Wow! long time no see everyone! I am super sorry for the ridiculous wait on this, as both my beta and I have been working through life. Everyone knows that life is selfish and usually never leaves time for fanfic. Thank You all for the reviews and subscriptions.
As always, this has been beta read by Anthena Sampaio, and any mistakes are on me.
On to the Chapter!
Catch and Release
Staying in shape is kind of hard when one is essentially confined to an apartment building, its grounds and the immediate area. I found that out after only a couple of weeks being under house arrest. Not that I'm complaining; being imprisoned with a bunch of women who would sooner smash your face in because they thought you looked at them wrong was far worse.
I huffed and puffed on the third floor landing, resting after sprinting up the stairs from the ground floor. Running up and down the stairs was part of a fitness program I had started for myself to stave off the boredom of being stuck in a cage. It was a big and somewhat open cage, but a cage nonetheless.
Bending over to grab a towel from the small duffel bag that I had left on the landing, I released a heavy sigh. Shizuru was in Kyoto this week, interviewing at a number of popular TV programs and today was the first one to be aired. I was torn between the urge to watch, giving her my support from afar, and knowing that I'd miss her as soon as I saw her.
"You're a frigging wuss, Natsuki," I mumbled while grabbing my gear, hoisting it up onto my shoulder. With a furtive glance up the stairs, I decided to take the damn elevator back to Shizuru's eighth floor apartment. "Yup, a goddamn wuss."
Mrs. Fujino greeted me at the door, taking my duffel. She also gave me a kiss to my cheek, a habit she's developed that never failed to make me blush in embarrassment.
"How was your run, dear?" She asked as she stepped back, deftly avoiding my attempts to take back the bag.
Trying again, I replied with a short "Good," as she managed to spin away from me, heading into the apartment. "Noriko, I can put my stuff away. Tea would be nice while we watch Shizuru's interview."
I winced as soon as the words tumbled out of my mouth. Dammit, I talked my way into watching Shizuru with her mom. Trying to cover my discomfort, I took the duffel out of Noriko's hands with a gentle tug.
Studying me, she let me take it. "Alright. How about you go take a bath to warm up?"
I nodded, thanking my lucky stars Mrs. Fujino decided not to ask me about my odd behavior. She could be quite observant when she wanted to be. I mumbled "Thanks" before hurrying off to the bathroom.
Flopping down on the couch about twenty minutes later, I felt much better about watching Shizuru. In fact, I was looking forward to seeing her work the crowd and the interviewer from this side of a production.
Noriko strode in with the tea, setting it down on the coffee table and settling on the couch next to me. "So, is this taped or live?"
"Live. But it's going to be in front of a small audience." I leaned forward; the show had switched to commercial, giving a preview of Shizuru's upcoming appearance.
"Good. I've never liked the larger crowds. They're so rabid, like Shizuru is the only thing they want."
"Yup. They were a pain in the ass, luckily Yuukiko only books shows with smaller audiences now." I turned my attention to the small woman beside me. "How many of these do you watch?"
Sitting up and looking at her hands, she murmured, "I haven't been the most attentive mother. Watching her makes me feel like I am making up for lost time."
Though she didn't really answer my question, I let the matter drop. Shizuru and her mother needed time to repair a relationship that seemed to have been damaged for a very long time. They were working through it but I had a suspicious feeling they weren't as close as they were letting on. So I did the next best thing: I drank my tea, sipping at it in a very indelicate manner.
Noriko wrinkled her nose at me. "Really, after being around Shizuru for so long, Natsuki, I thought you would learn to drink your tea properly."
"Nope. She gave up a long time ago."
The TV suddenly switched back to the talk show, and the two hosts looked eagerly into the camera, introducing Shizuru with wide grins.
I inched closer, watching Shizuru cross the stage, charisma radiating off her. Beautiful as ever, Shizuru was dressed to kill. A cream colored cardigan draped around her torso, ending mid-thigh, which showed off her killer legs. Calf length two-inch boots forced lean muscles to bunch and flex under Shizuru's smooth skin.
Mrs. Fujino gasped at the sight of her daughter. "What in the world is she wearing? Or not wearing, to be precise."
This was one of the few times she didn't look composed, and I couldn't contain my laughter, which earned me a not very gentle slap to my shoulder. "Ow! That's gonna bruise you know." I said, rubbing at the offending appendage.
"This is your fault." She said, catching my pout out of the corner of her eye.
"Me? I don't dress Shizuru. She's a big girl and if she wants to show off her…" I searched for a diplomatic way of saying hot body, "… assets, then let her. She's gorgeous."
Crossing her arms, Noriko sent me a mom glare. "I am aware of that fact. She tended to dress provocatively - on occasion - before she met you. But now," she shook her finger at me, "She does so all the time! For you!"
Well, okay, but Shizuru could make any outfit look hot. Before I could point out that fact, the male host chose to shove his foot so far up his mouth he'd need a medical team to extract it. He whistled at her as she made her way closer to the comfy interview chair. Whistled! Was that even professional?
At his line about Shizuru's legs going on forever, I whipped my head to the TV with a growl, feeling my face get hot. The pretty co-host looked pretty annoyed, like the guy was pouring on the charm a little too much. The asshole was ogling the generous amount of cleavage that dress was showing off. Shizuru shifted in her chair, subtly pulling her chest out of his sight. I took a deep calming breath, reminding myself that Shizuru could handle this guy.
"Watch out Shinji-kun. Don't forget Shizuru-san's mysterious boyfriend is a professional bodyguard. He might just come over and beat you up." The female host joked, waving her arms around and karate chopping her co-host on the back of his head. The audience broke into laughter and clapping at their antics, while Shizuru chuckled behind her hand and bounced her foot in the air with impatience.
My heart clenched. "Right. I'm gonna go clean up the tatami room." I grumbled, not interested in the show anymore. A hand patted my thigh and I looked into Noriko's sympathetic gaze. "I'll be fine. I just need a breather. Look after her for me, kay?"
She nodded, giving me another pat. "She does want you by her side, Natsuki. And not under the guise of Misaki."
Yeah I knew this. It just sucks that I am still this mystery person and the lover people associate her with is just a character. "Just sucks that we can't be together like that anymore. Like, I don't need people to validate our relationship, but… you know…" I waved my hands through the air as I stood up. Not able to meet her gaze, I just nodded awkwardly and made my escape.
