1st Petal - Pure Sapling
"Bye father! Bye mother! Bye grandpa and grandma! And stay out of trouble Kenji!"
The cheerful Ichiko emerged from door of a large house standard of the likes of the upper-middle class. She was a relatively normal girl entering her first year of high school, albeit she was a little tomboyish due to her short black hair that was combed to the left. The red-lined yellow jacket shined brilliantly underneath the morning sun, and was further feminized by the brown plaid skirt and the rolled-down white socks.
She walked because the prestigious and unique Sunflower Academy was only about fifteen to twenty minutes away within the innards of the city of where she lived. Her heart was beating both anxiously and excitedly at the aspect of a new stage of her life, which she imagined to be a perpetually blooming sunflower unaffected and unshaken from any obstacle she has encountered. Her outlook was positively optimistic, which won her love from the all-girls middle school many months back, and had won a few awards in helping the environment of her home country. She wondered if there would be clubs similar to that in the Sunflower Academy. There had to be because of the school's uniqueness in style and academics.
Ichiko walked down a street that ran adjacent to not only the mall district but also a seedy place where illegal prostitution, pornographic sales, and gambling took place. Thanks to the local police, it was kept there, but she has heard that those who partake in such vices lived in the many low-rent apartments she was walking alongside. At first sight, those apartments didn't look particularly foreboding, but Ichiko felt her own sunflower in her soul being shaken. Nonetheless, she walked with her chin up and with pride.
Yet, something stopped her when she begun to pass by a three-level complex emerging from the far end apartment of the top floor was a tall and beautiful woman with long black hair that she pulled towards her back in a seductive manner. She was dressed in a loose yellow tank with no bra, and Ichiko glimpsed a good portion of her large breasts. To further her sultriness, the woman was also in her panties.
Ichiko gripped her black schoolbag as she froze staring at this dark and exhibitive beauty. She was most likely older than her, probably emerging into her thirties, and she smoked her cigarettes with no care of where the ashes fell. Why of all people? wondered Ichiko. She was probably a prostitute, or at the very least a high-class escort who was caught outside her usual wear.
Ichiko could not start for any longer, as the woman finally caught sight of her. When it happened, her heart was beating rapidly and her breath became shorter. Abruptly she regained her composure and sped-walk past the woman's view.
Somewhere in her sunflower, the first petal had fallen...
Before she knew it, Ichiko arrived in the grounds of the Sunflower Academy. It was the first time she went to a co-ed school, and she wasn't intimidated by the many handsome boys also in their shining yellow jackets and brown pants. Finally, she made it to her homeroom where her best friend, the very tall, handsome, and short brown-haired Kazuko leapt from her seat and hugged the receptive Ichiko.
"We're in the same class!" Kazuko cried.
"Just like always," smiled Ichiko.
"So you two are still 'husband' and 'wife'," said a familiar voice.
Kazuko moved so that she and Ichiko were now facing a dyed-blond and pigtailed girl surrounded by what seemed to be very snobby and elite girls and boys, most of who were snickering.
"Sumiko," said Ichiko. "I thought you were going to Chrysanthemum High."
"I was," said Sumiko. "Then I changed my mind and realized that I won't be meeting a lot of boys on a daily basis if I were to go to that school."
Sumiko rose and walked out of the classroom with her newfound friends following her.
"What a rotten girl," said Kazuko. "Already she's kissing up the sons and daughters of the corporations. I can't believe she used to be our friend back in middle school. What made her become like that?"
"I wonder too," said Ichiko.
Soon after, Ichiko and Kazuko then attended the opening ceremony in the gymnasium and listened to the speech given by the school's principal, Yukiko Himawari, whose words were calm, motherly, and overall uplifting. She seemed to exert a sense of airheadedness when she almost tripped on the microphone wire and nearly bumped into the chairs when she went down the stage to talk to one-on-one to many of the incoming students. Her personality was entirely likable, and despite the run-in with Sumiko, Ichiko felt that her years here would be the best.
