Let me just say that this chapter felt like an uphill battle all the way through. It was hard to keep direction going because it was so lengthy, the syntax and structure started to feel extremely formulaic, and a lot of spaces needed re-writing thanks to the previous two problems. I am still proud to say that this is indeed the second-to-last chapter, and I am hoping to have the finale posted before the end of the month. Thank you all for your continued feedback and support. And also here's hoping this chapter isn't so long that it breaks the forum page. That's a problem I had when I first came here.
Act 5 - Part 9-1: Cheek to Cheek
The smell of diesel fuel hits me the second I step off of the bus and a stiff breeze does a nice job of messing up my hair, which only renders the ten minutes I spent combing it out and fighting that single annoying lock of hair pointless. It's only six o' clock and it's already begun to get dark, mostly due to the overcast weather; hopefully it won't be raining by the time I'm heading home tonight.
I check my phone once again, waiting for any updates from Akira, who only got off work an hour ago. Lilly and Hanako have also gone silent – Hanako stayed after class to make up a quiz and Lilly is going to be with her, but that should have been over and done with by now. I had to take an early bus by myself since neither of those two were responding and I didn't want to be late.
The jazz club isn’t that far away at any rate, and it's not like I'll be kicked out while waiting for someone -- not that’s a very exclusive club in the first place. I have no idea when Mr. Satou is going to show up, hopefully some time after I've been able to get settled in with everyone else. Ever since our last meeting, I have no idea at all of what to expect, especially with how abruptly he decided to cut things off.
Thinking back on it, I'm a little ashamed that I wasn't able to prepare more for her birthday. The most I could get her for a present is a pair of earrings, although they’re nothing too fancy or expensive and even that took an entire day of wracking my brain over, considering the fact that she doesn't seem to like much jewelry aside from earrings. On top of that, I've never seen her wear much other than a couple of different sets.
I get the impression that Akira is going to be an increasingly expensive girl to shop for – she's modest, definitely, but there's no getting rid of that wealthy upbringing, and it doesn’t help that she doesn’t have very wide-reaching preferences when it comes to gifts. Alcohol seems to work, at least.
Another regret of mine is that I couldn't wear my suit today, seeing as how it's now at the cleaners after being worn multiple times without rest. Hopefully some slacks and a dress shirt will get me under Mr. Satou's radar.
By the time I'm turning the block, I can feel my phone vibrating in my pocket, and a glance at the caller ID reveals that it's the call I've been waiting for.
“Hey birthday girl, what's going on?” I greet upon flipping the plastic slab open.
There's a short pause for the sound of an engine being started. “Nothing much, I just got a call from Lilly and Hanako saying that the incoming bus broke down. I've gotta go pick them up otherwise they'll be out there for an hour.”
Oh. Well, that explains a bit, I suppose. “Alright. Anything you need me to do?”
“Yeah, could you go meet the old man at the jazz club and tell him what's going on?” She asks. Her words are rushed and even though she’s trying to sound calm, I can tell that she’s annoyed.
“I could do that, sure.” I reply, glancing over the group of people in front of me to see the jazz club drawing closer with each step. “Is everything alright? You seem kinda... troubled.”
She lets out a small sigh. “Oh, no, it's gonna be fine. I just didn't get a lot of sleep last night.” Akira scoffs, pausing once again while the clicking of a turn signal fills the silence. “It's just, I was kinda hoping I wouldn't have to deal with my dad tonight.”
“You don't even want him at your birthday?” I ask.
“Well, no, I want him there, I just don't want any of the crap I'm sure he's gonna give me.” She replies in a dull tone.
I shake my head, still trying to think of how I'm going to handle this. “I understand. I'll try and keep him busy until then. Drive safe.”
“Mhm. Sorry that I've gotta leave you alone with him.” She says with genuine empathy. “I'll try and make it back as soon as possible. Later.”
With that, she hangs up and I'm left standing in front of the jazz club, the sidewalk around the entrance vacant except for a few people waiting on benches beside the doorway. I get the impression that Mr. Satou wouldn't just go into this place by himself if he's here for guests, so it would be better to wait on the bench until then.
Even with as much as I wish I didn’t have to. Even with as little as I’ve prepared for Akira’s birthday, it’s still something; no matter how much I think about it, I haven’t the slightest clue as to how to deal with Mr. Satou. How to talk to him, how to act around him, how to interact with him in any way. It’s granted that he commands an absurd level of manners and proper speech, but I feel like anything I could try to talk about would be picked apart at the most basic level.
It's times like this that make me wish I had asked for his number from Akira or Lilly. It probably wouldn't be too proper for someone like me to be calling him, especially considering all of the business he's surely been taking care of, but-
The voice is calm and yet confronting, crawling through my ear in such a manner that I feel commanded to turn my head and answer it.
Mr. Satou approaches, adjusting his shirt as if he only just stepped outside. Rather than one of the sleek suits he's sported every other time I've encountered him, today he seems to have lightened up a bit, wearing a blue polo shirt with the top button undone and a pair of black slacks.
