CHAPTER THREE:
The Weak Prince Who Made Empty Promises

Ren raised an eyebrow at her. "Your faithful employee and sidekick, sent to you by the gods to help you speed up your penance. Former head of the —"

Her temper flared. "How did you know about this place?"

The eyebrow slowly lowered. "You created the dreamspace. Yes it used Fuwa's memories, but your ties to it as well must have made the path obvious."

She shook her head, scowling. She'd known him for long enough now, she could tell when he was lying. "You were terrified when Maria took off this way. Because you know what happened here." It wasn't a question.

His expression turned to stone. "It doesn't help with our objective. It leads away from resolving Fuwa's grudge and away from your goal —"

"Shut up, Corn!" she barked. "Do not speak another word to me unless it's the truth!" She had never been more furious in her life. She had never been more embarrassed, either.

His hands balled into fists. An infinite amount of silence filled the space. When he'd start talking, something in her would break.

"I am serving penance for committing suicide," he said in a hollow tone. He wasn't looking at her. His face was pointing at her, certainly, but he was somewhere else. "When my best friend, my only true friend, really, chased after me in one of my fits of rage, he was nearly hit by a car. I saved him, but I didn't save myself. It didn't seem right."

His eyes finally found some energy to focus on her. He swallowed. "Even after all those years, the fact that I wasn't here for you when you needed me is my greatest regret."

Her blood ran cold. "I slipped on the slick rocks." It was her line, time after time, even when knelt in front of the gods, she never waved from that phrasing. The rocks were slick. The water was cold. And she fell.

"They know your heart," he said. "They know your soul, and they know that saving yourself was not on your mind. You're not punished for falling."

She blinked back tears. Swallow them, do something when them, make them useful, do something besides dwell on the truth. "You weren't there. Sho abandoned me and you were supposed to be there."

"And I didn't even leave a note. I didn't call. I didn't tell you goodbye." He nodded to himself. "I've had many years to level the charges against myself. The years I put into the agency were all to find a way to get placed with you."

"To ridicule me?" she asked with a snarl. "To judge me? To get some sick kicks off of my —"

"To get you out of this!" he snapped. "To work by your side. To do whatever it takes to meet your quota by the deadline." He blinked; his own eyes were welling with tears. "And to get some glimpse of what you could have been if you had been free to grow up. That's the selfish piece, I know. But I promise that's the only piece that's for me."

He fell to his knees. He looked up at her. "Your faithful employee and sidekick are all I could ever hope to be."

She grabbed her collar and watched him with wild eyes. She was so conflicted, so twisted up inside because everything he had been saying rang of truth. She slammed her eyes shut for a while, wishing with all her might that she was anywhere but here, being stared at by him as if she held him in the palm of her hand.

"We need to get going," she said, terse. "We need to get back to Maria and then get to Sho and…" She crossed her arms, squeezing herself tight. "And, I don't know! Make him talk to a younger version of me? It doesn't matter, we need to regroup at the ryokan." She marched, but when Ren didn't stand when she reached him, she grabbed his collar and tugged. He scrambled to his feet and she released him. He kept a pace behind her and that suited her. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do with him yet, she didn't know what to feel, but she knew that once she did, he was going to be there to hear her.

Granted, she was only spitballing in a vain attempt to keep herself from getting sidetracked by Ren's revelation but having Sho talk to her younger self ended up being a better idea than she gave it credit for initially. It would have been an even better idea if she didn't have to actively participate. When they found Sho sulking alone after his father left the garden, her first idea was to simply conjure up a dream version of herself to talk to him. That, she then realized, would leave her standing on the sidelines.

With Ren.

No, she needed to manage one catastrophic life event at a time. Besides, maybe facing Sho would give her the courage she needed to face Ren. Well, she hoped at least.

So she sat beside him dressed in her old school uniform, looking like the young, naive girl she once was. Her short copper locks were replaced with longer, silky black strands. Her cheeks were rounder. Her eyes were wider. She felt like a stranger in that body. That wasn't who she was anymore. But she was who she had to be for Sho.

"Where the hell were you?" The first words out of his mouth instantly dispelled whatever notions she had of this ever being a poignant moment.

"Excuse you?" Kyoko reeled back, face twisted with indignance.

"My parents were basically dictating my future and yours and you weren't even here to defend yourself. You were off… well, you know…" Sho trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.

Kyoko folded her arms and frowned. "Yes, I do know. I was there."

"Yeah, well, you should've been here," he snapped. "You should've been able to tell them what you wanted."

"I wanted to be with you." The words she wanted so badly to say back then now came soft and reluctant. "I loved you."

His laugh was a hollow sort of admonishment. All ridicule and no substance. "You loved the idea of the security that came with being with me. I'm what you thought you wanted. I'm well aware of the way I am, Kyoko. I'm not what you needed."

Her frown deepened. "Tell me, then, what did I need?"

