Blinking against the sudden assault of sunlight in his eyes, Taigo groaned and rolled over to bury his face in an overstuffed pillow, a low whine escaping him.
“ Moooom...! ” he sighed, covering his head with a handful of sheets; “C'mon, it's the weekend! I need my sleep! ”
“You'll sleep plenty when you're dead.” Asuka stated dryly as she strolled to each window and snapped the blinds open, flooding the spacious bedroom with warm rays of sunshine. “Now, get up, get dressed and come downstairs. Your father made enough pancakes to feed a small army!”
“Just another half hour, please...!”
“ No! It's almost noon already. Get your ass up!” She reached to tickle his left foot which was protruding out from under the sheets. Taigo squealed and curled into a ball under the covers, adamant in his refusal to join the land of the living.
With an exasperated groan, Asuka grabbed a handful of cotton and yanked the bedclothes clean off the bed, exposing her stripey pyjama-clad son who yelled out in protest.
“Ugh! Fine, I'm up!” Taigo grumbled as he swung his feet over the edge, face like thunder.
Asuka shook her head and crossed the room to the walk-in closet, rummaging through the piles of clothes strewn haphazardly on the floor for dirty laundry that she promptly tossed into a blue plastic basket propped neatly on her hip.
“Really, Taigo, you're old enough to know better than to have me do your laundry-!”
“I know, I know.” Taigo sighed, rolling his eyes as he pulled on a pair of novelty Pikachu slippers and shuffled to the closet door; “Look, I've had a long week of twelve hour shifts. Can we please not keep having the same argument over and over again? I work hard enough as it is without you lecturing me.”
“Just saying.... if you could actually bother to clean up after yourself, that'd be great...! ”Asuka drawled, flicking a balled up sock at his head.
“I would if I wasn't so darn tired all the time, Mom.” Taigo started, emphasising the point by stretching his limbs and cracking his knuckles. His expression softened and he placed a hand on his mother's shoulder; “Look, I'll clean it up later. Just let me get my head together. It's been a rough week.”
“Talk to me over breakfast, honey.” Asuka replied, heading towards the door; “For now, I've got a ton of laundry to catch up on, no thanks to you and your father...! Honestly! You two are so damn messy..! Urgh, what am I going to do with you boys?”
She chuckled in spite of herself and playfully ruffled Taigo's unkempt mop of bed-dragged white curls before turning down the hall and out of sight.
Rubbing his eyes, Taigo yawned and stripped off, heading into the ensuite bathroom to take a shower.
He welcomed the hot stream of water like an old friend and sagged against the tiles, happy to let the heat ease the tension from his weary shoulders.
It had indeed been a stressful week for him, that much was certain. He had just started assisting Dr. Matsushira, the lead surgeon on the team, and it wasn't going well at all.
Not only were Taigo's nerves getting the better of him, his last patient had developed serious complications and he was feeling immense pressure on all sides to step up his game or risk damaging his fledgling career.
Combined with a dizzying amount of paperwork, lectures and conferences to keep on top of his medical training, it was little wonder that Taigo was on the verge of exhaustion.
He lived for Saturday mornings when he could sleep in for a few more hours and take an extra long shower but today, he had been quite rudely awakened and it got on his nerves.
He knew that his mother would make another stab at trying to convince him to let her and his father pay for the deposit on his own apartment but right now, Taigo just didn't want to deal with it. It was easier living at home and he already felt indebted to his parents considering that they'd paid for all his schooling.
The thought of all that money being spent on him made his stomach lurch and he knew he could never repay their kindness no matter how many hours he worked. It wasn't that his parents were short on cash- far from it- but Taigo felt uncomfortable with their generosity.
He wanted to do it on his own, scary as it may be, and actually work for the things that mattered.
The water grew colder, making him jump from his thoughts.
He shut it off and stepped out of the shower, still somewhat anxious about the upcoming conversations over the breakfast table.
Still, no use worrying about it now... he thought to himself as he stood before the mirror over the sink and set to lathering shaving cream onto his jaw.
He shaved quickly and applied a soothing aloe balm before tying his hair up in a messy man-bun and heading to the closet to find something to wear.
Since the sun was out, he decided on a simple blue and white striped t-shirt and jeans with fashionable rips in the knee.
As he sat on the edge of the bed lacing up his red sneakers, his phone buzzed on the nightstand, playing an 8-bit version of the battle victory music from Final Fantasy VII.
He slid his thumb over the screen to unlock it.
“Hey, dude.” Maki was on the line.
“Yo.” Taigo answered, balancing the phone between ear and shoulder as he tied a bow in his laces.
“How are you feeling?”
“Exhausted, as always, but I'll live. What's up?”
“One of my patients told me there's this new bakery open in Shinjuku that does the most incredible cronuts. Feel like checking it out?” Maki queried, sounding perky.
Taigo arched an eyebrow in bewilderment.
“What's a cronut?”
“It's this new craze that started in America... or so I'm told. Basically, it's a half-croissant, half-donut hybrid filled with jam, cream, chocolate or whatever. Everyone's raving about them.”
“That... that does sound delicious...” Taigo said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. He glanced at the bedroom door and pondered the implications of skipping out on breakfast to meet up with his friend and co-worker.
“...But...?” Maki asked him and he could practically feel her rolling her eyes.
“Hmm... alright. I'm at home so swing by in ten.”
“Groovy! See you then!” The line went dead and Taigo sat on the edge of his bed staring at his phone. He shook his head and chuckled. Maki was always pushing him to try new and exotic food and drink and despite his chronic fatigue, he often found himself going along with her culinary adventures.
What's the worst that could happen? He thought to himself, standing and grabbing his leather jacket off the back of his desk chair.
Moving quickly, he pulled open the bedroom door and glanced down the hall hoping he wouldn’t run into either one of his parents. Fortunately, the coast was clear and he made a break for the stairs, almost stumbling in a bid to get down them...
Taigo froze mid-sprint, stunned like a deer in the headlights. Glancing behind him, he caught sight of his twin brother Shima still in his pink pyjamas, pancake halfway to his mouth and a frown on his face.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“I, er, I’m meeting Maki. Work stuff. Gotta go!” Taigo simpered, jogging on the spot as his brother stepped closer.
“Dude, it’s Saturday. Eat your damn pancakes!”
“Tell Dad I’m sorry. I just…” Taigo threw his arms up, flustered; “...Look, I’ve gotta go.”
“Y’know…” Shima narrowed his eyes as he bit into his treat; “...You keep workin’ too hard, life is gonna pass you by. Before you know it, you’ll be forty years old, alone with a menagerie of cats and regret.”
“Wow, melodramatic much? It’s just a business breakfast. I should be home in an hour or two.”
“Suit yourself, bro, but seriously, lighten up. I worry ‘bout you sometimes..” Shima’s face softened and he patted his twin’s shoulder. “Say ‘hi’ to Maki for me. I haven’t seen that jackass in a while either.”
“Will do.” Taigo glanced towards the kitchen and bounced on the balls of his feet, nervous as he watched his mother potter about; “Cover for me?”
“Sure, but it’ll cost ya.” Shima smirked.
Groaning, Taigo fished his wallet from his jacket pocket. “How much this time?”
“No, no, I don’t want your money, dipshit.” Shima shooed him; “I want you and Maki to come to The Dragon tonight. Karaoke, a few cocktails… we might even get you laid if the stars align!”
Lips thinning, Taigo sighed deeply and shook his head.
“Fiiine, if it’ll get you off my back.”
“Attaboy. It’s for the greater good!”
Taigo glared at his brother only to receive a wider smirk in return. “Can I go now?”
“Begone!” Shima waved him off, chuckling to himself as he watched Taigo run to the hall door. Shaking his head, Shima finished his pancake and walked towards the kitchen, joining his parents at the large oak table in the centre of the room.
“Shima, where is your brother?” Asuka said as she drizzled honey over her pancakes.
“He had an urgent work call. You know how it is, Mom.” Shima shrugged and sat down, pulling a plate towards him and piling it high.
Frowning, Asuka reached across the table and tugged on her husband’s sleeve, causing him to jump as he dropped his newspaper.
“Hattori, this is getting ridiculous. Can’t you talk some sense into him?”
“Hmmm? Sorry, sweetheart, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Urgh! Will you please just talk some sense into your second-born?!”
Folding his paper, Hattori frowned and peered at his wife from over the rim of his glasses.
“What’s he done now?”
“I don’t get why you’re punishing him for working so hard, Mom.” Shima leapt to his brother's defense; “It’s not like he’s smokin’ crack! ”
“I just want him to have a life ! Honestly, the poor boy will work himself to death at this rate. I’m just worried.” Asuka glowered at the abundance of food on the table and shook her head; “He barely eats, pulls all the overtime he can get and I honestly can’t remember the last time he went on a date. I mean, he’s almost thirty, for christsake!”
“Hey…” Hattori placed a hand on his wife’s wrist, massaging the joint with his thumb; “I get where you’re coming from, but you need to give him some space. So what if Taigo’s a bit behind? He has all the time in the world to catch up. Give the kid a break. You’re beginning to sound a lot like your mother…”
At that, Asuka yanked her hand away and glared at her husband, who instantly shrank back in his seat. Shima held his hands up, wide eyed. “Oop, think you just poked the bear, Dad.”
“Just for that, no pancakes for you!” Asuka snapped, roughly pulling Hattori’s plate out of reach and dumping it in the sink.
Hattori smiled awkwardly and rubbed the back of his head.
“Ooof.. that one’s gonna cost me…” he mumbled sheepishly, giving his other son an awkward grin.
“Don’t look at me!” Shima cackled, but quickly shut up when his blue eyes met with a pair of haughty brown as his mother turned her death glare upon him. Exhaling through her nostrils, Asuka leaned against the sink, nails clicking against the metal.
“Give me strength…!”
It was a short walk to the centre of Shinjuku, already bustling with the early morning crowds of locals and tourists. Passing numerous ramen shops, retail outlets and street sellers peddling everything from ice cream to candy floss and everything in between, Taigo was glad to be free from the stifling atmosphere of his home life.
“How’s Dr, Matsushira treatin’ ya?” Maki asked as they strolled down a side street and into a less densely populated area; “Still making you run the gauntlet?”
“In so many words. I get he’s trying to push me to be the best surgeon I can be but honestly? That man straight up scares me at times…”Taigo replied as they walked further towards a series of high apartment buildings, some with brightly coloured canopies shielding the entrances.
“Heh, you just need to know how to handle him. I’ve got some grade A tea on him and believe me, I’m not afraid to use it.”
“What, you mean blackmail?!”
“It’s not blackmail, it’s leveling the playing field. Trust me, I’ve taken enough shit from senior doctors to know when to fight dirty.”
Taigo arched an eyebrow and hooked his thumbs through his backpack straps.
“I’m both concerned and intrigued. Do go on…!”
“Later, my dearest! First, we’ve gotta find that bakery. The demon inside me demands an offering.” Maki paused in the middle of the street, glancing around in a bid to find her location. Frowning, she pulled out her phone and scrolled through WhatsApp for a moment before, turning westward, she pointed towards a three story red brick building, the ground floor adorned with old fashioned windows housing a galaxy of colourful macaroons, cakes, bakes and other delights.
A swirling pink-on-white sign above the door read “ MURPHY’S ”. It wasn’t too busy for noon, the atmosphere appearing warm and inviting and Maki reached for the door handle, eager to try the delights within. Just as she did so, Taigo froze in place, eyes wide as he stared into the display window. His eyes were firmly fixed upon the young barista working the dials of the enormous coffee machine behind the gleaming purple counter, her matching apron streaked with flour.
He didn't even know her name but Taigo was shook, rendered speechless by her heart-faced shape and lurid pink hair that framed huge, expressive green eyes.
Wow.. he thought to himself as normal thought slowly returned, face growing hot.
Following his stupefied gaze, Maki sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Oh, lord…!” she said with a tone of exasperation, reaching to give the young doctor a none-too-gentle shove.
He jumped, startled out of his reverie by the sudden touch and spun on his feet to face her.
“Oh, for goodness sake!” Before he could reply, Maki barged past him and through the doors, dragging her hapless friend behind her by the sleeve of his shirt. Taigo knew it was useless to protest and so he allowed her to guide him to a booth by the window, silently cringing.
Maki sat and pushed a menu towards her shy friend, lips pursed.
“I take it you've seen something you like?”She teased, glancing towards the counter and back to her friend with a playful smirk.
Taigo wanted to talk but his mouth had gone dry from nerves and he swallowed gulps of air before grabbing the menu and attempting to hide behind it.
“D-don’t… I didn’t-” He simpered, face as read as a tomato.
“You're going to have to talk to her eventually, Taigo...”
“I-I know, Maki. I just... what the hell do I say to her?”
“Well, you could always take the direct approach- be like ' Damn, baby, I like the way you're put together. I wanna bend you over this counter and bang you like a drum ! Chicks dig a man with confidence...'” Maki drawled, sprawling her arms over the top of the booth and relishing the abject look of horror on her friend's face.
“ Noooo ! God, no! I don't want to come across as creepy, for crying out loud!”
She rolled her dark brown eyes and swatted him on the head with her menu.
“You, creepy? Please! Look, I get that you have problems talking to women at the best of times but you have got to get over yourself. You're nearly thirty years old and the only woman you've ever kissed turned out to be gayer than Christmas. Face it, dude- you need to get laid.”
Rubbing the top of his head, Taigo adjusted his thick-rimmed glasses and glanced towards the counter-top, watching with a lump in his throat as the object of his infatuation set to pulling a tray of freshly-made muffins out of an oven set into the back wall. The aroma of cinnamon and apples wafted through the air and he sighed longingly, feeling his mouth begin to water for a variety of reasons that had little to do with baked goods.
His eyes fell upon her form- the young woman in question was petite in stature and barely able to reach the shelves over the oven that held several stacks of candy-striped cardboard cake boxes despite standing on the tips of her toes and jumping several times.
“Goddamnit...!”she could be heard uttering, and a crinkle appeared between her brows as she stood scowling up at the shelves, hands on her hips.
For a moment, Taigo considered getting up and offering to help her but soon thought against it.
“What would I even do with her, Maki? I have utterly no idea how to please a woman, much less talk to one.” he said with a defeated sigh, slumping into his seat.
“That's your problem, man. You give up without even trying. I don't get it- you've got so much to offer and yet you're crippled with insecurity.”
“For Godsakes, stop apologizing already!” Maki snapped.
Taigo visibly flinched and instantly, she felt a sharp stab of regret upon seeing the flash of hurt in his face. With a shake of her head, she reached across the table and gave his hand a reassuring squeeze, casting him an apologetic smile.
“I'm willing to help you get this girl...” she stated slowly, feeling him relax slightly; “...But you have to work with me here, okay?”
He cast Maki a wry smile, his blue eyes full of uncertainty.
She smiled gently at him and reached to ruffle his mop of white curls.
“Oh, c'mon! She could turn out to be the love of your life!”
Taigo bit his bottom lip, anxiously drumming his fingers on the table top.
“If you say so, Maki...” he replied, unenthused.
She scowled at him and groaned, arching her neck back to rest on the edge of the boot as she pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Clearly, I have my work cut out for me...”
Just then, the sound of light footsteps on the laminate wood floor alerted them to the arrival of a waiter. Looking up from the menu, Taigo's gaze met with that of a tall, lean man wearing a deep purple apron over acid-washed jeans and a well-worn, near threadbare Dropkick Murphys t-shirt.
He smiled through a mop of thick black hair and held up an order pad in one hand.
“Welcome to Murphy's!” the waiter said brightly, his voice showing a hint of an American accent;
“What can I get for you today?”
Before Taigo had a moment to open his mouth to order, Maki seized her chance. She grinned wickedly and glanced past the waiter, eyeing up the young woman who was now serving an elderly couple by the register.
“Two large black coffees and the number of that hottie behind the counter, please!”
“ M-Maki! ”Taigo yelled in alarm, eyes wide with shock at his friend's boldness.
Feigning innocence, Maki flicked her crimson hair from her eyes and smiled coyly, fluttering her eyelashes at her friend.
“ Whaaaat ?”
“Jesus fucking Christ on a bike...!”
The waiter stood at the table for a moment, a bemused expression on his tanned face.
“O-okay then...”He glanced over his shoulder, grinned and then placed his thumb and forefinger to his mouth, letting loose with a shrill whistle. At the sound, the pink-haired woman behind the counter looked up, caught his eye and frowned.
He motioned her to the table. Folding her arms over her flour-streaked apron, the young woman rounded the counter and sauntered up to him, pursing her lips.
“Sean, we've been over this...” she said sternly; “...I'm not a damn dog. Whistle at me again and I'll jam my foot up your ass-”
“I know, I know!” Sean interrupted, holding his hands up in a defensive gesture; “But.. um... we have a special request at this table!”
“Oh, alrighty then.” The woman's expression softened and she turned to the people in the booth; “How can I help you today?
Pre-empting her next move, Taigo gave Maki a kick under the table. “ Don't you dare! ” He hissed through his teeth, mortified. Catching his foot between her ankles, Maki cast him a rueful expression before forcing a grin at the waiter and his friend, propping herself up on one elbow.
“You'll have to excuse my friend here-” she said sweetly in spite of feeling him struggle, trapped between her ankles; “-But he's painfully shy-”
“ Makoto Souba! Why are you doing this to me?! ” Taigo cried in a hushed, scandalized whisper, expressing a look of abject terror as he squirmed, trying to break free from her leg lock.
“-And he really likes your friend here.” Maki said, grunting as she flicked her foot upwards, inadvertently kicking Taigo square in the balls. He gasped with a mixture of shock and pain and crumpled into the booth, hands clutching his groin as his breath rasped forth from his mouth in agonized gulps.
Alarmed, the pink haired woman rushed to his aid, crouching by the booth to inspect the damage.
“Hey, are you alright?!”
Taigo tried to speak but could only emit a high pitched wheezing noise. Even so, he gritted his teeth, forced a smile despite the torturous sensations below the belt and gave her a thumbs up. She placed a hand on his and gave it a gentle squeeze, turning to her co-worker. “Sean, go to the freezer and get some ice.”
Staring at Maki with a touch of fear in his blue eyes, Sean nodded and raced behind the counter, through a wood-paneled door and out of sight.
“Was that really necessary?” the younger woman accused, rounding on Maki, who sat back in her seat, momentarily stunned by the sudden turn of events. She chuckled awkwardly and rubbed the back of her head, not meeting her gaze.
“Whoops. My foot slipped!”
“ Get out .” The younger woman stated firmly, pointing towards the double doors, glaring daggers. Maki began to protest, citing an honest mistake but the pink haired woman suffered no fools and all but shoved Maki out the door before returning once more to the booth to tend to the wounded man in her midst.
“Your friend is, as of today, barred. I won't have any violence in my cafe.” She said ruefully.
“Sorry...” Taigo groaned, gingerly sitting upright and slowly unfurling from the fetal position; “...She does that at least once a week. I'm used to it...”
