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Hanajima Saki was well named.

It was something he thought frequently, in moments when he watched her puttering around his kitchen, sitting on the engawa after dark, telling frightening stories to the younger students. There was a grace to her, a sort of ethereal beauty, and a fragility as well.

Saki. Rare blossom. She was a dark, beautiful bloom, as unique as she was strange, and there was something in her face sometimes, an expression in the usually unreadable eyes, that told him that she could be crushed as easily as a petal underfoot.

Kazuma didn't yet know what had happened to her, where that brittle look had come from, but he wanted to protect her, nonetheless. The more easily something could be hurt, after all, the more closely it should be cherished.

She was happy here. He could tell that much, and it was in the moments that she was quiet and comfortable and mostly alone that he thought on her name.

The students adored her, their very own witch-mama, a designation she lived up to with acceptance and amusement. Kunimitsu was slowly becoming used to her, no longer jumping and shrieking when she trod up silently behind him, arms full of clothes or merely enroute to someplace else. She was swiftly becoming part of the household, becoming part of his home.

Kazuma's own feelings were more complex. He enjoyed watching her as she settled in, liked to see her around the grounds, was amused by her conversation and pleased by her manners. She was, though, eighteen years old, the same age as his son—and she seemed obscurely determined to make him disgrace himself.

Her blithe and confident, nearly shameless, persona had convinced him at first that her flirtation was an affectation, something to render Kyō uncomfortable, and it made him laugh. Soon, though, Kyō was in Sapporo, and there was no reason she should still be forging ahead in her evident seduction, unless her reasons were deeper than he'd guessed.

It was true that once his son left, her behavior grew less flamboyant, but still, she behaved every day in a way pointedly designed to inflame him, draw his attention, distract and enthrall him.

She met him early one morning, before anyone else awoke, her hair loose around her and a black yukata draped over her thin shoulders, collar draped low to reveal three knobs of her spine. The way she swept her hair over her shoulder and cast him a meaningful glance as she moved past him transformed her in his eyes from mere loveliness, to a profound and disturbing sexiness. Until she rounded the corner into the kitchen, he was unable to pull his eyes from the white spread of shoulder and neck, and it took several moments more before he was able to process what that might mean.

It was a horrifying revelation; he was attracted to her, fairly desperately it seemed, and she was aiming to drive him mad.

The last major romantic dalliance in his life had ended just shortly before Kyō had come into it, a more than a decade before, but he wasn't yet totally oblivious to the charms of the opposite sex, and he still knew what a come-hither eye looked like when he saw one.

But to see such an expression in Saki's dark, thickly lashed eyes…

It made him burn with equal parts lust and shame.

What business did he have, after all, being aroused by a girl his son's age? Never mind that she was setting out lures, as an adult his responsibility was not to take them, or even acknowledge them. She should not be able to make him want like this, because as a man and martial artist, he ought to have better control.

And yet.

The next day, she was dressed when he saw her in the morning, well covered as usual, and he breathed a private sigh of relief. But she hadn't given up yet, not even close.

That was the day the touching began.

Little things, the smallest of brushes, but each one made him exquisitely aware how long it had been since he'd felt a woman's body with his own. Within a fortnight all it took was the faintly floral scent of her hair to tighten his stomach, fire his blood.

He didn't let himself show it, of course. The most significant half of self control was the half on the surface, and though Kazuma's body and soul raged, his face and manner were still calm and polite as always.

The teasing was always slightly inside of the boundaries of what could threaten his outward tranquility, but those boundaries were contracting, very slowly, as his hormones, his body, and his heart took up the cry for her.

His nights became the nights of a furtive teenage boy, dreaming hot, unfulfilling dreams where he kissed her, took her, spent himself inside her. Years of waking up before the sun had not prepared him for nights of much sleep but little rest.

It took only a month for her games to come to a head.

 

“Saki-san,” Kazuma said one evening, as she was preparing to retreat to her room for the night.

He had fairly recently agreed to call her Saki, rather than Hanajima, and it felt strange, hearing her name in his voice. No one had ever really called her Saki besides her family, not even her most precious friends. It felt right to her, that he alone of everyone should call her by that name. It felt intimate. “Kazuma-san?” she replied, and he gave her a reassuring, warm smile as he moved to sit opposite her at the table.

She poured tea for him on instinct, and let their fingers brush as she passed the cup. As they touched, his waves fluctuated wildly, and his smile slipped.

“Saki-san,” he said, quietly, earnestly. “I would like...an explanation. For your behavior.”

Saki blinked. She could feel his confusion, his unhappiness, but...how could he not know? Her motives had to be plain as day.

"I desire you." Saki looked at his face as she said the words, looked at his face, and felt his waves.

His face was caught between shock and panic, nearly blank but for the wide eyes and softly parted lips. His waves were chaos, and they told her everything she needed to know.

He wanted her badly, with a desperation that told her he'd been celibate a very long time, perhaps as long as Kyō had been his son. He was surprised, and a small, deep part of him was smug and victorious and gleeful. There was guilt, too, and excitement, and then more guilt. Swiftly, though, he calmed the chaos, and though all of his feelings remained, they were softened, muted.

"I'm old enough to be your father," he told her, gentle but firm, an adult's voice, but she felt the spike of mixed shame and longing as he said it.

"Your age is immaterial," she replied, steadily. "I don’t want you for your face, or for your body. Or I didn’t, at any rate. I won't deny that you are...appealing. I desire you because of your waves."

His face was as still and calm as an untouched pool, but his heart boiled. "Waves," he repeated, unsure.

"Your aura," she clarified. "It calls out to me, draws me. It is....exquisite."

Amusement spiked in his waves, and she smiled. "You’re thinking how absurd is it to hear that from a girl like me," she informed him, and again, he was surprised.

"Yes, I am," he agreed gamely.

"My youth excites you, but you feel shame for it," she added, to illustrate the detail with which she could divine his feelings.

His placid smile died. "That may be," he said, and his voice was restrained, caught between sternness and embarrassment,"But regardless of my feelings, it is inappropriate for us to...for me...." He took a deep breath, struggling for his control, and she realized suddenly that if she pushed too far she would only hurt him.

"How many years until I'm not a child, in your eyes?" she asked him, and tried not to sound too desperate. He opened his mouth instantly, and she could nearly taste him saying, "You will always be a child," but both of them already knew he didn't really see her as a child any longer. His mouth closed, and she could feel him thinking, considering.

It would be easier, he thought, to tell her no, to swear that no matter how old she grew, she would always be too young. To lie, in effect. Less easy, though, to hold to that. One month of gentle flirtation had reduced him to his current state; a year might destroy his resolve entirely. Could his pride bear it if he swore never to touch her, only to be proved a liar when his self-control finally frayed? He knew he was no saint. Only a man, with a man's foibles.

"Twenty," he said, finally. "You may be a woman, now, but you're still...not an adult. If you still want this when you're twenty, then...."

"Done," she agreed, and the giddy smile she favored him with was nearly the equal to Tōru's for heart-stopping sweetness.

He was not to know, of course, that she was already the better part of the way to nineteen, her birthday five months away. Only seventeen months stood between them, and she had loved him, wanted him, for nearly a year already. She could feel that he believed she would go off of him, grow bored or fall in love with someone else, but he was wrong. No one in the world had ever felt like him to her, like peace and security and serenity. Seventeen months close to him, there every day, sleeping only twenty feet apart despite the walls between them—there was no chance she would fall out of love with him.

"I'll stop trying to seduce you," she told him, frankly.

"Thank you," he replied, fervently, but he knew that by now he wouldn't need her deliberate flirtation to make his eyes follow her, to make him burn for her.