Instead of answering, he stood up, keeping his back turned to her. She could see the tension knotting his shoulders. "I was gonna ask you to come with me, you know. So you'd have a chance to figure out on your own what you wanted out of life. I know they care and I know they meant well," he jerked his chin in the direction of the house, "but this is the only life you've known since your mother left you with us. Didn't you want more?"

"How could I?" she scoffed. "Like you said, this is the only life I knew."

"Well, you should've had the chance to know something else." His words were directed at her but spoken to the ground as he drove the toe of his shoe into it over and over again. "Beyond this. Beyond me."

She picked at some imaginary lint on her uniform skirt for a moment before her eyes narrowed in realization. "You wanted me to forget about you."

"Hey, I'm not gonna lie that this plan was mostly self-serving, but you're literally the closest friend I had." His shoulders raised into a shrug and he turned to look at her. "I thought maybe I could do something for you too. But you had to go off to some place I don't plan on seeing for a long time if I'm lucky."

Kyoko's gaze followed the river as it narrowed to a pinpoint in the distance. "I didn't plan on seeing it either."

"Yeah."

He sat beside her again, bracing his arms against his knees. Silence stretched out between them for a handful of heartbeats. "I miss you calling me out on my shit."

"I hardly believe that. " Her ungainly snort caused his head to snap up and he gave her a wry grin.

"No, no, I mean it. With anyone else, it just pisses me off because you know how much I hate people telling me what to do. But you had this sort of, I dunno, grace about it or something," he explained in his usual inarticulate way. "Maybe it's just because you know me too well."

So that's really what it was? This was why Sho was being more of an insufferable prat than usual? Why he blew off his own manager to go drink shōchū in a random pop-up bar in the city? He had yet to find a replacement for her and was taking it out on everyone else. She hated to admit it but Kyoko was almost flattered.

"Other people can know you too." Kyoko nudged his side with her elbow. "If you let them."

"Yeah, I don't wanna." Sho slumped against her and she whined under the additional weight before shoving him away and swatting at the back of his head.

"Idiot. I'm not around anymore, in case you haven't noticed."

"Trust me, I have."

His words were far more sorrow-laden than she expected. She always assumed her death meant very little to him in the grand scheme of things. Of course, her assumption was based on information she now knew was inaccurate and incomplete.

"Not everyone is going to tumble into your life like a crybaby little girl whose mother left her in the care of your parents," she challenged. "Sometimes you have to put in a little effort."

"Yeah, but that requires work," Sho complained and she rolled her eyes.

"It's not going to kill you to meet people halfway for once in your life. Don't keep them all at arm's length. I'm sure you're smart enough to figure out which ones are worth the time and effort." She poked the side of his head with one finger and a teasing smile. "Unless you only have room enough for songs up there."

Kyoko could feel Ren's eyes on her from wherever he and Maria had stashed themselves. She knew how fitting her words were regarding her own situation. If only she took advice as well as she gave it.

"I guess," he drawled, stretching the words out like fresh pink bubblegum.

She nudged him again. "I'm not alive to tell you to act less like a jerk and more like an adult, but I'm sure you won't have to look too hard to find someone who can."

"Yeah, yeah," he waved her off.

He stood once more, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. His feet shuffled in the dirt. Whether it was to cover up the divots he made earlier or just plain nervous energy, she couldn't tell. Probably both, if she had to guess.

"I dunno how you're doing in the uh… beyond or whatever, but I hope they let you come back as something awesome for the next go around." Again, he refused to look at her as he spoke. "It's the least they can do after you put up with my difficult ass."

His inability to meet her eyes ended up being a blessing in disguise. Kyoko could feel the telltale tingle that they were on the cusp of spilling tears. She blinked it away and shook her head once.

"Thanks." It was only one word, but it came out heavy and sopping wet.

And Sho just nodded before slowly walking back into the house.

Kyoko took her time getting up from the bench. She smoothed her hands over her sleeves and her skirt and, lastly, through her hair. Each pass of her hand removed the veneer of her younger self, revealing her true appearance underneath. A sigh made up of every single sigh she wanted to breathe during that entire exchange finally made its way out of her in one gust.

The sound of shoes on gravel made her turn to see Ren and Maria slowly approaching. Maria's brow was wrinkled with a worried frown while Ren's face was unreadable. He just stared at her with this pinched expression as if he were appraising her. Maria made the first move, picking up her pace to slam into Kyoko's side and wrapping her in a hug. She grunted upon impact, taking a moment before placing one arm about the young woman's shoulders.

Ren approached slower, more cautiously. She watched him inch closer, his expression softening with each additional step. Remembering the words she spoke to Sho mere moments before, she reached out her other hand to him. Then he moved faster, taking her hand as well as two long strides to bring him to her side. Her breath caught when he pressed her hand, warm and secure in his, softly to his lips. Before she could react further, he crushed her against him, burying her face into his coat, his arms locked around her like steel.

The three of them held each other like that, letting the water slip by in the stream beside them and the wind buffet at their hair. They held each other until Kyoko finally stopped trembling.

And when the dream slipped away and they were back in the familiar red tent, the number on the little LED screen increased by two.

