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What the Escape Led To

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Kurosaki Mahiro had just changed his life forever. He knew that, of course.

He’d left behind his place in the top rank of aristocrats once and for all. He’d refused the fiancee his family had chosen for him – because, quite frankly, they’d both be happier with other people. He’d instantly been disowned by his father as a result – and was now riding off to his happily ever after on the back of his love’s motorcycle.

Of course, he had no idea what form that happily ever after was going to take. All he knew was he had been accepted into Kouki’s clan – the Hanamizakura, the family most aristocrats looked down on as “fakes” because they had a single commoner ancestor. What would they think of him – a blueblood who’d been encouraged to look down on them his whole life?

He took a deep breath. One step at a time. Right now, he just had to trust Kouki, trust that this family would, indeed, be waiting for him with open arms, and trust himself. He was going to have to see what happened from now on, and deal with it.

Whatever it was, he thought, it couldn’t be as bad as being a gay man forced into a straight marriage and a life without any real enjoyment.

The motorcycle was pulling up to the huge, wrought-iron gates of an estate. Kouki honked his horn twice, and the gates parted.

“This is where you guys live?” Mahiro tried to conceal the surprise in his voice. Their estate seemed as elegant as the ones “true” aristocrats lived in.

“Of course,” Kouki said. “We may get considered fake aristocrats by a lot of people, but we really are the real deal. Big house, staff, the works.”

He roared the bike up a long path through a grove of maple trees – Mahiro could only imagine how beautiful they’d be in the fall – and stopped at a manor house that seemed to sprawl for miles in both directions, with smaller hallways leading backward off the main ones.

“Welcome to Hanamizakura Manor,” he said. “See that part of the house sticking out to the right over there? That’s my suite of rooms. That’s where we’re living.”

The door was opened by a man in a three-piece suit, bowing at the sight of Kouki. “I see you were successful in your mission, Kouki-san,” he said.

“You told the staff you were bringing me back?” Mahiro said, looking baffled.

“Told them I MIGHT bring you back, if you made the right choice. And you did, didn’t you?” He put am arm around his lover and hugged him. “Tohru-san, this is Kurosaki Mahiro. This is Tohru-san, our head butler.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the servant said, bowing again. “As your siblings will no doubt be as well, Kouki-san.”

“They’re here?” Kouki said.

“Ready and waiting,” the butler said. “Literally. You’ll see.”

“Great!” Kouki said. “Come in, Mahiro, make yourself at home.” He turned and said to the servant, “Oh, by the way – could you have a couple of the guys go over to the Kurosaki manor and bring over as much of Mahiro’s stuff as they can?”

“If they don’t chase us off with their dogs, sir,” Tohru-san said, dryly.

“They won’t be that bad,” Kouki said. “I think.” He led Mahiro into the front hall.

Mahiro turned his head this way and that. At first, it looked like any other aristocratic entranceway – serious dark paneling sporting portraits of long-ago ancestors. There was also the inevitable family crest, bearing images of a raven, a ship, a tiger and a shield, surrounded by English words.

“What does that say?” Mahiro said.

“This above all, to thine own self be true,” Kouki said, before translating it into Japanese. “It’s the family motto. We try to take it to heart as much as possible.”

“I can tell that,” Mahiro said. It was following that motto, in fact, that had gotten him into his current situation.

“You will find that everyone in this house is a lot more laid-back than anyone you might have . . .” Kouki said – and then stopped when he saw the doorway leading to the main house. “We’ve got company,” he said.

“Hmm?” Mahiro looked confused – and then saw the tops of two heads peeking around the side of the door as far as the noses, one pale blond, the other shocking red with equally red-framed glasses. “What the . . .”

“So this is him,” a voice came from the blond head. “You’re right, Kouki – he’s gorgeous!”

“You’re a lucky guy!” said the redhead. “I mean, really lucky! You said he was something else, but damn, Kouki, you underestimated it! I’m so glad that you brought him here! I mean, really! I was kind of worried that you wouldn’t, since you said he was going to his Final Commitment ceremony, and you were afraid that he was going to stay there, and . . .”

“Okay, guys, you can come out here,” Kouki said. “Show yourselves.”

The two stepped into the doorway. The blond had a sweet face, his hair went down to his shoulders and he was wearing a funky brand T-shirt and jeans. The redhead, who was taller than the blond, looked . . . well, Mahiro’s first impression was that he was animated. He seemed to be in constant motion, from the top of his head to his video game T-shirt to his high-tops.

“My brother Subaru,” Kouki said, “and his friend Hayato.”

