The Grand Gero Hotel was famous, among the most exclusive resorts in Tokyo. Throughout their years at university, Atsushi had accompanied Kinshirou and En to some exclusive restaurants, and had even taken a trip overseas in a cruise ship. He'd come to the conclusion that in his perception, at least, there was a limit to how much wealth he could comprehend. There had to be a limit to what money could do to a building, and he'd assumed that he'd seen that. All of it paled in comparison to the Grand Gero with its pristine white marble floors and gilded accents, its opalescent stained glass panels, and even an indoor fountain that looked like a waterfall . They were sitting outside near the hotel's wedding chapel, an impressive grotto covered in flowers and vines. It was nearly impossible to tell where the floral arrangements ordered for the day ended and the planted ones began, Akoya's handiwork giving the space an ethereal aura.
Kinshirou stood expectantly at the pulpit, straightening his shoulders as the harpist began to play. Atsushi smiled in sympathy. Aside from the usual nervousness one might expect from having all eyes on him, this was a nontraditional ceremony combining any detail that took Akoya's fancy; be it traditional, western, or modern. Kinshirou had no other frame of reference to base this on to ensure that it was carried out correctly, and Atsushi knew that that drove him crazy.
Arima was the first to arrive, walking stiffly in his monstuki, taking his place alongside Kinshirou. Next, Arima's father, and what must be Akoya's mother on his arm: a tall, elegant woman with pink hair twisted up on her head, sharp eyes evaluating all that she saw. There was a pause in the procession, and then everyone stood as Akoya arrived.
Atsushi had been hearing about Akoya's wedding wardrobe, five changes of clothing in all, since the week he'd accepted the proposal. The uchikake was the centerpiece of this, an elaborate kimono in hues of pink, red, and white. He knew that the complex floral design had been chosen for its significant meanings; and that the background was embroidered with a pattern of the Gero and Arima crests in pearlescent and silver thread, the work so fine that it could not be seen at a distance yet costing more than most people could expect to spend on a flashy wedding in its entirety. He knew that people had been working on its construction for the better part of five years. None of this prepared him for the sight of Akoya in it, which caused quiet gasps and murmurs from the crowd, and more than a few muffled sobs. Akoya walked with his head held high, beaming ecstatically. He was escorted by his father: a plain, pleasant looking man with sandy hair and the same wide, bright blue eyes as his son. As he passed, Atsushi was startled to see a trail of wildflowers blooming in the wake of the kimono's hem, and knew that people would be talking about the so-called illusion for weeks. He sighed. At least Akoya had enough money that an elaborate magic trick seemed like it could be a plausible feature of his wedding.
Arima and Kinshirou both looked stunned as Akoya approached the pulpit and the music came to a close; Arima's eyes wide in wonder and Kinshirou's softening in affection. "Today is an auspicious day. I am honored to be given the task of joining my dearest friends, Arima Ibushi and Gero Akoya, in the sacred bond of marriage." Despite his nerves, Kinshirou's voice was clear and direct.
Atsushi snuck a glance over at En, who was watching the ceremony with interest. En adored weddings. It was a funny thing about En, how much of an old man he became when tradition was concerned. Maybe it was because of how much time he'd spent with his father's tastes rubbing off on him. Atsushi smiled to himself when he remembered the look on Kinshirou's face when he witnessed him singing enka to himself as he was doing the laundry. As for himself, he found his reaction alternating between fondly amused and slightly annoyed depending on his mood. But weddings especially... they could make En cry, especially after a few drinks. And this was no ordinary wedding.
He shifted his attention to the pulpit, where Arima and Akoya were exchanging their vows. They gazed at each other in adoration, their hands clasped as they spoke. Kinshirou's hand was closed over them as well, as though giving his blessing... no, if you didn't know any better, you'd swear all three of them were getting married. It was that way with them. Caerula Adamas, thought Atsushi. The three of them don't even notice that there's a world outside of their conversation right now.
Rings and kisses finally exchanged, the happy couple led the wedding party out of the grotto to the jubilant, swirling harp music. They would go to have photographs taken and change clothing now, while for the next hour (or two, considering that Akoya was in charge) the guests would mingle with cocktails in the adjoining ballroom in preparation for the main festivities.
"We should get married." En murmured, barely louder than a whisper at his side.
Atsushi gave him a tight, bitter smile. "You know that we can't, En-chan." he chided, gently, careful to conceal any emotion in his tone.
"I know." En sighed, looking regretful that he'd spoken.
"I love you, En-chan." Atsushi whispered, squeezing his hand encouragingly as they entered the ballroom, where an eager wait staff presented them with champagne flutes. "Let's have a good time."
"Don't have too much of a good time before the food is even out." En chuckled.
"Mmm. We're staying the night, aren't we?" Atsushi countered. He raised his glass and clinked it against En's. "To love." With or without marriage.
"To love." En agreed, returning the gesture.
Five years later:
Ryuu sighed as he settled in on the couch and opened the plastic conbini bag. It really was a lot of food, but he'd felt a bit down lately and had just taken anything that looked good off of the shelves until it got to be a bit much to carry in his arms. It was the weekend now, and he planned to spend it in the apartment as no one else was around. Atsushi, En, and Kinshirou lived in Kyoto, Akoya and Arima had taken a spontaneous vacation, and Binan was too far to bother to travel to for a weekend. He didn't want to see his work friends outside of work. and Io... Io was in Singapore. Again. This time for six weeks. He sighed as he poked at the food in his mass produced bento, placing it down to switch on his laptop to hear the familiar chatter of the stock market. The house felt empty without it.
He shouldn't be unhappy. His life turned out much brighter than any of his teachers could have predicted. Tell any of them that he's Dr. Zaou now and they'd laugh. Even he felt like a fraud on most days. He only had the degrees because Io had helped him so much, paying the rent and his expenses through the long years of school, helping him understand his math and science courses (at least until the test was over) and nagging him every step of the way when he'd entertained thoughts of giving up, which was at least once a week at one point. There had been tears. There had been yelling. And Io made him take a metaphorical deep breath again and again and get back to work. A doctor with the lowest grade in his class is still called 'doctor', Io had often teased when he struggled. And he was right. Ryuu had the paperwork to prove it. Zaou Ryuu, PsyD, Certified Psychologist, member: JPA. Just don't ask for my transcripts.
Io had been there for him when he'd lost his grandmother, too. It felt like the end of the world, but since Io was with him... he could survive. Io was incredible. He'd helped him make his dreams come true. Which was why it was especially important that he suck it up and let Io have a chance to make his own dreams come true, now. Even if it was lonely without him. Io's networking prospects were through the roof with his latest promotion, which required extensive international travel. Io had sacrificed so much for him, that it seemed unreasonable to object. Not when he'd seen how happy he was to get the news.
His phone rang and he answered it, trying not to sound too eager. "Akoya?"
"We're back and I'm coming over. Get dressed." The line went dead, and Ryuu grinned at his sudden change in fortune. Akoya sounded like he was in a cheerful mood from his trip, and going out with him would surely lift his own spirits, as it usually involved food, shopping, spa treatments, or all three. Io made enough now that Akoya didn't have to pick up the tab when they went out, though he often did anyway. Io actually enjoyed seeing him spend his money, as long as he was in a good mood. He sighed at his reflection in the mirror. He'd always joked about being a trophy husband, but lately he felt like just a trophy. And he wasn't even a husband yet. That was another thing that had to take a back seat to work.
Stop that. He's been nothing but good to you.
He sifted through his closet to find something appropriate for a Friday night. Akoya would probably want to have dinner at this hour. He selected an outfit and paused at his dresser, adding the impressive diamond studs Io had given him for his birthday to the ensemble. Diamonds were Io's favorite, and his presents got more substantial as time went on. Io loved to see him decked out in his gifts, so Ryuu indulged him. Sometimes wearing nothing else but heels. Lately, though... he'd been alone, and so had only been wearing his engagement ring and the small pendant he'd been given in high school.
He stood by the window, waiting. On a whim, he dialed Io's number, and frowned as it went to voice mail. "Hey." he said awkwardly, as it beeped in his ear. "Just wanted to say I love you." The system detected that he'd stopped speaking, and cut him off with a harsh tone. He didn't have time to dwell on it, though, as what must be Akoya drove down the street in a pale pink convertible. He hurried outside.
"When did you get this?" Ryuu climbed into the passenger seat, which still smelled of leather.
Akoya smiled. "It's my birthday present from my parents. Kinshioru thinks it's vulgar." he added, with a momentarily sour look. "Io's not home yet." he added, giving Ryuu a sidelong look- a statement, not a question.
"No. Another week. Maybe two." It was kind of Akoya to realize how lonely he'd been. He was still rather selfish, but he'd gotten better with time, especially with Ryuu. "Arima's busy?" he guessed.
"His father wanted to see him for dinner."
"He didn't want to see you?" Ryuu half joked. Against all odds, Akoya had a good relationship, a friendship, even, with his volatile father-in-law. Ryuu suspected it was because they both loved to argue and saw each other as sparring partners. He'd witnessed Akoya argue with him, hang up to complain about him to his parents over the phone, only to wind up bickering with them, and call Arima-san back straight after to rant about his parents instead. Akoya was usually Arima's go-between for the sake of his nerves.
"He tries to bond with him sometimes. I mean, he tries. So I stay out of that." he hummed.
"It's good that he tries, still." Ryuu said, gently, before falling quiet.
"Hey." Akoya glanced over at him. "He's coming back soon. And we're eating steak tonight."
"I know." Ryuu smiled. "Thanks."
Twenty miles outside of Kyoto, an unlikely miracle could be witnessed five days a week. Yufuin En arrived at Funaoka Junior High at a quarter to eight, and, for the most part, did not complain. It helped that he didn't take the train, and could half sleep the commute away; and by the time the car dropped him two blocks from campus, the strong, sweet coffee Atsushi prepared for him less than an hour earlier had begun to take effect. The short walk completed the process of waking him up, and also saved him the embarrassment of arriving at work in a gleaming white limousine- though he supposed that he could laugh it off as yet another rumor among the students.
En hadn't thought much about what he wanted to do with his life, not really. To be truthful, he didn't want to do anything; and so had chosen his path based on his strengths in order to make things easier on himself. He supposed that he wasn't very useful overall, but he did have a memory like a steel trap, and found it was easy to absorb knowledge by even skimming a book or half listening to a lecture. He'd figured that teaching was something he could manage. Absorb the facts, share the facts, grade the papers. He'd seen it in action his whole life, after all. No need to try something new. So he'd followed Atsushi and Kinshirou to Tokyo, and began the process of becoming a teacher. Really, the hardest part was showing up. He consistently ranked at the top of his class, and soon enough, he was certified to be in charge of actual people. It was a sobering thought. He wished that he could just stay a student forever instead.
Luckily, he'd done well enough that he could be assured of a job. Kinshirou was working at his company in Kyoto, so he and Atsushi followed. It turned out that Kyoto was competitive, even for those with perfect scores. He was just beginning to become discouraged when he received a call from an all girls' junior high. It sounded like a nightmare, but leaving Kyoto- and Atsushi and Kinshirou- was worse. And he couldn't handle the thought of being a financial burden on Kinshirou, even if he technically wasn't one. Besides, everyone would be expecting him to have something to do with his life and no one could know that what he was doing was Atsushi and Kinshirou. So he accepted. And learned something unexpected about himself.
He liked the girls. They were smart, and funny, and emotional, and (for the most part) not the crazed monsters he'd expected from manga. Of course there were rough days, but he found that he enjoyed it for the most part. His lectures became conversations, and it seemed that the more the girls liked him, the harder they tried, so even if he wasn't the greatest teacher in the world they still did well. It made him proud when they did. He could do without the faculty meetings, but no job was completely pleasant.
Today he was working through his lunch, grading papers in a small room he'd found cluttered with old PE equipment. It didn't take long to clean it up and move an old desk in. He opened the small ventilation window and sighed at the stack of quizzes. Food first. He pulled his bento from his bag and unwrapped it.
Atsushi's bentos were small works of art. En knew that some of the food was made the night before, and leftovers frequently came into play, but he did something with them in the morning that transformed them into something else entirely. Today he had dry curry on rice, a slice of omelet, stir fried peppers, and apples, with a checkerboard carving on the peel. Three tomato hearts on a skewer completed the design. He took a picture- the girls were always impressed by his lunches- and idly wondered what Kinshirou had gotten in his as he began to eat his curry. Maybe some of that sweet pork they'd had the night before. Maybe a slice of fish...
