“...and it really means a lot to me to be getting this job,” said Ryuu in his most plausible tones. “I’m excited to start working.”
The manager of Burger Buddy’s gave him a jaded look. Clearly he’d heard it all before, didn’t believe it, and didn’t care. Ryuu didn’t mind. He’d gotten the job and that was all that mattered. No one could really expect him to enjoy slinging fries at a second-rate fast food joint, but it was something to do for a few afternoons until he’d built some savings up again. He’d recently blown most of what he had on a new state-of-the-art video game system and some games, and now he needed a little something extra to finance his social life.
“Whatever,” said the manager. “Come on. I’ll get you your uniform and you can change.”
Ryuu nodded, still playing the part of the keen new hire, and trailed after his new boss. They crossed the eating area where they’d been concluding the job interview, past the disinterested looks of a few parents buying Baby Buddy Meals for their tots, the college students who’d come in for cheap sustenance (and possibly the toys that came in the Baby Buddy Meals), and a couple of business suit types who clearly were not on an expense account. They walked through the steamy kitchen area where the cooks were busy dishing out burgers and fries, and then all the way into a narrow back area that seemed to be part storage room and part employee locker room. Ryuu looked around with vague interest. He’d never been in the back of a restaurant like this before. No doubt it would soon become all too familiar.
The manager began rummaging around in a closet, at last pulling out something that was... pink. Very pink. Large and fluffy and pink. Ryuu stared at it. All right, he liked pink - he was man enough to admit that - and he didn’t mind wearing it most of the time, but this was... well, a bit more pink than he was ready to handle all at one go.
“That’s a rabbit suit,” he said.
“Right,” said the boss, giving him a look that suggested he was dealing with an idiot. “What did you think it was going to be?”
“I thought you were just getting me an apron and a name tag!”
“Well, you’re getting this,” the man said. “We need somebody to stand outside in this suit and play Buddy the Burger Bunny, and everyone else is doing something more important, so we usually hire a school kid to take on the job. Look, it’s easy. Just wear the costume, wave at people as they go by, try to get people’s attention. I’ll give you some coupons and things you can hand out to anyone who looks like they might use ‘em, and some coloring books and stuff for the kiddies.”
“Um,” said Ryuu, who was having second thoughts about this whole thing. All right, so he needed the money. The job did sound as though it would be fairly easy to do, and the pay wasn’t bad. It was just the principle of the thing. Ryuu was cool. He was suave. He was even, he liked to think, a bit of a bad boy at times. He was not someone who would voluntarily dress up as a fluffy pink bunny.
The boss gave him a look. “You want a job or not?”
Ryuu did. He forced himself to nod and put on an amenable, if not exactly cheerful, expression.
“Sure,” he said. “Just show me where to get changed.”
After all, he told himself, he’d have a costume on, one that would cover him from head to toe, and mascots weren’t allowed to talk. No one was going to recognize him if they couldn’t see him or hear his voice. He could put up with it for a couple of weeks, long enough to save up some cash, and then he’d quit. Surely it couldn’t be so bad.
Cars rolled by. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny, and the people of Binan were out doing things. Some of them were even walking past Burger Buddy’s.
Ryuu wished he had a way of wiping his forehead without taking off the rabbit mask. It might be pleasantly warm outside, but inside the fluffy costume, it was stifling.
Can’t break character, though. There was a bit of the showman in Ryuu’s mental makeup, and he felt that if he was going to play a part, no matter how silly, he needed to do it right. Every time a car trundled past or a group of people walked by, he danced and capered and waved as though luring customers into this haven of starch, salt, and grease was his life’s greatest mission.
He had been clowning around for the entertainment of a few passing school kids when he caught a glimpse of someone familiar out of the corner of his eye. At least, he glimpsed something at the edge of the eye-holes of his costume, which was a pretty limited view. Nevertheless, Ryuu managed to get himself turned around enough that he could see what he now recognized was indisputably Yufuin En shambling through the restaurant door.
Huh. I didn’t know he ate here. On those occasions when the Earth Defense Club went out for burgers, they always went to the Burger Basket, which had better food and was nearer to the school, and which more importantly didn’t plaster pictures of a silly pink bunny rabbit on everything. Curious, Ryuu let himself back into the building. For one thing, the air conditioning was blasting away in there. Ryuu did a bit more capering, which had the double result of getting some cool air circulating around him while bringing him closer to the checkout desk.
“...and, um...” En was consulting a lengthy list. “...ten Baby Buddy Burgers with cheese and ten without, and five of the ones without cheese have to be with no pickle too. Twenty small fries, seven orders of onion rings, eight Chicky Chicken Nugget meals...”
Ryuu began to see daylight. The other day, En had mentioned that a young relative of his was having a birthday party, and En had been roped into assisting. Clearly the little princess was having a more extensive bash than Ryuu had comprehended, he thought, as he listened to En continuing to read out his list. He wondered if En had known what he was getting into before he let himself get roped into this. Probably not.
“...six vanilla shakes, and, um, three dozen chocolate chip cookies,” said En. “I think that’s it.”
The cashier gave him a worried look. “That order is going to take some time to complete, sir.”
