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Birthday Surprise (Redux)

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Last year, after a surprise party that had almost gone disastrously wrong (though everything had worked out in the end), Iwaki had promised to celebrate Katou's next birthday promptly, starting off with breakfast in bed, hopefully to be followed by some lovemaking for dessert.

Except that "next year" was now today, and Katou was forced to spend his birthday alone because Iwaki was filming on location in Hawaii, having won a role in a prestigious American film by a world-famous director--an opportunity that Katou agreed could not be passed up. Katou would gladly have joined his husband in Hawaii, having fond memories of their last visit there, except that he was also committed to filming on location here in Kyoto. They were on a tight schedule and there was no time or money in the budget to stop filming for a couple of days just because Katou wanted a little holiday.

So because it was what Iwaki would expect of him, Katou did his best to be mature and focus on his work. And he really was happy to be working on Basara, a biographic drama about the famous warlord Oda Nobunaga. He had initially been worried about being compared to Iwaki's portrayal of Nobunaga in a previous drama, but the script was brilliant and Katou felt confident that he could rise to the challenge and bring something new to the character, something that would captivate the audience just as much as--or maybe even more than--Iwaki's portrayal.

And Iwaki had made an effort to do something special for Katou's birthday even though they were apart. Although Iwaki wasn't given to romantic, extravagant gestures, he'd had a huge bouquet of red roses delivered to Katou, along with a card that said, "Happy birthday, Katou. I'm sorry that I won't be there to celebrate it with you, but I want you to know that every year I spend with you brings even more joy than the last. I love you and I miss you, and I promise that we'll have a belated celebration when I get home. Love, Iwaki."

He had also sent a more informal e-mail, saying, "Sorry I can't be there with you. I'll be home in a couple of weeks, and I promise to bring back lots of souvenirs for you! Please work hard and don't be too depressed. I feel relieved that you have many friends working alongside you on this drama, so please go out and have a good time celebrating with them!"

It was true that Katou wasn't completely alone on his birthday, as three of his friends had also been cast in the drama. Yoshizumi was playing Akechi Mitsuhide, the vassal who would eventually betray Nobunaga and cause his downfall and death--a complex supporting role that was well-suited to Yoshizumi's abilities. (Although Katou would like to see his friend take on a leading role one day.) Miyasaka had been cast as Hashiba Hideyoshi, one of Nobunaga's generals, who would later be known as Toyotomi Hideyoshi when he achieved his lord's goal of uniting Japan after Nobunaga's death. And Onozuka was playing Mori Ranmaru, Nobunaga's handsome and devoted young page.

There was also an acquaintance among the cast who was most definitely not a friend: Kikuchi Katsuya, who was playing one of Nobunaga's rivals, Uesugi Kenshin. But since Kikuchi and Onozuka were now lovers, Katou tolerated the bastard's presence--just barely. Besides, Katou figured that hating the actor who was playing his enemy provided some added realism to his performance.

Being surrounded by his friends made it slightly easier to bear Iwaki's absence. And while Kikuchi wasn't exactly comforting, the cutting remarks and thinly veiled insults that they traded at least provided a distraction. So although it was with some difficulty, Katou was able to set aside his loneliness and concentrate on his performance. It helped that Yoshizumi so completely became the treacherous Mitsuhide that Katou was spurred on to equally submerge himself into his own role, and as he became Nobunaga, Katou Youji's worries faded away into the back of his mind, a distant concern.

"My lord, you cannot ask this of me!" the normally reserved Yoshizumi-as-Mitsuhide cried out with passionate vehemence.

"I was not asking, Mitsuhide," Katou-as-Nobunaga growled in a low, threatening voice, his eyes narrowing with irritation. Onozuka-as-Ranmaru knelt in attendance at his side, looking elegant and composed in spite of the argument going between Mitsuhide and his lord. "I am ordering you to go and support Saru in his suppression of the Mori!"

"But for me to be subordinate under Hashiba's command--" Mitsuhide protested with obvious distaste for the peasant-born Hideyoshi, nicknamed "Saru" or "Monkey."

