Title: The Way to a Man's Heart
Saeki, Yuuta, various Rokkaku, Yukimura
Yuuta's always had a bad habit of wanting what he can't have.
Part of the Pen & Ink AUverse, in which some of the tennis boys are yakuza and some are not. Set some years before the action of Pen & Ink. AU with yakuza and students and chefs and smut. Reposted from my journal.

The Way to a Man's Heart

Yuuta'd had better days: days where his alarm had actually gone off when it was supposed to, where he hadn't had to make a mad dash to catch his train and subsequently left his lunch at home, and days where he definitely hadn't left his wallet at home and gone the whole day with a growling stomach. They also hadn't included professors who decided that pop quizzes were good ideas, or chemistry labs that refused to work properly no matter how many times he checked the equations and redid the reaction. He'd had infinitely better days, ones that didn't find him headachey from low blood sugar and pissed off with the whole world by the time his last class of the day was over and he could begin stomping his way home. That was why, when the guy who came tearing down the sidewalk plowed into him, Yuuta just took it as one more sign that the universe had it in for him.

Had it been any other day, he would have just shrugged off being knocked over with a laugh. If the guy had done more than just picked himself up and taken off running again--maybe apologized, that would have been a good start--Yuuta might have forgiven him anyway, since he'd been getting cues all day that he should have just stayed home. But the asshole just kept going without saying a word--without looking back, even--and that was what shattered the remains of Yuuta's already-fragile calm.

"Hey!" Yuuta was on his feet before he quite knew it. "Hey you! Asshole! Watch where you're going!"

But the guy was already gone, disappearing into the evening crowd (which was veering around Yuuta, giving him a wide berth and a whole slew of disapproving expressions). Yuuta was ready to take off after him, propriety be damned, when someone asked, "You okay?"

"Huh?" He looked around and found his bag and a friendly grin being presented to him.

"Looks like he knocked into you pretty hard," the owner of the grin said. "You hurt anywhere?"

"Nothing but my pride, I guess," Yuuta admitted, grudgingly, and took his bag. "No thanks to that asshole."

"Eh, he's on a mission." The guy's grin turned crooked. "From God, you might say. Normally he's very polite." He shook his shock of bleached hair out of his eyes (and it was dark at the roots, Yuuta noticed, which was kind of weird on a guy who was old enough to qualify as being a real adult, but whatever) and took a drag on his cigarette.

"What, you know him?" Yuuta demanded, and for half a second was tempted to ask for a name and an address so he could vent the rest of his temper later, before common sense got the upper hand again.

The guy grinned again. "Yeah, sort of. He's not a bad kid, except when he gets in a rush, or he has to be."

Yuuta snorted. "Yeah, whatever. Don't be surprised if I don't take your word for it, huh?"

The guy laughed. "You're a grumpy one, aren't you?" He flicked the butt of his cigarette away. "Akaya-kun's gonna be horrified about this when he calms down later, so let me make it up to you for him." He jerked his shoulder at a door a few meters down the sidewalk. "Come inside, let me buy you dinner."

"--what, really?" Yuuta asked, stomach growling at the thought. Then his common sense caught up with him. "What's in it for you?"

The guy grinned. "Akaya-kun gets to owe me a favor." He checked his watch. "My break's about over. You coming or not?"

It had been forever since breakfast. Forever and the day from hell, and that was what decided Yuuta. "Sure," he said, "why not?" and followed the guy into the restaurant--funny, he'd thought this place was never open.

It was just about empty, except for the guy sitting--well, hulking--at the counter. "Take a long enough break, Sae?"

"I was enjoying my smoke," the guy--Sae-san?--returned, easily enough, and gestured at the counter. "Have a seat."

Yuuta sat, and was instantly aware that the other guy was sizing him up. The feeling wasn't a comfortable one. He cocked his head at Yuuta. "Who's this?"

Sae-san slipped behind the counter and pulled an apron off a peg. "A guest, Bane. This is a restaurant, remember?" he said, tying it around his waist.

"Not our usual kind," Bane-san said, still with that narrow gaze. Yuuta was starting to feel distinctly uneasy about him.

"Oh, for fuck's sake, chill out." Sae-san rolled his eyes. "Akaya-kun knocked him over when he came tearing out here, and didn't stop to apologize." He was busy at the sink, washing his hands. "I thought I'd be friendly and feed him to apologize."

"Who died and put you in charge of the kid's manners?" Bane-san asked.

Sae-san turned around and flicked his wet fingers at Bane-san. "No one. I'm just being nice, for crying out loud." He shook his head. "When'd you get so fucking paranoid?"

Okay, he could take a hint, and he wasn't hungry enough that he wanted to cause this much trouble. Yuuta stood up again. "Hey, look, I appreciate the offer of a meal, but if I'm just going to get you in trouble with your boss, I'll be going."

"My--hah!" Sae-san laughed at that, eyes crinkling up at the corners. "He's not my boss." He grinned. "Sit down. Bane's not going to throw you out of here." He gave Bane-san a look. "Is he?"

"Can't be too careful these days," Bane-san muttered.

Yuuta sat, and looked around the empty restaurant, which was kind of weird, since it was dinnertime. "Doesn't look like you have all that much room to be choosy about your customers," he said.

"Eh, we get by," Sae-san said. He handed Yuuta a hot towel, and set a cup of tea down in front of him. "So what'll you have?"

"Uh--" Yuuta wiped his hands. Wasn't he supposed to get a menu or something? "I... don't know. You have a menu I could look at?"

Bane-san snorted. "We don't usually get people in here who need 'em."

This was shaping up to be the weirdest meal he'd ever had, and they hadn't even gotten to the food yet. "I--um. I don't know. Surprise me, I'm not picky."

Sae-san positively beamed at that. "My favorite kind of guest. All right, let's see what I can do." His hands were already moving, collecting ingredients (working independently of each other, Yuuta noted, and was duly impressed). "So what had Akaya-kun in such a hurry?"

"You think he told me?" Bane settled back on his stool. "He got a phone call and took off. Figured it must have been from him."

"I could have told you that," Saeki said. "He only hops to it like that when Yukimura's involved."

Bane cleared his throat; Yuuta didn't miss the significant look tossed in his direction, even as he watched Sae-san working. Yuuta sighed. "Look, I'm just a student, I don't have any idea who you're talking about, and even if I did, it's not any of my business and I'd keep my mouth shut about it."

Sae-san stopped in the middle of what he was doing to laugh, while Bane-san just glowered. When Sae-san's chuckles finally stopped, he grinned. "That's right, kid. You tell him."

"My name's Yuuta. Fuji Yuuta," he said absently, watching as Sae-san patted rice into balls.

"Pleased to meet you. I'm Saeki, and that ogre over there is Kurobane." Sae-san--no, Saeki-san--grinned at him. "Don't worry, he barks a lot louder than he bites, I promise."

"Fuck you," Kurobane-san retorted. "You might wanna stop talking so much and work faster. I think the kid's going to jump over the counter if you don't feed him soon."

Yuuta felt his face turn warm. "Sorry," he said, and busied himself with his tea. "Just a little hungry. It's been a while since breakfast."

"Breakfast?" Saeki-san repeated, sounding amused. "You one of those people who doesn't do morning classes?"

Yuuta could feel his ears turning warm. "No, I just didn't manage to get a lunch today." Stupid alarm. Stupid him for forgetting his wallet.

Saeki-san whistled. "You should have said." And just as quickly as that, he was turning and ducking through a curtained door and calling to someone in the kitchen beyond.

"You've done it now," Kurobane-san sighed. When Yuuta looked at him, he elaborated. "He's an idiot about feeding strays. You're going to have to roll yourself home."

"Huh." Except for the part about strays, Yuuta liked the sound of that. "Cool." He sipped his tea, ignored the way Kurobane-san shook his head, and pretended not to hear what he grumbled under his breath, because a free meal was a free meal, and if taking advantage of that meant he was an opportunist, so be it.

Saeki-san came back soon, carrying a plate of dumplings that he put down in front of Yuuta with a little flourish. "Those should tide you over," he said, grinning, and ducked back behind the counter.

"Hey, those are my--" Kurobane-san protested.

"Itsuki's starting another batch just for you," Saeki-san interrupted him. "You can wait a few more minutes, can't you?"

Yuuta stopped with the first dumpling halfway to his mouth, sighed, and pushed the plate down the counter to Kurobane-san. "I'm not that hungry," he said, even though his stomach was growling just at the smell of the dumplings.

"Oh no you don't," Kurobane-san said, and pushed the plate right back. "You are not getting me in trouble with Sae. Eat up, kid."

"Told you his bark was worse than his bite," Saeki-san said, cheerful, and ignored the nasty look that Kurobane-san gave him.

Yuuta hesitated just long enough to check his conscience--he'd offered, Kurobane-san had declined, that had to be enough for the dictates of manners, right?--and tore into the dumplings, which were possibly the best things he had ever tasted (and he was sure that wasn't just his empty stomach talking). "Oh wow," he managed between bites. "Wow, that's good."

"Eh, it's not much, but they'll do, I guess." It sounded like Saeki-san was trying for modest, but he looked pleased.

"At least my snack is going to a good home," Kurobane-san said, watching the dumplings disappear with a mournful expression.

"Bane, have I ever told you that you whine too much?" Saeki-san said, not even looking at the fish he was slicing (which Yuuta was sure was going to end in at least a couple of severed fingers and a lot of blood and screaming but somehow didn't). He didn't wait for Kurobane-san to answer. "So we're doing takeout for them tonight after all?"

"Yep," Kurobane-san said. "The kid said he's going to some kind of social thing tonight. Fundraiser, I think, and he's got the havoc twins with him."

Saeki-san raised an eyebrow. "He's still keeping them on a short leash, huh?" He whisked Yuuta's empty plate away as someone new emerged from the back with a bowl of soup. "Hey, perfect timing, Itsuki." He put the soup down in front of Yuuta. "How much longer on Bane's snack?"

"Just a couple of minutes," Itsuki-san said, eyeing Yuuta with frank curiosity.

"Good--hey, prep some beef for me, will you? We're going to grill later on," Saeki-san told him.

"Sure thing." Itsuki-san disappeared into the kitchen again.

"Trying to make it up to Niou that he's being punished or something?" Kurobane-san asked.

Saeki-san shrugged. "Having Yukimura cranky at you is enough punishment for anyone, don't you think? He and Yagyuu could probably use a little extra joy in their lives right now."

"What'd they do?" Yuuta asked, curious in spite of not knowing who they were talking about.

Saeki-san and Kurobane-san exchanged looks. "They got a little carried away doing their jobs," Saeki-san said, after a measured moment. "It kind of embarrassed their boss, and he doesn't like being embarrassed."

"They're just damn lucky they're so good at what they do," Kurobane-san muttered.

"Why? Would he have fired them?" Yuuta asked.

Saeki-san's mouth twitched. "He'd have done something permanent, yeah."

"Tough guy to work for," Yuuta said, and was promptly distracted by the plate of sushi and the bowls of rice and pickles Saeki-san plunked down in front of him--enough so that he didn't pay any attention to the long pause before Saeki-san replied.

"There are much worse people to work for," he said, tidying his counter, and then looked up with a grin. "So what are you going to school for?"

The sushi was, if possible, even better than the dumplings, and it was a shame to have to stop eating long enough to say, "Eh, business stuff."

"'Eh, business stuff'?" Saeki-san echoed, wiping down his counter. "Don't think I'm familiar with that one."

"Just, you know. Business courses." Yuuta waved his chopsticks. "So I can go into Tousan's company when I graduate."

"You don't sound very excited about it," Saeki-san said. He took a long look at the way the food was flying off Yuuta's plate, and started reaching for more ingredients.

"Eh." Yuuta shrugged. "It wasn't my idea."

"What, are you the oldest kid?" Kurobane-san asked, and then sighed as Itsuki-san emerged from the back with another plate of dumplings. "Finally."

Yuuta tried not to make a face at the question. "No, I'm the youngest. Just... turns out there's no one else but me to do it." Not with Neesan's musician husband having his head in the clouds all the time, and Aniki off doing heaven-only-knew-what, trying to become a writer. "It's not so bad, really. The money'll be good, and there'll be some traveling to keep it from getting too boring." At least he hoped that getting to travel out of the country two or three times a year would be enough to keep him from dying of boredom during the day-to-day crap of managing the company. Maybe he'd even get around to forgiving Aniki for saddling him with the whole mess. Eventually. He looked up and smiled, although the expression felt brittle. "It's just one of those things, you know?"

"Family obligations are like that sometimes," Saeki-san agreed, a little too knowingly, and handed him another plate of sushi. "How much longer before you graduate?"

"Little over a year," Yuuta said, and until then he was going to enjoy himself as much as he could, and what Tousan didn't know wouldn't give him apoplexy. He watched Saeki-san reaching for still more food, and bit his lip. "This'll be enough. I don't need thirds."

"You sure?" Saeki-san asked, hands hovering over the tuna.

Yuuta nodded. "Oh yeah, definitely." Just because he probably could eat more didn't mean he had to, especially on someone else's ticket. That just wasn't manners.

"All right." Saeki-san straightened up and rubbed his hands together. "So what do you want for dessert?"

"I don't need dessert," Yuuta protested.

"Oh, please." Saeki-san almost looked offended. "A meal without dessert isn't a meal at all."

"I'm not really a dessert person," Yuuta lied, "so I'm kind of picky--"

Weirdly enough, that just made Saeki-san grin. "So I like a challenge. Go ahead, try me. What's your favorite dessert?"

Yuuta looked to Kurobane-san for help, but he didn't seem inclined to call Saeki-san off. "I like crepes," Yuuta said, after a moment, because old-fashioned places like this probably wouldn't serve those. "Strawberry ones." There, that ought to do it--there was no way Saeki-san would have strawberries in October. "So really, it's--"

Saeki-san looked a little disappointed. "I thought you said you were picky," he said, and vanished into the kitchen again.

Yuuta looked at Kurobane-san again. "Is he always like that?"

"It's a slow night," Kurobane-san said, a lot more cheerful now that he had food. "He likes showing off, and he doesn't have anything better to do. You lucked out, kid."

Considering how his day had gone, it was about time he'd had some luck go his way. "So this place isn't normally this, um--" Yuuta cast around for a diplomatic way to put it.

"Dead? Naw." Kurobane-san swallowed the last of his dumplings and pushed the plate aside. "It's just that most of our regulars are busy tonight." He reached into a pocket for a pack of cigarettes and shook one out. "The delivery orders'll start coming in, here in a little while."

"Huh. Good to know." At least that explained how the place managed to stay in business.

Kurobane-san must have guessed what he was thinking, because he snorted and blew out a stream of smoke. "Yeah, we get by." He gestured at Yuuta's plate. "You'd better get cracking on that, or his feelings'll be hurt."

Yuuta obeyed the prompting and concentrated on his food instead of Kurobane-san (so, not the boss--maybe a waiter? although he wasn't dressed for it) and questions of how the empty restaurant stayed in business (that had to be a hell of a lot of takeout and delivery). When he'd cleaned his plate and Saeki-san still hadn't come back from the kitchen, he glanced sidelong at Kurobane-san, who'd picked up a newspaper and was studying the sports section with a frown, and sighed. Since further conversation didn't seem likely, he pushed his dishes out of his way and dug the chemistry homework out of his bag.

He was in the middle of balancing a tricky reaction when a plate appeared at his elbow. "Here's your--"

"Just a second," Yuuta said, holding up a finger and squinting at the two sides of his equation--okay, there was his problem, right there. He fussed with it for a couple of minutes, erasing and rewriting the damn thing, and this time the numbers came out right. "Hah. There."

"That doesn't look like business stuff to me," Saeki-san said, right in his ear, making Yuuta jump--good grief, what was the guy doing, leaning over his shoulder like that?

"It's not," Yuuta said, slapping his notebook shut. "Gotta take science courses to round out the degree." It was then that he saw what was on the plate sitting at his elbow, well away from where his homework had been. "Holy shit, where did you find strawberries in October?"

"The freezer." Saeki-san was busy stacking up dirty dishes, but his bland tone didn't fool Yuuta for one second. "They'd be better fresh, but--"

"Any strawberry is a good strawberry," Yuuta told him, shoving his textbooks back in his back, and attacked his dessert the second they were out of harm's way--oh. Oh, wow.

He didn't know what his face looked like, but it made Saeki-san laugh. "Any good?"

"Better than sex," Yuuta managed, between bites that practically melted in his mouth.

That got Kurobane-san to look up from his newspaper. "Sounds like your girlfriend's doing it all wrong," he said, over Saeki-san's laughter.

"Sure sounds like it," Saeki-san agreed. "Even I'm not that good." But he looked gratified, nonetheless.

That just showed what they knew, but it wasn't really worth arguing the point, not with a plate full of heaven needing his attention. He tried to make himself eat slowly, to savor every bite, but the plate was empty all too soon, leaving him wondering whether he could get away with licking up the last drops of strawberry sauce. Probably not, he decided, with a pang of regret. "...damn, that was good."

Kurobane-san snorted. "Need a cigarette?"

"Just about." Yuuta took a deep breath. "Look, this was way more than I was expecting. I don't have my wallet on me, but I can stop by tom--"

"Oh, shut up," Saeki-san said. "It's on me."

"That was way more food than just getting knocked over deserved," Yuuta protested.

"So what's your point?" Saeki-san added the crepe plate to his stack of dirty dishes.

"It's really not fair--"

"Oh, just shut up and live with it," Kurobane-san told him. "Sae's made up his mind."

Yuuta frowned. "But--"

"Hey, it's been a while since anyone's enjoyed my cooking that much. Trust me, you've paid." Saeki-san made a shooing motion at him. "Now get out of here before I decide to make you wash your own dishes."

That would be fair, at least. "I can--"

"Kid, you got a free meal," Kurobane-san grunted. "Now scram."

Yuuta gave in. "Fine, fine. Don't think I'm going to forget about this," he grumbled, gathering up his belongings.

Saeki-san laughed. "Promises, promises. Have a good night, Fuji-kun." And with that, he disappeared back into the kitchen again, and there was nothing else Yuuta could do but head home.

It could have ended there, and probably would have, if not for the fact that Yuuta was a student and not particularly gifted in the kitchen, and the fact that Saeki-san's dinky little restaurant was much better than any of the other places on Yuuta's route home in the evening. So, after a week of mediocre takeout and conbini meals, unable to face another night of the same after a particularly grueling tutoring session, Yuuta veered into Saeki-san's doorway again.

