C2 Fireworks and Stolen Kisses: Chapter Two
Muddy Waters & Hangover Blues
Not quite how I’d imagined it. Tally couldn’t help a little smile as he washed the worst of the sick off in the pool’s restroom. It wasn’t like the stories where two people stared at each other across the room and made their way into each other’s arms in a chorus of shining stars and unicorns. Fine. The stories about Em’halafi , that one destined match of a lifetime, weren’t quite that bad, but they could get sappy.
He’d never heard of one involving drunken dessert sieges and throwing up on shoes.
Though now he couldn’t find the stories far-fetched at all. Em’halafi were quite real. He’d seen it with his own parents, but he’d always thought falling so hard, so immediately like that was for other people. Until that evening when a rainbow-suspender-wearing otter had drawn his gaze in a superconducting magnet sort of way. Tally had felt compelled to find him, frantic until he did, then their eyes had met and Tally had fallen into a deep, lightning-lit well.
Nothing had ever struck him with such clarity before. He always questioned himself, always backed up and took stock, re-evaluated, weighed things carefully. Not with this. He knew and he didn’t even know the otter’s name.
He turned to the teenager at the next sink who was in the process of washing icing off a smaller child’s hands and face—some sort of bird lijun from the scent, both of them. Tally gathered up the few Japanese words he had. “The…cake samurai. Name?”
“I speak English, Mr. Bastille.” The youngster said it respectfully, but there was a grin trying to fight its way out. “The cake samurai is Tanaka Haru. They are an otter clan, mostly.”
“Oh. Thank you. I should try to return him to his family after we make sure all the kids are accounted for.”
The teenager—crane, Tally thought after a discreet air taste with his tongue—frowned up at him. “Maybe it would be better to let them find him.”
“Why would you say that?”
The crane boy shrugged, though, and returned to cleaning up his younger counterpart. Maybe the clan’s Urusar was intimidating, or maybe the boy’s clan didn’t get along with them. Feuding clans were rare these days, but active dislike certainly still existed. That didn’t concern Tally too much. He was an outsider without connections here, and he did need to speak to Haru’s clan to feel them out regarding how they felt about a match with a foreigner of a different lijun type.
Maybe they’re progressive and don’t care as long as Haru’s happy .
Overly optimistic, maybe, but the stars seemed to be aligning for Tally that evening. All things were possible. With the older children’s help, Tally made certain all the little ones found their families first, including a certain tanuki who was mostly chocolate icing by that point. When he returned to the now-abandoned pool area, Haru was still passed out on the chaise.
Tally crouched beside him, smoothing the hair back from his forehead. “Haru? Time to get you to your room.”
No response. He didn’t expect one, really. Someone had really overdone it. Tally allowed himself a few more seconds lost in admiration. So perfect, even drunk off his gourd. Watching Haru sleep was a little creepy, though, so Tally slid his arms underneath and lifted Haru with a little huff. He wasn’t small , exactly, but he was lean enough that Tally could manage.
Haru snuffled in his sleep, nuzzling against Tally’s shoulder and fastening his fingers onto Tally’s shirt in a death grip.
“I have you,” Tally murmured as he headed out of the pool area. “Don’t worry.”
“Hmmm.” Haru wriggled to get his head more comfortably supported and settled in Tally’s arms with a soft sigh.
Perfect . Tally felt as if his heart were thawing after a long frost, one he hadn’t even been aware of. This was what he’d been missing, the second half of his heart to hold in his arms. He carried Haru back toward the convention rooms, though he stopped at the information table instead of dragging Haru through hallways of too-interested eyes.
“Excuse me? Do you know where I can find the Akaike clan? I need to return someone to them.”
The two rabbit lijun behind the table twitched, glanced at each other wide-eyed then turned back to Tally. Finally, one of them managed in softly accented English, “Sir, maybe it would be best to leave him on a chair and we will let them know where he is.”
“I… No, I can’t do that. Not a problem at all for me to take him where he belongs.” Tally gave them his most gracious smile. “And I do need to speak with them.”
“Yes. Of course.” The smaller of the two gave him a little seated bow. “They have a suite of rooms on the tenth floor, right beside the elevators. Sir…if it is not too presumptuous? They are very traditional.”
