Author's Notes: Have I mentioned how much I love my readers? Has there ever been a doubt in anyone's mind? I feel like all of you deserve a special gift from your favourite fanfic writer. So, here is the latest chapter of Continuance for your reading pleasure.

Many thanks, as always, to my readers and fans. You are what keeps me going, and that's not an exaggeration when I say that. The more I hear from you and the more I learn what I'm doing right or wrong, the more I want to treat you all to more chapters.

Here are my responses to my magnificent reviewers, this time in a very specific order!

No, not really. No particular order, as usual:

axelanthony: First off, welcome! And thanks for the wonderful review. I can't say I've ever had someone or someones fanboy to my chapters before, or at least if they do they've never said it that way, so thank you for that – knowing that people like my work is gratifying, but knowing that said work has such a strong effect really makes my week. I find that a lot of people mistake silent protagonists for god-characters given their simple lack of personality. 'That's why people can make up whatever they want for the character,' some argue, while I'd say that not everyone's very good at creating balanced and flawed characters. Thus, I try to make all my characters feel like real people. Even people who are very good at some things are going to fail in others, and that's an important balance. Anyway, I'm getting off-topic. As for the others, Naoto and Kanji and Chie and such, I get the feeling that they all deserve a happy ending after everything they've gone through, and I want them to have that in the most realistic manner possible. So anyway, thank you for reviewing, I hope that you'll review again, and enjoy the show.

MegaRizwan20: The graduation scene was actually really educational given that I got to research Japanese graduating traditions rather than use a North American scene and hope no one noticed. Souji and Yukiko will always be in there somewhere, even if it's only a phone call or a mention, because while I enjoy exploring the dynamics of the other relationships, that's not what I started off for. And as for Chie and Kou, thanks for the praise, and I hope that you like where I'm going with them.

Xoraan: You always say the nicest things. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that I've remade the game in my own image, though that is certainly high praise, but I will say that I aim to be as faithful to the source material and the characters as I can. To do less would be an insult to them, and they are far too awesome for me to be careless with. And if Souji and Yukiko are what you're here for, then I think you'll like this chapter. Thanks again!

Sleepyreader319: Well, since you asked so nicely…

currency rotation specialist: Given how well P4 did with its characters, not giving them their due would feel like a colossal mistake. And there's so much more to see with them, as this chapter shows.

Kyral: Given that the 'Inaba investigation team family' has had some pretty crazy group experiences, one might assume that it involved something involving the girls and their cooking. Or maybe everyone at a night club. Or them at the beach and hanging out. Suffice it to say, we will get there eventually. Thanks for the review!

Meia 42: Thanks for the review. As for the bit on relationships, I don't think I could have said it better myself. Sometimes people mesh well together, like Souji and Yukiko, and other times they don't, but that just makes where that couple goes and how they get there even more interesting. And I will make sure that Chie and Kou get their due, along with Yukiko and Souji, of course. As for whether Souji was just being helpful or giving advice or happened to be playing cupid, well, I'll let you decide that. Thanks again, and enjoy!

Rick Crash Tracy: Thank you, I certainly intend to, and maybe I can create some new fans of Chie and Kou while I'm at it.

Guest: Thanks for saying so. And it's only going to get better from here on out, so stay tuned!

james: Thanks, I thought so too. Took some doing to make it work out properly, but I think that I did, and doing something so few others have tried is pretty enjoyable. Like jumping out of an airplane with a close friend and you don't know which of you has the working parachute. As to whether or not Souji and Yukiko go to the same university or not, you'll have an answer in this chapter. And Megumi and Yoshiro will be around in the near future, but no spoilers.

darrelodin: Speaking of Christmas… It's good to know that my writing can be classed as cathartic, since that's one of the effects it has on me. Glad you're liking it, thanks for the review, and I hope you still like Souji and Yukiko, because we see a lot of them in this chapter.

Ulcaasi: Chie is pretty sexy, I agree. Not in the standard North American way, which is a blight on human body image, but definitely sexy. And I'm glad you're liking the ride, because I'm a long way from finished.

As a minor aside, I am taking some liberties with the Japanese university testing system, primarily on when they would normally be taken and when the university year starts.

A few housekeeping details. First, the usual disclaimers. I don't own the IP that is Persona 4 or any aspects of the product itself, aside from a copy of the game. I'm not making any money on this, mean no infringement to the parent company, and will take the fic down if it becomes that big of a deal.

Second, bring a hand fan and some insulin for this one, because a couple parts get pretty hot (at most, activities of a sexual nature between two persons of legal age), and one part gets kinda sweet. You have been warned, though none of that should be a problem if you've gotten this far.

So, enjoy! And Merry Christmas everyone.

Chapter 24

June 9th

Had his parents ever visited Inaba, he was certain they would have gone crazy from the slow pace of life. So attuned to the rushing currents of corporate work and striving against every other co-worker while equally being as polite to them as they could be was a natural reflex to them, part of how they thrived, and he could only imagine how much fidgeting there would be as they tried to find something that would require two days of work jammed into a ten-hour timeframe.

He'd give them eight days, he thought with a laugh as he walked along the Samegawa, just past the familiar gazebo. Anything beyond that would stretch their nerves so thin that they could have been used as rice paper. And with so few people around who eyed each other's back and had desk drawers full of sharpened knives, they would be the talk of the town, always watching out for something that would probably never come. Which would only exacerbate those frayed nerves even more, and the thought made him grin.

Of course, all of that was on the condition that they ever came to Inaba, and while he wouldn't openly stop them from coming to visit, for Nanako's sake, he certainly wasn't going to suggest it to them. Or invite them. Or even bring it up in the most unlikely of throw-away comments.

It was an easy thing to sympathize with, however, used to the bustle and noise as he had been. He'd been ready to start climbing the walls when he first arrived, but the quiet started to grow on him after a couple months, as had the slower pace of life. There was nothing wrong with walking slowly along the river trail, no pressing urgency to his strides. If anything, the laid-back days and familiar scenery were a reprieve from how hectic he knew things were going to get. The uneventful walk was certainly better than planning for jobs at his new university and applying for scholarships and talking to academic officials. If he knew before that he would have to stay on hold for that long while some self-important snob told him that his name was rather common so it would take some time to find his records, he would have chosen a different university, and definitely a different department to work at. But today was the day he'd gotten all his arrangements made and his loose ends tied up, and he was celebrating by meeting his girlfriend for some one-on-one time.

The thought brought a smile to his face, and with ideal timing since he headed up the path toward Yasogami High. The memories were there, soaked into the windows and walls and the very rocks, voices from all angles in his mind as he headed to the staircase along the side of the building. He thought of everything he'd seen since that day in April years ago and let the smile come out, laughing at the parties of the investigation team and the holidays they'd spent together while he climbed the stairs. And by the time he passed through the gate leading to the roof, all thoughts of his parents and attending university were missing from his mind. And he had her to thank for it.

Yukiko waved him over when she saw him from her perch on the roof, same as where they'd met for their team meetings and the 'tofu incident' as Chie had come to calling it. "You made it," she noted happily with two bento boxes from Junes next to her.

"Wouldn't miss it," he replied, stepping past the vents and air conditioners out of habit and sitting next to her as her hand found his almost immediately.

Whatever he was going to say was cut off by her darting forward to kiss him on the cheek, holding close and kissing him a few more times before pulling back to look him in the eye with a smile that put the sun above them to shame. "I've missed you," she murmured. "It seems like every time I think I'll have a day to myself, something else comes up."

He raised a hand to brush her hair back over her ear, noting how she leaned toward his touch just a little. "I know the feeling. You wouldn't think residency and class registration would be so much work. But we'll have to make the most of the time we have left, so I hope you don't mind if I invite you over as much as I can."

"It sounds like you have a good reason for me to come over and visit," she began with a smile, nodding for him to continue.

"I do indeed," he told her with a matching smile. "You're going to come over to my place so we can make sure you know how to cook before you head off to university. And if anyone asks why I'm teaching you, you can say that the cooks at the Inn are busy with guests and don't have the time to show you the ropes."

"Really?"

"Of course. I promised you lessons, and with everything to do with the universities out of the way, there's no reason not to cover that. Unless something's come up?"

She shook her head immediately. "No no, of course not. I just thought you might have forgotten."

Souji smiled while trying to look wounded. "Not a chance. I've been looking forward to it. Same as I do every chance we can be together."

That brought a chuckle out of her, enough that she covered her mouth with her hand. "You're terrible. Your lines are getting worse and worse every day."

He shrugged with absolute confidence. "Even being terrible at something takes effort. So, what do you think? Is that a valid enough reason to see your boyfriend?"

"It will do," she told him almost dismissively, though her smile was happy. "I brought us lunch, I thought you might be hungry." She indicated the two wrapped bento. "I was going to make it myself, but I got so busy at the Inn that I didn't have the time."

"These will do fine," he told her calmly, keeping his thanks for her busy schedule to himself. They opened their respective boxes and ate mostly in silence, passing the time with idle conversation between bites and swallows. Given that the boxes weren't especially large, they polished them off shortly and sat together, looking out over as much of Inaba as they could see.

"Here," she said suddenly, shuffling a few feet away. "I want to try something. Lie down."

He raised an eyebrow at her words. "Lie down? I'm not that tired."

"Try it," she insisted, patting her skirted legs. "We've never done this before."

It was unusual, especially since he couldn't recall the last time anyone had volunteered to let him rest on them. But the anticipation in her eyes broke down what sparse resistance he felt at resting his head on his girlfriend's pretty lap, so he spun ninety degrees and lowered himself back, letting her move and adjust so that the back of his head met two firm but soft thighs. The tension went out of him when she rested a hand on his shoulder to hold him in place. Silence reigned over them for a minute while smaller adjustments were made, but he had no complaints. She was almost as soft as his pillow, and he was curious about how she'd react if he told her as much. "If I fall asleep, you're carrying me down," he warned her with a smile.

"That's if you can sleep through hitting the roof face-first," she shot back without pause. There was no hesitation or guilt in her voice. It was a world away from when he'd first arrived. Everything had changed since then.

"You've changed a lot, you know," he noted, shifting a bit so his head was touching her stomach, breathing in the scent of her skin and summer and light clothes washing detergent. "Back when I moved here, I don't think anyone would have expected Amagi Yukiko to let a guy use her lap as a pillow. Nor would she be cracking jokes about pushing him over in his sleep."

"That was a long time ago," she assured him with a light chuckle. "There was so much to do with the investigations and everything else in Inaba. It wouldn't have been fair if I stayed behind and let everyone else do the work."

Her words brought a flash of memory to his mind, back to when her being dressed in pink reminded him of wilting cherry blossoms. "You have come a long way though," he murmured. "Back then you always seemed like you were trying so hard, but you never ended up happy for it, and… Ah, never mind." He brushed at the air with a free hand. "No need to bring up the past like that."

"No," she told him. "Keep going. I don't mind. I want to hear what you have to say." He kept silent for a moment, and she smiled a bit as she looked down at him. "I'm not afraid of what happened back then. I know what I was like, and it just means I have something to measure against. If that's what you were going to say, though, then I'm alright with it."

"It isn't," he replied after a moment. "I was just thinking of the sad-looking girl in the rain, and how it seemed like she couldn't get anything out of life. I could sympathize with that feeling, because it was like seeing myself in the mirror. Then everything started to happen with the murders and the Shadows, and suddenly what I did mattered. It made an impact on other people. And I think that's how it was with you, too."

"That's close," she told him quietly, her face unreadable.

He chuckled. "This is stupid, but when you asked for my help in front of the bookstore back then, I thought about what your Shadow said. I was learning how to open up and help everyone, but I wanted to be that prince that your Shadow talked about. A knight in shining armour to protect the damsel in distress."

She looked down at him, incredulity in her eyes even as a smile tugged her lips up.

"It's true," Souji admitted with a laugh. "I wanted to help you, to protect you from whatever came at you, and be that person for you. I didn't realize back then that that was precisely what you didn't need. You weren't a flower that needed shelter or a princess in a tower with a dragon at the bottom."

"Then what was I?" she asked as she gently ran her fingers back and forth through his hair

"You were a girl who needed a friend more than a protector," he responded candidly. "I was of far more use when I was helping you on the path you chose instead of clearing the path so you wouldn't have to work at it. I could have tried to be that prince, but that wouldn't have helped you in the long run. Wouldn't have been good for either of us." He went quiet for a little while, thinking it over. "And that was for the better. Because you make for a much better friend than a damsel. Walking beside you has been everything I didn't know I wanted and needed, if that makes any sense."

"It does," she told him quietly, still softly massaging his scalp. "I've felt the same way for a long time, that having you beside me was what made all the difference in the end. I could never find the right words though."

"Then it worked out well for both of us then," he concluded rather proudly.

Things went quiet between them for another few minutes before she took a breath and looked down. "Thank you for being there," she murmured, pulling his hand up to kiss the back of it.

He returned the gesture and looked up with a smile. "Thanks for needing me."

June 15th

There was a certain gift that came with cooking, a state of mind or sense of accomplishment born from creating something and making it just right. Souji had discovered it when he realized how independent it made him, not being bound to instant noodles and fast food because the pots and pans in his parents' kitchen saw as much use as an ice machine in Siberia. He'd talked to Kanji about it, and it seemed that the younger teen felt much the same when he was sewing and working with his hands. Much like Naoto's detective work and Yosuke's continued purchasing of rare CDs, it was how they got 'in the zone' and found their focus. Almost Zen-like, if he wanted to be philosophical about it.

