Show Your Face to the Morning
A High School DxD/Tenjou Tenge crossover fanfiction by Yukikaze101
High School DxD belongs to Ishibumi Ichiei and Fujimi Shobo. Tenjou Tenge belongs to Ito "Oh! Great" Ōgure, Shueisha, and TV Asahi.
Spoilers for Tenjou Tenge, post-manga conclusion (chapter 136), and High School DxD, post-Volume 4 of the light novel.
Relevant tags: Crossover pairing (Masataka x Serafall), drama, hurt/comfort
N.B. This is a direct sequel to Tomorrow is a Long, Long Time (When You've Lost Your Way). Timeline-wise, this begins roughly seven months later.
For a very long time, Masataka had been an early riser. It was ingrained by extensive training from an early age, and a simple desire to stay alive during the worst months at Toudou. He hadn't ever thought he'd lose that habit.
Seven months of being Serafall Leviathan's Rook, almost all of that spent sharing a bed and a home with her, had blown it out of the water. Her presence was enough to hit his mental snooze bar. She was curled against him, one leg draped proprietarily across his thighs, her head resting on his chest and one arm around his waist. She wore panties and one of his shirts, a combination that had quickly become her habitual nightwear. He had one arm draped around her shoulders in return, and was content to stay right where he was, lazily drifting back towards sleep.
If only it wasn't for that stupid sound that kept repeating…
Eventually, he realized what it was. He had long ago made Bunshichi's ringtone the main theme from Pacific Rim. It was only appropriate.
It was the calling part that was odd. He had him added on LINE, and they exchanged the occasional "yo" to make sure the other was still breathing. But for him to be calling -
- he sat up, spilling Serafall into his lap. She groaned softly, looking up at him. "Masa-chan?"
"I'm sorry, Sera-chan," he told her. "Phone call." He reached out with his right hand, squeezing her shoulder, and grabbed for his phone. "Mmph. Bunshichi-san?"
"Hey, kid." Bunshichi's voice sounded a little rougher than usual. "Get you at a bad time?"
"Not the best, but it's okay." Masataka darted a glance down at Serafall, who was still snuggled up against him, but was awake now. Her expression was solemn; she, too, had some idea of what was coming. "Nii-san?"
"Yeah, kid. Just a coupla days now." There was a pause, and then Bunshichi added, "He's asking to see you."
Masataka closed his eyes for a moment. He'd been expecting this for months. For well over a year, if he were honest with himself. And he still wasn't sure how he felt about it.
"Kid? Y'still there?"
"Yeah, Bunshichi-san. I'll be there today. Might not be till evening." He looked down to Serafall's eyes, smiling wanly at the love and support he saw in them, and squeezed her shoulder. "I may be bringing someone."
"You got a girl now, right? Good for you. Yeah, might be a good idea. Vultures are circling." Another hesitation, and then Bunshichi said, in a slightly rougher voice, "Thanks, kid. See you soon."
"Yeah. You too. See you soon." Masataka hung up and sighed heavily.
"Your brother." Serafall's tone made it a statement, rather than a question.
Masataka nodded. "Not long now. There'll be stuff to sort out with him, and after…" He trailed off, and looked guilty. "I'm sorry for speaking for you earlier. But I'd appreciate it if you could come…"
"Of course," Serafall said immediately. "If you need me, I'm there." She grabbed his hand, interlacing her fingers with his and raising his hand to her lips. "My schedule's fairly clear for the rest of the week, and Behemoth-chan should be able to cover anything that I can't put off."
"I'll need to thank her too, then," he said. Behemoth had been far more easygoing - not to mention far easier on the eyes - than he'd expected for someone who was a Biblical monster.
Serafall nodded, and slid out of his lap, standing. Masataka let his eyes take her in for a moment. Selling his soul had been something considerably different - and more apparently benign - than he'd expected. Even if it hadn't been, though, waking up next to Serafall Leviathan every morning would have still been worth that price.
She turned to look at him, her usual smile still shadowed. She reached a hand down to him. "Come on. Let's get ready."
He took it.
"I think that's everything," Serafall said to the woman standing in her and Masataka's living room. "You'll be all right, I'm sure, Behemoth-chan!"
Behemoth smiled serenely at her King. She was a quietly pretty woman with wine-colored eyes and wavy, pinkish-beige hair falling to just below her shoulders. She wore a canary-yellow cardigan, grey jeans, and a sky-blue blouse. Those expecting the fearsome monster out of Bible stories would be disappointed. "Don't worry, Sera-sama. I'll keep an eye on things." She looked thoughtful. "Ziz-kun may drop by while you're gone…"
"Naturally," Serafall teased lightly. She knew very well how long the relationship between her Queen and her Bishop had oscillated between on and off. There was little surprise that it had swung back around to "on." "The spare sheets are in the hall closet, by the way."
Serafall's Queen colored slightly. She cleared her throat and said, "I'm sure Masataka-kun is waiting."
"Yes, yes, I'm off." Serafall offered Behemoth a polite bow, and left the apartment.
Serafall knew that Masataka was generally pretty frugal. But there was one item that he had splurged on, and it sat in his apartment's parking space.
Motorcycles had been way too common among the people he'd known at Toudou. They'd been such a blatant symbol of rebellion and being a "tough guy" that they'd almost wrapped right back around to mainstream. Masataka, on the other hand, had always had a quiet fascination with street racing, and the cars immortalized in it. And, he'd confessed to her with mingled pride and embarrassment, he now had the car he'd wanted most.
Considering how much time, effort, and money had been blown on Takayanagi Dogen's "true warrior" project, the cost of a fully-refurbished '95 Skyline R33 had been pocket change. The car was a glossy shade of light blue, and Serafall had helped Masataka lay minor enchantments that would dissuade passersby from molesting it. (At some point, she wanted him to move it to the Underworld for further modifications, such as removing its reliance on fossil fuels, but there was no particular hurry for that.)
This wasn't the first road trip they'd taken in it, but it was likely to be a lot less pleasant than the norm.
Masataka set the last piece of luggage in the trunk, and looked up as she came out of their apartment. "Ready?" he asked with a slight smile, his eyes looking admiringly at her. She wore the full black skirt, green blouse, and silver ascot that she tended to wear as her "business" clothes, along with her customary twintails. He'd once said she looked like a beautiful young teacher when dressed like that.
Serafall nodded, taking a moment to give him an admiring glance as well. She wasn't sure if he'd noticed how his forest-green Oxford shirt and dark grey slacks seemed to mirror her outfit. "Just had to make sure things were in order. Behemoth-chan has been brought up to speed." Being a Maou made Serafall a co-equal head of state, and anyplace outside the Underworld that she had as a regular residence could be considered a semi-official embassy. Such as, for example, his apartment.
("If I'd known I was gonna marry a head of state, I'd have stuck with poli-sci," Masataka had joked when he'd found out. She'd laughed and smacked him playfully with her Milky Spiral 7 wand. As a normal human, even the near-superhuman martial artist he'd been, it probably would have cracked something. As a Rook, he barely noticed. They had put that resilience to good usage later that night.)
Serafall gave him a gentle smile as he opened the passenger's-side door for her, and strapped herself in. She sank back into the bucket seat, letting out a soft sigh. This wasn't the way she'd wanted to meet his family, but she'd also known this was likely how it was going to happen.
He reached over to squeeze her knee, and started the car, easing it into traffic.
Bunshichi started to light up, and yelped in dismay when Ukitsu snatched the cigarette away from his fingers. "The hell are you thinking, Bun-chan?" she said in exasperation, grinding it to powder under her heel.