“Suits me,” said En. “The more time I spend here, the less time I have to spend stopping a bunch of hyped-up kids from killing each other and listening to little Mika scream because they won’t let her open her presents yet.”
The cashier nodded with a look of fellow feeling and started going over the totals. En turned over a fistful of cash. Transaction concluded, En went to find the most quiet of the tables and settled down for what he probably hoped would be a nap. He leaned forward on the table, found that its edge was digging into his stomach, then tried leaning back and discovered the back of the chair was too low to accommodate a proper lean. He attempted to lean against the wall and found himself sliding inexorably across the chair’s slippery seat. Ryuu took pity on him. He danced his way over to where En sat, then bent low over him and flapped a paw to get his attention.
“Huh?” said En fuzzily. “Oh, hey, Mister Bunny Rabbit. Something wrong?”
Ryuu began making emphatic “come here” gestures.
“You want me to follow you?” En guessed.
Ryuu nodded as hard as he could, making his ears bob up and down. He backed up a few steps and continued beckoning.
En hauled himself to his feet and began trailing bemusedly after Ryuu. Perhaps he thought he was about to be led down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, or at least to a place where there were no children’s birthday parties. Ryuu couldn’t oblige him there, but he could show En the way to the staff breakroom. It wasn’t much, just a grungy room with a folding table and an assortment of secondhand chairs, where the staff kept their things and hid out during breaks, but at least it was quiet and the chairs in there had actually been meant to be sat in. En brightened as though he’d seen the promised land.
“Thanks, Mr. Bunny,” said En, flopping into the most comfortable of the chairs. “I owe you one.”
Ryuu held up his hands in a gesture he hoped conveyed, “No problem at all, always happy to help a customer,” and scuttled off towards the manager’s office.
“You’re not allowed to bring customers into the break room,” was the manager’s instant response.
“He’s fine; he’s an old buddy of mine, and he just wants a place to nap while they cook his food,” said Ryuu. “Did I mention he just ordered more food at one go than we usually sell all day?”
The manager considered this.
“Fine,” he said at last, “but if he steals anything it’s coming out of your paycheck.”
“He won’t steal anything,” said Ryuu. “But he is probably going to need some help carrying all that junk back to wherever he’s taking it, so I was wondering...”
That was how, a few minutes later, Ryuu strolled into a birthday party with his arms laden down with bags of junk food. The party was already in full swing, which in this case meant that every surface of a small suburban yard was covered with all the pink streamers, pink glitter, pink balloons, and pink gauze that it would hold. It also meant that a small girl in a princess costume was lying on the ground and bawling something that sounded like “Ah wanna prezzah mine mine mine ah wanna wanna prezzah wanna...” She broke off immediately upon seeing Ryuu set down his load of goodies.
“Bunny!” she shrieked, all her distress evaporating in the face of something pink and fluffy. She hurled herself at him, and Ryuu had just enough time to catch stop her from depositing a load of tears and snot on his fluffy costume.
“I’m so sorry,” said her mother,” as Ryuu knelt and began dabbing the little girl’s face clean with a french-fry scented napkin. “She’s a little overstimulated, and she gets cranky when she hasn’t eaten.”
Ryuu pantomimed that this was perfectly understandable and that he really didn’t mind having small children fling themselves at him. Actually, he didn’t. He was generally pretty good with kids. Even now, he’d attracted a small crowd of them, all apparently delighted at having a pink bunny joining their party.
Guess this is my good deed for the day, Ryuu thought, as he played peekaboo with the now-smiling birthday girl. En was certainly looking less hassled.
Anyway, En’s family tipped handsomely, so by Ryuu’s measure, the day was a success.
Io strolled absently down the sidewalk, vaguely pondering what he wanted to have for dinner. There was nothing else more interesting to think about at the moment. He understood Ryuu’s desire to have an after-school job, and even approved of him taking some fiscal responsibility. What he didn’t like was not having his best friend around when he wanted him. Io had to admit that even when he complained about Ryuu’s idea of a good time, having Ryuu around always made life more interesting. Ryuu would have had definite ideas about where they should eat dinner, and they would have been fun, trendy, off the beaten path, or all three at once. Io tended to default to “economical” which was probably wiser in the long run but not as entertaining.
Anyway, it’s not the same without Ryuu around to talk to...
He pulled his mind away from that melancholy thought. Ryuu’s shift would be over shortly and then they could do something fun together - watch a video, maybe, or even try some video games. Io was not particularly good at video games, but he didn’t mind watching Ryuu and cheering him on while he played.
Dinner, he told himself sternly. You need to eat, so make up your mind. He toyed with the possibilities. The most sensible option would be to eat at home, but he hadn’t done the grocery shopping yet, which meant his options there were limited, and anyway cooking would take up time. He could dine out somewhere, but he wasn’t sure how to justify the expense, even to himself. If Ryuu had been there, he could have at least excused it by telling himself Ryuu had refused to take no for an answer...
He sighed. It was going to be a long few weeks until Ryuu got tired of this after-school job business.
