Chapter 1: Cabin Fever
“What is that, Reiko?” Haru asked.
“It's just a good luck charm. You must leave it on the door until all the ink has faded. Promise me?” She stepped back with her little pot of rubber cement, making sure the ofuda was secure and level (no need for it to look sloppy).
Reiko had decided not to tell people what the ofuda really did so that they would not have to worry about abusing it or feeling guilty or growing careless. Those few who did know the truth respected her decision, glad they were not in her place. She was following Takamura's advice, giving them to friends and family first, then she would see.
Some homes were shared with several people and she meant to deliberately hold a few papers back in case those faded much faster than others. The very first one, made by Tsuzuki, she had used on her own home, because she expected it to be very strong and they had a lot of servants.
In the past week, she had prepared four of the ofuda - this was the first.
“A good luck charm, huh? Coming from you, that means it will work. Thank you.” Haru smiled at her. “Could you make one that would stop Ren from teasing me?”
“Haru!” Ren didn't find that funny.
“Ignore them,” Shima told her. “They are going through some kind of phase.”
“It's not a phase, it's cabin fever.”
“What is that?” Ren asked.
Haru sighed. “It's when people are stuck inside and start to go a little crazy. Everyone reacts differently, but mostly we're all going irritate the hell out of each other. In places with extreme winters, like my mother's home in Canada, people are forced to stay indoors, inactive, with too much togetherness and not enough alone-time. That's why I never visited her in the winter.”
“Haru, it's only been a week since you closed White Fang. You're already getting bored and restless?”
“I can't help it! I'm trying to think of this as a vacation, but even when we went on vacation we went outside and had other people around and I felt busy. I've got nothing to do, no one to cook for besides you guys. I've already read a book and watched three movies and I don't know what to do with myself! Ren's classes started online and all I want to do is distract him! Argh!”
“Stop your ridiculous whining!” Dee Dee scolded him, walking down the stairs. “I could hear you even with the door closed. I am trying to write a book, you know. Hello, Reiko dear, how was the trip?”
“We had a very nice time, thank you.”
“Where is your little companion? I'm not used to seeing you without her.”
“Ah. She is...well, she's currently tearing up some of my old clothes and making a den in my closet. And sleeping a lot, eating a lot, and getting fat.”
“She's going to have babies.”
“Oh, how fun! For us, I mean, not for her. Being pregnant is not so fun – for humans anyway.”
“What is it like? Is it really weird or creepy? Like having a parasite feeding off you from inside?” Ren asked.
Dee Dee laughed. “No. Well, maybe once in a while. Mostly it feels like you've lost control of your body. One minute you're on top of the world, next you're bawling your eyes out. At first, you're sick and moody, then you feel amazing for a few months, then you feel like a huge fat ugly slug. It's scary, it's wonderful, it's like a miracle, and it's torture. You just want it to be over with. You resent the little creature until he's born and then your heart wants to burst and you love him so much it hurts.”
Haru was staring at her but Dee Dee wouldn't meet his gaze. “If you were afraid before, once he's born you're terrified. Because the dream has become reality and helpless and beautiful and so very fragile and completely dependent on you. And it seems like no one understands that not every mother knows instinctively what to do to keep him safe or make him happy. Some mothers are too proud to ask for help. Some give up, they just can't do it.”
“Mom...” Haru stood up, hesitated. She didn't correct him for once.
“But that doesn't mean she doesn't love her baby. We're all flawed in our own ways. Some of us aren't cut out to be mothers. Me, for one. Ren's mother, maybe as well. I'm very lucky, Haru, that I can see how well you turned out, despite me. And I'm certain Ren's mother's spirit is proud and happy that her son is a fine young man.”
Haru hugged her and she allowed it. Reiko found herself on the verge of tears, reaching for Shima's hand. He held it, saying nothing, just letting the moment be a moment.
“Well, that's enough of that!” Dee Dee pulled away from Haru. “Stop acting like a spoiled child and Ren, stop pushing his buttons. Be together and appreciate each other. I'm going for a walk.” And she was gone out the door.
Haru slumped down onto the couch, stunned. “Why would she tell me that now, after all these years?”
“You said cabin fever affects everyone differently,” Shima reminded him. “Perhaps this is how it affects her. You haven't spent this much time with her since you were a child. Now you're both adults and she could say, in her own way, how much she cares. Even if she can't show it most of the time.”
“I could never be a father. I'm too terrified I'd be the same as she was.”
“You have been a parent to all of us, idiot brother. And you did a fine job of it, mostly.” Shima pushed up his glasses. “Maybe now is a good time to focus on yourself for a change. Take an online class, start a workout program, do what you want to do – not what you think we need you to do for our benefit.”
“I like my life. I enjoy what I'm doing and I'm content with it.”
“Are you really, Nii-san? I'm not saying give up White Fang to become a mountain climber, but you must have had some life goals or another career or just some hobbies in mind when you were young - before the accident. You should think about it.”
The doorbell rang and Kiyoka let herself in. “I'm having some people over at the bar. You can come too, if you'd like.” She was dressed for a party, no doubt – in a ballerina-style dress, but bright blue.
“The bar is closed, Kiyo. You don't mean you're re-opening it?”
“No, just a small party. I've closed down my bar in Ni-Chome and now I'm having a 'Virus Makes Us Sad' party. I can't have it there because a lot of people are still ignoring the stay-home order and they would try to join us.”
Haru frowned. “So these are your Ni-Chome friends?”
“Don't give me that look! They are good people whatever they look like – you know that!”
“I'm not objecting to them as people, but they party too hard! And they hang all over Ren.”
“I don't mind, Kiyo. I like them.”
“I know you do, Ren Ren. Haru is just being his usual jealous idiot self. Haru, invite some of your own friends to join us – it will be fun. Then we can all go home and try to be hermits.”
“I'll invite the neighbors,” Shima told her. “Reiko and I were about to go see them. Haru, why don't you call Kousuke and the trio?”
“I...should I? It's not a good idea...”
“Oh hell, just do it!” Kiyoka said. “Ren Ren – you call some friends, too. Tell everyone to dress up crazy. Then go put on some cosplay and we'll have a real party!”
“Ren! You are not wearing any cosplay!”
“But we have all those costumes Kiyo's been giving you. I can wear the sailor girl one.”
Reiko and Shima hid their smiles as they left to walk to the neighbor's apartment.
Chapter 2: Bonding
In Izumi and Haruto's apartment, the neighbors were just assembling for dinner when Shima and Reiko arrived. Haruhi asked if they would like to eat – she had made plenty of food and her father was joining them along with Kanako.
“No, thanks. Haru is cooking for us and he'll be angry if we miss it. I just stopped by to give you a small good luck charm I made – you know that's my hobby. I'm going to stick it on the door here. Don't touch it, don't remove it. When the ink fades completely, let me know and I'll give you a fresh one.” Many people visited this apartment on a regular basis – it might need a back-up as well.
Haruhi introduced her father and gave Reiko and Shima a bit of a shock, though they both covered it well enough. They hadn't realized the attractive older woman was her father, Ranka. Very attractive. And unlike Kiyoka, Ranka did not have to slather on a ton of make-up to look his best. Her* best? Reiko was unsure of which pronoun to use, if necessary.
Kiyoka, everyone referred to as a woman and she would take exception to anyone who went against that. But she also didn't hide that she began life as a male. She was somewhere on the spectrum between a man who likes to wear woman's clothing and full transgender. She had breast implants but no other physical alterations, just the women's clothes, hair styling, and make-up. She was not doing any treatments or planning to fully switch.
She informed people right away – she didn't want any confusion or outrage later. Reiko didn't know if her potential partners were men or women. Kiyoka flirted with everyone and many of her friends' genders were also ambiguous. She had apparently crushed on Haru, back in their high school days. She referred to herself as a fujoshi, always getting excited when she saw men being lovey-dovey with other men.
Ranka seemed very sweet and a bit airheaded. His voice was softer than Kiyoka's and he had adopted some feminine gestures* and speech patterns. Reiko liked Ranka right away.
“Kiyoka is having a party at White Fang and you're all invited. It may get a bit wild – you know what her friends are like. She says it's a last hurrah before she goes into isolation. Oh, and dress as outlandishly as you'd like – cosplay encouraged!”
“Ooh, Haruhi? Can we go?”
“I don't know, Dad. That's not really my...” So Haruhi calls Ranka “Dad” but then, she is his daughter so it might be strange to switch to calling him “Mom”...
“Poo! You're such a dried-up old lady sometimes! Let Papa dress you up and we'll have a little fun for a change!”
“Izumi! I can wear that schoolgirl uniform I just bought and you wear the doctor costume!” Haruto was down for it.
Izumi laughed a little nervously, but he would go along with whatever Haruto wished.
“Haruto, what other outfits do you have? Could I borrow something?” Kanako asked. Todo's face...he wasn't sure that was a good idea. Because he doesn't want her dressing up or because he'll like it too much? After their weekend in Karuizawa, Reiko wasn't sure how Todo would respond.
“Sure!” Haruto would supply Kanako with something if Todo didn't object.
“Well, we need to head back for our own dinner. See you all later!”
As they walked back, Shima said, “We didn't cross paths with Dee Dee – I wonder where she went on her walk. When she comes home, she may be a bit surprised by the party.”
“I don't think she would object.”
