Kazusa Minami smiled professionally at the student seated before her.
"You understand that your teachers are worried about your health, don't you, Watanuki-san?" she said seriously. "They seem to feel that you look very tired during classes, and that you don't socialize with many of the other students, and they want to make sure you're taking proper care of yourself—not just physically, but mentally as well." She steepled her fingers and aimed her best sympathetic look at him. "I understand that you are a teenage boy living by yourself, and as such you support yourself. However, I want to ascertain that you are not devoting all your time to working. That's no life for a boy, Watanuki-san." She shook her head. "You see, you need to spend at least some time with friends in whose company you can relax, doing activities you enjoy. That's the secret to balancing your life. It isn't all school and work, though don't underestimate their importance—you do need to be focused in order to succeed in a well-chosen career path. But, Watanuki-san, keep in mind that your social network—which is composed of the people who surround you every day—is just as influential to your future."
"There goes my future," Watanuki-san muttered. He glanced accusingly at the person seated beside him.
Kazusa blinked, only slightly deterred. "Oh, come now, Watanuki-san. That's hardly the proper attitude to have."
Watanuki-san shook his head. "If you'll pardon my forthrightness, Kazusa-san, I don't really see the point of this meeting. I have good grades in school, I keep up on my rent, I have a job—" He cut another scathing glance at the person in the chair beside his. "—even if I don't necessarily enjoy the company of the people I work with. I have friends. Well," he amended, "a friend, who happens to be the cutest girl in the whole world. And a rival, who happens to be the biggest jerk in the whole world. But rivals are good, right? Survival of the fittest and all that." He gave her a pleading look. "There's no need for all this, is there?"
"What is 'all this,' Watanuki-san?" Kazusa said calmly. "It's simply an examination of your lifestyle—a check-up, if you will, to make sure you're healthy in all aspects of your life."
"But I am!" he protested. He paused. "Well, most of the time." He paused again. "Well…"
Kazusa merely smiled expectantly and waited for him to continue.
He groaned, and pointed accusingly at the person next to him. "Well, I don't see why you have to be here!" he snapped.
Kazusa consulted her file. "Well, normally we'd call in the parent of the student, but in this case…" She delicately trailed off. "Then we thought about asking your landlord to join us. But then…" She gestured at the third person in the room. "We decided to invite someone better qualified to answer our questions."
Watanuki-san mumbled something under his breath that seemed to include the words "better qualified than a crocodile, maybe."
Deciding to overlook the words, Kazusa glanced at her file again. Then she looked up and smiled.
The woman who sat regally in the chair next to Watanuki-san's smiled back. It was a cat's smile, coolly amused and patiently tolerant. Her oddly-colored eyes—were they really that shade of red? No, no, they had to be contacts—were heavily lidded, the long black lashes obscuring the expression in them, and were partially hidden behind small half-moon eyeglasses perched delicately on the bridge of her narrow nose. Her hair, the same black as her lashes, was piled high in an elegant coiffure atop her head; her impossibly long legs (Kazusa suppressed a sigh of envy) were crossed beneath a businesslike skirt and blazer in a deep burgundy that brought out that odd eye color. She looked like a queen.
"I thank you for your gracious invitation," Ichihara-san said in a melodious murmur. "I admit, when Watanuki informed me of this meeting, I was very honored to be considered the most influential person in Watanuki's life." Her eyes danced.
Watanuki-san's narrowed. Kazusa noted absently that his eyes, too, were strangely colored—the left a deep blue, the right a bright gold. They seemed to darken as they perused Ichihara-san's enigmatic smile.
"Where'd you get those ridiculous glasses?" he asked her bluntly. "I bet they're not prescription. I bet they're not even glass."
She gave a tinkling laugh, and he appeared to grind his teeth together.
Sensing the situation deteriorating, Kazusa quickly consulted her file.
"Ah…Watanuki-san. You are employed by Ichihara-san?"
"I'm enslaved by Ichihara-san," he corrected her.
Kazusa stared at him.
"Oh," she said after a moment. "A joke. I see."
He glowered at her, then at Ichihara-san, and said nothing.
"That is correct," Ichihara-san told Kazusa. "Watanuki works in my shop."
Kazusa frowned at the paper in her hand. "There's no address for your shop in Watanuki-san's file."
"Those who need my services find the shop with no trouble at all," Ichihara-san assured her.
"The trouble starts when they do find it," Watanuki-san muttered. Ichihara-san sent him a quelling glance, which he pretended not to see.
Rapidly growing more and more confused, Kazusa said to Ichihara-san, "There's also no indication in the file as to Watanuki-san's exact position at your shop."
"Hmm," said Ichihara-san vaguely. "It seems as though the information in your file is incomplete." There was a look in her eyes that almost dared Kazusa to contradict her.
