Lijun/C3 Fireworks and Stolen Kisses: Chapter Three
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Lijun/C3 Fireworks and Stolen Kisses: Chapter Three
+ Add to Library

C3 Fireworks and Stolen Kisses: Chapter Three

Snake Eyes & an Indecent Proposal

When Dad had sent the time for the Imsi Tamgradat, the betrothal feast, Tally had snaked out. Overjoyed and panicked was not a good combination for him. He’d needed to lock his hotel room door, take his serpent form and curl up in a sunbeam for a good hour to calm down.

When he reached half-dozing in his puddle of sunlight, his brain kicked in and he managed to human again. He couldn’t do this on his own. He needed reinforcements. Ten in the morning. It wasn’t late back home, right? Even if it was, neither Gunther nor Marnie went to bed early. Laptop. Skype. He called Gun’s number, knowing he’d be picking up in Colorado and Marnie back home. Two of his oldest friends from school, he tried them since at least one of them was likely to answer. They both did.

“Hey, Tal!” they said over each other in that awkward way video chats often began.

“Hi, I hope it’s not a bad time. I’m losing my mind.”

“Are you?” Marnie purred, her bobcat showing plainly. “Little birdie told me someone found his Em’halafi in Japan.”

“No. Get out .” Gun’s dark eyes went wide, then focused on Tally with his sharpest hawk glare. “And when were you gonna tell me?”

“I did. I’m sorry. I would’ve told you soon. It’s just everything’s moving so fast and I… I might be freaking out a little.”

Marnie’s expression went from smug to concerned. “What, Tal? What’s freaking you out?”

Tally scrubbed at his face with both hands. “Gods. It’s very traditional, the whole thing. Haru’s clan. There’s an Awi involved and they won’t let me see him. You don’t know how frustrating that is, to see him across a restaurant and have to pretend I don’t.”

“That’s kinda sucky, but not freak-out level sucky,” Gun said at his driest. “Tal, it’s us. Spill.”

“There’s a betrothal dinner, a formal one, on Friday . I don’t know what to wear. I don’t know what’s expected of me. I don’t know how to greet his parents or if something’s supposed to happen or if I’m supposed to bring something.” Tally rested his forehead on the desk. “I’m dying here.”

“Poor Tally.” Marnie’s fingers flew silently over her keys while Gun’s heavy clackety-clack typing filled the silence. “Okay, if we look at the ILCD, there’s some info on formal matches in Japan. You do need a present for your intended. Something nice.”

“Nice?” Now he knew he was panicking, since he hadn’t thought to check the International Lijun Customs Database.

“You know if your guy is a Satislit, Tal?” Gun frowned at his screen.

“I…think so. Pretty sure his Urusar said so.”

“You need to do the bride-son thing, then. Jewelry’s traditional.”

He could do that. “All right.”

Marnie spoke up again. “You greet parents first. Then your betrothed and you exchange gifts. Tal, you need to check this stuff with someone local. The database sometimes has weird stuff in it that’s all jacked up.”

“Yes. Of course. I need… I don’t think I can go in a suit and tie.”

“Probably not. Here, Tal, look at this site.” Gun sent him a link with descriptions of formal Japanese clothing for men, complete with labeled diagrams.

“Oh, that helps. A lot. I can manage these things. And I think I know someone who can help confirm the details.”

“That sounds more like our Tally.” Marnie flashed a blinding smile. “You can do this.”

“We wanna hear all about it after,” Gun said with a thumbs-up. “We love you, Tal. Go get ’im.”

Before Tally went shopping, he decided to call Mrs. Arakawa, the Uruma for that year’s host family, for advice. She was pleased to help with a betrothal and accompanied him when he went shopping, tutting and herding him through the proper clothes purchases. She answered all his questions patiently, though she was a bit amused at his frantic fussing. She even came to his room Friday evening to approve and make sure everything was as it should be. He needed to send her something special as a thank you.

Most of the traditional formal wear Tally had managed to get into with minimal fuss was more comfortable than a Western suit and tie. Especially the tie. The loose hakama were definitely better than tight, fitted pants. The shoes, though… He frowned at his feet, hoping he didn’t look like he was shuffling. The geta would take practice and he didn’t have the time.