"Come on, Uki-chan, I haven't had one all day," he protested lamely. He groaned even louder when she snatched the crumpled pack out of his dress shirt's pocket.
"It's all your own fault anyway," she told him, patting her stomach meaningfully. "'It's okay, Uki-chan, I'll just pull out,' you said…"
"Fine, fine, I get it," he grunted. Despite her hectoring, he had to smile. He'd never expected to settle down this early, but Ukitsu had thrown all his plans into the rice cooker and served them up with wagyu beef. One day, he'd have to find a way to thank her for that…
"Well, you rock the hot young mom look," he told her with an affectionate leer, wrapping his arms around her waist and drawing her back against him. It was a bit cool outside the Takayanagi home, which gave him the perfect pretext. Not that he needed one. He wasn't lying, either; being pregnant really did something for Ukitsu. That, and her longer hair now…
"Horndog," she retorted, but with zero heat, and she turned herself slightly so she could rest her head against his chest. She looked up at the sound of a motor. "Think that's them?"
"Probably," Bunshichi agreed. "I know Takayanagi has a vintage Skyline, and that sounds like a sport car's engine." He nodded at the blue sports car tooling up the driveway. "Like I said." He raised a hand in greeting to the car's occupants.
Takayanagi parked and killed the engine, and then got out, returning the wave. He went around to the passenger's side and opened the door for his passenger. A gorgeous gaijin girl with long black twintails and turquoise eyes got out, taking his hand the minute she was on her feet. Their outfits, Bunshichi realized with a smirk, oddly matched each other. The young man smiled, shouldering their luggage, and walked over towards Bunshichi and Ukitsu, his companion matching his stride. "Bunshichi-san!"
"Heya, kid," Bunshichi told him, clapping him on the shoulder. "You remember Ukitsu, right?"
"Of course," Takayanagi said, offering Bunshichi's wife a respectful bow. "Glad to see you again, Ukitsu-san. You're looking well."
"Thank you, Takayanagi-kun," Ukitsu said with a chuckle. "It's no thanks to him."
"Oi oi…" Bunshichi protested mildly.
"So this is your girl?" Ukitsu said curiously, giving Miss Twintails a friendly smile. "She's beautiful, Takayanagi-kun…"
"Thank you," the girl said in perfect Japanese, right down to the Kantou accent. "I'm Serafall, Masa-chan's fiancee." She squeezed Takayanagi's hand meaningfully, and he blushed slightly, but his smile was the happiest one Bunshichi had ever seen on his face.
Once we got outta Toudou, we found ourselves pretty wives pretty damn quick, the older man reflected idly. Maybe it's just that damned school that's the screwed-up place… "I like what you've done with the arm," he added, slapping it lightly. "You almost can't tell it's not real, even if you already know."
"Right?" The younger man looked gratefully towards his companion. "Sera-chan's family was able to fix me up with an improved model." He cleared his throat before continuing. "Sera-chan, this is Tawara Bunshichi-san, and his wife Ukitsu-san. Bunshichi-san's been a close friend of our family, and my sempai at Toudou," Takayanagi explained as they entered the house.
Serafall (Bunshichi wondered what country a name like that was from) stiffened slightly at the mention of Toudou, and took a deep breath. Ahh, he's told her a thing or two, he thought. She probably distrusts anyone from Toudou on sight. Hard to blame her. Her expression seemed to calm after a moment, and she looked at Bunshichi, her expression serious but not angry. "Masa-chan speaks very highly of you, Bunshichi-san. He's always said you were one of his few real friends over the last few years."
"Yeah, well, I've always tried to be," Bunshichi agreed, scratching at his chin. She didn't seem to be angry at him, but there was something assessing, even judging about her. Not just a pretty face, then. "Wasn't always good at it, I gotta admit."
"None of us were very good at it," Takayanagi said, in a softly mollifying tone.
"The hell you say. You were pretty much the only one," Bunshichi retorted. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Serafall relax more. Looked like he was in the clear.
"Don't do anything to my Bun-chan, Serafall-chan," Ukitsu piped up, and Bunshichi wasn't sure whether his wife was being brilliant or just making things worse. "He has to take responsibility for this." She patted her stomach again.
"You two are expecting?" Takayanagi said, surprised. Serafall seemed to relax entirely; in fact, she appeared to be on the verge of squeeing.
"Confirmed it last week. Five months along. It's a boy." Ukitsu gave Bunshichi a look that mingled exasperation and affection. "He said it was too cold to go out and get rubbers."
"Mind you don't tell the kid that story," Bunshichi grumbled. He took it back: his wife was a frigging genius.
"That's great!" Serafall enthused. She and Ukitsu started chatting about the baby, and Bunshichi and Takayanagi exchanged quiet looks of relief. Actually, there was quite a bit of relief in the kid's eyes. It looked like his girl really did have depths. Good for him.
There was an impatient throat-clearing sound behind Bunshichi, and he closed his eyes in dismay. Great. There goes the good mood. He turned around, sketching a mock-salute. "Hiya, Isuzu."
Isuzu Emi… well, the former Isuzu Emi, anyway… shot him a long-suffering look as she walked down the stairs. She was still a looker, her magenta hair still worn in those massive ringlets. The pinched, solemn expression she wore soured much of her beauty, though. She wore a burgundy kimono, and moved as if she were born in it. "Tawara-san," she said, her tone tired and strained.
Her gaze then shifted to Takayanagi, and her expression was little warmer. "Masataka-kun. Welcome home," she said, and her voice was one of a parent awakened to bail their black-sheep child out of jail. Bunshichi shot her a look - Where the hell do you get off, treating him like that in his family home?! - but she was unmoved.
Takayanagi was also, understandably, shocked by her greeting. "Um, I'm home, then… thank you, Emi-san…" he said, looking like he'd been unexpectedly slapped. Beside him, Serafall's expression was quietly displeased, and she squeezed his hand.
Bunshichi was tempted to say something. He opened his mouth - and there was a sudden ache in his instep. He glanced at Ukitsu, who was giving him a quietly quelling glance. Her bootheel was grinding against his foot, and not in the fun way.
"I'm afraid that's 'nee-san,' now," Isuzu (Bunshichi would never stop thinking of her as "Isuzu") said, her tone stern. "I'm Takayanagi Emi now. Your brother and I married some months ago."
"You and nii-san…?" Takayanagi said slowly, still looking shocked.
"Yes, your brother and I," Isuzu said, shaking her head. Her tone now was almost that of a teacher speaking to a slow student. Bunshichi's fists clenched, and Ukitsu was looking very uncomfortable. Serafall's expression was even less pleased now. "So, please hurry. Your brother wants to see you."
"I… okay." Takayanagi sighed, apparently seeing this as a losing battle. He looked at Serafall, but Isuzu cut off anything he might have to say. "Alone, Masataka-kun. You can introduce him to your girlfriend later."
"Serafall's my fiancee, Emi-san," Takayanagi said, quietly but firmly. His lips curled upward slightly at her scowling reaction to not being called "nee-san." "Don't talk down to her." He looked at her, a river unmoved by the boulder tumbling loudly into it.
"...your fiancee, then," Isuzu said, shaking her head again in exasperation. "Go see your brother."
"I'll be back soon," Takayanagi said softly to Serafall, and she nodded, squeezing his hand. He gave Bunshichi a wan smile, and headed through the foyer and up the stairs.
Emi watched him go, then looked at the others. She said, "Please come with me." She shifted her eyes to Serafall. "Your room will be at the top of the stairs, fourth room on the right. Feel free to deposit your bags." Her tone wasn't impolite, but it was still clear she'd rather Serafall wasn't there.