“Not object, no. But I don't think it's her kind of thing. You know, this is the second time she's gone for a walk and just disappeared for a few hours. It's strange. There's isn't much within walking distance other than houses. I hope she isn't getting on the subway and taking risks.”
“I put up the ofuda - she won't get sick.”
“That isn't what I meant. People are acting strangely. DELIcious was robbed! Poor Kiri, having to go through that.”
Reiko, along with Kanako, had been filled in on Kiri's adventures in great detail. She said nothing other than, “Kiri didn't seem too upset. But she is going to be taking some self-defense classes.”
Shima looked at her. “Did you ever learn any self-defense? You were dating Haninozuka, whose family is world-renowned for their martial arts.”
“Haha! No. Not my thing. Anyway, now I can just zap someone if I need to. They won't know what hit them.”
“I like it when you zap me,” Shima gave her a rare grin. Darling man – he was making an effort to be silly for her.
::I'll zap you later – IF you behave at the party!::
Promise? He was getting better at focusing his thoughts for her to “hear.” This one came through loud and clear with a hint of lust. She didn't worry anymore that he might not find her desirable. He most certainly did. She felt all tingly just thinking about it.
::Later! Not now!:: She laughed out loud and took his hand. “You should call Aki and invite him.”
“Right.” He took out his phone.
I wonder how Ugetsu is getting along with Bassui. Does he realize yet what it means to form a bond? Ugetsu would also heal quickly and throw off most illnesses or infections. She didn't know what other sorts of magic (if any) the kudagitsune male was capable of, but that much seemed to be automatic.
Shima hung up. “He's coming with Ugetsu. They were together. They're always together now, it seems. I hope Aki isn't neglecting his work. Aoi and Iku are going to come as well.”
“Aki is as devoted to his job as you are to Hakue. It just gives him a more flexible schedule.”
“I suppose. I worry because it isn't a reliable source of income. Not that I think his business won't succeed, but when you get paid for individual jobs rather than a salary, you have to be careful about budgeting.”
“He'll be fine, worrywart! Maybe Bassui can curse all his competitors.”
“Can he? Curse, I mean.”
“I have no idea. Izuna says she didn't bother to ask him, when she says anything. She's very inward-focused right now. I wonder if she'll stay quiet for another two months.”
“That's how long it takes?”
“About 70 days or so, a little longer than it would be for a normal fox.”
“Then what happens? Do they all bond with you and you wear a fur coat all year long?”
Reiko laughed. “I don't think so. Kudagitsune don't live in packs like wolves – they live on their own and only come together for mating. I think when they become adults they will either find someone to bond with or go live in the wild.”
“I guess we'll have to wait and see. Who is getting the third ofuda?”
“I'm planning on the Tatsumi-Kurokawa condo and the Ooshiba house will get the fourth. Those two have people coming and going who can't completely self-isolate. Kanako's place with her brother and Morinaga. Aki's office, Yashiro's office, Usami-sensei's penthouse, the trio's home, and Hiyori's. I'm trying to go through the IT&S club members. I know they told me no businesses, but those few aren't high-traffic enough to wear out the ofuda.”
“You're being careful and not trying to do too much?”
“Yes. Anyway, I can't do very much right now since we...err. My power level is low. It works out fine since Izuna is too preoccupied to teach me. Aside from the ofuda, I'm taking a break from magic.”
“Then I don't have to cut back on the 'err'?” Shima let go of her hand to wrap his arm around her waist instead. He nibbled on her earlobe, making her giggle.
“That tickles! And no, definitely no cutting back!”
*Most of the time, Japanese pronouns do not specify male or female, but in some cases, you can make it clear which you are referring to. Internally, people would think one or the other. And there are certain phrases and gestures that women or men only use, and if those don't fit the appearance it will lead people to assume you are...different.
Ranka (Fujioka Ryoji) is a difficult one but I don't want to use “they/them” - it's awkward in English – so I'm going to use “he/him.” He'll explain his situation in a later chapter.
Chapter 3: Gathering Together
Ren invited Kiri, Morinaga, and Tatsumi – Morinaga assured Ren he would manage to drag his senpai out of the house for a change and bring Soujin as well. Tomoe and Kawamura were going to stay home with little Kazuo. Hiyori had to beg her fathers but they finally agreed if someone would pick her up - they didn't want to go. A quick call to Kanako - Todo agreed to get her.
Several that were invited couldn't make it - Onodera and Takano, Shinobu and Miyagi, Yuki and Shindo. Onoe and Kaburagi were tailing someone. Juuzen did not answer his phone, so Ren left a message. The Given guys were having a practice session.
Thinking of Dee Dee, Haru invited Kousuke and Masahiro, plus Kousuke's mother when Ren said Soujin would be coming. He called his mother's friend Mikiko as well, though she had to decline. When he called Iku, who had already heard through Aki/Shima, he suggested Aoi's mother come as well. No one had met her yet. Aoi was doubtful her mother would agree to go but would ask.
Natsuo was over at the doctor's apartment and asked Takamura, but was not surprised or upset when he said no. The doctor was adjusting to hospital work – a party was not something he enjoyed at the best of times. Neither would attend.
With most of the tutors being invited, so were Gotouda and Ueda. The trio were bringing Natsuki and Tao. Yashiro and Doumeki said they would come, but other club members were busy or already had plans – Takaba and Asami, Naru and Haruhiko, Misaki and Usami.
Shima and Reiko returned to report in. Ren went over the guest list mentally and wondered if they had gone overboard – Kiyoka's friends would be swamped beneath the others.
“The more the merrier,” she told him, unconcerned. “The bar holds 100 people at maximum capacity – I think we'll be fine. And we'll use up everything that might go stale over the next couple of months. Don't worry about it.”
They ate dinner, then Haru retreated to White Fang's kitchen to “whip up a few snacks” because he was aching to cook something besides a simple meal. Ren went over as well, scanning the room and thinking. He opened up the private dining room that was never used, thinking the older people might prefer it.
He looked at the big table and felt his face flush, remembering Hiroto and Isogai giving him a practical demonstration of seduction. It had been instructive but since that time Haru hadn't needed seducing - he pounced. Now though, Haru had been acting weird all week, snapping over trivial matters, wanting to cuddle and cling, nothing more.
Tonight, I think I'll try seducing him. Haruko is right, I've been annoying Haru because I didn't know how to handle this cabin fever thing. I'd better not wear the sailor girl costume though. Cosplay at the party would drive Haru insane in a bad way and Ren didn't want that. He looked down at the sloppy sweats and t-shirt he was wearing. Not cosplay, but something better than this. He went to take a shower.
At 8 pm, people started showing up. Kiyoka's friends were first and they established their camp in the back corner of the bar. Some were dressed as outlandishly as she was, some just wore ordinary (for them) clothes. They fussed over Ren, not having seen him in a while. Haru was still cooking, so he couldn't get upset.
Not all the neighbors came, only Izumi and Haruto, Haruhi and her father (Tamaki was busy), Ayano with Kirishima – a surprise. Ren didn't think he was the party type. Ranka fit right in with Kiyoka's crowd while Haruhi went to talk with Reiko and Shima. Haruto was nearly unrecognizable in a wig and a skirt, Izumi was wearing a suit. It seemed Haruto really liked him in a suit and tie. Juuzen and Dee Dee showed up together.
“Look who I found on my walk,” Dee Dee said. “Did you know Juuzen lived so close, Ren?”
Ren frowned. He knew Juuzen had moved out of the high school dorms but hadn't thought to ask about his new place. Why didn't he say anything? “I didn't know. You should have told me, Juuzen. Is it a room share? I assumed you were in the University dorms.”
“Uh...” Juuzen's face was a little flushed. He needs more exercise if walking a few blocks makes him all red-faced. “I didn't think about it. I always come over here anyway. My new place is tiny – a converted garage.”
“I'll go to your place next time, then Haru won't get annoyed at you.”
“No! He'll get more upset if we're alone together!”
“He won't, I promise. I'm going to clear that up tonight. Sorry.”
“You boys have fun with that.” Dee Dee drifted over to meet Kiyoka's friends.
Ren watched her go then turned to Juuzen. “Did she say anything weird to you?”
“Huh?! No! Why?!”
He's freaking out. Because of that kiss a while back? Juuzen is so silly.
“She was acting a little strange earlier. Haru says we're all getting cabin fever, or we will be.” He had to explain the concept to Juuzen who got a thoughtful look on his face.
“Hmm. Um...no, she wasn't weird with me.”
“Okay, good. You know, Kiri's going to be here and I think she's bringing someone with her.” Talk about acting weird – Kiri had clearly been hiding something from Ren, but in a “I want to surprise you” way, not a bad secret way.
“She's dating someone already? Wow.”
Okay, Juuzen really isn't upset over their failed relationship. I don't get them, but whatever. Kousuke, Masahiro, Kensuke, Asaya, and Ooshiba Miho walked in, distracting Ren from more Juuzen-analysis.
Juuzen and Kensuke got along well. Asaya didn't mind him and stood beside Kensuke ignoring their chatter. Asaya didn't seem to care about anyone but Kensuke and as long as they didn't flirt with him, would tolerate anyone. He didn't bother trying to make friends of his own though. Asaya-analysis was a future project of Ren's.
“Are you sure we should have brought Miho?” Masahiro asked worriedly. Masahiro could always find someone to worry about. Such a mother hen.
“She'll be fine,” Ren reassured him. “See? She's talking with Haruko.”
