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Ephemeral Ascendence

Ephemeral Ascendence

[Private] In modern-day Tokyo, the last of the taiji-ya find themselves embroiled in a war for the ages.

2089 readers have visited this universe since Aethyia created it. Nemeseia are listed as curators.
Topics: adventure, alternate universe, anime, contracts, daiyokai, demons, dragons, fantasy, humor, kitsune, mature, mild adult content, modern, nekoyokai, okamiyokai, oni, original, slayers, taiji-ya, and yokai (Add Tags »)
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Introduction




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Demons—powerful beings of varying natures, capable of both great evil and benevolence. They come in many varieties, from the hulking, horned oni to the sleek, seductive kitsune to the winged, spiritual tengu. What they have in common however, is that even now, even today, they walk among humans, disguised and under the radar, but unmistakably alien all the same. Many years ago, these yōkai ruled our world, openly wearing the traits of their heritage and commanding the might of armies, feudal lords over humans and other demons alike. The strongest of these were the Seven Daiyōkai, the beautiful, powerful lords of the highest demon bloodlines, the very paragons of demonic strength and prowess.

As time passed and humanity grew, however, the Seven knew that, for all their strength, they would not forever be able to hold back the growing tide of humanity. Marked as other by their distinctive appearances, they were feared, and some of them rightly so, for many demons were creatures of great bloodlust and violence who had little qualm about killing and consuming lesser beings, especially humans. But humans were always a resourceful race, and their intelligence, coupled with the arrogance of the yōkai, allowed for the formation of the taiji-ya, the Slayers. Humans with special senses and lifetimes’ worth of combat training, they fought tirelessly to defend their people from the petty yōkai who would devastate their fields and steal away their children, and for a long time, the Daiyōkai allowed this. But others interfered, having a special grudge against the Slayers and also the hanyō, the offspring of humans and demons, as often monstrous as beautiful and fey. Spurned by yōkai, many hanyō took up arms in the Slayers’ war on demonkind, and in time, the fighting grew so pitched that the Seven knew it could not be allowed to continue.

And so it was that the yōkai, faced with the prospect of a long battle against humanity that may well end their species forever, chose instead to assimilate, shedding their otherworldly appearances and taking on the forms of humans themselves, working their way into human society. Their long lives allowed many of them to accrue vast sums of resources, and many gravitated towards the upper classes of the world, still in some ways ruling as they always had, but this time with a subtler, defter touch. So good were they at donning these disguises that eventually, they faded from human memory, becoming only myth, stories told to children at night.

But there are those who never forgot. The taiji-ya, too, went into hiding, continuing to cultivate their secret arts and hunt down those demons that revealed themselves to be enemies of mankind. With others, they formed alliances, often sealed with a Contract—a mechanism by which a human taiji-ya could share a demon’s lifespan and gain some of his or her power, usually in exchange for a period of servitude. The more powerful the demon, the better the result, but of course few demons were willing to make such binding arrangements with humans, and so the practice remained rare, but coveted.

In modern-day Tokyo dwell the remnants of what was once the greatest clan of taiji-ya in the world—the Yukimura clan. The heirs of this clan are about to play an important role in events they cannot even begin to predict. Their ancestral calling will become the only thing that stands between them and certain death, but even it will not be enough to save them, in the end. For that, they will require allies, and these will not be easy to come by.

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Character Portrait: Ichikage Motoyami "I do so love it when the unexpected happens. Even more fun if I'm the only one who expects it."
Character Portrait: Mika Sakuragi "I can't help but feel that the life I've known is now on a very definite deadline."
Character Portrait: Satoru Yukimura "Well... it's sure as hell not what I expected my life to be, but here I am."
Character Portrait: Kiyoshi Motoyami "This feeling in my chest... it is foreign."
Character Portrait: Ryoka Yukimura "This is something I have to do... no matter what."
Character Portrait: Etsuko Fujimori "Things have certainly become more interesting, that's for sure."

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Tokyo || 2020

Tokyo || 2020 by Aethyia

A world that could have been, through a mirror slightly darker.

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Setting

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Character Portrait: Satoru Yukimura Character Portrait: Ryoka Yukimura
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This year, Satoru's birthday fell on a Saturday.

He'd almost managed to forget it—not completely, but enough that it had only occurred to him that today was the day when he'd checked his phone in the morning and observed the date. April 23rd. He was eighteen years old today.

It was the first birthday he'd ever had without his parents and the rest of his family around. That was a difficult thought to swallow; he dropped the phone back onto the mattress and dressed without any feeling of excitement or anticipation. He'd never been one for making himself the center of attention, but he had enjoyed his birthdays in the past because everyone else was together for a while.

He'd just have to get used to that not being the case anymore.

Pulling his hair up on his head, he dressed for a normal day around the estate and pulled open the door to his room, heading towards the kitchen with the intention of making himself some breakfast. While he was sure he was welcome to the large meals the staff made to be shared amongst themselves, he preferred to do his own cooking, still not quite sure that he should accept such gestures. He was only a temporary tenant here, after all.

“Toto-chan!" Ryoka called out, appearing around the corner. Satoru hadn't made it to the kitchen yet, and she was wearing a big grin on her face. She stepped to the side before circling him. Quirking an eyebrow, her face smoothed over to a more gentle smile. “My little Toto isn't so small any more. I think I'm going to cry," she spoke, but it was obvious in the small quirk of her lips that she was joking. Instead, she shook her head and placed a hand on her hip.

“And if I know my otōto, he's going to the kitchen to make breakfast, right?" she stated, a more mischievous smile crossing her face. “Well, sorry to say, kiddo, but you're spending your breakfast with me. It's not every day my little otōto turns eighteen, after all," she continued. “Ichi-kun has given me the morning off, and I'm spending it with you."

“So... where do you want to go? There are a few places around here that have a really good selection as far as breakfast goes."

Satoru didn't bother concealing his heavy sigh. "Anytime you want to stop calling me like I'm under ten years old would be great, Ryoka." Frankly he hated being called 'Toto-chan,' but really no matter how many times he said so, she wasn't great at paying attention. Or caring about his opinion, as the case may be.

He didn't really especially want to go celebrate or do anything for the day, either, but... he was conscious in a new way that they may not have that much regular time left together, even if he stayed in the city for college. So he just shrugged. "I don't really care where we go. Pick someplace with pastries you want to eat or something." He offered a slight smile, more tired than happy, but he was trying. Even if he'd never be able to muster half her enthusiasm.

Ryoka chuckled lightly beneath her breath and shook her head. “Alright, Satoru," she stated, smiling a little softer than she usually did. “Today is supposed to be your day, but if you insist, there's a little shop not too far from here we can go to. It's within walking distance, and it's not usually crowded, so it might be just to your liking," she continued, rolling out her shoulders slightly. She took a step forward before stopping and turning in his direction. She pursed her lips together as if she wanted to say something, but she remained quiet.

“I know I don't say it often, Satoru, but... I want you to know I am proud of you. Despite me constantly getting on your nerves and all," she finally spoke, the same soft smile on her face. There was nothing mischievous about it, and seemed to be genuine. She sighed, though, and turned back around to lead him out.

It didn't take them long to reach the bakery, and Ryoka opened the door to let him through. “So... is there anything you want to do today, Satoru? I didn't get you anything because I know you don't like gifts, but I want to do something with you other than just breakfast."

To his credit, he did try to think of something. Making his way into the bakery, Satoru distantly registered the warm scents of cinnamon and apples, as well as the sharper tang of raspberry tart. Somewhere else he wanted to go...

It occurred to him, not for the first time, that he didn't really have a lot of hobbies. Basically everything he did was work or work-related, except his music, and that wasn't exactly something that you went somewhere else to enjoy. He'd been to the museum pretty recently—more than once since he'd gone with Etsuko and Ichikage, actually. But he wasn't really feeling the desire to go again, nor to go anywhere else in particular.

His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. An idea—a ridiculous idea, but an interesting one—occurred to him. Something one of his friends had mentioned doing once. "Actually," he said, "what would you think of taking some of the others out to play paintball?"

Ryoka blinked a little slowly, at first. Her head was tilted, and she seemed to be processing his suggestion. “I think they'd love it. I know I would," she spoke in a nonchalant manner, but she was smiling all the same. “After breakfast, we should go ask them," she spoke, making her way towards the counter. She ordered something for herself, thanked the woman behind the bar, and turned towards him.

