“Man, why didn’t anyone tell me how hard this was going to be?” Ryuko groaned as she surveyed the mess of melted chocolate ruefully, her third ruined batch of the afternoon. She had yet to progress past actually melting the chocolate. Too impatient to wait, she ended up burning it every time.
“Why on earth did I even let you talk me into this, Mako? As if I wanted to give any to those stupid guys anyway!”
Mako stuck her head in through the doorway, with Guts peeking in at her feet, sniffing the air.
“That’s alright, Ryuuko-chan. You’ll get the hang of it. Mom says it doesn’t to hurt to make a few mistakes first!”
“That’s right, Ryuuko-chan!” Mrs. Mankanshoku chimed in, peering over Mako’s shoulder. “We can always buy some more chocolate if you ruin it all.”
Ryuuko slumped over the counter in despair. Mako’s chocolates were all prettily wrapped in white paper decorated with rabbits, tied shut with red ribbons on a tray. Her mess occupied nearly the entire kitchen, smears of chocolate everywhere from the stove to the floor. Surprising as it was, Ryuuko supposed she must get it from her mother; after all, Mrs. Mankanshoku was a phenomenal cook, and Mako’s chocolates had turned out delicious.
“You’ve still got some time. After all, we aren’t seeing them until tomorrow evening. I won’t give mine out until you’ve finished yours!” Mako smiled at her cheerfully.
“Thanks, Mako,” Ryuuko sighed, plucking out the last clean pot to try one more time.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Mako beamed.
“Don’t put them next to yours. They’ll look even worse than they already do.”
Next to Mako’s neatly wrapped packages, Ryuuko’s chocolates were haphazardly wrapped in red paper, tied shut with varying lengths of white ribbon.
“I’m never letting you talk me into this again,” she complained, pulling at her hair in frustration. She’d stayed up until 3 in the morning for the dumb chocolates, and they still didn’t look nearly as nice as Mako’s.
“Oh, c’mon! The boys will absolutely love it! And stop pulling at your hair.”
Ryuuko hadn’t had enough energy to fight back as Mako had dressed her like a doll in time for their reunion that afternoon. Clad in a white long-sleeved blouse and a dark blue skirt, with her hair tied back into a ponytail, she felt even more out of sorts. Oh well, she thought, it wasn’t often they got to meet up so maybe it wouldn’t hurt to look a little nicer than usual.
“Don’t worry so much, dear,” Mrs. Mankanshoku said, patting her on the back. “Any boy would be thrilled to get chocolates from either of you girls, look at you both!”
“Oh, that reminds me, I made some chocolates for Mr. Mankanshoku and Matarou. I’ll just leave them here,” Ryuuko said, separating two of the red packages as she stuffed the rest into a paper bag.
“Mine too, Mom! We’ll see you later!” Mako said cheerfully, waving goodbye as she dragged Ryuuko out by the arm to the black limousine waiting outside.
Ryuuko yawned widely as Mako chattered on beside her, thoroughly excited. They were all going to meet at Satsuki’s apartment next to the university for dinner. Satsuki had, of course, wanted to have a chauffeur pick them up at the Mankanshoku residence. Any objections Ryuuko might have had were immediately overriden by Mako’s fervent exclamations of excitement at riding a Kiryuuin limousine.
With her chin propped up on her hand, she watched the busy city going by. It hadn’t been an easy adjustment for any of them, but look at them now – about to give out Valentine's Day chocolates to their friends as though they were normal teenagers. Who’d have thought a year ago this is where I’d be? Ryuuko thought.
“Ryuuko-chan, are you even listening to me?” Mako cut into her musing by grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her. “Don’t be so bummed out. Aren’t you excited to see everyone again?”
Excited? “Well, yeah. I guess I am. We haven’t seen everyone together for so long,” Ryuuko answered slowly. “Kinda weird to think about, though. Considering we haven’t really spent much time with them outside of a battlefield.”
“But we’re all friends now!” Mako nodded vigorously. “And it will be a nice break for Satsuki-sama!”
“That’s true,” Ryuuko agreed. She hadn’t been seeing much of her elder sister, who had been rebuilding the Kiryuuin empire on top of pursuing her studies at a university in Tokyo while Ryuuko and Mako were still finishing their last year of high school in Kanagawa.
In fact, they hadn’t seen much of the others at all, apart from Gamagoori who would visit occasionally, blushing wildly sitting next to Mako, while Mrs. Mankanshoku fed him more and more croquettes. Mikisugi would call once in a while to check up on them, though he and Tsumugu were busy working on a new program in partnership with the Kiryuuin conglomerate, to educate the general public on Life Fibers.