Already he knew that by her twentieth birthday, he would be so ready to take her to bed that he might not even feel the slightest twinge of guilt. The upstanding core of his soul was caught between wanting to love the hurt right out of her eyes, and wanting to run away to the mountains and spend the rest of his life under a waterfall.

In turn, Saki could feel him burning, could feel her own body growing liquid under his gaze, and she smiled at him again, warm and welcoming.

"I will still love you," she assured him. Then she rose from the table and moved to the door, stopping only to press a lighter than air kiss to his cheek. "Good night," she told him, and went.

 

As promised, Saki did not continue her seductive efforts; she knew, now, that he understood her feelings, and she felt his reciprocity. It was difficult, though, to keep from touching him, even totally casually, to prevent herself from drawing near like a cat to beg for affection. Saki had never been a particularly tactile person before, but her skin always seemed, now, to be reaching for his.

Kazuma spent three days wrestling absently with his conscience, before he once again found the equilibrium that had first drawn her to him. In a sea of screaming voices, his was gently humming, a soft, warm hand rather than a speeding fist. He wanted her, felt heat and desire and sometimes intense, untempered lust, but he didn't allow himself to feel them so overwhelmingly that he inflicted them on her.

Sometimes at night she felt his arousal sharpen, though his waves indicated sleep, and she knew that he dreamed of her. She almost felt bad, when he woke with a shock and a wave of guilt, but the guilt was slowly dying, being replaced by annoyance and embarrassment. All her highly informative high school health classes told her what he might be annoyed and embarrassed about, and the thought of that made her breath catch in her chest.

The idea of sex with him was more than appealing. She was beginning to want him nearly as badly as he wanted her, beginning to ache in places she'd never realized you could feel, beginning to count the hours until her twentieth birthday with miserable, eager avidity.

This was one way in which her powers did her a disservice. They'd allowed her to tease him straight to the edge of his control without breaking it, but they also made her share in his desire and his torment.

Both of them were at least a little glad when Saki returned to her parent's house for the weeks around the new year.

Tōru and Kyō came home first, pink-faced from snow but laughing and happy, and Kyō had even let Saki hug him, briefly, before he returned to his usual prickly self. Kazuma smiled and radiated contentment, and for twenty-four hours Saki basked in the familiarity of her best friend's happiness.

The next day, though, she went home.

She'd hugged Tōru, extracted a promise from Kyō and Kunimitsu to keep Kazuma away from the kitchen on pain of death, and taken her leave, with Kazuma escorting her to the street in his gentlemanly way.

“Have a good New Year,” he wished her, smiling gently, and his waves were all tender affection.

“I will be home soon,” she promised him. “Don't burn it down.”

And then she stepped into his arms, laid her head against his chest, and held him, trying to soak up enough Kazuma to last the duration of her stay at her parent's house.

His pulse hadn't leapt unduly, and he hadn't felt the need to push her away. He'd held her, pressed her close to his body, and laid his cheek on her hair. “I will miss you,” he confided. “And I can safely promise we won't burn down the dojo.”

“Good.”

She gave him a final squeeze, drew her cloak around her, and set off down the street, not looking back.

 

The two weeks apart had been helpful. Saki had missed him, and the relative freedom of her life in the Sōma household, but going home had also given her a grounding, keeping her in touch with her family life.

Megumi knew the whole situation, naturally. Or at least, he knew the gist of things—that Saki had successfully garnered an acceptance, conditional only on the passage of time, and that she and Kazuma loved one another—but for the first time in her life, Saki felt unwilling to disclose her deepest feelings to her brother.

It wasn't for him to know that she ached for Kazuma, that his blood could catch fire if she touched him. He didn't need to know about the small brushes of fingers or the subtle flirtations. Sharing them seemed wrong, because they belonged to herself and to Kazuma, and that was it.

That new distance helped her to understand why he might think her too young. Why, even though she loved him and wanted him, and he loved and wanted her, he was doing the right thing by holding her apart.

She wasn't totally ready for an adult relationship, not in the way she needed to be. Their partnership was going to be more than casual dating or sex or mere comfort. She had to be able to be able to support him as he would support her, and though she wouldn't have to do it alone, she had to come to terms with the fact that much of what would pass between them would never be brought to anyone else. She had to be able to come to him, sure of herself and her capacity. Sure of her value.

Her friendship with her brother had always been so important in determining her feelings of self-worth. Megumi was a good boy, a sweet boy, who played at cursing to make his sister feel better, and if he could love her, even the ugliest parts, then surely she couldn't be so bad?

Now, though, she couldn't have that same level of disclosure with him. If he couldn't validate her, she would have to do it herself.

At her parent's house, she helped more than she ever had before, cooking meals for the family, cleaning, trying to feel normal in a house that no longer felt like her home. Her mother had thanked her again and again, but she didn't want thanks. She wasn't thanked often at the dojo. Kunimitsu was frequently too busy or too harried to think of thanking her after a meal, and the students were almost exclusively good-naturedly rude. Kazuma thanked her periodically, but not for every service she performed. It was her job, after all, to cook, to do some of the cleaning, to wash the clothes.

Saki missed work. She missed being a vital part of a household. She even missed the kids that called her a witch.

Kazuma used his two weeks to set himself back in order. At the end of the holidays, there would be a little more than a year left before his self-imposed restraining order ran out, and they were shaping up to be some of the longest months in his life.

He spent time with his son and Tōru, and helped the family prepare for the New Year banquet, the first since the breaking of the curse, but he also spent hours in meditation, finding his absolute center, the place where even his feelings for Saki were easily accepted and left him unshaken.

He went through his legal affairs.

They hadn't spoken of marriage, but something, something other than his libido, told him that when they finally came together, they would never let go. Neither of them was particularly flighty or unsettled, and even without the added pleasures of touch and taste they had a balance, a rapport he wouldn’t part with eagerly.

It was important to him that, whatever happened with Saki, Kyō should inherit the dojo. He was, after all, Kazuma's oldest son, regardless of blood, and very much the successor to his legacy, insofar as he had one. His will had reflected that wish for years, but couched in nebulous terms and conditions, due to the twin issues of Kyō's youth and status as the Cat.

Now he redrew the will to cement Kyō's inheritance, even in the case of future children, a whole life he’d never thought he would have, but upon which he had already embarked.

His home had already become more modern under Saki's hand; since he never used the kitchen and neither Kunimitsu nor Kyō was sufficiently motivated to complain, he had only ever owned a teapot, a battered old rice maker, two saucepans, and sufficient dishes and utensils to feed a number of hungry boys. Within days of her moving in, Saki had presented him with a list—“of demands”, she'd said—and now they possessed a new, functional rice maker, two good knives, an actual cutting board, a kettle that was not scorched, a large flat pan he could not divine the use of, and a number of other gadgets that made no sense to him whatever but whose existence pleased both Kyō and Tōru unduly. Likewise the laundry machine had been replaced, all the light bulbs exchanged for newer, more efficient models, and a number of other changes had taken place.

Rin had left, for one thing. That wasn’t a small change, by any stretch of the imagination, or Saki’s doing, but she’d been replaced at the start of the new school year by a pair of boarding students, who spent weeknights living at the dojo while attending the local school, and weekends back home with geographically distant Sōma parents. Enoki and Kohaku were the most recent in a long string of students who had lived with Kazuma, naturally including Kunimitsu and his own son, but they were the first Saki had ever known and she took to them like a duck to water, chiding them and making them treats by equal turns. They, in turn, worshiped her as the source of all good things, gastronomic and otherwise. At Christmas this year, they had organized the other students to buy her a bracelet that she made a point of wearing every day, and Enoki couldn’t stop himself from chattering proudly about it while he did his chores.

The school was doing well, better than ever since every inhabitant and employee of it was eating regularly, and many of the more distant older students were taking more of an interest in staying for meals or generally visiting.

