Standing in front of an array of brightly colored annual flowers, I studied the crude sketch of my small backyard I hoped to fill with something bright. Unfortunately, I didn't take into account the amount of sunlight that bathed the spot I wanted flowers. It was rather taxing on my already strained emotions.

Work was a joke. I spent more time cleaning kennels and cages than giving our animals proper attention. Working at an exotic pet care center wasn't always the fun I wished for. And not only did work suck but I dropped my groceries for the dinner I was supposed to have with my boyfriend, who canceled... again. I was done with it. I decided I needed to do something for myself, hence the trip to the nearest nursery. But I couldn't even find relief there.

I sighed and turned to go over to the perennials when I bumped into another shopper. "Oh, no. I'm so sorry. I didn't realize you were standing right behind me!"

My unfortunate victim turned to me with a gentle smile. "It's quite all right."

I was a bit dumbfounded by the guy. Don't get me wrong, my boyfriend was handsome, but the guy in front of me was on a level I didn't think possible for humans. He had gorgeous unnaturally red hair that fell past his shoulders and was tempting me to touch. I had to clasp my hand together to resist. His skin was flawless, I swear. He either wore sunscreen every day or spent little time outdoors. His features were soft, yet carried a strong aura that said he was much more than a pretty face. It was something I saw in his eyes, two observing emerald pools of... familiarity? Had I seen him before? I couldn't imagine forgetting him if I had.

"Are you okay?"

I didn't realize my lips parted in awe. I cleared my throat and apologized. "H-Have we met before?"

Something akin to shock crossed his face and left in the blink of an eye. "I can't say we have."

"You must have one of those faces." I smiled sweetly. "I'm sorry again for bumping into you. I'll be on my way so you can get back to your shopping."

"I noticed you were studying those flowers closely," the stranger said. Apparently, the conversation wasn't finished.

"Uh, yeah. I have a place I want to plant something and I forgot to check how much sun I get there. I was hoping to find something tonight to plant tomorrow."

"I might be of some help if you want it."

"How? You certainly haven't seen my house before."

His eyes were steady on me. "Can you recall where the sun rises and sets when you're at home?"

I thought about it. "I tend to get morning sun toward the front and afternoon sun in the back." I held out the paper I sketched on and explained. "My house is over here and across the yard, I have this little area I walled off with brick."

The redhead studied my paper, pondering what I told him. "Are you on a hill?"

I nodded.

"Is your yard fenced in at all?"

"No more than the brick."

"I think you'll do fine with full sun." He gave the sketch back.

"Ah! Thank you! I hope you're right. I haven't paid much attention to this stuff. I haven't had a lot of time."

"Of course." The man held out his hand. "I apologize for not introducing myself sooner. I'm Shuichi Minamino."

Something pressed at the back of my mind, but I didn't ponder it as I took Shuichi's hand. "Ichika Fujimori."

A soft smile graced his lips. "It's nice to meet you, Miss Fujimori."

"Please, Ichika will suffice. That makes me sound much older than I am."

"Then I must ask you to call me Shuichi."

I felt my cheeks warm for no reason. "Well, Shuichi, thank you again. Enjoy your shopping!" I bowed and proceeded to look closer at the flowers to decide types and colors. I had no issue with the possibility of never seeing Shuichi Minamino again. I didn't know him.

Weeks later, I was muttering to myself about another evening with my boyfriend, Saito, getting canceled because of some work meeting he said he had. It was the third time in two weeks and I was over it. I vowed to never make that man a meal ever again if he canceled one more time.

My stomach growled and I groaned. There was no way I could cook a meal without eating it before it was cooked. I needed something quick. I was not expecting to find Shuichi at McDonald's a few blocks away. What a small world.

"Fancy seeing you here," I smiled, walking over to where he sat alone. "You don't seem like a fast-food kind of guy, ya know."

He returned my smile in full. "Only when my mother has a craving for it."

"That's sweet of you to eat here with her. I'm sure she appreciates it a lot."

"I hope so."