He was startled from his seat as the fire alarm went off- directly behind him. Cursing under his breath, he stepped out of the storage room and closed the door on it, but the ones in the hallway were ringing as well, so loudly that they felt like a physical assault. Of all the times to have a fire drill! En walked to the end of the hall and checked the rooms on the way before following the last of the students outside. His class was waiting in their assigned spot, but something was wrong. Instead of chatting and laughing, they were huddled together, looking worried and upset. He could hear the other teachers shouting orders at their own groups farther away. Glancing back at the school, he felt his stomach sink. There was a thick plume of black smoke coming from the far end of the building, growing larger as it loomed over the school grounds. He broke into a run, and felt panic rise as he counted heads.
"Where's Nakamura?" he demanded, trying to catch his breath.
"She said she was going to the library-" Kinoshita, the conscientious worrywart of the class began, before bursting into a fresh round of tears.
"Stay here." En ordered, and ran toward the library. Across the pavement, a small group of students huddled together at the check point. Nakumura was not among them.
En continued to run until he was at the far end of the checkpoints, where the utility sheds stood. Looking both ways, he darted across the grass and into an open entrance leading to a staircase. Atsushi is going to kill you. Kinshirou is going to have a meltdown. But it will probably be okay. En took a deep breath, and pressed his lips to his lovelaclet. I have water, don't I? I mean, it's probably going to be fine.
He left the stairwell and headed toward the library. He paused at a set of doors, peering through the glass window. Okay. So there's smoke. And the door is hot. That's bad. But it's not actual fire. Still, better not just open them- En positioned himself around a corner, and aimed his love stick at the door. A plume of water knocked them off the hinges, and he let out a sigh of relief as no backdraft followed. Just got to think this through. It's just like a dungeon level. Common sense, don't fall into any obvious traps. Don't panic. He dropped to his knees, crawling along the hallway to avoid the thickest smoke. The smoke seemed to be getting thicker and denser, the area clear for him to crawl and breathe through getting narrower and narrower.
"Nakamura!" He called, before choking on the hot air. Shit, this is bad. That was a bad idea. No more yelling. Breathing only. He turned the love stick on himself, dousing his body with water before pulling up his sash and tying it around his nose like a mask. His eyes were stinging now, and the smoke was getting lower. Keep going. You can always blast through a window if you're about to die, he thought, while knowing that there was no way he was going to allow himself to leave empty handed. He wasn't sure where he was anymore. He hoped that he hadn't passed the library.
Just then, he noticed a dark shape to his left. It was moving- shaking, actually. Sobbing. En let out a sigh of relief as he ripped a frill from his costume and tied it around the girl's face.
"I'm here now. You're safe." he managed to gasp. "Follow me. Crawl, okay? Come on."
Still shaking, she began to follow, but stopped frequently as her anxiety froze her. En pulled at her arm gently, prodding her along. I hope we're faster than the smoke is. The way back seemed to take hours as Nakumura froze in place, shaking in a way that he was all too familiar with. "Come on. We're almost there." he encouraged her, in well practiced tones, before they'd move several feet before beginning the process again. Don't panic. You both can't panic.
En was wondering if he really was going to die when he saw the light of the tall windows through the haze. "Cerulean Love Aqua!" he yelled, and hoped for the best. The glass shattered under the attack, and he felt cool air against his face for the first time since entering the building. Grabbing the girl, he positioned her arms around his neck and put his arms under her. "Close your eyes and don't be scared." He took a deep breath, and jumped. Nakumura screamed in his ear, and he winced.
"Love out." En lowered her to the grass, and tried to stand. He felt dizzy.
Kinshirou's going to kill me.
He could hear yelling in the distance, and sirens. Someone was lifting him. More sirens. More yelling. Someone was pushing something to his face. He struggled, but somehow, it was easier to breathe, now.
It seemed like a good time for a nap.
Io let out a sigh of relief as he stepped out of the hot, soupy air and felt the air conditioning hit him like a wall in the hotel lobby. It had been a long day, and he was looking forward to the evening. He had a routine in place now: he'd peel off his suit and put it aside to be laundered, take a cool shower, and order something to eat. Hopefully it would arrive quickly and he'd be able to check his email before falling into a dead sleep. The food here was good in that way that mass produced fancy cafe food was: international fusion that tried to make a special event out of a sandwich. It never lived up to its haute standards, but it tasted okay and was, most importantly, delivered to his room. It was getting tiresome, though, like everything else here. He wanted some gyudon, right out of the take out container. Maybe he'd order some, even if it would take longer than the hotel kitchen to be delivered. Even as he thought about it, though, he wondered if he'd be disappointed. Maybe it wouldn't be the same here. It certainly wouldn't be as nice eating it alone as it was eating it on the couch with Ryuu.
He was waiting for the elevator when he felt as though he was being watched. Cautiously, he turned, and quickly looked away, not wanting to be seen staring. Someone was watching him, and he was an absolute knockout. Pale pink waves framed a pretty face with wide violet eyes and high cheekbones. He was tall and willowy, and stood confidently, one hand on his hip. Io pressed the elevator button again. The stranger approached him, and smiled as he paused at the elevator next to him.
"You're here alone, aren't you." He said, his voice soft and graceful. He spoke fluent Japanese, without so much as an accent, but he didn't look like a salaryman. His clothes were casual but expensive, tailored to highlight the planes of his lithe body. "Care to have a drink with me?"
"I work in the morning." he said instead, apologetically. "Have we met?"
"We're meeting right now." the other said playfully. "What's your name, handsome?"
"Io." he stammered, feeling his face heat up.
"Call me Ame. Perhaps tomorrow night?"
"Do call me. I'll be waiting." A card was pressed into his hand just as the elevator doors opened. "And I'm perfectly discreet." he added, with a wink, as the doors closed, separating them.
A prostitute, Io thought, suddenly feeling forlorn. Of course no one like that would be after him for his looks. Not that that usually bothered him. He already had someone out of his league in that department. More importantly and to the point, he already had someone. Of course he wouldn't be having any drinks with- he scowled down at the card- 'Ame'.
He wanted to go home.
Io closed the door behind him with a sigh. He took a moment to look up the number of a gyudon joint and placed an order before taking his shower. Ryuu was cuter than Ame, he thought, sullenly. Ame was elegant, like Akoya. Odd for a prostitute to look and act so well heeled. He'd have been fooled if not for the card and the peculiar goodbye. Though his eyes were rather sweet and wide...
He wrapped himself up in the hotel's plush robe and waited for his food, taking the chance to swipe through his tablet, checking on his stocks. Once his food arrived, he realized how ravenous he was, and ate it quickly. It was better than he'd expected. Though it was getting late already... he finished getting ready, and climbed into bed, turning off all but the bedside lamp. He felt his fatigue building as he sunk into the bed and dialed home.
"Io?" Ryuu sounded eager in a way that made him feel guilty.
"Sweetheart." Io sighed, leaning back against the pillows. "I miss you."
"I miss you too. Any updates?"
"Maybe Tuesday. Maybe Friday. I don't know, it depends on what the Americans want to do. Everything okay at home?"
"You always ask, and it's always fine." Ryuu laughed. "I still haven't burned the house down. Don't worry. Oh. My client I was worried about is okay. She just forgot the appointment."
"That's good." Ryuu fretted too much about his clients on his personal time, but Io didn't want to say it. He only knew the barest details due to confidentiality. They were faceless people who brought the broken pieces of their lives to Ryuu, and Ryuu helped them as much as he could. Sometimes with words, sometimes with touch. He felt horrible for thinking it, but he envied them a little bit right now, for being so close to Ryuu when he was so far.
Ryuu was talking again, but Io was distracted by movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning on the lights again, he pulled back the window curtains, and walked the perimeter of the room.
"Io? You okay?"
"Yeah. I just thought I saw something. Like a purple blur. Like a light or something... but nothing's there." The door was locked, the window was not capable of being opened.
"You sound really tired. Your eyes are probably exhausted."
"Yeah, that's probably it... I do have a little bit of a headache. I had to use my glasses this afternoon."
"And you're slurring. Go to sleep." Ryuu said, firmly.
"I love you. I'll be here tomorrow."
"I love you too." Io said softly, as they reluctantly hung up. At least he had Ryuu's voice, even if he didn't have his touch. He hadn't taken that into consideration when he'd accepted this position. He never considered himself to be an especially sexual person, but maybe that was because he simply had sex so often that his notion of normal was skewed. Ryuu usually instigated it, both out of enthusiasm and a more outgoing personality, but Io never rejected him. It was a regular part of his day to be skin to skin with Ryuu in some way or other, even if it wasn't all out sex, and he missed it sorely. He couldn't stop thinking about it when he was away. Sometimes it was a struggle to focus on work when all he could think of was Ryuu, in any of a dozen positions and acts.
He was so close to a break though on this deal. It would only take a few more days of negotiating, he was certain... then he could go home, confident that his company's stocks would soar. He felt himself sink into sleep like there was a lead weight around his head, not a peaceful transition, but a crash landing. And yet... some part of him felt as though he were still awake. He must be dreaming. He wished that he wasn't, simply because thinking was taking energy. But then he became aware of his dream. Soft lips crushed against his own. A flash of pink against the pillow. He was tense, desperate, and thrusting into the body arched under him. A breathless gasp from those petal lips, and violet eyes opened wide in ecstasy.
Io woke with a start, gasping.
He wanted to go home.
"I can still smell it." Kinshirou complained, his nose in En's still damp hair.
"We've washed it three times, Kin-chan." Atsushi leaned in, sniffing at En. "I don't smell anything but shampoo."
En sighed. It had been a long twenty-four hours. He'd woken up in the hospital and was poked and prodded until the doctor and staff seemed convinced that he wasn't about to die. He asked about Nakamura, and, satisfied that she was safe, asked to go home. Not yet, they said. There are forms to be filled out. There were test results to wait for. It was such a bothersome situation.
He was able to sleep for what felt like barely an hour, before Atsushi and Kinshirou were allowed to see him. This was fortunate, as the scolding that was delivered in public was considerably quieter than it would have been in private, and the first grievances were always the strongest. And then, people had come from the school, and reporters, and strangers. En answered questions with as little detail as possible, and let his picture be taken a dozen times. Finally, he was allowed to go home, where Kinshirou was intent on scrubbing the smoke and antiseptic smells off of him, and Atsushi was eager to feed him dinner and a large box of manju he'd bought the night before.
"Idiot. You had us scared half to death." Kinshirou gave up on sniffing his head.
"Sorry." En nodded, as he'd done two dozen times before this. "Especially that you were frightened..." he looked guiltily at Atsushi, who he knew had panicked at the news.
"Kin-chan helped me." Atsushi smiled at him, clasping Kinshirou's hand tightly. "I'm proud of you, En-chan. We both are."
Ryuu slept late, even though the quality of his sleep had been horrible. He'd had bad dreams, and woken up feeling hot and thirsty. Getting up and turning on the air conditioner barely helped. It was nerves. Now it was half past noon, and he had a crick in his neck. Sighing, he pulled himself out of bed and headed to the kitchen to make coffee. The dreams varied, but they were always about Io. Ryuu constantly scolded him about working too hard. In his dreams, he lost Io dozens of ways: a heart attack, an accident brought on by fatigue, a suicide, even just never seeing him again, the phone always going to voice mail, the company an impenetrable fortress that kept all of his attempts at communication at bay.
He'd studied these things, he'd argue with Io. It was more serious than he thought it was. But Io was by nature a hard worker. He'd agree to cut back, but wouldn't be able to resist just one extra hour to complete a task, which led to another. He'd swear that he'd speak up to his bosses, but let things slide because he was eyeing yet another promotion. And Ryuu understood, because understanding people was what he did for a living. You can't help people if you don't see the world from their view. He rarely let his anger get the better of him, because he knew that that was counterproductive to communication. Anger had to be cooled, and fashioned into quiet, assertive words that made his point without provoking defensiveness. Blindly lashing out might feel good, but the aftermath was a mess that just deepened dysfunction in relationships, so he'd trained himself to pause, and breathe, and think before he spoke. But he was only human, and when Io blindsided him the night before, he'd lost his temper.
