Even Death Won't Part Us Now
Chapter 2 - Taking a Chance on Love
Rich traditions abound in Japan, especially when it comes to marriage. And while the majority of weddings in Japan are still Shinto-style, there's no mistaking that Western culture has had an influence in recent years. Seemingly bombarded on all fronts in the media, heavily romanticized in movies, magazines and Japanese television dramas, it's no wonder that Western-style weddings have gained in popularity. Yet by no means have the Japanese chosen to toss aside their old customs and traditions in favor of the more modern and popular trends. Rather, many Japanese now favor a contemporary-style ceremony, which utilize several different elements from both the Shinto and Western ceremony. With the best of both styles blended together, couples are assured of having a unique wedding experience while still honoring and respecting some of their ancient traditions.
One such tradition, however, has long outlived its usefulness. The Omiai, or arranged marriage, had long been commonplace in Japan. Even as late as the 1930's, over seventy percent of marriages were still omiai as opposed to ren'ai, marriages based on love. In the years after the war however, and as women gradually began gaining more economic independence, those percentages have reversed as omiai now make up less than thirty percent of all marriages in Japan today.
Being from a very old family that typically still adhered to many of her clans' ancient customs, Akira too had soon found herself forced into such an arrangement. Fortunately, her true love was one who would not stand for such antiquated customs, choosing instead to chivalrously fight for her hand until eventually convincing her father that her daughter's happiness trumped all else. And while several members of Akira's clan still had some reservations about her marrying such a commoner, even they were rather astonished that their relationship had managed to endure for such a lengthy duration: a full four years, especially when taking into account their young age.
Being perfectly content after having received her father's blessing to wed his daughter, it essentially didn't matter one way or the other to Takumi about the type, size or even location of the ceremony. Because regardless of any further customs that they might have to adhere to for the service, the end result, which is really all he cared about, would still be the same: Akira would at long last become his wife. And while Akira too felt the same way, she was rather insistent that the clan make one small allowance.
Even though the tradition hasn't been observed in recent years, Shinto-style weddings only permit immediate family members to attend the initial ceremony, although both family and friends may attend the reception. So even knowing that the clan was pretty set in their ways, Akira still argued that six of their closest and dearest friends be permitted to attend the main ceremony, steadfastly maintaining that they were like family to them. Reluctant at first, the clan eventually conceded. Of course with her father serving as head of the clan, in addition to siding with her, any arguments against were swiftly abated.
There was never any argument however in regards to the locality of the ceremony. Since Fuka Academy was where they had met, it seemed quite fitting that they be wed at the neighboring Fuka Shrine.
Situated at the top of a hill on academy grounds, the first thing one encounters, when approaching from the front, is an impressive and rather massive torii gate marking the entrance. It is believed that the shrine grounds exist on a plane that overlaps with the spirit world and the gate therefore serves as a means to divide that world from ours.
After passing under the gate and following a stone walkway, presently strewn with pink and cream colored sakura petals, a rather formal ceremony could be observed transpiring just inside the shrine's main hall this particular spring morning.
The long anticipated day finally upon them, an anxious Takumi and Akira now found themselves standing before a Shinto priest. Extremely fortunate to be bearing witness to the hallowed event, aside from their families and a select few close relatives, were their good friends Hajime, Kyoko, Wataru and Hiromi. Two of Akira's childhood friends from her home town, Izumi and Hiroki, were also present. Yet despite their closest friends being in attendance, and as is the norm with Western-style weddings, there were neither bridesmaids nor a best man in this style of ceremony.
Attending to them were two miko (shrine maidens), one of whom they were well acquainted with. A childhood friend of Yuichi, and somewhat rival to Mai for his affections, the pink-haired, dual pigtailed Shiho nevertheless took this undertaking very seriously, having worked here at her grandfather's shrine as a miko off and on for the past several years. Wearing the traditional red hakama and white haori, she now stood dutifully alongside the Shinto priest along with her fellow miko.
While Takumi wore the traditional pleated, gray and white striped hakama pants and a solid black haori jacket over a black montsuki kimono, which had his family crest embroidered on the back, it was really the bride's attire that was much more elaborate and quite spectacular to behold. Her face covered in a white powder, which is said to declare her maiden status to the gods, Akira wore a shiromuku (meaning white purity) silk kimono, symbolizing the new life she was beginning. Atop of it she also wore an elegantly styled red outer kimono called an uchikake. The long, heavy silk garment was embroidered with an elaborate floral pattern along with several cranes, symbolizing long life, all of which was superbly highlighted with gold thread. With her hair worn up, Akira, much to her chagrin, also had to wear a wig adorned with combs and other decorative ornaments. The wig itself was then covered by a white hood-like veil called a tsunokakushi, literally meaning horn hider, intended to conceal the bride's demon horns. Coming from the old folk belief that women grow horns and turn into demons after becoming jealous, the tsunokakushi therefore symbolizes that the bride will be kind and obedient to her husband.
With all in attendance bowing first before the alter, the rite of shubatsu then commenced. The Shinto priest began the ancient purification ceremony by first incanting a prayer and then waving a wooden, wand-like stick, known as a harai-gushi, over the couple. Several zigzag shaped strips of paper called shide hung from the sacred staff, its purpose being to cleanse away any impurities; purity being one of the fundamental virtues of Shinto ethics.
After then chanting a ceremonial Shinto prayer called norito, the ancient ritual of san-san-kudo was next performed. Literally translated as "three-three-nine-times", san-san-kudo is a ceremony of binding, signifying the couple's union by the drinking of a small amount of sake and is also one of Japan's oldest traditions, dating back to the eighth century. Proceeding to serve the couple, the miko now presented the sake to them using three special flat cups of different sizes. Known as sakazuki, Takumi and Akira then took turns sipping three times from each of the cups. Beginning with the smallest cup, which represents heaven, followed up by the medium cup (earth), and then finishing with the large one (humankind), they have each now taken a total of nine sips, three times three. Interestingly, odd numbers are seen as being lucky in Japan, particularly the number three. Therefore, drinking three times from three different cups is considered especially auspicious.
Now turning to face the alter to address the Kami-sama (god), Takumi and Akira proceeded to declare their vows to each another, pledging to remain faithful and obedient while also proclaiming their hearts as one.
Their vows of matrimony were then consecrated with the exchange of wedding rings, handed to them by the miko. Although the traditional Shinto wedding has changed little since its inception, it was only a few decades ago, during the postwar period, that the ring exchange became incorporated into the ceremony. With a glowing expression, one could sense the enormous amount of pride that Takumi emoted as he placed the ring upon Akira's finger, never once wavering.
All that remained to close out the ceremony was the traditional symbolic offering of tamagushi before the Kami-sama. Essentially a branch from a sacred sakaki tree, which were adorned with strips of shide, Takumi and Akira each placed a few sprigs upon the alter. Afterwards, relatives of the bride and groom poured and exchanged cups of sake before the Kami-sama, thereby signifying the formation of a strong relationship between the two families.
"Oh, that was such a lovely ceremony," Hiromi blissfully conveyed while dabbing a tear from her eye at the conclusion of the service.
"Akira looked simply gorgeous. Did you see how elaborately detailed her uchikake was?" Izumi elatedly remarked.
"I know, right? It was positively exquisite."
"And then for the ceremony to fall right in the middle of cherry blossom season," Kyoko then mentioned, "talk about perfect timing."
"So romantic," Izumi sighed as she then mused, "I definitely want my wedding to be in the spring."
Their guy friends now feeling a bit of unease, as the girls began contemplating their own weddings, prompted Wataru to suggest, "Um, I guess we had better start heading on down to the reception," indicating that the number of guests had begun to thin out.
"Uh, yeah, good idea," an apprehensive Hiroki concurred.
"Huh? Oh, yeah I guess we probably should," a somewhat disillusioned Izumi replied. "I was just kind of hoping we could talk to them first since we might not get much of a chance to during the reception."
"I know, but I'm sure that they're quite busy right now," Hiroki pointed out. "The photographer's probably having them pose for several photos, plus they still need to change."
"Oh I just can't wait to see what Akira will be wearing next," Hiromi anxiously anticipated, referring to the numerous outfit changes that the bride and groom make at several junctures during the reception, occasionally as many as four times.
"Yeah, me too," Izumi agreed. "I wonder if… Oh look! There they are!"
"Uh… Izumi, wait!" Hiroki called after her.
Catching a glimpse of the newlywed couple coming up alongside the shrine, having exited from the rear, an overly exited Izumi was unable to restrain herself as she then ran up to the two and immediately embraced Akira in an emotional hug. With tears of joy streaming down her cheeks, she elatedly exclaimed, "Oh, Akira! I can't tell you how happy I am for the two of you."
"Aww, thanks, Izumi."
"Take it easy, Izumi," Hiroki cautioned, having finally caught up with her, "You're liable to mess up her kimono."
"Don't worry, it's fine," Akira assured him.
"So you've finally gone and done it," Hajime enthusiastically heralded, coming up alongside Takumi and giving him a hearty slap on the back. "Congratulations, my friend."
"I gotta say that took a lot of guts," he then joked, winking over at Akira.
"Funny guy," Akira wryly remarked. "Lucky for you that my movements are somewhat restricted in this cumbersome outfit, otherwise…"
"Heh heh. But you know I'm actually kind of surprised to see you guys here right now. We all figured you'd be tied up with the photographers and changing outfits and such. What gives? You guys sneak away or something?"
"Weeell…" Takumi hesitantly began, looking rather sheepishly off to the side.
"Ehh? No way! Seriously?"
"Oh, we had to," Akira then unabashedly admitted. "What with several of my nosy relatives hovering over us and making all sorts of inquiries about our plans for the future, and then being fussed over by the miko, like making sure that my tsunokakushi wasn't crooked and such, we couldn't breathe anymore."
"She's exaggerating," Takumi quietly uttered to the others.
"No I'm not! At least you pretty much only had your sister to contend with. I on the other hand was being smothered from all sides. Anyway, that's when we decided…"
"Uh, you decided," Takumi corrected.
"Whatever! That's when I decided that we should just slip out the back of the shrine for a bit. Anyway, they think we just went to the restroom." Detecting a soft chuckle from Takumi then prompted Akira to inquire, "What's so funny?"
"The miko actually wanted to go with her," Takumi mentioned to their friends, "in case she needed help because of her kimono."
"See, that's what I'm talking about! No privacy."
"Oh, Akira, it's not that bad."
"Not for you maybe. Still, that's just one more reason why I would have preferred a smaller and less elaborate ceremony."
"Really?" Izumi was shocked to hear. "Well I think you're extremely lucky, Akira. After all, it's every girl's dream to have such a huge and opulent wedding."
"Well, not this girl," Akira informed her. "Although, you are right about one thing, Izumi," proceeding then to take Takumi by the hand and lovingly gaze into his eyes, "I am extremely lucky."
"Awww," Izumi admiringly gushed.
"You know I'd kiss you right now," Takumi brazenly revealed, "but I don't want to mess up any of your make-up."
"You think I care about that?" Akira said with indifference. "Still, I'll certainly be glad when I finally get this stupid pancake make-up off of my face. And likewise this massive wig and hood; they weigh a ton."
"Oh, I don't know, Akira," Takumi then remarked, "I kind of like it. It makes you look so pure and innocent. Like an angel."
"An angel, huh?" Hajime chuckled. "Then best to remember her the way she is now, Takumi, because once that hood comes off…"
Hiroki looked over at Hajime somewhat stunned, finding his remark a bit crass.
"Oh, Hajime, stop," Kyoko scolded, turning then to Akira and addressing, "But seriously, Akira, despite how uncomfortable it may feel, you do look truly amazing."
"Absolutely!" Hiromi concurred.
"Thanks, you guys, I appreciate that."
"And I'm sure that I speak for Hiromi and Kyoko-san as well when I say that we're extremely jealous of you right now, Akira," Izumi disclosed.
"That's for sure," Kyoko added. "I only hope that my wedding is just as picturesque," she yearned, suggestively then looking over at Hajime.
Not yet prepared to discuss the prospect of marriage, an ill at ease Hajime nervously gulped while awkwardly glancing off to the side.
"Wow, I think this is the quietest that I've ever seen him," Akira amusingly remarked. "I just wish you had told me about this sooner, Kyoko. I've always wondered what the secret to shutting him up was."
"Oh, come on, Akira," Takumi scolded, "be nice. Leave the poor guy some sense of dignity."
"Thank you, Takumi," Hajime gratefully replied.
"Besides," he added, "I'm sure he's perfectly well aware that he'll most likely be next in line after us to enter into the institute of marriage."
