A Bonding Experience

The honeymoon's over. The literal connotation of that colloquial expression couldn't have been more poignant. Finally marrying after a long, four year engagement, albeit at a very young age, the once inseparable couple was now being forced to split up for an equally long duration. As much as they both dreaded and wished that they could forgo this moment, their career choices dictated otherwise.

Located in Japan's Kanto region within the Greater Tokyo Area, Takumi's chosen profession of child psychology had him attending the University of Tsukuba while Akira, on the other hand, had elected to follow in her father's footsteps by pursuing a career in business, thereby also upholding her family's tradition.

Despite being apart from her now husband, Akira would at least be in very good company. Hiroki, her longtime childhood friend, would likewise be attending the same prominent business school, which also happened to be one of Japan's oldest: Keio University. Ironically, he too was forced to part with someone who was extremely close to his heart: his girlfriend, as well as Akira's dearest friend, Izumi. And, like Takumi, Izumi seemed to possess a special knack when it came to dealing with children. Therefore, it came as no surprise that she aspired to become a grade school teacher. So in yet another strange twist of fate, since Tsukuba offered up such an excellent program in education, Izumi would be afforded the companionship of Takumi.


"Hey, guys, wait up!"

Having just exited one of the campus' many lecture halls, Takumi, along with one of his classmates, found themselves being approached from behind by a tall, and most attractive, long, dark-haired girl who sounded a bit out of breath.

"Hey, Risa," Takumi greeted. "What's up? We didn't see you in Hamaguchi-sensei's class this morning. Everything alright?"

"Wait, wait, don't tell me; let me guess," Takumi's American friend, Alex surmised. "You overslept again."

"Yeah, well, I wound up pulling another all-nighter last night studying for my Behavioral Neuroscience exam."

"I told you that drinking all those Red Bulls would eventually catch up with you," Alex, warned.

"Oh, please, spare me," she said rolling her eyes. "Fumiko-chan gave me the same lecture this morning. Anyway, Takumi, what I wanted to ask you was… I mean, seeing as how you're such a model student and all."

"Uh oh, here it comes," Alex began to foresee.

Shooting an icy glare in his direction before turning back to face Takumi, Risa then humbly requested, "Is there any way that you could…"

"Get a copy of my notes?" Takumi accurately presumed. "Sure, not a problem. I'll forward you a copy the second I get back to my dorm."

"Oh, Takumi, you're a life saver. Thank you. I owe you one," she appreciatively replied.

"Not a problem."

"Hey, if you're not doing anything this evening, a few of my friends and I are going out for drinks. How about joining us? My treat."

"Thanks, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to pass. See, it's my friend Izumi's birthday today and I promised that I would take her out tonight."

"Why, Takumi, I'm surprised at you," Risa feigned shock, well aware of his marital status.

"Please, it's not like that," he went on to explain. "You see, her boyfriend goes to another university and he has an economics exam tomorrow morning and really needs to study tonight. He felt pretty bad that he couldn't be with her, especially with this being her twentieth birthday and all, so he asked me if I could take her out and show her a good time tonight. Then after treating her to a nice dinner we're going to meet up with a few of her friends afterwards who've got a few special things of their own planned for her. Of course, she doesn't know about that yet."

"Aw, that's so sweet of you, especially considering that this is such a special time in her life," she understandingly stated. "Well, have a good time. We'll just have that drink some other time then. But next time… I won't let you off so easy."

"Okay," he chuckled, "I'll be sure and hold you to that then."

"Ah well," she sighed, "guess it's just going to be us girls tonight."

"Uh, I'm not doing anything this evening," an overzealous Alex abruptly informed her.

"Well, that's not my problem," Risa said with indifference. "See you later, Takumi, and thanks again."

After she left, a dejected Alex could only shake his head in frustration as he then let out a heavy sigh and bemoaned, "Rejected yet again."

"Oh, don't take it so hard," Takumi encouragingly offered, giving his friend a hearty pat on the back.

Thinking for a moment while glancing down at Takumi's hand he surmised, "Hmm, it's gotta be the ring. You think maybe if I started wearing a wedding band she'd start to notice me more?"

"Ha-ha. Afraid it doesn't work like that, my friend."

His short-lived mournfulness quickly abated, Alex then encouragingly remarked, "Oh well, there are still plenty of other Japanese beauties on this campus, right?"

"Well, you sure recover quickly from your wounds," Takumi humorously observed. "Are all Americans as resilient as you?"

"Well we're certainly not ones to just lie down and give up. Out West we have a saying after swiftly rebounding from such a defeat: I'm back in the saddle again."

"Saddle?" Takumi said with a puzzled look, not being very familiar with the American idiom let alone the Gene Autry song from which it originated.

After a quick explanation, Alex then sought to be enlightened on a different matter as he inquired, "Say tell me something. Is there some significance in this country when a person turns twenty? I kind of got that impression when Risa mentioned that this was a special time in Izumi-san's life."

"Well, it's basically a coming-of-age thing," Takumi attempted to describe.

"Oh, you mean something like a Sweet Sixteen like we have in America?"

"Uh, sort of, I guess. But, as I understand it, you're still not really considered an adult yet at that point. Right?"

"Yeah, not until you're eighteen," Alex informed him. "In America you legally become an adult when you turn eighteen. And yet for some stupid reason you still can't consume alcohol until you're twenty-one. At least here the drinking age is nineteen. Go figure. But I get what you're saying," he began to comprehend. "You're officially considered an adult over here when you turn twenty."

"Pretty much, yeah."

"And you say her boyfriend can't be with her? Man, she must really be bummed out then."

"Well, she knew it was going to be like this the moment they started university, so she understands. Still, I think she's holding up pretty well under the circumstances."

"What about you?"

"Me?"

"Yeah. How are you holding up? I mean, being apart from Akira for these long stretches of time. It's gotta be pretty rough."

"Uh, I'm fine, really."

"Hmmm," Alex skeptically looked on at him. "Come on, I happen to know that you two haven't seen each other in at least a month."

"Feels more like two months," Takumi grumbled under his breath.

"Aha! I knew it! I had a feeling that something was gnawing at you lately. Now come on," he prodded. "Out with it."

"Hmph, should've known that it was pretty much impossible to try and conceal my emotions from you, let alone another psych major."

"Ha-ha. I know how that is," Alex was able relate. "Plus it seems that we've gotten so used to analyzing other people, we somehow fail to recognize the symptoms when it happens to us."

"Tell me about it."

"So when exactly was the last time that you two got together?"

"The hanami (flower viewing) festival."

"Wow, then I guess it has practically been two months, huh?" Alex realized. "You poor guy."

"Uh, you're not exactly helping."

"Oh, sorry. Look, I'm sure it hasn't been easy, but that's all the more reason why you need to get your mind off of her. And spending time with some of your other friends is one of the best ways to accomplish that, tonight being a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Likewise, it'll be good for Izumi-san as well. But despite all that, I must tell you, I'm still pretty jealous of you."