Serafall was not happy. The reasons behind this trip were bad enough already, although Bunshichi and Ukitsu seemed genuinely pleasant. But to see Masa-chan treated that shabbily upon his arrival home, by someone who he hadn't even known was family until a moment before?
The urge to flash-freeze the girl who stole her hairstyle from Ravel Phenex was strong, but she fought it down. This girl was, after all, a woman whose husband was at death's door...
Serafall settled for giving Emi a cool look. She was unable to quite resist the urge to lean slightly on her cyromancy, so traces of genuine frost flickered into the air in the foyer for a moment. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bunshichi tense as he saw the frost. Ukitsu's sudden, sharply-indrawn breath suggested she sensed the same. Emi sure as hell seemed to; she jolted like someone had thrown a drink in her face. But Serafall simply said, "Very well, then." She gathered her and Takayanagi's bags, hauling them upstairs as if their collective weight were less than a feather.
Masataka's room looked clean, if a touch dusty and neglected. Everything about it screamed "teenage boy," and Serafall had to smile as she set their bags on his bed. It was rather small, but that was just an excuse to cuddle, and she had a feeling both of them would need that tonight.
She paused at his desk, taking note of the handful of framed photos. One was of a pretty girl with dark shoulder-length hair. Another showed a much younger Masataka in a white gi with a similarly-attired, slightly older vanilla-blond boy, the two of them smiling and flashing bunny-ears at the camera. The last photo showed Masataka, only slightly younger than now and minus the light scar on his face, posing with several other people: a beautiful girl with long chestnut hair, a sneering delinquent-type with upswept blond locks, a massive black guy with dreadlocks, the same girl from the first photo, a pretty-boy type with tousled hair, a diminutive fellow who looked like an alien, and a statuesque beauty with long, white-silver hair and an ahoge. Masataka stood next to the last person, and both of them smiled fiercely at the photo. The two of them held a wooden sign bearing kanji that read "Juken Club."
"Hello, Maya-san," Serafall said softly.
She descended the stairs a few minutes later, her face composed once again. To her surprise, the others had waited. The three of them followed Emi into a sitting room. A maid brought tea, leaving the pot and four cups on the table.
"So, where did you two meet, Serafall-chan?" Ukitsu asked, making an effort to salvage the mood.
"In Kuoh," Serafall answered. She kept her tone friendly. Ukitsu had been very kind so far, so she wanted to keep tension from rising any more than necessary. "Masa-chan's attending the university attached to Kuoh Academy. My sister and her fiance are going there too."
"Nice," Bunshichi remarked. "Our story's not that cute."
Ukitsu snorted, smacking his arm lightly. "We were in a convenience store at the same time that someone tried to rob it. We were right in line behind the dumbass, actually. We knocked him down at the same time, and started arguing over who should get credit for it…"
"We never did settle that, did we?" Bunshichi asked, grinning slyly.
Serafall smiled slightly. When they put it like that, it was almost cute. "How romantic," she said with good-natured sardony
"A match made in heaven," Ukitsu said sarcastically. She squeezed his arm affectionately, though.
"And what do you do… Serafall-san?" Serafall sighed inwardly at Emi's tone. It was confrontational, and almost certainly deliberately so. She could see the Tawaras were picking up on it, and were less than comfortable with it..
"I work for the government," Serafall answered, her tone cooling again. "At the embassy." She wasn't quite able to keep a note of wry amusement out of her voice. After all, if this woman knew she was talking to a head of state, she'd probably have a stroke.
"Hmm." Emi looked at her, as if gauging whether she was worth the effort of vetting. Finally, she sighed. "I'll be blunt, then. How much for you to go away?"
Serafall's eyes widened, her mouth falling open. Of all the… she had expected more passive-aggressive sniping, not that. She drew a sharp breath, and that same frost from earlier returned to her eyes. She sensed Bunshichi shifting around on the couch so that he was between her and his wife. She also sensed the combination of reproach and sympathy from him, and - with more reluctance than she expected - forced the frost to back off, settling for merely a colder temperature in the room, and one directed entirely at Emi.
"I'd like you to repeat that." Serafall's voice was quiet and deadly.
"You heard me," Emi said, and if her tone was weary, it was also wary. She was still affected by Serafall's… aura, for lack of a better word, of cold, but was clearly determined to press through. "That's quite a talent you have. A magician, then?"
"Just so," Serafall answered curtly. This was something she and Masataka had long ago decided upon, for dealing with acquaintances who were supernaturally aware but not fully in the know. Such as, for example, his family and acquaintances. It wasn't even really a lie, for a Maou and mistress of ice magic to claim to be a magician… "You might indulge me, then." Her tone took on a faint trace of frost itself. "Please. Repeat yourself."
"Very well, then…" Emi cleared her throat, doing her best to look unshaken. "What will it take for you to leave Masataka-kun?"
"I love Masa-chan," Serafall said slowly. Oh, she was not happy… but she was also baffled. Unless… hmm. "What on Earth makes you think I would leave him?"
"Come on," Emi said, some of her aplomb reasserting itself. "Masataka-kun is a nice boy, but he's… naive. And he doesn't exactly stand out, does he?" Her lips curled slightly. "He's never exactly been a ladies' man. So, when a beautiful woman starts unexpectedly showing attention to him… you can see how the family would be concerned."
"I don't think much of your low opinion of him," Serafall said coldly. "Or your insinuation. Are you seriously accusing me of marrying Masa-chan for money?"
"Are you?" Isuzu asked bluntly.
"I love him," Serafall answered, emphasizing the second word. "And my family's wealthy. If he wanted to spend the next thirty or forty years as a professional student, I'd happily support him." Her own lips curled. She started to think she saw the game here, but couldn't resist a dig. Or, rather, didn't feel like resisting one. "I could hardly do worse than certain people."
"You have no idea what we've been through," Emi snapped. "Don't presume you have the right to judge us."
"Presume? Hardly," Serafall replied, her turquoise eyes flinty, and the temperature in the room abruptly plummeted to below freezing. The frost she had dismissed earlier returned full-force now, and rime began to collect on the coffee table.
"Holy crap," she heard Bunshichi say softly. He sounded impressed, and just this side of scared shitless. He continued, in that subdued tone, "I know Isuzu's a world-class bitch, ojo-chan, but this is a little…"
"...my apologies, Bunshichi-san." Serafall shook her head minutely, and made a sharp gesture. The frost and rime disappeared, as if a switch had been flipped. Mitsuomi's wife managed to maintain her composure, but it was clear that she was shaken. Serafall gazed at her for a long moment, a surprisingly imperious look in her turquoise eyes, letting the Maou in her shine through just long enough for Takayanagi Emi to get a good look.
"You're right," Serafall said, her tone less angry now. "I don't know what you've gone through. Not through your eyes, at any rate. But I do know what Masa-chan has gone through. I've seen it. And I know that the help he gave to those around him was not proportionate to the help he was given in return. So understand something… 'nee-san,'" she said, a mocking tone attached to the last word. "Play whatever games you like, but do nothing that harms him, and stop jerking him around. Now."
Emi stared at her for a long moment, then smiled with genuine approval. "Good," she said briskly. "Continue to demonstrate that willingness to support and defend him. A Takayanagi needs a wife who will fight with and for him, after all."
Serafall raised both eyebrows, nodding to herself mentally. Thought so. That was some damned aggressive pushing for a test of character, though... She returned the smile, although hers was rather more wry and wary. A salute, as it were, to a worthy but guileful opponent.
Bunshichi grimaced at himself, and slapped his forehead. "I'll be damned. You were testing her." Beside him, Ukitsu covered her mouth, poorly suppressing a smile.
"A little more aggressively than I expected," Serafall remarked, traces of wry humor now showing through. "Actually, a lot more."