"Why certainly," Takumi playfully teased his friend. "So there's no point in scaring him anymore than he already is."
"W… who's scared?" he endeavored to deny.
Smirking and raising an eyebrow, Kyoko feigned shock, "Really? Gee, Hajime, that's pretty bold of you to say. So then does that mean you're ready to take the next big step?"
"N… now wait a minute Cuddle Bunny," Hajime attempted to clarify. "Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. I mean…"
As the others took delight in their friend's awkward little moment, Wataru couldn't help but remark, "Oh boy, you really put your foot in your mouth that time, Hajime. Ha-ha, looks like your carefree days of the single life are numbered."
"Oh yeah? Well if I were you I wouldn't exactly get too complacent with your current state of bachelorhood either, pal. Because you're next!" Hajime smugly reminded him. "You're okay with that though, aren't you, Hiromi?"
"Ha… Hajime!" a totally flustered Wataru protested.
Apprehensively then glancing over at Hiromi, he observed a bright red hue in her cheeks, which only became all the more pronounced when their eyes met. Once overcoming the initial embarrassment however, she proceeded to flash a rather affable smile at him.
Now sporting matching colored cheeks, a totally caught off guard Wataru squirmed as he then timidly reciprocated the gesture.
"Ha-ha, you guys never cease to crack me up," an amused Takumi laughingly remarked. "Oh, man, I am so going to miss all that. Right, Akira?"
"Speak for yourself. Although, at least Wataru has always been the more sane and rational of the two, there's a limit to how much I can take from this one's seemingly endless antics," Akira sardonically said glaring over at Hajime. "So no, I can't particularly say that I'd miss that in the least."
"Aww, come on, Akira," Hajime appealed, "you don't really mean that, do you?"
"I certainly do!" she coldly shot back.
"Reeeally?" he continued to prod. "You sure you're not going to miss my charming wit and sense of humor just a tiny bit?"
"Forget it, Hajime," Takumi chuckled, "you know you'll never get her to admit to that."
"Humph!" she stubbornly grumbled with folded arms while feebly attempting to conceal her smirking expression.
"There, you see?" Takumi pointed out, proceeding then to lightheartedly mock, "As my charming bride here so eloquently and succinctly puts it: Harrumph!"
While garnering a smile from her, Akira still shook her head as she cast a look of exasperation over at Hajime. "You know I blame you for this. He never used to be such a wiseacre."
"Hey, I take that as a compliment," Hajime complacently replied.
Sighing heavily before turning back to Takumi she then posed with a grin, "Remind me again why I agreed to marry you? Certainly not for your sense of humor, that's for sure."
"What, you mean you still don't know?" he affectionately asked, proceeding then to take her in his arms.
"Well, well, I knew you two must have had a good reason for sneaking off like that," his sister, Mai exuberantly expressed, having just come up from behind the two seemingly unnoticed along with her boyfriend, Yuichi.
"Oh, hey, sis."
"You know, Takumi, if you wanted to elope with her it's usually customary to slip out 'before' the wedding ceremony. Trying to get a bit of a head start on your honeymoon, hmmm?"
"Come on, Mai," Yuichi scolded. "Don't embarrass him."
With one arm still firmly planted around Akira's waist, a rather contented Takumi exhibited a blushing smile.
After briefly explaining the reason behind their abrupt departure, Mai understandably stated, "Well, I guess I can't blame you." Exhibiting a glowing facial expression, she then proudly exclaimed, "Oh, man, Takumi, I still can't get over it. My baby brother, married. Course, guess I'm gonna have to stop calling you that now, huh?"
"Aw, sis, just because I'm married now doesn't change anything between us. I'll always be your brother and will continue to look up to you. Always have."
"Oh, Takumi," Mai sniffled, proceeding then to engulf her brother in a rather vigorous bear hug.
"Uh, s… sis, you're…"
"Smothering him," Akira concluded, humorously then observing, "But then again I suppose some things just never change. So then really, I'd think that you'd be used to it by now, Takumi, or should I say…"
"Don't say it!" Takumi cautioned.
Accentuating each syllable, Akira lightheartedly teased, "Sis… ter com…plex boy."
Provoking a laugh from his friends, an embarrassed Takumi could only sigh in frustration even as Akira planted a compassionate kiss upon his cheek in an attempt to console him.
"You guys are terrible," Yuichi countered, shaking his head, albeit with a repressed snicker.
Throwing a supportive arm around Takumi's shoulder, Hajime reassuringly avowed, "Not to worry, my friend, because after this particular night is over the only nickname Akira will be referring to you by will be Lover boy." Suggestively raising his eyebrows up and down and playfully nudging him with his elbow he enthusiastically expressed, "Eh? Eh? Am I right?"
Noting the reddish tinge that had now overcome Akira's cheeks, Takumi, wishing to avoid her any embarrassment, attempted to maintain a look of innocence and merely substantiated Hajime's suspicions with a wink and a smile.
Hiroki meanwhile could only shake his head in disbelief, once again rather taken aback by Hajime's cocky attitude as well as his crude and rather immature humor.
Suddenly emerging from the rear of the shrine was Shiho, seeming quite frazzled as she rushed over to the rather stealthy couple.
"There you are!" she expressed with relief, yet also somewhat annoyed.
"Hey, Shiho," Yuichi greeted. "Long time no see. You're looking good."
Naturally, hearing this from the person she had harbored a crush on since childhood caused her to blush profusely, the hue in her cheeks now complementing her hair.
"Oh, she looks so adorable!" Izumi squealed.
"Yeah, you look as cute as ever in that outfit," Mai then added.
"Uh, th… thanks," she timidly replied, not accustomed to receiving compliments, particularly from Mai. Even though she had reluctantly begun to accept her and Yuichi as a couple, it still annoyed her somewhat seeing the two standing so close to each other. Shaking it off, she quickly then redirected her attention back to Takumi and Akira, demanding to know, "So why'd you two run off like that? Everyone's starting to get worried."
"Uh, yeah, Akira," Takumi then unexpectedly began to condemn, "what were you thinking?"
Cunningly flashing her a wink, he then turned to Shiho and assured, "Don't worry I'll bring her back. Please assure everyone that we'll be returning momentarily and that we're sorry to have worried them."
"It's okay," Takumi continued to reassure. "Just give us a few more minutes and I promise that we'll cause you no further problems."
Overcome by his sweet and innocent smile, Shiho, now forced to blush, had no choice but to give in, bowing then before the couple before turning and heading back inside the shrine.
"Beats me how you do it, my friend," an impressed sounding Hajime expressed, shaking his head incredulously, "but that smile of yours can melt even the coldest of hearts."
"Tell me about it," Akira was quick to agree, but then added, "Still, I didn't exactly appreciate you throwing me under the bus like that, Takumi."
"Hey, I bought us some time, didn't I?"
"Speaking of time," Kyoko then mentioned, "have you guys discussed how you're going to deal with these long periods of separation? I mean, once you start school again."
"Yeah, that's right," Hiromi suddenly realized. "In less than two weeks you're going to be split apart since you'll each be attending different universities."
"It'll be a challenge, I admit," Takumi confessed, "but we'll manage. Besides, we'll still get to see each other during Spring Break, Golden Week and other holidays.
"Oh believe me," Akira emphasized, "whenever our schedules allow, we'll be taking advantage of every possible opportunity that happens to arise."
"At least it's only a 30 minute subway ride between our two schools," Takumi pointed out, "so it shouldn't be too bad."
"Yeah, but to have to endure that for four years?" Wataru pointed out. "Man, I sure don't envy you guys."
Looking to him rather dubiously, Hajime queried, "That why you switched your choice of universities at the last minute, Wataru? Making sure you'd be together with Hiromi, eh?"
"Uhh..." a rather flustered Wataru stammered as he then caught a glimpse of a blushing Hiromi.
"Heh heh, can't say as I blame you though. But you're right," Hajime maintained, "I wouldn't want to be in their shoes either. I mean, it was hard enough being apart from my precious Kyoko for just one year. Lucky for me though, I at least now get to join her since we're both attending the same university."
"And thus once more," Kyoko overdramatized, "shall the playwright and the thespian be reunited."
"Oh, are you two performing arts majors?" Izumi presumed.
"You are correct, my dear," an intentionally pretentious sounding Hajime replied.
"Ah geez, here we go," Akira dreaded, rolling her eyes as Hajime began to break into a Shakespeare monologue.
"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances…"
"So exit already," Wataru cynically retorted.
Joining in, Akira couldn't help but add, "And don't let the door hit you in the…"
"Akira!" Takumi objected.
"Lord, what fools these mortals be," Hajime quipped, quoting the Bard's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
"Ha-ha. You guys are too much," Izumi laughed, thoroughly engrossed by their antics, before suddenly bemoaning, "Oh, but you're so lucky. Hiroki and I are going to be split apart since we'll also be attending different universities."
"Well, at least we'll both be in good company, Izumi," Takumi reminded her, referring to their attending of the same university. "And likewise, Akira will have Hiroki to keep her company."
"Yeah, I know, but still…"
"Hey, try and look at it this way, Izumi-san," Hajime interjected, attempting to reassure her. "All those long stretches while the two of you are apart will only make your eventual reunions together that much more special," he suggestively stated with raised eyebrows. "If you know what I mean."
Though causing her a slight bit of embarrassment, Hajime had nonetheless managed to alleviate her unease, prompting a now rather amused Izumi to chuckle, "Oh, Hajime-kun, you're bad."
"So I've been told… numerous times by Akira, in fact," he whimsically replied. "Not in a good way of course. However, coming from such a charming young lady as you, I take that as a compliment."
While a slight redness began to overtake Izumi's cheeks, Akira and Kyoko couldn't help but roll their eyes. Hiroki, meanwhile, didn't seem the least bit amused by Hajime's flirtatious demeanor.
"So, Takumi," Hiromi then inquired, "is Akira still keeping you in the dark about where you're going to be spending your honeymoon?"
"Hasn't even given me the slightest hint," he informed her.
"Oh, Takumi, you're just going to love it!" Izumi eagerly extolled. "It's absolutely gorgeous over there and extremely romantic. I mean the scenery alone is so breathtaking that…"
"Izumi!" Hiroki admonished.
"What? I wasn't going to tell him."
"Alright, but you shouldn't be giving him any hints either. It's supposed to be a surprise."
"Unless of course someone else has already spilled the beans," Akira facetiously said, shooting an accusatory glance over at Hajime.
"Hey, come on, I'd never spoil a surprise like that for my best bud. After all, I know how to keep a secret."
"Uh, we won't go there," Kyoko sardonically said while giving Hajime a consolatory pat on the back, referring back to when he let slip Akira's White Day present to Takumi.
"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" he sighed.
"Not on your life," Akira acerbically countered with a smirk.
"Oh, Akira, stop," Takumi scolded. Then, with a mischievous grin, Takumi leaned over alongside Hajime, and in a whisper, though intentionally loud enough for Akira to hear, requested, "You can tell me later in private where we're going. I'm actually kind of curious."
"He will do no such thing!" Akira loudly objected. "Hajime, so help me if you…" Immediately stopping herself upon hearing the first snicker out of both their mouths, Akira just shook her head at their childish humor. "Cripes, not again."
"Sorry, Akira, we were just kidding," Takumi declared.
Sighing, Akira just turned to Mai and exasperatingly explained, "See the kind of juvenile humor I've had to put up with. Clearly the result of hanging around this one for so long," she indicated over toward Hajime.
"Heh heh," Hajime smugly grinned.
"Oh? Is that true?" Mai intriguingly queried with a smirk, casting an accusatory eye over at Hajime. "Have you been a bad influence on my brother, Hajime-kun?"
"Oh, Mai-san, you make it sound like a bad thing. Besides, can I help it if some of my charm and wit has rubbed off on my pal here?"
"Oh brother," Akira uttered under her breath, accompanied by an eye roll.
Sighing before putting in her two cents, Kyoko then enlightened, "While his sense of humor may be a tad warped at times, I can unequivocally attest to one thing: he's definitely quite the charmer."
"Yup, that's me!" Hajime brazenly boasted. "Full of wit and overflowing with charm."
"Well you're certainly full of it, that's for sure," Akira remarked.
"And that we can both attest to," Wataru concurred, promptly then receiving a high five from Akira.
"Ha-ha!" Takumi laughed. "Afraid they know you a little too well, my friend."
