Hatori peered into the rear view mirror. Tooru yawned and her eyes fluttered. She was nodding off in the back seat and the car had hardly set into motion.
"Eyes on the road, Ha-san." Shigure said, his tone teasing but his body tight with tension.
Hatori looked forward and took his foot off the accelerator. They were starting to come into traffic.
"She looks tired," Hatori commented, after glancing quickly again and discovering her asleep. Shigure cleared his throat and Hatori looked forward keeping his eyes focused on the traffic ahead. "I thought having an extra day off would give her more time to rest."
"You knew about that?" Shigure asked giving him a sharp look from the passenger seat.
"Momiji mentioned something about it." Hatori didn't meet Shigure's stare. He suspected that Shigure could tell he was lying even without the eye contact.
"Mmmm..." Shigure rumbled deep in the back of his throat. "Really?"
Hatori tightened his hands on the wheel. How did Shigure manage to make one word sound incredulous and suggestive at the same time? It made his skin crawl. This wasn't good. The dog was already pressing on his nerves.
He didn't know why Shigure had to turn any interest in Tooru's well being into something lascivious, but it made him feel grimy and worried. He hoped Shigure was only like this around him. The dog loved to push people's buttons and make them uncomfortable. Shigure was just bugging him to get under his skin, but if he behaved like this around Tooru it was borderline sexual harassment.
"Such a forbidding face, Ha-san." Shigure said lightly, leaning against the car door and grinning at him. "Don't let my princess see that, or she'll fret all night instead of having fun as Aya and I planned."
"You planned?" Hatori said, and instantly cursed the note of alarm in his voice. He glanced at her quickly, hoping he hadn't woken her. "What have you planned?"
"Can't tell!" Shigure winked, and made an airy gesture before placing his index finger over his lips in a mocking, girlish pose. "It's a se-cr-et."
"Didn't we just pass our turn?" Shigure said looking out the window.
Tooru started awake with a gasp. "I-Is everything a-alright?" She smoothed her hair and double checked that the cake box hadn't slid on its side. She flushed red, embarrassed she'd fallen asleep and not quite sure what had woken her up.
"Sorry for startling you," Hatori said shortly, giving Shigure a glare. "I just missed our turn," he said as he started to look for an opportunity to turn around.
"Ah," Tooru said and then gasped when she realized how close they were. "Oh, I forgot!" She'd wanted to get a camera on the way to the Ayame's. But by the looks of it, they were nearly there already.
"Forgot?" Hatori asked slowing the car down. Had she forgotten something at Shigure's? "Forgot what?" If so he'd have to go a different way. He frowned looking at the streets around them.
Tooru winced at Hatori's dark expression. "Nothing important," she said waving a hand. "I'd wanted to pick up something at the store if we had time... but it's not anything I need. I can get it later."
"What?" Hatori asked.
"Eh?" Tooru blinked.
"You can get what later?" Hatori pinned her with a stern look in the rear view mirror.
"Camera-san." She squirmed in her seat, feeling like the dragon was driving her into a corner. "I thought-" She paused, it wouldn't do to say that she wanted one for today... it was too late now, but she knew Hatori would feel obligated to try to find her one. "I'm almost out of pictures for my scrapbook," she finished hoping that would be enough of an explanation.
"Eyes front, Ha-san!" Shigure interrupted, pressing his foot down on an imaginary brake from his seat.
Hatori pressed the break instinctively, reacting to the dog's urgency and slowing the car. They were in no immediate danger, but the traffic around them was beginning to slow. His tiredness was making him a distracted driver.
"Don't you have a camera already?" He resolved to keep his eyes on the traffic in front of him. "I'm sure Ayame has film, he's always taking photographs of his models. He could lend you some."
"I've only used disposables," Tooru said, "Camera-san is-"
"Expensive?" Hatori finished for her. "They're much more reasonable these days... Even most phones have a decent digital on them."
Eyes trained on the road, he missed Tooru's embarrassed blush.
She looked down at her hands. Even Hatori was poking into her finances! She felt unaccountably upset that he seemed to be monitoring her income too. Just a few days ago he'd called her "responsible," and now he was talking as if she wasn't able to manage herself.
"Perhaps it would be more cost effective to get a phone," Hatori suggested oblivious to her distress and seeing an opportunity. He'd thought last week that it was ridiculous that she didn't have one. She worked such long hours, and often traveled to work on her own. Last week's fiasco could have been completely avoided if he could have gotten in touch with her directly instead of trying to pass messages through Momiji.
"Phone-san is much too expensive!" Tooru replied, her tone as close to snappish as it ever got. Which was to say she sounded mostly tired and a tad frustrated. "You have to pay for Phone-san every month," she reminded him.
Touched a nerve there, Ha-san, Shigure thought. "We're coming up on our turn again," he pointed out. It did make the dog think. He hadn't liked not knowing where she was on Thursday.
Hatori sighed, oblivious. He'd have to discuss the phone situation with Shigure. These days it simply wasn't safe not to have one.
"Welcome!" Ayame crowed from the entrance of his store. Tooru froze, Ayame wasn't wearing one of his usual robes. He'd gone further west for his look this time, was resplendent in a reddish-brown suit and matching bowler hat canted jauntily to one side. His hair was pulled back in a tight pony-tail at the nape of his neck.
"Welcome!" He cried again and swept his hat off in a dramatic bow. He cast a dewy-eyed look at the trio on the sidewalk as he straightened. "Has it been only a week? It feels a month, a year, an eternity!"
"Ah, my love!" Shigure dropped to one knee and clasped his hands over his heart. "Whatever the length of time, it has been too long!"
"Come!" Ayame said holding his arms open wide. "Cleave to me, my dearest, my heart!"
"Cleave?" Tooru whispered under her breath. She wasn't sure of the meaning.
"It means..." Hatori looked at where Ayame and Shigure were embracing, oblivious to the titters and embarrassed looks of the passersby, "That."
"Oh," Tooru said and looked up at him. "I thought it might mean "to cut," she said with a furrowed brow, "because... well... cleaver." She mimed chopping with a cooking knife. Her brow cleared, "But that makes much more sense."
He looked down at her, "I don't think sense really applies to them."
Tooru shot him a quick smile, happy to hear him tease. He was so sardonic. She wished she could be as quick as he was.
Ayame whispered into Shigure's ear. "Oh, wait till you see! I've had such fun planning!"
Shigure hugged the other man tighter, lifting the taller man off his feet entirely to give him a tight whirl, "I'm sure it will be perfect!"
Ayame grinned and broke away from Shigure, and Tooru was treated to his full attention. "Ah, fair lady, welcome!" He bowed again and flipped his hat up his arm and with the flick of his wrist placed it back on his head, running long fingers over the brim to set it just so. "The wonders I have in store for you!"
"For me?" Tooru goggled, taken aback by his unwavering attention. "B-but this is supposed to be..." She looked at Shigure and Hatori, who were now at each shoulder, "time for Shigure-san, Ayame-san a-and Hatori-san to spend together."
"Ah, yes, but we must give thanks to the hostess that brought these lost wandering boys back together!"Ayame said, with a wink, taking her hand and laying a quick, chaste kiss on her knuckles. "You are our Wendy!"
"Wendy?" Tooru repeated, completely lost. She'd expected to feel that way most of the night, but she hadn't even gotten inside yet.
Ayame whirled on one foot, keeping her hand in his and pointing into his shop with the other, "Look there! The second star to the right!" Suspended from the ceiling of his darkened store was a spray of metallic paper stars interspersed with twinkle lights, with one giant star as its focal point. "Then straight on 'till morning!" He waved a hand towards the back of the store where the back door had a jaunty, smiling sun cut out of yellow glittery paper.
"Peter Pan?" Shigure asked, the most familiar with western literature. "We're going to Neverland?" He grinned, took Tooru's scrapbook from her other hand and tucked the book under his arm as he captured her fingers in his, "If Tooru is our Wendy, then who is Peter?" He gave a sideways glance to Hatori, who was shifting uncomfortably with the cake box in his hands.
"Ah, Peter is away, having grand adventures, chasing pirates, being hunted by fierce natives, and will be away until the dawn comes to crow," Ayame said tugging Tooru, and by extension Shigure, into the store. "So it is up to us Lost Boys to keep Wendy safe and entertained." He winked at Shigure.
"Feels like you didn't quite think things through," Hatori said following them in with a sigh and a sinking feeling. "How can it be Peter Pan with no Peter?"
"Are you offering?" A voice said brightly behind him. He turned and found himself being peered at by a woman dressed in layer upon layers of sheer, green leaf-shaped taffeta and huge wings lit with twinkle lights. She wiggled a little jar, black corkscrew pigtails bobbing. "I have the pixie dust, and I'm sure Boss has a suitable costume in your size! Peter is quite popular." She grinned at him, her eyes sparkling behind round glasses. "We always try to keep a variety of sizes in stock." She stepped around him and locked the store doors and flipped the store sign over to closed.
"Ah..." Hatori felt like he'd walked into a trap. He'd heard about Ayame's assistant, and seen her at a distance, but never face to face. Even without the wings and bottle of glitter he could see that she and his cousin were cut from the same crazy, tie-dyed cloth. It was something about the insane glint in the eyes.
"Mine-san is Tinkerbell!" Tooru said excitedly behind them, she'd pulled away from Ayame and Shigure to see what was keeping Hatori.
"Yes!" The woman gave an excited shake, and hidden bells tinkled. "I thought Boss should be Peter, but he said he'd have to cut his hair."
"Oh no!" Tooru gasped horrified at the thought.
"I know!" Mine said. "Sometimes I think Boss gets too caught up in trying to be authentic."
"Authentic? Did the Lost Boys even wear suits in Peter Pan?" Hatori mused.
"Some did," Ayame said, grinning. "They wore their father's suits and finery."
"Dress up?" Tooru asked thinking how fun it had been to wear the kimono last week. Did he have costumes for all of them?
"Just so!" Ayame said, affecting (very badly) a British accent. He dropped the accent and tapped his bowler. "John is usually shown with a top hat and umbrella."
"John wasn't a Lost Boy, he was Wendy's brother," Hatori pointed out peevishly, this was exactly what he'd been dreading. He just knew Ayame probably had costumes for all of them. "And I don't remember the the Lost Boys dressing up. Didn't they usually wear pajamas? Have you even read Peter Pan?"
"I just wanted to present a garden of English delights for our Wendy," Ayame pouted, straightening and looking at Hatori.
"Boss said that Wendy-chan wanted to try watercress sandwiches," Mine said by way of explanation, clutching her bottle of glitter and casting a worried look at Ayame.
"Ha-san is being a spoil-sport!" Shigure said clapping a hand on Ayame's back. "Pretending was one of the main activities of the Lost Boys. So surely there must have been some dressing up in there… somewhere."
Ayame crossed his arms. "I knew it wasn't quite right," he muttered, shifting from foot to foot. "No, more than that, it's wrong, all wrong."
Tooru looked around the older men, feeling the tension build. Ayame's distress was palpable, and Shigure looked disgruntled. She glanced at Hatori, wondering what was making his comments so... cutting. She looked him over again, carefully this time, noting things she hadn't in her earlier distraction. His shoulders were tight, and there was tension in his frame that made him look rigid. There was something about his eyes... they were a bit distant, and more gray then green. He gave a huffing sigh, and radiated annoyance. It reminded her of the morning he'd stayed over when Shigure was out of town.
"Did Hatori-san not sleep well?"
Hatori started and turned from Ayame and Shigure to look at her. "Excuse me?"
"I... It just seems like maybe Hatori-san is a little tired," Tooru floundered.
"Because you're acting like a brat who needs a nap," Shigure cut in. "Stop being a pill, and lets get on to having fun."
"Was it one of your bad nights?" Ayame said, ignoring Shigure and clasping his hands together in concern. He looked Hatori over, and Tooru got the impression Ayame, like herself a moment ago, was really seeing him for the first time today. "Did you sleep at all?"
"Bad nights?" Tooru repeated. Momiji had said that he didn't sleep well, but Ayame was making it sound like it was something more then that.
Catching Tooru's worried glance, Hatori sighed. "No," he shook his head, "no..." he repeated and waved a dismissive hand. "Nothing like that. It's true I was a bit... restless... last night," he said choosing his words carefully. "But I did sleep." For a few hours. It was enough, and more then he got some nights.
Everyone was staring at him. Ayame's assistant was looking at him with trepidation, bordering on fear. He wondered what Ayame had told her about himself. Shigure looked angry and Hatori had to review his comments because it took a lot to get the dog's hackles up so obviously. He usually hid his emotions better. Hatori looked last at Tooru, and Ayame just behind her. They wore comically similar expressions of distress and dismay. He sighed.
"My morning was rather stressful," he admitted, "I apologize for carrying over my bad mood to all of you."
"Come in, come in," Ayame circled Hatori and took the cake box and in one smooth gesture grandly indicated Hatori should be the first one through the door to the stairs up to his apartment. "I'll make some soothing chamomile tea, and we have all sorts light delicacies all prepared." When Hatori didn't immediately move to go up the stairs he impatiently lead the way. "Come, come!" he called trotting up the steps.
"I brought wine," Shigure said, revealing a bottle hidden in his sleeve. "Aya shared some of the details with me, and it seemed appropriate. Might take the edge off the day!"
"Ah, how nice!" Mine said accepting the bottle from Shigure. "Let me just set this to chill, and I'll bring out some of the treats Boss and I prepared," she said and followed Ayame up the steps.
"Wonderful idea," Shigure said, stepped quickly up the stairs after her.
Hatori's eyes narrowed, he suspected the dog was eager to follow because the woman's skirt was short and it gave him an opportunity to peek. He glanced to his side, where Tooru was still gazing up at him worriedly.
"Maybe Hatori-san should leave after dinner," Tooru said twisting her fingers together. She looked up at him soulfully. "Shigure-san and I can call a taxi, so you don't have to worry about driving us home. Then you can go to bed early." She glanced up the stairs and then said softly, "I'm sure Shigure-san and Ayame-san will understand."
"Was I so rude that you want to get rid of me that quickly?" She was so earnest. He enjoyed watching her face blossom from concern to embarrassment.