Kurobane-san might not have even moved since the last time Yuuta had been in the restaurant, but he had company this evening: he was chatting with another guy who hulked just as much as Kurobane-san did, although his red hair said that he, at least, had the gaijin blood to excuse the hulking. There was another conversation going on, too, between a gangly kid who was all elbows and knees and was talking rapidly to another guy (hey, Yuuta's brain said, do we know him from somewhere?) who listened intently, eyes bright, as the gawky one described--well, it sounded like a hot chick, a top-heavy one at that, going off the curves that his hands were sketching.

All the chatter stopped when the four of them caught sight of Yuuta. "Oh for--" Kurobane-san said, after a moment, and raked a hand through his hair. "What in the hell are you doing here?"

"Getting dinner, what does it look like?" Yuuta asked, sliding past him and claiming the stool at the end of the counter while the two younger guys (they looked like his age, give or take a bit, so maybe that's why the one guy looked familiar--maybe he'd seen him around campus, or something) stared at him.

"So go find a restaurant," Kurobane-san told him as he shrugged out of his jacket.

"I think he already did," Saeki-san said as he breezed out of the kitchen, hands full of containers. "Evening, Fuji-kun." He set the containers down and began packing them into a bag.

"Another restaurant," Kurobane-san growled.

"I like this one," Yuuta told him, serenely settling in and tucking his feet up on the rungs of the stool. "Hi, Saeki-san."

"I don't care if you like this one," Kurobane-san said, while the two younger guys looked on curiously, and the redhead rolled his eyes. "You should--"

"Oh, leave him alone, Bane," Saeki-san said. "He's not hurting anything." He placed the last container in the bags. "Order's ready, Ken-ken. Goes downtown."

"Ken-ken" turned out to be the gangly one, and he hopped to his feet, looking disappointed to be leaving before Yuuta got thrown out. "Back in a while," he announced, and took off with the delivery.

Maybe it was a house rule that a person couldn't leave the place unless it was at a dead run, Yuuta decided, watching him go. Or maybe Ken-ken was just really conscientious about making his deliveries on time.

"Oh, you are not--damn it, Sae, you shouldn't be encouraging him!" Kurobane-san said, as Saeki-san handed Yuuta a hot towel and poured him a cup of tea.

Saeki-san ignored him. "So what'll it be tonight?" he asked, over Kurobane-san's protests.

"I don't know, something good," Yuuta told him. "Surprise me."

"I can do that," Saeki-san agreed, and surveyed his ingredients for a moment, lips pursed. When he reached a decision, he asked, "So has Bane been gracious and introduced you yet?" He looked up and grinned. "Formally, anyway?"

The redhead snorted. "He's been too busy trying to get the kid to leave to bother." He tipped his head at Yuuta. "Name's Amane. You can call me Davide if you want." He jerked a thumb at the other guy. "And this is Kirihara."

"Fuji Yuuta," he said. "Pleased to meet you." He squinted at Kirihara-kun. "Do I know you from somewhere?" he asked, giving up on placing the guy's face.

Saeki-san laughed. "You ought to," he said, between chuckles. "He's the guy who ran you down last week."

"No shit?" Yuuta said--no wonder the guy looked familiar. "I'll be damned."

Before he could make up his mind whether he wanted to be irritated or not, the guy--Kirihara-kun, rather--had gone red, and had stood up in a hurry. "I'm so sorry!" he exclaimed, bowing. "I didn't mean to run into, I just--there was something I had to--I'm sorry!"

And that put paid to being irritated. "Forget about it," Yuuta told him. "It wasn't that big a deal."

"Not that you would have known by the way he yelled," Saeki-san added, grinning, as Kirihara-kun straightened up, still looking a little embarrassed.

"You'd have yelled too, if your day'd been as crappy as mine'd been," Yuuta said, eyeing what was going on behind the counter with a fair amount of interest.

"Sae-san doesn't yell. He just gets even," Kirihara-kun said. Yuuta had a hard time imagining that, when Saeki-san seemed so relaxed, but maybe Kirihara-kun knew better.

"Takes all kinds," Saeki-san's teeth flashed.

Kurobane-san chose that moment to intervene. "Yeah, yeah, we're just a whole rainbow of diversity here. Seriously, Fuji, what the hell are you doing here?"

"I thought we'd already gone through this. I'm hungry. This is a restaurant," Yuuta said, as patiently as he could manage. "I'm getting dinner. Make sense?"

"But why are you getting it here?" Kurobane-san asked, clearly not impressed by basic logic.

Yuuta shrugged. "The food's really good." That didn't seem to be impressing Kurobane-san, either, so he added on a pitiful look. "There aren't any other decent places to eat around here, and I can't cook, and--"

"So get your girlfriend to cook for you," Davide-san suggested, grinning.

"Don't have one," Yuuta said. "And it's way too far for me to go home and let Kaasan cook for me, so if I don't eat here, I'm doomed to convenience store food and shitty takeout." That wasn't strictly true, but his strained relationship with his family wasn't anyone's business but his own.

"And that's a fate worse than death," Saeki-san pronounced, solemnly enough, although his eyes were dancing.

Kurobane-san just groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose, like he was getting a headache. "At least it's a slow night," he muttered, and retreated into his newspaper to sulk. Yuuta ignored him, because Saeki-san was coming around the counter with a plate, and there were better things to think about than cranky waiters, like really good sushi.

Davide-san watched him pounce on the food. After a few moments, when Yuuta had made half a roll disappear, he whistled. "Damn, Sae, no wonder you like the kid. He's as bad as Marui."

Saeki-san snorted, and put down a bowl of soup and another of rice. "Marui would eat week-old takeout if he was hungry," he said. Yuuta paused between bites to grimace at the thought; wasn't that about the point when takeout started developing sentience? It was if his refrigerator was anything to go by. Saeki-san saw him, and laughed. "I think Fuji-kun is a little more discriminating."

"Damn straight I am," he nodded, and then paused to reflect. "...except during finals. Then it's whatever I can find." And that was the whole problem with his business classes: they were too boring to pay attention to during classes, so cramming for tests really sucked.

"So you're a student, huh?" Kirihara-kun looked at him, mouth crooked in a weird little smile. "Guess it does take all kinds."

Yuuta wondered what the hell that was supposed to mean, and then decided it probably wasn't worth figuring out. The whole restaurant was weird, and had weird regulars, but as long as the food was this good, all the weirdness in the world didn't really matter. And speaking of the food... He gave Saeki-san his most charming smile. "Seconds?"

"Sure thing," Saeki-san said. "Just save some room for--oh, hell. Davide, call Ryou and tell him to get his ass over here right the fuck now."

Davide-san sat straight up when Saeki-san's voice went quiet and urgent. "What? It's his night off--" Before he could finish what he was saying, the bell over the door jingled.

Yuuta blinked as all four of them snapped to attention, so fast that it might have been the emperor himself who'd just come in, instead of two mostly-ordinary-looking salarymen and one--Yuuta's mind immediately supplied the word 'thug' to describe him, but that was kind of weird. What would a thug be doing with two businessmen?

"Oh, don't get up," the one in the middle said, light and pleasant. "We were just in the neighborhood and thought we'd stop in for a quick bite."

The--no, not 'thug,' that was hardly polite--the one with the bleached hair grinned. It wasn't a very pleasant grin, especially compared to the way Saeki-san grinned. "Hope we're not interrupting anything."

"Of course you're not," Saeki-san said, and bowed. "If you'll give us just a moment, we'll prepare the back room for you."

Yuuta blinked at the sudden formality from him, which was completely at odds with the picture of Saeki-san he'd been building up in his head.

"There's no need for that," the guy in the middle said, still smiling that alarmingly amiable smile. "We'll just sit out here with the rest of you, since you weren't expecting us." He slid into the empty seat between Yuuta and Kirihara-kun, whose eyes were so wide that Yuuta wondered whether the guy wasn't about to piss himself then and there.

"It's no bother at all," Saeki-san said, which was a lie if ever Yuuta had heard one. He jerked his head at Davide-san, who leapt into action, finding a hot towel for the guy next to him (but not the other two; curiouser and curiouser) while Saeki-san bustled around, starting a fresh pot of tea.

If the sudden silence when he'd come in had been tense, this one was ten times worse. It looked like Kirihara-kun was barely breathing, and Kurobane-san was so tense it looked like he was practically vibrating. The two other guys just hovered in the background, the salaryman just standing there quietly while the--other one--prowled around like a hunting cat. The guy next to him was oblivious to it all as he wiped his hands fastidiously and then accepted his cup of tea with a smile and a murmured thanks.

Up close like this, he could see that the guy was young--maybe only a few years older than Yuuta was himself. That, and the way everyone was acting, clinched it for Yuuta. This was the boss's kid, throwing his weight around with the guys who depended on his dad's good will to keep working. He'd seen that trick before, had pulled it a few times himself before he'd figured out that it was a cheap thing to do. It still didn't explain the other two, who were standing back and just watching the action in a way that made Yuuta uneasy, but hey, it was a working hypothesis. He could refine it once he got some new facts.

"And what can I do for you this evening?" Saeki-san asked, once the boss's kid was well and truly settled in.

"Just the usual is fine."

Saeki-san's smile looked tight at the corners. "Of course." He turned and vanished into the kitchen.

Well, it looked like his seconds wouldn't be coming out any time soon. Yuuta sighed--it wasn't like he could blame anyone for needing to keep the boss's kid happy--and leaned over to fish his chemistry homework out of his bag to work on while he waited. When he came back up, both the thug and the salaryman were glaring at him--and the latter had his hand tucked into his jacket, weird--and the boss's kid was looking at him, eyes narrow over a bland smile. "And just who," he murmured in tones that were probably supposed to sound friendly, "might you be?"

"Fuji Yuuta," he said, as he spread out his books and flipped through his notes, looking for his assignment. "Paying customer," he added, just to make sure the guy got the point. As he found the problem sets due for the next class, he wondered whether he'd really just heard Kurobane-san stifle a groan.

"A pleasure to meet you, Fuji-kun," the boss's kid said. "I'm Yukimura Seiichi."

The way he said it was expectant, like he thought Yuuta ought to recognize the name or something. "Nice to meet you," he said, politely, and turned his attention back to his homework. To hell with this, Yuuta thought. Damned if he was going to act like he was impressed by some jerk whose dad owned the restaurant they were sitting in.

Kurobane-san made a choked sort of sound that made him look up again. Yukimura-san was eyeing him like he didn't know what to think, while Davide-san, Kurobane-san, and Kirihara-kun all looked horrified. All the staring creeped him out just a bit. "What? Haven't you ever seen a guy do his homework before?" he asked.

"Not in this particular restaurant, no," Yukimura-san said, mouth twitching just a bit. "If I may be so bold, Fuji-kun... just how did you find this restaurant?"

Yuuta saw Kirihara-kun gulp before he said, quietly, "That's sort of my fault. I knocked him down last week when I was on my way to, uh, do that thing you asked for. I, um, didn't have time to stop and apologize, so Sae-san did it for me."

The thing that Yukimura-san had asked for...? Wait, did that mean that this was that Yukimura-san himself, and not the boss's kid? Yuuta stared at him, baffled. How on earth did someone that young--he couldn't be more than twenty-five, if that--manage to get that kind of respect?

"How very gracious of Saeki," Yukimura-san said.

"I thought it was pretty awesome of him," Yuuta said, thinking fast, trying to figure out what the hell was actually going on here, and not coming up with much. "He didn't have to buy me dinner just because I got knocked down."

"Of course not." Yukimura-san had a faint smile on his face--he couldn't possibly know what was going through Yuuta's head, could he? Of course not, that would be ridiculous--that he turned on Saeki-san as he came back from the kitchen. "I hear that you've been preserving our honor for us, Saeki. Thank you for that."

Saeki-san froze when Yukimura-san addressed him, hands hovering over his counter. "It was nothing, Yukimura-sama," he said.

"Still, it was a favor. I'll remember it." Yukimura-san emptied his cup of tea and smiled. "And it's always nice to see a new customer, isn't it?"

The whole room seemed to exhale at that, and Yuuta got the feeling that he'd passed some sort of test, somehow. He shook his head as Saeki-san began moving again, and Davide-san refilled Yukimura-san's tea. This was a seriously peculiar place, and if the food weren't so damn good...

Yuuta worked steadily while Yukimura-san asked after a few business-sounding things, and Saeki-san made short answers to them--talking about numbers, from the sound of it, and they were higher than Yuuta would have expected. Maybe Kurobane-san had been right about them doing most of their business in delivery and takeout. After Yukimura-san had satisfied his curiosity, the room lapsed into a stiff sort of silence until Ken-ken came breezing back in. "So what'd I miss--oh!"

"Good evening, Kentarou," Yukimura murmured, and Yuuta was really sort of proud of himself for not laughing at the way Kentarou-kun's eyes went wide as he mumbled a reply and shuffled behind Davide-san--not that it was really all that funny, considering how awed Kentarou-kun looked. Awed, or terrified, anyway.

"Hey, Ken-ken, do me a favor?" Saeki-san asked, after a moment. "I'm out of smokes. Run down and get me a new pack, will you? Wallet's in my jacket."

"Sure thing, Sae-san," Kentarou-kun said, obviously relieved, and beat a hasty retreat after rummaging through one of the jackets hanging up behind the counter.

"They say smoking will kill you," Yukimura-san murmured, as the door closed behind Kentarou-kun.

"We all have to die sometime," Saeki said, not even looking up from his knife-work.

"I suppose every man should have a vice," Yukimura-san agreed.

From where he was sprawled over his notebook, Yuuta had a good angle to watch Saeki-san work, and thus he saw the way Saeki-san's knuckles went white. But Saeki-san didn't say anything else, and after a moment, he ducked back into the kitchen, and was gone for a few minutes. He came back with Yukimura-san's meal--some kind of fish baked in a paper packet that actually looked pretty good.

Yuuta was about to ask him about his seconds when the phone rang. Saeki-san answered it, and took down an order, and Yuuta gave up for the time being. He could be patient, surely.

At least all the quiet was good for concentrating on his homework.

He worked through a couple of problems, and then Saeki-san set another plate of sushi down for him. "Thanks," he said, and got a quick, tight smile in answer.

Four more problems, and Yukimura-san put his chopsticks down with a satisfied sigh. "Really, Jiisan is very lucky to have you around, Saeki. I don't know what we'd all do without you."

Saeki-san's smile looked forced. "I'm sure you won't have to find out," he said. "What else can I do for you this evening?"

"Nothing, really." Yukimura-san pushed away from the counter and stood. "Thank you for the delicious meal."

Saeki-san bowed. "It was my pleasure."

Yukimura-san smiled. "I'm sure it was." He tipped his head. "Good night, all. Fuji-kun."

"Er, night," Yuuta said, and watched him sweep out, preceded by the salaryman and followed by the thug--who, come to think of it, hadn't eaten at all. Weird.

The room was silent for several beats after the bell above the door had stopped jingling. Then Kurobane-san dropped his head onto the counter and groaned. "Oh, fuck me."

"You're not my type," Saeki-san told him, slicing a roll with quick, vicious knife-strokes.

"What the hell was he even doing here tonight?" Kurobane-san groaned, still facedown. "I thought you said he had plans tonight, kid."

"He did!" Kirihara-kun protested. "At least, I thought he did!"

"Well, you obviously thought wrong."

"Lay off him, Bane. He's new. It's not like Yukimura-san tells him all his secrets," Davide-san said, running a hand through his hair. "Fuck, I hate it when he's in the mood to rattle cages."

Kentarou-kun peeked out of the kitchen. "Is it safe?" he asked.

"Yeah, he's gone. You can come out now." Saeki-san arranged the last few pieces of maki in a box, and closed it as Kentarou-kun dropped a pack of cigarettes and Saeki-san's wallet on the counter. "Don't get too comfortable. This order's ready to go." He placed it in the bag with the rest of the order, and added the tag to the top.

"Right, right." Kentarou-kun scooped the bag up, looked at the tag, and took off again.

Saeki-san undid his apron and tossed it over a peg.

"What are you doing?" Kurobane-san asked, as Saeki-san took a jacket off its hook, and slid the wallet and cigarettes into the pocket. "Hey, you already had your break--"

Saeki-san ignored him, shrugging the jacket on, and came around the counter. "Fuji-kun and I are going on a little walk," he said, hand coming down on the back of Yuuta's neck, heavy. "Not one word, Davide."

Davide-san raised his hands, smirking. "Did I say anything?"

"You were thinking it. Come on, Fuji-kun." Saeki-san waited for him to stand up. "Bring your stuff."

Yuuta paused, hands on his jacket. "What about dessert?"

"See if you still want it after your walk," Kurobane-san suggested. He looked at Saeki-san. "Don't take too long, huh?"

"Slave driver," Saeki-san told him, as Yuuta shuffled his books into his bag, and put his jacket on. "Later." He steered Yuuta out into the crisp evening air.

"So what's this all about?" Yuuta demanded.

Saeki-san didn't answer him. Instead, he struck off down the street, hands busy unwrapping his pack of cigarettes, shaking one out and lighting it up, and taking a long drag on it.

"Well?" Yuuta prompted him, when he'd exhaled a stream of smoke on a sigh.

"Not here." Saeki-san steered them onto a side street, and then through an alley, lighting another cigarette off the butt-end of the first, when he'd finished it. Watching him smoke, fast, fingers jerky on the lighter and the cigarette, Yuuta wondered why he was so agitated. Yukimura-san hadn't seemed that bad.

They ended up in a residential area, one with a tiny park with a little playground. This late in the evening, it was abandoned--all of the kids were probably inside, eating their dinners. Saeki-san stopped there, and turned so that he could look at Yuuta directly for the first time since he'd dragged him out of the restaurant. "Look," he said, shaking a third cigarette out of the pack, "you seem like a nice kid, and I really don't want to end up reading your obituary. So do me a favor and don't come back to the restaurant again. Okay?"

That didn't make any sense whatsoever, especially given the way Saeki-san had greeted him earlier. Yuuta snorted. "Yeah, you know, I'm pretty sure that your cooking isn't going to poison me."

Saeki-san should have smiled at that, but he didn't. "I'm serious, Fuji-kun. Listen. Do you have any idea who Yukimura-san is?"

"Your boss?" Yuuta hazarded.

Saeki-san looked away. "He's yakuza. Heads up Rikkai." He looked back, eyes hooded. "And yeah. He's my boss."

Yuuta couldn't help his disbelieving laugh. "Yeah, sure. If you don't want me as a customer, you've got to come up with a better story than that."

