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[nsfw] All right! Fine! I'll take you! [oregairu]

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    Не могу читать через переводчик на оригинальном сайте - https://forum.questionablequesting.com/threads/all-right-fine-ill-take-you-oregairu.15676/ . Так что, выкладываю здесь, чтобы спокойно читать. Текст не мой, права не мои, выкладываю без разрешения автора. Ссылка на произведение выше.

  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I"ll take you! - Chapter 1
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
  So as I pray, Unlimited Keystroke Works!
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  All right! Fine! I"ll take you! - Chapter 1
  
  Spoiler: Author's Note:
  There comes a time in the life of every man where temptation appears. Should I say I forgot my wallet back home? Should I look at the finished test of the bookworm sitting next to me? Should I look at the walkthrough before fighting the final boss? Should I push Zaimokuza in front of an incoming truck just to grant him a chance at his wildest fantasies? Society conditions us to refuse temptation so that people who are-
  
  "Take me!"
  
  Ahem. So that people who are below the totem pole don"t take advantage of opportunities that are not approved of by the system to rise up. Resisting temptation is a virtue because it allows the system to self-perpetuate, to keep down the ones who are down-
  
  "Take me!"
  
  Oh, for... Say, for instance, that a high schooler on the verge of graduation is entangled in a love triangle for reasons beyond his reckoning. The two girls in question are age-appropriate, both attractive in their own way, and, asides from their unexplainable attraction to the dense harem protagonist, apparently sane. Mostly. Society dictates that he should choose one of them and allow the other to go through heartbreak; that"s the established solution, and anything else would be cheating-
  
  "Take me! Take me! Take me!"
  
  Ms. Hiratsuka, you aren"t making this any easier. So, what is this boy supposed to do when confronted by the temptation of his delicious Christmas cake teacher? Should he go on a diet? Abstain from even the most remote chance of catching diabetes? Gorge himself on ludicrous amounts of plump, round, bouncy icing till his-
  
  "Take me! Take me! Take-!"
  
  "For heaven"s sake-all right! Fine! I"ll take you!"
  
  "Eh? Hmph! Hmph!"
  
  Before I can (finish) talk(ing) myself out of it, I am leaning over the small table that separates me from my gorgeous, middle-aged teacher, grasping her white coat-clad shoulders, and silencing the maddening siren call of her combo-finisher "take mes" by pressing my own lips on hers.
  
  She tastes like cherries. Should have known she would use a high schooler"s lip gloss. Ms. Hiratsuka, don"t you know a woman who doesn"t act her age comes across as desperate and desperation is the ultimate mood-killer? Source: me.
  
  "Hikigaya... I..."
  
  She leans back and breathes my name against my lips, possibly to stop me. It is a very counterintuitive way to reach that goal.
  
  I push forward, bumping my shin against the corner of the table as I try to climb over it. I should have known my first kiss would end up in pain.
  
  Hiratsuka"s eyes are wildly open, looking into my own with something close to full-blown panic. Should have known I would terrify the first girl I kissed. Hey, Ms. Hiratsuka, I called you a girl in my internal narration, aren"t you happy?
  
  Her eyes don"t stray as I advance the last few inches that separate us, and, this time, I am slow enough not to take her by surprise. I lean forward.
  
  Our lips touch.
  
  We move.
  
  After all, I think I like cherries.
  
  Though I could do without the tobacco aftertaste.
  
  I would like to say I leave her breathless through sheer passion, that my heretofore unrevealed abilities as the ultimate lover are awakened and her pupils turn into pink hearts (which would look terrifying, so I am actually glad that doesn"t happen), but this is my first kiss, my shin is hurting like Zaimokuza"s beta reader, and the posture is awkward like... like everything related to both romance and Hikigaya Hachiman. No surprises there. I manage to climb across the table and sit beside her on her chair, mindful of making too much noise as we are still in the teacher"s lounge, even if we have these increasingly suspicious privacy screens. Hiratsuka shuffles, making room for me, and her hands travel up my back before tangling her fingers through my short hair. I like it, so, like the very good and diligent student that I am (LOL), I copy her and grasp her by her nape, making her let a little whimper of pleasure against my lips.
  
  God, she"s so beautiful...
  
  I can"t help myself and grasp her hips, shifting her so she is now sitting on my lap, never allowing our lips to part. Then, shyly, as if asking for permission, her tongue peeks from between her lips and moistens my own.
  
  I lose it.
  
  I open my mouth and devour her. My tongue tangles with hers, muffled gasps swallowed by my eager mouth as my vision goes white, as a torrent of heat rushes up my body, and I realize that yes, I am kissing this gorgeous bundle of insecurities and mature wisdom, this woman who has done so much for me and... I grasp her by her neck and her lower back, pressing her against me as the predictable physiological phenomenon occurs beneath my waistband, and I allow the sensation of her squirming on top of it to take away unnecessary thoughts.
  
  "Hachi... Hachiman, we should stop..."
  
  I nibble the side of her neck with a possessive urge I haven"t felt outside of particularly heated waifu wars. "Why?" My voice is hoarse and my wit nowhere to be found. How surprising. Not.
  
  "Yukinoshita... Yuigahama... Iroha?"
  
  That last name is not like the others, I am compelled to claim, yet the point does not evade me.
  
  "What? Do you want them to watch?"
  
  Though I can still act like it did.
  
  She slaps my chest and pouts at me, so I nibble her protruding lip before she has a chance to retract. Don"t provoke me, woman!
  
  "You know what I mean. They... and you... And I am so..."
  
  "You are making it far too easy for me to pretend not to know what you actually mean. Keep at it, it makes my job easier."
  
  The pout turns into a glare. It would look much fiercer without the blush that manages to cross the bridge of her nose in a prolonged, two-pronged campaign. Fight on, Blush-chan! You can do it, Blush-chan!
  
  "You are thinking something stupid to avoid the consequences of this, aren"t you?"
  
  "I don"t know, maybe it"s just that all the blood necessary to think not-stupid thoughts is currently devoted to trying to lift your shapely butt through the power of applied hydraulics."
  
  "..."
  
  "I did say that out loud, didn"t I?"
  
  "This is why Yukinoshita calls you a creep, you know?"
  
  "First of all, I have never mentioned any of the intricacies of the male body going through puberty to Yukinoshita, second of all, could we please stop talking about her?"
  
  "Would you rather talk about Yui?"
  
  My traitorous brain can"t help but conjure Yuigahama"s Yuigahamas. Ms. Hiratsuka is not a slouch in that department (maybe the only department where she doesn"t slouch out of habit), but she"s still far from the reigning champion of my... My something extremely complicated that I dearly do not want to define at this very moment.
  
  What else is new, Hikigaya Hachiman?
  
  "And there"s the brooding look that was missing."
  
  "At least I am not pouting."
  
  "I am not pouting!"
  
  I pointedly look at the protruding lip that had been my target not that long ago and she retracts it. Before licking it nervously. I am getting mixed messages here.
  
  "So, consequences. What a fun topic."
  
  "I am twice your age, your teacher, and you are about to wage war on the whole administration and PTA on behalf of one of the two girls who have been surgically attached to you since you were introduced. This"-she gestures down towards where her excellent derriere is still parked on top of my lap -"is absurd, and you should forget about it."
  
  "Counterpoint: you aren"t twice my age, more like one and a half"-her knuckles dig into my solar plexus, and I let out a not at all surprised gasp-"I mean, you are much younger than that, almost as young as you look-please stop trying to give me a masochistic fetish-I am just one year from graduation, and I would go to war with the whole PTA over the brand of canned coffee they have available."
  
  "You care a lot about the brand of canned coffee we have available."
  
  "Right. Poor example."
  
  The hand that was still worryingly pressed below my breast bone relaxes, and her palm comes to rest over my chest. Ms. Hiratsuka, taller than me, a gallant figure straight out of a movie poster with fast cars and expensive cocktails, impossibly looks up into my eyes. My mouth dries at seeing them moist.
  
  "This is impossible, Hachiman."
  
  My hand cups her cheek, and I breathe my answer against her lips.
  
  "This is inevitable, Shizu."
  
  And I kiss her.
  
  Not frantically, not half-maddened by the desperate litany of someone who fears loneliness as much as I do.
  
  Gently.
  
  Probingly.
  
  Lovingly.
  
  My mind is thankfully silent as I feel our bodies entangle, pressing against one another. The stiff fabric of her vest stops me from feeling her heat seeping into mine, from feeling her softness against my chest, but my fingers make up for it by delighting in the silk of her long hair as they travel down her tresses, exploring a back slim yet toned with muscle and finding so, so many delightful spots that, when pressed, result in little whimpers that I keep swallowing as soon as she releases them. Her whole body is enticing, her legs crossed atop my own radiating a warmth that grows as my pulse quickens, her firm behind molded against me in a way that should be obscene yet falls slightly short, her chest kept prisoner of a vest that, stylish as it is, I am beginning to despise (seriously, get a hint, you pretentious wifebeater). But, more than that, it is her slender, smooth neck that holds my fascination, as I keep making her shiver by softly dragging the back of my fingers up and down its length.
  
  I don"t know how long we take, but we don"t end up brusquely separating while trying to get some much-needed air. We separate gently, languidly, our foreheads touching as our lips barely graze each other. Looking into one another"s eyes.
  
  "Why?" She asks, barely audible over my thundering heartbeat.
  
  "Because it is genuine." And she smiles, and I smile with her, and it is not a creepy smile, it is not insincere, not trying to show what isn"t there. It... is a smile. Nothing more. Nothing less. Wonderful.
  
  "It won"t be easy."
  
  "Ms. Hiratsuka, I am offended that you would think I would be easy. I would have you know I treasure my virtue and I am saving myself for my future working wife, to which I will devote my very being as a househusband."
  
  "There"s that twisted side of yours, I wondered where it went."
  
  "Twisted? I will have you know I am the very embodiment of the virtues of the Japanese spouse. I swear solemnly to receive you at the end of the day with the sacred phrase: "Would you like a bath, dinner, or... me, Ms. Hiratsuka?""
  
  "Stop that."
  
  "Stop what?"
  
  She leans forward, her chin tucked against my shoulder, her cheek caressing mine, and she breathes against my ear, "Stop saying my... Just... Just call me Shizu?"
  
  I feel something snap inside my head.
  
  My arms surround her of their own volition, smashing her chest against mine as she gasps.
  
  "Shizu."
  
  I nibble on her neck, still wet from my last try, and she whimpers as I murmur once again.
  
  "Shizu."
  
  My hands wander, one pulling her hair so that she offers me her throat, the other venturing towards her backside, grasping it with more daring than I would have thought I had.
  
  "Shizu."
  
  She moans, surprised as I maul her flesh with my eager fingers, as I suckle on her skin, delighting in her taste that no longer carries tobacco, and I venture to unclasp her vest (vanquished at last, my eternal foe), finally feeling her breasts without the stiff cloth hindering me.
  
  "Mine."
  
  I growl, and she whimpers.
  
  I grab at her with all my strength, every gasp, every moan, a sign that I have a hold of her, that she is not beyond my grasp. Because she fears being alone, but I... I fear letting go.
  
  So I don"t.
  
  "Hachiman... Hn! Please!"
  
  I don"t listen, now nibbling on her ear, still grabbing her hair, while I finally venture between her legs to find slight wetness soaking through her slacks. I begin to rub her and she jolts, the movement felt too strongly given what still lies beneath her (that is, me-a very much eager me).
  
  "Hachiman, please, please, please, please-"
  
  I rub up and down, not fast, but firmly, with short strokes. I hope eroge has taught me well.
  
  And then she grabs my wrist and, with wild eyes and short breath, she tells me:
  
  "Hachiman, please, stop."
  
  What a surprise. Not.
  
  Something of my utter dejection must have shown on my face (I guess dead fish eyes can still be expressive), because she hurries to console me: "We are still in the teacher"s lounge, you know?"
  
  Oh.
  
  "Oh."
  
  The fond exasperation would be more convincing if you didn"t look like a gravure model who has finished an impromptu photoshoot after a bikini malfunction, a hidden camera, and a photographer that would make the #metoo movement faint, Ms. Hiratsuka. Mental note: never even think about gravure models when around Shizu. My brain-to-mouth filter is not to be trusted.
  
  "Yes, oh."
  
  "Stop trying to act cool while looking like a gravure model who just realized the kind of photoshoot she signed up for." Damn it, brain! You had one job!
  
  "Stop trying to distract me from how cute my clueless student can look," she ripostes, her eyes full of cheeky affection.
  
  "Cute? Me? Is that blush from heatstroke, Shizu? Should we go to the nurse"s office?"
  
  We both freeze at that. As we look at each other, we say at once: "We should go to the nurse"s office."
  
  ***
  
  I hurry through corridors tinted orange by the evening sun and reach the nurse"s office so quickly that the speed alone would disprove any legitimate reason for me being there. Luckily, the place is empty, and I settle on one of the beds to wait for Ms. Hirat-for Shizu, each second feeling like a minute and each minute feeling like-like something very long. An info dump at the beginning of a fantasy novel written for the likes of Zaimokuza? Yes, let"s go with that.
  
  We decided to come separately in case... Of something that should be obvious, given the very illicit nature of this burgeoning relationship. It may also have been a factor that I have had to walk here in standard adolescent male gait number two (hunched over, hands in my pockets-you know why) and not even the legendary Stealth Hikki would be enough to cover for this if I was walking beside a gorgeous woman who-hormones. Right. My old nemesis, we meet again.
  
  Still, Shizu is taking her sweet time coming and I am starting to get nervous. Not for any actual reason, asides from all the very valid reasons.
  
  Just as I am starting to ponder the merits of pacing around the room in a manner very unbefitting of an energy-saving character-sorry, Houtarou-sensei, it seems I have abandoned your teachings-I hear the unmistakable clacking of hard-soled shoes approaching, and Shizu"s silhouette appears through the ground glass window of the door. I hold my breath.
  
  And she pauses.
  
  I look at her distorted image, awful comprehension sinking in with each second that she doesn"t come in.
  
  And the image disappears as her harsh footsteps vanish down the corridor.
  
  I lie back on the bed that had filled me with so much anticipation just seconds ago, and I look at the ceiling like a traumatized robot pilot-I should buy myself some headphones. As I finally let out the breath I had been holding, I can"t help but say:
  
  "My illicit romance is messed up, as I expected."
  
  I should come up with better taglines.
  
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  Last edited: May 28, 2022
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  Agrippa, Aug 8, 2021Report#2Like+ QuoteReply
  Vantila13, quackmesideways, [template] and 387 others like this.
  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I"ll take you! - Chapter 2
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
  So as I pray, Unlimited Keystroke Works!
  Joined:Feb 26, 2018
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  It is an obvious yet easily overlooked fact that words that describe essentially the same concept apply almost exclusively to a select class of people and never the other. If a homeless man starts walking around the neighborhood talking about how the voices of the spirits are responsible for his unemployment, he is a "nutcase," but if the very same man was an actual millionaire speaking about how his corporally-challenged friends gave him tips to get rich on the stock market, people would pay for the privilege of listening to his rambles and speak in awe about this "eccentric" genius. Much in the same vein, if a traumatized, billionaire bodybuilder decides to spend his rainy days posing on top of an assortment of gargoyles he is "brooding," but if an unpopular teenager lies on his bed and covers his eyes with his arm after being rejected by the first woman he kissed, he"s "moping or "sulking."
  
  Truly, the thesaurus is yet another weapon of oppression wielded by society. Rise up in arms, fellow illiterates, destroy the overly flowery Zaimokuzas of the world!
  
  My phone message tone rings, and I jump up from my bed.
  
  It is not Ms. Hiratsuka"s number. My shoulders slump.
  
  May as well read it.
  
  "Hey, Hikigaya, this is Haruno, Yukino"s sister. I am in front of your house, come down."
  
  I blink in confusion before a cold shiver runs down my spine. Maybe I can fake being already asleep-
  
  My phone screeches its merciless death toll once again: "Stop fidgeting in front of your window and come here NOW."
  
  I throw my uniform jacket on and rush down the stairs while elevating a prayer to Zaimokuza, Patron Saint of Those Who Will Die Virgins, so that he can spare me his own fate, and open the door. She is there, her back resting against a lamppost, cheerfully waving at me.
  
  "Hey, Hikigaya! Good to see you, come over here!"
  
  It would be less threatening if she was waving a bloody knife. Deliver me from the Yuno Gasais of this world, Saint Zaimokuza.
  
  In front of me stands Haruno Yukinoshita, a beautiful, intelligent, clever, perceptive woman, much like her younger sister if she had about ten robot pilots less insecurities and trauma and about five kuuderes worth of unfathomable depths, a ruthless disregard for societal norms, and a tendency to amuse herself by playing to, or against, the expectations of others. It"s like Yukino"s and my own child has come back from the post-apocalyptic future wearing a killer android flesh as a disguise. I know said future would be post-apocalyptic because that would explain how Yukino and I even managed to think of having a child together.
  
  She"s also, for reasons none of them have ever explained to me, one of Shizuka"s friends.
  
  Which means I am about to confront the sister of my "cathetus" and friend of my "this better remain quiet," who is also known for playing mind games with me because I am just that amusing. No, I am not nervous.
  
  Nervous is a long, fond memory at this time.
  
  "So, are you going to keep ogling me, or are you going to come over and have a nice, friendly chat," she asks in a way that is neither nice nor friendly. I mean, she is smiling, sure, but most fish have a genetic memory that screams at them to run away when they see this many teeth.
  
  Which is definitive proof that I must be dumber than fishes, because I am now walking toward her, lazily waving my arm and mumbling a studiously informal "Sup."
  
  There"s a flash of amusement before the knifey smile makes a comeback. "Oh, you know, not much. I just went out for drinks with a few of my friends and you"d never guess who I ran into."
  
  "The sample size of our mutual acquaintances who can legally drink is not exactly that big," I deflect, with a tone so flat I can feel the medical team rush in with crackling defibrillators.
  
  "Right. So it wouldn"t be a guess, but a deduction with a high likelihood of being correct. So I am right: you would never guess," she presses on, with what would be a smug tone if "smug" had a lethal setting.
  
  I resist the urge to sigh and try to loosen my shoulders. "... What did she say?"
  
  "Well, that about clinches it..." The question must show in my eyes, because she quickly clarifies. "She didn"t name you, Hikki, she still had her guard up, even after drinking... however much she drank before I found her. You know, it"s usually fun to rib her about her bastard exes while she goes on a drunk rant, but... Not today. Today wasn"t fun at all."
  
  "I don"t even know what I did-"
  
  "Of course you don"t."
  
  We keep silently looking at each other, and I start getting angry rather than nervous. This is the genius of the Yukinoshita family, the idol that Yukino can"t help but tear herself down over because she won"t ever measure up to her. This is the woman who has made me feel like a heel after her whole "codependency" revelation because apparently I am hurting my friends when I help them. This is the woman I fear as much as an older version of myself. She knows me.
  
  And so, I kind of know her in turn.
  
  "There"s something you want me to say, something you want me to believe has come from a deep revelation about my issues while you have planted the seeds without my knowing. You want me to tell you these words at the end of this conversation and act on them starting tomorrow morning," I say, acid dripping from every syllable.
  
  She looks at me, really looks, her eyes glinting under the yellow light of the streetlamp. And her smile softens and she chuckles-right before she just starts guffawing, loud peals of laughter making me feel strange coming from this beautiful woman (damn you, hormones!), and she claps my shoulders with both hands, coming uncomfortably closer to me (not the time, hormones!).
  
  "I always forget how hilarious you are, Hikki. It almost makes it up for all the bullshit you are pulling right now."
  
  "We could get to the end of this much sooner if you started talking straight."
  
  "Yes, we could, but faster is not always better. Maybe I should have taught you a bit before I let you have your shot at Yukino?" The meaning of the line flies right over my head till it decides to do a one-eighty and dive-bomb me from behind. I feel my cheeks redden, and Haruno"s chuckle doesn"t make it better.
  
  "Much as I would have appreciated your... instruction..." I can"t believe I am saying this with a straight face. "I am not sure how Yukinoshita would have taken it."
  
  "Another chance to try and one up her dearest, older sister? You would have died a happy man, Hikigaya."
  
  The blush is about to become an aneurysm. "I feel like I should call an adult."
  
  "I am an adult."
  
  Police? Yes, I would like to report a crime in progress...
  
  "Though I think Hiratsuka would be cross with me if I deprived her of the chance to teach you herself..."
  
  A bitter taste fills my mouth. "I think her pedagogical calling has cooled in that regard."
  
  "You really can be stupid, for such a smart man."
  
  "You really can be cryptic, for such a duplicitous woman."
  
  "Oh, if only I was four years younger..."
  
  "That would have made you a year younger than me."
  
  "And how would it make you feel to have me calling you "senpai?"" The otaku in me nearly chokes on his tongue at the line. The male adolescent starts coughing as she claps my back. "Well, that"s my answer, I guess."
  
  "Right, enough dancing around; what do you want, Yukinoshita?" I ask, with all the authority left in me while I wipe my coughed saliva with my sleeve and try not to have my cheeks spontaneously combust. It"s not much, admittedly.
  
  "Tell me what you think happened. In exchange, I will tell you what I think happened." Straightforward, and apparently fair enough. So it is obviously a trap, but I am far too tired to look for it.
  
  "Shizu went on one of her rants about how she will die an old spinster, I kissed her in the heat of the moment, and she was apparently fine with the idea. Then we decided to go to a less public place. I went first, and she..." I remember a silhouette through ground glass, long dark hair waving as she turned around, the sound of hard soles clacking against the floor fading into the distance. "And she didn"t come." I lie. Haruno knows it, but she doesn"t care to press me.
  
  "I asked you what you think happened, Hikki, not to give me a list of events," she says, not unkindly.
  
  "That I got dumped."
  
  "Right. That"s what I thought." Her hands are still on my shoulders, their weight anchoring me in the moment and not on what I was feeling in my room just twenty minutes ago. For that much, I am grateful. "You are wrong, of course."
  
  "There"s not much wiggle room, Yukinoshita."
  
  "They call you a "monster of logic," don"t they? Tell me, Hikigaya, what happens when, in the most perfect logical framework you can imagine, you introduce false assumptions?"
  
  I pause, looking at her, at eyes so often mischievous, so often mercilessly cold. "What don"t I know?"
  
  She smiles, looking at me, at eyes so often dead, inexpressive. Hers are warm, mine are wet. "She never rejected you."
  
  "She didn"t come."
  
  "She didn"t. So she didn"t confront you, didn"t tell you she didn"t want you, didn"t reject you. She fled, so she didn"t have to. Now, does "Shizu" strike you as the kind of person who would deliberately hurt you just to avoid being embarrassed?"
  
  She doesn"t. No, not Shizu-oh gods, I just called her Shizu out loud, this is mortifying-she... Ms. Hiratsuka always goes out of her way for the members of the Service Club. She shamelessly plays favorites with us, especially with me, going out of her way to include me, to give details of her life beyond the professional, to be there when I break down. She would never hurt me for something as petty as mere embarrassment, not when she has embarrassed herself plenty enough on my behalf and in front of me.
  
  "You are starting to get it. Shizuka is not a monster of logic, Hikki, but she may very well be a monster of duty. She is a moral person, willing to always go above and beyond what is expected of her for others, always giving more than taking. So..." she trails off, expecting me to finish.
  
  "So, once she calmed down she decided she shouldn"t... do anything with her student, even if that was what she wanted to, and precisely because she wanted to she avoided the temptation. And because it was a temptation and she felt guilty about it, she tried to drown her sorrows in cheap sake and too many salty snacks." And I do.
  
  "I see you know her well."
  
  "So do you. Did she ever tell you about something "genuine?""
  
  "... I am not going to answer that question," she says, her eyes once again hardened. "But if you want something genuine, Hikki... What about my sister?"
  
  "I-I promise I will do things right. I won"t hurt her."
  
  There"s a blur of motion, and suddenly my back is against the wall and Haruno"s breath is tickling my face. I don"t know what to-
  
  "I am not going to kiss you, Hikigaya."
  
  Well, that just narrows it down to murder.
  
  "I may hit you, though."
  
  Or maiming. I guess that"s also a possibility.
  
  She shifts her hands, the way she is holding me, and only now do I realize how utterly incapable of escaping I am. I remember Yukino"s off-handed comment about her sister excelling at everything, including martial arts, and I am suddenly hoping this is a shounen and not a seinen. She presses nearer, the scent of lilacs overwhelming my senses and her breath scalding against my ear.
  
  "You will hurt her. You will likely hurt her worse than anybody ever has, and that pain will be genuine. That pain will help her grow out of the stupid child she has so stubbornly refused to let go of. And you will hurt Shizuka, as you tear down her values and force her to confront them with her feelings, you will wound her, by showing her how irreconcilable they are. You will hurt them both, Hachiman, and that is the best you can do for them. I won"t accept any half-measures, I won"t accept any excuses, nor any compromises. You will be a man, and hurt the women you love, because only that will be "genuine.""
  
  I almost shiver at the end of her speech, and I don"t know whether it is in revulsion or something darker and softer.
  
  "Now, Hachiman, be a man and promise me. Promise you will hurt my sister. Promise you will hurt my friend."
  
  I look at her, straight into her violet eyes, so harsh under this light, so unlike the frail, thin ice of Yukino"s blue. I lean forward, and whisper into her ear, "I swear I will do what I think is best for them. And if Yukino cries, there will be someone there to hold her."
  
  She rears back as if struck, and then starts laughing once again, but I think there"s actual mirth this time around. And she kisses me.
  
  On my cheek.
  
  "If only I had met you before her..." she teases, with a longing gaze that I am (almost) entirely sure is affected mocking.
  
  "Then I wouldn"t have been me."
  
  "Maybe. But I think you would have always ended up being you."
  
  "And I think I should take offense to that."
  
  She giggles and finally lets me go, turning around and waving goodbye. I just stand there, in the middle of the street in front of my house, watching as she melts into the night, and I am left with this one looming question:
  
  How am I ever going to fulfill that promise?
  
  ***
  
  As I enter the school the next morning, I have yet to find an answer to that question. Unfortunately, there are no walkthroughs posted about it, as it seems my life is still in beta trial and no one wants to leak spoilers. That explains all the bugs, really.
  
  So, it is forgivable of me to forget to activate Stealth Hikki long enough for something to go wrong, that something in question being having a hostile agent intercept me before I can get to class and/or look for Shizuka.
  
  "So, how come you didn"t stop by the Student Council yesterday, Senpai?" Iroha"s cheerful, sweet voice is so fake it"s actually banned by several Food and Drugs administrations, and her grip on my sleeve is currently being studied to hopefully improve next-generation bear-trap prototypes. The Strongest Junior honors her title as she gives me no reprieve.
  
  "I think I need an adult." This may become my new tagline.
  
  "Senpai, are you insinuating you want to see me as an adult woman? That you need me to be so? That you so desperately want to see me blossom into adulthood that you can"t wait any longer for me to grow up before you get your hands on me? I am sorry to reject you, Senpai, but it is impossible for me to stop being your cute, youthful junior at the drop of a hat-all flowers need time to properly bloom. I hope we can still be friends."
  
  I should be used to this by now. I really should be.
  
  "Now," she continues, undeterred by our short-lived romance, "as a show of our enduring friendship, how about you tell me in exacting detail what was so important that you couldn"t drop by and hear about our plans for the prom?"
  
  But I think the day I get used to Iroha being Iroha is the day... Zaimokuza comes up with a good simile?
  
  Yes, let"s go with that.
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I"ll take you! - Chapter 3
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  It is said that men are geared towards tunnel vision due to our hunting instincts. Our eyes face forward, not to the sides, so it is perfectly natural (in the most literal sense of the word) that a dense harem protagonist will miss the clues being dropped left and right by the more subtle girls of the cast while his gaze remains nailed to the white piece of fabric bared by the clumsy dojikko defenselessly exposed in front of him. It is just human (biological) nature.
  
  In that vein, it needs to be stated in no uncertain terms that I hadn"t planned to meet Iroha this morning. I had, in fact, planned to come early to school so I could confront Shizu before classes started, and so that was my mindset (understandably mono-focused) at the time.
  
  So it should come as no surprise that, when I see my Christmas Cake teacher come down the corridor, stop dead as our eyes meet, and promptly turn around and flee, my reaction is less "cool, collected senior skillfully evading a nosy junior" and more "there is nothing suspicious going on, Isshiki, now I am going to run in that direction for absolutely no apparent reason."
  
  "Senpai! What the He--heck?!" My arm jerks back due to Isshiki still keeping her iron grip and I nearly dislocate my shoulder. I need to start exercising. Maybe I can convince Zaimokuza to go together to a gym and get a group discount? Or a discount from the gym if I promise them I won"t bring Zaimokuza anymore?
  
  "Isshiki! Let go, I will explain later, I promise!" Curse you, mouth, you are always getting us in trouble. Oh, Isshiki is looking at me as if I am suspicious. And now she"s putting on that foxy smile of hers that makes her look suspicious.
  
  "Of course, Senpai. I can see you are in a hurry, and I would never get in your way, so I will just be expecting a thorough explanation later on," she says, the very picture of a demure, deferring junior.
  
  Very suspicious.
  
  "Fine, I will take it. Now, let go." She does, and I am off to pursue Shizu.
  
  Which is a bit... peculiar, as I am chasing down someone who is very much trying to look as if she"s not running away in case one of the few early students or another teacher catches sight of her, while I am also trying not to appear as if I am chasing her, in case anyone who can call the police or pull out a pepper spray does what comes naturally.
  
  Basically, we are kind of rushing a bit, but not too much, while trying to maximize our advantage over each other, given our self-imposed limits on our speed. And suddenly I have a privileged insight into the art of the slow blade and the terrifying skill of Paul Atreides, scion of House Atreides, ruler of Arrakis, Emperor of the universe. Meaning I finally understand how silly it would have looked.
  
  Yes, by all means, try to stab me slowly. See how that works out. This has now become my favorite way to not die against a fictional character.
  
  And then Shizu reaches the stairs, looks around to see they are deserted, and starts running to the next floor, proving in practice that speed is actually a factor in any physical confrontation.
  
  "Ms. Hiratsuka! Wait!" I raise my voice as much as I dare as I start taking the steps two at a time. She almost stops when she hears me, but picks up the pace quickly enough.
  
  "We need to talk!" I insist, using the most dreaded phrase by men anywhere.
  
  "No, we don"t! Everything is just fine!" I believe the gender roles have been inverted in this scenario. Which is a relief, because a girl chasing a fleeing boy is much more socially acceptable than the reverse.
  
  "Shizu, stop!" She stumbles, and I almost catch up with her before she regains her step.
  
  "Don"t call me that!" At the pace she"s going, we are gonna run out of stairs to keep this scene going.
  
  "Make me!" I gasp out, my lungs letting me know in no uncertain terms how much they despise me.
  
  "Don"t tempt me!"
  
  "That"s the whole plan!"
  
  "Wha-" She starts to turn around, red-faced and quick of breath, and I finally catch up to her.
  
  And so, naturally, I kiss her.
  
  It is rough, my hands pawing at her sides to make her face me, my neck stretching to make up for the height difference, my breath forcing me to start and stop in maddening pauses. It is clumsy, my exertion and eagerness making my movements frantic and unfocused. It is hungry, a whole night of longing and expectations pushing me forward.
  
  It is perfect.
  
  Shizu lets out a moan against me before she catches herself and backs away, climbing the stairs backward, and I press forward, our lips somehow not separating (something that seems quite unlikely without her active cooperation). At one point, I overtake her, turning her around and going one step higher than her before I start pulling her up the stairs, my hands on her neck and her back. And then, thankfully, we do run out of stairs to keep the scene going.
  
  This would be an excellent time for a fade-to-black and transitioning to both of us smoking a cigarette.
  
  "Hachi-Hikigaya, you can"t just do... that," she says, bewildered, flushed, panting. I am tempted to take a picture and send it to Haruno. No, I don"t know why either.
  
  "I am pretty sure I just did." Cocky smiles don"t suit me, I am sure. This would have been the perfect line for the ikemen character to break down the barriers keeping him from his victim-I mean, destined true love. Speaking of which...
  
  I turn us around at the landing at the top of the stairs, and push Shizu back against the door to the rooftop just before I slam my hand against the wall at her side and lean toward her. She looks at me, eyes wide and mouth slightly open.
  
  "Did you... Did you just kabedon me, Hikigaya?"
  
  "It was listed as the top fantasy for single women in a recent survey."
  
  "Do you realize it works much better when the man is taller?"
  
  "If it worked much better than this, I think I would be calling an ambulance right about now." Power of the cocky smile, don"t fail me now!
  
  She snorts, which turns into a chuckle, which turns into full-blown laughter. What is it with me, beautiful older women, and making them laugh when they are far too near?
  
  "All... All right, fine, it is a fantasy," she concedes, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. Finally, some recognition. "Thanks for fulfilling that for me, Hikigaya. Now let me go before we get in trouble." I frown at her request, but also at something else.
  
  "Stop that."
  
  "Stop what?" She looks confused.
  
  I lean forward on my tiptoes, my chin tucked against her shoulder, my cheek caressing hers, and I breathe against her ear. "Stop saying my... Just... Just call me Hachi?"
  
  Turnabout is fair play, after all.
  
  I lean back just enough to catch her reaction and I see the whole sequence go off: visceral confusion, recognition of what she said to me yesterday, a flare of indignation at the brief suspicion I am mocking her. And then she turns her head just enough to look me in the eye.
  
  And she sees me staring back-raw, naked vulnerability, a man that can"t put on a mask for fear he won"t be able to take it off. Sees how... how utterly fragile I can be. I hate myself that bit much for it, but it"s all I can offer. All I am.
  
  And she kisses me.
  
  "Hachi." She moans my name as she peppers my face with light-feather kisses.
  
  "Hachi," she whispers, as she does something to my neck that makes me roll my eyes back and try not to moan.
  
  "Hachi." Her fingers thread through my hair and she pulls me against her, hungry lips devouring and being devoured by my own.
  
  "Mine," I growl as my hands run under her vest, pulling her against me till our bodies mash against one another, her soft curves flattening to my own shape. She moans at that, as much at the word as at the sensation. I start unbuttoning her vest, much less patient with the frustrating piece of clothing than yesterday, and soon reach her cotton blouse. I should hesitate, stop, ask for permission. And then I remember a silhouette turning around behind ground glass.
  
  And so I don"t.
  
  I unbutton her shirt and pants as quickly as I am able, silencing any protest with hungry kisses that she can"t help but return, her neck craned down to offer me easy access to her lips, her tongue, her everything. She flinches back in surprise when I finally manage to start fondling her over her bra, the stiff fabric insufficient to stop me from enjoying her softness, her shape, her weight, but she soon enough starts moaning harder and faster. Weak spot located. Hit it for massive damage.
  