That stopped Tally. He wasn’t certain if that meant something different here. Traditional back home meant conservative, lijun who sometimes clung to old ways and weren’t always happy about the modern need to mix in human society in ways that meant the lijun community prospered along with the humans around them. There were good things in the old traditions. The lijun first attitude wasn’t one of them.
Tally thanked the staff members and hitched Haru up higher as he made his way to the elevator lobby. The other guests waiting gave them a wide berth and let them take the first available car alone. Not that Tally blamed them. Collectively, he and Haru smelled terrible.
A set of double doors stood beside the elevator bank, recognizable as a suite by the scrollwork around the frame and the doorbell. One of Tally’s older hotels had doorbells on the suites, too. Always seemed like a little touch of class to him. He juggled Haru so he could ring the bell, while Haru muttered something and clung tighter.
The older woman who opened the door appeared surprised at first, but then she caught sight of Haru and her expression darkened. She snapped something at Tally in Japanese.
“I’m sorry. My Japanese is terrible,” Tally managed, hoping his accent and nervousness didn’t make the words incoherent.
She glowered at him, then turned her head and called into the suite. An answering call came from somewhere on the left, though Tally had no idea where since she barred the door. Soon an even older gentleman joined her. He seemed familiar but his stern, forbidding expression threw Tally. He swallowed hard.
“Good evening, sir. I—”
“How dare you bring him back like this?” The man kept his voice low but it was sharp enough to cut glass. “What is the meaning of this?”
“He, ah.” Tally took a breath, startled by the venom in his eyes. “Haru appears to have had a bit too much sake. I found him and made inquiries…” Yes. True. Maybe with some things omitted in between but that wasn’t for him to tell. Now Tally recalled where he’d seen this otter lijun before, arguing with Haru at the reception. “I brought him to you because I need to speak to you… You are Akaike-san?”
Akaike drew himself up to his full height, just about at the top of Tally’s shoulder. “I am.”
“My name is Tal-tsu’tsa Bastille, sir. I’m the new Urusar of Bastille clan in Wisconsin. I know this might sound unusual, but I met Haru this evening and knew.”
“ What did you know?” None of the slicing cold left Akaike’s voice but his eyes had narrowed speculatively.
“That Haru is my Em’halafi. My one.” Tally tried to take a step forward so they weren’t talking in the hallway but neither otter moved. “I’d like to discuss marriage—”
Akaike finally moved aside and pointed. “You will put Haru down this instant! This is most unseemly. He is not some houseless boy, but a Satislit of exquisite training.”
Tally hurried to place Haru down on the indicated sofa, then ended up going down on one knee when Haru refused to release his death grip on Tally’s shirt. “Haru? You have to let go now,” Tally whispered. Haru rooted closer and placed a kiss on Tally’s jaw, all with his eyes still shut.
“Outrageous!” Urusar Akaike roared. “You will remove yourself this instant, young Urusar! If you wish for a match, you will do this properly through your parents instead of pawing at a Satislit to whom you have not been formally introduced!”
“Yes, sir. I’m very sorry. Really.” Tally fought desperately to loosen Haru’s grip, though it was difficult to do it and remain gentle. Finally he was free to stand, though Haru’s whimper as he broke contact nearly ruined his heart. He offered the Urusar a bow. “Thank you for your patience. My parents will be in touch.”
The Urusar’s expression was still thunderous as he closed the door firmly behind Tally. The Uruma’s steady gaze had been more thoughtful. That gave him hope. Tally took a long, shuddering breath and made his way back to the elevators.
Could’ve gone worse, right?
He’d call Mom and Dad in the morning and convince them if he had to beg and plead. A proper match. Traditional. That kind of traditional. Dad didn’t need Tally to tell him how to negotiate, of course, but whatever it took, Tally was prepared to throw it in the pot.
Back at his own room, he put the chocolate icing and throw-up-stained clothes out for the valet and put himself in the shower long enough for the bathroom to fill with steam. He toweled off in cursory fashion, opened the door and let himself relax into his snake form. It had been a long day and he needed to let go for a bit.