“I can’t wait to give them our chocolates! In Honnouji Academy, students were forbidden from having any sort of romantic relationships, so we weren’t allowed to before,” Mako said, jumping up and down in her seat. “So this is my first time too!”
Ryuuko’s hand tightened on the straps of the paper bag as she frowned.
“Won’t they think this is weird?”
“Not at all! Don’t worry so much!” Mako gripped her hand. “It’s going to be great, you’ll see.”
Despite Mako’s reassurances, Ryuuko’s stomach was fluttering by the time they arrived at Satsuki’s apartment. The two girls thanked the chauffeur as they got out at the front door and rang the doorbell. They could hear muffled voices from inside. Ryuuko felt as though they had to wait for an eternity before the door opened at last.
“Ryuuko. Mankanshoku. I’m glad you’ve arrived safely.”
“So nice to see you again, Satsuki-sama!” Mako said enthusiastically.
“Thanks for inviting us,” Ryuuko managed, with a nervous smile.
“Please come in,” Satsuki said, opening the door wider. Mako exclaimed immediately at how beautiful Satsuki’s apartment was, running from corner to corner to admire everything from the view at the window to the soft couch cushions. Ryuuko thought it suited her older sister well – while large and spacious, it was tastefully decorated with modern, elegant furniture. A small but cheerful fire warmed the living room.
“Calm down, underachiever. The party hasn’t even started yet,” said a familiar teasing voice. Ryuuko grinned, relaxing a bit. Some things – and people – never changed.
“You look well, Ryuuko,” said Satsuki. Ryuuko turned to find her elder sister studying her with a slight smile on her face. “It’s good to see you both again. Please feel right at home.”
Ryuuko reddened slightly under her steady gaze. “Thanks. I-it’s great to finally see where you’ve been staying.”
Short hair suited Satsuki, and her usual stern expression was now much softer than before, albeit the dark circles under her eyes were still present. Dressed in a chic beige top and leggings, she offered her younger sister a pair of slippers before ushering her in.
“It’s wonderful to see you again, Ryuuko-sama. And Mankanshoku-sama as well.”
Satsuki’s butler Soroi bowed at her from the other end of the room with a smile, from where he was busily arranging some teacups on a tray. She smiled, raising a hand in greeting.
“Your place looks great,” Ryuuko said, wandering around the room, admiring the view of the city from the window. “Trust you to put something like this together.”
“Well, Soroi’s input was a big help, of course,” she replied, smiling. “But I’m glad you think so.”
“Well, well. Look at you, transfer student! Are those Valentine's Day chocolates you’re holding?”
The teasing was unmistakable. Ryuuko smirked and turned around to face Jakuzure, with her jaunty hat still firmly in place, holding a delicate tray of boxes wrapped in gold gilt paper and pink ribbons.
“Bet mine taste better than yours,” she said with a nonchalant shrug.
Jakuzure snickered in response. “Good to know you’ve started picking up some social niceties. Let’s let the boys decide on who’s the better cook, shall we?”
“You’re on,” Ryuuko said, glancing with a grin at the tray she was carrying, and raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, snake. Is it me, or are some of those boxes… fancier than the others?”
To her surprise, Jakuzure blushed. “What are you talking about? It’s just your imagination,” she declared, walking away quickly to set her tray down on a table at the far end of the living room.
“Ryuuko-chan! Here’s a tray for your chocolates!” Mako suddenly shoved a small tray into her hands, similar to the one Jakuzure had been holding. “We can set them out here with Jakuzure-senpai’s!”
“I doubt your chocolates could compare with mine, underachiever, but let’s see what you’ve got."
The doorbell rang again. It was Gamagoori who had driven his bright pink car with Sanageyama in tow. Inumuta and Iori arrived just a few minutes after in another Kiryuuin sedan, from the Tokyo facility where Iori was continuing his Life Fiber research.
“Look at you all! I can barely recognize your faces without your uniforms on,” Sanageyama said with his cocky grin.
“I’m not surprised, monkey. Your brain still has a long way to go before it catches up with ours,” said Jakuzure, sticking her tongue out at him.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten a taste of that snake venom,” Inumuta smirked.
“What was that, doggy?” Jakuzure said hotly, yet a faint blush colored her cheeks.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves for arguing like children in Satsuki-sama’s own abode where she has so kindly invited us!” Gamagoori scolded. Ryuuko laughed, stomach butterflies completely gone. Trust this group to bicker like they had just left Honnouji yesterday.
Iori, who had gone to greet his uncle discreetly, rejoined the group, seating himself next to Inumuta. “Where is Satsuki-sama, anyway? And didn’t you bring Mankanshoku with you, Matoi?”
“Huh. That is weird. Where’d they go?” Ryuuko wondered out loud. “Mako and I were just setting out the… chocolates…”
She blushed, suddenly realizing what she’d just said and clapped a hand to her forehead. Jeez, here it comes.