“Dee Dee. I can't bring myself to call her that. Anyway, here comes Tatsumi-sensei – both of them. He can talk to her, too. Oh.” There was an extra person with Morinaga and Tatsumi. He looked familiar...?
“Ren, Masahiro, this is Kamijou Hiroki. Literature professor at M Uni,” Morinaga said. Right. Ren had met him when they toured the campus and seen him at other gatherings talking with Usami. “His partner is a pediatric surgeon at the Children's Hospital. Nowaki's staying at the hospital, so we dragged Kamijou along.”
Morinaga bent down to whisper, “He's a grump, just like Senpai, and missing his partner. He and Senpai get along really well. Is there somewhere quieter where they can sit?”
“Sure, I'll show you. Masahiro, can you get Haru out of the kitchen? I'm sure he's made enough snacks for an army by now.”
Ren showed them to the back room and also pointed out the patio where they could sit outside and smoke if they preferred. Tatsumi smoked, Kamijou did not and they settled outside for the moment. Ren wanted to join them – he liked talking with Tatsumi about plants – but thought he'd better stay in the main room for a while. He took their drink order, then went looking for someone to pour.
Haru was behind the bar, making drinks for himself and Kousuke. Dee Dee came over to make her own and Miho's.
“I need three beers and a glass of Cabernet, whatever that is,” Ren said. It turned out to be red wine. He delivered them and came right back.
The trio appeared with two boys, introduced them to Ren. He liked Natsuki immediately but wanted to reserve judgment on the tall and handsome Tao. Kirishima frowned at those two and Natsuki pulled Tao over to Asaya and Kensuke, who he knew from their private lessons. Hiroto took over bar duties, insisting he didn't mind.
“In fact, I've missed this. Let me have a little fun playing bartender. What's your poison, gentlemen?”
He had refreshed the bright green in his hair and was wearing an eye-popping shirt to match. Neither Isogai or Ichimaru had dressed up at all. Almost no one had so far. It was a last-minute invitation, so likely not many people had a stash of cosplay outfits handy. When Gotouda Aki and Ueda showed up, Ren wasn't sure if Aki considered his shirt to be cosplay or not. It was incredibly ugly but maybe from some TV show he didn't know about?
Kanako, Todo, and Hiyori arrived. Kanako was wearing normal clothes and cat ears. Ren had kind of expected her to go all out. Hiyori went off to talk to Natsuki and Tao and the others in that crowd. She's gotten a lot less shy, Ren thought.
“Todo asked me not to wear anything kinky. Anyway, almost all the cosplay Haruto and Izumi had were for Izumi! Nothing that would fit me. Too bad, or I could have worn the cop outfit and made Todo wear his to match.”
“Mine's not a costume, Kanako. That's no fun for me.”
“Well then, you could have worn the vampire fangs and cape.”
“I'll just bite you later.” They went off to mingle.
Ugetsu and Aki came in, Ugetsu attracting a lot of interest with a fox on his shoulder. Iku, Aoi, and a woman Ren assumed was Aoi's mother were right behind them. Ren still didn't trust Ugetsu around Haru but did want to meet the new companion. He was heading that way when Kiri showed up, alone with a bag.
“I thought you were bringing a date?”
“He's going to meet me here. I need to change – be right back.”
She lived nearby, so she must have walked over. I guess she can't walk around in her outfit? He was suddenly very curious to see it. Kiri had never been the type to wear a costume before - she said they were silly. When she reappeared, Ren stared while Kiyoka rushed over.
“Kiri? Is that you? My god, where did you get that costume? I want!”
“What is it supposed to be?” Ren asked, taking in the tight shorts and top, the gloves, a sort of hood with ears. All made of soft gray furry fabric. And he caught sight of a bushy tail. She even had matching socks that came up to her knees.
“I'm a wolf girl. I bought this for Halloween but couldn't bring myself to wear it.”
Ren walked around her. “Doesn't look like a wolf to me. More like a dog. Aren't you going to get cold like that? Those shorts are really short and the top has no sleeves. The gloves and socks don't cover enough.”
She made a face. “You haven't got a clue, do you? Kiyo gets it. No, I won't get cold. Hopefully. By the way, if my parents ask, I spent the night here, okay?”
“Oooh! Who is he? Who?” Kiyoka sounded like an owl. “You surprised me, Kiri! I didn't think you had it in you!”
“But I did! Haha!”
“Girl! Tell all!” Kiyoka dragged Kiri off. Reiko, Haruhi, and Kanako converged on her.
“Was that Kiri?” Juuzen asked, coming over. He was staring at her legs. Kiyoka's as well, but he knew about Kiyoka. “Why's she dressed like that?”
“I guess I forgot to mention 'costumes optional' in my message.”
“Oh. Still...that's not like her.”
Ren shrugged. “Maybe it's because of her new boyfriend.”
“You think he's her boyfriend already?”
“What else would he be?”
“I dunno. It's only been two weeks since we broke up – seems kind of fast. Just dating, I guess? I want to see him.”
“Are you jealous?”
“Nah, it's more like...I want to be sure he's good enough for her. Like I would for a sister.”
Ren rolled his eyes. “You're weird. Oh hey, it's Yashiro and Doumeki. They brought Nanahara with them, too.” That's everyone we invited, I think, aside from the guy Kiri is waiting for.
Time to mingle.
Chapter 4: From All Sides
From All Sides
Nanahara stood outside White Fang for fifteen minutes, waiting for Yashiro and Doumeki to arrive. He did not want to go inside by himself. He had no idea what Kiri was planning and it made him nervous. Did she want everyone to know or were they going to play out some kind of “secret lovers trading hot glances across the room” scenario? Nanahara had definitely been watching too many soap operas.
He still couldn't quite believe he'd fallen for someone so quickly or easily. Him, who swore off anything more than fuck buddies a long time ago. And someone so much younger – that worried him, too. Surely, once she'd sown her wild oats she'd grow tired of him. It was just a rebellious phase she was going through or something. And he'd been her first. Don't all girls fall for their first man?
He tried to remember his first girl, back in high school. Faceless now and nameless. Big tits. God, he'd been a real piece of shit kid. That girl, whoever she was, hadn't fallen for him. In fact, she'd found someone new soon after. Eh, maybe I wasn't her first? Or maybe I made such a mess of it, she didn't want anything to do with me.
Since that girl, he'd been with many others. Some who taught him, many who used him (not in a bad way), a few who turned nasty on him. They were from his world though. They played the game, understood the rules, knew what they were getting into when a relationship started. When it ended, they moved on to someone new and didn't look back.
All that went out the window with Kiri. He had it real bad and he knew it. He didn't know the rules of this level of the game. He could only try his damnedest to stay in it. Which left him...lurking beside a bar full of people he didn't know, who were probably talking about stuff he didn't understand, and he had no idea if she wanted him to act like a boyfriend or an acquaintance or a stranger or what.
Her message had said, “Party at White Fang, dress casual,” and nothing else. He had to call Yashiro to find out more - like the time it started. He couldn't complain - he'd been the one to say he hated texting and she wasn't somewhere she could openly talk, at home with her parents.
Parents. What the fuck. He hadn't worried about parents in...ever? His own had been nothing to brag about and hadn't given two shits when he ran away at sixteen. They were divorced not long after that and Nanahara lost track of them. Damn, I dunno if they're even still alive. I should look them up since I've got the time now...
“Doumeki, is that Nanahara? Hiding behind the building when he should be inside playing footsie with his new girlfriend?”
“Yes, boss. I don't know about the footsie part, but that's him.”
Fucking Yashiro. “Hey.”
“Are you an idiot? Go inside. I'm sure she's waiting.”
“You know I'm an idiot! I dunno how to act at a party like this and I dunno most of these people and I dunno if she wants them to know about us and...grr!”
Yashiro smirked at him. “You 'dunno' much, do you? Don't punch anybody, try not to say 'fuck' and you'll be fine. I don't know why, but these people don't seem to care what we did before and they treat us like they treat each other. Kindly. It's fucking weird, but that's how it is. You'll get used to it. Didn't you spend all last weekend with Kiri? Did you two talk at all, or were you too busy-”
“We talked! Just not about this! You've had me running around all week spying on people. She signed us both up for martial arts training. She's trying to decide on a tattoo. She's doing online classes and telling her girlfriends I dunno what and what else do eighteen-year-old girls from good families do? I'm going insane.”
Even Doumeki cracked a smile at that rant while Yashiro bent over, he was laughing so hard. When he recovered, Yashiro slung an arm over Nanahara's shoulder and led them all to the door.
“Since when do you care what other people think or say? You've always just gone and done whatever you felt like doing – even when I told you not to. She likes you the way you are. Don't worry about the rest.”
“I don't care – for myself. It's for her sake that I worry.”
“Well, stop that. She's an animal, she said. And anyone who mouths off to Tsunakawa isn't going to be bothered by some gossip.”
That was true. She'd put Tsunakawa in his place, right enough. His Girly was an impressive woman and not stuck-up about it either.
They went inside, saw the crowd, and Yashiro said, “Okay, this is weird. Let's pretend we're actors in one of those dramas you're always watching. I need a drink.”
They headed to the bar, where a guy with green hair was joking and mixing drinks and seemed to know everyone. Doumeki, scanning the room as if for threats, froze then snatched Yashiro's scotch and downed it in one gulp.
“Hey! You've got some nerve! You never drink except at home!” Yashiro looked to see why Doumeki had suddenly done something so out of character.
