CHAPTER VII

There was silence. Then Ojiisan grinned. "Oh, I thought it was a skunk, your pet."

Hino raised an eyebrow at the old man who was stroking his pet frog. The man definitely was unbelievable. For one, Hino thought, who in their right minds would keep a skunk as their pet? Hino could only gawk as the old man started laughing at his self.

"You know, Kahoko-san, your expression is so funny, dear," Ojiisan pointed out. He chuckled and let go of Midoriiro.

The two occupants of the room watched as the green amphibian hopped itself out of the opened gigantic window at the farthest corner of the room. Astonished, Hino turned to a proud-looking Ojiisan.

"You're just letting your pet out without—you, know—companion?" When in reality, all Hino was just concerned was the fact that the dogs might only run after the poor green thing.

Hino remembered when, once, her previous dog (May he rest in peace, she thought) had chased off after a butterfly. It was disgusting—the fact that her dog had actually had a taste of some insect, and that concerned her all the more.

Midoriiro . . .

"Anyway," Ojiisan voiced out, sighing and leaning against his seat. "Would you like to know how I caught the heart of Len's grandmother, Kahoko-san?"

Blinking, Hino thought of how random it was for Ojiisan to start talking about his love life. It was not that Hino was not interested, but she deemed it rather out-of-the-blue. "Eh?" she said instead, manifesting her inner surprise.

Ojiisan smiled, and his eyes crinkled all the more. "Well, you see—"

"I'm here."

Both heads looked up at the source of the voice. Standing by the gigantic doors was Tsukimori, his arms folded right across his chest.

"Ah, Len!" called Hino, smiling. She was relieved, for some reasons, to find Tsukimori right there. Perhaps it had something to do with her discomfort with the presence of Len's grandfather?

Despite the homey feeling Ojiisan radiated, Hino did not feel any sort of comfort. Ojiisan would always show her how happy he was with her presence in the villa, but somehow, she felt that something between them was stiff—also, there was something between Tsukimori and Ojiisan. She just could not lay a finger on what that something was.

"Ah, good, good," muttered Ojiisan, smiling. He raised his hand and motioned the boy to sit beside the redhead. "Won't you sit beside Kahoko-san, will you?"

Hino sheepishly smiled at Ojiisan's language.

"Hn."

The redhead stealthily caught Tsukimori's eyes as she scooted over and let him sit. There was some sort of underlying message that he was saying, but she could not understand any at all. It was as if all internal communications between them, which they did not know had been present all this time, had completely gone away.

Tsukimori averted his attention to his still smiling grandfather and asked, "Is there anything important you have to remind us, Ojiisan?"

"Ah, yes," started Ojiisan as he stood up and went over his desk to get a stack of papers that Hino noticed had sat there for quite a while. "These are brochures, aren't they?"

Hino looked over to the young man sitting beside her before checking out the brochures Ojiisan had given. The cover was simple—a background of gradient white and blue patterned with hearts of different styles. At the top, in bold, red letters, read:

TESTIMONY OF DEVOTION:
Prove Your Undying Love

24 May 2012
Thursday
10.00 at OKINAWA SPORTS COMPLEX

The contest all lovers are waiting for . . .
. . . this golden week! Register now!

It was as if the silence of all silences had befallen the three occupants of the vast room. After all, it was not what both Hino and Tsukimori had expected from Ojiisan. (But then again, when did Ojiisan ever meet their expectations?) Stiffly, the couple looked up to the ever-expectant old man.

The balding man was smiling so mischievously that Tsukimori almost crumpled the thin brochure he held in one hand. Ojiisan interlaced his fingers together and gazed at the two teenagers happily.

"Actually, erase the words "Register now!" from that, actually," the eldest of the two men chirped. He sighed and his crescent-closed eyes snapped open to reveal cold, vindictive orbs. "Do you expect me to just have you here in my mansion and not do anything in return? You're an imbecile, if you think so."

If it were even possible, Hino's already widened eyes enlarged even more, surprised by the sudden change of attitude from Tsukimori's grandfather. The loving, happy-go-lucky Tsukimori Kunikazu? Dark and conniving? The redheaded violinist's throat had gone dry, sane thoughts seemingly evaporating from her head. There was one question ringing through her ears, though.

For what was Ojiisan doing this all?

Tsukimori lifted his head up to his grandfather. "I—What do you mean, Ojiisan?" he questioned.

Ojiisan smiled again and tilted his head sideward, saying, "I want you two to prove to me that you are worthy my blessings."

"W—Worthy your blessings?" echoed Hino, clearly confused. She almost jumped in her seat when Tsukimori reached out with his free hand and held hers tightly. She looked down at their connected hands and at her boyfriend's defiant face.

"There's nothing we have to prove, Ojiisan, you know that," replied Tsukimori, his glare intensifying in every raging second that passed by. He held Hino's hand tighter and closer. "What's the point?"