“Matoi Ryuuko, making Valentine's Day chocolates? The probability of this ever happening was nearly zero according to my calculations,” Inumuta said, looking surprised. “You win this one, Iori.”
Iori chuckled, taking a 1000-yen bill from Inumuta and pocketing it without another word.
"Hey!" Ryuuko gasped. "You had a bet on me?"
“Never thought I’d see the day!” Sanageyama said, laughing.
“Shut up, stupid monkey,” Ryuuko muttered, red to the ears with embarrassment. “I’ll make sure you don’t get any.”
“What’s that about Valentine's Day chocolates? I hope you didn’t start without me.”
Everyone jumped in surprise and stood as Satsuki descended from the stairs, holding a tray of her own chocolates wrapped in dark blue crepe paper.
“Satsuki-sama!” chorused the Elite Four and Iori, standing at attention.
“Don’t be so formal. Please, be seated,” Satsuki said, her face relaxing into a small smile. “I apologize for not being able to welcome you personally. I needed Mankanshoku to help me with these.”
“Let me take these, Satsuki-sama,” Soroi said, his arms ready to take the tray.
“It’s quite alright, Soroi. Won’t you serve everyone some tea?"
“As you wish, my lady.”
With Soroi’s tea tray standing ready nearby, it wasn’t long before everyone was seated on the couches grouped around the coffee table, sipping the delicious hot tea, relaxing once more into playful banter.
“Ryuuko-chan! Is everything okay? Satsuki-sama was having some trouble wrapping some of her chocolates,” Mako said with a giggle. “We weren’t gone long, were we?”
“No, I just wondered where you’d gone, that’s all,” she reassured her friend. “Careful with that, it’s hot.”
“Okay!” Mako exclaimed, promptly picking up her teacup and blowing on it repeatedly before finally taking a sip.
Satsuki seated herself next to them, her own teacup cradled in her hands.
“How are things going in Kanagawa?” she asked Ryuuko.
“After all the excitement it’s kinda nice to be somewhere a bit more quiet,” Ryuuko answered. “How’s it going on your end?”
“I can hardly complain,” Satsuki said, smiling somewhat tiredly. “It’s hard work, having to build the conglomerate nearly from the ground up. But it has been going well. Our agenda to educate the public about Life Fibers will soon be launching its first phase.”
“Which reminds me, Satsuki-sama. Mikisugi asked me to extend his regrets that he and Tsumugu would not be able to make it today. Apparently there were some last-minute changes that needed to be attended to,” said Iori.
“That’s a shame,” she said. “Still, there’s always next time.”
“Indeed,” Iori answered with a smile.
“How are you finding university, Inumuta?” Satsuki asked.
“I’m transferring into more advanced classes soon. So far they haven’t taught me anything I didn’t know about yet,” Inumuta said with some satisfaction. “Of course, it’s a lot quieter without this rabble about.”
“Who are you calling ‘rabble’, dog?!”
“I think that’s his way of saying he’s missed us, Jakuzure,” Sanageyama said with amusement, as Soroi started serving plates of beautifully arranged sandwiches and cakes. Mako ooh-ed loudly and promptly started stuffing her mouth with the food.
“But don’t you live with Iori here in Tokyo?” Gamagoori said, looking puzzled.
“Attached at the hip as always,” Jakuzure said, looking sideways at Inumuta.
“We reside in the same apartment, yes. However, our schedules don’t often coincide,” Iori remarked. Ryuuko noticed he was still wearing his orange mask from before. Force of habit, she supposed, involuntarily touching the left side of her chest, right above her heart.
Slowly, as the afternoon progressed, they started breaking up into smaller groups. Sanageyama and Inumuta remained by the couches, arguing about the best way to produce konnyaku for large-scale commercial selling. Gamagoori, too, was stuck on the couch as Mako had already drifted off to sleep with her head on his shoulder. Judging by the look on his face, he wasn’t going to be complaining about it any time soon.
Iori was standing by the mantelpiece, looking at the few framed photographs Satsuki had on display. There was a Polaroid shot of her first outing with Ryuuko and Mako after they had left Honnouji, a formally posed photograph with the student council, and an old photograph of her as a toddler in her father’s arms.
“Hey, look at these,” Jakuzure said, pointing to the photos nearer to the back. There was a photo of her and Satsuki at the playground as children, with Takarada making a silly face in the background. “I’d nearly forgotten we used to play with Takarada when we were kids.”
To Iori’s surprise, there was a photo of himself too, holding Satsuki’s hand. She’d always had long hair, even as a child, but his curls were once cropped to shoulder length. Of all the photos on display, this was the only one where she was smiling.
