Pandora inhaled sharply, grateful for the rush of balmy air as she stepped into the small courtyard that acted as a smoking area. Seating herself under one of the enormous canopies that stretched over a wooden seating arrangement, she sighed deeply and held her head in her hands as exhaustion settled in.
Christ on a bike, I need to get out of here... she thought to herself, frustrated. It had started innocently enough: after having made her pregnancy public knowledge to her friends and coworkers, she was inundated with congratulations and happy platitudes, her more mature acquaintances cooing and fawning over the idea of her impending parenthood.
Whilst she knew it came from a place of love and support, right now Pandora was fit to brutally murder Taigo.
He had sprung the surprise baby shower on her without a single iota of notice and she rued him for it. At 2pm that day, she had made her way to the bustling Mexican restaurant thinking he wanted to catch up over a plate of nachos only to walk into a pastel-coloured ambush of balloons, paper garlands and overly touchy-feely people who practically tripped over themselves in the race to touch her steadily growing bump.
To say it wasn't her cup of tea would be a gross understatement.
For the last three hours, she had to deflect prying hands from outright groping her swollen abdomen and the endless questions- “What are you having? Are you excited? Are you going to breastfeed? Are you going to give up your job? Are you and Shima getting married?” - countless invasive queries to which she could only fake her exuberance and force a strained smile as she stood, ramrod straight and tense as various people embraced her and expressed their congratulations.
As time drew on, she found the urge to scream unbearable and so, citing the surprisingly handy excuse of suffering from nausea she had retreated to the relative quiet of the covered smoking area behind the restaurant, desperately missing the sweet embrace of nicotine to calm her nerves.
The sound of footsteps on the flagstones caused her to glance up warily, expecting another wave of simpering wellwishers. Instead, she was surprised to find Shima standing before her, an emphatic smile on his face as he set a small pot of tea for one on the table and sat down on the bench.
“You okay?” he asked softly, reaching to rub her back as she let out a relieved sigh and leaned into him, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“I don't want to sound ungrateful but I'm seriously going to kill your brother. I fucking hate baby showers.”
He chuckled and his hand moved to her forearm, caressing it gently.
“He's just excited to be an uncle. You can't blame him for that.”
“I know but still.. he could've at least warned me before rounding up virtually everyone in town to celebrate the fact I got knocked up.” Pandora drawled, pursing her lips.
“Serious, though. I hate being put on a pedestal like this. It makes me feel so uncomfortable. And the sheer audacity of some people! I swear, if one more person makes a grab for my belly, they'll be pulling back a stump!”
“I know, I know. It's exhausting but people go crazy for pregnant women for reasons I can't begin to fathom. Just... just stick it out for a little bit more, yeah? Taigo went to a lot of trouble after all.” Shima offered but was met with a haughty glare.
“Okay, first off, I don't owe Taigo anything. I never asked for this. I never asked for any of this!” She snapped, throwing her hands up in exasperation; “So I got pregnant- big whoop. I've done something that countless women have done since time inmaterial. What makes my situation so fucking special? The people in that restaurant act like I'm carrying the freakin' second coming of Jesus! ”
Shima's brows furrowed and he reached to pour tea into the cup, pushing it towards her.
“Yeesh, hormonal much? Drink your tea. You'll feel better-”
“ I don't want any fucking tea! ”
He winced at her shrill tone and made a show of rubbing his left ear. Running a hand through his mop of white curls, Shima shook his head and considered his agitated friend with a frown.
“Okay, spill. What's really going on with you? I know you hate parties but you're acting exceptionally bitchy today and I, for, one, won't sit here and sour what's supposed to be a happy occasion. My brother broke his back to make today special for you. There are people in there-not just co-workers, may I add- that love and care for you and wish you nothing but the best and here you are acting like a pissy little ingrate just because you can't stand being the centre of attention for one day!”
Pandora instantly felt a stab of guilt in the pit of her stomach.
She scrubbed at her face, put in her place by his words. Her brown eyes heavy with the onset of tears, she stifled a sob and took the teacup from the table, hands shaking as she raised it to her lips. The honey and lemon-infused liquid offered no comfort so, cup drained, she slumped on her seat and began to fidget with the corset-like cord fastenings on the front of her dress.
After a moment of awkward silence, she found her voice. It was small, scared and helpless.
“I can't do this, Shima.”
