—I'm sorry, I can't make it after all.
After much thought, Akemi sent the text.
Her friends had been looking forward to unwinding together over the weekend, searching fervently for the best diners and selecting several rental movies to marathon through until the morning hours. Whilst they hadn't decided on a date at first, after a weeklong back and forth they finally decided on a Sunday. The same Sunday Akemi had pencilled red in her calendar once Moroboshi confirmed he would be free during the late afternoon hours.
Akemi chewed the inside of her cheek, wondering how to explain her absence to her friends, since she found it impertinent to ask Moroboshi to postpone their meet-up. She owed him, after all. For running him over.
But Akemi was rather startled to find out that she didn't need to provide a reason when she glanced at the incoming messages flooding into her phone.
—No worries, rather let us know how it went!
Akemi raised her brow. Nothing she wrote warranted such a response. She scrolled through her messages, wondering whether she missed something when she received several more messages of good lucks and congratulations.
—What's going on?
She texted back, puzzled and even more dumbfounded by their response.
—Nothing! We're just rooting for you!
Akemi placed her phone on her desk, thinking she could come to understand them later. Ever since Kazuko had shared her successful venture in fixing Akemi's non-existent love life (and jested about a potential business in matchmaking), her friends had suddenly become strange in their endeavours, and Akemi couldn't quite figure out why that was. . .
Tucking the chair closer to her desk, Akemi returned her attention to her independent project that was taking her much longer to complete than she expected. But she was hardly surprised. She had been miscalculating a lot lately, and a part of her didn't entirely mind anymore. Whether her lack of care stemmed from her exhaustion or weariness, Akemi didn't exactly know. All she knew was that she found herself wishing for the earth to gobble her up lately. . .
Just for a little rest.
Just enough until she was ready to place the mask on her face again – pretending to live as normal as she always had.
Sighing, Akemi placed her head on her desk, wishing a month could pass already so she could return to the usual hustle of her life without having to make up reparation for an accident she didn't intend to instigate.
Without having to frequently see a person she couldn't care less about – just to placate her friends, keeping them happy and a little less worried about her when Akemi wanted nothing but curl up on her bed and cry without having to smile through each day.
Without having to be weary of a grandpa who could be busting through the door of her apartment any moment, demanding her to serve her life on a silver platter when she wanted nothing but make him disappear from every corner of her life.
Akemi squeezed her eyes once she felt the burn in her gaze and she rubbed the tears away with the back of her hand.
Who would have thought being normal could be this hard?
When her alarm struck three, Akemi dragged herself out of her chair and headed for the dresser where she pre-prepared a pair of slacks and a shirt. She grabbed them with a tired hand and locked herself up in the bathroom. Slipping into her clothes and double checking her make-up as she inspected every angle of her face until she was absolutely certain not even the tiniest hint of a discoloration could be seen.
Satisfied, Akemi grabbed her purse and unhooked her blazer from the coat rack, draping it over her arm as she bent down to grab her pair of trusted ballet flats from her shoe storage when –
Startled, Akemi glanced down at the small black cube that fell out of her blazer. But even after a close inspection, she wasn't entirely sure what it was. The devices Pisco usually left behind had more of a circular shape. Though Akemi couldn't pass the chance that the old geezer might have purchased a new assortment of items after Akemi learned to deal with each and every one of these spy devices in a very swift and cost-effective manner.
Akemi grabbed the hammer out of her kitchen cabinet and whacked the cubic object out of shape until her arm sored. She was used to these devices breaking after a contact or two. But this one took the cake. After a thorough beating, the black cube only became more of a flat square than anything. Annoyed, and partly amazed how sturdy it was, Akemi grabbed the device and placed it inside her blazer pocket, making a mental note to drop it off the scrapyard, not comfortable disposing it in the dumpster, less another poor soul would get themselves recorded.
Akemi glanced at her wristwatch; certain she could make it in time if she hurried.
(Or at least so she had figured without accounting for the typical traffic jams she would encounter on a weekend afternoon.)
Needless to say, Akemi arrived at the café twenty minutes later than agreed. Out of breath and flushed from sudden physical exertion, sprinting the distance spanning the car park and their meetup place, hoping it would curb some minutes of tardiness.
