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Forever and a Night

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Shoko opened her eyes. She was warm, cocooned in thick sheets, soft material on her skin, and a scrap of sunlight poking in through a crack in the curtains. It was very dark, a sweet smell of cologne and underlying sweat hanging in the air. It all felt a little unfamiliar; it didn’t feel like her room, and every time she swallowed, her throat felt like harsh sandpaper. Her head was pounding uncomfortably, like the world was spinning. It was a somewhat familiar sensation, and there were vague memories of flashing neon lights and loud music at the back of her head. She had been out with the others… had said she’d have a light night since she wanted to use that weekend to catch up for work. The dry throat, headache, and slight nausea were all products of a heavy night of drinking, but there were some unexplained parts - her location, the stiffness of her muscles.

She lay there for a bit, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. It was easy, given the small bit of light she did have. Stifling a yawn, she turned her head and almost flinched. The shape of another head and shoulder were visible, a second person occupying the bed. Shoko’s heart stilled. The hair was too light to be Utahime’s, and far too short to be Mei Mei’s, and judging from the broadness of the shoulder, the angle of the jaw… this was a man. She had to do her best to contain the inward groan; a light night out had turned into a one night stand.

How do you always manage this? she questioned herself bitterly, staring up at the ceiling. She had only wanted a bit of time with her friends, to let her hair loose after a long week working in the shop on top of studies. It had been a long time since she’d been this wasted.

She chanced a glance to the side once more. Lover Boy at least appeared to be younger than forty, although it was difficult to tell from the back of his head. Some men had a full head of hair way into their sixties - not that she believed there was a possibility she had slept with some old geezer. No matter how old he was, he was still asleep, which meant she could sneak off without having to endure any awkwardness.

Slowly but surely, she snuck out of bed, catlike, cold air biting at her naked skin. A small exhale from the bed made her freeze and glance around, but Lover Boy slept on. She searched the dark room, finding pieces of her clothes here and there, but no matter how hard she searched, she could not find her underwear. It was too dark to see, and she remembered they were black. It was fine, she had jeans, she would just go commando for the trip home. Who cared if he found them when he woke up, so long as she wasn’t on her hands and knees searching?

Shoko was dressed within a minute, and was about to head towards the door when a knot of curiosity built up in her stomach. She turned at the door, seeing Lover Boy hadn’t moved, and figured that, since Mei Mei and Utahime would ask, she could at least give a description, or lie that he hadn’t been over forty. She snuck across the room, footsteps feather light, and looked at the man she had slept with. Shoko’s breath was almost snatched from her lungs. He was angelic . He was about the same age as her, with soft white hair tousled in his sleep, and long, pale lashes rested against his skin. His lips, slightly parted, definitely looked soft and kissable. How on earth had she snagged a man this hot last night? She was already envisioning the envious expressions on Utahime and Mei Mei’s faces when she revealed that her sleaziness had ensnared a real-life god.

Pushing back her smugness, Shoko crept from the room, wincing as the door handle clicked, but otherwise escaping the bedroom unnoticed. The rest of the apartment, open-plan and not in darkness, was significantly more impressive. It appeared to be a penthouse of some kind, a modern black-and-white theme ongoing. Bright light beamed in, a little sensitive on her eyes. Not only had she slept with someone handsome, but he was rich, too. A large, flat-screen TV showed a distorted reflection of herself on the dark screen, the sofas were wide and comfortable-looking, and a huge window drew her in like a fly, overlooking the city. Her eyes grazed over other immaculate tall buildings, with coloured cars far down below looking like a child’s playset. She was certain the tiny black blobs were people. It felt like she was on top of the world.

But she really didn’t have time to be taking in the views. Lover Boy could wake up at any moment, and she hated it when she had to make smalltalk with someone she’d drunkenly fucked. She spied a staircase at the other end of the room and hastily approached it, feet pattering lightly on each wooden step as she hurried to find the rest of her things. Downstairs she was met with a fancy kitchen that even had a bar set into it. Two crystal glasses sat on the counter, one bearing traces of her lipstick. Her cigarette pack lay next to them. Her heels were unceremoniously dropped on the floor, her handbag sitting beside the kitchen island. She stuffed the cigarettes into her pocket, slung the bag over her shoulder, and pulled on her shoes, knowing that she was going to be getting some looks on her walk of shame home.

Heels clicking on the wooden floor, Shoko let herself out of the apartment, and checked her phone to see where she was. Dismally, she was quite far from the nearest station. In fact, this was a totally different area of town, an upmarket one at that. People would definitely stare at her. Not only that, but going to the train station in no underwear just felt too grubby. Utahime and Mei Mei were probably still a bit jaded, so there was no point asking either of them for a lift. There was , however, one person who would definitely swing by to her aid.

She strolled along the hallway, scrolling along her contacts until she found him, and popped a quick message, just to check if he was in a good mood.

Can I have a lift? And she added a smiling emoji after that, just for good measure.

She gave him time to answer as she followed signs, taking a set of stairs to the eighteenth floor, and then towards an elevator that was made entirely of glass. Shoko marvelled at it as she stepped inside, pressing the “G” button. From here, she could see a fantastic hotel lobby, with stairs spiralling around should anyone decide they didn’t want to use the lift. It was almost magical, and if she raised her head, she could see the skyline. As the lift began a gradual descent, she checked her phone and, sure enough, there was a response.

Very simply, he had written, Where to?

Shoko breathed a sigh of relief before sharing her location. Her ride home was guaranteed. She looked out of the lift once more, idly people-watching. A lot of people here were wearing very nice clothes, and she could see flashes of brands of sunglasses, handbags, jackets, and shoes. Enthralled, she couldn’t help but compare herself, wearing last night’s clothes. It wasn’t until she noticed the light blue uniforms of the staff at the desk that she realised when she might be. There was a hotel line across Japan, one that had prices up to the skies but was supposedly the lap of luxury. They were called the “Paradise Supreme” hotels, so it was likely this building was Tokyo Paradise Supreme. She had only seen it from the outside, manned by security. She stepped out of the lift gazing around, awed by the sheer opulence of the place. Two men in business suits cast her a brief look, and a member of staff holding a tray of welcome drinks watched her carefully. Everyone else seemed to politely avert their eyes. Adjusting her bag strap, Shoko headed through the revolving glass door, out into the sunshine.

It was a relief that the weather was nice, whether she was getting a lift or not. She glanced skywards, remembering how the sun had glinted off the windows of the tallest buildings. From here, their windows were cast in shadow, the sun hidden from this angle. Shoko could have stood there longer, but a brief honk of a car horn alerted her to Suguru’s black car. Finally allowing herself to relax, she dashed across the drop-off, a different car beeping at her and slamming on the brakes. She reached Suguru’s car and climbed into the passenger seat, seeing him already pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Looks like I owe you,” she grinned, buckling herself in.

“You owe me many times,” he grumbled, indicating and driving away from the curb, “so don’t make it a habit to run blindly across roads.”

“Do you mind?” she lifted the cigarette pack.

“Yes, window open or not,” he said. “Get your own car to smoke in.”

“Maybe after I’ve paid my tuition fees,” she said, itching for a cigarette. “But at the moment, I get free lifts .”

He shook his head, but she was sure there was a wry smile forming at the corners of his mouth. She leant her head on the window, looking outside as tall buildings, cars, and pedestrians flashed past. Reliable Suguru… she felt a bit bad always calling on him out of the blue like this, but she knew that if he was really against it, he wouldn’t’ve come.

“Want to get barbeque pork?” he said after a pause, and she glanced towards him, wrist rested on the steering wheel, looking completely relaxed and in his element.

Shoko was about to say yes - barbeque pork was her go-to after a night out - but then she remembered the… clothing situation… and thought better of it. “I’m good.”

“Turning down barbeque?” he raised an eyebrow. “You must have drank too much, even by your standards.”

That’s an understatement , she thought, but said instead, “I’m just not feeling it at the moment.”

“How about some drive-through chips?” he offered. “It can be on me.”

“Wow, driving me around and offering to buy me food?” she flashed him another grin. “If it wasn’t us two sitting here, this could be a love story, Hei.”

He didn’t answer at first. “I just worry about you. That’s all.”

“We’ll get those drive-through chips, then,” she shrugged, but in reality all she really wanted was a smoke.

That seemed to satisfy him, as they fell back into a contented silence. The radio was on, but the music hummed softly, which Shoko appreciated. Loud music would’ve made her headache worse. The glass of the window was cool on her face, and she could’ve taken a nap there and then. Maybe she did, because her memories of the trip home were a little disjointed. She was aware when Suguru ordered a large portion of chips with cheese and a large coffee, and she snacked on them as they drove. The coffee woke her up more and more after that, and every now and then Suguru would steal a chip.

“Have you heard from Mei Mei and Utahime?” Suguru asked almost hesitantly after another pause.

“Good point,” she pulled her phone out and checked for more messages.

Utahime, wonderful and reliable, had of course messaged their group chat. Are we all alive?

Shoko chuckled under her breath and sent a quick response of confirmation, and that she was with Suguru.

“Utahime’s awake,” she replied, dropping her phone in a drink-holder in front of the center console. “Mei Mei probably won’t respond until much later.”

There seemed to be more he wanted to say, but Shoko could understand why he held his tongue. She could envision the disapproval on his face when she told him how much she’d drank, regardless of how much she had been trying to cut down. It had been quite a few years since she’d been able to tell herself to stop once she’d reached a certain limit. After the accident, alcohol had become a somewhat… sensitive topic to Shoko, and even then, sitting in the safety of Suguru’s car, with the one person she could spill all of her secrets, she didn’t want to talk about it. Besides, she was in a good mood right now. She didn’t want to spoil it with sour thoughts from the past.

“Do you want me to drop you off home?” Suguru asked uncertainly.

“Yeah, I need a change of clothes.”

“Do you have foundation on you?”

“I’m wearing last night’s, if that’s what you mean,” she cast him a quizzical look.

“We’ll stop by a KoKuMiN, then,” he said.

“Why?” she reached up and grabbed the sun visor, pulling it down and flipping the mirror open. “What’s wron-”

She almost choked on her own words as a deep, scarlet flush spread across her face. The strange looks she had been receiving all made sense, now. There were dark, purpling bruises along her throat and collar bone in places that weren’t exactly easy to hide. Lover Boy was apparently a biter.

Why didn’t you say anything sooner ?” she hissed. “I can’t let Dad see me like this.”

“It never seemed like the right time to bring it up,” Suguru said lamely, as if there would ever be a right time at all.

Shoko kept her head bent low, cheeks burning with embarrassment. How could she have not thought to check the mirror at Lover Boy’s penthouse, just in case? All of those people - those fancy Paradise Supreme people - must have thought her to be some tramp.

As promised, Suguru found a KoKuMiN, parked the car and dipped inside. The wait for him felt like hours, but he was back within moments, slapping a cheap brand in her desperate hands. She was quick to apply it, flinching at the still tinder marks on her neck as she touched them. Last night had clearly been a lot of fun. A part of her was gutted that she couldn’t remember it. Only when she was sure there was nothing left did she breathe a sigh of relief and close the sun visor.

“Am I allowed to ask if you’re OK?” there was hesitation in Suguru’s voice.

“I’m fine ,” she replied pointedly, and he didn’t seem keen to press onwards. “Thanks for coming to get me, by the way.”

She glanced over at him, reliable Suguru who had saved her from years of trouble. He looked like he’d just been about to go jogging, long hair tied up into a knot, wearing a hoodie and shorts. She had to appreciate that he’d upended his schedule for her. It felt good to be with the familiar: seeing the slight tension at his brow he reserved for her stupid antics, the stretch of his earlobes from the large earrings he started wearing towards the end of high school, and even the bag of chips she had - he just knew what cured her hangovers and bad moods. She relaxed into the chair all the way until they made it back home.

Home was the bakery, and as a family friend, Shoko’s father had always let Suguru park there. The sign read “OPEN” as always, and the pair of them walked in, the bell jingling as they did so. There was nobody inside, but her father quickly poked his head through the back door, and a smile lit up his features.

“Welcome home, Shoko,” he said cheerfully, “and it’s always good to see you, Suguru. A cup of tea for the both of you?”

“I actually have to be somewhere,” Suguru said apologetically. “I’ll take up your offer another time, though.”

“Always, always,” her dad said. “And again, thank you for always carpooling Shoko around. I keep telling her to get her license, but she doesn’t see-”

“We hear ya, Dad, we hear ya,” she said tiredly.

“It was nice to see you, though, Mr Ieiri,” Suguru added as he headed back towards the door. “And Shoko.” He was smiling, but the tension was back in his brow. “Look after yourself.”

Bye, Hei ,” she said pointedly, waving him out of the door. Then to her dad, “I’ll have that tea.”

“Of course, of course,” she followed him into the back room, and was surprised to find he wasn’t alone. “Yes, Utahime dropped by just to make sure you’d made it back home alright.”

Unlike Shoko, Utahime seemed to have avoided looking like death. She looked fresh-faced and pristine, dressed in a flowing floral skirt and a pretty top. Shoko always questioned how she walked away from nights out fine despite her beer consumption. She had even found the time to tie her usual ribbon into her hair.

“Utahime was just telling me you stayed over at Mei Mei’s,” Shoko’s father lowered himself back down to sit. Shoko sat with both of them, watching as he poured them tea. “Said you’d had trouble finding your keys?”

Silently, Shoko thanked Utahime. She didn’t want her father worrying about her being at strangers’ houses.

“Did you find them OK?” Utahime segued. “I know it was quite dark, and hard to see last night.”

“Found them just fine,” Shoko smiled confidently, reaching into her bag and searching for her keys. “They were just at the bottom of my bag.”

She kept searching, but no jingling met her ears. Shoko worriedly upended the contents of her bag on the floor beside her, but there was no sign of her ears. Her ears began to burn, and she could feel Utahime’s wide-eyed stare boring into the side of her skull. Had she lost her keys last night? Had she left her keys at Lover Boy’s apartment?

“Silly me,” she checked her pockets and forced a laugh. “I left them at Mei Mei’s.”

Her father gave an exasperated sigh. “Your forgetfulness will be the death of you, Shoko, I swear. Make sure to pick them up before Thursday, I won’t be there to let you back in on Friday.”

“I hear ya,” she grumbled, although deep down she was panicking.

Shoko was then literally saved by the bell. The front door chimed and her father rose to his feet, heading off to serve the customer. As soon as he was out of sight, Utahime shuffled closer to Shoko.

“You lost your keys?” she said through gritted teeth.

“I didn’t mean to,” Shoko breathed in, trying to contain the rising panic. “Jesus, what am I going to do? I’ll have to go back to that guy’s apartment. Oh, the shame.”

“You’d better hope they’re there,” Utahime scolded. “Otherwise you’re going to have to pay for the locks to be changed.”

Lovely Utahime, with her rational opinions and her constant worrying about Shoko. The two of them had met at university when Utahime had been in her final year. Shoko had attended a Karaoke Society meeting, and their love of drinking had let the two bond quickly, especially when paired with singing the night away. Since then, even though Utahime had graduated, she and Shoko had remained close.

Shoko rubbed her temples irritably. “Jeez, this day couldn’t get any worse. I need a smoke.”

“Those things are slowly killing you on the inside,” Utahime nagged, and then a rueful expression appeared on her face. “Are you OK? You dipped on Mei Mei and I so fast last night.”

“Sorry ‘bout that,” she rubbed her aching temples.

“Some guy asked you for a drink, you spent ages at the bar with him, then you texted - not told - Mei Mei that you were going home with him,” she continued. “I didn’t even get a proper look at the guy. I bet he was super creepy. He was super creepy, wasn’t he?”

“No,” Shoko said irritably. “He was hot.”

“You idiot, attractive people can still be creepy!”

“I don’t remember what he was like,” she scowled. “And he was fast asleep when I left.”

“Well, let’s hope he’s nice, because you’re going to have to ask him for your keys back,” Utahime pressed. “In fact, we should go today. There’s no point waiting it out. Rip the bandage off before someone breaks into the bakery.”

“I really just need a shower and a proper sleep, to be honest,” she rubbed her temples again.

“This is important , though,” her friend pressed on. “I don’t know why you’re so relaxed about this.”

“At least let me have a sho-”

“You should be more concerned,” Utahime babbled on. “Also, heading off with random men is so reckless, you never know what’s going to happen. You should’ve at least let me and Mei Mei see him properly, instead of just squirrelling off with hi-”

“Hime, I don’t even know where my underwear is,” she smiled thinly. “Let me have a shower, put on some pants, and then I can think about my key. ‘K?”

Utahime deadpanned. “Your…”

“Yes,” Shoko hummed. “It’s been a day so far, and it’s not even lunch time. Give me a break.”

Utahime was still gawking, a little fishlike, when Shoko’s father returned. “Shoko, can you get freshened up? We’ve had a big order, so I need you at the desk whilst I make it.”

“Sure,” she glugged down the rest of her tea, before shooting a glance towards Utahime. “I will go to Mei Mei’s tomorrow, OK?”

Her friend breathed a reluctant sigh of relief. “Yes, and if you need me to come along, I can.”

She smiled gratefully, and the two exchanged a brief hug before Utahime headed off. As much as she liked talking to friends, a part of Shoko was relieved. She could rush off to the shower and then plan out how she was going to tackle any damage control. She scurried upstairs and hopped underneath the shower, letting the warm water soak over her skin. It was good to be out of her old clothes, and it was understatement that she felt like she had shed off a layer of grime once she stepped out of the shower. She had dismally noted more hickeys peppered along the back of her neck and along one shoulder. Her muscles had ached and screamed as she’d washed, too, and she couldn’t help but wryly muse that she was somehow still a little worn out.

As she towelled herself dry in her bedroom, Shoko tried to remember what Lover Boy had looked like. The longer she was away, the more he faded from her memory. She could remember he was handsome, but it felt like a distant dream, or a painting she had viewed at a museum and vaguely recalled. It felt surreal that an hour ago she had woken up in a Paradise Supreme hotel. For a few seconds, she had been a part of the wealthy elites’ world.

An elite wearing a necklace of love bites

She flushed just thinking about it. The blush rising up her neck only made the bruises seem darker, so she threw on the largest zip up sweater she owned and pulled the zip up to the neck. Any marks that peeped over the collar were concealed properly, and she was quick to chug more water until she had a brighter expression in her eyes. Rolling her shoulders back, she strode downstairs to man the reception desk.

For as long as she had been alive, Shoko’s family had owned the bakery. Ironically, she hated sweet food, so could never relate when customers gushed that they wouldn’t be able to stop themselves eating any baked goods that were made. The bakery was popular in the local area, so they received a lot of orders. It meant that Shoko had to manage the till in between lectures and studying, so that her father could bake to his heart’s delight. Because of that, there were days when Shoko didn’t leave the Med School until gone eleven in the evening. She needed her key back…

In the meantime, though, she busied herself with serving customers, mindlessly making exchanges and even helping herself to a sandwich during a quiet period, dropping her own savings into the till. The day dragged slowly by, and it didn’t help that her throat was still raw and her body threatened her with nausea. The feeling didn’t fade until much later, but it still came as a relief when her father returned from baking to take over once more and she could dash off to her room.

She wasted no time getting into the pyjamas, turning the lights low and seizing her laptop. She laid it on her bed, diving deep into the sheets with a tea nearby, watching programmes on catch-up TV. She did her best to not doze off, but when she was cushioned by blankets and pillows, it was hard not to. She drifted off a few times, so had to rewatch a few episodes of Mother each time. She felt a bit rubbish, and only checked her group chat on occasion. Since it was mostly full of Mei Mei tossing in quips about Shoko’s late night excursion, she decided that it wasn’t worth gluing her eyes to the screen.

A particularly deep nap was abruptly ended by her father calling out to her that dinner was ready. Bleary eyed, Shoko seized her alarm clock and saw that it read six in the evening. How had the time gone by so quickly?

“Coming!” she called out through a yawn.

She scrambled out of bed, snatched up the sweater once more and tossed it over her head. Shoko was almost at her bedroom door when her phone buzzed, alerting a new notification. It was probably Mei Mei throwing another remark, but still, her curiosity got the better of her. She could at least leave Mei Mei on read and steal the joy of her “final word”. She snatched up the phone and headed off towards the kitchen, barely watching her step as she went downstairs.

Shoko stopped on the stairs, feeling her brows knit together in bewilderment. It wasn’t from Mei Mei, but a number she didn’t recognise. As she read the text, she felt an odd jump in her chest and a lump in her throat. Her mind kept asking how? but she could barely remember last night at all, so it wasn’t beyond possibility. She had received it about an hour ago, before her lengthy nap, and if the number hadn’t stood out, it might have been buried in the many messages between Utahime and Mei Mei.

“Shoko?” her father called out.

“Yeah…” she murmured, and then louder, “I’m coming!”

She had to check her phone one last time, being careful not to open the message just quite yet. It was short and sweet, a simple and unassuming text. It simply read:

Hey, it’s me ~

Chapter Text

Hey, it’s me ~

Standing on the steps, Shoko had only felt bewilderment, staring at her phone, but another call from her dad had forced her to cram the phone in her sweat pocket and hurry off for dinner. Admittedly, she forgot to check her phone after dinner, preferring instead to watch old game shows with her dad. She had sat there, smiling whenever her father had grown irritated at the repeated incorrect answers. This was a routine for them, to sit before the TV until both were too tired to keep their eyes open. Shoko would quietly watch as her father jotted down questions and answers on a notepad, growing more and more impatient with the contestants as the show progressed. Inevitably, a lot of them lost the jackpot, for which he would shake his head and look at her, saying, “ They were never going to win. ” That night, which had started as a very unusual day, ended just like it always did, with Shoko and her father heading off to sleep, both yawning out their farewells. She had walked into her room, threw her phone onto her bedside table, before crashing out and falling asleep almost immediately. Sunday would be more productive, of that she was sure…

And maybe it was, because when she woke up the next day, she remembered the increasing amount of responsibilities she needed to take care of. She needed to get her keys back, and she needed to crack down on her assignment, since it was due on Wednesday. Thinking of the keys reminded her of the text she’d received last night, and she fumbled tiredly in her dark room for her phone. The screen burned her eyes, as she looked at the text once more. She didn’t dare open it, for whoever had sent it would see she had read it. Instead, she turned to the fountain of advice that was Utahime and Mei Mei.

Look what I got last night, she wrote, popping the message off into the electronic aether.

It didn’t take long for Utahime to jump to attention. From the guy?

I’d assume so, Shoko mused, and then added, Unless it’s just a coincidence.

This is perfect! You can ask him for your keys back , Utahime replied.

Lol rookie error , was all Mei Mei had to say about the matter.

Since neither of them were giving her the advice she wanted (read: ignore it), she decided it wasn’t worth asking them for more opinions. She stared at the phone, the unopened message in bold, beckoning her. She decided she’d answer it when she had a clear head, so left her phone on the bed and left to get showered and dressed. In about twenty minutes, she had sat, cross-legged, on a bench in the backyard, basking in the sun with a cigarette hanging, smoking, from her lips, phone in hands. She had mulled things over in the shower, and decided it was better to confirm who was texting, and bluntness was the way to do it.

She opened the message and wrote, simply, Who is this?

Admittedly, she hadn’t expected a response any time soon, but whoever was messaging her was swift to the keyboard.

Aww, you don’t remember me?

Shoko gritted her teeth together. If this was him, then he was living up to the idea that men thought they were God’s gift in bed.

Are you from Friday? she didn’t often pass up the opportunity to flirty texts, but she was in a bad mood.

Bingo ~

She let out a deep sigh. So this really was Lover Boy. Shoko took a long drag on her cigarette, wondering how to broach the topic of asking about her keys. A part of her dreaded him saying he didn’t have them, then she would have to pay big money to get her locks changed. Not only that, but she’d have to face her dad’s wrath, a rare but torturous occasion. A sudden buzz from her phone broke her out of the reverie and she looked down, past the smoke of her cigarette.

You left so quickly yesterday. It was a shame.

Hah , she thought, Lover Boy was left wanting some pillow talk.

Had to dash , she replied, and because her mood increased from the feeling of being wanted, she added a kissing heart emoji.

Let’s meet up , he wrote. I know a place.

Was he asking her on a date ? She turned the phone over in her hands a few times, mulling it over. She normally avoided one night stands. She also didn’t usually give them her number, though, and she must have last night for him to be texting her. Besides, it would give her the chance to check if he had her keys. If it was utterly dire, then she’d message one of the girls to save her.

Sure. Where and when?

He sent her a location which, unsurprisingly enough, was in the nice area of town where he lived. With the image he added, How quick can you get here?

It was about thirty minutes on the train with an additional ten minutes’ worth of walking. She pondered for a moment, and then popped the cafe into her messages with Utahime and Mei Mei. Without explaining to them, she replied to Lover Boy that she could be there in an hour. She didn’t want to seem eager, but if she could just get her keys back, then… Another message popped up.

11:34. See you then.

For some reason, her heart jumped in her chest, a small skip. Why did the idea of meeting up with him make her nervous? It was stupid, something a schoolgirl would feel. Besides, she couldn’t remember him that much and his eyes had been closed. What if they were gross and bloodshot? What if he was uglier than she had thought in that dark room. She juggled her phone in her hand, deep in thought, and then decided to doll herself up a bit. If she was going to see a one night stand again, then she needed to make herself seem better than him.

It was a warm summer day, so she opted for a high-necked crop top and a long skirt and sandals with a slight wedge. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she searched around for her favourite lipstick, and then settled for a more casual gloss when she couldn’t find it in the jumble of her make-up bag. She headed swiftly down the stairs, fluffing her hair a little and heard voices in the bakery, as well as breathed in the warm smell of fresh bread. She wasn’t surprised to find a regular had popped by, a young man called Kento who had taken a liking to buying a sandwich from them for lunch every day. If she remembered correctly, he was studying finance, and he rarely smiled. He seemed to take his day-to-day activities very seriously, and seemed to perpetually be running against the clock, despite his seemingly organised nature. Shoko took the smallest amusements from him, but it seemed that his busy schedule could fit a small conversation with either Shoko or her father, depending who was at the desk.

Dad, I’m heading out for coffee with Mei Mei, ” she beamed, waving at them both. “ Good morning, Kento.

No worries, ” her dad smiled, lifting a hand, whilst Kento mumbled, “ Good morning…

She stepped out into the beautiful sunshine, basking in the flood of warmth that kissed her skin. Walking along idly, she saw a few messages from both Utahime and Mei Mei. A lot of it was discussing the coffee shop, but the small texts from Mei Mei saying things like “ That place is expensive ”, “ Is he rich? ” and “ Date him. ” brought a smile to Shoko’s face. She hadn’t really thought about the coffee place itself. She checked the menu, and frowned at the overpriced bullshit they were trying to pull. How was she supposed to spend that much money on a coffee and justify it? She only had so much wages from helping her dad in the bakery.

Make him pay , was Mei Mei’s most recent message, and Shoko somehow found herself agreeing with her friend’s monetary-driven mind for once.

When she reached the station and boarded the next train, she put her earbuds in, gazing around at the carriage that filled rapidly. She was buried in a crowd, staring down at the floor as she counted each of the stations. She had a changeover halfway through, and almost missed the next train. Slipping past people, she darted through the darts just before they closed, pressing in close with everyone else. The music chimed in her ears, blocking out any other noise and making her momentarily deaf to everything around her. She could just about see the stops, counting each one, before leaving the train and following the Exit signs out of the station. It was a relief to be back outside, away from the smell of sweat and stale air down below. She was almost blinded by the sun reflecting off the windows of skyscrapers, and blinking dark spots away from her eyes, she walked in the shade, following the map on her phone.

The cafe in question was in a large plaza with many restaurants. She walked past a little boy blowing bubbles that danced and shimmered different colours in the sky. There was an ice cream truck parked to one corner, and chairs had been set outside of each of the venues, where people were sat outside in stylish clothes with pretty drinks in tall glasses. Shoko wondered self-consciously whether she blended in, or if she stuck out like a sore thumb. She approached the cafe with caution and peered in through a window. It was chique and a mix between modern and vintage, and she noted slender vases holding tall orchids in them on each of the tables. Glass mugs were used for coffees, and there were little cakes and patisseries on display. Shoko bitterly and automatically thought that they couldn’t be better than her dad’s. She scanned the room quickly for someone with blonde hair, but there didn’t appear to be anyone.

Should she go inside? Would he recognise her? Everyone had black hair and dark eyes, there was nothing distinguishing about her. She checked the time, and it was thirty-two past eleven. She had time for a quick smoke. She popped the pack and her lighter out of her bag and set the cigarette alight, hanging it in her lips as she packed everything back. Taking a drag, she relaxed against the wall of the cafe, glancing around at the sun-filled plaza. There was definitely an absence of fellow smokers in this area, and she was even surprised to see a few joggers out. She would have to tell Suguru that this was a popular route. She checked her phone one more time after a few moments of people-watching had passed, mostly seeing messages from Utahime and the odd one from Mei Mei, but also seeing the time was 11:36. She glanced around, but saw nobody heading towards her, and nobody particularly blonde. Had she just been stood up?

Moodily, she puffed on her cigarette, and gave him another minute. As she stomped over to the bin and stamped her cigarette out on it, before throwing it away, she went to text Utahime and Mei Mei that Lover Boy seemed to think he could make a fool out of her, when a hand touched her shoulder lightly. She jumped, closing a firm hand around her phone and raising the other in front, ready to make distance. And then she faltered.

Standing before her was the most beautiful man she had ever laid eyes on, and as she looked at him, she remembered that he was not blonde, no, of course he wasn’t, but his hair was as light as snow, and looked as soft as feathers. He stood a good foot over her, notably taller than everyone else in the plaza, and a few young women passing by looked up at him, wonder shining in their eyes. He wore a black, loose fitted sweater and beige chinos, and a pair of shades sat on his face. Shoko willed herself to look away, to stop staring , close her mouth , anything , but her heart was leaping in her chest, trying to escape through her throat.

Made you jump, ” he tilted his head to one side, smiling languidly, hands in his pockets. “ You’re Shoko, right?

His eyes are hideous, he has horrible eyes , she told herself rapidly, and barely managed to mumble, “ Yeah, that’s me.

He seemed to inspect her then, and her mind jumped to the worst. He thinks I’m ugly. He’s regretting everything.

He broke off the sudden train of thought, saying, “ You really are as cute as I remembered ~

A fierce flush jumped up her neck, and she desperately hoped the light powder would hide it. Her pulse kept fluttering uncontrollably.

A-aren’t we here for coffee? ” she eventually managed.

Right, you don’t do compliments, ” he held up his hands, still smiling easily. “ Come along, then.

Almost robotically, she followed him inside the cafe. The air conditioner was on, a bit of relief from the steadily increasing heat of midday. There was a business woman on the phone, her brows knitted together as she spoke in low and urgent tones, wearing an angular skirt suit, a pastel blue chiffon blouse underneath, and the make-up on her face immaculate. A woman and her boyfriend were sharing a slice of cake at another table, smiles painted on perfect faces, rings shining on her fingers and a watch glistening on his wrist. A group of young women were snapping photos with each other and of their orders. A man sat hunched over his laptop, an expresso sitting beside him.

Shoko followed Lover Boy over to the counter, glancing around at a room full of people who lived entirely different lives to her. Mei Mei would be proud. She looked at the glass and saw a wide array of sweet and savoury snacks. She hadn’t had breakfast, so she couldn’t help but look a little too closely.

What’cha having? ” Lover Boy was looking at her with a smile that was gorgeous.

He’s definitely got horrible eyes, she told herself firmly. But more importantly, was he paying for her? Is that why he was asking? She was going to go on a whim and assume he was.

A black coffee, ” she said, and then looked at a tray of savoury scones. “ And one of those.

Lover Boy mulled over her choice, looking up at the menu above, and then said, “ One Americano, a mediterranean scone, a white tea and a bakewell tart, ” with a black card balanced in between long fingers. “ Pick your fave seat ~

Shoko glanced around, and decided on a window one. She crossed the cafe and lowered herself down into the chair. The sun going through the window was warm on her skin. She reached forward and tested if the orchids were real, and they were. Lover Boy sat across from her, stretching out his long legs, twirling a numbered podium in his hands. Shoko was a little speechless, but she knew she needed to bring up the topic of getting her keys back, assuming he had them. She hadn’t expected to go on a coffee date with a one night stand.

She opened her mouth to speak, but an employee appeared to place a tray in between them. The fumes of bitter coffee reached Shoko’s nose, and she smiled gratefully and thanked the server as she placed their order on the table. The server glanced towards Lover Boy, the same amazement in her eyes as others, and Shoko wouldn’t have been surprised if she had worn the same expression outside.

His eyes are hideous, she thought with satisfaction, looking at the angular shape of his jaw as he thanked the server, lips upturned still.

Do you come here often? ” she asked, keeping her tone polite as she pulled the plate with her scone on it closer. It looked like it had sundried tomatoes and basil inside.

When I have the chance, ” he rested his head on one hand, watching her. “ Do you like it?

Depends if they make good coffee, ” she replied, lifting the still-hot coffee to her mouth.

He breathed out a short laugh, then took off his obnoxious sunglasses and set them aside, reaching for the sugar bowl. Automatically, Shoko found herself looking at his face, searching for a flaw to convince herself that her heart was fluttering around for no reason. She didn’t find that flaw. He looked up at her through fine white, long lashes, the same ones she remembered seeing on Saturday morning. Her breath stilled in her throat, taking in the mesmerising blue of his eyes. It was like looking at both the sky and the sea at the same time. She could see a pale icy blue cutting through dark hues of Neptune’s rich blues. There was turquoise and aquamarine, sapphire and opal. He was breathtaking, and he had asked to see her again. Had said she was cute. Her coffee was ready in her hands, steaming away, but she couldn’t bring herself to break the intensity of their eye contact. She was fairly sure she was experiencing a positive version of what it was like to be in shock.

Or maybe you just like me, ” he winked, and she inhaled sharply, finally finding the air she needed.

Shoko forced herself to drink some coffee, needing to escape his brilliant gaze, and almost spluttered as it burned her throat. It was delicious, too, rich and bitter to take away any smoking cravings and snap her awake a bit. Feeling heat from both her flush and the coffee rise up in her face, Shoko set the cup down with a little more force than intended.

Good coffee, ” she rasped nervously, trying to clear her throat.

Yeah? Looks like I’ll have to bring you back here some day, then, ” he tilted his head interestedly as he watched her. “ We barely talked last night. I want to get to know you. What do you like other than coffee?

I never say no to a drink, ” although he was the last person she needed to tell that to.

He laughed. “ You did like whiskey, yes.

As for hobbies, I’ve had a lot on, so they’ve been somewhat… sidelined, ” she admitted, trailing a finger absent-mindedly along the rim of her glass cup, doing her best not to get lost in his eyes again.

Busy with work? ” he seemed sympathetic, and when she nodded, he said, “ What do you do?

It’s not job work, really, more university, ” she explained. “ But I help my dad with the family bakery when I can.

Bakery? ” his expression lit up. “ Do you bake?

I can bake, if that’s what you mean, ” she said. “ So yeah, I bake.

That’s cute ~ ” he smiled, and his smile widened when he saw her fluster. “ What do you study?

Medicine, ” she said. “ I’m going to be a doctor.

Not a baker?

Once upon a time ago, ” she said, a sour tasting memory on her tongue. “ But if I’m a doctor, I can help people.

He didn’t immediately respond, and when she looked at him, his gaze had softened considerably. Crystal light wasn’t dancing in his irises, but was replaced with a solemn calmness - and it infuriated her deep down how much of a marble beauty he was.

What about you? ” she added quickly, looking into her dark coffee.

Oh, I don’t do anything interesting, ” he blew out a breath, and added a sugar cube to his tea. “ I spend too many days shut in going through files, accounts, and whatnot. But it pays, and I get enough time off for lots of travelling.

Where have you been, then, Jetsetter? ” Shoko had always wanted to go travelling.

America a few times… I do like California and New York… ” he added a second cube of sugar to his tea. “ London and Paris are both nice enough, but I love Rome… ” a third sugar cube. “ Barcelona has a place in my heart. ” He thoughtfully added a fourth cube and began stirring. “ I need to go back there…

She watched with fascination mixed with disgust as he took a sip of his sugary concoction.

Have you travelled much, Shoko? ” he asked eagerly.

No… ” she said reluctantly. “ I guess I’m kinda tied down to university and the bakery. Mind you, I’ve been to Hokkaido!

For the hot springs? ” his gaze drifted along her shoulders.

Partly, ” she said, and then added, “ though we were mainly there for skiing.

You went with your family? ” he seemed intrigued.

Shoko shook her head. “ Friends.

She finally decided to take a bite from the scone - it was delicious. When she was a doctor, she would frequent this cafe a lot, she decided.

Not quite as exciting as where you’ve been, ” she added then, realising how lame Hokkaido sounded in comparison to New York, Paris, and Rome.

Not at all, ” his gaze lit up as he assessed her. “ I want to know more about you. You interest me.

She opened her mouth to speak, but once again found herself to be speechless. What was it about him that was so captivating? He was beautiful, yes, but his switch between jovial and sincere was alarmingly alluring.

How long have you lived in Tokyo? ” he reached across the table and tucked some hair behind one of her eyes.

A-all my life, ” she swallowed, a slight shiver dancing on her skin where his fingers traced the shell of her ear and lightly touched her neck.

With his eyes on her, and her skin prickling from his touch, she wondered if the feelings were remnants of their night together. His touch was soft and light; had she melted like this on Friday night, too? Nervously, she looped a strand of hair around her finger and began to twist it.

My mum was from Kamaishi, up in the Iwate Prefecture, ” she mumbled, taking a sip of coffee. “ I’ve never been, though, and it’s not like she talked about it much… The only thing she really mentioned was the beach…

He reached out again, taking her hand and absent-mindedly unravelling her hair, which had threatened to knot. “ And does your mum also help at the bakery?

Shoko let herself still, the same sourness creeping into the back of her mind. “ She’s… ” the words weren’t coming as easily as she’d hoped. How long had it been since she’d let the topic of her mum creep into a conversation? “ She’s not around anymore…

Lover Boy also went still, blue eyes focused on the strands of hair he unwound. “ I’m sorry to hear that…

It felt odd to see someone so angelic-looking appear so sad. “ That was six years ago. It’s… not fine , she thought, but didn’t dare voice. Her heart wrenched at the thought of her mum, of that awful night, of - “ It’s in the past.

She couldn’t find anything more to say on the matter. Quietly, she let him unravel her hair, before pushing it behind her ear, bent and kinked from the number of times she had wound it in spirals. Her eyes found his, and once again she felt like she was drowning in their brilliance. She let that feeling wash over, to rinse away the terrible memories, let cold water wash over fire, and a part of her was disappointed when he drew his hand away from her cheek. She sipped her coffee once more, but found that she suddenly had no appetite for the scone.

Regret filled Shoko’s chest. She should’ve just lied, said her mum was fine and helped them with the bakery. She had made things awkward, stilted their conversation with a loss that happened six years ago, a loss she should’ve recovered from by now, and yet she just couldn’t let the damned memories go.

I didn’t mea-

Don’t say that, ” he said, his tone incredibly soft. “ I asked a question and you answered it. Let’s move forward, ” he added, offering a smile once more, and it worked well with the sadness in his eyes. “ I don’t like seeing you so sad.

Right, I… ” she was considering leaving, running away to hide in her bedroom for a bit, but then remembered the reason she had agreed to this meet-up. “ Actually, I meant to ask… Did I leave any keys at your place?

He blinked, astonished. “ Yes, of course. Sorry, ” he reached into a pocket and handed her the keys. “ Here, I forgot. Must’ve been dazzled by you~

Ha, ha, ” she allowed herself to smile again. “ Thank you, though.

He let out a contented sigh. “ If you’re asking for your keys back, I guess this means you’re heading on your way?

I have an assignment to write, ” she said, mostly to remind herself that she hadn’t finished.

I don’t normally do this, but I like talking to you, ” he grinned. “ Let’s meet again. A proper date, though.

Shoko hesitated, mostly because of her old policies to not get attached to flings. He seemed earnest, but her mind kept wandering back to Friday and she couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed to be around him.

If I take your keys again, will you say yes? ” he continued, eyes sparkling mischievously.

Shoko decided that if there was ever a man she would break her own rules for, it was this one. “ Text me.

He hummed. “ I will.

It felt odd to stand, a reminder that he towered over her and almost everyone else in the near vicinity. The pair of them wandered out into the sunshine, and Lover Boy was quick to put his sunglasses back on once outside.

It was nice to see you again, ” he said cheerfully, bending down for a quick peck on her cheek. “ And I’ll see you sooner than later.

Yeah… ” she said, a little dazed that he wanted to see her again, and lifting a limp hand as he began to walk away. Then the thought occurred to her. “ What’s your name?

He turned his head wearing an ear-to-ear grin. “ Was I really that unremarkable?

Just tell me, or I’m blocking your number, ” she said.

Satoru, ” he replied. “ Call me Satoru.

See you, Satoru, ” she waved, and cheerfully bounded her way back to the train station.

Chapter Text

“And he hasn’t texted you since then?” Mei Mei stirred her tea gently, dark eyes focused on Shoko from across the table. Their inky depth seemed to bore straight into her soul, piercing straight to the part of Shoko that kept wanting to check her phone for messages.

“No,” she replied.

“Men are pigs,” Utahime sipped her tea, chin raised knowingly.

“It’s only been two days,” Shoko looked at her dark phone screen.

“Didn’t he say he would text you?” Mei Mei asked.

“Yeah, he said “I will”...” the screen stayed black.

“You should’ve given him a time limit,” Mei Mei said. “Now he has no timer.”

“Men are useless,” Utahime said.

“I thought he liked me,” she took a drag on her cigarette. “Should I text him?”

“No,” Utahime scowled, whereas Mei Mei smiled, saying, “No.”

“Why not?” she lifted the phone in one hand. “What if he wants me to text first?”

“Men are useless pigs,” Utahime shook her head.

“He said he would text you first,” Mei Mei said. “Block his number after five days. Time is money, and by then, you’ll be wasting yours on him.”

“He seemed nice…” Shoko sighed, a puff of smoke escaping her lips as she did so.

“He only wanted a second round, I bet,” Utahime flamed. “You’re better than that, Shoko.”

“This is way too complicated…” Shoko said. “Can’t I block him now? Then I won’t have to think about him.”

“Do it,” Utahime scowled, whereas Mei Mei shook her head, saying, “Not yet.”

“Why not?”

“Because he has money,” Mei Mei’s smile was calculated, her dark eyes shining as she sipped her tea. “Give him a chance to realise that you have more worth than his time.”

“Men are idiots,” Utahime said sympathetically.

After Sunday’s “date”, Shoko had felt more positive about Satoru than any guy she’d dated for quite some time. She had had a few odd relationships, not all of them particularly positive, but this had been the first time in ages that she’d felt a connection with someone. Had she worn her heart on her sleeve? He had probably been more weirded out by their conversation than he had let on. She really should’ve just pretended her mum was alive. Or maybe it was something else?

“He called me cute,” she said and, despite the circumstances, found herself smiling again whilst thinking about Satoru.

Mei Mei said nothing, but instead closed her eyes, sipping her tea serenely. Utahime scowled, dunking her tea bag with a little more force than necessary. Shoko quietly drew another breath from her cigarette.

“You need to stop that,” Utahime eventually said. “You’ll be dead before you’re twenty-five.”

Shoko ignored her.


When her eyelids began to grow heavy, Shoko checked the time. It was half eleven in the evening. The sky outside was black and most of the library was empty, save the odd student with their head bent over stacks of papers and tapping rapidly at laptop keyboards. It was the day before assignments were due, and since Shoko had a lot of preparation with the bakery this week, she ideally wanted the assignment done today so that she could come home early on Wednesday. She had almost finished the large report, but her energy was beginning to dwindle. She had texted her dad hours ago to say she wouldn’t be home for dinner. It wasn’t a rare occurrence, so he hadn’t sent her a flurry of messages. She has lost too much time on the weekend, otherwise she’d be heading to bed right now.

Twisting her hair, she tried her best to proofread the next sentence as carefully as possible, but it felt like there was cotton stuffed in her head. She either needed an incredibly strong coffee, an energy drink, or alcohol to drown her sorrows in. What she really wanted was a smoke, but she didn’t want to leave her things unattended. She drummed her fingers on the desk, wishing she had more motivation now that it was dark out. She could pull an all-nighter… that way, she wouldn’t have to leave campus and could just hand in the assignment when the offices opened. The library had sofas. She could be comfortable enough…

“You look in need of a boost.”

Shoko jumped on the spot. She had been half asleep, and the bright white of the printed assignment in front of her burned against her eyes, as did the fluorescent lights of the university library. Raising her head, she saw another student peering over his laptop, a few seats away from her on the opposite side of the table. He had blonde hair which he’d tied back, and he wore a sympathetic expression on his face.

“I was just about to grab something,” he continued. “Do you want something?”

Normally she would decline, but… she was tired. “A coffee. Really strong. Really strong.”

“Coming right up,” he said, grabbing his phone and heading off towards the twenty-four-seven library cafe.

Yawning, Shoko reached for her phone and, for the first time in ages, checked for any messages. There were a few from Mei Mei and Utahime, both enquiring as to whether her situation had changed. Her answer was brief and negative. She then froze, seeing that there was a message from Satoru, too. Her heart skipping, she opened it.

Work messed my schedule - I’ve booked a restaurant for us tomorrow night!

She stared at the message. Two days of nothing, and then a date? Was he keen, or wasn’t he? What if she had something on tomorrow night? A part of her wanted to be petty and make something up, but… she really had nothing. She began to reply, but then the young man returned and placed a coffee next to her. It smelt of darkness and caffeine, and her mouth salivated at the thought of it.

“Thank you,” she set her phone down in relief. “How much?”

“You can get the next round if we’re still here in an hour,” he laughed, and then winced when someone across the room shushed him.

“I needed this,” she closed her eyes as she breathed in the smell.

“Everyone needs a drink here and there,” he said, pausing by his seat. “Fancy a coffee break? Some fresh air might put that essay into perspective.”

She surveyed the work in front of her. Did it really matter if she didn’t make it home until much later? The essay wasn’t due until four in the afternoon tomorrow. She didn’t want to burn out, either, and there was barely anyone in the library. Who would risk stealing their things when they were going to be standing at the front door anyway?

“Sure,” she gathered her coffee and phone, and the pair of them walked outside.

The library had large windows, so from their standing point, Shoko could still see all of her things. She juggled with her coffee, phone, and smokes, and somehow managed to light one. The rush of caffeine and nicotine combined felt like life shooting through her veins.

“I’m Haruta, by the way,” the guy said, leaning against a pillar and sipping from his drink can.

“Shoko,” she breathed out smoke with relief.

“You looked really busy back there,” he said. “What are you studying?”

“Medicine,” she tasted the smoke in her mouth, savouring its warmth.

“That sounds like a demanding course,” he grimaced. “Sociology seems nothing in comparison.”

“I have another four years of this,” she replied. “It’ll pay off in the end.”

She looked up at the sky. It really was dark out, and light pollution made it seem like a blank stretch of dark canvas. There wasn’t a single pearly star in sight, and the moon was partially obstructed by wispy clouds. It was an almost haunting sight, but the warm evening made her feel relaxed. There was a balmy breeze that carried her smoke away as she and Haruta enjoyed a bit of air.

“What year are you in?” she asked.

“Third year,” he said, and then swallowed nervously. “Final year.”

“I’m in my third year, too,” Shoko sighed.

“I’m surprised that you’re here on the day before Due Date Wednesday,” Haruta said and when she raised an eyebrow at him, he added, “You seem like a put-together person.”

“That’s the first time someone’s called me “put-together”,” she said. “I guess I only work hard when there’s little time left. I should be more concerned about deadlines, but… I somehow never think about them until they’re close.”

“I’m the same,” Haruta said, and then put on a voice, “ I’ll do it tomorrow . And then tomorrow never comes, you know?”

“I definitely know,” she smiled wanly.

“Shame we only met now, instead of two years ago,” he wondered aloud. “We could’ve been the Late Night Study Buds.”

“It’s only the first term,” Shoko took another drag. “There’s still plenty of opportunities for me to leave things until the last minute.”

There was a pause, where Haruta looked thoughtful. Then he said, “Maybe I could get your number?”

“Sure,” she said. “Group studies will probably motivate me, anyway.”

She dropped her cigarette and stamped it out on the ground. It was terrible for the environment, but she had finished her coffee and just wanted to get back to her assignment. They returned to their table, which was scattered with notes and papers. Shoko jotted down her number and pushed it across the table to Haruta, who was quick to add her and pop her a message of his name.

“To work, then,” he sighed, and they bent their heads down once more.

It was another four hours before Shoko was happy with her assignment. She could barely keep her eyes open, no matter how many times she and Haruta took turns to buy each other drinks. She knew it was dire when she, too, succumbed to energy drinks. The sky had begun to change colour, a dusty grey-blue that would burst with vibrant oranges and reds once the sun poked its head over the horizon. There was no point working on it anymore. Haruta had even offered to skim read it for any errors, and she had done the same with his essay. In three hours, the offices would begin to open. Was there any point in heading home, when it took an hour to get there? What was the point of forcing one hour of sleep?

“I’m gonna head off,” Haruta yawned. “You should think about getting some sleep, too.”

“I’m staying,” she rubbed at her eyes. “I have lectures at nine, so there’s no point heading off.”

“That’s too bad,” he pouted. “I’d have walked you home.”

“Home’s kinda far,” she stretched. “You wouldn’t want to go the distance.”

“Aww, but I think it’s nice to be able to walk a girl home,” he stuck out his tongue, hoisting his backpack over his shoulder. “Makes me feel like a popular guy.”

If she had been more awake, she would’ve rolled her eyes. As it happened, she was too tired, so instead waved a dismissive hand and bent her head down on the table.

“See you, Shoko,” Haruta waved and headed off.

Had it really been a good idea to give him her number? She was beginning to doubt his intentions… But she was so tired, and she really couldn’t have cared… Her eyelids felt too heavy. She set an alarm for eight on her phone, closed her laptop, and rested her head on it. She could nap here until it was time to hand in her essay, and then she could nap through class if need be. It was the last week anyway. It wasn’t as though there was much to the lectures anymore. She could skip them… she could head home after handing in the assignment…

There was an insistent buzzing. At first, it wasn’t enough to wake her, but its persistence drew her attention. She was drooling on her laptop, her arms felt stiff, and her neck definitely had a crick. She sat up, wiping her mouth and rolling her shoulders back. The buzzing was still going, and she grabbed her phone to turn off the alarm and accidentally hung up on a phonecall. Her eyes widened, seeing a flood of messages from an hour ago, and most of them from her father. Fumbling with her phone, she called back the number and raised it to her ear.

“Dad, I’m so sorry, I lost track of time and -”

Dad ?” Suguru chuckled from the other end. “Where the Hell are you?”

“University library,” she grimaced at the mixed taste of smoke, coffee, and energy drink.

“You should’ve phoned me if you needed to get home,” Suguru sounded disappointed. “Want me to come get you?”

Shoko turned her head and looked at the time. It was quarter to eight. “I have a lecture in an hour and a bit. I could skip?”

“You’re unbelievable,” he said. “How much sleep have you had?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Three, I guess. Or two. I don’t know.”

“When you get home, go straight to bed,” Suguru said sternly. “Plus, Kiyoshi’s worried about you. He said you didn’t answer his phone calls, and he was worried you were cross with him about going away.”

“I’ve already told him I don’t mind,” she rubbed her temples.

“When do your lectures end?” Suguru asked.

“Five.”

“You’re a mess, Shoko. At least call your dad, OK? He’s worried.”

“Fine,” she sniffed, and Suguru disconnected the call.

Slothlike, she packed away her things, and began a slow shuffle towards the School of Medicine. Some people were entering the library to start their day, whereas hers had never ended. Her brain was still in Tuesday mode, but she managed to make her way to the right building. Slowly, she filled out paperwork to prove that her work was hers, and then handed in her assignment. It was gone. Finished. She didn’t have to worry about it anymore. She really wished she could skip her lectures now, but Suguru would be on to her if she arrived home so early. And he was right… it was best to glean what information she could.

Whilst her heart was in it, her brain and body were not. She had two long lectures and slept through them both, and made a plethora of mistakes during a practical class. She had no recollection of any reading during seminars, and five o’clock couldn’t have come soon enough. Exhausted, she stuffed books into her bag and began to make the slow journey back home. Her phone was alight with messages. There were some from Haruta.

Me and some others are having celebratory drinks on Friday. Come join us!

She hesitated, but it sounded fun, so she popped a quick Sure! and moved on to the rest of the messages. Her heart jumped in her chest. They were from Satoru. Her heart leapt again. She had forgotten to respond to his previous message.

Are you mad at me?

Have you blocked me?

I didn’t mean to make you cross I really did have work I want to see you

She blinked back her surprise, and quickly fumbled out a response.

Was in class

Inwardly, she groaned. She had forgotten about this for a short moment. She raised her eyes skywards, head buzzing with the temptation to cancel. It was so last minute, though… and if she cancelled now, nothing would happen between her and Satoru. Why would he want to see someone flaky? She finished her response as she began to walk down to the train station.

Was in class - still up for tonight

She hit send and was glad she didn’t have to think about it for a bit. Yawning, she trudged down to the station and stepped onto the usual train. She tried her best not to doze off, weighed down as she was with fatigue, books and her laptop. The heat made the train a little claustrophobic, with people packing in like sardines for the five o’clock rush hour. She couldn’t have been more grateful to step off the train, and hurriedly walked the last twenty minutes to the bakery. She used the keys to enter the back way, dumping her bag by the door and kicking off her shoes. Hurried footsteps drew closer and her father appeared, his faced lined with worry.

Where have you been ?” his voice sounded thick with emotion, and his eyes looked a little red.

She had forgotten to text him. “Crap - Dad - I’ve -”

“Suguru already told me that you were at university still,” her father croaked, “but he also said that you’d message me and then you didn’t, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether the worst had happened and that -”

He cut himself off, squeezing his eyes shut. Guilt washed over Shoko, cutting raw into her chest. She was too tired for this; too tired to stand her case, too tired to hear about this.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” she swallowed back her own emotions.

“I worry about you, Shoko,” he shot her a meaningful stare. “You shouldn’t let your poor father worry about you when you’re fine.”

“I said I was sorry, I don’t know what else -”

“I’m making dinner,” he declared, turning away from her and heading towards the kitchen.

“I’m not here for dinner,” she rubbed her temples, and then checked her phone.

See you at seven ~

“Not here for dinner?” he seemed appalled. “You didn’t tell me you had plans.”

“It was last minute,” she had a bad headache and only twenty minutes to get ready.

“I was going to tell you about running the bakery whilst I was gone,” he looked crestfallen. “You told me you’d be able to manage it for a few days a week, otherwise I would’ve booked someone to come in.”

“I’ll be back in the morning.”

“Before your classes start? Or five minutes before? I want to have a proper chat -”

“I know how to run the bakery!” she snapped. “I know how to lock up! I haven’t just been sitting around for years and years, you don’t need to tell me everything like I’m a little kid!”

Her father went very quiet. There was a mixture of stubbornness, hurt, and anguish on his face. Shoko felt another flood of guilt… but she was just so damned tired. She felt the first tears prickle at her eyes, before scooping up her backpack and retreating to her room. She didn’t need this… didn’t need to fight… she hated it… hated it.

She clicked her bedroom door shut behind her, wiping away tears, throwing her bag on the bed, and prying open her window. Warm summer air flowed in, honey-sweet. Sniffing, she fumbled with her lighter and leant out of the window to have a smoke. It was only after she took a long drag that she could close her eyes and feel her shoulders relax. A shaky breath escaped her lips, smoking rising into the air. Birds tweeted. Her father pottered around downstairs making dinner, and she had fifteen fucking minutes to get ready, when all she wanted to do was have a shower and sleep.

Shoko decided to cancel. So what if things didn’t work out between her and Satoru because of this? They had only been seeing each other for three days. She started bashing out some hashed up excuse about not feeling well, but tears splashed on her screen and she could barely see what she was typing. With a frustrated growl, she threw aside her pride and called him. He picked up after two rings.

“Shoko?”

“I can’t come tonight,” she said, voice cracking here and there. “Not …”

She couldn’t get the words out, holding the phone away from her face as she tried her best not to sob.

“Is everything OK?” he sounded suddenly serious.

Aside from me being messy, no, everything’s perfectly fine , she thought bitterly.

“I can cancel the reservation,” he said, and for once she felt relieved to hear those words. “We can have takeout at mine instead.”

“I can’t…” she wanted to be alone, but she also wanted company. She sniffed back her feelings and said, “I can’t think of anything I want more actually.”

“I’ll come pick you up,” he said. “No need to take the train right now. Where are you?”

“I’ll send you my address,” she took another drag, feeling a heavy weight sinking in her chest.

“See you soon,” he was quick to hang up, and a part of her was amazed that he still wanted to meet up with her.

She popped him her address, and smoked away the longest fifteen minutes of her life. A minute to, she threw on some trainers and plodded downstairs, cramming her phone, keys, and smokes into her sweater pockets.

“Shoko?” her father wandered into the kitchen doorway, wringing his wrists nervously.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said gruffly, lifting a hand and fleeing outdoors.

She stepped out into the warm summer evening. She must’ve looked rough, dark shadows under her eyes and puffy faced from tears. If cancelling hadn’t ruined her gradually blossoming romance, the state she was in probably would. She waited… and waited… he was two minutes late. Her frustrations were rising. How could he be late at a time like this? She was just about to call to cancel on him for real when a car horn tooted. She looked up to see a shiny black sports Benz, rolling to a stop before her. She could see Satoru at the wheel, looking at her with his brilliant blue eyes. She could also see her messy self in the reflection of the car.

Wiping her eyes with a sleeve and desperately trying to get some composure, she grabbed at the handle and pulled. She flinched as the door rose up and outwards like a wing, but brushed off her surprise to step in. Satoru pressed a button and the door closed of its own. She hurriedly pulled at the seatbelt, pulling it over herself, and only when she was finished did she grace him a glance, for he had yet to start the car. He was looking at her, mouth set at a slight frown, eyes questioning as he assessed her.

“I’ve just had a shit day, OK?” she wiped her eyes again.

“OK,” he said softly, reaching out to gently caress her cheek. She didn’t mean to, but felt herself lean into his touch.

He started the car and rolled away from her house. Shoko dared look at the bakery, but the windows were dark and her father was nowhere in sight. She didn’t feel much like talking, but at least the silence that accompanied them was comfortable. The car ran smoothly, and the sky darkened as the streets opened up to the beautiful district where the Paradise Supreme towered over its neighbours, a brilliant glass structure. He dipped down into a parking lot for residents, an underground parking lot that was full of the sleekest and fanciest cars. Unsurprisingly, his blended in.

She tried to follow him, but he kept her by his side, arm in arm as they took an elevator up into the brilliant lobby, its chandeliers sending off fractured light that reflected off all the glass. If anyone looked their way, it wasn’t at Shoko this time, but Satoru. A part of her liked being by his side, unnoticed and able to keep her head down. They stepped into the magnificent glass lift, rising up above everyone else, all the way up to the nineteenth floor at the top, and then made their way to the end of the hallway to Satoru’s penthouse.

“Pick a movie,” he handed her the remote to his TV as she abandoned her shoes by the front door, and she flicked through the endless wealth of on-demand he had. In the end, she settled for The Notebook , and Satoru ordered them both pizza (“Room service will bring it up,” he had explained, and sure enough, room service delivered as expected). Eating pizza and lounging on the sofa felt like bliss to Shoko, and she let herself lean into Satoru.

She sighed sleepily when he kissed behind her ear, his mouth trailing down along her neck. His other hand drifted along her thigh. When his kisses became a little more insistent, she turned her head to him and kissed him, softly… slowly.. sweetly...

Chapter Text

His lips were soft, the sweet taste of cola on his tongue, sleek kisses like velvet. She had forgotten what to kiss him was like, but vague fuzzy hints from Friday night crept back in as she leaned into Satoru, indulging herself in the sweet cologne he wore. His kisses were slow and lazy, and she felt sleepier the more she gave herself to him. He dragged his lips away from hers, drifting his mouth back to her neck and kissing softly on a faded bruise that still lingered. His hand had stopped to rest on her upper inner-thigh. A soft sigh escaped her lips as he traced his mouth up to her jaw again, nuzzling against the crook of her neck. He idly thumbed the hem of her jeans, a shiver passing along her skin as his hand passed upwards to her midriff, palm warm against her skin.

Satoru nipped her earlobe. A flinch jolted through her spine, but it left tingles of excitement dancing along her heartstrings. She shifted, climbing over to straddle him, and held his face in her hands as she kissed him once more. He groaned against her mouth, hands going underneath her sweater, hips bucking up slightly towards her. She raised her arms up as he peeled the sweater away, then leant her body into his to kiss him deeply. Her fingers found their way into his hair, soft and white, and her heart fluttered with the same excitement as he bit gently on her lower lip. He tugged at her hair a little, tilting her head up, and found a sensitive spot on her throat that he sucked on, pushing her shirt up and away, discarding it behind her on the floor.

Cool air washed over her naked skin, a short breath drawing from her lungs as she felt her skin prickle. Satoru brought his mouth down to her collar bone, featherlight kisses on her skin, hands circling her waist, tracing the curve of her waist, the ridge of her ribcage, then up her back to the clasp holding her bra in place. He kissed in between her breasts, unclipping her bra and slipping it over her shoulders. She flushed as his warm mouth skimmed over a nipple, tongue flicking out as an afterthought. His lips were back up to her jaw, hand slipping into the back pocket of her jeans, the other rested on her hip. Her skin felt like it was on fire, her short, light breaths the only sound in the room other than his soft kisses.

He shifted her on his lap and flipped her down onto the sofa. The breath left her lungs. Shoko watched as he threw his shirt off and climbed over, bending his head down to kiss her once more. Enthralled by him, she let her hands slide over his toned shoulders, up behind his neck and into his hair, his breaths warm on her face, her knees bunched up at his waist. His skin was hot with desire, she felt her cheeks burn at how much he wanted her. He hooked his fingers underneath her waistband and shimmied her from her jeans, grinning at the look on her face. His blue eyes were alight, like cold fire. He bent down once more, the remnants of his smile grazing against her skin as his hand found a place in between her legs.

A contented sigh left her lips as he rubbed circles against her underwear with an idle thumb. She curled her fingers in his hair, her other hand gently stroked his arm. Shoko stared at the ceiling in wonder, little tingles of pleasure running up from beneath her navel to her spine. Each time a new spark of electricity bounced along her nerves, a small gasp would fill the air, sometimes a little breathy, other times with the slightest trace of a whine. It wasn’t until he slipped his hand beneath her underwear that soft yet audible moan left her lips. Shoko’s eyelids fluttered shut and her head fell backwards, relaxing against his touch and letting herself keen softly. Thumb still circling, he trailed two fingers down and slipped them inside her. She inhaled air sharply, shifting as he curled long fingers in between her legs. She felt a surge of white hot pleasure as he thumbed his ministrations, tight around his fingers. She felt the need to squirm away, but his hand stayed in place, the other reaching up to cup her cheek, her chin rested in between his thumb and forefinger. His breaths were warm and a little rapid on her face, his hand between her legs more urgent. She felt breathless, a heavy tightness beneath her navel; clumsily, she tried to grab at his wrist, but it was no use - she couldn’t get a firm grip. She was getting noisier, too, small moans that she tried to keep behind closed lips, but couldn’t stop all. She wanted to wriggle free, but she also could feel rising enjoyment in her stomach. Her fingers tightened in his hair and he angled her head. A choked cry left her mouth, toes curling against the sofa, brows tensed, and she would have buried her face in the sofa had he not been holding her chin. A shudder passed through her body as he slowed his thumb, withdrawing his fingers once she slumped back against the sofa.

She blinked wearily, vision a little unfocused, and saw him looking down at her, his brilliant eyes burning with triumph, a smile on his lips. She would show him when she had her energy back. She closed her eyes as he leant away, trying to even her breaths once more. She pushed her hair out of her face, exhaling softly, half-listening to the click of a belt and scratch of a zip. The sofa dipped as he leant over her once more, one hand caressing underneath her thigh and lifting her leg up to his waist. She blinked again, letting her eyes open to see him looking down at her, lips slightly parted and awe in the wonderful ocean of his eyes.

Sat-oru… ” she murmured through breaths, reaching up tiredly and bringing him down to her, kissing him softly once more.

He was gentle, mouth moving slowly, letting her savour their kisses. She could’ve fallen asleep in his arms, a warm smile finding its way on her lips. He kissed the corner of her mouth, kissed the mole beneath her right eye, kissed her forehead. Her chest felt warm, and she looked up at him once again, seeing a serene expression on his angelic features. His hand was back between her legs, and then he snapped his hips forwards. Shoko felt, more than heard, herself cry out, saw amusement glittering in his eyes, but didn’t have time to process anything before he’d kissed again, pumping into her with a brutal pace.

Shoko gripped onto his shoulders, moaning against his mouth, as jolts of pressure and pleasure shot through her already sensitive body. He was relentless, driving into her without remorse, and she had to break the kiss to gasp for air, panting loudly as he kept up the force of his thrusts. She could feel a light layer of sweat building up on her skin, could feel the intense heat of desire from his body, could hear his ragged breaths above her. She felt another juddering shudder rip through her body, calling out for him without thinking. Still he kept going, and each time she blinked past the blinding pleasure, she could see his jaw set and eyes wide yet unfocused and determined. Her lips were moving, murmured phrases that didn’t mean much but also meant so much more.

Shoko ” he groaned thickly through gritted teeth, suddenly gripping a clump of her hair tightly. 

He choked on his orgasm, and rested his head on her shoulder, burying his face into the crook of her neck and holding her close. She felt a bit sticky with sweat, her legs trembling as she stroked her fingers through his hair. He held her close to him, breathing into her skin for a bit. He raised his head eventually, looking at her with still unfocused eyes, before giving her a half-hearted kiss along the jaw, trailing his mouth along her skin, tasting her.

Stay here tonight, ” he said roughly, propping himself up and withdrawing from her.

I need to be home for tomorrow morning, ” she blew out another breath, still unmotivated to move.

You look so tired, though, ” he grinned. “ C’mon. Stay.

She mulled it over. She could get up early. It wasn’t that late right now. If she woke up early, she could dash home and get those instructions from her father before classes started. But that would be cutting it so fine… Also, surely she ought to be rushing home to patch things up with him? The guilt from earlier blossomed in her chest.

Have a shower, ” Satoru urged, pulling on his boxers. “ Then decide.

I think I’d bette- ” a black T-shirt and a towel were thrown at her, and she barely caught them. “ Satoru, I’m going h-

You look really tired, ” he bent over to her and kissed her quickly on the mouth. “ Use as much hot water to your heart’s content.

He wandered off whistling, stretching as he did so. Shoko stood shakily. She grabbed her underwear and went to the bathroom, which was connected to his bedroom. She looked around the dark room she had woken up in on Saturday morning, and then stepped into a big bathroom with a sleek and fancy shower-bath. She turned on the water and stepped underneath the jet, letting it wash over her skin. She stood there for a moment, body aching, face upturned towards the stream. It was blissfully warm, but it didn’t help make her feel any more awake. In fact, she felt sleepier than before. She towelled herself dry and threw on his shirt. It was like a dress, reaching down mid-thigh. She dried her hair as much as possible, then wandered back out, smelling of fresh soap. It felt good to be clean. The lights had all been turned on, and Satoru was sat on the bed, texting, long legs stretched out. He raised his head and looked at her fondly, laughter in his eyes as he saw her.

Better, right? ” he set his phone aside, standing up and kissed the top of her head. “ My turn.

Satoru, I’m gonna head home, ” she twisted some hair around her finger. “ I really need to get back.

Ah, ” he hesitated in the bathroom doorway. “ Are you sure?

Yeah, I’ve got a busy day tomorrow, ” she laid the towel on the end of his bed.

A look crossed his face. Guilt? “ I might have put your clothes in the wash…

I said I was going home, even before the shower, ” a biting edge had crept back into her voice, a reminder of how angry she had been just hours ago. “ Why would you do that?

I didn’t think, ” he looked disgruntled. “ Does it really matter? Just stay here for the night.

I want to go home, ” she said firmly. “ Even more so, now. Did you turn the wash on?

He nodded. “ They’ll be wet by now.

It was trivial, wasn’t it? And yet her fatigued brain felt a surge of irritation. She didn’t want to be arguing, why was everyone picking a fight with her at this moment?

This is fine, actually, ” she strode out of the room. “ I can go out like this, to be fair.

She was trying not to raise her voice, because nobody was really at fault.

You’re leaving like that? ” he followed her through the penthouse. “ Shoko.

I don’t live by your schedule, Lover Boy, ” she grabbed her smokes, phone and keys from the coffee table.

I just - it’s dark, ” he pointed at the black sky outside. “ I’ll give you a lift home.

I don’t want you to, ” she hurried to the other side of the apartment, taking the steps quickly with Satoru following close behind. “ I want to go home on my own.

You’re being unreasonable, ” he tried a laid-back smile, but it looked a bit forced.

I’m annoyed at you, ” she pulled on her shoes, wishing her socks weren’t in the wash.

I said I was sorry, Shoko, ” he protested, but it was too much.

She felt a rush of irritation once more. Those same words she had used for her father, words which demanded forgiveness without offering a proper apology. She wasn’t having this. She felt her throat going tight at the thought of another argument. She wrenched the front door open.

Shoko, ” he reached for her hand, but she whipped it away from him.

He didn’t immediately follow her into the hallway. She had time to stomp down the stairs, fuming to herself, and was storming down the hallway towards the glass elevator when she heard rapid footsteps behind her.

I’ll drive you home, ” he had thrown on sweatpants, a sweater and slides, long legs catching up quickly to her. “ Shoko.

I’ll get a taxi, ” she said through gritted teeth, “ Shogo, was it? Satoshi?

Why waste any money when I’m offering you a free lift? ” he followed her all the way to the elevator.

Because I need some space, ” she pressed the call button and waited for it to arrive.

Shoko, come on , ” he raised an incredulous eyebrow. “ What happened? We were fine moments ago.

Yeah, well, that was before you completely disregarded my life, ” she stepped into the elevator and turned, finally looking at him as he stared at her in bewilderment. “ So kindly go away, and leave me alone.

He opened his mouth to speak as she pressed the button for the Ground floor. He made no move to stop the elevator, his arms dropping limply to his sides as he watched the lift take her down. Shoko felt another stab of guilt, seeing the confused hurt in his eyes. Maybe she should’ve just stayed? But then what about her dad? He needed her… Her head was hurting, her eyes felt sore, and her heart was hammering in her chest. She had gone to Satoru’s to feel better, but now she just felt worse. She wiped her eyes angrily again, and stormed from the Paradise Supreme, out onto the street. Furiously, she lit a cigarette and stood there, inhaling its fumes and twisting her hair around her finger.

It was about ten o’clock at night. The sky was dark and nobody was outside on a Wednesday at this time. The only other person was a thin man standing across the street on his phone, hood drawn up. She was a mess; she had no cash, no numbers for a taxi, and no idea where a cash machine was anyway to pay them. She furiously puffed on the cigarette, but she couldn’t turn back, not when she’d yelled at Satoru for doing her laundry. The fresh air was waking her up a little, clearing her head. She just wanted to go home, but she didn’t want to wake any of her friends up. She could use her card for the train, and there were plenty of trains still going.

After fighting off tears, she threw her cigarette down, stamped it out, and dragged her feet towards the station. She was still angry, but she also felt stupid. Her throat felt clogged, and even the coffee she bought at the station cafe didn’t do anything to cheer her up. She needed a drink. There were less trains at this time, but she managed to catch one that would bring her home. Late night trains were far emptier. She was relieved. She wasn’t in the mood to be packed in claustrophobically like a sardine. She sipped her coffee, and let her eyes wonder since her mind was too tired to think.

Shoko stilled. She saw a thin man dressed in a black hoodie and dark jeans. Normally, she wouldn’t have thought anything of him, but she was almost certain… he was the same man who had been outside the Paradise Supreme. She swallowed, averting her gaze.

That man might be following me , she thought anxiously.

Nervously, she checked her phone, but the only message she had was from Satoru. Again, that stab of guilt plucked at her chest, but she was already on the train home.

Let me know when you get home .

She was partly annoyed because, despite barely knowing her, despite her having been angry at him, he was still caring about her. Before she started crying again, she forced her eyes away from the phone and switched it off. She kept the hooded man in her periphery. Each time the train stopped at a station, his head would turn in her direction. He was wearing a face-mask underneath the hood, and his eyes were hidden in shadow.

That man is following me , she thought with a sudden, urgent feeling of fear in her chest.

She bit her lip and sent a message. Meet me at station nearest home. Urgent.

Please reply, please reply, please reply… she twisted her hair, staring at the phone screen, and was even tempted to phone when a response came through.

Will do. What’s wrong?

Think being followed , she typed out nervously, and waited anxiously as the train made several more stops, all the while the man seemed to keep an eye on whether she stayed or got off.

Her heart was slamming in her chest. More and more people were getting off the train. There were only a handful left. Three more stops… two more stops… one more stop… She tried her best not to glance at the man, but she was sure he had wandered nearer. She held the pole tightly, hand sweating from the force. Her breaths felt shallow. One more stop … The train stopped and she dashed off, not caring that coffee sloshed out of the lid and dripped on her hand. It was lukewarm now, anyway. She looked over her shoulder and, sure enough, the man had left the train. She took long, purposeful strides, and had almost broken into a run by the time she reached the barriers, swiping her card and stumbling through.

And there he was, waiting for her.

Suguru! ” she hurried over.

She almost barrelled into him, but he steadied her as she turned wildly around and searched the platform. The man was gone. There was no sign of him. Had he not been following her?

Are you OK? ” Suguru’s voice seemed distant, echoing in the back of her mind.

There really was nobody there. Her ragged breaths began to slow and calm, adrenaline being replaced once more with exhaustion. Her mouth was dry, and she was shaking.

Shoko .

She turned and looked at Suguru. Concern was etched into his features. She was fine now. She was with someone.

I’m fine, ” she said, and checked the station one more time. Nothing. “ Just a scare, I suppose. I don’t know.

Let’s get you home, ” he said quietly, guiding her from the station with a gentle hand on her back.

Shoko couldn’t muster any words to speak as they walked the last twenty minutes. Her heart was still doing backflips in her chest, and a furious whirlwind of emotions had lodged themselves in her chest. She wanted to curl up in bed and cry. Her head was aching.

What happened? ” Suguru dared ask.

Some guy followed me to the station, ” she said.

I meant more about why you’ve been crying, ” he put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the night sky.

Shoko felt her lip wobble, but forced her emotions back down. “ I argued with Dad.

Ah, so that’s how you ended up an hour away from home wearing nothing but someone else’s T-shirt.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, ” she huffed. “ I had a date, and I still went on that date, even though I really should’ve just cancelled.

Listen, you’ve had a shit day, ” Suguru said, and when she looked at him, his brows were knitted with worry. “ I told you to go home and sleep.

I should’ve listened to you… ” she mumbled moodily.

I’m not trying to make this an “I told you so” scenario, ” he said patiently. “ I guess… it’s just coming to that time of year. I know you’ve heard this more times than you’ve blinked, but I do worry about you.

I’ll give you a heart attack one of these days, ” she let out a shaky breath. “ Were you asleep?

I’m glad you called me, ” he said quietly. “ Asleep or not, I would rather you not suffer in silence. I’ve got your back, OK?

Always have, ” she nudged him with her elbow. “ Thank you.

The solution to her problems was so simple. All she had needed to do was drop by Suguru’s for a coffee, to vent and complain to someone who knew her better than most others. They walked in a comfortable silence, the still summer air warm on her skin. There was the smallest of breezes, but it was nearing July and only getting warmer with each passing night. Things felt OK when she was with Suguru; she could bask in the familiar and relax around him. She never felt alert or the need to be on her feet, ready for action.

Do you want to talk about what happened? ” he asked, almost hesitantly, when they reached her house.

Dad was upset, ” she dipped her head, ashamed, “ because I forgot to message him, to let him know I was OK… And I didn’t handle it very well, so I left the house on bad terms.

To the… Paradise Supreme? ” a note of uncertainty crept into his voice.

Yeah, I’ve been seeing someone, ” she rocked on her feet awkwardly.

And he also made you cry? ” Suguru didn’t seem impressed.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, ” she mumbled. “ I was still upset about Dad.

And that was why he let you walk home alone in the dark?

I told him to leave me alone, ” now that she was no longer in the room angry at him, she couldn’t help but feel Satoru needed some justification. “ I was adamant about it, too.

Suguru didn’t seem wholly convinced. His jaw seemed a little tight and his dark eyes were deep with thought. A part of Shoko wished she hadn’t said anything about Satoru. She couldn’t understand why, but to her, Suguru’s opinion was always important. She wanted him to have a good opinion of Satoru.

In fact, I was quite horrible to him, ” she babbled on. “ I don’t blame him for not having persisted.

You’re home now, ” Suguru said. “ That’s what matters. You should try and catch up on some sleep, though.

Yeah, of course…

He gave her a one-armed hug, and waited until she had walked through her front door. With a cheerful wave, she closed it and peered out the window as Suguru walked off down the road. The light waves that had lapped in her heart suddenly felt like a heavy storm once more. She was alone again, with the large pile of growing guilt and regret sitting atop her shoulders.

And not mention that it was coming up to that time of year. The thirteenth of July. It was less than two weeks away, and this would be the first year her dad wasn’t there on the day. They had talked about it in great depth, but she hadn’t wanted to ruin his opportunity.

Her dad was going to Kyoto tomorrow. His train was at ten o’clock in the morning. He was exploring a huge, international food festival to showcase his own foods, but to also learn new recipes, and whilst he was over there, he would visit his parents. He would be gone for three weeks, and during that time he wanted Shoko to run the bakery for at least three days a week. It was mostly for the benefit of their regulars, and since university ended that week, she would have a lot more free time on her hands.

Shoko wandered into the kitchen, slipping off her shoes and pouring herself a whiskey, neat. She slugged it down, sitting at the table and drawing her knees up to her chin. She desperately wanted to prove to her dad that she was capable of living by herself and that he could depend on her to help him. She didn’t want to be useless or a dead weight.

And yet… she had spent most of that day arguing with him, making his life more difficult. She had been an obstacle, another worry slapped down on his plate. The sour taste of bad memories was rising in her throat once more. She poured another whiskey. So much conflict in one day, it made her anxious to think about it. She necked it back, washed down all of her problems and worries. It made no difference the next morning, but at least she could guarantee she’d sleep tonight.

It was only when she was alone that she could do this. No restraints, no one telling her that she’d had too much, that she needed to be careful. It didn’t matter if she was sick in the morning, she wanted to get rid of the sudden dead weight that had landed on her. Suguru was gone, her dad was asleep, and she hadn’t graced Utahime or Mei Mei with a message since yesterday. Or Tuesday now, since the clock had inched over midnight. A glass for each of the people she’d been harsh to. A glass for each of the arguments. A glass for the regrets, the sorrows, the shame, the guilt. A glass for looking at Satoru’s message and a glass for not having the guts to reply.

A glass… and a glass… and a glass…

Chapter Text

Shoko opened her eyes brightly. A crack of light crept insistently through her window. She squinted against it, the brightness blinding on her face. Her limbs felt stiff and she could hear voices downstairs, lowered murmurs obscured by walls and floors and doors. Stiffly, she climbed out of bed and got dressed, sloppily brushing her teeth in her hurry. She didn’t bother with her hair - it was short enough to leave - and she was aware that she only had ten minutes before people started yelling for her to come downstairs. She checked her bag and made sure her smokes were hidden at the bottom. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she ran downstairs, the voices growing clearer. She was aware of three voices, which meant Suguru was there.

Pushing open the door, she was greeted by a wide array of colour. Pretty cakes sat readily packed in a box to be delivered. There was a golden sunshine outside, with verdant trees waving idly underneath a cerulean sky. The door was ajar, letting in the summer air, the croaks of cicadas distant. It was a beautiful day, quite like any other in the mid-summer season. There was a cooling breeze coming in through the door, and Shoko already knew this was going to be a good, pleasant day.

“I was wondering when you’d be up,” her mum smiled as she closed the box and carefully tied a ribbon around it. “I was just about to call for you.”

“I would hate to disappoint Hei when we’re so close to finishing term,” she grinned, glancing over at her friend. “I was tempted to miss my alarm, though, just to see whether he would panic.”

“You’re horrible!” her mum laughed. “You need better friends, Suguru.”

“One day Shoko might take life a bit more seriously,” he smiled, hair tied up in the usual bun, backpack slung over one shoulder.

“Shoko? Take life seriously?” her dad looked clueless. “I don’t think I’ll live to see that day.”

“As long as she takes her exams seriously, I’ll be fine,” her mum chimed. “You two had better head off. You don’t want a bunch of oldies like us keeping you from school.”

“Have I ever told you how much I love our conversations, Mum?” Shoko beamed as she hugged her dad goodbye.

“No, you should tell me more often,” her mum cheerfully kissed her cheek and went back to wrapping the cake box. “Now go to school. Suguru doesn’t need the likes of us ruining his reputation.”

“Never,” Suguru said as Shoko began to pull him out of the bakery. “It was good to see you, Mr and Mrs Ieiri.”

Shoko’s mum ran to the bakery door as the two students began making their way down the street. “For goodness sake, Suguru, it’s been eleven years! Hamako and Kiyoshi , Suguru, Hamako and Kiyoshi!”

“See you later, Mum!” Shoko waved and watched her dip back into the bakery, out of sight.

It was only once they had turned the corner did Shoko rummage through her bag and pull out the cigarette pack. Suguru, reliable as ever, had a lighter, and the pair of them smoked as they made their way to school. It was a habit Shoko had picked up about a year ago, one she hadn’t been able to shake, and Suguru only smoked socially. She had been itching for one ever since she had woken up, but had come to blows with her parents in the past about smoking. There was no point in getting in arguments over something she struggled to quit, not that she had tried especially hard.

“Are you doing anything over the holidays?” she asked as they walked idly along.

“Not that I know of,” he replied.

“We should do something, then,” she puffed out some smoke and watched it rise slowly towards the blue skies.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” she wrinkled her nose. “Let’s go travelling. I want to see more of the world.”

“Would your parents really be OK with you going abroad?” Suguru remarked. “We’re not even sixteen yet.”

Shoko mulled it over. He had a good point. Her parents wouldn’t be happy about her travelling without parental permission.

“I have grandparents in Kyoto,” she grinned. “That’s near Osaka! We could go to Osaka! Scratch that, we can go to Ōkunoshima! I’ve always wanted to go see all the rabbits.”

“And have your grandparents look after us?” he looked aghast. “Maybe when I’ve saved up some money.”

“The north might be cheaper, then,” she continued. “You’re right - we’ll save Osaka for when we’re eighteen! Let’s go to Kamaishi! The beach is free!”

“And we’d still be living under your grandparents,” he blew out a breath, but he was smiling.

“They won’t care!” she protested. “My family love you! And if you really feel that bad, we can do all their chores, and it will be a pointless summer holiday. Baba and Jiji can look after themselves - the sea air keeps them young.”

He didn’t reply, the pair of them walking along in the sun. He wasn’t looking at her, but upwards instead.

“Mind you, Baba is too old-fashioned,” she added, watching him carefully. “She doesn’t think young men and women should go on holiday together unless they’re married. If we’re still alone and bitter, let’s get married when we’re thirty, Hei.”

She peered at him and, sure enough, he didn’t seem to be listening. He was watching the clouds, cigarette between his lips.

“Heikin, let’s get married,” she repeated, and this time he whipped his head towards her.

“Huh?”

“Finally!” she grinned. “You should listen to me more often.”

“Stop saying stupid things,” he said, smiling exasperatedly. “Besides, you should listen to me more. Your plans always fall flat or never begin.”

“Not true!” she took a breath of smoke. “Besides, I’m more crea-”

“Hokkaido,” he said simply.

This time it was Shoko’s turn to look confused. “Eh?”

“Let’s go to Hokkaido,” he said. “We’ll save up. We’ll go before university.”

“Isn’t Hokkaido really pretty?” she asked.

“Apparently it’s beautiful,” he looked lost in thought as he said it.

“What if I never want to leave?” she glanced at the tall buildings of Tokyo.