“Feels so long ago, doesn’t it, Shirou?” Jakuzure remarked with some nostalgia. “We had a pretty weird childhood, all things considered, but it wasn’t bad at all.”
“Weird doesn’t even begin to describe it, but yes. It definitely had its good moments,” Iori agreed, his eyes still fixed on the old photo of Satsuki and himself.
“While everyone is occupied, how about I take you on a tour?” Satsuki offered. Soroi was standing by the fireside, offering Iori and Jakuzure more tea, while the other boys continued their banter by the couches.
Ryuuko shrugged. “Sure, if you don’t mind.”
“Downstairs is Soroi’s domain, so let’s go upstairs.”
She led them upstairs, the soft carpet muffling their steps. As luxurious as the apartment obviously was, she had to admit that her elder sister had taste – there was nothing ostentatious in the way she had designed her living spaces.
Satsuki opened the first door, just slightly to the right of the staircase.
“This is my office. And my personal library as well.”
Ryuuko wandered in after her. As expected, her desk was spotless and all her files were neatly organized into various cabinets and drawers, her books impeccably arranged.
“I didn’t know you liked to read,” Ryuuko remarked, peering at the titles. They ranged from classics to science fiction, with some in languages that were unfamiliar to her. “What about these?” she asked.
“The time I spent with Jakuzure and Iori was always closely monitored,” Satsuki answered. “I suppose you’d call it a treat for me to be allowed to be with them. Early on I had a private tutor who cultivated my taste in books. It was also insisted upon that I be fluent in languages other than Japanese.”
“Huh.” That caught Ryuuko’s attention. “Guess we have that in common. I hated school, but reading was something I enjoyed when I was a kid. I can read and write English but can’t speak it very well.”
“You’re always welcome to borrow anything that might interest you, of course.”
After a peek into Satsuki’s surprisingly simple bedroom and personal bathroom, Ryuuko surmised that there were still so many things that they didn’t know about each other.
“Hey, Satsuki. Do you like it here?”
Satsuki appeared to give the question some thought before answering.
“It was strange at first, to have the freedom to make my own decisions on absolutely everything. About my clothes, the furniture, even the color of the carpet,” she mused. “Perhaps in a while I’ll realize I don’t particularly like the dining table. Or the upholstery on the couches. I can’t really say yet. But it’s nice to know that I can change anything, at any time, if I wanted to.”
Her hand hovered tentatively over the doorknob of the last room they had yet to enter.
“I’ve been thinking… you’ll be graduating from high school soon. Have you thought of what you might be doing afterwards?”
“Not really,” Ryuuko admitted. “Still getting used to being a regular kid, to be honest.”
Satsuki’s hand tightened on the doorknob, before opening it to reveal a simple bedroom, similar to her own, except that this had no furniture apart from the large bed.
“Well, I thought that… in case you would want to study, or work in the city, you’re always welcome to stay here.”
Ryuuko’s eyes widened in surprise. “Stay here?” With you?
“Only if you wanted to, of course,” Satsuki said quickly, looking somewhat flustered. “This room would be yours.”
Red was beginning to creep into her cheeks. Ryuuko was embarrassed as well, not knowing what to say.
“Do you mean it? Not that I think it’s a bad idea, but we don’t know each other all that well… you probably wouldn’t want me living here if you knew what I was like,” Ryuuko confessed, tugging on a lock of hair that had come loose from her ponytail.
“Of course I mean it,” Satsuki said firmly. “You’re my sister.”
“Which reminds me. I’ve got something for you,” Jakuzure said, holding out a small orange box to Iori. “Happy Valentine's Day.”
Iori stared at the box for a few seconds, completely nonplussed, before she shook it in his face. “Go on, it isn’t going to bite you.”
“Thank you, Nonon,” he said, taking the box resting on her little palm, surprised at the sudden gesture of affection. As far as he could see, she hadn’t given out any of her other chocolates yet. He studied her for a moment, wondering at the uncharacteristic faraway look on her face.
“It’s nothing. Just thought I’d never properly thanked you, y’know? You were behind us every step of the way of this crazy journey,” she said, watching the other members of the student council still engaged in their usual verbal sparring, the smile on her face devoid of its usual venom. Mako, who was finally awake, was listening with her mouth open, her head turning from one to the other as though watching a tennis match.
“The wild ride’s over, but we’re all still here,” he said, catching her eye and smiling in return.
“What are you two gossiping about over here?” asked Inumuta, who had wandered over.
“Just catching up. Difficult to do in the battlefield, you know,” Iori said, eyebrows raised.
“Is that so,” Inumuta said, though the small frown on his face belied the teasing tone of his voice as he caught sight of the orange box Iori had just pocketed.