“I suppose I could also just send them a text, but that doesn't seem nearly as personal as actually asking them," she stated, running a hand through her hair and giving it a light shake. She looked genuinely excited about it, though, if the grin on her face was anything to go by.

Satoru nodded, putting in his order as well and smiling thinly when the raspberry tart was handed to him on a small plate over the counter, along with a cup of black coffee and a little container of milk to flavor it. Following Ryoka back to the table, he sat down across from her in the little booth.

"Something tells me it's going to be a lot more intense with them than with pretty much anyone else," he observed, breaking a piece off the tart. It hit his tongue with a sort of effervescent sweetness, the sugary confection melting away and yielding to the tart sting of the concentrated raspberries. He could deal with sweet if there was also sour involved. "You wanna take a bet on who wins? My money's on Kiyoshi-dono."

It was perhaps an odd bet to make, but Satoru had his reasons for thinking so. "I'll put two thousand yen on it."

Ryoka feigned a hurtful look. “You don't have much faith in your sister? Ouch, Satoru, that hurts," she spoke, taking a bite out of her strawberry danish. She chewed it in a thoughtful manner before washing it down with a cup of milk. “But my bet would be on Mika-chan. She's... she has the looks of someone skilled," she stated, taking another bite out of her danish.

“I'll take your bet, though, so when you loose, I'll have an extra two thousand yen to buy more pastries with," she continued, grinning in his direction. Her love of pastries, or anything sweet for that matter, was no secret. She finished off her danish and her drink before setting the cup aside. “Here, we'll shake on it," she stated, though she didn't hold out her hand immediately. It seemed she was waiting for him to finish before shaking his hand.

Satoru popped the piece he was holding in his mouth and wiped his fingers on his napkin before reaching across the table, a slightly-sly smile on his face. He was definitely counting on Mika being skilled, but not in the same obvious way that Ryoka was. That was like her—observant, but not quite as observant as he was.

"It's a wager, then. If someone else wins, we'll call it even."

Maybe he'd buy himself something with his winnings.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Ichikage Motoyami Character Portrait: Mika Sakuragi Character Portrait: Satoru Yukimura Character Portrait: Kiyoshi Motoyami Character Portrait: Ryoka Yukimura Character Portrait: Etsuko Fujimori
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Etsuko was, admittedly, a little excited and confused. She was currently adjusting the goggles on her face, and rolling down the sleeves to her shirt. They were at the paintball range for Satoru's birthday, and she felt a little out of place. She'd only been once, but it was two years ago. She didn't really remember how to play. Shaking the thought from her head, she glanced towards the others. Mika was standing with Kiyoshi, who looked extremely confused about the paintball gun in his hands, and Ryoka was standing with Ichikage.

She looked like she was muttering something to him that was amusing because she was grinning, which was never a good sign with Ryoka. Satoru was to Etsuko's left, and he looked a little happy. Or at least she thought he was. She wasn't good at reading body language, but he had been smiling slightly when he'd returned with Ryoka from their breakfast. Shrugging lightly to herself, she adjusted the paintball gun in her hand and turned towards Satoru.

“So... uh, how is this played, again, exactly? Are we supposed to do it in small groups, or as a sort of free-for-all?" she asked. If it were the latter, Etsuko was certain she'd be covered in paint by the end of it.

Not far away, Mika was helping Kiyoshi strap himself into his protective vest—all of them had rental equipment that was mostly black, but with accents in a color that matched the paintballs they'd be using. Kiyo's were yellow, Mika's green.

Satoru next to her was clipping his CO2 tank onto his back. Those apparently provided the air that "shot" the paintballs from the rifle-like guns they'd been given. Their faces all bore paint in their colors as well, since tō-san had insisted. Satoru's were double vertical lines under his eyes all the way down his jaw and neck; he hadn't put his own goggles on his face yet, and turned towards her when she asked the question. His paint color almost matched his eyes: a dark, cobalt blue.

"It sort of depends on what we want to do," he said. "The winner of the match is sort of split between who gets the most hits on other people and takes the least themselves, but I don't see any reason there wouldn't be teamwork." He shrugged, hefting his paint gun so that the barrel faced the sky and pulling his goggles down over his eyes. "But since we each have a color, there's still only one winner."

She already knew she was going to lose, but it didn't stop a small smile crossing her face. At least they would be having fun, she hoped. “Well, I guess I'll say to the winner go the spoils," she stated, laughing to herself at the stupid comment. It's not like they were waging anything. “But, uh, good luck?" she stated a little unsure of herself.

“Hey you two, stop looking so adorable together and get over here," Ryoka's voice called out, causing Etsuko's face to heat slightly. She pursed her lips in Ryoka's direction, and narrowed her eyes slightly. “What?" she stated, not bothering to hide the grin on her face. Etsuko shook her head slightly and sighed softly.

“You shouldn't tease Tsu-chan so early, Ryoka-san," Kiyoshi spoke finally, glancing around at the others. Etsuko inwardly groaned and rolled her eyes. The two of them together was not an ideal combination, however; she already knew tō-san added to the mix was bound to be disasterous. She could almost feel it in her bones; they were up to something.

They were always up to something.

Ichikage, fully decked out in his own set of gear with red accents, wore his matching facepaint in a surprisingly-intricate pattern for some reason. He was still loading paintballs into the feeder thing on top of his rifle, but snapped it closed a moment later. "So here's the rules: no intentionally aiming for anyone's head, no powers, and we have a thirty-second setup window to take our positions, starting..." he paused, flashing them all a toothy grin. "Now."

He was off in a flash, heading what was probably in a general westward direction. There were all kinds of obstacles and such settled around the area, from half-fallen walls to the hollowed-out shell of what used to be a building of some kind to the copses of trees. He cleared a wall in a single bound—powers or not, they were still playing paintball with yōkai.

And that, at the moment, Etsuko decided was unfair. Mika-chan, Kiyo-kun, and tō-san still had the advantage. She sighed heavily, but allowed herself to grin. That didn't mean she had to give up at the beginning, though. She'd lose, yes, but she wasn't going to go down without a fight. Ryoka had taken off in the opposite direction of tō-san, but she was laughing almost maniacally. It wouldn't be too hard to find her if she kept that up. Kiyo-kun had taken off with Mika-chan, causing Etsuko to inwardly laugh. Old habits must be hard to break for him.

Etsuko, however, decided to go in the direction of tō-san before veering off a little to the left. She wanted to find cover, first. Then, she could scope the area out and see if anyone passed her by. She frowned slightly to herself, though. She didn't want to camp, exactly. She'd heard her friends use the term whenever they played their games, but she'd never been too interested in system games. All she knew was that camping was a lame thing to do.

And she didn't want to be lame.

She managed to find cover in a hollowed mound, setting her paintball gun up so that she could see if anything was nearby. Sighing to herself, she moved from her spot, only to have something whip past her. She yelped, throwing herself to the side to avoid it.

“Well you're no fun, Tsu-chan," it was Ryoka's voice. Etsuko turned to face her, and narrowed her eyes. Ryoka opened her mouth to say something, but she was prevented from doing that when something collided with her shoulder, causing her to wince. “Ow, what the..." she stated, turning her gun on the culprit.

"You should have been paying better attention, Ryoka-san." Ichikage sing-songed the words, ducking behind a tree, which absorbed the light blue paintball headed his way. He'd managed to shoot from... quite a long distance, actually.

He would have that kind of skill, though. Etsuko snorted when Ryoka muttered beneath her breath, however; it turned into a bout of laughter when Ryoka was hit with another paintball. “Am I a walking target or something?" she stated out loud, glancing down at the yellow paint splattered on her other shoulder.

“The purpose is to keep moving and get as many hits as possible, is it not?" Kiyoshi's voiced called out. He had a point. Etsuko turned her gun on Ryoka, shooting a paint ball in her direction as well. Ryoka was now sporting three different paint colors on her person, but she merely grinned.

“How right you are, Kiyo-kun," she stated, aiming her paintball gun towards Etsuko. Etsuko yelped as she tried to get out of the way, however; the sharp stinging sensation in her shoulder and the pale blue color paint there, gave way that she was hit. Ryoka laughed before turning on Kiyoshi.