“Hey, there,” Subaru said, waving. “We’re happy to have you!”

“You heard about me, too?” Mahiro said.

“Oh, all the time,” Hayato said. “He talked about you constantly, I swear. He was more in love than any of us have ever seen him, and I’ve been hanging around here since Subaru and I were kids! We figured that if you hadn’t gone with him today, we’d never see him again! Ever! He’d just disappear into his rooms and stay there!”

“That’s enough,” Kouki said, gently putting a hand over Hayato’s mouth. He looked at Mahiro and said, “He’s a bit talkative.”

“You’re still in the costume from the ceremony?” Subaru said as they made their way through the family’s Great Hall – a huge room for meeting with guests furnished with ornate couches and chairs, and with more family portraits. They made a sharp left into the entertainment den, which looked much more like a conventional living room – comfy sofa, overstuffed chairs, big-screen TV, video game consoles.

“Didn’t have time to change,” Mahiro said.

“And you really just walked right out?”

“I told the crowd I couldn’t go through with it,” Mahiro said. “That I . . . I had someone else in my life. And it turned out my fiancée had someone else, too. I told her to go to him.”

“Wow, awesome!” Subaru said. “You’re even cooler than I thought. Oh, as for the outfit? We’ll get you some of Ruiza’s clothes,” Subaru said. “He’s about the same size as you, I think. You can’t stay like that! Especially if you’re going to be one of us now!”

“Someone say my name?” Another door opened off the side of the den and another head poked out, this one attached to a young man about Mahiro’s height, but as blond as Subaru.

“And the family chibi arrives!” Kouki said.

“Hey, don’t call me chibi, Mr. Attack on Titan,” the newcomer said. “Hi, I’m Ruiza. Somewhere back there is my friend Sakito.”

Another man, much taller than Ruiza and with wavy brown hair, stuck his head out the door as well. “I wasn’t that far away!” he said. “I want to meet the famous Mahiro too, you know.”

Mahiro was starting to feel uncomfortable. “Just how many people know about us?” he whispered to Kouki. “And how MUCH do they know?”

“Just family and close friends, and I didn’t give them really juicy details,” Kouki whispered back.

“Welcome to the world of Aristocrats-in-Exile,” Ruiza said. “That’s pretty much what we are. Although our friends are demi-crats.”

Mahiro knew the term – demi-crats were people who had aristocratic blood in them and were usually well-moneyed and well-positioned within corporations. However, aristocrats soundly rejected them from the inner circle of their society – they weren’t pureblooded, after all, nor did they carry any ancient family titles. Indeed, most aristocrats regarded demi-crats as high-level employees in their companies, nothing more.

“I’m happy to meet you all,” he said. “And I’m sure you’re more interesting than the people I grew up around.”

“We try to be interesting, at least,” Subaru said. “Ruiza’s the most interesting one. He deejays in clubs. He was down in his deejay cave just now, in fact.”

“It’s not a deejay cave,” Ruiza said. “It’s a sound studio. It’s got my mixing equipment and speakers and sequencers and . . .”

“Yep, it’s a deejay cave,” Kouki said.

“It’s my personal sanctuary! I even have some of my clothes down there. In fact, let me go downstairs and get some clothes – you’re going to need them.”

“For what?” said Mahiro.

“We’re having a dinner party for you tonight, remember?” Kouki said, as Ruiza dashed off back down the stairs. “Tons of good stuff and a cake! That’s when you’ll be formally introduced to my parents – but don’t worry, they’re good guys!”

Ruiza came back up with a bundle of clothes, which he pushed toward Mahiro. “I think they’ll fit you,” he said. “Go get changed for dinner! My parents will be thrilled to meet you.”

“Just how much do THEY know about me?” Mahiro asked.

“They know that Kouki is crazy about you,” Ruiza said. “And they love it.”

“I’ll take you upstairs,” Kouki said. “You’ll want to see where you’ll be living, anyway.”

“If you don’t come down soon, we’ll know why!” Ruiza called after them, teasingly.

Mahiro blushed. “Is that why you use your friend’s apartment as a love hotel?” he said as Kouki led him up a flight of stairs. “Because your brothers make your love life their business?”

“It’s partly for privacy, yes,” Kouki said. “And it’s partly because some guys don’t like going back to my family’s manor with me – never mind that my apartments are separate from the rest of the house.”

He led Mahiro down a long hall, stopping at a set of double doors, which he unlocked. “Ta da!” he said. “We have a living room, a little kitchen, the bathroom and water closet, and, of course, the bedroom.” He walked over to the bathroom door and opened it. Mahiro blinked at the bright lighting that shone off the gleaming white surfaces of the countertop and bathtub, surrounded by sand-colored walls. A huge mirror set into the wall reflected the shower stations on the opposite wall.

