Kenji's third morning waking up inside the Jinnouichi house was much less eventful than the first two. The monsterling trio's suspicious chatter and pokes didn't force him out of sleep, nor the frantic voices of the family calling for Obaa-chan. This time, it was the completely normal jingle of his cell phone's generic ring tone.
Kenji rubbed his face and groaned. He rolled over on his futon to blink at the sunlight filtering through the screen curtain that separated his tiny room from outside, his private little partitioned slice of the expansive household during his stay.
For once allowed to wake without urgency, Kenji sat up. He forced his sleep-heavy arms to move the screen curtain aside, and then he stared at the lush view outside, trying to parse it with the stark concrete wall that was his own tiny apartment window's meager offering. Here in the mountains, mist still lingered in the valley that spread below the house's dominating hill. The humps of smaller hills reached through the mist, their stately trees like fingers combing through the fog.
Surely he could ask for a photo to take back. The Jinnouchis would probably be thrilled he wanted one.
The ringing stopped just as Kenji was grubbing through his backpack for the familiar shape of his phone. He found it, flipped it open, entered his password, and punched through to the call history list. He squinted at the unknown number. It wasn't Sakuma Takashi, his friend back in Tokyo who had helped capture and defeat the AI, Love Machine. Sakuma was not a morning person, and thus barely capable of conversation before 9 AM. He would have used his own phone to call, anyway. The voicemail could be from Kenji's parents, but he had dutifully done the weekly call to each of them the morning he'd left for Ueda. Which meant it was probably a telemarketer, and the voicemail would consist of recorded silence after they had hung up.
He dropped the phone in his lap, only to snatch it back up with delight. "It's working again!" He quickly returned to the main menu and stared with relief at the sight of his familiar wallpaper...and the generic blank starting avatar given to every new OZ account. Apparently he and Wabisuke-san had killed Kenji's original mouse-eared self-portrait avatar along with Love Machine. But no matter, Kenji could easily rebuild--
The memory of his stolen avatar's sharp teeth and evil hissing laugh came back to him, and he winced. "No. No way." He couldn't go back to it, not after all that. He'd rather keep the unassuming squirrel avatar that Sakuma had attached to the Jinnouchi house's land line for him to use. After all, the little yellow guy and his bushy tail had been integral to defeating Love Machine and saving the world. Kenji couldn't just dump him now the ordeal was done.
He muted the phone's voicemail alarm and sent off a quick text to Sakuma. Hi! My cell is back! No avatar, though. Can you transfer the squirrel to my cell? Thanks.
Pleased, Kenji set the phone on top of his backpack, grabbed his toiletries bowl, and went in search of the bathroom. Maybe today he'd finally be able to reach it on the first try.
But of course, he didn't. He'd located the house's inner courtyard garden--again--and hoped to find Kazuma-kun next to it--again--but Kazuma's room had been empty. Even the boy's laptop had been abandoned inside, lid closed and turned off. It seemed very forlorn to Kenji, sitting in seclusion on the table inside the dark room.
"Kenji-kun!" Natsuki's cheerful voice made him start. She trotted up to where he was standing, staring blankly at the empty room. "Good morning!"
"Good morning, Sempai," Kenji replied. "It's very beautiful outside today." At her sweet smile, he ducked his head and wished anyone else had found him. "Um...Sempai...could you tell me where the bathroom is?" He felt his cheeks burn.
Natsuki grinned. "Again? Sure." She turned with a laugh and led the way through the maze of walkways, cheerfully chatting about her plans for the day. Kenji padded after her, face still bright red.
Kazuma exited the bathroom just as they approached it. At Natsuki's greeting, he looked up and focused on them. He froze for a second, then made a small noise in reply, clutched his bowl of toiletries close, and scurried past.
"Kazuma-kun, good morning," Kenji called as the boy almost ran by.
Kazuma ducked around a corner and vanished without saying a word.
"That rude little twerp!" Natsuki huffed.
Kenji rubbed the back of his head with his free hand. "Maybe he isn't a morning person and just doesn't feel like talking yet. Sakuma is like that." Indeed, Kenji had learned very early in their friendship to not talk to Sakuma before the latter was fully awake. Either that or be content with monosyllables and glares in reply.