"It seems so," agreed Kazusa quickly. "S-so, what does Watanuki-san do in your shop, Ichihara-san?"
"Oh," said Ichihara-san airily. "A little of this, a little of that."
"Everything that she's too lazy to do herself," Watanuki said tartly. "Like all the cooking and cleaning."
Kazusa frowned. "You're a housekeeper, Watanuki-san?"
He snorted. "Sure. Housekeeper." His eyes rolled to the ceiling. "More like Yuuko-san's minion for life."
"That," said Ichihara-san with a smile, "is actually extremely accurate."
Kazusa looked from Watanuki-san to Ichihara-san, and saw that they were serious.
"Don't you find that cooking and cleaning for Ichihara-san, and then going home to do those things for yourself, is very tiring?" she asked Watanuki-san.
He sighed heavily. "Yeah," he admitted. "But it's pretty tame compared to—" He stopped, blinked.
Kazusa pounced on that statement. "Compared to what?" she said intently. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ichihara-san shift her legs, was reminded oddly of a lion preparing to pounce, and felt the hair of the back of her neck rise.
Watanuki-san looked anywhere but at Kazusa. He even glanced at Ichihara-san, but she gave him a serene look, so he floundered on by himself. "Well—well, she has me run errands sometimes."
"What kind of errands?"
Watanuki-san moved his shoulders restlessly and glanced again at the still-expressionless Ichihara-san. "Well…delivering things to customers, picking up things for the shop."
"What things?" pressed Kazusa. She sensed she was getting somewhere by the way Watanuki-san reluctantly shrugged.
"Just…things," he mumbled. "Stuff for the shop, sometimes payments…"
"And these payments," said Kazusa relentlessly, "are in cash form?"
"No," said Watanuk-san slowly. "They're things. Like…boxes of supplies and…and things like that." His brow wrinkled. "What does that have to do with anything?"
Kazusa sat back in her seat, her face carefully pleasant and curious. "I'm just worried that carrying all those things to and from the customers' houses by yourself is wearing on you physically," she said solicitously.
He scowled. "Well. Sometimes Yuuko-san makes me ask…someone else to assist me." He folded his arms across his chest. "Which is never fun because he's rude and uncommunicative and a big, stupid jerk."
"I see." Kazusa turned to Ichihara-san. "And what is your role at your shop, if you don't mind my asking?"
"I am Watanuki's mentor," Ichihara-san said simply.
"Tormentor," threw in Watanuki-san.
"I see to it that Watanuki does his job properly, and is fully rewarded for his time."
"You mean exploited," muttered Watanuki mutinously, but he didn't elaborate.
Ichihara-san went on, unfazed by her employee's sarcastic mutterings, "Sometimes, when a customer requires…special assistance, of a sort which I feel Watanuki capable of providing, I instruct him to relieve the customer of his burdens."
"She instructs me to make a fool of myself for complete strangers that I don't even get to see face-to-face most of the time," Watanuki-san interjected.
"And…and the rest of the time, when he's not on your…errands," managed Kazusa with a reasonably even tone, "Watanuki-san is your…keeper?"
Ichihara-san aimed a beaming smile at the boy.
"We get along so well, don't we, Watanuki-kun?"
"Sure, Yuuko-san," said Watanuki-san tonelessly. "You drive me to insanity and I force you into sobriety. How's that for teamwork?"
Kazusa took a deep breath and stared unseeingly at the file in her slightly shaking hands. This, she thought, was not going at all as expected. She had a feeling that when these two were involved, nothing ever did.
"So," she said calmly, "what sort of skills or advantages are offered to Watanuki-san through his…position with you, Ichihara-san?"
She tried to smile, but dreaded the answer.
"Under my supervision," boasted Ichihara-san, "Watanuki has become more open to his peers and has developed a wide range of…shall we say…vocational skills."
"Is that so?" Kazusa noted all of it down and looked up at Watanuki-san with what she hoped was an approving smile and not a sickly grimace.
However it appeared on her face, it was met with a snort of derision. "I've also developed a tic in my left eye," he mumbled.
"Ah! So mean, Watanuki-kun!" protested Ichihara-san, an indignant hand pressed to her cheek. Her eyes, however, laughed at him.
"And don't even ask about when she's not supervising me," Watanuki-san told Kazusa.
She blinked, bewildered, unsure how to respond. She finally decided the best way to handle it was: "O-Oh?"
"Things tend to…happen." He emphasized the last word and nodded at her conspiratorially, as if Ichihara-san wasn't sitting right next to him and trying to look innocent. "Disastrous things. Nightmarish things. Migraine-inducing things."
"I-I-I see…" stuttered Kazusa, now completely out of her element.