“The tub is big enough to fit both of us,” Kouki said. “I knew having a tub for two would come in handy. And . . .” He led the way into the small hallway, where he opened the next door. “See? King-sized bed, walk-in closet. You can have half of it – I’m not using all the space anyway.”

Mahiro crossed the threshold. This is my home now, he thought. This is where I’ll be sleeping. He put his hand on the bed, covered with a midnight blue quilt. Everything certainly looked like it was made for a couple, but . . .

“Kouki,” he said, “have you ever lived with anyone else before?”

“Nope,” the taller man said, coming behind Mahiro and wrapping his arms around his waist. “You’re the first.”

“Why?” Mahiro said. “I mean . . . why nobody before me?”

“Nobody’s ever been as special as you before,” Kouki said. “I don’t like to toss around the word ‘soulmate,’ but . . . yeah, I’d say you’re pretty close to being one.” He kissed Mahiro’s neck. “And, damn, I’m feeling pretty tempted right now, having you close to the bed like this . . .”

I’m still wearing the clothes from my Final Commitment ceremony, Mahiro thought. He dropped the ones Ruiza had loaned him on the bed. A black silk shirt, matching black dress pants – very basic dinner party wear.

“We do need to get for dinner,” Kouki said. “Later tonight, though, we’re going to test that bed out every way we can. I stocked up on necessary supplies – just in case.”

What would you have done, Mahiro thought, if I hadn’t made this decision? Would you have been upset? Or would you have picked up the pieces and moved on?

He quickly grabbed the clothes and headed for the bathroom. “I’ll be right back,” he said. He didn’t want to tempt fate, either – since he’d feel very strange about having sex and then meeting his significant other’s parents.

* * *

Fortunately, the dreaded meeting went very well.

Kouki’s parents were very easy-going people. You’d never know, upon first meeting them, that they were aristocrats. His father wore just a regular button-down shirt and casual pants, his mother; knit pants and a pullover blouse. Mahiro, wearing Ruiza’s clothes, felt a bit overdressed in comparison.

“Welcome to our home, Mahiro,” Kouki’s father said. “I have heard so much about you. Kouki never stops talking about you for long, in fact.”

“We also heard about what you did today at the Final Commitment ceremony,” his mother said. “Subaru told us. That was very brave – and very noble.”

“Why noble?” Mahiro said.

“Because you thought enough of that young lady to not have her live a lie,” Kouki’s mother said. “It was considerate to both you and her.”

“My family didn’t see it like that,” Mahiro said.

“Your family is too much like typical aristocrats,” Kouki’s father said. “We don’t pay much mind to that. We raised our sons as people, not aristocrats. And we’ve had things said behind our backs as a result.”

“Which we’ve never cared about,” Kouki’s mother added. “It’s more important to us that we’re all happy, instead of having a place in society.” She laughed. “Honestly – what’s society other than a bunch of people all trying to impress each other? We’d rather impress ourselves.”

“I’m . . . still trying to get used to thinking like that,” Mahiro said.

“You will,” Kouki’s mother said. “You’re starting to live the life you were always meant to live.”

But when they all sat down to dinner together, all Mahiro could think of was how different this all seemed from the dinners he was used to. They were always such formal affairs – everyone settled at the table, was served each course by the staff, and conversation was kept polite – recaps of the day’s events, discussions of upcoming society functions. No jokes, no gossip.

Here, there was still staff – but they didn’t hover around anticipating each family member’s every move. (Or, more accurately, extended family, since Hayato and Sakito were invited to stay for the event.) They brought in big bowls of food, which were put on the table and passed around by the diners. And the mood was, well . . . considerably lighter.

The family told humorous stories about each other – like the father’s tendency to fall asleep and snore loudly while on a float in the pool, or Subaru’s mishaps while taking driving lessons. They gossiped openly about aristocrats and demi-crats alike. And more than once, someone congratulated Kouki on his excellent taste.

They genuinely feel comfortable like this, Mahiro thought. They don’t need to hide behind stylized society masks. They’re perfectly happy being themselves.

And he was beginning to wonder if he’d get used to it. He was just now figuring out that there was something else behind the mask that polite society had made him wear for years. Without the mask, though, he was feeling, well . . . exposed.

When the main course came, he accidentally grabbed the dessert fork to start eating – and looked sheepish. “Oh . . .” he said.