The soft carpet felt good against his scales, easy to glide over. Tally stopped at the full-length mirror on the closet door and reared up to inspect his scales. He did hope Haru didn’t find this part of him frightening. So many lijun did, the rumors about uktena never quite dying out. Uktena were too scarce, the prejudices too old for the myths to die. Yes, he was a big snake. There was that. As large around as a ten-year-old oak. But the silver-white scale shining on his forehead and the horns marked him as not a regular snake. Maybe Haru would find him handsome as a snake? Maybe he knew better than to be afraid?
Well, it would come out all right. They’d figure it out. That’s what Em’halafi did.
* * * *
“No, Dad, listen.” Tally juggled the phone from hand to hand as he shrugged into his suit jacket, the everyday navy Armani rather than his best Hugo Boss, which he’d sent out to be cleaned. The likelihood of it being a total loss was in the high percentiles. “I’m sure. He’s the one . I didn’t know from across the room, but when I looked in his eyes…yeah. I knew.”
“And he barfed all over you? That’s something to tell the grandkids, I guess.” Dad was still snickering. Mom laughed in the background.
“Please, I need you both to take this seriously.” Tally felt five years old again, trying to explain something he felt was terribly important to parents who thought his sincerity was just too cute. “Haru is my Em’halafi. The one person in this whole wide world who’s my actual match. But his clan’s really old school. All about tradition. I might be Urusar now, but you’re still my parents. I can’t be the one to start this process.”
“Hmm. This is an otter clan?” Dad turned from the phone to talk to Mom, their voices muffled and urgent. “Your mom says clever boy for having an otter as your fated love.”
Tally huffed as he checked his tie in the mirror. “This isn’t part of the we need to do something about the declining otter population thing. I mean, yes, it’s a plus, but I didn’t plan it this way.”
More muffled conversation and laughing from their end. “Your mom’s teasing. She knows you don’t have a clandestine bone in your body.”
“I have to get to the security meeting, Dad. Tell me you’ll contact the Awi Tamgradat.”
“Won’t do to be late.” All the laughter had fled from Dad’s voice. “Go, go. Oh wait. What was the family name so I have something concrete for the matchmaker?”
“Tanaka. One of the kids gave it to me, but it’s Tanaka Haru. The Urusar’s name is Akaike.”
“Perfect. Should be enough to start with. I’ll email you anything I find out. This time difference is a pain.”
Tally said goodbye to his parents and hurried to the elevators. He’d been too excited to sleep and his stomach was too jumbled for breakfast. Not the way he preferred to start a day of meetings, but he’d manage. Somehow. Tally’s mind wandered to Em’halafi and to last night, running through it again and again.
If a person had to be sick, the pool area was probably one of the better places to do it. Tile floors cleaned up easily and there were plenty of towels. Tally had cleaned up the worst of it and stripped off his jacket and dress shirt while he’d marshalled the older children to get the younger ones cleaned up in the restrooms adjacent to the pool area.
Miraculously, Haru hadn’t gotten any of the sick on himself. Only Tally. Now that was a talent. Impressive and gross all at the same time. The little tanuki, Kaho, had been a lost cause, of course. Tally’s second to last act of the evening had been to return her to her parents, chocolate dress and all. They hadn’t been pleased, but tanuki parents usually understood their children’s overarching need for mischief. But returning Haru to his Urusar—that had been hard. The way Haru had clung to Tally, whimpering. Tally still found it hard to believe he had to go halfway around the world to find his destined match, but the GLA conference was no longer on his list of dreaded things to do as Urusar.
Mate…oh, Gods, thank you . He was going to be useless all day, reliving the feel of Haru in his arms, the scent of his hair, the sight of that gorgeous, animated face. Before he’d passed out, of course.
In between meetings, he would do some hard praying for negotiations to work, though his parents were shrewd. It had to work. Then Tally would marry his one true mate and everything would be perfect. Not that his life was horrible. But…
Tally took a huge breath so he wouldn’t sigh. The pair of human women in the elevator with him had already edged away as far as they could. Even the humans saw him as intimidating, though that was solely due to his size. Had they been rabbit lijun, they probably would have refused to get in the elevator car with the big scary death serpent in the first place.
No matter how peaceful, how law-abiding an uktena was, they couldn’t shake those automatic reactions from other lijun or dispel the weird myths that still circulated. No one was going to die if Tally breathed on them in his human form, for Gods’ sakes. The opposite of revulsion was true, too. Naturally. There were people attracted to him because he was supposed to be so deadly or some who had a Native American fetish. Some of his lovers had wanted him because he was so exotic and dangerous . Such a thrill.
