AN: I'd like to thank whoever it was who nominated me for SKoW! I hope all of you who enjoy this story will go over there and vote for me!

Sedately sad summary of chapter 18: Shoe and Luka explore their new relationship as awkwardly as they are wont to. How soon is too soon to say I love you? When will Shoe get used to the physical nature of their relationship? In the meantime, Stan is convinced Wolf is cheating on her. Over coffee, Cash and Shoe try to convince her otherwise. But the truth is that Wolf has been very secretive and non-forthcoming about someone who he gets letters and phone calls from…

But first: a flashback.

Chapter 19; In Which We Crash and Burn

The DJ's name was Azuma; I had heard it when they introduced him on stage the first time. He played a kind of electronic music that blurred between tribal and deep house. The way in which he knew how to pace the hard drums and hollow rhythms turned me dreamlike and introvert like I had never felt before.

I was a high school student, young and emo. When I left the Tokyo club in the grey morning I felt like the world was shallower and baser than before I heard such secret music. My ears kept ringing and stopped me from falling asleep on the morning's first, home-bound, train. The ringing ears reminded me during sleep-inducing high school classes, of the magic night before. My friends and I frequented the club after that first evening. Azuma played there a lot.

Every time I saw him, and after the day someone introduced us, I admired the splendor in that old, grand name -Azuma- and how calmly he carried himself. On stage his head bowed and his focus was on his music, leaving only a glance here and there for the crowd. After his DJ set, his friends would cluster around him. I remember wondering if they were real friends or groupies.

Azuma was one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. My friends Yae and Tomomi would tease me, ask me why I would go for a Japanese boy if I could have a foreigner instead. I myself had never noticed a preference for either Asian or European boys; beauty was beauty, after all. I was superficial enough not to get caught up on ethnic details.

Also, I was not blind. Half the girls in the club wouldn't have minded some time with Azuma, myself included. Though I did not think I would be so lucky as to have him, I did want him. I had even confessed my crush to Luka, who back then was my online pen pal through thick and thin. Luka knew me so well, even at such a distance, that he knew how to tease me about Azuma and make me feel like a little girl. It made me feel irritable. Because in this case, I wanted to be considered anything but a little girl.

One night, it finally happened. It felt like fate when I became aware of his eyes meeting mine across the dance floor. I did my best to look indifferent and extraordinarily elegant -something I feared my round, childish cheeks made completely impossible- and at the same time take a delicate sip of my plum wine. My heart started beating like thunder when he sat his willowy frame next to me.

"You're half-Japanese, half-something-else, right?" Was the first thing he said to me.

My friend Yae was just returning from the bar with a drink but she took one look at me talking to the boy I had been obsessing over for months, rolled her eyes and did a U-turn away.

My thoughts suspended for a moment while some deeper part of myself hit the Azuma-alert button: attention all stations, this is not a drill. Proceed with assigned tactic and due care. I repeat, this is not a drill.

Then my conversational brain took over and considered what he said. I knew I didn't look fully Japanese but didn't think it was something he'd point out immediately.

"You're right. I'm half-British," I responded.

"Oh, but you speak Japanese," he seemed relieved. People did sometimes eye me suspiciously until they were certain I was able to speak Japanese.

"I was born here, in Tokyo."

"And you've lived here all along?" I was pleased to hear his voice was much as I had imagined it; unaffected and dry. I squashed my worry that this would be another one of those conversations where interested people, meaning well, would interview me about my world travels and then, realizing I really wasn't as interesting as I looked, would desert me again.

"I've lived in Europe too," I told him, not yet sure if I wanted to seem more or less interesting than I really was. I asked him if he knew the town where I had lived, where Luka was still living at the time, but he hadn't heard of it.

"So you speak English and Japanese? What are you studying?"

I smirked at him. "I'm not exactly studying yet…"

He looked as surprised as possible under such an unruffled exterior. "No way. I would have thought you were a university student at the least."

"At the least huh? You thought maybe I was some Office Lady?"

He shrugged a shoulder. "It's hard to tell with halfs. Especially if your fashion sense is so fine."

I arched my neck, hopefully elegant and quasi-indifferent. Inside I cheered for my choice to wear the slinky black top adorned with a delicate smattering of bronze sequins.

He offered me a drink and I accepted, and we chatted well into the night. I was extremely nervous, but hoped he wouldn't notice. After 2 am, Yae and her friend came over. She said softly in my ear that she was going to sleep at Araki's house, did I want to come? Otherwise, I knew, I would be on my own until the trains got going around at 6 am. As excited and brave-feeling as I was, I assured her that I was fine and would figure something out. I could tell from beyond the corner of my eye that Azuma had heard everything we said.

Yae widened her eyes at me for good luck and then left. I turned back to Azuma, feeling giddier than before. Now I was stuck here until morning, with only his floating presence beside me. I didn't know if he'd really hang out with me for much longer still.

"I'm playing a set in half an hour. Have you heard me play before?"

I gave a non-committal nod. I had decided against telling him I had memorized every set time and date for the next three months of parties. He probably didn't know his own schedule as well as I did.

"I'll stay and listen," I told him.

"Sure? It'll be an hour and a half. This place closes right after I finish."

I shrugged a cool shoulder at him and laughed glamorously. "Well, I've missed my ride home anyway."

I stayed on and listened to his set. It was riveting as always, but I could not relax into the music like before, because now my thoughts were overwhelmed with Azuma's voice, the motions he went through in lighting a cigarette, the look in his narrow eyes. I felt like he and I had made a secret agreement. I felt sure he was expecting me to come home with him tonight, and the prospect was making me nervous.

To both my relief and disappointment, five other guys and girls waited for Azuma to pack up his DJ-ing equipment at the end of his set. All the other club-goers had left by then. I was feeling too nervous to strike up a conversation with any of Azuma's groupies. Part of the nerves was the fear that I was just another one of them. Had I misjudged the nature of our conversation?

I'm only sixteen and this is the first time I've liked a boy, I thought sourly. How am I supposed to know? But to hide my doubts I held my head high and pretended it was very normal for me to be waiting for a DJ I barely knew at quarter to five on a Saturday morning. I realized the way things were going I would probably miss tennis practice at my high school's tennis club. My phone chirped, announcing a text message, and I jumped. It was my mother, demanding to know if I was still alive. Sleeping at a friend's house, I messaged her back, feeling guilty for only one terrible moment.