Kouki’s mother laughed. “Mahiro,” she said, “you’re not going to get judged for using the wrong fork around here.”

“That’s right!” the father said. “You can use the dinner fork, the dessert fork, chopsticks, a spoon, anything you want! Long as it’s not your bare hands.”

“What’s wrong with bare hands?” Subaru said.

“Well, you don’t want to get dinner all over the TV remote afterward, do you?” Kouki said, and everyone laughed.

Mahiro managed a small smile. He was feeling more exposed than ever. Why was he beginning to wonder if his bold move to have his own life was a mistake?

** *

After dinner, the family took their coffee and tea out to a patio area at the side of the garden, since it was a nice evening. No sooner had they settled in on benches and tables when Kouki’s phone rang. “Oh,” he said. “I need to take this, it’s Minase. I’ll be back!” He went off behind a clump of bushes.

Subaru settled onto the bench next to Mahiro. “He’ll want to tell Minase all about you,” he said. “He’ll be awhile.”

“Who’s Minase?” Mahiro said.

“One of Kouki’s best friends,” Subaru replied. “He moved away last year. Went to take over a family business in another city. Kouki misses him terribly.” He paused. “I’d hoped at one time they’d be a couple, but they’re just meant to be best friends.”

“Did they ever try dating?” Mahiro said.

“Not really. Kouki hasn’t had that many boyfriends. He’d date, and he’d have friends with benefits, but nobody serious. Until he met you. We all thought he was nuts when he came home and said he was going out with one of the Kurosaki clan. But then . . . he kept talking about you all the time. He said you weren’t like anyone else he’d ever met. You were an aristocrat – but not an aristocrat.”

Mahiro looked baffled. “What did he mean by that?”

“He said he could tell there was another person inside you. The real Mahiro – the one your family wouldn’t let you be. And he was going to help you find that person.” He looked over at Mahiro. “You HAVE found him. You wouldn’t have walked away from your Final Commitment ceremony if you hadn’t.”

Mahiro sighed. “I was wondering if I really had,” he said. “Your family is wonderful, and I’m so glad you’ve taken me in, but . . .”

“You wonder if you fit in?” Subaru said.

Mahiro nodded.

“Don’t think like that,” Subaru said. “Of course you do. We accept you as you are – because we know Kouki wouldn’t be so crazy about you if you weren’t special.”

“It’s just . . .” Mahiro looked off into the distance. “Being around you, I can tell you’ve been happy all your lives. And I, well, haven’t. But I never knew I wasn’t happy until I met Kouki. I guess I wonder if I’ll ever think and feel the way you guys do.”

“You will,” Subaru said. “The longer you stick with us, the easier it’ll be. Ruiza and I are really looking forward to getting to know you as family. We’re planning to take you out to lunch tomorrow, even. There’s a great conveyer belt sushi place a few miles from here.”

Mahiro looked baffled. “Conveyer belt . . . sushi?”

“You’ve never been to a conveyer belt sushi restaurant? Really?”

Mahiro shook his head. “I’d never done a lot of things before I met your brother.”

“I won’t press on that one,” Subaru said. “No, seriously, you have to go to one, it’s awesome! You sit at a table with this conveyer belt in the middle, and there’s all these plates of sushi going past, and you grab the ones that look appealing to you. And when you’re done, you take the plates to the counter up front and they count them up and charge you by how much you ate.” He paused. “They really do keep you from having fun when you’re a real aristocrat, don’t you?”

Mahiro nodded. “And you don’t realize it.”

Subaru was quiet for a moment. “This was meant to be in more ways than one,” he said, quietly. “I always knew you were the answer to my prayer.”

“What do you mean, the answer to your prayer?” Mahiro said.

“Every time we’d go to temple for a holiday, when I rang the bell I prayed that Kouki would meet his true love,” Subaru said. “Kouki is the sweetest brother anyone could ever hope to have. He has a truly loving heart. So . . . I knew he deserved someone. And I prayed, over and over, that he’d meet him. And here you are!” He paused. “I think Kami-sama waited until someone came into Kouki’s life who he could help as well as love.”

“Seriously? You prayed your brother would meet someone every time you went to temple?”

“Every time,” Subaru said. “And it worked! He really does love you, Mahiro. Before he went off today, he said that if he went to that hall where your ceremony was being held and you didn’t come out . . . if you went through with it and got committed to your fiancée . . . that it would break his heart in so many pieces that they’d never find them all.”

Mahiro was suddenly touched. “I didn’t think I meant THAT much to him,” he said.

