27 April 2024

Chapter XXXIX: Hatsuyume

She woke up first, some time before dawn. The sky was still an ashen gray when she crept out of bed to go to the bathroom, tiptoeing barefoot against the cold floor as Kuon slumbered on.

She paused before getting back into bed, shivering against the chill of being outside-the-blanket. The snow had stopped but left their windows fringed with little peaks against the glass; inside, the corners of the room still faded into shadow. She could see Kuon's outline on the bed—he was sleeping on his side, arm stretched over the rumpled emptiness where she'd been. His broad shoulders peeked just outside the blanket's hem; his hair was a dark halo on his pillow.

"Kyoko," he mumbled, still asleep, and she startled at the sound. The arm stretched out further, looking for her, his hand splaying open against her pillow. Seeing it brought an almost visceral reaction out of her body—how often had those hands made her cry out? Shewas too aware of the distance between them, of that strange pull towards him that was always there. Her body still tingled where he'd touched her. She was brazenly naked in a way that would have been unthinkable to her just a year before; now, it merely seemed right.

She crept closer, peeling back the duvet and sliding into the bed. Half-asleep, he made space for her as she laid back down and cuddled closer into his waiting body. The questing hand found its way around her waist and he nuzzled closer in. His skin pressed into hers, making a seal that joined their bodies. "Mmm," he said, still asleep.

"I'm here," she whispered. "I love you."

"Love you," he murmured back.

She turned to face him, watching his long eyelashes against his cheek. She was surrounded by his warmth and by his scent, a soporific that had her feeling drowsy again as her body relaxed into his. It was an animal comfort—two warm bodies huddled close against the cold.

Oh, she was grateful.

Kuon had always believed that they were predestined, that Fate would have brought them together with the inevitability of a sunrise. She wasn't so sure. Their reunion still seemed improbable to her, his forgiveness still too generous. She had tried to destroy this. This feeling of perfect love, perfect safety, perfect warmth—could she have lived without it? Would it really have been living?

She let the moment cut into her heart with a sweetness so sharp it hurt. She breathed him in and let her body unfold—every place he'd touched still aflame hours later. Gently she moved his hair from his face; unable to help herself, she stroked his silky hair as he slept. He was hers. She knew that now. Or perhaps she'd always known it and had merely accepted it—it had certainly taken her long enough. Knowing this had freed her heart, but it had also given her a heavy weight to carry. Whatever the fairy tales had said, her happily-ever-after would take work.

Perhaps it wasn't so obvious to him, but it was to her: the decision to be with him was also a decision to go to war. Perhaps it was the curse of having everything granted to her: a home, a job, a life…true love. How would she cope with being Ren Tsuruga's girlfriend in college?

She didn't like the idea of it.

College—business school. The thought of it made her want to sigh. Since coming back to Kyoto and taking on the mantle of being the Fuwa Heir, she'd considered it a foregone conclusion. Of course she needed a degree. It was the one thing she and her mother agreed on, the one thing her mother had insisted the Fuwas do for her. It was her duty. And besides, living with Sho had taught her well—without an education, her options were few and painful. She'd been working a succession of part time jobs when she'd landed at the Darumaya, but what then? It hadn't mattered to her when she was working to support Sho's dream, and besides, it was her nature to do whatever job she had with her whole heart.

It would have worn her down in the long run.

Now? Now…she didn't have to work for anyone. Kuon had made his devotion clear, and so had the Fuwas. They'd support her if she chose to live in Tokyo. She couldn't find anything to complain about in the life she'd chosen. But. Was it fine to be…just fine with the future she'd chosen?

"I can hear you thinking," Kuon rumbled. He'd woken in her absence and then waited in a twilight sleep for her return. But he could feel the tension in her limbs. She hadn't gone back to sleep yet.

"I'm sorry I woke you," she whispered back. "I should've been quieter." She couldn't imagine Kuon asking her to work for his rent. Kuon was working on his own dreams, too.

"You were as quiet as a mouse," he said. "And it wasn't what woke me." She felt him nuzzle into her neck as the arm squeezed her tightly into his body. "What's worrying you?" he asked.

"Nothing specific, really," she said. "The future."

She felt his chuckle against her back. "The future," he echoed, and then sighed. "It's your birthday," he said. "The future can wait."

"The future doesn't, though," she said, "not for anyone."

"Is it the exam?"

"Not…really. It's…hard to explain."

"Mm." He pulled back and away from her and she nearly protested—until she felt his hands work at the tension on her shoulders. "Turn around and lay flat," he said. She sighed under his hands. "This is what woke me, by the way. You felt worried."

She didn't know whether to be happy or disturbed by that, but she acquiesced. "You…can tell?" she asked hesitantly.

"Yes," he said. "You get all soft-snuggly when you fall asleep. You weren't falling asleep. So you weren't soft-snuggly."

The softness of his tone made her smile. She melted into the bed and closed her eyes as his hands shifted and kneaded over her. "I just…don't want to be where I was when I left Sho," she said. "Being a middle-school graduate. I had jobs, but it bothered me that there were some things I'd never even be considered for. I couldn't admit it to myself back then."

"But you aren't where you were when you left Sho," he pointed out. "You're graduating high school. You have me."

"I think…part of it is…wanting a future I've built for myself," she said. "The ryokan—you know I've always thought Sho might come back for it? And you might leave me—"

"Kyoko," he growled.

"—just a hypothetical," she said defensively, and sighed. "But no one would ever be able to take an education away from me."

"I understand," he said soothingly, running gentle hands up and down her back. "So what is it? Are you worried about finishing university?"

"No…"

"Good, because I could never imagine you not finishing something you'd started."

She hesitated. Speaking things out loud always made them more real. "It's that…I know this is what I should do," she said. "I know it's right. It's the best way to make sure my future's secure."

"But?"

"But." She took a deep breath in and held it.

"Kyoko?" he asked expectantly.

"It's so ridiculous," she muttered into the pillow.

"Try me."

"I just…don't want to."

His hands stilled. "Then don't," he said, keeping his voice light. "Don't."

"But what would I do with my life!?" she said. "If I'm going to run the ryokan, I really should have the education."

"But do you want to?"

"Do what?" she blinked. "Run the ryokan?" She paused, wondering if she should say any more. She thought back to her hills, her river, and her forests. The ryokan had saved her in her darkest hour, and until Kuon had found her again, it had been the only kingdom she wanted. "I…think I do," she said hesitantly. "It's the only real home I ever had. And I do love it. It's a treasure that's been given to me for safekeeping. My duty."

"Mm." His hand found a knot by her shoulder blade and pressed in, making her gasp a little in sudden pain. "Your duty. But does it make you happy?"

She couldn't answer him. Did it make her happy? It had made her content enough, before he'd arrived. She'd taken pride in her work. "It doesn't make me unhappy," she finally said.

He felt the knot in her shoulder release and ran his hands along the meridians of her back again, settling them at the curve of her waist. He kept quiet, choosing to listen. He had no right to push his own dream onto her, though he saw it in his mind's eye with blazing clarity. She was an actress—he knew this. But she didn't. She'd accepted his love, but not her own talent.