"You coming?" Azuma turned to me, pulling a small trolley with his records on it. He looked extraordinarily fashionable and attractive. Something about him put me on edge as well, but I chose to ignore it. After all these months, to finally be able to talk to him, to have gained his attention seemed almost too good to be true.

"Of course I'm coming," I smiled coolly and ignore the looks his friends cast me.

"We're going for some noodles first," Azuma said. He wasn't asking for anyone's opinion; he had just decided what would happen next. I nodded. You had to love this city for having Ramen bars open twenty-four-seven. He and his friends headed up the stairs and I followed. This club was a typical one for Tokyo; underground and windowless, cement-slab walls plastered with flyers and posters. We got outside, breathing in cold fresh air and feeling our stomachs gurgle. The first light had already started to glow, and the low buildings around us seemed hazy and out of focus.

At the ramen shop Azuma's friends talked comfortably among themselves without attempting to include me in the conversation. They were a little incoherent, as one might be at dawn after a night of drinking. I considered going home, but he was sitting right beside me and talking to me. I felt myself blushing. He smirked and I knew I couldn't go home.

By the time everyone had finished their noodles it was about time for the trains to start running. The group unanimously set off for the station. I trailed behind, maintaining my aloof expression to hide my insecurities. And my slightly upset stomach: I wasn't used to eating greasy noodle soup at a time I was usually sleeping. Surprisingly, Azuma fell into step beside me, halfway to the station. "Did you like my set?" he asked.

"I did very much," I said, feeling happy to be able to respond with warmth.

"Cool," he nodded. "Where do you live?"

"Over in Ebisu. Where do you live?"

He kept his eyes on me. "Around the corner over there."

I stared back at him. My nerves had left me. "You… live alone?" I asked apprehensively.

"Yeah. You wanna see?"

I couldn't read anything in his black eyes. Just being with him made me feel like I was whacked out on a caffeine rush. But I felt I had come too far to stand him up. "I wanna see," I replied, deciding doing punishment push-ups for tennis club was worth missing practice in a few hours.

After that, everything about Azuma and me seem to go very fast. I stayed over at his house and let him kiss me. After what felt like hours of leisurely kissing we both fell asleep, doubly exhausted after the noodles.

The next day he called me and invited me over again. My mother had been furious when I got home late on Saturday afternoon. She knew, the way mothers could only know, that I had missed tennis practice. But without hesitating, I chose a nice top, skirt and heels and went to Azuma. I thought he might take me out on a date. Instead he took me to the local convenience shop, bought me instant noodles which we ate at his house, and played his records for me. I felt satisfied to let him define the pace of our budding relationship, confident I could deal with anything. I ended up staying over again. We finished three beers and a bottle of wine together.

His hands were somehow under my skirt when we kissed this time. I was terrified and completely inexperienced, but also flattered that the object of my affection was attracted to me enough to want to feel my body. His touch sent shivers all over me. I held still. My eyes were on his but his were closed, and his face was so lovely I felt convinced this was happening the way it should. He kissed me very deeply and I felt so oversensitive that my body seemed to go numb all over. It was really happening! I was really doing these things with Azuma! Azuma liked me! I felt a dizzying wave of affection for him and kissed him back. He grabbed my hand, guiding it down to his stomach. My breath caught when I finally figured out what he wanted.

"I've never done this before…"

His eyes opened and he let out a surprised kind of grunt. "You can't be serious."

"I'm only in high school," I protested.

"You look old enough to me," he shrugged.

I didn't speak, uncertain of what my point was in the first place.

"You want me to stop?"

At that moment I felt absolutely certain that if I let him stop now, I would never have my chance again. So I didn't let him stop. We kept going.

I became used to his kind of foreplay and lovemaking. It was short and to the point and never seemed directly aimed at me. Though I always felt aroused, I never knew what to do with myself. Waiting for him to give me direction, failing to take incentive myself, I managed to brush off the feeling of disappointment that followed each time we had sex, and hid the flashes of anger I felt at my own dissatisfaction. He would call me over to his place when he felt the need, and I would drop everything and rush spellbound to his side. My parents must have suspected, but my alibi with Yae was airtight.

And then one night, after weeks of this rhythm, we were at a club he would play for, and I saw him talking to a pretty girl. She was fully Japanese, not like me, and had a bigger chest size too. I immediately felt insecure. The way he was looking at her reminded me of when he had first talked to me.

However, I waited faithfully at our table, expecting him to show up at some point before his set. But his set came, he played his music, the party ended. I gathered my things in the expectation that I would be following him home as usual. But when he finally came to me it was together with the pretty girl.

His smooth voice always made me feel warm inside, but then it said to the other girl, "Taeko-chan, meet Sayurin, a friend of mine. Sayurin, Taeko-chan is sleeping at my house this time. Sorry."

And he turned away. Taeko seemed a little confused at his abruptness and nodded hurriedly to me before moving away again to get her coat.

At that moment I knew there was something fundamentally wrong. The scariest was that my common sense was telling me it had been wrong for a while, maybe even since the beginning. But now was no time to waste on thinking. I lashed out and grabbed Azuma's arm.

"What do you mean I'm 'a friend of yours'? Why is she sleeping at your house?"

He wouldn't meet my eyes. "Her house is all the way in Chiba. Don't be so childish about it."

With all my self-control I managed not to bite out a response at that. "Tell me the truth, Azuma."

He suddenly went on the defense. "The truth? The truth is that you're a little child who clings to me like I'm your daddy! And you're so scared of me you're like a corpse in bed!"

Never in my life had I felt more dumbfounded, heartbroken or insulted. I felt at the same time the need to punch him and apologize to him. "But you're my first," I said softly. My brain was already shifting into gear to start a discussion that would somehow save our relationship.

He couldn't leave me.

This couldn't be the end.

"Yeah, well, you're not my first. Sorry, but it wasn't going to work out anyway." He stepped back from me without lifting his eyes, and stole away up the concrete steps of the club. Taeko headed up a moment after him. She nodded politely and I mechanically returned the gesture. Vaguely I thought she was headed down the same road I had just careened off of.

