chan doesn't have too many friends… and she mentioned that he saved her once from a really bad date. I figured he could do it again."
Miyagi raised his brows at Akagi, who knew exactly what he was thinking. In all the times they've seen the guard, Reiko was not more than a few feet away, and if she was, at least two guards were always with her. It's understandable that having Mitsui around was like gaining another bodyguard, and there had been more than one occasion where the shooting guard had to leave a friendly game of basketball for his 'training exercises' at the laboratory grounds. As to what kind of training, they had no clue. They could only guess that he was being taught their craft.
Miyagi leaned his forearm against the table and looked down into his teacup. "I am willing to bet… that Reiko-san's bodyguard has something for your aunt, Nanami-chan."
Ayako lit up and gasped. "You think so?" Her husband shrugged.
"It's only a guess."
"And a good one," added Akagi. "I'm with you on this one, Miyagi."
Nanami looked past their shoulders in a thoughtful daze. "Come to think of it… he did put new locks on my apartment door that one time he took Ayumi-chan there after a bad blind date…"
"What's up with Ayumi-san and blind dates?"
She snorted her disdain. "Ask Grandma. Anyway, if Jackson-san really likes my aunt, and if she likes him back, then this blind date madness will come to a halt and she'll have her life back…" A smile slowly blossomed across her face. "She'll have her life back…"
Both teammates had a feeling that whatever was making her smile will have them involved in schemes they don't want to participate in. Ayako, on the other hand, was itching to jump in.
"Okay, here we are."
"Our target will be walking out of that building any minute now."
Mitsui raised his gaze to the sign on the side of the building.
The Center for the Performing Arts.
"Take a look at who we're looking for."
Opening the file, Mitsui heard Fuji recite verbatim what was printed on the sheet of paper, a picture of a man dressed in a suit and tie at the top corner of the page.
"Kurogawa Isamu, age thirty-one, one hundred eighty centimeters in height. Percussionist for the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Graduate of Tokyo University with a masters in music and literature. A fan of baseball and Formula One racing. Arrested for public nudity and intoxication in 2004."
Mitsui was confused. "We're going after a flasher?"
Fuji's line of sight never left the entrance of the building. "That 'flasher' is the same man who took out Yoshi-san's pastry chef last night on a blind date."
"Oh shit... did he do anything to her?"
"Nothing physical, but this guy had his fly open and crown jewels for her to see… let's just say it shocked the food out of her."
The shooting guard shook his head in disbelief at the man's image on the paper. "What a sick fuck… she's too good for that."
"Yeah, tell me about it. Listen, you're mainly here to learn how to survey your surroundings and pick up on possible escape routes. This man does not have a car, so he can either run left towards the train station, right towards the shopping district, or straight across the street. Note that not too many cars are parked around the building, and pedestrians are few at this time of night. Regardless, we cannot let this man go to a crowded place where we might lose sight of him."
"What exactly are we going to do to him, Fuji-san?"
His companion squinted at the figure that emerged from the front doors of the concert hall. "There is no we in the doing, Mitsui-san. It's just gonna be me. You're the guy calling for back-up should anything go wrong, which I highly doubt." Fuji unbuckled his seatbelt.
"Wait a minute! What if—"
"Don't worry, Mitsui-san," he said with puckish grin. "I won't involve you in anything that will make Nakamichi-dono unhappy. Just watch and learn." With a wink that unnerved the shooting guard, Fuji set out to hunt down his prey.
Mitsui watched with bated breath as Fuji approached the man on the picture, and out of nowhere their target swung at Fuji with his bag, sticks and mallets flying at him. Mitsui was nothing short of awed at the swiftness of Fuji's movements, taking the man down with one blow to the gut and crushed him to the ground with his knee. He could only guess what he was saying to the man, and within a few seconds, Fuji was back in the car putting his safety belt on.
"All right," he said with a huff, keying the engine to life. "Coffee?"
"This is Jackson."
"Ah, yes, you sound exactly like him. Jackson-san?"
"Yes, this is he speaking. May I ask who is calling?"
"I would like to request a meeting with you. My name is Kyoko and I have something very important to tell you."
"You can't tell me on the phone?"
"My my, you need more patience, young man."
"Perhaps I do. Where would you like to meet?"
"Sweetheart, I've been asked by Fuji-san to tag along for a surveillance exercise."
Mitsui's hand stopped the movement of his toothbrush against his teeth at the sight of the slight pout on his wife's lips.
"Aw, please don't be sad…"
He quickly finished brushing his teeth and approached her on the bed. "I've been learning so much from Fuji lately." She took his hand in hers and caressed it. If she wanted him to stay, he would relent. One night of tutelage wasn't worth the frown on Reiko's face.
"I know that it is important to you," she said, her other hand reaching out to his face. "When will you be back?"
"I was told it wouldn't last more than three hours, but if that's too long—"
She kissed him speechless, a tactic she craftily used to make decisions he hesitated on. He was always eager to reciprocate.
"Okay," he said breathlessly, wrapping one arm around her waist, the other over her shoulders, "it's really not that important…" He covered her lips with his and leaned her back onto the bed. Before they lost themselves in each other, Reiko pushed away to resurface for air.
"Hisashi… why do you like shadowing Fuji?"
He loved the feel of her silky locks through his fingers. "Because I want to learn more on how to protect you and the children better."
She smiled and buried her face in the crook of his neck. "You are so wonderful."
He chuckled. "I'm trying, sweetheart. I'm trying."
"Perhaps when you get back home, you can do some more trying with me." And then into his ear, a whisper. "Though I am sure that you will do more succeeding than trying."
Groaning, he rolled over so that he was on top of her. "Love, if you don't stop, you might get pregnant again."
She tried to laugh as quietly as possible as he tickled and ravaged her neck with his tongue. The children were already asleep.
"I'm sorry, the missus got me distracted."
Fuji took a long, hard look at Mitsui. "If she gets pregnant again without Yoshikawa-san's clearance, I'm going to mop the floor with your face."
"Okay okay, I got it!"
"Plain clothes, check. No makeup, check. Comfy shoes, check. Cell phone, check. Money, check. Game face on, check."
Ayumi ignored the passersby who heard her enumerating her mental list out loud. Two more blocks and she'll be at the restaurant where the fourth date asked her to meet. Her footsteps became wearier with each step that trudged forward. So far, the nicest date she's met this whole week was a klutz who looks barely over the drinking age. No gangster-rapper wanna-bes or perverts for her. She just wished that time would go a lot faster so she can be over and done with this.