Now in the elevator with its mirrored sides, Tally hardly recognized himself. No one would mistake him for Japanese, but he felt oddly dislocated in time. Musing about tradition helped to stop him worrying over the details quite so much until he reached the meeting room, converted to an intimate banquet hall for the evening. A long, low table dominated the back wall, cushions set carefully along its sides. Elegant flower arrangements in blue and red sat in strategic locations on the table and around the room.

Tally’s parents were there already and he greeted them first, then his hosts—the more imposing version of Haru—his father, attired in similar fashion to what Tally wore—and the considerably smaller, feminine version of Haru—his mother, in a kimono patterned with delicate, stylized koi and waves. He bowed to them, deepest courtesy, and offered the little box of candied tamarind that Mrs. Arakawa said was traditional for lijun grooms to bring to the bride-parents.

Next, the clan Urusar, Akaike, and again, Tally offered a deep bow of respect. The Urusar’s eyes glittered watching him and the weight of his appraisal was a physical thing pressing on Tally’s shoulders. At least he wasn’t yelling this time. Their Awi Tamgradat, the matchmaker, stood beside him, beaming, and her regard managed to buoy him enough to continue. She took him by the elbow and led him to the center of the room.

Everything was so beautiful, so perfect, Tally was afraid to breathe too hard. He felt like a giant constrictor in too small a space as he towered over everyone and everything in this delicately balanced room.

Haru . He was supposed to greet Haru. Formally, of course. With a minimal exchange of words. He searched the room. Surely he was here? Wasn’t the groom supposed to be the last to arrive? Oh…wait…

Near the right-hand wall stood a figure in a gorgeous blue and pink kimono, cherry blossoms against a stream, with long, black hair piled high and formal makeup painstakingly done. Haru.

Don’t stare. Don’t stare. Don’t be rude. It was one of the hardest things Tally had ever done, though. The Haru of the rainbow suspenders had been gorgeous. This Haru was additionally breathtaking, in all his formal poise and dignity.

“May I speak to the Satislit ?” he asked Mr. Tanaka, enunciating carefully. Satislit, the bride-son. Dad had confirmed that Haru had been raised in that tradition.

Mr. Tanaka inclined his head to give permission. The Awi patted Tally’s arm and led him forward. Good thing. Tally wasn’t sure he would’ve made it on his own. His legs shook. He hoped it didn’t telegraph through the fabric of his hakama .

He offered another futsurei, since he was the petitioner here, and held his engagement gift out to Haru with both hands. The lacquer box contained a man’s bracelet, gold with blue diamond chips. He hoped it wasn’t too much.

“I’m pleased to see you here.” Tally offered the formal phrasing that implied the Satislit’s presence meant he had been accepted. He’s perfect. So lovely. So full of life.

Instead of replying in the traditional manner, Haru took the gift silently. Was that also an option? No one said anything, so it must be. Haru glanced at the box without any kind of reaction before he set it aside. He picked up a tall, rectangular package wrapped in a patterned cloth finished off with an ornate bow—silver and blue with feathers sticking out of it. Haru surprised Tally with a saikeirei as he offered up the gift, holding it above his head.

Tally accepted it gravely, silently, since that seemed to be what Haru wanted. With a few shaky tugs, he undid the bow and folded back the cloth to find two black, glassy eyes staring back at him. He choked and nearly dropped the bottle. There was a snake in the bottle. A. Dead. Snake.

“I hope it is to your pleasing,” Haru said quietly, straightening up slowly, his hands clasped together.

Dead snake, dead snake, dead snake. Tally’s brain couldn’t function beyond that and he risked a quick glance at the Awi for help. Her eyes were wide, her mouth in a little ‘O’ of surprise, but she recovered swiftly.

“Snake wine, Bastille-san. It is considered medicinal. A restorative.” The words were soft but she’d narrowed her eyes at Haru.

Tally put on his best placid diplomatic face and held the horrid thing in both hands while he offered Haru an eshaku . This was not the time to make a scene, ask questions about intent or drop the bottle and look hysterical.

“Thank you,” he said to Haru, in what he hoped was the same tone of voice as his initial greeting. Exchange concluded, he managed to put the bottle of horror on the table with only a little tremble. This had to be some sort of cultural misunderstanding. Yes. Had to be.