With the locale now shifting to Fuka Academy's magnificently manicured gardens, festivities for the kekkon hiroen (reception) were about ready to commence. And being so picturesque it was therefore an obvious choice to have it held outdoors. Situated alongside the school's grand crystal arboretum, numerous circular tables had been set up for the guests while a rectangular one was placed at the head and set upon a small platform, where Takumi and Akira would sit. Encircling it all were several decorative pillars in addition to an archway placed at the opposite end of the head table, all bedecked with a colorful spray of flowers. Off to the side two tents had also been set up: a large one for food preparation and a smaller one serving primarily as a changing area for the bride and groom.
The soft, lilting tones of the samisen, a three-stringed banjo-like instrument, played in the background and greeted guests as they entered. As they navigated toward the party, guests first stopped off at a reception table to sign the guestbook. At the same time they also each handed an individual, who was manning the table, a special decorative envelope known as a shugi bukuro, which contained their wedding gift of oshugi (money). However, it is not uncommon for the newlywed couple to receive two gifts from each of their guests. Gifts of a personal nature are presented either before or after the wedding, but never on the day of the actual ceremony. The expected gift at a Japanese wedding has traditionally always been monetary in nature, the given amount usually dependent upon that person's relationship with the couple. Therefore, people of a higher status are expected to give more. It is considered polite to give new bills, the number of which should be odd and whose denominations not contain any even numbers, particularly the number four (shi), which also means death in Japanese.
With everyone in their designated seats, the nearly two hundred guests, five times that of the actual wedding ceremony, now all anxiously awaited the arrival of the two newlyweds. Aside from family and friends, others in attendance were made up of various business associates including the CEO's of some very large and powerful corporations, all of whom had done business with Akira's father in some capacity. And despite the rift that had developed between their two families, due to both Akira and Hiroki backing out of their families agreed upon marriage arrangement, Hiroki's father, the head of Nakajima Enterprises, had also decided to put in an appearance. His reasons for doing so, however, may have been somewhat financially and politically motivated, for also in attendance were some very high-ranking political officials, also wishing to pay their respects to the future head of Okuzaki Industries.
And as is customary at such large gatherings, a professional wedding emcee was brought in to officiate over the reception, basically responsible for introducing all guest speakers in addition to every phase of the party. Stepping up to a microphone, which had been set up alongside the head table, the emcee proceeded to announce the introduction of Takumi and Akira, who then began to enter through the archway. And while there wasn't too significant a variation in Takumi's apparel, the majority of the guests' oohs and aahs were directed at the elaborately designed red, silver and gold kimono that Akira now sported, having changed over from the white one. And much to her relief, she no longer had to endure the discomfort from the heft of the wig and tsunokakushi, merely the handful of fanciful accoutrements that adorned her natural hair, which she wore up.
After being introduced by the emcee, numerous guests in turn then began to approach the microphone to declare their congratulations to the newlywed couple. As the opening ceremony of the reception tends to be a rather formal event, the majority of the early speeches were given by some very high-ranking individuals such as the business and political colleagues of Akira's father, most of whom Takumi and Akira were not even acquainted with.
With all the formalities and speeches out of the way, everyone now toasted the couple with a rousing "kanpai", which also officially signified the start of the banquet, allowing everyone to relax, talk amongst themselves and of course imbibe in a few libations. Several guests, particularly Mai, wasted no time in partaking in some of the high quality sake that had been provided.
The now more laid-back atmosphere would provide their other guests, particularly friends and family, the opportunity to step up to the microphone and offer up their own style of congratulations to the couple. And since there is typically no dancing at Japanese receptions, the primary form of entertainment is provided by the guests who may amuse the couple with perhaps a skit, the playing of a musical instrument, or, the most popular activity: karaoke. Ordinarily this would all commence immediately after everyone had eaten. However, just before the meal was to be served, Akira put in a request that Hajime be permitted to perform first, knowing full well that they would need someone to break the monotony after all of the long-winded speeches that typically open a reception, plus the fact that she knew that he had a particular knack for livening up a crowd. And, as she had predicted, once his name was called by the emcee, Hajime wasted no time in making a beeline for the microphone. After opening with a few witty anecdotes he went over to the karaoke machine to make a musical selection. Picking up the unit's microphone he seemed most elated upon discovering that it was wireless.
As the rhythmic strains of "Ohayou", the opening theme of the anime "Hunter x Hunter", began to emanate from the speakers, an energetic Hajime, with microphone in hand, immediately headed out amongst all the attendees. Unencumbered by the presence of a wire, he took full advantage of that benefit by enthusiastically weaving in and out between tables as he belted out the rather peppy tune. Captivated by his performance, the crowd couldn't help but tap their feet and even bob their heads, totally caught up in the exuberance that Hajime emitted. Also, during the bridge, in addition to several other points in the song, he even paused briefly to greet some of the guests, particularly the women and children, sometimes even crouching down and singing directly to them.
"Wow, Hajime really outdid himself," Takumi remarked at the song's conclusion as it continued to receive a passionate response from the audience.
"Well he certainly knows how to work a crowd I'll give him that," Akira acknowledged before adding, "even if he does have a tendency to ham things up a bit."
"Hey, that's just his style. I've always said that he was a natural born showman."
"Hmph, more like show-off."
"Aw, come on, Akira, admit it," Takumi prodded. "You loved every minute of it and you know it. Besides, aren't you the one who insisted that he perform first? Hmmm?"
"Yeah, well," Akira reluctantly conceded. "Anyway, the important thing is that he managed to breathe some life back into this party, especially after that one politician who just seemed to drone on and on. Believe me, I was desperately trying not to doze off. I mean, was that supposed to impress us?"
"Well, I admit his speech may have been a bit long-winded, but all in all he was just being polite in wishing us well."
"He was kowtowing, Takumi," she succinctly stated. "And just like every other politician, he wants something. Honestly, I don't know how my father puts up with them."
"Well, just think, in a few more years he won't have to anymore. That honor will soon fall to you."
"Ugh, don't remind me."
"Ha-ha. Don't worry, I'm sure that when the time comes you'll manage to deal with them in your own unique way. I mean, let's face it, you can definitely be pretty intimidating if you wanted to."
"Well that's certainly true enough. Hmm, I suppose I could just go with some of the tried and true torture methods that I've learned over the years to intimidate them," she rather candidly suggested.
"Huh?" Takumi sounded somewhat caught off guard. "Oh, ha-ha, Akira, quit kidding around."
"Who's kidding?" she replied with a deadpan expression.
"Uhh, okay, now you're starting to scare me."
Leaning over and giving him a quick peck on the cheek for reassurance, Akira's staid appearance was quickly transformed as she then cheerfully remarked, "Well, glad to see I haven't lost my touch."
"No, just your sense of humor," Takumi drolly replied as he shook his head.
Before she had a chance to come up with a witty retort, Akira suddenly observed Shiho along with the other miko at the base of the archway, signaling to her that it was time for her next oironaoshi, or change of dress.
Rolling her eyes and then letting out a sigh she unenthusiastically expressed, "Great, here we go again."
"Oh come on, Akira, don't make such a big deal out of it."
"Easy for you to say. The only thing you need to change out of is your jacket. The process is a bit more involved when it comes to kimonos. What a pain. I think I understand now why a lot of people choose to go with a Western-style reception. I just can't see the point of all these outfit changes."
"You can't? Well, to me it's pretty obvious," Takumi started to point out as he stood up and extended a hand to her. "It's to show everyone how spectacular you look regardless of what you wear. Of course, I've known that for quite some time now."
Accepting his hand with a raised eyebrow, she skeptically queried, "Hmm, are you trying to butter me up for this evening?"
"Uh, well, that wasn't exactly my intention," he innocently blushed just as she rose and brushed up alongside him.
"Well, it's working," she then sensuously whispered into his ear.
Proceeding to escort her up the aisle as the emcee announced that Akira was departing for her next oironaoshi, Takumi now seemed to exhibit a most radiant and quite contented smile.
Immediately thereafter, the first course to a most enticing kaiseki meal was then promptly brought out and served to all of the guests. These multiple course meals are known for their meticulous preparation and rather stunning presentation, sometimes even consisting of as many as fourteen courses. For this ceremony, however, it was limited to seven, which was no coincidence since, as in Western culture, it too is considered a lucky number in Japan.
Returning between courses, heads were once again raised upon catching a glimpse of Akira in a now lavender-colored, and quite ornately designed, kimono. Takumi's attire had also transformed somewhat, having changed over from the black haori jacket to a white one. However, before heading back to their table to savor the meal that awaited them, they took part in another popular wedding tradition: the candle lighting ceremony. With a single, long-stemmed lit candle, Akira, guided by the gentle hand of Takumi, proceeded to illuminate the votive candles at the center of every one of their guests' tables. Not wishing to disrupt their meal, they tried to keep their conversations brief while at the same time also allowing their guests to snap a few pictures before moving on to the next table.
While illuminating their second to last candle and chatting a bit with the guests over at the table occupied by Hiroki's parents, in addition to a few associates from Nakajima Enterprises, Hiroki seemed to take a keen interest in his father's reactions toward the couple, constantly turning his head and glancing over at them.
"And then, just as they were about to go their separate ways," Hajime was relaying to Izumi and Hiroki, seated right beside him, respectively, "Kyoko's like, "Alright you two, freeze!" Then she grabs a hold of each of their hands and forcibly joins them together."
"Ehh? Seriously?" an enamored Izumi seemed to cling to his every word.
"I know, right? Then she shoves a few yen in Wataru's other hand and tells him that he needs to escort Hiromi home by way of the coffee shop."
"Well it worked, didn't it?" Kyoko pointed out.
"It did indeed," Hiromi upheld, fondly then recalling, "I'll never forget that night. We were in that shop the entire evening just chatting away over lattes and espresso shots right up until they closed."
"That's right," Wataru concurred. "And I also remember when I got back to my dorm room that I had trouble falling asleep. But it wasn't due to the caffeine I can tell you that." Reaching under the table and lovingly taking Hiromi by the hand he confessed, "My heart was racing far into the night simply because I was unable to stop thinking about you."
"Aww, that's so romantic," Izumi gushed. "Don't you think so, Hiroki? Hiroki?"
"Huh? Oh, ah, yeah, sure," he responded somewhat distracted, quickly turning his head and redirecting his attention back to the group.
"Something the matter, Hiroki-san?" Hiromi concernedly inquired.
"Uh, it's nothing really. Sorry, I didn't mean to…"
"Hey, guys, enjoying yourselves?" Takumi enthusiastically greeted his friends just as he and Akira were getting ready to light the final candle.
"Wait, wait, not yet," Kyoko requested as she anxiously reached for her camera. "Okay, go ahead. Got it! Thanks."
"Looking good, Akira," Hiromi complimented.
"Yeah," Izumi wholeheartedly said in agreement, "You seem to get prettier with every kimono you put on."
"Well, that's what I keep telling her," Takumi said to Akira with a wink.
"Thanks, you guys," Akira humbly replied.
"Say, um, Akira?" Hiroki hesitantly began to inquire. "Did ah, did my father happen to say anything to you about…"
"Hiroki, please, can we not talk about this right now," Izumi pleaded.
"It's alright, Izumi," Akira assured her. "Hiroki, there's no need to worry. Your father merely wished us well in our marriage and was extremely cordial."
"Oh. Well that's good. I was afraid that he might have… Uh, never mind."
Sensing the awkwardness in the air, Takumi quickly decided to change the subject as he then turned to Hajime and praised, "So, uh, Hajime, that was quite the performance. And it was the perfect song to open with too as well as being one of my favorites. I've got to say you were really in top form."
"Hey, thanks. Now I'm actually kind of relieved that I went with that song."
"See, aren't you glad you listened to me?" Kyoko asserted.
"Yeah, okay, you were right," he admitted.
Kyoko then went on to explain, "He originally wanted to sing something from 'West Side Story' since it's one of his all-time favorite musicals. But I told him that it's not about him and that he should sing something that the two of you like."
"Oh, I just love 'West Side Story'," Izumi enthusiastically declared.
"No kidding?" Hajime was happy to hear.
"In fact, for my birthday last year, Hiroki took me to a performance of it over in Shibuya."
"Cool. You like any other musicals, Izumi-san?"
"Oh, Izumi, please don't get him started," Akira appealed.
"Umm," Izumi thought for a moment, "I guess I would have to say 'Camelot' and 'South Pacific'."
"'Camelot' and …" he trailed off in disbelief, turning then to Kyoko and commenting, "A girl after my own heart. Hey, Kyoko, I think I'm in love," he humorously remarked as he then playfully threw his arm around Izumi."
"Yeah, I kind of figured you would be," she sighed while rolling her eyes in amusement, well acquainted with how passionate he can become when discussing the theatre.
