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  1. Merry Christmas & A WILD'S New Year ----- ___________________ [Sato Gift Shop & Dangos] It was the morning of Christmas Eve and Karakura as a whole was brilliantly decorated and lit up for the occasion. From the buildings and landmarks and even down to the trees of the Community park, everything was draped with illuminations. Across the street from the park Sato's Gifts Shop & Dangos sparkled like a star. The entire building was covered in festive lights, decorations, and trinkets. There was a Christmas tree just to the side of the entrance and a sound system played sweet festive jingles for all passers by to hear. Ryūnosuke was dressed in full santa costume, complete with a fake, fluffy and white mustache and beard. He stood outside, impersonating Santa Claus; cheering and ho ho hoing to promote the gift shop and welcoming in the many customers. Juri did the same from the dango booth, dressed as a reindeer. Patrons seemed especially pleased by their performances and some even asked for pictures with them, which Kiyoku encouraged her employees to oblige. The shop was so packed that there was a line of patrons outside waiting to get in. Inside the shop, it was all hands on deck. Iwa, dressed as a tall and handsome blonde elf, worked at one of the cash registers with Kiyoku, dressed in a red flowy suit blazer with a santa cap, manning the second one. She also donned a fake mustache and beard, despite the odds, she somehow made it work for her. Kanako and Chizuru were dressed in santa costumes as well. Kanako's costume was especially fashionable and featured a shorter skirt, stockings and garter belt, and knee-high boots. Her wavy, pink-blonde hair flowed freely around the fur trim of her santa hat. Kanako was drawing plenty of eyes; from simply impressed shop-goers, younger male patrons, and a few jealous partners as well. Of course, that was exactly the point. As people were drawn to her, she made some small talk, took pictures, exchanged holiday wishes, and encouraged them to purchase from the many gifts the shop had to offer. Chizuru's costume was better built for function over fashion, her skirt was a bit longer and she had on long black boots trimmed with white faux fur. Despite that, Chizuru also got her fair share of fans and admirers, Ryūnosuke being the biggest one of them all. Kiyoku had caught him distracted on the job a number of times and of course she never shied away from calling him out for it. After closing in the evening, the gift shop wouldn't open again until after the new year. Combined with the fact that they all had their individual holiday plans, it meant that this shift would be the last they'd all spend together for some time. Kiyoku and Iwa were already packed to catch their evening flight to Bavaria, where they would spend the holidays with extended family. Kanako and Juri were going to the Ichihara family home in Hokkaido the day after Christmas. Chizuru's parents had already returned from an archeological expedition just days prior and they had plans to spend the holidays together in their family home, as well. Lastly, Ryūnosuke seemingly hadn't made any plans, at least none that he'd announced to the others. He had his house all to himself but that wasn't any different from how he'd spent half of the last year since his mother returned to Osaka back in June. Although the Tengu of WILD'S hadn't as much as commented on the fact yet, the others had already begun to suspect that he was likely going to spend Christmas alone. ----- ... CHIZURU glanced at Ryūnosuke pensively as she made her way towards the back of the shop for her lunch break. She could see him vibrantly attracting customers outside through the glass store front. He hadn't slowed down in hours and part of her worried he'd overdo it and forget to come inside to warm up every once in a while. Thankfully, it seemed like Kiyoku had that covered, judging by the way she periodically looked between her wristwatch and Ryūnosuke. Ryūnosuke must have sensed Chizuru watching him and he turned to face her direction. He smiled as his eyes fell on her and he waved her way. Chizuru blushed and waved back at her boyfriend. He looked like he was about to mouth something but was distracted as a pair of elderly women approached the store and he welcomed them inside. By this hour, traffic to the shop had slowed down quite a bit, so every potential customer mattered that much more. Not wanting to keep Ryūnosuke from his work too much, Chizuru took the chance to be on her way and headed for the base. She went through the back door and descended into the basement bunker that doubled as the WILD'S headquarters. Once inside she immediately noticed Kanako sitting at the kotatsu table in front of the television with her coffee mug in her right hand and her phone in the other. "Hey Kanako.", Chizuru greeted warmly and walked towards the pantry. "Hey, Chizuru. On your lunch break?", Kanako replied. "Mhm.", Chizuru nodded. "Niice." Kanako took a slurp of her coffee and put down her mug. "Well, hurry up and get under here, it's nice and toasty.", she added and twice tapped on the table. Chizuru chuckled as she stepped out of the pantry with her bento in hand. "You don't have to ask me twice." Chizuru sat at the blanketed table and let out a sigh of relief as the warmth engulfed her legs. "That's better.", she gasped lowly and then started to eat her lunch. "Enjoy!", Kanako nodded. Chizuru offered Kanako some of her food, but the latter graciously declined. "I ate mine already.", Kanako said. Chizuru decided to make some small talk while they were on break. "So, you excited for Hokkaido?" Kanako shrugged, "Eh, it's nothing new. We do it every year, after all. Although, I will admit it'll be nice to have break after the year we've had." Chizuru, agreeing with that sentiment wholeheartedly, nodded. "Definitely, we certainly went through a lot." The pair shared a chuckle and Kanako sipped her coffee again. "Speaking of, how have things been with you and our fearless leader? You've been official for a week now." Chizuru paused for a moment and interlocked her fingers over her lap. Kanako's question wasn't completely unexpected. After all, both Chizuru and Ryūnosuke had confided in her regarding their feelings for the other in the past. It was also a given that Kanako wanted the best for the both of them; and seeing as this would likely be the last chance they had to talk in person before they all went their separate ways for the holidays, it made sense that Kanako would bring up the topic now. At the same time, Chizuru hadn't really been prepared for it. Nevertheless, there were some things she wanted to discuss. "I guess we're fine." Chizuru paused as she realized how unconvincing that answer might've sounded to the ever perceptive Kanako. She shook her head lightly and course-corrected --she didn't want to risk Kanako getting the wrong impression from her words. "No, things have been great when we're together. It's just been hard to find time for couple stuff this past week.", Chizuru elaborated. She watched Kanako frown momentarily before she shrugged and sipped her coffee again. "Yeah, that's understandable, all things with WILD'S and the shop considered.", she replied. Chizuru nodded, relieved that Kanako seemed to understand her answer as it was intended. "Still." Kanako put her mug down on the table and faced Chizuru. "The holidays are the perfect time for you and Ryūnosuke to spend more time together. That's pretty normal for couples, yah know?" "Yes, I am aware.", Chizuru replied. She felt her cheeks reddening at the thought of walking through the shopping district, side by side with Ryūnosuke, admiring the festive illuminations together --it was cliche, sure, but that didn't mean it wouldn't be nice to experience. "Has he made any plans or brought it up with you at all?", Kanako asked. Chizuru shook her head. "He hasn't said anything about it to me, yet --but he knows my parents are in town. I guess he doesn't want to impose." Kanako sighed. "He sure picks the best times to be thoughtful.", she remarked sarcastically. "That aside --Chizuru, it's fine if you want to make the plans. In fact, I'm sure Ryūnosuke would appreciate it." "I don't know. It's true he's been the one steering things so far.", Chizuru replied. Thinking on it, the reason was simple; Ryūnosuke had taken charge in the way he typically did. When it came to missions and training, Chizuru was usually confident enough to express her own agency. However, so far in their relationship, she'd been fine just following his lead --it did help that Ryūnosuke kept things exciting but was also surprisingly thoughtful. "He's just better at this relationship stuff than I am.", Chizuru conceded with a low sigh. "That can't really be helped, he's got you beat with experience." Kanako remarked offhandedly. Chizuru found herself involuntarily shooting her a sharp look. "S-sorry, Chizuru." Kanako apologized. Chizuru softened her expression and rested her chin on the table with a defeated expression. "No, you're right. It's just me." "I'm assuming you haven't had the chance to discuss this yet and to be honest that topic might be a little too heavy for the holidays.", Kanako stated. Chizuru groaned, the issue was starting to sound a lot worse than she'd thought based on the way Kanako was speaking. "In any case, now I definitely think you should try to makes some plans. Try to take the reigns for a bit and see how things go. It might even help with your insecurities." Chizuru sat upright again. As usual, Kanako's words were making sense to her. So far, Kanako hadn't given her any bad advice yet when it came to relationships and she seemed particularly informed in things as they related to Ryūnosuke specifically. That fact in and of itself was still a source of some jealousy and tension but Chizuru had come to understand that Kanako wasn't competition for her --she and Ryūnosuke were more akin to siblings. Their bond was very strong but completely platonic from both sides. Still, she hoped that she could one day understand Ryūnosuke as well as Kanako did. Until then, she'd continue to take advantage of Kanako's insight. She already started to think of some things she and Ryūnosuke could do together over the coming days. ----- [Several hours later] After the evening shift ended, the team assembled in the base. Everyone had changed back into their normal clothes and received their final wages for the year. Kiyoku and Iwa were dressed to travel. Their taxi to the airport was now merely minutes away. ... KIYOKU was taking that time to leave the team with some parting advice. She stood with her arms crossed at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in a maroon skirt suit and black heels. Iwa stood to her left with a grey hoodie and jeans on under his green trench coat. "Listen up, gang. Allow me to impart some wisdom upon you before we skip on outta here. Firstly, no one knows better than I do that you all have earned a break many times over. It's been an very busy year for WILD'S and you've all thrown yourselves wholeheartedly to the cause. Looking at you lot now, you're completely unrecognizable from the dis-coordinated, fledgling crybabies you were only nine months ago." She grinned as that remark made the team groan and squirm a bit. "Now, now --that was a compliment. I probably don't say this enough but I'm extremely proud of you all. I want you to enjoy the holidays as much as you can --unfortunately the enemy are restless sons of bitches. Hollows don't gives a shit about the holidays. Have your fun but stay diligent and remember we make sacrifices so that others can enjoy the better things in life." Kiyoku looked around at the young faces she'd addressed. Their expressions read of understanding as they nodded at her. Unsurprisingly, Ryūnosuke was the first to speak. "Don't worry about it, boss. We're not gonna slack off. I've already coordinated with some of the Shinigami teams and Armory S.", he replied confidently. "Mhmm." Kiyoku nodded at the Tengu of WILD'S. Her concerns with his growing involvement with the Shinigami and the Armory S. group would have to be addressed another time. For now, what mattered was that his heart was in the right place and that he had the others --mainly Chizuru-- to keep him in check. "Ryūn, I'm leaving the keys to the shop with you. Juri, Kanako, Chizuru --you three keep an eye on your fearless leader. Make sure he doesn't do anything extraordinarily stupid." "Oi, Boss!", Ryūnosuke protested to the amusement of the others who all snickered. "You got it, Kiyoku." "Leave it to us!" "We'll keep him out of trouble.", Chizuru concluded. "Tsk, don't be ridiculous.", Ryūnosuke murmured and crossed his arms. "That's all from me. Stay in contact and have fun, but be responsible and be safe.", Kiyoku said. Iwa's phone buzzed and he looked at the screen. "Yup, that's our taxi. He's waiting outside.", he announced. "Then, we should be on our way.", Kiyoku nodded. "We'll see you off!", Juri insisted with the others quickly agreeing along. Together they all walked Kiyoku and Iwa outside to the front of the shop, where their taxi was waiting. Juri hugged them both and they all gave their farewells and safe travel wishes. Kiyoku sat in the taxi and watched Ryūnosuke and Iwa shake hands as they shared a non-verbal exchange that concluded with a nod before Iwa joined her in the backseat of the cab. As the car drove off, Kiyoku watched them wave goodbye through the rear-view mirror. She stuck her arm out of the left window and waved back. ----- ... RYŪNOSUKE lowered his arm and stuffed it into his pocket once the taxi was out of view. As he exhaled, his breath formed a warm cloud in front of his face. "Let's head back inside?", he suggested to the remaining members of WILD'S. "Yeah, I'm freezing my ass off already.", Kanako agreed and the four remaining members of the team reentered the shop. "I'll put on some coffee.", Ryūnosuke offered from the tail end of the group as they descended into the base. "Yay!", Juri cheered happily. "Look at you! Naughty boy ending the year off right.", Kanako teased. "Shaddap, will you?", Ryūnosuke grunted as he passed the others on his way to the pantry. As he prepared the coffee, the girls got comfortable at the kotatsu table. He overheard their conversation from afar, mostly Juri expressing her excitement about the Ichihara family trip to Hokkaido. Ryūnosuke was happy to see Juri so thrilled about it and he hoped she and Kanako would both enjoy it to the fullest. "I'm surprised you still get this excited about the trip after all these years, Juri.", Kanako remarked as Ryūnosuke handed out the coffee and then sat down beside Chizuru. Chizuru snugged up against his side and rested her head on his left shoulder. He felt warm and fuzzy inside and it wasn't from just the blanketed table. He allowed himself to dwell on the moment happily but of course his bliss was interrupted when he noticed Kanako giving him a sly glance as she sipped her coffee. "Of course I'm excited about it. It's one of my favorite family traditions. Kanako, let's do a lot of shopping again this year!", Juri exclaimed joyfully. Kanako sighed and smiled back at her. "I don't think mom's gonna have it any other way. Pretty sure we still have unopened stuff from last year tucked away at home.", Kanako replied. "Oh, that reminds me!", Juri perked up suddenly and faced Ryūnosuke and Chizuru. "Ryun, Chizuru --do you want anything special from Hokkaido?", the phoenix of WILD'S asked with a big pearly white smile. Ryūnosuke ruminated on the question for a moment; he couldn't think of anything that he'd like specifically from Hokkaido. Moreover, he didn't want Juri to worry about buying him a gift, anyway. "Hmm, I don't have anything specific in mind. I've never been to Hokkaido before so maybe just some pictures. I'll be happy as long as you two have tons of fun.", he replied. "Same here, you two just have a great time. Enjoy the holidays with your family.", Chizuru nodded. "Then, we'll take plenty of pictures and share them in the team chat. I'll take pictures of the festival and the fireworks too.", Juri promised. The four teammates chatted for a little longer as they finished their coffees. Once they were done, Ryūnosuke washed the mugs while the girls tidied up the base and unplugged all the appliances. Even though they were still inside, the base seemed to be the most "vacant" Ryūnosuke had ever seen it. The absence of Kiyoku and Iwa could already be felt and he could tell the others had probably all accepted the fact that they were going their separate ways for a while. There was a sadness in that fact, one that was at odds with the jovial and festive ambience that was present on the surface. Once they finished tidying up and collecting their belongings, Ryūnosuke again tailed the group as they climbed the stairs out of the base. The four of them stood together at the top of the stairs and looked inside. It was silent, cold, and nearly pitch black; save for the single light that dimly illuminated the stairs. Juri let out a sad sigh and Ryūnosuke rubbed the top of her head reassuringly as Kanako and Chizuru both rested a comforting hand on her shoulders. "It sure is gonna be strange not seeing you all here for the next few weeks.", Kanako commented sullenly. Ryūnosuke thought he heard her sniffle but didn't turn to confirm it. "Yeah, it'll be the longest we've been apart since --well, since the beginning really.", Ryūnosuke added. "We have to stay in touch, like Kiyoku said!", Juri sniffled and rubbed her eyes. "And we will. Just because we're not together at the shop doesn't mean we stop being friends.", Chizuru said. Ryūnosuke and the others nodded in agreement and then the former turned off the light switch beside the entrance and the base disappeared into complete darkness. "I'll finish closing up, you guys head on home.", Ryūnosuke said as he closed and locked the base entrance and then walked the trio out to the store proper. "Still racking up those last minute good boy points, eh?", Kanako teased again. "Alright, cya lovebirds after the new years.", she waved. "Maybe sooner than that?", Juri chimed in and spun around to face Ryūnosuke and Chizuru. "Will you come see us off the day after Christmas?", she asked earnestly. "Of course!", "Of course!" Ryūnosuke and Chizuru answered together without a second thought. "Thank you!", Juri beamed and hugged them both tightly. "See you the day after tomorrow --don't forget!", she said and then rushed back to Kanako who was waiting at the exit. Kanako looked directly at Ryūnosuke and pointed at him. "By the way, you're the only one who hasn't mentioned any holiday plans. You better have something in mind besides staying in the house alone like a total loser.", she jibed. The terrifying accuracy of her assessment had caught Ryūnosuke completely off guard but thankfully he was able to hide it with an exasperated scoff. "Oi, don't be ridiculous, dumbass. Give me a little credit.", he replied confidently and hoped it was convincing enough. Kanako frowned for a second but her expression softened as she appeared to glance at Chizuru and then she shrugged with a smile. "Yeah, whatever. Later!" The door bell jingled as Kanako swung it open and she and Juri walked off, huddled side-by-side, on their way home. "What was that about?" Ryūnosuke wondered as he rubbed the back of his neck. He turned to his right as he noticed Chizuru had moved towards a stack of boxes beside the cash register. "Chizuru, you can head home, too. I've got it from here.", he said as he rushed after her. "I'll help.", Chizuru replied flatly. Ryūnosuke didn't bother to argue any further --it would have been pointless. Besides, honestly, he was absolutely thrilled for every second he could have with Chizuru. Especially considering they hadn't had much time together in the past week and that would likely be the case for the next couple of weeks. It was understandable because her parents were in town and the holidays were one of the only times during the year Chizuru got to spend with them. Together, the pair started to carry the boxes into the storage room. "What are in these, anyway?", Chizuru asked. "Mostly just the leftover Christmas-themed stuff.", Ryūnosuke answered as he held the storage room door open with his leg and let Chizuru through. "Thanks.", she said with a smile. Ryūnosuke smiled back and watched her set a box down on an empty shelf. "So, you looked really pretty in your santa outfit.", he remarked. He watched Chizuru pause and he could see her blushing even though her back was to him. He didn't think he'd ever get bored of the way she reacted to his compliments. "I'm glad you think so. I thought it was kinda silly.", Chizuru replied. "What!" Ryūnosuke gasped in disbelief. Chizuru started to leave the storage room to fetch another box. Ryūnosuke followed after her as he spoke. "What do you mean? It was amazing, you were so hot! I was getting a little jealous of all the people snapping pictures with you.", he admitted unashamedly. Chizuru paused again. "Really?", she asked and looked dead at him with a blank expression. "Y-yeah! I mean, if anyone should get a picture of you in a santa outfit, it's me, right?", Ryūnosuke reasoned adamantly. Surprisingly, Chizuru just giggled, picked up another box and walked over to him. "What's funny?" "Here." She handed the box to him. As Ryūnosuke took it from her, Chizuru pounced forward and pecked him on his lips. Ryūnosuke felt his heart freeze as Chizuru's lips touched his. As she pulled away he lamented that the moment ended far too soon. Nevertheless, the happiness that remained impressed a lasting smile on his face. "Still feeling jealous?", Chizuru asked teasingly as she picked up another box. "Just a little bit.", Ryūnosuke murmured. "Another kiss will probably fix it.", he added with a smirk, trying his luck. ... CHIZURU playfully rolled her eyes as she approached Ryūnosuke. "Sure.", she replied and then pecked him on the lips again. She lingered for a moment longer this time, long enough to taste the faint hints of coffee on his lips and breath. "Okay, that's enough fooling around, let's finish up here.", Chizuru said as she pulled away. Ryūnosuke nodded speechlessly and they continued to move boxes in relative silence. Chizuru didn't mind --it was wonderful just being alone with Ryūnosuke, even if they weren't talking or touching. However, in that silence, Chizuru thought more and more about what Kanako had told her earlier. It was becoming increasingly apparent that Ryūnosuke likely hadn't made any plans for them, let alone for himself. Still, asking prevailed as the only way to know for certain, so Chizuru did just that as they were organizing the last of the boxes. "Ryūn, you actually have plans for the holidays, right?" Ryūnosuke's lips tensed shut and he chuckled nervously before interlocked his fingers behind his head. That pretty much confirmed everyone's suspicions. Chizuru gave him a concerned stare. "I did make plans. I was gonna patrol and stuff and play video-games at home.", Ryūnosuke answered defensively. "You're joking, right?" Chizuru asked, exasperated. While she was glad she'd asked, she wasn't sure she could have expected that answer. "That's not--", she sighed. "What about your family." "Well, my mom called and asked me about going to Osaka for the holidays but I told her I'd stay here.", he answered impassively. "Why?", Chizuru asked. "Because, I'm more useful here in Karakura.", he replied in a matter-of-fact tone. That was as stereotypical a Ryūnosuke-like answer one could expect. Chizuru shook her head. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were disappointed that I decided to stay.", Ryūnosuke frowned. "It's not like that." Chizuru crossed her arms. "I think you should've gone but of course I'm happy you're here." "Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. Just --have a great time with Tak-sensei and your parents. You haven't seen them all year.", Ryūnosuke placed a comforting hand on her shoulder and smiled. "It means a lot to me that you care, though." Ryūnosuke started to walk off and proudly remarked. "I'm lucky to be so loved.", as he left the storage room. "Idiot." Chizuru whispered to herself and sighed as she left the storage room, turned off the light switch, and locked the door behind her. Ryūnosuke swept and mopped the floor and Chizuru wiped down all the counters and surfaces. Once they were done, Ryūnosuke closed and locked the shop. "Thanks for the help!", he said. "You're welcome." Chizuru nodded. "I'll walk you home.", Ryūnosuke offered. "Let's go, then." Chizuru snuggled closely to his side and hugged his arm. She held and warmed his right hand in her two palms. From the shop, the walk to her childhood home in Tsubakidai wasn't that long, but it felt especially short as the couple walked in silence. Chizuru was focused between her own thoughts and trying to enjoy living in the present moment. Occasionally, she'd look at Ryūnosuke's face and wonder what he was thinking about. He eyes and his expressions never gave anything away --he seemed focused and observant at times and pensive at others. However, he always smiled when they locked eyes. It wasn't until they arrived at her home that Chizuru noticed a distinct expression of despondence flash across Ryūnosuke's face as the house came into view. He forced a smile as quickly as it had occurred and glanced at Chizuru, checking to see if she'd noticed it. She had. She just so happened to be looking at him that very second, if she'd blinked she might've missed it. Regardless, Ryūnosuke continued under the assumption that she had been none the wiser. "We got here pretty fast, huh?", he said and chuckled. Chizuru felt a heaviness in her heart as she picked up on the pain he tried to hide behind his words and smile. An irrational part of her was ready to stay with him in the cold, insisting that trivial things like hunger and exposure to the elements weren't an issue at all as long as they were together. "Well, let's get you inside and out of the cold." Ryūnosuke added. Chizuru held his arm tighter and didn't let go until they reached the front door. ----- [Sugiyama Residence] ... RYŪNOSUKE took a step back and watched Chizuru open the door. As sad as he was that their walk had come to an end, he was grateful for the time they'd spent together. Ultimately, there was no need for him to be melodramatic about parting ways for now, he'd still be able to reach her by phone and they were both staying in town. Finding time for dates between now and the new year wasn't completely out of the realm of possibility. Just as he was about to say his farewells, Chizuru turned and faced him. "Come inside and warm up for a bit.", she said. Ryūnosuke raised his palms dismissively. "Uh, no. It's fine, Chizuru. Really." "Are you that scared of meeting my parents?", Chizuru replied. "I'm not scared." Ryūnosuke retorted sharply before he sighed and continued with a neutral tone. "I just don't want to impose." Chizuru stepped towards him and grabbed his hand. "You're not imposing. I want you to stay for dinner.", she said and pulled Ryūnosuke inside. "I'm home!", she announced as she let Ryūnosuke in and closed the door behind her. The comforting warmth of the house hit him liked a welcomed embrace and banished the sting of the outside cold within moments. The house was lit with warm hues of orange and yellow and the air was heavy with a sweet scent that reminded Ryūnosuke of peppermint candy, as well as the savory smell of hot food. The Tengu of WILD'S felt his mouth beginning to water as he realized how hungry he was. "Pardon my intrusion.", Ryūnosuke murmured and bowed. "Welcome home, dear!", replied a feminine voice from deeper within the house. "Welcome home, Chizuru. You're just in time for dinner!", followed a masculine voice shortly afterwards. Ryūnosuke could tell that it wasn't Takeo, so he assumed it must've been Chizuru's father speaking. Ryūnosuke's heartbeat spiked and he accepted that he was in fact a little bit nervous after all. "I brought a guest!", Chizuru announced and then, as if she'd sensed Ryūnosuke's growing unease, she turned and whispered to him reassuringly, "Mom and dad can be a bit eccentric but they're harmless. Just be yourself, they'll love you." She gave a wink as the sound of approaching footsteps could be heard from down the corridor. Ryūnosuke nodded and swallowed down his nerves. "You brought a guest, who is it?", asked Chizuru's mother before her head poked out for the side of a wall. The woman bore a striking resemblance to Chizuru; it was almost as if she was an older, matured version of Chizuru from the future. She shared most of Chizuru's facial features, except that her cheers were a little puffier and she had the traces of emerging wrinkles. Her silky, raven-black hair was cut much shorter than Chizuru's and even Takeo's; it extended down to her chin and framed the sides of her face. Her dark eyes and thick lashes sat behind the round lenses of frameless glasses. "Oh, honey, come look --quick! It's a handsome young man!", she exclaimed excitedly with widened eyes. Ryūnosuke blushed. "A young man, you said?" Chizuru's father replied back before his head stuck out from above his wife's. He looked like a middle-aged actor from one of the drama series Juri liked to watch. Handsome and well put together. He short black hair was neatly brushed back in the same way Ryūnosuke's father styled his own. Ryūnosuke could immediately tell that Chizuru's father was a tall man; at least 193 centimeters tall by the teenager's estimation. He supposed that's where Takeo got some of his height. "Wow, it is a young man!", he exclaimed after his wife. "Yes, that's what I said, dear.", Chizuru's mother smiled warmly. "Our little girl brought a young man home on Christmas eve!" Chizuru's parents stepped out from behind the wall and started to pace excitedly towards the door. "Could he be the boyfriend Takkie was mentioning?" "No way! I thought that was a joke!" "Me too!" "We can hear you both.", Chizuru cut in. Ryūnosuke bowed and introduced himself, "N-nice to meet you! Good evening. I'm Tamura Ryūnosuke. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!". As he raised his head, Ryūnosuke saw Chizuru's mother clapping excitedly, while her father beamed as her side. "Mom, dad this is my-", Chizuru's sentence was cut short. "Yes, yes we know!", her mother interrupted. She yanked Chizuru closer to her and started to whisper and giggle something into her ear. Ryūnosuke looked up and met eyes with Chizuru's father as he stepped forwards and outstretched his hand towards the teenager. "Pleasure to meet you, Tamura-kun. My name is Sugiyama Tamaki and that lovely bundle of girlish joy is my wife, Sugiyama Asuka." Ryūnosuke shook Tamaki's hand firmly and bowed. "Wow, that's an exceptional handshake.", Tamaki complimented. "Pleasure to meet you, Tamura-kun.", Asuka said, facing Ryūnosuke again, and bowed. "Welcome into our home. I'm Chizuru's mother. Thank you for looking after our daughter." Chizuru hugged Ryūnosuke's arm and addressed her parents. "I invited Ryūnosuke for dinner. That's okay, right?" "Of course!", Asuka replied. "Come on in, Tamura-kun! No need to be bashful!", Tamaki added and laughed as he patted Ryūnosuke hard on his back three times and nudged him towards the dining room. "Takkie, we have a guest!", Asuka shouted up the stair case on the left of the corridor. "We're having fried chicken, I hope that's fine with you, Tamura-kun." "Yes, of course. Thank you.", Ryūnosuke replied. Asuka pointed Ryūnosuke to the small bathroom at the end of the corridor so he could wash his hands. Chizuru went upstairs to change. When he returned to the dining room, Tamaki had already pulled out a chair for Ryūnosuke and ushered him to sit. On the table was a full spread of golden-brown and crispy food and soft drinks. Ryūnosuke felt his stomach rumble hungrily as he sat down. He again thanked the hosts and bowed. Tamaki sat at the head of the table just to Ryūnosuke's right. "Tamura-kun. I have to admit, my son Takeo has mentioned you on a few occasions." Tamaki commented. "Mostly to tease his sister. We were starting to think you were just a joke he made up, honestly.", Asuka chimed in as she sat down directly across from Ryūnosuke and rested her chin on her palm with her elbow on the table. Ryūnosuke tensed up momentary as he felt their eyes studying him. "Relax, it was all good things." Tamaki laughed and patted Ryūnosuke's shoulder twice. "That's why we felt we should get to know you better for ourselves. I just thought you should know that you've come up in passing a few times." "Of course he has!", said a third voice that was very familiar. Ryūnosuke looked up and locked eyes with Takeo and he casually strolled into the dining room and plopped down in the chair beside his mother. It was strange that Ryūnosuke found himself feeling a bit relieved to see Takeo. He was wearing a gray short-sleeved sweater with dark blue tracksuit bottoms. "He's my number two disciple and the romantic interest of my darling brat of a little sister, after all." Ryūnosuke narrowed his eyes at Takeo and glared. "Oi, stop calling me your number two disciple, Tak-sensei.", Ryūnosuke muttered. "Tamura-kun, Tamura-kun." Takeo slowly shook his head. "You know I can't rightfully call you my number one disciple --that title is still rightfully Chizuru's." "No, that's not the issue.", Ryūnosuke retorted through gritted teeth. "For the hundreth time, we're not your disciples, stupid big brother." Chizuru walked into the dining room and sat down beside Ryūnosuke. She had on a beige knitted cardigan with a white top and grey joggers. She smiled and held Ryūnosuke's hand under the table. "So harsh." Takeo slumped back dramatically and placed his hands over his heart. Asuka giggled. "That's so cute, you three seem quite familiar already." Ryūnosuke and Chizuru shared a look and blushed. "Well, we can talk more as we eat. Tamura-kun, I hope you brought an appetite, don't be shy." Tamaki said. Shortly after they started to eat, Asuka looked at Ryūnosuke and plainly asked, "So, Tamura-kun, what's your birthday?" "November thirteenth.", Ryūnosuke answered curiously. Asuka clapped and looked at Tamaki with a prideful grin. "Hah, topaz! Just like I told yah." Tamaki sighed with a defeated expression. "Yeah, yeah --you were right, as always, dear." "You owe me six thousand yen.", Asuka teased. "Topaz?", Ryūnosuke asked. As far as he knew, that was some kind of gemstone but he didn't understand it's relevance to the conversation. Chizuru snickered. "It's your birthstone. Whenever mom and dad meet someone new they bet on who can correctly guess the person's birthstone. It's a fancy way of guessing the month you were born.", Chizuru answered. "Dad thought your birthstone was sapphire --that's September." "Whoa, that sounds fun." Ryūnosuke beamed. "Can I try it?" "Sure, if you've got six thousand yen.", Tamaki cackled. "Deal!", Ryūnosuke answered without hesitation. "Honey!" Asuka cut in. "I'm joking, I'm joking. Tamura-kun you get one free guess each. Go for it!" "Ain't no way he gets it right." Takeo scoffed and took a big bite of a chick leg. Ryūnosuke paused for a moment to think about it. He didn't have anything concrete to go on but for some reason he recalled that Chizuru's birthday was August 27th. Ultimately, he decided to just wing it with a random guess. "So-", Ryūnosuke paused as he realized he wasn't sure how he should address Chizuru's parents. However, Asuka must've caught on from his expression and waved nonchalantly. "Oh, Asuka-san and Tamaki-san will do!" Ryūnosuke blushed and shook his head. "No, I couldn't!" "We insist. It's fine, Tamura-kun." Ryūnosuke glanced at Takeo, the latter seemed to be enjoying his nervousness, which had the effect of boosting his confidence out of sheer opposition. Followed by a reassuring squeeze of his hand from Chizuru, Ryūnosuke had finally mustered the will and composure to answer. "So, A-Asuka-san. What's the birthstone for March?", Ryūnosuke asked. "That would be Aquamarine... but sadly, that's incorrect.", she replied. "Dammit!", Ryūnosuke hissed lowly and dropped his head in defeat. "Don't give up yet, Tamura-kun. You might guess Tamaki's correctly." Ryūnosuke snapped up and faced Chizuru's father confidently. "Give me a hint?", he requested boldly. "Nope.", Tamaki replied back bluntly. Asuka shook her head slowly with a smirk. "No hints allowed." Ryūnosuke grunted. "Fine then. What's July?" "Ruby." Chizuru answered. "Tamaki-san, is your birthstone ruby?" Ryūnosuke watched the surprise grow on Tamaki's face and it filled him with triumphant pride. "That's right, Tamura-kun! Good guess!" Tamaki declared cheerfully. "Haha! Really, I got it right!", Ryūnosuke cheered. "No.", "Not even close.", "Sorry, Tamura-kun, you're zero for two." Tamaki burst into a fit of laughter and Ryūnosuke sunk into his chair a bit as the rest of the Sugiyama chuckled along. "Sorry, Tamura-kun. We were only teasing you a bit." "My birthstone is actually topaz, just like yours.", Asuka answered moments later. "Mine's Garnet, the stone of January.", Tamaki said afterwards. "I must say, Tamura-kun. You're one of the only people to every ask to play along like that, I was surprised." "Mhm, me too.", Asuka agreed. Ryūnosuke smiled as he silently accepted what sounded like a compliment. Gradually, he was feeling his nerves melt away the more he interacted with Chizuru's parents.
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