But glancing at the clock, Akemi realized running didn't matter much in the grand scheme of things, seeing that Moroboshi was already seated. Four pages in, reading through the newspaper that the café distributed at their frontal section.
From that alone, Akemi knew he was either not paying any particular attention to the printed words and kept the fourth page open for no exact reason, or he had been reading the newspaper, column by column, since the first page – and seeing how deeply engrossed he browsed through the latest stock reports, Akemi knew that must have been the case.
"You alright there?" Moroboshi asked, his gaze still focused on the printed pages without even the tiniest indication that he had noticed her presence. Akemi found herself digesting that fact – that he could engage in a conversation without even acknowledging her – the recipient. . .
Wasn't such a thing impolite?
"Of course," she muttered as she slipped out of her blazer, draping it over the chair and pulling her purse out of its pocket. "Can I get you anything?" she glanced at the emptied cup on the table. "A refill? Some pastries maybe?"
"A refill would be good."
Akemi grabbed his cup and parted her lips—
"Expresso," he answered before she could even ask. "Three shots."
Akemi bit her lip and nodded before she headed for the till, ordering a cup of fruit tea and his choice of beverage that she found alarmingly concerning. She could only hope he didn't have the same concentration of expresso earlier. Otherwise, Akemi could be calling the ambulance again and that prospect left her unnerved. . .
"Two shots," she ordered instead, quiet enough for only the barista to hear, thinking it would be impossible for Moroboshi to taste the difference of one shot.
(Or at least so she was willing to bet).
Akemi placed their cups on the table before she seated herself. Moroboshi was still intently reading the newspaper as though he was scanning the details into his memory.
"Are you a stock market expert?"
Other than a brief glance, Moroboshi didn't react. It took Akemi five minutes to notice that, and an additional three minutes to realize she was waiting for an answer she already received.
"Is that a no?" Akemi asked, unsure whether to take his silence as refutation or confirmation. But Moroboshi remained silent, and for a moment Akemi wondered whether he was acting this way on purpose. "Are you upset at me for coming late?"
Moroboshi kept his gaze on the papers, but Akemi saw the corners of his lips rising. "Now what made you think that?"
Akemi snorted. "With the way you're acting it isn't very hard to tell."
"Yes," she picked up her cup by its ear, still hot but considerably cooler than she had first received. "I texted you that I'll be arriving late, and I apologized about it too. So, I don't see why you have to ignore me like that."
"I remember you doing something like that," Moroboshi responded distractedly as he flipped the newspaper upside down, stretching it out from its folded state, pushing it across the table and closer to Akemi.
Even before the double spread newspaper reached her, Akemi's gaze fastened on the greying tuft of hair and complementary moustache, smiling amicably at the camera at a time Pisco didn't expect the cameras to be hounding him like a flock of vultures. Akemi couldn't fight off the smile that grazed her lips, seeing him trying to evade the flashlights of the cameras on the smaller picture shoved at the bottom of the newspaper.
"It's always those conglomerates who hide an entire graveyard in their closet," Akemi said, frowning at the title publicizing the speculative existence of Masuyama Kenzō's illegitimate children.
Moroboshi hummed noncommittally and tapped the top right corner – at a tiny circular picture frame that captured her profile as she exited Pisco's MPV at a remote location. "I was rather thinking about that. Doesn't she look like you?"
"She does look like me," Akemi said as startled and amazed as she could. But keeping up the act was harder than she expected when the caption underneath shot up the bile in her throat. Her face contorted in disgust, almost painfully. "I never thought I would have a look alike."
"You don't say," Moroboshi agreed. "You didn't strike me as a sugar baby at all."
Akemi almost gagged, hearing it coming from his mouth. "That's because I'm not."
"I figured," his lips quirked up. "Although for a moment I did think I could squeeze a fortune out of you – well, if I sued, that is."
"I would have sued myself too, if I knew I was dating such a sleaze of a guy," Akemi laughed weakly.
"I figured. Otherwise, you wouldn't look like you're wishing for the earth to swallow you up right now."
"Right now, I'm wishing for someone to come along and shoot me," Akemi said, flushed and too mortified for her own good. "How am I going to go to school with that newspaper circulating everywhere? Everyone is going to mistake me as a –" Akemi couldn't even bring herself to say it as she felt her cheeks burn hotter than her cup of tea.