“ Seriously ? You're either a masochist or a saint- I can't tell which.”
Taigo gave a mirthless chuckle, hunching over the table.
“So I've been told... urgh...I feel like I'm gonna puke…!”
At that, Sean reappeared from the back room clutching a washcloth full of ice. He gave Taigo a sympathetic look and handed the ice pack to him, shaking his head as he watched Maki skulk off down the street through the window.
“ What is that girl's damage?” He asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Can you stand?” the pink haired woman queried, helping Taigo to his feet. He stumbled slightly, leaning into her and gripped her shoulder lightly for support. For a brief moment, his gaze met hers and he found that her eyes were a deep emerald green. Up close, she was even more attractive that his fuzzy vision gave credence to.
Her hair was a rich, lurid shade of pink and random sections hung around her face, framing it with messy strands and a long, overgrown fringe that tickled the bridge of her nose. The rest was tied up into a lopsided bun atop her head.
She studied him with concern, her full lips pursed as she searched his face for an answer.
Taigo felt his face grow hot and he cleared his throat, averting his eyes to the floor as he held the ice pack to his crotch.
“Don't worry, I'll live, heh-heh...!” He said quietly after a beat, thankful for the cooling sensation of the ice as it began to dull the pain in his nether regions.
Sean let out a long sigh and ran a hand through his raven locks.
“You really need to get better friends, dude. I mean, seriously! Who punts someone in the 'nards, let alone on a fuckin' regular basis?”
“She's normally good company;” Taigo said softly, bracing himself on the table; “But she has a tendency to.. ah.. act out when I'm being indecisive...”
“You need coffee.”
As the doctor moved to take his wallet out of his jeans, the young woman held up a hand and smiled. “No, no, no charge. You've had a rough day. Please, it's on me!”
“You're very kind, miss...ah, I didn't catch your name?”
Her smile widened and she pointed to the black and white name tag on the strap of her apron.
“Shasta. Nice to meet you.”
With his free hand, Taigo shook hers and sank back down in his seat.
“I-I'm Taigo. Same to you.”
“Would you like a muffin? Fresh from the oven! Again, no charge.”Sean offered kindly, moving towards the coffee machine to brew up a fresh batch.
Taigo nodded and exhaled the breath he never realized he'd been holding. Glancing at Shasta, he watched as she pushed several strands of hair from her face and sat opposite of him, her small hands moving to neaten up the condiment tray by the napkin holder.
He had to laugh at the absurdity of it all- only minutes ago he would've never even dreamed of sitting here in her presence, much less nursing more than a bruised ego.
Soon, the air was heavy with the smell of rich, freshly brewed black coffee.
Taigo idly picked at the gigantic muffin Sean had placed before him. It was delicious, of course, and he could feel his racing heart slow down as he relaxed in the booth, savouring the young woman's company.
Though it was almost lunchtime, the cafe was fairly quiet for a Saturday and so Shasta took to sitting before him, sipping lightly on an iced latte while Sean busied himself sweeping the floor with an oversized broom and humming along to the sound of old timey jazz music emitting softly from the speakers on the walls.
For the first time in what felt like an eternity, Taigo felt a little of the tension in his back slowly ease.
Peering at him from over the rim of her plastic coffee cup, Shasta considered him with interest.
“Y'know, I've seen you pass by the window a few times...”
“Oh, really?” Taigo said, surprised.
“Mmm... always in a rush to go somewhere. I'd hoped you would come in someday.”
She let a coy giggle escape her lips.
“I don't know...you seem interesting to me. Guessing by the lab coat, I assume you're a scientist, right?”
He smiled and sipped his coffee.
“Surgeon, actually. Over at Tokyo General.”
“Oh, wow! That must be a tough job. I know I couldn't handle it. I faint at the mere sight of blood!”
Taigo chuckled and picked at the top of his muffin, popping a handful of warm crumbs into his mouth. “You'll be surprised what you get used to once you get through medical school. I wouldn't say I'm completely desensitized to blood and guts but after all these years, very few things shock me anymore.”
“I bet you have some stories to tell, though.” Shasta said brightly, leaning on her elbow and twirling a lock of hair around her index finger.
“Well, I'm technically bound by the Hippocratic Oath not to talk about my patients outside of work but y'know... some things are pretty memorable.”
“Oooh, like what?”
Feeling decidedly more relaxed now that the introductions were behind him, Taigo leaned back in his seat and took a generous swig of coffee. He glanced up at the ceiling and saw that the light above them was a fancy-looking purple chandelier.
“I once held a man's still-beating heart in my hand.”
Her eyes widened.
“No shit?! That's the most metal thing I've ever heard!”
Taigo was amused by her wide-eyed awe and took a long, slow sip of his beverage.
“All in a day's work. Even so; “He paused to push his glasses up his nose; “...First time I actually assisted on a heart transplant, I nearly passed out from sheer nerves. I mean, I'm literally holding this guy's life in the palm of my hand- one wrong move and I could potentially kill him!”
“Right, right!” She pushed her fringe from her eyes;“Did he live, though?”
“Yes, he was perfectly fine once he recovered from the surgery.” Taigo said with a soft smile.
“That's awesome. You must be good at what you do.”
Taigo chuckled bashfully and shook his head.
“Well, I try. It's a difficult job sometimes, and there are days when I question why I got into this business but I take the good with the bad. It's the only way I can cope, really.”
“Right, right. You gotta roll with the punches, I guess.” Shasta said sagely.
Taigo smiled and toasted her with his mug.
“Drinking tons of coffee also helps, heh! This is good stuff.”
Her smile widened.
“Thanks. I can bag you up some of our house blend if you like. Again-”
“No charge?” He drawled, arching an eyebrow; “You really are far too kind to me.”
“Hey, it's no problem, Doc. You've clearly had a rough day, what with getting kicked in the nuts and all. Figured you could use a little kindness.”Shasta's cheeks turned slightly pink and she stood from her seat, heading towards the counter, behind which was a number of shelves heaving with baked goods, frappuccino syrups and bags of ground beans.
She plucked a bag of coffee from the nearest shelf and set it on the counter-top. Then, feeling generous, she reached for the tray of freshly baked muffins and pulled out four before turning once more to the shelf over the espresso maker. Sighing heavily, she cast a sheepish look at Taigo and beckoned him over.
“Uhm, could you help me out here? I can't reach the boxes...” she said, biting her lip in mild embarrassment.
Taigo shook his head in amusement and slowly rose, crossing the floor towards her and rounding the counter. Standing next to her, the height difference was almost comical- she was at least a foot and a half shorter than him and that fact amused him greatly. He pulled a number of cake boxes down from the shelf with ease and watched as she packed away the muffins, sealing the box with a dainty purple ribbon topped with a bow.
Bagging up the coffee, she handed him the goods and scruffed her sneaker on the floor, staring at it bashfully. “I..uh.. don't usually do this...” Shasta said, unable to look at him.
“Yes...?” Taigo said, almost hopeful.
She cleared her throat loudly and plucked a notepad from the pocket of her apron, using a pen lodged behind her left ear to scribble something on the page. Tearing it free of the spiral bindings, she pushed the page into Taigo's hand and made a great show of fiddling with her hair.
“...But... uhm... I like you. I mean, duh! I'm giving you free stuff an' all. T-That's my number. Call me if you ever need a friendly ear...” she looked up at him and instantly grinned upon seeing the astonished expression on his face; “Or you need someone to beat up your friend!”
Taigo's words came out as a shocked splutter and he almost dropped the box of muffins.
“I-wow! T-Thank you kindly, miss!”
Shasta wrinkled her brow.
“Geez, you act like you've never gotten a chick's number before-!”
He was about to explain exactly that when suddenly, the tinny sound of an 8-bit Final Fantasy Battle Theme emitted from his pocket, startling them both. Juggling the cake box and coffee, Taigo fished out his phone and saw an urgent text from the hospital flash across the screen. He smiled apologetically and babbled a hasty goodbye before racing outside to take the message.
Leaning against the counter, Shasta watched as the doctor sprinted down the street and out of sight. Sean sauntered up to her, caught the bemused look on her face and grinned as he helped himself to a cup of coffee from the pot on brew.
“I can't believe you did that.” he said, a purring laughter rumbling in his throat as he surveyed his companion over the rim of his cup.
“Me neither!” Shasta replied, head in her hands as she giggled nervously. Sean shook his head and curled an arm around her, resting his head upon her shoulder and giving her a gentle, reassuring squeeze.
“I'll call the wedding planner!”
“Fuck off, Sean!”She slapped him playfully on the arm.
“Now, now! Is that any way to talk to your Man of Honor?”He teased.
Shasta flapped her lips and sighed.
“Urgh...! And so it starts...! ”
Whilst young love blossoms in a bakery, across town, one woman's life changes irrevocably...
Several hours later…
As she opened her eyes, Pandora winced as the harsh fluorescent light seared into her skull.
Her vision was unfocused, her surroundings one big white blur of indeterminable shapes.
Still, she knew where she was. The cold, clinical stench of bleach and sterility was unmistakable to her and as her eyesight slowly adapted to the intense strip lighting, she tensed beneath a swathe of itchy blankets as the reality dawned upon her.
How long have I been lying in this hospital bed?
Her last memory before everything went dark was of feeling weak, nausea bubbling at the back of her throat as her knees buckled and she crumpled to the floor of her kitchen.
After that, she knew no more until she found herself coming around in a private room of the local hospital.
The room was silent save for the gentle blip-blip-blip of the various machines monitoring her vital signs and the dull ticking of the clock on the wall. Pandora sighed deeply and stared at the ceiling, feeling a low but tangible level of guilt.
She had been neglecting her health as of late, getting so overworked and stressed out by the weighty duties of running a busy nightclub that she failed to spot the signs telling her to slow down and take a breath.
Inwardly, she cursed herself for being so stupid, for taking on so much with little scope for rest, for giving so much of her time and effort with little reward or appreciation.
I must talk to Father about my hours... she mused, brows furrowing; ...Before I end up working myself into an early grave...
“Ahh, you're awake.” came a relieved voice from the nearby door frame, startling her.
Lifting her head from the stack of pillows, she watched as Taigo entered the room and sat down on a chair next to the bed. Though he appeared calm, she could see the worry in his blue eyes and the familiar world-wary posture of a man who worked too damn hard.
He was obviously on duty, his green scrubs crumpled beneath his pristine white coat and as he took a cursory glance at her chart, she noted the look of intense concentration upon his face.
“What happened?” Pandora queried, her voice barely above a whisper.
“In the simplest possible terms, you fainted.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I know that! I want to know why!”
Taigo smiled awkwardly and ran a hand through his mop of unkempt white curls.
“Heh, well I have your blood test results here... I don't want to sound like I'm nagging, Pan, but you really haven't been taking care of yourself lately.”
“I..I've had a lot on my plate.” She murmured, turning from his gaze as the guilt intensified.
“I know that. Still, you really should be taking it easy, for both your sakes.”
“ Both? ” Pandora turned to him, her face a picture of confusion as she looked upon her friend with utter bewilderment. Taigo blinked at her behind his thin black-framed glasses and glanced at her chart for a moment.
“Umm...you don't know?”
“Oh...um...well, this is awkward.”
“ For christsake, Taigo! Spit it out already! ” She snapped at him, immediately regretting it when she saw him visibly flinch. Getting to his feet, the young doctor paced at the end of the bed, his face full of worry.
“It could be a false positive... then again, the lab has been extremely backed up lately...” he was talking more to himself than her but Pandora could see that something was seriously troubling him.
Sitting up, she motioned for him to hand her the flipchart.
“This may come as a shock, Pandora. Please try to remain calm...” Taigo said quietly, folding his arms across his chest and staring awkwardly at the floor.
She ignored him and browsed through the chart for a moment, taking in the information before her. Sentences about iron levels and blood sugar did not stand out as suspect- after all, she knew she had low-grade health problems stemming from a lack of proper nutrition and care as a child but until now, Pandora gave them little thought, pushing them to the back of her mind so as to get on with her life.
She came to the last page of the chart and froze as she read the small paragraph printed upon it.Her hands began to shake and she dropped it as though the pages had burned her, her brown eyes wide with shock.
“ P..Pregnant...?! ” she managed to gasp, her voice an astonished croak.
Taigo glanced up, sheepishly meeting her gaze.
“It came as a bit of a surprise to me too, dear. I didn't even know you were seeing anyone-”
“I'm not! ” Pandora snapped and she moved to swing her legs over the side of the bed, getting unsteadily to her feet. Taigo raced to assist her, holding her shoulders as she took tentative steps towards the door, her face like thunder.
Shrugging his hands away, she pushed past him and strode out into the hallway, her legs shaking with a mixture of shock, nerves and anger.
“Wait! Where are you going?!” Taigo called out, watching as she made her way out towards the nurse's station with fierce determination in every shaky step.
“To get a second opinion! ” she yelled back, startling the poor little receptionist at the front desk of the ward when she dropped the flipcart in front of her with a loud clatter.
“Uhh...can I help you?” the tiny blonde woman squeaked from behind giant coke-bottle glasses, clearly rattled by the sight of a dishevelled, scorned woman in a flimsy hospital gown glowering down her nose at her.
“Who do I speak to about obtaining a pregnancy test?” Pandora practically snarled at the woman.
The receptionist gulped and glanced down the hallway at Taigo, who sighed and shook his head. Joining them at the nurse's station, he brought down a wheelchair and motioned for Pandora to seat herself in it.
“Calm down. I'll take you to see Maki. I'm sure it's just an innocent mistake-”
“ It damn well better be! ” Pandora growled, scowling at him.
Taigo swallowed back a lump of nerves in his throat and steered the wheelchair towards the elevator, quietly wondering what he'd done to deserve dealing with Pandora's rarely-seen but legendary scorn.
Five minutes later, the elevator left them on the third floor, which housed the Maternity Wing, Obstetrics and Prenatal Care units. Taigo wheeled her in an uneasy silence, inwardly pitying his colleague for the unholy earbashing about to be unleashed upon her.
They soon came to stop outside the office door of a Dr. M. Souba. Just under the formal title, some joker had fixed a crocked bumper sticker that said “ OBGYN, At your cervix !”
Pandora frowned at this but said nothing, her knuckles white as she gripped the flipchart in her hands. Taigo knocked twice on the door.
“It's open!” came a chirpy female voice from within.
Taigo wheeled Pandora into the room. Maki Souba sat sorting through paperwork at her stylish black desk and greeted him with a friendly smile, only to yell out in alarm as Pandora sprang from the wheelchair and threw the chart at her, narrowly missing hitting her square in the nose.
“What the-?!” Maki cried, shielding herself with her hands.
“I demand an explanation for this bullshit!” Pandora snapped, jabbing a finger at the papers which now lay strewn across the desk. Maki stared at Taigo, slack jawed.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn't call security-!” Her hand lay poised above a large red button on the telephone on the desk but Taigo simply sighed and gently placed his hand upon hers, his eyes apologetic.
“Forgive her, Maki. She's a little...ah... tense right now.”
Maki arched an eyebrow and glanced at her would-be attacker. Pushing her vivid red hair from her eyes, she groaned and stood up. “Alright, what's eatin' ya?” she said in an exasperated tone, considering Pandora with suspicion.
“These charts say I'm pregnant! ” Pandora cried in indignation; “Surely this must be some mistake!”
Maki pursed her lips and adjusted her glasses, picking up a paper from the messy pile and scrutinizing it intensely. Reading through the words upon it, she glanced at Pandora and surveyed her form.
“Well, you don't look pregnant...”
Pandora glared at her but otherwise said nothing, seething.
“I normally have a lot of faith in the laboratory techs- they've never screwed up on me yet;” Taigo interjected; “Even so, nothing is completely infallible so I brought her to you for a second opinion. Blood tests rarely lie but still, if it'll set her mind at ease, I'd appreciate it if you could run a few tests, Maki.”
“Sure thing.” Maki nodded, before wagging a finger at Pandora. “I'm willing to help you but if you continue to act pissy with me, you're out on your ass.”
“Urgh. Fine.” Pandora sighed in annoyance, rolling her eyes. Despite her obvious frustration, she shook Maki's hand and proceeded to hop onto the examination table. Taigo sat in the corner of the office, watching quietly and nervously fidgeting.
“Uhh... do you want me to go?” he asked as Maki snapped on a pair of latex gloves.
Pandora's features softened slightly and she beckoned him forward.
“No, no... sorry for snapping at you earlier. I guess it was a pretty big shock to the system.”
“It's fine. You're not the first patient to yell at me and you certainly won't be the last, heh.” Taigo chuckled weakly, scooting his chair closer to the table. Pandora smiled despite herself and reached for his hand, giving it a firm squeeze.
“I'll be honest with you, Taigo. This is fucking terrifying. ”Though she forced a smile, her eyes betrayed the fear she tried so hard to keep in check and as Maki wheeled the sonogram machine to the side of the examination table, Pandora found herself growing more and more panicky.
Maki draped a surgical sheet over Pandora's legs and urged her to lift up her hospital gown to expose her abdomen. As the fledgling OBGYN smeared cool blue goo onto her stomach, Pandora let out a squeal as the cold gel hit her skin.
“Okay, here we go...” Maki said in a confident voice as she fired up the sonogram machine and ran the probe along her patient's abdomen. Pandora studied the screen, hoping she wouldn't find something that shouldn't be there.
Her mind was racing at a thousand thoughts a second and the panic increased with every twist and turn of the probe.
“Breathe, Panny.” Taigo whispered, squeezing her hand comfortingly. Pandora let out a shaky breath- it came out as a sob and she surprised herself by feeling the ghosts of tears sting her eyes.
“Please let this be a false alarm...” she thought aloud, scrunching her eyes shut and desperately trying to block out the strange, alien, pulsating throb of the sonogram as it scanned through her lower torso.
“Oh..!” Maki exclaimed, eyes widening.
The pulsating noise increased and she knew then that the blood test told no lies.
There was no mistaking that sound, small though it may be. It was a determined, strong heartbeat and it cut her to the core as long repressed memories came rushing to the surface.
She had heard that sound once before, many years ago when she was far too young to even consider motherhood. That tiny heartbeat reminded her of a painful, agonizing loss and as the sound echoed around the room, her hand left Taigo's and flew to her face as the tears began to fall.
“Uhm...” Maki cleared her throat loudly; “I can see this is distressing for you but the sonogram confirms it.” she said delicately; “You are most definitely pregnant. About seven or eight weeks along, by the looks of things. I'll give you a moment to gather your thoughts. Taigo, would you...?”
She handed him a paper towel and wheeled the machine back to its' rightful place in the corner of the room.
Taigo nodded sagely and gently wiped the gel from Pandora's abdomen, his face full of concern as he watched her shake with ill-suppressed sobs.
Maki shook her head and left the room, leaving them both to process this newfound information.