I sat forlornly in the club, too proud to run after him or to even go outside while tears threatened. I felt very young and stupid and hurt. When the bartender had finished cleaning up he reminded me they were closing. He must have thought I was too drunk to get home alone, so he took me by the arm and slowly helped me to the train station. The trains were nearly running again by now.

"Will you be okay getting home? Do you remember where you live?"

I nodded at him. He was heavyset with frizzy hair. I missed Azuma's slender neck and soft hair. I already knew I'd never touch his lovely jaw line again and that just sucked. "Thank you. I'll be alright."

"Otsukaresama," he said, which is Japanese for "you must be tired, you worked hard". I knew he was saying it in the way that club-goers say goodbye at the end of a party, but I still took heart. I pretended he meant I had worked hard at a relationship with Azuma. And I had, I thought. I had done my best. Now that my best wasn't good enough, every bit of me just ached.

I blinked blearily at the bartender, who lit a cigarette and told me not to take it too hard. Azuma usually went through a girl every two weeks. He blew out smoke through his nostrils as he said he thought it was amazing Azuma had lasted almost two months with me.

"Maybe it's because you're a half," he said pensively as a train pulled in.

"Here's my train," I said numbly, and departed.

It wasn't really my train; I had to change back at the next stop and it took me twenty minutes longer to get home. But I never went back to the club. And I didn't sleep with anyone after Azuma.

"You really think Wolf is cheating on you?" Cash asks, her tight face bent towards Stan's. We've automatically huddled closer to her, shielding her tears and our words from the outside world at Monkies in Bed.

"I don't know… he doesn't talk to me anymore, he barely smiles," Stan elaborates tearfully.

"Since when did it become like this? You seemed fine when I was in Japan," I ask. I feel doubtful.

"The signs were already there. But at least he was still treating me normally then."

"Did you guys ever specifically say you were exclusive?" Cash asks. Stan and I both stare at her. Stan looks scalded; I don't know what I look like.

Cash shrugs and looks back at her coffee, her face stony. "I'm just saying," she says. Before I can help it I wonder if she seems guilty.

"Ex... exclusive?" Stan repeats hoarsely. "You think Wolf could do something like see someone else behind my back? Until recently we spent so much time together he wouldn't have had the chance to see anyone else."

"Then why do you think he's cheating on you now?" Cash snaps.

Stan doesn't seem to have any evidence. "He's been getting phone calls, and then he glances my way and leaves the room in a hurry. But he pretends to be casual about it. And when I ask who it is he says no one."

"Stan, last time you were worrying, you thought it had to do with him having a family drama he didn't want to tell you about. Why do you think it's a girl now? Isn't it just his parents?" Cash sounds rational and calm and Stan's crying dwindles to sniffling. It's quiet for a moment and I think Cash may have convinced her to believe in Wolf. But Stan shakes her head.

"I've found letters in his mail recently. I can't read what they say but it was definitely a girl who wrote them. And the last name's different from his. What if she's an old girlfriend from when he still lived in Austria?"

"From when he was twelve? He moved away, remember?" Cash says. "I've known him since we were sixteen. And besides… you were looking through his mail?"

Stan sighs shakily. She doesn't look repentant. "I couldn't help myself! I need to know if… I don't know what to do."

"Have you tried talking to him?" I ask, fingering my shopping bag nervously. She must have tried talking already.

Her shoulders are hunched. "I can't confront him. He shuts down."

To our surprise Cash stands up. "Maybe I should talk to him. I bet something else is going on."

"Oh, don't! You'll make it worse," Stan nearly spills her tea protesting. I try to catch it but my fingers are all twisted into my bag. A little spills over the mug and dampens the napkin next to it.

"She won't make it worse. He will not break up with you over something silly like that," I feel convinced as I say it. "If he wasn't in love with you but with some other girl somewhere else, wouldn't he have told you? Wouldn't he have broken up with you already?"

Stan gives me a blurry look. "Would he?"

Cash looks to be getting ready to go. She ties her white scarf around her neck and eyes Stan. "If he is cheating on you I will support you. I swear to God I will kick his two-timing ass. However if he is not, and you are accusing one of my oldest friends without good reason… "

The silence rings like an alarm. Cash's coat rustles as she tugs her bag onto her shoulder.

"That's awfully dramatic, Cash," I can't help but say. I think to myself, why can't everyone just talk about their problems openly? I then remember my own hesitance to ask Luka about his conversation with Natalie, not to mention my reluctance to tell him of my previous love life.

"I think Stan is the one being dramatic. Constantly dramatic." She adds. They don't look at each other and I get the feeling they've spent a longer time trying not to argue about this.

"I am worried for a good reason," Stan is defensive. She grabs the napkin but sees that it's wet from the tea. Instead she retrieves tissues from her bag and blows her nose.

Cash looks accusatory. "Don't you blame Wolf for your own trust issues! He could have tied himself to you by his hair and you'd still find him not devoted enough. He could tattoo 'I love Stanley' on his chest and you'd get worried that he's gay!"

"Stan, I agree," I say softly to her. "Aren't you just overreacting? There's really no reason to believe that Wolf is suddenly going to start cheating on you. Just a couple of weeks ago you two were the closest and cutest couple in the world, have you forgotten already?"

Stan's tired eyes focus on me so I keep talking. "If you were having some private problem with your parents, maybe you wouldn't be able to talk to him about it. Maybe if you were stressed you would accidentally be mean to him without realizing. He might have felt pushed away too, like you do now. But how would you feel if he said that he thought you were cheating on him?"

She exhales and wipes her nose. "But I would have told him everything from the start," she objects.

Cash stands very still by my chair. "Some people are just more private," she says. "You have to wait for him and trust him."

Stan lifts her head and wipes blonde bangs from her eyes. "So you really think nothing is going on?"

Cash and I nod. "Apart from family problems which you can't do anything about."

Stan gives a tiny jerk of her head which we both interpret as a nod.

"I'm… sorry I got mad," Cash says. "I'll take care of today's bill as an apology, okay?"

Stan shrugs.

