Shortly before midnight, the two of them ended up standing near the docks again, the same place where they ended their first date together. Once again, Kaori looked out over the ocean and tried to think of a way to pull herself away from the happiness she had experienced that evening.
Kaori clasped her hands together and stared at the water below. Earlier that day, she didn’t believe that it was possible to feel even more conflicted about putting a stop to this charade than what she did the first time she had to do it. But now she was faced with the reality that that was exactly was she was dealing with. She was exhilarated and saddened to discover that this date had been even more intense than the one before it. At first she couldn’t really fathom what made things so different this time, but soon inspiration struck her.
‘Last time we had a lot of fun, but nothing was really said,’ she mused. ‘This time…this time, I spoke from my heart. I said things that I have been wanting to say to Ryo for so long…And now that I’ve said it, I can’t just let it go and return to how things were before…I can’t…’
Ryo stood silently beside her. Kaori knew that she should say something to break this silence, but she was afraid that if she were to start talking, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from saying things she couldn’t afford to say.
‘But I have to do this,’ she told herself. ‘No matter what I feel, no matter how much this hurts, this is the reality of the situation. I am not Cinderella. I am me, Kaori Makimura, Ryo’s partner. No matter how much I want things to be different, that is how they are.’
She dared to glance over at Ryo and received yet another warm smile from him in return. The sight pulled at her heart.
‘Still…despite what I feel right now, it was worth it. I know that Ryo was able to have his moment of peace, like Miki-san suggested. He was able to have his Cinderella’s support and care.’
‘Tonight he was happy, and he’ll have this happy memory to keep forever. I just hope that it will be enough to let him heal, even if it’s just a little.’
Kaori turned her head back toward the water and steeled herself for what she had to say next.
“Thank you, Ryo,” she said. “You really did give me another wonderful night to remember. I will treasure it for the rest of my life.”
“Once again, just like the fairy tale,” Ryo sighed. “Midnight comes and Cinderella has to disappear. Is that it?” Ryo shook his head and leaned closer to her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m afraid that I am a very selfish man.” Kaori lifted her head and stared at him, confused.
“I know how this fairy tale goes, but I’m afraid that I can’t let play out that way,” he continued. “Not this time. At first, I thought that I could. I thought that I could treat this like just a date. But after spending this evening with you, I now know that I can’t let it end that way again. So, I can’t let you go at midnight.”
Kaori goggled at him while a sharp pain pierced her heart. Even though he didn’t say it directly, she knew what he meant: he wanted much more than just this one date, this one night.
‘No, not me, Cinderella,’ she repeated in her mind over and over again. ‘It’s her that he wants, not me.’ Kaori knew that if she did not keep telling herself that, she would give in to his request without hesitation.
“I’m sorry, Ryo,” she said, her voice starting to quaver. “I would love to stay with you…but I can’t. I just can’t.” Ryo moved even closer to her, his eyes staring deep into hers.
“You said earlier that you have been searching for your knight,” he said. “That it was your dream. And you said that if you found him, you would never let him go. Did you mean that or was it just something to say, a passing fancy?”
“I meant it,” she insisted. “I meant every word I said tonight. You know that.”
“Then I’m making you an offer,” Ryo said. “You said it yourself; I’m not a perfect man. Far from it, actually. And I can tell you that I am very well acquainted with the darker side of this world. But if you’ll have me, I would like to be your imperfect shadow knight.”
“Ryo…I…I…” Kaori started to back away from him, but Ryo stopped her by taking both of her hands into his.
“Stay,” he said. The look in his eyes told Kaori that this was not a command. It was a plea from his heart.
Kaori didn’t know when she started to cry, but suddenly she was aware of moisture on her cheeks. Especially when Ryo reached up and brushed some of her tears away. Right now, she felt like she was living in a dream and in a nightmare all at the same time. After years of waiting, she finally heard him speak the words she had been longing to hear.
But even though he said them to her none of those words were actually meant for her.