"No, no!" She waved her hands. "That's not it at all what I-" She paused and looked at him closer. His grey-green eyes had gone from dull to a smoky banked fire. "Hatori-san is teasing me!" She said and stamped her foot, but she couldn't hide her answering smile.
"Yes," he said, "Though I do thank you for your concern." His lips twitched a little. "We should get upstairs before they wonder where we are." He gestured to the stairs.
"Okay," Tooru said and started up the steps. Hatori followed a few steps behind. About halfway up she paused and turned to look at him. She was startled to find their eyes at the same level with him being a few stairs behind. She gaped for a moment, nearly swallowing her words before rallying. "But we should go home early tonight, Hatori-san shouldn't press himself when he's tired."
She turned back on her heel and marched towards the top of the stairs, feeling her face heat. She hadn't expected him to be so close or for his surprised look to shoot right through her like that. Was he really so unused to people fussing over him? She pressed fingers to her lips to try to suppress the smile trying to escape. It was rather cute.
Shigure was waiting at the top of the narrow stair. "What took you, my little flower? We'd begun to wonder if you'd escaped together." Shigure grinned and wondered at the playful sparkle glimmering around Tooru and the color on her cheeks. He quirked an eyebrow at the tall man behind her. Hatori had a distinct air of embarrassment.
"She tried," Hatori said glibly, hoping he'd gotten his surprise under control. "I wouldn't go."
"Really?" Shigure looked down at her seriously with his hands thumbs tucked into his belt. He relented, grinning, "Are you leaving me for another groom?"
"That's not-" Tooru started, then primly smoothed down her dress and gave both men a reproachful look. "That's not what I said. I just suggested that Hatori-san might want to leave early if he was tired."
"What is so interesting about my landing!" Ayame said from his doorway. "Come in, come in!"
"Aya, my sweet, my love," Shigure said turning, "We only seek to heighten our anticipation of the delights and treasures you have prepared."
Ayame puffed out his cheeks, only slightly mollified.
"Thank you so much for having us," Tooru said giving a slight bow. "I'm sorry for intruding on your time with Shigure-san and Hatori-san."
"Non, non," Ayame grinned. "You made it such a pleasure last week we are happy to welcome you into our circle. Now come," he said and gestured to his apartment, "see what we have prepared."
Tooru entered the apartment, looking down to remove her shoes at the entrance. When she finally raised her head she froze. Shigure gently nudged her aside so he could enter. He walked past and glanced around, bemused.
Hatori was the last in. He stopped by Tooru and surveyed the room. It looked like a tornado had hit the small apartment. There were blankets and cushions everywhere. It was a riot of colors and fabrics thrown wantonly around the room. Off towards the back there seemed to be a slight clearing, and odd arrangements of cushions were the fabric seemed to draped with a little more care.
"It's a Secret Base!" Tooru gasped and clapped her hands. "With forts!" She looked up at Hatori, the closest to her, to share her delight. "See!" She pranced easily through the carnage of pillows and blankets to piles of cushions. She knelt by one of the structures, draped in green. "It's big enough to crawl in and hide!"
"Yes, that's it exactly!" Ayame said delighted she'd caught on. "I wanted a sweet reminiscence of our youth, a parallel to this reawakening, this deepening of our bonds from childhood."
Shigure and Hatori exchanged glances. "Did we ever play in 'forts'?" Hatori asked. He didn't remember doing so, but he'd found long swaths of his childhood memories were unreliable. He didn't have an explanation for it. He'd always just figured that his childhood had been so boring, day after day of study and family duty, that it had all just blended together. It wasn't until the later years of middle school, and high school that his memories firmed up and he became certain of things. Shigure had suggested once that when he took memories of others perhaps he had a price to pay in memories of his own. He didn't think it was true, he hadn't heard of any other Dragon suffering so. Though records on that matter were all oral, and mostly undocumented.
In any case, he knew his parents would have never allowed them to pull up cushions and tear blankets off beds to make forts. Ayame's were the same, though he reflected that never had stopped Ayame from doing whatever he wanted. Shigure's parents probably wouldn't have cared, they ignored their son as if he didn't exist and never commented on his or his friends actions. But their house had been staunchly traditional, and it was much harder to build a fort out of futons then it was out of couch cushions.
"Sumiere-san would have had a fit," Shigure said shaking his head, recalling the housekeeper who'd been in charge of the Junninshi homes for as long as any of them could remember. In the case of some of them, she'd been more parent then their actual parents, scolding them when they'd done wrong and laying out rules that were not be broken.
Ayame waved a hand through the air. "This is an idealized journey to our youth. Didn't you ever want to build forts after reading about it, or seeing it in movies? It always looked like fun."
"The boys in my neighborhood had a secret base," Tooru chimed in. She'd already made herself at home in a nest of blankets and snuggled into one of the forts. "But they said no girls were allowed." She frowned at the memory and scooted further back into her chosen fort as if to secure her place. "It wasn't fair."
Shigure grinned. Tooru was so adult most days, it was fun seeing her relax and act childish. "Terribly unfair," he agreed. He settled down in the fort closest to her, "But now you are the princess of your very own base."
"This is where you were going with the Lost Boy thing?" Hatori asked, careful keep his tone merely curious and not accusatory. "Where do the "English delights" figure in?"
"It was intended to be an amalgam." Ayame flipped his braid over his shoulder, "I thought a playful atmosphere was best, and the Princess had mentioned wanting to try watercress... the Lost Boys combine those two nicely." He cast a pleading look at Hatori, "It works a little bit, doesn't it?"
"The "princess" seems to be enjoying it." Hatori nodded to Tooru who was laughing about something with Shigure. Shigure was on his stomach and from his hips back were tucked into one of the forts. "I don't think we fit quite as well." If he tried that he'd only be covered to his knees.
Ayame grinned, "Then you make a nest! I'll show you! My lovely assistant and I have been trying it out all week to get that "lived in" look. It's been quite fun!"
"I've got snacks," Mine said coming out of the kitchen. "Shall we all settle in? Boss thought a dinner of light finger foods would be best instead of a comprehensive meal, something to satisfy every taste and to meld with the circumstance."
Mine deposited the tray into the center and took up station opposite Tooru. Ayame settled in between her and Shigure leaving the spot between the two women to Hatori. He gingerly lowered himself into a kneeling position in front of a precarious fort of two couch cushions.
Does Ayame even have a couch? He wondered as he watched Mine and Ayame settle into the mess of blankets and fabric and make little nests for themselves. Why did he bother wearing a suit if all he's going to do is get himself all wrinkled up? Personally, he hated when his suits got rumpled, it made them so uncomfortable.
Feeling distinctly out of place Hatori decided to keep his mouth shut so he wouldn't sound peevish. Tooru was looking delighted by her surroundings and he didn't want to ruin it for her.
"Wendy-chan, would you like to try a watercress sandwich?" Mine said and offered her a small plate.
"Yes, thank you!" Tooru said and accepted the paper-wrapped sandwich. She sat up, making a little nest like Ayame's and Mine's like it was instinctual. She grinned at them all and took a bite.
Hatori had to turn and hide his mouth.
"Not pleasing to you, my flower?" Shigure said, and his voice only trembled a little. Hatori could only be impressed at his control. He couldn't speak or even look back, he couldn't imagine what her face would change to next.
"Tea?" Mine offered and her voice gave an odd modular turn on the short word, and she said nothing else. Hatori risked a glance at the woman and her eyes were forced wide in an attempt not to look like she was laughing at Tooru and her lips were in an odd vee.
"Y-yes please," Tooru choked out and took the cup. There was silence as she drained nearly the entire cup of hot liquid.
Ayame, never one to worry about tact, burst out in laughter. "They are not my favorite, and if you dislike that one that much, you will probably not enjoy the cucumber sandwiches either."
"Mm," Shigure agreed, "They both have that cold and watery texture."
"Ah," Tooru said faintly.
"Take a ham and cheese," Ayame continued slapping one on her plate. "Much tastier, especially when you use a spicy mustard."
Hatori looked back to see a much chagrined Tooru taking a nibble out of the ham sandwich. She glanced up at him, her cheeks burning.
Hatori coughed to force the chuckle from his throat in the least offensive manner. "Wasn't what you expected?"
"I don't know what I was expecting," Tooru said softly, looking downcast and horribly embarrassed. They'd looked so tasty in the English dramas and movies Shigure had been favoring lately. She knew she had to have looked funny, but she wished that everyone had just laughed out loud like Ayame, then she could have laughed it off herself. Instead she felt like they were humoring her like a child.
"Whatever it was, I wager that wasn't it!" Shigure laughed. "Aya played the same trick on me when we were boys." Tooru gave him a wobbly smile, feeling a little better knowing she wasn't the only one to ever get caught up in a similar trap.
"Trick?" Mine said. "But I like them!" She took a lusty bite out of one. "We used herb butter with the watercress, chives and parsley."
"It's an acquired taste." Ayame grinned at Tooru, who was looking as green as Mine's Tinkerbell dress as she was watching the other woman eat her sandwich.
"I think it tastes like soggy grass on bread," Shigure said and snagged himself a ham sandwich. "I don't want to acquire a taste for that."
"You reacted better then Shigure did," Hatori said to Tooru. Her face when she'd bit into the sandwich had been funny, but he was sorry her delight seemed to have been quashed. "He spit it out and insisted in wiping his tongue if I remember right."
"Really?" Tooru said looking at Shigure. He nodded, half his sandwich in his mouth. Her shoulders straightened a little as she perked up. "Does Hatori-san like them?" She asked, looking back at Hatori.
"I like the cucumber better," Hatori shrugged, "but I don't like or dislike them especially. The texture is a little..."
"Slimy!" Shigure supplied helpfully. "Mushy. Spongy. Squishy. Like eating glue?"
"Not to my taste," Hatori said ignoring him.
Tooru nodded. "I think they are...not to my taste either," she said.
Hatori rewarded her by tipping the corners of his mouth up in a smile. It was the first one since reaching Ayame's apartment, and Tooru was willing to eat a half dozen watercress sandwiches if he would keep smiling.
"Try one of these," Shigure said putting a deviled egg on her plate, dragging her attention away from Hatori. "I think you'll like it."
"A deviled egg?" Tooru said, getting a bit of her excitement back. "They always looked cute in pictures." She tried to look confident as she took a bite. This had a creamy texture too, but one she liked. "I do like it!"
"Have another!" Ayame said serving her not one but two.
"Is this all there is for dinner?" Shigure asked, grabbing another sandwich.
"This is plenty," Tooru said enjoying another egg as she glanced at Shigure. Hatori was amused to see Shigure cringe under the unspoken reprimand.
"This is just the first course, though it is all light finger-foods," Mine grinned. "I also made asparagus roll-ups, fried meatballs..."
"Dumplings too!" Ayame enthused. "It's not on theme, exactly, but it evokes a sort of camp out vibe, neh?"
"Mm," Shigure nodded in agreement and took another deviled egg.
Tooru glanced at Hatori's plate. He still hadn't taken anything and the way Shigure was going, he probably wouldn't get enough if he didn't act soon. She took his plate and quickly placed two of the ham sandwiches on it, figuring he'd like the spicy mustard. She took two eggs and paused trying to decide if she wanted to risk one of the other sandwiches. Besides the cucumber and watercress there seemed to be ones made with bright colored jellies and others with some kind of salad, probably chicken. She wasn't sure he'd like the texture of something made with mayonnaise, but the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches might be too sweet. Chicken was probably the safer bet.
"What are you doing?" Hatori asked, and she froze in the act of reaching for a chicken sandwich.
"Oh, um," Tooru looked down at the plate. "Hatori-san hadn't served himself so...um..."
"You are the guest tonight, my sweet, considerate flower," Shigure reminded her and reached over to tap her on the nose, "Not the hostess. Look after your own plate." He took one of the jelly sandwiches and put it on her plate. "Try this one, it's strawberry jam! I think you'll like it."
"Thank you," she blushed and looked up at Hatori, handing him his plate barely sparing Shigure or the jelly sandwich a glance. "I'm sorry-"
"Don't be," He said and picked up the chicken sandwich she'd been going for.
Tooru sat back in her nest of blankets. She'd had such plans for tonight! She was going to get a camera and take pictures of Hatori being relaxed and that funny upturned almost smile. She was going to be clever and tease him and then later surprise him with her cake. She picked up the jelly sandwich and nibbled away at it, closing her eyes. She sighed. She should know better then to think anything would ever go according to a plan. Life just didn't work that way. She scooted back into her fort, glad that Ayame had prepared a place for her to hide.
Ayame and Mine had made enough finger foods to feed an army, to an astounding variety. A few were even fancy enough to lure Tooru out of her fort to ask for recipes and preparation tips.
Hatori was happy to see her finally relax and begin to participate. He'd realized quickly that he'd misstepped when he'd asked her what she was doing with his plate. He hadn't meant it as a reprimand, though it was certainly how she took it. He couldn't seem to keep his balance around her, a feeling he wasn't used to.
Tooru laughed, and Shigure took the opportunity to slip a delicacy into her open mouth, some kind of sweet. Her eyes flew open and she covered her mouth to keep it from falling out, pounding Shigure with her other hand in reprimand, nearly choking on her laughter. Hatori allowed himself a smile. Shigure was good at handling her.
The moment she'd retreated back into her fort the dog had begun a campaign to draw her out again. He'd pointed out all the tastiest treats to her, and Ayame's little touches to the plates (hand-cut paper doilies with pastoral scenes). He'd then begun a relentless interview of Mine, asking about her dress (she'd made it), which treats she had made, which were made by Ayame, where had they found all the cushions? The questions were all designed to perk the girl's interest, which was obvious to everyone but Tooru.
Mine and Ayame played along, trying to top each other with enthusiasm and silliness. Mine made frequent trips to the kitchen. There was an inexhaustible supply of different foods and new curiosities. She brought out bits of projects the two were working on, costumes half-sewn, jewelry half-made. Shigure compared their artistic process to his own, and Tooru drank it all in fascinated. She forgot her earlier embarrassment and her reticence. She started smiling and peppering in her own questions fingering the soft fabrics and ooh-ing over the craft in whatever form they were placed before her.