  I push the cups of her bra upwards, unwilling to try and decipher the arcane engineering required to unclasp these contraptions (or so the cliché would have me think, and I am not about to put it to the test given the current circumstances), and I finally, at last, manage to get a glimpse of Ms. Hiratsuka"s breasts after having speculated about them for far too long (seeing her in a bikini didn"t help-at all).
  
  And I finally stop my assault.
  
  Shizu stands before me, her clothing in absolute disarray, her face flushed, her breathing erratic. Beautiful as I have ever seen her. And her breasts... I know it"s uncouth, that it doesn"t do me any favors if I want her to see me as a mature man rather than a growing boy, but...
  
  They are... I...
  
  Dammit, Zaimokuza, where is that thesaurus when I need it?!
  
  "So... You like them?" she asks, shy, flustered, slightly turned in profile.
  
  My left hand takes her waist, my right lifts her left breast-pale, smooth skin capped by a pink nipple the size of the tip of my pinky finger and half as long, standing with a slightly upward tilt-and I begin to kiss the skin between her breasts, going up with every kiss as my fingers sink into the softest thing I have ever felt. Her scent surrounds me, envelops me, inebriates me, and as her moans start once again, I reach her neck, where I demonstrate I was paying attention by giving her a thorough rendition of what she did to me just seconds ago.
  
  She raises a hand to her mouth, biting her index finger as her eyes clench shut, and I know I must be doing something right (which is a relief, because I still don"t know where half of these ideas are coming from) so I raise my head, nibble on her earlobe, and whisper in her ear, "I love them. They are yours." And then I slip my tongue in her ear, playing with it as if I was kissing her mouth.
  
  She sags against the door, her knees buckling, opening to let me stand between them.
  
  I press forward, my thigh brushing where her legs meet, and she jerks her head back hard enough she knocks against the door at her back. But she doesn"t protest, doesn"t even flinch, and keeps biting her finger as if it is the most delicious thing she has ever tasted, ecstasy written across her partly obscured features. So I keep fondling her breast with my right hand, playing with circling caresses and stronger pressure, sinking my fingers, and finally tweaking her nipple playfully as my mouth remains occupied with her ear. But I have another hand. And I would like to keep my pants dry.
  
  I let my left hand trail down her stomach, barely brushing it as I feel her defined abs under a thin softness twitch at my teasing touch, so soft compared to what I am offering elsewhere, and I soon enough reach the elastic band of her panties. Neither it nor our positions are ideal, and my wrist strains as I slip my fingers inside the garment, but when I do... Oh, Shizu, you look so beautiful when you are this defenseless.
  
  I think I may be an S. No, that doesn"t stand for "Shizu-maniac."
  
  ... Not exclusively.
  
  The wet heat that greets me inside her panties is yet another stroke to my ego, so I decide to return the favor. As gently as I am able, I cross the thin patch of soft, silken hair and reach a nub of tender, erect flesh that, according to my studies (Fate/Stay Night deserves to be enjoyed in the original format), should be able to do the job on its own without me risking a sprained wrist, so I start rubbing it in a smooth, circular pattern that-
  
  And Shizu grasps my head, pulls me away from her ear, and kisses me harder than she has till now. Which is quite hard.
  
  My head swims as her tongue invades my mouth and her muffled moans reverberate through our joined bodies. She hugs me against her, and I feel my hardness, uncomfortably bent down my pants, press against her, and I shiver, almost forgetting for a moment that I have my hands full.
  
  Almost.
  
  Her own enthusiasm only seems to fuel my desire to bring her over the brink, to show her I can give her this much, that I can be a man for her, even if only in this small measure. I pinch her nipple before rolling it between my fingers, and I press her clitoris down as my tongue stops being pushed around by her own and I turn the struggle into a dance, twisting and twirling around each other. I manage to open my eyes after realizing I had closed them at some point and I catch a glimpse of her, of her expression completely overcome by passion and lust, and it is a miracle I don"t ruin my pants there and then.
  
  Instead, I jerk my hand, a movement unintentionally more intense than I thought (if thinking is even the right verb for what I am doing), and she comes.
  
  A low whine is lost in the distance between her lips and my own, her eyes closed tighter as something that almost looks like pain due to sheer intensity paints her features. It is the first time I have seen a woman climax. The first time I have made a woman climax, and I am fascinated by everything of it. By the way her muscles go taut just before slackening, by the way she so desperately tries to hold back something she has no hope of stopping, by the way I, just for this second, seem to become the center of her world, the pivotal point upon which this all-consuming moment hinges.
  
  I can"t wait for the second time.
  
  Shizu slumps into my arms, and I desperately use all of my meager strength to hold her up (definitely going to that gym-just not with Totsuka). Her skin feels scorching, waves of heat wafting off her and carrying her scent, her very much changed scent, up into me. I kiss the top of her head, my hands gently rubbing her back under her clothes as I silently curse the strap of her bra that occasionally trips me up. I will need to practice with these things. Hopefully, in a way that doesn"t make Komachi ban me from her room.
  
  It is over far too soon, as she straightens up, still flushed against me, and looks into my eyes.
  
  "Hachi... I... This..." I can"t let her finish, so I hug her tighter, pressing into her body, and make a problem readily apparent. Her blush reaches (delightfully) the top of her breasts. "You are... very hard, aren"t you?"
  
  "Oh, how surprising, making a beautiful woman come has gotten me on the brink of ruining my underwear and my reputation. How will my maiden heart stand this indignity." Uh. It turns out sexual arousal and physical intimacy are not enough to hold back my snark. Truly, it is an unstoppable force of nature.
  
  She punches my chest. Obviously. Turns out the violent tendencies of Hiratsuka Shizuka are also a force of nature.
  
  (Though the punch is weak as a kitten"s paw, and that makes me proud and giddy in equal measure. But that shall remain a secret forever.)
  
  "I could... should help with that?" She looks into my eyes, head tilted down, eyes lidded, small, unsure smile.
  
  Something snaps inside my head. At this rate, I am going to run out of things to be snapped by cute, flustered Christmas Cakes. Such a horrible prospect.
  
  I take hold of her hand and bring it down on top of my erection, pressing it against her.
  
  "Yes. I think you should. It"s only polite to return the favor, isn"t it?" Her smile grows a bit cheekier at my attempt at suave, domineering talk. It is a skill I shall endeavor to practice.
  
  "And we wouldn"t want to leave any evidence, would we?" she asks, leaving me confused before she drops down to the ground and unzips my pants, her eyes intent on what is about to be revealed.
  
  Oh.
  
  Oh.
  
  Shizu maneuvers our bodies so I am the one leaning against the wall, and she hooks her hands into the waistband of both my pants and my boxers before pulling them down, so I am suddenly far more naked than I expected to ever be in front of a faculty member (weird dreams involving the whole assembly hall aside). Her eyes grow far more focused, intent on the rod twitching in front of her, and I expect her to make a comment about my size, my hardness, my readiness, or the huge dollop of precum hanging off my tip. Instead, she looks into my eyes as she takes hold of me (and I don"t let out a squeak at her overpowering touch, no matter what some ill-intentioned individuals-Yukinoshita-would have you believe), and she gathers said dollop with her tongue before visibly swallowing it.
  
  I shudder. She smiles.
  
  It is not a soft smile.
  
  I do not say aloud "I think I need an adult," but my new mantra flashes through my brain in between the short bursts of coherent, conscious thought that I am allowed as soon as Shizu decides to take my glans between her lips, and her tongue starts devoting herself to reducing me to a drooling husk. I don"t want to be mind-broken the first time I get a blowjob, dammit!
  
  I lean back against the wall and look at the ceiling to distract myself from Shizu"s enchanting eyes and her predatory smirk still visible from where it is comfortably perched on top of my erection, but the suspiciously off-white plaster can"t distract me from the intense, electric bursts of sensation shooting through my body from my groin. Almost of their own volition, my hands travel to the sides of Shizu"s head, and I find myself running one hand through silken hair while another plays with her ear, then I am rewarded by a muffled moan that draws my eyes back down to find hers closed in warm pleasure. The sight is enchanting enough I don"t even care about Iroha"s red face peeking from around the knee wall at the top of the stairs.
  
  ...
  
  I feel I just overlooked something important.
  
  Raising my sight from Shizu"s moaning, joyful face, I find myself staring straight into the eyes of the Strongest Junior, who looks not so much as if she has been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, but in the middle of the secure vault with Top Secret and Biohazard signs posted all over. I try to signal to her, with body language alone and an expressive gaze, what I think about her presence here.
  
  "You are interrupting. I will be very upset if Shizu stops what she"s doing before I am finished. Please be a dear and get the fuck out of here before this gets any messier." Which is more or less me jerking my head in the direction of the stairs frantically, but I think it gets the message across.
  
  "What? Senpai, are you saying that if Ms. Hiratsuka leaves before you finish, you will have me take over to make up for it? That you want to get me messy with your cum, painting over my innocent features with your seed as you climax all over my panting, red face? I am sorry, Senpai, but that is impossible, I could never let you soil me in such a way before even taking me on a date. It just is impossible. I hope you won"t be upset and will still let me act my voyeuristic fantasies on you." Okay, fine, she"s just shaking her head so fast her hair is whipping about, but I somehow get the whole speech. Operant conditioning is a scary thing.
  
  So, I am getting my bone marrow sucked out of me by my beautiful Christmas Cake teacher as my no less appealing cheeky junior peeks on us with an expression that is the furthest thing from disgust I have ever seen from her, and there"s nothing I can do to stop her without getting Shizu far too flustered to continue. Shizu, who, right now, has the hand that isn"t fondling my member buried in her pants as a drunken look blooms all over her gorgeous face, streaks of saliva and precum gathering around her lips.
  
  ...
  
  I will take it.
  
  There is something perverse about being made a spectacle, about knowing whatever you are doing and is being done to you is pure enjoyment for a third, uninvolved party. I know I should be offended at this first time with Shizu being intruded upon by somebody else, but as I look down at my teacher so eagerly lavishing me with her (wet, sloppy) attentions, as I see her body undulate under her own touch and her expression positively radiant at my own, I couldn"t care less about Iroha"s meddling.
  
  I feel that"s a phrase I will regret at some point.
  
  Even so, even if I try to dredge up some kind of grudge, of indignation, I just can"t. I like seeing Iroha watching me. I like seeing her watch Shizu so eagerly, with such focus, as Shizu"s hand accelerates along my shaft, jerking me forward toward her waiting lips. I find it hard to divide my focus between the two, but each time my eyes meet Iroha"s as Shizu gives me a quick lick or sucks just hard enough to make me shudder, the sensation is magnified. She knows what Shizu is doing to me, and is drinking it all with as much intensity as I am. Which is, obviously, a lot.
  
  So it is no surprise that I just can"t hold back anymore.
  
  "Shizu... Oh gods above... Shizu, I am going to cum. Right now!"
  
  Her eyes finally open, pure joy radiating from them as she nods without letting me go, dragging my cock up and down with the motion, and that... that is enough.
  
  I cum.
  
  Burst after burst shoots out of me as my vision goes pure white, as I feel my fingers dig into her scalp and I somehow manage not to pull her down till I am cumming straight down her throat. I empty myself inside her mouth, and feel her swallow frantically, desperate not to let a single drop escape her lips, her eyes capturing my own each time I am able to see anything that isn"t the back of my own skull or blinding light. Finally, with a last, weak spurt and suction strong enough to coax out the dregs of my seed, my strength leaves me and I let myself slide down the wall till I am sitting on the ground, in front of my still masturbating teacher.
  
  I lean forward, our foreheads touching, my hand caressing her neck, and I whisper, "Mine."
  
  And she cums.
  
  It"s not as spectacular as the first time, not as intense, perhaps due to my lack of involvement or perhaps due to the circumstances and how uncomfortable she must be, kneeling on the ground, but seeing her eyes open so widely, the surprise written on her face as her orgasm overtakes her... It is beautiful. And it is only for me.
  
  And... It may be corny, even if I don"t say it aloud. It may be hormones, teenage lust, desperation, and a thousand other things. But...
  
  I feel it"s genuine.
  
  We lay there, in silence, supporting one another for what feels like ages before, in silent agreement, we separate enough to make ourselves at least halfway presentable. I almost want to banter, to joke around in the middle of the euphoric mood, but instead we let a comfortable quiet remain, an unspoken something still connecting us after the passion of the moment has been spent. I smile, and so does she, and I don"t think any word could improve this.
  
  She takes out some paper tissues and cleans my remains off her face, and I, not nearly half as busy, tuck her hair back in place before she shoots me a grateful look that makes my knees go weak(er). It is a serene silence, something to be savored.
  
  And it is broken by Iroha"s voice.
  
  "Tobe? No, you can"t go up. Student Council"s business. What? What business? Oh, you are offering to volunteer your help? How generous of you, Tobe, you just have to-don"t run away, you coward."
  
  It sounds like it is coming from the landing below us, but both Shizu and I know well enough that there is no Student Council business here and that Iroha just covered for us. The gratitude is somehow muted at Shizu"s flash of panic.
  
  I try to take her hand to reassure her, but she"s already halfway down the stairs by the time I reach her, and we see Iroha idly playing with her phone. Shizu almost freezes before she decides to nonchalantly march down the stairs with me fumbling behind her in tow. It"s just as we reach Iroha that she tilts her phone just enough that I can see what is on the screen.
  
  A picture of me making a very weird face as Shizu kneels between my legs.
  
  I think I already said it, but at this point it bears repeating:
  
  My illicit romance is messed up, as I expected.
  
  =========
  
  The latest chapter will always be available at my Patreon, in case you are feeling like financing my extravagantly luxurious, not-instant-ramen-based diet. Thanks for reading, the next, next one is already in the works.
  
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  Last edited: Aug 19, 2021
  My Patreon (Support appreciated) -- My Discord (Come hang out!) -- My Main Thread (One-shots and Story Index) -- My Twitter (Update announcements) -- My AO3 Account (Trying to repost)
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  Spoiler: My Ongoing Stories
  Spoiler: My 3 (THREE) Completed Stories
  Now accepting commissions (may the copyright gods have mercy on my soul).
  Alms for an ex-leper! (Ko-fi page, just to make it more hygienic.)
  Agrippa, Aug 8, 2021Report#4Like+ QuoteReply
  EnforcerBudu, Vantila13, [template] and 287 others like this.
  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 4
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
  So as I pray, Unlimited Keystroke Works!
  Joined:Feb 26, 2018
  Messages:1,808
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 4
  
  The nurse"s office is a deceitful oasis. It is often seen as a place for the main character to arrive, maybe after a minor scrape or sprain, and find a love interest who is there for pretty much any other weak excuse that most people would just walk off. The ever negligent (mature, beautiful, stacked) nurse will irresponsibly leave them alone or never have been there in the first place, and the girl will care for the male lead (bonus points if she needs to handle his leg), thus convincingly showing off the appeal of a mothering, caring side and giving the doujin authors an excuse to put her in a nurse uniform. Just kidding, they don"t need any excuses.
  
  In works of a spicier nature, the girl will find the male lead while he is napping (a thing that, obviously, is perfectly tolerated in the otherwise strict Japanese education system-must be due to our Spanish roots), sit beside him worried about his fever or stress or whatever, and inexplicably end up hiding from a third party by hiding under the blanket with him. It is thus established that, while the nurse"s office may offer a sanctuary of sorts, it is far from inviolable and must be avoided at all costs by people with legitimate reasons to be there, who should remain home or go to an actual clinic where they are less likely to be disturbed by shenanigans unsuited to speed along the healing process.
  
  It is thus very fortunate that I don"t have any legitimate reason to be here, even if my sweat-drenched appearance, raw breathing, and flushed face were enough to convince my own unduly careless nurse to give me permission to lie on the cot for the morning periods.
  
  Truly, an active sex life is full of unsuspected advantages.
  
  So, Hachiman, now that you have secured yourself a safe(ish) spot to lay low for a while, what do you intend to do?
  
  ...
  
  Fine, you aren"t giving me much to work with, Hachiman. Subconscious-kun, any suggestions?
  
  ...
  
  Right. My subconscious also doesn"t know how to handle complicated romantic situations. As expected. Let"s just go over the objective facts and then try to draw any kind of conclusion:
  
  I just had oral sex with Shizu (insert overwhelming, standing ovation).
  I was caught in the act by a suspiciously enthusiastic Iroha (confused clapping).
  Shizu knows we were caught. Still hasn"t reacted, as she had to hurry to class (crickets).
  Iroha herself has shown me she has "documented" the event before disappearing without another word (confused screaming).
  My first period was Japanese, with Shizu as my teacher and Yuigahama sitting right there (panicked screaming).
  For the first time in my life, I have skipped a class without reason. I am now a juvenile delinquent and will grow my hair into a pompadour. I will follow your teachings, Onizuka-sensei! (Vociferous ovation.)
  
  Or, in other words, I am a coward who has fled the confrontation before it can even spark.
  
  Sigh. Still thinking about the pompadour, to be honest.
  
  Right, it is only cowardly if I don"t come up with any strategy to confront my problem; otherwise, it is the Joestar family"s secret technique. Which leads me right back around to pompadours. It is looking like a better idea by the minute.
  
  Stop it with the escapism. I need to confront Iroha, reassure Shizu, straighten things up with Yukinoshita and Yuigahama and make sure Komachi dies an old spinster. That last one is non-negotiable.
  
  Regarding Iroha, there is little I can plan for other than trying to be stern with her after she has graphically documented my sloppy, orgasming face. Which I predict will go smoothly and without any kind of awkwardness. Shizu will be more easily reassured if I know what the deal with the Strongest Junior is before I speak with her, so, of all my current issues, I can only plan what to do about Yukinoshita and Yuigahama. Which means going to have lunch at the club room and hoping one of them is there, because there is no way I can face them in any public setting as things stand. They will likely still be hung up on the whole prom issue, because (hopefully) no torrid romance with an older teacher will have derailed their lives since yesterday.
  
  NTR is a shit fetish.
  
  Harem is also a shitty genre, yes, but I am proud to be called a hypocrite when it suits me, and not at all when it doesn"t. That"s what being a hypocrite means, you know?
  
  And thus, once I have finished the Herculean task of deciding where I will eat my lunch, the bell sounds and signals it is time for me to enact my "plan."
  
  Argh.
  
  It is with the heavy steps of a doomed man that I make my way to the club room, opening the unlocked door with resignation at seeing my hopes of it being empty so cruelly dashed.
  
  It is with the heartbeat of a racing horse that I confront the inhabitants of the room: the kuudere Yukinoshita, the genki girl Yuigahama, and the foxy, smirking, smug Isshiki.
  
  The Joestar family"s secret technique is looking pretty good at the moment.
  
  I enter the room as nonchalantly as I can, waving the customary two fingers of cool, hip, detached characters everywhere, only to find my gaze drawn to Iroha crossing her arms under her chest, a smirk on her face that seems to say, "Oh? You"re approaching me? Instead of running away, you are coming right to me?"
  
  Unfortunately, I am still in my larval phase as a juvenile delinquent, so I don"t have a cool, brash rejoinder to defiantly spout-and I don"t think threatening to beat the shit out of her would be particularly acceptable in the current political climate. Though I do sputter, in case it counts for something.
  
  "Hikigaya," Yukinoshita greets me with her customary tone detached of any obvious emotional response. Yuigahama, instead, mutters a happy "Hikky!" that manages to convey worry at having missed me in the morning period with relief at seeing I am fine and dandy. All right, just "fine," never "dandy."
  
  Iroha, instead...
  
  "Oh, Senpai, it is so good to see you come here. It saves me the trouble of running around looking for you." Dammit, woman, show some restrain!
  
  "Did you agree to meet?" Yukinoshita asks, innocence unmarred by the demon in human guise sitting across from her.
  
  "No, we just keep crashing into each other. You know, Senpai is so forceful..." she trails off, eyes lidded, smirk pointed. I hurry to sit down on my chair. For no reason. At all.
  
  "Hikki is? I guess he can be a bit overbearing..." Yuigahama mutters. Bless your innocent, empty head, Yuigahama. Your skill at not reading between the lines is a national treasure.
  
  "Oi, how about not speaking about me as if I am not right here?" I try for "nonchalant," I hope I don"t hit "whiny."
  
  "Ah, you were here, Hikigaya? I apologize, it seems you are as forgettable as ever." Yukinoshita, how about toning the abuse while all the sexual tension is still swimming around my brain? I don"t want to pick up any weird fetish, you know?
  
  I grumble a bit in response as I take out my lunchbox, hoping against hope things won"t get any more awkward (for me), and start eating the plain rice that is a staple of proper Japanese meals. No, it"s not because I am awful at coming up with ways to flavor it. Truly.
  
  Tee-hee.
  
  "You have trouble remembering him, Yukinoshita? I have some photos you could look at, if you need a reminder," Iroha says, once again managing to destroy all of my hopes and dreams just as I come up with them. I shoot a look at her, trying to silence her and/or kill her with my latent psychic powers, and she flashes me her smartphone from beneath the table.
  
  Oh, psychic suppressors are a thing. Who would have known.
  
  "Isshiki, while I commend you on proactively gathering evidence for the inevitable police case file, I should remind you I am currently eating," Yukinoshita says, crossing the line. Twice.
  
  "Right, that"s my daily quota of mental abuse done with, thank you very much for being so diligent."
  
  "Don"t even mention it, Hikigaya, I am always ready to go above and beyond for your sake." How heartwarming; I think I am even getting heartburn already.
  
  "Likewise, Senpai, I just enjoy seeing you struggling to hold back." For fuck"s sake, Isshiki, knock it off!
  
  "Uh... I feel like I should be joining in. You are creepy, Hikki? Is that fine?"
  
  ... This may be the most gentle way somebody has ever called me creepy. Truly, you are a saint, Yuigahama.
  
  A saint of what, I better not tell.
  
  "It is perfectly all right not to join in, Yuigahama, no need to compete with others when you belong in your own special category," I reassure her sincerely and without any ill-intentions.
  
  "I think I should be mad at that, but I am not sure why." Yuigahama frowns cutely while pondering her dilemma. Ah, how soothing it is to watch her struggle. Wait, is Isshiki corrupting me?
  
  Anyway, that"s enough foreplay.
  
  ... Dammit, brain...
  
  I sigh and (somewhat) square my shoulders before facing my clubmates (plus intruder). I am still not sure how to handle this, but...
  
  "So, about the prom," I say, and they all stiffen.
  
  "About the prom?" Yukinoshita answers primly and properly, no joking hidden under the icy veneer.
  
  "What are you planning?"
  
  "I will suitably address each and every one of the points raised by the PTA and make a counterproposal they will have no issue with."
  
  "You know that won"t work. The objection is an excuse to attack the very concept; you cannot make them change their minds just by addressing the excuses without attacking the root cause of the issue."
  
  "And what would be that "root cause?""
  
  "Respectability. Image. They don"t want the school associated with teenagers dancing and having fun like in some kind of American comedy with probably raunchy undertones." Brain! Tone it down, for fuck"s sake!
  
  "But, Hikigaya-kun, we just got our first blowjob and caught our cute junior possibly getting off to the thrill of watching us getting our cock slobbered on by our beautiful Christmas Cake teacher! You can"t expect me not to be stuck on the subject of sex, especially while said junior is looking at us while licking the tip of her index finger!"
  
  Of course I can expect you to-wait, she"s doing what?!
  
  Yuigahama is looking between Yukinoshita and I while wringing her hands, always anxious about seeing her friends clash. Yukinoshita is icily staring me down, daring me to come up with something as underhanded as I always do. And Isshiki is, in fact, looking at me with lidded eyes while licking the very tip of her index finger in a way that may, somehow, to the casual observer, pass as a nervous tick rather than something a twin-tailed blonde in a cheerleader"s uniform would practice on a lollipop.
  
  I cough loudly. I read somewhere it"s a way to get rid of unwanted erections.
  
  The internet has lied to me. Again.
  
  "Hikki? Are you all right?" Yuigahama interjects with tender concern, her big eyes searching mine in a way that makes it obvious when my gaze drops down to the small expanse of creamy skin exposed by the first few undone buttons of her uniform. I look up as soon as I catch myself, but her cheeks still redden in a way that makes me want to look hard enough to make her squirm.
  
  ...
  
  I may not need an adult, but I think she does.
  
  "Just... fine. I am feeling a bit out of sorts this morning," Isshiki stifles a snort of laughter and I resist the urge to glare at her. Barely. "Anyway, Yukinoshita, please allow me some time to think about how to handle this, we could-"
  
  "There"s no need for you to do that."
  
  The words are sharp, concise, and all playfulness gets drained out of the room.
  
  "It"s not about me needing to do anything-" I try to remain calm and conciliatory. Which would be easier if I had been any of those things previously. Maybe in a past life.
  
  "Then let me clarify: I will do this on my own, Hikigaya. I do not want you to help."
  
  And now I can see why Haruno can get so pissed off at this brat.
  
  I take a deep breath, count to ten while Yuigahama looks nervously between us both, thinking about what to say (and I don"t look at Isshiki, just in case). Then I grasp the chance I"ve been given.
  
  "Very well, I won"t help you," she looks at me, relieved, almost grateful. "Instead, I will defeat you."
  
  "... What?"
  
  "We have a standing challenge, Yukinoshita. Let"s settle it once and for all. Winner takes all." I show more confidence than I ever have before. Testosterone, don"t fail me now.
  
  She looks at me, gratitude and relief gone from her icy gaze. And this is the Yukinoshita I was so captivated by, the one who could stand up to me and my bullshit, the one who could act without hesitation, not the one who hid behind false pretenses, who disguised her weakness for fear of showing it to us. I hate myself a bit at the realization, but I liked the fake Yukinoshita better than the Yukinoshita who faked.
  
  Not that it matters now.
  
  "Very well. Club is suspended until this matter is over." And she stands, gathering her unfinished lunch.
  
  "Ah, guys, we don"t need to-" Yuigahama looks lost, and I feel guilty for her, but it will be for the best once this is all over. I promise, Yui.
  
  "I think they do, Yui. I wish they didn"t, but... they do." Isshiki reassures her, softly, as if talking to a distraught child, and there"s so much I could forgiver her just for this moment.
  
  "Yes. We do." I pick up my own unfinished lunch and get out of the room before Yukinoshita can, hoping she will stay with Yui if I give her this excuse. And that"s it, the result of the Joestar family"s secret technique: my departure from the club.
  
  Only time will tell if it was for the best.
  
  ***
  
  I push open the malfunctioning door to the roof, hoping to find a spot to finish eating in privacy. It looks like I am in luck, because it is as empty as my social prospects in the near future. Rather than take out my food, though, I sit down to watch the clouds drift by like some kind of suicidally lazy ninja.
  
  It doesn"t take long for Isshiki to catch up. As expected.
  
  "Senpai, I..." She drifts off, not knowing how to continue.
  
  "It"s all right, Isshiki; it"s not your fault," I say, as reassuring as she just was with Yui.
  
  "But I... The reason I asked you to help with the prom was..." She wrings her hands, chin tucked in insecure vulnerability.
  
  "I know. It was for us."
  
  "You knew?"
  
  "It wasn"t hard to guess, what with you insisting it needed to be established without issue so next year would be a sure thing."
  
  "I could have been talking about Hayama. I did mention him." I snort at that, and she glares. Which suits her far better.
  
  "You could have. You weren"t." I leave it at that and hope she doesn"t question me further, because I don"t know what I would end up saying.
  
  She seems to accept my words, because she just shuts up and sits beside me. We remain like that for a few moments, just letting the silence hang comfortably between us.
  
  "So, about you and Ms. Hiratsuka..." Dammit, Isshiki, look what you have done to Comfortable Silence-kun!
  
  "About me and Shizu...?"
  
  "... You may want to make sure you don"t call her "Shizu" so casually."
  
  "My internal monologue seems to have no filter nowadays. Sorry about that."
  
  She looks at me, not quite a glare, but obviously not happy with me either.
  
  "Call me Iroha."
  
  "What?!"
  
  "You heard me. If you are going around giving cutesy nicknames to women, I want to make sure I don"t end up with something embarrassing, so call me Iroha." She puffs up her chest, a gesture that would have been more impressive on Yuigahama, but much less so in Yukinoshita. A happy middle with its own merits.
  
  Brain, we are going to have a serious talk after this conversation.
  
  "Very well, Iroha." She gets that cute, light pink on her cheeks that she sometimes gets when I catch her off-guard and a pleased little smile that makes my heart beat that bit faster than it should when not around Shizu. Testosterone, you have already done your job for the day; you can leave now, thank you very much.
  
  "Senpai..." She looks into my eyes, head tilted down, eyes lidded, lip half-bitten. No, Testosterone-kun, don"t do it! "Now that we are so much closer..." And I can feel the heat of her arm leaking into mine from where she is sitting so close to me that-when did she move! "Maybe you could..."
  
  She trails off.
  
  And keeps looking at me.
  
  "Yes?" I unwillingly ask.
  
  "Tell me in exacting detail how this-" she flashes her smartphone with the damning pictures at me- "happened?"
  
  Right, brain, I know we haven"t been getting along today, but I really, really could use your help at this very moment.
  
  "You see, when a bee likes a flower very much, she sometimes drinks her dry of nectar and-" Dammit, brain!
  
  Fortunately for my rapidly overheating sense of embarrassment, Iroha buries her fist right in my solar plexus. Never have my pained, breathless gasps sounded so grateful.
  
  "I know what happened; I want to know how it happened."
  
  "Well, the thing started when she dropped down to her knees and-" I catch a dangerous glint in Iroha"s gaze and quickly backtrack. After sighing. The sigh is important. "I went to see her about the prom yesterday to see what could be done," she looks at me with warm gratitude at that, which... never mind. "She started on one of her rants about dying an old spinster and... I got caught up in the moment and kissed her." I remember, with my cheeks so warm I think they may show up in the weather forecast.
  
  "And that"s it... that"s all it took for it to be "genuine?"" she asks, doubtful, maybe disappointed.
  
  "No. No, that wasn"t it. I wouldn"t have done that with any other woman, no matter how attractive; what I have with Shizu... It is new, still doesn"t have a name, but... But it is something just between us. Something I couldn"t have with any other woman."
  
  "Are you that easily seduced, Senpai? Are you telling me if yesterday didn"t happen you would not have been able to have this with Yukinoshita or Yui?" There"s something hidden in that question, but it is something I am safer not looking for, so I will just answer honestly.
  
  "No, I wouldn"t," she gasps at my straightforward denial, so I clarify. "I would be able to have something unique to Yukinoshita and me, or to Yui and me, but not what I have with Shizu. They... They are all unique, and I can"t exchange them for one another. Each one offers what they are, what they can be with me, so forcing on them what I would expect to get from another... that would be unforgivable." And I taste bile at those words, because I am being forced by Iroha to confront things I would rather remain unsaid, because words are imperfect to really show what I feel, what I mean, but... But I am also grateful. Because words are imperfect, but silence doesn"t even try.
  
  "I... see." And maybe she does, and maybe she doesn"t, but that"s what a relationship is, and we can just push forward, hoping we end up traveling in the same direction, that we end up walking alongside one another, together.
  
  She takes my hand, warm fingers soothing my cold ones as they are grasped, and she squeezes my palm. How lewd.
  
  "I want to watch," she says.
  
  "Guh?" I intelligently reply.
  
  Her face is red and she doesn"t look at me, eyes locked on a spot of the floor as if it holds the very meaning of life.
  
  "I... I mean, I am at that age where I am starting to find this kind of thing interesting, you know? And, and maybe, maybe it would be safer to find out about it with people I... trust? And besides, I know..." Her frantic words petter out and her shouders sag.
  
  "You know?" I, unwisely, prod her.
  
  "I know you liked me watching you," she says, voice tinier than I have ever heard from her, and something snaps in my head.
  
  Something which is happening with worrisome frequency. I may need to go to the doctor-I will just omit the names and ages of those involved.
  
  "I did." Oi, you deep-voiced, cocky bastard, what are you saying while using my body? I should warn you it hasn"t been properly maintained and the insurance will charge you a premium. You should think about getting your own.
  
  Her hand slackens on mine, and I grip her tighter before she can think to get it back. Gently yet forcefully, I grasp her chin and force her to abandon her search for cosmological answers carelessly lying on the floor and look into my eyes. Hers are wide, eyelids almost fluttering, and a deep blush blooming right under them. Mine... I guess they are intense, because that"s how I feel right now, that weird energy I felt when handling Shizu somehow making my gestures surer, firmer.
  
  "I did like you looking at me, gasping for breath, blushing as much as you are doing right now." Her lips tremble, and I feel a grin tucking at mine. "It did excite me, knowing you were there, knowing I was exciting you." She gasps at that, and her pink, wet lips look so thoroughly tempting I scarcely can hold onto my already compromised morals. "What I did not like was you doing it without permission."
  
  "Then," she gulps for air, "then that means..."
  
  "I will speak with Shizu about it."
  
  "I... thank you, Senpai."
  
  "Call me Hachi."
  
  And the blush is back, and she nods, her chin still in my hand. And I know I could press further without getting any kind of protest, I know I could have her moaning my name, and only the memory of another beautiful face moaning "Hachi" stops me from doing it.
  
  "And, Iroha, about those photos," her look shifts to nervous apprehension at that, and I can"t bring myself to do the right thing, "make sure nobody else sees them, all right?"
  
  "All right... Hachi," she says, eyes wide, timid smile blooming right over where my fingers press into her soft skin, her voice a whisper that shoots straight to my heart.
  
  ...
  
  My cheeky, foxy junior can"t be this cute.
  
  
  ============
  ============
  
  
  Author's note: the next chapter is available for €3 at my Patreon. It will become free when I post the next-next chapter.
  
  Now, sing along with me: Toss a coin to your Smutter, the anatomically unlikely~ anatomically unlikely~
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 5
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 5
  
  In a world full of deceit, disappointment, and office jobs, people need an outlet for their purer desires and feelings. They need something that, for a little while, allows them to think "the world is fair and just, and good deeds will eventually be rewarded." That is, of course, a lie that allows exploiters to keep exploiting those who buy into it, but even if it is a lie, it is a comforting one. It is a lie that allows people to push forward, to believe in the chance of a better world, and to, maybe, if one is optimistic enough, work to make that lie a bit more real.
  
  That lie is the shounen manga genre.
  
  If you had to take a definitory, ultimate element of the shounen genre, it would be the training arc. Yes, manly men being manly and hotblooded protagonists going beyond their limits because yelling a lot apparently breaks the laws of reality (and those of man, from ten p.m. to seven a.m.) are a staple of the genre, but there"s the rare analytical protagonist, or a manga that revolves around things other than fighting, such as cooking battles that for some reason cannot be aired without censor bars (which boosts the sales of the "unadulterated" DVDs). But, even in these cases, the training arc will always be there: at one point, the main character will discover that he"s not strong enough, skilled enough, or that his hair is not gravity-defying enough to overcome his current challenge, and then he will design to undergo hellish trials intended to break lesser men, to utterly shatter his limits and reforge them anew. That is what shounen is.
  