It was to be Japanese cuisine for dinner, and she was surprised the date chose it. In the past, it had always been something foreign and fancy.
When she arrived at the reservation desk, the hostess seated her at a table by the far corner of the restaurant, quiet and almost secluded from the rest of the tables. After giving her drink order, she began to worry that it was almost too secluded. She rose from her seat and was about to call the hostess back when she caught sight of a silhouette of a man dressed in a suit behind the glazed glass window separating the entrance from the dining area. Pouting, she sat back down with a sigh and prayed for the evening to the uneventful. She changed to the seat facing the street, tired of how facing the wall mirrored the way she looked at how her parents meddled with her love life. She looked down at her watch. Only five minutes have passed.
She looked up to see Jackson standing with the hostess two tables down. Her eyes widened with the smile on her face. "Hello, Jackson-san! What are you doing here?"
"Sakai and I are supposed to talk about some upgrades we need to make on our vehicles. I figured, I might as well kill two birds with one stone." He glanced at his watch. "Where's your date?"
"I'm guessing he's on his way," she said, the brightness on her face waning a little. "Wait, who's the other bird?"
Grinning, he replied, "Your date."
The hostess asked him what he would like to drink, and after giving his order, he sat in a seat facing Ayumi. Seeing her two tables away was a lot closer than across-the-street away, and it afforded him much into what she was thinking. Barely or no make-up at all… the nervous tap of her right pinky against the table… hair that was long and straight and unstyled, the bottom lip she bit whenever she was apprehensive.
Jackson was jolted out of his scrutiny when his cell phone rang. Answering it, he looked down at his watch. "Is everything all right?... Why?... Oh. That's fine then, some other time… See you later."
Ayumi tried not to pay attention to his conversation, instead traced the lines of the orchid flowers on the table with her eyes.
"It seems that Sakai has a previous engagement," he said to her when the waiter came by with his tea.
"Oh…" she looked away, and the guard saw a flash of disappointment in her eyes. "I guess you'll be leaving soon then." He took a moment to guess what her face was telling him.
… Please don't leave…
"How about I stay until your date arrives?" he offered, grinning slowly at her face that brightened at his words.
"… You wouldn't mind?"
He shook his head.
"Thanks so much!"
After ten minutes passed, she asked if Jackson would share an appetizer with her, and when it came to her table, she walked over to his and handed him more than half of it. After twenty minutes, she asked the waiter if she could get a chicken katsudon, and Jackson threw in his order as well. When their meals arrived ten minutes later, Jackson moved one table closer to Ayumi's. Plunged into a detailed discussion on which James Bond actor was the best, they lost track of time, and another thirty minutes later, Jackson decided that her date wouldn't show up and sat in the seat in front of her. By then they were given desserts on the house, and after discussing which Bond girl was the most beautiful, nearly two hours have passed. He decided to change the topic.
"I'm sorry your date didn't show, Ayumi-san."
She quickly put down her drink. "Are you kidding me? I think it's great that he didn't show! It just means that I can refuse any requests for another one in the future."
"Well, I wouldn't want to date anyone who was late. I'd just say he missed the chance." She watched him smile down at his dessert. "Jackson-san, thank you so much for keeping me company. This is the best blind date I've ever been on. Well, I guess it's not really blind… or a date…" she trailed off and smirked.
The guard paused to look at her face, her eyes looking down at her dessert, cheeks that were colored with either happiness or relief, and lips that seemed rosier than when he first saw her. It made him smile.
"It's my pleasure, Ayumi-san. It's better to have dinner with a beautiful woman than with a beautiful man."
Regardless of the flush in her cheeks, she giggled at the thought of Sakai hearing Jackson describe him as beautiful.
Mitsui took the binoculars off his face.
"They seem to be having a good time…"
"Yeah, what a shocker, right?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Jackson's always been this stoic guy, never really says anything unless it's important… He's never really enjoyed himself till we met you and your friends. I guess now that Nakamichi-dono's happy, he's slowly letting himself loosen up."
Mitsui smiled at the two they've been spying on, then quickly sobered at some harrowing thought. "Hey… what if he finds out we've been spying on him all this time?"
Fuji shrugged. "Probably beat the shit out of us."
Aghast, Mitsui turned to his nonchalant companion. "What?! How can you be so cavalier about that?"
"Because I know how to defend myself," he answered, a smug look on his face.
Mitsui started the engine and put on his safety belt. "Well, I don't, so I say we get the hell out of here before he finds out."
As he pulled out of their parking spot, Fuji laughed so hard at his paranoid colleague that he failed to see the watchful eyes that saw them from the entrance of the restaurant.
The bakery was packed that morning, and the old baker and his wife were overwhelmed. It was a God-send that Ayumi showed up early when she did, and she immediately put an apron on and jumped behind the counter to tend to customers.
"What's going on, why's it so crowded?" she spoke above the din of the patrons inside.
"It seems that the kids have some kind of membership drive for the university clubs," yelled the baker's wife.
"Ayumi-chan, please help Mama here for a bit, I have to take care of these orders." The old man took a stack of order lists with him to the back where the ovens were full of pastries and kolaches.
The pick-ups for the orders and the customers didn't stop pouring in, and it seemed that more people filled the bakery with each quarter hour that passed. Ayumi's eyes were swirling, and if she felt like this, she could only imagine what it felt like to have the old couple's old bones. It got so crowded that there was a line forming out the door, all patrons hoping that they would get even a morsel of bread with all the people taking out boxes of orders.
Cooling down from his run, Jackson slowed to a jog and approached the jam-packed bakery, wondering what the fuss was. Every single person there tried not to touch his sweat-drenched shirt, and after some light shoving and pushing, he finally made it to the ovens in the back where the old man was so happy he was there, he screamed.
"Hey! Jackson-san, you're a mind-reader! How did you know I was hoping you'd come by?"
The guard grinned sheepishly. "Actually, I forgot to bring a spare shirt, and I was wondering if I can buy one of those shirts from you."
The baker waved him off. "Hell, you can have one if you could just help me for the next hour. I have to help Mama and Ayumi-chan in the front."
"Ayumi-san is here?"