“Then we’ll rent a place,” he said fondly. “We’ll stay in Sapporo. Maybe even a place beside either the Ishikari or Barato rivers. We’ll go skiing on the weekends.”

They stopped before a T-junction crossing, waiting for the pedestrian sign to go green. Shoko couldn’t help but look up at Suguru, admiring him. There was almost magical poetry to his words and underneath the overgrown maple that sat on the corner, he could’ve been an old-time prince, writing beautiful sonnets on a wonderful summer’s day. She would be lying if she didn’t think the picture he’d painted had some kind of romantic element to it.

“Now you’re saying stupid things,” she smiled. “Talking about how we have no money, and then saying we’ll move to Hokkaido? Find someone else to elope with!”

“You idiot,” he smiled. “Let’s save travelling for when we’re older, yeah? I don’t earn enough to be flying the skies.”

“We’ll go to Hokkaido,” she said. “It’s a promise.”

They crossed the road in peace, thoughtfully smoking on the cigarettes. Another few days and they would have the rest of the summer off. There was a lot she wanted to do, considering this was the year she turned sixteen. Two more years and she would have to go to university, and she still wasn’t entirely sure what she planned to do. A part of her felt it would just be easier to continue working in the bakery, to live the same humble life her parents did. She reckoned it would suit her, that she could have a non-complicated life in the safety of the bakery.

When they arrived in their homeroom, Shoko took her seat and found herself staring out the window. The scenic imagery of Hokkaido, a pleasantly domestic future, was hanging on the edge of her mind. What if she did suddenly uproot to a completely new location? It sounded more of a pipe dream than anything else, the chance to escape into a new place and make a new life for herself. And Suguru would do that with her? Suguru, reliable and organised, planned his whole life, and yet if she turned and said she wouldn’t leave Hokkaido, he wouldn’t either? It seemed almost too good to be true, to guarantee that her best friend would live wherever she wanted.

As she did most days, Shoko doodled idly in her exercise books, only really paying attention when she was called upon by the teacher, or during break and lunch time. As they gathered their lunch boxes, she sat down with her friends near the window, which was open to let in wafts of warm air.

“Yudai said he wasn’t interested,” Yuka sighed, leaning against the wall. “How can I go to a dance without my boyfriend? That would be weird, right?”

“Very,” Asuka said seriously. “What about you?”

Shoko snapped back to attention and looked at them, both looking at her with curious dark eyes. She probably should’ve been listening, but she hadn’t really put much thought into a school dance. There was no one she particularly wanted to go with - maybe Souma, if he didn’t think he was too cool to go.

“What about Suguru?” Yuka said. “She’ll go with him.”

“As if Suguru and I would go to a dance together,” Shoko laughed.

“So, you two really aren’t a thing, huh?” Yuka looked sceptical.

“There’s as much chance of me and Suguru getting together as there is of Asuka finally asking Shouta out,” she grinned, and Asuka opened her mouth in protest. “We’re just friends, guys, come on. I’m not even sure I’ll go to any school dance.”

“Bo-oring!” Yuka sighed. “At least humour us with someone.”

“Souma, of course,” Shoko beamed.

Souma ?” Asuka looked appalled. “He has a terrible reputation with girls.”

“He’s kind of cool, though, isn’t he?” Shoko let her gaze drift across the room.

Dark-haired and dark-eyed Souma Ito lingered with his friends. Shoko had started smoking to impress him since she had often seen him at the back of the school with a cigarette hanging lazily from his mouth as he talked and laughed. She had spoken to him enough to think that they got along, too.

“Sure, if you like getting your heart broken,” Yuka said.

“As if you wear your heart on your sleeve when with a guy like Souma,” she drew her eyes away from him, keeping a confident smile on her face. “Asuka, ask Shouta to the dance.”

Her friend flushed crimson, blocking her mouth mid-chew.

“Stop deflecting,” Yuka peered at Shoko.

“I’m not doing anything,” she tipped her chair back onto two legs. “Tell Yudai that if he doesn’t want to dance with you, then you don’t want to date him.”

“You’re way too extreme,” Yuka scowled.

“That’s why I’m still single,” Shoko grinned, looking outside at the wonderful sunshine.

A part of her wanted to be outdoors, going shopping or hanging outside of the school grounds. She liked the idea of sneaking away, having a bit of time pretending she wasn’t a student, but someone much older. Someone cool enough to move up to Hokkaido.

“Shoko ~ Yuka and Asuka!” a small girl called Nana bounded up to their table. “We’re having a class meet up after school today. Please come!”

“What’s this about?” Yuka frowned.

“The old skate park’s getting knocked down,” Nana explained, “so we’re gonna have some kind of afternoon party there. Nothing major, but Souma said he’d bring beer.”

“And this is a celebration because…?” Yuka didn’t look impressed.

“Don’t be a killjoy,” Shoko said. “We’ll be there.”

Nana’s face lit up. “I’ll text you guys the details!”

She bounded away, leaving the three girls to brood over their lunch.

“Do you think our whole class has been invited?” Asuka pondered. “I guess if Shouta’s going to be there, there’s not much reason for me to say no, right?”

“I don’t know if I can,” Yuka looked troubled. “I don’t know if I want to risk losing Class Presidency over something like this. Are you sure you guys are going?”

“It’ll be fun, Yuka! Besides,” Asuka shot a glance at Shoko, “it’s not like we’re going to get caught. The police have more important things to think about than a bunch of high schoolers throwing a party.”

“It’s trespassing ,” Yuka hissed through her teeth.

“It’ll be fine,” Shoko said, sending a message to her mum. I’m going to Suguru’s after school today.


The final bell rang and Shoko hastily swept her books into her bags, a single sweep across the flat surface. She was craving a smoke, having passed up on one during lunch. Swinging her bag over her shoulder, she slipped past other students to reach Suguru’s desk at the back of the classroom. He was adjusting the contents of his bag to look neat in comparison to her jumbled mess.

“You’re going to the skate park, aren’t you?” she asked, hoping he would be there. “I’ve told my mum I’ll be at your place.”

“Why did you lie to her?” he looked clueless, and then sighed. “Now I need to tell my mum not to tell your mum…”

“But you’re going, right?”

“It seemed fun, so yeah,” he shrugged. “Plus, I figured you’d be there, and someone needs to make sure you don’t do anything too stupid.”

“Yuka’s going,” Shoko said.

“She’ll be looking after Asuka,” he replied knowingly. “Are we heading over there with them?”

“No, she’s going to meet with Yudai with Asuka, and then he’ll give them a lift to the skate park,” she said. “You’ve only got me to put up with - lucky you!”

Suguru shook his head with a wry smile, then motioned for her to go first. Just as they had walked into school together, they now left, almost the same as every day. It was a routine they had developed over the years, subconsciously attached at the hip. Admittedly, Shoko did think she was too dependent on him, constantly seeking comfort knowing that he was nearby should anything happen. It was a bad habit, really, but it had grown from Suguru standing up for her so much in elementary and middle school. Now she found it much easier to just let him watch out for her.

The skate park in question wasn’t very far from school. It had to have been about fifteen minutes. It was only four o’clock, so the sky hadn’t even begun to darken. It was a slightly duskier blue compared to that morning, and most of the clouds had become so wispy that they were either difficult to see or invisible. There was a more insistent breeze, and they followed along after other students in their class. Shoko checked her phone and was relieved that her mum had sent a response giving her the green light to go to “Suguru’s house”.

As they drew nearer, a thudding base could be heard. Shoko’s heart jumped in her chest, both with nerves and excitement. She hadn’t done this kind of thing before, but being reckless felt like a good idea. They were almost done with the school term, what did it matter if they let loose a little bit? Besides, the skate park had been a staple for gloomy adolescents to smoke instead of attend class. It was a known landmark of the teenage community, so it only felt right to grant it the proper sendoff it deserved. Shoko had spent many a weekend there whiling the hours away, and now it was going to be transformed into what? A block of flats?

There was a cluster of uniformed students already dancing. Beer cases littered the entrance, a free-for-all. She had never drunk before, but when someone pressed a can into her hand, she didn’t say no, instead opening it with a satisfying crack. She glanced at Suguru, who looked in his element, bobbing to the music and speaking to any passer-by who made a comment. He blended in with everyone, which made it easier for Shoko to do the same. The only reason she detached herself from Suguru was because Yuka and Asuka arrived.

The music swirled around them, beer cans were crunched up and used as ammo for shooting hoops at a basketball court attached to the skate park. Shoko kept accepting beers and other drinks that were offered to her, and found herself hanging off of Asuka yelling to the sound of the music. She felt light-headed and great, and as the night went on, more liquor was introduced into the mix of beer and alcopops. If Shoko had been on cloud nine before, then she must’ve reached Nirvana.

It was probably for the best that she had lied to her mum. She knew neither of her parents would be happy to have her sneaking into a closed off building site. She raised her drinks to the darkening sky, raised her voice to the music, and felt her spirits rising alongside the joy. Every now and then she would dip away to have a smoke, but a part of her felt more alive than she had in ages. The more she danced, the thirstier she got, the more she drank. Soon, the world was spinning and she couldn’t string together a coherent sentence. Every now and then she would see Suguru on the other side of the park with his friends.

As the street lamps began to turn on, one by one, Yuka sought out both Shoko and Asuka.

“Yudai and I are heading home,” she yawned, swaying a little. “We’ll give you two a lift, OK?”

“Let me tell Suguru I’m heading off,” Shoko broke away from Asuka, who could only yawn and sway to the music.

Feet lighter than air, she made her way across the skate park and tugged at Suguru’s sleeve. He turned, cigarette in mouth and beer in hand.

“You off?” he said.

“Yeah,” she beamed. “Yudai’s giving us a lift.”

Suguru mused, then said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Shoko waved a gleeful farewell, before dashing off back to the front gates where her friends stood. She grabbed her bag from the heaps of other school bags, and joined Yuka, Asuka and Yudai at the entrance. She climbed over the metal fence and dropped down beside them.

“Got everything?” Yuka assessed both Shoko and Asuka, who couldn’t keep straight faces.

When they were sure they had all of their things, the four of them wandered to Yudai’s car. It probably wasn’t the best idea for him to drive, having had a few drinks, but Shoko couldn’t have cared in that moment. She leant her head against the car window, watching out of the window as lights streaked past alongside other cars. Asuka babbled cheerfully next to her, with Shouta’s name jumping into conversation every now and then. Shoko just envisioned an invisible man running along the footpath parallel to them, vaulting over other cars and keeping a pace despite them going at forty.

Yuka was able to point out the large maple that marked the turn into Shoko’s street. Even that tree she looked at fondly, remembering how Suguru had looked that morning, bathed in golden light. How had that just been this morning? She smiled to herself from thoughts of Hokkaido.

“This is you, right?” Yudai came to a gradual stop outside the bakery.

“Yeah, and thanks for the lift,” she raised a grateful hand, leaping from the car.

“Make sure to have a drink of water,” Yudai called after her as she went round the side towards the back door. His car had already taken off before she had opened the door.

Shoko poked open the back door. She could hear the TV in the background - it was only quarter past seven. She tried to close the door as quietly as possible. Despite how much she’d had, she still felt like it would be a bad idea to let her parents see her in such a state. Yudai was right - she needed some water. Instead of using the home kitchen, she crept into the bakery and fetched a glass of water from the commercial kitchen instead. She glugged it down, feeling a wave of nausea now that her high had ended. She helped herself to another glass, wandering back into the home and almost walking face-to-face with her mum.

“I thought that was you,” she said, although she had a serious expression on her face. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

Shoko nodded a swift greeting. She didn’t dare speak in case her words slurred or her mum smelt something on her breath.

“It’s about these,” her mum held up an old pack of cigarettes, probably ones Shoko kept under her bed. “I thought I told you to stop smoking, Shoko.”

“Yeah, you did,” she swallowed thickly, hoping her voice didn’t betray her. “It’s been kinda hard to quit.”

“Are you on drugs?” her mum peered closer to her. “You reek of smoke. Where have you been? I thought you were at Suguru’s.”

“Some classmates were having a party,” she tried to lean away, but her mum took her chin with surprising agility.

“What the Hell, Shoko, you’ve been drinking ?” a look of horror streaked across her mum’s face.

“I’ve only had a little bi-”

“You can barely stand!” her mum continued, and her dad poked his head past the doorway at the commotion. “Right, that’s the last time I let you go round someone’s house on a weekday.”

“I went to a party , not someone’s house!” Shoko protested, her throat cloying.

“But you told me you went to Suguru’s house,” her mum argued. “How am I supposed to trust you now that you’ve lied to me?”

“What’s going on?” her dad looked baffled, before looking at Shoko. “You’ve been drinking?”

“Give me a break, I’m only human!” Shoko rubbed her temples.

“I thought you were going to be more sensible this year,” her mum snapped. “Not go day-drinking on a school night! This is just pathetic, Shoko!”

She wanted to make a clever reply, but instead gagged. She hurried back into the kitchen and threw up in the sink.

“For goodness sake, Shoko!” her mum stormed from the kitchen. “Get yourself another drink and go to bed! You’re a mess!”

Wiping her mouth, Shoko glanced at her father. He wore a disapproving expression on his face and walked curtly away to comfort her mum. Shoko felt a boiling rage in her head. How could her mum go through her room? How come she wasn’t allowed to make mistakes? It was nearly the end of term, the day had started great, and now it was ruined. Fuming, she grabbed a light jacket and stormed back outside, armed only with her keys, phone, and cigarettes. She would mope by the river for a bit, and sober up too.

Shoko bought a bottle of water from a vending machine, and walked off in a huff.

Chapter Text

Shoko opened her eyes blearily. Her head was aching unbelievably, her throat felt raw and scratchy. Her muscles ached and she was struggling to motivate herself out of bed. This was the worst hangover she’d had in ages. In fact, she still felt sick, so she pulled herself out of bed and rushed to the bathroom to vomit. It was better out than in, and afterwards she decided a strong coffee would suit her. She grabbed her phone and hurried downstairs, finding the kitchen empty. Shoko hesitated. Was her dad still angry with her? She would understand if he was, but a part of her was suddenly apprehensive to face him. She wandered to the coffee machine, and was more than surprised to find a note written by her dad lying next to it.

Shoko - the main keys are kept in the safe. We have some orders for Sunday, so complete those. Take care, and keep the shop in order. When I get back, we need to have a big talk.

Her dad was already gone? Shoko felt her brows knit together. But he wasn’t leaving until half nine… She glanced up at the clock and felt her heart knock in her chest. It was one in the afternoon, long past most of her lectures. A groan left Shoko’s mouth as she plopped herself down at the kitchen table. Her eyes landed on an empty glass and a severely depleted whiskey bottle. Rubbing her temples, the pain in her head and the sickness all made sense. She had emptied half the bottle, no wonder she felt like shit. And she had missed her dad. It all suddenly felt pointless to have argued with Satoru. She had made every single wrong decision.

Satoru .

She grabbed her phone and opened her messages with him. She hadn’t received any new messages from him, and somehow that made her feel worse. She had blanked him, and probably lost any chances of seeing him again. She switched her phone off and ran her hands through her hair, twisting it around her fingers. Shoko felt like a baby, but she could feel her vision going blurry in a flurry of frustration. Furiously, she wiped at her eyes, but the tears kept coming. She felt pathetic and stupid, crying into her arms until she was even too tired to cry. No, she wouldn’t go to lectures today. In fact, she wouldn’t go to lectures tomorrow. She would just catch up the last bits of term, conserve her energy for Friday night.

Shoko lapsed into one comfort of her childhood. She whisked together bread flour, plain flour, sugar and salt in a glass bowl. A teaspoon of yeast followed shortly, as well as a well-beaten egg. She added milk and water, and used a silicone spatula to mix the ingredients into a sticky ball that held together. She kneaded it thoroughly, working her arm muscles and feeling the strain wash away the nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach. Shoko stretched out the dough, chopped up some butter, and placed a few cubes along the dough. She sprinkled flour on the counter, and began to knead the butter into the dough, watching it become creamier and more golden in colour. She continued this process, eventually stretching a bit of the dough out to look thin and translucent. Satisfied, Shoko rolled it up into a neat ball, placing it within the glass bowl once more and covered it in cling film. She placed it in a back room where bread was left to rise, and set to work on the next step.

She chopped some butter and mixed it in a bowl with the same spatula, before adding sugar and mixing both together until blended. She beat an egg in a separate bowl and gradually added more and more of it, until she had a thick, yellow paste. She added plain flour and baking powder, and mixed the ingredients until she had made a similar ball of dough. She weighed it and noted down the measurement, before shaping it into a thick rectangle, like a doughy brick. She cut it up until she had ten squares to work with. She rolled up the smaller squares, putting them on a tray, and stretched more cling film over before depositing them into the fridge.

She waited two hours, idly checking her phone and trying her best not to yawn and the sun began its descent.

Her phone timer beeped, and she retrieved the first dough ball from the back rooms, smiling to see it had doubled in size. She prodded the middle with her finger, leaving a narrow hole and, once again, was pleased when it didn’t close. She scooped the dough from the ball, slapping it down on the counter, and carefully pressed the dough down. Once flattened, she folded it like a burrito, flipped it over, and rolled it back into a ball, rolling away the creases until smooth. She weighed it, and noted down the measurement. She cut it up into ten equal pieces, weighing each one to make them uniform. These she rolled up into smaller spheres, before returning them to their tray, covering them, and setting them aside on the counter.

From the fridge she retrieved the other dough balls, flattening them down and rolling them out. She repeated this process for each of them, before collecting the other ten dough balls. These she flattened out and rolled into thirds, shaping them like burritos once more. She pinched both ends and rolled them into balls for the final time. She placed each dough ball onto a circle of rolled out dough, wrapping them up carefully, before rolling them in sugar, shaking off any excess. Using a small knife, she scored the top of each dough ball, leaving a grid-like pattern on top. Satisfied, she returned the small buns to the back room to prove once more, wandering back to her laptop to continue watching her show.

Before she collected the dough balls, she preheated the oven. She collected the ten dough balls, and when the oven was ready, put them into bake for about fifteen minutes. When her alarm went off, she collected them from the oven and was pleased to see ten healthy melon pan looking back at her.

She and her mum had always made melon pan together when she was little. She looked at them now, setting them carefully on a cooling rack. They looked just like how her mum made them, a warmth settling in her chest as she drank the next cup of coffee. It really was quite wonderful to see she hadn’t lost the innate talent of making them. But her work wasn’t done. She had plenty more to make, and she busied herself for the rest of the day, well into the evening, wearing down the supply cupboards of ingredients for baking. Cakes, biscuits, sandwiches and breads were all wrapped up and put in the storage cupboard for safe-keeping, and she dragged her feet, yawning, much later in the night, feeling a little more positive about tomorrow.

This time when she woke up, Shoko felt much more alert. Her mouth wasn’t dry and her head wasn’t spinning, and she felt ready to open up shop. She dressed and prepared today’s sales, even though she planned to make more things during the day. Breads, sandwiches,  cakes and biscuits sat behind glass displays, she flipped over the “OPEN” sign, and settled back into another day of baking in the kitchen. She was well aware that she had celebratory drinks in the evening, and although her heart wasn’t in it, she had already agreed to go. She was idly watching a cake in the oven when the bell chimed, announcing the arrival of a customer. Heart beating, she hurried into the bakery.

It was Kento, looking stiff and formal as always as he wandered in. There was a nervousness to him, and Shoko realised that, although he was a regular to the bakery, the most she had ever said to him was a greeting.

“Hey, Kento!” she beamed, walking behind the counter. “Hope you’re having a good morning.”

“Hello,” he said politely, gazing at the displays. “I didn’t expect you to be open.”

“Yeah, it was quite spontaneous,” Shoko admitted.

“Yes, Kiyoshi said Thursday and Friday you would be closed, since you have lectures,” he said.

“Thought you’d have a check just in case, then, huh?” she grinned.

“I walk past here on my way to university.”

Shoko couldn’t help but feel a part of her deflate. Still, he had walked in through the door, so that was something, wasn’t it?

“I thought I would have to get a sandwich from the supermarket,” he explained after her silence. “I don’t really like them as much. Then I saw that you were open and that I could get a sandwich from here.”

“I made all the usuals,” she said, trying to keep up the cheerfulness. “Remind me what your favourite is again?”

“Cheese and cucumber,” he said. “It’s uncomplicated. It is what it is. It’s not too messy or difficult to eat, either.”

“One cheese-cucumber sandwich coming right up,” she said, grabbing a pair of metal tongs and reaching in to snatch a cleanly cut sandwich, which she put into a cardboard sandwich box. “Made with tenderness, love and care.”

She passed it on to him and he looked at the sandwich through the plastic window. “You cut them better than Kiyoshi. He’s normally in a rush, so they’re not always exact. This one is very uniform.”

“Well, you do learn to be swift and precise when using a knife in Med school,” she grinned.

“Of course… you’re studying to be a doctor, aren’t you?”

“That’s me!” she said, looking at the thoughtful expression on his face. “You do something with banking, don’t you?”

“I’m studying finance,” he replied, tucking his sandwich neatly amongst his books and folders. “I plan to work as a salaryman. It pays well, and I can probably retire early. The only downside is that I may have to work overtime, but that’s something I can work around.”

“A salaryman, huh?” she pondered his choice. “Can’t that be quite… demanding?”

“It’s an ordered routine,” Kento lifted his bag over his shoulders. “It means I can plan my schedule precisely without worrying about things going astray.”

She hadn’t met anyone who planned to become a salaryman, but she supposed the money wasn’t bad. She assessed him carefully, already looking incredibly tidy, and figured he would fit the position quite well.

“I’m not keeping you from university, am I?” she dared to ask, just grateful to have someone to talk to.

“Not at all,” Kento said, handing her the exact amount of money for the sandwich. “When I began talking to Kiyoshi more frequently, I decided to leave space in my schedule for a morning conversation. I leave very early intentionally, and when the bakery is closed I use that extra time to study in the library. I don’t want to continuously change my schedule just because Kiyoshi isn’t here. It’s much easier to stay with the same routine.”

“I wish I was as organised as you,” she murmured, more to herself than him.

He hesitated, considering her words, and then said, “Give yourself some credit. I’m sure it takes a lot of dedication and planning to become a doctor. Plus, it’s an admirable profession.”

He seemed to want to say more. Shoko let the silence speak between them, giving him space to continue.

“I suppose… I’m a little surprised that you haven’t already left for classes,” he said. “Don’t you have lectures at nine in the morning every day.”

“Yeah, but I decided to stay in the bakery instead,” she admitted. “It’s been a bit of a difficult week, and since it’s only the last two lectures, I figured it didn’t really matter.”

“Yes, well, lots of people would miss the bakery if it weren’t open, I suppose,” he seemed mused. “I for one am glad that my commute leads me down this road, otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered this place.”

“Made a big impact, huh?” she grinned, and finally earned the ghost of a smile.

“As I said, these are the best sandwiches,” he then glanced down. “Are those new? I haven’t seen them on the shelf before.”

Shoko glanced at the melon pan. “We haven’t sold them here in quite some time. Dad doesn’t make them. Want one?”

He considered, and then said, “OK.”

“Here,” she boxed one up for him and passed it over the counter, “and don’t worry about paying.” She hastened to continue when he opened his mouth to protest. “Think of it as a gift from us to you. I mean, you’ve been coming here practically every day for two years now. I think you’re entitled to a free melon pan.” When he still didn’t seem convinced, she added, “Plus, you won’t need to worry about what change to give and whatnot.”

The ghost of the smile reappeared. “Thank you… Shoko.”

“I’ll let you get on your way, then,” she lifted a hand, smiling. “I don’t want you to miss your train because of me.”

“Will you be open tomorrow?” he half-turned towards the door.

“Not tomorrow, no, but I will be on Sunday,” she said.

As Kento left, she begun to realise just why her dad found the job to be so special. A part of her wanted to take a photo of what she had made, but… they had never officially talked about the argument. She was also wary of this “big talk” he had mentioned in his note.

She continued in the bakery for the rest of the day, closing at five and meeting and greeting all customers. In the kitchens, she would make a variation of foods whilst listening out for the bell. It was blissful, just being able to relax and bake away the day. She wrapped anything left over in cling film, or beneath a glass display case, flipping the sign “CLOSED”. After that, it was all about getting ready for later.

Shoko checked her phone, seeing the usual messages between Utahime and Mei Mei. The first message she sent was to her dad. She didn’t want to encroach on him too much, but she also felt it would be good to gauge his mood.

Hope you had a good day!

She had been too reserved to send one yesterday, but she really didn’t like arguing with her dad. He was one of the biggest stabilisers in her life, and a constant pit of anxiety sat at the bottom of her stomach whenever they weren’t on the best terms.

She was pleased when he replied with: Good day. Same for you.

No, it didn’t mean their argument was resolved, but they were at least on talking terms. She felt herself relax a little more, before scrolling through her messages to find Haruta.

Where and when am I headed later?

He was quick to respond. Student union. Drinks are cheaper tonight. We’re getting there at nine.

See you then , she wrote, and rushed upstairs to have a shower and get ready.

She had two hours, so she wasn’t concerned about time constraints. In fact, she took her time, listening to music, singing in the shower, lounging on bed on her phone for a bit as she dried, then blow-drying her hair and doing her makeup. After that, she set off for the train station.

Since it was eight, the sky had begun to darken. Shoko was thankful for the brighter summer days, but even so, she felt herself glancing over her shoulder every now and then. Of course, there was nobody there. Someone had probably been trying to mug her, which wasn’t a thought that made her feel better, but she could at least kid herself that she was safe going to university. Still… to follow her all the way to the bakery…

Her journey was uninterrupted, fortunately. By the time she got off the train near university, it was far darker. The difference between eight and nine always surprised her in the summer. The darkness suddenly encroached, wrapping around like a black blanket as she made her way to the student bar, smoking a cigarette as she went. Loud music thumped the nearer she got, and she only grew more apprehensive with each step she took. She pushed open the door, walking into darkness and bright lights, red cups everywhere, dancing and meshing bodies all crammed into one space. Her heart skipped a beat or so, suddenly seized with the memories of that dreaded whiskey bottle. A part of her was tempted to turn around and leave, but a flash of blonde hair and a waving hand alerted her to Haruta’s presence.

“Shoko! Here!” he called over the loud music and shouting.

She followed him in the direction of the bar, being jostled from side to side.

“What do you want?” he asked excitedly.

“Vodka and coke,” and because she was already on edge from the crowd, she added, “a double vodka.”

Haruta complied, passing her the drink and guiding her further into the crowd. His friends were there, dancing and drinking, and although Haruta tried to introduce them all, Shoko couldn’t hear what anyone was saying over the loud music. All she could do was smile and wave, trying not to be awkward.

It was difficult to dance in the crushing crowd, so she kept accepting Haruta’s offers of more drinks, letting a warm haze wash over her. It made it a little easier to dance, but there was still a nagging in her chest, one that had a strong pull to leave. There was too much on her mind to properly enjoy herself. How could she be out here having another boozy Friday when her social life was in tatters? She needed to talk to Utahime and Mei Mei, but she had intentionally been avoiding them, figuring they wouldn’t tell her what she wanted to hear. That she was in the right. That she was justified.

And it didn’t help that Haruta kept shooting her glances and soft smiles. He kept trying to dance closer to her. She didn’t really want to, wasn’t interested in him. In the end, she realised she really was just too tired to be here. She shouldn’t have accepted the invite in the first place, or should’ve cancelled. Gloomily, she motioned to Haruta and edged away from the middle of the crowd.

“I’m gonna head off,” she called over the music.

“What?” he looked a little upset to hear that. “Stay! It hasn’t really got started.”

It was nearing eleven. If she wasn’t enjoying it now, she wouldn’t in an hour.

“I’m really tired,” she feigned a yawn. “It’s been a long week, you know?”

Haruta looked torn between staying and going with her.

“My friend’s coming to get me,” she lied, although she intended to get a free lift from Suguru. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I should at least walk you to the meeting point and wait?” he seemed reluctant to leave her side.

“It’s really OK, Haruta,” she turned to leave. “I’ll see you around.”

Another lie. She didn’t have any intentions to meet up with him over the summer.

“Right… see you…”

She slipped outdoors to a much colder air. It was still pleasant, and if she hadn’t already been in a terrible mood, she would’ve been tempted to walk home herself. Instead, Shoko pulled out her phone as she walked, sending a text to Suguru asking for a lift from the university station. He was quick with a response, sending off a I’ll see you in twenty. Twenty minutes? She would be at the station in ten, so she adopted a slow pace. Her fingers hovered over her messages, but she decided not to message Satoru, as tempting as that was. She would talk to Utahime and Mei Mei first.

Campus was lonely now that term had ended. Most people had rushed off across the country, were crammed in the student union or had gone elsewhere to their favourite clubs. That left the rest of campus looking like a ghost town. Most of the buildings had darkened windows, and although open, the library was deserted. Her only company was the stars and moon in the sky. She breathed in the crisp air, enjoying the moments alone. It was utterly peaceful.

A hand clamped over her mouth, an arm around her neck in a chokehold. Shoko choked on air she didn’t have, trying to dig her heels into the ground to slow the movement, but her attacker lifted her up in the air, kicking and pulled her back behind a campus building, out of view. She wished she could scream, but her cries were muffled. She struggled as he tried to choke her out, and caught a glimpse of a long, baggy black sleeve.

It’s him , her mind frantically told her, and she tried to crane her head, catching more of a black hoodie. He was following me .

This was a crisis, and with a thought like that, Shoko was able to switch to her medic’s brain. In an emergency, panicking absolutely wasn’t allowed, or a patient could die. In this scenario, she was both the doctor and the patient.

Shoko dug her hand deep into her pocket and found her keys. She had to aim right and based on his hold on her, he was between five eight and six foot. She clenched her fist tight around the keys, keeping one firmly between her knuckles, black spots dancing around her vision. Eyes closed, she envisioned her attacker’s stance, and then swung her fist backwards and upwards. She felt the key hit bone, circling along her attacker’s forehead. A wailing cry left his mouth and he pushed her away so hard she fell on the ground, keys cutting into her palm, knees and chin scraping across the ground. Her phone skittered away into the darkness. She scrambled to her feet, chancing a glance at her attacker to see he had pulled a cricket bat from a backpack he wore.

She tried to make a run for it, but he had an excellent swing. The bat caught her in the temple, sending her falling to the ground. For most young women, that might mean the end, but Shoko rolled onto her back just in time as he approached. Swing a leg, her foot dug into the back of his knee, sending him sprawling nearby her, the bat clattering to the ground. Despite her vision swimming, she made a well-aimed attack with her elbow that hit his jaw. She heard a sickening click, accompanied by another howl of pain.

Swiftly, she leapt to her feet once more, and made a mad dash for open air.

Help !” she screeched, her voice raspy, and she took a quick turn down the flight of stairs that would bring her to the university entrance.

Shoko leapt down the last two stairs, stumbling in her rush, but also from the dizzying feeling in her head. It was like a dull throb, pounding with each of her footsteps, and she felt oddly sluggish and slow. It was the mix of alcohol and her head wound.

Help !” she screamed once more, and looked over her shoulder. 

Black Hoodie was hurrying down the stairs after her, bat brandished. Of course, nobody was around, but she had to try her luck.

“Jesus Christ, somebody help me !” she ran out of the university, out onto the sidewalk and sharply turned, seeing Suguru’s car in the parking lot.

Shoko wasted no time. Her limbs were acting of their own accordance, and she carried herself speedily towards the familiar car, with Suguru staring wide-eyed at the wheel. He was poised to leave, but she made it to the car, wrenching open the door.

“Shoko, wha-”

“Call the police,” she stammered. “Call the police!”

“Are you -”

Call the police !” her throat felt raw, but as she turned wild eyes towards the entrance of the university, she saw that Black Hoodie had darted back into the campus, out of sight.

Suguru did as asked, ringing the police and glancing worriedly at Shoko as he did so. His voice rang fuzzily in the background, a hazy reminder that she was safe. Her heart was beginning to slow down and, with it, her fight for survival was diminishing. Her eyelids were getting heavier, no matter how hard she tried to keep them shut. Her palms, knees and chin stung, but the most overpowering sensation was that awful beating in her head.

“The hospital,” she managed to slur, fighting against the spinning world.

“Shoko?” Suguru’s voice sounded more worried than ever. “I have to take her to the hospital. I have to call you back, I’m sorry.”

Suguru’s arm had reached over her to pull her seat belt tight. She was sure her eyes were open, but she wasn’t really seeing anything, and his voice sounded muted, as though underwater, when he tried to talk to her again.

Shoko nodded, feeling a jolt of the car moving, but then finally succumbed and closed her eyes.

Chapter Text

“Bed rest and keeping from overexertion are your best bets, but you’re lucky to have no damage to the skull,” a man called Dr Hirano had just come back with her X-Ray results. “Make sure to keep an eye on her for the next day, and if she’s still getting headaches and is having issues with vision, then bring her back immediately.”

That last part had been directed to Suguru, who nodded with a terse expression on his face. She was sat in a hospital room, having received check-up after check-up to make sure she hadn’t received any severe mental damage. As it was, she had a mild concussion, and her forehead was already beginning to bruise.

“Might I ask what exactly happened?” Dr Hirano looked at Shoko, then Suguru, mild concern on his face.

“I was attacked,” Shoko said, keeping an ice pack against her head. “A mugging? I’m not really sure.”

“It wasn’t just a mugging,” Suguru said bitterly. “He was following you.”

“And am I right that the police are coming to see you?” Dr Hirano said whilst checking over his clipboard full of Shoko’s information.

“They said they would be on their way,” Suguru said.

“In that case, I’ll tell reception that they can have access to your room,” the doctor said. “If they cause you distress, though, feel free to call on a member of staff. After all, relaxing is your utmost priority at the moment, Miss Ieiri.”

“Thank you,” she said as he turned and left the room.

The sky outside was now dark and it was getting just shy of midnight. Suguru had remained by her bedside like a faithful dog for the whole time, ignoring her when she’d offered him the choice to go home and sleep. A part of Shoko was thankful he had refused. She would’ve hated to have been here alone.

Dr Hirano paused at the door. “Oh, and I think it’s best you stay here for tonight, just in case. The next few hours are crucial when it comes to head injuries. You might need an overnight bag.”

He nodded to Suguru and left, the door closing softly behind him. Shoko chanced a glance at Suguru, but underneath his concern was thinly veiled anger.

“I can’t believe that creep had the balls to attack you on campus,” he seethed.

“It was the last day of term,” Shoko said sheepishly. “Do you think he planned it?”

“If he did, then it implies he’s been following you for a lot longer than we reckoned,” Suguru said bitterly. “I’m not sure you should stay at your house for a bit once you’re out of here.”

“I need to look after the bakery, though,” she frowned. “I don’t even know what to tell Dad.”

He looked at her incredulously. “The truth.”

“I don’t want him to think he needs to come home,” she said, and held up a hand when he opened his mouth to protest. “It’s not like I’m alone. I have you, Utahime, Mei Mei… This is a really big opportunity for Dad, I’m not taking it away from him.”

“How can you play this down?” Suguru looked baffled. “You have a stalker .”

“He might be deterred now that he’s tried to attack me and failed,” she said.

“The guy’s a psycho,” Suguru said. “I still can’t tell if he was trying to kill or kidnap you.”

She fiddled with the bedsheet, where she would have to sleep for the night. She didn’t want to, but Shoko equally understood that it was important to do so.

“You have to tell your d-”

“I’m not going to argue with you, as well,” she replied curtly. “Dad hasn’t been able to travel in ages. I’m not isolated, either. I have a lot of people who I can call.”

“Fine, but if you’re not going to tell your dad, I think you should stay with me for a bit,” he said. “I can drop you off at the bakery each morning, if that’s what it takes. And pick you up later.”

“Dr Hirano said a day, and then I should be fine,” she said. “I can close the bakery for that time, but I need to be at home to run it properly.”

“I’m not talking about your head,” he insisted. “I’m talking about the man who is stalking you. The one who probably knows where you live.”

“If he’s stalking me, and I highly agree with you that he is, then he definitely knows where you live by now, too,” she shook her head. “And then all he’d need to do is wait for you to go to work and pick me off when you’re out.”

“Don’t say that,” he said darkly.

“If I’m at the bakery, then people come and go all the time,” Shoko explained. “It would be difficult for anyone to attack me in broad daylight whilst I’m running the bakery.”

“What if he tricks you by pretending to be a customer?”

“Then I’ll check his forehead,” she said, and was just about to explain when there was a knock at the door. “Hello?”

Two police officers entered. One was a short older woman, slightly overweight but with a stern look on her lightly lined face. The other was a very slim young woman, also short, but who couldn’t have been older than Shoko herself, judging by the innocent expression on her face.

“Miss Ieiri, I presume?” said the older of the two, lifting a badge and showing it to them both. The name read “Manami Yamashita”.

“That’s me.”

“And you are?” the older woman set a steely gaze on Suguru.

“Suguru Getou,” he said, offering a hand. She didn’t take it. He dropped it to his side once more. “Shoko’s friend.”

“I’m Officer Yamashita,” the woman said. “My partner here is Officer Hoshino. We’ve come to ask you a few questions.”

“About that,” Suguru interjected, “does it have to be now? She’s still hospitalised.”

“The quicker we act, the better,” Officer Yamashita explained. “So, yes, it has to be now.”

“It’s OK,” Shoko tugged at his sleeve. “I don’t actually feel so rotten.”

“First of all, did you get a look at your attacker?” the policewoman asked. “What did he look like? We want height, weight, clothes, any other distinguishing features.”

“He was probably between five eight and five ten,” Shoko began. “Not exactly bulky, but strong enough to lift me,” and when they looked blank, she continued, “which is about forty-seven kilograms. Um, he had his face covered up. I didn’t get a good look at him, but I’ve seen him before, and -”

“He’s someone you know?” the younger woman, Officer Hoshino, looked startled.

“Not know , no, but I’ve seen him before,” Shoko explained. “He followed me to my station home. I called Hei and he stopped. I thought it was a random mugging attempt.”

“Keep describing him,” Officer Yamashita said.

“Oh, um, he was wearing dark jeans and a black hoodie which was pulled down, and when I first saw him, he had a face mask to conceal the lower half of his face, so I presume he was wearing that when… yeah.”

“Anything else?”

“He had a backpack, which he didn’t the first time, and that’s where he was keeping a cricket bat,” Shoko said.

“What colour was the bag?” Officer Hoshino was scribbling things down as Officer Yamashita spoke.

“I… don’t remember, sorry,” Shoko said sheepishly.

“Was there anything distinguishing about the way he moved?” Officer Yamashita continued. “Did he speak? Did you recognise his voice? How professional was his attack?”

“Let her talk,” Suguru said firmly.

“Hei, it’s fine ,” Shoko said pointedly. “He didn’t seem to move weirdly, and he never spoke. He yelled in pain, but I can’t say I’d recognise anyone from that.”

“Are you saying it’s someone she knows?” Suguru interjected.

“Most cases of stalking are between the victim and someone they’ve met in person,” Officer Yamashita explained.

“Maybe it was that guy you’ve been seeing,” he looked at her eagerly.

“Satoru has a completely different build,” Shoko said. “He’s also much taller. I also saw the stalker right after seeing him, and there’s no way he could’ve gotten ahead of me unless he had jumped from a twenty storey building.”

“Right,” Suguru deflated.

“Sir, we need to continue the investigation, so try not to interrupt,” Officer Yamashita scolded. “Did his attack seem professional?”

“No, some of the things he did were clumsy,” Shoko racked her brains. “He didn’t restrain my arms properly, so I was able to hit him. He also missed with the bat, rather than trying to restrain me once more.”

“And when did you first see this man?” Officer Hoshino asked kindly.

“It would’ve been Wednesday, so, um, the thirtieth of June.”

“And what time and where did you see him?”

“Just outside the Tokyo Paradise Supreme,” Shoko said. “He followed me from there to Yanagibashi, to Asakusabashi station. That was about… all from nine to ten at night.”

“And you said you managed to land a hit on him,” Officer Yamashita said, “can you explain that a bit more?”

“I scratched him with my keys,” she said. “Along the forehead.”

“May we see them?” Officer Yamashita pulled some plastic gloves from a packet.

“Yeah, sure,” Shoko rummaged in her pocket before handing over her keys.

Officer Yamashita took them and examined them carefully. The tip was reddened with dried blood.

“Do you have a spare set of keys, Miss Ieiri?” she asked.

“Um, in my house, yes, but Suguru also has one,” she glanced up at him, and he nodded to confirm.

“In that case, we’d like to have these properly analysed,” she held them up. “We can have them back to you by Wednesday.”

“Right, yeah, sure, take them,” Shoko said. “I’ll just use your key for now, Hei.”

“Right,” Suguru folded his arms.

Officer Yamashita dropped Shoko’s keys into a plastic bag. “Thank you for answering our questions, Miss Ieiri. We’ll have a police cruiser monitor your street over the next few days, and if we see any suspicious activity, we’ll alert you immediately.”

“OK,” she twiddled her thumbs.

“Stay safe, and have a good evening,” Officer Hoshino said, and the two police officers left.

Suguru waited a good moment before checking out of the door and turning to Shoko with a frown. “They were… pleasant.”

“They’re just doing their job,” she said. “Anyway, with that said, can you grab me an overnight bag from home?”

“Of course,” he headed for the door. “And if you feel anything unusual, call for the doctor immediately , OK?”

“Obviously,” she stuck out her tongue. “See you soon.”


“So this guy just tried to kidnap you straight from campus?” Utahime looked disbelieving. “How did he ever think he’d get away with that?”

Shoko was sitting in Suguru’s living room with Utahime and Mei Mei, who had come to visit as soon as they’d discovered she had been in hospital. She had mostly rested in bed on Saturday, so hadn’t messaged anyone, but by Sunday she was feeling much better, save the hideous purple bruise on her forehead. Every now and then, Suguru would appear to offer tea, but was mostly minding his own business. Shoko had stayed over at his overnight, but would be heading to the bakery at around midday to open up. She hadn’t heard from the police, and had yet to tell her dad what had happened.

“I’m not sure,” she shrugged. “I mean, his plan failed, so he clearly had no idea what he was doing?”

“Do you think it was spontaneous?” Mei Mei pondered. “Like a: “Oh, she’s alone, I’ll try my luck now” kind of thing?”

“He brought a bat,” Shoko said. “That feels way too planned to me.”

“Then he’s just an idiot,” Mei Mei said simply, sipping her tea.

“How are you saying you’ll go home after this?” Utahime demanded. “It really isn’t safe for you to be alone at home.”

“I’ve already talked to her about that,” Suguru said grimly, wandering into the room. “I just wish she’d tell her dad.”

“You haven’t told your dad this happened?” Utahime looked aghast.

“I don’t want him to worry about me when he’s all the way in Kyoto,” Shoko protested. “Besides, I don’t want him to give up his work opportunity, either. As for going home, the bakery’s actually the safest place I can be at the moment, since the police are monitoring the area, but also because people are coming and going all day. I won’t be alone for a second.”

“That’s a fair evaluation,” Mei Mei hummed.

“How can you say that?” Utahime wrinkled her nose. “Shoko, why don’t you come stay with me? It’s not like that guy would know where I live.”

“If he was dedicated enough to follow me to Satoru’s, then he would know where you live.”

“Even so, I can arrange to work from home,” Utahime insisted, whereas Mei Mei’s dark eyes lit up as she said, “You saw Satoru again?”

“One, I need to run the bakery, that was a specific instruction of Dad’s,” Shoko glanced between her friends. “Second, yes, I did.”

“What happened?” Mei Mei asked, Utahime deflating beside her.

“We had pizza… talked … then argued…”

“A loss, then…” Mei Mei heaved a sigh.

“I’m not sure I’m happy with you staying at the bakery alone,” Utahime continued. “I think you’re being a little too relaxed about this.”

“I’m trying not escalate things,” Shoko said. “Stop worrying about me. The safest place I can be right now is, ironically, my own home. The police will be there for long enough to scare anyone away if they haven’t been spooked off already.”

None of them seemed to believe her, but she didn’t mind. She knew, deep down, that she would be fine. Shaking her head, she settled to enjoy tea with her friends.

“Did you really just talk with Satoru, then?” Mei Mei seemed reluctant to let his memory die. Suguru took the opportunity to wander out of the room.

“Why do you want to know that?” she squinted at her.

“So he did booty call you?” a wide, knowing smile spread across Mei Mei’s face.

Utahime’s head whipped towards Shoko. “You slept with him again ?”

“Tell the whole neighbourhood, would you?” Shoko scowled.

“Weren’t you angry at him?” Utahime looked incredulous. “I thought he hadn’t texted you, so you were angry at him.”

“Yes, but then he did text me,” Shoko wrinkled her nose.

“You’re not worth a man like that,” Utahime continued irritably. “I know for a fact that you have more respect for yourself than that, Shoko.”

“Either he’s drop dead gorgeous, super rich, or has a massive dick,” Mei Mei sipped her tea.

Shoko almost choked on hers. “ Mei Mei .”

Her friend was unfazed. Instead, she blinked dark eyes and said, “Oh my! All three?”

“I’m - we’re not - I’m arguing with him again anyway,” she said stubbornly. “In fact, we haven’t spoken since Wednesday. That’s half a week.”

“Well, thank God!” Utahime huffed out a sigh. “If you ever see him again, I think getting the last word on that relationship would be worth it. I don’t care what he looks like or if he’s the richest man on Earth, no man is worth simping after.”

“I’m not simping ,” Shoko scowled. “Besides, I’ve basically ghosted him. He texted me after the argument and I never replied.”

It was only then that Utahime’s expression softened. “Well, it was probably for the best. And it’s not like you knew him all that well, so it’s not like you’re going to have awkward encounters. You two don’t even cross paths, do you?”

“No,” Shoko said, and for some reason that didn’t do anything to improve her mood.

“Best to leave it, then,” said Mei Mei. “Perhaps we should do something this week? You don’t have university anymore, do you, Shoko?”

“No,” she said again, looking into her tea. 

She didn’t have the heart to tell either of them that, lately, she hadn’t been in the mood for going out. She knew, deep down, that it had something to do with the whisky sitting on the kitchen table, the pain in her head and the ever-growing acceptance that it was nearing the thirteenth of July. Not only that, but the thirteenth was a Tuesday. Exactly like six years ago.

“I should head off,” she declared upon finishing her tea. “I feel bad for raising Suguru’s bills the longer I stay here.”

“I’ll give you a lift,” Utahime persisted, and Shoko decided she would at least let her have that.

Mei Mei was quick to set off. Shoko stuffed her overnight bag once more, gathering all the things she had whilst Suguru had let her stay. He seemed reluctant to let her leave, but they both knew that life had to go on, and it was clear the mild concussion hadn’t equated to anything. Shoko supposed his only consolation was that Utahime was giving her a lift home, and a part of Shoko was reluctant to ever step foot in a train station ever again. Fortunately, she wouldn’t have to do much travelling over the summer, given that she was tied to the bakery.

Utahime was a careful driver, similar to Suguru, and the complete opposite of Satoru. Another pang of regret echoed in her chest, that same reminder telling her she had given up on someone who had the potential to care about her.

It was ten o’clock by the time they arrived at the bakery, and Utahime insisted on doing a full check of the house before leaving Shoko alone. Normally that might have irritated her, but today… Shoko was thankful for Utahime. None of the doors or windows had been tampered with, nothing was broken, nothing was missing, nothing was out of place. There were no signs to indicate anyone had been in the bakery since Shoko had left on Friday. It was a relief that her own home was still safe, if not a little cold from a lack of use.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?” Utahime hovered, still concerned.

“I’ll be OK,” Shoko gazed around her living room and kitchen, deserted.

“If you’re sure,” Utahime said doubtfully. “I’ll see you soon. If anything happens, text.”

“Yep,” Shoko lifted a hand and waved Utahime out the door.

After that, once the door clicked shut, she breathed out a sigh of relief. If there was one thing she absolutely needed right now, it was a smoke. She stepped out into her back garden, lighter and cigarette at the ready. Breathing in smoke and nicotine felt like heaven, a rush to her senses that made her feel both happy but also a little sick. She didn’t care whether she smelt like an ashtray at the end of this, she was just relieved to take her time and stand in the sunshine, smoke rising up into the air.

It relaxed her, being able to stand there and enjoy the little things. For her, cigarettes had become a daily necessity. They were overpriced and, admittedly, bad for your health, but she couldn’t help but keep coming back for more. No, she didn’t make the healthiest life choices, but she did what made her happy, and Shoko felt that was the most important thing. The lazy Sunday felt even lazier as she basked in warm sunlight, all the way until her cigarette couldn’t burn anymore. She put it out on the brick wall behind her, throwing it in the bin as she entered the house once more. She normally didn’t worry so much, but she also made sure that the back door was locked, so that nobody could sneak in.

After that, she set about preparing the bakery. From the back storage room she retrieved the previous baked goods, setting them out carefully once more and stirring up some easy cakes to add to the collection. It was all oven work with bread, so it was fine to leave that on the side and monitor the rest of the cooking and bakery once she flipped the “OPEN” sign and took her post behind the counter.

Every time the bell chimed, she would poke her head out. Kento didn’t make an appearance, but she presumed that was because her opening at eleven didn’t fit with his schedule. She looked each customer in the eye and wondered very briefly whether they were the one to attack her on Friday night. Would her attacker be so brave as to wander right up to her bakery in broad daylight? Nobody would ever know, since even Shoko herself couldn’t identify what her attacker had looked like.

He could’ve been anyone. He could’ve been anywhere. Her heart would speed up every now and then, eyes skirting along anyone who walked past the bakery. Any man who came into close proximity of the bakery was someone Shoko felt she needed to watch. She felt safer in the kitchens, hidden from the public eye and able to tell when someone entered from the chiming bell. She was protected when surrounded by walls and doors and bread and cakes, and a whole house that had been perfectly shut upon return.

As the day went on, she could relax more and more. She was safe in the bakery. She would dash out after hearing the bell, swiftly serve any customers without giving them a second glance, before returning to her breads and cakes, even throwing in some patisseries. It was a Sunday, which was unusually busy. People grew bored and popped into the bakery to save themselves cooking, or to give themselves a pat on the back for making it to the end of the week. Shoko felt like she was flourishing, taking the odd smoke break and drinking plenty of water to keep any headaches at bay. She was still a little fatigued from the attack, so she knew not to overwork herself, but once she had a rhythm it was easy to get lost in it.

The bell chimed as she was pulling a large loaf from the oven, freshly baked and twice the size of when she had originally put it in. She set the tray down and hurriedly flung off her oven gloves.

“Hello!” she said breathlessly, fumbling at the box where disposable plastic gloves were kept. “What can I get for you?”

“A slice of red velvet,” said a voice she recognised very much.

It felt like Shoko had been sucker-punched in the gut. Her whole body froze without her wanting it to, disbelief washing through her. Forgetting the gloves, she looked up from the counter.

Looked up into ocean eyes.

Chapter Text

Shoko stared at Satoru. She couldn’t believe he was there, in the bakery, standing right before her. There was a deep sorrow in his brilliant blue eyes, a duffel bag slung over one shoulder, his neck craned down to look at her. Shoko felt paralysed, as though she couldn’t move, glove poised halfway down her hand. What was he doing here? Why had he come to the bakery after they hadn’t spoken in five days? All the regret, the guilt, the shame came flooding back, burning her heart as she thought about the message she never replied to. All she had had to do was say she’d made it home OK. But then… had he really been concerned? It wasn’t like he had messaged to ask her.

“Shoko, what happened to your face?” he reached out carefully.

Automatically, she flinched, expecting pain, but his fingers were so gentle on her temple it was as though he held a feather to her skin. A slight tingle danced along her crown as he carefully traced his hand along her face. For some reason, that connection she always seemed to feel between them, the one that kept her mind straying towards him in her spare time, budded once more, blossoming in her chest like a sudden fire. She couldn’t help but tilt her head, leaning her cheek into his palm. How could she do this, when she had ignored him for so long? What was wrong with her?

“Nothing really,” she replied, and even though she wanted to tell him everything, it couldn’t be here, not in the middle of the bakery, where she was safe.

“This isn’t “nothing”,” he said quietly, fingers lightly passing the scab on her chin.

“Did you say you wanted a slice of red velvet?” she forced herself to look at the glass cabinet. Any more and she might drown in his eyes.

Satoru’s hand dropped from her face, falling limply to his side. Again, a pang of agony shot through her heart, sharp like a knife.

“Shoko, about Friday…” he sounded a little strained. “I overstepped. I should’ve listened to you.”

“I overreacted,” she felt tears threatening to fall. “And I’m sorry. I…”

She closed her eyes, and pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes.

“It’s been a shit week,” she didn’t know why she was telling him this. “I’m closing in twenty minutes. Can you wait that long?”

“Of course,” he said, and proceeded to busy himself for the last bit of the day.

It felt odd to be running the bakery as normal whilst Satoru wandered around, endlessly browsing. There was a perpetually thoughtful expression on his beautiful face, and sometimes Shoko found herself watching him, fascinated. The twenty minutes seemed to pass by incredibly slowly, especially as there weren’t any customers at this time of day. When the time came to close, she could finally start packing away.

She crossed the bakery and flipped the sign “CLOSED”. It was then that Satoru seemed to jump to attention. Shoko was surprised at first, but then relieved when he started helping her close the bakery down. She kept quiet, apprehensive about starting a conversation, and since he wasn’t saying anything either, she couldn’t find the confidence to push past her hesitation. Instead, it was much easier to pack up each of the baked goods. Despite the silence, Shoko couldn’t have said she felt too awkward. In fact, with Satoru quietly helping her, this almost felt normal . Sometimes she would glance at him, and sometimes he would look at the same time, and his eyes would dance with a smile that never graced his lips.

As he took the last loaf of bread away, Shoko hesitated before the red velvet cake. She cut a slice, deciding that she had already made him wait a week for a text message. This slice could be on her. She locked the bakery door and made her way to the back door leading to the rest of the house. Shoko hovered there, watching as Satoru left the back room, absent-mindedly dusting flour from his hands.

“This way,” she said, watching him scoop up the duffel bag and follow her into the house.

It felt strange to look over her shoulder and see Satoru ducking beneath the door. He gazed around the living room, a look of almost wonder on his face. Shoko supposed he was used to the luxury of the Paradise Supreme. Clearing her throat, she gestured towards the sofa, handing him the cake on the plate as he passed. Ignoring his clueless stare, she wandered into the kitchen to make tea for them both. For some reason, she felt nervous. More so than she had in ages. Trying to swallow back her nerves, she grabbed the two mugs, a sugar bowl and a fork, and returned to the living room.

Satoru had lowered himself on the sofa where she normally sat with her dad, watching quiz shows at night. His long legs were crossed as he leant back comfortably, still gazing around as though he couldn’t believe her home existed. She passed him the fork, juggling the bowl and the mugs, and set them all on the coffee table. Only then did Shoko sit down, tucking her legs in underneath her and trying not to look too stiff. Quietly, Satoru pushed the fork through the top of the cake, watching her with heavily lashed eyes.

“It’s delicious,” he said, and dumped a handful of sugar cubes into his tea.

“How come you’re here?” she asked, knotting her hair around her finger.

He stilled. “I needed to see you.”

“I never texted you back,” she said.

“It didn’t feel right that we parted like that,” he sounded careful.

“What if I hadn’t wanted to see you?” she felt her hair cut into her finger.

“Then I would’ve left,” he said, “and it would’ve been over.”

She shifted on the spot. “What would’ve been over?”

“Whatever this is between us,” he set his empty plate down. “I feel something whenever I’m with you. Don’t you feel it, too?”

She felt her throat tighten. Regret, guilt, shame. “Yeah, I do.”

“I felt awful about what happened on Wednesday,” Satoru sighed. “I didn’t listen to you, and then I thought I might lose any chance I had with you.”

Shoko remained quiet, fiddling with her hair. He seemed to take that encouragement to continue.

“I brought your clothes over,” he gestured to the duffel bag. “I was held up with work, but since I had the chance I knew if I waited any longer, then that would be it. I like being with you, and I thought it would be stupid if I just let you leave forever.”

“I didn’t mean to get angry,” she closed her eyes. “I was so tired, which I know isn’t an excuse, but…”

She could feel the dam threatening to collapse. She desperately didn’t want to be the girl who cried when trying to talk about her feelings.

“I shouldn’t have taken it out on you,” she finished, raising her eyes to the ceiling.

There was a small pause as he reached forward to unwind her hair from her finger.

“Do you want your shirt back?” she said quietly.

“No,” he held her gaze with a languid smile. “You suit it much better. Also… I don’t think we should end what we have.”

She was tempted to wind up her hair again, but instead resorted to chewing on her lip.

“What do we have?”

“Not much, I’ll admit,” he lifted his shoulders nonchalantly. “But I want to be more. I don’t want to be just friends with benefits, or fuck-buddies, or whatever we might be. I want to keep seeing you, but as someone more… more than that.”

Shoko didn’t know what to say. She had yelled at him, ignored him for days, and he wanted to see more of her. How was she supposed to respond to that?

“I want to take you out for dinner,” his expression was so earnest. “I want to be someone you can rely on.”

She didn’t know she was crying until her eyes stung with tears. He stretched an arm towards her, and Shoko was so tired of trying to be strong, or to play off her worries, or push back just how stressed she was. She stood up, set her tea down and walked over to him, climbing onto his lap and hugging him, chin over his shoulder. The tears really began when he hugged her back, tight. She hadn’t expected to spend the day bawling her eyes out, but she did, burying her face into the crook of his neck, inhaling the pleasant sweet and oaky scent of Satoru. He rocked her gently, body warm and solid. Crying was making her head ache, but Shoko couldn’t muster the energy to care.

“I like you, but I thought I’d fucked things up,” she sobbed into his shoulder. “And then by the time I thought I should message back, it felt too late. I’d argued with Dad and then you, and I hate confrontation - it just gets messy and out of hand, so it was easier to just tough it out…”

Shoko leant back, Satoru loosening his hug just enough so she could. She cupped his face in her hands, looking at the beautiful angles of his jaw and cheekbones, the brilliance of his eyes, as though looking up into a cloudless sky, or a deep ocean.

“I was so mean to you,” she kissed him briefly on the mouth. “And yet you’re the one coming here, as if I didn’t do anything wrong.” She kissed him again, leaning back and relishing in the pinkish tinge that had begun to appear on his cheeks. “That’s stupid of you, by the way.” She kissed him once more, and when he opened his mouth to speak she barrelled on. “I said some really awful things, and I overreacted, because at the end of the day, you just thought you were doing the right thing.”

“Shoko, I -”

“If you’re going to try and justify me, then -”

“Shoko, seriousl-”

“- don’t bother, I’m too tired to discuss whether or not I should take resp-”

Shoko ,” he jostled her gently. “Listen to me for a moment.”

She sniffed, pressing her lips together and looking into his beautiful eyes. She just wanted to kiss him again, but he was already beginning to talk.

“You weren’t overreacting,” he said. “I was being selfish; I just wanted you to stay over again. We’re both idiots, and neither of us was being fair, but let’s move on from that, because I’m not angry at you, and honestly? You’re clearly not that mad at me anymore ~”

“You smug idiot,” she grinned, wiping away fresh tears.

This time, she let herself dwell on his lips as she kissed him, desperate for that connection they had once more. This wasn’t slow or sensual, it was needy and wanting. She was diving into his taste and scent, drunk on everything about him, fingers in his hair. A part of her was ready to give herself entirely to him again, indulging in the velvet softness of his mouth, when a splitting pain jolted through her palm. Shoko gasped against his mouth and he was almost immediate to withdraw, staring with wide eyes.

She looked at her palm. The thin gash the key had left behind was weeping again.

“Your hair…” she said awkwardly.

“Let’s get that seen to,” the solemness was back in his eyes as he saw the red mark.

Shoko disentangled herself from him, wandering into the kitchen with Satoru following behind her. She rinsed her hand beneath the sink with soap, ignoring the slight stinging. When she turned, she saw he had brought their teas with him, his expression far more serious now.

“So… what happened?”

“I…” her throat felt tight once more, memories of a hand over her mouth. “I was attacked.”

He had trouble swallowing his tea. “Attacked ?”

“Yeah, on Friday night,” she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. “Some man had been following me for a bit, and -”

“What do you mean by following you?” his voice seemed to shake a little.

This was the hard part. “When I left your place on Wednesday, I noticed someone was following me. He followed me all the way -”

“Why didn’t you call me?” he asked quietly.

“I didn’t really notice he was following me until I was on the train,” she admittedly sheepishly. “So I called a friend, and he picked me up from the station. I thought it was a one-off event, but the same guy was on my campus and he attacked me Friday night. I got away, but… so far the police haven’t found him.”

He was silent. Clutching her cup tighter, she dared look up. His face was pale with anger. She had never seen him look so furious, not even when they had argued. His knuckles had also gone white, holding the cup so tight.

“It was just a mild concussion, so I think I got away quite well compared to what might’ve hap-”

“And you’re staying here alone?” he was staring at her, disbelieving.

“Well, I need to run the bakery while Dad’s not around,” she frowned.

“Your dad was OK with you being alone after something like that happened?” his disbelief became incredulous.

“I… haven’t told my dad that this happened,” she swallowed.

“You…” he blinked, as though he didn’t understand what she had just said. “Why not?”

“We never patched things up,” she felt her mouth wobble again, the threat of more tears. “He left during our argument, and I don’t want him to end up forgiving me just because I was in a dangerous situation! He was right to be annoyed at me, too, so I don’t want him to feel he has to be nice to me because of this!” The floodgates were open again, tears running down her face before she could stop them. “I’m tired of being forgiven just because something happened to me, and I don’t want him to be so worried that he can’t be mad, either!”

“Hey, hey…” he cooed, setting down his cup and pulling her into another hug. “It’s OK… it’s fine… Why don’t you stay at mine for a bit? I can keep you safe.”

“But I have to keep the bakery open!” she said, words muffled against his chest. “We have regulars, and I have to be here after hours to make new things! And besides, if we’re seriously considering seeing more of each other, then I don’t want to go too quick - or quicker than we’ve been going - because I’m worried it might be too much in -”

“Shoko, Shoko ~” he hummed softly, “I understand, it’s OK. But let’s think of a compromise, yeah? I’m not sure it sits well with me to think that person might know where you live.”

“A… compromise?” she sniffed, looking up at him.

“You want to look after the bakery, but you don’t want to worry your dad,” he said brightly. “You want to feel safe, but you don’t want to disappoint your regulars! I want you to be safe, but I also want to respect your decisions with the bakery! So why don’t I stay here for a bit?”

She blinked. “You want to stay here?”

“Only overnight,” he said. “I don’t want to invade your home too much. That way you can run the bakery as you might, we’re not rushing anything, and I can guarantee that you’re safe.”

Shoko wrinkled her nose. “You would stay here?”

She tried to picture Satoru in her humble home. He looked so out of place on her sofa already. No matter how much she tried, she could only see him enjoying the luxuries of the Paradise Supreme. In this old style building, built sometime in the ‘30s, the ceilings and doorways were all far lower than modern buildings of the late twentieth century onwards. It made Shoko smile to herself, thinking about how he physically did not fit in her house. Still, there he was with a childlike enthusiasm on his face about staying over.

“What’s wrong?” his face faltered. “You don’t want me to stay?”

“It’s not that, it’s just…” she didn’t know how to politely say that he looked awkward in her house. “You’re choosing this over the Paradise Supreme.”

“I’m choosing you over the Paradise Supreme,” he seemed triumphant. “Which reminds me. You still owe me a date.”

“I owe you a date?” she raised an eyebrow.

He flashed her a grin. “As many fond memories I have of Wednesday, we never went out to that restaurant I was telling you about. In fact, I’ll call Kiyotaka. He’ll be able to get us a reservation for tonight.”

“Kiyotaka?” she furrowed her brow. “And tonight?”

“Why not tonight?” he looked baffled. “Did you want to have the bakery open tomorrow?”

“I haven’t really prepared anything, I suppose…” she twisted her hair. “But who’s Kiyotaka?”

He took her hand away from her hair. “My PA.”

“You have a PA?” she stared at him incredulously.

“Someone has to organise my schedule,” he shrugged, as though this wasn’t important.

“What was it that you do again?” she peered at him.

“Just business,” he waved a dismissive hand as he pulled his phone out. “It’s really boring.”

She scrutinised him, but a magnetic smile lit up his face and she decided to leave it.

“What kind of place are we going to, then?” she asked.

“I’ll see if I can get us a spot first,” he flourished, scrolling through his contacts. “But just in case, have a nice dress ready.”

“And what about you?” she looked at his sweatshirt and jeans.

“We’ll stop by mine beforehand,” he flashed the same grin. “Don’t worry about me. Just pick out an outfit.”

She watched him wander off into the kitchen, phone to his ear. Baffled, she headed upstairs and threw open her wardrobe. She wasn’t entirely sure what Satoru would define as a “nice dress”, but she was leaning towards a cocktail dress. In the end, she settled on an off-the-shoulder navy skater dress with pink floral patterning on the skirt. She laid it out on the bed, pondered over which make-up suited the outfit the most, and then wandered back downstairs. Were they really going out to eat tonight? She would be amazed if he could whip up a reservation for a nice place on the day.

He was sitting on the sofa once more, legs stretched out, and glanced over with a knowing smile as she appeared.

“We’re in luck,” he beamed. “Get you things. We can get ready at mine.”

“How did you manage that?” she furrowed her brows. How rich was he?

“Got the world wrapped around my finger, babe,” he winked. “We’ve got to be there for half seven, though, so let’s get a move on.”

Shaking her head in disbelief, Shoko decided she was too curious to keep questioning him. Turning around, she dashed upstairs and grabbed an overnight bag, carefully laying the dress inside and piling makeup and hair supplies on top. Throwing the bag over her shoulder, she staggered downstairs and found him waiting by the front door, hand poised to open it as he stared at his phone.

“Got everything?” he asked, and when she nodded he strode through the door.

Shoko locked up the bakery and checked every door. His car was parked on the side of the road, and she jumped into the passenger seat. He shook his head with a wry smile as she quickly belted herself in, and set off with barely a glance at his mirrors. He was faster at driving than Suguru or Utahime, wrist wrested on the wheel, idly changing the gears and, when she least expected it, he would pat her knee. There was a careless arrogance about him that she felt she ought to scold, but instead she watched him in admiration. She knew he had been joking before, but there were times when Satoru really did seem beyond Earth, as though he were otherworldly.

They soon reached the posh district he lived in, with the Paradise Supreme looming over the buildings nearby. She craned her neck up automatically, seeing the large glass windows as they dipped down beneath the hotel’s huge mass into the darkened parking lot. He had an ID card with the Paradise Supreme’s logo on it which he scanned swiftly before moving through the opened entryway. His Benz blended in with the other cars down there. Shoko knew that Mei Mei would approve.

This was the first time she didn’t look like a wreck walking through the Paradise Supreme. The upturned noses were present as ever, but this time she felt a little more confident whilst walking at Satoru’s side. She stepped into the glass elevator, peering out in awe as they travelled up to the uppermost floors. People joined and left them, but the elevator never became crowded. She didn’t dare touch the glass with her hands or nose, for fear of leaving imprints, and a part of her was just relieved that the bottom wasn’t made of glass. The top, however, provided that perfect view to the brilliant skyline, which was turning a fantastic shade of cornflower blue as the sun descended lower into the sky.

As always, Shoko felt amazed that Satoru was the only inhabitant of the top floor. His penthouse was so spacious, and the view of Tokyo was sensational. This was her third time being here, and yet she couldn’t stop gazing around in wonder.

“How about you have a shower first?” he twirled his key card around in his fingers. “I’ve got plenty of towels.”

“Sure.”

She followed him through the apartment, watching as he pulled open a linen cupboard and pressed a couple towels into her arms. She glanced around the apartment at all the doors, and they all looked the same. As Satoru busied himself with getting his own towels, she wandered towards the door she was sure led to his room. She grabbed the handle and pushed it open a fraction, seeing a crack of darkness.

“Not that one,” he called from the linen cupboard. “That’s my office.”

“Oh, sorry,” she hastily closed it and went to the next door over.

She didn’t take too long with the shower. A quick wash of her hair and body and she wasted no time getting out. She dressed before leaving the bathroom, and poked her head into the main living area once more.

“I’m done,” she called over to Satoru, who raised his eyes from his laptop and offered a wide smile. “There’s a place to plug in my hair dryer, right?”

“There’s an extension cord near the mirror,” he closed the laptop and crossed the room.

Her heart jumped in her chest as he bent his head and kissed her, suddenly soft and slow. Her mouth tingled as he leant away, still smiling - he almost looked smug - and he headed to the bathroom. It didn’t take long for Shoko to continue getting ready, hair dried and finishing off with a lipstick to match her outfit.

Satoru was still in the shower when she finished, and Shoko found herself wandering into the main heart of the penthouse. She glanced about; on her own, it seemed bigger and far emptier than it actually was. As she stood there taking it in, she noticed that two of the large windows were in fact doors leading to a balcony. She stood for a moment, weighing her options, and then decided she would definitely have enough time for a smoke.

She was pleased to find it wasn’t locked, pulling it open and feeling a gust of cold wind blast her in the face. Up here, on the twentieth floor, the wind was far stronger, far more insistent than down below. Streaks of orange from the setting sun reflected off the windows of other skyscrapers. Shoko thought it was breathtaking to be so far away from the rest of the world, looking down from an entirely different level, as though she were some higher being. Did Satoru ever look down and think the same things she was? Or was this all so normalised for him that he no longer thought about it?

Shoko lit a cigarette, and the wind made the smoke zig-zag across the darkening sky. She breathed in the fumes, looking at the glorious Tokyo surrounding her. She was somewhere else, that was for sure, wearing a pretty dress and standing in a luxury penthouse. Shoko from a week ago would never have believed she would be standing here.

Hands gently grazed her hips. Shoko jumped, turning, just as Satoru pulled her into a tight embrace and planted his lips on hers. He was wearing that cologne she liked, the oaky one, and his hands trailed up and down along her hips and waist, tingles of electricity shooting through her body. The railing was pressed to her back, the only thing between her and a sixty metre drop.

“You’re so beautiful,” he murmured against her mouth.

Her lipstick had stained his mouth, her skin burned where he touched her. If they hadn’t had reservation plans, she might’ve suggested they go back to bed. As it happened, she contented in this moment where she could just kiss Satoru without interruption or worry.

“Let’s get ourselves tidied up,” she said between kisses, biting his bottom lip softly.

“Five more minutes,” he groaned, and she only conceded because she needed him more and more with each second that passed.

Chapter Text

She swayed as she walked, blood boiling and stomach still churning, but Shoko refused to be sick again. It was embarrassing enough that her parents had seen her in this state, and she was already beginning to regret having let go of herself too much. It had just felt so calming and bubbly to let the alcohol flush through her body. She dragged her feet a little, cars zooming past, sipping her water every now and then. A part of her wanted to turn around and run back to her parents, to apologise and tuck herself in bed, and forget about what had happened. She knew it would be fine in the morning, but at the same time she was just so angry .

A horn blared. Shoko’s body froze up and she looked up into bright headlights, blinded. The maple tree shifted uneasily in the breeze, a green traffic light beaming, and a car having screeched to a halt just a metre from her. Limbs shaking, Shoko muttered a hasty apology and dashed across the rest of the road, scolding herself for not keeping an eye on the roads. Her heart was hammering in her chest, sudden adrenaline and fear pumping through her body. A breathless fear that, had the driver not been so careful, she might’ve been hit. 

It was that maple tree, large and oversized, that blocked the entire view of drivers turning into that road. If the light was green, most cars happily turned and entered the road. Some took caution, thankfully, and if the light was red, then cars were stopped just beside the maple, letting pedestrians cross. Many a time her father had complained about it, and Shoko hated to think if her parents heard there had been a casualty there, despite having told her over and over to be careful. She would hate to think that her life could have ended whilst in an argument with her parents.

Her feet carried her somewhere familiar, a great big park across the river that was filled with green trees, shrubbery, neat gravel and sand pathways, a small playground for young children, and a pretty fountain of a two koi spiralling around each other, water spouting from their pouted mouths. She dropped onto a bench and stared at the water, running even late in the night. Streetlamps illuminated the park as Shoko sat there, sipping her water, thinking and regretting. With hindsight, she probably shouldn’t have left the house, since it was dark and she hadn’t told her parents where she was going.

Fumbling in her pocket, wiping a few childish tears from her eyes, Shoko produced her spare packet of cigarettes, the ones that had yet to be confiscated. With trembling hands, she lit one and brought it to her mouth. Usually a smoke made her feel better. Now it seemed to sour in her mouth, mingled with the remaining taste of beer and vomit. She didn’t feel good. In fact, she felt quite rubbish, and it was humbling to sit there like that. For a moment, she had felt on top of the world, but she supposed this was the consequences of messing with something she knew nothing about. Now she just felt shit.

She puffed out a ring of smoke and miserably watched it rise up to the sky, flicking ash from her cigarette and wiping her eyes again. She had only gone to impress Souma, had only drank to get his attention, and yet she was now sure they had barely spoken throughout the party. She felt like a real idiot. The only reason she was smoking was also Souma. All of this, and the original root had been a boy.

“Shoko.”

She turned her head and saw her mum walking along the path towards her, wrapped up in a scarf and a light coat. It wasn’t so cold that Shoko was freezing, but there were clouds in the sky and a breeze had picked up. What was her mum doing there? As far as she was concerned, they were supposed to be arguing, yet she just looked tired.

“How did you know I was here?” she asked a little mournfully. Was she that predictable?

“Because this is the kind of place I might go if I were upset,” her mum sat beside her. “Your dad said you left. He heard the door go.”

Shoko didn’t answer. She wasn’t feel particularly talkative.

“I brought you some water, but it looks like you were a step ahead of me,” her mum continued. “You’re definitely more sensible than I was at your age.”

“Aren’t you going to yell at me for smoking again?” Shoko said bitterly, uncertain why she was being argumentative.

“No,” said her mum. “In fact, I was going to ask you for one.”

Shoko looked at her, incredulous. “What?”

“A cigarette,” her mum said. “Can I have one?”

Awkwardly, Shoko complied. Balancing her own in her mouth, she fumbled out for another, and then held the lighter underneath as her mum leaned in. She then sat there, watching curiously as her mum drew a long breath and blew out smoke into the darkening sky.

“I didn’t know you smoke,” she said.

“I don’t anymore,” her mum replied, “but I used to, about twenty-five years ago. I quit mostly because my grandad died of lung cancer. They really are very bad for you.”

“Like people who smoke don’t know that already,” Shoko said drily. “How come you’re smoking again, then?”

“This is a one-off,” she said. “I suppose I’m just feeling a bit nostalgic.”

Shoko didn’t know what to say. This wasn’t an encounter she had ever expected to have had with her mum. In fact, looking at her, she could see an uncanny resemblance between their dark hair and eyes. She took another drag and looked back at the fountain.

“Nostalgic?”

“I might seem boring now, but there was a time when I was like this, day-drinking and smoking at the back of the school instead of going to class,” her mum explained. “In fact, I was worse than you, because I could never muster up a decent report card. I suppose that’s why I’m so hard on you sometimes. I don’t like to think that you could be like me.”

“You’re not that harsh,” Shoko toed the ground sheepishly. “You make a lot of sense, actually.”

“Thankfully!” a mirthless laugh left her mum’s mouth, accompanied by a trail of smoke. “I would hate to be some rambling old woman. I try to speak from experience, but maybe sometimes an explanation is better than a scolding.”

Her mum then peered closely at her, scrutiny in her eyes.

“Why did you even start smoking?” she asked. “I never thought Suguru was the type to let you do stupid things like that.”

Shoko smirked. “He doesn’t control my life, Mum. Besides, he’s partial to the odd smoke here and there.”

“Of course he isn’t perfect,” a sad sigh left her mum’s lips. “You two are so young.”

“There’s a boy in my class who smokes,” Shoko admitted shyly. “He started a year ago, so I did, too.”

“I started because all of my friends smoked,” her mum said. “Mind you, smoking was a lot more common when I was your age. Just about everyone had a lighter on them. I used to spend many a lunch time on the beach doing everything I wasn’t supposed to be doing.”

“That’s in Kamaishi, right?”

“Yeah, the world really felt different up there,” there was a dreamy look in her mum’s eyes. “We were so far away from any big cities that me and my friends built up the feeling of being invulnerable. We were untouchable in Kamaishi; there were a few local police, but we knew them by name, so they didn’t want to tell us off for things they thought were too trivial. It made us into some real narcissists.”

Her mum rarely talked about her youth. Shoko was beginning to understand why.

“And then I came to Tokyo for university, and everything was so overwhelming,” she continued. “I thought I was too big for my boots, but suddenly I was tiny in comparison to everything else. It was quite something, to go from being able to walk on everything, to feeling like the world was about to crush me. I’d never seen such big buildings or that many cars. It was a lonely time, but also very humbling…”

“Are you saying I’m arrogant?” Shoko pursed her lips.

“Yes, but everyone under the age of twenty is,” her mum said. “I mean, shit, everyone under thirty thinks they’re on top of the world, but it really isn’t like that. It was a culture shock for me, and I don’t want it to be that way for you. Growing up in the city has definitely helped you in terms of adapting to city life, but it certainly hasn’t helped to calm down your ego a little bit.”

“I have Hei for that,” she said.

“Suguru can’t do everything for you, no matter how reliable he is,” her mum shot her a knowing smile. “I suppose if you two started dating, then maybe…”

“Not happening,” Shoko said quickly. “We really are just friends.”

“Yeah, I used to find that irritating,” her mum looked whimsical. “With hindsight, though, I’m actually really grateful that both you and Suguru have found a friend for life. It’s not every day that you meet someone like that when you’re young. Not everyone has a best friend like you do.”

“I’m not sure what I’d do without him,” Shoko looked down at her feet again, feeling small for saying it.

“And I’m sure he’d say the same about you!” her mum laughed. “Friends really are so important. We can’t forget them in our quest to fulfil our life goals, in pursuit of jobs or when searching for that one we love.”

There was a peaceful silence between them. They both idly smoked their cigarettes, a few stars peaking through the urban curtain.

“How did you meet Dad?” Shoko asked.

“I can’t say it’s very exciting, but we would often have lunch at the same time,” she said. “Eventually, we began to talk in the queue. It became more and more common, and then he asked me out. I agreed to that, and I’m so glad for that, because now I have a wonderful life and an even more wonderful family. I’m sure my younger self would never have considered settling down, but I don’t regret a moment of the paths I walked.”

When she looked at Shoko again, however, she looked more serious.

“Equally, I don’t want you to follow exactly in my footsteps, because I made life very difficult for myself when I didn’t need to,” she explained. “Your dad pulled me out of a lot of ruts when we were young, and it wasn’t easy having a long distance relationship whenever I would go up to Kamaishi over the holidays. But I knew he was right for me, and strangely enough, a part of me kept telling me that he was the one , as corny as that sounds.”

“And do you believe in that kind of thing?” Shoko asked. “Soulmates?”

“Do I believe in it?” her mum looked up at the stars. “I want to, because there are days when I know that me and your father were made for each other. At the same time, it romanticises things a lot. It can put rose-coloured glasses on bad situations. Do I believe in it, though? Yes… I think I do. I do now that I’ve met Kiyoshi.”

She looked so serene, so happy, and Shoko worried for a moment that she had threatened to disturb that peace. Did her mum feel resentment towards her? She realised she was no longer angry at her mum, but instead felt a strange comfort from her presence, even when they weren’t speaking.

“I’m sorry,” she said at last.

“I didn’t come here for an apology,” her mum said. “I came here for a heart-to-heart, and I’m glad. You’re a good daughter, Shoko, and I really take that for granted. I’m much too harsh on you.”

“I didn’t leave for an apology, either, ” Shoko shifted on the bench. “ Not really. To be honest, I stormed off here to sulk, so I guess… I was being very childish. They’re just cigarettes.”

“I’ll help you quit them,” her mum smiled. “It’s not easy, but I’ll do my best. By the end of this year, not another cigarette will touch your lips, Shoko Ieiri.”

A warmth flooded through Shoko’s chest. She had expected more arguments with her mum, more shouted words and hostility, but this was a far more pleasant opposite. Quitting felt a lot easier when she had support. All of these things she had never known about her mum, and yet she felt closer for hearing it all.

“Are we OK, then?” Shoko asked nervously. “You don’t hate me?”

“Of course not!” her mum laughed. “Why would I hate you over something as small as smoking? I could never hate you, never. Just because we shouted a few things at each other doesn’t mean we don’t love each other.”

“I do love you,” Shoko wiped away the last of her tears and offered her mum a watery smile.

“I know you do,” she reached out a reassuring hand that seemed to lift a weight from Shoko’s shoulder. “And I love you, too. Now, we had best head home before your dad begins to worry too much.”

“Right…”

Shoko stooped down and used the sandy gravel to put out her cigarette. Her mum did the same, and the two of them rose, walking towards the park entrance. Shoko’s mum dumped both cigarettes in a bin as they left the park, back out into the main road.

“Another twenty-five years and it looks like I can smoke again,” her mum chuckled. “I am joking, by the way. I hope I never have to have a conversation like that with grandkids…”

“Smoking isn’t very popular anymore,” Shoko admitted. “It’s stupid that I got into it in the first place.”

“Nobody begins smoking because they made a smart choice,” her mum’s eyes sparkled. “But that’s just part of being young - learning from mistakes. And it’s equally part of my generation’s responsibility to teach yours that making mistakes isn’t villainous or criminal, but that it should be seen as a learning curve instead.”

“I’ve learnt a big lesson about drinking,” Shoko scoffed.

“Haven’t we all?”

They strolled along, glancing up at the sky, an empty black canvas spattered with the tiniest flecks of twinkling white stars, a flashing red light of a plane far overhead. The world suddenly felt both large and small at the same time, and yet Shoko was more than happy to say that she was walking through the streets of Tokyo, talking her mum and learning more about her.

She kept drinking from her bottle of water. The journey back was taking a lot more time, but only because she wasn’t hurriedly fuelled by anger. She was much calmer now, a warm serenity settling over her.

“Things will be a lot better as you get older,” her mum said. “It’ll all make a lot more sense; you’ll have a clearer direction of where you want to live, where you want to go, and what you want to do. It took me a long time to decide, and the comfort that I didn’t have to choose immediately made me feel a little lax at times, I think.”

She shot Shoko a curious glance.

“What do you want to be?” she asked. “I already know that baking doesn’t interest you all that much.”

“Would Dad be angry that I don’t want to continue the bakery?” Shoko asked nervously.

“No, definitely not,” her mum said. “Your dad loves the bakery, and even though his grandparents opened it up, he’s never expected you to follow exactly in his footsteps. In fact, he wants to branch it out as a chain one day.”

“Maybe I should stick around then,” Shoko mused. “Being the owner of a bakery business doesn’t seem like a bad thing.”

“It’s not, but your dad’s also really passionate about it,” her mum explained. “It’s that drive that makes him the best he can be, and if you don’t have the same ambitions then that can’t be helped. Drive can’t be faked. You have to do something that feels authentic to you, something that gives you a meaning.”

“I have no idea what I want to do,” Shoko muttered.

“Start thinking - that’s the best advice I can give you based on my experiences,” her mum said. “And it doesn’t matter if you walk out of it a millionaire. If you do something that makes you genuinely happy, then you won’t be constantly craving the comforts money can offer. Yes, being rich is nice, but it’s not a necessity to have a good life.”

Shoko considered this. She really tried to imagine what she might want to be when she was older, but nothing was coming to mind.

“And before you start complaining about wealth and whatnot, if you walk out of this world happy, then I consider that to be a successful life,” her mum said, and stopped before a fast-food place. “Fancy some chips?”

“I’m not sure I’m that hungry…”

“Trust me when I say that chips soak up the alcohol, especially beer,” her mum said. “And if you feel sick again, then it’s better out than in.”

“I’m not being sick on the streets,” she wrinkled her nose, but then added quietly, “Can we share some chips?”

“Of course,” she received a knowing grin.

They waited in a queue, and her mum kindly bought a large portion of chips so they could share. As they walked along, Shoko found that she ate most of the chips. She couldn’t stop herself, she kept taking them from the box, whereas her mum picked at the odd one every now and then. It was only then that Shoko realised just how exhausted she was. The day had been up and down.

“Do I have to go to school tomorrow?” she asked.

Her mum regarded her. “We’ll see how you’re feeling. It is the last week, after all…”

Shoko grinned. “Thanks, Mum.”