He bent low and placed a kiss at the nape of her neck and then on her back before covering her prone body with his own and laying still, just feeling her warmth.

Kyoko spoke before he could continue. "I know what you're thinking," Kyoko said.

"Hrmph. What am I thinking?"

She reached for his hand and entwined hers in it. "You want me to join LME," she said. "You want me to audition for that drama…"

"It wouldn't be my place to ask that of you," he said.

"But you want me to."

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't." His hand squeezed hers, a single pulse. "Not because I want you beside me all the time, by the way…but because I think you'd truly be a great fit for the role. And because your talent should be polished and shared. When your Ring-Doh comes out, you'll see. People will agree with me."

She felt a little thrill inside her at the thought of it and squelched it down. She'd read the scripts with him, of course, but had never seriously considered auditioning. "The audition's on the same day as the exam," she said.

"I know," he said, kissing the lobe of her ear. "And I know how important that is. But for the record…yes, I would love to have you as my Cinderella, and yes, I think you should use the talent you have. But I won't ever push my dream onto you, and I'll support you no matter what you decide." He smirked into the dark. "Besides," he said, "you'll always be my princess…"

She snorted. "You're terrible."

"Terrible?" She felt his tongue tickle her ear. "Oh no. I was trying to be sweet."

"A little cheesy," she said, beginning to giggle. He was nipping at her ear now. "A little extreme—"

She pushed up gently from the bed, forcing him to rise before twisting around to face him and pulling him back down. "But yes, sweet," she said breathlessly against his lips, and then kissed him again as his body covered hers.

Warm hands slid underneath her, holding her close. "So sweet," he echoed, parting her lips again with his tongue.

She'd meant only to kiss him softly—to wish him pleasant dreams as they drifted off to sleep again. She thought she was too tired. But her body told her otherwise. She was nearly trembling in desire, wanting him again. Her hips shifted upwards against him and found that he, too, wanted her. She ground herself along his hard length almost by instinct, unable to stop herself.

"God, Kyoko—" he said.

She moaned as he deepened their kiss. She swept her hands over the expanse of his back, shifting against the hard planes of his body. They were entwined in each other, sharing one breath. She wanted him again, she'd always want him, she needed him—

"I love you," she cried out, "Please—"

He drove himself inside her, and all the rest was bliss.

=.=.=

For Breakfast:

1 cup (4 oz) finely shredded Gruyère, packed
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and wrung free of water
1 9-inch deep dish frozen pie crust
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup thinly sliced shallots
4 large eggs
1¼ cups heavy cream
Pinch ground nutmeg
¾ teaspoon salt

Kyoko blinked. Spinach quiche.

He was going to make her spinach quiche.

Kyoko found the recipe on the counter, slightly wrinkled and bearing the obvious marks of having survived at least one bout in the kitchen with Kuon Hizuri. She picked it up with a small flutter in her belly, smiling as she saw how he'd marked up the instructions. "Wait ten minutes for the pie crust to thaw," she read on one line. "DO NOT BURN THE SHALLOTS!" she read on another.

She found the ingredients in the refrigerator—cheese grated, shallots already wilted, spinach already drained, everything already prepped and ready for assembly. She found everything organized on the bottom shelf after rummaging through a number of snacks and fruits and juices all bought for her.

She felt her eyes mist, imagining him puttering around in his still-new kitchen. He'd improved by a wide margin, but Kuon was still prone to kitchen disasters, despite his best efforts. Knowing him, he'd likely practiced at least once. So much effort—all of it just to tell her how much he loved her.

She took all the ingredients out and put them on the counter, deciding not to pre-empt all of his effort and all of his work by preparing the quiche herself. She'd offer to help him make it when he woke. She wandered back into their bedroom only to find it ablaze in brilliant mid-morning light. The sun had crowned Kuon's sleeping head with a halo, giving her an illusion of golden hair. She saw Kuon Hizuri as she'd known him during the summer, before necessity had forced him to transform back into Ren. His mouth was curved upwards into a slight smile as he slept—she could see the marks of her kisses all over his neck and then down his chest and—

She blushed.

She didn't have the heart to wake him.

She leaned against the doorway and contemplated his sleeping form. She was tempted to crawl back into bed with him, breakfast be damned.

No.

She shook her head, tsk-ing at herself.

If she crawled back into bed with him, they'd never leave it.

"Coffee, Kyoko," she muttered to herself. "You need coffee, and he'll need coffee too."

Yes. Coffee.

That would be best.

She was about to tiptoe back to the kitchen when she heard the bed rustle.

"I feel you looking at me," he said, eyes still closed. "And now you're trying to escape—"

She jumped. "How long have you been awake!?" she asked.

"Long enough," he yawned. He hummed and raised up the duvet, patting the empty space beside him. "Come back."

"If I come back to bed, we're never leaving it," she said. "And it's nearly noon."

He pouted.

She put her hands on her hips and gave him the best glare she could muster—all in vain, it turned out, when he countered with a set of puppy-dog eyes. "I really do have to get up, don't I…"

It wasn't a question. He sighed and sat up, giving her a smirk.

She couldn't help staring. All those little human gestures—a yawn, a stretch, a tilt of the head—on him, they looked like poses. Even like this, he looked like a magazine cover.

He swiveled his legs out from under the blanket and then stood up, completely naked and utterly shameless, facing all of Tokyo outside his window while stretching his arms above his head.

Her jaw dropped. Light loved him—it only made him look more, and not less, like some fever-dream out of her overheated imagination. All of his body bore the marks of their lovemaking. When had she scratched at his back? When had her lips found his neck at that angle? Her eyes traveled down from his powerful shoulders, down his broad back, and then down to his ass, remembering how it felt in her hands as he pumped his seed inside her.

He wasn't the pervert. She was.

He turned and she made the mistake of keeping her eyes on him, feeling her mouth go dry as she saw how hard he was.

Her body's response was Pavlovian. Heat coursed through her veins.

He cleared his throat. "My eyes are up here, Kyoko," he said. "Though you're welcome to keep looking."

She looked up, mortified, already beet-red. His sensuous mouth promised sin, and his grin only widened as he watched her consternation. "But!" he said cheerfully, "Breakfast!" He strode over to the robe he'd flung off the night before and picked it up, putting one arm and then the other into its sleeves. He pouted at her. "Because Kyoko doesn't want to be in bed with me…"

Her cry of protest lodged in her throat as a cough, but her feet took her to his side almost without conscious thought.

His hands were holding opposite ends of his robe's belt, ready to tie it into a knot. He would have succeeded, too, if her own hands hadn't grabbed at his wrists.

"But Kyoko," he teased, "I thought you wanted breakfast?"

But she'd reached up and was sliding the robe off of his shoulders. "You're…awful…awful…" she murmured.

"Yes," he whispered. "I'm awful." She was on her tip-toes, straining up towards him until he leaned down into her and kissed her. His hands wandered to the knot holding her robe in place, undoing it before pushing it off of her—and when she was naked again, he moved to pick her up.

But she moved away, ending their kiss so abruptly he almost whimpered.