Tickled by his brightened face, the baker never missed a chance to tease. "Why Jackson-san, don't tell me Ayumi-chan tickles your fancy…"
He was so red at the statement that he grumbled in response. "Don't you have to help your wife at the front?"
Out the baker went, laughing as he donned his apron on. A few minutes later after loading five trays of kolaches and cinnamon rolls, a shirt went launching into his face. Quickly peeling it off his face, he didn't have to know who the culprit was. He'd save payback for later.
After the last tray of muffins was plucked from the oven and the last box of orders picked up, the baker and his wife laughed when Ayumi sagged against the backside of the pastry case, blowing away the few locks that came undone from her impromptu ponytail earlier. "Ojii-chan, Obaa-chan… how do you do it… my legs feel like jell-o… if you don't mind, I'm going to just wilt here for a while…"
"Why, we can't have that!" sang the baker's wife. She was just as playful as her husband. "Don't worry, I can get you propped up in no time." She motioned to her husband who nodded back.
Ayumi had closed her eyes in bliss when the coupled babbled on about hanging up the sold-out sign by the door. She was so tired, she didn't want to move. For a few moments, she thought of being light as a cloud, of floating up to the clouds and staying there for a while. And all of a sudden, she was.
Blinking her eyes open, she realized she was four feet off the ground, hoisted up by arms that held her against a solid chest in a bridal hold.
"Place her over here, Jackson-san," the baker said as he pulled a seat. "All right, careful now, that's precious cargo… she's like a goose that lays golden eggs…"
"A goose?! Ojii-chan, I'm not a bird! And you, let me down this instant!"
She tried to wiggle in his hold, but she knew she wasn't going to be let down if he didn't want to. Damn his brute strength.
He took his time in getting to the seat, speaking in a very low timbre. "Don't worry, Ayumi-san. Even if you are a goose, you're the most beautiful and work-efficient goose I've ever seen."
Her eyes widened at the comment and he laughed at her narrowed eyes, lips twisting in disdain. She finally landed in her seat and immediately rested her head against her forearms on the table. "You're lucky I'm too tired, Jackson-san. Otherwise…"
Ayumi had fallen asleep.
It was raining so hard that the windows sounded like it was getting hit by small pebbles. The thunder scared the little ones and had the dog on edge, all of them huddling close to Reiko.
"There there, no one will harm you," she cooed softly to the twins while patting the dog's head.
Reiko smiled and caressed her daughter's head. "Daddy went out for an errand, he should be back soon."
She pouted. "Dada…"
The intercom sounded in the living room and she got up to answer it.
"Nakamichi-dono, are you all right?"
"Yes, we are fine."
"I've been asked by Mitsui-san to watch over you in the house, would that be all right?"
"Yes, that would be nice."
When Fuji appeared in the living room, the children cheered and ambled towards him. They were Fuji's number one fan. After a few minutes of toddler lifting and swinging, he got a break when they preoccupied themselves with animal books on the floor.
"Nakamichi-dono, the men should be back soon with dinner."
She chuckled and got up from her seat. "They had a snack earlier, so even if it takes a little while longer, they should be fine."
The front door suddenly unlocked and opened, and a soaking Mitsui stepped inside, carrying a plastic bag of dinner entrées. He set them down on a side table.
"Hisashi!" exclaimed Reiko, running immediately to the bathroom to get some towels.
"I'm fine, sweetie, it's only rain!" he yelled behind her. Meeting Fuji's grin, he motioned for him to come over.
"Hey, what's up?"
"There was a little trouble at the restaurant."
Fuji stilled and glanced at the children. "Is everyone okay?" he asked quietly.
Mitsui smiled at his approaching wife and Fuji copied his demeanor. "Thanks for the towels." She took one of the towels and draped one over his head like a nun. Pleased with her work, she went back to the children. As soon as she was seated, Mitsui continued calmly.
"While we were there, Takumi ran to us and said that some man went through the back entrance of the kitchen and took Ayumi-san. He moved so fast that by the time they rushed out to chase him, he and Ayumi-san were gone."
The guard's brows furrowed. "Where is everyone now?"
"Sakai-san is staying with Yoshi-san at the restaurant, and Jackson-san took the car to go look for them. I took Yoshi-san's car to get here, he said he didn't want the children and Reiko to go hungry."
"Did he request for back-up?"
Suddenly, Fuji's cell phone rang. Answering it, he walked away from living room and down the hallway, speaking in hushed tones. While he did so, Mitsui called out to his wife and excused himself for a quick hot shower. When he came back down the stairs, Fuji was back on the floor with the kids. Reiko was opening the boxes of food for the children while the dog barked at Mitsui.
"Hey boy," he greeted, tapping both hands against his lap and immediately the corgi jumped at him. Catching the dog, Mitsui rubbed one of its ears. "Good boy!" Walking to where the children were, his daughter latched onto him like a monkey and his son babbled at the animal pictures. Throwing Fuji a look, the guard nodded. Reiko called out to the kids and placed a bib on each one before feeding them. Fuji excused himself.
"Nakamichi-dono, I'll be going now. Let me know if you need anything, okay?"
She smiled and nodded, with the children waving goodbye to him. Mitsui walked down the hallway with him.
"So, what did he say?"
"He said to go find him if he doesn't call back in an hour."
Mitsui sized up his colleague's stance for a few moments. "I'm assuming you're not too worried about it?"
They had approached the back door in the kitchen. Fuji turned to Mitsui.
"Right now, I am more worried for the guy who took Ayumi-san. Jackson sounded really pissed on the phone, and I just hope he doesn't kill the guy." He reached for the doorknob and opened the door. "It should be okay, Mitsui-san. Jackson isn't the lead guard for nothing. He probably doesn't want us to rush out because he doesn't want us to see him so angry. He's low-key like that. Well, you know where to find me if you need me." Patting Mitsui's shoulder, Fuji walked back to the servants' house, leaving Mitsui to imagine Jackson in his fury.
He had pulled into an unpaved roadway that was hidden by the trees, not far from the main road. Putting the car in park and turning the engine off, he took a few seconds to stare at the sheets of rain that poured against the windshield. He then unbuckled his safety belt and turned to his right.
"So… why did you not return my phone calls?" he asked, his tone calm but menacing.
Ayumi couldn't help but cry quietly, holding herself so tight, trying to keep herself from shaking.