Two nights later, Shizuru was still in Kyoto and I found out from Aoi that they finally found the evidence we needed to connect the Marguerites and the security company. The police were given some of the evidence they found, and it was passed on to the DA - or at least the Japanese version of a DA.
I was watching Shizuru charm her way through another interview without really paying attention, trying to work out all the thoughts running through my head.
Noriko, who was lazily sipping at her tea, said, "I still believe we should confront the Marguerites, try to give them the chance to placate their daughter."
"They still used their resources to stalk Shizuru. Yeah, they inadvertently enabled Tomoe, but it was their initiative to harass your daughter - who was helping your husband for his political gain, by the way - and you don't want them to pay for it?" I asked, giving her my hardest glare. Sometimes, Noriko's way of doing things frustrated the hell out of me.
"I do. But Tomoe may only listen to her parents. They are a very close knit family. If they are embroiled in a legal battle, they cannot reason with their daughter."
"I get that, but Tomoe's gotten worse since she lost her little toy soldiers." I stated while standing and pacing. I knew Shizuru should probably be here for this discussion, but since we were on the subject, I figured I would throw in my thoughts on the matter.
I could feel her eyes on me as she continued to sip on her tea. "The Marguerites have stooped to a level below despicable by using such tactics. There are some things Chie-han and Aoi-han have found that will not look good if I were to report them. I want those people to squirm." Noriko sounded like she was grinding her teeth.
More startled by her choice of words than her tone of her voice, I stood still with my arms over my chest staring at her. "So, you're going to threaten them with corporate blackmail because their daughter is after your daughter?"
"That's about right, Natsuki." Noriko responded in a sickly sweet tone. There was a hard glint in her eyes that she no doubt used on opponents in the boardroom. The combination was scary.
Wow, never let me get on your bad side. I thought, my mouth opened in shock. "Umm…"
Noriko gave me a smug smile, "Don't worry, Natsuki. I am not going to step over the law…much."
In a clumsy attempt to change the subject, I blurted out the other elephant in the room. "I want Shizuru and I to come out as a couple. Like it doesn't have to be a big press conference or anything -" I clamped my mouth shut, noticing Mrs. Fujino's horrified expression. Dammit, I thought she was more comfortable with my relationship with Shizuru. Not able to hold her intense gaze, I fixed my eyes on the TV.
Warm, small hands gently grasped mine. "Did you tell her this?" Still refusing to look at her, I shook my head. I hadn't figured out how to tell Shizuru yet. "Do you think you should tell her this?" She asked gently, while grasping my chin and forcing me to look into her eyes. "Your lives will be turned upside down. There are not many same sex couples out in the open here and most are gimmicks-parodies - especially those involving females. She paused, looking conflicted. "Homosexuals are legal non-entities here, and that could make it more difficult for Shizuru to get the help she needs."
I stared at her. "You think the media will treat us like a joke? Cause I don't care. I just want to go out with my girlfriend and not hide we're together. Once this thing comes off." Frustration leaked into my voice as I tapped my ankle bracelet. "Till then, I'd rather be acknowledged." I knew how much coming out could put even more pressure on Shizuru and how it could affect her case against Tomoe. But, I knew that Shizuru was just as sick of hiding as I was. "Legalities aside, which I get, I think it would be a huge burden off Shizuru's back."
She rubbed my arm in a comforting way. "I do not think they will treat you as a joke. However the media will find you irresistible. You are both rich, and they will find out just how rich you are, beautiful, young and successful. You're essentially daring people to consider you two as invisible beings. They'll be salivating at the mere thought of you being together."
Yes, I figured as much. I watched Noriko for a couple seconds trying to figure out her angle. Then it hit me. "You don't want us to be out. Shizuru's already involved in a hefty scandal not just with Tomoe, but with me as Misaki, the lowly bodyguard. I bet your company's stock prices have taken a slight hit, and the value could drop exponentially if Shizuru were to announce she was gay." She remained stoic but for the slight twitch of her lips, like she was going to defend herself. That was enough for me.
Shaking off her arm and standing up, I looked at her with all the disappointment and anger I could muster. "I am not stupid, ma'am. I am tired, sleep well, Fujino-sama." Sketching a perfect bow, mockery in every line, I walked back the proper three steps and then spun on my heel to stalk to my – or rather, to mine and Shizuru's room.
Without bothering to take off my clothes, I flopped on Shizuru's side of the bed, breathing in her unique scent as I buried my face into her pillow. I didn't know I was crying until I felt my tears smear across my cheeks. Dammit all, I was an emotional mess and Shizuru was coming back in a matter of days.
Shizuru was due back tomorrow and I couldn't wait. Chie and Aoi were with Shizuru and Nao and Kaito were on a much needed vacation, so the only person I could talk to was Noriko. Still not exactly on speaking terms with Shizuru's mother, I would escape to the roof of Shizuru's building to stargaze on most clear nights. Hell, I even found a space heater and a nice comfy futon with a thick comforter to stay warm during the freezing evenings.
Tonight was pretty clear and super cold. I could even see some of the stars that were harder to spot because of Fuuka's lights. Snuggled up in my futon with my hands behind my head, I smiled as I finally found Aries – which was in a completely different spot than what I thought. The wind brushed across my face, carrying the hum of traffic and the slight smell of fish from the bay. I crinkled my nose; fish smell was not my favorite.
"Ara! Natsuki shouldn't be out in the frigid cold like this." Shizuru said from the door causing me to curse and shoot up into a seated position.
"Jesus, Zuru! Are you trying to kill me?" I said, glad I sounded suitably angry. My heart was still racing and I took a couple deep breaths in an attempt to slow it down.
Shizuru walked slowly towards me and I scrambled to my feet. "I did text you when I couldn't find you." She said by way of apology.
When she came within touching distance I met her, wrapping her up in my arms. "Welcome back. You're kinda early though."
"It is late and I had a fairly rough day." Shizuru said, pressing a kiss to my cheek. "Let's come in out of the cold." When she pulled back and brushed my hair behind an ear, her eyes were tight and her brows were furrowed, like she was worried.
"I know of a way we could get all nice and toasty." I replied with a dirty grin and promptly planted a sloppy kiss on her lips in an attempt to get her smiling again.
I managed to pull a small laugh out of her as she twisted out of my arms. "Natsuki is a much better kisser than that. Perhaps she ought to come to bed and work on her technique?" She asked while turning and tilting her head before spinning and heading back through door.