Natsuki smiled at him. "You're so nice, Kenji-kun. Kazuma has always had social problems. He was doing better, but I guess he's relapsed." She sighed and halted next to a familiar door. "Anyway, here you go. Breakfast will start in about twenty minutes."
A bit flustered from her compliment, Kenji thanked her and entered the bathroom. He heard her stalk down the hallway, muttering under her breath about embarrassingly immature socially inept cousins. He absently wondered about Kazuma's behavior, but dismissed it. Everyone had the right to be grumpy on occasion. Especially in the morning.
When Kazuma had stepped out of the bathroom and come face-to-face with Kenji-san, he'd panicked. It was all he could do to grunt at Natsuki and make a run for it. He didn't even know why it had happened! He darted into his room and snicked the door closed behind him. He shoved his bath bowl back in its place, took in a deep breath to try to quiet his pounding heart, and reached for the comfort of his laptop.
He was checking the latest results of the tournament--he wasn't surprised the game had already resumed after Love Machine's defeat--when his door slammed open.
"Kazuma!" Natsuki yelled.
He flinched and hunched his shoulders, wishing he'd put on his headphones and thus have had a convenient excuse to ignore her.
She stomped inside and loomed over him.
Kazuma was not in the mood to deal with Natsuki's irritated mother hen mode right now, but showing her that would only make her more insistent. He carefully blanked his face before he looked up at her. "Yes?"
Her scowl deepened. "What was that, just now? Kenji-kun said hi, and you ran. I thought you respected him!" She sniffed. "Kenji-kun made excuses for you, but I say you still owe him an apology."
Kazuma turned away and stared at his screen. "I do respect him." He resisted the urge to fidget.
"Then why did you snub him?!" In a slightly softer tone, she added, "Are you okay?"
A stab of guilt speared Kazuma, both for slighting Kenji-san and making Natsuki worry needlessly. He hunched over more. "Yeah, I'm okay." He looked up at her, letting the blank mask slip a little. "Sorry. I dunno why I ran."
She sighed, and the stiffness left her voice when she said, "Breakfast is almost ready. Come on. And leave your laptop here, out of respect for Obaa-chan's day. All right?" After his noise of assent, Natsuki turned and left the room.
Kazuma listened to her retreating footsteps as he ran his fingers over his laptop. He felt bad that Kenji-san had excused his behavior to Kazuma's own family. It really had been completely stupid, running the moment he caught sight of the high school student. What the hell was that?
He knew Natsuki was right, at least about the needed apology. He gritted his teeth and stood with determination to head to breakfast. After finishing his study of the tournament boards, of course.
At breakfast, Kazuma listened to Aunt Mariko's outlining of the day's events just long enough to catch that the wake for Obaa-chan was going to be more like the birthday party originally planned. He promptly tuned everyone out and concentrated on breathing, just as Shishou had instructed in his very first Shorinji Kempo lesson. The basic motion calmed him. He took a couple bites of food to avert any potential irritating questions about why he wasn't eating, and studied Kenji-san, who was sitting directly opposite.
Kazuma noted with a touch of anger that the rate of his heart beat increased. He closed his eyes again. Okay, so something about Kenji-san made him nervous. Fine. Stupid, but fine. After all, they'd worked together to bring down the biggest threat to world security ever known, and now Kazuma couldn't even look Kenji-san in the eye? It hadn't been a problem before! He felt a self-deprecating sneer touch his lip and quickly smoothed it down.
Becoming angry with himself wouldn't do any good. He was eleven years old! Not a little kid anymore, who threw tantrums and hid from things that made him uncomfortable. And he was a master in Shorinji Kempo! It really was stupid for a strong fighter to be nervous around a harmless code monkey like Kenji-san!
He took another bite of food and considered Kenji-san again. Stick-thin arms, computer-room pale skin, and a brain that could solve complex equations without need of pen and paper. And he had saved the lives of everyone around him before the clock hit zero.
Kazuma blinked. Okay, his pulse was definitely fast again, but he was obviously not afraid of Kenji. So why, then? A movement from Natsuki caught his eye from where she sat next to Kenji, when she offered him another helping of rice. Blushing, Kenji accepted it with a sheepish smile. Kazuma felt a stab in his heart.