She nearly jumped out of her seat, hitting her side against the door. "I—I wasn't aware that you called."
She curled her head down and wanted to ball herself up. She quivered at his touch, and the fingertips he slid against her neck were ice cold, tracing a slow, slithering path to her chin. He then grabbed it violently and forced her to look at him.
"Why didn't you wait for me at the restaurant?!"
"I did, I waited for two hours!" she shouted, squirming at his touch.
He let her go and leaned his left arm against the steering wheel, still looking at her. "So I got a little tied up… you should've waited a little longer for me."
Ayumi choked her sobs and wanted to flee. She had never imagined the fourth date to be a psychopath, and she was thinking of the worst. There were no streetlamps to light the road for another half mile, and even if there were, it would take hawk eyes to see through the rain, the trees and the darkness to find them.
"Since we missed our first introduction, allow me to do so," he said, snaking his hand on her neck. "My name is Shintaro Tanaka."
Ayumi couldn't stand him touching her anymore. "Get away from me!" She shoved him away and managed to miss his grabbing hands when she opened the door. Thank God she didn't wear the safety belt. She got out and ran as fast as she could. Not being able to see in the dark didn't really matter when rain pelted one's eyes; all that mattered was that the snake that was screaming after her doesn't touch her again.
"Get over here, we're not finished yet!" he yelled, reaching and tackling her down to the ground. Rolling her over to her back, he pinned her arms above her head and grinned at her like the devil. "That's it, that's just how I want you… on your back and begging…"
Ayumi struggled to move against his weight, and the moment his lips made contact with her neck, she wanted to vomit.
"Stop, don't do this!"
The man only laughed.
She kept wiggling her legs in an effort to free herself of him, and just when she felt his tongue against her collarbone, the weight on her suddenly disappeared. Realizing she was free from his hold, she immediately got up and began to run. She swiped her eyes with a hand and squinted up ahead. It seemed that she was nearing the main road. When her legs began to fail her, she crashed abruptly into something solid and metal, bouncing off like a wet tennis ball to her backside. Groaning, she got up again and touched at the object in front of her. It was a car. She felt around for the handle and found it, crying once more when she discovered it was locked. There was no choice but to run again, and so she did, but only for a few more yards or so as she slowed to a fast-paced walk up the main road towards the restaurant.
Ayumi shivered as she walked on, holding herself tightly, trying to keep her teeth from chattering wildly in the cold. She could barely hear anything apart from the rain falling down, and she hoped that no one would run her over as she walked on the road. She thought she heard something but chose to ignore it, instead forcing herself to walk faster and silently crying in fear. When her ears caught the same sound again, she stopped in her tracks. Straining to listen, she finally made out what she heard.
"Ayumiiii! Where are you!!? Ayumiiii!"
She gasped. "Jackson-san?!"
She remained in place, praying to God it was him. Swiping the rain off her eyes, she waited until she could hear the sound of footsteps against the road.
"Ayumi! Tell me you're all right!"
She cried even more at his voice, her head jolting back when his body crashed into hers and wrapped her in his arms of steel.
"Are you hurt? What did he do to you? Did I get there in time?"
She still couldn't answer him, she was relieved speechless at his presence. He momentarily let go, only to lift her up off the ground and carry her, and she could do nothing more than hold onto him with her arms around his neck.
"I'm sorry, Ayumi-san, I'm so sorry… I should've kept a closer watch on you…"
She shook her head in the crook of his neck, his grip tightening on her.
"Don't be sorry. Never be sorry for saving my life…"
When they got to the car, he opened the door and placed her in the passenger seat, fastening the safety belt over her before running to the driver side of the car. As soon as he pushed a button, the engine roared to life and the lights turned on the dash. When she could finally see, she noticed that there was no key hole for a car key.
"You don't need keys to drive this car?"
"It's a push-button start. The key just has to be on your person for you to open the door and start the engine."
It was no wonder she couldn't open the car door earlier.
He pushed a few more buttons when he got back on the main road, one of them was some sort of speakerphone. "Fuji, it's Jackson. I found her. Have Sakai disengage the alarms at the summer house. Call the police and tell them that there's a man unconscious on the side of the road, about half a mile after the last streetlamp going south. Secure everyone at home and make sure Yoshi-san is accompanied to his house tonight. Better yet, make him stay at the Nakamichi estate. I will inform you of more details later."
Jackson didn't even give the younger guard a chance to speak before hanging up.
"Ayumi-san, are you bleeding anywhere?"
She turned on the light by her visor and looked down at herself. She had some cuts on both palms, some shallow, some deep. Her knees had cuts on them as well, but nothing some antiseptic and band-aids couldn't take care of. "I just have a few cuts, I'm not gushing out or anything."
"I'll be taking you to the same house where you and I stayed before…"
He was driving extremely fast, scanning the cars on the highway and overtaking them to get to their exit faster. The whole trip was a blur to Ayumi, and before she knew it, they had parked into a driveway of a large house in an affluent district.
"Don't move, I'll come get you," he said as he unbuckled his safety belt.
"I can—" He already closed the driver's side door."Get out by myself," she continued in a murmur.
He carried her into the house and placed her gently onto of the granite kitchen counter, Ayumi shivering at the cold surface. Mumbling an apology, he took a throw blanket from the sofa and draped it over her shoulders. He then began a survey of her injuries, noting the bruise by her left temple and the cuts she mentioned earlier. Deeming them slight, he led her to the bathroom where he turned the hot water on for her and gave her towels and a bathrobe.
"Leave your clothes out the door and I'll wash them for you."
She thanked him and he left her to wash off the dirt and grime and the sticky nastiness of that man's tongue on her skin. She must've stood under the shower head for an hour, her fingers were soft and pruny by the time she shut the water off. She was more surprised at the fact that there were more patches of red tender skin on her back than she was at the mirror not being foggy, no doubt from being forced on the rocky ground Sighing, there was nothing she could do about them, except hide it from her family, especially Jackson. She remembered how livid he was that time he found out she got slapped. She didn't even know if there was enough of Shintaro Tanaka to beat, she just speculated that he was already ground meat on the dirt path.
When she walked back to the kitchen in the bathrobe, Jackson was nowhere to be found. She chose to stay put, leaning against the kitchen counter where she sat before. Taking a look at her surroundings, she noted the tall ceilings and glass windows that over looked the bay. She wondered if it was his home. Cautiously, she moved around the kitchen, finding the pantry and she comforted at the sight of a canister of tea on the shelf.