The two were momentarily distracted by Gamagoori, utterly flustered by Mako’s bunny-wrapped package of chocolates. She beamed at him as he blushed wildly to the roots of his hair, stuttering his thanks. Jakuzure, who had sat down next to Sanageyama on the couch, laughed.
“You’re still a terrible flirt, toady.”
“I AM NOT FLIRTING!” he yelled, as Sanageyama threw his head back and laughed.
“Here ya go, monkey,” Jakuzure said, tossing a gold-wrapped box into Sanageyama's lap.
“Oooh. Sweets for the sweet?” he said, winking at her as she rolled her eyes, not even bothering to answer.
She tossed another box at Gamagoori, who flailed to catch it, already thoroughly bewildered.
“I made one for you too, Sanageyama-senpai, and you too, Inumuta-senpai and Iori-senpai!” Mako said all in one breath, running around to present her chocolates to each one.
“So you’ve finally gotten started on the chocolates,” Satsuki said, coming downstairs with Ryuuko following behind.
“Hey, Mako, what did you do to Gamagoori this time?” Ryuuko laughed at the look on his face. “He looks like he’s about to faint from happiness.”
“I AM NOT ABOUT T-“
Gamagoori’s frustrated report was cut off by spluttering, as Mako had ripped open his bunny-wrapped gift for him and stuffed a chocolate truffle into his mouth. Sanageyama pounded him on the back as Soroi placed a glass of water delicately in front of him.
Ryuuko grinned at her friend, grabbing her own chocolates off the tray.
“Oi, Inumuta. Catch!”
She threw a red package right across the room at Inumuta, who was still standing by the fireplace with his eyes glued to his phone screen. To her disappointment, he caught it right before it hit his glasses.
“Hmm. This certainly adds some new factors to the algorithm,” he declared.
“Just shut up and eat it,” she retorted, tossing a couple more boxes at Gamagoori and Iori.
“Hey, where’s mine?” Sanageyama said loudly.
“Well, I thought your tongue might not be able to take all that sugar,” she said, her eyebrows raised teasingly.
“Can’t take all that sugar, huh?”
Sanageyama stood and walked over to stand next to her.
He smirked, pulling her closer to him.
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that, hmm?” he said smugly, tilting her chin up toward his face.
“Shut up, you pervert!” Ryuuko yelled, slapping his hand away and throwing the little red box hard against his chest before stomping over to sit next to Mako, her face red with embarrassment.
“Ugh, get a room, you two,” Jakuzure groaned.
Amidst the general laughter and joking, Soroi approached them once more.
“Dinner will be served shortly, if you would please head this way,” he said, bowing and gesturing to the adjacent room.
When everyone was finally seated around the dining table and Soroi had filled their glasses with wine, Satsuki cleared her throat, and the clamor died immediately, with everyone turning to look at her expectantly.
“I’d like to thank you all for being here today. I’m sure it was no small effort for some of you,” she began, looking at each of them. “I believe that the family that matters is the one that you choose. And this is my choice. I am grateful to you all, a thousand times over.”
Everyone beamed, with Gamagoori surreptitiously wiping his eyes on the tablecloth, and raised their glasses.
“Now, without further ado – let’s eat!”
Soroi, assisted by two servants, carefully laid out each dish on the table. Their mouths watered at the feast before them, with all sorts of delicious smells wafting in every direction. To Ryuuko’s surprise, a plate piled high with deep-fried croquettes had the place of honor at the center of the table.
“I asked Mom if we could bring some today, Satsuki-sama! Thought you’d like to have some again since you all enjoyed it last time,” Mako said happily.
Ryuuko’s surprise was mirrored in her sister’s face. “That’s very kind of your mother, Mankanshoku. Please do thank her for us.”
After everyone had had their fill – which took Mako about half an hour longer than everyone else – the plates were cleared, with cake and ice cream taking their place. Soroi refilled their glasses once more as talk quickly turned to their day-to-day lives.
“The metal forges are fascinating indeed,” Gamagoori rumbled, “and there is a high level of skill required in the work. I hope the next time we meet I will be able to show you some of my own.”
“I’ll bring some konnyaku next time and cook sukiyaki,” Sanageyama said with a grin. “Business is booming, ladies and gents!”
Under cover of the general conversation, Jakuzure nudged Inumuta, who was sitting next to her.
“Hey, dog. Did you think I forgot about you?”
Inumuta raised an eyebrow, cocking his head in surprise.
“What merits all this secrecy? You aren’t trying to poison me, are you?”
He smiled, unwrapping the small gold package to survey the chocolates inside. Jakuzure glanced around nervously, checking if anyone was listening, turning back to Inumuta to see his eyes widen slightly.
