Erika hummed a bit to herself as she worked on her painting, glad for the fact that Shizuka had chosen to leave her alone for the day. She didn't know if she could stand to face the other woman after the way she'd been tricked into that date with Rui at the gallery opening the previous night. After all, she knew that it had all been a part of the other woman's plan to try to get the two of them together, and she would end up wanting to hear every little detail of the night. Actually, the more Erika thought about it, the odder it seemed that Shizuka hadn't stopped by her room all day. She had expected to be woken bright and early, faced with the torturous task of reliving the night as she explained it all to her gracious host for the summer – the meddling matchmaker, herself. The fact that she hadn't even tried to find out what happened made her think maybe Shizuka knew more than she originally thought.
Sighing a bit, she craned her neck to look around her easel at the vase of flowers sitting on the nearby windowsill. One of the butlers had brought them in earlier in the day, picked fresh from the gardens behind the large mansion, and Erika had decided they were as good a subject as any for her summer art project. They were brilliantly colored, and the way the sunlight filtered through the window and fell upon their petals created a good amount of shadow that she knew would serve to add depth to the final painting. Truth be told, however, she knew she was faking it. She was only painting the flowers because she had to paint something over the summer. There was no passion in the work, though, and the more she looked at it the more she hated it.
Sighing again, she dipped her brush into a small puddle of red paint on her pallet and began creating the petals of a rose, adding more paint to her brush when necessary. After a few minutes, she dipped her brush into a glass of water she had set on the easel tray, then blotted the bristles dry on the old t-shirt she was wearing before trying to decide which color to move to next. After a brief deliberation, she went back to the red, staring intently at her painting, a frown gradually deepening across her face as she continuously swirled her brush in the paint until it was fully saturated with the color. In the blink of an eye, she suddenly slapped the brush against the top right corner of the canvas, slashing downward at an angle before moving to the opposite bottom corner and slashing back upward, creating a big, bold red X across the would-be still life portrait.
Growling a bit in frustration, she stuck her paint brush into the glass of water and tossed her pallet onto the small table she had dragged over to arrange her paints on, then wiped her hands off on her shirt before running them back through her hair. She hated that she would have to start over, but she hated forcing herself to pain something she didn't care about even more. Shizuka had suggested she paint a portrait of her mother, but she was still too nervous at the prospect. Her mother had been the most important person in her life, and her death had been the second most devastating event she had ever endured, after the mess with her ex-boyfriend. She wanted to be able to honor her memory with a perfect representation of how she had been when she was still alive, and that was why she was so afraid of trying and failing to pull it off.
Erika turned her head and found Shizuka standing in the doorway of her room, smiling at her. She didn't bother trying to smile back, hoping the other woman would realize she was already in a foul mood and wouldn't feel the need to make it worse by trying to pry into the details of her evening with Rui. To her surprise, she didn't say anything at all. She merely walked into the room and over to where she was standing, taking up a place next to her and turning her attention to the canvas situated on the easel. A tiny smile pulled at her lips and she bit her tongue to keep from laughing, trying to remain serious as she nodded her approval of the painting.
"I like it," she told Erika. "It's very... unique. Sort of a statement against the conformity of beauty."
Erika rolled her eyes and gave her a look, and they both burst out laughing. After a moment, Erika sighed and took the canvas off the easel, taking it over to where the wastebasket was and propping it up against the wall next to it in hopes one of the housekeepers would take the hint and throw it out with the rest of the trash. Shizuka quietly watched her every move, letting out a sigh of her own and going over to her, placing her hands on her shoulders and rubbing them in a soothing manner.
"Why don't you take a break for a while?" she suggested. "Soujiroh is coming over for afternoon tea. You could join us. We'll talk, have something to eat, and you won't have to even think about this art project that's driving you insane."
"Soujiroh?" Erika asked, looking back over her shoulder at the other woman, raising an eyebrow. "Just Soujiroh?"
"Just Soujiroh," Shizuka confirmed with a small nod.
"You're not going to try to set me up with him now, are you?" she whined, looking a bit distraught.
"Of course not," Shizuka assured her. "Besides, he's dating Yuki. Now come on, he'll be here any minute."
Erika opened her mouth to protest, but Shizuka grabbed her by her arm and ushered her out of the bedroom and down the hall, tightening her grip slightly when she tried to pull away so she couldn't make a run for it back to her room.
"Shizuka!" Erika said sternly, stopping in her tracks and forcing the other woman to a standstill. "Look at me, I'm a mess."
"I think you look just fine," Shizuka replied with a shrug, looking her over.