“ Habushu has a positive effect on the male libido,” Haru said as he plucked up his gift with one perfect manicured hand. His nails had been painted a dark purple. It was a lovely color on him, accenting the kimono in a way that spoke of meticulous attention to detail. But there had been a tremor in his voice. Was Haru as nervous as Tally?

“Oh?”

“Yes. And, besides, who does not want to display vanquished predators?”

Tally gulped, eyeing the bottle again. Something wasn’t right here. Haru regarded him with cold, flat eyes. There should have been some spark of recognition, some acknowledgment of the camaraderie of the Great Dessert Siege. What had happened to cause this change in Haru? “Many snakes are beneficial predators. Good to keep in the garden.”

Haru’s expression tightened. “Even garden snakes will bite you.”

A loud cough from behind them had Haru looking behind Tally at their families.

A nearly imperceptible sigh escaped Haru. His fingers swept over the lid of the lacquer box almost reverently before he opened his betrothal gift. There was a pause as Haru stared inside. Tally waited for any kind of reaction with jangled nerves.

Haru sniffed loudly and lifted the bracelet out of the box. The Awi gasped, one hand going to her chest. She nodded in approval, waving her hand in some kind of encouragement. Haru opened his mouth only to close it when the Awi hissed something at him. Haru tilted his head, much like he did when Tally had intervened at the dessert raid. Tally was beginning to suspect it was Haru’s thinking face. His rosy lips thinned momentarily before he broke out a smile that felt polite and slid the bracelet onto his wrist.

The Awi clapped, beaming, then quietly, insistently ushered Tally and Haru toward the low table where his parents, his future in-laws and the clan Urusar now sat. Mr. Akaike wore a frown until he noticed Tally looking at him and it quickly disappeared. Had Tally done something wrong? He was sure he was supposed to offer his betrothal gift first.

Once they sat down, the niggle that something was off disappeared. Haru’s mother fawned over the bracelet, and some of the pressure hanging over Tally released. Conversation was polite, all the expected things. Questions about Tally’s business and the family from Haru’s parents. A few polite questions about Haru’s education and favorite pastimes from Tally’s parents. At the center of the table, Tally and Haru sat side by side, not close enough to touch, though Haru took up the mantle of bride-son perfectly. He made certain Tally always had something on his plate, that his sake cup was always filled, but he’d fallen back into complete silence, eyes down, expression closed.

Tally did his best not to look, not to ask, telling himself that this was probably expected behavior. The feelings of mate and want were still as strong as before, but Tally couldn’t help feeling that something was terribly wrong.

The food was mostly small bites of this and that. A little sushi, which Tally ate politely though fish was not his favorite thing, some noodle dishes, one of them redolent with ginger, which Tally adored. He made all the appreciative noises, made sure to have something of everything Haru placed on his plate and hoped he wouldn’t have to eat so much that he couldn’t get up from his cushion.

After perhaps twenty minutes of everyone being painfully polite and Haru being disturbingly quiet, Tally’s intended finally turned to him with a sweet smile. “I ordered something special from the kitchen just for you.”

Relief washed over Tally. Good. All the chilly distance was part of protocol then. He returned the smile and glanced over as the doors to the banquet room swung open, to reveal one of the chefs in white bearing a platter atop which sat a beautiful lacquer dish. The scents coming from the tray were…interesting, though Tally had trouble parsing through them.

Haru sat up expectantly, a happy smile on his face and his eyes bright. He even wriggled on his cushion. His fingers reached out as if eager to get ahold of the dish.

“Thank you,” Tally said gently, pleased to see Haru so excited. “May I ask what it is?”

Haru turned to him, warm and open. “Unagi no Kabayaki.”

Several gasps erupted around them.

“One of my favorite dishes.” Haru’s tongue snaked out and wet his lips. “I am honored to share it with you.”

“Haru!” his Urusar barked out.

“Will you have some with me?” Haru turned toward Tally.

Tally stopped short of putting his hand on Haru’s arm. He hadn’t been given any leave to touch and maybe it wasn’t proper. In an echo of Haru’s words, he said, “I would be honored to.”

A warm glow filled his chest. Everything was going to be fine. Haru was excited to be with him. This was… Oh dear Gods.