"Want another piece of Cake©?" Cash prods her.

We all snort at this and Stan quickly stems the sudden flow of excess mucus from her nose.

"Okay, fine." Her voice is wobbly. "I'll think about it."

"Have we properly convinced you?" I smile.

"As long as Cash still pays for all the Cake© I want to eat," she mumbles, but she doesn't meet my eyes.

After leaving Monkies, I go straight to Luka's place. He calls me on my way over.

"Are you coming here? I haven't got any food though."

"That's okay. I had extensive dessert at Monkies."

"Figured. Hey, my parents just called…"

"Oh! How are they?"

"Good. Uh, I told them about us."

My stomach twists nervously. He doesn't sound ecstatic. "You did? Well, what did they say?"

"They sounded surprised. My mom remembers I liked you when we were little, so…"

"Uh-huh…" What is this sense of dread I'm feeling?

"Shoe, we've got nothing to worry about. They're my parents! They've known you while we still had our baby teeth! Once they see you again they'll be fine. There's nothing to worry about."

"I guess so," I say, trying to sound hopeful. His parents don't like the idea of us dating.

"Anyway they've invited us down to Bayonne for Christmas. Sasha and Toine will be there too, and I figured we could drive down as soon as exams finish, if you're free…"

But Luka's voice does not make me feel hopeful, and without realizing, I find myself trying to come up with excuses not to join his family for Christmas.

"Um, I don't know, Luka…"

His voice changes. "I really want you to come with me, Shoe."

"We'll see… I'm sure it'll be okay," I say evasively. Seeing Sasha and Toine again, spending time in Bayonne again would be absolutely worth it. But what if his parents disapprove of us? That's sure what it sounds like to me.

"Luka, I'm hanging up now."

"Oh, okay. Why?"

"Because I'm at your place. Let me in."

He laughs and hangs up the phone.

The bag with the negligee in it is lying in a corner. Despite Luka's warm and physically distracting greeting (Kevin, gaming in the background, shouts, "get a room, porn stars!") I do not feel ready to show the negligee to him. Hope he doesn't inquire after what I bought.

I did feel it was prudent to ask him if he knew anything about the Stan and Wolf problem, so I tell him the situation. He doesn't see things the way I do, though.

"Stan went through his mail?!" Luka is a little shocked. "Does Wolf know?"

"I don't think so. But that's how she found out about the letters he'd been getting…"

Luka shakes his head. "Wolf doesn't talk about stuff like that."

"Stan thinks it's either an ex-girlfriend or a family friend… she says his family stresses him out…" I try to jar his memory.

We're in his room and I'm sitting on his bed. Luka shrugs at me and creaks about in my chair (he's gotten awful used to that chair. I had better watch out or he'll start saying it's his).

"He has long phone calls in German?" I attempt. "He doesn't smile at her anymore?"

Luka's face starts to close down. "Maybe he's just gotten sick of her neurotic behavior and wants her to stop going through his mail and obsessing over everything he does?"

I pull a mean girl trick without entirely meaning to. "Would you stop smiling at me if I went through your mail?"

"Yes-" he sees my face –"I mean. No, no way, of course not... But we're different. We don't have trust issues like that…"

I don't respond. Everyone has trust issues. Especially us, in our month-old, we-used-to-be-best-friends-who-crushed-on-each-other relationship. I have yet to trust Luka, for instance, with the details of my relationship with Azuma, even four years later.

After a while he sighs, "low blow, Shoe Smith."

I shrug coldly at him, a little hurt that he doesn't seem supportive of Stan, and meander away from him into the kitchen. I pass Kevin playing a Wii game in the living room. As I wait for the coffee to brew I go over and bother him. Kevin's mouth is slack and open as he waves the controller -sticky-looking and less white than it ought to be -at the screen. Kevin looks focused, but rather as if he hasn't had a bath recently.

"Hey Kev, wasn't there a girl you liked not too long back?" I ask him nonchalantly.

"Why?" He is suspicious. I can see his tongue inside his half-opened mouth. Oh dear.

"Did you ask her out?"


"Did she say yes?"

"Does it look like she said yes?"

"I'm sorry. I don't see you often enough to be able to judge whether you went out with her."

He flashes me an upset look. "I even told her I'd cut my pony tail for her if she wanted me to."

I feel surprised and a little sorry. "I thought you were proud of your pony tail."

He makes a derisive sound. His character on screen dies.

"So… let's say you were in a relationship with her, and things between you and your family were becoming a bit rocky, would you tell her?"

"What?" he gives me a disbelieving glance while he restarts the level.

"Would you tell her about your family problems?"

"You're asking me?"

"Yes. Would you tell your hypothetical girlfriend about hypothetical family issues?"

He lets out a breath. "I guess… but it depends on so many variables."

"Like what?"

"Like how often do I see my family, how long have things been rocky, how long has she been my girlfriend, has she ever met my family, do they approve of one another, do they approve of me, can her cooking skills match up to my mother's…" He makes a surprisingly elegant swipe through the air. Something on screen goes thwack.

"So say you'd been with this girl for only around two months, you'd never introduced her to your family because they live very far away, you have some trust issues…"

He makes another swipe but then he follows it up with a strange sort of jig, which makes his arm fat wobble.

I get creative. "Things with the family have been rocky for, say, a while, but are maybe getting even worse now. She's getting suspicious. What do you do?"

He cocks an eyebrow at me. "If that was the situation, I'd tell her. It'd win major sympathy points. In the first three months of a relationship you get hormone bonuses, but with sympathy points you can totally build a mutual trust shield which will remain stronger when you reach a more difficult level in the relationship field."

"…how many dating games have you played in the past few months?" I ask suspiciously.

He glowers. "All of them."

After letting this important info sink in, I ask, "and how often do you complete them successfully?"

"Define 'successfully.'"

"Well, either in a loving relationship or in bed together with no clothes on?"

"Are you done?" He snaps.

"Ok. Thanks for your advice, Kevin. And next time you want to ask a girl out, ask me for tips, okay? It would be my pleasure to return the favor..."

He grunts but I don't know if that is in acknowledgement of me, or because he makes a particularly strenuous jaunt toward the screen.

