Kaori stared at the table and at the dishes in front of her and was contemplating how it was often the little things that had the most impact on a person’s day.
Today that little thing was a piece of toast.
The morning had started out like many others. She got up and peeked into Ryo’s room to find him sleeping before going to the kitchen to make breakfast. She hadn’t heard him come home last night, so she was certain that he had not gotten back until almost sunrise.
‘Probably spent another night at the cabarets,’ she told herself. ‘Well he better not have spent too much money on alcohol. We may be out of debt, but we don’t have money to burn.’
Kaori prepared some food and ate it by herself to give him a little more time to sleep. After making some eggs and toast along with some strong coffee she headed back to his room.
“Ryo! Time to get up,” she called out as she walked in. “Don’t sleep the day away.”
Without opening his eyes, Ryo turned over in his bed, pushing his face toward the pillow. He let out a couple more loud snores before starting to giggle.
“Yes…do that again, Rie-chan,” he slurred out drowsily. Kaori shook her head and sighed.
“Come on, Ryo,” she said as she pulled at his bed sheets. Her face immediately turned red when she realized that he had chosen to sleep naked yet again.
“Ryo,” she growled as she turned away. Ryo slowly opened his eyes and blinked several times.
“Ah, Kaori, I got in late last night,” he grumbled. “I’m going back to sleep.” He tried to snatch the blankets away from her, but Kaori yanked them out of his grasp.
“I already made you breakfast,” Kaori replied. “So come on, get up. There might be a job today, so you can’t spend all morning lying in bed.”
“But I was having a wonderful dream with Rie-chan,” Ryo whined. “We were all alone on a tropical island, and she was using these two coconut halves to….”
Ryo was cut short by a blow from Kaori’s hammer knocking him onto the floor.
“Don’t tell me about your perverted fantasies!” she yelled at him. “Hurry up before your breakfast gets cold.”
A couple minutes later, Ryo skulked down to sit at the table and sipped at his coffee for a few seconds before starting to eat his food. Kaori cleared away her own dishes and then sat down across from him.
“Say Ryo, you haven’t spent much time around here recently,” she said. “You’re out almost every night now, all night, and you take off right after breakfast every morning. What have you been doing with all of your time?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Ryo asked as he chewed. “Fall is already here and soon it will be winter. I have to use what little time I have left to find a vision who will help keep me warm on those cold, cold nights.”
“Be serious,” Kaori said after giving him a tap on the head from her one ton hammer. “Are you saying that you’re using all this time just to chase girls? Maybe you’re doing another job on the side?” A flash of anger appeared in her eyes.
“You better not be working for Saeko,” she said. “All she does is use you. Nothing good ever comes out of working for her.” Ryo swallowed what was in his mouth and drained his coffee cup before standing.
“Nah, Saeko owes me too many mokkori points right now,” he said. “There’s no way I’d work for her unless she pays me back at least of a couple of them.”
“Then what are you doing?” Kaori asked. “I can’t believe that you’re only chasing women the entire day or have you really degenerated that much?” Ryo turned and walked toward the door.
“I’ll be back later,” he said. “Let me know if you’ve got a job lined up.” He then walked out.
Ryo left before Kaori could say anything else. For a moment, she thought about rushing after him and giving him another pounding with her hammer. But then she happened to look at Ryo’s plate which still had a half eaten piece of toast on it.
Kaori leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table and resting her head in her hands. Leaving food on their plate would not have seemed strange with anyone else, but it was not the same with Ryo. Despite his sarcastic remarks about her cooking, Ryo always cleaned his plate and would often ask for numerous additional helpings. His appetite for mokkori was perhaps the only thing more voracious than his appetite for food.
For the past month though, Kaori had noticed that Ryo did not eat with the same gusto that he once did. He often turned down additional helpings and once in a while he even left food on his plate…much like he did this morning. At first, Kaori didn’t think much of it and was actually somewhat relieved that they were able to save on their food budget. This morning, however, put this thought at the forefront of her mind, and she could not stop thinking about it after that.
Kaori stood and cleared the table. It wasn’t just Ryo’s reduced appetite that had her concerned. Other things, like the way he spend most of his time away from the apartment building and the fact that his drinking had increased, had also weighed on her mind. Up until now, she had mainly been annoyed at him for his new habits, but now that she considered them all together, a new feeling had overtaken her: worry.
‘If only I knew what he was doing while he was gone,’ she thought to herself. ‘I could follow him for a day…No, that’s not the answer. Ryo would know that I was following him and would make sure to lose me. Besides that, I’ve invaded his privacy so many times. Do I have a right to keep doing that?’
Kaori washed the dishes and then began dusting and vacuuming around the rooms. She couldn’t deny that she was also angry at Ryo for being so secretive, but her worries quelled that anger. She tried to remember the last time she had been this worried about him and the first thing that came to mind was the incident with Sonia Field.
Her hands gripped the dust cloth she was holding in an effort to stop them from shaking. Almost six months had passed since Sonia Field, the daughter of one of Ryo’s old partners from America, had come to Japan seeking to settle the score with him for killing her father. Her blind hatred for Ryo and lust for revenge had led to a duel between him and Umibozu that almost cost Ryo his life. All the months that had gone by had not been enough to erase the images of blood running down Ryo’s face and of his body collapsing to the ground from Kaori’s mind. These images still haunted her nightmares, nightmares that had a much more terrifying end for that duel than the draw that actually happened.
Kaori dropped the cloth to the floor and sank onto the couch. She knew that a lot more had happened during that time than just the duel itself. She had wanted to talk to Ryo about it, but could not find the courage to do so. After it was all over, she had been so grateful that he survived and so touched by his gift of promising to spend the rest of their birthdays together that she convinced herself that it was best to move on and not dwell on it.
Looking back on it now though, Kaori realized that she had begun to see subtle changes in Ryo not long after that incident. The changes were not consistent or long-lasting, so she had been able to chalk them up to his usual eccentric behavior. These days, however, it was becoming impossible to rationalize it away.
‘What happened during that time to change things?’ she wondered. ‘Did something happen between him and Sonia? Or maybe the duel with Umibozu make Ryo see him, and maybe even Miki, in a different way? Does he not trust them anymore?’
‘Or maybe it was something I did. No matter what Sonia said to me, I know that I wasn’t a very good partner to Ryo at the time. Maybe he’s decided that too.’
‘Maybe it’s me that he doesn’t trust anymore.’
Kaori hung her head, tears swimming in her eyes. The more she thought about it, the more she became convinced that there was definitely something wrong. Worse yet, she wasn’t entirely sure if she could do anything about it. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘Ryo…whatever this is, please…be careful. Don’t push yourself too much….’
Kaori then stood and picked up the cloth from the floor. She resumed her household chores while trying her best to clear her mind.