"It's only one more week. I'll meet you in Binan."
He'd seen red. It wasn't even the worst thing that could have happened, but it was the last straw.
"You promised you'd tell them no."
"I didn't have a choice this time. It's out of my hands. And I'll see you soon, for Bon, and I'll stay a whole week like we planned. It's going to be fine. It's just a hard time right now..."
"That's seven and a half weeks since I've even seen you! And you know that they'll just do it again as soon as you get back. They always do." he added, bitterly.
"I don't think I'll have to travel again for another month or two at least."
"During which time I'll see you twenty minutes a day if I'm lucky."
"You're exaggerating. We just went to Bali! You still have the tan lines!" Io's voice was growing exasperated and irritated.
"How would you know? You haven't seen me lately." Ryuu grit out between his teeth, offended at the thought of being bought off by a fancy vacation. "I swear to God, if you don't come home for Bon-"
"I will, sweetheart. I'll meet you there."
Ryuu sighed into his hands as he recalled the argument and how much he'd said that he hadn't meant to, while not saying all that he had actually wanted to . The worst of it was that Io was trying. He couldn't fault him that. It was his own fear of being abandoned that made it so bad. He'd spent countless hours self analyzing and hated that the advice that he gave himself was next to useless. He could even pinpoint the onset and the reason. The preoccupation had started when his grandmother died, and he'd realized that he was the last. Not that there had ever been anyone else, really, but that hadn't mattered much when his grandmother was always there for him. His parents were dead and there weren't any extended relatives. But she had always been there, and leant a bit of stability and history to his life. Without her, he was adrift, miserable, and frightened.
Io couldn't have been better to him. He'd listened to him, comforted him, and after his first post-funeral emotional breakdown, had come home with a diamond ring and asked him if he could be his family now. Of course he could. Of course they were a family. Io was all that he had. His friends had their own lives, and his family was dead. It was only logical that his mind would fixate on him like this, and haunt him with worries and nightmares. It all made sense from a professional standpoint. It was just somewhere inside of him that things got messy, and it was hard to be strong, understanding Dr. Zaou when it was so much easier to be just Ryuu.
One thing that remained the same from the transition from student to teacher was that being called to the main office mid day was never a good thing.
"You can't be serious." En frowned down at the tabloid, whose cover declared : Local Hero's Secret Sleazy Sex Life: Multiple Men Satisfy Girls' School Teacher by Kinosaki Kou
"It looks bad." said Principal Inoue, with a quirk of a frown at the corner of his lips. "People are already asking about it. A lot of people."
"It's just a tabloid..." En wondered how much he could feasibly deny without being caught out. Eyes scanning over the article, he figured he could at least deny that Nakamura had seen her teacher grow angel wings to deliver her to safety. Maybe that part would make the rest seem outrageous, too.
Inoue sighed. "I'm not about to ask you if it is true or not, because the answer, sadly, does not matter. I appreciate all that you have done for us, Yufuin-san. But... it is not good for the school. It would be best if you were to leave after Bon, for personal reasons. Of course I will write you a recommendation." he added, with an appeasing stare. "We must do what is best for the school, and for our girls. I'm sorry."
"I see." En pressed his lips together. So I have all of one afternoon left with them, and I can't even tell them the truth. "Can I tell them I'm leaving, at least?"
Inoue nodded. "It won't do any harm. I'm sorry, Yufuin-san."
En nodded, and left the office.
Telling the girls was the worst. He made up a story about an ailing mother and skirted around pleading requests for him to come back and visit. Nakamura sobbed and hugged him, and gave him a charm off of her bag. That afternoon, he stood on the secluded street corner, waiting for the car to pick him up. He didn't know what to say. He felt a sense of dread and shame building up inside of him as the limousine approached. When he climbed inside, Kinshirou and Atsushi were there, and he felt something reminiscent of coming home to find his parents waiting for him with folded arms.
"They let me go." he said, not wanting to delay the inevitable.
Atsushi put an arm around him, and Kinshirou moved to the other side of the cabin to take his hand. "You did the right thing. You saved a child's life." Kinshirou said. "It isn't your fault that some low class rag couldn't leave well enough alone. "
"You saw it?" En asked, weakly.
Atsushi nodded. "People at work are talking." he admitted. "Trash like that gets around fast, you know." he added, encouragingly. "People like to gossip."
"You don't have to go back there, At-chan." Kinshirou said, his voice sharp and defensive. "I've said before that I can provide for us."
"What about your father?" En asked, looking down at his feet. He hadn't meant to be the cause of the leak. Kinshirou already had a distant relationship with his father, but now... now, it would be a miracle if they remained on speaking terms, to say nothing of the money.
Kinshirou sighed. "I always knew it would blow up someday. I refuse to leave you. I've been saving against the inevitability."
"You'll have to talk to him when we go home for Bon." Atsushi frowned. "I could go to him and explain-"
"No. I'll handle it. Don't worry. I will provide for us. And you don't have to go back. Either of you. "
"But..." Atsushi frowned.
En considered this. At one time, he would have been thrilled to do nothing for the rest of his life, but the thought of never seeing his students again was making him feel deeply depressed, and not being able to at least appear like a breadwinner was a ding to his pride. "Let's think about it this week. We have time..."
"It didn't make you happy, really, did it. Maybe it's time that we thought about having children." Kinshirou added.
En and Atsushi shared a look of disbelief over Kinshirou's head.
"That's a lot to take on in the middle of all this, isn't it." Atsushi tried, though En could see a glimmer of hope in his eyes. Maybe Kinshirou was only speaking out of haste and frustration, and a desire to protect Atsushi from the unpleasantness of the gossip, but En could see Atsushi struggling to balance his desires with his sensible nature in spite of that.
"You always wanted a family. Now our hand is forced, and we can do it on our own terms. Soon." Kinshirou nodded.
"We should talk to our parents, too, before deciding anything." Atsushi said, biting his lower lip anxiously. "I mean... what if all of Binan knows? Do you think that people are going to be... weird about it?"
"There's nothing we can do about that." En sighed. The thought of facing Atsushi's family was worse than facing his own.
Yumoto hummed tunelessly as he rinsed the soap from his body and climbed into the bath. He settled into place between Akihito and Haruhiko with a wide smile. "Two more days! Aren't you happy, brothers?"
"Thrilled." Haru deadpanned.
"Absolutely." Aki sighed.
"We'll all be together again! I love holidays!" He stretched out his legs. "I have a really good feeling, you know. Something amazing is going to happen! And we'll all be together to celebrate!"
"You shouldn't say things like that, Yumoto." Haru scolded.
"Because nothing good ever happens when you do!" cried Aki.
Ryuu wasn't sure why Io kept his small house in Binan. Maybe it was because the modest secondhand home was the first large purchase he'd ever made. Maybe it was because he wanted to show that he had the money to do so, like Akoya, Arima, and Kinshirou; who also kept residences in Binan. Maybe it was simply because staying at the Hakone house, or with the twins, for that matter, would drive him crazy after two days. Whatever it was, Ryuu was glad. He no longer had the apartment he'd shared with his grandmother, of course, and this little, awkward house had so many memories that made him smile. He was glad that he'd come back early, even if Io and the others wouldn't be home for at least another day. Maybe he could order some take out from one of his favorite places, or maybe he'd see if Gora was cooking... he always was. For now, though, he was lying on his stomach on the bed, turning the pages of a photo album he'd made for Io years ago. They looked so young. Not that they looked old now, or even all that different, really, it was just... noticeable, in a way that was hard to describe. They looked softer, somehow.
Ryuu's phone buzzed, and he fumbled for it, expecting a text from Akoya, or maybe an over excited message from Yumoto.
Meet me at the Ice Cafe.
It was Io's number, and the little ice cream parlor where they had had their first official date- Ryuu felt his smile stretching the limits of what his face was capable of. You bastard, you had me fooled into thinking you'd be late! He sprung to his feet, and dashed to the bathroom, where he brushed his teeth, fussed with his hair, and had two outfit changes. Within fifteen minutes, he was out the side door. He was finally going to see Io again!
The door of the Ice Cafe stuck a little, but it opened with a cheerful jingle as the bells on the side clanged against it, revealing the cozy, cheerful interior. The only other customer stood up with a start. He was a Binan High student, he could see that much from the uniform, though it had changed a bit from his day. He was slender and slight, with hair the blue-green of a glacier carefully combed into a studious style, and wire rimmed glasses not quite hiding the clear blue of his eyes. Ryuu almost missed all of that though, as what caught his attention was the bouquet of tri-colored camellias he held nervously to his chest. The boy looked disappointed and a little annoyed when he realized that Ryuu wasn't who he was waiting for, and he sat back down, looking away.
Ryuu pulled out his phone.
Where are you? I'm here.
Silence greeted him. Ryuu waited a full ten minutes before frowning down at the screen, and sending the message again. The boy at the next table was now pretending that his shoes were very, very interesting. Poor kid. He's either so nervous he's way too early, or someone's stood him up. It's getting late, so I'm guessing the latter. And he looks really upset.
"I'm sorry for the wait, sir. May I take your order?"
Ryuu looked up at the smiling waitress, and over at the increasingly uncomfortable looking boy. "I'll have a chocolate cherry bomb, please, and also whatever he'd like." Ryuu gestured at the boy, with a smile. The boy looked like a deer in headlights, but under Ryuu's smile and the waitress' encouraging nod, quietly ordered a blueberry ice.
"Thanks." he managed, as she headed to the kitchen. "I guess I'm a pretty pathetic sight right now, huh."
"Not at all." Ryuu said. "I think I've been stood up. I still want ice cream, though. Care for some company?"
The boy nodded, coming to terms with the situation. Ryuu sat opposite him. "I'm Ryuu."
"Taishi." the boy nodded back.
"I went to Binan, too. I'm home for Bon. And my fiancé was supposed to meet me here, but he's late." Ryuu sighed. He wasn't about to worry about Io just yet. Maybe something had come up. "He texted me like he was already here."
Taishi frowned. "I got a text, too. That's why..." he trailed off, looking sidelong at the flowers.
"Those are beautiful." Ryuu said, gently. "Whoever is getting those is pretty lucky."
"I'm starting to think no one will be." Taishi said, quietly. "I think we've been pranked. At least me."
"Why do you think that?" Ryuu asked slowly, as their ice cream arrived.
"Because the text I got was more of... a confession." he said, quietly. "And also, everything was spelled correctly."
Oh, no. Ryuu felt a pang of sympathy. Love was so all encompassing in high school. "You really like them, huh."
"He's my best friend." he said, looking away. "And he's in love with our club president." he added, his voice flat. "So of course he wouldn't just text me that out of the blue." He looked annoyed with himself, but Ryuu couldn't blame him for getting his hopes up.
"I'm sorry." Ryuu said. "But... you should let him know, someday. Someone who'd go out of his way for a gift like that when he could've just gotten some roses anywhere is a keeper. And he's your best friend, so I'm sure he thinks you're a great guy." he added, encouragingly.
"I'll never get him roses." Taishi said, a slight edge to his voice that seemed out of place on him. He took a deep breath. "And red camellias traditionally represent romance." he added, quickly.
"I have a friend who is really into hanakotoba." Ryuu smiled. "He grows most of them himself. What do the other ones mean?"
"Yellow camellia is for longing. White means-" Taishi frowned. "'I will wait'. Maybe I jinxed myself."
Ryuu tried not to chuckle. "I'm sorry."
"You got my hopes up for a second when you came in." Taishi confessed. "But his hair is darker..."
"Oh?" Ryuu asked, taking another bite of his sundae.
Taishi held out his phone, and Ryuu took it, looking down at the screen to see a cherub of a boy, with messy pink hair and a wide grin. It was hard to imagine him being best friends with this serious boy, but he supposed that people must have thought that about him and Io, once, too. The thought made him miss Io even more.
"Do you really think it's a prank, though? Someone would have to go through the trouble of stealing his phone. Does anyone really have it out for you?" he wondered.
Taishi shook his head. "They don't need his phone. They probably spoofed it."
Ryuu frowned. "Spoof?"
"Yeah. It's when a phone number gets hijacked, so it looks like it's being sent from someplace, or someone else."
"Is that for real?" Ryuu glanced down at his own phone in alarm. "People can do that? How?"
Taishi pushed up his glasses absentmindedly. "You do it through a VoIP connection- Voice over Internet Protocol. It used to be pretty much limited to law enforcement and large criminal organizations, but anyone with a computer can do it these days."
