Chapter 1: Tatsumi Family
“Hey, Old Man. How long are you going to stick around this time?” Tatsumi asked his father.
The whole family was gathered for dinner on Sunday evening at Kurokawa and Tomoe's condo. Kanako and Shinosuke were trading heated glances, Kurokawa was fussing over Tomoe, and Soujin was laughing as little Kazuo smeared food over every surface within reach.
“What? Oh...” Soujin tore his attention away from his grandson for a moment. “Didn't I tell you? I've taken a position as a guest professor at T University. A special lecture series for graduate students. I have some papers to finish writing and publish as well. I suppose that means I'll be in town until at least the summer, but more likely the entire year. Winter might kill me though – I haven't experienced a real winter in years. But I can't just leave my adorable Ka-chan, now can I?” He handed Kazuo a small rice ball Morinaga had shaped just for the child. It went everywhere but in Kazuo's mouth.
“Oi, try to get the food in him, not on him.” Tatsumi took the remains of the rice ball and managed to get some inside the two-year-old. Even Tatsumi was charmed by his new nephew, though he tried hard to hide it. Not so amazing if you knew Tatsumi intimately, Kazuo responded well to his Uncle Souichi, behaving better with him than with anyone, including his parents. Not because he was scared but because Kazuo recognized benevolent authority.
Little kids wanted to play with other adults or take advantage of their love or test their limits - they fell asleep peacefully on Tatsumi. Not tolerating nonsense, but accepting of much, Tatsumi was a solid presence they trusted immediately. And he had endless amounts of patience with them that he didn't show for adults. Morinaga thought his heart would burst, watching those two interact.
Luckily for Morinaga's heart, they hadn't spent much time with the newly-returned couple and their adopted son. Soujin was staying in the condo's extra room and Kurokawa was not currently working so they didn't need a babysitter often. Kurokawa's mother also jostled for time with the child. Plus, Kanako had moved up from Nagoya ahead of schedule, her school closed early like all the rest.
Tomoe was supporting his small family. He'd gotten several offers before returning from the US, and taken the one that most appealed to him – helping research and design robots for Tokyo Robotics, Inc. It paid extremely well, allowing Kurokawa to stay at home with their son, though he did accept the odd translation job or acted as an occasional interpreter.
Before meeting Tomoe, Kurokawa had been the typical office worker, but in California, he'd shown a talent for American English and had established a foothold within the Consulate-General of Japan in San Francisco. He was an earnest and sweet man - people there had liked him and put in a good word for him. He could choose to work for Japan's government as an official translator full time, once Kazuo got a little older.
Morinaga sighed, just a little. Senpai is right, that we don't have the time to devote to a little one of our own. Maybe, once Ayano and I pay back Kirishima, I can cut back on the hours I spend there. Until then, he'd just have to make do with these precious moments watching Tatsumi with Kazuo.
“Oh, boo, Dad! Why not M Uni? Then you would be working with Nii-san and I could annoy you between classes.” Kanako, along with both her brothers, spoke to their father like he was a silly old uncle instead of the head of their family. He is kind of silly, Morinaga conceded, hiding a smile. But he's such a warm and caring father...when he's around. It must have been hard for him; to have a career he loved that required a lot of travel, to have lost his wife too young, to have three children he adored but had no idea how to raise.
Soujin had escaped to the jungles of America and Africa and Australia and anywhere else on the globe that new species of insects were still waiting to be discovered. His children were left to the care of their oldest brother and their mother's dearest friends, the Matsuda couple. Morinaga couldn't blame Soujin but did wonder if Senpai would have turned out differently without having to shoulder so much responsibility in his teens.
“M University didn't offer. T University did. Simple as that. You can still drop in and visit me whenever you choose. Though,” Soujin gave Kanako and Shinosuke a significant glance, “it seems you're going to be rather busy and not have a lot of time to spare for your dear old Dad. How was your gathering last night? You were glued to your computer all day, Tetsu-kun tells me.”
Tetsu-kun. Morinaga still wasn't used to the shortened version of his name Soujin used for him now. Not even his parents or brother had called him that. But to their father, Souichi became Sou-kun, Kanako was Kana-chan, Tomoe was Tomo-chan. Kurokawa Mitsugu had gotten used to being called Mitch in San Francisco and was insisting they all call him that. Tomoe had gone by Tom but reverted instantly on arrival back in Japan. Even Shinosuke was already Todo-kun.
“Oh, last night was great, Dad. I met a bunch of new people my age and we formed a club. You all are now honorary members and I expect you to participate.”
“What's this? I haven't agreed to any such thing, Kanako.” Tatsumi looked away from Kazuo, who wanted a chunk of chicken and slammed his chubby fist on the high chair's tray when he couldn't reach it. “Oi, sorry, Kazuo.” Tatsumi fed his nephew then turned back to his sister. “I'm not doing any free tutoring or whatever you had in mind.”
“Isn't Kasanoda going to stop working as your class assistant? You need a new one, don't you? We'll help you find the perfect helper. And we're going to find just the right person to work with me at DELIcious, and if you guys ever need anything, you ask me and I'll pass the request along. In return, I might need one of you to give advice or introduce me to someone – stuff like that. Don't worry, Nii-san, I won't push you too far out of your comfort zone.”
Morinaga had to laugh as Tatsumi sputtered helplessly. Kanako definitely controlled the men in her family like an adorable steamroller – smashing them flat with a combination of audacity and charm. They couldn't stand against her, couldn't even win an argument with her. She was chock full of enthusiasm and practicality and self-confidence.
“I don't think we need another part-timer, besides you and Gotouda. Business has calmed down since we opened and we've gotten a handle on how to run it.”
“I can't wait to meet him. Is he really a yakuza heir? Ren doesn't like him for some reason. Anyway, I doubt he'll work for you permanently if Asami-sama's going to train him as a businessman.”
Morinaga hadn't thought that far ahead, but she was right. It was unlikely Gotouda would be content to work in a souzaiya if his goal was to pursue a future in the world of high-finance or running a yakuza group.
He needs a lot of training though. Morinaga liked Gotouda and his boyfriend Ueda but had to admit the guy was accustomed to using his cute face and sex appeal, not his brains. He was far from stupid and had settled quickly into his new job, but was lacking in education. I wonder what Asami plans to do with him?
“Up you go!” Soujin pulled Kazuo out of his high chair and handed him off to Kurokawa. “Bath time, and then Grandpa will tell you a story!”
“Ooh! Is it already 8 o'clock? Todo, do you mind taking me home? We're having a club meeting online at 9 and I have to finish getting the discord ready.”
“Is that how you're handling it?” Morinaga asked. “No weekly get-togethers in person?”
“We might do those too when we can. But I think it's easiest for us to have a permanent chat forum, so anyone can sign on when they have time, from anywhere – even their phones. Here.” She handed out slips of paper with a string of numbers and letters written on them. “This is the access code. Don't give it to anyone else. I'm probably going to change it once we get everyone in the first round of invites, but we don't want random people to find out about us. Set it up for Dad, please Tomoe?”
“'Iced Tea and Snacks'? What does that mean?”