An hour later, Kaori changed and headed off to the Shinjuku station to check the message board. She was still worried about Ryo and hoped to find a job request waiting for her.
‘If nothing else, it could give us some money and give Ryo a much needed distraction,’ she figured.
She scanned the chalkboard three times before accepting the fact that there was nothing waiting for her this time. Kaori let out a sigh and scanned the notebook that she usually brought with her. There had been a couple of offers earlier that week, but after meeting with them, she had determined that they wouldn’t be good clients.
‘And that means that we don’t have anything right now,’ she thought with a frown.
“Would you be willing to grant me a request, Kaori-san?”
Kaori jumped and whirled around to see Saeko standing behind her.
“A job offer? No thanks,” Kaori replied. “I already told Ryo that we weren’t going to accept anymore offers from you, so there is no way that I’m….”
“It’s not a job,” Saeko said softly. “What I would like is to have a talk with you…about Ryo. Would you be willing to have a cup of coffee with me?”
A few minutes later, Kaori and Saeko walked into the Cat’s Eye café.
“Good afternoon, Kaori-san, Saeko-san,” Miki smiled at them.
“Ah, hi Miki-san, Umibozu-san,” Kaori replied. She then looked around the room, her shoulders slumping when she realized that there was no one else there.
“Kaori-san?” Miki said.
“Oh sorry,” Kaori said. “I guess I half-expected Ryo to be hanging around here. Have either of you two seen him today?”
“No we haven’t,” Miki answered. “The truth is, Saeba-san hasn’t been in here much these last couple of weeks.”
“I see,” Kaori said, her eyes turning toward the floor. She and Saeko each ordered a coffee and went to sit at one of the tables toward the back. A couple moments later, Umibozu served them their drinks and Saeko took a long sip before speaking.
“Kaori-san, do you know if something has happened to Ryo recently?” she said. Kaori’s mouth fell open in shock, but then she closed it and resumed her downward gaze.
“No, I don’t know anything,” Kaori replied. “Did something happen between you and Ryo? Is there something going on?”
“That is what I am trying to figure out,” Saeko replied. “Although, if you don’t know what is going on, I’m not sure how I will find the answer. But I take it from your response that you are worried about him too.” Kaori nodded her head.
“He hasn’t been home much,” she said. “And he’s not eating like he used to…and he’s drinking even more than usual….”
“I see,” Saeko nodded. “I had a feeling that it was serious and this confirms it. You see, I approached Ryo about a job last week…”
“Come on, Ryo,” Saeko pleaded. “It’s just a simple undercover operation. It will take maybe two days at the most.”
Ryo sat on bench next to her in the park, smoking a cigarette. He leaned back and looked up at the sky.
“Saeko, do you have any idea how many mokkori points you owe me by now?” he said. “There’s no way I could consider taking on a job for you without some kind of upfront payment. Especially since Kaori would kill me if she found out about it.”
“But Ryo, there’s no one else I can ask on such short notice,” she said. “Listen, I’ll make this count for three mokkori points instead of just one. Besides, the setting is perfect for you. We’d be spending most of our time at a pool lounge.”
“Pool lounge?” Ryo asked, his eyebrows going up. Saeko smiled.
“Exactly,” she said. “You’ll be surrounded by women in high-cut bikinis for hours at a time.”
“High…cut…bikinis?!” he said, his eyes growing wide.
“Yes,” Saeko said. “Who knows, maybe you can have some fun before we have to get to work. So what do you say, Ryo?”
Ryo’s face contorted into an enormous grin as he breathed heavily and Saeko was convinced that she had him.
Suddenly, his smile disappeared and he stood up, tossing away his cigarette.
“Sorry, but I’ll pass,” he said. “The job isn’t that dangerous. You can handle it on your own. Maybe next time…after you pay me some of those mokkori points.”
He then walked away without saying another word.
“So…you were trying to sneak in a job after all,” Kaori said, glowering at her.
“That’s not the point, Kaori-san,” Saeko said, raising her hands in front of her and smiling. “The point is, this job was exactly the kind of thing that Ryo would normally beg to take on, and he acted like he couldn’t care less about it. Besides that, you know him, usually he won’t turn down a request from me.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Kaori said, her frowning deepening. Saeko laughed nervously before taking on a more serious expression.
“This isn’t the first time that I’ve thought that Ryo wasn’t acting like himself here recently,” she said. “But up until that point, I hadn’t really worried that much about it. Now, however….”
Kaori nodded and took a sip of her coffee. Hearing Saeko’s story made her even more concerned than she was before.
“Kaori-san, I think you should talk to him,” Saeko said.
“Me?” Kaori said.
“Of course,” Saeko responded. “You’re his partner.”
“Yes, but….,” Kaori murmured, her eyes fixed on the table top. “That doesn’t mean anything. Ryo...he doesn’t trust me, not that way. He won’t talk to me, not about something like this.”
“He trusts you, Kaori-san,” Saeko said. “Believe me. He trusts you more than anyone else. If you don’t talk to him, I don’t know who else could.”
Kaori wrapped her fingers around her coffee cup and stared at the mahogany liquid inside. She agreed with Saeko’s idea that someone needed to talk to Ryo, but she still harbored doubts that she was the best one to do it.
The two of them finished their coffees and engaged a few minutes of small talk before Saeko walked out of the café. Once she was gone, Miki walked over to Kaori’s table.
“Kaori-san, we need to talk,” she said.
Miki and Kaori moved to a backroom of the café while Umibozu stayed to watch the counter.
“I’m sorry,” Miki said. “I couldn’t help but hear the conversation you had with Saeko-san. The truth is, Falcon and I were discussing something very similar the other day after Saeba-san stopped by the café….”
“Hello, Miki-chan, Umi-chan,” Ryo smiled as he walked into the café. “Say, Miki-chan, when are you finally going to give up on this octopus and go on a date with me?”
Ryo bounced over to the counter, sat down on a stool, and grabbed both of Miki’s hands, rubbing the backs of them with his thumbs.
“Just one date with me, and I am sure that you’ll see the light,” he grinned. “So what do you say?” Miki yanked her hands away.
“The same thing I say every time, Saeba-san,” she said. “Not a chance in this world or any other one.”
Ryo stopped, however, when Umibozu threw a metal platter at his head.
“Shut up,” Umibozu barked at him. “I’ve told you more than once not to bring your perversions into the café.”
“Tch, who’s the pervert?” Ryo sulked. “You’re just as much of a pervert as I am…if not more.”
“Don’t compare yourself to me,” Umibozu replied. “I am nothing like you.”
“Oh, is that so?” Ryo said. “What about the other day when Miki-chan was saying that we’re so much alike?”
“Saeba-san, that’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Miki frowned. “Now, here’s some coffee. Drink it and stop with this nonsense.”