“You put quite a bit of effort into this,” he said, tracing the dog-shaped chocolates inside, sprinkled with gold dust.
“D-don’t get any ideas, doggy,” she snarled under her breath. “It’s just chocolate.”
“Here, have a bite so I can be sure they aren’t laced with venom,” he smirked, breaking off part of a chocolate and pushing it gently into her mouth. In inadvertently touching her lips, he was startled to find how soft they were. To cover his confusion, he hurriedly put the rest of the chocolate in his mouth.
“I’m still alive, stupid. Do you believe me now?”
High quality Belgian chocolate, 60% cocoa. Only the best ingredients, of course. But to his surprise, the chocolate had a caramel center. Did she know I liked caramel?
“That’s some interesting data I hadn’t previously acquired. Jakuzure Nonon, dessert chef,” he remarked, looking at her slyly from the corner of his eye.
“Of course they’re delicious. How could you have expected otherwise from me?” she said, chin raised in disdain. Her cheeks were faintly flushed – was it from the alcohol? He couldn’t tell.
“This does set some rather high standards for White Day, don’t you think?”
“You know what they say, doggy. Pay it back threefold,” she smirked.
“I’ve already made a note of it,” he replied, typing away on his phone. Purely for reference, he thought, a secret smile on his lips. The dark chocolate paired perfectly with the wine, he thought absently, as he took a bite from another piece. Beside him, Jakuzure grinned in satisfaction, her heart light in her chest.
“Shall we adjourn to the living room for a nightcap, then?” Satsuki said, smiling slightly.
“Well, Satsuki-sama, I don’t know what you meant by a nightcap, but I brought a surprise,” Sanageyama said with a wicked grin, pulling out bottles of liquor and sake out of nowhere. “Won’t hurt for us to let loose now and again,” he said, winking at Ryuuko.
“I bet you can’t even hold your liquor, monkey face!” Ryuuko yelled in retaliation.
“You’re on, Matoi!” he yelled back, as she and the Elite Four gathered around the coffee table, now filled with shot glasses and salty snacks and nuts. Mako was again snoring on the couch, covered in Gamagoori’s sweater. Satsuki, sitting in a thronelike chair in the corner by the fireplace with Soroi by her side, shook her head, albeit she was smiling.
“Have just one with us, Satsuki-sama, for old times’ sake,” Sanageyama grinned, kneeling at her feet with a shot glass. “I brought the finest sake from the Kanto region so you could have a taste.”
“Well, I can hardly refuse after that,” said Satsuki, taking the shot glass and rising to her feet, as did everyone else. There was a chorus of “cheers!” all around.
“That wasn’t half bad, monkey,” Jakuzure said in surprise, examining the bottle of sake.
“Indeed, Sanageyama. Exceptionally light and smooth,” Satsuki mused. “Soroi, would you pour me another? It was rather enjoyable.”
“Of course, my lady,” he bowed, before moving towards the table for the bottle.
“Yes?” He turned to face her once more.
“My way of saying thank you,” she said, holding out a small gift wrapped in dark blue.
He stared at it for a few seconds, before holding out both palms to receive it.
“Thank you. May I open it?”
Unwrapping the paper and lifting the lid of the elegant black box, he found a single piece of chocolate in the shape of a bamboo sword.
“This is… most thoughtful of you, Satsuki-sama.”
Satsuki smiled, and between them passed a look of thoughtful understanding, before Sanageyama inclined his head and thanked her once more, rejoining the circle at the table. They had both laid down their weapons long ago, with no further need to arm themselves again.
“Your drink, my lady.”
“Thank you, Soroi,” she said, accepting the small, gracefully-shaped glass filled halfway with the delicious sake, taking a sip before setting it down on the table beside her.
“I hadn’t had a chance to give you this earlier, but the girls asked me to give you theirs along with mine,” she said softly, leaning down to pick up a small box and offering it to her gentle-eyed butler.
“Please allow me to give you my heartfelt gratitude, my lady,” he said, accepting the box formally and bowing deeply. “I am not worthy of such a gift.”
“Nonsense. It is the least I can do – the least we can do for you, Soroi,” she said. “I can’t speak for the others, but I do hope mine is alright… as you know, the kitchen is not my area of expertise,” she said with a contrite smile. Just a few days ago, she had resisted all offers of help from Soroi as she struggled to prepare her own batch of chocolates, not unlike her younger sister.
“I don’t doubt for a second that it turned out perfectly, my lady,” he said, smiling.
She took another sip of her sake, savoring the flavor and aroma. Sweet, yet light, leaving a pleasant aftertaste in its wake.
“I suppose we must prepare for the worst-case scenario now.”