I fetch coffee and retire to Luka's room. My boyfriend's mostly-blue eyes course over my face. He looks a little mean. Apparently he heard me asking Kevin's opinion because he snipes, "Seriously? Talking to Kevin about our friends' romantic drama? We should ask your cat next, he probably has more experience in social relationships, don't you think?"

Irked, I stand in front of him and point. "Get out of my chair, you commie."

I end up leaving Luka's without even a kiss good-bye. I mumble a greeting and he, at the computer, doesn't even swivel around to meet my eyes. Instead he clicks the mouse and grunts at the screen. When we get on the other's nerves, we do so enormously, and after the skirmish over Stan and Kevin we didn't manage to retrieve our usual harmony. I sullenly plod home. My feet feel burned and cramped in my heels. My shopping bags feel like anchors. The negligee hovers in my head like an ignored ghost while Stan's voice is still repeating itself inside my ears. I don't want to not believe my friends when they say something; but I really don't want to believe that she could be right. I almost feel insulted on Wolf's part.

I pass a window with two cats squatting in the sill. They are glaring for all the world like evil tigers which have already eaten the people inside their house. I stick my tongue out at them and they glare, apathetic. I feel guilty for thinking of the cats as evil ("Sayurin, tigers are holy animals in many religions," my mother would say primly) just because they're ugly.

It is strange to sleep alone that night, for the first time in weeks without that warm long boy body resting a heavy arm over my torso. I hadn't thought I would grow so addicted to him so quickly. The Pimp, as if he realized I wanted warm feet, has decided to sleep on the coffee table, ignoring my coaxing calls. Ironically the Pimp proves you don't need to be an ugly cat to be evil, and I apologize in thought to the two ugly cats from before. Worry about Stan and about my first argument with Luka toil around in my head. And it takes me twice as long to fall asleep, because my feet don't seem to warm up the way they're used to.

I dream that Luka and I are in the car. It's night time and he is racing the car down a dark highway. The car slips and we crash. I feel all my organs lurching in my abdomen. I am covered in blood but can still move and see everything. Luka beside me is unconscious. There is blood coming from his head, flowing down, over the seatbelt.

I get out, screaming, and call emergency services. They ask where I am and I don't know. I run back to the car to ask Luka even though I feel clearly that he's dead, and when I look in to the person in the seat, it's Stan. She's coughing incessantly and wildly flailing about because she can't get air.

"I don't know where I am," I tell the person on the phone.

"Sorry, then I can't help you," Azuma's voice says.

My heart is hammering so hard when I startle awake, that I have to think for a minute before I know for certain all of it is a dream. I want to hear Luka's voice badly but it is six in the morning, so I roll over and try to sleep again. The Pimp has settled into the crook behind my knees, and his low, guttural purring is like a white noise heartbeat.

The next morning's class hums on and on and on. The teacher's voice has the right kind of rhythm to it, so gentle it begins to remind me of waves lapping onto a warm sunny beach. As soon as I think about hot weather my brain immediately adds to my summer fantasy the incessant screechy hum of Japanese cicadas. Their song is the kind that keeps you up all night wishing you had a pile of rocks and perfect night vision so you could pinpoint the little fuckers up in their trees. With a sigh I let go of my fantasy and tune back into the teacher's voice. I resist the urge to check my cell for a message from Luka. I've been checking every ten minutes since this morning, spooked after my dream, but he hasn't tried to contact me at all. Boys are stupid, I think to myself, and focus properly until the end of the class.

By then my concentration is completely shot, and my lunch break consists of me hovering in front of the vending machines, choosing and re-choosing and then forsaking the food for sale there. I check the cafeteria but everything looks like it's made out of painted cardboard. I drift aimlessly until I settle on tea, at least. Then I sit down at a free table and, yawning, nestle my head in my arms. My argument with Luka is making me feel guilty and horrible. My nightmare last night has made me skittish and nervous. My tea is too hot to drink and I feel ready to drop off to sleep right here. Why do I have another three hours of class today?

"Can I sit down?" Someone asks me. They sit down without waiting for an answer while I look up blearily.

It's Natalie. Misery loves company, I guess.

"Sit…" is my tardy, unenthusiastic invitation.

"What did you say to him?" she asks me bluntly.

I nervously grab my tea but release it again when my hand registers that it's still too hot to hold.

"I don't follow," I say.

"To Luka. What did you tell him? I thought you were on my side. But he told me not to bother you again. Did you complain to him about me?"

She looks upset. I blink to clear my vision of sleep and ponder how best to insert my version of the truth into this attack. "What exactly did Luka tell you?"

She scowls. "He told me you agreed to go out with him so to leave you alone. Even though you said you would help me!"

I sigh without meaning to. "Do you want the truth? I can explain everything. You might not like it though."

Gnat gives me a try-your-worst glare.

"Ok, look. I have liked Luka for a long time now. For months and months."

"I've liked him far longer," she says smugly.

I blink at her. How would my mother deal with this situation? I wonder. I figure she would let the other person talk themselves into a crash-and-burn spiral. That's why she is such a good business bargainer.

"Go on," I say.

"I came to this university because he was here. I knew he was Sasha's brother. Fidèle and I were friends who were in love with those two ever since junior high. Just because I never introduced myself doesn't mean I never saw him. I'd seen how lovely he was even when he was still together with Viviane!"

"Why did you wait so long to introduce yourself to him?" I ask quietly.

"I was waiting for everything to be perfect. Now I look my best, he's well over Viviane, and mature enough to be a good boyfriend to me." She pauses and lifts her gaze to glare at me. I have to admit she is looking great, if a bit manic. "I even thought his good friend Sayurin would help me out, since she promised me she would. But I guess I was wrong to trust you."

I wonder what my mother does when she has no idea how to respond. Bluff? Remain silent?

Or be honest. "I told you. I've been in love with Luka for a long time."

"Then why didn't you tell me before I poured my heart out to you? Do you know how much it hurt when he told me?" Her dimples make her seem younger, and I wonder if I was wrong in believing I was the victim here.

"Because," I pause to formulate this explanation. "Because you were the very first clue I had that Luka might like me back."

"You're kidding." She looks like she's regretting that. Her eyes are getting all shiny.

