Chapter 9


Fuwa knew he'd fucked up.

Oh, he'd fucked up big time. In that moment, he'd let a burst of cowardice overcome him, and he'd reacted with what he recognised in retrospect as a defense mechanism to the sinking realisation about what he felt for Kyoko.

Whatever those feelings were, he still couldn't make heads or tails of it, but that wasn't the point anymore.

He'd lashed out at her, had said all kinds of terrible things, because lashing out at her was more bearable than acknowledging what she'd done to him—that somehow or another, even when she hadn't mean to, even when he had never allowed her to, she'd begun to dismantle the iron-clad locks he'd set in place to protect his wretched heart.

Maybe he didn't have a heart, judging by all the horrible, unforgivable things he had said to Kyoko. But there was something beating in his chest now at the spot where his fucking heart should be, and it twisted agonisingly like an embedded blade as he stared dumbly at the lone figure sitting on the ledge of the balcony, her scarlet shawl flickering in the breeze. From where he stood, he could see her legs dangling in the empty air, and his stomach churned, causing his nausea to spike.

Even on the verge of death, she looked beautiful.

This was real. This was fucking real. Kyoko was sitting there, on the verge of suicide, and he knew all too well who had pushed her to the brink when she'd been tiptoeing around it since leaving the Takarada Manor.

He was a psychiatrist. It was his job to help his patients.

But now, he'd done the opposite, and if anything happened to Kyoko, he knew he would have to live with it for the rest of his life.

Just like Kyoko would have to live for the rest of her life with the fact that she'd snuffed out the life in Lina Takarada's womb.

The sting of panic crept up his airways and he struggled to remember what to do in a situation like this. He had studied for this; of course he knew. But studying this in theory and facing a textbook situation under the ice-cold context of reality were two completely different stories, and throughout the entirety of his career, he'd yet to ever encounter the latter. If he messed up, if he told Kyoko a single wrong thing like he'd done so earlier, it would all be over.

There would be no recovering from his mistakes a second time.

The thought numbed his tongue, and he couldn't move—couldn't speak. He stood there, frozen to the core like a block of ice.

Click.

Fuwa started at the nearly indiscernible sound of branded leather shoes on the floor. He'd been so fixated on Kyoko that he'd completely forgotten about Tsuruga Ren. The surgeon was still approaching the woman with the same slow, unhurried pace from before, to the point that it was almost as if he was just taking a leisurely stroll, but Fuwa recognised that the other man was taking care not to make any sudden quick movements to scare Kyoko. It was easily the most fundamental step to handling a patient based on what Fuwa had been taught as a psychology student.

Kyoko took no notice of Ren as he approached. Her gaze was riveted on the sweeping skyline of the neighbouring buildings surrounding her apartment, the sky a star-littered, steep indigo canvas against the dimly lit rooftops around them. If not for the dire straits they were in, Fuwa might have actually taken the time to enjoy the view.

Now the view just made him sick to the stomach.

"I didn't hear you very clearly the first time," Tsuruga Ren was saying quietly. "Could you repeat yourself, Mogami-san?"

Kyoko frowned, the first time a crease crossed her otherwise dreamy, serene expression since they'd found her on the balcony ledge. "Repeat…?"

"You said something earlier to me," Tsuruga Ren reminded her gently. "Could you say it one more time for me, darling? Please?"

"I said…" Kyoko scrunched up her delicate features as she tried to remember. Then her heart-shaped face smoothed out. "I said I was tired." She raised her hand, then dropped it. "I'm really, really tired. Of everything. I'm so tired I think I'm going to drop dead."

Bile ascended Fuwa's throat, and he mentally counted to ten to compose himself.

Tsuruga Ren, however, didn't appear to so much as bat an eyelid.

"Then how does a warm, soft bed sound, Mogami-san?" he murmured, his voice silken and persuasive. Throughout this time, he continued his slow but steady approach towards her; he was so close now that if he actually pounced forward, she would have been in his reach. Fuwa could only stand rooted to the spot and watch, his heart in his mouth. "With pillows, and blankets, and anything else you'd like to keep you nice and warm. What do you say?"

Kyoko stirred, and she tucked the red shawl closer around her. "I'm—I'm warm," she said.

Bullshit. The night air was chilly as hell, and she only had the shawl on to combat it since her sleeveless dress was practically useless. Fuwa was debating the wisdom of calling her out on it when the other male spoke again, the cajoling timbre of his deep, dulcet voice unchanging.

