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Cherries in Snow

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An ordinary Tokyo night like any other. Isshi and Satsuki had walked this street dozens, maybe even hundreds of times since meeting in college. Mostly Isshi would let his friend decide where they would eat, since Satsuki had full color and could therefore fully appreciate the signs and image-heavy menus competing for their attention. Tonight, though, he felt something drawing him to a specific izakaya. Like many of its neighbors, there was only just enough room for the kitchen and bar, four stools still spattered from the earlier rain sat in front of the bar, and an empty milk crate at the end for umbrellas.

“Isshi-kun?”

“Excuse me, but –.”

Red. The milk crate was bright red. And that sign was blue and pink. Colors he had only ever seen as grey suddenly flooded through his vision to join the greens he had already been seeing and at the center of it was a beautiful young man with pink-dusted cheeks.

“Ue-sama...,” the young man breathed, obviously caught off guard by this turn of events.

“Don't just stand there gawping! What do I pay you for?!” the senior chef demanded, fetching the young man a blow to the back of the head. The older man raised his hand again and even Isshi was surprised by how quickly Satsuki intervened.

“What's wrong with you? Striking an employee in front of customers? Obviously he just met his soulmate, that would be disorienting for anyone!”

The chef started to protest only to notice the tattoos exposed by Satsuki's sleeve riding up from the way he had to stretch across the bar to grab him. Immediately, his ire found a new target.

“Out. Now. Get out. I don't serve your kind. And take him with you,” the old man growled, a murderous look in his eyes.

“Gladly,” Satsuki retorted, stepping back into the street and tugging his sleeve back down. Isshi stepped back as well, making a mental note of the place while he and Satsuki waited for his soulmate.

His soulmate. And not just a friendly Companion or Teacher, this level of color had to mean a primary bond, a full romantic connection waiting to happen. Assuming his soulmate was comfortable with the idea of having such a relationship with an older man like him. Isshi would respect it if he didn't, of course, but he wasn't sure it wouldn't leave a scar on his heart.

“I'm sorry to have caused such trouble for you, Ue-sama.”

Isshi turned around intending to dismiss those words, but the way his soulmate was bowing down froze the words in his chest. On one level, it bothered him that his own soulmate felt the need to bow down to him in such a way. On another, he had no trouble taking advantage of the moment, lightly touching the back of his head to check for injury. And displeased with what he found.

“Did that useless pig do this?” he asked, frowning at the way his soulmate flinched and stepped away.

“It ... it's nothing,” the younger man stammered, taking another defensive step backwards. “I'm sorry for ruining your evening, Ue-sama.”

“Such things you say,” Isshi scolded softly. “And why are you trying to run? I don't even know anything about you yet!”

“Isshi-kun....”

For a split second, Isshi thought his soulmate might bolt in fear. Were they really so intimidating? Did his soulmate, like that asshole chef, think Satsuki was yakuza? Did he think they were both yakuza? And yet what could he even do about that if he did?

“Right,” Isshi sighed, pulling out his wallet. “My name is Shinohara Hitoshi, but most people call me Isshi. If you decide you want to pursue this, my number's on the card, please feel free to call me any time.”

Pink blossomed on pale cheeks again, the young man stammering something almost completely incoherent. But at least he took the card before turning tail and fleeing into the misty evening.

“You really are the worst, you know that?” Satsuki teased.

“Me? You're the reason he thinks we're yakuza!” Isshi countered. “What were you thinking?”

“That I really couldn't just stand there while that fat bastard beat an innocent kid,” Satsuki replied, shrugging and nudging Isshi back out of this particular alley. “Come on, I'm still hungry. And you still owe me a beer.”

“You would remember that at a time like this,” Isshi said with faked annoyance. “Why the hell do I even put up with you anyway?”

“Because I'm irresistible, clearly.”

Isshi snorted, but didn't argue. A last glance in the direction in which his soulmate had fled and then he let himself be drawn away. He hoped his soulmate would decide to take a chance on him, but it was probably better not to pin too much hope on that.

“You know you're probably never going to see him again. Especially if he really does think we're yakuza.”

“I know,” he sighed. “But at least ... I never knew how much of a difference full color would make. The city really is beautiful, lit up like this.”

“Wait until you see it in daylight,” his friend said with a faint smile. “And ... I'm sorry. For what it's worth, I truly am sorry.”

“The gods themselves made us soulmates,” Isshi said. “I have to believe they knew what they were doing. For better or for worse.”

“Still....”

“You don't have to apologize for being yourself, you know, Sacchan,” he countered. “Now, are we still getting dinner together or not?”

Satsuki laughed and like that the mood between them changed. If nothing else, he had a world of color now. It was a start.

~*~*~

San could feel himself jittering as he leaned back against the closed door of his tiny one-room apartment. He had needed that job, now he had to start all over again and he had no idea how he was going to make rent. Maybe it would be better if he just ran while he could? He still had enough cash for a bus ticket back to Osaka. Pack a few things and just leave, run away before anyone could notice?

Of course, if he did that, he would have to admit defeat. After all of his big words about going to culinary school and making it on his own, could he really just duck his head and go back? Could he really live with that level of shame?

And then there was the fact that he could see color now. So many colors he didn't know how to handle it, the way it made everything feel so different. Had his apartment always been this dingy and dark? And how was he ever going to explain that his soulmate was some sort of yakuza boss? He couldn't, he was definitely going to need to think of some other reason why he could see color and why no one would ever meet his soulmate. This was the biggest, worst, cruelest joke of his life.

A loud thumping on his door interrupted his misery.

“Open up, Nakamura, I know you're home.”

Jin. Quickly swiping at his face, San scrambled to his feet and cracked the door.

“What?”

“Aren't you supposed to be at that new job of yours?” Jin demanded, shoving the door open wider.

“What do you even care anyway?”

“You're behind on your rent. I've been patient, but if you don't start getting caught up, I'm kicking your ass out. Or you could take that job at my club. Last chance.”

“I'm not a dancer,” San muttered.

“Good news is, for this type of work? You don't have to be. Just hot in shorts. Tomorrow, 4pm. Don't be late.”

As soon as he could, San slammed and locked the door. He was screwed. There was no way he could find another job fast enough to turn down Jin's invitation. And even if he did, who was going to pay him that quickly? But San would rather crawl home on his belly than take a job at Jin's club that was basically a front for a brothel.