It made Kazuma a little uncomfortable to think that perhaps that had something to do with the beauty of the young woman now presiding over the supper table, and he preferred to hope it was to the credit of her cooking and her humor. Many of his students were exactly the kind of young man a woman like Saki ought to be interested in, rather than himself, but already he couldn’t bring himself to wish that she was. Perhaps he should content himself to be thankful that he had yet to be tortured by insidious pangs of jealousy when she smiled at other men.

On the other hand, he was secure in her feelings, for the moment. He had no doubt that the woman who’d sat him down and told him she “desired” him would have no compunctions whatever communicating the loss of her interest if it occurred. The boys of the dojo were like her flock of ducklings, even if they sometimes flirted at her, and he didn’t think it likely that she would ever flirt back.

And then, he did have that feeling. Perhaps totally irrational, perhaps grounded on nonsense and ultimately foolish, but he saw their future together. He was certain, on some level, that their lives would always be lived side by side.

Someday, he began to idly think, the house would be noisy with their own children.

Time passed, as it always does. The weeks apart had allowed them to find their balance, and when Saki returned to the dojo and Kyō and Tohru went back to Sapporo, things weren't as tense or sexually charged as they had been before the New Year. In March, Saki celebrated her nineteenth birthday by having a quiet dinner with her family and smiling deviously at her would-be-lover, who discovered that she’d attained another year only when she corrected Kunimitsu in conversation some weeks later.

It irritated him, on some level, that she hadn't told him it was her birthday, but then again, he knew that some part of him would have begun counting down the days to the next one, like a ridiculous child. He would certainly discover the date next year, when she cashed in on his ultimatum, and for now he could at least pretend that he was only keeping track of the months as they passed, rather than scrooging seconds.

That summer was a hot one, and the unrelieved black of her wardrobe gave way, at the height of July, to greys and very dark blues, lighter dresses that stopped above her knees and revealed more of her arms.

It was odd, but that extra skin didn't particularly affect him. Mainly, he noticed that, in a palette of colors less dour, she was very much a Yamato Nadeshiko, with her long dark hair and deep black eyes, carefully guarded white skin, and pretty smiles.

In the autumn, she returned to her blacks.

That year for Christmas, they exchanged small gifts, though they didn't observe the western holiday in any other way. He received a scarf, evidently hand-made in a rich shade of charcoal. She, fluffy black ear-muffs in the shape of cats.

Again, at the New Year, Saki returned home to her family, and again, the time was spent in equal parts anticipation and preparation, this time not so much to fettle themselves against the coming wait, but to ready themselves for the imminent change.

February passed swiftly, and gave way to March, which true to form sailed in on a gale that killed power to their home for three days.

Only the two boarders were trapped there, so it wasn’t miserable taking care of them, especially once Kazuma rounded up the boys and taught them how to wash their own clothes in the rain barrel. Saki watched them with quiet cheer on the first clear day after the storm, cooking rice on a camp stove and boiling water for soup. Enoki and Kohaku ended up splashing each other and making the courtyard a muddy hellscape while their master looked on and laughed, and eventually made them strip and wash in the freezing rainwater from the barrel. It was calm, but happy. It was sweet and familiar, and everything she dreamed of for her future.

Those three days had a large benefit in one other way as well; they made it easier to forget that on the fifteenth of March, Saki would turn twenty and the deadline would be met.

Consequently, they managed not betray or humiliate themselves in the two short weeks before their coming together. Well, Saki managed not to betray herself, at least, and Kazuma managed not to show his anxiety, since he had only the vaguest notion of when her birthday might be, in that it fell some time between the new year and the beginning of spring.

The tension between them, so well tempered for so long, began to mount again, and Saki found herself stopping to still her fast-beating heart nearly every time she met his eyes, calm and unruffled though his expression looked. Inside, she could feel his interest, his physical want and emotional exhaustion. How badly he wanted simply to pull her close and hold her. It seemed a miracle to her that he couldn’t feel her own arousal, her own urges, which were now so loud that she’d begun avoiding his touch completely, afraid that she might cling to him and never let go.

And then, it was White Day, and the boys of the dojo were giving her small presents, mostly flowers and candies, and long after the children had gone home and Kunimitsu retired to bed, Kazuma knelt beside her at the kitchen table to regard the rag-tag bouquet of daisies and lilies she’d assembled in an old jar.

“The boys adore you,” he remarked, placid. “I’m glad.”

“They’re sweet little demons,” she agreed, reaching out to arrange a stem just-so. “Are all little boys that way?”

“That I know of,” he confirmed, and caught her hand on its way to the table top. “To be honest,  Kyō was already six or seven when his mother died, and he was a pretty serious kid. I’m not as experienced a parent as you might think.”

“Good. We can learn together.” Deftly, she laced their fingers, and Kazuma’s breath halted in his chest. After a time, he exhaled, then drew another, deeper breath.

“It’s White Day,” he commented, nearly off-hand, but she knew him well enough to let him gather his thoughts, center himself, before he continued. “You do so much for us. For me. I feel like this is your home, and I hope you feel the same way. I meant for this to be your birthday present, but since you’ve managed to hide it so well...” His free hand lifted a small white box from where it lay on the mats beside him, and he set it on the table. Saki stared. Every girl, no matter how indifferent to matters of fashion, knows what a jeweler’s box looks like. “It seems like the right time,” he finished, softly, and she touched the lid with the tip of her finger.

“Tomorrow,” she blurted, blushing uncharacteristically.

“I’m sorry?”

“My birthday. It’s tomorrow. Tomorrow I turn twenty.”

The air thickened instantly, with shock and lust and an odd current of nervousness. “Then,” Kazuma said, his voice suddenly roughened, “You should open it tomorrow.”

“Y...yes,” Saki agreed, but she didn’t hand the box back or relinquish his hand.

It so happens that, when you’ve anticipated something for years, literal years, actually arriving at it can be terrifying. You know how to be waiting, but not how to be doing, not how to get the most from the thing you’ve dreamt of.

Tomorrow night, both of them thought, they might become lovers for the first time.

Kazuma’s heart raced straight out of control, his breathing growing heavier as his body decided that it was ready for her now, if she liked. It took him a moment to master it, but master it he did, as he had done ever since she told him how his feelings rang with her, how she loved him for his calm and his peace and the way he whispered, rather than shouting. His heart didn’t calm, but his breathing did, and when he met Saki’s eye he saw her, flush-faced and heavy-lidded, looking back at him as though to stare into his soul.

“Tomorrow,” she said softly, “I usually have dinner with my family. They asked...if you and the rest of the household would like to come. I would like that.”

“Then I’ll be there,” he promised. “Do they…have you told them how it is between us?”

“Have I told them that I love you?” she paraphrased, and smiled. “No. But they know that we’re close, and that I’m happy here.”

“Ah,” he acknowledged, somewhat rueful.

“My brother does know,” she revealed. “That is...our situation generally. My feelings and belief in your reciprocation. But that’s all.”

“Your belief,” Kazuma repeated, softly amused. “I think there’s more to it than belief at this point.”

“But that isn’t for him to know.” Saki shook her head. Her hand tightened over his, and he pressed back, greedy for the touch of her skin. “I don’t think my parents will mind, very much. My mother will just be relieved I don’t plan to die alone.” She looked up at him, very directly. “Are your parents still living?”

“Yes, both of them,” he said, and seized gladly on the tangent she was offering. “We don’t speak much. They disapproved of my decision to raise Kyō.”

“Why?” she asked, simply, and abruptly a choice loomed before him, one he had never contemplated making. The curse was gone, yes, but its effects would continue to reverberate for generations, and his own history was so inextricably linked with it that to omit it would be to obscure himself.

Ought he to toe the line, never tell her the truth of his family? Could he in good conscience do so and still ask her to marry him?