"You could be even warmer than this," the doctor informed her gently. His voice pooled lower, softer. "I can keep you warm, darling, so that you won't ever have to go back out in the cold again."

For the first time since they'd found her on the ledge, Kyoko tore her hollow gaze off the landscape of sky and twisted her head towards him, her hazel eyes dilated as she stared hard at the dark-haired doctor.

By now, he stood directly in front of her, but he made no move to reach out even though she was practically a few inches away from him.

"Liar," she said accusingly. "You can't keep me out of the cold. No one can."

"I can," he said simply. "But you have to let me."

Fuwa saw her bruised neck work as she swallowed.

"I can't keep myself warm," she confessed, in a small voice. "I tried, and I tried. But I can't. I'm still so cold." She trailed off, and then emitted a frail, plaintive sound that tore through the place in Fuwa's chest where his missing heart was. "I'm freezing, Dr. Tsuruga."

"I know. So let me help you," Tsuruga Ren responded quietly. "It's hard to keep ourselves warm when we're all alone, Mogami-san. We need someone to hold—someone to keep warm with. But no matter how much I want to keep you warm, I can't until you allow someone to hold you." His gaze upon her was pure, liquid obsidian. "Will you let me?"

Kyoko's bottom lip wobbled, and Fuwa's breath hitched when he saw her brown eyes glisten before a single tear trickled down her cheek. It rolled onto her chin, and then splashed onto the dark violet bruising of her slender neck before disintegrating into a shower of droplets so microscopic he couldn't make them out.

Then she fell, and Fuwa stifled a terrified shout.

But she didn't fall forward into the precarious nothingness below her legs, but backwards—into the balcony, and into Tsuruga Ren's arms as he lunged like a stealthy cat and caught her swiftly with lightning reflexes.

"God," Fuwa choked out, his body shaking as the tension he'd been carrying the whole time began to bleed from his overwrought muscles. He ran a trembling ringed hand through his blond hair. "God. Fuck."

Tsuruga ignored him. It was as if Fuwa had ceased to exist ever since Tsuruga had spotted Kyoko at the balcony. Instead, he glided past the psychiatrist now, still carrying an unmoving Kyoko in his arms, and he made straight for an ajar door that Fuwa assumed led to the bedroom.

Displeasure abruptly sparked in Fuwa's veins, diluting the intense, giddying rush of relief he felt, and he spun on his heel and stalked after the surgeon.

"Oi!" he called. "That's her bedroom, you—"

The tall figure of the surgeon vanished past the door, and Fuwa followed rapidly. Surgeon or not, Tsuruga Ren was still a grown man, and Kyoko a woman. It didn't exactly sit right with him to see a grown man bring a woman into her bedroom, not when the woman was completely vulnerable and out of it right now. It was true that based on Tsuruga Ren's actions earlier, he didn't seem to wish her any harm—the opposite, in fact—but it still didn't feel right. Fuwa would have to keep an eye on them.

It was all he could do now. He, the professional psychiatrist, had been rendered frozen like a statue when Kyoko had sat there on the ledge, while a doctor that did not specialise in psychology had done his job for him. It was sickening and humiliating, and yet, he was beyond relieved that Tsuruga Ren had been there.

For the consequences would have been far more unthinkable than the loss of his pride.

He strode into the room now and stopped short, watching mutely as Tsuruga placed Kyoko's slight frame onto the bed carefully. He removed the crimson shawl she wore, folding it with deft hands and arranging it neatly into a laundry basket by the toilet before his dark eyes finally glanced towards Fuwa.

"Could you please get me an ice pack?" he said calmly. Whatever gentleness and tenderness Fuwa had heard in his deep voice when he'd addressed Kyoko was completely gone now, and while he sounded businesslike and detached, there was no mistaking the faint coolness of his tone either.

"Wha—" Fuwa began confusedly, then broke off. Right. He was an idiot. "For her bruises, right?"

Tsuruga wasn't even looking at him. He'd moved to a medical cabinet positioned beside the wardrobe—how the hell did he know where everything was, like her bedroom?—and was in the midst of retrieving tubes of antiseptic lotion from it. Sensing Fuwa's scrutiny, the surgeon raised his ebony head and arched a dark brow.

"Don't you have an ice pack to get, Dr. Fuwa?" he inquired politely, but the corners of his lips were raised mockingly in what Fuwa suspected—but couldn't be sure—was subtle contempt.