Taking the hint I hurried to turn off the heater and fold up the futon in a protective tarp. When I turned around she had already disappeared. "Wait up!"
I found her in the bedroom, dressed in her silk nightie with her arms crossed in front of her and her head down. It didn't take me long to be at her side. "Hey, hey. What's up, Zuru?" I asked softly as I took her into a sideways hug. She was shivering.
"I was attacked this morning on my way to a radio show. A group of fans were lined up outside the studio and they wouldn't let me through. Chie and Aoi managed to push us through, but someone reached in from the side and managed to pull me to him. He groped me before Chie was able to pry him off." She took a deep shuddering breath, speaking so softly I could barely hear her. "It… it felt so much like Tomoe, I froze. Suddenly, it wasn't him, I could feel her…"
I pulled her into a tight hug, rubbing soothing circles as she sobbed quietly into my shoulders. Since I was not on duty any longer, Chie and Aoi really weren't obliged to tell me if Shizuru was attacked. "How are Chie and Aoi?"
"They feel very guilty, which makes it worse." She mumbled through her tears, "But they were excellent. Chie actually dislocated the man's wrist because he wouldn't let go. And Aoi…" A snorted laugh startled me, "…well, I do not wish to see her that angry again, no matter how marvelous she was."
I had to tamp down on my protective instincts. Shizuru did not need me raging out of control. Instead, I pulled her to face me and gave her the softest, most tender kiss I could muster. The taste of her tears hurt, but she stopped crying and pulled me into a deeper kiss, causing heat to zing down to my toes. I gently pushed her back on the bed and somehow, without really breaking apart, Shizuru managed to get us into the middle of the bed with her head resting comfortably on the pillows and me on top of her.
"Are you okay?" I asked once oxygen became an issue. I was glad she wasn't seriously hurt, but royally pissed off that some dude put his hands on Shizuru. The bastard probably thought he was entitled to cop a feel.
She gave me a watery smile, amusement warring with the fear in her big eyes. "I am better, but Chie ordered Yuukiko to reschedule my last two shows." She said, while running her fingers across my cheek.
"I'm glad Chie and Aoi were there. I'm sure it would have been epically bad if it were me. Like, I would've beaten the shit outta him for touching my girlfriend."
Her smile grew, chasing away the fear and causing her eyes to twinkle. "Ara, my hero. You are taking this rather well."
I grunted, and brushed her bangs out of her eyes. "I'm learning that I can't keep every bad thing away from you. And if something does happen, we can work through it. Together, you know?"
She nodded, but then her eyes narrowed. "What is going on between you and my mother?"
How did she figure that out? Sometimes I think Shizuru is some sort of Jean Grey clone, the way she can read people. "Now?" I whined, "Can't we just wait till morning when I'm not on top of you?"
She slapped my shoulder, "Now Natsuki. I would rather be told while you are on top of me." She said shortly, and then pulled me into a searing kiss. "There will be more from where that came from."
"Are you blackmailing me?" I asked, leaning in again. She smirked and placed a finger to my lips. Surrender was the only option. "Alright, I give. I told your mother I wanted to announce that you and I are in a relationship and she disagreed."
Watching her scowl was a revelation, since she rarely showed her emotions so easily. "I was planning on speaking with her tomorrow about our relationship. And I must tell my father as I do not want him to find out through the newspapers."
Fear crept up my spine at the mention of her dad. He was less than accepting of me as Misaki. It must have shone on my face because Shizuru broke into a brilliant smile that made my insides go all twisty. She stroked my back, making me arch into her and a low growl escape my lips. "Goodness, I love that sound. We need to get you out of those clothes." She said with a sigh, her gaze confident and sexy. "Father is a hard man, but he isn't as closed minded about sexuality as he is about class separation."
I leaned back so I could straddle her lap, and pulled off my tee shirt, while her fingers were pulling at my jeans. "You sure you wanna talk to your mom by yourself?" I asked, my voice already giving away my burgeoning arousal.
She pulled me back down and pressed her lips against mine. "Shush, don't worry." She moved down my neck, while her fingers traced random patterns on my lower back. The twin sensations chased away all thoughts of everything but my honey haired lover.
I explored her toned legs by touch, pushing up her nightie, slowly making my way to the heat radiating from their apex….
"Shizuru!" The door flew open, and Noriko's silhouette filled the space, "You should… Oh dear! I'm sorry!"
"Holy shit!" I squeaked out, while Shizuru uttered a curse word that almost made me forget my embarrassment. Almost.
While I was busy doing my best impression of a tomato, Shizuru said in a short clipped tone, "Mother, I will be right out. Could you close the door, please?"
I sighed when Noriko left, and then groaned while Shizuru peppered kisses on my chest. "I can't believe I just got cock blocked by your mother." I said in English.
Shizuru's chuckles vibrated against my skin, "I don't know what that means. Would you like to stay here?"
"It means I think she walked in on us purposefully." I replied, tickling her so she would stop kissing me. "And, I'd like to see what's going on."
She squirmed off me giggling, "Do you think we should arrive separately? We won't look as suspicious that way." I barked a laugh in response as I scooted away from her. Shizuru eyed my partially clad body, "On second thought, I motion that we ignore her and carry on with our previous activities."
I rolled my eyes, groping for my shirt. "You're ridiculous. You know that right?" I said, spotting my shirt lying on the floor, across the room. I hopped off the bed, and threw it on over my head. Shizuru reached out and grabbed my arm to pull me out of the room.
The TV was on and Noriko seemed to be intent on focusing on it. She must have heard us because she glanced up and said, "Sit down," while pointing at the loveseat.
Shizuru and I sat down, and we both gasped as we looked at the screen. The entertainment news program was replaying a shaky video of Shizuru being mobbed earlier today. I could see Chie's distinctive hair, followed by Shizuru's honeyed locks and finally Aoi's chocolate mane. Suddenly, Shizuru was jerked to the side, into the arms of a rather large man. A low growl erupted from my mouth and I felt my body tense when the camera caught the shock and fear in Shizuru's normally warm face. "Jesus Christ."
A warm palm was placed on my stomach underneath my shirt. Shizuru pressed into me and I relaxed slightly, even as we watched Chie rip the man's hand away from her, in the process twisting his hand so hard he grimaced at the camera and bent over. Chie stayed with the man until the police arrived and he was hauled off screen. Meanwhile, the crowd finally dispersed and Aoi was able to usher Shizuru out of sight.