"I'm wearing ratty old clothes, covered in paint," she argued. "Hardly the proper attire for afternoon tea."
"You look fine," Shizuka assured her, grabbing her hand and pulling her along behind her as she continued down the stairs and toward the garden. Erika sighed heavily and decided to stop protesting, knowing that it was a losing battle. If Shizuka didn't care what she looked like, she decided she wouldn't worry about it, either.
"Can I at least go wash my hands and pull my hair up?" she asked once they reached the patio, relieved the find that Soujiroh hadn't arrived yet. Shizuka turned to her, giving her a wary look as she tried to decide whether or not to risk letting her go.
"I promise I'll come back," Erika assured her, holding up one hand. "Five minutes. If I'm not back by then, you can come after me, drag me back out here, and tie me down to the chair."
Shizuka laughed and nodded in agreement, tapping the crystal face of her wristwatch.
"Time's ticking," she announced, and Erika rushed back inside. Shizuka sighed a bit and sat at the table on the patio, picking a pink-iced cookie off a tray and breaking it in half before popping half of the cookie into her mouth, smiling to herself. Despite her creative slump, Erika seemed to be in a good mood, which she took to mean that she and Rui had made some progress during their ride home from the museum. Chuckling a bit triumphantly, she popped the second half of the cookie into her mouth just as Soujiroh stepped under the shade of the umbrella above the table, leaning down to kiss her cheek.
"You look like you're having a good day," he commented as he took a seat in the chair across from her.
"Erika seems to be rather happy today," she told him, pouring him a cup of green tea from the pot sitting on the table.
"You think she and Rui..." he began, allowing the question to hang. Shizuka raised an eyebrow as she sat the teapot down, and Soujiroh reached over and picked it up to pour a cup of tea for her, in return.
"Well?" he asked expectantly. "Do you think they did it or not?"
"I hope you're not suggesting that I slept with Rui last night," Erika told him in an annoyed tone of voice, stepping up to the side of the table with her hands resting on her hips. She hadn't had time to change, so she felt a bit self-conscious wearing a t-shirt covered in various paint stains and an old pair of denim cut-offs, but she had tried to make herself a bit more presentable for their little tea party by pulling her hair up into a high ponytail, leaving just a few strands loose to frame her face.
"Now what makes you think that I would suggest such a thing?" Soujiroh asked her innocently, smiling at her as his eyes automatically traveled over the length of her body. Erika rolled her eyes and pulled out the chair in front of her, taking a seat at the table between him and Shizuka.
"I know the way your perverted mind works," Erika told him as he began pouring a cup of tea for her, as well. "And before you ask me: No, Rui and I didn't sleep together last night."
"But you kissed, right?" he asked, offering her some sugar for her tea, recalling her comment about the lack of sweetness in the tea he had made for her. She nodded in reply, and he smirked at her.
"I knew it!" he exclaimed, pointing a finger at her.
"No," Erika corrected him. "I was responding to you offering the sugar, not answering your question."
"So you two didn't kiss?" Shizuka asked for clarification.
"I just said we didn't," Erika snapped, frustrated that the two of them seemed to be ganging up on her. Sighing heavily, she closed her eyes and brought a hand to her head, gently massaging her temple as she felt a headache beginning to come on. She was used to dealing with Shizuka, but now that Soujiroh was apparently jumping onto the 'fix up Erika and Rui' bandwagon, she wasn't sure how much she was going to be able to take.
"Why not?" Soujiroh pressed, much to her dismay. "You two came so close to it at the museum."
Erika suddenly opened her eyes, turning an accusing glance toward him. She was about to ask him if he had been spying on her and Rui at the museum, but Shizuka spoke first.
"You saw that, too?" she asked him, drawing Erika's attention over to her. She sat there silently, gaping at the two of them, a small sound of disbelief escaping her slightly open mouth.
"What?" Soujiroh asked, redirecting his attention to Shizuka. "You were there, too? I thought you weren't even going to the opening."
"I couldn't very well just sit at home and wonder what was going on, could I?" she answered playfully, lifting her cup to take a sip of her tea.
"Un-fucking-believable," Erika finally spoke, shaking her head. "You were both spying on me?"
"Well... I wouldn't exactly say I was spying on you," Soujiroh explained in his smooth, confident way. "I was looking for the two of you to say good night before Yuki and I left, and I wandered into the exhibit where you two were, just as Rui was about to kiss you. And for the record, I left right away so you two could have some privacy. I may be a lot of things, but a voyeur isn't one of them."