Hatori stayed quiet. It seemed any time he opened his mouth today it only managed to foul the mood. He briefly considered leaving, taking Tooru's advice to go home and just crawl into bed. But he knew that if he did, it would only send off a flurry of worry and fretting on her part. He shifted and then tugged irritability at his pant leg as it crept up on his leg uncomfortably. At least with Shigure's aid Tooru seemed to have thrown off his bad mood and seemed to be truly enjoying herself. If nothing else her reactions were proving as entertaining to watch as he'd hoped. It was worth coming for that reason alone.
"Mou, Shigure-san, I can't eat anything else!" Tooru complained with a laugh, turning her head to keep him from pressing a chocolate up against her lips. She held her hands up like a shield.
"But we haven't even gotten to your cake yet!" Mine said clapping her hands.
"Perhaps a break," Ayame suggested. "I want to see the Princess's creations now, we've shown off our projects. It's only fair."
"Ah," Tooru blushed and looked around, "That is... where?"
"By the door," Shigure said popping the chocolate he'd attempted to press on Tooru into his mouth. He slid out of his fort and clambered up. "I'll get it."
Tooru bit her lip and found herself glancing at Hatori out of the corner of her eye. He'd straightened out of his bored slouch and pulled at his clothing as Shigure loped across the room. He remain silent, just watching without comment as he had through the night. She felt bad that he wasn't enjoying himself the way the others were, and she wished she could draw him out and help him relax. If he stayed this tense she was pretty sure he wouldn't sleep well tonight either. And beyond that consideration, this night was supposed to be for the three men to enjoy each others' company. She couldn't help but notice that the evening's focus had somehow drifted squarely onto her.
Shigure came back over with the paper bag that held Tooru's scrapbook. Shy again, Tooru held accepted it and looked at the circle of expectant faces. "It's not finished yet," Tooru said, suddenly reluctant to share it.
"Show them my page," Shigure said eagerly as he slid back into his spot.
"Non, non..." Ayame said slapping him lightly. "We should begin at the beginning. The order the pages go in are important to the over all flow of the book."
"Flow?" Tooru said looking at the book in her hands again. She hadn't thought about anything like "flow" when she'd been putting it together. She'd only gone in order of the age of her photographs.
"Just begin at the beginning of the book," Mine said. "I'll get the wine!"
"Can I help?" Tooru said leaping at an opportunity to delay the unveiling of her scrapbook. Mine nodded and jumped up and hurried to the woman's side.
"None for me," Hatori finally spoke up. "Thank you."
"You can have a glass!" Shigure shot him a look. "We have time before you have to drive."
"I don't see why you have to go anywhere," Ayame said airily. "Sleep over!"
"Sleep over!" Shigure's eyes lit up and he burrowed into his blankets. "Let's!"
"I have appointments tomorrow," Hatori sighed. "And I think Kyou and Yuki would worry if you two didn't get home tonight."
"On Sunday?" Tooru said following Mine out of the kitchen, both had trays of wine glasses. "Hatori-san worked today too, didn't he?" She handed him a glass and he took it out of habit. She cast him a look with puckered brows and a frown.
"Ha-san should take his own advice and take a day off," Shigure said sipping the wine he'd received from Mine. "At least one a week."
"But I thought-" Tooru started and then stopped biting her lip. "Wednesdays?"
Hatori shot Shigure a dirty look. "I have plenty of time to relax in the evenings, and not all days are full days." He took a sip of the wine still trying not to let his poor mood infect their evening again.
"Ah," Tooru handed Ayame a glass and then looked down at her tray. There was one left, she looked at the others thinking she must have missed someone. Everyone had a glass in front of them. Shigure winked at her and Ayame put one long slim finger up to his lips. Mine grinned at her over her glass, taking a sip. Apparently this was her glass.
"If you love what you do, it doesn't seem like work," Mine said and looked at Ayame. "Boss is working all the time! I often have to remind him to eat."
Ayame lifted a glass to her, "As often as I have to remind my lovely assistant that life does not revolve around beads and lace and that she is not required to work overtime every week."
Mine just crinkled her nose at him. "What would I do with myself at home? There isn't anything fun to do there."
"Shigure-san forgets everything when he's writing," Tooru mused, as she carefully sat down. She put her glass by her knee, out of Hatori's line of sight. She didn't think she'd drink the whole thing, but she'd never tried wine before and he was the only one likely to protest. So many recipes suggested using it, she was curious about the flavor. The rich red color was appealing. "And he's always writing..."
"He's so lucky to have you looking after him," Ayame enthused, his glass was empty already. Mine poured him another glass. "Gure has simply shone under your care."
Shigure laughed. "Grown is more like it!" He patted his stomach. "I know I've gained weight, my bride's cooking is simply irresistible."
"It's not merely that,"Ayame protested, leaning forward. "Gure looks more alive. Before his eyes drooped and his hair had lost it's luster. You are now so much more fit and radiant, my love."
"So you're saying before Shigure looked tired and unwashed," Hatori couldn't resist translating for Tooru. "I suppose it is an accomplishment if you've been able to get him to bathe every day."
"Ne, that's mean, Ha-san," Shigure grumbled, but spoiled his sulk with the merry dancing in his eyes. "But it's true my little flower does remind me to take care when I forget the little things."
"Like eating, sleeping and bathing?" Hatori asked.
"Shigure-san never forgets to eat," Tooru said taking an experimental sip of her glass of wine. She was startled when the others burst into laughter. She gave an uncertain smile, she hadn't meant to be funny. It was true that Shigure never went hungry, he just didn't always eat what was good for him.
"So he only forgets to sleep and bathe?" Hatori said with a quirked eyebrow, cluing her in on her own joke.
Tooru's mouth made a little "o." Then she smiled and looked at Shigure, apologizing with her eyes even as she continued, "Only sometimes."
Shigure's laughter roared the loudest, not the least bit offended. He lifted his glass to hers, and there was a happy little chime as they toasted. "You wound me, my bride!" He grinned, "But at least I can look forward to your tender care to heal me."
Before she could bring her glass back to her lips, Hatori plucked it gently from her fingers. She gasped and followed it with her eyes, raising up on her knees, disappointed. She'd only gotten a taste, but she'd liked it. It wasn't as acrid as sake, nor as bitter as beer.
"That's bad luck, Ha-san!" Shigure protested.
"Come, come, Tori," Ayame chimed in, now working on his third glass. "It couldn't hurt to let her have a little taste."
Hatori quelled them with a look and put the glass next to his. "She had a taste."
Tooru blushed, she'd thought she slipped that past him. "I'd never had wine before." She gave Shigure a rueful smile.
"We've got juice if you'd like it, or soda or water," Mine offered, putting her glass down and starting to rise. "Or tea."
Tooru quickly rose, "Please, Mine-san, it's fine. I just want water, and I can get that myself."
"Why won't you let her have a glass?" Shigure said the moment she stepped into the kitchen. "One glass is harmless."
"She's underage," Hatori said simply.
"I keep forgetting," Mine said cheerily, her cheeks lit with merriment and her nearly empty glass of wine. "The Princess is so mature."
"Mmm, Mmm," Shigure nodded. "I've been enjoying our times together even more now that she is not so frantic with work. I look forward to every Sunday."
"Sunday?" Ayame asked, picking up her scrapbook.
"It's "our" day," Shigure grinned. "We leave the boys at home and go shopping. Though sometimes it is delayed until Monday."
"You get ice cream," Hatori said, "and tell the shop owner preposterous stories."
"Most times, yes!" Shigure smiled happily, then frowned at Hatori. "Though Tanaka-san doesn't believe me like she used to."
"I only told her the truth," Hatori said, leaning back on a hand.
"Not entirely," Shigure narrowed his eyes at the lounging doctor. "Now Tanaka-san seems to believe that my little bride is your little bride."
"I tried to explain it to her," Tooru said clutching a glass of water between her hands. "I did," she repeated when they all stared at her.
"What exactly did you tell her?" Hatori asked, leaning forward and wrapping his arms around his knees. He couldn't get comfortable in this mess.
He raised a thin eyebrow when she shifted her feet. Last time he'd seen the shop owner she'd been left thinking that Tooru was dating him, but Tanaka also knew that Tooru lived with Shigure. He knew how Tooru's explanations went circular and nonsensical when flustered, and wondered what impression the store owner could possibly have now.
Tooru went scarlet. "Oh, um, well, I..." She looked into her glass of water as if it could answer for her. "I told her that Hatori-san was..." she peeped up at her audience, all looking at her with various levels of curiosity and amusement, "Shigure-san's relative, and that I was just helping Hatori-san with cooking lessons..." Her blush refused to fade as she remembered Tanaka's odd comments, knowing looks and pointed questions. "But I don't think I made her understand."
Hatori suspected her explanation to the shopkeeper hadn't been so succinct or clear.
"She hates me now," Shigure said, coming to her rescue with a dramatic sigh. He leaned back on his hands, and let his head fall back to regard the ceiling. "Every time we shop now she treats me like a dirty old man."
"She's come to know you well," Hatori said. Tooru noted that his deadpan delivery was undercut by the quirk of his mouth and brightness of his eyes.
Able to read Hatori even better than she, Shigure just laughed and took no offense. "I don't feel very welcome there without my little flower as a shield."
"Who's this?" Ayame interrupted. He'd been ignoring the conversation in study of Tooru's scrapbook.
"That's Hana-chan!" Tooru clapped her hands. "She's one of my best friends."
"Oh, I like her style!" Mine chirped. "So elegant, and so nicely accessorized."
"She makes a lot of them herself," Tooru nodded proudly.
Ayame shook his head, mouth down in a considering mou. "This isn't quite right. Because so many of the pictures have a focus on dark tones, you should have used a richer, more vibrant background. A burgundy or a purple shade, like plum or perhaps a cool blue. " He tapped the muted gray paper she'd used. "This washes the photos out."
"Hana-chan doesn't wear anything but black and gray," Tooru said following his finger to look at the page. Now that he pointed it out, it did look almost muddy. "So I thought I should match the paper to her personality."
"Contrast would have displayed her personality better," Ayame said clucking his tongue. He flipped the page. "What is this?"
Tooru looked down at the page. "Uo-chan? She's also one of my best friends."
"Oh, she looks wild!" Mine grinned.
"These pictures don't match this background at all!" Ayame wrinkled his nose. "The greens and gray clash with the reds, oranges and yellows predominate in these photos."
"But the fish..." Tooru trailed off twisting her fingers. "I thought because of Uo-chan's name..."
Ayame sniffed. "I see the connection, but that cuteness is overshadowed by the clashing colors. And here, this picture should have been cropped." He mimed a tighter frame around one close up of Uo-chan with his fingers. "See how the composition improves?"
"Oh, well, yes, but-" Tooru started. She hadn't even considered cutting the photos themselves. In many cases they were her only copies. What if she messed it up?
He flipped the page. He tore through each page, pointing out color mismatches, layout weaknesses, and other flaws. Tooru's forehead took on a permanent wrinkle, trying to follow all the advice and critique. She was getting dizzy from his rapid-fire commentary. From the tone of the comments, she was starting to think that she'd best give up scrap-booking.
Hatori reached over and plucked the album from Ayame's hands as he got near the end. "So what you're saying is," he handed it back to Tooru, who blinked in surprise, "that she did a very good job for a first album."
"Oh yes!" Ayame said, snapping out of teaching mode. "For a first project, the Princess has displayed a very good eye."
Mine nodded. "It's much better then most first attempts. Usually they're so bland, just pictures on paper with a few stickers around it."
"And she made good use of the materials she was given?" Hatori asked, with a quirked eyebrow.
"I thought it was amazing that she managed to turn all those dusty odds and ends leftovers into something so put together," Shigure sipped on his wine. "She didn't buy anything new."
Ayame made a little hum of interest, "Well, working with the constraints, I would say she did exceptionally well."
"Really?" Tooru asked, looking around the circle of people. Shigure lifted his glass to her in approval. Hatori nodded. She looked down and smoothed her hands over the book and hugged to her chest. Her voice was small as she spoke, "But Ayame-san didn't seem to like it."
"That's not what I said!" Ayame protested.
"Boss was just giving a critique," Mine nodded. "There is always room for improvement."
"An artist must be able to see the flaws, so they can improve," Ayame said, clinking his glass against Mine's.
"Oh, I'm not an artist!" Tooru protested, but already feeling better.
"Nonsense!" Ayame said slapping his hand on the floor. "Did you not assemble that from naught but your imagination and whimsy?"
"And your cooking is a work of art," Mine added. "Boss has spoken often of your presentation and varied menu choices."
"Cooking isn't art," Tooru demurred.
"Any task lifted to a certain level of expertise and craft is art," Ayame set his glass down firmly. "Art is not some dusty definition that is so plainly segregated as art and not art. Art is more than that! Art is craft, dedication, strife and love. It is everything around us that we appreciate and treasure and share with others. It-"
"It can definitely be cooking," Mine interrupted. Ayame nodded firmly, cheeks red and puffed.
"If there is any cook that can be considered an artist, it would be my little flower," Shigure agreed. "Wouldn't you agree, Ha-san?"
"Yes," Hatori said simply. "And I liked your album. Are you going to do more?"
"Well," Tooru ducked her head, embarrassed that everyone was focused on her. "I'd like to. But, um..."
Shigure snapped his fingers, "Did we tell you, Aya? We discovered a dilemma on the way over."
"A dilemma?" Ayame asked examining the dregs of his class with a pout. Mine nudged him with an elbow and he blinked at her. "Oh!" he said straightening, and then turned to Shigure. "What dilemma!"
Hatori gave the two a sharp look. He knew that tone, it was too surprised, too rehearsed. They'd planned something.
"My little flower wanted to purchase a camera, you know, the little cardboard disposable kind. Do you sell those in your shop?"
Tooru turned hopefully to Ayame. "Oh, do you?" She patted her dress and glanced around for her purse. "I have money."
"Non! Non! Non! Those things are horrid!" Ayame said lunging at her and clasping her hands. "You don't waste your money on those things?"
Tooru's mouth settled into a line. Even Ayame was fussing about her finances?
Hatori's eyebrows rose. That's a new face...I think she's angry, he thought, noting her eyebrows had even furrowed a bit. So even she gets angry... But he didn't understand what had made her face go so serious.