"It's not a story." Saeki-san tapped the ash off the end of his cigarette and took another drag off it. "I'm serious, Fuji-kun. You got lucky tonight, because he was in a good mood. And you are what you are, so that's probably enough to keep you safe, as long as you steer clear of us."

"This is a pretty elaborate joke, Saeki-san." Yuuta said it lightly enough, but there was a frisson of uncertainty working down his spine--Kurobane-san had also been pretty insistent that he didn't belong at the restaurant, hadn't he? And there was the guy who'd been with Yukimura-san, the one he'd wanted to label a thug--or maybe yakuza? his mind whispered, treacherous.

"Do I look like I'm laughing?" Saeki-san flicked his cigarette away, and tugged at the top buttons of his shirt. As Yuuta stared, he shoved the shirt and his jacket off one shoulder, baring the skin. "This look like a joke to you?"

Saeki-san had a tattoo on his shoulder, dark against pale skin--an angular design that resolved itself into a stylized 'R' under Yuuta's scrutiny.

"...fuck," Yuuta breathed. "Holy fuck." He dropped his book bag and stumbled back a few steps, and sat down hard on one of the kiddy swings. "You really are--" He couldn't quite finish the sentence.

The anger drained out of Saeki-san at that. "Yeah," he said, and buttoned his shirt back up.

"And... you said... Yukimura-san is..." Oh, holy fuck. He'd mouthed off to a yakuza boss. Yuuta's breath caught in his throat at the magnitude of that transgression. Oh fuck.

"Hey. Hey, breathe." Saeki-san crouched next to him, setting a hand on his back to steady himself. "Don't go hyperventilating on me, geez."

"I was a rude asshole to a yakuza boss," Yuuta managed to choke out. If that didn't entitle him to hyperventilate, what would?

"Easy, easy," Saeki-san murmured, "don't freak out too much, I think he thought you were funny. And you're just a student, he's not going to worry about you, he leaves civilians alone. He's not real big on random violence, you know? You'll be fine."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Yuuta demanded, but Saeki-san's patter was soothing, in a way, enough so that he managed to make himself take a slow breath, and then another. "Holy fuck."

Saeki-san looked rueful. "Yeah, it was. Sorry, I suck at this." He ran a hand through his hair, rumpling it, and looked up at Yuuta. "You going to make it?"

"That depends on your boss, doesn't it?" Yuuta retorted, and immediately regretted it as Saeki-san rocked back on his heels. "I'll be fine." Probably, anyway. Except for the part where he'd sassed a yakuza boss, holy shit, Aniki had been right when he'd said that his mouth would get him into trouble one of these days.

Saeki-san looked at him for a moment and then nodded. "Yeah, you're the tough kind. You'll be fine." He stood again, and turned as if to walk away, just like that.

"If you're yakuza and all, how come you didn't tell me to leave when I came in tonight?"

Saeki-san paused, and then shrugged. "Vanity," he said. "It's been a while since anyone went into raptures for my cooking. And there didn't seem to be any harm in feeding you again."

"Oh." That didn't make sense. Surely yakuza had taste buds, too.

"It was a bad idea," Saeki-san said. "I shouldn't--well, I shouldn't have. Sorry." He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Take care of yourself, Fuji-kun." He turned away again.

"Yeah, you too--hey, wait!" Yuuta protested, and stood up, fumbling for his wallet. "I didn't pay for my dinner."

Saeki-san tossed a wan smile over his shoulder. "Forget about it. I owe you for the whole endangering your life thing."

"But--" Yuuta started.

"No, really, I do." And then Saeki-san grinned. "Besides, I would have paid to see someone treat Yukimura like an ordinary mortal. Probably the first time anyone's ever done that to him." He chuckled. "So there's that, too. We're more than even." He waved. "See you around." And he walked off before Yuuta could continue protesting, or even say goodbye, hands stuffed in his pockets and shoulders hunched.

Yuuta watched him go, wondering what a guy like Saeki-san was even doing in the yakuza.

A few days went past, and no one pulled him into an alley to tell him, "Yukimura-san is angry, Fuji-kun." Yuuta relaxed as the days slipped by without any dire consequences and his life returned to normal. The whole idea that he'd been eating at a yakuza-owned restaurant took a surreal aspect to it--surely people like him didn't really stumble into these kinds of adventures, did they? Of course they didn't. Only the memory of how serious Saeki-san had been, and how dark the ink had been on Saeki-san's shoulder, kept him from convincing himself that the whole thing had been an elaborate joke.

Whatever it had been (a joke, an adventure, a damn fool thing to do), it was over with, or so Yuuta told himself. That's what he believed, too, right up until the evening he was walking home and saw Saeki-san leaning against the wall outside his restaurant, smoking.

Saeki-san caught him looking, and saluted him with his cigarette as Yuuta went past. Yuuta returned the gesture with a nod, and kept going, until a whim made him look back.

Saeki-san was still looking after him, expression one part wry, one part wistful, and one part something that Yuuta couldn't quite put a name to--not that he had a chance, because Saeki-san looked away hurriedly, stubbing his cigarette out and ducking inside as the crowd swept Yuuta along.

That look stuck with Yuuta, all the way to the convenience store on the corner near his apartment. His mind worried at it as he studied the prepackaged foods (onigiri? heat-and-serve ramen? something else?) until the last bit clicked into place: Saeki-san had looked jealous.

Of him, though? Yuuta stared at the package of onigiri in his hands, puzzled. Why should Saeki-san be jealous of him?

The onigiri didn't offer any answers, and weren't likely to. Yuuta stared at them for a little longer, and then tossed the package down. "Fuck this," he announced, to no one in particular (although the guy next to him did give him a startled look), and turned and marched out of the store, retracing the route he'd just walked.

The worst they could do was throw him out, right? Right, of course. At least, as long as he remembered to be polite, he told himself, staring at the door. He could be polite and respectful, at least for the length of a meal.

Yuuta squared his shoulders and went in.

The place was empty except for Davide-san and Saeki-san, and they were both sitting at the counter, silently; Davide-san was browsing through a newspaper, and Saeki-san was studying the cup of tea in his hands.

"Back so soon, Akaya?" Davide-san asked, not looking up.

Yuuta took a deep breath. "Um. Okay. So the way I figure it, you guys can just not say stuff that I'll have to pretend I didn't hear, and I'll be really polite to your boss, and if anyone asks, I'm just a dumb college kid who doesn't know any better. And that way we can all be happy. Sound good?"

Both of them looked up as he started talking, clearly startled, and after a moment, Davide-san looked at Saeki-san, faintly accusing. "I'd swear you told us that you'd set him straight."

Saeki-san looked exasperated, and not the least bit amused. "I was pretty sure I had, actually. Fuji-kun, what in the hell are you doing here?"

Since a straightforward bit of logic hadn't worked, Yuuta switched to his backup plan. "Okay, so have you seen what passes for food in the conbini these days? I wouldn't feed that stuff to a dog I hated, and I haven't been in a kitchen since the time I exploded a pot of rice, and I really miss good food," he said, all in a rush, wearing his most pathetic expression. "And the food here is really good, and--"

"Contrary to popular belief," Saeki-san said, cutting him off, "flattery won't actually get you everywhere. Go home, Fuji-kun."

"...how on earth did you explode a pot of rice?" Davide-san asked.

"It's kind of a long story," Yuuta said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I can tell it to you while I eat."

"No," Saeki-san said, firmly. "And don't encourage him, Davide."

"I wasn't--" Davide-san stopped short when Saeki-san raised an eyebrow. "Exploding rice, Sae."

Saeki-san lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and then pointed at Yuuta. "Civilian." He gestured at himself and Davide-san. "Yakuza, remember?"

"Oh, please," Yuuta scoffed. "Chef. Slacker who hangs out at the restaurant. Hungry student." He pointed at Saeki-san, Davide-san, and himself, rattling off the descriptions in rapid succession. "And you're really not busy tonight."

"It's going to pick up," Saeki-san said.

"Probably," Davide-san corrected him. "Around ten, if Yukimura-san's... thing... goes well, and if he feels like being sociable. Which, given that the thing is with Hyoutei, isn't very likely on either count, is it? Go ahead and make the kid dinner. It'll give you something to do." Davide-san grinned. "Besides, you know you want to hear the exploding rice story. It's written all over your face."

Yuuta didn't really think it was, but an ally was an ally. "I'll be out of here and gone way before ten," he promised. "I can't possibly step on any toes that way, right?"

"I wonder," Saeki-san said, but he was shaking his head and standing up anyway. "For the record, I think that this is a terrible idea."

"Now you sound like Bane." Davide-san grinned as Yuuta claimed the seat at the end of the counter. "Leave the worrying to him, huh? He's better at it."

"Hmph." Saeki-san handed Yuuta a hot towel, and then a cup of tea. "Any special requests, Fuji-kun?"

"Something good," Yuuta told him. "I'm hungry."

Something like Saeki-san's normal humor glinted in his eyes. "Everything here is good," he retorted. "I'm the one making it." He rubbed his hands together. "All right, let's see what I can do." And he vanished into the kitchen.

Davide-san waited for a couple of moments, and then leaned over. "So why are you here?" he asked, voice pitched low. "Sae's food is good, but not that good."

"That's what you think," Yuuta told him. "Seriously, I just want dinner."

Davide-san looked at him, eyes measuring him. "You sure you're not after something else?"

Yuuta flushed; there was no way Davide-san could have known that. At least, he shouldn't have known that! He cleared his throat. "Not really. I don't have much luck with older guys." He paused. "Why? You think I've got a chance?"

For a second, he thought he'd said something that was completely taboo, just from the way Davide-san stared at him. Then Davide-san started laughing, and didn't stop till he was doubled over, wheezing for breath.

So much for that. At least the food was still good. Yuuta glared at Davide-san, and mustered his best imitation of Aniki-when-supremely-pissed-off. "You know, a simple, 'Sorry, he doesn't like guys,' would have been enough."

"No, no, it's not--he's not--" Davide-san flailed a hand, weakly, between snorts of laughter. "Oh, fuck, kid, we've gotta keep you around. You can be our mascot, or something." He pushed himself upright again and went serious. "You get people sometimes who want favors. Things that aren't legal that they're too chickenshit to do themselves." He squinted at Yuuta. "Or kids after a thrill, which is what I was figuring you for. People here for the food and scenery... hell, you've gotta be the first."

"...oh." It took a little bit for him to digest that. "No, I'm not--I wouldn't." Although Tousan would completely lose it, if he were to find out about this, which was why Yuuta hadn't really planned on letting him find out, ever. "Really, it's the food." And never mind the other part, since it was silly to begin with.

That didn't stop Davide-san's grin. "Of course. My apologies."

That settled, he returned to his newspaper, and didn't say anything else until Saeki-san returned from the kitchen with--oh, wow, that looked like yakitori, only more dressed up than any yakitori Yuuta'd ever had before. "I heard a lot of laughing going on," he said. "Is exploding rice really that funny?"

"We hadn't gotten that far yet," Davide-san said, when Yuuta froze. "Sae, I wanna keep this one. Akaya's getting a little too big to be a proper mascot, right?"

"Absolutely not." Saeki-san's voice went cold. "Fuji-kun is not getting mixed up with us."

Davide-san held up his hands. "Easy, Sae. I didn't mean it like that."

"And just how did you mean it?" Saeki-san's voice was still cold enough that Yuuta wondered how it could be that he didn't see Saeki-san's breath hanging in the air.

"He's funny and he compliments your food. I was thinking along the lines of a stray cat," Davide-san said. "Especially since he keeps coming back for more."

"I do like being fed," Yuuta volunteered, cautiously, since Saeki-san's shoulders seemed to be loosening up again.

"Yeah, I noticed," Saeki-san said, putting the final touches on his plate and serving him his meal--yakitori over rice, with a side of vegetables. "That's not a funny joke, Davide."

"Guess not," Davide-san said, placidly, as Yuuta dove into his meal. "Damn, kid, are you even tasting that?"

"Of course I am," Yuuta said between ecstatic bites. "And it's Yuuta. Not kid."

"Not Fuji-kun?" Saeki-san murmured.

"Aniki is Fuji-kun." And Fuji-kun was for class, and the times he went in to visit Tousan's office. "I'm just Yuuta." For as long as he could manage it, anyway. "This is really good, Saeki-san."

"Sae," he said, unexpectedly. "Just Sae. That's what I prefer."

Huh. Well, Yuuta could understand that sentiment. "Sure thing. Really good, Sae-san."

"Eh, it's nothing fancy." But Sae-san had relaxed and was starting to smile again, so Yuuta guessed he was pleased. "Now what about this story you promised us?"

"Right," Yuuta said. "So okay, you have to know that this is really all Aniki's fault." And with that, he launched into his account of the day he'd been barred from Kaasan's kitchen and a budding career in chemistry forever, all thanks to Aniki distracting him with a video game at a crucial moment. He didn't tell the story as well as Aniki did--well, that was why Aniki was a writer and he was the one going into business--but he'd told it enough times before to be able really get into it, so by the time he worked up to the climax, with the description of how rice was on the walls and the ceilings and the curtains and in Kaasan's hair, Sae-san and Davide-san were both laughing. "So my punishment was to scrub the whole place down and I was grounded for a solid month," he wound up, "and Kaasan still looks terrified every time I go into the kitchen to get a glass of water."

"Who could blame her?" Davide-san wheezed, red-faced and breathless. "Please, Sae, can we keep him?"

"Yuuta-kun is not the puppy who followed you home," Sae-san said, but he didn't seem anywhere near as serious as he'd been before. That, Yuuta figured, probably counted as progress. "You about ready for dessert, there?"

Yuuta grinned. "Oh, yeah. Please."

"Coming right up," Sae-san said.

Once he'd gone into the kitchen, Davide-san leaned over, smiling conspiratorially. "Early in the week, it's slow. We get busy closer to the weekend. Just so you know." He paused, and added, "And I'll do what I can to make sure no one hassles you."

Yuuta blinked at him, nonplussed, until he got Davide-san's point. "I--okay. Thanks." He paused, and tipped his chin at the kitchen. "What about him?"

"He'll come around." Davide-san grinned. "You're on his good side, you know? Just as long as you stay out of Yukimura-sama's way, you'll be fine."

Yuuta nodded; he didn't really want to get in Yukimura-san's way again. "I can probably manage that," he agreed. He could manage a lot of things, just for the sake of Sae-san's cooking. "Thanks."

Davide-san smiled, looking satisfied. "Don't mention it."

Davide-san had only said that he'd try to keep anyone from hassling him, but when Yuuta stopped in a few evenings later to try his luck, Kurobane-san only gave him a sour look before retreating behind his newspaper, and Kirihara-kun greeted him like an old friend. "Hey, Yuuta-kun, how're you?" he asked, when Yuuta settled at the end of the counter, in the spot that he'd decided was his.

"Not bad," Yuuta said, and grinned at Sae-san when he came out of the kitchen. "Hi, Sae-san."

Sae-san stopped dead in his tracks, and pinched the bridge of his nose like he had a headache. "Honestly, Yuuta-kun, what part of 'This is the last time I'm feeding you,' did you not understand last week?"

"The part where you said it was the last time, of course," Yuuta said. "Unless you're too busy for another customer?" Surely this time he'd get to buy his own damn meal, since Davide-san wasn't around to be entertained this evening.

Kirihara-kun snorted. "Busy? On a Monday night? You've gotta be kidding me."

"Not helping, Akaya," Sae-san ground out. "Yuuta-kun--"

"I've had instant ramen three nights in a row," Yuuta said, trying to look as pitiful as he could. "Are you really going to make me go home to a fourth night of it, Sae-san?"

Kurobane-san snorted from behind his newspaper. "Get in the kitchen and make him his damn dinner, Sae. I don't wanna hear him whine."

Yuuta thought about objecting to the part about whining, but if it got Sae-san to give in...

"You are a shitty bouncer, Bane," Sae-san grumbled.

Kurobane-san ignored him, ostentatiously turning to the next page in his newspaper.

Sae-san huffed and threw his hands up, and that was that. Yuuta settled in with his homework, chatting amiably with Kirihara-kun, who was Akaya-kun by the time Itsuki-san came out with a plate of gyoza for both of them, and figured that the next time he came in, Sae-san wouldn't even bother with the token protest.

After that, his visits settled into a routine. He stopped by for dinner once or twice, early in the week, just as long as the restaurant didn't look busy, and did his homework while he ate, listening to the scattered bits of shoptalk that Akaya-kun let slip while he was chatting with Bane-san and Davide-san, whichever one of them happened to be working that night (and often as not, both were there, which was funny when he thought about it). They were careful not to be too specific, talking about "the thing, you know, that we're doing for that guy," which was fine as far as Yuuta was concerned, since the less he knew about yakuza business, the better. Akaya-kun was prone to forgetting, though, so Yuuta heard names from time to time that didn't mean much, detached as they were from their proper context. It didn't take a genius to figure out parts of that larger context, though--Yukimura-san was the center of the solar system, as far as Akaya-kun was concerned, and he spent a lot of time dealing with someone, Sakaki, who headed up Hyoutei, another yakuza group. Yuuta got the feeling that those dealings weren't very cordial, although Sae-san was always very careful to make sure the conversation stayed vague. Whenever he finished eating and whatever homework he'd brought with him, or when it seemed like business was about to pick himself up, he'd offer to pay and Sae-san would ignore him, and he'd go home, well-fed and content.

Really, the only thing more he could have asked for out of life was for Sae-san to have been interested in other guys. Wishing wouldn't make it so, though, so he told himself to enjoy Sae-san's food and friendship and not be silly about the rest.

November was about ready to surrender to December when Yuuta met Ojii, who tottered into the restaurant one evening like a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing gnome. Everyone--that being Sae-san, and Bane-san, and even Itsuki-san, out from the back kitchen and wide-eyed--jumped to attention while the old man tottered around the restaurant, inspecting it silently. Akaya-kun stood back and watched, and Yuuta-kun tried not to pay him any mind, even when the old man stood next to him and peered over his shoulder at the set of chemistry problems he was working on.

Eventually he grunted and teetered back out into the evening, and everyone sighed and relaxed again. "Who was that?" Yuuta asked.

"Ojii," Sae-san said, as if that ought to explain everything. Perhaps he saw that it didn't, because he added, "He owns the place."

"Used to own a lot more," Bane-san added, "till he got tired of the bother and gave it all up." He patted the counter, looking almost fond. "All except the Rokkaku."

That really didn't explain everything, but if Ojii was the owner, then it was no wonder everyone treated him... well, like Ojii was just as important as Yukimura-san. "Oh, okay," Yuuta said, and glanced at Sae-san. "You going to feed me anytime soon?"

