Lijun/C4 Fireworks and Stolen Kisses: Chapter Four
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Lijun/C4 Fireworks and Stolen Kisses: Chapter Four
+ Add to Library

C4 Fireworks and Stolen Kisses: Chapter Four

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

“Mom!” Tally gripped the edges of his dresser with both hands.

“Don’t bellow, sweetie.” Mom hurried into his bedroom, heels tapping on the hardwood. “Unless you’re bleeding or dying.”

“Maybe I’m dying? I can’t get this tie straight.”

Mom’s mouth twisted as if she was trying far too hard to hold in a laugh. “Here. Stand up straight. Okay, not that straight, now I can’t reach. I haven’t done your tie for you since high school.”

“I just want everything to be perfect. It wasn’t. Perfect. In Tokyo. I don’t know. I did something . I had to have.” Tally heaved a long breath, trying to steady himself. “It was like Haru had never met me before the Imsi Tamgradat.”

“Tal-tsu’tsa.” Mom knotted his tie with practiced efficiency. “He was probably nervous and surrounded by eyes who were waiting for him to step wrong. I felt like any second someone was going to pounce on him. It made me nervous.”

I want to love…and be loved . Haru had looked straight into his eyes with such longing, such need and said those words, and that’s exactly what Tally intended, no matter what ideas Haru’s family had put in his head. Not that he had any clear understanding of what those ideas were.

He’d managed not to stalk off after the scene in the garden, though he’d been furious. It had been a close thing. Anger had roiled in his stomach over Haru feeling an obligation to bow and scrape to him. That the Awi encouraged it. He’d wanted to flatten her, and wouldn’t that have looked great? A six-foot-nine American decking a tiny Japanese woman.

Instead, he’d finished the appropriate social functions as expected that night, said his soft farewells to Haru and traveled back home the next day to prepare for his Satislit’s arrival. Which would be perfect. Everything would be perfect. Mom and Dad had moved to the garden cottage on the other side of the property to complete their retirement. Tally had pulled in a decorator friend to redo their suite in the main house with bolder colors and more Asian-inspired furniture. He wasn’t trying to recreate Tokyo, but a lower bed, more floor cushions, that sort of thing. He’d thought about remodeling the bath, too, but a week just wasn’t enough time.

Little presents dotted the suite, chocolates and ginger candies, small electronics and clothes in some of the drawers. Wisconsin cold would be a new kind of cold for Haru, so some of the presents were necessities.

Dad drove to the airport. Tally would’ve crashed the car, he was certain. Then only standing in the international arrivals area remained, stalking the flight on his phone, shifting from foot to foot so he wouldn’t pace. Mom finally made him give her the phone.

Passengers from what he believed to be Haru’s flight started to trickle through and, even though Tally’s view was better than anyone else in the room, he still craned his head this way and that for that first look.

There. Oh, there he is. Haru came through from customs, his face drawn and serious, his coat over his arm. Tally barely registered his mother and father with him, or the young woman, Misaki, who would be Tally’s kwebabiad, his birth-carrier. All he could see was Haru, that beautiful face, those fathoms-deep eyes. The soft yukata he wore was blue, Tally hoped that wasn’t because he’d said he liked blue, and Haru’s hair was caught up in a ponytail. Tally appreciated that. Nothing worse than getting long hair yanked by luggage straps when one traveled.

He raised a hand to wave, then thought better of it. That would probably seem too…something. Overeager. Puppyish. American. It wasn’t as if he was tough to spot in a crowd. Haru raised his head, met his gaze and the spark of welcome recognition Tally had hoped for didn’t register. Obviously exhausted, Haru simply looked resigned.

Wait…wait… Okay, now they’d cleared the partition. Tally strode forward with a smile that didn’t show all his teeth. Nope. No ugly Americans here.

“Mr. Tanaka, good to see you again. Mrs. Tanaka.” He returned the brief courtesy bows, though he didn’t miss Haru’s mom elbowing him forward. Swallowing his heart back down since it insisted on leaping into his throat, he took that last step forward and all words of greeting decided to go find a coffee shop. “Haru.”

“Urusar Bastille.” Haru bowed in a futsurei then straightened. One of his finely manicured hands rose, shaking slightly, as if offered in expectation. Tally took it. Haru turned his head to one side and volunteered his cheek. “I hope my appearance pleases.”

Tally leaned in, Haru’s hand still clasped in his, and placed a soft, chaste kiss on Haru’s cheek. He firmly ignored the stab of pain that formal greeting delivered, keeping his mother’s words firmly in mind. His parents are here. We’re in formal mode still. “Of course it does. It’s good to see you. Was it a good flight?”