“Ah, hello, Mr. Satou.” I say, standing up and bowing my head.
He nods and slips one hand into his pocket, still wearing a neutral impression. “Would you happen to know where the others are?”
Go figure he's only concerned with everyone else – I'd be willing to bet he still doesn't even remember my name. “Lilly and Hanako had a bus problem. Akira drove to the school to pick them up, so she'll be a while.” I answer, shrinking against his gaze as he inspects every movement I make.
“I see.” Mr. Satou gives a small 'hm' while he thinks over my answer. He glances off into the distance and shakes his head before looking at me and shrugging. “Well, you'll do. We haven't had a chance to talk personally anyway.”
He gestures for me to follow him into the jazz club. Looking at him this way, he doesn't seem so intimidating, or at least not so big. He's tall, but he doesn't seem to have the muscle mass you'd expect from that generic expectation of your girlfriend's dad. The shirt looks loose on him, not so much unfitting but more like it was tailored to give him some breathing room.
I can't help but wonder what he has planned as he holds the door open for me, the two of us stepping through the sparse crowd without trouble and eventually taking a seat at the front counter.
The bartender nods upon seeing both of us, but seems to take an extra interest in the man beside me. “Good evening, sir. You're a little earlier than usual.”
He doesn't seem to react to the comment at all, instead glancing up and replying with “you already know what I want.” Before the bartender has a chance to go off and retrieve it, though, Mr. Satou turns to me and asks “How old are you? Twenty, right?”
I shake my head, startled by the question. “No, I'm just eighteen.”
“Ah, twenty, that's what I thought.” He nods before turning back to the front and saying “The same for him. Put ice in it, though.”
The man on the other end of the counter glances between both of us as if mulling over the order and deciding whether or not to go along with it. Eventually, he nods at Mr. Satou and pulls a rectangular bottle out from a shelf behind him and sets it in front of us, producing two glasses beside it – one filled with a handful of ice cubes, and the other with a single white sphere about the size of a golf ball. I try to read the label while the bartender finishes preparing the drinks, only to realize that it's in english and I haven't the faintest clue of what it says.
“Do you have any experience with this?” Mr. Satou asks while holding his glass out for me, which I meet with a dim 'clink.'
“I've had a few drinks before, but nothing I can say I could appreciate.” I try to play it safe while he takes a long drag, eyes shut in thought.
I take one whiff of the substance and gather that it's much stronger than anything else I've had before. It feels like each new time I experience alcohol, it’s gotten even stronger -- meanwhile, I’m left with eye-watering discomfort just the same.
He glances over at me, watching my reaction. “Give it a try. If you see anything else you want then give that a try too. God knows that girl is going to leave us waiting for a while.”
My mouth opens to object, but I decide to go along with it for now.
At least, that was the plan. A single sip of the drink is enough to leave my mouth surging on full alarm and the raw scent of paint thinner and old wooden furniture practically tears my nose apart from the inside out. Any attempts to comment on the flavor go unheard, my voice raspy and my throat feeling dried up from the experience.
The following silence does nothing to make me feel any less awkward. As soon as I set down the glass, I notice the sides of his mouth curl up, if only slightly and for a few moments. “So, you weren't lying. I apologize for putting you through that.” He goes back to maintaining his hardy demeanor and nudges the glass away from me, which is soon replaced by a glass of ice water when the bartender picks up on my sour expression.
“I was interested in seeing how you handled it.” Satou explains, pushing his own drink away and turning to face me slightly. “It's a test of a man's character, so to speak.”
I chug half the glass and pat my chest, still trying to shake off the lingering taste. “So how did I do?” I ask, just barely able to heave the words out.
His red eyes glimmer in the dim light as he looks me over, an idle curiosity in his gaze. “Well, that's for me to know.” He states, checking his watch before sitting forward a bit and thinking of what else to say. “When you've been in business as long as I have, you start to pick up different ways of finding out who people are. Who's genuine and who's looking to sell you out.”
“I think I get what you mean.” I say, shaking my head and coughing. “So why me, then? I'm just a student, and up until now it seemed like you didn't even acknowledge my existence.”
He smiles again at this. “I apologize for that. There are a few things that require my focus while I'm here, and I'm afraid that you did not register on my list of priorities. As for the 'test,' I have something of a pet peeve for people who bite off more than they can chew.”
With that said, he decides to stop with the posturing. “That's some of the strongest scotch in the world. I would have to question either your honesty or your upbringing if you had just shrugged it off. Possibly both.”
Well, at least he doesn't beat around the bush that much. I've spent this entire time waiting for my inevitable 'this is why you suck' speech, and each passing moment feels more like he's just gathering things to tear me apart with. “Well, even if you say I passed, I still feel like I've failed.” I turn away from him and cough into my sleeve once more while an alien aftertaste settles in my mouth. “So what are your priorities, then? What do you have planned for Akira?”