“Oh, err...It was a joke. Mafuyu was telling us about how a lot of bands choose their names by whatever they happen to be looking at. Their friend's band is called the Roast Pork Boys, for example. So, we were having snacks and mostly drinking iced tea...”
Morinaga couldn't help snickering. Kanako smiled at him, not phased in the least. “It's a perfect cover for our true purpose! No one will suspect us of being a secret cabal set on controlling the universe.”
“Sounds like solid reasoning,” Morinaga teased her. “After all, most clubs I knew back in school might as well have called themselves 'Get Drunk and Screw' instead of claiming to be the Tennis Club or Historical Society and such.”
“Hey!” Shinosuke protested. “In the Kendo Club, we actually practiced martial arts.”
“But you're abnormal. You're the most upright, virtuous, decent young man I've ever met.”
Shinosuke looked unsure if that was a compliment or an insult.
“Don't worry. I'm corrupting him, slowly but surely.”
“Let's go, Todo!” She grabbed her grinning boyfriend by the hand and they scampered off.
“That girl!” Tatsumi shook his head. “You should discipline her, Old Man.”
“Why? She's doing great things without any interference from me. Got herself into a fine school, hooked herself a worthy man, has a collection of friends and a life goal. I'll leave the lecturing to you, son. You blow hot air at her and see how much good it does.”
Tatsumi opened his mouth to rant, then closed it and smiled – just a little smile. “She is impressive, isn't she? Just like Mom.”
“Yes...just like your mother. She would be proud of you all, as I am.” Soujin also smiled, but with a hint of sadness. “Now! Isn't my grandson out of the tub yet?” He went off to assist (interfere) in the cleaning process. Splashing and sloshing and Kazuo's happy shrieks could be heard from the bathroom.
“Do you think Dad might ever love someone again, Nii-san?” Tomoe asked. “He's only fifty-three.”
“I don't know, Tomoe. He's never stayed in one place long enough since Mom died. Maybe he has women all over the world. Maybe we have siblings on every continent by now.”
Tomoe gaped at his brother. “Be serious! Dad would never...!”
“Why not? He's a very handsome man, you know,” Morinaga put in. “I'm looking forward to seeing Senpai age so gracefully.”
“You shut up, moron! I was teasing, Tomoe. You know how Dad is – he sees nothing but his precious bugs. Maybe if a woman covered herself in spiders, he'd stop to look. I don't think he wants another relationship. It would be hard...they really loved each other. I remember.” Tatsumi looked at Morinaga. “You can't replace someone like that.”
Oh, Senpai! Morinaga loved his tightly-wound, deeply passionate, and loyal boyfriend so much it hurt.
“It's not about replacing Mom. Dad has a lot of love to give and he deserves to be loved in return. Maybe he would stay in Japan permanently if he had reason to. I'm going to talk to Kanako about it. Dad needs someone who will boss him around, make him smile, and let him blather on about his insects...” Tomoe snatched his little slip of paper and booted up his laptop.
“Oi! If you're going to play match-maker, leave me out of it.”
Tomoe and Morinaga shared a look. No one in their right mind would ask Tatsumi Souichi to play match-maker.
Chapter 2: Hakue
Monday morning at Hakue, the office was quiet. Both Usami Haruhiko and Asami Ryuichi were there, meaning everyone present was behaving just a tad less casually than the norm. Shima found it amusing and interesting, how they responded to the auras of those two very different but equally powerful men.
Usami brought out the straighter postures and quieted the chatter. Asami started whispers and slightly nervous glances towards the direction of his office. Not that they could see either of the two men – they were way down the corridor. But their presence was felt.
Shima didn't have a separate office. He did have a nicer, larger desk in the back corner of the main room, with a partition to lend some privacy. The idea was he should always be available to (and aware of) the main room of employees he was overseeing.
He hadn't been in the office this early very often. He still had another two weeks of school, technically. But his final papers had been turned in and the last exams had taken place last week. People graduating knew by now that they had passed – the school was not going to wait until the last day or two to figure that out. It was only a matter of waiting for the ceremony to make it official. If they held one at all, things being what they were during this virus outbreak.
Hakue was feeling the effects, somewhat. People were socializing less in the office and after work. There were a lot of faces behind disposable masks, bottles of hand sanitizer, and those who found it possible to do so were working from home. The initial rush of business had also slowed down simply because at first there had been a lot of inquiries and interest that had not been serious.
Both of the partners had to be concerned. Not only might major projects be put on hold or the financing for them fall through, but their personal fortunes were being affected by stock market fluctuations. Not that either Usami or Asami were going to go bankrupt any time soon, but it was another thing to distract them.
Enough morbid thoughts. Shima sent out an inter-office memo to a select few people, requesting a meeting at 11:00 am. He also sent a text inviting Naru to stop in for it, knowing he would want to be included. They all quickly responded in the affirmative and Shima settled in to spend the next two hours working diligently.
Just before 11, Shima asked Ichimaru to set up the small meeting room with some coffee and tea. When he spotted Naru's arrival he signaled Isogai and they went in. Asahi and Masato arrived next. Usami, Asami, and Kirishima soon joined the rest. That was all, and Ren would owe him a favor. Not that Shima minded doing this small thing, but no point in wasting a potential favor. Or looking good in Reiko's eyes...
“Shima, what is it? Some problem?” Usami asked.
“Not at all. I'm sorry if I gave the wrong impression. This is a personal request, though I suppose it also qualifies as business, in a way.”
“You are being mysterious. I like it!” Naru smiled.
Shima cleared his throat. “I believe you all know my youngest brother, Ren. This weekend he held a gathering of his friends and acquaintances – many of whom you also know or have seen – and they formed a club. They've dedicated this club to organized networking with the aim of helping each other realize their goals as efficiently as possible and to support each other. The majority of them are between eighteen and twenty, some just graduated from high school, all attending university.”
“Sounds admirable. Ren's idea, you said?” Asami sat back in his chair, thoughtful.
“They've enlisted you as spokesman?” Isogai asked. “Are you collecting donations?”
“No, they don't need money. They want to...exploit...those connections they already have, but not for money. What they are looking for are mentors, job opportunities, advice when it's needed. Ren says that we adults with careers and experience (I'm lumped in with you, despite being fresh out of school myself) already know how to make this system work. They want to emulate us, as well as enlist your help when needed.”
“Fascinating,” Kirishima said. “Very smart and forward-thinking of Ren. But what do we get out of it?”
Here Shima had to get a little creative. Ren's plan was vague and still forming. Kanako had thrown up a basic discord server and the group had held their first online meet-up just the night before. Shima had been invited in, as well as Aki and Misaki who were other “hubs” for spreading the word. The meeting had started off awkward, then gotten impressively professional for about 20 minutes, before devolving into jokes and random chatter.
“You get a pool of up-and-coming young people who are ambitious, dedicated, talented, and willing to learn. You can shape them, earn their loyalty, gain access to a different set of opinions and tastes. Or maybe you just share cat videos. Of course, they benefit much more than you do but they would be grateful for any amount of effort you're willing to share with them.”
“I'm impressed! At eighteen, all I did was run around chasing girls and partying,” Ichimaru laughed. “Then I got stuck in a dead-end job. I'd still be there if not for...meeting Morinaga. Oh, I see it now.”