"The point is . . . ," the old man's smile did not even waver when he continued, ". . . I don't really trust you, Len. Not ever."

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Hino knew that that was the most painful thing Tsukimori Len had ever heard.

. . . And when she gazed at the mentioned young man, she knew it hurt more to hear it from someone he loved.

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"And he's scarred for life!" Takato yelled, laughing at the reddening face of Hihara. She puffed her cheeks to keep her laughter from erupting further, but even that did not help.

Tsuchiura, who was walking beside Hihara, patted his senpai at the back. Despite the comforting gesture, he still found the urge to snicker. "I never knew you had it in you, senpai. First, Tsukimori. Next . . . an old woman? You really have one kind of a charm, senpai."

The two juniors laughed even further, going as far as high-fiving each other, when Hihara grumbled, "It's not funny, you guys! Imagine yourself, being all so innocent just by helping a granny in need then—then—then—argggh!"

Tsuchiura and Takato's green-haired senpai stopped from walking to rumple his green hair in frustration. He could not believe it! He definitely could not believe it! With the raging thoughts, an inner Hihara Kazuki popped out in his head, patting the real-life Hihara in the back.

"Ah, myself, I pity you," said Inner Hihara. The astral-like imagination shook his head to manifest his point. "To get—toot—by an old woman."

Hihara's two other companions laughed further when Hihara groaned again at the memory that happened not too long ago. They had been strolling by the seaside, watching tourists come and go. They had had found out that not only was the resort for the family, but it was also open for tourists.

The three had happily passed by stalls of fruits that were being sold and other souvenir items made of shells and hemp. That was when they had come across an old woman, struggling to walk up five flights of marble stairs that led to a mini-hotel at the top of the plateau. Hihara, being a gentleman that he was, took the initiative to carry the grandmother up.

To cut the long story short . . .

Takato laughed more, wiping a single tear that escaped the corner of her right eye. "She freaking groped you! Oh, Kami-sama!"

Hihara pouted and looked ahead, feeling all red in the face. They did not walk in silence after that. Actually, for Hihara, it was a walk to Cavalry. All his companions ever did was make fun of him and that little (well, not so little) incident. When, finally, they reached the door to the sitting room intended for their group, Hihara suddenly stopped, sensing something quite . . . ominous.

Tsuchiura stopped chuckling and stared in confusion at his senpai. When he was about to make a remark on Hihara and the groping incident and the door that might grope him again (because he was so "charming and loving and—I want to grope you!" plus laughing), the older boy let out a hand that seemed to say stop and silently, cautiously, opened the huge doors.

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The door revealed the rest of their friends inside, red in the faces, and a greater horror Hihara never would have expected. Or even thought.

Hihara gulped. "This is so not good."

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Tsukimori gripped Hino's hand tighter.

"I—Ojiisan, that kind of thinking—!" Hino stopped short when Ojiisan held out a hand and turned to her. He raised an eyebrow, as if challenging her to continue. "Len . . . Len is not just someone you could not trust. He's trustworthy, I know just that, and those words—they—"

A single look from Ojiisan sent Hino into silence. The look screamed authority over everyone in the mansion, over her, over his own grandson. Ojiisan grinned at once. "Ah, Kahoko-san, you and your beliefs. I believe you have not known my grandson for over a year—not for a year, even—so . . . keep your opinions inside, will you, Kahoko-san?"

And the tag questions were back.

"What if we don't join, Ojiisan?" asked Tsukimori, letting go of Hino's hand. "What are you going to do?"

It took a while before Hino realized that Ojiisan was laughing. It started with his crescent-shaped eyes, then to the shaking of the shoulders, then to a very inaudible—Hino hardly heard it—snort.

"You're funny, my grandson, funny," Ojiisan pointed out. He stopped laughing that it was almost cruel. "The point is, Len, whichever you do—you don't join or you lose the game—you'll face the consequences. And they're pretty big."

Tsukimori made a move to stand but stopped. Instead, he warily asked, "And they are?"

The old man stood up from where he sat and went over to an armoire at the farthest corner of the room opposite to where the couple sat. He knelt down so he could open the lowest drawer there was and pulled out a big and square box. Ojiisan walked back over to the two teenagers and placed the item on top of the coffee table. He sat back to the couch opposite the two.

Hino felt Tsukimori stiffen at the sight—it was an album.

"First consequence, Len," started Ojiisan, leaning at the back of the couch, "is spilling of the beans. You know what I mean."

Then he leaned forward, eyes opening again.

"Do you want me to do that, my grandson, don't you?" Ojiisan smiled again. He leaned back and said, "The next consequence has got something to do with your dreams, Len, hasn't it?"

Hino felt the need to speak. "But Ojiisan!"

Ojiisan turned to look at her and said in reply, "What did I say in your first day here, Kahoko-san, dear? Didn't I tell you to call me Kunikazu-chan, did I? Hm? Oh, and dear, you can do nothing about my consequence, dear. As I have said, I don't really trust Len. I never have."