Emi shrugged in apology. "I suppose it was. You haven't seen the reports of what Masataka-kun was up to in the Gold Coast. I can't blame him for blowing off steam, but there was always the chance of him bringing home an actual gold-digger… or, worse, some well-meaning naif with ideas about how to 'fix' things. And the reports about you were less than clear."
"Reports about me," Serafall repeated, one eyebrow raised. The imperious look, and its matching tone, were threatening to make a comeback.
"The Takayanagi family has ears everywhere, particularly in Japan," Emi answered. "We're aware of your sister going to school in Kuoh, and the fact that, since you and Masataka-kun became involved, you pretty much live at his place. Your magical ability, though… that wasn't expected."
"I trust that you're satisfied now," Serafall answered. Her tone politely but clearly said "You damned well better be."
"Yes," Emi told her, her tone still somewhat apologetic. "You should be aware, though, the days ahead may be challenging. There's likely to be tension and change following Mitsuomi-sama's passing."
"The vultures circling," Bunshichi said sourly.
"That's part of it." Serafall's future sister-in-law let her shoulders slump. For the first time, her exhaustion and sorrow started showing through. She rested a hand on her stomach. "But also… I'm pregnant. It was confirmed last week."
"So… how far along is Emi-san?" Masataka asked, leaning back in the chair beside Mitsuomi's bed.
"About two months. We found out for sure last week," Mitsuomi told him. There was something really, really fucked up in how relaxed Masataka's older brother looked right now. It might have been since before he entered Toudou, the last time he looked this much at ease. He wore black jeans and a white button-down shirt, and sat in a chair near the bedroom's window. "She and I married about six months ago."
He looked at Mitsuomi, silently asking the question he didn't know how to put into words. The elder Takayanagi brother scratched at his jawline, looking oddly abashed. "I've always liked and respected her, you know."
"I know," Masataka assured him.
"Always thought she was hot, too," Mitsuomi added, a touch of wry humor in his voice. Masataka knew he hadn't heard that since he was in middle school.
"I know that, too," Masataka quipped, and the two brothers shared a soft chuckle at that. The former Isuzu Emi's beauty could never be denied.
"I'd like to say I feel as strongly for her as she does for me," Mitsuomi continued, looking guilty. "After what she's done for me, she deserves that. But she's been willing to accept what I've been able to give, so…" He grimaced and shrugged helplessly.
Masataka remembered a time when he'd thought his brother incapable of emotions like guilt. So he nodded in understanding. "Yeah. I can get how you'd want to have a kid while you could…" There really wasn't a delicate way of phrasing that.
"There may be more to it than that," Mitsuomi said, traces of guilt surfacing in his expression again. "After… after, the heads of the other families will be meeting."
"Right after - " Masataka stared at him, aghast. "That's... " He cleared his throat before saying, "That seems a little… indelicate."
"They're impatient," Mitsuomi answered with a shrug. "For many of them, I've lingered too long. And they don't really see tou-san as relevant, either. I suspect they'll want to try and keep my successor on as tight a leash as possible."
"I'd expected to be pretty hands-off with them for the foreseeable future," Masataka told him. He then narrowed his eyes as Mitsuomi hesitated. "...what?"
"I suspect they won't support you as my successor, either," Mitsuomi replied, looking uncomfortable but keeping his eyes on his brother's. "Even with that caveat."
"...what?" Masataka repeated, feeling his face start to heat up.
"Easy, Masataka," Mitsuomi told him gently. He sighed. "It's my fault, and tou-san's. He acted for philosophical reasons, and because of that…"
"Sure, because Sohaku didn't have a damned thing to do with it - " Masataka retorted. For some reason, this felt like a nerve being stepped on.
"Imagine how I feel," Mitsuomi pointed out, and that managed to put the brakes on Masataka's rising temper. After all, if not for the words "true warrior," Mitsuomi might have had a full life, and many people might still be breathing.
"...all right," Masataka conceded, after a moment's brooding. "Still, you weren't responsible for that."
"No, but I did run roughshod over Toudou in an attempt to maintain order," Mitsuomi admitted. "And as for you… they're probably afraid that you'd do something else out of idealism."
Masataka made a soft sound of frustration and facepalmed. After a moment, his head snapped back up, and he looked sharply at Mitsuomi. "...please tell me this isn't the reason you and Emi-san are having a kid, nii-san."
"Of course not," Mitsuomi spat out.
For a long moment, the last two members of the Takayanagi family glowered at each other. Finally, understanding and weariness kicked in, and they slumped back into their chairs, glancing silent apologies at each other.
"And if I insisted?" Masataka asked. He had a suspicion about what the answer would be.
"I think even lip service would come to an end," Mitsuomi said flatly. "Probably not open warfare, or even covert. The Red and White Feathers are still recovering, and we're not much better. Conflict would benefit no one, and they're bright enough to acknowledge that. We would probably be able to maintain some alliances. Probably the Natsume, perhaps the Mawari and Tsumuji. But our family's relevance, at least outside of our corporate holdings, would effectively be gone."
Masataka nodded glumly. He'd expected that, too. "I want to talk with Sera-chan about this tonight. She has a good head for this kind of thing."
"As long as it's done quickly," Mitsuomi said. He didn't look thrilled, but neither did he look surprised.
Masataka rubbed his temple again, and took a deep breath before asking the question he'd been afraid to. "Do you really not want the family leadership to pass to me, nii-san?" he asked. Truth be told, he himself wasn't sure how he felt about that.
"I want you to have the option," Mitsuomi told him, his expression solemn. "I have no doubt that you're capable of shouldering the burden. But you've also earned the right to live your life as you see fit. Besides…" He shook his head. "If you did take it on, you'd effectively be one more corporate heir. Virtually everything that made the leader of the Takayanagi family different, significant, would be gone."
"It'll be that way for your child, too," Masataka pointed out.
"There's always the chance that things will change again," Mitsuomi answered. "That another generation can regain the Feathers' trust." Neither of them pointed out how much that hope veered into wishful thinking. "And you would be free. You want to teach, right?"
"Most brothers would ask about their sibling's major, instead of tasking their spies to ferret it out," Masataka observed dryly.
Mitsuomi had the good grace to look faintly abashed. There'd been a time that Masataka had thought him no longer capable of that, either. "I suppose I have that coming." He let out a breath. "Masataka, tou-san and I have treated you poorly…"
"Yes," Masataka agreed flatly.
Mitsuomi nodded to acknowledge the hit. "What I did, I thought was for your benefit, and still do. But I still treated you as a child, or a tool, expecting you to do what I wanted and stand quietly aside when you weren't needed." He held up a hand. "You might see this as an attempt to do the same to you again. I assure you, it's intended as the reverse."
Masataka watched him carefully, then let out a sigh of his own. "Okay, I'm willing to stipulate your intentions." He shook his head. "If you had asked me before today what I thought about handing this off to someone else, I probably would have said I was okay with it."
"I understand." Mitsuomi reached out to the nightstand, picking up an envelope and handing it to his brother. "If you accept, you and your children would receive this stipend annually."
Masataka quirked an eyebrow upward, and opened the envelope. He read the amount listed on the slip of paper, and his other eyebrow rose to match the first. "...annually?"
"I'm not sure what I'd do with an island of my own," he said dryly. "How long do I have to think about this?"
"Not long. A decision by tomorrow would probably be best," Mitsuomi told him.
"Now I really need to talk to Sera-chan about this," Masataka answered, rubbing his temple.
"As long as it's done quickly," Mitsuomi repeated, his own weariness starting to show. "Let's talk about something happier. Tell me about her."