His expression softened and he pulled her into a comforting embrace.
“Hey... you're having doubts. I get that. Hell, I have some of my own. It's only natural. You're scared. I am too.” Shima placed his fingers under her chin, lifting her face to look at her with a reassuring smile; “But you're not alone. Don't think that for one second. You have me. You'll always have me. We can be scared together.”
She blinked back a tear or two and averted her gaze.
“But what if...”the words caught in her throat but she managed to choke them out; “...Shima, what if I end up like my mother?”
“You're not going to.” Shima stated firmly, holding her a hair tighter; “You're going to be great.”
“How can you be so sure?” Pandora hiccoughed, reaching for her purse in pursuit of a tissue; “How can you possibly know?”
He rested his chin on the top of her head and gently rocked her, feeling her tremble as suppressed sobs coursed through her body making her shoulders shudder. Shima knew her past was full of hardships- that fateful night in Berlin had shown him only a mere glimpse into the pain she carried with her, the deep emotional scars that would never truly heal.
Though he encouraged her to be open with him over anything and everything that troubled her, Pandora was notorious for her guarded nature and at times it infuriated him. He wanted to help, to make the pain disappear but it was a task easier said than done.
“It's because I know you.” He said after a brief pause; “You like to think you are a cold, unfeeling ice queen but nothing could be further from the truth. You're one of the kindest people I know even if you never give yourself credit for it. You're tough but graceful and you have a bigger capacity to love than you realise. I know you've been through a lot in your life. I know your mother hurt you in ways that no-one should ever have to experience but you need to know: Y ou are not your mother.
You are your own wonderful, beautiful person and you are perfect to me.”
“Shima...!” Pandora was welling up now and franticly began to scramble for a tissue to daub her eyes as she began to openly cry.
“I mean it, woman. You don't even know how much you are loved. Start believing.” He kissed her sweetly on the forehead, lips brushing against the slight rise of the thin red scar on her hairline, the one she kept hidden beneath a bluntly cut fringe.
“Christ, Shima...” Pandora sat upright and tried to compose herself. She smoothed the creases in her dress and chuckled in spite of herself. “You're so good to me. I honestly don't deserve you.”
“Sure you do! And I'll keep on saying it until it sinks in.”He stood and helped her to her feet, straightening the lines of the fluffy black cardigan she had draped around her despite the balmy May weather. His hands rested softly on her shoulders and his blue eyes met her dark gaze.
There was something measured in his look, as though he was about to ask her something and suddenly, his ears turned pink. Shima grinned awkwardly and shook his head, dispelling whatever thoughts were brewing. Instead, he slid his hands down and linked one with hers, glancing towards the doorway into the restaurant.
“We... uh... we should get back to the party or people might think we're up to shenanigans.”
Pandora groaned and rolled her eyes.
“Urrrgh, do I have to?”
“Just five more minutes? Then we can do whatever you want for the rest of the evening.”
She arched an eyebrow.
“Yup. You call the shots.”
Pandora thought for a moment. Then she grinned wickedly.
“I wanna dress you up as your brother and have you send pervy Snapchats to that girl he's been dating.”
Shima's blinked twice before his face dropped slightly.
“Wait, Taigo is dating someone?!”
“You didn't know?”Pandora said, surprised.
Shima shook his head.
“No, I had no idea. Can't understand why he'd keep something like that from me!”
Pandora chuckled and nuzzled into him.
“Well, no offence,dear, but you kinda have a big personality. Wouldn't want to scare her off!”
“Pffft. I know I'm the more outgoing twin but c'mon! This is a big deal! Maybe my bro can finally get himself laid sometime this century...Sooo, what is she like?”Shima enquired.
“I've met her once and she seems nice. Personally, I think she's a little young for him but that's not really my place to comment on. Still, he's utterly smitten but he's taking things at a snail's pace like he always does...”
“And you want to, what? Ruin his chances? Boost 'em?”
“Eh, I just feel like fucking with him for a bit...Lord knows that boy is holding onto his virginity with a death grip.”
“Heh, tell me something I don't know! Come, now. Your audience awaits!”
He placed a hand at the small of her back, guiding her once more into the function room where an abundance of smartly dressed people mingled around a large buffet table of Mexican food, all chatting comfortably amongst themselves. When she and Shima reappeared, the crowd erupted in a chorus of applause. Some even pulled party poppers, shooting little jets of colourful paper streamers across the room that landed in her and Shima's hair as they made their way to a booth by the window.