After a while where he just sat stroking Pandora's long black hair and comforting her in a weighty silence, Taigo was the first to speak.
“So...” his face was stern, jaw tensed; “...Who do I get to brutally murder?”
Pandora half-laughed, half-hiccupped and daubed at her eyes with a paper towel.
“Don't even go there, Taigo. Seriously...”
“Pandora, you're one of my closest and dearest friends. I love the bones of you and I refuse to stand by and let some asshole treat you like dirt. Please tell me. I promise I'll just maim him. No murder... possibly just assault.”Taigo chuckled despite himself and pulled her hand to his mouth, giving it a sweet kiss.
“Taigo... it's complicated .”
“I didn't even know you were seeing anybody....or was it a one-night stand? I-I'm not judging you, I'm really not. I'm just a bit stunned. You're pregnant ! Like, with a baby! I'm sorry but that's just insane!”Taigo said, tracing patterns on her hand.
Pandora smiled weakly and glanced at her bare abdomen, her free hand lightly prodding her navel as she still struggled to take it all in.
“Yeah... it's like there's a giraffe in the room, huh?”
“So, what are you going to do now?”
She sighed and gazed up at the ceiling, her thoughts turbulent.
“At this point in time, Taigo, I really don't know. It's too early to tell. God, my father is going to go ballistic. He doesn't like me dating.” She sighed and shook her head. “He's so overprotective...”
“Him and me both! C'mon, why won't you tell me who the father is?”
“Oh... alright. But promise not to freak out?”
“I am a calm blue ocean, Pandora. Try me.” Taigo said with a grin.
Pandora gulped, bracing herself for what she was about to say. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself and uttered six words, barely an octave above a whisper.
“You're going to be an uncle.”
As the revelation of her pregnancy settles in, Pandora faces uncertainties about her future and painful memories bubble to the surface...
At first, the words did not register with the young doctor. He stared at her for a moment, confused, before his eyes widened to saucers and he promptly dropped her hand.
“Wait...what...?!” he let out a wheezy, incredulous laugh and cast her an astonished gaze.
“You're kidding ! ....Right?”
Pandora bowed her head low as shame filled her. She bit her bottom lip and stared at the seams of the sheet covering her legs, her breathing shallow as she tried her damndest not to think back to that fateful night. Her hands knotted the thin fabric of her gown, twisting and jerking it in a display of nerves and distress and she winced as she felt the tension in the room.
Taigo stopped laughing. His face was a picture of growing alarm.
“No...! You and Shima ...?! B-But....wait, what ?!”
“It's true. I am carrying your brother's child.” her voice was shaky and low as she slowly willed herself to look him in the eye.
He stared at her dumbfounded and winded for a moment before he put his hands on his head and let out a long, disbelieving gasp. “Well, knock me down with a feather! I knew you two were close but Jesus !”
“Tell me about it...” Pandora murmured, her fingers clenching the fabric in her hands. “I never meant for this to happen.”
“Okay, I need details .” Taigo sat upright and steepled his fingers, resting his chin atop them and staring at her with a piercing blue gaze. “What happened? Where? And most importantly... `why? ”
“I don't want to talk about it right now, okay?” Pandora's voice shook with emotion as she moved to wipe away a fresh batch of tears.
Taigo pursed his lips and adjusted his glasses. He placed one hand on hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
“Panny, I know this is a lot to take in but please... you do yourself no favours keeping everything bottled up. Talk to me . You know you can confide in me. If you don't want to tell anyone, I'm legally obligated towards confidentiality but even so, it's going to come out eventually.” He glanced at her stomach in a knowing way before reaching to brush a stray lock of ebony hair from her bloodshot eyes.
“Taigo, I fucked up.” She sniffled, reaching for a paper towel. Taigo proceeded to rub her back soothingly and in turn, wound his arm around her shoulders.
“Sssh... it's okay. Start from the top-”
Pandora moved to speak but as she did so, the office door opened and Maki popped her head through, looking somewhat sheepish.
“Uhh... everything alright in here?” she queried, glancing between the two.
“It's fine !” Pandora hiccoughed, forcing a grin; “Guess I'm riding a wave of hormones right now! Heh! Sorry about...y'know, everything. God, this is crazy. What a weird way to start the morning...!”
“Don't sweat it. If you want, I'll be more than happy to talk you through your options. We have a dedicated prenatal counselling service-”
No, no. I'll be okay.” Pandora got down from the table and adjusted her gown before clearing her throat and straightening up, her face resetting to a neutral, stoic expression as she fixed her hair and took a deep, calming breath.
“You sure you can handle this?” Maki said in a worried tone as she helped ease Pandora back into the wheelchair.
“Thanks, but I'll deal with this in my own way.” Turning to Taigo, she smiled weakly and slumped into the chair, fatigue taking hold as her legs trembled beneath her. “I need to go home and figure some stuff out.”
“Alright.”Maki moved towards her desk, opened a drawer and pulled out a small stack of pamphlets. She handed them to the ebony haired woman and held open the door.
“You'll find a bunch of useful information there. If you need anything, Taigo has my number. Call anytime you feel like talking.”
Taigo bid his colleague farewell and wheeled his friend back down the hall towards the elevator.
Neither spoke as it descended to the ground floor, the silence pregnant with uncertainty.
Back in the little private room, Pandora sat on the edge of the bed and slowly dressed herself. She laced up her boots, stood and brushed the creases from her burgundy dress before heading towards the door where Taigo waited patiently.
He offered his arm and she took it gladly, thankful that he didn't push the subject any further.
Together, they walked quietly towards the Accident and Emergency Department, stepping from the silence into the hustle and bustle and out into the real world.
At the entrance to the hospital, Taigo let her go and sat back on the low wall near the wheelchair ramp, considering her with interest.
“So, what now?”
“I could really use a cigarette but I know that's not an option.” Pandora quipped, placing a hand on her stomach andgrinning at Taigo's horrified expression.
She shook her head and surveyed the surroundings, taking in the grey, overcast sky and the cold chill of a March breeze that rattled the sparse leaves of the saplings dotting the hospital grounds.
To anyone else, the day seemed dull and uneventful but today, her life had changed irrevocably.
For the better or for the worst, it was too early to say. She exhaled slowly, taking stock of what had transpired in Maki's office.
The initial shock had receded to a sense of disbelief but try though she might, Pandora couldn't deny the facts. The blood tests and the scan were irrefutable. Now, uncertain times lay ahead and for a brief moment, terror struck her.
What would Shima say to the news, she wondered?
Taigo was shocked, no doubt, but he handled it well and seemed supportive enough. Why wouldn't he be? He was always the sensible twin, kind and compassionate and considerate of other people's feelings.
Pandora knew he would never betray her confidence and that thought made her smile through the plethora of emotions swirling within.
“Thanks.” she said, reaching to squeeze his shoulder.
“For being here with me today. I doubt I'd have coped alone.”
Taigo smiled softly and embraced her in a warm hug, rubbing her back affectionately.
“Like I said, you're practically my sister. If I don't look out for you, who will?”
“You are a good man, Dr. Shigeta.”
He smiled warmly, his cheeks flushed pink.
“ Panny , you're making me blush!”
She squeezed him tightly, nuzzling into his shoulder.
“God, I'm so hungry right now. I have a sudden, desperate longing for a burrito... and I don't even like Mexican food!”
Taigo let her go and held her at arm's length.
“That's pregnancy for you. Prepare yourself for tons of weird cravings. Apparently, my Mom was really into peanut butter and onion sandwiches when she was carrying myself and Shima.”
“Ew, that's disgusting!”Pandora blanched.
He grinned and glanced at his watch. “My shift ends in ten minutes. We'll hit up Del Taco. My treat.”
“Sounds like a plan...”
“S-Slow down! You'll give yourself heartburn!”Taigo gasped, but she gave him a withering glare in return, which made him shrink into his seat as he slowly reached for a nacho.
Pandora barely paused for breath. As soon as the aroma of refried beans had hit her nostrils as they both strolled into the quaint little Mexican restaurant, she became consumed with a deep-seated urge to consume her own body weight in spicy burritos, complete with enough salsa dip to feed a small army.
Taigo watched in quiet awe and a mixture of fear as the raven-haired woman seated opposite him reached for her third taco, ravenous as she dipped it in a cup of sour cream and devoured it with gusto.
“Thank the Lord for all-you-can eat buffets!” she chimed through large bites, pico de galo and bits of beef sauce smeared across her chin.
Taigo shook his head and sipped his coffee. “You're eating for two, not quadruplets! Though, on that note, you should know that twins run in my family.”
She dropped half the contents of her taco onto her plate, eyes widening.
“Don't you even dare joke about that fact, Taigo.” She reached for a napkin and cleaned the mess from her face, scowling at him.
“I've only begun to get my head around the fact that I'm having one! ”
“I know, I know. Just making light of a serious situation.”
“Excuse me if I don't break my ass laughing.”
The doctor shook his head and leaned on the formica table between them, a hand in his unruly mop of white curls. “I can't believe it... I'm going to be an uncle!” He let out a wheezy laugh, adjusting his glasses atop his nose.
“My parents are going to freak out . My Dad's always wanted a grandchild! Who knew Shima had it in him-!”
Pandora pushed her plate away and took a sip of cola to wash down the remnants of her lunch. “I know it's hard to believe but yes, it happened. Shima is indeed the father of my child.” She placed her elbows on the table and steepled her fingers, peering through her fringe at her friend with a steely, tired gaze.
“Since I know you're a stickler for details, I'll play ball. Ask away.”
“Oh.. uh..okay.” Taigo cleared his throat awkwardly; “Tell me everything. Wait.. n-not everything... Just the main details.Okay... first question. Was there alcohol involved?”
Pandora sighed and nodded, shoulders slumped with shame.
“You could say that...”
“Did he take advantage of you? I know he gets frisky when he's drunk. I swear to God, if he betrayed your trust-!”
“It wasn't like that, okay?” Pandora pursed her lips at him, frowning. “Yes, we were both drunk but not so inebriated as to completely dull our senses. I was...”she hesitated for a moment, considering her words carefully. “I was going through a whole shitstorm of emotions at the time and... well, I needed comfort.”
“Oh... care to elaborate?”
She groaned and raked a hand through her hair, exhaling a mildly annoyed breath through her nose.
“It was the night of my mother's funeral.”
“ Oh .” Taigo winced and he instinctively reached for her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.
Pandora inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, carefully. She sat back in her seat and averted her gaze to the remnants of her meal lying forgotten on the plate before her.
“Being back in my hometown... it was torture . So many painful memories. I was in a bad way and desperately trying to hold it together so I could at least make it through the funeral in one piece. I felt like running away from it all. You know what the worst part was?”
“Tell me.” Taigo's deep blue eyes were full of sympathy and concern and as Pandora slowly met his gaze, she felt a rush of love and affection for him, safe in the knowledge that he would act as a trusted confidante, understanding and non-judgemental.
“I saw a figure from my past.” She said in a low, anguished tone. “Josef Miroslav. He was my first love. My only love. He was the first man I ever gave my heart to. We were young and stupid but we were happy.”
Fidgeting with the large ruby-topped poison ring on her left index, Pandora waged an internal conflict, wondering if she should reveal the deep, dark underbelly of her life before she came to Tokyo- a life marred by hardship and tragedy of the unspeakable kind. Yet as she connected her brown eyed gaze with his baby blues, she felt nerves knot in her stomach, choking back the courage to divulge the pain she carried deep within.
Instead, she forced a sheepish smile and pushed her hair behind her ear, turning to glance out the window as a steady rainfall pattered against it.
“We once talked about getting married when we were old enough...stupid, childish dreams of two loved-up teens who didn't know any better.”
“So, what happened?” Taigo gently asked, considering her from behind his glasses.
Pandora sighed and turned to look at him, her expression pained.
“He was Jewish so my mother hated him, naturally. She did everything she could to stop us from being together. It's a long story but...” she took another shaky breath; “...We fell out of touch and our lives followed different paths. Yet, seeing him there at the wake... with his lovely new wife and perfect little baby girl...”she trailed off and stared down at her lap, willing herself not to cry.
“I'm so sorry, Panny.” Taigo squeezed her hand tightly. “That couldn't have been easy.”
“I know... I know. So you can only imagine the state I was in that night.”she took a long sip of cola and shook her head.
“Grief and vodka are a potent mix.”
“So... so what happened next?”
Pandora's expression softened and she rolled her eyes to the ceiling, a husky, humourless laugh rumbling through her.
“Well, I ended up cocooning myself in my room and crying my eyes out. I'm not a big drinker, you know that. But considering all that was going on that day, seeing Josef in the arms of another woman was what sent me over the edge. I grabbed a bottle of Stoli and sat on my bed determined to drink until I was comfortably numb. That's when Shima found me.”
Taigo took a sip of coffee and another cheesy nacho, silent but his eyes urged her to continue.
“He... he was great , actually.”Pandora smiled. “Really. He sat with me for a few hours, holding me while I blubbed and basically reduced myself to a mascara-streaked mess of a woman. He listened to me while I sobbed about Josef, about my mother, about everything. And like you, he didn't judge me. He...he was there for me , Taigo.”
“Commendable...” the doctor said, but his face knitted with bewilderment; “...Still doesn't explain how you ended up in your current condition.” He inclined his head towards her stomach, currently plump with a food baby.
She grinned mirthlessly and placed a hand on her abdomen, clearing her throat conspicuously, avoiding his gaze.
“Ahh. That. Well....I'll spare you the gory details.”
“Thank you kindly.” Taigo sighed and she chuckled.
“So, you want to know what happened. Well, without going into too much detail, Shima carried me to the car and drove us back to the hotel- I outright refused to stay in my childhood home for a second longer. When we got back, we holed up in our room and ordered all kinds of crap from room service. I was sobering up around midnight and with that, the tears came. I was an emotional wreck, Taigo. You can't blame me for what happened next.”
“Do I really want to know...?”
“Heh. Well, Shima started it.”
“He did?” Taigo's brows quirked upwards in surprise.
“Mmhmm. He started stroking my cheek... then, call it poor judgement on account of one too many drinks or whatever... he kissed me. It.. it wasn't the kind of kiss you give a friend when they're teary-eyed and emotional, Taigo. It was... hmm, I don't know how to explain it but suffice to say, things got kinda weird after that. One thing led to another and boom- pregnant .”
Taigo leaned back in his seat, stunned.
“Wow. So...so, you and Shima...!”
“We made the beast with two backs, yes. If I may say one thing, it was certainly the biggest thrill I'd had in years...”
“P-Pandora!” He sputtered on his coffee, grimacing at the mental image.
She snorted with laughter and reached over to rustle his shaggy mop of unkempt curls.
“Ahhh, you're such a prude, dear. Anyways, I have now come to a difficult impasse. How do I tell him about...”She pointed at her abdomen, confusion on her face; “... This ?”
Taigo scratched his chin, looking thoughtful.
“Well, for starters, what happened after the fact?”
“What do you mean?”
“How were things after.... after you two...”he dropped his voice to a scandalized whisper; “....had sex?”
“Oh. Heh-heh.”Pandora twirled a lock of hair around her pinky.
“Truth be told, we both agreed it was a night of pure lunacy, one which we decided never to mention again, lest we blur the lines of our friendship. There was a note of regret in the morning, yes, when the hangovers faded, but we both agreed to keep schtum and not let it get in the way of things. Shima goes on with his life and I with mine. No complications....at least, that's what I thought...”
“So, wait, you two finally gave in to the undeniable sexual tension that's been simmering for years and then you just decide to ignore it the next morning? I'm sorry, but I don't buy it, Pandora.”
She stared at her friend. He had a haughty look on his face, one she recognized from when he caught someone bluffing at poker or, like right now, when he knew there was more to the story than she was letting on.
“I'm telling you the truth, Taigo. Shima and I? We would never work as a couple.”
“ Bullshit . Give me one good reason why you and my brother aren't perfect for each other.”
“Taigo... please don't start. It's been a long, crazy day and I just don't have the strength for this argument.” Pandora groaned, rubbing her temples as she felt the onset of a headache twinge behind her eyes.
“I'm not arguing with you, Pandora. I'm not! I just... well, I've got a secret to confess.”
“I'm all ears.”
“I...I've been wanting you and Shima to get together for years . You two...you're just so right for each other! You may not see it but everyone else does. Seriously. This could be the start of something amazing for both of you.”Taigo enthused.
“If you say so, dear...” Pandora murmured, taking a gulp of cola and looking thoroughly unconvinced.
“I mean it, Pandora. When I see you two together, it makes me giddy! Sure, you're practically an old married couple as it is. If you want, I could talk to him for you, butter him up to the notion of-”
“Taigo, please! ” She stopped him mid-sentence with a hand to his lips, her gaze hard and final.
“You will not mention any of this to him. Not until I figure out what I'm going to do next. You might be happy to know that there's a new little Shigeta on the way but I'm still processing the news, you know. I have no idea how Shima will react and to be honest, I'm expecting him to completely freak.”
“Okay, I'll be the first to admit it- my brother can be a bit of a loose cannon sometimes- but trust me, when the shock wears off, I'm sure he'll be supportive.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Taigo grinned and leaned back in his seat.
“Because I'll beat the shit out of him if he's not.”
She groaned out a laugh and playfully shoved him in the arm.
"I appreciate you looking out for me, dear, really I do. But I need time before I spill the beans. Got to get into the right headspace and brace myself for what I'm sure will be a sterling conversation...”she sighed and stared up at the ceiling fan.
“I can't just drop something like this on him. The shock would kill him!”
Taigo shook his head and patted her hand reassuringly.
“If you want, I can come with you when you eventually decide to tell him. Moral support an' all.”
“Thank you. Really. It means a lot to me knowing you're there fighting my corner, Taigo.”
“Any time, darling. Any time. So...what now?”
“Honestly? At this present moment? I don't even know what I want for dessert!”
Taigo stared at her, wide-eyed.
“How can you possibly still be hungry?!”
“Be nice to me! I'm eating for two, y'know!” She pouted, flicking a bean at his head.
He laughed despite himself and reached for the dessert menu, shaking his head in amusement.
“Wanna share an ice cream sundae? I'll let you have my cherry.”
“With all the trimmings?”
“Whatever you want. My treat.”
“ Goddamnit , Taigo! Why the hell are you still single? You are literally perfect.”
The good doctor turned puce and rubbed the back of his head, chuckling shyly.
“Believe me, Pandora, I've been asking myself the same question for the last ten years...”
The rainfall that had lightly sprinkled the restaurant windows swiftly turned into a torrential downpour by the time they had finally finished their meal. Ever the gentleman, Taigo draped his trench coat over his friend as they ran through the parking lot to where his candy-apple red Toyota sat beneath the shade of an elm tree.
They sat in the car for a few moments, neither saying a word, instead listening to the sound of water droplets bouncing off the car's roof and the distant crashes of thunder on the horizon.
Pandora sat in the front passenger seat with a hand on her stomach, content to just take it all in.