“The possibility that everyone will be spending the night in my living room, in the event they become too inebriated. I can’t say I didn’t see it coming,” she sighed, surveying the group, with Sanageyama filling the glasses with yet another round of shots for everyone.
“Not to worry, my lady,” Soroi smiled. “If I may, would you not care to join them?”
Satsuki huffed in amusement. “In a while, perhaps I will consider it. It is most entertaining to watch them from here.”
Who would have suspected Gamagoori was such a lightweight? He was soon slumped over the other end of the couch from Mako, dead to the world.
“Size doesn’t count for much, huh?” Jakuzure snickered. The flush on her cheeks was deeper from the alcohol, as was Sanageyama’s and Ryuuko’s. Iori’s and Inumuta’s drinks stood forgotten on the table, as they fussed over Inumuta’s phone. However, at her comment, Inumuta looked up.
“Indeed. There are many other ways to compensate,” he said, smirking.
“Can’t you stop working for a couple of hours?” Sanageyama said, shaking his head. “You haven’t even touched your drinks! I won’t have you insulting Kanto’s best sake like this!”
Inumuta sighed. “Last-minute file transfer from Mikisugi. I suppose it can wait until tomorrow, Iori?” he said, as he set his phone down on the table. The two simultaneously picked up their glasses, toasted, and drank.
“You were saying about us not touching our drinks?” Inumuta said, cocking his head in Sanageyama’s direction. In return, he smirked, refilling their glasses immediately.
“Don’t dare me. You’re just going to end up losing.”
“I wouldn’t dream of getting in between you and Matoi tonight,” he retorted. “Besides, think of all the interesting new data I’m going to be getting tonight!”
“Watch your mouth, dog!” Ryuuko yelled.
“With that kind of attitude, that’s definitely all you’re getting tonight, Inumuta,” Sanageyama said, as everyone laughed.
Against his better judgment, Inumuta was quickly drawn into the drinking circle. By now, they were all sitting on the floor around the small coffee table, exchanging jokes and silly anecdotes about their time at Honnouji. Iori remained seated on a couch, listening and occasionally exchanging words with the others, who were now obviously flushed with all the alcohol they’d had.
“Not drinking anymore, Iori?”
Satsuki settled herself next to Iori on the couch, holding her nearly empty glass. He shook his head in response.
“I’ve never particularly cared for it,” he admitted. “Even if… well.” He motioned to his chest.
“Is your heart bothering you still?” she asked, eyebrows furrowing.
“Not since we left Honnouji. Besides, it was a small price to pay,” he said thoughtfully. “To make the last uniforms I ever made the best I’d ever done.”
“The best so far,” she corrected him.
He inclined his head, smiling slightly. “As you say.”
“Oi, Iori! Aren’t you even going to offer my sister a refill?” Ryuuko said in a slightly slurring voice, waving the bottle in the air. “It’s the last bottle, Satsuki!”
He raised his eyebrows at Satsuki, noting that she too was already slightly flushed. In response, she held out her glass. Sighing internally, Iori took the bottle from Ryuuko, who had to reach over across Sanageyama to pass it over. She promptly tilted over into Sanageyama’s lap after letting the bottle go. In response, he pushed her back upright gently by the shoulders.
“Can’t have you falling all over me now, can we?” he said teasingly.
“You wish, stupid monkey,” she muttered back.
Iori filled a third of Satsuki’s glass with the sake before setting it back down on the coffee table. Meanwhile, his uncle was discreetly distributing glasses of water. Jakuzure grabbed her glass of water and downed half of it in one. Sanageyama reached over and refilled their drinks clumsily. Inumuta’s glasses had already slid far down his nose, but he hadn’t seemed to notice.
Iori glanced sideways at Satsuki, who was holding her glass with both hands, studying it intently.
“How are you feeling?”
“Quite tired, actually. Not much different than from when we saw each other the other day,” said Satsuki. She toyed with her drink for a few seconds before taking a long sip.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked.
“You and Mikisugi are already doing above and beyond what is required of you, as is Inumuta. I could ask for nothing more,” she said, tilting her glass to one side.
“Actually, I’d like just a bit more of this. If you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Iori said, standing to grab the bottle from Inumuta’s slack grip, and pouring another inch of alcohol into her glass as she held it out.
“There’s no need to push yourself like you used to, you know,” he said, letting some of his worry color his voice as she took another sip. “The world is no longer in a state of emergency.”
“That is true. Soroi has said as much, though I feel these days I do so out of habit. But as Sanageyama said, it wouldn’t hurt to take a break now and then,” she said, with a slight smile before downing the rest of her drink in one. The flush in her cheeks had heightened somewhat, though not as much as Inumuta, who had his head down on the table and his glasses on the floor. Ryuuko, Sanageyama, and Jakuzure were all leaning heavily on the table as they conversed.