"Criminals?" Ryuu repeated, uneasily.
"Yeah. And other people you don't want to answer the phone for. Telemarketers, bill collectors. Or maybe you call, and just say you're a bill collector. Or from the bank. And then you've got their bank account number. Or you call and pretend to be a relative in trouble, who needs you to send money right away. That sort of thing."
"How do you know so much about this?" Ryuu asked, both impressed and a bit worried about every phone call he'd ever answered.
"I read a lot." Taishi replied, meeting his eyes as though to challenge him. "But it can be used to prank call, obviously. If it happens again, you both might want to change your phone numbers."
"Yeah." Ryuu agreed. He sighed at his empty dish. "I hope things work out for you." he said, taking his wallet out to pay the bill. "Thanks for keeping me company."
"No, thank you." Taishi said, rising. "It would have been worse if you hadn't... just, thanks." And he thrust the bouquet into Ryuu's arms.
"I can't just-" Ryuu protested.
"Please. You like them, and they only last a few days. I don't think I'll be telling him anything so soon."
"But you will tell him?" Ryuu prodded.
"Maybe." Taishi said, shyly.
"Then thank you." Ryuu hugged the flowers close as they parted.
As he walked back home, he wondered if Taishi was right, and hoped that he was. He'd rather be pranked than to think that something bad had happened to Io. He startled as his phone buzzed in his pocket.
"Io?" he asked, skeptically.
"I'm off work. Did you leave yet?"
Relief swept over him. "Yeah, I'm here how. I'm going to Yumoto's tonight. And the others might be here already, who knows..."
"I'll be there as soon as I can." Io promised. "I love you."
"Love you, too." Ryuu whispered, his nose buried in the camellias.
Kinshirou's confidence waned throughout the morning, and had dissolved into an anxious depression by the time he reached his father's work building. He curled his thumb over his ring, reaching out like a child clinging to his mother's purse strap. Akoya was the first to notice, a feeling of slight surprise followed by a bit of affection that put Kinshirou in mind of a cat butting its head against him. He could feel encouragement, and also more than a hint of possessiveness in Akoya's love. Arima was present then, too, his energy warm and comforting. He took a deep breath, and went to his father's office.
Kinshirou's father was ready for him, having already set out tea. He looked much as he always did, dressed neatly in a gray tailored suit, his intelligent silver eyes looking at him through his spotless eyeglasses. He had a quiet, refined aura about him, but he was anything but soft. Kinshirou had long marveled at the way that his slight form and gentle voice never suggested weakness, but seemed to demand respect from everyone he met. He was powerful, cultured, and intelligent, and the measure of what he'd always believed a man ought to be. He'd always tried to emulate him. It was strange how alienated he felt from him now despite all of that.
"Please sit." his father sat, and poured for him.
"Thank you." he managed. "I'm here because of that tabloid. I wanted to... to explain." Atsushi had insisted that directness and honestly were needed in this situation, along with a generous amount of tact.
His father sighed. "What is there to explain, really?"
"It's not- not like they made it sound." Kinshirou began, desperately.
"Of course not." his father agreed. "It's plain to see that it was crass sensationalism manufactured for the masses."
Kinshirou felt mildly relieved, until he continued.
"However, it is based on truth." He took a sip of his tea, thoughtfully. "Kinshirou- I have been indulgent, as it was Dr. Kinugawa's son. I did not even interfere when you took another lover." He set down his cup and gazed at him.
"How... how long have you known?" Kinshiorou asked, momentarily startled from his planed defense.
"Long enough." he sighed. "You are inseparable. You continue to live together after university. It doesn't take much to infer."
Kinshirou felt his face heating up. "I'm sorry. It's just- it's just not at all like what you think it is. And I never meant to embarrass you. I've always tried to hide it." Even when it hurt to see Atsushi and En be acknowledged, be allowed to touch and show each other affection.
"There have always been rumors. But, as I was saying... I allowed it, because you were young, and you were enjoying yourself. But there is a time and a place. It's time that you grew up."
Anger began to kindle a flame in his chest. "Has my work been unsatisfactory?" he demanded.
"No. But you have a duty to fulfill, and you should do your part before the gossip becomes too loud, and ruins future prospects for you. It will only be more difficult for you from now on. It's time that you started a family."
"I have a family." Kinshirou retorted, tersely.
"A child, Kinshirou. At least one. Our lineage is among the most ancient and revered in all of Japan. Each generation has worked hard to give honor and status to our family. We have all sacrificed something. Some have paid with their lives. It is not an unreasonable price I am asking."
"Why? Why do we need more than we have?"
"Rebellion does not suit you, my son." He replied, softly. "It is proper to respect our ancestors, who have given us so much. And you are the last. Your duty is a simple one."
Kinshirou took a deep breath, and allowed himself to vent thoughts that he'd held for too many years. "How many of our ancestors wished they weren't?" he challenged, eyeing his father's hand. He was so frightfully proper that he still wore his wedding ring, the white gold kept carefully polished, even though Kinshirou's mother had left them so long ago he could only recall her face with the help of photographs. "How many of them wanted this? How many did their duty, then left? How many did their duty, and were abandoned? How many stayed together out of courtesy only? How is an agreement like that a family?"
His father's jaw tightened. "Perhaps I should have been stricter."
"Didn't you want something, once? Don't you ever regret it?" Kinshirou sucked in his breath, and waited though the painful silence that followed.
"There are things that are larger than oneself. I have done my duty to our family, and I was rewarded with a son. How could I possibly regret that?" His voice was faint, and pained.
Kinshirou looked down. "I won't leave them. I - I wanted for you to understand."
"You must do your part." His father said, firmly. "And he sooner you do so, the easier it will be for you."
"I can't. I won't. I'm... I'm grateful to you, father. I'm sorry. But I can't." He stood, shaking.
"I'm sorry." Kinshirou choked back a sob, and fled, as though his father, and all of his expectations, would follow him. He raced down the hall and to the back stairs, hurrying down them until he saw daylight through the outer doors through his tears. Only then did he sit, and allow himself to sob. He'd always hoped that someday, he'd be enough for his father. He knew how hard he worked, how much he'd done for him, how high his hopes for him had always been. He'd always wanted him to be proud. He'd always wanted to be just like him. He knew now what he'd always suspected- that he was too selfish to deserve that love.
Kinshirou changed into a silk nightshirt and climbed into the bed, where En was already sprawled out. En had been quiet since he'd lost his position, and was more listless than ever. He grunted in acknowledgement as Kinshirou nudged his head under his chin, and slipped an arm up the back of his nightshirt, pulling him closer and idly rubbing his fingers against his skin. Kinshirou sighed despondently into his collarbone, and En answered with a discouraged sigh into his hair.
I'm miserable too, Kinshirou thought, as he clutched the fabric of En's faded t shirt.
En tightened his grip as if to say, I'm sorry I can't help.
They both looked up rather guiltily as Atsushi joined them, carefully pulling a blanket over them. Neither of them wanted to worry Atsushi.
"I called your father." Atsushi admitted, after turning off the light. "He wouldn't answer."
"At-chan... he won't listen. You don't have to get involved." Kinshirou rolled over to look at him in the dim moonlight. "Please. You can't try to start a relationship with him now, not after all of this."
"I'm already involved, aren't I." Atsushi said, with a grim smile. "I thought maybe, because of my dad..."
"That's my point. Your father..." Kinshirou trailed off. "Why do we have to feel guilty about this? Why do we have to be so beholden to everyone else?" It was a bitter, rhetoric question, but En made a noise of agreement.
"It's a lot of trouble over nothing, really." he complained.
"We have to be patient." Atsushi chided.
"I know." Kinshirou's voice was tiny. For all of his protests, he knew that his father was right. Rebellion didn't suit him. It was difficult, and tiring.
Atsushi kissed his forehead, and reached over him to squeeze En's hand. "We'll get through this. Just like everything else."
Io locked his luggage and set it on the rack. It was a hassle to take it all to Binan, but he couldn't help but worry that something would come up and he would have to leave there directly for work, despite what he'd told Ryuu. Also, going to Tokyo first would take at least another day, and he was anxious to see him. He was already planning a suitable date night to soften him a bit when there was a knock on his door. It was sharp and direct, unlike the gentle tapping of the housekeeping staff. He considered ignoring it when it happened again. He cracked the door open, and almost shut it in panic when he saw Ame standing in the hallway. The only thing stopping him was the embarrassment that would cause, along with considerate reluctance to leave his hotel room.
"I'm sorry. I'm really not interested." he stammered, his eyes trailing over the length of his body. He was dressed more formally this time, in a trendy suit that would never work in a serious business setting.
"Oh?" Don't tell me that you've hired someone else, Naruko-san?"
"No. I'm flattered, really. But I'm engaged. And leaving the country. And- and how did you know my full name?" he frowned, not liking where this was going.
"What sort of work do you think I do?" Ame asked, playfully, laughing a bit as Io's cheeks heated up.
"Look, I didn't mean to imply-I mean-"
"Did you even read my card?"
"Not really." Io admitted. He'd thrown the thing away that night. And now, somehow, Ame had crossed the threshold, and was in his room, the door closing behind him.
"I'm an agent." Ame replied, crisply. "And one of the best. I represent stars and idols, and ensure that my clients receive the correct amount of exposure. Your counsel and publicist in one neat package."
"Er... well. I'm not either of those things. I work in finance. And I'm leaving today, so..."
There was a blur of purple, and Ame vanished from sight. Io took a staggering step back.
"Perhaps this would help to convince you of my sincerity."
Io gaped at the luggage rack, which in addition to his own bags now held Ame's briefcase, and on top of that, a deep violet creature with faint pink ticking on its lavish fur. A... a weasel? No, Io corrected himself, noticing the sheen of the coat, a mink. Not that it's really a mink anyway!
"Oh, no. I am NOT doing this again. Just. No. Out. Now." Io opened the door and stood with a hand on his him. "Go on. Scram."
"Really, Naruko-san. You should at least hear me out." the mink pouted. "If only to mitigate your troubles once everyone else comes by."
"Everyone else?..." Io could feel himself inching toward a nervous breakdown.
"Yes, Naruko-san. Nostalgia is all the rage, you know, and TV Universe has its collective eyes on the CIDE franchise. Do you really want to stumble into this blindly again, or would you like representation? I work on commission, so there will be no up front cost to you." Ame leapt from the luggage rack to Io's shoulder. "Everything is above board." he said sweetly, slinking over to his other side, his tail tickling the back of Io's neck and sending a shiver down his spine that went straight to his groin. "I'm on your side."
"Can you just..." Io scooped him up firmly, and placed him back on the rack. That was just... inappropriate. And disturbing.
Ame was suddenly human again, perched on the edge of the rack. "Please at least take a look." he urged, pulling his briefcase after him, and sitting at the small table by the window. "And since you were careless with the last one..." He held out a card, and Io respectfully took it, thinking how odd it was, but how much odder it would be if he didn't take it properly. He looked down at the card carefully for the first time.
(◆) (❖) (⌧), (⌑) (◎) (⌘) (☒)
Ame set a folder down on the table before him. "Here is a sample contract, with my terms and conditions. You needn't decide right away. And also, a file purloined from the development office of TV Universe. I don't want to pressure you, Naruko-san. I want to work with the very best in the business, and I'm certain that you feel the same."
I have so many questions that I don't know where to start.
"Please take your time and contact me when you decide. Good night, Naruko-san. Have a safe trip and a happy Bon." Ame let himself out, and the door closed with a loud click. If not for the folder before him, he could almost believe that it had all been a hallucination...
The folder contained several short documents in an alphabet he couldn't read, and a lot of candid pictures. He flipped through them. En, in front of a class of schoolgirls, which never ceased to seem odd. Atsushi in his scrubs and lab coat, looking harried and worried. Kinshirou walking with an older man who must be a relative, judging by resemblance. Akoya and Arima on a beach. The twins, rehearsing in the theater. Yumoto, greeting patrons outside the Kurotama Bath. A shot of himself walking through Narita airport terminal. And Ryuu. There were a lot of Ryuu. Ryuu and Akoya, looking at racks of clothing. Ryuu in a stylish suit, one he hadn't seen before. Another of him with a young woman on his arm, of them having a meal together. Another shot now, of Ryuu sitting with a high school kid in a Binan blazer, smiling over the table wistfully as he held an elaborate bouquet against him. And more like it.