He jerked his eyes back to his plate and quickly ate half of his breakfast fish. Yes, that would explain it. Just like with Kinta-kun last year, and Tetsu the year before that. Only this time it wasn't a classmate, or a neighborhood sort-of-friend, but an older boy. Almost a man.
Kazuma peeked at Kenji-san through the camouflage of his thick swatch of bangs, seeing Natsuki gently tease him about something.
Teasing her fiancé.
He suddenly lost both his appetite and the will to fake it. He carefully set down his chopsticks and was about to stand when he remembered...Kenji-san wasn't really Natsuki's fiancé.
As if on cue, Kenji-san's gentle voice broke into a random lull in the breakfast conversation. "Um...I was wondering..." he trailed off, embarrassed.
"Yes yes, what is it?" Shishou asked, his voice boisterous.
"Well...I..." Kenji-san visibly swallowed. "Could I borrow someone's camera? I wanted to take some photos of the view here. The house, too."
Everyone at the table stopped eating and stared at him.
Kenji-san's blush returned with a vengeance. "It's so pretty...and I thought it would be nice to have some pictures, is all."
They all erupted in good cheer, with almost every woman present offering to loan her camera, and a good portion of the men, too. Kazuma saw his chance and took it.
"You can use my family's camera." He stood up. "I can transfer the photos to my laptop and email them to you easily. I know exactly how to use our camera. It's a good one, too." He looked over at his mother, who nodded and looked pleased. Probably at his voluntary socializing.
Kenji-san smiled at him. "Thank you, Kazuma-kun. After breakfast, then?"
"Okay." Kazuma felt a rare smile of his own curving his mouth, and hid behind his hair again head so none of his extended family would notice. "I'll go get ready. Thanks for the food!" he called over his shoulder as he hurried to his mom's room.
He had no idea if Kenji-san would be interested in another guy. He obviously liked girls, but there was always a chance he could be bi, right? Even if there were six years between their ages, he could still try. Kenji-san was a good person, and they were already friends. Maybe something really could start from there.
Kenji felt rather triumphant when he found his way back to the bathroom on his first try, and then to Kazuma's room. At the sound of his approach, Kazuma slid open the door and joined him in the hallway.
Kazuma glanced up and met his eyes for a single second, then quickly turned to lead the way. "I emptied the memory card. You can take as many pics as you want."
"That's good, though I doubt I'll need that much space," Kenji chuckled.
Kazuma paused at an intersection. "Where did you want to start?"
"Um...my room, I guess. That's the view that made me want photographs."
With a nod, Kazuma led him back to his room. Kenji slid the screen door out of the way and took in a deep breath of air. Filled with glorious fresh air, it smelled of grass and warm sunshine. "Yeah. Definitely start here."
Kazuma wordlessly handed him the camera.
Kenji looked down at it. It had been years since he'd held a camera in his hands. His family had never been big shutterbugs; cell phone camera snapshots had been more than enough.
Kazuma blinked at him, then stepped close and pointed. "That's the power button."
"Thanks." Kenji grinned sheepishly as he pushed it and admitted, "It's been a while since I used an actual camera. Could you walk me through it a couple of times? Just until I get the hang of it."
Leaning in, Kazuma pointed at the display, which was currently showing their feet standing on the wooden floor. "That icon means the camera is already set for outdoor pics. This one is date and time. The battery one shows it's fully charged. This number is available memory, that zero will increase to show the number of pics you've saved."
When he finished speaking and remained silent for several moments, Kenji looked up from the camera to find Kazuma watching him thoughtfully, still standing close enough for their arms to touch. Puzzled, Kenji watched him back--until the camera chirped at him. He jumped in surprise, his forearm knocking into Kazuma's shoulder.
"What did I do?!" Kenji gripped the camera with both hands, terrified he'd broken something.
He heard Kazuma snicker. "That's the ten second warning the camera gives before it automatically powers down to save the batteries. Take a pic or zoom or something, and it won't turn off. If it does, just turn it on again."
Kenji gulped, and the camera powered down. "Right." He turned it back on. "Okay. So...how do I zoom and take photos?"
Kazuma leaned in again, this time holding Kenji's wrist steady with his near hand, and pointing with the other to a knob and a big flat button located on the top. "Twist and hold the knob either way to zoom in and out, use the big button to take the pic."