Hiroto refilled his glass and gave Doumeki the coffee he'd ordered. Nanahara got a beer and tried to steel himself to turn around and face the room.
“That's my mother with Aoi.”
“Guh.” Yashiro sounded like someone had sucker-punched him. His turn to look like he wanted to run and hide. “I changed my mind. Let's leave.”
Doumeki grabbed him before he could get away, while Nanahara hid a snicker and studied the woman. She looked like she could be Aoi's real mother – small and delicate and shy. But she also was watching everyone with interest. Aoi had said she worked as a nanny and did some fine sewing for a few wealthy ladies to make extra money, mostly keeping to herself and living quietly.
“How'd a little woman like that give birth to such a giant son?” Nanahara wondered. Then he shut up before he said something stupid about Doumeki's father. Like mentioned his existence.
“I was normal-sized when I was born. Come on, boss. You should meet her.”
“Noooo! I don't want to! I don't like parents! Besides, how are you going to introduce me?”
“She knows, boss. I told her everything the last time I visited.”
Yashiro gaped at him. Nanahara was really enjoying this. He leaned back against the bar and watched Doumeki drag Yashiro across the room. He didn't see Kiri anywhere, though he noticed a group of girls her age talking. One of them wore some kind of cosplay, one had cat ears.
“Hey, you were there that night at the casino, right? You're Nanahara, Yashiro's...associate?” Hiroto introduced himself and Isogai and Ichimaru.
Nanahara turned back around. “Oi! You were part of Aoi's pack of boytoys! Or, protectors, I guess it turned out to be. I was running the casino for Yashiro, but I sold off my share. Right now, I'm doing some work for his new company.”
Isogai laughed. “It was pretty crazy! We weren't sure if we were going to have to fight or not. Kousuke was with us too. That's him over there talking to Haru,” he pointed. “Just in case – don't ever gamble with Kousuke. He's a math teacher.”
“Eh, I don't gamble no more. Owning a casino kills all the fun in it.” Nanahara stared at Ichimaru. “You're his boyfriend? Or was that part of the act?”
“I'm their boyfriend.” Hiroto leaned over the bar to kiss his cheek and Isogai kissed the other one.
Nanahara blinked. The trio he'd heard about. This was them. “A-ah. I see?”
“Yashiro's meeting Doumeki's mom? That must be weird. You know Aoi though. Why don't you go say hello?” Hiroto apparently overheard their conversation.
“Oh, I dunno if I shou-uff!” Someone had grabbed him from behind.
It was a close call. He nearly tossed the person over the bar in reflex. No fighting! He took a breath and looked down to see...fuzzy paws? Then he smelled a familiar scent.
“Shit! Don't do that, Girly! I almost tried to throw you!” He twisted around in her arms and... “What the fuck you wearing?” Shit! Not supposed to say “fuck!”
Kiri laughed and kissed him. Guess we ain't doing no secret lovers roleplay. He kissed her back, his hands running down her furry sides and farther. I'm gonna die before my time.
“You can throw me later all you want! Come on, you have to meet my friends.”
Nanahara glanced at the threesome for help but they were too busy being shocked. Kiri towed him toward a group of shocked young women, past many other people looking shocked. Only Yashiro gave him a little wave and a smile. I probably look shocked, too. Like an idiot. She makes me even more of an idiot.
He saw the tail on her shorts wagging at him. He saw how short the shorts were. And tight. Barely covering her sweet little...Fuuuuck! I'm going straight to hell! Is she wearing panties? Don't think about that, asshole!
Nanahara didn't usually get so flustered but the situation, the people, and Kiri combined to knock him way off balance. Glancing to one side, Dee Dee was observing closely. The other way had Ayano frowning at him fiercely. It's the women who'll murder me. And I'll have to stand still and let them.
“This is Nanahara Yuusuke. Yuusuke, meet Kanazuki Reiko, Tatsumi Kanako, and Fujioka Haruhi.” Shock over, or well-hidden, they studied him like a bug they meant to smash.
“Uh, hey there. How's it going?”
“Kiri, he's not bad up close. Doesn't look so old.” That was Kanako, wearing the cat ears. He'd heard about her already, from Yashiro and Kiri.
“Kanako, that's rude!” the serious one, Haruhi, scolded. “He can't help his age.”
The third one, Reiko, said, “He isn't dressed like a yakuza. Shouldn't he have tattoos and shiny shoes?”
Man, Kiri should have just taken a picture. Then he wouldn't have to listen to them tearing him apart.
“He has tattoos. See?” She pushed up the sleeve of his t-shirt.
He'd dressed casually for a change but now wished he'd worn a long-sleeved shirt and a jacket and maybe a gun. He didn't trust them not to strip him.
She must have heard something in his voice. “Sorry! I'm sorry. They've just been so curious and I couldn't help but want to show you off a little.”
How could he argue with something like that? “Well, I'm feeling a bit like a fool here. Don't you girls have boyfriends? Reiko, you're with Shima right? I met him once – nice guy. I hear you've got a cop in your pocket, Kanako – he here? Should I be worried?”
“Have you done anything illegal lately?” Kanako joked. “But no, I want to thank you, Nanahara. It might have been me that day at DELIcious. I'm glad you were there to help.” She went up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “Sorry we talked about you like that. Don't worry, we approve. And even if we didn't – you're Kiri's choice, aren't you? Not ours.”
Reiko took his hand and patted it, Haruhi bowed to him.
“I...err...yeah? I didn't do nothing special, really.” That was worse than anything he'd imagined! What the hell should he say to them? “Uh...Girly, why you wearing that dog outfit?”
“I'm a wolf girl! Ren said dress up if we feel like it. What do you think?” she spun around.
“I think too much of your ass is showing. Or not enough. Haven't made up my mind yet. Gonna have to stare a while longer.”
“Nanahara, have you become a furry fan? Hello, Kanako, Kiri. Who are your friends?”
“What the hell's a 'furry fan' - no, don't tell me! Boss, you escape from mama-in-law?” If Yashiro was going to tease him, he'd give it right back.
Kanako laughed and introduced Reiko and Haruhi. “How's business, Yashiro?”
“I can't complain. Well, I do because that's how I am, but we're doing fine.”
“Kiri! This is him? He's hot! I'm jealous!”
Whoa. The woman was tall, wore a lot of make-up, and was wearing some frilly dancer thing.
“Kiyoka, how's it...well, it doesn't hang, does it?” Yashiro knows her? Or wait a minute...
“Oh, you!” Kiyoka grinned. “No, it's all tucked away. How's yours?”
“Well-serviced. I want to meet your friends.” Yashiro led her away.
“Kiyoka is a man but don't call her that!” Kiri told him.
“Okay? Girly...I need another drink and a smoke.” Please, gods, I need a break.
Chapter 5: Adulting is Hard
Adulting is Hard
Hiyori had gone straight for her boys. Seeing them only on Mondays and Tuesdays was not enough but there was no way for her to arrange any other meet-ups with them. Natsuki and Juuzen were bonding while Asaya was giving Tao the evil eye because Kensuke was chattering at him too enthusiastically.
“Hey, Hiyori! You look really pretty tonight.” Juuzen was always so nice to her. She wished the compliment had come from Natsuki or Tao though. No, we're friends only, she reminded herself. Stop expecting them to do boyfriend things.
“Thank you, Juuzen.”
“Hi, Hiyo! Did you finish your homework?” Natsuki asked.
“Don't bring up homework at a party!” she told him. “But no, I didn't quite finish it yet. I'll do it tomorrow.”
“Good evening, Hiyori. Do you need help? We can be online tomorrow if you wish,” Tao offered.
“Thanks, but it's a reading assignment. I'm jealous of you two, getting to stay in the same house! I'm alone all day and instead of studying, I zone out in front of the TV like a zombie. I can't get motivated. It's boring!”
“At least you aren't watched over by three guard dogs. Ichimaru kills both of us in every video game and Hiroto makes us do chores and Isogai is forcing us to exercise. I should never have joked about running around town where Kirishima could hear me. The other one, not your dad.”
“I'm grateful to them but I do wish we had more time to ourselves,” was all Tao said. Natsuki shot him a look she couldn't read. They had definitely grown closer and it wasn't fair.
“You have the kittens and a puppy to play with. I wish Otō-san would let me have another pet. He says we have to wait until Dad brings it up, because Sorata was his, and replacing a pet is up to the one who grieved the most. I understand but I miss having a cat to sleep with and keep me company.”
“I never had a pet of any kind. It is nice. I don't think Fei Long will allow me to have one when I go back.”
“No word from him yet?” Hiyori asked gently. She knew he was worried about his guardian.
“Asami-sama says he is no longer in China as far as he can find. But where Fei Long went from there or how, he does not know.”
“I'm sure he'll turn up.” Natsuki patted Tao's shoulder.
Asaya and Kensuke had wandered off during their conversation, but Juuzen was still standing there, listening. “Who's Fei Long?”
Tao began to give him an edited version of his history but after only a few words Juuzen's attention wandered.
“I-I'm sorry. I need to talk to Ren.” He left abruptly.
That was weird. They all turned to see what had distracted him.
“Who's that?” Natsuki asked. “And why is she dressed like a sexy dog?”
“Is that sexy?” Tao looked harder. “What makes that sexy? What is 'sexy'?”