“A little long, but yes. Thank you for the first-class seats. I have never been so comfortable.”

“Trans-Pacific flights in coach are tough. I didn’t want you to go through that.” Um. What now? Right . “Dad and I will get the luggage. You go ahead with Mom to the car. You must all be tired.”

He reached for Haru’s carry-on, the little drawstring pouch he should recall the name of but didn’t, and was pleased when he was allowed to take it and the handle of Haru’s rolling suitcase. Haru’s lips twitched—making Tally notice there was a glossy red sheen to them—and his eyebrows drew together. Instead of following Mom, he fell into step behind Tally. The positioning felt odd, making the spot between his shoulders itch. Tally shuffled next to Haru and offered his elbow. He hoped the gesture was appropriate. Relief and a spark of triumph lit in his chest when Haru immediately took hold of it.

Dad, always thinking ahead, had already found a luggage cart for the rest and was loading up the suitcases with Mr. Tanaka’s help. They had jengafied the baggage, the end result a tower of imposing height. Mom would have a fit when she saw it. Seriously. It was like they had to prove all of it could fit on one cart instead of getting a second one.

Good thing she’d gone ahead with Misaki and Mrs. Tanaka.

“Nothing planned for today.” Tally split his attention between Haru and Mr. Tanaka. “The time change isn’t easy, so just resting on the agenda. We’ll have a proper welcome dinner tomorrow.”

“Oh, thank you. Is there something I can help prepare for the dinner?”

Tally hoped he hid the wince as visions of snake wine and eels danced in his head. “Ah. Well. You might want to check with Addy when we get there? The kitchen gets a little chaotic when all my sisters are here, but I’m sure she’d appreciate an extra set of hands.”

Haru was quiet for a moment, then said, “I can do flower arrangements? If it would please you.”

“That sounds perfect.” Not something he’d thought of. Damn it. Flowers. He could order some. He’d have to remember to call over to Petals and Thyme later.

“Good.” Tension in Haru’s shoulders bled out, and he no longer stood so stiffly as they walked side by side.

Maybe giving him something to do helps ? Tally had to keep that in mind. Except for small murmurings here and there, most of the remaining walk to the car was in silence. They really must have been exhausted.

Back at the house, Tally went into full host mode, showing everyone to their rooms and carrying bags to the appropriate places. He’d hoped to have a minute or two alone with Haru, but no, Mr. and Mrs. Tanaka followed them to Haru’s suite where they proceeded to poke about and chatter about this and that too fast for Tally to follow any of it. He hadn’t realized previously how truly terrible his Japanese was.

He just hoped his in-laws weren’t being too critical of his preparations.

Haru pulled open a few drawers, exploring the dresser, when he exclaimed in surprise. He pulled out the warm green corduroy pants Tally had hidden and turned to face him. The warm, open, excited expression he wore reminded Tally of the Haru he remembered from the Great Dessert Siege.

“I can wear trousers?”

For a moment, Tally was certain he’d swallowed his tongue and was about to die choking on it. “Yes. Especially in the winter. It just gets too cold here. Everyone wears pants when winter really hits. Whatever you’re comfortable in, but we’re pretty casual here normally.”

“As you wish.” Haru hugged the cords close. His mother looked them over with a critical eye, whispering something Tally couldn’t pick up. Haru sighed and put the pants back in the dresser. “I do enjoy my yukata . The trousers will be for outside. Thank you.”

But you were wearing pants when I met you . With rainbow suspenders . Tally wanted to yank Haru away and actually talk to him. But that wouldn’t be proper. He was drowning in proper.

“Would it be all right to get refreshed?” Haru asked.

“Yes?”

Haru’s parents both cocked their heads, eyeing their son. Tally wanted to ask what they were so suspicious of, but figured if he was able to get them out of Haru’s suite that he could count it as a win.

“We were going to serve some drinks and offer a light meal before everyone settled in for the night.” Tally offered his arm to Mrs. Tanaka, who cooed over the attention. “Shall we?”

“Yes, please,” she answered.

As they left, both Mr. Tanaka and Mrs. Tanaka shot a glance toward Haru, but they allowed Tally to lead them into the family room. His sisters and mom were already setting up a drink tray and snacks. He made sure both sets of parents were engrossed in conversation about current wedding trends before he stole away.

The shower wasn’t running when Tally snuck back into the suite. It felt silly— sneaking . They were grown adults, but Tally supposed it was the only way since the Akaike clan was so mired in tradition. He settled onto the chair by the bed to wait, and silently sent up a prayer to the Gods he’d be able to show Haru things were different in Wadiswan, Wisconsin. There was no reason to stand on formality unless it was clan business. Though he supposed it might take some time.