Io felt an unease and a dull anger stirring in him as he flipped through the pictures. The ones of him where authentic, he was sure. That was definitely the interior of his office, the sandwich he'd eaten last week. It didn't seem likely that any of the others would be manipulated images. They seemed far too raw and unfiltered. He closed the folder, resolving to read the contract on the plane. He wasn't sure what to think about it yet, but he knew that he had to get back to Binan as soon as possible, if only to keep an eye on things. He'd worked too hard to let his crown jewel slip through his fingers.
"En-chan!" Atsushi's niece, Rin, rushed toward them, and tugged at En's hand. "Grandma got me a piano! Look!" She gestured across the room to a purple keyboard on the floor.
"It's okay, En-chan." Atsushi said, gently. "You can stay out here for now."
En gave him a dubious look, but nodded. "All right. So, you're gonna teach me how to play, huh?" He let himself be led across the room, and Atsushi took a deep breath before entering the kitchen, where his mother was hard at work. She looked up, her eyes troubled, her mouth pulled flat in an attempt at a non expression.
"Hi, Mom." Atsushi said awkwardly, attempting to give her a hug. She was hesitant at first, but then clutched him tightly.
"Oh, At-chan. What a mess." She whispered, and pulled away, and looking him in the eyes. "What were you thinking?"
"God, he just got here." his sister Akemi sighed, as she stepped in to pull a bag of ice from the freezer. "Hey." she added, nodding at Atsushi.
"Hi." Atsushi managed, grateful for the intervention.
"But-" his mother tried.
"You act like everyone didn't know already." She banged the bag against the counter, and began distributing the ice into glasses.
"What do you mean, everyone?" Atsushi demanded.
Akemi shrugged, and put the glasses on a tray. "Yell if you need me." she told Atsushi, rolling her eyes as she left.
"So it's true, then." Atsushi's mother began, glumly.
"Look, it's not... like it sounded. You know En-chan. You know Kin-chan. They aren't bad people. They aren't -" Atsushi frowned, at a loss for words. He washed his hands and began peeling potatoes, so that he would have something to focus on.
"What were you thinking?" Any of you?" she demanded. "Maybe I can understand, because I know them. But think of your father! How embarrassing it must be! And Kusatsu-san-" she cut off, with a shake of her head. She always spoke of Kinshirou's father in a reverent way. He was the reason that his father had gained the prestige that he had, he was the reason that they went from being an average family to one that was rather well off. Atsushi bit his lip. He understood, and he hated that he did.
"When I first started dating En-chan... I had... feelings for Kin-chan, too. And En-chan suggested it. It's been ten years already and it's been no trouble all of this time." He explained, carefully. "And you were fine with En-chan-"
She sighed, pushing her hair back with a damp hand. "That's different. We knew about you since you were little, of course. I could tell. And we were relieved when you found a good person like En-chan who would stay with you; that you didn't try to live a wild life."
"I..." Atsushi frowned, wondering what gave his preferences away before En.
"But this - oh, En-chan. How could you. Idiot." she sighed.
"He can probably hear you out there."
"It's nothing I'm not going to say to him when I get him alone." she grumbled.
"What did Dad say?" he asked, instead.
"He said that you have to live your life. But he's very embarrassed, of course. You know that people talk. And he has to think about his reputation. Not just for us, but for the clinics."
"I know." Atsushi said, looking down. His last day at work had been almost unbearable. It would have been worse if he were someone influential, like his father. "I'm sorry."
"It's nothing you can undo-" she sniffed. "And you were going to have such a nice life with En-chan-"
"I'm still going to have a nice life with En-chan." Atsushi protested, feeling more defensive by the minute. The problem with talking to his mother was that they were too much alike. Every worry and fear that drummed through his own head would come unedited out of his mother's mouth, like a beam reflecting back at him. "And Kin-chan, too. We've been living a good life all of this time."
"And you wanted to have children-"
Something small and painful snapped inside of Atsushi, and he felt as though the walls were closing in on him. He dropped the potato he was holding and bolted out the side door.
He ran, feeling tears burning in his eyes. His feet took him to the end of the street, to the little park where he used to sit with En after school. He trudged toward the most secluded bench and sat, pulling off his glasses to allow his tears to flow freely. It felt good to be able to let it out for once. He let himself sob until he felt drained and tired, and then wiped his eyes with his sleeve. His glasses were smudged and had tiny tear drops sprayed on the inner lens, but he put them back on anyway, not caring.
He took a deep breath, and tried to calm down. She was just saying what he was thinking. It was nothing he hadn't thought before. And it could have gone much worse, after all. His father could have been furious. They could have hated him, and En-chan. But it still hurt.
The sky was getting dark now, and Atsushi wondered how long he'd been sitting there. He'd left En-chan back there, he thought, guiltily. He really ought to go back. It was the right thing to do. And yet... he sat there, instead, feeling like he had lead weights tied to his feet. It was starting to drizzle, as well.
"Hey." En stood beside him, holding an umbrella over him.
"I'm sorry I left you back there." Atsushi mumbled.
"It's fine. I talked to her, it's okay. She said she's sorry, and she doesn't mind if you don't feel like coming back tonight. And she sent gyoza." En held up a bag.
"How... how do you do that?"
"Talk to her. Get her to listen."
En shrugged. "I guess we just get along. I mean, I can tell that it bothers her a lot. But I can tell that she loves you more than that."
"En-chan..." Atsushi sniffed.
"Come on, let's go home and eat these. It's raining."
Atsushi nodded, and stood, taking the arm that En offered him. "She said it would be okay to bring Kinshirou from now on, too."
"I don't know how you do it." Atsushi sighed. They walked in a comfortable silence.
"We could get a coffee until the rain stops, if it's too much." En offered.
"No, it's not that far... and I'd rather be home."
Several minutes later, they arrived at the house, which always made Atsushi feel better. It was larger than the house he'd grown up in, but not anything as big as the mansion Kinshirou's father owned on the edge of town, as Atsushi had drawn the line at the idea of live in servants, or really, servants of any sort. Everything had been designed and built to his wishes, as Kinshioru insisted. From the sliding cupboards and closets in the genkan to the spacious kitchen, it was everything he could have ever wanted in a home, without being too extravagant. The interior was elegant but comfortable. There was a study for Kinshirou, and furniture comfortable enough for En to nap on. He even had his very own built in book cases. The one true extravagance they'd agreed on was the bath, which was heated and could comfortably fit three. It was a monument to Kinshirou's love for them, and he felt safe whenever he was there.
En brought the food to the kitchen. "I called Kinshirou, and he's getting some stuff to go with this gyoza, okay? Now go change out of those wet clothes. Before you get sick and I have to hear your mom go on about it."
"Thanks." Atsushi smiled. He really did have a nice life, no matter what anyone else thought about it.
"Don't be nervous." En patted Kinshirou's hand. "I've talked to him."
"He'll love you." Atsushi assured him.
"I'm fine." Kinshirou protested, clutching the carefully packed boxes of food so that nothing would tip over.
"You're not fine, or you'd set the box down. There's plenty of room, and the car is a smooth ride." En pointed out.
"Dad wouldn't mind if it isn't perfect, anyway." Atsushi agreed.
"I mind." Kinshirou sulked. He was going to meet En's father. Properly meet him, not glance at him across a room. And he was going to introduce himself as En's boyfriend. The small fortune he'd spent on the best sushi and sashimi that money could buy was like a buffer between him and the nerve wrecking encounter.
"Hey, can we stop at the conbini?" En asked the driver on the intercom. The car pulled to the curb, and En jumped out.
"He's getting chocolate for his mom." Atsushi explained, at Kinshirou's curious glance. "Kinoko no yama. She loved them. So every Bon, he gets some for her."
"That's..." Kinshirou supposed he should say it was sweet and kind, but it was utterly depressing, as well. He found it difficult to understand his mess of emotions. In addition to feeling sorry for his lover, he somehow felt envious of En as well for having his mother, even though she was dead; which in turn made him feel a bit guilty. It wasn't right to feel that way, not when his own mother was alive, even if he wouldn't know her if he bumped into her on the street. At least she was alive.
"He's been quiet lately." he said instead. "I'm a little worried." He hadn't taken into consideration that agreeing to return to Binan for Bon might make En's mood lower than it was.
"I think it's good for him to do things like this." Atsushi said, gently. "It makes him feel less like he's lost her."
"I see." Atsushi took his hand and raised it to his lips.
En climbed back into the car, looking pleased. Kinshirou was quiet the rest of the ride.
En's father lived in the same apartment that En had grown up in. It was a nice enough building for someone with modest means, Kinshirou supposed, but he couldn't help but notice how small it felt compared to the places he'd always lived. His heart was hammering in his chest as they rang the doorbell. He clutched the food closer.
"Perverts in our building. What is this neighborhood coming to." En's father gave the impression of being very intelligent, if slightly eccentric, with his tousled gray hair and glasses. He opened the door for them, and Kinshirou focused on getting the food to the table. He had practiced introducing himself, but now found his mind blank.
"So. I hear that I have another son." En's father addressed him, with a wry grin.
Kinshirou let out a noise that sounded like a strangled squeak, and he bowed, reflexively. He found himself looking into familiar blue eyes as he rose.
"I wouldn't mind if you called me 'Dad'. It seems like they're serious about you, so, that's that." His voice was quiet and careful, the same tone En used when he was trying to soothe them.
"I'm sorry that I caused any trouble for you." Kinshirou managed.
"We all are." Atsushi agreed, emerging from the kitchen with drinks, hurrying to open and distribute them before unpacking the food.
"Atsu, don't fuss. En, help him. And I've had worse trouble."
"Still..." Atsushi sighed.
En slipped away to the back room, candy in hand, where Kinshirou could see a small altar.
Atsushi had ducked back into the kitchen, and Kinshirou found himself alone with the man. A nervous blush was overtaking him. What would it be like, he wondered, if his father were more like this? If he could only have his father, and his loves as well. What was it like, to be loved that much? Every time he thought of his father, he felt a distressing little pain in his chest. He wondered if it would ever stop. When he didn't feel pain, he felt a wistful longing that was almost as bad.
"You are always welcome here, do you understand?" And he pressed a house key into his hand, with a nod.
Kinshirou's fingers clutched around the simple gift, and he felt his eyes start to sting. He suddenly felt that he would do anything for this man, as long as he lived. "Thank you." he whispered.
"You do not have an appointment." Arima Izumi folded his hands and leaned on them thoughtfully, meeting the eyes of the deep violet mink that had hopped onto his desk.
"I was led to believe that my presence would be something you would prefer kept off the record." the mink answered, offering a card. "Call me Ame. I am an agent at ∩ ∫ ⊗ As you know, TV Universe is approaching its fiftieth year. It is now extremely likely that you will be contacted for a business venture in the near future. I would like to offer my services."
Crimson eyes narrowed. "I'm not interested. And I already have lawyers."
An uncomfortable silence signaled that the conversation was over. He opened a file and ignored Ame. "Might we see your legendary fighting spirit again if the Earth calls for it?"
"We don't play that game anymore." Izumi responded. "You forget that you're not dealing with a naive kid, now. I've got lawyers from here to Andromeda, and if any lines are crossed, I'll sue them into bankruptcy. Your lot have been warned in the past."
"It's not so simple these days , you see." Ame tried. "There are loopholes. Intergalactic Creative Commons law dictates-"
"Are you familiar with the name ΞΓΞ , ± ⊕, ∴ ± ⊕ ? " He smiled as Ame's face paled a bit.
"I am a free agent." Ame insisted. "Please consider my offer."
"Duly noted." Izumi said, dryly.
"Arima-san... there are questions that were never answered. Would you indulge me, as a fan?"
"There has always been passionate debate in the fandom. The tension between you and Zaou-chan. Did you become so hard because your money couldn't buy her? Or because your money couldn't save her? Or were you simply too focused on your pursuit of the White Ghost?"
"Trying to prod people with sentiment is a cheap ploy that only works in television. If the best you can do is a delinquent drop out almost thirty years dead, I suggest you find new programming. Now get out."
"And you're a father, now..."
Izumi stood up, glaring down at the small creature. "Stay the hell away from my son, or you'll regret it, personally. Now get out of my office. Now."