“Yes. Morinaga's recent job hunt is what gave Ren the idea, along with White Fang needing new staff with Aki and me quitting this month. Ren saw that Morinaga received multiple offers and opportunities, because of his circle of friends and acquaintances. Plus, because of Naru in a roundabout way, Ren met Hiroto, Isogai, and Ichimaru who helped him with a more personal matter.”
“So, Ren and company want to add themselves to our circle.” Usami gave a rare smile. “Naru, you're a bad influence, once again. You've just landed me with a horde of protégés. How many more walls am I going to have painted?”
“Oh, I'm sure Asami can take charge of some of them,” Naru waved a graceful hand, carelessly committing other people to join or look bad in front of the others. “And I'm guessing Isaka at Marukawa will be pressed into service, as well as certain professors and writers? Perhaps even Usaka and Arisu? You have to admit, it's genius of Ren. Why not take advantage of us for everything they can?”
“It goes both ways. Fujioka Haruhi is engaged to Suoh Tamaki and friends with the Ouran crowd. Also, Reiko, who we all know is...extra-talented.”
“'Reiko,' is it?” Isogai asked with a hint of amusement in his voice. He exchanged glances with Ichimaru, which made Shima nervous for some reason.
“Err, yes. Kanazuki Reiko. She was at Usami-sensei's party.”
“And she's dating Haninozuka Mitsukuni,” Kirishima added.
“No, they broke up the night of the birthday party.” Everyone gave Shima a look. Did I say that too quickly?
“Her relationship status isn't important. She does have a unique ability that might come in handy someday.” Asami rescued Shima from having to explain himself.
Naru glanced around. “I knew we should have gone to that birthday party, Haruhiko. We missed something. I could sense it the next day at your brother's gathering. Who's going to fill us in?”
“We will, Naru,” Isogai said. “Maybe we can invite Kousuke and Masahiro to dinner – they were involved long before we knew anything.”
Asahi and Masato looked completely confused, having missed everything. Ichimaru laughed again. “Maybe we can get Yuki-sensei to write it up like a short story, so we don't have to track down those involved every time we want someone to know.”
“Yuki-sensei knows as well? I can't wait to hear it!” Naru loved a good story, after all.
Kirishima cleared his throat. “How is this to work? We can't have them calling us up at all hours for advice.”
“They've set up a discord server. It's still taking shape, but once Kanako finishes it, you can log in and chat online. Discord also allows for private chat, leaving messages, voice chat, even video chat. You can either speak with them there or arrange for a more personal conversation - whatever works best. It is accessed by invitation-only, so there won't be anyone but those approved.”
“They are going to post their personal information. There will be pages for jobs wanted, positions available, homework help, relationship advice, and god-only-knows what else. I have invitation codes for all of you. They are trying to meet formally once a week on Sunday evenings. Other times they will just be online or not, as fits their schedules. I think most of them will be on tonight since they're pretty gung-ho.”
“I've never heard of Discord. It's secure?” Asami looked to Kirishima, who shrugged.
“It's safe enough, for an online forum. As long as the invitation codes don't get passed around to random people. Party-crashers are easily spotted and booted out. I would never discuss anything sensitive online - there are always hackers – but for this purpose, it should be ideal. Takaba uses it for gaming. Ayano uses it for both shopping tips and manga fan clubs. I've been thinking of setting one up for your men to chat with each other outside of work.”
“Well, I'm willing, though I think it would be best if they were to specifically request me, rather than me 'hanging out' in my free time. I'll ask Akihito more about it. What is this club called, by the way?”
Shima looked away and sighed. “The Iced Tea and Snacks Club.”
A moment of silence, then laughter broke out.
Chapter 3: Marukawa Shoten
Misaki had been honored and a bit overwhelmed to be chosen to represent the club. He still didn't think of himself as an adult, no matter that he was twenty-four, had been at Marukawa for nearly three years, or was getting married soon. They had sympathized with him and Usagi having to postpone the wedding, then pressed him into service.
Usagi thought their club was a marvelous idea, so Misaki had tasked him with enlisting Kamijou and Nowaki while he had most of Marukawa to deal with. Misaki began with his boss, discussing the best way to recruit people. Kirishima and Yokozawa were on-board, though Yokozawa was a little concerned about Hiyori mixing with kids several years older than her.
“When you tell people, explain that they don't just get to feel good by helping out a bunch of kids, but they also get access to everyone those kids know. I might not need anything from Ren, but the chance to be indirectly connected to someone like Asami Ryuichi or the Haninozuka family? Priceless, especially for Hiyori's sake. Who's on your list?”
“Aikawa, Onodera and Takano, Haruto, and Isaka-sama.” Misaki was only nervous about Isaka. He had already spoken to Shindo Shuichi, who would pull in Yuki.
“Well, go on then. I can spare you an hour or two for this. I was hurt Hiyo didn't ask me to do it, but I think you'll get better results.”
“You want to? I don't mind.”
“No, no. They chose you and they chose well. Go socialize on their behalf.” Kirishima practically shoved him out with a grin.
Misaki straightened his shoulders and headed up to the 5th level. Aikawa and Onodera first. Enlisting Onodera would include Takano by default.
Aikawa was barking into her phone as usual. Misaki hovered beside her desk, wincing at the language. She shoved a box at him as she yelled – it was full of cookies. She always had some sort of goodies to share. Misaki helped himself to a chocolate chip.
“Aren't they all up-to-speed on the new software? You don't need them in your studio – that's the whole damn point! Well, get them on it! We don't care if they work from home, but we still have a magazine to produce, virus or no virus. People need sexy men falling in love to distract them at times like this!”
Oh. Manga artists. Japan only had about 800 cases nationwide - that it wasn't spreading faster was the result of the people responding efficiently and well to the correct procedures. Maybe over-responding a bit, in Usagi's opinion when he heard about face masks selling out as well as toilet paper (“Who needs six months' worth of toilet paper for an illness that lasts a month at the most?”), but they were still relatively calm.
Successful mangaka usually worked with a team of several assistants, all in one room bent over their desks. But with many of them switching to digital drawing, it was possible for them to send files to each other online. The problem was older, more traditional mangaka who couldn't or wouldn't transition or assistants who couldn't afford the computer and gear necessary to work from home.
Aikawa hung up, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I'm sorry, Misaki. Did you need something? How is Sensei?”
“He's fine. I'm here on behalf of Hiyori, Kanako, and their friends.” He handed her a slip of paper with a code. “They've set up a club, a sort of group for the purpose of connecting each other with even more people to help or something.”
“What? And what is this?” She waved the slip at him.
“That's the code to join their discord server. Um. So, they want to help each other find jobs, give each other advice, stuff like that. But since they each know people like you or uh...Yuki-sensei...or Takaba, they want to include you guys as well. Like, if Kanako wanted a job and she was interested in the entertainment industry then she could ask Kaidou Shima to ask Haruhiko to ask Usaka-sama. I guess.”
“Oh, I see. A social network. Nepotism at its finest! They get together and use what they have to progress as far as they're able.”
“Nepotism?” Misaki's vocabulary was lacking at times.