She knew that soon, the proverbial was about to hit the fan and she needed to savour every quiet, calm moment she could snatch before the storm worsened.
“Where to, m'lady?” Taigo offered after a few moments had passed, firing up the engine.
The radio buzzed to life and the sultry voice of a jazz singer filled the car with smokey, bluesy tones, breaking the peaceful, rain-soaked silence.
“Home, please. I think I need to be alone for a little while.”
Taigo steered the car out of the lot and soon, they were driving through the streets of Tokyo, content to just listen to the music on the radio. The city was bustling despite the dreary weather and many pedestrians littered the sidewalks as they drove past, all manner of people from all walks of life.
Pandora didn't live far from the hospital.
She made her home at the top floor of a posh apartment complex in an affluent part of town away from the main flow of the city in a building owned and operated by her father.
The elevator ride to the penthouse was brief. As they stood outside her door, Pandora sighed and leaned against the frame, considering her friend with a worried expression.
“Will you pinch me?” she said quietly, her expression forlorn.
“I want to wake up now.”
“Panny...” Taigo didn't hesitate. He swept her into a warm, loving embrace and gently rubbed her back as he whispered soothing words into her ear. She trembled with suppressed tears and wound her arms around his waist, feeling weak and emotional as the prospect of being alone with her thoughts weighed heavily on her mind.
“You are not alone in this situation. Don't even think that, not for one second. Anything you need, anything at all, you call me and I'll come running. I don't care if it's three in the morning and I've just got home from the night shift- if you need me, I'll be there.”
“Again...” Pandora sniffled, wiping her face on her sleeve; “...Why are you single?”
“I'm serious. If I have to step in and help you raise this kid myself, I will. Hopefully, it won't come to that and I won't have to resort to enacting grievous bodily harm on my brother...”He held her at arm's length and wiped her cheeks with his thumbs.
“You'll be okay, I promise. When you eventually decide to tell everyone, I'll hold your hand. It won't be easy, I'll admit, but you will not be alone. I won't allow it!”
“Thank you.” she sniffed once again and rested her forehead against his, closing her eyes just for a moment.
“If only every guy was as noble as you...!”
“If every guy was like me, the human race would die out.”Taigo said dryly and she chuckled at his self-deprecating humour.
She hugged him tightly and kissed him lovingly on the cheek, nuzzling her nose into the crook of his neck and breathing in his signature scent of minty soap and hospital cleanliness.
“You'll make someone very happy someday, Taigo. I can feel it in my bones.”she said aloud, looking up at him reverently. He smiled, his cheeks flushed pink and gently kissed her forehead.
“Take care of yourself, okay? It's not just your own health that's at stake.” He lightly brushed his fingers against her abdomen, resting his hand upon her navel. “Tomorrow, I'll take you to get some prenatal vitamins and a few dietary supplements-”
“Oh, god.. .” she groaned, a hand to her head; “...You're already turning into an Uncle-Zilla and the kid isn't even born yet!”
“Sorry, sorry... I mean well!” He laughed and kissed her cheek. “Get some sleep. I'll call you in the morning, okay?”
“Will do. Thank you for being with me today. You're quite handy to have around in crazy situations.”
“Well, that's kind of my job. Take care, darling. I love you.” He gave her one last squeeze before stepping back into the elevator. As the doors slid shut, he waved goodbye before the lift descended to the lower levels.
Exhaling a deep breath, Pandora unlocked her front door and let herself into the apartment.
At once, a large, fluffy white Persian cat slinked towards her, winding itself between her legs and around her ankles demanding attention.
She smiled weakly and picked the cat up in her arms, savouring the warmth of its fur and the familiar rumbling purr as she stroked it.
“Oh, Bella, sweetie, I'm sorry. I forgot to buy food today.” Pandora said apologetically as the cat miaowed in her arms.
Crossing the vast open-plan living space, she stepped into the spacious kitchen and yanked open the fridge with her free hand. A cursory glance inside revealed the need to go grocery shopping but fatigue weighed heavy on her shoulders and she certainly didn't feel up to braving the rainstorm for the sake of a few food items.
Still, Pandora would sooner starve than see her animals go hungry so, after a quick rummage in the sleek black cabinets above the countertops, she found two tins of tuna and began to prepare a meal for her beloved pets.
“Mortimer! Dinner!” she called, tapping the metal pet dish with a spoon. Soon, a worryingly skinny, clearly elderly cat with sleek, pitch black fur slowly padded into the kitchen, sniffing the air and staring up at her with bright amber eyes.
Pandora smiled weakly and placed Bella next to the older cat, giving him a long stroke and savouring the feel of his silky dark fur as it slipped delicately between her fingers.
He purred loudly, arching into her touch and nuzzled his head against her ankle.
“Sorry I was gone so long, guys. The day has been crazy...”she sighed, dropping her handbag on the countertop and leaning against it as her body sagged from the stress of the last few hours.
She watched quietly as her cats ate their food, wondering how the hell this current arrangement would work with the addition of a child into the mix. Mortimer was old and prone to grumpiness- he would not suffer the attention of a curious toddler quite so readily.
Sighing, Pandora sat down at the kitchen table and began to unpack her handbag, feeling tears stab at the corners of her eyes.
As she proceeded to pull apart the contents of her handbag, she came across the stack of pamphlets Maki had given her. Breathing heavily, Pandora pulled them out of the rubber band holding them together and shuffled through the leaflets, scowling.
Most of them were for prenatal counselling services, information on dietary requirements and general immunizations for newborns....until she got to the end of the pile.
There, on a plain white card, in bold black letters, was a single word:
As the dust settles, Pandora makes a number of life-changing decisions. Meanwhile, Taigo's head is turned by a sassy and mysterious young woman...
Pandora stared at the pamphlet for a long time before she summoned the courage to lay it open.
Inside, the text was simple and straightforward, outlining procedures and deadlines and all manner of reasons for going through such a thing.
She felt her stomach churn and knot, the guilt building but the logical side of her brain implored her to see reason- she was clearly not ready for motherhood. Shima was flighty and wildly immature- he'd run a thousand miles if she told him the news.
Her apartment was just big enough for herself and her cats but Pandora couldn't see a child fitting into her life; her career was going from strength to strength and she finally had some sense of stability after years of uncertainty.
“It wouldn't be fair...” she thought aloud, head in hands as she began to seriously contemplate the gravity of the situation.
Yet despite mulling over all the pros of putting an end to her current dilemma before it had a chance to worsen, there was another part of her silently screaming out from the back of her mind, horrified that she was even giving a second thought to such a final solution.
It was a voice she had long tried to silence but to no avail- it was her protective side, one who still mourned for the child she had lost many years prior, still grieving, still saddened and angered by a loss that reverberated through the ages.
Try though she might, Pandora could not stop the flood of memories from that fraught time in her life.Had it really been fifteen years? She winced as guilt stabbed at her temples and she sighed, rubbing her temples with uncertainty.
Could she truly go through something as traumatic as the death of a child once again?
Pandora searched inside for the answer but all she could come up with were futile, feeble arguments both for and against. She wondered what Taigo would think- he'd been so enthusiastic about the sudden and unexpected news. It would crush him if she turned to him and said she was ending the pregnancy. The thought of abortion sickened her to the core but at the same time, she was wholy unprepared for what lay ahead. It was a means to an end.
“I'll tell him I miscarried.” she thought aloud, rubbing her eyes with her thumbs; “Yes... one little white lie. It's for the best...”
Keep telling yourself that, dear. Came a nasty little voice from the darker corners of her subconscious; Can you really live with the guilt of knowingly taking a life?
Fisting her hands in her hair, Pandora tried to stifle a cry of anguish but she couldn't deny it- the voice had a valid point. It had taken her years to pick up the pieces following that first tragic incident nearly two decades ago; she doubted her heart could take any more pain.
To live with such a terrible lie weighing deeply on her conscience?
She had no idea if she could do it but as she read through the pamphlet one more time, her resolve waived and she broke down, thumping a fist against the solid oak of the table, the tears flowing freely as she wept.
She chewed on her bottom lip as shame rained down upon her. “I'm so sorry for even thinking such a thing!” her voice was shaky and apologetic and as she stood, she grabbed the offending pamphlet and took great satisfaction in tearing it to shreds, letting them flutter to the floor.
The other pamphlets laid scattered across the table amid tubes of lipstick, scrawled shopping lists, crumpled tissues and the various other pieces of junk that cluttered her handbag.
Just as she was set to tidy up the mess, a low buzzing noise followed by the sound of the classic Nokia ringtone made her jump.
Her cellphone was among the heap and she snatched it up, sliding her finger over the screen to unlock.
Her father's name flashed brightly onscreen, demanding attention.
Pandora exhaled deeply and composed herself. She pressed the Accept Call button.
“Hello, father.” she said, trying to keep her voice as breezy as she could muster.
“You missed work.” Kasuhito's voice was low and gravelly, clearly irritated and inwardly, she winced.
“Umm.. yeah. About that. I...I had to go to the hospital unexpectedly. Jinzo can confirm for you.”
There was a short pause on the other end of the line.
“I see. Nothing serious, I hope?”
“Define ‘serious’.” Pandora sighed, sagging against the table.
“Pandora...”Kasuhito's voice was softer now but still businesslike; “...Are you alright, child?”
“I... no. No, I'm not.” her voice betrayed her anguish and she found herself slumping to the floor, the cats slinking to her side in a bid to offer comfort. Taking Bella in her lap, Pandora sighed deeply and balanced the phone on her shoulder.
“Can you come over? I need to talk to a sane person.”
“Of course. Tell me what you need.”
“A sympathetic ear... and maybe a pint of Phish Food.”
“Are you at home?”
“I'll be over in ten.” Another pause before he cleared his throat uncomfortably; “Um... it's nothing contagious , is it?”
Pandora narrowed her eyes. She could easily make a joke of it being a sexually transmitted parasite but somehow she doubted he'd appreciate the gallow's humour. Kasuhito was not known for being easily tickled. Still, she valued his input, blunt as he could be at times.
“No, it's fine. I'm just.... just overworked and stressed. Taigo signed me off for a few days.”
“Fair enough. I'm getting into the car now. See you in a few minutes.”
He then hung up, leaving Pandora sitting on the floor of her kitchen feeling dejected.
She wasn't relishing the fact that she had to tell him of her predicament but she knew it was necessary. After all, if she was indeed to keep the child, people had to know. Like Taigo said, these things had a way of getting out and so she decided to head things off before the rumour mill turned into overdrive. Before long, her belly would be swollen and the nausea would become overwhelming.
Questions would arise and eventually, the secret would be exposed like an open wound.
She grimaced and brushed her fringe from her eyes, hugging her cats close to her chest.
This was not going to be an easy conversation.
In a bid to distract herself, Pandora got up and set about cleaning up the mess on the table before turning her attention to the various sheets of paper scattered about the generous L-shaped couch in the living room. She was far from a home-body but she knew her father appreciated the effort.
He was paying her rent, after all...
As she took to running a feather duster over the polished ivory keys of the baby grand piano that took centre stage of the room, the time flew in and there was a short, sharp rap at the front door.
Her stomach dropped but she resolved to keep calm.
Crossing the room, she opened the door. Kasuhito stood in the frame looking his usual imposing self in a black and blue pin-stripped business suit, ebony hair tied into a tight ponytail, grey-flecked beard immaculately clipped. He held a plastic carrier bag full of ice cream and snacks, his expression perplexed.
“Hello, father.” Pandora said softly, motioning for him to enter. Kasuhito nodded and stepped over the threshold, following his only child into the kitchen where she was quick to fix him a cup of strong coffee.
“Is everything alright?” he queried as he leaned against the countertop observing her as she poured the beverage into an oversized novelty mug shaped like a Pug's head. Pandora let a mirthless chuckle escape her lips as she stirred in some sugar.
“No. No, everything is pretty fuckin' far from okay.”
“Sorry...” she fixed herself a cup of chamomile tea and headed for the living room, seating herself upon the plush leather couch, hands cupping the tea for warmth and security.
Kasuhito seated himself on the edge of the granite coffee table before her and sipped his coffee, peering at her with curiosity in his expression.
“What's going on with you? I see turbulence in your eyes. You said you were having health issues-”
“ I'm pregnant .” she cut him off with a single sentence.
Kasuhito nearly dropped his mug of coffee, eyes wide with alarm.
Pandora bowed her head and nodded.
“It's true. Seven or eight weeks along by the looks of things. I'm so sorry, father-!”
Kasuhito was quiet for a long moment, his dark brown eyes heavy as he stared into the black liquid in his mug. He shook his head and sighed deeply.
“Who do I have to murder?”
Pandora snorted and sipped her tea, unable to keep a wry grin spreading across her face.
“You're the second person who's said that.”
“Pandora...” his voice was gruff, his expression hard; “...I'm being serious.”
“There will be no murdering on my watch, father. As troubled as I am, I have no use for your hired goons. I just... I just need to talk to someone sensible. I know it's not what you want for me but the fact of the matter is this: despite all my instincts telling me to rethink things, I've decided to keep the child. I...I just want you to be okay with it.”
Kasuhito pinched the bridge of his nose and screwed his eyes shut.
“What do you want me to say, Pandora?” He asked, irate but even-voiced; “I didn't even know you were dating.”
His face darkened. “ Pandora... ”
“I know, I know.” She sighed, running a hand through her hair in exasperation; “Look, I know it's not what you want to hear from me, father. I know you're angry but I'm a grown woman now. I made a few mistakes in my life, yes- this is one of the biggest ones- but I need you to be supportive.”
Kasuhito placed his coffee mug on a slate coaster and took his daughter's hand in his own, a weary sigh escaping his lips.
“Pandora... I'm not mad at you.” He stated slowly; “...I'm disappointed . This isn't what I wanted for you.”
“I know, father. I'm so sorry...!” she hiccupped, fighting back a fresh batch of tears.
His expression softened and he moved one hand up to gently rest on her cheek, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“Pandora... beautiful, brilliant, clever Pandora.... before I met you, I was a lone wanderer searching for direction. Unless you came into my world, my life had no reason or purpose. I know I wasn't around to see you grow up and I will never stop apologizing unreservedly for that but know this- never doubt that I love you dearly.”
Pandora took a deep breath and exhaled in a happy sob, her hands flurrying to dry her eyes.
“Wow. That's... that's possibly the nicest thing you've ever said to me, father.”
“I speak only the truth.” Kasuhito said firmly, leaning forward to place a kiss upon her forehead.
She sniffled and flung her arms around his neck, startling him for a moment. Clearing his throat, he slowly returned the embrace and held her in his arms, still so unsure of this simply display of affection.
“Umm... so, what now?” he said tentatively. Pandora released him and sat cross-legged on the sofa for a moment, considering her words carefully.
“Well, I just want to take a bath, eat my weight in ice cream and sleep for a year but somehow, I doubt I'll get any rest tonight. Honestly, I'm so stressed out right now. I mean, the club is doing so well and my life was finally going according to plan-!”
“Let me handle the management of the club.” Kasuhito said plainly, undoing his tie, folding it and placing it in his jacket pocket; “You do yourself no favours by worrying. The club will survive. Yes, we will need to discuss a change in your hours, that much is certain, but don't fret. I can get someone to cover for you. Take as much time as you need.”
“Thank you, father. Really.”
“Any time, my dear.” Kasuhito stood up and crossed the floor to the kitchen, taking snacks and ice cream from the bag he had left on the counter-top. He reached into a cabinet and grabbed two bowls, using a spoon to scoop out chocolate ice cream before returning once more to the living room. Seating himself beside her on the couch, he toed off his expensive black leather shoes and propped his feet up on the coffee table.
“Now... any ideas on what to watch to distract from the gravity of the situation?”he queried, reaching for the remote to the tv on the far wall, offering it to her.
Pandora smiled weakly, taking a spoonful of Phish Food.
“You pick. I'm seriously ready to crash right now so apologies if I fall asleep on your shoulder.”
“It is no trouble. Get some rest. You clearly need it.”
Unable to stifle a yawn, Pandora stretched and scooted a hair closer to her father, cosying into the mass of cushions between them. Kasuhito flicked the tv on and scrolled through the channels, content to sit with her in silence. He eventually settled on an old black and white samurai movie and placing his empty bowl on the table, he leaned back against the plush leather sofa to get comfortable.
Soon, the hours passed by in a slow blur.
Kasuhito immersed himself in the movie, nonplussed as Bella momentarily joined him on the sofa and pawed at his leg, eager for a scratch behind the ears.
He pulled the cat into his lap, glancing sideways at his daughter.
At some point during the movie, Pandora had nodded off and now lay against a pile of cushions, snoring faintly. He watched her for a few minutes, noting her steady breathing and the slight crinkle in her brow as she worked through a turbulent dream.
Hesitating at first, Kasuhito reached to brush an errant lock of dark hair from her face. She twitched in her sleep and moved to absently swat his hand away, causing him to chuckle softly and shake his head. He stood from his seat and the cat jumped down from his lap, sauntering into the kitchen and out of sight.
Moving gingerly, Kasuhito carefully rearranged the cushions and lay his daughter out upon the sofa. He gently unlaced her heavy military-style boots and set them down under the coffee table before pulling the thick fleece throw down from the back of the sofa onto her.
Pandora murmured in her sleep, her expression lightening as she curled into a ball and snuggled into the sofa.
Kasuhito sighed and sat on the edge of the coffee table studying her slumbering form.
He ran a hand over his beard, shaking his head.
He would let her sleep for now. Tomorrow, certain questions would need to be answered...
It was sometime past lunch when Pandora awoke to the feel of soft paws gently kneading against her stomach. Rubbing her eyes, she sat up slightly on the overstuffed couch and was greeted by the sight of Bella perched upon her abdomen, her huge amber eyes peering curiously at her bedraggled owner.
“Mmmm... Hi, baby..” Pandora murmured, reaching to scratch the cat behind the ears.
This was instantly met with an approving mewl as Bella curled into a ball atop the raven-haired woman's torso. Pandora sighed and chuckled softly, shimmying out from under the ball of fur pinning her to the couch. The cat, still purring, looked up at her with a bemused expression but otherwise did not complain about the upheaval.
Sitting upright on the couch, Pandora took a moment to get her bearings and rub the sleep from her eyes. As she began to shake off the last remnants of her impromptu slumber, she was suddenly hit with the smell of eggs burning on the stove. She slowly got to her feet and immediately regretted the action as a surge of nausea bubbled in the back of her throat.
“Urgh..” she groaned, placing a hand to her mouth in a bid to stem the rising tide of vomit but it was too harsh. She sprinted into the kitchen, flying past her father -who was busy cremating food at the stove- and promptly emptied the contents of her stomach into the sink.
“Are you okay?” Kasuhito queried, considering her with concern as he scraped the blackened remains of eggs and bacon from the frying pan into the trash.
“ Do I look like it ?!” Pandora shot back, eyeing him ruefully.