Tally wanted the free-spirit otter who took children on a raid, terrorizing hotel staff. Maybe not his staff, but Tally knew there was more to his Em’halafi than what Haru had presented to him since the betrothal dinner. Unadulterated energy had oozed from every pore when Haru had led his little regiment on their raid. Protectiveness when he’d placed himself between the kids and Tally. When Haru had watched Kaho drown herself in cake, pure affection had filled his eyes and his smile.

What did Tally need to do to get that Haru back?

A loud splash had Tally up and moving toward the bathroom. He moved his hair behind his ear, wishing he had taken the time to braid it, then pressed against the door. Several more loud thunks made concern win over propriety. Last thing he wanted was a drowned Satislit.

“Haru?”

Another thunk.

Tally checked the knob, relieved when it turned, and opened the door. “Haru? Are you—oh my Gods. You are adorable!”

“ Chep !”

An otter stood on his hind legs at the edge of the tub. In his paws he held a large stone. His tail stuck out behind him, Haru using it to help steady himself upright. Those deep, dark eyes Tally had fallen in love with stared back at him. Haru’s nose twitched. His tiny chest rose and fell rapidly. Chances were Haru’s otter sensed Tally’s serpent.

This hadn’t been what Tally expected when Haru asked to get refreshed.

“I mean, hi.” Tally scooted inside the bathroom and closed the door. Wrong move.

Haru slowly went down to all fours then chucked the stone. Tally winced as the rock clattered against the tiles. Hopefully nothing was damaged. Or at least, couldn’t be fixed. It didn’t look like anything was chipped.

When he stepped closer, hands open, Tally noticed the bottom of the tub was covered with stones. All shapes and sizes. A little armada of rocks. “Oh, so, yeah. It’s okay. Go ahead.”

Instead, Haru’s back hunched and he backed away from the bath.

Tally sat on the edge, hoping if he looked smaller it would make him appear less threatening, and picked up the stone. He juggled it between his hands. It was smooth and cool to the touch. So Haru had carried stones from Japan to Wisconsin with him? For a bath? Did Haru think he was in trouble for using them without permission? Tally wanted to ask why they were so important—he had a lot of questions, but he didn’t think he would get an answer right now, especially since Haru wasn’t changing back to his human half. Just then a warm heat pressed against his side, Tally’s own worry-stone heavy in his jacket pocket.

Maybe he could find some common ground?

With slow, careful movements, Tally put Haru’s stone into the bath. A prickle of awareness flickered through him. He knew Haru was watching, watching closely. His little paws flexed and retracted, scratching the bath mat. Replaceable . All of it, except for Haru. Tally only got one destined match.

“I like stones,” Tally offered. “Maybe I can get my architect to draw up some designs? With the stones? I wanted to get the bathroom redone, but didn’t have the time. But I guess you might have something specific you want?”

The otter sneezed.

“ Gesundheit .”

Haru backed against the sink cabinet.

“I have a stone.”

The otter’s ears flicked. The only acknowledgment Tally got.

“My mom gave it to me.”

Tally searched his suit pocket, his fingers hitting the surface and his hand wrapping around the stone out of habit. He opened his palm to Haru. The stone glistened under the lights, he’d turned it over so many times.

“It’s a worry stone. Our Shafa made it for me when I was in high school.” When Tally’s hormones sometimes got the better of him. When he worried over making the wrong choice, making mistakes, always so anxious about mistakes. “The Shafa still cleanses it for me, even after all these years. Just had it spelled right after I came back from the conference.”

Haru had crept closer, his nose level with Tally’s fingertips. His dark eyes zeroed in on the stone. A paw came up, lightning quick, but it froze just as quickly.

“It’s okay.”

In fact, if Haru wanted it, he could have it.

“You can touch it.”

The paw snatched the stone away and Haru scurried back to the sink cabinet. The otter sniffed the stone, then bit it, sniffed it again, then tumbled it between his paws. As the stone moved from one paw to another, the rigid stance Haru carried relaxed. Tally breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t want his destined match to be scared of his uktena. The dual spirits within him couldn’t be separated.

A churr brought Tally’s attention back to Haru. His otter scooted back toward the bath, the stone captured in his mouth, between his front teeth. Two shining black eyes were locked on Tally. He tried to sit easy, show he wasn’t a threat.

Haru sneezed again, edging to the side opposite Tally.

“ Gesundheit .”