"When you have won as many victories as Hideyoshi has, then perhaps you can complain to me," Nobunaga snarled, his patience clearly at an end. "Until then, get out of my sight and do as you're told!"

Mitsuhide's face contorted with anger and humiliation, but he bowed and said stiffly, "Yes, my lord," and exited the room.

Once he was gone, Nobunaga relaxed and looked much calmer, which encouraged Ranmaru to ask diffidently, "My lord?"

"Yes, Ranmaru?" Nobunaga replied good-naturedly, with an affectionate smile for his favorite page.

"Have you not been rather harsh with Sir Akechi as of late?" Ranmaru asked.

"Mitsuhide is a snob," Nobunaga replied bluntly. "He can't stand that Saru, who comes from a family of farmers, ranks above him. But I promote my men according to their merits, not their bloodlines. Let Mitsuhide win glory in battle as the monkey has, and I shall reward him accordingly."

"Sir Hashiba is indeed a brilliant strategist," Ranmaru agreed respectfully. "But I was not referring only to this incident, my lord. You have reprimanded him several times before this, and even confiscated his fief."

"And awarded him a new one," Nobunaga pointed out.

"Which is located in hostile territory and must be won through battle," Ranmaru countered, still with an air of utmost respect.

"Mitsuhide is a valued retainer with much potential," Nobunaga said, his voice and expression both serious now. "But he is always holding something of himself back--he lacks spirit and conviction, unlike Saru, who throws himself wholeheartedly into his efforts."

"I see," Ranmaru said with sudden comprehension. "You are testing him, pushing him to go beyond his limits and achieve his full potential." When Nobunaga smiled and nodded, Ranmaru continued, "But my lord, I do not think that Sir Akechi understands how much you value him. If he is disheartened by what he sees as your insults, might it not have the opposite effect of what you hope to achieve?"

"Mitsuhide is like a sword being forged in flame," Nobunaga replied. "If the steel is of high quality, then it will become all the stronger and make a fine weapon for me to wield. But if it breaks, that means it is weak and of no use to me."

Ranmaru bowed his head and said, "Yes, my lord."

"Cut!" the director called out, looking very pleased. "Good work, everyone! This was a crucial scene, and you all handled it very well." While not much happened action-wise during the scene, it was a major turning point in the drama: as Ranmaru predicted, Mitsuhide would not see through to Nobunaga's deeper intentions, and this final insult would drive him to the breaking point. Soon after he would betray his lord and lead the fatal attack against Nobunaga at Honnō-ji Temple. Nobunaga would commit suicide when defeat proved to be inevitable, and faithful to the end, Ranmaru would die at his side.

"We can wrap up filming for today," the director said. "But before we go, let us all wish a happy birthday to Katou-san!"

Katou was a little surprised, but he probably shouldn't have been. He had not made any mention of his birthday on the set, but his birthdate was easily available for anyone to look up, as it was part of his official bio in the publicity information distributed by his agency. He always got a number of birthday cards and gifts every year from fans, although they would normally be sent to the agency's office in Tokyo, so he hadn't yet received anything this year.

The assistant director brought out a cake and everyone sang "Happy Birthday" while the leading actress, who played Nobunaga's beloved concubine Kitsuno, presented Katou with a bouquet of flowers. All this didn't make up for the lack of his Iwaki-san, but that was hardly their fault, and Katou was genuinely touched by the gesture. So he blew out the candles, thanked everyone for remembering his birthday, and laughed and joked with the cast and crew as they ate the cake. Most of them obviously had no idea how badly he was missing Iwaki, but his close friends knew better because Yoshizumi and Miyasaka gave him sympathetic smiles, and Onozuka patted him on the shoulder in a comforting manner.

***


Katou also received birthday wishes via phone and e-mail from his family, Kaneko, Shimizu, and many other friends and colleagues. His parents had also mailed him a box filled with his favorite treats from his hometown. And later that night, Yoshizumi, Miyasaka, and Onozuka took him out to dinner at a very lovely traditional Japanese restaurant. (Kikuchi came along as well, though more to be with Onozuka than out of a desire to celebrate with Katou.)