“You’re lucky I’m being lenient on you,” she sighed, as they wandered back on track to the way home.

“Speaking of being lenient, Dad won’t still be angry with me, will he?” she asked, timid once more.

Her mum inhaled deeply, looking up at the sky as cars whizzed past. “Listen, your dad was the perfect teenager from the way he talks about his past. I’m not saying he’s going to be furious, but I know he won’t be as forgiving as me. I’ll talk to him, but I think you also should.”

“I will…” Shoko looked at the ground, at her feet that crossed over the cracks and gaps between the paving slabs.

“Cheer up, though, it’s not like he’s going to be furious,” her mum kept a cheerful and upbeat tone. “As I said, I’ll talk to him, and then he’ll be much more understanding.”

“And you won’t tell Suguru’s mum about this, either?” she asked nervously.

“Of course, I could never incriminate him,” her mum grinned. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s Mr Perfect and I very much plan to keep it that way for him whilst he’s growing up.”

“I sometimes think he’s your favourite child,” she skipped along, enjoying the chips.

“That’s because he is,” her mum smiled, but then pulled her into a one-armed hug as they walked.

Shoko watched cars zoom past, colours of silver, black, red, blue and white. She wondered whether there would come a day when she left Tokyo, perhaps for university. The city was familiar to her; she couldn’t envision a life in the countryside, not like a place where her mum grew up. For her, coastal and rural towns were for holiday-goers. She wouldn’t want to live in a place that was so distant from the rest of the country. Perhaps she would move if Suguru did. He had said he would uproot to Sapporo if she loved it so much, which had sounded crazy that morning, but made more and more sense to her as she considered just how many people there were in the world.

Could she move away? Leave her friends and family behind? Create a new life for herself? Shoko didn’t think so. She thought about all of her friends here in Tokyo, all the memories and the familiarity of the city. She knew the trains here, the bus routes, and even walking from block to block was ingrained in her memory. She would have to adapt to a new location, and she didn’t know how long it would take for her to familiarise herself. She had been born here in Tokyo.

They reached the bend marked by the great maple. Even that old tree was a familiar friend to Shoko. It was hunkered down in the dark, leaves swaying in the warmth. Its thin, gnarled trunk had long twisted in on itself, making it appear like a bent over elderly woman with long, shaggy hair. In fact, it seemed barely able to support itself, growing more outward than upward, red leaves looking black in the late night. Shoko had run underneath its branches many times as a child, had picked off maroon leaves for childish artwork, had snapped off branches, pretending it was a sword in a mock battle with Suguru. It was far older than anything else on the road, and her parents were always remarking that it ought to be cut down, amazed that it hadn’t died yet. Despite its slight invasiveness, Shoko loved it. It wasn’t really a bad thing, since the traffic lights regulated cars turning the corner.

At this time of night, nobody was turning down their road, making it quiet and barren. The main roads were flooded, so it was nice to turn away from the traffic, to take in the empty road ahead of them. The traffic lights gleamed green, welcoming cars down the road, but none of them were jumping at the opportunity. There weren’t any good shortcuts down their road, but it had helped to make it a very safe place for her and Suguru when they were children. It was a still, warm night. She could hear a few cicadas croaking, still loud enough to not be drowned out by the flurry of cars nearby.

Her mum pressed the button, waiting for the light to turn red. Shoko, however, was eager to go home, to have a warm shower and dive into bed. She had crossed this road so many times whether the road was green, amber or red. She dashed across, carrying her chips.

“Shoko!” her mum called after her, an edge to her voice.

“It’s fine, Mum!” she turned and saw her mum looking horrified on the other side of the road. “No one comes down here at night.”

“How many times do I have to tell you to be careful regardless?” her mum visibly relaxed, though she didn’t appear very impressed. “I’m glad I came to get you. Who knows what might have happened had you walked home alone… This road is dangerous because of that stupid tree.”

Shoko shook her head with a wry smile. She ate a few of the last chips. It was fun to be a little reckless, and yet her mum remained on the other side, waiting for the lights to change.

“Are you coming?” Shoko joked.

“If there’s one thing I can do, it’s set a good example when it comes to road safety,” her mum called across the road. “You don’t need to be in a rush every moment of your life.”

She rolled her eyes, plucking the last few chips from the box. She didn’t want to walk through the front door on her own, so she stood there, waiting for her mum. On that balmy night, time seemed to pass by very slowly. It felt like ages before the lights turned red, blaring against the darkness. Red was burned into her eyes when she stared at them for too long.

“See?” her mum gave her a reproving look. “That didn’t take long.”

And she stepped onto the road with an exasperated smile on her face.

Chapter Text

Satoru had refused to tell her where they were going. Every time she had asked, his eyes would twinkle with brilliant amusement and he would reply cryptically and vaguely. Every now and then, she would check herself in the side mirrors, but her make-up remained intact from where she had fixed it earlier. Even the bruise on her temple wasn’t visible. Her own curiosity kept her sitting in the passenger seat as Satoru lazily drove through ever-darkening Tokyo.

As for Satoru, she would be lying if her heart didn’t flutter every time she looked at him. A tingle would dance along her mouth as she remembered his soft lips on hers, kissing on the balcony, his body hot with desire. She liked the feeling of a man desperately wanting her, had liked even more to be the woman who could tease. The look of bewilderment when his five minutes had ended and they had to leave. If she had given him more time to process what was happening, Shoko had the feeling Satoru would’ve cancelled the reservation.

They entered an incredibly upmarket part of the city, a place with the most expensive restaurants and shops. Shoko rarely went to this area of Tokyo, although Mei Mei had shown many photos of the swanky places she had frequented whilst on business meetings. She and Utahime had only dreamt that one day they could afford to go places like this. Shoko briefly worried how she was going to be able to split the bill, and quietly hoped Satoru wasn’t expecting her to do so.

Crawling through traffic, she wasn’t surprised to check the time and find they were running a little late. Although she wanted to point this out to Satoru, he seemed completely relaxed. He turned into an underground parking space, and Shoko was sure she saw the brilliant logo of TnK. She tried to tell herself that this couldn’t be right, that there was no way Satoru would bring her to TnK on their first proper date.

Tengoku-no-Kami, better known as TnK, was a Michelin restaurant, and one of the greatest in the globe. It was famed for high prices but exceptional food, a place Shoko never thought she would set foot. Only the world’s elites went to places like TnK. She shot Satoru a look as they stepped out of the car. He seemed confident and in his element, black blazer over one shoulder, shirt buttons loose at the top, his best pair of formal trousers on, and sunglasses perched on his nose. Just who was she going on a date with?

Even the lobby of TnK was more opulent than Shoko’s entire life. She gazed around at golden tiles and ivory walls, with gold leaf patterns swirling up towards a mirrored ceiling. A gold-plated chandelier, shining rich and yellow, sent brilliant golden light showering around the room. It was like being in the Winter Palace of Russia as she turned around, looking at the huge amounts of gold.

Men in suits similar to Satoru’s, and women wearing elegant lace cocktail dresses filled the lobby, speaking to many receptionists at a golden desk about seating reservations. For once, Shoko was pleased that she didn’t look completely out of place, but she supposed if people looked close enough, they would immediately tell the difference between their diamond earrings that she was wearing rose gold-plated hoops. Also, the women here carried an arrogant elegance that Shoko didn’t think she could pull off. She would probably look like she had a stick up her arse if she tried, so she didn’t bother.

Out of the crowds emerged a nervous-looking young man with dark hair neatly parted down the centre. He was wearing a suit, but not one you might wear for dinner. He looked like he was about to head for a business meeting.

“Mr Gojo, I’ve managed to get you VIP seats with a Tengoku Pass,” the man explained, barely acknowledging Shoko as he handed Satoru a golden card. “They have also lifted any expenses from beverages for your pleasure.”

“Gojo”? The name sounded familiar to Shoko, but she couldn’t say how.

“Brilliant, Kiyotaka,” Satoru reached out and grabbed Shoko’s hand, pulling her along. “We’ll be on our way, then.”

“That was your PA?” she guessed as they cut the queue towards a golden elevator. “Don’t we need to go to the front desk?”

“Yes, and no,” he said cheerfully, pulling the gold card from his pocket and showing it to the bouncer, who ushered them into the elevator. “Do I have to keep telling you that I’m kind of a big deal?”

“What kind of “business” line of work means you can get last minute VIP access to a place like this?” Shoko remarked. “I’m doing the wrong line of work.”

“Not everyone can be me,” he grinned.

He swiped the same card near the elevator’s keypad, and pressed a button labelled “V”.

“If you pull something like having a table on top of the Tengoku, I might have to throw myself off to make sure I’m not dreaming,” she said.

Satoru hummed softly, before leaning down to kiss her cheek. As he did so, he murmured, “Just to let you know, it’s a very long way down.”

His breath was warm on her skin, but by the time she whipped her head around to stare at him, wide-eyed, he had already straightened up, smiling languidly as the doors of the elevator opened.

Shoko’s legs carried her before she could stop herself moving. It was incredibly windy as she looked from a building that overlooked the rest of immediate Tokyo. She barely registered a waitress raising a hand to get her attention as she wandered out of a small decorated lobby out into open air. It was a little bit cold up here, the wind overtaking most of the summer warmth. She tried to push her hair out of her eyes, but it was a struggle, and then she was standing at the railing, looking down at tiny gridlike roads below. If she had thought the Paradise Supreme was a tall building, then TnK brought the heavens to whole new levels. She stared down at a drop that would be the end of anyone’s life.

“Shoko!”

She turned. Satoru was stood by the entrance of the lobby, the waitress hovering just behind him, gazing up at him in awe. Couples eating their dinners were watching her with amused curiosity. Satoru beckoned to her with a long finger and she turned away from the railing, drifting towards him in a state of near confusion.

Shoko didn’t realise how he had managed to book them a place in TnK on the night and in the VIP section. Since he seemed to have made residence in the Paradise Supreme, which already cost an arm and a leg, Shoko could only assume he was worth millions - no, billions . Whatever “business” he worked in, she was beginning to suspect it wasn’t legal. A part of her wanted to ask. A bigger part of her reckoned that wouldn’t be a good idea if she wanted to enjoy this a little longer.

The waitress led them to the other side of the top floor, where an empty table sat waiting for them. There was a small heater shaped like a flower in the middle, and the warmth made Shoko forget about the chilly breeze. Satoru drew a chair out for her and she sat, revelling on the way he lingered a hand briefly on her shoulder as he walked around to his own chair. Here she was, at one of the world’s most expensive restaurants, with a man who looked like an angel. 

“Y-your usual, Mr Gojo?” the waitress stammered nervously.

“Always,” he flashed her a brilliant smile. “The lady will have a Paloma.”

“Yes!” the waitress glanced at Shoko before hurrying up.

Shoko scrutinised him. “What’s a Paloma?”

“A tequila based cocktail,” he said. “You don’t seem interested in sweet drinks, so this one has lime juice and grapefruit. I think you’ll like it.”

“And I’m “the lady” now?” she smirked.

“They always say that in the films,” he caught one of her ankles between his beneath the table. “It sounded a bit more polite than “this chick over here”.”

“OK, so we’re sitting on top of TnK with a VIP view,” she said, deciding she needed to know. “What kind of business is getting you this rich?”

“It really is quite boring,” he said. “And explaining it doesn’t really make interesting table talk, either.”

Shoko leaned in closer, and Satoru copied her, eyebrow raised and a knowing smile already forming on his lips.

Is it drugs ?” she whispered.

Satoru bent his head down, trying to conceal a laugh, drawing in a heavy breath through his nose. When he looked up, his eyes were dancing with amusement and he now wore a shit-eating grin.

“I’m serious !” she hissed.

“Would you prefer me if I was?” he tugged at her foot.

“No comment.”

He threw his head back and laughed. A few of the other couples looked over, some bending their heads together to mutter quietly behind hands.

“Is this your way of telling me you like a bad boy, Shoko?” he asked, laughter still in his eyes. “Because I can be bad later if you’d like me to be.”

“The only thing I’d like you to be is quiet,” she flushed, as the waitress passed them their drinks.

Satoru raised a finger to his lips, zipping his mouth shut and vaulting the invisible key over the railing.

“OK, if you’re not a mafia boss, then what are you?” she asked. “I mean, I’m training to be a doctor and I don’t think I’ll ever be earning this kind of money.”

He pointed to his mouth and shook his head.

“You’ll be following that hypothetical key, soon,” she reached over to jostle his shoulder.

“OK, if you really must know, I’m basically a glorified manager,” he shrugged. “I sort through finances, give and attend business meetings for decisions concerning the improvement of the company, I go through profits, losses… There really is a lot to this boring job.”

“If you don’t like it all that much, how come you keep at it?” she asked, taking a sip of the Paloma. There was salt on the rim of the glass, giving it a sharp twist.

“I would be insane to give up this kind of money, for a start,” he chuckled. “But one of the biggest perks is that I get to travel because of it. I’ve been to so many fascinating places and I love the freedom of being able to hop on a plane and call it my job.”

“That… actually does sound incredible.”

“I’ll take you,” he reached over and idly laced his fingers with her free hand, turning her palm upwards and running his thumb gently over her wrist. “Next time I’m needed abroad, I’ll take you with me.”

“And what if that’s tomorrow?” she asked. “I thought we were trying to take things slow.”

“Would you say “no”?” his eyes were a magnificent cyan, and she felt like she was drowning in them all over again.

“No, I wouldn’t,” she said before she could really think about it.

If Satoru offered her a ticket to travel the world with him at this dinner table, she would pluck it straight from his hands and cherish every second of it. She didn’t even need to hesitate to mull that question over.

Satoru assessed her with his beautiful eyes, and then a smile tugged his lips up once more. He really was the most handsome man she had ever met. Every time their eyes met, her heart would skip in her chest, as though she were young and fawning over a crush for the first time. She couldn’t stop herself; she leant forwards and they kissed over the warmth of the heater. Shoko was remembering a distant conversation from years ago, one about finding someone who felt like they completed you. She was sure she felt that about Satoru. Every failed hook-up and then, randomly, the world had thrown him into her life. If this wasn’t something real, then Shoko had been dreaming her whole life.

They parted, and she only felt fireworks soaring in her chest. She barely paid attention to what she was eating - Satoru made recommendations and she went along with them. It was all delicious, and since she recalled Kiyotaka saying drinks were free for them, she was partial to more Palomas as the night went on. Satoru kept ordering his “usual” and, when asked, she learnt he was a man of simple taste, preferring a gin and tonic.

“So, you work in business, and you just happen to have earned a lot from it,” she said, a little hazy from the drinks, once they had finished their meal.

“We’re back to this?” he rested his head in his hand. “I’ll bite.”

“Does that mean you’re, like, a real-life Christian Grey?” she said in a loud whisper.

A laugh bubbled from his lips once more. “You really do like a bad boy, Shoko. Do you want dessert, or am I getting the check?”

“None for me, dinner was filling,” she waved a dismissive hand.

A part of her was sad to see TnK go, but she was also a little drunk. Satoru had laid his jacket around her shoulders, and she felt comforted and surrounded by the smell of him. The sheer wealth of the restaurant flashed past in the golden elevator, as Satoru phoned someone to come get them. She leaned into his side, turning her face into his chest and relishing that she was the woman he was bringing to these places. Someone in a higher place really was looking out for her.

Arm in arm, they wandered through the restaurant, Satoru putting his shades back on. People still watched them, and for some reason, Shoko felt important. It was Satoru; his presence demanded attention, and she supposed that was one reason she must have felt magnetised towards him on the night they met. If only she could remember…

It seemed that, alongside having a PA, he also had a chauffeur on demand. A sleek long car with tinted windows was waiting for them outside, and Shoko scooted across, Satoru following afterwards. An opaque partition hid them from view, with a small window at the top so the driver could still see through the rearview mirror. Satoru pressed an intercom and told the driver where they wanted to go, before letting go and flashing her a devilish smile.

“I’m glad you’re staying over,” she murmured in his ear, more focused on him than her seatbelt.

He looked at her, bright eyes suddenly a little clouded with desire. Shoko caught his lips with hers, heart racing in her chest. She suddenly felt desperate for him, and maybe that was the alcohol talking, but she felt her realisations about him had strengthened her resolve to make this work between them. She hadn’t known Satoru for long, but it also felt like she’d known him for a lifetime.

She let herself be bold tonight, let herself slide a hand along his leg. She let her thumb drift along his fly, in between his legs, and a deep groan hummed from deep in his throat. Shoko drew her lips from his, slowly and carefully rubbing his groin, and kissed along her throat, feeling his Adam’s apple move as he swallowed.

“Fuck, yes,” he let his head fall back, eyes glazed.

Shoko was kissing his jaw, he was getting hard, and her skin was beginning to warm up with the same flush of lust whenever they hung out. A part of her knew it was terrible that they couldn’t end a conversation without sex, but at the same time it was exciting. She loved this passion, loved how she could feel need and be needed at the same time. The odd pant left his mouth every now and then, but they were soon interrupted by a crackled voice from the intercom.

“We’re just now arriving, Mr Gojo.”

“Fuck,” Satoru breathed out, sitting up and kissing Shoko quickly before pushing the intercom with a quick, “OK,” and releasing it once more.

A little breathless, she averted her gaze to the tinted windows and, sure enough, they were just coming to a gradual stop outside of the bakery. Shoko inched out of the car, stepping out into the cold as Satoru followed after her. The car didn’t wait around, speeding off down the road, and Shoko didn’t want to wait, either. She was already heading to the back door, jamming the key into the lock. She couldn’t have gotten the door open quick enough.

As it swung open, Satoru lightly smacked her behind. She turned with a faux-affronted gape, but he was a beacon of confidence, shooting her a wink that made her legs feel like jelly. She stepped through the threshold, dumping her bag on the umbrella rack and letting Satoru wander back into her home that was too small for him. She hastily locked the door, telling herself that there was no way she would be coming back down to lock it later. She had barely dropped the keys into their dish when her centre of gravity flipped and she was in Satoru’s arms.

Staring at him in brief disbelief, her heart melted once more when he smashed his mouth to hers, carrying her upstairs.

“Through there,” she said breathlessly, pointing at her bedroom door.

He pushed the door open with his shoulder, biting on her neck with enough of a pleasant pain that told her a mark would be there next morning. Satoru threw her unceremoniously on her bed, and climbed over her, the blue fire behind his eyes that made her heart skip whenever she saw him looking at her with that burning intensity. He grabbed her wrists with an almost bruising force, pushing her arms up above her head.

“Didn’t you want a bad boy tonight?” he growled, and Shoko was sure her heart stopped for a moment.

Satoru caught her mouth again, his other hand pulling her underwear down. She couldn’t do anything, he had complete control of the situation. Her heart was hammering, drowning in this new and exciting experience. She couldn’t even run her hands through his soft hair, which was something she liked doing.

A soft whine escaped her mouth as he pushed her legs higher up still, grinding his hips harshly against her. She let out another soft cry as he thumbed her clit. She tried to shift, but her arms were pinned tight beneath his hand. He was rubbing with a desperate force, and Shoko could already feel she was wet from the way his thumb kept slipping in his eagerness. The only thing she could do was lift her hips up to meet his hand, moaning softly into his kisses.

He unzipped his fly and thrust into her without warning. She wailed against his lips as he set a brutal pace. Satoru gripped her lower jaw, turning her head towards him when she had tried to bury her face in her sheets.

“Look at me,” he said in a low, serious voice. “And be quiet.”

He pushed his fingers past her lips, heel of his hand keeping her head in place. She was fairly sure she was orgasming, but only because it felt like there was a strong surge of static energy buzzing through her body. She was drooling around his fingers, a complete mess, dress bunched up around her waist as he railed her. Any gentleness from before was gone; she was completely his and she was OK with it. She didn’t dare look away from his eyes, so clear, not when he was being so domineering, and she would be lying if she said she didn’t like him like this.

Her body was screaming, but all she could focus on was that Satoru looked like he was in heaven. His eyes were heavily lidded, lips parted as he pumped in between her legs, cheeks flushed pink with the need for her . She felt almost proud for having unravelled him so much, despite his collected demeanour throughout the day. Her moans were muffled by his hand, each of his pants was warm on her face as he worked on shattering her. He bared his teeth, a groan trying to leave his throat as he thrust through his own orgasm.

“Fuck…” he dropped his head a fraction, and finally took his hand out of her mouth, trailing a string of drool down her chin as he did so. “You’re a mess. I kinda like you like this.”

“God, that was…” she couldn’t formulate words.

He finally lifted his body weight from her, and she strained her wrists, sitting up, legs trembling. He kissed her again as he buttoned up his boxers.

“You’re so beautiful,” he smiled, and for once it wasn’t an arrogant or cheeky grin, but something that lit up his features and made her want him even more.

Shoko panted out an incoherent response, edging off the bed and straightening her dress out. She grabbed the shirt she had borrowed from him on that fateful Wednesday, and dashed into her bathroom to get changed. She briefly considered a quick shower, but decided she would much rather sleep. Tomorrow was a new day, and she wasn’t opening the bakery. She threw on his shirt and a clean pair of underwear, before wandering out once more.

Satoru had made himself comfortable on one side of the bed, longs legs stretched out as he browsed his phone. He looked at almost approvingly as she wandered over and sat beside him. Before she could settle down, he caught her chin in a hand and kissed her, slow and meaningful, and she was sure her insides melted once more. It didn’t take long to sleep that night, settling down in Satoru’s arms, breathing in his scent, and embracing the pleasant tingling of her body.

When she woke up, the sun was streaming, golden, in through the window. She turned her head and saw Satoru was still there, fast asleep. He really was too good to be true. She rolled over to study him better, flinching at a slight pain in her arm. Glancing down, she saw the faint outlines of his finger marks as a light bruise. When she looked up, he had opened one beautiful blue eye, unfocused with sleep.

“Did I wake you?” she murmured.

He only hummed, pulling her into his arms and kissing her. She traced her fingers along his skin, tasting him with this sweet, slow and sensual kiss.

“Look what you did to me,” she said softly when they broke apart, showing him one of her wrists.

“I didn’t mean to,” he mumbled, gently kissing her wrist and then pulling her in close again.

It was innocent at first, but then Satoru’s hand drifted underneath the shirt she wore, playing with the hem of her underwear. Sighing against his mouth, she shimmied out and he pulled her leg over his hip. Shoko gave a small gasp when he entered her, still sensitive from last night, but this time she could curl her fingers through his hair. This was far more gentle, anyway, more gentle than any other time they’d had sex. He was moving in and out of her thighs, mumbling compliments under his breath as he caressed her body and kissed her throat. She had always believed sleepy morning sex was only from the movies, but this was real and it felt good. She blew out a shuddering breath as her sensitivised body reached a peak, and buried her face into Satoru’s hair, holding him tight to her. He held her more firmly, his movements becoming a little quicker, each thrust sending tingles through her body.

“I-” she tried to catch her words as he knocked into her. “I really like you, Satoru.”

He made a noise, slowing his pace once more as his hips shuddered against hers. Her heart was hammering in her chest. Had she really said that aloud? She had probably been too forward, and there was no way she expected him to respond in kind. Still, they held on to each other, Satoru’s heavy breathing slowly evening out.

He raised his face, blinking blearily and pulled her into another slow kiss. There was a slight sweat on their bodies, and she had never felt closer to someone in her life. He drew back a fraction, so they lay facing each other, limbs tangled and noses almost touching. He looked so serene, so relaxed, and his blue eyes looked like a summery sky. She felt like she was on holiday just looking into them.

“I really like you, too,” he said.

Chapter Text

Monday flew by as Shoko busied herself in the bakery. Satoru didn’t stay in the house much during the day, dashing off for “boring work” as he forlornly reminded her on his way out. He had already left for the day when Shoko was busying herself at the desk on Tuesday morning. The bell chimed and she raised her head, smiling as Kento wandered in, his same rigid self, as though interacting with anything bothered him.

“Morning, Kento!” Shoko beamed. “What can I -” She paused, seeing a slight crease on his forehead. “Is everything OK?”

“With me, yes,” he replied, browsing the sandwiches. “I suppose you haven’t seen the disturbing news on TV?”

“What’s this about?” she frowned.

“A young man was found dead in his apartment late last night,” Kento shook his head. “He was in bed, dead, but friends reported they hadn’t seen or heard from him in a few days.”

“That’s awful…” she grimaced. “Was it a… you know.”

“Suicide? No,” Kento said matter-of-factly. “He was murdered. The report said his head was beaten so badly that he was unrecognisable.”

“That’s crazy,” she gawked.

“There was no forced entry, and as for security footage, there was a power cut in the area and, following that, the cameras in the hallways and entryway were covered in duct tape,” Kento explained.

“So it was completely premeditated?” she took the phone he offered her showing the article.

“Definitely,” Kento said. “And the killer seems to be someone experienced. Apparently, they made an initial hit in his living room, because there’s a bloodtrail to his bedroom. Then they wrapped his head in bedsheets to muffle the following blows. There were no traces of fingerprints, and the apartment had been vacuumed and bleached.”

“That’s so messed up,” she shuddered.

“His skull was completely shattered,” Kento continued. “Police reckon he was hit repeatedly with a heavy, flat object. I’m thinking a pan or a bat of some kind.”

“That’s…”

Shoko felt her entire body freeze, hand gripping the phone far too tight. She was looking at the article, her mouth hanging open as she looked at the pictures and read the contents. It wasn’t like she was looking at graphic content; no photos of the crime scene existed, naturally, and even if they had, Shoko was used to working with gore. No, it was something far worse that made her stop scrolling. The smiling face of the victim was looking back at her from the screen, a face that was horribly familiar.

“Haruta?” she felt her hand trembling as she stared at the phone.

“Yes, Haruta Shigemo,” Kento said. “That’s the name of the victim.”

She felt her breath had been sucked out. All she could do was stand there, mouthing at the picture.

“Police are asking for anyone to report anything if they’ve seen something that might be related,” Kento said, but then shook his head. “But they reckon the time of death was between Friday night and Saturday night. Decomposition has made things extra difficult, so I’m not even sure they’ve got forty-eight hours before the case goes cold.”

Haruta, dead. Friday night, the day she had been attacked. The cause of death, blunt force trauma. She raised her head from the phone, passing it back to him. She could hear her heart beating, could feel her breaths passing through her body. Kento reckoned it may have been a pan or a bat.

“I need to get to the police station,” she mumbled, taking off her apron and dumping it on the side.

Kento blinked quizzically. “Do you know something?”

“Yes, I think I do,” she hurriedly passed him a cheese and cucumber sandwich, taking his payment and dumping it in the till. “I’m going to have to close for a bit.”

“I’m sorry if I upset you, talking about it,” Kento said uncertainly.

“No, no, I’m actually glad you did,” she threw on a light jacket. “Sorry to rush you out like this. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”

“Most likely, if the bakery’s open,” Kento didn’t seem wholly convinced, but he left, the bell chiming behind him.

Shoko hurriedly locked the bakery, flipping the sign “CLOSED” and rushing towards the house phone. She automatically called Suguru, her go-to when panic was closing in.

“Shoko?” he was quick to answer. “Everything OK?”

“Yeah, I guess, I need a lift to the police station,” she said hurriedly.

“Have you seen the man again?” his voice became alert.

“No, nothing like that!” she said. “It’s about the news report earlier. I know the victim, and I think he was killed by that guy who was following me?”

“You think the two are related?” Suguru asked.

“Definitely! Even the murder weapon can be linked to Black Hoodie.”

“Can you wait until my lunch break?” he sounded uncertain. “I know it’s not another few hours, but I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she swallowed. “I’ll get someone else to drive me instead.”

“If you’re sure, but call me again if something else comes up,” he had barely finished the sentence when she nodded and disconnected the call.

She was about to call Satoru when she remembered… His number wasn’t on the house phone, nor could she remember it. She floundered for a little bit, because Utahime and Mei Mei would both be at work, too. How was she supposed to get in contact with Satoru without a number? She chewed on her nails, and then an idea popped to her mind.

Shoko dashed to the back of the house, phone in hand, and dived down in front of the shared home computer. She looked up the Paradise Supreme and phoned their number. After a few rings, a woman’s voice answered from the other side.

“Good morning, you are calling Tokyo Paradise Supreme, how can I help you?”

“I need to speak with one of the residents,” Shoko shot up from her chair and began to pace. “I’m a friend, and I recently lost my phone, and -”

“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am, but we value confidentiality here at Tokyo Paradise Supreme,” the woman interrupted. “I cannot give out our customer’s information. I can, however, pass on any messages you might have, and it will be the resident’s decision to contact you.”

“See, it’s kind of an emergency, and -”

“I really can’t pass on valuable information,” the woman said, sternly this time. “If you have a message, however, I am more than happy to pass it on.”

“OK, fine, I need you to send a memo to Satoru…” she racked her brain for his surname, “...Gojo.”

There was a pause, and then, “May I ask who’s speaking?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Er, my name is Shoko Ieiri.”

“Of course, my deepest apologies, Miss Ieiri,” the woman’s tone became significantly lighter. “Mr Gojo is currently in a meeting, and won’t be available for another hour. I can either pass on a message, or if it was a lift you were wanting, I can arrange one for you.”

Shoko stared around her kitchen. What on earth was going on?

“Miss Ieiri?”

“Yeah, I’m here, I mean, yeah, OK, I do need a lift, so…”

“In that case, may I please have your address?”

Shoko was quick to tell her.

“A vehicle will be with you shortly, Miss Ieiri,” the woman said. “Was there anything specific you wanted me to tell Mr Gojo when his schedule is free?”

“Um, no, that’s everything, thanks,” Shoko blinked, still baffled.

“In that case, have a wonderful day, Miss Ieiri,” the woman chirped, and hung up.

Shoko stared at her house phone. There were so many questions running in her head. At the same time, though, she couldn’t stand there idling. She crammed the phone back into its holder, threw her bag over her shoulder and grabbed her keys on the way out, being careful to lock up as she went. She hurried to the pavement and impatiently waited until, sure enough, the same sleek car trundled up the road, coming to a stop in front of her. She could see her reflection in the car.

Hurrying up to the car, she threw open the passenger door and leapt inside. The thin man, Satoru’s PA, was poised to open his own door and let her in the back, and had turned wide eyes towards her.

“Sorry,” she closed the door behind her, “but I really need to get to the police station.”

“Of course,” he looked mildly alarmed, but asked no questions, instead setting off at a safe pace.

“Sorry you have to come out all this way,” she rambled, fiddling with the hem of her jacket sleeve. “I would’ve called Satoru but I lost my mobile and I don’t have his number. But then, I guess that woman from the Paradise Supreme said he was in a meeting. Everyone else I know is at work. I was supposed to be running the bakery, but then I saw the news and I just knew something had to be said…”

Kiyotaka looked at her nervously. “Is everything OK, Miss Ieiri?”

“Shoko,” she said, “and I just need to get to the police about the Haruta Shigemo murder. I don’t think I could sit with myself knowing that I could’ve said something and left it until later.”

“Of course,” Kiyotaka said.

He wasn’t very talkative, so she idled the rest of the car journey worrying at her clothes. Every second that ticked by was valuable time for Haruta’s memory. She still couldn’t believe that it really was him, but she had seen his photos and his name had been on the print. What was the last thing she had said to him? Was it nice? She couldn’t remember, and that didn’t help to make her feel any better. She finally felt the first tears bubbling at her eyes, blurring her vision. What if… what if Haruta had died because of her ?

“Miss Iei- Shoko… if something is troubling you, or perhaps someone, then I am more than happy to alert Mr Gojo immediately,” Kiyotaka said. “I can at least reassure you by saying that he would prioritise you over the meeting.”

She drew in a shuddering breath. “No, best not. I really don’t want to interrupt his work. I’m just a little nervous about talking to the police, I suppose…”

Would she be better at explaining things this time? Or would she stammer and use words like “pinwheel” that felt out of context, and made them furrow their brows? It had been six years, six long years, and she was just getting memories of a warm summer’s night with a slight breeze, a Tuesday she could never forget.

“Whatever business you have with the police, then Mr Gojo can arrange a lawyer,” Kiyotaka said. “He knows the best of the best.”

“I haven’t committed a crime,” she rubbed her eyes glumly. “I’m giving information about one.”

“In that case, I think you’ll be fine,” Kiyotaka offered her a reassuring smile, and somehow Shoko felt a little braver.

“Thanks,” her voice sounded a little rough.

They reached the police station much sooner than she had expected or hoped, and a lump began to rise in her throat. A part of her wanted to back out, but this wasn’t about her. It was about Haruta.

“I’ll wait out here for you, unless given further instruction,” Kiyotaka said, and Shoko nodded, getting shakily out of the car and heading inside.

A few people milled around to give police reports, a bored woman at the receptionist typing at her computer and looking at people dully when they approached her. There were out of date magazines for anyone who wanted to read whilst waiting, but Shoko sped past and joined the queue for those wanting to give reports. The wait was agonising, and when she finally made it to the front, the withering look she received almost wilted her.

“How can I help you?” the officer asked impatiently.

“I think I have some information about Haruta Shigemo’s case?” Shoko bit her lip nervously, watching the officer perk up with interest.

“I’ll contact Detective Wada immediately,” she said. “He’ll be with you very soon. In the meantime, just take a seat.”

Shoko wandered away woodenly, dropping down into a chair beside the magazines. It was only then that she took an interest in them. They really were out of date, some dating back over five years ago. She flipped through, seeing a range from sports to fashion, but a brilliant blue cover of an economics magazine caught Shoko’s eye. She tugged it out, and her jaw almost fell to the floor. She was staring at the front page of a magazine, but she was also seeing Satoru. It was an edition from three years ago, so he looked a little bit younger, but there he was, on the front page, and his name in big letters: “SATORU GOJO”. She was about to grab it and read more, when a man approached her and cleared his throat.

She looked up, seeing a man in his forties, hair already beginning to go a little grey and lines on his face.

“Detective Wada,” he said, offering a hand. “I’ve been told you wanted to speak with me.”

“Yes,” Shoko shot to her feet, dropping the magazine back down, “I -”

“Not here, Miss,” he said. “In a private room.”

Slowly, she nodded, and followed him through the station. Questioning eyes followed her. She kept her gaze focused on the back of the man’s head, telling herself that if she looked over she might see judgement.

They dipped into an interrogation room. Shoko suddenly felt like a criminal, nervously wringing her wrists as she lowered herself onto a chair.

“Can I get you a coffee?” the man asked, and she nodded, throat tight. He left, the door clicking shut behind her.

She glanced around. It really was a regular interrogation room, with a big glass window on one side. That didn’t make her feel better about this situation, but at least it was a more controlled condition than the previous witness report she had provided. She tried her best to settle down, even though she felt nothing but rising panic the longer she sat there. The man returned, setting down two coffees on the table and sitting across from her.

“You’re not in trouble, Miss,” he said reassuringly. “These interrogation rooms are just the best for interviews such as these. I was told you had something to say about the Shigemo murder.”

“That’s right,” Shoko sipped her coffee, flinching at the heat.

“Can I get your name?” he asked, pen hovering a piece of paper.

“Shoko Ieiri.”

“OK, then, Miss Ieiri,” said Detective Wada, “what did you want to say?”

“I think I might have an idea on who might have killed Haruta,” she said nervously.

Detective Wada stilled and looked at her curiously. “You knew the victim?”

“Haruta,” she said, a little more forcefully than intended. “And yes, I knew him.”

“How did you two know one another?” he was writing down everything she was saying.

“We go to the same university,” she said. “We met at the library when we were both working on assignments.”

“What do you study?” he cast her a shrewd look.

“Medicine,” she replied. “I’m in training to be a doctor.”

“Tell me, then,” he tapped his pen on the paper. “How might you know who killed the victim?”

“Haruta,” she said firmly, and then, “I was with him Friday evening. It was the last day of term, so everyone had handed in their assignments. There was an event at the student bar; I arrived at about nine and I met Haruta there.”

“Was Haruta showing any suspicious behaviour?”

“No, he seemed fine,” she said forlornly.

“And what time did the event end?” Detective Wada asked.

“I’m sure it went on well past midnight, but I left just before eleven,” she admitted.

“With Haruta?”

“No, he stayed with his other friends,” Shoko said. “I wasn’t feeling my best. I left without him.”

“But you saw him again later?”

“No, but I think I encountered a man who might have killed him,” she swallowed nervously, memorising the night clearly. “He attacked me with a cricket bat.”

Now Detective Wada looked interested. His pen became poised. “A cricket bat?”

“Yes, but the same man had also been following me prior to Friday night,” Shoko shifted in her chair. “He tried to follow me home, and then on Friday, after attacking me, I think he tried to kidnap me.”

“And you think this is related to Haruta?” he looked sceptical.

“I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t read the report about potential murder weapons,” Shoko fidgeted. “But it just feels a bit too much of a coincidence that someone with a cricket bat attacked me on the same night that Haruta… well, might have…”

“This person in question… can you describe him?”

“Yes, he was about five feet nine or ten, quite slim, but strong enough to lift an adult woman,” she watched him scribble this all down. “He was wearing a black hoodie and dark jeans - the hood was pulled really low over his face, so I couldn’t see, and he wore a face mask on the lower half of his face.”

“Can you tell me anything else?” the detective prompted. “What did he sound like? What’s his ethnicity? Could you tell his age?”

“He was probably a younger man,” Shoko shrugged, “but he was wearing gloves, so I couldn’t tell you anything else about him.”

“So this man attacked you on Friday night, and you then think he went after Haruta?”

“I’m not really sure, but I know the man was following me, so I… I guess I was just worried that he might have followed me to campus,” Shoko said nervously. “And if that were the case, maybe he saw me with Haruta and… well, I don’t know his motives, but maybe he attacked Haruta because I knew him?”

“And you say this man attacked you with a cricket bat?” Detective Wada asked.

“Yes, in fact, actually, there’s still a mark,” she said, pushing aside her hair and wiping at her foundation to show the faded bruise. “I did give a report about this on Friday, and I gave in my keys since I’d used those to hit the attacker.”

“Is that so?” the detective made a note of that. “Do you know which officers you made this report to?”

“An older woman, and a younger woman - a very young woman, actually,” Shoko said. “I don’t remember their names, sorry.”

“No worries, no worries at all,” Detective Wada said. “And what happened after you were attacked, Miss Ieiri?”

“I managed to escape, and I had a friend who had been waiting to pick me up,” she said. “I was in hospital for the night, and I didn’t hear from Haruta again after I’d left the bar.”

“You never heard from him again?”

“No.”

“And you’re certain that you left the bar at approximately eleven o’clock at night?”

“Fifteen minutes, give or take,” she said nervously.

“This has been incredibly helpful, Miss Ieiri,” the detective clicked his pen shut. “You did the right thing coming to us as soon as possible, and we all hope that this information leads us to finding out who attacked Haruta.”

She nodded thickly, rising to her feet as he did, and shaking his hand.

“May I take a contact number?” he asked. “Just in case we have any further inquiries?”

“Yeah, of course,” she said. “I don’t have a mobile at the moment, but here’s my house number.”

She jotted it down, before he thanked her with another handshake. Shoko numbly walked from the interrogation room and, when pointed in the right direction, feebly made her way out of the police station. She couldn’t believe she had managed to give an interview without messing up. She had explained the situation perfectly, had answered his questions, had provided all the information she knew. She felt more positive, knowing that there was a chance Haruta would get justice for what happened to him.

When she stepped out of the building, she initially froze in shock. Kiyotaka’s car was gone, and she had no means of contacting anyone without a phone. Shoko was about to rush back inside the station and beg for a phone, until she saw Suguru’s reliable car parked nearby. Her heart soared - how had Kiyotaka known to contact him? And there was Suguru, leaning against the car. Although he looked relaxed, scrolling through his phone, she could see a slight crease between his eyebrows that told her he was worried.

“Hei!” she beamed, rushing forwards and he looked up just in time to catch her as she flung her arms around him. “How did Kiyotaka get your number?”

“Kiyotaka?” he looked clueless.

“Yeah, he drove me here.”

“I just headed here as soon as it was my lunch break,” he patted her head, exasperated. “After that cryptic call, I figured you might need a pick-me-up snack afterwards.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” she muttered.

“Is everything OK, though?” he asked ently. “Coming here can’t have been easy for you.”

“If it’s alright, maybe we can talk about it over that sna-”

“Shoko.”

She whipped her head around. Just along the road, another car she hadn’t noticed had been sat there, and Satoru had stepped out. He was smiling widely, but Shoko could see it was strained, as though he had to force on a jovial expression. He had sunglasses on, so she couldn’t see his eyes, but Shoko had a sinking impression that his gaze was cold.

And he seemed to be looking at Suguru.

Chapter Text

The atmosphere felt almost… icy. Shoko felt the uncanny need to stop hugging Suguru, to take a dignified step back and keep a cordial distance. Satoru’s body was rigid, his hands in his pockets in a vain attempt to hide his emotions, but his jaw was set tight as he kept that achingly fake smile plastered on his face. He was walking towards them with his shoulders raised and squared, but there was nothing about him that was welcoming or friendly. Suguru wasn’t much better; he was tense, his face flooded with curiosity and wariness. Shoko could already tell he was becoming aloof and distant, which was the last thing she wanted between her best friend and the guy she was seeing.

“Satoru,” she managed a weak smile, “what are you doing here?”

He tilted his head as he came to a stop before them, standing just a bit taller than Suguru and, with his head raised, he seemed to be making a point of it.

He tilted his head. “Kiyotaka told me you had to go to the police station. I came as soon as I could.”

“Right, sorry about that,” she frowned. “It wasn’t anything, really, I was just giving a report. You didn’t have to come, although I appreciate it.”

“I figured I would take over from Kiyotaka,” his tone was a little cold. “I didn’t think you would have someone else coming to pick you up.”

“Shoko called me but I was at work,” Suguru said, his tone clipped, and it was then that Shoko realised he was far cooler than she had thought. “It’s my lunch break, so of course I came here to see if she was alright.”

“How funny - it looks like we had the same agenda!” Satoru’s smile thinned even more.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect either of you to arrive,” she moved forward to give Satoru a reassuring one-armed hug. “As I said, I appreciate it, even if you’ve made a wasted journey.”

Satoru put an arm around her, pulling her close to his side, but he was still looking at Suguru. “It’s never a wasted journey. I’ll be giving you a lift home, after all.”

“I was going to grab lunch with Shoko, so I’m happy to drop her off home,” Suguru replied.

“You should probably focus more on getting back to work,” Satoru’s voice dripped venom. “I’ve got a few hours, so I’ll take Shoko home.”

“I’m going to get a taxi at this rate,” she scowled.

Suguru glanced at her. “Well, I’m sure you can get her home safe and all.”

Satoru seemed irritated by the remark. “I don’t know you, do I?”

“This is -”

“No, we haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet,” Suguru said. “I’m Suguru, a friend of Shoko’s.”

“A friend?” Satoru almost smirked. “How delightful ~”

“Yeah, since childhood,” Shoko gritted her teeth. “We grew up tog-”

“She hasn’t mentioned you,” Satoru continued over her, shrugging loftily. Arrogantly.

“Actually, I -”

“I’ll presume you’re the Paradise Supreme guy,” Suguru said. “I’d love to say I knew your name… but Shoko hasn’t said.”

“Satoru,” said Satoru, jaw clenched.

Shoko raised her eyes to the sky, praying for two well-aimed bolts of lightning.

“It was wonderful to meet you, Satoru ,” Suguru said in a way that was heavily laced with sarcasm. He then glanced at Shoko. “I’ll see you some other time, OK?”

“We’ll talk later,” she said firmly.

He lifted a hand and wandered to the car. It was only when he closed the door that Satoru released his vice-like hold of her shoulders.

“Satoru,” she turned coolly towards him, but he was already striding towards the car once more. “What the fuck was that?”

“I should be asking you that,” he sat in the car and stared at her from behind his sunglasses, waiting.

Heaving out a sigh, Shoko stepped into the car. She noted how he gripped the steering wheel, as though he might wrench it from the car at any second. He was now watching Suguru’s car, which was now pulling away from the parking lot.

“What’s your issue?” Shoko scowled.

“Who is he?” Satoru finally looked at her, eyes still hidden behind his sunglasses.

“If you’re asking whether I’m seeing him behind your back, then no, I’m not,” she said coolly, pulling her seatbelt across. “Suguru and I have known each other since we were toddlers. He’s my best friend.”

“You’ve never mentioned him before,” he said quietly.

“I have, just not by name,” Shoko felt her own jaw tighten.

“And you two are… close?”

“Of course we are,” Shoko said. “What do you think “best friend” means?”

“You didn’t tell me you were friends with -”

“A guy? Are you kidding me?” she stared at him in disbelief. “You seriously have that little trust in me?”

“Don’t turn this on me,” he looked disgruntled.

“No, I am, because I’m allowed to be friends with whoever I like,” Shoko argued. “Hei has been my best friend for seventeen years , I’ve known you a week . If you’re seriously gonna pull some choosing bullshit on me, then I’ll choose him any day of the week over you.”

“I wasn’t going to make you choose,” Satoru replied curtly.

“You were a real arsehole to him,” she scowled.

“He was an arsehole to me.”

“Only because you stropped out of the car all macho,” Shoko pointed out. “What did you want to achieve?”

“I was jealous, OK?” he looked irritated.

“Clearly, which is why I’m just asking you to trust me ,” she reached forward and lifted his sunglasses from his face.

There was a deep sadness in his beautiful blue eyes. In fact, she was fairly sure she could see a reluctant vulnerability, a great hesitation to let her see him like this. She was still annoyed at him, but the feelings were hard to keep when looking at the honest hurt written across his face.

“I do trust you,” he said quietly, far softer now. “I don’t trust him .”

Shoko barked out a forced laugh. “Seriously? If Hei had ever had feelings for me, he would’ve said something by now. We really are just friends.”

“You have a special name for him,” Satoru averted his gaze from her face, mouth twisting into an almost petulant grimace. “His name is Suguru, but you call him “Hei”...”

“Satoru, look at me,” he met her gaze once more. ““Hei” is short for “heikin”. It’s a play on his name, since Suguru means “great”...”

“And “heikin” means “average”...” he looked dumbstruck.

“He’s good at everything, so someone had to put him down a peg when we were kids,” Shoko shrugged.

“I feel a bit dumb, now,” a slight blush appeared on his cheeks.

“Look, I think we should still talk about what happened, but we’ll do that at my place,” he put his sunglasses on her forehead.

The drive back to her home was quiet. Neither of them seemed especially keen to have small talk, and Satoru kept swallowing uncomfortably. She could see him glance at her a few times from her peripheral vision, but she didn’t dare make eye contact, lest she feel sorry for him again. When they returned to the bakery, Satoru followed her almost obediently to the kitchen, where she made them tea and sat across from him at the kitchen table. She watched nervously as he grabbed a handful of sugar cubes and dropped them into his cup.

“So…” she managed eventually, turning her cup round and round in her hands. “What happened back there wasn’t OK.”

“I said I was sorry,” Satoru stirred his tea with a furrowed brow.

“There’s still things we need to discuss,” Shoko persisted. “Listen, you can’t be getting jealous of other guys just because they talk to me, or are my friends. That’s not healthy for either of us.”

“I can’t help it,” he lifted his shoulders. “I just like you.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “That’s not an excuse. Quite frankly, I find it a bit offensive that you think I’d be charmed by any man who approaches me.”

“Come on, Shoko, that’s not what I was thinking at all.”

“Then what were you thinking?” she blew out a breath. “ Talk to me.”

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

“And you thought Suguru would hurt me?”

“What if you meet someone you like more than me?” he averted his gaze, sipping his tea. “We’ve been investing in… whatever we are… but what if someone comes along and you like him better?”

“Then I would tell you, and call things off,” she said, her voice low, and he looked at her in surprise. “I wouldn’t lie to you and go behind your back, I’m not that kind of person. These are all hypotheticals anyway, and…” Shoko breathed out a sigh, then stretched an arm across the table to take one of his hands. “I said I liked you the other day, and I really did mean it. I’m not sure why you’re so insecure, but whenever I think of “us”, I’m thinking of the positives.”

He was looking at their hands, twining his fingers with hers absent-mindedly.

“I know you can’t help how you feel, but don’t take it out on others,” she continued. “And if something’s really bothering you to the point you can’t look past it, then tell me. We’ll only go round in circles if we don’t talk properly.”

“I want this to work,” he said quietly, lifting her hand up to his cheek and closing his eyes.

“Then let’s not ruin it with silly envies,” she looked at the way his long, white lashes fanned against his skin, “and I will be honest with you, Satoru, it’s really important to me that the guy I’m seeing gets along with Suguru. He’s a big part of my life.”

“I trust you, Shoko,” he opened his eyes, a brilliant cerulean sky looking back at her, and gave her a soft smile. “You make me happy.”

Her heart fluttered in her chest and she smiled, despite herself. No one had ever looked at her like this, as though she were important and lovable, as though she were the best thing on the planet. Yet here was a beautiful man, looking deep into her eyes with such a strong emotion that she felt almost a little overwhelmed.

“I want to be the best for you,” he continued gently. “I’m glad we talked, and I’ll make amends with Suguru.”

“There’s something else I want to talk to you about,” she framed her palm against his cheek, watching uncertainty creep back into his eyes. “About us.”

“Shoko…”

“It’s not a bad thing,” she said reassuringly. “You need to know that whilst we’ve been texting and whatnot, I haven’t been talking or seeing anyone else.”

“I haven’t, either,” he relaxed visibly.

“Yeah, so maybe we could think about… you know,” suddenly it felt like the words didn’t want to leave her mouth, “...being exclusive?”

Satoru sat up straighter. “You wanna be exclusive? Like… dating?”

“Maybe not dating , but yes, exclusive,” Shoko said. “I know we haven’t been seeing anyone else, but I guess saying it in words makes it feel a bit more, I don’t know, official?”

“Can I at least be an ICE contact for now?” he grinned, tilting his head.

“When I get a new mobile, yeah, sure,” she sipped her tea.

“What happened to your other one?” his brows furrowed again.

“I dropped it on Friday night,” she said. “I think that creep took it.”

“I was wondering why you weren’t responding so much…”

“Yeah, stop texting that number, it’s gone,” she chuckled.

He clucked his tongue emphatically. “All those nudes I sent…”

“You idiot,” she almost choked on her tea. “If you keep making shitty jokes like that, I’m finding someone funnier than you won’t be hard at all.”

“I’m just very happy, right now,” he seemed unable to wipe the smile from his face.

“You idiot.”

Despite what had happened, Shoko felt things could be OK. Satoru stayed over, and although he offered to sleep on the sofa, Shoko was more than happy to let him sleep in her room. It was the first time they’d slept in the same bed without anything happening. Satoru held her from behind, and it felt reassuring to be cocooned by him. With his soft, rhythmic breathing on the back of her neck, Shoko didn’t take long to fall asleep.

When she woke up the next day, his arm was still loosely slung over her waist. It was nice, lying in bed on a golden Wednesday morning. His hair looked a light blonde under the brilliant light, lips soft and parted slightly, and he looked utterly peaceful. Shoko fondly wondered what he dreamt of as she carefully sat up, looking down at him. She gently brushed her fingers along his soft hair, and kissed his forehead. She didn’t want to wake him up, but she couldn’t help but feel a rush of affection whenever she looked at him.

Shoko sat up and checked her phone. She had woken up just a bit before her alarm, which she promptly turned off so as not to disturb Satoru’s sleep. She checked her texts, popped a few generic ones to show Utahime and Mei Mei she was still alive, and sent a quick explanation to Suguru that she had spoken to Satoru. She really didn’t want them to dislike one another. It meant a lot to her that Suguru got on well with whoever she dated, and she was sure he felt the same way. She couldn’t imagine a day Suguru walked through the door with someone she didn’t like.

The bed shifted and Satoru kissed her neck, arm circling around her midriff.

“Good morning,” she smiled, closing her eyes and tilting her head to expose her neck to him more.

He hummed a response, then put pressure on her arm with his arm, pushing her down and leaning over her. He found her mouth, kissing her sleepily, and Shoko would be lying if she didn’t say her heart picked up speed a little. His hands found their way underneath her shirt, and he pushed a knee in between her legs. Shoko patted him on the shoulder twice and he lifted his lips from hers, eyes unfocused as he searched her face.

“I have to open up the bakery,” she said.

“Not for another hour,” he mumbled, and was about to dive back in for another kiss until she put a finger to his lips.

“I’m using that hour to shower and have breakfast,” Shoko smiled.

“I suppose I have things to do today, too,” he murmured, but he didn’t move.

“Then get off, you big lump,” she sat up on her elbows and gave him a quick kiss on the lips.

“You can’t spare half an hour?” he tilted his head mischievously.

“Not even for you, hun,” she slipped out from underneath him, smiling over her shoulder at the bewildered expression on his face.

She hopped in the shower, embracing the warm jets, and stepped out fresh once more. She pulled on jeans and a top, wandering out towelling her hair down. Satoru was on his phone in the middle of the room, and looked up to see her there. He smiled warmly, kissing her on the cheek as she wandered past.

“I’ll see you later, ‘kay?” he beamed warmly.

“You don’t want breakfast?” she glanced.

“As much as I love the idea of you cooking for me in the morning, I should get a move on,” he shook his head with a false solemnity. “I’ll see you later, Shoko.” He strode across the room, but paused in the doorway, glancing over his shoulder. “Is it OK if I bring a spare toothbrush here, by the way?”

“I mean, bring what you want,” Shoko smiled, trying not to feel shy about it. “It’s more than enough that you’re staying here, so feel free to bring anything you need.”

He smiled one last time before slipping out of the room. She heard the front door open and close, and sprang into action. Setting up the bakery didn’t take long once she was ready, flipping the sign “OPEN” and busying herself with starting up her next baking projects. She was in the middle of kneading bread dough when a bell chimed at exactly nine, and she knew it would be Kento dropping by.

She wandered out and, sure enough, her star customer was already perusing the sandwiches. Shoko could now understand why her father knew Kento so well, and how he seemed to have an in-depth knowledge of their most recent news.

“Morning, Kento,” she said, striding behind the counter and pulling on gloves. “Had a good day yesterday?”

“You seem to be doing much better,” he commented.

Shoko hesitated. Was it bad that she had woken up in a good mood, when just yesterday someone she knew had been killed? Perhaps so, but a part of her had felt better ever since she had spoken with the police. It was almost as though she could tell herself that she didn’t need to feel bad for possibly being involved, that she had helped find justice just as much as she may have doomed him.

“I guess so,” she said carefully. “It’s a little bit weird, thinking that yesterday actually happened, but… I guess the past can’t be changed.”

“Did your journey to the police station go OK?”

“Yeah, I talked to them about stuff,” she looked up with a wrinkled nose. “I’m not sure I’m allowed to disclose it, but it’s not like you’re a suspect, so… I gave them some descriptions of someone suspicious who was at the university campus on Friday night.”

“Is that so?” Kento shifted uncomfortably.

“Yeah, and this guy had tried to follow me home not long ago,” she shook her head. “It’s mad, but I figured it had to be him, since he… well, he made an attempt to attack me on Friday night.”

“Really?” Kento blinked. “How come your father hasn’t come home?”

“I didn’t need him worrying about me,” Shoko said. “He already does enough of that, and I’ve got a plethora of people here in Tokyo who could be professional worriers. Nothing really happened at the end of the day, so it felt pointless to make him come back early.”

“If you’re sure,” Kento shrugged. “Do you think the man might be connected? They say that most murders are committed by people you know.”

“It seems too weird to be a coincidence,” she selected his favourite cheese and cucumber sandwich and started packing it neatly into a box. “I was on campus Friday night to meet up with Haruta, that man had been previously following me; the way I see it, he attacked Haruta because he knew I was meeting up with him.”

“It all seems rather complicated,” he said. “And after that you still didn’t want to tell your dad? I’m sure Kiyoshi wouldn’t mind returning.”

“That’s the problem - I don’t want him to cut his trip short,” Shoko said. “Not only is he doing work down in Kyoto, but he’s also visiting my grandparents. They’re getting older, so I think it’s important that he sees them when he can.”

“Kiyoshi was talking about expanding to Kyoto, like a sister branch,” Kento mused. “Will he still work here, or will he move to Kyoto?”

“Don’t worry, Dad definitely doesn’t have plans to change his base of operations,” Shoko smiled, sealing the sandwich pack up. “He loves it here in Tokyo, and by the time he moves anywhere else, it’ll only be because he’s retired anyway.”

“I suppose he’ll have some concerns once he sees the news about the murder,” Kento said. “After all, he’ll notice that the student went to the same university as you.”

“I suspect the only reason he hasn’t seen anything yet is because he’s been settling into the apartment he’s staying at, and then he’s been busy with work,” Shoko winced. “I’m going to get a lot of questions once he sees it on the news.”

“Perhaps you should tell him before the television does?”

She tapped her chin in thought, just as the shop door opened and Satoru strode in, a radiant smile on his face. He strode up to the counter, not even looking at Kento and put a wrapped gift on the counter.

“For you ~”

Shoko blinked. So did Kento.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Open it!” he said eagerly.

He rested his elbows on the counter, watching with childlike enthusiasm as Shoko picked up the rectangular box. She gave it a little shake, but the only noise was a slight clunking. She pulled the wrapping off and almost fainted on the spot.

On the front of a sleek black box was the HTC logo. Earlier that year, an incredible phone called the HTC Desire had been launched, and had quickly become greater than its competitors. Mei Mei had one, and was often talking about how it had cost her roughly sixty-thousand.

Shoko looked at Satoru in horror. “I can’t accept this.”

His face fell. “Why not? You told me you don’t have a mobile.”

“This is too much,” she pushed the box back across the counter. “I can’t believe you would go and get this without talking to me beforehand. I can’t pay you back for something like this.”

“What did I just tell you?” he pushed the box back towards her. “It’s a gift.”

“This was probably a lot of money, Satoru,” she said warningly, inching it back to him.

“I like spoiling you,” he shrugged, resting his hands on the box and keeping it suspended between them. “Besides, I feel better knowing you have a phone rather than not being able to call anyone when you’re not at home. It’s not safe to be without one, nowadays.”

“He has a point,” Kento said and Satoru looked at him for the first time.

“But… it feels wrong to accept it…” she furrowed her brow. “You didn’t have to get me anything brand new. In fact, I’m sure I could easily have got one second-hand, I just haven’t had much -”

“Take it!” Satoru laughed. “And if it bothers you that much, then you can pay me back by sending me a cute selfie every day ~”

“You’re unbelievable,” she said, but pulled the phone back towards her and stared at the sleek box.

“Is that a yes about the photos or…?” he grinned.

“It’s a “in your dreams”,” she smiled, opening the box and looking at the sleek new device seated inside. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, the laughter turning to mellow warmth in his voice.

Kento cleared his throat. “Can I have my sandwich?”

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Shoko saw more and more of Satoru. He would pop in and out of the bakery every day, and sometimes he would roll out of bed and help her by manning the counter. She would be lying if she said she didn’t appreciate it, since it meant she could hide in the kitchens, rolling out dough and baking cake after cake. Every now and then, he would pop in to take the cake mixes, or Kento would come in each morning and Shoko would natter with him at the counter. It was easy to let the week slide into the weekend, and Shoko surprised herself by staying open even on Saturday and Sunday.

It felt like she was on cloud nine permanently. She would wake up and Satoru would be there, she would work in the bakery with him. That weekend also marked two weeks of having known and been somewhat seeing Satoru. He was a totally familiar presence to her now, and Shoko had even normalised seeing him duck underneath the old house’s doorways, sprawled out on the sofa. They cooked dinner together, watched TV shows that turned into heavy make-out sessions, and there were still wild, passionate nights where she knew nothing but his name. Sometimes, when he was chatting to customers at the counter, she would hover in the kitchen doorway and just… watch him. Watch him flourish, watch him shine. He fascinated her once again, and she admittedly missed him whenever he had to rush off for his actual job.

It was strangely idyllic, and Shoko sometimes found herself picturing herself older, still running the bakery, but Satoru was always in those daydreams. She would shake herself awake, telling herself repeatedly that she wasn’t doing a medical degree for nothing.

On Monday, it was one of those days when Satoru had to go to work. As always, he brightly bid her farewell on his way out, and she settled for running the bakery. The bell chimed at nine, and she glanced up from the counter to see Kento wandering in.

“Morning, stranger!” she beamed. “The usual?”

“Always,” Kento came to a stop before the counter.

She gathered his sandwich with tongs, and placed it carefully into the cardboard box.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Kento mused, “and I was just wondering why I’ve seen your boyfriend before… He has a very familiar face, but I honestly can’t place why.”

Shoko glanced up. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

“Is that so?” Kento blinked. “Well, either way, he looks very familiar. Did he go to school here in Tokyo?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” she shrugged. “I’ve honestly only known him a couple of weeks.”

“He’s very helpful around the bakery,” Kento remarked. “I suppose he must -”

The bell chimed once more, and Shoko was surprised to see Mei Mei stride in, followed by Utahime. Both were wearing serious expressions.

“Get ready to close up,” Mei Mei said. “We’re having brunch.”

Shoko blinked. “I’m running the bakery today.”

“Not anymore,” Mei Mei smiled, red lips forming a crescent. “Serve this guy and start packing up.”

“I’m not going to close for brunch,” Shoko said. “You guys should’ve to-”

“Shoko, you’re not understanding,” Utahime cut in. “This is an intervention .”

She wrinkled her nose. “A what ?”

“Listen, you can either air out all your dirty laundry here, in front of this customer -” she gestured to Kento, who shifted awkwardly on his feet, “- or you can come quietly and have brunch with us.”

“This is ridiculous,” Shoko said as Kento crammed a payment into her hands and hurried from the bakery. “What do I need an intervention for?”

“We heard something very unsavoury that happened on Tuesday,” Mei Mei put her hands on her hips. “And although we tried to hear it from you, it seems you’ve forgotten you have a phone.”

“I lost my phone, I’ve got a new one and I don’t have any of the numbers anymore,” Shoko confessed.

“That would’ve been nice to know!” Utahime laid a pointed hand on the counter. “Come on, Shoko, we’ve already bought you brunch.”

She heaved out a sigh. They weren’t going to leave her be unless she went with them. She hung up her apron and flipped the sign “CLOSED” before turning around and glowering at them pointedly. Mei Mei swished her hair and walked, model-like, out of the bakery. Shoko and Utahime followed, barely glancing at one another.

“Are you guys going to tell me what this is about?” she scowled. “I could be losing some good profit over this.”

“We think you’ve been a little distant,” Mei Mei said. “You not telling us about your new number only ties into that more.”

“I got busy,” Shoko protested. “I haven’t had time to sit down and think.”

She paused then, seeing Suguru standing at the end of the road. He had been piled high with boxes of takeout brunch. Seeing him there, stood on the end of the bend, suddenly had her heart racing. It was long gone now, but once upon a time, he would’ve been standing underneath an overgrown maple tree, the sun’s golden rays dancing along his hair and making his eyes light up.

“Shoko…” Utahime had stopped a few paces ahead, looking over her shoulder with a sadness in her eyes.

She swallowed almost nervously, walking forwards up to Suguru.

“You know what day it is, don’t you?” he asked quietly.

“Monday…” she replied. “The twelfth.”

He hummed, looking out at the sky. “Let’s go.”

The pedestrian man had turned green, so the four of them crossed the road. Shoko had a sinking pit in her stomach. The week had gone by so quickly. She had been enjoying herself, had been having a wonderful time. Were they really going to be angry at her for embracing life and living it to the fullest? She hadn’t even picked up a drink in almost a week.

Ironically, they went to the park and made themselves comfortable at a picnic bench, with Mei Mei laying blankets from her beach bag onto the benches. They had grabbed toasted sandwiches, hash browns and a selection of muffins for breakfast. Suguru sat across from her, Utahime by her side.

“You didn’t need to do this…” Shoko said to them.

“Don’t think we’re going easy on you,” Utahime’s mouth twisted into a sorrowful frown. “You’ve gone completely off-the-radar for a whole week, nearly.”

“You didn’t call me, you didn’t message me,” Suguru added. “You said on Tuesday that you would speak with me.”

“Yeah, about your horrible attitude,” she scowled. “Why the Hell did you rise to Satoru like that?”

“Because he was being possessive,” Suguru looked at her in disbelief as Mei Mei sipped her tea. “I didn’t like his attitude.”

“He was just jealous, and you were not making things look better for me,” Shoko spat. “It was seriously such a low for you, Suguru.”

“If you’re dating someone who can’t stand you walking past another man, then you’ve got a problem on your hands, Shoko,” Suguru’s tone had lowered warningly.

“Actually, me and Satoru sat down and talked about things properly ,” Shoko scowled. “He was just a bit insecure, but we’ve moved on from that. This past week’s been better than ever.”

“We’re worried about you,” Utahime frowned. “We haven’t heard from you, so we figured since it was that time of year…”

“Am I not allowed to be happy?” Shoko stood up.

“That’s not what we mean,” Mei Mei said quietly, looking over the rim of her takeaway cup.

“Am I not allowed to move on from… from that ? ” Shoko grabbed her throat, feeling tears prickle in the corners of her eyes. “ So what if I’m seeing way more of Satoru? We’ve just started seeing each other! He makes me happy!”

“Shoko,” Mei Mei said sternly, “you went from seeing him to living with -”

Only because some freak who’s been following me killed a boy on campus, ” Shoko said, her voice cracking with hysteria. “ A boy who knew me, and let’s be real, he was probably targeted because of me.”

“You don’t know that!” Utahime yelled. “It’s not healthy to centre your life around one person! You don’t even know him that well!”

“We’re still getting to know each other,” she protested. “I feel safe with him. Satoru makes me feel safe .”

She turned her head to Suguru, who had fallen quiet after the initial outburst. This was their first argument in a long time. They had usually squabbled every now and then as kids, but nothing quite as serious as this.

“What was the point of turning my other friends against Satoru?” Shoko couldn’t keep her voice down at this point. “What the Hell is wrong with you, Suguru?”

“That wasn’t my intention,” he sat upright. “And they’re not “against” him, don’t be stupid.”

“They’re clearly not for him!” her throat felt a little sore already.

“You don’t even know what he works as!” Suguru stood up then, the pair of them glaring at one another from across the bench.

“He works in - business!” she hated the hesitation, the sudden pause of thought.

“That’s the vaguest bullshit I’ve ever seen you buy!” Suguru rubbed his temples, scowling. “You don’t know his company, his department, his line of work, his expertise - you don’t even know where he actually lives, just the hotel he’s staying at! And what does he know about you? Fucking everything!”

“He’s not hiding anything from me!”

She couldn’t believe this. She felt like a cornered animal. When she was upset, she would always seek Suguru out for comfort. Who was she supposed to go to now that it was Suguru who was upsetting her?

“Shoko.”

Mei Mei’s dark eyes were solemn as she slid a magazine across the table. It was a gossip-based one, the type of magazine that Mei Mei would usually never look twice at. Shoko was looking now, because on the front was Satoru, suited up for the July edition. His shirt was loosely unbuttoned, a jacket slung over his shoulder as he sat on a stool, resting an ornate violin on his knee. She couldn’t read the headlines because of the tears that blurred her vision, but she could see him well and clear, looking over his dark sunglasses, that knowing smile on his lips.

“When you mentioned a Satoru, I never thought twice about it,” Mei Mei inclined her head calmly, “but then Suguru saw this in a shop and brought it to mine and Utahime’s attention.”

“The “business” he runs is the Paradise Supreme,” Suguru said, his voice still a little gravelly from yelling. “It’s weird that he never told you, but I suppose he didn’t want you to research him.”

“Had you mentioned he was Satoru Gojo , I would’ve known who he was immediately,” Mei Mei added. “I’ve read about him loads in the business section, but I suppose he didn’t even want you knowing his surname…”

“Oh, poor me , he’s a millionaire!” Shoko climbed over the bench. “It says a lot that he didn’t want to brag about his money, you know?”

“That’s not what we -”

“Despite wanting to go on a witch hunt, you’ve sure managed to paint him in a much better light,” Shoko began stomping away. “Intervention my arse - you guys are acting like a bunch of jealous pricks!”

“Shoko!” Utahime called out, but she didn’t want to talk.

Her day had been great, her week had been brilliant, and they had just dragged her into a pit of misery. Not only was she apparently supposed to not be happy with Satoru, but she also wasn’t allowed to move on from what happened with her mother.

“Shoko!” Utahime had followed her, the magazine crumpled in her hands. “Just listen to us, would you?”

“Why?” she threw over her shoulder. “You guys don’t have anything good to say.”

“Don’t you think it’s a super weird red flag that he didn’t tell you anything about what he does? ” Utahime continued. “ And for the record, it stings that you didn’t notice our absence for a whole fucking week!”

“I was with -”

“Satoru, yeah, we know,” Utahime raged. “The same Satoru who decided to go on the complete attack against Suguru ! Come on, Shoko, you know that that was completely unreasonable behaviour!”

“That we talked about,” she repeated. “And he apologised. And he said he would try and not hold any beef with Suguru, but it seems that Suguru has already decided he doesn’t want to make amends.”

They crossed the road towards the bakery, Utahime jogging to keep up with Shoko’s breakneck speed-walk.

“Your whole life is just revolving around this guy!” Utahime protested. “We came in to talk to you about it, about how you’re not seeing anyone else.”

“I see customers,” Shoko snapped. “They count as people who aren’t Satoru, by the way.”

“You haven’t been out of the house in a week !” Utahime continued desperately. “You didn’t even tell us you had a new phone number, and Satoru sure as Hell wasn’t quick to let Suguru know about that.”

Shoko stormed towards the entrance.

“And neither did you!” Utahime added, fury entering her voice once more.

“I’ve been feeling great ,” Shoko finally whirled around.

She was a little startled. Like her, Utahime also had watery eyes, suppressing tears behind a scowl that crumpled her features.

“Why are you crying? ” Shoko gawked. “ I’m the one who was supposed to be going through that surprise, stupid “intervention”, wasn’t I?”

“Because I’m worried you’re centring yourself on Satoru too much!” Utahime cried. “You didn’t know what day it was!”

“Why do I have to live my life in constant mourning of my mum?” she shrieked, and noticed a neighbour peer through their curtains. “Why aren’t I allowed to live my life for me for one second?”

“You’re not the only one who lost someone that day!” the rage had returned to Utahime.

“What are you -”

“When was the last time you talked to your dad?” Utahime demanded.

Shoko opened her mouth to retort, but no words came out. It would’ve been Friday the second, ten days ago, when she’d lost her phone.

“Kiyoshi asked us why you weren’t answering your phone!” Utahime continued raggedly. “He asked us why you weren’t picking up the house phone, either!”

“He must be calling during the work day, I’m busy then!” Shoko shook her head. “And he doesn’t know how to leave voice mails, so if none are left then I just assume they’re fake calls.”

“You’re the only person he has left!” Utahime said. “You’re his world, Shoko, and yet you haven’t paused for one second to make sure he’ll be OK in Kyoto tomorrow. It’ll be the first time the two of you haven’t been together on the day.”

“Don’t assume I haven’t thought about it,” she said coolly, Utahime’s words feeling like a stab to her chest.

“This relationship of yours has made you selfish ! ” Utahime screeched. “ You’re isolated , and we’re scared for you, because if this is what it’s like in week two, then who knows what’ll happen later.”

“Are you kidding me?” she felt her blood boiling. “We’re excited because things are going well in our relationship, and yet my own friends can’t be happy for me?”

“If you won’t listen to me, at least take a look at this,” Utahime said desperately, holding out the magazine.

“Why should I care if he owns the hotel line?” Shoko scowled, turning to the front door and unlocking it. “Take your jealousy elsewhere.”

There was a satisfying smack, the slap of plastic on glass as Utahime chucked the magazine against Shoko’s front door. It fell down at her feet, Satoru’s handsome face looking up at her. Shoko turned round, feeling her face contort angrily, and was met with Utahime’s, pale-faced with rage.

“Don’t kid yourself,” she said, her voice quiet and wobbling with emotion. “We’re not jealous of you, we’re trying to get you to open your eyes. Take off your rose-coloured glasses and read the fucking magazine.”

She turned on her heel and began storming up the road.

Over her shoulder, Utahime yelled, “And call your dad.”

Shoko stood there, trembling with rage. She couldn’t believe what had just happened. She had thought they were her friends, thought they would be supportive that she seemed to be getting her life together, pushing away her messy habits. Instead, they were all turning on her simultaneously, telling her who she could and couldn’t see.

She stooped down and snatched up the magazine, crumpling it in one hand as she threw open the bakery door. Shoko didn’t reopen it. She locked the door firmly behind her, and wandered through the house, kicking off her shoes and throwing her bag down on the floor. She furiously snatched up the house phone, looking at the numerous missed calls, usually during her work day. They were all from her dad, and yet it had never occurred to her check back, since he had never persistently called twice in a row. She couldn’t talk to him like this, though. He would be worried that she was crying.

How could Utahime call her selfish? She had always put her father first, otherwise she would’ve cried until he’d ran back from Kyoto after the attack on Friday. And of course she felt guilty that she hadn’t noticed it was nearly the thirteenth, but why would they bring that up? To spite her? To make her feel worse?

She didn’t care that it was half-nine; she poured herself a shot of whiskey and knocked it back, grimacing at the sharp taste and the burn that seared her throat. There were tears threatening to go rolling down her face, so she left a key under the back door mat and, with the new phone he’d given her, messaged Satoru how to let himself in. After that, she retreated upstairs to bed, flinging the magazine into a corner of her room and throwing herself beneath warm covers and watching TV on her laptop, trying her best not to cry and, when she did, wailing ugly tears that made her feel a tiny bit better.

Yes, she felt awful that she hadn’t told anyone about her new number. She had also been living that strange bliss with Satoru, and now he was getting the blame for her being an idiot. How could she have let him take the fall for her? Why hadn’t she owned up to her own mistakes, instead of putting them on her friends?

Shoko probably dozed off a few times, since the TV show was always at a different place when she blinked for long enough. Nobody tried to call the home phone, and nobody rang the doorbell, either. How could they do this to her, right before the anniversary of her mother’s death? They knew how much she hurt from it. How could they suggest she was trying to ignore it? How could she say she shouldn’t miss her mum anymore? What kind of a daughter could she be, pretending her mother no longer mattered and ignoring her father’s phone calls? Each time these thoughts entered her head, Shoko had to bury her face deeper into her pillow to muffle her sobs.

When she next woke up, it was because someone was lightly brushing the hair from her face. She blinked tiredly, and there was Satoru. His blue eyes were clear and filled with sorrow and sympathy, and just looking at him reminded her of what had happened that morning. She couldn’t help it. Her mouth wobbled and she felt tears track from her eyes down the sides of her face, cold and unwelcome, but barging past nevertheless.

“What happened?” he murmured, cupping her face and wiping away her tears with his thumbs.

“I’ve just had a shitty day,” she sniffed. She didn’t really want to talk about it. She didn’t really want to admit that she was the bad guy.

“You want to talk about it?” he asked, as though reading her mind, and it was a reminder of why she felt so comfortable, connected and secure when he was around.

“Not really,” she closed her eyes, enjoying his warm hands on her face.

“Do you want me to stay with you?” he asked.

She nodded, face scrunching up as she tried her best not to cry.

“Hey, don’t cry,” he bent down and kissed both her cheeks, then her lips. “We’ll watch some movies, your favourites. We’ll get takeaway. We’ll nap. We’ll do whatever you want to do.”

She nodded again, scooting over so he could climb into bed with her. And he did, and he lay there with her, wrapping her in his arms, her head rested on his chest, as they watched her favourite movies. How could her friends say he was bad for her? This was the happiest she had been for ages. It had been such a difficult few weeks, and then Satoru sprang into her life, and although more hardships had come her way, he had always been there to make things seem better. Again, she had to press her face into his shirt and squeeze her eyes shut, but even that couldn’t suppress the wall of emotions that flooded over the barriers.

Even then, Satoru rocked her in his arms, cooing softly to her and whispering words of comfort. Each syllable seemed to send jolts of warmth through her, even if the memories or the horrors of her argument didn’t go away. She wasn’t alone, and she wasn’t isolated. She felt fine, and she felt better. She clung to Satoru, clung to him because she felt guilty about her parents, and angry about her friends; clung to him because he was a staple in her life all of a sudden; clung to him because he made her feel good about herself, made her feel like she was important and wanted and someone who wasn’t defined by her mistakes. Satoru made her feel safe, and he offered her a kind of love that was reserved for her alone.

She fell asleep eventually, his hand absently stroking through her hair as he murmured, “Sleep well, Shoko, I’m always here for you…”

Chapter Text

When police asked her to give them any details about the night of Tuesday 13th July 2005, Shoko Ieiri said her mother “pinwheeled”. The police had found that to be the strangest description yet, simply because it was both a perfectly accurate statement, but equally just as vague. The girl who had sat before them, red-eyed and pale-faced, with her father patting her hand in tears, had struggled for words, and then out of every single one of them, she had chosen “pinwheeled”. Shoko herself didn’t really know why it was her word of choice. Pinwheels were vibrant and colourful; they were full of life, they were light as air, and they brought people joy. A pinwheel wasn’t a word that many people would choose to describe a death they had bore witness to.

And yet, a pinwheel was the best way to describe what happened on that night. Her mother stepped onto the road, simply declaring, “See? That didn’t take long.” She hadn’t known those were her last words, and neither had Shoko. If they had, perhaps there would have been a warmer exchange, and Shoko’s last facial expression to her mother wouldn’t be rolling her eyes. For example, if she had known what was to come, she might’ve offered a warm smile, or even said, “Don’t cross the road!” But because the future is shrouded in mystery, Shoko couldn’t describe her mother as beautiful, kind, creative, and a free soul to the police; instead, she could only say she “pinwheeled”.

“See? That didn’t take long.”

Shoko rolled her eyes as her mother stepped out onto the road, the pedestrian light green, the traffic light bright red, so bright that it burnt its image into her eyes after looking for too long. She looked back at her mum, the afterimage floating along her vision, just as a car skidded around the bend, emerging suddenly from behind the overgrown maple, and collided with her mum.

At first, Shoko didn’t register what had happened. She stood there, the sardonic smile still on her face, as her mother pinwheeled over the car and time rapidly slowed down.

The car bumper made a clean connection to her mother’s side. Shoko noted how it dented, that the weight of a human body could equally impact a car at high speeds. Her mother bent like a right-angle, head rested sideways on the front of the car. As though fluttering on a breeze of wind, her legs were lifted up into the air, the first rising up straight like a sordid, deformed attempt of an arabesque. The other leg followed swiftly afterwards, both waving in the air like a handstand. Like a pinwheel . Except her head didn’t turn in the way it ought to. It remained flat against the front of the car, her neck shaped like a U-Bend - the doctors told Shoko and her dad that that was her cause of death: a broken neck - and yet her body continued to spin.

One of her arms flailed through the windscreen, glass shattering in on the driver. Her body twisted over the front of the car, and it was only then that her head - stained red at the top - was freed from the car. It flopped like a loose puppet’s head, and she went bow-legged on the roof of the car, which had begun to swerve to the other side of the road, trajectory finally breaking. As the car turned, her mother’s body was flung, not quite going over the whole car, and her face cracked against the curb further down the road, limbs sprawling around almost comically, as though she were a ragdoll. The car crashed into a streetlamp, smoke rising as the driver staggered out.

Shoko was stood on the side of the road, staring at the spot where her mother had landed. She hadn’t really processed what had happened, because it was all so quick and unrealistic. There was no way her mother could’ve been hit by a car, but she couldn’t hear or feel anything. She could only hear her own heartbeat and breathing. The man from the car was shouting to her, pointing at the body - her mother - lying against the curb, which was spattered red, like a brilliant flower.

Her feet finally began to carry her towards the body - her mother. She moved slowly, uncertainly, her legs wobbling, and she found herself falling to her knees, crawling until she was right next to her.

“Mum?” she said, and expected a reply, but it never came.

Without thinking, she turned her mother over, rolling her across the sidewalk.

“Don’t do that, kid,” the man behind her said, but Shoko didn’t pay him any attention.

Her mother lay there, her face broken and bent inwards, teeth jutting out, shattered and some missing, from the impact with the pavement. Blood had streamed from her mouth, spattering her chin and the front of her clothes, and there was a horrible dent in her body, bloodied with the tips of her broken ribs poking out. Shoko reached out a hand, shaking her mother’s shoulder, anything to get her to respond. And yet she just wouldn’t .

“Fuck! Fuck, fuck - shit!” the man was yelling behind her.

“Call an ambulance!” a woman’s voice cried.

When someone was badly injured, weren’t you meant to do CPR? Shoko was vaguely aware that CPR was important for bringing someone back if they seemed dead, so she placed shaking hands on her mother’s chest and began to push.

“Jesus -” the same woman said. “Yes, there’s been an accident - honey, is this your mum?”

Shoko didn’t respond. She was barely aware of any of the voices around her, just that the woman was guiding the ambulance whilst rubbing a comforting hand on her shoulder, and the man continued to mutter in the background. Other voices had joined the fray, mutterings and murmurs, but they all sounded incredibly faraway, as though Shoko were having a very peculiar dream. She kept pressing down on her mum’s chest.

Wake up , she kept thinking. Come on, Mum. Sit up. Do something.

But she didn’t. She continued to lie there, face a red mush of flesh, muscle and bone, eyes sightless and staring up at the ever-darkening sky.

“I’m sorry, sweet,” the woman was saying. “I’m so sorry.”

“Where’s your dad?” another woman had approached now. “You have a dad, don’t you?”

She couldn’t bring herself to respond. She only wanted to pay attention to her mum. Her mum needed her right now. The rest of these people could wait; they weren’t important. Right now, she needed to focus on resuscitating her mum. Only then would she be able to make sense of what was happening around her.

“Honey, please stop,” the first woman sounded tearful. “Please stop, that won’t work.”

“Hamako? Shoko?” she could hear her dad, far away, but getting nearer. “Hamako?”

There was a strangled cry, something that didn’t sound human, and then a man - her father - had dropped down beside the body - her mother - clutching at one of her hands and weeping; wailing .

Hamako !” his voice sounded as raw as the empty feeling in Shoko’s chest.

There were sirens in the distance. They sounded blurred and surreal, because this couldn’t be happening. Shoko kept pushing on her mother’s chest, pushing away any hands that tried to stop her. Couldn’t they see that she was helping? That she was bringing her mum back from a near death experience? She kept pumping at her mother’s still-warm chest, not caring that there was blood on her hands, not caring that she didn’t seem to be bringing a pulse back. She kept going, feeling hot tears running down her cheeks, although she couldn’t understand why. Why was she crying when there was still a chance to save her mum? Why wasn’t anyone else helping? Why was she the only one trying to bring her back?

The sirens were getting closer, and with them a sense of deep-foreboding, and terrible dread that pooled in her stomach like tar. Once the sirens had arrived, that meant her mum was either dead or alive. They could help her save her mum, stop her from dying and bring her back from the point of no return.

“Shoko, stop!” her dad was tugging at the sleeve of her blazer, words choked with tears. “Please, Shoko…”

Not yet, she wanted to tell him, but the words never left her mouth. There’s still time.

The sirens were deafening, and gloved hands were pulling her away from her mother. Shoko could feel herself screaming, could feel the rawness in her throat, but she wasn’t ready to let go. There was blood on her hands. She tried clawing her way back, but the gloved hands wouldn’t let her. They were talking to her, telling her to stay calm, that they would do what they could, that it was too late, that she had done her best, that they were going to take over from now. And yet Shoko kept trying, kept screaming, kept calling out for her mum - “Come back, Mum !” - and there was a cold needle in one arm, cold like ice, cold like nothing, cold like death, cold… cold… cold… 

...dark.

When she woke up, she was in hospital, wrapped in blankets, cocooned and fragile. She felt like she had drank acid, her eyes burned with dried tears, and there was a terrible dead weight in her chest. She felt stiff, the kind of rigidity that felt as though she had been bedridden for years. Her limbs were like wood, and when she tried to move there was a thickness to her body, as though she were made of gelatin. Shoko simply slipped out of bed and wandered out of the room, still dressed in her school uniform.

The hallways were labelled carefully, and her mind brought her walking shakily to green signs highlighting the fastest way out. People glanced at her worriedly, and one woman tried to stop her and ask if she was OK, but Shoko just shrugged her off. Where were her parents? She wanted to see her mum, to find out when she would wake up and be walking and talking and alive , most definitely alive, again.