"I rarely take pictures," she said carefully. "And disposables are inexpensive, but a regular camera is very expensive." She cast a wounded look to the side at Shigure. Was he discussing her behind her back? This same conversation kept coming up!
Ayame sat back looking confused and glancing between Shigure, Mine and Hatori.
Pouting now? Hatori was fascinated. Even at her worst, when she was exhausted and frustrated like she had been a few weeks ago, she usually directed all of her recriminations inward.
"But it isn't really," Mine said cheerfully, standing and collecting the empty wine glasses. "Cheaper, that is." She gave a disapproving cluck at Hatori, who still had Tooru's full glass of wine and half his own next to him. She handed Ayame the full glass and left Hatori's. "If you add up the cost of the cameras and the processing, it's actually much cheaper to get a digital," said over her shoulder as she went into the kitchen.
She came out with a tray of cookies and milk, continuing as if she hadn't left. "Then you can just delete the pictures that don't come out right away and not pay for processing them. And you can go to those clever little kiosks and get just the pictures you want printed, instantly! You don't even need a computer. And you don't have to worry about running out of film or losing negatives anymore."
Tooru looked a little mollified at this brisk explanation. "Yes, but-"
"Do you need one?" Mine said, kneeling to set down the tray and hand out glasses of milk. "Boss has over twenty, but only uses about five." She popped back up. "He tried out a lot of models before he found the ones that worked for him. But there should be something in there you can use." She turned and smiled at Ayame. "You don't mind, right, Boss?"
"Right! Right!" Ayame grinned, Mine always knew when to pick up and run with something. "They aren't the newest, or the best models, but they'll work well enough for an amateur to learn on." He snapped his fingers, "Go and fetch the box."
"Right away, Boss." Mine grinned and bounced out of the room, her skirt swishing and swaying and her wings flapping.
"I really couldn't," Tooru whispered. "That's just too generous." Her cheeks were burning. She didn't want charity.
She could accept the gift of the scrap-booking supplies from last week because they were obviously just wasting away in Shigure's study. But cameras were expensive! Too valuable to be able to accept as a gift, and she knew how Shigure and Ayame worked. If she took a gift this expensive, the next would be even bigger and more elaborate. Ayame had already planned a whole day around her when it was meant to be for him and his friends.
"Tut," Ayame waved a hand through the air. "It's nothing but my cast-offs."
"Don't you just think it's shame to let useful things go to waste?" Mine said coming back with a shoebox. She took the lid off. "They look so sad," she pouted. "Here," she handed Tooru the box, "pick one out."
Tooru numbly looked in the box. She could see that these weren't being used. The cameras just sat in a jumble in the box, some large and clunky, beaten up, well used, and others tiny, sleek and new-looking, but all dusty. A lot of the cords were tangled together, it looks like they hadn't left the box in some time. But even if they weren't being used, they were valuable pieces of equipment. She couldn't just take them. She hadn't come over looking for gifts!
Wondering what was taking so long, Ayame crawled over on his hands and knees and peered in too. Maybe she was having trouble choosing? "Not this one," he said plucking one out. "It's got a horrible light leak." He used long fingers to move around some cameras. "Or this one," he sniffed. "It's auto-focus is just terrible. This one isn't so bad..." He started to lift one out.
"Oh, no, Boss," Mine said shaking her head, "Not that one. The battery on that one dies so fast."
"Mmm, yes," Ayame absently agreed. "Forgot about that. Oh, this one would be good." He lifted out a little pink camera. It was one of the slim, new ones. It even still had some of it's stickers on it touting it's many features. "Take this one."
"But-" Tooru started.
"Oh yes!" Mine clapped her hands. "That's just perfect!" She reached over squeezed Tooru's wrist. "It works perfectly fine, but Boss found the buttons too close together for his fingers. He kept zooming in when he meant to zoom out."
"Very frustrating," Ayame frowned at the camera. He looked up at Tooru with a smile. "But with the Princess's delicate fingers that shouldn't be a problem at all."
"Thank you," Tooru said softly. "Very much." She tried to hand the camera back. "But I can't accept." She wouldn't let Ayame treat her like a pet or a charity case. Her mother would be so ashamed of her.
"But why not?" Ayame cried, not taking the camera. He glanced at Shigure for help, but the dog just gave a quick shake of his head. He knew that tone. Tooru wasn't going to bend.
"It's too generous," Tooru said and thrust the camera at Mine, who held up her hands and refused to take it. Tooru let her hands fall to her lap and looked away from the group, shoulders hunched.
An uncomfortable silence fell over the room. Shigure and Ayame made faces at each other over Tooru's bowed head, trying to figure out what to do next. The dog regretted this hasty addition to the evening, he should have planned it better. When he'd asked Ayame if he'd had any old cameras he could give to Tooru he hadn't thought it would turn into such a production, or that Tooru would be quite so hurt.
Hatori sighed loudly, causing everyone to jump. "Did Tooru-kun also not sleep well last night?"
Tooru started. "Eh?"
"You also seem a bit out of sorts," Hatori said, ignoring a glare from Shigure. He thought he might know where this was coming from.
"N-no... not at all..." Tooru protested weakly. She glanced at Shigure who quickly schooled his face into one of polite inquiry.
"Your protests seem a bit much for a camera that sits unused in a bottom of a box... like a forgotten jar of olives on a shelf." He lifted his wine glass and took a sip, keeping his eyes on hers,"Such waste is sinful, don't you think?"
Shigure and Ayame shared a confused glance, not catching the reference.
Remembering the friendly dinner they'd shared with Momiji, an enjoyable evening even with Momiji's drama and having to eat green olives, Tooru couldn't help but let the ghost of a smile light her lips. She looked down though and shook her head. "It's not the same." She looked over at Ayame, "I'm sorry if I was rude, but I can't accept such a generous gift."
"It's just clutter to him," Hatori shrugged.
"But a camera like that is worth..." she said looking back at him, then down before continuing, "a lot of money. It's not right."
"What if you paid him something for it," Hatori suggested. He held up a hand when the other adults started to protest. "It is valuable, so I can see why you'd feel uncomfortable taking it as a gift."
Tooru looked up and away. At least Hatori understood somewhat, but still... she didn't have anywhere near enough to buy something like this, and it was embarrassing to admit."I can't afford anything that nice."
"What about a trade?" Hatori said.
"Trade?" Shigure asked.
"The deal Tooru-kun and I have seems to be mutually satisfactory," Hatori said. "Perhaps she and Ayame can come to a similar deal."
"Hatori-san likes my cooking lessons?" Tooru squeaked, perking up. She'd thought he was humoring her. She was just happy she'd gotten a chance to make sure he was eating healthy, to do something for him. She really hadn't considered that he was enjoying it as much as she was.
Hatori didn't answer, giving a little shoulder shrug and sipping his wine. But Tooru could see his lips tipping at the corners as he drank.
"He did say "mutually satisfactory," Shigure pointed out. He grinned when a pleased blush spread over her cheeks. He barely restrained himself from giving Ayame a triumphant look.
"But what could I give Ayame-san that is worth... this." She lifted the camera. "Ayame-san knows how to cook."
"Pictures!" Shigure said snapping his fingers.
"But Ayame-san has cameras to take his own pictures," Tooru's brow knit, confused.
"Ah, but my little flower has access to take pictures of things my sweet Aya can't," Shigure said, wagging a finger. When her brow didn't clear he stage whispered, "Yuki."
"Oh!" Tooru gasped. That would be priceless to Ayame, the few she'd given him in the past had been warmly and enthusiastically received. "I can do that!"
"And of you, Gure!" Ayame said, reaching over and picking up Tooru's forgotten album. "I never get to see my sweet Gure's creative process like this." He held the page open to Shigure's page, he tapped the picture of Shigure at his work desk. "And it's been too long since I've seen you sleep tousled like this." He turned the book to himself and stroked another picture.
"So it's agreed!" Mine said clapping her hands and turned to Tooru. "You'll love having a digital! I was always scared to crop my pictures when I was using film."
"Oh, if I make a mistake..." Tooru said, realizing. "I can just reprint it!"
"If you get a computer, you can do digital scrapbooking too. It's really fun," Mine said.
"You can use mine," Shigure said quickly staving off Tooru's protest, "In the evenings while I'm reading my paper."
"Thank you," Tooru said, mollified and a little ashamed for reacting so vehemently against a gift. "I think I am a little tired," she said, wanting to both apologize and move the conversation away from trying to please her. "I was up late."
"Were you?" Hatori said putting his wine glass down. "Working on something?" His voice was too carefully neutral.
"I was reading," Tooru said with a smile, knowing where his suspicious mind had been going. "For fun!"
"One of mine," Shigure said proudly.
"Oooh," Ayame clapped, "Which one? Summer's Sigh?"
"For The Sun," Tooru smiled. "Hatori-san recommended it."
"So you got past the first chapter?" Hatori said, putting down his glass just past the lower
"It's painful to watch you nurse that wine," Shigure said. "And she got well past the first chapter."
"I'm almost done!" Tooru said. "I'm really enjoying it."
"What part are you at?" Ayame asked eagerly.
"The hot springs!" Tooru said. "Keiichi just delivered the materials."
"Oh, you are close to being done," Ayame wiggled in place. "You're coming up to my favorite part when-"
"No spoilers!" Shigure said slapping at him. "No spoilers! Don't ruin it."
"Ah, yes, sorry, sorry!" Ayame apologized.
"I'm surprised you've come so far in a week," Hatori said. "You'd barely cracked the book last week."
"Well, I had some extra time yesterday," Tooru said. "And it just captured me! I didn't know that books could be like that."
Shigure preened under her praise.
"Shigure does have some talent," Hatori admitted.
Shigure snorted, "Some!"
"And For the Sun is one of his best sellers, " Hatori continued as he hadn't spoken.
"I can see why," Tooru sipped at her milk, and picked up a cookie. She cast a glance at Shigure. She wanted to try teasing Hatori but didn't know how to bring up Keiichi's identity. She picked at her cookie and decided that just going straight ahead would probably be best. "I think it's the characters, especially Keiichi-san."
"Mmm, mmm," Ayame nodded. "He's a favorite of mine."
"That makes sense," Tooru said, so eager that Ayame had given her a good opening that she forgot all about even trying to be subtle, "considering who he's based on. It makes sense Ayame-san would like him."
"Oh?" Ayame asked. "Oh! Oh! Oh! The Princess figured it out?"
"Only a couple chapters in," Shigure confirmed, raising his glass of milk like wine. "Even quicker then you did, my love, my heart, my all."
"Boss had to tell me, but I guess that's because I didn't know the subject personally." Mine laid back against a mound of pillows, relaxed and eyes at half-mast. "Only from reputation."
"Keiichi's model?" Hatori said. "He's not one person in particular, I thought."
"Oh, but he is!" Tooru protested. "I mean, he's not exactly like that person I suppose..."
"But the resemblance is so very close," Ayame protested. "How can you not see it?"
"I perhaps did model that character more closely then others," Shigure admitted. "Since everyone does remark on the similarity... that knows the original I mean."
Hatori leaned back with a frown. "It can't be too close."
"Why, just because you can't figure it out?" Shigure laughed.
"Hatori-san hasn't figured it out?" Tooru said with over-the-top surprise. She widened her eyes comically. "Oh my!"
Hatori cast a side-long glance at her. "Is it so surprising?" His lips tipped up, obviously it was no surprise to her.
"Oh, very." Tooru took a bite of her cookie and rolled her eyes at Shigure.
Shigure had to bite back a bark of laughter. She was so bad at this, but it was so fun watching her try to be devious.
"Shigure told you who it was," Hatori prodded, having as much fun as the dog. Ayame and Mine watched like it was ping-pong match.
Tooru shook her head vigorously. "I figured it out on my own," she turned to Shigure. "Didn't I?"
"Yes, she asked me if she was correct in her guess," Shigure nodded sagely, "I only confirmed she was."
"After a few suggestions," Hatori said, too casually as he sipped his wine.
"No!" Tooru protested, brows furrowing. "I knew who it was immediately."
"Mmm," Hatori quirked an eyebrow and peered at her over the edge of his glass. "You don't say?"
"Hatori-san doesn't believe me?" Tooru asked indignantly.
"You haven't said who you thought it was yet," Hatori pointed out. He turned to Shigure, "You shouldn't just humor her and let her believe she has it right."
"But I am right!" Tooru bounced in place. Not realizing that the tables had been thoroughly turned on her, Tooru reacted spectacularly to Hatori's teasing. She flushed and she puffed out her cheeks, her eyebrows drew together in an annoyed vee. "I do know! It's-"
"No spoilers!" Shigure interrupted. "Ha-san doesn't know remember?"
"Aaah!" Tooru pumped fists up and down. "Hatori-san is trying to trick me!"
"Tricky, tricky Tori!"Ayame laughed a booming laugh, throwing back his head.
"You still haven't convinced me, you know," Hatori said blandly and finished off his wine. He leaned over to Mine, stretching out on the floor and propping himself up on an arm. "I don't think she really knows."
"I doooo!" Tooru protested. "I do, really!"
"Then why won't you say who it is?"
"Mmmm," Mine said, snuggling deeper into her pillows. "That is very suspicious."
"I'm not suspicious," Tooru said with a pout. Then she blinked. "Hatori-san is teasing me!" She said pointed at him. "And Mine-chan too!"
Hatori looked at her with his almost smile, "Tooru-kun makes it easy."
"Maybe," Tooru conceded, bowing her head. But she cast Hatori a side-long glance from under her bangs. "But I know who Keiichi is."
Everyone burst into laughter.
"Well played, my flower!" Shigure clapped. "Well played!"
"I declare the Princess the winner!" Ayame said raising an empty glass of milk.
Tooru was watching Hatori instead of taking her accolades. He'd laughed out loud, showing white pearly teeth and a wide smile. It was new, different and utterly charming.
Shigure watched Tooru's smile grow and her eyes sparkle. She was focused on the tall man reclining against the floor.
Hatori looked up at the girl, sitting on her knees and looking at him earnestly. "I suppose I must concede." A comfortable dip in the conversation accompanied the lingering gaze they shared. Shigure and Ayame exchanged their own glance, grinning like madmen.