Ame felt his heart stop in his chest momentarily, but was trained well enough to keep his composure on the outside. "Forgive me, Arima-san. And please do contact me if you change your mind." He bowed, and vanished in a flash of purple.
Apprehension built in Io's chest as he walked the final length of his journey to his small house in Binan. He was angry. He felt betrayed. But most of all, he felt the need to be with Ryuu again. It didn't make sense, but he did his best to push aside his misgivings, at least for the moment. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding. This was Ryuu, after all, his best friend... but the more he thought about asking him incriminating questions, the more awkward and horrible it felt, so he decided that the best approach would be to watch and wait. After all, he was to blame as well, for leaving him alone for so long. Maybe he shouldn't expect Ryuu to be as patient as he was...
He shook his head in frustration. No, that wasn't the Ryuu he knew. Not the man he loved more than anyone else in the world, his partner through thick and thin. Maybe he should have bought some flowers before coming. Showing up empty handed left him feeling exposed. He turned the key in the lock, and stepped in, placing down his bags with a sigh.
"Hey." Ryuu's voice was warmer in person. He stepped out of the bedroom, and grinned. His hair had gotten a little longer. He was wearing an old Kurotama Bath t shirt and looked like he was intending to stay in for the night. Io felt his face break into a wide smile as he caught him up in his arms, embracing tightly before Ryuu kissed him with a force that pinned Io to the wall. Holding him, feeling his body clutched close, his familiar scent, the taste of his mouth... any misgivings he'd had melted away under the exhilarating feeling of being together again. Weeks of pent up frustration, both mental and physical, broke loose as he kissed back, fiercely.
I missed you. I'm sorry. Did you cheat on me? Does that even matter? Are you sorry? Am I losing my mind? How do I start to tell you that I talked to an alien without telling you things I don't want to talk about? Do I even want to tell you, in case what he showed me means what I think it does? You know that I still love you, right? Do you still love me as much as I love you?
"Sweetheart." he sighed, instead. The rest could wait.
"I'm going to stuff you full of gyudon." Ryuu promised. "But first, you're gonna work up an appetite." He took Io by the hand and yanked him into the bedroom, and Io gladly followed.
Binan felt safe to Atsushi. Now that they had broken the news to their parents, he felt a weight lifted off of him, and was able to enjoy the sights and smells of the Bon festival as he walked with En and Kinshirou to the Kurotama Bath.
"It hasn't changed much, has it." En noted, eyeing the booths lining the street.
"It's nice. I mean, technically, I suppose there's more gossip about us here, because more people know us. But there's something about a big city that makes you feel a bit exposed..."
"No one says what they are thinking here." Kinshirou mused. "That's why."
"Look at all these kids everywhere." En grinned at the number of Binan uniforms. "Makes me feel old." he added, with a sigh.
"You'll feel younger after a soak." Atsushi promised, as the ascended the second staircase. "We should go with the others once everyone gets here. It's a bit late, but maybe tomorrow."
"Who else-" Kinshirou broke off as they crossed the threshold and saw Arima and Akoya waiting for them.
"Welcome home, President." Akoya pulled him into a tight hug, which Arima reluctantly joined, despite the audience. En grinned, and pulled Atsushi away. A small, happy whimper came from somewhere in the back of Kinshirou's throat.
"Let them have their time." he suggested. Atsushi felt a warmth in his chest at the sight of Kinshirou genuinely smiling, for the first time in a week. For all that he and En loved him, he knew that he needed this, as well.
"It's been over a month." he agreed, following En into the bath to wash. "The bath will do him good, too..."
Atsushi stepped into the water, and closed his eyes. He could almost believe he was back in school, with the familiar sensation of the hot water easing the tension in his muscles, and the tips of En's fingers lightly touching his shoulder as he stretched an arm behind him.
"Do you think Kin-chan is serious about coming back here?" he asked En, quietly so as not to be overheard.
"I don't know." En frowned. "I mean, we said we would, someday. But that was before everything. Even though we planned for something like this."
"I don't like not knowing what's going to happen." Atsushi half whispered, feeling foolish for saying it. Of course he didn't know what was going to happen in the future. He just fooled himself into thinking that he did. And yet, he continued to do it.
"I know." En replied, instead of pointing this out.
Kinshirou, Arima, and Akoya joined them, and he enjoyed the light chatter. None of them seemed to want to ruin the mood by discussing their situation. Kinshirou was absolutely glowing, and Atsushi didn't want to see that fade.
"I'm going to help Gora set up." he said, rising from the water. "You can all stay a bit longer."
He dried off, and passed through the corridor to the main house. Gora insisted on gathering everyone together for a meal while they were all together, and it was more work than he would ever let on. Atsushi was glad to help in the kitchen. He liked Gora's calm, solid presence, and the soothing work of cooking. Yumoto and the twins were going to close the bath, and by the time they'd finished, Io and Ryuu should be there, as well.
"Everything's under control." Gora assured him, as he entered the kitchen and reached for an apron. "But with you here, we'll be done faster."
"Do you want me to start on the vegetables?" Atsushi asked, and Gora nodded. He picked up a knife and set to work.
"Are people giving you a hard time?" Gora asked, as he worked.
"I... well. " Atsushi stammered. "Kinshirou's father wants him to leave us. And my family isn't happy, but they've accepted it, I think... I'm worried about En-chan." He frowned. "He loved that job. And I feel so useless, because I can't fix any of it."
"I'm sorry." Gora said. "It must be difficult to have people to answer to."
If it were anyone but Gora, he might have taken that as passive aggressive, but since it was Gora, it was likely that it was the plain truth. "I'm glad that most of the people who matter to me are trying to accept us." Atsushi emptied the mushrooms he'd been cutting into a bowl. "What would you do?" he asked, softly.
"Hmm. Mostly, I find it's best to not discuss it."
"Aki and Haru." he replied, as though it were common knowledge.
"Are you and they..." Atsushi tried to wrangle the words in his head. He'd always been curious, especially after he'd left for university. It just never seemed right to ask outright. Even now, he couldn't bring himself to press for details.
"The thing is, I spent so many years not thinking about being alone, because I have Yumoto. And he was my world. But suddenly, I had the sun and moon as well. And it never occurred to me that you could be lonely and not know it. Until I wasn't anymore." He paused for a moment, turning down the flame on the stove burner. "I'm saying this because I don't want you to feel guilty about what you have. If that makes sense."
"I... thank you." Atsushi smiled. "I think it does."
Abashiri Aiko frowned down at her notes as she noted which sources she needed to make copies of. She was having difficulty concentrating, knowing that Gero Makoto was in the building, and had likely spotted her, as he had an uncanny knack of doing. Her light pink hair didn’t help matters, its particular hue making her easy to spot in a crowd. She’d tucked most of it up under a hat today for that reason, though she could do little to hide her cane. She was annoyed. It was a gloomy, rainy day, the sort that made her bones ache and made getting around more difficult than usual. It was enough for most people to stay home, but not the thorn in her side that was Gero Makoto.
It started almost immediately after she’d moved to Binan. Her father claimed that they’d moved her there because the school was one of the best, and also so that she would know where her parents came from. Her father had been elected to the Diet, and was so busy now that she barely saw him anyway. She’d been clashing with her mother, too, and so moving for high school seemed like the best idea at the time. Now, she wasn’t so certain. Getting around, and just taking care of herself and her room was exhausting, but she refused to cave in to her mother’s suggestions to hire help, or, even worse, a nurse of some sort.
Did they suggest the move because she was an embarrassment to her father? Or because they were afraid that his newfound notoriety would increase the bullying that she was already used to? She supposed it could go either way. A fanciful part of her imagined that moving to Binan would give her a clean slate, where no one had known the Aiko who wore a series of braces from her collarbone to her ankle. Maybe they’d see her as just a normal girl. Yet, even though she covered her scars and now needed just the cane for support, it still wasn’t enough. People looked. She still had a limp, she still had surgical scars that were bright red and marled purple against her pale skin. They didn’t say anything, but they were thinking plenty.
The one person who did say things was Gero, a boy who she somehow could not avoid outside of her blessed haven of an all girls school. He was insufferable. He offered to carry her books and open doors for her, and would not take no for an answer. He asked her about what she was reading, even though she was obviously reading, and thus, not wanting to talk to him. But most humiliating was when he complimented her, in that airheaded way of his, as though he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. He’d asked to take her to dinner once, in public. The people in the vicinity were watching- some with pity in their eyes, some chuckling to themselves at her expense. He never did any of it to be nice, she could tell. It was a running joke. It always was. Look at the rich, popular boy paying attention to the cripple. That was somehow funny, to most people. She hated Gero. She wished he’d just disappear.
“I brought you a cup of tea. English Breakfast. Milk and two sugars, like you said.” Gero placed the paper cup on the table, and smiled that vapid grin, challenging her to see guile in it.
“There’s no food or drink in the library. And I take one sugar.” She left it untouched, and turned back to her notes. “When did I ever say that?” she asked, despite herself.
“I, er. have heard you order.” he admitted.
“That’s not creepy at all.” she muttered.
“You take two when you’re not feeling well.” he said, softly, almost under his breath.
She looked up, and glared at him. “I was feeling fine before you got here. Leave me alone.”
That got him to back off, at least. She noticed his friend waiting for him in the doorway, another trust fund baby, though this one played at being a bad boy.
“Why do you even like her? She does nothing but insult you.” he said, not even lowering his voice as Gero joined him.
“She’s really witty. She doesn’t mean it like that.” Gero responded brightly, as he hurried to catch up with him.
Idiots, the both of them. She glared at the cup of tea. She really would like some tea, but not that tea. She felt her eyes stinging, against her will. What would it be like if a boy bought you tea because he liked you, not because you were a joke? It was a weak thought, and she angrilly rubbed at her eyes. She stood and gathered her books, and left the tea on the table. She was perfectly capable of buying her own. If she could have one wish, though, it would be to be stronger, to be normal. To not have to think about things before doing them, about how much her body could take without punishing her for days after. She wished that she could rebuild her form from the inside out. Oh, and it would be beautiful. Beautiful enough that guys like Gero knew for sure that they didn’t have a chance. Beautiful enough to not be anybody’s joke.
Θý checked the length of the old footage and sighed. Six minutes was pushing it for this scene, but he decided to keep it as it was. The problem with recap episodes for a series like this is that there was just so much to cover in the alloted time. Luckily this one would be have an hour slot, minus any commercials.
Akihiko empied and rinsed his bucket and neatly looped up his hose before before hanging them both on their pegs and turning the crank on the valve that held back the water from the spring. The water would pass through a sieve filter before entering the bath, filling the tubs before exiting through another valve that drained into the stream at his feet. It was a system as old as the Kurotama itself, and he imagined that it hadn’t changed in the hundred or more years it had operated. The valves were thick and heavy, its wheel worn down to a dull patina from daily handling, and he wouldn’t be surprised if it could go a hundred more without repair. He liked this job the best of all the various things that needed doing at the bath. It was grounding and comforting to see something so straightforward and reliable in action, and a satisfying end to the day.
Inside, he could hear Yumoto chattering to himself as he folded and stacked clean towels on the shelves. His mind drifted toward dinner. Gora was the best cook he’d ever known, and special occasions were something he looked forward to. Just then, his train of thought was broken by a streak of bright green darting through his peripheral vision.
“You-” he stood in shock.
“Hello, Aki-chan.” Dadacha’s voice was as warm as it had ever been, as though they hadn’t battled and been separated for a decade.
“Why are you here?” Akihito asked, weakly. No matter what the answer was, it would be a headache.
“Aki?” Haruhiko stepped outside, bucket in hand, and stopped in his tracks.
“I thought we told you we were done with you.” he said, crimson eyes narrowing as he bore a threatening look into Dadacha.
“Such harsh words, Haru-chan. All families have their rough patches, dacha. You know that I’ve always cared about you.”
Haru’s expression flickered for a moment, but hardened.
“I’ve come to help you. TV Universe is nearing its fiftieth year, and they are going to ask you to have a large part in the coming projects-”
“We’re done with them.” Aki spat.
“And you.” Haru added. “We don’t need you anymore.”
Dadacha shook his head indulgently, and continued as though there had been no interruption. “You are going to be asked to host a musical show, featuring other stars. You, of course, will get top billing. I’ll see to that, dacha.”
“We’re busy.” Aki folded his arms.