“The practice of hiring family or friends to fill positions, sometimes over those more qualified. Some people look down on it, but it works well if all those involved don't abuse it. You applied for Marukawa because of Sensei and me, didn't you? It's very possible Isaka-sama made it known he preferred you over other candidates. But you don't take advantage of that and you work hard for the company.”
“You mean I got the job unfairly?” Misaki was horrified.
“No, Misaki,” she reassured him. “It wasn't unfair. You simply had a better chance than a random person because we knew you already and put in a good word for you. You still would have been fired if you couldn't handle the job. And I know Kirishima chose you for yourself, not because of any of those things. He was impressed by you from your performance as a part-timer.”
“I guess I understand. Well, they'd like you as a member. I think. They have ranks of some kind. They especially want more women, Kanako says.”
“I'm honored. It sounds like fun!”
“Okay, good.” Misaki smiled at her. One down, three to go.
Onodera was next, his desk just across the office. He was less enthused but willing. “I don't know if Takano or I have that many connections outside of those already known better by others, but I don't have a problem with being consulted or asked for advice occasionally. We probably won't...Oh, wait a minute.” He shuffled through some papers on his desk until he found a memo.
“Hmm. I've just been assigned a new author to edit, but this one is tricky. It's a translation from English into Japanese and my English is rusty. I was thinking about asking Usami-sensei for help, but maybe there is a better choice? She was born in the USA, permanent residence in Canada, but works at CERN in Switzerland. Dieckmann D. Haruko.”
“Haruko is a Japanese name. Is she of Japanese descent?”
“I don't know. I have one of her other books here.”
Onodera flipped through to the back cover where he found her picture. They both stared at it in surprise.
“That's...it has to be, right? She looks just like him.” Misaki said.
“Kaidou Haru's mother? Some close relative, surely.”
“I thought his parents died. I mean, I know the twins' parents died in a car accident, but I assumed his mother was gone as well since they act like it's just the four of them.”
“We'll have to ask Ren. I'll definitely be signing on to their discord.”
“Oh! Here's the code.” Misaki handed over his slip of paper.
“Iced Tea and Snacks?”
Misaki just shrugged. “Don't ask me. I wasn't there when they chose the name.”
Haruto was next, and Haruto was easy to enlist. “Wow, they want me?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“I don't know. I never thought of myself as a useful connection to have.”
“I'm going to ask Isaka-sama as well, but you're probably easier to speak to than he is. And your uncle is an important businessman, isn't he?”
“I guess so. I honestly don't really know what he does exactly – some kind of imports and exports. Hazuki is his personal assistant. She would be better for this.”
“They're still figuring things out. And I think Haruhi will be talking to your other neighbors, so all of you are included. Kanako's enlisting Morinaga and Ayano. They might never ask you for anything, but you can always make use of them if you need to. That's how it's supposed to work.”
“Okay. I'm better at talking online than in person anyway. So you want to ask Isaka-sama and Asahina? They aren't here right now.”
Misaki chickened out. “Will you explain it to them?” He gave Haruto both code slips. “You're closer to him and he teases me too much. I get all flustered. And Asahina is so silent all the time I end up babbling.”
Haruto raised an eyebrow. “Isaka-sama is silly, but he's also serious about important things. You have to be firm with him.”
“I can't! He calls me 'Chibi-tan' and he's seen me with Usagi...never mind that. I just get too nervous. You ask him for me please?”
“Fine. IF you sneak me an advanced copy of The*Kan's special issue.”
“It's a deal!”
Isaka agreed, just because it sounded like fun. He also laughed his butt off at the club's name.
Chapter 4: Young Professionals
Kaidou Aki surveyed his new office space with satisfaction. It was shaping up nicely with a lot of help from Aoi. She had an eye for interior decorating and a good sense of his tastes. Very modern lines, but with warmth in the materials and colors. Those suited her as well – a good thing, as she would be sharing it with him.
They had worked as a team on several projects now and she was getting enough individual projects to want a designated office, rather than working from home. They had come to an arrangement where she did artwork for him at a discount in return for sharing his studio and recommending him whenever she had the opportunity. She also contributed to the utility bills.
The best part of his new location wasn't the neighborhood, its nearness to Viewfinder down the block, or its price. It was the small apartment that came with it. Much like Takaba's set-up, there was a studio above. However, Aki didn't have Asami's billions to spend and his place was much more modest. It was private, and it was his alone – that's what mattered.
Aki was no longer content to live in that big house with his three brothers. Watching Haru and Ren moon at each other had been bad enough. Now, he sometimes had to put on his headphones to drown out the sex noises from the room directly below his. He was happy for them, yes, but that didn't mean he wanted to hear just how well they were getting along.
Not to mention that Haru was nosy and over-protective, Ren could ask the most embarrassing questions, and during the day there were too many eyes next door at the café observing everything the brothers did. It was maddening and he absolutely could not bring home a partner for the night, which left him paying for hotel rooms too often and sneaking home at dawn.
The one thing he was going to miss was his closeness to Shima. But then, he and Shima were already separating in other ways and barely saw each other at home anyway. Aki didn't know if Shima intended to continue living at the house, especially if he did end up dating Reiko, but Aki had to get out. Shima could visit him just as easily in the new apartment.
Okay, there are two things I'm going to miss, Aki thought as his stomach growled. Haru had insisted both twins learn basic cooking skills, but neither of them had progressed much beyond. Why should we, when Haru's cooking is so good? Now that he knew what a bother cooking for himself could be, he appreciated Haru more.
Aoi giggled from across the room when it rumbled again. “Dinner time!”
“Are you meeting Iku?” he asked her.
“No, he's visiting his family's farm for a couple of days. With all the kids out of school and White Fang less busy, he could take some time off. They have a load of fresh veggies from their greenhouses for him to bring back.”
“You didn't want to go with him?”
Aoi was quiet for a minute. “Not yet. I want to meet them, but his family sounds a bit terrifying, honestly. Two older brothers, two older sisters, all four of them married with several children...they're like a tribe more than a family. When he describes them it sounds like the sort of atmosphere I'm just not used to. I don't want to feel stuck in an uncomfortable situation for that long.” He could sympathize with that.
She smiled at Aki. “Dinner one night, stopping by for an afternoon, meeting a few of them at a time - that's more my speed, I think. Iku was very sweet and understanding about it.”
Ikuyoshi would be, Aki knew. He was that kind of guy. Without knowing much about Aoi's background, Aki suspected it had been a rough one. She had started off very closed off and anxious. Ikuyoshi was bringing out her brighter side and she was blossoming in his care.
“He did say he ran away to Tokyo to escape his crazy family, so I can see where you're coming from. I've met his oldest brother – very nice, very tall, and very talkative. Teased Iku constantly. I think they'll adore you – while they drive you nuts.”
Aoi laughed. “Maybe. I hope so. I'm not used to big families or much attention, so it's kind of overwhelming. Want to go eat together? Or did you have plans?”
“No plans. I was thinking of asking Takaba, do you mind?”
“Fine with me. Let's go.”
Locking up, he looked at the sign he'd created and Aoi had hand-painted onto the window. Kaidou Graphics and Doumeki Designs. Hard to believe it was becoming a reality. His own business, thanks to Asami. Now he had to make it prosper - a challenge he found thrilling.