“It’s a miracle, they’ve stopped arguing,” Iori murmured. Satsuki laughed.
“I haven’t given you your present yet. Though I suppose Gamagoori’s will have to wait until tomorrow,” she said, as she put her glass down on a small side table and withdrawing a small package, similarly wrapped in dark blue crepe paper. She hesitated a moment before holding it out to him with both hands.
“Thank you,” Iori said, accepting it with both palms up, looking at the small blue box in wonder. “It’s very pretty.” The crepe paper was intricately and painstakingly folded, without any adhesive or wrapping tape holding it together.
He opened it carefully, not wanting to disturb the creases of the paper. Out came a little black box, and when he removed the lid, there lay a chocolate in the shape of a bear that was all too familiar to Iori. He looked back up at her, shocked. Her face was slightly redder than it had been.
“I needed a bit of liquid courage for this,” she confessed, shrugging. “It’s not like me to be sentimental, I know.”
“This is too much,” Iori said, shaking his head as though to clear it. “I can’t imagine the effort you put into this.”
He looked at Satsuki, and as their eyes locked, he knew they were both thinking of the same thing. They couldn’t have been much older than four at the time. How she had confided in him that she was so lonely, so frightened, as unspeakable things went on around her in the Kiryuuin mansion. Unable to sleep thinking of the fear in her eyes, he had given her his most prized possession the very next day – a stuffed brown bear. It would keep her safe, he swore.
“I didn’t think you remembered that at all,” he said. Tears were threatening to cloud his vision at the memory of that frightened girl-child who had clung to him so tightly. He couldn’t bear it. He shut the lid of the box.
“Don’t you like it, Shirou?” she asked in a hesitant voice he’d never heard her use. His head jerked up immediately as he turned to face her.
“Of course I like it. That isn’t even a question,” he stated, as his hands cradled the little box. “At the risk of making this even more sentimental, that bear had been so precious to me as a child. I promised myself that when I gave you that, I would… look after you.”
He chuckled a bit at the memory. As if he could have, he scoffed at himself, look at him now – so small and slight, unable to even protect himself from a rampaging student clothed in 50% Life Fibers.
“It’s silly, I know. But I... I worry about you,” he said, looking up at her apologetically. “Even if you’ve always been stronger than me.”
“I wouldn’t have made it this far without you,” she said softly. “You were there, before everyone else, even before Nonon. Always by my side.”
“I can’t imagine myself anywhere else, Satsuki,” he said.
Opening the lid once more and taking a last look at the bear – she’d even remembered that it had a large scar of stitches across the chest after it gotten ripped open once, and he’d stitched it shut for her – he lifted it out of the box.
“I’m a bit sorry to eat it,” he said, smiling. “I loved that bear so.”
“I don’t think I ever told you this, but I gave it to Father. For Ryuuko.”
He glanced up at her, startled at this pronouncement. Had it meant that much to her, that she would give the bear as a gift to her beloved only sister?
“Are you surprised that I’m so sentimental after all?” she asked him in a light voice, though her eyes were full of the sadness she’d carried all these years.
Iori took a bite of chocolate, and another, until it was all gone. It was delicious – rich dark chocolate, the best quality money could buy. So bitter it was nearly sweet.
“Thank you, Satsuki,” he said, looking up at her once more, and this time, taking her hand. After being together all these years, formalities were no longer as important as they once were. She appreciated that about him, that he could take her at her word, without obeisances or reverence, just a mutually deep respect for each other.
They sat in companionable silence for some time. The others had already fallen asleep – Jakuzure with her head on Inumuta’s knee, Ryuuko slumped over on the table, Sanageyama stretched out on the floor. She smiled at the sight.
“Soroi said I might even have some fun tonight. I can hardly say this isn’t amusing,” Satsuki said affectionately.
“Well, was he right? You look more relaxed than you were earlier,” Iori said. The worry lines around her forehead had smoothed during the course of the evening.
“I think you had a good time, in your own way?”
Satsuki moved closer, leaned her head on Iori’s shoulder.
“Yes. Yes, I did,” she murmured, a smile forming on her lips as Iori’s hand tightened around her own.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Satsuki."
“Aw, my head is killing me. Someone got any coffee?”
“Ryuuko-chan! Here, Soroi-san says you need to drink lots and lots of water!”
“Hey, is the dog still alive? Because I’m not sure if he’s breathing.”
“Sanageyama, you should be ashamed of yourself, sleeping on Satsuki-sama’s floor like that!”
“I told you I’d bring the good stuff, didn’t I? Damn, that was strong.”
“Pipe down, you might wake Satsuki-sama!”
“I’ve been up for an hour, if anyone wants to join me for some breakfast.”