C1 Fireworks and Stolen Kisses: Chapter One
The Dessert Siege
Back straight, back straight. Is this person my social equal? Tally offered a futsurei to be safe while the evening’s host introduced him as the new Urusar from Wisconsin. He wished Dad had come with him. As hard as he tried to think of this as just another business conference, the names and places had started to run together. Back home, he might have reached for the worry stone in his pocket. Here, that might be rude.
The ballroom was gorgeous, with the doors to the terrace rolled back to reveal the view of Mt. Fuji. Tables groaning with food lined the walls. Arrangements of blood-red flowers decorated every table. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, though that might have been an illusion created by nerves.
“Wisconsin?” the middle-aged woman inquired with reserved decorum. “That is the state of cheese, yes?”
“Very true.” Damn it, he’d forgotten her name. She was the Uruma, the village mother, to one of the larger cities to the south. “Though thankfully the state is more than just cheese.”
She laughed politely, turned to greet another conference-goer, and Tally hoped it had been a dismissal. He shouldn’t have felt out of his element. Employees depended on his decisions all day, every day. Meetings were his lifeblood, or at least took up most of his life. Not to mention these were his people. The perfectly draped Global Lijun Alliance banner dominated the front of the room—there for anyone, human or lijun to see. For the humans, it was simply a trade organization. For the lijun, it was survival, a shared bond of secrecy and a way for lijun communities to thrive.
Except Tally would always stand outside, which simply made diplomacy that much more important. When his father had gleefully announced his retirement as Urusar, village father of their community in Wadiswan, Tally knew his duty. He’d been groomed for it all his life. He’d taken up the leadership mantle with the sobriety and respect it deserved, even though some of their lijun neighbors had whispered about another deadly serpent leading them.
Tally couldn’t escape his heritage or his lijun type, but he was here at this conference to continue his father’s work—to ensure his community thrived, that the lijun under his care were safe, and to fight against the ancient prejudices that branded him as dangerous .
He retreated to one of the buffets to nibble on sectioned oranges with his back to the wall so he could observe. Not everyone at the welcome dinner was as bound by formalities. The younger attendees had dressed in a variety of styles and more or less appropriately. Nearer the terrace, a young woman in a leather miniskirt tapped her boot heel to music only she could hear. On the other side of the room, a handsome young man in a strange mix of business formal and rebel-casual lounged against the bar. The suit jacket and expensive jeans fit in well enough. The faded T-shirt and rainbow suspenders? Not so much.
Tally thought he would introduce himself to this interesting person, but an older gentleman beat him there and spoke urgently to the young man, who made an impatient gesture and stalked off.
Too bad. He’d been an…otter? Tally surreptitiously flicked his tongue out to taste the air. Difficult to tell in such a large gathering, but he was sure he was right. Something beyond the rainbow suspenders drew him to the otter, a yearning that he didn’t want to deny. He was about to follow when someone touched his arm.
“Herr Bastille, is it not?” A man with flame-red hair, an educated European accent and a calculating smile stood at his elbow. “I am Gerhard Klug. I understand you are a hotelier?”
Tally offered his hand rather than a bow and smiled in return. “Good to meet you. Tal-tsu’tsa Bastille. Everyone calls me Tally. Yes, I run the family business back home. Several properties.”
“Good. Good.” Herr Klug put an arm on his shoulder and steered him toward the bar. “I’m hoping we could discuss a possible business arrangement.”
“I’m always interested in discussion, Herr Klug.” Tally signaled the bartender. “What are you drinking?”
“Gerhard, please.” The fox lijun laughed. “You’ll make me feel old. And they have a pear brandy here that is good.”
Tally ordered the brandy and a whiskey sour for himself. Yes, Gerhard was obviously here to woo him, but Tally didn’t like being put at a disadvantage right from the start, even with something as small as who paid for drinks. “What is it you do?”
“I have glassworks,” Gerhard said as he hopped onto the stool next to Tally’s. “My family has been in glass for several centuries. While we have commercial lines, we have sites dedicated to custom work, as well.”
Tally had the oddest image pop up at the phrase in glass of littles foxes running about under cheese domes. Of course he knew what Gerhard meant and the more focused part of his brain perked up at the mention of custom work. “Oh? What sort of custom work?”
Gerhard pulled a small tablet from inside his suit jacket. “For restaurants. For hotels. Erholungsort …what is the word? Resorts.”
Tally answered the fox’s calculating look with a soft laugh. “I have the feeling you’ve brought a portfolio. Please, let’s have a look.”