"What your spies haven't already told you?" he joked weakly.
"Precisely," the elder Takayanagi said with a slight smile.
"...I love her," Masataka said softly. "She would be worth going through the past four years again for. I think you'll understand when you meet her."
"Then you're lucky," Mitsuomi said, and if there was envy in his voice, there was also approval.
A companionable silence descended on the room. It was finally broken by Mitsuomi observing, "So she does magical girl cosplay?"
"Oh, that's just the start…"
"No, seriously, watch!" Serafall concentrated for a moment, her expression tightening slightly, and her eyes flickered. When the flickering died down, turquoise had been swapped for violet.
Ukitsu stared, wide-eyed, at that. "That's amazing!"
"That must be useful for special occasions," Emi said, both eyebrows raised. "Can you teach us?"
"Thank you." Serafall virtually curtsied in her chair, beaming. She was almost as happy about Masataka's approving, admiring grin as she was about the fact that this was helping to stimulate a positive mood. Minor devil magic was often good for that. "Ah, maybe. It's a basic mage trick, but I'm willing to try teaching it…"
"Wonder if that works with hair, too," Bunshichi remarked, talking around a mouthful of food.
"There's not enough magic in the world to de-age your hair, Bunshichi," Mitsuomi said dryly, and that triggered a ripple of chuckles around the table.
Bunshichi mock-grumbled (well, mostly mock, anyway), "I can't let that pass unless you bring out another round, Mitsuomi."
Ukitsu smacked his arm lightly. "Just one more, Bun-chan. It's no fun seeing you get soused if I can't join you."
"Imagine how I feel," Emi said in a tone so dust-dry, it took the others a moment to realize she was joking. When she did, the laughter started anew.
Dinner had started as a somewhat subdued affair. Of the six people dining, four had common experiences, but few of them pleasant.
What broke the ice, of all things, was Serafall's cosplay hobby. Ukitsu's aunt, as it turned out, owned a cosplay supply store in Akihabara, and so she knew a thing or two about costumes and the series they were attached to. Unexpectedly, this had drawn Mitsuomi into the conversation; he had begun turning to late-night anime as a kind of background noise to help him relax, and had (to Emi's mild exasperation) become a bit of an otaku.
"So!" Ukitsu tossed back her ice water like it was a beer, and looked meaningfully at Serafall. "Sera-chan! When are you and Takayanagi-kun gonna have a kid?"
Masataka nearly choked on his beer, and Serafall didn't bother to hide her smile. That had been one thing they had yet to actually settle on, beyond a vague "after we get married." "Probably not for awhile. We want time to get settled into our careers first… and we're having fun with how things are right now," she replied, reaching for his hand and squeezing it.
"That's the spirit," Bunshichi said approvingly, smacking Masataka on the shoulder. "Be smarter than me, Takayanagi. Never complain about how cold it is outs - ow, Uki-chan!"
Ukitsu drew her heel back from Bunshichi's instep, refilled her glass, and nodded. "He's right, though. It sounds like you're thinking smart about it." She took another sip, and then asked coyly, "Did you two mean to coordinate your outfits today?"
"Yeah, I was wondering that too," Bunshichi said, forgetting about the pain in his foot.
"As was I," Emi said, one eyebrow raised and wry amusement on her face.
"I bet on coincidence," Mitsuomi said with a quiet snicker. "Masataka has a talent for stumbling into that sort of thing."
"Stakes?" Bunshichi asked immediately.
"How about your pack of smokes?"
"Ehh, Uki-chan already crushed those."
"Just as well. You don't need any cigarettes," Emi told Mitsuomi sternly, and then looked back at Serafall, curiously. "Well?"
"About the cigarettes, or our outfits looking the same?" Serafall said with a soft laugh. "It was coincidence, really. Although I rather like how we look together today. Wouldn't you say, Masa-chan?" She really did, after all. That color combination worked well for him, and clothes tailored for his frame - such as those - looked so much better than off-the-rack...
Masataka quickly looked down at his shirt and pants, then at Serafall's skirt and blouse, and groaned. "I hadn't even noticed…" He became aware Serafall was talking to him, and reddened slightly as he smiled. "Yeah. I think I do."
"Called it," Mitsuomi said with a laugh. He raised his glass. "To Masataka and Serafall." He looked directly at his brother and said, "You were right."
Masataka just nodded back, and darted an affectionate look at Serafall, squeezing her hand.
Serafall returned the squeeze as the others at the table echoed the toast.
She looked discreetly around the dinner table, and as much as her smile at the toast was genuine, it was also laced with wistfulness. She had a feeling that it had been a very long time since there had been this much life and laughter in the dining room.
She had a feeling that it might be just as long before there was again.
"That's a lot of zeros," Serafall noted speculatively. She picked up the slip of paper Masataka had given her, turning it and the envelope it had been in over in her hands.
"Yes, it is," he agreed. They lay back on his childhood bed, his arms wrapped around her waist and she spooning back against him. One thing they had discovered early on was how touch-starved both of them were. She was an incredibly tactile person, and enjoyed giving and receiving physical affection. In contrast, he was almost entirely unused to nonviolent physical contact, and had developed an almost hopeless longing for it. It had become second nature, then, for them to snuggle at the drop of a hat… or while waiting for a hat to drop. The small size of the bed only gave them more excuse for it.
"So what are you thinking?" She asked softly.
"Honestly?" He shook his head. "If you'd told me yesterday that I'd get this offer, I'd have taken it and run. Maybe used it as an excuse for us to take a vacation."
She nodded in understanding. "And now, you're ambivalent."
He nodded. "I think I believe nii-san's intentions. But it feels a lot like back then, people making decisions for me, and being surprised when I didn't like that. Like they're surprised I even had an opinion on the matter." He let out a soft sigh, a noise Serafall had come to recognize as Masataka coming around to a decision. "They're not wrong about the other families, though. After the crap tou-san pulled… yeah, they probably want to keep obeisance to the Takayanagi name at the 'lip service' level for awhile."
"And what do you want, Masa-chan?" Serafall asked seriously, turning in his embrace to look at him. "I'll support you in whatever you decide. But you should think about how this affects you, and what you can gain from it. If they're going to impose something on you, you're entitled to name conditions of your own."
Masataka looked her in the eye, and nodded slowly. "Yeah. You're right. The money is good, but…" His eyes unfocused for a moment, another sign of deep thought Serafall had come to recognize. "Hmm. Actually…" He smiled slightly, thoughtfully. "I have an idea they might be willing to live with. After we head home, I'd like to pick your sister's brain for ways to refine it."
"I'm sure she'd be willing," Serafall said. She had a feeling where his line of thought was headed. "Your old school, huh?"
"As one of the senseis there liked to say, 'we're not called masters because we're great educators,'" Masataka recited, his smile now wry. "Maybe it's time there was someone there who was both. Maybe this time, we can head stuff off before… well, before stuff goes that wrong. And, changes for the better aside..."
Serafall sat up, looking pleased. "...when the time comes, you'll have a power base for your peerage. That's not a bad idea at all."
"I'm glad," he told her. "It's all kind of vague right now, but if you think the idea is solid…"
"I do," she agreed. "I'm not the person you'll have to talk to about details, of course. Emi-san, probably, for a start."
Masataka nodded, his face taking on a resolute expression. Without warning, he leaned in and bumped his forehead gently against Serafall's. She smiled at the affectionate gesture. "What's that for?"
"I'm glad you're here," he told her. "I appreciate it. If you weren't, I don't know how I'd be handling it."
"You would be just fine, you know," she told him. "Have more faith in yourself, Masa-chan." She rubbed her nose against his. "But I'm glad to be here with you, too."