With the clothes in the dryer, Jackson walked out of the laundry room while putting on a shirt. He went by the bathroom and found it empty.
"Ayumi-san?" he called out.
She sat on a bench by the window, facing the bay, with a steaming cup of tea in her hands, and another cup on the side table. He took a deep breath and walked slowly towards her, making his footsteps deliberate, not knowing how she'd react with him there. He sat at the other end of the bench.
"This is for you," she said, picking up the teacup and holding it out to him. Taking it from her with both hands, he nodded slightly.
"Thank you." He faced the bay and looked at the glittering lights of the city.
"Where did you go?"
"To the laundry room. Our clothes are drying."
"This place is awfully big if only one person was to live in it."
He turned his head slightly at her. "Yes, it is. It's even bigger when no one lives here."
A small smile.
"You don't live here?"
"Unfortunately, no. This is one of the summer houses owned by the Nakamichi family."
"Besides, this wouldn't be a house I'd choose to live in."
"There are too many windows… they can be easily breached… and plus it'd get hot in the summertime on the side of the house that faces west, and there are a lot more windows there."
"So where would you live?"
"Hm…" Jackson took a long moment to contemplate on his answer. "Well, for starters, it wouldn't be in the city. It would be far away from it, on a plot of land several acres large. There'd be enough trees around it, with plenty of shrubbery and foliage. I have to have a place to set up booby traps for unwanted guests."
She giggled before taking a sip.
"I'd have a hammock in the back porch to read a lot of the books I'll have in my study, and a kitchen that Yoshi-san would approve of."
"You like to cook?"
"It's a necessity if you're going to be alone. The dog I'm going to have certainly won't do it for me. I can only cook simple stuff."
"I envy the fact that you can choose to live alone."
Jackson was quieted by her comment. A long bout of silence passed between them.
"It's not really a choice, Ayumi-san… for a long time now, I thought that that's how I would have to live the rest of my life."
There was something hidden behind his words. "… Then… there was somebody you wanted to live with you…" It was a statement more than a question.
Jackson took a long sip of his tea. "She was Nakamichi-dono's sister."
Ayumi's eyes widened a little as she looked down at her tea. She knew Reiko was beautiful, and she could only imagine what the sister looked like.
"She… she died over a decade ago… so it's been the solo life for me… well, if you don't count living with three other guards."
"I'm sorry I brought it up," she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
The lights on the bay from the boats looked like slow-moving fireflies in Jackson's eyes. "Don't be sorry. I've come to terms with it." She turned to him, her eyes on the wooden floor.
"The grass is truly greener on your side, Jackson-san."
He didn't know what to say to that.
"We have more in common than I thought… except you have time on your side."
"… I'm afraid I don't understand."
"They say that time chips away at glaciers of sorrows that nothing can melt…"
"… It wasn't easy. I had help."
"Oh, thank you, by the way, for saving me. Again. For the…" she trailed off, ticking off with her fingers how many times she can remember being rescued. "Well, for so many times, I've lost count."
His teacup was empty now, and there was nothing left to calm him before saying what he wanted to say. If he had the courage to say it.
"This evening wouldn't have happened if I took more precautions for your safety."
Ayumi's brow furrowed. "But I was at the restaurant working, not on a blind—"
"That doesn't matter. When I agreed to protect you, it's supposed to be round the clock, even when I'm not there. I should've made sure—"
He had no choice but to obey, her voice sounded so despondent.
"We're funny people, aren't we, Jackson-san? Always unhappy, even though we do great things that make other people happy… well, I speak for myself with that last statement."
The corners of his lips turned up. "So I'm just funny now?"
She shrugged with a sad smile.
"I'm not unhappy… but I'm not content either. I could be happier, but… it's not up to me."
"Who's it up to, then?" she asked absently, staring at the glowing lights of the bay.
Jackson angled his head at her and gave her a long look.
"Ayumi-san, you mentioned once that you thought there might be a chance of you finding one of your blind dates acceptable to you. Is that still true?"
She slowly nodded. "Yes, but… I don't know… if I wasn't so jaded with all the ones I'm set up with, I'd still cling to that thought… but… I think maybe my first attempt at love ruined me…"
Jackson placed the empty teacup on the side table on his side. "On the contrary, I think it saved you. I think… he saved you."
She moved her eyes to the bodyguard, now resting his elbows on his knees. He traced thick fingers against the lip of the cup. "I think… that some people were put here on this planet to make you realize that you're capable of loving… and for them, it's enough to love you and spend time with you… because… given enough time, perhaps you would love them back…"
Ayumi bent her head down, wondering why Jackson knew how she felt all too well. "Is that what you thought with Reiko-san's sister?" She could almost hear him bite his tongue, and she was sorry her words silenced him. After what seemed like a day of silence, she stood up, head still bent. "I apologize for making you uncomfortable. I guess all I really know how to do is make cakes and pastries." She eyed the empty cup in his hands. "I'll get you some more tea if you'd like."
He looked at her and hesitated for a moment, finally giving in at her outstretched hand. He was about to place the cup in her hand when he saw the cuts on her palm. "God, what was I thinking?"
"I didn't tend to your hands after your shower," he said, getting up from his seat and took her gently by the wrist and leading her back to the kitchen. He took an emergency kit from one of the cabinets. He just smiled when she asked him if he had an emergency kit in every room, and stifled a laugh when she mumbled that he probably had bandages in his back pocket.
"But I currently have no back pockets, Ayumi-san." She quickly glanced at his apparel when he turned around to return the cups by the island stove. He was right, sweatpants don't have back pockets, and they didn't do a good job of hiding muscular backsides. Shocked at what she just thought, she turned her head away, blushing furiously. When he turned back around, she had her eyes shut tight.
"Um… you're done now, right, doctor?"
She waited for a response, her eyes cracking open when she heard none and somewhat relieved that he was now facing her, eyes on the floor.
"Ayumi-san, I… yes, I'm done…"
She relaxed a little, shifting her eyes to the light reflecting off the granite countertop, trying not to notice the ripped muscles of his forearms. When she prayed for help, she didn't expect God to send a perfect creation to carry out the job. Chiseled muscles meant honed strength. Strength that pushed her down on the ground and tried to ravage her. The same strength that saved her from losing her virtue. She quietly sighed, blinking at the tiring gravity of the dichotomy of male strength.