"When you approached me that day at Monkies, I thought you and he were already dating. I thought you had hooked up while I was in Japan." Then I say something stupid, in trying to comfort her and explain away my own guilt. "See, Luka already rejected me once, before all this. I didn't tell you about my feelings because I didn't think what I felt would matter."

Her face gets a scornful look on it. "Omigod. I was right? He never liked you to begin with."

Talk about taking an idea and running with it.

"I said he rejected me once, several months ago." I say quickly, regretting my unnecessary words. "But us getting together now… he took the initiative, Natalie."

She shakes her head at me. "He's only taking pity on you. He should be with me. I've loved him longer than you."

"So what, you're more deserving? Love doesn't work that way. You don't win because you persevere or anything." I snap.

Oh, I feel like a strict parent berating her child. But tears start running down her face, and I completely lose my gall, even after everything she just said.

"You're not meant to be together, I'm positive!" She does sound positive. "I bet everything is going wrong for you already!"

I try not to think of the no-sex tension or yesterday's fight. I try not to think of all the time he refused me before he decided to date me after all.

"We're fine," I manage to sound positive of it too. I think of his kiss and his heartbeat and his insecurity when he said he loved me.

"I'll wait for him," she says, taking a deep breath. "Just like I waited for him to leave Viviane to go to university, and like I waited to graduate from school to get here as well. I even got a job where he works."

"Natalie, you have to watch out, you're sounding like a stalker." I warn her in a low voice. "Don't you realize Luka has only known you since you started working there? I don't think he knows how strong your feelings are. And I really don't think he feels the same way about you."

She stands up, wiping her face with the back of her hand. Her mascara looks to be waterproof. "I'm not listening to you. You're just a phase of his life that he never got closure on. He'll pick me because I'm a new phase for him. You might as well finish it off now."

I can't believe I thought she was nice and sympathetic last time I spoke to her. While I'm thinking that, she says, "Even his parents want me to be with him."

Any words I might have prepared to say now wither and scatter away like dead leaves in the wind. "You've talked to Luka's parents?" I croak.

"I used to hang out at their house with Fidèle," she sniffs, "they adore me. I have phone calls with Luka's mother. I told them you were using Luka as a fall-back option."

I snort, even though my insides have turned to jelly. "Do you really believe that? You really think that I'm not actually in love with Luka, but that he's my second choice?"

She sniffs. "Everyone knows that when Jeremy dumped you that night you went running to Luka."

I decide then and there that battling her isn't worth it. If she develops anymore of a grudge I might find my cat's decapitated head in my bed sheets the next morning. Instead, I should talk to Luka about this nonsense. Is this why Luka sounded insecure on the phone last night? I don't know where to start worrying in this rush of thoughts.

"Natalie, just leave Luka and me alone. Don't try and break us up." I ask her, hiding my misgivings to put on a brazen face before her. I hope she can't tell my fingers are shaking.

She stares at me, dramatically sad but determined-looking, and then flips her hair and clicks away on her perfect pumps. I scratch at my eyes, restraining tears of frustration by taking very deep, even breaths. Now what? I feel like screaming real loud and slapping something again a wall until the wall breaks. I feel like throwing something through a glass window. I have that vicious urge that children have when they feel they have been dealt injustice and can only compensate by dealing out a little whoop ass of their own.

So, I chug down my tea. It's bitter and soggy and reminds me of my father's English tea. "Stiff uppah lip, my sweet, and have another cuppah-sip," he might rhyme at a time like this. I buy another cup of tea and get out my cell phone. It'll be eight pm in Japan, so I dial my parents' home phone, feeling almost happy at the prospect of talking to a family member.

"Smith residence," my mother answers in Japanese.

"Mama it's me." Oops, my voice sounds wonkier than I expected.

My mom can tell. "Shoe? Is everything alright?"

"You know I like Luka, right? He said he likes me too, and we're together now." I opt for relaying info telegram-style, to keep my voice even.

"Is that so? Well, that's very good." It might sound cold coming from someone else, but from my mother it was nothing short of her belting, "Glooory glory halleloooooyaah".

"Is it really okay?" I fish for parental love and approval.

"I couldn't think of anybody better to respect you and take care of you."

I don't respond and she gets a little worried. "He is respecting you and taking care of you? Shoe?"

"Yeah, mom. He's great." I say softly. A glance around me tells me the cafeteria is gradually clearing out. Class will start soon.

"So, I have leave to tell your father and grandmother about this immediately? They're both eyeing me with great interest here. I think grandmamma can hear the distant sound of great-grandchildren waiting to be born." Mom pauses a moment to listen to my grandmother. "Yes. She said that if you don't bear her some grandbabies before she passes, she'll come back and haunt you till you do."

"In that case I hope she's willing to babysit them after that. I'm sure she'd be a capable ghost."

My mother relays that message with her dry voice and I enjoy my grandmother's indignant "Ehhh!?" The normalcy of talking to my mom, of hearing familiar banter and my father's baritone in the background telling me to brush my teeth before bedtime, brings some steadiness back to my mind and heart.

I tell them I have to get back to class now, and hang up feeling loved and missed.

The rest of my classes go smoothly, since I am concentrating twice as hard as usual so as not to have to think about the bizarre reproves made by Natalie. I sit next to Stan in my last class, History. Cash hasn't shown. Stan is fidgety and gives a mumbled answer when the teacher calls on her. I squeeze her arm encouragingly. She glances at me and smiles half-heartedly.

"Have you talked to him?" I ask in a whisper.

She shakes her head. I don't know what to ask after that. We sit till the end of class. I want to tell her about Natalie, I want more sympathy, but I don't say anything after all. When class ends and I stand to put on my coat, Stan grabs my arm and says, "Can you come with me now?"

"Where are we going?" I'm getting a bad feeling.

She averts her eyes. "To Wolf's. I have to ask him."

Can I say no? First I think about how much Cash and I wanted her to be patient and have faith yesterday. Then I think of how Kevin said he'd tell his girlfriend about family hardships, if only to win sympathy points. Is Luka right, and should I stay out of Stan and Wolf's problems, giving Wolf the benefit of the doubt, and hoping my sweet, insecure friend can stand that doubt? But what if Luka's wrong, and Wolf is cheating on her? How else do I explain what Stan has seen in Wolf's mail, in his expression on the phone with a mystery person? Should I just stand by and wait for my friend to get hurt? Do I confront Wolf? What could I hope to gain by butting in?