“That's Kiri, a friend of Kanako and Ren. She was dating Juuzen until the Hanami party. Kanako said we could wear costumes if we wanted to. I guess she did.”
Hiyori had noticed the older girls in the club having private chats. Another thing that left her feeling neglected. She suspected they were talking about sex and wasn't sure she really wanted to join in those sorts of chats, but...
“Sexy. You know, when you look at someone and think about, um...All that skin showing makes it sexy. And how tight it is. I mean, her butt's practically hanging out.”
“It is well-shaped. Very round.”
“Stop looking at and talking about her butt, you guys!”
“Yours is nice too, Hiyori.”
“Tao!” Natsuki's face turned red. “You can't say that to her!”
“Why not? We just said it about the other girl.”
Hiyori was embarrassed but also had to laugh – Tao genuinely didn't know any better. “That's boy-talk. Stuff you only talk about between boys. Or you can compliment your girlfriend in private. Otherwise, it's not appropriate, Natsuki.”
He smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“Anyway, you shouldn't be judging people by the shape of their bodies. Kiri is very nice and super-smart and she's not...”
Kiri was hugging some older man at the bar. Then she kissed him and his hands groped her. That wasn't their first kiss. Kiri had a new boyfriend. No, Kiri had a lover.
“Wow. You said she just broke up with Juuzen at the Hanami? She moves fast.”
Hiyori didn't know what to think. She would never have pictured Kiri acting like that. Kanako and Todo kissed and were cutesy and Hiyori knew in her head they were...doing it. But the kiss between Kiri and the guy was different. It wasn't cutesy or sweet. It made Hiyori uncomfortable to watch.
She turned her head away and saw Tao's face. He was staring at Natsuki. Staring like he wanted to kiss Natsuki the same way. He wiped the look off his face quickly but it was too late for Hiyori. She saw what she shouldn't have seen. He didn't look at her that way at all. She didn't want him or Natsuki to look at her like that. Did she?
Her fathers shared a lustful glance sometimes when they thought she wouldn't notice. They didn't act on it or make her uncomfortable though. She kind of thought it was cute – for them. She knew what it meant and refused to picture anything. They loved each other and it was healthy and normal. But Kiri can't have known Mr. Groping-Her-Butt for very long. Does she love him?
Everyone in the bar that she knew were in relationships – they kissed that way in private, didn't they? They had all done it or wanted to do it. Hiyori knew that on an intellectual level, didn't want to imagine any of it. Everyone but me.
She needed a minute alone to think. Unfamiliar with the layout of White Fang, she headed toward what she thought would be the restroom. She ended up in the private dining room and saw people out on the patio. Spinning around to go back, she bumped into Miho.
“Oh, Hiyori dear. Are you having a nice...what's wrong?”
A woman. A woman she liked and trusted. “Miho-sensei, when does a girl start wanting to...have sex?” She muttered the last part.
“Oh my. You...” Miho looked around and pulled Hiyori to the back corner of the room. Setting up two chairs so they faced each other, she plopped Hiyori into one and sat in the other, holding Hiyori's hands. “Is someone pressuring you, sweetie? Tao or Natsuki?”
“No, they aren't. But why? Why don't they? They both said they liked me but they don't seem interested in me like they were with...Not that I want them to be! I think?”
“Interested...? Ah, the girl in the bar just now? She's older than you.”
“Not that much older. Will I suddenly change? When? What if they don't wait for me to catch up?”
“Which one? Natsuki? Tao? I'm confused.”
“So am I. I don't know which one. Both. Either?”
“Goodness, Hiyori. Listen, there is no set age. When you're ready, you'll feel it. You start imagining it, thinking about it a lot, and your body – not your heart - will have a reaction to those thoughts. Not fear, but a thrill that is stronger than any fears. There is no way of knowing when it will happen for you. Love can bring it out, but not always.”
Hiyori had felt a little thrill that night with the kissing, but not enough. She'd had more of an emotional reaction than a physical one.
“I don't suppose that's helpful but it's the truth. We all mature at our own rate. We all have our own ways of feeling and expressing desire. And any boy who won't wait or who pressures you isn't the right one. Many women give in to a man's wishes before they're ready and that can spoil it.” Miho frowned. “You said they confessed to you – both of them?”
Hiyori nodded. She wasn't about to add that the two boys also liked each other. “Sort of. We talked about it and agreed we were too young and should just be friends for now. But I heard them talking tonight – they seem ready. Not towards me, just in general. I know I'm not going to do sex stuff with anyone yet. But it kind of hurts that they don't even think of me in that way. Am I being stupid?”
Miho laughed, just a little. “You're not being stupid. You want to feel attractive, desirable. You're mature for your age in many ways and a lot of your friends are older. It's a difficult time for boys and girls, trying to figure these things out. I waited until I fell in love when I was twenty and engaged, but I was never very outgoing.”
“Why is it so complicated?” Hiyori asked.
“I don't know. It just is. And it doesn't necessarily improve when you're older.”
Hiyori felt daring after all this talk. “Do you miss your husband? *Do you want him to come back?”
“No, not anymore. I did miss him for a long time but it faded. He's just not cut out to be a husband or a father, I'm afraid. I sometimes think I should divorce him and try finding someone else but...I don't have an income. We'd have to sell the house as well.”
“It must be lonely.”
“I suppose it is. I've gotten used to it and I had the boys. If Kensuke moves out...I don't know. When he does, I'll have to make a decision. But enough of that. Are you feeling better? Did I help at all?”
“I'll be okay. I've been comparing myself to Kanako and Kiri but you're right. They aren't me and they're three years older. I'm just impatient!” Hiyori smiled. “Otō-san says I can't date until I'm at least twenty anyway!”
“Ha! Your father loves you but he's silly. If you ever want to, you are welcome to come stay at the house with me for a few days. It would be nice to have a girl around for a change.”
“Thank you, Miho-sensei!” Hiyori hugged her.
“You're a good girl and a smart one. Pay attention to your feelings and don't let anyone tell you they are wrong. Now, I see two young men looking for you with concern on their faces. You talk to them. I think they are good young men but men can be kind of stupid.” That last part was just a whisper.
Hiyori giggled, comforted and reassured and very thankful to Miho for acting as a stand-in mother for this discussion. She had a better idea of what she was feeling and why and knew what had to be said. Not that she was looking forward to having to say any of it out loud. I may be younger but I'm smarter!
Miho gave Tao and Natsuki the eye as she went back to whatever she had been planning to do before running into Hiyori. Hiyori waved her two maybe-someday-probably-never boyfriends over, telling Natsuki to grab another chair.
“What happened? You just vanished. Did we make you mad?” Natsuki asked.
“We should not have done the boy-talk in front of you. We are sorry,” Tao added.
“Guys, I've been thinking.” Hiyori took a deep breath. “Our agreement isn't fair. The way we set it up, we are stuck waiting until all three of us are ready before we even know what we really want from each other. I don't want to do more than kiss anybody. If either of you want more, you should feel free to go do it with anyone you want. Waiting two or three years because of a promise is dumb.”
Natsuki's mouth dropped open.
Tao nodded a little sadly. “We made you feel pressure with our words.”
“Not really. Seeing Kiri kiss that guy is what made me think about it. Then I talked to Miho. I'm not like Kiri – not now, maybe not ever. Or maybe not with either of you. I don't know, but what I do know is that if you find yourself wanting someone that's not a bad thing. It's your choice to make.”
“Then, what now? I mean...” Natsuki looked guilty.
“We stay friends. Always, I hope. And if you two become more than that without me, I'll understand. Or if you meet someone else. Or whatever. It's not like we're married, right? I'm only fifteen! Maybe I'll like a hundred guys in the next five years before Otō-san lets me date!”
“A hundred? Try to keep it below fifty! I don't want to be tripping over the bodies of your rejected boyfriends when we hang out.”
“Ha!” She smacked Natsuki on the arm. “You trip over your shoelaces, clumsy.”
“Only that one time! I'm super-graceful! You should see me...uh...”
Tao laughed. “You are not graceful at all, Natsuki. You move like Goofball, whose feet are too big for his body.”
“You shut it! Just wait until Isogai's given me more judo lessons! And Ichimaru's teaching me to dance. I'll dance circles around both of you!”
“If you say so. I will wait to see this miracle.”
Natsuki grabbed Tao in a headlock and Tao only made a token effort to break free. They knocked over a chair in their mock-wrestling and Hiyori could only roll her eyes. Boys are stupid.
Yeah, those two were into each other. Hiyori wasn't mad about it, or not much - they were too cute. Whatever they had done or wanted to do with each other, she couldn't complain. She didn't want to do anything. When the day came that she was ready, then she would see. As long as they didn't shut her out completely, she was content to wait.
*Ooshiba Takamori – Volume 7 of Hitorijime My Hero confirmed he's alive. He seems to send money home while he works away somewhere.
Chapter 6: Reading the Mood
Reading the Mood
“That...Who is that?” Juuzen asked Ren.
Ren was observing closely, taking mental notes. “Huh? Oh, Nanahara, I said. He's one of Yashiro's guys.” Kiri stopped kissing Nanahara and led him off toward the girls.
“You mean he's yakuza? Is she crazy? Shouldn't we stop her or say something?”
“Why? And no, I don't think he's yakuza anymore. Yashiro quit, kind of like Asami-sama.”
“But he's old! And that was...right out in front of everybody! He's just using her for sex.”