He was jolted from his lonely thoughts by the intrusion of a large pink rabbit into his field of vision. Io blinked, wondering if he had been dithering over dinner so long that low blood sugar was making him hallucinate, or if some new alien threat was cooking up some very strange monsters indeed. Then he came fully back to reality and realized he was standing outside a fast food restaurant, and the rabbit was only Buddy the Burger Bunny. Io smiled.
“Hello, Mister Bunny,” he said. “I was just trying to decide what to have for dinner. I suppose you have an opinion on the subject.”
The rabbit nodded. It thrust a hand into the pocket of its colorful jacket and pulled out a fistful of papers. It riffled through them, selected the ones it wanted, and thrust them at Io.
“Thank you,” said Io automatically, and looked them over. They were coupons for free food and drinks at the restaurant they were standing outside. Io smiled.
“You make a persuasive argument,” he said. “Well, I never argue with free food. Thank you very much.”
He strolled inside and ordered a meal. After a few bites, he decided that it actually wasn’t half bad. Anyway, it was oddly entertaining, sitting there watching the pink rabbit capering around and occasionally handing more coupons or coloring books to passers-by.
For some reason, Io didn’t feel so lonely anymore.
Ryuu waved cheerfully to the little girl he’d just given a coloring book, and watched her go skipping up the sidewalk with her treasure clutched to her chest.
I think I’m getting the hang of this mascot business, he thought. Even if he did feel footsore and sweaty at the end of the day, well, that was what the Kurotama was for, right? The job was fun, and once he got over the embarrassment, a lot better than banging a cash register or flipping burgers all day.
The restaurant was situated on a corner, so that Ryuu could occasionally get a change of scenery by walking around from one side to another. It helped that there was a large electronics store across the street from one side of the building, and the window usually offered a view of a large-screen TV playing the latest DVD release. It wasn’t as entertaining without the sound, but it was something to help pass the time. Ryuu decided to wander over that direction now, to see if anyone had changed the film yet.
As he walked, he overheard a voice. It wasn’t a clear voice - it was keeping its tone low, but even through the fluff of his mask, Ryuu could tell it wasn’t a happy voice. It was also a familiar one. Ryuu walked a little faster, moving towards the sound of the disturbance.
“Keep your hands off me, you cretins! Do you have any idea who I am?”
“Yeah, we know. You’re from that big finance family. Got any cash on you?”
“No, I do not! Leave me alone!”
“Well, you’re bound to have something we might like. Let’s see what’s in your purse, there, pretty boy...”
Ryuu scanned his surroundings and finally caught sight of four people just out of sight in a shadowy alley nearby. Three of them were unfamiliar to him. The fourth had long pink hair, big blue eyes, and an expression of mixed fury and fear. Ryuu felt his blood begin to boil. He never would have admitted to liking Akoya, at least not aloud, but he did feel a certain possessiveness about him. That was his rival, and no one should be allowed to pick on Akoya but him. Anyway, Akoya was always so proud and poised. It was wrong to see him frightened like this.
I hate people who think ‘pretty boy’ is an insult. Ryuu had heard it one too many times aimed at himself.
The trio of goons had Akoya backed against a wall now. It was stupid of them, Ryuu thought, to back him into a corner that way. Push him just a little further and they might find themselves suddenly dealing with an extremely angry man with a magic sword. It was tempting to just stand back and let it happen, but the way that one guy was trying to put his paws on Akoya suggested that waiting around probably wouldn’t be the best idea.
“You know, you’re too pretty to be a boy,” said one of the goons, attempting to stroke Akoya’s cheek. “Maybe instead of giving us money, you should give us some...”
Whatever he was going to say remained mercifully unsaid, because Akoya had just spat in his face and kicked him sharply in the groin. At the same time, Ryuu stepped up behind one of the other men and tapped him on the shoulder. The man turned around and found himself looking into the smiling face of a fluffy pink bunny.
“What in the...” he began, and got no further before one mittened fist slammed into his nose.
A few minutes later, Ryuu and Akoya strolled out of the alley together, casually putting their clothes or costume back in order.
“That was highly entertaining,” said Akoya, “I’ve never seen anyone run screaming from a pink bunny rabbit before.”
Ryuu contrived to indicate without words that it was all part of the job. Akoya flashed him a sunny smile.
“Keeping your identity a secret?” he said. “I suppose that’s fair. Well, I’m sure I could have handled the situation myself, but I’m grateful to you nonetheless.” He kissed the nose of the rabbit mask and laughed. “My hero.”
He sauntered down the street again, humming cheerfully to himself. Ryuu watched him go, glad that no one could see him grinning stupidly. After all, it was nice to be kissed, even with a mask on, and Akoya was very pretty. Besides, someday he could tell Akoya exactly who had been earing the bunny costume.
This job really is fun, he thought.
Kinshiro was in one of his moods. This was not uncommon, something Arima knew better than almost anyone. He’d been in fewer of those moods ever since he and Atsushi had reconciled, but Kinshiro was still fundamentally a very sensitive person, and that meant that sometimes things were just going to rub him the wrong way. Today had been one of those days. A traffic accident near his home had made him late for class, a teacher had lectured him for something that another student had done, an administrator had lost an important piece of paperwork Kinshiro had submitted earlier in the month which was going to cause no end of problems, and the electric kettle in the student council room had shorted out when Arima had tried to start the tea. In summary, Kinshiro might have sworn off world-conquering, but today he might have been persuaded to start again if anyone had made him an offer.