  And that is why I skipped my afternoon classes to go buy a pair of dumbbells.
  
  Some sharp-tongued woman with an overly effusive love for cats may insinuate it is also because my social anxiety has already gone beyond critical levels enough times during the day that I have decided it would be for the best to test the limits of what my new status as a delinquent can offer me. If we take such slander as factual, the disappointing results would have been a couple hours of aimless wandering and very tired arms after getting stupidly enthusiastic in a sports shop.
  
  The things come in a small, plastic suitcase. A suitcase. For dumbbells. I feel like Ryoga Hibiki going to the office.
  
  Dragging the bloody deadweights around (literally dead, I would hope-if I have somehow purchased a pair of tsukumogami dumbbells I will be forced to use the store"s return policy; or an exorcist, if the warranty is voided) has left my arms, shoulders, and back feeling like I should never have embraced the Zaimokuza lifestyle training regimen. Which, looking at the man in question, should have been a foregone conclusion.
  
  All of this, the dumbbells, the truancy, the obvious state of disrepair of my carnal vessel, the increasingly worrying resurgence of my chuuni tendencies... Well, I would like to say the whole thing is part of a masterstroke of genius that will come together from apparently disconnected events in a climax that will be signaled by my cheekily announcing, "Your next line is going to be-"
  
  But that would be lying.
  
  Because the actual truth is that I don"t know what comes next.
  
  I have faced Yuigahama, Yukinoshita, and even Iroha (it still feels weird to call her that in my head, but the deep-voiced bastard that grasped my junior"s chin so domineeringly has left me no recourse-I feel like I should be warier of spiritual possession in the future). I have even taken my first steps towards managing the mess of what was previously considered my love triangle and now is starting to resemble a geometry out of a Junji Ito manga. It could be said I have been proactive, a word I absolutely despise because it suspiciously looks like what a middle corporate manager would use to indicate a particular wage slave should look for more work to do on his own initiative.
  
  To work is to lose. To work extra without anyone telling you to is just masochism.
  
  Which brings me back to Iroha"s red face, wide eyes looking into mine as her breath-
  
  Right. Enough of that. Walking with my hands in my pockets is not an option while carrying these bloody things.
  
  Still, even my capacity for self-delusion is not strong enough (which is why I need a shounen training arc) to allow me to pretend I am not terrified of facing the most important person in this whole mess.
  
  Shizu.
  
  So I swallow all of my doubts, square my shoulders (as much as physically possible, given my luggage) and get in front of the teacher"s room just long enough to make eye contact with an easily flustered Christmas Cake, who looks at me with surprise rapidly turning to shock before I draw a cross in mid-air as if I am about to tell her to rejoice in her wish to become a hero, and then make my way to the nurse"s office, hoping she has caught the meaning of my discreet message that in no way will have the rest of the teachers giving me a wide berth in the near future (which would be an unexpected bonus to the whole mess, now that I am a delinquent in the larval phase).
  
  Or that she hasn"t understood what I meant, and I will then avoid embarrassment at the mere price of pacing in the room for hours while waiting for her to appear.
  
  It"s a win-win scenario. Sasuga, Hikigaya.
  
  I congratulate myself on correctly foretelling that the nurse will have vacated the premises as soon as the bell rang (because who would ever injure themselves during sports practice when they could do so dramatically in the middle of the match that will decide whether the club advances to the Koshien?), finally free myself of the weight of my expectations-I mean, the dumbbells" suitcase, which is lying on the ground-and get ready for a long, nervous wait as I stare at the ground glass window in the door.
  
  And I wait.
  
  And, after a few minutes that don"t feel like hours because time has lost all meaning to me at this point, I hear the clacking of hard-soled shoes coming down the corridor, and then a silhouette with long hair is drawn on the window, and my breath catches.
  
  And she opens the door.
  
  My exhalation shudders with my relief, and my shoulders slump. I still, I was... I could cheer, right now.
  
  That isn"t a phrase I ever thought I would think. Which seems redundant, because if I thought I wouldn"t think it, I would have, by definition, thought it. Quick! Don"t think of a polar bear!
  
  Yes, I am bad at dealing with overwhelming emotions. It shouldn"t come as a surprise, coming from the man who used to roll around his bed while screaming "I want to die" into his pillow.
  
  Consistency is one of my chief virtues, after all.
  
  "So..." Shizu begins, not meeting my eyes, her back leaning on the closed door. "Hikigaya, I-"
  
  That won"t do.
  
  As soon as she starts to speak, I get up from the cot and take the three steps that separate us. She raises her gaze, something like panic flashing through them, and then I take her chin, tilt her head down, and kiss her.
  
  "Hachi," I murmur against her lips, contact not quite broken.
  
  "Ha-you... You can"t just shut me up like that-" she starts to protest. And then I prove her wrong.
  
  The hand that isn"t cradling her face, guiding her movements as I explore her mouth, goes to the back of her head, fingers tangling through long hair and grabbing enough of it that my grip shouldn"t be painful. Only when I have secured her do I stop my tongue from tangling hers and allow her to resume her speech.
  
  It... It takes her a while.
  
  She"s flushed, her breathing short, and her eyes can"t decide whether to settle on my own or on my still wet lips. I can"t help but notice that she must have reapplied her cherry lip gloss since I devoured it this morning, and a flash of warm pride assures me it is all for me, that she has prepared her lips for me to kiss and take.
  
  At some point, I should investigate whether sexual experiences can have some kind of personality modifying effect because I don"t think I have ever felt this "warm pride" before. At most, something similar may have been inspired by Komachi, but I really shouldn"t think about her right now if I don"t want to end up as the kind of creep who goes on and on about the healing virtues of little sisters everywhere.
  
  Which is ridiculous. None of them are Komachi.
  
  Shizu seems to firm her resolve and looks seriously at me.
  
  "Hachi, I-" and then realizes what she just called me, her eyes shoot open in wild panic, and her mouth shuts with an audible "click."
  
  "Yes, Shizu?" I answer nonchalantly, pretending I didn"t thoroughly enjoy the past few seconds in a way that may or not involve my buying a pair of handcuffs in the future.
  
  "I..." She swallows, firming her resolve once again. Maybe I will let her keep it this time. "I can"t have a serious talk while we are... like this," she finishes, almost pleadingly.
  
  "Yukinoshita"s sister would say you are no fun," I say, and she looks like she"s gearing up for indignation. "Luckily, I know better." And just like that, she deflates once again, leaning against the door, her hand resting over her breasts as she takes a deep breath.
  
  ... Where was all of this when I was going through social hell in middle school? Is this the foretold awakening of my hidden bloodline due to the stress of puberty? Is it? Is my legendary bloodline just being able to weaken a woman"s knees by saying the kind of things one would read in a yaoi manga with rapey undertones?
  
  I will take it, thank you very much. Choke on it, Sharingan users.
  
  Reluctanly, I let her hair fall through my fingers and take a step back, no longer pressing her against the door. I still feel her heat wafting in waves from her body, her scent still fills my head as it weakens any kind of social restrain I may still have, and I figure my own heat and smell may be doing the same to her. Which makes me smile in a way I am sure would have anyone sharing my train car calling the police. Luckily, there are no witnesses-
  
  That... May have come out wrong.
  
  May.
  
  "Stop smiling like that," she says, and it makes me panic before I realize there"s no disgust there. No, going by her flush and the way she is tucking her hair behind her ear, there"s no trace of disgust at all. "I... We can"t be doing this kind of thing."
  
  "Why?" I don"t know what tone I use, but she looks straight at me when she hears it.
  
  "You have been absent from classes all day. I can"t have this affecting your future."
  
  "It"s just one day. And... I needed a bit of time before..."
  
  "Before facing Yuigahama and Yukinoshita after..." she trails off.
  
  "Yes. Before that. After that."
  
  "Hachi..." she says, kindness in her tone, but not the kind I want. "That"s even more reason. They... They mean something to you, I can see how-"
  
  "Of course they do. They love me."
  
  And there"s no arrogance, no pride, not even warmth at that. Just a simple fact. Something for the logic to process.
  
  And Shizu gasps.
  
  "You... That"s what you think?"
  
  "Yes."
  
  "And don"t you..."
  
  "Love them? Of course."
  
  And now she looks hurt, pained, but still smiles, still raises a hand to grasp my shoulder, even if it trembles a bit.
  
  "Well, there you have it!" she says, voice as loud as ever. "They are your age, beautiful, and I am sure you will be happy with whoever you finally choose.." The brash tone dies down, not quite choking, yet she still smiles, and I remember Haruno"s diatribe about Shizu being a Monster of Duty, someone who will sacrifice her happiness at the altar of what is right, and, once again, I am forced to concede defeat to the elder Yukinoshita. So I will follow her advice... up to a point.
  
  "Good. Because I choose you." And her breath catches before her face settles on something hard, ready to chastise the stubborn child in front of her. "Because I love you."
  
  And she stops.
  
  "You don"t know what you are saying," she finally settles on.
  
  "I do. I am not the kind of man who would kiss a woman without meaning it, you know?" She hesitates at that, and I can almost feel the memories those words bring up. The good ones, the recent ones, with me. And the others.
  
  "Some would say you are not a man at all," she says, hesitantly, and no insult is intended, even if I feel otherwise.
  
  "Some. Not you." I hope.
  
  "I have seen you grow, Hachi. I have helped you grow."
  
  "And that"s why I love you." She shakes her head, eyes closed, unwilling to accept my words. "Because you have seen me at my worst, and didn"t look away, because you have shown me so much, guided me in discovering who I am, and when I have finally done that, when I have found what there is in Hikigaya Hachiman that is him, genuinely him, and no one else..." I... my voice falters, but I push on, because I need her to hear this. To understand this, even if words will never be enough. "I have found someone who deeply cares for Hiratsuka Shizuka, who has seen her at her worst, who has seen her at her most genuine... And who loves her."
  
  "You... You don"t..." There are tears now, brimming at the corner of her eyes, barely held back.
  
  I take a step closer.
  
  "I do. I have for quite some time. Sorry it took me so long to tell you." And I kiss her tears away, the salt burning on my tongue.
  
  And she breaks down.
  
  I hold her against my chest as I drag her to the cot, as her crying drenches my shirt, as what she wants and what she thinks she should want tear her apart.
  
  I hold her as she finally accepts I am there, and her hands claw at my jacket, desperate for something to hold onto, something to keep herself steady.
  
  I kiss the top of her head, murmuring meaningless syllables and waiting for her to signal to me what else I can do for her. Because I don"t know. Because the only crying woman I have ever held before this is my little sister, and this is far more serious than any scrapped knee.
  
  But I am here, and I can only hope that is enough.
  
  "You didn"t... I spent all day wondering where you were," she says, pretending she isn"t hiding her crying face in my chest, that she isn"t still clutching me like a lifeline.
  
  "I wanted to solve things before I saw you."
  
  "... What?" She pushes back, looking at me.
  
  I know people who cry look disheveled, that their eyes redden and get swollen, that their nose runs. I know the "ugly cry" is a trope for a reason.
  
  As I see Shizu"s face streaked by glistening trails of light, her cheeks still red with emotion, her lips parted while she catches her breath... I do not decide I don"t care. No.
  
  I decide I care. A lot. That I want to see every face this beautiful woman is able to make and commit it to memory, hoarding them like the treasure they are. I want to see her radiant with joy, frustrated after a bad day, satisfied after a good meal, drowsy after a late night marking tests... I want it all, and I want it for me.
  
  I guess, after all, Hikigaya Hachiman can be greedy.
  
  "I asked you a question... Hachi." And that pause before she decides to use my name? That, I will also treasure.
  
  "I am sorry, what did you say?" It seems being confronted with an oblivious man that just doesn"t listen lets her get back on solid ground, because her expression firms and her grasp on me slackens.
  
  "What do you mean by "solving things"?" she asks, before she takes a tissue out of her pocket and starts cleaning up her face.
  
  "I went to have lunch at the club room, where I met Yuigahama, Yukinoshita and Iroha." She looks up at that, still wiping under her nose, surprised and a bit nervous. "We talked about the prom, which is now a challenge to settle things with Yukinoshita once and for all," she interrupts with a snort of amusement, which I let pass magnanimously, "and then I had a meeting with Iroha on the roof and she swore no to do anything with the pictures she took this morning." Well, that is a lie: she didn"t swear not to do some things.
  
  I mean, I kind of implied I gave her permission to. And isn"t that a lovely mental image...
  
  "She what?!"
  
  "She swore-"
  
  "She took pictures?!"
  
  "Well, I mean... wouldn"t you have?"
  
  Shizu looks at me as if I have gone insane. Which, apparently, doesn"t look much different from how a girl looks when I mistakenly answer a greeting meant for another person.
  
  "Wouldn"t I have taken pictures of you with a woman doing... that? Of course not!"
  
  "Oh. I guess that"s normal if you don"t have Iroha"s voyeuristic fetish."
  
  "... Her what?"
  
  "I seem to be explaining a lot of things during this conversation, are you sure you should be the one doing the teaching?"
  
  "Don"t test me, brat."
  
  "I wouldn"t, too much work. I mean, unless it was an oral exam." She looks up into my grinning face and sputters something that definitely doesn"t have to do with wanting to improve her grades. Which is a pity, because I could be accommodating.
  
  "I-I shouldn"t have done that..."
  
  "What? "Returning the favor?" Or giving the Student Council President the chance to indulge in her voyeur-"
  
  "Why do you keep saying she has a fetish about... that?"
  
  "It... may have something to do with when she asked me to let her watch us together."
  
  "What."
  
  "I didn"t agree."
  
  "Of course you didn"t-"
  
  "I told her I would speak with you and not to do it without permission."
  
  I seem to have overcharged Shizu"s brain because she just shuts up and flops back into the cot.
  
  She"s also groaning. It"s a long groan. It displays great lung capacity.
  
  Not that I didn"t know that already. Tee-hee.
  
  "Why are you even asking me about it?" she mutters, her arm covering her eyes as if refusing to acknowledge such an absurd world exists and denying the sensory evidence regarding the contrary.
  
  "She did say she was starting to get curious about these kinds of things and wanted to learn from people who made her feel safe..." I take a deep breath and brace myself. "And I also got a bit turned on, when I saw her getting excited while you twirled your tongue around-"
  
  Shizu, very slowly, removes her arm from her face. And looks at me, her eyes as blank as a yandere who is talking about anything other than the subject of her obsession.
  
  I... may need an adult.
  
  "I don"t even know how to answer that," she says, as if her flat tone and dead gaze aren"t answer enough.
  
  "It looks like I shouldn"t test you before you have had a chance to review. You are such a slacker." If I am interpreting things correctly, she is trying to stab me with her eyes. Let"s hope it"s not part of a legendary bloodline activated due to the stress of meeting a frustratingly dense harem protagonist.
  
  "Just to be clear... You are not asking your teacher to participate in a threesome with two underage students, are you, Hikigaya?" Her tone is as sweet as Yuigahama asking me to try her cookies, and likely at least half as dangerous. I think, just this once, I will let the "Hikigaya" slide.
  
  It seems even the deep-voiced bastard has some survival instincts.
  
  "No! No, I am-I don"t even know, all right? I just... promised her I would speak with you about it."
  
  "And now you have," she states tonelessly.
  
  "I am a reliable man, you know?" I lie through my teeth.
  
  She sighs, staring at the ceiling with a complicated expression before raising up to a normal sitting position that promptly devolves into her leaning her chin on her hands and her elbows on her knees. Because maintaining proper position is too much of a bother. I think I get some of what Haruno likes about Shizu.
  
  "Yeah, I guess you are..."
  
  "Oi, at least you could pretend you are not surprised about it."
  
  She snorts as her only answer, and we just sit there, side by side.
  
  Which is kind of nerve-wracking.
  
  I mean, this is the point in the story where the suave protagonist says something that not only manages to soothe the ruffled feathers of his love interest, but also shows her he had been in the right all along and she should just reward his steadfast, unwavering heart with a three-
  
  No. That is another genre. One that involves a carefully curated selection of savegames and a flowchart. Right now we are more in the josei forbidden romance, which means she shouldn"t get mad at me for being a bit of a horny bastard, given it"s already a small miracle I am not an actual psychopath.
  
  Seriously, women like some bizarre things in their romantic fantasies. Not like men, who will always be satisfied with the wholesome, pure love between a young man and his childhood friend who is secretly a yandere serial killer.
  
  I am still debating whether hugging her shoulders is likely to get my liver elbowed when Shizu twitches (and I don"t let out a small yelp and drop my hand in response).
  
  "What is that?"
  
  "Uh? Oh, those are the dumbbells I bought."
  
  And now she looks at me as if I have just said the weirdest thing she ever expected me to say. A position that should have stiff competition, given the Iroha situation.
  
  "You... Why?"
  
  And now I am blushing and fidgeting with my index fingers. How the tables have turned.
  
  "I kinda... Wanted to get stronger?"
  
  "Right, but why?"
  
  My hand meets my face, and I mutter between my fingers.
  
  "What did you just say?"
  
  I separate my hand enough for it not to muffle everything, but not enough I can see her face. For reasons that will quickly become apparent.
  
  "I wanted to be able to handle you."
  
  And now there"s silence. Blissful silence. A silence complete enough I can imagine I am blushing like an Iroha without anybody else to witness my eternal shame.
  
  Actually, I don"t think she"s breathing.
  
  I cautiously lower my hands enough to peek, and I see Shizu, red as a German plugsuit, biting her lip and evading my eyes as if she was a female classmate.
  
  She is starting to emit a kind of low whistle. Maybe it"s a warning mechanism in case of overheating?
  
  "It... It won"t work."
  
  "Excuse me?"
  
  "The dumbbells. It won"t work. Those are mostly for biceps and forearms. Triceps and shoulders, if you do the right exercises, but guys always focus on biceps." Her gaze is darting all over the room. She still refuses to look at me.
  
  "I... I think good biceps are kind of a prerequisite if I want to... lift a woman-you." Why am I even saying this? Couldn"t I just say I wanted to get in shape like a normal human being?
  
  "Yes. Yes, you need strong arms..." she trails off, and then swallows. Which reminds me of this morning, and now my face is red for two reasons. "But you also need a strong back and core, or you could injure yourself. You will need a full-body regime, maybe introducing isometrics..."
  
  "I don"t even know what some of those words mean."
  
  "I could... teach you."
  
  And now I look at her, and she makes the titanic effort to raise her head and look at me. I think, somehow, blushes are not only contagious, but able to exacerbate one another. The mysteries of the human body.
  
  "You... could?"
  
  "I have a small home gym."
  
  "You do?"
  
  "I could... show you?"
  
  I picture Shizu in workout clothes, in the kind of sports bra that pushes her breasts together, the kind of elastic shorts that hide absolutely nothing, and I imagine-
  
  I hunch over, hands in my pockets. You know why.
  
  "Yes," I say, voice as hoarse as if I had just run a marathon instead of being about to prepare for it.
  
  "Yes?"
  
  "Yes, let"s go. Right now."
  
  And she lets out a soft whimper as I stand up, grab her suddenly sweaty hand, and she allows me to pull her up from the cot.
  
  We are standing face to face, flushed, embarrassed, (hopefully?) excited, when I realize I just invited myself to my secret lover"s house under the very thin pretense of exercising, and she has silently consented.
  
  Truly, my illicit romance seems to be looking up. How unexpected.
  
  ============
  ============
  
  
  Author's note: the next chapter is available for €3 at my Patreon. It will become free when I post the next-next chapter.
  
  Spoiler: there's at least one sports bra involved.
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 6
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 6
  
  The training arc is a comforting lie society tells us to make us believe we too can amount to something. If we just had the willpower to punch rocks until they shattered, our bones would magically strengthen and our attacks would surpass the Heavens without any kind of long-lasting injury crippling us for life and making us unsuited for the workforce. It is a comforting lie that nonetheless serves to keep the dredges of society down, because, after all, if they haven"t managed to surpass their limits it is only because they lack the willpower to do so, not because their circumstances are actually impossible to manage. That is the viciousness that lies at the heart of shounen manga.
  
  And if the training arc is a lie, the training montage is sheer slander.
  
  We are presented with a select few vignettes of a character pushing past their limits, with just enough hardship thrown in to make it cathartic when the spectacular results are finally shown, because we can then believe the character has earned their new power/ultimate technique/cooking recipe, unlike the jerkass rival who was just born with spinning eyes that somehow don"t give him a seizure.
  
  And it is a lie.
  
  "You are dropping your hips, Hikigaya. Straighten up," the insane taskmaster who for some reason has decided that the middle of the training montage is the perfect place to stop saying needy "Hachis" is just making my point for me.
  
  "You are thinking something rude," she states the obvious.
  
  Here is where I would reply with a scathing remark about how warranted my rudeness is after being given a tantalizing glimpse of the promised land consisting of a grey sports bra barely covered by a black, cropped tank top comboed with purple sport shorts that could pass for the second cousin of summer sleepwear with a slightly incestuous bend with the lingerie branch of the family... only to be tricked into actual exercise.
  
  "Wark," I say instead, as my abdominal muscles tell me they aren"t currently in any shape to expand enough to allow my usual glibness of tongue. Though it is nice that my body, tortured as it currently is, still manages a passable imitation of a chocobo. How endearing, Body-chan.
  
  "Come on, just give me ten more seconds! Nine! Eight! Seven-"
  
  And I drop down on the ground from my precarious plank position, grasping at my burning abdomen like some kind of desert bandit finally discovering that the whole series was actually about overpowered aliens looking for a new stylist. Dignity? Male Pride? Composture? What are those, and can they pay me a full-body transplant?
  
  Shizu sighs at my pitiful form, but rather than earning some charm points with the audience by showing her mothering, caring side, she just squats beside me and...
  
  "Right, you at least got the proper form down pat. Remember, you aren"t going to bulk up just with that, but it is important that you properly develop your stabilizers and get a feel for correct posture so that you avoid injuries with more intense exercises."
  
  And lectures me.
  
  Also, more intense exercises? Nope, not happening, you can"t do anything to persuade-
  
  "So if you ever want to be able to... lift a... person-" I am listening, Sensei. Please pour your wisdom upon this unworthy vessel! "Then you need to do this regularly. Other full-body exercises are-" I manage to lift my head from the ground enough that my eyes catch hers and she stops.
  
  She"s blushing.
  
  And breathing heavily. Very heavily. Which her attire makes me appreciate quite a bit.
  
  Woman, I am the one undergoing hellish trials to surpass my limits, why do you look like you are the one who needs to lay down?
  
  Apparently, Shizu finally remembers that the Christmas Cake Teacher is at least supposed to pretend to care for the well-being of her students and grasps me under my arms before (with insulting ease) standing up and leading me to her grey couch (that seems specially designed to easily hide cigarette burns and ash stains), upon which I drop bonelessly as my body informs me that it"s not so much that I"ve been writing checks that it can"t pay, but that I should stop mailing my dear friend, the Nigerian crown prince in exile.
  
  "You aren"t listening to a word I say, are you?"
  
  "Wark," I agree.
  
  That better be a gold chocobo, by the way.
  
  Shizu shuffles out of my immediate field of view and I am left contemplating the strangely Spartan living room of her small apartment, where a speedbag (that explains quite a few things), a wall-mounted pull-up bar, and a row of free-weights are crammed beside the television. I would make more astute observations about her messy yet sparse living environment, but that would require moving my head, so I will abstain and, instead, try to transcend the bounds of my physical vessel by allowing my consciousness to drift in an unguided observation of my environment as I focus on my breathing.
  
  Oooommm.
  
  Giving a harsh blow to my chances of achieving nirvana in this life, Shizu comes back and offers me an open can of something that, going by the suspiciously cheerful blue of its can, must be sporty and refreshing and meant for people who embody at least one of those virtues, and thus probably poison to me.
  
  "Wark?" I eloquently explain to her that I am currently unable of partaking in her offered recovery potion, which may or not be lethal to my kind. Said explanation results in her sighing as she cradles my head and tilts it slightly backward before slowly pouring the drink into my slack mouth.
  
  I am sure this is somebody"s fetish. No, I am not going to Google it.
  
  Not now.
  
  It takes me a few gulps of the refreshing, citrusy drink before I signal to her that I am currently at least as able of fending by myself as the average toddler, and she passes the can to my unsteady hand.
  
  "Better?" she asks, with the usual soft smile of the caring teacher who is about to impart some worldly insight on my current woes. It would be more reassuring if said woes weren"t caused by her teaching me hands-on the proper way to do a pushup, how to use a desk to substitute for my lack of rowing equipment or pull-up bars, the importance of alternating "pushing" exercises with "pulling" exercises, a couple of stretches (in which I at least got a teensy tiny bit of proper "food for thought") and...
  
  I was pretty sure there was something else, but... those stretches...
  
  There"s a very conspicuous throat-clearing at my side, which I guess means I should answer the question. Which was... I got nothing.
  
  I turn toward her, and she is looking far more amused at my state than a woman who isn"t wearing leather and spouting an Ojou-sama laugh ™ has any right to.
  
  "Still with me?" she asks.
  
  "If you want me to answer that with something sappy, maybe you shouldn"t have tortured me beforehand."
  
  "Hey, I asked you if you wanted to stop."
  
  "Sometimes, a lack of answer does not imply consent."
  
  "You kept going without protesting."
  
  "You are making a very good case for me buying you a ball-gag." She sputters at that. I have no idea why.
  
  "You wouldn"t dare! And how do you even know-"
  
  "Teenager. Internet." And now she"s flushing. Huh, it appears stating the obvious is somehow embarrassing to others. Maybe that"s why I shouldn"t call idiots idiots.
  
  That, and it shows laziness, lack of creativity, and other unsavory things having to do with not being a particularly interesting person in general. That is to say, it is the province of Zaimokuza, and I shouldn"t infringe on his domain.
  
  No, my dear friend, now that I have embarked on this journey of self-betterment through muscle growth and a possible pompadour hairdo, I am afraid our paths have finally diverged. I entrust you with the Way of the Lard. I know you will make me proud.
  
  Also, Shizu, is there any reason you have been staring at your lap with flushed cheeks for the past minutes while my mind pointlessly meandered and my breathing decided to stop punishing me?
  
  "Well, that is more or less... what you need to start with. You will improve quickly the first few days, but that"s only because your brain will learn to recruit more muscle fibers, not because your body is growing that much stronger, so don"t get discouraged when you stop improving that fast," she says, trying to paint over her embarrassment. Cute.
  
  Too cute.
  
  "And you know all of this because...?" She manages to raise her gaze from her lap and look at me sideways before she quirks an eyebrow and tilts her head toward her speedbag.
  
  "Guess."
  
  "You are a trained assassin on an undercover mission?"
  
  "Wha-? An assassin, really?"
  
  "Your blush is a lethal weapon. Really, I already have an appointment with my cardiologist." And now I am treated to a spectacular demonstration of the phenomenon in question. Hng! My chest!
  
  "Stop acting like you are having a heart attack!"
  
  "Stop being so cute!"
  
  "Wh-I am not cute!"
  
  And now I roll over, pinning her to the sofa, my hands on either side of her red face (and my arms screaming in protest and promising eternal vengeance at me, but let"s gloss over that).
  
  "Shizu, I don"t know who convinced you of that, but as soon as I am done undergoing your hellish training, I am going to kick their asses."
  
  She looks at me, a deer caught in the highlights look on her that only slightly abates before she answers with a whisper: "It"s not actually that harsh, is it?"
  
  And her bewildered expression turns shy as her eyes drift down and to the left, leaving herself vulnerable, exposed and I-
  
  Almost scream bloody murder when her phone starts ringing.
  
  Panicked, Shizu quickly takes the phone from where it was lying on the sofa as I start planning painful retribution on-
  
  "Haruno?"
  
  Nobody. A phone call between friends. Perfectly understandable. I shouldn"t intrude.
  
  "No, no I am fine. Really, you just caught me at a bad time yester-" And now Shizu looks at me, and realizes I am listening and probably know what the elder (in the Lovecraft sense) Yukinoshita is asking her about. She starts to panic before I gently smile down at her and leave a soft kiss on her forehead. And she smiles back at me. Soft, warm, wondering.
  
  "Wha-No, I am still here. Sorry, I got distracted." She doesn"t look away from me, but, for some reason, is unwilling to cut the call short and... Well.
  
  I have my Christmas Cake teacher below me, dressed in what she probably thinks are practical clothes, and every heterosexual man (and any girl willing to call her onee-sama) knows to be anything but. And she"s engaged in something she doesn"t want to interrupt, with someone she doesn"t want to alert to what is going on.
  
  So, naturally, I drop down on my knees and start kissing the inside of her thighs.
  
  Shizu lets out a sharp breath that she quickly explains away as having stubbed her toe, and her free hand goes straight for my hair. She grabs it, but doesn"t pull me away, so I keep my circular caresses, my fingertips drifting over the soft layer of skin that is covering these toned muscles I am just now starting to appreciate as they deserve. She pretends to listen to Haruno as she covers the phone long enough to let out a small, pitiful, delightful whine, and my fingers sink into her thighs with greater strength, my teeth nibbling on a particularly sensitive spot right in the middle of her inner thigh that makes her twitch erratically.
  
  I raise my head enough to catch her yearning gaze before she sees me looking and tries to affect anger, but the hand tugging on my hair isn"t tugging me away.
  
  So I go in.
  
  I am now kissing stretchy fabric, nuzzling into it, warm legs closing over my ears as my arms wrap around them. The shorts are warm, and a spot of moisture is starting to spread just under my lips, but what kind of illicit lover would I be if I let her get her clothes ruined? So, as the caring, dutiful, and well-mannered man that I am, I start tugging the shorts down.
  
  There"s a sharp tug on my hair and I look up to find her bewildered eyes nailed to mine. She"s stopped breathing, speaking, and just looks at me, paralyzed.
  
  Then I tug on her shorts again, the waistband slipping to offer me a delightful view of fit abdomen rippling as the elastic travels further down until-is that black, sheer lace?
  
  My expression must have made her somehow happy, because her lips curl up in merriment and, slowly, hesitantly, her hips raise from the cushion. And the delightful, purple shorts glide down her silky legs before being promptly forgotten.
  
  I am sorry, truly, Shorts-chan, but my love for you was too shallow. I hope you will wish me good luck with Panties-chan.
  
  I mean, I always thought Happosai was a crazy weirdo, but maybe the old lech was onto something.
  
  The black lace that only barely covers Shizu"s sex depicts a mosaic of roses transparent enough that I can now fully appreciate her legs and hips, and a stretch of shimmering cloth is the only thing that separates me from her own flower-right. Corny. I need to stop pilfering Komachi"s mangas.
  
  I also need to stop thinking about my little sister when the overwhelming fragrance of-what was I thinking about?
  
  The fabric is at this point visibly soaked, sticking to the skin in a way that allows me to guess at her tender folds, and I kiss her over it, her taste filtered through silk, her heady scent awakening that part of me that is surer, more confident, and I start to tug on her panties.
  
  This time, I don"t need to look at her before she raises her hips.
  
  And now I am finally face to face with her sex, with this part of her that I have already touched, caressed, played with until I made Shizu shudder and moan in ecstasy and release.
  
  So I kiss her.
  
  Softly, tenderly, no more than a brush of my lips over her own, moisture barely clinging to me as I lean back to look into her eyes as a low moan escapes her and she bites her finger to stifle her reaction at seeing me looking up at her from between her gorgeous legs.
  
  So I go back, to do it again, to make her shudder, to-
  
  "What?!" Shizuka"s bewildered scream makes me stop for a moment before the part of me that clutched Iroha"s chin as I gave her tacit permission to masturbate to pictures of me getting my cock sucked surfaces and deems the interruption irrelevant. If Shizu is going to scream while I caress and kiss her sex, it is more a bonus than a nuisance.
  
  "No, of course not, I am not-why would I ever-" Her denials are getting ever more frantic. Uh. Guess I am doing something right.
  
  And then there"s a sharp tug on my hair that actually pulls me away.
  
  I almost growl.
  
  It seems the deep-voiced bastard may be part werewolf. How chuuni of him.
  
  Shizu looks at me, eyes wide and panicked in a way that only partly has to do with what I was doing seconds ago, which I find somehow offensive for reasons I am unwilling to explore. Then she hands me the phone with a trembling hand.
  
  I won"t say how my own hand receives it.
  
  "Yes?" I say, in a way that is the epitome of self-assured masculinity and would be completely out of place when dubbing an underage character.
  
  "Hachiman! How delightful to hear your voice!" Oi, is that a crack at my manly, uncracked greeting, Yukinoshita? "Now put the phone in camera mode."
  
  I look at Shizu, who looks completely lost, and start getting up.
  
  "Without moving from where you are," Haruno interrupts. Obviously.
  
  "I don"t see why I should be obeying orders here," I bluff.
  
  "That"s the problem, Hachiman, I am not seeing anything at the moment, and I think this is a chance I would dearly lament not taking advantage of. You wouldn"t want to see me sad and disappointed, would you?"
  
  I could argue that I would rather see her tied up and frustrated out of her mind, but that"s the deep-voiced bastard talking.
  
  "Tell you what," she says in a breathy voice that makes all sorts of things happen along my spine, "if you turn on Shizu"s camera... I will turn on mine."
  
  I turn on the camera.
  
  "Hmmm, good boy," Haruno says, and that"s something that also makes all sorts of things run through my spine, but I am not quite able to focus on it right now.
  
  Because in my hand, in the wastefully large screen of Shizu"s phone, a topless Haruno is smiling at me.
  
  All right, there are at least two reasons to say that the screen is not pointlessly large.
  
  "Hey, my eyes are up here," she says jokingly (I hope), but Shizu"s little grunt seems slightly devoid of humor. You know, like a... a man looking for a humorous simile while his sorta girlfriend looks at him after he has stared at the naked breasts of her friend in astonished amazement? Yes, like that. Just that devoid of humor.
  
  Wordlessly, before I can get into any more trouble, I pass the phone back to Shizu, who takes it with a slightly firmer hand than when she handed it to me.
  
  "Well, you have seen what is going on. Happy now?" Shizu asks with a pointed voice that makes me want to check whether I have done my homework.
  
  I am sure this won"t cause me any conflicting feelings in the near future.
  
  "Partly!" Haruno cheerfully replies, in a way that obviously implies a happy bounce, which would do delightful-no, that way lies sleeping on the sofa.
  
  And the sofa smells like tobacco.
  
  Shizu sighs loudly at that, and I am starting to get a bit uncomfortable at being on my knees right in front of her naked sex without being able to do what comes (surprisingly) naturally. I am also wondering why she looks so unbothered by Yukinoshita"s nudity.
  
  "What else do you want, Haruno?"
  
  "Always straight to business, is it? And here I thought you would be more relaxed after finally getting-"
  
  "Haruno!"
  
  "Ah, so uptight... Hachiman, it looks like you haven"t been doing a good job at keeping your promise."
  