Ren asked, “How do you know that? And what's his age got to do with it? Kiri isn't stupid. I was kind of surprised though. I haven't seen anyone kiss like that in public. I wonder why? Come on.”
Ren went to the bar and Juuzen followed. Hiroto was still there, though everyone had drinks by now. Isogai and Ichimaru had wandered off.
“Uh oh. I recognize that look by now. What is it, Ren?”
“Why don't more people kiss like that in public? Why did everyone kind of freak out? Not just because it was Kiri, right? Or because of the age gap?”
“Ah. Public displays make many people uncomfortable.”
“But hand-holding, hugging, or a little kiss is okay?”
“There is kissing for fun or affection, and then there is foreplay. People don't like to be reminded that they are sexual creatures, Ren. Not in public, not in their faces. It would be hard to walk around talking to people and imagining them getting naked and sweaty, don't you think? Too weird, too distracting. Or too arousing, depending on the people.”
Ren thought back to his reaction of seeing the table and recalling what Isogai and Hiroto had done on that table. Even he had quickly buried the image. “I see. That makes sense. Then why would they do that?”
Hiroto shrugged. “They felt like it. Both of them, by the way. I could tell - he wasn't pushing her out of any comfort zone. She was into it. Some people don't care or worry about other people's opinions or judgments. There are some people who even enjoy being watched, but I don't think they were doing that.”
Ren liked to observe, not be observed. He didn't like it when Haru made a show of being touchy-feely – it felt phony when Haru couldn't be properly affectionate without giving away their relationship. They had to pretend it was brotherly.
Haru could tune out people's stares, probably because his looks meant he was always being stared at. Haru was also very good at separating the affectionate type of touching from the more intimate type. From his days as a host?
“Oi, Juuzen. You were dating her, weren't you? Are you okay? That must have been extra uncomfortable for you.” Hiroto had a good memory - they'd only met once, at the Given performance.
“I'm worried. She and I broke up because, well, we didn't have any chemistry. We're still friends and I don't want her to get hurt by some...some womanizer.”
“I suggest you keep that to yourself if you want to stay her friend. She won't appreciate you interfering or saying anything negative about Nanahara. Look, they're going to the smoking patio. Why don't you go say hi and be a good sport and talk to him a little? Get to know him before you say anything that will piss her off. Plus...he can probably kick your ass.”
Juuzen asked for a shot of something. Hiroto's eyebrows went up but he didn't refuse. It was a party and he wasn't required to check for ID.
“Me too,” Ren piped up. “Haru won't mind if I have just one.”
“I'll tell him you said that if he asks. Okay, coming right up.”
He poured them both something golden, not in a shot glass but a wine glass.
“What is it?” Ren asked, sniffing. It smelled sweet but not too cloying.
“Umeshu. Liquor steeped with plums. You're not supposed to shoot it but it goes down smoothly. It's pretty strong, so be prepared. And don't come back here when I'm not looking and pour yourself more. Now shoo. Have fun.”
Taking their glasses, Ren and Juuzen shared a look and then clinked them together. “Kanpai!” they sipped cautiously.
“Not bad.” Juuzen drank some more.
“I like it better than that sangria Haru made us,” Ren said. “You want to meet Nanahara?”
Juuzen finished his drink in one big gulp. “Not really but I guess I should.”
“Good. I want to talk with Tatsumi-sensei and he's out there too.” Ren swallowed his drink down as well. It left a warm path down his throat and then the heat came back up to his face.
“Whoa, your cheeks are real pink.” Juuzen laughed at him, a little too loudly.
All the teachers had ended up outside. Tatsumi and his father, Kamijou, Kousuke, Dee Dee, and Miho were all gathered around chatting. Kiri and Nanahara were off by themselves in the corner.
Ren paused, not wanting to step in if they were going to do more making out. It didn't seem like it, they were talking. He grabbed Juuzen's arm before he could dodge the situation by getting into a conversation with Soujin.
“You can talk to him later. Come on.”
“...better if it means something to you, not just some flower or whatever. You'd get sick of that shit real fast. And not a name,” Nanahara was saying.
“I know, that's why I'm thinking about it. What do yours mean?”
“Not much. I just asked for something not too cheesy and let the guy do what he wanted. It turned out okay, but I got them more as a sign, you know? It hurt like a moth-”
“Hey Kiri, Nanahara.”
Kiri's face went through a few different expressions. Surprise, annoyance, discomfort, then settled on a polite smile. “Hi, Ren. Hi, Juuzen. Nanahara Yuusuke, this is Kurosaki Juuzen, a friend of ours.”
“Hey. How you guys doing? Nice party, Ren.”
Ren, being Ren, didn't do small talk. “Do you like her? It didn't bother you to kiss her like that? You guys have done it, right? Kiri, why him and not Juuzen?”
Kiri groaned and Juuzen looked ready to die on the spot and Nanahara stared, trying to process.
“Wut?” He gave Juuzen the up-and-down. “He's the one, Girly?”
“Uh, yeah. Ren! Don't ask questions like that!”
“If you kiss him like that in front of everybody, then you should be fine talking about it.”
“Consider the place, Ren, and who else is here. I'm sorry, Juuzen. I wasn't...”
“It's okay. I was surprised is all. Anyway, you saw me kissing Dee Dee, right? I guess that makes us even.” Juuzen was a very nice guy. “Not that she and I were...! She was just joking around. And I don't want to hear any um, details.”
“Damn, kid. You kissed the lady? Good for you. She scares me.”
“Haha. She scared me too. But she's really nice when you get to know her.”
Ren wasn't going to give up that easily. “Hiroto says some people like being watched. Are you like that now, Kiri?”
“What? I haven't become some sort of exhibitionist if that's what you're asking. I'm just tired of trying to be proper all the time. If people don't like it, they can eat shit.”
She's talking differently. Past-Kiri rarely, if ever, used swear words. “I didn't say I didn't like it. I thought it was interesting. Do it again.”
“An exhi-what now? And you can't tell us when to kiss, kid. That's a mood thing. You ain't all that good at reading the mood, are you? Eh, I'm maybe not either, but even I ain't gonna kiss her on your command.”
“So it was a spontaneous, spur of the moment kiss? You weren't establishing your dominance or challenging the order as a newcomer or displaying your strength as a partner?”
“I'm lost.” Nanahara lit another cigarette. “Damn, I'm trying to quit and this party's got me all stressed out. I got no clue what you're talking about. She kissed me hello and I got a bit too handsy, yeah? Don't guess this crowd goes for that, but it was tame compared to shit I've seen.”
Nanahara blew a cloud of smoke upward. “There's bars where people fuck right in the booth, dudes who have business meetings while getting their cock sucked. I've seen gang-bangs and orgies and all kinds of kinky shit. And...nasty stuff as well. Maybe some of those guys were trying to prove something, what you meant by dominance. I ain't like that, not by a longshot.”
Kiri spoke up. “Ren spent a lot of time with wolves – real ones – in Canada. He tends to compare human behavior to wolf pack behavior. Ren, Yuusuke is not some alpha making sure no one will try and steal his mate.”
“Well, you dressed like one. Kind of.”
“You're always talking about them, so when I saw this costume I just bought it on impulse. I thought it was cute. Anyway. Enough about the wolves and mating rituals and sex. Why aren't you with Haru? Why don't you go bother him?”
“I'm planning to – later. I'm going to seduce him so he'll stop being a pain. He has cabin fever or something. I think he needs to talk to people more so I'm staying out of his way for now.”
Kiri laughed. Nanahara blinked and said nothing.
“What? You think I can't seduce him?”
“Sure you can,” Kiri answered. “I doubt it will take much effort. Haru's crazy about you. I was just trying to imagine your technique.”
“I know what to do. Hiroto showed me once.”
All of them looked at Ren, waiting for a demonstration. All of them very carefully hid the fact that Haru was standing right behind Ren.
“I can't do it without a partner. Oh, there was one thing. Hiroto said it never fails. You moan like this – Ahh! Ack!”
“Yes, that works!” Haru carried Ren off, slung over his shoulder.
Nanahara, Kiri, and Juuzen watched them go.
“Yup. That would work. You wanna try it on me, Girly?”
Juuzen left, in case they started kissing again.
Chapter 7: No Technique Necessary
No Technique Necessary
Haru didn't put Ren down until they were alone in their bedroom. There, he threw Ren on the bed and stood next to it, arms crossed.
“Haru! It's too early! Everyone's here – don't you want to spend time with them?”
“They can wait. What were you talking about with Kiri and Juuzen and that gangster? Why is Hiroto telling you to moan? Why were you letting them hear you make a sound that only I should ever hear?”
Oops. Haru was jealous. Of the fake moan? Ren didn't get it.
“Is that really what I sound like? I was just...”
“I don't care why! Don't do it again! Don't kiss Juuzen! Don't look at Kiri's butt! Don't let Kiyo's friends pet your head or squeeze your arms or-mph!”
Ren had launched himself off the bed and into Haru's arms, kissing him wildly. Ren had spouted a lot of nonsense about seduction. His only technique was this one. Because it worked.
“I only want you, Haru. I'll never want anyone but you.” He already had his shirt off and was clawing at Haru's. Haru's hand was inside Ren's pants, stroking him, and he moaned for real this time. “Ahh! Haru! Nngh!”
“No one but me, Ren! I'm yours and you're mine!” Haru dropped to his knees and used his mouth. He was relentless, rough, as if he wanted to eat Ren alive.