Shaking, he pulled his soulmate's card out of his wallet. He had to admit, it looked normal, professional. The company name, Aurora Records, even sounded legit. But then of course it would. No one was going to say they were a yakuza boss on their business card ... right? Still, San wished he had enough money to let himself go to an internet café, check things out more properly. On the other hand, he was almost completely positive Jin had yakuza ties keeping him in business. If he was doomed either way ... but not tonight. Tomorrow morning he would get up early, pound the pavement. If he hadn't found work by lunch, he would check out this Aurora Records. Even if it ended up being the same yakuza family as the one backing Jin, he would be better off going to his soulmate directly, right? And if his soulmate, this Shinohara Hitoshi person, turned out to be just another pimp, San could still make a run for it. Hopefully.

Maybe ... maybe it would be better to start his morning in Asakusa, making offerings to the gods of luck. Broke as he was, he couldn't afford much, but with the way things were going, he could use all the help he could get.

~*~*~

After the morning he had been having, Isshi was almost amused by the timid scratching at his office door. Ah, he was making an impression at last. Good.

“Come in.”

A beat and then his newest assistant slipped into the office, though only just enough to close the door behind her. A little voice in the back of his head was trying to make him feel bad about that, but he ignored it.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but there's a young man downstairs who says he needs to see you, but he won't say why. To be honest, he's acting a little ... odd. Should I have Security escort him out?”

“Did you at least get a name?” he asked.

“No, sir. He said you wouldn't recognize it anyway.”

Well that certainly caught Isshi's attention. Of course, logically, he was very much aware that this didn't mean it had to be his soulmate. In fact, it probably wasn't and he was setting himself up for disappointment. And yet he couldn't deny how much he hoped it was.

“Well then, I suppose I will just have to see for myself,” he said, getting up from his desk.

“Um, sir?”

“It's all right, Nakashima-san. Lobby, you said?”

Isshi didn't wait for her confirmation, gliding out of his office and to the stairs. He wasn't foolish enough to have some complete unknown brought to his office, not when Security was probably already waiting downstairs.

Stepping into the lobby, Isshi couldn't help a wave of relief at seeing his soulmate standing at the reception desk. But only a moment before he noticed what his assistant had already seen. His soulmate was clearly upset, nervous and even terrified as he kept glancing over his shoulder. Like he was expecting trouble to come after him at any moment.

Their eyes met and for a split second, Isshi thought the young man might flee again. Then the moment passed, though there was still fear in those dark eyes.

“Shinohara-sama....”

“Let's go up to my office,” he suggested, subtly waving off Security. “Nakashima-san, please hold my calls. And could you bring us some tea, please?”

While his assistant hurried off to do as he asked, Isshi escorted his subdued soulmate up to his office. A hundred questions swirled through his mind, but he held them back to instead focus on making sure his soulmate was comfortable. Although from the way San was fidgeting, he clearly wasn't doing that good of a job at it. Hopefully the tea would help.

“I hate to admit it,” he said after his assistant left them alone again, “but I was expecting ... well, not this. Does this mean I at least get your name now?”

“Oh, um, Nakamura Sanji, but, um, my friends all call me San. Please treat me well, ue-sama.”

“Ah, really, San-kun, there's no need to be so formal. We're soulmates, ne? Unless....”

“Unless?”

“I assume you came here for a reason,” Isshi said, picking up his tea. “What's on your mind, San-kun?”

“I ... is this for real?” San asked, nervously glancing around Isshi's office. Not that there was much to see – the usual office furniture, Isshi's two degrees in elegant frames, a small bonsai under a calligraphic wall scroll. One might even be excused for thinking this couldn't be a record company executive's office, but Isshi and Satsuki both preferred to hang the company awards in more public spaces.

“You mean ... this company? Is this because that fat bastard last night assumed Sacchan and I are yakuza?” Isshi asked, trying to keep a lid on his temper. “I assure you, San-kun, we aren't. This is a legitimate, honest independent visual kei record label.”

“I ... I see,” San stammered, conflicting emotions flickering across his face. “I....”

Isshi watched the younger man squirm in his seat a moment. Did he regret their meeting that much? And yet even as he was resolving to just flat out ask him, San seemed to come to some sort of internal resolution.

“I, uh, I don't suppose you're hiring?”

“Do you have industry experience?” Isshi asked, genuinely curious.

“Well no, but I really ... I'll do anything, and I'm a quick study,” San said, desperation clear in his rushed words. “Really, anything, even if it's cleaning toilets or running menial errands or anything. I just ...I'll do anything.”

“I can't just hire my soulmate, but give me a minute,” Isshi said, going over to his desk and dialing his business partner's line.

“Yes?”

“Can I see you in my office a minute?”

“Sure, sure.”

A little nod and he returned to his couch, keeping a mindful space between himself and San. His soulmate was clearly upset, lower lip caught between his teeth and hands fisted in his slacks. A part of him very much wanted to do something to try to physically comfort his soulmate, but he also didn't want to push things too far, do something inappropriate. They were, after all, two men, and he had no idea if San's background would lean him towards accepting or rejecting him because of that fact. Still, it bothered him to see the younger man was shaking and squeezing his eyes shut tight.

“... we put you in a bad place last night, didn't we?” he asked softly, glancing up when his door opened, but it was only Satsuki, the other man silently walking over to Isshi's end of the couch.

“I ... I needed that job,” San mumbled, opening his eyes only to stare at his clenched hands. “If ... if I can't make rent by Friday, I'll be thrown out on the street. If I don't take the ... the job at Jin-san's club, he might do it anyway. He ... he's been trying to recruit me for the last eight months, but....”

“Let me guess: this club of his is a yakuza front and you figured you should come here first, in case your soulmate was in a different family?”

“Sacchan! Not helping,” Isshi scolded as his poor soulmate collapsed in on himself even more.

“San-kun, I'm sure you came here expecting the worst,” he continued, risking moving closer enough to lightly rest a hand on San's knee. “But you're my soulmate, of course I will do whatever I can to help you.”

“But ... but you said....”

“Yes, well, nothing says Sacchan can't hire my soulmate,” Isshi replied with a little smile. “How would you like to handle this situation?”

“M-me?” San squeaked. “I just ... I just came for a job....”

“A job is the easy part,” Satsuki said with an almost dismissive gesture as he sank down onto the arm of the couch. “There's always room in the mail room. But the next pay cycle isn't until next week, so what Isshi-kun is really asking is how much of this do you want him to fix.”

Pink blossomed across San's cheeks again, he stammered incoherently for a moment before giving up and hiding his face in his hands. Isshi really did find his soulmate too endearing.