There was nothing philosophical about Yukiko's prior attempts to destroy his kitchen and create a compound more caustic than pure hydrochloric acid. Sure, she hadn't meant to, but her insistence that rice vinegar and baking soda and curry powder would 'add depth' to the food became very difficult to curtail. "Start at the basics," he told her again and again. "Don't start with something exotic until you know how everything's going to taste."

"The basics are bland," she replied, hair tied back with a red band as she looked unfairly cute in a starched white apron and a determined expression on her face. "What's the point of making food if it isn't going to taste good?"

Souji chuckled, pointing at the bowls on the table. "Even so, you can't throw what you think is going to taste good together and expect something even better. I like pomegranates and shark fin soup, but I'm not going to mix them in a blender and expect it to come out perfect."

She smiled confidently, doing the same. "Of course not. You should add cornstarch to that so it'll be thick enough to bake."

When he first offered to teach her how to cook, he didn't realize how much he'd be learning the virtue of patience. So he took precautions. Determined to get his point across, he invited her over for cooking lessons and brought down his old cookbooks to teach her some basic recipes. When she tried to get exotic and raid his fridge for 'special additions,' she was stymied by the lack of anything else besides the ingredients for what they would be making. Fruits, vegetables, fish, soup stock, Dojima's beer, dinner leftovers, and even Nanako's cake from her friend's birthday were nowhere to be found. Only the items that were required could be seen, much to her suspicion if the narrow look she gave him was any hint at all. "Are you trying to tell me something?"

Her tone brushed by him as he smiled and held his hands out in a 'what can you do?' manner. "Perish the thought, my dear. Now, find what you need and let's get to work. You'll save a lot of money if you can cook for yourself."

So they began her formal education in the culinary arts. She knew the measurements easily enough, and seemed almost dissatisfied when what was in the recipe was all they needed to make their dishes. Rice balls, which formed into rabbit shapes perfectly at her touch, wonton soup set to a simmer, and sweet and sour pork in a very simple sauce. "There," he told her as they finished cleaning up. "That's all there is to it."

Yukiko seemed less convinced. "Are you sure? Shouldn't we add–"

"Nope. It's not in the recipe, so let's leave it alone." He brushed off what little flour had managed to get on him and stretched near the dinner table, cracking and popping from fingers to feet.

"I don't know, though," she mused, staring at the dishes while shedding her apron. "Will it taste alright? It doesn't seem like we added very much to the sauce."

Souji shook his head and leaned against the table, perfectly happy with the smells drifting through the house. "Humans have pretty simple palettes, Yukiko. There's no need to try and cram everything into one dish if you're going to make more than one course. And even then, there will always be next time."

"Did you ever do this with your past girlfriends?"

He turned and raised an eyebrow, curious from the sudden jump in topic. That wasn't like her, prying into his past so suddenly. "No," was his cautious, level reply. "I didn't know how to cook very well back then. And the opportunity never came up."

"Oh." Her expression was curious and lacked any form of shame or contrition. "I just thought you might've. You never talk about them, so there might've been something wrong with them or a bad memory or something."

Ah. So it was time for that conversation. At least she didn't sound jealous. Souji turned to her with a lopsided smile and crossed his arms. "Not really, but it's no more strange than you not talking about a past boyfriend, right?"

There only time for one blink before she answered. "That's because there aren't any."

He raised an eyebrow. "None? Not even a guy in grade school who hung around you all the time, or–"

"No. Nothing like that," she told him immediately.

Her abruptness stopped him in his tracks. Not hard or cold, but so certain with no alternative or other possibility even being entertained that he wasn't sure what to say for a moment. It made sense, when he thought about it. When he'd moved to Inaba, she was distant and withdrawn, and Chie had been an excellent guard against unwanted attention. Having Ryoko and Katsushiro-san for parents probably meant that most guys would have been lucky to only be platonic friends, too. "I guess that makes sense. That's too bad – exes can make for some pretty good stories," he replied dryly.

"Sorry to disappoint you," she replied without the slightest look or hint of contrition. If anything, she looked expectant and ready and a little bit smug, like she knew where the conversation was going and how little choice there was in the matter.

Little brat.

But thinking about those days brought back all the crap associated with them, and his grin melted off his face like hot wax. "Are you sure you want to hear about them?" he asked a little distantly, a familiar grey pall sucking the colour from the room around him. Even her usual striking red and white leeched away like clothes after too many runs through the wash.

"Is it a bad topic to bring up?" she asked quietly, in tune with his mood and showing a shard of concern in her eyes.

Souji was quiet for a moment before giving a heavy sigh and running his hand back through his hair. "No more than my parents, I guess," he told her finally. "It's not something I like to bring up though. For the same reasons." There was a long silence then. Maybe she was waiting for him to continue, or maybe she didn't know what to say. But it stretched and cracked and whatever reasons and excuses he had to keep silent fell away the more he thought of bringing them up. Souji sighed before he held his hand out. "Come here. Let's talk about it and get it out in the open."

"You don't have to," she told him. "And I mean that. If it's not pleasant, then you don't need to relive it because I asked."

"No, you're right. I don't talk enough about this stuff, and it's not like it's so terrible a thing that I can't talk about it."

He rested back against the arm of the couch while she sat near the middle, sitting close to him and resting an arm along the back of her seat. Her prior smugness and humour was gone, as was any suspicion. Her eyes were large and dark and seemed ready to take in whatever he had to say.

It really wasn't fair, her looking so willing to help and listen. How was he supposed to keep secrets when she looked at him like that? He sighed and shook his head before collecting his thoughts.

"I wouldn't say I had a lot of girlfriends," Souji began. "And I know that sounds like the beginning to a lot of excuses and bad break-ups, but I think it's more that I've gotten along with girls better than guys when I look at the numbers. Girls tended to be a bit smarter and more mature while most guys were idiots. Either way, I had more friends who were female growing up, so it seemed like I had a lot of girlfriends when I was going through school."

"Does that mean there were a lot of…" she narrowed her eyes a little, "almost-girlfriends?"

Souji shook his head. "I wouldn't say so, no. Someone looking at me from the outside would probably think so, and maybe I was less aware of things back then compared to now. I'm not really sure. But for the ones whom I would call girlfriends, such as they were back then, only two qualify."

Yukiko nodded and shuffled a bit closer, their knees touching, and she took possession of his left hand and wrapped her fingers around it, gently tracing around his scars.

"My first girlfriend was what you might call a first love." He watched her for any sign of jealousy or discomfort, but when she just tilted her head a little, he continued. "This goes back to two schools before I moved here, when I was around fourteen. Kanashita Ayumu seemed like a carbon copy of me. Smart, quiet, cute for her age, and pretty shy. But when she came out of her shell and started talking, she actually had a pretty cool sense of humour." He chuckled at the memory. "There weren't a lot of people who knew this about her, but she had some interesting pets. A macaw she'd trained to hold conversations with, and it got so good at imitating voices, so she said, that it could pretend to be her mother and tell the school secretary that she'd be absent from school. I have no idea if it was true, but she was pretty convincing when she talked about it. Then there were her lizards. Bearded dragons. You'd swear they were part kitten though, because they practically purred when they climbed on people. And they got along fine with the bird, if you can believe that."

"I hope that's not something I have to worry about in the future," she remarked with a smile.

Souji let out a puff of air, smiling a little. "No, I don't have the mindset for pets. I live out of a suitcase these days. Anyway, Ayu was my first serious girlfriend. And by serious I mean that I asked, she accepted, and we did the sorts of things kids that age do. Went to the movies, cut class to go to the festivals when they were in town, became friends with each other's friends, and spent as much time as we could together."

She tilted her head, curious. "How long was that?"

The answer was on his lips as soon as she asked. "Almost two years. That we lived within a few blocks of each other helped things, too. My parents were already busy with their work and were never at home to bother me or get in the way, and the housekeepers they hired were okay with me never being around."

"It sounds like you were happy." Her tone was soft, almost lost because he was mired in his memories.

He tightened his grip on her hand until she looked up so he could smile at her. It lasted until she returned it, then it died off with his next words. "I was."

Yukiko took a long breath, and Souji knew what was coming next. "If that's the case, then what went wrong?"

"Nothing. We didn't have a falling out or a serious break-up or screaming matches. We were actually thinking of ways to make sure we'd be in the same classes from then on, and even had plans for the summer already lined up. Trips, festivals and fairs, everything." Souji's eyes narrowed, and he couldn't keep the ice out of his voice. "The problem was my father. We were living in Nagoya when all this was happening, but a position opened in Tokyo that, to use his words, couldn't be passed up. I learned about it when he picked me up from school, one of the six times he's ever done that, and the last time I ever let him. He told me we were moving right away, and I thought he was joking. Thing is, he doesn't have a sense of humour that doesn't involve mass layoffs or corporate mergers, and when I thought there would be time to say my farewells to everyone… well, I was wrong.

"To put it into perspective," he continued, voice harder than railroad spikes and twice as sharp, "he told me about this on a Thursday, and we were in Tokyo, moved and unpacked, by that Sunday."

She let out a breath, understanding emerging across her face. "So that's why you don't get along."

"It's number two on a very long list."

"How did Kanashita take it?"

"Badly," Souji replied simply. "Ayu knew what my family situation was like, but the distance was the real problem. All the plans we'd made were pointless, the hopes we'd had of going ahead in school together, well, those went up in flames, and given that the move was because of a promotion and not a temporary project or assignment, I wouldn't be going back. I didn't have the money or the resources to visit, and when I started to crash in school because I was around complete strangers, I lost my cell phone until my grades improved." He barked a cold laugh, his smile as brittle as frosty glass. "That didn't help. It took me almost eight months to get back on my feet, and when I found the time to write letters by hand, there wasn't a lot that I could say. We tried keeping in touch, but she had problems with her own family and couldn't stay in touch for very long. Her father'd always had a weak constitution and ended up overworking himself to the point of passing out. It took a long time for him to recover."

"That's terrible," she murmured. "Didn't your father care? That almost seems inhuman of him."

"He eased up a bit when I told him what it meant to me," Souji conceded. "Then he told me to focus on my studies so I didn't miss out on any opportunities. My mother was a little better – she promised to get me my phone back if I worked hard for it, but then projects came up and she had to stay at the office for sixteen hours a day, so that promise fell by the wayside."

"But you did talk to Kanashita again, didn't you?"

"Not really, no. By the time I'd gotten everything sorted out, Ayu and her family had moved away, and the people at her house had nothing specific to go on for clues. The other kids I knew thought I'd snubbed her and told me off, or they just didn't know themselves. Last I heard, she and her family had moved for a better job opportunity for both her parents. But I never got a letter stating her new address or phone number, and it sounds like she'd gotten so busy that her family was her primary concern. When I thought about her afterwards, I still had no clues to go on, and no idea what I would've said even if I did. So that's how my first real relationship ended."

"That… couldn't have been easy."

Souji shrugged. "It is what it is. But that's the worst of it. It's not like I staggered from one bad relationship into the next."

"But there was one more, wasn't there?"

"Yeah. My last girlfriend I didn't have nearly as strong a connection with." He gave a cold snort at the memory. Yukiko watched him quietly, and he knew that his eyes had glassed over with that same apathy, that distance, that had weighed down his shadow like a ball and chain when he'd arrived in Inaba. But he didn't hold it back. She had asked, and he promised to be honest with her, even when it was hard. Especially when it was hard. "Akamatsu was like a girl out of a manga. Funny, cute, smart, popular. All the things that would make anyone shine, and she did that very well."

There was a hard edge in his voice, but Yukiko didn't flinch. Her expression didn't change either. Instead of looking even slightly uncomfortable or edgy, she was watching him. And holding onto his hand, he realized. When had that happened?

"But when things feel too good to be true, they usually are. Akamatsu was everything that should have made me happy to be around her, but it always felt like something was off. And I could never pin it down. She was nice to others, always on top of what was going on around school, and seemed like she had a lot of friends. But I played it safe and kept to myself." He gave a shrug, looking past Yukiko's face and straight into his memories. "Maybe I was still smarting from what happened with Ayu, expecting the bottom to fall out of things if I got too attached. I'll never know. But I can say that there wasn't much of a spark with her. Not a lot of chemistry even if we got along pretty well in class and after school. Most things we talked about, we agreed on, now that I think about it."

"What went wrong?"

"I'm not sure when or how it happened, but it seemed like I suddenly stopped being interesting to her. Word on the grapevine was that there was a new guy, another transfer student, who'd caught her eye. I had been different, interesting, and that's what she wanted to be near. When I didn't qualify anymore, I wasn't worth hanging onto." He felt her stiffen up at his words, and stroked the back of her hand in response.

"Then she didn't deserve you," Yukiko declared with a cold ebony fire in her eyes. It took a few minutes to calm her down, and Souji felt rather pleased with how seriously she took the slight against him, real or imagined.

"It doesn't matter now," he told her calmly. "Anyway, if you believe that side of things, then she always wanted to be in the spotlight with whomever was popular at the time. I'm not sure if that's true or not, because there were days when she was distant and closed off rather than friendly or outgoing. Maybe she had a hard time really trusting people. I'm not sure."