He and Aoi chatted about Ren's new club, laughing over the name of it but agreeing it was definitely going to be of use to them as well as its core members. She was going to ask for contact with Onodera about designing book cover art and Aki thought they might want a receptionist soon to handle appointments and scheduling for them both.
Distracted as they walked and talked, Aki knocked shoulders with someone who was just leaving Viewfinder.
“Pardon me! I'm very sorry. Are you alright?”
“Whatever.” The young man – very attractive, with wavy dark hair and ivory skin – strolled off. His voice had been soft and light, but the tone in it was conceited.
Aoi and Aki exchanged a glance. “He treated you like an insect,” she said.
“It wasn't just my impression, then.”
“No, he was rude. Let's ask Takaba about him.”
They entered the photography studio and were waved toward the back rooms by the imposing accountant/receptionist. Chosen by Asami (or maybe Kirishima), they all were sure the man was a bodyguard as well, but no one ever asked. Takaba and Asami were who they were, after all.
Takaba was straightening up one of the small studio rooms when they found him.
“Hey, you two. Where's number three?”
“Iku's out of town for a few days. You want to go to dinner with us?” Aki asked.
“Oh, sure. Asami's working late tonight. Just give me a few minutes to finish packing this away.” Takaba raised the backdrop screen, turned off lights, and folded up reflectors while Aoi pumped him for information.
“Who was the guy that just left here? Is he famous or something? He was very good-looking but incredibly rude. We bumped into him outside.”
“Ah, yeah. You must mean Murata Ugetsu. He's a violin prodigy. Travels all over the world for concertos or something. He is pretty proud of himself.”
“Huh. I thought he must be some kind of model. He acted like a diva – do you suppose that comes from being in the classical music world? I don't know much about it.” Aoi liked J-pop and was a Bad Luck fangirl.
“Kaji plays violin and is a music major. He doesn't act that way at all,” Aki said. “But I suppose he's not a 'prodigy' or something. He does competitions sometimes, on top of playing with Given. I'll have to ask him about this Murata guy.”
“He is used to having his picture taken and very clear on what he wants. I just pointed the camera and clicked to his instructions. I can't complain - it was easy enough. He's making a solo album and wanted a new photo for the cover, one that can also be a poster. He's stuck in Japan because of the virus canceling a bunch of his appearances, so he wasn't in the best mood. Well, that's the excuse I made up to overlook his attitude. Maybe he's always like that.”
Equipment cleaned up, the three of them set out to find a meal. Aki told Takaba about Iced Tea and Snacks (they giggled) and gave him the access code.
“Cool. I'm already on a few discord servers, so I can easily join this one. It sounds useful. I don't know about Asami though. I doubt we'll get him sharing YouTube clips and lol-ing at memes.”
That made Aki and Aoi double over with laughter.
“Imagine that? Asami-sama replying with a poop emoji and some winky faces?”
They all laughed harder. It would never happen.
Chapter 5: Setting an Example
Setting an Example
After the meeting, Asami and Kirishima moved to his private office. Asami turned on the stock market channel then turned it off again.
“Is it bad?” Kirishima asked.
“It's not good. We can ride this out, but others won't be so lucky. Small businesses are going to be in trouble, even if the government helps. It's going to get ugly before it gets better.”
“It's not spreading here as badly as other countries. Hopefully, we will recover faster as well.”
“The Olympics will be a huge factor. If they cancel, the country's going to be in trouble. Even a postponement will be bad. We just have to keep monitoring the situation. We don't want to add to the panic – we have to present a solid, calm front. No cases for any of our employees or connections - that's the good news. If someone contracts the virus, we'll have to rethink how we run the offices.”
Kirishima knew Asami was concerned for Takaba, just as he worried about Ayano. She and Morinaga had just opened their business. For it to immediately face closing down was depressing. They were lucky compared to most – Kirishima didn't need the income and could ignore missed payments. They could shutter the store and wait a few months if it came to that.
Aki and Aoi didn't have to deal with the public in person – they would be okay for now. White Fang, Mon Chaton – those would have to be watched over. Usami's next project wasn't due to start for another few months and the hotel currently under renovation was still progressing on schedule. Asahi's construction crew was doing well there.
“So. Enough about that. How's young Gotouda doing?”
“He seems to have settled in well and learned quickly. Morinaga says he's good with the money and customers, but balked when it came to the more business-side of things - tracking expenditures, planning ahead for deliveries, deciding on whether they could afford to hire one or two other part-timers, real profit versus the daily take. Gotouda isn't stupid, but I think he dislikes feeling stupid – two different things.”
“Well, with schools closed, we should be able to find him a tutor. What do you think? A strict disciplinarian, or someone easy-going? Close to his age, younger, or older?”
“Older and patient and maybe a touch unorthodox. I think someone near his age or younger would make Gotouda more self-conscious, comparing himself to them. He also didn't respect his parents because they spoiled him.”
Asami got a glint in his eye. “Unorthodox? I think I might have to explore a new source of information. Set up that discord thing on my computers, will you? I'm going to go see if Naru is still here. I want to shift Gotouda out of the souzaiya before he gets too comfortable and they start letting him slide.”
Kirishima imagined the club's reaction when Asami signed on and hid a smile. “Right away, boss. I'll give you a crash course on how to use it when you come back. I suggest waiting to sign on until later in the evening when more of them will be online. Maybe even Takaba.”
Asami chuckled a little wickedly as he went out.
Naru was sitting on Haruhiko's lap when Asami entered. Haruhiko tried to push him off, but he refused.
“It's only Asami. I'm sure he's seen much worse.”
“That doesn't mean he has to see me as well.”
Asami just raised an eyebrow and took a seat. “Don't mind me. I'm only here with a quick question for Naru, then you can go right back to...whatever.”
“I'm trying to persuade Haruhiko to take on a personal assistant. He's too accustomed to doing that for his father instead of having one for himself. What do you need?”
“Do you have any openings at Mon Chaton? Maybe a daytime shift with Hiroto?”
“What position? And for whom?”
“Something simple – bar back, dishwasher – perhaps with the chance to move up. Gotouda Aki. He's been helping out at DELIcious but I want to keep moving him around and expose him to new places and situations. He has no experience and he's rough around the edges.”
“The yakuza playboy? I'm anxious to meet him. I think we could fit him in, and Hiroto will handle him. Master is a good influence as well. I'll speak to them and let you know.” Naru didn't have to ask Hiroto's permission but he wasn't going to step on the new manager's toes.
“Good. I'll let you get back to your persuading. Usami – get an assistant. It looks good as well as freeing up your time. Ask the new club. I'm going to be testing them out myself.” Asami left them alone.
“Ooh, that's fun. Asami, online chatting with a bunch of college kids? We have to sign on tonight as well.”
Haruhiko rolled his eyes. “You can't resist, can you?”
“Why should I? It's to their benefit as well as ours, isn't it? We'll find you an assistant. I already have one in mind, but someone else might impress me.”
“This isn't the best time to be hiring someone new.”