“I'll let that slide considering you are currently experiencing morning sickness but even so, I do not take lightly to being snapped at. Since I cannot begin to fathom all the dials on this accursed stove of yours, I have decided to take you out for lunch today. But... if you are going to be churlish...”
“I know, I know...” she straightened herself up and wiped her mouth with a piece of kitchen paper, her stomach churning despite the emptiness; “As much as I appreciate your valiant attempts at trying to burn down my apartment, I'm really not in the mood for a lunch date, father.”
“As you wish. Even so, though I am not an expert on the matter, I do think some fresh air will do you good. Also, I don't want you to isolate yourself in this apartment. Whilst I'm happy to let you take time off work, know that I don't want you to become a lock-in recluse. It is not healthy for you...or the child .”
Pandora sighed and leaned against the sink, manicured nails clicking in quiet agitation against the chrome. “Urgh, fine. I'll go out..but don't expect me to put on a happy face just for your benefit. I feel utterly lousy right now.”
“I'm sure it will pass.” Kasuhito replied, squirting dish soap into the burnt-out frying pan and leaving it to soak on the counter; “I took the liberty of picking up some anti-nausea medicine for you whilst you were sleeping.” He reached up to a cabinet above his head and took down a small blue box, handing it to her with a sage expression.
“Oh. Thank you.” She said sheepishly.
Kasuhito nodded and mirrored his daughter by leaning on the worktop, arms folded over his chest.
“Consider this my attempt at being supportive.”
“Duly noted.”Pandora murmured, opening the fridge and pulling out a bottle of water. Popping one of the tablets out of its blister pack, she swallowed it back and washed it down, grateful for the kind gesture on his part.
“So... since you are currently unable to eat sushi for the next few months, how do you feel about Italian?”Kasuhito queried, looking at her expectantly.
“Father, I appreciate the offer-really, I do- but I'm not quite ready to eat yet. Besides, chances are I'd only throw it back up again. It would be a waste of a good lunch.”
“Fair enough. But still, in a bid to stop you wallowing, will you at least consider going shopping with me today?”
Kasuhito glanced at the floor, his lips thinning slightly.
“I think it goes without saying that you are in need of certain items relating to your impending motherhood, am I correct?”
Pandora blinked at him.
“Uh, yeah but I have a good six or seven months to sort all that stuff out. Really! It's not a major priority of mine right now-”
“No time like the present.”Kasuhito stared at her, his dark eyes intense and steely. To a regular person, such a look could be intimidating but Pandora knew him long enough to know that there was no use in negotiating the matter- his mind was made up and that was that. With a sigh, she ran a hand through her fringe and shook her head.
“Alright! Fine! But you're paying for everything , okay?”
His smile was miniscule but it was clear he was amused.
“I wouldn't have it any other way, dear.”
Later that evening...
Brushing flour off her apron, Shasta wiped sweat from her brow and stood back to shield herself from the immense heat of the oven, watching as the timer ticked down to zero before giving a shrill beep.
Carefully, she pulled the cake out and set it down on a cooling rack before pushing a metal skewer into the steaming cake only to frown upon seeing it covered with uncooked batter. With an annoyed grunt, she clicked her fingers on the counter-top and reached for the dogeared recipe book nearby.
“Something smells good!” came Sean’s voice as he sauntered into the kitchen carrying a large pile of newspapers under his arm. Upon seeing his friend’s scowl, he arched an eyebrow and leaned on the counter-top. “What?”
“It’s still raw inside.” Shasta groaned, double checking the recipe; “I could’ve sworn I left it in for the right amount of time…”
“Can you save it? The smell’s makin’ my mouth water!”
“Doubt it. It’s a delicate recipe. Ten minutes either side is the difference between raw cake mix and a cremated mess.” Shasta sighed, folding her arms over her chest; “Guess I’ll have to pull another all nighter…”
“Baby girl, I love how passionate you are about your job but don’t think I haven’t noticed you not getting your beauty sleep lately. Leave it for now. You’ve still got, what, two days until the Morita wedding, right?”
“Yeah, but I want this to be perfect , Sean. It’s my first time catering a wedding. If I fuck this up, I dread to think of the Yelp reviews…” Shasta said with a grimace as she began to slide the ruined cake into the trash.
Sean chuckled and patted her hand reassuringly.
“Quit worryin’! You’re the best baker I know. Anyone in their right mind would be honored to have your cakes as the centerpiece to the biggest day of their lives and if they give you grief, I’ll punch ‘em right in the throat!”
“Please don’t go punching our customers, Sean. It’s bad for business…” Shasta drawled as she switched off the oven.
“Just lookin’ out for you. I know you’re stressed but you have nothing to fret about. You’ll be fine! and hey, if it does go tits up, at least you tried.”
“Sooo…” Sean rounded the countertop and pulled his friend into a hug, nuzzling his chin into her neck; “...Speaking of weddings, has that utterly adorkable doctor of yours called yet?”
Shasta inhaled sharply and averted her gaze, cheeks turning pink.
“Uhh, n-no. Not yet… I’m not holding out hope, to be honest.”
“And why the hell not?!”
“It’s just… well, you know my luck with men, Sean…”
“Hey, third time’s the charm! Have a little faith, babe. You never know what could happen if you just stop worrying so much.”
“I suppose.” Shasta’s voice was low and lacklustre, her fingers twitching against Sean’s back. He chuckled and rubbed his hands along her spine soothingly, feeling her knotted with tension and stress. Holding her at arm’s length, he regarded her fondly and tucked a lock of hair behind her right ear.
“Come out with me tonight. It’s been months since you let loose and blew off some steam.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“How about karaoke in The Dragon? We can do Summer Nights. Might even let you be Sandy this time!”
“Sure…” Shasta rolled her eyes; “...If you want me to brutally murder that song...”
“No-one said you had to be talented to sing karaoke, Shasta. C’mon, it’ll be fun! You can’t hide in the kitchen all weekend!”
“Oh, alright. Two drinks but I’m not singing! They almost kicked me out last time.”
Sean grinned and gave her a tight squeeze.
“Great! Now march up those stairs, missy. I’m thinking… sequins and glitter!”
Shasta wrinkled her nose.
“God, could you be any gayer?”
“Now, is that a dare or a double dare?” Sean stuck his tongue out at her.
“Oh boy… this will not end well…”
Flapping her lips in exasperation, Maki sighed and rolled her eyes as she folded her arms over her chest.
"Jesus Christ, Taigo! It's not fuckin' brain surgery! Just go talk to her already!"
The young doctor gulped back the ball of nerves in his throat and shook his head with a doubtful frown.
"It's not that easy, Maki. You know how I clam up around pretty women..."
She snorted in derision.
"You had no trouble talkin' to me! "
"You grabbed my face and rammed your tongue down my throat! I was completely unprepared for your-your oral assault !"
Maki grinned wickedly and began to chuckle at the horrified expression on her friend's face as they both recalled the memory of their very first meeting.
"Well, you needed to shit or get off the pot.You clearly weren't going to make a move in your own time so can you blame me for taking matters into my own hands? Besides, it got you finally talking to me!"
"Yes..." Taigo pursed his lips; "I believe the first words out of my mouth were What. The. Actual. Fuck ."
"What can I say? I tend to have that effect on people."
"Mmm, and you seem to delight in freaking people out. Seriously, Maki, what were you thinking that day?" Taigo said, drumming his fingers on the wooden bartop.
Her smile faded just a little bit and she scooted closer to him, brushing his shoulder with hers as she leaned into him and let out a deep, long sigh.
"In my defense, I was exceptionally drunk-"
"Urgh, don't remind me. I can still remember how your breath stank of cheap whiskey and regret-!"
"Hey, that whiskey was meant to numb the pain! My parents kicked me out, remember?"There was a note of bitterness in her tone and she took a large gulp of beer, roughly slamming the glass down on the bar-top; "It's been over a decade and it still fuckin' hurts."
Taigo gave her a gentle nudge; "I know it's a sore subject but still, I have to ask... have you spoken to them since...?"
Maki flashed him a weak smile, one that barely extended to her dark eyes.
"Since the incident?"
"I understand if you don't want to talk about it."
"No, no it's okay. I'm fine... I spoke to my mother last week, actually."
"Oh?" Taigo's eyebrows raised in surprise.
"It was, in a word, awkward . We kept the chit-chat casually vague. Until she asked me if I'd gotten over my "malady" and..."she grimaced and made quotation fingers in the air; " 'Came to my senses'."
"Ouch. Still in denial, is she?"
"Ohhh, yes."Maki took another mouthful of beer and shook her head; "She refuses to even address the rainbow in the room."
"Well, if she can't get her head around it by now, I doubt she'll ever truly be swayed. Sorry to tell you but not everyone's parents are as accepting as mine have been of Shima. It sucks major dick but some people just can't see past their own prejudiced noses..."
"Yeah... still, she's my mother . Isn't it her job to love me unconditionally?" Maki sighed, running a hand through her red hair.
Taigo nodded and took a sip of whiskey, considering her with sympathy in his eyes.
"Clearly, she didn't get the memo."
"Mmm..."Maki cleared her throat awkwardly and glanced towards the small stage in the corner of the room. "How did we get onto this topic?"
"We were recalling the day we met."
"Ahh, yes." She stroked her chin, her grin returning. "A day that shall live in infamy!"
"Don't remind me...!"
"But you were such a sweetie-pie !"She cooed, ruffling his thick mass of white corkscrew curls. "I was soaked to the bone and a sloppy, drunken mess and you took care of me out of the goodness of your heart. Didn't even cop a feel or nuthin'!"
Taigo chuckled and took a sip of his drink.
"I am nothing if not a total gentleman."
"Indeed! So, kind sir..." she took him by the shoulder and swiveled his bar-stool around so he too faced the stage; "...Are you going to talk to that smokin’ hot chick or am I going to have to kick you into touch?"
Taigo followed her gaze, taking in the sight of the young woman currently trying to hit the high notes on an Adele number as she sang into a glittering purple microphone.
She was a leggy blonde and she looked to be in her early twenties at the least. She was wearing a short, tight green bandage dress and as she sang, her dainty hands held onto the mic stand for dear life whilst she tethered precariously on impossibly high platform heels.
She was a gorgeous specimen of a lady and, at least in Taigo's eyes, way out of his league.
He finished his drink and stood up slowly.
Maki's eyes widened.
"Oooh, feeling brave?"
"I..." He started, before sighing and casting her an awkward grin; "...Am going to take a leak."
"Fuckin' pussy...!"Maki muttered into her pint of beer, giving him the stink eye as he shuffled towards the men's bathroom. Taigo frowned and walked away shaking his head.
As he was heading up the stairs to the facilities, Shima walked into the club and grinned, opening his arms wide as Maki hopped off the barstool and ran to embrace him.
“ Makoto ! Girl, it’s been a hot minute! How the heck are ya?!”
“Good, good! And you?” Maki said brightly, holding him at arm’s length; “Christ, I miss getting the gang together like this.”
“Oh, I know! I had to practically blackmail my brother just to get him to take a load off. Where is he anyway?”
“Hiding in the bathroom.”
“Tell me about it!” Maki moved to flag down the bartender, pointing to her empty pint glass. “Same again, please. Shima, what’re you drinkin’?”
“A pitcher of Sex on The Beach if you’re buyin’.”
“Sure thing.” Maki pulled out her wallet and began peeling apart banknotes; “I heard you recently went to Germany! Do tell! What was it like?”
Perching himself on a stool, Shima strugged out of his feathery coat and leaned on the bartop, sighing deeply. “Germany’s great an’ all, but I wish it had been under better circumstances...”
“Oh? What do you mean?”
“You haven’t heard? Panny’s mother died.”
Maki’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth in surprise.
“Oh, my god, that’s awful! I’m so sorry to hear that. Is she okay?”
Shima’s lips thinned and he rubbed the back of his head, staring down at the drink the bartender had just set in front of him.
“Seems to be. It’s not really my place to say but Pandora and her mother weren’t exactly close. But if you ask me, she seems to be coping well enough these days. Throwing herself into her work as always.”
“Seems like I’m surrounded by workaholics these days…”Maki mused, sipping on her fresh beer. “Send her my condolences if you see her.”
“Will do.” Shima sipped his drink and reached to rub a hand down Maki’s forearm, smiling fondly. “So how are you keeping? Any tales of wanton debauchery I’ve missed out on?”
“Ehh, the fishes haven’t been bitin’ lately..” Maki said with a shrug, glancing around the club. “To be honest, I really don’t care if I don’t get laid tonight. I’m just Taigo’s wingwoman and you, dearest Shima, are also parr for the course!”
“Me? Darling, I don’t need a spotter! I can hook ‘em like a pro.”
“Want a bet?” Mischief glinted in Maki’s wide brown eyes and she slapped some money down on the bar-top between them.
“Whoever gets the most phone numbers has to pay the bar tab. Bonus points if you can get a good looking stranger to get that damn brother of yours to cash in his V-chip.”
Chuckling throatily, Shima matched her bet and shook her hand firmly.
“Bring it on, bitch. Bring it on !”
“What are you two snickering about?” Came Taigo’s voice from nearby as he eyed them both suspiciously upon his return from the bathroom.
Feigning innocence, Shima smiled and waved his arms nonchalantly.
“Ohh, just wondering what to sing for my first shot at the mic.” Glancing at Maki, he nudged her and pointed to the stage where a trio of drunken businessmen were currently murdering Dancing Queen.
“Care to join me, Miss Souba?”
“I thought you’d never ask!” Maki squealed, taking Shima’s hand and bouncing towards the stage, leaving Taigo alone by the bar.
Shaking his head, the doctor hunched over his whiskey and sat quietly, content to let the world revolve all around him, kitschy pop music ringing in his ears as colourful patreons danced the night away under a glittering mirrorball.
As he drained his drink, Taigo sighed inwardly to himself, feeling the heavy weight of his phone in his trouser pocket. It had been a long and challenging week and whilst he’d hoped to steal away tonight to catch up on sleep, both the hospital and his family were keeping him on his toes. Taking off his glasses, he used a cocktail napkin to clean them before placing them back on his nose just as another set of customers walked through the door, bringing laughter in the air.
A flash of vivid pink entered his vision and his eyes spotted her instantly.
Shasta was dressed more demure than the other women, a simple sparkly blue Maxi dress gently hugging her petite frame and her pink hair hanging in tousled waves around her shoulders.
Sean was with her, looking every inch the bad boy in a leather jacket and ripped jeans as they chatted animatedly among themselves, strolling through the throng of dancers towards a booth in the corner.
Damn, she looks great… Taigo thought to himself, feeling his face blaze crimson. Glancing towards the stage where Maki and Shima were busy belting out Whams greatest hits, Taigo steeled himself. The whiskey he’d drunk was making him feel a small iota of confidence and he figured, with his brother and friend indisposed, he’d be less likely to blow his chances.
He was about to get up and make an approach when Sean headed to the bar, pulling up beside him, eager to flag down the barkeeper. Out of the corner of his grey-blue eyes, he spotted Taigo and grinned widely, nudging him lightly with his elbow.
“ Heey ! Fancy seeing you here, Doctor...uhm, sorry, what was your name again?” Sean said brightly, leaning towards him.
Taigo smiled politely and nodded.
“Hello again. I’m Doctor-er-Taigo Shigeta. And you are?”
“Sean Murphy. Nice bumping into you.” Sean pointed at Taigo’s empty glass; “Refill?”
“Uhhh, sure! Thank you.”
“No problemo. Barkeep, two Cosmopolitans and a whiskey for the surgeon general!”
Sean considered Taigo from over the rim of his glass.
“Sooo, at the risk of uttering a horrendously cliche line… do you come here often?”
Taigo wheezed out a nervy laugh.
“N-Not really. I’m here with some friends.” He said, cocking his head towards the stage; “I’m not much of a party animal.”
“Figures. But hey, you gotta find your fun somewhere, right?”
“No use sitting alone at the bar all night, Doc! C’mon over to our booth. We don’t bite… unless you’re into that sorta thing!”
Taigo sucked in a deep breath, gazing across the dancefloor to where Shasta sat alone in the booth, idly flicking through the little playlist book that was featured on every table.
No time like the present… he thought, throwing back the whiskey and plastering on what he hoped would be a friendly grin. With a nod, he grabbed his jacket off the back of the stool and followed Sean through the throng of dancing people.
“Look who I found! Talk about a small world!” Sean said as he set a drink down in front of Shasta, startling her from her reverie. She blinked, closing the playbook and her green eyes met Taigo’s.
“Hi!” she said breathlessly, shifting in her seat to allow him to sit next to her. “What brings you to our neck of the woods?”
Taigo chuckled awkwardly and rubbed the back of his head, glancing over his shoulder to watch as Shima and Maki took a bow and exited the stage.
“My brother dragged me out. He’s determined that I schedule at least one hour of fun a week.”
“Is work really that demanding?” Shasta asked, her brow furrowing as she considered him with interest.
“Pretty much. I was supposed to have this weekend off but the hospital was short staffed, among other things. The plan was sleep and maybe some Netflix but my brother rarely takes no for an answer so… here I am.” said Taigo.
“And here you are!” Sean interjected, grinning from ear to ear. He poked the playbook sitting on the table between them and slurped his cocktail.
“How’re your pipes?”
“I mean, do you sing at all?”
“If the mood strikes, yes.” Taigo said, peering at Shasta; “I’ve been told I can carry a tune or two. What about you?”
She licked her lips and tucked her hair behind her ears bashfully.
“Can’t hold a note. I sound like a bag of strangled cats.”
“Pffft, nonsense! Couple more of these bad boys-” Sean held up his Cosmo, the glass glinting in the disco lights; “-And you’re practically a canary! Say, I’ve got a mad idea!”
“I’m sensing I should be scared…”
“You two should totally sing a duet!”
Taigo held his hands up in defense, shifting nervously.
“Oh, n-no, that’s quite alright. I-”
“Oh, c’mon. One tune! It’ll be a lovely little meet-cute!”
“Don’t mind him, Taigo.” Shasta said firmly, frowning at her friend. “Sean can be a little pushy at times but he means well. He’s like a hyperactive puppy when it comes to karaoke, though.”
Sean slumped back against the booth, draping his arms across the back in a leisurely fashion.
“What can I say, I’m Irish! We like a good ol’ singsong!”
Taigo’s eyebrow arched in surprise.
“Oh? I thought you were American, judging by your accent…”
“Heh, you wouldn’t be the first to make that assumption, Doc. No, I’m a halfling. My father was from Dublin and my mother was a native of Brooklyn. I was born in Ireland but grew up in New York.” Sean said kindly.
“Ahh, I see. You’re a long way from home.”
“Ehh, I make my home where I hang my hat. Been living here since I was seventeen and don’t plan on leavin’ anytime soon.”
“Well, it’s always nice to meet a friendly wanderer.” Taigo mused, fingers tapping on his empty glass. Turning, he cast Shasta a gentle smile and a sidelong glance.
“And what about you?”