He looked her in the eye, the young woman with an old soul and powers no human should have to endure, and decided.

“I’m sure you noticed that my younger cousins, your schoolmates, were averse to being embraced,” he began, and she nodded. “The reason for that is an old family curse. Not a story, a reality.  The truth is known to only a few in the Sōma family, and maybe a handful outside it. Your friend Tōru-kun is one.”

Saki nodded again, listening without passing judgment. Slowly, he laid it all before her, the story of the god and the animals, the very real manifestation it took in his son, and his own complex history with the curse. “So you see, my father’s father was hardly ever in his life,” Kazuma explained, “And I was raised to believe that the cat was...beneath us. I turned my back on my own grandfather because I believed the stories. But when Kyō’s mother passed, I realized that my father’s bitterness, his abandonment, those weren’t caused by my grandfather’s curse. They were caused by the way we rejected him, and I had passed by a chance to know my grandfather, love him. In a way, he died alone because of me. When I saw Kyō, the way...Hideo-san spoke to his only son, I couldn’t stand it. I made an impulsive decision, and my parents...well, Kyō was the cat. They rejected him just as they had rejected my grandfather. For years, they tried to convince me to send him away, until finally I told them not to bother calling anymore.”

“What an incredibly tragic story,” Saki sighed, not without feeling. “I did wonder, you know, when their waves changed. Hatsuharu-san and Momiji-kun as well, but mostly Yuki and Kyō.”

“Ah, yes, their waves. So you were able to tell something was different?” he asked, and flexed his fingers only to resettle them in hers.

Her thumb swept over the ridged tendon of his index finger. “Something, yes,” she agreed. “Never more specific than an odd pattern they shared. They were still very clearly themselves, and the change was subtle when it happened.”

“I’m told that the curse was broken the day Tōru-kun was released from the hospital.”

“Yes, that’s when I noticed. I saw Kyō just before and then after, and he felt different. Calmer, mostly, and more like himself.”

The conversation trickled out into sleepy silence, the soft night sounds of the dojo rising up around them like a quilt so old and soft that the color’s faded, leaving only familiarity and comfort. Kazuma disentangled their fingers so that he could examine hers, look at the lines on her palm and trace over her flawless black polish. “Some time you’ll have to tell me why you love black so much,” he remarked, distantly.

“Some time,” she agreed. “It’s a long story.”

“We’ve had our long story for tonight,” he agreed. “It’s...”

He stopped, suddenly aware. “It’s nearly one in the morning,” he pointed out softly. “Happy birthday, Saki.”

And there it was. Her name, plain and unadorned, with neither diminutive nor honorific. All she wanted from him summed up in a word, given like a gift. An invitation to his side, an acknowledgment of their equality.

“Thank you, Kazuma.” He swallowed at the sound of his own name, mastered himself once more, and smiled.

“You should go...you should sleep,” he amended, carefully avoiding even the word bed. “Tomorrow...” If it was odd for her to blush, it was stranger still for him, but as he broke off a flush overtook him. There was, after all, no way to point out that she might wish to be rested without implying that he intended to wear her out, and while that was certainly the case he wasn’t precisely comfortable saying so. Innuendo was an art of which he’d lost the skill, so he dispensed with it entirely and kissed her instead.

It was meant to be chaste, or near to chaste, but the first press of lips gave way quickly to a fervent, diligent exploration, the first steps on a path long denied. Without meaning to, he found his tongue in her mouth and his hands in her hair, as she leaned on his shoulders to pull herself closer. For months, neither had allowed themselves even the most casual of contact, and suddenly physical proximity became the most pressing goal.

Saki was fully in his lap, panting against his mouth, before Kazuma could find it in himself to break the kiss, but it was very late, and as much as he wanted to hold her, the school would still be open in the morning. The plants would still need watering, the boys would still get dirty and bicker and need disciplining, and together they would have to keep it all running along smoothly.

“We should go to bed,” Saki murmured against his collarbone, somehow managing to strip all suggestion out of the words.

“We should,” Kazuma agreed, and closed his eyes for a moment. The exhaustion of a long, busy day crept upon him, and he sighed.

Saki’s voice was soft as ash when she asked him, “May I stay with you tonight?” and his was tender as he told her, “Yes.”

 

Sleeping side-by-side was strange for both of them, after so many collective years alone, but not altogether unpleasant. It was distinctly odd waking up with Saki’s hair everywhere, for Kazuma. Once or twice he’d spent the night with a girlfriend with such long hair, what felt like a hundred years ago, and the sensation of it gave him a strong sense of déjà-vu. That girlfriend had been the one to break up with him because he’d chosen to adopt Kyō; she had been sweet about it, but told him she wasn’t ready to be a mother, let alone to such a sad boy.

Saki’s hair was permanently waved from the long braided styles she usually wore, but it didn’t have a tendency to tangle the way his once did. Gently, to avoid waking her, he brushed off the tendrils that were draped over his chest and ran his fingers through the ends.

First light had come and gone, and soon they would both have to leave this bed and go about their days, but for the moment, for a few moments more, they had time. Kazuma lifted another lock of hair away from Saki’s somnolent face, and studied her. This morning wouldn’t be the last, but it was undoubtedly the first. That was worth remembering.

 

“Sensei—oh.” Kunimitsu blinked in mute astonishment as a sleepy and disheveled Saki stepped through Kazuma’s door in the middle of a half-suppressed yawn. “Hanajima-san.”

“Good morning, Kunimitsu-kun,” she greeted him, and quite blithely crossed the hall into her own room, closing the door behind her.

“Good morning, Kunimitsu,” a soft, amused voice said, and the astonished man turned back to his boss’ door, to find Kazuma standing there, looking totally unruffled and not at all like a man who was carrying on a torrid affair with his underage housekeeper.

“Sensei!” Kunimitsu exclaimed, aghast, “How could you?”

Kazuma managed to hold on to his smile, though his stomach sank at his friend’s inevitable reaction. “Saki makes her own choices,” he said, simply. “I can assure you that I have not coerced her, and have nothing but honorable intentions. I don’t require your blessing, but I hoped you might give it.”

“My blessing?” Kunimitsu echoed, “What about Kyō’s? Or Tōru-kun, Hanajima-san is one of her best friends, isn’t she?”

“It is my understanding that Tōru-kun is perfectly comfortable with the way things stand,” Kazuma assured him, “and as for Kyō...well, in some respects, my life is my own. He’ll come around, they are friends, after all.”

“If you say so...” Kunimitsu looked again at Saki’s closed door, and shook his head. “But, you know what?”

“Hm?” Kazuma smiled gently at his assistant.

“I beat you this morning! You actually slept to a normal hour!”

 

Saki listened with half an ear to Kunimitsu’s conversation with Kazuma as she readied herself for a day of work. Her most elaborate clothes weren’t at all well-suited to housework, so generally she wore variations on the theme of a plain black dress or a blouse and skirt. Today she chose a lightweight dress and heavier cardigan, and began to braid her hair. She smiled to herself as Kunimitsu crowed his victory, and as she started to pin her hair up the men’s voices faded, wandering off in the direction of the kitchen.

Kyō might be appalled to learn that all her plotting had come to fruition, but he wouldn’t be surprised, and despite his natural discomfort with the idea of his foster father having a sex life, Kazuma’s happiness was important to his son. That was something he would always have in common with Saki, and she really didn’t intend for him to think of her as a mother. That was a hugely funny joke, a dead horse to be flogged right up to the edge of his endurance, and then laid aside forever. She liked and trusted him, now that he’d gotten himself together, and her new knowledge of the curse made her slightly more lenient towards his past behavior. Quite probably, they could be good friends in their own right someday.