Sho had left, stumbling out of the tent in a stupor while mumbling something about his manager. Their little party was exhausted, so Kyoko was thankful there was leftover curry in the refrigerator. She couldn't let Maria leave without having something in her stomach.

However, Maria only shoved bits of the saucy chicken around her plate dejectedly. Ren elbowed her. "No dessert if you don't finish your main dish."

Maria rolled her eyes. "Doesn't matter." She shoved her plate at Ren.

Ren gasped in faux horror. "That's a terrible attitude!" He pinched a piece off of her plate and held it up at her. "You'll never grow big and strong like that." His tone was playful, but Kyoko could see him studying Maria intently.

Kyoko caught Maria's eyes glance at the LED board. 6,999 of grudges resolved. Only one more to go.

"Two in one is quite the bargain for one night," Kyoko said. "One away from my quota being made and me removing your ability, as promised."

Ren popped the bite into his own mouth. Maria looked down at the table. "And then you two get reincarnated, start new lives, and forget all about me. About this."

Kyoko and Ren locked eyes in the longest moment she ever thought possible. They were searching each other, trying to have a conversation in an instant without letting on to Maria about what. There was so much that had been unsaid, so much they needed to talk about, so much she wasn't certain exactly how she felt…

But she did know this. She knew she didn't want this to end. She belonged here, with them.

Kyoko pressed her lips together, still staring at Ren when she said, "Reincarnation is one option, but not the only one."

Ren's eyes went wide, his lips parting ever so slightly in surprise. All of his hope was bubbling up in the curve of his lips.

Maria looked up at Kyoko, brow furrowed. "What are you talking about? Reincarnation is the reward. You can be a celebrity or a socialite or an heiress! You can grow up in a massive family in a huge mansion and marry an equally rich person!" She glared as if Kyoko was thick. "You can finally have a real childhood. Be a teen, date, marry. Raise your own family and have your own kids."

Kyoko scoffed. "Become a child again? Sounds exhausting. School and puberty and acne, ugh."

Maria couldn't see the way Ren was grinning at Kyoko. The way the grief he had carried was evaporating before her very eyes. Because, just like she knew him, he knew her and what she would say.

Kyoko continued. "And pregnancy? Childbirth? Terrible! Babies never allow for beauty rest and can't even wipe their own bottoms. I have two people right here that require plenty of my attention already, plus any sad souls that stumble here."

Maria sat up straight not daring to let herself hope yet. "You… could stay? You would really choose that?"

Kyoko nodded. "Of course."

Maria whipped around to Ren. He slammed on a poker face. Her voice quickening, she asked, "Are you going to stay too?"

"Only if you finish your dinner," he said solemnly. Then, he smirked.

Maria beamed and shoved her food in her mouth as quickly as possible. Kyoko chuckled. "Slow down, you'll choke!" But Maria barely breathes as she shoved it in, smearing sauce over her cheeks in the process. When she was done, she slammed her spoon on the table. "Done!"

Ren shrugged. "I suppose I have no choice. I'll stay."

Maria wrapped her arms around both of their necks and pulled them in for another hug. Ren was dangerously close now, and they dearly needed to talk, but she couldn't help but enjoy the moment.

Maria released them just as quickly. "Yay! Okay, I have to work my day job tomorrow, so let's do a rain check on dessert until we settle that last grudge." She grabbed her back from the hook on the wall.

Kyoko grabbed a wet rag and went to Maria. "Fine, fine, but you're filthy!" Kyoko wiped Maria's face clean, a little too abrasively, but Maria smiled all the same. "Be careful on your way home."

With a wave, Maria said, "I will!" and bolted out of the bar. Kyoko held her breath, not quite ready to face him.

Ren cleared his throat. "I'll count that as a win, too. I hate to see her sad."

She twisted the stained rag in her hands. "She's got you wrapped around her little finger."

"She's not the only one."

Kyoko closed her eyes. "It wasn't fair of me to make you decide on the spot like that."

She heard him stand and walk up behind her. "My decision was made a long time ago."

Her throat tightened. She had to be sure. "We were good friends back then. Confidants. But I don't feel like that's enough anymore. After all of this time together, even though I'm still confused about the truth about you, I… I want more. I want time. I want your heart."

His arms wrapped around her, the tightness she was finding synonymous with home welcoming her once again. She felt his head press against her cheek, his hair featherlight against her skin. "Thank god. I want those as well."

She let herself melt into his chest. This wasn't a dream, couldn't be a dream, could it? His breath on her face was the realest thing in the world to her. "I promise this won't turn me into a slacker. I'll be a perfectly dedicated employee, as always, even though I'm —"

She rammed her elbow into his gut. She turned around to see him doubled over, clutching his stomach. "Why?!" he cried.

Kyoko smirked. "The thought even crossing your mind is bad enough!"

He looked up to the roof as if pleading with the gods. "Why does love have to be so cruel?!"

END


Thank you for listening to us pterodactyl screech about how much we love Skip Beat and Mystic Pop-Up Bar. Get thee to the nearest Netflix machine and watch it with the utmost haste.

You won't regret it.