The otter lifted up, standing on his hind legs, one paw on the tub. His claws flexed out then relaxed. Haru grabbed the edge and hauled himself into the tub, slipping into the water almost soundlessly. His lithe body twisted and turned in the small confines of the bath. The top of his head surfaced and he shot toward Tally, a V forming in the waves. At the last second he turned, flipping, and splashing Tally. Not a lot, but enough to get him a little wet.

Tally laughed, then noticed Haru had dived to the bottom where his rocks were. He had placed Tally’s worry stone between a couple of his more colorful rocks. His paws patted the spot a few times, then used a claw to pop it out, before Haru packed it back carefully.

It was picture perfect. Haru was perfect. They could make this work. Tally felt it in his bones. In the way his heart squeezed when he saw how carefully Haru treated the gift from Mom.

* * * *

“The flowers are—” Tally looked at his sisters. “Are beautiful. Quite dramatic, don’t you think?”

Addy laughed. “Dramatic works. I’m amazed Haru could work with flowers that big. Seriously. Those dahlias are monsters. And that fern has to be at least two and a half feet tall.”

“Too much?”

Three identical blasé expressions stared back at him. So that’s a yes .

“Is that a snake?” Nan asked, her arms crossed. She leaned in to examine the largest arrangement at the center of the table.

“Yeah.”

“Don’t they know we’re serpents?”

“It’s been explained.”

There was a slight difference, nothing big enough that it hurt biological relations between species.

“Is that an otter?” Lahi asked, frowning. She pushed in as well, her earrings jangling as she tussled with Nan.

“Yeah, I think so.” Tally loved his sisters. He did. When he’d decided to make sure Haru had stones for his flower arrangements, this wasn’t what he’d had in mind. He’d been hoping no one would notice. However, the displays were bigger than life.

“What is the snake doing to the otter?” Lahi asked in a startled hush.

“Hugging it!”

They all jumped, surprised by Haru’s sudden presence and announcement.

Lahi’s eyebrow shot up. “Hugging?”

More like squeezing to death.

Haru nodded, smiling, and Tally lost himself as his Satislit began to explain the flower arrangements with an eager tone evident in his voice. The same tone he used when he’d explained it to Tally earlier, making it impossible to tell him it looked like the snake was killing the otter. Slowly. Painfully.

Oh, that mouth . That beautiful mouth had been done up. Tally found seeing Haru dressed up for him did things he couldn’t quite parse out, but he liked it. He could acknowledge that much. A deep purple lipstick offset the rest of Haru’s makeup perfectly. The pale violet on his eyelids complemented the silver he used for eyeliner. Several gemstones were placed around his eyes. Did he have matching stones on his nail? Oh, Gods, Haru did. Tally gulped. His otter wore a deep purple kimono, accented with bright pink cherry petals as a design element, and a turquoise obi. His black hair was half up and half down. The white jade hairpiece Tally had left on the bathroom sink finished the do. Tally was so fascinated by the whole display he almost missed what his Satislit said next.

“To show happiness between the two clans. For our marriage.”

“Happiness?” Addy echoed, gesturing to the stone display.

“Yes.”

Tally glared over Haru’s head at his three sisters. They could not screw this up for him. He wouldn’t allow it. Not when the in-laws were due to show up any minute with the Kwebabiads. He did not want Haru to freeze and go all proper on him. Not when Tally hadn’t gotten a chance to see him—alone—since slipping out of the bathroom before they’d had dinner yesterday. Luckily his sisters spoke in desperation, words tumbling over one another.

“It is gorgeous.”

“Definitely something special.”

“A true display of unique artistry.”

Haru offered an eshaku, beaming, before whispering, “Thank you.”

He turned to the table, not catching the wide-eyed expressions Tally’s sisters cast to him before crowding around Haru, talking excitedly over the table arrangements. Hopefully his brothers would catch on quickly when they finally arrived.

Nan elbowed him on her way back to the kitchen. Addy patted his arm in that way she had that was half sympathy, half you did this to yourself. Lahi opened her mouth to say something, but was interrupted by loud voices from the front hall. Their brothers had arrived.

They were tussling, still half in their coats, when they burst into the dining room. Though Nan and Lahi were the youngest in the family, no one ever guessed that by the way their two knucklehead brothers acted. Both unmarried, both unsettled despite their careers, they still lived like they were in college. They finally stopped mock wrestling long enough to notice other people were in the room.

“Hey, Tal! Hey, Lahi!” Che beamed at them, not the least bit aware of possible impropriety in front of a guest. “And that’s Haru, right? Hey, Haru!”