The morning went quickly; an influx of both students and young Sōmas meaning she had to double breakfast abruptly; laundry was collected, sorted, and washed; and Saki’s mother was told to expect only the one guest for dinner that night, since Kunimitsu had a date and the students would all be going home. Saki mused that it was fortuitous that the house would be deserted that night. It would make everything else so much easier, if they were alone and uninterrupted.

Soon lessons were over, and the laundry was brought in, and Saki was changing her workaday clothes for something a little nicer, when Kazuma knocked on her door.

“Come in,” she called, finishing the top button on her blouse, and he slid the door open, preceded by his unusually nervous waves.

She gazed at him appreciatively for a moment, taking in his hair—still damp from the bath—and the way his shirt lay on his shoulders. It was odd to see him in trousers rather than a yukata, and honestly she hadn’t known he owned any western clothes at all. “Will I do?” he asked her, only half-joking, and she smiled.

“You’ve never done this before,” Saki guessed. “Met a woman’s family.”

“Never,” he confirmed. “You have the advantage of me, there. There are members of my family you know far better than I do.”

“Sometimes the Sōma seem less like a family and more like an empire,” she observed, then gestured him to step further into her room. “Or a mafia. The back of your collar is standing up,” she revealed, reaching up to fold it correctly. “When was the last time you wore a suit?”

“A very long time ago,” he told her, watching intently as she moved on to fixing his tie, then smoothing his hair where it stood slightly on end. “One of my cousins’ wedding, I think. On my mother’s side.”

“Not a Sōma?”

“From a very distant branch of the family.” He stilled her hands with his own, and kissed the palms. Her skin was cool where his was hot, and he closed his eyes, the better to feel her. “You’re right about the empire; the family always stayed more connected than other clans might have, because of the risk that any child with Sōma blood might be born with the curse. Kyō is, by blood, my fourth cousin once removed. Yuki is a second cousin.”

“And Kureno?”

He opened his eyes, surprised. “You know Kureno-kun?” he asked. “He’s another second cousin. His grandmother was my grandfather’s youngest sister.”

“Arisa’s been in love with him since high school,” Saki revealed. “They’re living together, now.”

“The world is small indeed.” He was allowed to hold her, now, so he did, wrapping his arms around her and laying his cheek on the top of her head. “Are you ready to go?”

“In a minute.”

More than a minute passed before she let him go.

“Sōma-san,” Saki’s mother greeted him, quite cheerfully, “Welcome to our home! Thank you so much for taking care of Saki.”

“She rather takes care of us,” he corrected politely, “and we’re grateful to have her.”

Bows and introductions made, Saki was bustled off to the kitchen by her mother, leaving Kazuma alone with her father and younger brother, whose thousand-yard stare refused to let him forget that Megumi knew precisely what sort of relationship he shared with his sister.

Dinner was polite and delicious, neither of her parents seeming at all suspicious that the quiet, well-spoken man in their daughter’s wake was anything other than her benevolent employer. Megumi insisted on giving him the evil eye, but Saki knew that she’d explained enough about her brother that Kazuma wouldn’t be in danger of believing he was truly being cursed. It was rather sweet, after all, that her brother was so worried about her wellbeing and the worthiness of her partner.

Silly, though. A man like him could hardly be anything but worthy. Warm-hearted, astonishingly kind, disciplined and intelligent, his only obvious fault was his utter failure in the kitchen. He had others, of course—a tendency towards passivity that would certainly have proved an obstacle had her powers not allowed her to clearly divine his feelings and motives; a cheerful absent-mindedness that very occasionally led him to wander into walls or miss the plants with the watering can—but he was nothing like the kind of man Megumi feared he might be, the kind of cruel or stupid man who would lead her on and then reject her for her oddities.

In a way, Saki was thankful for the long and convoluted history he’d related. Watching his son transform into a cat in the throes of fever made her psychic powers rather pedestrian by comparison, and she could rest assured that however strange she was, she was hardly going to be the weirdest person he’d ever met. Her history was nowhere near as convoluted as that of his family. Even without that assurance, she’d trusted that he loved her, but it helped, she couldn’t deceive herself into believing it didn’t.

Probably, the knowledge of her powers had made him comfortable, in turn, sure enough in her view of the world to trust her with the whole of his family’s history. Certainly he hadn’t needed much persuading to believe that she could feel what he felt, and had gone out of his way to ensure that he never made her uncomfortable thereafter.

She could never explain all this to her brother, but she could look him in the eye and tell him, quite silently, you can trust him with my wellbeing .

By the end of the night her father had managed to draw Kazuma into a seemingly-never-ending discussion of gardening, her mother was smiling at him expansively, and Megumi was at least making an effort to be civil, much to Saki’s satisfaction. As well as she got along with his infinite cousins, he seemed to fit in with her family. Just as well, since that little white box was in his jacket pocket, unopened but portentous. This time next year, they would probably be visiting as husband and wife.

A yawn forced its way out of her mouth, half-quashed and half-covered, but Kazuma noticed anyway.

“Are you tired?” he asked, his attention switching wholly from her father to herself. “You worked hard today.”

“I—I am, a bit,” she admitted, then allowed herself another yawn, this one theatrically enlarged rather than made smaller. “Mama, Papa, I think it might be time for us to go.”

As her parents hugged her goodbye and her brother pressed a kiss to her cheek, Kazuma fetched their coats and held hers out to help her into it. It was such an innocent thing, the gesture that gave them away, so small. As he settled the coat on her shoulders, he pressed them slightly and drew his hands down over her arms. It took half a second, and in that half a second her mother drew her own conclusions.

“How long have you two been together, then?” she asked, totally casually, and Saki felt her face warm, unsure of how to answer. Behind her, Kazuma radiated anxiety and shock, so she did what she always did—stepping back into his embrace, pulling out her brightest smile—she brazened it out.

“Not long,” she said. “Since this morning, really.”

It was absurd enough of an answer that her family took it at face value and they were allowed to duck out into the chilly night with no further questioning, until he stopped her on the moonlit sidewalk.

“Saki,” he said, seriously, “Will that—Will your parents accept it?”

“Yes,” she told him, because she simply wouldn’t allow for any other outcome. Her family had once been her lifeline, the only people who loved and understood her. Before her stood another such person. If it was the last thing she did, she’d make them accept him, but she didn’t think it would be that dire.

“Good.” He kept watching her, swallowed nervously, and suddenly she knew what was going to happen, what what coming.

“If it helps,” she murmured, “I’m going to say yes.”

His laughter rang up and down the street, and when he did finally pull the ring box from his pocket, it was with a smile on his lips.

Their walk home was chilly, peaceful, and humming with a quiet tension. The ring on Saki’s finger warmed slowly, heated by their twined fingers, and they didn’t speak. There was too much to say, so much that Saki felt if she let herself begin, she would stop in the street and still be there at dawn.

When they reached the gate, Kazuma opened it for her, and followed her through. He followed her into the house, past the kitchen, and then, when she tugged on his hand, he followed her into her room.

He hadn’t allowed himself to cross that threshold more than five times together since Saki had joined the household. The temptation was strong, not least because it was difficult, at times, to get even a few moments alone with her in the communal areas of the house, but he had resisted. That was a level of intimacy they hadn’t formally enjoyed, until now.

Earlier in the evening, he’d been too distracted by the anxiety of meeting her parents and brother. When she’d beckoned to him, he’d gone with little thought, welcoming the soothing relief of her gentle touch as she tidied his appearance. Those ministrations had loosened the knot in his chest, and now he felt it tighten again.

Saki let go of his hand, and turned to him. “Kazuma,” she said, quietly, calling for his attention.

She needn’t have done so, because he was and had been completely focused on her since the moment they’d left her parent’s house. Her cheeks flushed as she watched him watching her, and she smiled, one of her rare, utterly genuine smiles. “I’m twenty today,” she told him, though she knew he was viscerally aware. “I’m twenty and I love you.”