A tall nurse stopped her, a slim woman in her forties with a face that was beginning to line, but her dark eyes were kind. Shoko immediately felt the urge to pull back, vaguely aware that people were looking at her. Was she behaving unusually? As far as she was concerned, she only needed to get out of there, to find her parents and find out what had happened to her mum.

“Are you OK, there?” the nurse asked kindly. “Where have you come from?”

“I’m looking for my parents,” Shoko replied, her voice robotic and wooden.

“Are you staying here?” the nurse asked again - her nametag read Chika Sasaki - and she looked hesitant. “Do you have a doctor assigned to you?”

“I really need to find my parents,” Shoko’s voice sounded so small. “My mum needs me right now.”

The nurse didn’t seem pleased with this response. Nervously, she said, “If I might ask, what’s your name?”

“Shoko,” she replied, looking around the hallway.

“Shoko…” Nurse Sasaki repeated, glancing around at the doors, searching for her name on one of the labels.

Shoko shouldered past her and continued walking towards the elevator.

“Please wait!” the nurse followed after her, but Shoko was already pressing the button for the Ground Floor. “You really shouldn’t be wandering around! At least let me grab you some slippers!”

Shoko looked down at her feet. She stood lamely in her socks - where had her shoes gone? She stepped into the elevator once it was called, and the nurse persistently accompanied her. Why was she following her so closely? Why wasn’t she trying to help Shoko find her parents? She was alone in a hospital, and had no idea what was happening. Nurse Sasaki refused to leave her side, even as she wandered to the front desk.

“Shoko,” Nurse Sasaki called nervously, “would you be OK to take a seat here, in the waiting area? If you do, I should probably be able to find your parents for you.”

“OK,” Shoko said, and lowered herself on the chair nearest her.

Why weren’t her parents with her? Why had she woken up in hospital? Why did she feel so groggy, and tired, and unused to having her eyes open? Why did her eyes burn from the brightness? She had faded memories of a needle, a sedative washing icily through her body, snatching away her raw panic and the need to escape. The hospital tiles were cold on her feet, even through her socks, but Shoko couldn’t muster the energy to care where her shoes had disappeared to. There was an iciness flowing through her, one that was only slightly abated when Nurse Sasaki concernedly wrapped a blanket around her before returning to the front desk. Still, there was a deep coldness in her chest, one that seemed surreal, as though her surroundings weren’t actually there.

Perhaps she was dreaming? It would make sense; why else would she be in a hospital, alone, wondering where her parents were and being so worried for her mum? Her memories were hazy, but she kept seeing dead-looking eyes staring up at a dark, starry sky.

“Are you OK?” an unfamiliar voice asked, but it sounded distant, blurred, and Shoko didn’t even bother looking at who was talking to her.

Shoko stared at the ground, wondering when she would be able to see her parents again, or when she would wake up. She was going to tell Suguru about this awful nightmare, and he would laugh, because it wasn’t real, and he would instantly know the right words to make her feel better.

“You look really cold,” the disembodied voice continued, and something warm was pressed into her hands. “Drink this. It might make you feel better.”

Shoko stared at her hands, seeing a coffee cup. It was a milky latte, not her favourite, and yet she found herself taking a sip. Sugary sweet, and yet it made her feel a little more energised, seemed to take the edge that was creeping in to her muscles. There was a blur of voices all around her, a mix and muddle of sounds and movements that, for some reason, really bothered her, even though she normally wouldn’t care. Her eyes darted around, searching for any sign of her parents or another familiar face, but there was no one around that she knew. It was just her and a vile coffee that she kept drinking.

“Listen, I don’t know what you’re going through right now, but it seems like it’s tough,” the voice told her, “but just look after yourself, OK? Everything will turn out alright.”

Shoko sat there, his words resonating in her head, spinning around in circles like a washing machine. They seemed to echo, and she was convinced that her mum would be OK.

“Thanks,” she muttered into her lap, and glanced to her side.

There was a man sitting there, glancing idly around the waiting room. He was dressed in a suit, his expression mildly concerned as he glanced at the doorways, waiting. He was unassuming and yet Shoko vowed she would remember his words, would take them with her all the way to when she finally reunited with her parents. A pair of slippers were sat by her feet, generic hospital ones, and she slipped them on, wondering when Nurse Sasaki had left them there, or whether it had been Nurse Sasaki at all.

“Shoko!”

She raised her head in alarm, in perplexed amazement to see Suguru striding towards her, a coffee held in his hand. He was pale-faced and looked unusually tired.

“What are you doing here?” she asked vacantly.

“I was watching over you, except I went to get a drink,” he said sheepishly, and sat down beside her. “Why’d you go off walking?”

“Where are Mum and Dad?” she asked quietly.

“Ah,” Suguru turned his coffee cup in his hands. “Your Dad’s having a few words with police. The car that - well, you know… the owner hopped back in and drove off once the ambulance arrived, and they want to get him, since they reckon he was intoxicated.”

“I hope they find him,” Shoko sipped her coffee. It was cold, but the sugar was making her feel better. “And Mum?”

This time, a deep sadness washed over Suguru. He sat there, cup held in his hands, twirling it around, and seemingly unable to talk. Shoko had never seen him like this before. There was genuine sorrow and, perhaps, fear in his eyes.

“Suguru?” perhaps he hadn’t heard her. “Where’s Mum?”

“She’s…” he sat back, crossing his legs. He still seemed uncertain.

“Is she with Dad? And the police?”

“She’s -” he cleared his throat and swallowed. “She’s - here. At the hospital. Somewhere.”

Shoko stared at him. “But where?”

He scratched the back of his head. “How are you feeling?”

“Answer my que-”

“Suguru, Shoko.”

Shoko snapped her head up to see Suguru’s mum approaching them, her father lingering behind. As always, Hide Getou held an air of importance and strength about her, but even that wasn’t enough to cover up how small her dad looked like.

His shoulders were hunched, his face wet with tears, his eyes red and sore-looking. His nails were bitten down, and he looked pale and greyed out. He didn’t seem able to stop sniffing, or to stop wet tears running down into the collar of his shirt, of which there was an ominous, dark stain. For some reason, seeing him like that, broken down and sobbing, gave a sense of foreboding and deep anxiety that sat like a lump of lead in Shoko’s throat.

“What is she doing out here, Suguru?” Hide said sharply.

“She went… wandering,” Suguru said lamely, attempting to conceal his cardboard cup in his hands.

“Really, Suguru?” Hide’s voice was clipped, a tone she often reserved for her son. “Coffee? At a time like this?” He stayed quiet as she crouched down in front of Shoko and took one of her hands in her own. “Are you OK, Shoko?”

“Where’s Mum?” Shoko asked, and a new round of tears erupted from her dad.

“Oh, dear,” Hide took the seat on Shoko’s other side and simply petted her hand.

“Dad?” Shoko finally looked at her dad head-on. “Where’s Mum?”

The unexpected then happened. Without another strangled noise, her father fell to his knees before her, bending his head down apologetically, bowed down as those he had gravely insulted her, as though he wanted her forgiveness. A wracking sob shook his whole body, Hide continued to pat her hand, and Suguru wouldn’t meet her gaze.

“Where -” a choke tried to escape, but she swallowed it back down. “Where’s Mum?”

“I’m sorry, Shoko,” her dad finally managed, his voice filled with grief and tears. “I’m so sorry.”

Shoko’s mouth felt dry. “Don’t talk like that.”

“Shoko,” he raised his tear-stained face and clasped his hands around hers that held the coffee. “Shoko… Hama- your mum…” He inhaled deeply, visibly swallowing back more sorrow, more grief . “You mother did not -” And he gritted his teeth past the emotions, “- survive.”

He bowed his head once more and continued to openly cry, his hands firmly wrapped around her hand. Hide’s hand tightened on her other hand, and Suguru finally looked at her, and his deep sorrow finally made sense. That leaden tar that had filled her throat only seemed to be expanding.

“No,” Shoko said, because it couldn’t be true. Her mum simply couldn’t be dead, because she had been so alive in the park. So real. So wonderful. So beautiful.

“I’m sorry,” her dad sobbed again.

“No,” Shoko said again, and this time she felt her gaze soften and she smiled. “No, she’s not dead, Dad, don’t be silly.” He looked up, terrified, and she could even feel the gazes of Suguru and his mum on her. “She’s not dead. Her eyes were open . She can’t be dead.”

“Oh, dear,” Hide said again, and this time she wiped her eyes.

Her father’s eyes filled with new tears and another coughing sob tore through his body. His sobs became undisguised and raw, and there were sad gazes from the nurses and other patients who were passing by. Shoko could feel something warm running down her face, and knew that she was crying, too.

“She’s gone , Shoko, ” her dad looked so broken on his knees before her. “ I’m so sorry, my darling, she’s gone .”

It was that sensation again. Everything seemed to slow down and she became acutely aware of her heartbeat, of her breathing, or the warmth of Hide’s hands on her hers, and her father’s own shaking hands that jerked every time a fresh wave of tears ran down his face. Shoko’s teeth felt suddenly thick in her mouth as she tightened her jaw, her lip trembling, and her shoulders drawing in and tears finally began to drip from her jaw. She was aware of Suguru putting a comforting arm around her and pulling the blanket tighter, but that heavy tar felt like it was seeping through her body, into every pore, and she couldn’t stop the hurt. She couldn’t breathe properly, as though she were choking on her own tears.

Her mum was dead.

She was sitting here, in the hospital, warm blanket, cold coffee, and her mum was dead. The car had killed her on impact, and Shoko had been pressing down on her mum’s corpse, trying to bring back the impossible. The floodgates were open, and she couldn’t stop crying, even though she wanted to, even though she wanted to be hidden from the world. Everyone was staring at her, the girl whose mum was dead, and nothing else in the world mattered now, because she didn’t have a mum. Her mum was dead. And she had known it deep down, but hearing it from her dad made it suddenly so real. She couldn’t wake up in the morning and tell Suguru about her alarming dream, because it wasn’t a dream. Suguru was there, and he was grieving with her, and it wasn’t a dream. It was real. Her mum was actually dead.

“Miss Ieiri?”

She blinked back her tears to see two officers walking towards them, a short portly man followed by a young woman who looked deeply upset. Their presence there didn’t make her feel any better.

“Not Shoko,” her dad sobbed. “Please…”

“I’m sorry, Mr Ieiri,” the man looked sad. “As you say, your daughter was there on the moment. She may be able to identify the driver.”

“Do you have to do this now ?” Suguru’s arm around her tightened.

The police officer gave a deep sigh and said, “There will never be a right time to ask about what happened.” He then crouched down beside Shoko’s tearful father and looked up at her. “I’m so sorry, Miss Ieiri. I’m so sorry about your mother and I - I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now.”

He took off his hat and lowered his head, taking in a deep breath, before continuing.

“Miss Ieiri, we… we want to know who owned the car,” he said, his voice gravelly with pity. “We know you were there and… if you could tell us any details… any.”

Shoko stared down at the officer. She wanted to tell him what the number plate had read, but she had never thought to look at it and note it down. She wanted to tell him what the driver looked like, had sounded like , because he had been right there before everyone else had flooded outside, but whenever she tried to picture him, she only had fuzzy images that could be anyone. There was so much she wanted to say to honour any form of justice for her mum, but there were only so many things going through her head, and she knew she couldn’t give the officer any answers he wanted. Like a number plate. Like a man.

But none of those would come to her. They only wanted a simple answer, someone to go after and give her mum some semblance of justice. She couldn’t do it, no matter how many times she opened her mouth to say something. When she finally felt words leaving her mouth, Shoko already knew they weren’t useful, or important, and yet they were the only words she could think of. She looked at the officer, looked at him as she said:

“She pinwheeled.”

Chapter Text

Shoko woke with a start. She was having bad memories dredged up and they were leaking into her sleep. She lay there, feeling black tar in her throat, and she really needed some air. It was dark outside, the early hours in the morning, and Satoru was sound asleep. Breaths shallow, she managed to get out of bed and retreated to the door, pushing it open and grabbing her dressing gown on the way out. She wrapped it around herself, poured a large glass of whiskey, no ice, then decided to bring the whole bottle, grabbed her cigarettes, threw on some slippers and stepped out into her back garden. 

There was a cool breeze, but Shoko was too shaken to care, not when her mind was lingering on screeching tires and her mum’s sightless, dead face. She sat on the bench outside her house and lit her cigarette, accompanied by whiskey and her memories. There was the same sour taste in her mouth every time she thought of her mum, the bitterness that she couldn’t save her, that it had been too late the moment the car had turned the corner. At the time, Shoko had believed that if the idiot driving the car had been found, then she could rest easy knowing her mum was at peace, but that wasn’t the case at all.

There had been multiple witnesses, all of whom had described the scene far better than Shoko. The man had been drunk, and had been sentenced six months of prison and his license stripped. Shoko had seen it on the news, and yet there were still flowers being laid beneath the maple tree, and her mum never walked back through the bakery door ever again. In reality, although the man had been convicted, nothing had changed. Shoko’s mum had still died, and it had only happened because she had gone after Shoko to comfort her.

“What are you doing out here?”

She turned her head, and there was Satoru, rubbing his eyes and yawning. Memories of the past, both of six years and yesterday, swirled around her head. She scooted aside as he sat beside her, taking another large swig from the bottle and watching as smoke curled from the end of her cigarette. Satoru watched her quietly, a solemn seriousness in his eyes as he focused on the whiskey.

“Did I ever tell you why I became a doctor?” she asked.

“You said you could help people,” he replied.

“Yeah, that’s basically it,” she flicked ashes from the cigarette and took a long drag on it. “It sucks when there’s someone in front of you, and you want to be able to do something, and you can’t.”

He searched her face, as if expecting an answer, but he didn’t say anything. She downed more of the whiskey, relishing in the burn at the back of her throat, the reminder that she was the one who had lived that day, that there was a promise of a numbing release later. Whiskey softened the blow of July the thirteenth.

“My mum died,” she continued, “six years ago today.”

“That’s awful,” he watched her sadly.

“Yeah, it sucked, and it still does,” Shoko sniffed, feeling her eyes getting wet. “She was hit by a car. I was there. It was probably quick for her, but I couldn’t save her.” She abandoned the cigarette, stamping it out on the floor and indulging more in the bottle. “There was nothing I could’ve done, either. It was quick. Instant. For some reason, that doesn’t make it feel any better.”

Satoru stayed quiet. He was watching her, crystal eyes sad and beautiful, framed with soft white lashes.

“So I started studying for medicine,” she said between another sip. “I didn’t want that to happen to some other kid. Figured I could make a difference in the world if I actually learned CPR and some other cool party tricks. Whatever… I’m doing my best…”

“You’re doing amazing,” he said softly.

But Shoko wasn’t done. With a shaking hand, she took a long drink this time. A little bit of courage to finally talk. “I’d argued with her, it was so stupid. I should’ve gone to my room like a normal fucking teenager.” She wiped her face angrily, and pushed away his hand when he reached for the whisky. “Just listen. It was such a stupid argument, completely pointless.”

“Don’t blame yours-”

“Just listen to me ! ” she hadn’t meant to raise her voice, but she had, and Satoru fell quiet once more. “ I left the house; it was stupid and overdramatic, and that was why she came out after me. If I had gone to my room, she wouldn’t have had to cross that stupid road. ” More tears, more whisky. “ She even waited for the fucking light and that still wasn’t enough to save her. I ran it; I ran across the road and I was fine , but she followed the rules and she wasn’t .”

“Shoko…”

“And I just think that if I’d been a good daughter for once in my fucking life and waited for the light -”

“Shoko, no.”

“- then maybe she’d still be here -”

“Stop.”

“- and my stupid selfish self could take the hit for her -”

“Shoko,” he said sharply, and he reached for the bottle again.

“- and then - stop it !” she slapped his hand away, and as she did, the bottle slipped from her hand.

There was a loud shattering, liquid and glass splintering across the floor, golden whisky seeping across the patio and running into the grass. There was a red mark on Satoru’s hand, blossoming brighter the more she looked at it in the gradually lightening morning.

“Satoru,” she felt more tears well up, “I’m sor-”

He wordlessly pulled her into a hug. His hand found the back of her head and he pressed her in close to him, and she breathed in his oaky scent as she cried into his shirt.

“I know you didn’t mean it,” he said quietly, softly. “But that stuff -” he shook his head, “- it won’t help you, ever. It’s just a way of procrastinating, of putting off the sad feelings that want to rise up.” He rocked her gently. “It’s easier to hide from what we don’t want to face, but it’s not healthy to push back the negative feelings, because then they never go away. You have to - to face them, even if you know they’re going to hurt.” He kissed the top of her head, still swaying her in his arms. “And you can’t say things about taking anyone’s place. People care about you just as much as they cared for your mother, and I hate to be selfish but I - I don’t like hearing you talk like that, as though you wouldn’t be missed.”

“Satoru,” she said meekly against his shirt, holding on tight. “I’m sorry.”

Stop apologising for things that aren’t your fault, ” he squeezed her pointedly. “ It’s not your fault what happened to your mum - that was just awful luck, a terrible coincidence, and it could’ve happened to anyone. ” He stroked her hair absent-mindedly. “ You need help , Shoko; you can’t keep wrapping yourself up in safety blankets that aren’t good for you. ” It was then that he held her back a little bit. “ I can help you.”

Shoko sniffed. “How?”

“When you need to talk, talk to me,” his eyes burned with fierce determination. “When you need to cry, I’ll hold you. When you want to drink, I’ll make you tea. Coffee. Whatever you like. When you need propping up, I’m by your side. When you need to rest, I’ll help shoulder your problems. When you need a break, I’ll have the tickets ready. I told you I was going to be there for you, and I meant it. I don’t want you to deal with this alone, because look what it’s doing to you . Stop trying to be strong all the time. We’re all a little broken, so we might as well stick together to pick up the pieces.”

“Why are you being so nice?” she wiped her eyes again. “I just hit you.”

“Because you’re hurting, and we both know you didn’t mean to,” he said, blue eyes dark and serious. “And I don’t want you criticising yourself for one alcohol-induced slip up. I forgive you .”

She felt her mouth wobbling as she tried to suppress tears. She took his hand gently in hers, looking at the red mark, and she kissed his hand carefully. It didn’t make things better, but it was always that saying - kiss it better. She raised her head to him, and he leant in so their lips met. These were small, soft kisses, brief on the mouth, meeting repeatedly, arms wrapped around each other in the cold morning. He was so warm, so kind, and she couldn’t help the tears that began to roll down her face again.

“You’re fine,” he murmured. “Let’s get indoors so you don’t catch a cold.”

Shoko nodded as he thumbed her tears away, sniffing and giving him a watery smile. He swung her hand in his as he led her upstairs once more.

“I’ll run you a bath,” he kissed her nose, and then wandered down the hallway.

Shoko drew her knees up to her chest, sitting down on her bed. She was thankful that she had Satoru with her, otherwise she would’ve drank herself into a stupor. She closed her eyes, her head spinning a little tipsily, but nothing major. Shoko told herself that she would have to clean up the broken glass. In fact, there was a lot she wanted to do today, and none of them were especially pleasant. She wanted to clean the glass, talk to her dad, and then speak to her friends. It pained her to be in an argument with them, especially Suguru.

Satoru reappeared. “Bath’s ready! I’ll grab you a water.”

Shoko smiled tiredly, before pulling herself to her feet and wandering to the bathroom. It felt weird to be having a bath so early in the morning, but Satoru had filled up the tub, and bubbles floated on top of the water, a crackling, fizzling noise filling the room as they rapidly popped. Shoko stripped off, put her hair up into a bun, and then sat down in the water, letting it rise up to her shoulders, bubbles framing around her.

It was so comfortable; she was warm and tired, and the only reason she didn’t let herself fall asleep was the dangers of slipping under the water. Instead, she drew her knees up and rested her head on them, smiling as the water lapped around her. She felt marvelously at peace, and it was the slight creaking of the door that pulled her back into her reverie. She raised her head as Satoru wandered in, crouching beside the bath and handing her a plastic cup of water.

“Drink up,” he said. “You don’t want to be feeling ill.”

“Idiot, I know what a hangover is,” she flicked a few drops of water at him, but took a sip of the cool, clear water and relished in it.

Satoru watched her, almost lovingly, sitting by the bath and resting his arms on the edge, his chin on his arms. He really was so handsome, blue eyes like both the sea and the sky, so brilliantly blue and bright that she felt she could drown in them. She set the cup aside and leaned against the edge of the bath, kissing him again. She didn’t want to get bathwater on him, but he deepened the kiss and she raked her fingers through his hair for better support. He caressed her arm gently, hand gliding down and cupping a breast, thumb brushing over her nipple.

“Fuck it…” he muttered against her mouth, before breaking their kiss and standing up.

Shoko looked up at him questioningly, watching him take his shirt off. She let her gaze linger along his abs, the taught muscle that ended in a V just at the waistband of his boxers. When she looked at him again, he was wearing a sly smile on his face.

“I kinda like you from this angle ~” he remarked.

Shoko bit her lip, relishing in the way his eyes traced her movements. “Is that so?”

“I was planning on sharing the bath with you, but…” he seemed to consider, “...I’m not sure either of us are really thinking about bathing right now.”

“I’m not,” Shoko reached out to trail her hand along his abdomen.

Satoru visibly swallowed. She hadn’t seen him like this before, a little unravelled. One of his hands drifted down to her hair, pushing some loose strands from her face and tracing the shell of her ear. Shoko traced the lines of his muscles, smiling to herself at the impatient sigh that left his throat as she took her time. She looked up at him through her lashes and he quirked a smile, although his pupils were dilated and there was the beginnings of a flush rising up his neck.

Kneeling up in the tub, Shoko slipped her fingers beneath his waistband and pulled his boxers down. Up close, he was much bigger than she remembered. It was all well and all having him pound between her legs, now she had to fit him down her throat. Still, Shoko wasn’t about to be a woman who let a penis intimidate her. She spat on her palm and grasped his cock, hand moving up and down his length. He puffed out a breath, eyes boring into the top of her head, and every time she glanced up, he was staring at her with a burning intensity that lit up his blue eyes all the more. His breaths had also gotten a little rougher, as his hands idled at her cheeks, drifting up to stroke through her hair every few now and then.

He was getting gradually harder in her hand, and his breaths became more and more uneven. His hand movements also increased, and he even played with her hairband. Shoko licked her lips, and she noticed he inclined his head as she did so, breath hitching. She leant in, opening her mouth and taking him in, feeling his cock slide along her tongue as she moved in closer, lips closing around him. One hand on her head briefly tightened, and she gazed up through her lashes again, seeing his eyelids fluttered, lips parted, as she drew her head back. She timed her mouth movements with her hand, stroking the base of his cock, and occasionally teasing his tip with a flick of her tongue. He didn’t seem to want to close his mouth, openly panting as she bobbed her head back and forth.

With more momentum, she was able to speed up, spitting on her hand again for added lubrication. She wrapped her fingers around him again, leaning in again to draw her tongue along his length, eliciting an appreciative moan from him as she reached the top and closed her lips around his cock. Shoko brought her mouth down low, closing her eyes in concentration as she took him deep. He groaned deeply, and she even drifted her fingers, featherlight, between his legs.

“Fuck,” he breathed, gripping her head briefly again.

She lifted her lips from his cock with a pop as she leant away, and looked up at him as she idly played with his length, hand moving up and down. His cheeks were flushed, eyes unfocused, head tipped back. Shoko took him in her mouth again, picking up her pace, and hummed against his cock. Another groan, and he pulled her hair out of the updo, curling his fingers through it. She took him in deep again, past the back of her throat, and her eyes watered. She hummed again, and when she pulled away to breathe this time, a long string of saliva kept her mouth connected with his cock. Satoru was looking at her, fascinated.

“You’re fucking beautiful,” he said breathlessly.

Smiling lightly, she let herself catch her breath before closing her lips around him. He tugged at her hair impatiently, so she took her time to draw her mouth along the length of his cock.

“Teaser,” he growled, winding her hair in one hand.

Shoko had a feeling she knew what was coming, and a part of her was a little excited, if she was honest. She gripped the edge of the bath just in time, as Satoru grabbed the side of her head with other hand and snapped his hips against her mouth. She choked briefly, but then he was pulling out again, only to knock against the back of her throat a second later. He was going at a brutal pace, and his firm hold on her head didn’t give her any freedom to move. She was acutely aware that she had to keep blinking back tears, and there was drool running from the corners of her mouth.

His thrusts became more pointed and irregular, and she looked up to make eye contact with him. He groaned as he came, hands knotting in her hair. He kept a slow pace, pumping against her face as she tasted warm saltiness. When he finally released her hair, her scalp burning a little bit, she drew her lips along his cock and swallowed, wiping her mouth as she lowered herself into the bath once more.

Satoru climbed in after her, and sat down, pulling her around to rest against him. His breaths were still heavy, but he tilted her head and kissed her, slow and seductive, other arm circling her waist, hand stroking her inner thigh.

“That was amazing,” he murmured against her mouth.

Shoko hummed against his lips, her throat a little sore. Still, she felt a little turned on by how attractive he had looked, blushing down at her and coming loose under her touch. Most of the bubbles had dissipated, and the water wasn’t as hot, but it was nice to soak as he kissed her along neck and trailed his fingers over her skin, leaving small tingles in his wake. His other hand drifted in between her legs, fingers finding her clit and rubbing slowly and methodically in circles. She drew up her legs and shifted against him, a sleepy sigh drifting from her lips.

She could feel her lower abdomen twisting in a knot, even if the water was making her a little less wet than normal. Satoru kept his assault on her clit, fingers moving quicker.

“Let’s…” she panted, but paused to whine softly, leaning back into him, “... take this…”

He didn’t reply, pulling one leg over his own, one after the other, and then playing in between her folds again. She keened again as he put three fingers in her, but she couldn’t close her legs, not now that he had brought his knees up.

“Satoru -”

He bit down on her neck softly, other hand returning to her clit as he pumped three fingers. Shoko grabbed the edges of the bath, bucking against his hands, and her moans filled the bathroom. She was stuck, her moans reaching a pitch as he curled his fingers inside her. Her chest was heaving as Satoru decorated her neck with fresh teeth marks, getting increasingly harder as he brought her closer and closer to that sweet heaven.

“Satoru -”

She could feel herself getting tighter around his fingers, couldn’t stop the slowed pants that echoed around the room. She felt her body getting hot, gripping the bath as hard as she could.

“Sato-”

A cry finished the last syllable of his name, Satoru playing with her clit as she orgasmed. His other hand left her body, turning her face so he could kiss her, swallowing the rest of her moans as she shuddered against him. Her heart was thumping in her chest, and she was putty in his hands. She settled against him, trying to control her breathing. Satoru continued to suck gently along her neck, lips tracing her jaw, up to her ear lobe, which he nibbled on. Her body was buzzing and she was more than happy to let the ecstasy wash away any negative emotions.

Satoru reached for the soap and lathered his hands, then massaged her back carefully and gently. She leaned forward, sighing as he thumbed the tension away from her muscles. His breaths, although warm, cooled the water on her skin, but he would cup water in his palms and pour it over her back, a fresh wave of warmth running through her body. It was nice to feel clean; it felt as though she were washing away the impurities of the whiskey, which was when she remembered that her cup of water was nearby. She took sips, and it was a relief for her sore throat.

When the water finally cooled enough to no longer be pleasant, Shoko rose from the tub and stepped out. Satoru’s eyes travelled along her body, a lazy smile on his perfect mouth. He followed her from the bath, and as she was reaching for her towel, his hand shot out and grasped her wrist. Shoko turned to him, wide-eyed, and he tilted her head up as he pressed his mouth to hers. Bodies still damp, he pushed her against the bathroom, tiles cold on her back.

“I’m not done with you,” he said between kisses.

Shoko’s heart fluttered. He grabbed her ass, and hoisted her up. She gasped and gripped onto his shoulders, trying to find some balance as he adjusted her legs around his hips. He desperately kissed her, lining himself up and thrusting his hips forward. Shoko cried, but the sound was muffled. There was a lewd thumping with each time he slammed into her, and she had to raise her head to catch some air. Satoru was ruthless, biting her neck and trailing his tongue along her skin. He called the shots, he was in control, and all Shoko could do was cling onto his back and moan it out. Her hips were on fire, her shoulder blades roughly hitting the bathroom tiles. She squeezed her legs around his waist as she felt another orgasm rip through her, breathing out a groan, and if he hadn’t been holding her up against the wall, she would’ve let herself slip down.

He slowed his pace just a little as she caught her breath, nuzzling his face into the crook of her neck. Her body was damp with the last remnants of bathwater and sweat, a small gasp escaping as he bit her particularly hard on the throat. He began to pick up once more, and Shoko let out a shuddering moan. She was already sensitive and tight, and she felt a little weak. She was holding onto him for every bit of support, uncontrollably calling out for him. A shiver danced along her as he grazed his teeth along her jugular, and when she caught a glimpse of him, his blue eyes were electric, gleaming like a predator’s, and he was looking right at her. If she hadn’t understood what “le petit mort” was before, then she definitely did when the breath left her for the third time, and although she wanted to make a noise, nothing left her mouth. She was seeing stars and black spots, and this time he fucked her the whole way through it. His mouth had become stationary, breaths heated on her skin as he thrust in and out of her, and she could feel that desperation from him once more. His breaths became loud pants and moans, and she could hear him murmuring her name in between. It was like a shot of warmth between her legs, he shuddered a moan and dropped his forehead against her shoulder.

Shoko let her cheek rest against his hair, limbs trembling as she held onto him. She felt weak, as though she would melt into a puddle. Her neck was sore, but so was a lot of her body. Eventually, Satoru stepped away from the wall, shifting her in his arms, holding her bridal style. Shoko rested her shoulder on his shoulder, looking past him as he brought her back to her room. Satoru rolled her a little unceremoniously into bed, and climbed in afterwards, settling down and slinging an arm over her waist, burying his face in her neck once more and letting out a satisfied, sleepy sigh.

“One day we’ll have a conversation without sex,” she let out a breathless laugh.

“But I just like you,” he pulled her in closer with a smile.

She stroked his hair with a half-smile of her own. “Thank you.”

“Whenever you like ~”

“I meant our talk, dummy,” she rolled her eyes, but she was still smiling. “Although the sex was still appreciated.”

He propped himself up on an elbow and looked at her, expression soft and warm once more. “I like that you can talk to me. Be careful, because you might make me feel like I’m special.”

“I just feel like… you get me,” she rolled over to look at him properly. “I’m not sure why, but I haven’t really felt this kind of closeness with someone before.”

“I feel it, too,” he looked magical, eyes bright. “I think we met for a reason. It might sound stupid, but…” he reached over and tucked hair behind her ear, “whenever I’m with you, everything becomes right, and I feel happy, like I’m on top of the world or something.”

“Are you sure that’s not because you live in a penthouse?”

“I’m being serious ,” he chuckled. “I don’t really talk about feelings much, but with you, I just want to tell you everything.”

“Always,” she breathed. “And you can talk to me. I don’t want to weigh you down.”

“You don’t weigh me down,” he said seriously, “ever. And the first thing I will be telling you is that, if either of us want to have a remotely fruitful day tomorrow, we should try and sleep now.”

As though on cue, she yawned. “When did you become a voice of reason?”

“When I met someone who made me want to think of someone other than myself,” he drew her in close and kissed her lightly. “I want to be the best I can for you.”

She felt her eyes water. “You’re going to make me cry.”

“Right - you can’t take compliments,” he hugged her tight. “I…”

He fell silent, and Shoko shifted to look at him. It was dark, but she was sure she could see a deep, thoughtful expression in his incredible eyes.

“What?” she asked quietly.

“I’m glad I met you,” he smiled again. “I think you might have saved me from myself.”

“I could say the same of you,” she cuddled against him, yawning again. “Goodnight, Satoru.”

He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. “Night.”

Chapter Text

It went without saying that Shoko chose not to open the bakery that day. Not only did she not roll out of bed until eleven, but she had also spent another half hour watching Satoru as he searched his suitcase for clothes, and even offered a wolf-whistle as he pulled his boxers on. She had earned a lot of tickling and another make-out session for that. Once he had left, she had lounged in bed on her phone until she became thirsty. She had thrown on sweatpants and one of Satoru’s shirts, trooping downstairs and having a cup of tea.

It was only once she’d steeled herself that she picked up the house phone and shifted through the contacts until she found the one she looked for. Her hands trembled; she was nervous, and expected a blow-out. Still, this was something she had to do. She called the number and lifted the phone to her ear.

“Shoko?”

“Hey, Dad.”

His voice sounded fuzzy over the receiver, but she could hear a trace of raw emotion there. She shifted the phone in her hands, unsure of what to say, even though there was a lot to say.

“I’m sorry,” she lowered her eyes to the ground. “It wasn’t fair of me to… cut you out like that.”

There was a pause. The silence lasted long enough for her to wonder whether he had hung up on her, or lost connection, but then she heard him draw in a careful breath.

“Shoko, I was worried about you,” he said quietly. “And then - when I saw the news about that boy from your university, I -” his voice cracked, and he seemed unable to muster the right words to say.

“I’m OK, though, Dad,” she said quickly. “I know I haven’t been responsive, but I’ve been having a great time running the bakery.”

A part of her wanted to tell him about Satoru. They had been seeing each other for two and a half weeks, although there wasn’t any solid label about what they were. Besides, that was something she needed to speak with Satoru about. No, she couldn’t tell her Dad yet.

“I’m glad,” he still sounded a little forlorn, but she heard a slight pick-up in his tone. “I’ve missed you so much down here in Kyoto, although I’m back in ten days!”

Shoko blinked. Time seemed to have flown by. “Is it really so soon?”

“I feel the same way,” he sounded more and more cheerful the more they talked. “I have one more weekend here and then I’ll be going to visit Baba and Jiji.”

“Tell them I say “hi”,” she said absently, and then added, “Actually, let me know when you’re there. We can have a call.”

“I would love that, and I know they would, too,” his voice was warm.

A part of Shoko wanted to ask what her dad had meant about his post-it note, but figured it was better to talk about things like that in person. Before she could respond, he had continued talking.

“Anyway, I must dash - I’m still running the stall!” he laughed nervously. “I’ll hear from you soon, though, yeah?”

“Of course,” she smiled. “I’ll text you on my new number, OK?”

“Much appreciated,” he replied, and they disconnected.

That had gone far better than she had expected. She could always trust her dad to not be angry with her, although a part of her wondered whether she deserved his anger this time. Still, it was his choice, and she was equally grateful for his forgiveness. There were still many people to speak with, though, and it was from now on that she felt more nervous about how easy it would be to sway them. Steeling herself, she took a shower and made herself look relatively presentable.

Grabbing her keys, phone and bag, she wandered out into the sunshine. She supposed it had been quite some time before she’d properly set foot outside, and the air smelled sweeter than she remembered. She ought to open a few windows in the bakery, let in some of the honeyed air and ward off the staleness. She shouldered her bag and headed for the train station. Her destination was the centre of town and, although it was broad daylight, she couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder, to keep an eye on her surroundings, just to make absolute sure that Black Hoodie wasn’t following her.

He was nowhere in sight, of course. She had to keep telling herself that the previous presence of the police in the area had warded him away. Whatever that had been about, whatever he had wanted from her, it seemed as though he hadn’t deemed it worthy to go to prison for. Still, she was glad the sun was out, that it was broad daylight, otherwise she might have been less inclined to travel out unless Satoru was around to give her a lift.

Shoko wasn’t used to travelling by train anymore. She wobbled as she held onto the bar, but it was a skill that she adapted to quickly once more. In fact, it was quite liberating to be able to go out like this, and there was still no sight of Black Hoodie. With the sun beaming in through the windows, surrounded by mothers with children, people in business attire reading newspapers, and the elderly who simply watched from the windows, Shoko felt safe. It was remarkable to stand there and appreciate that nobody was currently following her, that she could walk freely again.

She stepped off at the town centre, almost being swept away by crowds of people, and had to peer past shoulders in order to catch sight of signs. She knew where she was headed - had trodden this path many times - and yet it was muscle memory that had her checking every direction. In a crowded place like this, she couldn’t be seen by anyone, and Shoko felt safest in this situation. Central Tokyo was busy even during the day, but she managed to weave through the crowds as she made her way to her destination.

It was a beautiful, rustic-styled bar-restaurant. There was very much an American 50s vibe about it, with jovial, yet classy live music playing. It was a wonderful place; the food was good, although being in a good location with good service and quality, the prices were relatively high. She wandered across a dance floor that was currently empty, and down a gap between tables towards the bar, not daring to look at the stage where the music was played. She approached the bar, and ordered a small white wine. Turning around, she finally brought herself to look at the stage.

Utahime was already looking at her, an incredulous expression on her face. She was wearing her work uniform, namely a beautiful, red 50s dress with black polka dots, and she looked stunning. Shoko tried a smile, but Utahime’s golden gaze flitted hastily away and her performing smile became a little plastered. Shoko sipped her wine, hoping she wasn’t going to be spoiling Utahime’s work day, but knew that her friend would be finishing her set for a lunch break. She listened to her melodic voice, closing her eyes and listening to each practiced and perfect note. Utahime had the most beautiful voice she had ever heard; it was hypnotising, and also brought the attention away from her and Mei Mei’s awful singing on karaoke nights.

She stayed, quiet in the corner and minding her own business, as Utahime continued into the next song, and the song after that. Utahime didn’t dare make eye contact with Shoko again, and there was the slight crease of a frown written on her features. Admittedly, it made Shoko a little depressed to think that she was a stress on her friend’s day, so she stared into her wine glass until she heard the music die down. Utahime’s voice broke through the peace of the bar.

“We’ll be taking an hour break,” she announced into the microphone. “Enjoy your day, ladies and gentlemen.”

Shoko didn’t dare look up. There was a chance Utahime would ignore her entirely, depending on how badly she felt towards her. Would she cry if that happened? She couldn’t say, but it would definitely upset her. There was the clicking of heels on wooden floor, and when she raised her head, Utahime was stood before her, looking incredibly unimpressed.

“Shoko,” she said.

“Can we talk?” Shoko frowned.

“I figured that’s why you were here,” Utahime pursed her lips. “Come on. We’ll go talk in the common room.”

Shoko nodded awkwardly, twisting her hair around a finger as she followed Utahime through a STAFF ONLY door. The back of the building was just as pleasantly decorated, and on their way to the common room, Utahime picked up two toasted sandwiches from the kitchens.

“It’s on me,” she said, pushing one plate into Shoko’s hands.

Again, she didn’t dare give a verbal response, since Utahime seemed to be in a bad mood. The pair of them entered the common room, and Utahime flopped down on a wide armchair, dress fanning out around her, and crossed her legs, plate held in her hands. She wasn’t eating her sandwich, though, and Shoko found she didn’t have much of an appetite as she placed her plate on the coffee table.

“So,” Utahime said, “how are you?”

Shoko shifted uncomfortably, and continued to twine her hair around a finger. “Fine.”

Her friend took a deep breath. “You want to talk about yesterday. So do I. I suppose.”

There was a pause. Shoko really didn’t know what to say, especially seeing as Utahime looked as enthusiastic as she felt.

“Well, not want to, but need to,” Utahime continued.

“Yeah,” she toed the ground. “I’m… sorry…”

Utahime was quiet. When Shoko looked up, her lip was wobbling. “Me, too.”

Shoko stood up as Utahime set her plate down, stumbling to her feet in her heels, and they closed each other in a hug.

“I hate fighting with you,” Utahime sniffled.

“Same,” Shoko wiped her eyes as she held onto Utahime. “I didn’t intentionally ignore any of you, I just completely lost track of the days.”

“And I was wrong to yell at you after helping corner you like that,” Utahime hiccoughed. “That was a conversation that - well, it shouldn’t have happened in the park, that’s for sure.”

Shoko leant back to hold Utahime at arm’s length. “I just wish you guys had talked to me beforehand. I would’ve understood if you’d just - you know, told me that you felt left out, or were missing me, or…” she didn’t know how to say it, so let her words drift off.

“And?” Utahime sniffed, settling back down in her chair. “Have you spoken with the others?”

“Just Dad,” Shoko resumed her seat. “Mei Mei’s usually very understanding. Suguru…”

“Suguru won’t be hard to talk to at all,” Utahime insisted. “I think he misses you just as much as you miss him.”

“I’m sure,” she gave a nervous smile, and began twisting her hair, “but I feel like I need to talk to him about so much more. Not just about yesterday, but how he treated Satoru when they first met each other.”

Utahime shifted in her seat. “He said it was tense.”

“They were both just as bad as each other,” Shoko said warningly. “You weren’t there, Utahime. Suguru wasn’t friendly, or accommodating, or understanding. I had to wedge myself in the middle. And I spoke with Satoru about it, and he wants things to be fine between him and you guys.”

“Right,” Utahime looked uncomfortable. “And… you spoke with Satoru about… yesterday?”

“Not necessarily about our conversation,” Shoko said, “but we did talk about me, and we talked a bit about our relationship.”

“And?”

“I really like him,” she said. “He makes me happy.”

Utahime opened her mouth to speak, but Shoko held up a hand.

“And he really likes me,” she added. “I can just tell. I think we both want this to work. He said…” Shoko let a smile creep on her face as she recalled his words. “He said I make him feel special, and he makes me feel special. It’s the most we’ve spoken about us , really, but I guess we just really needed to speak with each other.”

Utahime nodded and said quietly, “I suppose so.”

Please give him a chance, ” Shoko implored. “ You haven’t met him, but he’s actually a really nice guy. I just - I want you to trust me on this one.”

Her friend drew in a deep breath. “If you think he’s right for you, then I’ll try.”

Thank you ,” she let out a relieved sigh. “You’ll like him - you will. I just want to put this whole thing behind us.”

“I think Suguru will take a bit more convincing on that part,” Utahime warned. “But I trust your decisions. You know what’s best for you.”

“Suguru needs to learn that we’re both adults now and that I am capable of making my own judgements,” she smiled wanly. “But you’re right - that’s not a conversation I’m looking forward to. Thank you for the sandwich, by the way.”

“It’s nothing,” Utahime smiled, and this time it was jovial and relieved. “I’m just glad we’re able to patch things up.”

“Which reminds me,” Shoko dug her phone from her pocket and extended it across the table to Utahime, “put your number in there and I’ll pop you a text. I don’t want to fall out of communication again.”

Utahime snatched the phone gratefully and hurriedly input her number. “Now you’ll never get a moment’s peace. Shall I put Mei Mei’s number in, too?”

“Please,” said Shoko. “Even though she won’t be difficult to talk to, she sure as Hell has a busy schedule. I’ll need to pin her down, so maybe she’ll be having a late lunch.”

“Hopefully,” Utahime added Mei Mei’s number. “I’m sure she’d make some space for you though.”

“As long as she’s using her work hours to get money, there’s not going to be any space for anything else,” Shoko laughed. “Thank you, Utahime, for being so understanding.”

“I guess… I guess we all need to stop treating you as though you’re a child,” Utahime said reluctantly. “It’s probably getting old that people are constantly fussing over you.”

“Yeah, but there’s no point moping about it,” Shoko beamed. “I just need normal right now.”

“That’s right…” Utahime’s brow furrowed. “How are you feeling today?”

“It’s difficult to say,” she twisted her hair again. “I actually… talked about it this morning... like, one o’clock or something… with Satoru. I haven’t really done that before. I guess I’d had a bit of whiskey…” she averted her gaze from Utahime’s disapproving stare, “... and it all kind of just spilled out. But… I don’t regret it, and it actually felt kind of… cathartic.”

“No doubt,” Utahime looked amazed. “I think it’s good that you can talk about what happened, Shoko. It’s not good to bottle things up and… if Satoru’s good at listening, then… I think I’m more inclined to like him… I guess…”

“He really is,” Shoko smiled vacantly.

There was a pause, and then Utahime let out a disgusted noise. Shoko jerked her head towards her friend, who had wrinkled her nose.

“What?” she asked.

“Stop looking like that,” Utahime shook her head scathingly. “Like you’re in love, or something.”

Shoko laughed softly. “Don’t be silly.”

But she made no remark to correct Utahime, either.


Shoko left once Utahime’s lunch break had ended. She was walking along, her heart jumping in her throat as she popped off a quick message to Mei Mei. A part of her already knew what the answer was going to be, but nevertheless she sent off a quick message to say it was her, and asked to talk. Mei Mei’s answer was swift and punctual, as always.

I’m available between 5 and 5:30. I can drive to yours?

Shoko sent off an affirmative, and made a mental note to be home by then. There was one place she needed to go, as much as she was trying to put it off. She would rather have been bolstered by Mei Mei’s swift acceptance, but she supposed she had also received confirmation from Utahime. 

Drawing in a deep breath, she hurried back to the train station. If there was one place she didn’t need to be right now, it was central Tokyo’s entertainment square. She needed to be in the business area, which was a little further afield from where she normally travelled to. Anxiously checking each station, she was half-pushed, half-pulled from the train as she made to step off, and let herself be carried away by a river of dark suits who had just finished their lunch breaks. It was hard not to get completely swept away, but she managed to escape the crowd and find a map on her phone to get her to the right place.

She felt bad to admit it, but she had never been to Suguru’s work office before. He was always coming to her, and she began to wonder if this was just another part of their friendship that she had selected to ignore. Was she a bad friend? She shook her head as she navigated her way to Suguru’s offices; now wasn’t the time to be thinking about that. Besides, if she really thought she was that bad, she would be hesitant to barge into his office building.

Steeling herself, she made her way towards a tall building that looked very similar to all the others in the area. Far in the distance she could see the head of the Paradise Supreme rising above all the others, the fantastic glass roof reflecting the sun’s brilliant rays. It was blinding to look at, so she hastily averted her gaze and walked towards the unsuspecting office.

The doors were glass and revolving, so she used her elbow to push them, hurrying through to the other side into the clean office space. It was an uninviting lobby, not really for people to visit, and more of directing people through doors to meetings. Shoko doubted many people were getting visitor passes just for a house tour in a place like this, and a part of her pitied Suguru for having to work somewhere so cold. On the other hand, he was getting paid good money, so she wasn’t about to tell him to quit.

She wandered up to the front desk where a woman was seated at the front desk. She was in her late twenties, and had a mature stylishness about her that Shoko suspected she would never have. Her hair was cut into a sleek, long bob, and she had a natural air of haughtiness as she glanced up at Shoko with unimpressed dark eyes. Shoko looked at the receptionist and saw a woman who had her life together, who probably gave private tours of the company and passed on important messages to higher-ups on a daily basis. She watched everyone come and go through the revolving door, and she was probably memorising Shoko’s face for when she needed to report any suspicious activity.

“Can I help you?” even her voice was clipped and professional. There was nothing about this woman that faltered.

“Hi, I’m wondering if I could speak with Suguru Getou?” she wandered up to the desk and was about to rest a hand on it, when she spied it was sleek and glass-topped; she didn’t want to sully it with fingerprints.

“Mr Getou…” the woman murmured, and she turned to her computer.

Shoko waited patiently as she typed. Her nails clacked against the keyboard, and she clicked a few times, a white screen reflected in her eyes. Every now and then, her eyes would flit towards Shoko, and she would be lying if she didn’t feel a little bit intimidated by this woman.

“Mr Getou has a meeting in thirty-eight minutes,” the woman smiled thinly at Shoko, turning in her chair.

“I won’t take that much of his time,” Shoko said quickly. “Twenty minutes tops. Probably.”

“I rather think that’s for Mr Getou to decide,” the woman replied. “May I take your name?”

“Shoko Ieiri.”

“Perfect, now would you like me to book you in for an appointment with Mr Getou?” the woman said, her voice cool and collected. “He is rather busy with his work schedule.”

Shoko shifted from foot to foot. “Um, OK. Does he have any appointments today?”

“I’m afraid not,” the woman glanced at her computer once more. “Mr Getou doesn’t have any full slots available until Thursday, at two o’clock. Shall I book you in then?”

She would rather meet him after work. “What about non-full slots?”

“Ah, you see, with a job like Mr Getou, there are “full slots” and break times,” a tone of knowing crept into the woman’s voice. “He doesn’t have, as you say, “non-full” slots available, as that would risk minimising how many other potential clients he might be able to see in a day, people who need more time than a “non-full” slot. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” said Shoko curtly, deciding that her conversation with Suguru would have to wait a few hours.

“Would you still like to book an appointment with Mr Getou on Thursday, two o’clock, then?” the woman smiled, but it wasn’t all that friendly.

“No,” Shoko replied, feeling her lips had thinned away to nothing.

“In that case, is there anything else I can help you with?” the woman tilted her head, glossy dark hair falling to one side.

“No,” Shoko tried a smile, but felt it appeared as more of a sneer. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the woman said. “Have a nice day.”

“You, too,” Shoko said, and left through the revolving door, face burning and hoping the woman spilt tea on her lovely, ironed, ivory-cream shirt.

She stomped outside and stood against the side of the building. Her blood was boiling. And to think she had walked in and admired that woman… Furiously, she dug around in her pocket for her cigarettes, lit one, and angrily puffed away. Passers-by glanced at with snobbish disinterest, glancing at the smoke in her hand with slightly wrinkled noses. She didn’t dare respond with a facial expression; there was no use rising up to these things, especially since these were all people she didn’t know and would never see again. She was just deciding that this would be the last time she would visit Suguru’s office when she heard a familiar voice.

“Kousuke, you go ahead. Something just came up.”

Her head whipped round to the side, and there he was, Suguru, standing at the revolving door, looking the other way. At first, she worried he was going to ignore her completely, or whether he hadn’t seen her, but then he looked directly at her, his face schooled to be completely impassive. She didn’t know whether this was worse.

“Su-”

“Shoko,” he walked over, dark eyes showing nothing. “What are you doing here?”

“I -” she opened her mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out. He was still so angry at her. How was she supposed to reach out to him when he was looking like this, hiding all his true feelings and trying to be polite?

“I’ve got thirty minutes for lunch,” he rocked on the balls of his feet, hands going to his pockets.

“We really need to talk,” she said, and hated how crackly and nervous she sounded.

“I know,” he said. “I have thirty minutes. Do you?”

He was standing a metre away, and yet it felt like there was so much more distance between them. Couldn’t he just let down his walls a little bit? She felt like she was being iced out, and there was a breaking in her chest.

“Shoko,” she snapped back to attention, and he wasn’t looking at her this time. “Do you… do you have thirty minutes?”

“Yes,” she said quietly.

“OK, I know a place you’ll -” he checked his watch, cutting himself off. “I know a place. Come on.”

He began to walk, his pace fast. Shoko hesitated, tempted to call after him and cancel, but then she hurried after. He was walking too quick for her to catch up properly, so this time she settled to walk behind in his shadow.

Chapter Text

Shoko had never looked at the back of Suguru’s head for so long. For work, he tied his hair up into a bun, away from his face. It somehow made him look sharper and, admittedly, she felt a little intimidated to be having this conversation when he looked ready for a meeting. Shoko tried not to drag her feet, and averted her gaze to the ground. She couldn’t stand this silence between them, but she didn’t want to start talking until she could look Suguru in the eye. The longer that went on, walking and not talking, only made Shoko feel like the weight in her chest was getting bigger. She couldn’t even catch up to him properly, not when he was walking as though already late. She had to dodge past other people to keep up properly. This Suguru was far colder than the one she was used to; this Suguru had often been on her side, not against her.

They reached a cafe, small and unassuming, but the rich smell of coffee eased the tension from Shoko, just a little. Her only saving grace that he hadn’t completely forsaken her was that, when she tried to buy her own drink, he insisted and told her to find them seats. She had done so reluctantly, twisting her hair around her fingers, a small table by the window. Shoko had let her gaze drift to the window, overlooking the streets, and watched people walk past. Everyone looked normal, minding their own business. There was no sign of Black Hoodie, which was one small reassurement in this gradually-worsening day.

Suguru put a coffee, a dark espresso, in front of her, and sat down across from her. She dared to look at him, but he was wearing that same, carefully poised expression. He was being purposefully unreadable, and that infuriated Shoko. Why couldn’t he just wear his heart on his sleeve for once? Why couldn’t he just let a few emotions out into the open air? Surely it would make communication between them better? A part of her wanted to start shaking him until the words spilled from his mouth, but she knew there was a lot that needed to be said between them.

“How are you?” he asked carefully.

“I’ve been better,” she said, and then hastened to add, “I called Dad.”

There was a splinter of warmth in his eyes, but he hid it quickly. “Is he OK?”

“Yeah, and I’m going to call him again this weekend when he reaches my grandparents,” she said, looking into the espresso and finding that it was easier to talk if she was looking at her own reflection. “He seems to be handling things well. He’s keeping busy.”

“I’m glad you both spoke,” he said, and seemed to mean it.

“Yeah,” she looked at him once more, and their gaze met. “I also spoke with Utahime earlier.”

There it was again; another afterthought of emotion that he swiftly concealed.

“Did you?” he asked.

“We had lunch together,” Shoko continued. “And we talked things over.”

“OK,” he leant back in his chair.

“And I wanted to talk to you, too,” she looked back into her coffee. “I miss you.”

He was very quiet. When she looked up, he had finally drawn his gaze away from her. His brow had furrowed just a fraction. What had she expected? For him to start crying like Utahime had? Of course this conversation was always going to be the most difficult amongst her friends.

“I’m sorry, Suguru,” she knotted her hair around her index finger. “I would never ignore you on purpose!”

You wouldn’t,” he said coolly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she drew back, tugging at the loop in her hair.

“I just think Satoru might have something to do with it,” Suguru replied stubbornly. “You started seeing him, and then -” he looked uncomfortable, “- then we started seeing a lot less of you.”

“This isn’t Satoru’s fault,” she protested. “It’s mine . Satoru has never said or done anything to make me less inclined to hang out with anyone. I forgot to message. I forgot to say I had a new phone. I let myself get busy with the bakery and neglected Dad. This is just because you don’t like h-”

“Yeah, I clearly have a good reason!” his hand curled tightly around the handle of his coffee mug. “I don’t know how you can forgive him so easily.”

“I spoke to him about that and he was apologetic,” she scowled. “You’re being way too harsh on him, just because he was jealous.”

“Which, apparently, to you, is also an OK trait to have in a relationship,” Suguru tilted his head.

“You’re putting words in my mouth,” she accidentally pulled on her hair and winced, but unknotted her fingers in an attempt to be composed. “He only wants the best for me, he said so himself.”

“And you came here to reassure me that he wasn’t lying?”

“No, I came here to make amends with you,” Shoko scowled. “I don’t like arguing with you, so I wanted to offer the olive branch, but if you can’t even try to see things from my perspective, then we’re going to ha-”

See things from your perspective ?” he put the coffee mug down with a little more force than intended. “You’re damn right that I’m having a hard time why he spoon feeds you a pack of lies and you eat every damn bite!”

“Why can’t you be happy that I found someone?” Shoko rubbed her temples. “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal; he said sorry and we moved past it, and honestly, we’ve even talked about our relationship, and we’re much better for it.”

A look of disbelief had stunned him into silence.

“I don’t know why you find it so hard to believe I’ve found a healthy relationship,” she scowled. “I thought you’d be easier to talk to than Utahime, but she was surprisingly understanding.”

“She was ?”

“She said she would try and get along with Satoru, which is exactly what he said about you , by the way,” Shoko said pointedly. “Has it occurred to you that, for once, you might not actually be in the right? That you’re the one who’s being the difficult person here?”

His expression became incredulous. “Do you really have that little self-respect?”

A stinging pain shot through her chest. “Excuse me?”

“Have you really whittled away your self-esteem that much? ” he asked quietly. “ Shoko, what is going on up there? ” he gestured to her head. “ You’re more than this; you deserve better than him.”

“I didn’t come here to be insulted,” she stood up, almost knocking the chair over. “Nor to be told that my relationship - I might add that it’s a loving, caring, and equal relationship - is bad for me. I have felt better these past weeks than I have in ages .”

“Yeah, cocaine feels great, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you ,” he looked angry.

“I really wanted things to go back to normal with us, or at least for us to move forward and find civility once more,” she snapped. “But it’s clear to me now that change is a little bit too much for you, Suguru. I can’t always be fifteen, and you can’t always be the only person I care about.” She felt the threat of tears. “That’s why it hurts so much to say these words - because I care about you , and yet you don’t even want to try and support me in the decisions that I’m making.”

“Because I think this is a stupid one,” he replied with an uncanny confidence.

“Then I think we’re done here,” she swallowed back the well of emotions that wanted to burst forth.

“I care about you, too,” he sprang to his feet, and followed her out of the cafe. “Two weeks of knowing someone just isn’t enough time to be holding onto someone this tightly.”

“You’re making an absolute mountain of a molehill,” she furiously lit a cigarette.

I think you’re being too blasé!”

“Maybe try getting yourself a partner, Suguru, and then you might be able to relate a bit more,” she turned, accidentally puffing smoke in his face as she spoke.

His face darkened. “Just to let you know, I didn’t come here to waste my lunchtime telling you to get a grip of yourself. But seriously, Shoko, you’re worth more than you seem to think you are.”

“Satoru’s a great guy,” she turned, and he was standing on the pavement, stony-faced. “You’d know that if you bothered to give him a second chance.”

“No second chance can convince me that that bastard gives a shit about you,” he snapped, and then turned on his heel and stormed towards his office building.

Shoko puffed on her cigarette. She was upset and angry. She looked at his retreating back. There was Suguru, her best friend, walking away from her, furious. A small voice in the back of her head urged her to leave it there, to just look after herself, but her blood was burning and she couldn’t stand this. She stormed forwards and grabbed his hand and pulled hard enough to turn him towards her.

“We’re not walking off like this!” she said and he flinched as more smoke drifted into his face. “Sorry!” she added on an angry after note. “Seventeen years, you idiot, seventeen years. I’m not letting my best friend go after a stupid argument, so open your eyes, Suguru, and just try and be on my side on this one. You’ve always had my back, but I think you’ve gotten used to the best for me being the easiest for me. I’m not a girl anymore, I’m a woman; I can make my own decisions and, whether you like them or not, I want you there by my side, even if it’s to piss on my grave at the very end.”

“I wouldn’t…” he mumbled quietly.

“I’m not saying you have to be best friends with Satoru,” she said, trying to soften her tongue, but her voice was thick with emotion. “In fact, I’d be angry if you did become his best friend, because you’re my best friend, and I absolutely refuse to leave a conversation between us like this. I’m not having you walk away, and I’m not going to be the person that glares at the back of your head whilst you do.”

“We’re just going round in circles,” he said, but he was finally looking her in the eyes.

“Good,” she said, “because that means there’s no end to us. We’ve always said we’ve had each other’s backs, and whilst I appreciate that you’re constantly looking out for me, I don’t want you looking after me.”

He was quiet, and then he said, “I have to go.”

“Suguru, please , ” she gripped his hand tightly, and now she could see a slight blur of tears. “ Please , let’s not leave things like this.”

“No, I really do have to go,” he said. “I have a meeting in five minutes.”

“Oh,” she faltered, “right.”

He was looking at her, a deep sadness on his face. She felt like they both had so much to say to one another, and yet neither of them spoke. It was only when she felt him begin to slip his hand from hers that she tightened her grip once more, the fire within burning again.

“Shoko -”

“Here,” she thrust her phone towards him. “Your number. This isn’t the end of us.”

The ghost of a smile fluttered on his lips as he took the phone from her hands and typed his number in.

“Suguru…” she felt her mouth wobble as he gave it back to her.

She was desperate for him to forgive her. She couldn’t stand it when they argued. She hated it when she couldn’t talk to Suguru. He took the cigarette from her mouth and rested a hand on top of her head, pulling her in for a one-armed hug. He smelt of coffee and, because of her, ash, and it took all of her will-power not to cry into his chest. When he let go of her to give the cigarette back, she felt stronger.

“We’ll talk later,” he said, and this time there was warmth in his words.

She waved as he turned to hurry back to the office, and then lifted the smoke to her mouth once more. Satoru may have been right about alcohol - it wasn’t helpful - but the same couldn’t be said for cigarettes. They really did have her back. After burning it out and throwing it away, Shoko made her way back home.

She had stress-baked more melon pan when she had made it home. She considered her trip-out today to have been a semi-success. She had recollected her friends’ numbers and had reconciled with Utahime. Shoko knew there was still some lingering tension between her and Suguru, but knew that it was salvageable, that they would be able to resolve their issues. A part of her wished he wasn’t so dramatic when it came to relationships. Satoru had only been a little envious, and it bothered her that Suguru couldn’t get past that.

There was one more person to speak with, and that was Mei Mei. Satoru often didn’t get back from work until after six, so she figured she would have time to sway Mei Mei before he returned. Besides, she wasn’t entirely sure whether she wanted Satoru to meet Mei Mei yet. She could be… unpredictable. Either way, Satoru still had that key from when he had last let himself in, so she didn’t need to worry about him getting in.

At five o’clock sharp, there was a ring on the doorbell. Shoko shot to her feet from underneath the blankets she had buried herself under in the living room, and threw open the door. Mei Mei offered a professional, red-lipped smile, the same look she always wore, and walked through the front door.

“Do you want a drink of anything?” Shoko asked.

“Tea, black, no sugar.”

Shoko led Mei Mei to the kitchen and made them both drinks before sitting down and holding it in her hands. Mei Mei sipped her tea, looking relaxed despite yesterday’s events.

“I just wanted to say -”

“Whilst I appreciate that you want to apologise to me, Shoko, I don’t think that will be necessary,” Mei Mei opened her dark eyes, and fixed Shoko with her intense stare. “We both already understand that we wish to be friends once more, and that we were both in the wrong with our approaches towards new situations. You have my number now, and I know full well that we will soon be in frequent contact once more.”

Shoko blinked. “Still, I think -”

“I don’t want you to apologise for getting lost in your happiness,” Mei Mei tilted her head to one side, “and, quite frankly, I feel it’s a waste of time for me to beg forgiveness for attempting to approach you about a new relationship. I’m more than happy for us both to accept that we value our friendship dearly, and that we wish to continue being friends regardless of what has happened.”

“That’s… all true…” Shoko downcast her eyes.

“I take it your conversation with Utahime went successfully?”

“Yeah, better than I expected.”

“Am I to presume you have yet to speak with Suguru?”

“I tried, and I’ll try again,” she bit her lip. “He’s being quite difficult. He just won’t let it go.”

“I suppose he just wants to fight your corner all the time,” Mei Mei sipped her tea.

“I just think he’s being completely unreasonable,” Shoko shook her head. “He’s acting as though Satoru committed the worst of crimes.”

“And you don’t think so?” Mei Mei pondered. “I wondered if you would be more affected, but I’ve clearly misjudged you in terms of relationships.”

Shoko eyed Mei Mei. What was that meant to mean? After her pause, Mei Mei’s expression became guarded.

“You did read the magazine, didn’t you?” she asked suspiciously.

“I didn’t get around to it, no…” Shoko shifted in her chair.

“In that case, I ask that you read it, just for your own knowledge,” Mei Mei finished her tea. “However you respond to it, I’ll be on your side. After all, a man like Satoru Gojo is simply far too good to pass on once you have him.”

“Right…” Shoko frowned. “I’ll read it.”

“If you need to talk, I suppose I might check my phone more frequently,” Mei Mei said sweetly as she stood. “I have to get back, now, though, so if I don’t respond, Utahime most certainly will. Perhaps we ought to chat on Friday night, the three of us. Or sooner, if need be.”

Shoko followed Mei Mei through the small house, and then saw her to the door.

“Mei Mei,” she said before her friend could dip away. “Thanks for being so understanding.”

“Not at all, Shoko,” she gently chucked Shoko under the chin. “I’m glad we had this conversation. Life is so much better when people take the time to see eye to eye.”

Shoko nodded wearily, and then watched Mei Mei leave. After that, she decided to see what all the fuss was about.

She jogged up to her room and rifled along her desk, eventually finding the magazine, face-down with an advert of a smiling woman using a moisturiser looking up at her. Shoko turned it over, and felt her heart flutter once more as she laid eyes on Satoru’s image.

She fondly gazed at him for a moment, taking in his beauty that was just as perfect in the real world as it was on paper. She then let her eyes drift along the headlines that boasted an exclusive interview with him about his life as owner of Paradise Supreme, and his love-life.

IS SATOKI BACK? one article read. Do the photos deceive us, or does 2010 bring us the ultimate power couple once more? Read more on page 35! Another article jumped out at her. SINGLE AND WORKIN’ IT: Satoru Gojo reveals his favourite places in the world and where his heart’s really at! Exclusive interview on page 31!

She was turning the pages before she could stop herself. It was probably just trivial gossip, but her friends seemed to think this interview was important. She reached Page 31, and saw Satoru seated on a cream leather sofa, the backdrop a brilliant turquoise sea. He really looked stunning, and she almost didn’t read on for the purpose of just staring at the image. However, her friends had wanted her to see this, and she was sure there was a reason. She let her eyes drop to the writing.

...and I had the opportunity to interview the Satoru Gojo (spoiler alert: he really is just as gorgeous in real life as he is in the photos!). I met Satoru at the Okinawa Paradise Supreme, and that beach behind him is where I spent the rest of my day. He really was quite the gentleman, too, offering me a drink and making sure I was comfortable. This mysterious man appeared out of the blue, eighteen years old, with the opening of the Tokyo Paradise Supreme back in 2008, and has reached huge success with a brand of beautiful hotels both appropriate for business and pleasure.

First of all, how often in the year do you travel?

I used to travel every weekend, almost, ” Satoru had this amazing faraway look in his eyes. “ Nowadays, it’s probably at least twice a month, give or take depending on whether I’m needed in Tokyo, or not.

And did you ever expect to reach these levels of success?

Of course I did, I think of myself as a charismatic and successful person. Maybe even arrogant! ” (We both laughed here.) “ No, in reality, I never thought I would get quite this much success, but I suppose a pretty face really can get you far in this world. I mean, I get modelling gigs on the side, and the point of each Paradise Supreme is that it literally is that - a paradise. I pride myself in ensuring that each hotel has the best cleanliness, quality, and entertainment, otherwise it wouldn’t be a Supreme.

Of course not! And what gave you the ambition to make the Paradise Supreme real?

I wanted to give people a place to call a real “heaven on Earth”. I’ve seen a lot of suffering, maybe even experienced a bit of it myself. This is my way of giving something to the world, to make things seem a little bit better, even when times are tough. My policy is that, if you’re going to be miserable, you might as well have a drink in your hand.

Caring as well - what don’t you have? But on the topic of a cocktail on the beach, you yourself are quite concerned about your personal health, aren’t you?

I don’t really drink. In fact, I avoid the stuff, it’s just not for me. ” He had an air of responsibility; I just had to ask why he wasn’t even tempted by a tequila sunrise! “ I’m more of a sweet tooth; alcohol just burns , you know? It all has this really bitter aftertaste, and no amount of juice can cover that up. I’m not about to tell anyone to stop drinking altogether, but I am aware that it has ruined people’s lives before, so for all reading this, enjoy that beach cocktail, but don’t go overboard every day!

You heard it from the man himself! You have a Paradise Supreme on virtually every inhabited continent of the world at this point - do you have plans to expand further across the globe?

I really want a spot on Majorca, and I recently secured information that one place is up for sale. I’m planning on going there myself to investigate in person, which I’m really looking forward to.

And will you be going alone?

I might have plans to bring someone with me. Why, did you want to come?

Obviously! But in all seriousness, are we talking about a special someone?

We might be. As things are now, there’s someone who I want to show more of the world.

A true romantic! [For more information on Satoru Gojo’s “someone”, turn to page 35!] Wouldn’t we all…

But Shoko wasn’t reading on. Her heart was beating in her chest. This must’ve been about her, right? Were her friends concerned that she was getting paparazzi after her? She supposed it would be a worry, considering someone had been following her recently. Still, she found herself turning over a few pages, skimming past Satoru’s in-depth interview.

The top of the headline read RETURN OF A KIND AND QUEEN: DO WE SEE SATOKI AGAIN? and the double spread was littered with photos of Satoru and… a blonde woman. Shoko blinked, feeling a little disappointed that it wasn’t her. Her disappointment quickly turned to a thick nausea that clung to her throat.

Satoru Gojo was pictured on Friday 2nd July with model ex Yuki Tsukumo. The article read in bubbles around the photos. There was Satoru, walking with his sunglasses, the tall, beautiful blonde woman by his side. More captions were dotted about the page. Gojo and Tsukumo broke up in early 2009, both claiming “differences in values” and have voiced criticisms of one another following the break-up. There was another caption. The two were believed to be the world’s power-couple, both looking gorgeous together here in late 2008. And there they were, hand-in-hand, looking incredible. Tsukumo has been heard telling friends that Gojo was “possessive”, whereas Gojo snapped back with claims that Tsukumo was “not ready for a relationship”. There was another photo of the two sharing a kiss. 

Shoko told herself that it was from years ago, that it was nothing, but the next caption had her gripping the magazine so hard that it crinkled. Are Gojo and Tsukumo back together, though? The pair were pictured (right) having an intimate moment on Friday 2nd July. And sure enough, there he was, almost nose to nose with the same blonde woman, hand on her hip, her eyes dancing as she grinned up at him.

She couldn’t read any more. She threw the magazine back down on the desk, staring at it as though it had burned her. Shoko felt sick. July 2nd. That was less than a week compared to when she had first met him, two days after their argument on Wednesday, two days before he came pleading to her on the Sunday. Didn’t he say he hadn’t been seeing anyone else? Why had he been with his ex-girlfriend? How come they had looked so close?

She could hear her breaths getting louder as she fought off tears. Is this what Suguru had been talking about? Did it explain Utahime’s hesitation to trust Satoru? And Mei Mei, saying she would support whatever decision Shoko came to. It’s not like she had been seeing him, but then why had he lied about seeing someone else?

Shoko froze, hearing a clicking from downstairs. It was the door, the key turning in the lock.

Satoru was back.

Chapter Text

The jangling of the keys in the door alerted Shoko to Satoru’s return. She stood there, rooted to the ground, debating with herself whether she should go down or let him find her. Her breathing felt slow and heavy, as though the air didn’t want to flow through her body. She listened as the door opened, and then her eyes landed on the magazine, slightly crumpled.

“I’m home ~” he called out, as though nothing had ever happened.

What was she meant to do? Did she bound downstairs and pretend she had no idea? Shoko knew she wouldn’t be able to keep up a facade like that. She rolled up the magazine and braced herself, knowing she had to ask, had to find out the absolute truth.

One more deep breath, and she left her bedroom, taking the steps slowly and quietly. Her shoulders felt stiff and tense, and every muscle in her body was telling her to turn around and walk away. She stopped, seeing Satoru in the kitchen, helping himself to a melon pan. One of her melon pan. Before reading the magazine, she wouldn’t have minded, but now a part of her burned with anger, seeing him eat her baking despite having lied.

He turned and spotted her, eyes brightening with childlike joy and he smiled past the melon pan, saying through a mouthful, “There you are ~”

Shoko couldn’t smile. She didn’t know what her face looked like, but there must have been something, because his smile quickly faded and his eyes clouded with alarm. There was a sudden tension between them.

Satoru swallowed the melon pan. “What’s wrong?”

“You know about a week ago, we talked about… us?” she kept a safe distance.

He hesitated. “Yeah, I think so.”

“We talked about being exclusive,” she said.

“Yeah, I remember that,” he immediately relaxed.

“You know, I really didn’t see anyone else when I met you,” Shoko said, a part of her wanting to give him a chance to say it himself. “I was being serious about that.”

“Yeah, so was I, babe,” he wandered over and kissed her on top of her head. Shoko only let him because she was too angry to move. “What’s this about?”

“I mean, I didn’t see anyone ,” she repeated. “Not even casually.”

“Yeah, neither did I ,” he said emphatically, wandering to hang his coat up on the rack nearby the door.

Shoko turned, her jaw clenched. “Nobody?”

He stilled in front of the coat rack. “Has someone been saying something to you?”

“Not even Yuki Tsukumo?”

Satoru went very still. He was staring at his coat, and a part of her thought he was going to put it back on and leave. Instead, he turned with a perplexed expression on his face.

“So someone has been talking,” he said. “Yuki is my ex-girlfriend. We broke up about a year ago.”

“Oh,” Shoko feigned innocence, “I suppose I got mixed up.”

“Of course ,” he beamed once more, but this time it didn’t reassure her.

“Well, she’s seeing someone who looks remarkably like you,” Shoko said, unrolling the magazine, and his eyes landed on it for the first time. “Uncanny, really. Yeah, what is it they said?”

“What is that?” his tone was ice cold.

“Oh, yes, “ The pair were were pictured having an intimate moment on Fri ”-”

“What are you reading?” he was suddenly across the room, tearing the magazine from her hands.

Shoko flinched away. He towered over her, face pale as he stared at the double spread, eyes wide and bright. She was inclined to say that he looked furious . Shoko had never seen him like this before. She briefly wondered how he was going to try and lie out of this.

“That’s -” he cut himself off, eyes darting across the page. “Where did you get this?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she scowled. “I’ve seen it, and I want an explanation.”

“It was Suguru, wasn’t it?” he rounded on her, and again there was a moment when she couldn’t help but notice how in her face he was. “Suguru gave this to you. These must have been taken ages ago. A false story.”

“D-do you think I’m stupid ?” she gawked. “As if they’d print something false; they could be given a lawsuit. Why did you lie to me? I even gave you a whole two chances to confess.”

“Did Suguru show this to you?” he pointed at the magazine.

“So it’s true,” Shoko said. “I’m apparently the one who makes you feel special, but as soon as we have an argument, you call up your ex and -”

“That’s not what happened!”

“Oh, well, do enlighten me, ” she crossed her arms. “ I would love to hear about -”

Did Suguru show this to you ?” his tone had risen.

“No!” she lied. “Although I wish he had , because then I would’ve seen through you a whole day earlier !”

His jaw was clenched tight, his body posture rigid. He was holding the magazine so tight his knuckles had gone white.

“I trusted you! ” she screeched. “ I told you things I haven’t told anybody else !”

“Shoko, you can still trust me,” his voice softened, and he looked almost pleading.

“No, I can’t , because you lied about something you didn’t even need to lie about, ” Shoko cried. “ If you had told me up front that you had hooked up with someone whilst we weren’t talking, we wouldn’t be having this argument right now. Why did you lie ?”

“You were so happy!” his expression became imploring. “You were making me so happy! We were finally talking about a future between us, it was more than just “seeing each other”! You’re the only one for me, Shoko, you really are, it was just a stupid mistake!”

“A mistake you lied about ! ” she raked her hands through her hair, tugging at the knots from her endless spinning throughout the day. “ I can’t believe I invested two and a half weeks of my life on this! I was really beginning to believe you actually cared about me!”

He looked exasperated. “Shoko, I do care about you! This past week has been so special for me, so good for both of us. We have a connection, and I feel closer to you than I’ve felt with anyone else, ever!”

“Apart from Yuki Tsukumo,” Shoko scowled. “At least she’s good-looking; I can tell myself later that I wasn’t replaced by some random nobody.”

“I was angry at you!” he threw his hands up in the air. “It was an impulsive move, and I regret it.”

“Is that why you came to the bakery on the Sunday afterwards?” she inclined her head. “To clean your hands of the guilt?”

“Because I couldn’t stay away!” he walked towards her, body posture friendlier now. “I missed you so much, because I knew that we had more between us than just a one-time fling. Please, listen to me, Shoko, I wasn’t thinking when I met up with Yuki, but that was ages ago, we hadn’t defined our relationship, we weren’t exclusive, we were in an argument and I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to see you again!”

“That doesn’t make it OK!” her voice was hoarse from shouting. “I’m not angry that you slept with your ex, I’m angry that you lied to me . OK, I’m a little angry that you immediately sought out your ex, but we weren’t in a relationship, so whatever! The point is, you went out of your way to lie to my face, and I don’t think I can be with someone who isn’t honest with me.”

His face fell and a look of hollow horror crept into his eyes. “You don’t mean that.”

“I want the key back,” she held out her hand, palm up.

Satoru made no move to return the key.

“You weren’t even meant to keep it, anyway,” she mumbled. “It was just easier for you to hold on to it whilst you were staying here.”

“What are you saying?” he was standing stock-still, as though he had forgotten how to move.

“I’m saying to leave,” she said, feeling her throat go scratchy.

He stayed still. “Maybe we just need to take a step back from things for a -”

Get out of my house ,” any more, and the tears would begin falling.

“Shoko, please , give me one more chance, ” he clasped his hands together. “ I won’t ever lie to you again, just please . I really want this to work.”

“Maybe you should have thought about that when you told me you hadn’t seen anyone else,” she kept her tone cool, although a part of her wanted to forgive him just for the sake of ending the argument.

He was looking at her with those brilliant eyes, except now he was so sad. Shoko wanted to run into his arms just to make those same eyes dance with joy, to bring the smile back on his face, but she was angry and hurt. How was she supposed to feel when he had deliberately tried to keep this hidden from her?

“Did you think I would never see this, by the way?” she waved a hand towards the magazine. “Were you hoping you could hide it from me forever?”

He looked at her, speechless.

“I at least deserve to know, since this is the last time we’re seeing each other,” she told him sternly.

“Shoko -” his voice cracked, and Satoru visibly swallowed.

“Like, I know it was a fling and all, but seriously, you thought I wouldn’t find out?” she dropped her arms to her sides, suddenly feeling she had no energy.

“I…” he seemed at a loss for words. “I didn’t think you read those kinds of magazines anyway. I didn’t know someone had taken photos of me, I - Shoko, please , I don’t want to end things.”

“You hurt me,” she wiped her face, and her hands came away, wet with tears. “I really, really trusted you, and I feel like such an idiot now.”

“I want to be a better person for you,” he dropped the magazine on the sofa and approached her once more. “I am begging you to give me a second chance, Shoko, I will do anything - anything - to have another chance. Just - please .”

He reached out and cradled her face in his hands. She should’ve been pushing him away, but for some reason she just couldn’t, because even now he made her heart flutter, and she couldn’t erase the pure joy he had brought her time and time again. And that only made her feel more pathetic and stupid, because she knew she needed to treat herself better.

“Please,” he murmured, resting his forehead against hers. “One more chance. Please…”

She closed her eyes. Looking at him was breaking her heart. She had felt so wounded after their argument, and he had been with another woman. They had only known each other four days, then, and she had ignored his text.

“Shoko, you’re the best thing that’s happened to me,” he continued, his voice like a calming stream in the background as she tried to gather her thoughts. “You make me the happiest I’ve ever been, so please let me make this right. Please, I just want to prove to you that I can be good. I can be good.”

“I don’t know if I can do that to myself,” she said quietly.

Satoru dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around her hips, and looked up at her with his blue eyes. There were tear tracks along his cheeks.

“Shoko, I’m begging you, please, one more chance,” he said, sounding more and more frantic with each sentence, voice thick with emotion.

She looked down at him, looked at him for a very long time. In his eyes there was a manic fear, his breaths were ragged, and he was holding on a little too tight, unaware of everything else but their conversation. Could he really be faking all of this? She didn’t think anyone could be this good at acting. Perhaps this was real regret in his voice? Maybe he did genuinely like her, but had made a stupid mistake.

“Do you understand why this has hurt me so much?” she said, loud and slow.

“Because I lied to you, even though you gave me nothing but honesty,” he held her gaze, raw desperation in his eyes. “And then I wasn’t faithful, and that’s not OK, because you deserve so much mo-”

“OK, OK,” she watched his gaze lighten up with hope. “I… need to think about… things.”

“Right,” he sat back on the balls of his feet and took her hands in his. “Of course, right.”

“And in that time, I think it’s probably best that we have a bit of time apart…”

What ?” his face was filled with anguished fear once more.

“I need some space,” she said quietly.

“But you won’t be safe here alone,” he rubbed his thumbs over the tops of her hands, looking up at her imploringly.

“I really just need to be alone,” she felt more tears on their way. “I just need that right now.”

“What if -”

“Satoru, I really just - it needs to be me, just me, so I can think properly,” she said, a little more force in her voice.

He stared up at her, as though waiting for her to change her mind, but when she said nothing, he finally murmured, “OK.”

Slowly, Satoru rose to his feet, and he pulled her into a hug. Shoko breathed in his scent, wondering whether this really would be the last time. It was all hers to decide, but her head hurt to think about it. He held on for much longer than necessary, but she only let him because a part of her liked being in his arms, to rest her head against his chest and feel his heart beating.

“I’ll see you,” he said, although his voice was laced with uncertainty.

“Goodbye, Satoru.”

She watched as he set the spare keys down on the coffee table, and then disappeared through the door. Only when the door clicked shut did she sink to the floor, hugging herself and letting the tears arrive properly.


“I don’t know what to do.”

Shoko was sitting around her kitchen table with Utahime and Mei Mei. She had texted them both last night, desperate for a meet-up, and they had obliged accordingly.

“For your peace of mind, tell him it’s over,” Utahime let out a sigh.

“I still can’t tell if what he did really was that bad,” she rubbed her temples, frustrated.

“It hurt your feelings - that’s all that matters,” Utahime said.

“Even you were willing to forgive him for my well-being,” Shoko glanced at Utahime, who averted her gaze quickly.

“That was before I realised you hadn’t read the magazine,” she pursed her lips.

“It’s up to you, Shoko,” Mei Mei sipped her tea. “It’s normal that people see others when they have no established relationship barriers, although that’s not the part you’re most angry about, is it?”

“I just wish he’d been honest with me,” Shoko put her head in her hands.

“Precisely, and what you do from now on is up to you,” Mei Mei shrugged.

“You should be careful, though,” Utahime interjected.

“It’s whether you’re hurt enough to end it all, or whether you are willing to give him another chance, and establish what boundaries you two have in your relationship,” Mei Mei said.

“I just don’t know if I can trust him again…” Shoko felt her lip wobble at the thought of him.

“That’s something you’re going to have to decide, I’m afraid,” Mei Mei reached across the table and took one of Shoko’s hands. “We don’t want to make your decisions for you.”

“But what would you guys do?” she frowned.

“I would’ve asked for his credit card, and then I would have forgiven him,” Mei Mei smiled sweetly.

Shoko glanced at Utahime, who breathed out a rough sigh.

“I would… I would call things off,” she pouted, but then closed her eyes irritably, “but I’m not you and… well, I haven’t seen you this happy in ages… so…” she looked troubled, “it really is up to you, Shoko. Whatever you decide, you have our support.”

“I don’t know what I’ll tell Suguru,” Shoko closed her eyes.

“I think you should resolve things with Satoru before you speak with Suguru,” Mei Mei said. “I also think we should plan to go for a night out on Friday. Therefore, I have a proposal: think things over until Saturday morning. Arrange to meet Satoru then. Depending on how you still feel, that should be when you decide whether or not to continue seeing him.”

“Don’t let me drink too much, I have to head off at lunch on Saturday,” Utahime protested.

“What’s… happening on Saturday?” Shoko glanced between them.

“My parents asked me to visit my grandparents in Neyagawa,” Utahime sipped her tea. “Ojii-chan had a fall, so Obaa-chan’s been home alone. I’m going to be helping her for a week, but we’re not sure whether Ojii-chan is completely OK. Mum and Dad are there at the moment, but they say they need extra hands.”

“I’m… sorry to hear that,” Shoko blinked.

“I’m sure he’ll be OK,” Utahime frowned. “I had to take a bit of time off work for this, so negotiating my holidays this year will be a little different, I suppose.”

“I hope all goes well,” Shoko said.

“It’ll be nothing,” her friend said, but didn’t look completely convinced. “So, Friday.”

“Yes, I was thinking Shoko could meet with Satoru, and then whatever the results, we can have a night out to celebrate,” Mei Mei said. “How does that sound?”

“I guess that gives me time to think things over,” Shoko blew out a breath. “I just don’t want to make the wrong decision.”

“The worst that can happen is if he’s untrue to you again,” Mei Mei soothed. “For which case, you make him regret ever crossing you, and never grace him with your presence ever again.”

“Right… so I should message him to say that I’ll talk to him…” Shoko pulled out her phone, the phone Satoru had bought her. A pang went through her chest.

“Go for it,” Utahime said.

Shoko turned the phone over and over in her fingers. Her emotions still felt raw and trodden on, but even then, even though she was hurting terribly, she missed him. She missed being in his arms, missed the laughs he brought her, missed his optimism, his encouragement, and the way he really made her feel like she could do anything. She had turned to tequila last night, but even then her heart had never been in it and she sat on the bathroom floor, her eyes red, in the early hours of the morning, half an untouched glass sat beside her. Even cigarettes weren’t making things OK. It was shit when cigarettes didn’t make things OK.