"What penalty must he pay?" Mine asked. "The loser always has to pay a penalty!"
"Oh," Tooru blinked. "Um."
"Ha-san must pose for a photograph!" Shigure reached over with an elbow and nudged Tooru. "With Tooru-chan's new camera."
"Oh, yes!" Tooru bounced in place. "Yes!" She clapped her hands. "Yes!" She reached for the slim camera. "Don't move! Just like that!"
Despite her request, Hatori sat up and tugged his vest straight. "Is that really necessary?" He self-consciously smoothed back his hair.
"I'd like to get a picture of Hatori-san," Tooru pouted. She had wanted to get a picture of his lean frame stretched out in casual relaxation, there was something so wonderful about seeing him free of his usual burdens. She made a vow to try to get him that relaxed every time they met. But first, a photograph. "Please?" She skootched a little closer to him and clutched her camera to her chest.
Hatori sighed. Tooru was looking up at him with huge puppy dog eyes.
It's not as if she ever asks for anything either, he thought. "Fine."
"Thank you!" Tooru cheered, backed up a little bit, and fiddled with the camera. "I think this turns it on..." she mumbled, and started to press buttons. She quickly had the hang of it, testing out the zoom and finding the "auto" settings.
"How shall he pose?" Ayame said as she started to lift the camera. "Winner's choice."
"On his hands?" Shigure suggested. "Don't laugh!" He scolded at her expression. "He's quite limber."
Hatori rolled his eyes.
"Shigure-san!" Tooru laughed. She couldn't even imagine Hatori in such a pose. "I just want Hatori-san as he is." She grinned and lifted her camera, pinning the doctor in the square on the digital display. He wasn't relaxed and stretched out, but he was delightfully rumpled which was nearly as good. "Smile," she commanded. "Say cheese!"
The corner of Hatori's mouth twitched up, and he looped long arms over a knee. His head tilted to the side with embarrassed resignation. "Cheese," he said dutifully. Tooru blushed and snapped the picture.
Tooru spent the next hour inside the square of the digital screen. Ayame and Mine were eager to give her tips and tricks to take good photos, many of which she never would have figured out. She took photos of the forts, of Shigure napping in a nest of pillows, the pretty plate of sweets and tea that Mine took out. She snapped up a sweet moment between Ayame and Mine, a glance and a shared smile as Ayame poured her tea.
And she captured Hatori over and over again, all without him noticing. She kept in mind Mine's comment that digital photos were easy to crop, and caught him in the background of pictures. She got him starting to nod off in the background of a picture with Shigure and Ayame hanging over each other. And another of him looking amused at something when Mine modeled another dress for them. The camera let her steal every expression he made and save it forever. Ayame and Shigure shared all their expressions freely, but Hatori's were so much subtler and harder to catch. What a gift Ayame had given her!
"Tooru-chan," Mine grinned. "Didn't you bring a cake to share?"
"Eh?" Tooru pulled her eyes away from the back of the camera, blinking. "Oh! Yes!" She set down the camera and stood, clutching at her skirt. "I almost forgot!"
"It's in the icebox," Ayame said. "You know where the plates are?"
After helping Mine through the evening, Tooru was more then familiar with Ayame's kitchen. "Yes!" She trotted away to cut the cake. She'd completely forgotten about it between all the treats Mine and Ayame had made and the gift of the camera. Thankfully they'd been just drinking tea for the past while, Ayame and Shigure seemed to have bottomless stomachs and should be refreshed at this point. And she'd noticed that Hatori hadn't eaten any of the sweets that had been presented so far.
She grinned as she took out her cake and cut slices for everyone onto some pretty little dessert plates she found in the cupboard. Ayame's dishware was as eclectic as he was, each plate was a different size, color and pattern. She cut a slightly larger size slice and put it on a plain round plate edged in gold. That will be Hatori's, she thought. She wasn't sure if "spice cake" was really the right name for it, it wasn't a typical spice cake that one would serve with coffee. This one had been buried in the back of one of her international recipe books, Mexican this time. She'd never thought she'd be adding ground pepper to a cake! But when she'd tasted the chocolatey, spicy batter, the pepper, cinnamon and a few dried chilies, gave the sweet batter a spicy kick that she just knew Hatori would enjoy. She'd topped it with a rich cream frosting to cut the spice for herself and as a nod to Ayame and Shigure's love of sweeter things.
She set the cake on another of Ayame's stack of serving trays (it looked like he had nearly a dozen!), and carried it out with a jug of milk to refill the dessert glasses. She couldn't help picturing what Hatori's face would look like when he sampled the cake. Oh! She had to have her camera ready! She couldn't hide her smile, she'd finally have enough pictures to make a Hatori page in her scrapbook.
A series of bright flashed blinded her as she passed the threshold and she paused, blinking.
"A perfect shot!" Shigure cried, raising her little pink camera above his head.
"Mine was better," Ayame sniffed, a professional looking camera with a large lens and complex flash secured in an easy, one handed grip. "I was able to get a close up."
"I think I like my angle best," Mine said, and Tooru started. The woman was just by her elbow in the corner by the door. "I could get a profile and everyone else in the room." She held a slightly less complex camera then Ayame's, and had it tethered to her wrist with a hello kitty strap.
"I think she blinked," Hatori said frowning down at one of the camera's from the box. "How can you tell?"
"Let me see, Tori," Ayame held out a hand. "Mine-chan, can you get the printer? We should have the Princess judge which is the best." Hatori handed Ayame the camera.
"Right away, Boss!" Mine saluted, handed him her camera, and gave Tooru a wink as she scooted past into the depths of the apartment.
"Eh?" Tooru said, bewildered.
"We figured turnabout was fair play," Hatori said, standing and taking the tray from her lax grip. "You've been snapping pictures all night, but you haven't been in any of them."
"Oh!" Tooru said, covering a hand with her mouth. Her eyes grew so huge that Hatori wasn't the only one that had to hide a grin. "Was I being a bother?"
"Not at all," Ayame said from his seat on the floor. "We just want to capture memories of the Princess just like she wants to capture us!"
"My sweet flower," Shigure sniffed with fake melancholy. "She's gotten so grown up. She'll be leaving me soon. Doesn't she look like a little housewife in this shot?" He handed the camera to Ayame.
Ayame gave a happy burble. He lined up the cameras, all showing a smiling Tooru in each screen as he waited for Mine to return with the printer. "Lovely, just lovely."
"What shall we do with this?" Hatori asked, hefting the tray and distracting Tooru from her embarrassment before it became terminal.
Thankful for something to do, Tooru dove into hostess duties. "Oh, let me." She handed Shigure a slice, and set one next to Ayame and another next to Mine's "spot." She put a small slice next to her own little nest and then poured out milk in every glass. Finally she lifted the last slice in one hand, and took the tray from Hatori in the other. "For you," she said shyly, unsure now that the time had come for him to sample the treat she'd made with him in mind.
Hatori looked in the sweet looking confection with trepidation. It looked so rich.
"This isn't one of your regulars," Shigure said, turning the plate in his hands and sniffing curiously. "It's chocolate, isn't it?" He took a deeper sniff, "But it smells...different."
"It's something new," she confirmed. "I made something I thought everyone would like." She gave Hatori another shy glance before quickly retreating back into the kitchen to put away the tray.
She'd wanted to watch him try her cake, but she was suddenly onset by a flurry of uncertainty and stomach butterflies. What if he didn't like it? She was tempted to just hide in the kitchen until they'd tried it. Or perhaps just hide in the kitchen for the rest of the night. She didn't know which would be better...
"Did you get lost?" Mine asked, peeking around the corner.
"No," Tooru shook her head. "I was just...um, putting away the tray."
"Come out, come out, wherever you are," Ayame called from the other room.
"Everyone's waiting," Mine grinned, holding out a hand. "Your cake looks delicious."
Tooru took Mine's hand and let her tug her bashfully into the room. She knew she was being silly. It was just a cake, but she was suddenly embarrassed by all the thought and planning that went into it. Wouldn't Hatori think she was being strange, thinking about it so much? She was being strange! It was like she didn't know herself anymore.
"What kind of cake is this?" Ayame asked tilting the cake plate dangerously, examining it from every angle.
Still holding his plate and taking cautious sniffs, Shigure murmured, "Chocolate...something. Hmmm..." He hadn't taken a bite yet, which wasn't like him.
"Oh, don't tell," Mine said dragging Tooru back to her spot. She took up her own cake with a twirl of her fork and a gleeful twinkle. "Let it be a surprise!"
"A surprise!" Ayame agreed. "Let's all taste it together!"
"Everyone is making such a fuss over a cake," she demurred, though she snuck a glance at Hatori as she sat. He was leaning against the wall, just where she'd handed him his slice, and still holding his golden rimmed plate. He hadn't tried it either. He wasn't looking at it, though... he was looking at her. He raised an eyebrow and she glanced away quickly.
"But it's something new," Ayame said. "A moist, fluffy mystery!"
"A sweet mystery? A sugary mystery?" Mine asked. "A confection of mystery!"
"So no spoilers," Hatori said, keeping a close watch on Tooru. Something had her fidgety. Was the cake some sort of joke? She'd been teasing and playful all evening, and now was suddenly shy. She had that "I'm hiding something" look about her.
"Okay then!" Shigure lifted his fork. "All together?"
"All together!" Ayame said, cutting into the cake with his fork and lifting a bite.
Everyone did the same, except for Tooru. She took her cake plate in hand and readied her fork like the rest, but she already knew what it tasted like. She had other plans.
"I'll count it out," Shigure said. "On three, one...two.."
Everyone lifted their cake to their lips, Tooru instead looked at Hatori. They had all closed their eyes in the anticipation of that first bite, not even realizing they were doing it. She wanted to see it.
"Three!" Shigure said and popped the cake morsel into his mouth.
"Oh!" Mine said, covering her mouth politely with a hand as she spoke around the cake in her mouth, eyes popping open. "Oh my!"
"Mm!" Ayame agreed, then swallowed the bite of cake. "Exactly!"
"It is chocolate!" Shigure crowed. "But with a zing!"
Tooru was enchanted. Hatori hadn't said anything. He'd taken the bite without any exclamation, and not much change in expression except for a a slight furrowing of his brow. But he'd done a much more important thing, something that was much more impressive.
He took a second bite.
"So, what is this?" Shigure said, licking at his fingers. His cake slice was already gone.
"Mexican Molten Lava Cake..." Tooru said. "Only, because I knew it was going to be chilled overnight, I didn't do the molten part. Usually there is a warm, liquid, spicy chocolate center. And I changed the frosting, usually it has a hard bitter chocolate shell. And I changed the batter a little, because the frosting was going to be sweeter..." She peeked, Hatori's slice was almost half gone. She'd never seen him eat anything so fast.
"So truly, this is your own invention," Hatori said, and took another bite. Tooru blushed, looking away. She couldn't meet those eyes when they were so needle sharp green and full of curiosity. Her heart thudded uncomfortably at the short connection they'd already had.
"Something new!" Shigure nodded and pouted when Hatori stepped lightly the back of his hand when he reached for Tooru's unguarded cake. He drew the hand back, looking tragic and Hatori reclaimed his slouch against the wall.
"Mmm, mmm," Ayame said around a mouthful of cake. He took a quick swig of milk, "It's more like: "inspired by" Mexican Molten Lava Cake."
"It should have its own name then," Mine said, lifting the remaining half of her cake up to eye level as if she'd find a label on it.
"Yes!" Ayame said. "A thing birthed into the world should have a name as unique as it is. It's natal day for this wonderful confection, it should have a name! What should we name it? A name! A moniker, a title! What should we name it?"
"Tooru-kun invented it," Hatori reminded, his fork only stilling to point at Ayame. "Shouldn't she name it?"
"Oh," Tooru wagged a hand in the air. "Oh no. I'm no good at that type of thing. Maybe Shigure-san should?"
"Me?" Shigure seemed surprised.
"Shigure-san is always inventing names and places in his books," Tooru explained. She slid her slice of cake over to him when she saw him eyeing it.
Shigure hummed as he eagerly took her plate with a triumphant sneer at Hatori. "Didn't you make it for Ha-san? Maybe he should name it."
"For..." Hatori paused, taken completely off guard, "me?" He glanced at Tooru. She went bright scarlet red as their eyes met, and for a moment neither could look away.
Tooru would have sworn that his eyes went dragon-bright had anyone asked her. And anything she might have said went completely out her ear before she could even form the thought. Hatori couldn't even codify his thoughts, they were too scattered. The remains of the spicy chocolate flavor seemed to grow to fill his whole mouth and move through his nose, making him blink. At least that's what he assumed was bringing a hint of moisture to his eyes.
"Well, it's spicy," Shigure said after he'd started in on the slice. "She only makes spicy things for you."
"I-I wanted to make something everyone would enjoy," Tooru said, dropping her eyes and wondering why she was protesting. She had made the cake with Hatori in mind. But the thought of letting him know that was just so embarrassing for some reason.
"A-and I know Hatori-san doesn't like sweets very much...but I made the frosting sweeter for Ayame-san and Shigure-san. But I did think of Hatori-san when I discovered the molten cake... because it was spicy..." She twisted her fingers together. "B-b-but..."
"Thank you," Hatori interrupted, and his deep, smooth voice cut through her babbling and popping her eyes back to him. "I do like it." He broke eye contact almost immediately, leaving her breathless, and turned to Shigure. "But I'm no good at making up things. That has always been up to you creative types."
"Oh yes!" Ayame slapped the floor. "We should call it the Princess's Spicy Hot Choco Luv-Luv Romance!"
"No," Hatori said, his flat monotone hiding his horror. He would never be able to eat it again if it was called that.
"No, my love," Shigure said to Ayame. "Nothing so blatant." He finished off the last of Tooru's slice. "This..." he said dragging the fork once more through his lips to lick off every last morsel, "is a subtle cake. A cake of hidden qualities and deep, secret, meanings. A cake of mystery."
"The Princess's Dark Mystery Cake," Mine said. "Oooh, that's romantic."
"Decadent!" Shigure corrected. "The Princess's Decadent Mystery Cake."