Nothing, comes the answer. "I can't, Stan," I start to say.

"You can, you have to," she implores. "I just need someone to hold my hand so I have strength. And if he is cheating on me, I just need a shoulder to cry on." She is smiling in a self-deprecating manner.

I can hear Luka's disapproval in my brain, but I follow my friend nonetheless.

We take the bus to Wolf's apartment. Stan's face is pale and drawn. I wonder if she'll really have the resolve to confront him. Will it destroy my friendship with Wolf, will it influence Luka and Wolf's friendship or Luka and Stan's. In the back of my mind, Natalie's words are still aching, but there's nothing I can do about them now.

Everything goes quickly after we take the stairs up and get to Wolf's front door. We hear muffled voices inside. They hush after Stan knocks. She squeezes my hand real hard. Wolf opens the door looking tired, his curly hair frizzier than usual. He looks surprised and apprehensive at seeing us, especially after seeing my withdrawn and Stan's fearful expression.

He doesn't lean forward to kiss her, nor does he invite us in. Instead he steps into the hallway and closes the door behind him. This action causes Stan's mouth to open in surprise. I have to admit, I had expected him to greet her with more enthusiasm, and at least more decency.

Well shit, I think, no wonder she's been so worried and upset.

"What's up?" Wolf tries to sound casual. There are dark circles under his eyes.

"I…" Stan sucks in a breath and looks right into his eyes. "Wolf, I really need you to tell me what's going on with you."

Wolf makes an impatient sound with his tongue. It makes me think he's warded her off before. "There are some things… happening…" he says in a very low voice, "and you don't need to be involved." His eyes on Stan are sympathetic but inaccessible. What is going on?

"We heard voices inside," Stan says, speaking loudly on purpose. "Do you have visitors?"

"No," he says very quickly, "it was the TV."

I can tell Stan doesn't believe him, and to be honest, neither do I. Her hand is holding mine so hard it hurts.

"Don't lie to me," Stan pleads. Wolf's mask finally melts a bit, and some of his own upset, whatever it is, shows through the cracks. He looks like he wants to reach out and hug her. But instead he says, "I'm sorry. But it's not my place to… I just need space right now. Stan, you have to understand. I can't take care of you right now."

My tall friend's back goes rigidly straight. She lets go of my hand and she raises her head high. "I'm sorry to have bothered you," she spits out, turns on her heel and leaves.

I am left to meet Wolf's eyes. All the emotion in his face has shut off again. I get the feeling he's hurting too, right now.

"She had to bring you along, huh?" he asks me, like he feels insulted she couldn't come talk to him alone.

"I don't think you know how insecure you've made Stan," I tell him frankly.

He shrugs. "I haven't given her any reason to be insecure," he says darkly, as if he suspects himself that isn't true.

"She thinks you're seeing someone else behind her back," I clarify.

His brow furrows in disbelief, and he lets out a scoff. "That's ridiculous. Stan should know I would never do that."

"Then what is going on with you?"

"As I said, it's not my place to tell," he says cheerlessly.

I nod, and leave as well. As I turn the corner I can hear him going back into his room.

Going downstairs I keep a lookout for Stan, but she's nowhere. About when I reach the ground floor, Luka calls me.

"Hey," I answer, too many things in my mind at the same time.

"Hey, didn't see you anywhere at university today," he says.

"Are you sure that you looked properly? I was there all day." I snipe without really meaning to.

He takes offence. "Excuse me. I didn't realize you were holding a grudge."

"Ho ho no. If there is anyone holding a grudge at the moment, it is that girl who followed you to college and started working at your job and who told your parents I was a lousy bitch." I get the feeling I'm taking my frustration at the world out on Luka.

"What? What?" Luka struggles to let this sink in. "Did Gnat harass you? Did you say she's been talking to my parents?"

"Yeah. I think she has some terrible issues. She was very unhappy with me for having stolen you, but she predicted our break-up in the near future."

"Great. I've always wanted a loony stalker of my own…"

"Yeah, but that's why you have me," I joke weakly.

Luka exhales. "Where are you now? I'll meet you."

"I'm…" I have a bad feeling about telling him what I've just been doing, but honesty lasts longest, so, "I'm at Wolf's apartment building…"

"Oh, you're with Wolf? Cool, I still have some DVDs I have to return to him…"

"No, well, I don't know if that's a good idea right now…" I give Luka the briefest of summaries as to what just took place.

He doesn't say anything for a while. I hover by the parking lot of Wolf's building.

"Now, I know you're thinking I'm really dumb for sticking my nose in their business but-"

"I can't believe you, Shoe. I told you to stay out of it. Instead you make rash decisions and presumptions based on Stan's foolish attitude-"

"Don't call her foolish," I get mad now too. "She's behaving the way any girl would who got treated by her boyfriend like this."

"She's being foolish," Luka repeats himself sharply, "like any person in love. This is their problem. We have to leave it be."

My voice has risen. "I cannot agree with you any less. What if a misunderstanding ruins their relationship? What if I can help them communicate -what if I can make a difference for them?"

"Yeah, because you're the real expert," he says. "You just know how to deal with any problem in a romantic relationship."

"That is quite possibly the foulest thing you have ever said to me," I observe evenly. "Maybe Natalie was right, and you're only with me because you pity me? 'Cause you sure the hell don't seem to be supporting me at all."

And I hang up even as I can hear him responding. My head feels heavy and my heart is fit to burst with angry frustration.

I want to start walking, but my eye is caught by movement at the building's door. Wolf has just walked out of it, and he isn't alone.

Leaning against him with one arm slung around his waist is a young woman. She is plump and has a pleasant face surrounded by long, dyed red curls. She is looking up adoringly at Wolf, who has an arm around her shoulders and is smiling down at her. They sound like they're speaking German together. Wolf still has that exhausted, worried look to him, but he also seems, strange as it may sound, genuinely happy.

I feel like my heart is breaking for Stan.