“I love you, Saki.” He reached for her, reached across the two or so feet she’d put between them, but she held up a hand. Her expression was teasing, fond.

“It was a formal ultimatum,” she reminded him. “You said if I loved you when I was twenty, you would accept my feelings. Do you?”

Kazuma smiled at her, his heart beginning to swell in his chest. “Is this really necessary?” he asked her, irreverently. “I’ve already asked you to marry me. What does that tell you?”

“It tells me that you’ve gotten ahead of yourself,” she retorted crisply, but there was still a soft glow of contentment about her that belied her tone. “I desire you. Will you have me?”

“With all my heart,” Kazuma relented, and she let him pull her close, this time.

His prediction, made more than a year earlier, proved to be entirely correct. Their enforced period of waiting had forced him to come to terms with himself and his feelings, and as he kissed the young woman who would soon be his wife, not a shred of guilt was able to ruin his sense of pervading contentment.

That contentment was quickly growing, changing, and soon, he felt, some line might be crossed. Before that could happen, there was one more thing he needed to ask her.

Saki was pressed as close to his body as she possibly could be, her arms around his shoulders, the heat of her palms branding him where they lay, and he…well, he couldn’t seem to stop himself from pressing kisses to whatever part of her was most readily available. First, it had been her lips, and then her cheeks, her eyelids, her throat. The collar of her blouse was high, and when he met the fabric, he forced himself to set his forehead against her shoulder, the heaving of their breathing slowly syncing as the first wave of passion lessened.

“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want,” he told, more because he felt he must than because he thought it would be a concern.

“Ridiculous man,” Saki breathed against his neck, and the hair there stood on end. His skin seemed to be tightening over his muscles and bones, and her slow seduction had taught him long ago to be familiar with his own body’s more subtle shades of arousal. “Do you think I’m afraid of you?”

“Never,” he laughed, and pressed another kiss to the inch of skin below her ear. She sighed minutely, and melted into him a little further. “But if you feel anything is too much, if you’re uncomfortable even for a moment, I want you to tell me. We may be engaged, but we are moving awfully fast.”

“Or awfully slowly,” she argued. Her fingers slid up into his short hair, and tightened slightly. His breath caught, more from the unaccustomed intimacy than any particular liking on his part, and he huffed another laugh.

“You’ll have to let me go for a moment,” he told her, softly. “I have protection, but it’s in the other room.”

“It isn’t, actually.” The teasing tone was back in full force, and Kazuma released Saki enough to straighten and frown at her. “You left the bag on your dresser. I moved it when I went to collect your laundry.”

The box of condoms was now, he saw, beside the futon, which he had failed to notice was already laid out and made up. Waiting for them. His heart picked up speed, and he looked down at Saki as though into a chasm.

She smirked at him. Not smiled, smirked, smug and self-contented.

“I’m sure of what I want,” she told him. “I went to the doctor a few weeks ago. We’ll be safe.”

Having dispensed with the topics of both consent and contraception, there wasn’t anything else Kazuma could think of that stood between them and their mutual passion. And so he bent to kiss her again, this time with intent. “Have you ever done this before?” he asked her, in between kisses, and she shook her head, reaching for his lips again. It wasn’t a surprise—she’d mentioned to him that most people’s emotions came at her like a steam train or a loudspeaker pressed to her ear, hardly the sort of circumstances that would inspire a reserved girl like Saki to invite or accept any kind of sexual attention—and oddly it didn’t make him terribly nervous. Yes, there was some degree of pressure to ensure that she enjoyed herself, but he was confident enough in his abilities, rusted though they might be, to know that he’d be able to give her that, at least. He was a little more nervous about his own ability to hold back, but there didn’t seem to much to be done if he couldn’t. It had been fifteen years, after all, and he doubted she would hold it against him. He held no illusions about making this time perfect, because his experience of the act of sex was that it had little to do with perfection in any way. It would be special because it was theirs, in whatever way it took them.

When she pulled him down onto their bed, he followed gratefully. She laughed at his dismay when her hair got tangled in his buttons, and once she was freed, he tickled her ruthlessly into submission. When they lay together in the aftermath of their lovemaking, close but not quite touching, he took a moment to thank the gods, whichever ones might be listening, for the chance he’d been given in her.

“Come here,” Saki ordered softly, breaking his reverie, and he did.

They decided that there was no real point in dragging out the publication of their relationship, such as it was, and no point delaying the wedding more than necessary. They would be married as soon as Tōru, Kyō, and Arisa could all arrange to be present, alongside a handful of other more conveniently located friends and family, and would begin telling other people about their engagement just as soon as Saki had told her parents.

Saki had said she’d like to tell them, or at least her mother, by herself. Kazuma had guessed that that intention might stem from a desire to shield him from a potentially negative initial response, but agreed to her wishes all the same. Whatever her reasoning, it was her family, and he trusted her to know what was best. If she’d asked him to stand beside her for support, or to ask her father formally for her hand, he would have accepted it cheerfully, and likewise was unbothered by her choice.

It was hard to feel bothered about anything, at the moment. Kazuma recognized the honeymoon stage of love, the euphoria, the insatiable desire, his current imperviousness to all sorts of annoyances. He had his students, his work, his garden, and her. His family was finally free of the curse, his son was making his own way in the world and by all accounts happier than he’d ever been before, and he saw in his young cousins all the signs of people healing and moving on with joyous and successful lives. He himself was going to be marrying a woman who, although she was far from what he might have expected in life, seemed to be the best partner he could have hoped for.

Several times a day, he found himself wondering at how incredibly things had improved, in his life and the lives of those around him.

He had even managed, on a recent visit to the main compound, to make eye contact with Sōma Hideo without having to overcome a visceral surge of anger. He’d regarded the man with absolutely no fondness, but with something close to indifference. Kyō’s biological father couldn’t begin to touch any of them, now. He couldn’t make Kazuma’s son unhappy anymore.

Perhaps, he thought, the time had come for him to speak to his own parents again. Certainly, they would never be close, but it was proper that he at least introduce them to Saki, and that they be given a chance to redeem themselves enough to be allowed to know any grandchildren that might come along in time.

Saki was going, today, to talk to her parents about their impending nuptials. Perhaps he should employ his free afternoon by doing something similar.

When Saki appeared at her mother’s door with a dreamy smile and a ring on her finger, her mother was astonished.

She hadn’t been astonished to discover that her daughter had entered into a relationship with her employer, although she also hadn’t been thrilled by it. To learn only a week later that they were engaged was a bit much.

“It isn’t really so fast,” Saki explained, in her usual unconcerned mode. “We’ve had an understanding for over a year. Kazuma wanted me to be very sure of my choice before I made it.”

“He’s only nine years younger than your father,” her mother sighed. “Not that you ever seemed to do well with boys your age, but still, Saki. I’m worried about you; the kind of man who’ll date a girl your age isn’t usually the kind of man who should.”

“It isn’t like that at all,” Saki denied. “He doesn’t—it’s not sordid, the way he feels about me. It’s not because I’m young. It’s because he loves me, the me who’ll exist when I’m eighty. If he didn’t, I wouldn’t love him, you know I wouldn’t.”

“Your powers can tell you when a man’s intentions are less than pure?” her mother asked, archly, and again Saki found herself coloring. The answer to that question was certainly yes , and as to whether Kazuma had those darker, more sexual feelings, that was a yes , too, but as for his heart—

“I can tell when someone isn’t sincere,” she explained, “Or if they have ulterior motives. Trust me, Mama, he’s a good man.”

“A good man with a grown up son?” her mother reminded her, and briefly Saki wished she’d never mentioned Kyō in her mother’s hearing.