"Well, I won't interrupt your date. It was nice to see you again."

"You're more than welcome to stay. My mother is still 15 minutes away and I wouldn't mind the company."

I wanted to stick around to get to know him. It sounded like a nice distraction from getting stood up again. And any man willing to have dinner with his mom in a place he didn't seem to care much for was adorable.

"Sure. I'd like that." I set my bag in the chair across from him. "Would you be offended if I ordered my dinner and ate it in front of you?"

"Not at all."

"Cool. I'll be right back then."

I was oblivious to him watching me the entire time I stood in line.

H is mother, Shiori, came in the middle of me explaining how I chose to arrange the flowers I got. She seemed surprised to see me speaking with her son - who looked nothing like her. Then she smiled so genuinely, my cheeks turned red.

I stood up, gathering my trash and the little left of my food. "Thank you for letting me join you while you waited, Shuichi."

He stood, too, ready to wait in line with his mother. "Thank you, Ichika. Are you sure you don't want to finish your dinner before you go?"

"Ah, no, but thank you. I don't want to bother you both." I chuckled. "I ought to get home anyway. I have a few snakes I'm fostering that need a few minutes of handling before they find their forever home."

"Snakes?" Shiori cocked her head a little.

"Yeah! I work with exotic animals and since I live alone, it's easier for me to foster some of our creatures if we're out of space or they need special care. I've kept several animals in my home."

"How exciting!"

Shuichi smiled. "That's kind of you to care for them."

"I love it," I said.

I kindly excused myself with a bow and a farewell, peeking back into the store before making my way to the subway. I watched Shiori say something to her son before fixing his hair that was already perfect. Shuichi smiled so affectionately at her that it caused me to stumble off the sidewalk. What love he had for his mother! I prayed my future children would look at me like that someday.

Clutching my chest, I scampered away.

My boyfriend was lucky he didn't ditch me again the following weekend. I was one second away from just ending the relationship, but he showed up to my house with a pretty yellow rose and a smile.

I used my free hand to get it in a small vase, my other hand occupied with the hognose snake I was helping get used to handling. She was sassy and immediately flared out her neck as Saito came into the kitchen.

"Do you have to keep snakes here?"

"I'm helping them, Saito. Plus, I'm doing work a favor."

"They give me the creeps."

I hold up the hognose and pout at her. "Poor Saito thinks you're scary, girl. You're just too sassy."

She bluff struck my hand as I lowered her. I chuckled. Saito jumped back.

"She's pretty harmless," I said as I brought her back to her cage. I didn't want her to get anymore stressed out.

"I wouldn't call what she did harmless. She hissed and nearly bit you."

"Nah. She was warning me to stay away. A certain someone spooked her." I poked his chest before standing on my toes to kiss his cheek.

"I spooked her?" Saito's arms went around my waist.

"Mmm." Saito bent down to give me a proper kiss.

It felt like ages since the last time we kissed. It was nice. Although, something felt off. I figured it was since we hadn't been together in a few weeks... no thanks to him.

"Ready for dinner?"

"Yes, please!"

Saito took me to a cute little ramen shop nearby. An adorable brunette was taking orders while an older man and a man looking about her age worked in the kitchen. It felt homey because of how they interacted together.

We sat down and the woman, Keiko, took our orders. I missed the way Saito watched her walk to the kitchen.

I turned to see her talk to the younger man, his black hair in a hair net. He grinned at her before tapping her butt with his free hand. She turned around and slapped him. His grin stayed. It made me giggle.

"What's so funny?"

"I think our waitress is in love with the younger cook in there. Or he's madly in love with her."


I rolled my eyes. How did the guy in front of me ever win me over? He used to be so charming...

The bell on the door rang. I blinked. Shuichi and a guy with orange hair walked in. The world kept getting smaller and smaller.

"Oi! Yusuke!" the older man said. "Some of you're friends are here!"

I wanted to watch Shuichi interact with his friends, but Saito began telling me about a merger his workplace was trying to make happen. I listened half-heartedly, more interested in the commotion behind me.