A very well-aimed green paintball knocked her arm off-course, and the shot missed, going wide instead. Mika only sported one mark thus far—a dark blue one that meant Satoru must have hit her at some earlier point. "This way, sir," she directed, pointing with the muzzle of her rifle. The two of them disappeared as well, scattering the field once again.

Though it started as mostly a free-for-all, it swiftly became apparent that Mika was not aiming for Kiyoshi, and in fact stepped in front of a couple of hits he might otherwise have taken, from Ryoka and Ichikage respectively. Aside from Kiyo, everyone bore at least some paint, the most prominent colors being green and dark red, though it looked like Satoru wasn't doing too bad for himself either. Ryoka had mostly prevented herself from doing that well by pretty much always giving away her position with laughter. It didn't help that she wasn't hiding, either.

It was when Etsuko was crouching behind a wall that she felt another body slide in next to her, facing the other direction. "Don't shoot," Satoru said, inching up to peer back over the wall. He ducked immediately, a red paintball whizzing by over his head. "You want a truce? They're gonna destroy us otherwise." Despite the almost-seriousness of his tone, he was actually smiling a little, the blue paint on his face already smeared out of its neat lines.

Etsuko glanced down at her attire, noticing the various paint covering her before she glanced back up. “Truce," she agreed. They were getting destroyed, and Etsuko didn't exactly want to lose. Besides, if Mika-chan was taking care of Kiyo-kun, Etsuko could team up with Satoru. It gave her a better chance at something, she supposed. “I'll go first," she stated, lifting her head over the wall to make sure it was safe. “I can distract them and you can go for the shots."

He was likely a better shot than she was, after all. She had done okay, but the color schemes on everyone indicated that the lead painters was a tie between Ichikage and Mika-chan. There needed to be more color other than just red and green.

Satoru nodded. "Okay. Don't stay exposed for too long, and whatever you do, don't stop moving." He gave her a short nod before hefting the barrel of his paintball gun over the lip of the roof, sniper-style. "Whenever you're ready."

Etsuko took a deep breath. She could be the bait, while Satoru picked off the others. It was a good team dynamic, she supposed. Shaking her head, she lifted herself from where she was, and jumped out. She could feel the sharp sting of a paint ball on her shoulder, and judging by the color, it belonged to Ichikage. Another paintball managed to miss her, but in the end, she ended up almost as covered in paint as Ryoka had.

Ryoka was primarily blue and red, some hints of green and yellow peeking through, however; Etsuko was covered in all the colors. She didn't mind so much; she had had fun with them. Catching her breath, she glanced towards Satoru, and grinned in his direction. The others were taking off their gear, and were getting ready to declare who won. A quick glance in Kiyoshi's direction, however, showed he wasn't even colored. Not a single paint ball managed to hit him.

“Well, that was fun," she spoke in Satoru's direction. She, honestly, couldn't remember the last time she'd had this much fun. With anyone. “I, uh... happy birthday, Satoru," she stated a little awkwardly. It had occured to her that she hadn't told him that, yet. “I hope you had as much fun as I did."

“Yeah, Satoru," Ryoka chimed in, wiping the streaks of paint off of her face. Kiyoshi was offering Mika a towel at this point, but he was glancing in Satoru's direction as well, a strange soft smile on his face.

“I believe we all had... a good time," he stated, almost as if he was unsure of the wording. Etsuko just rolled her eyes at him, but she was still smiling all the same.

Satoru did a rare thing, then: he actually smiled. A real one, broad enough to flash teeth and light up his entire face. "It was great, honestly. Thanks, everyone." His smile turned a little sly, then, and his eyes sought out his sister's.

"And Ryoka: you owe me twenty bucks."

Ryoka grumbled something beneath her breath, but she didn't seem too upset about the statement. Instead, she reached into her back pocket and pulled out what appeared to be her wallet. She shifted through it and pulled out the amount she owed. She handed it to Satoru, causing Etsuko to keep her brow raised. They placed some sort of bet, probably. She shrugged her shoulders, though. It's not like it pertained to her. She pursed her lips together, and chewed her bottom lip, thoughtfully.

She'd gotten something for Satoru for his birthday, but it was a custom order. She had placed it a little late, though. It had cost her a lot, considering the material was hard to come by, but Kiyoshi had offered to help her with the payment. She'd spent most of her own money because she wanted to get something special for Satoru. Something that would be helpful, too. It would be done next month, so maybe she could give it to him as a graduation present, instead?

“So, now that we've finished brutalizing each other, should we go out to dinner?" Ryoka stated, interrupting Etsuko's thoughts. She blinked in Ryoka's direction, who was grinning broadly towards Satoru. She'd tell him about it later. “Because I'm starving," Ryoka continued, causing Etsuko to give her a flat look.

“Ryoka-san, you're always starving."

"Sounds like an excellent idea to me," tō-san added. "Let's get cleaned up at home; I'll make us a reservation at that new dim sum place."

Setting

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Character Portrait: Satoru Yukimura Character Portrait: Ryoka Yukimura
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Satoru nudged the papers together with his fingertips, pressing his lips together and sighing through his nose. He'd been dreading this decision for a while, but he was running out of time to make it—and he'd put off talking to his one remaining family member about it for too long. It was with a certain heaviness that he stood up, folding the papers along their creases and exiting his room in search of his sister.

It was her day off, so he tried her room first, lifting his hand and rapping his knuckles on the doorframe. "Nee-san. Are you in there?"

There was a soft thud on the other side, and some shuffling. He could hear Ryoka muttering profanities underneath her breath before she pulled the door open. “Eh, Satoru?" she stated, running her hand through her ponytail and giving it a shake. It looked like she was trying to detangle it, but considering how long it was, she would need to take a brush to it. She was dressed in a pair of baggy pants, and a dark red tank top. Maybe she was going to go out for a run?

“Whatcha need, kiddo?" she asked, focusing her gaze on him. Her eyes were slightly lighter than Satoru's, but there was something else behind them. It made her eyes brighter than they were, perhaps because she was happier these days.

Not that noticing this made him feel any better. If anything, he worried that the discussion might put a bit of a damper on things. He hoped not, but... given everything that had happened to their family, what might have been a pretty normal discussion about his future plans could easily turn into an emotional minefield, considering just how close they'd become over the last... half a year? Maybe it was more than that—his sense of time was just so off these days.

"Can I come in?" he asked. "I need to talk to you about something—but if you have plans right now, I can come back later." He kept his voice neutral; it wasn't exactly an emergency and he didn't want her to think it demanded her attention right now if she wanted or needed to be elsewhere.

“Sure," she replied, opening the door wider as if to let him in. “I was just about to head out for a bit of a run, but that can wait. I'm off all day so..." she trailed off before ushering him in. Her room was, surprisingly neat. Ryoka was never one for well-cleaned rooms, but perhaps considering where they lived, it made sense. There was a small table in her room, and she pointed towards it, the point clear to take a seat.

“So, what is it that you need to speak with me about?" she asked, and for once, there was no teasing tone to her voice. She sounded genuinely interested in what he had to say, and she was holding his gaze with a strange kind of steadiness.

He wasn't sure if he found that reassuring or just more daunting. Still, Satoru had never been one to beat around the bush when the option to be direct was available. So he settled himself down at the table and set the letters down on the surface in front of him. Folded like this, they were just innocuous sheets of white paper, the American one sized slightly differently from the Japanese one, but fitting together well enough for his purposes.

"It's about college," he said simply, pushing the letters towards her. "I need to decide between these two places, and I want to know what you think." It might be his life—he knew it was, that these decisions were his to make. But there wasn't any point in ignoring the obvious either: Ryoka was important to him, and to his life, and he cared about what she thought of all this. Her opinion mattered to him, just like he knew his mattered to her.

It wouldn't be fair to make the decision without talking it over with her first.

“College?" she stated more than questioned. She took one of the papers, and opened it. Her eyes scanned the paper, apparently reading the information on it. When she was done with the first one, she picked up the other one, and read it as well. Her brows had furrowed slightly, and her lips were pursed in a thin manner. She stayed quiet for a few minutes after that, and simply stared at the papers. It was almost as if she were contemplating what to say.

It was at least another five minutes before she sighed, heavily. “So, you've been accepted into two colleges. One is here, but the other one..." she paused, lifting her gaze to meet his. Her brows were still furrowed, but it seemed more because she was thinking about something rather than being upset.