I should feel lucky to have so many people who care about me, Katou reminded himself firmly, trying to be a good sport. But honestly, he was tired of keeping up a cheerful front, and as selfish and childish as it was, he would have preferred to be alone in his hotel room where he could miss Iwaki and wallow in his misery to his heart's content.

"The food is delicious," Katou politely told Yoshizumi, who had chosen the restaurant.

But Onozuka, sharp-eyed (and sharp-tongued) as always, snorted with mingled exasperation and amusement, then said, "You've barely tasted it, Katou. It's obvious that you have no appetite. You're missing your precious Iwaki-san, aren't you?"

"I can't help it!" Katou wailed, and Miyasaka gave Onozuka a reproving look. "I miss Iwaki-san! I haven't seen him in weeks, which is bad enough, but we'd promised to spend my birthday together. That makes it even harder to be without him today."

"There, there, Katou," Onozuka said soothingly, patting Katou on the shoulder. "We knew you'd be depressed. That's why we took you out to dinner tonight, to cheer you up. Here, have a drink."

Onozuka poured him a cup of sake, an expensive brand that was supposed to be flavored with subtle hints of peach and...a few other things the waiter had mentioned but Katou couldn't remember. He tossed back the cup and downed it in one gulp without tasting any of it.

"I told you we should have just bought him the cheap stuff," Miyasaka muttered.

"Nothing here is cheap, Miyasaka," Onozuka said with a shrug. "This isn't that type of restaurant." He smiled at Yoshizumi and added, "Apparently Yoshizumi-san has very good taste and very high standards."

"Well, I did want to take Katou-kun someplace special for his birthday," Yoshizumi said modestly.

"I know I'm pathetic," Katou said morosely as Onozuka poured more sake for him.

"You are pathetic, Katou-kun," Kikuchi agreed, though not unkindly. Katou still chose to take offense, figuring that fighting with Kikuchi was better than moping.

"Yeah?" he retorted belligerently. "Well, how would you feel if Onozuka were thousands of miles away from you, in a foreign country? Or are you saying that you wouldn't miss him at all?"

Onozuka said nothing, but he cast a sideward glance at Kikuchi, as if curious to hear the answer himself.

"Of course I would miss my darling Yuu," Kikuchi said smoothly, while Miyasaka pretended to gag at the exaggerated sentimentality and Yoshizumi--not surprisingly--looked slightly nauseated. "But I'd bear my pain stoically because sitting around feeling sorry for myself would make me look uncool in my Prince's eyes. Besides..." He leered at Onozuka and added, "Even if I can't physically be with him, I could still call him up and have some very hot phone sex."

"You are a pervert," Onozuka said sternly, with a convincing show of disapproval, although Katou could see a glint of laughter in his eyes.

Kikuchi leaned over and said in a stage whisper, "You didn't mind when I was being perverted with you last night."

Onozuka's face turned bright red, and Katou mentally chalked up a point to Kikuchi--it wasn't often that his devious friend got flustered. "You had better behave yourself unless you want to be spending the rest of your nights alone," Onozuka whispered back fiercely.

"Yes, your highness," Kikuchi said meekly, though his eyes still gazed at Onozuka lecherously.

"Why am I always surrounded by nauseatingly romantic couples?" Yoshizumi asked wearily of no one in particular.

"I'm not really sure that 'romantic' is the right word to use," Miyasaka said doubtfully. "I would have described it as something more crude than that."

Katou forced himself to laugh, but Kikuchi and Onozuka's affectionate bickering made him miss Iwaki even more.

Miyasaka noticed and hastily changed the subject. "I bet it's fun to be able to order Onozuka around, even if it's only for a movie," he said with a grin. "Do you get a kick out of him calling you 'my lord'?"

"Which one of us is the perverted one?" Kikuchi asked dryly.

"Well, at least I'm not the one playing a monkey!" Onozuka snapped, glaring at Miyasaka.

Instead of being offended, Miyasaka began making monkey gestures and "ooh ooh" noises. Onozuka's lips began twitching upwards into a smile despite his best efforts to keep a straight face, and he gave up and fell over laughing when Miyasaka mimed peeling a banana.