Keiko came back with our food about five minutes later and that time I saw Saito ogle her. I kicked him and glared. His last chance was fading fast.

While Saito nursed his shin, Shuichi and his friend sat at a table in my view. I grinned when his eyes met mine.

"I'll be right back," I told Saito as I got up from my seat.

"Hey there, Shuichi," I greeted before holding my hand out to his friend. "I'm Ichika Fujimori, but you can just call me Ichika."

"Kazuma Kuwabara. You can call me whatever."

"Who are you with tonight?" Shuichi asked, glancing at Saito who watched me suspiciously.

"My boyfriend. He said this place is amazing and brought me here. The food is good and the atmosphere is comforting."

"The Yukimura's will be happy to hear that."

"How do you two know each other?" Kuwabara asked, pointed between me and Shuichi.

"I accidentally bumped into him shopping for flowers and he was kind enough to give me advice."

"He does have a talent for plants."

"You do?"

Shuichi laughed a little. "I do have an affinity for plants and flowers."

"That's amazing! I should have asked you to check what I did in my backyard. Actually, would you want to?"

"It would be my pleasure."

Saito finally had enough and walked over, slipping an arm around my waist. I rolled my eyes again.

"Hey there," he said, holding his hand out. "Saito Nagasaki."

"Shuichi Minamino."

"Kazuma Kuwabara."

"I see you know my Ichika."

"We've crossed paths a few times."

I was in awe of Shuichi's composure as Saito goaded him on.

"I wanted to say hello, Saito. Shuichi is going to look at my little flower garden sometime to make sure I did it right."

"Not alone, I hope."

I frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Saito stared Shuichi down. "I'd feel much better if I were there, too."

"Of course." Shuichi's cool voice had me looking back at him. I could almost see the concern for my well-being in his eyes.

I smiled reassuringly. "Well, it was nice seeing you again and meeting you, Kazuma." I didn't miss the hard stare Kuwabara gave Saito before he smiled. "Oh!" I took my phone out and handed it to Shuichi. "So you can know where to find me when I need a professional to help me out."

Shuichi quickly entered his phone number and handed it back with a smile. "I look forward to seeing what you've done in your garden." He looked at Saito. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Nagasaki. Enjoy the rest of your date."

"Thanks." And he dragged me away.

S aito was too much after that dinner. He didn't want me going anywhere alone and he tried to keep tabs on my conversation with Shuichi about when he'd come over. It was insane behavior on his part.

"Quit being like this," I said, taking my phone back after he read the date and time Shuichi said he was available. "You don't trust me anymore and I'm sick of it."

"I don't trust him."

"What has he done?! He's just a guy willing to help me out with the garden I put together because you put your job first again!"

"He looks at you like his next conquest."

"You think every guy looks at me like they're going to steal me away from you. Cut it out! If you hadn't canceled on me in the first place, I never would have met Shuichi!"

"Why do you always call him by his first name?"

"Because he asked."

"I don't like it."

"And right now, I don't like you. Go home and don't come back here until I want to see your face again."

"Oh, don't be like this, Ichika."

"Get out. Now."

Saito scowled buy listened, slamming the door behind him. I scampered to the door and locked it after grabbing my spare key from outside. I was keeping my promise to myself. Saito was going to come into my house again until I wanted him to.

One of the hognose snakes poked her head out of her cave as if she was checking on me.

I smiled and waved my finger at her. "I'm okay, girl. Just mad at him... kinda like you are when you see him."

She flicked her tongue.

"You're cute. I'll be sad when we find your forever home."

Another tongue flick.

My phone chimed and I looked at it. Shuichi asked if I wanted to tell Saito about the day and time. I responded quickly and embarrassingly honest.

-He knows, but he's no longer welcome in my house.-

-Are you sure I should still come over?-

-He no longer gets a say in the matter, so yes, I am sure.-

-All right. Do you need anything?-

I smiled and said I was okay and appreciated his concern. I didn't get a response back, so I decided to take a hot bath and get some rest.