"Would it have made a difference if she did?" Yukiko asked quietly. "If she didn't care about you then, I doubt she would have committed to anything serious."

"I'm not sure. Like I said, there wasn't much of a spark between us, so it's hard to think of us going further than where we were. Might also be that I wouldn't have been on my guard if she were more open and we could have made something happen." He shook his head, coming out of the memories and leaving them behind as he looked at her. "But nothing did happen. She moved on and I transferred here about eight months later. I'd given up on girls by then and just focused on school.

"That's it. All my sordid relationships before now." He gave a dry chuckle. It didn't hurt as much, talking about them now. "I don't think you'll have to worry about any late-night phone calls or unexpected visits."

"Thank you for telling me," she told him, moving forward to kiss him on the cheek. "Those weren't… what I was expecting. I'm sorry I brought them up."

He shook his head. He hadn't been saying those words to assuage any guilt she might have felt – he genuinely felt better after sharing his past with her. "Don't be. You said I had to open up about these things, and you were right. It hurt when it happened, but I'm over it now. Besides, it's how I know that this is the real thing: you're the first one to make me feel this way." He lifted a hand and brushed her hair back. "Even Ayu didn't get this far with me. Not even close."

If he was expecting her to be bashful or thoughtful, he would have been disappointed. Instead of backing away from his old wounds carefully or giving him a pep talk, she latched onto his last sentence and played it up. She leaned forward with sparkling eyes and a full-lipped smile, almost close enough for their noses to touch. "Not even close?" she repeated teasingly. "Why's that?"

"You're amazing," he told her simply, peering at her with the same infectious humour that pushed away his thoughts of the past like morning light on shadows. "That's all there is to it."

But she shook her head and smiled insistently. "No no, that's not all there is to it. You have to tell me what I'm doing right so that I can get better."

Souji's eyes narrowed playfully. "You're really getting pushy, you know that?"

"And you love it," she shot back. "Come on and tell me."

He rested his hands on her back, slowly pulling her forward while staring her in the eye, feeling that familiar arousal roiling under the surface. He glanced down to her lips, a full, pink bow that was always softer and far more addictive than he remembered. Then down, down, to her shoulders, just the right width and size. He began massaging the base of her spine, feeling her quiet moan as she shifted back and forth to get closer to him, so much so that she rose up a little on her knees and straddled him.

That wasn't an accident though. Her movements made her breasts jiggle and shift under the square neckline of her shirt, which was exactly where he was looking. She knew it, and as soon as he felt her fingers running through his hair, he lifted his right hand to rest between her shoulder blades. His left ceased its massage and settled firmly on her backside, feeling the toned curve through her skirt. Soft but firm with just the right amount of give. She was stiff above him, watching closely, and he decided to pay her back for before by slowly squeezing and releasing and rubbing around her rear, feeling the tension between them tighten like piano wire.

"Souji," she breathed, staring at him with increasingly dark eyes while her breathing picked up. And the edge of her shirt rose and fell faster. Her fingers flexed in his hair, back and forth, like she was waiting on something. Or wasn't certain.

He brushed both possibilities aside and pulled her down, kissing her hard. Her startled surprise stoked a deep, possessive part of him. She wasn't the only one who could be assertive and pushy, and when her mewling little moan tingled along his lips, he pulled her flat against him.

And far from against it, she reached her arms further around him, drawing him closer still and tilting her head to get the angle just right. He loved this about her. The warmth, acceptance, and how she kissed back so perfectly. Soft lips that were moist enough to pull him in, how her breathing hitched, just so, that inviting, tantalizing smell of her shampoo and perfume. It was all enough to make his hands tremble with nerves for the first time in years. Yukiko pulled back just long enough to catch her breath and smile, lopsided and silly, before they wrapped together again, lips and sighs and her shifting in his lap.

His right hand came up to cradle her head, keep her in place while the feel of her fingernails through his hair, grazing ever so lightly along his scalp until she reached the back of his head. She wrapped her arms around him, holding him close, and his left hand drifted up her hip to the edge of her shirt. When she moved, so did he. Kissing hard and tuning into her sighs, he slowly trailed up her stomach, soft, perfect skin under his finger. His eyes slitted open and he watched her while his fingers reached the bottom of her cotton bra, then the soft flesh it held up.

He trembled as his hand cupped around her, just as she pulled back a bit in surprise. He'd never felt his girlfriend up, held the soft, firm curve of her breast in her hand. Or felt her nipple straining against the fabric, teasing the inside of his finger as he brushed it up, then down again. Even her racing heartbeat was impossible to miss.

It was fascinating, how she reacted to him. Responded only to him. He shivered from those reactions, heart racing like his nerves were wired to hers. The power, the responsibility, the desire to keep going, it all burned in his veins like fire and left him sweating more than the heat outside.

"Souji…" she whimpered out, looking at him with midnight eyes. That was cheating, how she made his name sound. Small and breathless and needy and wanting, like he was all she required in life. That was how she was to him, had been for a while, but seeing it in her eyes made his heart squeeze and quiver.

He leaned up and kissed her again, stroking across her bra, rubbing over the stiff tip of her nipple with his thumb. It pulled a low, long, soft moan from her, vibrating up her throat and right down into his own, especially when he pressed into the soft flesh a little more, stroking faster.

She began to tremble, eyes fluttering behind their lids, but when he broke the kiss, breathless and filled with the scent and touch and feel of her, the hands on his shoulders tightened, just a little, and he halted his advance and looked at her.

Cheeks flushed, lips bruised, eyes distant and his hand resting on her bra, it felt like everything was as it should be. But there was a glimmer of something in her eyes, a tension to her face that held him in place as much as her hands. When she didn't move for a few long, drawn-out moments, still straddling him, he slid his hand from her chest and to her back, slowly pulling her forward despite her reservations, until he was hugging her closely, head resting in the crook of her neck. And much as he would have loved to stay at her neck, pepper it with kisses and love bites, he knew something was off.

Closing his eyes for a moment to choke back the urges in him, hammering at him to keep going and not stop again, he let out a steadying breath and looked up at her. "It's a bit scary, isn't it?" he murmured, easily loud enough to hear.

Yukiko drew back enough to look him at him with a sidelong stare, the same emotions raging through her. She was questioning him, wondering how he knew, then whether either of them were really ready. And she flushed, head sinking down with a shuddering breath. "I'm… it's not…"

"It's alright, Yukiko," he assured her, stroking her back and trying to comfort her without stoking the passions that still burned bright between them. "It's a big step. Are you ready for it? Are we?"

"I think I am," she told him as she rested her forehead against his shoulder. Past her words, her mounting frustration was growing evident. "We should be," she nearly growled to herself. "We've been together long enough, and I love you…"

"But you're still not ready for full-out sex," he finished for her. She was about to speak when he set a finger against her lips. "There's nothing wrong with that. I love you too, but that doesn't mean we have to jump into something like that."

Her head raised up enough for their eyes to connect. "You don't want to?"

He rested his hand on her knee and slowly ran it up her thigh, dragging the ends of his fingers up as he went up her skirt. Her shudder in response said everything. "As much as you do," he assured her in a low, smoky voice that caught her gaze. "Don't think for a second that I would be here if I didn't want to be." He ceased his teasing and rubbed her marble-smooth leg soothingly until a bit of the tension left her. "But going all the way is a big deal. And we have the time to take it however we want."

She straightened to her full height, as much as she could while on his legs, and shook her head sharply as soon as he finished talking. "That can be a problem as much as a blessing. Taking things slow doesn't mean not moving at all. I understand where you're going with that, but we keep getting sidetracked or interrupted. It feels like we're not getting anywhere."

Souji sighed. She was right. This was becoming like a bad romantic manga or a cheesy fantasy fairytale, interruptions every time 'sex' was even thought of. And those feelings and hormones that drove them, that demanded that they strip and screw like rabbits, were definitely still there. "You're right. So here's what we'll do: Dojima's taking Nanako out in a week, just like they planned. We'll get together then and work this out without any distractions."

She looked intrigued, waiting a moment before speaking. "Work out what?"

He shrugged. "Whatever you like, for as long as we need. There are other things we can do besides sex, after all. We can spend the week doing research and try out whatever we come up with then."

"Research. You mean…"

"Reference material," he clarified. "It's better than fumbling around with no idea what we're doing. And you can always think of it as educational if it's a problem."

There was a distinct flicker of interest in her eyes. "And how far do we go when we do this?"

"As far as you want, so long as it doesn't require protection."

That brought a frown to her face. "You're part of this too, you know. Don't let me decide everything."

Souji gave a small shake of his head, a genuine smile growing as they set back into their normal rhythm. "You misunderstand. I have a few things I want to test out, and I'm sure I'll come up with more. I just don't want you to hold back because you aren't sure."

"Is this really your first time with this?" she asked with a suspicious look, leaning forward a little. "You're very comfortable with it."

"It's hardly the first time I've thought about it," he told her with a grin, grey eyes alight with mischief.

She chuckled, and began to laugh as she rested against him, the tension finally cracking and giving way to a cathartic giggling session. Souji was happy to rest his hands on her hips and let her get it out of her system as she leaned against him, mind calming at the sound and the warm, familiar feel of her against him.

Once she was done laughing, and after the session of cuddles and kisses afterward, they rose from the couch and sat at the table and talked about nothing at all while eating the food she'd prepared. The surprise on her face forced Souji to hide his smile, especially when she murmured "That's all it takes?" like she'd never considered simply following the recipe before. Their lunch was quiet, but every now and again he'd catch her looking at him over her chopsticks or glancing to the side for a few moments, lost in thought.

"Thinking about it already?" he asked her after the fourth time.

She blushed, but didn't look away. Instead she smiled and shrugged, staring into his eyes without hesitation. "Well, maybe a little."

Her cell phone went off a few minutes later, and she grabbed her purse and the cookbooks they'd used, at his insistence, and promised to practice cooking before they saw each other again. When he walked her to the door, she turned to give him on last slow, lingering kiss, her hand resting on his chest while his slid across the side of her face.

"Next week," she told him softly as they broke apart, a smile of love and affection and promise on her lips. "We'll make sure nothing gets in the way this time."

He returned her smile and leaned against the wall. "Looking forward to it."

June 22nd

Yukiko awoke with a gentle start that morning with a fast-beating heart, the dream so vivid and real that she couldn't believe Souji wasn't next to her until she touched the covers. When she saw that they were unruffled, she lay back and rolled to her side, facing away from the door as she shivered. For a dream, his kisses had felt very real. So had his fingers.

She'd followed Souji's advice and done some clandestine research on the ways she could channel her hormones, and what she'd learned had made her blush redder than her sweater at first, but when she remembered how his hands felt on her, she persisted and picked up as much as she could. She glanced down at her nipples, hard and almost sore, and feeling the light dampness between her legs. Just shifting in place made her shudder as the fabric threads of her pajamas brushed against her. Yes, she'd come a long ways since she'd seen her boyfriend last, and as she rose to look in her mirror and get changed for the day, she took a bracing breath and ran her hands down her sides, turning this way and that to better get an idea of how to make the most of what she had.

While she went through her mental checklist, she smiled in anticipation at what Souji might have waiting for her when she saw him.

As it turned out, Souji was resting against the wall near his front door, having gone through much the same rituals as his girlfriend. Showered, shaved, and brushing his hair back (he kept telling himself to get it trimmed, and kept conveniently forgetting), he waited, drumming his fingers to the tune that had been on his alarm that morning. Even dressing in something different, jeans and a button-down shirt with the first few fasteners undone, had only taken a few extra minutes and left him whittling away the time. Even the news had only been good to confirm that today would be a hot and humid one. The air outside was already getting heavy. He'd gone through a simple breakfast and cleaned the dishes, though damned if could remember what it was or how it tasted, and tried to approach the subject of his recent studies and Yukiko's impending arrival as objectively as he could.

Sadly, he was failing. His mind provided him with images of her face, memories of her kisses tasted, how her skin felt, and even the smallest nuances of her movements and hitches in her breath and even how she smelled. Souji smiled a little at how strong the memories were becoming. Still, strong emotions or not, he didn't want to let his imagination drive him to pouncing on her as soon as she walked through the door.

When she did knock twice and slide the door open, he barely moved except to turn his head. She'd dressed similarly to him, with a skirt instead of jeans and a button-up blouse with her usual barrette, but her air was definitely different. The uncertainty he'd seen in her eyes was gone now, replaced with recognition and anticipation. Her smile seemed the same at first glance, but her eyes drifted along his body as he stood and waited for her to finish looking him over.

For the first time, conversation was difficult between them. What did one say to his girlfriend when they were going to strip each other's clothes off and explore sex, sans actual penetration? A novel question, he was sure, and a pertinent one since she was looking at him calmly, not saying a word. He tried anyway. "Hey."

She nodded in response, slipping off her shoes and stopping against the wall across from him. "It's good to see you," she murmured, leaving her purse on the nearby end table. Another long pause as the air between them charged with a warmth that had nothing to do with the outside temperature or humidity.

"Read any good books?" he tried with a smile.

She looked a bit surprised and lost some of that smooth veneer with a low giggle. "I have, now that you mention it. Maybe you've done the same?"