"Wow, Zuru," I whispered while the program cut to the talking head, who happily reported the other "dramatic" cases that involved Shizuru. She nodded mutely, while snuggling further into me. Unconsciously, I wrapped an arm around her shoulders to rub her arm.
Noriko gave us a pointed look. "They were speculating as to why you would postpone your appearance. News travels."
I shot her a scowl. "Look, just because Shizuru is a celebrity doesn't mean she can't have any semblance of a private life." I shoved my hand at the TV. "She was attacked out in the open, going to a show. And it was dramatic! Of course it's going to get air time!"
"We have successfully kept Misaki's identity a secret for nearly a year." Shizuru pointed out.
Noriko shook her head, "True, but you-"
Shizuru straightened and held up a hand. "Mother, I am tired and wish sleep. I promise you and I shall discuss this in the morning." She stood, pulling me with her, ignoring Noriko's incredulous stare. She marched to our room, dragging me behind her, throwing out, "Oh, and please knock before breaking down our door," casually like she was announcing what time breakfast will be served in the morning.
My girlfriend is awesome.
Shizuru was such a cuddle bug, and she proved it as I woke up early the next morning. She was on top of me, with her face pressed into the crook of my neck and her arms wrapped securely around my waist. Our legs were tangled together comfortably. When I tried to wiggle my way out from under her, she whimpered and tightened her hold on me. Shizuru rarely showed her adorable side, and she was doing that in spades just then, causing me to smile. My workout could wait a little longer. I watched her sleep until she groggily allowed me to get up an hour later.
As much as I was upset with Noriko, it was hard to listen to the barely controlled argument that started while I was on my run around the complex. I never got to have these arguments with my mom and I couldn't help but feel the slight pang of jealously, though the whole situation sucked.
As I opened the bathroom door dressed in my usual cargos and form fitting long-sleeved top, Shizuru's voice rose slightly, "- I was alone, Mother! You and Father were too busy for me! And now -" My jealously turned to sadness. It must be so hard to have parents who neglected her. Even though Noriko had told me, hearing the bitterness and pain in Shizuru's voice almost made me cry. I inched forward with my back against the wall so I could hear them better.
"You are a Fujino, Shizuru, and no matter how much you distance yourself from the company and this family, as long as you carry the name, you are tied to us. You cannot be seen having an affair with another woman! The scandal would be catastrophic."
I ground my teeth together. Noriko sounded calm, only emphasizing certain things to make her point. It was a good point but the wrong one to make at this time.
The silence was deafening; Shizuru must be staring down her mother. "I thought you had changed, mother." She responded, all the seductive fire that usually prevailed her voice gone. "Am I just another thing to you? A pretty bauble to be showcased on occasion, then returned to its solitude?"
I sucked in a breath, waiting for Noriko's response, but it seemed like she was waiting for Shizuru to continue, because when Shizuru spoke again, the steel was back in her voice. "I am no longer that… thing," She spat out, "Natsuki saw me, mother! Just one look from those beautiful eyes of hers and I was reminded that I could be myself, and not be afraid to be a person with feelings and opinions." She ended her impassioned speech softly. "You do not have a right to dictate how I handle my relationships, but Natsuki and I would rather have your blessing on this."
I slumped against the wall, shaking my head, while my heart was trying to punch its way out of my chest. I was broken and yet here was my Shizuru - my rock - telling her mother I was her savior.
A loud sigh interrupted my happy thoughts, "I think it is time for me to move back to Kyoto. You have your Natsuki back and I can see I am just going to get in the way." You got that right, lady, I thought, "I do not agree with you revealing your relationship, but I will give you my blessing. Please tell your father, so I won't find him on the floor due to apoplexy."
"Thank you, for understanding." There was movement and I scurried as quietly as I could to our room. I managed to pull my Vita up into position just as Shizuru walked in the room.
I put the device in my lap and tried to sound casual. "So how'd it go?"
Shizuru shot me a look. "Well enough. Which part did you happen to catch?"
So much for faking it. "Right after your mom reminded you that you're a Fujino." I said to my lap, fiddling with my game system.
The bed dipped and she cupped my chin, gently guiding me to face her. Her searching gaze bore into me but I stared back at her. Then I grinned, "Can't get enough of these babies?" I asked, fluttering my eyelashes for effect.
Her mouth dropped open in shock, and then she threw back her head filling the room with silvery laughter. As her laughter died, she pounced, straddling my hips. "I cannot, they are so full of life, just like their owner." She whispered happily then pressed her lips against the corner of each eye. It was one of the sweetest things she's done, and I just smiled up at her. It seemed to be enough because she smiled back and lay on top of me with a pleased sigh and fell asleep.
"Natsuki." Shizuru said from the bed, watching me pace. "Calm down. You've met him already."
I stopped, trying not to panic. "Yeah, but that was when I was pretending to be only interested in you as a friend." Not that I was going to tell her that I was terrified of not making a good impression with her father.
Shizuru poured herself off the bed and slunk to me, like a lazy cat eyeing her prey. I stared at her as I felt fingers trail up my blouse and then make their way under the shirt. "You look amazing. Nothing like a bodyguard." She murmured.
"Natsuki, I have explained to my father that he is to be civil while eating at my table." The confidence in her voice was hot. Or it could be those little patterns she was making with her hands. Or the combination of both, but I was so frazzled it was difficult to figure out what.
She chuckled and pressed a kiss to my lips. "Ever charming, my Natsuki is. She will dazzle my father with her wit. And we will both tell him we are seeing each other."
That confidence was slowly calming me down, so I took a deep breath. "Kay, let's do this." I said, trying to sound less like a terrified girlfriend who's meeting her lover's strict father.
Shizuru planned a simple but generous meal of lasagna, cooked by the great team of Fujino and Kuga. Mr. Fujino was actually nice when he wasn't worried about keeping up appearances. He was an avid sports fan, and loved the Kyoto Sanga FC, Kyoto's J-league tier two soccer team. And here I was, thinking he only cared about his stocks or how to spin a topic in his favor.
As we served dessert, these little French pastries that Shizuru and her mom loved, I was nervously gulping down my water. Shizuru said she should be the one to tell her father, but I wasn't sure when she was going to do so.
I felt her hand slip into mine under the table, and I glanced at her. She gave me a small smile and then turned to her parents. "Thank you very much for coming over, Father. I know you have a tight schedule."