The chef set the lacquer box directly in front of Tally and he couldn’t help jerking back, taking his cushion with him. In the beautiful black and red box lay a filleted and butterflied… It couldn’t also be a snake, could it?

“I…it’s…” He swallowed hard, looking frantically toward the Awi for help, but her face had reddened, her expression horrified. Nausea climbed up Tally’s throat. “I don’t think…”

“Hmm?” Haru pilfered a pair of chopsticks, clacking them together. “This will help boost our stamina and replenish our strength.” Haru winked and held up a piece of the fluffy rice and meat. “To a long and fruitful marriage?”

Oh dear Gods .

“Haru!” A fist slammed on the table, causing Haru to jump and lose the piece of meat.

Relief swept through Tally. Whatever it was, he had a feeling he didn’t want to eat it. Please don’t let that be snake .

Haru turned wide-eyed toward his father. “What?”

“Now is not the time!”

“It is only eel.”

Close enough. Nausea threatened Tally and he nearly lost some of his stomach contents.

“With as many Kwebabiads as we are exchanging, I thought showing our interest in the continued lines of our people was appropriate.”

The Urusar and Haru’s father were red-faced and nearly bent over the table. His mother had one hand covering her mouth and the Awi had placed her forehead on the table. None of them would meet Tally’s or his parents’ eyes.

“I’m sure it’s lovely,” Tally blurted out, scrambling to try to save the situation. Whatever Haru’s motives, and while he wasn’t sure he believed the ‘continued lines’ bit after being ambushed with dead snake wine surprise, it wasn’t the time to try to call him out on it. “I…ah, I’m afraid I can’t eat eel. I’m very sorry.”

“Oh.” Haru deflated, settling back into seiza . “I did not realize. I was just so eager to show you all the foods my people, us otters, enjoy. And with us being young males, though you are a little older, are you not—?”

“Haru, please ,” his father choked out.

“I thought food to help our stamina would be a good choice?” Haru plucked his pillow and tossed it to the side, immediately falling into a perfect dogeza . Butt high in the air. “I apologize for my ignorance and offense. If you do not want this match, I understand.”

The Urusar yelled something sharply in Japanese. Haru jolted, though he stayed in dogeza . When Tally looked closer he saw a tremor running through his mate. He became more rigid and, as if he could meld with the floor, he pressed lower.

A throaty, “I apologize,” came out.

No one spoke, all eyes on Tally. Haru’s parents were pressed close to each other, and his Urusar was standing, one fist clenched. The Awi was glancing between Tally’s parents, who looked as confused as he felt, and Haru’s clan. She finally turned to Tally, offering a keirei .

“Haru will stay in dogeza until you decide.”

No, no, no, he didn’t want Haru bowing and scraping to him. It was a simple misunderstanding. Tally cleared his throat so his deep voice would be soft instead of growly with the shock still running through him. “You had no way of knowing. Please. I’m not offended.” A little freaked out, yes, but not offended . “It’s not something anyone would have thought of.”

The Urusar’s fist unclenched and he returned to his seat like a man waiting for Tally to change his mind and erupt in anger. Yeah. That was what people expected from uktena. Dad had always told him to keep his anger close, never show it. Normal anger from anyone else would never be met with the fear a little annoyance from an uktena was.

Haru’s parents relaxed marginally, again like people tensed for something bad, while Haru sat up slowly, his beautiful eyes red-rimmed and his mouth set. Tally couldn’t have him upset like this. It was his own fault for being overly sensitive. Of course they ate eel in Japan. He knew that, and they were otters for Gods’ sakes. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“May I help you back to your cushion?” Tally offered a hand, shocked when Haru accepted it, sliding his slender fingers into Tally’s. Better. Oh, so much better. Haru had touched him.

While he slipped the cushion back to its proper place and helped Haru settle again, the Awi Tamgradat gestured to both sets of parents. Dad pulled a beautiful stationery envelope out of his breast pocket and Mr. Tanaka produced an equally elegant one. The envelopes passed through several hands along the table as the fathers exchanged contracts, and though they knew, the moms knew, and Tally knew exactly what they said, they still went through the ceremony of getting out reading glasses and perusing the documents.