"Naw, I thought I'd let you starve," Sae-san chuckled, and everything went back to normal.

He also met the twins--Kisarazu Ryou and Atsushi, who apparently waited tables on the busy nights. They weren't in very often on the nights Yuuta ate dinner, and unlike Bane-san and Davide-san, didn't seem to make a habit of hanging out on the nights they were off. He met some of the other members of Rikkai, too, people who weren't employed directly at the restaurant, like Niou-san and Yagyuu-san, the ones Bane-san called the havoc twins (but only behind their backs, when they weren't around to hear it, and generally when Akaya-kun wasn't around either; Bane-san struck Yuuta as being a very cautious person). They didn't come around often, either, at least not on the nights Yuuta did, for which Yuuta was heartily grateful. Both of them made Yuuta nervous. There was something about the way Niou-san grinned at him, and the way Yagyuu-san always seemed to be watching, like he was just waiting for Yuuta to make a wrong step, that set off warning bells in Yuuta's head. Fortunately, as Akaya-kun informed him one evening after they'd been in for takeout and had gone away again, they were Yukimura-san's bodyguards and--other things, Akaya-kun said, after a delicate pause--and were generally too busy to come in often.

Kuwahara-san and Marui-san (also bodyguards, but apparently only bodyguards) were much more frequent visitors. Yuuta liked them better, because they didn't make chills run down his spine when they looked at him, and because it was kind of hard to imagine Marui being a bodyguard when he was stealing food off Kuwahara-san's plate and grinning like a little kid when Kuwahara-san yelled at him. Still, Bane-san and Davide-san were polite to the two of them, and Akaya-kun practically fell over himself whenever they were around, trying to impress them, so Yuuta supposed it must have been true that they were bodyguards.

He even saw Yukimura-san a couple more times, coming in for dinner about the time Yuuta was deciding to call it an evening and go home for the night. The first time it happened, Yuuta nearly swallowed his tongue, especially when Yukimura-san raised an eyebrow at him. "If it isn't our scholar," he murmured, mouth quirked. "I trust your studies are going well, Fuji-kun?"

"Very well, thank you," Yuuta managed, without even squeaking, which was pretty good, he thought.

"I'm glad to hear it," Yukimura-san said, and swept on, disappearing into the back room that was apparently reserved for his use.

Bane-san shook his head as Yuuta started packing up his bag. "I swear, kid, you've got someone looking out for you," he remarked.

"I sure hope so," Yuuta said, and headed out while his luck was still holding good.

After that, though, Yukimura-san didn't pay him any more mind when their paths crossed than he would have paid to a piece of furniture. Yuuta figured that was probably for the best, and ignored the politics floating over his head. December was dwindling away fast, and finals were just around the corner--and with those and his senior year looming, who had time to worry about what some Sakaki guy was up to? It didn't have anything to do with him anyway, or so he told himself, right up until the evening he strolled in for dinner and found the place in an uproar.

"What do you mean you can't come in?" Davide-san was roaring into the phone. "Damn it, Ryou, we need the two of you--what? You're in--what in fuck's name are you doing in Kyoto?"

At the counter, Bane-san was berating Kentarou-kun, who was clutching his ankle, white-lipped and hangdog. "I told you not to go running through the place like that, damn it, I told you you'd fall and break your neck one of these days--"

"It's just my ankle, it'll be fine, Bane-san," Kentarou-kun said, and tried to stand. "I can walk, see--ow!"

"You can't walk, Kenken," Sae-san said, not even looking up from where he and Ojii were conferring. "What about this, Ojii? I can do up--I don't know, I have some potatoes, a gratin?--to go with the beef, and the melons I got today weren't too bad, those could do as a starter--fuck, why do they have to be doing this now? I can't get any decent produce this time of year!"

"Fuck!" Davide-san slammed the phone down. "What in the fuck did they decide to go to Kyoto for?" He looked up and saw Yuuta standing frozen in the doorway, and groaned. "Oh, fuck, kid, not tonight."

Yeah, he was picking up on that. "Er," Yuuta said, "guess this is a bad time, huh?"

"You have no fucking clue," Bane-san said. "Come back some other night."

"If we're all still here," Davide-san muttered. "Fuck, who are we going to get to wait the tables?"

He definitely didn't need to be getting in their way, whatever was going on. "Right, um, good luck--" Yuuta started to back out of the restaurant.

"Wait." Ojii looked up, eyes shockingly keen beneath those bushy eyebrows. Everyone else stopped, too, when Ojii leveled a skinny finger at Yuuta. "He'll do it."

"I--what?" Yuuta asked.

"He can't, Ojii, he's just a customer," Sae-san said, really fast. "He probably doesn't even know how to wait tables."

Wait, they wanted him to fill in for the twins? Him? "Um, he's got a point," Yuuta said, or tried to say, but Ojii was rolling along without even paying attention to him, or to Sae-san's objections.

"What's there to know? He carries the food in, he carries the plates out, he keeps his mouth shut." Ojii nodded, like it was already decided. "He'll do fine. And not a gratin, it's not elegant enough."

Davide-san was eyeing Yuuta thoughtfully. "He's about Ryou's size, so the uniform'll fit," he pointed out.

Sae-san's hands slammed down on the counter. "He's a civilian! He doesn't belong here! Ojii, you can't drag him into this!"

"Seems to me he dragged himself into things by coming here," Ojii said, utterly unmoved. "And considering how many times he's eaten for free, I think he can pay us back with an evening of waiting tables."

"So add that to what I owe!" Sae-san said, waving his hands, while Yuuta gulped guiltily--he'd wondered how long he'd be getting away with that. "Ojii, you can't--"

"There's no such thing as a free meal," Ojii said, and tapped that skinny finger on the counter. "How about a risotto? That would go nicely with the beef."

"If you guys are shorthanded, I can help out for the night," Yuuta said. "I bet I can figure out how to do the waiter thing pretty fast." How hard could it be? "Besides, if all you want me to do to pay my tab is wait tables, that's pretty cheap."

"Absolutely not," Sae-san said. "Ojii is just joking--"

"Doesn't look like anyone's laughing," Yuuta said, and dropped his bookbag at the end of the counter, kicking it under the ledge so it'd be out of the way. "It's not a big deal, Sae-san."

Sae-san stared at him for a long moment, and then turned on his heel and stalked into the kitchen. After a second, the noise of things crashing around and a steady stream of curses came from behind the curtained door.

"I don't think he thinks that this is a good idea," Kentarou-kun ventured, voice tiny.

"No shit," Bane-san muttered, and looked at Ojii. "Look, there's gotta be another way--"

"There isn't anyone else," Ojii said, and snapped his fingers. "Quickly now, we don't have much time."

Davide-san bustled Yuuta behind the counter, getting him out of his coat and school blazer and shirt, and into one of the uniforms while Bane-san braved the din in the kitchen (which eased off after a little bit, but only after Yuuta heard Bane-san yell that Sae-san should save his temper tantrum for later, unless he wanted tonight to be a disaster). "So what's going on?" Yuuta asked, stuffing the blazer and shirt into his schoolbag.

Davide-san's mouth tightened. "Atobe's decided to have a meeting with Yukimura-san."

That didn't mean much--actually, that didn't mean anything to Yuuta. "Who's Atobe?"

Davide-san laughed. "Number two guy in Hyoutei."

Hyoutei, huh? The ones Akaya-kun muttered about and Bane-san grumbled about? Huh. Yuuta looked at the grim lines around Davide-san's mouth and decided not to pursue the reasons for the meeting. Some things he was better off not knowing. "Why can't you or Bane-san wait tables tonight?" he asked instead.

"We're going to be busy making it look like business as usual," Davide-san told him. "This isn't an official meeting, if you know what I mean?"

Oh, fuck, what had he gotten himself into? "I... sure, whatever you say, Davide-san," Yuuta agreed, hastily.

Davide-san chuckled, brief but not entirely humorless. "Good, kid. Keep that up and you'll go a long way." He clapped his hands together. "All right, time for a crash course in waiting tables."

Yuuta had always hated the formal dinners that Tousan'd made him sit in on, and he'd despised the etiquette lessons he'd had to endure growing up, but now he was glad of the experience, because not having to think about where the glasses and cutlery and plates went meant he could pay attention to balancing the heavy tray. Even with that advantage, he was dizzy with the stream of instructions Davide-san was feeding him about where to stand and what to say and where to keep his eyes while Yukimura-san and Atobe-san were talking. The time went by fast--too fast--and he didn't feel the least bit prepared when Akaya-kun came tearing in, door jingling as he cried, "They're on the way!"

"Shit," Davide-san said, snatching the tray out of Yuuta's hands and shoving it at Kentarou-kun, who hobbled into the kitchen with it.

Bane-san looked up from the order he was packing up. "Looks like they're here," he said, as Akaya-kun leaned against the counter and tried to catch his breath.

Yuuta gulped and stood up straight as Yagyuu-san came in, followed by Yukimura-san and then Niou-san, and joined in the chorus welcoming them in.

"Yes, yes, I know you're glad to have me," Yukimura-san said, shrugging out of his coat. "He'll be here soon; he's very punctual--" He stopped short as Yuuta moved forward to take his coat. "What in the name of--"

"The twins took a mini vacation," Davide-san said, quickly. "Aoi-kun's got a sprained ankle. Ojii said there wasn't anyone else."

Yukimura-san scowled. "We're going to talk about this later, old man," he told Ojii, who merely lifted a shoulder in reply as he arranged maki in a takeout box. Yukimura-san growled something wordless and shoved his coat into Yuuta's hands.

Oh, fuck, Aniki was going to have to give up being a writer to run Tousan's company after all, because he was going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere. Yuuta told his knees to keep on holding him up, and went to hang up Yukimura-san's coat.

Yukimura-san stalked back to the private room. Yuuta saw to his water glass and brought him tea for the wait, and was just about to wonder what else he could do to ease Yukimura-san's irritation when Davide-san poked his head in and hissed at him. "Out here, kid, Atobe's on his way in."

Yuuta scrambled out, ignoring the breathy chuckle from Niou-san's corner, and managed to get into place just in time to bow as the Hyoutei contingent swept in--holy fuck, was that an actual human being, or a walking mountain?

Yuuta only managed to keep from staring out of sheer determination not to screw up this early in the evening. "Welcome," he said, bowing, "may I take your coat?" And with that he was off and running, taking the heavy coat (cashmere, by the feel of it, and that wasn't cheap cologne clinging to it, either) and hanging it next to Yukimura-san's, and then showing Atobe-san back to the room where Yukimura-san waited for him.

After that, things turned into a blur. Atobe-san and Yukimura-san might have been enjoying a leisurely meal and idle conversation (about opera, and literature, and philosophy, for all Yuuta could tell, unless those were codes for yakuza business). Yuuta found that he never stopped moving, oscillating between the kitchen and their table, keeping water and wine glasses filled, clearing the dirty plates and bringing out the courses and the palate cleansers, every nerve wound tight against the fear that he would spill something in Atobe-san's lap.

One thing was certain--the twins had his respect in a whole new way, and if he got out of this alive, he was going to tell them so. And then he was going to strangle them for not being around and putting him in the position to find out how hard their job really was.

All of his nerves aside, Yuuta made it to the end of the meal without spilling anything on anyone, and he'd begun to think that this was going to work out well after all as he placed Atobe-san's coffee on the table--this was when Davide-san had said he'd be able to withdraw and let the two of them get down to business, after all. Then Atobe-san chuckled softly. "So, tell me, Yukimura. Do you have the Tezuka board of directors in the back, doing the dishes?"

Yukimura-san simply smiled. "Oh, it's their night off."

"I see." Atobe-san took a sip of his coffee, and looked at Yuuta over the rim of his cup. "It's curious; we've been trying to get our foot in the Fuji door for years now. One wonders how Yukimura managed to do it after all this time."

Yuuta froze. Oh, shit. Oh, shit, Atobe-san thought he was--that Rikkai was--oh, hell, what was he supposed to say to that? He darted a glance at Yukimura-san, whose expression didn't offer any hints, and then back at Atobe-san, who was still looking at him expectantly. Yuuta cleared his throat. "I, ah. Actually, I'm just here for the food."

Atobe stared at him for a moment, and laughed. "Diplomatic creature, aren't you?" His mouth curved. "I suppose it's none of my business. Still, Sakaki-sama will be devastated when he finds out that a callow upstart like Yukimura got to you when nothing he did moved your father."

"Ah. Well." Yuuta cleared his throat again. "Is there anything else you would like from me, Yukimura-sama?"

"No, Yuuta-kun, thank you." Yukimura-san's voice was hard enough to cut diamonds. "That will be all."

Yuuta bowed, relieved beyond words by the dismissal, and was out the door before Yukimura-san could change his mind. His knees were even cooperative enough to wait until he'd managed to get the door safely shut behind him before they started shaking.

Davide-san and Bane-san were sitting at the counter, and Ojii was presiding over the bar while Sae-san worked behind the counter, cleaning. Davide-san motioned him over. "How's it going in there?" he asked, voice pitched low, when Yuuta collapsed into his seat, grateful to be off his feet.

The laugh rasped in his throat. "Atobe-san thinks me being here means you guys are affiliated with Tousan's company." And if that ever got back to Tousan, there was going to be hell to pay. Yuuta scrubbed his hands through his hair. "Oh, fuck."

Sae-san put down the sponge he was wiping the counter with. "Wait, why in the hell would Atobe even care--" He stopped. "...you're one of those Fujis?"

Yeah, and he wished to heaven he wasn't, some days. "Tousan is going to kill me if he ever finds out about this."

"You'd just better pray he doesn't have to get in line for the job," Bane-san told him.

Yuuta hoped that wasn't supposed to be a reassuring thought.

"No one's going to kill anybody," Davide-san said, a little bit too decidedly to be strictly comforting for Yuuta's tastes. "Stop worrying, Yuuta. Sounds like you did just fine."

"That's what worries me," Yuuta muttered.

"At least you have some sense," Sae-san said, and attacked the counter with his sponge again.

So he'd not only managed to get the family business sort of mixed up in yakuza business by offering to help out, he'd managed to piss Sae-san off. Fuck. "Yeah, a little, I guess," he said, smiling even though he didn't much feel like it, because carrying on in the face of disaster was one thing he had managed to learn from Tousan. "Am I allowed to eat on duty? I never did get any dinner."

Davide-san laughed. "That's what I like about you," he said. "You never lose sight of what's important."

"Dinner after they leave," Bane-san said. "Sorry, kid."

"Eh, I'll survive," Yuuta said, resigning himself to a long evening on an empty stomach. "...so where's Kentarou-kun? And Akaya-kun?"

"Kentarou kept getting in the way, so we sent him home," Bane-san told him.

Davide-san snorted. "Let me translate that for you: Bane couldn't stand watching Ken-ken limping around, trying to help out, so he made Akaya help him home." He grinned. "Big softy."

"Oh, fuck you," Bane said, looking just embarrassed enough around the edges that Yuuta figured that Davide-san was probably right.

Davide-san grinned. "Not tonight, dear, I have a headache."

Yuuta listened to them bicker back and forth and tried not to worry about what he was going to do about Atobe-san's misconception. Surely it would all come to nothing, and someday he'd tell this story and laugh. Surely. And he'd manage to get Sae-san to forgive him for--well, whatever it was that he'd done to tick him off--and things would be able to go back to the way they were. He hoped, anyway.

Maybe if he told himself that enough times, he'd be able to make himself believe it.

The bickering tapered off eventually, and they all sat quietly while Yukimura-san and Atobe-san talked about--whatever it was they had to talk about. Yuuta watched Sae-san clean and put things away, tidying up the workspace behind the counter like he didn't expect to get any more orders for the evening, until he heard the door behind them slide open.

He was on his feet before he quite knew it, and had to hide his grimace as they reminded him how much they ached, and was ready with Atobe-san's coat by the time he and Yukimura-san emerged.

Atobe-san's smile was probably supposed to be gracious or something, but it really just came off as condescending. "I have to say, Yukimura, you've really managed to make him quite useful."

"You have no idea," Yukimura-san said, smile amiable enough to make a cold shiver walk down Yuuta's spine.

Atobe-san laughed. "Oh, I'm sure I don't." He took his coat from Yuuta and shrugged it on. "I can see that working with you will be interesting."

"I'll do my best to keep things from boring you," Yukimura-san agreed. "Good night, Atobe."

"Good night, Yukimura." Atobe tipped his head just a fraction and let his retinue escort him out.

Yukimura-san waited until he was decently out the door and away before he threw his head back and laughed, rich and bright and completely unlike the too-serious man Yuuta knew.

Ojii looked up from his newspaper. "It went well, I take it?"

"Better than I'd even hoped for." Yukimura-san smiled, and for once, it didn't seem like he was doing it just to show his teeth.

Ojii grunted. "I knew it would work out for the best."

"Did you? I wonder." Yukimura-san clapped his hands together. "Regardless, this calls for drinks all around. Close her down, gentlemen, and treat yourself to something from Jiisan's private stock." His smile went crooked. "The old man and I are going to have a talk." He paused, like he was waiting for something, and it wasn't until Davide-san coughed that Yuuta realized what he wanted, and leapt to get his coat for him. When he handed it to Yukimura-san, the man looked at him, like he was measuring Yuuta for something. "You and I should talk at some point, too, I think."

"I..." Yuuta gulped. "If you say so, Yukimura-san."

"I do," Yukimura-san said. He turned away, looking at Ojii. "Coming?"

"Keep your pants on," Ojii muttered, hopping down from his seat and falling in next to Yukimura-san. "Where's your patience, boy?"

"What patience?" Yukimura-san asked, and then they were gone, the bell over the door tinkling as it swung shut behind them.

Yuuta let out the breath that he hadn't quite realized he was holding, and turned around to see that Sae-san's lips were pressed together so tightly that they'd gone white. He didn't say anything, though, not even when Davide-san stretched and said, "That could have gone worse."

"It wasn't a disaster," Bane-san agreed.

"You're so cheerful." Davide-san grinned. "Someone, break out the booze."

Yuuta held his hands up. "Don't look at me. I'm just a substitute." He sat down again, and sighed as the weight came off his feet.

Davide-san ruffled his hair on his way past. "But you're a damn good substitute. Ryou and Atsushi better be careful, or we're going to end up replacing them." He ducked behind the bar, and there was a clinking of glass as he rummaged around.

It was almost funny, the way that made a muscle in Sae-san's jaw jump. "I'm going to see if Itsuki wants to join us," he announced, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Davide-san looked up, holding a pair of bottles. "Tetchy tonight, isn't he?"