“W-wait! Hah! Haru! I'm...” Haru ignored him and Ren came, whole body convulsing with the force of it.
Without a moment to catch his breath, he was face down on the bed, Haru spreading his cheeks apart with one hand and opening the lube bottle with the other. “No waiting.”
Cold liquid dripped onto his ass and into the groove. Haru's fingers smeared it around and then one entered. Ren jolted and whined. It felt so good! “More! Hurry!”
“Fuck!” Haru prepped him as quickly as possible, probably less than he should have, and thrust in.
“Nnn!” It hurt but Ren didn't care. It was Haru, that was all that mattered. It had been too long and Ren was aching for him.
“Ren! Oh god, Ren! Are you okay? I can't...” Haru was apologizing but hadn't stopped moving.
“Good! Don't stop!” Ren craned his head around as far as he could and Haru's mouth locked on his.
They bruised each other's lips, their foreheads knocked together. Haru moved to Ren's shoulder and bit him hard enough to draw blood before licking it away. They were panting and grunting and Ren felt Haru go deeper inside than he ever had before.
Haru was completely out of control, something that didn't happen. Always, Haru had the upper hand, played Ren's body like an instrument he was an expert with. Not this time. Haru was doing what Haru wanted, needed, and Ren loved it.
When Haru's hand slapped his ass, Ren shouted and bucked and Haru did it again. “Call my name, Ren! I want to hear it.”
“H-haru! Haru! Haru!”
Haru pulled Ren's hips up, changing the angle and freeing Ren's aching cock to bounce with each thrust. “Do it yourself!” Haru had a grip on Ren's hips and wasn't going to let go.
Ren stroked himself, still chanting, “Haru, Haru, Haru... Hah! Ahh!!” He came for the second time.
“REN! Ngh!” Haru thrust one last time, very deep, and wrapped his arms around Ren's chest. He squeezed so tightly, Ren almost passed out. But he was marveling. Haru had come inside him – something else he'd never done before. Ren liked that feeling, Haru's cock pulsing, filling him.
“I love you, Ren. I'm sorry if I hurt you. I'm...I'm a monster when it comes to you. I don't like it. I scare myself.” Ren felt tears on his back.
“You're not a monster. You're my Haru. No one can change that – not even you. And you didn't hurt me. I'm fine. I liked it, Haru. If you're a monster, so am I.”
“Really?” Haru fell onto the bed beside Ren. He pulled Ren against his chest and stroked his hair. “I don't know what's wrong with me, Ren. I thought once we started having sex, I'd calm down after a while. But with both of us home, and I've got nothing to do all day...I want to attack you constantly. I have to hold back all the time.”
Ren raised his head to stare into Haru's beautiful eyes. “That's why we haven't had sex for days and days? You're a dumbass.”
“I am a dumbass. I made it worse by trying to make it go away. I was too rough with you.”
“Stop that! I liked it! Maybe not all the time, but it was amazing! Shut up and don't feel guilty! And don't hold back with me. You don't scare me, okay? You'd never really hurt me - I know that and so should you.”
Maybe Haru believed him this time. “Okay, Ren. But you promise to tell me if I push you too far. I know you, too, and you don't complain to me when you should.”
“Good. Let's get cleaned up and...oh my god.”
“The party! I forgot about the party! Your lips are all bruised and can you even walk?”
Ren laughed. “You have a red mark on your forehead and your lips are just as swollen.” He moved his legs a bit. “I can walk. My butt stings where you spanked me though.”
“Argh!” Haru hid his face beneath a pillow. “Dlfkahkldkm.”
Ren pulled the pillow away. “You. Didn't. Hurt. Me.” Each word punctuated with a kiss. “I love you. Do you really want to go back out there? Everyone's going to know what we just did.”
“They know whether we go back or not. Does that bother you?”
Ren thought of what Kiri said. “No. If they don't like it, they can eat shit.”
Haru laughed. A carefree, relaxed laugh. “Fine. A quick shower and we'll go act like nothing happened. If you can walk.”
Ren sat up, hid a wince when his lower back twinged, and hopped off the bed. He almost fell down.
“No. I just need a second.” He stretched and felt strained muscles complain then loosen up. “I'm out of shape. I'm going to start running again in the morning. Will you go with me?”
“To the ends of the earth. But first, to the bathroom!” Haru scooped Ren up and carried him.
Another first – Ren didn't argue or fight to be let down, just wrapped his arms around Haru's neck and enjoyed the ride.
Chapter 8: People Watching
Doumeki Ineko watched and listened and demolished a plate full of Haru's snacks. This party was better than any drama she'd ever seen on television. She was grateful Aoi had insisted she attend. Though she had protested and tried to avoid it with excuses, she secretly had been wanting to meet all the people Aoi came home and told her about at night over dinner.
Aoi, her beloved daughter, had finally come out of her shell with help from a therapist and the love of a wonderful young man. Ikuyoshi was everything Ineko could have hoped for in a partner for Aoi. Kind and gentle and fun and supportive, he put Aoi at ease and made her laugh and Ineko was already looking forward to being a grandmother. She kept that to herself – Aoi should spread her wings.
It had taken a very long time for Ineko to forgive herself for what happened in their family. With time and love and counseling, she'd made peace with it and herself and her children, but it had been a long, hard journey. A journey that led her to this amazing collection of sparkling, exciting, fascinating people. She sipped her wine, tucked away in a corner, eyes darting here, there, everywhere.
Ikuyoshi occasionally brought over someone to introduce, taking care not to overwhelm her. His best friend Haru and the host of the party – Oh my! So gorgeous and with a darling contrast of a partner in young Ren with his intense eyes and forthright manner. Kousuke, another incredibly handsome man, and his sweet overly-polite boyfriend Masahiro.
Ikuyoshi and Aoi pointed out others and named them. A threesome! Kanako, who Aoi liked to tell her about, was every bit as outgoing and bossy as she'd been described, her policeman boyfriend at her side with an adoring smile. Reiko and Shima – Reiko who could apparently do magic? She did have a mysterious quality to her, and a wonderful sense of fashion.
Aki and Ugetsu were an eye-catching pair, a small fox asleep on Ugetsu's shoulder. Another Aki with another policeman named Ueda. This Aki wore an eye-blistering shirt, but Ueda didn't mind. A whole group of people who were gender ambiguous – men or women or somewhere in-between. It didn't matter, they were fabulous.
Then came the biggest surprise of the evening. Not only did Chikara arrive, but he brought his lover Yashiro over for an introduction! Talk about handsome! And adorably bashful – imagine that! She knew everything and never would have guessed this beautiful man had been yakuza or had...interesting tastes. She didn't care – being with him brought a small smile to Chikara's lips and that meant everything to Ineko. Her son hadn't smiled in a very long time.
Yashiro made a gallant effort to speak to her politely. Then they were all distracted by a rather daring display of affection from a girl in a costume and Yashiro made his escape, leaving Ineko giggling.
“Chikara, thank you for letting me meet Yashiro. I liked him, truly. And he makes you happy. That makes me happy.”
“He ran away.” Chikara almost laughed!
“He did! Quite skillfully. Go chase him if you wish.”
“He chose the most outrageous group to hide in. I'll leave him there for now.”
But Yashiro came back not too long after, bringing with him a woman Ineko's age.
“This is Fujioka Ranka, Haruhi's...”
“I'm her father,” Ranka filled in, his voice pleasant and cheerful. “Yashiro says you're a wizard with a needle? I have this dress I'd really like to have altered a bit and then maybe some embroidery added.”
Ooh. A job offer. How nice! “I'd love to help you with that! What sort of alterations? And do you have a design already for the fancy work? You know, Aoi could draw something unique for you...”
They fell into a fun discussion of fashion and their children and Ineko felt she'd made a new friend. How clever and intuitive of Yashiro to bring them together. She didn't notice when the others drifted away, leaving them alone to chat.
Kanako approached and introduced herself. “Hello, Doumeki Ineko. I'm Tatsumi Kanako. Hi, Ranka. Sorry to interrupt.”
“Aoi has told me so much about you, Kanako – you don't mind me calling you that? I feel like I know you already. And you must call me Ineko.”
Kanako grinned. “She warned you about me? Well, do you dare allow me to lead you somewhere else? I'd like you to meet my father and oldest brother – both of you. They're outside with a few other people your age. Teacher types.”
Ranka looked at Ineko, eyebrows raised. “Want to go with her?”
Why not? Isn't that why I came – to meet new people? “I'd like that. Lead us astray, child.”
Kanako laughed and took them each by the hand. They had to stop for a disturbance – Haru charged past, Ren over his shoulder and pounding on his back, yelling. Kanako only laughed some more and tugged them along.
On the patio, a large collection of chairs had taken over one side, while the overly-affectionate couple was talking quietly in a corner.
A young man with his hair partially bleached blond had been halted by a stunning woman who had to be Haru's mother. She was whispering something into his ear – which had turned red. He skittered over to an outdoor gas heater, dragged it over to the chairs, and lit it before dashing off.
“That's my friend Kiri and her new boyfriend, Nanahara. They...uh...get along really well, right? The guy who just ran away is Juuzen. And here...Hey, Dad!”
Oh. Ineko had to force herself to focus as Kanako rattled off a list of names. Tatsumi Soujin was...so very alive. He radiated energy and cheer, just like his daughter. Beside him sat a younger, more intense version of him, hand held by a sweet-faced, charming man named Morinaga.