Miki sat the cup in front of him, and Ryo opened his mouth to say more, but abruptly closed it instead. He silently drank the coffee for several minutes before standing back up.
“Thank you, Miki-chan,” Ryo said. “For once I didn’t have to suffer through another bad cup of coffee from that octopus.”
“Hmph, bad coffee is all you deserve,” Umibozu retorted. Ryo laughed in response.
“Maybe,” he chuckled. “Maybe Umi-chan.”
Both Miki and Umibozu expected more out of him and were stunned when Ryo walked out the door.
“Huh,” Kaori said. “Other than that last bit, it sounded like the normal routine for Ryo.”
“It does seem that way on the surface, doesn’t it?” Miki said. “And yet….” She leaned toward Kaori, her eyes serious.
“If you had been here watching him, you would have noticed it too,” she continued. “The way he laughed, it sounded so…forced, hollow even. His energy, his playfulness, they just weren’t there, not really. Even though he acted the way he always does, it wasn’t the same.”
Kaori could not think of any way to respond. She had seen the same things in Ryo of late: laughter that seemed out of place, smiles that did not look genuine. Hearing Miki talk about it only put additional clarity on what she already knew.
“Falcon and I were talking about this,” Miki continued. “And we couldn’t think of anything significant that had happened recently, except….”
“Except the duel,” Kaori said. “The one between Ryo and Umibozu-san.” Miki gasped in surprise.
“Yes, exactly that,” she said. “It’s not as if Falcon and I did not have our own problems during that time. Once in a while, I still think about how things could have turned out differently…”
Miki clenched her hands and turned away for a moment while she reined in her emotions.
“I was so worried about Falcon, this duel, his eventual blindness,” she continued. “I just couldn’t think about Saeba-san and what he might have been going through. Falcon won’t explain why, but for some reason, he said that his injury was not Saeba-san’s fault and that he doesn’t blame him. But at the time, all I could see was the fact that Falcon was going blind, and that he was being drawn into a duel that could kill him…all this because of the evils in Saeba-san’s past.”
Miki lowered her head and Kaori did the same. Even though she didn’t like to think about Miki having thoughts like that about Ryo, Kaori understood her feelings.
“I know that I did and said some things that hurt him,” Miki continued. “I knew that Falcon was suffering, and I wanted Saeba-san to suffer too. It didn’t occur to me until later, right before the duel began, that Saeba-san was already suffering and that I was just adding to his pain. And even then, I couldn’t really grasp just how much he was hurting. Not then. Only now, when I look back on it.”
“I’m sorry,” Kaori said. “It must have been so hard for you and Umibozu-san. Do you think…do you think maybe that Ryo still feels uneasy around you?” Miki took a deep breath and lifted her head.
“No,” she said. “I know that Saeba-san understood the reasons why Falcon did what he did, and I know that he has forgiven me as well. In some ways, I think that makes it all a little sadder…But I don’t think that all of this is just because of what Falcon and I did. I believe that there is more to it than that.”
“Saeko-san says that I should talk to him,” Kaori said. “But, Miki-san, there’s no way that Ryo will listen to me, even if I am his partner. It’s not like how it is between you and Umibozu-san.”
“But it is,” Miki insisted. “Falcon sees it too. He told you that Saeba-san looks at you as more than a partner, didn’t he?”
“Kaori-san, Saeba-san has been taking on so much responsibility for all of us,” Miki continued. “All the work, both professional and personal, that he does for Saeko-san and Reika-san…the things he has done for me and for Falcon…his responsibility toward you…all of this, he’s taken on himself. But have any of us done the same for him? Have any of us tried to lessen his burden?”
Miki’s words made Kaori’s heart constrict painfully. Her mind started to list all the times that Miki alluded to where Ryo had worked to make her life, their friends’ lives and their clients’ lives a little better…and then she felt despair when she realized that she could not remember Ryo receiving the same kindness.
Kaori’s hands shook as she tried to stop her tears for the second time that day.
“I want to do something,” she murmured, her voice hoarse. “I really do. But I don’t even know where to begin.” Miki nodded and leaned back in her chair.
“I can’t tell you exactly what you should do,” she said. “Simply because I do not know Saeba-san the way you do. But I can give you a suggestion.” Kaori sniffed and looked up.
“Do you remember Maki Himuro-san?” Miki asked.
“Yes,” Kaori answered. “She’s the violinist who Umibozu-san supported financially while she was growing up. She’s the daughter of one of his old friends.”
“Yes,” Miki said. “She’s still studying music in Vienna. Anyway, once in a while, she sends Falcon recordings of her music. So, after the café is closed and everything is done for the day, the two of us sit together and listen to the music. We don’t talk, we don’t attend to other chores…it’s just us and the music.” Miki paused and ran a hand through her hair.
“Falcon would never admit it,” she continued. “But those moments, they are precious to him. While we are together listening, he can relax and not be the legendary Falcon or Umibozu. It’s just about us and the time we can share together. It’s a chance for him to find some semblance of peace, even if it’s just for a little while.”
Miki smiled and Kaori did the same. It was a bit hard for her to picture a scene like the one Miki described, but Kaori found it charming.
“You and I both know that Falcon faces many dangers and pressures just because of who he is,” Miki added. “And it is the same for Saeba-san. Kaori-san, what I am suggesting is that you find a way to bring that sort of peace to his life. Maybe you can’t think of it now, but I am certain that, if you put your mind and heart to it, you will know what you need to do to give him a moment like that…and that might be just what he needs to help him address whatever it is that is eating away at him.”
Kaori sat for a couple of moments in silence, digesting what Miki had told her. She agreed with Miki’s logic and insight, and while she was still nervous about what she should do, Kaori found herself determined to follow through with her suggestion.
“Thank you, Miki-san,” Kaori said as she stood. “I will try to find a way to do what you said.” She then left the room, and Miki let out a sigh.
“Miki…did you have to tell her about that?” Miki smiled and turned to see Umibozu leaning against a wall.
“Don’t worry, Falcon,” she said. “Kaori-san will be discreet. Besides, you and I know that she needs to be the one to help Saeba-san through whatever it is that is weighing on him.”
“Hmph,” Umibozu said, turning his head to the side. “Let’s just hope that that idiot understands what Kaori is trying to do.”
After leaving Cat’s Eye, Kaori walked along the streets of Shinjuku and thought more about what Miki had said.
‘I guess Umibozu-san enjoys listening to that violin music more than he said he did,’ she mused. ‘So…in order to do what Miki-san suggested, I would have to find something that Ryo finds relaxing and enjoyable.’
‘What does Ryo like?’
As soon as that thought popped into her head, Kaori rolled her eyes and let out a groan.
‘Of course, he loves chasing women as part of his endless pursuit for mokkori…He thinks about that non-stop….Isn’t there anything else though…?’