Many of their teachers were very unorthodox in their teaching, and surprisingly they were effective in their job. For instance, the history teacher mostly taught his lessons using scaled-down action figure versions of giant robots from many popular children's anime. The literature teacher was actually a struggling manga (comic book) artist who simultaneous taught through both text and pictures. The boys' P.E. teacher once part of the CIA, while the girls' P.E. teacher used to be a KGB agent. The science teacher can be best described as mad, but very enjoyable although he seems to have penchant for destroying things with his almost-absurd inventions. The edgy home economics teacher had a prosthetic arm to replace the one she lost during a far-off war, and the English teacher was half-black and spoke almost entirely in rhyme. She instantly became the favorite amongst the first-year boys, much to the dismay of many girls.
"Planning on joining any clubs?" Kazuko asked Ichiko during their lunch period. "There's even that Society of the Study of Modern Visual Culture club I hear that's really popular."
"I may be an anime fan, but I'm not that obsessed," blushed Ichiko. "Besides, I plan to devote myself entirely to the Environmental Club."
"Still trying to save the world, huh?"
"Earth is in peril, and we all must do what we can. What about you Kazu?"
"Oh, I'm likely to get into basketball."
"You're going to be a shoe-in."
Their smiles dropped when Sumiko and her troupe approached the table.
"Hello my two classmates from my middle school," she greeted.
"Hello," grumbled Kazuko.
"I'm assuming dear Ichi is trying to save the world again. Let's face it--it's pointless to do so unless you're connected to all the high-ranking corporations of the world, and even if you conquer that hurdle it'll be tough to convince them to your vision."
"That's enough Sumiko!"
"All right, all right. I'll leave you and your wife alone. Oh, and Kazuko, I will obviously cheer you into the basketball team. You have my word."
Like last time, Sumiko left with her troupe sheepishly following behind her.
"I can't believe her," growled Sumiko. "She was never like this when we became friends with her."
"Something must have happened," Ichiko said. "Perhaps we should talk to her."
"That's not going to be possible. She would rather slit her own throat than talk with us."
"I'm sure she has a good reason..."
"Enough with the good reasons Ichiko. Sumiko had just finally awakened to her snobbery."
"I still wish to know why she has changed in such a short amount of time."
They finished their lunch and headed to their next classes together. However, Kazuko pulled Ichiko aside and hugged her tightly.
"I'll protect you as I always have," said Kazuko.
"Thanks," said Ichiko.
At the end of school, the front courtyard was filled with stalls and panhandlers from the many clubs and sports teams soliciting for new members. Kazuko went from one sport to the next, and Ichiko gravitated towards the Environmental Club to meet the club's male president and female vice president Motoko and Haruko, both 3rd year and 2nd year students respectively. She received an application that she would fill out once she got home.
"I'll be seeing you," Kazuko said. "The team captain wants to give me an extended on-the-spot interview."
So Ichiko went home alone, although that would soon be routine as Kazuko lived in a different neighborhood away from her. Ichiko had thought about taking a different route back home, but that woman she had saw at the three-level apartment allured her so much that she went the same way. Ichiko peered through the front entrance of the apartment and saw an expensive European sedan. Waiting at the woman's front door was what seemed to be a nervous short and balding man in a suit accompanied by two bodyguards.
The door opened, and out stepped a woman dressed in some kind of Chinese outfit and with her hair tied at the top. The short man was giggling happily, and the woman giggled back, although Ichiko knew that it was false. The woman caught sight of Ichiko again, causing the young girl to blush and scurry back home.
When she arrived, her little seven year-old brother hugged her lovingly, and responded in kind.
"Welcome home!" greeted Ichiko's grandmother, Michi. "Your mother and father have found the time come home for dinner today."
Ichiko had always seen Michi as a mother than a grandmother. After all, it was her who raised her while her father and mother went to college and eventually got job as lawyers in different law firms. Both her parents had to work to keep up paying off the expensive mortgage for the house and fund their children's tuition to prestigious schools.