“Who, me? Oh, my whole family’s from Kyoto. Came up to Tokyo to run a bakery. It’s all pretty boring, really.”
Snorting, Sean reached over and swatted her hand.
“Don’t sell yourself short, babydoll!” He shook his head and laughed; “Shasta is an amazingly talented baker, doctor. But she’s always so modest-!”
Shasta shrank into her seat, face almost as pink as her hair.
“Sean, seriously… shut up !”
“Did you enjoy those muffins she gave you earlier?” Sean continued, ignoring Shasta’s futile attempt to kick him in the shins under the table. Taigo nodded, focusing his gaze upon the embattled young woman at his side.
“Yes, they were fantastic. A couple of my colleagues at work tried them and demanded to know where I got them. Not a crumb was left.”
“Always glad to hear!” Sean exclaimed, clapping his hands together.
Growing more and more uncomfortable as Sean continued to rave, Shasta quickly drained her drink and grabbed his left shoulder, giving it a none-too-gentle squeeze.
“Sean, be a dear and go grab us some refills, yeah?”
“Sure thing, babe!”
And with that, he swiftly left the booth in the pursuit of more alcohol, leaving Shasta and Taigo alone amid the sway of the crowd. Once free of her friend’s relentless energy, she exhaled deeply and slumped back in her seat.
“Sorry. I know he’s kind of a handful but he’s really sweet once you get to know him.”
“It’s fine.” Taigo scooted an inch closer, debating internally on whether or not he should place a hand over hers; “My friends can be a bit bossy too. Are you alright? You seem stressed.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “I’m fine… it’s just… work stuff.”
Shasta’s expression softened and she let out a deep sigh.
“I’m catering a wedding next week. First time I've ever been asked to provide a three tier cake for such an event. I’ve been practicing the recipe but I just can’t get the cooking times right.”
“That sounds rough. Can’t you just go with a simpler recipe?” Taigo queried, leaning on his elbows.
“I would but it’s a bit more complex than that. Not exactly brain surgery but you try making a cake vegan when ninety percent of most wedding cake recipes require at least a dozen eggs!”
A chuckle escaped Taigo and he dipped his head low, inching closer.
“I don’t know much about baking but as my Dad always says, the simple things in life are the sweetest. You’ll figure it out. How long have you got until the wedding?”
“Two days. At this rate, I’m ready to just half ass it and make the whole thing out of banana bread…”
“Smart move. Banana bread is so hot right now.” Taigo’s voice dripped with mock-sarcasm and she snorted before erupting in a laugh.
“ Y’know, that’s not a bad idea. My grandmother has a brilliant recipe for the stuff…”
“Well, there you go! Problem solved."
Shasta nodded, peering at him through her lashes as she smoothed her hair. Looking out along the dancefloor, she cleared her throat loudly and took his trembling hand.
“I love this song. Would you..er.. like to dance?”
Feeling electricity ripple up his spine from the simple touch, Taigo didn’t trust himself to speak. He nodded mutely and followed as she got up and gently pulled him towards the dancefloor.
To the tune of Lady Gaga’s latest offering, they began to dance, out of sync and awkward at first but as the minutes blurred by with the song ringing through their ears, rhythm and grace didn’t matter one bit.
Hovering around the bar Maki was the first to spot the couple, her eyes widening. She roughly elbowed Shima in the ribs, causing him to squeal and slop his cocktail down his front.
“Hey, what gives?!”
“Taigo’s dancing with someone!”
Shima squinted, vision slightly blurred at the edges from one too many fruity cocktails but he staggered forward just enough to see clearly and gasped, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he watched his brother sway in time to the music, twirling the young woman in his charge.
“No way! Who is that? Do we know her?!” Shima said excitedly.
“Me and Taigo met her this morning in Shinjuku. She’s a sassy thing, alright. She kicked me out of the bakery after I accidentally punted him in the ‘nards.”
“Maki, I’m sure there’s a perfectly intriguing story behind that statement but right now, I honestly do not give a flying fuck. This is huge ! My brother never dances with anybody!”
“Yeah, no shit. He’s got all the swagger of a flamingo on Ritalin…!”
“Should we help them along?” Shima took a step towards the stage but Maki stopped him with a hand to his chest.
“Patience, young padawan. Let’s see where the night takes them…”
A chance meeting at the club leads to a night of passion for Taigo. Meanwhile, Sean is in for a nasty shock...
Several drinks later, Taigo’s head was buzzing with a combination of inebriation and euphoria.
The music had changed genres several times, flitting between the DJ's varied setlist and some questionable musical choices from the drunken patreons brave enough to try karaoke. As Arianne Grande blasted over the speakers, Shasta pulled him close and wound her arms around his neck, bleary eyed but eager.
Taigo’s hands settled on her hips as they moved in time to the suave bassline and he could feel her breath warm on the crock of his neck.
“Hey, Doc…” she whispered huskily, her hands sliding up to caress the hair at the base of his skull; “...Do you...uh… wanna get outta here?”
“I…!” Taigo started, caught off guard by the loaded proposition. Though buzzed from the alcohol, he was still clinging on to the last bastions of his shyness and he cleared his throat roughly, glancing around the dance-floor as his cheeks began to burn.
Shima and Maki were nowhere to be seen, probably having decamped to another nightspot or gone home, and Sean was currently back in the booth by the corner, his attention focused on a handsome young man with green hair as they chatted animatedly.
“Cat got your tongue, Doc?” Shasta placed two fingers under Taigo’s jaw and pulled him down until they were nose to nose. She studied his face, green gaze meeting hesitant blue.
“S-Sorry… Uhmm… O-Okay. Let’s maybe...get some food?” Taigo blurted out, his bottom lip quivering. At that, Shasta grinned and kissed him softly, chaste as she nestled her body into his.
As the song came to an end, she trailed a hand down his arm and intertwined their fingers, seemingly oblivious to his jitters as she guided him through the crowd and out towards the door.
Outside the club, the night was chilly. Taigo’s breath hung visible in the air and he glanced at Shasta, noting her bare shoulders dimpling with the cold.
Without a word, he pulled off his jacket and draped it around her.
She blinked at the action, catching his eye and hesitating for a split second before smiling widely and tugging it tighter. It was warm from his body heat and smelt like mint soap.
Licking her lips, she swayed on the balls of her feet, the cold wind ruffling her hair and sobering her up just enough to notice the awkward grin on his face.
“What’re you in the mood for?” she asked, taking his hand once more.
Taigo cleared his throat again. It was a loaded question and he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t been swayed by the close proximity they’d been in all night. He thought of how she’d gyrated slowly to him, close enough to smell her citrusy perfume, and he sighed to himself.
Christ, am I really going to go home with her tonight? He thought, blushing.
“Uhh… how-how does pizza sound?” his voice was a touch higher than normal as the words tumbled from his mouth and Shasta giggled at his bashful behavior. Swinging their arms, she pulled him gently towards the street and flashed a buck toothed smile.
“You can cut the Shy Guy act, Doc.”
Shasta leaned into him, whispering seductively in his ear.
“C’mon, there’s food at my place. It’s not far from here.”
Taigo bit his lip. A very insistent part of him was practically screaming “ hell yes! ” in his head, drunk on booze and delight at the prospect of seeing her naked tonight. Yet still, he hesitated, the shy boy inside of him so hopelessly lost now that the opportunity presented itself on a silver platter.
Oblivious to his indecision, Shasta pulled him along as they walked quickly through the streets.
Barely ten minutes had passed when they pulled up outside the very same bakery they’d met inside only hours ago.
Taigo stared at the upper floors over the cafe and arched his brow.
“You live above it?”
“Yup. It’s the perfect commute!” Shasta quipped brightly as she pulled out her keys and unlocked the cafe door, the spacious room dark but for moonlight flooding the display windows. She crossed the floor expertly navigating through the dim light and unlocked a door marked PRIVATE behind the counter.
“C’mon…” she breezed, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
Taigo nodded mutely, taking a nervous step forward. His feet felt like lead but he closed his eyes for a moment and willed his anxious self to shut the hell up for once. Following the pink haired woman through the heavy fire door, they ascended a narrow flight of stairs, soon entering an open plan apartment space.
Flicking on the lights, Shasta shrugged out of Taigo’s jacket and draped it over a kitchen chair before once more taking his hand.
“Uhh…ar-are you sure about this? You’ve had a lot to drink…” he whispered, uncertain as she pulled him down the hallway towards the bedrooms.
“You can relax. I’m not that drunk, Doc!”
Taigo exhaled through his nostrils and could only watch as she opened her bedroom door and flicked on the bedside light, flooding the room with a soft orange glow. Breaking away from him, Shasta sat down on the large bed and kicked off her heels, reclining before beckoning him over with a curled finger.
A tiny squeak escaped Taigo’s lips, all bravado leaving him as he stared at the sight before him:
A beautiful young woman lying sprawled on a bed just waiting to get intimate. He could practically hear his libido screaming in his ear and for once, he decided to go for it. Sucking in a steadying breath to steel his nerves, Taigo bent to unlace his sneakers before kicking them off and kneeling on the edge of the mattress. As soon as he did so, Shasta reached up and grasped the front of his shirt, pulling him down for a searing kiss.
Her legs moved to rub lightly against his and he couldn’t help but moan, reminded of the grinding dance moves she’d displayed earlier.
Slowly, Shasta deepened the cinch as her hands snaked into his hair, eyes fluttering shut. Taigo’s grip on her hips tightened ever so slightly and he sighed hungerily before his hands explored her body with featherlite touches.
With every ounce of restraint she had in her, Shasta gently probed his mouth with the tip of her tongue. She felt him jump slightly and she giggled, cradling his head as he tried to keep his composure. Soon, they were lying on the bed, hands everywhere as they made out in a lazy, leisurely fashion.
As the minutes ticked by in a hazy blur, Taigo began to kiss her feverishly, eager to taste her.
She moaned softly, hands buried in his hair as she quietly egged him on with pleasured sighs.
Lightly gripping the front of her dress, Taigo licked his lips in anticipation.
“C-Can I...?” Taigo murmured breathlessly.
Shasta nodded and closed her eyes for a moment as she relished the friction of his stubbled chin trailing a series of kisses along her collar bone. Taigo’s hands ghosted over her covered breasts, curious and eager yet also unsure, nervous.
Arching her back, Shasta sat upright and pulled him into a heated kiss.
He moaned loudly and gave an experimental squeeze. At that, Shasta couldn’t help but stifle a giggle, her hands guiding him as he tried to unbutton the front of her dress. One by one, he made short work of the black buttons, revealing her lacy blue bra.
For years, Taigo dreamed of a night like this but never held out much hope it might happen, yet as they lay on the mattress exploring each other, he figured stranger things had happened.
Inwardly, he steeled himself, trying his damndest to stay calm and savor the flurry of sensations that flooded his senses. Everything was new and exciting, every touch an exhilaration and he wanted to remember every single second of it.
After a long, pleasurable moment, they finally broke away for air. Taigo swept his gaze over the woman lying beside him.
“Beautiful…” he breathed as he brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes. Shasta smiled and caressed his cheek, snaking a hand down his jaw and along his neck to trace a path under his collar.
You’re pretty good lookin’ yourself, Doc!” she purred as she began to help out of his shirt.
It quickly landed on the floor and she gazed at him, lust in her eyes.
Carefully, she pushed him back against the headboard until she was straddling his thighs, her hands delicately caressing his chest as she kissed him with fervour. Taigo panted, his own hands trailing up her back until his fingers caught in the straps of her bra. As he licked the corners of her mouth, his hands fumbled with the delicate material until he pulled back and frowned up at her.
“Uhh… how do I…?”
“It’s a bra , Taigo, not rocket science. Here, let me help you….” Shasta giggled, leaning back slightly to shrug off the dress and unhook the errant bra, tossing it aside. As she did so, she felt Taigo shift beneath her, his hands staggering at her hips as his eyes grew wide.
“Whoa…” Taigo stared dumbfounded at her now naked chest. Shasta bit back a snort of laughter and pulled him closer, kissing the top of his head.
“Don’t get all shy on me, Doc. Here…”she took his hand, moving it to her left breast. Taigo’s breath hitched and he let out a small groan. Slowy, he gave a gentle squeeze, watching as she sighed in quiet pleasure.
Running his free hand along the curve of her spine, Taigo cupped her head, drawing her in for a kiss and thumbed her nipple. A low moan was his reward and feeling emboldened, he couldn’t help the rise of his hips as he sought sweet friction.
They soon fell into a clumsy rhythm: Shasta ground her hips in his lap, feeling him grow steadily harder beneath her as they passionately Frenched. Taigo shuddered out a breath, overwhelmed by the sensations rippling through him.
“Ahh…!” he bit his lip, his hands trembling as they gripped her waist. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he found himself growing lightheaded. Taigo could feel Shasta’s breath warm against his ear, her teeth grazing his neck as she sucked a mark on his nape.
“Hold that thought.” Shasta purred, shifting until she was lying beside him on the bed.
Taigo whimpered in protest, watching as she nestled against him with one hand hovering over the obvious tent in his jeans.
Before he could react, her fingers reached inside and encircled him, firm yet gentle, gauging his reaction.
“ H-Holy-! ”Taigo gasped, hips instinctively arching into her touch. Tiny whimpers of pleasure escaped him and he bit hard into his knuckles to stem the noises.
At this, Shasta pouted and batted his hand away from his mouth.
“Noo, baby… let me hear you.” she whispered, speeding up her strokes as Taigo emitted a low moan and arched his hips.
“ F-Fuck …!” Taigo groaned as she jerked him off and he could feel the tension rise in the pit of his stomach. Trying hard not to cry out, he pressed his forehead to hers as he struggled to keep composed.
Leaning in to lick the shell of his ear, Shasta flicked her wrist once more and felt the beginnings of his impending orgasm trickle through her fingers.
He shivered as the sensations reached an unbearable crescendo and he could feel himself become unwound.
“ S-Shasta…! ” Her name was a passionate whimper and he closed his eyes as white lightning crackled under his skin.
“That’s it.” Shasta whispered seductively as she worked him through his climax; “Just relax…”
Toes curling, Taigo shivered as he came. Panting hard, he lay back on the bed with one arm draped over his eyes. He was barely aware of Shasta helping him out of his jeans until the mattress shifted and a warm breeze on his cock made him look down.
Before he could say a word, she was licking him clean, caressing him tenderly to savour every last drop. Taigo stammered out her name, the sensations too overwhelming to take.
“ St-stop…!” he managed to croak out, lifting his arm to look at her.
Shasta paused her movements to lick her bottom lip, her eyes sultry as she sat back on her haunches.
“ Y-Yes…! ” Taigo panted, his heart hammering like a jackhammer inside his chest. He felt boneless and spent, ripples of residual pleasure humming all over his body. Breathing heavily, he slowly sat upright against the pillows and smiled at Shasta.
“T-That… that was fantastic-!” he rushed out, reaching to caress her shoulders; “B-But I have to tell you something. Please d-don’t be offended...”
“Oh, what is it?” Shasta frowned, a tinge of worry across her face.
“Uh-I… I can’t...I can’t make love to you tonight…”
“ Ugh! And why the hell not-?!” Shasta started in an indignant tone but he gave her a weighty look and grinned, placing one finger to her lips.
“Listen, I’m certainly not going to leave you hangin’ after what you just did to me.” Taigo said evenly, trailing his hand over the curve of her jaw and down towards her collarbone; “I’m not an asshole but...well, it’s been a long week and I just don’t think I have it in me-”
“That’s what she said...”Shasta murmured.
Taigo snorted but continued.
“What I mean is, I’ll try my best to get you off tonight but as far as actually fucking you? Shasta, I’m exhausted . I don’t want to end up falling asleep on top of you.”
She eyed him with mild suspicion.
“Hmm… So what's the plan?”
“Give me a couple o’ minutes and you’ll find out!” He said, sticking his tongue out and winking.
Meanwhile, a few yards away from the bakery, Sean leaned against a wall and exhaled a cloud of smoke into the night air. He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, peering down the street as he thought about the fact he’d struck out with the green haired Adonis.
Oh well, maybe next week… he thought to himself, pushing off the wall and flicking his cigarette stub into a nearby bin. Glancing at his watch, he saw it was just after 2am and he shook his head.
Nothing good ever happens after midnight... His grandmother had once told him during a rare moment of clarity and he took the advice to heart, usually endeavoring to be home before the clock struck twelve like he was Cinderella every weekend. It was a good rule to live by, one that had undoubtedly saved his life numerous times over the years.
Tonight, however, something felt off .
Heading in the direction of home, Sean mentally ran through his pocket inventory, feeling inside his jacket for the items in question. Keys, wallet, switchblade, check. The street was deserted, lit only by a lone streetlamp and the light of a full, pale moon.
Inwardly, he knew his likelihood of being attacked was low giving Japan’s minimal crime statistics but still, he couldn’t shake the feeling of unease deep in his gut.
Picking up the pace, his Doc Martens pounded the pavement and soon he was at the corner of the side street leading towards the bakery and the apartment he shared with Shasta.
Hope she got home okay. That doctor guy seemed like a good egg… he thought, rounding the corner. As he edged ever closer to the homestretch, a truck parked outside was being unloaded by a duo of burly men in white boiler-suits.
“Evenin’, boys.” Sean said, relaxing. He recognized them as the men who supplied the newspapers and magazines for the bakery.
“Evenin’, Murphy. You’re out late.” said the taller of the two men who was busy tossing bundles of newspapers to his partner; “You’re out late.”
“Or early, depending on your outlook on life!”
“Heh...good one. “ the first man chuckled softly before tossing a large bundle down onto the kerb. His partner got out of the back of the truck and jumped wordlessly into the front passenger seat.
“Have a good night.”
“You too.” Sean waved goodbye as the newspaper sellers drove off, leaving him standing outside the bakery with a large bundle of papers and magazines. He crouched, peering at the large headline emblazoned on the front only to freeze in place, blood running cold.
The entire front page of the Tokyo Tribune was taken up by a black and white mug shot of a man with a harsh, angular face, menace in his cruel dark eyes as he appeared to glare back up at Sean.
The headline read:
SADIST OF SHINJUKU STRIKES AGAIN.
Meanwhile, back inside Shasta’s bedroom…
Soft moans and pants escaped her as her fingers fisted her pillow, toes twitching with pleasure as Taigo licked a hot trail around her mound, his fingers hitting the bundle of nerves at the centre of her core.
“ F-fuck…Yes!” Shasta gasped as he ate her out with all the enthusiasm of a man eating his last meal, her legs clamped against his head as she shivered under his ministrations.
Pulling back just enough to grab a lungful of air, Taigo poked his head up and grinned at her despite the growing ache in his jaw. Catching his gaze, Shasta breathed heavily and reached to stroke his hair, none-too-patiently pushing on his scalp as she arched her hips towards him.
“You okay?” Taigo asked her but he knew it was a stupid question- she’d spent the last fiftheen or so minutes pulling his hair and making all kinds of wanton sounds so he must be doing something right.