Hiroki, on the other hand, was none too amused and did everything he could to restrain himself as he fiercely ground his teeth and had both his fists tightly clenched at his side.
Overcome by his flattering comment, a blushing Izumi was somewhat speechless at first as she briefly glanced over her shoulder and observed Hajime's hand resting upon it.
As he withdrew it Izumi then curiously inquired, "So what were you originally planning on singing, Hajime-kun?"
"Huh? Oh, ah, well I was kind of toying with the idea of singing the song 'Maria', only changing the lyrics around a bit, you know, and then of course substituting Akira's name."
"Ohh, I would've loved to have heard that," Izumi intriguingly stated.
"Really?" he said sounding rather flattered, deciding then to grace her with a portion of that song. "Well, pretty much it would have gone like: Akira, he just wed a girl named Akira. And suddenly that name would never be the same to him. Akira, he just kissed a girl named Akira. And suddenly he's found how wonderful that sound can beeeee. A-kir-aaa…"
"Okay, okay," Kyoko then stopped him, despite the smattering of applause he began receiving from nearby tables. "That'll be enough of that. Save it for the karaoke machine."
"Heh heh. Sorry, guess I got carried away."
"Oh, Hajime-kun, that was wonderful!" Izumi extolled. "I think you even made Akira blush."
"He… He did not!" a clearly red in the face Akira attempted to deny.
"Ha-ha," Hajime laughed. "I'll bet you're sorry now that they removed that white make-up from your face."
Amazed that she had hadn't decked him by this point, Hiroki could only shake his head in appall over Hajime's brazen remarks, in addition to not being very amused by his rather cocky attitude.
Yet surprisingly, Akira managed to maintain her composure, simply taking a deep breath and calmly warning, "You know you're just lucky that it's my wedding day, otherwise…"
"Yes, yes, we know. Your latent maniacal tendencies would start to kick in." Takumi jokingly concluded. "And we certainly can't have that, now can we?"
Before she even had a chance to react, Akira suddenly felt the caress of Takumi's warm lips upon her cheek. A strange sense of serenity then overcame her as she observed the innocent smile that Takumi now sported.
"Shall we go?" he then suggested, offering her his arm. "We haven't eaten yet and I'm sure you're pretty hungry by this point. I know I am."
"Uh, yeah, I am actually," Akira admitted.
"Well then, guess we'll see you guys later," Takumi bid his friends.
"I hope you enjoy the song that Hiroki and I plan on singing for you later," Izumi announced just as they began to head back. "It'll be a duet."
"We'll definitely be looking forward to it, Izumi," Akira enthusiastically informed her friend.
"Duet? Uh, Izumi?" A puzzled Hiroki turned to his girlfriend. "I don't think that's such a good ide…"
Ooo, ooo, look," an enthusiastic yet oblivious Izumi interrupted, "Mai-san is getting ready to sing something. She has such a pretty voice."
Before Hiroki had a chance to voice his objection, the emcee proceeded to introduce Takumi's sister, who seemed quite eager, wasting no time in seizing the karaoke's microphone.
Immediately recognizing the opening chords to her chosen song, Izumi desperately attempted to summon up the title. "Ohh, it's on the tip of my tongue! What was it again? Ahh… Oh, you know it too, Hiroki. It's called…"
"Oh, um, yeah," Hiroki also struggled to recall. "I believe it's called…"
"'Shining Days'," Hajime jumped in.
"I was just going to say that," a somewhat annoyed Hiroki stated. "Uh, anyway, it's from an anime called 'My-Hi…'"
"Hang on," Izumi interjected, quickly getting caught up in Mai's bouncy rendition of the familiar anime theme. "Tell me later. I really want to hear this right now."
Akira also seemed to take a keen interest in Mai's performance as she couldn't help but observe, leaning over and whispering to Takumi, "Uh, maybe it's just me but I think your sister may have overindulged a bit on the sake."
"You noticed that too, huh?" Takumi sighed as he shook his head, sort of hoping that he was the only one that had detected the occasional slurring of speech in her performance. "Well, Yuichi did warn me that she was a bit of a lightweight when it came to alcohol. Oh well, at least she seems to be having a good time. I just hope she doesn't overdo it too much."
"Don't worry, I'll see to it that she gets home safely," she reassured him. "Besides, she's not exactly the only one."
Indicating over to a line that had begun to form off to the side, Akira's observation couldn't have been more dead-on. For in addition to the numerous decanters of sake that were in ample supply at all of the adult tables, meticulously being refilled by the servers, a full-service bar had also been set up between two of the decorative pillars for those desiring something a bit stronger.
Soon after, having been entertained by two of Akira's relatives, first with a guitar solo and then a ballet performance, Hiromi and Wataru next treated the newlyweds to a duet with their very moving rendition of "Almost Paradise" from the "Footloose" soundtrack. Unfortunately, not every performance thereafter was quite as inspiring.
"Oh, Ishigami-sensei," Akira cringed upon hearing her former art teacher's attempt at karaoke, mangling a perfectly beautiful song. Although, as would be the case with most latter performances, alcohol was somewhat of a contributing factor.
"Yeesh, and you thought your sister had too much to drink," Akira remarked.
Before he could comment, Takumi noticed a large, five-tiered wedding cake that was now being wheeled out. Placed directly below and in front of their table, the couple came down upon completion of Ishigami's excruciating performance for the cake-cutting ceremony.
Not propagated into the Japanese wedding reception until the 1970's, wedding cakes were considered more of a symbol rather than a food initially. Therefore, they were inedible and made of wax or plastic, with only a small portion made out of cream where the knife could be inserted by the bride and groom. Later on, in the 1990's, an edible layer was adapted. Still to this day, however, and also due to their high cost, the majority of wedding cakes in Japan are still of the inedible type, although following the ceremonial cut a separate sheet cake would then be brought out and served to the guests.
Providing another major photo opportunity, the emcee encouraged the guests to take numerous photos as Takumi, his hand atop Akira's, proceeded to insert the knife into the cake, both then maintaining that pose until everyone had had an opportunity to digitally capture the moment.
Upon returning to their seats everyone had soon discovered, much to their delight, a slice of cake awaiting them. While they indulged in the baked delicacy, Akira used that opportunity to slip out for her final oironaoshi, accompanied by Takumi.
"Mmm, that was really good," Izumi commented to Hiroki as she polished off the remaining portion of her cake. "So anyway, what I wanted to tell you earlier, I figured that it would be a great idea if we did a duet together."
"I don't know, Izumi," Hiroki hesitantly responded.
"Come on, it'll be fun. You saw the great reception that Hiromi and Wataru-san got." Quickly sidetracked, Izumi couldn't help but turn to the couple and compliment, "By the way, you guys were great."
"Aw thank you, Izumi-san," Hiromi appreciatively replied. "And you're right; it was pretty fun, so you two should definitely try it."
"See?" Izumi persisted.
Sighing heavily, he seemed to relent as he then inquired, "Well what song did you have in mind exactly?"
"Oh, well Hajime-kun gave me a great idea earlier when he mentioned 'West Side Story'. You know the song 'One Hand, One Heart' that Tony and Maria sing to each other in the bridal shop in a sort of mock wedding?"
"Well, I figured we could have Takumi and Akira stand and face each other while we stand just below and in front of them, also facing each another."
"Oh, I get it," an intrigued Hajime expressed, "that would make it look as though they were singing it to each other. Cool. And it's the perfect song for it too. Brilliant idea, Izumi-san!"
"It really is," Kyoko then opined. "I think you should totally do it."
"W… wait a minute," Hiroki then began to object. "Izumi, I really don't think it's a good idea that we sing that particular song together."
"Aww, why not?"
Seeming a bit uneasy, he awkwardly attempted to explain, "Well, it's just that the lyrics to that song are a bit too… well, intimate. They're basically like wedding nuptials. I mean, don't get me wrong, ordinarily I wouldn't have a problem with it, it's a beautiful melody and all, it's just that… well, hearing those particular lyrics coming from us, what would my father think?"
"Your father?" Hajime said in puzzlement.
"Uh, it, it's a bit complicated," an ill at ease Izumi explained.
"I'm sorry, Izumi," Hiroki then sheepishly offered, "but you know how my father feels about us. I… I just don't want to do anything that might upset him even more. You understand, don't you?"
"Uh, yeah… I guess," she dishearteningly replied.
"Good. And don't worry, we can always sing it some other time, like the next time we go out together with friends for karaoke."
"Yeah, I know. It's just that I was really looking forward to…"
"I'll sing it with you, Izumi-san," Hajime unexpectedly offered.
"You… you will?"
"Sure. Be glad to," he happily obliged, looking then to Hiroki for his consent. "That is, if it's alright with you of course."
"Uh… of course it's alright," he stammered, albeit with a hint of disdain in his voice, still completely caught off guard by his offer. "I… I don't have a problem with it."
"Great!" he was happy to hear.
"Hajime," an apprehensive Kyoko proceeded to whisper into his ear. "Maybe you shouldn't interfere in their…"
"I'm going to go get some more cake," Hiroki suddenly announced as he abruptly got up from the table, clearly somewhat aggravated. "Anybody else want anything? No?" he observed as everyone simply shook their heads. "Alright then; be back in a bit."
"Hiroki!" Izumi seemed to plead as he walked off.
"Told you," Kyoko once again upheld in a soft whisper.
Now feeling rather guilty about causing this awkward situation, Hajime turned to Izumi and apologetically offered, "Gee, I'm sorry, Izumi-san. I had no idea that this would bother him so much. I guess I shouldn't have said anything."
"It… it's alright, Hajime-kun. It's not your fault," she reassured him. Seeming rather mournful she then attempted to rationalize, "You just need to understand; Hiroki's been under a lot of stress lately. You know he's supposed to take over his father's company once he graduates from university. I'm sure you probably already know that Hiroki was originally supposed to marry Akira as part of an arranged marriage."
"Yeah, we know. They filled us in," Hajime informed her. "And their two companies were supposed to merge too I heard. But once they called off the marriage…"
"Everything just fell apart," Izumi lamented. "There's been some bad blood between their families ever since. And even though he knows he did the right thing by backing out of the marriage, Hiroki still blames himself, thinking that he had brought shame upon his family. And then afterwards, when the two of us started dating, his father was none too happy either. You see he seems to have some rather high expectations for him, preferring that he marry someone from a more prominent family. But fortunately, his mother at least supported us, so his father reluctantly allowed it. Yet I know deep down that he's always kind of hoped that we would eventually break up and that Hiroki would start seeing someone much closer to his social standing. And you know, sometimes I think that he might even be right and that maybe I've been holding him back. Of course now that we'll be attending different universities he may yet meet someone like that there. Someone who's more to his father's liking and, who knows, someone he may even eventually choose to… marry."
Seeing how emotionally upset that she had become, Hiromi immediately came over and threw her arms around Izumi in a hug of support as she then began to sob uncontrollably upon Hiromi's shoulder.
"I'm… I'm just so scared that I'm going to lose him," she cried.
"Oh, sweetie," Hiromi desperately attempted to comfort her. "You mustn't do this to yourself. You know that's not going to happen. You've been together far too long now. What's it been? Four years?"
"Uh huh," she sniffled.
"So what makes you think that he would just give up on you now after all these years? Sweetie, he clearly loves you very much if he's continued to see you despite his father's objections."
"You… you really think so?"
"Oh of course."
"Humph! Well he sure has a funny way of showing it," Hajime then made his displeasure known.
"Hajime!" Kyoko protested, not wishing for him to upset Izumi any further.
"Well it's true! I'm sorry, Izumi-san."
"Wh… Where are you going?" Kyoko demanded to know as Hajime suddenly began to get up from the table.
"To talk, or better yet knock some sense into that guy. Excuse me."
"Uh, Hajime-… kun," Izumi trailed off as she tried calling after him.
"That idiot!" Kyoko then began to curse under her breath. "What's he trying to do, start a fight?"
Several moments earlier, Takumi and Akira had re-emerged, then standing just beneath the archway. However, at this point a lot of the guests seemed rather oblivious to the fact since everyone now seemed to be making rather merry by either imbibing in an array of libations, feasting on the variety of desserts provided and, of course, trying out their vocal abilities over at the karaoke machine, even if in a drunken stupor.
Though Takumi's attire had not changed this time around, Akira at least appeared more relaxed in the deeply colored crimson and gold kimono that she now wore. In addition, the accessories in her hair, which she still wore up, were fewer in number, limited now to just a handful of jeweled pins and tortoise shell combs, making it that much less cumbersome for her.