“Wait, are you saying the club owner is also your landlord?” Satsuki asked.

“Ah, um....”

“Oh absolutely not,” Satsuki said, abruptly on his feet again as his whole expression clouded. “If Issama will cover my afternoon meetings? We can get you packed and moved into a clean, safe 1K not far from here.”

“What? No! I ... I mean I don't even have key money!” San protested, suddenly on his feet.

“It's company property, no agents. Unless you mean you'd rather skip straight to moving in with Issama?”

“Wh-what?”

“I can cover the meetings,” Isshi said with a low chuckle of amusement, “but you might want to take J-san and that new kid of his, Shinji-kun, for support.”

“This is ... really, this ... is too much,” San stammered as he sank back down to the couch.

“I can't save everyone from the scummy pimps of the world,” Satsuki muttered. “But I can save you, San-kun. Issama can take care of the financials, but we're moving you out, today.”

“But –.”

“Nope, I'm your boss now,” Satsuki said, shaking his head. “Issama, talk some sense into your soulmate; I'm getting the keys.”

Isshi had to bite his lip to keep from laughing as he watched his best friend leave, a very flustered San still trying to protest.

“I'm sure this is all a bit overwhelming,” Isshi said, clearing his throat a little. “You were probably hoping to find out your soulmate was some beautiful woman, ne?”

San blushed even harder before covering his face with his hands again. He mumbled something Isshi didn't catch, even his ears turning pinkish. How adorable!

“... was I supposed to understand that?” he asked softly. “Because I definitely didn't.

Isshi had to bite his lip to keep from smiling at the way his soulmate groaned and tried to sink through the bottom of the couch. If his soulmate kept this up, Isshi really was going to be completely doomed.

“Am I really that intimidating?” he asked gently.

“Yes,” the younger man said maybe too quickly.

“I'm ... sorry?”

“No,” San replied, dropping his hands with a heavy sigh. “I'm sorry, you're right. I'm twenty, not twelve; too old to be acting like this. And I'm not ... I'm gay. I ... having you for my soulmate may be the first good thing that's happened since I moved to Tokyo. But I'm not ... I just want to work an honest job and pay my own bills.”

“Are you or are you not living in a tiny closet of a 1R owned by a pimp who wants you to prostitute yourself for him? Be honest.”

“I ... yes,” San confessed, his eyes stuck to his knees.

“Then I'm taking Sacchan's side on this,” Isshi said softly. “We have apartments sitting empty, you need a better place to live. The mail room doesn't pay great, but it's a starting point. An honest job that will let you get your feet under you while you decide what to do next.”

“Culinary school.”

“Pardon?”

“Culinary school,” San repeated with a sharp nod. “That's why I came to Tokyo in the first place. I know there are schools in Osaka, too, but I just ... felt drawn here.”

“Fate, perhaps,” Isshi said. He wasn't sure he would ever get tired of seeing that blush on his soulmate's cheeks.

“All right, got keys and some packing materials, plus two burly guys and a van. Have you talked sense into him yet?” Satsuki asked from where he was leaned against Isshi's door frame.

“Do I have a choice?” San asked.

“Of course.”
“Not in the least.”

“Sacchan!” Isshi protested.

“What? It's a choice between staying with a scuzzy pimp landlord or accepting our help, which should be a no-brainer,” Satsuki insisted.

San was still blushing, but he was also smiling.

“Thank you, Ue-sama,” San said, getting up and bowing humbly.

“Ah! I will – reluctantly! – accept 'Boss' or 'President' while you're on the clock. Which you currently are not, by the way. All other times, 'Satsuki-san' is as formal as I'll take from my best friend's soulmate, all right?”

“A-all right,” San stammered, blushing even harder.

“Good, then let's get this show on the road. Icchama, I'll text you later about dinner.”

Nodding, Isshi walked San to his door. As much as he wanted to do something more to reassure his soulmate, he kept himself in check. The last thing he wanted to do was ruin things by pushing too hard, too fast. Especially when there was no reason for it. They were soulmates and now that they had found each other, well, they could take the rest of their lives figuring things out if that was how they wanted it. There was no reason to push.

~*~*~

What had sounded perfectly reasonable in Isshi's office was feeling decidedly less so now that he was getting into a van with three men he didn't know. Especially since it was obvious to him, at least, that Onose-san and Amano-san were trained as professional bodyguards. He just hoped Jin wouldn't be there to make trouble.

They made the drive mostly in silence, other than San's directions, and that was almost more unnerving than if Satsuki had been trying to drag him into a conversation. When they reached the building, Satsuki pulled the van up to the front of the building, putting it in park before flicking on the hazard lamps.

“Just in case,” he said with a half grin. “Obviously, nothing's properly packed yet, so Amano-kun, stay with the van in case someone comes asking questions. We'll go up and get things started.”

As much as San still didn't feel completely okay with this, he also wasn't going to keep arguing. Instead, he let Satsuki and Onose grab the boxes before leading the way up to his tiny apartment.

“All right, so, what are we taking?”

“Everything you see is mine,” San said, not sure where to start.

“Is there anything here you don't want to keep?” Satsuki asked, giving the room a thoughtful look.

“Um, well, I'm not, like, emotionally attached to the furniture or anything, but I'm going to need it, right?”

“We can get it in,” J said. “Tora and I might have to catch a bus back, but we can make it work. Probably.”

“I ... I'm really not trying to be any trouble,” San mumbled, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. Although ... did he really have any room to say no anymore?

“You know what ... nah, don't worry about it,” J said, flashing him a grin as he pulled his phone off of his belt. To San's surprise, J pressed a button and the little phone actually chirped like a radio.

“Yeah Boss?”

“Tora, I need you to call the office, have them call in the American, Sheppard. Then they need to take the seats out of another van so he can bring it here. We're in unit 13, third floor.”

“Oh I don't –,” San started, only to be cut short with an impatient gesture from J.

“Then fold all the seats down in ours, got it?”

“Sheppard, seats out, benches flat, unit 13, got it,” Amano replied.

“What happened to making it work with what we had?” Satsuki teased.

“I said probably!” J countered, grinning. “And I probably could, but why? Not like anyone's on tour this week and don't think I haven't noticed this is a slum lord building and those guys are Sheppard's expertise. Anyway, many hands make light work, right Boss?”

“Fair enough,” Satsuki said, turning to San. “So. Where do you want us to start?”