  "It"s only been a day, give me some time to work, woman," I automatically protest. Which may have been the wrong thing to say, because now Shizu"s thighs are tightly pressed around my neck as her eyes narrow at me and Haruno"s mirthful laugh echoes from the phone.
  
  ""Time to work?" Anything you want to tell me, Hikigaya?"
  
  "That you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen and I am the luckiest man alive?"
  
  "Hachiman, you are going to make me jealous."
  
  "Shut up, Haruno. In fact, why haven"t I hung up already?" Shizu asks the question I hadn"t dared think of till now.
  
  "Because you owe meee," she answers in a childish singsong that is as wildly out of place as anything that Yukinoshita Haruno does when she can get away with it.
  
  "I owe you nothing!"
  
  "Oh? Why do you think your dearest Hachiman is kneeling down in front of you and doing what you have always complained about your bastard exes never doing?"
  
  "You didn"t tell me to eat her out!" I protest my innocence.
  
  "No, I told you to break her ideals and force her to do what she wants and not what she thinks she should want."
  
  And that"s... Yes, that"s true, and Shizu looks at me, lost, as if unsure she wants me to deny it.
  
  "You did. Thanks for the push, I needed it." And my lover takes a deep breath while I look straight at her, as steel comes back into my voice.
  
  "You are welcome. Both of you."
  
  Haruno"s words hang in the air, the three of us silent as each of us processes not only the situation, but what has led us to this.
  
  "You know, Haruno, I think you are right. I think Shizuka owes you."
  
  "She does, doesn"t she?"
  
  "Yes. How would you like me to make her pay?"
  
  "I would love it, Hachiman."
  
  "Why... why are you calling him like that?" Shizu asks, unsure about whether she can ask anything else.
  
  "Because you got to call him "Hachi" first. So this will be a nice consolation prize."
  
  And then I dive forward, Shizu gasps, and Haruno chuckles.
  
  My arms grasp her legs, keeping them around me as I start tracing her lips with my tongue in long, deliberate strokes that soon have Shizu start letting out her sharp, short yelps of pleasure.
  
  "Hmmm, is he any good?" Haruno asks.
  
  "I-I don"t-hmph!"
  
  "I guess that"s a yes. Nice going, Hachiman, you don"t know how adorable her red face looks from up close."
  
  "I do. She"s gorgeous." I stop just long enough to say that before my lips wrap around Shizu"s clit and I suck as strongly as I can. Her cry and her fingers digging into my scalp only spur me on.
  
  "Wha-" Haruno, for once in her life, sounds out of balance, and then she laughs. It is not her usual laugh, tinted with barely hidden derision, but one lighter, more sincere.
  
  If sex keeps getting me genuine things, I may end up more invested in it than I thought. Which may prove logistically troublesome.
  
  "Hey, Shizu, seems like you will have something interesting to share next time we go out for drinks."
  
  "What-what makes you think drinks are still on?"
  
  "Well, you do seem a little thirsty." I almost groan at the bad pun. Shizu does groan, but I think it is for unrelated causes. "And you owe me the next round."
  
  "I thought-oh gods, Hachi, yes-I thought this was what I owed you?"
  
  "Hn! No, that"s... hmmm... that"s what Hachi owes me. You look so amazing when he drives you wild..."
  
  "Haruno, I... You know I... Ah! Hachi, don"t-"
  
  And that"s the moment where my hands let go of her legs and, with just two fingers, I enter a woman for the first time.
  
  Shizu is drenched, her honey sticking to my chin and thighs visibly glistening, but I still need to twist and push my way in, her flesh wrapping around my fingers and only parting after I coax her with back and forth motions. For a delightful moment, I am lost to the world as I focus on her undulations, within and without, as her pelvis starts thrusting at my mouth while my tongue dances around her clit as I keep sucking on it as long as my lungs allow.
  
  And then I am looking into Yukinoshita Haruno"s wide eyes as her hands grope her breasts and her fake smile melts into something that, somehow, manages to make me even harder.
  
  Over the phone, I can see Shizu"s eyes, wide, disbelieving, as she herself holds the device so close to my face and to what my mouth is tending to.
  
  "Yes, just like that, Hachiman. Make her moan like a slut who is finally getting what she so desperately wants." And Shizu whines at that, once again biting that long-suffering finger of hers. "Make her go crazy as you pump in and out of her... God, you both look so appetizing."
  
  "I think I need an adult," I can"t help but quip, lips drenched with something that is clearly not saliva.
  
  "I... I am an adult," Shizu impossibly manages to quip back. "And I need you."
  
  And, once again, against all odds, something snaps inside my head.
  
  My arms wrap around her thighs, and I stand up, dragging her body up as she lies down on the sofa, defenseless under me. I switch my hands around, one pounding roughly in and out of her while a thumb circles her clitoris again and again, pressing it down whenever she tries to say something. Haruno looks at me, transfixed, silent, and I notice only one of her hands is still visible and her shoulders start to shake as she stares at Shizuka"s sex being so roughly handled.
  
  And now I am seeing two beautiful older women biting their lips to muffle their voices, both entranced by my actions, both being driven further and further to the point of no return. I turn my head to the side and suck on Shizu"s thigh as strongly as I can, right over that spot that had made her twitch just moments ago.
  
  And she screams.
  
  No. They scream.
  
  Shizu goes completely limp, only held up by my gripping her thighs over my shoulders, and Haruno has thrown her head back so I can only see her open mouth, pillowy lips stretched thin as her voice mixes with Shizu"s ecstasy.
  
  Legs shaky with effort, I start lowering Shizu back on the sofa as they both regain hold of their senses. I lie her down along it and then take a seat on the floor, right beside her head. And kiss her. Long, tenderly.
  
  If I get sticky lips out of this, so does she.
  
  I caress Shizu"s hair as she recovers, a small, satisfied smile on her lips the whole time, but then Haruno speaks, and her voice is raw, less guarded than usual, and I think... I think I shouldn"t be here for this. I think this is for Shizu, not for me.
  
  So I excuse myself to the bathroom and wash my face, before I take off my undershirt, thankful that my shirt had already been removed during my training montage and wash my armpits on the sink before I discover, to my chagrin, that Shizu, for some reason beyond my understanding, only has a distinctly feminine body spray that I shouldn"t wear home under risk of thorough interrogation by a very suspicious little sister.
  
  I briefly debate whether the risk is worth it and decide that no, it isn"t, so I twiddle a bit with my phone before I decide enough time for a post-coital friendly confidence has passed and peek out the door to find Shizu sitting on the sofa with a pensive look.
  
  And I sit beside her before hugging her to my side.
  
  She leans into me, her face buried in my naked chest for far too long for this to be normal cuddling, but I don"t even know where to start asking, so I don"t. Because I am here, hugging her, and that should be enough to tell her she can tell me anything she needs.
  
  "Thank you," she says, after the silence stretches too long.
  
  "Anytime."
  
  She nuzzles against my skin, her hair going taut under my embrace.
  
  "You don"t even know what I am talking about, do you?"
  
  "Not the foggiest."
  
  She somehow manages to unglue her face from my meager chest to look up at me. And kisses me.
  
  "Thank you, then."
  
  "For not knowing?"
  
  "Yes."
  
  "I feel you will have plenty more opportunities to thank me in the near future." And she giggles, and a small weight lifts off my shoulders.
  
  "Then I guess it"s a good thing I..."
  
  "You...?"
  
  She fidgets, clutching me and gluing her face to my chest once again, avoiding my eyes before finishing her line with a small voice.
  
  "I enjoyed this."
  
  "I could tell," I can"t help but cockily remark.
  
  The fist digging into my side should be a deterrent, but it"s still weirdly endearing.
  
  "No, I mean... Being watched while you, while we..."
  
  "I will talk with Iroha."
  
  She remains silent for a few seconds before she mutters against my skin.
  
  "Thanks."
  
  And I lie back on her sofa, cradling her soft body against me.
  
  "Anytime."
  
  ***
  
  After a silence that should have been too long to be comfortable yet somehow still felt too short, Shizu decided to drive me home in what probably is one of our more atypical rides in her sports car. Item number one is that she doesn"t do her Misato Katsuragi impression, item number two is that she hums a soft melody the whole time and I can"t help the goofy smile I feel taking over whenever I look at her (which is the whole time). Unfortunately, not everything is good news, and before she drops me off she gives me a thorough test on all the exercise tips she drilled into me before (reluctantly) entrusting me with my dumbbell"s suitcase.
  
  And then she kisses me goodbye just before I get off the car and giggles like a schoolgirl addicted to Pokemon Go at my surprise.
  
  So my head isn"t quite clear when I finally enter my home after what feels like the longest day of my life, and I could be forgiven for being slightly louder than I should when I drop the dumbbells on the floor before I take off my coat.
  
  "Brother? What was that?"
  
  "Sorry, Komachi, I just dropped my dumbbells."
  
  And there"s a sound of something metallic dropping on the kitchen floor before loud, hurried steps rush to me, giving me just enough time to realize how deep the grave I"ve just dug is.
  
  "Who is she?!" Komachi, my adorable little sister, asks, eyes wide and face red in what I hope is merely exertion, holding the doorframe so hard I think the wood is creaking.
  
  I regretfully look down at the traitorous exercise implements, my only loot after a day of avoiding classes and defiantly flaunting the authority of the system.
  
  Being a delinquent doesn"t pay. Stay in school, kids.
  
  ============
  ============
  
  
  Author's note: the next chapter is available for €3 at my Patreon. It will become free when I post the next-next chapter.
  
  Spoiler: Hachiman doesn't go to school. Komachi may or not school him.
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 7
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 7
  
  Self-improvement.
  
  Self-improvement is a personal attack, a way to keep the struggling masses not only outside the circle of those who have "won" at life, of those who have a group of friends, a girlfriend, and jobs that are something more than endlessly pouring in work, sweat, and tears so that an uncaring boss can take the credit, but to make them feel guilty about it and have them throw time and money away needlessly. Are you bad at making friends? Maybe you should work on your self-esteem; here, take a self-help book titled "How to get rich writing things gullible idiots will buy." Are you frustrated at the endless drain of joy of your nine-to-five (plus extras)? How about taking a class when you finally manage to get out of the office with this wonderful life coach I"ve heard so much about? Do you feel unattractive? You should work out more; go get a gym membership, or buy some stupid dumbbells-they come in a moronic plastic suitcase!
  
  This amounts to a multi-billion yen industry that revolves around everything going wrong in your life being your fault alone and no one else"s, and that"s something that can only be solved by expediently changing who you are. But where does that leave self-acceptance? Aren"t we supposed to find and cherish our unique, true selves? Aren"t we supposed to be happy with who we are rather than trying to fit into a mold? Then what if my true self is that of a couch potato only fit to endlessly vegetate with my videogames and light novels that are barely a step above actual porn? How can I reconcile my true self with what society tells us is self-improvement? I can"t! I shouldn"t! Just even thinking about it is a betrayal of my more deeply held values, one which will make the order of the cosmos itself reestablish its pillars by punishing my deviance from my intended path!
  
  "Brother, stop thinking something cringy and answer the question."
  
  See? Evidence!
  
  "You are making Komachi angry. You wouldn"t like Komachi when she is angry."
  
  "That is a lie! Your big brother will always like Komachi, no matter whether she"s angry, slightly miffed, or frustrated at still being single when she becomes an eighty-year-old pure maiden."
  
  "..."
  
  "I am going to guess that didn"t earn me a lot of Hachiman points."
  
  "Wow, how insightful. It"s like you have more mental capacity than an amoeba. Keep it up, brother."
  
  "Please forgive your older brother"s exuberance, Komachi-sama; he"s only worried you"ll never meet someone worthy of your affections."
  
  "And meanwhile I am just worried you will never meet someone who will put up with your affections. So. Who. Is. She."
  
  Once again, I look at the traitorous dumbbells" suitcase, parked on the floor right beside Komachi"s side of the couch, with as much resentment as I can gather (which is a lot-it is a skill honed through life-long practice, after all). Yes, it is because of you, and you alone, that my little sister is now subjecting me to an interrogation about my sex life.
  
  Indeed, the drive to self-improvement can only end in divine punishment. Very petty, annoying, and humiliating divine punishment.
  
  Hachiman Hikigaya, truly, you were ever closer to divinity than you realized.
  
  "Stop running away into your dumb inner monologue and answer the question, brother, or Komachi is going to be very upset with you," she says, with a radiant smile that would be the envy of yanderes everywhere.
  
  ... Uh, I don"t remember ever reading anything with a yandere little sister. Weird, those character archetypes seem to meld really well, what with the little sister"s endless devotion to her brother masking the emptiness and void of her life whenever they are apart. I can already see the plot outline: the younger sister would get involved in his romantic life, befriending all the female characters somehow inexplicably gravitating around him, in a desperate hope to feel included if ever something sparks between them. She wouldn"t care about who would win the harem race, just wanting to somehow be there, present, cheering each girl on and giving them chances to try and romance her big brother while she does her best to still be close to him by, for instance, having a whole plot point dedicated to her devotedly studying for the entrance exams to his high school. Then, when she has assured a place by his side for the next year, one of the girls finally takes the lead, and she is forcefully shown that being somehow involved is not enough, that she needs more, that her big brother is being stolen from her by the devious, mature wiles of his Christmas Cake teacher and...
  
  "Uh... Komachi, your very caring older brother thinks it"s too dangerous for you to keep cooking meals. You shouldn"t be handling knives. Or anything sharp. In fact, your devoted older brother will from now on cut your food for you and feed you so you don"t risk hurting yourself, ever. How does that sound?"
  
  "... It sounds like you are being gross. Very gross. Extremely gross. Hachiman levels gross."
  
  "How is "Hachiman" higher than "extremely?!""
  
  "Komachi"s brother always outdoes himself. Tee-hee." Damn it, why can she pull off that biting the tip of her tongue while smiling thing? When I try, I-
  
  Oh. Hachiman levels gross. I get it.
  
  "That"s just too cruel, Komachi. Your poor brother"s heart has been pierced by your merciless barbs. I will now retreat to my bedroom to heal in solitude."
  
  "You are going to stop it with the "your brother" crap, sit up straight, and answer the goddamn question."
  
  "... Are you sure you don"t want me to make you some tea? Perhaps a nice shoulder massage to help you relax? Your brother is worried about how stressed you-gack!"
  
  On the one hand, it is nice that my little sister still feels close enough to me to playfully sit on my lap despite her age. On the other, I kind of need air to live.
  
  "Hachiman, I am going to relax my fingers just a tiny smidge so that you can breathe. If the first words out of your mouth aren"t a name and surname, I will start strangling you again. I don"t know if I will stop. Do you understand me, brother?"
  
  I frantically nod as much as her thin (yet surprisingly steady) forearms under my chin allow me to, and she, as promised, lets me once again enjoy the sweet taste of life-giving air. So I stare into my adorably murderous little sister"s eyes, who currently looks like an extremely pissed-off kitten.
  
  And keep staring.
  
  And staring.
  
  Staring, ing, ing. I am staaaaring. Staaaaaaring.
  
  "Gah!" she "gahs," presumably in frustration, for some unfathomable reason. "Will you spill already!"
  
  "Hey," I communicate, with the power of expressive staring, "the deal was that my first words would be a name and surname. You said nothing about me keeping quiet."
  
  If I am interpreting her scarlet flush and teeth-gnashing correctly, she gets the message. Just another proof of the unbreakable bond between loving siblings who are definitely blood-related and don"t live even in the vague neighborhood of the Oreimo setting.
  
  That ending was gross. Hachiman levels gross.
  
  "Broooother..." she starts roaring. And then my phone chimes in my pocket.
  
  In horror, knowing what is coming, I look at my pants as if they too have betrayed me to the punishment of the merciless heavens for daring try to step above my station as a couch potato. They have only been more incriminating whenever I have had to suddenly stand after recklessly staring for far too long at Yuigahama"s Yuigahamas. A hard-earned lesson, it has been, that I still fail to apply from time to time.
  
  And then my phone chimes again.
  
  Daring to hope against hope, I turn to look from my pocket to Komachi"s caring, soft, merciful features. Surely, she wouldn"t violate her dear older brother"s privacy so-
  
  And then we are grappling on the sofa as my sister, for reasons that I assure you are pure and wholesome, tries her damnedest to get her hands in my pants.
  
  Why did I tempt the Heavens by mentioning the accursed Oreimo? Have I learned nothing?
  
  Inevitably, as my training arc has yet to be completed and the author needed a scene to establish my base level of strength before showing my spectacular improvement after the hellish ordeals, Komachi wins our struggle and ends up straddling my prone form on the sofa, my phone held aloft like some kind of trophy from a barbarian"s trial by fire.
  
  Uh. She kinda looks like... Yeah, I think she could pull off a cosplay as that tomboyish amazon from Danmachi.
  
  Must exterminate any otakus that may come up to her with the idea. Sorry, Zaimokuza, nothing personal.
  
  Of course, right as Komachi is ending her victorious cry, the phone chimes for a third, accursed time, which means she"s staring right at the screen when the notification comes up and so she can easily read the name of the only woman I know who barrages me with messages if I don"t answer in a matter of seconds.
  
  Shizu, we need to have a talk about boundaries. And insecurities. And Iroha"s voyeuristic fetish.
  
  Dammit, Brain!
  
  I don"t know what the message says, but, going by Komachi"s expression widening in horror, I can only guess it"s not about my latest dissertation trying to pass as finished homework for science class. Seriously, I am a man of letters; trying to get men to like sciences when they don"t care to is just sexual discrimination. I am a victim of the oppressive patriarchy, I tell you!
  
  And now I have the theme for my social sciences class homework...
  
  "Brother, are you having an illicit affair with your teacher?" Komachi asks, as the light starts fading from her eyes, and her characteristically upbeat tone is leveled like a historical site ready to be developed into a residential district where people will be regularly assaulted by the spirits of the indigenous tribe.
  
  As a responsible older brother, I give her the answer she needs to be reassured and not the slightest bit traumatized.
  
  I whistle.
  
  For some strange reason, she starts screaming as she strangles me once again. Truly, women are a mystery.
  
  "Will you talk to me and stop acting like a dumbass harem protagonist!"
  
  Komachi, you are not making any sense; I can"t very well answer you while you strangle me (a slight price to pay). Also, stop using anime tropes to describe real-life people. It"s an unsettling habit, and makes you look gross and disconnected from reality.
  
  Tee-hee.
  
  "Fine. Be that way," and now she looks at me like she did when I snapped at her and-oh gods, am I stuck in a sitcom where I keep repeating the same mistakes without learning anything from my previous character arc? Is that the true punishment from the Heavens? Am I a moron?
  
  The answer to at least one of those questions is "yes," by the way.
  
  "Promise not to tell mom?" I capitulate.
  
  She looks at me for a moment before shock and anger give way to smugness. Sasuga, Komachi, you have played your brother like a fiddle.
  
  "Not dad?"
  
  "If dad ever believed I was getting it on with an older, attractive woman, he would outright buy me a bachelor pad."
  
  "You are what?!"
  
  Oh. It looks like that third text may not have been that incriminating, after all.
  
  "Tee-hee?"
  
  Going by Komachi"s unamused look, I may need a slightly more verbal explanation. Where"s that vaunted unspoken understanding between siblings now?
  
  "So, you see, when an underage man and a slightly desperate unmarried woman love each other very much-"
  
  "Ah! Gross! Extremely gross! Hachiman levels gross!"
  
  "That"s not what she said."
  
  "Gack!" She jumps off me-finally!-and starts making gagging sounds. Which... I understand, really. In her place, I wouldn"t be handling this much better.
  
  Except I would have already gone for the knife and/or castrating scissors, so, objectively, I would be handling it much better.
  
  I wait for a bit to see whether further conversation is possible (or advisable) before I decide to make a discreet retreat to the safety of my bedroom. Of course, that"s when she grabs my shirt"s collar with an iron-grasp. Make up your mind, Komachi.
  
  And my phone chimes again. Without looking at the screen, I silence it.
  
  Really, I don"t feel like noting it keeps chiming every few seconds. Shizu can wait.
  
  ... This moment will come back to haunt me, won"t it?
  
  "So," she says, wiping her mouth with her sleeve and giving me a look that"s only slightly marred by the kind of trauma one expects from war veterans going through a flashback, "Ms. Hiratsuka won the race?"
  
  "If I find out you were taking bets, I am going to be very upset. Also, I want my percentage of the profits."
  
  "That would be highly unethical."
  
  "I am glad you at least respect your brother"s privacy that much."
  
  "No, I mean that we would be accused of cheating if you profited off the results."
  
  "... I am not sure I should have lent you my Ranma collection, after all."
  
  For a moment, it looks like she"s trying to come up with further banter, before she sighs and drops down on the sofa next to me, her head thrown back over the backrest.
  
  "Why didn"t you want to tell me?"
  
  And... well, there are multiple reasons. Panic, embarrassment, fear...
  
  "I... don"t know. It"s... it all started yesterday, you know? So it"s still fresh, and there"s the whole mess with Yuigahama and Yukinoshita..."
  
  "And Iroha?"
  
  "... Have you met her?"
  
  "Not yet, but, from what Yui and Yukino say..."
  
  "Right... Iroha is... kind of involved."
  
  My words are followed up by the kind of silence that screams for a "go" katakana sound effect to be plastered all over the panel and Komachi looks at me like she"s deciding whether she just had a religious revelation or is in dire need of a merciful lobotomy. All in all, this is going much better than I expected.
  
  "And what does... "involved" mean?"
  
  I sigh and bury my face in my hands.
  
  "She... caught Shizu and I doing... things. And she liked it. She"s asked me to watch other times."
  
  Komachi gulps.
  
  "And... And Sizuka knows about this?"
  
  I groan. Loudly.
  
  "I told her."
  
  "And you are alive?" Oh, wow, Komachi sounds awed. And it only took me recklessly investing my whole lifetime supply of luck with the opposite sex.
  
  Totally worth it.
  
  "She"s... agreed."
  
  "You are shitting me."
  
  "Komachi!"
  
  "Sorry! Komachi is-screw that! My brother is pounding his Christmas Cake teacher so hard his junior turned voyeur-stalker for him! If that"s not an excuse for swearing, I don"t know what is!"
  
  "I am not "pounding" Shizu!" Yet.
  
  "What?!"
  
  "We... oral only, so far."
  
  Another silence. This one is the kind where a tumbleweed starts rolling in the foreground.
  
  "And... Iroha... Oral..."
  
  "Yeah." I say, once again through my protective fingers that allow me to pretend the world doesn"t exist and I am having an imaginary conversation I shouldn"t be embarrassed about.
  
  Ganbare, Fingers, your hard work is vital to my survival.
  
  "Any... Anyone else knows?"
  
  Oh gods, you had to ask, didn"t you?
  
  "Haruno Yukinoshita."
  
  I hear something shifting and I manage to force myself to peek through my fingers. This perilous maneuver allows me to see my little sister hugging her knees on the end of the sofa furthest from me, staring at me in open-mouthed horror.
  
  "You... Haruno... What?!"
  
  "I... she kinda helped bring us together?"
  
  "Why?!"
  
  "Komachi, if I knew why Haruno Yukinoshita does anything, I would probably be working as a paranormal investigator who uses deductive reasoning to fake psychic powers."
  
  "Yeah, sounds about right."
  
  "Though she may have had a crush on Shizu."
  
  Now she is just looking at me with a blank stare. I think I broke my sister.
  
  See? This is how you properly mindbreak someone, fat bastards everywhere. No need for all that netorare crap.
  
  "Explain."
  
  "I..." I swallow, hard, and lift my head high. Because a man should stare death in the eyes, or something equally stupid Zaimokuza would say in these circumstances. "She called when I was in Shizu"s apartment, and... she ended up... Camera... Well, when we finished, she had a long talk with Shizu. I think they talked about their past, and I gave them a bit of privacy, so..."
  
  Yes, still dead-eyed. It seems I have achieved my life-long ambition to make her unable to ever have sex with a man. Yay.
  
  "Are you an exhibitionist now, brother? Does Komachi need to worry about you prancing around the house without a towel?"
  
  "... I may-"
  
  "If you answer that question in any way it implies I wasn"t joking, I don"t know what your loving sister may do, brother."
  
  "Right." And I shut up. Just to be safe.
  
  This time the silence is the kind that stretches for far too long, and you get the urge to look at your wrist even though every civilized human being who isn"t trying to show off the money he inherited from his parents stopped wearing wristwatches years ago. I still check the skin on the back of my left wrist, in case it gives me some vital information.
  
  It doesn"t. How disappointing.
  
  "So," Komachi tries to start again, for some reason not giving up on this dialog tree where every option leads to sanity loss. Komachi, don"t play any horror games, your brother knows you will be awful at them. "So, do you have any idea about what you are doing?"
  
  "I... I promised Haruno-" she starts shivering at the name. Understandable. "I promised her I wouldn"t give up on Shizuka and that I would take care of Yukinoshita."
  
  And now my sister looks at me with something other than horror, awe, or the death of her innocence. How refreshing.
  
  "It looks like a hard promise to keep."
  
  Don"t make a joke about being hard, don"t make a joke about being hard-
  
  "Those are the only ones worth keeping."
  
  Success!
  
  "Then... do you mind me asking for another?"
  
  And I look at my sister. My extremely uncomfortable sister, who nonetheless has pushed herself through this whole ordeal in what I recognize is a mix of uncalled-for nosiness and legitimate worry for her useless brother. And nod at her with a tentative smile. Because what else can Hachiman Hikigaya do when Komachi Hikigaya asks him for something?
  
  "Promise you will also take care of Yui?"
  
  I don"t even need to think about it.
  
  "That was always the plan, Komachi."
  
  And she smiles at me, in that way she does when she"s actually proud of her hopeless big brother because she has always seen him in a way other people hadn"t. Not until this year. Not until I met all these wonderful girls who were able to...
  
  And I don"t know why, but there"s... are my cheeks wet? There"s no reason for me to-
  
  "A last request, brother,"she says as she embraces me, her hand softly patting my head, "promise me... You will be happy. Promise me you will do what"s best for you, and you won"t do anything stupid to put their happiness above yours. Promise me you will take care of them without sacrificing yourself. Please. Please make this promise to your selfish little sister?"
  
  I mumble something against her shoulder, something that may be agreement or may not, because that would be a hard promise to keep, and those are worth keeping, but I also-
  
  "Shush, it"s all right; you don"t need to answer right now. Komachi understands." And she just keeps hugging me as memories of the last year, of all the things I gained and those I am about to throw away, keep going through my mind.
  
  And, as I cling to my soft, warm, caring younger sister, I could swear I hear her mutter, "That should have earned me a lot of Komachi points."
  
  It has. Of course it has.
  
  Sasuga, Komachi.
  
  ***
  
  When I finally recover enough to fake being a functional human being who is not at all completely out of his depth, I retire to my bedroom to face what I hope to be my latest challenge of the day.
  
  Looking at how many messages I have in my phone.
  
  Twenty-eight. Wow. How restrained of you, Ms. Hiratsuka.
  
  "Hi, I just wanted to wish you good night."
  
  "Also, to remind you to do the stretches I taught you before going to bed."
  
  "It really helps with muscle soreness. Otherwise, you will be feeling like a pincushion tomorrow morning."
  
  "Seriously, it really helps."
  
  "Also, I am sorry if I forced you to do too much, I guess I just was a bit too enthusiastic."
  
  "When you said you wanted to exercise for me, I.."
  
  "None of my boyfriends have ever..."
  
  "And, look, about what happened with Haruno, I am sorry I talked so long with her, but that conversation had been long coming."
  
  "Oh gods, I can"t believe I just let you go right after... and I didn"t even take care of you after..."
  
  "Are you mad that I didn"t, you know, "help" you?"
  
  "I should have! I didn"t even think about it, I am so selfish, no wonder you are mad at me!"
  
  "Please, Hachi, answer, I don"t..."
  
  "I am sorry, I am so clingy, I shouldn"t bother you so much. Good night."
  
  "Hey, are you really mad?"
  
  "I can make it up to you, I swear, just let me try to... I don"t know, I will come up with something!"
  
  Those are the fifteen first messages. Three more have arrived while I read them. They mostly consist of a series of undecipherable emojis and a gif of a sad panda cuddling a tire.
  
  ...
  
  I am at once oddly flattered, disturbed, terrified at her increasingly obvious yandere tendencies, and morbidly curious about what will happen if I let her stew till tomorrow.
  
  Nah. Curiosity killed the careless harem protagonist. Or a kitchen knife, in one of the endings.
  
  So, with all the swift decisiveness I am known for (since about twenty-four hours ago, my brief lapse with Komachi non-withstanding), I compose an answer that should take care of this problem before it becomes an actual problem.
  
  "Shizu, relax; I was just talking with Komachi and couldn"t answer the phone. I am not mad, I completely understand Haruno"s situation took priority, and you don"t need to make anything up to me (though I obviously won"t complain if you come up with something you want to do-I am not that stupid). I thought we had already agreed your ex-boyfriends were morons with zero taste in women, there"s no need to keep bringing trash up, so I will now go do those stretches if you are so sure they will spare me further agony. I can"t wait till I see you tomorrow. Good night."
  
  And sent. Yes, this should do.
  
  ...
  
  On second thought...
  
  "Also, from now on, if you send me more than three messages before I answer you, I will expect the fourth one to be a naked picture. This is just to train your impulse control, and not at all because of any ulterior motive. I hope you understand this is for your own good and won"t directly benefit me in any way whatsoever."
  
  Perfect.
  
  I start stretching my arms using my doorframe to keep my hand in place as I twist my body and-
  
  Ding.
  
  I... I shouldn"t stop doing this right this moment. The message will still be there when I finish.
  
  Ding.
  
  Seriously, I just need to count to thirty. It"s not that long.
  
  Ding.
  
  Focus on your breathing and let go of worldly desires. Attachment is the path to suffering and-ow. Damn, what"s the point of saving me pain tomorrow by causing me pain right now? This isn"t logical at all.
  
  Ding.
  
  That"s... The fourth ding.
  
  ...
  
  Screw it, I am only human.
  
  With barely restrained speed, I jump on top of my bed to grab my phone from where I had let it tempt me with its siren call. As swiftly as a teenage girl fishing for likes, I open the last unread message and-
  
  Oh.
  
  Oh, wow.
  
  In my screen, a blushing Shizu is posing in front of the mirror, dressed once again in her sporty attire, lifting her very flattering sports bra over her right breast-
  
  The next picture shows her taking the shot over her shoulder; her beautiful, round, perky derriere framed by her lowered shorts digging right under her cheeks features prominently-
  
  The next one has her clothes in place, but she"s biting her lip as her hand is shoved right into her shorts and-
  
  The last one is just a shot of her flushed face, lips partly opened and eyes unfocused, almost glassy, and she has taken the time to add "Miss you so much" in red, cursive letters.
  
  I stare. I swallow, my mouth suddenly dry.
  
  And I grab a pack of tissues. Because those stretches can wait until I take care of more pressing business.
  
  ***
  
  When I wake up the next morning, after having gone to bed much later than I planned to due to... being far too enthusiastic, there"s only one thing that goes through my head.
  
  Stretching is fucking useless.
  
  Argh.
  
  
  ============
  ============
  
  
  Author's note: the next chapter is available for €3 at my Patreon. It will become free when I post the next-next chapter.
  
  This time it's Haruno's interlude, so no Hachiman-brand snark. Instead, we have Yukinoshita family brand issues.
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you!-Komachi"s acceptance-Omake
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  Agrippa
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  All right! Fine! I will take you!-Komachi"s acceptance-Omake
  
  I wake up numb, which isn"t that unusual. Not being able to lift my arms? That catches my attention.
  
  "Finally awake, brother?" The voice is soft, almost cheerful, and I would recognize it anywhere, no matter how much my thoughts seem to be pushing through molasses.
  
  "Sis?" My mouth feels dry, and a spark of effort summons the memory it is associated with: the hospital. Waking up from anesthesia after the accident.
  
  "Yes, it is your loving little sister. Who else would be by your side in the middle of the night?" And there"s sadness there, but I don"t know why-
  
  Oh.
  
  "It was bound to happen, sooner or later."
  
  "Was it? You are gross, onii-chan. So gross. But that"s always been all right, because your loving little sister would have accepted you no matter what. Ah, I think that earned me a lot of points."
  
  "You don"t get to win points by insulting me," I retort, almost automatically, still barely processing the world around me. We are in my room, in the middle of the night, but, beyond that...
  
  "No. No, I guess I don"t... not anymore." And there goes the sadness again.
  
  "What"s wrong? You can tell your older brother whatever it is."
  
  Something shifts in the bed and her face appears over mine. Her eyes are blank, drained of that cheerful spark she always shows me, and her mouth is a thin line that bears little resemblance to her expressive, wide smile. It is the first time I have seen my little sister like this, not overflowing with some kind of intense emotion. It is unsettling, completely unlike her, but at the same time, in some distorted way, I can"t help but feel it is...
  
  Genuine.
  
  "Komachi."
  
  "Onii-chan."
  
  She leans down and kisses my brow with those lips that lack her warmth and softness. I can"t even comment on it, on the sheer wrongness, because she then slides down and kisses my lips, and anything I would have said is taken away.
  
  "You are so gross, onii-chan. Barely a few days, and you are already two-timing her."
  
  I can"t even protest my innocence. Her eyes hold me still, a spark of something finally awakening in them.
  
  "But I guess that"s proof she didn"t matter after all. So, I did you a favor."
  
  And warning alarms that the aftertaste of anesthesia and being unable to move hadn"t yet triggered finally shock me awake at that.
  
  "What have you done?!"
  
  "I got rid of a pest that was sniffing around what is mine," she says, and something drops down beside my pillow.
  
  Her eyes are closed, her long hair messily covering half her face, and I could almost trick myself into thinking this is what sleeping beside her would have been like: to wake up beside her, to see her restful, sleeping expression. Maybe it would have been.
  
  But my beautiful, older teacher is lacking a certain something at the moment. Namely, everything under the neck.
  
  I start to scream before my little sister covers my mouth with a rag that smells like sterile chemistry and the strength I had been gathering vanishes once more as my thoughts slow down.
  
  "I had to do it, onii-chan. I always thought... always thought if you were happy I could stand being apart from you, but after everything I went through, after everything I did just to be by your side one more year, to have her sweep in just like that and take your innocence away from me... I knew then, onii-chan. I just knew."
  
  And she kisses me once more, and her lips mix with the drug in numbing my panic and horror.
  
  "So I thought, and thought and thought, but your little sister is a bit dumb, onii-chan, so it took me some time to come to the solution, and when I did... I had to prepare."
  
  She shifts over me once more and I can feel her weight over my body even as her face disappears from my side and I am left to choose between staring at the ceiling or the severed head of my lover.
  
  "And then I... Well, you have always been gross, onii-chan, even if I never thought it mattered, so... so I thought I could show you. I could show you how much, how utterly your little sister accepts you. And when I did, nothing could ever come between us ever again."
  