Both her father and mother, the youthful and handsome Ken'ichi Nikkô and the older Rin, were still in their business suits when they were seated at the dining table. Sitting at the head of the table was Ichiko's grandfather Yoshiro Nikkô, a successful businessman but not profitable enough for him to live elsewhere other than his son's home. He was missing a good portion of his pinky finger on his left hand due to a machine accident, as Ichiko and Kenji were told.
"How was school you two?" asked Yoshiro.
"I made some new friends, and my teacher is really nice!" answered Kenji.
"My school is... unique," replied Ichiko. "I was surprised they would have that kind of teachers there."
"That why it is very hard to get there," said Ken'ichi, "even if you're rich."
"I find it surprising that no violent incident have taken place there yet," said Rin.
"Of course, having interesting people will make the most mundane subjects very interesting."
"Would you believe that over fifty-percent of the students who graduate easily get into the top colleges? And the numbers are still growing!"
"Perhaps they should start a college of their own."
"Anything else happened dear Ichiko?" Yoshiro asked.
Ichiko lowered her head to cover her slight blushing smile. It was too soon to tell them about her infatuation with the unsavory woman she had seen on her way to school. If she did tell them, it would mean that she would be forbidden to walk that route ever again.
With the days of the week passing, Ichiko walked down that street every time she came to and from school just so she could catch a glimpse of that woman. At every time she had done so, there was always a different "client", whether it be a young man or two, a young heterosexual couple, and even a couple of girls. The woman did not stare back at the gawking Ichiko, but perhaps she accepted her presence nonchalantly with a slight smile.
At the same time, she was inducted in the Environmental Club at its first meeting on Tuesday, and she was destined to meet with them again on Thursday. Ichiko also tried to watch her friend Kazuko go down some drills during the basketball tryouts, and her performance caught the eye of both girls' team and the boys' team. Even the captain of the boys team wanted her in since she looked very boyish.
On Friday, Ichiko walked home alone again on the same route. Right before she passed by the entrance to the three-level apartment, a shabby and thin man was thrown into the ground.
"Get the fuck out of here you worthless piece of shit!" yelled a woman's voice. "And take your fucking money! And your belt!"
The man took his belongings and ran off whimpering.
Then she appeared before her eyes, the woman Ichiko had been staring at from the ground to the third floor. Her hair was tied back into a ponytail, and she was wearing tight bell-bottom black jeans and a tight black blouse that was uniquely cut to expose a portion of her midriff and bellybutton and her cleavage. When she turned her dark eyes at Ichiko, Ichiko froze.
Ichiko couldn't speak as her body was too tense and her heart beating too fast to allow her so. Instead, she just gagged.
"Something in your throat?" asked woman.
Ichiko exhaled with a loud gasp. "I'm sorry!" she bowed. "I'll be on my way!"
The woman grabbed Ichiko's arm, causing her to freeze again.
"Hey, I've seen you before," said the woman.
"Sorry! It's none of my business!"
But the woman spun Ichiko so that she was holding her in mid-dancing. Ichiko's heart was beating so fast that it would explode. Not only that, Ichiko's body would simply shut down and melt.
"I have," said the woman. "You've been looking at me every morning and every afternoon since Monday. As a matter of fact, this coincides with the start of the school year. Sunflower Academy is nearby, and that means... fresh meat."
The woman lets go of Ichiko and trots over to the stairwell waiting and beckoning for her.
"Come on," she said.
Ichiko wasn't unsure of why she was following her timidly. The woman was strange, yet alluring, and there was high chance she might do something to her after what she had done to the man she just kicked out.
She made it to the third floor and entered the woman's apartment after her. The tiny place was an absolute mess with beer bottles and pornographic magazines lying strewn about. To Ichiko's surprise, the woman didn't even take off her shoes when she stepped onto the tatami mats. She eventually took them off and stuffed them into a bookshelf overflowing with pornographic DVD videos. When Ichiko closed the door, the living room became very dark until the woman turned on the lamp on the table. The bulb in the lamb was flickering and dim, so it was still somewhat dark.
"The name's Rei Cero," said the woman. "I usually charge ten thousand, but for you I'll take off twenty-five percent."