The day Shuichi was coming over, I woke up early to get ready and check over my flowers. They looked healthy, still brightly colored and blooming. I pulled a few dead buds off, but overall they looked happy.

I was reading a book when my bell rang, making me jump. I set the book down and resisted skipping to the door. Any excitement I had for a guest was dashed the moment I saw Saito there instead of Shuichi.

"I thought I told you to go away."

"I wanted to check if my girlfriend was okay."

"I'm fine. Now leave."

He studied me. "You look nice."

"I look no different than normal."

"Is that Minamino guy still coming over?"

"Yes." There was no need to hide it.

"I'd like it if you'd let me in."

"Too bad. You're going to act like a prick and make the whole visit uncomfortable."

"A prick? I'm sorry for wanting to protect you from a guy like him."

"He hasn't done anything! There's no reason for you to protect me from him! He's been kinder to me in the three times I've met him than you have since we started dating!"

Saito took my wrist and squeezed tighter than he should have. "I don't trust him."

"Too bad. Let go of me. That hurts."

He squeezed more.

"Let. Me. Go."


Saito and I turned to see an agitated Shuichi standing at the bottom of my steps.

Still grasping my wrist, Saito glared. "I don't recall giving you permission to use my first name to address me."

Shuichi's stare was steady and far more frightening than Saito's. "Release her."

"I'd rather not."

"Saito, stop this!" I managed to pull away and push him. "You need to go. Please. You're acting ridiculous."

Saito looked between me and Shuichi, then leaned in close. "Have fun with the pretty boy." And he walked down the steps, purposely bumping into Shuichi.

I cradled my wrist to my chest and shouted. "Don't bother coming back, Saito! We're done!"

He didn't even turn around.

"Are you okay?" Shuichi took a few steps up to stand closer. "May I?"

I held my wrist out.

His hands were warm as he checked for any breaks. Nothing hurt when he moved it in different directions or pushed his fingers against it. The muscles were just sore.

He finally smiled and let me go. "I think you'll be okay. Maybe some bruising."

"I'm not worried about it. I'm sorry you had to see that." I paused, thinking. "Come on in, Shuichi."

He followed me in and studied my home with a small smile.

"The backyard is this way."

I studied Shuichi curiously as he took in the small grouping of flowers I organized in the dirt plot. Any worry I might have had for his approval evaporated when he smiled.

"You did well. Are they getting enough sunlight?"

"Most of the afternoon and evening."

"The colors stand out well." Shuichi gently touched the petals of a few flowers, almost as if they were his children. "They are happy here."

"You can tell that?" I didn't mention I thought the same earlier that morning.

He nodded. "You don't need my help after all."

"I'm never sure I do these kinds of things right, but if you say I did... then I feel a lot better about it."

"I promise you did perfectly fine. I'm sure you could grow a whole nursery and succeed."

"Oh, I doubt that." His compliment had me blushing. "I only know so much about gardening."

"The ability to care for something living is rare these days."

I finally quit pushing away his compliment. "Thank you, Shuichi."

The redhead gazed at my yard. "Is there anything else you might need?"

When he looked back at me, I could tell he was silently asking if I needed help with Saito. He was too kind for someone who hardly knew me.

"I appreciate that, but I'll be okay. If I ever need you, I can just call, right?"

"Yes, please do."

I didn't see Shuichi for a long time after that. And things were quiet on the Saito front. I was relieved Saito seemed to be leaving me alone. After the confrontation in front of Shuichi, I was worried he'd come by again. Still... I had an uneasy feeling about his silence.

Shuichi didn't show up in my life again until about two months later. It was raining when he came walking into the center with something bundled in his arms. We were visibly surprised to see each other, but our concern stayed on whatever he brought in.

"I found him licking a wound on his back leg. I think someone injured him and left him to die in the rain," Shuichi said as he passed over the creature.