“It's in America." The tone was laced with something light and soft. “And you want to know what I think about which one you should go to," it sounded more like she was talking to herself, but she was still holding his gaze. Her shoulders slumped, though, as did her posture and she remained quiet.

“I think... you should go to the one you want to the most, Satoru," she finally spoke, shaking her head lightly. “If you go to the American college, you'll be so far away," she stated, and there was something heavy in the way she said it. Her voice almost cracked when she spoke, but she appeared to be calm about her statement.

“But if you go to the one here, you'd be close by," she continued, pursing her lips together. “Satoru," she called his name, and for once, she looked completely serious. “I've told you before that, whatever you wanted to do with your life, I would support you. What do you feel is best for you?" she asked, tilting her head just slightly.

Satoru glanced down at this hands, folded together on the table. "That's what I'm trying to figure out," he said, releasing a sigh. "MIT is... not just any American school. It's probably close to the best school in the world for the kinds of things I'm interested in." That fact alone was hard to turn down, and his English was easily good enough to make it feasible.

"On the other hand... Todai's a really good school, too, and I would be closer. Could probably still live here, if Motoyami-sama didn't mind. Or at least get a place in the city close by." He raised his eyes to meet hers again, pushing his glasses up his nose.

“I don't think he'd mind," she spoke, a small smile fluttering across her face for a second. She sighed again, and leaned back a bit to stare up at the ceiling. “From what I hear, though, is that MIT might be a better fit for you. You know I'm not proficient in a lot of things, and I wouldn't be able to tell you the difference in which college is better or worse, but," she paused to take a breath and lower her gaze to his.

“It sounds like MIT would be the best school for you. For whatever it is you are interested in, if it's the closest to the best school for you... I think you should go." She sounded completely sincere about it.

If it came to that, she was probably right. For his studies, there was nowhere better to go. But...

He grit his teeth for a moment, shaking his head slightly. His ponytail settled against his back when he leaned forward slightly, bracing his forearms on the table. "What if that's not the only issue, though?" he asked quietly. "What if it also matters to me whether I'll be here—whether I'll be able to..."

A grimace formed over Satoru's face. It was hard to find the right words for this uneasy feeling. It was never quite right there on the surface for him to name easily. It was more like a hunch, or an instinct, something below the level of conscious thought. "It's just—we're the only ones left. I don't know if I can just... walk away from that. Have a different life."

Once, it had been exactly what he wanted. When he'd had to worry about his parents disapproving and trying to keep him in the family business. Ironically it was now, when he was really free to choose his path, that he wasn't so sure he wanted out of that life anymore.

“But isn't that what you wanted?" she asked, tilting her head in slight confusion. “I understand if what you're worried about is me, but," she stated, pursing her lips into a thin line. Her lip quirked slightly to the left as if she were chewing on it. “If it's that important to you, Satoru, you don't have to worry about me. I'm not... I might not be any good out in the real world, but I don't want you to stay because we're the last ones. I mean..." she stated, sighing in frustration. She scratched the back of her head before shaking it.

“If you stayed, I wouldn't feel... worried about you. I'd know where you were, and I'd be able to help if something happened, however; if something happened to you overseas..." she trailed off, the implication clear: she wouldn't be able to do anything. She smiled softly in his direction, though.

“Maybe you can have the best of both worlds? You could go to Todai, and you could stay here. At least here, you have people who could help you with your abilities, and you'd still be getting into a decent college, right?" she stated.

It wasn't just for her that he felt this way, though he'd be lying if he said she wasn't a big part of it. Slowly, he dipped his chin, nodding his head down. "I've... been thinking the same," he admitted. "It's just a really difficult opportunity to turn down, even though I know that I want to." He couldn't help but think of all the what-ifs and could-happens.

“Well kiddo," she began, leaning back so that her arms were draped behind her. “If what you really want is to be here, I won't try to change your mind," she stated, grinning in his direction. “But, Satoru, I want you to be absolutely sure this is what you really want. I don't... I don't want you to regret anything. You're a bright kid with a bright future ahead of you," she spoke with a sort of seriousness to her voice.

“As much as I want you here, safe where I can keep an eye on you, I want you to be happy, more than anything. If going to MIT makes you happy, then go. If staying here, going to Todai makes you happier, then stay here and go to Todai. Your happiness is all that matters to me, even if my selfish little heart wants you here," she stated, a soft crack in her voice giving way to what she was actually feeling.

A lump rose in Satoru's throat, one he had to try and swallow past so that he could speak as well. "Okay," he replied quietly, his voice almost a whisper. "I got it. Thanks, Ryoka." Impulsively, he stood, gesturing for her to do the same and sort of shrugging his arms open a bit. Hopefully she'd read his intention without him having to explain or ask, because he wasn't sure his voice would hold that long.

She stood as well, and walked around the table. The force with which she hugged him with, though, conveyed everything that she was feeling. There was a slight tremor in her body, but she didn't say anything. She simply hugged him, and remained where she was. She let go after a few minutes, though, and smiled at him.

“You're welcome," she finally stated. “Now, I have a run to go make. Do you want to come with?" she asked, raising a brow when she did. Her eyes were slightly glossy, but she blinked a few times as if to clear them.

"Give me two minutes to change," he replied, squeezing once before releasing her and stepping away from the hug. "And we'll throw in some obstacles. I know how much you love those."

Setting

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Character Portrait: Satoru Yukimura Character Portrait: Etsuko Fujimori
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Etsuko sighed softly, and kept staring at the papers in front of her. She'd been accepted into three different colleges: Toho Gakuen School of Music, Juilliard, and Kunitachi College of Music. All three were exceptional places, and considering that she wanted to pursure a career in music, either one would be a good choice. Juilliard had only one drawback, though. It was in New York, in America. Etsuko had made the application on behalf of her teacher. He had said that The Juilliard was one of the best music schools in the world, but Etsuko hadn't been too interested in it.

Mainly because it would mean that she'd have to leave and take residence in America. She wasn't too sure she wanted to do that, though. Toho and Kunitachi were both well-known colleges, and they were both situated in Tokyo. She could stay here while she went to school to either of them. Toho, though... Toho had been her first choice. One of her favorite violinists had attended there, and it was mostly the reason why she'd worked so hard on her music. She'd been so excited when she received the letter, but now she had three choices.

Maybe she could ask for advice? If she could, maybe, find out someone else's opinion, it might make it easier to decide. Otō-san would be her main priority, but she had a feeling she knew what he'd say. Kiyo-kun wasn't exactly college-smart, but that didn't mean she didn't value his opinion, either. Mika-chan... Etsuko valued her opinion and advice more than anything, but she wasn't so sure Mika would be able to help with this particular decision. She wondered, briefly, where Satoru was going to attend. Would he be close by, too? Or was he going somewhere overseas?

She shook the thought from her mind. That wasn't important, right now. She needed to make a decision where she was going to go, but she needed to find someone, first, and ask their opinion. She grabbed the papers, and stood from her spot on the floor. With the papers in hand, she walked from her room, intent on finding someone to help her make a hard decision.

As luck would have it, the first person she ran into was Satoru; from the way he was dressed, he'd just come in from a run. The sleeveless shirt was one of those loose ones with extremely large armholes, black and sticking to him in places with sweat. The also-black track pants made regular rustling sounds as he walked the engawa, seemingly lost in thought.

Not enough so not to notice her though—his eyes snapped back into focus as their paths drew closer to crossing. "Fuji—er. Sorry. Etsuko." He still said her name like it was foreign somehow, with an exaggerated slowness. Probably because he was still getting used to it. Pushing his glasses up his nose, he stopped slightly more than a respectable distance away from her. "You're up kind of early." It was true that the sun had only come up about an hour or so ago.

“Yeah, I couldn't sleep much, last night," she confessed. Graduation was approaching, and so were the application deadlines. She wasn't able to sleep much because she couldn't make a decision on which college she wanted to attend. If she'd been accepted into just one, it would have been an easy choice.

“Graduation's just around the corner and I haven't chosen a college yet. I have three to choose from," she stated, pulling the papers in front of her. “I was, uh, looking for advice from someone," she continued, smiling nervously. “What about you, Satoru? Have you decided where you're going to go?" she asked, tilting her head slightly. She was curious, but he didn't have to tell her if he didn't want to.