"Maybe," was all he said. The silence rose between them again, and he chuckled finally. "This is ridiculous."

She laughed along with him, looking more familiar the moment she did so. "It really is. Are you having any second thoughts?"

"None. Are you?"

Yukiko crossed the hall and laid her hand on his arm, lightly rubbing it up and down. "No. I want this as much as you do."

Those words were all he needed. He took her hand and led her down the hall, tugging her close to his side as they went up the stairs and slipped into his room, and closed the curtains. She stepped up to him and he turned to kiss her. They missed. He went too high while she went to low. When they tried to correct, their noses bumped into each other, and it almost cost him his balance when he tried to move to the side while holding her. Both looked the other in the eye, neither wanting to move and make it worse, and started laughing. The uncertainty and nerves broke and he planted himself on the couch while she straddled his legs, much the same as before.

He leaned up to kiss her cheeks and neck, and her fingers went between them, unbuttoning his shirt and grazing the revealed skin every time. He was happy to let her since having her arms close in like that made her breasts rise against her blouse every time she breathed. Not about to lay idle, his hands went to her hips, then around to her rear before she was half done, and she jumped a bit when he squeezed and massaged her toned curves. "You like that part of me," she whispered before wiggling back, encouraging his explorations.

"You started it," he told her, continuing the rub as he kissed along her shoulders.

She stripped him of his shirt, interrupting his fascination with her ass, or trying to. He refused to stop when she tugged the shirt back insistently. She laughed and kissed him to distract his hands so she could work the sleeves back, his hands coming up to her back and neck on reflex. Once his top was off, she ran her hands along his stomach, gentle as always. Taking a page from her book, Souji let her indulge in him while he moved his hands to the bottom of her blouse, working the buttons from the holes even when she smiled knowingly at him, going by feel when she leaned forward to kiss him. She didn't put up a fight when he pulled her top off, instead watching as it slid down her arms and caught on her elbows, presenting him with her chest covered only by a white cotton bra.

He stared, taking her in from neck to navel and smiling when the light blush extended to her collarbone. "You're beautiful," he told her, watching her eyes. "Have I told you that?"

"Not today," she breathed, directing his hands to her stomach.

"A terrible oversight," he assured her, keeping himself under control as his hands drifted up and cupped her breasts, testing the waters.

She didn't pull back this time. She didn't even protest. She just sighed and let him softly squeeze her and test her reactions. When he felt her stiff nipples against his hands, he ran a finger under her bra straps and reached around to try and take it off.

"Here," she offered, moving back and sitting on the edge of the table, presenting her back to him, even moving her hair over her shoulder so he could get to the bra clasp.

It was no wonder that she made the offer so easily, however, because Souji immediately hit the roadblock of never having undone one before. He'd read about it and taken a few notes, but faced with the real thing, and on his very willing and sexy girlfriend, he fumbled around and tried to see how the ends connected, working through it as logically as he could. Yet it stayed on, determined to make him look like an idiot.

"Problem?" she asked, laughter rich in her voice.

"Laugh it up," he groused back, trying to work the hook and loop apart. Almost, a bit more… the diagram said it should come out if– "Got it," he told her quietly, kissing the back of her neck as her bra fell forward and she shrugged it off.

"I thought it would take longer," she replied, slowly turning with her arms across her freed breasts.

He shivered with desire, felt his heart skip, but closed and opened his hands a few times to keep himself steady. "Planning on making me beg?" he inquired archly.

Her head tilted, a smile on her face. "What if I was?"

Souji considered what was before him, thought it through, and made his move. He lowered his hand, one hooking under her thigh and the other under her ass, and pulled her forward as he leaned back into his couch. She let out a startled yelp as he pulled her onto his lap, one hand catching the back of the sofa to stop her and the other arm, impressively, still across her chest. "Not happening," he purred as he moved his hand up and down her thigh and the other passed through her hair and stopped on her naked back. Her escape cut off, he leaned forward and kissed her neck, gently, softly teasing her while she sighed his name. When she was relaxed enough, he moved her arm from her body and looked at her, both topless for the first time.

The sight took his breath away and kicked his heart into gear. She wasn't too big or too small, but firm and curved just like the beautiful backside he'd been getting acquainted with earlier. Her breasts suited her, and he let out a breath when that thought hit him. Of course they would – they were just another part of her.

Taking the initiative, he started kissing her chest. Neck, shoulders, collarbone and lower, he avoided her nipples even as they hardened and she tried to direct his head toward them. Instead went around them, above them, so close his cheeks and breath brushed against them, but never taking them into his mouth, and she let out a breathless, frustrated sound.

"Don't tease me," she whispered, nails biting into his shoulders, a pleasantly stinging fire.

He pulled back entirely, ignoring the scratches he was sure she left on him when he did. "Alright," he told her, eyes dark. He grabbed her waist and felt her tense again, ready for another pull. But instead he turned in place, crouching and twisting until her back met the middle of his couch before he extricated himself from between her legs and directed them down to one end and her head to the arm of the other.

She lay across the couch, topless and looking at him curiously, and he smiled before kneeling and indulging in her. He kissed her sternum and worked to her cute little navel, loving her laughs as he hit her ticklish spots. Just the smell of her skin, the feel of it under his lips, was intoxicating, and when he brought his hands into play, those laughs turned breathless in a snap.

He circled her nipples with his fingers, switching breasts as he wished, and his other hand skirted the edge of her remaining attire, slipping under and edging her underwear, and further still when she didn't object. The light hair he felt there was surprisingly soft, and the heat only spurred him on.

Yukiko bucked and shivered under his combined attentions, and did very little to stop him as her breaths shortened and she started to mewl and purr like a happy kitten. One hand in his hair while the other was by her face, a knuckle between her teeth, she let him worship her as best he could. Lips on her stomach and ribs, one finger circling her nipple, and the other drifting under her panties, he let her sounds and breathless directions guide him. He was past the point of being sensitive or needy himself – he'd never been so hard before, no matter what source material was in front of him. But her enjoyment was his objective, taking her to the edge as best he could.

Because if there was one mark of his competence as her boyfriend, it was how well he could pleasure her.

Her breathing hitched and strained the more he continued, even more so when he moved up to lick and kiss her nipples, moving smoothly and delighting in her rasps and responses. So much so he almost didn't hear her.

"W-wait," she whispered, looking at him with yearning eyes and a restraining hand on his shoulder.

"Wait?" he repeated, looking at her and not sure if he'd heard right.

"We're still dressed. We should change that." She brushed his face with her fingertips, making him lean into them automatically. "And I haven't done anything for you yet."

"The sounds you've been making have been more than gratifying," he told her with a grin, but she shook her head insistently.

"Maybe for you, but not for me. This won't be fair if I'm the only one enjoying it." Before he could protest, she pushed his hands back and pushed herself to her feet, albeit on wobbly legs.

Souji reached out to hold her steady if she needed it, bewildered. She was that close and she decided to stop? He'd never heard of that or read about it. But when she pulled off her skirt and socks and raised an eyebrow at him, expecting him to do the same, he went along with what she wanted and pulled his jeans and boxers down, resisting the urge to cover himself and hissing a bit as the air teased his sensitive penis. He looked to her just as she was stepping out of her panties, and he saw Amagi Yukiko completely nude for the first time. And the sight made him forget to breathe.

Long, toned legs and a lightly-haired pelvis were the only things to add to the image of her laying on his couch, but the complete picture burned into his mind like a branding iron. Wonderfully proportioned, from her shoulders to her pinched waist and curved hips, her skin, complete with her own scars, and the waves of black hair that slid over her shoulder once she removed her barrette. "Absolutely perfect," he said aloud, drinking her in.

She seemed to be in the same trance as he was, pulled out of it a little when she heard his words. "No more than you," she replied, stepping toward him slowly, then off to the side. "Stay there," she murmured, hand on his arm as she walked around him, seeing everything his clothes had covered up before. She ran her hands along his shoulders, then down his back, gentle touches cooling his heated skin as they passed. He jerked in place when she hit that spot on his spine that always set his nerves off.

"Just sensitive," he told her, and he shivered when she placed a kiss on the spot. Then her hand moved down to his groin and really made him sweat. Fingers gently explored the length of it, the head, and wrapped around him as she moved around to watch his reactions. And it didn't take long for that feeling to hit him. "Easy," he warned her, taking hold of her wrist. "Too much more and you'll be washing your hands."

"Is that a problem?" she asked, eyes half-lidded and intense.

"No, but this is a new situation, so I'd rather look after you instead of me." Her eyes hardened a bit, and he knew the objection was coming. He tilted her head up with a finger, smiling at her. "Let's look after you first, then you can do whatever you want with me."

That got her attention. "Anything?"

"Yep. Now or later, you can be in charge. I promise," he added when her expression didn't change.

Yukiko turned it over in her head for a moment before nodding, a teasing smile on her lips. "So what do you have in mind?"

Souji nodded to his futon, already laid out from his previous preparations. "We'll need something to lay on." She looked puzzled, but walked over to the bedding, stunning hair and glorious glutes holding his attention until she turned and kneeled, watching him curiously when he shook himself into action. Right. The bed. "Lay back," he instructed, sitting at the edge. When she turned toward him, a smile growing on her face, he wanted to watch her forever. Naked, head perched on her hand in one of the best inexperienced 'come hither' poses he could imagine, he wanted to trash his idea and hand her the reins. But there was a plan to follow, and he smiled at her challenge. "Other way." She looked puzzled, but turned over and faced away from him. And before that view could distract him, he slid onto the futon behind her, working an arm under her and easing her back against his chest. "Like this," he whispered, kissing the curve of her ear. She let out a happy sigh and started wriggling her hips back against his erection, trapping it between them and rubbing back and forth until he grasped her hip and stopped her. His voice came out in a low growl at her antics. "Yukiko."

"Was that wrong?" she giggled back, shooting a daring look over her shoulder.

Her mirth cut off in a moan when he started massaging her breast and nipple again, palming the warm flesh and teasing the bud between his knuckles while he softly kissed her neck and shoulder. She jerked against him when his other hand rested on her pelvis, turning in the same cycle as his other hand as he circled her vaginal lips for lubricant and moved to her clit.

Slow and steady, he used what she'd shown him on the couch and strove to drive her crazy. Keeping his movements in tandem and thriving on her rising gasps and whispers, he stayed still and indulged in her warmth, the feeling of her sweat-slicked skin against his chest, and the sounds that were like a drugging, euphoric music to his ears. She hadn't tried teasing him again, seeking her own pleasure and directing his hands while he made note of which places made her tremble the most.

She bucked and mewled and gasped against him, pleasure mounting, building while she pushed against his fingers as he continued his steady pace.

"Let it go," he whispered next to her ear, feeling her shudder at the passing of his breath. "Let go." Souji rubbed around her nipple and clit at the same time, running the rough, callused pads over her sensitive flesh.

Yukiko jerked forward suddenly, pressing into his hands, moaning low, her whole body quaking and her fingernails digging into his forearms until the spasms slowly subsided with a long, faint exhalation. Sweat droplets slid down her face as she breathed hard. Souji removed his hands, sure that she was sensitive now, but she caught them before they got too far and held them tight, a silent thank you while she recovered.

Once she got her wind back, she turned around with a very pleased smile and pressed directly against him. His breath hitched, and she chuckled in a low, seductive voice, slowly moving her body up and down against him, dragging her still-hard nipples against his chest and threading her legs with his. "Your turn," was all she told him in the same voice he'd used, sending him into shivers when one hand went up his back, playing with that spot on his spine and the other went lower and between them.

He sucked his breath in through gritted teeth as her hand wrapped around him, cool skin slowly stroking his groin with the same rhythm as his back and his front, making him tremble from all sides. He grabbed her shoulder and hip, but far being deterred, she just kissed him and kept up the same steady pace, slowly, slowly, bringing him closer. She broke the kiss and leaned up to his ear, deliberately rubbing her breasts against him, and whispered in her ear, "Let it go."

He grunted and clenched his hands on her as she sent him over the edge, erupting on her stomach and his own while the world spun for a few seconds. When he came back, she had wrapped her arms around him and was gently repeating her motions on his back. He hugged her and chuckled, a bit winded. He'd heard that doing it yourself and having someone else do it for you was completely different, and he hadn't expected how true it would be.

Neither said anything for a long while, drifting on the feel of the other and resting under the heavy quilt of humid air and the smell of perspiration and bodily fluids. "We could use a shower," he told her quietly, finally, loath to break the silence and address even some facet of reality. This was the most relaxed and at peace he'd ever felt before, flat against her and quickly getting hooked to the feel of her soft, warm skin and long hair. Coming out of that cocoon to go back to the world wasn't on his 'to do' list. But it wasn't a bad idea, given how messy they'd made each other.

"I suppose," she murmured with a silly little smile. "If we have to."

"Are you feeling alright?"

She looked him with half-lidded eyes and nodded slowly. "Mmmmm, perfect. You're very creative."

"I'm flattered," he replied, trying for amused but falling short. Because Amagi Yukiko, laying on her side, naked, and watching him like he was the only thing in her world that mattered was a very hard thing to pull himself away from. And when he tried, she tightened her hands around his arms, eyes imploring even while her smile was naughty and teasing. "Were you looking for another performance right now?" he asked, settling forward and resting his hand on the side of her breast, slowly moving his thumb along the curve.