Gently, she placed a hand on his sternum, pushing him backwards until he sat back on the bed.

"Kyoko?" he asked.

She was blushing, but she pushed forwards, capturing his lips again as she stepped between his knees. Her mouth descended from his lips to his neck, and then down over his heart—

He knew what she was doing. "Kyoko—love—it's your birthday—"

She ignored him. He gasped as her teeth nicked him gently, a bite over his breast; he sucked in a breath as her tongue licked at his skin between her kisses.

"Yes," she whispered breathily into his ear. "It's my birthday. And I want this." She held his gaze as she descended to her knees, held his gaze as her hands rested on his trembling thighs. His manhood strained towards her, precum weeping from the tip. She looked into his eyes as her lips engulfed the head of his cock, swirling her tongue around his glans before bringing his length into her mouth.

"Fuck," he hissed.

His skin tasted like salt and smelled like her. She took him like a sacrament on her tongue, savoring the heat of him, the silk of his skin over hard, hard flesh. She felt the tension at the pit of his belly, in his hips—he was holding still for her, waiting for her. He was holding on to his control when all she wanted was to draw him into a frenzy. Languidly, she began; first, her tongue along the underside of his length, and then a pursing of her lips as she moved backwards—suddenly forwards again as his hips flexed beneath her. He moaned as her hand joined her lips, moving up and down his moistened shaft.

He stared down at her in open lust, remembering the first time she'd taken him like this. Mere months ago, she'd been so innocent. "Teach me," she'd begged, and then she'd conquered him. The memory of it underscored the present. She had a body built for the giving and receiving of pleasure. That day had only been a prelude.

"Don't hold back," she murmured. She gasped as his hand threaded its way through her hair, feeling the thrill of it shoot from her head and down between her thighs. He pulled at her locks, and the sting of it made her more fervent, more determined—she could feel herself dripping in open want as he pushed her downwards. She submitted to his pleasure. Again and again she took him in her mouth—as deep as she could, until he'd made a mess of her and his eyes were glazed in the rictus of his impending climax.

"Kyoko—Kyoko—"

His hips thrust upwards into her as he came—she swallowed as her mouth filled with his cum.

And when he was done, he grabbed her off of the floor and threw her onto the bed as she squealed in protest.

Rough hands parted her legs firmly as she squirmed beneath him. "My turn," he said, as his mouth descended onto her core.

=.=.=

Two hours-or-so later, Kuon placed a freshly-baked quiche on the counter, humming cheerfully as he grabbed two plates from the cupboard. He'd refused all help from Kyoko, who fidgeted somewhat restlessly behind him.

"You could've at least let me plate the salads," she pouted.

"Nope," he said. "It's your birthday. You were supposed to get breakfast in bed."

"I thought we did?" she asked innocently.

That forced outright laughter from him. "You're right," he said. "We both did, didn't we? I suppose this is lunch, then."

He put the plates on a tray and turned around to face her. "I…tried making more complicated things. I wanted to impress you, but—"

"You always do," she said. "You've spoiled me so much already."

His eyes darkened as he caged her against the countertop. "I haven't even begun," he growled.

She eeped as he kissed her, feeling the inevitable heat rising inside her again. But he stepped away, leaving her in the lurch.

"I'm not going to be seduced this time," he said.

She raised an eyebrow. "Seduced? I seduced you?"

"Minx. You know what you did."

"I am an innocent maiden!"

"Well you were—"

"KUON!"

He laughed and then lifted her up onto the counter and nuzzled into her. "—And now you're a ravishing—" Kiss. "—seductive—" Kiss. "—incredibly hot—" Kiss. "—woman."

"Playboy," they said together.

She sniffed. "Now you're just mocking me."

"I'm not," he said, eyes suddenly gentle. "You know I'm not."

She leaned her head onto his shoulder. "I know," she said softly. "Thank you."

He squeezed her against him. "I wanted to get you breakfast in bed, and then I wanted to grab your birthday presents—"

"Presents?" she echoed blankly. "But you already gave me—"

"Presents," he said. "Yes. Plural." He smirked at her. "And just so you know, your birthday presents are not your Christmas presents. And those are not your 'welcome home' presents."

She sputtered.

He grinned.

"I'm…a little afraid of what you're planning," she said.

"Mmm," he said.

"I'm doomed, aren't I?" she asked.

"Maybe," he teased. He let her go and then grabbed the trays from beside her and set them down on his dining room table. She sprang off of the countertop and padded along after him.

"But first…breakfast." He pulled out a chair for her, motioning her to sit down. "Sit."

"Oh but the coffee—"

"Pfft." He grabbed their mugs from the counter. "I've got the coffee. Shhhh. Relax."

Kyoko looked down at her plate, which was plated as well as any professional could have done. She was famished—she simply hadn't realized.

"Thank you—" she said, and then her stomach growled.

He laughed. "You're welcome," he replied. "And I'm sorry for any undue delay I may have caused this morning—"

"You are not sorry, sir." She speared a tomato with her fork. "You are not sorry at all."

He snorted into his coffee as she started to giggle.

=.=.=

She'd been right to be afraid.

She felt a little bit like a child in an American Christmas movie. Kuon had set her onto his couch, replaced her coffee with hot chocolate, placed a blanket over her and then turned on a video of a fireplace—all while he went to grab the absurd pile of presents he'd bought her.

She narrowed her eyes when she saw them—there must've been an extra closet somewhere he hadn't shown her last night.

"Kuon," she said disapprovingly.

But he just shook his head. "Can't stop won't stop," he said, sticking out his tongue.

"But—"

"You still owe me wishes, you know."

She gave him a mock glare. "You wouldn't."

"I would. You have to let me buy you presents."

"Reasonable presents," she protested.

"No restrictions. Presents."

She sighed in defeat as he handed her the first box.

There were luxurious things: a pink gem, cut into a briolette and set into a necklace, a matching bracelet, a gilt music box with a complicated-looking mechanism. There were utterly unnecessary things: more dresses, more makeup, an altogether too-beautiful magic wand that turned out to…blow soap bubbles. And then there were things made of gossamer and lace that she could not look at without blushing.

By the time he was done, they were both sitting on his living room floor, surrounded by discarded wrapping paper and empty boxes. Kyoko had tried to keep an orderly pile of them but had been defeated by sheer volume.

She felt embarrassed and unprepared, all but empty-handed after receiving so much. How could her pathetic gift compare to this mountain of luxury?

"It isn't much," she said, handing him his gift. "I…didn't know what else I could give you."

"You gave me your time," he said. And then he smirked. "And your body."

"KUON!" she squealed, throwing a ball of discarded wrapping paper at him.

"I mean, if you think it isn't enough, you can always give me your body again—"

"Pervert."

"You know you want me."

She rolled her eyes and huffed in response. She couldn't deny it, not in the least.

She sighed. The smile on his face was entirely disproportionate to the gift being given. The box was too small in his hands. She'd wrapped it carefully, taking the time to tuck and tape each fold of the washi paper she'd chosen, but it was still a shabby gift. The kind of thing grandmothers gave to grandchildren.