“I didn’t say stop! ”
“Duly noted, ma’am!” He made a scout’s salute and dived once more between her legs to continue, not giving her a moment to gasp out a retort.
Shasta’s hands tightened around his white curls and she arched her back as pleasure rippled through her body, electricity dancing across her skin as her climax burst forth in a high pitched cry of his name.
Her legs trembled and Taigo licked his lips, savoring the taste of her.
I could get used to this! He thought smugly to himself, climbing up the bed to hover over her and revel in the hot, sweaty mess of a woman underneath him. Shasta panted hard, struggling to catch her breath as her whole body tingled.
Taigo propped himself on his elbows, rubbing at his jaw as he gazed upon her naked form.
“That was fun!”
“Y-You’re telling me…! I can’t feel my legs-! ” She stammered, pulling the duvet towards her chest. Licking his lips, Taigo dragged his fingers down her forearm and took her hand, intertwining their fingers as he raised it to place a chaste kiss upon her knuckles.
“I know I said I was exhausted earlier…”
“Y-Yeah? Feeling a second wind coming on, Doctor?”
Taigo chuckled low and husky in his throat, casting her a hungry look.
“You could say that-”
His words were suddenly interrupted by the sound of a heavy door slamming shut nearby, startling them both. Shasta pulled the covers up to her neck, wide-eyed as Taigo sprang back in fright.
“What was that?”
“No idea…” Shasta said cautiously, moving to the edge of the bed and pulling on a cotton robe; “I hope it’s only Sean…”
“Oh, you two live together?” Taigo relaxed his shoulders slightly but he could see fear in her deep green eyes as he watched her quickly dress. Watching as she reached under the bed, he was surprised to see her pull out a baseball bat, weighing it in her hands.
“Yeah, he’s practically my brother...”her tone was distracted and he frowned, reaching for her wrist.
“Shasta, let me go…” Taigo said firmly, grasping for the bat; “You stay here-”
“I can handle myself just fine, Taigo.” Before he could protest, she stood up quickly and held the bat at her side, her face affixed with a frown as she walked cautiously towards the bedroom door. Twisting the handle, she opened it a crack and peered down the hallway.
“Sean? Is that you?” she called out.
There was a moment of silence before a low voice replied.
“Yeah, sorry. It’s me.”
Exhaling a sigh of relief, Shasta stepped out into the hallway, letting the baseball bat drop against the wall as Sean poked his head around the corner. He smiled sheepishly and rubbed the back of his head, averting his gaze to the floor.
“Sorry if I woke you. Damn door was stuck again…” he murmured.
“It’s fine. I was still awake, actually.”Shasta said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Glancing over her shoulder, Taigo came to the door, a sheet concealing his modesty as he peered at the younger man with concern.
“You scared the crap outta us.”
“My bad!” Sean looked up, flashing a toothy smile that did not extend to his eyes. Clearing his throat, he patted Shasta on the shoulder and winked. “Don’t stop on my count, kids. If you need me, I’ll be in my room getting reacquainted with my noise cancelling headphones.” He began to head towards the opposite end of the hall where his own room was located.
“ Have fun! ”
Before anyone could say anything else, he shut his bedroom door with a firm click.
“Is he okay?” Taigo asked, running his fingers through his bedraggled hair.
“Yeah, he’s fine. He’s like a bull in a china shop when he’s drunk-no discretion whatsoever.” Shasta turned and stretched catlike before wrapping her arms around his neck and nuzzling her nose against his. “C’mon, let’s go back to bed.”
Taigo nodded and kissed her before pulling back, barely catching a yawn as it escaped his lips.
“Mmm. Sounds like bliss to me…!”
“Okay, Doc, by the sounds of it, you really are beat so I’ll let it slide for tonight. Rain-check on the hot sex ‘til morning?”
“Only if I can spoon you all night…”
Shasta bit her lip, grinning.
“Shame, I was hoping for a good forking-!”
The following morning...
The sound of an 8 Bit ringtone pierced the stillness of the morning.
Groaning wearily, Taigo groped blindly around the nightstand in search of his phone but to no avail, the ringing seemingly growing louder the more he tried to find it. With a grunt, he slowly sat upright, blinking in the dim light of a hazy March morning, rubbing his eyes.
If this is the hospital, someone better be dying… Taigo thought darkly to himself, spotting his discarded jeans on the bedroom floor. He managed to pull his phone out of his pocket just before it rang out and a wave of relief flooded his senses as he saw Shima’s name flash across the screen.
Swinging his legs over the edge of the mattress, he moved delicately to avoid waking the sleeping woman by his side before jabbing at the Accept Call button.
“Hey…” Taigo started, voice husky with sleep.
“ Dude! Where the hell are you?! Mom is freakin’ out that you didn’t come home!” Shima’s voice barely hid a note of panic.
Rubbing his temples, Taigo glanced over his shoulder and smiled as Shasta mumbled incoherently in her sleep.
“Will you relax? I’m fine, bro. Matter of fact, I’m down right fan- fucking -tastic!”
“Are you still drunk or something?” Shima said, suspicious of his brother’s perky tone.
Taigo chuckled and began to tug on his boxers, stepping out into the hallway and closing the door behind him with a soft click. Leaning against the wall, he sighed happily and pushed tangled white curls from his forehead.
“Nope. Sober as a judge and high on life.”
“Okay, spill. What happened? You and that pink haired chick just up and disappeared last night.” Shima asked before pausing; “...Did you two touch butts ?!”
“You, er, you could say that!”
“No shit. Seriously, after all this time you finally lucked out?!”
“Pretty much. But hey, a true gentleman never kisses and tells, heh-heh.”
“Oh, fuck off with that chivalry bullshit. I want details! Get your ass home pronto!”
Glancing towards the hallway, Taigo could just make out the sound of someone moving about in the kitchen. Figuring it was Sean, he licked his lips and folded his arms over his chest.
“Actually, I think I might stick around for a bit. I’m in no hurry to leave, I can tell you that.”
“Dude, normally I’d say do whatever you want but I’m being serious for once. Mom is pissed at you. Not only did you skip out on breakfast, you were supposed to go shopping for a new drum kit with Dad. He’s running damage control. Best to come home and face the music. I can only hold her off for so long…” Shima’s voice dipped to a grim tone and Taigo sighed with annoyance.
As much as he loved his mother, her controlling and overbearing tendencies could be utterly insufferable at times and he groaned, wishing he had the guts to take his father up on the offer of an apartment but at what cost? She still insisted on a curfew for both him and Shima despite them being grown men and it was maddening, as though living under a police state.
Still, Taigo knew Shima was right. She would only stew in her anger the longer he stayed away so he decided to bite the bullet.
“Shit, I forgot about the drums. How mad is she?”
“On a scale of one to ten? About twenty five.”
“Urgh, okay, I give. Tell her I’ll be home in an hour. And Shima?”
“Maybe don’t tell her I cashed my chips in last night? You know how she gets about my love life…”
“Say no more. I’ll tell her you met some work colleagues and moved on to that swanky cocktail bar in Roppongi before crashing on someone’s couch. Think that’ll convince her?”
“See ya. Wouldn’t wanna be ya.”
Taigo smiled despite himself. It was heartening to know that he could always rely on Shima.
“Later. Love you.”
The call ended with a click and the phone turned silent. Exhaling in a deep, dejected sigh, Taigo turned and walked back into Shasta’s bedroom. She was slowly coming around from her slumber, yawning widely and stretching fully before peering at him from under a mess of pink hair, a sleepy smile on her face.
“Hey, you. What’re you doin’ all the way over there? Come back to bed!”
“I’d love to…”
“...But?” She sat upright, giving him a full eyeful of her naked chest and Taigo groaned with longing, wishing he could take her up on the tantalising promise of a morning spent in her arms.
“I’ve gotta go. I’m sorry.” He sighed, holding up his phone and grimacing.
“Hospital stuff?” Shasta arched an eyebrow; “Damn, they’re really workin’ you into the ground, Doc.”
“It’s...er… not the hospital, actually.” Taigo murmured sheepishly, tearing his gaze away to stare down at the floor, embarrassment washing over him. He didn’t like to admit he still lived at home with his parents but giving the night they’d shared was one of the freest he’d experienced in years, he felt no reason to lie to her.
Clearing his throat, he wiggled his toes into the shag carpet.
“This is going to sound completely lame but… well, I still live with my parents and...yeah, my mother goes a bit nuts if I stay out past midnight…”
Shasta stared at him, considering his words. Wrapping a sheet around herself, she got up and took the three small steps towards him.
“Nothing lame about living at home, Taigo. Times are tough these days. I don’t judge.”
At this, Taigo looked up, seeing sincerity in her eyes and he smiled.
“Yeah? You don’t think I’m a total dork?”
“Well, that’s debatable…” she mused, bending to peel one of his brightly coloured Star Wars socks off the bedside lampshade. “Don’t sweat it too much, Doc. If you need to go home, go. You still have my number, right?”
“Oh, uh, yes. Yes, I do.”
“Good. Call me up sometime, okay?”
Taigo’s smile widened.
“It’s a date.” Bending to envelope her in his arms, he kissed her deeply. She sagged into his chest and wound her arms around his waist, resisting the temptation to deepen the cinch and drag him back to bed.
Coming up for air, they parted and Taigo began to move around the room picking up his discarded clothing, dressing quickly as he eyed the alarm clock on Shasta’s vanity table.
It was a little after noon and through a broken section of blinds, the weather outside the window was blustery and overcast.
Heading into the kitchen to grab his jacket from where it was draped over the back of a chair, Taigo watched as Sean busied himself cleaning crockery at the sink. Upon hearing the doctor’s footsteps, the younger man turned and glanced at him.
“Leaving so soon, Doctor?” Sean’s tone was breezy as he ran a dishcloth around the rim of a wine glass.
“Yeah, sorry I can’t stay longer. I’m needed at home. Family stuff, you know how it is.”
Taigo replied, throwing his jacket around his shoulders.
“No worries. You do you. Don’t be a stranger now, y’hear?
“Heh. See you around, Sean.”
Sean nodded and gave a little wave, watching as Taigo made his way to the fire door and tried to push it open. When it stuck, he frowned and scratched his head.
“You need to put some force into it. It tends to stick sometimes.”
“Gotcha. See you later!”
And with that, Taigo was gone.
Several minutes passed in his absence and Sean stood at the sink, bracing his arms on the countertop. Glancing to his left, his eyes caught the bundle of newspapers he’d dragged into the kitchen from last night and he felt bile rise up in his throat.
I should burn these… he thought to himself but he knew it would be useless.
“Morning!” Shasta’s voice was as clear as a bell, perky and bright as she bounced into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around Sean’s waist from behind.
“Hey…” Sean said in a low voice, not moving from his spot.
Nuzzling into him, Shasta let out a tiny squeal and giggled to herself.
“Man, last night was just what the doctor ordered! Thank you so much for convincing me to come out with you.”
“God;” she continued, oblivious to the hardened look on his face as he slowly turned towards her; “...The things he can do with that mouth, whew! ”
“I hate to burst your bubble, babydoll, but we have a major situation developing here.” Sean said roughly, reaching for the newspapers. Pulling the top one free of the twine binding the pile together, he handed it to her and braced himself for her reaction.
“Sean? What’re you talking about…?” Her smile faded and she cocked her head quizzically.
Sean swallowed and poked the front page with one spindly finger.
“...He’s back, Chiyu .”
She hadn’t heard him say that name in over ten years and the very utterance made her blood run cold. The newspaper felt like a dead weight in her hands and she forced herself to look at it, dread stabbing at her stomach as her eyes absorbed the mugshot splashed across the front page.
The face glaring up at her was one she had tried for years to erase from her memory. Yet, in her darkest nightmares, it was burned into the back of her eyelids.
Her heart began to hammer painfully inside her chest, her breathing quickening as she suddenly found the air in the apartment become too stuffy to breathe. The newspaper slipped from her hands and she sagged, knees giving way as terror turned her legs to jelly.
The giddiness she’d felt only moments before was now replaced by sheer terror and as she caught Sean’s darkened gaze, she could hear a loud roar rush through her ears.
He caught her before she hit the floor and he held her tightly, his hands cupping her face as the rush of blood around her head made it hard to think straight.
Sean’s face began to flicker in and out of her vision, the roaring growing steadily louder until she realized that it was her own voice ringing in her ears, a scream of pure unadulterated horror…
Forty-five minutes later in an apartment across town…
Fisting a hand in her hair, Pandora growled and angrily ripped yet another page out of her notebook, balling it up and throwing it towards the trashcan in the corner. The paper ball grossly overshot the target, landing softly next to numerous other fallen brethren littering the carpet.
Groaning loudly, Pandora pushed away from her desk and stood up, feeling a slight crick in her back from the last hour spent hunched over writing… or rather, attempting to.
Why can’t I find the words? She thought wearily to herself as she stretched and rubbed at the small of her back, wincing as the pain hummed through her. Coffee seemed like a good idea so she threaded the few steps towards the kitchen, reaching into the overhead cabinet for the half-used bag of Deathwish that normally gave her a nice jolt of creativity.
Her hand closed around the black bag when she paused, sudden realization hitting her.
Oh, yeah… can’t go nuts on the caffeine for a while. Bollocks. She sighed in mild annoyance and placed her hands on her hips, glowering down at her still-flat stomach.
You are going to be bad for business, kiddo.
Peering through the scant contents of the cabinet, she managed to find an almost-empty jar of hot chocolate powder and there was just enough milk left in the fridge for a small cup. Placing the milk into a cup, she mixed up the beverage and placed it in the microwave.
Just as she was about to push START, there was a knock at the door.
Frowning, Pandora headed to the hallway and peered through the peephole.
Taigo was outside, bouncing on the balls of his feet with a wide, almost uncharacteristically giddy grin upon his face.
Pandora sighed. No doubt he’d come over to take her shopping for more baby stuff and after yesterday afternoon doing exactly that with her father, she was in no mood for a repeat performance. Weighing up the pros and cons of ignoring him outright, she decided to let him in, figuring a distraction from her failed letter writing would do the world of good.
“Someone’s looking bright eyed and bushy tailed…” she mused as she opened the door to him.
Taigo stepped inside and enveloped her in a warm hug.
“I’ve just had the night of my life!”
“You actually ventured outside of the operating theatre for once?”
“Yup! Shima and Maki dragged me to the Dragon last night and well....Panny, I met a girl! ”
Pandora arched an eyebrow, holding him at arm’s length.
“Oh? Did something happen or…?”
Taigo chuckled and gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“In a manner of speaking. We danced, had a few drinks and then she, uh, took me back to her place and made an honest man out of me.”
“Huh.” Pandora deadpanned; “Took you long enough.”
“Oh, shush! Better late than never, heh!”
“Indeed.” Pandora glanced at the microwave for a moment. “Coffee? I used up the last of the milk so it’ll have to be black, I’m afraid.”
Taigo let her go and took to leaning on the breakfast bar, watching as she pushed the START button on the machine and zapped her beverage.
“Actually, I can’t really stay that long. I never went home last night and you know how my mother gets. I was kind of hoping you’d come with me as I go and face the music. Moral support, right?”
Pandora cocked her head at him, folding her arms over her chest.
“I don’t understand why you won’t take the apartment they’re offering. It would solve all your problems.”
“You’d think it would be that simple, but no. No matter what I try to do, if I let my Dad buy me a place, I’d be beholden to them and my mother would more than likely demand a key for so-called ‘emergencies’, meaning she could turn up at all hours without warning. I can’t take that risk, Panny. I want to live my life, sure, but she’s like a dog with a bone when it comes to giving me some iota of independence...”
“I suppose. I’ve only met Asuka a handful of times but she does come across as tightly wound. The only thing I can say is that you should be more like Shima.”
“What and just ignore her completely ?”
“Eh, it worked for him, didn’t it?”
“Barely. I’ve seen them argue bitterly over some of Shima’s choices in life but at this point, I’m starting to think she’s given up on him. I love my mother, Panny, but I don’t want to break her heart and make things even more unbearable..”
Pandora nodded sagely and sipped her hot chocolate.
“You’ve got a good heart, Taigo, but you need to stand up to her. You’ll never have a life of your own if you keep fearing what she’ll think.”
“I suppose…” Taigo stared at the floor, rubbing the back of his head before exhaling a deep breath. “Come home with me. We can get breakfast together and I'll try and talk Mom down if I can.”
“I normally don’t get involved in other people’s family dramas but I suppose, after yesterday, I do owe you one.”
“I’m not calling in a favor, Pandora. But you’re right, it’s not fair to get you tangled up in my shit.” He glanced at his watch and blanched.
“Crap, it’s almost 2pm, so we should get going. How are you feeling today, by the way?”
“Nauseated but I’ll live. My stomach is a bit uneasy but I can just about keep down liquids. My father bought me some anti-sickness medication, so that helps.”
“Oh? You told him about the baby?”
“Yeah. He wasn’t impressed at first but he’s slowly coming to accept the fact. Actually, we spent most of yesterday afternoon shopping for strollers. I never want to set foot inside a Mamas and Papas store ever again…” Pandora sighed, dumping the contents of her cup into the sink before grabbing her coat off the hook next to the fridge.
“Come on. Let’s get you home. You can tell me about your love life in the car. Colour me intrigued.”
At that, Taigo’s perky grin returned.
“Ooh, yes! Let me fill you in with all the juicy details!”
“So, what’s her name?” Pandora asked as she dropped several coins into the slot and tore the bus ticket from the machine, seating herself next to Taigo as the bus began to pull away from the kerb.
“Shasta. I didn’t get her last name, though…” he replied.
Pandora arched a brow.
“Never put you down as the sort for an anonymous one-night stand, Taigo.” She straightened out her newspaper and peered at the pages, shaking her head.
“Are you going to see her again?”
“God, I hope so! I have her number so I’m hoping to call her soon. I know I jumped the gun a little but we really vibed last night and I’d like it to turn serious.”
“Well, can’t argue with that. I only advise you to err on the side of caution. Don’t let your cock cloud your judgement.”
Taigo scoffed and folded his arms over his chest, leaning his head against hers.
“Take it from someone who’s made many bad choices in her dating life, Taigo. I’m not saying that true love can’t spring from one night but just… be cautious . I know we all tease you but truly, you’re very naive for a man of your age. I just don’t want to see you get your heart broken.” Pandora said, considering him from over the top of the newspaper.
Taigo smiled and nuzzled gently against her.
“I’m touched. I’ll be good, I promise. But hey, any advice you can sling my way is always appreciated. About calling her again-”
“The standard is to wait three days. Best not to come across as desperate.”
“R-right, right.” Taigo scratched at his chin thoughtfully; “...Any ideas on where I should take her for a date?”
Pandora sighed and turned the pages, pursing her lips.