The look she gave him told him it was a very serious consideration, but she let him go after a few seconds. "Hmmm, no. I guess we do need a shower."

Souji nodded and rolled away to get to his feet, feeling her gaze on his body through every movement and sure he could hear an appreciative sigh as he reached the door, but when he looked back, she was resting where she lay.

He made it across the hall and opened the door to the bathroom, twisting the shower knobs and adjusting the temperature until it was on the warm side of cool, just how he liked it. While the spray increased, his mind replayed everything he and Yukiko had done, and when he came back to reality he was smiling in the mirror. And seeing his own reflection suddenly felt odd. He was mostly indifferent toward his own body, aside from the harsh scars that usually pushed his eyes away whenever he looked at them in the mirror. But when he saw the nail marks his girlfriend had left on his shoulders and arms, he couldn't keep the smile off his face. She had been as fascinated by him as he was with her, and that was saying somethi–

Souji almost jumped out of his skin when a woman's hand brushed against his shoulder, however, and spun clumsily to see Yukiko behind him. Still naked. With her hair around her like a curtain. Looking past him at the shower with an unreadable expression on her face.

He let out a hard breath, trying to control his heart rate and let out the tension she inspired in him, but the little smile on her face, the look in her eyes as she turned her gaze on him, and how she widened her stance a little, showing she wasn't about to turn around, stopped him in place. And fired up his heart, and a few things a bit lower, for a different reason entirely.

"When you said we could use a shower, you meant both of us together, didn't you?" she inquired slowly, looking at him with those deep, dark eyes and drawing him in until he nodded and reached out a trembling hand to her own, and pulled her toward him as he stepped back.

It was more than an hour later when they were back in his room, a towel around his waist and another around her chest while she sat across his lap. One of her arms was around his neck, the other against his chest, her breathing low and even while he stroked her back and her bare legs, teasing the hem of her towel every now and again. The day had grown even hotter, and the musky air in his room was starting to make them drowsy.

"Will that do?" he inquired, a low hum past her ear that ended in a chuckle. He'd never run the shower out of hot water before, but when Yukiko was quivering around his fingers and moaning his name like that, such small details didn't matter as much.

She nodded and gave a quiet, happy purr. "Very much so. I'll make sure we have time to do this again." She looked up at him through her long, dark eyelashes. "So long as you don't mind."

Souji chuckled. Where had the shy girl from before gone? "I'll make the time."

"Good," she told him past a long yawn.

He ran hand through her hair, still damp and heavy across his fingers. "Get some rest," he told her. "I'll wake you up before they get home."

"Just a short nap," she insisted before resting against him. And in only a few minutes, her breathing leveled out and she slumped against him.

She really was something, he marveled to himself. It wasn't fair how she could be so sexy one minute and then heart-stoppingly adorable in repose, long lashes touching her cheeks and hair starting to curve in on fine-boned features beautiful enough to stop time when he looked at them.

And even after everything they'd done for and with and to each other today, there was still that satisfaction from being near her. The desire to stay with her, no matter what else got in the way.

He bounced that idea around his head as he stared at the TV across his room, not really seeing it. With his girlfriend in a towel, close as they wanted to be, he knew that he didn't want to let her go, and how short the towel was on her had nothing to do with it. A few ideas came to the front of his mind as he thought it over before setting the alarm on his cell phone as he rested back to think on it all in case he fell asleep.

Within ten minutes, he was out like a light, his arms still linked around her waist and his cheek resting on her freshly washed hair.

July 4th

Dojima Ryotaro was becoming increasingly convinced that there was a certain mindset corporate business people, no matter how tight or loose their collars were, that made them think they were better than everyone around them. Citizens, customers, co-workers, CEOs, it never made a difference. Every time he called Izumi at work now, he had to calmly explain to some new sneering lickspittle why he was on the phone. Pulling his badge and rank had worked the first few times, but either the old secretary was absent or had been fired because the new guy answering her phone only had to pick it up to make Dojima want to pull the man's record and make his life hell.

Repeated explanations, being cut off and left on hold, and finally getting transferred only to catch her cell phone's voice mail, he let out a few calming breaths, which didn't work, before he began. "Izumi. It's Ryotaro. I haven't heard from you since before Souji came back here and he's going to university soon. What's going on? If there's a problem between you and him, fine, but the least you can do is return my messages. I doubt he's told you about the girl he's seeing, so I'm sending you a photo of her. We need to talk. Now. Call me." He jammed a few more buttons, his temper fraying when he thought of how familiar her pre-recorded message was becoming, and snapped his phone shut with a fist.

He was still glaring out the sliding doors, deaf to the chirping of cicadas, when he heard the floorboards creak behind him. Souji, usually as quiet as a cat stalking the day's catch, turned the corner from the hall. "Sorry if I interrupted," he told Dojima quietly. "I thought you were done your conversation."

"I am," Dojima replied bluntly, tossing his cell phone to the living room table and sitting back into the couch with a long sigh. "I was trying to get in touch with your mother."

Souji stared at him, whatever he was about to say completely cut short. That impassive façade descended over his features like it always did at the mention of his parents. "Might I ask why?"

How had she let it come to this? Dojima wanted to give his sister the benefit of the doubt, withhold judgment until he had all the facts, but that was hard to do when Souji's expressions spoke so clearly about the state of their family and when Izumi wasn't returning his calls. "It's been a while since I've talked to her," he explained finally, "and the least I can do is try to keep in touch with her. Why the hesitation? Still not talking to them yourself?"

"I left her a message after I finished my university exams," Souji replied, his face as level as the surface of a desk. "There's nothing else to discuss, really."

Dojima kept the nature of his phone call to his sister to himself. "Not even Amagi or what university you're attending? They'd be proud if they heard about that."

"Especially not those. The last thing I need is my father getting involved with my life now. He wouldn't know where to start at this point and would probably tell me to make him more business connections while I'm here."

Dojima closed his eyes and shook his head. "Stubborn, aren't you?"

"I come by it honestly," his nephew shot back with part of a smile.

"Hmph. Can't argue with that. What did you need? You seem like you wanted to talk about something."

And as soon as the words were out of his mouth, that desk broke into splinters under a wrecking ball. Souji stepped back, blushed, and paled in four seconds flat. Then he scratched the back of his head. "Uh, right. About that."

Dojima's eyebrows raised as he saw something that would have been worth a snapshot if he'd expected it. Seta Souji, one of the most stable people he'd met of any age, was nervous. Genuinely nervous, shifting his feet and playing with the end of his coat and avoiding his uncle's gaze like he'd never done even when he was in the chair of an interrogation room.

"I need some money," he said finally after taking a few steadying breaths and threading his fingers together to keep them from moving. "I wouldn't ask normally, but I want to get something that I can't cover on my own."

Now Dojima's eyes narrowed suspiciously. Souji might not have shown his nerves very much, but he'd never asked for money in the whole time he'd been in Inaba. Part time jobs and playing it smart had seen him through almost an entire year without the topic ever coming up.

"I'll pay you back when I can," Souji continued a little quickly, eyes not meeting Dojima's, "but it's not something I can ask the others for. Yosuke and Kou are saving up for living expenses, and… well, it's just not an option."

Dojima was silent for a moment. "Budget restrictions?" the detective asked finally. "Or are you genuinely tapped out?"

"The former," Souji told him. "It's for something I wasn't expecting to need to buy, and the cost is a bit steep for what I have in mind."

"What is it? It's not like you to need a handout."

Souji deflated a little under the man's question. "I don't suppose I can ask for the money and not say what it's for, can I?"

Now Dojima was especially curious. "That would be irresponsible of me," he replied, leaning forward inquisitively while his detective's instincts were breaking down every word and gesture his nephew said and made. "I trust you, and I know you won't waste it anything stupid, but what's so important that you need the money but can't talk about it?"

Still the younger man hedged, shifting in place. "It's… important. And sentimental."

"I thought you gave Amagi something when she graduated. You shouldn't spoil her, Souji," Dojima advised while standing up from the couch.

"It's not… Well, I…" Souji ran his hands over his face with a frustrated growl, taking a few moments to collect this thoughts. When he looked across the room, a little imploringly, the hope faded as soon as he saw the detective's level stare. "You're not going to let me out of this, are you?"

Dojima shook his head before cocking an eyebrow, the question clear. "I'd rather not, no. Is it such a big deal that you can't tell me?"

Souji watched him, a long, heavy silence resting between them until his shoulders slumped and he told Dojima, clearly and concisely, if lacking in enthusiasm, what he wanted the money for.

That silence doubled for the two seconds it took for the words to sink in. Then Dojima's eyes widened. "You're serious?" he asked, breath holding in his chest.

"Wouldn't have asked if I wasn't," the new high school graduate muttered back.

The silence shattered. Dojima began to laugh uncontrollably, backing up until he fell onto the couch, a hand resting on the cushion while the other slapped his knee in mirth. Souji's put-out expression, when he saw it, only prolonged the man's chortles.

"What's so funny, Dad?" Nanako asked, coming down from her bath. Despite being the middle of summer, she was wrapped up to the ears in the fluffy pink bath robe she'd gotten for Christmas, complete with her bunny slippers.

"Nothing," Dojima told her, compressing his humour into chuckles and waving the question off. "Souji was just telling me about his visit with his friends. How about you get ready for bed and I'll tell you a story? We're almost done here."

"I'm not a little kid any more, Dad," Nanako insisted, indignant and with her fists on her hips. "You don't have to read me those books anymore."

"But uncle Dojima wants to tuck you in," Souji cut in, almost no sign of his previous consternation on his face as he looked down to his cousin with a smile. "He doesn't get to do it that often, so he likes it when you let him. Is that alright, Nanako?"

Her eyes went to her father, then back up to her Big Brother as she put the pieces together. "Ohhh, so I should do it for Dad? Okay then. I'll be waiting, Dad. Don't take too long. Good night, Big Bro." And she turned toward her room, stopping long enough to cover up a yawn that stretched her face to its limits before sliding her door open and disappearing.

Dojima rose to his feet and stretched, creaking and cracking the whole way up. "Make sure she has your contact information. She'll drive herself up the wall if she can't get in touch with you. And about the money – you're not only going to talk to me about this, right? That's not something you can just keep to yourself."

"I'm not," Souji replied with a heavy sigh. "I have a meeting with them in a couple days to take care of that angle."

"Good. Ignoring them is the last thing you'd want to do." He gave some thought of his nephew's plight if such a faux pas did occur, the phone calls he would be receiving, and gave another extended chuckle.

"It wasn't that funny," Souji grumbled, staring at him reproachfully.

"No, it isn't. Sorry, sorry, that was just the last thing I was expecting." Dojima's eyes glinted cannily just then. "And the timing… it's no surprise now, is it? You and Amagi have been spending a lot of time together lately."

His nephew glanced and him blankly, aiming for ignorance but unable to keep the blush down. "Not sure what you mean."

This time, Dojima let it go. He'd had enough fun for the evening, and there was still a lot of planning to be done. He crossed the room and shrugged. "Fair enough. You and her are above the legal age and you don't need me reading you the Riot Act. And you've both been a lot happier lately, so I guess it's none of my business." Souji looked up as he passed, nodding once. "Let me know how much you need and I'll get it to you. We'll discuss the smaller details when you have the chance."

Souji gave an audible sigh as Dojima went to see to Nanako. "Thanks," he murmured, heading back to his room for the night.

"What was that about, Dad?" Nanako asked him from her futon, dressed in her pajamas with her hair out of their usual ties and eyes glistening in the gloom.

Dojima sat on the floor next to her, marveling for a moment how much she looked like Chisato, so serious even about the small things. "You'll see," he told her, smiling to himself as she pouted and protested. "Give it some time and you'll see."

July 9th

Yosuke had told him once that there were too few places to hang out in Inaba. Junes, the shopping district, the floodplain and maybe the school, but when everyone had the same idea and hit those places up, privacy became a rare commodity. To Souji, that just meant that each place had more memories and associations to go with it. More crowded and greater chance for a crossover of positive and negative experiences, maybe, but that he had so many memories of Inaba in the first place was a blessing given his transient past. The mountain paths with Chie, the shrine with Yukiko, and the hill overlooking the town with the daycare kids, they all stood out like full-colour beacons in a mind so used to concrete grey and artificial lights.

The hill was their location of choice, he and Yukiko and Nanako, for lunch as the teens were wrapping up their university plans while Nanako had been at a loose end, prompting Yukiko to invite her along. After short stop at Junes (which had been lengthened a little by Nanako's desire to sing along with the iconic tune and say 'Hello' to Yosuke and Teddie) for supplies, the trio had come to the hill for an out-of-doors meal. Nanako had been as bright and bubbly as ever, though Souji was forced to do some very fast talking when she'd inquired about 'what you and Dad were talking about before' while Yukiko watched curiously.

Beyond that, however, they talked over the click of chopsticks about Nanako's summer break and the goings on of Inaba and caught up on the gossip among their friends, like how Chie and Kou were studying together and seemed to be making progress, or how Naoto's commissions from Tatsumi Textiles had spurred on talks among her colleagues in the police department regarding quality clothing. Simple, harmless, and remarkably normal conversation for a couple who had met during a murder investigation.