"And what about you?" Erika asked Shizuka, not even attempting to hide how angry she was at the revelation that they had both witnessed a rather private moment between her and Rui.
"Well... I was spying on you," Shizuka admitted a bit sheepishly. "I followed you two from a distance half of the night and hid behind one of the statues in the exhibit so I could keep an eye on what was going on. Things were going so well, too... I was sure he was going to kiss you, but then he didn't."
"I'm glad he didn't," Erika replied, but something in the tone of her voice told Shizuka she was lying. She sounded like she was trying too hard to be nonchalant about the entire thing.
"Liar," Soujiroh remarked, scoffing slightly, beating Shizuka to making the observation herself.
"I'm serious," Erika insisted. "If Rui had kissed me, it would have caused all sorts of problems."
"Name one," he challenged her.
"Besides," she continued, ignoring his comment, "I'll be going back to France at the end of the summers and I'll never see him again. So why bother getting myself emotionally invested in something, in the first place, that will only end up with me getting my heart broken?"
She turned to look at each of her companions in turn, silently daring them to argue with her. After neither one of them spoke, she let out a relieved sigh and slumped slightly in her chair in a way that appeared to be more depressed than relieved.
"Someone once gave me some advice about a situation a bit similar to this one," Soujiroh said after a moment, looking pointedly at Erika. She raised her eyes to his, shaking her head in a silent plea as she hoped he wasn't about to say what she thought he was.
"In order to experience the good things in life, you have to be willing to risk experiencing the bad."
Erika looked away from him, closing her eyes as he threw her own words right back at her. As much as she hated to admit it, she knew he was right. After all, that was why she had given him that very same advice about Yuki. But a part of her was still reluctant to let go of her insecurities and so she found herself shaking her head in protest once more.
"No... I'm sorry, but I can't," she said before standing up from the table. She wanted to tell them that she didn't have the strength to risk falling completely in love with Rui only to have to watch him marry another woman, but she didn't want to compromise the confidence in which he had told her of his father's plans to force him into marriage – although it was very likely Shizuka already knew of the situation, Erika knew through her that Soujiroh was a bit of a gossip and wouldn't be able to keep his mouth shut about the arrangement.
Apologizing quietly once more, Erika took her leave and went back inside, heading upstairs to her room to make another attempt at finishing her summer art project.
"When's Soujiroh getting here?" Tsukasa asked as he picked up a tile from the center of the table and looked at it, frowning almost indignantly at it before placing it back where it had been.
"Didn't I tell you?" Akira asked as he took his turn. "He's not coming today. He has a tea party."
Rui smiled a bit, waiting until Akira discarded one of his tiles before picking up the one Tsukasa had rejected and adding it to his set.
"You're being awfully quiet today," Tsukasa observed, earning a shrug from Rui.
"I'm always quiet, aren't I?" he asked after a moment, once it was Tsukasa's turn again.
"Not this quiet," Tsukasa complained, swearing under his breath as he once more drew a bad tile, violently discarding it back onto the table before crossing his arms over his chest and pouting like a child. "It's almost like you don't want to be around us or something."
"Relax, Tsukasa," Akira told him in a soothing voice. "I'm sure he's just busy daydreaming about Erika."
"Huh?" the other two asked in unison.
"Erika who?" Tsukasa asked, drawing a blank.
"You remember, Shizuka's friend," Akira reminded him. "You met her at dinner at Rui's house and again at the engagement party..."
"Oh, her!" Tsukasa exclaimed, beaming proudly as he recalled the girl he was talking about. "The fiery little mink."
"I think you mean minx," Akira corrected him. "And you better not let Makino hear you talking like that, or she'll punch your lights out."
"Oh, it's just guy talk," Tsukasa brushed off his warning, reaching over and playfully punching his shoulder. "Makino knows I don't want anyone but her, plain and simple."
"That can be taken more than one way," Akira remarked under his breath.
"What was that?" Tsukasa asked. Akira smiled and shook his head.
"Nothing, I was just wondering what Rui has to share with us about his date with Erika last night."
"Date?" Tsukasa asked, turning an accusing stare in Rui's direction. "You never told me you were going on a date, Rui."
"How did you know about that?" Rui asked Akira, his eyes wide with shock that he had known about his surprise blind date the night before.
"Soujiroh told me on the phone this morning," he replied with a shrug. "He said the two of you were getting pretty comfortable with one another in one of the sculpture exhibits."
Rui bit his bottom lip, rolling it back and forth between his teeth in order to keep his temper in check. Out of all the people who could have seen him with Erika at that moment, it had to be Soujiroh – the one friend he had who couldn't keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it, especially when it came to romantic liaisons.