At first, he raises one finger and begins to say “You should watch what kinds of questions you ask me,” but he cuts himself off halfway and lets out a small sigh, gazing into his half-empty glass. “I am here for my daughters. That is no secret, and I do not wish that to be a secret.”
Before I have a chance to ask anything else, though, he continues. “I have no hidden motives, and I do not need to justify myself to anyone. If that is what you're hoping for, then I suggest you fill in the blanks yourself.”
“Oh, no, I think I understand why you're doing it. Akira's told me a lot about all of this.” I return, emptying the glass of water and lamenting that the same woody aftertaste persists.
“Akira has said a lot of things about me, I'm sure.” He grumbles, taking another sip of his drink. “If there's one thing that girl knows how to do, it's talk. I'm sure she still holds onto all kinds of grudges.”
As much as I want to fight it, there’s no point in it right now. I would think that Akira is rightfully hurt in the matter, though. He pretty much cut her off from doing anything other than studying for twelve hours a day, and then didn't even have the courtesy to stay in Japan until she had secured her own career. “There's a lot of things that still trouble her, yeah.”
He shakes his head again, letting out a quiet groan. “She's still upset that I wouldn't let her go out for the soccer team, isn't she?”
“She, uh... yeah.” I reply whilst scratching my head, unsure how to continue. “I don't think she's holding a grudge over that, though. I mean, she understands why you did things like that, the same way you wouldn't let her try out for kendo, and baseball, and track, and... everything else.”
There's a pause as Mr. Satou finishes off his drink and pushes the glass toward the bartender, shaking his head when he's offered more. “She tells you a lot of things, doesn't she?”
The words get jumbled together in my throat each time I try to think of a way to answer. “Akira and I are dating, so I've been let in on a few things. She’s always had a lot to say about… you, and the past, and… things of that nature.”
He gives me a look of dulled surprise as soon as I give the big reveal, staring at me as if I were a homeless person begging for money.
“So you're dating my daughter...” He eyes his empty glass with second thoughts and tries to flag down the bartender again before shooting me yet another muddled glance. “And... you're eighteen?”
I nod and meet his face, only to realize that his expression isn't one of disappointment or disapproval. Instead, he reaches over and pats me on the shoulder, letting out a deep breath filled with mixed emotions.
“I was twenty-nine when I met Karla, my wife. She was twenty and just transferring to a university at the time.” He remarks, adjusting his posture and rolling his neck, seemingly unfazed by the first drink. “I only bring this up because you seem very uncomfortable with the subject.”
Well, I’m more uncomfortable with just telling him that it’s a thing at all, but that’s a given. What he has to say is what leaves me speechless. Here I've been lingering on the idea of a six-year age gap, while this guy has dealt with a nine-year difference and went on to marry the woman on top of that.
Convinced that I'm not going to speak, all he decides to add is “You shouldn't worry about it. With a girl as headstrong as her, you'll have too much on your plate to be thinking about a simple age difference.” He shuts his eyes in thought and lets out a bit of a groan. “Just like her mother, that one.”
All I'm able to express is surprise. I came out of that phone call with Akira dreading the next hour, preparing myself for all the verbal smacks I was about to receive. Yet here I am with the man himself and not only is he giving me dating advice, he relates to the situation and he's trying to reassure me about it. That's just...
I'm starting to feel like Akira may have exaggerated a bit. Only a bit, though; for all I know, this might just be the eye of the storm.
“I was worried you wouldn't approve of that kind of thing.” I say, starting to lean forward onto the counter but immediately catching myself.
“Well, I don't.” He states in a very nonchalant manner, shattering what little sense of security I was starting to develop. “My only thoughts on this are that I don't mind the age difference, but you're only a boy in high school. Do you even have plans for college, much less a grand career?”
All I'm able to say in response is “I've got plans, it's just a matter of figuring out what I want to go for.”
He opens his mouth to chastise me, but glances away. He turns a downcast stare to his watch, as if thinking 'I need to chew him out for this but I doubt it’s even worth it.' “We all have those points in our life. Well, most people, anyway.”
A silence follows his words, filled only by the low hum of the ambient music and the chatter of the people around us. “I was fortunate in that I knew what I was going to be working toward before I even got to secondary school. That was the gift that my father left me; a future.”
“Well that's just the thing. I don't have any footsteps to follow in.” I say, crossing my arms. “I have to make a decision that affects what I'll be doing for the rest of my life. How does anyone do something like that, especially in high school?”
He glances over at me and shakes his head. “Everyone on this earth has a purpose, big or small. Some of us know our purposes, and some of us have to search for them.” Mr. Satou explains, his voice filled with a sudden pride. “My father blessed me by giving me purpose, as his father did for him, and my only wish is to pass that gift down to my own children.”
“I will not break the chain. I want to give them purpose. I want them to keep moving forward, because that is the only thing I can provide for them anymore.” He continues, avoiding my gaze.