"What? Why?"

"Why? Come on, do I have to spell it out for you? Okay, let's look at the facts," he began to point out. "For one thing you're married, and to one hell of a great gal I might add. Okay, sure, I admit right now you're going to be faced with quite a few respites from one another, but that's only temporary. In the end however, when all is said and done, you'll always have a pretty wife to come home to. Yeah, and someday soon… a family. And let me tell you, in my book, that's definitely something to look forward to." Now throwing an arm around his friend, Alex then proceeded to emphasize, "You're one lucky son-of-a-gun, you know that? Very lucky indeed. And don't you ever forget that."

"N… No, I… I won't."

"Me, on the other hand? Hell, I'm in kind of a rut right now, still struggling to find myself a girlfriend. So yeah, you bet your ass I'm jealous."

Looking on at his friend with a grateful smile, Takumi then matter-of-factly stated, "You know, aside from my friend, Hajime, you're the only other person who's been able to make me see what's been right under my nose the whole time, things that should've been blatantly obvious to me. Thank you, my friend."

"No problem. Uh, by the way," a now rather inquisitive Alex began, "you mind if I ask you something a little more… personal?"

"Uh, it depends."

"When's the last time you two… you know," Alex suggestively inquired with raised eyebrows.

"I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me," a steadfast Takumi humorously responded.

"Been hanging around law students, have we?" Alex wittily retorted. "Okay, okay, I get it. I won't pry into your personal affairs. Forget I asked. I'm still jealous though."

"Okay, you know what? You're coming with us tonight," Takumi insisted. "And I won't take no for an answer."

"What, seriously?"

"Look, if you think I'm going to leave you alone in your dorm room to sulk all evening, you're crazy."

"Takumi," he appreciatively uttered.

"Besides, I don't want to have to listen to you complain the next day about another dateless night."

"Ha-ha. Okay, you got me. Still, you sure it's going to be alright? I mean, I hardly even know Izumi-san. I've only met her like maybe two or three times, and then only briefly. And I certainly don't know any of her friends."

"Relax, you'll be fine."

"Oh, hey, what about a gift?" Alex then realized. "Like I said, I hardly know her so what do you think I should…"

"Come on, don't worry about it so much. Believe me, it's no big deal. We're all just struggling college students trying to make ends meet. So just buy her a round of drinks or maybe chip in for part of the karaoke session. Believe me, she won't care. Besides, the whole point of this is to get Izumi's mind off of Hiroki for awhile and make her realize that she's surrounded by friends. It's like you Americans say: the more the merry-go-round goes round."

Trying to contain himself, an amused Alex sniggered as he corrected, "Uh, I believe the expression you're looking for is 'the more the merrier'."

"Huh? Oh. Wait, are you sure? Because I thought..."

"Trust me. Listen, save yourself from any future embarrassment and just leave the American sayings to me from now on."

"Okay, deal," Takumi reluctantly submitted. "But then you've got to promise me that you won't embarrass me or yourself again by appearing overly desperate when you meet Izumi's friends tonight."

"Again? When did I…?"

Clearing his throat, Takumi, in a rather anxious sounding tone proceeded to mock, "I'm not doing anything this evening."

"Oh come on!" Alex contested. "I didn't really sound like that… did I?

"Afraid so," Takumi bluntly affirmed.

"Yeesh! Pretty pathetic, huh?" he berated himself. "Damn, guess it has been way longer than I care to remember since I last got laid."


"Double espresso and a jasmine orange tea latte," the barista called out.

Upon receiving her order, Akira headed over to one of the coffee houses' many high top tables where a preoccupied Hiroki sat, his head buried in his laptop.

"I don't know how you plan on sleeping tonight," Akira said in wonder as she set down a demitasse cup alongside his laptop. "And this is your second one. But if it helps you to stud… Uhh, are you texting Izumi again?"

Unsuccessfully attempting to conceal his cell phone, Hiroki then tried to rationalize, "Uh, no, of course not. I was just, ahh, responding to a text from Ryuji."

"Really?" she skeptically retorted with folded arms.

"Uh, yeah. He just had a question about Schumpeter's theory of economic development."

"Well then, why don't you just go on over and explain it to him? After all, he's sitting only two tables behind from us."

"What? Where?" Hiroki spun his head around in shock, easily falling for Akira's ruse.

"Hmph, too easy," she thought, using that opportunity to snatch the cell phone out from a distracted Hiroki's hands.

"A… Akira!"

Glancing down at the screen of some partially written text, Akira couldn't help but to drolly remark, "Funny, I didn't know Schumpeter espoused taking long, moonlit strolls in the park."

"Okay, okay," he embarrassingly admitted, now receiving the phone back from her as she slid it across the table. "I just wanted to remind her how bad I felt for…"

"For not being able to be with her tonight," Akira concluded with rolled eyes, knowing full well what his response would be. "And that you promise to make it up to her next week. She knows, Hiroki; she knows. Believe me. You don't have to keep reminding her."

"Yeah, I know. It's just that this has been eating away at me all day and it absolutely kills me that I can't be with her during such a special time in her life."

"Hiroki, come on," Akira implored, attempting to console him, "you're making way too big a deal out of this. Hey, I want to be there for her tonight too, but there's just nothing I can do about it. Look, I talked to her again last night and she's perfectly fine with it. She realizes that this exam counts toward thirty percent of our grade for this course. And if she can accept that fact then why can't you?"

"Yeah, I suppose," he finally conceded, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

"Good," she was happy to hear before taking a sip from her tea. "Now, what do you feel like going over next? Stiglitz or Keynesian economics?"

"Ugh! My brain is so full of economic theories right now that my head is about to explode. Can't we take a break?"

"Keynes it is," Akira decided, totally ignoring Hiroki's pleas. "Besides, you just had a break, remember? Mr. 'I'll hold you lovingly in my arms as we stroll beneath the moonlit night'."

Blushing profusely, Hiroki once again used his laptop for cover as he desperately endeavored to conceal his look of embarrassment.

"Oh, and Hiroki?" Akira followed-up in a more ominous tone. "If I catch you texting Izumi again, economic theories won't be the only thing exploding in your head."


"Oh, Takumi, that was absolutely delicious!" Izumi praised upon completion of her meal.

Seated in a casual and rather quaint Italian restaurant, located just a few blocks from the campus grounds, Takumi looked on as the server poured Izumi another glass of sangria.

"Mmm, this is just to die for," she blissfully conveyed upon taking another swig of the fruity wine and brandy mixture.

"Hey, take it easy. That's your third glass, isn't it?"

"Oh, but it's just so good!"

"Yes, apparently so. Ah well, it is your birthday after all," Takumi reckoned. "And I certainly want you to enjoy yourself."

"Aww, thank you, Takumi," she appreciatively replied. "You know, there's only one other thing that could make this evening even more perfect than it already is."