"You're getting a good deal little girl. Either you pay up or leave."
"I don't have that kind of money."
"You don't understand. I don't want your services."
"But dating you isn't free."
"I didn't want a date with you."
"Then why did you come with me?"
"You beckoned me here."
"I thought you were referred to from my clients."
"Then why were you staring up at me?"
Ichiko took a deep breath. "I just felt that you were a beautiful woman whose beauty cannot be tarnished whatever comes your way. You're just too alluring Rei."
Rei lit up a cigarette and puffed a large amount of smoke that made Ichiko's face twinge disapprovingly. Seeing that, Rei opened the blanket-draped window and tossed it out.
"You shouldn't have done that!" Ichiko cried.
"There's only trash on the bottom."
"You might cause a fire!"
"I've been doing that since I moved here."
"And really, this place is a mess. You might trip and hurt yourself."
"I know where my crap is. It is you who should watch out."
"Really Rei. If you want to make yourself more presentable to your 'clients', please clean up."
"It's not like they're dating my room. They're dating me."
"Why the hell are you still here? Are you my wife or something?"
"Well I... I'm sorry. I'll excuse myself."
Quickly Ichiko exited the apartment and lingered at the balcony railing as if she was expecting Rei to lunge after her. Her heart was still beating anxiously, and yet never before she felt so ashamed and embarrassed in talking to Rei like that. She paced around wondering if she should apologize, but then again, Rei was an unsavory woman and she wouldn't accept something as simple as that. Thus, Ichiko ran off home.
For the next week, Ichiko continued to pass by Rei's apartment and tried to get a glance at her. Sometimes she missed seeing her, and at the times she saw her, Ichiko only allowed herself one second to glance at the alluring Rei speaking to one of her clients.
Luckily, Ichiko kept her focus on her exciting school work and club duties when she was within the walls of the Sunflower Academy. As expected, Kazuko made the basketball team with flying colors, and Ichiko cheered her on. However, Kazuko was expected to have extra training for the upcoming first match against Chrysanthemum High, so she wouldn't have time to spend with Ichiko.
"Perhaps after the match we can go out together," said Kazuko. "I want to promise you that, but I feel that I will likely break it."
"It's all right," said Ichiko. "This is, after all, what you want to do."
"I'll make it up somehow."
"If you were more devoted," stepped in Sumiko, "you should have become her personal manager."
"Stop it Sumiko," said Kazuko. "Becoming a cheerleader won't curry any favor with me."
"I'm only showing my pride as a student of the Sunflower Academy--unlike miss lesbian otaku over there."
"Please no," said Ichiko as she stepped in front of Kazuko.
"That's right," grinned Sumiko. "Protect your husband like you always do."
Ichiko continually braved the rumors spread by Sumiko that she and Kazuko were going out, when in fact they were merely close childhood friends.
When Friday arrived again, Kazuko had to stay out late for extra practice for the upcoming match. Kazuko announced it at the last minute on the same day, and Ichiko was planning to spend the night at her house.
"Mother and father will be staying late at their work," said Ichiko. "Grandfather and grandmother are at a dinner party with an important business partner, and Kenji is staying with his friends."
"Can't you hang out with your little brother?" asked Kazuko.
"I could, but I don't want to impede with their slumber party."
"What will you do then?"
"I guess I'll go home again."
"I see. I'm sorry I couldn't be available. I mean, you could watch us practice, but that would get very boring for you."
"I know. I don't want to distract you either."
As the sun began to set, Ichiko lingered in the front courtyard deliberating on whether or not she should go home or not. She almost wished that the Environmental Club was taking place this late, but their first planned volunteer excursion won't take place in two weeks.
Sighing, Ichiko then decided to start walking before it got dark. She stopped at the front entrance of Rei's apartment lot and stared up to her room. She rummaged through her schoolbag and checked her wallet and realized that she had ten thousand in value of paper bills inside. Ichiko remember asking her father for money almost five days ago, to which he immediately gave her without question. He trusted her completely, and yet now she was about to do something that could break it forever.