“Just tell him you want to meet him on Friday,” Utahime prompted, noting her hesitation.

Shoko drew in a deep breath, then sent a message into the aether. I want to meet Friday.

She set the phone down and splayed her fingers out on the table, nervously keeping her gaze averted from the device. A part of her wanted him to have swiftly moved on to Yuki Tsukumo again, just so she could avoid more of the twisting knot in her stomach. A part of her wanted him to say “no”, just so she could move on and accept that it wasn’t meant to be. But her heart was thumping wildly, and she knew if he outright refused to see her again, there would be tears. What would she even be crying over anyway? If she no longer wanted to see him, why was she still so hurt over what he did?

The phone buzzed. She jumped, even though she had been anticipating a response. Shoko tried not to get her hopes up. Maybe it was someone else? Both Utahime and Mei Mei were watching her, and it became apparent that time was only moving so slowly for her because she was nervous. She grasped the phone and turned it over, seeing Satoru’s name on her screen, and opened the message.

At the cafe on our first date. Can you do ten? he had written, and her heart fluttered.

Yes, she wrote, and then set the phone down harshly. “Done.”

“In that case, we eagerly await the results,” Mei Mei beamed. “It would be such a shame to let all that money go, though…”

“It’s not about the money,” Utahime said sharply.

“Hime, it’s always about the money,” Mei Mei replied, and sipped her tea.


The rest of Wednesday and the whole of Thursday felt like agony to Shoko. She didn’t have the bakery open; she couldn’t muster the strength to do so. She spent too much time fretting over what to say, and imagining conversations that hadn’t happened and probably never would. One scenario even involved Satoru bringing Yuki as a statement.

She didn’t sleep much on Thursday night, tossing and turning in bed as she tried to mull over how she felt about Satoru. Her heart clenched every time she considered ending their relationship, but she also felt tears budding in her eyes as she thought about his faux-sincerity as he told her he hadn’t seen anyone else. She fell asleep from sheer exhaustion in the end, and when she woke up the next day, Shoko admittedly found she hadn’t come to a conclusion during this grace period she had given the both of them.

Her clock read eight. Her heart felt like lead. An hour to get ready, an hour to get there. Shoko took a deep breath, and rolled out of bed.

It was time to face the music.

Chapter Text

Shoko decided that, since she arrived early, she would grab a coffee and sit down. She tried her best not to balk at the prices (seriously, it was just coffee) and begrudgingly paid without complaint before finding herself a seat outdoors where she was free to light a cigarette. She hadn’t told Suguru about her conversation with Satoru, deciding to follow advice about only telling him afterwards. It was for the best. She decided he would rather hear the conclusion rather than string along for the ride.

With shaking hands, she lit a cigarette and sat there. She felt sick to the stomach, and even coffee and cigarettes weren’t making her feel better. Shoko tapped her foot irritably on the ground, glancing at the time.

He’s not coming , she thought as the clock ticked past ten. I’ve made a complete arse of myself and have been stood up .

She really thought he had cared about her. Shoko could feel her chest and throat getting tighter, and it was getting difficult to blink back any tears. She balanced her cigarette in her mouth and raked her fingers through her hair, knotting a few strands around in endless circles as she tried to regain what little composure she had left. She downed the rest of her coffee, and was just standing up when a large hand laid down on the table. She followed the arm up to Satoru, who had his sunglasses pushed up on his forehead and was looking at her with a soft, ocean gaze.

“I’m late, I know,” his voice was rich and warm, and yet he was also melancholic. “I lose track of the time a lot. I’ll work on it.”

She kept her gaze focused on him. There were dark shadows underneath his eyes; it was unusual to see a single molecule of him out of place. Shoko was also quietly relieved that she wasn’t the only one who looked like crap.

“You… want another one?” he pointed to the coffee mug in front of her.

Shoko nodded quietly, and he disappeared into the cafe. She couldn’t run now. She was stuck and she had to talk to him. She tried to breathe, in and out, but envisioning all of her imagined conversations didn’t make her feel any better. What if they became true? She wanted to dwell more on this, but before she knew it, another Americano was placed in front of her, and Satoru sat across from her, stretching out his legs but taking care not to nudge her with his knee or foot.

She studied him quietly. He was so handsome, and the fact that he was here, sitting across from her, told her that there was at least a small part of him that cared about her. She held the mug tightly with one hand, ignoring the heat, and took a drag from her cigarette, finally dragging her eyes away from Satoru. Shoko knew she had to start the conversation eventually; she had, after all, promised that she would have an answer ready by Friday. Here he was, waiting to hear it, and she still had no idea what she wanted. No, she knew what she wanted, but she still wasn’t sure whether it was the best decision.

She looked at him again, and watched as he dropped sugar cubes into his teacup, staring into the tea as though there were nothing else in the world. Shoko didn’t blame him. This was probably awkward, and he was probably only here to let her have some shred of pride left over. She inhaled softly, not wanting him to see that she had to prepare herself, but he seemed to have gotten tired of the silence, because he was the first to speak.

“Shoko, there’s something I never said to you,” he was quiet, but his eyes were clear and determined when he raised his head to look at her.

She could feel her heart sinking. This was it; she was about to learn that there were more women he’d been seeing on the side, or that his relationship with Yuki had become more important. Shoko twisted her hair more furiously now, trying to breathe evenly through her nose but hearing a slight shake as her heart leapt up into her throat. Why was she so worked up about him when he had lied to her? But then, surely this meant he was just as flawed as she was?

“I’m sorry.”

She felt blood rush to her ears, the cigarette falling from her hand, and her heart climbed up from her mouth. She could hear blood pulsing in her head and a sudden breathlessness. Her gaze was locked with his, and his blue eyes were so intense, burning with the same determination, except now he held her gaze in a way that promised to never let go.

“I’m sorry I lied to you,” he said. “And I’m sorry that I tried to cover it all up. I’m sorry that I took you for granted, and I’m sorry that I didn’t treat you well, that I cast aside the one person who’s made my life better.”

“Stop it,” she could feel her emotions bubbling up.

“I’m sorry that you have to sit here across from me now, and you’ve probably been hurting,” his voice caught, but he continued, “and I can see it in your eyes, and I hate that I’m the one who made you feel that way. I promised that I would be there for you, and that I would help you.”

“I came here -” she began, desperately wanting to finish with ‘to say goodbye’, but the words wouldn’t leave her mouth. Instead, she choked on a fresh round of tears that wanted to make an appearance.

“Instead, I turned my back on you and did the complete opposite of what I’d said I would, and I’m sorry for having cheated you like that,” he was relentless, and yet he wouldn’t release her from his gaze. “And I’m sorry that, after all that, I tried to blame Suguru, despite knowing how much he means to you, despite knowing that I had no right to try and delegate my faults to him when he had nothing to do with it.”

“Satoru -”

“Shoko, I can’t,” he swallowed, “I can’t let you end things here. I just can’t. I’ve done so many things wrong, but I just can’t watch you walk away without -”

He inhaled deeply, blinking rapidly and finally looking away for the first time. There was something on the tip of his tongue, something he was going to say, and for some reason, Shoko felt a little icy. When he looked back at her, his gaze was filled with determination once more.

“I can’t let you go without telling you that I think I’m falling in love with you.”

Shoko stared at him, her mouth falling ajar. She had come here to lay down the tables, and now she was sitting there, heart stilled with surprise. She fumbled for her coffee, and took a sip; it was hot and ashy.

“Are you just saying that to get sympathy?” she asked.

“No, and I know it seems too soon,” he pressed on. “I’ve been trying to not think about it, but whenever we were together, each time we talked and each second I looked at you, I could feel myself gravitating closer. I can’t explain it, because it all feels so quick, but I can’t ignore it anymore. I can’t just sit there and numbly watch you walk away, not when I think we met each other for a reason.” He reached forward and clasped her hands over her coffee mug. “Whenever I’m with you, my heart beats a little faster; you make it easier for me to laugh and smile; I feel free when you’re by my side, like I can really be myself.” There was a building excitement in his voice and eyes as he spoke. “There’s no way it’s just a coincidence. I know we met crudely, but I really think that day was supposed to happen. All of that together, and the way I feel whenever I’m around you - as though I need to be the best I can be - all makes sense now. I really think I love you.”

“You can’t just say that here,” she said stunned. “Not at a cafe table when we’re still in an argument.”

“I understand if you don’t feel the same way,” his gaze seemed to pierce straight to her soul, “or even that I’m being far too forward. I just have to say these things because I don’t want things to end here. I can’t afford to lose you for being the idiot I am. All I can do now is promise that I won’t lie or cheat ever again - never .”

“Well, I never said you chea-”

“It feels like I did,” his tone softened, but only slightly. “I understand why you’re hurting. It’s because you’ve felt something similar to me, haven’t you? That there’s a reason we met.”

“Like…” she felt embarrassed to be saying it out loud. “Like… soulmates?”

His eyes lit up. “ Exactly.

Words echoed in her head from long ago, words that said things like “ pulled me out of a lot of ruts ” and “ I knew he was right for me… that he was the one ”.

“And… do you believe it that?” she asked quietly.

Satoru held her gaze. “Yes. I do now.”

I do now that I’ve met Kiyoshi .” The words echoed in her head like an old tape. 

Shoko was frozen to her chair, staring at Satoru. Words shared between her and her mother alone, and yet he was now speaking almost the same sentences. Could it really be a coincidence, or was her mum right when she pondered about fate and love? His hands were warm over hers, and even though she was angry at him, even though she had spent years questioning her mum’s words of her final day, she now sat there and really believed there might be some truth in it.

“You mean that?” she asked.

“I do.”

“That’s… not another lie?”

“I promise to never hurt you again,” his hands tightened over hers. “I’m sorry for having made you feel doubtful, Shoko. I’m not lying; I believe there’s a reason we met, and I know it’s because we both needed each other.”

She looked into his eyes, that reassuring blue that seemed to hold both the sea and sky in them. She felt that gravity he spoke of, the magnetism, the sorrow when she wasn’t with him, the instant connection, that uncanny feeling that things were right .

“One more chance,” she told him, and then made to drink her coffee.

He slammed a hand swiftly over the rim, pushing it down to the table. Shoko opened her mouth to protest.

“You dropped your cigarette in there ~”

She glanced down and, sure enough, floating in her coffee with traces of ash was her cigarette.

“Thank you,” he then said, and his earnest expression had returned, accompanied with a satisfied smile. “I won’t let you down ever again.”

“Just as well,” she pushed her coffee away, “because I mean it. You only get one more chance.”

He reached across the table and took her hands in his again, looking down as he ran his thumbs over the top of her hands in comforting, circular motions. She closed her eyes and focused on his movements, and the hurt and pain she had been feeling over the days began to subside. She could even out her breathing if she turned all of her attention to Satoru as he gently massaged her hands. Shoko felt completely in tune once more. It bothered her that she was willing to forgive him, but she had never met someone who understood her so well. Despite how angry she had been, now that he had entered her life, Shoko couldn’t imagine what it would be like to never see Satoru again. He had been such a present entity in her life over the past three weeks so… yes, she was willing to give their relationship one more chance.

“Do you want to come back to mine?” he asked softly. “You look tired.”

She hesitated, opening her eyes and looking into his ocean blues. Shoko wasn’t quite sure she wanted make-up sex, no matter how appealing Satoru was. If she was going to give this another shot, then she wanted to slow things down for a little bit. At the same time, though, the offer was tempting, and if he did ask outright, she didn’t think she would refuse.

“I was thinking…” he turned her hands over, gently drawing his thumbs along her wrists, little tingles of electricity skittering along her nerves, “... that we could get room service for lunch… put on some shows…”

“I don’t know…” she watched his hands, enjoying his touch.

He arched a knowing eyebrow, “... and then take a nice, long nap.”

Shoko did a double-take. She hadn’t expected Satoru to suggest anything other than sex.

“Listen, Shoko,” he put on a playful smile, “I love how intimate we get, but I haven’t really slept all that much in the past two days - I don’t think either of us has. I was worried I’d never have the chance to see you again.”

“I wasn’t thinking that -” she protested, feeling her cheeks heat up.

“Your mind is a little dirtier than I thought, Shoko ~” he chuckled, still holding her hands.

“I wasn’t - I didn’t - no!” she spluttered, jerking her hands away.

“I can’t promise my best, but feel free to go Wild West on me ~” he grinned. “I won’t complain!”

“The more you talk, the more alone you are going to be this afternoon,” she scowled.

“Gotcha, gotcha,” he softened immediately. “So? How ‘bout it?”

“I could do with some relaxing,” she breathed out.

“Then it’s settled ~” he clapped his hands together, still beaming. “Come on ~”

Satoru jumped to his feet. Shoko felt sluggish in comparison, getting up stiffly and following him from the cafe. The Paradise Supreme was two blocks away, so they walked. She briefly wondered how he was always late despite living so close, but wasn’t in the mood to question it. She took juice from the table in the lobby, following as Satoru wandered over to the brilliant glass elevator, hands in his pockets. He looked completely relaxed, now; a part of her was almost jealous that he could recover so quickly from three days of emotional wear. She stepped into the elevator with him, and he draped an arm across her shoulders, pulling her in close. He was strong and sturdy, so she leant into him, drinking her juice and breathing in his oaky scent.

She had spent the whole week stressed about how she was with Satoru, but now that she was with him, she felt much better. Mei Mei had been right; as soon as she had laid eyes on him, she had completely fallen for him all over again.

They wandered along the eighteenth floor and took the staircase up to the nineteenth. Satoru’s penthouse door was the only one up here, a private hallway into where he lived. For some reason, it felt right to be there, to be walking into the entrance and gazing around at the kitchen and sitting room. The first time she had been here, she had never noticed the second seating area, but now she was grateful she didn’t have to drag her tired body up another flight of stairs. Satoru released her after a quick one-armed hug, and she drifted across the room, putting the juice glass down on the coffee table and throwing herself down on one of the sofas.

“What do you fancy?” he was stood nearby the home phone, ready to call the desk down below.

“Beef yakisoba,” she said sleepily.

“That can definitely be arranged,” he said.

As Satoru made a call to room service, Shoko messaged her friends.

We’re giving things one more go, she wrote to her group chat.

Utahime was quick to respond. In that case, I would like to meet him properly.

Perhaps we can scrounge brunch off of him sometime, Mei Mei chipped in.

She hadn’t considered much about introducing Satoru to the girls. It had gone so horribly with Suguru, although she liked to think she could have faith that Utahime and Mei Mei would be accepting, especially since they were willing to give him a chance over this.

We’ll arrange something, Shoko replied, and then crammed her phone in her pocket.

“It’ll be here in about thirty minutes,” Satoru wandered over, and then climbed over her.

“Satoru -”

He wedged himself comfortably between her and the sofa, resting his head on her chest and wrapping an arm around her waist, and threw a leg over her lap. He yawned as she softly her fingers through his hair. He was warm, so warm, half slung over her, and his weight on her body was comforting. Her eyelids were getting heavy, the hours of sleep lost over the past few days. It was so quiet in the penthouse, but before she could properly drift off, she felt a gentle patting on her cheek. Blinking, she glanced at Satoru, who had upturned his face towards her, sleepy smile on his lips.

“No sleeping,” he said. “We have food, soon.”

“I’m so tired,” she yawned. “Turn on the TV, it might keep me awake.”

“I’ll keep you awake,” he climbed over her and kissed gently on the mouth.

Warmth blossomed in her chest, she smiled against his lips, and laced her fingers together past his shoulders. A contented sigh passed between them, one she didn’t know whether it was hers or Satoru’s. His hands slipped beneath her T-shirt, pushing the fabric up and squeezing her sides playfully.

“I thought you were tired,” she cooed, but didn’t get much else out when he opened her mouth with his lips, tongue dancing past.

He covered one of her breasts in his hand and squeezed, before reaching round to unclasp her bra. They were hip to hip and he kept softly grinding against her as they made out, his pace slow. Her pulse danced, the electric between them burning once more.

“I might be changing my mind,” he said, a little breathless, before leaning into their kiss once more.

She trailed her fingers along his back, then rested them on his hips, slipping her fingers beneath his pullover to feel along his toned abdomen. He groaned against her mouth as she skirted her fingertips along his waistband, and his movements became a little firmer, breaths heavier and kisses more eager. Her skin felt warmer, and she wondered whether she was making the right decision. Suguru’s words of low self-respect kept swimming through her mind, but she was drowning in Satoru’s intoxicating presence, letting herself get drunk on his kisses. She indulged in a moan as he pushed her bra up and thumbed over her nipples. She keened towards him, tasting the sugar of his tea on his tongue, and she admittedly felt hot and heavy as he rubbed up against her more. She couldn’t care anymore, couldn’t care when -

There was a buzz. Satoru jerked his head up, face flushed, the pink of his cheeks making his eyes burn all the more. Shoko tried to control her breathing, pushing her shirt down frantically and looking at the door. Clearing his throat, Satoru climbed off her and walked towards the door, pulling down his sweatshirt in an attempt to hide his bulge and opening a crack in the door, peeking through.

“Room service, Mr Gojo?” said an unfamiliar voice.

“Yes,” Satoru cleared his throat once more and reached through the door, hand coming back with a plastic bag. “Thanks.”

He closed the door and glanced over at her, wearing a sheepish smile. Still trying to regain her breath, she let out a laugh, slipping her bra out from under her T-shirt and dumping it on the floor.

“Lunch,” he said weakly, setting the plastic bag in front of her and turning on the TV.

“Smells good,” she rifled through the bag, sitting cross-legged on the sofa, until she found the box containing her yakisoba.

Satoru threw himself down on the sofa beside her, and they both watched crappy reality TV whilst eating food. It was good to have something warm. Shoko kept finding herself glancing at Satoru, but his eyes were trained on the TV. Did she really have no respect for herself? She certainly had no self-restraint, but sitting here beside him, Shoko only felt warmth. She had been so angry at him, and a part of her still was, but he was here with her, and she could at least tell herself that Satoru was hers .

“Where’s the bathroom again?” she asked when finishing her meal.

“Just behind us,” he settled back with a laidback smile, closing his eyes and looking at peace.

She popped in and, as she was washing her hands, she saw the dark circles beneath her eyes in her reflection, her lips still a little swollen from kisses, and the shine in her eyes. She thought of her relationship with Satoru, really stood there thinking about it, and found she was relieved to be giving him that second chance. He was right in the room next door, and before she knew it, was had slipped out of her jeans.

Shoko wandered out and saw him yawning sleepily, eyes bleary, and wandered over. He jumped a little when she caressed his head, but when he leant back to look up at her, there was a soft smile on his face. Shoko bent down and kissed him, slow and sweet. She reached past him and turned off the TV, before wandering around the sofa. His eyes grazed along her bare legs, and she stepped over him, his knees in between her legs. His lips were slightly parted as she reached down and tilted his head up again, and kissed him. 

She stayed gentle, biting down on his lip and murmuring, “We’re going Western.”

“Fuck, yes,” he groaned, unzipping his fly.

Shoko spat on her hand, and kissed him again, reaching down and pumping his cock. She thumbed over his tip, before running her hand up and down. He panted against her mouth, thrusting up against her hand, his hands circling her ass and giving a squeeze. She leant away and he whined as she lifted her hand away, but Shoko saw the excitement dance back in his eyes as she shimmied her underwear down. She climbed over him, palming his cock and staring into his deep blue eyes. She positioned herself over him and guided his tip to her entrance. He licked his lips in anticipation, but when he tried to thrust up again she raised her hips, and he whined softly, smiling thinly up at her.

She allowed herself a grin, then sank herself down low on his cock. She hadn’t meant to show weakness, but he was big and a pleasured cry bubbled from her throat. She rolled her hips back and forth, letting herself adjust, and he panted, looking up at her, eyes clouded with lust. She managed to get a pace then, bouncing in his lap, his hands on her hips, half-guiding her up and down. Shoko bent her head down to kiss him once more, holding onto the back of the sofa to maintain her balance. He pushed her shirt up over her breasts and kneaded her chest, and Shoko slowed her pace, leaning away to rock her hips against him, feeling him deep inside her, pushing against the tight bundle of nerves.

His tongue was rough as he dragged it along her skin, and in response she arched her back, hands drifting to sit either side of him. His mouth closed over a nipple, and she moaned pleasantly as he sucked gently, grazing his teeth every now and then and softly biting down. A small cry left her mouth when he bit a little harder, and her breaths were heavy by the time his lips left her nipple with a wet pop. Shoko whined, feeling a pressure building up in her hips, and lifted herself up and down on his cock once more. He grunted, teeth gritted, but he had eyes only for her and it was great. This was thrilling, to have a little bit of power over him. She could feel herself getting tighter around him, and reached down to play with her clit, biting her lip and letting out a muffled moan of pleasure. This was all ecstasy; she felt completely full and he was knocking against her most sensitive part. 

There was a light build-up of sweat on her skin, and felt she was slowing down a little. Satoru took the opportunity to bite her other nipple, eliciting another breathy gasp. He hooked his arms around her, squeezing her a little bit underneath the ribs, a firm hold that gave her a little less room to move. She held onto the back of the sofa once more, and he looked up at her through his lashes, eyes dancing with amusement as he saw her heavily flushed face. He sunk his teeth in a little more and then lifted his mouth, saliva hanging from his tongue and her skin. 

“You having fun, baby?” he smiled slyly, eyes raking along her form.

Shoko only let out a breathless laugh, but that ended in a sharp cry when he snapped his hips up. His hold on her suddenly tightened, and he pumped up in between her legs. Shoko couldn’t stop the moans any more, a little bit strangled as she tried her best not to make too much noise. He smacked her ass, and then gripped on once more, jaw set with concentration. She buried her face in his hair, whining softly as her body trembled - she was there in heaven, stars in her vision, and a part of her died in his arms. Her heart was hammering in her chest, she could barely breathe, and she murmured an incoherent string of pleadings in his ear as he railed into her until his own finish.

They stayed like that for a bit. Shoko tried to slow down her pants, clinging on to Satoru’s pullover, feeling sweaty and sticky.

“How about that nap, now?” he muttered, chest rising and falling beneath her.

Shoko hummed in agreement. “Please.”

Chapter Text

She was warm; incredibly so, actually, and the mattress beneath her was comfortable. The room was dark, but an afternoon light was beaming in through a gap in the curtains. She shifted, yawning, but she felt a lot more energetic than earlier. There was a deep humming in the distance, but she was still disoriented. The smell of Satoru was everywhere; his sweet cologne mixed with oaky undertones. She buried her face in the pillow and inhaled, taking comfort that she was still at his place. Here, it felt like she was surrounded by him. A part of her felt guilty about throwing down her walls once more and giving him that second chance, but whenever she dwelt on it, her mind would linger back to the earnest expression on his face as he babbled out confession after confession.

Shoko turned her head to side, expecting him to be sound asleep beside her, but he was nowhere to be seen. She stretched out her limbs, exploring the space on the bed, and smiling to find she could starfish completely without interruption. It felt good to be lying there, staring up at the ceiling. But where was Satoru? She couldn’t hear the shower running, and there was still that distant noise that she wasn’t quite sure to address. She could feel it, too, a low vibration that called for her attention. She inhaled again and sat up sleepily, only in her underwear and T-shirt. Her jeans were probably still in the guest bathroom. She glanced to the side and saw her phone, chiming insistently against the side table, buzzing away as someone tried to call her.

Her heart leapt. She scrambled over to the bedside table and seized her phone, answering immediately.

“Hello?”

“My God, Shoko, talk about radio silence!” Utahime sounded exasperated from the other side. “We didn’t hear from you - are you still joining us?”

“Yeah, ‘f course,” she rubbed her eye sleepily. “What time is it?”

“Four in the afternoon,” Utahime replied.

“Is it really ?” she gawked. Had she really slept for five hours?

Yes , and I figured I’d call since you probably want some time to get ready,” she could feel rather than see Utahime shaking her head. “You also need to tell us what happened.”

“Yeah, I need to get home,” she yawned.

“I figured you’d stayed over,” her friend sighed. “You better hurry. If you’re late, Mei Mei might just kill us both . She’s been champing at the bit for a night out.”

“Got it, got it,” Shoko said, and added, “I’ll see you later.”

After pulling on her socks, she padded out into the upstairs landing, the main entertainment lounge with the flat screen and the brilliant city views greeting her. Satoru wasn’t there, and the TV wasn’t on. Ignoring that, she went down the stairs, and saw the penthouse had been immaculately cleaned. Her bra was on the arm of the sofa they’d had sex on, so she retrieved that and dipped into the bathroom, were her jeans had been folded and hung on the radiator. She closed the door and got dressed, fluffing up her hair and wandering back out.

There was no sign of life. She stood, clueless, for a moment, and then decided that he was either at work, or working from home. Shoko wandered over to his office and turned the handle, but it clicked locked. He must’ve gone out for a meeting. She felt a little bad to be texting him her farewells, but she supposed he wouldn’t mind. Pulling her phone from her pocket, she began popping him a message when the door opened. She glanced up, and saw him pushing open the front door, a takeaway milkshake in his hand. As always, his expression brightened at the sight of her.

“Good afternoon ~” he chirped, kicking the door shut behind him. “You look like you’ve just come out of a maze. You lost?”

She laughed drily. “I was looking for you.”

“Aww, missed me already?” he grinned, setting the milkshake down on the kitchen island and approaching her. “You really are cute ~”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he tilted her chin up and planted a kiss on her lips. It was soft and gentle, sweet like honey, warm like the sun. It was uplifting, and it didn’t last long enough, because he was pulling away before she felt she had had her fill of Satoru.

“All OK?” he asked, holding her in a loose hug.

“Yeah, I was just about to head off,” she jerked her head towards the door.

He tilted his head. “Oh?”

“I’m going out with the girls,” she explained. “Will I see you later?”

He clucked his tongue. “I’m not sure. I have a meeting at eight in the morning tomorrow - I know; boring - but I can give you a lift home if that’s easier for you?”

“That would actually be very appreciated,” she smiled up, taking a hold of his hands.

“So cute ~” he gushed, seemingly melting.

Had they resolved their issues? Shoko wasn’t entirely sure, but she was happy to not be fighting with him anymore. She was glad to be with him, but felt there would have to be further talks on their relationship. A part of her already felt the first budding warmth; she was going out without him, and he didn’t even seem remotely jealous. Another part of her worried it was because he no longer cared about her as much. She wanted to swat that part away like a fly, to chase away her doubts, but they wanted to linger. Shoko never thought of herself as a jealous or possessive person, but the thought of Satoru no longer being interested in her bothered her…

“Don’t look so sad,” he rubbed his thumbs along her cheekbones, and then set to work untangling her hair from her ruination of it over the week, “we’ll see each other soon, and if it makes you feel better, I would much rather be with you tonight than with old men in suits tomorrow morning.”

She laughed softly. It was almost like he could read her mind. Still… did he like her as much as she liked him?

“Shoko,” she looked up at him again, and his gaze was warm and rich. “I’m so glad to have you in my life.”

“I don’t want us to live in an apology,” she hadn’t meant to say it, but the words were out.

He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Do you forgive me?”

“I don’t know…” she admitted. “A part of me worries you won’t always want me.”

“I always want you,” he insisted, “because I need you.”

“What if these are more words to make me feel better?”

Again, he was quiet before speaking. “I understand that it might take a bit of time for you to trust me again - and don’t feel guilty for not having total faith in me now; it makes sense that you don’t. Just know that I’m happy to wait until you feel you can.”

“But what if I never do?” she was only upsetting herself, but she needed answers.

“What if, what if, what if…” he murmured, pulling her in for a close hug. “I guess I’m scared, too.”

She looked up at him, chin on his chest. “Scared?”

“I really fucked up,” he said, looking down with a weary smile. “I’m lucky that you’re here at all; I really thought things were over when we met up this morning. There was such an air of finality. I’m scared that you won’t trust me again, and then I’ll have lost my chance with the only person I really care about.”

She blinked, and then buried her face into his chest. “I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“For bringing it up again,” she said. “For making things uncomfortable.”

“Uncomfortable?” he sounded confused. “Shoko, look at me.” She raised her head once more and was surprised to find he was smiling. “It’s regrettable that something awful brought us to this very moment, but it’s also nice that we can talk about bad things. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and no relationship is. There’s going to be bad times, and it just so happens that this time, I made it worse. But let’s make it good together . Don’t rush your trust; let it build up in it’s own time, otherwise things are just going to crumble. You get me?”

“Doesn’t it bother you?” she asked. “That I don’t have complete trust in you?”

“A little bit, I suppose,” he shrugged, “but I’m the reason you can’t trust me. I take that responsibility, and I’ll promise again and again that I’ll be better to you from now on, because then I’ll be better to myself, too. The way I see it, this relationship will only get stronger because it’s helping me iron out my own flaws, and maybe you feel that way, too?”

“I do think you’ve been good for me…” she murmured.

“Well, there we go, then ~” he said brightly. “Baby steps, Shoko. Now, let’s get you home so you can have a girly night out ~”

“Satoru…” she twiddled her thumbs. “Where are we at?”

He paused and looked at her thoughtfully. “My penthouse?”

“Be serious ,” she said pointedly. “You sat in a cafe and told me that you… you know.”

“That I love you,” the look on his face was so sincere that she felt her face go red. “Was I being too forward?”

“You can’t exactly take it back,” she said.

“I don’t want to, either,” he took her hands and swung them idly from side to side. “Does that scare you? That I love you?”

“It doesn’t scare me away ,” she said hesitantly. “It feels surreal that you can say that so soon, but then…”

She looked up at him, wanting to say how close she felt to him, how he made everything seem brighter and better… but the words seemed to catch in her throat.

“Do you like it when I say it?” he bent his head down to murmur in her ear, little tingles dancing along her skin.

“I… yes,” she closed her eyes as he drew his lips along her jaw.

“Do you want to be my girlfriend ?” he whispered playfully.

“It’s almost like you’re making fun of me,” she smiled, her bouncing.

“I want to be your boyfriend,” he wrapped his arms around her.

She closed her eyes as his warm mouth rested on her jugular, gently sucking between kisses on her skin.

“I want to be your boyfriend,” he repeated, tilting her head up and kissing her lips.

“We could be… dating…” she said, eyes closed but feeling his warm breaths just inches from her mouth. “It’s not too quick, is it?”

“No, but of course I’ll be biased,” he said quietly between kisses, “because I’m selfish, and I want you all for myself.” He squeezed her sides, kisses rich and intoxicating. “I’ll be all yours… you’ll be all mine…”

She leant her head away and looked at him. A languid smile had settled on his lips, and he looked at her with long-lashed, clear blue eyes.

“I want to be your girlfriend,” she said, and the words felt right leaving her mouth.

Satoru grabbed her and whipped her up in his arms. She wrapped her legs around his waist and kissed him, drawing her fingers through his hair. He rocked her in his arms, one arm rested beneath her ass, the other curling his fingers at the back of her head.

“We can do that, can’t we?” she asked breathlessly. “It’s not too soon to go official, right?”

“Not if we’re both ready,” he looked up at her.

“I’m ready,” she said. “I didn’t think I would be, but I am.”

“I’m ready, too,” he leaned into her once more, lips lingering just over hers.

She melted into another kiss, feeling safe in his strong arms, but equally feeling a bit daft for the hurricane of emotions she had been through that day. She had woken up thinking they would call off their relationship, and now they were getting more serious.

“You’re not just saying this to appease me?” she murmured, just needing that little bit of reassurance.

“I suggested it,” he grinned. “The only person I’m appeasing right now is me.”

He was too good. He wasn’t angry at her insecurity, and it was this that made her feel more certain that they could work through this. She hugged him tightly, breathing in his scent. He was warm, and she didn’t want to let go, but…

“I need to get home,” she smiled at him and felt a ray of positivity when he met her gaze with a playful pout.

Mei Mei picked her up from her house later on. She had agreed to see Satoru over the weekend, and when asked, she told Mei Mei that they would talk about the conversation when Utahime was there. Fortunately, Utahime was always on time, and she had plenty of beer at the ready. A part of Shoko was nervous. This would be the first time she had touched alcohol since Tuesday. She knew it wasn’t a good idea, that she shouldn’t be drinking at all, but she needed to relax, to have a night where she didn’t need to think about anything, and going to a club sober was… not high on her list of priorities.

No, she wouldn’t talk to her friends about this. She couldn’t admit to them that she turned to the bottle in moments of weakness.

“So,” Utahime cracked open a bottle of beer, “tell us what happened.”

“Well, after the argument on Tuesday, I was planning to call things off with him,” she said, pouring herself a vodka and adding coke. “I just felt awful, like I’d invested way too much into him for absolutely no reason.”

“And yet your message says something completely different,” Mei Mei smirked.

“I got there and he was a little late, so I really wasn’t on his side by the time he arrived,” she sipped her drink, “but then we were talking and he had this… it was this kind of really genuine sincerity, which sounds stupid considering he lied to me.”

“What made you change your mind?” Mei Mei looked intrigued.

“He said “sorry”,” Shoko shrugged.

“Anyone can apologise…” Utahime mumbled.

“But he didn’t say it on Tuesday, and when he was saying it today, he just looked so…” she smiled to herself. “I don’t know, guys, it just felt very real that he was apologising. He didn’t on the day, and he seemed a lot more vulnerable and open to me this morning.”

“Cheers to vulnerable men,” Mei Mei lifted her glass. They clinked them together.

“And that’s when you decided to give him another go?” Utahime asked.

“Not exactly,” she turned her glass around and around in her hands. “He told me… Satoru told me that he loved me.”

Utahime choked on her beer. Mei Mei sipped her red wine, eyebrows rising.

“I even asked if he was just playing with me,” she sat upright. “He kept saying it, too.”

“He told you he loved you? ” Utahime gawked. “ How about two months too early?”

“That’s what I thought, but…” she thought about what they had said to one another.

It felt too sensitive to confess that they had spoken about deeper feelings, about fate and destiny, and a meaning behind meeting someone else. It felt too close to her, too close with her relationships to both Satoru and her mum.

“How do you feel about him ?” Mei Mei tilted her head.

“I think I really like him,” Shoko kept twirling her glass around.

Really like him, or… you know…” Utahime shrugged.

“I don’t know,” Shoko put her head in her hands.

There was a pause, and then Utahime said, “Damn.”

“Well, as long as you can maintain control over him, then I think you’ll be fine,” Mei Mei smiled pleasantly. “Everyone has a different relationship.”

“When are you going to talk to Suguru?” Utahime asked.

“Guys, there’s still more,” she took a sip. “I went back to his after we talked, and whatever, and just as I was leaving -”

“So you hooked up?” Mei Mei’s dark eyes danced.

“That’s not any of your business, or what I was going to say.”

“Oh, my - they hooked up again!” Mei Mei covered her mouth and shot an amused glance at Utahime.

“Make-up sex, Shoko?” Utahime shook her head. “He must’ve given you a really good apology.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” she smiled pointedly. “As I was leaving, we got talking and I wasn’t sure where we stood, especially because of this whole… ordeal. Things felt a little messy, but then… we talked, and we decided we would be official.”

Her friends stared at her with wide eyes.

“I know it sounds crazy, but he asked me out and it just felt right,” she continued. “It didn’t feel spur of the moment, and even though it’s been such a short time, I feel like I made the right decision.”

The pair of them were looking at her.

“Did I make the wrong choice?” she asked quietly.

“We can’t tell you that,” Mei Mei said.

“Yeah, it’s your relationship, not ours,” Utahime added. “If you felt you were ready, then you’re probably ready. Every relationship is quick and, sure, it’s unusual when relationships go this quickly, but as long as you stand up for yourself and set clear boundaries, you’ll be OK.”

“When do we get to meet him?” Mei Mei asked.

“I don’t know, but it should probably be soon, right?”

“How about when I get back from Neyagawa?” Utahime suggested. “On Monday or Tuesday.”

“Monday,” Mei Mei said. “I’m eager to meet the man behind the Paradise Supreme.”

“I’ll talk to Satoru and see if he’s free,” Shoko said, refilling her glass.

“Good, because we need to make sure he knows his place and treats you with respect from now on,” Utahime tried on a determined smile. “But now onto the hard part. When are you going to talk to Suguru?”

“He was really angry the last time I spoke with him…” she looked into her drink. “He hadn’t realised I hadn’t read the magazine, but he was furious about me… lacking self-respect or something. Would his reaction be worse now that I have read the magazine?”

Mei Mei and Utahime exchanged glances.

“Most likely,” Mei Mei shrugged. “But you can’t avoid him forever.”

“I don’t want to, either,” she frowned. “I’ve missed him…”

“You have to tell him the truth,” Utahime wore a sympathetic expression on her face, “like the kind of things you just told me and Mei Mei.”

“It’s always the most difficult to speak with Suguru…” she muttered. “I hate it when he judges me.”

“It’s not that he’s judging you,” Utahime said patiently, “he’s just very protective of you, so sometimes he’s going to disagree with your decisions.”

“I just wish he’d have a bit more faith in me,” she shrugged. “You guys are more supportive of my decisions than he is.”

“If this is something that bothers you, then I think you and Suguru need to have a conversation with one another,” Mei Mei said. “You need to talk about a lot of things beyond Satoru, by the sounds of it. I do agree that Suguru currently tries to have a lot of influence in things that happen in your life, and that probably stems from the pair of you having grown up together.”

“Exactly!” she gestured to Mei Mei. “He spent so much time in high school looking out for me, but I’m not just a dumb kid anymore. I don’t need him monitoring all of my decisions, even if he thinks he’s doing the right thing.”

“Some pent up feelings, then,” Mei Mei glanced at Utahime.

“You two need to talk, and probably as soon as possible,” Utahime said.

“I know, I think I might try and pin him down tomorrow…” she cast her gaze down to her drink once more. “I just hate fighting with him…”

“Then make this the last fight,” Mei Mei said. “Don’t walk away or let him leave until you’ve both come to a resolution. It’s clear you want to avoid conflict this much because you care a lot about him.”

“That’s true…”

“And we all know that Suguru cares just as much about you,” Utahime said encouragingly. “You’d better think about telling him soon, though, since you don’t want to have two heavy conversations with both Suguru and then your dad.”

“I haven’t even thought about mentioning Satoru to Dad,” she bit her lip. “I’m saving him for last, that’s for sure.”

“He’ll want to meet Satoru,” Utahime added.

“Of course, he will,” Shoko sighed. “I’m hesitant, though, because this is my first proper relationship.”

“I still think Suguru will be the most difficult person to talk to,” Mei Mei said. “But yes, telling parents about relationships can always be a bit… complicated. Fortunately with family, you can take a little bit more time to get used to your relationship before telling him.”

“Luckily Satoru’s in a meeting tomorrow,” Shoko said. “I’m calling Dad tomorrow, and it would be awkward if he suddenly made a cameo when, as far as Dad knows, I’m home alone.”

“You still haven’t told your dad about the attack, then?” Utahime frowned.

“I’ll definitely be saving that for when he’s not with my grandparents.”

“In that case, I think we’re done talking about heavy topics,” Mei Mei perked up. “Shoko, your mission before Utahime gets back is to sort out things with Suguru. For now, though, our main goal is to get drunk and have fun. Cheers, girls.”

And the three of them clinked glasses once more.

Chapter Text

She woke up with a dry mouth and a pounding head. She should’ve known that it would be a mistake to go out, but at least she was home. How she had made it home Shoko couldn’t say, but she pulled herself out of bed and had a long, hot shower. After that, she had a strong coffee and a cigarette, browsing idly through her phone to see the messages she had missed whilst asleep.

There were plenty of drunken photos shared in her group chat, and many of them were unflattering of the three of them. There were messages from Utahime lamenting that she had woken up much later than expected, and that she was heading off for Neyagawa. There was a slight pang in her chest that she had missed her, but she still sent off a quick message of: See you Monday! Let us know when you get there x

There were messages from her dad, too, so she brushed her hair to look presentable and threw on her dressing gown. He had asked her to send a message when she was awake, and when she did, she immediately got a video call from him. Fumbling with the phone, she answered and arranged it against the salt and pepper tray to stand upright.

Her heart soared with a sudden, childlike joy. There was her dad, his face lined with slight apprehension as he balanced the phone in his hands, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Partially obscured were the wrinkled faces of her grandparents, and another burst of warmth lit up in her chest. Here were people whom she loved, had not seen in quite some time, and sitting there, Shoko realised just how much she had missed her dad. She stiffened her jaw and tried her best not to blubber in front of them all.

“Hey, Dad! Baba! Jiji!” she beamed, but her dad was still fumbling with the camera.

“She’s talking to us, Kiyoshi,” she heard her grandma mutter from behind. “Move out of the way so we can see her.”

“I’m just making sure the phone won’t fall over, Mum,” her dad replied patiently, and then, when he was satisfied, he moved away from the camera. “Hi there, Shoko!”

“Hi!” she waved, looking at the grainy image of her dad’s bad phone camera.

There they all were, her tiny grandma seated in the middle, her grandpa squinting at the screen as though he couldn’t believe she was there.

“Look at you, so beautiful,” her grandma beamed. “It’s been too long, Shoko, when are we going to see you in person?”

“It might not be until Christmas time,” she said apologetically. “I’m back at university at the end of August and I’ve got an assignment to do over the next few weeks.”

“Working hard as always,” her grandma continued. “Did Kiyoshi leave you alone, running the bakery by yourself?”

Her grandpa sniffed. “Is this a video?”

“Don’t be stupid, Hideaki, it’s a video call, ” her grandma snapped. “ She’s talking to us right now. It’s a visual phone call.”

“Incredible,” her grandpa squinted at the screen once more. “Hello, there, Shoko!”

“Hi, Jiji,” she grinned. “And yes, Baba, I keep the bakery open a few times each week.”

“Have you been seeing Kento there?” her dad asked. “He messaged to say you’ve been open, but he says there were some problems. Is everything OK?”

“Kento has your number?” she raised an eyebrow.

“He’s my greatest customer,” her dad protested. “Besides, he was talking about getting some work experience at the bakery, so I gave him my contact details.”

“What kind of problems, Kiyoshi?” Baba looked concerned. “Has something happened, Shoko?”

“Not that -”

“He said you had to close early on two occasions,” her dad frowned. “He said your friends pulled you off for brunch and then you never reopened, and he even mentioned you had to speak with the police ?”

“The police ?” Baba stared, wide-eyed, between Shoko and her dad.

“There was that report, wasn’t there?” Jiji waved a hand in thought, not having quite heard what they were talking about. “I thought I had recognised the name of that university.”

“What are you talking about, Hideaki?” Baba looked at him incredulously.

“No, no, he’s right, there was an incident at Shoko’s university…” her dad sent her a knowing stare. “I’ve been trying to talk to Shoko about it, to warn her, but you weren’t going to the police about that , were you?”

Shoko swallowed and shifted in her seat.

“Shoko!” her dad looked appalled. “How could you possibly have anything to do with the Shigemo boy’s murder?”

“I knew him,” she frowned. “I met him a few days before it happened.”

“And the police questioned you?” her dad was horrified.

“No, I wanted to make a statement,” she said. “I’d seen someone suspicious on campus and thought it would be good to make a report on it.”

“I can’t believe you saw the murderer!” Baba gawked.

“I don’t know if the man was guilty,” she added, “he was just… a possible candidate.”

“He didn’t do anything to you, did he?” her dad asked. “You just crossed paths? That was it?”

She could’ve lied, but she really considered things. Her dad would be back in a week, and she was back on speaking terms with Satoru now, so it wasn’t like she was going to be home alone. Besides, she had made a huge fuss about Satoru being honest, why shouldn’t she follow her own standards with her family.

“There’s a little bit more to it,” she twisted a strand of hair on her finger.

“Was the Shigemo boy a boyfriend?” Baba continued in the background, whereas Jiji was clueless.

“What’s going on, Shoko?” sudden apprehension dawned on her dad’s features.

“The man I reported to the police is someone I’ve seen before,” she said nervously. “Are you ready for a little bit of storytime, Dad?”

Her dad nervously glanced at her grandparents.

“If Shoko’s in trouble, I’m hearing about it,” Baba said fiercely.

“Alright, then… talk,” her dad wrung his wrists nervously.

“OK, so… on Tuesday twenty-ninth of June, I met Haruta at the university library,” Shoko explained. “We were both working late on assignments, so we decided to help each other through and then we kept in contact for whenever we needed study sessions, and whatnot. On Wednesday, I was at… Utahime’s… and I stayed later than expected.”

“Ah, yes,” her dad looked a little put-out. “You were out for dinner that night, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” she perked up, “yes, I was. So I headed home but because Utahime had had beer, she couldn’t drive me, which wasn’t a problem because I could take the train.”

“Silly girl,” Baba said. “Always get a taxi at night. It’s not safe to be a young, beautiful woman taking the train so late in the day. There are all kinds of strange and horrid men out there.”

“Yeah, I know,” she breathed out. “I noticed a man as I… parted ways with Utahime. He wore a black hood - dark clothes in general, really - and had a mask covering the lower half of his face. I didn’t think anything of him at the time, but by the time I’d reached the station, I noticed he was following me.”

Following you?” her dad wore a look of horror once more.

“Goodness,” Baba blocked her face with her hands.

“Yes, he was keeping tabs on me, and I knew he was going to follow me home, so I called Suguru and -”

“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” her dad outburst. “You get followed and yet you were home alone! Do you realise how dangerous that was, Shoko? I would’ve come home as soon as possible.”

That’s the point,” she sighed. “I didn’t want to ruin your chance to expand out of Tokyo…”

“You are more important than my work - always !” her dad said fiercely. “If something had happened to you -” he passed a hand over his face. “I’ll be back in Tokyo by Monday.”

“Don’t cut off your week with Baba and Jiji!” Shoko protested.

“It was a courtesy calling whilst he was passing by, don’t flatter him,” Baba looked stern. “You can’t be home alone when there’s someone dangerous in the area.”

“Precisely!” her dad said, outraged. “Imagine if he has followed you home and knows where you live? I can’t sleep knowing that you’re home alone.”

“I’ve not been home alone,” she said pointedly, and watched her family’s faces soften.

“Ah, you called that Hime girl?” Baba asked. “Very clever, girl.”

“Reliable, too,” her dad nodded.

“Actually, it was Suguru who stayed,” she lied, but saw her grandparents' faces pale.

“Isn’t Suguru a man’s name?” Jiji asked cluelessly.

“This “Suguru” name is mentioned a lot ,” Baba said. “This must be a boyfriend, right?”

“No, Suguru is Shoko’s childhood friend,” her dad explained, although he suddenly sounded uncertain. “Well, it’s certainly reassuring that you weren’t home alone… Suguru… he… he did sleep on the sofa, right?”

“Yes,” she tried not to think of Satoru. “We did not share a room, Dad .”

“Of course not, of course not,” her dad shook his head. “No… well… it certainly is a relief that Suguru has been there. If there’s anyone I would trust to keep you safe, it is him.”

“You should ask this Suguru on a date,” Baba insisted. “He sounds very reliable.”

“Shoko and Suguru are only friends,” her dad said pointedly.

“Is he there right now?” Jiji craned his head, trying to see more of Shoko’s background. “How do I angle the camera around?”

“You can’t , Hideaki, ” Baba huffed. “ Only Shoko can move her camera around. Goodness, you are a luddite.”

“Suguru?” Jiji called out, bushy brows furrowed.

“Suguru’s at work right now, Jiji,” Shoko chuckled.

“We shall just have to meet on the wedding day,” Baba clucked her tongue. “Continue your story, Shoko, your poor grandmother here will have a heart attack if she doesn’t hear the end soon.”

“Yes, Baba; so I called Suguru and he met me at the station, but that’s when the man in the hoodie disappeared, and I didn’t see him again that night,” Shoko explained. “Anyway, on Friday, Haruta invited me to a university party -” she glanced at her grandparents, who were watching curiously, “- nothing massive, just an end of term celebration, and I decided to leave at eleven. It was a, um, long day and I was really tired.”

“Eleven is a very respectable time to go to bed,” Jiji said. “I don’t remember the last time I went to sleep before nine.”

“I called Suguru to pick me up, and we arranged a place where we would meet,” she noticed her grandma jabbing a finger knowingly at her grandpa. “As I was heading there, the man in the black hood attacked me from behind.”

Baba lifted a hand to her mouth. “My poor girl.”

“And you still didn’t tell me about this?” her dad suddenly looked broken.

“For the same reasons!” she said nervously. “I didn’t want to interrupt your trip away, and since Suguru was around there was nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing to worry about!” he shook his head. “We must have different ideas on what “nothing” means, Shoko…”

“I managed to escape, but he did try and pull me away…” she said nervously.

“A man tries to kidnap you and you say nothing to me!” her dad looked angry again.

“Kiyoshi, the girl was frightened,” Baba sounded understanding, but she looked afraid. “Shoko, dear, this happened two weeks ago? And you never told us?”

She raked her hands through matted hair. “I was under a lot of pressure, and I didn’t want Dad worrying about me when he was hours away. It made sense at the time, but now that I’m talking, I should’ve said much earlier.”

“You really should have!” her dad folded his arms.

A part of her wanted to tell him to not cut his travels short, but Shoko sat there and realised she was entitled to a little bit of selfishness. She wanted to see her dad again, to be able to hug him in person and feel reassured that he was there to keep her company.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and found the words came easier than they ever had in the past.

“Well, you’ve told me now,” he blew out a breath. “And that’s why you spoke to the police?”

“I think that man might have attacked Haruta, the boy who was killed,” she said forlornly.

“That’s troubling…” Baba murmured. “And have you seen this man since?”

“Not since he attacked me,” she said, relieved. “I guess when he failed he left and decided not to try again.”

“You can’t let your guard down like that,” her dad said sternly. “I will be back home first thing on Monday, understood? We have a lot to talk about anyway.”

“Sorry to pull him away from you so soon, Baba and Jiji,” she smiled weakly.

“We’ll be sick of him by lunchtime,” Jiji, who had been trying to gaze past her once more, suddenly sat upright again. “Take him.”

“There is plenty of time in the world for Kiyoshi to visit his poor mother,” Baba beamed. “Although the next time he does, I will be very cross if he doesn’t bring you with him. I miss my darling girl.”

“I miss you, too,” she managed a smile, although she was worried she might start blubbering.

“I suppose you have a lot to be getting on with today?” her dad asked. “We’re going out to the gardens today.”

“I have a couple of errands, yeah,” she tugged at the hems of her sleeves.

“And stop pulling at your hair, Shoko, you’ll get it tangled,” her dad added, and she drew her other hand away from her hair. “Talk to you soon, and I’ll see you on Monday, OK?”

“Yeah, see you soon,” she smiled weakly, and waved as her dad leant in and struggled to hang up.

Once the call disconnected, she slumped back into her chair and breathed out a sigh of relief. She suspected she would have a lot of explaining and talking to do when her dad was home, but a part of her was relieved that he was now coming back earlier. Things were getting so intense and difficult at home, and she was trying to put off confronting Suguru. She shouldn’t, though, and she hated to admit that Mei Mei was right - she was intentionally avoiding him.

She texted him. You free to meet up today?

He didn’t immediately respond, so in the meantime she raced upstairs to get showered and dressed, and by the time she came downstairs, there was a message waiting for her from Suguru.

She lifted it with shaking hands and opened the text. Yeah. When and where?

Shoko considered. She remembered what Mei Mei said about not ending the conversation until what needed to be said was said. Either my place, or yours?

I’ll come to you, he wrote, and since his response was quick, she could only imagine he had been poised for a response.

She scrolled through her phone along her other messages. There was one from Utahime saying: Made it! Will see you guys Monday!

She smiled and popped off a quick response: Say hi to the family from me. She then dipped into her messages with Satoru and popped him a text. How you doing? Still in a meeting?

Again, she didn’t get an instant response, and tossed her phone aside. She tried to keep calm, but she could only envision how angry Suguru would be when she told him the full details. She made herself a coffee and sat at the kitchen table, turning the mug around and around in her hands, all the way until the doorbell rang. Shoko perked out, her heart jumping up into her throat, and wandered to the front door. She took deep breaths, thinking of the first thing to say, and then deciding it was just better to face the music. She opened the door and put on an easy-going, pleasant smile.

Suguru looked immaculate. He was Mr Perfect, as always, hair smooth and sleek, half tied up, wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt, and baggy trousers, stylish shoes on his feet. Slim leather bands decorated his wrists, and he had in a pair of earrings she didn’t recognise.

Whatever confidence she had had before suddenly drained away. Seeing him standing there reminded her of how much she had missed seeing him almost every day, and yet now she saw him only once a week at best.

“Hey,” she stepped aside.

“Hi,” he wandered in, and it was suddenly weird, because he looked odd standing in her house. She was accustomed to Satoru being there now.

“Do you want… a drink?”

“Tea’s fine.”

She nodded and hurried into the kitchen. It was horribly formal. She chewed on her lip as she set about making them both tea, and he lingered in the doorway, as though no longer sure whether he was allowed to sit down.

“Here,” she set down a cup for him on the table and lowered herself into a chair. He sat on the other side of the table. “I wanted to talk a few things through.”

“I presume this is leaving off from our previous conversation?” he averted his gaze.

“Yes,” she said carefully, “and the last time we spoke, I hadn’t read the magazine.”

He raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t say anything.

“You guys were right,” she admitted. “Satoru did go and see his ex, but it was a one time thing.”

“And you believe him?” Suguru’s lip curled a fraction, although he tried to maintain a neutral expression.

“Yes, I do,” she said earnestly, “because he got down on his knees and begged me for a second chance, and then I met up with him a few days later with a verdict.”

“The way you’re talking… you haven’t called things off with him?” Suguru’s hand tightened around his cup, and he stared into the tea.

“No, because he was genuine and has been since,” Shoko replied. “No, I don’t have complete trust in him just yet, but we both want to try and navigate a way through this relationship. We both think it’s worth trying again.”

“He lied about seeing someone else behind your back, and that was only two days into seeing each other,” Suguru rubbed his temples. “What’s to say he’s not going to continue cheating and lying throughout the relationship whilst peppering you with honeyed words?”

“He doesn’t give me that impression, Hei, he just made a stupid one-off mistake,” she protested. “We talked about things in depth , and we decided that we both felt ready to go steady. No more vague labels or sitting in some liminal nothing.”

What ?” it was not the reaction she had wanted.

Please , Hei, I don’t want to argue about my relationship anymore, ” she squeezed her eyes shut. “ I know you want the best for me, but we’ve both come to a fork in the road where we’ve got different ideals of what is what I want and need. I don’t want to lose you; you’re too important to me.” She swallowed then, feeling nerves washing over her body. “But I also don’t want to leave Satoru, because he’s brought me a lot more happiness than sadness. I don’t want to be put into a situation where I feel pressured I have to choose between my best friend and my boyfriend.”

He flinched. “You seriously started dating him? After what he did? I don’t understand how you can be so forgiving.”

“When I look at him, I feel completely different to any other time I’ve been with someone,” she said. “I look at him and I can’t help but think that, if people are meant to be together, if we all have someone we’re supposed to end up with, then I’ve found him. I can tell him anything - I’ve told him everything .”

“I’ve always said you could talk to me,” Suguru shook his head.

“Satoru doesn’t treat me like a child,” she replied.

Suguru scoffed. “I don’t treat you like a child.”

“No, Hei, you do, like I need constant protecting,” she argued. “We’re not kids anymore; I don’t need an older brother, I need a best friend who can relax now that he doesn’t need to watch over me twenty-four seven.”

“Shoko, I don’t fuss over you because I think you need protecting,” he gritted his teeth.

“Then I want you to have some faith in me, ” she implored. “ I’ve made some colossal mistakes in the past, and a lot of them have been completely stupid and needless, but I am a responsible adult, and I can be reliable for my own decisions. I want you to believe in me.”

“I do,” he said quietly, and he was now looking at her.

“Believe in me to make the right decisions, is what I mean,” she said.

“But you’re making the wrong one,” he continued.

“Just be understanding!” she could feel her frustrations rising. “Utahime and Mei Mei want to meet Satoru, and I want you to meet him properly, too. I don’t understand why you’re digging your heels in so much about this.”

“Because - he -” Suguru looked flustered. “Because he had absolutely no respect for you! How can you give him another chance when he was willing to hurt your feelings by shacking up with his ex the moment you weren’t his biggest priority.”

“How can I convince you to give him a second chance?” she panicked. “I can’t have you hating each other - I just can’t! I’ve made the choice to forgive him, and I’m begging you to respect the decision I’ve made. Please, Hei, give Satoru a second chance!”

“I can’t!” he stood up. “I just can’t!”

“At least give me a reason why!” she wailed, rising to her feet as well. “It’s killing me not having you around so much!”

“We’re just going around in circles!” he threw his hands up, exasperated.

“We can’t just walk away every time things get difficult!” she cried. “I want to work through this friendship, but I need to understand why you’re struggling to take the steps with me.”

“Because I’m childish!” he blurted out, and then paled.

Childish ?” she balked. “What do you mean you’re “childish”? You’re anything but, Hei.”

“I can’t stand it when you talk about him like that, like he’s God’s gift to Earth, like he can do no wrong, and then you let him do whatever he likes,” Suguru ranted. “I can’t stand it when you go around talking “boyfriend” this and “Satoru” that. I can’t stand it when you need a lift and yet you’re decorated with little souvenirs from some guy who’s probably marking off another notch on his belt. I can’t bring myself to accept him, because I’m childish and I like you.”

Shoko froze on the spot. “What?”

“I like you, Shoko,” he repeated, except there was pain in his eyes. “I always have. I tried to ignore it for years, because you never reciprocated, and I thought I would be OK once you became official with someone, but it just had to be that asshole. I can’t stand it that I like you, and yet he’s the one who makes you happy.”

Someone clucked their tongue. Shoko and Suguru whipped their heads to the kitchen doorway, where Satoru was leaning. He was looking at Suguru, his eyes laden with ice.

“Interesting,” he said.

Chapter Text

Shoko felt like she had received a sucker-punch to the gut and, judging from the look of pure surprise on Suguru’s face, it seemed he was experiencing something similar. She hadn’t even heard Satoru come in, but of course he must’ve finished the meeting by now, and he had a key. Satoru was pale-faced and his eyes were wide and bright; the light didn’t seem to reach them, though, and there was this iciness that left him devoid of warmth. His expression made Shoko feel cold, and it reminded her of the look on his face when he had first met Suguru, of when they had argued on Tuesday night.

“Surprise ~” Satoru wiggled his hands, but there was no warmth in it. “I’m back.”

“Welcome back, Satoru,” Shoko murmured, although she was still floored by Suguru’s confession.

Suguru still didn’t say anything. His brow was slightly creased, his eyes dark and unreadable.

“And look what I come back to,” Satoru wandered to Shoko, ruffling her hair and then looping an arm around her shoulders. “So lovely and heartfelt, Suguru; do you often recite such poetry to other guy’s girlfriends?”

“Satoru,” Shoko said warningly.

“Nah, Shoko, let me speak this time,” Satoru put on a grin, but it wasn’t friendly in the slightest. It was almost… mocking. “It’s quite amusing how much time you’ve spent thinking about me, the “ asshole ”, who you only met for two seconds. You know, Shoko never said a bad word about you; I was willing to give you a chance, but I think I was right this whole time. I kinda don’t want you around much, either, since you’ve spent so long thinking of fucking my girlfriend.”

Shoko looked up at him in angry horror, but his smile was gone. He looked furious, angrier than she had ever seen him, and yet Suguru still held his ground, jaw getting tighter and tighter as he stared Satoru down. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want them to yell at each other.

“What did you think was going to happen?” Satoru guided Shoko behind him, putting his hands in his pockets and inclining his head. “That she was going to ditch me and run off with you? This isn’t a fucking picture book or a fairy tale, people don’t just throw away relationships like that.”

“Really?” Suguru’s voice was low and cold. Shoko had never heard him so angry. “Funny, since you did just that when you went off to fuck your ex when Shoko didn’t listen to you.”

“You son of a bitch,” Satoru said quietly, taking a step forward. “Shoko and I have talked about that, but I guess you didn’t give a fuck about what she was saying since you had a tunnel vision to cuck me.”

“For someone who treated her like shit, you sure say a lot of good things about yourself,” Suguru raised his chin.

Shoko was rooted to the spot. She knew she needed to deescalate the situation, but she suddenly had no idea what to say. They were now face to face; Satoru had his fists clenched, his eyes still hollow and cold, whereas Suguru’s back was straight and stiff, prepared to go on the defence.

“You really think you’re the perfect gentleman, don’t you?” Satoru growled. “You think that if you feed Shoko enough crap about me, you might stand a chance again.”

“At least I know how to keep it in my pants when starting a relationship,” Suguru’s expression didn’t change.

Shoko didn’t see Satoru move, but Suguru must have. He raised a hand just in time to avoid a cleanly aimed right-hook. Shoko heard herself yell out in protest, but the two ignored her, grappling and punching, exchanging blows and jabs; there were yells and shouts, an argument as the fight continued through the kitchen. She could see scarlet, but she couldn’t tell who had hit blood first.

“Stop!” she yelled, finally finding her voice, and rushed forward to intervene.

She grabbed onto someone’s arm, blurred past the fists, and felt an elbow knock into her jaw. Shoko staggered backwards, rubbing her face, a low panging deep to her bone. Her eyes watered, and she had definitely bitten her tongue, since she could taste blood. Shoko wiped her face, blinking back the tears as the knock-back still rang through her head.

“Would you two stop !” she called out, spitting blood into the sink.

Again, there was no response. Her heart slammed in her chest; they weren’t going to stop. She was reaching for her old coffee mug sitting on the counter without thinking. She just needed to get their attention, to get them to stop before they knocked over any more chairs or did more damage. She raised the mug and smashed it against the counter. Old coffee spilled over the side and she felt a fragment of the china slice across her knuckle. There was a welling of blood on her skin, but when she glanced over at the two, they had finally stopped, both staring at the smashed mug and the handle in her hand.

Suguru broke free of the headlock Satoru had managed to grasp him in. He looked the worse for wear, his lip split and nose running blood. Satoru already had a purple-red mark blossoming around one of his eyes, and he still wore that hauntingly furious expression. Shoko raked her hands through her hair, fingers catching on old knots.

“I -” she began, but Suguru moved towards the door.

“I’m going,” he told her over his shoulder, striding towards the front door.

“Suguru.”

She followed after him, Satoru following her like a shadow, but he was already throwing open the front door.

“Suguru,” she reached for him, but he pushed her hand away.

“I need to go, Shoko,” he wouldn’t look at her. “Bye.”

“Wait,” she mumbled, walking outside after him without thinking, the pavement cold on her bare feet.

But Suguru didn’t wait. He put his hands in his pockets and strode towards his car, which was parked in the driveway. She stood there, feeling Satoru’s gaze burning into the side of her head, and the first trickle of tears running down her face. This wasn’t how their conversation should’ve gone. Her heart felt suddenly constricted; it felt wrong to watch her best friend go like this, to watch him step in the car and drive away.

She turned slowly and saw Satoru standing in the doorway. His hands were in his pockets, and his eyes were burning intensely as he stared at her. She felt a fresh wave of tears falling down her face.

“Please don’t leave,” she babbled. “I don’t want to be alone. I didn’t know Suguru…”

She suddenly found she couldn’t speak again. Her throat felt clenched, and she knew that if Satoru walked, then she would spend another night on the kitchen floor. She couldn’t be alone after that.

“Come in,” he said, voice steely, and Shoko wandered through the front door, shooting him an anxious look as she moved past.

He closed the door quietly and lifted the latch. Shoko turned, and began twisting her hair in her finger, and looked at Satoru, who had his back to her.

“I didn’t know Suguru felt -”

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” he walked past her into the kitchen, shoulders set rigidly.

“Don’t be angry at me,” she felt more tears coming along.

“I’m not,” he replied, opening a cupboard and taking out a box of plasters. “And don’t walk in here. There’s broken china on the floor.”

He approached her, and she noticed his expression was suddenly a lot softer. He was holding a plaster in his hands, peeling, and he gently took her hand, the knuckle still red with a line of blood. He gently laid the plaster over the cut, smoothing it out. Her hand looked so small in his.

“We should probably get an ice pack for your face,” she said quietly. “There’s a bag of peas in the freezer.”

“Yeah, ‘course,” he kissed her forehead. “Maybe get comfortable in the lounge. I don’t want you stepping on anything sharp.”

“Right,” eyes downcast, Shoko brought herself to the living room.

She plopped down on the sofa and drew her knees up, hugging and shrinking in on herself. Suguru had walked away from her, furious, and she couldn’t help but feel that there was a melancholic finality in his words. Why had he suddenly said that? Things had been so uncomplicated between them until he had said that. Her mouth was wobbling once more, and warm tears were spilling down her face. She buried her head away, trying to control her breathing, but soon she was sobbing uncontrollably into her arms. The sofa sank as Satoru lowered himself beside her, and she heard the clink of a mug being set down on the coffee table. She didn’t dare look up, didn’t have the strength to anyway, and he comfortingly raked his fingers through her hair, quietly massaging her head. Shoko cried herself raw, Satoru cooing words of comfort to her every now and then.

How had he kept that quiet from her for so many years? How had she never noticed? The more she thought about it now, all the times he had burned his schedule down to put hers first, giving her lifts all the time, concerning himself with the deepest aspects of her life. It made more sense, and she felt stupid for never having noticed. If only she had noticed, then this situation would never have escalated in the way it did. She sputtered towards the end of her sobs, and then lifted her chin. There was a mug of coffee on the table in front of her, and Satoru continued to gently massage her head. She looked at him, seeing that he still looked somewhat tense.

“I really didn’t know,” she said hoarsely.

“I figured,” he replied, and then hastened to add, “I thought so when I first met him. He was far too overprotective of you for someone who was “just a friend”.”

“We really are just friends,” more tears threatened, but she inwardly begged them to hold on for just a moment more.

I know that,” he said. “You should be cautious, though, Shoko. You’re really cute, so a lot of guys are going to have all sorts of intentions when talking to you.”

“But he’s my best friend,” she felt more tears running down her cheeks then, and her jaw ached from the hit. “I didn’t want to lose my best friend, and that’s why I wanted to talk to him today, and I ended up losing him anyway.”

She shot to her feet and beelined for the kitchen.

“Where are you going?” Satoru asked cluelessly, getting up and following.

“My phone,” she sniffed. “I need to talk to him.”

“He just walked out, Shoko,” Satoru protested. “I think he made it very clear that he doesn’t want to talk.”

“I can’t just leave things like this,” she jumped straight to her In Case of Emergency contacts and called Suguru. “I’m not losing my best friend over something like this.”

“The guy just tried to break us up,” Satoru said impatiently.

“He wouldn’t have meant it like that,” she waited, but there was nothing. He didn’t pick up. She called him again.

“He’s not going to answer,” Satoru tried to grab her phone, but she danced away. “Shoko.”

“I can’t live with myself knowing that we’re not talking,” she sobbed at another unsuccessful call, and tried again. “Suguru, for God’s sake, pick up , please .”

“You’re just upsetting yourself more,” Satoru grabbed her arm and tried wrenching the phone from her other hand.

“I can’t live without him,” she wept when he finally managed to lift the phone from her fingers. “Satoru, I need to call him!”

“So you can live without me?” he looked stung.

“I didn’t say that!” she tried reaching for the phone, but he held it too high. “Satoru, please ! I might be losing my best friend.”

Your best friend doesn’t want to be your best friend ! ” Satoru finally raised his voice, his eyes burning with anger once again. “ I’m right here - I’m right fucking here - and yet it’s always him you want to talk to. Why aren’t I good enough ?”

“You are , but I need…” she sank down in a chair, feeling another wave of tears, “I need to go back in time and tell him not to say he liked me.”

Shoko put her face in her hands and bent over to continue an endless round of sobbing. Her eyes were sore and her throat was raw, but she was hurting so much. Satoru set her phone down on the table and knelt before her, prising her hands from her face and looking at her, calm once more. He brought both her hands, one at a time, to his mouth and kissed them gently. Then, rubbing the tops of her hands with his thumbs, he laid his head in her lap, and she could see the tips of his white lashes.

“I’m sorry, Satoru,” she squeezed her eyes shut. “You are right here. You stayed when I wanted you to, and yet you’re constantly in the middle of me and my friends.”

“Talk to me,” he said gently, continuing a slow massage of her hands. “Tell me everything you want to say.”

“This is all just so unfair , ” she sobbed. “ I’ve known Suguru since we were both four . It’s been seventeen years, and he’s always been there for me, and now suddenly he’s just walked out of the door, and it feels like he’s walked out of my life, because now he won’t even answer my calls. I feel like I’ve lost a piece of me completely; I don’t feel complete without him because he’s always been there .”

Satoru hummed soothingly, and Shoko hurried on.

“After Mum died, I couldn’t talk about it with anyone , ” she said. “ I watched her die and then I couldn’t even save her, and I spent a full five minutes giving CPR to a corpse, and I still couldn’t save her . I couldn’t talk to Dad about it; he was broken for so long, and I was left to pick up his pieces all the way through high school. It was so hard, and it was easier to drown it all away with whiskey, because if I showed one second of weakness in front of Dad, I was scared he would crumble all over again. I hated seeing him like that, and yet there was nothing I could, because every time Dad looked at me , I could tell he was just reminded of Mum all over again.

“But with Suguru, I could lean on him, and I was already so familiar with him over the years,” she wiped her face with a shoulder. “It was so selfish of me to keep him so close and go crying to him whenever I needed him, and now look what’s happened - I let myself become so dependent on him that I didn’t even notice his own feelings, that I made him an extension of my life rather than letting him go his own path. I’ve been so selfish, and now I can’t even talk to him, because all he can do is look at me and see all of the years he’s devoted to me , and that I can’t love him ever in the same way he does with me. And that’s so unfair , it’s so unfair that he fell for me , of all people.”

She drew in a juddering breath.

“And now he might be gone from my life forever,” her voice was rough now, “and I won’t have him to turn to when it’s all going to shit, and I just need some time with Suguru. It’s all a horrible mess, and I can’t make sense of anything and - and - and now you have to sit here whilst I blame the world for not being able to love Suguru, and yet you’re still sat there as though I’m someone who can be cared about, even though all I do is think about myself . And now I’ll poison you, just like I do with everyone else - Mum, Dad, Suguru, Haru-”

“Shut up.”

“Huh?”

She wiped her eyes and blinked past the tears, and he was looking up at her once more with fierce determination, his eyes bright with anger.

“I know I just said to talk, but now I’m saying to be quiet,” he said. “Shoko, stop hating yourself. Stop hating what you can’t do, and for God’s sake, yes, you can be selfish, but we all can. Do you realise how much you think about other people and live your life accordingly to them? I hate seeing you so unhappy, and I keep saying this countless times, but you can rely on me. I’m here now. Your pain, your smiles, your laughs, your tears - I’ll share it with you.”

“You can’t replace Suguru,” she said hollowly.

“I know,” he averted his gaze briefly, “but I don’t want to, either, because I’m someone who you can love as more than a friend, and I - I wouldn’t change a thing. You need me, Shoko, I see that now. You’re shouldering this pain, and it’s given you an odd outlook on life, the constant desire to please and, when it bounces back in your face, it’s just easier to get angry and walk away. But you don’t have to do that anymore . I won’t let you run away. You need to listen to me when I say this, Shoko: your mum’s death was not your fault, and that’s why you couldn’t do anything to save her; your dad’s grief was something he should’ve shared with you, but instead he held it deep in his heart and you followed his example, and you both ended up hurting more because of it; and Suguru’s love for you isn’t something you can control, and if the two of you stop being friends, then that’s because it was just meant to be that way.”

He squeezed her hand and smiled up at her. “You can’t keep shouldering burden after burden, especially ones that aren’t yours. If Suguru chooses to stop talki-”

“You didn’t help, Satoru,” she said coolly, and saw his face fall. “You punched him.”

“He deserved it, trying to intervene in our relationship like that.”

“I didn’t have a second to process any of what he had said,” she said.

“So I was meant to stand there in the doorway as he professed his love for you?” his mouth twisted into a scowl. “Seriously, Shoko, I was -”

“You didn’t have to hit him!” she scooted her chair back.

Satoru got to his feet. “He fucking deserved it!”

Shoko also stood up. “He didn’t, and it was wrong to get violent.”

There was a pause. Satoru seemed at a loss for words. Then he said, “I know. It was.”

“Then why did you do it? ” she yelled. “ We could’ve all just sat down and talked things through, but no , you had to make the situation ten times worse!”

“He was implying that I didn’t care about you!” Satoru protested angrily. “I wasn’t thinking; at that moment, I just hated him so much, and then it just happened .”

“I just wanted to hear him out, to talk things through, and now I might not get that chance ever again!”

“What do you want me to do? Turn back time? I fucking can’t!”

She reached up and gripped the collar of his shirt and pulled him lightly to her level. Shoko didn’t care about the surprise in his face as she smashed her mouth to his and brought him into a deep kiss. She gripped onto his hair, and his fingers curled into the back of her shirt.

“You’re so stupid,” she sobbed, and then realised more tears were running down her face. “Stop getting so jealous all of the time; I love you, Satoru, and it hurts so much when I feel like I’m thrown in between the two people I care about the most. But I love you , and I don’t know why you can’t remember that whenever Suguru’s around. I don’t like it when you fight with my best friend, I just -”

She couldn’t muster any more words, dissolving into sobs, and relinquished her hold on him, pressing her forehead to his chest and bawling. Tentatively, he closed his arms around her, holding her close to him.

“I don’t want you to leave me, too; I don’t want to be alone,” she sniffed, mouth wobbling.

“I’m not leaving you, and I never will,” he swayed her from side to side. “Listen, it’s not good when we fall out with those who are important to us. I get it. But it used to kill me inside every day when I had to pretend that everything was fine, and fit myself into other people’s actions and standards.”

“I don’t even know who I am without Suguru,” she said numbly.

“You’re you ,” Satoru cooed. “And you’ve got your whole life to figure out what directions you want to take, and I’ll be there to support you for the whole way. Listen, you should let Suguru reach out to you; stop chasing after other people for once.”

“Did you fall out with your best friend?” she asked quietly. “Is that who you were trying to please?”

“Oh, boy… let’s get that coffee and have a sit down,” he said, taking her hand and guiding her along.

They collected their warm drinks, and then Satoru brought her upstairs to her room. A part of her wondered briefly if they were going to forget all of their problems in pleasurable bliss, but then he set down their drinks on the bedside tables and settled himself on the bed, cross-legged, and patted the space beside him. Shoko crawled into bed, tucking herself in, and held her coffee in her hands.

“I was always falling out with my dad, but then I was constantly having to cover for him because that’s what my mum wanted to do,” Satoru leant his head back, staring up at the ceiling. “He wasn’t a good man, though. He used to hit me and my mum.”

“Oh, I’m… I’m sorry, Satoru,” she said, watching as he offered her a soft but weak smile.

“It made life very difficult,” he replied. “Mum was afraid; she was afraid that he would hurt me if she said anything, and from that I began to worry that he would hurt her if I said anything. She never wanted to talk about it, so I kept in here -” he patted his heart, “- and thought I could shoulder the burden for the both of us. I learnt not to talk about it, and to be honest, although it’s been many years since I left that place, I still don’t really mention it all that much, but…” he looked at her, thoughtful, “...you should know this. In fact, I think only you can really understand me.”

“Do you still talk with your mum?”

“No, no, they’re both dead,” he looked up at the ceiling once more. “And there’s no need for condolences, because really they were both pretty bad parents. I had to fend for myself on most days, and when I was very small, Mum never stepped in to stop my dad from hitting me. She turned to the bottle and slept on the sofa most days; I cleaned and cooked so Dad wouldn’t be angry when he came back from work. It worked when I was younger, because school was less demanding, but then I got into high school and so much more of my time was taken…”

Shoko felt words couldn’t help here, so she reached out and rubbed his shoulder. He smiled appreciatively at her.

“You’re sad anyway, so this isn’t really the conversation we want to be having anyway,” he lifted his shoulders. “We can save this for another time, especially if there’s more you wanted to say… or felt we should talk about.”

“No, I don’t want to talk about myself or Suguru anymore,” she snuggled close to him with her coffee in her hands. “I want to talk about you .”

“Ha!” he blew out a breath. “Where do I even begin?”

“Wherever feels right,” Shoko said. “I just want to listen to you talk for a bit.”

“In that case, I’ve already given a brief view of my early childhood,” he said wanly. “So I’ll go with when things went really downhill. “That would be… yeah, about six years ago.”

A whimsical expression appeared on his face.

“It was my first year of high school…”

Chapter Text

“If it was my first year, then I would’ve been around fifteen years old,” Satoru leant back, staring off into space. “It was still many years before I was legally allowed to get a license, even if I always looked much older when I was a teenager - the perks of being tall, I guess. If I’d had access to a car, I would’ve fucked off years before it all went really bad, but I really was stuck. I was living in Nishikata at the time -”

“That’s only an hour’s walk from here,” she gawked.

“Yeah, I’ve always been Tokyo based,” he smiled at her. “I also had no other relatives living in the area, so I really was stuck with my parents. I’m also an only child, so it wasn’t like I could spend recovery time with any siblings - no, it was just me and my parents, and that suffocating atmosphere we called a house. A happy house.” His lip curled at the memory. “I was born in that house and it really was a soulless place. With just the three of us there, it was probably far worse. Nobody was around to deescalate the situation and my mum didn’t have any friends at that point in her life whom she could turn to. She had left them all behind, a trade-off for my dad. A pretty poor trade deal, if you ask me. They had, after all, had me when they themselves were still in high school, so she didn’t have anyone who could relate to her. Even their wedding was a bland and sordid affair. I remember her crying before she went to the ceremony, and it wasn’t from happiness.

“I started high school in 2005, which put a lot of strain on the family,” he continued. “Beforehand, in middle school, I had a lot less work to do, and I was naturally good at getting higher grades without having to do extra curricular or too much cram. As such, my mum could drink the day away and by the time I’d get back home, she’d be fast asleep. Dad worked long hours - in fact, he often worked overtime because he was sleeping with his secretary - so by the time he came home, all he wanted was to eat dinner and then go to bed. During middle school, I taught myself how to cook, otherwise Dad would go mental at Mum and I. She never stopped him hitting me, but her saving grace was that she tried to take most of the brunt. I didn’t like seeing her bruised all the time, and all she did when she thought nobody was watching was cry.

“As long as I was able to take care of the household, Mum and I wouldn’t have to worry about getting hurt, and Dad could ignore us to his heart’s delight. It worked throughout middle school, because I was old enough to look after myself, but young enough that I wasn’t too worried about school. The biggest downside was that I didn’t have many friends; I didn’t have time to hang out with people outside of school because I was busy taking care of my home life. People give up trying to involve you once you decline them so many times, and none of them were old enough to understand that there might have been something happening at home. Not that I blame my classmates - we were all just kids - and my teacher wouldn’t know as long as Dad kept hitting me where it wouldn’t show. He had a lot less restraint with Mum, because she hardly left the house anyway. By the time I was thirteen, I did most of the shopping, and I was a part-time carer for Mum.”

Shoko shifted on the spot and sipped her coffee, trying not to put herself in Mrs Gojo’s shoes. Still, it made sense that he seemed to have an aversion to alcohol.

“I got into an average high school,” Satoru shrugged. “It wasn’t anything special, and at that point, I figured it just went to show that my entire life would just be very average, and disappointing. Unfortunately, high school was a lot harder than middle school. I was getting more homework, I had more projects to attend to, and there were even people at school who were invested in getting to know me. I was struggling to balance the house, school, and friends, and eventually I decided that it shouldn’t be my responsibility to take care of the house all of the time. I started living like a teenager, and the house gradually began to fall into disrepair. By the end of April, it was almost as though the house were a completely different place, and Dad wasn’t happy about that at all.

“Things… got worse. He was getting more violent with Mum; it became normal to see her with a black eye and broken fingers or toes, or even an ankle. With the added injuries, she could hardly move around during the day, and that only made things worse and worse. He started hitting her hard enough to knock her out; she started frequently taking pain killers and struggled with chronic headaches and migraines. She must’ve had a concussion a few times, but no matter how many times we argued about it, she would never go to the hospital. She refused to accept that she had spent her life fucking up again and again; she was too far gone to listen to anyone but herself, so I eventually even gave up trying to convince her otherwise. It was me who ended up having to help heal her injuries: giving her ice packs for swellings, creating makeshift braces for her wrists and ankles, and even having to stitch up any cuts if he hit her with things. Still, she wouldn’t go to hospital, because they might ask questions, and then her awful truth would be revealed.

“I was getting older at this point, and stronger, too,” he glanced at her. “I was now taller than my dad, and tensions began to rise. I figured I could stand up for myself now, and defend my mum whenever he turned on her. I started fighting with my dad more and more, both verbally and physically, and it did give me a bad reputation amongst my classmates and teachers. It was hard to keep friends if I was always coming into the school with bruises and each time I’d have to tell them that I got into a fight. If I said the truth, then Mum would have to face the repercussions with me, and at that point I’d taken on her policy of not telling anyone. It was just easier to keep our lives undisturbed rather than having other people and the police poking their noses into our business. Now that I was older, too, Dad had less reservations of turning most of his anger towards me, but always Mum would try and prevent him, would get in the way to take the hits for me.

“School was becoming impossible with all the high tensions running at home. It was becoming too much; friends and teachers kept asking about my personal life, and eventually I started telling people that my mum was an alcoholic. It wasn’t a lie, but it also wasn’t the entire truth. The school was surprisingly proactive; they gave me a lot of information on how to help her and get her set up with an AA group. I admit, I was apprehensive about whether it would work at first - you know, people have to be willing to go before they can actually benefit from these kinds of groups - but I decided it was worth a shot rather than just ignoring it. I spoke to Mum, and she surprisingly agreed to sign up. I even helped her contact them, and from there, things began to look up for a bit.”

“She attended the AA meetings?”

“She did. I would even walk her there, and I have to say, it was life-changing. She began looking younger again, she put on a healthy weight, she started being nicer to me and other people, she was more patient, and she made a lot more out of the day. It was probably the first time in a long time that I’d seen her happy, and from there she was cooking again, making friends, and spending a lot of time outside of the house, so Dad wasn’t hitting us. I stopped having the fights and was able to focus on my studies once more. It was the most harmonised we’d ever been as a family, and it almost became possible to tell myself that things could be OK and that I could finally have a normal home life.

“But kids are optimists, aren’t they? I wasn’t any different; the fact that I believed it was all over just because Mum had stopped drinking was naive. The AA helped her with one problem, but there was still a lot wrong in our house. Around June, Dad’s office started putting more pressure on him to spend extra hours, so he would come home and argue with Mum. It was always petty things. He would complain about having to heat up his dinner, and if she quipped back with anything, he was quick to lash out at her. I tried to step in, but Mum would always try and keep me out of it, more so once she was sober. I was back to nursing her to health, whilst silently resenting my dad and waiting for the moment when we finally escaped that Hell. Still she didn’t want to talk to the police; she was worried they would take me away, and she probably had a good reason, given that I’d experienced a lot of neglect over the past five years.

“Mum started getting ill later in the month. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but she was having dizzy spells and was vomiting. I figured Dad had given her a particularly bad concussion in his latest outburst, and it was clear that, whatever it was, Mum was getting more stressed. She started spending even less time at home. Sometimes I would come home from school and she would still be out. I didn’t realise it at the time, but she was avoiding Dad. I don’t blame her, but it did mean that I was his object of attack when he became aggravated, and he would only become more angry if I won the battles. Mum came home in the middle of a particularly bad fight some time in July, and she stepped in.

“It was the first time she’d ever stood up for me. They argued that time because she didn’t want him touching me ever again. It escalated more when she threatened to leave, and she even told me to go and pack my bags. Dad was furious, was telling her how he’d wasted his life on us, and that he could’ve been so much more successful if we hadn’t tied him down. It was getting more and more heated, and then it became violent quickly. I tried to stop him, but he shoved her hard enough to wind her, and she couldn’t get up for a bit.”

It was then that Satoru’s expression grew darker. Shoko frowned, her lukewarm coffee forgotten in her hands. His jaw tightened and that bright fury had crept into his eyes. She reached out a soothing hand once more, which he covered with his own and offered a squeeze of acknowledgement.

“I was arguing with Dad, but then I noticed Mum wasn’t getting back up. She was holding her stomach and there was a lot of blood. At first, I thought he’d stabbed her, but then I realised…”

“She was… she was pregnant?” Shoko stared.