"Come on now, we've already discussed this," Takumi soothingly reminded her. "Don't torment yourself like that. You know he can't be here."

"Yeah, I know," she said rather despondently.

"Hey, I have just the thing that'll cheer you right up!"

"Another glass of sangria?"

"Ha-ha! No, no, this doesn't involve alcohol. You see, right after we leave here we're going to… Excuse me."

Feeling the vibration of his cell phone, Takumi took one look at the screen to see who was calling and then immediately shook his head in frustration.

"Well, there goes that bet," he sighed as his phone continued to vibrate.

"Huh?" Izumi said sounding rather confused.

"Oh, Akira bet me that Hiroki wouldn't last through the rest of the evening without calling or texting one of us. And guess who lost? Oh well," he then figured as a mischievous thought suddenly came to him, "might as well make the most of it and at least have a little fun with it. Here, go on and answer it."

Handing over his phone to her, Izumi had a puzzled look as she queried, "You want me to answer your phone?"

"Yeah, yeah, go on," he anxiously said. "Come on, just play along. Or better yet, let's put it on speakerphone. I've just got to hear this."

"Uh, okay," she consented a bit hesitantly before finally answering, "Hello? Hiroki? Is that you?"

"I… Izumi? Wh… Why are answering Takumi's pho…"

"Izumi? Sweetie?" Takumi suddenly called out, cupping his hands around his mouth so that it would sound as if his voice was coming from the next room. "Who are you talking to? Come on back to bed."

"IZUMI! What the hell is going o..." Now hearing the incessant sound of hysterical laughter bursting forth, Hiroki instantly came to the realization that something was clearly amiss and that he had been deceived. "Oh good grief."

Despite appearing somewhat displeased as she shook her head over his juvenile prank, Izumi nevertheless had a difficult time maintaining a straight face as she scolded, "Oh, Takumi, you're terrible. You know what, I'm… I'm going to go the restroom for a minute. And hopefully by the time I get back you'll have gotten this out of your system. Excuse me."

"Hello? Takumi? You still there?" came Hiroki's voice.

Now taking him off of speakerphone, Takumi had to first wipe the tears from his eyes before picking up the handset and apologetically offering, "Oh, I'm sorry, Hiroki. I just couldn't help myself. Ha-ha-ha."

"You've got a warped sense of humor, you know that?"

"Sorry, sorry. I honestly don't know what came over me."

"Okay, okay, you got me," Hiroki finally conceded.

"You know, I lost a bet with Akira because of you. She said you wouldn't be able to resist checking up on Izumi. So really, you brought this on yourself."

"Hmph. Well I've got to admit, you did have me going there for a second," he confessed before curiously inquiring, "So what exactly was it that you bet with Akira anyway?"

"Oh, ahh…" Takumi began to waver, "it's nothing to speak of really. Kind of silly too, now that I think about it."

"So, what is it?"

"Uh, well, to tell you the truth it… it's actually kind of personal in nature," Takumi hesitantly explained, then under his breath muttered, "Extremely personal."

"Personal? Oh come on, you can tell me," he continued to press.

"No really, I… I'd rather not say," he seemed to express with embarrassment.

"Really? Well now you've got me even more curious."

"Hiroki, I'd really rather not talk about it. And if you try asking Akira, I'm pretty certain that she'd be too embarrassed to tell you either. Like I said, it's just something very personal between the two of us. So can we just leave it at that?"

"Okay, okay. I get it," he finally relented in frustration. "But geez, how personal could it be anyway? I mean, what is it, like some kind of kinky bondage type thing? Ha-ha." Just then the other end of the line fell eerily silent. "Uh, Takumi? You still there?"

"Huh? Oh, ah, yeah, yeah," he nervously stammered, "Sorry, must have zoned out there for a second."

"Hmmmm," Hiroki suspiciously wondered aloud.

"Wh… what?" Takumi seemed to sweat.

"Nothing, nothing," he attempted to make light of the situation. Wishing to spare him from any further embarrassment, Hiroki then quickly changed the subject as he informed, "Uh, anyway, I just called to see how things were going. I didn't interrupt your dinner, I hope."

"No, no, we actually just finished. We were just getting ready to head out." Looking to make sure that Izumi was nowhere nearby, Takumi then enlightened, "I'm taking her out for some karaoke where her friends have a little surprise party planned for her."

"Wish I could be there. I really love hearing her sing."

"Don't worry, I'm sure one of her friends will record a video of her singing and then post it to her blog."

"Uh, speaking of her friends," Hiroki said with uncertainty. "Do you happen to know if it's mainly going to be just her girlfriends or are there going to be guys there too? And if so, would you say that any of them might be a bit unscrupulous or…"

"I'm hanging up now."

"Uh, no, no, no, wait!"

"Hiroki, would you relax? She'll be fine," Takumi assured him. "There's no need to be so overprotective. She's perfectly capable of taking care of herself."

"Yeah, I know. It's just that…"

"You love her so much and you don't know what you'd do if anything were to happen to her," Takumi deduced, winking over at Izumi who had just returned and happened to overhear his touching little sentiment.

"Uh, yeah."

"I feel the same way about Akira. So anyway, if there's nothing else…"

"No, I guess that's it. Well, have a good time."

"Thanks, we will."

"I love you, Hiroki!" Izumi then shouted into the handset.

"There, you see?" Takumi reassuringly stated. "Nothing to worry about. Bye, Hiroki. Come on, Izumi-sweetie. Let's go."

"You're a riot, Takumi," Hiroki facetiously remarked. "Talk to you later."

"Heh, heh. I love messing with him," Takumi confessed as he ended the call.

"Got it out of your system now?" Izumi inquisitively presumed while flashing a jovial expression.

"For now. You ready to go?"

"Sure. But where are we going?"

"Well, I thought we might go out for a little karaoke. How's that sound?"

"You mean, just the two of us?"

"What, you don't want to be seen with me?" Takumi pretended to take offense at.

"Silly. You know that's not it. I mean, usually when we go there it's with a group of friends."

Opening the restaurant door for her Takumi explained, "Well, it's like I told you before: most of your friends have other plans or are simply unable to make it because of schoolwork," he casually remarked, attempting to keep his little surprise under wraps. "Sorry, it just happened to work out that way, that's all."

"Yeah, I know. But of all days," she lamented. "Oh well, suppose it can't be helped. By the way, you mentioned something earlier about losing a bet with Akira. So what exactly did you bet?"

Continuing to hold the door open, Takumi just closed his eyes in frustration and humbly pleaded, "Izumi, I would really appreciate it if we didn't discuss this."

"Wow, it's that bad, huh? Okay, well, in that case I won't prod you for any more details."

"Thank you."

"Besides, I'm sure I'll be able to get it out of Akira eventually," she confidently stated.

"Somehow I doubt that," Takumi uttered under his breath.