“Ineko? Grasshopper? What a wonderful name! Sit, sit! Join us! Kana-chan, can you get me a beer? Do you need another drink, Doumeki? Fujioka? Did you know grasshoppers have been around at least 250 million years? And there are over 11,000 different species of them. Marvelous insects. Well, aside from the locusts who occasionally swarm and eat acres and acres of anything even remotely plant-like and maybe even your clothes. They-”
“Dad! Don't drown her in bug facts!” his son scolded.
“Grasshoppers are not bugs, they're insects.”
“I don't mind. You may call me Ineko – all of you. I don't know anything about grasshoppers, or why my parents chose that name for me. I'm not jumpy,” Ineko tried to joke.
“Maybe you spit-up on them a lot. Grasshoppers spit a dark brown-mph!”
“Dad, that's gross.” This time it was Kanako who had muffled her father with a hand over his mouth. “Behave or I won't bring you a beer, I'll bring you a gag.”
He made sad eyes at her and Kanako had to laugh. “Be right back.” She skipped off for drinks.
“Sorry,” Soujin said, watching his daughter leave. “I'm an entomologist – an insect researcher. I get carried away. What do you two lovely ladies do?”
Ranka spoke up right away. “I'm an entertainer at an okama* bar. I'm Haruhi's father.”
Soujin blinked in surprise. But not disgust or shock. “Is that so? You're damn pretty! Not much make-up either. That Kiyoka – she wears too much. Does Haruhi's mother give you tips?”
“She passed away when Haruhi was eight. This,” Ranka gestured at himself, “is my way of honoring her memory. I'm sure that seems strange but...I made a promise to never love another woman. I began dating only men and that led me to the job. I found I liked dressing this way. I never was very masculine.”
“I'm a widower myself, so believe me when I say I understand. We all grieve differently. I ran away, I'm afraid. Left Souichi to deal with his siblings. He did a better job of it than I could have done. I'm lucky none of my children hate me.”
“We never blamed you, Dad. We just hope that maybe this time you'll stick around for a while. Even after the virus clears up.”
“I don't know.” Soujin gazed off into the distance. “I've the soul of a wanderer, restless feet. The rainforest calls me. But if I do leave again, I'll come back more often – that's a promise.”
“You go alone?” Ineko asked. “Aren't you afraid of...animals? Natives? Getting lost or hurt out where there are no doctors?”
“Oh, no. I put together a small team of people and hire local guides. The rainforest can be dangerous, but also very peaceful, tranquil when you know what you're doing. And the people who live there are usually welcoming and generous. If any of you ever wish to experience it, I'd be happy for you to join me on an expedition. It's rough living but there is something magical about existing so close to nature.”
Kanako returned during that last bit, with a tray of drinks she handed around.
“No hot water. Sleeping on the ground and pooping behind a tree. Eating some of those bugs or insects you love so much? No thanks, Dad.”
“Kana-chan, someday you'll wipe your butt with a leaf and love it!”
“Eww!” Everyone laughed and the conversation turned to more general talk.
Ineko let it all wash over her. These people were highly educated, well-spoken, bold, opinionated, passionate. She didn't feel she had anything to contribute but enjoyed listening to them debate and argue and discuss a large variety of topics. Science, art, literature, pop culture, society, business, romance. A few drifted away and others replaced them.
At one point, Ren reappeared looking a bit...tired...and insinuated himself, managing to hold his own with Soujin and Kousuke and Dee Dee. Kiri, the young woman in the costume, got caught up in a discussion about Usami Akihiko's latest novel with the striking Kamijou and Miho. Her boyfriend was uncomfortable at first, but Morinaga soon had him talking about Yashiro's exploits.
Ineko was fairly certain they were getting highly-edited versions of those adventures, peppered with colorful language Nanahara couldn't filter out completely. What an interesting pair Kiri and Nanahara were, so very different from each other on the surface, so clearly in tune if watched closely.
Nanahara had at first reminded her of someone she didn't want to think about. But...he stood behind Kiri's chair, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder, absently drifting up to caress her cheek or stroke her hair. Kiri smiled when he made those gestures. They weren't even looking at each other much of the time.
He held out his drink for her to sip. She reached into his pocket for his phone to look something up. Either he didn't keep a lock code or Kiri knew what it was. So much easy intimacy between them, awareness. And when their eyes did meet – Oof! Fire there, smoldering. Ineko was jealous – she had never experienced anything like their connection.
They were a new couple, Kanako had said. Dee Dee kept an eye on them, Ren as well. Kanako seemed a little jealous, fell silent as she studied them. Perhaps wondering why those two were different than she and her Todo.
Ineko might have told her to observe her own brother, who appeared oblivious to Morinaga yet snatched glances at him on the sly. Or Kousuke, who drew his Masahiro into a discussion then sat back and smiled as the younger man chattered away happily. Ren and Haru had already demonstrated their bond.
Aoi and Ikuyoshi came by to check on her, holding hands. They went off again, bumping shoulders and giggling. Ugetsu wandered out to smoke, Aki close behind. They were snapping at each other until Ugetsu stole a kiss and Aki could only sputter before mock-strangling his laughing boyfriend.
Two young men trailed behind a girl - the youngest guest at the party, Ineko thought. The three were teasing and bickering like friends do, trying to convince the girl not to go home yet. She didn't let them sway her, asked Kanako and Todo to drive her home and apologized for making them leave the party early.
“Don't worry, Hiyori, it's not a problem. Kanako, if you want to stay, I can run her home and come back?” Todo offered. “Soujin? Anyone else need a ride?”
“I'm a little tired myself,” Kanako said. “We can all go.”
“Is it late? I'm wide awake,” Soujin told them. “We old people don't need as much sleep. I can find my way home, either with Sou-kun or a taxi. Drive safely. Hiyo-chan, I'll see you on Tuesday. Natsuki, Tao – have you done your homework yet?”
“Uh...nope!” The shorter one grinned impishly.
The taller, gorgeous one frowned at him. “You did not finish? Sensei – I will make Natsuki do the lesson tomorrow.”
“Tao! You're no fun! When did you do yours?”
“While you were soaking in the bathtub for an hour last night. Next time, I will fish you out.”
Soujin laughed at their antics as they began roughhousing with each other. Hiyori shook her head and left them to it, Kanako and Todo following her.
Ineko noticed something she didn't think any of the others saw. Natsuki's face had turned red, not from being called out about his homework-avoiding but from the idea of Tao seeing him in the bath. Hmm. Play-fighting or an excuse to touch each other?
The party had provided so much fuel for later thought. She didn't want it to end, to go home to the quiet house and her pile of clothes to mend or tailor. It was going to be extremely boring, especially now that the family she was a nanny for had decided to isolate themselves. She wasn't needed with both mother and father working from home.
She hadn't told Aoi about that yet. She had a little money squirreled away - it would be fine.
Ranka had gone off somewhere and Soujin slipped into the seat beside Ineko. “You watch people the way I watch insects. I wonder what you see that the rest of us don't.”
“Tonight...a lot of love, in an endless variety of forms.” Ineko shocked herself by saying. He had caught her in a reflective moment.
“A young person's game. My heart aches just thinking about all the ups and downs ahead of them. I want them all to stay as safe and happy as they are at this moment.”
“You've ruled out the possibility for yourself? We aren't that old.” Goodness. That sounded flirty. I haven't had that much wine, surely?
“I'm too crazy. Who'd want me when I vanish for months on end? I was a barely acceptable husband and a mess of a father. Now? I'm too set in my ways to settle down again.”
“What if there was a woman out there who would travel beside you?”
“The mythical unicorn?” He laughed. “When I talked about seeing the jungles with me, I meant a few weeks at most. I couldn't ask a woman to suffer through months of that kind of living.”
“Don't be ridiculous. If you can do it, so can a woman.”
“Ehh! Put me in my place!” He grinned at her, unashamed. “You're right, I know. I tend to think of all women as being like Kanako. She wouldn't last long without the hot water, believe me! I do know women researchers who are out in the field, same as me. Our interests don't align. We tend to be a solitary, obsessive bunch.”
She had a sudden fear that she was about to miss an opportunity, one that might never repeat itself. “Would you like to come over for dinner sometime?” Ack! I just blurted it out!
He didn't answer verbally. He held out his phone and she entered her phone number with fingers that trembled. She handed it back and he hit the send button, making her own phone ring in the purse at her feet.
“Any time that is convenient for you,” he muttered as he stood up. At his normal volume, he said, “Excuse me, I need to take advantage of civilized modern plumbing.”
When Soujin returned, he went to his previous seat. Ineko sat in a daze but no one noticed. She hadn't been talking much, to begin with. When Aoi and Ikuyoshi came to ask if she was ready to leave, Ineko said a general good night to everyone and they all wished her the same, as friends do.
As they left the patio, she couldn't help but glance back at him. He saw. He winked discreetly. Eeek!!
“I think Mom had a good time, but maybe she's drunk?” Aoi said softly to Ikuyoshi. He only shrugged.
Ineko knew she had a stupid smile all over her face the whole drive home. She wasn't the only one to go home in a very good mood.
Later, everyone would agree – the party had been a success.
The Tokyo Yaoiverse does not encourage “Virus Makes Me Sad” Parties - unless you are sexy fictional characters. See you all for the next story!
*Okama Bar – a bar with live entertainment of men dressed as women.