When she stood in front of Rei's door, Ichiko saw her sunflower rocking back and forth against the wind, and its petals ruffling nervously. She knocked once, and there was no answer. She knocked the second time, and still there was no answer. On the third knock, the door was swung forcefully open, and staring at her was the loosely-dressed and hair-messy Rei dressed in a loose tank and panties.
"What?" she demanded.
"I-I've g-got money," said Ichiko.
Rei allowed her in. The room was even darker without the abundance of the mid-afternoon light.
"I cleaned up," said Rei.
Ichiko didn't believe her. Stuff was moved around since last time, but the place was still littered with bottles and magazines.
"I did!" interjected Rei. "Now there's a path for me to move around!"
Ichiko sighed. She took off her shoes and sat by the table across from Rei.
"Anyway, what do you want me to do?" Rei asked.
"I don't know," said Ichiko. "What do you usually do for clients for me?"
"It all depends. We could go out to bars and dancing clubs. And if you're willing, we could have sex right here and now."
"How about we talk?"
"Okay. What do you want to talk about?"
"Um, let's see..."
Ichiko took too long thinking of a question to ask the mysterious Rei, and she wasn't too prepared to talk about the things she had in the main living room of the apartment.
"How long have you been living here?"
"About four months so far. Don't know what happened to the previous tenant though, but I gladly accepted this place with all the junk she or he had here."
"Um, you don't mind if I did my homework here, would you?"
"Of course not. You don't mind if I watch some TV?"
"I won't mind."
"Okay. You're paying for being here."
Ichiko unloaded her schoolbag and made space on the messy table for her homework, and at the same time Rei did as she said and watched a comedy show on her small flat-panel TV. Ichiko did her best to ignore her swaggering laughs, and in a few hours she was finished.
"Now for some porn!" Rei announced.
"Maybe not," said Ichiko.
"Hey, this is my home."
"But you're my client. You're supposed to do what I tell you to."
"How much do you have right now? We probably went over the allotted time."
"That's not fair for you to say that right now!"
Suddenly, Rei's stomach growled.
"Whatever. Go make me some food."
"You shouldn't order me around like that. It's rude."
"But I'm hungry!"
Sighing, Ichiko headed into the kitchen to search both cupboards and fridge, only to find random bottles of alcoholic beverages and nothing edible.
"There's nothing here," said Ichiko. "How or where do you get your meals?"
"My clients treat me. Say, how about you treat me to some sushi? Not the cheap shit."
"I guess I'll have to cook for you."
Rei winced. "Like you're a master chef."
"Sure I have cooked two or three times, and all those times my father said that I can make a great wife."
"In other words, you suck."
"He was serious! Even my mother and brother said it was good!"
"I still say that you suck."
"I'll prove it to you! I'll be back in thirty minutes with the ingredients!"
Leaving her schoolbag and putting her shoes back on, Ichiko stepped and headed over the nearest supermarket. After buying a box of rice and a set of vegetables, Ichiko felt a chill on her back when she reached the poultry section. Turning around there was a grinning Rei now dressed in blue jeans and a leather jacket.
"You almost scared me," said Ichiko.
"I guess I failed."
"What are you doing here?"
"You're one to say that. Aren't you a little bold to go out here by yourself at night?"
"I didn't realize it. Thanks for caring for me."
"Oh, it's not about that. I didn't get the money for you. So if something were to happen, I won't get paid."
"I guess it was wrong for me to think that you're sincere."
"I'm just trying to eke out a living babe. Anyway, I've also come by to tell you that I might not have a rice cooker or some pans."
"Just kidding! Of course I do! They just need a little cleaning after the last wannabe cook of a client, and his food tasted like shit. I hope you won't end up like him."
Ichiko wondered if the man Rei physically kicked out was the cook in question.
As they waited at the checkout line, Ichiko noticed that Rei was getting unfavorable looks and whispers from normal and upstanding people, and that she was getting smiles from those who looked unscrupulous, like teenage delinquents, gang members, and yakuza bodyguards. Even the cashier was reluctant to ring up Ichiko's purchases, although Ichiko was almost made to pay for impulse snacks and a pack of imported beer cans.