"Is it such a big deal?" across her, Moroboshi's small smile widened, and Akemi couldn't believe he was finding mirth in her plight.
"Yes," she groaned, burying her face into her arms, folded on top of the table. "My friend's fiancé reads the newspaper daily from what I've heard. He is going to see it, believe it, and tell everyone about it."
"Then it should be easy to tell everyone that it wasn't you."
"They're not going to believe me."
"And why is that?"
"Because this person looks like me and therefore should be me. Any reasonable person would conclude that," Akemi said, raising her head to look at him. "If I say anything otherwise, they will think I'm denying it."
"Well, are you denying it?"
"No," Akemi said as she looked back at the paper. The long hair and formal attire were the only thing the woman in the picture and Akemi had in common – and such a thing wasn't uncommon at all.
"Then tell them that."
"I can't," Akemi replied. "They're not going to believe me. Just like you didn't believe me when I said I had a look alike." Akemi had seen the skeptical glint of his eyes and the light twitches of his brows he fought hard not to furrow. But at the same time – "I can't fault you for that. I know it's rather hard to believe that anyone could have a look alike, but –" she halted when she perceived the amused glint in his eyes, his lips tweaking into a half smile – half smirk that she had never seen on anyone else before. "What?"
"Nothing," Moroboshi said, catching her gaze and answering her unspoken questions that floated in her head. "I was simply rather convinced you'd say it was your twin sister instead. After all that would have been more believable than having a look alike."
"I can't exactly prove the existence of a twin sister," Akemi frowned, coming up with a second identity would invite more trouble than it was worth – especially if her friends demanded to see them both in person. Akemi knew she wasn't anywhere nearly as genius as her sister to consider the possibility of bending the rules of physics and clone herself—
"You aren't honestly considering that possibility, are you?" his voice startled her out of her thoughts, and Akemi was surprised to find herself exactly doing that – considering possibilities no-one in their right mind would even begin contemplating.
"No?" she answered weakly, suddenly feeling as see through as the windowpane next to her, completely transparent with all its miniscule details in full display. She averted her gaze, wondering when she last felt so exposed. . .
"Good – because that's not necessary at all," he answered, neatly folding the newspaper in half, and letting it rest on the edge of the table top. "Whether you are or you aren't doesn't exactly matter after all."
"What makes you think that?" her brows rose high, so high it hid behind the fringe of her hair, and she wondered who this man was – this man who was careless enough to forgo social appearances completely without a second thought.
"What you do in your spare time is your business, isn't it? What does it have to do with anybody?" Moroboshi said, looking at her so firm and clearly, Akemi was convinced he was seeing her through the lenses of a microscope – inspecting, assessing, and concluding the specimen of herself and the entirety of her life, as much as any other pretentious scientist observing the behavioural characteristics of any other species.
Normally, it was Akemi who inspected others – it was her who assessed others and concluded the entirety of their metal framework based on their behavioural characteristics – not hers.
"That's not how it's meant to go." Akemi heard herself say even before the words registered in her brain, and she found her fingers clammy on the table top, unnerved and puzzled that the man in front of her could see her – through the walls of her flesh – through the depths of her eyes into her inner complexity where swirls of darkened colors resided alongside the blackened ash of her soul.
"You weren't meant to –" she couldn't quite grasp the words as empty as she felt sitting across him, swept away into the deepest corners of her mind where she stared into the abyss of her existence that didn't entirely live even when she was alive and breathing.
"Be nosy?" Moroboshi concluded for her – far off the mark. Somehow. Even though he had been on point so far.
"Yes," she said. Even though the answer was: no. "You weren't meant to be so nosy."
"Since you feel that way, I guess we're even now." Moroboshi concluded as he sipped from his cup of coffee, and Akemi still waited for him to explain himself – and this time it took her only a minute to realize he wasn't going to.
"Even for what?" she asked, wondering what exactly she had done for him to get back at her for being nosy when –
Oh, she remembered suddenly. Moroboshi must have seen the recognition dawning on her face since Akemi felt herself reducing underneath his pointed stare.
