"You know, Soubi, I'm one of the only boys in my graduating class who still has his ears."

I should have been expecting it. He hasn't said anything about it in a few days. I roll my eyes slightly, continuing to cook as I listen to him. "Is that so, Ritsuka?"

"Yep," he replies. I hear him jump off of the counter he's been sitting on, and I feel his arms wrap around my waist a moment later. As he lays his head on my shoulder, I realize that he's taken another growth spurt. If he keeps growing at this rate, I think to myself, he'll be towering over me by his graduation day. "Even Yayoi lost his."

"Really?" I ask, pretending to be shocked. "How scandalous." I pat the hands currently playing with my belt and they loosen. "Dinner's almost ready. Would you mind getting plates for me, Ritsuka?"

He complies with a shrug and I can't help but glance at him out of the corner of my eye and smile. He's been hinting about wanting to lose his ears for some time now, but every time he starts, I ignore his implications. At almost eighteen, he reminds me, he has patiently waited six years for it. And as much as I would like to finally rid him of his ears, I had promised him I wouldn't until he was older. Seventeen, however, seemed old enough for Ritsuka.

"There are more girls that haven't lost their ears than boys. Yuiko still has hers," he continues slowly. After a moment, he adds thoughtfully, "But I think Yayoi is trying to talk her out of them."

"What will we do with him?" I say, shaking my head in mock shame. It's a little game we've been playing for the past few weeks or so, and I know that Ritsuka enjoys it, whether he admits it or not. I think that it lets him believe he's going to talk me into consummating our relationship now, when in reality it will only happen after he's a legal adult.

We sit down to eat like we always do and Ritsuka keeps talking. "I'll bet you anything that by graduation I'll be the only boy with ears."

I can't resist lifting his chin with one finger and kissing the tip of his nose. "You shouldn't make such a bet with the man who has the power to decide the outcome."

"Who said I was going to loose them to you?" he asks, transforming into this lovely creature that had only appeared recently, one who liked to flirt with me and did it often. He tilts his head slightly to the side, blinks rather slowly, and looks down at his food. After taking a bite of his rice, he glances up at me with an expectant expression on his face. "Well?"

"Don't talk with your mouth full, Ritsuka," I reply easily. "It's unbecoming of you."

"I asked you a question, Sou-chan," he reminded me, using the nickname he'd picked up from Kio. It is infinitely more tolerably when Ritsuka says it.

I steadfastly ignore his line of inquiry, picking up a piece of chicken with my chopsticks. "How was school today? Has Kimeino-sensei graded your paper yet?"

I allow myself a small smile when I hear him sigh. "He gave me a ninety-something. Said I did very well except for being a little long-winded." Ritsuka rolls his eyes and compains under his breath, "He assigns a ten page essay, and complains that I wrote too much."

"Yours was fourteen pages long, Ritsuka."

The boy beside me only rolls his eyes and takes another bite of his food. He frowns slightly when I continue the conversation. "I saw Shinonome-sensei in town today. Did you know she was married?" At Ritsuka's slight nod, I add, "She told me she's expecting. I truly am happy for her, that she's found someone."

"I'm just glad she finally lost her ears," Ritsuka replies. "It was getting too depressing to think about."

"Ritsuka," I scold lightly.

He looked up at me with wide eyes. "You can't tell me you weren't thinking the same thing!"

"That doesn't matter," I reply. "You shouldn't speak of other people in such a manner, especially not your teachers."

"She's not my teacher anymore," he retorts quietly. He stands up suddenly and picks up his empty plate. "I have homework to do."

I sigh, realizing that nothing would be accomplished by aruging with him while he was in a foul mood. "Would you like me to--?"


After the dishes are washed and put away, I walk over to where Ritsuka is doing his homework. He is bent over his English textbook, writing his vocabulary words and their Japanese equivalents on a blank piece of paper. I stand still in the dorway and contemplate sitting next to him. He notices me but doesn't speak, and I realize that he's still angry with me. Making my decision, I walk over to the bed we share and sit beside him. A rebellious piece of hair falls in his face, and I tuck it back behind his ear. He flinches away from my touch and slams the book, getting up and walking back into the kitchen. I hear a sigh come from him and frown slightly in consternation. In the past five years he has become more forward with his emotions, never afraid to tell me whether he loves me, hates me, or wants to kill me. He is taking a step backwards now. "Ritsuka," I call, still sitting on the bed. "What's wrong?"