Just as they were about to head back up to their table, they both spied Hiroki lingering over by the dessert bar who appeared not only indecisive but somewhat disturbed.
"It all looks so good," Takumi commented as the two came up to him. "Personally, I would go for the tiramisu."
"Oh, ah, hey, Takumi, Akira," he greeted them in somewhat of a daze. "Wait, you look different, Akira. Did you just change into a different kimono?"
"Wow, you're really observant," Akira cracked.
"Uh, is there something troubling you, Hiroki?" Takumi concernedly asked, noticing that he appeared to be in a state of bemusement.
"No, no, everything's fine… just fine."
"Hmmm, "Akira now eyed him rather skeptically before demanding to know, "Okay, Hiroki, let's have it. What's bugging you?"
"Wha… what makes you think something's bothering me?"
"Please. We've known each other for how long now?"
"Well, it's just that…" Hiroki proceeded to say before prefacing, "No offense, I mean I know he's your friend and all, but… how can you put up with him?"
"What, you mean, Hajime?" Akira was surprised to hear.
"Yeah, I mean it's that cocky attitude of his. You know, and then like the way that he talked down to you earlier, Akira. I saw your reaction. Why'd you hold back? I would've decked the guy."
"Yeah, Akira," Takumi lightheartedly inquired with an impish grin, rather curious himself. "Why did you hold back?"
"Hmph! Well it's obvious, isn't it? I didn't want to get any blood stains on this dress."
"So then you do understand what I'm talking about!" an impassioned Hiroki upheld.
"Uh, Hiroki," Takumi attempted to enlighten. "I'm pretty sure she's just kidding."
"What, did you really think that…?" a somewhat astonished Akira preceded to say.
"Hiroki," Takumi then informed him, "let me explain something to you. Hajime and Akira have been at each others' throats pretty much since they've met. They're always trying to one-up each other; it's sort of like a sibling rivalry thing that they've got going on between each other. So in actuality they're really like…"
"Takumi," Akira implored, "please don't say it."
"…like brother and sister."
Sighing heavily as she shook her head, Akira frustratingly retorted, "I told you not to…"
"Wait, so then…" a befuddled Hiroki jumped in, trying to substantiate his suspicions.
"They're actually really good friends," Takumi concluded.
"But an extremely annoying one," Akira sardonically added.
"I see," Hiroki now seemed to realize. "But still, I didn't exactly appreciate the way that he came on to Izumi earlier."
"Huh?" Takumi quizzically reacted.
"And then of course just now when he jumped at the chance to sing a duet with her," he seemed to ramble. "Although I guess it was my fault for agreeing to it. Of course if my father wasn't here I would've had no problem with…"
"Hiroki, what on earth are you going on about?" Akira desperately tried to comprehend.
"Huh? Oh, right. You weren't there for that," he unexpectedly realized. "Sorry. Still, you both saw him earlier. You know, when they started talking about musicals? I mean, he was practically flirting with her."
Looking at each other in amazement, Takumi and Akira couldn't help but to break out in hysterics at his suggestion.
"What's so funny?"
"Ha-ha," Akira laughed. "You idiot! You really think that…"
"What? I don't see what's so amusing," Hiroki failed to realize.
"Hiroki," Takumi then attempted to explain as he wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes, "he wasn't flirting with her."
"Oh of course not," Takumi reassured him.
"Well you sure could've fooled me."
"Listen, Hajime was just being… well, Hajime. I mean, that's just the way he is. He just became overly excited the minute he found out that Izumi shared his love of musicals."
"Why certainly. Why ever since I've known him his first love has always been the theatre. Well, that is until he met Kyoko. Still, the theatre always remained a close second in his heart. Believe me, he has no more interest in Izumi than I have in…" Thinking for a moment, he then turned to Akira before mischievously concluding, "Well, pretty much any of the attractive girls in school that have professed their love to me over the years."
"Hmph, thinks he's being funny," Akira referred to Hiroki, then warned, "Watch it, Takumi!"
"What? I just said that I didn't have any interest in them."
"Yes but you didn't have to embellish it by referring to them as attractive."
"You're right. My mistake. I meant homely looking girls."
"See what I have to put up with, Hiroki? This is exactly the kind of crap that Hajime has instilled in him."
Hiroki couldn't help but to chuckle at their amusing little tete-a-tete.
"Well, glad to see that someone's finally decided to lighten up," Akira remarked.
"Okay, okay, so maybe I had the guy pegged all wrong," Hiroki was forced to admit with a somewhat sheepish smile, but then countered, "Still, I just wish that Izumi hadn't been so easily taken in by his charms to the point of practically fawning over him.
Once again a rather dumbfounded Takumi and Akira just turned to each other, shaking their heads in disbelief, compelling Takumi to reflect, "You know, Akira, he sort of reminds me of you during all those times when you became insanely jealous over… well, just take your pick of any number of girls."
"Pffft. Yeah, right," Akira scoffed. "Like I was ever jealous over some flighty teenage girls that you've somehow managed to convince yourself may have had a thing for you."
"Uh, guys," Hiroki interjected, "I'm not jealous."
"Oh please," Akira rolled her eyes at his delusional assertion. "I'm not the psychology major here, yet even I can detect something as obvious as that. It's practically written all over your face. Right, Takumi? Uh, Takumi?"
Catching a glimpse out of the corner of his eye, Takumi spied Hiromi embracing what appeared to him to be a teary-eyed and rather distraught Izumi. Looking then to Hiroki with a more serious expression, Takumi requested of him, "Hiroki? Why don't you tell us what it is that's really troubling you? After all, we both know that this whole thing was never really about Hajime at all, was it?"
"Uh, wh… what are you talking about? Of course it was," he attempted to refute. "I just told you that…"
"No, it wasn't. This is really about you and your father, isn't it?"
"His father?" Akira confusingly looked to Takumi. "I don't get it. What's he got to do with…?"
"I'm right, aren't I?" Takumi maintained, observing that Hiroki was now at a complete loss for words.
"H… How did you…?"
"Alright, what's your problem, pal?" a fired-up Hajime abruptly stormed over and demanded of Hiroki.
"Hajime?" a startled Takumi reacted, not used to seeing his friend in such an angered state.
"Oh, hey, guys," he hastily greeted his friends. Pausing only momentarily as he took notice of Akira's new attire, Hajime shot her a brief thumbs up and complimented, "By the way, wicked kimono, Akira."
"Sorry, guys, but could you give us a minute?" Hajime requested before turning to Hiroki and adding through gritted teeth, "There's just really something that I need to get off my chest."
"Uh, listen, Hajime-san…" Hiroki remorsefully attempted to explain.
"No, you listen!" he ardently demanded, getting up into his face. "Now I don't pretend to fully understand what the deal is between you and your father, and frankly, I don't care. All I know is that it's been having an effect on Izumi-san."
"What are you talking about?"
"Hmph, what am I talking about, he says," Hajime frustratingly muttered under his breath in disbelief. "Let me ask you something, pal. Back when you were engaged to Akira, what was it that made you finally come around and decide not to go through with it? You knew it would bring shame upon your family, but you backed out of it anyway. Why?"
"Look, that was a long time ago and I did what I had to do," he cryptically answered. "What matters is that it allowed Akira to marry the one the person that she truly loved."
"Oh I'll grant you that. And I'll even add that it was quite an unselfish move on your part. But that still doesn't answer my question. Why'd you do it?"
Becoming frustrated with all his hemming and hawing, Akira finally just blurted out what Hiroki was too skittish to admit, "Because he was secretly in love with Izumi during all those years that he was engaged to me!"
"Uhh… Akira!" a flustered Hiroki objected to her rather straightforward disclosure.
"Oh, please," she said rolling her eyes. "After all these years that you've been together, I can't believe that you're still so self-conscious."
"So then…" Hajime pressed.
"Alright, alright, I admit it!" he finally owned up. "If you must know, the truth is that I've been in love with her since the day I first laid eyes on her at the dojo. Geez! Is that what you wanted to hear?"
"Well actually, I think the one who really needs to hear it is Izumi-san."
"Sh… She knows," he timidly replied.
"Well, it certainly couldn't hurt to remind her of that important little tidbit every once in awhile," Hajime informed him. "So then, having established that you're madly in love with her…"
"Uhh…" Hiroki was forced to blush.
"…then my next question should be quite simple: What's more important to you: doing everything in your power to try and please your father, or… Izumi-san's happiness?"
"Uh, well… her happiness, of course," Hiroki was forced to acknowledge.
"I see," Hajime seemed pleased by his response before his seemingly calm demeanor unexpectedly transformed into a fit of rage. "Well then what the hell compelled you to refuse to sing a simple little song with her? Are you so intimidated by your father that you've allowed him to affect your personal life?"
"You… you don't understand. It's not that simple."
"Oh I understand all right. I understand that that poor girl is in tears right now because of your selfish behavior."
"What?" Hiroki was shocked to learn.
"Yeah, that's right," Hajime heatedly asserted. "You made her cry. And I don't mind telling you that that pisses me off to no end! Why do you realize that she's worried sick over losing you once the two of you start attending different universities? She's afraid that you might actually meet someone else there; someone who's more likely to measure up to your father's expectations."
"But that's crazy!"
"Oh yeah? Well you want to know what else is crazy? She's actually convinced herself that it might even be for the best, because she's under the impression that she's been holding you back. Well if you ask me, I think you're the one who's been holding her back!"
"Hajime, that's enough," Takumi calmly implored, gently placing a hand upon his friend's shoulder.
Reflecting upon Hajime's rather blunt accusations, Hiroki was finally forced to admit, "No, he's right."
"Hiroki?" Akira looked at her angst-ridden friend with concern.
"I… I can't believe I never realized it before, but this whole time I've been putting my own selfish concerns above her feelings. God, I'm such an idiot! What the hell was I thinking? I wouldn't blame her if she never spoke to me again."
"Hey, come on, don't be so hard on yourself," Hajime beseeched. "Besides, I may have come down a little too hard on you there myself. Sorry."
"No, it's okay, really," Hiroki humbly professed. "Someone needed to set me straight. Although, I must admit that just before you got here, I suspected that Takumi was going to be the one to do it."
"Huh?" Hajime gave a puzzled look over at Takumi.
"Nicely done, my friend," Takumi praised with a hearty pat on the back. "Although I must say your methods were a bit more, shall we say, impassioned than mine, but successful nonetheless. Well done."
"Hey, what can I say," Hajime then boastfully began to state, "Guess after hanging around with you all these years that some of your analytical abilities must have rubbed off on me. Maybe I should make psychology my second major. Ha-ha."
"Too bad his humility didn't rub off on you," Akira acerbically remarked.
"You know," Hajime shot back, simply unable to resist the opportunity, "when I said that your kimono was wicked, I meant that as in wicked witch."
Sighing heavily, Takumi just shook his head, burying it partially in the palm of his hand as he then relayed to Hiroki, "Now do you see what I meant when I said…?"
"Sibling rivalry," Hiroki uttered under his breath as he looked on at the two in amazement, continuing to exchange barbs at one another. "Huh, fascinating."
"Well I'm glad that you find this so amusing, Hiroki," Akira wryly observed. "But isn't there something that you should be doing right about now? Like apologizing to Izumi?"
"Huh? Oh, right."
Not wanting him to leave just yet, Hajime abruptly gave Akira a gentle nudge with his elbow and slightly motioned with his head over toward a familiar figure who was now approaching Hiroki from behind. Hajime then inquisitively asked of him, "Oh, ah, Hiroki-san? Do you know exactly what you're going to say to her? I mean, you want some help?"
Receiving a playful wink from Hajime, clearly wishing for her to play along, Akira then added, "Uh, yeah. You really should put some thought into what you're going to say because we certainly don't want you upsetting her any more than she already is."
"Don't worry, I've got it covered," he assured them. "I mean, how many ways are there really to say I'm sorry? More importantly though, she absolutely needs to know how insanely in love I really am with her and how lost I'm going to be without her by my side during these next four years. Man, I still can't believe what a jerk I've been, being so blind to her feelings this whole time. I really hope she can forgive me."
"Oh, I think that's a pretty safe bet," Hajime guaranteed him.
"Um, listen, Hajime-san. I know you already promised Izumi that you'd sing that duet with her, but is there any way that you'd reconsider and allow me to…"
"Weeeell, "Hajime pretended to waver. "To be honest, I was actually rather looking forward to it. But, hey, just to show you what a magnanimous type of guy I am, I'm going to make the ultimate sacrifice and gracefully bow out."