"So? How was it?" Akira asked, leaning forward on the table expectantly.
"How was what?" Rui asked, casting a wary glance toward him.
"You know," Akira replied suggestively, earning a groan from Tsukasa.
"Noooo," he wailed, balling his hands into fists and banging them into the sides of his head. "You mean I'm the last one?"
"Relax, Tsukasa," Rui told him sternly before turning his attention back to Akira. "I didn't have sex with her. I didn't even kiss her."
"That's not what I heard," Akira said, not entirely buying his denial.
"Well, your source was misinformed," Rui replied, sighing as he leaned back in his chair. "We almost kissed, but we didn't. She seemed uncomfortable with where things were going, so I backed off."
"Rui..." Akira admonished him. "How many times do I have to tell you? When a girl plays hard to get, you just have to be more aggressive. You're never going to get any action if you always bow out at the slightest sign of resistance. They want you to push past their defenses. And if they don't, they'll tell you. Trust me."
"I have no intention of getting involved with her," Rui told them, sounding like he had practiced saying those very same words over and over in front of his bathroom mirror at home.
"Rui," Tuskasa said, resting a hand on his arm. "What's going on with you? You haven't been yourself lately. Even at the engagement party you seemed a bit strange."
Rui turned to look at his best friend and saw genuine concern in his eyes. It was a rare occasion that Tsukasa Domyouji was concerned about anyone other than himself, but when those he cared about needed him, he could turn into a surprisingly good friend. For a moment he sat there quietly, staring at each of them as they silently asked him to talk to them about what was weighing on his mind. Then he sighed heavily, running his hand back through his hair and leaning forward with his arms on the table.
"My father is forcing me to get married," he told them, earning sympathetic but unsurprised looks from them both.
"You knew it was bound to happen someday," Akira told him.
"Been there, done that, and I don't envy you one bit," Tsukasa remarked as he lifted his glass to take a drink. Rui glared at him slightly for his uncaring attitude, and he smiled sheepishly in return. "Sorry. I mean: That's horrible."
"So who's the girl?" Akira asked, getting up to refill his own glass at the nearby wet bar.
"I haven't decided yet," he told them with a sigh as he picked up one of the tiles off the table and began spinning it around between his thumbs.
"So he's letting you choose, at least?" Tsukasa asked him, trying to sound positive. "That's good, right?"
"I have less than two months to decide, though," he informed them. "His plan is to announce my engagement at the company's yearly benefit. And it's not like he's actually giving me much of a choice, anyway. He keeps setting me up on dates with girls he's chosen as prospective brides for me, trying to get me to pick one of them."
"And why can't you be with Erika?" Akira asked, turning back to look at him.
Rui sat there quietly, his hands stilling in their motions as he though of all the reasons he had come up with the night before.
"It just wouldn't work out for the best," he said after a moment. "Whirlwind romances never do."
"Rui," Akira began with a heavy sigh, taking his seat across from him once more. "Look at Tsukasa here. Never in a million years would any of us have ever pictured him ending up with someone like Makino, but guess what? He did."
"Hey, are you insulting my fiancée?" Tsukasa said, glowering at him.
"Not at all," Akira remarked, waiving him off. "Just making a point." He watched Tsukasa quietly out of the corner of his eye, waiting for him to calm down before continuing.
"The point is, Rui: Everyone in the world has someone they're meant to be with, and sometimes it's the last person you'd ever expect. But if you just let this opportunity get away from you... You'll end up regretting it the rest of your life, and you'll always wonder what might have been."
"Ichigo ichie, huh?" Rui said thoughtfully, recalling one of Soujiroh's favorite sayings.
"Exactly," Akira told him, reaching across the table and patting his shoulder. "You have to just jump in with both feet and damn the consequences. If things work out, great. If they don't, well... At least you know you tried, right?"
Rui looked up up at him and forced a smile, nodding in agreement. His friends smiled back at him, but it didn't quite reach their eyes. Instead, their eyes gave away what they were really thinking. Tsukasa was glad it wasn't him going through what Rui was being made to suffer, and Rui knew he would likely lavish all sorts of affection upon Makino the next time he saw her, out of the sheer gratitude he felt for being able to be with her, at last. Akira, on the other hand, looked like he was hoping for the best, but he was still resigned to the harsh reality that Rui would more likely than not end up being married to a woman he didn't love.
In the back of his own mind, Rui silently apologized to his two friends. Even though he had said he would take a chance on Erika, he still wasn't entirely convinced it was worth the risk of both of them getting hurt in the end.