"Gotta tell ya, you were certainly right," Alex conveyed to Takumi as they, along with Izumi and three of her friends, exited the karaoke establishment. "The little lady here really does have one heck of a pretty voice."

"Oh, Alex-san, stop," Izumi humbly blushed. "I wasn't that good. I think Yuko-san and Kenji-kun's duet was the real show-stopper."

"Hey, don't sell yourself short, Izumi," her close friend and classmate, Ayumi, encouragingly remarked. "I absolutely loved your rendition of 'Days of Dash' along with that spirited little dance that accompanied it. You were really into it."

"She's right, you know," Kenji concurred.

"Oh, you guys are just being nice because it's my birthday," Izumi blushed.

"See, didn't I tell you she was modest?" Takumi reiterated to Alex.

"You must admit though, my voice was a bit shaky at times because I was so nervous," Izumi confessed.

"Well, I know just what you need then to help settle those nerves," Alex began to suggest.

"A couple of drinks?" Kenji presumed.

"Exactly!" Alex replied with conviction. "So how about it guys? You up for a few cold ones? First round's on me."

"You don't have to ask me twice," Kenji eagerly responded.

"Well, there you have it," Takumi stated as he observed the eager expressions on the other's faces.

"And since I don't have any classes tomorrow," Izumi reasoned, "I won't have to restrain myself."

"That's the spirit!" Alex was happy to hear.


"Hey, Izumi-san," Kenji eagerly inquired after polishing off the remainder of his beer. "You up for a few tequila shots?"

In a local bar just outside university grounds, Izumi and her friends sat in a corner booth imbibing in a rather wide manner of alcoholic concoctions.

"Better be careful, Izumi," Takumi warned, "otherwise your body's really going to be regretting it tomorrow morning."

"Oooh, you worry too much," Izumi argued with a slight slur in her speech, taking another sip from her margarita.

"Kenji, don't be trying to get our birthday girl too drunk," his girlfriend, Yuko, scolded, also somewhat inebriated at this point. "Besides, I think she's had her fill of tequila for one evening."

"I agree," Alex opined, just now returning from the bar with a tray of shot glasses before setting it down on the table.

"What's that?" Takumi asked upon observing the dark-colored liquor.

"Jager shots!" Alex enlightened his friend.

"Blech!" Kenji expressed with distaste. "That stuff tastes like cough syrup. Sorry, but I'm gonna have to pass."

"Meh, suit yourself," Alex said with indifference. "How about you, Izu… Whoa! Check you out."

Alex and the others were completely taken aback as Izumi grabbed one of the shot glasses and instinctively proceeded to knock back the herbal liquor.

"Geez, Izumi, take it easy," Takumi cautioned.

"Mmm, not bad," Izumi opined. "Tastes like licorice."

"Really? You liked it?" Kenji was surprised to hear.

"It's actually quite good," Ayumi commented upon consuming her shot, "especially when it's served ice-cold like this. Aren't you going to try it, Takumi-san?"

"Yeah, I noticed that you've been nursing that same drink of yours for the past hour now," Kenji observed.

"He can't," Alex informed them, briefly then explaining how Takumi's consumption of alcohol was severely limited due to his heart transplant.

"Oh, sorry, dude," Kenji apologetically recanted. "I didn't know."

"It's okay, don't worry about it."

"By the way, Takumi," Alex began to wonder. "What did you say that drink of yours was called again?"

Picking up his brandy snifter, Takumi began to swirl around the remainder of the orange-colored liquor in the balloon-shaped glass and enlightened, "Grand Marnier. It's an orange-flavored brandy liquor. Definitely something you want to savor."

"Eh, that sounds a bit too hoity-toity for my tastes," Alex commented. "I'll stick with my Jack Daniel's."

"So, then…" Izumi presumed as she began eyeing Takumi's shot of Jagermeister.

"Take it, take it, by all means," Takumi insisted. "Only this time, at least try not to…"

Before he could even conclude his brief suggestion, Izumi had already downed the shot.

"…shoot it," Takumi sighed in frustration.

"Heh, heh. You go, girl," Yuko enthusiastically expressed.

"Wow, you're certainly braver than me," Kenji declared. "It takes guts to swill down that nasty stuff. Here, take mine too, if you want it."

"Don't mind if I do," Izumi was happy to oblige.

Just as she was about to reach for it, however, Takumi's hand beat her to the punch, sliding it off to the side so that it was just out of her grasp.

"Uh, hey! Takumi, I thought you didn't want it."

"Just promise me that you'll at least wait awhile before you wolf this one down," Takumi beseeched.

"Oh, all right, I promise," Izumi reluctantly agreed.

"Thank you. Believe me, your body will thank you for it later," Takumi emphasized as he passed the shot glass back to her. Then taking a final sip from his own glass he proceeded to get up from the table and announced, "Well, I think that's going to about do it for me."

"What, so soon?" Izumi was saddened to hear.

"I have an early class tomorrow morning and I don't want to oversleep," he maintained. Then looking over at Alex he emphasized, "And so do you."

"Come on, Takumi; live a little," Alex attempted to persuade his friend.

"Sorry, but I'm afraid I'm just not the partying type."

Audaciously then placing his arm around Ayumi, Alex slyly asserted, "Aww, but we were just starting to get to know each other."

"Heh heh," he amusingly laughed, flashing his friend a wink. "Okay, I get it. You guys have fun then and enjoy the rest of your evening. Oh, and Izumi? Try not to drink too much."

"Yes, mother," she sardonically replied.

"Very funny. Come on, I'm serious," he somberly said.

"Aww, I know," she gratefully replied as she got up and proceeded to give him an affectionate hug of appreciation. Then placing a gentle kiss upon his cheek she tenderly declared, "Thanks for worrying about me."

"Happy birthday, Izumi," he graciously wished her.

"Don't worry about a thing," Alex assured him. "I'll personally see to it that the little lady gets back to her apartment safely."

"Alright then, I'm counting on you! Goodnight, you guys."


Unable to stave off the drowsiness any longer, Kenji stretched out his arms and gave off a yawn before declaring, "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm ready to call it a night."

"Yeah, guess it is getting kind of late," Yuko observed, looking down at her watch. "Good thing I don't have any early classes tomorrow morning. Alright, let's go."

"Okay, then let me just take care of…" Reaching for his wallet, Alex thought he heard a rather distinctive vibrating sound. "Is that your phone?"

"No, I've got mine right here."

Observing a napkin, which appeared to have a life of its own, Kenji removed the apparent camouflage to reveal the suspect mobile device sporting a pink "Hello Kitty" cell phone cover.

"Huh, Izumi-san must have forgotten her phone," Yuko observed, "because I know it's not Ayumi's."

Picking it up and observing the caller ID, Kenji wondered, "Who's Hiroki?"

"Weren't you paying attention earlier?" Yuko admonished, "That's Izumi's boyfriend."

"Oh yeah, that's right. Guess I better answer it then," Kenji reasoned. "He's probably worried about her. Hello?"