“Oh, you do,” Subaru said. “My prayer definitely worked. He’s more in love than he’s ever been in his life.” He laughed a little. “In fact, now that I know it works? I’m going to start praying for Hayato now. He needs someone in his life.”

Kouki came back with the phone. “Minase is thrilled about you,” he told Mahiro. “He said he’s planning a visit just so he could meet you.”

“Kouki,” Subaru said, “did you know Mahiro has never had conveyer belt sushi?”

“Well, you guys will have to remedy that, won’t you?” Kouki said. “And we can go there again before we go to Ruiza’s club gig Saturday night!”

“I don’t have any club clothes,” Mahiro said.

“We went dancing before, remember,” Kouki said. “When we were first dating.”

“And I was the only guy in the club wearing a waistcoat!” Mahiro said.

Hayato wandered over. “You wore a waistcoat in a club?” he said. “Really?”

Mahiro shrugged. “I didn’t know what to wear,” he said. “People from families like mine don’t exactly go clubbing all the time.”

“Sounds like you need a wardrobe makeover,” Hayato said. “I’m a partner in a boutique, you know. We’ll take you down there tomorrow. There’s all kinds of stuff you could wear for clubbing. Of course, we specialize mostly in casual wear, but there’s fancier stuff, too! In fact, we like to think of it as fancy casual. The kind of thing you wear if you want to look sharp and feel comfortable at the same time! So yeah, we’ll definitely take you to look at stuff . . . um, you do still have access to money, don’t you? The whole disowned thing, I mean. Sorry, but I never knew anyone who that happened to be . . .”

“I’ll buy him clubbing clothes,” Kouki said, quickly. “I have money. He needs a new look for his new life, doesn’t he, Mahiro?”

But Mahiro had slid down on the bench, looking ashen-faced. Because it had suddenly hit him, full in the face – the complete impact of what he’d done. The real reason he’d been uncomfortable and feeling like a misfit puzzle piece all evening.

Hayato’s babbling had driven the point home. He was disowned. He’d cut himself off from the Kurosaki clan – entirely. There was no going back, at all. He couldn’t just return to his family’s manor, bow and say “Sorry,” and everything would be as it was.

Holy hell, he thought, I’ve thrown myself off into space without a safety net, haven’t I? If this doesn’t work out, what’s going to happen to me? Am I going to have to get a job? Become one of those people who leaves the house first thing in the morning, slaves all day, and then comes home?

He could hear Subaru saying, “Mahiro? Everything okay?” He didn’t know how to answer. Hell, he didn’t know whether he could answer at all.

Kouki put his hand on his lover’s shoulder. “I think I’m showing him the garden path,” he said. “He may need to walk around a little. We’ll be going upstairs after that.”

“Don’t forget about the conveyer belt sushi tomorrow!” Subaru said.

Mahiro managed a forced smile and a wave as Kouki led him out of the patio area and to a path, then turned the corner to another path. A number of lights that looked like Victorian lampposts illuminated a green expanse that seemed to stretch on forever. Twin pathways were carved through the grass, forming an equal-armed cross, and in the center was a fountain surrounded by benches.

“It’s lovely,” Mahiro said, surprising himself again that he was managing to speak. He felt more and more like he was falling down a rabbit hole, and he’d never be pulled out.

“Come, sit,” Kouki said, guiding Mahiro to one of the benches.

The smaller man plunked down, feeling like a dropped sack of potatoes. When Kouki put an arm around him, Mahiro took a deep breath and said, “I . . . I suddenly realized that I’m really alone in the world now, aren’t I? I’m cut off from everything. Everyone. I don’t belong to my clan, or to the aristocratic class, or . . .”

Kouki squeezed him tighter. “You’re not alone. Not at all. The opposite. You belong to us now.”

“Do I? I don’t feel like one of you. I look at them, and think about how they’ve always been like this, always grew up feeling free, and . . . I feel like an impostor. An aristocrat who just learned to shoot baskets and sing karaoke.” The feelings he’d held back all evening poured from him like a stream of water from an old earthen jar, shocking even him – but they needed to come out. They were choking him.

“You’re not am impostor,” Kouki said. “I told you – what you are now is what you were always meant to be. You were an impostor when you were pretending to enjoy their stuffy lifestyle. Now? You’re the most Mahiro that you’ve ever been.”

This reminded Mahiro of Subaru’s words just now. Someone that Kouki could help as well as love . . . that Kouki had always seen another Mahiro inside of him, and that was why he fell for him . . . that Subaru believed they’d been brought together by divine intervention, it was meant to be . . .

But what if it wasn’t?

“If it doesn’t work out . . . if I don’t become part of your family . . .”