He and the girl are headed my way, and he halts when he spots me. The girl looks wearily, questioningly, back and forth from his face to mine.

"Where's Stan?" he asks, apprehensively.

"She had somewhere to go." My blood is rushing in my ears.

He doesn't say anything. The girl is watching my face. She doesn't seem to realize all this hubbub is because of her.

"I'm sorry," I say softly to Wolf. "But I do think very much that you should tell Stan the truth. She deserves to be able to move on."

"You don't understand," he warns me. "This isn't what it looks like."

"Then what is it?"

Wolf's jaw sets and he looks past me. "I'm not at liberty to say."

"If you don't tell Stan that you're lying to her, I will," I say, holding up my phone, still clenched in my hand.

The girl tugs on Wolf's shirt, asking something, probably what my problem is.

"I'll tell her when it's over," Wolf says to me. I don't know what he means by that. He shushes the young woman on his arm as they walk past me.

"Stan needs to know now," I say loudly, turning to watch them go. "I'm telling her tonight."

Wolf doesn't respond, but the shape of his back as he walks away looks very sad.

I face the bleak prospective that our little group of friends probably won't be going to that theme park anymore.

AN: oh, what a sad, belated chapter. I hope there are some people still reading and enjoying. I'm sorry for not having updated in so long. I won't bore you with the specifics. Let's just say I had to graduate at some point...

I'd like to ask you a personal favor. Because I'm doing other things and this story is taking long to write, I feel like the pacing is shot and like I'm making a lot of unnecessary mistakes. Would you be so kind as to point out anything? Or tell me if you think I could improve something? I would really appreciate it.

First of all, I'd like to thank whoever it was who nominated me for the SKoW awards! I hope all of you who enjoy this story will go over there and vote for me! I've been nominated for Best Het, which I guess means 'best heterosexual story'? As opposed to 'best homosexual story'? Anyway, I hope you will vote for me :) I bake great cookies in my mind.

Secondly, Twilight Starr put a lot of time and effort into finding errors in my previous chapters. I'm really grateful! (though no promises as to when I edit everything..)

Thirdly, a big thanks to Mooony Moon, who inspired me to finish the last bits and get this online!

Lastly, there was one person who reviewed saying they thought I'd made a big mistake in continuing to write even after the main characters got together. I understood that person's point very well, but I guess to explain to everyone who might be thinking the same thing, I am more inspired by shojo manga than by romance novels. And whereas romance novels (and many stories on FP) tend to end when the boy and girl finally come clean with their emotions, shojo manga likes to go on to problematize the relationship itself, something I find really interesting. Because that's the way it is in real life too… you don't stop having worries, insecurities or problems once you get together with the guy you like. If anything, they evolve and grow more interesting (for a writer :P). I hope you see it the way I do.

This time's cameo went to She Had Somewhere To Go. Yay!

Thanks to all the C2s too... Luka & Shoe can currently be found in these C2 communities:

500 PLUS: Extraordinary Fics with Extraordinary Reviews - Being Crazy is half the fun. - Best Friends Always Made The Better Boyfriends -Catch of the Cliches -Enchanting Romances -FP Greatest Hits -Fiction To Read -Funny Little Dance -Heroines R Us -Island of the Romanced -Love is wonderful! -Romantic Endeavours -Sexy as SIN -The Coffee Shop -The Cynic's Guide to Love -The Shiz Naz ( thats means this is the best, read it) - to read

Heartfelt thank-yous to: Gnomesbeatfaeries -Jestry -J.C. Lyn .Special -complexdays -Twilight Starr x11 *heart* -Peanutneko -caralene -honey splattered brains -ess3sandra x6! -Wicked-Tales -A.K.A. Writer's Block *heart* -Maybreakmyheart- smile at the sun -Crazy -Aurorablu -Katie Nicole x 2 :) -Icy Discordia -Duuude x 4! -Only4Miken -Krissy029 -kosocielo x 3! -chevy-luv -toffeecakesxox. x3!- all4hydration -Kajal -Demeterr -sibeckian -millie53 -ree. -silviaxvivalavida x2! -lili3123

TuneOut: thanks for pointing out the excess use of 'and', I hope I improved in this chapter!

SoundofMind: OMG! I was convinced 'baise moi' just meant kiss me. Thanks for pointing that out… oh well, let's just say Shoe didn't know either and Luka decided not to point it out? Eheheh.

Starsfinallyxplode: Thanks for pointing that out. I think I should have worked it out a little better, about Shoe's saying she loved Luka but freaking out when he told her -what I was trying to attain was the sense that Shoe's been isolated in her emotion for a long time, and had become a little too used to saying she loved him. But to actually be told she is loved as well, is unexpected and though welcome, she doesn't know how she's supposed to respond to it.

Sandyness: Ooh there's a Korean singer called Shoo? That's so cute… I'll have to check it all out.

Lua Adversa: Thanks for your nice words! I'm not writing in my second language, English is my first! I'm all the more impressed with you for writing in your second, though. I hope you make it to Europe and Japan some day, they make for great changes in scenery :)

Daydreamer-angel: Japan isn't cold except for in the winter, in the northern bits. Compared to Holland it's about the same but the sun shines more… in Holland it just rains. I hope you get to go visit Japan someday, it's worth it!

Appa the Gypsy: I recently got into Avatar so I have to take a moment to worship your username and pic. Awesome! Thank you!

Goblinishelves: Awww thanks so much. You made me really happy!

A Book list for anyone interested:

The Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Novels by Charlaine Harris are a big favorite of mine. They more recently inspired the sexy series, TrueBlood.

Jessica Day George's Dragon Trilogy, called Dragon-skin Slippers, Dragon Flight and Dragon Spear. Written for youngsters but absolutely great.

By Russell Shorto, Gospel Truth: the New Picture of Jesus Emerging from Science and History and Why It Matters. This book isn't fiction but a discussion on New Testament Scholarship. If you're like me, and you are spiritual but don't know if the Church has got its story straight, this book really helps you think about why, how, and what to do about it. It is not a study that debases Christianity, Atheism or any form of spirituality, it just makes you think, which a lot of people could do with ;)

Will shortly be reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I hope it's good! I'll report back to you next time...