He shrugged. "I had a few too, then narrowed it down to two. I think I'm going to Todai. What are your options?" Glancing around, he seemed to realize that standing around at the middle of the engawa might not be the best place to have the conversation. "Uh, do you wanna sit down somewhere? I was headed back to my room, but we could head to the kitchen instead or something."

“Oh, sure," she stuttered, moving slightly so that there was a little more room between them. Not that there wasn't any space, or anything. She could feel her face warming slightly before she pushed it down. She lead them to the kitchen, and took a seat on one of the available chairs, settling the papers down in front of her as she did. Spreading them out, she sighed softly, and glanced in Satoru's direction.

“My options are these three; Juilliard, Kunitachi, and Toho," she began, chewing her bottom lip before continuing. “I'm not entirely sure about Juilliard, though. I don't want to leave Japan to study abroad. Not for music, at least." It wasn't entirely that, either. She didn't want to be too far from her family, not with everything that has happened so far.

If she left, there was no telling what might happen. Otō-san, Kiyo-kun, and Mika-chan wouldn't be there a second time if anything happened to her, and that was not a thought she wanted to entertain. “So I guess that kind of eliminates that one," she laughed nervously. She probably should have done that earlier.

Satoru hummed thoughtfully. "That was the hardest thing for me," he said. "Deciding if I wanted to go to the States to study or not. I took out all the other options in Japan because Todai was the best one and also close by. Is one of the schools obviously better than the other one for what you want to do? Music?" It seemed even the last part was new information to him, but then they hadn't really talked about this with each other before, for whatever reason.

He almost took the stool next to hers, but then reoriented himself towards the fridge instead, cracking the door open and withdrawing several punnets of fresh fruit and the milk. "I'm making shakes. You want one?"

“Sure," she answered, taking in a light breath. Was one better than the other? Toho and Kunitachi were, essentially, the same school. Kunitachi was Toho's predecessor, having been the Tokyo Music Conservatory at one time. “In regards to which would be the best, Toho has the most recognition," she began, pursing her lips lightly. “Kunitachi also has a great reputation, but... one of my favorite violinists was a student at Toho. He was the reason I got into music and wanted to attend in the first place."

She'd applied to Kunitachi in the event that she wasn't able to go to Toho. “I guess, it really just comes down to which one would be better for me," and that was a hard decision. She played well, and wanted to pursue a career in playing her violin, however; was she really good enough to attend Toho? Kunitachi was almost like attending Toho, but she had the option to actually attend.

“I'm just not sure if I choose Toho, I'd be able to live up to all the expectations," she nearly whispered it.

There was a short pause while Satoru ran the blender, emptying it halfway out into a cup before adding what looked like some kind of powder into it and blending a bit longer. When he was done, he gave her the first glass, settling onto one of the other stools with his own and taking a gulp before speaking.

"Well, you had to send them tapes of you playing for admission, right? Seems like they think you're good enough. Maybe you should, too." He lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug, taking another sip of the shake. It was sort of a purple-ish pink color, with a smooth consistency.

She frowned slightly. That was easier said than done. Just because they think didn't necessarily mean she was. He still had a point, though. She let her shoulders relax slightly, and shook her head. “Well, I suppose I could give it a try," she spoke, rolling her eyes softly before taking a drink of her own smoothie.

“At least it'd be closer to the house, and actually," she paused, blinking in realization. She laughed lightly to herself and pursed her lips together to keep from laughing too loudly. “It'd be almost in the same area as Todai." They were both located in Bunkyō, after all.

He nodded slightly. "Looks like it." The glass thudded softly against the counter as he put it down; he squinted slightly at her from beneath his glasses. "You know, if it doesn't work out, you can always transfer. It's not the end of the world if you do that later. Seems like it's worth trying the harder one to see what happens, you know?" Satoru smiled halfway, looking somewhere between uncomfortable and... encouraging, maybe? His expression was hard to place.

"I'd hate to see you let the fear of something that might happen get in your way, you know?"

“Yeah, you're right. Plus, if I let something like that get to me now, how could I ever be anything more? If it's not challenging, then I'm not really learning anything new," she stated, smiling a little awkwardly as she did. He had a point; if Toho didn't work out, she could transfer elsewhere. But she wouldn't know unless she tried first.

“Thanks, Satoru, you've been a big help," she spoke, smiling less awkwardly in his direction. “I think I'll choose Toho, and go from there." She just needed to send her acceptance in, and let otō-san know her decision.

“Oh, and thanks for the smoothie. It was good."

"Glad I could help," he said with a nod, finishing off his own drink. "And Etsuko: congratulations."

“Thanks," she stated, clearing her throat awkwardly. She couldn't fight the blush this time.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Ichikage Motoyami Character Portrait: Satoru Yukimura Character Portrait: Ryoka Yukimura Character Portrait: Etsuko Fujimori
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Hotaru no hikari, mado no yuki,
Fumi yomu tsukihi, kasane tsutsu
Itsushika toshi mo, sugi no to wo,
Aketezo kesa wa, wakare yuku.


The graduation ceremony itself had been more or less what they'd been practicing for over the last several weeks, from the speeches to the diploma handouts to the songs and all that, but in the minutes since, the crowd had broken up and was now mostly milling around outside the school building, in the gardens behind it. Early April as it was, the cherry trees were budding; a few of the flowers had already bloomed, their pink petals now littering the light green grass of the season.

Satoru, still in uniform, sipped idly from his cup of water, watching his classmates and their families mingle with each other. There were no few instances of tearful hugging and the like, people more or less dissolving at the realization that they wouldn't be seeing each other nearly so regularly anymore.

Tomaru mo yuku mo, kagiri tote,
Katami ni omou, chiyorozu no,
Kokoro no hashi wo, hitokoto ni,
Sakiku to bakari, utau nari.


He wasn't surprised that even yōkai did this. They had friends, too, after all, and most of the ones at the school weren't much if at all older than he was—still teenagers. He squinted against an obnoxious camera flash in the corner of his eye; two girls were taking a picture together.

He'd lost track of the clump of people that had come to the ceremony for himself and Etsuko, but he wasn't too worried about it. They'd show up again eventually, probably at an inconvenient time. Like a bad rash—especially his sister and her employer.

Etsuko wasn't too far from where he was. She was standing with a small group, her friends likely, and chatting amicably with them. She was smiling until the one on her left, Haru-kun as she had called him, leaned into her ear and said something. Whatever it was, it caused her face to turn a deep red. She shook her head almost violently while he laughed. With pursed lips, she turned towards Satoru's direction and waved. She said something to her friends, and left their side to join him.

“Hey, Satoru. Congratulations," she stated, the red on her face now just a light pink. “I take it Ryoka-san and Otō-san have disappeared?" she stated, glancing around as if to look for them.

"Congratulations to you, too," he replied, leaning a little more comfortably back against the tree behind him. The skin on his chest was a bit itchy beneath the uniform, maybe from the proximity of so many yōkai. "And if I know my sister at all, they're probably conducting a raid on the refreshments table. I saw some fancy-looking mochi earlier. She might leave enough for some of the other guests to have some."

He had no idea how his sister had developed a bottomless abyss for a stomach, but she had one. Usually that was the kind of thing people said about teenage boys, but Satoru himself probably only ate slightly more than the average person, and he figured that made sense since he also worked out a lot more. Ryoka, though—that was just freakish.

Etsuko snickered lightly, and shook her head. “Yeah, and I bet otō-san is encouraging it. They're so weird, but I suppose it's good for the both of them. I haven't seen otō-san that happy to have someone as... strange as him, I suppose," she stated, rolling her eyes with a grin. She blinked, though, as if she were trying to focus her attention and glanced back at him.

“I can't believe it's actually over," she stated, her attention going back towards the crowds of people. “I mean, not over, over, but... you know what I mean," she stated, furrowing her brows slightly.

He nodded, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck. "It's pretty weird," he admitted. "I mean, I know we're not legally adults yet or whatever, but it still kind of feels like... the last part of being a kid is over with." Not that he'd felt much like a kid in a long time now. Definitely not since his family had died.

"Where are all your friends headed?" He mostly asked to be polite; Etsuko didn't hang out with anyone he disliked, but he'd just... never really made friends easily. She and her ridiculous family were really—

They were really all he had, come to think of it.

“Some of them are going home to family businesses," she spoke. It made some sense considering some of her friends were yōkai. Some would either go back to their homes, but a few would actually attend some colleges. “Chihiro-chan is going abroad to study in America. She's going for medicine, and I think Haru-kun is actually going to Todai, as well," she stated, her brows furrowing just a little deeper.