Kaori stopped her walking and leaned against the side of a nearby building. She searched her mind for a few minutes, but could not come up with anything. Then she saw a couple walk by, each of them eating at an ice cream cone. Kaori smiled and stood upright.
‘That’s it…food. Ryo loves to eat. Granted, he hasn’t been eating as much recently, but I haven’t made anything special in a while either. I’ll make a fabulous meal and then maybe he’ll want to enjoy the evening with me.’
Decision made, Kaori darted toward the nearest grocery store.
When Kaori finally returned to the apartment, she was surprised to see Ryo heading down the staircase toward the basement.
“Hey Kaori,” he said with a hint of a smile and a wave.
“Oh Ryo,” she said. “I, uh…there wasn’t any messages on the board today.”
“Ok,” he nodded. “Well I’m going down to the practice range for a while.” He walked past her and Kaori started to follow him.
“What is it?” he asked, looking back at her. Kaori blushed and gripped the bag of groceries tightly.
“I was thinking,” she said. “How about you staying in tonight. I thought that I would make something a little different for dinner and I…maybe you could have dinner with me.”
“Sure, sounds good,” Ryo said as he resumed his pace. “I just hope that I won’t get indigestion this time.”
As he walked away, Kaori almost crushed the bag of food in her hands. She was tempted to drop a hammer onto his head as he descended the stairs, but resisted the urge. Instead she went to the kitchen and started her preparations. Almost an hour later, she was finished and Ryo walked over toward the table.
“Wow!” he said, his eyes widening at the attractive array of food. “What’s all this?” Kaori grinned.
“Well we had some extra money this month, so I thought it would be nice to have a real feast for once,” she said. “Go ahead and enjoy.”
The two of them sat down, and Ryo immediately began to pile food onto his plate. Kaori continued to beam as he devoured plate after plate of food.
‘This is the most he’s eaten of my food in a while,’ she thought. ‘Miki-san’s suggestion of finding something that he likes was a good one. Now, I just need to find a way to get a conversation going.’
They finished their meal while engaging in occasional small talk and Kaori was pleased to see him consume all of the food she couldn’t eat. She then cleared the dishes away while Ryo went out toward the couch. After she was done with the dishes, she went over to join him to find that he was sprawled out on his stomach, giggling while reading another one of his ‘mokkori magazines.’
‘Does this pervert ever take a break from this sort of thing?’ she asked herself, incredulous. ‘No…probably not….’
She sat down next to him, and Ryo tossed the magazine aside, a large drop of sweat appearing on his head.
“Ah, Kaori, what…what…”
“Ryo, were going out again tonight?” she asked quietly. Ryo sat up, a quizzical look on his face.
“I am kind of tired and was thinking about staying in,” he said. “Why?”
“Oh…no reason,” Kaori said. She then looked down in her lap. This was turning out to be harder than she thought it would be.
“Ok,” Ryo said, his tone questioning. “Well…I think I’ll go to my room then.” He started to stand up, but Kaori grabbed at his arm.
“Wait,” she insisted. Ryo’s expression became even more confused.
“What is it?” he asked. Kaori blushed and coughed.
“Um…Did you enjoy your dinner?” she asked him, desperate to break the silence.
“Well, you outdid yourself, Kaori,” he smirked. “So much food… and yet none of seems to be upsetting my stomach.” Kaori clenched her teeth. She was determined not to lose her cool during this, but it was getting harder and harder to do. She continued to hold his arm, and Ryo let out a short nervous laugh.
“Was there something else?” he asked. Kaori’s blushed deepened as she worked to find the words.
“Ryo, I….” she stammered. “I think…I think maybe we should talk.”
“Talk?” Ryo replied. “What is there to talk about? Wait…are you trying to spring something on me?”
“What do you mean?” Kaori asked.
“That big dinner tonight…there was an ulterior motive behind that, wasn’t there?” he asked. “Let me guess, you found a client who is either male or a child and you were hoping that if you were nice to me for an evening, I would be willing to do you a favor. Is that it?”
“That’s not it at all,” Kaori said, her face becoming hot. “Can’t I just be a little nicer to you now and then?”
“Ah, I suppose,” Ryo said. “I guess I’m not accustomed to it.” Kaori let go of his arm, her anger growing.
“What are you saying?” she said. “That normally I’m not nice to you? That normally I’m a spiteful person?”
“Not so much that,” Ryo said. “I just don’t understand where all this spontaneous good will came from. You’re usually not that interested in what I want and with what’s important to me.”
“And just what would all that be?” Kaori seethed, her mind already starting to formulate Ryo’s answer.
“Every day I have a calling to pursue the visions of beauty that I see around me,” Ryo said. “Sometimes they are random women on the street, sometimes they are clients who need my attention…and yet, every time you act as a barrier to my pursuit. How can I possible enjoy my status as the stallion of Shinjuku when you….”
Unable to listen to anymore, Kaori slammed him into a wall with one of her maces.
“Maybe if you had some worthwhile pursuits instead of this single perverted one, I wouldn’t be so much of a barrier,” she yelled before stomping off to her room. “Idiot!”
“This…this is what I was talking about,” Ryo gasped as he slid down the wall and onto the floor.
Kaori spent the rest of her night in her room, and from what she could tell, Ryo did the same. She continued to fume for hours before finally falling into an exhausted sleep.
The next morning, she got up and went to see if Ryo was still in the building. His room was empty, however, and she figured that he had already left for the day.
‘That jerk. Now he won’t even spend breakfast around me. And maybe it’s just as well. If he was here, he’d probably just insult my cooking yet again.’
Kaori took a shower and got dressed. As she dressed, she looked into a mirror and studied her reflection. She contemplated on how, physically, she wasn’t elegant, but she wasn’t ugly either. She considered herself an attractive woman, but she wasn’t sure if she qualified as a “vision”. She touched the glass with her fingertips as she looked into her own eyes.
‘What does Ryo see when he looks at me? Does he just see me as his partner and not as a woman? Am I just a jealous tomboy to him? Am I at least a friend and not just an obligation?’
Her hand slipped off the mirror and she lowered her head.
‘Whatever he sees….whatever I am, I’m not what makes him happy. What makes him happy is his work, his bad habits, his chance to be with beautiful women. Nothing I can do will give him that peace that Miki-san said I should find for him.’
Suddenly a new thought entered her brain and she looked up.
‘Wait…beautiful women…there might be a way…a way for me to do that….’
After a quick breakfast, and a brief scan of the blackboard at Shinjuku station, Kaori immediately went over to visit her old high-school friend, Eriko Kitahara, at her clothing store
“Ah Kaori, I’m so glad to see you,” Eriko smiled as Kaori met her near the entrance. “How are you? How is Saeba-san? Anything happening there?”
“Eriko…I…,” Kaori said, blushing.