“Thank you. It’s very kind of you to give me a hearing.” Gerhard opened the tablet between them as their drinks arrived. “We have contracts across Europe. This first set is work we recently added for a winter resort in Sweden.”
They leaned in together to inspect the photos, Tally nodding and asking questions here and there. The images showed wine glasses, water goblets, tumblers and beer glasses in beautiful shapes and colors, with the property name and logo etched discreetly into each piece. Tally particularly admired the champagne flutes with the snowflake-shaped feet. Lovely, though he gave no outward indication that he reacted to any one set more than another.
When they reached the end of the photo samples, Tally sat back, sipping at his whiskey and making Gerhard wait. “It’s a very interesting thought. Though I imagine a certain percentage of that pretty glassware vanishes from the properties as souvenirs.”
“Ha. I’m sure some of it does. Though not offering the prettiest glasses in the guest rooms most likely reduces that number.”
Gerhard’s eyes twinkled as he laughed and if Tally had been someone who craved casual sex, Gerhard might have been a candidate, but his heart would only be half in it. The other half had already left the room with the handsome otter. The suspenders were a beacon, a flare sent up, and Tally was going to speak with the otter of definitely-not-straight orientation that evening if it killed him.
“I’d like you to work up some samples with the resort manager at Sapphire Lake.” Tally didn’t mention immediately that the manager was one of his sisters. “We’d need to see physical pieces, of course. Then we can discuss the possibility of starting a small contract there first. I do have properties in Europe, but allow me to begin closer to home.”
“Very good. A pleasure, Tally, surely.” Gerhard extended a hand and they shook—a gentlemen’s agreement to further negotiations.
When Gerhard Klug finally let him go with an exchange of business cards, the otter was nowhere in sight. Uncharacteristically disgruntled, Tally left the main ballroom to check some of the smaller venues where different sorts of food were on offer. The first meeting room had been set up as a sushi bar, which seemed a good place to find an otter. He wasn’t there. The second was a room dedicated to international cuisine, offerings from host countries of previous years. No otter.
The third was a paradise of desserts which had drawn the children since the beginning of the evening with its siren song. Tally hurried his steps when he picked up shouting from that direction and he skidded to a stop in front of the door.
* * * *
“Attack!” Haru bellowed, holding up their— broom? They squinted. Well, close enough for a katana. It served their purpose—as they weaved through the tables. Several staff members took a step back, losing any placid expressions. “Never retreat! Death or chocolate!”
One server glanced toward the open door of the banquet hall. That’s the one that’ll break first.
Several high-pitched giggles rounded out the mighty roars the kids gave as they charged the dessert tables. Fast at first, then everyone skidded to a stop, making sure all attention was on them as they slowly pushed forward again. How could the council consider it okay to withhold all those treats from the children? It was cruel and unusual punishment, making the kiddies wait for the adults. By the time all the different welcome activities were done, most of the little ones would be in bed passed out. Stupid, selfish adults. Know-it-alls. Always sticking their noses where they didn’t belong.
Well, Haru didn’t want to adult anymore tonight. Thus, dessert warfare. They tried to remember why pilfering the fine desserts would make things better, but couldn’t. A cloud of fuzz made everything less focused. Oh well, it made sense to Haru anyway. They hiccupped as their regiment of underlings rounded the beautiful ice sculpture in the middle of the room.
When they’d first suggested raiding the dessert room, the littlest ones had jumped on the bandwagon immediately, though the older kids had tugged on friends’ and siblings’ hands. Haru could tell the older boys and girls wanted to as well. The kids just needed a reason. One little reason that would push even the reluctant ones over the edge. Then everyone could all have fun and eat the cake too. That was when Haru had suggested a re-enactment of the Siege of Inabayama Castle. The children were here to learn about lijun history after all. What epic two-week battle campaign wouldn’t hold a feast to enjoy the spoils of war?
The older kids had taken the bait.
Next thing they knew, the kids were looting—no, gathering —supplies from the cleaning staff and making makeshift armor from cushions. Though Haru wanted to make sure there wasn’t any lasting damage to any of the potted plants once the campaign was over. But Kaho’s idea was genius, and who was Haru to deny good battle tactics?
The tricky part had been getting down the hall from where the kids had hidden by the pool to the dessert room. Haru had been convinced Urusar Akaike would stomp out in front of them and demand a return to the welcome dinner so they could ‘mingle’ like a respectable clan member. No way. No one was dumb enough to spend any more time with those stuffy shirts than necessary. The old fussbucket was up to his tricks and Haru was having none of it. Urusar or no Urusar. Akaike-san had gone too far this time. Pretending he needed Haru along for the help.