"When is he not, when Yukimura-san is around?" Bane-san asked, while Davide-san compared the bottles and picked one, although Yuuta couldn't tell what criteria he was using, when neither one seemed to have a label.

Oh. Oh, yeah. It probably wasn't anything that he'd done that had pissed Sae-san off. It was just Yukimura-san. Perversely, that thought didn't make him feel any better, so when Davide-san had opened the bottle and offered him the first glass, Yuuta took it and knocked most of it back without even thinking. It burned all the way going down, making his eyes sting. "What is that?" he managed, after a moment.

Davide-san looked at the bottle. "I don't know. Ojii brews it."

"We think he starts with plums," Bane-san added, and then raised his eyebrows as Yuuta drained the rest of his glass. "Thirsty, or something?"

"A little, yeah," Yuuta said, and held his glass out for more. There was a small part of his mind that was pointing out how much of a bad idea this was, especially on an empty stomach, but since the whole evening looked like one bad idea after another, one more couldn't make much of a difference.

"Second one goes down easier," Davide-san said, and poured him another. His smile was sympathetic enough that Yuuta had to look away.

"Just don't make us carry you home, huh?" Bane-san said.

Yuuta snorted. "I'll be fine," he said, rolling the glass between his fingers, feeling the heat of the plum-whatsis in his stomach, already spreading out through his body.

Itsuki-san and Sae-san came out of the kitchen; Itsuki-san was already in his coat. "Going home already?" Davide-san asked him. He held up the bottle, swishing it around. "Not going to help out with this?"

"Why? So you can get me in trouble again?" Itsuki-san asked. He shook his head. "No thanks."

"We were set up," Davide-san said, firmly. "That was just a tragic misunderstanding, Icchan. You know that."

"That's not what Mari-chan thinks," Itsuki-san said. "She's pretty sure that it was all your fault."

Davide-san protested that, and dragged Bane-san into the argument. Yuuta tried to follow it, but the names and inside jokes and slant references to events he wasn't familiar with flew by too fast to follow. Instead he tuned it out and watched Sae-san working on cleaning while he worked his way through the second glass of Ojii's plum-whatsis. Davide-san was right; the second glass went down much more smoothly than the first had.

Bane-san and Davide-san lost their argument. "Good night, guys," Itsuki-san said, firm in the face of their protests, and headed for the door.

They said their good nights to him in return, and once he'd gone, Davide-san settled himself again. "He's no fun these days," he said, after a moment.

"Happens when you settle down," Bane-san told him. He looked at Sae-san, who was rearranging bottles behind the counter. "Sae, quit cleaning and have a drink. You've earned it."

"The place isn't going to clean itself," Sae retorted, although Yuuta thought that it already looked pretty tidy.

"You're too damn responsible," Davide-san told him. "Sit down and have a cigarette, at least. I know you're dying for one."

That worked better than the drink offer had. Sae-san wavered for a moment and then sat, reaching into his pocket for his cigarettes and lighter. Yuuta watched him tap one out of the package, long fingers precise as he lit it up, and so what if he was staring? Chances were really good that this was going to be one of his last chances to do it.

Davide-san poured Sae-san a drink, and slid it down to him. "You can breathe now," he said. "It's over, and no harm done."

Sae snorted, but took a sip of his drink anyway. "Little early to be saying that, don't you think?" He glanced at Yuuta, and then looked away. "I hate it when they spring things on us."

"Yeah, yeah. Problem is, we all know you work best under pressure," Davide-san said. "And we all know how much you obsess if you get too much time to think."

"I like obsessing. Keeps me out of trouble." Sae-san paused. "Unlike some people I could name."

Yuuta told his shoulders they weren't allowed to hunch up at that, though they didn't listen to him, and looked at his drink. What was he even doing here? This wasn't where he belonged, and it was pretty clear that he wasn't wanted. He swallowed the last of his drink and set the glass down (carefully; his fingers felt thicker than usual).

"More?" Davide-san asked him.

"No, I'm... it's late," he said. "I should get home, get out of your guys' way and stuff."

Bane-san snorted. "You're not in anybody's way. Stick around."

Yuuta glanced at Sae-san, but he was frowning at his cigarette, tapping the ash off the end of it. "No, I should go," he said, and stood up.

Well, he tried to stand up, but something had gone wrong with the floor, or the room, because everything spun. "What the shit...?" He braced himself against the counter, blinking, and slowly the room righted itself.

"Just how much did you two let him drink?" Sae-san asked.

"He only had two," Davide-san said.

"Two? The way you pour?" Sae-san looked at his own glass, and then at Davide-san, looking like he was somewhere between pissed-off and appalled. "On an empty stomach? What are you trying to do, kill him?"

"I'm fine," Yuuta said, and really, he was, except for how everything seemed to be leaning at an angle.

Bane snorted. "Sure you are." He leaned over and pushed Yuuta upright. "Maybe we did let him have a little too much."

Sae growled something under his breath; Yuuta didn't quite catch it, although it sounded vicious. "I'm all right," he said, instead, and essayed a careful step towards the door. "I'll just go home, sleep it off. No big deal." He took another step and tripped over the unevenness of the floor, and would have fallen if Davide-san hadn't been quick enough to catch him.

"That sounds like a good plan," Davide-san said, "but first you have to get yourself home."

"I can get home just fine. It's only a ten-minute walk."

No one seemed to be paying attention to him. "Either of you have money for a cab?" Bane-san asked.

Davide-san shook his head. "Broke till payday. You know that."

Sae-san snorted. "When do I ever have money?"

Bane-san rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I should have known." He scratched the back of his neck. "Where do you live, Yuuta-kun?" When Yuuta'd told him, he glanced at Sae-san. "That's pretty close to you. Think you could--"

"Why do I have to do it?" Sae-san argued. "You were the ones who got him drunk."

"Yeah, and we live on the other side of town," Davide-san said. "Don't be an ass, Sae."

"It's all right, really." Yuuta shook Davide-san's arm off. "I can walk just fine, see?" He managed the distance between the counter and the door, moving carefully. "There, I'll be fine. Don't have to put anyone to any trouble at all." Especially not Sae-san. "Night, everyone."

The cold air hit him like a slap as he went outside, jolting him into something like alertness. It was easier to pick his way down the sidewalk, but walking a mostly-straight line took up most of his concentration, so it was a shock when a hand came down on his shoulder and stopped him in his tracks. "What the--"

"You could at least try not to walk out into traffic," Sae-san said.

Yuuta looked up at the blinking crossing signal as a car whizzed past. "Oh. Yeah. Guess so." After a moment, he added, "Thanks."

"Don't mention it." Sae-san sighed. "Guess I'd better make sure you get home safe."

"You don't have to if you don't want to."

Sae-san made an impatient sound. "You nearly got yourself clobbered by a car just now. I think I have to." Sae-san shifted his weight. "You walked out wearing Ryou's uniform, too. And you forgot all your stuff."

"Oh... shit." Yeah, that was his bookbag that Sae was carrying, and his coat, too. Yuuta reached for them, and nearly fell over when he overbalanced.

Sae-san rolled his eyes and steadied him. "I've got it. Just... try to stay upright. I can't carry you if you fall over." He set the bag down and offered Yuuta's coat to him. "Here."

"Thanks," Yuuta said, and struggled into it. He was clumsy and uncoordinated, and Sae-san had to help him into it, which was pretty embarrassing.

Sae-san didn't say anything else, even after the light changed and they crossed the street. They walked silently for a couple of blocks--well, Sae-san walked, and Yuuta figured what he was doing qualified as wobbling, maybe. Whatever it was, Sae-san had to put a hand out every so often to steady him. About the fourth time he'd had to do that, Sae-san stopped and shifted the bag to his other shoulder. "This isn't working. Put your arm around my shoulder."

"What? Huh?" Yuuta blinked, because Sae-san was suddenly a lot closer, pressing against his side and sliding an arm around his waist.

"Your arm. My shoulder," Sae-san said, and reached for it himself about the time that Yuuta caught onto the idea, and wrapped his arm around Sae-san's shoulder. They were about the same size, so it wasn't too awkward, and it did make walking easier to have Sae-san holding him steady.

"I'm really sorry about this," he said, after they'd gone another block.

"It's not your fault Bane and Davide are idiots," Sae-san grunted.

That wasn't really what he'd meant. Yuuta sighed and gave thanks that it wasn't too much farther to his apartment.

They made better time with Sae-san doing the steering, and neither of them spoke again until Yuuta said, "This one's mine," when they came to his apartment building.

Sae-san tipped his head back to look at it. "You live here?"

"The rent's cheap," Yuuta muttered. "And it's sort of close to school."

Sae-san was still looking at the building--okay, so it wasn't a brand new building, or really in the best repair, but that didn't mean it was worth staring at so hard. "Can't you afford something... else?"

"Not really, no. Tousan--never mind. It's a long story. A long, stupid story." It certainly wasn't anything Sae-san would want to listen to.

"But... you're a Fuji." Sae-san sounded genuinely puzzled. "How many companies does your family own--ten? Fifteen? You ought to have more money than the emperor."

"Tousan has a lot of money," Yuuta explained. "I get an allowance, sort of. It's not really enough to live on, but I tutor and stuff and manage somehow." And as long as he managed, he got to go the school of his choice and do the things he wanted to do, at least for a little while longer. He shook himself. "I told you, it's a long, stupid story."

"I... see."

Sae-san sounded a little bit odd, but that was probably because he was thinking Poor little rich boy instead of saying it. Yuuta sighed again, and pulled away from him. "I can manage the stairs myself. It's only a flight. You can go on home, I guess."

"Yeah, but you still have Ryou's uniform on," Sae-san pointed out.

Oh, yeah. "I'll bring it by on my way home tomorrow night," he offered.

Sae-san shook his head. "I... don't really think you should come back."

Yuuta swallowed hard. "Oh. Well. I can't change out here in the street, so you'll have to come up."

"Sure," Sae-san said, and followed him up the steps and down to his apartment, and waited while Yuuta fumbled with his keys and let them in.

"Sorry about the mess," Yuuta said, kicking his shoes off and flipping on the corner lamp, lighting up the tiny efficiency.

"Looks about like my place, actually. I don't mind." Sae-san hefted his bookbag. "Where should I put this?"

"Drop it anywhere." Yuuta shed his coat and tossed it onto its peg while Sae-san set the bag against the wall, and undid the ties of Ryou-san's uniform. "Should I fold this?" he asked, shivering as the chilly air of his apartment hit his bare chest.

"You don't have to."

Yuuta tried to fold it anyway, fingers clumsy and not really doing what he asked them to, and ended up with a misshapen bundle at the end of it. "Well, fuck," he said. He looked up at Sae-san. "Guess that's it, then."

"Yeah," Sae-san said, and took the bundle when Yuuta offered it to him. "You have finals in a couple of weeks, right? Good luck on those."

"Thanks," Yuuta said, as Sae-san turned and reached for the doorknob. "Sae-san, wait." If this was it, then he might as well burn all his bridges at once.

"What is it--?" Sae-san began, right before Yuuta crowded into him and kissed him, quick and awkward. "What the--"

Funny, how he'd been hoping that Sae-san would respond, even against the odds. Funny that it still hurt, even though he'd known that Sae-san wouldn't. Yuuta backed away, face hot. "Sorry. I shouldn't have done that." He wrapped his arms around himself, because it was really too cold to be walking around without a shirt on.

Sae-san was still staring at him like he couldn't believe what Yuuta'd just done. "You just kissed me."

"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry." Yuuta looked away from him, a little stung. He hadn't really thought he'd managed to be that subtle when he ogled Sae-san. He turned away from the door. "Anyway, I won't bother you anymore. Promise."

"I kind of find that hard to believe," Sae-san said. "Last time I told you to stay away, you managed a week."

"Yeah, and this time I got the hint," Yuuta said, tired. "You don't want me around. Sorry I ignored you the first time." He picked his robe up off the floor and wrapped it around himself, and shuffled into the kitchenette for a glass of water.

Weirdly enough, Sae-san wasn't making a move to leave yet. "When did I ever say that I don't want you around?"

"How about the part where you said I shouldn't come back?" Yuuta asked, taking a glass out of the cupboard and filling it at the tap. "Or the way you've been pissed at me all evening?" He took a long drink of water before pressing it against his forehead. "I'm stubborn, Sae-san, not oblivious."

"I'm not angry at you," Sae-san said, quietly, and toed off his shoes like he was planning on staying for a while. "And I said that I didn't think you should come back, not that I didn't want you to come back."

"Amounts to the same thing in the end, doesn't it?" Yuuta sighed. "I get it, Sae-san. You don't have to--"

"I don't think you get anything, actually." Sae-san put Ryou-san's uniform down. "I know you know that we're yakuza. Has it ever occurred to you what could happen to you for getting mixed up with yakuza business?"

"Yeah," Yuuta said, between sips of water. "We've had this conversation already."

"Apparently you didn't listen very well," Sae-san said, stepping into the tiny kitchenette with him. "Have you thought about what the people who care about you would think if something happened to you because you insisted on getting involved with Rikkai?"

"I've thought about it." Yuuta looked down at his water. "I know it's selfish." Just... how to explain wanting more, even when he knew how foolish he was being? "I know my family would expect--"

"I'm not talking about your family, idiot." Sae-san plucked the glass out of Yuuta's hands and set it down, and closed his hands on Yuuta's face. "I'm talking about me."

Wait, what? Yuuta stared at him, mind wiped blank by the fingers cupping his face and the warm line of Sae-san's body pressed against his. "Sae-san--"

"If I'm angry, it's because Ojii and Yukimura are dragging you into their games," Sae-san murmured. "They don't have any right to, and if you get hurt because of it, I'll never forgive them."

Yuuta swallowed hard; that couldn't possibly mean what he thought it meant. "I thought you were--" Any number of things, actually. Angry at him, not interested in men, where should he start? Not there, surely. He set a tentative hand on Sae-san's shoulder. "I don't really care what they do. I just care about--"

"Yuuta," Sae-san interrupted, pressing even closer, and then his mouth was warm and soft on top of Yuuta's, tasting a little bit like his cigarettes and Ojii's plum-whatsis.

It was just as well that he was leaning against the counter, because that kiss made his knees go a little weak. "Sae-san," he said, when Sae-san pulled back just a bit, those warm hands settling on his shoulders. Yuuta wet his lips. "You want to stick around for a little while?"

Something flickered in Sae-san's eyes; whatever his answer ended up being, Yuuta decided, Sae-san was thinking yes. He ran his hand along Sae-san's shoulder and curved it around the back of his neck, stroking softly.

"I don't think that would be a good idea," Sae-san said. "It's been a long night."

"I'm not tired yet," Yuuta told him, and slid his other arm around Sae-san's waist. "I don't mind."

"You don't mind now," Sae-san murmured. "Later--"

"I won't mind later, either," Yuuta promised, and leaned in to kiss him again. "Stay?"

"Do you ever not get your own way?" Sae-san breathed against his mouth.

Less often than Sae-san probably thought, but this wasn't the time for it. "Only when it's not worth it to be stubborn," Yuuta told him, burrowing his hand inside Sae-san's jacket and flattening it against his back. "Please stay." Just for once. Just for a little while.

"You trying to say that I'm worth being stubborn for?" Sae-san murmured, but he was shifting and relaxing, fitting himself against Yuuta.

"That's exactly what I'm saying," Yuuta told him, and kissed him again.

"You get your way around me way too easily," Sae-san said, smile rueful, and then he made a startled sound as Yuuta pressed against him. "Wha--"

"Been standing for too long," Yuuta told him, urging him backwards out of the kitchenette, matching him step for step. "My feet hurt."

"What, just from waiting a table?" Sae-san sounded amused.

"Shut up, I'm not used to spending that much time standing up," Yuuta told him, continuing to crowd him backwards. "I'm a wuss, sue me."

"I guess it is kind of hard work if you're not used to it," Sae-san conceded. "Helps to--" He didn't get a chance to finish his sentence, because by that point, Yuuta had maneuvered him across the few steps of open space over to his bed, and was pressing him down. "Yuuta."

"Yeah?" Yuuta asked, sliding a knee onto the mattress. He edged his hands under Sae-san's coat and eased it off.

Sae-san was looking up at him, a frown drawing a line between his eyebrows. "Just what do you think you're doing?" he asked, and caught Yuuta's wrists before Yuuta could go after his shirt.

"Thought that'd be pretty obvious by now," Yuuta told him, tugging a little, but Sae-san's grip stayed firm.

"If you're not drunk, you're doing a damn good impression of it." Sae-san was looking up at him, too serious. "I'm not going to take advantage of you."

"What if I want to be taken advantage of?"

Sae-san shook his head and smiled, gentle enough to tell Yuuta that he'd lost him. "You deserve better than that."

"Waiting for what I deserve is a good way of making sure I never get anything that I actually want," Yuuta told him, frustrated, and pushed against the hands wrapped so firmly around his wrists. He had the superior position, and used it to topple Sae-san backwards, following him down and straddling his hips. "Besides, no one ever stops to ask me whether what I deserve matches up with what I want." He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but it crept in anyway, making his throat ache.

Sae-san's eyes went funny. "Well, does it?"

"Just about never does," Yuuta told him. "'s why I take whatever I can get, whenever I can." He cleared his throat. "You don't have to stay if you don't want to, but... I want you to stay. I'd want that if I were sober, too. Okay?"

Sae-san didn't say anything to that, but he loosened his hands and let Yuuta's wrists go. Yuuta couldn't tell whether that was supposed to be acceptance or what until Sae-san drew him the rest of the way down. "You poor kid," he said in Yuuta's ear, breath warm. "You really do deserve better."

"I don't care," Yuuta told him, burying his face against Sae-san's neck and breathing in the smell of him, cigarettes and sweat and the faint spice of cologne underneath. "I want this. Please."

The hand that traveled down his back was warm, even through the thick cloth of his robe, and Sae-san's chest moved in a deep sigh. "All right." Sae-san's hand slid into his hair, coaxing his chin up, and Yuuta met his kiss, open-mouthed and eager. "Easy," Sae-san murmured to him, pulling back just a bit. "There's no rush."

And he kissed like they did have all the time in the world, like he wanted to memorize all the corners of Yuuta's mouth. It wasn't like Yuuta had expected from this; the sheer novelty of being kissed like this, slow and unhurried, was enough to make his breath come faster, and he protested when Sae-san's mouth slid away from his. "What...?"

"Shh," Sae-san told him. "I'm just--here." He set his hands against Yuuta's chest, pressing gently, and then Yuuta understood, and eased over onto his back. "There," Sae-san said, and leaned down to kiss him again.