I wish there was something I could do to lift his mood, Arima thought, as the two of them walked down the sidewalk. At least, Arima was walking. Kinshiro was striding his “marching off to battle” stride, the one that meant the first person he encountered who irritated him was going to get the full force of his wrath.
“What a crass display,” Kinshiro muttered. “I don’t think that sort of thing should be allowed on a public street, do you?”
Arima looked up. Just across the street was a hamburger restaurant, the one with the rather regrettably colored rabbit as a mascot. Someone in a bunny costume was standing outside it now, flopping its ears and waggling its tail at any nearby pedestrians. Arima, generous soul that he was, found it rather charming.
“You know,” he said, “my parents used to bring me to Burger Buddy’s when I was very small, usually when we were on business trips and wanted a quick bite to eat. I always looked forward to it. I think I still have some of the toys I got from the children’s meals.”
To his surprise, Kinshiro’s expression went from murderous to slightly sheepish. He mumbled something.
“What was that?” Arima asked.
“I said, I went there with Atsushi a few times. When we were young,” he added quickly, as though Arima might have suspected that the Student Council President had been sneaking off lately to eat hamburgers in secret.
“Ahh,” said Arima, smiling slightly. “I’ll bet it was fun... when you were young, of course.”
“You wouldn’t dream of doing something like that now that you’re an adult.”
“It would be quite unbecoming.”
Arima was aware that Buddy the Burger Bunny had been watching the two of them intently from across the street. He found himself wondering just how good the hearing of those fluffy ears was. Could he have possibly heard them talking from all the way across the street? He might have, for he was now gesturing for the two of them to come closer. Arima glanced at Kinshiro for instructions.
“I think it wants to talk to us,” said Arima.
Kinshiro scoffed. “Don’t be silly. Mascots don’t talk.”
“Then I think it wants to mime to us,” said Arima. “Or perhaps it wants us to talk to it. I think I’ll go find out.”
He strolled across the street, and Kinshiro trailed reluctantly after him. The rabbit made enthusiastic gestures until they were within reach. Once they were close enough, it thrust a paw into its pockets and produced two coupons, which it handed to Arima with a flourish. Arima read them.
“Free Baby Buddy Meal with purchase of ice cream,” he read. “Ah. Dinner and dessert, is that it?”
Buddy the Burger Bunny made a “take it as you will” gesture.
“Thank you,” said Kinshiro, “but I really don’t...”
“The toys this month are from that robot anime Atsushi likes so much,” said Arima.
Kinshiro wavered visibly. “How do you know?”
“I know lots of things,” said Arima, who’d glimpsed the advertisement on TV that morning while his father watched the news. He preferred, however, to maintain his air of generalized omniscience. “Anyway, you like ice cream, and you deserve a treat after a day like this.”
“Well...” said Kinshiro, clearly torn. “All right. I suppose it would be rude to turn down a gift.”
Arima beamed. “That’s the spirit!”
A few minutes later, they were sitting at one of the brightly colored tables inside, nibbling french fries and pieces of something that was probably chicken. Actually, Arima decided, they were rather tasty in their unsubtle sort of way. Kinshiro didn’t seem to be objecting to his food either, possibly because he was too busy contemplating the small plastic robot that had come with his meal.
“Do you think Atchan would be affronted if I gave this to him?” he asked.
“I can’t imagine why,” said Arima.
“Well, I did get it for free...”
“It’s the thought that counts,” said Arima firmly. “Anyway, he likes robots. I don’t think he’ll care where you got it from.”
“You could be right,” said Kinshiro. The thought seemed to cheer him. He took a bite of his hamburger. “You know, this isn’t actually so bad when you get used to it.”
“They are known for their addictive qualities,” said Arima. He smiled. “I’m sure Kinugawa likes them, too. Perhaps you should invite him here at some point.”
“You really think he’d accept?” asked Kinshiro, surprised. “He wouldn’t be offended I’d invite him somewhere so... I mean, he knows I can afford better than...”
“Why not?” Arima said. “I have noticed that for all his fine qualities, he is a humble man. He appreciates the simple things in life.”
“That’s true,” said Kinshiro. He took another bite and chewed it over thoughtfully before adding, “Perhaps I’ll sound him out on the idea.”
Arima smiled. It was good to see his dearest friend thinking about good things in the future instead of dwelling on the unpleasant things that had already happened today. It was amazing how quickly he’d relaxed.
When we leave, he decided, I am going to have to thank that rabbit.
Io had wandered past Burger Buddy’s again. He wasn’t sure why; it wasn’t something he had decided on consciously. He had just been on his way home from school, had stopped at a convenience store to pick up one or two things he’d missed when he’d done the groceries, and then somehow instead of walking home as he’d intended, he’d drifted over this way instead. Something inside him had simply said “Go there,” and his feet had listened without consulting his brain.