Naru heard the seriousness in Haruhiko's voice. “You're wrong. First, we have to think positively. The virus will run its course and it is people like you who will help stabilize things – both during and after. We have to set an example as well as plan ahead. Second, while things are slower is the perfect time for training an assistant. You'll both need time to adjust and get to know each other.”
“Do I have any say in who it will be?” Haruhiko's lips turned up at the corners, just a little.
“Of course! I'll narrow down the field and you can make the final choice.”
“You did warn me that you were a spoiled brat.”
“You're so very good at spoiling me.” Naru drew Haruhiko's face down for a kiss. He'd intended just a brief meeting of lips, but Haruhiko had other ideas.
The kiss became passionate. Lips parted and tongues teased. When Haruhiko nibbled his way down to Naru's neck he had a moment of clarity. “The door...”
“Go lock it,” Haruhiko murmured against his skin.
“Ahh! Are you sure?” Naru wasn't protesting, just surprised. They hadn't done it in the office during business hours.
“It's lunchtime. Most of them went out and no one will bother us.” Haruhiko unbuttoned Naru's shirt down to his waist and slid a hand inside to brush over a nipple. “Unless you'd rather not?”
“Don't be absurd!” Naru jumped up and skipped over to lock the door. By the time he turned around, Haruhiko already had lube and condoms and was moving over to the couch. “Where did those come from?” He had been planning to pull his own stash from the messenger bag he used instead of a briefcase. Always be prepared, was Naru's outlook on life.
“My desk.” Apparently, Haruhiko was adopting the same policy.
Naru did like it when Haruhiko took charge. His up-tight, conservative boyfriend had turned out to be extremely attentive as a lover. Who would have ever imagined Haruhiko deliberately stripping off Naru's clothes in broad daylight in the office? He was maddeningly slow though. Naru still couldn't get him to do a quicky against the wall. Careful, considerate Haruhiko took pampering Naru very seriously.
Naru laid on the couch, Titanic-pose. “Draw me like one of your French girls.”
“You're crazy,” Haruhiko laughed and crawled on top of him. More kissing – deep, long, intense kisses that created an almost trance-like state in Naru.
And his hands. Haruhiko ran his hands up and down Naru's body, stroking and caressing, teasing and studying. Naru felt as if Haruhiko's hands were learning him inside and out. The smoothness of his skin, the warmth of it, the sleek muscles just beneath, and the pulse pounding through. Haruhiko had discovered sensitive places Naru hadn't been aware of – or created them just by focusing there.
Naru found he was very responsive at the juncture of thighs, hips, and pelvis, for example. Not his cock, but the skin all around it. When Haruhiko's fingers lightly trailed across that area, Naru flinched and moaned. It was so good he could barely take it. And when Haruhiko's hand moved to his erection and his tongue licked just beside...
“Ngh! No Haru, I'll...” He bit the side of his hand, aware that he had to keep his voice down.
Haruhiko ignored him, sucked a bright kissmark onto his skin that drew out a gasp. Naru heard a condom wrapper torn open, then Haruhiko rolled it onto him with his mouth – they couldn't make a mess in here. When he next reached for his own, Naru took it instead and returned the favor after a few licks to the tip that had Haruhiko's cock twitching.
They positioned themselves with Haruhiko sitting on the couch and Naru astride him. More kisses and Haruhiko touched and then entered Naru with his lubricated finger. Years of practice and good muscle control meant Naru loosened up quickly, but Haruhiko was always diligent and cautious and knew just where to push.
“Oh god, yes!” Naru gripped the back of the couch and pressed his face against Haruhiko's neck, muffling his noises. “Mmm, Haruhiko. I'm ready. It's okay now.”
With one smooth thrust, he was filled with Haruhiko and he shuddered with the pleasure. Not yet, not yet, he told himself, determined not to come until Haruhiko was also close. It was hard (haha), so difficult not to give in right away. Naru had to call on his meditation tricks to hold himself back as they began to move.
Haruhiko's hands gripped Naru's waist, stroked his back, traced his shoulder blades – distracting and drawing attention away from the heat building between them lower down. More kissing, though at this point it was more like panting and grunting into each other's mouths.
Finally, Haruhiko took hold of Naru's head with one hand and his ass with the other and thrust harder, faster. “Hah! Uhh! Coming...Haru...!” Naru pushed down with all his strength and held on to Haruhiko's neck and let the heat wash over him. A few more strokes and Haruhiko came as well.
“Aito! Ngh!” Haruhiko shuddered beneath him and pulsed within him. Haruhiko, my beloved, perfect, wonderful lover. Naru wanted to never let him go. It was scary, how quickly they'd become inseparable, how much he needed this man in his arms.
“Uff! Did I make too much noise?” Haruhiko panted into Naru's ear.
“Huh? No, why? Um...brain not functioning.”
“You're pushing my face against your throat. Or did you just want me to nibble on it?” He did that.
“Ah, no.” Naru released his grip. “I mean, I don't think anyone could have heard us. And stop that, or the next time we will be too loud.”
“Promise?” Haruhiko gave him a little spank.
“Ooh!” Naru giggled. Haruhiko always got silly and cracked jokes afterward. Talk about a gap moe!
“Up you go!” Haruhiko lifted him easily, reaching for the tissues and tenderly cleaning him up, allowing Naru to just stand there like a child.
Pampered and spoiled. What did I ever do to deserve this man who treats me like a precious jewel? “I love you.” It was all he could say, but it said everything.
“I love you, too.” Haruhiko pressed one last kiss to his sensitive spot. “Let's get dressed before Shima comes looking for me. I have to maintain some kind of dignity, after all.”
“An assistant positioned at a desk outside your office will help with that.”
“Better find me a deaf one then.”
Chapter 6: Shocking Behavior
Gotouda Aki eyed Tatsumi Kanako with a mixture of jealousy and approval. She was bright and cheerful and self-assured and attractive. Morinaga clearly adored her and Ayano liked her and where did that leave him? Feeling like an outsider again, just when he was beginning to fit in.
She was chattering non-stop about some club and her friends – a club Morinaga and Ayano seemed to be a part of as well. Doesn't matter. I don't need any club, just Ueda. He sprayed glass cleaner on the display cases and wiped at them with more force than necessary.
Doing work he would have considered too menial before was surprisingly rewarding. He also held a new appreciation for the people who did this type of work for a living. He understood all those workers his mother watched over back in Osaka and why they needed someone to protect their rights.
He'd been aware of Ueda's small apartment always being clean and tidy without any idea of the work involved in keeping it that way. Now, he made an effort at home as well. They set up a routine, with Aki in charge of the bathroom and living area, while Ueda covered the bedroom and kitchen and did the laundry. Aki tried doing laundry once, resulting in all the white socks turning purple.
Aki had also gotten some basic cooking tips from Morinaga and could make omurice, stir-fry, and operate the microwave without blowing anything up. Who made those take-out containers with little wire handles, anyway? Ueda was appreciative, especially when he was too worn out from training to bother cooking. Aki also brought home plenty of leftovers, so they had some variety.
Aki became aware of a little slip of paper being waved in his face.
“Oi, hello? Anyone home in there?” Kanako grinned at him.
“Sorry. What's this?” He stared at the string of numbers and letters in confusion. What the fuck is 'Iced Tea and Snacks' supposed to mean? A request for a delivery?