This was better, because it meant he could fan his hands out against Sae-san's shoulders, tracing the breadth of them before sliding his fingers down and undoing the buttons of Sae-san's shirt. He managed to brush his fingers over Sae-san's collarbone before Sae-san caught his hand. "Easy," he said, to the questioning sound Yuuta made. "Just relax for me, okay?"

Yuuta frowned at him. "I am relaxed," he said, not sure what else he ought to be doing. Then he shivered as Sae-san's hand glided under the collar of his robe.

"Just let me," Sae-san told him, warm fingers sliding lower, spreading across Yuuta's stomach, making his breath catch.

"Okay," Yuuta said, and he even sounded breathless in his own ears. "Just..." He leaned up on an elbow and reached for the drawer of his bedside table, and found the foil tube he kept there. "For when you need it," he said, and dropped it on the pillow where it would be easy to reach.

He couldn't read the expression on Sae-san's face, and Sae-san's hand was still on his stomach. "You want that?"

Yuuta felt his cheeks going hot. "I, um, like that." Maybe he was expecting too much. "You don't have to--"

Sae-san cut him off with a kiss. "It's all right. You just surprised me is all," he said, mouth sliding down the side of Yuuta's throat. "I didn't expect you to ask for that."

Yuuta tipped his head back, shivering at the brush of Sae-san's lips, hot enough to burn his skin. "I want everything," he whispered, fingers stroking through Sae-san's hair. "Can't help myself."

"I'll see what I can do," Sae-san murmured as he brushed Yuuta's robe open and down his shoulders.

That sounded promising, and Yuuta let himself relax, moaning and arching into the lips and hands traveling over his chest, sending heat curling along every nerve. Sae-san was a slow lover, and by the time he reached for the lube, Yuuta was nearly out of his mind, throat dry with panting. "Yes, please," he gasped, spreading his legs wide when Sae-san's fingers slid under him, and he groaned when they finally pressed into him, the leisurely stroke of them not enough to let the heat that was coiling low in his belly go anywhere. "Please, Sae-san--" He caught at Sae-san's shoulders, fingers digging in, almost frantic for more.

Sae-san leaned over him, flushed and breathless. "All right," he whispered, "all right."

"Yes," Yuuta breathed, shivering as Sae-san's hands ran down his thighs and caught behind his knees, "yes, please," and he moaned as Sae-san held his legs wide and slid into him, the slow stretch just enough to make his muscles ache. Sae-san answered him with a groan from deep in his chest, and it couldn't get any better than this--

But then Sae-san drew back and thrust into him again, deep and slow, and Yuuta saw stars as pleasure drove up his spine. He cried out, wordless, voice hoarse in his throat, and dug his hands into Sae-san's shoulders. He moaned as Sae-san fucked him just as slowly and thoroughly as he'd kissed him, until Yuuta thought he'd go crazy if the pleasure built up any higher, and reached down to wrap his fingers around his cock, stroking himself. Above him, Sae-san growled, and his hips snapped forward, fucking him faster and harder, and pleasure broke Yuuta open, white-hot and implacable. He screamed as he came, arching off the bed, pleasure blanking out his vision.

He recovered himself slowly, dazed and limp, breath rasping in his throat, when Sae-san shifted off of him. Yuuta shivered when the cool air bit his skin, unforgiving after the warmth of Sae-san's body, and caught at Sae-san's shoulder with a hand that was still trembling. "Don't go yet," he whispered. "Please?"

"Yuuta." Something in Sae-san's voice sounded strained, but he didn't say anything else until he'd settled himself next to Yuuta. "I'm not going anywhere."

Yuuta forced his sluggish muscles to move and curled into his side. "Thanks."

Sae-san shifted a bit to wrap an arm around him. "Don't mention it," he said, voice still a little funny.

Yuuta closed his eyes and sighed, tucking his face into Sae-san's shoulder. Before he quite knew it, he was asleep.

When he woke up, the apartment was still except for his own breathing, and the sheets next to him were cool.

Yuuta resisted opening his eyes for as long as he could, but when he did, they confirmed what he already knew: Sae-san had gone.

One night, he told himself, staring at the ceiling, was better than nothing. And nothing would have come of it anyway, no matter how much he wished otherwise. And surely, if he told himself that enough times, he'd be able to make himself believe it.

One thing was certain, and that was that lying in bed and wallowing in self-pity wasn't going to help. His alarm clock told him that it was going on ten-thirty, and that was plenty of time to shower, stop and grab breakfast, and find a new route to campus that avoided the restaurant, all with plenty of time to make it to his afternoon classes.

Yuuta took a deep breath and made himself get up, stretching out and grimacing at the soreness of muscles that hadn't seen that kind of treatment in a while. Aspirin was in order, for those and for the dull headache pinching his temples. So was a shower, and as long as he kept moving forward, one step after another, everything would be fine.

He just had to keep moving was all.

Yuuta turned the water in his shower on as hot as it would go, and stood under the spray until it ran cool, letting the water beat some of the stiffness out of his shoulders and back. He went through his mental map of the streets between his apartment and campus as he toweled off, trying to figure out which turns to take and what alleys he might cut through to get to classes. He'd just about made up his mind which route to take when he stepped out of the bathroom and the scent of coffee hit his nose.

Sae-san leaned around the corner of his kitchenette. "Hey," he said, "you hungry?"

Yuuta stared. "You came back."

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Just stepped out for some groceries. You really do live on takeout, don't you?" Sae-san asked, grinning crookedly.

"I told you that I can't cook," Yuuta said, and swallowed hard. "So... you just went out for real food?" He hitched the towel around his waist up a little bit and padded closer.

"Yeah. I kind of figured I'd be back before you woke up. You were sleeping so heavy that I didn't think you'd wake up so soon." Sae-san scratched the back of his neck. "Took longer than I expected."

Sure enough, there was a plastic bag on the counter, along with a cup of coffee to go with the one Sae-san was holding. Sae-san had unearthed his rice cooker and a couple of pans, and it looked like he had every intention of fixing breakfast.

"It won't be anything fancy. Hope that's okay." He was starting to look a little anxious around the eyes.

"I--it'll be fine," Yuuta said, carefully, because he didn't completely trust his voice. "No, it'll be perfect."

He guessed he hadn't been able to keep his voice even after all, because Sae-san put his coffee down and reached out for him. "Hey. You all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." He focused on Sae-san's chin. "I just... figured you'd gone, that's all."

Since he was looking at Sae-san's chin and not his face, he saw the convulsive movement as Sae-san swallowed. "No wonder you looked so surprised to see me," he said, and closed the space between them with one long step. "Sorry," Sae-san said, wrapping an arm around him. "I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking. I shouldn't have--sorry."

Sae-san's hand was warm and heavy on his back, and Yuuta let himself relax against him. "It's all right," he said, and slipped his arm around Sae-san's waist. "You came back."

"Of course I did," Sae-san told him. "I like you, you know."

He probably couldn't have stopped himself from smiling at that even if he'd wanted to. "Oh," he said, quietly, and peeked at Sae's face. "I like you too. Um. Kind of a lot." And even if that did make him sound like an idiot, Sae didn't seem to mind, and pressed him a little closer.

Yuuta made it almost two weeks only catching glimpses of Sae on his walk home and spending a lazy Sunday with him before he got fed up with not seeing him. He veered into the Rokkaku on the way home after a particularly frustrating tutoring session, too exasperated to care about the possible fall-out from his evening as a substitute waiter. When he walked in, Bane-san took one look at him and grunted, "Pay up," at Akaya-kun.

"Fuck, you couldn't have waited another week?" Akaya-kun complained as he dug out his wallet and counted off a handful of bills.

"I missed you too," Yuuta said, and took his seat at the end of the counter.

"Is that--?" Sae stuck his head out from behind the curtain that partitioned off the kitchen. "Yuuta." he said, sounding aggravated.

"Hungry," Yuuta told him, doing his best to look pitiful.

"I left you a bento this morning," Sae said.

"Lunch was a long time ago," Yuuta said, as sorrowfully as he could manage, and tried not to grin when Sae's mouth twitched. "I'll die of hunger before I make it home."

"Somehow I doubt that," Sae said, and vanished back into the kitchen.

Yuuta grinned and fished out his homework, and only then noticed that Bane-san and Akaya-kun were staring at him. "What?" he said.

"No wonder he's been in such a good mood lately," Akaya muttered, and pulled out another few bills for Bane-san.

"So," Yuuta said, draped across Sae's chest, very close to purring with satisfaction.

"So?" Sae echoed, voice a rumble beneath Yuuta's ear.

Yuuta nibbled his lip. "You mind if I ask you something?"

Sae snorted. "Ask whatever you want," he said, sliding lazy fingers through Yuuta's hair.

He nibbled his lip more, but he was committed now. "How come you're wearing this thing when you hate being in the yakuza so much?" Yuuta asked, running his fingers over the stylized R inked on Sae's shoulder.

Sae went still for a moment, and then sighed. "It's stupid, really," he said. "Tousan liked to gamble, but he wasn't nearly as good at it as he thought he was. When he died, his creditors came knocking, and we didn't really have the money to pay it off." He sighed again. "Bane and I were friends when we were kids, and he was the one who put me in touch with Ojii. Ojii gave me the money, and I quit school to go to work for his grandson." He huffed softly. "Like I said, it's kind of a stupid story."

"Oh," Yuuta said. "That... really sucks." No wonder he reacted the way he did to Yukimura-san.

Sae's muscles shifted under his cheek, like he was trying to shrug lying down. "It's not so bad. It meant that Neesan could get married respectably, and Kaasan didn't lose the house." He shifted again. "It could be a lot worse. Anyway, I'll have it paid off in a few more years."

Neesan? Kaasan? That was the first he'd heard about them. And a few more years? Sae's father must have spent all his time gambling to rack up that kind of debt. "What'll you do then?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe I'll retire to someplace warm and sunny and open up my own restaurant." Sae chuckled. "If Yukimura can stand to let me go, anyway."

"Would he keep you?" Yuuta asked him.

Sae's came up to rest on the back of his nape. "I drank his sake," he said, after a moment. "I took his mark. Those are pretty permanent things." He rubbed his thumb over Yuuta's nape. "It's not so bad, really. The work's easy, and the money won't be bad, eventually. Only thing I really miss is--" He stopped.

"Is what?" Yuuta prompted, when it became clear that he wasn't going to go on.

"Nothing. It's not important." And Sae coaxed his face up for a kiss.

Yuuta let himself be distracted by it, but didn't forget the conversation, even after they'd moved on to more pleasant activities.

December dwindled down to its last weeks and St. Rudolph closed for winter vacation, and the conversation that Yukimura-san had promised never materialized. Yuuta let himself be happy (or at least, as happy as anyone could be with exams looming) and enjoyed the luxury of having a lover who not only stuck around after they'd enjoyed each other, but also listened to him complain about his day and the idiot freshmen he tutored on top of feeding him regularly. Maybe it couldn't last forever, he told himself, but at the very least, he could enjoy every second of having Sae while it did. For his part, Sae didn't seem to mind that Yuuta wanted to linger in bed with him till the last possible minute, or that he spent so much time sitting at the Rokkaku's counter that Davide-san teased him that the seat was going to shape itself to fit him.

There was only one thing that marred winter vacation for him: New Year's.

"I don't see what the problem is," Sae said, watching Yuuta drop clothes into his suitcase haphazardly. "It's just your family, and I'm pretty sure you'll survive without me to cook for you for a couple of days."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that last part if I were you," Yuuta told him, and grinned at the way Sae tried not to smile at the compliment. "I'm going to waste away, just you wait and see."

Sae reached out and pinched the skin just above his hip. "Could do with a little wasting," he said, tone critical.

"Bullshit," Yuuta told him, and tackled him into the pillows to prove it.

"Seriously," Sae said later, with the suitcase on the floor and most of the stuff in it scattered across the room. "It's just your family. What's the big deal?"

"It's... just stressful, is all," Yuuta said, finally. "They... well, Tousan, anyway... he knows exactly how my life is going to go. He has it all planned out. It's a lot to live up to." Sae made go on noises at him, like he could tell that there was more to it than that. Maybe that was one of the drawbacks of having someone this close. Yuuta sighed and pressed his cheek against Sae's chest. "It's getting to be about time for him to try and persuade me to transfer again."

"Transfer where?" Sae asked.

"To another school. A bigger one, with a better name. You know, somewhere that would look really impressive on my resume." Yuuta sighed. "And move to a better apartment, or back home, or something. 'Cause, you know, I'm so much better than this." He tried to laugh, but it still came out sounding bitter.

"Well," Sae said, slowly, and it sounded like he was picking his words carefully, "you are, aren't you?"

Yuuta pushed himself up so he could look at Sae directly. "Why? Because my family has more money than it deserves?" He looked away from him, at the cheap second-hand furniture that crowded his efficiency. "I don't care if I am. This is what I want. Everything I want is right here, and I'm not giving it up until I have to."

"...until you have to?" Sae echoed.

Yuuta took a deep breath and looked back down at him. "I told you, didn't I? When I graduate, I get to go into Tousan's company. Someday I'll get to run it." Whether he wanted to or not.

Sae's face was still, and Yuuta couldn't tell what he was thinking. "So what's all this, then?" he said, and his hand sketched a gesture that encompassed the room and them. "Your wild oats?"

Yuuta flinched. "That's what Tousan calls it," he said, and had to look away from the expression in Sae's eyes. "I just... wanted to be able to do something for myself while I could, you know? Even if all that means is going to the university I wanted to go to, and taking a few of the classes I actually wanted to take. At least this is mine."

"I see."

Yuuta closed his eyes, because it didn't sound like Sae saw at all. "Yeah," he said, and pulled away from him, sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "Guess you're pretty angry, huh?"

"A little bit." The mattress creaked as Sae sat up too. "When were you going to tell me that this was just temporary?"

"I was trying to figure that out," Yuuta said, as Sae slid out of bed and began to pick up his clothes. "Are you going?"

"I need to--I need to think," Sae said, eyes on the floor as he hopped into his jeans.

"Oh..." Yuuta swallowed. "I guess I'll see you when I get back?"

Sae's fingers stilled for a moment on the buttons of his shirt, and then started moving again. "Sure," he said. "Why not?"

Yuuta translated that as a no. "I'm sorry," he said, as Sae scooped his jacket up off the back of the couch.

That earned him a tight-lipped smile. "Yeah," Sae said, "I know you are. I am too." He hesitated a moment. "Have a good visit with your family," he said, finally, and toed his shoes on.

"Yeah, thanks," Yuuta said. "Later, Sae."

Sae nodded to him, and then he was gone.

Yuuta waited until he was decently away before he punched the pillow. "Fuck."

Kaasan had managed to get everybody home for New Year's this year, so the table was crowded, what with Neesan's twins--old enough to be starting school in April, and how had that happened so fast?--squirming around all over the place, and Aniki's latest girlfriend blinking at the group of them, looking a little bit intimidated. Yuuta couldn't really blame her, because as soon as Tousan finished grilling Kenji-nii about his band and how it was doing, he turned to Aniki.

"Actually, I sold a couple of stories last month," Aniki said, perfectly composed, when Tousan asked him whether he was making any progress in the writing business.

"So what kind of money did you make?" Tousan asked, once the hubbub died down (Kaasan gushed and Neesan wanted to know which magazines she needed to purchase).

"Not enough to live on yet," Aniki said, his perpetual smile never budging. "But that's why I work at the paper."

"You'd make a better living working for me," Tousan muttered.

"Yes, but then I wouldn't have nearly as much time to write," Aniki said, unruffled. Yuuta could only envy how calm he stayed. He'd never managed to stay that poised when it came his turn for Tousan's questions. "The paper doesn't pay too much either, but at least I write every day."

"Bunch of foolishness, if you ask me," Tousan said. "At least your brother has sense enough to know where the money's at. Isn't that right?"

"Yes sir," Yuuta said, studying his chopsticks.

"I wish you would be as sensible as Yuuta is," Tousan carried on. "He never makes me worry all that much."

Yuuta thought of Sae, and Yukimura-san, and Atobe-san, and tried not to squirm.

"I'm sure Yuuta and I just have different priorities for our lives," Aniki said, still smooth and untouched. Yuuta wondered how the hell he did it. "Kaasan, may I have another helping, please?"

"Of course you can, dear." Kaasan turned her attention to Yuuta after she'd filled Aniki's plate again. "So, Yuuta, do you spend all your time studying these days, or do you make a little time to have fun?" she asked. Her smile turned mischievous. "Maybe even a little time for girls?"

This was a new wrinkle. Yuuta blamed it on Aniki's bringing Sachiko-san home with him.

"Of course he does that," Tousan sniffed. "A boy his age only needs his own apartment for one reason."

Yuuta squirmed as Neesan laugh. "Look at him blush."

"Does that mean you do have a girlfriend you haven't been telling us about?" Aniki asked, sugar-sweet.

"I don't have a girlfriend," Yuuta said, as firmly as he could manage, and it was nothing but the strictest truth. He probably didn't have a boyfriend anymore, either--not that it mattered here and now.

Tousan nodded. "That's right. Enjoy yourself now. You'll have plenty of time to find yourself a wife after you graduate."

Yuuta nearly choked on his tea. "A wife?" he said, strangled. That just set both Aniki and Neesan off laughing again.

Tousan wasn't laughing, although he was smiling. "Of course a wife. Someone to carry the family name on and all."

"I--um. I'm a little young, don't you think?" Yuuta managed.

"Oh, it doesn't have to happen right away." Tousan shrugged. "It's just something to be thinking about, you know." He tapped his chin. "That reminds me. Have you thought any more about finishing your degree at Tokyo University?"

Yuuta took a deep breath. "No, I really think I want to finish it at St. Rudolph," he said, and set his jaw. "They have a good program, even if it isn't as impressive as Tokyo's, and I'm doing just fine there, thanks."

That was more combative than he'd meant to be, or his family had really expected, going by the surprise on Tousan's face and the uneasiness on Kaasan's. Yuuta took a deep breath. "Sorry. I've... been stressed lately. And I really don't want to switch. Okay?"

Tousan pursed his lips, but Kaasan beat him to the punch. "Perhaps the two of you can talk about it some more later," she suggested. "Now, Sachiko-chan, what is it that you do for a living?"

Yuuta sighed and relaxed; there was that bullet dodged, at least for a little while.

Aniki found him later, when he'd retreated to his room to get away from their rampaging nephews and Tousan both. "So how are you doing?" he asked, taking possession of Yuuta's desk chair the way he'd always done when they'd been younger, before he'd gone off to be a writer and pissed Tousan off for that handful of years. "Classes going all right?"