It was maddening and tiresome. And lonely. When Haru had looked at him with those soulful brimming eyes and said he just wanted to be loved, Tally’s heart had cracked a little. He understood that so well. Someone who would see him and not the legends. Someone who could look past the what and love who he was.
He accepted the folder from the cat lijun attendant at the entrance to the meeting room and sat through the meeting on autopilot. Oh, he took notes. He’d review them later. He heard what was said, but didn’t really absorb any of it, and since he didn’t have any security breaches to report, he didn’t have to actively participate. Cyber-security was the latest quibble. Tally had his own thoughts, but it wouldn’t do for a young upstart like himself to give advice or suggestions to the older Urusars and Urumas, either. Tally understood his place here.
The family chat buzzed toward the end of the meeting, messages filling up his phone at an alarming pace.
Meli: you met your Em’halafi? OMG!
Nan: what is he/she/they like?
Hal: Dad said he threw up on you
Lahi: Oh, Gods, that’s horrible :(
Che: You scare him, Tal?
Mom: Of course not. The young man was a wee bit intoxicated.
Addy and Nan: Did you get him drunk? O_O
Tal: NO! NO! I rescued him from a dessert raid. He was already drunk
Mom: He’s a nice, young Satislit from an otter clan. He’s an otter 2, right, Tal?
Hal: Did he really trash the pool?
Nan: Dessert raid?
Tal: More like a siege. Yes on the otter.
Addy: Is that why I got this bill—huge, painful bill—across my desk? What kind of otter is he?
Meli, Hal, Nan, Lahi and Che: Ooooooh, Tally’s in trouble!
How? Just how did they always manage to answer at the same time?
Dad: Haru was just entertaining the lijun, kids, like you guys haven’t done worse.
Hal: Late as always, Pop
Addy: Srsly, this bill, Tally
Mom: We’ve got the Akaike clan on the phone. Your dad needs to concentrate.
Lahi: What? Tally can’t talk for himself?
Che: Lame, bro
Tally closed down the app, needing to focus on the new policies update and escape from his family’s nosy questions. But he didn’t close it fast enough to miss Marnie’s cat icon pinging with You found your destined?! What is she/he/they like? Except Tally knew hardly anything. It was hard to answer when all he wanted was to get to know his Em’halafi better. But soon. It would be soon.
After the meeting, the interminable, endless meeting, Tally wandered the hotel’s main floor trying to decide on a restaurant for lunch. Most of the conference-goers broke off into well-established groups at lunchtime and Tally found himself on his own—not comfortable enough to ingratiate himself into any group and certainly not sought out by anyone except for business conversations.
He finally decided to go back up to one of the restaurants on the top floor, the bistro with more Western-style seating so he wouldn’t feel so odd eating alone. The view of Mt. Fuji was breathtaking and a huge part of Tally yearned to be out on the mountain instead of stuffed into a suit in a civilized venue. The menu was impressive but fussier than his stomach wanted that day, so he settled on the chef’s salad and a glass of wine.
One glass. That wasn’t irresponsible, was it?
When the food arrived, he finally felt relaxed enough to take in his surroundings. He appreciated all the leather and wood. Gave the room a cozy, intimate feeling, though the space was quite large. Low ceilings and soft coverings for floor and walls kept the noise level down. Someone had understood restaurant design beyond the purely visual when they’d built this space.
Even with the sound baffling, Tally picked up a familiar voice and his heart sped. There. Across the room away from the window, there was Haru. Overjoyed, Tally gathered his courage and all his best manners to go say hello, but the expression on Haru’s face stopped him.
He sat with an older gentleman who shared some of Haru’s features. Except for that one phrase Tally had heard across the room, they kept their voices low, but they were obviously arguing.
Okay. Now would definitely not be a good time. Tally bit his lip and eased back into his chair, studiously not trying to eavesdrop.
* * * *
“The hotel has to drain the pool.”
Haru winced and pressed their palms against their temples. “Not so loud, Otōusan .”
“What were you thinking?”
Not much, apparently . Totally worth it, though. Vague images of the siege flitted through their memory. Laughter from excited children was the most prominent, and it warmed their chest. They’d made the kids happy. Kaho had squealed with joy. They remembered that much. Nothing else really mattered.