“Ryo,” she said, her tears increasing. “I wish could stay. I wish that I didn’t have to go. If there was any way, any chance that I could stay with you, I would take it. Please believe me.”
Kaori let go of his hand backed away from him again, but Ryo continued to move toward her.
“If I could prove to you that there is a chance, would you take it?” he asked.
Before she could reply, Ryo reached into his pocket and pulled something out. He then opened his hand and in the center of his palm was a ring. Kaori gasped when she realized that she recognized it.
‘That’s…that’s my ring. The one aniki gave me. Why does he have that? How could he give that to some stranger he’s only met twice? He knows how precious it is to me.’
Kaori felt a surge of rage go through her, and was about to act on it when Ryo suddenly grabbed her right hand and put the ring on one of her fingers.
“Like I said, I am a very selfish man,” he said. “This is the second time I’ve given you this ring and, even though it was your brother’s gift to you, a part of me has always wished that you would think of it as a gift from me as well simply because I know how much you treasure it.”
Kaori’s mouth dropped open and she grew increasingly pale as the meaning behind what he said sank in.
‘He knows….He knows who I am.’
Kaori yanked herself away from him and turned to run, but Ryo grabbed her wrist.
“Wait Kaori,” he said. Kaori wrenched her arm away, but she stayed where she was, her back facing him.
“When did you figure it out?” she asked, tears clogging her voice. “Was it during this date or did you know at some point while we were together during the first date? Or…did you know from the very start?”
Ryo remained silent, and Kaori shook with anger and sorrow.
“How long have you been playing along with this charade?” she spat. “Did you have fun making a fool out of me? Did you? Were you secretly laughing at me this whole time? Well I hope you enjoyed yourself.”
“Why?” he murmured gently.
Kaori closed her eyes and lowered her head. She was still furious with him, but the way he spoke that single word reminded her of why she had done all of this. She knew what he was asking and struggled to find her voice again.
“Because I didn’t know what else to do,” she wept. “You’ve been acting so differently lately and I was worried that there was something wrong…all of us were worried, actually. I wanted to find some way to help you because you…because I am your partner. So…so I thought….”
“You thought that if you became Cinderella again, you could find out what was wrong,” he finished for her. “You thought that you could find some way to help.” Kaori shook her head and laughed bitterly.
“I know, I was an idiot,” she said. “Besides, you’re giving me too much credit. Even though I was supposed to be doing this for you, a part of me wanted…wanted to….”
Kaori took a deep breath and wrapped her arms around her torso.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I should go.”
More tears fell from her eyes as she found herself frozen in place while Ryo moved to stand behind her. He was so close, Kaori could feel his breath on her neck.
“Kaori, you misunderstood me,” he said. “I did not ask Cinderella to stay with me. She is not the woman I want.”
Kaori was about to ask him what he meant by that when Ryo took her by the arms and turned her around to face him. Then in one fluid movement he grabbed her wig and pulled it off her head, letting it fall to the ground.
“The woman I want is the one who appears after midnight,” he continued. “The woman who knows who and what I am and still thinks of me as a knight. The woman who was willing to break her own heart for the man who makes her cry.”
Kaori continued to weep silently while staring into his eyes.
‘This can’t be right….This couldn’t be Ryo…Is he saying that he wants me, not Cinderella…that he wants to be with me? It can’t be true, can it? Am I dreaming this? Am I going to wake up any moment now and everything will be as it was before?’
Suddenly, Ryo let her go and took a step back, lowering his eyes. Kaori felt her heart drop.
“Ah, what was I doing?” he asked, sheepishly. “You’re probably still mad at me. It’s ok. You don’t have to say anything.” He put a hand to the back of his head and laughed. He turned away from her and went back to watching the ocean. Kaori had almost walked away while he was talking, but the sound of that laugh made her stay where she was.
‘That laugh…it wasn’t like the happy ones from tonight. It was another hollow one, like the ones he has been doing for weeks.’
“Let me take you home,” Ryo said, still not looking at her. “It wouldn’t be good for you to stay out here. It’s the least I can do.” Kaori took a couple steps toward him. She was shaking and couldn’t figure out if it was from the cold or the strong emotions that were overwhelming her.