"Yeah, they're fine," Yuuta said, closing the notes he'd been pretending that he was actually studying. "I'm going to be a grader for one my professors next semester." One of his chemistry professors, actually, but there wasn't really any reason to specify, was there?

"That's good," Aniki said, nodding. "I figured you'd do pretty well, even at a little place like St. Rudolph."

Aniki didn't mean to condescend, Yuuta told himself, even if he'd gone to Tokyo University, which was much bigger than St. Rudolph. He smiled. "Yeah, well, it's a good school. The science departments are top-rated."

Aniki laughed. "Yeah, but you're there for business."

That just showed what Aniki knew. "Written any interesting stories for your newspaper?" he asked, just to change the subject to something safer.

"Plenty. They've got me covering the crime beat right now," Aniki said. "I'm getting lots of material right now." All it took was an encouraging noise from Yuuta to spur him on. "There's lots going on in the yakuza right now. One of the big bosses just got himself killed the other day."

Yuuta felt his blood run cold. "Yeah? Who?"

Aniki shrugged. "Hyoutei's Sakaki."

Oh. Oh, shit. Well, Yukimura-san was probably happy about that. "Wasn't he, um, the head of Hyoutei?" he asked, carefully.

Aniki looked surprised. "Yeah, actually, he was. I didn't know you were that interested in what the yakuza did."

"I... it's interesting, I guess," Yuuta said, feebly. "So who killed him?"

"Oh, like I know." Aniki waved a hand. "Some are saying it was an inside job, and some are saying it was probably Yamabuki, since they're about the only ones big enough to challenge Hyoutei like that."

Yuuta wondered about that. "So who's taking over?"

"Someone by the name of Atobe. Sakaki's second-in-command." Aniki spun himself around in Yuuta's chair, looking up at the ceiling, mood changing. "It'd be fun to write about yakuza," he said, almost dreamy. "All those dangerous politics, where one mistake means you end up dead. I bet they'd make good characters."

"They're probably mostly just ordinary people," Yuuta said, thinking about the way Akaya-kun teased Bane-san, and Sae's hands on his skin.

Aniki snorted. "You just don't have any imagination," he said. "It's a good thing you're going to be the businessman and not me."

That stung. "I'm sure it is," Yuuta said, between his teeth, because that was all he could manage.

"Yuuta?" Aniki sounded startled. "Did I say something wrong?" He paused, and then looked embarrassed. "I didn't mean that," he said. "Just... you're much better suited to taking over for Tousan than I am."

"How do you figure that?" Yuuta asked, after a short struggle with himself.

"Oh... you're much more sensible than I am. Much more grounded. I mean, here I am romanticizing yakuza, and you're telling me they're just like ordinary people." Aniki laughed. "It's no wonder you always did better in science than I did."

"Funny, I just figured that was because I liked science," Yuuta told him. He tipped his head, studying the pink that ran across his brother's cheeks. "Just how much wine did you have with dinner, anyway?"

"Enough to deal with Tousan," Aniki said, and spun his chair again, tipping it back and looking at Yuuta upside down.

"And you're still conscious? I'm impressed." That explained why Aniki was being less circumspect than usual. "So where's Sachiko-san?"

Aniki waved a hand. "Neesan and Kaasan have their hands on her." He pulled a face. "There was a lot of giggling going on. I think they had the photo albums out."

Yuuta shuddered in sympathy. "Shit."

"Pretty much," Aniki agreed, and then he grinned, eyes bright, even upside down. "So. Tell me about her."

"About who?" Yuuta asked, blank.

Aniki's grin went even wider--it was the grin that reminded Yuuta of a cat looking at a mouse. "You know, the girlfriend you didn't want to talk about at dinner." He spun around again and sat up, eyes gleaming. "So is she completely unsuitable?"

"There isn't any girlfriend. At all." Yuuta folded his arms and glared at Aniki. "Don't be stupid."

"I'm never stupid," Aniki protested, and leaned forward. "I can tell there's someone, though. It's written all over your face. You have someone you have a crush on, Yuu-chan?" He lilted the nickname, hands clasped together. "Is she really pretty?"

"Shut up, Aniki," Yuuta said, and lobbed a pillow at him.

Aniki dodged it, laughing. "Let me guess--really pretty, and already someone else's girlfriend? Gorgeous but dirt-poor? Beautiful but too low-class to bring home to meet Tousan? Which is it?"

Yuuta threw the other pillow at him. "For fuck's sake, there isn't any goddamn woman, all right?" He leaned back against the headboard, scowling.

Aniki picked the pillow off his face and hugged it to his chest. "Well, there's clearly someone," he said, suddenly serious. "You wouldn't be this ticked off otherwise." He tipped his head to the side. "Did she dump you?"

"I don't want to talk about this," Yuuta told him, and scrubbed his hands over his face. "Can't you just leave it alone, Aniki?"

"No," Aniki told him. "Seriously, Yuuta, what is it?" He grinned again. "If you don't tell me, I'll find out some other way. I'm good at investigative reporting, you know. My editor says so."

"You wouldn't." But he would--he'd go poking his nose into Yuuta's life whether Yuuta wanted him to or not, and there was no telling what kinds of things he'd turn up that Yuuta didn't want his family to know.

Aniki smiled, like he knew he'd won. "Try me."

Yuuta clenched his hands. "Damn it." He took a breath. "Lock the door."

Aniki's eyebrows went up. "I don't think that's really--"

"Lock the fucking door, Aniki."

Aniki looked at him for a moment, and silently got up and turned the lock on the door, and then sat on the foot of Yuuta's bed. "All right," he said. "What's the big secret?"

Yuuta drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. "Promise me you won't tell anyone about this," he said.

"Like I would," Aniki sniffed.

"You have to promise me, Aniki," Yuuta said, and gripped his knees so his hands wouldn't shake. Aniki would keep a promise, though, if he could get him to make it.

Aniki sighed. "All right, I promise. I won't tell anyone." He tucked a leg under himself. "So what is it? You get some girl knocked up?"

"That's about the last thing I'll ever do," Yuuta said, fighting down a bubble of laughter that tasted like hysteria. "You know, seeing as how I like boys, and all."

Aniki laughed. "That would be kind of--wait, what?" He sat up straighter. "You like what?"

"You know, other guys. For sleeping with," Yuuta told him, and if nothing else, this was worth it just for the way Aniki's eyes went all bulgy at the clarification. "I... had a boyfriend, but I think we broke up this morning." Aniki was staring at him, and kept staring without saying anything until Yuuta looked away. "So anyway, now you know why I didn't want to talk about it at dinner," he said, as cheerfully as he could manage.

"No shit," Aniki managed, finally. "You--seriously, you like guys?"

Yuuta hunched over his knees a little more, looking at the bedspread instead of whatever was on Aniki's face. "Yeah, seriously."

"But--you can't," Aniki told him. "You have to do Tousan's business thing."

"Don't you think I know that?" There was that hysteria again. Yuuta dug his fingers into his knees, trying to control himself. "Why d'you think he broke up with me? It was because he found out I'd have to do it anyway when I go to work for Tousan." And he couldn't blame Sae.

Aniki was quiet for a little bit, and then he chuckled. "Well, it's not my cup of tea, but as long as you're happy..." He paused, mouth quirking. "I do have to ask, though... you're being discreet, right?" Yuuta jerked his head up to snap a reply, but Aniki kept on talking, tone light. "I mean, because if anyone finds out about this, Tousan will have a fit, and probably disinherit you, and then I'd have to go and run his company instead of you, and that would suck."

"Oh yes," Yuuta heard himself say, mouth moving without pausing to consult his brain. "I'm being perfectly discreet, Aniki, so don't worry. You won't have to do a damn thing you don't want to do. I've got it all taken care of for you. When I graduate next year I'll come home and be the good son so you don't have to, and I'll work for Tousan and I'll marry and I'll have kids and someday I'll run the company, and maybe if I'm really damn lucky, I won't be completely and totally miserable while I do it. But don't worry, Aniki, no matter what I do, I'll be discreet." He stopped, breathing hard around the hard knot of anger in his chest, and tried to smooth his face back out. "If you don't mind, I've got to study. Finals are coming, you know."

Aniki was staring, and he wasn't smiling or laughing anymore. "I... that was a joke, Yuuta," he whispered.

"And it was real funny," Yuuta said, and picked up his notebook again, flipping it open. "Don't you hear me laughing?"

Aniki leaned forward, and covered the page with his hand. "Yuuta," he said, soft and urgent, "you do want to take over for Tousan, don't you?"

Yuuta looked up, slowly, into Aniki's eyes, wide and blue and worried. "What did I say I wanted to be when I grew up?" he asked, slow and tired.

Aniki's smile looked forced. "For a while you said you wanted to be a dinosaur."

"Yeah, a dinosaur." Yuuta looked away. Stupid Aniki and his stupid jokes. "I went to St. Rudolph because of its excellent dinosaur program."

The silence that met that was a loud one, until Aniki cleared his throat. "But..." he hesitated. "But Tousan expects you to take over."

"Yeah, Aniki, I know." Yuuta leaned his head back against the wall, staring at the pattern of stars he'd put on the ceiling when he was ten. "Someone has to do it, and you made it damn clear that it wasn't going to be you."

"Didn't you... didn't you want to?" Aniki asked, and at least he sounded aghast.

"Not particularly." He traced out constellations in the patterns he'd put up, Orion and Andromeda and Aquarius. "I'd kind of planned on being a scientist, you know?" He looked back down, at Aniki's stricken expression. "It just wasn't in the cards."

Aniki sat up. "Yuuta, I didn't know. I'm sorry. You never seemed to mind--"

"What was the point in minding? You put your foot down and here we are." Yuuta smoothed out the notebook page, fingers sliding over the carefully-transcribed reactions. "Tousan decided I'd take your place, and since there's no one else to do it, I'll get by somehow." He shrugged. "Seriously. I need to study, Aniki."

Aniki didn't move immediately, and Yuuta thought he was going to stay and say--well, Yuuta didn't know what there was to say, and perhaps Aniki didn't either, because he stood up and let himself out without saying anything else. He closed the door behind him very carefully, and when it clicked shut, Yuuta let out the breath he'd been holding.

He ended up not getting any studying done at all.

Aniki stayed out of his way for the rest of his visit home, which was fine by Yuuta, who kept to his room a lot with studying for finals as his excuse. It was a good one, as far as excuses went, since not even Tousan could disapprove of his trying to earn better grades.

Yuuta did catch Aniki with his head bent close to Neesan's a couple of times, deep in a discussion that that would stop whenever he came into the room. That wasn't anything new; they were both closer in age to each other than they were to him, and they'd conspired with each other for as far back as Yuuta could remember. Anyway, he supposed it probably didn't matter all that much if Aniki shared his secrets with Neesan, because if nothing else, his sister knew how to keep a secret.

All the same, it was a relief to get away from their sympathetic looks and go home to his apartment, where he didn't have to pretend to be happy to keep Kaasan from hovering, and didn't have to deflect Tousan's hints about Tokyo University. And since his apartment was quiet with Sae there, and without Sae calling him, conditions were good for studying.

He did his best to persuade himself that this was a good thing, and threw himself into his books.

The Thursday before vacation ended, his phone rang, with a number that blocked his caller id. "This is Fuji," he said, expecting to have to give a phone solicitor an earful.

Instead he nearly dropped his phone when Yukimura-san said, "Good afternoon, Fuji-kun. I was wondering whether you had any plans for this evening?"

Oh, shit. Oh, shit shit shit. Yukimura-san hadn't forgotten about him. Yuuta gulped. "No, sir, I don't."

"Very good," Yukimura-san said. "Will you have dinner with me?"

"I, um. Yes, of course, I'd be glad to," Yuuta said, trying to keep control of his breathing. There would be time to hyperventilate after he hung up.

"Excellent. I'll see you at the Rokkaku at eight," Yukimura-san told him, and disconnected.

Dinner with Yukimura-san. Oh, holy shit. Yuuta dropped his phone on the bed and rubbed his eyes, trying to stave off panic.

The restaurant was busier than Yuuta was used to when he walked in. Davide-san was the one on duty, and met him at the door. "Hey," he said, voice pitched low as unfamiliar faces turned to look at them. "I'm glad you're back home and all, and I'm sure Sae is too, but tonight's really not good. Yukimura-sama's meeting someone for business tonight."

"I know," Yuuta told him. "It's me."

Davide-san's face went blank. "Oh," he said. "I... oh." He stepped back from Yuuta and called, "Ryou! Show Yukimura-sama's guest back, please."

Yuuta looked at the counter--he couldn't help himself--so he saw the way Sae's face went white before he turned on his heel and ducked into the kitchen. Then Ryou-san came over and took Yuuta's coat for him, and ushered him into the back room, every bit the professional. He brought Yuuta a warm towel for his hands, and then a cup of tea, and then Yukimura-san swept in and Yuuta sat up straighter.

At least he had Kuwahara-san and Marui-san with him tonight, and not Niou-san or Yagyuu-san. Yuuta hadn't been sure he'd be able to stay calm with Niou-san grinning at him. "Good evening," he said, when Yukimura-san sat down.

"Fuji-kun," Yukimura-san said, the pleasant smile on his face not giving anything away. "How are you this evening?" He wiped his hands on the towel Ryou-san brought him, and accepted his tea.

"I'm fine, thank you. And you?" Yuuta said, years of having to make small-talk at Tousan's parties taking over for him.

Yukimura-san's smile turned a touch wider. "I couldn't be better."

Ryou-san came back with a tray of appetizers, and set them down silently before slipping back out. "That's good," Yuuta said, when he'd gone, and took a breath. "So, what can I--"

Yukimura-san held up a finger. "Let's not spoil the food by discussing business while we eat," he said. "You're on winter vacation right now, aren't you? How are you enjoying it?"

Yuuta did his best not to think about what it meant that Yukimura-san knew that. "It's been very pleasant," he said, and started in on his appetizer, which was something tiny and probably absolutely amazing, knowing Sae, but he too nervous to actually taste it.

"Vacations ought to be," Yukimura-san murmured, between bites. "I trust that you visited your family for New Year's?"

Yuuta nodded. "The whole family was home this year."

"That must have been lovely. I've been wondering--is your brother the same Fuji Shuusuke who writes?" Yuuta nodded again. "I'd thought so. He's very talented."

"Aniki is good at everything he does," Yuuta said, which was the truth, no matter how maddening he found it sometimes. "He wants to write novels."

"I don't doubt that he will eventually," Yukimura-san said. "I'll have to keep an eye on him."

Yuuta tried not to choke on his tea. "He'd be flattered to hear that," he managed to say, after an uneasy moment.

Yukimura-san's smile turned amused at the edges. "Thank you." He paused as Ryou whisked in again to clear the appetizer plates away, and came back with their soup. "I'm surprised that he chose to write, though. It's such an uncertain career."

"I think it's what he's always wanted to do," Yuuta said, and somehow found himself telling Yukimura-san the story of Aniki's rebellion, back when Yuuta had still been in high school and Aniki had decided to switch his major to journalism. The telling of it took him all the way through the soup course and into the entree--well, it had been an epic battle, no less because Aniki had been downright melodramatic at points--and Yukimura-san laughed at points like he was honestly amused.

Then Yukimura-san asked him about his own major, and Yuuta told him a little bit about business before he got sidetracked by the chemistry courses he preferred. Yuuta suspected that he was probably babbling because of his nerves, but Yukimura-san kept nodding and asking questions, and didn't seem to mind that he kept going.

Maybe being a good listener was one of the job skills a yakuza boss needed, or something, Yuuta thought privately.

Before he quite knew it, Ryou-san had cleared away their dessert plates and had brought them coffee, and had set a bottle of sake and two cups down, and had withdrawn again.

"Now," Yukimura-san said. "To business."

Yuuta tried not to freak out visibly. "Ah, yes. Of course." He folded his fingers around his coffee. "What can I do for you, Yukimura-san?"

"I wonder," Yukimura-san murmured. He took a sip of his coffee. "Have you heard about the upheaval in Hyoutei?" Yuuta nodded. "I rather thought you might have. I'm looking forward to working with Atobe."

Yuuta was sure he did. "Um, congratulations," he said, for lack of anything better to say.

Yukimura-san's smile went wider. "You're wondering why I'm telling you this," he said. Yuuta nodded again. "It's thanks to you."

"Me? What did--how did I have anything to do with it?" Yuuta asked, stomach knotting.

"You were in the right place at the right time." Yukimura-san smiled over the rim of his coffee cup. "You see, Fuji-kun, Rikkai is not so large and powerful yet as I would like it to be. When I negotiate with larger organizations, this places me at a disadvantage."

"Oh," Yuuta said. "So, uh, when Atobe-san saw me here... oh."

"You tipped the balance in my favor." Yukimura-san bent his head just a bit. "For that, I thank you."

"I--you're, um, welcome." Was this what Yukimura-san wanted? To say thanks for the favor? "Is that--"

"No." Yukimura-san's mouth curled. "I asked you here because I have a proposal for you."

The bottom dropped out of Yuuta's stomach. "You want to make that alliance real, don't you?"

Yukimura-san's chuckle was warm. "I like that you're so quick, Fuji-kun."

Oh... fuck. Fuck. "Yukimura-san... I'm sorry, I can't--"

Yukimura-san held up his hand. "Do me the courtesy of hearing me out first." Yuuta shut his mouth and nodded, mind racing. "I am well aware that you will not be in a position to speak for your father's holdings until you inherit them. What I am asking is that you be willing to open an alliance with Rikkai once you have." He sipped his coffee. "In addition to that, I understand that you don't have a passion for the day-to-day work of running a business. I could provide an administrator to take over those duties for you, which would leave you free to pursue your own interests." He smiled. "This administrator, of course, would have both of our interests at heart."

For a moment, the prospect of being free--at some point in the distant future, of course, but someday was better than never, surely--was so tempting that he nearly said yes. Then he quashed it. "As much as I would like to say yes, Yukimura-san, you know that I can't."

Yukimura-san didn't seem perturbed by the refusal. "Don't be hasty," he said. "I'm open to negotiation. What else might I do to persuade you?"

Yuuta shook his head. "No, there's--"

"I understand that your budget is restricted, and that limits your living options," Yukimura-san interrupted. "Perhaps a nicer apartment in a better neighborhood?"

"I have all the room I need," Yuuta said, "and I like how close I am to campus." And if he'd wanted something better, Tousan would have given him that already.

Yukimura-san pursed his lips. "A vehicle, then?"

"More trouble than it's worth."