  "You are... You are not well, sis, I never would have abandoned you. I would always have stayed by your side." And even through the horror, through the numb haze, I know that I am telling the truth. That I would have never parted from my sister. Never.
  
  Not until... this.
  
  "That"s sweet of you to say, onii-chan, but how could your little sister believe you after this? No, no, I had to do it, to make sure. I had to take my onii-chan for myself,. No matter how gross it is." And the bed shifts once more, as she moves over me, and I can barely feel the ghost of her hands grabbing at my body, moving, taking, for I don"t know how long as I drift in and out of the nightmare and into unconsciousness.
  
  "And now, it is done," she says, and I can hear the echo of her cheer, of her joy, as her weight rests on me and her face once more appears over mine.
  
  And I see the blood dripping down her chin.
  
  "Ko... Komachi?" And I think... I think it"s not just because of the drugs that I feel so weak, that I feel as though my mind can barely hold on to my last thread of conscious, deliberate thought.
  
  "See, brother? Gross. So utterly gross. The grossest thing you have in your insides. Bur your loving little sister is ready to swallow it, to take you inside her and make you a part of her. Aren"t you happy, onii-chan? Aren"t you glad you will never be apart from me?"
  
  And, as I feel myself drift away for the last time, as I feel the shadows at the edge of my eyes closing in, I don"t look at the head of my lover or at the uninteresting ceiling. No, I look at the sad, little smile of my loving, little sister. I look at usually wide and cheerful lips marred by my blood.
  
  And I am glad.
  
  I am glad, because, even though I will be gone, she won"t be alone.
  
  BAD END
  
  ***
  
  "No," I say, my hands not trembling only because of a titanic (in the sense of giant cannibals) effort of sheer will.
  
  "What? But Komachi worked so hard on this, brother!" she claims, indignation thick in her voice, as if she doesn"t know what she has done wrong.
  
  "Komachi, I am going to burn this."
  
  "If you want to... But I wrote it on my computer, so it is kind of pointless."
  
  "Then I am going to burn this, and then I am going to burn your computer."
  
  "No! It"s saved to the cloud!"
  
  "Are you trying to make this your brother"s supervillain origin story? Is this what you want? To have me devote the rest of my life to destroying every vestige of the information age just so I can rid the world of this abomination?"
  
  "It"s just a composition for my Japanese class! I don"t see why you are taking it so seriously!"
  
  "The little sister character is named Komachi!"
  
  "No, I made sure to edit-I mean, of course she isn"t, there are no names in there."
  
  "Here, right after the "genuine" line."
  
  "Oh..." she has the decency to look embarrassed. "Komachi is so sorry, brother, she won"t ever use her name on any self-insert fantasies ever again."
  
  "So it is a self-insert fantasy!"
  
  "Tee-hee."
  
  Oh, no, you won"t get out of this just by acting cheekily cute with that biting the tip of your tongue thing and...
  
  What was I so angry about?
  
  Oh, right, the loss of sanity deliberately inflicted on me by these soon-to-be ashes in my hand. I will find the ancestors of the tress you came from and eradicate them. I will inflict such devastation on the eco-sphere as could have only been dreamed by preachy cartoons in the nineties! I will have my vengeance, and it shan"t be eco-friendly!
  
  "Onii-chan, stop staring at my poor composition like that. It"s gross."
  
  With as grave a calm as I definitely don"t feel (and a full-body shudder I am trying to repress as much as the memory of the past few minutes), I lift my eyes and look straight at Komachi.
  
  "What did you just say?"
  
  "Tee-hee."
  
  ...
  
  Damn. She wins. Again.
  
  
  ==================
  ==================
  
  Author's note: yeah, I couldn't resist. Publishing schedules? Deadlines? Responsibility? What are those? Can you eat them?
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 8 - Haruno"s Dull Musings
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 8 - Haruno"s Dull Musings
  
  As I dropped the phone I had just used to masturbate to the image of Hachiman tenderizing Shizuka"s vagina beside my head on the sofa I was lying on, a single thought ran through my head:
  
  Yukino is going to kill me.
  
  Right now, I was staying at the little brat"s flat while she found herself back home. Or, more likely, while she vacillated over what she should do and what did others expect her to do and if there was even a difference between the two notions.
  
  My adorable little sister could be downright insufferable when she tried to act all high and mighty while barely disguising the utter and total lack of self-determination that lay right in the middle of most of her problems. So, as the one who had had to suffer her moods the most over the last few years, I felt justified in the spark of schadenfreude at knowing that I would have to clean her sofa off the results of me masturbating over the sexual escapades of the boy she thought she liked. It wasn"t fair, it was cruel; some may even say it was monstrous.
  
  But I remembered...
  
  One of my first memories, one of the first things that I knew for a fact I did by myself rather than live through, was of me playing checkers with my little, adorable, clumsy, chubby Yukino. Houtarou, our acceptably eccentric uncle, had brought the western game home when I was little and played with me for a while. I had enjoyed it, so, when Yukino was the same age I had been at the time, I remember explaining the rules to her and letting her make the first move.
  
  She looked seriously at the board until she finally picked a piece and pushed it. Straight forward.
  
  "No, Yuki, you need to do it diagonally, see? Like this." I moved my own piece in a diagonal line and smiled at her, expecting her to correct her mistake. She nodded in that ever so serious way she still does up to this day, and moved a piece diagonally. The same one I just had.
  
  "No, no, those are mine, you need to move the white ones. See? Those are yours, the black ones are mine." And she looked up at me and pouted, as if offended I didn"t let her play with my pieces. So, trying to be a good older sister, I took the board and turned it around.
  
  "Don"t worry, it doesn"t matter. You can have the black ones, I will just play the white side, okay?" I smiled at her, and my little sister smiled at me. I started feeling relieved at having solved the problem, when she grabbed a black piece and then a white one, and started putting them one over the other. And this was the first time I experienced dread.
  
  I gave up on playing checkers and just made cheerful noises at my still roundish sister until I heard the main door open and mother"s clacking steps at the entrance. I told Yukino to stay put, and I went to give my mother the grave news.
  
  "Mom... Mom, there"s something wrong with Yukino."
  
  What follows in my memory is a blur of movement as she ran and did all those things young, proper mothers are supposed to do if one of their children may be in danger. I remember watching in anguish until mother took me to another room and sat me on her lap so I could tell her, in my own words, what the actual problem was.
  
  So I told her. I told her I tried to play with Yukino like uncle Houtarou played with me, and that Yukino just didn"t understand, even though I had been so patient and careful. That something that was supposed to let us have fun together as sisters had just shown me how Yukino wasn"t at all able to do what I had done at her age, even though I had checked the photo albums to make sure she wasn"t too young before I tried, so something must be wrong, because I had done everything right, and yet, Yukino, my little sister...
  
  And then I was crying as my mother cradled me in her arms, rocking me back and forth until I calmed down. And when the tears ran out and I was too tired to keep the sadness in my face, when someone may have thought I had calmed down, mother explained it to me.
  
  There was nothing wrong with Yukino. She was a normal child, no, a very bright child, it was just that I... wasn"t.
  
  I had always known I was smarter than kids my own age, it hadn"t taken much to figure that out, but my sister... I had always hoped...
  
  And my next memory is standing by the doorframe, watching as Yukino played with the black and white pieces of this game I no longer found fun on the floor, and thinking:
  
  How dull.
  
  Shizuka, you just had to leave me a melancholy mess again, didn"t you?
  
  Suddenly feeling restless, I get up from the couch (and I can"t help an amused smirk at the wet spot I leave behind) to go to the kitchen, where I open the small cupboard I have appropriated and filled with alcohol. Because I can"t get drunk, not really, but I can enjoy faking it.
  
  As a proper Japanese family heiress, I should take the bottle of sake and enjoy sipping it from a sakazuki under the moonlight.
  
  As a proper me, I take out the bottle of Pinot Noir. I am in the mood for something soft on the palate.
  
  I go back to the sofa (and switch cushions) and let my head fall over the backrest as I stare at the ceiling while the bottle of Burgundy breathes. It may be an affectation, many people say it is unnecessary, but it also allows the wine to chill in the ice bucket I have prepared. Because letting wine breathe may be an affectation, but drinking it overly warm is the province of those that don"t know that "room temperature" doesn"t mean "warm." And that wine cellars tend to be much colder than modern homes.
  
  Like Yurika.
  
  Yurika was sophisticated, popular. The girl everyone either wanted to be or be with. Any other time and place, she would have ruled Sobu High School with a silk-clad iron fist. But Yurika was my age.
  
  "I can"t believe he still hasn"t asked you out," I remember telling her, carefully omitting that Masanobu, the star of the soccer team (and wasn"t that a stereotype that only needed blond hair to completely fit the mold), had already tried to ask me out already, and only my outright evasion had frustrated his attempts so far.
  
  "I know! I mean, look at me." And I did. Despite her boastfulness, Yurika resembled much more a classical Japanese beauty than I did: slender of frame and immaculate, pale skin that almost seemed iridescent against her straight, ink-black hair. But she was a nouveau riche trying too hard to fit in whenever she visited me. I almost pitied her clumsy attempts.
  
  I can"t remember every single word we exchanged, because what I remembered was playing a game. Was this the right answer to seem mischievous without crossing the line into cruelty? Was this flattery timid enough to come across as shy admiration? Was friendship something you could fake until you made it?
  
  But, even as I played that game with a bit more skill than young Yukino playing checkers, all that I could think was, once again, "How dull."
  
  Until the day Yurika had been crying on my shoulder after she had finally gathered her courage to be rejected by Masanobu (that worthless fake), and I did what the rules of the game bid me do: I gently smiled, I patted her back soothingly, and cared for her like a small, distressed pet during a fireworks festival. Because I never meant any harm for Yurika, even if she frustrated me with her insincere adulation, with her empty admiration, with...
  
  It was painful, to feel put on a pedestal even as I tried to play at normalcy, and a part of me resented her, but another had invested so much in trying to connect with her, trying to lower myself to her level of vapid gossip and uninteresting blabber, that I couldn"t stand to see her hurt. Not my friend. Not like this.
  
  But something was wrong about my play, because even as I felt offended on her behalf, I couldn"t stop myself from letting out what I really thought about Masanobu, about good looks that were only skin thin, about his fake, vacuous platitudes, that made it so plain to see the boy wouldn"t recognize a deep thought if it were handed to him by the Bodidharma himself, no matter how much he played at being the intellectual of our class with all those pretentious books he always liked to show off even if their spines were suspiciously unwrinkled.
  
  And I lost the game.
  
  Because Yurika at first laughed, eager to hear anything that made her unrequited crush unappealing and undesirable, but then... Then my complaints and insults hit far too close to home, and I could see it in her eyes, the moment she realized she wasn"t that different from Masanobu, and that every dart I had thrown in his direction may as well have been aimed at her.
  
  There weren"t any fireworks, any explosive bursts of emotion or dramatic overreactions. She still let herself be comforted, and she thanked me afterward. But Yurika stopped coming by the Yukinoshita household shortly after, and it hurt, but I was also relieved at no longer having to put up with her clumsy attempts at graceful etiquette, and, in the end, once again, those two damned words. Unbidden. Unwanted. Familiar.
  
  How dull.
  
  They say drinking wine is an experience for all the senses. The taste, the aroma, even the texture on your palate play a part in it. Personally, when I am feeling moody, what I enjoy the most is the sight: the play of shifting light through ruby as I swirl it in my glass, the caustic network cutting through its shadow in scarlet... It has a mesmerizing, soothing quality. Sometimes, I think I could more easily get drunk on this than on the alcohol.
  
  The taste is not bad by any means, of course. Not when it has such a price tag attached. A sip and a slight aspiration through wet, barely open lips makes the aroma bloom inside me, a burning touch that only leaves fragrance rather than embers, and I let myself savor the aftertaste. What would be proper for me to mutter now? A hint of oak and a strong aftertaste of red fruits?
  
  As if I care about what"s proper. No. As if I still cared.
  
  And I remember her.
  
  Yurika and I had exchanged our polite, fakely cordial greetings of the day, and I had retired to my seat to read a book with a leather jacket when I caught my homeroom teacher staring at me. I hadn"t paid much mind to her yet. I thought she was amusing, a Japanese language teacher running around with a labcoat as if she felt the need to proclaim to everyone who listened that she was working as something she had never actually prepared for, and still doing a better job of it than most of the other staff. I smiled at her, and she frowned.
  
  "Yukinoshita, could you come by during the lunch period?"
  
  I froze. I had never been in trouble, and here I was, in the first trimester of my first year of high school, already being called out by my homeroom teacher. The rest of the class had fallen to silence and I caught Yurika"s barely disguised glee at my predicament before I mumbled a polite acceptance. Ms. Hiratsuka"s frown seemed to deepen, but she nodded and proceeded to do the roll call.
  
  And lunch came, and I was in the staff room, facing a woman wearing what no longer seemed an amusing ensemble that wouldn"t have been out of place in a yakuza movie, not with the way she languidly reclined on her seat as she took a drag of her cigarette.
  
  "Relax, Yukinoshita, you are not in trouble."
  
  And I let my shoulders fall as I faked accepting her words, and she shot me a glare at that.
  
  "Let me take that back: you are in trouble, but not with me."
  
  I didn"t have to fake my confusion.
  
  "Look, I know things are hard for you, but you are going about this in the worst way possible."
  
  "I don"t know what you are talking about, Ms. Hiratsuka."
  
  She seemed about to chew on the cigarette filter before she caught herself.
  
  "No, of course you don"t." And she sighed, rubbing at her temple with her free hand. "Sorry for springing this on you, and you would be right to tell me to mind my own business... except you never would, would you?"
  
  "I... would never be so rude to a teacher." And there was a bitterness at the admission that I didn"t know the cause of. Not back then.
  
  "No. You would. The actual you."
  
  "The actual me? Is this a self-help speech?" And I bit back what I thought of those, and she barked a laugh that confused me.
  
  "You could say that. Look, you will have to forgive me if I am blunt, but being roundabout about this will only make it harder for you: it"s not because you are too smart."
  
  And, for the first time in my life, somebody said something to me that I knew, absolutely, for certain, I would be unable to understand if they didn"t explain.
  
  "Wha..." I couldn"t even finish the question.
  
  "It may have started like that, and I am not saying there won"t always be a trace of it with any of your relationships, because you are damn smart, kid. But that"s not what"s keeping you apart from them."
  
  "Then... Then what is?" I asked, not knowing if I wanted to finally be able to win the game or... or something else. More.
  
  "Yourself."
  
  "That doesn"t help. That makes it worse."
  
  She paused to take another breath of purple smoke, and she let it out in slow, lazy whorls.
  
  "Yes and no. Because you can"t be less smart than you are, Yukinoshita, you never will, but you sure as hell can change the way you let it affect you."
  
  There was more. More conversation, more words, but that line? That was the line that started it all. The line that gave me hope.
  
  I stopped covering my books with fake jackets, stopped laughing at things I didn"t find funny, stopped answering empty platitudes with the same coin. It took time, months, but one day I found myself letting go of a sarcastic quip in the middle of a group conversation and people laughed at it. With it.
  
  They may not have understood everything I meant by it, every single reference and layer of meaning, but that wasn"t my fault. It was no one"s fault. It just was.
  
  And I owed it to Ms. Hiratsuka.
  
  The wine bottle has lost a third of its contents to my musings, and I am already feeling the slight, pleasant buoyancy of my senses delaying the coming of the world to my self. This is the stage where people let go of their inhibitions, where tongues are looser, where consequences fade into a distant future. This is the stage where I watch them and slur my speech that tiny bit that doesn"t seem out of place, where I blink deliberately and giggle at inappropriate comments. It is its own kind of fun, being the observer, but it is also a stark reminder.
  
  I fill my cup yet again, and I roll the stem between graceful, steady fingers.
  
  And I remember the day I knocked on the staff room"s door, only to find a harried Ms. Hiratasuka despairing over unmarked tests.
  
  She always was that mix of maturity and childishness, of wisdom and foolishness, that I couldn"t help but laugh at with my newfound freedom. I teased her from time to time, and she always played along, letting me probe the limits of... But I am getting ahead of myself.
  
  "I see you are getting along better with your classmates," she said, after deciding that procrastinating was perfectly in character for her, even more so if she had the excuse of guiding one of her wayward students.
  
  "I... I guess I am. Something"s still missing, but at least it"s not me." And she smiled. Warm. Soft. So caring it hurt.
  
  "That"s not a line I would have expected from you a month ago."
  
  "Maybe you aren"t that good at reading people, then," I answered with a cheeky grin. I was still unused to them, but they felt right in a way proper, and measured smiles never had.
  
  "Careful, brat, the disciple has yet to surpass the master." And we both chuckled. And there wasn"t anything missing.
  
  We talked a bit more and ended up going to the roof to chat while she smoked her way through half a pack. I didn"t like the bitter smell, but I liked her profile as she let smoke trail from her lips while she leaned her elbows on the low wall and the wind played with her long hair and her fluttering coat. Ms. Hiratsuka had always had a cinematographic quality to her, as if her natural habitat would have been a silver screen with a Vangelis song playing in the background. And I didn"t know it back then, but it seems far too obvious now what it was that I felt as I kept looking at the way the orange sky tinted her glowing silhouette.
  
  And then the conversation shifted and she told me what I was missing. The piece I lacked to complete my playset.
  
  "Something genuine."
  
  I looked at her, my lack of understanding still novel, and she elaborated.
  
  "You are special, Haruno, but it"s not special that you are." She gestured at the students leaving through the gates with her cigarette. "Each of them, each of you, is unique, has circumstances that set you apart. Maybe one of them works at the family dinner to help a widowed mother make it through the month, maybe one of them is struggling with her studies, because she absolutely needs to get into that certain university where he is waiting for her, and maybe there"s one who is trying to be as bright and cheerful as people think he is, because he cannot see how to fit any other way. All of you have stories, unique stories, that set you apart, but some learn how to reach across that distance."
  
  She quieted down for a moment, as if remembering something.
  
  "You have already managed that first step, Haruno, to stop hiding who you are, to offer what only Yukinoshita Haruno can, and the rest... The rest is not always up to you. You need to find someone who offers something that you want even as they reach for what you allow them to grasp. And that something, for someone like you, who can see through appearances, who knows that most people wear a mask, that something must be genuine."
  
  I was mesmerized as the shifting clouds played the setting sun across her white skin and white coat, as the wind made colors deepen and brighten with each ripple. I was mesmerized by Ms. Hiratsuka"s twilight figure.
  
  I reached a tentative hand to grasp the sleeve of the arm that terminated in a glowing ember and purple, drifting whorls, and looked into dark, soft, warm eyes.
  
  "Can I call you Shizuka?" I said, my voice trembling for maybe the first time since I told mother there was something wrong with Yukino.
  
  "Of course, Haruno," she answered, as she cupped my face with a tender hand.
  
  And I cried in her arms.
  
  Half a bottle of wine should be enough to make me lightheaded and uninhibited. To make me giggle at the stupidest jokes and cry at any painful memory. My eyes are dry, maybe a bit too dry after unblinkingly staring into the pool of ruby twirling over my hand for too long.
  
  Years passed. I was the formidable Yukinoshita scion who effortlessly took on every challenge a school could throw at me, to the quiet pride of the matriarch of my clan, the adulation of masses of students I found far too dull to concern myself with, and the ribbing of a teacher who took her job far too seriously and far too lightly. And I only enjoyed one of those three things.
  
  I didn"t hide myself, not anymore. At least, not in the way I had used to. I didn"t conceal my wit in mild words nor my superiority in mediocre conversation, but I still played my game. I refined my maneuvers, my strategies, so that the mask only came on when I meant it to, when it served a purpose. Mostly, it was to hide disdain.
  
  I couldn"t help it, I was proud. Always had been, because that had allowed me to survive my separation, to point at something and proclaim to myself "See? This is why. Because they are beneath you." And so pain had mixed with pride, which had made it at least a bit more tolerable. Until I had found someone who understood, who reached for what I had to offer with a hand that had something I desperately wanted.
  
  I wasn"t nice, at the time, there was far too much bitterness, far too much rancor-and mother"s expectations, knowing my future was already decided, didn"t help matters. But I was, up to a point... genuine. And I had someone to be genuine with.
  
  And so came graduation. And I swore to her I would keep in touch, even as Shizuka chided me about spending far too much time with a woman who was not as young as I was (because heavens forbid she even used the word "older").
  
  And I did.
  
  I went to college to get that degree mother wanted me to adorn my future office with, and got drunk with friends that perhaps weren"t as dull as my classmates had been, maybe because people in college are smarter or maybe because they were finally growing up to the point where they could finally start to catch up, but there was always that spark they lacked, always that thing that still kept me apart and made me resort to my mask far more often than I had meant to.
  
  And mother kept dragging me to gatherings of heirs, to further calcify what remained fluid of my future, and they were all so dull.
  
  So I lost my virginity.
  
  It wasn"t a big deal. My friends had invited me to a mixer where I faked being as drunk as them till a cute guy who had a fiancée and wouldn"t bother me a week after the fact decided to chivalrously escort me to a taxi and then dragged me to a love hotel. I almost laughed at him, but I had a mask to uphold.
  
  The act itself was a bit disappointing. No fireworks behind my eyelids, no masterful playing with my body teaching me things about myself I had yet to learn. Just... release. Meaningless, fun, and, up to a point, satisfying release. Now I knew what the big deal was, and I found I didn"t care much for it. Not with all the complications it entailed.
  
  And the boy was promptly discarded. And Shizuka wasn"t.
  
  Now that I was of age, we met for drinks far more regularly than she could afford. It turned out my idolized teacher was even more of a mess than she had let on through our early friendship, but even as my rosy glasses finally dropped after the umpteenth time she started ranting about the latest scummy guy who had somehow talked his way into her apartment (among other things) only to turn out to be a predictable disappointment, I didn"t find my fondness decreasing. Shizuka was fallible, scatterbrained, prone to trusting far too quickly and to rash decisions that she ended up regretting. Shizuka was not a perfect, gallant figure who only offered sage advice as she helped a young girl mend herself into a semblance of a functional person before it was too late. Shizuka was human.
  
  And she was genuine.
  
  And so I kissed her.
  
  Her rant had ended at the same time as the last bottle of beer, and we had been silently walking through Chiba Port Park. The chill of the night had made it natural for us to huddle closer till she ended up covering me with half her coat, and I turned to see her silhouette glowing with moonlight, the silver light so apt, so perfect for her and her alone, that I found myself reaching up before I knew what I was doing. What I was going to do.
  
  Maybe, for the first time in my life, I had been drunk.
  
  Her taste carried tobacco, beer, and far too many salty snacks. Her lips were dry and her clothes smelled like she tasted, but I didn"t care, because it was her, only her, that mattered, and everything else was forgotten in that perfect moment where I finally did understand what it actually was that made sex appealing, what it was that could maybe bring me far more than satisfying release. And my tongue danced with hers as my arms draped around her neck and my body molded to her own, my soft curves against her contained ones. And I finally understood what it was that young Haruno had really asked Shizuka on that rooftop three years back.
  
  And so did Shizuka. And her palms reached up to my shoulders and gently, softly, lovingly, broke my heart.
  
  "You don"t want this," she told me, and, for the first time since we met, I knew Shizuka Hiratsuka was lying to me.
  
  "I do. I had... I didn"t know, but I have wanted this for so long, I have wanted this so much. Shizuka, please." I had never begged before. Never have since then. It was useless, after all.
  
  "Haruno," she reached up, and her fingers trailed down my hair until her tender palm cradled my face once more, "you have a future. A family to make. A woman can"t be by your side."
  
  "I don"t want it. Not at this cost. Not if it means I don"t have you."
  
  And she looked into my eyes. And maybe she believed me, but I think she didn"t.
  
  "But I do."
  
  And that was it, wasn"t it? Shizuka Hiratsuka wanted a family, and I couldn"t give it to her. Not the way she had dreamed about, with a doting husband and father of her children. But that was the second time she lied to me.
  
  Because she did want that, she always had, but the real reason, the one I could see behind a façade she had never before worn in front of me, was that she didn"t think it was right. She thought she would be taking advantage of me, her former student she had helped grow out of her shell into an actual, quasi-healthy individual.
  
  And she was a woman who, more than anything else, wanted to always do the right thing. And I wasn"t right, so she wouldn"t do me.
  
  I guess wine does make me a bit crass, after all.
  
  We talked long into the night before we separated at the station. As the train carried me away and I stared at her white coat trembling with the passage of the vehicle, as I looked at the mask covering Shizuka Hiratsuka, the two words came unbidden after having rested so long.
  
  How dull.
  
  We still meet for drinks, still have fun, still play around at the batting cages from time to time. But it"s never been the same, it"s always felt like there"s that tiny bit of distance that shouldn"t be there, and I don"t know if it"s because Shizuka"s wary of me or because I am disappointed in her, but it hurts, and sometimes I will pretend I didn"t see her message me because I don"t know how to answer, even if Haruno Yukinoshita is precisely the kind of woman who never wants for the right word.
  
  And then we met Hachiman.
  
  He"s... hilarious, actually. A wrecking ball in any social field he deigns step in, and he marches forward without any of my subtlety, but...
  
  "It"s not because you are too smart."
  
  And she was right. Because he isn"t. He"s maybe as bright as Yukino, but... But he approaches things, understands things, in just that way that I can see myself doing. And he"s clumsy, inexperienced, the proverbial bull in a china shop, except that he tends to break precisely what he means to, and I can see how my Yukino is finally getting a clue about how to be a real girl, something I haven"t managed after years of telling her that not being the heir and being able to choose her own future is a good thing!
  
  I am so damn tempted to stain the damn sofa with what"s left in my cup...
  
  But maybe he"s far too much like me, because he fell for Shizuka just like my younger self did.
  
  And maybe he isn"t, or maybe he"s profiting off my experience, because he"s dragging her toward what she wants.
  
  And I don"t know whether to smile at having triumphed over that particular hurdle or do something far more undignified at not having managed it when it was my turn to try.
  
  So I lay back, only half a cup of wine left and a now dry spot where I rest my legs, and take my phone. On the screen, I can see the recording of Shizuka"s face as she is pleasured by her lover, because I have erased what comes after. Our conversation.
  
  "It won"t last."
  
  "How can you say that? After what he just did?"
  
  "Haruno, he"s young, full of hormones. Sooner or later he will realize he"s making a mistake and leave me for one of the other girls orbiting around him. It will be better for him when he does."
  
  "I don"t care about what"s better, and neither should you."
  
  "Then what should I care about?"
  
  "What"s genuine."
  
  And I almost cry at the words, and she doesn"t say anything more, letting the silence stretch while I try to make it so my voice stops being so raw with emotion after the best sexual experience of my life and the latest pang of betrayal from my teacher and friend.
  
  "I am sorry, Haruno." And she is, but for all the wrong reasons.
  
  There are more words, but I feel too petulant to remember them. I have erased that part of the video for a reason.
  
  So I let the video of what should have been a happy, triumphant memory show me their faces: Shizuka"s vulnerability, Hachiman"s determination, their... their love.
  
  And I drop the phone, barely stopping myself from doing the same with my cup, and stare at the ceiling.
  
  "How dull," I say.
  
  But I don"t believe it.
  
  
  ============
  ============
  
  
  Author's note: the next chapter is available for €3 at my Patreon. It will become free when I post the next-next chapter.
  
  Next chapter will see the return of Hachiman as a narrator. Pinky promise. Yes, I mean the one from Animaniacs, it makes no sense to swear by the most useless of fingers.
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 9
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 9
  
  Some may think that the phrase "Hell is other people" reflects a loner"s quintessential perspective. That is naïve.
  
  If it was true, a loner would almost perpetually live in a state where he easily avoided Hell just by following his own nature, yet, as we all (whose chuuni phase have led us to study foreign religions) know, the nature of man is sin, and thus we are irrevocably led to Hell (and some priests may even rejoice at it, the wine-sipping, clearly homoerotic, weirdoes). Loners, then, are also sinful by nature, and prone to dive deep where angels fear to tread even if there are no traumatized robot pilots there (pilots, plural: the "masturbating over a comatose girl" one is pretty likely to end down there). Then, if not others, what is Hell for a loner?
  
  That question is easy to answer: himself.
  
  Or, at the very least, inhabiting a body that is obviously a resentful, petty bastard. How unexpected, Body-chan; I wonder where you have learned this baffling behavior?
  
  "Stop wincing like that, brother; it"s just muscle soreness. If you did more exercises than stretching on the couch, you would already be used to it." Komachi"s utter lack of pity cuts me deep. Or, at least, I assume it does. It"s hard to tell at the moment.
  
  "If more exercise just results in me getting used to unimaginable, excruciating pain, I am glad I have avoided it as much as possible." The Monster of Logic has spoken.
  
  "Don"t you bike to school?" The Monster Slayer deals a finishing blow.
  
  "Gods, don"t remind me I have to pedal... uh..."
  
  "What is it?" Komachi looks up at me while munching on her piece of toast like an anime girl about to crash into her destined soulmate while running late to class. Great, another pest to take care of.
  
  "I... May have left my bike at school."
  
  "What? Why?"
  
  "Because... I kinda left by car."
  
  "By car? What do you... oh. Oh. Oh." Each "oh" is accompanied by a different color going in succession through Komachi"s face. White. Red. Green. Is this some kind of code? Are you displaying how your whole being is primed and tuned to communicate your feelings to your older brother? I am touched, Komachi. Deeply touched.
  
  Not like that. Perverts.
  
  "So, I better get a headstart if I don"t want to be late! Later, sis!" And I flee like a coward from the dead look in her eyes that in no way at all signifies me meeting my premature end due to kitchen knife. That decisive maneuver is very praiseworthy of me: cowards are exceptionally intelligent beings, as is clearly shown by every hotblooded shounen protagonist ever being a braindead moron. Source: me.
  
  And Shounen Jump, I guess.
  
  I run up the stairs (by which I mean I hobble and hiss at a slightly hurried pace) to get the rest of my things, because I didn"t think to get everything in a single trip due to habit. Habit-chan, I think we have an unhealthy relationship, and we should reconsider it. No, I don"t care how many anime seasons I have finished due to your help, there are more urgent concerns in our near future.
  
  Like checking my phone before I get down to eat breakfast. Because, like a moron, I didn"t think what being Shizu"s boyfriend implies first thing after waking up.
  
  It is with dread and apprehension that I approach the ominous device lying by my bedstand, now that I am awake enough to remember the danger it entails.
  
  "Good morning!"
  
  "Hey, did you do your morning exercises?"
  
  "It also helps. Even if you already feel sore, it will feel worse if you stop exercising till it goes away."
  
  "And remember to stretch."
  
  "Don"t force it, though. It would do more harm than good."
  
  "Try the dynamic stretches. The static ones may be too harsh."
  
  "Are you already on the way?"
  
  "Hey, did you forget your phone at home?"
  
  I carefully count the messages and a smirk that would probably have Yuigahama muttering "gross" in a quasi-religious litany blooms in my face. Coincidentally, said blooming is heralded by the withering of something pure and innocent caught unaware.
  
  Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten, ya know?
  
  So, with a look that would make a potato chip-eating mass-murderer flush with pride, I send my reply.
  
  "Eight messages. You know the rules."
  
  And so do I.
  
  I sit on my bed to recover my flagging forces and ponder whether doing actual exercise is as bad an idea as it sounds. Before I have arrived at an answer, Shizu"s own does.
  
  A single picture, showing a woman with a reddened face hidden by her hands, wearing striped dark blue and light gray button-up pajamas, except that the pajamas have been unbuttoned and the shirt lies open, showing the middle line of her body, including a hint of both nipples and a wonderful expanse of cleavage pushed up by her elbows.
  
  Another "ding" and another picture arrives, this one framing her bitten lip and a breast so tightly clutched her fingers leave visible indentations with only the very tip of a pink nipple escaping from between them.
  ...
  
  All right. Fine. I will do my damn exercises.
  
  ***
  
  A thing nobody tells you about forcing your body past your limits and then dealing with the crippling aftereffects is that it has some advantages. For instance, when having homeroom with your gorgeous Christmas Cake teacher whose almost naked body you have had the pleasure to sample the past couple of days, it is far easier than it should be to focus on your unbearable pain rather than on what, at any other time, would be cause for Standard Adolescent Male Gait Number Two. Thus, I have finally uncovered the secret behind the action shounen hero"s usual chaste demeanor.
  
  The poor bastards.
  
  I try, very hard, to communicate to Shizu with my eyes that we are in public and should restrain our desperate, mutual lust for each other"s bodies so as not to tip off any casual observers. It seems to work, because she barely looks in my direction, nor stutters when she says (without a hint of breathiness nor longing in her voice) my name during roll call, nor blushes cutely when I say "present" with the tone of the deep-voiced bastard, nor spontaneously proclaims our forbidden love to the rest of the class during the long hour before the actual lessons start.
  
  I am feeling a bit lonely, actually.
  
  The rest of the morning goes by without any major incident. Yuigahama is sending me anxious looks throughout the lesson, but that"s perfectly normal after what happened yesterday and I don"t have anything new to share with her that would ease her anxiety, so, as soon as the lunch bell sounds, I drag my mangled body out of the classroom and head toward Iroha"s class, where I can share something new that will ease someone"s anxiety. Not mine, though, that"s for sure.
  
  I am slightly surprised to see her halfway there, but as her eyes lock on mine with an intensity that from now on I will always associate with nosy, fate-tempting little sisters, the reason is made clear: Iroha was looking for me. How comforting.
  
  Not.
  
  Before we actually meet in the middle of the hallway, I gesture with my head toward the nearest stairs and, taking advantage of my legs treasonous disposition toward the rest of my body"s current campaign to depose me, I start climbing them with barely any more pain than it takes me to breathe.
  
  Which is still a lot of pain. No, I am not exaggerating. I will have you know that it is a belief held far and wide that my judgment is wholly unbiased and never has been compromised by pettiness in any way. My notebook of names to kill is a testament to my impartiality and devotedness to the ideal of justice itself. I am a very admirable individual-Yukinoshita"s name is only mentioned about a hundred times.
  
  Note to self: start burning stupid notebooks before ever letting Shizu set foot inside my house. He who controls the past controls the future.
  
  When I finally reach the top landing, I turn around and wait for Iroha to catch up, which she does after a few minutes. Uh, she must be really out of shape, because her face is far too red and her breathing far too erratic to be healthy. Well, I shouldn"t call undue attention to it. I am known for my abnormal adherence to politeness and consideration, after all.
  
  An utter lack of is also abnormal, you know?
  
  "Iroha," I greet her, hopefully masking my nascent anxiety attack at the incoming discussion.
  
  "Sen-Hachi," she replies, still out of breath, looking around the stairs" landing with wild eyes. She must be afraid to be seen in public with me, as expected of my foxy junior.
  
  "So, before you ask, I spoke with Shizu." I say, cutting to the heart of the matter before I have a chance to run away. Yes, I am an idiot, why do you ask?
  