A loud sigh escaped Otōusan . “What are we going to do with you?”
“Can the hotel definitively say it was me?” The words weren’t easy to put together. The loud, continuous thump against their skull made it hard to concentrate on much of anything.
“No. Not precisely.”
“Then how can you assume it was me?”
“Know anyone else with rainbow suspenders?”
Well, those wouldn’t be coming out again during the conference. Haru sighed and closed their eyes. A groan escaped them. Something for the pain would help. Maybe. The lights were too bright. People were all fuzzy when they looked around. Words felt sharp and pointy, especially the ones Father used when talking at Haru. Because that was what he was doing. Not listening. But talking at Haru. Ever since their Urusar had dragged them out of bed this morning, people had talked over them.
Shoving Haru in the shower hadn’t helped their mood. They hadn’t been that drunk. Haru dipped their head and sniffed their shirt. It smelled of sake. Or maybe that was them? Wow. Had they really gone through so many bottles that alcohol still sweated out of their pores? The shower hadn’t helped the smell even a fraction. Okay, maybe they’d been that drunk. It hadn’t been their goal. They’d just been so angry about having another match shoved at them during the welcome dinner.
Haru opened their eyes as they leaned forward. They cradled their head between their hands as they stared at Father. Words were leaving Otōusan ’ s mouth, but bounced right off Haru. None of them made any sense. They needed something to clear their mind and settle their stomach.
“Noodles,” they said.
“Does this place serve udon?”
Once again Otōusan gave Haru one of those looks. The ones that made them shrink back and feel guilty about being a disappointment. Again.
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said.”
“No.” Might as well not lie .
A raspy sigh left Father. Both of them were doing a lot of that. Sighing. Not that it was unusual.
“I think we can manage to scrounge you up a bowl. You’re going to need it.”
Maybe they’d be able to find little Kaho. Her smile and chubby hands were all Haru needed as a pick-me-up. Kaho’s intense gaze held a mutual understanding of how boring and monotonous the meetings were, and it spoke to Haru on an instinctual level. Maybe she needed looking after, or they could look after each other. Any time with their little raccoon-dog was worth the ire of Urusar and Otōusan.
A large bowl filled with noodles was placed in front of Haru. “Ooh, yes.”
“Sirs.” The waiter bowed and quickly left.
The smell alone rejuvenated Haru. Their mouth watered as they spied the tempura. Prawns. Lotus root. Sweet potatoes. Gobo . If Father was ordering them treats, then he couldn’t be too upset with them.
“Wait, isn’t this restaurant the one that serves Western food?”
“I asked a favor. There are other restaurants in the hotel.”
“Gods, thank you.”
Otōusan grunted, but didn’t say anything else. He sat back, resting his hands over his flat stomach. There was a look in his eye Haru wasn’t too sure about. They’d woken up too tired, not up to adulting yet. They’d figure it out once they had more than two brain cells to rub together.
Haru picked up their chopsticks, inhaled the heady aroma of the soup again and said, “ Itadakimasu .”
Oooh yes . They slurped up the weighty noodles, the food hitting the right spot. Their stomach. After a few mouthfuls they picked up one of the prawns and devoured it in two bites. They groaned. This was what they needed. Not to be dumped in a cold shower, or to have people push and prod them, or to be yelled at, or worse…or to have that disappointed stare of Father’s pinned on them.
Noodles fixed everything, especially after a night of drinking.
Every slurp helped Haru feel more like themself instead of a comatose slug. If Father had ordered them some udon to start with, there wouldn’t have been an argument—oh, dear Gods. Haru stopped mid-slurp and looked up at Otōusan. They gulped, forcing down their mouthful. The noodles sat heavy in their stomach.
Otōusan grinned, clucking his tongue. “So, are you with the world again?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Are you going to have that prawn?”
“Yes.” Haru automatically protected their treat with the chopsticks.
Alarm skittered through Haru like a thousand needle pricks. They checked the time on their Seiko Prospex. One-thirty. How long ago had Urusar Akaike contacted Father?
“You were in Ishikawa this morning,” Haru said, picking up the prawn. Their heart clenched before they asked the next question. “How’d you get to Tokyo? Why?”