"You've got it, Gure!" Ayame crowed. "You've got it! That's it exactly!"
"It is decadent," Mine agreed. "So rich."
"That's too grand a name!" Tooru protested. "It's just a chocolate spice cake."
"That's too plain a name," Hatori said. "I don't know if I agree with Decadent Mystery Cake-"
"The Princess's Decadent Mystery Cake!" Shigure corrected.
Hatori sighed and rolled an eye heavenward, continuing as if the dog hadn't spoken. "But it would give people an idea that it's not your normal cake. Something different." He lifted a long finger to clarify, "That is, something special."
"Hatori-san thinks it's special?" Tooru asked softly, tucking into herself.
"Perhaps you'd understand if you ate a slice of it yourself," Hatori said, giving Shigure a glare. The dog was practically licking Tooru's plate to get the last crumbs. "Instead of indulging Shigure's bottomless stomach."
"I'll get a piece," Tooru said and started to shift.
Hatori held up a long fingered hand. "I'm up, I'll get it."
Tooru looked nervously at the others in the room. They all seemed to be peeking at her, but perhaps she was just being paranoid. She was probably being paranoid. Oh, her heart was going a mile a minute! She couldn't think at all. The cake had been such a success!
Ayame meanwhile was attaching each camera to the little square portable printer Mine had brought in, printing off a selection of pictures. He was careful to finish quickly with Tooru's little pink camera. Shigure slid out of his spot to look at the pictures kept adding to the stack.
Hatori returned with two fresh slices of cake, a replacement on his plate and one for Tooru to sample. He sat next to Tooru and handed her the plate. He'd found one with green vines all over it in a lacy pattern, spotted with little white blooms and budding strawberries. "This looked like it should be your plate."
Tooru swallowed around a thick tongue. "Thank you," she whispered. She looked up and saw she was being watched by everyone. Her fading blush ramped back up to berry brightness and she ducked her head. She took her form and broke off a small piece. "I'd only tried the batter and the frosting," she babbled. "I didn't want to try a slice because it would ruin the cake. I'm glad everyone liked it."
"Eat your cake," Hatori had already started his second slice.
Tooru watched him eat for a moment. He'd gone back for seconds! Seconds on a dessert!
Hatori reached over and tapped the edge of her plate with a long finger. "Eat."
"Yes," Tooru mumbled, and broke off a bite. The chocolate was the first flavor that hit her, rich and almost bitter. Then the spice as the flavor from chilies and peppers burst against her tongue. Just before it became uncomfortably bitter and hot, the cream from the frosting kicked in and sweetened it to mellowness. "Oh."
"You see," Shigure said. "Decadent!"
It would never be her favorite cake. She was more fond of vanilla's sweetness, but this was just so exotic. She looked up at Hatori. "It's good!"
A little rumble tickled her ears. Was that a laugh, a chuckle? "You sound surprised," Hatori's lips quirked.
"Well, no," Tooru quickly corrected. "Not surprised. I tasted the batter, and liked that. And the frosting. But, I didn't realize they'd go together quite so well." She smiled.
Hatori ate another bite. "Will this be on our lesson plan, Sensei?"
"Ah, well," Tooru looked at her cake, considering. "Baking is different from cooking. Maybe later on?"
"Mmmm," Hatori hummed, and she looked up to see him finishing another bite. "Too high above my level?"
"Hatori-san has only had one lesson," Tooru reminded. "Cooking is more forgiving then baking is. A simple mistake can be disastrous."
"Disaster? Baking must be more dangerous then I thought," Hatori mused, looking down at her out of the corner of his eye.
Tooru was about to respond when a bright flash distracted her. She looked over to see Ayame and Shigure grinning, with Ayame wielding her camera.
"Two-shot!" Shigure grinned.
"Oh! That looks like a good one," Mine said peering over Ayame's shoulder. "Print it out! Print it out!"
"Ayame-san can print out the picture right after it's taken?" Tooru blinked. "Really?"
"Yosh!" Ayame said, already fumbling with a little black cable. "It's plugged it in like this..."
"Or you can take the memory card out and put it in here," Mine said, pointing to a little slot on the front of the box.
"Then you select the picture," Ayame said thumb pressing at the selection wheel on the back.
"If you use a card, a preview will show up here." Mine pointed to a little screen on the printer.
"Then print!" Mine and Ayame said together, as Ayame pressed the button on the camera.
The little box whirred to life, slightly rocking back and forth as it worked. In minutes it spit out a photograph.
"Ah!" Tooru gasped. "How amazing!"
"Want to see?" Mine handed over the photo.
Tooru set aside her half eaten cake to examine the picture. She ran her fingers over it. "It's just like one from the shop!" It was glossy and vibrant, and if she didn't know that it came off a printer she never would have guessed.
"It is a good picture," Shigure said, tugging it down so he could see it too. "Good job, Aya!"
Tooru focused more on the subject then how it was made. Hatori was peeking at her from the corner of his eye, lips quirked and angular body relaxed. She was beside him in the picture, but her eyes traced over his form again. Boneless, at ease, pleased - oh, this was her favorite Hatori! She felt her smile stretch across her face and she felt a deep bubble of happiness growing in her stomach. She wanted to see this Hatori more often! This was the reason she'd tried so hard on the cake, and wanted to make him laugh and tease him. Because she wanted him to be like this, free of his worries and relaxed, even if just for a few moments.
"Mmm, it's not bad," Hatori said. "Will you add it to your scrapbook? I noticed you don't have many of yourself in there."
"I don't have any of Hatori-san either," Tooru said.
"So it's a valuable two-shot," Shigure said.
"But this is Ayame-san's," Tooru said and started to hand it back to him.
"Mmm, mmm," Ayame waved her back. "I can print another. I want a copy of Tori and the Princess for myself." He'd already brought the printer back to life.
"That is the strength of digital!" Mine said. "If you take a lot of pictures you should get one for yourself, most regular printers will work with memory cards... you don't need a fancy portable one like this."
"Oh!" Shigure snapped his fingers. "I think my printer has a card slot." He turned to Tooru. "You can use mine."
"Really?" Tooru said, clutching the picture to her chest. "Thank you! Oh, I'll be sure to buy the printer cartridges!"
"Tooru-chan doesn't have to do that..." Shigure protested. She started to frown. "We'll discuss it when we see how much ink you end up using," he said to stave off a fight.
"Okay," Tooru said reluctantly.
"Quit bullying Shigure and finish your cake," Hatori said, his cake almost gone.
"I'm not bullying Shigure-san!" Tooru said incensed. Then her face cleared. "Hatori-san is teasing me again?"
"Am I? It seems you are always scolding Shigure," Hatori leaned back on a hand, setting his now empty plate aside. "Not that he doesn't deserve it."
"Scolding isn't the same as bullying," Tooru protested. "I don't bully Shigure-san, do I?" She looked a Shigure.
"It's just Tooru-kun's way of saying she cares," Shigure waved a hand back and forth. "I don't mind it."
"You're supposed to mind scolding," Tooru protested.
"Ah, Gure, you're being scolded again!" Ayame pointed at Shigure. "Bad dog!"
"Tooru-chan is so harsh!" Mine said, putting her hand to her cheeks in amazement. "So stern!"
"No, I'm not!" Tooru argued. "Shigure-san tell them!"
"She's a tough sensei as well," Hatori said. "She gave out homework before I even had a class. She's instructed for me to cook for you all next week too."
"A test already!" Shigure shook his head in sympathy, "So tough! She's such a taskmaster!"
"No, I'm not!" Tooru shook her head furiously, setting her hair flying with her vehemence. "It's an easy meal!" She looked up at Hatori with reproach. "And Hatori-san said he was going to order from the kitchens."
"Are you really satisfied with that?" Hatori asked, quirking his head to the side. "I thought for sure you'd try to convince me to do otherwise on Tuesday."
Tooru's mouth shut with a snap. She'd been planning to do exactly that!
"Aaah! The Princess was caught!" Ayame crowed. "Caught, caught!"
They're all teasing me! Tooru realized, ready to give up. Then she blinked... had Hatori really left himself open like that?
Hatori tensed when Tooru suddenly cast him a very adult and devious look. That was not something he expected from her!
"Does that mean," Tooru said slowly, moving a little closer to Hatori, "that Hatori-san does agree to cook for everyone next week?" She peered up into his face, eyes darting as if to catch him in a lie.
"What? That's not what I said," Hatori raised an eyebrow.
"That's not what it sounded like, Ha-san," Shigure sounded offended. He turned to Ayame, "Right, Aya?"
"So! So!" Ayame slapped the floor. "Tori said he was instructed to cook for us. And now he's not going to mind his sensei?"
"Scold him, Tooru-chan!" Mine commanded. "Scold him!"
"What shall be the punishment?" Shigure mused. "Extra lessons?"
"More homework?" Ayame guessed.
"There is no need for punishment if I comply, is there?" Hatori said, shifting uncomfortably. Tooru would at least make his preparing food for everyone pleasant. Who knows what might come out of a punishment game with Ayame and Shigure behind it.
"Hatori-san will? Really?" Tooru asked. "Then next week I'll show Hatori-san how to prepare the meal!" She steepled her fingers, "But we'll have to make something else to eat... otherwise we would be eating it twice in one week. So we will learned baked pasta... and baked chicken!" That was simple enough.
"So I'm getting double lessons even though I'm being obedient?" Hatori said with a frown. "That hardly seems fair."
"Better not protest too much, Ha-san," Shigure warned. "Or it will be triple lessons, and you'll have to make dessert too."
"Oh, I know a lot of easy dessert recipes!" Tooru said enthusiastically.
Hatori put one hand to his forehead in defeat, and the other up in protest. "I think we've got enough planned already."
"You'll be meeting at my house this week?" Shigure asked. "So I'll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labors."
"Yes," Tooru said before Hatori could protest. "It should be fun!" But she found herself rattled. She'd forgotten that Shigure would be there. It wouldn't be the same as the last lesson when she and Hatori had been on their own. "Will Hatori-san meet me at the house, or would you prefer to meet at school so we can go shopping for the ingredients?" Then they could spend some time alone...
"After what happened last week, I think it's better that we meet at Shigure's, just in case I am delayed again." Hatori frowned. He still thought she should get a cell phone, then it would be easier to make plans. "And if you give me a list, I can have the maids purchase what we need and bring it with me."
"Oh, well, that's okay." Tooru looked down and fiddled with her fingers. "Shigure-san and I will pick up the ingredients... Since everyone is going to eat it, Hatori-san shouldn't be the one to buy it." She was a little disappointed, but also a little relieved. Being alone with Hatori was both stressful and fun, and she hadn't figured out which emotion weighed heavier. But she'd really enjoyed their discussion as they'd walked to the market last week. It would be disappointing not to have the same opportunity at the next lesson.
Talk of next week wrapped up the evening. Ayame and Shigure asked Hatori what the theme of next week would be, and he'd pointed to Tooru with an "ask her" quirk of an eyebrow. Tooru was now a firm member of the group it seemed.
"Will Mine-san be coming next week?" Tooru asked after she, Shigure and Hatori had straightened themselves out enough to leave for the night. Shigure was politely buzzed but Hatori's half glass of wine had long been out of his system. Tooru's cake was completely devoured, so she only had the cake plate and her scrapbook (and new camera!) to bring home.
"Oh, no," Mine waved a hand. "We can't close the shop two weekends in a row. This is Boss' time with his precious friends and the Princess, so I'll be minding the store."
That was understandable, but Tooru would miss the other woman's presence. "But we'll see Mine-san the next time we meet here?"
"Oh yes!" The woman clapped. "Boss and I will begin planning tomorrow! We'll present an even more extravagant garden of delights next time!"
"You don't have to do that," Hatori said with mild horror.
"But we want too!" Ayame insisted. "Where else would the fun be if we didn't strive towards new and glorious experiences?"
"Worry about it later, Ha-san," Shigure groused. "I'm tired." He rubbed an overfull stomach.
"Shigure-san," Tooru scolded. "It's not Hatori-san's fault that you ate and drank too much."
Shigure grumbled and started down the steps without answering.
"I guess it's true what they say about dogs," Hatori said in a conspirator's whisper as he led Tooru down the stairs.
"What's that," Tooru asked looking up at him. She felt a little warm zing meeting Hatori's eyes so closely again. She was starting to really like stairs.
"If given the opportunity, they will eat themselves sick every time."
"That's mean, Hatori-san," Tooru gasped, but had to hid a smile behind a hand.
"But not untrue," he pointed out.
"What isn't?" Shigure asked irritably as he pushed his way out of the store.
"Oh, nothing," Tooru said quickly, sharing a glance with Hatori.
"No fair," Shigure whined. "Ha-san and my little flower are keeping secrets from me." But the dog shared a secret glance of his own with Ayame as he locked the shop door behind them.
Tooru puttered around the kitchen, wondering what to make for dinner. Shigure was out right now, some sort of meeting about the publishing of his next book, but he said he'd be home in time for dinner. Kyou wouldn't be, he was teaching tonight. Yuki was out, as usual. Shigure would eat anything, so the choice was hers.
She was in the mood for something homey, and filling. Maybe a donburi? She was in the mood for something with a lot of rice, and a rice bowl dish seemed to fit the bill exactly. Shigure had been so overfull on Sunday after their night out that she'd made light salads for breakfast, and a simple soup for lunch. Dinner had been restrained as well. Yesterday she'd worked, so she'd made a stew. Nothing complex for tonight either, something comforting and simple. She decided on oyakodon, eggs and chicken over rice. She double-checked to see if she had all the ingredients, and then put some tea on. It was such a quick meal she should wait until Shigure was home to start it.
"Yuki-kun!" Tooru blurted, surprised to see him sitting at the table.
He blinked at her and gave a halfhearted smile. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," he said. "I did call out when I got home, but I must not have been loud enough." He turned his head and tried to bite back a yawn. "I'm sorry."
"No, no," Tooru waved a hand. "I just didn't expect to see you home... Wasn't there an announcement that there was a special council meeting? I just assumed..."
"We adjourned early," Yuki yawned again then scowled. "Manabe didn't show up."
"Yuki-kun looks tired," Tooru's voice was worried. She gestured over her shoulder at the kitchen. "I just started the water boiling. Would you like some tea?"