  "You did?" And her eyes widen even more than they already were. Uh. She may need to lie down at this rate.
  
  "Yeah. At first she wasn"t thrilled with the idea, but she finally changed her mind," I try to shrug nonchalantly, but I end up wincing at the reminder of the rebellion currently keeping my movements in check. Body-chan, traitors are only fit for execution, you know? Or for becoming the right hand of the ninja dictator, I guess.
  
  "Are you... are you all right?" It looked like she was about to ask something else, but I don"t know what. Whatever it was, the change of topic is more than welcome.
  
  "Sorry, it seems I pushed past my limits yesterday and now I am paying the price." Yes. Training montages. A far safer conversation than our arrangement for consensual voyeurism.
  
  "Your limits?" Iroha seems to have picked up on my eagerness to change the topic and is faking an intent curiosity on my training routine. As expected of my foxy junior"s foxiness.
  
  "Yes. Between the Herculean efforts I underwent and the outlandish postures Shizu taught me, it"s a wonder I can even walk."
  
  "Wha-you mean-so you... convinced her?" Dammit, I thought we had a silent agreement not to discuss that any further, Iroha. Such a sudden, yet inevitable betrayal. As expected of my foxy junior"s foxiness.
  
  "Well," I think about it. Haruno"s voyeurism (am I some kind of anomaly gathering attractive women with that fetish? I guess it beats having a crab steal your bodyweight, but it"s still weird) definitely played a part, but... "Yes, I guess you could say I convinced her after hours of grueling effort and manly sweating." She definitely seemed to like my willingness to exercise, weird as that may be, so I am taking the credit. No, the cunnilingus as a spectator sports scene is definitely not the main motivator behind her change of heart, my agony is.
  
  Damn sunk-cost fallacy...
  
  "Hours?" Iroha is swaying on her feet and looking a bit pale. Geeze, she really does need to take better care of herself if the mere mention of exercise feels that imposing.
  
  "I mean, almost two, but it sure felt longer." No need to brag after all. Though Iroha seems to still be quite impressed, because she grabs the handrail as if desperate for a lifeline.
  
  "Senpai is amazing..." she whispers, possibly unaware. Well, now it"s me the one who is blushing. Really, it"s not such a big deal.
  
  "I wouldn"t say that much... This is only the beginning, after all. I need to improve my stamina a whole lot." And her eyes go wide as she stares at me with an even deeper blush crawling up from her chest before she slowly drops down to her knees, panting with effort.
  
  I guess she really is out of shape, after all.
  
  Maybe I should give her Shizu"s training tips?
  
  ***
  
  Iroha really needs to start exercising, because she was positively shivering when I managed to help her up. Though it was a bit weird that she then bolted so suddenly after I promised to contact her after I set things up with Shizu.
  
  She must recover quickly. I wish I could say the same.
  
  After thinking it over for a few minutes (that is, anxiously pacing up and down the stairs, because the landing is too narrow, while worrying at my lip with my teeth), I decide to bite the bullet and send a message to Shizu that should persuade her without putting her in any inconvenient situations if someone is nearby when she reads it.
  
  "Iroha"s "tutoring session" at your place after class?"
  
  There. Noncommital, casual tone, putting the weight of the decision on her shoulders and letting her back off before this whole thing explodes in my face. Perfect.
  
  Also, what the Hell am I even doing?!
  
  Oh, an almost immediate reply. How unexpected. Not.
  
  "All right. You know the address."
  
  Uh, I guess it would be suspicious if she took us both in her car. Also, really, Shizu? Really? What even happened to "are you suggesting I have a threesome with two underage students?" That was only yesterday, you know? There"s a limit to how quickly you can change your mind.
  
  "And drop the quotation marks. I almost had a heart attack, you moron."
  
  Uh. Yes, that may not have been that smart. In my defense, I am not used to casually mentioning the possibility of having a pseudo-threesome with my teacher and junior via texting.
  
  I think I need to meditate on how the order of the world has shifted and whether or not I am trapped in a reality where my current life makes sense. And, if that"s the case, what will it take so that they don"t extradite me back to my homeworld.
  
  "And stop using that voice in class. I almost had a heart attack!"
  
  Ah, so it wasn"t ineffective. Good. Now that my mood has been improved (and I have something to focus on other than my encroaching panic attack), I am feeling magnanimous enough to reply.
  
  And my sudden smirk is not gross. Shut up, inner Komachi.
  
  "That was the third message in a row. Dangerous ~"
  
  There"s a pause in her barrage. Weird.
  
  "... You are awful. Now I am blushing in the middle of the staff room for apparently no reason."
  
  "Think how much worse it would have been if you had to strip to send me a photo."
  
  "I would rather NOT think about that."
  
  "Not now, you mean?"
  
  "... See you later."
  
  Heh. Score one for the deep-fonted bastard.
  
  Now, to recruit Iroha. Something that will go smoothly and without any unpredictable sources of further stress. Mostly because it"s her own damn idea, and she should be the one stressed out of her mind rather than making me deal with it and act as a go-between like some kind of socially adept being who tends to say "Yukinon" with a background of white lilies. Damn her foxiness.
  
  "Study session at Shizu"s place after school. I will send you the address."
  
  There. Direct. Concise. Informative. Completely devoid of any hint of inner turmoil at the growing realization that I have an active sex life and I am basically setting up a booty-call involving a teacher that is not a MILF only because of a slight obstetric technicality and a junior that is not a loli only because I am not a goddamn degenerate.
  
  Despite all evidence pointing to the contrary...
  
  "Al7l rigHt"
  
  Uh? What is that, some kind of secret code? Should I reply with "El Psy Congroo" so she doesn"t learn I am part of the Organization?
  
  "I will be there. Sorry. Dropped phone."
  
  How weird. I wonder what she was doing with it; schoolgirls rarely put in jeopardy their foremost source of likes.
  
  I mean, I could imagine some circumstances in which Iroha could be handling her phone with just one hand, maybe looking at certain pictures while her red face and ragged breathing are pretty much the same as when her senpai dragged her to the very place where she witnessed him being orally serviced by his older teacher, only this time the two of them are alone and-
  
  Oh.
  
  Oh.
  
  I am a moron.
  
  And I shouldn"t text her to ask what she"s doing and whether she has a good view from there.
  
  Anyway, everything is set up (and I most definitely am not internally screaming at the sheer magnitude of everything I have set in motion), and now I just need to avoid Yukinoshita and Yuigahama for the rest of the day so I don"t have a heart attack while trying to weasel out of any unnecessary explanations. What could go wrong?
  
  Said he, definitely repressing the memory of Komachi"s interrogation.
  
  ***
  
  Obviously, what went wrong is that I find Yuigahama blocking my entrance to the classroom when I return to get my forgotten lunchbox. Because of course the day where every motion brings me untold amounts of physical agony would be the day where I become a cutely forgetful character. Look, how endearing, he has forgotten his lunch, so he is triggering an encounter flag.
  
  Of course, that would be one of those visual novels where the protagonist"s face is more carefully hidden than his mosaiced genitals. Just so players can still keep that "cute" impression in their minds rather than being scarred for life at my Hachiman levels Hachimanness.
  
  Tee-hee. Not.
  
  "Hikky, can we talk?" The anthropomorphized puppy asks me, fidgeting with the hem of her jacket and looking up into my eyes from beneath her bangs.
  
  Oi, that"s a dangerous look, you know? A man can get the wrong idea if you whisper his name like that.
  
  Or the right idea. Which is even worse.
  
  "Sure. Do you want to get lunch outside?"
  
  She looks at me with surprise before she nods and lets out an energetic "Uhn!"
  
  ... Don"t pat the Yuigahama. It"s still sexual harassment, no matter how much you want to. I mean, she wants to.
  
  No, that doesn"t make any sense.
  
  Before I can get caught up trying to decipher my own thoughts regarding Yuigahama"s petability, I grab my food and start walking to my spot beside the tennis court, trusting her to know my habits. It"s not long after that I hear hurried footsteps behind me.
  
  "You could have waited up for me!"
  
  "Yes, I could have. So?"
  
  She looks at me with the most adorable angry pout I have ever seen that doesn"t belong to Komachi. I am sorry, Yuigahama, you are good, but you are fighting an unfair battle. Some people just have innate advantages that make light of anybody else"s blood, sweat, and tears to the point where only bleaching your hair blond and screaming at the top of your lungs would allow you to compete on their level.
  
  Even shounen recognizes the caste system.
  
  When we finally sit down, the slight breeze sends a shiver down my spine that, paradoxically, allows me to relax. The wind at this time and place is familiar, and that"s what"s been missing throughout my day since I woke up: something normal, something that doesn"t care about the colossal changes my life is currently undergoing. Something ephemeral, yet more constant than the current me.
  
  Yuigahama hugs her arms beside me, and I take off my jacket and drape it over her shoulders with only a small wince at the forced motion of my shoulders.
  
  And she stares at me, wide-eyed, almost fearful. Oi, what"s the matter, I just...
  
  Oh.
  
  Dammit, deep-voiced bastard, isn"t even utter agony enough to keep you away from my body? How am I even supposed to fight genjutsu of this level? Pain is supposed to be better than "kai!"
  
  "Thanks..." she mutters, staring at the ground with cheeks flushed and clutching my jacket around her.
  
  Oi. That CG better be in the Recollection Room.
  
  "Don"t mention it," I reply, and she mutters and nods, still trying to outcute Komachi due to her competitive streak. It"s futile, Yuigahama; I"m warning you not to waste your efforts.
  
  "So, I guess this is about Yukinoshita?" I say after the silence stretches long enough that she should have said something already. Aren"t you the one who is able to manage people, Yuigahama? Where are your top-caste skills when I need them the most?
  
  "I... Yes. Sorry, but... What are you planning, Hikky?"
  
  And I look up at the sky, a single, greyish cloud drifting in the same direction of the intermittent breeze.
  
  "I am not sure yet. But I will need your help for the final step."
  
  "You will?" she says, warm surprise on her face that squeezes my heart.
  
  "Of course. Who better than Yuigahama Yui to handle Yukinoshita Yukino?" Don"t answer that, Yui, please. Or, at least, lie when you do.
  
  "I am not sure I am... But I will do it! If you need my help with Yukinon, I will be there!" And she smiles, radiant, as if I"ve handled her the most precious gift I could have offered her just by telling her I am counting on her.
  
  And I wish I had, but...
  
  I am such a bastard.
  
  "Thanks, Yuigahama. I knew I could count on you." This, at least, is the truth, because everything I plan on doing hinges on you being you. On Yuigahama Yui being the caring, self-aware member of our little trio, the one who holds us together even when we do our best to drift apart. And I will be taking advantage of that.
  
  "Well, that"s it then. Let"s eat!" And now she"s cheerfully digging into her bento.
  
  "Just like that?"
  
  "Uh? What do you mean?" At least have the decency not to adorably bite down on the tip of your chopsticks when you look at me with head-tilted confusion!
  
  "You wanted to know what I was gonna do, didn"t you? You just asked what I am planning."
  
  "Yeah, but why would I want to know about every complicated step? If you already know you will need my help, that just means you are already doing what you need to do, so I will just have to be there when you tell me."
  
  And she smiles, as if she has just told me something so obvious it"s funny she even has to say it. And I can only look at her in wonder.
  
  "You are amazing, Yuigahama."
  
  "Eh?! I don"t-I don"t think I am! Really, this much is normal!"
  
  "There"s nothing normal about you."
  
  "And now you switched to bullying me?!"
  
  "Just a little."
  
  "There"s nothing little about calling me abnormal!"
  
  "To be fair, there"s nothing little about you either."
  
  Ah. I said it.
  
  See what you did, deep-voiced bastard? Now Yuigahama is blushing like an affronted tsundere and refusing to meet my eyes. Is this what you wanted, to kick the human puppy to show how completely irredeemable you are to the audience?
  
  "Hikky, gross..." she mutters after a while, her arms wrapped tight around her chest and under my jacket.
  
  And I lean back, my body precariously supported by my rebellious arms as I look at the single drifting cloud.
  
  "Of course I am, Yuigahama. Of course I am."
  
  ***
  
  The rest of the day is mercifully unremarkable until the end of the classes, when I walk out of the school like... Like I don"t know what, and that"s part of the problem.
  
  Common male wisdom suggests I should be giddy at the prospect of handling two beautiful girls at once. That being said, common male wisdom has seen a steady increase in divorce rates in the past years, so it may not be that wise after all, so let"s try to think things through rationally.
  
  Shizu is interested in doing sexual things with me. I don"t know what the limits of that interest are, nor how to test them without risking our current arrangement.
  
  Iroha is obviously turned on not only by the situation but by me in particular. I almost have to slap myself to stop me from rationalizing away her reactions, but I know what happened yesterday at the rooftop and I realize at least a part of what may have happened today at the top of the stairs.
  
  They both have agreed to this, but haven"t spoken to one another, just using me to set it up. Thus, the responsibility for the outcome is mine, because without me nothing would have happened. Or, at least, that"s what they will think if this ends up in disaster. And I better stop this train of thought before I get paranoid, cynical, and semi-cunning about it.
  
  So, two willing women attracted to me, a nebulous agreement, and, I guess, a deciding factor that hasn"t yet been taken into account.
  
  What the Hell do I actually want?
  
  ...
  
  Besides that, Brain. You aren't helping.
  
  I take my bike out of its parking spot and push it toward the entrance where, to my surprise, I find a wild Iroha waiting with a bag in her hands. As soon as I reach her side, she hands it to me.
  
  And I take it. Without even considering it, without even realizing my arm has twinged with discomfort at the gesture and sudden weight.
  
  And she shyly smiles up at me as she starts walking by my side, both of us heading to something unknown and new, that may be a little frightening but also a whole lot exciting. Something we will... share with one another.
  
  Ah.
  
  So this is what I wanted.
  
  How sappy of you, Hachiman. How sappy.
  
  
  ============
  ============
  
  
  Author's note: the next chapter is available for €3 at my Patreon. It will become free when I post the next-next chapter.
  
  When I published this chapter last week, I felt it was a bit lacking in content, but couldn't fit anything else that wouldn't have messed with the flow and substance of it. I ended up promising my Patreons a little extra that will be made public this Saturday, so this week you will get essentially one and a half chapters. Look forward to it!
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 9.5 - Iroha, Kunoichi of Love
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 9.5 - Iroha, Kunoichi of Love
  
  The duty of a kunoichi is to watch over her Lord from the shadows, always ready to intervene when needed. This is the only reason for me to be hiding on the rafters of the Hikigaya household as my Lord undergoes the thorough, harsh negotiations of the peace treaty with the wayward Hiratsuka clan.
  
  "Ah! Hikigaya-dono, I can"t-it"s too muuuuch!"
  
  Yes. The only reason indeed.
  
  What? Are you insinuating I am observing my Lord from afar like a lovestruck child following after her first crush only to end up deriving some sort of perverse pleasure out of watching him defile another woman? That is impossible. I am afraid I will have to deny those claims, as they are only the misguided misrepresentation of the pure, unblemished love one should always foster for their liege, nothing more and nothing less.
  
  Impossible, I tell you.
  
  Currently, I am making extensive use of my arts to disguise my presence so that my Lord"s work goes unimpeded by the feeling of being observed. My ki is tightly gathered around me, not a hint of intent leaking to his no doubt superbly developed perception. After all, he himself underwent ninja training from a young age, as attested by his supernatural stealth skills.
  
  "What are you-this posture won"t-hmmmm!"
  
  Among other things.
  
  So, it is only due to my dutybound loyalty that I am peeking down on him as he pulls up the lewd woman by her ankles, her whole weight resting on her shoulders pressing down on the tatami, as my Lord plunges his cock in and out of her with careless passion by flexing his powerful legs up and down as he almost literally plows the woman insensate. The Hiratsuka daimyou"s face is a mess, lust clearly having made her take leave of her senses as her jaw hangs open and her eyes roll back. I would be afraid she would spot me whenever her gaze drifts to the tall ceiling, but she clearly isn"t in any condition to recognize me.
  
  The fact all of this is on my behalf, that my Lord would just decide to breed the Hiratsuka senseless rather than sacrifice his loyal retainer...
  
  Fine, I admit I may also be observing due to something besides duty. As my hands mimic Hikigaya"s motions over my body, as I slid open my sleeveless kimono and free my breasts from their bindings just to pinch my nipple with the exact amount of roughness and strength he would employ-I mean, that he is unleashing on our soon to be ally... Maybe this is all to understand him better?
  
  Yes, that sounds like a good excuse-I mean, reason. A good vassal should anticipate her Lord"s every desire, so understanding him is of the foremost importance. That"s it, this is nothing more than an extension of my duty.
  
  Down below, Hikigaya-dono roars his release as he takes his splendid member out of its meaty sheath, only to unleash his seed in powerful jets all over the Hiratsuka. The woman"s skin is painted white by now, some rivulets already dried and flaking off from when their meeting began, almost two hours ago. Truly, my Lord"s stamina is amazing (and he says he still wants to train it more?! How am I supposed to handle that?!).
  
  I wonder how it would feel to have his rod plunging in and out of me so roughly, as he fucks me hard enough to make me change my mind like that, to make me agree to anything he demands of me as long as the overwhelming barrage of pleasure continues rushing in and out of my body...
  
  Fingers. Yes. A poor approximation of the real thing, indeed, but I have no better tool to emulate what the Hiratsuka must have gone through yester-right now. I am afraid to be so rough, but if I start gently...
  
  I gather the moisture that"s already leaked between my soft, silky thighs (slender-that is good, right? Not everybody likes meaty, voluptuous women) and use it to glide smoothly over my already erect and hard clit-hmmm!
  
  Fu-I mean, obviously, this short lapse in concentration is not enough to reveal my presence, so I will just... bite my lip. Just in case.
  
  Really, there"s no need for it, it"s a superfluous measure at best. But, as I grope my breasts with ever increasing force (how rough is he? The way he grasped me yesterday on the rooftop, as if he wouldn"t let me back away from him...).
  
  I am not panting lewdly. That is an important fact. Kunoichis are known to keep their poise under torture, after all.
  
  So, when I finally plunge two fingers inside me while the memory of Hachi-Hikigaya-dono"s unwavering gaze flashes through my mind, biting my lip proves to be, as expected, a completely superfluous precaution.
  
  (Da-darn! That hurts! I almost drew blood!)
  
  Right, maybe starting a bit slower, no matter how ready I am-I mean, no matter how rigorous my training-would be a better idea. The hand on my breast slackens its grasp, and I start lightly twirling and pulling on my stiff nipple while down below...
  
  No, he would also start gently, wouldn"t he? Yes, for all his intensity, for all his roughness and willingness to push ahead no matter what, Senpai is also the same kind man who would always take my bags from me, no matter how unnecessary, and carry them to-
  
  Uh... Too real! Too real! Abort!
  
  Yes, loyal kunoichi spying on her Lord. Take two. Ahem.
  
  I slide my fingers in and out slowly and carefully, feeling my insides pulling at them whenever I leave behind this slight, aching void, that would be so pleasantly filled with-Uh. By my Lord. Yes.
  
  After all, that should also be one of my duties, right? To provide for his needs after he has discarded the women that can"t put up with the full extent of his vigor (and who the Hell even thinks two hours is not enough stamina! Aaaaah!).
  
  Deep breaths. To gather the ki and avoid leaking out intent. Yes. It is of paramount importance that I not be discovered while spying-watching over my liege. My liege, who should still be plowing the Hiratsuka senseless with that magnificent member I only caught from that awkward angle, but that looked thick enough that two fingers are definitely not enough preparation and I am panicking again aaaaaaaaah!
  
  "Your control is lacking, Iroha."
  
  Uh?
  
  The face of my liege is right above mine, his body surrounding me and holding me captive atop these rafters while my fingers keep thrusting in and out of my body until he raises an eyebrow and I stop right in the middle of my motion (and that"s not a cute yelp I let out! Not without it being on purpose!).
  
  "You have been broadcasting your intent for quite a while now, you know? It was quite distracting to finish off Shizu while you kept lusting so loudly after me."
  
  "I wasn"t loud!"
  
  "And that"s the only point of contention?"
  
  "Uh, I mean, I clearly am only fulfilling my duties as a loyal vassal and watching over my liege while he goes about his day. Reading too much into this kind of thing is one of the reasons you are so unpopular, Senpa-Lord Hikigaya."
  
  And he looks at me with that slight smirk that lets me know he can see right through me and any façade I care to put up, but that"s no reason to stop trying, not when I am sure I can keep upping my game. You think you have seen the foxy, cunning side of me? You have seen nothing yet, Senpai!
  
  "Well, if fulfilling your duty is the only thing on your mind, I"m sure you won"t mind this then."
  
  And he shuffles up and sits down just over my chest, and now I am looking straight at-
  
  Eh? Eh?!
  
  "Take a good look. Isn"t this what you"ve been trying to watch for the past two hours?"
  
  And I do. It"s... veiny. Thick. Dark. It waves right over my face, scant centimeters away from my nose, and I can remember that scent that seemed to fill the top of the stairs as Ms. Hiratsuka frantically gulped down everything he had to give her. I have read that it is thick, hard to swallow, sticky, but I am still curious about whether I could manage to wrap my lips around his round head and twirl my tongue as he keeps shooting everything inside me, taking in each drop of his cum as soon as it leaves a trace of its taste on my tongue...
  
  Uh, I think my fingers... Ah... Oh, that feels, that feels...
  
  I could cum right now, just plunging my fingers in and out of me as I picture Senpai"s hard cock throbbing right in front of me...
  
  I could. But... I can"t.
  
  Cursing myself once again, I send my silent apologies to Lord Hikigaya for my abrupt departure and rummage through my bag in search of the accursed item.
  
  My phone.
  
  Because, apparently, I can no longer orgasm if I am not looking at a certain video. And that"s just such bullshit that Senpai better take responsibility for it.
  
  Not like that!
  
  Or, well, I mean, maybe a little like that...
  
  So, I make sure the phone is silent, because the last thing I need is to be caught masturbating to amateur porn in the school"s toilets, before I start playing on loop the video of Senpai fucking Ms. Hiratsuka"s mouth (or Ms. Hiratsuka eagerly devouring Senpai"s cock, it is a matter of perspective). Again, just seeing his face contort in undisguised pleasure, showing so much of himself that he usually keeps hidden away, makes the low purring of my arousal roar.
  
  Each movement of his pelvis, each twitch from Hiratsuka"s body as she takes pleasure in servicing him and plunges her eager fingers inside herself just like I am doing right now, takes me that much closer to the end goal. I don"t even know how many times I masturbated to this yesterday, but it was enough to test that, at the moment, nothing else will do the trick.
  
  I mean, it"s... quite likely that having a closer seat will lessen the impact, that I will just replace fantasy with memory, but...
  
  Oh gods, I have asked him to-to-
  
  Why does that make me hornier!
  
  I have asked Senpai to set up sex lessons for me! To let me watch as he plays with Ms. Hiratsuka"s body until she drops from exhaustion! And he"s made her say yes by fucking her so hard his whole body is sore!
  
  Aaaaaahhhhh!
  
  Righ, priorities, Iroha: first, we are going to cum our brains out while jilling ourselves silly to the accursed video that seems to be holding our orgasms hostage. Then, and only then, we can go back to internally freaking the fuck out!
  
  This is the worst time to be thinking of the "why not both?" meme...
  
  I mean, my heart is already thundering in my chest (not on Yui"s level, but at least I have Yukino beaten), my face feels like it"s about to burst in flames, and sweat is dripping down my cleavage. And my thighs... let"s just say that"s not sweat.
  
  And... and what"s in the middle of my thighs... my pussy...
  
  Hmm... it feels so fucking good.
  
  So I just look at the video of Senpai discovering me watching him, at the way he looks at me with panic before he decides to accept my presence, at the way he looked at me with that raw sense of pleasure and desire that was at that moment not directed at the woman servicing him between his legs-
  
  My fingers accelerate, not as rough as he will end up being, not as gentle as he will start with-
  
  My eyes lose focus as moisture gathers in them at the surge of sensation, and I bite my lip once again in anticipation of the building-
  
  "Study session at Shizu"s place after school. I will send you the address."
  
  And I almost cum at a stupid message notification on my screen!
  
  Ah! What do I do?! I am so close!
  
  Right, just a short answer should be fine. Wait, that means he-
  
  Oh gods, he"s just telling me where to go to see him fuck Ms. Hiratsuka"s brains out! That is so fucking hot!
  
  
  Just... Just answer the phone, Iroha, just write a short answer, you don"t even need to stop to tell him-
  
  "Al7l rigHt"
  
  I am about to add "Senpai," when I remember him clutching my chin, keeping me rooted to the spot with the sheer intensity of his gaze as he stared straight into my eyes and said:
  
  "Call me Hachi."
  
  And I cum.
  
  I can"t help it! I just can"t! I already was on the edge, and the sheer perversity of answering him while my fingers were buried deep inside my pussy is just-!
  
  Ah! Aaaaah!
  
  Ow! I almost bit through my lip!
  
  All right, deep breaths, that was a big one, but-wait.
  
  I dropped the phone and-fuck, I just sent him garbled nonsense.
  
  "I will be there. Sorry. Dropped phone."
  
  Maybe I should send a longer reply, but: 1) I am still getting little shakes all over my body, because that was intense, and 2) what the Hell should I reply to that?!
  
  I am basically agreeing to meet him for sex! At Ms. Hiratsuka"s place, no less!
  
  I don"t have a clue how to act about this! How do you even appear cute and cunning to someone who is getting his cock lovingly sucked by another woman?
  
  Right, calm down, I will just...
  
  And my gaze falls back to my phone, where the video app has once again looped to Hachiman"s face contorting with unbidden pleasure as his teacher shows him what an oral exam with her will be like from now on.
  
  ...
  
  Right, getting left behind is not an option.
  
  I wipe myself down with as much toilet paper as it takes, fix my clothes back (and I am glad I completely took out my panties before I started this whole play, because damn, I don"t think I have ever leaked that much in my life) and my hair, and switch my phone to the selfie cam.
  
  All right, Iroha, you have this.
  
  So, slightly tilt your head to the right and down, look at him from behind your long eyelashes and slightly drag your lower lip open with the very tip of your finger (that still tastes like-never mind!)... Lidded eyes, slowly blink twice to maximize the impact, and now...
  
  "What? Hachi, are you telling me to let you shoot all of your cum over my innocent, cute face? To let you jerk your thick cock right above my lips so I can smell your manly scent just before you erupt in uncontrollable pleasure? To let you spend every last drop of your seed over my fair skin, to let you mark me with your taste, your smell, your everything? That is impossible! I can"t do that! Well... not unless you grab my hair and leave me no choice, of course."
  
  Perfect. That should have him cumming without even touching him.
  
  Now to practice till I can say it without dying of embarrassment.
  
  
  ============
  ============
  
  
  Author's note: the next chapter is available for €3 at my Patreon. It will become free when I post the next-next chapter.
  
  Next time on 'All Right! Fine! I'll Take You!':
  
  Will our young kunoichi's dreams and hopes be realized? Will Iroha fulfill her life-long ambition in her service of Lord Hikigaya? Or will the warlike Hiratsuka meet her in heated battle? All this and more, in the next episode of 'Iroha: Kunoichi of Love'!
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 10
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  Agrippa
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 10
  
  Expectations are the tyranny of the past ensuring the future will always become a disappointment. Since we are mere children, we learn that the expectations of our parents can only lead to realizing one"s own inadequacy when the scorecard finally arrives to show the cruelty of the academic system, and, when we enter the adult world, the expectations of our bosses more often than not just result in unpaid overtime and earning an ulcer before an actual pay rise. The expectations of others serve only to oppress us and destroy any positive self-image one has managed to cling to after years of being bombarded by graded tests and assignments.
  
  But that is not even the tip of the iceberg of the evil that expectations bring, because once one has internalized this weapon of society as one"s own, it is inevitable to develop them. Even individuals as detached from the evils of society as myself, those rare few that bring iron-clad discipline to any confrontation with all that is said to be "normal" or "productive," can still fall prey to the enemy within.
  
  For instance, one could, perfectly innocently, expect that a visit to his gorgeous Christmas Cake lover wih his cute, foxy junior in tow (whose voyeuristic fetish has already been thoroughly established), could result in something of at least a vaguely sexual nature.
  
  Innocence has, once again, been stabbed in the back by Reality, who at this point is even wondering why it even bothers, and how does this knife manage to remain sharp after all these stabbings. Indeed, Reality is starting to dream of having a knife-selling spot on late-night TV where ha can expose the world to the wonders of his always-sharp brand of stabbing knives. He thinks it could be a good retirement plan.
  
  "Are you even listening, Hikigaya?"
  
  My dead eyes raise up from the notebook I have been provided with upon my entrance to Shizu"s apartment that is now resting open on my lap. In front of me, a woman who may have at some point in her life known what the word "fun" meant is standing in front and to the side of a whiteboard that contains such phrases as "safe, sane, consensual," "safe days aren"t," and "safewords: keep it simple, stupid," alongside some diagrams of the human body (both genres) with some key areas highlighted and annotated. To my side, in another chair and with her own notebook, Iroha seems to be torn between eagerly taking notes and moaning in sheer frustration. No, not the good kind of frustration. I think.
  
  Otherwise, Iroha may enjoy her classwork far more than I thought.
  
  "I am. And taking notes. And reflecting on the nature of expectations as a form of attachment, and thus the source of all suffering."
  
  "Are you a Buddhist, Senpai?"
  
  "No, he"s just an overly dedicated chuuni."
  
  I look at the two women trying to gang up on me and decide that enough is enough; a counterattack is only fair at this point. Like the great Kazuma before me, I am a firm believer in gender equality.
  
  "I can"t help but notice none of you are calling me "Hachi.""
  
  Iroha blushes. Shizu blushes and stutters. I almost wish Haruno was here so that I could see what a third person would add after the stutter, but, then again, Haruno. It is better not to tempt fate.
  
  "I-I didn"t think it was appropriate when another person is here..."
  
  "Oh? So it is acceptable via video phone call but not in person?"
  
  "Hachi!"
  
  "Video phone call? Sen-Hachi, what does that even-" Iroha"s question is cut off by the glare Shizu sends her way. Oi, no bullying my junior during a sexually charged conversation. That"s my job.
  
  "It means that we aren"t going about this the right way if you both are embarrassed to call me "Hachi" in front of the other."
  
  There"s a pause as the three of us exchange looks that are charged with a varied mix of emotions, embarrassment chief among them, before Shizu sighs in defeat.
  
  "Right. Cup of tea?"
  
  "I-I brought snacks and drinks," Iroha replies.
  
  "Did you-" I start to ask.
  
  "Yes, I brought your "diabetes in a can,"" she interjects with smug exasperation. This outrage shall not stand!
  
  "I"ll have you know that the sweetness of Maxx Coffee is perfectly calibrated to provide the energy and endurance that-why are you blushing at... Oh."
  
  Iroha looks at me with cheeks so red they could match the martial arts uniform of a monkey god turned alien invader, and wiggles in her seat in a way that tells me that embarrassment is not the only thing going through her mind. Because I am a moron who should have clarified that I am not some sort of sexual prodigy in search of ever-higher progress (and wouldn"t that be an interesting take on the shounen formula-focus!).
  
  "I am missing something, aren"t I?" Shizu asks. And I groan. Because of course I couldn"t have clarified this before we entered the lair of the cougar and saved me at least a part of the mortification.
  
  "It"s... Look, Iroha, I should have told you before... Despite what you may have inferred from my stupidly vague recounting, my muscles are sore due to actual exercise. I didn"t... "convince" Shizu with sexual stamina and prolonged-Oh Heavens, what am I even saying..." The last part has been perfectly audible. To some breeds of dogs, at least.
  
  There"s a silence as I stare with steadfast determination at my notes. Yes, I am studying, not avoiding looking at the women around me in my moment of defeat. I am known for my devotion to my scholarly pursuits, after all.
  
  By which I mean I always play wizards, because warriors sound like people who get far too much exercise for a setting without showers.
  
  On the bright side, with the way things are going I may still have a chance to become a wizard after the evening is over. See? Every cloud has a silver lining. Or quicksilver. That sounds like a more realistic and useful saying: "no matter how bad things are, you can always get mercury poisoning."
  
  "That.." Shizu clears her throat before proceeding, "is not quite true."
  
  My head whips up so fast I almost miss Iroha"s hair"s snap at it breaks the sound barrier. Shizu"s hands are clasped, her fingers twirling and clenching as she shifts her weight in a way that can"t help but bring my attention to her swaying hips, and her face is so flushed I just have to-down. Not the time for Standard Adolescent Gait Number Two.
  
  "Not... quite true?" Iroha. Iroha, why are you panting like that? Why are you looking at Shizu like you discovered a hitherto unknown need to call her "onee-sama" as you teleport steel spikes into her enemies yet mysteriously remain absent from the parent series even though your power and training makes you one of the best combatants of the setting?
  
  "I... didn"t think this, having someone watch us, was a good idea. Hachi came here so I could give him some exercising tips, and I got a call from a friend and he... He started playing. With me. My friend ended up watching through the phone. And... I... enjoyed it? A... lot?" That"s a good summary, even if biased in a way that gives me more credit than I deserve, given a few omitted details. Also, I don"t think Iroha has ever paid so much attention to a teacher in her life.
  
  "The friend was Yukinoshita Haruno." This may have been a dumb thing to say. Yukinoshita would praise my consistency.
  
  Shizu is looking at me like I have betrayed some deeply held secret. Iroha is looking at me like I have somehow not only regained but surpassed her initial appreciation of my sexual progress. Whyyy?!
  
  Ah. Haruno. Right.
  
  I feel like that word is far too good an explanation for a wide variety of subjects. Why did the financial system crash last week? Haruno. Why did Grimgar not get a second season? Haruno. Why does Yukinoshita have more traumas than the typical otome game cast (collectively)? Haruno.
  
  Why does Hikigaya Hachiman have a sexual relationship with his teacher? Haruno.
  
  Speaking of which, there"s something else I may need to clarify...
  
  "I am also a virgin." Yes, what"s one more nail in the coffin?
  
  "Wha-how?!"
  
  "You see, when a socially maladjusted man and a woman who is quickly running out of options love each other very much-" Aaand now there"s a fist grinding on top of my skull. How nostalgic.
  
  "Refer to the third diagram. Penetration is not the only meaningful thing you can do with a partner."
  
  "Is this your kink, Shizu? The strict teacher disciplining her wayward student?" Uh, it looks like that fist just lost all strength. Note to self: sexual harassment is as likely to get me into physical punishment as out of it. How mysterious. I wonder if there"s a way to buff the skill to remove its potential malus?
  
  "What?! No! I just... You told me she wanted to learn about sex with people she trusted, so I..."
  
  I look at the blushing woman standing at my side and decide enough is enough. Deep-voiced bastard? The floor is yours.
  