Ichihara-san shook her head at him with a smile. "Ahhh, Watanuki-kun," she remonstrated him, wagging a finger playfully, "whenever do you suppose I am not supervising you?"
"When you send me out on those freaky errands with that idiot Doumeki!" he accused her, his eyes narrowed.
Ichihara-san merely smiled mysteriously. "Even then, Watanuki, I'm still keeping an eye on you," she told him. Her voice lowered, sounding deep and authoritative. "I'm always watching."
A chill went down Kazusa's spine, and she stared at Ichihara-san.
Watanuki-san rolled his eyes. "You're always watching those stupid TV shows about the yakuza," he said dismissively. "Those things'll rot your brain, Yuuko-san." He eyed her. "Then again, maybe it'd be good for you."
"Naaaa, Watanuki-kun is no fun." Ichihara-san pouted, but Watanuki-san grandly ignored her.
Kazusa thought this conversation could be one of those migraine-inducing things that Watanuki-san had explained to her, because pain was starting to hammer at her behind her eyes. She decided to return the consultation to its original path.
Turning to Watanuki-san, she held the file in her lap—hoping they wouldn't notice how badly her fingers were trembling—and said coaxingly, "Watanuki-san, what is one good thing about your employer, Ichihara-san, that you think has had a great influence on you?"
Ichihara-san, smirking, turned expectantly to Watanuki-san, her eyes taunting him.
Watanuki-san, after glaring at her, studied the ceiling carefully and took a long moment to answer. Finally, he said slowly, "Yuuko-san may act like a lazy boozehound with no sense of propriety, but…" Here he paused, and ducked his head a little bit, as if embarrassed to admit it. "She takes care of me. It's sort of…sort of like having a mother again."
His cheeks reddened, and he stared at the floor, missing the quiet, assessing look that Ichihara shot him.
"And Ichihara-san, is there any particular quality of Watanuki-san's that you feel deserves recognition?" said Kazusa, her eyes fixed on her file. What sort of mother, she wondered, would make her son do…those things?
"A myriad of them, my dear," replied Ichihara-san after a moment.
Kazusa blanched, then coughed to cover it.
Watanuki-san blinked at the admission so freely spoken. Apparently he'd rarely or never heard from Ichihara-san that she admired any of his qualities.
Before Kazusa could gather the courage to ask, Ichihara-san waved a hand. "But I suppose the foremost thought in my mind at the moment is that Watanuki may act like a shrewish housewife with no common sense whatsoever, but…he takes care of me." She smiled a little, and her eyes found Watanuki-san's. "It is very much like having a son of my own," she murmured softly.
"Yuuko-san." There was a catch in Watanuki-san's voice.
Ichihara-san tilted her head. "I've told you before. You're a good boy, Watanuki."
He let out a small snort of laughter. "You're not so bad yourself, Yuuko-san."
"Shh." Ichihara-san winked at him. "I have a reputation to uphold."
Watanuki-san turned to Kazusa with a soft smile on his face. For just a moment, she could see how he would captivate some of Ichihara-san's…customers.
"Is this meeting over, Kazusa-san?" he asked politely. "I have to cook dinner for my mistress." He exaggerated the word for Ichihara-san's benefit, but his eyes were laughing now too.
"Ah, yes…" Kazusa was relieved; she honestly felt like her eyes were going to fall out of her head—or her ears, or her brain—if this rollercoaster ride of 'affection' continued any longer.
"Yay!" The woman clapped her hands like a child at an amusement park. "I want oyako don and onigiri and strawberry sherbet for dessert and red wine!" she chirped.
Watanuki-san rolled his eyes to the ceiling, but Kazusa could see the hint of a smile curving his lips. "Yes, yes, you slave driver…"
"And I've invited Doumeki-kun over for dinner."
Quicker than Kazusa's eyes could follow, Watanuki-san shot to his feet with an outraged and horrified shout.
"What? Yuuko-san, how could you?"
"A mother must be sure that her son will be happily matched with someone who will take care of him," Ichihara-san said practically, her tone completely at odds with the unholy laughter lurking in her eyes. "As such, I'm doing my utmost to choose you an ideal…life partner, if you'll allow the term."
"No, I will not allow the term!" roared Watanuki-san.
Ichihara-san sighed and pouted. "You can't get much more ideal than Doumeki Shizuka," she pointed out.
Kazusa's brow wrinkled. Unless she was very much mistaken, she thought Doumeki Shizuka was the name of a male student at this school…but then why would Ichihara-san be talking about marrying him to Watanuki-san?
Her mind replayed the entire consultation.
"I'm enslaved by Ichihara-san."
"Those who need my services find the shop with no trouble at all."
"She has me run errands sometimes…delivering things to customers, picking up things for the shop. Boxes of supplies and things like that."