Haru dropped the prawn. Otōusan immediately poached it, popping the savory treat into his mouth and chewing. But flying would cost so much money, especially if it was a last-minute ticket. There was no good reason for Akaike-san to fly Father to Tokyo. None. A distinct ringing began in Haru’s ears.
“Why do you think after all the destruction you caused last night you are still here?”
“Because they don’t know it was me? Otōusan, why are you here?”
“You have a match.”
“Excuse you,” Haru replied as a hum ran through their body. Fight or flight. Their mind hadn’t decided which yet.
“I’m serious, Haru. The Imsi Tamgradat is already set for three nights from now. It’ll give your mother time to get here, and the groom’s parents.”
“No. I cannot have a match.” Doom welled up inside Haru. Things were getting serious. Very serious. And way too fast. The formal attitude spooked them. “I don’t want a match. It’s so, so… last century.”
“Yes, you do.” A grin, something Haru rarely ever saw, cracked Father’s serious expression. “In fact, from what Akaike-san told me, it’s a destined match. Apparently, you met your Em’halafi last night.”
The declaration stunned Haru. Any rebuttal they had planned dried up. Their tongue stuck to the roof of their mouth. No words would come. Could come.
“His connections are the only reason the Akaike clan has not been tossed from this hotel.” Father’s harsh words bit into Haru.
“Someone claims to be my mate?”
A glint entered Otōusan’s normally calm brown eyes. “Your destined match.”
“Some idiot still believes in Em’halafi—destined matches—in this century?”
“What kind of psycho still believes in mates?” Haru protested. This couldn’t be happening. Not to them. Haru wanted to meet someone, fall in love, build a family. Not be matched . Didn’t matter how they’d been raised by the clan. Just because they had been trained as a Satislit, a bride-son , didn’t mean the clan should sell them off. Their chest filled with a burning hot spark, flaring up bright and ugly.
Otōusan raised a hand and leaned forward, stealing another prawn from Haru’s udon. “The kind that doesn’t mind getting thrown up on and still wants to marry you. The kind that has already kept you from getting into trouble with the hotel, other clans. He must have some sway if he can keep the hotel off our backs.”
Which meant money. Haru bared their teeth at Father. The family was selling them out.
“The terms of the proposal are more than generous. This Tally will do good things for the clan.”
“But— Wait, did you say I threw up on him?” Haru’s brain would catch on the most embarrassing detail out of all this ridiculousness. They had no recollection of any spewing. They didn’t smell like puke. Just alcohol. What kind of idiot would set up an Imsi Tamgradat after that kind of humiliation?
“And he still wants to marry me?”
“He does.” Otōusan nodded. “This clan, they have kawauso , Haru. Otters, like us.”
Another declaration striking Haru dumb. It hurt, mainly because they knew what it meant. Their Urusar had probably already signed on the dotted line. Part of Haru wanted to be furious. Rage at Father. The ball of flame swirled inside their chest, ready to break out in a turbulent eruption. It wasn’t fair.
“Don’t screw this up, Haru. Not this one.”
Otōusan slid a picture in front of Haru. Humongous . A sense of déjà vu hit them as they eyed the man, but they couldn’t place it. Black flowing hair. Expensive suit. Tailor-made. Had to be for a guy that big. Dark, brooding eyes. Next to the picture was all the pertinent information.
Job: Hotelier/Property Management.
Only eight years older than Haru. Not horrid.
Blood Type: O positive.
Gods help them now. Haru would never survive under one of their thumbs.
What? “You’re kidding?” Haru lifted their gaze to Father’s. He must’ve seen something on Haru’s face because the refusal came fast.
“This, this…a snake?” How could Father do that to them?
“What better match could I give you than an Urusar? I never thought— He’s your destined, Haru.”
Haru huffed. Maybe they couldn’t sabotage the dinner outright. Didn’t mean they wouldn’t fight it, because the fight response had definitely kicked in. There were ways to make their feelings known on the subject.
“Haru.” The warning was clear in Otōusan’s voice.
“When is it again? The dinner?”
“You have three days to prepare. It’s scheduled for Friday night, after the big fundraising banquet.”
Plenty of time then. Haru already had a plan forming. Hopefully they could steal away for a bit to set it in motion.
“Haru, I am asking as your father, don’t screw this one up. Please.”