Fuwa affixed him with an acrimonious scowl, hating the man to the core for ordering him around, but decided for Kyoko's sake that he would let it go for now. He swung around and stomped out of the room, then eased the stomping when he thought of Kyoko resting.

For God's sake! He sighed as he headed for the kitchen, running his hand restlessly through his mussed blond hair again.

Just what had he gotten himself into?

He willed himself to focus as he navigated his way through the modest apartment and into the small kitchen, then made for the refrigerator before opening the freezer compartment. There was a packet of frozen peas, but he couldn't find a plastic packaging to contain the ice cubes from the ice tray, so he grabbed the frozen peas and slammed the freezer door shut.

Looking around as he returned to the empty, silent living room, he could see traces of a kid living here. There was a squashed doll slumped on the sofa, a photo frame on the wall displaying a photograph of Kyoko and Maria sporting wide grins with a stupid Mickey Mouse mascot at an entertainment park, and a pink Disney-themed school bag on the coffee table with textbooks spilling out at the seams. He thought about the grocery list he'd seen pinned to the refrigerator door, with a black marker underlining several food items and a scrawled note beside it that said, "Maria favs".

He looked at the apartment, and thought he saw a home filled with a mother's love for a child.

Shaking his head and feeling fatigue wash over him, Fuwa returned to the bedroom.

Tsuruga Ren had removed the suit jacket of his three-piece suit, leaving him in his buttoned shirt with its sleeves rolled to his elbows, an expensive waistcoat and trousers. He sat on the edge of the bed, one long-fingered hand resting on the blanketed curve of Kyoko's hip from where she lay on her side, and when Fuwa moved closer, he saw that most of Kyoko's makeup had been removed, leaving her sleeping face bare.

He glanced to the little trash bin positioned at the foot of her bed, and saw the discarded wet tissues.

"You…" It took Fuwa all he had not to raise his voice when he redirected his sapphire eyes back onto the large slender hand resting casually on the swell of the blanket where Kyoko's hip was. "Who the hell are you to Kyoko, anyway? Aren't you just her kid's doctor?"

Tsuruga Ren turned his midnight head soundlessly from where he'd been gazing at Kyoko and regarded Fuwa unfathomably. Then he lifted the hand from Kyoko's hip and held it out towards Fuwa.

"What the fuck are you—" Fuwa hissed, but the doctor cut him off.

"The ice pack, if you please, Dr. Fuwa," Tsuruga said matter-of-factly, his disposition infuriatingly civil as always.

"You…" Fuwa gritted his teeth and slammed the packet of frozen peas into Tsuruga's extended hand with more force than was necessary. His aggravation only heightened when Tsuruga barely responded to Fuwa's physical aggression, the surgeon's strong, adroit hand steadily catching the packet without flinching before he redirected his attention towards Kyoko once more.

"You still didn't answer me," Fuwa seethed as Tsuruga lowered the frozen packet of peas and held it carefully to Kyoko's bruised neck. With his other hand, the doctor retrieved a pure cotton handkerchief from his suit pocket and spread the fancy fabric over the width of her neck below the frozen packet, most likely to catch the liquid condensation.

His wrath boiling over at the other man's lack of response, a growling Fuwa whipped out his hand to seize Tsuruga's collar.

There was a blur of movement, and Fuwa hadn't even realised what had happened until he saw his wrist being gripped by the other man's hand.

What the…?

Who the hell moved this fast?

Stunned blue eyes met cold obsidian, and Fuwa's muscles went rigid with pain when he felt Tsuruga's steely, almighty grip tighten like an unforgiving vice around his wrist until his imprisoned bones threatened to crack and splinter. Fuwa struggled, his hand forced into an unnatural angle because of Tsuruga's inhuman, monstrous grip.

And then, just like that—the raven-haired male let him go.

Fuwa whipped back his arm immediately, panting, his teeth bared ferociously at the other doctor. Despite his barely controlled rage, he was shaken and shell-shocked.

In that moment, for all of his ferocity, for all of his strength, he had been nothing.

Nothing at all.

Tsuruga studied Fuwa some more with vague interest, and then the corner of his sculpted mouth curled again. This time, the amused contempt in his chiselled visage was unmistakable, and Fuwa was taken aback to see any remains of his chivalrous mask completely peeled away.

"I'm beginning to notice that you don't practice much self-management," Tsuruga observed, raising a brow. "Now that's just a little pathetic, don't you think?"