"Uh…" Hiroki wavered for a second as he pondered who the unfamiliar voice belonged to. "Very funny, Takumi, but I'm not falling for it this time."

"Huh? Takumi?" a perplexed Kenji expressed, doing a double take as he took another look at the cell phone cover. "This is Takumi-san's cell phone?"

"N… No. It's Izumi's," Hiroki explained, clearly realizing now that he wasn't speaking with Takumi. Sounding somewhat exasperated, he requested, "Look, can you just put Izumi on please?"

"Sorry, dude, but you just missed her," Kenji informed him. "She left about ten minutes ago, obviously without her cell phone though. But I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. After all, she did have quite a bit to drink."

"She… She did?"

"Man, you should have seen her," he extolled. "I mean the way that she was able to knock back those three Jager shots, vile tasting as they may be. You'd have been proud of her."

"Uh, yeah," Hiroki unenthusiastically uttered.

"Oh, and don't worry; I'll see that she gets her phone back."

"Thank you, uhh… I'm sorry, who am I speaking with?"

"Kenji Furusawa. I'm in Izumi's English class."

"Oh, well I appreciate that, Kenji-san. Listen, is Takumi by any chance still there?"

"Afraid not. He left here nearly an hour ago."

"Wait," Hiroki now began to dread, "so then Izumi was by herself when she left? And intoxicated on top of that?"

"No, no, we would never let that happen," Kenji assured him.

"Oh, well that's good," Hiroki was relieved to hear.

"Alex was with her."

"Uh, who's Alex?" Hiroki inquired, becoming somewhat alarmed just from the thought of Izumi being alone with another guy while in an inebriated state.

"He's an American, originally from Texas if I'm not mistaken. I believe he's in one of Takumi's psych classes. Pretty nice guy, actually. Of course, now that I think about it, he was pretty wasted himself when he left here," Kenji suddenly recalled as he then pondered, "Hmmm..."

"What is it?"

"Oh, ah, it's nothing really. I was just thinking," he began to speculate, "I mean, well, let's face it, alcohol can make people do some crazy things sometimes. Things… they might regret later, if you know what I mean. Heh, heh. Am I right?"

"Idiot!" Yuko reprimanded, striking Kenji on the arm in which he held the cell phone. "Don't say things like that."

"Oh, he knows I'm just kidding," he offhandedly remarked, now bringing his arm down so that that phone, still cupped in his hand, was faced down on the table, permitting Hiroki to only faintly hear scant bits of their conversation.

"Still, you don't want to make him worry unnecessarily," Yuko cautioned.

"Don't worry, it's fine. Besides, Alex seemed to be more interested in Ayumi anyway."

"Yeah, did you see the way that those two were eyeing each other the entire evening?"

"I know, right? Hey, Yuko, five will get you ten that those two hook up after dropping Izumi off. I mean, there is one of those places just down the block from here after all," Kenji ardently hinted at with raised eyebrows.

"What, you mean the love hotel? Come on, they just met."

"Hey, you never know," he avowed before suddenly then realizing, "Oh crap, I almost forgot." Immediately bringing the phone back up to his ear, Kenji apologetically offered, "Sorry, man, I got a little side-tracked there. Anyway, don't worry about a thing. Like I said before, Alex is a good guy and… hello? Hiroki-san? Huh, must've hung up."

"Gee, you think?" Yuko sarcastically remarked with rolled eyes. "I just hope you didn't freak him out after what you said to him earlier."

"Oh come on, both Alex and Ayumi were with Izumi the whole time, so what's he have to worry about?"

"Uh, I don't remember you mentioning anything to him about Ayumi being with them."

"I didn't? Are you sure?" Kenji thought for a moment. Shrugging his shoulders he then just nonchalantly observed, "Oh well, no big deal. Izumi will probably tell him all about it tomorrow anyway. Come on, let's get out of here."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming."

"You know, Yuko," an impassioned Kenji slyly put forth, "with all this talk about love hotels…"

"Forget it!" she coldly snapped back, instantly shooting his suggestion down.

"Damn," he dejectedly muttered under his breath. "Sure hope Alex is having betting luck."


Awakened by a distinct, yet familiar ring tone, a somewhat groggy Takumi rolled over in his futon while his hand fumbled in the darkness, endeavoring to find his phone.

"Akira?" he wearily answered, yawning as he rolled back over onto his back. "Wh… Why are you calling so late? Is everything alright?"

"Sorry to wake you, Takumi," Akira apologetically offered, "but I think we might have a little problem."

"Why, what's wrong?"

"Well, a little while ago, Hiroki called saying he wouldn't be meeting up with me for breakfast tomorrow morning and that I should just head straight to class. He then started freaking out about Izumi and some other guy. Now I know that you and a few of her friends were with her this evening, but did something unusual happen that would have caused him to fly off the handle the way he did?"

"No, not at all. I mean, everyone seemed to be having a perfectly wonderful time the entire evening. So unless something happened after I left…"

"Oh, you left before Izumi did?"

"Well, yeah. I didn't want to stay too late because I have an early class tomorrow morning," Takumi explained. "But my friend, Alex, promised that he would see her back to her apartment safely. You've met him before, right?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know who you're talking about. In fact," Akira then recalled, "That's the name Hiroki mentioned."

"So what exactly did he say?"

"Well, he said that when he tried calling Izumi later in the evening that some strange guy answered her phone. Apparently she had left her cell behind. Anyway, the guy told him that she had left with Alex and that both of them seemed pretty drunk. Then at one point he said that he overheard him talking with someone else in the background and thought he heard him saying something along the lines of Izumi and Alex hooking up and going to a love hotel."

"What? A love hotel? That's crazy! He obviously misunderstood because there's no way that Alex would…"

"I know, and I'm sure you're probably right," Akira conceded. Then with a slight bit of misgiving confessed, "Still, I must admit, he's got me kind of worried now."

"Well don't be," Takumi tried to reassure her. "I guarantee you that's it's just a big misunderstanding. So just call him back and… No, you know what? I kind of feel somewhat responsible, so I'll call him."

"Well, good luck with that."

"What do you mean?"

"After he abruptly hung up I tried calling him back several times, but for some reason he wasn't answering his cell. So then I went over to his dorm to check up on him, and sure enough my hunch was correct: he was gone. But I could hear his phone ringing from inside when I called it again. The idiot left in such a rush that he forgot his cell."

"Wait, so then that means…" Takumi suddenly realized.

"He's on his way over there right now," Akira confirmed. "Probably on the Tsukuba Express as we speak."

Sighing heavily and shaking his head in disbelief, Takumi seemed somewhat at a loss as he expressed, "Alright, alright, let me think for a minute. Okay, about how long ago would you say it was when he left?"

"Probably about twenty minutes."

