Chapter Twenty Nine

After several weeks since the bone marrow transplant, the effects were finally starting to show on Akemi's mother. Her color was improving, she was awake more hours, and even found the energy to stroll around the hospital on some days. Dr. Nagasawa said she was finally entering remission, and Akemi couldn't be any happier at her mother's slow but steady recovery. It was impossible to keep the smile off Akemi's face as she hummed a tune to herself while rearranging the flowers on her mother's bedside.

"Well, you're in a good mood today. What's new?"

Akemi took a step back and gave the vase of yellow chrysanthemums a look-over. "Of course I'm in a good mood. I'm just counting the days until you're out of here."

Her mother released an elated sigh. "Yes, I still can't quite believe it myself. I never thought of myself as a lucky person."

"It would be a great disservice to the world if you left us too soon, Mom. You're just that awesome."

Her mother laughed, a bubbly, hearty sound that lit up the room brighter than anything ever could.

"You know, I've been here for months, went through the entire process from beginning to end, and I still haven't met Kenji."

Once, the mere mention of Takeshi's pseudonym always sent Akemi in a state of panic, but now it was strange to feel no more afraid than a child would be hiding a bag of candy. Was this the effect of her new relationship with him? To think of all they'd been through as something so trivial?

"I want you to answer me, Akemi. Who is this Kenji, really?"

Akemi dropped her gaze almost instantly, a second too late to stop the transparency from showing on her face. Even without looking she could feel her mother's patient but stern gaze. It would be impossible to lie again now. Her mother would know it as soon as it left her lips.

She swallowed, gathering strength. This day was bound to come, perhaps a little sooner, but she deserved it for letting it go on for too long. She was tired of lying.

She slowly settled on the edge of her mother's bed. Her gaze remained on the sheets for a long time as she tried to come up with the right words.

"He's… a very busy man," she said slowly. Little truths, one at a time. "He's not even in the country right now."

To feel even the slightest bit of longing for Takeshi was perhaps the strangest thing in the world, but it was there now somewhere deep in her heart, a newfound, bittersweet twinge in her chest at the reminder that he was away on a business trip to Singapore for an entire week. It had barely even been two days since the warehouse incident, but the memory of their last kiss was still fresh in her mind and on her lips, and kept her going while she waited for his return.

Grave concern lined her mother's face. "This room, this hospital, my doctor… they are one of the best in the country. I can't even begin to imagine how much this has all cost. If this Kenji is solely paying for all this… he can't be an ordinary person."

Akemi released a laugh, albeit strained. "You're right. He's not."

"So who is he, really? Is Kenji even his real name?"

She took a deep breath. "You wouldn't believe me."

Her mother smiled in good humor. "After all I've been through? Anything's possible."

Akemi smoothed her jeans with sweaty palms. "Well, I'm not sure if you've heard of him, but his name's Takeshi Ryuuzaki."

Even as the name finally left her lips, she still found herself unable to breathe as her mother blinked once, twice, clearly waiting for her to expound. She didn't know whether to laugh out of relief or not.

"His family owns a shipping company, some hotels… that's why he can pay for all this." Akemi tried for a nonchalant wave around her, but her arm just fell limp on her side.

A new crease formed on her mother's forehead. "Do you have a picture of him?"

Uneasily, Akemi pulled out the smartphone from her pocket and searched for an image. Her heart almost stopped when her mother's eyes widened with recognition.

"I used to see him on entertainment news all the time, being linked to so many women." Concern, laced with disapproval, resounded in her mother's voice. "He's your boyfriend?"

Had she been asked that mere days ago she would've vehemently answered no, but now… Equating Takeshi with the word 'boyfriend' was a bizarre concept to grasp. What were they to each other, really? She'd nearly forgotten his colorful history with women. Where did that leave her?

"It's… complicated," she truthfully answered. "But you don't have to worry about anything. He doesn't ask for anything in return for your treatment."

"Of course I worry. How did you even meet a man like him?"

She stifled a nervous laugh. "He uh, nearly ran me over with his car. He was passing by my school."

Her mother had barely batted an eyelash at Takeshi's name, but now she was being eyed like she'd sprouted another head at the circumstances of their first meeting?Her mother was a strange judge of character.

Her mother said nothing for a long time. It killed Akemi to wait in silence, fearing for the next questions. It was her cue to expound, to allay her mother's fears, but the rest of the story would have to remain untold. There was a fine line between lying and omitting, but revealing Takeshi's identity alone felt like it was more truth than she could ever give up for a lifetime.

Akemi's mother finally broke the silence with a deep, contemplative sigh. "I'm not in the position to say anything, not after all he's done for my care. Am I to assume I'm the only one in the family who knows about this?"

Akemi nodded. "You're the only one who knows, really. Not even my classmates at school do."

