Disclaimer: "Ookami Kakushi" belongs to Ryukishi 07 and PeachPit. Also, as a second disclaimer, none of the song titles or song excerpts used in the chapter titles or chapters themselves are mine and belong to their respective owners. To those of you who may come across this story at the time of its completion, or even when it's just half-way there, if you are like me and have a habit of looking up the chapter titles, you could be spoiled. You have been warned.
And now, without further ado, our presentation. Happy new year.
A mixture of love and hatred raises the curtain of a new comedy.
-Akiko Shikata, "When the Seagulls Cry: Purgatory"
She had had better nights. This was not one of them. She smoothed out her blouse and put on her best smile. Tonight would be just another peaceful night at the Café Etranger, she would not lose control this time…
Even with the old laws eradicated and new, progressive laws in their place, she could not afford to lose it…she couldn't…she mustn't…
That boy with the strong mitsu was coming tonight. She could smell it from miles away. And he'd be bringing his friends along, too. One of those friends would be the Kushinada daughter. Hadn't those new laws been her ideas in the first place? But still…but still…
"Hey hey, Hiro-kun," Isuzu said, poking Hiroshi in the arm, the two of them taking a walk down the lit streets of Jougamachi, "what do you say we order a giant sundae and share it between the two of us, huh huh?"
"Suzu-chan," Kaname said, catching up with the two, "you must consider the rest of us. We'd all like a share of dessert, too."
"Yeah, and me, too," spoke up Hiroshi's younger sister, Mana, who rolled alongside the group.
"A sundae might be nice," Nemuru said, nodding. "But would sharing it be such a good idea?"
"Eh~, of course it would, Nemuru-ch~an," Isuzu chimed, skipping with each step. "It would bring us all closer together, right, Hi~ro-kun?"
"Ahahaha, right, Isuzu-chan," Hiroshi laughed nervously. But in spite of his embarrassment, he smiled as he looked around his group of friends. He hadn't expected to become so instantly popular with his classmates when he first moved to Jougamachi during the summer, nor did he expect to ever become friends with the one girl not enchanted by him, the one who informed him that his existence was annoying.
Of course, he also hadn't expected to learn about a new "species" of people called the "Kamibito" and why he was so desired by them for his honey-like scent, or to get caught up in not just a town war but also in a personal conflict between one of his friends and a man who…wasn't a friend. But that was one of the things he had come to learn and appreciate—that sometimes, life can be completely unexpected, and not all sudden curves and twists were bad. In the end, he had gained three, good friends out of it, and felt somewhat closer to his sister because of his trials, too.
Now, the five of them had made it to the Café Etranger. Nemuru opened the door and as her friends headed inside, she took a look around the café. Some of the Kamibito were mingling just fine with the "Ochibito"—or, "humans"—but there were others who looked a bit uncomfortable about having to sit with different people. It had been almost a month since the town war that nearly pulled everyone apart and while Nemuru was glad to see the residents of Jougamachi begin to move past it and become closer as though they were the same humans, she could tell that the changes wouldn't happen overnight.
She had hoped that the new, progressive laws she had instilled only a few weeks ago would dissolve some of the tension, but the system was still new. It would still be some time before she could see the effect it would have on other people.
Or so she thought.
In a corner booth sat Kaori Mana and Shunichirou Sakaki. She put on a bright smile as she looked over the items on the menu. He did not share the same smile, wishing instead that Kaori had taken him for another walk through the forest at this time of night. That way, he wouldn't have to be around so many…people.
Or at least, he wouldn't have to be around so many Kamibito.
Still, Kaori herself was a Kamibito…and the only one whom he could stand, so…
Sakaki shifted in his seat. He had been released from the detention centre last week after Kaori had paid bail. Part of him felt bad for making her go through all that trouble, but the alternative would've been to call his mother. This would break her heart. The possibility that she would eventually find out had lingered in his mind, but as far as he was concerned, it was better to put it off for as long as possible.
"Sakaki-san," Kaori spoke, "are you sure you're comfortable with dining here? You look a little uncomfortable."
Her voice was like a blanket draped across Sakaki's shoulders. "It's fine," he said, not taking his eyes off the menu.
"You're not acting like it," Kaori said. She paused. "Sakaki-san…could it be you just don't like having to eat in the same restaurant as other Kamibito? Is that it?"
Sakaki stiffened. "It might be."
He detected a hint of disappointment in Kaori's sigh.
"Sakaki-san, please look at me," Kaori said.
Sakaki put the menu down and looked Kaori in the eye. Her lips were drawn and her eyes were soft but firm. "Sakaki-san," Kaori said, "I thought you were going to try being more accepting. You said so yourself, remember?"
"Ah, right, right," Sakaki muttered. "I didn't say it would happen overnight. Speaking of breaking bad habits, it has officially been two weeks since my last cigarette."
"I'm glad to hear that," Kaori said, though her expression did not change. "If only you could put the same effort in your behaviour towards the Kamibito." She paused. "Earlier, when one of the waitresses greeted us at the door, you took a few steps away from her."