“And variety shows are lame.” Haru amended.
“I only came because I worry about you boys.” Dadacha began, wringing his paws. “You have become so successful, and so happy, and I am so, so proud of you both. I always knew that you could do anything you set your minds to. But there are those at the station that won’t take no for an answer, not about something this big. And they will use your happiness against you, if need be. I’m certain that they are aware of your current understanding with Gora-san.”
“Don’t you dare bring him into this!” Haru hissed.
“You’re not fit to speak his name.” Aki glowered.
Dadacha held up his paws. “Of course I don’t want to see him brought into this.There would be so much troublesome gossip if people in this town knew everything. What a headache that would be for the Bath. Not to mention the intergalactic complications. Why, your most devout fans would be heartbroken to know that you were both officially unattainable.”
The twins stood their ground, though Aki looked a bit pale, and Haru was red with anger.
“And you think that you can avoid that happening.” Aki said, his voice flat.
“This is blackmail.” Haru growled.
“You wouldn’t want to make trouble for Gora-san, I know. That’s why I came.” Dadacha said, pitifully. “And young Yumoto, as well...”
The twins exchanged anxious glances.
“They won’t leave him alone, either, I’m afraid. And I thought that you two could keep an eye on him. Protect him. If anything were to happen to him, Gora-san would be heartbroken, dacha.”
“I don’t trust you.” Aki said, quietly.
“We’ll hear what you have to say.” Haru decided. “But no promises.”
Atsushi was in his element, serving dishes of food to the crowded room. He’d been so upset lately that he’d almost resigned himself to his distress and an overwhelming feeling of gloom that was pressing in on him, from his work, to his family, to the troubles overwhelming Kinshiro and En. Even though he knew it was a brief respite, he was enjoying the smiles and laughter of his friends and lovers.
I wish we could all stay together just a little bit longer. The way things used to be , he mused.
Kinshirou was still wearing his stunning smile, En was content and relaxed, and he could almost forget that he was expected to report to work at a job he had expected to love but found soul crushing and limiting on Monday; that En was falling into a depression, and that Kinshirou was hiding more pain than his pride would let on. He could, for a moment, believe that he could have everyone he loved close at hand, and that the perfect future he’d dreamed of was still attainable, and not an exaggeration and idealization of the life he would have even in the best case scenario. Not that he should complain even now, he thought, guiltily. It was more than most people could hope for.
Suddenly, there was a bright flash of light, and Atsushi was so startled that he nearly dropped the dish he was holding.
“Everyone! I came as soon as I could!” The sound echoed off of the walls.
That voice... Atsushi frowned in disbelief, taking a step back as a white light appeared, and suddenly Wombat was knee deep in the salad.
Yumoto let out a delighted gasp and lunged across the table, grabbing him around the middle and squeezing him in his arms.
“How did you get here?” demanded En, sullenly, still blinking from the unexpected flash.
“There are more important things to consider right now!” Wombat declared, struggling to get free of Yumoto’s grasp. “Eternal Love Energy!” he gestured with a paw, and Atsushi felt his lovelacelet surge with warmth, the jewel glowing with an increasing green glow that filled the room and merged with the other auras into a blinding light.
There was a parcel of land behind the house in Binan, nothing like the sprawling lawns of the Kusatsu mansion, but contained within high stone walls. Most of it was still a bare canvas, a place where Atsushi hoped their children would one day play. One side of it, however, was Kinshirou's domain, a small but serviceable shooting range. Unable to sleep, he'd come to meditate under the moonlight, and, failing that, retrieved the bamboo arrows that had been a birthday gift from En from the cabinet. He'd been saving them for a time that felt right , a time when he needed guidance, and this was as good a time as he was going to get.
Kinshirou tried in vain to clear his mind, focusing only on the feel of the bowstring's tension as he arched it back before letting an arrow fly true to its mark. What should he do?
"You mean to tell us, in all honestly, that you don't know what's going on." En demanded, staring down at Wombat in annoyance.
"But you're working for them." Ryuu protested, his hands on his hips.
"They won't tell me everything." Wombat said, worriedly. "That's why I knew that there would be trouble for you. Of course I had to try to help you. I know that they want to film a show, and that they want you to be active participants. But... " he sighed. "Something else is going on."
"How much did you know last time?" Ryuu pressed.
"Don't be like that!" Yumoto scolded. "You know that we can trust Wom-san. He's family." he tightened his grip, lifting Wombat off the table.
Io looked thoughtful. "I don't think we have a choice in the matter. They are going to film us one way or another..." he left the unsaid ‘so we may as well be paid for it’ hanging in the air.
"Um." Akihiko began. "Dadacha is here. We saw him right before dinner. He told us that he wants us to host a music show..."
"And then made himself scarce." Haruhiko added. "They are up to something. Why not take all the help we can get?"
"I agree." Io said, standing up. Ryuu looked a bit puzzled, but then nodded.
"That's not the only reason I came." Wombat admitted, after struggling out of Yumoto's grasp. "I made a deal with the company, on your behalf. I hope you don't mind the presumption, but it's important..." He looked implringly at Atsushi, then En, and finally to Kinshirou, before focursing again on Atsushi.
"What sort of deal?" En asked, suspiciously.
"The situation is that the company will soon be in possession of an unwanted child. And I pulled some strings, and they will agree to give it to you, if you cooperate with their filming." Wombat explained.
"Wait. You mean a human child, right? One hundred percent?" En cautiously inquired. "Not some ... half something?"
"Yes, a human! Do you think that I would have bothered if it wasn't?" snapped Wombat. “I wanted to see it settled with someone who would be a proper guardian. Humans should be brought up with their own kind, or things go wrong." he added, frowning slightly in the direction of the twins. Haru took a step forward in anger, but stopped as Aki's fingers gripped his wrist in warning.
"Human trafficking? I hadn't thought they would sink as low as that." Kinshirou folded his arms, noting uncomfortably that Atsushi hadn't said a word, but that there was a determined light shining in his eyes.
"It's a confidential situation. There is a young idol who found herself about to become a mother in Andromeda, where there are no human doctors who know how to deal with that. And she wants to meet you."
"You can't just show up with a baby." Akoya mused, twirling a strand of hair around his fingers. "You'd have to explain where you got one. And Earth has enough red tape that this stupid plan will fall apart before it can come into being. They'll just take it away."
"Not if you have people on Earth working for you in the right places." The unexpected words came from Io. "When I was in Singapore, I met an alien agent. He wanted to work with me. And the information he gave to me made it clear that he has extensive legal contacts on Earth as well as on several other planets. Apparently there are people in all levels of government smoothing over bumps to make filming on Earth easier. Not to mention in the stock market. There's ... a staggering amount of capital involved." he finished, sounding a bit awed.
"Our father is a lawyer for TV Universe." Aki stepped forward. "It's why we had to leave Earth. He's telling the truth about that much."
"You didn't tell me about any alien." Ryuu said, casting an accusing look at Io.
"I wanted to finish reading the paperwork before I worried you." Io said, convincingly enough that Ryuu backed down. "And I didn't want to spoil our first day together in weeks..."
"So, if we agree to do as they say for this show, we can adopt this baby." Atsushi said, slowly, bringing the conversation back to the point.
"The mother wants to meet you." Wombat agreed.
"I don't want to just agree to something without knowing what it is. " En sighed. "But..."
Atsushi turned to Kinshirou, his sweet, soft eyes pleading, and then to En. "En-chan... Kin-chan..."
"We'll think about it." Kinshirou said, through gritted teeth.
Another arrow flew from his hand, this one faltering. I made a vow. I told him I would do whatever it took... sighing, he set down his bow and removed his glove. His ring seemed to shine brighter than usual in the moonlight. He tentatively reached out to feel for the others, and found Arima and Akoya both in an uneasy state of sleep. Sighing, he returned his equipment to its proper places, and returned to the bedroom.
Atsushi 's hair was messy against the pillow, and he let out a soft sound in his sleep as Kinshirou smoothed it down. He's everything I've ever wanted, and has given me things I didn't even know that I needed. My At-chan, my En. He pulled the blanket tighter over the lump that was En curled at Atsushi's back, and slipped into the bed beside Atsushi, pushing back his hair before gently kissing his forehead.
I swore I'd move Heaven and Earth to give you everything you desired.
“This is an unexpected pleasure.” deadpanned the pale man in the garden. It was a traditional place, Izumi noted, built for contemplation and not at all like the riot of color that Ibushi cultivated. His companion sat serenely, though he gave off a hint of aloofness in his very presence. He gestured with one elegant hand to a tea tray, which was laid out for two.
“And yet you’re a step ahead of me, as usual.” Izumi answered, taking the offered seat. "Typical."
"It is an easy enough matter to arrange for a second teacup. But this is out of your way, is it not?”
Izumi sighed. He’d gathered what little patience he was able to, knowing that he was this way. "You're not going to make this easy, are you, Kenichi."
"Temper." the other scolded.
"You could come to Tokyo once in a while, you know. Or even back to Binan. I know Aiko would like that. You know that her kid's married into my family now. We could..." he paused, not having fully thought out his sentence. He'd painted himself into a metaphorical corner. It was always hard to think straight when he was involved.
"I regret that I was unable to attend."
"Nothing was stopping you."
"Why are you here?" Sharp silver eyes raised to challenge him.
"A talking purple mink showed up at my office and tried to recruit me." he kept his voice flat.
"Ah." he set down his cup with a sharp clink.
"Maybe you're isolated enough to avoid them. But probably not. And I wanted to warn you." He should have just called, but this sort of sharp, short communication over the phone was especially infuriating. Besides, he'd always felt that he was more persuasive in person. And there was always a part of him that wanted to see Kenichi, if only to reassure himself that he was real, and not part of a bizarre fever dream.
"I doubt a warning will do much to stop the inevitable, but I thank you."
"Look, you should stop giving them an excuse to interfere with you before they do. You need to stop with this-" he reached out a hand to touch the white gold band on his finger and startled as his hand was slapped away. Kenichi gaped at him, an expression of shocked outrage in his eyes.
"You're going to hurt your son if you keep this up." he growled, once he'd gotten over the surprise of the sharp sting.
"You would know." replied Kenichi, a low hiss.
And suddenly, he was on his feet, ready to land a punch; anger, guilt, and self-loathing bubbling up inside of him. He'd crossed a line, the only one he knew that he never should.
If it were anyone else at all...
Izumi let out a shaky breath. "Yeah. I would. And that's why I'm trying to return the favor."
"I'm keeping him safe. Don't worry."
"I'm not worried."
"Please give Aiko and her husband my regards."
Izumi sighed. It was always like this. He was never able to make an impact. "I will." he relented.
"Earth has the most delightful food."
"What are-" Io paused in the doorway of his kitchen, unprepared for the sight of Ame licking cherry ice cream off a spoon, long legs draped across a kitchen chair. It's like gravure, Io thought, feeling himself turning red. "How did you get in here?" he demanded, instead. He and Ryuu had been downstairs for at least two hours and hadn't heard a thing.
"Your kitchen window is open." Ame pointed out.
"On Earth, we use doors." Io grumbled.
"Have you thought about my offer?" Ame asked, playfully, swinging his dangling legs.
"I have." Io frowned slightly. "I do agree that some form of representation seems like the best option at this time."
"Wonderful!" Ame exclaimed, shifting shape in a blur of purple as he leaped onto Io's shoulder. "Naruko-san, we are going to make so much money." he purred against his ear.
Ame's fur was warm and soft against his cheek. "Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that...about the humans in Andromeda, and the humans working for them, on Earth. Do they-"
"Io?" Ryuu poked his head through the doorway. "And...?" he eyed the mink wrapped around Io like a collar, small claws holding him in place.
Io couldn't quite decipher his expression. "Ryuu... this is Ame." Io said, uncertainly. "He's the agent I was telling you about before... I think the twins are right. We should take all the help we can get."
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Zaou-san." Ame jumped down to the table, and Ryuu touched the tiny paw with his index finger in an attempt at a handshake.
"I have a lot of questions." Ryuu began, looking between the two.
Io nodded. "Things are a lot different from last time, you know. We have actual responsibilities now. I don't want blindly agree to something without taking that into consideration."
"I would be happy to clear matters up for you both." Ame said, paws spinning the lock on his briefcase. "I will make sure to negotiate the proper amount of coverage with the station. The timing couldn't be better,and unlike last time, you're going to be properly represented and compensated. This is the chance of a lifetime!"