Kenji lifted the camera to frame the view, not noticing when Kazuma's hand fell away from his wrist. He tried the zoom, pushed the button, and grinned as the taken photo flashed on the screen. "Ah!" He glanced at Kazuma. "It worked! Thanks again!"
Taking a couple steps forward until he was right on the edge of the traditional Japanese house, Kenji lifted the camera, adjusted the zoom, and took another photo. Behind him, he heard Kazuma shift.
"Looks like you got it."
"Yeah." Kenji looked over his shoulder. "Thanks, Kazuma-kun!"
"Sure," Kazuma repeated. "The front view is good too, though with the gate destroyed..." Kazuma trailed off when a distant voice called for him.
"Damn," Kenji heard him mutter. Then louder, Kazuma said with a touch of sulkiness, "I gotta go. Find me if you need help, Kenji-san."
Kenji made a noise of agreement and focused on his photo quest. The ARASHI satellite impact had indeed done a number on the grounds themselves, but the mountains and distant trees were still beautiful. He still wanted shots of the house, debris damage and all. He moved on to find the front entrance, having decided to take Kazuma's advice.
This had been a hell of a weekend, and he wanted to remember it.
Later that morning, Kenji watched the mourners arrive; their calm, composed faces shifting into outright stares and gapes--first at the geyser shooting hot water up into the sky, then at the joyous family throwing a birthday party for their beloved and very recently deceased Obaa-chan.
The onsen's water turned into a cool mist that drifted down upon the trail of people lining the multi-level entrance way from the demolished formal gates to the main house's level. It helped counter the sun's heat, and certainly made for conversation...along with the Jinnouchi name being so prominent in the previous two days' fight and ultimate victory over the malignant AI. It also didn't take long for them to learn how exactly the geyser came about...and Kenji's role in same.
He suddenly found himself the object of wide-eyed stares, whispers, and even a few bows from people four times older and one hundred times more important than he was. The regard of one man in particular gave Kenji an odd shiver down his spine. Rather than traditional kimono or a dark suit, the man was dressed in elaborate Goth attire. Complete with heavy eyeliner, dangling skull earrings, leather jacket bristling with zippers, and silver chains dripping from everything. The man was easily over forty years old, and most disturbing of all...he made the look work.
Kenji found himself gaping until the man gave him a--the only word Kenji could think of to describe it was predatory--smile and a bow. Kenji snapped out a returning bow, snuck another gape at the man, then jumped when his cell phone rang. He snatched it out of his pocket, bowed again to everyone in general, and quickly made his escape.
He ducked around the corner of the house and took a deep breath. It felt wonderful to be hidden away from all those staring, weighty eyes. Natsuki's beloved Obaa-chan had known so many influential people! It was completely unnerving to have them all looking at him. Yeek!
The phone call was from another unknown number, like the one that had woken him that morning. Before he could answer, Natsuki's voice called him to participate in the birthday song for Obaa-chan. He quickly jabbed the ignore button and shoved the phone back into his pants pocket.
He made his way over and self-consciously hovered for a moment, not sure where to join the family group since Natsuki was standing in front of them to lead the song. Kazuma caught his eye from where the boy stood on the far left side, and invited him in with a jerk of his head. Grinning, Kenji hurried to stand behind him. The milling group jostled them, and Kenji grabbed Kazuma's shoulders to steady them both. Kazuma glanced back at him, then quickly looked back to Natsuki, his shoulders hunched. When the song began, Kenji gave Kazuma's shoulders a squeeze to encourage the boy to join in the singing. He was pleased when it worked.
Kazuma's ears and neck were bright red in the sun. It made for a startling contrast to Kenji's own pale hands where they rested on Kazuma's shirt. The boy had actually changed out of the tank tops he'd been living in all weekend, and he was now in a white short-sleeved button-down. Kenji thought it looked good on him.
When the song was finished and everyone was laughing and applauding, someone noted it was a great photo op. The group split as everyone ran for their cameras, including Kenji, who handed Kazuma's mom's camera back to her with a thankful bow. His offer to take the extended family portrait was accepted, and Kenji found himself wielding a dozen different cell phones and digital cameras. When they started individual family photos, he was relieved of the task and moved off to the side to watch. Unknown to himself, a beautiful, wistful smile was upon his face the entire time.
Feeling very much extraneous, he stepped away only to be stopped short by a cool hand on his arm. Surprised, he turned to see Natsuki.