“You like to say that Arisa and I raised Tōru ourselves,” she rebutted, in turn. Her mother rolled her eyes to the heavens and shook her head.

“I see there’s no argument I can make to persuade you,” she acknowledged. “Maybe that’s a good sign. Just know, sweetheart, you can always come to me.”

“I know, Mama.” A pause ensued. “You know, Kyō was adopted. Kazuma took him in after his parents...abandoned him.”

The words were precisely calculated to play to her mother’s sympathies, and had the added benefit of being completely true. True to form, her mother was struck by compassion for Kyō and a sudden uptick in her approval of Kazuma. Surely a man who could adopt an orphaned cousin out of the kindness of his heart could be trusted with her daughter’s fragile one.

When she left her parent’s house that evening, Saki left behind a mother who heartily endorsed her engagement and a father who had at least consented to give his blessing.

Megumi was almost entirely ambivalent, and professed that he’d be keeping an eye on his sister’s husband, come Hell or high water.

It was, Saki thought with some satisfaction, about as much as she could hope for.

 

When he got home, he could smell dinner cooking, and he smiled.

Saki had not been, when they met, at all the sort of woman he would have pegged as a talented cook and housekeeper, but her passion for good food and preference for tidiness and cleanliness gave her the inspiration to excel. A meticulous personality paired well with her work ethic, and he was eternally grateful for all she did in her professional capacity in their home.

Thankfully, he no longer had to toe the boundaries of professionalism with her, and he came up behind her at the stove to press a kiss to her cheek.

“My parents approve,” she told him, by way of a greeting. “Megumi promises, for the moment, not to curse you.”

“I, uh, I spoke to my parents today as well,” he admitted, and Saki turned her dark eyes on him in surprise.

“How did that go?” she asked, cautious.

“About as well as could be expected. They were pretty ambivalent, but they’d like to meet you.”

Saki hummed and went back to stirring the soup. “I wonder if we’ll get along at all.”

“I don’t know,” Kazuma told her, quite readily. “I barely get along with them. It seemed to me like they might deserve a second chance, though.”

“When we have children, they should at least know their grandparents,” Saki commented, and then she corrected herself with a flush of uncertainty; “If. If we have children.”

Kazuma wrapped his arms around her waist and smiled at the sliver of reddened cheek she hadn’t quite managed to turn away. “Do you want them?”

“I do, I think.”

“And so do I.” He let his eyes close, savored the smell of the curry on the stove and the warmth of her body in his arms. Savored the hope of a bigger family, of raising more children into this world he loved. “When.”

“When,” Saki echoed, with a smile on her face.

 

Kyō and Tōru were already planning to visit a few weeks after Saki’s birthday, so it was decided that they’d receive the news in person rather than by phone, which, Saki thought, was fitting under the circumstances. Of all the people who deserved to have time and space to discuss his reaction with the involved parties, Kyō was certainly most important, and would also be the one with the most to say. That wasn’t to say that Saki wasn’t gleefully looking forward to that first reaction, their history being what it was.

“I thought this was your room?” Kyō said, standing at the doorway of the room he and Tōru would share, and frowning.

“It was,” Saki confirmed, revealing nothing in her tone or expression. Her stomach churned with giddy, slightly malicious anticipation as she readied the punchline. “I sleep over there now.” Her arms were full of futon, so she was able only to gesture with her head, nodding at the door that had been Kazuma’s as long as Kyō had known him.

“Where does Shishou sleep?” was his next question, and with a quickly smothered smirk Saki simply raised a single brow in Kyō’s direction. No matter how badly he wanted to, even he wasn’t thick enough to misconstrue that, and he started to sputter most satisfactorily. Saki let herself grace him with a single, beatific smile, before she set to laying out the spare futon.

He was still sputtering as he followed her back into the kitchen, where Tōru and Kazuma were chatting politely over cups of tea. “Shishou!” he exclaimed, sounding very much the wounded child. “Really?”

“Hm?” His father glanced up, took in his son’s clear distress and his fiancée’s satisfied smile. “Oh. Yes, we’re getting married.”

“I hadn’t mentioned that part yet,” Saki told him, still bubbling with amusement as Kyō lowered himself to sit at Tōru’s side, his head laid on crossed arms. “Just the sleeping arrangements.” She fetched another two cups to the table, and once Kazuma poured, set one in front of the red-haired stormcloud.

“Married?” Tōru asked, taken aback but clearly pleased. “That’s wonderful, Hana-chan! Does Uo-chan know, yet? Do you know when the wedding will be?”

“No and no,” Saki answered, sipping her tea and settling herself beside Kazuma. “I’ve called her, but only got her voicemail.”

“She and Kureno-san have been very busy with their jobs,” Tōru explained. “She called me a week or so ago, and it all sounds very hectic!”

“So much for her peaceful country life,” Kyō groaned, into the tabletop. Tōru absently reached out to pet the back of his head, and Saki stifled a smile in her teacup.

“Kyōn-kishi, cat master,” she remarked aloud, and had the great satisfaction of seeing him bristle and look up at her, instantly wary.

“Don’t tease him, Saki,” Kazuma admonished her, gently, and she grinned at him, though only for a moment.

“Hana-chan,” Tōru began, “Did Kazuma-san tell you…?”

“I did,” Kazuma said, in Saki’s stead.

“Oi,” Kyō complained, not really angry. “Is there no privacy?”

“It hardly matters now,” Saki told him. “Besides, nearly every one of my friends was wrapped up in it in some way or another. It’s simpler that way.”

“Uo-chan probably knows as well,” Tōru piped in, unexpectedly. “She mentioned something to me. I’m not sure, but Kureno-san might well have told her.”

Kyō made an unhappy murmur, not articulate but still communicating a world of meaning, and Saki felt a certain sympathy for him. The curse had been his most closely guarded secret, and he must have felt that both his family and his personal history were being stripped away from him at this moment.

There was nothing she could do about that, really. There were a myriad other ways he could choose to identify himself, and frankly it was probably healthy for him to realize, as he eventually would, that a new family member wouldn’t take his father’s love away. Not even a romantic partner,  such as he’d never known his father to have. She had always known that Kyō would come anywhere from first to third in Kazuma’s immediate priorities, depending on circumstance, and was perfectly amenable to being shunted down that list in his favor, if it was needed. A child was a child, and she expected no less of the man she loved than that he be as dedicated and doting a father as he always had been.

It would take time for Kyō to recognize that, it seemed. But he would get there, and until then, she had some new step-mother jokes to play.

 

The wedding was small and relatively informal, precisely as they wished it to be. Her family was there, alongside a slew of students, current and former, and a smattering of interested Sōma, including his parents. They accepted their well-wishes and retreated gladly to the otherwise empty dojo, the better to start their married life.

After a semi-delirious week of privacy and passion, Kunimitsu returned, classes began again, and life went back to the routine it had followed for nearly two years. Kazuma gardened, taught, and wrestled with the business side of owning and operating a school. Saki kept house and began teaching her own lessons, of a kind, to the boys in their care. Their friends came and went, some staying days at a time, others weeks, and time grew up around them without warning. Tōru married Kyō the year after their own wedding, Akito and Shigure welcomed twin girls, Hatsuharu and Rin moved in together, and a passel of Saki’s old classmates married and started families. The school did well and their personal happiness grew richer with age. And then, about three years into their married life, change came again.

Lying in their bed, one night in April, Saki sighed, and found the words she’d been looking for all day. “We’re going to have a baby,” she told her drowsy husband. “I went to the doctor last week. Today they called. We’re having a baby.”

Kazuma had known for about eighteen hours that he was becoming a father again when Kyō sat down across from him, heaved in an ominous breath, and said, “Tōru’s pregnant.”

