He wasn't looking forward to having to spend weeks without Jinpachi. They'd become nearly inseparable, much to their friends' amusement and Issei's private joy. The only one who didn't tease them was Sakura, because she alone knew just how much the two of them had been forced to go through before they could finally be happy together.
Jinpachi wasn't outside or waiting for him in the lobby, but another boy who was leaving let Issei in through the door with a grin. Isako had become something of a fixture around Jinpachi's dorm, and if the empathic spill over from their encounters had caused any problems, Issei had never heard about it.
He smiled back at the other boy and made his way up to Jinpachi's floor. There had been some discussion of he and Sakura finding a larger apartment and having Jinpachi move in with them, but nothing was certain yet. Although Issei would be more than happy to have his two closest friends living with him, it would be understandably awkward for Sakura. Of course Issei and Jinpachi could always have gotten their own place together, but Issei didn't want to just leave Sakura alone like that.
None of it mattered until after winter vacation was over, he reminded himself. He and Sakura could talk about it once she got back from visiting her family. There was no sense in rushing into anything that might end up with one or more of them hurt.
As he approached Jinpachi's door he heard his boyfriend's voice, but nobody speaking in response. He tapped quietly on the door, then opened it and poked his head in curiously.
Jinpachi was standing by the window, the cool winter sunlight glinting off the red highlights in his hair. He turned and smiled at the sight of Issei, and the empath just stood in the doorway for a moment and drank in the sight of him. As often as he saw Jinpachi, he was still always struck by the sheer attractiveness of the other boy.
"Hey, Isako," the redhead greeted him. "C'mon in, make yourself comfortable. I'm almost ready... what?" The last had clearly been directed to the person on the other end of the line; Jinpachi was standing by the window in order to get better signal on his cell phone. "Yeah, that's her. She came to help me get my bags to the bus. You're coming to pick me up at the station, right? I don't want to have to lug this all home by myself."
Smiling, Issei moved forward and perched on the end of the bed, waiting for Jinpachi to be finished. It sounded like he was talking to his family, and memories of long-ago days spent over at his best friend's house returned to him. Jinpachi's family were just as exuberant and outgoing as he was, nothing like Issei's quiet and reserved mother or strict and stern father. He'd always loved spending time at Jinpachi's, and his friend's family had seemed fond of him as well. His smile widened as he remembered the redhead's mother frequently asking her son in exasperation why he 'couldn't be more like your quiet, polite friend'.
"Huh? Well, I guess so," Jinpachi was saying now, scratching at his head as he glanced at Issei. "I don't know what her plans are, but I'll ask her. No promises, though. Look, I have to go or I'm going to miss my bus. Try to make sure dad actually gets there on time to pick me up so I don't have to wait for half an hour again this year. Love you too."
He hung up and closed the cell phone, slipping it into his pocket. "You look pretty," he noted as he walked forward and leaned down to kiss Issei.
"You like it?" Issei blushed and smoothed down the soft wool of the off-white sweater he was wearing. "It was my Christmas present to myself. Probably more money than I should have spent, but it looked so good I couldn't resist."
"You need to treat yourself once in a while," Jinpachi agreed, running one hand briefly over his shoulder to feel the sweater as well. "Soft. But your skin is softer." He grinned, and kissed Issei again before straightening. "Much as I'd love to test the comparison for myself, if I get distracted I really am going to miss my bus."
"So let's get going," Issei suggested, and started gathering up any bags that looked small enough for him to be able to carry several of them. Jinpachi piled several on top of his wheeled suitcase, then slung his laptop bag over his shoulder and held the door open for Issei to exit. "How many bags do you need for a few weeks at home?" Issei asked, bemused.
"A lot of it is Christmas presents," Jinpachi laughed. "And there's plenty of homework in there, too. My professors seem to believe that the holiday season is an excellent opportunity for us to write papers."
"Mine too," Issei said, chuckling. "I think it's a universal thing. You'd think none of them ever cursed their teachers for giving homework over the breaks."
"Yeah. Listen," Jinpachi said as they entered the elevator and he hit the button for the ground floor. "What are you doing over the break? Are you going back to Sakura's?"
"No," Issei shook his head regretfully. "I'm invited, of course, I always am. But they don't actually know about me being 'Isako' now, and while they've been remarkably understanding in the past, I'm not sure I'm ready to face them just yet."
"So you're staying here by yourself? Over Christmas?" Jinpachi looked faintly horrified. "Aw damn, Issei, that's no good. Look, my mom asked me to invite you for Christmas dinner, but why don't you come for a couple of days? We've got a spare bedroom, and I know my parents wouldn't mind once they find out you don't have any family to go home to. What?"
The last question came because Issei had been staring at him in horror. "No! Absolutely not!" he exclaimed, his voice cracking in distress. "Jinpachi, are you crazy? I can't go to your house, not even for dinner. What if your parents recognize me?"
"They won't," Jinpachi shrugged, looking puzzled at his concern. The elevator arrived at the ground floor and he hauled his bags out into the lobby, Issei trailing along behind like a stunned puppy. "What's the big deal, Isako? You're going to have to meet them eventually. They want to meet my girlfriend."
With a soft moan, Issei briefly closed his eyes. Jinpachi was right, his parents were going to want to meet his girlfriend eventually. They longer they stayed together, the more the Ogura family would press to be introduced to him at least. "How many nights did I spend at your house, Jinpachi? If they recognize me, they'll throw a fit! What if they disown you?" Memories of his own coming out and his father's reaction were still painfully fresh, and he didn't think they would ever stop hurting.
"I dunno, lots of nights," Jinpachi shrugged, uncaring. "We were kids, Isako. Trust me, you don't look anything like you did then. I would never have recognized you, except I could feel the connection between us and it made me suspicious. I doubt even your own parents would recognize you now."
"But..." Issei trailed off, helpless. There was no good answer to this, he knew. Sooner or later he was going to have to face Jinpachi's family, and he doubted time would make him feel any more ready to face them. What if he slipped up, and seemed more familiar with them or their house than he should be?
For that matter, what would happen when they eventually expected Issei and Jinpachi to get married and produce grandchildren? In all his calculating to figure out what it would take for him and Jinpachi to be able to stay together, he'd completely forgotten to account for Jinpachi's family.
"Hey, stop that," Jinpachi said softly, catching him by the shoulders and leaning down to kiss him briefly, uncaring of the people who giggled or gave them disapproving looks for the public display. "Don't worry about it, all right? I promise, I swear, everything will be okay. They aren't going to recognize you, you're not going to screw up, and we'll work out everything else when we come to it."
Taking a deep breath, Issei gave him a wry look. "Since when do you read minds?" he asked. "Am I rubbing off on you more than I realized?"
"I just know you really well, but you can rub off on me any time," came the expected leering retort, and he couldn't help chuckling. "Seriously," Jinpachi continued. "Come for dinner at least? They really want to meet you, I'm always talking about you."
"Really?" That made Issei blush. Not that he wasn't always talking about Jinpachi to pretty much anyone who would listen, but still. "I... I'll think about it, okay? I'll call you when it gets closer to Christmas."
They both knew that was as good as an agreement. Jinpachi smiled and squeezed his hand, then picked up the bags he'd dropped. "Come on, now I really don't want to miss my bus."
Somehow they managed to get Jinpachi and all his bags to the station on time, and even a few minutes early. The terminal was crowded with students going in all directions for the holidays. Jinpachi had a relatively short way to go compared to most of them, since he just lived in a different district of Tokyo rather than outside the city itself. To Issei's embarrassment and delight, Jinpachi kissed him again firmly before boarding the bus. "Please come for dinner," he entreated as he pulled away, holding Issei's hands. "I'd really love to have you there. And it'll bug me, thinking of you alone here on Christmas."
"All right," Issei finally gave in, hoping he wasn't making a colossal mistake. "I'll take the us to your place on Christmas morning. Have a good holiday, Jinpachi."
"You too," his boyfriend said. "Love you, Isako. I'll see you on Christmas."
With that he was gone, vanishing into the bus as part of the crowd of students. Issei stood on the platform watching as the bus finished loading and drove away, staring down the street after it for several minutes after it had vanished.
"Sarjareem, what have I agreed to?" Issei wondered aloud as the impact of it truly hit him. He was going to have to meet Jinpachi's parents - not as a friend this time, but as a girlfriend. As the girl Jinpachi was planning to spend the rest of his life with, in fact, even if they hadn't made that part in any way official yet.
Panic began to set in. He had to make a good first impression. Never mind the worry about them recognizing him - what if they didn't like him? What if they thought he was too forward, or not suitable because he didn't come from a good family, or...
Turning, he bolted for home, running as fast as he could. There was only one person who could help him now.
"Sakura!" he called as he burst through the front door of their apartment. He knew she was supposed to be home, since she'd invited her boyfriend over to help her pack just as Jinpachi had invited Issei. Sakura's bus wasn't scheduled to leave until later tonight. "Sakura! Where are you?"
A moment's concentration with his shields lowered slightly told him she was in her room with her boyfriend. He didn't bother looking any further than that, kicking off his shoes and running down the hall to her door. "Sakura!" he cried as he threw the door open and stood panting in the doorway, his hair windblown and his eyes panicked.
There was a muffled shriek, then Sakura jumped up from where she'd been sitting on her boyfriend's lap at her computer chair. She spun to face Issei, clutching her shirt in the centre of her chest and staring at her roommate in bemusement and irritation. The irritation faded as she saw the genuine panic in his eyes. "Isako?" she asked, taking a step towards him. "What's wrong? Did something happen to Ogura? You two didn't have a fight, did you?"
Wordlessly Issei shook his head, his throat too tight to speak for a moment. "He talked me into going to Christmas dinner at his house," he finally squeaked out. "His parents want to meet me. Sakura, what am I going to do?"
Biting her lip, Sakura looked like she wasn't sure whether to yell at him or burst out laughing. "You're going to go calm down, first of all. Then I'm going to call my parents and tell them I decided to come home tomorrow night instead, and tomorrow we'll go out shopping and you will let me buy you a pretty dress, okay?" Seeing that he was still in danger of hyperventilating, she sighed and shook her head. "Isako. Breathe, love. Slowly, okay? It's not the end of the world. Everything will be fine."
"I... I..." Giving up on speech for a moment, Issei decided to just follow her advice and concentrate on breathing. This once he wasn't going to argue with her if she wanted to buy him clothes, because the gods knew he didn't have anything appropriate and he'd already spent the extra money from this month's budget on the sweater he was wearing. Besides which, Sakura seemed to have a knack for finding outfits that somehow looked beyond fabulous on him.
"All right," he finally agreed, a little dizzy but calmer than he had been. "We'll go shopping."
"Yes. Tomorrow," Sakura said firmly, and Issei nodded. When he continued to just stand in the doorway, however, she gave an exasperated sigh. "That was short for 'so go away right now', Isako! I'm a little busy."
Issei blinked, and then blushed as his mind stopped panicking and he actually took in her disheveled appearance and the fact that she was carefully standing between him and her boyfriend. He was peering around her with a curious and amused look on his face, and he was just as mussed as Sakura. "Oh. OH! Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry," Issei blurted out, mortified. "I... I'll just... go to my room and... and not pack, shall I? Er."
Before he could make any more of an idiot of himself he fled the room, hearing Sakura's soft laughter behind him. His face felt like it was on fire, and he cursed himself for not paying just a little more attention to what his empathy was telling him beyond 'she's in her room'.
Issei was literally shaking with nerves as he walked up the path to the Ogura home. They had a little house on the outskirts of Tokyo, in a pleasant neighbourhood full of similar houses. It was familiar in a way that should have been comforting, but just made him all the more nervous that Jinpachi's family was going to recognize him.
He hadn't called ahead, choosing to walk from the station in order to give himself a chance to clear his head. It had been a walk filled with memories. Here was their old school, where they'd first met Alice and realized they weren't the only people with dreams of another life on the moon. There was the playground they'd spent so many, many hours in as younger children. Issei could only be grateful that his own family's house lay in another area completely, so he didn't have to walk by it as well.
Trying to steady his hands, he reached out and rang the doorbell. There had been a time when he would have just knocked once and then walked inside, but that was a long time ago and, as far as the Ogura were concerned, an entirely different person.
There was the sound of thundering footsteps from within, and a muffled 'I'll get it!' from what sounded like Jinpachi's youngest brother. The door was flung open to reveal a boy with hair more gold than Jinpachi's strawberry blonde, but with the same eyes. Issei was taken aback; of course, the last time he'd seen Ogura Satoshi, the boy had still been in junior high. Now he was as tall as his brother, probably a senior in high school. His resemblance to Jinpachi made Issei smile.
"Oh, you must be nii-san's girlfriend," he said, grinning with Jinpachi's lopsided smile. "He said you might be coming today... he's been wearing a hole in the carpet, waiting for you to call."
"I have not!" came an indignant protest from further down the hall, and Issei had to chuckle. Jinpachi grabbed his brother around the neck and twisted him down into a headlock, ruffling his hair aggressively as the younger boy shouted and squirmed. "Brat. That'll teach you to speak ill of your elders. Go help Kimiko set the table."
He released his brother, who straightened and smoothed his hair back into place with an aggrieved look at his older brother. "Remind me again how you managed to get such a pretty girlfriend?" he asked, glancing at Issei who blushed. "If he told you he was rich or something to convince you to go out with him, he was lying."
"Satoshi! Get lost," Jinpachi cried, shoving his brother by the shoulders. "C'mon in, Isako. Here, let me get your coat. I was starting to think you weren't coming after all - I've been calling your cell for the last hour or so."
"I forgot to charge it before I left," Issei said apologetically, shrugging out of his jacket and offering it to his boyfriend. He blinked when Jinpachi made no move to take it, then chuckled and blushed with pleasure when he realized it was because Jinpachi was staring at him. "Like what you see?"
"Wow," was Jinpachi's only somewhat coherent response. "You look... damn, Isako. You didn't have to dress up that much. I'm going to be fighting by brothers off you with a stick."
Smiling, Issei twirled once to make his skirt flare around him. Sakura had outdone herself, and had refused to let him even look at the price tag of the dress she'd bought. It was black, with silver trimming that made his eyes look silver as well. The off-white silk top he wore open at the front over it kept him warm, and also hid the straps of the necessary bra where they were left exposed by the backless dress. No strapless bras for Issei, unfortunately.
"You're beautiful," Jinpachi said, catching him as he finished the turn and kissing him, careful not to smudge his lipstick. "You have nothing to worry about," he assured Issei under his breath as he drew back slightly and smiled down at him. "They're going to love you, and it's never even going to enter their minds that you might not be what you seem."
"Just don't screw up my name in front of them!" Issei whispered back, his eyes pleading. Jinpachi had never yet forgotten to call him Isako when they were around anyone but Sakura, but if he was ever going to make a mistake it would be now.
"Mom! Jinpachi-nii is making out with his girlfriend in the front hall!" A playful deep voice called from behind them, making Issei jump. Peering over Jinpachi's shoulder, he saw the middle Ogura son grinning back at him. He had inherited their father's darker colouring, but his smile was exactly the same as both of his brothers'.
"I am not, Kyousuke, get lost," Jinpachi growled, turning and making a rude gesture at his little brother. "Don't you have anything better to do than bug us?"
"Nope," the younger boy declared cheerfully. His voice was even deeper than Jinpachi's, Issei marvelled. Maybe it wasn't going to e as difficult as he'd thought to treat his boyfriend's siblings like strangers. It made him wonder what his own little sister was like now, how she might have grown up.
"Mom says dinner is almost ready, and you should come sit down," Kyousuke added, turning on his heel and heading back into the house towards the dining room.
"I didn't realize you'd be having dinner so early," Issei said as Jinpachi finally took his jacket to hang it up. "It was horribly rude of me to just show up like this." It had seemed like a good idea not to call ahead at the time, but now he was worried what Jinpachi's parents would think of him for just dropping in unannounced like this.
"It's not a big deal," Jinpachi assured him, leading him to the dining room. "You know what my family is like, we can't keep to a schedule to save our lives," he added in a low voice. "Stop worrying."
Then they were into the dining room, and Issei found himself surrounded by the cheerful enthusiasm that seemed to be a hallmark of the entire Ogura family. Jinpachi introduced her as 'Nakayama Isako', of course, and then reeled off the names of his parents, little sister, and two little brothers. In short order Issei was seated and had a plate of food in front of him, and was surrounded by laughing, chattering people.
He'd forgotten how loud dinner with the Ogura family could be. It took him a while to relax and get used to it, but it helped that Jinpachi's mother persisted in trying to draw him out and reassure him.
By the end of the first hour, he'd stopped worrying about them recognizing him. Jinpachi had been right that there was no reason for them to suspect that their eldest son's girlfriend Isako might be the same boy Issei that he'd played with as a youth. By halfway through the second hour, he'd relaxed enough to really join in the conversation and get in a few teasing comments of his own. By the time dinner was over and Jinpachi's mom was bringing out the dessert, he felt almost like he'd come home.
"See? I told you it wouldn't be so bad," Jinpachi grinned and murmured in his ear, leaning over him as he passed the bowl of whipped cream to go on top of the pecan pie slices they'd all been given.
"You were right," Issei agreed shyly. "Thank you for convincing me." Jinpachi just smiled wider and caught his hand out of sight under the table, squeezing it briefly.
Something in his boyfriend's expression as Jinpachi turned back to the table, however, made the knots in Issei's stomach return in force. Or maybe it wasn't his expression so much as a sudden wave of something over their link... and the realization, when he reached out to prod at it, that Jinpachi was shielding as hard as he could.
"Jinpachi," he started, his voice slightly panicked. Jinpachi threw him a grin and a wink, which was not reassuring, and cleared his throat.
When that didn't make the least bit of impact in the three or four simultaneous loud conversations happening around the table, he tried shouting. "Hey!"
Everyone stopped and looked at him curiously, and he grinned back at them. Issei sank a little lower in his seat and tried not to hyperventilate. What was he planning?
"Thanks," Jinpachi said ironically when everyone was finally silent. "I was planning to save this until after the Christmas break, but since Isako agreed to come over for dinner this seems like as good a time as any."
"Jinpachi," Issei said again, warningly this time. The rest of his boyfriend's family were now looking on in amusement and anticipation as Jinpachi turned in his seat to face Issei.
"Isako," the redhead said softly, looking down into his grey eyes. Don't, Issei begged silently. Don't you dare...
"I know we've only been together less than a year," Jinpachi continued, ignoring Issei's silent pleading. "But I already know that I want to spend the rest of my life with you." Issei thought his heart would stop when Jinpachi reached into his pocket and came out with a white gold diamond engagement ring. "Isako, will you marry me?"
"You... I... Are you..." crazy Issei wanted to finish, but that didn't seem very diplomatic to say in front of Jinpachi's family. The redhead just sat there grinning at him, his family waiting expectantly for Issei's answer, and Issei felt like his brain had completely shut off.
Finally he swallowed and managed to get his voice to work. "Ex-excuse us for a moment," he stammered, and grabbed Jinpachi by the hand. He was stronger than he looked, and Jinpachi was startled enough that he didn't fight too hard as Issei hauled him out of the chair and right out of the dining room.
"What are you doing?" he hissed the moment he judged they were out of earshot, pushing Jinpachi back against the wall and glaring at him through humiliated tears. "Is that supposed to be funny?"
"What? Hey! Issei..." Jinpachi looked startled, then genuinely dismayed. "No, of course it's not supposed to be funny. I wouldn't do that to you."
"Then what is going on in your head?" Issei asked, dismayed. "We can't get married, you know that! How are you going to explain it to them when they want to know why we've let our engagement drag on forever?"
"We're going to face questions about why we haven't gotten married yet sooner or later anyway," Jinpachi pointed out with a shrug.
"Yes, but we could have put it off for years!" Issei exclaimed, struggling to keep his voice low. "We could have said we were waiting to get serious until after we graduated, or until after I got my doctorate, or until you were established at your job, and then we could have dragged the engagement out for years... you've just sped that up by at least five years!"
"Well, we could always do what they expect and just get married," Jinpachi said, an odd light in his eyes. Issei still couldn't read him, but he didn't think he'd have been able to concentrate past his own distress anyway.
"That's not funny," he declared, now trying to pull away. Jinpachi had caught his hand and wasn't letting him go, though he did let Issei back up until he was the one with his back to the wall and Jinpachi had him cornered.
"It's not funny because it wasn't a joke," Jinpachi said, and now he was totally serious. He reached into his pocket again, and this time drew out an envelope. "Here," he said, proffering it to Issei. "Merry Christmas."
With shaking hands Issei took the envelope, not sure he wanted to know what was inside. Curiosity got the better of him, and he opened it and withdrew the sheet of paper inside.
It was a copy of a birth certificate. His birth certificate, in fact... except that it listed his name as Nakayama Isako, and indicated that the sex of the baby was female. "I... I don't understand," he said, his voice shaking as badly as his hands as he looked up at Jinpachi again.
Now the redhead looked slightly nervous. "I hope you don't mind," he said. "I asked Rin to help. He broke into the records and changed all the files. Officially, you are Nakayama Isako and always have been. It'll stand up to anything but a doctor's examination."
Speechless, Issei just stared at him. It took him so long to find his voice that Jinpachi grew visibly worried. "Issei? Are you mad at me for telling Rin? I didn't think you'd mind, I mean he knows about you and Enju, and he's just as happy to have me officially out of the way as competition for Alice. Issei? Say something, please?"
"We can..." Issei's voice cracked, and he cleared his throat as tears came into his eyes. That made Jinpachi look even more panicked, and Issei shook his head. "We can get married?" he finally managed to whisper, disbelieving.
"Yeah," Jinpachi nodded. "Nobody will ever know. If we decide we want kids eventually we can always adopt, but I'm not in any rush." He grimaced at the thought, and Issei gave a shaky laugh. Personally he thought Jinpachi would be a wonderful father, but he wasn't sure how he felt about being a mother.
"So, does that mean your answer is yes?" the redhead asked hesitantly, proffering the ring once more. Issei stared at it, then at him, tears tracking slowly down his face.
"Yes," he finally managed to whisper, beyond merely 'overjoyed'. Jinpachi lifted his hand and slipped the ring onto his finger; it fit perfectly. "Jinpachi..."
"I promised you we were going to get it right this time," Jinpachi said, hugging him fiercely. "Enju and Gyokuran's mistakes are in the past. We've waited through two lifetimes to be together; I want the whole world to know you're mine."
Nodding wordlessly, Issei buried his face in Jinpachi's shoulder. Short of having someone wave a magic wand and turn him into a girl, this was literally everything he'd ever dreamed of having. Sarjareem... He couldn't even put his gratitude into words. As much as it had hurt to get to this point, it had all been worth it.
"Thank you," he finally whispered, and he let it serve as thanks to Jinpachi and Sarjareem both.