"Yes, please," Yuki said gratefully.
By the time Tooru got back to with the tea, just a few minutes later, Yuki had his head down on the table and was sleeping. She put the tea in reach and went to get a blanket. She'd thought he was wearing himself out. On their walks home he'd been so tired that he hadn't been able to keep up a conversation, too easily distracted to follow a thought. He'd even been too tired to keep up his half of their Friday afternoon lunch conversations, just mechanically eating his ramen. And she knew he was staying up even later to get his homework done, a couple of times she'd woken to hear him fumbling in the bathroom in the dead of night. He was looking so worn that she was afraid he was going to fall sick.
She covered him with the blanket and decided to let him sleep. If she thought he would listen, she would have woken him up to take a nap in his own bed. But she knew if she woke him he'd only insist on doing chores or starting on his homework. No one would disturb him here, Kyou was at his lessons, and Shigure gone for a while yet. She doubted Yuki would sleep through dinner, so he had some time to sleep yet.
She pulled out her homework. She'd been doing a lot better since the adjustment to her schedule. Even with Hatori's cooking lessons, and now her new "traditions" with Kyou and the older Soumas on Saturday, she had so much more time to really think about her work.
She lost herself in her assignments, concentrating as Yuki had taught her on really reading and understanding each sentence. It had taken him a bit to find the words to explain it, but before she'd just memorized the pages without really caring or thinking about the concepts behind it that she was learning. Now that she looked at it this way it was so much easier to grasp and remember.
She glanced up at Yuki, sound asleep on the other side of the table. He still managed to look vaguely worried. She bit her lip...he'd hate to hear it but... he looked so cute. She glanced at her bag, the digital camera Ayame had gifted her sat temptingly beside her earth sciences book.
She'd brought it to school to show Hana and Uo, and had found so many opportunities for photos that she had taken to bringing it with her everywhere. She'd even chased her co-workers around with it last night, sneaking up to get candids of her work life. The ladies hadn't been terribly happy with her. They didn't like photos of themselves in their unflattering work uniforms. They'd agreed to taking a posed photo after they'd changed for the night.
(Not that Tooru had erased the others, but she didn't think they needed to know that.)
Quite frankly, she was finding the camera addicting. Shigure had politely forbidden her to sneak up and take any more candids while he was working. And she thought she might have embarrassed Kyou by taking pictures of his early morning training. She'd never seen him go quite that red before, and he'd been too flustered to even yell at her. But she hadn't had hardly any opportunities to take photos of Yuki.
She'd tried yesterday to get a picture of him as he waited for her at work, but he'd looked so tired and worn that she couldn't make herself take the picture. He still looked exhausted, but while sleeping, his forehead still scrunched up, his lips softly parted, and his hair falling around him he also looked just too cute. She couldn't resist.
She quietly pulled out her camera, practically holding her breath while she tapped the on button. She winced when it made it's cheery computer chime and the soft whir of the lens extending as it woke up. She watched for any sign of Yuki awakening, finally taking a breath when he didn't move.
She snapped a quick picture from her seat, wincing again when the camera made it's false shutter noise. She wondered if there was a way to turn that noise off? It had given her away too often already. She glanced around, then shifted so that she had a better angle to take another picture. She snapped one, and then another worried that it hadn't been focused properly. She shifted the camera to cant it at an angle and then zoomed in. She wanted to focus in on the little wrinkle on his forehead and the soft fall of light gray hair that framed his pretty violet eyes.
She gasped, and started her finger depressing the camera button again. Yuki's eyes were open! He was awake!
"I'm sorry!" Tooru started to babble. "I didn't mean to wake you! It was just that Yuki-kun is hardly home and I never get to take pictures of him and he looked so-" She cut herself off from saying cute, he hated that. "-handsome... and he was so still and-"
"It's fine," Yuki said with a soft blush. Handsome? "I was just startled." He smoothed hair out of his eyes and gave a self-depreciating chuckle. "I don't know why Honda-san would want a picture of me..."
"For my scrapbook," Tooru said, though she hadn't actually thought about what she would do with the pictures when she'd taken them. She'd just wanted to capture Yuki-kun in such a rare unguarded moment.
"Ah, Honda-san's hobby," Yuki nodded as if he'd forgotten. "I remember now." He yawned again and then started. "What time is it?" He asked looking around for the clock and started to rise."Did I sleep long?"
"Only for a short while," Tooru said. "Yuki-kun seems really tired. Maybe you should go upstairs and nap before dinner?"
"I have homework," Yuki said, shaking his head. "And chores, I haven't vacuumed the upstairs hall yet, or seen to the weeding, or..." He looked at his watch and frowned. "It's already six!"
"The chores can wait," Tooru said standing. "I'll make dinner now, so why doesn't Yuki-kun start on his homework? I'm working on my history paper too, maybe we can go over it after dinner."
"History paper?" Yuki's eyes widened. "Is that due tomorrow?"
"Yuki-kun has started it hasn't he?" Tooru asked in alarm. Had he forgotten?
"I have my research," he said fumbling for his bag. "But I only have notes so far-"
"Yuki-kun better work on that first," Tooru said. "The math homework was easy tonight, so he should be able to do it tomorrow morning before class."
Yuki shook his head. "We rescheduled today's council meeting for tomorrow morning, at least to go over some of the main points we missed talking about today." He ran a hand through his hair, brushing it out of his eyes. "Perhaps I can do it on lunch..."
"If Yuki-kun starts on his history paper now, maybe he can finish both," Tooru suggested.
"But I still have to vacuum," Yuki protested. "And if Honda-san is cooking, there will be the dishes to do..." he stood. "I'll vacuum first... I'll work through dinner, and then do the dishes..."
Yuki looked up at her in surprise. "No?"
"Skip the vacuuming," Tooru said. "It doesn't need to be done tonight. I'll take care of the dishes for one night. So work on your homework now, and then take a break for dinner. Yuki-kun and I can work on our history papers together afterward, and then math." She ticked off her fingers. "I think Yuki-kun should try to get to bed early tonight, so anything that isn't done he can finish tomorrow."
"But-" Yuki started to protest.
"No buts," Tooru said firmly. "Yuki-kun will make himself ill if he doesn't slow down." At his stricken look she sat back down and covered his hand with hers. "Yuki-kun felt the same way about me when I was trying to do to much, and he helped me a lot. Let me do the same."
Yuki blushed and ducked his head. "Mmn, OK. I'll get started then."
Tooru nodded, and stood. She looked at the clock. Shigure wouldn't be home for a while longer, but the chicken and rice would keep. It would be better to get Yuki fed and started working.
"I'll go make dinner."
Tooru made Yuki take his work off the table when she was finished cooking. As much as she understood his need to get everything done, she knew he also needed a break just as badly. She set the table and served Yuki a heaping bowl of steaming chicken smothered in eggy sauce.
"Thank you," Yuki said.
Tooru bit her lip and stirred her dish, waiting for it to cool enough for consumption. She peeked up at Yuki, who was doing the same. She'd been thinking a lot since her conversation with Kyou last weekend. She'd been regretting the distance that seemed to be growing between her and the boys. But after talking to Kyou she realized she was more to blame for the distance and loneliness she'd been feeling then anyone else.
She'd been keeping secrets first. She'd been disappointed when Yuki had made plans to visit Ayame with his student council friends without inviting her, but it wasn't as if she'd ever expressed an interest in his new friends either. When they spoke it was usually about her, how her homework was doing, how she was doing at her job, how her lessons with Hatori went. When had she ever expressed the same interest in Yuki's life? No wonder he was leaving her out, she never expressed a desire to be involved. And now he was wearing himself away, and she was afraid she wasn't close enough to him anymore to be able to intervene.
She'd wondered how to bring it up, thinking of at least a half dozen ways to be subtle about it. Finally she dismissed them all. She was in this situation because she hadn't been straightforward with Yuki and Kyou. That was really the only way out. She'd tried a couple of times to casually bring it up in their walks home, but he'd been so tired and distracted it hadn't worked. She had to take this opportunity, while they were alone and relatively relaxed. But still, it was hard to get the ball rolling. She gave a little yawn and started on her food, trying to find the words.
"You must be tired," Yuki said, "after coming home so late."
"Oh, no..." Tooru said quickly, "Not really. I had a very relaxing Sunday, so I was ready for work last night. Yuki-kun must be the tired one, he's been working so hard with the student council. It seems like there are meetings almost every day."
"It has been busy," Yuki said shortly, eating some of rice.
"What have you been busy with?" Tooru asked before he could change the subject. Yuki's eyebrows flew up as he glanced at her his mouth still full. Tooru squared her shoulders and faced him. "Yuki-kun went to Ayame-san's the Sunday before last, didn't he? You went with some of the people from student council, didn't you? Was that council related or just for fun?"
The questions came out in a rush and not at all casual like she'd wanted them to. She took a quick mouthful of chicken, staring into her bowl while she waited for an answer. When the silence stretched on she finally peeked at him. He was staring at her with a stricken look.
"How did-?" He finally managed. Tooru's heart dipped. She'd wondered if he'd just forgotten to mention it, or if he'd been hiding it. Apparently he hadn't wanted her to know.
"Just before, on that Saturday, Ayame-san was over to bring materials to Shigure-san," Tooru reminded him. "He mentioned it because he thought I might be coming..." She wished she could put it another way, it made it sound like she was upset that she hadn't been invited. She had been a little hurt, but only because he kept it a secret.
Yuki looked into his bowl, chopsticks sagging. "A-ah..." He put them down.
Silence stretched uncomfortably between them.
She felt a funny ping in her heart. Oh! These are Yuki's first friends! His first friends besides her! Had he been scared to tell her?
"I'm glad," Tooru said, finally breaking the silence. "It seems like Yuki-kun has found some good friends on the council."
Yuki blinked, and she could see his thoughts churning in his expressive eyes. Was he coming to realize...?
"I would have invited you," he said quickly. "But-"
"Yuki-kun," Tooru interrupted. "I don't invite you every time I go out with Hana-chan and Uo-chan."
"Yes, but-" Yuki started.
"And I don't know any of the people on the student council," Tooru interrupted again, sensing the apology to come. "And with Ayame-san, it might have been dangerous."
"You know how he is," Yuki said, shaking his head and his shoulders starting to relax. "He would have said something about you living here."
"And that would be awful," Tooru agreed, it would mean she couldn't live there any more.
"Then Honda-san isn't hurt that I didn't invite her?" Yuki asked. "I thought she might be," he paused and brushed his hair out of his eyes again, while searching for the right word,"offended."
She gave him a gentle look, "I know Yuki-kun is my friend. And I am Yuki's friend. And I'm happy, truly, that Yuki-kun is gaining lots more friends! Even if you have more friends beside me, it doesn't mean you and I won't be. Right?"
"Yes?" Yuki didn't sound too sure.
"It did hurt, a little, only a little!" she hastened to add when he started to look distressed, "That Yuki-kun kept it secret." She looked down at her meal and stirred her chicken around in the rice, "I thought Yuki-kun would understood that I only want to see him happy."
"I do," Yuki said, "but... I thought that Honda-san might feel left out."
"I did!" Tooru said, "Because Yuki-kun had a whole part of his life that he wasn't sharing with me; that he had to hide from me... It's tiring, isn't it?"
"Yes," Yuki said with feeling.
"Is that why Yuki-kun has been so quiet these couple of weeks?" Tooru asked. She'd attributed it to being exhausted, which he obviously was. But she also knew how hard it could be to keep secrets straight.
Yuki looked away. "I didn't know what to do," he said. "And then Honda-san seemed so busy with her scrapbook and cooking lessons..." he shrugged. "So it seemed that it would be nothing but trouble to try to explain it."
How lonely! Tooru thought. Yuki must have felt so alone and under pressure. Tooru smiled, she knew just what that was like.
"Let's catch up and promise never to keep secrets again. I already promised Yuki-kun, when he and the others started helping me with the chores, and I feel so much better now." Tooru clapped her hands. "So much better!"
She poured them both a little more tea. "I was having a lot of fun with my new hobby and with Hatori-san's lessons, but that was all because Yuki-kun and the others tried so hard to help me get more free time. Because of that, I'm never too busy to hear about Yuki-kun's life. I want to know all about it! Why doesn't Yuki-kun tell me about his friends on the council?" Tooru suggested, starting to eat again. "You mention Manabe-san a lot. Are you very good friends?"
"I don't know if I'd call him a friend," Yuki said. "He's such a trouble! I swear half our meetings are just because he promised something ridiculous!"
Yuki grew more animated as the meal progressed, complaining in turn about each of the council members, Nao, Kimi, Manabe. She noticed he tended to gloss over the other girl on the council, Machi. Either she didn't attract his notice at all or he was deliberately avoiding talking about her. Tooru decided to not touch on that for now, if there was something to tell, she trusted he would when the time was right. He might not even realize he was doing it.
"It sounds like Manabe-san can be a trouble maker, but he also makes things happen," Tooru served Yuki a second helping. "I wouldn't have thought that the student council even could get permission for extended school trips."
"Neither did I," Yuki admitted. "But once we made a case for the extension being educational... It is a pretty rare opportunity to get to tour a factory like that, or speak to a working tradesman in such a classic field of work... Well, the PTA and Teacher's advisory committee were surprisingly flexible."
"I'm sure it took a lot of convincing and research," Tooru smiled. Yuki always down played his accomplishments. "Manabe-san makes wild promises, but it's Yuki-kun who makes them possible." She sat back. "You are a good team."
"You didn't wait for me?"
Tooru and Yuki jumped and turned towards the doorway.
"Shigure-san!" Tooru gasped. She looked at the clock. "You're late."
"Not that late," Shigure pouted, loosening his tie. "I thought you were going to hold dinner until I got home." He started to shuck his suit jacket.
"Yuki-kun needed to eat right away," Tooru said, standing and taking his jacket and folding it over an arm before he could crumple it too badly. "He has a lot of homework to finish, and he needs to go to bed early."
"I need to do my chores too," Yuki said looking at his watch. He started to gather his plates together. "I don't know how early I'll be able to go to bed..."