The pink rabbit was still cutting his capers outside the building. Io watched him for a while. He gave coloring books and crayons to the children without fail. To the adults, he passed out flyers and occasionally handed over coupons, and Io wondered how he was making his decisions about who got what. Usually no one got more than one coupon if they got one at all, and yet Io recalled having been handed a whole fistful. He wondered why.
Perhaps it was just getting close to his shift and he had a lot of leftovers to get rid of, he mused. Still, it would be interesting to try the experiment. He allowed himself to wander closer to the restaurant and waited to see if he was noticed.
He was. The rabbit had been in the middle of showing off for a couple of giggling secretarial-looking women who’d been taking pictures of him with their phones, but he broke it off when he saw Io and hurried over to him. Io found himself smiling. He couldn’t really see any expression behind that mask, but he had the oddest feeling that the rabbit was glad to see him.
“Hello again, Mister Rabbit,” said Io politely.
Buddy the Burger Bunny waved at him. Once again, the pink paw went into a pocket and came up with a handful of coupons, which he pressed into Io’s hand. Io looked down at them. There looked to be about ten of them.
“Well, thank you very much!” he said. “You didn’t have to do that.”
The rabbit patted his shoulder and gave him what looked like it might have been an “OK” sign if it hadn’t been made by a pink mitten. Then the rabbit quickly hopped off again, leaving Io holding his handful of coupons. He watched the rabbit saunter over to his next customer. There was something about the way it walked that seemed oddly familiar.
If I didn’t know better, Io thought, I’d swear that was...
He shook his head. It couldn’t be. Ryuu would never sink to that level. He was too conscious of his image to stoop to dressing as a pink bunny every afternoon. Still, Io hadn’t seen him working anywhere else and he had to be somewhere, and he had been awfully quiet about where he’d been working...
No. It couldn’t be.
Still, Io reflected, as he strolled up the street, it was nice to feel someone liked him, even if they were a fluffy bunny.
Aki and Haru were attempting to be incognito. It wasn’t always easy. For one thing, their non-standard school uniforms made them stand out, and all the students of Binan High and even the girls of their sister school Bijou High could spot them half a mile off when they were wearing them. For another, there weren’t but so many pairs of twins in the city, and very few people of any sort with their distinctive ice blue hair. That meant that if they wanted to go out in public and not be noticed, they had to change their entire look. That was easy in the wintertime, when they could bundle up in jackets or hoodies that would disguise their appearance. On a warm spring day like this, it was much harder. They were having to make do with sunglasses and caps pulled down low to cover their hair and hide their faces. It was just a matter of time before someone saw through that slender disguise. Once that happened, they would have to go into performance mode, so they were trying to enjoy their moment of freedom while it lasted.
“Hey, look,” said Haru. “Looks like someone has it figured out.”
“Hmm?” said Aki. He’d been composing some new lyrics in his head and hadn’t been paying attention to his surroundings.
“How to be famous and anonymous at the same time,” Haru clarified.
He pointed at something going on further up the street. Several college students, possibly slightly drunk, were clowning around with someone dressed in a pink rabbit costume, striking silly poses and taking pictures. The rabbit seemed to be taking it all with good grace.
“That’s true,” Aki allowed. “But you won’t see me wearing that getup.”
Haru nudged his brother. “Bet you’d look good in it. Yumoto would think you were adorable.”
“Don’t you start.”
“You’d never be able to pry him off you,” Haru sniggered.
“I said don’t start!”
“I’ll bet Gora-san would think you looked cute in a bunny suit.”
“Wear it yourself, then,” said Aki.
“Hm,” said Haru. “You know, I’ve got a better idea than that.”
Aki glanced at his twin. Haru nodded towards the man in the rabbit suit, then slipped his phone out of his pocket. The two of them locked eyes for a moment, and that was all it took. For the important things, the two of them seldom needed words.
A moment later, the Burger Bunny looked slightly surprised to find himself being approached by the two most popular performers in Japan.
“Hi,” said Aki, flashing his winning smile. “Mind if we snap a few photos?”
The bunny did not mind. In fact, he posed for a number of photos with each of the twins, both separately and together. When the twins posted them on their social media sites later that evening, the photos became some of the most popular they’d ever posted and were picked up by a number of news outlets. Apparently not even the power of the media could resist the combined power of the VEPPer and a cute fluffy bunny.
More importantly, Gora told them later that he’d seen the pictures and thought they were adorable, which definitely made it all worth the effort.
It was nearly quitting time. Ryuu was never quite sure whether his employers insisted on him getting off work before nightfall because they had a respect for his scholastic duties and need for a social life, or whether they just didn’t see the point in paying him after it got dark and he was harder to see. Either way, he was looking forward to the coming of evening and a chance to unwind for a while.
Even as he was thinking this, he caught a glimpse of a familiar figure wandering up the sidewalk. Ryuu instinctively withdrew a little. All right, so he was safe enough inside his costume, and yes, he’d run into Kusatsu Kinshiro before and had no trouble, and really he and Kinshiro got on reasonably well most of the time. It was just that Kinshiro was still the president of the Student Council, and he didn’t particularly approve of people at his school working after-school jobs. Anyway, last time there had been Arima to keep Kinshiro appeased. He was far more dangerous on his own, and more likely to start poking his nose into an innocent working rabbit’s business.