“Why think like that? You’re already part of the family. You saw how happy they were to meet you. Thrilled, in fact. And the longer you stay with us, the happier they’ll be – guaranteed.”

“I’m thinking about the fact that I can’t go back,” Mahiro said. “No matter what. When I made the leap, it was without a safety net. Completely.”

“Would you want to go back?” Kouki said.

Mahiro paused. No, he wouldn’t. He knew what the last few weeks had felt like – as if he were an impostor in his own home. Every time he was with his arranged marriage fiancée, all he thought of was Kouki.

He looked down and shook his head.

“That’s what I thought,” Kouki said. “What you’re missing right now isn’t your family, per se – it’s the illusion of security. And I mean just that – illusion. Because, hey, you never know. One day, you could have a perfect life, the next? Something unexpected will happen and it all gets blown away. But, you know, even if the worst happens? You’ll make it. You’ll find a way to survive. You’re strong.”

“Easy for you to say,” Mahiro murmured.

“Just who was it that just walked out on an arranged marriage in front of all of polite society? You think that doesn’t take strength?” He took both of Mahiro’s hands in his. “I’m going to promise you this, right now. If you fall . . . I will catch you. I will always be there for you, in every way you need me. I love you, and I want you to be happy.” He bent over and tenderly kissed Mahiro’s lips.

“Kouki. . .” Mahiro clung to his lover, resting his head on his shoulder.

“I’ll be your home now,” Kouki said. “You can count on me entirely. And you’re not alone in the world. You will never be alone as long as I am around.”

Mahiro hugged Kouki tighter. “I feel kind of foolish right now,” he said.

“For freaking out?” Kouki said. “That’s called a normal human reaction when your whole life changes. I would have been shocked if you HADN’T freaked out.” He stood up and held out a hand to Mahiro.

“Ready to go back in?” he said.

Mahiro nodded, taking Kouki’s hand and standing up. Okay, so maybe I don’t feel like I belong here yet, he thought. Maybe the brothers seem a bit . . . removed from everything I’ve known. But it’s still better than facing the prospect of an unwanted marriage and a life of, well, emptiness.

Right now, he knew he was taking a gamble. But if he hadn’t taken it? He would have ended up a guaranteed loser. And now? He could have a payoff of happiness. Maybe Subaru was on to something. Maybe divine intervention was involved after all.

* * *

After telling the staff to inform his parents they’d decided to “retire for the evening,” in Kouki’s words, the couple headed up to Kouki’s suite. No, OUR suite, Mahiro thought. I’m living here now, too.

They arrived to find two of the butlers carrying in rather large boxes. “We got these from the Kurosaki estate, sir,” one of the men told Mahiro. “I must say, they were most glad to give them to us.”

Mahiro sighed. “Eager to have me gone, it seems,” he said.

“Well, we’re just as eager to have you!” Kouki said. “Just put them in the corner of the living room for now, Satomi-san. We’ll deal with them tomorrow.”

When the men bowed and left, Kouki said, “Why don’t you look through them and see if there’s anything you need right away, and then come into the bedroom?” He kissed Mahiro’s neck.

Mahiro bent over and started looking through the boxes. There was a plastic case that held the things that had been in his bathroom – toothbrush, razor, other toiletries. There were neatly folded stacks of his clothes, a few mementos, some books . . .

And then, he saw a piece of paper sticking out of one book. Pulling it out, he saw the letter that had been stuck in his mailbox back home, warning him that his fiancée was fooling around with Kouki, or one of his brothers. An intended gag that had led to so much more.

How ironic it seems now, he thought, that I charged down to that izakaya in a rage, looking to confront Kouki. I was looking to save a relationship that was a lie to begin with.

He would show the fateful letter to Kouki later. Right now, he just took the case of toiletries and one of his yukata and went toward the bathroom. A few minutes later, he headed for the bedroom, wearing the yukata and nothing else, the loaned clothes carried in his arms. At the doorway, he paused, his eyes taking in the sight before him.

There were candles lit on every surface – dresser, nighttable, even a few on the floor. Kouki was lying on the bed, covers up to his waist, not wearing a stitch.

Mahiro swallowed hard. He dropped the clothes on a chair – after making sure there was no candle there, of course.

“You look real nice in that yukata,” Kouki said. “Of course, you’d look nicer without it.”

Mahiro approached the bed, tentatively. “This room . . . it’s far enough from the rest of the family that nobody can hear anything, right?”

“You can make all the noise you want,” Kouki said. “And I intend to get you to make a lot of it.”

