Akemi hated crowds, but it was inevitable when you were in downtown Tokyo on a Monday morning during rush hour.
Commuters kept brushing against her shoulders while they all stood waiting to cross the street. The wide screen on a building in the middle of the intersection featured the morning news, with the moving headlines reading:
CEO Satoshi Takeda of Matsui Freight found dead last night in Shinjuku
Takeda's death linked to a string of 'corporate murders' since March
The beeping of the pedestrian signal interrupted her reading. The crowd propelled her to move forward, allowing her to catch up with her three friends on the other side of the street.
"Hold on guys, I just want to check this out," her friend Kasumi said as they paused in front of a newsstand. Akemi spotted several publications, one fashion magazine reading 'Special Edition!' in big, red letters.
Funnily enough, it was the same one Kasumi ended up buying. Her friend tore it from its plastic covering and began browsing while her two other friends perused it with her.
"I knew Tomoki Kurokawa would make it to the list. He was so hot in his latest movie!"
"Totally! He only ranked number nine though..."
Akemi didn't really care for celebrities, but she felt compelled to chime in when she fell into step beside them. "What's that?"
"Layla magazine's April special. They listed the most eligible bachelors of the year."
"Who got number one?" her friend Yukari asked.
"Some dude named Takeshi Ryuuzaki. Never heard of him."
"He sounds familiar," her other friend Tsubame mused. "Isn't he supposed to be some billionaire guy?"
Akemi was more concerned about the news this morning, but it was doubtful her friends wanted to talk about a bunch of old businessmen dropping dead.
She did not pursue the conversation and shifted to the blooming, cherry blossom trees that lined the road to their school.
Upon arriving, they all went to their separate classrooms. She headed for her desk by the window, returning her classmates' greetings with a smile. She settled her bag down, taking out a textbook.
"Seriously? It's not even eight in the morning and you're already studying?"
She rolled her eyes but was unable to stop smiling at the sandy-haired boy who came up behind her. "A good morning to you too, Makoto."
Her best friend grinned, crossing his arms and leaning against a desk. "Hey, do you still have baseball practice later? Coach is asking us to stay 'til six today."
"Yeah. We'll be done by five-thirty," she replied with a shrug. "I'll wait for you."
The bell rang as he ruffled her hair. "Awesome. I'll see you later then."
She fixed her long, brown hair back in place with a scowl and watched him leave the room whistling.
"Hey, do you still plan to return that to me?"
Akemi was sipping on a chocolate shake and staring out the window when she turned to her friends. All three of them were still poring over the same magazine from yesterday while they sat in a diner after class.
"I'll be done in a minute." Her friend Yukari bit on her straw. "You know, the guy who topped the bachelor's list is pretty interesting. He's got so much money, and he's only twenty-seven!"
"Must be a trust fund baby," Akemi deduced.
"Probably. But look at all these companies his family owns! No wonder he got number one. Whoever marries him will live in the lap of luxury."
"Having a billionaire for a husband wouldn't be bad." Kasumi nodded.
"Oh, I remember him now!" Tsubame exclaimed. "He's the guy that actress Mika Matsumoto is supposedly dating! I hear he's a bit of a ladies' man."
"Good luck being married to him then." Akemi snorted. "He seems like the type to get a pre-nup, too."
Kasumi rolled her eyes. "Here we go again. Enter Akemi, destroyer of all dreams and fantasies."
Akemi laughed. "I'm just being realistic."
"But look at him! He's gorgeous." Tsubame dreamily sighed. "How could anyone not want to marry such a rich, handsome man?"
Akemi finally gave the magazine a glance, eager to get over what all the fuss was about.
On the centerfold was a paparazzi-taken photograph of a dark-haired man with light brown eyes. He had a well-defined jaw and high cheekbones, his lean frame embraced by the designer suit he was wearing. In the shot his eyes were narrowed, giving him a somewhat brooding expression. He was attractive, yes, but with an arrogant, self-entitled vibe. He was about as handsome as a marble statue: cold, hard, and lifeless. How could a man looking like that be voted as the most suitable prospect for anyone?