The Awi produced equally elegant pens, black and gold, which she handed to the fathers who both signed and relinquished the documents to the mothers, who repeated the steps, with perhaps a little less serious bravado. Next, they went to the Akaike Urusar, who also gave them a thorough perusal even though he had written most of the language. Tally would sign as both groom and Urusar for his clan, unusual but necessary in this case. When all the parents and Haru’s Urusar had signed, the Awi brought documents and pen to place in front of Tally.

He glanced at Haru, still tight-lipped and obviously unhappy, so he set the documents between them so they could both read. Tally knew every word. Negotiations had gone smoothly, but he’d been careful not to let anything fall through the cracks. Still, he read for formality’s sake and signed where it indicated for both himself as groom and himself as head of village.

Haru had edged closer through this process, nearly leaning against Tally’s shoulder. He finally asked so quietly Tally wasn’t sure anyone else heard, “Where do I sign?”

Tally’s stomach dropped. There was no place for Haru to sign, of course. The bride-son never did. They were being bartered away. But he didn’t want Haru to think of himself as property. Yes, the deals were necessary, but this wasn’t about the deal for Tally.

His jaw felt like it might crack he had his teeth clenched so tightly at his little act of rebellion, but he wrote Haru’s name under his own and drew a careful line beside it on both documents.

He pointed to his unorthodox solution and offered Haru the pen. “You sign right there.”

* * * *

The garden was lovely. It made the evening more bearable, looking at the carefully curated plants rather than their Xatiba, their fiancé. A burn hit Haru’s mouth but they swallowed it back. They would behave. They would. Haru understood their place in all this farce.

Whether they liked it or not.

Like a good Satislit, Haru looped their arm under Tally’s and placed their hand lightly on their fiancé’s offered arm. They had hoped the feminine manner in which they had dressed themself for the dinner would be a turnoff for their betrothed, but somehow it wasn’t. Seemed like Tally didn’t care what Haru looked like. Masculine or feminine. Normally Haru would be thrilled about someone not caring. Too bad it had to be a match. But then the humongous uktena had barely balked at the engagement gift, forging ahead with the dinner and the contract, cementing them in a match. All because Tally felt it was fated.

Now didn’t that cut? Haru taking a walk with a match , their Awi Tamgradat a respectful distance behind them, supervising so there wasn’t any impropriety. It stung. The whole event was Haru’s worst nightmare rolled into a perfect package of respectability and decorum.

Rage and humiliation clouded Haru’s mind in a heavy fog. A tremor still shook their body from the confrontation at the dinner.

Banishment .

Akaike-san hadn’t needed to threaten banishment . It had been wholly unnecessary. One step too far. Overkill. Unlike the harsh words Akaike-san threw at them accused, Haru knew their duty. Had been raised reciting their duty to the clan since they had been old enough to practice serving everyone tea. How their Urusar could even consider ripping Haru away from their fellow lijun, they didn’t know. Mostly.

It was a good proposal. Really good. Highly beneficial to the clan, without a doubt. Haru had been shocked by how much the Bastilles were willing to pay and concede for them. But otters were sociable creatures, needed companionship. Ostracizing Haru for rejecting the match would’ve been cruel. But they hadn’t turned the match down. Not really. Just voiced their… displeasure about being sold off. And hoped. They had hoped Tally had enough intelligence to realize he was wrong about the destined match idea being Em’halafi and call it off.

If Haru was honest with themself, they’d known since before the Imsi Tamgradat, they’d known they would fulfill their duty since Otōusan told them about the dinner. Haru had seen the determination in Father’s eyes when he’d told them not to screw it up. Not only did the clan’s honor rest on this match, but the family’s. Anger kept Haru in denial about how much choice they really had.

Even after Tally had surprised them by drawing a line for them to sign on the contract, Haru knew they would sign regardless of how they felt. The gesture their fiancé made was a token display, nothing more. There was no legality to Haru’s signature. His parents had taken it seriously enough, though. Haru had never seen Otōusan move so fast.

The way Father placed his heavy hand on Haru’s shoulder, leaning over them to make sure they signed. They had—using a highly stylized Western script of their name and their stamp.

The unexpected smile from Tally when Haru signed, the flush of their fiancé’s cheeks, had disturbed them. What exactly was wrong with the uktena? No sane person would want a marriage that started with subtle threats of death. Well, mostly subtle.

Haru stole a glance.