They'd gotten together several times since their weekend together, but this was the first time their shared time had been for conversation and taking in the sun-swept scenery. Most of their visits had involved further 'explorations' in his room.

Once their meal was done, Souji handed Nanako his phone and she called a friend of hers to make future plans, oblivious to the older pair next to her. Once his cousin was thoroughly occupied, he pulled insistently on Yukiko's hand until she rose from the table and followed him to the rail near the edge of the cliff. Him on the left, her on the right, and his naked hand and fingers entwined with hers as they looked out over the town.

"Yosuke finally got his acceptance papers," Souji started calmly. "He's going to Bunkyo University for an open-studies program."

"And Kou-kun is attending Tama University," Yukiko told him. "Chie was talking about it the other day after one of their dates."

Souji had known that his friend would be getting into some school in Fujisawa, just not which one. The three of them had already found a large apartment to share, courtesy of a few of Kou's connections and a couple phone calls to Rise, who was quivering with excitement on the phone that they would be living near Tokyo again. "A private school suits his pedigree. Not his image, maybe, but definitely his name. By the way, Kyoto U, huh?" he asked while stroking the back of her hand with his thumb. "Classy, traditional, and the centre of ryokan in Japan. I guess I shouldn't be surprised." Then a grin spread across his face. "Will you pick up the dialect? Answer the phone in Kamigata-go?"

"I don't think it will get that bad," she replied with a returned smile, sidling up next to him. "But it will be a change of pace from here. I only saw the temples and malls when my parents and I went there, not the universities. New places and people to meet, and we've never done much traveling before. But you're practically going back home; it's not really fair."

He gave a playful snort. "Kyoto has some history and culture. They haven't sold out the Imperial Palace or pawned off everything in the museums yet. Tokyo and Fujisawa can't say the same; it's hard to call highways and skyscrapers historic."

She shook her head and turned to look at his face. "You say that, but that doesn't change why you're going there. Keio University? The most prestigious economics institution in the country? You passed the entrance exams on the first try and you don't seem very proud of it."

"I'm still recovering from the cram sessions," he admitted. "Not to mention the questions they threw at us. Advanced economics is easy, but some parts of that test didn't make any sense no matter what language they were trying for."

She didn't say anything, moving closer and tightening her fingers around his. Something was bothering her. Her lips were tilted at the corner and her eyes narrowed and widened incrementally as she thought something through, considering and dismissing alternatives and deciding on her words. Souji was content to watch her and wait.

"Why did you make that choice?" she asked finally, breaking the silence. "Economics and finances are what you are good at, and I don't think even Kou-kun's family knows more on the subjects than you do, but I didn't expect you to pursue them in your education. I thought…"

"That it would be too close to what my parents do for me to do it professionally," he finished for her, falling quiet after he did. He felt his shoulders sink a little, thoughtful and a little distant as it was his turn to come up with the answers. "You're not wrong," Souji murmured finally, leaning over to her so she could hear him better. "And it wasn't my first choice. But much as it might remind me of my parents, it's something I know. And something I know I can use." He chuckled distantly, staring out over the town. "I could've become a teacher like Teddie wants to be or a manager for one of the companies here, but that would feel like reinventing the wheel or starting from scratch and avoiding something important. And I can use it to help you in running the Inn a lot more than something like practical sciences."

She pulled back as soon as he finished those words, staring at him with a mix of concern and directness that demanded he listen. "Don't make this about me, Souji. It's your life, and I don't want you to do something that you hate just because–"

He held up a hand to halt her words, looking at her calmly. "I'm not. I gave it some thought, and it's something I have to overcome at some point or another. If I keep avoiding anything that reminds me of my parents, I'll never get anywhere." He gave a soft snort. "I'd probably never look at another stock channel on TV ever again either. Or even monthly bills. The point is that this is a challenge for me, and I don't think I'll get another chance at it if I don't do it now. At least not one this convenient. And there's always a chance that I'll learn something that I hadn't expected or thought of before."

"So will you call your parents while you're there?" she asked. From the tilt of her head and the look in her eye, she figured that she knew the answer already, but wanted to see if his feelings had changed.

And the level look he gave her communicated that they most definitely hadn't. "Overcoming my aversions doesn't mean I'll start talking to them," he informed her. "That's a very different matter."

"Alright," she conceded, stepping close and wrapping her arms around his waist. The familiar feel of his shirt and muscles made her heart flutter, sending her nerves atremble like they had since that day in his room. Much as she wanted to lose herself in the memory, however, their impending future quickly stole her attention. The weekend loomed in her mind, closing in like night. "I'm going to miss you," she whispered, hugging him tighter.

His arms closed around her, strong and soft and warm. "We haven't left yet," was his reply, just as quiet. "And I'll help you get set up before we head to Fujisawa. You'd better not spend the rest of the week worrying about that."

"I won't, but that doesn't make it any easier," she told him with her face buried in his chest, lungs full of his strong, clean scent. "It feels like we've spent more time apart than together since the murders ended. We're not going to know what to do with each other when we're able to live together."

That got a chuckle out of him and one of his hands stroked up and down her back. "We'll make it work, Yukiko. We have before, and we will again. One step at a time. And Fujisawa and Kyoto are closer than Inaba and Kofu. We'll be able to visit on weekends and meet for holidays, so much so that we'll probably get sick of each other."

"You're just saying that to make me feel better," she accused with a smile, pulling back enough to look into his eyes. She never got tired of looking into them, from their humour to their intellect to that unique colour that was just him.

"Of course I am," he told her with absolute confidence and a wry smile. "Give it a few weeks and I'll be a wreck without you. I might even break down and cry in Kyoto before I can make it onto the train."

"I'll take pictures and send them to Nanako-chan if you do." She smiled, feeling her worries lessen enough that she let out a long breath. "But we will get together whenever we can."

"Of course we will. But, come on. Let's head to the river. It's a lot better than dwelling on things, right? And we still have some time before we have to go."

July 13th

Despite Souji's assurances, however, the week passed far too quickly. He was occupied with living arrangements and last-minute class details and news about the job he'd gotten through the university while she had to run the Inn and see to packing. Neither of those would have been a problem, but it felt like every time she had a free moment, one of the Inn staff would find her and say their farewells. As would the delivery people who'd been supplying them since she was Nanako-chan's age, their regular customers, vendors in town, and even friends she'd made at school. The days flew by, every minute was taken up, and even her late-night phone calls to Souji were little more than status reports before well-deserved sleep.

So when that day came, it was with a mix of déjà vu and resignation. Everyone at the train station, bags and packages waiting to be loaded, and the sense of leaving home once again. Only Souji wasn't alone this time. Yosuke, Kou, Chie, and, of course, Yukiko were coming along with him, sharing the same ride to Kyoto so the guys could help the girls unpack and get set up before heading to Fujisawa. Naoto and Kanji were there of course, dressed in their usual light summer clothes and wearing smiles as they said their farewells.

"Be sure to keep in contact, Senpai," Naoto told him, her new summer wardrobe light and airy and obviously comfortable despite looking very much the same as what she always wore. "I might need your help next year to decide on which university I will attend."

Souji gave a light chuckle, watching a familiar jeep roll up and hearing a door fly open almost before it came to a stop. "I will, but I'm sure you'll be fine. You have things under control here, it seems, so I can trust you with the others."

She gave a familiar chuckle. "Teddie and Nanako-chan will miss you, of that there is no doubt, but they should do fine if you regularly contact them as well."

He looked over at Kanji, who was busy talking to Chie and Kou, for a long moment before looking back at her with a suggestive little smile. "Of course. They were who I meant," he drawled, smiling wider when her eyes widened and she blushed rather prettily.

"S-senpai, what are you implying?!" she demanded, stepping back a little.

All he could do was chuckle and wave off her chagrin. Yosuke was right; even after the odd pair had come so far, it was still fun to push Naoto's buttons. "Nothing, Naoto. Nothing at all. Just do what comes naturally and you'll be fine."

He might have continued with her if not for the rapid pattering of feet, like rain drops on concrete, that swiftly approached him. He had enough time to turn and see Dojima before Nanako, a brown and pink and white streak, crashed into his stomach, arms wrapping around him like the tentacles of an especially anxious octopus that nearly pushed him back a step. "You're getting a bit big for that, Nanako," he told her under his breath.

"We made it!" she declared into his chest. In the year and half since the murder investigations had ended, she'd grown like a weed and was hardly the child who hid behind her father when he'd met her.

"We got held up by a hit-and-run on the way here," Dojima explained as he came up the steps. "Took longer than we expected."

"Dad stayed there the whole time to get information and ask questions." Instead of sounding proud or simply telling him, there was more than a hint of accusation in her voice.

Souji and Naoto shared a look and chuckled. "It's not that bad, Nanako," her cousin told her. "We aren't leaving for a while yet."

"Doesn't matter," she replied immediately.

The two males shared a long-suffering look and wry smiles at the girl's response. "Take care, Dojima." Souji held his hand out, patting Nanako's shoulder as she tightened her arms around him.

His uncle shook his hand firmly, giving a quick grin. "Look after yourself. And don't worry about the interest. We'll keep things nice and informal."

Souji blushed a bit and nodded. Nanako didn't seem to notice, content to hang onto her cousin, but Naoto looked at him curiously. "Interest? You aren't the sort to need to borrow money, Senpai."

"It's a long story," he replied quickly.

"And he won't tell anyone what it means," Nanako complained, finally pulling away with a distinctly put-out expression on her face, lower lip pushed out and shoulders set in a huff.

"I'll tell you soon enough," he promised with a smile, brushing her chin up with a knuckle. "And you have to look after Naoto here while I'm gone. Make sure she doesn't get into any trouble."

The detective took the ribbing in good spirits this time, with a smile and a roll of the eyes. "That's hardly necessary," she objected, but nodded once to Nanako when the girl looked over questioningly.

"Come on," he told them, stepping back a bit. "The others will want to see you too."

And they did. Yukiko and her parents, Yosuke saying his farewells to his family, Teddie getting in as much time as he could, and everyone's luggage piled near the edge of the train platform. When Nanako went up to her Big Sis, she only waited long enough to make sure she had Yukiko's attention before hugging her around the stomach and saying something Souji couldn't hear. It was enough that Yukiko smiled and crouched down to talk to the girl, under the doting eyes and smile of Ryoko. Katsushiro, of course, stared hard at Souji, though there was a touch of respect there now. Souji gave a small, polite bow in return and looked to the others.

Yosuke's grin was infectious, laughter abounding as he said his goodbyes and cuffed Teddie for something. Chie was talking to her parents, blushing, and Kou was talking to Daisuke and a few people Souji had never seen before, probably his parents or family. There was a split-second where the basketball captain's eyes met Chie's and the air charged between them, a strong but subtle flicker of something that passed too fast to name. Then it was gone, and she was getting back pats from her father, a towering brown-haired bear of a man whom Souji still couldn't believe was Japanese, and calm words from her mother, a woman of average height but with the readiest smile and eyes sharper than a lioness's. It was no surprise that Chie and Yukiko had become as close as sisters – their parents seemed the sort to be just as close.

Kou was enduring the advice of his parents and grandparents, all sharply dressed and proper compared to his casual t-shirt and jeans. Despite that, he felt like he belonged there, and they made his inclusion in their family clear, even with the little girl younger than Nanako in his mother's arms. His new sister, it seemed. Either way, his usual smile was in place though every now and again his eyes would flicker over to Chie, that unreadable something in his eyes evident only for a moment before he looked back to his family.

Souji's lips twitched into a hint of a smile. Interesting.

"Everything's been worked out?" Dojima asked, stepping up beside his nephew and folding his arms, watching as Nanako laughed with Teddie.

"As much as it can be," Souji replied. "Hopefully it all works out until we get to Fujisawa. After that, well, we'll handle the problems as they come."

"That's unusual for you, expecting problems this soon," Dojima noted, looking over. "Trouble?"

"I'm not sure," Souji responded slowly. "There've been more complications with my job status and scholarships, and no one I talk to seems to know what's going on. It seems like it's a clerical error, but it's happening after I got everything approved. Maybe some in-person talks are all I need to handle it. I'm not sure."

"Let me know if I can help," his uncle told him firmly, tapping his shoulder with a fist. "Don't drop off the map, even if you are working and studying."

"I'll keep in touch," Souji promised.

"Sensei!" Teddie called from down the train platform. "Nana-chan wants pictures bearfore everyone escapes to the big cities for adventures and bank heists and drag races! No photo's a photo without Sensei!"

Souji raised his hand in acknowledgement, checking the time. More than half an hour remained before their train arrived. "Seems like I'm being summoned," he murmured to the detective. "Care to join us?"

The Investigation Team piled together in front of their luggage as the pictures began. Nanako took a few, with Yukiko's help, of Souji and Dojima while Yosuke's family got a variety of poses from their son. Yukiko and her parents were next, then Chie and hers, and on and on. "Alright!" Yosuke called with a grin. "All the Inaba misfits get together for a group snapshot!" He looked off to the side and grabbed Kou by the arm. "Rise's not here, so you'll have to fill in, Ichijo," was all he said before he shoved him toward Chie. No one could make too big a fuss, including the blushing pair, because Dojima started giving orders on who had to go where and how they should stand. Much like when Souji left, they managed with what Teddie called a 'bear minimum' of problems, switching the order until everyone was satisfied and the train's whistle approached. The five who were leaving collected their effects, Souji with the least number of bags, and the final farewells began.