Her dad's face crinkled in confusion before he said, "Well, you did say you had something important to tell me, and I have wanted to apologize for not being more supportive of you." He shook his head. "I am sorry for being too worried about the company and the politics. I put you in danger and did not do anything when you sought my help."
I stared at him in surprise. Where was the asshole who victim-blamed his own daughter? Mrs. Fujino nodded and beamed at her husband, who looked like the Fujino's version of embarrassed. His eyes were glued to his half eaten cake and his cheeks were just a slight flush.
Shizuru had yet to say anything and when I looked at her, I could see silent tears running down her face. Her chin was trembling but she managed to say, "Thank you, Papa," without a tremble in her voice.
He gave her a stiff smile, looking like he was out of practice. Then his dark eyes swept to me, pinning me in my chair. I fought the urge to squirm. "I think I know what it is you wish to tell me. It involves young Kuga-kun, yes?"
Shizuru exhaled, squeezing my hand in a death grip. "Yes, papa. Natsuki and I are seeing each other." She managed to sound confident and soothing at the same time.
His eyes stayed on me, hardening. "I see. And Kuga-kun, what do you have to say for yourself?"
Well, this was the easy part. I lifted my chin and forced my eyes to stay level with him, knowing this was the time I had to make my impression. "I love Shizuru very much. She has helped bring me from a very dark place. I am hers." I blushed slightly, embarrassed by the wide eyed stares Shizuru's parents were giving me.
"And I am Natsuki's." Shizuru said softly as she stroked the back of my hand with her thumb. I relaxed, and shot her a big smile.
Mr. Fujino looked between us and asked, "Then why did you feel like you needed to lie about Kuga-kun being in disguise?" He shot a hurt look to his daughter. "I am an elitist, not a bigot."
I choked on my laughter. This man was bordering on the absurd, but I had to make sure I didn't offend him. He was important to Shizuru so I wanted to at least be civil. Swallowing a sarcastic comment I asked, "You are aware, then, that my mother is dead and I haven't spoken to my father in years?" I took a peak at Noriko, who was watching me with warm brown eyes.
Mr. Fujino picked up his bottle of beer, taking a sip before saying, "Well I noticed a large sum of money in the Kruger name that hasn't been touched, and a hefty life insurance policy which has only small amounts withdrawn from it. It was intriguing to say the least."
So the asshole checked out my background. I felt my back stiffen as anger pushed back some of my nervousness. "I don't have to explain myself, sir." I was proud that I sounded just a little cool.
"Yes, you do." He snapped. "I want to know who is dating my daughter. Especially given that you seem to be fond of deceiving everyone."
Any nerves I felt gave way to a hot surge of rage. "So says the man who uses his daughter for his political gain." I ground out without thinking. When he straightened and glared at me, the anger drained from me, and I sunk back into my chair. Dammit, there went my chance.
"Natsuki!" Shizuru squeezed my arm in warning. Then she leaned in to whisper in my ear. "Now is not the time to pick a fight."
Mr. Fujino slammed his hand on the table and growled, "You're insufferable, Kuga-kun. That is one of the reasons I do not like you." I folded my arms but said nothing, scowling at him as he took a breath to hit me with more insights into my personality. "You're brash, headstrong, and arrogant to a fault."
I raised an eyebrow. "Are you finished? Do want to know why I am so angry?" I asked softly. "My mother was my world, and when I woke up one morning to the news she had died, I was devastated." I was shaking with the effort to keep calm. Though I was not nervous anymore, having to relive my mother's death for this man was just so damn hard. "Then my father, who was never around decided I wasn't worthy enough to be his daughter, dropped me off in front of my aunt's door in America, tearing me from the life I knew."
Shizuru reached out and took my hand, giving it a squeeze. I looked Mr. Fujino square in the eye. "You know what? The funds taken from my trust were only used to put me through college. My father's money is just that - his. I will not touch it. Why would I want anything from the man who abandoned me?"
The silence in the room was palpable, and I fidgeted, still riled up. Mr. Fujino looked like he swallowed something unpleasant. "So, Fujino-sama, is that explanation enough? Or shall I list the reasons why I don't like you?" I said flatly.
He sputtered, "You-arrogant…little…"
The man's face was turning purple, but there was no sense of victory. Mostly, I just felt tired and worn out. Feeling Shizuru's heated gaze on me, I glanced at her. She looked like she was torn between being angry with me and sad for me. I gave her a small smile and shrugged my shoulders.
Shizuru smiled back and turned to her father. "Please understand that Natsuki has had horrible things happen to her at such a young age. While she is damaged," Shizuru lifted our entwined hands and kissed the back of mine to soften her assessment, "She is loyal, loving, and so sweet. She has made me feel so special and has given so much without asking for anything but my company in return." Her words made my stomach twist into knots and my cheeks warm up. I stared into her eyes, just basking in the warm love I found there.
Someone made a coughing noise, breaking up our moment, and we jumped apart a bit. But Shizuru closed the small distance between us and leaned on my shoulder. I watched Mr. Fujino soften up a bit when Shizuru released a sigh of contentment.
He eyed me with a small scowl then turned his gaze to Shizuru, "I still do not appreciate being lied to. Having to do a background check on your girlfriend was not the way I would have liked to know of your relationship."
Shizuru shook her head against my shoulder, "It was better that as few people knew as possible. We would not have told mother, but she found out after Natsuki's stay in the hospital." Another soft sigh escaped her lips as I rubbed her back.
"It is true Nobuhiro-san. But I am more worried about what will happen once they announce this to Shizuru's fans." Mrs. Fujino said.
Mr. Fujino huffed and nodded, looking around the room in thought. I wondered if he actually showed this much in the board room. "I don't think it is wise…"
Shizuru bolted off my shoulder, and I wasn't close behind.
He raised a hand and waited for Shizuru and me to return to our seats. "To make this into a big media hyped press release."
What? Shizuru and I glanced at each other. I silently tried to tell her that I wanted to hear the old man out. She seemed just as curious.
"We weren't planning on a press release. I've never wanted any of this attention. It is difficult to actually bring Natsuki since she is under house arrest."
"I am aware." He narrowed his eyes at me. "If what I am thinking works, the public will be told but it won't be bombshell news."
Noriko laid a hand on her husband's shoulder, and he looked down at her. They had a silent conversation. When they were finished, they turned their attention to Shizuru and me. "Shizuru, when are those rescheduled appearances going to be?" Noriko asked.