“The code for our discord. You and Ueda can use it, if you want to. You probably don't know many people here yet - this is a good way to meet some.”
“Our club. You can be a part of it. If you want to.”
“Oh...Thanks.” Aki felt his face heat up. They weren't excluding him. “I don't know what 'discord' means, though.” He didn't like admitting that.
“That's okay. It's kind of an otaku thing. More people are using it though – it's really convenient for online chatting. I'll show you how to set it up later.”
She's nice and I'm a jerk. “I'd like that,” he said shyly.
Kanako raised an eyebrow. “That won't work on me. I'm taken.”
Morinaga snickered. “He doesn't do it on purpose, Kanako. He's naturally cute. Don't you just want to pinch his widdle cheeks?” Morinaga chased Aki around the counter, everyone laughing.
The first customer of the day entered, saving Aki's cheeks for another day. The four of them blended well, with Kanako making some mistakes but laughing them off and doing more good than harm. Aki stopped resenting her and appreciated her energy instead.
After the rush, they set about refilling and cleaning and prepping for the next one. Then Morinaga handed over the daily delivery.
“Take Kanako with you.”
Aki frowned. “Are you sure? Yashiro is...”
“I'm sure. She should meet Izumi, too. He's a computer geek, Kanako.”
“Oh, cool! I've been wanting to meet those guys!” She pulled off her apron and kerchief.
Aki looked down at his own, smeared with food as usual, and shrugged. “Okay, let's go.”
As they trotted across the street, Kanako asked, “Why didn't you want me to meet Yashiro? Is he that depraved? Is he going to try to seduce me?” She looked overly excited by the idea.
“Nah, he ain't like that. Not that I've seen anyway. He just...curses a lot and says some funny stuff. Maybe a little strong for a nice girl like you.”
“Ha! You've never heard my brother on a roll. I'm not the delicate type and it takes a lot to shock me.”
“If you say so.” Aki thought she was putting it on a bit much, but whatever.
They went up to the 4th floor and Aki walked right in, accustomed by now. “Hey, Izumi.”
“Hey yourself,” Izumi answered without looking away from his computer screen. “Just drop it in the break room, would you?”
“I got someone here with me.”
“Huh?” Izumi glanced over, then stood up. “Oh, sorry. Hello. Izumi Keitarou, pleased to meet you.”
Kanako dove right in. “Hey, I'm Tatsumi Kanako and I just started working at the souzaiya. I hear you're a computer geek. Me too! What are you working on?”
Izumi blinked for a second, then smiled and waved her toward the computer. “Tatsumi-sensei's little sister, right? I don't know him well, but I do know Morinaga.”
Their conversation quickly devolved into computer speak and Aki zoned out. He left the food in the break room as usual, then knocked on the door to Yashiro's office.
“What is it, Izumi?”
“Uh, it's Aki. I brought someone to meet you guys so don't come out naked or anything.”
“Aki, dear, is that what you've been hoping for? I'm not much to look at though. Doumeki is the one with the killer body.” Yashiro opened the door, dressed in one of his three-piece suits and perfectly groomed. Doumeki was just behind him as they came out.
Yashiro's eyes scanned the outer room for a moment before they located Kanako, sitting in Izumi's chair while he leaned over her. She was clicking away at the keyboard and spouting more technobabble. Yashiro looked at Aki and raised an eyebrow.
Aki folded his arms and looked uninterested. “She's a real otaku. Tatsumi Kanako, the little sister of Morinaga's Senpai.”
“Ah. Izumi, should I fire you and take her on instead?”
“Probably. I told you I was better with selling them than using them.”
Kanako turned the chair around with a cheeky grin. “I have a job, thanks. But Izumi, if you want some advice, just ask. Oh!” She jumped up and pulled two more little paper strips from a pocket of her jeans. “Here. You're officially invited to participate in our new club. If you want to. But you should – it's going to be awesome.”
Yashiro looked at the paper. “I'm not a fan of iced tea, but snacks are okay.”
“Kanako, Yashiro is not a computer person. I doubt he has a clue what a discord server is.”
“It's not about being a computer person. It's a way to stay in contact with our friends, family, acquaintances. We're going to help each other with life problems, job problems, whatever. If you have a problem, we'll try to help or connect you with someone who can. You do the same for the others. We all benefit! Social networking. Mostly it's people my age, but anyone is welcome. If you behave. If not – out you go!”
“Oh, I'd better not even try then,” Yashiro said. “Unless you promise to kick my ass, maybe wearing a nice sharp stiletto.”
“Ha! I prefer tennis shoes. I have one pair of steel-toed boots though...”
“Ooh, that's even better! Doumeki, do you mind if I let the little girl kick me around a bit?”
Doumeki took the slip of paper out of Yashiro's fingers. “If I thought you deserved it, she could kick away. But I'm not sure she realizes you'd enjoy it. Or that you'd want to...ahem, afterward.”
Kanako took in Doumeki's height and build. “Whoa, you're huge. And yes, I know – or at least, I'd heard about Yashiro's...tastes. I'm not his type since I'm a girl, so you'd have to do the...'ahem', not me. Do you guys use ropes and whips and handcuffs? Penis plugs? I saw this manga about an S/M couple and the mangaka went into detail on the knots, and how you place them at specific points to create more pain/pleasure in certain areas and-”
“Kanako! Uh, I don't want your brother to come in here to beat me up. Or your boyfriend. He's a cop,” Izumi told Yashiro. “Shinosuke who just moved in next door to me.”
“Well, it doesn't sound like I can corrupt her. She knows more than I do. And no, young Tatsumi, we don't do the formal S/M stuff or use those kinds of toys. I prefer something a little less...structured and Doumeki isn't a sadist. The knots sound interesting though. What do you think, Doumeki? Want to tie me up?”
Doumeki's face didn't change, but his eyes gained a glint. “If you say so, boss. Sounds like too much trouble, but I can try.”
“Oh, you two are adorable! I'll bring you the manga tomorrow. And call me Kanako.”
“We have a fan, Doumeki. But you should get back to work, Kanako dear. Poor Aki's face is bright red and you've put dangerous thoughts into my boyfriend's head.”
Aki had been horrified during the whole conversation. Where did she get all that brass? Aki wouldn't have been more surprised if she'd whipped out a dildo and smacked him in the face with it. Do all teenaged girls know about that stuff? What kind of manga is she reading? Whips and knots and what the fuck is a penis plug? No, I don't wanna know.
“Oops. I went overboard, didn't I? It's just that I've never met an honest-to-god masochist. Sorry! Aki, let's go. You guys, try the discord, okay?”
Aki trailed along behind her all the way back to the shop. Morinaga took one look at his face and tried to cover up some chuckles. “Kanako is a fan of love – whatever form it takes. Isogai's been her confidant for years. Her brother curses worse than any sailor. Her friend Aikawa edits BL manga and sends her all the best series.”
“Yeah, but...penis plugs? How the hell does anyone just ask about those?”
Ayano gasped, and Morinaga's mouth dropped open. “Kanako! Do they use them? Those things scare me!”