She expected him to tear open the package; he didn't. Elegant hands pried each taped edge apart, preserving the paper. He opened the unwrapped box slowly and then stared at the contents.

She gulped with dread. He'd stared at it for too long—far too long—she really should've thought of something better to give—

"Kyoko."

She looked into a smile that wavered as a tear fell from his eye.

Horrors. She should've known he wouldn't like it. She really should have gotten him something from a nice department store. "Oh no—Kuon—I'm so sorry—I knew I should've gotten you something else—"

"Thank you," he said, his voice thick. "I love it."

"You're crying—" She reached over, trying to grab it. "I should've gotten you something else. This was a mistake."

He shook his head and held the box close. "You know I'm not crying because I hate it, Kyoko."

"They don't fit your image," Kyoko said. "They're not elegant enough for you. I didn't know what else to get you, but I really should've known better…" Her voice trailed off into silence. He'd been wearing a scarf made of expensive Italian merino when he'd come to pick her up. He'd taken it off and placed it around her; she'd gotten to feel how very warm and luxurious it was first hand. She was a decent knitter and the scarf she'd made him was competently made. But it was decidedly…homely. Too homely for a man as elegant as Ren Tsuruga to wear around town.

But he placed a hand on hers as he looked down at the scarf, calming her. "Tell me that you didn't spend hours of your time knitting this," he said quietly. "Tell me that you didn't think of me every time you made a stitch. Tell me that you weren't thinking about how warm it would make me feel on cold days—that you weren't thinking about all the things I already have and the one thing I wouldn't ever be able to find in a store."

He reached over and grabbed the hat, promptly placing it on his head. She couldn't help but smile at the sight of it—he looked younger. Much younger. "Every time I wear this, I'll think of you holding me," he said. Kuon wrapped the scarf around himself, waiting patiently for her to calm down. He breathed in deeply. "It smells like you. And you think I'd let you take this back? I'm never letting this go, do you understand?" he asked. He reached for her again and squeezed her hand reassuringly. "I won't let you go, either."

She felt her eyes stinging with an upswell of unexpected tears. She clenched her hand underneath his. That feeling came again—that feeling of guilt and regret that she had tried, but not quite succeeded, to rid herself of. It was tempered with her gratitude and her love for him, acute and unfettered. "I love you so much," she said, her voice breaking. "So, so much. You came back to me…oh god, you came back—"

His own hands worked at hers, opening her clenched fist until her fingers were entwined in his again. She still blamed herself for nearly breaking them—months later, he saw how the ghost of their separation still tortured her. Even if it took a hundred years, he would comfort her. "I did," he said, soothing her again. He'd spend a lifetime easing her fears. "I will always come back. You are my home."

He pulled her forward into his arms and she let him, melting into his body as they kissed.

"I forgot to tell you about your last present," he whispered.

"Another one?" she asked. She raised an eyebrow despite the tears still streaming down her cheeks.

"Tomorrow, Kyoko-my-love," he said, "we're going to Dajowneyland."

=.=.=

He woke her up from a deep sleep the next morning, filled with uncharacteristic glee. They'd fallen asleep early the night before, exhausted and slightly sore after nearly two days of…vigorous activity. He was pleased to see that the snow had melted overnight as a warm front moved in. All the forecasts called for a sunny day.

Of course it would be sunny. Even the weather knew to cooperate when Kyoko went to Dajowneyland. It would not dare do otherwise.

He crept out of bed before she did, this time, though he was loath to leave the warmth of their embrace.

"Dajowneyland time?" She let him pull her upright as she smiled sleepily, leaning forward for him to catch.

"Mmmhmm," he said. "I've got breakfast made and everything. And. I told you I had a plan to keep the fans from recognizing me—I'll have to show you after."

The excitement in him was infectious. She'd wanted to go to Dajowneyland all her life, but circumstances had never permitted it. "Dajowneyland," she whispered, and smiled.

"Yes. We're going to Dajowneyland," he whispered back, and then winked like a conspirator as he looked her up and down.

"Wait," she said, raising an eyebrow. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

He pulled away from her. "Breakfast first. Race you to the kitchen!" He sprinted off as she gaped after him.

"Kuon!" She threw off the covers, grabbing her robe from a nearby chair. "Wait—"

But he didn't. She found him in the kitchen, arms full with a tray bearing two plates of waffles and steaming cups of coffee. He stopped midway to the table to kiss her on the forehead.

"Sorry," he said, setting the tray down. "I'm just really excited."

Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him suspiciously. "I'm excited too," she said. "But."

"But?"

"But you're up to something."

"Meee?" He smirked at her and she knew he was planning something. "Maybe," he said, sipping his mug of coffee.

"Kuon—"

"It's a birthday present, Kyoko." He was wheedling, and he knew it. "Breakfast first," he said, almost sternly.

She shook her head and took a bite of her waffle.

"Is it good?" he asked anxiously. He'd purchased the waffle maker just for this breakfast, along with a bottle of real maple syrup from Vermont.

He smiled as her eyes widened. "Yesh," she said, covering her mouth. "It's really good!"

=.=.=

"Here."

He held out a key for her to take. It was made out of a heavy, wrought metal: another needlessly ornate gift on top of all the others he'd given her yesterday.

She furrowed her brow and took it from his fingers, staring down at an ominous-looking black trunk that he'd pulled from yet another closet.

"What is it?" she asked.

His eyes took on a maniacal glint. "Open it," he said, grinning. "You'll see."

She looked at him suspiciously. "I'm…what are you…"

"I know you're curious, Kyoko," he said. "C'mon. Open it."

"But why are you grinning like that?"

"You'll see."

She gave him a questioning look before turning back to the box. Hesitating, she placed the key into the lock and opened.

She wasn't quite sure what she was looking at, not at first.

There were an awful lot of straps. And studs. And leather.

"Um."

"Ummm?" he echoed.

"Kuon," she said, holding up what looked like a leather bustier. "What is this?"

Kuon stood behind her, snaking his arms around her waist and leaning into her. "I asked Ten to make you a disguise to match Cain Heel," he said. "So we can walk around Dajowneyland without anyone putting two and two together."

"Eh?" Her brows furrowed. What must Ten have thought when Ren requested such a thing? "And this is what she came up with?!"

He saw the look on her face and grinned. "Would you believe she and Lory had already thought up some bizarre plot to keep you with me in Guam?" he said. "Ten already had this—all of it, ready to go."

Kyoko's eyes widened as she held up a matching mini-skirt, constructed entirely of leather and trimmed with lace. She looked down into the box. There, along with the rest of the outfit, was a wig and some makeup. "What in the—"

"The entire point of Cain Heel's character was to isolate him from the rest of the cast," he said. "Make him so unapproachable no one got close enough to figure out who he really was."

"So why would having me with you have helped?" she asked.

"Lory always has these…crazy ideas," Kuon said. "There are times when they make more sense than others. And there are times when they make no sense at all. But you still do them because…he's right. A lot of the time."

She scoffed. "Not all of the time."