A bark escaped from one of the wolf lijun, setting the whole regiment into a fit of laughter. Haru felt the corners of their mouth twitch. Oh yes, this was much more fun than any plans Akaike-san had for the dinner. A current of excitement ran through the regiment as the kids broke out into smaller groups of twos and threes, the sweat of their prey enticing them further, harder.
It cut. Not only that Urusar Akaike was trying to pawn them off—again—or that their parents went along with it—again—but how everyone lied to them about why Akaike-san needed them at the conference. It hurt. Haru was more than a piece of meat to offer up to the best match. They wanted more. They deserved more. They wanted love. Not a match .
Hence the running away…to the pool. Where they’d found all the kids. Bored and sad. Haru couldn’t have that. No. Sad was not fun. The kids would grow up all too soon anyway. Like them. Then they’d have to follow all the rules, like Haru. Be stuck, like Haru. Drinking alone at a party where they didn’t want to be.
Haru wanted none of that for the kids.
A tug on their jeans had Haru looking down. They misstepped to the side, but straightened quickly. Little Kaho had taken hold on their leg, one dirty thumb still in her mouth and her eyes locked on the centerpiece on the main banquet table. A five-tier chocolate cake with fresh fruit adorning each layer.
Mmm-hmm. That cake definitely had to be good eats. Haru smiled down at the little girl before ruffling her short hair.
As soon as they got to the conference they’d sought out Kaho and her parents, happy to see a friendly face, even if she was four years old. At the last Biannual Japanese Lijun Conference they’d struck up a friendship, and her parents had been happy to get a free babysitter again. Being their clan’s Urusar and Uruma meant her parents couldn’t keep track of her like the little one needed. So Haru hadn’t been surprised when they’d found her in the pool with everyone else instead of bed. Kaho had been the first to want to raid the dessert room, too. Her light brown eyes gleamed with unholy joy.
Not surprising from a tanuki lijun like herself. She was made for mischief. Like the mischief their little band was getting into.
The servers had taken a defensive position in front of the tables. Lot of good that would do them.
Stubborn fools. The staff were outfoxed. Literally. Several of the fox lijun had already circled round the back of the hall while Haru and the rest of the children drew attention to themselves. The foxes were just getting into position as Haru and their regiment broke from the tables. It was hard to pretend their regiment wasn’t about to wreak havoc. The staff didn’t have a chance. One of the foxes snuck behind the weak link of the servers then let out an eerie, high-pitched laugh.
The server jumped a good ten centimeters in the air. The moment his feet touched ground again he was off, wheeling toward the door at full-speed. His fellow staffers shifted uneasily, the bitter, salty taste of their nervousness mingling with the sweet aroma of cake and chocolate and all things nice.
Several hands shot out from under the table. More servers yelped and jumped. Two more broke away from the formation, one using language Haru preferred Kaho didn’t hear. They growled and flicked one of their pilfered stones at the man. Not hard. It only hit his ass. The guy hollered and held his bottom like he’d been shot.
“Ready?” Haru shouted, smiling when several sets of panicked gazes flicked toward them. They lifted their ‘katana’ like any good samurai. “Aim!”
Laughter bubbled up from the children. Hands rose, mud sliding down their skinny arms. Grins, wide and filled with glee, were worn on every single one of their faces. The servers no longer had blank expressions, and one of the staffers broke loose from the line, bolting as he swore at Haru and the kids.
Before the server got even three steps from the tables, a volley of mud-balls flew through the air, several hitting them squarely in the back. The rest were aimed at the remaining staff, but the nervous server certainly got more than a few.
“Coward!” Kaho yelled then stuck her thumb back in her mouth. Haru decided it really was best to ignore the dirt on it.
They loped forward, swords at the ready. More of the line broke, servers knocking into each other as they tried to flee the carnage. Mud-balls struck with dangerous accuracy. A stick that looked a little too much like a spear nailed the table with a loud thunk and stuck. Haru would have to have a talk with one of the children about sharp, pointy things. The server closest to the projectile tripped over his own feet trying to escape, landing in a rather large mud-puddle. At least, Haru hoped it was a mud-puddle. The consistency looked a little off, though. Smelt wrong too.
“Oh well, all’s fair in war and chocolate, isn’t it, Kaho-chan?”
A smile turned the corner of her lips and she gave one sharp nod.
The regiment advanced toward the table. Shouts and exclamations tapered off as the staff escaped the banquet hall. A large water bubble broke over one of the more insistent servers, finally breaking her from her vigil at the table. Haru hoped she thought it had been a water balloon. As she ran by, Haru stole an appreciative glance at the pretty bra she wore under her white shirt. Maybe they should find her later, offer her a towel and an apology. A proper and sincere apology.