"Sometimes, when a customer requires…special assistance, of a sort which I feel Watanuki capable of providing, I instruct him to relieve the customer of his burdens."
"And don't even ask about when she's not supervising me. Things tend to…happen. Disastrous things. Nightmarish things. Migraine-inducing things."
Watanuki-san interrupted her horrified suspicions. "He's Doumeki!" he protested, aghast.
"Trust me, Watanuki…this pains me much more than it pains you." Ichihara-san's grin seemed to contradict her words.
"That's a lie!" snapped Watanuki-san, his glasses flashing in the light.
"It certainly is not," retorted Ichihara-san indignantly, with sparkling eyes. "It's so terribly hard for a mother to watch her son grow up and stop needing her…don't you think so, Kazusa-san?"
"Ah…" The guidance counselor blinked at her, completely at a loss for words. Or thoughts.
Ichihara-san went on dramatically without waiting for an answer. "But I must sacrifice my own feelings in order to ensure your happiness. I'm doing this for your own good!"
"I hate you," Watanuki-san moaned. "After graduation I am going to move very, very far away from you."
"Distance does not a guaranteed escape make." The smile on Ichihara-san's face, and the scowl on Watanuki-san's, suggested that she would not only find him if he took such measures, but she would also drag him back kicking and screaming (or unconscious, more likely).
"I hate you a lot."
The guidance counselor stood and bowed to them both. Looking from Ichihara-san's eyes to Watanuki-san's, she informed them, "I am going to inform the school secretary that you, Watanuki-san, are actually very healthy and there is no need to bring Ichihara-san back for another consultation. Ever. I'm not going to tell her that I suspect Watanuki-san works in a sex shop where his employer sells his services to other men and receives payment in the form of possibly illegal drugs and more sex."
"What?" Watanuki-san stared at her. "What?"
"How kind of you," Ichihara-san said with a smile. "I appreciate you avoiding such a complication."
"I don't work in a sex shop!" exploded Watanuki-san.
"Of course you don't. It doesn't say so in your file. If it's not in your file, I'm not going to think about it, and I'm going to discourage anyone else from doing so." Kazusa continued grimly, "I will not tell anyone about this consultation. I'm going to forget it ever happened."
"Good idea," agreed Ichihara-san.
"Wait a minute, wait—there's been a misunderstanding," cried Watanuki-san, looking desperately from Kazusa to Ichihara-san. "I'm not a—a—that!"
Kazusa said, "Of course not. I don't remember any of this conversation. I especially won't after I go home and get very, very drunk."
"That's the spirit!" Ichihara-san praised her.
"Great," muttered Watanuki-san, his cheeks still blazing red and his arms folded defensively across his chest. "Now you're contagious. I won't live to see graduation."
"I suggest you come and visit my shop," Ichihara-san offered. "You may find that it's not what you expected, and exactly what you wanted."
Kazusa blinked at her.
"In fact…" Ichihara-san leaned toward her and smiled slowly. "You may get exactly what you wish for."
"Don't make it worse for her, Yuuko-san," Watanuki-san complained.
Ichihara-san tweaked his nose with a duck-shaped hand puppet that had come, apparently, from nowhere. He yelped in irritation and batted at it. With her other hand, she smacked the top of his head with a paper fan whose origins seemed to give the duck-puppet a run for its money.
Kazusa blinked. "I think I'll be drunk for a couple of days," she murmured dazedly. "That seems safer for my sanity."
"It usually is," agreed Ichihara-san sagely. "I would know. You should see what I deal with in my line of work."
"No, she shouldn't," Watanuki-san said flatly. Then he panicked and turned to Kazusa. "Not that it has anything to do with—with sex or drugs! It's just—it's stuff you don't want to see! Believe me! It's all really gross and unnatural and—"
Kazusa turned and strode out the door.
And straight into the chest of Doumeki Shizuka.
His expressionless face stared down at her. "Excuse me," he said quietly.
"You're Watanuki-san's…partner," she said.
"Yes," Doumeki-san said.
"Yes," Ichihara-san said.
"No!" Watanuki-san yelled.
"Excuse me," Kazusa said. "I'm going to go be very drunk now and try not to think about you and Watanuki-san engaged in lewd and probably illegal acts."
He blinked. "Okay. Let me know if that works." He stepped aside and sauntered into the counseling room. He glanced back. "I've been trying to figure it out myself. You're an objective opinion, so you might have more luck."
As she walked away, Kazusa heard Doumeki-san say, "So what's for dinner?" and Watanuki-san retort, "You'll eat whatever I make, you ungrateful bastard! And I'm not marrying you! We're still in high school!"
"Okay," Doumeki-san's voice floated down the hall to her. "How about after graduation?"
Kazusa took a deep breath, thought about saké, and began to run.