"To correct you, I wasn't ignoring you because of the newspaper," Moroboshi said, suddenly explaining himself now when he had refused moments prior when she had asked. In favour of informing her now when she felt mortified reflecting on her actions, even as good willed as they were.
After all she didn't want to entertain the possibility of calling an ambulance for a second time. And besides – he never told her what he drank before! How could anyone blame her for taking precautionary measurements?
Akemi pressed her hands against her face, completely flushed, finding it torturous of him to deliberately drag out the moment as he took in her embarrassment as some sort of gratification for his self-satisfaction – and she was rather glad when he continued laying her tomb to rest. Her spirit taking off flight once her metaphorical body died from sheer embarrassment.
"Rather, I was waiting for you to mention the two shots you put in my coffee." Moroboshi said, seemingly thinking back and remembering. "But strangely you never did."
"Oh that," she said, smiling a little. "I didn't want to call an ambulance and report a caffeine overdose."
"What made you think I would have gotten a caffeine overdose?" he asked, quirking a brow. "Had you verified the facts and asked me, you would have known I've only had a cup of tea before you arrived."
Akemi felt her cheeks heat up; several degrees higher as though there was no limits regarding her temperature range. "Sorry, I just assumed and – I shouldn't have done that."
"Exactly. You assumed," Moroboshi agreed. "I bet you've been doing that a lot lately."
"How did you know that?" she smiled weakly, feeling like a specimen again, inspected under a microscope. . .
"With the way you're acting it isn't very hard to tell," he echoed, and Akemi wished for the floor to swallow her up. She couldn't get anything passed this man. "But surely if you had a conversation with your friends, sooner or later they will come to understand, right?"
"Right," Akemi nodded, a little dizzy at how easily he spun the conversation in circles. "But in retrospect wouldn't it have been much simpler if you told me to talk it out with them straightforwardly? Rather than enacting out such a strange analogy?"
"I could have," he agreed. "But I find practical experience much more profound than theoretical advice that may or may not work in a given situation," he answered. For the first time. In depth.
Akemi couldn't believe the amount of progress she was making cracking up his tough shell as she massaged the phantom pain of her fingertips, sore from wedging it open a little bit.
But even behind his secretive and reticent nature Akemi had assessed him enough – assessed him as much, if not more, than he had assessed her.
(And she decided it was his turn to feel like a specimen – caught underneath the lenses of a microscope without a single pathway to escape.)
"You're a thoughtful person, aren't you?" Akemi had an inkling before – but she was certain now. "You try your best to appear considerate and understanding to those around you – but only if it suits you. In actual reality, you couldn't care less about anyone who doesn't serve some sort of purpose for you."
It sounded rougher than Akemi would normally intent. But only to drive home the fact that she wasn't as oblivious as he thought she was. Akemi had a functioning pair of eyes and a high functioning brain she used ever since she was eight years old. Left behind with an infant sister, after the sudden death of her parents.
"But it's not entirely a bad thing," Akemi amended. She couldn't exactly fault him for that. Moroboshi seemed to be orbiting around the scopes of his own life, fully committed to himself with a limited availability to others – although when he did spare his time, he was secretly present in the moment. Even if he strangely appeared otherwise.
As though he didn't want anyone else to know the true intentions of his actions. Akemi found herself wondering why that was – why he would seem so disinterested when he was keenly listening in secret.
Are you holding back as much as I'm holding back? She wanted to ask and pry deeper into the psychological mantle that shrouded his being. But even then, she held back and ventured into the familiar circle of prodding and running.
"Why didn't you sue me?" she said instead, holding his gaze that seemed to be assessing her again – and perhaps even wondering where this bizarre stream of questions from her was suddenly coming from to be catapulting to him like that. . .
But even then, Akemi pushed forward – demanding answers that he may or may not give, and she found the result didn't even matter. As long as she emptied her chest and let her suspicious escape out of her mouth that seemingly needed to be verified to be held true and accountable – or so he had said, didn't he?
After all she assumed too much, didn't she?
"Am I right in thinking there was something you wanted from me? Something other than money?"