I moved the towel to see an exhausted-looking red fox staring up at me with dark fearful eyes. "Hey there, little guy. We're gonna take good care of you, okay? You'll be good as new before you know it." I smiled at Shuichi. "Thanks for bringing him in. We'll make sure his leg is taken care of and we'll give him a warm place to sleep tonight - probably my place."

"Thank you, Ichika."

I took the little fox to the back where my fellow technician started cleaning him up. I was shocked to see Shuichi still in the lobby reading a poster about different kinds of parrots and parakeets.

"Are you interested in birds?"

He gazed at me. "I didn't realize there were so many parrots in South America alone."

For some reason, that made me giggle. "Somehow, I'm surprised. You seem knowledgeable in a lot. I mean, you give off a vibe like that."

"I know many things, but little about the animal kingdom."

"Hang around me more often and you'll know more than you ever need."

"I'm always willing to learn."

I blinked at his acceptance of my subtle invitation. Honestly, I never expected him to want to see me very much.

"Well, you know where I live. You're welcome over any time. I'm sure the little guy you brought in would love to see his savior again."

Shuichi sent a half-smile to me. "I'd like to see him when he's well."

Although there was no day set in mind, I was excited about it. I was happy it came the following week.

I sent a message to Shuichi about the fox's progress. The little guy was running around as if his back right leg wasn't bound with bandages. It was difficult to keep him settled to allow his leg to heal properly.

When Shuichi found time to visit that evening, the fox was waiting for him at the door.

"He's imprinted on you. I'm sure of it," I said, watching the fox show his belly to Shuichi. "You must have a way with animals."

"Just foxes."

"This has happened before?"

"A few times."

"Well, you'll have to see him more often then or he'll start getting depressed. I once had a dog that imprinted on me and was the most pitiful creature if I had to leave."

"As long as you don't mind."

"I don't have a lot of company around since Saito, so... I'd be very happy to see you around here more often." I felt like I said those words before. I missed Shuichi's eyes widen a hair.

"If you're not busy the rest of the evening, you're more than welcome to stay for dinner," I said. "I'm sure your little friend will be happy to have you around longer. You should give him a name."

"Won't it be harder to release him back into the wild?"

I shrugged. "He might not be strong enough to ever go back. This little guy will most likely live a domesticated life - as domesticated as foxes can live. I'll have to fence in my yard for him so he can play outside. He shouldn't be stuck inside all day. It's not good for him."

I patted the fox's head before glancing at Shuichi. His stare was confusing and intriguing.

"Do you hold an interest in the well-being of foxes?"

"They are part of the animal kingdom. I want all creatures to live well even if they might have limitations or fears."

"You are an interesting woman, Ichika."

My face burned. "Uh, thanks?"

Shuichi chuckled and stood up to his full height. "It'd be my pleasure to stay for dinner as long as it's no trouble."

"It's no trouble at all. I've been itching to cook for someone and this is the perfect opportunity."

"Do you require assistance?"

I smiled. "Just keep this little guy from running around too much and that will help a ton."


While I whipped up a simple meal for us, I kept glancing over at my couch where Shuichi sat with the fox. All he did was look at the animal and he curled up next to Shuichi to rest. I was baffled by how well the little guy listened to him without a single word spoken.

Shuichi left after dinner, much to his fox friend's displeasure. But the little guy remained by my side up until bedtime. It was curious behavior, making me wonder if Shuichi had a part in the fox's demeanor.

I scratched the fox's head. "Shuichi didn't name you. Would you care if I did?"

He blinked.

"I'll take that as a yes." I tapped my chin. "I could call you Shuichi, too. He did save you... but that'll get confusing. Maybe Hayato? No... It doesn't fit." I scratched his shoulders. "What about Ichigo? It's close to my name, but it fits the color of your fur. We can call you Ichi for short. Do you like that?"

Another blink.

"I think it suits you, Ichigo."

I pulled out my phone and took a photo of Ichigo curled up in his bed before I climbed into mine. I smiled at the photo, wondering if it would be something Shuichi would want to see. Instead, I shook my head, set my phone aside, and snuggled under my covers. If Shuichi wanted to see it, I could show him in person.