"Well, I can see how you'd have to keep a low profile with a man like him." Her mother clasped her hands together. "Still, I very much want to meet him in person, even just the two of us. I need to know the kind of man my daughter is with."

Her mother's gaze bore into hers, calm but unyielding. Even on a hospital bed, frail and barely on the verge of recovery, her mother had put her foot down. She would take no for an answer. Akemi's heart swelled as she wrapped herself in the protection of her mother's warning. No one, not even Takeshi, could ever truly hurt her while her mother was around.

Akemi nodded once more, taking her mother's hand and holding it firmly. "Okay."

Akemi had never seen so many rich people in one place before.

Down the hallways, the students of St. Beatrice were with each of their parents, socializing in their expensive suits and designer brands. The wealthiest families in the country were all gathered for Parent-Teacher Day, apparently one of the most anticipated events of the school year. As Akemi traversed through the corridors, business cards were exchanged, snide remarks about someone's dress were pointed out, but most of all, students were at full force today boasting their parents' latest achievements. It looked like Christmas had come early for Sayaka as she linked arms with her father, chairman of the school board, a man of robust build with a hard-lined face and a no-nonsense expression.

Sayaka's eyes met Akemi's, and her chest tightened when the blonde gently nudged her father and began heading her direction.

"Morisato, where's your parents?" Sayaka began, looking around her. "I've been looking forward to meeting them."

"They can't make it today," Akemi muttered, growing uneasy under the long stare of Sayaka's father.

An insincere pout formed on Sayaka's lips. "Pity. Father, you remember Akemi Morisato? You spoke with her cousin a few weeks ago."

Akemi flashed the man before her a quick smile. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Hanasaki."

"My, so you're all alone today? You poor thing." Sayaka's eyes glittered with malice. "What about your cousin? He covered for you the last time, didn't he?"

Akemi took a step forward, raring to leave. "He's out of the country, I'm afraid."

"Goodness." Sayaka put a hand to her chest. "I almost feel sorry for you, Morisato."

"Sayaka, leave Miss Morisato be," her father said in a gruff tone. "Her family's very busy."

"I'd have a better idea if I knew exactly who they were," Sayaka countered with a roll of her eyes. "What are they? A government secret?"

"We've had this discussion before. Don't make me repeat myself again," Mr. Hanasaki said in a low voice. Sayaka threw him a sour look as he gave Akemi a nod. "Please excuse us, Miss Morisato."

Akemi couldn't fight the smile off her lips as she left Sayaka scowling at her wake.

She proceeded to the cafeteria where she joined Chiharu and her mother. Here the families of the school's scholars were all gathered, not bothering to mingle with the posh elite outside.

"Mom, you remember Akemi, of course? You couldn't stop feeding her when she came over." Chiharu giggled as Akemi slid in the seat opposite them.

"Of course I do! How are you, dear?" Chiharu's mother affably smiled. "You should drop by more often! I hope I didn't scare you!"

"Of course not, Mrs. Sasaki." Akemi laughed. "It's good to see you again. Where's Mr. Sasaki?"

"At work and can't cancel, I'm afraid. What about you, dear? Where are your parents?"

"Same thing, sadly."

"Don't worry, you can hang out with us while you wait," Chiharu said. "What time is your assessment scheduled?"

Akemi glanced at her watch. "Not for another hour."

There was a brief audio feedback when the PA turned on. "Miss Morisato, your presence is required in the principal's office. Please proceed immediately."

Akemi exchanged confused glances with Chiharu. "What did I do now?"

"I guess you're going to find out," her friend said with wide eyes. "Let me know how it goes, okay?"

Akemi nodded as she stood up and left the cafeteria on her way to the topmost floor. With the crowd concentrated downstairs, it would've been a relief to arrive down a deserted hallway. Why was she being called in, of all days and of all people?

She politely knocked on the door, waiting until she heard the principal say, "Come in."

She poked her head in before taking a tentative step inside. "You called for me, Miss Asagiri?"

On one of the chairs across the principal's desk, Takeshi turned around and faced her.

Akemi froze, heart skipping in surprise and horror. What was he doing back in the country so soon, and at a time when the school was at its most crowded?

"Please take a seat, Miss Morisato," the principal offered. "It turns out your cousin has found the time to make it today after all."

Akemi uneasily made her way to the chair next to Takeshi. Other than his usual, placid smile, his expression gave away nothing.

"I'd like to thank you again for doing this, Miss Asagiri. I know I'm keeping you from entertaining everyone downstairs," Takeshi said. "I've been told I am to speak with Akemi's homeroom adviser in her classroom, but I don't wish for my presence to be made known, if possible."