“None of them are going to Toho, though," she stated, sounding just the slightest bit upset. She smiled, though, so it probably didn't bother her too much. “But I guess that just means I'll have to make friends there, too," she spoke, grinning up at him.

Tsukushi no kiwami, michi no oku,
Umi yama tooku, hedatsu tomo,
Sono magokoro wa, hedate naku,
Hitoe ni tsukuse, kuni no tame


"You're good at that, though," he said matter-of-factly. If she could make even a few friends in a school full of young yōkai, most of whom were predisposed to think of her as inferior to them, he was willing to bet she could do so just about anywhere. Certainly at a normal university, where the students were overwhelmingly humans and lots of them would share her interests. "So I think you'll be fine."

She snorted softly to herself. “I suppose you're right," she stated. “But in the mean time, at least I'll be able to see one of my friends on an almost daily basis," she stated, the grin on her face smoothing out to something more mild. She was probably referring to him considering they lived in the same house, technically.

“Hey Satoru," she spoke almost cautiously, as if what she were about to say was something meant only between them. She stayed quiet for a few seconds before shaking her head. “Thanks for being my friend this last year. It's meant... a lot to me," she finally spoke. “I, um," she started again and shifted a bit on her feet. Whatever she was going to say, didn't make it past her lips because a sudden flash seemed to temporarily stun her.

“Aww, look at that. It's almost too perfect," Ryoka stated, holding the camera in her hand. There was a strange grin on her face, like she'd meant to do that. Knowing her, she probably did.

Ichikage was right behind her, and in fact leaned down to prop his chin on Ryoka's head, also grinning. Satoru didn't bother resisting the urge to roll his eyes.

"Really, Ryoka?" He arched an eyebrow at the both of them, unsurprised that they were being annoying. It was the kind of event where family members just... did that kind of thing. He wasn't mad about it or anything, but it would have been nice if she'd interrupted in a less-obnoxious way.

Satoru sighed, turning back to Etsuko for a minute. "Ignore her. What were you going to say?"

Etsuko didn't look amused, but she shook her head. “It's not important," she replied, glancing towards Ichikage and Ryoka. Her eyes narrowed slightly in their direction, causing Ryoka to snicker. She heaved out heavy sigh and slumped her shoulders. “Where are Kiyo-kun and Mika-chan?" she asked, instead.

“Somewhere around here, I would assume," Ryoka responded. “And yes, really, Satoru. You both looked adorable and I couldn't resist," she added, still grinning. Etsuko visibly rolled her eyes at the statement.

“Isn't there a dessert table that needs raiding?" she stated, quirking a brow in Ryoka and Ichikage's direction. “Tō-san can help you find it, I'm sure." She was giving both of them a flat look.

Satoru snorted, matching the look on Etsuko's face and leveling it in the same direction.

Ichikage laughed at that, standing up straight again and tugging on Ryoka's sleeve. "Ne, Ryoka-san. We should leave them alone, don't you think?"

They moved off after that, definitely towards the dessert table. Satoru rolled his eyes and sighed again—both of those things seemed to happen a lot when those two were around at the same time.

Of course, that left him with Etsuko and a conversation that now seemed to be stalling. "Uh... anyway. Congratulations. Again." For some reason, he felt his face getting a little warmer, and his ears—especially his ears.

What the hell?

She smiled up at him. “Yeah, you too, Satoru. Congratulations. Can... I give you a hug?" she asked, stepping back a bit. “I just... I wanted to ask beforehand because I know you're not usually too comfortable with... that," she continued, sounding a bit unsure of her wording. She stuttered a bit, too, something she hasn't done in a while. Her face turned a light shade of red as she glanced down at the ground for a second. She didn't quite meet his gaze, though, when she lifted her head back up.

He blinked. "I, uh..." If his face hadn't turned red before, it probably was now. He hesitated for a moment; she was right. He generally didn't go in for much personal contact with people, but—oddly he didn't mind the idea. Maybe because she'd actually asked instead of just assuming he'd be all right with it.

Satoru felt a little like he'd been kicked square in the chest: a bit short of breath and with the beginning of some kind of adrenaline response. His tongue was a little too heavy in his mouth, but he nodded. "S-sure. That's fine."

He opened his arms slightly, as if in invitation, though the idea had been Etsuko's.

She met his gaze when he did, smiled, and stepped in to hug him. It wasn't a long one, a bit brief, but her arms gave a tight squeeze. “Congratulations, for a third, Satoru. Thanks, again, for being one of my best friends," she'd muttered it since her face was slightly pressed against him, considering she was shorter than he was.

"Yeah. You, too, Etsuko."

Even though part of their lives were ending, Satoru didn't regret that this was part of it that wasn't. In fact—he felt relieved, more than anything. Relieved that the best thing that had come of his time at school wasn't finishing along with the rest.

It was okay to carry some things with him into the future, he supposed.

Chishima no oku mo, Okinawa mo
Yashima no uchi no, mamori nari
Itaran kuni ni, isaoshiku
Tsutome yo waga se, tsutsuganaku

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Ichikage Motoyami Character Portrait: Mika Sakuragi Character Portrait: Satoru Yukimura Character Portrait: Kiyoshi Motoyami Character Portrait: Ryoka Yukimura Character Portrait: Etsuko Fujimori
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Kiyoshi sighed, adjusting the tie around his neck. He'd learned how to that a little more proficiently after Mika had taught him, among other things. It was a dark purple in color, and it contrasted against the light grey suit he wore. Another thing Mika had taught him. He smiled softly to himself as he shifted his ponytail behind him. Today was a special day, as his father had called it. Kiyoshi couldn't exactly remember why, but he suspected it had something to do with him. They were all gathering in the foyer for some kind of dinner, but Kiyoshi would have much preferred to do it here.

He couldn't exactly refuse, though. His father had planned it out months in advance, and he'd rather not let Ichikage down. Kiyoshi might not have always been fond of Ichikage, but he was still his father. Pursing his lips together, he made sure everything was in place before leaving his room. The walk to the foyer was quick, and indeed, everyone was already waiting for him.

“Well look who's handsome today," Ryoka stated, grinning in his direction. She was dressed in a spaghetti strap v-neck red chiffon dress, and surprisingly not in her uniform. Considering where they were going, it made some sense to Kiyoshi. She'd also started wearing red more often, but it was a nice color for her, he supposed. Her hair was left down, but it wasn't as unruly as it usually was. It was a little straighter, but Kiyoshi wasn't one for such things. Fashion, hair, clothes, those were not exactly his forte.

“You look nice as well, Ryoka-san," he simply stated. Etsuko snorted softly, causing Kiyoshi to tilt his head. She was dressed in a more modest halter dress, though the color was a deep sapphire blue. It almost looked black if not for the sheen. “As do you, Tsu-chan," he stated, the subtle quirk of his lips giving way to his teasing nature. He almost chuckled when her face turned pink, and she pursed her lips together at him.

"Ne, is everyone ready?" His father chose that moment to appear, looking basically the same as he always did in human guise, only this time in a suit. It was fairly straightforward as they went, and he'd elected for a cream colored silk tie rather than anything brighter. The suit itself was black, as was Satoru's.

The younger Yukimura looked much less comfortable in his, tugging a bit awkwardly at the cuffs of his shirt and then his black tie. It was knotted very neatly, but obviously he wasn't used to wearing one as part of anything fancier than his school uniform. Clearing his throat, he glanced around at the others, pressing his lips together and gamely trying to suppress his discomfort.

"We look weird, is how we look," he grumbled. It was hard to tell, but he seemed to be making an effort not to look directly at Etsuko. Though classes had started for both of them at the university by this point, they both still lived on the grounds, and their summer break was quickly approaching. Still—it seemed like Kiyoshi saw less of both of them than he used to, so they probably saw less of each other than before as well.

"Anyway, uh, Sakuragi-san said she was going to go have someone pull the car around and just meet us all there, so."

“We do not look weird, Satoru," Ryoka spoke in a nearly hushed voice, pursing her lips in his direction. Kiyoshi just raised a brow, and said nothing. He supposed both of the Yukimura hadn't really dressed nicely, or in any kind of fashion before. Perhaps because of their lifestyle as taiji-ya. Did they do what his family did, go to important meetings in formal attire, or dinners and lunches? Probably not, but the thought did not linger long. Instead, they made their way to where Mika was, indeed, waiting, and Kiyoshi merely blinked in her direction.