"No, not all of the time. Sometimes he's very wrong." Kuon sighed. "I think…he and Ten both knew I was going to struggle with Cain," he said, and shrugged. "Turned out that being Cain Heel was the least of my problems when that happened."

She squeezed the arms that were holding her, but he smiled.

"I don't know how they would have prevailed on you to leave school—but back then, I think Lory was counting on you signing that LME contract."

"And he would have given me this…assignment?" she asked.

He nodded. "'Setsuka.' Cain Heel's younger sister. I believe the intent was to portray some kind of strange codependent incest bit."

"A…codependent…incest…bit?" she asked doubtfully, raising an eyebrow.

He laughed. "I was going to be your hostile-to-everyone-else older brother with an obvious sister complex," he said. "And you were going to be my clingy little sister with an obvious Onii-san complex."

"And this would have worked…how?"

He shrugged. "Presumably…by grossing out anyone who saw it. And it was supposed to be an immersive acting lesson for you. Call it Lory's variation on method acting. Anyway." He paused until she turned to look at him. "The costume works for our purposes. We'll look like two foreigners from some punk band-or-other. People will want to stare, and they'll look away just because they want to stare. Ren Tsuruga will be safe, and so will Kyoko Mogami." He paused, unsure as to whether or not she'd accept his reasoning. "So…will you wear it?"

"Tell me this isn't some excuse to get me dressed in scandalous clothing."

He grinned at her, guilty. "It is definitely an excuse to get you dressed in scandalous clothing."

"I knew it. You pervert."

He laughed. "I know you are, but what am I? Though I'd be lying if I told you I haven't fantasized to the thought of your tits pushed up by that corset top—and that tiny little skirt with the thigh-high boots—"

"You could've simply said—"

"I know," he said. "But it's not just the clothing. I think the idea is genius. It's the opposite of camouflage—we'll be so outrageous they'll never suspect."

She looked over at the outfit, the wig, the makeup. "Can I wear this at Dajowneyland?! Will they even let us into the park?"

"I did check the park guidelines for acceptable clothing," he said. "And there's nothing here they'd object to. It might be more provocative than the average Japanese girl's outfit, but it's fine…they'll just think we're foreigners. And besides, there's a longish coat for you so you don't get cold. Now if I'd included that spiked collar Ten wanted to include—"

She blushed, the image forming in her mind. "Perhaps…not at Dajowneyland but…"

"Mmm."

They looked at each other, thinking the same thing. But Kyoko shook it off—she knew they'd never leave if she didn't change the subject.

"You…you really want me to wear it," she said.

"It's the best idea I've got right now, and not just because I'm a pervert," he said defensively. "We'll have to go public at some point—and when that happens, it'll be best not to have stray footage of you in Dajowneyland with some strange guy." He paused and took a breath. "And I admit I'm…curious. About what you would've done. If you'd agreed to Lory's little project, you would've had to make a whole character for Cain Heel's little sister. And now…you don't…but I…honestly wondered what that character would've looked like."

She pondered the corset. "Hmm," she said. "I'll wear it. I'll look completely insane, but I'll wear it."

He ran the back of his hand along her cheek. "You'll be beautiful," he said softly. "You're always beautiful."

"Flatterer." She caught his hand and pressed a kiss on his palm. "You're wrong about one thing, though," she mused. "I'm still creating a whole character. Not just for Cain. Maybe for you. Definitely for myself."

She held up the wig. "'Setsuka,'" she said, as if tasting the word. "'Setsu.' Because it'll be easier for me to wear if I'm…if we…are other people. Less embarrassing."

He nodded. "Clothes make the person, they say." He smiled. "When you go out there, I'll be Cain," he said. "And you will be my girlfriend Setsuka."

She gave him a crooked grin. "Not your sister?"

He gave her a lopsided grin back. "Not unless you'd like to be," he said.

She blinked and then looked over at the trunk's contents.

"You…you're thinking about it!" he said, clutching imaginary pearls. "Kyoko!"

She laughed. "It could be interesting," she said. "Nii-san."

He stopped and looked at her, feeling goosebumps rise on his skin. "OK, you're right. That…feels interesting."

"I think I would have a nii-san complex if you were my brother."

"I've been a siscon since you called me nii-san." He kissed her on her neck and then ran his tongue along its length, stopping when he heard her gasp against him. He let go of her and took a step back.

Her eyes were glazed—she'd wanted to cling onto him. "I'll meet you in the living room," he said.

He smirked before striding out of the door and shutting it, leaving her alone with the contents of her trunk.

Kyoko picked up the corset and sighed. Figuring out which straps went where was going to be an adventure.

=.=.=.=

Kyoko had to admit that Kuon had been right about their costumes—they were so appallingly outlandish that everyone gave them a wide berth. People stared…but people didn't see. And because they didn't see, they'd been free to be as shameless as they wanted.

Though she playfully called Cain 'Nii-san' throughout the day, whatever Lory and Ten had initially planned was irrelevant. 'Setsu' became an excuse to be…absolutely outrageous. To Kyoko's chagrin, Setsuka turned out to be as greedy for public displays of affection as Cain. Kyoko-the-proper-Japanese-maiden would never have allowed herself the liberties Setsu took for granted. She relished the opportunities the "character" had given her, because Setsu knew no restraint. She held nothing back—she didn't need to. Setsu was obsessed with Cain, so why would she? They held hands all day. They fed each other; they stole kisses on dark rides…they shared an ice cream cone, licking it in an utterly inappropriate manner.

She knew she should be more embarrassed about the way she'd acted. But everything faded into the dark behind Kuon's smile. The castle, the characters, the rides—everything was just better with him.

And when darkness fell, she readily agreed to dinner and then insisted on walking just to admire the Illuminations in Ginza, still lit for the season.

"The way you screamed," he said, "coming down off of that first drop—"

"I couldn't help it! It was scary!" she exclaimed. "Besides, it was my first time on a rollercoaster."

They ignored the stares and the double takes of passersby as they walked. Having lived an entire day in Setsu's clothes had given her a level of comfort with them. It helped to think of Setsu herself as a mask. It helped to desensitize her against peoples' stares.

"And you did not need to purchase the commemorative photo," she added.

"You would be utterly deluded if you think I'd ever let a photograph of you go—"

She rolled her eyes. He'd purchased all of their photos as part of a package. "Fine," she said, "If you must, I suppose you must—but you absolutely did not need the frame AND the mug AND the t-shirt—"

"My little sister does not dictate what I do with my money."

"Your little sister has to keep you from doing silly things with your money."

"Not on her birthday, she doesn't."

He pulled her against him and kissed her forehead, not caring that they'd created a small traffic jam on the street. "We're here," he said, gesturing beside them.

She looked at the restaurant and gulped. It had an imposing facade—a grille of ornate brass over glass, well-manicured shrubs in elegant planters. There was a doorman dressed in livery, looking at them with clear disapproval.

"Ku—Cain?" she asked, suddenly shy again.

"Hmm?"

"Where are you taking me?"

"Dinner," he said.

She gave him an exasperated look.

"It's apparently a good restaurant," he said. "Yashiro suggested it—said it would be dark and discreet in one of the private rooms, but with excellent food. He was quite excited when he got us the reservations."