"But . . . ," started Hino once again. She relented when Tsukimori held her hand tighter. Her gaze shifted to his other hand that held the forgotten brochure and noticed that his hand was holding on so tightly that he created a rumpled dent at the side of the periodical.

"Lastly," voiced out the old Tsukimori, successfully silencing the girl, "I want you two to marry on July."

Shocked silence prevailed.

Ojiisan laughed and was pulled into one of his own, cruel dreams. "And have twenty-one little Lens and little Kahoko-sans of course!"

Flustered, the two teenagers visibly tensed, but it was Len who retorted—which, of course, surprised Hino a great deal. She had never seen, in the two days they had been there, Tsukimori lose his cool in front of his grandfather (or anyone, for that matter). "Ojiisan, that's too severe!"

Hino remained sitting there, her both hands, now freed from holding the brochure and the other, Len's hand, covered her mouth in utmost disbelief. Marriage had never come in a huge volume of weightiness as this had. Engagement was one thing, but marriage at seventeen? She was not yet even sure of what to do with her life after high school—not real sure about her and Tsukimori.

And then this?

"There's nothing severe to someone who has broken my trust, Len," said Ojiisan, still smiling. He leaned forward and tapped the album with the tips of his three fingers. "Prove to me that you have chosen the best woman for the next generation of the Tsukimoris. Prove to me that you love her too much not to let her undergo this—as you call it—severe punishment. Prove to me that she will be your first, your last. Prove to me that it is enough time that I forgive you for what happened seven years ago."

Silence engulfed the three occupants of the room once again. All Hino could do was watch in wariness as Tsukimori and Ojiisan continued staring at each other so intensely that she could feel the ground shaking. Who could have known that she was signing up for marriage the moment she accepted—not really—Tsukimori's demand for a girlfriend in her and the moment she lay foot on this mansion's perimeter?

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What exactly happened seven years ago?

Hino found herself wondering.

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Tsukimori was still holding Hino's hand when they walked back to the sitting room where they believed their friends passed their times. He was not shaken. He was not even worried. But he was scared. The mere heaviness of his touch on Hino's hand said it all.

Last night, as he lay on his bed, he wondered if all his actions were worth what was happening then. Did he do the right thing? Was it right to pull Hino into a false situation, lying to her even? Was it right to make Hino believe that their connection—their relationship—was real? He wondered if it was right that he did not tell his parents in the first place that they had the wrong deduction.

He did not have a girlfriend. He never had Hino Kahoko.

And when his grandfather said he never really trusted him, Tsukimori knew at once. He had always been wrong.

"It's OK, Tsukimori-kun," said the girl beside him. She stopped in her tracks and Tsukimori did, too. Hino did not look at him. Instead, she looked away so she could conceal the worry and nervousness she had in her face. "It's . . . It's OK, you know."

But Tsukimori knew better.

"If we win, we'll never really have to—to face all those consequences, you know," continued Hino, her tone noticeably rising a few octaves up. "You will never have to face them. All of Ojiisan's consequences are at your cost, so . . . so . . . ."

When Hino started to tear up, Tsukimori just stood there. When he said his apology, Tsukimori found a mop of red hair pushing on the crook of his neck.

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In his mind, Tsukimori thought that not everything of his grandfather's consequence was against him. Actually, the prospect of living with Hino for the rest of his life was more than treasure in itself.

But a nagging thought in his head asked him, "What if she thinks the opposite?"

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On the other side of the house, a group that consisted of Hihara, Tsuchiura, Takato, Kobayashi, Amou, Kaji, Yunoki, and the two freshmen, screamed in horror as they stared at the ceiling of the wide sitting room.

We are being played at, Amou concluded, her face very red. She and the others had just come from the garden where they enjoyed tea. They never really had expected . . . this madness.

"Seriously, I just know that Ojiisan is enjoying seeing us like this!" the journalist exclaimed, her face reddening even more.

. . . for up in the ceiling, pairs of undergarments from everyone were hanged.

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And Tsukimori Kunikazu laughed as he watched in amusement—he had security cameras everywhere—the group of teens from Tokyo panicking rigorously.

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-to be continued

author's notes:

so i was being happy with my life (because hell yeah, i managed to pass the entrance exam of the university of the philippines!) :) when i thought of navigating through my files in the pc. then i saw the folder that said -sera-chan011- and i thought, hey, why not check it out again? i saw the files that consisted of the plots for my unfinished stories and well, i suddenly thought to write again (because i'm grateful, ok?) :D

there ya go. :) now, do you see who the real Ojiisan is? can you guess from: a) evil grandfather b) just pure on drugs grandfather c) aota. all of the above. :P thanks for reading!

thanks to these lovely reviewers!

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thank you very much for the support! until next time!

review? :))

love lots
~sera-chan

p.s. i know i haven't updated in over a year. ^^" ne, gomen.