“You look lovely, Mika-chan," he spoke before he registered what he'd actually said. He could feel a smile inching across his face as well, and his eyes softened for just a fraction.

“Of course she does; Mika-chan always looks lovely," Ryoka chimed in, but there was no hint of teasing in her voice. It sounded more matter-of-fact and obvious than anything else. Kiyoshi just furrowed his brows and did his best not to sigh.

Mika, typically, frowned slightly at the commentary. It was hard to say why she did that, but she was consistent about it, at least—outright compliments, especially about her appearance, tended to produce that reaction in her.

"We are attending dinner at a very formal restaurant," she replied, adjusting her pale sleeves slightly. She'd chosen to wear a kimono rather than a dress—come to think of it, she'd never worn a dress that he knew of. The garment was black and white, with a pattern of pale golden flowers on a branch, and the same color and silver on the obi. "I am merely dressed appropriately for the occasion."

"And armed appropriately, too, right?" Mirth glittered in Ichikage's eyes; he was clearly teasing her.

She probably knew it, even, but responded seriously all the same. "Of course, Motoyami-sama."

The car pulled up, then, Abe-san at the wheel as usual. Mika opened the door for the rest of them to pile into the back of the limousine, which for once was just about the right size for all the people that needed to fit in it. Ichikage immediately pulled Ryoka over to sit next to him, nodding Satoru into the seat across. When Mika herself entered last of all, the only spot left was the one immediately next to Kiyoshi. She took it, folding her hands neatly into her lap as Abe-san pulled out of the driveway.

Kiyoshi felt something pull in his chest when she did. He couldn't help but smile a little more. The ride to the restaurant was relatively quiet—about as quiet as it could be with Ichikage and Ryoka, anyway. When they arrived, everyone filed out of the car, and almost instinctively, Kiyoshi stood next to Mika. He wasn't quite sure why he did, but he put it down as something natural. She was, after all, his guard, and he had to be within her sights at all times. He blinked slowly at that thought.

They approached the stand where the hostess was, and she smiled brightly at the large group. “Welcome," she greeted, glancing at the party of six. “Name on the reservation?" she asked, flipping the book open in front of her.

“Motoyami," Kiyoshi spoke first. The woman, Aiko, from her nametag, nodded and flipped through the book, frowning slightly when she did.

“It looks like I have two reservations for the name of Motoyami. One is for a party of four, and the other for two," she stated, glancing back up to meet his gaze. She looked sincerely confused, and perhaps she was. Kiyoshi sighed heavily.

“Is there a table available for the size of our group?" he asked, watching as she gave an apologetic bow.

“Unfortunately all of the tables that would have been large enough are booked for the evening," she stated, causing Kiyoshi's expression to fall flat. He glanced towards Ichikage and furrowed his brows lightly.

His father hummed; crossing his arms loosely over his chest. "That can't be right," he said, brow furrowing in much the same way Kiyoshi's was. "Micchan, you made the reservations, didn't you?"

Mika looked slightly perturbed, which was saying something since little ever made it past the stoic expression she so often wore. "Yes, sir. I'm certain I made it for a party of six."

Aiko was beginning to look a little nervous, like she expected to be yelled at or something, but Ichikage forestalled any such worries by waving a hand. "It's quite all right. We'll take this as it is. Since Ryoka-san has to be with me and Micchan should stay with Kiki, we'll stay in separate groups. Cricket, Satoru-kun, would you like to come with us?" It made some sense to do it that way, since Satoru was Ryoka's brother.

But then again, Satoru and Etsuko could have taken the table for two instead of Kiyoshi and Mika. Oddly, though, Kiyoshi didn't mind. Etsuko, however, nodded her head. “I don't see why not," she stated, shrugging lightly in the process. Kiyoshi pursed his lips together, but he allowed his shoulders to relax. Aiko waved another hostess over, and handed her two menus.

“Mizuki will show you to your table," she spoke, smiling still in an apologetic manner. “If the four of you will follow me, I'll show you to your table as well," she stated, ushering the others away. Mizuki, however, motioned for Kiyoshi and Mika to follow her. He glanced over his shoulder for a brief second towards his father, and narrowed his eyes. He had a feeling Ichikage was behind this, however; he allowed a small smile to cross his features. He supposed it wouldn't be that bad.

“Can I start you off with anything to drink?" Mizuki asked once Kiyoshi and Mika were seated. Kiyoshi pursed his lips together, flipping open the book to glance at the selection. He didn't see anything that caught his immediate attention, though.

“Water will be fine for now, thank you," he spoke, glancing in Mika's direction. He'd order something else if something popped up.

Her own reply was immediate. "Water for me as well too, thank you." No doubt she considered herself to still be on the job, to some extent, which meant she'd never let herself drink anything.

“Alright, two waters," she spoke, bowing slightly before leaving. Kiyoshi frowned just, though, as he glanced through the menu. He didn't understand why the reservation was made here. His father knew Kiyoshi was never one for such places, but today had to have been something a little more special. Knowing Ichikage, though, today could have just been something his father did on a whim. Even if the reservations were made a head of time, his father had some pull to do things on a whim like this.

“Mika-chan," he spoke, turning another page before glancing up at her. “Are you well?" he asked, tilting his head just slightly. He never knew what to say to her, or why his throat always seemed to dry up when he tried. He could sit in silence with her, and be completely happy, however; he also wanted to know her. More-so than what he already knew about her, at least.

She was looking at him strangely, one eyebrow raised slightly over the other. It was a frequent expression of hers, when she expressed anything at all. "I'm quite fine, sir, though considering what day it is, that should probably be something I ask you." She cracked open her menu, scanning the items on offer dispassionately. She'd never seemed to take particular pleasure in the atmosphere of an expensive sort of place—but it was nonetheless obvious that she appreciated quality in basically everything, including food.

He supposed he was the same. He didn't particularly like these kinds of places, but he didn't mind them so much when he was with his family, or her. He blinked a little slowly at her comment, though, when it registered what she said. Tilting his head slightly, he furrowed his brows in her direction.

“Is there some particular event going on?" he asked. He wasn't too sure what today was. Did he forget a meeting of some sort? Was today someone's anniversary? “Why would you be asking me, that?" because he didn't quite understand. What was so special about today?

Mika snorted, a tiny smile flickering across her face for just a second. Mizuki came back with their water before she could answer, though, and the smile disappeared into her glass when she lifted it to her mouth. It was only after the waitress had left again with their dinner orders that she answered his question.

"Sir, it's your birthday. That's the entire point of this dinner." She set the glass back down, letting her hands rest below the table in her lap. Even in a relaxed setting like this, her posture didn't slump even slightly.

Kiyoshi didn't register what Mika had said. He'd seen it, that small smile. He felt like he couldn't breathe at the moment, as if all the air had been sucked out of him, and his heart rate increased. It wasn't until he realized that he was smiling as well, and staring, that he cleared his throat awkwardly. He took a sip of his water, trying to get some moisture in his throat. It felt dry all of a sudden.

“My birthday?" he finally questioned. Was today his birthday? “Oh," was the only thing he said. He'd forgotten his own birthday. This was not the first time it happened, he knew that. He should have known, however, that Ichikage would have remembered it. “Otō-sama's idea," he spoke out loud. It was more of a statement than a question, and he sighed softly.

“How are things with you, though," he asked. Even if it was his birthday, he didn't have anything in his life worth mentioning at the moment. Mika, though, had days off that she spent doing other things. He wanted to know how she was faring, and what she did. He wanted to know her because he still wanted to talk to her. Here, he knew, would not be the best place to do it.

But if he could at least glean some things from her personal life, of things she did outside, then the talk would be easier. That was what he was hoping for, at least.

"The two are not entirely unrelated, you know," she told him, perhaps referring to his birthday and also the answer to her question. That had to be what it was, though the connection was not at first immediately obvious. "I suppose I can understand not really finding your birthday too significant—I don't either. But..."

She exhaled through her nose, dropping her eyes to regard the glass of water in front of her. There was a strange expression on her face—her brows were knit, forming a little line above her nose, but she looked more puzzled than anything. "This marks twenty-five of your birthdays since we met," she said at last, the furrow deepening. Mika's tone betrayed some level of uncertainty, like she wasn't sure she really wanted to say that. "I'm sure it's not a very significant amount of time for you, but for me... that's most of my life, by a lot of years."