"You fucking sociopath," Fuwa spat. He thought of everything he'd seen from Tsuruga Ren thus far—the chivalrous, perfect gentleman role he always played, the way he'd recorded Kyoko's phone call and had deliberately timed its reveal at the most opportune moment to turn the tides in his favour, and the way he was sneering openly at Fuwa now without any hints of that fake mask he always wore. "I almost thought you weren't that bad after what you did back there. But I was wrong. I was so wrong."

"Ah, yes," Tsuruga Ren said. "You're a psychiatrist. I nearly forgot, from the way you handled the situation with Mogami-san earlier."

"You fucking—"

"Do you think that I like the sight of you?" Tsuruga said softly. "Do you think I want you here, when you were the one that drove her to the ledge of the balcony? Oh, but perhaps—" He smiled ironically at the stricken look on Fuwa's face. "Did you believe I couldn't guess?"

He leaned a little closer to Fuwa, his onyx eyes gleaming wickedly, and his voice grew even softer so that only Fuwa could hear him.

"I want to have you stand on the balcony ledge in her place right now," he purred, "and watch you plunge ten storeys down until there's nothing left of you but blood and bones. After what you did, I'd like that very, very much. But unfortunately, I can't have what I like, because Mogami-san has enough on her plate now. So, I'll just have to prioritise what's more important and put up with you in the meantime. Try your best, Dr. Fuwa, to practice the same self-management. If even I can do it, a psychiatrist like yourself can try the same thing, can't you?"

Fuwa's mouth was dry. In that second, his brain couldn't keep up to process the warped words that had left those flawless lips.

It was like a rubber band had snapped in him.

"I can't do this," he declared suddenly, exhaustion weighing him down like lead. He didn't care if he was playing right into the the other man's hands. "I can't fucking do this anymore. I can't stand another one of you psychos. Jesus. I don't know what Kyoko's ever done to surround herself with all of you madmen, but I know I'm done. I can't stay here and do this a minute longer—not even for her."

Dr. Tsuruga said nothing, just regarded him levelly without a word.

Fuwa didn't look back. He stormed out of the bedroom, past the photo of Kyoko and Maria beaming at him, past the crumpled doll thrown away, past the empty kitchen. He didn't look—he couldn't bring himself to.

He was done.

He flung the apartment door open and left, shutting the door behind him, and for the first time tonight, he didn't hesitate or look back, the night breeze ruffling his blond hair.

He just kept walking away.


"It's decided, then?"

"Yes."

"I see. Well, you know the decision will destroy her, don't you?"

"Like she destroyed what's mine, you mean?"

There was silence.

He'd wanted to do this for a very, very long time now. The only thing stopping him thus far had been his enjoyment of the leverage he'd held over her. But now, if he didn't actually carry through with it, the message he would be conveying would be clear: that he would be taking this lying down.

That the monstrosity his former wife had committed would be forgiven.

"I want this done as swiftly as possible. You're the best lawyer in the country; proceed with the necessary arrangements immediately."

"Yes. Yes, I understand."

It was finally time, Kouki thought with satisfaction, to reclaim custody over his daughter.

He put down his phone and leaned back against the hospital chair, rubbing his temples. Despite his exhaustion and grief, he felt a spark of gruesome exhilaration all the same.

If reclaiming custody of their child meant taking away the one thing his former wife loved more than anything in the world, then it was worth everything.


When she opened her eyes again, it was to sunlight.

How strange. She usually kept her binds closed because she didn't like to wake up to sunlight, which she found disruptive to her sleep. But the unprecedented golden rays bathing her room and her bed sheets in an effulgent glow were indubitable, and the lambent light seemed to bring life to the muted, dull shades inside her room. Despite herself, she raised a hand dazedly to examine the tantalising way the aureate sunlight reflected off the greenish veins running along her pale fingers.

She didn't know how long she kept staring at the iridescent light dancing off her alabaster fingertips, but eventually her wrist grew so sore that she had to put her hand down onto the mattress.

And as her hand fell, it revealed a sight previously blocked by her palm.

A tall, charcoal-haired man leaning casually against the wall on the other side of the bedroom, arms folded as he watched her.

He looked handsome and familiar. Yes, he definitely looked familiar, like she knew him from the depths of her soul. Her memories would tell her who he was soon enough, she was sure. But something kept her from trying to remember, because she knew deep in her gut that something would come with remembering—something dark and heinous and evil.