"What you said about me earlier was right, Ayumi-san."
She looked down at the same spot he'd been staring at, wondering if she missed something interesting.
"I meant… that I do have time on my side…"
She understood now why he was silent earlier. She brought her bandaged hands up and waved him off. "Oh no, it's my fault, I really shouldn't have brought it up."
He grazed a knuckle against his brow. "… I think you misinterpreted what I was trying to say."
"… Where'd I go wrong?"
He brought his gaze back to her eyes, and after a few moments of its intensity, she blinked.
"I wasn't referring to Midori earlier… I was referring to you."
Ayumi could feel her cheeks go up in flames, hoping that staring at his plain white shirt would bleach her vision out. Then she wouldn't have anything to focus on that could betray her emotions even further.
"The man you spoke of at the skating rink, you underestimated him. He knew exactly what he was saying, because I see what he saw. He was right to love you beyond words… right to tell you that you're strong… and right again that the someone you will love in the future will indeed be the luckiest man on earth."
If she could reach for her heart that felt like it was lodged in her throat, she would.
"I watch people everyday… I do it for a living. I can tell a lot just by looking at a person's posture and movements, and when I do it long enough, I can predict what the person will do next. But ever since I started watching over you, I'm slowly losing this ability to predict… I know when you wear the poker face, and you're good at making it sincere… even I fell for it a few times. But I know when you sit across that table from any blind date, the smiles aren't what you feel inside."
"Your smiles are distracting, and unless I take long and hard enough look into your eyes, I wouldn't see what you really feel."
He was reading her like a book and she hated feeling so vulnerable. She quickly looked away, swinging her gaze to the windows, then back again to the countertop against which his hands rested.
Ayumi blinked before pushing off the counter gingerly, minding the tender muscles of her back. She fought the urge to grimace when her back spasmed in pain and forgot his scrutinizing eyes. "It's unfair that you only tend to my injuries and not yours," she said, her attention honed in on the bruises that started forming around the crust of blood.
Looking down at his hand, he was surprised to find dry blood there. "Oh… I didn't even notice."
It figured that a tough man like him wouldn't notice.
Jackson nearly jumped at her touch, her fingers were like icicles against his skin. "Your hand—"
"I'm completely jealous now… Jackson-san," she said, her eyes fixed at the link she made with his hand. "You're free to choose how to live your life, you don't hurt inside anymore, and you probably don't ever have to worry about being cold. You're a walking furnace."
He gently gathered her hands and trapped them in his, bringing them closer to his mouth and slowly blew his warm breath against them.
"I knew it… You may look human in disguise, but the truth is you're really a dragon. That's why you're so warm!"
He let himself smile, only to realize that she had once again succeeded in slowing his heart and lightening the mood. He continued to blow against her hands.
"Any second now, fire will shoot out of your mouth."
He stopped midway of exhaling, about to say something in his defense when he noticed that she was trembling. She was that cold? He looked at her face and saw her bottom lip trapped between her teeth, her gaze still on his hands that held hers. "Ayumi-san…?"
"He was so disgusting … he made me feel like helpless trash…"
She was having a flashback of what the animal did to her, and he didn't know how to take the memory away from her mind. He pulled her closer and held her against him, wishing he could absorb all the fear and anxiety from her. How could so many awful things happen to a sweet and cheerful soul?
"This was my fault," she mumbled against his chest.
"What? How could you say that? You didn't ask to be hurt!"
"… Had I opposed my parents from the beginning, if only I had some backbone to stand up for myself back then, this wouldn't have happened…"
He tightened his hold on her. "No, please don't think like that… none of this is your fault… none of it… I promise, Ayumi-san… I promise this will never happen to you again, ever…"
Ayumi ground her forehead against him. "… That would mean that you'd be watching over me twenty-four seven… I can think of a hundred many other better things you could do with your time…"
Jackson brought a hand to her head and stroked at her silk of her hair. "Is it so bad to look after you?"
She hesitated. "It would be bad for my superhero reputation." Her reply made him rest his cheek against the top of her head. This man was so nice to her, saved her too many times to count. She welcomed the comfort he gave her like second nature, and she didn't know why she felt so guilty in finding solace in him. Was it because it was like betraying the person she loved in the past? She didn't know. Perhaps she was just afraid of losing his friendship because it was tiring to have to save the damsel who was always in distress. She didn't have many close friends.
Jackson was frustrated at how she could easily make him feel at ease when he couldn't even stop her from shaking in fear. "Every superhero has a sidekick. Guess what? You have one now." He felt her go still.
"… Will you be wearing tights?"
A chuckle escaped from him. "No."
"Because I might have to go back to Yoshi-san and get a new fairy godfather… I refuse to have one who has less fashion sense than I do."
She didn't know why, but it felt good to hear him laugh, to feel the bass of his voice reverberate against her. It was then she knew that Jackson was more than just a friend to her, and more than just volunteered muscle to fend away the demons that claw after her.
He was a sanctuary.
Mitsui carried his daughter on his shoulders and held onto his walking son's hand, while Reiko held onto the other hand. Miller had already gone ahead and picked their usual spot in the park, and as expected, the picnic blanket was already spread and smoothed out, ready cherry blossom viewing. Fuji trailed behind with the picnic basket, still frowning at the playful accusation shot by Miller that he was better suited to carry it since he would most likely be the one eating most of the food from it. Fuji was frowning because Miller was right.
Sakai joined the group a little later, surprising everyone with ice cream he had purchased from a vendor on the street. Taking one of the twins onto their laps, Fuji and Miller pointed out the falling petals which made the children stare with gaping mouths. Handing a cup of tea to Sakai, the guard thanked Reiko and sat back contentedly, watching the scenery before them.
"Where has Jackson-san been lately?" Mitsui asked, taking a bite off a watermelon wedge.
"I'm sure he's around," commented Sakai, sipping at his tea. "In fact, you might see him around any minute now."
Wordlessly, Mitsui was handed a pair of small binoculars, Sakai instructing him to look north by northwest.
"What am I looki—"
Mitsui remained silent for a long moment, the smile on his lips growing by the second.
"Mom, I don't see the point in this…"
"Come now, Ayumi-chan! It's a beautiful day, showered with exquisite pink petals all around!"