"So?" Sakaki shrugged. "Maybe I just like my distance."
"Or maybe you didn't know whether she was one of 'them' or not," Kaori said.
Sakaki sighed and leaned on the table. "What do you want from me?" he said. "You know I'm not going to…do what I did last month. I already learned my lesson from that. It'll just take some time before I'm completely comfortable with this."
Kaori sighed and opened her menu. "I just wish it would take you less time."
The young woman was nearly blinded by the wave of scents lingering in the air. So much honey…so much temptation…
"No, no, no," she muttered, wringing her hands together. "I mustn't…I mustn't…"
And then he came by.
He was surrounded by his three female friends—one of them was clinging to him tightly, another was telling tales about Jouga's folklore, and the third was the Kushinada daughter, who carried herself with a calm composure, though she smiled slightly.
"I can do this," she muttered. "I can make it through the night…as long as I stay away from that table…"
"Yue-san!" her manager called out. "You're needed at Table 12!"
"Yes, yes!" she chirped. She walked briskly, trying to ignore the tempting smell of honey.
As the evening wore on, Sakaki found that sitting in the same room as these people wasn't so bad. He could sit and talk with Kaori and no one bothered them. Yet he could still sense Kaori's disappointment. Surely she didn't expect him to change over night!
Sakaki took a small sip of coffee. He put the cup down and said, "Do you think we should stay for dessert?"
"I'll have to wait a few more minutes," Kaori said as she pushed aside her half-eaten salmon. "I don't feel very hungry." She smiled, though it seemed like a forced one. "I'm afraid I overestimated how hungry I was."
"Take your time," Sakaki said. He stood up. "I'm going to the bathroom."
"…and thus, Meso Meso-san crushed her cruel tormentor to death and became a youkai," Kaname finished. She looked around the table with a mischievous glint in her eye. "So remember: If you hear someone wailing in the bathroom…it could be Meso Meso-san. And if you hear her…don't answer."
"Waaaah, how sca~ry!" Isuzu cried out as she hid her face behind a napkin.
"An amusing story, but Tsumuhana-san, you must remember that's all it is: A story," Nemuru said as she calmly sipped her tea.
"There's something I don't quite understand," Hiroshi said. "Is Higanbana a hero or a villain?"
"That's a good question," Kaname said as she took a sip of miso soup. "I suppose she might be a hero of sorts. Perhaps an anti-hero. Being a good person does not necessarily mean being a nice person."
"I guess that might be true," Hiroshi said. "Anyway, I need to go to the bathroom." He stood up. "I'll be right back."
He headed towards the rest rooms. Along the way, he tried to ignore the stares from the other customers. Even though no one had said anything in a while, Hiroshi could tell what they were all thinking: This trouble is all because of you.
It made him think back to Nemuru's words to him on his first day of school:
"Your existence is annoying. People like you come at times like this."
Times like "this"…
Indeed, it had been an inconvenient time to show up. The failed Hassaku harvest…the rising conflict between the Kamibito and Ochibito…the troubles with Sakaki…
"Oh, uh, excuse—" Hiroshi began to say.
The words caught in his throat when he realized whom he had just bumped into.
"No, excuse me," Sakaki said, averting his eyes.
The two males stood in an awkward silence for several seconds before Hiroshi said, "You want to go first?"
"On second thought, I think I can wait until I get home," Sakaki muttered. He began to head back for his table.
"…just one more hour….I can do this…one…more…hour…" she muttered. She stood near the kitchen door, ready to collapse. The impulse had risen over the course of the night. Though she tried her best to restrain herself around the Ochibito customers, that boy's presence made it harder.
How could she think straight when that oh-so delicious smell threatened to overtake her? How could she just carry on as if she didn't have the impulse to lose control?
"Enough of this," she muttered. "I'm leaving an hour early. I'm sure the boss will understand."
Just as she turned to find her boss, that scent filled her nostrils once more...
"Well, that was awkward," Sakaki muttered as he headed for his and Kaori's table. He stopped when he noticed a young waitress with her head hanged low. Under her breath, she whispered, "Ice coffee…we have delicious…ice coffee…"
"Yes, yes, I'll be sure to order some," Sakaki said. He looked over his shoulder. Damn, she's one of 'them', isn't she? As long as I go slow, I can…
Time stood still yet moved quickly.
Sakaki barely had any time to take it all in.
The next thing he knew, he was lying on his back staring at the ceiling, his lips slightly wet with saliva.
Someone else's saliva.
That girl…she had kissed him, hadn't she?
She was sobbing "What have I done?" over and over while the other employees came by to see what was wrong.
Above him stood Kaori and...Kushinada.
…What? What just…what…
"Get Yue-san and this man down to the centre immediately!"
"Yes, Master Kushinada!"
…What happened to me?
Through his shock, a voice in the back of his head spoke:
I need a cigarette.