He stays silent for a long time before I make out a timid, "You."

"What's wrong with me?" I hear movements in the next room, and before long I see him standing before me. He sits on the bed uncertainly and I hug him tightly when he buries his head into my chest, the familiar stance of an embarrassed Ritsuka. He sighs softly, and I kiss his forhead and cat ears. They flatten out against his head, telling me that they are the source of his worries. In their new position, I can clearly see the small diamonds that hung there. It is a new fad among young people with ears, the piercings bringing attention to and proudly announcing their virginity. For Ritsuka, however, it had been more an issue of his trust for me than pride. He had asked me to pierce his cat ears for him, just as I had asked him when he was twelve. He had told me that he liked the "full circle" idea of it all.

I hear him take a deep breath and say, "Why won't you take my ears, Soubi?"

"Because, Ritsuka," I reply softly, "I promised you that I wouldn't until you were older. Until you were ready."

"I am older now," he retorted. "I'll be eighteen in seven months. How is that not old enough?"

I sigh, knowing this will not be an easy discussion. "Just a little longer, Ritsuka. You always tell me you've waited five or six years for it. Another seven months--"

He pulls away suddenly, crossing his arms. "Another seven months shouldn't matter then." He looks up at me to continue, and I see anger and betrayal in his eyes. "When will I be old enough, Soubi? Or maybe that's the problem. Am I too old for you? Was Kio justified in calling you a pervert? Cause you never had any trouble trying to get in my pants when I was younger." He stands up and faces me, indignation clear on his face. "What is it, Soubi?" he yells. "Can you only get it up for little kids?"

I see a tear roll slowly down his cheek, which he savagely wipes away with his sleeve. I take a deep breathe and choose my words with extreme caution. "Have you ever...thought about how this might affect others, Ritsuka?"

"Who else but us matters? It's no one's business but ours that--"

"Have you honestly never thought about how your mother would react if she saw her underage son without his ears? She will be at your graduation ceremony next week, you know."

"But I don't live with her anymore," he replies smoothly, sitting down once again next to me and burying his face in my chest. His next words come out slightly muffled. "Her opinion doesn't matter to me. Shouldn't matter to you either."

"You may not live with her, but she is still your mother. Untill you turn eighteen and are a legal adult in the eyes of the law, she still has a say in what you do and how you do it." Stroking his hair a little to calm him down, I continue, "Do you remember that night a little over a year ago when you came to my house after she beat you, the night we discovered your true name? What started the argument?"

Ritsuka sees the point I'm trying to make and gives in, sighing slightly. "I told her about us."

"And...?" I prompt gently.

"And she told me that no son of hers was going to loose his ears to 'some pervert' at sixteen."

"Exactly. And the deal is," I add, tipping his face up so he is looking at me, "that you can live in my house as long as you obey her rules until you turn eighteen, at which time you can do as you please. She wants you to go home with her after your graduation ceremony so she knows you're safe that night. What do you think she'll do if she sees you have no ears and you are alone with her in that house?"

Ritsuka's eyes grow very wide and he gasps quietly. He looks down sharply, his mind working hard to find a hole in my theoretical set of events, but there is none to find. He pulls away from me after a moment. He stays quiet for some time and I see more tears run down his face. "Soubi, I didn't think that..."

"I know. That's exactly why she struck that deal in the first place--she knew that if you lost your ears before you graduated, she could punish you after the ceremony." He slumps against me and starts to cry freely. I had hoped that he would figure out his mother's plan on his own, that I wouldn't have to point out her cold-hearted duplicity. Our arrangement had led him to believe she didn't care anymore or that she wouldn't say anything to him. I suppose he believed she approved of our relationship now, which is far from the truth. Ritsuka cries for an hour, almost making himself sick. When he does quiet down and I hear no more sniffles, I find that he has fallen asleep in my arms. I pull the sheets out and lay him down on the bed, pulling the quilt back over him and kissing his forehead. I sit next to him for a long moment and let my thumb caress his still damp cheek, and I think to myself that he looks so very serene in his sleep, as if he had not a care in the world.

Opening the nightstand beside the bed, I pull out the mostly empty pack of cigarettes that lie within, the ones that Ritsuka calls my Emergency Stash. I have nearly given up smoking for him, but their call is particularly strong when I am under stress. I almost cannot hear my own thoughts over their call tonight, and as I step outside to give in to them, I glance back at the troubled young man sleeping in my bed and whisper, "I love you, Aoyagi Ritsuka."