"This doesn't count towards what you owe me," said Rei as she and Ichiko walked back to the apartment.
Along the way Ichiko caught sight of trio of twenty-something men who looked quite shady in her eyes. Almost unconsciously, Ichiko linked her arm with Rei's, and the two walked like this until they reached home.
Ichiko immediately set to cooking a quick meal once she arrived back at the apartment, and did her best to ignore Rei's groans and whining.
"Is it done yet?" Rei asked.
"The snacks weren't enough?"
"If it isn't finished, I'll eat you--literally."
"The food will be ready in a five minutes."
"Hurry it up!"
"God, you are the worst..."
Ichiko cleared and cleaned the table, and then set the dishes in front of Rei's eyes. She thought this would satisfy her, but it didn't initially. Rei was almost hesitant to taste it as if it were poisoned.
"Maybe I should starve," said Rei. "Got to watch my aging figure."
"I thought you were hungry."
"Yeah, but cooking like this looks very deceptive."
Ichiko was starting to become both frustrated and hurt by Rei's rude words, forcing the tall woman to taste the food before the girl before her eyes burst into tears. Rei picked up her rice bowl topped with chopped vegetables and teriyaki chicken. It was an amiable-smelling and simple home-cooked meal the likes of which she had not seen before. After one bite of rice-laden chicken, an overwhelming sense of euphoria overcame Rei that it nearly drove her into tears. In no time, she rapidly devoured at least half with gluttonous delight.
"Oh. My. God," she gasped. "I've never tasted such good shit for a long time!"
"Really?" said Ichiko.
"Eh? How come you're not eating?"
Ichiko covered her smiling mouth. "You look funny when you eat like that."
"Really? Now open your mouth."
"No, I can feed myself."
But Rei pulled Ichiko's jaw open and forced in the food from the bowl via chopsticks.
"You look so cute," smiled Rei. "Now open up again."
"This is so embarrassing."
Yet, Ichiko really liked it. Essentially, she had her dinner this way with food from Rei's bowl and her chopsticks. Ichiko was a little worried about germs, but she was too enamored by the sultry Rei to care. For some reason, there was a sense of longing nostalgia she had never felt before.
After doing the dishes, Ichiko sets off to clean Rei's living room as best as she could, and set out many bags of bottles, cans, and pornographic magazines for trash and recycling. As usual, Rei just lay on her back watching more TV.
"You could at least be kind enough to help me."
"That's not part of my job description," yawned Rei.
"You are so lazy."
Then Ichiko yawned. She then sat by the table and leaned against the wall.
"You're the one that's lazy," said Rei. "You only cleaned half of my apartment."
"I'm tired," said Ichiko.
"Do you need to go home?"
"I'll be home alone if I do."
Rei raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Then we should go there and hold ourselves a private party."
"Please Rei. I don't want you involved."
"I don't want to shame my family by bringing you there."
"You know, I'm not that slutty. Sure I like to drink, gamble, and flirt, but I don't overdo the sex part since prostitution is illegal in this district. I'm just a woman struggling to swim with the waves of normalcy. If you only knew the truth about me..."
By then, Ichiko was dozing off. Rei then picked her up and took her into the tiny bedroom, which was a little less messy than the living room she emerged from. The bathroom was nearby, and the dirty tub seemed too small to fit Rei.
Ichiko realized that she was plopped onto Rei's bed that was barely large enough to fit its owner.
"No, it's all right," said Ichiko. "I'll go home right now."
"You should rest a little," said Rei. "And... I want you to stay for a little while longer."
Rei sat on the floor with her back facing Ichiko.
"I was wondering when you'd come back to talk to me," said Rei. "Especially after my rude behavior towards you. I was waiting, in a sense, for the perfect opportunity to meet with you."
"What time do you need to get back home?"
"Okay. I'll be up to wake you..."