Masataka shifted his arms to hold her more comfortably, and the two remained like that for some time.
"You know," he finally said offhandedly, "you're the first girl I've ever had in this room."
"Really?" Serafall said, with equal playfulness. There was a part of her that still wanted to smack those girls at Toudou for being blind. She was actually almost grateful to them, though; she wouldn't be here with him if it hadn't been for them. "I'm honored, actually. It makes me feel like I can appreciate something they couldn't." She reached up to stroke his face. "It's like you were waiting for me."
"I think I may have been," Masataka murmured, in a tone that almost made her heart melt.
"Shall we take advantage of the opportunity?" Serafall asked with a knowing smile. She shifted slightly so that she was straddling him, the hem of her nightshirt rising.
"Yes, please," he whispered, leaning in to close the distance between their lips.
She met him halfway.
The knock at the door jolted Masataka awake. Serafall's eyes opened as well, albeit more drowsily. She looked up at her fiancee, sleep slowly draining away as she saw the look on his face.
He looked down at her, nodding. It was a near-certainty what that knock had meant.
He gently disentangled himself from her, and they dressed quickly before Masataka stumbled to the door. He pulled it open, finding Emi there. She was dressed in a bathrobe, her face dangerously still and her eyes looking like they were about to overflow.
"Nii-san?" he said softly.
Emi nodded, her expression starting to tremble. She drew in a shaky breath, and continued, "In his sleep. He was happy when we went to bed last night, more so than I'd seen him in some time…"
Masataka nodded awkwardly, patting Emi on her shoulder. That seemed to throw open the floodgates, and Emi started sobbing, burying her face against his shoulder. He carefully hugged her, glancing at Serafall, who nodded and came over to them, wrapping her own arms around both of them. Masataka closed his eyes, tears of his own flowing. He hadn't expected that.
Eventually, Emi's sobbing tapered off, then stopped outright. Inhaling raggedly, she gently extricated herself from the impromptu group hug, dabbing at her eyes with the robe's sleeve. She looked no less crushed now, but at least she had her composure back. "Thank you," she said in a tired voice.
Masataka nodded, and Serafall asked gently, "Can we do anything for you?"
"Thank you, but we've had the arrangements in place for a long time. He insisted…" Emi smiled bitterly. "...he wanted to make sure it was all taken care of."
"Nii-san believed in preparation," Masataka said softly.
"He did," Emi said, carefully, as if trying the past tense on for size. She shook her head, clearly not liking the taste of it in her mouth, then looked at Masataka almost guiltily. "Masataka-kun, I know you haven't had much time to think about the proposal, but we won't have much time."
"I know, nee-san," he said, watching her eyes widen at his use of the honorific. "I've decided to accept it." He held up a hand. "I have a condition, though. I don't think it's something you'll object to, but we should discuss details now…"
She nodded. "All right. Let me come in, then, and we'll get started. I'll have phone calls to make soon, but let's talk."
Aya couldn't help thinking that it should be raining. It didn't make a lot of sense; all of her loved ones who had died had done so on days when the sky had been clear. In many ways, the days of their funeral had been cleaner than the moments of their passing.
Even so, the day of Takayanagi Mitsuomi's funeral felt like it should involve rain somehow.
Mitsuomi's body lay in a casket upon the altar, surrounded by an elaborate arrangement of lights, flowers, and sculptures, with a large portrait of him above the casket. The body, Aya knew, was situated with its head pointed towards the north. An incense burner sat next to the altar. Clearly, the Takayanagi family was sparing no expense. The prior day's wake had demonstrated that.
Somewhat more incongruous were the personal effects lodged into the arrangement. These would be set adrift in a tiny boat with flowers, food, and a candle at Obon, in a personal variation of the officially-outlawed-but-still-practiced tradition. Those personal effects were striking in their variety: Mitsuomi and Emi's wedding portrait, his copy of the original Juken Club's only club snapshot, his KATANA jacket, and - most incongruous of all - the first volume of the Milky Spiral 7 manga.
Souichiro stood beside her, shifting uncomfortably in an ill-fitting black suit. It was clear that he was ambivalent about being at Mitsuomi's wake, even if the man had ultimately been an ally. On her other side, Bob and Chiaki were also uncharacteristically dressed up. Their feelings about being here, Aya knew, weren't any less mixed, but they were doing a better job of sitting on them.
It was a little surprising who wasn't present, she thought. Many of the families who owed fealty to the Takayanagi family had declined to attend in what would normally be considered respectful numbers. In some cases, that was unavoidable, due to the drastic losses resulting from F's machinations. But in others, only a handful were present at all, usually only the current family head or their proxy, and a tiny entourage. Aya had to admit that she was in that number as well; it would be years before the Natsume family was a powerful force again.
She saw Emi-san, and Dogen-san, of course. Bunshichi-san, too, and his wife, though she could never remember her name. And then she saw… Sempai? He'd dropped off the face of the earth on graduation day, but here he was… well, it wasn't surprising that they'd been able to reach him. Or that he'd come. Sempai was always good about duty.
Aya was surprised at the girl beside him, though. The beauty in a black dress, her long, black hair in a thick braid draped over her left shoulder. Sempai held her hand, their fingers intertwined. She had to smile about that. He certainly deserved to have someone, especially at a time like this.
At the front of the room, a Buddhist priest knelt, beginning to recite a sutra. As he did, the gathered Takayanagis rose and moved towards the deceased's form, beginning the incense offering to the urn in front of Mitsuomi. Aya nudged Souichiro, and they rose as well. After all, even guests had their duty to perform at a funeral.
She stepped forward, raised a pinch of granular incense from the bowl, held it to her forehead for a moment, then dropped it into the burner. She then turned, offering a deep bow to the Takayanagis. However strained the relationship between that family and its vassals, no one with a lick of sense would even think of behaving disrespectfully here.
They returned the bow. Dogen and Emi, predictably, displayed the kind of impassiveness that only came from having your heart torn out and having to pretend otherwise. Sempai was solemn as well, his emotions worn slightly more on his sleeve. He offered Aya a nod of thanks, in addition to returning the bow. The girl with him inclined her head, giving her an odd look. It wasn't hostile, but it was… assessing. It was likely she'd heard some of the stories about Toudou.
"Thank you, Aya-kun," Dogen rasped out, and Aya blinked, and nodded, moving so Souichiro could take her place. As she did so, she considered the meeting that was scheduled for two days from today. The tight timing of it, so soon after Mitsuomi-san's passing, definitely bordered on… indelicate. One might go so far as to call it rude and insensitive. But the Twelve Families were determined to assert themselves after the string of disasters that had followed Dogen's "true warrior" fiasco.
And sempai's self-recusal is likely to be the price they ask for continuing to pay lip service to the Takayanagi, she thought glumly. It's a mistake, but…
She shook her head as she returned to her seat, Souichiro following with unusual silence. At least you'll be clear of whatever else happens, sempai…
"You're quiet, Aya," Souichiro remarked. "What's up?"
"Thinking about the day after tomorrow," she answered.
Souichiro shrugged as they sat back down. "Sempai's tough. He'll probably be glad to be out of it, actually go to school for something."
"You're probably right," Aya agreed. Somehow, though, she wondered if it would be that simple.
Masataka knew every person present. Some of them were old acquaintances of his father. Others were people he considered allies, or even friends. Two in particular had once held his heart in their respective hands.
He doubted any of that would help much today.
Emi was the only other person present who was not a family head, in her capacity as Mitsuomi's widow. Masataka wished Serafall or Bunshichi could be present, but he understood why they weren't. (He didn't agree with the reasoning, but he understood it just fine…) His father was absent as well, which was probably wise of him. Takayanagi Dogen understood just fine that a quiet retirement was coming his way sooner or later, and that it would be wise of him to accept the fact.