“She was , but the knock had forced a miscarriage,” he said, his voice cold. “Neither of us could believe it, and she went into hysterics. Dad and Mum hadn’t shared a room in years, it was very obvious that the baby wasn’t his.” Satoru looked sour. “It turned out that she was seeing her sponsor, so I guess I didn’t exactly have a great idea of what “true love” was as a kid. They both hated each other and we would have all been better off had they divorced and went their separate ways. Dad lost it completely. He grabbed a rolling pin and went nuts. I tried to stop him, but he hit me with the pin and nearly knocked me out cold. I think I blacked out for a bit, because by the time I came to, he was freaking the fuck out.”

He looked at her sorrowfully. “The rest isn’t very nice, Shoko. The kitchen was a mess and Mum was dead. That bastard had beaten her to death, and then he couldn’t deal with what he’d done. I tried to call the hospital, just in case there was a chance she could be saved, but he broke my mobile and wouldn’t let me get to the house phone.”

“That’s awful,” she leant her head on his shoulder.

“Yeah, I was half-conscious and was trying to work out whether or not I’d be next. He had just murdered my mum. Clearly it wasn’t intentional, because he was panicking. He stomped off to the bedroom, which was when I called the hospital, and when he returned, he was waving a gun around.”

Shoko raised her eyebrows. “What?”

“I had no idea where he’d gotten it or for how long he’d had it, but I was telling him not to shoot me. He kept yelling, waving it around, and I seriously thought he was going to kill me. It didn’t matter how strong I was all of a sudden, no punch can outweigh a gun at a distance. I was considering running away, but I never got the chance. He -”

“He shot you?”

“No, no,” he looked relieved. “He shot himself. Right through the head. He was dead on the spot, and by the time the hospital arrived, there was no chance my mum was alive, either. They took them to the hospital to pronounce them dead and I went with them so they could take a look at me, and I sat with a doctor and told him about the violence and the drinking and the affairs and every little bit of dirty laundry my parents had hidden for so many years. A part of me felt bad because I was in mourning for my mum, but I couldn’t have cared less about Dad. At the same time, with them both gone, I felt oddly… free? I didn’t have to live by their rules anymore, and I could finally start living for myself. It was a shitty, sad day, but it did also liberate me a lot.”

“That’s just…” she rubbed his arm sorrowfully. “I’m sorry. Nobody should have to go through that.”

He leant his head on hers and heaved out a deep sigh. “It’s all ancient history. I think it’s safe to say we’ve both experienced too much for people our age.”

“What happened to you after that?” she said worriedly.

“I had relatives in the United States,” he said. “Distant ones, like second cousins removed or whatever. But still, relatives. They hadn’t heard of me before, but that was OK, because they were still willing to adopt me and give me a fresh start. I saw it as an opportunity, too. On the night my parents died, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t waste away my life like they did with theirs. I’m better than that, and I was determined to do well in school. It only made sense that I should have a fresh start. A caretaker travelled with me to California and I met this family who were too normal to be related to me. They had a little son and daughter - ages four and two - who became somewhat of siblings to me. Life did a one-eighty after that, and since American schools start in September, I had a month and a half to adjust to my new life.

“I had rapid English lessons - I am, in fact, fluent,” he then smiled at her and said something that sounded like “Yua so kyuut”. He laughed as she wrinkled her nose in confusion. “American schools are much easier, too, so I was suddenly at the top in my class. It was nice to leave that life in Tokyo behind.”

“And yet you came back,” she tilted her head.

“Yeah, I loved America and living with the Okkotsus, but my heart had stayed with my homeland at the end of the day, and that was Japan,” he smiled whimsically. “I needed to be here, I just felt it in my heart, and I’m glad I came back, because then I f-” he cleared his throat. “I found an opportunity. On my travels back, I met a man who was running a hotel. It wasn’t doing great and with funding from my adoptive parents, I invested and took it on. I changed its name to the Paradise Supreme, improved it here and there, and suddenly, before I knew it, business was booming and I was raking in millions. There’s a little bit more to it than that, of course, but it’s really boring explaining transactions and business meetings and whatnot, so I won’t go into it. But that’s how Satoru Gojo came to be as the world knows him. I guess, in a dark and twisted way, I have my parents to thank, because I only found success through freedom from them, and knowing English has given me plenty of opportunities to expand and open branches into different countries.”

He looked at her and flashed a grin. “And now you get to like what you see. So, whaddya think?”

“I think…” she took one of his hands and petted it, “you’re putting on a brave front right now.”

He inclined his head, studying her carefully. His eyes were so clear and blue and beautiful, and he shifted on his side and brought his mouth to hers. He kissed her softly and slowly, pulling her in close, his body warm as he cocooned her against him. She wrapped her arms around his torso, savouring their closeness and drinking in his company.

“You know me very well,” he rested his forehead on hers, eyes closed, “but what makes you think that?”

“It’s not like this is something you find easy to talk about,” she murmured, gently stroking his head, “otherwise I’m sure the world would’ve known about it at this point, given your platform.”

He was quiet, his breaths even and steady.

“But I’m equally glad you could tell me about it,” she continued. “I don’t think you would say all of this if I didn’t mean anything to you, so I guess… I want to say that I’ve never felt closer to you than before now.”

Satoru lowered his head and kissed her jaw and throat, still not saying anything.

“I feel like nothing can come in between us, right now,” she added. “And that maybe you were right, that there is some kind of deeper connection and meaning. I guess what I’m trying to say is, we’ve both faced hardships and even if we met in… well, not the best of places, I guess, it was probably some stupid red string or whatever that made me go home with you that night.”

His hands drifted underneath her shirt, his kisses soft and warm on her skin. Her skin tingled as his palms passed over her waist, drifting up and down in steady motions. Still, he didn’t respond, and a part of her wasn’t sure whether he was listening or not.

“Satoru?” she prompted, and he drew his mouth along her skin, humming an affirmative. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” he said, kissing her on the mouth once more.

He was closing off. She could feel that, deep down, there was only so much talking he could do at a time. No matter how much she wanted to push for a greater response, it wasn’t going to happen today. There was a lot of hurt in Satoru’s past; it was uncannily similar to her, so she curled her fingers through his sweatshirt, holding onto the fabric with all her might, as though she might lose him if she let him go.

And there were things that Shoko didn’t want to think about, either. Although the raw pain of Suguru remained at the back of her mind, she wanted to push it away. She wanted to indulge for a bit, to forget her pain and let it come for her on another day. Shoko was kissing Satoru, but she could feel fresh, warm tears running along her cheeks. It was stupid, to cry when she was in the arms of a man who loved her, a man whom she loved, but the world was cruel, and it seemed to want to tear them apart.

“It’s OK,” Satoru whispered, thumbing away her tears. “Let’s just forget things for a bit, OK?”

She nodded, drawing in a shuddering breath, willing herself to stop crying.

“It’s OK,” he murmured, rolling her on to her back and climbing over her. “I’m here.”

Shoko kissed him, their bodies close together, and she arched her back so he could peel her shirt away. His hands traced every curve of her body, bringing out every tingling sensation, every drawn out breath, and every tear that ran down her cheeks and dried on her pillow. He hushed her gently, then drew his mouth along her skin, down her throat and along her collarbone, pressing his face down to press a kiss between her breasts, pulling the clasp of her bra loose. She shrugged her shoulders, letting him take the straps and pull the bra away, his hands kneading her breasts as he shifted and let his mouth drift along her abdomen.

There were butterflies in her stomach, yet still no matter how many times she tried to will away her bad emotions, she couldn’t help but still be teary over what she had gained and lost.

“Let’s just forget things…” Satoru cooed softly, popping open the buttons of her jeans and she shimmied her hips to help him pull them away from her body.

He kissed her underwear, his breaths warm through the fabric, and sucked a kiss against her thigh. Shoko closed her eyes, inhaling a breath clogged with tears, and lifted her hips a fraction when she felt Satoru’s long fingers hook beneath her underwear and slide them down her legs. He was pulling her legs wider apart, hooking her knees over his shoulders and looping his arms around her legs, locking her in place.

Her heart fluttered and her breath hitched as his tongue danced out, drawing a slow yet certain line through her folds and closing his lips around her clit. She moaned softly, trying to shift, but his arms on her legs tightened and she couldn’t shift away. Satoru flicked his tongue from side to side, tongue warm and wet, and a small whine escaped Shoko’s mouth. She wriggled, but he wouldn’t let her move, and the only thing she could do was reach down and weakly push on his head, fingers threading through soft white hair. He drew his mouth down, and she jumped slightly as his tongue poked inside her. He buried his face in between her thighs, nose knocking on her clit and tongue delving deeper. She moaned quiet protests, but she couldn’t escape and she didn’t want to, either.

Satoru turned his head to the side, his lips parting her folds, and he rotated his tongue, as though spelling out words, his other hand angled to idly rub circles on her clit. Shoko gripped onto her bedsheets; this felt good, and she wanted to squirm and close her legs, but she couldn’t. He stubbornly kept a hold on her, the room quiet except for her increasingly loud pants and the lewd, wet noises of his mouth. Without warning, he turned his head and bit her inner thigh. Shoko cried out, curling her fingers in his hair. He drew his tongue across her increasingly sensitive vulva and closed his lips on her clit once more, gently sucking and it was only now that he loosed his hold on one of her thighs.

Blearily, Shoko propped herself up on her elbows to take a look. Her heart almost stopped as Satoru met her gaze, blue eyes burning with intense desire. Her face felt hot and flushed, and another whine thrummed through her throat. She angled her hips towards his mouth, and let her head fall back once more, moaning into the air, and a part of her didn’t care if she was being a little noisy. It felt like she was on cloud nine, and that only increased tenfold when Satoru slipped his fingers in between her legs. Another pleasured noise left her mouth and he hummed against her clit, the vibrations making her eyelids flutter. There was a burning feeling, that familiar build-up of pressure. His tongue was skimming over her clit repeatedly, his fingers deep inside her, massaging methodically in all the right places. She kept gripping his hair and although she wondered fleetingly whether she might be hurting him, he made no noise of pain or any movement to stop her.

Shoko pressed her mouth together, trying to mute herself just a little bit. She turned her head to the side, burying her face into the pillow, just to absorb some of the moans as her body trembled against the waves of pleasure that rocked through to her core.

“Don’t keep quiet,” he lifted his mouth. “I like you noisy - it’s hot.”

She huffed - she hadn’t had her release and yet he wasn’t continuing, his fingers slowed to a punishingly slow pace.

“I wanna see your cute face ~”

“K-keep going,” she whined, staring back up at the ceiling.

“Good girl ~”

She yelped again as he bit on her soft thigh, before his mouth returned in between her legs. Shoko couldn’t help but buck her hips eagerly towards him, and his fingers sped up, brushing deep within her. Her stomach was twisting in knots and her mouth hung open, a little dry as she drew in ragged breaths. Satoru hummed appreciatively against her clit again, his fingers merciless on her nerves. She was arching her back towards him, feeling a tidal wave of pleasure burning through her. She opened her mouth to say something, but all that came out was a breathless imitation of his name. His fingers were brutal now, pushing in and out and she knew she was nearly there, knew that he had helped her reach that beautiful, blissful state of orgasm, knew that -

Shoko cried out, a shuddering noise and it felt like all the strength was pulled from her body. She slumped from the climax, breaths heavy, and Satoru drew his mouth down to her entrance, licking and sucking until he finally seemed satisfied to raise his head. His mouth was wet and he licked his fingers as he climbed over her once more, pulling open his fly and positioning himself above her.

“Satoru…” before her brain could formulate anything else, he kissed her, and she tasted herself on his mouth.

He moaned against her, holding her down and, with his body, pushing her legs up higher until she was almost folded in half. She was wet and sensitive, and although she wanted to hold onto his sweatshirt for some stability, he pushed her arms down and held them there, pinning her beneath him, and snapped his hips into her. Shoko cried out, and Satoru adopted a breakneck pace. She was already so sensitive, and he was deep inside her, pounding into her like there was no tomorrow. There were expletives and strings of words coming from her that made no sense, and even though his hold on her was a little painful, there was a bit of a thrill in the fact that she could give him the wheel and let him take complete control, to let go of her worries for a moment and drown in the bliss of sex.

“You’re so fucking beautiful,” he panted, and grabbed her throat with one hand.

There was a bit of pressure behind his hold, and her instinct had her closing her fingers around his wrist, her heart jumping in her chest at the sudden change in contact.

He continued to rail into her, and Shoko could feel herself drooling a little bit as she tried to breathe in as much air as possible despite his hold on her. His eyes were wide and bright as he looked down on her, and there was a thrilling feeling of being hunted that Shoko couldn’t explain.

“I love you,” he moaned. “I love you, I love you… I love you…”

Her breath hitched as her body gave way to another shuddering defeat, her eyelids fluttering, and she finally understood the feeling of a mini death as she tried to catch her breath and failed. There were stars dancing along her vision; she squeezed his wrist with the little strength she could muster.

“I love you,” he breathed again, eyes intently trained on her face.

She wanted to say something, anything, but she needed to save her breath. He twitched, his mouth wobbling just a little, and he shuddered against her, groaning and finally releasing his ever-tightening hold on her throat. Shoko inhaled sharply, air like cotton candy, sweet to her lungs as Satoru collapsed against her, wrapping her in his arms. Sweaty and shivering, she weakly hugged him. Her neck hurt, but her heart was beating faster than ever, the remnants of those last thrills, and with Satoru murmuring devotion after devotion in her ear. She couldn’t explain why, but she had felt complete trust in him.

She turned her face and kissed him, even though she was still catching her breath.

“I love you,” he laughed weakly, and kissed her.

“I love you,” she held onto him, “I love you so much, Satoru.”

He smiled sleepily, kissing her again. “I love you… I’m never leaving you… I’m always here.”

Shoko curled into him, letting herself be cradled in his arms, eyes closed and feeling her body drifting off for sleep.

“Always,” he told her softly, and they both drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Shoko woke up in Satoru’s arms. It was early in the morning, golden summer sun filtering through the curtains. She blinked sleepily, stirring, and accidentally woke Satoru in her movements. His brow furrowed and he rubbed his eyes. They were a brilliant azure in the morning light, his long lashes fluttering as he blinked himself awake. A lazy smile began to form on his lips, but then stopped and he sorrowfully drew his fingers along her neck.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he said.

Already, Shoko knew there were probably faded marks on her skin, but she reached up and took his hand in hers.

“I know, I trust you,” she said. “If I’d wanted you to stop, you would’ve.”

His expression turned warm again, and he hugged her close to him, yawning.

“By the way, we should probably move your things back to your apartment,” she said.

“What?” he recoiled a bit, looking hurt.

“Right, I didn’t have the chance to tell you,” she stroked his hair, ignoring his disgruntled expression. “My dad comes back tomorrow, and he doesn’t know you were staying with me. He thinks I’ve had Suguru sleeping on the sofa.”

Immediately, laughter danced in his eyes. “Aww, am I just your little secret?”

“You will be if you don’t be quiet,” she kissed him briefly on the nose. “I do also want to say thanks for staying with me.”

“I’ve enjoyed it,” he grinned.

Also ,” she watched his smile falter once more, “Mei Mei and Utahime want to meet you.” She cleared her throat. “Tomorrow.”

His eyebrows rose. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” she nodded.

He blew out a comical breath. “This is quite the information dump, Shoko. How should I be when I meet them? Myself? Shall I go all out? Should I get a haircut?”

“Stop it,” she lightly flicked his shoulder, and shook her head, trying not to smile.

“I’d like to meet them,” he smiled. “In fact, I want to meet them, too. It makes everything feel all the more real between us.”

“I like that, too,” she said, brushing his hair back from his face and kissing his forehead. “I’m going for a shower, and then I need to make the house nice before Dad comes home tomorrow.”

“I’ll come with,” he said, and then glanced at her. “There’s space in your shower for us both, right?”

“It’s a shower-bath, Satoru,” she looked at him, “if we couldn’t both fit, I would be worried.”

She slipped out of the sheets and wandered towards the bathroom, yawning. When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw him checking her out unashamedly.

“Just to let you know, though, I am going to be showering,” she warned. “I’ve got loads to do today, and as much as I would love to spend every waking minute of it with you, I do need to get showered quickly.”

“You treat me like a nymphomaniac ~” he grinned. “I just like you, ‘kay? But I’m also being serious about having a shower. I want to wash your hair.”

“OK, but don’t tug it all out.”

He clucked his tongue mischievously, and followed her into the bathroom. She turned the shower on, checked the water’s temperature and then climbed into the shower, soaking beneath the jets. Satoru stepped in behind her, and began to gently thread his fingers through her hair. He was much more careful than she had expected, gently combing away the knots she had created with her constant anxious twisting. Shoko closed her eyes, embracing the warmth of the shower and Satoru’s careful movements. He massaged water into her hair, dampening it, and she leant into his touch, relaxing into the soothing rhythms of his touches.

Satoru reached past her and, as he did so, he bent his head down and kissed behind her ear. She smiled with a warm sigh, and he began to shampoo her hair, digging his fingers deep to her roots. He was firm but careful, not pulling her hair or making it anything else. They were both deep in the moment, basking in each other’s presence and the clean smell of soap. She squeezed her eyes shut when he moved the shower head back, and warm water gushed over her crown, shampoo melting away, aided by Satoru’s gentle kneading. Even the administration of conditioner felt good to her, because Satoru didn’t snap her hairs apart in order to rake his fingers all the way down. He drew long, careful brushes and her hair felt smooth and slippery as he finished and rinsed once more. 

It was softer and admittedly nice to have someone else wash her hair for once. She had kept her hair short in school, but in university, she had less time to sit at the hairdressers, and it was easier to keep it longer. The upkeep was irritating, so she often just tied it back, but to have someone to wash her hair for a change… it was good, and Satoru was doing a very good job of not hurting her, whilst thoroughly cleaning her hair.

“Your turn,” she said, pushing a curtain of dark hair out of her face.

“My turn?” he laughed, melodic, raising the shower head higher and stepping underneath with her. “Good luck.”

She turned towards him, her nose at his chest, and then raised her head to see him smirking down at her. If he was issuing a challenge, then she gladly accepted. She lathered so shampoo on her hands and raised herself on tiptoes, and threaded her fingers through his wet hair, pushing back soft white strands and being careful not to get it in his eyes. With her hands up by his head, Satoru caught her around the waist and pulled her in close for a soapy kiss. She leant into him, his body a solid stabiliser against the slippery bath floor, and massaged her hands through his hair.

He hummed against her lips. “That’s nice ~”

And then, to her relief (since it was hard to reach the top of his head) he sat on the bath edge, arms loosely draped around her waist, and let her smooth her fingers through his hair. She brought up soapy suds, the colour blending with his hair.

“Wash,” she told him, and he dipped his head forward beneath the shower stream.

Shoko helped rinse off the excess soap, and used a bit of conditioner to smooth through his hair. He closed his eyes and Shoko marvelled at how relaxed he looked. She never really got the chance to see him like this; he was always bouncing around energetically, and yet now he was sat patiently, waiting for her to complete the task she had given herself. Shoko liked this, just being with him and not having to do anything in particular. He remained quiet, and it was after a moment that she realised she had idled, getting distracted in thoughts about how beautiful he was.

“Wash,” she said again, quieter this time, and he stood up this time to step under the shower.

She watched him, admiring the muscles in his arms as he lifted them to wash any conditioner out. Shoko had never really stood to appreciate just how handsome Satoru was. He was toned and fit, and it was clear that he did take care of his appearance, because his hair was always clean and he did dress well. A part of her wondered whether she took him for granted, and admittedly, standing next to him, she couldn’t help but feel a little plain. She watched impassively until he had washed every bit of soap away, and then grabbed her body wash.

He jumped a little bit, surprised, when she began to lather soap across his back, feeling slightly prideful that he was using her soap, and that he would smell of her . This wasn’t something she wanted to voice to him, though, so she kept her mouth closed and quietly worked on washing him where she could reach, with Satoru humming contentedly every now and then as she pressed her fingers against his skin to relieve any tension in his muscles. There were faint nail marks along his skin, and Shoko felt a twinge of guilt that she had left marks. She carefully drew her hands over those, too, washing every inch of him and indulging in the pleasant noises he made.

When she had finished washing him down, he turned to her and began to gently massage soap against her skin. He took his time, hands skimming over every muscle and curve, and sometimes he would playfully squeeze her, a little surprise that made her jump a little, and a deep chuckle would emit from his throat. This was pleasant and peaceful, and she let herself indulge in his touches. His hands travelled along her skin, beneath her breasts, in between her legs, nothing needy, nothing wanting, but just the peaceful need to clean her. Shoko liked this; she liked this relaxing atmosphere between them, and a part of her was saddened when he let her step under the shower stream once more to wash herself off.

Shoko wrung out her hair as Satoru stepped out of the shower and wrapped his spare towel around his waist. She put it up in a twist with a smaller towel, and then grabbed her own, encasing her body in the soft fabric.

“That was really nice,” Satoru stretched as they wandered back into the bedroom.

“Yeah, we should… shower together more often,” she said, and then laughed, because it sounded like such a silly thing to say.

He smiled warmly down at her, skin still flushed from the warm water, and once more Shoko was reminded just of how beautiful he was. She felt a little sad to see him get dressed and began throwing everything into his duffel bag. A part of her was tempted to beg him to stay, but she wasn’t quite sure whether she was ready for him to meet her dad. She didn’t think her dad was ready to meet Satoru , actually.

As Satoru continued to pack away his things, Shoko brushed her teeth and dashed downstairs to make the house neat. There was still broken glass in the backyard from the whiskey bottle, so she grabbed a dustpan and brush and began to clear away the larger shards of glass, tossing them in the bin and using the hoover to take away any tiny glass fragments, spotting them only because they glittered beneath the sun. The grass where the whiskey had come into contact had become yellowed and crispy, and Shoko couldn’t help but worry her dad wouldn’t forgive her for killing off a bit of his garden.

When she came back in, Satoru had made coffee for her, and had his sleeves rolled up, thoroughly cleaning the kitchen worktops, which were still stained from last night’s coffee. He had already cleared around the broken mug fragments, and she had to admit that he was doing a very good job of making it seem like the kitchen had never been used before. Since the hoover was in her hands, she swiftly went around the house, vacuuming. Every now and then, she and Satoru would meet and smile - somewhat shyly - at one another. It was almost as though they were spring cleaning a house they owned together… which was ridiculous, and Shoko had to keep telling herself that she had only known him for three weeks. They also drank coffee and tea on short breaks, before bouncing back to work.

Once they were done, the house looked like a new place. Shoko gazed about, knowing her dad wouldn’t be able to find any complaint with the state it had been left in.

“Thanks for helping out,” she turned to him. “You really didn’t have to.”

“I know, but I wanted to,” he beamed, and the smile lit up his whole face.

“And you’re always calling me cute, ” she said, sipping her coffee. “ I think you might be the cute one.”

“I suppose I can be sexy and cute,” his grin became suggestive.

“Scratch that, you’re not innocent enough to be cute.”

At that, he just laughed. “I’d say my pride is wounded, but I’m not sure words reach me anymore. Shall we have lunch?”

“Sure, I have ingredients for toasted sandwiches?”

“I can get behind that.”

With lashings of butter and cheese, Shoko whipped them up toasted cheese, tomato and ham sandwiches, which they ate while watching crappy weekend daytime television. Shoko couldn’t help but keep glancing at Satoru as he ate, amazed at how focused his bright eyes were on the screen, but also how immaculate he was and how normal it had become to see him around her house. She felt a pang in her chest, a painful reminder, and realised that she was going to miss not being able to see him all the time.

“I’m going to miss you,” she rested her head on his shoulder.

“We’ll see each other still, Shoko,” he brushed her hair out of her face. “I’m not disappearing.”

“I like waking up and seeing you,” she sighed.

“Maybe… you could stay with me a few times over the week…” he pondered.

“That would be nice,” she admitted.

“I would like that, too,” he said. “I’ve gotten used to having you just here… with me…”

She hummed her affirmative, half-watching the TV, but mostly basking in his smell and the feel of his firm shoulder beneath her cheek.

“Come to Majorca with me,” he said.

“What?” she raised her head and stared at him. Majorca ?

He set his empty plate down and shifted on the sofa, turning to look at her. “Come to Majorca with me,” he repeated.

She opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it. Couldn’t find words. Closed it.

“I leave on Thursday,” he took her hands, “and I want you to come with me.”

“Where has Majorca come from?” there was a stabbing fear in her chest. “Are… are you moving there?”

He stared at her for a heartbeat, and then laughed. “ Moving there ? No, Shoko! There’s a hotel opening and I want the next Paradise Supreme there.”

A relieved breath flooded from her. “I thought… I really thought…”

“Aww, so you wouldn’t uproot and leave Japan with me?” he inclined his head gleefully.

“I couldn’t just leave Dad here!” she protested. “He’s getting older now.”

“Of course, of course ~” his eyes glittered mischievously. “But will you come with me to Majorca? I could really use the company…”

A slight thrill skittered along her spine as he raked his eyes across her as he said this.

“How long would that be for?” she fiddled with the sofa lining. “Dad’s birthday is in mid-August, so -”

“Don’t worry, Shoko, you’ll have plenty of time to spend with your Papa,” he chucked her chin. “It’ll only be for a week and a bit. We’d leave on the twenty-second, the Thursday, and be back by the first of August, on Sunday.”

“Majorca… that’s…?”

“Spain - or more the Spanish islands,” he murmured, tracing a hand along her leg. “The journey would be around eighteen hours, but only because we have a three hour wait at Heathrow, in London, which would be plenty of time to have lunch, since we’d arrive there at just past one.”

“So far away…” she blinked. “I’ve never been out of Japan before…”

“Come with me,” he leaned in, soft words in her ear. She closed her eyes and leant into his voice. “You won’t even have to worry about expenses, I’ll take care of those. It’d be you… me… Palma… We’d have a private suite… I’d take you to Manacor, too, and we’d visit Port de Pollença - that’s where the hotel would be built…”

His hand was high up on her thigh, and his breaths lightly tickled the skin of her neck.

“We’d be close enough to visit Barcelona,” he continued, and she felt mesmerised by the idea of seeing Europe. “The work itself only takes about a day… we could even go to Italy. I’d show you Rome… Florence… Milan… Venice…”

“It seems a bit much,” she said, flustered and a little breathless, “to let you pay for all of that.”

“You are worth much more than that,” he tilted his head round, mouth just inches from hers. “Come on, Shoko, say “yes”.”

Shoko’s heart leapt in her chest. “I suppose Dad did say Kento would be helping at the bakery soon…”

“He’ll be fine…” he was gently stroking her inner thigh. “Say you’ll come with me…”

Her body was singing beneath his touch. His mouth was so close to hers, all she had to do with lean forward and they’d kiss, and yet he only hovered, his words of temptation lingering in the breaths between them.

“It’s not like I’m running out of time to complete my report, either…”

“You… me… a private getaway…” he squeezed her thigh, one thumb hooked on the waistband of her jeans. “One word and it’ll happen…”

She hesitated. Thursday was so close. Would she have patched things up with Suguru by then, or would she be leaving on a holiday to let their friendship grow more stale? And what about her Dad? Would he want to spend more time with her? She hadn’t seen him in almost a month. And yet… to travel across the world… to spend a week and a bit with Satoru… She felt that burning temptation in her chest, to leave everything behind for a bit and sit on the warm beaches of Majorca…

“Come on, Shoko…” he nipped her lower lip, jumping her back into the moment.

“O-OK,” she breathed. “I-I’ll come…”

Satoru hummed appreciatively, his mouth finally finding hers. He pushed her down backwards, melding his body to hers, hands under her shirt, tongue dancing past her lips. Her heart was hammering in her chest, waves of excitement thumping against her ribcage. He was unbuttoning her jeans, his skin burning with desire, and Shoko couldn’t get enough of him. She felt almost ashamed of herself for coming undone this easily, lifting her legs and letting him discard her jeans on the floor. She was panting with anticipation by the time he was rubbing his thumb on her underwear.

“Wait - wait !” she said between kisses and breaths. “W-we can’t… not… not here…”

“Right, right ~”

He leant back, eyes gleaming and a smirk on his face, and he hoisted her up over one shoulder. Shoko cried out, then clamped her hands over her mouth, trying not to laugh as he carried her into the kitchen. Her centre of gravity was all off, and the world suddenly felt weirdly far from this height. Satoru carried her effortlessly and deposited her on the counter, her head rested against a cupboard, and he peeled her pants away.

“We just cleaned here,” she mumbled as he pulled her legs around his hips, pulling down his fly and taking his cock out.

He gave her another sly look. “We just cleaned everywhere, babe.”

Shoko now knew that look well enough to know to grab onto his shoulders. He plunged in, hilt-deep, and she let out a pleasured moan. He rutted against her, peppering her throat with bites and sucks, hands supporting her at the base of her spine. She was panting with each of his thrusts, breathless and loving it, raking her fingers along his hair, shoulders, arms and back, as though uncertain of where the best place to hold on was. He was deep inside her and every second of it felt great. She was sweating and pleading for more, and Satoru seemed more than happy to oblige, grunting against her skin. There was a distant rattle of cutlery and plates and cups each time he snapped his hips towards her, and she was breathless, and there was no respite, and - God, she was cumming, she was definitely hitting that blissful orgasm, and he was riding her through it. This was a fast fuck; there was no beating around the bush here, and Shoko felt tight around him, sweat and stickiness in between her legs and - oh, again, she loved him way too much and her body was indulging in sweet heaven because of it. So tight, or he was so big, and either way she loved it, she loved him, she loved what they had, and her throat was sore but it was good to have his mouth on her, his dick in her, she would - “ Satoru !” - again? He had her again, breathless, moaning, a mess and then he groaned, slowing finally as he filled her up.

Satoru pressed his forehead to hers and kissed her. She could barely breathe; all she could do was lean into the kiss, lean into him, and embrace everything he could give her. She felt like putty in his hands, and even though it would only be three days, she was going to miss seeing him all the time. She whimpered as he slid out, already missing their bodily connections. He used a sheet of kitchen roll to wipe himself down, tucking his cock back into his boxers and zipping up his fly once more, glancing at her with flushed, pink cheeks and a knowing smile.

Of course he knew he was good at sex. She hated that he knew it. She grabbed the kitchen roll and wiped herself down, flinching as she wiped between her sensitive legs. She was shaking a bit, and wearily accepted her underwear that he handed back to her. She slipped off the counter, pulling them on as he returned with the antibacterial spray.

“Better buckle up, babe, there’ll be plenty of that in Majorca,” he nudged her playfully and winked.

Shoko threw herself down on a chair and put her head in her hands, trying desperately to catch her breath once more.

“I’ll try not to get handsy on the plane ~”

“Please - I don’t want to get arrested for public indecency.”

“I’m joking ~” he stuck out his tongue at her. “But in all seriousness, I really am glad you’re coming with me. It means a lot.”

“I can’t believe you’re bringing me,” she said. “Isn’t that just added expenses?”

“It really is no worries,” he finished cleaning and sat with her, taking her hand in his.

“And we go this Thursday, right?” she glanced at the calendar. In just four days.

“Yeah, and now I’m actually looking forward to it,” he beamed. “Trips abroad are only fun when other people come with you.”

“In that case…” she hesitated, “we’re going to have to talk to my dad. Before Thursday.”

“Oooh, I finally get to meet the parent,” his eyes sparkled.

“Well, we’re getting more serious, and if we’re going away, then he needs to know, right?” she managed a smile. “Dad should at least know who I’m going with.”

“Absolutely,” he held up his hands. “I have nothing against that.”

“And you’re not even slightly worried about meeting my dad?”

“Not at all, actually, I think I’m very personable.”

She sighed. “In that case, are you free Tuesday?”

“If I’m not, I’m clearing my schedule for this,” he kissed her hand. “You’re far too important to sideline.”

“Quit it with the cheese,” she said, although her heart danced whenever he would look at her like that, through his lashes.

“Gotcha, gotcha ~” he leant away, and then let out a sigh. “I should probably head on my way, though…”

Shoko couldn’t suppress the disappointment. “Yeah… I’ll see tomorrow, though, OK?”

“Tomo- ah, yes, the friends!” he blinked. “When and where, again?”

“I’ll text you the details tomorrow,” she said, and followed him to the door, where he’d dumped his overnight bag.

“I very much look forward to it,” he said, and kissed her forehead.

And even though it was a big step in their relationship, Shoko felt confident about tomorrow, too.

Chapter Text

The first bad thing that happened was that Suguru did not contact her back. Shoko had checked her messages with him first-thing, only to find a deafening silence and the heartbreaking realisation that he had left her on read. She had dropped the phone on the bed beside her and fought back tears. Had Suguru only been her friend because he had liked her? What kind of lie was she living? Or was he like her, uncertain of what to say, and afraid to completely splinter the friendship he had threatened to break? She didn’t know, and that didn’t make her feel any better.

Did Suguru actually like her, or was he mistaking their closeness for some other kind of feeling? Shoko lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, a heavy weight in her chest that kept telling her that, no matter what time and place Suguru had confessed, she couldn’t feel the same way. Was that the part that made her feel so sad? That she couldn’t ever love him in the way he wanted her to? She had to wipe her eyes… Satoru had said to wait for Suguru to contact her… to stop chasing after others… So she forced back her feelings and went on to check her other messages.

The second bad thing was that Utahime messaged early into the morning, at around two o’clock. She had written: I’m sorry, guys, but I have to stay longer than expected. Shoko had felt an additional weight to her shoulders. She wanted to see both Utahime and Mei Mei to tell them what Suguru had said. Instead, she had replied with a brief and simple, Ah, sorry to hear that - should we reschedule? She didn’t think her friends were going to meet Satoru until after she had been to Majorca with him, but after a long silence of neither of them checking the group chat, Mei Mei had come in clutch.

Unfortunate that you can’t come back - has something happened? I still want to meet Satoru! I will see you and Satoru at lunchtime (12) at Ginza Kojyu.

See you , she wrote, and that’s when she saw the third bad thing that had happened.

Her dad had sent an apologetic message to say he wouldn’t be back until later. There was a slight positive to this one, in that he recommended they order food to takeout, as he wanted to eat dinner with her. She had agreed happily, although she was eager to see her dad as soon as she could. Speaking of which, she chose to check the time, which set her heart hammering in her chest and leaping out of bed.

The fourth and final bad thing was that it was nearing eleven, and she had yet to get out of bed. Shoko threw on a nice outfit and thanked the stars that she had washed her hair yesterday, giving it a quick brush-through and hoping Mei Mei wouldn’t notice how scruff she looked. Next on her list was Satoru, since she had promised to tell him when and where. There was an uncanny silence from him, so to save time, she rang him.

He picked up almost immediately. “Wow, a cute girl is calling me ~”

“Ginza Kojyu,” she said breathlessly. “We have to be there in an hour.”

There was a moment’s pause where she imagined him panicking, but then he said, “Yeah, I know.”

“Huh?”

“It was taking you so long to tell me that I figured I’d reach out to your friend on Tweeter,” he said nonchalantly. “I remembered she had a pretty distinctive name, and then I realised it was because she’s done marketing jobs with my team in the past.”

“I - wha- you two -?” Shoko had stopped halfway pulling on a shoe.

I’ve never met her, but some employees have,” he said.

“Wha- why didn’t you text me ?” she gawked.

“I guess I figured you didn’t need reminding.”

No - why didn’t you ask me instead of Mei Mei ? ” she said, disgruntled. “ Finding her on Tweeter without having met her is far too extra.”

“Does it bother you that I did that?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she grumbled. “Don’t you think it’s a little bit… you know… weird?”

“Not really, it was just a simple inquiry,” he clucked his tongue. “Why are you so agitated about it?”

“I’m - I’ve only just gotten out of bed !”

“And there I was thinking you were an organised person, Shoko ~” she could hear laughter in his voice. “My goodness, of all the days you chose to sleep in ~”

“Now I’m going to be late, so you can have a nice awkward introduction to Mei Mei,” Shoko ranted. “I don’t even know where I’m heading! I’ve never been to -” she checked her phone again, “- Ginza Kojyu before.”

“Goodness… so you’ll be walking around Tokyo aimlessly?” he still sounded amused. “That’s really quite unfortunate, Shoko ~”

“You’re not funny.”

“Is this your way of asking for a lift?” she could hear his shit-eating grin.

“I’m getting a taxi if you keep talking,” she rolled her eyes.

“I’ll see you in twenty minutes, ‘kay?”

“See you,” she said, and disconnected the call.

She paused, looking at her phone, and seeing a new missed call. Her heart leapt, because there, highlighted on her phone, was Suguru’s name. She had never called someone back so quickly, and she was already biting back tears before the phone rang, holding it desperately to her ear, and staggered to the kitchen, throwing herself down on a chair. She waited, listening to the ringing, barely breathing, body trembling. Suguru had tried to call her. This was it, the moment when he reached out to her.

“Shoko, h-”

“Hei,” she crumbled, feeling all the emotions rush out at once. She couldn’t stop the tears running down her face, the ruination of her make-up. “Hei, I miss you so much.”

There was a pause, and he drew in a shuddering breath. “I’ve missed you, too.”

Shoko closed her eyes, letting the warmth of his tone wash over her. She missed him so much, and she had been trying to keep herself together, keep herself distracted. Satoru had been the perfect distraction, cleaning the house had been fantastic , keeping constantly busy had held her away from the abyss that Suguru had left behind, and now he was here, on the phone with her, and she never wanted to hang up.

“I’m not… you’re not busy, are you?” he asked, and he sounded hesitant.

“I have a lunch,” she wiped at her eyes. “It starts at twelve. I don’t know when it ends.”

“Hey - no - don’t rush your lunch for me,” he said softly. “I just thought we could… talk.”

“I’d like that,” she sobbed. “I’ve missed you so much. I honestly can’t live without you, and I know it’s so unfair to be saying all of this and…”

She trailed off, uncertain of what else she could possibly say to make things better. She closed her eyes, trying to blink back tears and ignore the stinging in her eyes.

“Of course, of course - and I’ve missed you,” he repeated. “How about… what about tomorrow? Tuesday? We’ll have… a proper talk. About everything. I know you’ve got a lot on, but maybe… like, two in the afternoon?”

“And we’ll talk it all out, yeah,” she felt breathless, afraid that he would hang up and she would never see him again. “And we’ll meet…?”

“Outside the bakery,” he said, his voice a stable reassurement in her life. “I’ll meet you outside the bakery at two, and we’ll go on a walk, and we’ll say all of the things that we need to talk about.”

“I want that,” she blew out a shaky breath.

“OK, I’ll see you,” he said, and she knew he was about to hang up.

“Wait!” she blurted out, and then found her words never left her mouth.

“What is it?”

She had nothing to say. There was nothing else to talk about, not when she wanted to say everything in person. She just wanted to prolong this conversation for as long as possible, to have him on the phone with her just a little longer, to cherish this conversation and pretend that he was with her at that moment.

“Shoko?” he prompted, and she closed her eyes again, passing a hand over her face.

“I just - I’m sorry,” she swallowed, “and I hope you’re OK. I really do, Hei.”

“I’m fine, Shoko,” he said, and there was a slight pause before he added, “Are you OK?”

“I’m better right now,” she replied, feeling the warmth of familiarity flow through her. “And I’ll definitely be seeing you tomorrow at two?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “Enjoy your lunch.”

“I will,” she mumbled. “Thank you.”

“Bye,” he said.

“Bye,” she echoed back, but refused to hang up.

There was a longer pause this time, where both of them stayed on the phone, seemingly unable to cut off the call. Shoko could have sat there forever, poised for another sentence to pop up out of nowhere. She waited with bated breath, waiting for something to inspire her to speak, or for him to strike up a new conversation.

Instead, he said thickly, “Bye, Shoko,” and hung up.

Her hands were shaking. She could feel tears running down her face, and she felt ridiculous for not having told him that he was still her best friend, that she desperately didn’t want anything to have to change between them, that he was human, that there was no fault in not being able to perpetually control his emotions.

But she hadn’t said any of that. She lowered the phone, screen black, and put her head in her hands, trying her best to keep her sobs soft as she worried for her friendship once more. She had needed this catharsis, to sit down and bawl her eyes out, and yet she had made plan after plan after plan, with Suguru being gradually sidelined to Tuesday. How could she sideline her best friend ? It felt stupid to be going to a lunch when she had actual problems that she was supposed to be addressing, and yet here she was, dressed to go somewhere she had never been before.

And since she was still going, she rushed upstairs to dry her eyes and cover up any indication she had been crying. She couldn’t get rid of the puffiness, but she could at least hide the redness of her nose and underneath her eyes. A part of her felt guilty for having to hide her tears, but equally… would Satoru be annoyed that she was crying this much over Suguru? She was sure he wouldn’t mind, given he had acknowledged their friendship, but she was all too aware of how much Satoru and Suguru disliked - perhaps hated - each other, which had only been worsened by Suguru’s… confession.

That dreaded confession. She wanted to dwell on it more, but the doorbell rang, and she knew Satoru was the last person she ought to be discussing Suguru’s confession about. She fluffed her hair one last time and dashed downstairs, prising her mind away from sadness. Shoko needed to be happy right now; she needed to make the meeting between Satoru and Mei Mei a positive event.

She opened the door, and there he was, handsome and wonderful Satoru, giving her a lift when she had just spent the past twenty minutes crying. She managed a smile, but he must’ve seen the wobble, because his gaze softened immediately.

“Shoko, what’s wrong?” he pulled her into a half-embrace, looking at her carefully. “What’s happened?”

“It’s nothing,” she blinked back a fresh wave of tears. “It’s really nothing.”

“It must be something,” he cooed. “Come on, you can talk to me.”

“I’m stressed,” she shrugged. “I’m meeting with Suguru tomorrow.”

There was a pause. Then, “Right.”

“We’re going to talk things through,” she continued, holding onto him and noticing he was tense.

“Mm-hmm.”

“He’s my best friend, Satoru,” she said.

There was another pause, and then he heaved a sigh. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s good that you’re having a talk with him. Just…”

He trailed off, and it seemed he wasn’t going to continue. Shoko looked up at him. His gaze was faraway, clouded with thought, his jaw tense.

“Just what?” she asked.

“Just let me know if he tries anything,” he said, and when she opened her mouth he hastened on. “Like, says something. Implies. Whatever.”

“He won’t, but I’ll keep that on board,” she said carefully, and squeezed him reassuringly.

“Let’s get to lunch,” he smiled down at her, briefly tightening his hug in response.

She followed closely after him, pushing back her negative feelings and hoping she could make herself tidy before appearing before Mei Mei. She could already imagine her friend sitting there, looking immaculate, a pleasant smile on her face. Satoru opened the passenger door graciously to her, making a sweeping gesture with one arm, and she had to smile a little at the exaggerated smile on his face.

“Thank you,” she croaked, and quickly pecked him on the lips before getting into the car.

“Cheeky ~” he leaned in the door and kissed her deeply. “Only I’m allowed to tease you ~”

She shook her head in disbelief as he closed the door and wandered around the car. Shoko pulled her seatbelt across her torso and leant her head against the window, closing her eyes and willing away all of her negative emotions.

“If you’re not feeling great, we can always back out,” he patted her knee.

“Is this your way of wanting to back out from meeting Mei Mei?” she tried a smile, despite herself.

He chucked her chin. “Not for the world, babe.”

Satoru started the car and sped off, easy-going and careless. She rested her head on the window once more, but the drive wasn’t long anyway. It was fifteen minutes minus any traffic jams and Shoko was surprised to see them turn into a narrow road, pavements on either side made of a smooth, reddish stone, each paving slab perfectly aligned. Satoru slid his car carefully into a spot on one side of the road, and then turned to her, a careful expression on his face.

“Just to let you know, Ginza Kojyu is quite a nice place,” he said.

“Oh? Am I inappropriately dressed?” she fretted.

He looked at her formal jeans and nice blouse. “Just a little.”

She looked at him, in a dark pinstriped shirt, a navy tie and formal trousers, and a dark suit jacket hung over the back of his chair, his usual sunglasses sitting before his eyes. She had been so wrapped up in her own world that she hadn’t noticed.

“What kind of place are we going to?” she gawked.

“I’ll give you a hint - it’s a two-star Michelin restaurant.”

She almost choked on her breath. “I can’t go into a place like that wearing this ! Why didn’t Mei Mei say anything ?”

“It’s not a problem, don’t panic,” he gave her a languid smile. “I got us here early, because I knew there was a Max Mara down this road.”

And he pointed towards a big shop window where mannequins dressed in very nice coats and blouses and dresses and skirts and trousers stood, with people wandering past in nice heels and shoes, barely passing a glance. She could see a big staircase at the back of the building, and it was one of those trendy, spacious buildings where there was more floor than actual clothes being showcased. Places like that always had high prices.

“I can’t aff-”

I will treat you,” he grinned, waving a credit card in her face, “so don’t you worry about that at all.”

She looked at him, looked at the hopeful expression in his eyes. “You really are too rich.”

“No man can have too much money when he has the chance to spend it on a woman like you,” he waved the card around a bit more. “Max Mara can be a little bit runway, but I think you’ll find something that suits your style. Come on.”

She stepped out of the car and followed him onto the pavement, gazing around at this nice street. They were stood in front of the Max Mara, but across the road was a pretty art gallery. She could see a Cartier, a Fontaine Couture, a Berluti and a Charmant, both of which looked more expensive than her tuition fees. Satoru, however, blended in perfectly, shrugging on his suit jacket and heading straight for Max Mara. She followed hesitantly, gazing around at the glass window displays as she wandered inside.

There was a perfumed scent in the air, one that smelt of luxury and wealth, and she couldn’t help but gaze around in awe. Satoru turned to her with the air of a businessman, and she straightened up, expecting to hear a pitch from him.

“Take this,” he slapped his card into her hand, and then leant in close to whisper to her ear. “Two-seven-one. Get whatever you like.”

And then he started heading back towards the doors.

“Where are you going?” she squeaked, feeling out of her depth already.

“I have something to grab whilst I’m here,” he shot a knowing smile over his shoulder, one hand lifted. “I’ll be right back - don’t miss me too much ~”

She opened and closed her mouth, but he had already disappeared through the door. Shoko stood, rooted to the spot, unable to comprehend what was going on. She looked around, seeing shop assistants hanging back at a safe distance, murmuring between each other, glancing at her and the door. If she hadn’t just come in with Satoru, they probably would have thought she was there to shoplift.

Awkwardly, she wandered through the store, letting herself ponder and gaze at clothes she believed she could never own. There were silks and cottons and shiffons and laces, flouncy skirts that she imagined swished nicely. These were powerful clothes, the kinds that women of high society flounced around in, whereas she was in jeans and a budget shirt that passed as nicer than it actually was. After some pining over a beautiful floral skirt that didn’t match any of the blouses, she came across a beautiful georgette dress. Shoko found herself stopping before it, and staring.

It was coral coloured, with darker flowers with white-tipped petals patterned across it. The sleeves were slightly puffy and translucent, and it looked as though it would sit nicely on her figure. She was rooted to the spot, staring up at this gorgeous dress.

“Can I help you?”

She turned around to see a small woman standing there, eyeing her with mild suspicion.

“I-I’m just…”

“This dress in particular is made a hundred percent from silk,” the woman said. “The lining is largely acetate, with added silk and nylon, and the whole piece gives a truly summery feeling with a light material that flows in the breeze. Of course, like many of our pieces, it is dry clean only, Ma’am.” She took a moment to assess Shoko’s outfit. “And ultimately comes to the price of ¥181,500. Quite generous, really, especially as it is new to our collections.”

Shoko felt her jaw drop. “Di-did you… That was ¥181.500, right?”

“No, Ma’am,” the woman clasped her hands together, looking unimpressed. “¥181, 500 .”

“I…” she was speechless. She couldn’t possibly spend that much on a dress.

“The prices of our products align with the quality,” the woman reassured her. “The greatest details and designs go into Max Mara collections, which is why we take great pride in what we sell.”

“I guess… I could try it on…” she said, embarrassed, and then looked wildly around at the woman, “I am allowed to try it on, right?”

“Of course, Ma’am,” the woman smiled graciously. “If you select your size, I can show you the way to the changing rooms.”

Shoko nodded uneasily and sifted through the sizes, finding hers and following the woman through the great expanse of the shop. She felt completely out of place, and even the changing rooms felt exquisite, with a comfortable pouffe to sit on. She changed out of her clothes and into the dress, and despised how wonderfully it fit her. She was looking at herself wistfully for a bit, when she heard Satoru call out her name.

“I’m here,” she replied, and poked her head out of the changing room.

He whistled as the shop assistants gazed at him in wonder, and yet as he pushed up his sunglasses, his gaze was for her alone. She felt herself flush at the sight of him looking at her like that.

“Beautiful,” he said. “You have to get it.”

“It really is, but -”

“In fact, actually, can we get that now?” he glanced at the small woman, who perked up at his attention. “We’re going out for lunch and that dress is ideal.”

“Of course, Sir,” she bowed her head. “And we’ll need to take the security tag off, so if you’d come with me, Ma’am?”

“Grab her some silver heels, too,” Satoru called out to the other assistants. “I think I saw a really nice pair on my way in. What shoe size are you?” That last bit was to Shoko, who was following the small woman.

“Twenty-three centimetres,” she called over her shoulder, flustered.

“Silver heels, twenty-three,” Satoru barked at the assistants, and then followed with his hands on his pockets as Shoko arrived at the till.

“It really does suit you, Ma’am,” the woman babbled, and Shoko bent down to let her clip off the security tag. “A very good choice.”

She scanned the label through and popped the tag off after a nod of approval from Satoru, and then one of the other sales assistants returned with a pair of delicate heels, shining silver in colour.

“Try them on,” Satoru said and Shoko, flustered, did exactly as she was told.

The shoes were equally as gorgeous, and she glanced worriedly at Satoru, who nodded once more, smiling at the extra added height the shoes gave her.

Satoru swiped his card from Shoko’s hands. “We’ll take them both.”

“Excellent, Sir, really excellent,” the woman gabbled, checking out their total.

Shoko couldn’t help but glance away at that point, embarrassed that Satoru was spending so much on her. She wandered back to the changing room to grab her clothes, folding them neatly in her arms before rejoining Satoru. She mumbled her thanks to the sales assistants, who waved them cheerfully away, and stepped out onto the sunny street once more.

Satoru spun round with a smile on his face. “I got you a little something.”

She blinked as he handed her a bag with a Boucheron logo on it. She turned it over and over, then opened it and saw four boxes inside of varying sizes.

“Satoru…” she said warningly.

“Open them,” he said excitedly. “I really wanted to spoil you.”

Hesitantly, Shoko began to open the boxes one by one, each time her heart jolting in her chest. He had bought her a beautiful set of jewellery, white-gold in colour and glittering with diamonds, each shaped into a feathered plume. Two rings, a set of earrings, and a necklace. She looked up at Satoru with wide eyes.

“How much did you spend on m-”

“It doesn’t matter, because I love you,” he lifted the necklace and clasped it around her neck. “You really are the best thing that ever happened to me, Shoko.”

She blinked back the threat of tears. “Thank you. I really don’t know what to say…”

“Just put them on,” he beamed. “I want to see you wearing them.”

Flushing, she swapped out her standard earrings for the plumed feathers, and adorned her fingers with the rings. They glittered in the sunlight. She looked up at Satoru, and his eyes were dancing with a warmth she had never seen before.

He was looking at her, completely and utterly in love.

Chapter Text

Adorned in the jewellery he had bought, the dress and shoes he had paid for, Shoko felt a little bit like a pretty ornament as she took Satoru’s arm and entered a smaller, unassuming building. She had left her other clothes in his car. The entryway was through an archway that didn’t stand out particularly. The floor consisted of smooth black tiles, with beige walls and a panelled ceiling with rectangular flat lights that resembled an old minka-style architecture. There was a long counter with black placemats where food preparation could be watched, each with a pair of chopsticks fashionably laid on them. There were some diners, all dressed formally, enjoying small plates of food.

“Good afternoon,” a polite voice said, and Shoko turned her head to see a geisha standing with her head bowed. “And welcome to Ginza Kojyu. May I ask if you have a reservation?”

“We’re with the twelve o’clock lunch party,” Satoru replied.

“In that case, I shall take you to Room One,” the woman said pleasantly. “My name is Yuuri Fukui and I will be your server for today.”

“Thank you,” Shoko said, feeling completely out of depth.

Still arm-in-arm with Satoru, she followed the geisha through a low archway. Satoru ducked beneath it, and they walked down a bright corridor with decorated porcelain bowls on an indented shelf in the wall. At the end was a sliding door, which Yuuri Fukui opened delicately for them. There was a darker, mahogany coloured table with red placemats. A faux-window display of a potted plant with white pebbles scattered around sat behind the table behind glass, and the room had a muted, golden gleam to it. And there, seated at the table, was Mei Mei, already sipping from a small cup of sake.

“Please make yourselves comfortable,” Yuuri bowed once more. “Am I right that one more person shall be joining you?”

“Not anymore,” Mei Mei said sweetly, mouth curved into a red crescent, her dark eyes wandering to Satoru. “It will be just us three.”

“In that case, I shall bring more drinks,” Yuuri said, waiting as Shoko and Satoru took their seats. “Have you all been to Ginza Kojyu before?”

The other two nodded. Shoko looked lost, and was about to nod, when Satoru said, “Shoko here is new.”

“When I return with drinks, I shall explain what you can expect from your meal with us today,” Yuuri kindly said to Shoko. “What drinks may I get for you, Sir and Ma’am?”

“Uh, sake’s also fine with me,” Shoko said, ignoring the half-glance Satoru sent in her direction.

“A melon soda for me,” Satoru said.

“A little too early for you, Satoru Gojo?” Mei Mei’s dark eyes sparkled.

“I’m not a fan of alcohol,” he beamed. “But don’t let that stop you, ladies.”

“I wouldn’t for the world,” Mei Mei said, and glanced at Yuuri. “Yes, more sake for my friend. We’re having a long catch-up.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Yuri said, before leaving and sliding the door shut behind them.

Shoko whipped her head towards Mei Mei. “You didn’t tell me you were booking such a nice place.”

“Was it problematic?” she smiled. “It seems you’ve managed to glam yourself up perfectly for the occasion. Quite a remarkable set of jewellery you’re wearing…”

“Satoru got them for me,” Shoko flushed, and then remembered why they were here. “Speaking of which… Mei Mei, this is Satoru. Satoru, this is Mei Mei.”

“A pleasure,” Satoru shook Mei Mei’s hand from across the table.

“I believe the pleasure is mine,” Mei Mei said. “Of course, we’ve heard many things about you, so I’m sure Utahime was sorely disappointed that she would have to wait to meet you.”

“I can only imagine,” he replied jovially, setting aside his sunglasses.

“And my, you really are as handsome as the rumours say,” Mei Mei continued. “I thought it was just editing, but you are quite photogenic. The pair of you make a very attractive couple.”

Shoko smiled almost shyly. She wasn’t used to this much praise from Mei Mei.

“I only make up ten percent of it,” Satoru sent Shoko an approving smile.

“Humble, too,” Mei Mei remarked. “I wouldn’t expect that of someone who has an enterprise such as yours.”

“I wouldn’t describe him as humble ,” Shoko interjected.

“And I’ll make no comment,” he grinned.

“Well, you two complement each other very nicely,” Mei Mei smiled, sipping her sake. “I would ask when the two of you met, but… I already know the story. Imagine how a ring of forgotten keys could bring two people together.”

“Speaking of origin stories, then, how did you two meet?” Satoru asked. “Are you another school friend of Shoko’s?”

“Not at all,” Mei Mei said. “In fact, I’ve only known Shoko for three years, which is far less in comparison to some of the others. I met her through Utahime, who was a senior of hers at the Karaoke Society.”

Satoru’s head whipped round to Shoko. She felt her face go red.

“Karaoke Society?” he grinned. “You’ve never mentioned that you do karaoke.”

Mei Mei touched her mouth, eyes dancing with amusement. “Perhaps that was supposed to be a secret?”

“Not a secret, no,” Shoko rubbed the back of her head, embarrassed. “I’m not good . I just… find it fun.”

“I’ll have to bring you some time, just so I can hear you sing,” he nudged her playfully.

“Perhaps I should be more careful with what I say?” Mei Mei tilted her head. “It seems Shoko’s built up a rather cool persona…”

“It never came up, that’s all!” she pouted.

“You’re cute when you’re embarrassed ~” he laughed. “So, wait - Mei Mei. If you only met Shoko through karaoke, then what do you do?”

“As a few of your managers know, I now work in marketing,” Mei Mei twirled her small cup between her fingers. “I must say, it was an honour to be doing work for Paradise Supreme, and I never supposed I would meet the man behind the title.”

“You sound like an interviewer,” he chuckled, a little more nervously this time. “Business and economics at university, I presume?”

“Correct,” Mei Mei said. “And what about you? You look very young.”

“Ah, I turn twenty-two in December,” he said, and seemed to soak up the attention as she marvelled at him, “but I never went to university. I was lucky, arrogant, and in the right place at the right time.”

“A true story of the modern entrepreneur,” Mei Mei said. “Although PS hotels really are the best of the best. I don’t think I’ve stayed anywhere better in my life, and I’ve had to travel quite a lot in my line of work.”

Shoko was relieved at that moment when the door slid open and Yuuri returned, carrying a tray with their drinks. She wasn’t sure how much more she could take of any business conversation. She placed a glass of a green fizzing drink - the melon soda - to Satoru, and placed a small, squat sake cup before Shoko. She then held the tray to her chest, and her attention was all on Shoko.

“Here at Kojyu, we do not have a menu,” she explained. “We provide you with a nine-course experience, of which each plate will be described upon serving. We offer a traditional kaiseki with small twists, that we hope you may enjoy. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Shoko said.

“Very nice,” Yuuri smiled, and then to them all she said, “Your sakizuke will be with you shortly.”

Once more, she left the room, closing the door behind her. Shoko gawked around the room, ignoring the looks of amusement on Mei Mei and Satoru’s faces.

“This place is amazing,” Shoko breathed.

“It really is,” Mei Mei said sweetly. “I do enjoy a little bit of fine-dining here and there. It really is a shame that Utahime can’t make it.”

“She would’ve loved it here,” Shoko mused.

“She perhaps would’ve been a lot more invested in grilling you , too,” Mei Mei chuckled, glancing at Satoru. “Utahime really can be quite hard to win over, so I suppose it’s fortunate that I’m the one here today.”

“What a relief,” Satoru smiled almost nervously.

“She’s away visiting family this weekend, something about her grandfather, I believe,” for once, Mei Mei looked somewhat sympathetic. “But I suppose something must have happened -”

“Oh?” Satoru tilted his head.

“Well, yes, because she messaged very early on to say she had to extend her stay,” Mei Mei glanced at Shoko, who nodded forlornly. “She said her grandfather had had a fall. I’m going to assume that his health has taken a turn for the worse as a result, or that something underlying was noticed because of his fall.”

“You’ll have to send her my condolences,” Satoru said, and sipped his drink.

“She’s not sure when she’ll be back, either, from the sounds of it,” Shoko glanced at Mei Mei.

“She was unusually vague, so I suppose there really is a problem,” Mei Mei briefly lifted her shoulders. “She’s there with her family, though, so I don’t think it’s anything we need to concern ourselves with. If she needs our support, she’ll reach out to us.”

“That’s true…” Shoko sipped her sake. It had a spicy aroma to it.

“Well, aside from Utahime, did the two of you have enjoyable weekends?” Mei Mei asked. “Mine was quite uneventful, but I have always been more inclined towards work rather than play.”

“I like a balance of both,” Satoru said, breezing over her question.

Admittedly, Shoko didn’t want to talk about it, either. Saturday had been awful.

“I suppose the pair of you wanted to enjoy the weekend together,” Mei Mei pressed. “Utahime and I really thought it might have been over between you two on that Friday.”

Both Shoko and Satoru remained silent.

“I, too, want to enjoy this meal, but in Utahime’s absence, I ought to try and assert some kind of questioning,” Mei Mei rolled her eyes. “However, things seem to be entirely fine between you two now, which I believe is more important.”

“We talked things over,” Shoko glanced at Satoru, who had gone a little tense. “I don’t want to treat it as some unmentionable taboo, either, and… I feel like we’ve been really honest and real with each other.”

He gave her a reassuring smile. Even Mei Mei was looking at her with something like relief.

“I really thought I wouldn’t want to continue seeing Satoru, but…” she let her gaze trace every angle of his face. “In the long term, it’s not a big deal, and since it’s something we both grew from, I think it’s good that we were able to step over and move on. Not to erase it, but to learn from it.”

“Perhaps, Satoru, you might even be raising Shoko’s confidence,” Mei Mei said, glancing between them both. “It’s definitely a good sight to see Shoko do the talking for once; I feel I rarely hear about her feelings and insights…”

“I would add something, but I agree completely with her,” Satoru quietly patted Shoko’s knee from underneath the table.

The door opened once more and Yuuri arrived with another server who was also dressed like a geisha, painted red mouth upturned into a welcoming expression.

“Sakizuke today is a selection of smaller plates,” Yuuri explained, setting down an assortment of dishes between them. “Here we have octopus, sweet potato and shrimp; this is salmon roe with spinach and mushroom; and to complete we have raw snapper and potato dressed in a miso concentrate. Please enjoy the food.”

They expressed pleasantries as both servers left the room, and then fell silent to enjoy the food. Shoko had never eaten something so wonderful before. The octopus was soft, and the variation of flavours all complemented one another. Shoko felt herself getting lost in the moment, enjoying the food and drink. She was also greatly relieved, because Mei Mei and Satoru were getting along. A part of her had worried it would be an awkward affair, but this was more relaxed than she could have hoped for.

Once the first dish came, it seemed the rest of the meal was set in motion. They would finish one plate, Yuuri and the other woman would clear up, and then a new dish would arrive, each with its own announcement. There was a tasty wan-mono, a broth that consisted of “mushroom and egg, with a shrimp dumpling on the side”; that was followed by “our finest muzozuke” - which turned out to be sashimi - “of flounder, fatty tuna, a smoked tuna and prawns,”, all of which Shoko inhaled in her enjoyment of the food. “In celebration of the season, our yakimono consists of grilled akamatsu with a light sesame sauce,” and although only half of the sentence really made sense to Shoko, it was delicious. She didn’t think she would be able to eat this much food, but all the portions were small, and yet they were still coming. Their next dish was a small, vinegary cucumber and daikon dish which Yuuri called “sunomono”, and served the purpose as a “palate cleanser”. It seemed Satoru was not so much of a fan of the sunomono, since he left it, his explanation being, as he sipped on melon soda, that “it was way too bitter for me”. 

She was surprisingly still hungry when the sixth course was served, a dish of “steamed wagyu beef and vegetables, drizzled with a rich mushroom concentrate” which altogether was called the “takiawase” of the kaiseki. Shoko was beginning to get more full at this point, but she was determined to eat everything that was put in front of her, and was somewhat relieved when the next course, the “mushimono”, was another broth, a sharp tasting one infused with “ginger to pronounce the flavours of herring and eggplant”. The sake was beginning to go to her head at this point, but she was having a good time, laughing and conversing with Mei Mei and Satoru. It turned out that the eighth dish, the “oshokuji”, consisted of a salty, grilled eel with rice and a scrambled egg soup poured over. The salt only made her feel thirstier, so she indulged more in sake, and her head was too flouncy to concentrate when dessert, which Yuuri called “mizugashi” was served. Shoko loved all these fancy terms for food courses. They were given a frozen two-grape and apple in a fresh apple jelly, which was a little sweet for her liking, so she happily handed it over to an eager Satoru. This last meal was served with a light green tea, which also happened to be when Mei Mei stopped ordering sake. The tea was warm and comforting, and Shoko had eaten so much she could have fallen asleep at the table. The two servers provided them with more tea and a small plate of warabimochi to enjoy whilst settling their stomachs before the bill.

And that was the end of the meal, much to Shoko’s disappointment.

She breathed out a relieved sigh as Satoru helped himself to as many warabimochi he could. Neither Shoko nor Mei Mei were particularly interested in food at that point, so it was a whole plate of them to himself.

“Nothing beats a good meal like that,” Mei Mei rested her head in her hands, cheeks slightly pinked from the alcohol. “I don’t think I’ve eaten that well in a long time.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever eat that well ever again,” Shoko said.

“You will,” Satoru ruffled her hair.

“You say you’ve been here before, then, Satoru?” Mei Mei said, a slight slur to her words. “Are you a frequent fine diner, then?”

“Only for important occasions,” Satoru said, still affectionately winding his fingers through Shoko’s hair. “I’ll be honest, I don’t eat well normally, so it’s nice to take a chance for a proper sit-down meal.”

You don’t eat well?” Shoko pouted. “How can you not eat well when you literally live in a place based off of heaven?”

He laughed, melodic and cheerful. “Too much sugar and too much takeaway.”

“I did notice you had quite the sweet tooth,” Mei Mei pointed a finger at him. “I wouldn’t have expected that of you.”

Satoru smiled graciously. “It started more of me grabbing something sugary instead of a proper meal, and then gradually manifested into an addiction. But, hey,” he popped a mochi into his mouth, “a little bit of sugar won’t kill me.”

“The doctor in me wants to tell you otherwise,” Shoko replied.

The three of them chuckled, and then the bill arrived. Shoko saw the price and almost fainted, but Satoru was quick to wave his card in Yuuri’s direction. Mei Mei didn’t swiftly object, and Shoko felt a little powerless as Satoru paid for the entire bill. It wasn’t like she could cover it, but she made a silent promise to get something for Satoru. He had already spent a fortune on her over the past day.

The three of them made their way out of Ginza Kojyu, thanking the serving staff and chefs as they went. It was still sunny outside, but they had been inside for a good two hours, and Shoko squinted up at the sunshine.

“Well, this is where we part ways,” Mei Mei said, hair blowing in a two o’clock breeze. “It was good to finally meet you, Satoru. I must admit, there were some mixed reviews, but the overall seems positive.”

“It was nice to meet you, too, Mei Mei,” he smiled warmly, his radiance competing with the sun. “It’s a shame I couldn’t meet Utahime, too, but I suppose things happen.”

“They do,” Mei Mei said, and turned her eye on Shoko. “You know I always appreciate a man who pays for things. You should stay with him.” Shoko choked on her breath, whereas Satoru chuckled. “You and I need to have a proper catch-up as well, and maybe we can think about meeting up with Utahime next weekend.”

“I’m… actually away next weekend,” Shoko said, leaning into Satoru.

“Oh?” Mei Mei’s eyes sparkled with curiosity. “In that case, we’ll keep up messaging and see if we can talk between the three of us. And then, maybe, Utahime might finally be able to meet Satoru.”

“That sounds great,” Shoko yawned.

“Safe travels, you two,” Mei Mei flicked her hair as she walked away, elegant as always.

Satoru guided Shoko back to the car, and she flopped down in the passenger seat, leaning her head back with satisfaction.

“Mei Mei’s nice,” Satoru beamed at her as he sat behind the wheel. “I think we’re quite similar.”

“In some ways,” Shoko said, closing her eyes sleepily as Satoru pulled her seatbelt over her. “Promise me you’ll never sit there and talk about boring business crap ever again.”

“I told you it was boring when we first started hanging out!” he grinned.

“You were so mysterious about it, and it really was nothing,” she blew out a breath. “That food was amazing.”

“I’ll keep in mind that you like that kind of food,” he said.

“You enjoyed it, too, right?” she shot him a glance.

“Definitely.”

“I have to have another heavy meal later today, too,” she patted her stomach as Satoru carefully reversed from his parking spot. “Dad said we would order takeaway. I might die from a food coma.”

“Ah, of course, your dad is back today!” he looked thoughtful. “What time did he say?”

“He just said “later”,” she said. “He got held up, so said he’d back back later than expected. Maybe the trains messed up?”

He hummed in response, and they soon arrived at the bakery. Shoko was desperate for a coffee, and Satoru rolled easily into the driveway, now familiar with the layout of the parking space. It was almost as though he had lived there his whole life. Shoko looked at him fondly as he fiddled with the gears and turned the engine off. He really was the most handsome man she had ever met, and he was hers . She figured she was allowed to be a little possessive, given that Satoru had his own streak of acting as though she was his. And maybe she was, but it was nice to think that they belonged to and with each other.

“Do you want to come in for tea?” she asked.

“OK, but just tea,” he teased. “You’ve been drinking.”

She lightly pushed his arm and clambered out of the car, taking care not to mess up her new dress. She was flattening her clothes down when she remembered her old ones, and whipped them out from the backseat. Satoru locked up the car and they headed towards the front door. There was a pleasant buzz in her head as she fumbled for her keys, and Satoru looked off into the distance, wearing an easy-going smile. Again, she had to look at him, his eyes brilliant like a summer sky, hidden beneath his sunglasses, and yet she could look at them whenever she wanted.

“Can you manage?” he chuckled, and then reached forward to take her keys from her.

His fingers interlocked with hers briefly, and she felt the familiar rush of warmth. He took the keys away and took her hand in his, swinging it back and forth, whistling to himself as he shouldered the door open.

The television was on. Shoko couldn’t remember having turned it on that morning, but equally, she had been in a rush and sometimes it was difficult to keep track of her routine. There was also a smell of freshly baked bread, and Shoko froze on the spot. She had definitely not baked bread.

Her instincts were to push Satoru out of the doorway, but he had already wandered in, dropping her keys in the dish by the front door. She needed to warn him, needed to gain some control over a situation that was rapidly slipping through her fingers. She hadn’t wanted them to meet like this, when she was tipsy and when neither of them expected it. She had wanted it to be organised and planned, to be as unsurprising as possible.

Shoko heard footsteps, Satoru looked towards the kitchen doorway, and her dad wandered out, wearing an apron and his lined face cheerful.

“There you are, Sho-”

He stared at Satoru. He stared at Shoko. He stared at their hands, locked together.

“-ko?”

Chapter Text

She didn’t know why, but she felt the unexplainable need to unwind her hand from Satoru’s, even though her dad was staring right at them, and had already seen. She didn’t though, because she was locked in place with surprise, and she was sluggish from the sake. Satoru’s hand was warm in hers, but his expression was one of frozen shock, the unexpectedness of her dad being home having hit him, too. There were a lot of things running in her head, lots of excuses, lots of explanations, lots of waffle, and none of it seemed helpful. There was her dad, who had been expecting her, and just her, when he returned to Tokyo, and he was wearing a look as though he had just been slapped across the face. What was she meant to say? That as soon as he had left the house, she had started bringing people over?

“Shoko,” her dad said carefully. “Who is this?”

“This is -” she began, but she couldn’t formulate the words. Was Satoru fine? Should she call him Mr Gojo, to be less personal? Should she straight up call him her boyfriend?

“I’m Satoru,” Satoru interjected quickly, noticing her hesitation. “It’s… nice to meet you, sir.”

Her dad glanced between the two of them, and his eyes kept dipping down to their hands.

“Have I met you before?” he asked quizzically.

“No, Dad, um…” once again she floundered.

“Perhaps we should go to the kitchen,” her dad blew out a quiet breath. “Do you drink tea… S-Satoru?”

“Yes, sir, I drink tea,” Satoru’s tone was oddly formal, and when Shoko looked up at him, he wore an overtly serious expression.

“Yes, of course, only Shoko drinks coffee,” her dad rambled nervously, retreating into the kitchen. They could still hear him muttering from the other room, “and it’s bad for you… because it keeps you awake…”

She looked back at Satoru, and he was looking at her with an expression of mild panic. She felt like he was trying to tell her something with his eyes, but she couldn’t understand what, so she unwound her hand and headed towards the kitchen, jerking her head for him to follow, which he did.

Shoko stepped in and saw her dad standing by the kettle, wringing his wrists nervously. Satoru joined her side, and the two of them hovered in the doorway, prepared to run if a sudden outburst happened.

Her dad noticed them. “Sit down! Sit down!”

Shoko nodded hastily, and they both threw themselves down into chairs. It was bizarre to see both her dad and Satoru in the same room. Her dad bustled around, gathering cups and made the three of them hot drinks. When he would glance at Shoko, she seemed to detect disapproval, although she couldn’t explain why. She really wished she was sober. The fuzziness in her brain was stopping her from thinking clearly.

“Coffee and tea,” he doled out their drinks, and then sat down opposite them, his eyes nervously flicking between the pair of them.

The silence was heavy at first, and Shoko couldn’t stop fiddling with her coffee mug for the life of her. Eventually, the silence had to be broken, and it was done so by Shoko’s dad.

“Shoko, who is Satoru?” he said, looking between the two of them.

Shoko swallowed nervously and looked at Satoru. His expression was unreadable and impassive. This felt very much like he was saying: It’s up to you . In many situations, she would have loved that. This time, however, she felt like a bus was about to hit her.

“Satoru is…” she swallowed nervously, “...my boyfriend.”

There was another heavy silence which did nothing to reassure her. She sat there, frozen on the spot, as her dad turned in his seat to look at Satoru. She felt like her dad was weighing him up, but she could read unmistakeable uncertainty in his eyes.

“Your boyfriend?” he breathed, looking at Satoru in disbelief.

“Yes,” Shoko twiddled her thumbs, “my boyfriend.”

There was another pause.

“I planned to introduce you two properly, but…” she bit her lip. “I didn’t realise you were getting back so soon.”

“I wanted to surprise you,” her dad still looked shellshocked. “I set off later than expected, but you weren’t home when I got in.”

“We were out for lunch with Mei Mei.”

“And…” her father laced his fingers together, brows knitting together, “...how long… when…”

Shoko cleared her throat nervously. “Just over three weeks. It’s very recent.”

“When I…” he didn’t finish his sentence, but Shoko had an idea what he meant.

“Just before you left, actually,” she glanced at Satoru, wishing he would say something. Anything.

“So not… Suguru…?”

She closed her eyes.

“Not Suguru,” finally Satoru spoke, and his voice was a little clipped.

“I’m sorry, that was quite rude of me,” her dad said hollowly. “I just always thought…”

“No, Dad, not Suguru.”

Her dad’s eyes then flicked between them once more. “But Suguru was staying here?”

“No,” she coughed awkwardly, “he wasn’t.”

Her dad’s eyes widened. “Then -”

“I was home alone,” she said quickly, and Satoru shot her a wide-eyed stare. “Satoru visited during the day. Sometimes.”

“Right, right,” her dad still looked nervous as he glanced back at Satoru. “And we haven’t met?”

“We haven’t,” he shook his head.

“I feel like we’ve met,” her dad said faintly. “You look very familiar.”

“I’m, um…” Satoru then looked at Shoko.

“Satoru owns… the Paradise Supreme hotels…” Shoko said. “He’s… he sometimes features on magazines… and stuff…”

“Hah,” her dad looked speechless.

“It’s nice to… finally meet you… Mr Ieiri,” Satoru managed out.

Her dad sat there, looking shocked.

“Dad?” Shoko prompted, feeling more uncertain by the silence.

Her dad drew in a shuddering breath, and then looked between them once more.

“You seem like… a nice young man, Satoru…” her dad said, and then shot a worried look at Shoko, “...but I really don’t think… Shoko isn’t ready to be… I don’t think Shoko should be dating anyone… not right now…”

There was a long, awkward pause where they all stared into her drinks.

“She’s… working hard at university…” her dad continued weakly. “My little girl… Shoko… Shoko has always worked very hard… she’s… she’s at university… did you know that? That she’s at university…?”

“I did,” Satoru shifted in his seat. “She studies medicine.”

“I’m old enough to date people, Dad,” Shoko croaked.

“I know, and you do seem very nice, Satoru, I don’t want to seem rude, not at all, no,” her dad rambled, looking more panicked, “but Shoko, you’ve… you’ve got a lot going on… I’m not sure dating should be your priority right now… and you’ve been through so much, so… it doesn’t seem like you’re ready for dating…”

“Well… I am…” she said awkwardly. “And I’m not breaking up with Satoru.”

“No, of course not,” her dad said, “that wouldn’t be fair.”

There was another awkward silence. Shoko didn’t know what to say. It was clear Satoru didn’t, either. She couldn’t believe her dad was saying all of this in front of Satoru . There was shame and embarrassment swirling in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to yell something, but she felt sick and nothing would leave her mouth.

“You… do seem like a nice boy, Satoru…” her dad lowered his head, almost apologetically, and stared into his tea.

None of them spoke. Eventually, Satoru rose from his seat. Both Shoko and her dad looked up at him, Shoko with surprise, and her dad forlornly.

“It was really nice to meet you, Mr Ieiri, but I need to head off,” Satoru said.

“Right, yes, of course…” her dad looked back into his tea.

Shoko shot out of her chair and followed Satoru to the front door, shooting a glare towards her dad as she did so. She felt completely betrayed. If there was one person she had expected to support her, then it had been him.

“I’m really sorry about him,” she hissed, casting a glance towards the kitchen doorway.

“I’m sure he’s just tired,” Satoru replied calmly. “Plus, it’s not like he was expecting to see anyone but you here, so it’s probably a bit of shock.”

“I still think he was out of order,” she said coolly. “When will I next see you?”

“Wednesday, unless you have need of me,” he ruffled her hair and kissed her forehead.

“Again, I’m really sorry,” she reached forward and took his hands. “I’ll text you later.”

“Yeah, of course,” he said, squeezed her hands, and then left through the front door.

She closed it with a soft click and turned around to see her dad standing in the doorway, still wringing his wrists nervously.

“What the hell was that, Dad?” she outburst, pointing towards the front door.

“Shoko, you have to understand -”

“I’m not a child anymore, Dad!” she couldn’t help it, she was raising her voice. “I’m allowed to meet people, and like them, and have relationships!”

“I’m not talking about your age!” her dad blocked his face. “I wanted to talk to you… just you… when I got back. I left you that note, don’t you remember?” He looked at her through his fingers. “Did you see the note?”

Shoko hesitated. “I remember.”

“I don’t think you can be in a relationship when you yourself are struggling, ” he pleaded. “ I find the bottles and they get emptier each time you go through something. I can’t have you sinking down into that - you need help , Shoko.”

Her heart wrenched. She stopped in her tracks, staring at him.

“That boy, Satoru, seems like a lovely person, and I have nothing against him,” her dad said, “but how can you promise to take care of him in a relationship when you can’t even take care of yourself? I’m so worried about you, and the last thing I expected was you to tell me that you were seeing someone.”

“I… I’ve been…”

“That bottle was three quarters full when I left, and now it’s gone ,” he ranted. “It’s two o’clock and you come back already halfway drunk. I wouldn’t normally care if you had been out for lunch and drinks with friends, but when I combine it with the rest, I can’t help but think that - Shoko, I’m so worried…”

“Dad, I thought you were…” she closed her eyes, feeling stupid. There she was, going on the attack, when in reality, her dad’s concerns were only with her. “I didn’t mean to shout. I know - I know it doesn’t seem like I’m doing great right now, but - but I really am cutting down. Satoru’s been helping me with things.”

“I still think you should speak with someone professional,” her dad fretted. “I can’t stand to see you hurting. I just want you to be happy again, and I - I worry so much about you.”

She crossed the room and pulled her dad in a tight hug. Now that she was holding onto him, now that she was with him again, she couldn’t help but stop the flood of tears that ran down her face. She was drunkenly crying, she knew, but it was still a release from the pent up feelings that had plagued her not just for days, or months, but years.

“I didn’t know who to talk to,” she wept. “You were so sad, and I was so sad, and it was easier to just pick up a drink and sleep on it. I hate that it became my way of coping, and I hate that it gained so much control of my life. I’ve been so miserable, living my life on autopilot and trying to make everyone happy, but I can’t do it, Dad! I can’t make everyone happy, and I can’t rely on a drink to make everything better anymore, which somehow makes it all worse! Suguru isn’t speaking with me, because he doesn’t like Satoru, because he said he likes me, and Satoru doesn’t like Suguru, and it’s all a mess, because even though I’m going to speak with Suguru tomorrow, I’m so scared that things won’t be the same ever again. I’m scared that I’ll lose my best friend and the one person who experienced everything I went through with me.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, the tears running down her face harder than before. “I confided in Hei for everything , and I can’t bear the thought of him never being in my life again. I want to hide away, or drink away my problems, and it’s nice to get those little distractions, but I can’t live this way anymore. It hurts too much and I really don’t think I could live with myself if Hei never spoke to me again. I don’t know what I can do without him; he really is just so important to me, but I can’t love him, I can’t give him what he wants, and that breaks my heart, and it probably breaks his heart, too. I don’t know what to do, Dad; I’m so lost, and I feel like all of my friends and busy and doing different things. The one person I can always rely on is the one I’m in conflict with, and I’m scared. I’m scared that the man who attacked me might come back, I’m scared that he might hurt someone else I know. I’m so scared of sitting back and letting things happen, but I feel completely powerless in the face of things. I don’t know what to do , Dad!”

“Shoko… I…” her dad’s voice trembled and he held onto her tighter. “I let you down.”

“What?” she hiccoughed.

“You were just a child when your mother died,” her dad said. “You were supposed to see the world as an endless possibility of adventures, and yet you were forced to accept such the heavy responsibility of mortality at such a young age. I crumbled, I let Hide take care of everything, told myself that as long as you had Suguru, the two of you would be fine. But what kind of an adult expects two children to look after each other? Not only did I make you suffer in silence, but my actions meant that Suguru had to step up as an adult and take care of you. I never meant to… I never meant to throw such big expectations on the both of you at such a young age, and it’s truly my biggest regret; that I didn’t speak with you more about what happened, that I let you deal with things in your own way.”

Her dad’s shoulders were shaking. It was like that awful day, except this time he wasn’t bowed before her. He was stood, sturdier than before, and they were holding each other up. There were tears running down her face, and she kept a tight hold on the man who had mourned as much, if not more, than her.

“I wish I had been stronger all those years back,” he wept. “Not just for you, but also for me. Hamako - your mother - she would always make everything seem better, and I felt so lost without her. She really was the one person who could solve all of my problems, and yet I never thought for one moment that I could shape myself a life without her. I spent so much time dwelling on what I’d lost that I never stopped to think about what I still had, and before I knew it, you were a young woman leaving for university, and by then you had already closed your heart to most people, including yourself. I would do things so differently now if I had the chance to go back; I would make life so much easier and better for you.”

“Dad…” she held on, shaking.

“Shoko, I want you to live your life for you, not for me,” he held her at arm’s length then. “I let you dedicate your childhood to stepping on eggshells around me, and I can’t bear to think you should have to spend the rest of your twenties doing the same thing. There’s a lot of healing that we both need to do, but…” he looked sad, “I don’t want you to forget to look after yourself, since you do want to see Satoru more. I don’t want you to neglect yourself for the sake of your relationship.”

“Dad, I -”

“I mean it, Shoko,” he said tearfully. “I don’t want you to step out of my shadow, only to walk into someone else’s. You must be your own person, do you understand me? Live life how you want to, make the choices you want to, and cherish what you have, not what you have lost. Don’t make the same mistakes that I did.”

“I… I want to be that person,” she said, her voice catching on emotions.

“Nothing is stopping you,” he squeezed her shoulders. “We will get you help and the both of us will finally learn to heal from old scars.”

She let out a breathless smile, still trying not to cry too much, and she could see that this was different from before. This was crying and vulnerability, but it wasn’t weakness, and it wasn’t selfish. It was a promise to embrace their feelings together, to finally set themselves free from a web that had stuck them hard in the past.

“But Shoko, there’s… there’s more…” his hands trembled once more, and he closed his eyes. “I planned for things to be much more gentle than this, but you must know…”

“What’s wrong?” she asked quietly.

“Jiji… Jiji is not well,” he said. “He’s been very tired lately and the doctors said his blood pressure was a little high.”

“Is he OK?” Shoko fretted.

“He’s alright in himself, and he seems happy,” her dad said. “I wouldn’t say it’s anything to start panicking about, but you know how it can be as you get older. The smallest things can become anything. I’m just telling you in advance.”

“Will Baba and Jiji be OK without us there?” Shoko frowned.

“Baba still has her wits about her,” her dad smiled, “so she’ll be keeping an eye on things in case something drastically changes. And of course, I’ll let you know as soon as possible.”

She nodded, holding onto her dad’s hands. “He seemed fine on Saturday.”

“Yes, I know, it was a sudden downhill turn, that’s why I was late leaving,” her dad shook his head. “He didn’t quite seem himself, so I hung around whilst he had another check-up. The doctor insisted he stay on medication and that he would gradually begin to feel better, but to bring him back to hospital should he not have improved by Wednesday.”

“He’ll be OK, though?”