Something she had done…?

No. No. No.

No. There was nothing worth remembering.

She cracked her sandpapery lips open.

"Could you close the binds for me?" she croaked.

The man cocked his head slightly, but other than that, he didn't move. She saw then that he wore trousers and a black loose turtleneck sweater that clung snugly to broad, masculine shoulders, and she squinted as the luminous sunlight glinted brilliantly off the large glass face of his watch.

"Why?" His deep, musical voice was like that of crushed velvet.

"It's so…" she squinted again. "It's so bright."

"I see," he responded thoughtfully. "Is that a bad thing?"

Was it? She tried to think, but thinking hurt right now, especially with that ominous wall blocking her memories. She didn't want to go there.

No, definitely not. She refused to.

She remembered nothing, and she knew nothing.

It wasn't until she felt a dip in her mattress that she realised she'd been silent thus far, and her hazel eyes snapped towards the tall man who had now seated himself gracefully next to her on the bed, his night eyes boring into hers. He'd treaded towards her so noiselessly like a cat that she hadn't even heard his approach.

Her breath caught when he reached forward and laced his long, spidery fingers through her smaller, finer ones so that they intertwined. His touch was scorching, and her heartbeat quickened.

With their digits woven together—his larger palm easily dwarfing hers—he brought both hands into the incandescent shafts of sunlight shining through the open windows, mirroring her actions earlier. She stated, enraptured by the aurous sunlight scintillating along the now shadowed outlines of their entwined fingers. Their fingers looked aflame like that, she thought.

"Isn't the sunlight warm, darling?" he said softly.

"Yes," she whispered. "It's so warm."

He smiled, and let her hand go. She was instantly crushed by the loss of his touch, but it didn't last long. Instead, he laid his long-fingered hand over her shoulder.

"Can you try to sit up, Mogami-san?" he coaxed gently. "I want you to eat something."

It took her a startled heartbeat before she realised she was still lying down, and she nodded mechanically in response. She dug her elbows into her mattress and attempted to sit up with some effort, her dishevelled bronze hair in her face. Somehow, like he was experienced or familiar with doing this, his strong, warm arm wound smoothly around her petite shoulders and he helped her up easily on the bed as if she weighed nothing.

She looked down, and registered mild surprise when she saw herself in the modest short-sleeved night dress that she wore to bed every night, which she habitually kept folded on the foot of her mattress in the day. She didn't remember changing into this.

Technically, she didn't remember much of anything the night before.

"I changed your clothes for you." His musical voice startled her out of her stupor, and she blinked glassy eyes at him. He looked apologetic, but the sides of his mouth quirked upwards.

"I'm sorry," he said wryly, but he didn't truly sound all that contrite at all. "But what you wore yesterday was filthy and tainted. So, I'm afraid I got rid of it."

"Oh." Half-heartedly she tried to work through the fog in her head that obscured the events yesterday, but the part of her brain that blocked off her memories was far too impenetrable for her to crack open. She couldn't even remember what she wore yesterday. "So you, um, changed my clothes."

"So I did," he acknowledged, the corners of his lips quirking just a little bit higher in amusement. He leaned closer towards her, a tiny white light gleaming in each of the dark irises of his eyes, and she sucked in her breath, her heart rate accelerating. "Why, does that bother you?"

"I…" She bit her lip, her heart speeding up even faster. He had seen her at least partially naked, and her brain couldn't keep up with the implications of that. Her head spun. "I—I don't know."

"It might surprise you," he murmured, "but part of my job does involve conducting physical body examinations on a frequent enough basis, you know."

It finally hit her then, and she stiffened. This was why she'd thought it had seemed so natural for him when he had helped her up on the bed. How could she have forgotten about who he was, and what he did for a living?

"You're Dr. Tsuruga," Kyoko breathed, the air leaving all of her lungs as a lump formed in her throat.

She thought she saw something flicker again in those dark, bottomless eyes, but it was gone before she knew it.

"Yes," he acceded gently. "I am."

The next thing she knew, a messy jumble of words had spilled from her lips. "I don't understand. Shouldn't you be working? How long have you been here?"

"Not today. And I've been here since last night."

"What?" Her head was beginning to hurt. Almost nothing he was saying made sense. "I don't… Where did you sleep?"

"You have a guest bedroom, darling. Did you forget?"