‘Does he…does he think that I don’t want him? That I don’t want what he’s offering?’ Kaori took a deep breath and did her best to regain some composure. Ryo had finally taken the first step and revealed a piece of his heart. Now it was her turn to find her courage.
“Ryo,” she said. Ryo turned toward her.
“What is it?” he asked. For a moment, she hesitated as fear paralyzed her.
‘I have to tell him….show him…how I feel.’
Ryo continued to wait for her to speak again as she moved closer to him. After looking into his eyes for a few seconds more, Kaori tentatively put her arms around him, her entire body trembling as she did it.
“I want to stay,” she whispered. “Please let me stay…just like this.” She held him even tighter and rested her head against his chest while closing her eyes. Kaori’s heart began to pound again a moment later when she felt him respond by wrapping his own arms around her.
Off in the distance, a bell chimed.
“Listen, it’s midnight,” Ryo said. He then reached down and put a hand under her chin, tilting her head up toward him. Kaori blushed as he gazed into her eyes with a smile on his face.
“Don’t you remember what I told you the last time we did this?” he teased. “You never listen when I tell you something important.” She responded with a smile of her own.
“You never tell me anything important,” she said, her voice still unsteady. “You’re too busy giving me a bunch of nonsense.” The both of them laughed and then Ryo leaned closer to her.
“Close your eyes,” he told her. Kaori immediately did so. Her heart started to beat even faster. A second later, he kissed her.
It started out as a simple kiss, but it soon turned into something more. Ryo cupped her head with one hand while holding her close to him with his other arm. Kaori responded by squeezing him as tight as she could. She put as much love as she could into this kiss, and she could sense that Ryo was doing the same. Time seemed to stop until they finally broke away, the both of them gasping for air.
“Ryo,” she breathed.
“It’s after midnight,” he said. “The magic is gone. It’s just the two of us now.”
“Idiot,” she responded. “The magic is still here. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
Ryo laughed again and Kaori enjoyed the sound. Even as she tried to sort through her own confused feelings of joy and apprehension, she felt an undercurrent of relief at how relaxed and natural this whole situation felt. Still, her mind held many questions with one being the most pressing.
“Ryo,” she said. “All those things you said tonight…did you mean them…mean them for me?”
Ryo’s face fell and became more somber. Kaori instantly regretted the question and went back to holding him.
“It’s ok,” she said. “You don’t have to….” She was interrupted by Ryo embracing her again.
“I could ask the same of you,” he replied. “Was that you or some fairy tale princess talking?”
“Of course it was me,” she shot back. “I told you more than once that I meant every word I said.”
“Then you have your answer,” he said quietly. His words warmed Kaori’s heart, but she was concerned about the way he said them.
Kaori tightened her hold on him. She could tell that he was happy, but she also sensed a lingering impression of tension and melancholy from him.
“I am very tired,” he said in the same low voice. “I think we should go home now.” For a moment, Kaori was unsure of how he was acting or what she should do. She quickly realized though what she needed to say.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she whispered.
“You heard me,” Kaori said. “You’re my partner, my knight and I’m not letting you go.” She reached up and placed both of her hands on the sides of his face.
“You won’t be able to get rid of me,” she said, blushing violently. “Because I…I love you, Ryo Saeba. So don’t get any ideas about me leaving any time soon because it’s never going to happen.”
Ryo grinned at her, his eyes lighting up with joy, and he planted another kiss on her lips.
“Thank you…partner,” he said, his lips brushing along her cheek.
The two of them held each other for a moment more before starting to walk back to Ryo’s car. Kaori knew that this was just a beginning and that there would be plenty of challenges for them to face as a couple. She also suspected that, while this evening went a long way toward giving him some peace, there was a lot that Ryo was still grappling with.
At this moment though, Kaori was happy. Happy and confident in the knowledge that whatever was coming next; they would face it together as partners…in every sense of the word.