“Um ... TV area? Work our way around the room?” he suggested. The way Satsuki and J just ... went to work following his directions ... it was surreal. People didn't listen to him, not usually anyway.

If anyone had asked, San would have insisted he didn't own that much. After all, it was a tiny 1R apartment, he didn't have room for that much. Or so he had thought. Now that he was having to pack everything, it somehow felt like a whole lot more.

He wasn't sure how long they had been at it when someone knocked at his door. A brief frown at the couch - he was sure there had been only three boxes there a moment ago - and he went to the door.

“Nakamura-san? I'm Sheppard. John Sheppard. Office said you were expecting me?”

The American. Almost as tall as him with unruly black hair that had to have the most cowlicks San had ever seen on one person. Blue eyes and lightly bronzed skin with a relaxed smile that wanted to put San at ease, but he was too wound up with nerves. Another guy who looked like he worked in private security, though that made sense, considering who had called him.

“Gonna let me in?” Sheppard asked.

“Oh! Right, right, sorry,” he said, bowing and then quickly stepping out of the way.

Sheppard was still smiling as he walked past him, briefly touching his arm before calling out something in probably English. It made San feel a little helpless again, but he told himself it was nothing and went back to packing. A few minutes later, J and Sheppard were taking his couch.

“Okay, I think I've got your kitchen packed, meaning I think your closet is all that's left, yeah? So I'm going to start helping them while you finish up, sound good?”

“Oh, well, um, yeah, that should be –.”

“Okay, what the FUCK is going on here??”

Jin. San felt all the blood drain from his face at the same time dread settled into the pit of his stomach like a chunk of lead. And things had been going so well, too.

“Landlord I take it?” Satsuki said, only sort of asking.

“Oi, Sanji, I asked you a fucking question.”

“Nakamura-san isn't your property,” Satsuki said, placing himself firmly between San and Jin, arm's crossed over his chest.

Bare arms. San hadn't even noticed until that moment that Satsuki's jacket was folded over the back of his desk chair, the older man's shirt sleeves short enough to expose the full-sleeve tattoos underneath. Would Jin react to them the way his former boss had? Jin's eyes narrowed a moment and then he snorted.

“You aren't yakuza, am I supposed to be afraid of you or something?”

“If you're not afraid of him, you can be afraid of me!” the American called out from the hall, sounding almost too cheerful. That had to be the fastest anyone had ever put a couch in a van, although San didn't see J with him.

“And who the fuck are you?”

“John Sheppard, personal security consultant. You?”

“His landlord.”

“Excellent! Just the man I need to see, then. We're terminating his contract, immediately, so how about you and I take care of that little bit of business while he finishes moving out?”

Jin was still trying to protest, but Sheppard had him by the arm, pulling him out of the tiny apartment. San could feel himself still shaking, surprised when Satsuki turned around and gave him a gentle hug. For a moment he wasn't sure how to react at all. A deep breath and he leaned into warm embrace.

“I'm guessing they saw him coming. Don't worry, Sheppard-san will take care of him. How much do you have left to pack?”

“Not much,” San said, sighing as he stepped back. “But I can–.”

“Not leaving you alone, San-kun,” the older man replied softly. “Not with that guy still around.”

San needed a moment, taking a deep breath before nodding.

“Thank you, Satsuki-sama.”

“Oi, what did I tell you?” Satsuki protested with a gentle grin. Maybe ... maybe everything would turn out okay.

~*~*~

San wasn't sure when Sheppard had rejoined the moving effort, but not long after, they were down to the last two boxes. San went through the whole apartment one last time, but there really was nothing left. Just him and Sheppard, which felt weird on its own, but then again....

“All set?” Sheppard asked, picking up the last boxes like they were nothing.

“All set,” San repeated with a nod. “Um, what do I do with the keys?”

“Oh, I'll take 'em when we get done,” Sheppard said. “I told that guy I'd get them back to him in a couple days. After I'm sure your mail isn't still coming here.”

Hearing that, San instantly felt significantly better.

“Hey now, I'm a personal security consultant, I know all the tricks,” Sheppard said, offering another reassuring smile. This time it actually worked.

“I really appreciate all this,” San said as they walked down to the waiting van. “I'm sure you had better things to do with your day, so....”

Sheppard just shrugged, like it was no big deal. San really didn't know how he was going to repay all these people for helping him so readily.

“All done?” Satsuki asked, getting a nod. “All right, well, Shep here is insisting on the doorman'd building, so which would you rather have, an LDK with a unit bath or a DK with separated bath and inside washer hookup?”

“W-what? I ... I thought ... you said 1K before!” San sputtered, trying not to panic.

“Yeah, I know, and we're going to have to swing by the office because those are the only keys I grabbed, but when the security consultant says do x, we do x.”

“But....”

“Six months to a year, at least,” Sheppard said, stowing the boxes in one of the vans. “I know that guy's type, you need to be in a secure building until the message gets through his thick head.”

San bit his lip, not really wanting to make it any more obvious just how broke he was. These men had all been in his apartment, they had seen how little he had.. To suggest that he, a lowly mail room employee, could somehow afford even the smallest 1K in a secured building was patently ridiculous.

“I'm taking Nakamura-san with me, you three go on ahead, yeah?”

San still felt uneasy, watching men he didn't really know drive off with his furniture, but at least there wouldn't be any witnesses for his conversation with Satsuki.

“Satsuki-san, I....”

“I know, I know, you'd need to be an accredited engineer or have a roommate to afford any of the units we're about to look at under normal circumstances. But I trust Sheppard's judgment in this. Unless you want to just move in with Isshi-kun?”

“I don't even know him! I don't know any of you!" San said, hands clutching into fists as he tried not to give in to the panic he could feel building in his chest.

“Hey now, deep breaths, San-kun. It's okay, I know we're asking you to take a lot on faith, but full color means primary soulmates, yeah?”

“Yeah, but –.”

“No buts. I've known Isshi-kun for almost ten years now. He will do anything for you, San-kun. Anything.”

“But....”

San trailed off with a heavy sigh. He couldn't go back, obviously, but was it really okay to be taking advantage of his soulmate's generosity like this?

Do you know someone you could bring in as a roommate?”

“No,” San confessed, startled to see they were already back at the Aurora Records building. “I mean, there's one or two that I could maybe trust like that, but asking would be too weird.”

“All right, well, we'll figure it out. I'm going to exchange keys, do you just want to stay here?”

“If ... if that's okay?” San asked, nervous that Satsuki would say no, even though it had been his suggestion.

“It's fine. I'll be right back.”

San watched Satsuki disappear into the rather unassuming building – if he didn't know it was home to a label and recording studios, he never would have guessed it looking at it – then sighed heavily. Closing his eyes, he rubbed the bridge of his nose. Not even a full day since meeting his soulmate and his whole life was changing. And even he didn't know the full extent of those changes yet. More than just the addition of color to his world, that was for sure.

An image of Isshi flashed behind his eyes and San felt himself relaxing in spite of everything. It really was just how his grandmother used to tell him meeting a soulmate would feel, back when he had still been just a kid. He didn't even know the man and yet just thinking about him, picturing his smile, San felt calmer. Surely Isshi had to be a good person, that was the impression San had gotten even if they hadn't spent a lot of time together. Yet. It would happen, he was certain of it.

San jerked in his seat at a syncopated rapping against the glass of his door. Satsuki was back and he wasn't alone. A young man probably about San's own age with very blond hair framing a sweetly open face all but bounced at the label executive's side as Satsuki opened the side door.

“I know, I know, I keep introducing you to new faces and names, but Pon was about to get into actual trouble, so.... San-kun, allow me to introduce Ogata Hiroto. Pon, Nakamura Sanji.”

San exchanged the expected pleasantries, curious but at the same time afraid to ask. Hiroto settled into a space that wasn't meant to be a seat and immediately started chattering about his band, being a guitarist, and how lucky he felt to be in a band signed to Aurora Records. San listened patiently, not that he could have gotten a word in edgewise anyway. And yet in spite of everything, he was feeling mostly at ease again by the time they reached his new building, a modern high-rise well outside his previous budget.

“All right, Pon, stay with the van, yeah? San-kun, you're with me.”

“Shouldn't we...?”

“You have to pick a unit first,” Satsuki said, tossing a quick wave to the van in front of them before urging San up to the door. Despite his apprehensions, the doorman merely bowed and held the door for them. This was what they called a secure building? Then again, he was apparently here with the building's owner and who knew how long the other van had been here waiting for them.

“The trick is in here,” Satsuki said, as if reading San's mind, hitting the button for the elevator. When the car arrived, Satsuki ushered him in, then inserted a key before hitting the button for the eighth floor.

“The elevator won't move off this floor without a key. I'm sure Sheppard has also gotten that guy's picture and advised Security both here and at the office to watch out for him, but ... think of it as another layer of protection.”

“O-okay,” San stammered, more of a mumble, really.

“There's a couple different units open, you can look at them both before deciding.”

“Oh I don't –.”

“You're going to be living here, you might as well be comfortable while you do it. They'd rent about the same on the open market anyway.”

San wondered if that was even true, meekly following Satsuki down the hall. He just had to look at a couple apartments and then pick the one that made him feel the least like he was taking unfair advantage of his soulmate. How hard could that be?

The first apartment, Satsuki tried to tell him it was a 1LDK but San could tell it was really a 2DK. It was too much space for just him, though he didn't say that, instead mumbling something about lighting before letting Satsuki show him the other one. The second unit was at least a legitimate LDK with a cramped unit bath.

“I thought you said you had a 1DK to show me?” San asked, putting on his most innocent face.

“As I recall, I didn't say it was a 1DK, just that it was a DK,” the older man said with a little smile. “But all right, come on then.”

The third apartment, like the first, was a 2DK, though at least this time Satsuki was honest about it. It was also a corner unit with a generous balcony, separated traditional bath, and a real, full-sized kitchen. San lingered at the stove, struggling against an urge to tear up. He could cook so many things in a kitchen like this, if he had the right tools. Which he currently didn't. Maybe he shouldn't have said anything.

“Why do I get the feeling you want to choose this one?” Satsuki asked, startling him by how close he was.

“This kitchen ... I came to Tokyo to attend culinary school, but ... it's impossible, right? There's no way I could afford this.”

“If this is the one you want, then we'll find a way to make it work, San-kun. Come on, let's get your things.”

A part of him wanted to insist this was too much. But a bigger part of him really was afraid of offending Satsuki. Or worse, offending his soulmate by continuing to try to turn down his generosity.

~*~*~

With so many people helping, it didn't take long to get everything up to the apartment. Once the vans were unloaded, the three security people left, though Sheppard made sure San had his contact information first. Not that San intended to ever use it, but he appreciated the gesture.

“I need to run these other keys back to the office, are you two going to be okay without me for a bit?”

“Um....”

“Yup!” Hiroto chirped.

San was still trying to find the words, in which time Satsuki slipped out. Was this going to be his life now, constantly surprised and blind-sided by others' willingness to just help him with things? He wasn't sure he knew how to deal with that, being used to having to do it all himself.

“Hiroto-san, you really don't have to stay and help me,” he said, glancing around all the boxes currently piled up in the dining room.

“Unpacking is easier with help, yeah? And I really don't mind. Better than getting into trouble with Pooh-kun. So ... where should we start?”

“... why does this feel like a setup?” San asked, sighing and then shaking his head. Even if it was, what could he do about it? “Kitchen first, especially the food.”

“I can handle the cold stuff if you have a system you like for the rest?”

“I don't know about a system, but ... yeah, that should work,” San agreed.

“So ... just you?” Hiroto asked after awhile and even though San had been expecting it, he still sighed when the question came.

“Sorry, if that's too personal,” the other mumbled.

“Kind of, but ... kind of obvious, too? But yeah. Sheppard-san insisted I take a place in this building and of the ones available ... this kitchen ... I couldn't say no, really.”

“Oh, you can cook? Like proper food? I'm terrible at it myself, I can barely manage cup ramen!” Hiroto exclaimed, laughing a little as well.

“Some, yeah. I've really just started learning, but I know the basics at least.”

“So, uh, are you looking for a roommate then or...?”

Yup, this was definitely feeling like a setup. And yet he didn't feel angry. If anything, he almost felt relief.

“Is that what Satsuki-sama said?” San asked, sighing again.

“Sort of? I mean, he said maybe!” Hiroto rushed to say. “Ah, it's fine, I shouldn't've said anything, forget about it! It's not my business anyway!”

And now San felt guilty, though he didn't know why. Hiroto was just asking questions, no harm in that, right? He shouldn't make the guy feel bad for being curious just because he was used to being more private with his life. Taking a steadying breath, he opened the next box.

“Is it that you're looking for a place yourself?” he asked.

“Me? Oh no, no,” Hiroto said, shaking his head. “I'm perfectly content with how things are, but there's a couple guys on the label who might be interested. If you don't mind sharing space with a band guy, that is. If you're even looking at all.”

“Um, I'm ... not sure I understand what you mean....”

“Well, we tend to keep kinda crazy hours, out late or even all night sometimes, especially if there's a deadline looming. And it's not like it's the most steady work, especially at the start of a new band. Irregular enough that a lot of guys take part-time jobs to make ends meet until their band becomes a full-time deal or they give up and retire, find other work entirely. Having a band guy for a roommate ... it can be a chaotic energy to have to live with, at least that's how my mom always puts it.

“On the other hand, all the guys I know are really great. Almost all of them are also complete hazards in the kitchen, but otherwise great guys.”

“Are you trying to talk me into this or out of it?” San asked, unable to stop a low chuckle.

“I'm ... not sure?” Hiroto admitted, laughing as well. “I mean, you seem like a good person and you obviously have Satsuki-sama's seal of approval, so.... I mean, if you're interested in finding a roommate. Depending on your plans for later, we could even meet up with some of the guys for dinner or something?”

“Maybe,” San agreed, wary of committing one way or the other just yet. “Satsuki-sama and Issama might have other plans for tonight, I'm not sure.”

“It's fine, not trying to pressure you or anything,” Hiroto said with a reassuring smile. “Connected to the boss, I'm sure we'll be seeing each other around, so if not tonight, well, there are plenty of others!”

That seemed the best way to leave it, at least for now.

~*~*~

At the sharp knock on his door, Isshi looked up from his computer, surprised to see Satsuki's head poked into his office.

“Hey, figured I'd check in while I'm here. How's it going?”

“Fine, I can fill you in later. How about on your end?”

“Oh I think your soulmate is one kind gesture away from a total meltdown,” his friend and business partner said, easing himself into the office and over to Isshi's desk. “Sheppard insisted on the secure building, San-kun's in unit 812. Hiroppon's with him right now, though that might have been a mistake. I don't know if I should be suggesting dinner out or have you bring him something.”

Isshi sat back with a slight frown; he could only image what Sheppard might have said to his soulmate. More worrisome was what could have happened that the American security consultant had even been called in, never mind the suggestion of their secured apartment building.

On the other hand, he and San didn't have ... well, any sort of relationship at this point. Not yet. Isshi wasn't so sure a dinner in, just the two of them, was really appropriate at this stage.

“If he's that close to a meltdown, maybe I should stay away....”

“Oh he's definitely that close and he absolutely is going to need you to be there when he inevitably falls to pieces later tonight, but for right now ... I should probably get back there before Pon accidentally breaks him somehow,” Satsuki said, pushing himself back up to his feet.

“All right, all right, if you insist,” Isshi said, making a little shooing motion with his hand. “I trust you. Just let me know what you decide about dinner.”

Satsuki laughed as he let himself be shooed out and Isshi took that as a good sign. A few more hours and he would see how his soulmate was doing for himself.

~*~*~

Nodding to the doorman and then the desk clerk, Isshi felt something like relief as he finally approached San's new apartment. Certainly worth it for the stunned expression on his soulmate's face.

“Isshi-sama....”

“I hear it's been something of a day, so I thought I'd bring over a couple of pizzas.”

“Oh, but, um, Satsuki-sama just took Hiroto-san home....”

“... should I go, then?” Isshi asked softly, worried that this meant his soulmate was even closer to a meltdown than Satsuki had led him to believe.

“What? Ah, no, no, I wouldn't ... I mean, you already came all this way and I ... I can't eat all that myself,” the younger man said, gesturing to the pizza boxes.

“Are you sure? I wouldn't want to be an imposition.”

“No, it's ... please,” San said, stepping back this time as he invited him in more properly.

“Ah, you really did a lot this afternoon,” Isshi said as he took in the state of the apartment's main living space. He could still see several boxes, but it looked more like a home than he would have expected, considering.

“Satsuki-sama's doing. He really ... both of you have done so much for someone you don't even know.”

“Well then, I guess we're just going to have to do something to change that,” Isshi suggested, smiling. “Beer?”

The genuine smile on San's face really was the sweetest thing. Getting to know his soulmate better was absolutely the opposite of a problem for him.

~*~*~

San rolled over to shut off his alarm, giving his phone a bleary scowl before noticing the boxes of his clothes still piled against the wall. Yesterday ... yesterday had really happened. His soulmate and his soulmate's business partner had hired him without so much as an application and then conspired to get him moved, all in one afternoon, into an apartment far above his means in a building they apparently co-owned? Even staring at the stack of his packed belongings, it still felt a bit surreal. This was the stuff of shoujo manga and daytime television dramas, not his actual life, and yet....

His phone alarm went off again and San slapped it a few times until silence returned. He knew he needed to get up – the last thing he needed was to be late on his first day – but moving was hard. Five more minutes. He could let himself lay here for five more minutes, surely.

When his phone started ringing, San groaned, tempted to just ignore it. Until he saw who was on the caller ID. A giddy feeling washed through him as he answered.

“I hope this means I'm not calling so early you want to kill me.”

“No, no, it's fine, but, um, why?”

“I thought maybe we could do breakfast together?”

There was that giddy schoolgirl feeling again. And yet San couldn't help it, even as a piece of him was wondering if shoujo bubbles were going to start appearing any second now.

“I'd like that,” he said, sitting up, “but, um, I don't have much in yet.”

“There's a Makku with a breakfast menu in your neighborhood. If you wanted, we could meet there?”

“There ... there is? Oh, but, um, I'm not even dressed yet....”

“Well, if you tell me what you'd like, I can pick it up and bring it to you, if that would be better?”

“Oh you ... you don't have to do that,” he stammered, blushing again.

“I know, but I want to. But you'd better tell me quick what you want, there's not usually much line this early and I'm almost there.”

“Ah, sausage biscuit is fine,” he said, scrambling out of bed even as he held the phone tighter. If Isshi was already that close, he needed to get moving.

“All right, see you soon.”

As soon as Isshi hung up, San threw himself into the shower. Sometimes he wasn't sure if this new life of his was a dream come true or some sort of slow moving nightmare.

~*~*~

Isshi had been good all morning, keeping his hands to himself despite a growing desire to hold San close, to reassure the younger man that he was committed to making this relationship of theirs work, however they decided to take it. At the same time, he didn't want to push or make San any more uncomfortable than he already was. Everything was still so new, for both of them. After their shared evening – which, despite Satsuki's prediction, had not included a single meltdown – Isshi was confident that they were on the same page in terms of letting their relationship grow as naturally as possible. So he would start small, with something like courting, and see where things went.

Even so, when they arrived at the Aurora building lobby, Isshi couldn't resist reaching out for San's hand.

“Someone from HR should be with you shortly. If you need anything, just let me know, okay?” he said, squeezing San's hand and then brushing a kiss to his cheek. Feeling his soulmate freezing up on him, he squeezed the younger man's hand again, then slipped away. A risk, perhaps, but worth it to see pink on his soulmate's beautiful face again.

~*~*~

By midday, San's head was full of names and faces from his orientation. Being an off-cycle hire, the woman from HR, Nagase-san, simply took him on a complete tour of the building, since mail room meant sorting and delivering both regular corporate mail and fan-mail for all the bands on the label. Far from glamorous, but at least it was steady.

Even better, the work day ended at exactly 5pm, with the mail room boss practically shoving San and his co-worker, Ray, out of the room while muttering about having better things to do.

“Hey, you're new to the area, right?” Ray said. “You should come hang out with me and my friends tonight.”

“Oh, um, thank you, but I really need to finish unpacking,” San demurred.

“Boring!” Ray declared, laughing as he casually grabbed San's arm. “Come on, my friend Yuuho works at a karaoke place, we can get great discounts all night.”

“I ... that's very kind of you, Ishida-san, but I really can't,” San insisted, jerking his arm free a bit more sharply than he had intended. “I'm going now, good night.”

He had to force himself not to panic or run, irritated when Ray started following him, still trying to chat him up.

“Hey now, I'm just trying to be friendly. I'm your senpai here, you know, you should be nicer to me. Why are you being so stuck up, anyway? You should really be nicer to me, I could make things diff– hey, if you're going home, where are you going? Elevator's right here.”

And indeed it was, but San's feet kept moving. Mail and storage weren't the only things in the basement. He didn't recognize the woman who looked up when he stepped into the security office. But even as he was about to ask for someone he did know, J stepped through another door.

“San-kun, you're early. Ah, well, I should have expected that, right?” J said, grinning briefly before turning towards Ray: “Ah, Ishida-san, isn't it? Something you need?”

“Oh, um, n-no, just tryin' t'get Nakamura-kun to come out for drinks,” Ray said, looking suddenly uncomfortable. “But, uh, yeah, no worries. Good night.”

“All right, well, good night then, Ishida-san. San-kun, come on back.”

San didn't breathe easy until J was sitting him down and handing him a bottle of water.

“S-sorry to just....”

“Hey, it's why we're here,” J said, smiling again. “You looked a bit panicked. Ishida-kun's a decent guy, mostly, just has trouble taking no for an answer sometimes. He won't push again. And if he does, I'll remind him what happened to the last guy who got too pushy.”

“S-sorry for making such trouble,” San said, bowing as low as the chair would allow.

“It's not a problem. And I do have something for you, actually,” J said, walking over to his desk to produce what looked like some sort of ID badge and lanyard. “We don't really use the cards here, in this building, other than the secure server room, which this will not let you access. But we do use them for lives and festivals. This will let you in to any of our lives anywhere in the country, just don't abuse it, okay?”

“I ... I won't,” San said, too shocked to think how he could abuse such a thing.

“Good. Now, I'm not rushing you, but do you need someone to walk you home?”

“W-what? Oh, no, no, I'm fine, really. I've made enough trouble for you already.”

“All part of the job, San-kun,” J countered, a gentle smile on his lips.

“Still,” San mumbled, getting up and bowing again. “Thank you and I'm sorry.”

Of course since San was trying not to make any more trouble, it was only natural that Sheppard and Amano should be at the desk when he stepped out of J's office. San felt his whole body freeze in panic as the two exchanged looks with each other and then the boss.

“You know, I never even asked if you wanted help navigating your new neighborhood, shame on me,” Sheppard said, straightening from his slouch. “I could do that now, if you're free?”

“I don't want to be any more trouble,” San mumbled, glancing between Sheppard and J.

“No trouble, right boss? I should at least show you where to get proper groceries so you aren't subsisting on combini food,” Sheppard said.

San felt himself sighing in defeat and then bowing to his fate.

“Thank you for your help, Sheppard-san.”

Despite San's initial intentions, when the American asked for San's reason for being in the Security office, the truth just came pouring out of him. And yet not even once did the man suggest San had overreacted or done something improper or silly. It was ... extremely confusing.

“I'm sure you think this is overkill,” Sheppard said, a certain high school cockiness to his grin. “You're just a kid from the mail room, just another Kansai hopeful. Why would anyone be after you? Security escorts are for important people, not someone like you. Am I on track so far?”

San stammered something intended to be another apology, but Sheppard was already waving it off.

“I mean, leaving aside that that's not how Aurora works ... one of the top bosses called us in to help you. If you're important enough for that, why-ever that is? Then this is nothing. If someone makes you feel unsafe or if you just want an escort home so you don't have to feel so alone, just ask, okay?”

“I already feel like I've taken advantage too much,” San said, shaking his head. “But thank you.”

“... I'm gonna have to keep an eye out for you, aren't I?” Sheppard asked, grinning.

“I'm sure I have no idea what you mean by that....”

“Of course you don't,” Sheppard replied and though his words seemed to agree with him.... San stifled a sigh and decided to let the matter drop.

~*~*~

Isshi glanced out his windows, then looked again, startled to see how late in the day it was. Darkness never really swallowed this city, but it was certainly full night out there now. Glancing at his watch, he sighed. After 9pm. On a hunch, he hit the button to buzz Satsuki's office.

“Isshi-kun? What are you still doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” he said as he started putting his computer to sleep. “Shouldn't your soulmate have dragged you home by now?”

“In Kyoto for some floral expo thing. Tsukasa-kun caught me late to ask about that ultimatum you gave them yesterday without talking to me about it first. You could have told me about that, by the way.”

“... I thought I did. I intended to, certainly. My apologies.”

“It's fine,” the other man said. “Anyway, I backed your play. I don't think they're going to make it, though.”

“Probably not,” Isshi agreed, “but I thought I would give them a couple more months to see if they couldn't surprise us before getting any lawyers involved.”

“Agreed. So did you need something or did you just call to berate me for not sending you home before now?”

“You say that as if I can't do both,” Isshi countered, chuckling. “Anything else I should know?”

“Check your email if you haven't lately,” Satsuki suggested. “Other than that ... no, go on, get out of here. There's nothing else that needs you tonight.”

Isshi sighed, scowling equally at his desk phone and his computer. Shaking off his annoyance, he woke the computer again just in case he really had missed something important.

He had. Hesitating a moment, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed San's number.

“Issama? It's kinda late ... is everything all right?”

“I feel like I should be the one asking you,” Isshi said, leaning back in his chair.

“Eh? Of course, why wouldn't I be?”

Isshi stopped a second, before his mouth could run away with things. While he appreciated the note from J, he couldn't be sure San wouldn't react differently. And if his careless words resulted in San losing his trust in J....

“No, you're right, I'm sure your previous landlord wouldn't even know where to start looking for you,” Isshi said instead. “But ... as long as I have you, could I interest you in a dinner date Friday?”

“D-date?” San repeated in a high squeak.

“Isn't that usually how two people build a relationship?”

“I ... yes, of course, yes,” San stammered. “Friday ... Friday should be fine.”

“I could pick you up at 6? That wouldn't be too early, would it?”

“N-no, no, that ... that sounds fine. Should, um, how should I dress?”

“Casual will be fine. I'm not thinking anything fancy, just a comfortable izakaya I know.”

“Oh. Okay. Good,” and Isshi swore he could hear relief in his soulmate's voice. It amused him – did his soulmate expect him to want something upscale? As if Isshi would want to make his soulmate uncomfortable like that. Or perhaps San was misunderstanding the sort of person he was? Well, they did still just barely know each other, that was probably an understandable mistake.

“All right then, I'll see you Friday, unless you need me before then.”

“See you Friday,” San repeated.

In spite of everything, Isshi would be surprised if he heard from his soulmate before Friday. San was so determined not to be a burden. As if he could ever be such a thing. It made Isshi curious about San's background, what had happened to make him think in that way. Still, it was something that could wait. He wouldn't push.

~*~*~

As nervous as San had been for the last two days, he was surprised at how just opening the door to see Isshi's smiling face made it all fade. This was fine, he was going to be fine.

“Issama ... but how...?”

“I own the building; of course I have an elevator key,” his soulmate said with a playful smile. “Are you ready?”

San needed a moment to check his pockets before nodding. And was surprised once more when they walked to an izakaya only a few streets away, where Isshi was greeted like an old regular. Then again, while he wasn't completely certain, San was pretty sure this place was also an easy walk from the Aurora building, so maybe it wasn't all that odd.

“How's the job going?” Isshi asked once they were settled at a table with beer and skewered chicken.

“Better than no job,” San said, wincing a little; did that sound ungrateful?

“Mail room has high turn-over,” Isshi said with a little chuckle. “Umemori-san will probably move into something else soon. And I know Ishida-kun is looking for a permanent place as an engineer, but he needs to finish his degree first. I imagine you'll be looking for other work yourself, especially once you get into culinary school.”

“I do appreciate everything you and Satsuki-sama and J-sama and Sheppard-san have done for me. I really ... don't know how I'm going to repay you all.”

“You don't owe me anything, San-kun,” Isshi said with a soft smile. “As for the others ... what are you planning for your culinary degree?”

“I think it would be nice to own my own restaurant, but maybe that's just a crazy dream for someone like me.”

“Dream as big as possible, otherwise, what's the point?”

“Is that what you did?” San asked, sliding another piece of chicken off the skewer.

“Not really,” Isshi confessed with a wry grin. “I really thought I'd get my MBA and then go to work in my grandfather's shop, since neither Dad nor Uncle Tomo had the temperament to handle the money side of things. And then I met Sacchan and realized Fate had a different plan for me.”

“... you could already see color when we met,” San mumbled, something in his chest collapsing. There was already someone else, the universe was too cruel.

“Only a very narrow band of green, because we are only Companion souls, friends who sometimes travel this world together,” Isshi said, reaching across the table to catch San's hand. “It was such a small thing I didn't even bother telling him. Sacchan's been seeing full color since he was seven, he doesn't know anything about it.”

“R-really?”

“Really. And to be fair to him, he's charming enough he likely would have convinced me even without the green, it just would have taken longer. And a bit more effort than just him saying hey, wanna start a recording label with me?”

“That's all he said?”

“Well of course I'm paraphrasing a bit, but ... basically, yeah. To start, anyway. Ah, I'm sorry I didn't tell you about this sooner, San-kun....”

“I'm sure there's a lot we haven't told each other yet,” San said, dropping his eyes to the table. To his surprise, Isshi was still holding his hand ... and he kind of liked it.

“It wasn't malicious, but it really was so little color, I never bothered to tell anyone about it,” Isshi said, giving San's hand another gentle squeeze. “You're the only one I've ever told.”

“I'm honored,” he said, feeling a blush creeping into his cheeks. “And ... I think you should tell Satsuki-sama. I ... it may sound weird, but I feel like he has a right to know.”

“... all right, but only if we work on this dream thing first,” Isshi said, squeezing his hand again before letting go. “You should have a big dream, something wild to shoot for, even if it's a Michelin-rated restaurant in Paris.”

“I can't imagine why I'd want to live in Paris,” San mumbled, scrunching his nose. “I'd be happy with even just working for a little place like this.”

“Dream bigger,” Isshi half scolded, but despite his tone, he was grinning. “A place like this, one that you own, can be a practical fall back plan, but why not reach for the stars?”

He had a point. An izakaya of his very own was probably pretty low-hanging fruit, now that he thought about it. Especially if he was able to find a place close to the Aurora building. With as many bands as Aurora had signed, if San could deliver good food at reasonable prices, that right there would be a stable market. And, too, Satsuki would no doubt quietly encourage anyone he could to give San's place at least a try. Isshi was right, he needed to dream bigger. But what? Sipping his beer, he mulled it over for a bit.

“I want a restaurant that does well enough I can have days off. Not just one or two, but whole weeks. And take vacations. Real ones, where we travel further than just the next town or down to the coast. And a nice house with enough yard that I can grow roses for Gramma and a vegetable patch for ... for us,” he said, blushing hotly. “I ... I don't know what that would take, what it would look like, but that ... that's what I want.

“And I want to learn everything I can, both washoku and youshoku. Kaiseki, Italian, Chinese ... hell, even French cuisine, even if I only ever make it for you,” he confessed, dropping his eyes to the table again. “Is that ... does that count as dreaming big?”

“You know, I think it just might.”

Just a few words, but they were enough to make San feel something he hadn't in entirely too long: peace.