"Come join us for the grandchildren's photo, Kenji-kun."
Kenji froze. "What?"
"Oh, just come on!" She almost dragged him along, shoving him into place on her left side, while Shota glared at him from her right. Natsuki accepted baby Kyouhei from Yumi-san and cradled the infant in her arms. Even Ryouhei made it into the group, still shouldering his baseball tournament victory banner, tears streaming down his face.
Kenji stared blankly forward, stiff and in shock from being included. The younger grandchildren all crowded in front of them, knocking elbows and knees. Kenji could only listen in silence to the shrieks and laughter that surrounded him, until a subdued voice managed to cut through the emotional fog clouding his mind.
He looked down to see Kazuma in front of him again.
"I'll make sure you get some of these pics, too. And not just this one. Okay?"
Kenji found his voice in the depths of his heart. "Okay. Thanks," he whispered. Everyone else was being so loud, Kenji doubted Kazuma could have heard him. But apparently he did, because the younger boy nodded once and pivoted to face forward. Kenji's hands returned to Kazuma's shoulders, this time to hold himself steady.
Towards the end of lunch, Kenji nipped the last bite of grilled squid off the skewer when his phone rang yet again. He pulled it out, noted the display indeed read "unknown number" to match the generic tone, and hit the answer button. These telemarketers were really persistent.
"Kenji!" Shota materialized out of nowhere to shove a tray piled high with more grilled squid under his nose. "Have another one!" When Kenji just blinked at him in astonishment, Shota shifted and stepped out of his personal space. "You're too scrawny anyway," he muttered. "Go ahead, take another one."
"Thanks, Shota-san," Kenji said, and he selected a particularly fat squid.
Shota nodded in acknowledgement, then strode off to force food on other unsuspecting victims.
Kenji remembered the call and looked down at his phone, but a greasy fingerprint revealed he had hit the end button when Shota startled him. Kenji half-bowed in automatic apology to the former caller, wiped the display clean on his pants, and closed his phone. If it was important, he was sure they would call back.
The sound of laughter caught his attention, and he found Natsuki in the crowd. She was standing, surrounded by a group of mourners. She was using her hands to accentuate her words. He caught mention of Obaa-san's name, followed by what must have been the punch line, because the mourners laughed or smiled, and all nodded in agreement.
Kenji watched Natsuki with admiration. She was vibrant, celebrating the joy of her great-grandmother's birthday, and the people around her were swept along. Just as when she was at school, Natsuki captivated everyone's attention. Of course, her beauty was a factor in her magnetism, but Kenji believed her true appeal sprang from her outgoing and kind nature. Natsuki was unfailingly welcoming to everyone.
Her eyes seemed to sparkle in the sun, the sleek dark hair left free from her updo rippling as she moved to the next batch of mourners. The breeze lifted the hem of her morning glory yukata and flashed a length of shapely, fit calf. Kenji drank in the sight of her trim shape and muscled legs and reaffirmed that he did find athleticism more attractive than the conventional soft cuteness so heralded by most guys.
His face heated, and he averted his gaze. He didn't want to be caught drooling. Not because he feared trouble from her family, but more that he knew they'd tease him mercilessly about it.
Unfortunately, it was too late.
"Koiso-kun..." he heard a female voice croon behind him.
He whirled to see Naomi-san, the sleek red-headed aunt with glasses, standing right in front of him with a smug grin on her face.
"We saw you...!" she sing-songed, and the grin widened.
Kenji waved his hands back and forth in a desperate attempt to ward off the coming torment. "I didn't mean to stare, I just--"
"It's all right! Perfectly all right!" She grabbed him by the upper arms, pivoted him about, and shoved him forward. "Why don't you really marry her?" she teased suggestively into his ear.
Kenji stared over his shoulder at her in astonishment, then whipped his head around when he felt a warm and firm body press against his chest.
Natsuki gaped back at him from only inches away, her own eyes just wide as the other single aunt, Rika-san, pushed her into him.
"They really should go out first, so how about it, you two?" Rika leaned in behind Natsuki and gave them a completely fake innocent smile. Kenji could swear her glasses were glinting evilly in the sunlight.