"Oh brother," Akira couldn't help but roll her eyes at his little melodramatic display. "Hiroki, do me a favor and whack that swelled head of his."
"Heh heh," Hajime chuckled. "Hey, seriously though, I have absolutely no problem in stepping aside. Besides, I'm pretty sure that she'd rather sing it with you anyway. Isn't that right, Izumi-san?"
Doing an abrupt about-face, Hiroki was startled upon coming face to face with an equally stunned Izumi, her hands both clasped over her mouth after having overheard Hiroki's touching declaration of love.
"I… Izumi!" he voiced somewhat disconcerted. "How… how long have you been standing there?"
"Oh, I'd say somewhere around 'I'm insanely in love and lost without you', Hajime gleefully informed him, "and 'I'm a jerk'."
"You… you heard that?"
Acknowledging only with a simple nod, Izumi was no longer able to restrain herself as she then proceeded to throw herself into his arms.
"Did… did you really mean what you said?" she sniffled, gazing up at him for reassurance.
"Of course I did," he assured her. Then taking a step back while still holding her at arm's length, he stared her squarely in the eyes and solemnly asserted, "I've never been more sure of anything in my entire life."
"Oh, Hiroki!" she tearfully exclaimed, once again receiving his warm embrace.
"Come on, guys," Takumi suggested, "let's give them some time to themselves."
"Yup, looks like our work here is done," Hajime satisfactorily stated.
Just as they began to take their leave of them, Hiroki called, "Hey, uh, Hajime-san?"
"Yeah?" he turned back to face him.
"Um, thank you."
"No problem," Hajime graciously acknowledged with a congenial smile. "Oh, and whenever you two are ready, I'll pull up that song on the karaoke machine. And don't worry; I'll fill these two in on what their roles are."
"Roles?" Akira said with a tinge of skepticism.
"Yeah. Don't worry, it'll be fun," Hajime assured her. "All you have to do is… Look just trust me, alright?"
"He's kidding, right?" Akira facetiously remarked to Takumi. "Whenever he uses 'trust me' or 'don't worry' in a sentence, that's when I start to worry."
"In other words," Takumi interpreted for Hiroki just as they began to leave, "she means that we'd love to help out."
Shaking his head in amusement, Hiroki couldn't help but smile as he watched them depart, now having a much better grasp on what Takumi was trying to explain to him earlier.
Now with a more serious expression as he redirected his attention back to Izumi, Hiroki professed, "Listen, Izumi, I am so sorry for putting you through all this. Can you ever forgive me?"
"Oh, Hiroki, please don't worry about it. I probably should have been a bit more considerate of your feelings anyway. I mean, I certainly don't want to cause any more problems between you and your father just because of some silly song. So really, please, don't worry about it. It's alright."
"No! No it's not alright," he ardently maintained. "And this isn't just about some song. Izumi, I don't care anymore how my father feels about our relationship. I mean, I love him and all and I'll continue to try and live up to his expectations when it comes to running the family business, but I can't allow him to run my personal life too. I realize that now. I thought I could at least appease him by attending all those marriage meeting that he kept setting up, even though I knew nothing would ever become of them. I should have put a stop to it sooner, but I guess I was just too afraid of disappointing him. Instead, I wound up hurting you. And for that, I'm sorry."
"I think the only one hurting right now… is you," she sympathetically replied as she enveloped him in a warm embrace.
"Oh, Hiroki, you have no idea how happy that made me when I overheard you pouring your heart out back there," Izumi professed, becoming somewhat emotional. "I… I was just so overwhelmed. Just knowing how you feel now means so much to me that I..."
Supporting the now teary-eyed Izumi in his arms, Hiroki declared, "I love you so much, Izumi."
"Hmmm, remind me again whose wedding this is?" a voice came from behind the two.
"Ky… Kyoko-san," a startled Hiroki observed, abruptly then breaking off his embrace of Izumi.
"Sorry for the intrusion, but I just came over to make sure everything was alright between the two of you. But judging from the looks of things…"
Causing them to blush profusely and awkwardly turn their heads off to the side, an intrigued Kyoko was also curious to know, "Anyway, I do hope that Hajime didn't cause you any trouble. Though he means well, he does have a tendency to stick his nose in where it doesn't belong sometimes. But considering the fact that I don't see any traces of blood," she joked, "I take it you must have gone easy on him, Hiroki-san."
"Oh, ah, no, it wasn't like that at all, Kyoko-san," Hiroki enlightened. "In fact, he made me realize that I had my priorities all screwed up."
With his arm now firmly around Izumi's waist and proceeding to pull her in close, he then added, "He actually made me realize that there are some things in life that are just too precious and should never be taken for granted."
"Hiroki," Izumi tenderly spoke.
"Wait," a somewhat baffled Kyoko questioned, "we are talking about Hajime, right? My Hajime?"
"Oh come on, don't act so shocked," Hajime asserted as he came back over.
"Hey, I'm just surprised is all," Kyoko replied. "After all, giving advice and mending broken hearts is usually Takumi's department."
Giving Kyoko a quick peck on the cheek and then snuggling up alongside her, he audaciously remarked, "Well then, just call me Dr. Love."
Playfully pushing him away, she grimly retorted, "Sorry, doctor, but my office is closed."
"Aww, Cuddle Bunny, that was cold."
"Oh, how cute!" Izumi gushed. "I noticed you calling her that earlier too. You have pet names for each other?"
"Yes, but I can assure you that my pet name for him is definitely not 'Dr. Love'," Kyoko indicated. "It's…"
"Ahh, Kyoko, I don't think they're interested in knowing that, "Hajime anxiously remarked, turning then to the two of them and announcing, "Anyway, I just came to tell you that everything's all set up for your little duet."
"Well, I'm glad that you changed your mind, Hiroki-san," Kyoko was happy to learn.
As the four now made their way over to the karaoke machine, Kyoko appeared to scan the handful of lights in the surrounding area with great interest.
Walking alongside her, Hajime curiously asked, "What are you looking for?"
"Oh, I was just thinking that it's a shame that we don't have any decent lighting here that we could use for their performance."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Hajime concurred. "Just one Fresnel spot, with barn doors of course, would definitely make a huge difference in creating just the right mood."
"You read my mind, Hajime. But at this point I'd settle for a basic PAR light."
"Huh?" Izumi gave a puzzled looked to Hiroki, who were both walking directly behind the two thespians.
"I'm pretty sure those are theatrical terms for referring to stage lighting," Hiroki whispered.
Coming upon the foot of the table where Takumi and Akira were now once again seated, the directing bug began to overtake Kyoko as she then instructed, "Okay, Izumi-san, you stand right here," positioning her directly below where Akira was seated. "And, Hiroki-san, I want you to stand here, slightly less than an arm's length apart from her. That's it. Now take a hold of each of her hands. Okay, now Takumi and Akira? If I could have you both stand and replicate that exact pose… Perfect! Now remember, guys, this is a very heartfelt song, so I want you to…"
"Ah, Kyoko, I think they get it," Hajime interjected, not wishing for her to turn this into a big production number.
"Right. Sorry, didn't mean to get carried away there."
"Didn't I tell you that aside from each other, the theatre was their next greatest love," Takumi reiterated to Hiroki from above.
"You got that right, my friend," Hajime avowed. "But what can I say? The theatre's in our blood."
With both couples now mirroring one another as they stood hand in hand facing each another, Hajime then brought over the microphone and its stand, placing it directly between Izumi and Hiroki. And due to the song's rather subdued melody, he requested silence from all the guests first before proceeding to hit start on the karaoke machine.
Make of our hands one hand,
Make of our hearts one heart,
Make of our vows one last vow:
Only death will part us now.
Make of our lives one life,
Day after day, one life.
Now it begins, now we start
One hand, one heart;
Even death won't part us now.Make of our lives one life,
Day after day, one life.
Now it begins, now we start
One hand, one heart;
Even death won't part us now.
Upon the heartwarming song's conclusion, Hiroki impulsively pulled Izumi closely into his arms as his lips then proceeded to softly caress hers. Not ones to question, Takumi and Akira were actually more than happy to mimic their actions.
Standing off to the side with Hajime, Kyoko appeared to object, "Uh, wait a minute, that's not how the scene is supposed to end. Tony, I mean, Hiroki's character, is only supposed to gently kiss her on the hand."
"Guess he decided to improvise," Hajime contentedly remarked. "Can't say as I blame him though."
Spontaneously then taking Kyoko into his arms, Hajime couldn't help but follow in their friends' footsteps as well.
"Mmmm, Hajime," Kyoko satisfactorily expressed. "What brought that on?"
"Monkey see, monkey do," he jovially quipped.
"Well, mere mimicry is fine… for amateurs, that is," she informed him, feigning disappointment. "But you're supposed to be a professional, so I expect a great deal more from you. What you really need to do is take this scene and make it your own."
"Make it my own, huh? Hmmm," he seemed to ponder. "Well I'd rather just make you my own."
"Oh, Hajime," she said in frustration, all the while maintaining her flirty banter, "I'm afraid you leave me no choice. Guess we'll just have to rehearse that scene… tonight."
Suggestively raising her eyebrows at him prompted a quite spirited Hajime to belt out another 'West Side Story' staple, "Tonight, tonight, won't be just any night…"
With the reception now winding down, the guests who had already filed out were actually leaving with more than they had come in with. Because giving gifts to their guests in appreciation of their attendance is yet another important ritual at Japanese wedding receptions. Placed underneath the guests' chairs by the servers sometime late in the reception, fancy gift bags containing food, wine, and even fragile, luxurious items bearing such names as Tiffany, are some of the more popular wares that guests can expect to find inside their bags. All told, the average value can range anywhere between $30 and $60 per bag, depending upon the social status of the family.
"Oh, Akira, I still can't get over it," Izumi cried as she and the others said their farewells. "I am so going to miss you!"
Embracing her overemotional friend, Akira offered, "Oh, Izumi, we'll be seeing each other sooner than you realize. And besides, you'll still have Takumi to keep you company."
"Yeah," Hiroki then jokingly warned, "But just make sure that you keep your hands off of him; he's married now. And that goes for you too, Takumi."
"Hmmm, somebody sounds awfully worried," Takumi humorously remarked.
"Yeah, and jealous too," Akira added.
"Uh, I told you before, I'm not jealous!" Hiroki attempted to deny.
"Mmm hmm," Akira said with a suspicious tone, "Just like you weren't jealous of Hajime when you thought that he was making a move on Izumi."
"You… You were jealous of Hajime-kun?" Izumi was surprised to hear.
"N… No! Izumi, it's not like that! I mean I…"
As Hiroki attempted to refute his envious nature, Akira suddenly spied Hajime off in the distance retrieving a small, white rectangular package from beneath his chair, aside from the one presented to all of the other guests in attendance. Excusing herself, Akira made her way over toward him, and, in a rather somber tone greeted, "Hey, uh, Hajime?"
"Oh, Akira, glad I caught you," he restfully remarked. Handing her the package, he apprehensively informed her, "Here, this is for you. Well, and Takumi too."
"Oh, ah, thank you," a somewhat speechless Akira offered as she received the gift. "But you really didn't have to."
"It's nothing really. Just a little something to remember me by," he said somewhat deviously. "Just make sure that you don't open it until after you check into your room."
"Uh, okay, sure," she said with a bit of uncertainty. "Um, listen, Hajime, there's something's I need to tell you."
"What is it?"
"Well uh, the thing is," she awkwardly began, "I just wanted to say… thank you."
"Huh? For what?"
"For… for being such a great friend," she stammered, "especially to Takumi. It really meant a lot to me… well, to the both of us actually."
"Uh, w… well I was just being, I mean…" he continued to hem and haw, somewhat caught off guard by her rather unusual candidness before finally managing to utter, "Your friendship meant a lot to me too."
"Now… now don't get me wrong," she then began to backtrack, "because there were times when you could be a real pain in the…" Stopping herself, Akira then flashed a smile at him before clumsily admitting, "But uhh… well, hard as it may be for me to admit… let me just say that you've been an all around great guy."
"Now don't let that go to your head!" she cautioned rather vocally.
"Heh heh, not to worry.
"Ready to go, Akira?" Takumi asked as he rejoined her along with his sister and the rest of their friends.
"Heck, I've been ready for the past four years now," she proudly professed.
"Yeah, I know what you mean," he understandably expressed as he took a hold of her hand.
Preparing to enter the limo that had just pulled up, the two once again proceeded to exchange heartfelt hugs between all of their friends for one final time.
"Takumi, I…" a teary-eyed Mai attempted to convey. Overcome with emotion she simply threw her arms around her brother and happily cried upon his shoulder.