“Dude,” Hal drew out the word as he approached the table. “Why’s there a snake killing a weasel?”

Tally managed not to bury his face in his hands, no matter how hard he wanted to. “Otter. Snake is hugging. Go see if Addy and Nan need help with something heavy in the kitchen.”

Che rolled his eyes. “The great and powerful Urusar has spoken. Come on, Hal, before we get assigned something worse to do.”

“Do that.” Gods, he hoped Addy found something to keep them out of trouble. Nan was the chef in the family—had landed a sous chef position at the highest-end restaurant in the family resorts because of skill rather than nepotism—but Addy, who managed the hotel side, was the organizational queen.

Tally risked a quick glance over at Haru, who appeared to have turned into an ice sculpture, frozen solid, eyes wide, fingers trying to bury into the back of one of the oak dining room chairs. I will kill my brothers. No. Killing would be too quick.

“They, ah…” Tally cleared his throat once his brothers had cleared the room. “They’re a bit young for their age still.”

Haru turned to Tally and dipped his head. Those purple lips were pressed together hard.

“Lahi, maybe Haru would like to see your guitar. You did bring one, didn’t you?” Tally’s voice sounded desperate inside his head. He hoped it didn’t translate that way on the outside.

“What kind of question is that?” Lahi tossed her head, earrings chiming. “Of course I’m not coming over without one of my babies. Come on, Haru. This one’s a Taylor. Spruce and rosewood. Even if you’re not into guitars, it’s a very pretty one.”

If Haru had been in otter shape, his ears probably would’ve swiveled in interest. He offered Tally a bow and followed Lahi out to the front room. Good. Good . Tally let out a long breath, hoping his family wouldn’t scandalize Haru too much more that day.

Yeah. Sure. Who was he kidding?

The doorbell rang and it took Tally several anxious seconds before he remembered this was his house now and he’d better go see who it was. Haru’s parents couldn’t be back with Misaki yet. Mom had promised to rest and come over closer to dinner. A delivery he’d forgotten? Entirely possible the way his brain was short-circuiting these days…

Tally opened the door and had to lower his gaze a considerable distance before he spotted his visitor. “Sam. Hey.”

“Hi, Tally.” She squeezed past him into the house, since Tally had forgotten to step back and clear the doorway. “I am supposed to be here for dinner, right? Kwebabiad meet and greet? Or was I supposed to come later?”

“No, no. Dinner. Yes.” Tally scrubbed both hands over his face. “I’m sorry. Just a little distracted today.”

“Things not going according to plan?”

“Not…well, mostly. Sort of.” Tally jerked his head toward the interior of the house. “Come on, you should meet Haru while things are more or less calm.”

“You and your sibs have scared the poor Tokyo otter, haven’t you?” Blue eyes narrowed at him. “Lead on, Mr. Distracted Urusar. I’ll try to fix whatever you’ve broken.”

* * * *

The guitar was beautiful, just as Lahi had said. It wasn’t Haru’s instrument, but she let them try a few plucks and chords. Lovely tone. It had a calm sound they appreciated. Lahi—and Haru had studied the family tree thoroughly, so they knew it was short for Galilahi—was just as maddeningly American as the rest of Tally’s family. Too physically intrusive, too familiar. Weirdo, just like the others, but not as weird as Tally. At least she wasn’t as loud as some of the other siblings. The boys… Haru shook their head. They tumbled together like rocks beating against the shore.

But none of them were the problem. Haru’s problem was their Xabita. The humongous psychopath. Haru strummed the strings again, smiling at the luminous sound. Too bad their fiancé wasn’t as easy to handle as the guitar.

The man infuriated Haru. Any attempt to insult him slid off as if he’d mentally greased himself. Haru needed to know where the danger points were, how far they could push, and how were they supposed to figure that out if Tally never reacted? Though he had reacted the once to Haru’s painfully proper show of submission. Haru wasn’t certain what part of that had made him angry.

Maybe this last attempt, showing themself being squeezed to death in imitation of how this match made them feel…maybe the image pleased Tally. That wasn’t a happy thought at all. Their friends back home had been horrified, even afraid for them.

Don’t ever look at him when he’s sleeping, it’s certain death.

If he Sahnkes to serpent and breathes anywhere near you, you’re going to die.

Uktena eat any mates who aren’t also uktena. Everyone knows that .

Old fisherwife tales. Stories to scare kids with. Haru didn’t believe any of that. Mostly . There were a couple times Tally’s tone had sent unwelcome fear riveting through Haru’s belly. They checked their finger positioning and played a minor chord, amused by how they could imitate how they felt with the guitar. Should they take lessons? If their mother found out Tally liked listening to guitars, she’d insist on it before the wedding. Haru cringed. That would be a short learning curve.