"Keep in touch, Senpai," Naoto told him with tip of her cap. "And thank you for everything."

"Anytime, Naoto," he told her, turning to shake hands with Kanji.

"Like she said, Senpai. Don't be a stranger." The towering teen cleared his throat a little. "And, uh, if I need some things I can't get here, well, you think you could help me out?"

"Be glad to," Souji assured him. "Take care." And so it went. Ai, Daisuke, and most of his friends from school and around town wanted a last word or handshake. The last one in line, just before he boarded the train after the others, was Nanako, whom he knelt to embrace and have her willowy arms wrap and tighten around his neck like a steel collar. "Easy, Nanako," he told her softly, patting her back. "I'll be back when I can."

"But it'll only be for a while," she protested.

"Until I'm done school again," he promised. "Then I'll be back for good, and around so much you'll be looking for reasons to get away from me."

"I don't think that'll happen," Dojima tossed in, slowly taking his daughter back with a smile. "Safe travels."

"Thanks." Souji gave a last salute to him, and all the others, before turning and boarding the train a few minutes before it lurched forward.

"Kyoto-bound, at last," Yosuke said expansively from his seat as they put their bags and luggage away in the half-full train. He'd wasted no time in striking up a conversation with Chie that was quickly promising to become a shouting match. Kou and Yukiko were talking quietly across the aisle and a few seats back, pausing long enough for Souji to slip past his girlfriend and take a seat, already turning the pieces of his new move around in his mind.

As he looked at the seat in front of him, he began planning their group's stay in Kyoto. Chie and Yukiko would be moving into the dorms with help from Souji and Kou, and Yosuke if he could be talked into helping, and everyone would spend a few days taking in the sights before Souji and the guys headed to Fujisawa.

He sighed. Another move, another strange room, and years of schooling before he could move forward with his life. Even though he was going as fast as he could, it still felt stifling, aggravating that there was no other way around it.

Yukiko seemed to tune into his mood and leaned against him, gently kissing his neck when the others weren't looking and snuggling into his side with a pleased little sigh.

He laughed to himself, tilting his head over to pull in the scent of her hair. Leaving her wasn't going to be easy either, and he hoped that he had the opportunity to get in as much of Kyoto with her as possible before he left. Enough to make some lasting memories.

There was still time, though. He had some time.

July 15th

7:33am

Kyoto hadn't changed much. Of course, what Souji remembered of Kyoto was hotel lobbies and air-conditioned rooms and the cherry blossoms that had seemed droopy and sad during his last visit. The museums were still there, the ryokan still did great business, and people and car traffic were everywhere he looked. In that sense, it should have been reassuring. People and businesses meant money and resources, ryokan meant Yukiko could learn a lot from first-hand sources, and Kyoto U was every bit as expansive and impressive as he'd heard.

But the scenery was the last thing on his mind now. There was a garden right outside the window and he didn't even see the branches or the blossoms or the birds among them.

7:36am

As he rested in Yukiko's room, her sleeping right next to him, he wished he could find that confidence from before. He'd felt so sure that he could make things work with Yukiko despite the distance, and there was nothing new to get in his way. But that didn't stop the fear, the growing, wriggling worm of anxiety in his heart that made him touch his sleeping girlfriend on the arm to make sure she was still there. The tension that had him watching, with mounting apprehension, the clock on his phone wherein every minute meant another minute closer to his departure time. To him leaving for Fujisawa the next day.

She was right; he was afraid. He didn't want to be apart from her, not when seven months had passed so quickly that it felt like the first frost was yesterday. His bravado was gone, his confidence nowhere to be found, and all he wanted was to hug Yukiko and never let her go, to transfer here or skip school or do something that meant he didn't have to leave her again. It was amazing to him how central she'd become in his life, how he sought her out just to feel as normal and in control as everyone thought he usually was.

That had been his anchor before, and she became his foundation. And he was leaving again, he thought with a harsh breath.

7:42am

Maybe they should go to a museum, or walk along a forest trail. Kyoto had them, and he owed her a visit from their interrupted time in Kofu. Or he could take her out for breakfast, see the restaurants and go shopping for souvenirs. He could get something for himself too, a memento to connect them.

That caught his attention, and he sat up as the thought rolled around his head. A memento. Something permanent. He walked over and checked his bags, making sure nothing had moved simply to do something, and he put on the chain that his friends had gotten him for graduation, carefully cleaning it. And when he looked deeper, he saw it, and the anxiety trembled in his heart again, rattling his breath. Before he could second-guess himself, he grabbed it and slid it into his inside pocket before returning to his girlfriend's side.

Yukiko rolled over just then, dressed in her loose yukata and shorts and pendant, and tagged her hand on his leg. The contact was enough to pull a groan from her as she pulled herself into consciousness. Sleep-hazed eyes found his for a few seconds before she began to move, careful as an unsteady kitten. "You're nervous," she noted as she blinked blearily, yawning behind her hand. Then she got a better look at him, in his usual dark jacket and slacks. "And already dressed."

"I woke up early," he told her, not addressing how well she read him while he brushed her hair back with a bittersweet pang to his heart. Just awake and mussed up, her hair in layers and anything but orderly, and she was still beautiful enough to make all his nerves tingle. "I was hoping to make today interesting, so I got to thinking about where we could go."

She let out a tired groan, stretching in place. "That sounds good. Did you think of anything?" she asked through another yawn.

"Actually, I did. I owe you a walk through the trees from before, so I thought we could kill the morning with that."

Yukiko smiled after a moment, wiping at the dried saliva at the corner of her mouth. "I'd like that. I haven't been to any trails in Kyoto before."

Souji smiled and rolled off her bed, feeling better already. "Then get dressed and I'll meet you at the doors. We can go out for breakfast and make a day of it."

She gave a sleepy 'Mm hm' while she stretched again, kneeling and extending her arms until they popped. He could have watched every minute of her waking up without a thought of complaint, same as he could have watched her sleep for the whole night and been happy for it. But there were things to do and places to go, and she probably wanted her privacy first thing in the morning. He slipped from the room and headed down the hall to the entrance while the rest of the dorm woke up or bustled busily around him.

He got no shortage of looks from Chie and Yukiko's dorm mates while he waited. Some of the guys who'd arrived to help their friends or girls move in made note of him, appraising or curious or polite, while the girls eyed him in passing. A few came up to introduce themselves, but referring to himself as 'Amagi Yukiko's boyfriend' got him no small number of understanding looks. He probably did stand out a little, when he thought about it. Dark clothes and fingerless gloves, his chain necklace and pendant, silver hair and eyes, and he knew he was good looking. But proper manners and a steady smile were enough to keep the conversations polite and stop from giving anyone the wrong idea. And it drew attention from how his fingers were drumming the wall he was leaning against.

The nervousness was back. His pulse kicked up and tripped over itself, spiking his breathing every now and again and sending hot flashes across his skin. It was a different kind of nervousness now. He'd been afraid in her room, not wanting to leave her. Now he even more tense for a different reason, so much so that he had barely gotten the address and directions to the area's restaurants and where he wanted to take her before Yukiko appeared in front of him in her usual summer attire, red barrette setting off her lustrous black hair perfectly.

"Are we ready to go?" she asked with a smile.

"Y-yeah," he replied, wincing as he tripped over his words. Great. They hadn't even left her dorm and he was already letting his nerves get to him. "I found a few places where we can have breakfast before we see the trails." Better. Now if only he didn't feel so pale. Maybe she wouldn't notice if–

"Did you sleep alright? You don't look well," she noted, concern in her voice as she laid the backs of her fingers against his face.

Nope. She definitely noticed. Well, he could manage things until–

He tripped. Actually tripped and had to grab on to the wall to keep from crashing into her. He wanted to blame someone's shoes or a raised step, but there was nothing at his feet except for smooth carpet without so much as a ridge.

He sighed. Great.

"I'm fine," he assured her, looking up to her bewildered stare. "Just not on my game today."

"Are you okay?" she inquired, a step back and the look of 'this is really weird' written across her face.

His pride taking blow after blow and his grace in smoking tatters, he smiled wanly. "Yep. Nothing wrong. Let's head out before things get too busy.

She looked at him sceptically, but nodded and headed out as he held the door open.

His pulse leveled out a bit. At least he didn't walk into the glass after she stepped onto the cement path. That she turned to check on him twice before they made it to the sidewalk, however, made him want to bury his face in his hands. It had to get better, or easier, or something from here.

He wasn't sure if it did though. They went to a restaurant that Yukiko immediately loved because of the décor and menu, but he couldn't remember what it looked like. Or what he had, or how it tasted. He must have gotten more things right than wrong, because she was smiling by the end of it when he just realized that their plates were empty and the smell of orange juice and Western pancake syrup was in the air. He paid the bill, hoping he got at least that right. The absence of any strange looks from the waitress was encouraging, as was getting a suitable amount of change.

But when he told her where they were going, then turned the wrong way as they left the restaurant, he felt his insides fall to his feet and his full stomach just sort of turn off. He sighed, tried to ignore her cautious and puzzled looks, and walked next to her, thinking ahead of his nerves and focusing on getting them to their destination.

When they did, her expression immediately lit up. A mile-long trail through a park, covered over with the canopies of varicoloured Japanese maples. Deep crimsons and light greens and precious autumnal golds kept them in enough shade to cut the sun out and add some privacy, but the trial was wide enough for two cars to drive down side by side, so there was an openness that made the place feel like it was cut off from the rest of the city, a separate place in the world entirely. With the river at the end of the trail, how the sounds of the cars were muffled by the leaves all around them, it was just like in Kofu.

"It's beautiful," Yukiko murmured, turning in place and staring at the colours. "You never see them in different seasons like this in Inaba."

"They use different species and breeds to create the effect," Souji told her, happy to have said one coherent thing so far. "Most of the trees around Inaba are wild growth."

She nodded. "That makes sense. I think I have a new favourite place while I'm here."

That brought a chuckle out of him. "Glad I could help."

There was a long silence between them, familiar and comfortable as they looked at the trees and the river and the lack of people around them. He tried to find his words, hoping the serenity would help.

"Are you really alright?" she asked finally, turning and facing him. "You've been off ever since we left the dorm. Before that, even. You're not coming down with something, are you?"

"No, I'm… just nervous about something. It's kinda related to me leaving tomorrow, but not really, and…" he trailed off and lost his words entirely. He never did that, and felt like calling it a day after adding it to the list of things he never thought he could be so off-balance to do.

"I'm going to miss you too," she assured him, still puzzled. "But this is bigger than that, isn't it?"

Good. He could work with this. "Well, it is, but there's something I wanted to ask you. But I'm not sure how you'll take it, and it's not the kind of thing I can just throw out there without… um… thinking it over."

Gods, this was getting bad. She was going to phone it in if he kept this up. At least they were away from people and he wasn't doing anything more suspicious than making a fool of himself.

"Alright, what did you want to ask me?"

"I…" He looked into her eyes, so caring and supportive and curious, and felt the words turn solid and lodge in his chest. He couldn't say them, no matter what he tried. "I can't do this," he muttered to himself, stepping back a bit.

Yukiko looked perplexed, tense from his half-answers and nonsensical trip-ups. "Can't do what? Souji, what's wrong?"

"Close your eyes," he told her simply.

"What?"

"Close your eyes. This is hard to say even without you looking so… you." Cute, gorgeous, compassionate and stunning just by standing there and being her. It was tripping him up and there was nothing she could do about that – she didn't even know what he wanted.

She touched her cheek and looked about to find her hand mirror when he said that. "There's something wrong with how I look? You're not making any sense."

He glanced at her pleadingly, not caring that he was going completely off the cuff now. "Please?"

She was quiet for a moment, looking at him with a bit of concern and a lot of curiousity. "If you're sure," she acceded finally, leaning against the railing and closing her eyes. The bewilderment was still there, too – her lips were still pinched a little and her eyebrows downturned. There was also a tinge of frustration in her features, and he almost expected her to start tapping her fingers on the railing.

Even without that beautiful gaze on him, the words were still hard to find. But Souji took a few long breaths and began. "I wanted to give you something appropriate for us getting into university, but I wanted it to be special too. Something permanent, seeing as how we're going to be," he grimaced but kept going, "apart for a while. Something for us."

Her eyes opened a little, a protest immediately ready. "You don't need to give me–"

He cut her off with a finger to her lips, and a small, strained smile. "Yes, I do, but I'm not done yet. Come on, eyes closed."

She stared at him again, not knowing where he was going or why, but did as he asked again. And Souji gently pulled her left hand up between them, stroking the back with his fingers.

"I've been thinking of this for a while," he told her with a shuddering breath, nervous smile on his face even if she couldn't see it. "And it's not something I can make good on until we graduate. But I didn't want to leave Kyoto without doing this."

"Do what?" she asked quietly, features settled as she was ready to hear him out.

He reached into his pocket for what he'd taken out of his bag before and bit his tongue to get the words right. "You're the most important person in the world to me, Yukiko. I don't know if I've said it before, but you deserve to hear that. Living apart's going to be hard, and I'm sure we'll make it work out between classes and jobs and everything else. We can always visit during holidays, but…" he trailed off, biting his tongue. Dammit, the was getting off topic. He shifted his weight and kicked his mind into gear as best he could, and tried again. "But I want more than that," he breathed out in a shaking voice. "More than assurances and hopes and phone calls. So I want to give you something. A promise." He set the object in her hand, and she opened her eyes once he did, too curious to keep them closed.