For a moment it didn’t quite percolate, this thought of his son and his son’s wife having a child of their own, technically a grandchild, occupied as he was with the existential shock of having a baby on the way himself. Slowly, though, he nodded, smiled. It was very important that in this moment he be Kyō’s father, he knew, and so he had to be calm, and steady, and excited for him and for Tōru.

“I’m so happy for you,” he said, and it was absolutely true. “You’re going to be a wonderful father.”

“I’m completely freaking out,” Kyō overruled, running his fingers through his hair. “We’ve been married for two years. Isn’t it too soon?”

“That depends,” Kazuma said, slowly. “Do you want children?”

“Yeah,” Kyō admitted, “I just...I don’t know. Am I supposed to be terrified?”

“Well.” The cup of tea he’d been drinking was tepid in Kazuma’s hand, but he took a sip anyway, to give himself space to think. “I wasn’t terrified to adopt you. But I am terrified now.”

His son gave him the most astonishing blank look, one totally devoid of comprehension, and it warmed his heart a little. He’d worn the same one the first time Kazuma had said that he loved him, and then it had broken his heart, but years had softened that memory with intervening joy. “Saki is also pregnant,” he explained, in his most soothing tone. “So we’re in a very similar situation, I think.”

Kyō blinked, frowned. “Holy shit,” he declared. “When is she due?”

“November.”

Whatever reaction Kazuma was expecting, it wasn’t a snort of disbelieving laughter. “No way,” he denied, “So’s Tōru. Your kid and your grandkid are going to be exactly the same age.”

They had a good laugh over that, and joked a little about their wives’ friendship and whether perhaps Arisa was also two months along and when would they hear about it if she were, and by the time their laughter had subsided Kyō had found his way back to nerves.

“I don’t know how to be a dad,” he confessed. “I mean...you were a good father, but when I was really little...I don’t know what dads are supposed to do. And neither does Tōru, really.”

“I’m not entirely certain myself,” Kazuma told his son. “You were old enough when you first came to me that I never really had to do anything but try to keep you happy. You were already a formed person. I never heard your first words or taught you to walk. All the best advice I could give you would be for dealing with a teenager. We’ll both be improvising.” He shrugged, and then let himself blow out a long, sighing breath, trying to drive away the anxious tension that had bloomed in his stomach when he learned about the baby.

Kyō frowned and leaned in. “You’re freaking out, too,” he realized, with an unflattering amazement.

“There is a very large difference between bringing a six-year-old home and watching your wife give birth,” Kazuma said, abstractly. “I think perhaps I had forgotten that.”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Kyō groaned. “Like, I want kids, but I don’t want Tōru to have to...”

“Precisely.” Father and son exchanged a loaded look.

A long, pensive moment passed in silence, before Kyō sighed himself. “She’s so happy about it,” he mused, “The baby, I mean. And I wonder if she hasn’t thought about the danger, or if she doesn’t care.”

“Many women have babies every day and live to tell about it,” Kazuma assured his son, although his thoughts had certainly been running along a similar vein. “And there’s no longer any danger of the curse, which is certainly something.”

“Jeez,” Kyo snorted, “I hadn’t even thought about that. Why did any of the Sōma ever have kids?”

“Because our drive to propagate the species is stronger than our rational minds, I imagine.” Kazuma allowed himself a small smile. “And children are a great joy, whether we experience the anxiety of their birth or not.”

“See, you’re already all wise and shit,” Kyō pointed out, “You’re gonna be fine. I’m the one who has no idea what they’re doing.”

“You will be fine,” Kazuma declared, and knew it was true. “And if you need to talk, I will always be here.”

Kyō smiled, scratched his head. “Yeah,” he sighed, “Same goes for you, Shishou.”

“You will always be my first son,” Kazuma said, very serious. “I love you, Kyō.”

Pregnancy was not all it was cracked up to be, in Saki’s opinion. True, she was nowhere near far enough along to feel the baby move or be in any other way concretely aware of its presence, but so far pregnancy seemed to be mostly about nausea.

Nausea was her new, omnipresent companion, following her from their room to the kitchen, down the halls through the day, even to the market. Every food smell was intolerable, though she never lost her stomach, and she was unreasonably tired at all hours. Kazuma was a constantly concerned presence, fussing over her whenever she let him, and she let him more often than she might have done in the past. There was a visceral joy in being cared for when she was so thoroughly entrenched in malaise, and she found it easier than she ever had before to allow that caring to happen.

Maybe it was the baby. Maybe she’d convinced herself on some level that if he was taking care of her, he was actually taking care of their child. It was true, in a sense, and explained why she felt none of her usual unease around being coddled.

Or perhaps she’d finally healed enough to simply accept his affection as her due, just as hers was his.

Her unpleasant experience was all the more frustrating when compared with Tōru’s, since her best friend was experiencing hardly any nausea and very little fatigue. Kazuma’s mother had informed her that her distress meant she was carrying a boy, while Tōru must be having a girl, but her own mother had shaken her head at that. “You were the difficult one in the womb,” she’d said. “Megumi was a perfect angel by comparison.”

That indicated to Saki that her child, male or female, was setting the stage to become just as willful and difficult as she herself was, and couldn’t help but remember her mother’s oft-repeated, exasperated words. Perhaps they’d come to pass, and Saki was indeed destined to have children just like herself.

A gentle wave of nausea assailed her, and she heaved a breath against the smell of cooking rice. At least genetics ensured that this baby would have to have some aspects of its father.

 

When Kyō called in a panic not ten minutes after Saki had begun feeling contractions, Kazuma cast his eyes up to heaven and wondered what deity, precisely, had been tossing the dice in his life. His son was at the hospital, evidently, and had been temporarily banished from Tōru’s side. Saki quite calmly took the phone away from her own, not precisely composed husband, and began asking questions in a measured tone of voice. She chopped off a sentence with a brief groan as another spasm raked through her back, and Kazuma took the phone back as she gripped his hand.

“We’re actually preparing to leave for the hospital ourselves,” he informed his son, gathering Saki in to lean against him as the contraction passed. “I’m afraid you were right about these children, they are going to be precisely the same age.”

“Oh, jeez,” Kyō groaned. “Alright, I can see the nurse waving at me. I’ll call back when there’s news.”

“As will I,” Kazuma agreed. Kunimitsu appeared at the kitchen door, jangling his car keys and looking exceedingly pale. “Our ride is leaving,” he told his son. “I love you, Kyō.”

“Love you too, Shishou,” Kyō replied, sounding distracted, and hung up.

Saki let out a long, deep sigh, and pressed her face more closely into Kazuma’s shoulder. “You know,” she said, “I once joked that I was apprehensive about giving birth to such a large child, because of our age difference, you see. I don’t think I realized that any sized child seems unreasonably large when you’re actually going into labor.”

“When was that?” Kazuma asked, hefting her bag and helping her walk out to the waiting car.

“Oh, in high school,” she quipped offhand, and once again Kazuma found himself wondering what his life would have been if she’d ever wavered from her steadfast desire to be with him. Certainly he would not be preparing to welcome a child into the world. He might never have married at all. What an incredible loss it would have been, never to know all the happiness and terror that was life with Saki.

“Oh,” Saki said, breathlessly, and her fingers clenched hard against his, her face suddenly parchment white. “We need to go, now.”

In the car, they called her parents, and his, and Arisa, and Saki held his hand and grew increasingly quiet and inward-seeming. It had been a very long since there had been silence between them, the lack of speech still a cacophony of breath and smile and heartbeat, but there was silence now, a new kind of silence. The silence that comes just before the downbeat, the silence of a new thing about to be unleashed.

Saki opened her eyes and smiled at him, as they pulled up in front of the hospital. “I love you,” he said, quiet, scared, more unsure than he’d been at any time since that first confrontation.

“I love you,” his wife agreed. “Let’s go in.”