“Kaori, what’s wrong? What is it?” Kaori swallowed hard before answering.
“Eriko, I need a favor,” she said. “I hate to ask, but….”
“Don’t worry about it,” Eriko replied. “We’re friends, right? Friends help each other. So what is it?”
“Remember what you did for me before?” Kaori said. “What you tried to do for me anyway….Eriko, I need to do it again. Help me become that woman again. Please, just one more time.”
Almost two hours later, Kaori stepped in front of a mirror. She had been transformed and could hardly recognize her own reflection. She had been made up, given a wig and another fashionable outfit to wear.
“Kaori, what is it?” Eriko asked. “Do you not like the dress I picked out? Maybe you would like that green one instead?”
“No, no, it’s beautiful,” Kaori said. “I just…I know we did this before, but I still can hardly believe that this is me.”
“Of course it’s you,” Eriko sighed. “Why can’t you believe in your own beauty? All I’ve done is make it a little more apparent.” She then walked over to give Kaori some earrings and a necklace to wear.
“You still haven’t mentioned why you decided to do this again?” Eriko said. “Have you decided to take the plunge this time and tell Saeba-san the truth about you and your feelings?”
Kaori bowed her head. She was too embarrassed to tell Eriko that she had no intention of revealing her identity to Ryo this time either. While she was being made over, Kaori thought back to the first time she had become his “Cinderella” and decided that this was the best way to approach the problem in front of her.
‘Ryo wouldn’t want to spend an evening like this with me…he wouldn’t talk to me as me…but maybe he will talk to Cinderella,’ she thought. ‘It’s the only thing I can do to make him happy, like Miki-san suggested.’
“I…I was thinking of trying to talk to Ryo tonight,” she finally said, hesitantly. Eriko smiled and clapped her hands together.
“I knew it,” she said. “Good for you, Kaori. It’s about time you told him about how you really feel.”
Kaori nodded and did her best to smile. She didn’t want to lie to Eriko, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell her the whole truth either.
‘I will try to tell him how I feel,’ she told herself. ‘But Ryo won’t know that it’s me. It’s the only way I can help him now.’
After she was finished with Eriko, Kaori went to find a phone. She was reluctant to make this call, but she knew that it was crucial to her plan.
‘Now, I’m going to owe her favors,’ Kaori mused, frustrated. ‘She better not ask for too many in return.’
Kaori picked up the phone and soon a voice came over the line.
“Yes, Detective Nogami speaking.”
“Saeko-san, it’s me…Remember what we talked about yesterday? I, um…I need you to do me a favor.”
About two hours later, Ryo was sitting in a fast food joint, half-heartedly munching on a burger. He was staring out the window until he noticed a reflection of someone walking toward him in the glass.
“You’re not the easiest person to find these days.”
He looked over to see Saeko standing in front of him, a trace of a smile on her face. He smirked back in response.
“And yet, you were still able to find me,” he said. “So, why were you looking for me? Are you finally going to pay back some of those mokkori points?”
“I won’t be paying you directly,” she said, her smile growing. “But I am going to do you a favor that I think is worth several mokkori points.”
“Oh?” Ryo replied, intrigued.
“A woman stopped by my office today, looking for you,” Saeko continued. “Apparently, she came all the way from America just to see you.” Ryo put his food aside, put an elbow on the table and leaned toward her, his chin resting on the back of his hand.
“What does she want?” he asked. “Did she give a name?”
“No name,” Saeko answered. “She has been studying abroad and is in Japan on vacation. She really wanted to see you again, and she ended up going to the police station in an effort to find you. Fortunately, I happened to be around when she started to make inquiries, so I was able to talk to her before anyone else could.” She then pulled out an envelope from her purse.
“She told me to give this to you,” she said. “She said that would explain things including where you can meet her if you choose to see her.”
“Answer me one thing, Saeko,” Ryo said. Saeko blinked at his serious tone, but then had to resist the urge to roll her eyes once his usual goofy grin appeared on his face.
“Is she a vision?” he giggled. Saeko laughed and back away from him.
“Oh she is,” she said. “But I wonder…I wonder if you will be able to appreciate just how beautiful she is.”
Saeko turned and walked away, leaving a confused Ryo in her wake. He tore open the envelope and scanned the typed note inside. A few seconds later, his eyes widened and his mouth hung open.
Ryo stood up and stuffed the note into his pocket. It had only taken him a second to decide to go through with this meeting, but he would need time to prepare.
Kaori sat at a bar by herself, clutching her drink. She had gotten here almost an hour ago to give herself a chance to calm down and think about how she would navigate this evening. She ordered herself a drink as a way to further steady her nerves.
She hadn’t planned on, however, the number of guys who ended up trying to hit on her.
“Excuse me miss, but I couldn’t help but be enchanted by your beauty. It’s other worldly.”
“What is a beauty like you doing in a place like this? More importantly, how can I get you to come to my place?”
“Did anyone ever tell you that you put Venus herself to shame?”
“You are a delicate flower…so let me be your honeybee…”
She did her best to politely refuse their advances, but she was quickly becoming weary with having to find new ways to say no.
Seconds after rejecting yet another suitor, Kaori slumped down on her stool. She had to admit that it was a little gratifying to get so much attention from these men, but most of them were far from the type of person she would want to meet. Plus, she wished that she could have some time alone so that she could prepare herself for what was to come.
“Cinderella…you came back. For another dance perhaps?”
Kaori gasped and turned around to see Ryo standing behind her. He was wearing the same outfit he had worn the last time she had played this role. Not that she minded. Kaori had admired him in it the first time she saw it and this time was no different.
Her face felt hot as she tried to speak. The way he looked at her, the gentle smile on his face…she had almost forgotten how much she was affected by them the last time and hadn’t planned on how she would deal with her feelings. It was then that she knew that this was not going to be an easy night for her.
‘This isn’t for me,’ she reminded herself. ‘It’s for Ryo.’ That thought gave her the courage she needed to go through with her plan.
“Ry—Saeba-san,” she said, catching herself. “I’m so glad you came to see me.” Ryo walked over to her and held up a finger.
“I told you before, Ryo is fine,” he said. “Now, shall we go?”
The two of them walked arm and arm down the sidewalk, Kaori relishing their close contact.
“I’ll admit that it was a surprise to get that note from you,” Ryo said. “How were you able to get away from your studies?” Kaori swallowed hard, but was not flustered. She had spent some time thinking up answers to potential questions like this one before he arrived.
“My parents think that I am visiting Thailand,” she said. “I was able to persuade a couple of my friends to help me trick them so that I could catch a plane to Japan instead. I won’t be able to be here long or they will find out the truth.”
“So, it’s only for tonight again, isn’t it?” Ryo said, his voice soft. Kaori nodded and shivered a little.