"Something like what?" Moroboshi asked. "Don't tell me you are offering—"
"I'm not," Akemi stressed firmly, feeling her cheeks flush again. She wasn't offering any baby-sugar services if that's what he thought. "I just thought that maybe –" you aren't much different from me. Akemi stilled and let the thought slip by. "I just thought you might have a job for me."
"I thought you said you didn't offer—"
"Not that," Akemi refuted, flushing, and she wondered how long he was going to keep bringing that up. "I mean – are you not from that kind of profession?"
His brows shot up. "I'm not a—"
"I didn't mean that," Akemi pressed her hands against her face. Why couldn't he take her serious for once. "There's no need to fool me. I got it already."
She had already recognized the little tell-tales.
For Moroboshi to notice her despite her silent footsteps –
For him to recognize the two shots in his coffee without even having taken a single sip could only mean –
"You're in a similar profession as I am, aren't you?" Akemi's lips quirked up. Surprised and amused to have found a kindred spirit. Someone who hid behind a mask and kept up their own pretences.
Moroboshi Dai was a hypervigilant man with a high level of concentration and superb vision to have been watching the barista prepare his cup from across the room. Otherwise, Akemi couldn't fathom how he could possibly have known about the two expresso shots. And from that alone she realized he wasn't normal.
At least not as normal as normal was.
(Even if he pretended otherwise.)
Moroboshi's brows were raised high at the insinuation. But Akemi wasn't fooled. She knew he had seen her.
Long before she neared his table.
Long before she entered the café.
Akemi reared her head and looked out of the window. If she were to strain her eyes hard enough, she could recognize the faint outlines from the light pole at the end of the street. The same light pole that marked the third corner of the street – the place she parked her car.
Akemi didn't need to be a judge to declare this seat – this table –as the best vantage point of this entire café as she turned her head to glance at the other side of the street, recognizing the same depth and perspective. No matter which direction Akemi would have appeared, Moroboshi Dai would have seen her – way before she could see him, hidden inside the café like a lion in a den, whilst she was out on the road, heading toward him like a hapless prey.
Carelessly wandering off to his direction where he was waiting patiently for her to near him – waiting for her to reach the palm of his hand where he could easily sink his claws into her.
Akemi felt a shudder ripple up her back and she shook her head, ridding herself from these thoughts, placing her empty cup down. Coming at last to the conclusion that he was a man full of secrets.
A man that pegged her interest.
"Do mind if I keep seeing you?"
Moroboshi glanced up. His green eyes flickering momentarily surprised, and Akemi mirrored the look on his face, catching herself in surprise at her sudden question, too forward for its own good, and she was already backpedalling.
"Of course, you don't have to if that makes you uncomfortable—"
"I don't mind," Moroboshi said before she could retract the offer completely. "But you should know that I won't be able to finance you as well as he did."
"Why would you want to…?" Akemi looked at him, puzzled. But Moroboshi averted his gaze toward the newspaper folded neatly at the edge of the table, and Akemi's mouth dropped open at the utter insinuation.
"I told you I'm not a sugar baby!" she cried before she could even stop herself, flushed from her cheeks to the tip of her ears. Its warmth radiating against her hands that were pressed against her face, hiding from the annoyed and startled glares nearby patrons threw at her – as well as the man across from her, who seemingly couldn't let the matter rest.
The same man who was watching her amusedly. "I didn't say you were."
"Then why do you keep implying it!"
"I didn't," his lips stretched into his smile, quivering as though he was trying his best to keep himself from laughing. "I haven't mentioned anything about it for a long time now."
"That's such a lie," Akemi wasn't born yesterday. He couldn't fool her with something as silly as an innuendo. "Otherwise, you wouldn't keep hinting at the services of a sugar baby—"
"But I haven't been hinting at that sort of thing at all. Rather it's you who keeps mentioning it." Moroboshi repeated, his eyes twinkling full of mirth. "I have been talking about another kind of service – one that you should recognize if we're in the same profession…"
Another kind of service? Akemi's brows rose. What kind of service resulted in pay checks without an exchange of favours?
"Could it be that you don't know?" Moroboshi asked, smiling secretively as though he expected her to fall short in her endeavour to recognize these parts of himself that he had hidden so carefully he was certain no-one would discover them.