That was right; Mika had been taken in when she was about seven years old. She had been but a young girl out on the streets, pick-pocketing people in order to survive. He'd known that much when she tried stealing from him. The thought brought a solemn smile to his face, though. She'd grown up in his care, under his father's care, and the care of the household. Unlike Etsuko, however, she wasn't raised as a ward. She wasn't a daughter to the house of Motoyami, like Etsuko was, but that didn't stop Kiyoshi from feeling like she was still family.

“Despite the circumstances of how we met, I'm grateful that we did," he spoke gently. She might not be, but Kiyoshi could not claim to know her thoughts. He wanted her to know this thing, though. This one thought and emotion he'd always felt from meeting her. “I hope... it hasn't been an unpleasant life for you Mika-chan," he continued, pursing his lips lightly. That was the last thing he wanted for her. If it had been... he couldn't finish the thought. It brought an unpleasant restrictive feeling in his chest where his heart was.

"Upleasant?" she echoed, face hard to read.

Unfortunately the waitress chose that moment to reappear with their food, and Mika paused to thank her and pick up her utensils. The restaurant was a western-style one, with forks and knives and such—most of the food was Italian, though there were some Greek dishes available as well. Mika spent several moments winding her linguine around her fork, pausing with the utensil still on the plate, held still as she studied him with compressed lips.

"Sir, my life has been—" She stopped, shaking her head slightly; he could see the subtle movement where she swallowed. "What could ever make you think that anything about it has been unpleasant for me?"

Mostly because he'd never seen her smile. He'd seen it twice, now, that he could think of. The first time he'd seen her smile was when she was speaking with Oda-dono. That thought produced a foreign feeling in his chest, one he knew was the same as displeasure but also something else. Something that felt... sad? He couldn't quite place it. The second time she'd smiled was only moments ago, despite how small it was.

“You have spent most of your time as my guard with hardly any time to yourself. The days you do have off I've..." he paused momentarily to stare down at his own plate. He hadn't touched it yet, though he could smell that it was particularly pleasant. Maybe that was because there was a different smell he was focused on. He couldn't be too sure.

“I've never really made it easy for you, either," he finally spoke, glancing back in her direction. He'd tried not to do that any longer, but it was hard when he felt like something was missing. Like he missed her, for some strange reason. He'd never felt that with Sakura. She wasn't around as often as Mika, and though he spoke with her on a daily basis and went to dinners with her, he didn't quite miss her the same way he missed Mika.

“I have said it plenty of times before, but I want you to be happy, Mika-chan. I... am not good at noticing things like that when it comes to you, and all I ever seem to do is cause you great pains and headaches," he confessed solemnly. Even though he was currently trying to learn things on his own, he felt like he was burdening her by taking away some of her free time. If Ryoka could notice that Mika was happy with her job, with her current state, why couldn't he?

"That's..." Mika sighed, taking a bite of her dinner and chewing slowly. It gave her a moment to gather the words she wanted; at least that's what it looked like she was doing.

She met his eyes deliberately, something she did not do that often, given her strict observance to most of the norms of traditional servitude. "If it seems to cause me trouble, sir, that's only because it is hard work. I would feel the same as anyone's assistant about that. Also, it's... important, to me, to maintain professionalism at all times. But—but the work I do—it's the most—" She struggled for a moment, dropping her eyes back down to her plate, the certainty and ease leeching out of her tone and leaving it soft.

"What I do—helping you, protecting you and the things you care about—I don't care if it's easy. I don't care if it gives me headaches or means I don't have a lot of days to myself." She gripped her glass hard enough that the pads of her fingers began to whiten, seemingly only then realizing she was in real danger of breaking it and easing her hold. "I don't care about any of that, and I wish you wouldn't either. Because it's..."

She very visibly forced herself to reinitiate eye contact. "It's all I've ever wanted. For me, being able to do this—it's an honor, and a privilege. My whole life, I've done everything I could to be worthy of it. Of being the person who is allowed to help you achieve the things you want to do. And every time you ask me if I'd rather be doing something else, or if I want to leave for the day... it feels as though I've failed in that."

“Mika..." he began, though he paused and kept his gaze on her. Didn't she know, though? Everything he was able to do was because of her. For everything she was able to do, for every task she was able to handle, if it wasn't for her, Kiyoshi would not have achieved as much as he has. He might have years of life under him, but it wasn't until he'd met her, had her as a guard had he realized how much more he could do. He took a deep breath, slow and agonizing. He ached, and he wasn't completely oblivious as to why.

He lowered his gaze for a moment, before clearing his throat softly. “Mika, you have not failed in anything," he spoke the last word with a bit more emphasis, and slowly. “You have done more for me in the last two decades than anyone else ever has. Because of you, I have learned new things. Because of you, I no longer have to feel useless when it comes to tying my own ties, or something so simple as clothing choice," he offered her a small smile.

“I apologize if that is how I have made you feel. That was never my intention," he stated. If he had known that doing that was making her feel like that, he wouldn't have suggested it so often. “I only wished for you to be more than just a guard," he spoke, though he was unsure of what he meant by that. “I only wished to be your friend," though that wasn't quite the word he was searching for.

He could not name what it was.

Mika curled her fingers back around her fork, lifting it deliberately and slowly making her way through half her plate of pasta. She had heard everything he'd said—that much was clear from the way she'd listened with obvious attention while he was speaking. But anything by way of response was a long time in coming. She'd always been like this: slow and careful where others were flippant or hasty.

She ate with the sort of meticulous neatness that came with needing to fit into his social circles. In a lot of ways, she did, at least as far as her behavior and mannerisms were concerned. But in other ways, she would only ever be able to be an outsider to it, an auxiliary to him. Mika was habitually a lot more conscious of station than Kiyoshi himself; she enforced polite distance even with someone as personable and gregarious as his father.

"It's not that I don't like you, sir. Or that I think our personalities are incompatible in some way. It's just... relationships like this aren't the same as friendships. They can't be. Already, people—" she grimaced slightly. "They say things. They see our situation from the outside and assume things about us. You're a daiyōkai and a prince, and I'm a very young, female hanyō. They don't believe I could possibly be of use to you at my job, and so I must have obtained my position in some other way." Mika set her fork down on the plate, tines facing downwards. "Many of the possibilities are damaging, to your reputation and standing. And so I protect those things by behaving in a way that makes it very clear that I am here to do a job, and that I am excellent at it. My conduct must be above reproach, because this is a form of protection as well. If I were to act like your friend, then I would be worse at this part of my work."

Kiyoshi did not bother to hide his expression from her. His lips pursed into a fine line and his brows furrowed deeply. People said things like that about her? He was unaware of such things, and knowing this all now, made him upset. It made him angry, almost. He could feel his throat constrict in an unpleasant way, and he could not lift the sudden mood change. Mika was, as she said, excellent at the things she did.

She was talented, graceful, and so many other things he could not say. “I am sorry," he apologized, instead. He knew the others would not stoop to that, and he knew that she would not accept his apology, however; it was something he wanted to say. “I am sorry that they say those things about you. You are... regardless of my station, or where we stand, I still consider you my friend, Mika. A dearest friend, nonetheless." How could she be anything less than that?

“I want to make those things easier for you, to make them understand that you are good at your job, and that you have earned that because of your skill. I am afraid I would not know how to make them understand, though." He couldn't just force people to do that. Customs were hard to change; he would know that for as long as he lived. And not many houses were not like House Motoyami who embraced that sort of eccentricity.

She shook her head faintly. "I appreciate your support, sir. Truly, I do. But this isn't the kind of situation that can be solved by simply telling people that they are mistaken. It is something I have to deal with in the only way available to me: by being professional and competent and doing my job well. They will see, and some of them will change their minds when they do. That's all I can hope for."

“You deserve more," he stated softly, shaking his head. She deserved so much more, more than what he could give her. “I am thankful that I get to spend this day with you, though." Of all the people he could of spent it with, he was glad it was with her. He chanced a glance towards his father's table, and smiled lightly. He'd have to thank him someday, though he was not going to do it today.

For now, this would have to do.

Ephemeral Ascendence: Out Of Character (OOC)

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