“He said no, damn it. I was hoping I'd found someone who had really tried one. That manga I read made it look insane.”
“Crazy. You two are crazy,” Aki mumbled, thinking he needed a steel jockstrap to protect his privates. Ayano nodded her head in agreement.
Safe to say, Aki wouldn't be too disappointed when Kirishima told him he was being relocated to Mon Chaton.
Chapter 7: The Measure of Success
The Measure of Success
Monday evening, Kirishima stopped by Gotouda and Ueda's apartment to give them the news. Ueda wasn't home yet.
“Tomorrow will be your last day at DELIcious. You're going to move to Mon Chaton for a while. Day shift, starting at 11 am. Hiroto's going to look after you. And were going to find you a tutor, hopefully someone who can meet you in the mornings. Asami would like you to pass the high school equivalency exam.”
“A tutor?” Aki looked stubborn. “Why do I need that? Can't I just learn on the job, like I have been?”
“How did you feel when Morinaga tried to explain how to run the souzaiya? Or when you were listening to Izumi and Kanako talk this afternoon?”
“What? You're spying on me that much? Not cool, dude. Anyway, I don't care.”
“We're watching you, yes. I called today for an update. Look, Gotouda. Asami-sama doesn't waste time on quitters. He has faith that you aren't a quitter. Do you want to prove him wrong?”
Aki wavered. “I don't want some stuck-up guy treating me like I'm stupid.”
“Don't worry. We're going to enlist the club and ask around until we find just the right person.”
“That Iced Tea whatever? What's a 'discord'?”
Oh, Kanako must have told him about it. “It's a chat forum. You get online and you can talk with all the other people who are there.”
“Talk about what? How do you get in?”
“Where's the laptop we gave you guys?”
“In the office. I think. Ueda used it.”
Kirishima found it and brought it out. He'd just taught Asami how to access the club's server, he would show Gotouda as well.
When Kanako got home from her first day on the job, she collapsed onto her bed. Then she smelled herself and dashed for the shower. Morinaga would be at the souzaiya until later and her brother was staying late in his lab to match. Back in her room, dressed in comfy, baggy pajamas, she grabbed her laptop and logged onto the server.
There were several people already chatting. She greeted them then got to work on the people who had signed on for the first time during the day. As the moderator, she had to approve them and assign them a level of access. The core group was labeled Foundations and could enter all the pages.
Next came close friends, family members, and relationship partners. They were the Support level and were denied only a few sections. Last came the Connections who were invited in but not expected to be active participants. Those had a lot more limitations on what they were allowed access to.
Everyone who entered the first time was in limbo. They had to read the rules and leave their name as agreeing to them. Stuff like respecting others' privacy and don't be assholes to each other. She hoped that was unnecessary, but it was best to make it clear. At least the rule sheet required them to be aware of the club's policies. Once they did that, Kanako put them into the correct group.
All the Foundations people had signed up the night before, aside from Given, whose practice session ran late. All four were here now, she noted, stuck in the general chat anyone could use. She promoted them.
Then she started going through the other names and goggled at her screen. Kirishima and Asami? Shindo Shuichi and Yuki Eiri, Isaka Ryuichiro, all the neighbors, her favorite trio, Haru, Todo, Kousuke, Ikuyoshi, Aoi, Takaba, both Usami brothers, Naru (of course, she snickered). Gotouda. Tomoe and her father. Onoe and Kaburagi? She didn't know who they were or who had invited them. Aikawa (yay!) and Onodera and Kamijou. Even Doumeki, who must represent Yashiro. All of them had logged in, “signed” the agreement and logged out again.
“Oh my god. This is crazy!” she said to herself as she started bumping them all up to Support or Connections. A few she wasn't sure about - she put those in Connections but might have to raise them to Support later.
The chat went crazy. All the names were announced as she approved them. Everyone was squeeing and leaving lines of crazy emoji and popping in memes.
Kanako plugged in her headset and opened a voice chat for them all. Her ears were filled with more yelling and amazed noises and people babbling over each other.
“Shush! Quiet! I have to ask about a couple of names!”
They tried. It was enough. Onoe and Kaburagi were reporters – Ren had invited them. “Yatake Kouji?” That was a friend of Nakamura Haruki's, who said he could stay in Connections.
“Shinobu, where's Miyagi?”
“He said he's happy to help but to contact him through me. He's not big on chatting.”
“Hiyo, what about your father?”
“He's still at work. Yokozawa too. They'll sign up later.”
“Okay, good. Make sure you've written up a good description on the biography tab, and add your names to the 'want a job' tab if you're looking. When all these people log on again, we want them to find you. Those, along with the self-promotion and homework tabs, are available to anyone. Everything else is Support and Foundations only. There are two tabs only Foundations can access – club business and strategy. You can create a private chat and pull in whomever you choose, the same with voice or video. But only Foundations can start those.”
“Anything else we need to know?” Kiri asked.
“Um...Let's try not to spam a bunch of pics and stuff when the big names log on. Other than that...Ren, you want to say anything? It was your idea, after all.”
“Just don't abuse this and ruin it. I mean, if they help us, that's good. But don't get angry if they can't or won't. They don't owe us and we can't make demands. If you piss them off, you make us all look bad. Also, I think Kanako should be president – she's much better at this.”
“No, no, no! I'm good with computers, that's all. I'll moderate the chat, but that's it. I've got a job, Todo, family, and soon I'll be in school. I can't be the only one running this club. You all have to help. Once I finish tweaking everything, I'll pick a few people who can also moderate when I'm not around. Okay, I'll leave this voice chat open, but I'm going silent.”
She left them to talk, only keeping an eye on the various tabs. Biographies popped up. Kensuke asked her to add a tab for picture sharing, so she did that. Kaidou Aki logged in and put up a receptionist wanted ad. Then he asked Kaji to talk privately and she assumed they did so.
Naru came on and had fun chatting for a short time. He also added an advertisement, looking for a personal assistant to Usami Haruhiko. Then he requested a private chat with Kiri. Ooh, she'd be perfect. I wonder if she's dating Juuzen or not? I have to remember to ask later.
Shindo Shuichi thrilled them all by announcing Bad Luck was shooting a music video next weekend and they all were invited to be extras. He said Yuki wished them well but was too busy writing to “mess around with a bunch of brats.” According to Shindo, this meant he liked them, “because he didn't tell you all to fuck off.”
Aoi signed on, said hello, signed off again fairly quickly. Maybe she left someone a message?
Takaba showed up and chatted for a while. He said he was gaming, so if he spaced out occasionally, that was why. Kanako wondered if Asami was with him, reading all the talk over Takaba's shoulder. There was also the invisible option – all or any of the big names could be secretly observing.
Then, wonder of wonders, Asami signed on himself and the entire server froze. Not because of an internet issue – they just stopped in fright and excitement. Then he blew their minds with a funny image and went on to post his own inquiry for a high school level tutor. No poop emoji though.
Iced Tea and Snacks was a success after that, whether they ever got help or jobs or anything else.
There wasn't much plot for this one, was there? I had to get the IT&S club going and tie everyone to it. Stuff will be happening, I swear! Sexy stuff, for our sexy men, when the Tokyo Yaoiverse returns in the next installment.