Haru did not want to ignite their mother’s fury, or get on the Bastille clan’s bad side. Not really. They’d have to live with these people—if they couldn’t get the wedding called off. They still clung to a small piece of hope that Tally would forget the idea of destined matches, though it did not seem likely. The slip in the bathroom yesterday, getting caught off guard in their otter form, had only served to make Tally more determined.

The infamous uktena anger hadn’t surfaced yet. Haru kept poking and it was nowhere to be seen. Tally might have been a wealthy, entitled jerk, but he wasn’t a killer. Probably . He didn’t seem to have any stomach for violence, if the reaction to the snake wine was an indicator. That had been an epic moment. His face…

Best thing Haru had seen in years. The struggle had been real for Tally. For one glorious moment, Haru had thought he would call off the wedding agreement.

Of course it hadn’t been. Now they would live in Wisconsin. The cheese state. That snowed. Lots of snow. Beer seemed to be in abundance as well. Not Haru’s preferred drink. Sake really was their true love. Hopefully they would be allowed to have it.

Haru blinked, then checked their hands. Lahi had been talking, adjusting their fingers, but they’d missed several sentences. An apology was on their lips when the object of their frustration strode in with a bright smile—interrupting with the most startling news of the evening.

“Sam, this is Haru Tanaka.” Tally indicated them with a flourish. Sure. Show off the prize. “Haru, this is Samantha Weber, your Kwebabiad.”

The moment her scent hit them, all their species instincts kicked in, and Haru had to quell the urge to wriggle in their seat. Otter, otter, otter , their senses screamed, poking at them to shift, to run and engage in new otter greetings, to find water and play. They pushed the urges down because Satislit etiquette said to greet her with due respect. She would mother their children, carry their pups for nine months then hand them over. They offered her a futsurei .

Sam gave them a wink and a proper eshaku. “Good to meet the man I’ll be making babies with.”

Haru nearly dropped Lahi’s guitar—saving it by inches. Were all Americans so gauche?

“Sorry, maybe that was rude.” Sam dropped into a nearby chair, her smile saying she wasn’t sorry in any remote way. “We’ve just met. Tally, be a dear and run along now. Haru and I should talk.”

The mountain of Haru’s fiancé gaped, glancing between them. Then, to Haru’s absolute astonishment, Tally left. Lahi carefully gathered up her guitar, made some excuse about needing to help in the kitchen and followed him with a less wounded expression.

Haru moved about the front room in a nervous fit. Their hands wouldn’t keep still, and they didn’t have one of their stones. Tally’s worry stone popped in their head, buried in the bath with their others. It had made them feel better. Maybe it shouldn’t stay in the tub. The idea of Tally catching them with it made Haru toss the thought aside. They had no intention of giving off any more mixed signals after last night. Their otter had been too in control.

Out of the corner of their eye, they observed Sam as they fidgeted with the framed photos and other knick-knacks. Yes, they needed to size her up. They couldn’t help it, just like they couldn’t help repositioning the trinkets on the shelves as they pretended to clean up. Their lives would be intertwined by blood. Haru knew how their clan treated Kwebabiads, and while it wasn’t cruel, it was not something Haru wished upon any woman.

Sam didn’t act like a Kwebabiad. Not with how she sprawled herself out on the chair. She wore her hair in a bob, blonde highlights glittering under the lights, the whole cut accentuating her clear blue eyes. She wore a nice pair of dress slacks with a sleek modern top. She completed the look with chunky jewelry, amber set in silver. If they had met under different circumstances, Haru would’ve asked her out. Except they couldn’t. They’d been sold. Haru held back a sigh and turned back to the pictures. No need to show her, or any of the Bastille clan, that kind of weakness.

All the pictures of Tally had him smiling happily with his crazy family. Christmas. Thanksgiving. Swimming. What were they doing in that one? Haru turned the photo. Nope, still didn’t make sense. Sam’s heavy gaze followed Haru around the room. Her legs swung, thumping against the bottom of the chair. Despite her easy dismissal of their Urusar, she hadn’t given any more orders, forced a conversation. What did she want? Haru picked up another picture, all by itself on a large shelf, and nearly choked. It was of Tally and Sam, arms locked in a friendly manner.

When they turned to ask with the picture in hand, because how could an otter be so at ease with a lijun who was their natural predator, she was smiling.

“It’s from when I signed on to be your Kwebabiad. Tally will probably have one of you and Misaki soon, and the four of us. He has this idea of starting his family shelf now that we’re all here.”

