Kimiko allowed herself to laugh in a more comfortable way. Too often when flirting with a cute boy, she was too self-conscious, but with Hitoshi there was the opportunity to banter without fear or worry.

"No really. I need to get to bed. And you're not invited." For a moment, Hitoshi's face stilled with an expression Kimiko couldn't place. "Erika doesn't like sharing her toys, you know."

As expected, Hitoshi laughed appreciatively, "Of course I know. We'd just have to make sure Erika never found out." But then the wink came from a face much more sober than usual. The thought occurred to Kimiko he might be serious. But he couldn't be! He was loyal and faithful to Erika, wasn't he? And Kimiko had compared herself to her friend often enough to know there was no measure by which anyone would prefer a scrawny girl like her to Erika's bold charms. What had been a game started by Erika between her two shy friends had to stop.

But the seed had been laid. It festered. Days would go by and Kimiko daren't flirt with Hitoshi anymore. And she spent far more time watching him, caught between hoping to spot him in a more obvious indiscretion and fear it might be true.

Plus there was another secret she was afraid to share even with herself. What if it were possible? What if she won the attention and admiration instead of one that seemed to have more than her fair share?

This night found Kimiko particularly low. It was exactly two years since the disasterous end with Akihiro and Kimiko really didn't want to spend another evening by herself. And into her booth at NIA slide the persistent Hitoshi. Even his smirk pried an unwilling smile from Kimiko. "You weren't invited." "Not every action needs an invitation on paper. Sometimes an empty seat is invitation enough." "Erika doesn't like sharing." "I'm not sharing this booth with Erika. We needn't let her know."

And Kimiko let it happen. She allowed his charm to brighten her evening. And she was laughing so hard tears were flowing.

In all of the inchoate dreams she never anticipated Hitoshi's kiss to arrive while she was crying with laughter. A laughter that died with a fatal suddeness. Hitoshi's face flickered immediately: disappointment, regret, horror, fear. It was a rapid progress that Kimiko only identified after reviewing the scene a million times a night for the next week. "You can't tell Erika!" There was no doubt he was pleading now.

"What happened to 'We needn't let her know'?" Kimiko knew her face was cold and her voice must sound harsh. But a line had been crossed. Kimiko knew it. She felt some guilt, but Erika had to know.

But Erika didn't want to know. And when Kimiko attempted to explain, somehow the words didn't come out right. A new seed was planted and Kimiko could see that something was wrong between Erika and Hitoshi just as things between the girlfriends had been damaged. And things festered.

Then came the day Hitoshi ended things with Erika. Kimiko didn't witness the conversation, but she saw the aftermath. Erika made public scenes. And was cruel to all, even undeserving fans. Perhaps especially to fans. If Hitoshi's love was so shallow, theirs must be too. And her fair-weather friends were quick to desert the former Idoru. Kimiko saw Erika drown her troubles and noone seemed willing to help her, warn her, or stop her.

There was no doubt in Kimiko's heart that she bore considerable blame. She never should have encouraged him in that way. Hitoshi was naturally shy. Other women didn't come on to him like that. He naturally mistook Kimiko's flirtation. She had no end of excuses for him.

But in the end, he was the one that stepped over the line. It gave her small, cold satisfaction.

But noone else was willing to tolerate Erika so it had to be Kimiko. Erika said cruel things, and fouled her shoes more than once, but was usually too drunk to resist the smaller woman when she declared it was the end of the night.

Then Kimiko started receiving help. The Sonoda's returned from whatever had kept them occupied during Erika's darkest days. Kimiko resented how they felt they could ignore Erika before know but her friend was willing to overlook their absense.

"Erika, dear. You really must understand. His love was unworthy of yours." Of course, Meimi's words never calmed Erika down.

"If he was so unworthy, why didn't you say something sooner?" The retort burned as those eyes flashed.

Kimiko answered despite her intentions. "I told you."

Erika twisted so quickly, it was obvious she wasn't very drunk. She lost that edge after too many beers. Her words didn't slur, but her movements did. "I was supposed to believe that?" Well, Erika could be irrational with or without alcohol. Logic was never her strong suit. Kimiko could hear the sneer.

"That's right. He hit on me. I told you and you ignored it."

Righteously indignant, the former Idoru scoffed. "Hitoshi didn't have it in him. He couldn't talk straight to a girl. I'm supposed to believe he suddenly discovered charm?" And the anger flared up again. "He couldn't, but you could. You led him on, didn't you? Or were you just jealous, offered yourself? Or you could have made it all up."

Bitterly, Kimiko responded in kind, "I didn't make him leave you. He suddenly discovered he could live without you."

And Kimiko saw the fist but couldn't even blink before it hit.

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