“I think so,” her dad said. “I just felt it would be good to keep you filled in on the details. It’s about time I started treating you like a young woman. Looking at you now, I wonder when you changed and why I never noticed.”

He squeezed her hands comfortingly.

“But, Shoko, you will think about what I said, won’t you?” he looked concerned. “About cutting down on alcohol? I would hate for you to get ill.”

“Of course I will,” she said, “but I’m going to stay with Satoru. He’s being extremely supportive.”

Relief washed over her dad’s features. She felt a little bad that his meeting with Satoru had been unplanned and a little negative, but she equally understood that it wasn’t from bad blood. Satoru had understood, and she was eager to tell him that her dad hadn’t been concerned about him . She was about to drop the conversation, when she remembered that one large detail she had yet to mention.

“Actually, Dad, there’s something I need to tell you, too,” she said.

He paled. “What is it? You’re… you’re not…?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Not what?”

“No, you can’t be,” he said breathlessly. “Unless planned, you’re much too careful.”

Shoko felt a flush rise to her cheeks. “Dad, I’m not pregnant. God, no. I have the implant.”

“Yes, of course,” he closed his eyes, visibly relieved once more.

“I can’t believe you thought -” she stammered.

“No, you’re right, you’ve only just met Satoru, anyway,” her dad said. “Please, go on. Continue from where I stopped you.”

“I’m going to be going on a little trip,” she said anxiously, “for a week.”

“Whereabouts?” he relaxed more. “This is with Mei Mei and Utahime, correct?”

“Actually… I’m going with Satoru…” she watched him tense up, “and we’re going to Majorca.”

His jaw dropped. “You’re going to Majorca with Satoru? Just the two of you?”

“Yes,” she wrung her wrists. “We leave Thursday, early morning, so I’m going to his on Wednesday.”

“Overnight?” he still looked shocked.

Shoko rubbed her forehead. “He has a spare bedroom.”

That didn’t mean she was going to be using it.

“Well, I suppose that’s all right, then,” he still didn’t look wholly convinced. “You’ll have separate hotel rooms, though, right? When you’re in Majorca?”

“Yes,” she lied. “But, Dad, are you OK with me going to Majorca?”

He hesitated. “It is very far, but… I did just say I wanted to treat you like an adult, and it’s not like you’re travelling along. I won’t be happy if you don’t keep me updated, though.”

“Of course I will,” and Shoko hugged her dad again, because for some reason, him not minding her going across the world meant more to her than anything. 

She held on tight, thankful that she didn’t have to face hurdle after hurdle trying to get her friends and family to accept Satoru.

“You really fell out with Suguru, huh?” her dad leant away once more, concerned again.

“I don’t know, he hates Satoru,” she looked down at the ground, “and he told me that he likes me… like, more than a friend.”

“I did always wonder with that boy,” her dad shook his head. “You two will find friendship with one another again, Shoko.”

“How can you be so sure?” she didn’t mean to sound small, yet somehow she did.

“Because you two have been through so much together,” he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter how you feel, there are just some bonds that can’t be broken.”

She didn’t know why her dad was being so confident about it. She liked his optimism, but he hadn’t been there the night Suguru and Satoru had fought.

“Come along, now, we’ll have tea and bread with butter, and then order pizza later,” he guided her towards the kitchen. “We’ve talked about the heavy things, and I just want to spend some time with my daughter, now. I want to hear about what you’ve been up to in the past fortnight.”

So Shoko let herself relax. Her dad was there now. She sat in the kitchen with him, and let herself talk about all the usual things; university, working at the bakery, Utahime and Mei Mei, a highly edited version of how she met Satoru (at a coffee shop). The more she spoke, the more comfortable she felt, and all the while, her dad listened to her, a warm expression on his face, and for the first time in a long time, Shoko felt they were really connecting.

Chapter Text

Shoko stretched out in bed, staring up at the ceiling. It was a new day, and yet her heart was already thumping wildly in her chest. She had agreed to meet with Suguru today, two o’clock. She tried her best not to think about it too much, but her mind kept wandering back to the conversation they had had the other day. His voice had been warm and comforting. As far as she was concerned, there had been no malice there, which only made her more nervous about their meeting today. What were they going to talk about? Things had been so tense between them. She had never been in an argument with Suguru for this long, and she was feeling his absence.

She rolled out of bed and chose to stay casual. She tied her hair back into a loose ponytail, threw on some jeans and a large jumper. She was going to be as comfortable as possible when facing this situation given that she was desperately nervous walking into it. She wandered downstairs, hearing her dad already speaking in the bakery. There was the smell of bread and cakes, and the radio was mumbling something about a “Hanako Yamada”, with two voices talking amongst themselves. One of them belonged to her dad, and the other was Kento’s.

Wandering through the doorway, which was now wide open, streaming in sunlight, she made an appearance. Instead of standing on opposite sides, her dad and Kento were face to face behind the counter. Her dad’s hands were covered in flour, his lined face was bright and cheerful, and Kento wore an employee’s apron, as well as a polo shirt without his usual long-sleeves. Both glanced in her direction, and it was then that she remembered something her dad had said, something about Kento working at the bakery. Shoko hadn’t realised this would be happening quite so soon, but she supposed he had contacted Kento after learning she would be going away for a week.

“Good morning, Shoko!” her dad beamed. “I hope you slept well?”

“I did, yeah,” she tried her hardest not to yawn. “How are you doing, Kento?”

“Quite well, thank you,” he replied, formal as ever, and adjusted his glasses. “It’s been a while since I saw you last.”

Shoko hesitated. When was the last time they had spoken? With a terrible dawning, she realised it was when Mei Mei and Utahime had dragged her from the bakery with their intervention. In her hesitation, the radio continued to chatter on, where she picked up phrases like, “...along the 477, where two hikers, Yuuto and Misaki Kawakami, walking their dog…” and, “...a rural area near Kamagake…”

“Right, yeah,” she laughed nervously. “It’s been quite a busy week.”

“Those two women were your friends, right?” he asked. “Might I ask why they pulled you from the bakery?”

“They just thought I needed a break,” she lied, shaking her head, and ignored his questioning gaze. “That’s what they meant by “intervention”, it really wasn’t anything.”

“I see…” he pondered. “Well, I hope you’re feeling better. You looked quite distressed.”

Shoko pressed her lips together. “Doing much better, thanks. And you?”

“Everything has been the same with me,” he replied plainly. “I was in Kobe this weekend for some fresh-air hiking. It was nice to be away from the city for a bit.”

“Kento took some wonderful photos!” her dad gushed. “He visited Mount Maya and Rokkou. Kobe is near Osaka! We could go there the next time we visit Baba and Jiji.”

“Of course,” brief realisation appeared on Kento’s face. “I forgot your parents live in Osaka, Kiyoshi. I suppose I never thought that Kyoto was so close to Kobe.”

“Shoko enjoys a good walk outdoors,” her dad continued.

“I suppose as a doctor in training, it makes sense that Shoko is a pioneer for physical health,” Kento pondered, and then he glanced at her. “I think you would like Mount Rokkou, Shoko.”

“I’m sure,” she smiled.

“I’m just showing Kento the basics of working the till,” her dad said cheerfully. “I never realised how easy life would be if I could just stay in the kitchen and have someone man the front desk. I think once summer ends, I’ll have to hire someone in Kento’s absence; I’m going to be so spoiled by having a helping-hand!”

“...police have yet to identify Hanako Yamada’s true identity, but…” the radio rattled on.

“What are they talking about?” she pointed at the radio.

“Oh, it’s sad,” her dad frowned. “I heard it on the drive back home. They found the body of a young woman on the 477, an area between Nagoya and Kyoto, near Kamagadake and Mount Amagoi. Two hikers found her because they were walking their dog.” He shook his head sadly. “It’s always dog-walkers who come across these terrible crime scenes. Imagine finding something like on a Monday morning.”

“That’s awful…” she wrinkled her nose. “And they don’t know who she is?”

It was now that her dad looked truly uncomfortable. “No, but I personally believe it was a boyfriend, or someone close to her.”

“So this is like a years’ ago cold-case thing?” Shoko shuddered.

“No,” Kento said. “No, police say her body was between a week and a day dead; she was beheaded, her hands and feet were removed, and even her clothes had been tak-”

“It really is horrible,” her dad interrupted hastily. “Quite disgusting what some people will do. This is why you should always tell people where you are going, Shoko.”

“That… that is messed up,” she winced. “On that note of telling you my location, I’m going to meet Suguru today. He’s coming to pick me up here, though.”

“I’ll know who to track down if you don’t come home, then,” he wiped his brow. “But enough about this - I find these topics to be very hard, especially when I think of some other father who doesn’t know what’s happened to his daughter. Shoko, maybe you could help show Kento how to work the till? I have baking to do.”

“Sure,” she grabbed a spare apron and set about showing Kento the easiest ways of managing the till as her dad bustled into the back room.

“So what did happen with your friends?” Kento asked hesitantly. “You didn’t seem very happy to see them.”

“It wasn’t anything,” she said. “They were just picking at things. They could’ve just told me somewhere quiet, but they wanted to… I don’t know, it was really dumb.”

“Was it about your boyfriend?” Kento asked.

Shoko blinked and looked at him. How did he -?

“The tall man with the white hair,” he continued. “The one who brought that phone in?”

“Right, of course, you’ve met Satoru,” she shook her head. “I guess it was about him, yes.”

Kento looked thoughtful. “He seems like a very overbearing individual.”

“He’s nice,” she said, a little more curt than intended.

Again, Kento seemed to assess her. “He certainly seemed to have a lot to give… and say.”

She didn’t want strangers commenting on her relationship. She bustled about arranging sandwiches, a little irritated. She knew Kento was very particular, but what place did he have to comment on her life? Just because he was familiar with her dad didn’t mean he knew her .

“I’m sorry, I believe I overstepped,” Kento remarked. “I only wondered why your friends might have had an issue with him.”

“They’ve changed their minds, anyway,” she muttered. “They were being a little quick to judge, but they’ve spoken to him since.”

It wasn’t very truthful, considering Utahime had yet to meet Satoru and Suguru disliked him, but she could at least pretend that Mei Mei’s opinion counted for the other two. Her stomach lurched again at the thought of having to meet with Suguru. What was she going to say to him? Did he expect her to talk about Satoru? Did she dare mention her trip to Majorca? She assumed she would have to, otherwise he would wonder where she was for a whole week.

Kento didn’t attempt to continue conversation about her private life, instead listening intently and following her instructions on how to handle the front desk. A steady stream of customers came in waves, especially at lunchtime. Now that it was warm and summery, students were also arriving in droves, gathering food for picnics to eat at the park. It was nearing the end of July, so moods tended to be more positive, and customers were more willing to chat more with Shoko and Kento. Fortunately, things became quiet at five to two, so Shoko decided to let Kento man the fort, whipping off her apron and bidding him farewell, stepping outside into the sunshine.

Standing on the pavement was Suguru, on his phone, and a part of her liked to imagine that he was hastily messaging her to let her know he had arrived. Under one arm he had two cans of cold coffee balanced, and it was these little things Shoko both loved and wished she had noticed over the years.

“Hey,” she called out, and he looked up quickly, focus snapping into his features.

“Hey,” he said, putting his phone away, and offered her one of the cans.

She took it, and he began to walk. That was fine, she would let him lead the way. For the first time in a while, they walked side by side, and it reminded her of what it was like heading to school. Shoko didn’t dare open her can just yet; she wanted to be sitting down before she did anything, and her hands were shaking slightly. Neither of them seemed eager to speak, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. Their brief conversation over the phone had reassured Shoko that Suguru didn’t hate her, and it gave her hope that they could walk like this, hope that their friendship could be rekindled and rebuilt.

They walked further up the road, up to the crossing on the corner. A small tasteful shrub sat where the maple had once stood. The turning was clear, a reminder of what had happened six years ago.

As they waited for the traffic light, Shoko let herself look at Suguru. He was bathed in a golden summer’s afternoon light, eyes brighter underneath the sun. He looked thoughtful and intelligent, as though a sentence was on his mind and he was trying to weave it carefully into a beautiful phrase. His hair was longer now, half-tied up and he looked even more like a prince now than he had all of those years back. Without the tree, the world felt less Edo, but she could still envision him looking off into a faraway space, trying to decide which word sounded the best where. When he had been describing Hokkaido to her, had he been imagining them in love? His words had sounded sweet. She remembered thinking it was like a sonnet. A poem. Poetry . That was the word Satoru had used…

She let herself look away, trying to push bad memories from her head. If Suguru had seen her staring at him, he didn’t say anything. The lights turned green, they looked both ways, and they crossed.

Shoko expected them to take a turn towards the park, and almost walked into Suguru, but he kept walking onwards. She hesitated, and then hurried to catch up, falling back into pace as they walked. Where were they going? She let herself question away with idle curiosity, much preferring being with him in silence than arguing. He wasn’t rushing like the last time they had walked with each other, and the smell of the sea grew stronger the closer to the river they got. It was a brilliant day, so as they wandered down a flight of stairs, lower down, they were met with the brilliant blue of the Sumida river.

Suguru didn’t sit down. He wandered up to the railings, right before the water, and leant against them, looking out at the river. In the distance there was the Ryogoku bridge, low down and unassuming, and on the other side, even further away, there was the Kuramae bridge, with its yellow arches. Near the water there was a greater breeze, and the cries of seagulls were more prominent in the air. The sun was reflected in the water, shimmering and shaking with each ripple that passing boats caused. Shoko cracked open her coffee and took a sip, and reached into her pocket for a much-needed, long-awaited cigarette. Balancing the smoke in her hand with the coffee, she was about to rummage in her pockets for a lighter, when there was a pointed double tap on the railing beside her.

She glanced over and Suguru had his lighter in hand, offering it to her, his expression neutral and serene. Almost bashful, she held out her cigarette and he lit it, before lighting his own. They stood there, drinking coffee and smoking, enjoying each other’s company, and not daring to utter a word. Shoko felt that if she opened her mouth, this tranquility would be ruined. She let the caffeine and nicotine rush through her body, the mix of bitter and ashy, and she didn’t dare break this moment. They had never done this, stood there and watched the river, and Shoko deeply regretted that, because this place was wonderful. She watched birds and boats, drinking in the scenery and bathing in the warm sun and the smell of salt.

“We have to talk eventually, I suppose,” Suguru said eventually, and Shoko took a long drag on her cigarette. “As much as I’m enjoying the quiet, there’s a lot that needs to be said.”

“Yeah,” she said softly, “I know.”

“I’m sorry, Shoko,” he said. “I realise I never should have said anything, not when you’ve got a life of your own and were getting things together.”

Shoko stayed quiet. She wasn’t quite sure what the right words were.

“I didn’t know what to say, and even though it felt right to me to tell you, that doesn’t mean that you should’ve heard or known,” he continued.

“Wouldn’t it be selfish of me to expect you to never say anything?” she murmured, barely audible over the ocean. “I don’t think it sits well with me to think that you’d say nothing, that you’d really carry a burden like that.”

“Doesn’t it bother you?” he asked. “Doesn’t it annoy you that suddenly things are different?”

“It’s stressful,” she replied. “But it’s mostly because I’m scared we won’t be friends anymore.”

He was quiet again, and lifted his cigarette to his lips.

“Do we really have to not be friends anymore, Hei?” she looked into the river. “That’s not fair. I don’t want to lose you.”

“I want to be your friend, still, of course,” he said.

There was a pause, and then Shoko asked, “When did you… start liking me?”

“At the end of middle school,” he tapped the cigarette and ash flew off, carried into the river. “You started seeing that guy. I can’t remember his name… The last year of middle school.”

Hibiki Kusumoto ?” she stared in shock.

“Well, that’s when I realised I liked you,” Suguru said, “because I really hated him and I couldn’t explain why.”

“Hibiki Kusumoto…” she mused, remembering a short boy with magnified glasses she had “dated” for two months. “You hated him?”

“Disliked, really, and it was odd, because I was fine when he was on his own, but as soon as I’d see you two together…” he shook his head. “I told myself that it was because you were getting a new best friend.”

“Not possible,” she said. “You’re my ride or die. You know that, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” he said.

“Is that why you didn’t get along with Souma?” she gazed at him.

Souma was just an asshole, ” Suguru wrinkled his nose. “ That’s why I didn’t like him . Besides, you had a crush on him, it’s not like you were ever with him.”

She looked back into the water. Their reflections shivered back at them, darkened against the sun and a deep verdigris.

“Shoko, I want you to know that, even though I was feeling this way, I still wanted to treat you like my best friend,” he said. “I don’t want you to think that I was… I don’t know, expecting anything.”

“I never thought that once,” she replied. “You’re not the kind of person to do that.”

There was another pause.

“Suguru, I love you, but I don’t love you,” she said. “Does that make sense?”

“Of course it does,” he said. “I love you as my best friend, too. I think that’s why this hurts more than it should.”

“I’m sorry I don’t feel the same way,” she felt the first tears blur her vision.

Suguru reached out and put a comforting arm around her shoulder. “Stop it. I’m sorry for feeling this way.”

“Life would just be much easier if I felt the same way,” she blinked away the tears.

“It would be just as easy if I only liked you as a friend,” Suguru said, “but life isn’t easy. In fact, it sucks, because I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, not just because you want to preserve our friendship.”

“I still don’t know how to react,” she mumbled. “How did I never notice? I don’t even want to say things like if I’d known things could be different, because I can’t even promise that.”

“Nor do I expect you to,” he gave her a light-hearted shake, and then rested his arm over the railing once more. “I don’t know what to do, either. This is very confusing, and I never intended to ever tell you how I felt.”

A seagull screeched high above, and they both looked up to see the bird dancing along the wind, wings spread out as it glided idly beneath the sun.

“Shoko, I want to be your best friend still,” he said, “and I don’t want you to think that you can’t talk to me because of what’s happened between us. I would hate for us to be estranged. You’re too prominent in my life, what with my parents divorce and…” he blew out a long breath, smoke curling from his lips, “and I don’t really know what to say. I guess I would understand if we both found it easier to never talk again, or see each other less.”

“But I don’t want that,” she protested, turning to him, and she saw that he was tense, as though trying to stop every muscle in his body moving, blinking rapidly as he stared out to the river. “I don’t want to live a life without you.”

“I want to be able to stop liking you,” he sighed. “It hurts when I think about it, but I don’t want to keep ignoring it.” He looked at her, and he looked pained. “And yet I can’t help but hate everyone you’re with, not even because they’re a bad person, but because they’re with you, and that’s not fair on anyone.”

“Maybe we just need time to readjust,” she balanced her cigarette in her mouth and reached out, taking his hand in hers. “You’ve had girlfriends, Hei; it’s not like you’re going to be stuck thinking about me forever.”

He turned her hand over in his, looking distant and thoughtful.

“Maybe you were just seeing people to take your mind off things, but you were still able to have long-term relationships,” she said. “And I know that you had some really happy moments in them. Satomi was really nice, I remember the two of you got on so well.”

“And then she left to study in America,” he mused. “I hate how relaxed you are about this.”

“We’ve been through so much together that this hardly seems like a deal-breaker,” she smiled reassuringly at him. “Plus, I’ve been a bad friend.” He opened his mouth. “I didn’t even look hard enough to see how much I meant to you. I ghosted you for ages as soon as I was in a relationship. And I spent years and years dumping all of my problems on you and expecting you to clean them up for me, or distract me from them.”

“In that case, I’ve been a bad friend, too,” he said. “Satoru makes you happy. I should value your happiness more and celebrate that someone else makes you smile, rather than just me. He does make you happy, doesn’t it?”

“Overall, yes,” she said. “And we did talk things through. I want things to work with him, Hei. I hope you can understand.”

“The best friend in me… is wary, but agrees,” he looked out into the sky. “The best friend in me wants the best for you, and I’ve noticed just how much you’ve improved since you started seeing Satoru. That small part in me resents that I couldn’t help you like that.”

“I think everyone I knew was in too close,” Shoko said. “ I held you all too close.”

“I let you become completely dependent on me,” he muttered. “Just because a part of me liked I was the one you turned to.” He glanced at her, his brow creased. “Which is wrong. I… I’m going to try and stop liking you, Shoko, but… the best friend in me has some advice.”

She shifted on the spot. She wasn’t sure she was going to like what he had to say.

“Stop relying on me more than you do Satoru,” he said. “When you were leaving university that night, it should have been him picking you up, not me. When you needed to go to the police station, he should’ve been the first person you called, not me. Yes, I’m your best friend, but he’s your boyfriend, and you should be able to primarily rely on your partner.”

She twiddled her thumbs.

“Yes, I’m always around to support you when you’re in trouble, but Satoru should come first for important decisions like that,” he continued. “Equally… you should be more independent. Me, your dad, Hime and Mei Mei… we’ve gotten so used to babying you, and I worry that, because of that, you won’t notice the smaller things Satoru might do. I would hate to be a reason you let yourself become an extension of someone else in your relationship. Just stay true to yourself, always think about what you’d do, not what others would. It’ll be freeing, I promise.”

“But I make stupid decisions…”

“No, you don’t,” he closed his eyes. “You make good decisions and bad ones, and the rest of us are in the same boat. You know your relationship best. Set boundaries and navigate it with Satoru. Raise the sails and stop worrying about what other people think.”

“Hei, I need your opinion…” she said, and then nervously glanced at him. “I’m allowed to still get your opinion, right?”

He laughed. “Of course, just don’t let whatever I say influence you completely.”

“Satoru invited me to go to Majorca with him for a week, and I agreed,” she said. “What do you think?”

Suguru looked back into the river. “I…” he trailed off, and sipped his coffee. “I desperately want to shout something about rushing into things, that maybe you’re going too quick…” he held his cigarette in his lips as he ran a hand through his hair, and then puffed smoke. “Listen, go to Majorca.”

“Really?”

“Yes, you agreed because you want to, right?”

She looked into the river. “I do love travelling… I’ve always wanted to travel.”

“Then take this week as a chance to leave your responsibilities behind,” he said, blowing out more smoke in a sigh. “Jesus, it kills me to say this… Go to Majorca with Satoru…” he passed a hand over his face, breathing in deep, and cleared his throat, “...but don’t rush things. Keep a clear head and don’t rush things. As much as Satoru has helped you, he does act fast-forward. You don’t want to ruin things by rushing ahead.”

“So if he gets down on one knee, I take the next flight home,” she said. “Got you.”

He gave her a dry smile, but it was tinged with sadness.

“You’ll be OK, won’t you, Hei?” she asked.

“Of course I will be,” but his voice sounded a little thick.

Words didn’t seem right, so she stamped out her cigarette and pulled him into a hug. He smelt of smoke, coffee, and maple, and she only felt familiar comfort when he returned her hug. She heard him inhale deeply, letting out a breath that shook with the threat of tears.

“Don’t cry,” she murmured against his chest.

“I’m trying not to,” he said. “Shoko?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you for giving me a second chance,” he choked. “I really thought I’d fucked everything up.”

She felt her own tears threatening to return, so she hugged him tighter. “Of course, Hei. I really do mean it when I say I couldn’t live with you.”

He did cry a bit, but it wasn’t all sad tears. Shoko shed her own, and it was a mixture of relief and grief for the friendship they had almost lost. They held onto each other too, and Shoko was glad that neither of them had to let go, that they both wanted to be in each other’s lives, and would do their best to work around any obstacles.

They held onto each other for longer, held on until their tears turned into relieved laughter.

Chapter Text

“Majorca is warm and sunny, so I also want to have some dresses that will look nice,” Shoko compared a white and pink floral dress, and a sky blue gingham dress. “But I’m not sure what suits me better. What do you think?”

There was no response. She turned around. Mei Mei was on her phone, long nails tapping on the screen.

“What do you think?” Shoko repeated.

“Black lingerie is the way to a man’s heart.”

Shoko inhaled deeply, watching as Mei Mei continued scrolling through her phone.

“I’m not holding black lingerie,” she said impatiently.

“That’s where you’re going wrong,” Mei Mei said, and put her phone away. “Listen, Shoko, you can’t keep asking me opinions on what to wear . You’ll be your most sexiest when you’re in clothes that you like.”

“Mei Mei, I’m talking about clothes that are suitable for warm beach weather ,” she said pointedly.

“Oh, in that case, get them both.”

Shoko was about to argue the logistics of spending money on similar dresses, but then decided her friend had a point. She couldn’t be bothered to debate it, so she plopped both dresses into her basket.

“What’s on your mind?” Shoko asked, falling into step with Mei Mei as they headed towards the till.

“It’s Hime,” Mei Mei said. “She’s quiet on our group chat, and she’s non-responsive when I message her privately.”

“Do you think her grandpa’s OK?” Shoko worried.

“I’m thinking no,” Mei Mei said grimly. “She’s usually very on top of communication, but lately she’s been a bit off… I think maybe she’s staying because she knows he’s going to pass away.”

“Poor Hime,” Shoko blew out a breath. “Has she said anything about when she might be coming back?”

“She hasn’t said anything ,” Mei Mei said. “Not since that Monday night.”

“I wonder what happened…” Shoko frowned. “Do you think… her grandad is already dead?”

“That’s what I was wondering,” Mei Mei replied. “It would explain her sudden absence.”

“Maybe it’s worth giving her a call?” she suggested. “She might appreciate it, whilst we’re both here and all.”

“No, I think it would be best to let her call us,” Mei Mei put her phone away. “I would hate to call her when she’s currently busy.”

She had a point. “I guess it’s been only two days. It’s not like she’s been silent for a week.”

“I know, but this is still unusual for her,” Mei Mei said. “I’ll keep sending the odd message, just in case she does respond.”

“Has she been online?”

“Not since Monday, two in the morning,” Mei Mei checked once more. “Whatever happened, she put her phone down and hasn’t answered it since.”

“We’ll just have to keep an eye on things,” she said forlornly, and shopping for clothes suddenly felt a lot more trivial in comparison to not hearing from Utahime.

Mei Mei hummed in response. “On other terms, did you hear about that girl?”

“The 477 Hanako Yamada?” Shoko paid for a collection of new clothes she had gathered for Majorca. “I heard it on the radio yesterday morning.”

“They were talking more about it earlier, too,” Mei Mei said, as they walked out of the shop. “I really hate that women are always the victims of men’s terrible fantasies.”

Shoko looked at her, disturbed. “Dad said she was beheaded.”

“Her feet and hands were also removed,” Mei Mei said bitterly. “According to reports, she wasn’t sexually assaulted, despite the mutilation of her body. They did, however, find alcohol in her system - a very faint amount. They’re gradually releasing information so people can step forward and identify her.”

“What do they know about her?” Shoko asked.

“They reckon she’s between five four and five eight, aged between twenty and twenty-five,” Mei Mei said. “She has no tattoos or discerning features on her body, was of average weight, and has no discernable illnesses. They reckon she was with someone she trusted, whence she had had alcohol.”

“And they have nothing on cameras?”

Mei Mei shook her head. “A rural area. There weren’t any speed cameras around, and no witnesses have come forward, as far as the public is concerned. Due to being exposed to the elements, the body was scavenged and slightly water damaged from damp soil, so decomposition happened relatively quicker than anticipated.”

“The sick fuck didn’t even bury her?” Shoko wrinkled her nose.

“Nope. They say she could have been killed between Sunday night all the way to Wednesday. They really can’t tell.”

“So messed up,” Shoko shook her head. “And the 477 seems like such an unusual road to be on.”

“I suppose it’s a quicker connection between Nagoya and Kyoto, but there are a lot of hiking routes down there,” Mei Mei tapped her chin. “Still, it’s not exactly the top route I would pick after having a few drinks. She must’ve been with someone she trusted, otherwise she never would have gone there, surely?”

“I guess when you’ve had a few drinks, your judgement gets messed up,” she said. “There’s going to be so many comments about how she was “asking for it”, isn’t there?”

“Probably…” the distaste had entered Mei Mei’s voice once more. “There will always be people who want to blame the victim.”

“Her poor family,” Shoko frowned. “Imagine not even knowing what happened…”

“It really is horrific,” Mei Mei raised her eyes skywards. She looked like she was thinking, her dark eyes somewhere else. “I suppose you’re getting out of Japan at the right time. A part of me wants to leave just from the brutality of it. It would be nice to be on an island, just far away from the rest of the world.”

“I’m a little bit nervous, but…” she chewed her lip thoughtfully, “you’ll stay safe, won’t you? And you’ll make sure Hime knows about all this?”

“Of course,” Mei Mei said, and stopped before a coffee shop. “Shall we?”

“I could do with a drink,” she said, and they stepped into queue.

“Are you excited about Majorca?” Mei Mei asked. “You don’t seem to be brimming with enthusiasm.”

“No, I am, of course I am,” she said quickly. “It’s just… there was something Suguru said…”

“You spoke to Suguru?” Mei Mei looked hesitant.

“Yeah, we had a long talk yesterday,” they ordered drinks. “It’s been a while since I talked to you about him, but… on Saturday, he said he liked me.”

Mei Mei’s eyebrows rose. “Hang on, I think I’ll need a seat to hear this.”

They waited for their drinks, and then sat down at a table at the back of the cafe. Shoko laid down her bags by her feet and put her head in her hands whilst Mei Mei quietly stirred her latte.

“Suguru was harbouring romantic feelings for you, huh?”

“Yeah, and he was telling me, but then Satoru had just come home and we never got to talk about it,” she said. “He and Satoru got into an actual fight, and then I didn’t see Suguru until yesterday, which was when we finally talked about things.”

“And what happened?”

“We want to be best friends still, of course, but he told me to rely on him less,” she frowned, “to be more… I don’t know, to ask Satoru for more help rather Suguru. I guess I feel a bit bad because I’ve leant on Suguru for so long that I didn’t even consider Satoru to be my first go-to option when I was in trouble.”

“It’s good that you two talked about it, then,” Mei Mei said. “After all, it’s hard to draw the line between someone you’ve known so long, and someone you’ve become so close to.”

“Basically that, yeah, but he did say something else that made me start thinking…” she looked off towards the window. “I do want to go to Majorca, but Suguru said that things are going really fast between me and Satoru, which I kind of knew, but it’s weird to think about it straight on. Does that make sense?”

“I suppose when you’re on the inside, it’s hard to see what others do,” Mei Mei said. “And what do you think?”

“Well, we have been going really fast, ” she drummed her fingers on the table. “ He bought me a phone after knowing me for a week, he bought me expensive jewellery and clothes, circumstances meant we lived together for almost two weeks. I guess what I mean is, things have been incredibly passionate, but also really intense.”

“And you don’t like it like that?”

Shoko mulled it over. “It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just not something I would normally do. When I’m with Satoru… sometimes it’s hard to say “no”...”

Mei Mei’s brows furrowed. “Oh?”

“I don’t know…” she blew out a breath. “He gets so excited about the smallest things, and he just gives me these looks, and he makes me feel like anything is possible, so I just want to agree with him all the time. Is that wrong?”

“Only if you’re agreeing to things you don’t want to do…” Mei Mei said suspiciously.

“But that’s the thing… I do want to go to Majorca, I do enjoy the physicalness of our relationship, ” Shoko explained. “ It’s not like I’ve wanted to say “no” and haven’t, it’s just that I want to say “yes”.”

“As in, agreeing without really giving it thought?”

“Yeah, something like that… yeah…”

Mei Mei sipped her tea. “I don’t really know what to say. Does he manipulate you at all, Shoko? Not being able to take some time to think things through isn’t exactly an ideal in a relationship. So… has there ever been a time when you feel he’s forced a decision on you?”

Shoko stared off at the window. “I guess…” she blinked. “He’s insistent. He keeps nudging until I make a decision, and normally I say “yes” when he does that.”

“Not the most charming of personality traits…” Mei Mei said. “Perhaps talk to him about it. In fact, definitely talk to him about it. You have just as much right to make decisions as he does and, to be honest, Shoko… it does sound like Satoru is used to having a greater influence on his relationships. I don’t think it would hurt for you to take more charge.”

Shoko looked at her friend, studying her carefully. “Should I still go to Majorca?”

Mei Mei smiled. “Absolutely. You’ll have a wonderful time. Treat it like a much-needed holiday.”

“I guess I got flustered, because I’m not sure whether I should go, ” Shoko rested her head back in her hands. “ Suguru says to go, you say to go, even Dad gave me the green light to go. And yet, I just have this tiny reservation that I can’t explain. It just feels like it’s happening at the wrong time.”

“So… you don’t want to go?” only then did Mei Mei seem uncertain.

“No, I do want to go, but it feels wrong and I don’t know why,” she mumbled.

“I think… maybe… you’re still practicing this whole selfishness thing,” Mei Mei said, and for once sounded reassuring. “You’ve been living your life for other people for so long now, it’s unsurprising that you feel you need others’ opinions. Also, this is the first time you’re leaving Japan, isn’t it?” Mei Mei smiled knowingly as Shoko nodded. “In that case, it’s probably a mix of what we’ve spoken about, and also the first time being in a completely different part of the world. No doubt you’re anxious; you’re going to be seven hours behind us. And if you’re really worried about rushing things, you could always make sure you and Satoru have separate rooms.”

“That’s true…” she said, and then chuckled. “I can just imagine his face.”

“Listen, Shoko,” Mei Mei reached across the table and patted her arm, “having your own opinion in a relationship - wanting to keep autonomy and separateness - that’s not a bad thing, nor is it an argument. I’m sure Satoru is very much an individual beyond you, just as you are when he’s not around, so don’t feel ashamed for wanting to make your thoughts and values clear. In fact, it would probably benefit you both to be very honest with emotions, considering you both can be very closed off at times. I think if you can put your foot down, Satoru will appreciate it.”

“Do you think?”

“If he doesn’t, then he’s controlling, and that’s an issue that really needs to be addressed,” Mei Mei said pointedly. “But don’t let these black clouds bring you down; Majorca is something that both you and Satoru should enjoy, even if he is going there for work. Use it to strengthen your relationship, since you have been going very quickly, but also to take a step back and slow things down. Learn more about him, let him learn more about you.”

Shoko rubbed her chin. “Learn more about him…”

“Also, stop taking everything so seriously,” Mei Mei laughed. “He’s buying a holiday for you; embrace it a little more.” She finished her tea, and set her cup down. “I must get going now. I’m needed back in the office.”

“I’ll see you when I get back,” Shoko stood up, feeling a little teary, and hugged her friend.

“This isn’t a goodbye, you fool,” Mei Mei smiled. “Oh, and one more thing.”

“Hm?”

“Black lingerie is the way to a man’s heart.”


When she got home with bags of shopping, she was surprised to find that her dad had organised a nice lunch, but also that Suguru was there. Her heart leapt in her chest, because there was a going away cake and her favourite sandwiches. Although she wasn’t a huge sweets fan, the cake was a lemon drizzle, and she was eager to have a slice.

“What’s all this about?” she asked, trying not to laugh or cry, as she wandered into the house kitchen.

“It’s a going away meal,” her dad said, beaming. “A celebration that you’re finally doing the travelling you talked about in high school.”

“Ridiculous,” Shoko wiped her eyes. “But thank you.”

“Suguru happened to drop by, since we weren’t sure when Satoru was coming to pick you up,” her dad continued, “and Kento recommended the cake and sandwiches - it seems he really got to know your tastes whilst I was away!”

Kento adjusted his glasses. “It was just a simple observation, Kiyoshi.”

“Thank you, guys, really,” she wandered over and gave her dad a hug, holding on and trying her best not to cry.

“Well, sit down, everyone, sit down!” her dad waved his arms around emphatically, somewhat reminiscent of a bird angrily flapping its wings. “Before the tea gets cold!”

Shoko smiled and sat beside Suguru, with Kento taking the seat across from her.

“I’d say I came to see you off, but the cake was very tempting,” Suguru said to her, and despite the heaviness of yesterday, she had to laugh.

“My little girl…” her dad lamented, passing out sandwiches to each of them. “Travelling across the world… He said the journey was eighteen hours ; eighteen hours to get to a little island near Spain! And for ten days! I won’t see my girl for another ten days!”

“I will call you as frequently as possible,” she said, “although bear in mind that we have a seven hour difference.”

“See?” her dad said to Suguru, who smiled sympathetically. “Seven hours! When I’m settling down for dinner at six, you won’t even be thinking about lunch!”

“I just meant don’t be calling me in the middle of the night,” she said impatiently. “Your seven in the morning will be my midnight! And it’s only ten days! We’ve just been apart for two weeks!”

“Will you really be in bed by midnight on holiday?” Suguru tapped his chin, amusement in his eyes, and Shoko felt a burst of warmth to see him look happy once more. “You’re getting old, Shoko.”

“Not you, too,” she elbowed him playfully.

“And to think you wanted to go to Ōkunoshima…” he stuck out his tongue and shrugged. “The world of Japan is going to look very boring for you soon.”

She nudged him again, wrinkling her nose as he chuckled and elbowed her back. This was nice. Everything felt so normal, and Shoko found she liked that.

“Am I allowed to call you every day, then?” her dad continued his “laments”, and it was now that Shoko cottoned on that he was putting it on.

“I’ll stop answering if you try something like that,” she smiled, enjoying her sandwiches. “And if you ever go and see the rabbits without me, Hei, I’m never coming back.”

“Bring us back a lot of souvenirs, won’t you?” her dad said as Suguru laughed.

“I’ve heard Majorca is very scenic,” Kento added. “I’m sure you’ll have a lot of opportunities for photography, too.”

“Yes! Yes!” her dad perked up. “I would like to see as many photos as possible when you get back! I want to see all the places you go to!”

“Of course, of course,” she smiled.

“When do you get back again?” Suguru asked.

“First of August,” she said.

All of her reservations began to melt away as she sat with them and talked. Yes, it was frightening that she would be on the other side of the world, but it was also exciting. Shoko did want to go to Majorca, but there was equally a lot on her mind, and a lot of it revolved around speaking with Satoru. She felt a lot more positive, and bid a farewell to both Suguru and Kento as they headed off. She rushed upstairs to pack everything away, and then returned to hang out with her dad. The time spent alone with her dad was wonderful, where they cleaned together and watched an old show together. They hadn’t sat down and tried to answer quiz questions together in ages, but just before the final results, there was a knock on the door, followed by the doorbell.

“That’ll be Satoru,” she said, standing up and wandering towards the door.

“Have you got everything?” her dad asked worriedly. “Clothes, toothbrush, swimsuit?”

“I have double checked, but if there’s something missing, I’ll be in a city, so I won’t be without,” she said.

“Passport? Money?” he kept going as she neared the door and opened it.

Even though it had only been two days, to see Satoru standing there felt like taking a breath of fresh air. He was wearing his usual sunglasses, a high-necked black sweater on, and a charming smile already etched onto his features. She was going on a fantastic adventure with someone who cared about her, someone she cared about, and it occurred to her that she would be OK. She would be able to be far from home, and she would be able to discuss her relationship with Satoru. It all suddenly seemed possible, and real.

“Are you ready?” he asked, inclining his head, and then noticed her dad in the background. “Hi, again, Mr Ieiri!”

“Hello, Satoru,” her dad said almost nervously, wringing his wrists.

“I’ll be fine, Dad,” Shoko reassured him. “I definitely have everything packed.”

“Will you let me know when you get to the airport?” he patted her shoulder. “Before you get your flight? And when you change over at Heathrow? Oh, and when you reach Palma?”

“I’ll make sure she does,” Satoru grinned.

“I’ll even text you when I use a vending machine, or ask for directions, or go to the bathroom,” Shoko smiled at her dad, who shook his head in disbelief. “Of course, Dad. I’ll keep you updated on all important things.”

“Just as well,” he continued. “Satoru, she’s never been on a plane before, so please, please, please look after her.”

“I’m not a baby,” Shoko said at the same time Satoru said, “I’ll do my best.”

“And take lots of photos!” he gave her a quick hug and shook Satoru’s hand.

“I’ll see you in August, Dad,” she said, feeling a quick stab of nervousness once more.

“Take care, both of you,” her dad waved, as Satoru grabbed Shoko’s suitcase and began to walk down the driveway, waving over his shoulder. Her dad continued, “And take care of yourself, Shoko!”

Shoko followed him, glancing over her shoulder to lift her hand at her Dad, who waited at the front door all the way until they stepped into the car. A part of her thought she saw a glimpse of worry in his eyes, and vowed to give her dad no reason to be scared for her. She had promised to get better, and she knew every step she took brought her closer to that promise.

“You OK?” Satoru asked, patting her knee once they were both in the car.

“Yeah,” she said, and she was genuinely OK. She shot him a soft smile.

“Pizza good with you tonight?” he asked cheerfully, setting off. “I can’t be bothered to cook.”

“Unsurprising, since I’ve never seen you cook,” she said. “Pizza sounds great.”

When they arrived at Satoru’s penthouse, he was quick to order pizza, and as he did so he waved a hand to her, saying, “Put whatever you want on the TV.” Naturally, she picked the same gameshow her dad had likely resumed, and settled herself on the sofa. Satoru plopped himself down beside her, arm across her shoulders, and pulled her in close, head rested on her shoulder.

“We’ve got an early start tomorrow - probably around half four in the morning,” he explained. “Gives us an hour for showers and a coffee for you. Kiyotaka’s taking us to Haneda airport, and we should arrive there by six, give or take ten minutes depending on traffic.”

“Look at you, being all organised,” she closed her eyes, already feeling a little sleepy.

“I’m usually more lax, but since you’re here, I want to make this as easy a journey as possible,” he flashed her a grin. “Anyway, we’ve got just under three hours at the airport to check-in and grab some breakfast, and then we’ll head off at ten to nine. The flight to Heathrow, in London, England, is twelve and a half hours, but we’ll have lunch at the airport. There will be snacks on the jet if you get hungry, though.”

Shoko nodded, all of the terms going over her head.

“We have three hours at Heathrow, so we can take our time with lunch, stop for a bit of shopping - it’s duty free - and then we’re ready to leave at ten past four London time,” he continued, and she looked at him. He was cute when he was concentrating. “Ten past four in Tokyo time will be…” he paused to think, and yes, he was cute when focused, “it will be ten past nine in the evening, I’m afraid.”

“So we’re going to have lunch at… dinner time?” she laughed.

“You get used to it,” he said. “We have a last two and a half hour flight from Heathrow to Palma, and by then it will be half six local time, so we can have a midnight snack for dinner! And then we have to force ourselves to stay awake and sleep until we can adjust to Majorca’s time.”

“I very much look forward to that,” she wrinkled her nose.

And then their pizza arrived. Shoko was hungrier than she expected and ate a whole pizza. They watched TV for a bit, and then went to bed at ten for the long journey tomorrow...

Chapter Text

“Shoko. Shoko .”

There were whispered words just by her ear, accompanied by a distant humming noise. She breathed out a sleepy sigh, turning away from the noises and trying to sink back into the darkness of her dreams. What had she been dreaming of? She couldn’t quite remember, but if she could just get back there… to clouds and light-heartedness and a complete lack of responsibility…

“No, no, Shoko, wake up,” the words insisted, and she furrowed her brow, burying her face into the pillow. “Come on.”

A physical sensation followed the words this time. There was a light shaking sensation, warmth on her skin where contact was made. It was an attempt to drag her away, to tear her from the dark comfort of her dreams. Shoko roughly jabbed her shoulder backwards, trying to shake away whatever was moving her. A laugh was breathed out. She sank into the pillow once more.

“Shoko,” the voice was closer now, right near her ear, and she could even feel air movement as she was spoken to, “if you don’t wake up…” there was a pause, and then, “I’ll tickle you, and you won’t like that.”

The words were like a distant blur. A part of her agreed. Yes, she would hate to be tickled awake, because it’s a sudden alarming sensation, but it was equally absurd that anyone would resort to tickling anyone awake. Besides, she was asleep, and sleeping people couldn’t be tickled, right?

“I warned you ~”

Hands grabbed her sides, fingers pressed against her ribs and moved along quickly, feather-light. Shoko felt her breath hitch and she opened her eyes, the skittering feeling of laughter raking through her body. Before she knew it, the first laughter had peeled from her mouth and, when she tried to stop Satoru, the sensation somehow only got worse. She was laughing and trying to fight him off, yelling “Stop it!” in between breaths. She tried to elbow him away, in the darkness of the room, but he was stronger and kept the onslaught going.

“Stop it, I’ll wee!” she threatened between laughs, and that’s when he burst out, too.

“OK, OK ~” he released her and rolled her over, planting a kiss on her forehead. “I did warn you, though.”

“Is it already wake-up time?” she mumbled, sitting up and yawning, groping around for the light switch in the dark.

“Yep,” Satoru found his first, and she squinted against the sudden light.

The humming noise was her phone alarm, which she quickly turned off.

“Do you want to shower first, or can I?” despite the early morning, he somehow already seemed energetic.

“I’m going to have a coffee first,” she grumbled, ignoring his shit-eating grin as he scooted off the bed and headed for the bathroom.

“You know where everything is,” he said over his shoulder.

Stifling a yawn, Shoko climbed out of bed and wandered out into the apartment. It was eerily dark in the early morning light, but from here she could see a sunrise that streaked the sky purple, pink, orange and yellow. It was breathtaking. She wandered across the hall and went down the flight of stairs, turning on lights as she went. Satoru’s keys hung by the front door, but it was the kitchen she was interested in.

She rummaged through cupboards, coming across the whiskey bottle he brought out for her every now and then, as well as a bottle of gin, which she assumed was his. There were cups and plates, a large number of cereals with a high sugar content, boxes of pop tarts, and numerous other snacks that Shoko would expect children to choose. It was like a pothead’s munchie supply. She eventually found the coffee, bitter how she liked, and made herself a strong mug to wake her up in the early hours.

Shoko wandered back to bed, sitting in the covers and sipping her coffee. She found herself drifting to her phone, and popped a message to her dad to whinge about waking up early. She also sent messages to Suguru and her group chat with Mei Mei and Utahime with the same complaints, but nobody else was awake at this awful time. She turned on her bedside table and enjoyed her coffee, browsing the internet. The bathroom door clicked open and Satoru wandered out, towel-drying his hair and a towel wrapped around his waist.

“Sleeping Beauty finally woke up, then?” he wandered over and kissed the top of her head, before wandering around the bed. “I thought you were going to go back to sleep, to be honest.”

“I was tempted,” she yawned. “Will I get to sleep on the plane?”

“Of course, but there are a lot of films to watch,” he waggled his finger, dropping his hair towel on the floor.

“I choose sleep over pop culture every day,” Shoko sipped her coffee, admiring the indented V of his abdomen that disappeared beneath the towel.

“Isn’t it a bit early to be checking me out?” he smirked. 

“Shut up,” she looked away, staring into her coffee, inhaling the fumes. “It’s not my fault that you’re attractive.”

“We can save it for the journey ~” he said, towelling himself down and pulling on his boxers.

“How many times do I have to tell you about public indecency?” she scowled.

“I mean, it’s hardly pub-”

“It’s on a plane, therefore it’s public,” she said sternly. “I am not getting arrested, because I don’t want to risk my doctor’s licence.”

“Fine, fine ~” he grinned.

She finished her coffee as Satoru got dressed and then dipped into the bathroom. She put her hair up in a messy bun and quickly showered. The caffeine and cleanliness made her feel more awake. By the time she was out, Satoru had already left the room, and her coffee mug was gone. She threw on jeans and a sweatshirt, still yawning as she folded up her towel and brought it out into the main living area. She could hear Satoru downstairs, and found herself pausing in the landing.

If she stood there long enough, listening to him bustling around, it almost felt like a familiar sound of living with him. It was ridiculous to think about, given that they were still new into the relationship, but Shoko liked to think of them in these domestic environments. It was comforting. She began to wander downstairs, quiet in her socks, and saw him checking the door of his study, which he’d just locked. He put the keys in his pocket and beamed at her as he took her in.

“I made you another coffee,” he said, wandering across the living room and turning on the TV, the background noise adding to the comfort. “We’ve got another half hour before Kiyotaka gets here. He’s going to message me five minutes in advance.”

“Sounds good,” she grabbed her mug and then held up her towel. “What do I do with this?”

“Hang it on the back of a barstool,” he waved a dismissive hand. “Room service will deal with it.”

She nodded and dumped the towel over the back of a stool, and wandered into the lounge. Their suitcases were sat beside the front door. Satoru had lowered himself on a sofa, long legs stretched out, a cup of tea in front of him. He was watching the TV, mouth drawn in a thin line.

“What is it?” she asked as she sat beside him. “Is it about that woman?”

He hummed in response.

“Police are still searching for any clues as to who Hanako Yamada truly is,” the newsreader said, expression forlorn. “We remind the public that the victim is aged between twenty and twenty-five, and was around five foot five or six in height, with a weight estimate of around fifty-four kilograms. With further investigations, police have determined that her time of death is between the night of the sixteenth on Friday, all the way to Sunday night. Police are expanding their search on the immediate area, and continue to ask for -”

“What do you think?” Satoru said over the newsreader.

“It’s absolutely disgusting,” she shook her head. “Mei Mei thinks a boyfriend or something did it.”

“Yeah, seems like an emotional attack,” he said hollowly. “If they work out who she is, maybe they’ll find out who did it.”

“I hope they do,” Shoko said darkly. “There are too many cases of women getting murdered and then nothing coming around of it.”

“Hopefully it’s an isolated case,” he said.

“Can you imagine?” she winced. “A modern-day serial killer on the loose?”

“In the meantime, the public are advised to steer clear of rural areas, with hiking routes along the 477 having been closed off,” the newsreader continued. “Furthermore, police urge people to not travel alone, and to ensure that they always have more than one person with them when in unsupervised areas.”

“That would be awful,” Satoru murmured, staring at the TV.

With little else to say on the matter, the news moved on from the terrible story. They focused on their warm drinks, cuddled on the sofa and still half-asleep. The time seemed to slip by, because before they knew it, Satoru’s phone buzzed and he let out a long yawn, stretching out his limbs.

“It’s Kiyotaka,” he said, glancing at the phone. “We’d best head off.”

Downing the rest of her coffee, Shoko rinsed it in the sink and left it on the side as Satoru put his tea down, once again insisting that room service would handle what they left behind. Shoko put her rucksack on, and followed Satoru sleepily from the apartment. He helpfully dragged both of their suitcases down the stairs, Shoko tiredly in his wake. There was a bounce to his step, and once again she wondered where he got this energy. She supposed it was easier for him, since he was used to travelling abroad. There was a knot in her stomach now that they were finally heading off.

They stepped into the glass elevator and Satoru pressed the button to the ground floor. Shoko rested her head against his arm, eyes closed, as the lift descended. The sky was now getting lighter, the lobby bathed in a purple-red glow. There were people at the desk, but the building was mostly empty. It made sense, given that the sun was still rising. Nobody woke up until half an hour later at the earliest.

The elevator pinged to the ground floor. Satoru sped onwards, nodding towards those standing tiredly at the desk. They stepped outside, and there was an early morning breeze. She shivered a little, but saw the flashy black car that Kiyotaka had driven her in before. The frail-looking man stepped out of the car and wandered towards the boot, his expression already concerned.

“Good morning, Mr Gojo,” he said, popping the boot open as Satoru neared with the bags. “May I he-”

“Morning, Kiyotaka!” Satoru grinned, and left the bags before him. “Dump these in the back, would you?”

“Yes, of course, sir,” Kiyotaka said and began to heave the suitcases into the boot.

“Make yourself comfy,” Satoru opened the door for Shoko and gestured for her to step inside.

Scooting into the car, she moved across to give space for Satoru, who moved in beside her.

“You OK?” he patted her knee, that familiar motion that she had become accustomed to. “You’re quiet.”

“I’m… a little nervous,” she said, glancing at him with a weak smile.

“Hey, I’m here, you’ll be fine,” he rubbed her knee and looked at her sincerely.

“You wanted to go to Haneda airport, right?” Kiyotaka asked, closing his door in the front.

“Yeah,” Satoru said, and then quickly turned his attention back to Shoko. “You’ll be OK.”

“Yeah, I’ve just… never flown before,” she fretted.

“Just stay with me, I’ll make sure you have your mind busied,” he patted her again.

There wasn’t a lot of traffic, so it only took around twenty minutes to get to Haneda. It was a large building that looked modern and sleek, with a lot of wide, glass windows and large white letters reading “Tokyo International Airport”. Kiyotaka drove them right up to a drop-off point, and by that point, Shoko’s heart was pounding. Did she have her passport? What if she had left it at Satoru’s house? They would have to go back, and then they would be late. What if they missed their flight? She checked her rucksack and, sure enough, her passport was still there.

“Enjoy Majorca, Mr Gojo,” Kiyotaka said as he helped them retrieve their bags. “I shall take care of any business here in Tokyo, but I can also pass on messages if you wish?”

“Keep it to a minimum,” Satoru grabbed both bags, setting them aside on the pavement. “And don’t tell people I’m on holiday; just say that I’m away for business meetings. Don’t say where. I don’t want phone calls every two minutes.”

“Of course, sir,” Kiyotaka bowed his head briefly, “and enjoy the trip, too, Miss Ieiri.”

“Thanks.”

She followed Satoru into the building. They entered a lobby with lots of queue barriers. Already there were a good number of people lined up, and after checking the boards ahead, Satoru picked a route to go. They joined the end of a queue, with Shoko glancing all around nervously. It was such a large space, with clean polished grey-blue floors with blue quadrilaterals, sometimes with a green rectangle intermingled. She tried to count them as they moved along, hoping it would calm her racing mind down.

Closer and closer they drew to the front, and soon enough there was a man behind the desk asking for their passports and documents. Shoko panicked, handing over her passport, but it seemed Satoru had all the flight details on person. He pushed a piece of paper across the desk, and the man’s eyebrows rose.

“Ah, Mr Gojo, I’m afraid we won’t have your jet ready until ten to nine,” he sounded immediately apologetic. “I hope this will be OK with you?”

“It’s as expected to schedule, there’s no need to worry,” Satoru leant conversationally against the counter.

“In that case, we’ll check your bags in,” he said.

Shoko watched, confused, as Satoru lifted up their suitcases onto a conveyor belt. The man printed off stickers that he wrapped around the handles, and then with a press of a button they were whisked away through a flap. Shoko had of course seen this happen in films, but it was weird to see her suitcase, with all of her belongings in it, disappear.

“Have a good day, the both of you,” the man smiled, and they moved on towards security.

“What did he mean by “your jet”?” she narrowed her eyes, keeping pace with Satoru.

“That seems quite self-explanatory, Shoko, but he was referring to my jet plane,” Satoru explained and, when she didn’t seem satisfied, he added, “I’m sure you’ve heard of the term “private jet”, before?”

“Are you trying to tell me you own a plane ?”

“I have a lot of business meetings abroad,” he grinned. “Of course I own a plane.”

She stared at him, but when he didn’t back down she realised he was being serious. She shook her head in disbelief. The security check-ups were disorienting, since her earrings set off the metal detector and they had to briefly search her. Not only that, but walking without shoes through the security area was weird, the floor cold through her socks. It certainly helped to wake her up, and she was hungry by the time they entered through the other side, to what Satoru called “the world of duty free”.

It was like being in the Paradise Supreme, except everything was a cream or golden theme. There were about five storeys, with four great balconies overhanging the ground floor, each with a staircase and escalator, and a lift to bring them straight to the top floor. The ceiling consisted of glass panels, and there was shop after shop after shop. Shoko stared all around, amazed.

“Wanna take a look around?” Satoru grinned, and she nodded.

It turned out that “duty free” only meant a slight reduction in price. Good quality make-up and perfumes were still far out of Shoko’s price range, so she feigned disinterest to stop Satoru spontaneously buying anything for her. There was one foundation that she succumbed to, but she paid for that herself, offering her boarding pass and passport at the till whilst Satoru tutted, foot tapping on the ground. She didn’t think they’d be able to explore the whole area, but since they had a lot of time to kill, Shoko found herself moving from one shop to the other. She realised she was missing out on the little things: sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and she even treated herself to a beach dress to throw over her swimwear.

Once she was done shopping, Satoru was more than happy to head straight to the food court. It was stylised like an old-time marketplace, with faux-lanterns and flowers decorating an indoor street of stalls. There was a mix of aromas all around; Shoko would be lying if she said she wasn’t a little overwhelmed by it all. Satoru weaved along, seemingly knowing his way already, and Shoko wondered how many times he had been to Haneda. She followed him, even taking his hand so as not to lose him in the crowds.

He brought her to a place called Katsusen, where the smell of deep fried meat was strongest.

“Fancy a fried pork sandwich?” he said. “Nothing wakes me up better.”

“That actually sounds really good,” she mused, and he nodded enthusiastically.

Satoru bought them both a sandwich each, and sat down in the food court. It was delicious and, combined with another coffee, Shoko was filled with a blissful warmth. As they were eating, she had a few questions.

“So how come we had to stick to such a tight schedule if we’re taking a plane you own?”

“Because I have to fit any flights in amongst other planes leaving, otherwise there could be problems,” he said, suddenly serious. “And if there’s one thing I don’t want, then it’s a problem that stops me going on holiday.”

“And you travel a lot?”

“All the time,” he said. “I like to do routine check-ups of the other hotels, just to make sure they’re providing the quality I promise. I’m not in the mood for dealing with stupid things like bad reviews or lawsuits.”

“Just the little irritants, then,” she laughed, and was happy to see a smile from him.

The awe-inspiring effect of the airport wore off relatively quickly, especially when there was nothing much else to do. Satoru bought a large amount of green tea sweets from a place called Itoen, insisting that they were brain-food for the plane, but Shoko had her doubts since his own backpack had gradually been filled with chocolate and various other sweets. 

When the time came to board the jet, they were through the gate in seconds, given that nobody else was on the jet with them. That came as a relief to Shoko, who was beginning to get anxious once more. Once they were in the plane, which was far smaller than all the others, she was surprised at how fresh it smelled, but also the cream leather chairs with tables between them, an arrangement of matching leather sofas with pillows on them, and a large TV attached to a cabinet.

“Good morning, Mr Gojo,” a beautiful young air hostess said, a small tray in her hands that had two flutes of sparkling water. “And it’s wonderful to see you again.”

“You as well, Yua,” he grinned, lifting both flutes and handing one to Shoko. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” she echoed cluelessly.

“Please make yourselves comfortable, but also prepare for take-off,” Yua explained, holding the tray close to her. “We should be ready to leave within ten minutes, at eight fifty precisely.”

“Perfect ~”

Shoko and Satoru sat down at one of the tables. Sipping the water only seemed to make her aware of just how sleepy she was. It was a beautiful jet, and she desperately wanted to appreciate it, but she was still nervous about take-off. She gripped the arms of her chair, barely listening to anything Satoru was saying, and continuously stared out of the window. She jumped a little when a voice entered the speakers above.

“Good morning, this is Kenzo Nishikawa, your captain, speaking,” the voice crackled. “We have a long flight ahead of us, with twelve hours until we reach London Heathrow in the United Kingdom, and then an additional two hours until Palma, Majorca. There will be a break at Heathrow where the plane is reserviced, hence the three hour changeover. This plane has full access to films, television and music, as well as on-demand refreshments and food. Facilities include a fully equipped bathroom, as well as two bedrooms. We hope that you may enjoy the flight. We ask that you keep your seatbelts until the overhead symbol turns off, for which you may remove your seatbelts until landing. Thank you.”

And then the plane began to move.

Automatically, Shoko reached out and grabbed a hold of the chair’s arms. Satoru noticed, and a small laugh bubbled from his lips. There was a rumbling sensation, and she watched from the window as the runway rushed past. There was a thrumming jolting and the plane lurched upwards. Shoko’s stomach was left behind in Japan. It was the weirdest sensation, a twisting feeling deep within and a heaviness in her ears. She kept trying to strain, but it didn’t work. The only thing that made it better was yawning.

The flight itself wasn’t very eventful. Shoko dozed off pretty quickly, and only woke up halfway through the flight, having missed most of the day. There were plenty of movies to watch, which she did with Satoru on the sofa. Again, she dozed off on his shoulder, and they had to keep rewinding the film. Even Satoru sometimes fell asleep, although the sugar from the amount of sweets he was eating kept him energetic throughout most of the flight.

Before long, they were being told to strap themselves down once more, and the sinking feeling was back, except this time Shoko’s stomach stayed in the sky. The plane dipped gradually, and Satoru helpfully counted down quietly near her just as the jet touched down. There was a long thudding episode as the plane gradually slowed. Once they had stepped off the plane, Shoko with shaky legs, it was then that she realised she was very hungry.

It was disorienting to find that it was midday, and yet her dad would be getting read to sleep back in Tokyo. At the memory of him, she popped a quick message to let him know they had made it safely to Heathrow. Admittedly, Heathrow was considerably less impressive than Haneda. It looked more like what you’d expect an airport to look like, grey and bland with a line of shops. The duty free area was nice, as always, and they had to pass through more check-ups before they could grab something to eat.

They ended up somewhere called “Pret A Manger”, which Satoru called “Preta Manjei”. From there, she picked out a bacon and egg sandwich, which again, Satoru called something funny. He said “Tu bei-ken an deg rolls”. She didn’t know what any of that was, but the sandwich was delicious, and she could only assume it was what the sandwich was called in English. She was more shopped out and beginning to get tired again, so milling around the airport felt more like a chore, and they ended up sitting at a place called “Caffe Nero” for coffee, and Satoru had cake. She idled on her phone, popping messages to both Suguru and Mei Mei who had since replied.

Once again, though, Satoru was telling her that they needed to board the plane once more. It was easier this time, since she now understood the routine of passing through the gates, showing her passport and taking a seat on the same plane, which had since been cleaned. Yua greeted them once more with sparkling water. This journey was a lot shorter, and Satoru had to keep shaking her awake when she dozed off. His reasoning was jetlag, and although Shoko couldn’t have cared at the time, he warned her that she would care later. In comparison to the previous journey, the two and a half hours somehow went slower. It was probably because she was tired and not allowed to sleep.

In comparison to London, Palma turned out to be a lot warmer. It was an early evening, the sky getting darker, when they stepped off the plane once more. The heat was almost unpleasant, and Shoko was sweating by the time they made it into the coolness of the indoors. They had to pass through more security, and at that point Shoko was beginning to grow tired of it all. The newest thing was baggage collection. She had never paced so much, trying to catch sight of her suitcase and almost forgetting what it looked like. Satoru kept reassuring her, but she couldn’t help but feel antsy, not when their luggage had been put in with the rest of the London arrivals. Sure enough, though, they found their bags and she could relax.

Only then could they leave the airport.

“You ready, mi alma?” he grinned, reaching out for her hand as they pulled their suitcases along.

“I’m excited,” she said, and she suddenly was. She was ready for Majorca, and she loved the way his eyes danced as she said so.

Chapter Text

Instead of a hotel, Shoko was surprised to find Satoru had a villa in Majorca. Of course, she shouldn’t have been surprised, considering he was rich, but for some reason the scope of his influence across the world always shocked her.

“I really like Majorca,” he’d said when she’d asked. “I use it as a stop-off point whenever I visit Europe, so it just felt right to build the next Paradise Supreme here.”

A car had been waiting for them outside the airport, but Shoko had been blown away by the sudden strong smell of the ocean. She couldn’t see the sea for ages until they had entered Palma from the airport, and then it was there, a deep blue expanse that looked as though it would never end. She had stared out of the car window as Satoru pointed out landmarks to her. The one that stood out most was one he called “La Seu”, but was also known as the Cathedral of St. Mary of Palma. It was hard to get a proper look from the car window, but she saw a tall, squarish building with many spires poking upwards and a great fountain before it. Satoru had promised her they would visit it during their stay in Majorca.

They had then arrived at the villa, and since she had slept throughout most of the flights, Shoko was still buzzing and wide awake. Satoru whipped out his ring of keys and opened the door as Shoko glanced over her shoulder, looking at palm trees swaying in the breeze and the ocean further away. They were on a hill, and the view was incredible for it.

“You coming in, or sleeping outside?” Satoru grinned.

Shoko dragged her gaze away from the scenery and followed Satoru inside. It looked as though he had cleaners come in frequently, as the place was spotless. It was a little impersonal, but that was to be expected from a holiday home.

“So you just have this?” she asked, setting her bag down by the front door.

“Of course,” he smiled.

“Do you rent it out whilst you’re not here?”

“Absolutely not, this is for me and me alone,” he looked offended at the mere thought. “I don’t want someone walking around using my things.”

“Yeah, of course not,” she mumbled.

“How about a house tour?” he spread his arms out wide and enthusiastically.

“Looking forward to it.”

Overall, it was a beautiful one-bedroom gated villa with a private garden. There were hedges and trees to close off the view for anyone passing-by, should they have a reason to go to the top of the hill. There was a wide, open-space living room with a flashy TV, a fully-equipped kitchen, and a small bathroom on the ground floor. There was also a wide balcony with a different view on the other side, nearby the kitchen, and Shoko couldn’t help but imagine herself drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette in the morning, looking over the trees at the sea. In the garden there were a nice array of plants and trees, but largely consisted of a patio area with recliners before a large pool. It rippled underneath the setting sun, and Shoko thanked the stars she had brought her swimsuit. There was even a barbeque and a hot tub, for which Satoru had just laughed at her when she’d turned to gawk at him.

“I’ll make sure we have the chance to use that,” he had grinned.

The upstairs was smaller, and consisted of a bedroom with a large en suite. The bath was a big corner one with jets that Shoko vowed to use every day if she could help it.

“That concludes our tour,” Satoru said, and dropped down onto the edge of the bed, long legs stretched out. “What do you think?”

“It’s amazing,” she stared out of a floor-to-ceiling window. “It doesn’t feel real.”

“I’d make any dream of yours become real if you wanted it,” he remarked.

“You really say the cheesiest things,” she smirked and turned, seeing him yawning. “Are you tired?”

“Hm?” he blinked, slightly dazed. “No, no.”

“Did you sleep at all on the plane?” she wandered over and tilted his face up to look at her.

Automatically, as though on instinct, Satoru wrapped his arms around her hips and rested his cheek against her abdomen. “Not really. I get too distracted on planes.”

“You must be tired, then,” she murmured, gently stroking his head. “Are you seriously trying to tell me you’ve almost pulled an all-nighter?”

“The reward is that I get to sleep loads tonight,” he yawned again, breathing deeply into her shirt.

“OK, well, I’m going to have a shower, and then you can, and we can get an early night,” she laced her fingers through his hair, “how does that sound?”

He hummed in response. She assumed that meant he was agreeing with her.

Carefully, she unwrapped his arms from around her waist, and then wandered away into the villa as he flopped backwards on the bed. She trudged down the stairs and looked out of the window to see the ever-darkening sky. It was weird how awake she felt, and far beyond were bright lights as the city of Palma began to wake up for holiday celebrations. She could envision the kind of entertainment Majorca had to offer, could imagine her walking hand in hand with Satoru with conversations of romantic Spanish flowing past. With a fond smile adorning her face, she grabbed their suitcases and pulled them upstairs, wincing each time the wheels thudded against the marble stairs.

Satoru was asleep when she wandered back into the bedroom. He seemed to have dozed off, legs hanging off the bed. She had never properly looked at him asleep, so she set the bags down quietly and looked over him. Now that she was taking the time to really look at him without the stress of travel looming over her head, she could see there were dark shadows beneath his eyes. He must’ve gone to quite an effort organising this trip, and all she had had to do over the past few days was text him her passport details. He was fast asleep, and he looked entirely peaceful. She leant away, afraid to wake him up, and then hopped into the shower.

She didn’t stay in for too long. Satoru was still passed out when she wandered back out, except that he had rolled over, and she pulled on some pyjamas, carefully and quietly. It felt almost wrong to wake him up, but she reached over and brushed his hair gently. He stirred, yawning, and blinked several times, looking up at her with those beautiful blue eyes. A sleepy smile stretched across his face.

“The shower’s free,” she said quietly, kissing his forehead.

“‘Kay,” he stretched, and slowly pulled himself up from the bed.

Shoko watched him fondly as he wandered tiredly into the bathroom, and then went downstairs to make herself and Satoru tea before bed. It was only eight, and yet she was beginning to feel a tug of jetlag. It was a weird sensation, but she was relieved that she had slept a lot on the plane, otherwise she would be just as exhausted as Satoru was. She figured the first two days would be the pair of them adjusting to the new time zone.

Opening the fridge, she was pleasantly surprised to find that someone had been in the house to stock the fridge. There were basics of milk, eggs, bread, and fruits. She made them both tea and stirred in the milk carefully. She paused at the sugar cubes, trying to recall the ridiculous amount Satoru had in his tea, and threw three in. When she came upstairs, he was still in the shower, so she put the cups on each of the bedside tables and settled down in bed with a book. It was hard to concentrate with her eyelids growing heavy, but the tea kept her awake long enough for Satoru to finish his shower.

He towelled himself off, threw on a pair of boxers and clambered into bed beside her, settling down and closing his eyes once more.

“There’s tea there for you,” she said, but he already seemed to have made himself comfortable.

Satoru hummed in response, turning over onto his side and stretching an arm over her lap. Shoko smiled down at him, his angelic face peaceful once more as he relaxed beside her. She finished her tea quickly, deciding that it wasn’t important for Satoru to drink his, and turned off both bedside lamps, reaching carefully over Satoru. Setting her book aside, she shimmied down. Satoru responded, wrapping his arms tightly around her and resting his chin on her head, half-cradling her head in the crook of his neck. He was fast asleep within moments. Shoko suddenly felt active once again, but didn’t dare wake Satoru up. She closed her eyes and nodded off eventually, but only because his body was warm as he cocooned her.

When she woke up, it was still dark. The clock read three twenty-four in the morning but no matter how hard she tried to go back to sleep, she couldn’t. Satoru had let go of her at some point in their sleep, much to Shoko’s relief, because she slipped out of bed, grabbed her tea cup, book and phone, and headed downstairs.

She turned on lights, shunting out the darkness, and made herself a coffee. She was unable to sleep anymore, so she might as well let herself be awake. What time was it in Japan? She checked her phone, of which she had yet to change to local time, and it was nearing half ten over there. She stilled, seeing a group chat text, and seized the text, hurrying to respond. It was from Utahime . Mei Mei had already sent a response in the chat.

Utahime had written: Hey, guys, I’m so sorry for being so distant. Jiji is in a really bad state, and I’ve been on night-watch a lot lately since he sometimes wakes up and needs help. I’ve not been checking my phone as much, so if I don’t respond quick it’s because I’m usually asleep.

Mei Mei’s message was unusually short. OK.

Gosh Hime I hope your grandpa will be OK! Shoko wrote quickly. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help !

She lowered the phone, relieved. She hadn’t realised how stressed she had been about Utahime until then. It had been almost a week since they had heard from her, and now her text was like a ray of sunshine after a long storm. She took her coffee mug and decided to sit outside on the patio, overlooking Majorca from their little paradise sat atop the hill.

The sky was still black, but from here Shoko could see the stars. She leant back in her chair and stared upwards. The moon had already made significant progress across the sky, dipping down towards western horizon. The dark blue canvas above her was spattered with hundreds and thousands of white dots, and she felt above the light pollution in this secluded villa. Even though it was late, it was fairly warm, with only a slight chill from the sea breeze that ruffled Shoko’s hair and brushed along the tops of the trees nearby. She lit a cigarette as she watched the stars, enthralled by their presence, and it gave her an odd sense of comfort, as though someone was looking down on her and wishing her the best.

Her book lay abandoned on the table in front of her as she leant against the balcony railing, looking down into the darkness at other houses further along the hill, at the city far ahead, the stars in the sky, and even towards the great black ocean where, if she listened hard enough, past the wind and the faint noise of cars, she could hear the crashing waves and the cries of gulls. It made her think of the river with Suguru, and she liked to think that maybe he would look at a seagull and think of her today. This was the furthest she had been from home, so she sent messages to her dad, letting him know they were safe and sound and had crashed asleep as soon as they had walked in.

The sky grew lighter as she stood on the balcony, turning from dark to an ashy blue, and the trees seemed to grow more verdant with each minute that passed. It was about half-five in the morning, and she even took the moment to change her phone to a local time. Shoko made herself another coffee, embracing that it was gradually getting warmer, and sat down to read her book when her phone buzzed with a message. She picked it up and looked. There was a collection.

One from her dad read Glad to hear xx take lots of photos ! to which she responded Yes!

There were a couple from Suguru. The first said Good to know, how was the flight? and the second read Why are you awake at three in the morning ?

Despite herself, she laughed. Even on the other side of the world, Suguru was fretting about her. She popped him a quick Stop worrying about me, it’s just jetlag and then moved on to the most recent message from Mei Mei.

Look at this, she had written, and attached was an image of a message conversation between her and Utahime.

Mei Mei had been sending Utahime text after text to ensure she was OK, and after all of that, Utahime had offered a quick response of Just posted in group chat - I’m super busy with family at the moment ! and then nothing else. Moreover, she had sent that at half two in the morning, Japanese time.

Looks like she really is on the night-shift , Shoko wrote mournfully.

I think her grandpa might be dying , Mei Mei replied almost instantly. She didn’t answer any of my questions and she seems really unresponsive, plus she’s not said anything about a return date and took no photos. She normally sends photos of her grandparents’ dog.

Shoko’s brow furrowed. That sucks. Is there anything we can do?

I don’t think so , Mei Mei wrote. Glad she replied, though. Still, I think we should be prepared to not see her for a bit?

Maybe we could get her something? Shoko suggested, her gut twisting with guilt. She was having a holiday whilst Utahime was probably suffering. I can always send money to you.

I think we should wait and see, Mei Mei answered. She probably won’t want a fuss made over her and we don’t want her to feel like we’re treating her different. Plus I could be wrong.

Yeah, we’ll see how things go, Shoko wrote forlornly, and then looked back out over the beautiful expanse.

Mei Mei replied. Are you struggling with time zones? Isn’t it like three in the morning over there?

It’s now nearing six, and yes jetlag is a bitch, Shoko wrote. Satoru’s asleep. He didn’t sleep at all on the plane journeys. He has a private jet.

You should go ring shopping whilst you’re in Majorca, Mei Mei replied with a string of heart emojis.

Ha, ha, he did say we might go to Italy, too, she wrote, feeling a warmth in her chest.

There’s no better place than Milan to get an engagement ring, Mei Mei said.

How are things with you? Shoko asked. Is work fine?

Work is always fine as long as I’m getting paid, Mei Mei responded. Ui Ui has been asking if I’ll visit home before he goes back to school. I might take a weekend off at the end of August.

You should , Shoko wrote. You work too much and he probably misses you.

Ui Ui always misses me, she said. He barely met me until he was four because I was at university, so I think he has attachment issues.

He’s cute, though, Shoko wrote, feeling a stab of sympathy to Mei Mei’s baby brother, who had only turned six.

He was my replacement when I moved out during second year, Mei Mei wrote, but yes, he’s endearing. I have to get back to work now.

Talk later, Shoko wrote, and returned to a new cigarette, wandering up to the railing again.

She would be lying if she said she hadn’t been worried about Utahime. Usually Hime was talkative, so a near-week silence had been a slow torture for Shoko. Had Mei Mei felt the same way, or had she been the only one who had been majorly concerned? Utahime was a grown woman, but there were always concerns when your friends went off the radar for days. She puffed out smoke, staring up at the increasingly brightening sky, thinking of poor Utahime and her family. A part of her wondered whether she should give her a call, but she knew that would be intrusive, and something she ought to organise with Mei Mei beforehand. She would hate to phone Utahime when something serious had just happened.

Before she knew it, shades of twilight had just flown by, the sky growing bluer and bluer, until the sun peeked over the eastern horizon. Jets of red, orange, pink and yellow streaked across the sky. The blue was washed away within an instant, the underbellies of clouds turned purple, and even the sea was temporarily tinted gold, red and magenta. Shoko’s mouth hung open at the beauty, and she snapped a quick photo, wafting away smoke to get a clearer picture. She managed to snap a few before the world’s natural beauty came to a close. It only lasted about two minutes, and Shoko wondered why she hadn’t cared so much about a sunrise or sunset before.

“There you are.”

She jumped a little, turning around to see Satoru in a sweatshirt and shorts, rubbing his eyes, his hair still rumpled from sleep. She had to check the time, out of curiosity, and found it was now twenty to seven.

“What are you doing out here?” he wandered across the patio, pulling her into an embrace so that she was pinned between him and the balcony.

Shoko held her cigarette far. “I think I’m in between time zones.”

“Yeah, that’s bound to happen - you’re so cold,” he held her close. “How long have you been out here for?”

“A good few hours.”

“You should’ve cozied up in bed,” he insisted. “Christ, you’re really cold, Shoko.”

“I’m fine, I’ve been out long enough,” she rested against him. “Besides, I’ve just had the luck to see a beautiful sunrise.”

“It is beautiful here in Majorca,” he agreed. “Will you be OK to Port de Pollença today?”

“I’m hardly going to fall asleep mid-journey,” she smiled up at him.

“Perfect, because I was thinking,” he raked his fingers gently yet assuredly through her hair, “if I get my work done today, then we have a whole ten or so days to enjoy between ourselves.”

“I like the sound of that,” she smiled up at him.

He breathed out a satisfied laugh, and bent down to kiss her. His mouth was warm, so much so that she suddenly became aware of just how chilly it was outside. The sea breeze had cooled down Majorca for the night, and it was only beginning to warm up with the sun’s revival. Satoru held her close, one hand on the back of her head, the familiar warmth of his body a comfort to her. She let herself drown in him for the moment, a simple pleasure that she hadn’t properly experienced in almost a week. It was nice to have him so close, to be able to kiss him and touch him without skirting around.

It seemed Satoru felt the same way. He pushed her up against the balcony, one hand roaming from her hip to underneath her pyjama shirt, cupping her breast as he deepened the kiss with an increased desperation. His breaths also became heavier, and even though she was feeling a twisting in her stomach and a thudding in her chest, they were in Majorca , and she wanted to spend as much time as possible in Port de Pollença today. She angled her head away and he trailed his mouth along her throat, combing his fingers through her hair and then letting his hand rest on her waist, gently squeezing her breast with his other hand.

“When do we need to leave?” she said, surprised at the breathiness in her own voice.

“The latest is eight, so we’ve got plenty of time ~”

“In that case, I’m going to have a shower,” she said, and he raised his head, looking almost a little betrayed, “and I’m going to wear a pretty new dress I bought, and I’m not going to accidentally light you on fire with this cigarette I’ve still got.”

“We’ve got lots of time, though,” he pouted.

She thought about what Mei Mei said, about being able to take the time to think about her decisions. As tempting as it was to rush off to bed with Satoru, she was in Majorca . When would she have this opportunity again?

“Yeah, about two weeks of it,” she said. “There’s going to be plenty of time for us to enjoy each other’s personal space,” She traced her fingers along his arm, enjoying how dilated his pupils were, “and I definitely mean plenty.”

“OK,” he said, giving her a smirk that made her pulse dance, and then kissed her deep on the mouth once before leaning in to her ear. “I won’t be holding back tonight.”

She tried a confident smile, but the flush that crept up to her ears and face probably gave it away. Satoru winked as he leant away. She stabbed her cigarette into the ashtray, crunching out the flame, collected her things and dashed off for a shower. The last of the plane and travelling feeling was washed away, and she threw on the blue dress matched with a pair of sandals. She decided to put on some light make-up, just mascara and lipgloss, since it was sunny and she felt like being a little bit girly.

She put on her rucksack, sunglasses and hat, and hurried downstairs to where Satoru was quickly brushing through his hair, sunglasses on as always. He whistled appreciatively at her and she struck an over-the-top, theatrical pose that had them both laughing.

“There’s a car waiting for us outside,” he jerked a thumb towards the front door.

“We need to do sunscreen,” she held up the bottle indignantly.

“Save it for later,” he said. “We won’t be walking around in the sun until a little later, and you don’t want to be all greasy with suncream until then.”

“Gotcha,” she dropped the bottle into her rucksack.

“You’re too cute,” he grinned, putting an arm around her waist.

“I thought we established that you were the cute one?” she beamed up at him.

“Says the woman who bounds out in a cute sundress,” he said as they walked from the house and down the hill. “Yeah, I don’t think so. You really are too cute.”

She shook her head, feeling the same rising blush. The sky was crystal clear at this time, with fluffy white clouds floating along in far apart intervals. There wasn’t a hint of grey in sight, and the sea looked a brilliant teal, white foam hanging off the edge of each wave. The sun was warm on her skin, but not unpleasantly hot, and the softest breeze was carried across the island. It felt like a true paradise to be away from familiar Tokyo and transported to this remote heaven.

There was a car at the bottom of the hill, and Shoko was a little relieved to find that there was the air conditioner was on. She settled in the back, admiring the clean smell and leather seats, and Satoru kept an idle hand rested on her leg throughout the journey.

Port de Pollença was on the other side of Majorca. The drive was about an hour, so she did find herself getting restless towards the end. She was relieved when the car came to a stop before a restaurant called Ambrosia.

“We’ll have to come back to Port de Pollença on Wednesday,” Satoru explained, as he lifted a grateful hand to the driver and walked with Shoko, hand-in-hand, towards the end of an alleyway that seemed to end in the sea. “There’s a market square back behind us that has a lot of stalls to pick from. It’s fun to look around, but you do need to be careful of pickpockets.”

“Pickpockets?”

“I mean, obviously always take care of your things, but the market gets very busy, so it’s quite easy to blend in with crowds,” Satoru said. “I’ve booked a place for us to eat later, as well as a boat trip, but other than that, we have plenty of free time to wander around.”

“Colour me impressed…”

They wandered out into the open once more to a brilliantly paved walkway, sandy in colour and busy with people walking along. There was even the odd cyclist, but Shoko found herself enthralled by the row of palm trees dotted along, and beyond that, sand and the sea. The smell of salt was strong here, and the crash of waves made it feel like she was truly on holiday. Absent-mindedly, she broke free of Satoru’s hand and hurried over to the edge of the walkway, pulling out her phone and taking a photo of the sunny scene before here. She had never seen so much green, or blue, or gold without a grey building looming in the background. Before her was a beautiful bay, with boats gliding along the water’s surface and people dipping their feet in the shallow parts of the sea.

“You like Majorca, then?” Satoru joined her side.

“I love it,” she breathed.

“I’ll make sure to show you every bit of it I can,” he took her hand once more, and guided her along the walkway. “In the meantime, I need to finish this viewing and have a quick meeting, and then we have as much time as we want to ourselves.”

He led her to an old hotel, and the pair of them stood before it, gazing upwards. It was looking a little shabby, but otherwise in a good condition.

“If all goes well and I like it, I’ll be replacing this hotel with a Paradise Supreme,” he said.

“Right on the beachfront,” she glanced over her shoulder. “Sounds like you’re going to earn a buck from this one.”

“Damn right, I am.”

And then, from out of nowhere, a voice called out, “Satoru Gojo? Of all the people I expected to run into today, you were not on my list!”

Chapter Text

For the briefest moment, Satoru’s hold on her hand became painfully tight. She tried to conceal the wince that crossed her face, but he didn’t notice anyway, since he turned a steely stare in the direction of the speaker. His lips were pursed and, even though she couldn’t see his eyes behind the sunglasses, Shoko already knew that his gaze was icy judging from the way his brows were drawn in together. She followed his gaze, and her heart flip-flopped in her chest in a way that reminded her of the plane taking off from the runway.

Striding towards them, hand raised in a friendly, approachable manner, was the famous model Yuki Tsukumo. Of course Shoko had heard of her, had seen pictures of her, and was aware that she was Satoru’s ex-girlfriend, but she had never imagined a time in her life when she would actually meet her. Her photos were beautiful, and after seeing her being cosy with Satoru in the magazine pictures, Shoko had tried to convince herself that Yuki could not possibly be that pretty in person. Yet here she was, long blonde hair swaying as she walked, honey-coloured eyes bright in the sun and a wide smile on her face.

But there was equally something off with her, just in the same way Satoru was tense and stiff. Although she had a friendly demeanour, her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, and the way she moved was slightly stilted, as though this were an encounter she really would have preferred to avoid. It felt almost like she was dropping by to pay a courtesy call, that even though she was getting closer, she would much rather be turning around and heading off in the opposite direction.

“I didn’t realise you would be in Majorca,” Satoru said. His tone clipped and formal.

“Same for me about you,” Yuki came to a stop about two metres away. “This definitely is unexpected.”

Shoko admired her unintentionally. Although this was the woman she was supposed to be silently competing against, she couldn’t help but aspire to be like her. She was tall, all leg, and radiated confident energy. Shoko wanted to be a woman like that.

“I’m not sure why, considering I have a home in Majorca,” Satoru replied, offering a clearly forced smile.