Kenji and Natsuki could only stare at each other, shocked speechless. Kenji could see simple surprise on Natsuki's face, but he knew his own was filled with embarrassed dread. This was not going to end well.
Before either of them could think of a word to say, a fuming Shota suddenly forced them apart. "If you say you love her, I'll kill you!" he roared at Kenji.
Kenji was pulled away from Shota into Naomi-san's embrace, making him feel like a downed squirrel at the mercy of a pack of dogs. She traced circles with a finger on his chest, leaned in, and breathed, "If you don't like her..."
At the sensation of her breasts pressing into him, Kenji panicked and jolted out of her grip. "I love her!" he blurted out, eyes squeezed shut in desperation. The next thing he knew, Shota was doing his best to strangle him until the policeman was yanked back by one of the other men.
Kenji gasped for air and glanced up to see Natsuki watching him, a pretty blush on her cheeks.
"I'm happy. Thank you," she said softly.
The sight made him forget to breathe.
The family suddenly surrounded them, whistling and cat-calling and completely ruining the moment as only loud, boisterous families can. Four of the guys appeared behind Kenji and shoved him towards Natsuki again. "Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!" they all chanted.
Kenji's eyes turned into saucers when Natsuki closed her own eyes and tilted her face up, lips pursed. She actually wanted him to kiss her! In growing terror, he glanced at their audience of excited and encouraging family members, who were all waving party streamers and fans and cheering. He squeezed his eyes shut and leaned toward Natsuki, his lips puckered up as big as he could manage. Heart pounding and completely caught-up in the thought of finally getting to kiss her--in front of her entire extended family, at that--he felt his nose drip blood. With a small sound of dismay, he turned aside and pinched his nostrils closed, only to feel Natsuki press her lips against his cheek
The family exploded with joy.
The dam inside Kenji's nose burst, and the world strangely darkened and tilted to the side. The last sight he took in before passing out was Kazuma's clenched jaw and carefully blank expression.
The sound of voices happily talking around him against the counterpoint of his ringing phone brought Kenji back to reality. He awoke to find the monsterling trio bent over him.
Yuuhei poked him in the stomach with a stick. "You're weak, Kenji-san."
"Your nose is bloody. Pervert-san!" Mao taunted.
A strange hand in his pants pocket made Kenji yelp. "You should answer your phone!" Shingo accused as he pulled the phone out. "It's rude not to answer. Even a baby knows that!"
Kenji lurched upright to his knees. "Give me that!" He made a grab for the phone, but sudden dizziness made him sway, and the kids dashed off with playful shrieks.
"Weak! Pervert-san! Rude!"
"Hey!" Kenji scrambled to his feet and raced after them, but the trio were apparently quite adept at keep-a-way. They tossed the phone between them, spinning and feinting until Kenji lost track of it, then they scattered in three different directions.
Overwhelmed, Kenji stumbled to a halt in the middle of the back yard and could only watch as the kids vanished, his phone in their clutches.
"They'll bring it back eventually," Natsuki said as she approached. "They won't do too much to it, not since they landed in big trouble after messing up Shota's cell during New Year's."
Kenji felt his blush returning when she paused next to him. He nodded in relief.
Natsuki held out a damp washcloth. "Here. For your nosebleed," she answered his bewildered look. His blush must have been contagious, because it spread across her cheeks, too.
"Thanks." He took the cloth and used it, unable to meet her eyes as he cleaned up the blatant proof of his attraction. When he finished, he folded the cloth into a compact square, fruitlessly trying to hide the bloodstains.
A slender hand came to rest on his, and he froze.
"Um...Kenji-kun...I meant what I said, before."
He looked at her then and found her cheeks still flushed, her eyes shining.
"I'm glad you feel that way about me. And...after this weekend...I have a better idea of who you are." She broke off to stare at their feet in the grass.
Kenji watched her face, fascinated as the blush spread. Her expression scrunched up for a moment, then smoothed out again.
"I would like to try a real date." She confidently met his eyes again, a sweet smile spreading across her face. "An ordinary, normal date. No marauding AIs or impending satellites of doom."
A matching smile appeared on his face, and Kenji knew his blush was burning even brighter. "Okay. That sounds great! When--"
His question was drowned out by the hollering of three unhappy children. "Kazu-nii! Give it back!"
"I am giving it back!"
"No you're not! You're taking it to Kenji-san!"