"I apologize for the timing of this, sempai," Tsumuji Mataza Jūshi said gravely. It was very strange to see the young genius dressed in a suit. "It is not our intention to make a difficult time even more so. But there are matters that must be addressed promptly."
"I understand, Tsumuji-kun," Masataka replied politely. "I presume this has to do with my assumption of the Takayanagi family leadership."
An uncomfortable silence, made no less uncomfortable by being expected, descended upon the room.
Masataka smiled a tight, resigned smile in response.
Aya cleared her throat before speaking. Between her elaborate kimono and her traditional hairstyle, she oozed "Yamato Nadeshiko." Even now, Masataka wasn't unmoved by it… but honestly, he liked how Serafall wore it better. "No one here doubts the ability or integrity of Takayanagi Masataka. Myself, least of all." Even if her words were carefully phrased, he could still read the sincerity behind them. "But, frankly, it is the ability and integrity of the position of the Takayanagi family leadership that is in doubt." The Natsume family head's expression twisted slightly before she continued. "The Twelve Families will feel more comfortable right now with a Takayanagi family head who is less inclined to make waves right now."
In other words, a family head who'll just sit there and be dictated to, in retaliation for what tou-san did, Masataka didn't say aloud. He didn't need to. He was pretty sure that was in the minds of most of the assembled family leaders.
"I take it that Tsumuji-kun and Aya-san speak for the majority?" he said levelly.
A susurrus rippled around the table. The older family heads present looked distinctly uncomfortable with even that mild a calling-out. The younger ones were split between looking quietly defiant, and looking guilty. Part of him was, even now, oddly pleased to see Aya and Madoka falling into that category. Only Emi, who knew what he was planning, was completely expressionless.
"I see," Masataka said, suppressing a sigh. "So the preference is for my nephew or niece to assume leadership, and for my sister-in-law to act as caretaker in the meantime?"
Heads around the table nodded.
Masataka didn't suppress the sigh this time. When he spoke, however, his tone was resolute. "Very well. I will decline my place in succession to leadership of the Takayanagi family. But - " He held up a hand. " - I have a condition."
Nagi snorted. He somehow managed to wear the traditional Japanese clothes like they were a cheap track suit. "Sempai, we know Emi-san is giving you a hefty kickback for standing down. What more d'you want?"
"Masataka-kun's compensation is an internal matter of the Takayanagi family," Emi said sternly, giving Nagi an old-fashioned look. "In other words, it's none of your business."
Nagi bristled, but the other family heads looked interested, if warily so. Madoka was the first to speak up. "What's your condition, Masa-kun?"
"I want Toudou," Masataka said simply. As a surprised silence swept over the table, he elaborated, "Part of the problem with the events of the last half-decade is that the school was not vested with the authority to resist external manipulations. If not for my father's pet project, and the fallout from it, many of the funerals we've had to attend never would have happened. We need to keep that from happening again, and so we need someone to vest stewardship of the school in."
He paused, then continued. "Some of you may know that I'm an education major now. When I graduate, I plan on teaching at Toudou. Eventually, I plan on becoming the principal." He smiled thinly. "There's probably room for educational reforms in the school, too. But that's a close second to my first goal."
A thoughtful silence settled onto the room. The first one to break it was Madoka, wearing a tentative smile. "So will it be 'Takayanagi High,' then?"
"Don't tempt me," Masataka said with a chuckle, and that seemed to break the tension. "No… the Toudou family has always had a seat on the steering committee, and there's no reason to upset that." He cleared his throat. "So, I would have a seat on the steering committee as well, and the office of principal. That committee seat, and stewardship of the school, would be vested in my… my family." He blinked. This was the first time he'd ever verbalized the thought. He was sorry Serafall wasn't here to hear it.
"I'm fine with this," Aya said. "I would trust sempai to keep the school safe."
Nagi smiled lazily. "Better you than me, sempai. But, like Aya said, no one'd be better at it."
"I guess this kinda gives you a seat here anyway, doesn't it?" Madoka commented cheerfully.
Emi tapped her fingers thoughtfully on the tabletop. "That's not an unreasonable assessment."
A soft rumble of agreement rippled around the table. Masataka let out a quiet, relieved sigh.
"Thank you for your support, Aya-san," Masataka said quietly. The meeting was over, matters settled to everyone's acceptance (if not necessarily their satisfaction), and the family leaders were heading home. The only ones left were Aya and Nagi. The latter waited in the foyer, arguing on his phone with Bob about something.
"I'm glad I could do something to help today, sempai," Aya told him. There were still traces of guilt in her expression. "I meant what I said, though. You're the perfect choice to protect Toudou."
"That's the intention," Masataka agreed.
The two were silent, and companionably so, for a long moment. Aya broke the silence. "Are you and your girlfriend sticking around long?"
"We're engaged, actually," Masataka corrected gently. "Serafall and I will be heading back to Kuoh the day after tomorrow. I'll have school, and she'll have work."
"That makes sense," Aya said. He sensed surprise from her, but also approval.
A thought occurred to him, and Masataka spoke up quickly. "Actually, Aya-san, there's one more favor I'd like to ask of you…"
"You sure this is what you want, Takayanagi?" Bunshichi looked dubiously across the table at Masataka. They, along with Serafall and Ukitsu, sat at a table in a family restaurant not far from the Takayanagi estate. It was a fairly unremarkable place, the kind of place where Toudou students hung out and families with small children grabbed cheap meals. Yet it was refreshingly free of the oppressive atmosphere that the estate had been engulfed in for the past few days.
"Yeah, I'm sure," Masataka assured him, as he idly swirled his milkshake around with a straw. "Sera-chan and Emi-san helped me work out the details, but it really is what I want."
Serafall nodded, gulping down her bite of hamburger before speaking. "Masa-chan and my sister have a lot in common, especially their choice of majors. She has plans of her own for a school for the disadvantaged, and that gave Masa-chan some inspiration."
"It sounds like a great idea to me," Ukitsu said around a bite of mashed potatoes.
"I think so, too," Bunshichi agreed, pausing to wolf down some fries. He jabbed a finger at Masataka. "Just make sure you don't soften things up too much, y'know? Toudou's supposed to be a 'battleground paradise,' after all. It won't fix anything if all you do is take the 'battleground' part out!"
"Oh, I know, Bunshichi-san," Masataka laughed. "The emphasis on martial arts won't change. Although, I've been thinking…" He exchanged meaningful glances with Serafall, and then continued. "Not every student there is going to be established in a martial art. There'll be plenty of people who've come up through brawling and sheer willpower. They'll need someone to show them how to make the most of that…"
He gave Bunshichi a meaningful look as well, and the older man blinked in surprise. "M-me? A teacher?" he blurted out.
"I'm not sure you realize this, Ukitsu-san, but Bunshichi-san was the closest thing many of us had to a moral compass at Toudou," Masataka said, looking at Bunshichi's wife.
"No, I hadn't realized that," Ukitsu said, looking at her husband in surprise. "Now that I think about it, though… Bun-chan, you really might be perfect as a teacher. Especially at a school like Toudou."
"Well… I really don't like selling rice," Bunshichi admitted, sounding like the words were being dragged out of him. "But I don't have the money to go to university. Especially not with - " He gestured to Ukitsu's stomach.
"If you were interested, I'd cover that," Masataka told him.
"You'd pay for me to go to college, just so I could work for you afterwards?" Bunshichi stared at him. "Takayanagi, how much is Isuzu paying you not to take over the family?"