"This restaurant?"

"Yes?" He blinked at her, puzzled.

"L'Ossier!?"

"Oh, you've heard of it?"

"Kuon—" He raised an eyebrow at her. "Cain. It's famous—it's got Michelin stars—we can't—we're dressed like—"

"Like foreigners who don't know any better and don't care," he grinned. "We'll be fine, Setsu."

She pursed her lips.

"Haven't you always wanted to misbehave at a place like this?" he whispered into her ear.

But it was Kyoko who answered him, and not the alter-ego she'd developed in the park. "Actually…no," she said. "It—it's really like eating art, and I couldn't possibly—as someone who also works in the industry—"

He squeezed the hand he was holding, chastised. "I understand—we can cancel—"

"Wait—" She was beginning to blush. 'Setsu,' it appeared, was gone. "It…it takes months to get a reservation there," she said. "And I know I shouldn't want to go because it costs so much…but I'm sure Yashiro-san must've done something to get us a table. It's just that going in looking like this—"

He was a little ashamed of himself. Walking around dressed so outrageously was one thing at an amusement park. But he should have known how she'd feel about going out to dinner like this. "I'm sorry," he said. "I should have been more thoughtful. But…you know we're surrounded by a thousand clothing stores, right? We're a little early anyway. Let's get you—"

But right then, the doorman pulled the door open for another couple exiting the restaurant.

"Taira-kun," he heard, "that was such an amazing dinner—"

Oh no.

He saw them before they saw him.

"Of all the gin joints—" he muttered.

Murasame and Manaka, dressed for a date night. He hadn't heard that they'd started dating, but then…he hadn't really been paying attention. Manaka was clinging onto Murasame's arm just as she'd clung to his before. Her face was flushed—was she drunk?!

Kyoko followed the line of his gaze. "What?" she whispered.

"They're here," he said.

"Who?"

"Taira Murasame and Manaka Whats-her-name, from—"

"Tragic Marker," Kyoko hissed. "That's Manaka?" She couldn't keep the edge out of her voice. She felt her hackles rise. All of the laughter—the happiness—the cozy well-being of the day had gone up in a puff of smoke. She was back in a dark place, hearing a woman's voice answering her lover's phone. The recollection brought a shock of pain with it. The wound, it seemed, was still raw. She and Kuon had forgiven each other. But had she forgiven this…this woman? No. Kyoko couldn't find that forgiveness within herself. There were some things that only time could soften—and it had only been weeks.

Kuon looked at her with some surprise, taken aback by the malevolence in her gaze. Her jealousy was surprisingly evident. Her hand had gone cold and was squeezing his in a death-grip. "You're a million times the woman she is, you know this, right?"

But Kyoko kept staring. She stood rooted to the spot, eyes watching Manaka intently. Kyoko hadn't looked up the actress online. She didn't want to; she knew no good could come of it. Whatever she looked like, Kyoko had thought, she was bound to be more beautiful, more elegant, more desirable than she was. But real life, it turned out, was kinder than her nightmares. The woman in front of her was…less…than the femme fatale she'd dreamed up. Manaka was more cute than beautiful, with bobbed hair framing a doll-like face.

She looked like a fucking hamster.

She looked like a fucking hamster and Kyoko wanted to rip off her hair before breaking each of her limbs, one by one.

The fact that Kuon had slept with other women was painful, yes. But they had been strangers. There had been no guile in their…little frolic. Manaka, though—Manaka was a colleague. An actress. A co-star. Someone who would get top-billing at Tragic Marker's release. He hadn't slept with her, but he'd flirted. He'd been tempted. Somehow, that made things worse. How much pain had this woman caused her? Nevermind the fact that she herself had been the architect of her separation from Kuon—Manaka had kept them apart. The things she'd done had been done knowingly and deliberately. It had been Manaka's voice that had answered her call, Manaka whose acts—and strategic omissions—had deceived her into despair.

"—I just couldn't believe how pretty everything was," Manaka was saying. "That dessert—"

"Fumi-chan." Murasame had spotted them and was glaring at Kuon-as-Cain with murder in his eyes.

Manaka looked up and then froze, too, as she spotted Cain. "Heel-san," she said, and then her eyes narrowed as she saw the figure next to him. Kyoko met her gaze, and Kuon almost flinched at the haze of electric hostility in the air. The two women stood there, sizing each other up like duelists before a fight to the death.

For a moment, things hung in the balance. Kyoko considered taking Kuon's hand and serenely swanning past the hamster and into the restaurant. It would have been the sensible, mature thing to do. She would shake from the effort of doing it, but she knew better than to escalate the situation.

Mature. She was mature. She was sensible. She could do this—

But Manaka was sneering. "And this—is this your Kyoko-chan?" she asked. "The girlfriend you cheated on?"

Kyoko felt Kuon tense beside her but found that her own rage moved faster. Again, she was grateful for the mask her costume provided her. "My name is Setsuka," she hissed, "and I've heard of you, little girl." She motioned at Murasame. "Couldn't have Cain, so you're sleeping with this asshole, instead?" She dropped Kuon's hand and took a step forward, far more menacing than her diminutive frame should have been. "Probably good for you that Cain Heel doesn't cheat. I don't know who Kyoko is, but he's mine. From the time he came into this world, he's been mine."

Manaka took a step backwards but rallied and smiled with undisguised malice. "Is he?" she asked, her voice dripping with candied venom. "I saw how he looked at me. I know he wanted me—"

Kyoko's hand whipped out before she could stop herself, slapping the words out of Manaka's mouth.

The hamster's head whipped back with the force of her blow as Kyoko's eyes looked down at her coldly. "Ow!" Manaka said, and started crying. "She—she hit me—Taira!"

Murasame stepped forward, shielding Manaka behind him while advancing on Kyoko. "I don't know who the fuck you think you are, but that's my girlfriend."

Kyoko knew she ought to be appalled at herself. She knew she should be shocked at her own violence. But her anger burned bright. "Some girlfriend you've got," Kyoko scoffed, "talking about fucking another man right in front of you." Murasame walked up to her, but Kyoko held her ground—

"Don't you fucking touch her, asshole," Kuon growled.

Murasame wheeled around. He'd forgotten Cain Heel's presence. Cain's fist found his face in a right hook as Manaka squealed. He stumbled backwards with the force of the blow and then squared up his shoulders and raised his fists. "You wanna do this? Right here?"

"Sure," Cain said, cracking his knuckles. "Anytime, anywhere—"

But a shrill whistle stopped them in their tracks. "STOP!" It was the doorman, accompanied by two security guards in black suits. "Please move away from our door. Forgive us, Murasame-san, but we'll be forced to call the police if you continue this." He glared at Cain. "Sir, you are not welcome on our premises."

"We have reservations," Cain said.

"That may well be," the doorman said, "but I'm afraid you are not welcome on our premises."

Murasame offered an arm to Manaka and glared at Cain before walking away. "This isn't done," he said.

Kyoko held back her retort in the face of the doorman's outraged look. She glared at Murasame's retreating back. "Let's go, Cain," she said. "I don't have much of an appetite anyway."