  With arms as firm and strong as the average wet noodle, I hug Shizu"s side and manage to drag her into my lap. She"s now sitting across me, facing Iroha to my right, and blushing as much as I"ve ever seen her do. Right, good start.
  
  "Shizu," I grasp her chin and force her to look into my eyes, her own telling me she"s on the verge of panic, "you are beautiful."
  
  And I kiss her.
  
  Light, soft, lips barely brushing and getting a taste of that cherry lip gloss she could have borrowed from Iroha herself.
  
  "Gorgeous."
  
  I drag her back to me, my tongue prodding till she grants me a brief entrance.
  
  "Sexy."
  
  My hand goes from her chin to her nape, and I press forward, bending her back as she moans into my mouth and our bodies press together. Then I let her go and look into her eyes as she pants. They are wide open, fixated on my own, but now it"s not panic that they show me.
  
  "And Iroha also thinks so. Isn"t that right, my foxy, cute junior?"
  
  I hear an "eep" as I turn back to see her leaning forward on the edge of her chair, her interest more obvious than a Naruto antagonist"s tragic past.
  
  "Tell her, Iroha." I look straight at her, and she visibly swallows.
  
  "You are so unfair, Sen-" I raise an eyebrow, "Hachi... So unfair..."
  
  I grab her chin with the hand that isn"t pressing Shizu"s body against mine and pull her a bit forward, so that she"s almost unbalanced on the chair and has entered our own space.
  
  "Tell her."
  
  "Ms. Hiratsuka.. you are beautiful, gorgeous. Sexy." Her eyes go from Shizu to mine and back again, her breath shallower with every whispered word.
  
  "Good. Call her Shizu." And the woman in my arms trembles as the one I am holding takes a sharp breath.
  
  "Shizu..."
  
  And they both let out a small, short, yet intense moan.
  
  Deep-voiced bastard, I acknowledge your prowess. Also, if you could give me a hint about what the Hell I am supposed to be doing after this display? That would be quite appreciated.
  
  Before I can make a fool out of myself by trying to top whatever I just pulled off, Shizu starts kissing my neck, which gives me a very convenient excuse to close my eyes before my blush at Iroha"s look reaches aneurysm-inducing levels.
  
  "See? No need to be worried, Shizu. You are an amazing woman, everyone here knows that except you. Stop trying to hold back and just do what you feel comfortable doing. I think it"s in diagram number four." I don"t have a clue what"s in diagram number four. I hope NTR is not on the menu.
  
  Shizu moans against my neck, and the vibrations make me answer in tune. She then starts undoing the buttons on my uniform shirt, and I feel Iroha"s weight shifting as she takes the hand that was still grabbing her chin with her own. I think she"s getting up... Yes. Going by the two very soft pillows pressing against the back of my head, she"s now standing behind and over me, getting a privileged, close-up view of Shizu"s maneuvers while still indecently grasping my hand. As expected of my voyeuristic junior.
  
  When the last button of my shirt is undone, Shizu hesitates once more before getting up from my lap. By this point, it is quite obvious what the close contact with the two women has done to me, so I don"t even try to hide it, and Iroha"s small gasp brings me enough pride that any impulse to do so fades as quickly as my interest in an eroge I have already beaten.
  
  "You want to see him, don"t you? You didn"t have a good view from the stairs." Shizu"s voice is huskier, deeper, and I wonder whether deep-voiced bastard syndrome may be contagious. If so, I hope the transmission vector is only sexual.
  
  "I... I only caught part of it. He looked big." I open my eyes in shock at that statement, just in time to catch Shizu"s smug grin directed at the girl behind me.
  
  "He is. More than enough. Lean forward if you want to see." And Iroha"s arm hugs my neck as she bends over my head, what I can see of her expression captivated by what Shizu is about to show her, her hand still not letting go of mine.
  
  I think I need an adult.
  
  Shizu kneels down in front of me and deftly maneuvers my pants. At her cue, I lift my hips so she can take them away, along with my boxers. Her hands rest atop my bare knees and lightly pushes them apart, my member as erect as it has ever been, completely exposed to the two eager gazes.
  
  Iroha swallows once again, her hand squeezing mine in a silent signal of something I don"t quite understand. Shizu, uncharacteristically from what I have come to expect from the easily flustered woman, smirks as she lays the tip of her pointer finger just below my glans, pushing it up so it points directly at Iroha.
  
  "So, lesson number one: men are as delicate down here as we are. You can get rough sometimes, but only with enough lubrication and after working them up to it." Her tone is precisely the very same she uses when dictating a lesson in front of the blackboard, and seeing her looking up at me from between my legs, wearing the same black vest and white shirt she does when teaching class... My member throbs.
  
  "It... It can move? By itself?" Iroha"s voice is genuinely curious, but also... It reminds me of the squeak of a small animal, and that in turn makes me want to chase her down and pounce on-not the time, deep-voiced bastard!
  
  Or, well, the time, but not quite... You know what I mean.
  
  "It is not a muscle, despite what some morons may claim, but it has some around it. Nothing actually... useful, but enough to see reactions like that from time to time. Usually, if it"s very hard and it twitches without touching it, it"s because something managed to turn them on a lot. Isn"t that right... Hachi?" Are you trying to get me to ejaculate without any physical stimulation just by whispering my name in a tone so inviting it has its own tab at the nearest pub? I am sorry, Ms. Hiratsuka, but that"s impossible. I can only ejaculate after watching you lose all composure as your face breaks down in ever-increasing waves of pleasure. I hope you can accept that fact and that you won"t begrudge me my own inclinations.
  
  Dammit, Iroha is contagious.
  
  Shizu smirks at me from behind my erect cock-which is a sight that not only will go into the CG room , but should be printed in a gigantic poster that will forever keep any girls from entering my room-and I can see the pink dusting traveling over her nose and the small hesitance, the hint of nervousness behind the bravado and the arousal.
  
  "You know perfectly well what you did, Shizu."
  
  "I don"t know what you are talking about... Hachi." Her smirk widens, and a bit more of the apprehension melts away.
  
  And my dick twitches.
  
  Iroha gasps, Shizu chuckles with more pride than amusement, and I try very hard not to blush.
  
  "All right, if you are so intent on making me cum just from sheer arousal, you may as well give me a show." Deep-voiced bastard version two: Not Putting Up With This Shit. Like any shounen powerup worth the name, it came out of nowhere and its power level is unmeasurable.
  
  "Well, if you think you can hold back..." Shizu"s hands leave my body and start slowly, far too slowly, undoing her buttons.
  
  "See, Iroha, when you undress for someone else, you don"t need to put on a show." Her collar opens. "The circumstances aren"t always right, and sometimes you won"t be in the mood for it." Enough buttons are undone that they have reached the valley of her vest, and Shizu pulls the fabric apart to show me-us-her generous bust lifted up by a black bra that is a match for the lacey panties I saw yesterday. "But even if you do not dance to some trashy music or twirl around a pole..." She has undone all of her vest"s buttons save one... starting from down below. And now she"s playing with that last button where it meets the open expanse of her shirt. "Even then, you can still play." And now she gets up and turns around, her arms following the sides of her body, of her neck, tangling with her long hair as her hips sway from side to side, and this time it"s me that squeezes Iroha"s hand. Mostly because it looks like she has forgotten how to breathe. "It"s not about being sexy, it"s about feeling sexy. It"s not only for him," she shoots a look at me over her shoulder, and she starts lowering herself as her pants slide down her smooth legs, "you also need it. You need to feel good about yourself, about what you are showing him, about how he reacts to you." She bends, and my gaze is looked on how wonderfully the posture showcases her backside as she wiggles it from side to side. I don"t even notice when her pants are gone, just when she stands up.
  
  "And... And if I don"t? If I don"t feel good about showing him?"
  
  Shizu turns around, her black panties showing beneath her white shirt, her cheeks flushed in something that most definitely isn"t shame, and takes a step toward me, the heat of her body rushing up over my face. And she takes Iroha"s face between her hands and I try not to think about what may still be on the tip of her pointer finger.
  
  "You are a very attractive young woman, Iroha. I don"t mean just your body: you are smart, witty, mischievous... and a good person. If you don"t feel good about showing your naked body to someone... Don"t. The problem is not you, it"s how you feel with them. Maybe it"s not the right time, or maybe it"s not the right person, but I can only tell you that forcing yourself to do something you aren"t comfortable with is rarely a good idea when it comes to intimacy. You need to feel safe, wanted, attractive. If you don"t? Stop. If they pressure you? Block their number. And tell me."
  
  There"s a silence between them that even I am not dense enough to infringe on, even if part of me feels this speech may have been more moving if it hadn"t been delivered right on the middle of the first striptease I have ever gotten. Once again, my foxy junior steals the spotlight with her cunning.
  
  Well, two can play at this game.
  
  I pull on Iroha"s hand, and she stumbles around the chair, pressing against Shizu in front of me, her face flushing even deeper as her eyes go from my exposed member, to her teacher"s marvelous cleavage, to my intense gaze.
  
  "You are attractive, Iroha. You shouldn"t need me to tell you this. You are attractive enough I noticed you while Shizu was giving me my first blowjob, and I found it arousing. You haven"t realized yet how hard it would have been for me to even acknowledge almost any other woman in those circumstances. But you? You were there, and you were captivating."
  
  "Senpai... Hachi. What? Hachi, are you telling me to let you shoot all of your cum over my innocent, cute face? To let you jerk your thick cock right above my lips so I can smell your manly scent just before you erupt in uncontrollable pleasure? To let you spend every last drop of your seed over my fair skin, to let you mark me with your taste, your smell, your everything? That is impossible! I can"t do that! Well... not unless you grab my hair and leave me no choice, of course..."
  
  ...
  
  Uh?
  
  ...
  
  No, seriously, what?
  
  Shizu, stop laughing!
  
  "I... Uh, I think, I... Sorry, what?!"
  
  There, that"s as eloquent an answer as her monologue is likely to get. I have done my best, but even deep-voiced level two has proven useless against this foe. It"s time to shave off my eyebrows and prepare for level three.
  
  Shizu turns a heavily blushing Iroha around and hugs her tightly as she keeps laughing her (spectacular) ass off, and Iroha keeps nervously shooting me glances as her hand twitches in mine almost as much as my dick during her speech.
  
  Dangerous. The foxy junior is dangerous.
  
  "You did practice that, didn"t you?" Shizu asks, a hint of tears of laughter in her voice.
  
  "I did! I even had the pose to go down with it, but he just caught me by surprise with his intensity and I blurted it out! What a waste!"
  
  "A waste? Dear, you have left Hikigaya Hachiman speechless; that deserves a medal."
  
  "I wanted to make him cum without touching him!"
  
  "And you almost managed, for fuck"s sake..."
  
  "See? If I had saved it for the right moment..."
  
  "Shhh... Plans and schemes are all well and good, but you always need some spontaneity. Come on, let me show you."
  
  And Shizu kneels once again, reclaiming her rightful position behind my erect member (that is leaking far too much precum, given the lack of contact). But she drags Iroha with her, so now I have... Two attractive women kneeling in front of my cock.
  
  CG room, don"t fail me now.
  
  "See, Iroha? He finds you attractive. Very attractive, going by all... this" she whispers before dragging a dollop off with her finger. "Now the question is: do you feel attractive? Do you like having him see you this way?"
  
  And at that Iroha"s face contorts in a wild variety of poses that leaves me with absolutely no clue about what"s going through her mind. So, business as usual, I guess.
  
  Finally, looking into my eyes from below me and in an almost surly profile, she nods. And Shizu takes the finger with my dollop of precum and... offers it to her.
  
  No fucking way.
  
  Iroha looks at it, then at me, then at Shizu, and, with the hand that isn"t grasping mine like she"s afraid I am going to leave her without carrying her bags, she takes Shizu"s.
  
  And puts the finger inside her mouth.
  
  Her eyes widen, I don"t know whether it"s due to the taste or to the realization of what she"s done in front of witnesses, but... she closes them. Her cheeks suck in. She swallows.
  
  "Are you both trying to give me a heart attack, or is that just a happy coincidence?"
  
  "Only you could have two women on their knees fixated on your cock and fluids and manage to find a way to complain, Hachi," Shizu says. Not inaccurately.
  
  "You praise me too much."
  
  Iroha takes Shizu"s finger out of her mouth and looks at me before her sly look washes over her embarrassment.
  
  "I would say any praise we give you is too much praise, Senpai. Also, you are salty."
  
  Stop! I can"t take this barrage anymore, stop! At least let me train for a year in a time-compressing chamber so that I can shave off my eyebrows in peace!
  
  "I wouldn"t go that far..." Shizu murmurs... as she grabs my cock.
  
  Praise be all eroge creators for having designed the rigorous training regime that is currently allowing me to not cum right over their faces as they-
  
  Stop. Bad Brain. You aren"t helping.
  
  Iroha and Shizu seem to have come to an understanding, because while my teacher fondly fondles my fondler, my junior is giving me a wide grin and resuming taking off the woman"s clothes. The vest finally gives up on its titanic task of containing Shizu"s first syllable of the word "titanic," and the shirt is promptly unbuttoned, leaving me to admire how her silk-clad breasts sway under her open clothes as her lazy rhythm keeps me (completely unnecessarily, but I am not about to complain) from going soft.
  
  "We should... completely uncover, if we are going to let him do what you asked him to do. It isn"t fun to wash the stains," Shizu once again shows her pointless experience with people who should be more considerate. Not me, of course. I am the very epitome of the attentive lover. Except for the part where I am a virgin who somehow keeps dragging other women into our sexual lives.
  
  Tee-hee.
  
  Iroha nods and... Oh. Uncovering.
  
  Good news: Iroha apparently feels comfortable with me. Very comfortable.
  
  Bad news: uh... let me get back to you on that.
  
  She isn"t as deliberate as Shizu, and the fact that both of them are dropping their clothes at once doesn"t let me quite focus on one to the exclusion of the other, but Iroha"s smile, a tad of shyness, a hint of self-assuredness, and a lot of tenderness... It"s almost enough to make me not focus on her body.
  
  That is, until she finally lets go of my hand to take off her bra.
  
  Yes. Not quite on Yuigahama"s level, but definitely with their own merits.
  
  Iroha"s breasts are firm, round, capped by small nipples with an almost reddish hue that look... chewable. That is the best word I can think of for them.
  
  Even kneeling right beside Shizu, with her more generous proportions, I can appreciate how both of them are definitely... Beautiful. It"s the only way to define them. The smooth skin, the gentle swell, the weight as they rest over my... legs...
  
  All right, somebody better give me an excuse to cum soon, because this is getting ridiculous!
  
  "See? You are attractive, Iroha. You don"t need to fear anything." Shizu murmurs, her lips almost touching me, her breasts brushing against the inside of my thighs with every deep breath. And, as she stops talking, she takes a long scent off my manhood that makes that rubbing very noticeable.
  
  "I... The way he looks at you..." Iroha doesn"t know how to continue, almost as mesmerized by my teacher"s actions as I am.
  
  "You are both incredible women, more beautiful than I could have ever dreamed," I rest my hands on top of their heads and they both nuzzle against my palms. "I don"t know what I have done to deserve this, I don"t think I deserve this... but I want to. I want to show you both how happy you are making me and make you as happy as I am in turn." My fingers tangle through soft, black hair, through short brown with a hint of red. "You are amazing. I couldn"t have dreamed of this, I-"
  
  I stop. Before I say too much. Before I say something that can never be enough. Not just with words.
  
  They are looking at me.
  
  "Senpai... I will have you take responsibility."
  
  "Yes, Hachi. You cannot say something like this to a woman and expect her to leave it be."
  
  A look passes between them before they grin at each other and then back at me.
  
  "So, take responsibility!" They say at once. And Shizu takes me between her breasts as Iroha kisses my tip.
  
  The softness enveloping me is unlike anything I have experienced yet. It"s not the firm grasp of her hand, nor the wet embrace of her mouth, but the warm pressure that only leaves enough exposed for Iroha to once again get acquainted with my particular flavor... It"s intense. Overwhelming.
  
  "Iroha... let some saliva drip down his cock. It will make this better for him."
  
  My junior hums in agreement, and I can feel rivulets of viscous, warm liquid glide down until they pool where my member emerges from Shizu"s embracing cleavage. With every up and down motion, a bit of the liquid slides between my skin and her own, and a bit more strength and speed is added to her movements until I hear her heavy, soft flesh slap against my legs. Iroha is dragged along with her teacher"s (in this particular subject) pace, her mouth going from staying at my very tip while she softly licks me with her pointy, agile tongue, to sliding down until she meets Shizu"s flesh in the most obscene kiss I have ever witnessed.
  
  I could climax just from the image alone, especially when Shizu lifts a marveled look from the young girl nuzzled into her bosom to stare at me with something warm and radiant. Something that does to my chest what her own is doing to my member.
  
  "I love you," I mouth at her while Iroha"s eyes are closed and her pleased murmurs rumble along my flesh.
  
  "You are shameless," she seems to answer.
  
  But the deep-voiced bastard, no matter how much damage he has taken today, is not about t let that pass.
  
  My feet slide between their spread legs to twin cries of muffled surprise, and a big toe of each foot starts intermittently pressing against their sex. They don"t protest, their bodies shifting as they seem to search for deeper contact, and that"s enough to restore my confidence. My hands drift down from their hair, playing along slender necks, caressing small ears, and finally reaching those mounds that have fascinated me so since they have been revealed. Iroha almost yells around my cock as I gently twirl my thumb around her reddish nipple, and Shizu bites her lip as I firmly grasp one of the breasts so tightly wrapped around me.
  
  Two gorgeous women servicing me between my legs, looking at me with undisguised lust as I play with their bodies and give them even a fraction of the pleasure they are giving me. A sight many men would sell their kidney(s) for. And I am still a virgin.
  
  My sexual life is messed up, as I expected.
  
  I would like to stretch this as much as possible, to give Iroha a taste of that superhuman she has dreamed of, but this is just my third time doing something even remotely like this, and the preliminaries have already been quite taxing on my reserves. I would like to be more, to be better, to take them to heights no other man will ever share with them, but this...
  
  This is as far as I go.
  
  If I am lucky, we will go higher another day. If not, I will still treasure this moment till the day I die.
  
  "I am going to finish."
  
  Iroha jumps off me, and that almost does it, but then she grabs the hand that"s been playing with her firm nipple and brings it to the back of her head, looking at me with longing as she licks off the traces of precum sticking to her lips. Shizu looks to the side and lets out a small snigger that turns into a moan halfway when my foot digs deeper into her drenched panties.
  
  And Iroha tilts her head down and to the right, looking up at me from behind her long eyelashes as she drags her lip down the tiniest amount required to flash me a hint of white teeth.
  
  And she clears her throat.
  
  "Hachi... are you telling me to let you shoot all of your cum over my innocent, cute face? To have Shizu jerk your thick cock right above my lips so I can smell your manly scent just before you erupt in uncontrollable pleasure? To have her aim every last drop of your seed over my fair skin, to let you both mark me with your taste, your smell, your everything? That is impossible! I can"t do that! Well... not unless you grab my hair and leave me no choice, of course."
  
  And she looks at Shizu and me as her hand gets under her panties, her fingers pushing my foot aside as she frantically plays with herself and gives me her finishing strike.
  
  "Please?"
  
  And I see white.
  
  I am pretty sure Shizu will get a noise complaint, because as my delicious Christmas Cake frantically jerks me off over the not-at-all innocent face of my cheeky, sly junior, and they both masturbate as if they are trying to race one another, I let out a roar as I feel my orgasm surge up through my spine. My hips jerk forward with each rushing jet of heat that hits Iroha"s face to her pleased yelps, but this orgasm isn"t contained to the ecstasy of release: it"s something I experience with my full body, the overwhelming sensation seeming to burn anything inconsequential in its path only to leave lingering flames that drain me of my remaining strength.
  
  And then Iroha comes, her face open in ecstasy as the last of my release drops onto her tongue, and Shizu isn"t long in following her, the grip of her hand on my still hard erection slackening as her muscles are also robbed of their strength, even if not as much as mine.
  
  I drop bonelessly on the chair, two gorgeous women slumped over my legs. And I try to breathe.
  
  ***
  
  When I regain enough sense to remember my whole body is sore and devoid of strength, I am in time to see Shizu dotingly wiping my sperm off Iroha"s face, who is blushing in a way that tells me she is as pleased as she is embarrassed by the motherly care of someone she just shared an orgasm with.
  
  I can sympathize.
  
  At least, I would if that care had ever been directed at me. Oi, Shizu, what"s with this blatant favoritism? Is it a lily garden after all?
  
  "So, what kind of homework do you want?"
  
  Shizu, absolutely incongruously, decides my question is enough reason to violently flush when wiping my sexual fluids off the face of another woman wasn"t.
  
  "Hachi, be nice. Don"t tease her."
  
  "There"s a contradiction in your demand, Iroha: Shizu likes to be teased."
  
  "I-that"s not true!"
  
  I raise an eyebrow.
  
  "Well... not always..." And Iroha"s face lights up at the admission.
  
  "Really? Then maybe I should start practicing another speech... What do you say, Hachi? Any requests?"
  
  "I am sure we can come up with something. No need to spoil the surprise."
  
  "You are both terrible and far too prone to ganging up on a poor, defenseless maiden."
  
  "If you say "maiden at heart," I will be too sad, Shizu. Please, spare me the heartache."
  
  "... Did you do your push-ups today, brat?"
  
  "Are you trying to make me associate sexual ecstasy with unbearable pain? I knew you had a disciplinarian fetish."
  
  Shizu splutters an undignified denial, Iroha and I tease her a bit more, and then the conversation moves to the sofa. We joke, we finally get to eat Iroha"s snacks, and we mock Shizu relentlessly for the whiteboard full of sexual theory. We laugh, we cuddle, and finally end up taking an impromptu nap on the far too big sofa, all three slumped on an irregular, half-dressed pile along its length.
  
  And I have never been happier.
  
  
  ============
  ============
  
  
  Author's note: the next chapter is available for €3 at my Patreon. It will become free when I post the next-next chapter.
  
  A not-so-gentle reminder: This Saturday I will make public the first chapter of the spin-off series Zaimokuza Gaiden. It will likely not contain a hot-threesome scene with a foxy junior and a Christmas Cake teacher, though. Inconceivable, I know.
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 11
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  Agrippa
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 11
  
  It is not a gross exaggeration to say that schedules are the foundation of society. If everyone was free to come and go as they pleased, not staying at a dreary office until their sleep-deprived minds started coming up with waking terrors and their children got personally acquainted with scurvy due to all the preheated dinners, for instance, those at the top would lose one of their advantages when oppressing those below and making sure they stay oppressed. How different would a society be where the alarm clock is considered an eccentricity and one works, eats, and sleeps according to one"s needs? It seems like an unsolvable thought experiment, but the truth is we, the Japanese, have spent decades working on this problem and coming up with a perfectly structured, workable solution: the raising sim.
  
  Given a stress bar that can be easily depleted by taking your underage daughter to a vacation on a nudist beach (because, apparently, medieval fantasy kingdoms are very progressive; source: Gainax), one can easily know whether it is a good idea to have her take those extra lessons at that dojo where random passersby seem to enjoy the healthy hobby of beating the living stuffing out of a ten-year-old who is defending said dojo"s sign, work at the suspicious bar that isn"t that trigger-shy about having an underage girl serve customers with a bunny suit, send her out for a week of unsupervised fun on the city (which, so far, has proven to be a very safe and child-friendly place), or even have her go out to exterminate cute woodland creatures, because no amount of trauma is enough for our little bundle of joy. Truly, that is the foundation of a society that, while revolving around a strictly defined self-scheduling, would raise its populace to no longer be slaves to anything other than one"s own parameters, allowing elites like Yukinoshita to thrive, and people like me to waste time unbothered on their state-sponsored sofas. Truly utopian.
  
  Yet, as we desperately grasp for that possibility, we also study other alternatives, ones where the focus lies not only on personal growth and career advancement (which, obviously, are the foremost considerations when raising a healthy, not at all psychopathic killer, adoptive daughter set to inherit the kingdom). No, our land has also birthed a model that takes into account the social aspect, and even prioritizes it. Of course, that is the closely related dating sim.
  
  Much more nuanced and granular, usually set to study the day-to-day affairs rather than monthly vagaries. It has, though, one problem that tends to be universal. A fault we have yet to solve in the overall model.
  
  No encounters with the Christmas Cake Teacher on the weekend, because her character archetype is only encountered on school grounds.
  
  Which is why I"m lying on my bed, recovering from my self-inflicted injuries, and staring at a phone that should, in theory, allow me to overcome this colossal design fault.
  
  In theory.
  
  It starts to ring, and I pick up before I even know what I"m doing.
  
  "Hi?"
  
  "You weren"t even going to call after forcefully taking my chastity like that, were you, Senpai?"
  
  "Iroha, for fuck"s sake, I could have been near my parents."
  
  "Perfect. Maybe they would force you to take responsibility."
  
  ... What.
  
  "Did I short-circuit you, Senpai? I am improving; this time I didn"t even need to tell you how much of my face you can cover with your scalding, overwhelming-"
  
  "Iroha!"
  
  "Hmmm... it sounds so good when I force you to scream my name..." All right. Enough. I am about to confiscate all those doujins you have been binging on, young lady.
  
  No, Brain, it"s not a good time to come up with ways to punish her.
  
  When will be a good time, you say? I don"t know, but I would expect my door would be closed and Komachi asleep.
  
  .. No, Brain, that"s not at all what I meant by having a younger girl unconscious while I-
  
  "Oh? Have I managed to leave you wordless once again, Senpaaai?" sing-songs the other, actually quasi-sane choice in comparison, younger girl, with a voice that makes it clear I wouldn"t need to wait until she fell asleep.
  
  "I seem to remember a good enough way to make you shut up we came up with yesterday..." Deep-voiced bastard, once again I find myself relying on your powers. If this is my introduction to a Shaman King tournament, so be it.
  
  "... Unfair, Senpai, you are not supposed to turn the tables on me like that..."
  
  ... It is far too easy to imagine Iroha almost biting her knuckle while she shyly turns her body and looks up into my eyes with her downturned face after such a line. And now I feel guilty, aroused, and gleefully sadistic at once. Great.
  
  Time to read Nana to Kaoru. Again.
  
  "You aren"t supposed to sexually harass me via phone call either, yet here we are."
  
  "... Are we?"
  
  What does that even-oh. Fuck.
  
  "I don"t know, Iroha. Yesterday certainly went further than you watching me," I try to reply with an even, steady voice that implies I know what the Hell I am doing. I likely fail.
  
  "It did," she says with a fragile tone.
  
  And then remains silent.
  
  Great. I am no longer horny nor gleefully sadistic. Just guilty.
  
  "Let"s be rational about this," I begin.
  
  "How romantic," she waspishly cuts me off. Oi, that"s rude, you know? I should know.
  
  "It... could be." I hesitate to even say as much. But she deserves it.
  
  And yet... No. No, she actually doesn"t. She deserves much better, but this is as far as I can go.
  
  "What do you mean?" she answers after a pause, her tone far softer.
  
  "I... We haven"t set up any ground rules, Iroha, and maybe we should have, but what"s done is done. So, first rule: I am with Shizu." And this is why sticking to one"s principles sucks. No wonder nobody else does it.
  
  "I... I know." And hearing what that hesitance implies does all sorts of weird things to my far too sensitive self. Some of them exceedingly pleasant, but now"s not the time to dwell on that.
  
  "But we don"t yet know what that means." Come on, Hachiman, you can do better than this. For her. For them.
  
  "I... don"t know what you mean." Iroha Isshiki is cunning, selfish, daring, witty. She shouldn"t mince her words, or ponder about what ifs, because that"s not her, and never will be. I won"t let her become another Yukinoshita.
  
  "Shizu included you. Enthusiastically. I haven"t seen her act so confident ever, not in class, where she"s her usual, scatterbrained self, nor in private, where she melts at the slightest indication of genuine affection." This is all true, but it"s not about Iroha, so how can I... "You being there... it was good for her. I think she wants to do what"s best for others, and having someone to guide, someone to show the good parts of intimacy to, made her feel that much better about herself. Shizu tried to be good for you, and you definitely were good for her." All these words, just to tell her what should be obvious: that she"s wanted, and not just by me.
  
  "... Is that a very roundabout way of asking me to keep having threesomes with you?"
  
  "... It"s not not that." I almost stutter. Which I shouldn"t be surprised about.
  
  And then she giggles. Good. Iroha cunningly giggling is good.
  
  Wait, what? I wonder if that"s what moralists mean when they talk about sex warping the impressionable minds of the youth?
  
  "So, you being with Shizu means you get to slake your incommensurable lusts on two nubile, curvy bodies."
  
  "No. Well, likely yes, but it actually means that any decision is something that will take Shizu into account. And on this... I think you are good for her." As I"ve already said. Because, apparently, my eloquence and logical thinking take a nosedive when a girl nobody can convince me isn"t actually descended from a tribe of voyeuristic kitsune kunoichi comes into the picture.
  
  "... And for you?" she breathes, and every single small hair on the side of my neck stands on end at the sound of it.
  
  Ah, not going to give me the easy way out, are you, my foxy junior? As expected. Well then, deep-voiced bastard, you know what to do.
  
  "Let"s see, I wonder if I haven"t already made my feeling on the issue clear... Ah, I know: "You are both incredible women, more beautiful than I could have ever dreamed. I don"t know what I have done to deserve this, I don"t think I deserve this... but I want to. I want to show you both how happy you are making me and make you as happy as I am in turn.""
  
  There. Flashbacks are effective for a reason.
  
  Iroha"s end of the line remains silent for quite a bit, and I wonder if maybe I have pushed a bit too far, too fast, when-
  
  "If you want me to suck on your stiff, hard cock and swallow your thick, rich cum until your legs can no longer hold you up, you are doing a very good job of asking, Senpai." And that should be a critical hit, but I am still remembering the look of her eyes as she knelt in front of me, a naked smile as baring as her lack of clothes showing me... Everything I ever wanted to see of Iroha Isshiki, and even more that I didn"t suspect I could find in her. So, riding that high, it"s only natural that I say:
  
  "Call me Hachi." Because what else could I have replied?
  
  "... Unfair. Hachi."
  
  "I learned from the best, Iroha."
  
  And she giggles.
  
  And yes, I admit it: my foxy, cunning junior giggling is good.
  
  Now, if I could get her to do that without ending up having to walk crouched over with my hands in my pockets, that would be great...
  
  ***
  
  The rest of the conversation is cut short after it"s made clear none of us know what the Hell we are doing and maybe it would be better to see each other face to face before delving into more profound topics. Such as whether or not kissing is okay, and if we should have Shizu spectate if we do it.
  
  My life is weird. I feel like that has already been established.
  
  Said topic, of course, isn"t helping with my case of Standard Adolescent Gait Number Two. The lack of blood feeding my brain may account for some of the impairment of my mental faculties.
  
  The other part of the impairment I would usually attribute to Iroha"s Irohaness, but given that she"s the cause of the first part of said impairment, that would mean that Iroha is, in and of herself, enough to reduce my usually not too shabby intellect to that of the kind of drooling moron who thinks calling me Hikitani is somehow hilarious.
  
  Which... checks out. Yes. Especially the drooling part.
  
  Because remembering the feeling of her stiff nipple rolling between the tips of my fingers as her tongue licked-
  
  Right. Enough. Either I dedicate some time to self-care while wondering to whom of my many voyeurs I should send the video, or I change the subject.
  
  Given that one of the possibilities is Haruno and I don"t feel like playing that particular game of Russian Roulette, change of topic it is.
  
  So, seeing as there aren"t that many things that currently occupy my mind, like, I don"t know, winning once and for all my duel with Yukinoshita and somehow solving the mess my relationships with the opposite (in all senses of the word) genre have recently become, I turn to the one thing I know I need to deal with before I can even consider thinking about something else.
  
  The signal tone sounds far longer than I am used to when dialing this particular number, which only adds to the knot of anxiety in my chest. Finally, she picks up, and, before she can greet me, I blurt out the line I had been thinking about for the past few minutes.
  
  "Let"s go on a date, Shizu." Ah, so that"s how Iroha felt yesterday.
  
  The far too sharp squeal from the other end of the line calms down some of my concerns while steadily raising others.
  
  I would say "as expected," but quite frankly, as much of an expert as I am quickly becoming on Christmas Cake recipes and baking methods, I admit the end product still tends to catch me by surprise.
  
  ***
  
  "So... tie or no tie?" I ask the only person I currently trust to not completely obliterate whatever sanity remains in my love life.
  
  "Brother, my dating experience comes from shoujo manga. Explicitly, the shoujo manga that you lend me, because you are far too sappy for your own good," Komachi says, her voice a carefully uninterested drone as she barely lifts her eyes from the PSP visual novel she"s playing while I try to decide the level of formality adequate for illicit dalliances.
  
  "Card Captor Sakura is a classic, and I will duel with the heart of the cards anyone who says otherwise." There. True men don"t care how pink the covers are, only the manliness of a ten-year-old girl beating up mythological monsters like she was born with a star-shaped birthmark.
  
  "I am sure Totsuka would be elated to know you are a Clamp fan, but you are mixing your card-related references." Ouch. I am not even sure who that barb was aimed at, but I am sorry you had to become involved, Totsuka. Don"t worry, I will take care of you as you recover and-
  
  Damn. I am taken.
  
  Twice.
  
  I am sorry, Totsuka, it seems I will have to entrust your care to someone else. Zaimokuza, likely, when he gets tired of whatever it is he"s doing with Sagami.
  
  No, I refuse to even consider what that actually entails. Let"s see, little sister"s ruffled feathers, conversation drifting to manga...
  
  "Just be glad I am not bringing Star Platinum into this." Perfect. Nothing like "is that a Jojo reference?" to soothe a troubled mind. Oh, I already did that before.
  
  Let"s just say my mind needs a lot of soothing. Tee-hee.
  
  "That... was a stretch. Nervous, are you?" she asks, with a tone that fakes nonchalance as well as I do social competence.
  
  "Well, I am having my first date after what technically counts as my first three-" Withering glare. Right. Survival instincts, thank you for once again stopping the most lethal part of my body: my tongue. Shizu can attest to it.
  
  And now I made myself blush. Great.
  
  "Look, the only thing that"s important in a date is to match your partner," Komachi starts finally lecturing me, either out of pity or of self-preservation. One of those two. "If Ms. Hiratsuka always wears a suit and a tie, that"s what you should wear, just so she doesn"t feel out of place."
  
  "... You do realize she pulls it off way better than I could ever hope to?"
  
  "Please tell me that"s why you have started exercising. Let your cute little sister retain even a trace of innocence." Komachi looks at me, her tone halfway between deadpan and desperate plea.
  
  "That"s why I have started exercising. To fill my suit better. Of course."
  
  Komachi glares at me after my wooden performance. It looks like I have not been convincing enough to save her from the despair of knowing her older brother is currently undergoing a training arc for the unique and exclusive purpose of having a better sex life. That is, like about ninety-five percent of people who undergo training arcs.
  