"Because it's his phone!"
Kazuma appeared from inside the house, Kenji's phone held high above his head like the Olympic torch. The monsterlings surrounded him, trying to halt his progress and reclaim the phone, all without much success. The protests continued.
Natsuki sighed with fond resignation. "Hey, you three! I heard Nana-san say something about ice cream earlier. Why don't you go see if she's opened it yet?"
They froze in place, then streaked away with joyous yells. When it came to the fun scale, clearly ice cream out-ranked cell phone theft.
Kazuma held Kenji's phone out to him. "Here, I rescued this for you."
"Thanks, Kazuma-kun." Kenji accepted the phone gratefully, glancing over it to see if the kids had deleted anything important. All his saved information seemed okay at first glance.
Kazuma turned to Natsuki and commented wryly. "Great idea, Natsuki. Reward their bad behavior."
Natsuki scoffed. "I didn't say they'd get any ice cream, just that Nana-san had some. And it worked, didn't it?" She waggled a finger in the air. "You gotta learn to pick your battles when it comes to kids."
"Humph." Shoving his hands into his back pockets, Kazuma glanced over at Kenji again. "Your phone rang while they had it. That's actually how I was able to track them down."
"It did? Maybe it was Sakuma..." Kenji flipped his phone back open and navigated to the call history list. "Nope, another unknown number. I've been getting a lot of those today," he remarked thoughtfully.
Natsuki suddenly straightened. "Oh yeah! Kenji-kun, I talked with Sakuma-kun earlier today, before the--uh..." she trailed off, blushed, and cleared her throat. "Anyway, he suggested you stay here for a while."
"Eh? For longer than this weekend?" Kenji exclaimed, astonishment plain in his voice. "But I would be intruding upon--"
"You should stay," Kazuma bluntly cut him off.
Both Natsuki and Kenji looked at him in surprise.
"How can you think you wouldn't be welcome, after everything that happened?!" Voice heated, he continued, "You saved us and our ancestral home!"
A nearby screen, weakened from the satellite crash's shock wave, chose that moment to crack and fall apart.
Kazuma winced. "Mostly saved our home," he amended. "Anyway, you're part of the family now. Of course you can stay!" He glared up at Kenji, as if only an idiot wouldn't have realized it for himself. And obviously Kenji wasn't an idiot, so get with it already!
Kenji and Natsuki were caught aback at Kazuma's vehemence, and Kazuma fidgeted in growing embarrassment. The sudden ringing of Kenji's phone split the air, making them jump.
They were all grateful for the distraction.
"Another unknown number?"
"Who's been calling you so much?" Natsuki asked.
Kenji gave her a baffled look, then sheepishly grinned. "I don't know, I haven't answered one yet. I keep getting interrupted, and I have yet to listen to any voicemails." He punched the talk button. "Let's find out."
The voice's urgency gave him pause. "Yes, I'm Koiso."
"Koiso-san! This is Matsuura of 'Yomimichi Daily'! What can you tell us about your defeat of Love Machine?"
"Huh?" Kenji actually lowered his phone to study it in puzzlement. "Isn't 'Yomimichi Daily' a newspaper?"
They could all hear the tinny voice from the speaker shouting "Koiso-san! Koiso-san! Comment please!"
Kazuma was the first to realize it. "That's a reporter," he said in wonderment, then gasped. "They've probably all been reporters!"
"Reporters?!" Kenji stared in befuddlement at Natsuki and Kazuma. "What do I do?"
The cousins exchanged a glance. "Hang up," they answered simultaneously.
A cheerful ring tone sounded from one of Natsuki's yukata sleeves. She pulled out her cell, showed them the 'unknown caller' display, and answered on speaker-phone. "Yes?"
"Yes, that's me."
Almost before she finished speaking, the voice continued in rising excitement, "You were key in the defeat of the monster AI! How do you feel about the betrayal of your family member Jinnouchi Wabisuke--"
Natsuki ended the call with a violent jab at her phone's keypad.
Kenji's phone rang again, followed by Natsuki's. Neither bothered to check the callers' identities. Without a word, Kenji turned his phone off, and Natsuki followed suit.
In the distance, they heard several other phones begin to ring.
"I think I'm glad King Kazuma doesn't have a phone number," Kazuma said quietly.