Yukimura-san snorted. "I see. Well, I know that I can't tempt you with women," he said, lightly enough. That was true, but it triggered a treacherous thought that Yuuta couldn't quite stop. Yukimura-san must have seen some of it cross his face, because he smiled. "But perhaps there is something I could tempt you with."

Yuuta stared at him, torn, and then looked down at his coffee like he could find an answer in it. Yukimura-san let him be, until finally Yuuta looked back up at him. "Sae," he said. "His debt. When it's paid off... would you let him go?"

Something flitted over Yukimura-san's face; it might have been surprise. "Excuse me?"

"When he finishes paying off the money he owes," Yuuta said. "Could you let him stop being a member of Rikkai? He--that's the reason he's here, the only reason, as far as I can tell, and once he's done, he won't really have any reason to stay, unless you make him."

Yukimura-san had tucked away his surprise as Yuuta explained himself. "Is that what you want?"

"Would you do it?" Yuuta countered.

"I'd regret letting such a good chef go, but I suppose so," Yukimura-san told him.

Yuuta was glad his hands were on his coffee cup, so they couldn't give him away by shaking. "And what you want from me is for me to let Rikkai have a say in how business is run, once I take over?"

"That's it, exactly."

Yuuta took a breath. "And nothing will happen to hurry things along?"

Yukimura-san snorted. "No, nothing will happen to your father."

Yuuta took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling. When he let it out again, he looked at Yukimura-san and nodded. "Okay. You have a deal."

He couldn't read Yukimura-san's expression as the man looked at him. "Very good," he said, and reached for the sake. He poured it, and offered one of the cups to Yuuta. "To the day you inherit," he said, and toasted him.

"To doing business," Yuuta said, proud of himself for keeping his hand from shaking, and downed the sake.

Yukimura-san smiled, bright and pleased, as he set his cup down. "I suppose you have finals coming up, don't you?" he murmured. "Lots of studying to do?"

"Some, yes," Yuuta admitted.

"Then I won't keep you from it." Yukimura-san rose, and Yuuta followed suit.

Before Marui-san could open the door, Yuuta blurted, "Can I ask you a favor, Yukimura-san?"

He stopped short, eyebrows going up. "What sort of favor?"

"Don't tell Sae about this."

Yukimura-san laughed. "You want to be able to tell him yourself?" he asked, indulgently.

"I--no, it's--we're not--not anymore," Yuuta said. "I just--he shouldn't feel--obligated."

Yukimura-san's expression went a little funny. "I see," he said, after a moment. "He won't hear a word from me. I promise."

Yuuta bowed. "Thank you."

"You're quite welcome," Yukimura-san said, as they went out into the restaurant. "It's a pleasure doing business with you, Fuji-kun."

"I--thank you," Yuuta said, as something hit the floor behind the counter with a crash. "If you'll excuse me--"

Ryou-san was already there with his coat, and Yukimura-san was nodding. "Of course, of course. Good luck with your finals, Fuji-kun."

"Thank you," Yuuta said, hurriedly, and hustled out of the restaurant without meeting anyone else's eyes.

The good thing about finals was that between the emergency tutoring sessions he had to conduct and the group projects that needed finishing and his own last-minute cramming, he was too busy to even think for a few weeks. When he emerged on the other side of them, thin and hungry, he was almost resigned to the fact that he hadn't heard from Sae since New Year's and the fact that he'd pretty much signed over his family's businesses to Rikkai. It wasn't so bad, he told himself; Sae'd be better off this way, and it wasn't like most other major companies out there weren't entangled with one yakuza group or another somehow.

And then his father called and told him to come downtown to his office, and didn't give him any reason why when he asked.

His first reaction--and his second, and his third--was to panic. How had Tousan found out? Had someone told him? Yuuta told himself not to be ridiculous, since surely Yukimura-san had been discreet, and tried to convince himself that Tousan didn't know what he'd done for the entire train ride downtown.

His father's secretary buzzed him right in when he reached his father's office. Tousan was standing when he came in, hands folded behind his back as he looked out the window.

"Yuuta," Tousan said without even turning around.

"Sir?" Yuuta ventured.

"It seems we have a problem."

Yuuta froze, terrified. "We do?" he squeaked. "What, um, kind of problem?"

"It seems that you haven't been honest with me." Tousan turned, and his face was grim. "Have you?"

Oh, fuck, he did know about the deal with Rikkai. "Tousan, I can explain--"

"I don't believe I need to hear it again," Tousan said, which was more arbitrary than he usually was. He was dead, Yuuta decided. Really, really dead. "The only question I have is what we're going to do about it."

Yuuta had actually thought about that a little bit already. "You could disinherit me," he suggested, as meekly as he could. "That might fix things."

Tousan looked startled. "That's a little more drastic than I was thinking," he said, and then laughed. "You always do go to extremes, boy."

Yuuta just looked at him, off-balance. "Then... what are you going to do?"

Tousan pulled out his chair to sit, and sighed. "What I probably should have done from the beginning," he said, "and stop overlooking the one of you who really does have a passion for this."

"Sir?" Yuuta said, since that seemed the safest response.

Tousan made a face at him. "Your sister, Yuuta. She always did have a knack for making money, and now that her boys are ready for school, she wants to come back to work. And that lets you off the hook."

"...it does?" Yuuta asked, mind spinning. It sounded like Tousan was saying that Neesan would--but surely that wasn't right.

Tousan waved a hand at him. "It's not that I don't think that you'd make a good businessman, or that I don't know you were ready to die trying. It's just that your brother told me that your heart isn't in it." He smiled, a little sadly. "And I'm not an ogre, no matter what my competitors call me."

Yuuta found that he had to sit down, and collapsed into the nearest chair. Tousan didn't know about Rikkai, and--the impossible seemed to be happening. "I don't have to--" he began, and couldn't finish it.

"Not unless you want to," Tousan said. He adjusted a stack of papers on his desk, lining the corners up precisely. "I thought that perhaps you might want to finish your degree doing something else instead. Something scientific, perhaps. I suppose that'll mean some extra schooling while you catch yourself up. I'll help with that, of course." He looked up, and if Yuuta hadn't known better, he would have said that Tousan was uncertain. "If you want my help, that is."

"I... have most of the requirements, actually," Yuuta said, through his bemusement. "It shouldn't take too much."

Tousan's mouth lifted at the corners. "I didn't think it would."

"No, I'll just have to talk to my advisor, and--really? You don't mind?" he asked, as it began to sink in that he was free.

Tousan just looked at him. "What I mind is that I had to hear this from your brother," he said. "Don't look like that. He told me for your own good, and your sister is already making plans to turn this place upside down. What I don't understand is why you didn't just tell me yourself."

"Oh." Yuuta swallowed. "You, um. Weren't this relaxed when Aniki said he didn't want to do business."

Tousan had a good poker face, but Yuuta saw him wince, just a bit. "I see." He looked away and shrugged. "I think your brother and I learned a lot from each other," he said. "And since you didn't go out of your way to annoy me as much as humanly possible, it's easier to be... understanding."

Yuuta supposed he couldn't argue with that. He cleared his throat. "Thank you, Tousan."

"Hmph. Go along, now," Tousan said, fussing with his papers. "I'm sure you have people you need to talk to."

"I... yes," Yuuta said, and nearly floated out the door.

It wasn't until the cold February air hit his face that it occurred to him that he was going to have to explain this to Yukimura-san somehow.

In the end, the only way he could think of to get in touch with Yukimura-san was through the Rokkaku, so he steeled his nerves and walked over that evening. The place was nearly empty, the way it'd been the first time he'd ever eaten there, and both Bane-san and Sae stopped talking when he walked in.

"Hey, stranger," Bane-san said, after a beat of strained silence. Sae didn't say anything. "Finally get tired of conbini food?"

Yuuta lingered just inside the door, uneasy. "I, um, need to talk to Yukimura-san."

Bane-san snorted. "And you came here?"

Yuuta twisted his hands together. "Couldn't figure out where else to go," he said. "But I really do need to talk to him. It's about our, ah, arrangement."

Sae's jaw went tighter at that, but he still didn't say anything. Bane shrugged. "I can pass a message along, I guess," he said. "What do you want to tell him?"

"Er, that I'm not, um, Tousan's heir anymore." Sae's shoulders went still when he said that. "Um, that's it, really."

Bane-san whistled. "I guess he'd want to know about that, yeah."

The smile felt tight on his face. "That's what I figured." He turned around.

He froze when Sae spoke up. "Aren't you going to stay and have something to eat?"

For a second it hurt to breathe. Then he smiled over his shoulder. "Naw. I think I've imposed enough," he said, and went out before either of them could reply.

Yukimura-san called him not too long after he got home again. "Is it true?" he asked as soon as Yuuta answered his phone, voice tiny and small over the crackling connection.

Yuuta closed his eyes at that chilly tone. "Yes, it is. Neesan's going to take over instead of me." He sat on his bed and waited for the fallout.

"I see."

And then Yukimura-san went silent for long enough that he felt compelled to fill up the hissing silence. "I'm sorry, Yukimura-san. I didn't know this was going to happen, I swear. It's just that Aniki told Tousan that I actually sort of hate business even though I made him promise that he wouldn't say anything, and--"

"Enough, Fuji-kun." Yuuta shut up. "I suppose this means that there's very little chance that you'll end up inheriting now, doesn't it?"

"Very, very little chance," Yuuta agreed. "I'm sorry."

"Very, very little doesn't not mean impossible," Yukimura-san told him, brisk and businesslike. "In which case I will hold you to your agreement should the very unlikely occur."

Yuuta's throat constricted with sudden terror for his father, and more importantly, his sister. "I see," he said, and his voice sounded strangled, even in his own ears.

Yukimura-san's snort carried over the fuzzy connection clearly. "Relax, Fuji-kun." He sounded amused. "I'll include your sister under the same terms as your father."

For a moment, he was too relieved even to speak. When he found his voice again, he whispered, "Thank you." Tousan was safe. Neesan was safe. He probably couldn't ask for much more than that. In fact, he probably shouldn't. He took a deep breath anyway, and asked, "Since I'm probably not going to inherit... what about Sae?"

Yukimura-san actually chuckled at that, although Yuuta couldn't see what was so funny about the question. At least he didn't sound irritated by it. "The terms of our agreement didn't make any provision for your not inheriting, so our agreement about Saeki stands as we originally set it. Did you want to renegotiate them?"

"No! I mean... no, thank you, but no."

"I didn't think you would," Yukimura-san said. "More's the pity. I suppose I'll have to abide by them."

Yuuta let out a breath. "I... thank you, Yukimura-san."

Yukimura-san snorted again. "What are you thanking me for? We made an agreement, and I'll honor it." He paused. "I trust that you'll do the same if it becomes necessary."

"Of course I will," Yuuta said. "You'll, um, understand if I hope very much that I won't have to."

"I rather thought you might feel that way." Yukimura-san paused again. "I do have one request, Fuji-kun."

Yuuta swallowed, but there wasn't any way he could say no, not when the universe had just dumped nearly everything he wanted into his lap. "What is that, sir?"

"Enjoy your freedom. I believe you've more than earned it."

Yuuta let out a breath. "Yes, sir. I will, thank you."

Yukimura-san laughed again. "Yes, I think you will. Take care of yourself, Fuji-kun."

"I will," Yuuta said, and then Yukimura-san had hung up on him.

Not half an hour after that, someone hammered on his door until Yuuta put his game down and answered it. "What--the hell?" he asked, as Sae stared at him, out breath and red-faced.

"What terms?" Sae demanded, as Yuuta stared at him.

"I--aren't you supposed to be at work?" Yuuta asked.

"I'm taking the night off," Sae told him, waving it aside impatiently. "What terms, Yuuta? What did you agree to and what the hell do I have to do with it?"

"I, um." Yuuta cleared his throat. "Maybe you ought to come in?" If Sae was going to yell, which was looking pretty likely from the way his voice kept going up, then it'd be better if he did it inside the apartment instead of on the doorstep.

"Fine." Sae brushed past him and kicked off his shoes, and planted himself in the middle of the floor. "Well?"

Yuuta shut the door. "How did you even find out about that?" he hedged.

"He stopped by after you came in, and he had you on speakerphone in the office," Sae told him. "And stop trying to stall."

"I'm not stalling! ...much." Yuuta moved past him and sat on the edge of his bed. "You heard most of it. I was supposed to form a business relationship with Rikkai when I inherited. Now I've got a snowball's chance in hell of inheriting, so I'm probably off the hook."

"You are so stalling. I already figured that part out." Sae folded his arms. "Where do I fit in, that's what I want to know. Am I getting traded off to be your personal chef or something?"

Too bad he couldn't figure out what the hell Sae was thinking. "No, it's not like that." Yuuta looked at the floor, hands dangling between his knees. "I just asked Yukimura-san to release you from Rikkai once you finish paying back that money you owe."

"Say what?" Sae demanded, so Yuuta repeated it for him. "You're joking, right?"

"No." Yuuta peeked up at him; at least the surprise looked like it'd wiped the anger away, at least for the time being. "He really wasn't supposed to let you find out about this." Although he supposed Yukimura-san had honored the letter of his request, if not exactly the spirit. "I just thought that since I was probably going to end up giving into him eventually, and he was in the mood to negotiate and offer favors and stuff, I ought to take advantage of the situation. That's what you're supposed to do when you're negotiating, and this seemed better than a new apartment or a car or something, and--fuck. You're really pissed, aren't you?" he concluded, as the shock on Sae's face gave way to something blank and still.

"You are such an idiot," Sae said, very softly. "He would have let you say no. He's not unreasonable."

Yuuta squirmed, and looked away from Sae's face. "I couldn't be sure," he said. "He always seems so... well, you know. Besides..." He stopped. No, that wasn't appropriate.

"Besides what?" Sae asked. Yuuta shook his head, and Sae crossed the room and caught his face. "What?"

Yuuta tried to look away, but Sae's hands were large and warm and wouldn't let him. "Besides," he said, and closed his eyes. "It seemed stupid for both of us to be miserable, if there was something I could do about it."

"You idiot." That sounded less angry than exasperated, so Yuuta chanced glancing up at him from beneath his lashes. Sae was shaking his head. "I don't deserve this. I'm not worth it."

Yuuta opened his eyes and frowned. "Shut up. Yes you are." Sae was still shaking his head. "No, really. You are. You're completely worth it."

Sae's mouth kicked up at the corner, rueful. "Yeah, I'm so worth someone signing himself over to the yakuza." He cuffed Yuuta, but his hand was gentle. "Moron."

"You are," Yuuta told him, knocking his hands away, frustrated. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I'd do anything--" Whoa. No, that was too much to say, too heavy. He cleared his throat, embarrassed. "Anyway, it's done with and you can't do anything about it."

Something moved in Sae's eyes--yeah, that looked like an awkward question coming up. "Can I ask you something?" he said.

"Sure, if you want, I guess," he said, cautiously.

Sae squatted so that he was looking at Yuuta directly instead of staring down at him. "Why'd you stop coming by?"

That wasn't exactly the question he'd been expecting. "Seemed like you wanted me to stop," Yuuta said. "You know, given how pissed you were, and all."

Sae's forehead went furrowed as he frowned. "How pissed I was."

"Yeah." Yuuta shifted his weight a little. "You, um. Seemed pissed, anyway. And I couldn't blame you, since I'd kind of dragged you into dead-end relationship and all." Sae was frowning harder. "You... you were pissed about that, right?"

"Sort of, although I probably could have figured it out myself, if I'd just done the math." Sae looked away from him. "So you stayed away because--"

"I thought you'd, um, prefer it that way." Although maybe he'd been wrong about that.

"Ah. And it wasn't because you'd gotten what you'd wanted from Yukimura?" Sae asked him.

Yuuta stared at him. "What?" he said, outraged. "No! Don't be stupid!"

Sae's mouth twitched a bit. "The timing was a little suspicious, you know."

"You thought I--damn it, Sae, you asshole." Yuuta smacked his shoulder, hard, which made Sae yelp. Good. "Holy fuck, I wasn't sleeping with you because I wanted to get to him, I was sleeping with you because I was--because I like you. I stopped showing up because I thought you'd just broken up with me and it'd be really fucking awkward to keep mooching dinner off my ex-boyfriend. Idiot."

Sae rubbed his shoulder. "You didn't have to hit me," he muttered. "I mean, it's not like it hasn't happened before. It was a logical conclusion--" He stopped when Yuuta growled. "Look, it's happened before, okay? Someone comes in, tries a little flattery to get in with the boss, and goes away when they get what they wanted."

"Oh." Davide-san had said something sort of like that, hadn't he? Yuuta sighed and studied his hands. "Sorry. I... guess you're not an idiot." He cleared his throat. "Probably shouldn't have smacked you, either."

Sae made a noise that was probably agreement. "So what are you going to do now that you don't have to take over for your dad?"

That was something he could answer. "Call my advisor and change my major, to start with." He smiled a little at the thought. "I guess I'll see from there."

"So you get to do everything you want now, huh?"

Something about the way Sae said that, all casual and diffident, made Yuuta look up again. "Yeah, I... yeah, I guess I do."

"Well... that's good." Sae hesitated. "You know, you didn't have to stop mooching dinner off of me."

"I kind of figured that part out," Yuuta told him.

Sae nodded. "I thought that maybe you had." He wet his lips. "You could start doing it again, if you wanted."

"What if I wanted more than that?" Yuuta asked, pulse starting to move faster.

Sae set his hands on Yuuta's knees and leaned forward into his space. "I guess you could have more, if you wanted it," he murmured, hands sliding up Yuuta's thighs, warm through his jeans.

Yuuta cupped his hands around Sae's cheeks. "Yeah?" he said, very softly. "What if I wanted everything?"

Sae's mouth curled. "I figure you can have everything, if you want it," he said, as Yuuta drew him closer.

"I do," Yuuta whispered. "For as long as I can keep it."

"Then it's yours," Sae said, just before he closed that last bit of distance and pressed their mouths together.

Yuuta sighed and leaned into him, kissing back until Sae pulled back just a bit. "What?"

"Just promise me one thing," Sae told him, and kept on going before Yuuta could agree or disagree. "Don't go making any more deals with Yukimura for my sake. Okay?"

"Sure," Yuuta said, giddy. "I already have everything I want, anyway."

Sae smiled and pushed him back against his pillows. "Seriously?" he asked, leaning over him.

Yuuta grinned up at him. "Seriously," he said, and pulled him down. "You said you took the night off?"

"Yep," Sae said, against his mouth.

"This is the best day ever," Yuuta said, and kissed him again.

- end -

Comments, as always, are welcome!