Mahiro reached for the tie of the yukata, and the garment hit the floor. He slid into the bed next to Kouki, thinking that this felt different, in a way, than all of the other times they’d made love.

I feel like a bride giving herself to her husband for the first time, he thought. Well, in regards to the commitment I just made to him? This kind of IS a wedding night.

Kouki pulled Mahiro toward him and kissed his lips with a fierce urgency, the two of them pushing their tongues toward one another right away. A small moan resounded deep in Mahiro’s throat.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this all night,” Kouki murmured, tangling his fingers in Mahiro’s hair to pull him closer. “When I saw you walk through that door just now, I think my heart skipped about ten beats.”

He was being corny-romantic, of course, but Mahiro didn’t mind in the slightest. The sound of his lover’s voice was the most wonderful sound in the world right now. Kouki could be reciting the alphabet and he wouldn’t care.

The two rolled over so the smaller man was on top, and Mahiro leaned downward, his tongue leaving a wet trail over Kouki’s collarbone and chest, heading right for a nipple. He licked back and forth over the bud, feeling it harden as the blond shuddered beneath him.

God, he wanted this more than anything in his life. Being with the one he loved, giving and taking pleasure . . . everything he’d done today was worth this moment.

He moved to the other nipple, sucking it firmly as his hand moved over Kouki’s torso, feeling the smooth skin of his belly, feeling his lover arch upward a little, encouraging him to find his target. When he did, Mahiro ran his fingers slowly over the hardening shaft, and the moan that reached his ears made a hot thrill run through his body.

“Suck it,” Kouki murmured. “Suck it and let me play with that sweet ass.”

Mahiro knew exactly what he wanted. He straddled his lover’s chest, leaning way over, his tongue sliding back and forth over the head of the wonderful cock in front him. He felt hands on his bottom, squeezing it gently, starting to massage it.

He opened his mouth and wrapped it around the tip, starting to slide down. And to think he’d never given a blow job until he met this man. It now felt like the most natural thing in the world, and the hottest. The feeling of hardness against his soft lips, of the thing gliding over his tongue as he moved his head back and forth . . .

Kouki’s fingers were moving into the cleft now, teasing his entrance a little, and Mahiro shuddered, wanting more, wanting to be penetrated . . . He started to suck harder and faster in response, his fingers caressing the base of the cock as his mouth worked on the tip, pulling back for a moment so he could run his tongue back and forth over the slit.

He got what he wanted as a reward. A lubed finger slid into him, and Mahiro moaned as he took the cock back into his lips. Kouki started a steady thrust, and Mahiro matched his rhythm, his head moving downward as the digit pushed into him, upward as it pulled out.

A second finger entered him, then a third, and with every bit of penetration Mahiro moved faster – but he was careful not to take Kouki too far. He knew just how he wanted this act to end – and he could sense that his lover wanted the same thing.

When the fingers pulled out, Kouki poured more lube into the cleft. Mahiro lifted his head, turned around and held out his hand for the lube. Kouki gave it to him, and Mahiro quickly poured it over the head, lovingly coating it with his fingers. He just couldn’t get enough of stroking every inch of the thing. It was like an addiction.

He turned his body so he was straddling Kouki’s hips, sitting on top of him, and began to position himself so that it would slide in. “Look at you,” Kouki murmured. “You’re just so beautiful, Mahiro. I feel like I’ve waited my whole life for you.”

And with that, Mahiro started to slide down, very slowly, gritting his teeth at the pain he knew by now would come. He didn’t care anymore. He knew what it would eventually lead to – and he craved it. He paused once it was as far as he could take it, breathing heavily, letting his body adjust.

“God, you feel good,” Kouki murmured. “You’re so damn hot inside . . . so deliciously tight . . .”

Mahiro started to move, slowly, and the pain was fading, the pleasure starting to emerge, oh, yes, nothing felt like this, the sensation of his love deep within him, moving and stroking pleasure centers . . .

He started to thrust faster, harder, looking down at the man underneath him, at the expression of pure bliss on his face. Mahiro’s hands slid over his torso, feeling the heat, the sweat, and paused at the nipples, caressing the buds rapidly, lightly squeezing them.

The hand on Kouki’s left side shifted so it was over his heart, and Mahiro felt the rapid beat under his fingertips, speeding up even more as his hips moved harder, faster, driving that wonderful cock into him further.

He felt Kouki’s hand on his chest in return, and they were literally holding each other’s hearts in their hands, feeling the rapid thumping as their hips both churned, Kouki rising to meet Mahiro’s thrusts. They moaned loudly, Mahiro looking down at Kouki, their eyes locking in a moment of pure intimacy, almost as if they were becoming one on every single level.