"That's perfectly understandable, Mr. Ryuuzaki. I already have a copy of her teacher's report here." The principal reached for a folder. "It says here Miss Morisato passed all her exams in flying colors. She submits requirements on time and participates well in discussions. You'll be pleased to hear she's one of the top in her class."

"That's excellent news, Akemi. I'm proud of you," Takeshi said, more mirth than sincerity in his eyes. She fought back a scowl, reminding herself to give him a swift kick for finding humor at her expense.

"As long as there aren't any problems, that's all I need to hear." Takeshi uncrossed his legs and sat up straighter. "I'm afraid I'm on a bit of a tight schedule today, Miss Asagiri. I do apologize."

"That won't be a problem, Mr. Ryuuzaki. We appreciate you gracing us with your presence today. We know you're a busy man." The principal rose and extended a hand. "Thank you for your time."

"And to you as well." Takeshi returned the gesture as Akemi stood up with him. "Please excuse us."

As soon as the door closed behind them, Akemi hastily looked left and right down the empty hallways before hissing, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Takeshi raised his eyebrows. "I missed you too."

It was hard to maintain the glower on her face as he stood before her in an inconspicuous, black-and-white suit and necktie. It had only been days since she last saw him, but there was an undeniable thrill in his early return. Still she did not let it show on her face, especially in school, of all places.

"How did you even get in undetected?" she incredulously asked. "You're mad for risking yourself here."

"It was worth it for you." He grinned.

Her ready retort died in her mouth. She deflected her embarrassment by walking past him. "Well, no sense stalling. We need to get you out of here now."

"Relax. No one else is here." He reached for her hand, clasping it as he motioned towards the big, oak double doors at the end of the hallway. "What's in there?"

"The library," she replied as he began pulling her towards it. "Trust me, your library looks nicer and has way more books. There's nothing interesting in there."

The heavy doors opened with a creak, resounding in the large, uninhabited room. Unrelentingly, he continued dragging her past all the desks and shelves until they arrived down one of the farthest aisles.

Takeshi pushed her to the shelves and kissed her.

A gasp barely left her lips in surprise, but all was soon forgotten as she drowned in the taste of him. He kissed her deeply, passionately, almost with an urgency that left her stunned. His lips halfheartedly left hers, but only to nibble on her sensitive neck. She half-giggled, half-sighed before putting a firm hand on his shoulders.

His eyebrows met. "What is it?"

"Not here," she murmured. "Someone might come in."

She put a finger on his lips when he tried to kiss her again. His hold on her loosened, but he didn't release her just yet. Something akin to pain flashed in his eyes, but it dissipated too quickly to tell.

"Are you that afraid to be seen with me?"

Remorse twisted in her chest. She gave his arms a firm squeeze and shook her head. "No, but you said it yourself. I thought you didn't want anyone to know you were here?"

He gazed into her for a long time, and it nearly drained her not to look away in uneasiness. She was yet to get used to being with him this close for this long.

Wordlessly, he took the hand that obstructed his lips. He kissed her again gently, lightly, but in a matter of seconds her legs were weakening again from his deepening kiss. He grabbed her by the waist and placed her atop a desk, pulling her closer until they were chest to chest. Her breath nearly left her as he slid a hand up her skirt and another up her blouse, his hands feverishly hot on her skin.

"You know, the universe has some sick sense of timing. Just when I thought I could finally do this"—he bit on her earlobe—"I get called away to another country for a week."

His hot breath on her ear sent a tingle down her spine. Something tight and strange began to pool low in her stomach, and with every caress of his hands and every trail left by his mouth her body grew more taut with tension.

By the pool had been the last time they'd been in this situation, but up until that point she'd been the one to test his control. Now an impatient growl rumbled in his throat as he took his coat off, and a small voice in her mind warned her things might be going too far, too fast. A hand squeezed her thigh while the other traced a thumb over her ribcage, barely an inch away from her breast. She became reduced to a confused, weakened mess while her mind and body began warring with each other.

He seized her nape and entwined his fingers in her hair, kissing her long and hard. By the time he pulled away they were both breathless as Takeshi pressed his forehead against hers and closed his eyes.

"You're right. We need to stop," he hoarsely said. "One more minute with you and we're both going to be in trouble."

She managed to nod as he extricated himself from her, smoothing out his shirt and putting his coat back on. She hopped off the desk and fixed her own clothes, hoping the rest of her didn't look as disheveled.

He offered his hand, and slowly she accepted it as they headed for the exit. When they reached the doors he stopped her once more, gently cupping her face.

"I've missed you, you know," he murmured, caressing her cheek. "I'm so glad to be back."

Her face was probably already hot and red on his palm, but she didn't care as she gave him a sheepish smile. "Me too."

He softly chuckled as he kissed her again, and this time she stood on her tiptoes and wrapped her arms around his neck in return.

to be continued