"I don't get it." She shook her head. "I think he looks like a douche."
"And I think you're asexual," Kasumi teased. "Honestly, I can't wait till you get a boyfriend just to see what kind of man finally catches your fancy."
"You can keep waiting then." Akemi grinned, slurping the rest of her milkshake.
"Tell him I can't go. I have a meeting today."
Tilting his chair and facing the wide windows of his office, Takeshi Ryuuzaki held his cellphone to his ear and crossed his legs in his seat.
"Yes I know, but my hands are tied." He glanced at his wristwatch. "I actually have a meeting in fifteen minutes."
He stood up and walked to the clear glass window. He slipped a hand in the pocket of his dress pants and observed the city thirty-eight floors below. With a sigh, he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Alright, very well."
The intercom beeped. "The meeting is about to begin, Mr. Ryuuzaki."
"Has the client arrived?" he asked.
Takeshi played with his phone for several seconds. "Can you do me a favor, Aya?"
"Tell Hiroshi I won't be able to make it. Say I have a prior engagement."
His secretary's hesitation was audible on the other line. "But Mr. Katsuragi—"
"Won't really need me there," he finished for her. "I promise you he'll understand."
"But Mr. Ryuuzaki..."
"That will be all, Aya."
Takeshi placed his cellphone on his desk and walked to the adjoining room of his office. It was a handsomely decorated chamber that looked more like a suite than an office retreat—a place that served like a second home during long days at work.
He tossed his coat to the bed and stepped into the bathroom, taking a good look at his reflection by the sink. His dark brown hair was a little mussed and his hazel eyes were weary as he loosened his necktie.
I need a vacation, he thought, undoing the rest of his clothes.
After a long and rejuvenating shower, Takeshi was in the building basement twenty minutes later, donning a black dress shirt and white pants. He approached his silver Corvette ZR1, the beep of the car key echoing in the parking lot.
He slipped on his sunglasses the moment he entered the main road, pausing at a stoplight and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. He didn't really know where he was going, but as long as he could get away, anywhere would do. The city only reminded him of long, dreary meetings and his bothersome seniors at work.
The traffic light turned green as Takeshi stepped on the accelerator with a sigh.
The catcher returned the ball to the pitcher as the batter prepared herself for the next hit. With a raised leg the pitcher gave one fast throw, and the batter failed to hit the ball again.
Akemi looked at the padded glove in her hand with a sigh. It had been a long day and although she was raring to get home, there was still half an hour left before baseball practice was over. If anything, at least she was just an outfielder today. That way she could simply stand in place, waiting until the game was done...
"Morisato! The ball!"
Akemi's back snapped in attention as she looked up in frenzy. "What? Where?"
Lo and behold by some miracle, the ball was up in the air. She broke into a run and bit back a groan. Was the universe messing with her today?
She raised an arm, readying for the rapidly descending ball. She could almost feel it landing perfectly in her glove, and that lucky strike wouldn't be so lucky anymore...
Until her face ungraciously hit the field screen and made her stumble backwards.
The other team ecstatically roared as the batter sprinted on her way to a home run.
"Morisato! Get that ball back!" the coach shouted.
"I hate this day," she moaned to the sky.
Halfheartedly she got up to retrieve the ball, searching around for several minutes until a freshman from the soccer team told her he'd seen the ball fly out of campus. Grumbling, she dragged her feet all the way to the school gates until she finally found the baseball in the middle of the street.
"Unbelievable," she muttered under her breath and headed towards it.
Takeshi's cellphone began to ring as he fumbled for his bag in the passenger seat.
"Oh, come on," he grumbled, momentarily averting his gaze from the road when he couldn't find it. He scowled as soon as he finally got hold of it, only to discover it was one of his seniors calling.
With a shake of his head, Takeshi answered the call. He faced the road again, only to spot a girl in a baseball uniform mere meters away from his car.