Like he would know anything about it. He can afford to take a date to dinner in Paris if he feels like it. I’m lucky to afford the bowling alley.
He decided the wisest course of action was to duck around the corner and hope he wasn’t spotted. After all, his boss would be coming out any minute now to let him know it was quitting time. He just had to stay low for a little while.
Suiting action to words, he danced his way around the side of the building and took shelter in the shadow of the children’s play area. He wasn’t likely to be spotted there, in the gathering dusk and with the shadows of the sliding board and jungle gym to keep him safe. He breathed a little easier.
And then perked up again as he noticed a familiar figure across the street. Atsushi had paused outside the window of a comic and collectible shop, and was apparently admiring some of the model building kits they had on sale. Ryuu watched him a moment, feeling a plan forming in his mind.
I think a distraction is just what I want right about now...
He waited for a break in the traffic before dashing across the street and grabbing Atsushi by the arm.
“What? Hey, cut that out!” Atsushi protested, as Ryuu began hauling him across the street. “Thanks, but I’ve already had dinner!”
Ryuu ignored this protest and kept pulling. His timing was perfect. He reached the other side of the street just as Kinshiro reached the corner. He gave Atsushi a little shove in Kinshiro’s direction.
“What the...?” Kinshiro yelped, as Atsushi nearly fell on him.
“Sorry, sorry!” Atsushi protested. And then, “Oh, it’s you, Kinchan. Sorry about that. I’m not sure what got into that rabbit.”
Kinshiro looked around, but the rabbit in question had sensibly taken himself out of sight.
“It does seem to be rather aggressive at marketing,” Kinshiro agreed. “But I’m glad I ran into you here. I was just heading to the library - I found a book I had sworn I’d turned in already, but it must have slipped out of my bag. Would you like to come with me? We could stop for a cup of coffee afterwards.”
“I’d like that,” said Atsushi, smiling warmly. “Maybe I can pick out a book or two while I’m there.”
The two of them strolled off together, chatting about books.
A moment later, Ryuu came out of the restaurant again, this time free of his costume. If he looked up the street, he could just make out two figures, one fair-haired, one dark, strolling side by side. He grinned.
Well, that’s got Kinshiro out of my hair at least. Not that I think he minds.
It was grocery shopping day.
Gora enjoyed grocery shopping. It got him out of the house, and Yumoto always took such visible pleasure in picking out what they were going to eat that week. It was always more or less the same thing he’d picked out last week, but Yumoto always got excited about it anyway. Now the two of them were strolling up the street, their arms full of shopping bags - meaning that Gora’s arms were full and Yumoto was bounding ahead with a single shopping bag containing the things that weren’t likely to break if he dropped them. Gora loved his brother with all his heart and soul, but he had learned his lesson when it came to letting Yumoto carry eggs.
Sure enough, as they were coming around a corner, Yumoto emitted a squeal and started to sprint forward. Gora freed a hand and grabbed him by the shirttail before he could get more than a few steps.
“Easy, there,” he said. “What did we talk about before? About being out walking?”
“That I shouldn’t just run off after things?” offered Yumoto, after a moment of intense thought.
“That’s right,” said Gora. Yumoto was a terrible runner-offer. He would chase after all sorts of things: dogs, cats, squirrels, flocks of pigeons, people he recognized, people he didn’t recognize but who looked friendly, bicycles, interesting cars, and food trucks. Sometimes he even caught them. Unfortunately, he tended not to look very hard at whatever was between him and whatever he was chasing, which in the past had led to such disasters as knocking over a little old lady, causing someone to drop a vase of flowers, and one incident where Gora had barely stopped him from running out in front of a car. “It’s dangerous to run off without looking where you’re going.”
“But I am looking where I’m going,” said Yumoto innocently. “I’m going to the bunny!”
He pointed, and Gora looked. Sure enough, there was a large pink bunny standing on the sidewalk, apparently handing out advertisements.
“You can go see the bunny,” said Gora, “but walk, all right?”
Yumoto nodded and began striding purposely towards the pink rabbit. Gora followed watchfully. While he personally found Yumoto’s boundless affection to be one of his greatest charms, he understood that not everyone was up to being enthusiastically hugged by a stranger. Still, he told himself, anyone who went out into public dressed in a bunny costume probably expected that sort of thing.
“Hi, Mister Bunny!” Yumoto called out, waving frantically as they drew near. “Oh, my gosh, you’re so cute! You look so fluffy!”
The rabbit seemed slightly startled by this outpouring of emotion from a boy old enough to be in high school. Nevertheless, he reached in his pockets and took out one of the small coloring books he’d been giving to the younger children. Yumoto was enchanted.
“Oh, wow, for me? Thanks!” he exclaimed. “Can I cuddle you?”
Gora began searching for a way to gently communicate that strangers didn’t always like being cuddled, and that anyway Yumoto’s idea of cuddling could get a bit rough for people who weren’t used to it. Before he could formulate a response, however, the rabbit was already nodding and kneeling down, spreading his paws wide in clear invitation. Yumoto squealed with delight and flung himself into the rabbit’s arms, buffeting him with a shopping bag in the process. The rabbit didn’t seem to mind. He allowed Yumoto a good long hug and a chance to burrow his face into the costume’s soft fur. Gora stood back and watched, warmed by the expression of sheer bliss on his brother’s face.