“Right, right, of course you do,” she returned it in an equally fake facade. “How have you been? It’s been a month, right?”

Satoru’s jaw tightened. “Yeah, about that,” and then he said, “Why are you here?”

“Magazine photoshoot,” she explained.

“I meant more why did you come over?” he asked curtly.

“Right, because my manager said it would look good, see?” she tried to look friendly, but couldn’t. “That magazine that managed to snap those photos of us really made quite the profit, and the “Satoki” headlines, according to my manager, really boosted my image. He reckons that it would be great coverage to include for the photoshoot and interview, and that questions were definitely going to arise.”

“If you lie about anything -”

“I’m not interested in pretending there’s more to our relationship - that horse is beaten and dead,” she waved a dismissive hand. “Undoubtedly they’ll want me to be vague, but I’m definitely going for a route that implies we have nothing between us. And gladly.”

Satoru didn’t seem particularly thrilled at this response, but then Yuki’s eyes landed on his hand, entwined with Shoko.

“Well, it looks like they’ll have something else to report on, instead,” she remarked, and gave Shoko a very real and genuine smile. “I’m so sorry, I completely missed out on you, there. I’m Yuki. It’s nice to meet you. You are?”

“Shoko,” she felt a little starstruck. Here was Yuki Tsukumo, asking for her name.

“Listen, Yuki, we’ve got t-”

“Oh, are you heading somewhere?” her eyes widened, and Shoko noted how Satoru’s grip on her tightened once more. “You didn’t seem to be in a rush, but if you need to go, please do.”

“Satoru has a mee-” Shoko began, just as Satoru cut in with, “We have brunch. Booked.”

Shoko shot a look towards Satoru. She understood that he and Yuki clearly had bad blood, but why was he lying?

“A meeting or brunch, which is it?” Yuki chuckled. “So, I’m guessing that you might be involved with investment, then, if you’re heading to the same place?”

“No, I’m -”

“Is it really any of your business?” Satoru plastered on a smile, looking radiant, but Shoko knew it was false.

“If I didn’t know better, you don’t seem to like us two talking,” Yuki jerked a thumb towards Shoko. “I’m not one to preach, but are you seriously abandoning your date to go on a business meeting? I know there’s a lot to do, but is she meant to just wander around whilst you sit with the other suits and ties? Or did you want her to sit outside like a kid at the principal’s office?”

Satoru seemed to breathe in before choosing his words. “Shoko can look after herself.”

“Well, duh, she’s a grown woman, but being on holiday is only so fun when you’re on your own,” Yuki lifted her shoulders nonchalantly. “Listen, Shoko, let’s have a coffee together whilst Satoru goes on his fancy meeting ~”

At this point, Satoru’s hold on her hand was painful again. Shoko tried to disentangle, but he refused to let go.

“What are you up to, Yuki?” Satoru asked in a low voice.

“I’m being polite ,” Yuki replied pointedly. “You should try it sometime.”

“I doubt Shoko would wan-”

“Actually, coffee sounds good,” she said, still trying to pull her hand away.

“Shoko, you don’t want -”

“Actually, I do,” she said pointedly. “I don’t know Majorca, I don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t know how long you’re going to be.”

Again, Satoru was quiet, and he didn’t let go. Shoko wrenched her hand free, seeing his eyebrows raise in surprise. She knew it was a little odd to be going for a coffee with his ex-girlfriend, but a part of her was curious as to what Yuki wanted.

“I’ll see you later,” she smiled.

He didn’t return it. “OK.”

“We’ll be at the Gran Cafe,” Yuki inclined her head.

He didn’t respond to her. Satoru nodded briefly to Shoko before heading into the hotel. She glanced towards Yuki, who seemed to have relaxed significantly and was making drinking motions to the camera crew by the beach.

“Finally, a chance to relax,” Yuki stuffed her hands in her pockets and began to walk along the walkway. Shoko hesitantly followed. “We were out super early to catch the sunrise, and it’s been basically non-stop since. When did you get in Majorca?”

“Yesterday evening,” she said, still awed that she was with Yuki Tsukumo.

“Oh, really recent, then,” Yuki said. “You’re from Japan, right?”

“Yeah, Tokyo.”

“Oh, brilliant, I was there last month visiting home friends,” Yuki’s expression became faraway. “That was nice. And what did you say you did again?”

“I’m studying medicine,” she replied.

“Oh, shit, you’re smart,” Yuki looked astonished as they arrived at a cafe. “Why is someone like you with Satoru, hah…”

Shoko didn’t know how to respond to that. Surely Satoru was smart enough to have started his own business enterprise? Yuki signalled a waiter as she chose a seat underneath an umbrella, sitting down in a chair. Shoko joined her.

“What coffee do you like?” Yuki glanced at her.

“Black coffee.”

“A girl after my own heart,” Yuki said, and then to the waiter, “Dos café solo.”

Shoko watched him make a note with an admiring nod and then hurry off to prepare their drinks.

“Where was I?” for a moment, Yuki looked clueless. “Ah, right, yeah, how come you ended up with an idiot like Satoru?”

“He’s not an idiot,” she rubbed her arm, feeling the need to defend him.

“I guess, but he does do some stupid shit,” Yuki said. “Are you two together?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah?” Yuki looked out across the sea. “Those assholes better not post any pictures of you with him… That kind of hassle just isn’t worth it.”

“I don’t want to sound rude, but… why did you want to have coffee with me?” Shoko asked uncertainly.

“Right, yeah, the ex-girlfriend is stereotypically a total bitch,” Yuki laughed. “To be honest, I wanted to check in with you.”

“Check… in -?”

“When I was with Satoru, I really could have done with someone popping into my life and seeing if I was OK,” Yuki’s expression became serious, and she looked back at Shoko. “He’s really intense. So? Are you good?”

“I’m… yes, of course, I’m good,” she blinked. “Satoru’s a great guy.”

Yuki hummed, although she didn’t seem convinced. The waiter returned and put two espressos in front of them.

“OK, I’m going to address the elephant in the room,” Yuki blew out a breath. “How long have you been seeing, or with, or dating Satoru?”

“I met him about a month ago, and we started seeing each other around the end of June,” she looked away sheepishly.

“Oh,” Yuki grimaced. “I suppose you saw that article with me and him, huh?”

“Yes,” Shoko fiddled with the handle of her cup. “Did you two sleep together?”

“Yes,” Yuki lifted her shoulders, “and, as always between us, it totally backfired and ended up in a terrible argument. Of course, I never realised you were in the picture, otherwise I would’ve avoided him for sure. Girl code, and all.”

Shoko assessed Yuki carefully, still uncertain.

“Listen, he’s not an easy guy to be with, and I kind of figured there might’ve been some beef between you two over what happened,” Yuki said earnestly. “I mean, the guy clearly did not want us talking.”

“Are we here so you can try and persuade me to ditch him?” Shoko asked.

“Not at all,” Yuki held up her hands defensively. “By all means, if he’s a changed man, I kudos to you and hurrah to your relationship. I guess I wanted to warn you, but that’s what this whole check in was about.”

“What do you mean by “changed”?”

“When I was with him, he did have a wandering eye,” Yuki sighed, sipping her espresso. “It seems like that hasn’t completely changed…”

“We’d had a fight.”

“Right, well, real mature of him to pick a time when you were both suffering more,” Yuki clucked her tongue. “How do I say this… he was never quite there when we were dating. It was almost like he was constantly looking for someone else. Really did a number on my self-esteem, that did…”

Shoko looked at Yuki, amazed that she was capable of being self-conscious, but sternly reminded herself that famous people were also human.

“It was only worse because, as soon as any man talked to me - a waiter, a shop assistant, anyone - he would become extremely possessive,” Yuki’s brows knitted together. “He could do whatever, whereas I was just the girlfriend of Satoru Gojo. I had to orbit his world, but he could have plenty of lives beyond mine. That’s why I broke up with him in the end. I hated his possessiveness. Stop me if you think I’m bullshitting too much, by the way.”

Shoko hesitated. “He did get jealous easily, but we talked about that.”

Yuki seemed to study her face. “Yeah, the jealousy… I tried to talk to him, but he never opened up to me. I guess he’s improved in that respect, so genuine props to you.”

“But why are you so concerned about me ?” Shoko frowned. “We’ve never met, and I’m your ex’s new girlfriend.”

“Listen, from the sounds of it, Satoru’s changed a lot since I dated him,” Yuki said, and then wrinkled her nose, “well, mostly changed. When I was with him, I really could have done with someone sitting me down and telling me what it was like for them. He had some high-school love he mentioned, but he never elaborated. I think she did a number on his mental health, or something, because why else would you be so… I don’t know, controlling in a relationship?”

Shoko sipped her coffee, watching as Yuki drummed the table with her fingers.

“From experience, I would be concerned to find someone dating Satoru, is what I want to get to,” Yuki turned to her, suddenly sincere once more. “We used to argue bad, and I’ll be honest, he got really… not violent, but rough when we’d… you know. And it sometimes came as a surprise, which isn’t ideal? Jeez, and when I broke up with him…” she furrowed her brows, “... he was at my door every night for a week. He called me constantly, there was a stream of texts, I had to block him on all my socials just for a moment’s peace. He only left because I yelled out a window that I’d call the cops; it was near fucking harrassment. I only want to tell you this because… well, us girls need to stick together. It’s not a great world out there for us, so this was just a check in.”

“OK, well…” Shoko tried to imagine Satoru behaving in any of the ways Yuki had described. Yes, he was rough in bed, but he hadn’t ever made her feel threatened. “I appreciate your concern, but he seems to be completely different compared to then.”

“I don’t doubt that, your review seems very positive,” Yuki grinned. “Listen, I want him to have changed, too, for your sake. My relationship with him was very toxic. We were horribly suited, and there were way too many underlining issues. But if you’ve got him sussed and he hasn’t scared you, I see no problem.”

“And you really just wanted this “check in”? You weren’t trying to compare or something?”

“Hell, no, women are always getting the short end of the stick, we don’t need to be pitted against each other,” Yuki waggled a finger. “Even at the top, it’s a man’s world, Shoko. I might have a great image, but the second a man says I’m getting “too old”, that’s it. My career’s over and I have to start looking into new avenues. As I say, I had a bad relationship with Satoru, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else. I just needed to make sure you weren’t making a constant cry for help, but… ” she put her head in a hand and smiled, “ you seem like it’s going well and that you can take care of yourself. I still , however, think you’re too smart for a guy like Satoru .”

“He’s not dumb ,” she said, and they both chuckled a bit. “You said he was controlling, huh?”

“Oh, God, yeah,” Yuki grimaced. “He always had to know where I was and who I was with. I’d be on full blast if I didn’t respond in time, yet whenever he was with me, he was always staring off into the distance. I’ll be honest, he probably wasn’t ready for a relationship when he dated me. Maybe he’s sorted some internal things out since then. He clearly wasn’t invested in the relationship.”

“I don’t want to come across as a narcissist, but… he does seem very attentive with me,” Shoko said reassuringly.

Yuki didn’t reply immediately, but when Shoko looked over at her, her honey-coloured eyes had softened, her gaze warm and welcoming.

“I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous that you wanted to have coffee with me,” she confessed. “I thought I was going to be grilled or something.”

“Grilled?” Yuki laughed. “What place do I have to comment on your relationship? Nah, I just want to help out where I can, but you don’t need that by the looks of it.”

“I think we’re actually really good,” Shoko said. “He can be intense, though. That hasn’t changed.”

“Hm, is that so?” Yuki became guarded once more. “He pulls some real shit. You know, it never made it to the media, because we were nearing the end, but he proposed to me.”

Shoko almost spat out her coffee.

“Yep, I know,” Yuki arched her eyebrows. “He goes quick. We were probably dating for four months, then he asked if I wanted to go to Hawaii, I agreed thinking it might fix our relationship, and then he pulled that stunt on the dock and I was out of there before he could say “will you”. Went down on one knee and everything…”

“He… proposed to you?”

“He didn’t mean it, he was just trying to save the relationship,” Yuki shook her head. “I guess that’s when I knew things were really over between us, when he had to make big gestures like that to stop things falling apart.” She then noted the alarmed expression on Shoko’s face and laughed. “I wouldn’t worry, Shoko; no one would be stupid enough to propose after a month of dating. He is intense, though, but you’ve probably heard from a million people to take things slow at this point.”

Shoko’s heart jumped in her chest. Had Satoru invited her abroad to propose just as he had done with Yuki? Was that something he did?

“Relax, I didn’t mean to alarm you,” Yuki laughed nervously. “Hah, I shouldn’t have said anything… If it comes as a consolation, he has taken many brief relationships abroad and none of them have returned as Mrs Gojo. I really don’t think you have anything to worry about. Hah! Imagine if he used travelling as a method of proposal...”

“Right,” she let herself relax, then. “I’m… I’m surprised you’re being so honest with me.”

“Girl to girl,” Yuki said. “It’s the most important thing in the world. If us girls can’t back each other up, then we’ve got no one playing on our side.” She paused, staring past Shoko’s shoulder, and then pulled a pen from her pocket, scribbling on a napkin. “Hey, listen… I know this is strange, and I don’t doubt that you’ve got an amazing support group at home, but if you do have problems… I guess you can pop me a message.” She slid the napkin across the table, where a number was jotted down. “Things seem totally chill for you, they really do, but if you do think there’s… I don’t know, something to be worried about, then I’m not someone too close to you, but also not too far. Does that make sense?”

“I guess so,” she murmured, looking at the napkin.

“It’s a personal number, so you won’t have to go through a series of my management team,” Yuki said, and then chuckled to herself. “You can even sell it for a lot of money if you really need to, but I can’t say I’d forgive you if you did that.”

Shoko found a smile reaching her lips. “Thanks.”

A hand touched her shoulder and she jumped. Craning her head round, she found Satoru standing behind her, although he was looking at Yuki, his body language closed off and guarded.

“You done?” Shoko asked.

“Yeah.”

“I’d best be off, then,” Yuki knocked back the last of her espresso. “I have a photoshoot to get back to. It was really nice to meet you, Shoko, and I wish you all the best.”

“You, too,” Shoko said, a little stunned, as Yuki pushed away from the table and headed off.

“What did she say?” Satoru asked as soon as Yuki was out of earshot.

“Nothing incriminating,” she laughed, although a part of her wondered whether Yuki’s warning was meant to be exposing Satoru.

“That woman…” he grumbled. “There’s a reason I broke it off with her…”

Now I’m just hearing two different stories, ” she arched an eyebrow as she stood up, nudging him playfully in the side. “ Listen, I don’t mind what happened between you two; it’s your history and you’re entitled to have past relationships. I just want to live in the present, OK?”

He let out a breath and visibly relaxed, taking her hand once more. “I like the sound of that.”

She hesitated as they walked along, a plethora of things dancing along her mind. It was history, and Yuki had been strangely supportive of her . She remembered Mei Mei telling her to learn more about him, and there was just one thing that was playing on her mind.

“Hey,” she said, as they walked along, “Yuki said you proposed to her. Is that true?”

He hesitated. “Yes. A complete mistake. I’m glad we broke up.”

“Were you guys together long?”

“Four months,” he said quietly.

“Damn, Mr Gojo, you sure work fast!” she grinned up at him, and he averted his gaze hastily.

“I thought you said you wanted to be in the present,” he muttered.

“I do, but did you seriously think you were ready to be engaged ?” she pressed. “Just to let you know, I will be saying a huge “no” if you pull a stunt like that on me.”

He pulled a face. “I’m not going to propose to you.”

“Wait, wait - let me guess, it’s your way of apologising once you’ve already bought the phone,” she shook his hand, and then put on a simpering face. “I-I’m sorry, p-please marry me!”

“That woman has been poison to you,” he gritted his teeth.

“So that’s why you were so against us talking!” Shoko laughed, swinging his hand once again. “OK, OK, I’m done now! Stop looking so grumpy! What’s the agenda?”

His moody expression broke through with a reluctant smile and he squeezed her hand affectionately, and she was sure the look he gave her was warm and adoring. It made her heart flutter.

“We have plenty of time to go wandering, which is just as well, because I forgot to bring swimsuits and towels for the boat ride,” he grinned sheepishly.

Shoko gawked. “I didn’t realise we were going in the sea. Do we have time to go back?”

“We’re not making a two hour journey for swimwear,” he barked a laugh. “Stuff is cheap here, anyway. We’ll get some picnic food and then we’ll head out on the sea.”

“That sounds amazing,” Shoko looked out at the bay, the long stretch of verdigris that called to her. “I’m excited.”

“I bet you are,” he hummed pleasantly.

“Oh, I meant to ask, how did the meeting go?”

“Perfect,” he said. “Hotel’s mine and I got it for a good price. We can go ahead with refurbishing it and soon there’ll be a Paradise Supreme overlooking the bay.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” she beamed.

“Me, too,” he said. “There’s mostly food and clothes stores down the promenade, but there’s also lots of sandcastles being built, and you like to take photos, so I think you’d like the views. The boat’s booked for eleven, we’ll sail around for a few hours, and then we’ll have an early dinner at five at Stay. They do nice food.”

“I’m very much looking forward to today, ” she grinned. “ Is this what we call the discount Satoru Gojo experience?”

He looked clueless. “Discount?”

“Yeah, all the fun and sun, but without the propos-”

“I am going to make you regret everything you’re saying,” he cracked a proper smile at last, grabbing her playfully around the waist, pulling her into him.

Shoko found she was laughing, even when he got her in a gentle headlock, dodging out of the way of other pedestrians as they made their way down the sunny Majorca walkway.

Chapter Text

They walked up and down the beach along the promenade, with Shoko taking photo after photo of an impressive array of sandcastles being built. Some were over five feet tall, with intricate details that Shoko didn’t realise could be made with sand. She dipped her feet in the sea, and took photos with and of Satoru, they popped into stores and perused cheap items and snacks, and Satoru even insisted they stop by a gelato parlour. He got a concoction of chocolate, mint and vanilla, whereas Shoko stayed with a simple lemon sorbet. Even the ice creams were documented in her photos.

The time rocked on, and eventually she found a bikini she liked, a white one that was decorated with a lacelike pattern. Her mind had played out Mei Mei’s words about a man’s heart, and she couldn’t help but notice Satoru looked twice as she took it from the shelf. She also picked a yellow pool dress to throw over. She found a nice pool bag that she insisted they get for picnic items, their clothes and towels, and Satoru cheerfully complied. They stopped at a store called Eroski for picnic food, getting sandwiches and other snacks to pick at. After that, they headed to the port, an excited bounce to Satoru’s step.

There was a public changing room for those who wanted to spend time on the beach, so they popped in there to change into swimwear. There wasn’t a mirror, so Shoko couldn’t see if the bikini suited her, but she was happy enough to throw the yellow pool dress over her head and wandered back out. Satoru had simply swapped his shorts for swim ones and she jogged over to him.

“You are my sunshine,” he took her hand once more, “my only sunshine ~”

Even his voice was smooth and flowed nicely. There was a stab of envy deep down; how could someone who looked so good be so perfect at everything. She shook her head with a dry smile as he chuckled to himself.

They walked along the dock, seagulls crying up above, boats bobbing on the surface, tied to the pier with thick ropes. Satoru idly swung her hand around, and when they reached an information desk, Satoru switched to Spanish and held up his phone, showing an image of booking details. Shoko let herself switch off, looking around the dock and seeing people stepping off and on boats. She could see more cruising along in the distance, rocking up waves. Bright red buoys bounced with each wave and their rhythm was soothing. She watched it, letting herself fall into the repetitiveness and the green-blue of the sea reflected the clouds that hung up above.

“Let’s go,” Satoru snapped her back to reality with a shake of her hand, and they followed a man towards a speedboat with a sheltered roof and plenty of space to sit.

“He says not to get out in the middle of the water,” Satoru explained as they neared the boat, and the man climbed inside the boat. “Something about sharks and not being hit by other boats.”

Sharks ?”

“Yeah, he said something about them sometimes appearing in the warmer periods of the year,” Satoru shrugged nonchalantly, and then shot her a knowing smile, “but they’re unlikely to appear in the middle of the bay, since there’s loads of boats around which disturbs the water, probably.”

“Probably, or definitely?” she arched an eyebrow.

“I won’t let any shark eat you, don’t worry,” he winked. “That’s my job.”

“That’s awful,” she said. “You’re awful.”

“Oh, he did also say to stay in the border of the bay, rather than go out to open sea,” Satoru barrelled on as the man prepared the boat for them, minding his own business. “That’s another safety precaution, and he gave me this little map to make sure we stayed in the bay.”

“Got it, got it,” Shoko took the man’s hand that he offered and let him help her into the boat. Satoru followed closely afterwards.

The boat rocked from side to side, and Shoko wandered to the edge, looking into the water. It was dark and looked very deep, and she could see a wavering image of herself looking back at her. Satoru was conversing with the man in Spanish once more. Shielding her eyes, she looked out across the water and then snapped a photo of the bay. When they got back home later, she would have to send the photos over to her dad. She checked her phone, and found there was a message from Suguru.

I can’t help it, the message read. How is Majorca?

Great ! she wrote excitedly. We’re about to drive a speedboat around.

What time was it in Japan? She tried to do the mental maths. Tokyo was about seven hours ahead, which meant it was six in the evening. Her dad would be having dinner. What would Suguru be doing at this moment?

“Gracias!” Satoru said loudly, and she glanced over her shoulder, putting her phone away as he clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder and bid him farewell. “We can be on our way, now, so feel free to take a seat. It can be a little wobbly to begin with.”

She nodded and lowered herself onto a seat as the man climbed up and waved them off.

Satoru stood behind the wheel, pulling a lever down. The rudder jumped to life, the man whipped off the rope holding them at bay, and the boat surged forwards out into the sea, bobbing on the water. Salt spray was thrown up around them, and Shoko breathed in every bit of it, leaning into the wind and closing her eyes. The speed of the boat made the wind pick up, and she had to hold her hat down to prevent it flying off, much to Satoru’s amusement. In the end, she stuffed it in the pool bag, deciding it wasn’t worth the loss.

“You, me and the open sea,” Satoru called out cheerfully over the noise of the engine. “What do you think, Shoko? Isn’t this just the perfect life?”

“It’s amazing here in Majorca!” she called back. “I never dreamed I’d get the chance to visit Europe before university finished, but here I am!”

“Hey, ask and I’ll make anything possible for you,” he shrugged. “Here’s a daily reminder that you mean the world to me.”

And he blew her a kiss.

Shoko rolled her eyes with a dry smile, and looked away to take more photos of the scenery around them. The sun was high in the sky, reflection bouncing off the waves. It was dazzling.

“Want a go of steering?” Satoru asked.

“Yes,” she jumped up, because it sounded like fun.

Satoru stepped aside to let her take the wheel, and she made sure to keep an eye out for other boats or other obstacles. He whipped his shirt off, stretching in the wind, and dumped it in the pool bag. She held onto the steering wheel, watching as he walked back around and stood behind her, muttering instructions in her ear as he reached over to show her what she ought to be looking out for. It was quite simple, and she suspected he only wanted an excuse to hold onto her hips, body close to hers, nip at her earlobe a little bit, and wrap his arms around her, chin rested on the top of her head as they sailed across the bay. She couldn’t blame him, and she equally liked being close to him. She was driving a boat in Majorca with a beautiful man who loved her; it was the dream she had never expected to come her way.

Every now and then, Satoru would point at the map and give her an instruction on where to go, and before long they could see a small beach that was empty. It was like having a little space to themselves, and Shoko felt a growing warmth at how she was finally allowed to be selfish, to have time with her man and enjoy herself, to embrace the sun and the warmth and the soft kisses he leant on her neck each time he lowered his head to tell her something.

“Is this the right place?” she asked, pulling the lever down and gradually slowing the boat as they neared the little shore.

“Yeah,” he let go of her and wandered to the back of the boat, lifting the anchor out of a small compartment. “Just stop around here. We can have a little swim and then enjoy our picnic.”

Shoko nodded, slowing the boat to a stop and looked at the beach. She could see glittering shells and clumps of seaweed washed up. It looked largely untouched, but she supposed it was far off and inaccessible unless you had a boat. She leant against the side and looked down into the sea, seeing flits of silver of tiny fish, their scales catching the sun’s rays.

“You ready for a swim?” Satoru grinned eagerly.

“Yes, but we need to put on sunscreen,” she said, tying her hair back.

“Got it,” he crouched down by the pool bag and pulled out the sunscreen.

She took off the yellow pool dress and felt the breeze on her bare skin. She suppressed a shiver, and turned to see Satoru staring at her as he put sunscreen on his arms. He snapped to attention, eyes lifting to her face, and a smile lit up his features. Shoko shook her head with a knowing smile, and sprayed her arms with the bottle. It was cold and she couldn’t help but flinch with each burst that made contact with her skin.

“Do you need a hand?” Satoru asked, eyes darkened as he looked at her with a sleek smile.

“With my back, probably,” she grinned at him.

He grabbed the bottle and sprayed her stomach.

“It’s cold , Satoru!” she shrieked, laughing and dashing away so he couldn’t reach her again.

“You’re entitled to a little bit of bullying this holiday,” he gave her a wide smile.

She rubbed the sunscreen on her tummy, wandering back beneath the shade of the boat. Applying didn’t take too long, and she sprayed Satoru’s back once she was finished with her own. Admittedly, it was nice to run her hands along the firm muscles of his back, and she delighted that she was able to make him shiver a little with just her touches. When it was her time, he was ruthless, and she jumped each time the cold spray made contact with her skin. Satoru also took deep satisfaction, apparently, from lifting the halter neck of her bikini top to run his fingers along her skin there, as he let it snap back with a soft laugh. He also made a point to squeeze her sides as he slid his hands along her skin, smiling to himself as a small squeak of surprise escaped her lips. Her body tingled at his touch, as though there was liquid fire running through her veins, an old familiar ache in the pit of her stomach as his fingers glided delicately along her skin. He took his time, fingers dipping beneath the waistband of her bikini bottom to make sure she wouldn’t get burnt if the swimsuit slipped a fraction.

“There we go,” he murmured in her ear, before kissing the pulse at her neck, hands gliding up to squeeze her breasts. The moment lasted a second, before he sputtered and leant away, hands leaving her body as wandered off, making spitting noises.

“What are you doing?” she wrinkled her nose, turning to him.

“You taste like sunscreen, eugh,” he wiped his mouth, and a laugh bubbled from her mouth. “You’re really getting a kick out of teasing me today, aren’t you?”

“Are you kidding me?” she grinned. “You’re always teasing the crap out of me, it’s my turn .”

“That’s what you think.”

He marched up to her and lifted her in his arms. Shoko called out in surprise as he neared the edge of the boat.

“What are you doing?” she asked, voice rising in pitch. “What are y- stop it, Satoru, don’t you dare!”

“The regret begins now!” he declared and launched her off the boat.

Shoko would’ve loved to have taken her time dipping her toes in the water, letting her body adjust to the temperature bit by bit. She would’ve loved that. In fact, that was what she was used to doing whenever she had the chance to go swimming, especially in natural water sources like rivers, lakes and the sea. Instead, an icy blast bolted through her body. She couldn’t help but blow out a breath of surprise, eyes squeezed shut as she made contact with the water. She was enveloped, her shriek turning into anguished bubbles, the drop in temperature sudden. Her heart jumped at the change, and she furiously worked her limbs to break the surface once more.

She inhaled air angrily as she emerged, coughing and wiping her eyes, but staying afloat. There was a slight stinging as she struggled to clear all the salt water from her eyes, but she blinked it furiously away just as Satoru did a cannon-ball into the water near her.

SATORU !” she shrieked, shielding her head as water was dashed over her head once more.

He threw his head back and pushed his hair out of his face, laughing, the sun making his wet skin glow. She flattened her palm out and splashed water right at him, into his open mouth. His laughter quickly became coughs, and he gagged on salt water. It was now Shoko’s turn to roar with laughter.

“You devil,” he bared his teeth in a wide smile, grabbing her ankle and pulling her towards him.

Shoko’s head almost went underwater again, but his hand found the back of her head as he pulled her up against him and his lips found hers. She could taste salt and sunscreen, and always sweet sugar, this time from the ice cream earlier. With one hand he grabbed onto the boat for support, the other looped around her waist to keep her close. Shoko wrapped her legs around his torso, kissing him under a warm summer sun in a beautiful blue ocean. She ran her hands through his salt drenched hair, body so close to his she could feel his heart beating against her chest. Her lips felt swollen by the time they pulled apart, breaths heavy and the sea bobbing them up and down just like the buoys. Satoru’s pupils were dilated, his heavily lashed eyes trained on her and her alone.

“I love you,” he smiled warmly.

“I love you, too,” she said, feeling a wonderful warmth flush through her body.

She let go of him, letting the waves draw her away from the boat. She no longer needed to worry about getting her hair wet, since Satoru had ever-so-kindly submerged her already. Shoko contentedly let herself backfloat on the waves, closing her eyes and feeling the warm sun on her stomach. They contented themselves to the blissful little paradise they had managed to find, one that they could share together without interruption.

“Shoko, over here!” Satoru eventually called from the shore.

She dipped her legs beneath the water and glanced over, seeing him waving from the beach and beckoning for her to come over. Curious, she swam over and waded in the shallow waters to where he sat on the beach.

“Sit with me,” he patted the sand beside him, and she joined him, looking out over the ocean.

From here, she could see the whole bay stretched out like a crescent. In the distance there was the dock, their own boat swayed on the sea surface, and the sun was drifting along, golden against the blue sky. She rested her head on his shoulder as they looked out at Port de Pollença.

“Nice, isn’t it?” he prompted, as small waves rippled up to their feet, pleasantly cool against the warm sun.

“It’s beautiful,” Shoko replied.

She stayed there with her head on his shoulder at first, but then she laid on her stomach, head on her arms to let the sun settle on her back this time. There was no chance she was returning to Tokyo without a balanced tan. She was going to make the most of this weather, and nothing would stop her.

After some time, however, she felt a gnawing at her stomach, and she pulled herself up on her knees. Satoru had lain on the sand beside her, eyes closed and seemingly asleep. Shoko grabbed a fistful of wet, clumpy sand and dumped it on his chest. An agonised smile spread across his face and he opened his eyes, looking at her in disbelief.

“So that’s your revenge, huh?”

“I’m getting hungry,” she said.

He made an effort to sit up. “Yeah, same, actually. Shall we head back to the boat?”

She nodded, and he stood up, brushing sand off of him as he did so. With a sandy hand, he pulled her to her feet, and they wandered back into the ocean, silver fish skirting around their ankles. Having been out of the water for a bit, it was a gradual shock to Shoko’s system to be cold once more. It was nice, however, to rinse the sand from her body and swim back to the boat, Satoru just a few paces ahead. She bobbed in the water, face lifted to the sun, as he hauled himself up into the boat, then reached down for her hand and pulled her up. He grabbed towels for them both, and they stood on the edge, drying themselves down, before stepping over into the main body of the boat once more and sitting on their towels to stop the seats getting damp.

Shoko snapped another photo of them both before they tucked in, quietly eating, surrounded by the sound of crashing waves and the cries of birds and the distant shouts of other people on other boats. Every now and then a horn would blow. Shoko felt completely and entirely at peace.

“A fun-filled first day so far, eh?” Satoru said through a mouthful of sandwich.

“It’s gone by so quickly,” she breathed out a sigh. “At this rate, we’ll be heading back to Tokyo before I know it.”

“You’re liking Majorca, then?”

“I love it here,” she said. “If every day could be like this, then I’d stay here forever. I’ve never felt so carefree before.”

“Every day can be like this, ” he insisted. “ When you’re with me, every second can be like this.”

She rolled her head to the side to look at him. There he was, looking at her with those beautiful eyes, as though they held both the sky and the ocean. She reached out and gently caressed his face and, as though automatic, he leant into her touch.

“As lovely as that sounds, I am not a sugar baby, ” she grinned and he let out a small, breathy laugh. “ Plus, I want to be a doctor, and lounging on a beach all day is not going to help many patients.”

“That holiday home I have?” he leant in, resting an arm behind her on the boat. “It can be our holiday home, the place we can retreat to whenever life gets boring or difficult.”

“You sound like you just want to avoid some responsibilities,” she chucked his chin. “Is that how you see travelling?”

His eyebrows rose. “I wouldn’t say so. I genuinely do like seeing the world.”

“And…” she hesitated, wondering whether she should go down this route, but she wanted to take Mei Mei’s advice and learn more about him. “Was America the first time you went abroad?”

He seemed surprised. “Oh. Yes, it was.”

“Whereabouts in America did you go?” she asked keenly.

“The Okkotsus lived in New York,” he said thoughtfully. “It was very bright there, too, just like in Tokyo. In fact, I would say moving to New York wasn’t so hard because of how similar the two are.”

“And what was it like in New York?” she asked, breath held in anticipation.

“You’ve got stars in your eyes, babe,” he smiled. “So you want to know about the Big Apple? The City that Never Sleeps? Actually, it was really good, and the best years of my adolescence for obvious reasons, so it’s no surprise that I remember it very fondly. I went up the Empire State Building, I’ve been to see Broadway shows countless times, and I used to go jogging around Central Park. It’s genuinely a beautiful park, too; the scenic routes and the lakes… I never got bored in that city.”

“When did you leave? Have you been back since?”

He clucked his tongue in thought. “I left after I graduated, so… that was around August of 2008… and I visited the Christmas of that year after business had begun to kickstart… To be honest, I haven’t had time to go there in person…”

“You haven’t been back in two years?”

He seemed to be thinking once more, then simply said, “No.”

“And what about…?”

“The Okkotsus?” he smiled. “I video call them. Of course, it’s not the same, but it’s hard to break open a gap in my schedule to fly over to New York. If it makes you feel better, we can go this Christmas and you can meet them! We’d have been dating for a few months by then.”

She snorted in disbelief. “What are they like?”

An expression crossed his face, one that was fond and soft. She hadn’t seen it on his features before, and she felt a sudden flush rise up her neck. He looked really cute, smiling like that.

“They’re wonderful,” he said. “They’re my family. Takumi and Sachiko didn’t hesitate to take me under their wing, and I can’t be more thankful. Yes, I had to leave Japan behind in order to live with them, but I think it was the right choice to make. I mean, I’m here right now, and I don’t think I would be if…” he looked thoughtful. “Well, I think it was the plan I was supposed to take. It just felt right, and I can’t say I’ve looked back with a negative thought.”

“You mentioned they had kids?”

“Yeah, Yuuta and Sumiko,” again, he wore that expression of fondness. “Yuuta was three when I first moved in, and Sumi had been two for about a month. They’ll be eight and seven now. They’re like siblings to me now, but at first it was weird, because I was used to being an only child. I know Yuuta found it easier to say goodbye, since he was old enough to remember when I arrived, but Sumi was in tears since, as far as she knew, I had always been there. I miss them, I do…”

“Then you should visit!” she said. “They miss you, too, I’m sure.”

He looked at her and gave her a soft smile. “I think you’d like them, and I know they’d really like you. I guess I would be heartbroken if they didn’t, but I’m much happier that I can introduce you to Takumi and Sachiko instead of my actual parents.”

She took his hand and offered it an encouraging squeeze.

“Am I now that asshole son who leaves for university and makes no contact until years later?” Satoru pondered aloud, the playful light dancing in his eyes once more. “Let’s go to New York for Christmas, Shoko. I want you to see the place where my best memories are at.”

She couldn’t promise things would be the same by December, but she found a smile creeping onto her features, imagining herself interacting with his family, even though they were faceless names to her.

“I’d really like that,” she said.

They spent a bit longer at the beach, where Satoru revealed there was snorkelling equipment on the boat. Shoko spent more time than she’d like to admit looking at fish with silver, yellow, black, and blue scales, darting around along the seaweed, sand and shells. There was, of course, a mandatory jump-scare from Satoru, who had put on a pair of goggles and swam suddenly into view, posing theatrically as the fish scattered away. It was fun, and she almost choked on seawater when she accidentally laughed at Satoru’s antics, much to his alarm.

Before long, Satoru was checking his watch, and it was time to go. They dried themselves off and Shoko threw on her pool dress for the journey back, enjoying the wind in her hair and the sun on her skin. Returning the boat was easy, as all Shoko had to do was stand and people-watch as Satoru spoke to the same man once again in Spanish. Then, hauling their pool bag over his shoulder, they returned to the public changing rooms to get back into their normal clothes. 

Shoko didn’t mind that she smelt of the sea when they crossed the pier towards the restaurant, hand-in-hand once more; she was sure everyone in Majorca did. Besides, the sun was in the air and she was with the man she loved, about to sit-down for a wonderful meal. Yes, Shoko was happy to say she was in love with Satoru, and she couldn’t stop sneaking small glances at him every now and then as they were seated at an outdoor table with the sea right beside them. They sat opposite one another, a warm candle burning between them and the waves lapping at the shore nearby.

A waiter wandered over and spoke to them in English, saying, “Wat kanai getyutu drink?”

She understood the last word was “drink”, but had no idea how to order it.

“Do you want a cocktail? Or a glass of wine?” he offered sheepishly.

“Actually, not today,” she said, registering his surprise, but her dad’s words were on her mind. “Maybe like a cordial or juice or something?”

The smile that lit up his face was worth more than anything else in the world. It was a look of hope and a look of trust. It was a promise for better days, and Shoko became all too aware that she was more than ready to make those better days a reality.

Chapter Text

It was nice to arrive home feeling fresh, if not tired. She had been awake since the early hours of morning, and all she wanted to do was lie down and sleep. Her hair had become stiff with salt water, and it was around half seven in the evening.

“Dibs on first shower,” she said, and he laughed, waving a hand in response.

Just as she was leaving, he reached out and caught her hand. She turned, seeing an unusually earnest expression on his face.

“I’m really proud of you, you know,” he said

Shoko felt her face warm. “It’s nothing, really. I just turned down the chance to drink, is all…”

“But that’s such a big step,” he continued, and smiled. “Don’t downplay it. I’m proud of you and I love you.”

She let herself smile, let him tilt her head up as he kissed her softly. He also smelt of saltwater and she could taste the sea on his tongue. It was a true island paradise for the both of them, and she wouldn’t have traded anything in the world.

“Go have your shower,” he leant back from the kiss, releasing her hand.

Shoko smiled and hurried off for a quick shower. She took a long time to scrub away the smell of salt. It had been such a wonderful day, and her mind slipped towards her conversation with Mei Mei, of all the things they had talked about. Hearing about Satoru’s life in New York had been heartwarming. She could envision his childhood with the Okkotsu family, even though she had no idea who they were or what they looked like. Strangely enough she felt closer to him, having learned more about his past. It was almost as though he were finally - finally - opening up to her. The closeness made her feel hopeful, like she was stepping over hurdle after hurdle and getting closer to really understanding Satoru Gojo.

When she stepped out of the shower, she had come to a decision about what she had wanted to do. For a long time, she had been on the fence, believing that she could never pull off something like that, but seeing the look of adoration and pride on his face meant so much more to her. She was instilled with confidence, so she dropped down to her suitcase, towel wrapped around her body, and carefully lifted out a full set of black lingerie. She had got it after Mei Mei had left for work, her friend’s advice lingering in her mind about what might be alluring.

She dried herself off and pulled on each piece. It was a little embarrassing how the lace seemed to attach itself to her skin, but she kept going, slipping on the stockings and attaching them to the garter belts. She kept looking at herself in the mirror, the wired top giving more shape to her torso than she had ever seen. Admittedly, she felt both exposed and empowered. It was an odd feeling. 

Her heart was hammering in her chest as she opened the bedroom door a fraction and called out, “Can I borrow a sweatshirt?”

“Always ~” she heard a smile in his words. “Do you want a coffee?”

She hesitated, then relented. “Sure!”

She popped back into the room and threw open his suitcase, rifling through for her favourite sweatshirt of his. A lot of them were black, but there was a particularly baggy one she liked, and she managed to pull it out from the bottom, dislodging a number of other items. She pulled it on as a box rolled across her foot and she stooped down to pick it up. It was small, black and made of smooth, faux-leather. Swirly silver writing was embossed on the front, but it wasn’t a language she could read. It felt odd in her hands, because it was so light, and yet it was like holding a lead weight. She sat on the edge of the bed, staring at it. What was it doing here? Why did it fill her with a sense of dread?

Shoko took a deep breath and opened it.

There it was. A beautiful diamond ring winked back at her, sitting in a velvet cushion. It was beautiful and seemed to catch every colour of the rainbow as she turned it around underneath the light. But it was definitely an engagement ring, there was no doubt about that. He had proposed to Yuki after four months of dating. Was he really planning on getting engaged to her after a month ? It felt insane. It felt surreal. This couldn’t be happening. She pinched herself, but she didn’t wake up.

She snapped the box shut.

Her heart was in her throat. There was no way he had bought her an engagement ring. Could it possibly be just another lavish gift he was going to surprise her with? But why with the secrecy, the small unassuming box, the beauty of the diamond? Her breaths felt short and loud. It had been buried at the bottom of his suitcase; she hadn’t been meant to find it. Was it really a special ring, or was this a game of Satoru’s? To big things up and make them more impressive?

She opened the box again.

It was a magnificent ring, and the diamond was big enough to be a showpiece. There was a lot of thought to this ring. She didn’t dare touch it, in case it broke, because it looked so perfectly and carefully crafted. It wasn’t like the other rings he had bought her, or any ring she might see in a jewellery shop when she was out shopping. This was a ring that meant business.

She closed the box with a click , feeling sick.

Was she supposed to address this? Maybe she could chuck it back in the bottom of his suitcase and pretend she had never seen it? But could she really act as though it didn’t exist? She knew she would end up accidentally cracking eventually, but what was she supposed to say? She liked Satoru, but she wasn’t ready to be engaged. Yes, her feelings towards him were intense, but it had still only been a month. Even Shoko understood that that was too soon.

She had to open the box one more time just to check if it was real. The ring was still there, and in her haze she even wondered whether it was meant for someone else. She was nowhere near ready to be engaged. There was blood pounding in her ears and she could only hear her faint breaths.

“One co-”

She whipped her head around. In her panic, she hadn’t heard him coming. He was standing in the doorway, two mugs in his hands, completely rigid as his eyes focused in on the box she was holding. Shoko immediately snapped it shut, as though that would hide the fact she had seen what was inside.

“I can ex-”

“I was ju-”

They both caught themselves. Shoko drew in a sharp breath, the box still held in her hands. Satoru was still in the doorway, and he didn’t seem inclined to come any nearer. In fact, there was an almost stricken expression on his face. She needed to say something, since he didn’t seem able to muster up any words.

“Is this…” she began hesitantly, “...an engagement ring?”

Satoru stood there, staring at her. He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. Could it be a misunderstanding it? This had to be a stupid misunderstanding.

“It’s not an engagement ring?” she breathed out a laugh. “I mean, why would you have an enga-”

“Yes, it’s an engagement ring,” he said flatly, and she choked back any more words.

Shoko stared at him. When was he going to crack out a smile and tell her he was joking? When was he going to say it was for something else, or that it was an overpriced yet thoughtful gift? He didn’t. He just stood there, looking at her, his expression a little lost and heartbroken.

“I can explain,” he rushed across the room, putting down the mugs on a bedside table.

Why do you have an engagement ring? ” she breathed. “ Are you returning it? ” He sat beside her and tried to take the box, but she couldn’t let go, not when she needed answers. “ Why do you have an engagement ring, Satoru ?”

His hands were warm on hers, and there was pure panic in his eyes. “Because - because -”

When he didn’t seem able to continue, she said, “You just told me you could explain this.”

“I was…” he looked lost, eyes darting between her face and the box in their hands.

“Were you -” she couldn’t say it, she couldn’t force herself to make it feel more real than it already was, and yet she seemed to be the only one who could string out a full sentence. “Were you going to propose to me?”

“Yes,” he said blandly, “I was.”

“Are you insane ? ” she finally released the box and stood up, raking her hands through her hair and pacing around the room. “ Proposing to me? After a month? Do you realise how little we know each other, still? There’s so much more we need to do before we even think about taking this relationship to the next step.”

“Listen, please -”

But she was beginning to panic. “Literally this morning you said you wouldn’t propose to me, that that was just something stupid you’d done in the past, and now I find - that .” She almost couldn’t get the words out, but she had to keep going. “That’s just too fast for me, Satoru.”

“Please don’t fr-”

“Freak out?” she rounded on him, as he sat on the edge of the bed with the box in his hands. “ Of course I’m freaking out , you were about to propose to me! That’s not something you do to someone you’ve only known for a month!”

“I love you so much, Shoko, it just felt right!” he protested.

“That’s too fast - that’s just too fast ! ” she twisted her hair furiously around her fingers. “ I just can’t believe this. You were actually planning on proposing to me. I’m not ready to be your fiancée - I’m not ready to be anyone’s fiancée -”

“Please, Shoko, calm down,” he lifted a placating hand. “Breathe, please.”

“- and for some reason you don’t see anything wrong with that?” she walked around. “How can you willingly promise the rest of your future to someone you’ve only known for a month ?”

“Shoko, you need to breathe, just si-”

How are you so calm ? ” she shrieked. “ I’m struggling to process that you decided to buy an engagement ring after a month of knowing me! I don’t care how much you love me, that’s just bat-shit crazy , Satoru!”

Just sit down and let me talk !” he shouted, and she froze on the spot, staring at him.

Her legs were shaking, her mouth felt dry, she felt sick. How could she just sit down and listen to him when there was question after question dogpiling in her conscience? She stared at him in disbelief, rooted to the spot, still unable to fathom that he had decided a month was enough time for him to propose. Did he not understand what it meant to be engaged to someone?

“Please, Shoko…” he rubbed his temples, voice much quieter, “sit down?”

She wobbled over to the bed, mechanic, and dropped down on an edge, allowing some distance between them. She stared at him, unable to drag her eyes away from his ocean ones.

“When I invited you to come to Majorca with me, I…” he swallowed, and looked away, as though searching for words. “It suddenly dawned on me just how much you meant to me. I really believe that we met for a reason, and I knew that it was the right thing to do. I-”

“A box of chocolates would tell me that I’m special to you,” she interrupted frantically. “This holiday alone tells me how much I mean to you. An engagement ring is taking things to a -”

“Shoko, you wanted me to speak, so I’m the one talking now, ‘kay?” he looked briefly irritated, and she clamped her mouth shut, staring at him with furrowed brows. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I do forget that I work on fast-forward and that not everyone is ready when I am. Yes, I was gungho about this whole thing, and our conversation this morning happened long after I had bought the ring and planned to propose.”

“And when the Hell were you going to pop a question like that ?” she said roughly.

“Tomorrow, when we went to La Seu,” he said nonchalantly, “but when you sa-”

“You were going to propose to me tomorrow ?”

“Shoko, I’m trying to talk to you,” he huffed impatiently.

“You were going to propose to me on the second day of our holiday?” she felt her voice getting hoarse with panic once more. “And you didn’t think things would be awkward for the rest of the holiday when I said “no”?”

He barked a hollow laugh. “I hadn’t expected you to be so against being engaged to me.”

Of course I’m against it!” she leapt to her feet once more, restless, and continued her antsy pacing. “This is unbelievable, this is - I can’t - it’s just far too soon.”

“I wasn’t going to propose after what you said this morning,” he raked a hand through his hair, looking at her, frustration on his features.

“But you still planned to in the first place !” she turned to him in disbelief once more. “Why am I the only one out of that who thinks that’s completely insane?”

“Of course it’s insane! ” he spread out his hands, and she couldn’t help but notice he still held the box. “ I’m crazy for you; I’d do anything for you, Shoko, I mean - shit, I’d die for you!”

“Stop it!” she clamped her hands over her ears. “We’ve known each other a month, you can’t keep saying outlandish, stupid things like that!”

“This isn’t something we need to fight out about, Shoko,” he glowered from the bed. “I’m not going to proposing to you any time soon, because I listened to you what you said earlier .”

She stopped, took a deep breath, and really tried to centre herself. “You jumped the gun big time. I can’t go as fast as you seem to want to, I’m - I’m - can’t you see I’m freaking out about this?”

“It’s not that big of a deal,” he protested. “I haven’t proposed, nothing has changed.”

“You were going to, though, ” she said, keeping her voice down. “ Satoru, I’m not there in this relationship yet, so yes, I’m a little bit scared -”

He snapped his head towards her. “Don’t be scared of me.”

“No, scared by how quickly you wanted to take this,” she said.

“You’re not going to leave, are you?” he looked ready to stand up if she said “yes”.

“No, of course not,” she blew out a breath. “But I need you to understand that I’m not ready to be engaged.”

“Will you be ready in the future?” he hesitated.

“I’m not even ready to think that far in the future,” she said pointedly. “I’ve got another four years of university after this one. I don’t have any particular solid plans beyond that, and I’ll be around my mid-twenties by the time I graduate, and even then I might end up doing another three years specialising.”

“So you don’t want me to ever propose to you?” his brows furrowed.

“That’s not what I said, I just said I have other things on my mind, and marriage isn’t one of them,” she said.

“Don’t you think you’d make a great Mrs Gojo, though?” he inclined his head worriedly. “Mrs Shoko Gojo…”

She stared at him. Stared at him for so long. Thought of her options. Agree or fight… agree or fight ? Why did her mind always want to run from conflict? Why was she so afraid of pulling out a block? The tower didn’t always fall, sometimes it stayed upright. And if it fell, then that only meant it was too unstable to save, right? Why was she so scared of rocking the boat? All of her arguments went horribly wrong… but did they? She had argued with Suguru, but now they were working on bettering their friendship. Why was she so scared of that stupid wooden block?

Shoko stared at Satoru and she pulled the block out of the tower.

“No.”

It was a word she had said many times in her life, and yet this time, her voice was low and clear. It seemed to resonate through her throat. It felt more powerful than anything she had ever said.

Satoru recoiled a bit. “What?”

“No,” she repeated, not fully understanding what she was feeling, but it was nice to stand there, to stand there and fight on her own side of the ring.

Satoru had paled and his eyes were unusually bright. He was staring at her with his brow furrowed, his expression incredulous. He shifted where he sat, leaning forwards, and laced his fingers in front of his mouth, still watching her. When he finally spoke, his voice was unusually low, and there was something about the look on his face that made her feel uncomfortable.

“Is that a “no” to getting engaged now, or forever? Is it a “no” to a future between us?”

“It’s a “no” to this,” she vaguely gestured towards him.

“A “no” to me?” he stood up and began to walk towards her.

Her heart began to jump in her chest. There was a light sweat on her palms, but she stood her ground, even when he stood right before her.

“Well?” he put his hands in his pockets and tilted his head, still looking at her with piercing, cold eyes.

“It’s a “no” to this thing you do,” she said, hating the slight tremor in her voice.

“I’m doing a “thing”, am I?” he said. “So it’s my fault ?”

“You do this ! ” she burst out. “ You try and wheedle an answer out of me; you can’t let things hang in the air for future discussion; it has to be now, now, now, but life isn’t always about now! The only one out of us two who isn’t thinking about the future is you !”

“Yes, I’m thinking of the future,” he kept his voice calm and low. “I’m thinking of a future with you, and yet your spiel about all your plans and university is a future that doesn’t even consider me in the slightest. Do you see me in your future, Shoko?”

The tower was tilting.

“You ask me a question, and if I don’t agree with you, you don’t accept my answer!” she snapped. “I’m trying to take life one step at a time, so how the Hell do I know what’s going to happen in ten years' time? It’ll be nice if we’re still together - I really like what we’ve got, and I do love you - but -”

“How can you say you love me when you don’t even want to marry me?” he demanded, and his voice was now beginning to rise again.

“Because I don’t want to marry you yet !” she cried out, and she could feel tears running down her face. “You can’t keep pushing until I give you the answer you want to hear, that’s not how a relationship works!”

“OK, what else have I pushed you into?” he said. “The only thing you’ve agreed to was to come to Majorca with me. Did you not want to come to Majorca with me? Did you not want to be my girlfriend when I asked?”

“I do want to be your girlfriend, and I definitely wanted to come to Majorca,” she twisted her hair around. “But even with Majorca, I wasn’t entirely sure it was the right time, and you kept saying, and saying, and I just - I wanted to go, so of course I said yes, but -”

“Oh, so I made you come to Majorca with me!” he barked out another laugh.

“No, you’re not doing this!” she couldn’t stop the rough screech entering her voice. “You’re not making me feel bad for putting my foot down!”

The tower was wobbling from side to side. It wasn’t stable.

“I’m not a puppet!” she was going now, she could feel anger and stress and tears boiling through her veins. “I’m fucking tired of people trying to control my decisions just because they think that’s what’s best for me! You didn’t make me do anything, but to then get angry at me when I disagree with you? That’s not fair .”

“Why can’t you see,” he threw his hands up in the air, and the swift movement made her jump, “that I -” but he stopped dead in his tracks, staring down at her with widened eyes, a mixture of horror and anger. “Did you just flinch?”

Shoko opened her mouth to speak, to say not really, she just hadn’t expected him to move. The tower had fallen.

“Did you think I was going to hit you?” he asked, and his voice was quieter than ever before.

“No,” she mumbled, “of course n-”

“Why did you flinch?” he demanded. “You thought I was going to hit you.”

“I didn’t! I -”

“I’m not my dad, Shoko, I would never hit you.”

“I know! I -”

“I said that you could trust me, that you could rely on me,” he ranted. “Why did you think I was going to hit you?”

“Satoru, I didn’t!”

“Then why -”

Stop it !” the shriek was so loud that her throat felt raw just saying it.

The room was silent. Her hair hurt from the twisting and tugging, her head hurt from the arguing, and her eyes hurt from the tears. She was done. The pieces were all over the floor and she had caused this. She slipped past him quietly and headed towards the door.

“Where are you going?” he asked coolly.

“To have a smoke,” she said, walking down the stairs.

“We’re not done talking, Shoko,” he began to follow her.

I’m done talking,” she grabbed her shoulder bag and pulled out her cigarette box and lighter. “I need some alone time.”

“Don’t be afraid of me,” he said, and his voice became slightly more placating. “I wasn’t going to hit you. I never would. I care too much about you.”

She stepped out onto the balcony. “I know you would never hit me, Satoru. I didn’t flinch because I was scared , it was just a little jump when you moved.”

“Then we need to talk about the rest of it,” he stood in the doorway as she lit a cigarette and puffed on it, leaning against the railing. “About us, about the future.”

“I’m not talking about anything right now,” she balanced the cigarette between her lips for another nicotine-fuelled breath. “I want to be alone, Satoru.”

“We can’t just leave things like this,” he said.

This time, Shoko didn’t answer. She had no energy for this. They could have this conversation tomorrow.

“Shoko?” he tried again after a pause.

Still, she didn’t answer. It was just her and the smoke, and the crumbling dam she had built to try and hold back her emotions. The tower had fallen, and she was too frustrated to put it back together. Without another word, Satoru left, and she stayed there, smoking quietly. It was well-past midnight by the time Satoru returned.

“Please come to bed, Shoko,” he said quietly.

“I’m staying up,” she said, because she still needed this time.

“Please, Shoko…” he sounded tired, but she didn’t look at him. “You’re going to get cold.”

“Goodnight, Satoru,” she replied. “I’m staying up.”

There was another long pause, then he drew in a long and slightly shaky breath. She thought he was going to ask her a question, but in the end she heard his receding footsteps as he walked away. When her heart stopped racing, when she had become one with the smoke, only then did she put an end to the spree. She put out the last cigarette, and stepped back inside, closing the door behind her.

Shoko set down the cigarette box and lighter, and crashed asleep on the sofa.

Chapter Text

Shoko blinked herself awake. The sun was out, the sky was blue. It was properly morning, and her eyes stung from crying. Her mouth was dry, her head was hurting, but at least she was warm. She shifted slightly, and noticed a blanket had been laid over her. She sat up, running a hand through hair that was tangled. She was still wearing Satoru’s pullover, as well as the black lingerie, but thinking about last night only left a sour taste in her mouth. She felt a wave of sickness, a fresh wave of tears, and was wiping her face before she could stop them. How had she managed to make such a mess of things? Why had Satoru wanted to propose to her so soon?

She shouldn’t have freaked out so much. Shoko understood that now, but hindsight was a wonderful thing. If only she had kept her head screwed on, and yet she had turned it into something that shouldn’t have happened. Satoru hadn’t proposed in the end; he had registered what she had said about not wanting an engagement… and yet he had tried to push her again. Mei Mei’s words kept flowing through her head repeatedly.

If he doesn’t, then he’s controlling, and that’s an issue that really needs to be addressed .”

He hadn’t reacted well at all. She didn’t want to acknowledge that Satoru was flawed since he had been only wonderful to her, but… yes, it was clear that there was a need to control others in his life. How was she supposed to address that without another argument breaking out? What if this would be the end of her and Satoru? For some reason, the thought of losing him struck something in her heart. She felt more tears running down her face, but she didn’t want to be found hysterically crying. She desperately didn’t want things to end; she wanted this to work, for this second chance to have been worth all the smiles and tears. She drew in a shaky breath and lifted her legs from the sofa, only then noticing she wasn’t alone.

Shoko jumped on the spot, falling back against the sofa. Satoru was fast asleep on the armchair nearby, neck crooked as he slept. She sat there, wiping her tears, looking at the man she would do anything not to lose. It had just been a stupid ring, and then she had fired off at him. How unfair was that? Both of them were in the wrong; how could she possibly be blaming him for everything? She stood up with the blanket and gently put it over his lap. Even though she was as careful as possible, he still stirred and opened his eyes slowly to look at her.

She almost started crying again. Instead, she bit her lip and climbed onto his lap, hugging him tightly and burying her face into the crook of his neck. He let out a relieved sigh, wrapping his arms around her and letting her lean into him. There was no way she was going to lose him over something as trivial as this; she wanted him in her life, of that she was sure.

“I’m sorry I shouted at you,” she mumbled into his neck. “I’m sorry I freaked out. I love you, Satoru, and I really do want you to be a part of my life, and my future, and one day, when I am ready to marry, I can imagine that it’s you with me.” She leant back to run her hands through his hair, seeing tears on his white lashes. “I’m sorry for making it seem like you weren’t wanted, because that’s not true at all - I want you in my life so badly. We’re so young right now, and there’s absolutely no need to rush what we have at all, and just because we’re going at this pace doesn’t mean things are bad, it just means we’re enjoying our twenties and youth. I love you, I love what we have. Every day with you is an adventure, so of course I want you in my future, and I don’t know how I’d feel to find that I might never see you again. ” She cupped his face in her hands, seeing the half-smile he was trying to maintain past his emotions. “ I’m so stupid, though, so I say stupid things, and this is the only long-term relationship I’ve ever been in. I freak out when I don’t need to, and seeing that you were so excited about the next step in our relationship shouldn’t have been something that worried me. I should’ve just sat down with you, listened to you, talked to you, because I’m not ready for marriage, or engagement, but I’m ready to be with you . ” She watched his eyes flutter closed as he tried to blink back tears. “ I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you last night, and I’m sorry I cold-shouldered you. I’m sorry that I’m immature and handle things wrong, and I’m sorry that I don’t appreciate you enough, because you give up so much time and effort for me, and I take that for granted. I take you for granted.” Her own tears had begun to roll past her chin, but she made no effort to wipe them away, because she only wanted to focus on Satoru. “I love you so much, and my life has become fantastic ever since you walked into it.” She drew in another shuddering breath, running her thumbs along his cheekbones. “I hate how you’ve had such a difficult life, and I want to be able to make your life better.” She gasped. “I’m happy being your girlfriend, and in the future I’ll be your happy fiancée and then your happy wife. I love you, Satoru!”

She finally let herself burst into wails. She buried her face into his neck once more, holding onto him for dear life. He breathed in deep and a little shakily, then curled his limbs around her like a koala, holding her against him.

“Oh, Shoko,” his voice sounded thick and ready to crack. “I love you so much.”

“Please forgive me,” she begged into his shoulder. “I know I’m difficult, I know I’m a mess, but you only wanted to make me happy, and I shouldn’t have gotten angry at you for trying that.”

“Of course I forgive you,” he held onto her tightly. “Neither of us are perfect, but I’m here for you always.”

“I know, and I need you to know that I’m all yours, OK?” she leant back to hold his face once more. “I’m all yours, now and forever, OK?”

She planted a kiss on his lips. She didn’t care if it was tearstained, she just wanted to kiss him so badly. Her heart soared that he reciprocated, and that blissful joy from yesterday was back. Shoko couldn’t lose Satoru; she understood that now. She hadn’t realised how close she had become to him. If he walked out of her life and never came back, she would be devastated.

“There is something we probably should discuss, though,” he said sheepishly, leaning away from the kiss and tracing his fingers along her thigh. “I hate arguing with you. I really hate it. But I also don’t like when we leave arguments open.”

“I don’t like that, either,” she said, brushing her fingers through his hair.

“OK, see, I’ve noticed that you find it easier to walk away than to find a resolution, which is a normal reaction, but…” he played with the hem of her stocking. “I like it when we can talk. I like it when we overcome hurdles. It makes me feel better about myself, and it makes me feel like I’m succeeding as your boyfriend, if that makes sense.”

“I’ll stop running away,” she nodded tearfully. “Anything, I just love you so much.”

“Can I… explain to you about the ring?” he said nervously.

She nodded frantically, resting her hands on his shoulders as he roped his arms comfortably at the small of her back.

“OK, so, yes, it was a bit silly of me to buy that, and even sillier that I was going to propose after a month of knowing you,” he said. “I was thinking with my heart, not my head. I was scared that if I didn’t act, I might miss the opportunity to be with you, and it felt a lot more dedicated to be engaged. I now realise that you don’t need me to make huge statements or “commitments” or proposals to feel like I’m dedicated.” He reached for a hand up to tuck some hair away from her face. “You like me, and you like me for me, and I take that for granted. I genuinely feel bad for trying to rush you to do things you’re not totally ready for, and then not respecting your decisions. You’re here with me, you gave me a second chance when I didn’t deserve it, and we have so much time ahead of us. I want to celebrate every day I have with you. You’re like an angel; the moment you came into my life, things just became so much clearer.”

She leaned into him once more hugging him close. He rocked her from side to side, limbs wrapped around her once more as they cuddled on the chair. He was warm, and his body shook as he cried into her hair, and Shoko held on to him, feeling aggrieved that she was the cause of his tears. She was exhausted, and she could only imagine that he was, too.

“Is it OK if we have a lazy day today?” she asked timidly when the tears had subsided.

“Of course,” he squeezed her. “I think we both need one. Plus, we have so much more of the holiday together.”

She nodded into his shoulder, drowning in his presence and smell. She could’ve fallen asleep there and then had her heart not been racing with the joy of being forgiven. She silently vowed to never yell at Satoru like that again, not when he had grown up in an environment where shouting was a coming occurrence. She couldn’t do that to him, not when he was banking his happiness on her.

“There is… one more thing I’ve been meaning to ask,” he croaked, and she leant back.

Another pang of guilt shot through her chest, seeing his reddened cheeks and nose, tear tracks on his skin. Automatically, she reached out and wiped them away, not to erase what she had done, but in an attempt to make him feel just a little bit better.

“What is it?” she asked softly, his face in her hands.

He really was wonderfully beautiful. It was tragic to see him having cried, and yet he was the one calling her an angel. He had saved her ; moreover, he was the one who looked angelic and otherworldly.

His brows now knitted together a little, a curious smile playing on his lips. “Why were you going to wear tights to bed? You’ve never done that before.”

“Oh, um…” she felt her face instantly heat up. “They’re…”

He tilted his head, confused, then pushed his pullover up and out of the way, just enough to see the garter belts. He looked up at her through his eyelashes.

“It was just…” she felt hazy and embarrassed, “something…”

“Were you dressing up for me, babe?” he looked back at her lap, bunching the sweatshirt up around her waist and raking his eyes along her lace underwear. “ Fuck …”

“It was more spur of the moment than anything,” she mumbled as he ran his hands along her thighs, fascinated. She felt a knot tying in her lower abdomen, breath hitching. “In fact, actually, I’ll go get changed…”

“I’ll help you…” he murmured, and the look on his eyes made her feel fluttery all over.

“Satoru… we probably shouldn’t get intimate every time we argue…” she said hesitantly.

“What are you talking about?” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, we only kiss after we make up. Besides, you’re kinda irresistible…”

She thought about it. He wasn’t wrong. They had never slept together out of anger. They always had their arguments before anything else, but she worried that sex jaded the apology. Plus, he was… his usual gorgeous self.

“If you’re not in the mood, I get that,” he patted her legs cheerfully. “It was a long night.”

“Wait,” she ran her hands along his shoulders. “I did get all dressed up. And we are only staying in today…”

“Let’s get into something more comfortable, then,” he nipped playfully at her earlobe.

Shoko slipped out of his lap and grabbed his hand, pulling him along through the house. Satoru wore a languid smile on his face, letting her lead him up to the bedroom. Up the stairs, and every now and then she would glance and see his eyes dancing with anticipation. 

She turned around to kiss him, but he seemed to have other ideas. He pushed her forwards and she fell backwards onto the bed, yelping when he bent down and lifted her legs over his shoulders. Shoko sat up on her elbows and watched as he playfully tilted his head, staring straight into her eyes.

“What?” he laughed. “You’re practically gift-wrapped ~”

Shoko flushed and laid her head back down, staring up at the ceiling as Satoru drew his mouth along one of her stockings. His lips were soft and warm, his hands on her hips firm. She wasn’t going anywhere, he was making that clear. Her eyelids fluttered closed as he reached the top of her stocking, flinching a little bit as dragged his tongue along her skin towards the garter belt around her thigh. He kissed her skin, and then took the garter belt between his teeth, pulling it a fraction and - Shoko gasped as he let it snap back against her skin. She propped herself up again to look at him, but he was busy turning his attention to kiss her other thigh. There was a slight stinging of her skin, and his hand fumbled with the belt’s buckle as he drifted his lips across her skin, planting light kisses as he went.

Her heart was racing in her chest, so Shoko let herself lie back, letting out a comforted sigh as he loosened the belt and slipped one of her stockings off, trailing his fingers along her bare skin afterwards. His movements made her feel warm and gooey inside, and she actually found it quite relaxing to lie there and let him take complete control. He leant in close once more and kissed her inner thigh, one hand tracing her body up to her waist, the other playing with the belt of the other garter belt. His breaths were warm and she let herself fall into a lulled security, only to jump once more when he licked her underwear in between her legs. A small purring moan left her lips, and she did her best not to shift her body, even though he still had a hold of her.

He nudged his face in between her legs to kiss her, fabric keeping his mouth away from her opening. She felt relaxed against him, her legs over his shoulders as though that was where they were meant to be. Satoru kept gently kissing, licking and sucking at her underwear. Shoko could feel herself getting a little tighter with anticipation, responding to each of his touches. Yet it wasn’t the same as having his tongue flicking in and out of her, lips on her bare clit. She whined softly, pushing her hips towards him. He snapped the leather of her remaining garter belt down. Shoko let out a small, choked gasp of surprise and she heard him chuckle. She raised her head a bit to see amusement and a dark hunger in his eyes as he met her gaze.

As he watched her, he hooked a finger underneath her underwear, pulling it to one side and drawing his tongue through her folds. Shoko shuddered out a low moan and let herself flop back down. His tongue was warm and wet, movements fluid, up and down, swirl around on her clit. Her breaths were a little heavier, and then he let her underwear fall back, resuming his light kisses. Shoko was feeling a little restless. She wanted him so badly, a flush spreading across her cheeks. She didn’t want to show any desperation, but her body was burning for a little bit more than this. Maybe if she guided him a little bit… She drifted a hand down to touch herself, to get a little wetter for him.

Snap went the garter belt, and she flinched her hand away.

“Satoru,” she said pointedly, staring at the ceiling.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” he hooked a finger underneath the belt once more. “I’ve always been really slow at opening presents.”

“I never noticed before,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Something tells me that you’ve been thinking bad things about me ~”

She clamped her mouth shut and turned her face against the bedsheets. Still, she couldn’t help keening as he pressed his tongue pointedly against her underwear, pushing the fabric a little inside her, and then dragging his tongue along, sucking slowly and deliberately. She tried to keep her body as passive as possible, for any sudden movements and the belt went snap. She moaned softly, and Satoru took his sweet time before pushing her underwear aside and slipping two fingers into her. It was like heaven; she pushed her hips down on his fingers, and - snap . She squeaked, tensing around his fingers. She wanted to tell him that he was just being plain mean, but then he curled his fingers, pushing hard against her inner walls and the bundle of nerves deep inside her. He closed his lips around her clit and sucked, and a shuddering moan that Shoko didn’t think she could make. He hummed against her body, and she felt the sound vibrate through her. This was heaven, this was pure agonising heaven, and in these moments she loved and despised him.

He lifted his mouth once more and she was flooded with disappointment. He let her underwear fall back and idly rubbed his fingers against the fabric. Shoko whined again, and muttered something indeterminate under her breath, even though what she wanted to say was a plea for him to hurry up, to make her reach that bliss she craved. She wanted to beg him to climb over her and satisfy both of their needs, yet when she glanced back at him he was still tracing his fingers along, watching her expectantly. What did he want with her? His blue eyes were so brilliant and soft, but there was something like laughter deep down.

She jolted a bit when, out of the blue his warm mouth brushed on her thigh. He snapped on the leather much harder this time, and she yelped.

“What do you want me to do?” she whimpered, breaths ragged as he traced his finger on her clit. “Please, Satoru…”

He lifted her underwear once more and kissed her labia, tongue flicking inside her, as though he were making out and he began to rub her clit. She was panting, face hot, his onslaught in between her legs like a burning fire. She gripped the sheets, moaning as a stream of worlds spilled from her mouth, all distorted mutterings of his name, God, and how good it felt to have his head between her legs. And then he stopped. She whined in protest, reaching for his head, and he snapped the leather belt.

“Satoru!” she complained, returning her hands to the sheets. “Would you just -!”

She huffed irritably, and looked down. He was smiling at her, his expression lit up with amusement. She was very close to scooting away and going for a cold shower, but his hold on her remained tight.

“You’re so bad at begging, babe,” he grinned, and then began peeling her underwear down.

She lifted her legs a bit to help him, blushing as he drew his tongue along the inside of her underwear before discarding it. He hoisted her legs further along his shoulders and parted her labia with his mouth, leaning in to a deep kiss. He pressed his fingers into her thighs in a tight hold, nose knocking against her clit. She reached down for his hair, soft strands between her fingers, but then his hand slid up her leg and he snapped the belt. She cried out a protest, moving her hands back to the bed, to just let him take over her whole body. His tongue was inside her and whenever she moved, he would snap at the belt. He had the control, he had the power, and all she could do was let him take control. 

He drew his mouth up along her vulva and sucked on her clit, swirling his tongue, and he pumped his fingers inside her. She was seeing that cloud nine, that golden bliss, and even the smacks from the leather belt felt good. It was like he was inviting her to new pleasures, new sensations, and she wanted to take every single one of them. She was feeling hot all over, passion flowing through her body and then - he stopped.

His mouth left just as she felt she was about to start peaking, and a protesting gasp left her mouth. He stood up over her, pulling his shirt over his head. She squirmed a little bit, tempted to finish herself off, but he climbed over her and kissed her mouth. She could taste herself on his tongue, and still, when she dared to let her fingers wander across his bare shoulders, he snapped the belt at her thigh, biting down on her lower lip hard enough to make it feel swollen. She whined softly when he leant away, unfinished and admittedly a little unsatisfied.

Satoru grabbed her hips and rolled her onto her stomach, pulling her ass up onto her hands and knees, and leaning over her, body pressed against hers. She could feel he was hard and playfully wiggled against him. She got a belt snap for that. He kissed along her back, her shoulder blades, one hand sliding up her body to fondle one of her breasts. Shoko moaned softly, enjoying the feeling of him against him, his breaths tickling her skin as he leaned in to suck on her throat. Her pulse was leaping around and there was still a tightness in between her legs that needed fulfilling.

He pulled his fly down and lined himself up at her entrance. She glanced over her shoulder, looking at him anticipation, and met his cool blue eyes, darkened with something like determination. Her breaths were heavy and, as he nudged the head of his cock inside her, she felt her eyelids flutter and her breath hitched. He met her gaze, his hands sliding to rest on her hips. Shoko felt the need to prepare, digging her fingers into the sheets. Satoru leaned into her, filling her gradually, humming in appreciation as he did so. He laid a feather light kiss on her spine as he settled balls deep in her. She couldn’t help but whine again, to have him so far inside her and yet she hadn’t reached that golden light yet.

Satoru leant back and firmly jerked her hips towards him. Shoko gasped as he began a rhythm. He was in and out, and it felt good to have him inside her again. She let her head fall back, a half-smile on her face as she panted at every wave of pleasure he gave her. His hold on her hips was bruising, but for some reason it seemed to add to the thrill of having him pound into her from behind. There was sweat on her body, her inner thighs were damp and she felt a pulsing through her body.

He reached forwards and looped an hand beneath her chin, pulling her back up against him, his other arm circling around her midriff to hold her in place as he continued to rail into her. His fingers pressed a little into her throat. Shoko grabbed onto his arm, nails digging into his skin, and he turned her head towards him and kissed her, tongue in mouth. She breathlessly moaned into the kiss, other hand reaching up to curl into his hair. He drew his hand along her stomach, leaving a fluttery sensation as he went, and then idly rubbed her clit. Shoko squirmed against him, trapped against his body as he slammed into her. He lifted his mouth from hers at least, saliva between their tongues, his face flushed. She was finally free to moan out loud, legs trembling from the assault on her senses and he was the only thing keeping her upright. She couldn’t formulate words right now, so just let her eyes close and for Satoru to take care of the rest.

He tilted her head away and closed his teeth on her jugular, sucking at her pulse. His mouth was still wet from the kisses, but he continued to power in between her thighs, and it felt good. She wanted to tell him how good it felt, but she couldn’t. She was tight around him, she could feel him against her inner walls, in and out, his fingers stimulating every nerve ending in her clit. It was paradise, it was heaven. Shoko cried out, she could feel her body shuddering out her energy, losing a bit of herself to him in that moment. He fucked her through the orgasm, biting down on her skin, and it was once again that mix of pure bliss and a sharp, brief pain. She was weak, but it was OK because he was holding her up.

Except that, suddenly, he gripped her hair with an iron hold and pushed her head down onto the bed. Her cheek was against the bedsheets and he pinned one hand on the bed with his own, fingers digging into the back of her hand and wrist. He was deep inside her, and all Shoko could do was pant and let him fuck her senseless. She was sticky with sweat, Satoru tirelessly panting over her, and she even felt a little dizzy, the blood rushing to her head. She couldn’t move, though, and her body was screaming at the pleasure. Satoru grunted, and there was a slight change in his pace. His hold on her loosened, a shudder passing through him. He dropped his forehead onto the damp skin of back, breaths heavy, idly grinding his hips against her. His hands moved from her head and hand to torso to her hips and he eased himself from her. Shoko let out a small sigh, drawing herself up and let herself fall into a W-seated position, flinching at the sensitivity between her wet thighs.

There was a crick in her neck, a pain in her neck, and her wrist was reddened where he’d held her down. Her thigh hurt from the snap of the garter belt, and there was a deep ache in between her hips. She felt bruised both inside and outside. Satoru’s arms snaked around her waist and he pulled her into a close hug, resting his forehead on her shoulder. Shoko leant into him. They stayed there for a bit, breaths still heavy, and Shoko was sure she could’ve fallen asleep. There were even moments when she wondered if Satoru had fallen asleep, but then he inhaled slowly and deeply, letting out a contented sigh.

“Satoru,” she said breathlessly, “everything I said earlier, I really did mean it.”

He hummed, but he made no further response or movement.

“I really want to make your life better,” she continued. “I don’t want to be a burden, or make you feel bad about yourself. In the future I want us to be able to have so many milestones together.”

He raised his head a fraction to rest his chin on her shoulder, rocking her gently from side to side. He still didn’t speak, so Shoko rushed on.

“I want you to be able to rely on me just as much as I can with you,” she said. “You’re not the only one who should be giving support in this relationship. If you need to talk, I’m always around. You’ve made me the happiest I’ve always been.”

He finally spoke. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“I won’t leave you, and you’re my number one,” she rested her head against his. “And I meant that I’m all yours, too.”

He kissed the top of her head, but buried his face in her hair, mumbling, “Forever, you said.”

“Always,” she said. “Always, and forever.”

She felt him smile rather than saw. 

“Forever and a day,” he said.

Chapter Text

Needless to say, Shoko and Satoru took a break on Saturday. Shoko kept a firm control of the TV remote and used that to power through as many episodes of Gilmore Girls as possible, shooting glances at Satoru as he became gradually (and reluctantly) invested in Lorelei and Rory’s lives. After episode fourteen, it was quarter to midnight, and Shoko was yawning. It had been an exhausting night, so it felt like the right time to turn in.

“But that was Rory’s dad!” Satoru had protested. “We can’t leave things off there!”

“Alright, well, you can continue the marathon,” she had laughed, “but I’m going to bed.”

He had puffed out his cheeks and relented, and it had been the best she had slept in ages. It was wonderful to wake up in a sunlight filled room with one of Satoru’s arms flung over her. The clock read eight in the morning, and yet Satoru still seemed fast asleep. She rolled onto her side, brushing her fingers along his cheekbone. He breathed in softly, stirring slightly, but not enough to wake up. She leaned in close, counting his long, silvery lashes, and then pecked him gently on the lips. He shifted again, eyes fluttering open and he looked into her face, a soft, warm smile appearing on his face.

“Can I wake up like that every day?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t see why not,” she replied.

He pulled her against him and kissed her again. It was nice to settle in the bliss of morning, quietly kissing in the bed. She let her hands wander through his hair, along his shoulders and arms, his chest, his waist. He slipped his hands under the covers, pushing up her shirt and hauling one of her legs over his hip. She ground her crotch against his and he moaned against her lips, grabbing the waistband of her pyjama shorts and underwear and pulling them down. He climbed on top of her, pulling down his boxers and aligning himself to her body.

“Can I wake up like this every day?” he asked, leaning in and kissing her softly.

She laughed. “Maybe.”

He hummed and kissed her again, gently caressing her sides, and then slipping one hand between her legs. Shoko hummed against his mouth, feeling along his shoulders, draped in sunlight and bedsheets. His fingers played music with her body, and he cupped her cheek with his other hand. Past the pleasure she opened her eyes and smiled up at him, leaning into his touch. He returned the smile, the light reaching his eyes, and it was such a tender look that her heart almost stopped. Things suddenly felt different; she felt patient and relaxed by his touch, looking into his eyes as though he was the only other thing to exist other than herself. She felt like everything would be OK if she kept her gaze on his, his soft expression and gentle touches that her breathing heavily.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said.

She attempted another smile, but the pleasure in between her legs was picking up, so she instead could only offer a half-smile as her eyelids fluttered shut. He bent down and kissed her again, thoughtful kisses where he took his time to enjoy her lips, warmth radiating from his body. She could feel herself getting restless, shifting against his fingers, small panted moans filling the room.

“Shoko?” his lips ghosted hers.

“Nn?” she opened her eyes and he was looking down at her, still looking serene and peaceful.

“I love you,” he said, his smile pleasant.

“...love you, too,” she managed, and let her eyes close again.

“Can you look at me, Shoko?” he said quietly.

She opened her eyes again, captivated by the brilliant blue of his eyes. Her chest was rising and falling, and yet he continued his careful ministrations, all the while staring into her face.

“You’re so good, Shoko,” he looked fascinated, eyes only for her.

Shoko felt a rush shoot through her body. She was almost there, puffing out a moan and rested her face into his palm, closing her eyes and furrowing her brow.

“Shoko…” he said, and she looked back at him, reminded that he wanted to see her, for her to see him.

It took everything in her power not to break their gaze. All she wanted to do was bury her face as she came. Her pitch was rising and her brows set in a permanent crease. Her face was flushed and she didn’t imagine she was a particularly pretty sight, yet Satoru was looking at her as though she were otherworldly. Admittedly, his attraction to her was a turn-on, and she didn’t want to ruin this moment between them, so when she felt a cry rip through her throat, the shudder that passed through her body, she made sure she only blinked, rather than closed her eyes, and the wonder on Satoru’s face was worth it. He looked like he was experiencing the same bliss that she was, and then she found a smile on her face, looking up at him.

“You’re so beautiful,” he murmured, leaning down and kissing her once more. “You did so well…”

He trailed his fingers through her hair, his other hand, fingers damp, on her hip as he brought her leg up to rest on his hip. He showered her with kisses and praises as she regained her breath. For some reason, she felt like they were closer now than they had ever been, not just physically, but emotionally as well. He took his time kissing and touching her, as though they had all the time in the world. Even when he lined himself up with her entrance he didn’t rush. She whined softly as he pushed all the way in, but for once he didn’t set a gruelling pace on her body. He adjusted her against him, before leaning down and kissing her as he slowly moved between her thighs.

She was just a tangle of limbs with Satoru, sweating into the sheets as he showed her yet another side to his mysterious self. She hadn’t thought he could be this gentle in bed, and yet here he was, drawing out wave after wave of pleasure as he handled her body with as much care as you might with glass. Every now and then he would break the kiss, huffing as he looked at her face, his cheeks pink and his eyes half-lidded, desire and lust darkening them. He sped up a little bit to chase his own thrill, but in between he would kiss her deeply and tell her soft praises and how he loved her. It wasn’t rough, it was comforting, and to Shoko it felt more than sex. She couldn’t explain why, but this just did.

He collapsed against her after he came, holding her in his arms and pressing his face in the crook of her neck. She held onto him, feeling his heart rapidly beating in his chest. It was like a wonderful rush, and she had been able to share it with him. She nibbled at his ear and he raised his head, eyes still a little dark, and pulled her in for another deep kiss. She could’ve stayed in bed with him all day, their slow, drawn-out kisses special, his hands on her body, but Palma was just outside, and she did want to explore it whilst they still had the weekend.

Although he took a bit of convincing, Satoru eventually agreed to get out of bed, and the pair of them quickly showered and dressed. As always, Shoko insisted they put on copious amounts of sunscreen, and Satoru happily obliged. They took a taxi to the centre of Palma, and once again Shoko saw the great rectangular cathedral. Her heart jumped in her chest as she remembered that it was here Satoru had planned to propose to her, but she hastily pushed those memories aside. She didn’t want to spoil her day with negative thoughts or worries. Instead, she wanted this to be a day of peace and love shared between her and her boyfriend.

“I’ll admit, there’s only so much there is to do in Palma,” Satoru said sheepishly, and the taxi dropped them off at a car park just outside a cafe. “So we’ll have a quick brunch, visit the cathedral, and then I have a little excursion planned for us.”

“Should I be concerned about this “excursion”?” she stepped out of the taxi with him.

They were in a plaza, and nearby was a small cafe called Café Bar Almoina. There were blue plastic chairs outside, with little metal tables.

“Shall we eat outside?” Satoru glanced at her.

“The weather’s nice, so let’s,” she said, gazing around the small patio outside.

“You grab a seat and take a look at the menu,” he patted one of the tables as he passed by. “I’ll get you a coffee; remind me, black with no sugar?”

“Perfect,” she lowered herself down in a chair and watched as he disappeared inside the cafe, ducking his head as he went.

She put her head in her hands and looked around the small courtyard. The weather was beautiful; it was perfectly warm and she could content herself with people watching. As Satoru had instructed, she took a look at the plastic menu that Satoru had indicated towards and pulled it close to her, looking over the sheet and seeing a lot of words she didn’t understand. It was all English letters, and it was clear that Satoru had forgotten that she couldn’t speak or read that language.

The first word, all in capitals, simply read “TAPAS”. Already she had no idea what that meant. She stared into space, drumming her fingers on the menu. She couldn’t see any sign of Satoru, so she could only assume he was being held up. She felt a little restless, almost as though she ought to go and look for him. Then, out of the doorway he came, carrying a table number.

“Thought about what you wanted?” he asked cheerfully.

“I can’t read any of this,” she pointed at the menu.

He peered at it. “Didn’t think of that… How about we both get a Spanish omelette? They’re nice.”

“Should I order them?” she half-rose, but he pushed her back down.

“It’ll be easier if I do it,” he smiled at her.

“Shall I give you mone-”

“Don’t be silly,” he chucked her chin. “I want to spoil you on this holiday. Plus, it’s only six euros, it really doesn’t matter.”

“If you say so,” she mumbled, and watched him go back inside.

Shoko drummed her fingers on the table, looking over he