The cough from behind Haru reminded them the Awi was watching closely. Listening. Haru bit back a scream. They had already been sold, the life they’d built for themself ripped from underneath them just because Tally felt an Em’halafi connection. No more students. No more potato cannons and egg drops from the school roof.

Someone needed to learn hormones were stupid.

Beside them, the extra-large, how did he get that big, uktena cleared his throat. “So, ah. My house backs up to a lake. It’s a little cold most of the year, but do you like kayaking?” An all too obvious cringe followed the question.

Haru paused, halting their walk. “Excuse me?”

“Kayak? Canoes? Boats of any sort?” Tally’s hard swallow was probably audible several feet away. “I’d be happy to supply whatever sort you like best?”

So Tally planned to buy Haru’s affection like their body? They frowned. “I have my own kayak. It is a little old, but I am used to it.”

“Oh, that’s perfect!” Tally’s smile blossomed, then died just as quickly. “We’ll have it shipped over. I’ve had mine since high school. Good to have familiar things.” He flushed and shook his head. “I’m babbling. Sorry. This is probably a little… You can ask me anything? Anything at all.”

The Awi coughed.

Haru held in a more sharply worded question. Banishment. They had to remember they could still be banished by their Urusar until the marriage, or after, if they got sent back.

“What is your favorite color?” There, they could be polite, falling back on the proper etiquette questions.

Tally’s shoulders slumped. “I, um, blue, I suppose. I’ve always thought picking a color was an odd thing to do, though. Colors are great. Why pick one? And…babbling again.”

“Nervous about the wedding?” Maybe he’ll get cold feet . Though Haru agreed on the ridiculousness of picking one color, not that they’d admit it to Tally. “Then—”

The Awi coughed again.

“Then should I pick out a rainbow kimono? Or blue? Which would please you?”

“Either would be great.” Tally’s smile was softer now, less of a nervous rictus. “But you wear whatever you want for the wedding. I’m happy with formal, with not, barefoot. However you’d like.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “She really needs to do something about that cough.”

“She does.” Haru looked over their shoulder. Sorely tempted to stick out their tongue, they covered it up with a smile, turning its wattage on Tally. Weird Americans. Why did they like smiling? “So you plan on making no decisions for our wedding? I have free rein?”

One black eyebrow arched at them. “We’ll do this together, don’t you think? But I’m not running roughshod over anything you’ve set your heart on.”

Damn asshole was trying so hard to be a gentleman. Jerk .

“As far as free rein, I would like to stipulate, yes, within reason. I’d rather not ride a horse into the ceremony or skydive to it.”

“I see. So we are the traditional type then,” Haru responded coolly and got them moving again. They shouldn’t have been surprised. Tally had checked off every box for traditions this evening thus far.

“Ha. I’m not sure tradition applies to an uktena Urusar.”

“Fair enough. I always imagined I would have a Japanese lijun wedding, though I am marrying into an American one?”

“If you’d like a Japanese lijun wedding, that’s what we’ll do. I’ll need your guidance.”

So damn polite . Haru hated him for it. For being so accepting of this farce. For wanting someone, Haru, because of fate. No one was that nice to a stranger without wanting something in return. Haru just hoped it wasn’t too late for them when they figured out what it was.

“No, at least, there should be some of both, since the clans are creating an alliance.”

“Yes, we can help each other figure out the details.”

“I want Kaho-chan as a flower girl.” Haru didn’t know they wanted it so badly until the words popped out. Might as well see how far they could push their Xabita before reprisal.

“The little tanuki girl?” The corners of Tally’s eyes crinkled as his smile grew. “Of course. I like her.”

“You know Kaho-chan?”

“Yes. One of my best shirts shared chocolate icing with her dress.”

So Tally had been at the raid at some point. Wait . Haru stopped short. “What happened to her dress?”

“From what I gather, she climbed Mt. Cake during the Great Dessert Siege. She was more icing than little girl when I took her back to her parents.”

They named the dessert raid? Who named it? Oh no. Not good. Haru had heard whispers over the past few days, but they hadn’t connected it with their playful prank opening night. The pool was one thing, but the cake? That had been for the GLA. When Haru spoke, their voice sounded farther away— higher .

“Are you saying Kaho-chan swam in the large, very expensive, specially made chocolate cake for the lijun delegation?”