Eventually the rabbit seemed to decide that this had gone on long enough and gently pried Yumoto away. It gave him a pat on the head, then fished in a different pocket and took out some coupons, which it offered to Gora.
“Thanks very much,” said Gora. He really was grateful. His food budget only went so far, so coupons were always useful. “And thanks for playing with my brother. It really made his day.”
The rabbit somehow managed to convey that it had been nothing - indeed, he’d been happy to oblige.
Yumoto beamed up at his brother.
“I like this restaurant,” he said. “Any restaurant with a bunny is a good restaurant.”
Gora laughed. “Well, I’m pretty sure they ought to have food, too.”
“Well, they do,” said Yumoto. “Can we eat here tonight? Can we? Please?”
Gora shrugged. “Don’t see why not, seeing as how we’ve got all these coupons.”
“Yay!” Yumoto crowed. “I want one of those meals with a toy in them!”
“There isn’t very much food in those,” said Gora, as he ushered Yumoto inside. “You might want to get something else too.”
“Okay, but I still want a toy.”
“I’ll see what I can manage,” Gora promised.
In the end, they collected a few takeout bags to bring back home with them, so they wouldn’t have to worry about their groceries thawing while they ate. Yumoto pranced out of the building burbling with excitement, speculating about what sort of toy might be in his Baby Bunny Meal. Gora was mildly excited too, if only because he was going to get to eat a meal he hadn’t cooked himself for a change. On his way out, they passed the mascot again.
“Thanks again,” he said as he passed. He fumbled his shopping bags and takeout boxes until he could free a hand long enough to fish in his pockets and pull out a few Kurotama coupons. “Here’s something for you too.”
The bunny took them and saluted. Gora decided to take that as thanks. He walked home with a smile on his face.
I hope he uses them sometime. It’s got to be hard, sweaty work standing around in that costume all day. I wonder if I’d recognize him if he came in...
“...which is why public transportation is so weird,” En declared.
Io nodded, not really paying attention. He had come to the conclusion that he was never going to fully see the world from En’s point of view, and that was all right. It was entertaining sometimes just to get a different perspective on the world, even if that perspective didn’t always make a lot of sense to the fully rational mind.
At the moment, there were four of them: Atsushi, En, Yumoto, and Io himself, on their way to see a movie. The rest of the group had been invited, but the Student Council members had pleaded prior engagements, which Io suspected had just been a polite way of saying that they didn’t actually want to see Revenge of the Mutant Cyborgs from Space. The twins were busy rehearsing, but Io had a sneaking suspicion that they might have actually wanted to see the film and were too proud to say so. No doubt they’d watch it when it came out on video, probably in the Hakone’s living room wiht Gora’s homemade snacks to enliven the evening. Io felt they might have the right idea. Some movies were best when you watched them at home with friends who didn’t care if you made sarcastic remarks about the show’s lack of plot and cheap special effects, or if they threw popcorn at the screen.
“Hey, look,” said Atsushi suddenly. “There’s that burger place.”
En stopped in mid-lecture. “Hm. I guess it is. Any special reason why you noticed it?”
“Only that the rabbit is out there again,” said Atsushi. “Did I tell you the funny thing he did the other day? I was just looking in that shop over there, and he ran across the street and grabbed me.”
“What did he do that for?” En asked, appearing mildly intrigued.
“Search me,” said Atsushi with a shrug. “He just hauled me across the street and dumped me in front of the restaurant. I told him I’d already eaten but he didn’t seem to care.”
“Strange,” said Io. “What did you do then?”
“Nothing, really,” said Atsushi. “I just saw Kinshiro coming up the street the other way, so we went to the library together and then stopped at the coffee shop.”
“Aha!” said En with a grin. “That explains it. Obviously Buddy the Burger Bunny goes to our school and knows you and Kinshiro are crushing on each other, so he seized his opportunity to play Cupid.”
Atsushi blushed brilliant red. “En, that’s not funny!”
“It might be true, though,” said En. “I mean, if he’s working part time at a fast food place, he probably does go to our school, and everybody knows Kinshiro.”
“I’ll grant you that,” said Atsushi, “but does everybody know about me?”
“Yes,” said En.
“Yes,” said Io.
“Know what?” said Yumoto, blinking.
“Ah, I forgot we have a child among us,” said En, patting Yumoto on the head.
“I’m not a little kid,” Yumoto protested. “Anyway, I think the bunny is nice. He gave me a coupon for a free Baby Bunny Meal the other day, and a coloring book.”
“You aren’t really making your case,” said Atsushi.
“Well, he was nice,” said Yumoto. “He let me cuddle him, and he didn’t try to get away or anything.”
“He did seem like a pretty nice guy,” said En. “I mean, he helped me carry all that stuff to my little cousin’s birthday party, and then stuck around and played with the kids, and he really didn’t have to do that. I didn’t even ask him.”
“And he’s always giving me coupons,” said Io. “I must have more than twenty by now.”