There he goes again with that stuff. “Doesn't that feel intrusive to you, though? It's understandable to want to help if they've made that choice for themselves, but I can't imagine going into a career or spending the rest of my life on something that I might not have any passion for.”
My reply is met with a dull stare, his brow narrowed in immediate annoyance. “I am their father. In my time, I've come to see the world as a different place, and I hope that someday you do the same. I am not forcing anything on them, rather, I am offering them a chance to skip over all of the pitfalls that come with life.”
It almost sounds like he's reciting it from a list, like it's something he has to say to himself every time he looks in a mirror.
“That doesn't even make sense, though. How do you know they won't just fall into different pitfalls entirely?” I argue, trying as best I can to remain calm – he always seems to drop out when things get hostile towards him, so there's no point in really pushing this.
All he does is shake his head. “Do you really think I haven't planned this out? That I would make all of this space for them - create opportunities at the expense of my own standing – without having a clue as to what I was doing?” He says, keeping a neutral tone and looking at me without anger. Then, he reaches over and pats my shoulder once more, his hardy expression melting away. “This is not for my own gain. If you are worried about injustice or pain being inflicted upon Akira or Lilly, then there is no need to be concerned.”
I get the impression that he’s not taking me seriously, or like he’s just trying to give me the benefit of the doubt. He seems to have a bit of a bias in how he treats the people younger than him; it’s almost patronizing, in a way.
This time, I'm the one to shake my head, pulling away from his hand. “I'm not worried about what will happen over there. My concern is over the things she won't be able to do here anymore.”
My phone vibrates, but I can't bring myself to answer it with the man sitting beside me considering the fact that he might actually be taking me seriously for the first time.
“I am aware of everything that is capable in Japan.” He states, his voice losing the edge it had as he peers at me from over his glasses. “However, I am also aware of everything that is not possible in this country, and I do not want my daughters to run into those walls. I want them to be successful in their own right, without these petty glass ceilings.”
“So the glass ceiling you impose on them is better than the glass ceiling someone else might impose on them?” I counter with about as much control as I can muster.
At this, he lets out a long groan and adjusts his shirt collar, taking a deep breath while he tries not to start yelling. “I am not putting limits on either of them, and you should know that. I am providing alternate paths to success. There's more than one way to do these things.”
My view dims and I can feel the blood rushing to my face despite my best attempts to remain calm. All I can do at this point is keep my voice low. “Then why act like your way is the only correct one? What's stopping Akira from finding success by her own methods? What's stopping Lilly from following her own dreams and making happiness for herself? Success can't be defined by any specific standard, everyone is different about this kind of thing – even I know that.”
“Because my way is the easiest for everyone.” He replies, not even turning to face me. “This is about the whole family, remember? I have to do what's best for everyone, and I know what is best for both of those girls, even if they don't acknowledge it yet. To go against that would be simply dishonorable.”
No, no, no, this is all wrong. Just because you were forced into a position you had to take out of 'duty,' then that means everyone else has to suffer the same fate? And on top of that, I'm dishonorable or lower than him because I want to have choices and be allowed to make a future for myself?
Before I can offer my retort, I'm tapped on the shoulder and met by a tired-looking Akira trying her best to smile. Hanako and Lilly both accompany her, embarrassed looks on their faces as if to preemptively apologize for showing up late.
“Hey, did I miss anything?” Akira asks, glancing between both of us with one hand in her pocket. She's wearing a red tank top and a pair of loose-fitting capris, as well as some white sandals.
If I remember correctly, that's the same outfit she wore the first time she took me here. I suppose there isn't an infinite wardrobe behind that closet filled wall to wall with suits. “We were just talking. How did everything go?” I reply, glancing over at Mr. Satou and gathering that the conversation we were having is now over.
She smiles and ruffles my hair. “Traffic was a bit of a mess, but we're all alive so I can't complain.”
“We both apologize for the delay.” Lilly adds, the small handbag hanging from her fingers complimenting her loose-fitting beige outfit. “I had quite a bit of paperwork that had to be taken care of today. It couldn't be avoided, I'm afraid.”
Hanako peeks out from behind Lilly, eying Mr. Satou and practically shaking where she stands. “The j-journalism club meeting took longer than I w-was expecting...”
I glance over once more before standing up and meeting all three of them while a slender arm finds its way around my back. “Oh, no, we weren't here for long either. I probably should have gone looking for both of you instead of going ahead.”
“Really? It felt like we were taking forever back there.” Akira remarks. “What have you two been up to, then?”
“Nothing major, just a small chat.” I answer whilst trying to my arm around her as well. “Took the chance to get to know him a little better.”
“Yes, we had a rather informative talk.” Mr. Satou finally gets out of his chair to meet everyone, his voice dipping back into a more professional tone. “It was nice. Finally getting to meet your boyfriend, that is.”
The last part of his statement hangs in the air while he leers at Akira – I get the impression that he isn't so much upset about her dating a high schooler as he is about her not mentioning it before. Then again, that raises the question of whether or not he had been told about any of her previous relationships, seeing as how she didn't start getting serious about this kind of thing until after he had left.