Ayumi knew that there had to be a reason why her mother made her go to the salon and stop at a clothing store on the way to the park. It wasn't because they were going for a casual stroll in the park. She frowned blatantly at her mother.
"Okay fine, you got me. I just wanted you to meet someone here, that's all!"
"What? The park is a lovely place to meet at this time of year! Look around you!"
If her mother was decided on being happy, there was nothing to sway her from it. Not even a refusal. So she sat down on the nearest bench and did as she was told.
"He's the one, I'm sure of it," her mother chattered happily.
Ayumi rolled her eyes.
"He's really tall, and quite handsome… he makes a lot of money, has a stable job, and is very polite…"
Where had she heard this before?
"Blah blah blah, blah blah…"
Ayumi blankly stared at the falling petals ahead of her. When something moved from her left field of vision, she blinked and shifted her gaze to the form slowly approaching.
"He lives around the area and frequents the same bakery you do, Ayumi-chan! Isn't that wonderful? Now you'll have someone to talk to at the bakery!"
Her mother's voice didn't even register in her mind as she focused her eyes intently at the man coming towards them. When his face finally came within a recognizable distance, her back was ramrod straight.
"Mom, how did you say you met this man again?"
"Oh, at home! I found out he knew about you from before… said that you ran into each other a while back and commented that it was a smashing introduction!"
… The almond extract bottle? Smashing, indeed… What was she to say to him now?
"Ah, here he is, Ayumi-chan!" Her mother waved at the man in a blue dress shirt and tie. The broad shoulders, that professional posture, the hulking physique… and that face. Ayumi was deciding whether or not to cover her face, or just run away altogether. The embarrassment burned her to the roots of her hair.
"Jackson-san! Thank you for coming out today to meet my daughter. This is Ayumi, my youngest. Ayumi-chan, this is Jackson Toshiro-san. He said you've met him before?"
The guard noticed that Ayumi was seconds late in putting on her mask. "Ah, oh, yeah, yes… that… smashing introduction," she stuttered, halfway holding her hand out for a shake, only to retract it and bow politely before him. "It's nice to meet you, Jackson-san."
How many times were they going to be introduced to each other?
"It's a pleasure to finally see you again, Kawamori-san."
Her eyes lifted to meet his, the warm glint from his gaze stilling her beating heart. "Please, call me Ayumi."
Her mother's voice bubbled in delight. "Oh, on such an informal level already! Anyway, I'm so glad that you two are able to meet today. I have a book club meeting to attend, and it's my turn to host, and you know the host can't be late!" she singsonged, smiling sweetly at her daughter.
"No, Mom, you can't. You'd better go, otherwise they might throw a book at you."
Her mother just laughed at her. "All right then. Jackson-san, I take it you will take good care of my daughter?"
His bass voice was unnerving Ayumi. "She's in good hands, ma'am."
Ayumi's mother sighed loudly. "Isn't that nice to hear? Well, I'll be going. See you at home!"
Jackson watched the elderly Kyoko disappear into the intersection of crossing people. How did an old lady manage to walk so fast? When he returned his gaze to Ayumi, she looked so shocked and confused. "Ayumi-san?"
"How… when… did you deliberately call my mother to do this?"
Jackson felt like his decision to meet her at the park was suddenly bad. "As a matter of fact, she called me…"
"Ayumi-san, I can explain—"
"Jackson-san, it's a really sweet gesture, but you don't have to force yourself to do this—"
"I wasn't forced, Ayumi-san. I chose to be here. She somehow got my phone number from Nanami-san and asked if I would meet you here today."
Ayumi sat down, still confused. The guard took the seat next to her.
"… Do you not want me to be here, Ayumi-san?"
" No no, I do, I do… I just… I feel as if I owe you an apology."
He laughed. "What for?"
"… She really, really likes you, from how she described you to me… I thought you were gonna be just another jerk like all the other ones..."
She smiled. "That's not what I meant. I mean… it's just that… she'll demand an explanation when this whole charade ends…"
"This is a charade?"
Jackson decided to change the subject. "So tell me then, what will she do if she finds out that this is the charade you're suggesting?"
Looking down the ground where a swirl of petals eddied, she thought out loud. "She'll be upset if she found out… and tell me how she went through lengths to set you up with me… how a good catch you would've been… and then she'll cry and say that it'll be her fault if I live the rest of my life in solitude… the same dramatic soliloquy."
He sat back in his seat. "Perhaps she doesn't have to know."
Ayumi's face twisted. "Are you kidding? If she sees us getting along, she'll want to demand a date and call your mother to plot a wedding! I don't want you to be shackled to me just because you were trying to be nice."
"… Are you sure it's because you don't want to be married?"
"No… that's not it… I'm saying, that I don't want anybody to be stuck with someone they didn't like for the rest of their lives."
"Does that mean you don't like me?"
She laughed. "I was referring to you, silly."
"I don't see any problem there. I like you a lot, Ayumi-san."
"I like you a lot, too, Jackson-san, and that's why I don't want to lose your friendship later on because of this charade."
"Who said anything about losing my friendship?"
Ayumi paused. This conversation was going in a direction that made her very warm and uncomfortable. It made her heart trip beats.
"… I'm just saying… that you're a really nice person, and if you… if we…"
The guard could feel her resolve falter. Though elated at admission that he was a cherished friend, he wanted to know if she was willing to take a risk.
"I asked you once before… if there was a chance of you finding an acceptable blind date in all the ones your mother set you up with… is there?"
She was quieted by the question. Why did he have to be so frank and sincere to the point of pain? She was defenseless against this man, and there was no front she could put up to hide behind. His x-ray vision would see right through it.
Taking a deep breath, he let out a quiet sigh. "Ayumi-san… if this person was acceptable in your eyes and someone you liked… someone who wanted nothing more than your safety and to see the real smile on your face… someone who would give up his life to see to your protection… who couldn't stop thinking about you everyday… do you think there's a chance for this person…?"
Ayumi could've sworn the weatherman said it would be a nice day that day, with cloudy skies and mildly warm temperatures. There was nothing mild about the temperature Ayumi was feeling, she felt like an ant under a magnifying glass on a very sunny day. She couldn't answer him. She knew he was talking about himself, and this was no longer playful banter.
"Then… perhaps… would the man you loved before approve of this person?"