“Does he?”

“Yes.”

“How did you two meet?”

“Tally and I met in middle school,” Sam said. “Some boys thought it’d be fun to flip my skirt.”

“And he rescued you?”

“No, he had to pull me off the pipsqueak who called me a bitch. Only one strong enough.”

“Huh.”

“Little rat bastard deserved the beating I gave him, no doubt, but I would’ve gotten in more trouble if Tally hadn’t broken up the fight.”

Haru didn’t know what to say to her declaration. It was almost like Sam was bragging, but not? Instead, they decided to put the picture back on the shelf. Haru wanted to hate her on principle—that she was another custom forced onto them because of tradition. But…she was their Kwebabiad. They felt attracted to the style she presented, along the unusual mix of her personality. A bit alarming, for sure, but she also sounded like fun. The sparkle of mischief in her eyes said she knew how to play. Haru loathed the idea of not being good to her. Sam wasn’t in any better position than they had been with this deal.

“Kicked Tally in the nuts in the process, too. Poor guy spent lunch in the nurse’s office.”

“You what?”

“I nailed him good . Poor baby thought he’d never have kids.”

How could she be so…so matter-of-fact about attacking her future Urusar?

“Anyway, later Tally said it was his fault and he didn’t want me to feel bad about the near-nut-crushing incident.”

Crazy snake . That had to be it. Tally was certifiably insane. Had to be. The man liked to be hurt and humiliated. Haru was going about their subterfuge all wrong. Then again, Sam seemed odd as well. As were the siblings. Maybe it was just all Americans.

“Haru?”

“Yes, Kwebabiad Weber?”

“Please don’t.”

“I am sorry?” they replied. “I do not mean to offend.”

Sam stood and crossed the front room. She got right in Haru’s personal space, pushing in. They stepped back but all they got was wall. Sam trapped them. Her blue gaze searched theirs as one of her hands went to their biceps. Sam nosed right in, not giving a millimeter. Her woodsy smell filled their lungs. She smelled good . Like outside and water . Earth . Sam spent time as her otter, much more than Haru got to. Would they be allowed to play?

Their noses touched, sending a shiver through Haru. They couldn’t stop returning the rub if they tried. They nosed, moving to their cheeks. She sniffed their ear and they returned the favor. They bumped foreheads as their hands went to each other’s arms, creating a dance as they moved.

“Better, much better,” Sam breathed.

Haru wanted to agree, but couldn’t say as much. Instead they rubbed their noses together again. For the first time since they’d stepped in the serpent’s den, they felt relaxed, safe, in pleasant company that wasn’t going to eat them.

“It’s Sam. No titles. No last names. You and me…” Sam pointed between them. “We have obligations, but it doesn’t mean we have to be cold and distant about it. We’ll have kids, Haru. Otter kids. And as much as Tally loves all the clan’s kids, otter kids need otter grownups.”

“They do.” Haru had always wanted kids. To love them. Feel their warmth. Give love in return. They had just thought they’d get to do it with someone they cared about. Not a match. “But, do you even want to be my Kwebabiad? Are you—” Doing this because you have to ? It’d kill them. “I do not want my pups to think they are not wanted.”

“I get it.” She linked arms with them and drew them back to the sofa, though she gave them space again when they sat so she could face them. “The clan asks for volunteers when we need Kwebabiads. When I heard Tally’s Satislit would be an otter, when they showed me pictures, heck, yes, I volunteered. I want kids. I’m not really enthused about a marriage thing, relationships in general aren’t something I do, but I want kids. And these would be my kids, your kids, Bastille kids, so they’d have more love than they know what to do with.”

“He will not eat them?” Well, fuck. Did that just come out of their mouth?

Sam pressed her lips together hard and her face turned bright red. When she expelled a sputtering breath, Haru realized she was trying not to laugh. “I’m sorry. It’s not funny. Um, someone’s been telling you things, I’m guessing. No. Tally would never eat kids, any kids. He doesn’t even eat a lot of meat.”

“Good. That is good. Ah.” Haru was going to burn into a cinder from embarrassment.

“Lots of people are still scared of uktena. So they spew lots of misinformation. But you’re here with Tally, so I’m guessing you’re not all bound up in all the old superstitions,” she said with a pat to their leg and a bright smile.

No, just bound and sold by tradition. But at least one of Haru’s fears had been assuaged. Their children would be loved. Haru leaned in, nosing Sam’s ear. She’d take getting used to, but having Sam around would make Haru feel less alone. Someone else would understand otterisms.