Shizuru cocked her head to the side. "In about two weeks. They're both TV talk shows."
nodded. "Right. Have Yuukiko let the producers know you have some big news that you will only discuss with them on their shows. You'll have to meet with them so you can hash out the questions the hosts need to ask."
"I can do that, I have been thinking along those lines as well."Shizuru responded glancing between her father and me.
"I don't mind giving up some of the pictures we've taken of the two of us." I said. "If folks see us in pictures acting like a couple, then it'll make it more real for them."
Mr. Fujino waved his hand at me. "Well, if you weren't under house arrest you'd be able to go with her."
Oh, he was baiting me, I knew, but he was pushing my buttons in the worst possible way. Shizuru sensed my unease and rubbed my leg. "Even so, I would not ask Natsuki to come with me on stage, as this is my burden to bear. Thank you for your suggestion."
Noriko must have noticed the hardness in Shizuru's tone because she gracefully took her leave from the table. "Thank you for allowing me to stay with you Shizuru. Your father and I are very proud of you." She looked at me. "Natsuki, take care of yourself. And keep that temper in check."
We followed them to the door, exchanging muted goodbyes and well wishes. I stayed on the raised wood floor as Shizuru followed her parents out, but only stopped outside the door, so she could watch her parents get on the elevator. It was something that was ingrained in every person I've met over here, and Aunt Koika did it out of habit as well. Shizuru waved her hand one last time, signaling that they were gone.
As soon as the door closed, Shizuru wrapped up me up in her arms and buried her head in my neck. I sighed feeling the warmth and love radiating off her. "Are you ready for this?" She asked against my skin.
I nodded. "More than ready, princess. Can't wait until we can stop this sneaking around crap."
That pulled a chuckle out of her, and a warm kiss against my neck. "Eloquent as always, my Natsuki."
Three weeks after Shizuru blew up the internet with her "scandalous" confession, people were still talking about us. Turns out that Mr. Fujino's plan didn't work too well. Shizuru's name was a top search term on Japanese websites. Even the North American search engines had her as a top search for a while. Her fan club's website went down because its servers couldn't handle all the people checking it out. Of course, her fan mail shot up, and the number of interview requests went up as well. Poor Yuukiko, who was thoroughly embarrassed that she had a crush on me for a long time, was at her wits end. Shizuru convinced her to hire an assistant, who was a nice guy and far more laid back than Yuukiko.
Nao would often come hang out with me whenever she and Kaito were in a time out day. Kaito was a very attentive boyfriend, but Nao, who was not used to someone being so close to her, had to set boundaries until she was more comfortable with their relationship. So, for entertainment, she'd bring all the tabloids and newspapers she could carry to see what people were speculating about Shizuru and me.
Shizuru, Mrs. Fujino and Chie were all in Kyoto, meeting with the Marguerites to try to get them to stop their own daughter. I was still against the whole thing, even if Noriko's plan was a brilliant piece of corporate blackmail. The Marguerites should go to jail simply because they broke the law. I was voted down, however, because Shizuru thought that the older Marguerites would be the best to control Tomoe.
Today Nao invited herself over, claiming she'd kick my ass in a new video game she'd bought for us to play. The first order of business though, was perusing the tabloids while I played my zombie slaying game. I imagined every one of the undead I dispatched to be Tomoe. It was highly satisfying.
"Oohhh, this one's new." Nao said from the floor as I shot a zombie through its head. "It thinks you guys are just pulling a publicity stunt."
Hitting pause, so the booms of firearms were silenced, I looked down at her. "What does the headline say?" They were so ridiculous Nao and I developed a grading system for them.
Raising an eyebrow at the paper in her hand, she rifled through the pages and held it up to me.
A huge screenshot of Shizuru looking scared and angry was splashed across the front page. "Heiress pulls lesbian card in attempt to gain family's attention." I read out loud. "Huh. Bastards."
Nao snorted at my lazy response. "Yeah, they found out that Shizuru and her parents aren't really that close." I shrugged as I watched Nao turn the pages rapidly. Finally, she found what she was looking for: an image of Shizuru and her parents at a fancy restaurant, looking stone faced and unfeeling.
"They look like that all the time. Like, they have the best poker faces in the world." I waved it off. "It's a four. The headline sucks." Nao snickered as I restarted the game, watching it for a bit before she got bored and jumped up disappearing into the kitchen.
The sound of the doorbell rang through the apartment, and I instantly stiffened. Pausing my game, I twisted to mouth "What the fuck," at Nao. There were two sets of doorbells; one was for the building's front door. This one was for the apartment's door.
She shook her head and started throwing me hand signals. It rang again.
I was not allowed a firearm anymore, but Nao threw me the one she began carrying. I caught it and followed her to the door, kneeling and aiming it at the door where an average male's chest would be.
Nao didn't peer through the peephole; doing so would make her too vulnerable to a gunshot. Instead she braced herself against the wall and shouted. "Who the fuck is it? I didn't let anyone through the front door!"
A tremulous voice answered, "Hana-chan Flowers, ma'am. I have a delivery for a Shizuru-chan?"
I stiffened, gritting my teeth together as I met Nao's outraged gaze. My grip on the gun stayed relaxed, though. She flicked her fingers at me in a sign that said she wasn't going to open the door.
"Lady, you got the wrong door. I suggest you leave before I fucking come out and…"
"Ara! And who are you?" Shizuru's voice drifted through the door. The woman's voice turned from scared to excitement as she chattered away about never meeting a celebrity.
My eyes must've bugged out as I sprinted forward, jamming the gun into the back of my baggy pants, and ran towards Nao.
She got the hint and threw open the door, ready to pounce. It hit the interior wall with a loud bang.
Shizuru and the woman whipped their heads towards us. "Ara, good afternoon, Natsuki and Nao-han." She nodded to the young woman who was partially hidden by a huge arrangement of flowers and a "Hana-chan Flowers" baseball cap, "Mitsuki-han here says you were being abusive?" There was a bit of steel within those seductive honeyed tones.
"Nao was doing all the talking." I said, pushing past my red-headed best friend and dropped an apologetic kiss on Shizuru's cheek, and then faced the delivery girl with my arm around Shizuru.
Nao snorted, "Yeah, yeah. So, how'd you get up here?"