"Yeah, I know, sis. I love you too," Takumi tenderly declared.
A somewhat similar scene played out between Akira and her father as they too said their goodbyes.
Finally, as Takumi prepared to enter into the rear seat of the limo immediately after Akira, her father reached out his hand, placing it upon Takumi's shoulder, and humbly requested, "Take good care of my daughter, Takumi; she's all I have."
With a reassuring smile he pledged, "Not to worry, sir. I give you my word that as long as I'm with her, she'll never know unhappiness."
"Thank you, Takumi," he gratefully expressed.
Now both seated within the limo, Takumi lowered the rear window as Hajime came over and leaned across the door, reminding his friend, "Now don't forget your promise to her father, Takumi."
"Don't worry, I won't. After all, I just told him…"
"Not that promise," he mischievously replied, "I mean the one that you made a few months ago. You know, on your birthday."
"My birthday?" Takumi struggled to recall before suddenly realizing, "Wait, you don't mean…"
"Mmm hmmm," Hajime enthusiastically suggested with raised eyebrows.
"Now wait, I didn't exactly promise…" Takumi began to counter.
"Hajime-kun, what are you two talking about?" Izumi curiously inquired as she approached the vehicle. "What did he promise her father?"
"Hajime, don't you dare!" an already red in the face Akira warned, knowing full well what he was referring to.
Izumi became even more puzzled when she observed Akira's father, desperately attempting to conceal the look of amusement upon his face until Hajime then non-chalantly revealed, "Grandkids."
"Hajime!" Takumi embarrassingly cried out.
"Woo woo!" an extremely high-spirited Izumi then hooted. "Akira's gonna be a mommy!"
"Izumi!" an equally flustered Akira objected.
"And I'm going to be an aunt!" Mai eagerly pointed out.
"Sis! Come on you guys, cut it out," Takumi pleaded, witnessing his other friends also having a laugh at their expense.
"Heh heh," Hajime chuckled, "Sorry, my friend, afraid we just couldn't resist.
"Yeah, yeah, alright."
"So ahh, you want me to tell you now the location of your surprise honeymoon destination?"
"Ahem!" Akira clearly made her objection known.
"Kidding, kidding," Hajime mischievously replied. "But hey, in all seriousness: congratulations. Believe me, if there are two people in this world who are more deserving of each other, it's you guys. I couldn't be any happier or more proud than I am now for you; I really mean that."
"Aww, thanks, Hajime," a deeply moved Takumi expressed.
"That's right," Izumi wholeheartedly concurred along with the rest of their friends who were all smiling and nodding in agreement.
"Thanks, you guys," Takumi and Akira each appreciatively replied.
With the driver now receiving the okay from Akira's father, the limo slowly began to pull away.
"Have a great honeymoon!" Hiromi wished them.
"Make lots of great memories!" Mai yelled out.
"And lots of babi… mmmph…" Izumi began to call out, only to have her comment muffled out by Hiroki's hand across her mouth.
"That'll be enough of that," Hiroki lightheartedly informed her.
"Aww, you're no fun."
Garnering a chuckle, an amused Hajime then redirected his attention to the departing limo, proceeding to wave while shouting at the top of his lungs, "ALOHA!"
"Come on, Akira, tell me already," Takumi pleaded as their limo approached Narita International Airport. "The suspense is killing me."
"Oh all right. Seeing as how you're going to find out the minute we check in anyway, I suppose I might as well tell you n…" Observing that they had just passed the exit for all departing flights, Akira lowered the privacy screen that separated them from the driver and inquired, "Ah, Kenji? Didn't we just pass the main terminal?"
"For all commercial airline flights, yes, you are correct, ojou-sama," her family's longtime butler informed her. "Private charters, on the other hand, depart from another terminal."
"Yes, you see your father wished to surprise the two of you. So instead of a taking a commercial flight, Himuro-dono has graciously offered to fly the two of you on his private Gulfstream jet."
"You… You're kidding," Akira said in disbelief.
"Wow, that's really nice of him," Takumi commented.
"So if you still wish to keep Takumi-sama in suspense for a bit longer," Kenji enlightened, "the flight crew has already been informed not to reveal your honeymoon destination to him."
"Hmmm. Really?" Akira deviously pondered. "Well in that case…"
"Ehh? Oh come on, are you serious? Akira!"
"Sorry, Takumi. Afraid you'll just have to be patient for a bit longer. Seven or eight hours to be exact. That's about how long the flight is. And that's the only hint that you're going to get."
Sighing in frustration, Takumi then thought for a moment as he cunningly asked, "Oh alright, but can you at least tell me what the time difference there is? I'd at least like to set my watch back or ahead accordingly."
"Oh, well I guess that would be alright. But to tell you the truth, I'm not really sure myself. Kenji, do you happen to know?"
"I do, but I'd be careful if I were you, ojou-sama," Kenji warned. "Don't forget, Takumi-sama is quite intelligent and will likely be able to deduce the location if given the time zone."
"What? N… No, that's not true! I mean, I appreciate the compliment and all, Kenji, but…"
"Nope, he's right," Akira realized. "Almost spoiled the surprise there. Nice try, Takumi."
"Aw, man!" Takumi expressed in disappointment.
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I do hope you've had a pleasant flight. If our newlyweds would look out to the plane's right, you should begin to see our destination's most defining landmark coming into view.
"Huh?" Takumi was startled out of his peaceful slumber, his roomy, leather seat now abruptly shooting back up into an its upright position. "Where… let me see!"
"Take a look," Akira indicated out the window, seated directly across from him.
"Wait, what is that? A volcano? Hold on, I know that formation," he began to recognize as they got a little closer. "It's Diamond Head, isn't it? So then that means…"
"Hawaii, yes!" Akira finally confirmed to him, fervently then announcing to the crew, "He finally figured it out!"
Upon learning of this the captain resumed, "We are approaching the island of Oahu where we will be landing at Honolulu International Airport within the next twenty minutes. Due to the fact that Tokyo is 19 hours ahead of Honolulu, you'll technically have almost an entire extra day with which to spend your honeymoon. The time here right now is 7:20 AM. The weather at Waikiki Beach is currently clear and a very pleasant 75 degrees with a light, gentle breeze. We expect a gorgeously sunny day thereafter where the temperature will be in the high 80's with a very low humidity rate. Your timing of this trip couldn't have been any more impeccable and we trust that you will have an amazing time during your stay."
"Akira, I… I don't know what to say." an utterly speechless Takumi began as he continued to gaze out at the approaching shoreline. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me, thank my dad, and… Hajime too, actually."
"Yeah, he's actually the one who suggested that we come here. I mean, when my father asked me where we wanted to go for our honeymoon I really didn't have a clue since I never really put much thought into it."
"To tell you the truth, neither did I," he confessed. "I mean, I really only cared about one thing."
Leaning forward, he took a hold of her hand and simply gazed lovingly into her eyes.
"My thoughts exactly," she fondly expressed. "Anyway, I was about to ask you when I happened to run across Hajime. And since he knows you better than anyone, I decided to ask his opinion. He reminded me of all those times that Miyuki-san had invited you to her family's little private island resort and having to always turn her down because she didn't invite me. Yet he remembered one time, after turning her down, when you seemed to have some feelings of regret."
"Well, yeah, because I figured that it would have been nice if we could have both gone together with her. I mean, she even reluctantly offered to let you come one time, but I still had to turn her down because I knew that it would still make you feel uncomfortable."
"And I appreciated that too, believe me."
"And you know, we really only ever went to the beach together that one other time, remember? Over four years ago before we became engaged and when you were still…"
"Yeah, I remember. But anyway, that's when Hajime suggested that we should come here. He figured that you would like it, plus the fact that…"
"That I would get to see you in a bikini?" Takumi concluded.
"Yeeees!" she sighed, sounding somewhat annoyed.
"Ha ha, typical Hajime. But you know, he's right," he eagerly expressed with raised eyebrows."
Along the white, sandy shores of Waikiki Beach, the iconic Halekulani hotel stood out prominently amongst all the other area resorts. Off to the side of the main building, the hotel had also erected three, luxurious Premier Suites, intended for the more discerning traveler, or in this case, our honeymooners. The crème de le crème of these three, with a living space of just over 2300 square feet, is the Orchid Suite. Situated on the oceanfront, this suite offers up a sweeping view of the shoreline of Waikiki Beach, which can be glimpsed upon opening its giant floor-to-ceiling doors that open out onto a private lawn and trellised lounge. In addition, a magnificent panoramic view of the historic Diamond Head is also provided from the master bedroom suite. Inside, the living space offers an entertainment lounge that features a home theater and even a Steinway grand piano, while the master bath affords guests a steam shower, a deep steeping therapy pool and a cold plunge tub.
"A… Akira? Are, are you sure this is the right room?" Takumi questioned with uncertainty upon first stepping foot inside the lavish suite.
"Oh would you just get in there," she nudged him on. "Go on, there's no mistake."
"Whoa! Would you look at that view," he expressed in awe upon stepping out onto the lanai.
"Yeah, it is quite breathtaking, isn't it? Definitely way more than I expected, that's for sure."
Stepping back inside and then entering the entertainment room, Takumi was dumbfounded upon discovering, "Oh my god, are you kidding me?"
"What's the matter?"
"Akira, there's a piano in here. A grand piano!"
"Yes, yes, I know," she sighed. "Calm down. Geez, I warned my father that you would probably freak out once you saw the place."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound ungrateful. It's just that all this extravagance kind of caught me off guard."
"Don't worry about it. Although, even I must admit that my father may have gone a bit overboard. Still, we're here now so we might as well take advantage of everything that this place has to offer."
"Oh believe me, I'm greatly appreciative to him and intend to enjoy every minute of our stay here."
"Good. So now that you're over the initial sticker shock, I think I'm going take advantage of one of this hotel's amenities right now: the steam shower. I really want to get all this hairspray and whatever other gunk they submitted me to out of my hair."
"Okay. Wait, so then does that mean you won't be wearing your hair up like that anymore?"
"I should say not. It just feels too damn uncomfortable."
"Aww, and I was just starting to get used to it," he facetiously remarked.
"Yeah, right. I'd rather you start getting used to making a decision instead. I don't suppose you decided on what you want to do today, have you?"
"Uh, not really. You?"
"Well, I figured we might want to hit the beach and just kick back and relax," she suggested. "It was a long flight after all so we should probably take it easy for a bit to help us get over the jet lag."
"To tell you truth, the seats on that jet were so comfortable that I practically slept the entire way. So I'm not really suffering from any jet lag. But the beach does sound pretty good right about now."
"Alright then, the beach it is," she determined. "And then later maybe we could do something a little more exhilarating, like scuba diving, parasailing, jet-skiing..."
"Uh, okay, but which one?"
"All of them, of course."
"All of…? Good grief, I married a maniac."
"Actually, I prefer to consider myself an extreme sports enthusiast," Akira enlightened as she then proceeded to head toward the bathroom.
"I'm going to start unpacking then," Takumi called after her.
"Well, if you want to," she paused, turning back around.
"What do you mean? We're going to have to eventually."
"Yes, but you could just have our butler do it."
"Oh, didn't I tell you?" she seemed to delight in informing him. "This room comes with our own personal butler service."
"What? Oh for..." he uttered in disbelief.
"Here, let me call the front desk for you and have them send him over," she facetiously offered as she proceeded to reach for the phone, knowing full well that he wouldn't hear of it.
"Just take your shower. I think I can manage this fine by myself, thank you very much."
"Meh, suit yourself. Oh, as long as you're going to unpack," she then began to recall, retrieving the package that Hajime had given her earlier and handing it to Takumi, "you might as well start with this."
"Oh, is this the gift from Hajime that you were telling me about?"
"Yup, only knowing his warped sense of humor it's probably some sort of gag gift. That might explain why he didn't want me opening it until we got here."
"Oh, Akira, why must you always be so suspicious of his motives?" Proceeding to undo the singular red ribbon from around the box, Takumi added, "I'm sure that it's a very thoughtful gift." Now removing the top of the box and clearing off a layer of tissue paper, Takumi discovered, "Huh, it's a Hawaiian lei. And here's a note. It says: 'Aloha, my newlywed friends! Hope you had a nice flight and are now living it up on that paradise island of sun-drenched beaches, cool waters and hot bodies. This is just a little something to remember me by and will maybe even hopefully help to… spice things up a bit.'"
"I'm already not liking the sound of this," Akira skeptically remarked.