“I'm glad to see you two getting along.” She says, tightening her hold on me while a light pout forms on her lips. “Anyway, I'm not here to make any trouble. Can I have just one day without all of the lectures and insults?”
He cocks an eyebrow, glancing between everyone in the group as he chews on his words. “Everything I needed to say to you should already be known. If you want to continue ignoring my wishes and disrespecting my judgment, then by all means-”
“Yeah, like that.” Akira cuts him off without breaking her gaze. “I've made my decision, and I don't intend to back out on it -- I'm not leaving Japan, and neither is Lilly. That's all I want to hear about it today.”
Before he has a chance to even issue a response, she strides past him and leans onto the front counter. Akira gives a friendly wave to the bartender as he comes back with a bottle of wine, wrapped in a glimmering cloth and tied up with a ribbon as if it were a newborn child.
“Happy birthday, Ms. Satou.” He says, bowing his head as he presents the gift to her.
She gives an excited ‘oooh’ and returns the gesture. “Thanks, Teppei.”
A set of wine glasses is placed in front of us and I'm given the honor of pouring everyone a drink. Mr. Satou decides to put away whatever it was he wanted to say and seems to be trying his best to enjoy the moment, even going so far as to drink the entire goblet without making a comment about Akira's tastes.
Then again, it looks like he wouldn't have much to say in the first place – is it because her taste in wine is actually up to snuff for someone like him, who seems to be so experienced that he's able to drink what might be a concoction of maple syrup and paint thinner? Or could it be that Akira's tastes actually come from what she was exposed to while growing up?
At any rate, it doesn't take long for the single bottle of wine to disappear between the five of us. The bartender doesn’t seem to express any alarm toward my continual drinking despite blatantly overhearing my not actually being twenty: in fact, he doesn’t even take notice of the other two underaged girls here.
“No need for that here. Maybe later.” She says, leaving the empty glasses on the counter and heading for the billiards table. “There isn't a band tonight, so we might as well find something fun to do.”
My hand hovers over my pocket, thinking about when might be the best time to give my own present to Akira while she and Hanako wander off. Lilly and Mr. Satou stay back, the two of them sitting at the counter and beginning to have a conversation of their own. I can't understand anything they're saying – or rather, I'm not close enough to really eavesdrop on it, and I figure that the moment of privacy might be good for Lilly in making her own thoughts known.
There's already a game being set up by the time I get to the pool tables, with Hanako nervously clutching one of the cues and waiting for Akira to finish getting the balls ready. She winks and gives me one of those mischievous smirks before inviting Hanako to take the first turn.
“Oh don't worry, I'll go easy on her.” Akira says upon noticing my look of skepticism, much to her opponent's confusion.
Hanako glances back and forth nervously, trying to relax as she lines up her first shot. She focuses the cue ball in the center of the triangle and takes aim, letting the tip of the cue bump against the white sphere with enough force to scatter the balls all around the table. The only one she's able to score from the move is the striped nine, which rolls lethargically into the side pocket.
“Th-That means I go again, right?” She asks, slowly letting her guard down and trying to enjoy the game as she glances around the table.
Akira nods and smiles, motioning for her to take her next turn. Without much thought, Hanako stands on the opposite end of the table and tries to knock the striped eleven into the corner pocket, with little luck.
I cross my arms and lean against the wall, trying to keep an eye on Mr. Satou and Lilly. “Hanako, you're already doing better than my first try against her. Whenever we played, she could practically win the game without even letting m-”
I'm cut off by a stern 'shhh' while Akira lines up her shot, determining her strategy with little effort and then striking. The cue ball bounces off of the front bumper and lightly taps the solid two into the corner pocket.
“Oh, you know Hisao, he's just trying to mess with you.” She chuckles, focusing once more and taking her next turn, firing the white ball across the table but just barely glancing off of the solid six.
Hanako gives Akira a look of skepticism. “But... you were r-really good at this w-when we played last year...” She trails off, not waiting for a reply while she takes aim once more, her next shot only managing to knock a few balls around without pocketing anything.
The game continues without any major plays being made. Akira makes a good show of holding herself back while seeming like she isn't, but it's pretty clear that she's just trying to be nice to Hanako – considering the lack of jump shots and other trick moves, that much is evident. It must be painful for her to be so passive like this.
Hanako manages to take the lead for a healthy portion of the game, although Akira quickly closes the gap, sinking two striped balls in the same pocket. Both of the girls seem to meander around the table for a bit as Hanako tries to take care of the solid two, not paying much mind to where the cue ball will end up for Akira's turn.
By the time they're playing for the eight, Mr. Satou and Lilly have already finished their business and are approaching our group, a passive expression on Mr. Satou’s face. Lilly follows behind with a look of restrained annoyance, pinching his shirt apprehensively, as if she were afraid of ruffling the cloth.