He moved fluidly, reaching for a tray on her nightstand that she hadn't noticed earlier. There was a flask and a paper bag on it, and he picked up the flask before twisting the top off with a single agile twist of his hand.

"Come, take a sip," he said. "Can you do that for me, Mogami-san?"

Struck by an inexplicable urge to please him despite all the questions on her mind, she nodded, reaching out both diminutive hands to cup the heated flask. Despite that, he maintained his hold around the base of it as she tilted it to drink.

It was tea—fragrant, hot, faintly sweet roasted barley tea, which was her favourite drink, hence she'd bought a box of tea bags a while ago and kept it in the kitchen. No, not just her favourite, but also—

An offhand thought slammed into her, and she gasped, abruptly letting go of the flask. Fortunately, he caught and steadied it at once, but she was too distraught to be relieved.

"Maria," Kyoko burst out, appalled and thrown that she was only remembering the center of her life now. "Maria! Where is she?"

"In school." Dr. Tsuruga's tranquil voice was noncommittal.

"But—" Kyoko was bewildered, which only intensified her panic. "Who sent her? I didn't—"

"Her father did." Before she could utter anything else, he'd put down the flask and picked up the brown paper bag instead. Then he held it out to her, and with the bag came the delectable saccharine scent of some sort of pastry.

The mouthwatering scent awakened a potent surge of ravenousness so acute it felt like little knives were carving her gut open, and she grew abruptly cognizant of the fact that her stomach was completely empty. How odd; she'd grown so used to not eating regularly for so many months and even years, but now it was as if her body had burned like wildfire through all of its fuel yesterday and was currently running critically low on energy.

Unable to cage her unadulterated hunger, Kyoko grabbed the paper bag inelegantly from him and buried her mouth into the soft, buttery pastry inside. Whatever it was, she was too bone-starved to take a look, and she simply wolfed down undignified bites of the sweet, nectarous jam and creamy dough that flooded her mouth. Strangely enough, it hurt a little to swallow as if her throat was wounded, but she ignored the uncomfortable stabbing pinpricks every time she swallowed and kept eating greedily.

Dr. Tsuruga watched her devour her food like a madwoman from where he sat on the bed without comment, his chin resting on the palm of his hand, the one with the watch on it. She wondered if he had gotten the pastry from the bakery located not far from her apartment block.

"After this, by the way, we're going out," he informed her conversationally, bringing her out of her reverie.

She looked up at him, her mouth full. "Where...?"

There was a little smile on his face as he extended a hand and gently—so very, very gently—brushed off a smidge of jam coating the side of her lips.

Colour rouged her cheeks when he casually licked the jam off his thumb with his tongue.

"To a park," he answered, his smile widening at her visible flush. He either didn't notice her confusion about going to a park, or didn't care, for he continued speaking calmly. "So get changed after you finish your food, and we'll be off. If you're up for it, and if that's what you want—" The smile turned a hint rakish, eliciting frissons of heat in her lower belly. "—then you can go ahead and get changed by yourself this time. I'll wait for you outside the room."

The shocking reminder that he'd changed her clothes last night returned to her mind, and despite how disoriented and lost she felt about everything else that was going on at the moment, she couldn't help but zero in on that undeniable fact—the only crystal-clear fact she could latch onto amidst the insidious mist clouding her head. Her unsettlement and embarrassment grew, and she told herself that in his field of work, changing her clothes was nothing to him. She was sure he'd seen enough naked patients throughout his career, and she was just the latest on the list as far as he was concerned.

But her insecurities reared their little ugly heads anyway, and she lowered the paper bag when she thought of all the flaws on her body that had come with having Maria—and with age.

She thought of the young, pretty nurse that Dr. Tsuruga had been with, and she thought of what Kouki had said.

"There's no need to be so hard on yourself. Age is an undeniable factor."

Unable to keep in check the horrible toxicity brewing in her chest, she forced out, "When you changed my clothes last night. Did, um—did you see…?"

She blanched, unable to finish her sentence, but the unspoken words hung heavily on her tongue—so heavily that she couldn't lift it and form the words she wanted to but was too scared to say.

The stretch marks.

The scar from the C-section.

Her hands balled up.

My age.

Dr. Tsuruga looked at her, and his onyx eyes were strangely alight as he spoke.

"Whatever it is you think I saw," he said softly. "I probably saw it."

Kyoko's breathing escalated, and her heart started thrashing like a wild animal in her ribs. She willed her paralysed vocal chords to work.