Kouki’s hand slid down Mahiro’s body, reaching his cock and wrapping around it, stroking it quickly, and Mahiro let out a loud moan, throwing his head back, feeling his body tremble with pleasure . . . he was getting close, so damn close, he shifted his hips a little, wanting direct contact with his sweetest spot . . .

He hit it just as Kouki’s thumb brushed over the tip. Mahiro let out a near-scream, the pleasure exploding through him like a string of firecrackers, the ecstasy washing over his body in wave upon wave. His come poured over his lover’s hand, and Kouki didn’t let go of him until the final drop.

Mahiro sagged forward, hands on Kouki’s chest, but he didn’t stop moving. He pumped his hips hard, trying to bring his lover the same sort of shattering climax. Sure enough, Kouki let out a loud cry, hips arching upward, trembling as he poured himself out, then finally sagging to the bed with a long, satisfied sigh.

The smaller man finally collapsed atop his lover, and they kissed tenderly, clinging to one another for a long moment that neither wanted to end. The room was filled with nothing but the sound of their ragged breathing, eventually slowing and returning to normal.

Reality returned bit by bit. Finally, Mahiro climbed off Kouki and reached for the wipes he’d seen on the nightstand, cleaning them both up quickly, then climbing back into bed next to his lover. Mahiro snuggled against him, his arms wrapping tightly around Kouki. He felt blissfully relaxed, content, happy.

“I love you,” he murmured. “I love you more than I ever thought I’d love anyone.”

“I love you, too,” Kouki said. “I’m going to make you happy, Mahiro. I promise. We’re going to have the best life together any two people ever had.”

Mahiro breathed deeply, closing his eyes. I believe him, he thought. We really are going to be happy. I may have walked out on the family that raised me, but Kouki and I are a family now.

And suddenly, his heart felt light at the thought of waking up tomorrow morning next to the one he truly loved, instead of waking up to the sight of a picture of his arranged-marriage fiancée on the nightstand. He was going to be living out his own truth, not a lie other people orchestrated for him.

He fell asleep with all his doubts and second thoughts fading into the distance.

* * *

Over the next few days, Mahiro settled into his new life. He learned the names of the servants and where everything was located in the manor complex. He visited Hayato’s business to get new clubbing clothes and went out for conveyer belt sushi with Subaru and Ruiza – another brand-new experience.

And with every passing moment, his old life faded away, and he felt more and more like he belonged here.

In fact, the morning of Ruiza’s DJ session, something drove home just how committed he was to his new life That morning, he got a call from his old friend, Hiyori – another son of an aristocratic house who was facing an arranged marriage.

“Mahiro,” the voice on the other end of the phone said, “how have you been doing? I’m so worried. Your family doesn’t want to speak about you anymore, and Tokiko has vanished – there’s been rumors she’s been running around with some bartender since you broke the engagement.”

“I’m fine,” Mahiro said. “Really, Hiyori, I’m happier than I’ve been in my entire life. Walking out on my family and everything they wanted for me was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“But . . . but you won’t be a member of an aristocratic clan anymore! What are you even doing in your new life? I mean . . . do you have to WORK?”

“No, I don’t,” Mahiro said. “At least, not unless I find something I want to do. Basically, what I have to do now is be happy. If you could just see how I’m living now, Hiyori . . .”

And then, an idea hit him. When he’d been immersed in the life his family wanted for him, he’d seen Hiyori as just another aristocrat in the same life circumstances as him. But now, well . . . when he thought about those days, Hiyori always seemed kind of fidgety at those stuffy events, didn’t he? Kind of bored? Almost as if he was going through the motions like Mahiro had done for so long?

And then, he found himself saying, “Why don’t you come meet my new family? Kouki’s brother is doing a deejay set this weekend at Club Night Ship. You can hang out with us and see how I’m living now.”

“A deejay set?” Hiyori sounded mildly horrified – as if he’d been invited to a drunken orgy.

“Yes!” Mahiro said. “Come on – just one evening, okay? Just so you can meet them. I’ll text you where it is and what time to be there.”

There was a pause. “All right,” Hiyori said. “Just to make sure you’re doing okay!”

“I am,” Mahiro said. “I promise.”

He was humming to himself when he hung up. Maybe, he thought, I can help Hiyori see that there’s a better life out there than the one his parents have pre-programmed into him. Maybe I can inspire him to find his own life.

If he could spread around a bit of the happiness he’d found, it could be the best thing he’d ever done.