"I do know," Akemi answered after a long moment she spent replaying the entire conversation, scanning and re-scanning for clues and accumulating facts until she was certain her verdict was more than credible. And yet – "I'm still hoping I might be wrong."
"And why is that?" Moroboshi turned, intrigued.
"Because otherwise it won't be fun at all," Akemi hid the sad tinged of her smile behind her cup, taking a pre-emptive sip and stretching out the seconds as she glanced at the raindrops pelting on the windowpane, faintly muttering. "Sometimes, I'd much rather drown myself in delusions than straight forward answers, but that's not entirely your style, is it?"
Instead of an answer, Akemi only heard the silence emanating from him, and so she turned her head to glance at him rather astutely. "So, where's the contract?" she asked, gazing at the table where the folded newspaper lay – there where he had had glanced earlier. "Did you hide it between the pages?"
Moroboshi remained silent and Akemi didn't expect anything else as she pulled the newspaper towards her, flipping through and searching for a familiar notice that never reached her eyes.
"Where is it?" she asked, bewildered, flipping through it a second time. "You came here to coerce me into taking on another life insurance, didn't you?"
"And why would I do that?" the minuscule shifts in his facial expression tightened. Moroboshi's gaze hardened, despite the puzzling swirls of green in his shimmering eyes, and a part of her wanted to roll her eyes that the man in front of her still managed to play clueless.
"Because you're a yakuza, aren't you?" she revealed at last, stunning him speechless. "You can't tell me a life insurance isn't more profitable for you than spending thousands suing me and earning only a quarter back from the reparation cost I owe you."
Moroboshi parted his lips—
"I won't tell anyone that I found out," Akemi reassured him before he could dig his grave deeper, neatly folding the newspaper, and setting it back to the edge of the table. "So, show me the contract already. I need to sign it, otherwise you'll be getting in trouble, won't you?"
Moroboshi stared hard at the table, deep in thought, and Akemi was certain he was cross examining the facts again, analysing and verifying the conclusion of her verdict since that was what the analytical part of his mind liked to do – analysing and verifying without the inclusions of assumptions. Even though Akemi wanted to hear nothing but the straightforward truth.
"Or is it that such a thing is not necessary after all?" she asked, certain that this might be the moment when the thread of her life snapped apart. But Moroboshi only shook his head, slowly, as though she couldn't have been further from the truth. He reached into the inside of his jacket and revealed a single piece of paper.
Akemi's eyes widened at the red approval stamp etched at the bottom of the page.
"I already paid them off in your place," this time, it didn't even take Moroboshi longer than a minute to explain. "So, you don't need to worry about that at all—"
"What? But why?" Akemi asked, completely bewildered. "Why would you pay off my debts?"
"Because I was partly at fault," Moroboshi reasoned – even though it wasn't a sound reason at all. Akemi parted her lips to protest but Moroboshi wouldn't hear of it at all as he calmly continued. "And you paid me back with a coffee. Although, I guess it's fair to say you owe me an another."
"You can't be serious."
"But I am," Moroboshi said easily. "How does next Wednesday sound to you?"
"Can I meet you even after Wednesday?" Akemi asked, slipping into her blazer as she passed through the door Moroboshi held open for her.
"Sure," he said, looking over the road for any approaching cars before he crossed, and she heard his voice rather faintly over the blowing wind. "As long as you don't run me over a second time."
Akemi snorted and headed for her own car, parked somewhere at the end of the road.
It wasn't until she sat in her car and readjusted the rear-view mirror that she noticed the small smile on her face.
Strangely feeling rather energetic than drained, she wondered whether it was because of the strange man she met, or the fact that her heart knew she would be meeting her sister soon.
Sorry for the late chapter. I meant to post this earlier, but this chapter decided to run amok. I didn't even intend to include the sugar baby/daddy layer between Pisco and Akemi – I have never even seen them in this light before, but somehow, I found myself writing this and I noticed how they could be viewed this way. Especially by the other characters who don't know Akemi's and Pisco's real dynamic – and that's just more drama!
Also on another note, things have been hectic lately and I'm barely finding time to write. So, this is just a pre-warning that the next chapters are highly likely to be delayed too. And sadly, this goes for all my stories.
(At least until I get a hang on things.)
But for now, I hope you enjoyed this chapter too!