As they sat down, Taigo appeared with a plate of nachos in hand and joined them.
“Hey!” He said brightly as he sat down opposite Pandora; “Feeling any better?”
“Eh, as good as I can be with a foetus using my bladder as a football...”She deadpanned, picking a nacho from his plate. “But thank you for asking.” Her face softened and she cast him a sincere smile. “And thank you for doing all this. I know you've been really stressed with work an' all. You didn't have to go and throw me a baby shower on top of everything else but I appreciate the effort.”
“No problem, darling. Happy to do it.” Taigo beamed, fixing his glasses attop his nose; “So...” He rubbed his hands together, bouncing excitedly in his seat; “Have you guys decided any names yet?”
Aaaand we're back to the bingos. Groovy...! Pandora thought but she kept smiling for his sake and brushed a wayward lock of black hair from her eyes, glancing briefly at Shima.
“I have a few in mind but I don't know if they'd work with my or Shima's surname...I was thinking Misha for a boy...”
Shima shot Pandora a conspiring smirk, too quick for anyone but her to notice. She gave him the slightest of nods before dipping another nacho in guacamole and devouring it with gusto.
Clearing his throat audibly, Shima moved to stand up and patted down his trousers as if searching for something.
“Say, bro, you seen my phone anywhere?”
“Try the cloakroom. Maybe you left it in your jacket pocket.”Taigo replied, barely paying attention; “So, Misha, huh? That's a nice name! Works for a boy or a girl...”
As Pandora kept Taigo busy with conversation, Shima made his move, all but skipping towards the cloakroom which was located near the kitchens. The attendant, a young woman with her blonde hair in a tight bun, smiled politely as he approached and leaned against the desk.
“Uhh, hello...” Shima said, aping his brother's painfully shy approach towards women; “I think I may have left my phone in my jacket. Do you mind...?”
“No, no! Happens all the time!” the attendant said brightly; “Do you have your ticket?”
“Shoot! I think in all the excitement I must've misplaced it!” Shima replied with mock worry, trying hard keep a straight face. What he was about to do bordered on outright villainy but sometimes it paid to play the part of the evil twin.
The attendant waved her hand and laughed.
“It's fine! No harm done! What does your jacket look like?”
“Umm, it's a dark blue dinner jacket, white on the inside if that helps?”
“No problemo!” The woman disappeared behind a rail of coats and jackets, rummaging briefly before soon returning with the item in question hanging neatly from a wooden hanger. She handed it to him and nodded.
“There you go.”
Reaching into the inside pocket, Shima was immensely pleased to find that, in a rare lapse in judgement, Taigo had indeed left his phone in his jacket. He quickly pocketed it, thanked the cloakroom attendant and dipped swiftly into the men's room where he took a stall and sat on the covered seat to admire his ill-gotten gain.
Right, passcode... Shima thought, swiping his index across the screen. He sat for a moment, pondering possible number combinations that might be significant in his brother's life.
Hmmm. Dad's birthday?
Wrong. Try again.
There was one more chance for a password entry. One more wrong attempt and the phone would no doubt lock him out for at least half an hour. Shima drummed his fingers on his chin.
1-2-3-4? Nah, he couldn't be that stupid...could he?
Incredibly, his suspicion was right.
The phone unlocked and there, in his hands, lay every text, call and contact Taigo had ever communicated with since first obtaining his sleek new Samsung Galaxy 8. Shima couldn't help it. He let out an audible laugh at his brother's stupidity and grinned wickedly at the potential for mischief that lay ahead.
He started by scrolling through the message Inbox. At first, it seemed to be fairly standard fare- mostly business dealings with hospital colleagues, deadline notifications and the odd meme chain with Maki. Nothing so far to suggest he was dating anyone.
However, on closer inspection, one name kept popping up throughout the many message trees.
Hmmm. Who's this Shasta person he keeps messaging? Shima pondered, stroking his chin as he scrolled through the Inbox.
The texts were flirty in nature but largely innocent of anything remotely sexual. From what he read, Shima deduced that the mysterious Shasta was the one who had provided the gigantic Black Forest Gateau for the party and there were several messages from Taigo praising her culinary skills.
He grinned to himself as his fingers did the talking, unable to stifle the mischievous giggle that escaped his lips...