“Thank you.”

A throat cleared from the doorway. Tally stood, hands behind him, with his brows bunched together. Haru pulled away from Sam and put a respectable distance between them. A glow lit Tally’s eyes, and Haru began to slip to the floor to apologize, but a firm hand took hold of their elbow. Sam gave them a frightening smile as she pulled them up, and escorted Haru out of the front room, walking right past their Urusar.

“I like this one, Tally. And yes, I’m favoring him because otter.”

“Good.” Tally followed them out, walking behind them. “I was hoping.”

That made no sense. None.

As they stepped into the formal dining room, the noise died. The sudden focus on them and Sam caused their chest to seize. Sam winked and gave their cheek a kiss before abandoning them over to Tally.

Traitor .

Tally stuck his arm out expectantly. Once again Haru was forced to bite back a sigh and made themself smile. They took the offered gesture and allowed themself to be led to the head of the table with their Xatiba.

Okaasan ’s eyes narrowed when Haru sat down before Tally, but she beamed when Tally kissed Haru’s cheek before seating himself. The touch had been soft, hesitant almost. Haru swallowed hard.

The siblings were rushing the last dishes out to the table, a complicated dance during which Haru expected collisions, but got none. Chairs clattered as the last of the Bastilles sat down and began reaching for dishes. There was no decorum to the process, no serving of husbands, no younger siblings serving older. They just grabbed the nearest dish, plopped something on their plates and passed the serving dishes along to the next person. Haru sat in frozen horror and found that Tally had served them several dishes before they recovered.

Haru glanced over to their parents and Misaki, also in a state of shock. None of them had put a single serving of food on their plates. An expertly placed elbow to Tally’s side made him glance down at Haru in confusion. Haru turned their gaze to their parents.

Tally cringed then cleared his throat. “Guys.”

The siblings didn’t stop, though, everyone chattering, moving food down the line. The look on Otōusan’s face did not bode for good things.

A loud whistle broke the chaos, hurting Haru’s ears, but it got everyone’s attention. Tally’s mother stood at the other end of the table, one hand down on the top, the other on her hip. She wasn’t smiling. In fact, her not-smile was downright terrifying.

“We have guests,” she said as she sat back down. “Let’s pretend we have some manners, shall we?”

All the heads whipped in Tally’s and Haru’s direction.

Right then, more than anything else that had happened since the betrothal dinner, Haru saw their future. Fear struck deep within their core.

A haze settled over them as Haru said itadakimasu then began to serve Tally, Mother in turn serving Father. The Bastille clan watched for a few minutes in silence, then slowly began serving each other. Not in the proper way, but the table had settled.

“Your clan is rather enthusiastic, Haru,” Otōusan said, the words numbing Haru further.

My clan .

Okaasan agreed. “Lots of energy. I imagine as Uruma you will be kept quite busy with your clan duties.”

My clan.

Bastille- okaasan chuckled. “It will be nice to have some help. It wasn’t fair Achak got to retire before me.”

“Haru is lucky to have gotten such a wonderful match with your son,” his mother answered. “We hope he will live up to your example.”

“I think Tal got a good deal out of the match, too. They make such a handsome pair.”

The world narrowed down into echoes. Haru knew they had replied, started giving the correct responses because their parents had relaxed, as much as they would, and were even cracking a smile here and there. Mother and Father had said, “Haru’s clan.” Their parents were already thinking of Haru in terms of a Bastille, not Akaike, cutting them off from home and family. Haru had known it was coming, it was expected, but it still blossomed into an ache. Tally protested loudly at more of his mother’s teasing, but he also talked about how Haru would be filling in a missing part of the clan now that he was here. Bastard even took Haru’s hand in his and smiled down at them, stealing a kiss—causing a squeal of excitement at the table.

All Haru could do was smile as their lips broke apart.

As they looked over the people gathered, talking, serving each other food in awkward fits and spurts—their clan . Haru’s. Yes, they could’ve done much worse. At least Tally was close in age, seemingly jovial, and even they could admit that the uktena was handsome, but Haru wasn’t ready . Not yet. Hadn’t wanted a match. Love, they had wanted love. Not to be responsible for others. Or to be an Uruma. Not to have a clan, their clan . Theirs to take care of. Their heart seized momentarily, the ache making them rub at it until their heart started beating in a tachy rhythm again.

The only place that was home was here. There was no going back. Haru’s duty was to Tally and the Bastille clan. Because, despite what Akaike-san thought, or their parents, Haru did understand their duty, and they would never, ever walk away from it.

Damn if that realization didn’t cut worse.

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