Rei slumped backwards so that her head was resting on the bed. Some of her long hair was on the sheets, thus allowing Ichiko quietly run her fingers through them. Despite Rei's disheveled looks, her hair was pleasantly silky that Ichiko held onto it as she began to doze off.
Right before she fell asleep, Ichiko saw on the nightstand amongst the ashtray and beer bottles photo spilling from an envelope. One of them had a picture of a young Rei, who was tall as she was now, in a black sailor schoolgirl uniform with her arm happily around a boy of a similar age in black school uniform. They were surrounded by other boys in front of a recently spray-painted graffiti wall as indicated by the spray cans in their hands.
I guess she caused trouble when she was young, thought Ichiko.
As she dozed off, her mind wandered onto the eerily familiar face of that boy Rei was embracing. A past boyfriend perhaps? He could be a potential rival, but then again Rei and that boy probably had broken up long ago. Then again, Ichiko shouldn't be thinking this way as she hadn't developed any romantic attachments to the woman. It was rather a short-term schoolgirl infatuation, so she believed...
Then came knock on the door. Rei bolted up and nearly stumbled onto her porn-filled bookshelf.
"Ah shit!" she cried. "We overslept!"
"Huh?" Ichiko checked her cellphone's clock and saw it was now 9:30 PM.
"Wait a minute. Let me see that phone. It's today? Shit!"
"What's going on?"
Rei quickly got dressed into something less disheveled and fixed up her hair. "Stay put for a while. This shouldn't take long."
The sliding door of the bedroom was shut once Rei stepped out. Ichiko sat up stiff and nervous as she heard introductory small talk between a man and Rei. He was probably a regular client as the two spoke in familiar terms, yet she worried deathly for Rei's sake. The man might do something perverse in the living room, and Ichiko imagined bursting to save her despite not knowing how. But why would she? She barely knew the woman. It could be that she didn't want whatever that transpired happen before her ears. If she did not see it or hear it, then it did not happen.
"I looks as if you've seduced another schoolgirl," said the man.
Ichiko tensed up and pulled her knees to her chest.
"Could be a schoolboy," corrected Rei.
"I can see the shoes."
"As a bisexual, I can't pass up the chance of feeling up a cute girl."
"You did break a lot of girls' hearts when we went out together."
"It was a phase. Anyway, make it quick."
Now heard was the sound of paper pills being transferred into Rei's hands. Ichiko was cringing more than ever, but she kept quiet as she deliberated on how she should interrupt the situation. She looked back at the photo to take her mind off her feelings, but the tactic didn't work.
"Still working at that law firm?" Rei asked.
"Yeah. Rin and I had to work in separate places because we had to put our children to school and pay for the mortgages. By the way, 'she's' going to the school just down the street. A ten to fifteen-minute walk from here."
"You still won't tell me her name, eh Ken'ichi?"
Rin? Ken'ichi? The names were to familiar, but even more familiar was the voice who uttered it. Why didn't she notice when the man entered?
Ichiko landed on her feet and slammed the sliding door open. There stood a mildly surprised Rei and Ichiko's father, Ken'ichi, staring back at her.
"Father?" Ichiko gasped. "Don't tell me you're..."
Rei's jaw dropped, and Ken'ichi lowered his head in order to contain his frowning rage.
"Ichiko," he said. "Get in the car. Now."
Ichiko gathered her schoolbag and puts on her shoes. She ashamedly ran down the stairs and stepped into her father's Lexus sedan at the passenger side. Then she waited in the worst minutes of her life. The revelation that her father and Rei knew each other and the fact they were former lovers had now driven her trembling to the edge.
Finally, the quiet and stoic Ken'ichi got into the car and drove off with her daughter. None of them talked until they parked inside the two-car garage. Even though the car had stopped none of them stepped out, as they were afraid to make the first move.
"Father, I'm sorry," said Ichiko.
Ken'ichi waved his hand in a vain gesture to reject the apology. He was breathing heavily and trembling in nervous shame.
"Ichiko," he said. "That woman... she's your real mother."
At that moment, Ichiko finally realized who that boy was in that photo.