"I-I didn't have an apartment number and just rang the doorbells until your neighbor let me in and told me what it was." Mitsuki watched as Shizuru pulled the flowers from her, and blurted, "So it's true? Like, you two are," she leaned in and whispered, "girlfriends?"
I stiffened and pulled Shizuru tighter to me. Something was off about this whole thing, and this woman was tickling all the warning bells I had. Nao interposed herself between us and the girl, subtly pushing us towards the door.
"Look, lady, you're pissing me off. You've delivered your flowers, now go away before I call security on you." The girl gave us a sly look, then glared at Nao, who was puffing herself up as much as she could, before walking off.
I sighed as we all hurried into the apartment. Shizuru bustled into the kitchen, while Nao and I hung back as we watched the woman from the door.
"Would you two stop? That woman is harmless." Shizuru called from the kitchen.
I glanced at Nao, who was glaring down the hallway. With a huff, I tugged on her arm, hoping she wasn't going to be stubborn.
She shook herself and looked up at me with a hard expression. "If I was on duty, I'd march her ass all the way out the door. She gave me the hee-bee-gee-bees."
"Yeah." I agreed, clapping her on the shoulder. I pulled out the gun. "Here you go. Are you still having trouble with these?" I asked as she took it back. Nao hated guns but knew they were a great deterrent, so she'd been training with her handgun for a while. She'd been having trouble with it though, for whatever reason.
She shrugged, "Whatever, I'm good enough." As the hall opened into the living room, she jumped over the back of the couch. "Hey, while you're in with Shizuru, can I take your turn?"
"Sure. Just don't mess with my stats." I replied just before the chaos of the game sounded off.
Shizuru had her back turned to the opening between the living room and kitchen, and was very still.
"Shizuru? You okay?" I asked as I came closer. She was clutching the counter so hard her knuckles were turning white.
"Oh Natsuki." She murmured when I pulled her into me. She sounded tired and sad.
A note came with the flowers, but it revealed a message that I did not want to see. Any questions I had about Shizuru's meeting with the Marguerites flew out the window. "Found you?" I said, running my eyes across the words. "Dammit."
Shizuru's hands caressed my arms. "Do you think it's Tomoe?" She asked sounding small and scared.
Spinning her around, so she wouldn't have to look at the note, I kissed her forehead before she molded her body to mine. "We can't jump to conclusions. It could be anyone. Especially after you broke the internet." I said as gently as I could. Fear and anger were fighting for dominance in me, but I held them back; making Shizuru feel safe was more important.
Shizuru chuckled a bit, drawing back so she could watch me. She stroked my cheek, and I closed my eyes against the sensation. "This is a very Tomoe-like stunt."
I hummed in pleasure as her fingers continued to work their magic, and opened my eyes. Hers were dull and guarded. "I concur, but lots of your fans could pull off something this creepy."
I snuck my hands under her top and drew comforting patterns against her back. Shizuru smiled bravely. "I have already called the police. They should be here shortly."
"Kay. Do you want Nao to stay the night? I'm sure she wouldn't mind, she's kind of creeped out by that delivery girl." If Nao got the same vibes off the delivery girl that I did, there was no way she'd leave us alone.
She placed a kiss on my lips then brushed her thumb against them. I smiled against her; she probably didn't realize she was trying to comfort me as much as I was her.
Before she could respond, our front doorbell rang, causing a string of curses to be shouted from the living room.
"It's okay guys, keep making out. I got this." Nao said sarcastically as she flew by the kitchen.
Shizuru threw her head back and laughed. I grinned as I watched her face light up. Sometimes I wanted to knock the obnoxious redhead out, but I'm so glad Nao is who she is.
"Let's go face the music." I murmured, and then pecked her lips.
Nao was staring at the door with her arms crossed. "Is it the flowers?" She asked without turning around as we approached her.
"Yup. Whoever sent it was taunting Shizuru." I said, my arm around Shizuru's shoulders. Shizuru squeezed my waist in response.
"Asshole." Nao glanced at Shizuru. "How're you holding up?"
"I am okay, just a little shaken." Shizuru responded warmly.
A confident knock sounded off in the quiet apartment. "FPD! We're responding to a call."
Nao opened the door, revealing two uniformed officers. "I hate to say this, but I sure am glad to see you boys." She quipped.
The officer in charge ignored her and nodded at Shizuru. "May we come in?"
Shizuru loosened her grip and patted my arm. "Yes, this way please." She led the way to the kitchen.
The lead officer followed her, while the second officer peeled off and turned to us. "I'm sure you know the deal, right?" He asked.
Nao and I nodded. We glanced at each other, and I stepped forward. "I'll go first."
After a crappy March in which Shizuru had been almost always on edge as a result of the flowers, people still haven't left her alone. April's promise of a new and wonderful summer was a great distraction.
Though I couldn't go much of anywhere, there was a small park that held a tiny grove of sakura trees near our apartment complex. We checked with my patrol officer to make sure I was allowed to visit the park; I had to make sure it was within the perimeter of the square mileage that I was allowed to roam in. Luckily, it was, so Shizuru and I took full advantage of it as much as possible.
"How was the trip to the movies yesterday?" I asked Shizuru as we strolled along a quiet stretch of the park.
Shizuru tugged on my hand, drawing me to a bench that was under a budding tree. She didn't answer until we were settled in. "Well, the movie was pretty scary, but I would have rather been there with you." She leaned into me. "It is more fun to pretend to be scared and jump into the arms of a lover than to just hold onto a friend's hand for dear life." A small pout formed on her lips. "I think Nao-han tried to break my fingers."
Unable to resist the cuteness, I leaned in to press my lips against hers. "I can attest that all of your fingers are in fine working order." I said when we pulled back.
Shizuru gave a deep throaty chuckle, and as if proving me correct, she stroked my thigh leaving a pleasant tingling in her wake. "Natsuki is such a flatterer, but I cannot wait to take you out on a proper date."
I growled at my stupidity. Even though I said I would beat the crap out of Tomoe again, I was regretting that I had to miss out on such an important part of Shizuru's life. That I was a part of her life now made the guilty feeling more pronounced. "I wish I could help you more." I murmured regretfully.
Shizuru seemed to know where my thoughts were because she rubbed a soothing hand on my stomach and murmured. "I am grateful, to be honest." I started to protest but the warm look in her eyes stalled me. "Before that day, I always thought of Tomoe as this superhuman thing, just because I felt her presence everywhere. The feeling was lessened while I was with you, but she …" Shizuru shivered. "The illusion was dispelled the day you punched her. She could be hurt, and she could make mistakes. I am still afraid of her, but I no longer feel overwhelmed." She smiled and kissed my cheek.