“I’m sorry, Ryo,” she said. “I wish we could spend more time together. But I….” Her words stopped when he put and arm around her, holding her closer while they walked.
“It’s all right,” he said. “One more night with Cinderella is still a precious gift to me.” Kaori blushed even as she felt anger stir in her slightly.
‘Ryo never talks like this to me. He’d never say these things to me…I’m his partner and I mean less to him than some woman he’s only met one other time.’
'But I suppose that’s why I am doing this in the first place….so he can say the things he wants and needs to say…so I can say the things he needs to hear….’
“I…I hadn’t forgotten, you know,” Kaori said. “The date we had before. I’ve thought about it so many times over these last few months. It’s a memory that is close to my heart.”
Saying those words, Kaori felt her heart pound in her chest. She had rehearsed in her mind the things she wanted to say, but that did not change the fact that what she said had been the literal truth…and that she had been longing for a chance to tell him all of this.
“That’s why I took this chance just to see you again,” Kaori said, doing her best to smile.
“Aren’t you worried about what might happen to you if you are found out?” Ryo asked her. “If the truth is discovered?”
For a moment, Kaori panicked. When she had found her earring in her jeans pocket after their first date, she had thought that maybe he had figured out who she was. But then she had reasoned that it simply got mixed up in her clothes and had fallen into her pocket. Something in the way Ryo asked those questions made her wonder again if he knew the truth.
Still, she managed to calm her nerves and find her voice.
“I’m a little worried,” she confessed. “But I don’t care. It’s worth it to me to have these moments with you.” Ryo smiled again and took one of her hands into his.
“Then I promise to make this evening into another wonderful memory for you to keep in your heart,” he said.
The two of them went for a light dinner at an outdoor café and ended up sharing some coffees as well. There was little conversation, but seeing the look of contentment on Ryo’s face convinced Kaori that, sometimes, silence would be just fine.
‘This is what Miki-san meant,’ she thought to herself. ‘This chance to relax, this peace…this is what Ryo needs.’ Even though her heart ached, she smiled at the way he wolfed down his food while occasionally giving her lingering glances.
Once they were done, they went back to walking along the streets.
“The city…it’s so pretty at night,” Kaori said.
“It is,” Ryo nodded. “I’ve spent many hours wandering these streets. The energy all around me, the mystery, the people, the opportunities around every corner…I feel all of it when I’m here.”
“You love this city, don’t you?” Kaori asked. Ryo laughed. The sound was both playful and wistful.
“I suppose I do,” he said. “It’s been a part of my life for so long, I can’t imagine leaving it. Once in a while though….”
“Once in a while?” she said, holding his arm a little tighter.
“Once in a while, I think about how I’d like to escape from this place,” he said. “There is so much here that is dirty and rotten. At times, it’s easy to think that that’s all there is and all there ever will be. Sometimes, I think I would like to run away from here to a place where no one could find me and where no one knows who I am.”
Kaori looked up at him, surprised. She hadn’t realized that he harbored thoughts like that and it was a revelation for her to hear him speak them aloud.
‘He probably gets weary of being the great City Hunter once in a while…of having to look over his shoulder all the time…of having to worry about the people around him. Who wouldn’t want to escape from all that?’
“Why do you stay?” she asked, unable to stop herself.
“Partially because I know that thoughts like those are fleeting,” Ryo said, his eyes fixed on the streets ahead of them. “Partially because I can’t escape who I am anymore than I could leave this city behind. Most important of all though is that there is too much that binds me here.”
“Things that bind you?” Kaori said. “You mean like obligations?”
“I guess some people would see it that way,” Ryo said. “But to me, it’s more like there are too many important reasons and people here…reasons and people that I could never abandon.” The two of them walked up onto a pedestrian overpass and watched the cars rush by in stream of lights below them.
“When I feel discouraged or feel the urge to escape, I spend some more time wandering these streets, going to my favorite places,” he continued. “It doesn’t always erase the bad feelings, but eventually, I always remember all the reasons why I stay in the first place.”
Ryo paused and Kaori moved closer to him.
‘Is that what you have been doing, Ryo?’ Kaori wondered to herself. ‘All those days and nights that you have been gone…have you been searching for those reminders of why you stay? Was it all an attempt to make peace with your place in this world?’
“What about you?” he asked, interrupting her line of thought. “I get the sense that you are searching for something. Perhaps I could help you find it.” Kaori looked away.
“I…I was….” She tried to find some way to stall and inspiration struck her in the form of an arcade.
“Look Ryo, a video game arcade,” she said. “Let’s go in. We had so much fun the last time we did that.” Ryo blinked hard but then smiled and laughed.
“Sure, let’s go,” he grinned.
“Aha,” Kaori laughed a little while later, grinning in front of one of the arcade games. “I finally got a higher score than you.”
“That’s not possible,” Ryo pouted. “There’s probably a defect in that machine.”
“Why can’t you just admit that I beat you?” Kaori asked.
“Because I am a genius when it comes to shooting,” Ryo replied.
“Shooting? You mean that you shoot things a lot?” Kaori said, careful to maintain her façade. Ryo’s eyebrows twitched and he laughed.
“Of course,” he said. “I have a pushy co-worker who is always trying to give me boring, meaningless stuff to do. So, I come here a lot as a way to avoid her. Now I am an expert at shooting things in all of these video games.” Kaori couldn’t stop herself from gritting her teeth.
‘Idiot, so this is one of the places he goes to avoid handing out fliers and finding jobs’
Kaori’s hands twitched and she was seconds away from acquiring another hammer to pound him with, but at the last second she restrained herself.
“Aha, ha ha, what’s wrong?” he laughed, nervous in the face of her scowl.
“Nothing,” she snapped. ‘I better remember this place in the future when he tries to sneak off from work.’ Kaori took a deep breath and softened her expression.
“It’s nothing, really,” she said. “Ryo, let’s go somewhere else. You said that there are places you like to go, places that remind you of why you love this city. Please, could you take me to one of them?” She then thought about how she sounded and looked downward. “Sorry…I don’t mean to push. If you don’t want to go….”
Ryo smiled and held out his arm to her. Kaori responded by wrapping both her arms around his. As she drew near him, she let out a sigh. It had only been for a couple of hours, but already she had become comfortable with his affection and with being able to stay so close to him…not as a partner, but as a woman.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll be my pleasure. Let me take you to my favorite place.”
A short while later, Ryo and Kaori stood on the rooftop of a skyscraper and was watching the city below them.
“Ryo…it’s even more beautiful up here,” Kaori breathed. Ryo put an arm around her.
“I’ve only taken one other person to this place,” he said. Kaori’s heart fell a little, but she managed not to show it. She wished that she had been the first, but then she felt a little silly for harboring such a wish.
“Who was she?” she asked.
“You’re so quick to assume that it was a woman,” Ryo teased.