Masataka pulled an envelope out of his coat, opened it, and showed Bunshichi the slip of paper inside. The latter's eyes bugged out, and Ukitsu whistled loudly when she leaned over to look. "...that's a lot of zeros," she commented.
"That's exactly what I said," Serafall said with a lazy smile. "So, as you can see, covering your tuition, and anything else you might need, would be simple."
"Well, hell," Bunshichi sighed, then grinned. "How'm I supposed to say no to an offer like that?"
"Hello, buchou," Masataka said respectfully, setting the flowers in front of Maya's grave. "I brought someone to meet you." He gestured to Serafall. "This is Serafall. She's my fiancee."
Serafall bowed courteously to the grave. "Hello, Maya-san. It's nice to meet you." She smiled wryly at the grave. "You'll forgive the casual attire. Masa-chan told me you weren't one to stand on ceremony." It was easier to get used to than she'd expected, this Japanese tradition of speaking to a person's grave as if the person were there to hold a conversation with. It wasn't as if she hadn't held conversations of her own with friends who had passed on long ago, after all.
"Well, it's true," Masataka answered, smiling sheepishly. "Anyway, I wanted to let you know, buchou, that I'm doing well. It's largely thanks to her." He squeezed Serafall's hand. "There's a lot that is thanks to her."
"He flatters me," Serafall said, her cheeks heating slightly. She cleared her throat, then said, "I understand you're largely responsible for Masa-chan being who he is today." She laid her own bouquet next to Masataka's. "I don't think I can ever thank you enough for that." She had additional thoughts regarding Natsume Maya, but those could wait for another day. What she had said was true enough. She glanced at her watch, a motion Masataka caught.
"We'll be back again when we can, Maya-san. Until then, take care." Masataka bowed to the grave again, and Serafall followed suit after a moment.
"Did you have feelings for her?" Serafall asked once they were on the road. The last week had brought it to her mind. It had occurred to her that she had a handle on how he felt about all his former classmates and clubmates… except Maya. There was such a complex jumble of emotions and reactions that seemed to swirl around her. She had noticed that months before, during her largely perfunctory vetting of Masataka. Natsume Maya seemed like the kind of person who provoked those as a matter of course.
Masataka, somehow, seemed neither surprised nor perturbed by the question. His focus on weaving the Skyline through highway traffic might have had something to do with it. Then again, maybe not. "No. I mean, I didn't, but I think I could have, if the circumstances had been different." A snort escaped his lips. "But I didn't realize that until after she was gone. I have no idea if she'd ever had a similar thought." He smiled a smile that, if less bitter than it once was, still was quite tart. "We didn't have that much time for introspection."
Serafall nodded in understanding, processing that. It wasn't that she was afraid of him being still hung up on Maya. Rather, understanding how he felt about the elder Natsume sister helped her understand how he'd come to love her. After all, one of the first things he'd said to her was how she reminded him of his "late friend…"
He glanced her way, and that bitter smile relaxed into something happier as he looked at her face. "Serafall?" The rare use of her full name, and no honorifics, caught her attention, and she looked over to see his smile. "I love you. I wouldn't have gotten through this without you." His eyes were on the highway… mostly; they kept glancing her way. "I mean it."
She looked at him, warmth spreading throughout her, and had to smile in response. "I love you too, Masataka." She leaned her head against his shoulder, rubbing her cheek against it; that was the most she could do, with his hand being on the gearshift. "You're stuck with me now, wherever you go," she added in a mock-threatening voice. "You'll never escape Miracle Levia-tan now."
"Stalked by Miracle Levia-tan forever? Sounds like my kind of fate," Masataka said, his smile turning goofy now.
"Don't tempt me to pull out the costume when we get home," Serafall warned him, her own smile turning into an evil grin. Actually, now that she said that, it wasn't a half-bad idea.
He chuckled, the tone of it showing his level of resistance to the idea. To wit, zero.
After a moment, he chuckled again, and this time the sound was thoughtful. "Kuoh and Toudou, huh? We're gonna have a heckuva time figuring out where to send our kids."
"Maybe we should have two, and send one to each," Serafall suggested with a laugh, and leaned her head against his shoulder again. "That's a fight for another day, Masa-chan."
"Yeah." Masataka's smile was thoughtful as he threaded the Skyline through highway traffic, arrowing them towards home.
There really should be at least one story between Tomorrow is a Long, Long Time (When You've Lost Your Way) and this, and that one is actually in the pipeline (although I really need to get chapter 2 of Digital x Dragon: DLC out first). Masataka getting introduced to/integrated into Devil society, and the early days of his and Serafall's relationship, should make for ample fic (not to mention lemon) fodder. But this story is where my muse has taken me for the moment. Any post-series Tenjou Tenge story should at least touch upon Mitsuomi's passing, after all.
The idea had occurred to me during the writing of this to show Aya and Souichiro's relationship starting to sour, and lay groundwork for Aya (and possibly Madoka) to start growing closer to Masataka again, setting up the possibility of a harem. As an idea, it has a certain appeal (and since this is a fic involving High School DxD, harems are all but customary), but that's a can of worms I'm unwilling to open at this time. After all, the rather conclusive way that Aya and Madoka's routes were closed to Masataka is pretty much what set him on the road that led him to Serafall. Introducing them now as romantic possibilities would be counterproductive, I think, and actually risks cheapening them as characters. There is someone who I would like to see Masataka and Serafall bring into their relationship, but there are a number of issues that would need to be addressed first. Ah well, that's for another day.
As there is no real information available on the rest of Serafall's peerage, I've taken my own creative liberties. In both personality and appearance, Behemoth and Ziz are based respectively upon Onoya An and Yoake Ryo from ReLIFE (which is a very good anime, and an even better manga). They, and the rest of Serafall's peerage, will be featured more extensively (that is to say, at all) in future works.
Emi's part was originally written as way bitchier. I think the revised version is an improvement. In any event, I suspect that Mitsuomi's death finally being imminent is definitely taking a toll on her. And I can easily imagine that winning Mitsuomi over (even if it's not in her preferred way) could go to her head. Finally, in her own mind, she is acting for the good of the Takayanagi family (embodied in her and Mitsuomi's child), and could easily justify mistreatment of Masataka as an unfortunate necessity. (Mitsuomi himself is probably somewhat OOC as well, but I have a feeling that, now that he's at the end of his road and he's done his best to sort things out, he feels like he can relax a little. And we do know that, when all was said and done, he really did care about and feel protective of Masataka.)
The fic takes its title from the last chorus of John Mayer's "Born and Raised," which itself deals with adulthood and loss. japanvisitor dot com was the source for the details and procedures of a Japanese funeral. The blue R33 presented in this article (jalopnik dot com /the-r33-nissan-skyline-gt-r-definitely-doesnt-drive-lik-1796687322) is the one I envision as Masataka's, and the article's description of the R33, summed up as "capable and unjustly underappreciated," can easily apply to Masataka himself.
Yes, Bunshichi's wife is Ukitsu from Ikki Tousen. It seemed a sensible fit, and to be honest, I've always been stunned that Tenjou Tenge/Ikki Tousen crossovers haven't been more of a thing.
For those curious, the annual stipend Masataka is receiving is ¥100,000,000. (US$878,723.00.) Not quite buy-your-own-island rich, but nothing to sneeze at!
Finally, the eye-color-change bit during the dinner was my (admittedly half-assed) attempt to explain why Serafall initially has violet eyes in the anime, and then later turquoise ones.
Many thanks to Aesir19 for proofreading and helping fine-tune this thing (including the brilliant idea to equate Tenjou Tenge's ki/chi manipulation to DxD's senjutsu)! This chapter's coherence can be laid largely at their feet.