A warm blush crept up my cheeks, and Shizuru laughed. "Natsuki is so cute. This is not as huge a problem for the two of us. I mean you are unofficially living with me now."
I shivered at the concept, I've never had a relationship with someone before; I never wanted one. As ridiculous as it sounded, I found the second part of me in Shizuru. "Yeah… kinda awesome, huh?" I asked, feeling shy.
Shizuru stood and tugged me to my feet, hugging me close. "Yes, it's quite amazing." She whispered against my neck. "Recess is over for today, I am afraid." I felt her smile against my neck. "Besides I do believe we are becoming a distraction."
I looked around. Sure enough, a bunch of people passing us were craning their heads around to watch us and began whispering excitedly. I sighed and pulled back, but not before I planted a firm kiss to Shizuru's cheek. Most people would not even look twice at us, but we are a bit of a novelty and Shizuru is a celebrity. "I bet they're all trying to imagine what we do to each other at night." I said with a snort as we entwined our hands.
Shizuru giggled, "That's okay, since they won't know half the things we do. I especially like our morning wake up calls."
Heat rushed through my body; it was difficult not to forget how easy it was for Shizuru to keep me in bed when I meant to go running. I'd vote for morning sex over a morning work-out any day. "Oh my god, Zuru. That's so not fair," I complained.
Red eyes twinkled with wicked mischief. "Yet so much fun,"Shizuru hummed while snuggling into my side.
Glad that Shizuru was getting back her sense of humor, I muttered a light hearted "Idiot." And bopped her on her head with my free hand.
It was cool the next morning, and I resisted the urge to shiver as I jogged around the apartment complex. The distance wasn't too difficult, but giving up a couple of miles was better than accidently pissing off my parole officer. Plus, I took a couple laps through the central park area of the complex, so the run wasn't as short as it could be.
I rounded the corner and entered the complex again, right near two large bike racks. When I first moved here, I was surprised at how richer folks would still own one or two bicycles. The sidewalk between the racks always gave me the creeps. They were two levels and had two rows each, and when the lighting was right it felt like the structures were inching closer, trying to squash you between them. Chain link fence enclosed both areas, a deterrent for potential bike thieves.
As I ran between them, the uneasy feeling grew, making the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Instinct screamed through my body, forcing my legs to pump faster and my breaths to puff out a rapid pace. Something just wasn't right, and I fought the rising panic that started somewhere deep in my gut. A shadow flickered to my left, flitting through the darkness made by the front row of the bikes. Judging by the rapid footfalls, the person was trying to keep up with me.
Almost skidding to a stop before the opening at the end, I turned to get a better look. I took a tentative step up to the cage, trying to find anyone but the lighting made it almost impossible to catch anything unless that person moved. "Shit," I muttered. Maybe I'm just paranoid.
I shook myself, trying to get rid of the tremors streaking up and down my spine. Still cautious, I turned my body so I could face both cages as best I could. I walked along the fence as casually as I could warily eyeing my surroundings. A loud mechanical screeching forced my gaze to my five o'clock – behind me and just to the right- for a split second, but it was only a resident breaking his bike before he dismounted.
That second proved my undoing. A flurry of movement erupted from just behind me, and I whipped around to protect myself from whoever was stalking me. A burst of fear coursed through me when I found her.
I hissed. "Don't fucking -" Then I heard a clicking sound and an angry hum of electricity that hit me full in the chest.
Muscles locked like they were short circuited which promptly caused me to fall flat on my face. I landed on my nose, breaking it in a crunch of cartilage. It should have hurt more but the overload of electricity burning its way through my body was overloading any external pain.
Tomoe grunted with effort as she quickly dragged my body back into the cover of the cage. "Lucky you're not much of a screamer. We'll remedy that when we're all alone."
My mouth was full of granules and blood was running all over my face but I still tried to say something loud enough to be heard. All I could get out was a mumbling groan before a sharp pain landed on the base of my neck and I slipped into unconsciousness.
I was content to just be in a haze of darkness before someone poured a cold liquid over the top of my head. "Fuck!" I sputtered and tried to open my eyes, but they wouldn't budge further than half way.
Tomoe muttered something then slapped me across the face, jarring my broken nose.
"S'up Tomoe?" I asked, and winced at the slurred words.
So much of the room was blurry from the tears and sweat obscuring my vision, but I could see Tomoe's wild grin. "Hello, there. I am so glad you're finally awake. It's been a day since I caught you, and Shizuru Onee-sama is frantic with worry for you."
She said this with a slightly wistful and lusty expression, as if she could see Shizuru's panicked face and was turned on by it. I tried to get to my feet but whatever was holding my tied wrists would only allow me to straighten to a kneeling position. "You sick twisted bitch!"
Her expression twitched as she casually slapped me again. She wasn't strong enough to force my head to the side and she shook her hand as though she hurt it. She pouted down at it, so she missed the small smile that edged its way to my lips. "So crass."
"Yeah, well, I'm all lower class and shit, even though I'm sitting on as much money as you are."
Tomoe's expression suddenly dropped into a flat emotionless mask. She stared at me with her head tilted, her dark eyes were blank. It scared the shit out of me. I recoiled from her, but refused to break our gazes. Sweat dripped into my eyes from my forehead as I strained to keep away from the contact. But it burned around the swelling and when I blinked the moment was over. Tomoe clucked her tongue and turned her back to me and disappeared from the room.
The door was shut and a lock rattled, and I released a small groan of pain as I relaxed as best I could. My eyes darted around the room as I took inventory of my prison. My wrists were tied with zip ties, and the thin plastic ripped into my skin whenever I moved my hands.
"Fuck." I muttered. Looks like I won't be getting out too easily. The familiar weight of the GPS bracelet around my ankle gave me some hope. Maybe she hadn't thought to disable it when she took me.
With some effort, I was able to get into a more comfortable position so I could rest. Pushing down some of the panicked thoughts that were weaving their way through my head, I leaned into the wall behind me.
"Be brave, princess. I need you." I whispered to the empty air.
Hehe... I know I'm evil, but this was the best part to leave off and switch to Shizuru for the next chapter. There are about another two-three chapters planned for this, and it will get done, I promise!
Happy New Year's! Champaign to all reviewers!