"So that means you saw—"

"—I saw all the little things on your body that made the woman I love the woman she is today," he said quietly, taking the crumpled paper bag from her balled hand. She sat there, her heart strumming frantically at his words. "And they're very beautiful to me, like she is, because they map what she'd been through while we were apart. In a way, they almost made me feel like I was part of the journey with her, even if I wasn't." He smiled at her, but this time she thought she saw a tinge of sadness to it.

"Does that answer your question, Mogami-san?"


The soft sounds of pebbles being crunched punctuated the hush as they walked down a raked gravel path amidst the picturesque greenery. Bundled in a scarf and a jacket over a sundress, she felt increasingly confused and out of place in the scenery surrounding her. The girl glanced furtively at her partner's unrevealing, angular side-profile, then back to the thicket of trees on either side of her.

Why were they here?

After breakfast—and after she'd brushed her teeth and changed by herself—he'd driven her to a lesser-known park she had never been to before, which was located out of town. The car ride to the park had taken almost half an hour, and she'd stared through the open windows of his SUV, the wind rippling her bronze hair and filtering across her pale cheeks. Neither of them had said anything more after their last conversation in her bedroom, and for that she was partly grateful. Yet the silence didn't feel like a void, but instead a quiet, almost healing lull that he had granted her—a space for her to regain her bearings and calm her heartbeat after the things he'd said.

The park he'd brought her to was as quiet, with few visitors ambling around. The pair had walked down the raked gravel path between green pastures, listening to the chirping of birds and other wildlife. Every now and then she would see a sparrow flying past, their miniature yet strong tawny wings spread like dappled, dark gold in the warm sunlight.

"Come." Dr. Tsuruga curled his longer, bigger fingers around hers, tugging her gently. She blinked, furrowing her brows in bafflement when he guided her from the raked gravel path and onto the grassy expanse of the verdant pasture. They continued walking, his sure-footed pace deliberately slowed to match her more uncertain one, until they entered a deserted clearing in between a copse of trees. The noises of wildlife grew louder.

Kyoko's breathing halted.

It was like she had been transported to a different time and place twenty-one years ago.

The dense, luxuriantly green trees towering around her were tall, sturdy and willowy, its fat viridian leaves weaving together to form a thick sinewy canopy over their heads. The bushes, splendidly trimmed shrubberies and other abundant foliage enveloping the base of the trees were just as breathtakingly evergreen, and Kyoko's doe brown eyes widened when she spotted vivid white tulips growing lavishly like pale stars on the flowerbed. They weren't the decadent white roses she had seen back at the gardens of the Takarada Manor, but the haunting resemblance was still there.

It was like a near-replica of the kingdom in which her sixteen-year-old self had envisioned the fairy world, and in which she had first met that six-year-old little fairy child all those years ago.

She craned her copper head around, and looked at her companion now.

Dr. Tsuruga's head was tilted slightly skyward, the breeze lifting his windswept black hair, which he usually kept slicked back in thick, glossy waves. Now they were loose and tousled, framing his exquisitely chiselled, serene features. She knew she was staring, but she couldn't stop; there was a wild dark beauty to him now that contrasted starkly to that sophisticated, regal exterior she'd known for a while.

Everything felt so surreal. Being here felt so surreal.

"Look, Mogami-san," he prompted, his rich, velvety voice low, and she started.

She found out what he meant a microsecond later when she saw a pair of striped cerise wings flit across their heads before descending atop the inky crown of Dr. Tsuruga's head.

Butterfly wings.

Kyoko siphoned air audibly through her mouth, and her lips parted dumbfoundedly as she saw another ethereal butterfly dance past them, its lavender-and-lemon wings a vibrant kaleidoscope of colours in the air. She raised a waifish hand, drawn by a strong urge to touch it, but the skittish butterfly sailed away instantly.

Dr. Tsuruga was smiling contentedly, the striped cerise butterfly still perched on his silken raven hair. She thought he had the look he always had when he was with Maria; gentle, patient, even sweet. It was almost paternal, and yet at the same time she thought it looked anything but paternal.

"You can't make any sudden movements like that," he said softly, following the skittish butterfly. "You have to take your time, and wait until they're ready."

Her russet eyes locked with his dark ones as he finished the last statement, and she was rapt, unable to tear her eyes off his.

"There was a butterfly twenty-one years ago," she managed at last, her heartbeat erratic. "It was dying when we met."