“Welcome back.” Akira says, biting her lip while she tries knock the black ball into the side pocket. She takes one glance at her father before shooting, missing the shot by a few millimeters and allowing it to roll within bumping distance of the hole.
“I'm sorry about the absence.” Lilly states, standing up straight and clutching her bag in both hands while she tries to adjust to what's going on. “We decided to chat for a little bit. I hope that's alright.”
The eldest Satou says nothing, scanning the table and watching both players' moves carefully, almost like a hawk sizing up its prey. He seems to take great interest in Akira's last turn in particular, scratching his chin and coughing as she misses the shot.
Akira shrugs and pats Hanako on the shoulder, setting the cue aside and accepting her defeat as Hanako steps up and sinks the eight, albeit with quite a bit of apprehension.
“Don't worry about it. There's no need to worry about anything tonight, I'm not getting paid to deal with any of that nonsense.” Akira smiles, shooting a sideward glance at Mr. Satou.
The window for a reply isn't taken, and the group goes silent. Hanako takes only a few moments to revel in her victory before removing all of the billiards and beginning to rack them up once more. Not without a comment from Mr. Satou, though. “Alternate the patterns. You shouldn't have two solids next to each other.”
He continues to watch her movements, silently approving as she nods and rearranges the balls within the triangle, stepping away from the table as soon as he seems satisfied.
“Looking for a game, old man?” Akira quips.
“I'm not old.” He replies with a dull expression, holding one hand out and waiting for Hanako to give him the pool cue. “You should know by now that I can't turn down a challenge, though. Especially from you.”
I get the impression that this exact situation is something that might have been repeated a few times, considering the sudden look of worry on Lilly's face. The older of the two sisters seems to take satisfaction in his reply, however, as she picks one of the cues back up and approaches the table, meeting her father's eyes.
Instead of allowing him to take the first turn, this time a coin is tossed into the air – Satou is the first one to call it, predicting heads and getting his wish. Without waiting another moment, he places the white cue ball on the surface of the table, although he chooses to set it down a few centimeters away from the marking.
With that, the concepts of 'casual' and 'fun' are catapulted face-first out the nearest window. Mr. Satou spends all of five seconds taking his position, aiming, and then firing with enough force to send a tiny cloud of blue chalk dust flying off the end of his cue. The billiards all ricochet around the table, the arrangement coming up short with both a solid and striped ball sitting in opposite pockets
He doesn't seem too pleased with his move, already applying a coat of blue chalk to the tip of the cue as he announces “I'll take stripes.”
Akira seems completely unfazed as he goes through his next turn. Her ruby gaze follows each ball with great interest, jumping between every meter of the table while she formulates her strategy. “Glad to see you still take this way too seriously.”
The statement falls on deaf ears and he takes the next shot with twice as much gusto. Somehow, his motions remind me of watching chess masters on TV; energetic and engaged in the game -- at the same time his dead expression makes me wonder if he's even finding enjoyment in any of it. Everything seems like clockwork to him, just going through the motions.
Akira, on the other hand, still seems invested in the game. Even though she has near-perfect accuracy, she thinks over each move and takes everything into consideration, as if calculating what each move will have affected through the next five turns. If Mr. Satou is the chessmaster, then Akira is the senior vying for the position.
I didn’t even know billiards could get this heated until now, and this is only on the first turn.
Akira takes a deep breath and follows up on his play, a displeased murmur rolling through the air as she looks over the table. It doesn’t seem like the cue ball is in a very favorable position, at least from what I understand about pool, which makes me think that she’s only trying to get it into a more positive state.
Upon managing to accomplish this, the solid four drops into the corner pocket with a solid 'snap,' and soon she’s stepping to the other side of the table with her eye focused on the cue ball. I get out of the way to give her some space, winding up next to Lilly. Across the space, Hanako still stands frozen against the wall, inching back and forth while she tries to avoid Mr. Satou.
“Is... was this a big thing between them?” I whisper to Lilly, unable to keep my eyes off of the arena unfolding before me.
Lilly lets out a long, but controlled sigh. “I'm not quite sure how I could say it.” She begins, almost flinching as the 'snap' of Akira's cue cuts through the silence like gunfire. “Father was a very devout fan of billiards. In fact, I believe he had a table in his study.”
Seeming to have missed her mark, or rather, found no more potential to chain a dozen captures in a row, Akira steps away from the table, arms crossed and her brow narrowed in observation. Mr. Satou takes a few moments to analyze the situation before going next.
“Oh. So that’s where she gets it from.” I grimace.
At the very least it dispels the idea that she might have been some kind of pool hustler in college. Having to resort to that to make money after she denounced her father’s aid. “So Akira spent a lot of time in your dad's study growing up, I assume?”
Lilly nods, a look of fright jumping across her features as the next loud noise strikes her ears. “I was never a fan of it, for... reasons I'm sure you can understand. Father takes the game very seriously, and Akira... well, one might say she's a little more interested than she would like to admit.” She mutters.
Mr. Satou bites his lip as he aims and shoots, pure frustration jolting through his face when all he manages to sink is a single striped ball before scratching out.