"So it'll be at least another twenty before he gets to Izumi's apartment," Takumi figured. "Alright, I'll call Alex, seeing as how Izumi doesn't have her phone, and see if I can get to the bottom of this. I'll call you back as soon as I find out any…" Discerning a rather loud rumbling sound in the background, Takumi observed, "That sounds like a subway. Akira, where are you at?"

"Where do you think?"

"Oh come on, there's no reason for you to make a special trip over here too," he argued. "What about your exam tomorrow?"

"It'll be fine," Akira maintained. "Look, I couldn't just sit in my room assuming that everything was all right. I'm worried about Izumi and just want to make sure that she's okay."

"Hmph, you're as bad as him," Takumi amusingly remarked. "Ah well, guess I can't really blame you though. I'd be worried too."

"Well if I were you, I'd be more worried about your friend, Alex."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that if he's still over there with Izumi… well, you know how Hiroki is," Akira reminded him. "He's the type to act first and ask questions later."


"Izumi! Izumi!" Hiroki fiercely pounded on the door to her apartment.

Gradually opening to its maximum point until the attached security chain was fully taut, Hiroki was stunned to find that the face staring at him between the small gap in the door belonged to another man.

"My, you're certainly a noisy fellow," Alex lightheartedly observed. "But I'm afraid you won't sell many magazine subscriptions with that approach. You might want to try toning it down a bit."

None too amused, Hiroki impatiently insisted, "Who the hell are you? And where's Izumi?"

"It's okay, I got this," Alex seemed to assure another individual in the room, out of Hiroki's sight, before unlatching the door and stepping out into the hallway. There, Alex then found himself face to face with the rather troubled and irate boyfriend.

"Hiroki-san, is it?" Alex presumed.

"Who are you?"

"Okay, how about if I first tell you who I'm not?" Alex calmly suggested. "I'm not someone who's trying to hurt Izumi or…"

Forcefully grabbing Alex by the shirt collar, the quick tempered Hiroki demanded to know, "Where is she? What have you done to her?"

"Hmmm, I suppose it was a mistake to use Izumi and hurt in the same sentence," Alex then realized as he faced the intensity of Hiroki's enraged expression, all the while still managing to maintain his composure.

"So help me, if you've done anything to her, I'll…"

"Relax, relax, she's fine," Alex tried to assure him. "She just had a little bit too much to drink, that's all. She's inside right now sleeping it off."

Apparently that was all it took to appease him for the time being as Hiroki then finally released Alex from his violent grip.

"Well, I can't say that Takumi didn't warn me about you," Alex offhandedly remarked while attempting to straighten his collar. "By the way, the name's Alex, Alex Farlow."

"So, you're Takumi's friend?" Hiroki assumed in a now calmer demeanor.

"That's correct. And, judging by that charming, vengeful attitude of yours, you must be Izumi-san's knight in shining armor, here to rescue her from a fate worse than death."

"Otherwise known as the jealous boyfriend," Takumi drolly added as the door to the apartment now swung fully open.

"Takumi?" Hiroki was surprised to see.

"See, I told you there was no need for you to come all the way over here," Alex reaffirmed. "I was able to handle him just fine."

Reaching over and properly straightening Alex's shirt collar, Takumi whimsically observed, "Yes, I can see that. He handled you, I mean, you handled him just fine."

"Uh, guys?" Hiroki beseeched. "Can one of you please tell me what's going on?"

"Well it's as I said before," Alex reiterated. "Izumi-san just had a bit too much to drink and… well, let's just say that that last margarita she had didn't exactly agree with her."

"Hold on," Takumi was surprised to learn, "you mean she ordered another one?"

"Not exactly. You see, right after you left the waitress brought it over to her saying that it was from two guys a couple tables over. They were clearly trying to pick her up."

"What?" Hiroki reacted in astonishment.

"Oh yeah, one of them even came over and tried hitting on her using some really corny pick up line. He obviously thought that Takumi was her boyfriend, which is probably why he waited for him to leave before making his move."

"S… So what happened?"

"Well, first Izumi-san thanked him for the drink but then told him that she already had a boyfriend. Personally, I think she let him down way too easily, especially since he didn't seem to want to take no for an answer. That's when Kenji-san and I stepped in."

"Please tell me that you didn't start a fight," Takumi said with apprehension.

"Hey, you should see the other guy," Alex kidded. "Come on, give me a little bit of credit. No, no, we didn't get into a fight; we merely… intimidated him a little. We just quietly got up and stood between him and Izumi-san, our arms folded, and then told him straight to his face that she wasn't interested in him. Needless to say he didn't stick around for very long after that."

"Thank you," a grateful Hiroki humbly expressed, "for doing that."

"Hey, where I'm from, chivalry is alive and well. It's like a code of honor."

"Wait, so then even after the guy left," Takumi wondered, "she still drank that margarita?"

"Guess she didn't want to see it go to waste," Alex presumed.

"Oh, Izumi," Takumi sighed.

"Hey, I warned her that it wasn't a good idea after all those Jager shots. And apparently her stomach corroborated that fact on our way over here. The bushes around the side of the building can attest to that."

"Okay, I don't think we needed to know that," Takumi interjected.

"But, she's okay," Hiroki hesitantly inquired, "right?"

"Couldn't be better," Alex happily informed him.

"Just hopefully a bit wiser for the ware," Takumi yearned.

"Yeah, well, it was her birthday after all," Alex pointed out. "So try not to hold that against her."

"Say, Hiroki, tell me something," Takumi curiously requested. "What on earth gave you the impression that Alex and Izumi were going to a love hotel?"

"Yeah, I'd kind of like to know that myself," Alex said with intrigue.

"Well, guess it is kind of silly now that I think about it," Hiroki awkwardly admitted, "but I could have sworn that I heard your friend, uh, Kenji-san I think it was, say that you and Izumi were… I mean, you did both have quite a bit to drink and…"

Shaking his head in amusement, Takumi sighed, "Hiroki, you really need to stop jumping to conclusions like that and always assuming the worst."

"Yeah, seriously," Alex argued, "What were you thinking? Besides, Ayumi-san was with us the entire time, so how could we have…?"

"Wait, Ayumi-san was with you guys?"

"Well, yeah. In fact, she's with Izumi-san right now. You mean you didn't know?"

Having not factored Izumi's friend into the equation, Hiroki now finally recognized that he had been gravely mistaken about Alex's intentions. Replaying the conversation between Kenji and Yuko over in his head that he hadn't been entirely privy to in the first place, it was now glaringly obvious to him that he had misinterpreted Ayumi's name for Izumi's.

"So then it's Ayumi-san that you're going to the love hotel with!" Hiroki then inadvertently blurted out.

"Huh?" Alex reacted in bewilderment while prompting Takumi to chuckle under his breath.

"Uh, s… sorry," Hiroki desperately attempted to backtrack. "Forget I said that."

"Hold on, do you know something that I don't?" Alex anxiously queried.

"Come on, let it go, Alex," Takumi amusingly advocated.