“Pretty much. And you told me it was a re-enactment of the Siege of Inabayama Castle. I’m sorry. I’m upsetting you…”

“They will never let her come. No wonder her mother would not let me say hello the last few days.” The idea of not seeing their little tanuki again broke off another piece of Haru’s battered heart. “I—” Haru breathed in deeply. Their voice cracked, and they hated that Tally was seeing them like this. They had to get themself under control. But Haru had loved the little mischief-maker since they’d hidden together under a staircase at the Biannual Japanese Lijun Conference last spring, pranking passersby. Kaho made a rather impressive ghost. “If you could persuade them to let her come, I would be in your debt. Or at least, talk them into letting me say goodbye.”

Tally’s soft smile had vanished, replaced by a hard expression, his jaw turned to stone. “It was just a cake. And tanuki parents should know better. There, you’ve given me a crusade. Kaho will come to the wedding.”

The Awi Tamgradat didn’t quite manage to stifle her groan, and Haru knew they’d be eating crow for months, but it’d be worth it. There were few people Haru would genuinely miss besides their students. Kaho was one of them. Her unfettered joy and exploration of the world weren’t meant to be squashed. If they had to say goodbye to their life here in Japan, then at least they wanted the chance to do it with someone who loved them back.

Haru dropped to their knees, moving with practiced ease into saikeriei . They really did get into trouble too often, didn’t they? “ Suminasen , Urusar Bastille.”

Above him, Tally hissed. “Please don’t do that. Please. I’m just a businessman with a fancy title. Haru, please…”

Haru refused to look up. They knew if they did Tally would see their anger. Instead they pressed their head against the ground harder. If they had to marry, they’d be damned if their clan could call them out on inappropriate behavior again. Haru would be the perfect Satislit, then the perfect Uruma if it killed them, but it didn’t mean they had to give their heart to Tally.

“ Doumo arigatou gozaimasu, Urusar Bastille.”

“Haru.” Tally’s whisper cracked and wavered as he leaned down to offer a hand. “It’s all right. You’re welcome. Whatever I’m expected to say here. Just please get up.”

The Awi’s feet came into view out of the corner of Haru’s vision. They didn’t move. She wouldn’t be able to fault them for their behavior. The Awi couldn’t report to their former Urusar about any breeches in etiquette. The traditional betrothal walk had been a success. Their new Urusar had offered to provide for Haru’s wishes. They’d get a Japanese wedding, and Haru suspected Tally would succeed in getting Kaho’s parents to attend too. The Akaike clan would be able to celebrate in its new fortune.

A few hurried sentences were hissed over Haru’s head.

A gasp from Tally nearly made Haru break saikeirei to see what had been so surprising. Only their training had kicked in and kept them from committing the faux pas. Curiosity burbled up, leaving Haru to wonder why their Xatiba sounded so scandalized. If Tally wanted a Satislit for his match, then Haru would make sure he got exactly what he paid for.

“He’s a person,” Tally hissed, the first sign of any strong emotion from him. “Not…not chattel!”

“You must tell him,” the Awi insisted, louder than her whispered explanation moments before. “Do not shame him further. This is what a Satislit is!”

“Gods’ sakes.” Obvious frustration colored the growl. “Not in my country, it’s not.”

Haru very much doubted Tally’s claim. They’d read the contract. Money. Kwebabiad—multiple birth carriers for both clans no less. Housing. A return fee. And many more stipulations and exchanges that made Haru nauseous. Their clan might be traditional, but only one just as steeped in tradition would agree to such a deal. It was hard not to shout at their Urusar. Either of them. To call Tally on his bullshit. All Tally offered were pretty words. What he’d taken was Haru, in a contract, a match, all because he thought it was his right. Haru shook with the effort to keep all their fury in.

An explosive word came from Tally. It might have been a curse, but it wasn’t in any language Haru recognized. Finally, in a voice rimmed with frost, Tally said, “Your gratitude pleases me. Up. Now.”

Haru offered their hand, keeping their head down, eyes cast on the ground. Tally’s large hand wrapped theirs, then moved to their elbow as he lifted Haru with ease. Their bodies were close enough to feel the coolness Tally radiated.

“It is my hope to please you, Urusar Bastille. Thank you for your praise.”

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