"Oh, Akira, hush. He then closes out with: 'Already missing you guys and hope that once all of us are settled in at our respective universities that we can all get together and hang out again like old times. Stay in touch and have a killer honeymoon. Hajime. P.S. Takumi, make sure you send me a picture of…'"
"Crap, I don't think I was supposed to read that part aloud."
"A picture of what, Takumi?" Akira was now insistent on knowing.
Looking inside the box at the remaining two items, Takumi was somewhat amused at Hajime's sense of humor, trying desperately to contain his laughter. Attempting to blow the whole thing off, Takumi then suggested, "Uh… Akira, why don't you go take your shower."
"What? No, no, no. Don't try and cover for him. Come on, let's see the rest of it."
Endeavoring to keep a straight face, Takumi proceeded to slowly pull the two remaining objects out of the box.
"You have got to be kidding."
"Look at it this way, Akira," Takumi joked as he now held up a grass skirt in one hand and a coconut bra in the other, "you already have the lei so now you have the complete ensemble."
"Charming," she grumbled, not too amused as she shook her head. "Told you he had a warped sense of humor."
"Oh, but it's classic Hajime," Takumi said in amusement.
"Geez, I can't believe this type of juvenile humor is what passes as entertainment for you guys. Unbelievable. Now if you'll excuse, I'm going to go take…"
"Hold on, Akira."
"Aren't you at least going to… you know, try it on?"
"Uh… Are you serious? Don't tell me you're actually entertaining the idea that I…"
"Well, he did go through the trouble of buying it and I'm sure he put a lot of…" No longer able to contain himself, Takumi began to break out into hysterics as he added, "…thought into it."
Grabbing the bra from his hands and proceeding to bang the two coconut halves into each other, Akira suggestively warned, "You know I may have a use for this thing yet. Good thing there are two of them: one for each of you two coconut heads."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Akira," Takumi apologetically offered as he wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. "You know we were just having fun with you."
"Yeah, yeah, hilarious. Honestly, what is it with the two of you and this cosplay fetish of yours? First the maid outfit and now this."
"Oh, I wouldn't exactly call it a fetish, per se."
"No? Well then what would you call it?"
"Hmmm," Takumi thought for a moment before unabashedly suggesting, "I would say, maybe a… sexual fantasy?"
As Akira stood with a stunned expression, Takumi then just casually leaned over, gave her a quick peck on the cheek and bid, "Enjoy your steam shower," before coolly heading off to unpack.
"Oh, that felt so good!" Akira expressed with satisfaction as she stepped out of the shower. After drying off and running a towel through her hair, she threw on a white, terry robe, which the hotel had provided, came out into the living area and announced, "You have got to try this, Takumi; it is so relaxing. Takumi?"
Looking around, she noticed that, aside from their toiletries, Takumi had unpacked and put away all of their clothing, just as he had promised. Finally spotting him out on the lanai, she saw that he had changed into his swim trunks after finding him sprawled out and fast asleep on one of the chaise lounges. Realizing that the jet lag may have finally caught up with him, Akira decided not to disturb him and instead figured that she would join him. Going back inside to change into her swimsuit, Akira's eye suddenly caught a glimpse of the lei, grass skirt and coconut bra lying on top of the coffee table. Not really sure herself why she was about to do what she emphatically stated that she would never do, Akira then involuntarily grabbed the three items off of the table and headed back into the bathroom.
Stretching his arms upon awaking from his brief nap, Takumi slowly sat up and proceeded to look around to see if Akira had finished with her shower. As he stepped back inside, closing the door behind him, Takumi noticed that the door to the bathroom was still closed. It was also then that he observed that certain objects were now strangely absent from the coffee table.
"Huh, that's funny," he thought, scratching his head.
Before he had a chance to even contemplate their possible whereabouts, Takumi was completely floored when he saw Akira suddenly emerge from the bathroom, slightly adjusting the coconut bra on the way out.
"Takumi!" Akira was also startled to discover. "You… You're awake?"
"Uh, yeah. I… I just took a little nap. But never mind that. Wha… What are you wearing? I mean, I didn't actually expect you to…"
"Well I… thought that this is what you wanted," she reservedly responded rather awkwardly.
Suddenly recalling the comment that he had half-jokingly made earlier, Takumi's face abruptly turned beet red at the mere thought of it. Never once thinking that she would actually follow-through with it, Takumi now began to feel a bit of remorse for leading her on like that.
"So then... you don't like it?" Akira concernedly asked.
"Huh? Uh, n…no! I mean…"
Now actually beginning to enjoy his ill at ease mannerisms, Akira then decided to lead him on instead.
"It's okay, I know that I probably must not look very appealing to you in this get up," she meekly stated, trying hard to maintain a serious expression. "I'm sorry, I… I better go change."
"NO!" he shouted, grabbing a hold of her arm as she was about to leave, then pleaded, "Please don't."
Continuing the ruse, Akira timidly stated, "But, Takumi, I thought you didn't find me very attractive in this thing."
"How can you say that? Don't you remember what I said to you at the reception? I told you that, that…" Noting that her staid composure was beginning to crack, Takumi suddenly came to the realization, "You're toying with me, aren't you?"
"Bingo!" she took great satisfaction in enlightening him.
Sighing heavily, he confessed, "I deserved that."
"Yes you did," she rather smugly asserted. "Well now that that's settled, I'm going to change out of this ridiculous thing and…"
"Now hold on."
"What? You've had your little fun, so just let me get changed so we can head to the beach. Because you know that I'm certainly not going out there dressed like this, I'll tell you that."
"N… No, I know. But what I wanted to say was, well…" Takumi began to stammer, "that is to say… I think you look really... sexy in it."
"Uhh, you… you do?" she seemed a bit taken aback by his sudden admission. "C… Come on, Takumi, cut it out. Quit messing around. I know you're just trying to get back at me for…"
Shaking his head, Takumi earnestly stated, "Akira, back at the reception, when I told you that you look spectacular regardless of what you wear… well, you do. You really, really do."
Prompting her to blush, Akira now just gazed upon Takumi's rather sincere, smiling expression until finally regaining her composure.
"You know, this still doesn't mean that you're going to get a picture of me wearing this goofy getup," she informed him.
"Just one?" he pleaded with sad, puppy dog-like eyes.
"Takumi, so help me, if you as much as come within ten feet of a camera I'll…"
"Okay, okay. I get it. No pictures."
"Say tell me something," Akira then inquired. "And I want you to be honest with me."
Cupping both her hands and placing them beneath the coconut bra, Akira motioned them slightly up and down and demanded to know, "Why are guys so hung up on these things?"
"Uhh…" he struggled to explain. "Well, I mean… not all guys are like that, you know."
"Okay, let's say that I buy that weak argument for now. That small minority aside, what about the remainder of them? Why are they so fascinated with these things?"
Nervously gulping, Takumi began to sweat as he hopelessly endeavored to come up with an answer to the age old question before finally weakly responding with uncertainty, "Hormones?"
"That's it? That's the best you can come up with?"
"Alright, alright, it's because all men are pigs! Is that what you wanted to hear?"
"Well, at least you admit it," she was pleased to hear. "But of course I already knew that."
"Oh come on, I'm just messing with you. Still, I am curious about one thing."
"What is it that you desire… Takumi?"
"Me? Uh, well I suppose I… Wait, is this a trick question?"
"Ha-ha. No, of course not. Oh, Takumi, you're so cute when you get all flustered like that."
"Well, I'm glad that you're enjoying having this laugh at my expense," he pretended to take offense at. "Okay, two can play at that game; now it's my turn. So tell me, what exactly is it that you desire, Akira? Hmmm?"
"Hey, don't think you can just dodge the question by turning it on me. Come on, I asked you first."
"Alright, you really want to know?" he asked with an alluring inflection in his voice, now beginning to feel the passion building up within his chest. Without warning, he abruptly proceeded to thrust himself upon Akira, practically ravishing her body.
"Ta... Taku… Uhhhh… Wai… Wait a minute."
"Mmmm, your hair smells nice."
"Takumi, just… uhh, stop for a second."
"No, no, it's okay, just let me…"
Pulling on the strap that secured them, Akira now proceeded to brazenly remove the hard-shelled garment and then heedlessly tossed it off to the side.
"There, that's better," she proclaimed, salaciously then querying, "don't you think?"
Practically drooling over what he now beheld, he couldn't help but observe, "You know, when I said that you look good regardless of what you wear… I think that was an understatement. You look even hotter with less."
"So then… less is more, huh?" she deduced.
Resuming where they had left off, Akira was now completely overwhelmed by Takumi's uncontrollable urge and inordinate lust. She seemed to have no choice but to submit as she felt her body becoming totally consumed. Their fully entwined bodies now began moving chaotically about the room until finally coming into contact with the keyboard of the grand piano. Despite the unpleasant tone cluster that was produced as Akira's body mashed a random set of keys, the sound seemed like a beautiful symphony to the two of them. Throwing her head back in ecstasy as Takumi began devouring every inch of her body, endeavoring, it seemed, to kiss every aspect of it as his lips madly progressed downward. Both their breathing by this point had now become quite labored.
"Takumi, ho… hold on… let me… Uhhh…"
"Takumi, please… just stop and… uhh, let me catch my… let me catch my breath."
"Yeah… okay," he panted heavily, finally letting up before plopping down on the piano bench alongside her.
"Oh my god…" she gasped, "what the hell came over you? You're like a wild man."
"That's a good thing…" he proudly stated, still huffing and puffing, "Right?"
"Oh yeah," she admitted, wheezing then a bit before declaring, "You'll get no complaints from me."
"Heh heh. Hoo boy! What a rush!"
"You're telling me. You okay?" she asked with concern, worried about the strain that this might be putting on his heart, even though it had been over four years since his heart transplant operation. "You should probably take it easy for a minute."
"Don't worry, I'm fine."
"Trust me, I'm good to go."
"Ha-ha, of that I'm sure. Well then how's about at least letting me take a breather."
"You got it."
After taking a deep breath, Akira then began to reminisce, "You know what this reminds me of? Four years ago, the night before you were about to ask for my father's permission to marry me. Remember?"
"Oh yeah. How could I forget? Izumi had dragged me along with her so she could spy on you and Hiroki. And then when you both discovered us, you thought I didn't trust you anymore. God, that was such a horrible feeling."
"Yes, but at least we managed to clear things up right away on that same night. But when I went up to your room to explain that it was all just a big misunderstanding, you came walking out of the bathroom with nothing but a towel wrapped around your waist. God, you looked so hot! I suppose that's why right after we made up, one thing just led to another and we began to…"
"Oh yeah. You were out of control, pretty much like you were just now. Well, so was I, actually. And then what happened next…"
"You mean, what almost happened," he corrected.
"I know, right?" she sighed while fondly recalling that special evening. Now getting up from the bench, Akira extended her hand to Takumi, and suggested, "Come on, let's go."
Not even bothering to question her, Takumi was more than happy to follow as she led him by the hand over to the master bedroom suite.
Standing alongside the giant California king bed, Akira mused, "You know, I still to this day wonder what would have happened if Izumi hadn't walked in on us. I mean, I know that afterwards you had assured me that you would have stopped."
"Well, it's true. Despite what it seemed like, I had no intention of letting things get too out of hand."
"I know, and I appreciated that. Hell, there were even times after that in which you showed great restraint."
"Believe me, it wasn't easy."
"I know," she understandably replied, proceeding then to lament, "Yet I have to admit that there were times when I had wished that you weren't so damn responsible all the time."
"Really?" he was surprised to hear.
"But looking back now, I'm thankful that you were. However…" she passionately began to preface while sensually running her hands down along his bare chest, stopping just as she came to the drawstring of his swim trunks, which she playfully proceeded to undo. "I need you to promise me something."
"Uh, sure," he gulped while attempting to hold his swim trunks up with one hand. "What is it?"
"From here on out…" she erotically asserted, audaciously then yanking the grass skirt from around her waist and flinging it off into the next room.
With only the lei around her neck, the remainder of Akira's naked body was now tightly pressed up against his. Then pressing her finger up against Takumi's lips, she seductively requested, "Don't hold back."
As he watched her fall gracefully back onto the bed, Takumi was in awe as he gazed down upon her voluptuous body now spread out along the luxurious, satiny sheets.
With a complacent smile he proudly pledged, "Well, if you insist. I mean, far be it from me to turn down such a humble request from my attractive, and considerably hot-blooded, wife."
Akira's grass skirt, which currently rested on the cold, tile floor in the next room, would not be solitary for very long as Takumi's swim trunks somehow found their way directly atop of it. Immediately thereafter, however, Akira's lei would soon be on top, all three of which were still quite warm as a result of their intense body heat.