Kikuchi looked a bit jealous for a moment, then smiled at Onozuka seductively. "I wouldn't mind playing Nobunaga if it meant that you could be my page," he purred. "You can call me 'my lord' anytime you want."

"In your dreams, Kikuchi-san," Onozuka said, with a edge of warning to his voice, the one that Katou and Miyasaka had learned (from prior experience) meant that it was time to back off.

Apparently Kikuchi either didn't know Onozuka well enough yet, or he had even less common sense than Miyasaka. He slipped an arm around Onozuka's shoulders and wheedled, "But you look so handsome in long hair and a kimono. It's all I can do to keep my hands off you on the set."

"That shouldn't be too difficult because Kenshin and Ranmaru don't share any scenes together," Yoshizumi pointed out logically, although they all knew that Kikuchi often showed up to watch Onozuka's scenes even when he wasn't needed on the set.

"So I don't look as handsome when I'm out of costume?" Onozuka asked coolly, trying to push Kikuchi's arm away.

"You are absolutely irresistible, in or out of costume," Kikuchi replied in a husky voice, pulling his lover closer and wrapping both arms around him.

And perhaps Onozuka really was in love and not just lust, because instead of eviscerating Kikuchi (either verbally or literally), he made only a token effort of pushing Kikuchi away while he laughed, "You are a shameless flatterer."

"Utterly shameless," Kikuchi agreed proudly, pressing a light kiss against his lover's neck as Onozuka laughed again.

"Nauseating," Yoshizumi groaned, and Katou agreed, mostly because Iwaki wasn't there to be nauseating with him.

So he gave up even the pretense of eating, and drowned his sorrows in sake. They were in a private room and he didn't really mind if his best friends saw him being pathetic--they had seen it before, after all. Kikuchi wasn't a friend, but Katou trusted that Onozuka would be able to keep him in line. Besides, even if Kikuchi did gossip about him to the press, it wouldn't really be that damaging. At worst it would be a little embarrassing to have everyone know how childish and pathetic he was, but the public would probably think it was cute that he missed his beloved Iwaki-san so much.

Many cups of sake later, Katou was groaning, "I miss my Iwaki-san," without any thought to his pride.

"Yes, Katou-kun," Yoshizumi said patiently. "We know it must be difficult for you."

"I think we managed to pick up on that from the last twenty times he told us how much he missed Iwaki-kun," Kikuchi muttered under his breath with considerably less patience.

"Be nice," Onozuka warned, emphasizing his point with an elbow to Kikuchi's side. To Katou he said, "I'm sure that Iwaki-san misses you, too. He would feel bad if he knew how upset you were."

"I know that I'm being childish and selfish," Katou sniffled. "But I miss Iwaki-san so much!" His head flopped over to rest drunkenly on Onozuka's shoulder, and Onozuka patted him on the head as he wept, gently ruffling his long hair while Kikuchi scowled at them jealously.

"It's okay, Katou," Onozuka crooned soothingly. "You're kind of cute when you're being childish."

"If you want something cute to pet, a golden retriever would be smarter and better-behaved," Kikuchi grumbled, still glaring at Katou. "And it would probably slobber a lot less than--" His words were cut off with a startled grunt when Onozuka elbowed him again, a bit more forcefully this time.

Miyasaka snickered, earning a glare from Kikuchi, and even Yoshizumi chuckled sympathetically, "They're best friends, Kikuchi-san. Trying to come between them is a losing proposition."

"I know, I know," Kikuchi said disgruntledly. "If I want to be with Yuu, I have to make nice with Katou-kun and Iwaki-kun." He sighed heavily, "The things we do for love..."

"It seems much simpler to avoid romance altogether," Yoshizumi replied with heartfelt conviction.

"Ah, but not nearly as much fun," Kikuchi said with a grin.

"If you say so," Yoshizumi said skeptically.

"Besides, there's no way on earth I could ever stay celibate for long," Kikuchi added.

"Sex doesn't necessarily require romance," Yoshizumi replied.

"You are the most un-romantic person I have ever met, Yoshizumi-kun."

"Thank you, I'll take that as a compliment."

"It wasn't really intended as one, but whatever floats your boat, Yoshizumi-kun."