"Yeah, but…"

"Hey, can you guys please keep it down?" Ayumi appealed as she suddenly emerged from Izumi's bedroom.

"Ayumi-san," Hiroki was somewhat surprised to see.

"Well, well, so you came after all," Ayumi observed. "I didn't believe it at first when these two told me that you were on your way over here, but, here you are."

"Uh, yeah," an ill at ease Hiroki muttered, apprehensively then inquiring, "Sooo… how is she? Can I see her?"

"Well, the thing is I just got her to fall asleep," she informed him. "And if she knew that you were here…"

"Oh, right. I don't want to wake her."

"It's too bad you couldn't have been here a few hours earlier for her party; she really would have liked that. I mean, I know you've got a huge test tomorrow; I get that. But now you decide to show up? What's up with that? And what's with this whole jealous rage that Takumi and Alex have been telling me about?"

"Uh, well, I wouldn't call it a jealous rage… exactly."

With folded arms, both Takumi and Alex looked on at him with extreme skepticism.

"I was just… you know, worried, that's all," Hiroki attempted to rationalize.

"You know what," Takumi frustratingly remarked to Alex with a heavy sigh, "I'm too tired to argue with him. Why don't you take a shot at it?"

"Me? I'm still trying to decipher the cryptic meaning behind this whole love hotel thing."

"Alex, no one's going to a love hotel," Takumi adamantly declared.

"Love hotel?" a perplexed Ayumi wondered aloud. "What are you guys talking about?"

"See?" Takumi maintained. "She doesn't even know."

"Alright, alright," Alex relented, albeit somewhat disappointed.

"I'm really sorry, guys," Hiroki apologetically expressed. "This whole thing was just one big misunderstanding. Guess I really let my imagination get the best of me."

"Well, now there's an understatement," came a familiar voice from out in the hall.

"Akira!" Takumi instinctively recognized, ecstatically then rushing over to greet her as she entered through the still fully open door to the apartment. "Oh, Akira, you have no idea how happy I am to see you," he blissfully conveyed.

While observing the two in a rather heartfelt embrace, an astonished Hiroki still questioned, "Akira, wha… what are you doing here? There was no need for you to come. You really should be getting some sleep before the exam tomorrow."

"Hmph, you're one to talk," she sardonically remarked.

"Hey, I tried telling her the same thing," Takumi pointed out while proceeding to gaze deeply into Akira's eyes, earnestly professing, "But to tell you the truth… I'm actually glad that you came."

"Mmm, likewise," she affectionately expressed upon feeling the tender warmth of his lips caressing hers.

"Wow, guess it really has been two months," Alex amusingly observed with a wink to his friend.

Now a bit more composed, Akira turned to Hiroki to affirm, "Well, Hiroki, I certainly hope you've gotten it out of your system. Takumi called me a little while ago before you got here and filled me in. So I trust that you guys at least squared away this stupid little misunderstanding by now?"

"Um, yeah," Hiroki awkwardly replied.

"About time. Honestly, Hiroki," Akira expressed in amazement. "A love hotel? Seriously? You really thought that Izumi would…"

"Oh, come on, Akira, lay off," Takumi implored. "He's embarrassed enough about this whole ordeal as it is."

"Wait," a confused Ayumi queried, "you thought that Izumi was going to a love hotel?"

"And with Alex, no less," Takumi added.

"Alex? You're kidding?" Ayumi incredulously expressed.

"I know, right. No way would she be caught dead with a guy like me," Alex pretended to take offense at. "Gee thanks, you guys."

"Oh, come on, you know we didn't mean it like that," Ayumi attempted to reassure as she snuggled up alongside him.

"Wha… What's going on?" a bleary-eyed Izumi questioned, suddenly emerging from her bedroom in a rather loose-fitting nightgown. "A… Akira? What are you doing he… Hiroki!"

Extremely elated upon seeing him, Izumi excitedly began to rush over to him despite the effects that the alcohol still seemed to have on her, stumbling as a result the moment she crossed the threshold of her bedroom.

"Whoop, I got you," Takumi assured, catching her in his arms. "You alright?"

"Uh, yeah," she weakly replied while slowly beginning to lift her head up out of Takumi's chest, awkwardly then finding herself staring up into his eyes.

"And here I thought that things like this only happened in anime," Alex humorously observed.

"Heh, heh," Takumi chuckled. "Guess the only thing left to happen now is for the jealous boyfriend to show up and… Oh, hey, Hiroki. Uh, this isn't what it looks like," he kidded. "It's all just one big misunderstanding."

"Touché," Hiroki freely conceded, receiving a genial pat on the back from Takumi before taking Izumi into his arms.

"Jealous boyfriend? What are you guys…? Ooo, my head," Izumi then moaned, placing a hand up to her forehead. "…talking about?"

"Come on, Izumi, you need to lie down," Hiroki suggested.

"No, no, I'm fine," she unconvincingly maintained. "Just a little… dizzy, that's all. I wish you would have told me that you were coming. Why didn't you call?"

"Hmph, it was his incessant calling that got him into this mess in the first place," Akira offhandedly remarked.

"Huh?"

"Uh, I'll, I'll explain it all to you tomorrow," Hiroki uneasily gave her his assurance. "But right now…"

"Right now we really need to get you back to bed," Ayumi insisted as she took Izumi by the arm and proceeded to lead her back into the bedroom."

"Uh, hold on, Ayumi," Izumi implored, turning back to face Hiroki. "Hiroki, I… I know that you have an important exam tomorrow, and I certainly don't want to keep you, it's just that…"

"What is it?" he concernedly inquired.

"Well, this may sound a bit selfish, but… is there any way that you could, you know, stay here with me? Just for a little while, I mean. Until I fall asleep."

Receiving an approving nod from both Ayumi and Akira, Hiroki happily acknowledged, "Of course. I'll stay as long as you like."

"Thank you," she emotionally replied, running back into his open arms.

"Come on, guys," Alex suggested, "let's give them some privacy."

"'Night, Izumi," Ayumi wished her.

Looking back to her friends as they began to depart, Izumi apologetically professed, "Sorry for causing you guys all this trouble. I'm afraid I really made a fool out of myself this evening."

Coming over and embracing her friend in a hug of support, Akira sarcastically quipped, "Not as big a fool as the one you're with now, Izumi." Scrunching her eyes and shooting a wry smirk at Hiroki over Izumi's shoulder, she then fondly wished, "Happy birthday, Izumi."

"Aw, thank you, Akira."

"See you in class tomorrow, Hiroki. And you better not be late."

"Don't worry, I won't. 'Night, Akira."

Closing the door behind her as she now joined the others out in the hall, a somewhat anxious sounding Akira requested, "Come on, Takumi, you ready to go?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm ready."

"Guess I'll see you tomorrow, Takumi," Alex submitted. "Hey, and thanks again for inviting me. I really had fun tonight."