Kinshirou slept fitfully, and even En was out of bed by the time he opened his eyes. He could smell coffee brewing downstairs, and could hear the soft rise and fall of voices as breakfast was prepared. He slipped out of bed and into the bathroom, where he met his own tired eyes in the mirror in determination. Today was the day. There was no turning back. He tied his robe tightly around him, and stashed the three small boxes he’d been hiding in the pockets. Five minutes later, he joined his lovers at the kitchen table.
“Good morning, Kin-chan.” Atsushi set his tea pot down at his place, and leaned in for a kiss.
En yawned and leaned over to peck his cheek. “You never sleep in. Atsushi wanted to wake you up.” He added, accusingly.
“Only if breakfast was going to go cold.” Atsushi set the last plate on the table before sitting. It was a luxurious weekend spread, the sort they would linger over: eggs, rice, grilled salmon, fruit, bacon, and fat slices of toast with tea and coffee. They began to eat, as though it were just another day, and yesterday had been a dream. It was Kinshirou who broke the silence, as he nervously pushed the bacon around on his plate.
“I think that we should cooperate with them.”
Atsushi stopped chewing, and En placed down his coffee cup. “It’s walking into a minefield. Are you really okay with that?”
“I don’t know. I just know that it’s something that we have to do.”
“Kin-chan…” Atsushi looked down, biting his lip. “You don’t really have to. I mean, I know that I was… that I…”
“We were already talking about children.” he pointed out.
“Even so, now… as much as I want it. So many things are going wrong lately…” he added, anxiously. From the dark circles under his eyes, Kinshirou guessed that his sleep has been just as troubled. It was plain that he’d given the matter some thought overnight and had come up with several worrisome scenarios.
“Maybe it’s time for them to go right.” He turned to En. “You want this baby, don’t you?”
En hesitantly nodded. “I know that we’re going to regret something, at some point. But…” he eyed Atsushi. “I want to be a father.” he admitted. “My dad always said that the most important thing a man can do in life is to have a family, and take care of them. And the older I get, the more I think about that. And I want that.”
Something tightened in Kinshirou’s chest as he noted the slight blush forming on En’s face, matching Atsushi’s as he grinned back. He took a deep breath, ordering the words that he had been practicing in his head. “You have always said that your life belonged to him. That for anything he wanted, you’d accommodate your own life to suit his needs. And then you said that to me, as well. You never broke your promises. You’ve loved us and supported us. You had the greatest treasure in the world, and you shared it with your enemy. For love of him.”
“I love you both.” En said, his voice growing serious, and worried. “Don’t think that I gave anything up to be with you. I can’t even imagine not having you now. I wouldn’t ever want that.”
Kinshirou smiled. “And At-chan. You were my first friend, and my first love, and my whole world, for so many years. You have never given up on me, even when I was at my very worst. I’m grateful. I promised you children. And I swear on my life that we will have a family. “ Determined now, Kinshirou retrieved the small red boxes from his pockets. “I’ve had these for years, even though I knew I couldn’t give them to you. I don’t want to hide anymore.” He waited expectantly as the boxes were opened.
“Kin-chan…” Atsushi managed, eyes wide.
A strange, strangled whimpering sound came from the left of him as En rubbed at his eyes. “Yes. Please, yes… God, yes.”
Atsushi grinned at them, and then tried to repress a giggle.
“Shut up.” En sniffed. “It’s just… it’s just that I’ve always wanted…”
Atsushi broke fully into laughter then, and Kinshirou felt himself follow. En was both laughing and sobbing against him now, and Atsushi rose to pull his arms around them both.
“You’ll wear them?”
“Of course we will, Kin-chan! They’re… oh. Do they come apart?” Atsushi asked, worriedly, holding up his ring, which was made of three thin bands linked together, each a different hue of gold. Tiny diamonds dotted the bands at even spaces, somehow managing to look understated.
“No. They’re linked. Forever.” Kinshirou smiled, and rolled the ring onto Atsushi’s finger, before taking En’s hand and doing the same.
“I’ll always wear it.” Atsushi promised, touching the matching bands on their hands lightly. “I love you, Kin-chan. Thank you for… for giving me this. For giving us everything.”
“You must be the white gold.” En mused, touching his ring. “Atsushi is like the rose.”
“Which makes you pure gold through and through.” Atsushi replied in approval, leaning up to kiss the tip of En’s nose.
“Ibushi? Have you seen my La Mer serum?” Akoya called, poking through a shelf of products. He noted that he needed to weed out his collection soon. He didn’t allow the cleaners, or even Arima, near it, as he had it organized to his liking. It was getting cluttered, though. He needed to reorganize. He removed a seldom used bottle of toner, and froze in place as a familiar face greeted him, small nose twitching in interest.
“Zundar!” Akoya gasped, and then scowled. “Get out of my dressing room. This instant!”
“You will address me with respect, Pearlite. As you used to, da.”
“I will not! Arima-san!” he yelled, fists balled up on his hips. He could hear Arima’s footsteps rushing to him, and so he turned back to Zundar. He was good at reminding people of their place , and he put on that air now. “I expected you to be involved in this. Arima-san and I have already decided to help Kinshirou as much as possible, but on our terms. We will not be controlled or threatened. So remember that when you say whatever it is that your superiors want to relay.” He flicked back his hair in annoyance.
Arima entered, his hand closing firmly on Akoya’s shoulder when he spotted Zundar.
“You should be flattered by my presence, da. I am the superior on this project.” His needles bristled. “Don’t presume that either of you do not have a stake in this.”
“What sort of stake?” Arima frowned, attempting to step forward. Akoya blocked him, standing protectively between the two.
“You should ask your parents.” Zundar responded, a nasty edge in his voice. “Ask them about the White Ghost.”
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“Daddy?” Akoya lounged back in his garden chair and eyed his father, who was lingering over his tea and newspaper, reading glasses carelessly pushed back against his sandy hair. Akoya had considered every angle, and decided to blindside the weakest link.
“Yes, my pearl.” he hummed, half distracted.
Akoya took a deep breath. “I want to know about the White Ghost.”
Slowly, he set down his cup, and eyed Akoya worriedly. “Aiko!” he called, over his shoulder.
“No, don’t- !” Akoya grumbled. Well, on to plan B. Which he was currently frantically trying to formulate.
Akoya’s mother approached the table, setting down her basket and gardening gloves. “What’s wrong?” she asked, without preamble.
“He asked about the White Ghost.” His father spread out his hands, as though offering the issue wholly up to her.
Akoya met his mother’s evaluating stare. “And where did you hear that phrase, hmm?” she asked, sitting beside him.
“You heard it first.” Akoya countered.
“Akoya.” she warned.
“I heard it from an alien hedgehog. So, what do you know?” He watched his parents exchange glances. “I think you know something that I need to know. So.” He waited through an uncomfortable silence.
“We don’t want you to be hurt.” His father began, worriedly. “You shouldn’t talk to …”
“Green hedgehogs? I know.” Akoya sighed. “Let me guess. You were approached by some form of colorful animal producing a television show. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. But I need the details. Please.”
“Still, it’s dangerous to be involved in-“ his father tried.
“Daddy.” Akoya groaned. He plucked a cut rose from his mother’s basket, and held it up, forcing the tight buds under the main blossom to burst into bloom. “I am already involved. And this is important. So, please.”
His parents were staring at the flower in his fist, and he sighed, placing it down, gently.
“It began in our third year of high school.” His mother began, folding her arms.
“It’s time, darling.”
Akoya’s father seemed to deflate in his seat, and he nodded.
“It was second year for me. “ Akoya managed, suddenly feeling defensive. He never thought he’d have to confess anything to his parents, of all people. He never thought that the things he did were things that he ought to feel bad about when he was actually doing them.
“I wish they had left you out of this.” His father began, miserably. “But , for what it’s worth… I’m glad that you came out of it safely. And I want you to know that I’m proud of you. “
“What do you mean?” Akoya frowned.
“It’s just… that you’ve probably saved the Earth a few times over, haven’t you. And I didn’t know about it, so I wasn’t able to thank you. I didn’t think much of it when it was happening to me, but. “ he smiled broadly, and Akoya felt the unfamiliar stirring of shame unfurling in his gut. His mother was eyeing him in that way that meant that he’d seen straight though him, too. He wanted to disappear.
“Darling… I think that I need to talk with him.” Akoya watched his mother rise, and took the hand offered to him.
“Of course.” His father said, quietly, some realization seeming to hit him. “I’m sorry, Aiko.”
“Don’t be. Come on, Akoya.”
There was nothing for it but to follow her. They walked in silence through the rows of rose bushes, Akoya trying to read her expression, and failing. At the far end of the hedges, she finally spoke.
“You didn’t do the saving part, did you.”
“No.” There was no use in lying, and elaborating would just incriminate him farther.
“That’s all right. I want you to understand that, okay?”
Akoya faltered, but nodded, not knowing what else to do.
“There were five of them, and two of us.” she began. “I was selfish. They offered to fix me. They changed me from the inside out. It was just… I was so tired, and I was only seventeen. It made me angry that other people could just go about life without worrying about running out of energy, or being in pain, or asking for help. And I hated your father, back then, I really did. So I let them do it. And they fixed everything that was still wrong, things that years of surgery and therapy never fixed. They even got rid of the scars. And then I set about antagonizing your father and his friends. It was fun, at first. It really was.”
“But Kenichi was like a brother to me, and he accepted their offer so that he could keep an eye on me. I was furious at him for that, you know. The whole reason I wanted this was to be independent, and I didn’t want someone following me around, ready to baby me. But we were a good team. Luck and the Lady.” She sighed, half laughing. “We were good at causing trouble. “
“So what is the White Ghost?” Akoya pressed.
“That’s what they called Kenichi.” she said. “At least, Izumi did. “
“Wait-“ Akoya raised his hands up. “Izumi-“
“Yes, your Izumi.” She smiled. “He never said anything to you, did he. Typical.”
“He told Ibushi that you were at Todai together.”
“We were. Later. But he was your father’s friend, first, and he was roped into the whole thing as well. And I guess that’s when the whole situation started to get away from me. “
“How so?” Akoya asked, cradling a rose in his palm.
“Ratings. Kenichi stole the show.”
“This is the weirdest conversation we’ve ever had.” Akoya grumbled. “So Arima-san wore an outfit?”
“Yes. With a stupid looking helmet, too.” she smirked. “What happened … well. I’ve never believed that ‘love at first sight’ is a real thing, but I know plain old obsession when I see it. And one day, Izumi raised that silly visor of his, and was screaming obscenities at us as we looked down on him from the bell tower. And I remember thinking that something seemed wrong with Kenichi, with the look in his eyes, with how he was standing. And from then on, his ambitions grew. We weren’t just annoying them anymore. We were doing real damage. And he was finding ways to needle Izumi, make him angrier and angrier, so that he’d come after us. I think part of him was hoping that he’d do horrible things to him when he was finally caught.” She let out a sharp, short laugh. “The audience loved it, of course. Not that we knew that there was one at the time. “
“They never change, do they.” Akoya murmured. “So what happened?”
“Things went too far.” She replied, her eyes losing their twinkle of humor. “People died. And I think that Kenichi blamed all of it on himself, even if part of it was my fault, and part of it the aliens. He withdrew into himself after it ended. Your father, especially… tried to make sure that we all remained friends. But it was awkward for Kenichi, I imagine. He wound up getting married, having a son. And you’d never know that he was anything less than an upstanding citizen.”
“Mama…” Akoya put his hand on her arm. “It still bothers you, doesn’t it.”
“Of course it does! We used to be so close and now he barely gives me the time of day… it’s hard learning not to be selfish.” she concluded.
“I know.” To his horror, Akoya felt his eyes tearing up.
“That’s why I wanted to be the one to tell you. I don’t want you to blame yourself for things like that. I don’t know what happened, but I know you, and you don’t have one bad bone in your body, Akoya. And your father would still be proud of you, no matter what.” She pulled him into a tight hug. “He’s just … like that. You know that. He’s the sort that does the saving.”
Akoya nodded against her shoulder, containing a sniffle.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” she asked, as Akoya finally pulled away. “And why you wanted to know about Kenichi?” she tilted Akoya’s chin to meet his eyes.
Akoya nodded. “I think I want to tell Daddy, too.”