Katou was only half aware of their conversation, being mostly preoccupied with weeping on Onozuka's shoulder. He heard the door to the room slide open, and Onozuka said, "We didn't call for anything...oh, Iwaki-san! You made it after all."

"Don't make fun of me!" Katou protested without bothering to look up. "It's really mean of you to mock me when you know how much I'm missing Iwaki-san."

"You're the one who's mean for calling me a liar," Onozuka retorted good-naturedly.

Katou was about to argue further when a familiar voice said, "You're being unfair to Onozuka-kun, Katou."

"Iwaki-san?" Katou asked incredulously. He glanced up and saw Iwaki standing in front of him with his clothes slightly wrinkled and a wilted flower lei hanging around his neck. Although he looked tired after what must have been a long flight, he smiled lovingly at Katou.

"Happy birthday, Katou," was all that Iwaki managed to say before Katou jumped up and threw his arms around him.

"I'm sorry," Katou sobbed. "I know that I'm being childish, and I really was trying to be mature about it, but--"

"It's okay, Katou," Iwaki interrupted, gently kissing his lips. "Your childishness is part of what I love about you."

"God, they're sappy," Miyasaka sighed with a touch of envy. Yoshizumi shuddered and nodded in agreement, while Kikuchi and Onozuka just laughed.

"I'm thrilled to see you, Iwaki-san, but how did you get here?" Katou asked, wiping his tear-stained face on his sleeve. "Weren't you filming in Hawaii?"

"Well, filming has been going very well and we were slightly ahead of schedule," Iwaki explained. "The director told me that if things continued going smoothly, I could have some time off. I didn't want to say anything and get your hopes up in case it didn't work out, but I did tell Yoshizumi-san, Onozuka-kun, and Miyasaka-kun that I would try to make it to your birthday party if I could."

Katou glared at his friends, who grinned back at him unrepentantly, and then he laughed. "I'm too happy right now to be mad at you guys for deceiving me!" He kissed Iwaki and said, "I'm so glad that we're able to celebrate my birthday together like we had planned!"

"So am I," Iwaki said, returning Katou's kiss but keeping it brief when Yoshizumi began to look nauseated. He held up a shopping bag and said, "I brought presents for you and souvenirs for everyone else." He began handing out packages: a few gift-wrapped boxes for Katou, and macadamia nuts and Kona coffee for their friends. (And also for that bastard Kikuchi, even though he wasn't really a friend.)

"Thanks, Iwaki-san!" Miyasaka said happily, and Katou just barely managed to stop himself from frowning jealously. Iwaki would never be anything more than a friend to Miyasaka, and he had flown home specially just for Katou's sake. Katou decided that he could afford to be magnanimous this once. Besides after his childish display of tears, he had to show Iwaki that he did know how to be mature. So he smiled pleasantly and began opening his presents while the others thanked Iwaki for their souvenirs.

"I do have to fly back out tomorrow night," Iwaki said apologetically. "But for tonight, I'm yours, Katou."

"Please, Iwaki-kun," Yoshizumi groaned. "I can't take all these nauseatingly romantic declarations!"

The others laughed, but Katou stared at Iwaki in disbelief. "You caught a ten-hour flight just to spend one day with me? Isn't that exhausting?"

"It's worth it to me to spend your birthday together," Iwaki said with complete sincerity. He smiled and added, "Besides, being with Katou rejuvenates me."

Onozuka and Miyasaka burst into laughter and Yoshizumi buried his head in his hands. Kikuchi patted him on the shoulder sympathetically and chuckled, "They really are sickeningly sweet, aren't they?"

Katou ignored them all, abandoning his half-unwrapped presents as he rose to his feet. "I don't need any presents other than you," he whispered. "Having Iwaki-san here with me is the best birthday present I could possibly have."

Katou pulled Iwaki into his arms and Onozuka whispered, "Shall we give them some privacy?"

Yoshizumi nodded emphatically, and the four actors quietly slipped out of the room while Katou and Iwaki wrapped their arms around each other in a loving embrace and kissed each other passionately, barely even noticing that the others had left.

Katou decided that this was the best birthday he'd ever had.