She gasped, and froze, her free hand up to her chest.

"This is my promise, Amagi Yukiko. And when we're done university and back in Inaba, however long that takes…" He was trembling now, but smiled softly at her expression, "when we have everything figured out and in line… will you marry me?"

She was staring solely at what he'd put in her hand. A small velvet box that revealed two thin rings when she opened it. Words failed her, though she opened her mouth several times. It was probably only a few seconds, but nothing had ever felt longer, more tense, to him.

"M… marry?" she choked out finally, staring at him with wide eyes that were tearing up at the corners. "You w-want to marry me?"

"When we're done with all of this, yes," he told her, not looking away from her. "More than I want anything else in the world."

Her lips quivered, tears falling down her cheeks, as her hand rose to her mouth. Nothing came out while she looked at the rings resting in her shaking hand. The silence was starting to get to him, make him doubt, but she nodded once. Then she pulled the rings to her chest and held them tight, a wide grin on her face, nodding some more. "Yes," she whispered, eyes brighter than the stars in winter. "Yes!" she shouted before rushing him, arms around his chest and squeezing as tight as she could. "Yes, yes, yes I'll marry you!"

The tension in Souji broke and crumbled to dust in a heartbeat. He hugged her back, hard as he could without holding back, lifting her off her feet as she laughed delightedly. Appropriate, because it felt like he was flying. Weightless, carefree, and happier than he could ever remember being. It was like a spring morning, waking up and feeling the sun's rays and the wind on his face, brushing at his hair and feeling like anything was possible, his for the taking. Once he set her on her feet, she kissed his lips, cheeks, nose, and the rest of his face, peppering him with affection until he held the side of her face and kissed her, long and deep, pulling her tight against him as she did the same. There were no hormones this time, no teenaged drive to keep going regardless of where they were. Just marrow-deep contentment and love between them.

"Thank you," he told her as they broke apart, chuckling a bit breathlessly. "I had no idea how to ask that, and nothing I looked at helped and…" and he was getting off topic again. "Thanks , Yukiko."

"Of course," she told him, hugging him close with one arm and holding up the rings with the other, marveling at them. "When did you get them? How long have you had them?"

"Not too long," he replied, looking at them with her. "I had Daidara make them as a special order. It pushed things a bit given how long we had and the cost, but he said he felt inspired to make them as soon as I told him what I wanted. Here," he whispered next to her ear, pulling out the smaller ring and holding it up for her to see.

Small and thin, it had a woven vine design so delicate and fine that is was hard to imagine the hard, gruff man making it in the first place. Worked in gold and so simple yet detailed, it was perfect, and perfectly set off by the trilliant-cut ruby in the mount. Yukiko broke into a silly smile as she held up her trembling left hand. Souji cleared his throat and slid it in her left finger, slowly so she could watch it happen, until it rested just above her first knuckle. "It's beautiful," she murmured, shifting the band back and forth and staring at the stone, how the facets caught and reflected the light until the stone seemed to burn from within. Then she looked back at the box and saw the other ring still sitting in place. "He made one for you too?"

"He said that guys should wear rings too, especially if they have a girl they're proud to be engaged to," Souji explained, recalling the intense look in the man's eye when he said as much.

"Well, it's your turn," she told him, pulling the ring out and putting the box in his jacket pocket, gesturing impatiently until he chuckled and removed his left glove. His ring seemed out of place in her fingers, wider than hers, polished until it looked like platinum, and heavier with a simple small diamond set in the band. But as she slid it on his finger, it fit perfectly and suited his rougher skin and scars like it belonged there.

They smiled at each other, just now noticing that there were other people around them. Salarymen, students, passersby, but their private pocket was becoming a bit more crowded. Still, she stepped next to him and turned, holding up her left hand and his to compare the rings. Hers, fine gold and brilliant red, and his, sturdy silver and shining white. As different as the hands they rested on, her slender fingers dwarfed by his as she rested her palm to the back of his hand, covering up the scars. But when she closed her fingers between his, the rings rested against each other perfectly.

"How did you get my size?" she asked as she compared them.

"Your mother told me. She said you didn't wear rings very much, but helped me out a little after I talked to them about this."

Her eyebrows rose, surprise clear on her face. "You got her permission?"

"And your father's," he confirmed. "It wasn't what I'd call easy, but it was my first step when I decided to ask you."

Flashback

July 6th

If Amagi Katsushiro's stony silences and hard glares had been heavy and oppressive before, and they had been since Souji had first met the man, regardless of how little he let it bother him, the silence that settled in the room following his statement was heavier than a landslide.

As Souji had promised Dojima, he met with the Amagis only a few days after that night. Ryoko had been welcoming and cheerful, if preoccupied, and Katsushiro was as stony as ever. His curt 'What do you need?' had been as welcoming as a slammed door, but Souji hadn't let it slow him down. Sitting across from them in the same room as where they'd been introduced, he waited until he found the right words and tried to assess their possible outcomes. Either way, no matter how he spun it or built it up, the words 'I'm in love with Yukiko. And I'd like your permission, when we return from university and she is comfortable with running the Inn, to marry her' had cut off any retorts and left them staring at him in what had to be the second-longest moment of his life.

"You… what?" Katsushiro choked out first.

"That's a strong statement to make, Souji-kun," Ryoko replied, much less surprised, or doing a far better job at masking it, compared to her husband. "And you seem sincere. But keep in mind that we are not in a position to simply give blessings to anyone who asks to marry Yukiko." She gave a kind smile that, to Souji, resembled a fox looking down on a field mouse. "There are other matters to consider, after all.

Souji nodded. "Of course. What might those criteria be?"

"Well, the first thing that comes to mind is eligibility. If Yukiko wants to marry you, that's certainly acceptable to me, but what if there are other suitors? More appropriate men in her life who can make her happy?"

And like a fox, she was toying with him. But Souji folded his hands together and kept his tone even. It wasn't even her tone or mannerisms that were spiking his temper: it was the hard glare he was getting from Katsushiro that forced his teeth together. "That would be news to me, Ryoko-san, given that she's never mentioned anyone else."

"But it could happen," Katsushiro told him bluntly. "You will be living separately for several years soon. Can you keep her happy in such a situation? Perhaps someone going to the same university would be more appropriate. Someone reliable and with a vested interest in her happiness."

"So would an arranged marriage, if you're concerned about promises and commitment," Souji pointed out, ignoring that last comment despite how it tested his control. "Were you planning on arranging a marriage for her? If that's the case, you've waited a very long time to do so. And she hardly seems the sort to accept that at this point, if you take my meaning. As to the long-distance relationship, we've done it before, and I won't let things get between us."

Her father snorted. "Those are easy words to say, Seta."

The teen felt the force of the man's disdain, and a cold anger rose up in response. "No, Amagi-san, they're not," Souji spat back with a glare. "Because they mean that I won't be able to see her or be around her without a train ride to Kyoto, nor hear her in person except on holidays and after exams. There's nothing easy about what we're doing, nothing fun about it. And that's exactly why I will do everything I can to make sure that we don't grow apart just because we aren't living together."

Ryoko's expression remained the same, but now she was tapping a finger thoughtfully on the table surface. Katsushiro, on the other hand, gave a hard grunt and rose from his seat, heading past the table and for the door.

"Dislike me all you want, Amagi-san," Souji called from where he was sitting in an unyielding voice, "but do not doubt how I feel for Yukiko. I wouldn't ask this if I hadn't thought it through, and I know that there are a lot of other circumstances to consider." His tone eased up a little, still strong but not as hard. "But please remember that I know that those circumstances exist. I know we're young to be considering it, which is why I won't expect anything to happen until after we have gone as far as we want in university." He turned to lock eyes with the older man. "If she wants to take more courses and further what she knows, then I will support her in every way that I can. I'll wait as long as it takes. Make no mistake, I'm not so naïve as to think that we could make a marriage last while going to school in different parts of the country."

"But you are thinking of what will happen after you both receive your degrees," Ryoko added, her smile shifting from cunning to understanding.

Souji turned back to her, taking a few moments to thaw out his temper. "Yes, I am. This is too important to ask without taking everything into consideration. I wouldn't play games with her feelings. Or with my own. So if I have to make ten-year plans and spend eight of those years reworking them to make sure she's happy, you can bet the Inn that I will do it without a second thought."

There was a long moment of silence before Ryoko looked to her husband with an expression Souji had never seen before. Granted, he hadn't spent very much time around her, and he got the feeling that she could run circles around him in keeping secrets and playing mind games. But was that… approval?

"And if I refuse to give you my blessing?" Katsushiro asked from the door, breaking the moment.

The reply was a cold smile across Souji's face that bordered on threatening. "Then I will stay here until I change your mind. I have all night, and all week if it comes to that."

"And you think you'll spend all that time here?"

Souji waited for a moment before rising to his feet and giving the man the cold, hard stare he normally reserved for Shadows. "I won't leave without an answer, Katsushiro-san. And I'd rather not have to respond to you trying to force me out."

"Trying?"

"That's right."

"While that might make for a wonderful spectacle," Ryoko cut in with the same calm, level tone as always, slowly rising from the table, "it would be counterproductive to your aims if things were carried that far, wouldn't it, Souji-kun?"

"Yes, it would. But this is how seriously I take this matter, Amagi-san. I'm not going to neglect her or take her for granted, I won't use her status to my advantage, and there is no one else in this world who means more to me." He stared at Katsushiro, almost daring him to say something. When he didn't, Souji turned to Ryoko, who was wearing that same enigmatic smile as always on her classically beautiful face. "That is the extent to which I love her. Leaving her alone and walking away is not an option, and there is nothing I won't do for her. That is where I stand on this matter."

Ryoko tapped the ends of her fingers together, pensive, or pretending to be, and watching him with those calm, calculating eyes. Finally, after several long moments, she smiled. And actually laughed, a genuinely happy sound that filled the room like a light autumn breeze. "If you swear to make her happy with the same determination you've shown us tonight, then you have my blessing. When you've returned to Inaba and she's ready, of course." She gave a small bow, no more than an inclination of the head, but it was plenty.

Katsushiro gave a hard grunt and looked away from him, but nodded as he did. "I agree. You've been less inconsistent than the others who have talked to us. If this is how strongly you feel for her, then make sure that you treat her well. If you do, then I won't object to you asking her."

Souji's determination, feeling like the hardened face of a mountain, teetered over at those words. He was shocked and stunned and breathless all at once. He'd done it. He'd won them over. Months of fighting with her father and the tacit observations of her mother, and he'd finally gotten their approval, or at least their consent, when and where it really counted.

It was a relief, like pushing against the immovable wall that was her father's disdain for him while remaining even more resolute to not be pushed away, only to have those forces cease entirely. He felt lighter. He was elated. He wanted to laugh, to cheer, to hug someone, and held the back of his hand to his face to contain his emotions as they ran wild inside him. He hadn't felt this ecstatic since the day they'd defeated Izanami.

Words couldn't come close to communicating what was rushing through his system at that moment. But there was something he could say, a start of a sliver of what he felt at that moment, and despite what he'd gone through to get this far, and indeed perhaps because of it, it was probably the best thing he could say just then.

"Thank you. Thank you so much."

End Flashback

"It took a bit of doing," he admitted finally, "but we worked everything out in the end."

"You got their permission," she stated again, incredulous.

"Of course I did. That's way too important to leave until after." Souji chuckled. "And they would have killed me if I asked you without talking to them first. Your dad's bad enough, but I really didn't want to take chances with your mother."

"I still can't believe it," she whispered, looking at the ring again with that same silly smile.

"Well, it seemed like the best time to do it." He straightened his chain out and raised his eyebrows appraisingly, finally calmed down after an entire morning of fear and fretting. "Was it a good gift?"

She didn't answer with words. Uncaring of who was watching or where they were, she took two steps forward and kissed him, her arms around his neck while his slid around her waist out of reflex. It was a warm, loving kiss, soft enough and deep enough that it told him everything he needed and wanted to know, and so softly intense that it took his breath away as she burrowed in closer. People whispered and murmured around them, and neither cared.

When she finally pulled back, leaving him breathing hard, she smiled, arms still around his neck, in such a way that froze his lungs even as he needed them. Her face was open, caring, and so genuinely happy, moisture at the corner of her eyes, that he knew precisely how she felt. It thrummed along his bones like sound waves and left him feeling dizzy, a single sentiment that burned in his mind like a flare in the night:

I love you.

It was empowering, and uplifting, and humbling. It chased away his fear completely, and he pulled her into a tight embrace, holding back his words for now as his eyes stung. Neither knew how long they stood there, or how they looked. But it didn't matter. They were there, together, at that moment.

And that was more than enough.

Author's Note, Post Script: And thus ends another arc of Continuance. Yes, you heard right. That's the end of the Intermediary Arc, and the next chapter will be the beginning of the University Arc. How many arcs will there be? That would be telling, but I will say, since some have asked, that there's a lot more to come. About another two years of writing, maybe more. So if you're enjoying the fic and have followed it up to this point, I hope you've liked what you've seen, because it's a long way from over.