She turned on her heel and walked the opposite direction, not waiting for Kuon. She was a seething mass of rage and hurt and jealousy—confusion, even. All the adrenaline in the world, filling her with no way to let it out. She didn't want Kuon to bear the brunt of her unsettled emotions. Instead, she tried to outpace them, moving as quickly away from the scene of the fight as she could.

Kuon found himself left behind. "Kyoko?" He rushed after her, forgetting how quickly she could move. "Kyoko!"

He caught up to her and grabbed at her elbow. She stopped walking but refused to meet his eyes. "Hey," he said. "I'm sorry—I'm so sorry—"

"None of that was your fault," Kyoko gritted out. She shook off his hand. She didn't know how to feel. Her behavior had been unacceptable, costume-or-not. She couldn't even pretend that what she'd done was for a role. But unacceptable as her behavior had been, she regretted nothing. "I hit her first."

"It was my fault," he said. "I shouldn't have encouraged her on-set. I should've been clear that I wasn't available—"

"—You were available." His words reminded her all over again of the misery of their separation—and though they'd talked about it, wept and reconciled, all she could see in her mind's eye that moment was the way Manaka's eyes roved up and down her boyfriend's body. She began walking again, moving briskly away from him. She didn't know where she was going, but she wanted to be far, far away. Away from him. Away from the memory of those days—of the images in her head of Manaka taking her place by his side. Of anyone else, really, touching him. All of it made her sick, down to the very bottom of her stomach.

"No. I wasn't. Not ever."

"You wanted her." Kyoko heard her voice rising.

"Kyoko."

"You did!" She wasn't proud of the shrill note in her voice.

"I didn't want her. I wanted to forget you."

She felt tears welling up in her eyes. She knew she was being irrational. Whatever he'd done while they were apart, he'd had every right to do it. And he'd shown her—oh god, he'd shown her—how much he loved her. She had every proof of his devotion. But her emotions overwhelmed her, triggered as they were by this surprise encounter. Logic, fairness, rationality—none of that mattered under the surfeit of emotion that wracked her.

She cried out in frustration and tried to take off again. But he was ready. His steady, warm hand caught at her wrist. This time, he didn't wait. Using her momentum, he whirled her around and then caught her up in an embrace. She pushed him away but he held on, his arms holding her still, until the tears fell from her eyes and she slumped against him. She clung onto him as passersby eddied around them, hating herself for being so pathetic and ridiculous. She shook her head, back and forth, not knowing what she was denying but doing it anyway.

Kuon-as-Cain set his mouth into a determined line, firmly grabbing her by the wrist again before walking the two of them away from the center of the pavement. Just a few feet away a dark alleyway beckoned. He dragged her there, pinning her against a wall in a kabedon. She hadn't told him what was wrong; he didn't need her to. He could see it all play out on her face.

She stared him down, defiant.

"She was less than nothing to me," he said fiercely.

He could feel the tension in her, pent-up lightning in a too-small frame.

"I saw how she looked at you."

"I daresay you did," he said tersely.

She turned her face away.

Instinctively, he knew the time for soft caresses was past. They would talk later. She needed reassurance, a way to let go of violence inside her. So be it. He would carve his love onto her body and leave her no room to doubt. He tilted her face towards him. His kiss, when it came, was rough with desperation and need.

Underneath him, she was shaking. She felt her body awakening at his touch as the disorder of her emotions distilled into lust and coiled in her gut. Anger and passion, one morphing into the other. After all, lightning had to find a way to ground itself.

His hand ran along the curve of her face; a finger traced the cupid's bow of her lip before capturing her chin so that she couldn't look away. "I love you, Kyoko Mogami," he whispered. "Do you understand?"

She didn't answer.

"Kyoko."

His eyes widened as he watched the tip of her tongue run along her bottom lip. She arched her neck backwards before her hands grabbed at his lapels and dragged him downwards. Her kiss was a fiery brand, demanding and possessive; that fire ran through his veins as the world slowed and went dark. He was alone with the taste of her lips, made unfamiliar with the taste of her strawberry-pink lip gloss, the smell of leather warmed by her skin. He felt her desire, raising the hair on the back of his neck as their bodies pressed against each other. He kissed her back, winding his arms around her body, feeling her hands run flat along the ridges of his muscles before entwining behind him.

She left him breathless as she ended their kiss. "You're mine," she said. "Do you understand?"

"Yes," he answered, his voice rough.

His hand pushed down against the tight leather of her skirt, finding the bare skin of her waist.

She grabbed at his wrist. "Say it again," she hissed. "Say it properly."

"I'm yours." He whispered it against her lips, so close she could feel his breath against them. "I'm yours," he said louder. He tightened his grip on her body and felt her twist towards him. "I'm—"

His words were swallowed into their kiss.

Their bodies came together again. He pressed against the bindings of her corset, pushed his tongue into her mouth and groaned as her hands reached for him. He splayed his own hand out and then reached under her skirt, grasping at the curve of her ass as she startled. He broke their kiss; she threw her head back and then whimpered as she felt the heat of his mouth tease along her neck.

He felt the rush of her heart as he devoured her. His fingers ran along the line of her panties until he found her core and pressed in over the fabric, her body writhing underneath him. He felt her knees buckle so he propped her up against him, meeting her eyes as she panted against him.

He waited until her breathing calmed and kissed her again, deliberately slow. Languidly, he claimed her mouth, aware of how he was frustrating her. This time, he didn't stop at her neck. Instead, he descended downwards to the neckline of her corset, running the very tip of his tongue where her skin met the lace. Hands caressed down her sides as he fell to his knees, kissing her over the fabric of her clothing.

Her eyes widened. "Kuon!" She was alarmed now. They weren't at home. Just beyond his shoulder, she could see the busy street. People were passing by just a breath away, oblivious to lovers entangled in the shadows.

"Down here," he whispered. She tore her attention from the madding crowd, looking down into amused gray eyes and a lascivious grin. With a jolt she found that his hands were on her legs, sliding upwards past her boots and then her stockings until they reached her bare skin.

"Shhh." Slowly, she felt a kiss on the inside of each knee. He pushed her legs apart. She leaned onto the wall as he forced her skirt up around her waist.

She clenched her thighs in anticipation, half-afraid of what he'd do. "We can't—someone will see us—"

"Let them," he said. She was reaching down to cover herself but he brushed her away and then pinned the offending arm back to the wall. "You know you want me to."

Yes was the only possible answer to his question, but she could not give it. Silently, she hesitated.

He hooked a finger against the gusset of her panties, pushing the fabric aside to reveal her core to him.

Kyoko felt exposed and vulnerable, completely at his mercy. All her clothes were on her body, and yet she knew how obscene she must look. She could see it in his grin, feral and knowing. "Please don't look," she whimpered, "I haven't—not here—Kuon—!"

"Look at how pretty you are," he said, ignoring her alarm. "All dressed up like this. Showing yourself to me." He pushed her panties to the side, exposing her to his gaze. "Such a pretty pink pussy, Kyoko, and so wet—glistening—"

Gently, his finger ran along the seam of her nether lips, gathering her slick. He looked into her eyes as he licked his fingers. "I like what jealousy does to you," he said.