“Well, that was a bit of a nasty move.” Akira says in an almost taunting fashion, fishing the white sphere out of the pocket and setting it a short distance behind a cluster of solid billiards.
He shakes his head and steps away, letting out something of a huff. “It was necessary. I don't want to hear any trash-talking when you're still two balls behind.”
“Trash-talking?” Akira scoffs, going quiet and pouring all of her focus into the shot as she rams the cue ball into a pair of solids, sending one into the side pocket while the other rolls with just enough momentum to make it into the corner. “That would imply that there's anything to talk trash about. Besides the fact that you're clearly out of practice. Did you finally decide to put the pool shark days behind you?”
“Not a chance, little girl.” He counters, his voice sharp and pointed as if he were frustrated at her for even bringing up such a strange point. “You'll find that out if you keep treating this like a throw-away game with your co-workers.”
The game only continues to get more and more heated, raising even more questions. I nudge Lilly in the side and mutter a ‘heads up’ before Mr. Satou takes his next turn. “Lilly, did she just say your dad was a pool shark?”
“Yes, that would be the truth, as far as I'm aware.” She replies, bracing herself against the sudden noise and smiling in relief when it doesn't take her by surprise. “That was something he did in his college days, I believe. Though, I couldn't possibly tell you why.”
His previous taunt only manages to put a smile on Akira’s lips, though a defiant one. She seems to be keen on returning the favor he left her with at the beginning of the game, aiming not for another point but to wall off any moves he might be able to make on his own turn. “Wouldn't that just be a shame.” She says, letting the cue ball come to rest against the side bumper.
He shakes his head and takes the same place where she was standing, applying yet another layer of blue coating to the tip of the cue. “That's a cute trick.”
“I learned it from you.” She jabs, shrugging and giving the other three of us a nonchalant smirk. “Be careful you don't bounce the ball off the table again.”
A resounding 'clack' follows her remark, which is then punctuated by the sound of two billiards clicking together in the far side pocket. “Oh really now? Figure out how to put an actual spin into it and try me again.”
So... is that why Akira told me that she had to keep some secrets when I asked how she got so good at billiards all that time ago? Part of me wants to think that she's ashamed of it or doesn't want to admit that she learned how to play from her father, but watching them now would lead me to believe that she's just never beaten him. It's a close game, but Mr. Satou definitely seems like the sort who would pull something out of a hat at the last minute.
I pat Akira on the back as she waits for her turn. “Doing alright? Seems like you're getting awfully fired up over this.”
She shakes her head, taking a deep breath and refusing to detach from the game for even a moment. “It's fine. I'm fine, just...” Her voice trails off and she glances back at me, flashing a guilty smile. “I'm getting a bit more pulled into this than I hoped.”
“Seems like there's a lot more to this than a game of pool.” I remark, flinching a bit as Mr. Satou taps the eleven ball into the corner pocket, making the table seem more and more empty.
“We used to get into it when I was younger. It was something I really pushed since it was practically the only thing the old man would let me do.” She says, meeting her father's eyes and giving him a blank look when he misses his shot.
Something tells me he didn't miss the shot because of bad aim or a lack of force. “You do know I can hear everything you're saying, don't you?”
The comment does nothing to sway her. “Yes, I know you can hear me. I don't have anything to hide from you.” She retorts, taking the shot without a second thought and sinking the solid two. With that, there are only a handful of billiards left: two stripes and one solid, while the eight ball rests near the far corner, practically ready to fall in without any input from either side.
After the last exchange, the cue ball sits neatly across from the remaining billiard for Akira, a straight shot away.
“You'll hold a grudge over just about anything, won't you?” Mr. Satou mutters, voice filled with disappointment. The suddenness of it causes Akira to miss her shot in much the same way, with the white sphere glancing off of its mark and ending up in a perfect position for her opponent.
Akira rolls her eyes and lets out an exasperated breath. “I thought this was supposed to be the one day you weren't going to give me any crap?”
He paces around the table and sizes up his options, voice stern and disapproving. “I'm not giving you 'crap,' Akira. I asked you a question, and if you have any a lick of common sense left then you'll stop disrespecting me and you’ll stop being so difficult.”
“It's not a grudge, and the only one here being difficult is the stubborn ass on the other side of the table.” She returns, brow growing heavy as the fatigue comes back to her once more. “I think I have the right to feel a bit of spite over how you consistently got in the way of letting me have a life of my own.”
“Oh, really now.” He glowers like someone who's just stepped in a pile of crap for the third time in a day. The next two shots are fired off in quick succession, with Mr. Satou going silent to focus on sinking two different balls before delivering his retort. “You have my deepest apologies for not letting one of my daughters dress up like a tramp and dance around on a basketball court.”
Akira's face contorts into sheer annoyance as soon as the words hit her ears. “Please, keep saying that as if it means anything anymore. If the fact that I had goals that differed from yours bothered you so much then maybe you should have said something instead of punishing me by locking me away in the house.”