“Are you going to try to tell me that it was a man?” Kaori smirked back at him. Ryo laughed, and Kaori relished the way his eyes lit up in amusement.
“No, I give up,” he chuckled. “Yes, it was a woman. In fact, she was a princess.”
“A princess? Really?” Kaori said.
“Yes really,” Ryo said, his tone serious. “I was lucky enough to meet her when she visited Japan. She was preparing herself for a life of obligations and dedication to others. She asked me to give her one day of freedom, so the two of us came here and watched this city…much like you and I are doing now. She did her best to hide who she was, but in the end she wasn’t able to disguise her noble aura.”
Kaori blinked in surprise. Listening to his story, she had been able to guess that he was talking about Princess Alma, one of their former clients.
‘So Ryo had known that she was a princess after all…I wonder if he told her that he knew the truth…’
“Now, I am fortunate enough to bring another princess here,” he murmured in her ear. Kaori blushed and turned her head away from him.
“No, I’m not…” she stammered. “I’m just an ordinary woman who….” Ryo put a hand on her forearm.
“There is nothing ordinary about you,” he said. “Nothing.”
Kaori’s blush increased in intensity and she was at a loss for words. For several minutes the two of them watched the lights of the city flicker and twinkle and the cars below created a glowing river of red and white.
“Ryo,” she finally said. “You asked me earlier if I was looking for something tonight.”
“Mmm?” he replied.
“I guess you could say that I’m looking for my dream,” she said. Kaori leaned against the railing, and Ryo put an arm around her and shared his long coat with her to keep her warm.
“Ever since I was a child, I had a dream of finding a knight in shining armor,” she continued. “I suppose it’s the dream of most little girls. I longed for a handsome knight who was also strong, brave and kind. I imagined him coming to my door one day and offering to stay by my side, always.”
“Oh? And are you still looking for that knight?” Ryo asked.
“Yes…and no,” she replied.
“Yes and no?” he parroted.
“As I got older, I realized some important things,” Kaori added. “I realized that the kind of knight I was dreaming of was just a fairy tale, not a flesh and blood person. It was disappointing, but then I learned that there are real knights in this world, but sometimes knights come with imperfections and flaws. And sometimes, instead of staying in the light, a knight will live in the shadows. Not because he deserves to be there, but because it is where he is needed.”
“So is that what you are trying to find?” Ryo asked. “Some imperfect, shadow knight? Why settle for someone like that? Why not wait until a better man comes along? ”
“It would not be settling,” Kaori insisted. She turned to look into his eyes, her own eyes fiery yet gentle.
“Flaws and imperfections are what make us human,” she continued, her voice trembling slightly. “I want to love a real person, not a fake shell. And…and it’s easy to remain pure and upright when you stay in safe places, away from the evils of the world. It takes far more courage to live in the darkness and work to protect others while still having a good heart.”
Kaori reached over and removed Ryo’s hand from her arm, holding it in both of her hands.
“If I found him,” she said. “If I found a knight like that, I would do anything to stay with him, to support him and help him…and I would never let him go.”
Ryo remained silent and Kaori thought that she had detected a flicker of surprise in his eyes that soon gave way to something more somber. She let his hand go and went back to watching the city below them.
“I’m sorry, I got carried away,” she said. A strong wind gusted and Kaori shivered from the cold. Ryo went back to sharing his coat with her.
“Come on,” he said. “If we stay here, you might catch cold.”
“Ok,” she nodded.
“Now, let me take you to one of my other favorite places,” he said as they walked back into the building.
Soon, Kaori was standing in front of a series of buildings with garish neon signs, shaking her head. After leaving the skyscraper, Ryo had taken her to the love hotel district in Shinjuku and now, he was scanning the signs around him, a giant grin on his face.
“Aha ha ha, so many to choose from,” he giggled. “But what would be a good one for a night like this?” Kaori let out a sigh, her face dropping into her palm.
‘I should have known that we would end up here eventually,’ she thought to herself. ‘For Ryo, no time spent with a woman is complete without a chance for mokkori.’
The more she thought about it, the more confused her feelings got. On one hand she was furious yet again that Ryo was still seeking mokkori with another woman…but then she couldn’t help but feel a strange sort of pride that, this time, she was actually the one who was making him feel that way.
‘That idiot…now he’s drawing me into his perverted world. Why should I be proud of being a mokkori target for him?’
While Ryo kept looking at the hotels around them, hammer after hammer appeared in her grasp, and she kept hiding them behind her back and then tossing them aside.
“So Cinderella, which one shall we make into our mokkori love castle?” Ryo said, pulling her close to him. Kaori squirmed away, laughing nervously.
“Ah, let’s go somewhere else,” she said. “Hey, are you hungry again? Because I saw a couple of restaurants on the way over here….” Ryo grabbed her again, holding her even closer this time.
“I am hungry, but not for food,” he said, his smile predatory. “I wish you knew how long I’ve been waiting for a moment like this.”
Kaori’s face turned an even brighter shade of red, her cheeks felt like they were on fire. The way he was staring at her created a flood of tangled emotions. At this point, she could barely distinguish between her anger and her own growing desire.
‘He’s been wanting to…to…with me? For a long time?’
She gulped and was about to speak when she felt Ryo press his chest closer to hers.
“So nice…” he murmured, his eyes glazing over and a bit of drool appearing in one corner of his mouth. He rubbed himself against her and Kaori’s eyes were instantly ablaze with fury.
‘Wait…it’s not me that he’s wanting to take to one of these hotels. It’s Cinderella,’ she thought, her anger overtaking all other emotions. ‘He’s spent all this time fantasizing about going to a place like this with her even though he only met her for one night? I’m around him all the time, and all I get are comments about how I look like a transvestite.’
Another hammer appeared in her hand and this time, Kaori did not toss it away.
‘Jerk! He doesn’t care about me. He only cares about this disguise that Eriko created for me.’
Kaori yanked herself out of his arms and brought the hammer down squarely on Ryo’s head.
“Pervert!” she yelled as she hit her mark. “How dare you try to drag me into a place like that?”
“This…this really is very familiar,” Ryo mumbled as he crawled out from under the hammer. As soon as he said that, a huge drop of sweat rolled off Kaori’s forehead.
‘No…what did I just do? I did this the last time and I was lucky that he didn’t figure it out before….but now, now that I’ve done it again… I might have given away who I am,’
‘I may have ruined everything.’
Kaori darted away from Ryo and ran blindly along the street.
‘Why?’ she asked herself, tears pricking her eyes. ‘Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t he see me the same way he sees Cinderella?’
Kaori was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t see that she was about to run into a man who was walking down the sidewalk in front of her until she slammed into him. The man turned toward her and Kaori stepped backward.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t watching where I was going. Excuse me.” Kaori tried to walk around him, but the man grabbed her arm.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at her. “Running into me like that? You think that lame apology was enough?”