"Well, you're a fun guy to be with," Ayumi boldly confessed.

"Uhh… You, you really think so?" a tongue-tied Alex was surprised to hear.

"Oh brother," Akira impatiently said rolling her eyes.

"Come on, I'll walk you back to your dorm," Alex offered.

"Um, actually," Ayumi began to profess, "I'm not in the dorms; I live just upstairs in fact."

"Oh," he disappointingly expressed as he then began to awkwardly ramble, "Well, I certainly can't blame you. I mean, it sure beats living in those tiny ten square meter dorm rooms. Communal bath, communal kitchen, plus having to share only one toilet per floor… Believe me, if I could afford it I would. Anway…"

"412!" Ayumi unexpectedly blurted out.

"Huh?"

"I… I'm in apartment 412," she nervously informed him. "I mean, if you still want to walk me back to…"

"He'd love to," Takumi then jumped in. "Right?"

"Uh, yeah, yeah, sure," an on edge Alex abruptly agreed. "Absolutely."

"Great," Ayumi was pleased to hear. "Well uh, I guess we'll see you guys later then."

"Enjoy the rest of your evening, you two," Takumi fondly bid them.

As the young couple then headed toward the stairwell, walking hand in hand, Alex, just as he passed by Takumi, could be heard quietly singing under his breath, "I'm back in the saddle again."

"What was that?" Akira endeavored to comprehend the English song lyrics."

Garnering a chuckle from Takumi, he explained, "That, Akira, was a song of determination from a very determined young man."

"Well I'm very determined just to get out of here," she restlessly asserted, grabbing him by the arm. "Come on, let's go."

"Whoa!" a startled Takumi expressed as she pulled him along, hastily heading toward the stairwell. "Akira, slow down. If you're rushing to try and catch the next express train out of here, I can already tell you that there aren't any more leaving this evening; so you'll just need to take a local one. And those run about every fifteen minutes."

Reaching the bottom of the stairwell, standing now in the building's vestibule, Akira nonchalantly acknowledged, "Yeah, I know that. But who said I was rushing to catch a train? After all, I'm not exactly in any hurry to leave just yet. That is of course, unless you want me to go."

"Uh, no, no, of course not," he refuted, somewhat confused. "I just… figured you wanted to get back to your dorm so that you'd be well rested for the exam tomorrow morning."

"You let me worry about that," she made clear to him as they now exited the building.

"Yeah, but…"

"Listen, I didn't come all this way just for a quick hello and goodbye kiss," she declared. "I mean, after two months don't you think I at least deserve something a little more… substantial?"

Motioning with her head over toward a lone building just up the block, Takumi, rather intrigued with her inference that they pay a visit to the adult establishment, raised an eyebrow as he keenly remarked, "Ohhhh, so that's what you have in mind."

"Somehow I get the feeling that you're thinking the same thing," she seductively surmised as her arms now began to envelope around his body.

Finding himself backed up against a bike rack alongside the building, Takumi willingly professed, "Hey, I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't," proceeding to then affectionately caress her lips. "Mmmm, I think I understand now why you were in such a hurry. After all, it did seem rather odd for you to rush on over here like that when there was absolutely no reason for you to."

"Really? I thought I had a pretty good reason. One… exceptionally good reason," Akira suggestively remarked, following up with a strategically placed hand.

"Akira," Takumi pleasurably reacted. "My, someone's seems rather impatient."

"Well, can you blame me? Okay, so I guess I did kind of have an ulterior motive for coming here," she finally confessed before taking a step back away from Takumi.

"I thought as much," he discerned.

"Of course as long as I'm here," Akira reasoned as they then resumed their short jaunt to the hotel, "I figured we could also use this opportunity to settle our little wager."

"Uhh…"

"Now don't tell me you've forgotten already?"

"No, no, I lost fair and square, I admit that," he conceded. "It's just that…"

"Good! Because I just found out that this particular love hotel," she enthusiastically began to point out, "has some 'specialty themed' rooms. One of which just so happens to meet our needs. And for an added fee they even offer certain… accoutrements. If you know what I mean."

With a nervous gulp, an extremely apprehensive Takumi questioned, "Then you're… you're serious about wanting to go through with this?"

"Why certainly. Oh, now look," she then reminded him, "For years I've gone along with your little fetishes of dressing up in maid costumes and all other manners of cosplay."

"Yeah, but that was different. That was all mainly, you know, for public consumption, as it were. I never had you dress up when we… you know."

"Need I remind you of that first day on our honeymoon?"

"Oh yeeeeah," he fondly began to recall. "Heh, heh. How could I forget? All right, all right," he finally gave in, "you win. Guess it is only fair. I'll do it."

"Well, it's not like you had a choice in the matter."

"Very funny. Oh well, I always did say that I was open to new ideas," he reminded himself, yet still with a bit of unease in his voice.

"Oh relax; it'll be fun."

"If you consider pain fun."

"Would you stop? Look, if you really feel uncomfortable about doing this, I won't force you. But can I at least show you something first?"

"What do you want to show me?"

Stopping at the base of the steps leading up to the hotel, Akira pulled Takumi in close to her body, making sure first that no one was nearby, then discreetly took his hand and began to slip it just beneath her blouse.

"Akira, what are you…?" Completely taken aback, Takumi's eyes began to bulge when he suddenly realized, "Uhh… is that... leather?"

"Still not interested?"

"Hey, I… I never said that I wasn't," he attempted to refute.

"Ohh, so leather's a turn-on for you, huh?" she then realized. "I'll have to remember that."

"Well, ahh… Hold on, do you mean to tell me that you've been wearing that thing this entire time?"

"Mmmm hmmm."

"And… in front of all our friends?"

"You got it."

Impassioned with desire and practically drooling at the mouth, Takumi fervently expressed, "Damn, that is so hot!"

"Ha-haa! Now you just leave everything to me. I promise you that this'll be one experience that you'll never forget," she solemnly pledged. "Oh, there is just one little thing that I'm going to have to insist on."

"What's that?"

"From here on out, you will address me as Mistress."

Not even wanting to argue with her, Takumi simply played along, figuring that it was only fair after all those times of having her address him as Master while cosplaying as a maid for him.

"Well, if that's the case then I only have one question for you: What is your bidding… my Mistress?"

"Hmm, you catch on quick," she humorously observed. "At least you know who's in charge."

"Why you are, of course, my Mistress," Takumi quipped.

As they neared the love hotel's entrance, Akira lightheartedly reminded him, "Just remember, Takumi, as long as you're good and you obey me… you'll be pleasantly rewarded," she seductively decreed. "But if you're bad and disobey…"

Raising her arm and making a flicking motion with her wrist as if she were cracking a whip, Takumi, fully grasping the situation, acknowledged, "I got it, I got."

"Oh, and don't worry," she attempted to assure him upon making their way into the adult establishment. "I promise I won't make the handcuffs too tight."

"Ha… Handcuffs?"