“Taigo, you barely know this woman. Don’t act rashly.” She thought for a moment; “...Don't go to the movies. At least, not for a first date... No sense sitting in the dark for an hour and a half saying nothing. Talk to her . Find out what she likes and go from there.”
“Okay, that makes sense. Anything else I should know?”
“Yes. Don’t bombard her with texts and for the love of all that is good and pure, don’t send her a fucking dick pic. Not everyone is into that sort of thing.”
“Hrmm. So many rules. Dating is harder than I thought...”
“They’re not rules , Taigo. More like guidelines, to be fair. Just use a little common sense. Oh, and stock up on condoms.” She patted her stomach for emphasis; “Don’t want to end up like me, do you?”
Taigo nodded, eyes widening.
“Thanks for the reminder. I need to go to the pharmacy…”
Pandora shook her head and continued to read her paper, frowning at the columns of black and white words. A few minutes passed in silence before she sighed and handed him the newspaper.
“Have you seen the latest headlines?”
“No? What’s up?”
Pandora pointed to the front page headline and her lips thinned with distaste.
“The Sadist of Shinjuku has struck again. There was an attempted murder in the subway station last night. A young woman was pulled into the toilets and narrowly missed having her throat slit.”
“Jesus…! ” Taigo exclaimed, taking the paper and adjusting his glasses, forehead wrinkling into a deep frown; “I remember this guy. Nasty piece of work. I thought they caught him a few years back?”
“He has clearly escaped and is no doubt out for revenge.”
“You don’t know? It was a pretty high profile case, Taigo. About nine or ten years ago, he was attacking women in the Gion area of Kyoto. From what I remember, only one victim lived to tell the tale of his depravity and she had to go into witness protection due to being a minor. Nasty business, really…”
Taigo nodded, his expression grim.
“Oh, yeah… I remember that. Poor girl nearly bled out from stab wounds. It was a miracle she survived at all.” He bowed his head; “Must be hard seeing that bastard’s face plastered all over the headlines…”
“Mmm. I hope he’s swiftly apprehended. I’m normally not one for the death penalty but for a brute like Alexander Chang, I’d be more than happy to make an exception.”
As the bus rounded the corner into a cosy-looking housing estate, Pandora stood up and pressed the little bell built into the handrail. “C’mon. We’re almost there. Let’s hope your brother isn’t home. I don’t feel very brave today myself…”
Hitching his jacket up over his shoulders, Taigo shook his head and followed her off the bus. They began to walk at a quick pace, passing numerous expensive-looking houses and neatly trimmed hedgerows until they came to the largest mansion on the street, half-hidden by a pair of high wooden gates.
Taking his keys from his pocket, Taigo stood before the gates and fumbled with the electronic key fob. Pressing a large button, there was a shrill beep before the gates slowly opened, revealing a slick gravel driveway and an immaculate lawn, a man in tight sweatpants and a long sleeved t-shirt sitting on the porch of a large three storey house.
“About time you showed up.” The man said, standing up and glancing over his shoulders at the front door; “Your mother’s fixing lunch. I take it Pandora is visiting too?” Hattori’s tone was breezy but his blue eyes were filled with trepidation and as his son approached, he took him by the shoulder.
“Uh, yeah. Panny was in the neighborhood so I invited her over. Sorry about missing out on the drum shopping, Dad. I completely forgot-”
“Eh, no biggie. You had plans, it’s fine. Just as long as you don’t make it a bad habit, okay?” Hattori waved a hand dismissively before turning to Pandora, giving her a sheepish smile that echoed his son’s features.
“How you doin’, Sweetheart?”
“Hello, Mr. Shigeta-”
“Pandora, how many times must I tell you? Call me Hattori. We’ve known each other long enough.”
Pandora cleared her throat and smoothed down the front of her dress.
“Sorry. I’m good. Little bit under the weather but it, ah, was probably something I ate…”
“Oh? You okay?”
“I’ll be fine.” Pandora said, smiling at the older man as they all walked into the house.
Slipping out of his shoes, Taigo took off his jacket and flung it over the bannister of the staircase before following his father into the open-plan kitchen area, bracing himself as he spotted his mother washing dishes at the sink, her back to him.
“W-Where’s Shima?” He asked, gulping back a lump in his throat.
“Sleeping off a massive hangover.” Asuka said in a terse tone, not turning around. Stacking plates into a wire rack, she sighed deeply and leaned against the sink, her brown eyes glaring at a little potted cactus upon the windowsill. “I take it you’ll be joining him?”
“Uhhmm, I’m okay, Mom.” Taigo murmured sheepishly. “Sorry about last night. I didn’t mean to stay out so late-”
“You should’ve called .” Asuka replied, finally turning around and folding her arms over her chest, her stare haughty; “You know there’s a serial killer on the loose, right? What if you’d gotten into trouble-?!”
“He only targets women;” Pandora interjected; “If anything, I’m more at risk than he is.”
“Hrmm. Well, you’re home now so I guess I can finally relax.” Asuka said in a low voice, her shoulders sagging with anxiety; “Don’t make a habit out of this, okay?”
“Sorry, Mom. Won’t happen again. Although …” Taigo scratched the back of his head, glancing between his mother and Pandora. He almost blurted out the fact that he’d met a woman but thought better of it and shook his head. “N-Never mind.”
“Sit down. Have you eaten yet?”
Asuka went to the oven, fiddling with the dials for a moment before joining her son and husband at the kitchen table. She glanced at Pandora and her expression softened ever so slightly.
“Pandora, dear, how are you? I wasn’t expecting your company. Would you like some lunch?”
Pandora smiled politely and waved her hand.
“Kind offer but my stomach’s been playing up all morning. I’d rather not eat anything too heavy.”
“Would toast be okay?” Hattori offered kindly.
“Actually, if it’s not too much trouble, could I please have some ginger tea?”
“Sure thing...it’s nothing catching, is it? I just got over the flu!” Hattori joked, relieved to feel the tension in the air slowly dissolve. Pandora chuckled weakly, averting her gaze as she tucked a dark lock of hair behind her ear.
“Don’t worry. It’s just an upset stomach. I guess Mexican food doesn’t agree with me after all…”
Meanwhile, in an outpatient’s clinic halfway across town…
Nervous energy caused Shasta’s leg to bounce up and down, her shoe clicking on the worn linoleum flooring. Licking her lips, she stared straight ahead, eyes wide and fearful as she watched several other people take their seats in rickety wooden chairs spaced out into a circle.
A tall man in a purple short-sleeved shirt and slacks stood in the centre holding a clipboard, his smile quiet but reassuring, grey eyes sparkling with kindness.
“Hello, everyone. Welcome to Safe Harbor.”
There was a murmur of hellos but Shasta stayed quiet, fingers twitching in her lap.
“For those of you who have never attended one of these meetings before, I’ll give you a quick run through. We are a charity that supports all aspects of mental health, offering everything from medication payment plans to both group and one-on-one therapy sessions. We’re here if you need us. My name is Daniel Pendergrast and I’m the clinical therapist here. Feel free to come to me with any worries or queries you might have and I’ll do my best to soothe what ails you.”
The man turned towards Shasta and she froze like a deer in the headlights.
“Some of you already know me from previous sessions...don’t be afraid if it’s been a while.”He smiled reassuringly but Shasta still felt a great degree of trepidation.
“Before we begin, I should remind you that whilst no topic is ever taboo in this circle, confidentiality is key and what is said between us and these four walls stays that way. Obviously, as a healthcare worker, if I feel something you tell me requires further intervention, then I am legally required to inform my bosses but I will never do so without your express permission. On that note, for the newest members in our midst, I have a consent form for you to fill out.”
Daniel took a step towards Shasta and she shrank back in her seat, lips thinning in fear.
“If you could just take one of these forms and pass them around, dear? That would be great.”
She inhaled sharply, smelling his expensive aftershave linger in the air. Normally, she would be soothed by Daniel’s presence, his gentle nature doing wonders for her mental health but after having spent the majority of the morning trying to fight back a massive tsunami of panic, it seemed there was nothing she could find to soothe the turmoil within.
“S-Sure…” Shasta mumbled, taking a form from the clipboard and pulling a small pen out of the pot Daniel held in his hand, her fingers trembling as she tried to fill it out.
One by one, the five other people in the circle signed their forms and handed them back to Daniel, who stacked them neatly into a concertina folder before pulling up a chair and crossing his ankles.
“So, how is everyone doing today?” He asked kindly, glancing around.
There was a series of half-hearted mumblings but everyone generally kept to themselves.
You achieve nothing being silent. Shasta thought to herself, slowly gathering her willpower to push past the fear that threatened to paralyse her vocal cords. Remember, Daniel is here to help.
“I-I’m having a rough time lately…” she managed to eke out, swallowing back a lump of anxiety. “T-The news is terrifying me. Y-Y’know, what with that killer on the prowl.”
Daniel nodded and leaned forward in his seat, steepling his fingers and resting his elbows on his knees. “A perfectly legitimate fear. It’s only natural to feel restless in these troubling times but you cannot let it dictate your life. Still, I understand your case completely, Miss Musashi.”
Shasta’s shoulders sagged and she stared down at the floor.
“I thought he’d be jailed for life....I th-thought that would be the end of it…”
“Can I tell you something my grandmother once told me in times of stress?” Daniel said soothingly, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“‘ Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn’t actually get you anywhere .’ I understand that you are nervous. I would be too, giving what you’ve told me over the phone. But you need to be stronger than your fear and not let it rule your head.”
Shasta looked up, her green eyes meeting grey and she frowned. She wanted to yell at him for that, to say that all the positive affirmations and mindfulness techniques were horseshit in the face of the crushing reality that was dawning all around her.
Coming here was a mistake… she thought bitterly to herself as she stood up and grabbed her coat; What was I thinking?
“Leaving so soon?” Daniel asked quizzically as she pulled on her coat and tugged the belt tightly around her waist.
Clearing her throat roughly, Shasta nodded and forced a smile.
“Y-Yeah, sorry. I just remembered I had a prior appointment that’s clashed with today. My bad.”
“It’s fine. You can catch up over Zoom if needed. Just go to the Safe Harbor website and you’ll find everything you need. Have a blessed day, Miss Musashi.”
She would have punched him but held back, not wanting to cause a scene. Striding out of the room, she stood in the hallway breathing heavily as she tried to slow her rapid heartbeat.
Since having a panic attack earlier that morning, her nerves were completely fried and to hear such saccharine advice from the young American therapist felt like a slap in the face.
“Christ, I need a drink…” she thought aloud, reaching into her handbag for her phone.
She scrolled through her contacts for Sean’s number and her thumb hovered over the Call button before she thought better, slumping down into a metal chair and holding her head in her hands.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Ten years had passed with no incident and she thought she could finally move on but seeing Alexander Chang’s mugshot plastered all across the newspaper stands and electronic billboards was almost too much to bear. Choking back a sob, Shasta wrapped her arms around herself and leaned forward, caught between wanting to cry or throw up.
Instead, she rocked herself for a moment, eyes shut as she tried to disassociate from the sights, sounds and smells of the clinic. Everything felt too loud, too sterile as the smell of bleach singed her nostrils with every inhalation and she could feel her anxiety only grow by the second.
With an agitated growl, she stood up and tugged the strap of her handbag tightly up onto her shoulder before heading towards the exit.
The weather outside was frightful, the sky overhead blustery and overcast with ominous grey clouds that were threatening a downpour.
Quickening her pace, Shasta marched towards the bus stop and pulled a small umbrella from her bag, quietly wishing she was anywhere but here.
Her thoughts drifted to the previous night and of the adorable, hot doctor she had taken to bed. Her whole body craved a distraction, skin tingling uncomfortably under her coat as she quietly cursed herself for not getting his number.
I hope he calls soon… she thought dejectedly, holding out an arm to signal for the bus that was turning down the corner.
I need to shut my brain off for a while…
As the day wore on into early evening, the dark clouds overhead turned black and released a torrential downpour of icy rain that rattled against the gutters of Shigeta Manor. Standing by the windowsill in the spacious attic of his family home, Taigo took a sip of coffee from his mug and leaned against the wall, lost in thought as he listened to the sound of distant thunder.
Over in the corner, his father was busy tightening the nuts and bolts of a large drum kit, humming softly to himself as he worked.
Glancing over to where his son stood, Hattori smiled and sat on the little stool behind his set up, absently twirling a drumstick in his tattooed hands.
“Penny for your thoughts, kiddo?”
“Hmm?” Taigo was snapped from his reverie and he turned, setting his empty mug down on the mixing desk.
“You’ve been pretty quiet all afternoon. I know you got off scot free with your mother but, well… are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, Dad. Just thinking about last night…”
“Shima told me you went home with a girl.” Hattori said with a slight smirk; “You dog, you!”
“So, are you going to see her again?”
Taigo ran his hands through his hair and sat at the mixing desk, flapping his lips.
“That’s the plan but Pandora says I should wait a few days before I call her. Said that if I blow up her phone it’ll stink of desperation. I don’t wanna come across as too needy…”
Hattori nodded, stroking his dark beard thoughtfully.
“Well, yeah, I can see where she’s coming from. But hey, some chicks dig it when a guy seems eager. I know your mother did when we were datin’. Granted, that was back in the Eighties before all that Snapchat malarky..”
“Mmm.” Taigo nodded; “Speaking of which, how come you don’t take Mom on more dates? I’m sure it’d help with the tension. She’s been so wound up these days…”
“Believe me, son, I’m trying my best but she’s just wired for stress lately.”
“Why, what’s up?” Taigo asked, concerned.
“Ehh, buncha things, really. She just worries about you and your brother too much. Although she did mention something about needing more help with the housework…”
“Yeesh, I forgot about that. I was supposed to do laundry. I’ll get onto that pronto.”
“I think she’d appreciate that. Also…” Hattori rubbed his hands together, hunching forward on the seat. His face was apologetic; “...She’s been looking at apartments on the Internet for you. Can you at least come take a look?”
Taigo released a long, low groan of annoyance.
“Hey, I know you wanna make it on your own. I totally respect that but c’mon, it wouldn’t hurt to accept a little boost up the property ladder. Why won’t you play ball?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that…”
Hattori smiled reassuringly.
“Enlighten me then.”
Swallowing, Taigo took a deep breath and rubbed the back of his head.
“Look, it’s not that I don’t appreciate everything you and Mom have done for me, y’know, paying for medical school an’ all. You didn’t have to do that for me but I’m eternally grateful and forever in your debt. It’s just…” he hesitated, staring at his shoes; “...I love Mom but she’s so overbearing with me. I don’t know why and to be honest, I’m really starting to resent the lack of independence…”
“I see. Have you actually tried speaking to her about it?” Hattori asked.
“What’s the point? You’ve seen how defensive she gets. I know Shima doesn’t take any of that crap and sometimes I wish I could be as assertive as him but I don’t wanna cause a bust up. I love Mom dearly, I do, but I really wish she’d just back off a little bit. My biggest fear is that if I let you two buy me an apartment, she’ll keep inviting herself over unannounced and I’ll have absolutely no privacy.”
“Hmm. You make a very valid point. But, son, you need to be aware of something. She almost lost you once before. Don’t alienate her from your life.”
“What do you mean?”
Hattori rubbed a hand over his bearded chin and sighed.
“Didn’t I ever tell you about the day you were born?”
“Uhh, yeah. Once or twice. I got stuck and Mom needed a C-Section, right?”
“Yup. But that’s not the whole story. Y’see, apart from you taking forever to make your debut into the world, by the time you arrived, you were so weak from the struggle that you almost died on us. The doctors whisked you away before either of us could even hold you and the trauma scarred your mother for life. I had to be strong for both of us but no word of a lie, seeing you hooked up to all those tubes and wires was pure hell.” Hattori said quietly, bowing his head.
“Whoa. Seriously? I never knew that.”
“Yeah. It’s why there’s no pictures of you or your brother as newborns. She didn’t want to remember that day as it was so disturbing. She’s afraid of losing you, Taigo. Don’t let her anxieties push you away. She’s only fretting because she loves you.”
Sagging in the chair by the mixing desk, Taigo let out a winded sigh.
“Well, damn. Now I feel like an asshole for complaining about it.”
“It’s okay, son. We never talked about it because we didn’t want you to worry but you’re old enough now to know the truth. Just give your mother some credit where it’s due. She adores you and only wants to see you happy.” Hattori stood up and moved to embrace his son.
“If you’re still worried about the whole privacy thing, you can leave the emergency key with me. I’ll talk her ‘round. Don’t you worry.”
Taigo patted his father on the back, smiling into his shoulder.
“Thanks, Dad. I appreciate it.”
“No problem, son.”
Meanwhile, Pandora stood outside an ornate oak door, her thoughts turbulent as she thought about the man sleeping behind it. It’s now or never… she steeled herself with a deep, shuddering breath before knocking once.
There was no reply so she tried again, a little firmer this time. The door swung open slowly, a low creak of the hinges, and Pandora took a slow step forward.
Shima’s room was bathed in darkness, his sleeping form snoring loudly on the bed that took up most of the floorspace.
He didn’t stir as she walked into the room, seating herself down at the edge of the bed. Moving slowly, she clicked on the bedside lamp, flooding the room with a soft glow. A low groan escaped Shima and he rolled over, blinking as his sleep was suddenly interrupted.
Bleary-eyed and bushy headed, he rubbed his face and slowly sat up.
“Hey. How’s the head?” Pandora said breezily, reaching to push several tangled curls out of his eyes.
“Sore… but I’ll live. What time is it?”
“About seven. Your mother has invited me to stay for dinner.”
“Hmmm. C’mere.” Before she could protest, Shima gently grasped her arm and pulled her onto the bed, wrapping the blankets around them both. She turned red upon realising he was completely naked underneath and she quickly looked away.
“I was just dreamin’ about you, actually…” Shima purred low into her ear, shivers rocketing up her spine. “And now here you are…!”
“S-Shima… we can’t…! ”
“I’ll be quiet-!” Shima smirked wolfishly as he hovered over her, leaning down intending to suck a hot trail along her neck but Pandora placed her hands on his bare chest and firmly pushed him back onto his haunches.
“Not tonight, Shima.”
“What, you’re not in the mood?”
“To say the least…”
“Fair enough…” Shima shrugged, running a hand through his hair and yawning; “...Where is everybody?”
“Downstairs. Your mother is making pork ramen. Your favorite, right?”
“That does sound good.” He took her hand and kissed her knuckles; “What’s new with you, dear? You look pale.”
“I-I’m alright.” Pandora stood up quickly, her whole body tingling uncomfortably giving she was so close to his bare skin, the scent of his fruity shower gel almost overwhelming her senses. Memories of that one fateful night in Berlin nearly three months ago echoed inside her head and she blushed, shaking her head to dislodge them.
“I-I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”
“Oh, I need you, baby…” Shima reached for her hand but she stepped quickly towards the door.
He frowned but said nothing, watching as she exhaled a shaky breath before leaving him to head downstairs, her heart in her throat as she took each step with quaking, unsteady legs…