His smile faded, and he looked suddenly far, far away.

"Yes," he agreed. "It was."

The golden-haired child didn't answer her, and she realised that he was still observing the butterfly on his finger. Then suddenly, he lowered himself to his feet, and placed the striped butterfly atop a stray twig on the ground. With his diminutive knees drawn to himself as he crouched down beside the insect, he appeared more innocent and vulnerable than ever.

"What's wrong?" Kyoko asked, crouching down beside him.

"It's dying," he replied quietly, sounding broken inside. Her heart instantly went out to him.

"You were so sad when the butterfly died," Kyoko said now. She smiled faintly, remembering with great fondness the existence of the golden-haired fairy child from another chapter of her life altogether.

"I was," he acknowledged. "It took me some time to accept it." He studied her unreadably. "Do you remember what you said to me, Mogami-san?"

Kyoko's brows knitted together, and as she eyed the lovely butterfly resting on Dr. Tsuruga's hair, she thought about it.

"Save the butterfly," he repeated dully, still not looking away from the insect.

"Maybe it's dying of old age," Kyoko said kindly. "If that's the case, there's nothing we can do."

The fairy child looked up. "What do you mean?"

"We all die of old age someday," she explained. "It's part and parcel of life. There's nothing you can do about it, and you have to understand that's perfectly all right."

Dr. Tsuruga was speaking now, she realised.

"When I became a doctor," he murmured, "I knew there would always come a risk of death on the operating table. If someone died, I would be responsible. There was no one else to blame."

"That's not…" Kyoko struggled to find the words. "You can't blame yourself for that. It's not like you meant to… It's not like you meant for anyone to die. Not everything is ever going to go as planned, no matter how skilled you are. There will always be things outside of your control, and you can't—" Her soprano voice cracked, and she broke off, a flare of unexpected anguish blossoming in her chest.

She closed her eyes, and she heard it then; screaming. Lina's screaming, her thin voice torn and shredded with agony.

"That bitch did this to me, Kouki! Oh, it hurts—it hurts so much—someone save me, please—"

And then Dr. Tsuruga's deep, matter-of-fact voice.

"—miscarriage."

She opened her stinging eyes again when she felt calloused fingertips brushing her face. He cupped her cheek in his warm, big hand, his thumb slowly wiping away a wet tear bubbling on her lash line.

"We can't control every little ripple effect of the things we do," he said gently, simply. "Sometimes lives come and go, whether we mean them to. There's nothing you can do about it, and you have to understand that's perfectly all right."

Another tear joined the first, and it wasn't lost on her that he had repeated her words right back at her. The second tear marked a crystalline trail down her milky cheek, but this time, however, he made no move to touch it.

"I wish I can make myself believe that," Kyoko whispered.

"You can," he said simply. "If you were able to make me believe that twenty-one years ago, you can do it for yourself."

Silence fell.

"I can't," she whispered. Then, much louder. "I can't!"

Fuelled by the hot-lava flood of frustration, she coiled her diminutive hands into fists and slammed them wantonly against the hard muscles of his chest, ignoring the spikes of pain the movement brought to the abrasions on her arms. A startled flurry of movement caught her attention, and she went rigid when she saw the striped butterfly take off from Dr. Tsuruga's windswept raven hair.

She didn't move, just stared, mesmerised in spite of herself at the flying, animated butterfly.

"You can, Mogami-san." His eyes gleamed brightly; impossibly so against the darkness of his irises. "I told you, didn't I, that life comes and goes? When it ends, something new always begins again."

Inadvertently, she thought of Kouki, of Lina, of Kagura, of the former life they represented to her. She thought of how she'd always assumed that the main, most important chapter in her life had ended at the age of thirty-seven—that she had become an aged, worn tire compared to all the young women in the world. That once Kouki had left her because of her age, she'd had no value or a life to speak of anymore.

In a way, she was already in a coffin of her own making—already dying of old age.

She thought of her belief that her fairy tale had ended; that she wasn't looking for a new chapter anymore.

That she couldn't, because there was no new chapter.

When it ends, something new always begins again.

She looked up at the brand-new butterfly flying triumphantly now, alive and well and victorious, and for the first time in a long time, she didn't think about anything anymore.

She just stood there together with her daughter's doctor, the two of them watching as the butterfly continued soaring higher and higher until it vanished into the warm golden horizon.

And for the first time in a long time, Kyoko felt almost just as warm.


:tbc: