"You all have my permission to go to Hell." Marui threw his gum, hitting Kikumaru between the eyes. "This isn't funny, dammit."

"Oh, but it is!" Jirou laughed, clutching his stomach. He'd been laughing for a good five minutes straight, so he was probably in a good deal of pain. Good for him.

"You should have seen your face!" Kamio snickered, though he was smart enough to hide behind Sengoku who wasn't so much laughing as grinning and hissing through his teeth.

"Let's see you act cool in that situation," Marui argued. He was aware that his face now matched his hair and that his ears were burning hot as coals.

"We don't have kouhai with crushes," Kikumaru said, the hand over his mouth doing little to muffle his snickers.

"He doesn't have a crush. You guys paid him to do this." Marui really hated his friends sometimes, particularly when they forced poor, gullible Akaya into asking him on dates, which he couldn't say no to or Akaya's already poor self esteem would plummet. At least next year Akaya wouldn't have to suffer constant defeat at the hands of Sanada and Yukimura. Yukimura was nicer about winning than Sanada was, but that only served to make losing all the more bitter.

"Sorry, this one was all his idea. Mom took away my debit card for the rest of the month, remember?" Jirou gestured to the bustling scenery of the Happy Burger. "Surely the gourmet selection of 100 yen items before you is serving as a reminder of our current treasury status."

"We don't have a treasury," Marui grumbled. There was nothing wrong with the 100 yen menu. It had fries and a bacon cheeseburger, which were the only requirements for a quality fast food joint. That, and refillable beverages.

"Whatever." Kamio dismissed the topic with a wave of a salted fry. "The point is that we didn't do it."

"Where's he taking you?" Sengoku asked, leaning forward and resting his cheek on the palm of his hand. "Should we be concerned for your safety? Set a curfew?"

Kikumaru's hand really wasn't helping to hide his snickering. "Remember what happened last time?"

"You get that mustard stain off your pants yet, Brother Bunta?" Jirou had trouble getting the sentence out through his bellowing laughter.

"I hate all of you." Marui rose from the table and left the Happy Burger, fully prepared to never speak to his friends for at least a week.

&-&

"Yukimura-buchou, can I ask you something?" Kirihara stood next to the ball machine, adjusting the speeds.

"What is it, Akaya?" Yukimura, while wearing the Rikkai team uniform, still hadn't picked up a racquet in formal practice. He was still fresh out of the hospital and wasn't supposed to take part in strenuous activity for another two weeks. Sanada was sitting not too far away, making sure Yukimura didn't accidentally forget the doctor's orders and collapse.

"If you were going to go on a date, where would you take someone?" Kirihara looked to his buchou, expression grave. Yukimura-buchou would know the answer. Yukimura-buchou knew almost everything.

"Well, a good game of tennis is always a nice start to a date." Yukimura cast a longing look to his tennis bag, which was sitting next to Sanada, off limits.

"What if the person you were going on a date with didn't play tennis?" Marui-senpai wouldn't want to play tennis on their one day off of training. Kirihara also didn't want to play against Marui, who cheated by doing tricky drop shots that Kirihara couldn't catch up to.

"Why would you go out with someone who didn't play tennis?" Yukimura moved next to Akaya and ruffled the second year's hair. "Who is this girl you're going out with, Akaya? Maybe some more information will help me help you." Yukimura smiled again. Kirihara didn't want to say anything about his date. Yukimura-buchou would be angry and say that Kirihara was taking advantage of Marui-senpai's generous nature. "Akaya, are you going to answer me?"

"I asked Marui-senpai to go out with me," Kirihara mumbled, turning away to stare at the pretty steel of the ball machine.

"Well then, I don't see what the problem is. Marui certainly plays tennis." Yukimura patted Kirihara on the head and walked away. Sanada was standing, Yukimura's tennis bag slung over his shoulder. "Have fun, and don't hurt yourselves. We need you for nationals."

Kirihara kicked the ball machine and resolved to bribe a first year into writing hostile remarks about Yukimura-buchou on the machine in Sharpie the next time Yukimura and Sanada weredistracted.

&-&

Kikumaru knew he shouldn't interfere, but couldn't help himself. Marui needed to lighten up and Akaya needed a stable, genki influence in his life. The two were perfect for one another, which was why Eiji was tossing pebbles at Kirihara's bedroom window at one in the morning. "Pssst."

A tennis ball flew out of Akaya's window, bounced, and clocked Kikumaru on the forehead. "I'm trying to sleep. Go away," Kirihara's voice hissed through the air.

"Your light's on. I came to help you." Kikumaru opened his backpack and took out the one thing sure to gain him admittance into the Kirihara home.

Akaya leaned out his bedroom window. "I don't need your help."

Kikumaru brandished his secret weapon. "Not even if I have this?"

Kirihara's eyes focused. He leaned out the window a little more. "Fine. Bring my tennis ball up with you."

"It's just a tennis ball." Kikumaru didn't want to hunt around for the ball. It was small and Kirihara's house had a lot of thorny bushes around it.

"Bring the ball or go home." Kirihara closed his window.

Eiji rooted around his backpack for his emergency flashlight. With the flashlight, it only took his hyper sensitive eyes a few moments to find the tennis ball. It took a good five minutes to extricate it from the rosebush. Kikumaru stared at the tennis ball, signed, "To Akaya, Happy Birthday! Love, Yukimura-buchou."

"What are you laughing at?" Akaya asked, opening the front door.

"Nice jammies," Kikumaru snickered, pointing to the white bunnies hopping merrily across a navy blue background.

"If I kill you now, no one will miss you," Kirihara said, pulling Eiji into the house.

Kikumaru handed the tennis ball to Akaya, still laughing. "Whatever Buchou's Boy. I've got your salvation at hand, so you better show your senpai some respect."

Kirihara opened his mouth, then seemed to think better of it and grabbed Eiji's wrist. "Follow me, and don't wake anyone up. I can still kill you."

"You'd get blood on your precious Buchou Ball," Kikumaru snickered. In reply, Akaya squeezed Eiji's wrist and dragged him up the stairs.

&-&

To say that Marui felt awkward standing in front of his house, waiting for Akaya to come pick him up, was an understatement. Upon awakening that morning, Marui was filled with a sense of dread the likes of which hadn't been felt since Marui first learned that Yukimura, while pretty and smiley, was not a nice person. The dread was heightened with the knowledge that Sengoku was perched on Marui's roof with a high-zoom camera (stolen from Marui's home in the night) and Kamio was 'casually' leaning against the light post across the street.

Still, Marui tried his best not to look sick to his stomach. Akaya, being the baby of the team, was low on self-esteem and needed a positive dating experience to carry him through. If Marui could be a good senpai and create that positive experience, then it was his duty to do so. Even if he was wearing leather pants. Even if he was being forced into wearing one of Atobe's cast-off blouses. Even if he felt like an idiot and was going to have this date-that-wasn't-a-date shoved under his nose for the rest of his life.

"You look nice, senpai. I brought these for you." Kirihara approached, carrying flowers. Marui was not a girl. Marui did not need flowers.

"I look like a freak. I'll put these in water and be right back." Marui ran into the house, tossed the flowers on the table, then ran back outside. His mom would think the flowers were from his father and put them in a vase. When Marui returned to the front yard, Kirihara was staring off into space, his hands in the pockets of his tidy black slacks. "I'm ready to go."

"Okay." Kirihara started walking, then stopped and turned back. He held out his hand.

"It wouldn't be proper to hold hands on a first date," Marui said, voice shaky. In the back of his mind, he could hear the click of Sengoku's camera and the stifled giggles of Kamio.

"Oh, sorry." Kirihara looked around and seemed to focus on a tree, half a block up. "Well, uh, we should get to the train station. I thought we could go to the zoo."

Marui liked the zoo. It was full of people to hide behind, cost money so the other Meddlers wouldn't' want to follow, and had cute animals. "Awesome! Let's go."

Kirihara brightened at Marui's praise and began chatting about the new penguin exhibit.

&-&

Kirihara hid in a bathroom stall to consult the piece of paper in his pocket. According to the materials Kikumaru leant him, he and Marui-senpai should be proceeding to step 3 at this point. Why were they still on step 2?

"Step 1, bring him flowers," Kirihara recited. "Step 2, establish a common interest." The two obviously had a common interest in tennis, but Kirihara didn't want to talk about tennis. Tennis meant discussing how Marui played doubles with Jackal and, while Jackal-senpai was pretty cool, he was Kirihara's rival. Kirihara knew what happened when you played doubles with someone too long. Niou and Yagyuu played doubles and, according to Niou-senpai, it only takes about three months before you start kissing on the courts. Marui and Jackal hadn't kissed, at least Kirihara didn't think they had. According to Yanagi-senpai, Marui and Jackal didn't kiss because Jackal was dedicated to tennis and Marui's attention span was too small to sustain a romantic relationship. Kirihara tried to kick Yanagi in the shin for that comment, but Yanagi-senpai knew it was coming and dodged.

So, the problem of common interests remained and Kirihara was stuck on Step 2. By the end of the day, he wanted to be at Step 5, which was the Goodnight Kiss Step. Kirihara would prefer to have Indiscriminate Kissing, like in Step 8, but Kikumaru said that would have to wait for another date. Though Kirihara had only kissed Marui twice, once in front of a lot of people at the street tennis court and once when Niou spiked Marui's Gatorade, Kirihara thought Marui was a very skilled kisser.

"Akaya, you okay?" Marui tapped at the stall door.

"Fine. Out in a second." Kirihara folded the paper and slid it back into his pocket. A quick fluff of his red button-up and he was ready to take Marui on a whirlwind tour of the zoo.

&-&

"You told him to take Brother Bunta to the zoo?" Sengoku asked, a French fry dangling out the corner of his mouth.

Kikumaru shrugged. "Sounded good at the time. There's lots of quiet, shady places they can sit and hold hands and stuff."

"I'm guessing this is experience talking," Jirou said, eyeing his shake warily. The menu claimed the shake was made of strawberry, but Jirou had never seen a strawberry that color before. He really needed to get his debit card privileges back. Slumming was fun for a few days, but this was becoming painful. He'd have to call Atobe and arrange for a decent meal later in the evening.

"Uh oh, Brother Jirou's going on Snob Alert again." Kamio poked Jirou in the side. "It's artificial flavor, not poison."

Jirou put his genki face on and laughed. "I know, but it's such a weird color. It looks like gum that Brother Bunta's been chewing for an hour."

"You're such a pansy," Kamio snickered.

"I'm not a pansy, I just have taste buds that work." It wasn't Jirou's fault that his friends grew up with fake strawberry milkshakes instead of hand blended, real fruit shakes. When Jirou got his debit card back, he'd treat them to quality food again. In the meantime, he'd settle for challenging Kamio to a round of tennis and trouncing him.

&-&

"That one is Tachibana." Ibu Shinji pointed to a Humboldt penguin. It was running, chasing a light reflected off of a patron's watch.

"It's pretty tall," Saeki Kojirou said between licks of a lemon ice pop.

"It's the Tachibana penguin. That little one that's following it around is the Kamio penguin." Shinji reached and plucked the lemon ice from Saeki's hands. "You made me throw mine away so we could go into the sloth house so I'm taking yours now. It's half done and mine was half done, so now everything is even."

Saeki didn't complain, just continued to watch the penguins chase the light. "Which one is you?"

"I'm not a penguin." Shinji said around the popsicle in his mouth. He couldn't take it out, it would melt in the heat and get all over his hands. Shinji didn't want to go into the public bathrooms at the zoo, there were children everywhere and they were throwing gum on the ground. Speaking of gum. "Rikkai." Shinji pointed with his free hand.

Saeki turned, his eyes focusing in that sharp, evil way that Shinji loved. "Marui Bunta and Kirihara Akaya." Saeki knew everyone on the rival teams, which was impressive. Shinji didn't really care about other teams so he didn't' bother to learn their names. Except for Echizen Ryoma, who still owed him a roll of grip tape. "Let's follow them." Saeki was also very nosey, a habit Ibu was slowly going to break him of…once the lemon ice was finished.

&-&

"They saw us." Marui-senpai was freaking out, hiding behind trees and ducking behind shrubs.

"So?" Kirihara didn't understand what the big deal was. So what if some loser schools saw them having a date at the zoo. It wasn't like Fudomine or Rokaku had any clout in the local tennis circuit. Kirihara waved to the two approaching players and pulled Marui up by the back of his collar. "Dignity, senpai, dignity."

Marui brushed some prickly leaves off his shirt and tossed a new stick of gum into his mouth. "They're going to tell someone," he said through his chewing. At least he looked like he was ready to take down the other two. If you were Rikkai, you had to be ready to destroy the enemy at a moment's notice, or look like you were going to destroy them so they ran away.

Kirihara had no problems looking angry at Ibu and Saeki because he really did want to beat them. Kirihara was past Step 2 (both he and Marui liked tigers) and was working on Step 3 now. Step 3 was the "shy touching" step and Kirihara could be neither shy nor touching anyone when there were spies.

"Yo!" Saeki waved, his arm looped through Ibu's. "Nice day, isn't it?"

"Why are you here?" Kirihara asked, eyeing Ibu's lemon ice pop with envy. The snacks here were too expensive and Kirihara only had enough on him for lunch, a souvenir for Marui, and the train ride home. If Marui didn't want a souvenir, or Kirihara didn't want to eat lunch next week, they could go out for ice cream on the way home.

"You don't have to be so rude, particularly when Kojirou is trying to be friendly to you, even if you don't deserve kindness because you injured Tachibana-san, but I suppose you paid the price for that when you played Fuji Syusuke. I guess it's only natural to be so hostile, though, since your vice captain beats you. Tachibana would never hit us, but your school must have different standards than ours because…"

"Shinji, be polite." Saeki gave Ibu's arm a squeeze and the other boy quieted.

Holding eachother in public was Step 6. To be so freely showing affection must mean the two were beyond the Steps and were an actual couple. Kirihara instantly hated them. There was no reason two players from a loser school should have a steady relationship while Kirihara was struggling to get Marui to Step 3. Of course, Marui-senpai had standards. These loser school kids probably didn't.

"Where'd you get the popsicle?" Marui asked. There was a small line of drool wending its way down Marui's chin.

"There's a vendor by the penguins." Saeki pointed past the giraffe house and down a small pathway.

"Cool, thanks." Marui grabbed Kirihara's arm and took off at a run. "We're getting popsicles!"

&-&

For once in his life, Marui was unable to concentrate on food. Consuming the strawberry ice pop in his hand was less important than watching Kirihara's tongue snake around his lime pop, sliding from top to bottom then back, all the while, Kirihara's eyes followed the penguins as they dipped and dove in their habitat. "Check it out senpai," Kirihara said, his words garbled because his tongue was still swirling around the ice pop, "those penguins are gonna start fighting."

There was liquid strawberry all over Marui's hand. It would leave a stain and Jirou would tease him because the idiot Hyoutei regular would think that the spot was a hickey or something. Marui didn't care, though, he was busy wondering how Kirihara's tongue could be that long and how Kirihara could not know that everyone was staring at him.

Kirihara continued to eat his popsicle and stare at the penguins, occasionally snickering to himself when one of the flightless birds slipped on the wet stone and flopped down on its giant belly. "Sharks and killer whales eat penguins." Kirihara said, eyeing the information board in front of the habitat. "It would suck to go down to a whale. It'd be like losing to Fuji Syusuke." Kirihara bit off the top of his popsicle, then looped his tongue over the top to smooth out the rough bits.

"Huh?" Marui's eyes were still on Kirihara's tongue. Luckily, to popsicle was almost finished.

"You're wasting my 300 yen, senpai. Eat your popsicle or I'll eat it for you." Kirihara pointed to the drooping mess on Marui's hand.

Marui's brain immediately painted a picture of Kirihara's tongue sliding over his sticky skin. Marui excused himself to clean up.

&-&

Every time Kirihara tried to hold Marui's hand, Marui found something really interesting to point at, or some shiny rock he had to pick up. It was getting on Kirihara's last nerve. "Senpai, if you didn't want to go on a date with me you didn't have to accept." Kirihara leaned on the fence of the rhino exhibit and sighed. Cleary Marui-senpai only accepted because no one ever asked him out on dates and, at fifteen, it was kinda lame if you hadn't been on a date yet. Not that Kirihara could say much, he was a year younger than Marui and this was his first date. It probably wasn't going to count, though, because in order for dates to count both of you have to want to be there.

Marui's hand landed on Kirihara's head, ruffling his hair. "It's not that." Marui's eyes were focused on the lumbering rhino in the pen. "It's just weird, ya know?" Kirihara did know, which is why it took him a month to work up the courage to ask in the first place. "Senpai aren't supposed to date kouhai. It's a rule."

"You're lying." Kirihara swatted Marui's hand away. "You set up those two guys from Seigaku and they're the same age we are. You're just making excuses, senpai. I'm going home." Kirihara stepped away. He'd go spend some time in the reptile house. Maybe watching the snakes get fed would cheer him up.

"Akaya," Marui said in a tired, soft voice. It sounded a lot like Yukimura-buchou. Stupid Yukimura-buchou and Sanada-fukubuchou, making this relationship crap look easy. Yanagi-senpai was right; dating was a waste of time. Of course, Yanagi-senpai was a jilted bride so he was bitter and not too reliable, but he was still right.

"Just go home, senpai. I'll see at school on Monday." Kirihara took off running because you weren't supposed to show weakness if you were Rikkai and, with those loser school kids out there, Kirihara wanted to make sure he didn't start crying in public. The reptile house would be dark, so he could sulk there all he wanted.

&-&

"He what?" Kikumaru stared at the speakerphone in disbelief. The group was in the conference room at Jirou's house. It had cozy chairs and a conference speaker so they wouldn't have to pass the phone back and forth in order to tell Marui what an idiot he was. They could tell him all at once.

"You let him go?" Jirou's head sank to the polished mahogany of the table.

"Are you completely inept?" Sengoku smacked his forehead, then ran his hand through his hair. "I knew we should've gone to supervise."

"He would've messed it up anyway," Kamio said, sipping on a soda. Of all the people in the room, he was the most calm. "So, where do you think he went?"

"I-I dunno." Marui's voice was cutting out. It sounded like he was running. "I've been looking for him for the last ten minutes and I can't find him."

"Did you check the reptile house?" Kikumaru asked, tampering with the dials on the speaker box. The reception was breaking up.

"No, but I've checked everywhere else, so I guess I can give it a shot." As Marui huffed and puffed his answer out, Kikumaru could hear monkey chattering in the background. He should have Oishi take him to the zoo soon. They went last year, after nationals. They should go again this year and wear their first place medals.

"He's definitely in the reptile house if he's still on the premises," Sengoku reasoned, reaching for a stick of Pocky. "Check it out and give us a call back if he's not there. We'll wait here. If he's gone, we'll comb the city."

"R-right. Thanks." Marui hung up and Kikumaru turned the conference speaker off.

"It's like watching two primary school kids throw sand on eachother," Jirou yawned, settling into the table.

"Yeah. I tried to help Kirihara out, but Brother Bunta's making things difficult." Kikumaru pulled a copy of the list he gave Kirihara out of his pocket.

"What's that?" Kamio snatched the list and read through it. "Where did you get this?"

"It's a list of the top thirteen elements to shoujo and shonen-ai drama. I compiled it from a stack of my sister's manga." Kikumaru was very proud of his research.

Kamio pocketed the list. "I'm confiscating this so you can't bother anyone else with it."

"You just want it to use on Tachibana-kuuuuuuun," Sengoku snickered, making a kissy-face.

Kamio hit him, sending the two into a small scuffle, through which Jirou napped and Kikumaru watched the phone in anticipation.

&-&

When Marui found Kirihara, he was not crying, as the tensai expected, rather, he was sitting cross-legged in front of a king cobra, cheek in palm, chatting away.

"It's not that senpai's a jerk or anything," Kirihara told the snake. "He's actually pretty cool. A couple weeks ago, he saved me from Sanada-fukubuchou. Fukubuchou was gonna hit me for mouthing off – I do that a lot, but only because Fukubuchou is so easy to piss off – and Marui-senpai grabbed his arm and started talking about Yukimura-buchou's welcome home party."

Marui remembered that encounter. Sanada was distracted for all of three minutes before he realized Marui'd let Kirihara escape. Marui ran laps until Sanada got back from his visit with Yukimura. Since Yukimura was in recovery and feeling much better, the visit was a long one.

"Senpai's also really cute," Kirihara said, trailing his finger along the glass cage. "He's always chewing gum and his face looks really cute just before he's about to blow out a bubble." Kirihara showed the snake his best impression. "He's also a good kisser, but he'd probably yell at me if he knew I told you. I guess I embarrass him or something." Kirihara sighed and his chin sunk to his chest.

Marui wanted to tell Kirihara that no, he wasn't embarrassing, but sitting there, bathed in the yellow-red light from the snake's heat lamp, Kirihara looked too much like a fallen angel, writhing in the first flames of Hell, to be disturbed.

"He'll probably go out with Jackal-senpai, or one of those stupid loser school guys." Kirihara was laughing and coughing his words up all at once. "I guess I'm not cut out for dating, eh snake-kun?" Kirihara took a deep breath and slapped his cheeks. "Yosh! Time to get home. Maybe I can make it for dinner." He stood, stretched, and turned.

"Hey," Marui said as their eyes met.

"Hey," Kirihara said, looking back at the snake. "You weren't listening to any of the stuff I just said, were you?"

Marui shrugged and took a step closer, but only one step because Kirihara looked ready to bolt. "Does it help if I say that I suck?" Marui had the urge to kick at the ground with his toe, but that was what girls did in shoujo manga and he was not a shoujo heroine.

"No." Kirihara's shoulders tensed. His fists balled at his sides. "I tried hard today, senpai. It's not easy, you know."

Marui didn't know because he didn't pay much attention to feelings. He couldn't say that, though, because that was something that Sanada would say and Sanada had the charisma of a gargoyle. "It's weird for me, too. We'll go to school on Monday and people will talk and point and I'll be called a pedophile or a cradle robber."

"Tell me who says anything and I'll kill them." Kirihara turned, trying to smile. "It's only a year, and not even a full year, just seven months and five days." He moved a few steps closer, but stopped five feet short of Marui.

Marui stood, too nervous to move. He'd seen scenes like this in the movies. The hero and his girlfriend would have an argument then make up by kissing in the dark. Marui didn't want to make out surrounded by snakes. "You like snakes?" Changing the subject was always a good move.

"Yeah." Kirihara sighed then turned away to stare at the king cobra. "They're small, but everyone respects them." He leaned his head back and flashed a smile. "And poison's cool."

Marui swayed from foot to foot. "Snakes freak me out."

"Then why are you here?" Kirihara didn't stop staring at the snake. He was shaking like a violin string, though.

This sounded dumb. This sounded dumber than dumb. "Because you're here."

Kirihara snickered. "Senpai sounds like a girl."

"Shut up!" Marui strode forward and yelled at he back of Kirihara's head. "What was I supposed to do when you ran off without letting me talk about anything? You can't just run off every time I do something stupid!" That didn't come out at all like Marui had planned.

"Of course not, senpai, I'd never see you then." In one motion, Kirihara turned and wrapped his arms around Marui's neck, nuzzling his cheek into his senpai's chest.

"Let's leave Kojirou, I don't want to interrupt them, even though they're just standing there in the middle of the reptile house where anyone can see them. At least when we want to be exhibitionists we consider the needs of others and don't obstruct the path so people can't get by without passing at an indecent distance."

Kirihara jumped away from Marui. Marui adjusted his shirt, brushing phantom bits of affection off of it. "Sorry," he said to Ibu.

"Please don't mind him," Saeki said, tugging Ibu out of the reptile house. "Just…go on with what you were doing."

"Losers," Kirihara hissed. "Come on senpai, let's go look at the birds of prey." Kirihara took hold of Marui's hand and dragged him out the door opposite the one Ibu and Saeki used.

&-&

Standing at the train station, having just left the train, ready to go their separate ways, Marui and Kirihara stared at the fluorescent lighting, the tiled floor, anywhere but at one another.

"It was fun senpai." Kirihara didn't like the tension. He wanted a goodnight kiss, but Marui-senpai was supposed to be giving the kisses now or things would be awkward and Marui would feel put upon and they'd be back where they started, which was nowhere.

"Yeah. That hawk really did have Sanada's attitude." Marui laughed, but it sounded like someone trapped in a glass of water, calling for help. He bit his lip, looked up at Kirihara, then back to the ground. "Ne, Akaya?"

Kirihara's stomach flipped and squiggled as his name left Marui's lips. "Yeah senpai?"

"Don't call me senpai. It's weird." Marui's eyes moved up and down again. He was cute when he was shy.

"Can I call you Bunta?"

"No."

"Fine, Marui-senpai." Kirihara wasn't insulted, though, so he was smiling. Marui-senpai looked really cute, blushing and trying to look at Kirihara without looking. "We should probably go home. It's gonna be dark soon and we didn't eat anything." Popsicles didn't count and, after the popsicles and train fare, Kirihara was broke.

"My mom's a good cook. You can come for dinner if you want." Marui's cheeks were the same color pink as the baby hamsters Kirihara's hamster Nana gave birth to last month. Nana ate most of them. It was cool.

Kirihara wanted to come to dinner. He wanted to eat with Marui's family and see Marui's room and kiss his senpai in that room. Just dinner would be okay, too, though. "I don't want to be too much trouble."

"Stop being so unselfish. It's not like you." Marui tugged at Kirihara's arm and they headed off toward Marui's house.

They didn't hear the bushes rattle as they passed.

&-&

"Iron Claw to Central Command. Do you copy? Over." Sengoku was never wearing spandex again. Never.

"This is Central Command, Gray Dog speaking. What is your status, Iron Claw? Over." At least Sengoku had a cool handle. Kamio's was just stupid.

"Suspects are heading for Brother Bunta's house for an alleged evening meal. Should I continue pursuit? Over." The unitard Jirou forced Sengoku to wear, claiming it would blend in better, was riding up in the back, shifting in the front, and wasn't long enough in the legs to be anything more than spandex capris. If any girls saw him like this, Sengoku's social life was over.

"Negative Iron Claw. Concrete Squirrel is in position to observe. Make your way to station 4 and begin surveillance setup. Black Locust will meet up with you to assist. Do you copy? Over."

Why couldn't Kamio be in the spandex? He would fit the suit better and probably wouldn't mind being cased up like a sausage. "Roger that Gray Dog. I'll check in when I've reached the rendezvous point. Iron Claw out." He did get the better headset, though. Kikumaru and Jirou were stuck with the old communicator models. Sengoku got to use Marui's super-comfort model.

Pulling the spandex out of places it should never to be, Sengoku ran through the shadows, bound for Marui's room.

&-&

"Are these your sisters?" Kirihara asked, looking at the two twins sitting in front of the television, playing some rollerblading game.

"Those are my brothers. They're stupid, so ignore them." Marui shoved Kirihara into the next room, hoping his brothers hadn't heard the comment. Dinner would be intolerable if the two went upstairs and put dresses on, as they often did to fool Marui's friends who, after being fooled by the duo of eight year olds, would never come to Marui's house again.

"Sorry sen..Marui-kun." Kirihara still didn't have the hang of dropping the 'senpai,' but he was trying, which was all Marui could ask.

"Bunta, is this your friend?" Marui's mother floated into the hallway, clad in a pink floral dress and a yellow apron. There was a silver spatula in her hand.

"Kirihara Akaya, ma'am. Thank you for having me in your home." Kirihara bowed and showed more manners than Marui thought him capable.

"So cute!" Marui-san reached her spatula out to raise Kirihara's head. "We'll take a photo together later, ne Kirihara-kun?"

Marui caught Kirihara's eye and mouthed, "Just agree with her," hoping Kirihara would understand.

"Ringo, let the boys be." Marui's father entered the room, laughing. "Go on up to your room until dinner's ready."

"Your family is weird," Kirihara said, standing just inside Marui's room. "You're weird, too, Marui-se…kun." Kirihara's eyes were taking in the monitors, books, and wires. Finally, his eyes settled on the bookshelf. "Can you really build your own combat robot?"

&-&

The last thing Kikumaru expected was to be drug out a the tree by an old man and forced to stand in the corner while Sengoku arranged bail. Sengoku's spandex unitard wasn't lending him much credibility.

"The situation is a little difficult," Sengoku said, scratching his head and laughing.

The old man snapped his walking stick into his palm, over and over and over. "You best get explaining, young sir."

"Oh, Sengoku-kun!" Marui's mother ran into the room and gave Sengoku a large hug. "It's so good of you to visit me!" She held onto Sengoku's hand and wouldn't let go. "And Kikumaru-kun, too!" She did not come to hug Kikumaru, probably because Kikumaru wasn't wearing spandex.

"You know these children, Ringo?" The old man's eyes moved to Kikumaru. Kikumaru turned back to the wall. Marui's grandfather was creepy. He never remembered them and he always had that walking stick, even though he didn't use it to support himself when he walked.

"They're Bunta's friends, don't you remember?" Marui-san still had Sengoku's head cradled in her bosom. Sengoku didn't seem to mind, though the spandex really wasn't working for him now.

"Ringo, let the boys go." Marui's father had one hand to his forehead and a robe in the other. He tossed the robe at Sengoku. "Here you go, son."

Sengoku quickly slipped the robe on, even though his head was still in Marui Ringo's custody. "Thanks," he managed.

"May I come out of the corner now?" Kikumaru asked just as "Burn Burn Buttercup," the latest single from The Chocolate, chimed from the back of his pants. It was probably Jirou. This was going to be embarrassing. "Black Locust."

"Black Locust, this is Central Command, Concrete Squirrel speaking. What is your location? Over."

No one seemed to be listening except for the senile old man. Good. "We've been taken hostage at the rendezvous point and are deep in enemy territory. Requesting backup. Repeat, requesting backup. An encounter with the subject is likely at this point. Emergency measures must be…crap."

Marui Bunta and Kirihara Akaya stood on the stairwell. Kirihara was laughing. Marui was holding onto the railing, looking like he was about ready to jump over and beat something.

"We can explain?" Kikumaru said, holding up his hands, trying to laugh the situation off.

Sengoku's head was still stuck in Marui Ringo's chest.

&-&

In the end, Marui's mother fed them all, and Jirou and Kamio were invited over to enjoy grilled mackerel and dessert. Kirihara was good and only kicked Sengoku once, saying it was to defend the honor of Marui-senpai's mother. Marui's father seemed used to it all and paid Ringo's shota-complex no mind, even when she smacked Sengoku's ass and said how wonderful it was that the youth of today took exercise seriously.

Kirihara left first because his mother wanted him home by eight to help his father mend the dining table, which his sister broke after a fight with her boyfriend. Marui saw Kirihara to the door, explaining that no, no one else needed to get up. It was fine. Really. Kirihara thought the way Marui-senpai nearly throttled his brothers when they made kissy faces was awesome. He wanted little brothers to throttle, too.

"So," Marui and Kirihara stood outside, a few feet from the closed door.

"I should get home. Mom'll be mad if I'm late." This is where the kiss should go. Kirihara was fairly certain he wasn't going to get a kiss, though.

Marui looked back at the front door, inspecting the small windows to either side. "Good," he said before rushing forward and placing a quick, wet kiss on Kirihara's cheek. "I'll...uh…I'll see you Monday, I guess."

Kirihara's hand automatically rose to his cheek, a cheesy grin spread across his lips. "Yeah, Monday." There were hearts circling Marui-kun's head. Flowers, too.

"Okay."

"Okay.'

"Shouldn't you be going?"

Kirihara blinked and walked backwards, stumbling over himself. "Yeah. Going home. Seeing you Monday. Kiss." There were flowers everywhere, and music playing. Kirihara ran home.

&-&

"Hickey free," Jirou announced with more than a tinge of disappointment.

"Of course I'm hickey free, " Marui grumbled. "I'm not you."

"Hey Brother Bunta, we should go to your house for dinner more often." Kamio looked sideways at Sengoku and snickered.

"No," Sengoku said, "we shouldn't. We should let Brother Jirou buy the food because that's what Brother Jirou likes to do. Right?"

Jirou wasn't going to complain with the naked desperation in Sengoku's eyes. Marui-san was perceptive and somehow knew that the only heterosexual in the group was Sengoku. She picked him out from day one and was relentless in her pursuits. Marui's father always sent a present home with Sengoku by way of apology for his wife, but that didn't make up for the odd experience of being molested by your friend's mom. How Bunta turned out so awesome coming from that group of crazies was a mystery.

"We don't want to be a burden on Brother Bunta's family," Kikumaru said, diving to the rescue while passing shakes around the table. "We could have a sleepover at my place next weekend, if you want." Kikumaru's family was normal. Normal was nice.

"Sure. Sounds like a plan." Jirou raised his milkshake to toast the arrangement.

"Uh, I'm busy. Sorry." Marui slid down in his seat.

"Have a date with Kirihara-kuuuuuun?" Kamio snickered, earning him a kick under the table.

"I have to eat dinner at his house. He wants me to meet his family." Marui sounded less than thrilled, but willing to put up with it.

Jirou smiled. Marui had a boyfriend. Kikumaru and Jirou would have to make sure he was fully versed on the ins and outs of relationships before he messed something up. Later, though, later. For today, they'd celebrate the new couple and bury Marui under a blanket of teasing. It was what friends did, after all.