But a tug at their leg drew Haru’s attention to the matter at hand. Pillaging the desserts.
Kaho bounced over to the table, eyeing the five-tier chocolate cake.
“You really think you can carry that out of here?” Haru asked.
The determined look in her eyes said she did. The others were already busy loading up plates and serving carts. Maybe if they got one of the bigger kids to help shuffle it over to the cart, then everyone could share in the large victory prize.
By the time Haru wrangled one of the carts over to the table, Kaho had climbed up and was teetering on tiptoe as she plunged her chubby little fingers into the top tier. Eh, she was allowed. No one else had thought to go after the big prize. Haru admired a woman who set high goals for herself. No way they wanted to share any cake after where her hands had been, though.
“All right. Not sure how we’re going to do this, Kaho-chan.”
A chocolate-covered face turned toward him, her cheeks puffed out. “Cake!”
“Oh, I know. Best prize of them all. It’s just so big.” Plus the table seemed to be tilted. Or maybe that was just them. Maybe the fourth bottle of sake had been a bad idea. Or maybe the fifth. Had there been six? Haru sighed. However many it had been, they’d consumed at least one bottle too many.
Haru wasn’t sure they could move the large cake even if they had been sober.
Kaho’s puffy cheeks filled their view. “Cake! Yummy cake!”
Several of the older children were already herding part of the regiment with its ill-gotten goods back to their base. The groups of fours and fives were to meet in twenty minutes once they’d made their escape.
A loud bang had the regiment ransacking the table turning toward the back of the banquet room.
The man was definitely big. In a ‘wow, how’d you grow like that?’ kinda big. Had its merits, but he wasn’t someone familiar.
Haru put themself between the oncoming intruder and the children.
“Hurry!” The man waved his hands in front of him in a shooing motion. “The manager is coming.”
Were they being shooed? Haru and the kids all cocked their heads in unison as everyone blinked at the stranger. Long, flowing black hair billowed around him with each step he took toward them.
“Ah, oh. Okay. Um, any of you speak English?”
“I do,” Haru replied. So that was what the words were. They shook their head, trying to clear the alcoholic haze. Ooh, that was not a good motion. Their head and stomach protested it.
“I’ll get the cake, you get the kids. You need to leave. Now.”
“Okay.” Haru paused, looked up, took a step back so they could get a clear look at the man’s face and said, “Thank you.”
Haru pulled Kaho out of the cake—her dress was never going to be wearable again—and tucked her against them. They ignored her loud protests as they waved the children toward the escape route on the other side of the room.
“Go! Go! Go!”
“That’s a window!” the large man hissed. Hissed ?
“It opens!” One hopes.
One of the young teens in front pressed on the side of the glass and it popped open, swinging outside.
The mystery man laughed. Deep and rich, the sound did something funny to Haru’s stomach. Though the sake might be at fault. Hard to tell. Humongous-san huffed out a “Thank the Gods for patio doors,” as the group all dashed outside.
Haru nodded. Hot stuff wasn’t wrong. They leaned and took a hard right, following the kids. The procession ran quietly, efficiently along the wall. The only noise came from the clank of the food carts they’d, um, borrowed temporarily. Even Kaho had stopped her protests.
Smart girl . She pressed hard against Haru, only her neck stretched out with her head turned on their shoulder so she could watch behind them. Her little chubby fingers dug into the front of Haru’s chest, most likely covering their shirt with chocolate. Haru chuckled and rubbed their chin over her head as the group snaked its way around the hotel perimeter. The regiment twisted and turned, following the small footpath toward their destination.
When the group swung into an outcove, a door had been propped open. The kids slinked through, Haru and Humongous-san bringing up the rear. The regiment shuffled the last few meters into another open door leading to the indoor swim area.
“What happened to the pool?”
Haru glanced back at Humongous-san, trying to gauge whether he was going to have a coronary or laugh. His lips were set in a tight line. It could have gone either way. In the end, he snort-chuckled.
“You don’t know how glad I am that this isn’t my hotel this evening.”
“I am pretty sure it is only dirt. Do you think the filters will get it out?” Haru grimaced.
Humongous-san cleared his throat, his face still struggling against one expression or another. Had he been staring at Haru? Maybe. “After a fashion. The filters will need to be replaced. The, ah…they’ll probably have to drain it.”