“Let me go,” Kaori said as she tried to twist her arm out of the man’s grip.
“Not until you apologize to me in the proper way,” he leered. “If you know what I mean.” The man put a hand on Kaori’s thigh and started to pull up her dress. She responded by kicking him hard in the shin and wrenching her arm away from him. The man clutched his leg, gasping in pain.
“I said let me go,” she yelled. She turned to run, but was stopped by the appearance of two other men walking in front of her.
“Hey Minagawa, is this woman giving you problems?” one of the other men asked. The first man, Minagawa, stood back up and laughed.
“She just needs to learn a lesson is all,” he said. “And we’re going to be the ones to teach it too her. Right guys?” The other two nodded in agreement. Kaori tried to escape, but was stopped when the two men grabbed her by the arms.
“Stop it,” she yelled. “Let me go.” They dragged her toward a back alley.
“We’re going to have some fun tonight,” Minagawa said. “You’d do well to just accept it. And hey, you might even enjoy it too.” Kaori continued to struggle, but her efforts proved to be futile against the combined strength of the men surrounding her. Minagawa grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. Kaori squeezed her eyes shut. No matter what, she wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
‘Please…someone help me.’
She tried to break free again and was surprised when she was suddenly able to pull herself away. She then opened her eyes and saw that all three men were standing there with their mouths hanging open, their faces frozen in terror. Kaori looked around and saw Ryo standing at the entrance of the alley.
“Ryo,” she cried. She ran over to stand behind him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Ryo said, his voice cold and venomous. “Filth like you have no right to lay a finger on a woman like her.”
“City…City Hunter,” Minagawa gasped out, large beads of sweat forming on his and his henchmen’s faces. All three of them then dropped down to their knees and bowed their heads.
“We’re sorry,” they all begged in unison. “Please let us go.” Ryo walked over to them and yanked Minagawa upright by the collar.
“I’ll let you go, but only because I don’t want her to see something unpleasant,” he said. “Now, get out of here. If I see any of your faces ever again…my face will be the last thing you’ll ever see.”
“You’ll never see us again, I swear,” Minagawa said as he got to his feet. The three of them ran off screaming.
“Ryo,” Kaori breathed. Ryo took a deep breath and turned back toward her with a warm, concerned look on his face.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “I’m sorry that I didn’t get here sooner.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s all right…and I’m sorry…for earlier. I…” Ryo took off his coat and wrapped it around her.
“No need to apologize,” he said. “Now, let’s go get you some coffee to warm you up. After all, we still have a date to finish, right Cinderella?”
They walked over to a small café a short distance away and Ryo bought a pair of coffees. The two of them went over to an isolated corner to the café to drink them.
“Thank you, Ryo,” she said as she sipped at her drink. “For this and for earlier.”
“It’s dangerous for a woman to walk in that section of town alone,” Ryo sighed. “I hope you learned something tonight.” Kaori bristled at his tone, but managed to stop herself from responding. On the way over to the café, she had made a silent vow to herself to not let her frustration or regret over the situation gain control over her again. Instead, she tried to steer the conversation toward safer topics that could help to further conceal her identity.
“Those men…they seemed to be petrified of you,” she said casually. “I wonder why.” Ryo’s smile disappeared and in its place was a sardonic smirk.
“Maybe because they know me better than you do,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Kaori asked, confused. Ryo leaned closer to her, his gaze intense.
“You know my name, but how much else do you really know about me?” he asked. “Maybe I am not the man you think I am. Maybe instead of a knight, you ended up with a killer as a date. A monster who murders without remorse. It’s entirely possible, you know. Would that shock you? ”
Kaori sat back in her chair, dumbfounded. He had said all of this with an indifferent, cavalier air and it disturbed her. She couldn’t understand why he was saying these things to her, and her mind worked desperately to make sense of his actions.
“Perhaps you need to be more careful in more ways than one,” he added. “After all, how sure are you that it’s safe to be around me? How sure are you that I’m the type of person you can trust? For all you know, I am much worse than the men who attacked you tonight.”
Ryo was about to say more, but then Kaori slapped him soundly across the face. He held a hand to his cheek where she had slapped him and gaped at the tears in her eyes.
“You’re wrong,” she said, her voice firm despite her tears. “You are not a monster. You are nothing like them. I am sure of it.”
“Oh? And how exactly can you know that?” he asked quietly. “Given how long we’ve known each other?” Kaori swallowed hard, afraid of making another mistake that could give her away, but did not hesitate with her answer.
“The first time we met you kept me safe from that man who tried to slip me a sleeping pill in my drink,” she said. “And tonight you saved me from those thugs. You don’t know my name, you know very little about me, and you’ve only gone on a couple dates with me…and yet you consistently make sure to protect me.”
A pair of tears ran down Kaori’s face, but she still did not avert her gaze from him, her chin set and determined.
“Those aren’t the actions of a monster,” she said. “Maybe I don’t know you as well as I would like to, but I do know you. You may be far from perfect, but you are a good man. So never say things like that about yourself ever again. Do you understand me Ryo Saeba?”
Ryo stared at her in shock during her speech, his mouth slightly open and his hand still hovering near his cheek. Kaori could see the red mark on his face and she felt guilty this time about being the cause of it. She then reached over and gently put her hand over where she had slapped him.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I keep on having to say that to you and I regret it. But please remember this: I meant every word that I said, both here and during the rest of our date together.” She punctuated her statement by placing her other hand onto Ryo’s other cheek.
Then it was Kaori’s turn to be shocked as Ryo closed his eyes and leaned into her touch, his cheek resting against her palm. She then ran one hand through his hair and he let out a soft sigh. Kaori smiled as her tears dried up.
‘I didn’t know that he liked things like this so much. The way he’s acting…I wonder if anyone else has bothered to do this for him. If anyone else has tried to be gentle with him.’
She continued to stroke her fingers against his cheek and play with locks of his hair. Her heart swelled with happiness at the way he smiled while he enjoyed this simple gesture of affection.
‘It’s as if he’s wanted this…no, more like he was starved for this…for a long time. I wish I could do this for him again…after tonight…’
That single thought brought her out of her romantic reverie. This was all just for tonight. The next day, things would return to normal. She would cease to be his Cinderella and would go back to being plain Kaori Makimura, his partner in City Hunter, nothing more.
Most of all though, there would be no more moments like the one they were sharing now.
Kaori pulled her hands away and Ryo slowly opened his eyes. The two of them finished their coffees in silence. Occasionally, she would glance over at Ryo, but his face was now held an unreadable expression.
Once they were finished, Ryo stood up and held out his hand to her.
“We should go,” he said. “It’s getting close to midnight and we should try to make the most out of the rest of our date.”
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.