She closed her eyes and tried not to see in her mind's eye her beloved's smiling face and a resounding 'yes' from his lips. Because if he knew Jackson, they would be really good friends…
"I-if… if there was a chance… why would this person want to know?"
Ball in his court.
"Because… this person wants to take his first step of freedom towards someone who is comforting and struggling to find freedom herself."
"… What… imprisoned him?"
He tilted his head towards her. "The past."
On any other ordinary day, Ayumi imagined that the sparse people in the park in the middle of a workday would think that they were merely a pair of people talking on a park bench. She had a sinking feeling that the image was slowly dissolving into some other kind of pair. The kind that involved commitment. She momentarily met his eyes and quickly averted her gaze. A bug couldn't very well yell back at the man looking at it through a microscope, could it?
Hello, my name is Ayumi and I thought you were really handsome since the day I met you, and even more so when you ran into me in front of the grocery store. You take a piece of me every time you come to the rescue, and if you keep at it, there won't be anything left of me to take. So please, don't be so dashing and hang up the cape… don't sound like you care so much… don't look at me like I mean something to you… don't make me feel so safe in your arms… because if you keep taking pieces of me, I won't be able to keep myself from—
"This person knows you are capable of loving, but for this person, it's not enough to love you or spend time with you… because… he wants exclusive rights to look after you… to get you a pair of Nike shoes if you want to run, as long as you'll let him run with you… to appease your mother so you can be free to do whatever you want… to hear you laugh and be there when you cry… to keep a promise to you that no man will ever hurt you again… all in the hopes of finding favor in your sight, and… a chance, slim as it may be… to be loved in return."
Jackson, for all his strength and chivalry, couldn't stop the words from pouring out of his mouth. It was as if all the observation, the meticulous study of the woman next to him had culminated into words and feelings that refused to be held in and gushed out with reckless abandon. He knew she felt uncomfortable; so did he. As long and hard as he thought about it, even before deciding to agree with Ayumi's mother to meet with her on this so-called first introduction, he knew that he could no longer stand by and watch Ayumi meet man after beastly man, constantly disappointed and never redeemed. Somewhere between making baked goods and blind date shadowing, he unknowingly let his heart's guard down and got shot. And somewhere on her person, Ayumi kept the smoking gun and she had no clue.
"Um… well… you see… I think I have a lot in common with, this person, and… but…"
"But I… I'm afraid…"
"Because!... Because… I heard he was a dragon disguised as a superhero…"
Jackson's lips slowly parted in puzzlement.
"And he does a lot of good things… great things, for the common folk… rescues helpless people with underdeveloped backbones…"
"And I don't know if I can live up to his expectations, as I'm sure they're high—"
"How do you know? Have you asked him what they are?"
"I don't have to ask, I just know… and… um… you know how in the Superman movies, all the girls swoon and cheer over him because he's spectacular and wonderful and so nice? I feel like I'm the girl who was drowning, or the one who fell into a big crack after an earthquake, the one who died and required him to fly counterclockwise around the Earth to reverse time and save her before she was buried alive… I'm too busy getting into trouble to swoon and cheer… and even though I think the world of this Superman, I will always be just another girl he has to save because I have a hard time standing up for myself and getting rid of the bad guys on my own. And as grateful and happy as I am that he continues to do this for me, I feel like… like it's a lot of hard work for him that he doesn't have to do, and… I don't want him to have to work so hard and… I want him to be happy, too, because he's such an awesome friend and I… I don't want to lose this friend if I were to cross the line… I'm not making any sense, am I?"
He smiled at her, making her smile and grimace at the same time.
"All this is, is a matter of pastries."
Jackson gave her a questioning look.
"My pastries in return for his protection. A transaction. Except, I am the one benefiting more from it, and I don't think it's very fair at all… all this person's hard work for pastries… It's like working for pennies on the dollar."
"Not only that…"
"Not only do I fear my friendship change into something more with this person… I fear that if it does and, if I don't grow a spine soon and he determines I'm too much work, he will go away, just as I had no confidence to tell the other person how I felt and he left without hearing me say it… then… I will lose my only sanctuary."
Ayumi reached a hand to her face and swept a straying lock of hair behind her ear, wishing for a cure for senseless banter. She felt the air beside her move and blinked to find Jackson standing right in front of her, smiling, looking at her with the same warm eyes that were foreign in color but friendly in feel.
"It's not a lot of work, Ayumi-san. It's what I want to do. I want to protect you so you can keep smiling and making me laugh all the time. I want to keep you out of trouble, and you don't have to swoon or cheer… I do a lot of that already when I'm around you. So just let me keep my promise. Please let me keep you safe, let me be close to you and let me know that you like me for me, and not for being mere muscle."
"If you're mere muscle, Jackson-san, then you're the kindest, strongest gentlest muscle I've ever known." She stood up, keeping her eyes to the ground. "I don't know if… if I can be anything more than what you have already seen…"
Another breeze unhooked the same lock of hair from her ear. The guard lifted a hand to her face and gently replaced her hair back where it was before. "You already are." He dared to let his fingers tilt her chin and linger against the softness of her cheek. "The probability may be very small, but… do you think there's a chance you could learn to love me back?"
Ayumi felt ridiculous that tears were falling from her eyes as her smile blossomed across her blushing cheeks. "I don't know… between the sanctuary and this, is it negotiable?" She watched him wipe her tears away and froze when he leaned down to take her breath away with a kiss. She wasn't aware she was holding onto the front of his shirt until he slowly pulled away, the glaze gradually melting from her eyes.
"Ayumi-san, I love you."
"Most definitely… very negotiable."
His laughter filled the air around them and the hollow space in her heart with something warm and soothing. Ayumi's suspicion had been confirmed. He truly was a dragon, her lips were still sizzling to be otherwise. For the first time in her life, she experienced liberation it its purest form.
On a picnic blanket a hundred yards away sat five grown-ups and two clueless children, the five with binoculars hanging round their necks, quietly cheering and pumping their fists proudly in the air, while the children sat looking up at them with dumbfounded curiosity.
Within minutes, hugs and kisses were exchanged.
Within an hour, spying eyes would be found out.
Within a day, Mitsui and the rest of the guards would be fighting for dear life against an unhappy, spied-on Jackson.
Within months, friends and adopted family would marry.
For all those involved, fate has come full circle. For each man, a woman.
For the girl that time loved, a man who loved her even more.