He kept a hand on her hip to hold her steady as the other lifted her leg over his shoulder. She trembled and half-heartedly fought against him, slumping onto the wall when his grip tightened on her waist.

He placed a kiss gently on her clit. Just his lips, applying gentle pressure on her skin as she whimpered.

"Kuon please—no—"

"No?" he mocked. "Are you sure?"

He watched her blush bloom on her face. She moaned under her breath. She wanted more, and they both knew it.

"You're a monster," she whispered.

"Am I?" She could feel his breath on her.

"You're indecent."

"Absolutely." His voice sounded altogether too calm. How was he staying so calm!?

"Shameless." Her heart was racing. She could feel herself dripping for him; knew he could see how badly she wanted him.

"No doubt."

"Please—Kuon—don't tease me—please—yes—" He moved instantly. His tongue darted out, teasing, circling around her bud once and then again with the lightest of touches before stopping and pulling away.

She cried out in frustration. "You…you…ah…please…!" She was panting and bucking in his arms, not sure whether she wanted to move away from him or towards him as he grinned.

"Ahh!" She threw her head back under the onslaught.

It was the flat of his tongue, licking her from her leaking pussy to not-quite-her-clit, tasting her as she struggled to keep standing. He pressed his lips against her labia, tonguing her slowly and then quickly, taking her to the edge of her orgasm and then backing off, moving slower and slower as she moved her hips towards him. He kept her off balance as she felt him delve into her. Involuntarily she grabbed at his hair, dislodging the wig he wore for Cain. He threw it off but kept going, pressing her further into her disarray.

"Kuon…I…can't—mm—ah—ahh!" His tongue found her clit at last, circling it; she cried out as his fingers thrust in, clenching herself around him as he filled her. "Oh please—please—" He could feel the tension in her torso, in her legs; she was falling, moaning, as his fingers pushed in and out in tandem with his tongue. He brought her over the edge as she fell over him, her knee buckling in the aftermath.

He held her up until she stopped shaking, and when he rose up off his knees she kissed him again. She could taste herself on his lips. She knew he needed her too. "Take me home," she whispered. "We're not done."

"Gladly," he answered. He took her by the hand again, their fingers entwining, and walked back into the light.

=.=.=

New Year's Eve. The sound of a bell echoed through the night, cutting through the din of a happy crowd. It was cold again that evening, and people were warming themselves over little bonfires on the temple grounds. Kyoko held Kuon's hand and closed her eyes, overwhelmed. But she'd known what to expect. Sensoji Temple was a popular place to go for the joya no kane. Crowded as it was, she was determined to enjoy the night. Her time in Tokyo was almost over—in one more day, there would be another goodbye as she boarded the train home.

The bells were striking midnight for more than one masquerade—

—because Ren had chosen not to wear a disguise.

"I'm still not sure this is a good idea," she'd said, eyeing Sensoji's vermillion gate.

"You agreed with Lory when he said we ought to do it," Kuon pointed out. They'd spent an uncomfortable lunch with the man yesterday, discussing the inevitable disclosure of their relationship to the public. "It'll be dark and crowded. People may not even see me."

She sighed. They'd decided not to hide from potential exposure, though they'd also decided not to make a formal announcement until absolutely forced to do so. They knew that the public would find out eventually. It would be good if they found out right before they start Ring Doh's promotion, Lory had said. Let it trickle into the press. Control and curate the information they get. Show them fuzzy pictures of how ridiculously cute you two are together and they'll be ready for it by the time they see the movie. She'd reluctantly agreed. It wouldn't be ideal to start university like that, but she couldn't see a way out of it.

"But did you have to wear the hat and scarf?" she asked petulantly.

He grinned. "Absolutely," he said. "Don't you want me to be warm?"

They walked further onto the temple grounds. Kyoko fretted when people did double-takes.

"Relax. No one's even so much as told me I resemble Ren Tsuruga," he said, and grinned. Kyoko's anxiety persisted nonetheless, even in the face of Kuon's blithe nonchalance.

"We've been lucky," she said darkly. She knew she wasn't being subtle herself, not the way she'd dressed. LME had provided her with a kimono—a gorgeous furisode with an obi that she'd tied in a bunko-musubi.

"We have been lucky," he said. "Very lucky."

The joya no kane continued.

"We can go to the shrine tomorrow, too," he grinned. "For hatsumode."

She looked at him, appalled. "You're trying to get noticed," she said. "I thought we were just going to let the exposure happen!?"

He laughed. "I'm not trying anything in particular."

"Then why—"

"Because I want to do all these things with you," he said. "I've dreamt about it. Hatsumode on New Year's. Hanami in the spring. Valentine's. Golden Week. Everything."

Kyoko stared at him and then looked away, blushing. "Did you know…" Kyoko started, and then paused.

"Hmm?" Kuon looked down at her curiously.

"...It wasn't so long ago," she said. "The year Sho and I first got to Tokyo…"

His hands tightened on hers imperceptibly, but she squeezed his to reassure him. "I made a wish for you," she said. "For Corn. For your good health and happiness. I even gave the temple ten thousand yen."

"Ten thousand yen…is a lot…especially when…"

"I know. But it was worth it to me. I didn't know if my wishes would reach you—I…I really did believe you were in another world," she laughed. "But I still worried about you—"

"I think…maybe they did reach me. Somehow. But whether or not that wish comes true is dependent entirely on you, you know," he said earnestly.

She shook her head. "I wish you wouldn't say things like that. The weight of your happiness is a heavy burden to bear, Kuon."

"I'll carry yours if you carry mine," he said. "All I know is that I'm miserable without you." He lifted her hand to his lips to kiss it.

One hundred and six, the voice announced.

One hundred and seven. Another figure moved up the stairs to ring the next bell—the very last bell at the stroke of midnight.

The crowd cheered.

One hundred and—

"Eee—!" Kyoko found herself swept off her feet again as Kuon kissed her.

eight.

"American tradition," he said sheepishly. "We kiss at midnight. Happy new year, Kyoko."

She smiled. "Happy new year."

Neither of them noticed the click of a shutter in the background.

=.=.=.=

Author's Note: If you're reading this, thank you for reading this. I gave up proofreading it about halfway into the document, because 1. I am tired and 2. it might be trash and I'm too tired to fix it. Sigh. LOL. ARGH. Please let me know what you think, because I've been sitting with it for so long I can't see the forest for the trees anymore. I just…just really wanted to get it out and done and off of my plate because I've been working on this since AT LEAST before Christmas 2023. It is what it is. Hopefully there was some enjoyment to be had.

Some notes:

"Hatsuyume" = the first dream of the year.

"Hatsumode" = first shrine or temple visit of the year.

"Joya no Kane" = a Japanese Buddhist event held on New Year's Eve in which the temple bell is rung 108 times. Not to be confused with the shrine visit.

Furisode = long-sleeved kimono worn by young women, usually richly decorated and bright.

Bunko-musubi = a style of knotting the obi in what looks like a bow.