Oh dear . Guilt gnawed at Haru’s gut, but the shouts of laughter and triumph didn’t give them time to stew. Kaho squealed, kicking out. They almost dropped her, but managed to keep hold. By the ankles, yes, but her head did not meet concrete. It counted as a save. Haru juggled Kaho until she was right side up and put her down. Their little tanuki went straight for Humongous-san.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough cake?” Humongous-san’s dark eyes sparkled as he took her tiny hand in his.
He laughed and nudged the cake cart over to a chair where she could reach it. “Fine. But don’t make yourself sick.”
“Ha!” Haru barked out then cleared their throat. “One can never have too much cake.”
Kaho’s eyes met theirs before she nodded once. Her little fingers went right back into the top tier. Ooohs and aaahs echoed in the room as the kids popped a squat and dug into the ill-gotten gains. Warm fuzzies filled Haru’s chest as they watched the children stuff their faces. The kids talked with each other as much as they ate.
“Thank you,” they said, turning to Humongous-san.
Their spy? Savior? Turncoat? Had one hand on Kaho’s back, steadying her as she chowed down. He flashed a smile before his gaze moved to something behind Haru. A few Koropokkuru had toddled out from behind the plants and were making their way along the wall toward Haru and their accomplices. These tiny, human-like beings stuck to the shadows more often than not, and were a real treat to be seen, but the Koropokkuru were a wary race. Their new companions were desperate not to be seen and failing miserably.
“Pretend you do not see them. The Koropokkuru, the little people, are painfully shy.”
“Oh, yes, um.” Humongous-san focused back on steadying Kaho.
When Haru began pulling plates, their new friend got the hint and served up some cake. The tap at Haru’s leg came shortly, followed by a few soft words, barely audible, asking for a slice.
“We are happy to share,” Haru replied then passed plates, dipping down and back to give their guests as much privacy as possible. “Here you go.”
“ Arigatou .”
“ Dōitashimashite .”
The Koropokkuru hurried away, ill-gotten cake in hand, a couple stopping to add the treats the children put on the floor for them. Haru really had bumped into a good group of kids today, and thanks to Humongous-san, the kids and Haru were able to enjoy their escapades.
“You helped make their night.” Haru gestured over their shoulder to, well, everyone. And mine . “Getting caught would have put a damper on…the celebration .”
“So, uh, why were you attacking the desserts?”
“Re-enactment of the Siege of Inabayama Castle. A”—Haru burped. Ew . That did not feel good. Or taste good—“major battle between the Oda clan and the Saitō clan.” Haru made a waving motion and sat down next to Kaho. She planted a chocolate kiss on their cheek and handed them some cake. They tore off a piece and popped it in. Humongous-san made a choking sound. What were we talking about? Oh, right. “Family feud really. Oda was supposed to inherit anyway. But Oda won, became a major daimyō and initiated the unification of Japan. Sorry, must be boring to you—Mister?”
Humongous-san tilted. Or maybe that was Haru. The fuzz in their head made it hard to concentrate properly, and everything moved in weird ways. The sweet yumminess of the cake made their stomach flip. The room needed to stop trying to turn. Haru’s stomach protested the motion.
“Bastille.” Humongous-san offered a brief courtesy bow. “Tally Bastille. History teacher?”
“No, physics, but I love history.”
“I don’t mean to offend you, but you don’t look well.”
“Not feeling the best.” The confrontation with Akaike-san hadn’t helped.
Tally’s? Yes, Tally. His nostrils flared. Was that a tongue flick?
“Who is Akaike-san?”
“Oh. My Urusar.” Asshole .
Tally put his free hand on Haru’s shoulder. Why was he doing that? And what did that look mean? “Is there anything I can help with?”
Haru laughed. “Ha! No. I, um, doubt it. Unless you can love me? I deserve it, to be loved. I am not some kind of meat, just to be handed off to whomever. I want to love…and be loved. Is that so wrong?”
“No,” Tally whispered, then swallowed hard. “It’s not wrong.”
“See? Why is that so hard—oh!” A burp, a long and hard one, interrupted Haru’s indignation. Then again. And again.
Tally crouched in front of Haru, all his hair billowing around him like some kind of cloud. It really was pretty. Especially with how it set off his russet skin, almost like he glowed copper and golden.
Another burp came up, but it was all wrong. Tally’s dark eyes widened to saucer size, at least it looked that way to Haru—afraid they might fall in. A hand tightened on Haru’s arm as Tally whispered, “Oh, crap.”
A deep, thunderous gurgle came up. Wet and bitter. Tasting all kinds of nasty. And all of it spewing right into Humongous-san’s lap.