En looked mildly scandalized. “He didn’t give me a coupon.”
“Me either,” said Atsushi.
“He gave us some,” said Yumoto thoughtfully, “but I don’t think he gave us twenty. More like three.”
En took out his wallet and displayed the bundle of coupons he had stowed there.
“Count them yourself,” he said.
“Nice,” said En. He sniggered. “Hey, maybe the rabbit really does go to our school, and he’s got a crush on you.”
Io snorted. “I doubt it seriously.”
“Why not?” Atsushi teased. “You’re a pretty good-looking guy, you’re smart, you’re rich... somebody’s bound to like you.”
“I don’t think the cartoon rabbit has a crush on me,” said Io.
The crosswalk light changed, and they hurried across the street to the corner where the restaurant stood. As they reached it, the Burger Bunny hopped over, waved to everyone, and handed Io another fistful of coupons before bounding away again. Everyone looked down at the slips of paper clutched in Io’s hand. He looked up at the retreating rabbit.
“Well,” he said, “on the other hand...”
The boss regarded Ryuu with a look that was partially regret and partly awed.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay on a bit longer?”
“I’m good,” said Ryuu. “I told you up front, I was only looking for a temporary job.”
“I know,” said his boss. He looked slightly uncomfortable. “Look, the truth is, you’re the best mascot we’ve ever had. We’ve had no fewer than five people phone in to tell me what great customer service you gave. Since you started working here, we’re getting twenty percent more customers than we used to. We’ve had the best sales numbers since we opened. You impressed the VEPPer so much they’re agreeing to be sponsored by the company. Honestly, this has to be a coincidence, but since you joined, even the company’s stock has been performing better.”
Ryuu smirked at that. He had a shrewd idea why the stock prices were performing better, and it was no coincidence. Rather, Io had gotten the idea that the Burger Buddy franchise, or at least someone who worked there, had smiled upon him, so he was repaying them in kind the best way he knew how. No doubt he had bought some stock in the company, and those people who watched Io closely in case he was on to a trend had bought some too, just in case he knew something they didn’t. The bubble would probably burst soon enough, but no doubt Io would find some way to make a profit before it did.
“Well, I’m glad I could help,” said Ryuu, “but I’ve got other stuff I need to focus on right now.” Like getting back to his social life, and getting out of that bunny costume before his friends wised up and never let him hear the end of it.
“If you change your mind,” said his boss, “I’m authorized to give you a raise. You’ve earned it.”
Ryuu was tempted. He turned the idea over in his head for several seconds.
“Tell you what,” he said. “Final exams and stuff are coming up, so I need all my spare time, but maybe over the break I’ll drop in again and pick up a few more shifts.”
“Deal,” said the manager, and they shook on it.
Ryuu returned to the storage area and carefully put his rabbit costume away. It had been a cumbersome thing, not always easy to move in, always too hot and stuffy. It was looking a little ragged in places, and there was a smear of what was probably ketchup on one leg where a sticky child had hugged him. And of course, there was no getting around the fact that it was, when all was said and done, it was a fluffy pink bunny suit.
All the same, he realized he was going to miss it.
“So you quit your job?” asked Arima.
“Yeah,” said Ryuu. “It was getting to be too time-consuming. I’d rather hang with you guys.”
“You shouldn’t have had a job at all,” Kinshiro grumbled.
“Well, it’s not actually against the rules,” said Atsushi.
Akoya smirked. “Anyway, his grades couldn’t possibly get any worse, so it isn’t as though his academic performance was affected.”
“Gee, thanks,” said Ryuu, rolling his eyes.
They were all ten of them - the Earth Defense Club, the Student Council, and the VEPPer - strolling along in a not-exactly-group, strung out in clusters of three or four on the narrow sidewalk. They had been to the arcade earlier, and were now drifting along trying to decide where they wanted to go next. There had been some debate over finding some dinner versus putting it off in favor of a quick soak, with one or two outliers tentatively putting forth the possibility of going to the movies, but so far no consensus had been reached. For now, they all seemed content to drift along in the late afternoon sunshine and chat about whatever came to mind.
Definitely worth quitting my job for, Ryuu thought.
“Hey, look,” said Aki, waving a hand. “The bunny’s not out today.”
Everyone looked up the street towards the Burger Buddy’s. It was, of course, plainly bereft of bunnies.
“Guess it’s his day off today,” said Ryuu.
“Too bad,” said Yumoto. “I would have liked to cuddle him again.”
“Maybe he’ll be back later,” said Atsushi comfortingly. “Anyway, we could still go in and get burgers, if we wanted to.”
“Are they good?” asked Aki. “We usually don’t usually go for fast food.”
Akoya nodded. “Very sensible.”
“Actually, the salads there aren’t too bad,” Arima opined.
“The chicken nuggets are good too,” said En.
“Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt, just this once,” said Kinshiro. He gave Atsushi a small smile. “Maybe I can get you another robot.”
Atsushi laughed. “You don’t have to get me anything. But sure, it would be fun to have dinner together.”
Io fished in his pockets. “Well, I do have coupons I ought to use up...”
Ryuu flashed him a grin and reached into his own pocket.
“What a coincidence,” he said. “So do I.”