"Yuki-kun didn't finish!" Tooru turned on her heel. "You have plenty of time. Eat properly and then start your homework. I already told Yuki-kun that his chores can wait."
"But-" Yuki froze in the act of placing his cup on his plate.
"And Yuki-kun will go to bed early," Tooru declared. "You look exhausted, and you'll get sick if you don't rest! Then where will you be?"
"But-" Yuki tried to start again.
"No buts! Finish your meal," Tooru reminded, jutting her chin up and turning to stomp into Shigure's study to hang his coat. "Shigure-san," she said as she trotted back out of his study, "I'll heat up your dinner. I set yours aside for you. Get comfortable and then I'll bring it out."
"Yes, my little flower," Shigure grinned. And she said she wasn't a bully. "Whatever you say. But don't forget to finish your dinner either."
"I won't," Tooru smiled as she watched him disappear into his study. Once he slid the door shut, she turned back to Yuki. "Yuki-kun, and the others, made me see that it's important to slow down and focus on the important things. I want to help Yuki-kun now that he needs it. You don't have to do everything alone, even your student council work. You represent the whole student body, and we all want to help support you. Will you let me help if there is something I can do?"
"But Honda-san has so much work of her own," Yuki protested. "I can't ask you to do even more..."
"You aren't asking," Tooru pointed out, "I'm offering. And I'm not nearly so busy now. My scrapbook is practically done, and I'm ahead on all of my homework. Everyone is doing so well on the chores, that I don't have much to do at home now." She grinned. "I want make lots of scrapbooks, full of happy and fun memories. But I need to make more memories for that to happen. Helping out with things at school would be a great help."
"Well, if Honda-san really wants too..." Yuki started hesitantly. "We do have to make signs for the next sports day, for each of the classes to fill out with their participants. Manabe added three events, and now it's too late to have them printed somewhere, so we have to make them by hand."
"Just tell me where to be," Tooru said with a wide grin. "I'll be happy to help! The more people, the faster it would go. Don't you think?"
Yuki gave a shy, smile, "It will be nice to introduce you to... my... er... other... friends." He looked away, "I did mention you sometimes to them. They, uh," he stumbled, his cheeks heating and his ears turning pink, "they know we're friends."
Tooru gave a little wiggle in place. He really hadn't wanted to leave her behind! "I'm glad we're friends," she confessed. "I felt like I was losing you... but we'll be more careful now, won't we?"
"Yes," Yuki promised, as he started to finish up his meal. "I'm glad to know Honda-san is still my friend, even though I've been so distant. And I'm glad you said something."
"Me too!" Tooru said with feeling. "I don't want to lose any of my precious friends."
She exited to the kitchen and started to put together Shigure's dinner. Everything was coming together! She'd made peace with Kyou last week, and now Yuki! She felt like a load had been lifted. Shigure's house was feeling like a home again!
And even better, last Saturday she'd felt like she'd come closer to being equals with Shigure, Ayame and Hatori. They'd truly welcomed her into their circle, and she looked forward to next weekend when they would all meet at Hatori's.
She gave a rueful smile. But she was going to miss going to Hatori's to cook this week. She was really beginning to appreciate one-on-one time with her friends. So much could be learned when you could focus on just one person. And there was so much she wanted to know about Hatori.
She wanted to know how many other colors his eyes could change. She wanted to know what other foods would set him to devouring plate after plate like her cake had. She wanted to know what else could get his lips to curl. She wanted to know what one of his "bad nights" were, and how she could stop them from happening. She wanted to know what he would look like if he was a little less slim. She wanted to see him swim.
She wanted to know him like she knew Yuki and Kyou. And she wanted him to consider her a friend, and not just some clumsy girl to look after. She thought that maybe, just maybe, she'd gotten a little closer at Ayame's to making him see that. She was determined to help him see that she could be someone to be leaned on. Maybe she should ask Shigure not to bother them on Tuesday. Would he think it rude? Would Hatori think it strange he wasn't around? She bit her lip. Was she thinking too much about it?
She returned to a waiting Shigure, placing his meal in front of him and sat back across from Yuki. He was almost finished.
"So what have you two been talking about?" Shigure said as he started in. "It's rare now to see the two of you alone."
Yuki started to frown and Tooru interrupted before Shigure could tease too much. "That's exactly what we talked about," she said. "Yuki-kun is going to let me help him with some of the student council projects."
"Honda-san is going to meet some of my other friends," Yuki said it almost as a challenge to Shigure.
"You can manage that around your cooking lessons?" Shigure asked Tooru, quirking an eyebrow.
"That's only one night a week," Tooru reminded. "And Hatori-san is coming here this week, so it probably won't go as long."
"Hatori is coming here?" Yuki asked.
"Mmhm," Tooru said finishing up some chicken that was just a bit chilled. "I'm going to teach him how to make baked pasta. And something else to eat that night, because he's going to be making baked pasta for Shigure-san and Ayame-san next Saturday, but I haven't decided what yet."
"So we won't have pasta on Thursday?" Yuki sounded disappointed. "You're going to cook two things?"
"Two easy things," Tooru reassured. "And there will probably be pasta that Yuki-kun could have when he gets home from his council meeting, if he'd like." She smiled. Baked pasta was one of Yuki's favorite, though he was fond of anything with cheese on it. "We are going to be making enough to freeze, and have some for Hatori-san to take home."
"I'll look forward to it," Yuki said and started to rise. "I'll just do the dishes-"
"Yuki-kun better leave them in the sink," Tooru said. "I'll do them while he works on his history project. Maybe we can go over our math homework together, after?" She still hated math, even if it did make more sense now. She was never certain she did it right and constantly second-guessed herself.
"Yes, all right," Yuki said and took his plates to the kitchen, and then exited upstairs with his homework.
"It seems like you've got everything in order," Shigure mused, digging into his meal. "You're so efficient!"
"I just want everyone to be comfortable," Tooru said. "And I still have to figure out what we are going to eat on Thursday, unless Shigure-san wants baked pasta two times this week."
Shigure wrinkled his nose. "I do like my flower's pasta, and I'm fond of Italian."
"But?" Tooru asked, hearing the word unspoken at the end of Shigure's sentence.
"But," Shigure acknowledged with the lean of his head, "I do appreciate variety."
"I'll come up with something else," Tooru assured him. "Does Shigure-san have any requests?"
"I'll leave it up to you," Shigure said. "Besides, I know you'll be trying to find something to Ha-san's taste rather then mine."
"It is his cooking lesson," Tooru reminded, feeling embarrassed and confused by the glint in Shigure's eye.
"Yes, of course," Shigure said. "It seems that Ha-san is taking up all of my pretty bride's time these days."
"That's hardly true," Tooru protested, even though she had thought she'd been spending a lot of time thinking about Hatori. "And I don't think Hatori-san's lesson will take as long this week, even with two meals." She couldn't possibly ask Shigure to leave them alone for the lesson now... she'd never hear the end of his teasing. "I'm going to go do the dishes, please bring in yours when you're finished."
She felt a little niggle of disappointment. Last week had gone so late because they'd been going through her scrapbook after dinner. She didn't think Hatori would be as leisurely with Shigure and the others around. Yuki's council meetings and Kyou's lessons didn't run that late, and she knew that Hatori would probably leave as soon as they came home. She started on the dishes with a slight pout, they might not get a chance to talk at all after their lesson. And since they weren't shopping before, she might not have much time with Hatori this week.
Plus, she'd never spoken to Hatori about attending one of Kyou's classes. Kyou wanted her to ask about how long these lessons were going to last for. She was kind of curious herself about what Hatori expected from them, but she was afraid to bring it up. She just knew that Hatori would use any excuse to wriggle out of them. Though she hoped he was having as much fun as she was with them, she constantly felt that he was humoring her. And she knew he felt that she was still doing too much. She bet that once his left overs from last week's lesson had run out, he'd gone right back to eating instant noodles. She still hadn't quite reached him, she needed to do something else. Something beyond just making sure he was fed. But what?
Tooru sighed. Shigure said she had everything managed, but she didn't feel that way at all. She finally sorted out things with Yuki, hopefully, but so many other things seemed to be up in the air.
"Put your dishes in the sink when you're done, Shigure-san," Tooru said absently as she crossed through the living room. "I'll do them after I've finished my math homework."
"Yes, my flower," Shigure answered, but she hardly heard him as she went upstairs.
She pulled out her work and laid it open on her desk. Her math homework was already done, she just had to review it before having Yuki look over it. She put her chin on her hands and stared into space. Yuki had taught her a lot about examining problems for school... could she put that to use with the situation with Hatori?
Her pencil scratched across the surface of her notebook.
1. Hatori-san doesn't eat well
2. Hatori-san doesn't sleep well
3. Hatori-san works too hard
She stopped. Problem number one was already being solved. Twice a week now she had a chance to see that he was eating well. She didn't know what Hatori's plans were for their lessons, but she wasn't going to declare them finished until she knew he could and would eat healthy.
So it was problem number two and three that needed fixing. She scratched out number one.
No, that's not it, Tooru realized. Yuki-kun always says to examine the root problem, not the branches. Not sleeping well and working too hard were just symptoms. The real problem was that Hatori didn't ever let himself relax! He was so tense, almost always. She'd only seen a couple of rare moments where he let his guard down enough to release the tension. But those times were so brief and far in between.
She crossed out two and three and penned a new sentence.
Hatori-san doesn't relax.
So what was the solution to that? What made Hatori relax?
1. Eating good food
She put a little check next to that. But what else? She thought for a moment, reviewing their conversations so far.
He had made swimming sound wonderfully relaxing! She frowned at the paper. But how was she going to make that happen? There was a pool at school, but it wasn't open after school activities were over. Plus, she didn't think she was allowed to bring non-students there. She tried to picture Hatori in the regulation school trunks. She wrinkled her nose. That was just weird.
There is more then one solution, more then one way to get to the answer,Yuki always said. So if she couldn't make swimming happen...what else? When had she seen him at his most relaxed?
Her fingers covered a guilty smile as a memory bubbled to the surface. Hatori leaning against a clear wall with seahorses twining through his hair. That relaxed him so much he'd fallen asleep in public!
She wrote, and then underlined it for emphasis. But how could she get him around seahorses again? Invite him back to the aquarium? She had enough money saved for plenty of time in the viewing room, and to pay for tickets. It would be really fun to go back. They'd only gotten to see half of it after all.
But she'd doubted she'd be able to get him to come, she thought with a frown. Last time had been a special circumstance. Momiji had already bought the tickets and Hatori had still been so worried about getting her to take her "day off." Plus the only way would be to skip one of their cooking lessons.
More then one solution, she thought. Think!
She tapped her pencil impatiently against the paper. There had to be a way! If she couldn't bring Hatori to the seahorses, how could she get him to relax?
If I can't bring Hatori-san to the seahorses... can I bring the seahorses to Hatori-san?
"Oh!" Tooru gasped. "Where is that?"
She turned to her book case and dug through it, quickly finding the slim book she was looking for. The book on aquariums she'd bought from the gift shop! She flipped it open to the table of contents and found the chapter she needed. She scanned the chapter on setting up a tank for salt water fish. Her brow wrinkled. It all looked so complicated.
She turned the page, and sighed. And expensive, she thought, running her finger down the list of items required to set up a tank. She read the next couple of pages. There were tips for setting up tanks for different varieties of fish, but seahorses weren't mentioned. "I'll have to do more research."
"You haven't completed your research for the history project yet?"
Tooru turned to her open doorway where Yuki stood looking horrified. "Oh no!" Tooru assured him, waving a hand. "My history paper is already done..." She stood and hid her notes behind her, unaccountably embarrassed. "This is just a, um, personal project. My, er, hobby." She tried to kill a little bubble of surprised giggles at the thought of labeling her fussing as a hobby. A Hatori hobby?
"Oh, a scrap-booking technique?" Yuki tilted his head to the side. "I know it may sound odd coming from me, but you should ask my brother." He brushed his bangs out of his eyes. "Sometimes it's best to ask an expert."
"An expert," Tooru repeated, brow crinkling as she tried to apply his advice to her true problem.
"A good expert can point you in the right direction a lot quicker than a lot of aimless research," Yuki explained.
A Hatori expert? Was there such a thing? She knew Ayame and Shigure might think they were experts, but she couldn't very well ask either of them. She'd never be able to understand their advice. Plus, she was certain she'd never hear the end of it. Tooru's brow cleared. There might not be a Hatori expert, but there were aquarium experts! "That's a great idea!"
"I'm glad I could help," Yuki said, with a faint smile. "I've finished my first draft of my paper. Didn't Honda-san want to go over our papers together, and the math homework?"
"Yuki-kun finished both already?" Tooru asked, brows raising.
"I haven't started the math homework," Yuki shook his head. "But I figured I could do that while Honda-san read my draft. I still need to re-write it."
"Okay," Tooru smiled. She knew Yuki's drafts. It would be practically perfect, but he'd re-write it at least three more times anyway, until it gleamed and shone. "Do you want to work in the living room? I'll get my stuff together and meet you down there."
Yuki nodded, "I'll get tea."
"There is water in the electric pot," Tooru called after his retreating form. "You just need to turn it on." She waited for him to disappear out of sight before scrambling back to her notes.
She quickly tore out the scribbles about Hatori's problem, folded them and tucked them into the aquarium book where they wouldn't likely to be seen. She flipped to the back and found the business card she'd tucked there. "An expert," she murmured. Perfect!
I'd wanted to finish this by Thanksgiving, but as usual, stuff got in the way. ^_^ I thought about holding on to this until Christmas, but that just seemed mean. By far this is the story that gets the most reviews, and the most requests for an "UPDATE PLZ!" Hanging on to one people have been waiting a year for, even for a couple of weeks, is just rude. So here it is, in it's unbeta'd glory. Good news is that I have been busy with happy things. My business is doing well and I have traveled all over with it. I'm almost finished with school. Did I mention I went back to school? I did. My main program is over at the end of January, so things have really ramped up! I have a few credit deficiencies to take care of after that, but that will be easier than being a full time student and a business owner (hopefully!) Also, I run an anime club in my hometown of Syracuse, NY. We put on a convention last September (Our biggest yet! We got over 700 people! Yay!) and I swear it's taken me this long to recover from it. Oof!