At this, Lilly decides to step in and try to defuse the situation, seeing as how their voices have continued to rise and now there are a few people staring. “Akira, don't you think it's a little much to be getting worked up over something that happened so long ago?”
She opens her mouth to reply, but catches herself and tries to push the thoughts out of her head, leaving a silence hanging in the air as Mr. Satou lines up his next and potentially last shot. He doesn't seem too bothered by dropping the subject, adjusting his glasses before pulling the cue back and letting loose, as if all the tension were being released from a spring.
The white ball flops into the pocket - past the eight ball - with a dull 'clack.' Mr. Satou feigns discontent, although the effort just comes off as transparent and half-hearted.
Akira stares at him, and then at the table, and then back at him. All anger drains from her features and she merely meets his gaze while he gestures for her to hurry up and take her turn. It's clear that a maelstrom of thoughts rages through her mind while she steps up to the table, considering her cautious pace and the fact that she's got a grip on the cue so firm that her knuckles are white.
Then, she breaks eye contact with him and calmly sets her cue on the table. “Lilly, Hanako, do you need a ride back to the school?”
The situation goes from simply tense to a breakdown in moments. Ignoring the implications of the fact that I'm not being offered a lift as well, I can't help but feel like this is the same as before, both at the board meeting and at the school -- Mr. Satou says things that cause the situation to escalate more and more, until the point that he feels the need to walk out. Worse than that, this is the way it might always be, considering how attempts to maintain a calm discussion always go south at some point or another.
“You didn't finish the game, Akira.” Mr. Satou fumes, cutting into the conversation before either of them has a chance to respond.
It can't be that the two of them genuinely dislike each other and can't work it out – it's just that they're both too stubborn for anything to happen. He tries to take a step forward, but she won't match that until he takes a step in her direction, and vice versa. Satou wants her back in Scotland, but Akira won't leave Japan, and there's no way to form a compromise because they both want things on such opposing ends of the spectrum.
“There isn't a game to finish if you're going to throw it like that.” She says, not even turning around to acknowledge him while she adjusts her shirt and straightens out her pants. “I got tired of your handouts years ago.”
Lilly and Hanako both share a look of worry, unsure of what to do with the situation. Mr. Satou continually attempts speak up, only for his conviction to fall short before he manages to approach her. Akira checks her phone while taking a few deep breaths, trying her best to remain calm. Even with everything going on, I can't get myself to say anything either – whether it be out of stress or a lack of something to add, I'm not sure.
After a while, Lilly decides to speak up. “Hanako and I should be fine getting back on our own. Please go home and try to calm down, it hurts to hear you so upset on your birthday.”
“I can get you two back to the school, I don't mind paying for the cab.” Mr. Satou states, patting both of them on the shoulder before approaching Akira. He takes a deep breath in an attempt to calm down, chewing on his words while he waits for her to turn around. “Akira.”
She lets out another sigh as well, trying to contain herself while she begins to face him. “What is it?”
He pauses for a moment to confirm the words in his head, before then throwing everything out with a deep frown. “No, it's nothing.” Mr. Satou then gestures for Hanako and Lilly to meet him out in front of the club, shooting a wayward glance at me as if to make the same offer.
Hanako bows her head, wishing Akira a happy birthday while offering Lilly her arm. Lilly then picks up on the situation and recedes into her thoughts, only speaking up to add “I enjoyed our time today. Hopefully we may get to do this again in the future.”
Then, she purses her lips together and folds both arms behind her back. “Oh, Hisao?”
“Yes, Lilly?” I return, trying to get my head back into the situation.
“Thank you for taking care of Akira.” She states, bowing her head once more.
With that said, she hooks one arm around Hanako's and the two of them vacate the club, which has become considerably less crowded since we entered. The tension between Akira and her father seems to have loosened a bit, although it's still plainly obvious that she can't stand to be in his presence for much longer.
He shakes his head and checks his watch, seeming completely at wit's end while he gives her a depleted gaze. “I'm expecting to see you and your sister on the plane tomorrow. Please do not disappoint me.”
“Hey, you finally figured out how to say 'please,'” is all Akira can say before she turns away, glaring at the floor and waiting for him to take his leave
Mr. Satou has nothing to say to this point, other than “Good night, Akira. I do wish we could have celebrated this on different terms.” With that, he shakes his head and makes his way for the exit, leaving the two of us by ourselves.
“Yeah, wouldn't that have been nice.” She says before looking up and meeting my gaze.
A moment later she’s in my arms, all while I’m still unsure of what else to do. I can feel her hands sliding up and down my back while her head settles into the nook of my shoulder, a strange quietness developing around us.
“So I guess that means I'm going home with you, then?” I ask, trying to smile as she pulls away from me.
Her mood seems to recover in no time at all and she flashes that same contented smile at me, even if the dark rings under her eyes would make it seem like she's ready to just break down and cry. “Hey, it's what the birthday girl wants, isn't it?”