  Which is a relief. It means there aren"t enough world-ending threats to bring business to the local gym.
  
  "Right. Tie it is." I desperately try to steer the topic back to safer waters after an uncomfortably long time staring into increasingly dead eyes that should never be allowed near sharp objects.
  
  "Yes. Tie. It will make everything easier." And Komachi"s wide smile reminds me that safer waters can still have sharks in them.
  
  "You are talking about the date, right? You aren"t speaking about the tie being functionally a very fashionable noose, are you?"
  
  "Of course, big brother. Of course." No, sharks don"t have that many teeth.
  
  "That isn"t clarifying the issue. At all."
  
  "Of course, big brother. Of course." At this point, battle-maniac ninja sharks would be an improvement. Especially because of how stupid their bandaged swords are. A sword with a booboo is not that intimidating, you know?
  
  Right, time to take action.
  
  No, deep-voiced bastard, I didn"t mean you. I am not stupid enough to let you near my little sister.
  
  With a sigh that is only partly affectation, I drop the tie over my chair and sit on my bed beside Komachi, draping an almost casual arm over her shoulder. After a while, she leans on me, her head coming to rest on my chest as I embrace her more fully.
  
  "Tell me what"s wrong," I ask of her.
  
  "I don"t want you to be hurt," she murmurs, her face nuzzling into my shirt.
  
  "That"s what living is, Komachi. No way to avoid it." "Not without going the yandere route and ensuring nobody but you is allowed to harm me," I carefully don"t add.
  
  "But you can... I"m not as smart as you, and I always feel dumb when I try to help you, but I-"
  
  "No. None of that. You are wonderful, the best sister I could have had."
  
  "You just say that because you take care of me, if I-"
  
  "If you had been the older one, I would be clinging to your skirt and desperately trying to keep all the pests away so my cool older sister would still pay me attention."
  
  "... That"s gross. Cute. But gross."
  
  "An improvement from the usual?"
  
  "I don"t think so! Now I want my own mini-Hachiman following me around like a dumb puppy, but that would mean you having kids, and that would mean-gack! Gross!"
  
  "... Komachi, you are officially no longer the sane sibling."
  
  "You mean I was? Why did nobody tell me?!"
  
  "Have you seen the competition?"
  
  "Oh. Right." Ah! It hurts! Your soft, compassionate look hurts!
  
  "So... Feeling better?" I hopefully ask that damning, saintly smile.
  
  "I... Not really. I don"t know many things, but... Look, I like Ms. Hiratsuka, all right? This isn"t about that. I know she"s a good person that has had a lot of bad luck, and I would like to be happy for her, but..."
  
  "But she"s older." "Older," not "old." Aren"t you glad I added the qualifier, Ms. Hiratsuka? Aren"t you happy enough not to glare at me like I just stole your last ramen bowl?
  
  "She is. A lot. You... It will be so hard! And it"s your first relationship, and you are already doing weird things, like... ugh, like involving other women, and I know you are not a dumb, horny boy who is doing it all just for the sex, so I know you care about them, and relationships are hard when it"s just one person, so how can I ever be sure you are all right when I know you will happily tear yourself apart for any of them? It"s too much, brother, just too much. Wouldn"t you be happier if you and Yukino finally-" I place a finger on her lips before she says too much. Because she already has, I already am reeling from all of that, but that final line... That should not be crossed.
  
  "I don"t have an easy answer, Komachi, but... Right, here"s the hard one."
  
  "I swear if that"s a sex joke, Komachi is going to make sure they never find your body, brother," she grumbles, her face once again buried into my chest like a particularly tsundere kitten. Ah, how soothing it is to know that Komachi"s cuteness remains a constant in uncertain times. I wonder if we could replace the ever-fluctuating gold standard with something far more precious and reliable?
  
  "No jokes, I swear," and won"t that be a hard promise to keep? "It"s just... I love Shizu."
  
  "That... Doesn"t seem like a particularly hard answer, brother." Ah, how adorable is her frowning face looking up at me as I ruffle her hair and she nuzzles into my hand while faking discomfort.
  
  No, I am not using my sister"s superlative cuteness as a mental escape from the hardships on the road ahead. That"s preposterous. I am a very responsible person who never shirks nor creatively interprets his duties, you know?
  
  "You are doing it again, aren"t you brother?"
  
  "I don"t have a clue what you are talking about." Ah, how cute is her disappointed sigh as she contemplates whether I am actually adopted. Wait, no, the not-blood-related route is a definite pass. That way lies madness.
  
  More of it, I mean.
  
  "Tell me," she asks. And I need to answer her and drop the pretense, because what else can I do when my cute younger sister asks me something?
  
  "I love Shizu... And Iroha. And Yui. And Yukino. And I may even tolerate Haruno, if I have a good priest on speed-dial."
  
  "... You have ten seconds to clarify that, harem-trash-brother."
  
  "There are... different kinds of love. Or so I am given to understand. It"s not about "more" or "less," it"s about each person and the way you connect. I could have had a relationship, a monogamous, normal one, with... a younger girl. I can... easily imagine that, and I won"t say I haven"t in the past, but now... There are other... Shizu. I want Shizu, and I can"t imagine a future without her in it. But Shizu is complicated, maybe even more than I am, and I think part of that is that she won"t let herself be happy as long as she feels she"s taking something away from others. She needs to give, and if I try to be the only one with her, she will feel she"s... Harming me." I look at Komachi"s wide eyes. It"s not that she doesn"t understand what I am trying to tell her, it"s that... I don"t think she has ever seen me like this. Dissecting the problems that lie at the hearts of people, acting toward the optimal solution that nobody else would ever consider. I have never been like this with her. I never needed to. "Shizu tried to convince me to pursue another girl, to forget about her and go out with someone you... are likely thinking of. What does that tell you about her?"
  
  Komachi looks into my eyes, her apprehension long melted into a sadness I hate to see, yet need to be there.
  
  "That she"s self-sacrificing. That she will do something stupid to put the happiness of others above hers. That she... You are far too similar, brother. Are you sure that"s love and not narcissism?" she says, and I chuckle in a way I hope doesn"t make her cringe.
  
  "I am. I have known her for long enough to see our differences, and I love her far more because of them."
  
  "... Too sappy, brother."
  
  "Keep that up, and I am taking my Card Captor Sakura collection back."
  
  "No! I need to see how much of the homo-erotic tension actually pays off!"
  
  "... Komachi, your big brother needs you to make a promise to him. If you fulfill it, it will earn you a lot of Komachi points."
  
  "What is it?" She asks, cutely tilting her head in a way I dearly hope Iroha doesn"t learn to copy.
  
  "Never, ever," I shudder at the dread name of my most fearsome classmate, "befriend Hina Ebina."
  
  One fujoshi hounding me is one too many already.
  
  ***
  
  Hours later, I am in front of the station, fiddling with my white tie as I try not to Carradine myself in public (nor in private-my sexual life is already adventurous enough, no matter how ridiculous it is for a virgin to think so). It"s about twenty minutes before the agreed-upon time, and I am cursing my stupid eagerness, because now I have to wait till the time Shizu decides it is fashionable to show up and have me tell her how long I have not been waiting. Also, I am getting increasingly nervous with every minute that passes, because I am used to being right on time (that is, at least five minutes late), and not having people be there when I arrive is weird.
  
  To summarize: some people have first date jitters, while I apparently have anxiety attacks.
  
  And I swear this trice damned piece of pretentious string is trying to murder me. Probably a disguised henchman from Yukinoshita making sure I don"t survive to see the end of our duel. Ah, your expected treachery behooves you, Yukinoshita. You truly were Haruno"s sister, after all.
  
  "Ah, did you... wait long?" A soft voice asks from behind me.
  
  All right, Hachiman, no matter how long you think you have been monologuing at yourself in increasingly dumb tangents, you know it"s still twenty minutes before eight o"clock.
  
  You know no woman would ever show up that early to meet you. That"s just not the established pattern-I mean, protocol.
  
  So, don"t make a fool of yourself, just turn around nonchalantly to make sure it"s not actually Shizu asking you if you have been waiting too long when it"s not even-
  
  It"s not Shizu.
  
  No, it can"t be Shizu.
  
  The woman in front of me is wearing a dark blue dress that leaves her shoulders bare, a sheer, creamy shawl wrapped over her toned arms that are, inadvertently (I think), pushing her breasts together so they strain the straight line of her strapless neckline and leave just a hint of the delightful vertical line hiding under it. She"s wearing heels decorated with a single whorl of black sequins that do wonders for a pair of gorgeous legs that are left bare until just below her knee, where a flared skirt cruelly hides the shape of her thighs from me. Her ears are decorated with dangling earrings with a glittering square of onyx that matches her choker, and her hair is pulled up into a high ponytail to leave her neck and its decoration available for my eyes to feast on the slender lines.
  
  "Hachi?" The wonderful, delightful vision asks.
  
  "Glarble nargle," I answer with charm and aplomb.
  
  "Did... Are you all right?" she asks as she approaches me and tenderly cradles my cheek.
  
  "Glurg?" I reassure her.
  
  "Are you... joking now? Is that it? I knew Iroha was pulling a prank, no way I look good in-"
  
  Ah. Iroha. Makeover. Sanity.
  
  Yes, that makes far more sense than me being in a world where Shizuka Hiratsuka knows how to take advantage of her superlative charms yet remains single.
  
  Now, what should I do when confronted with a flustered Christmas Cake who is quickly devolving into an incoherent, rambling mess?
  
  Of course.
  
  Clasping the hand caressing my face with my own, I take a step forward, my chest pressing against her far more impressive one, and rest my other hand on the small of her back. Shizu lets out a small gasp at the sudden pressure on that sensitive part of her anatomy (the three of them) and looks down into my eyes just in time for me to lean forward and taste another sensitive part of her.
  
  Our lips barely brush against each other, the slight contact enough to make my heart race, and her eyes widen before she closes them and rests her weight against me.
  
  And so, with her body losing strength between my arms, with the heat of her skin soaking into mine, with the fragrance of her subtle perfume swirling in intoxicating whorls around my mind, I kiss Shizu in earnest. Uncaring of how frowned upon public displays of affection usually are, because Iroha"s masterpiece deserves my full, unreserved attention.
  
  Though I can"t help but notice she didn"t manage to make her change her cherry lip gloss...
  
  
  ============
  ============
  
  
  Author's note: the next chapter is available for €3 at my Patreon. It will become free when I post the next-next chapter.
  
  Right, I am going to crash, because tonight's chapter just didn't want to be finished (insert sex joke here). Sorry about not answering the messages, tomorrow (or later today) I will give them the consideration they are due (fan art, can't believe I have one of those).
  
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  Threadmarks: All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 12
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  Agrippa
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  All right! Fine! I will take you! - Chapter 12
  
  Mangas with a romance subplot quite often have a defining scene: the male lead, forced by some set of circumstances that clearly indicate there"s a malevolent intelligence at work guiding his fate (something that maybe the likes of Zaimokuza would term as the dreaded "editors"), ends up attending a ball, reception, masquerade or whatever else Westerners think makes a good excuse for having girls in backless dresses. He"s dressed in a tuxedo that will usually have been either stolen or borrowed (or, not unlikely at all, been in the closet of a teenager who clearly hasn"t attended a formal occasion in his whole life) yet fits him like a glove, sometimes under the pretense to camouflage himself as part of the staff to enter a high society setting in which he clearly doesn"t belong. There, he will see the heroine dressed in a way that showcases her beauty in such a way he won"t even recognize her at first, showing once again how utterly uninterested he actually is in her, and, when he finally does put a name to the pair of walking tits in the most sleazy way possible, he will begin to realize his "true" feelings, usually by blushing, having his heart go "doki doki," and any other number of ways authors come up to tell the reader that, yes, that character is having a monstrous erection, but we aren"t allowed to show it in Shounen Jump.
  
  They will dance, sometimes wearing masks so that the girl doesn"t recognize him (which is, again, not the most ethical way to go about dating) and, through the course of a scene that works by putting them in an unfamiliar setting, wearing exotic clothes designed to make them as attractive as possible, and forcing them to be closer to one another than they have ever been if the manga isn"t a battle shounen, they will end up the evening advancing their relationship, usually with a dramatic reveal of some kind (sometimes one-sided, especially if there are masks in play) that is written in such a way as to make the reader think of Cinderella or some other such classic tale.
  
  The scene is usually gorgeous, and a good way for the animation studio to blow their budget as they try to showcase the fairy tale feeling of the whole encounter through wide angles that show the wide palace-like setting filled to the brim with dancing couples wearing enough jewelry to make a supervillain robbery actually profitable.
  
  It is, of course, an awful lie.
  
  Not like that should come as a surprise, at this point.
  
  "So... Maybe I should have thought this through in advance?" I ask, in what I hope isn"t an audible cringe.
  
  "Uh? Why?" Shizu asks, slurping up a few noodles in a way that it is a small miracle her gorgeous dress doesn"t get stained.
  
  "Because you are dressed in a way that is making the chef drop his ladle every ten seconds, all of the customers are looking at us, and I flinch in horror whenever a drop of broth so much as even comes close to marring your creamy shawl. Not to mention that dress is going to need a lot of airing by the time we leave this place."
  
  "I... I don"t know, I feel like maybe I should have made a reservation. You look far too beautiful." "For this place," I don"t add, because that chef looks like he knows how to handle his knife. "And in general," I also don"t add.
  
  Because of nerves, all right? I still am technically a virgin on his first date that isn"t a "hilarious" misunderstanding with Iroha that I am suddenly reframing because-focus.
  
  I am still a teenage virgin boy taking out his first crush on a date. I am allowed to be nervous.
  
  Shut up, deep-voiced bastard. That wasn"t an invitation.
  
  "Uh... Thank you..." Shizu fidgets while intently staring at her lap and blushing in a way that shows even through what it"s taken me too long to identify as carefully applied makeup.
  
  Iroha, I am, once again, in awe of your skills. Teach me your ways, oh kitsune spirit given human flesh.
  
  Wait, aren"t kitsunes shape-shifters? Is Iroha hiding her true nature, a pair of cute, fuzzy ears, and the legendary fluffy tail enshrined in myth and song?
  
  And if not, should I buy her a cosplay-not the time.
  
  What it is time for is to feast my eyes not on the dense broth of my second bowl of tonkatsu ramen, but on the bashful, beautiful woman squirming in front of me.
  
  ... I may be an S. This may also not be a dramatic revelation.
  
  "Hey, you know I love you as you are, right?" I decide to break the silence with light conversation.
  
  "Uh, I, I don"t know why you-how do you say that so easily?"
  
  "Because you need to hear it."
  
  And now she glares. Or tries to, because it comes across more like a pout.
  
  "But really, you don"t need to force yourself."
  
  "I really don"t know what you are talking about, Hi-Hachi." Nice save, Shizu.
  
  "Getting a makeover like that and then coming to a place like-" I throw a furtive glance at the burly cook who seems to acknowledge my predicament with a manly nod, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Thank you Mister Cook, your gruff, bear-fighting exterior belies a teddy bear interior. Hopefully, one that isn"t a fan of the Ace Attorney games. "Like this."
  
  "Ah..." And she"s fidgeting once again. I should have brought a camera. Or an Iroha.
  
  "I don"t think it"s that unusual-" I stop her lie with a serious look. Which I didn"t know I could do, but it"s a Hell of a rush to learn I can.
  
  "Shizu..." Right, time to use my logician powers for good. "You know perfectly well what kind of setting your attire implies-it"s the kind where people frown at you if you don"t tip enough to pay for a menu at a saner place. So, if you did know, because you aren"t as bad at this as you are trying to appear, it means this was a deliberate choice. A choice to go to a place that was familiar to you, that you associate with ease, a place we both have already come together to. In other words: you were nervous about our date."
  
  "... You could have just said that without the whole preamble, you know? Nobody likes a show-off."
  
  "I seem to remember a test correction telling me to show my work."
  
  "That meant you had to at least pretend to have done some work."
  
  "Ah, I see, so you were preparing me for the real world."
  
  And she half chuckles, half sighs, finally taking a long gulp of her beer just to end the dispute between the two reactions.
  
  "I think I ended up doing too good a job of it."
  
  "And by "good," you mean "thorough,"" I say, my foot softly dragging up across the back of her leg as she lets out a sharp breath.
  
  "Hachi... What are we doing?" Her hand clasps the napkin tightly enough it"s quite clear she isn"t thinking of using it.
  
  So I take mine and use the excuse to lightly dab at her gorgeous lips, coming close enough to her that I can whisper so that nobody hears us.
  
  "Learning. Because nobody said this would be easy, but that"s not something neither Iroha nor I care about. You are stuck with us, Shizu. We aren"t letting go."
  
  And she looks at me, like a small animal caught in the gaze of something bigger and with far too many teeth. Thankfully, she isn"t a blonde magical girl with a penchant for losing her head.
  
  Ouch. That one still hurts.
  
  "I wasn"t aware I was signing up for a package deal," she says, trying not to act bashfully and failing dreadfully at it.
  
  She even reaches up to her ear to brush back hair that isn"t there due to the ponytail Iroha has forced on her. She ends up hesitating and playing with her dangling, onyx earring, blushing and looking down and to the side while throwing occasional, shy glances in my direction.
  
  I feel like this would be an appropriate time to start screaming "moe" at the top of my lungs while rolling on the ground, but I would better refresh my studies on etiquette and protocol. Just in case.
  
  Wouldn"t want to come across as uncultured.
  
  "Shizu..." I look down at my almost empty second bowl and at her assorted set of salty snacks and almost empty third bowl. "Let"s get out of here."
  
  Still playing with her earring, she nods.
  
  And I try not to giggle at her pained grimace when her gesture makes her pull too hard on her earring.
  
  ***
  
  After far too much arguing for my tolerance of public scenes, I manage to pay for both our meals (forgive me, Zaimokuza, it looks like I"ll be joining you in the simping ranks-do as I say, not as I do). From the ramen place it"s a short walk to the park where, if hentai has taught me anything, every tree will be hiding either a loving couple getting far too amorous in public, or a heartbroken man spying on his childhood friend getting stolen away from him. Ganbare, NTR-kun, there are plenty more fish in the sea. Just make sure you actually try to fish next time instead of watching in sorrow as the fishing industry builds a fish farm.
  
  It"s not long after we enter the silent place that I grab Shizu"s hand and interlock our fingers. I am kinky like that.
  
  Shizu is, once again, blushing up a storm, a look that I enjoy far too much for her health. That is: I won"t stop doing my best to see it on her face.
  
  "So. Package deal," she says, once again trying to play at nonchalance. And failing miserably.
  
  "Iroha didn"t tell you?"
  
  "Tell me what?" Oh, that was far too sharp a response. And now she"s glaring at me.
  
  "Well, I spoke with her this morning..." And I pull on Shizu"s hand, almost twirling her as I force her to face me, the slight incline of the path making our eyes level. "We set up some rules."
  
  "Rules?" Her fingers clench mine, a message I don"t quite understand, but I hope I will disprove.
  
  "Just one, actually: I am with you."
  
  "That"s... not a rule." And gorgeous bashfulness assaults me again, her eyes still locked on mine even as her head tilts down. And the way her irises shine under her long eyelashes is far too unfair.
  
  "It is. Because it means that whatever Iroha ends up being-and that"s a discussion we three should have before long-she won"t be a substitute. She is Iroha. You are Shizu. And, apparently, you are ours."
  
  She pauses, looking at me in bewilderment as her fingers slacken.
  
  "You two are impossible."
  
  "I don"t think so, I think we are fairly normal," I lie through my teeth.
  
  "Ha. Ha. Ha." Apparently, I am not a very convincing liar. That just shows how honest and straightforward my usual self is.
  
  "No, I mean, it"s just that you..." I take another step forward, our chests pressed as they were at the start of our date. "Are worth the impossible." I finish with a cocky smirk that would likely have Komachi scream "gross" at the top of her lungs.
  
  And she kisses me.
  
  Oi, Shizu, the script said I should be the one taking your breath away after a line like that. I feel thoroughly befuddled at this role reversal, and I will have to speak with my agent.
  
  Her hands tangle through my hair as mine grasp her waist, our bodies almost melding as our lips open and our tongues entangle. I taste the hint of cherry from her lip gloss, the salty broth of ramen, the bitter taste of beer. All those things careful, attentive lovers are supposed to wash away before trying to kiss someone.
  
  I don"t care. They are Shizu. And I devour them.
  
  Without breaking our kiss, we end up drifting off the path and into the thick woods where the light of the streetlamps doesn"t reach fully. Her heels sink into the soft grass, and I hold her steady through our trek. It"s still easier than rushing up a flight of stairs, so I guess my practice is paying off.
  
  Finally, our wandering comes to an end as Shizu almost slams me against the trunk of a thick tree that should keep us hidden from anyone but the most devoted of heartbroken childhood friends.
  
  And if Shizu has one of those, he deserves everything that"s going to happen.
  
  NTR is a shit fetish, but some people just ask for it.
  
  "I love you," I say once again.
  
  "If you are just saying that to get into my panties... Hell, it"s already worked."
  
  I look at her, hurt in spite of myself, because I recognize where this is coming from, because I know, and know how hurt she"s already been. So, it"s not only my own reaction at her joking accusation, but...
  
  She hugs me. Tightly, her body trembling.
  
  "I am sorry. I am so sorry. Please don"t hate me."
  
  So I swallow my bile, and hug her back, just as tightly, trying to calm her down.
  
  "I just said pretty much the opposite, haven"t I ? Just how fickle do you think I am, woman?"
  
  "Not at all," she says, kissing up my neck and my jaw in a way that"s far too desperate to be arousing. "You aren"t. You are loyal, devoted, decisive. You are..."
  
  And Shizu"s hands grab my cheeks, forcing me to look straight into tearful eyes.
  
  "You are..."
  
  She stops, visibly swallowing, as I hate myself just a bit for thinking how beautiful she looks with her glittering, unshed tears.
  
  "I... I love you. Hachi."
  
  And she leans forward, soft lips once again capturing my own, once again of her own initiative rather than following my lead.
  
  And her words sink in.
  
  It"s... the first time.
  
  And words are worthless, inadequate, never approaching what a genuine connection should be, what unreserved sharing of each other should always be in a world where masks and deceit are unnecessary, but...
  
  It"s the first time. The first time she has told me.
  
  I could cry.
  
  And, as thin wetness flows between our faces, as the sharp intrusion of salt colors our kiss, I realize I am. We are.
  
  And the world fades away.
  
  There is only the soft body of the woman wrapped in my arms, the smooth texture of her dress, the ghostly feeling of her shawl swaying in the breeze, the taste of tears and ramen and beer, tobacco surprisingly absent.
  
  Legs entangled with mine, their bare skin gliding against my pants. Almost smooth bark pressing on my back, the scent of dark soil only enhancing jasmine with a hint of citrus.
  
  And lips so soft that, no matter how hard we press against one another, still slide effortlessly, always seeking more and more contact before our tongues come into play, coaxing one another, going from her mouth to mine in a dance I can"t even begin to comprehend even as I follow it flawlessly.
  
  And, finally, after a lifetime full of Shizu, the very small corner of the world she occupies, and nothing else, we break apart.
  
  "I... That"s the first time," is the only thing I can say, as my lungs burn and I desperately fill them with air that, sadly, only slightly smells of her.
  
  Her hands rest at the sides of my head, reminding me of that fateful try at a kabedon what seems like ages ago.
  
  "I know. I tried so hard not to tell you." She looks at me, regretful, both for having waited so long and for not having managed to keep holding back. I reach up to her cheek, my thumb tracing a perfectly highlighted cheekbone that shows Iroha"s skills as much as the beauty of its owner.
  
  "I know." And I lean forward and kiss her again. Shorter, barely a brush.
  
  Still wonderful.
  
  Her forehead comes forward to rest against mine, her eyes never leaving my own. Not now. Not after that.
  
  "I want to be your first."
  
  I choke on my tongue.
  
  "Now?!" I will my eyes to ask as I try to avoid a "do not go into the light" scene.
  
  She chuckles, her fingers tangling through my hair in what I am beginning to understand is one of her favorite ways to show intimacy.
  
  Still not helping me with my survival, but nice to know, nonetheless.
  
  "Well... it"s a bit ridiculous that you are still a virgin after having a threesome, isn"t it?" Finally! Someone gets it!
  
  And Shizu pushes away from me as I more or less go back to being at least as functional as Tobe. That is, just good enough to survive, as long as no complex mental tasks challenge my regained ability to breathe like something that crawled out of the sea a bare minimum of two generations ago.
  
  She is blushing once again, her eyeliner just slightly smudged by our crying session (seriously, I will need to have Iroha give makeup lessons to Komachi-on second thought, no, the pests would only get even more persistent), and...
  
  Oh.
  
  She... she just hitched the sides of her skirt, and it looks like...
  
  Yes, she"s shimmying down. And stepping out of her panties. And dangling them from her finger as she offers them to me.
  
  Deep-voiced bastard? Any suggestions?
  
  ...
  
  Oi, don"t desert me in my hour of need, you damn bastard-oh, right. It was in the name.
  
  Mouth suddenly dry after having coughed up too much saliva, I take the offered garment with nerveless fingers. Shizu is smiling at me, flushed and fidgeting in expectation and-
  
  Oh.
  
  Very deliberately, looking for any signs I am misreading her hint, I bring the black piece of silk to my nose and take what I intend to be a slight whiff, but ends up taking far longer as Shizu"s eyes eagerly watch my reaction.
  
  It... It is a scent I have already learned after I so memorably and thoroughly got acquainted with it on Shizu"s couch and under Haruno"s watchful gaze.
  
  Which should scare me far more than it does. I guess it"s true that sexual arousal increases risk-taking behavior.
  
  "Well?" she asks, a hint of impishness at seeing how utterly at her mercy I currently am.
  
  "Well?" I ask, voice hoarse, pants agonizingly tight.
  
  "Your first time, Hachi. Will you give it to me?" She doesn"t approach, content to keep her distance while I so desperately crave to feel her skin once again.
  
  "Of course I will," and she lights up. "But not today." And she frowns.
  
  "I... I don"t care about rose petals or soft music. It will be special just because it"s you," She twists her body, once again fidgeting with an earring whose glitter is far too reminiscent of her unshed tears just minutes ago. Iroha, you have incredible taste. I mean, you are with Shizu, so that"s a given.
  
  Wait, you are also with me.
  
  ...
  
  Let"s just say the jury is still out on that one.
  
  Hopefully, not an Ace Attorney jury.
  
  "Good to know," I finally say. "But... it"s not about that."
  
  "What is it then?"
  
  "I don"t... All right, this is stupid, and you are likely to get it wrong, so promise me you won"t punch me till I finish explaining," I half-joke, trying not to make this appear more serious than it is.
  
  "I promise not to punch you unless you piss me off," she jokes back. I hope.
  
  "I..." Come on, you already have your Christmas Cake"s panties in your literal grasp, the hard part should already be over. "I don"t want to lose my virginity until I deal with Yui and Yukino."
  
  I look away, like a coward, but I have already said it.
  
  "Explain." Her voice is carefully neutral, and I don"t know what her expression is like.
  
  "I... Made a promise. To Komachi, to Haruno, to myself. I promised I would take care of them. And I... until I fulfill that promise, I don"t want to.. cross that line. It would feel too much like a betrayal, and I don"t want the first time I am with you to be stained by that. I want you and only you to be on my mind, I want it to be a time where I can say that Shizuka Hiratsuka is the only woman who-"
  
  And soft lips cut off my increasingly rambling tirade, for which I am grateful.
  
  Mostly because it"s not a literal gut punch.
  
  "And... where would that leave Iroha?"
  
  "Knowing her? Filming the whole thing." And she chuckles. Which is weird, because I wasn"t joking.
  
  Ah, well, I will take the win.
  
  "You are stupidly noble, you know?" Her arms surround my neck, her hands clasped behind my nape as she smiles at me
  
  "I had a great role model." And I kiss her. Because I feel like I haven"t been taking the initiative as much as I should.
  
  She blushes once again, as weak to compliments as ever. Something Iroha and I will have to take merciless advantage of, because I can"t stand somebody else doing it, and we need her to develop some kind of resistance as soon as possible.
  
  Also, because I can"t stand how cute she looks when she"s caught off guard by a line like this. Moe, indeed.
  
  Finally, a hand on my chest lightly pushes me away while a slender arm wraps around my waist.
  
  "I think such strength of character deserves... a reward," she says. And then she spins me around.
  
  I am facing the tree I had been leaning against, and Shizu is...
  
  One hand is resting against the bark of the... eucalyptus. How out of it have I been that I didn"t notice this was a eucalyptus until now?
  
  Never mind, completely unimportant. What actually matters is...
  
  Wow.
  
  Shizu is bent over, her gorgeous rear-end pushing against her skirt and lightly swaying side to side as her weight rests against the tree trunk and her heels make it look like she is on her tiptoes. When she is sure that my eyes are locked on what is physiologically impossible for them to not be locked on, the playful hand that has been swishing her hemline... pulls up.
  
  And now I am staring at Shizu"s uncovered bottom, her lips glistening in the low light that still reaches us, her skirt flipped and bunched around her slim waist.
  
  "I just... I just told you... You are making it very hard for me to stick to my decisions, woman."
  
  "Diagram number three, remember?"
  
  I look at Shizu"s ass swaying from side to side in front of me, her hips drawing an elongated, and very appropriate, infinity sign with their motion.
  
  "No," I reply with utmost sincerity. And she chuckles.
  
  "I don"t know whether to be frustrated or flattered. It was the one that said that penetration is not necessary for... you know." And she bashfully looks down. While baring her naked lower half in the middle of a public park and reminding me about the thorough sex-ed lesson that ended in an impromptu yet somehow chaste threesome.
  
  Great. Now I am even more turned on. Why do I do this to myself?
  
  Shizu sways her hips once again. Ah. Right.
  
  That"s why.
  
  Almost hesitating, I pocket the panties that I had somehow managed to forget about and...
  
  Well, I guess I...
  
  Damn it, why is this more embarrassing without another girl watching me?!
  
  "Don"t just unzip. It will hurt if you leave them on. And I am..." She looks at the trunk with suspicious intent before she mutters the rest of the line. "Likely to, uh, stain them."
  
  That does it.
  
  I undo my belt, zipper, and button in less time than it takes for me to name them and drop my pants and underwear to my ankles, only briefly stopping to maneuver my far too hard member through the treasonous clothing.
  
  And then I am standing behind Shizu, one hand clenching one of the incredibly tempting globes of elastic flesh she has been recklessly tempting me with, their firm softness captivating as my fingers sink on pale, smooth skin, and my other hand takes my member and points it at-
  
  Uh, I mean, below. Below her glistening, only partially open, incredibly tempting lips. I get closer, so close I can feel heat emanating in waves from her as my tip rests for a fraction of a second over them.
  
  And Shizu grabs me.
  
  "It would be so easy to pull you forward... To make you take me, once and for all." She says with a voice that has a hint of fever in its flowing cadence.
  
  "It would be..." I can"t help but confirm, both hands sinking into deliriously welcoming flesh, and Shizu moans.
  
  "You are making this so hard..."
  
  "Not half as hard as you are making me..."
  
  And she grunts at that, her hand rubbing the head of my cock up and down her lips, gathering her moisture on me with each bolt of sensation that rushes up my spine.
  
  Finally, her hand stops.
  
  "Do you trust me, Hachi?"
  
  "Always," I reply, eyes clenched close with as much strength as my hands grasp a piece of blasphemous Heaven.
  
  "Then push forward."
  
  And I do.
  
  Her wetness helps me glide almost effortlessly before soft muscle tightens around me and stops me, surrounded by warmth and smooth skin.
  
  I open my eyes, and I admire the sight of my member buried in Shizu"s thigh gap, the lips of her vagina spread open on top of my member as she shudders.
  
  "I want you so much..." She murmurs, looking at me over her shoulder, her ponytail already messy, draped over her other shoulder and almost reaching the ground.
  
  I switch my grasp, take her hips, and pull her against me with all the strength my incomplete training arc affords me. Her ass claps against my pelvis, waves of impact delightfully traveling up from where our bodies meet, and she throws her head back as she bites her lip.
  
  "I-Hachi, I-"
  
  I move back, making sure to drag the top of my member against where her clitoris is, stealing her words away as she gives me a heated look that, just by itself, would make all of this worth it.
  
  The pleasure of her warmth, her skin, her scent, her touch... They just make the experience go from something I desperately want to something I need.
  
  I start moving back and forth, allowing Shizu to lead me, to guide me with her hand if our unsteady situation requires it, and she plays with me, the tips of her fingers flirting with my glans every time I emerge from the gap below the place I so desperately want to bury myself in.
  
  All the while, my hands are busy exploring the incredibly attractive woman who just offered her everything to me. I am not disappointed.
  
  I thought I already knew Shizu"s body. After all, this will be our fourth sexual encounter, but every time, each and every time, I find another detail to get captivated by: a line of freckles that seem to point at the dimple over her left cheek, a twitch of her right thigh when my fingers trail the line where leg meets hip, the swaying of her spine when my pelvis grinds against hers...
  
  I could spend a lifetime studying her, and it wouldn"t be enough.
  
  "Stop... staring..." she pants out, forcing herself to stop biting her already puffy lips.
  
  "Never," and her thighs clench tightly around me when she hears my low growl, almost stopping my thrust but turning it into an intense experience that makes the both of us gasp.
  
  "You... I am not..."
  
  "You told Iroha... About feeling attractive. Do you Shizu? Do you feel attractive when I devour you with my eyes as I rub my cock against you, barely holding myself back from thrusting inside you until your eyes roll back? Until I force you to scream my name?" Oi, deep-voiced bastard. Nice to see you back, we missed you while you were gone.
  
  And Shizu whines.
  
  "I do... Gods, I do... Hachi, you make me feel..."
  
  "Like a beautiful woman. Like an attractive woman. Like someone who is desired, craved after." And I lean forward, my body lying on her own, my hand finally traveling up to squeeze those marvelous breasts of hers whose cleavage I have tried not to stare at through our whole dinner. And then, my voice almost a growl, I whisper into her ear. "Like a loved woman. Because that"s the woman you are, Shizu." I bite her neck, barely keeping myself from marking her. "My woman. The woman I love."
  
  And I push forward, grinding my pubic bone into her sex, the root of my cock against her clitoris.
  
  And Shizu almost yelps as she spasmodically clenches around me, as she drenches me with her honey, as I watch how gorgeous she looks when I make her come.
  
  And I can"t hold it anymore.
  
  I take half a step back, my hand flying to my exposed member almost too slow, and I point it at the far too enticing derriere that shows red marks where I have grasped it too tightly.
  
  And I erupt over it.
  
  This time, as jet after jet of rushing pleasure shoots out of me and paints Shizu"s skin, my thoughts completely blank out.
  
  But, when I regain my sense, when I watch a panting, reddened Shizu hang her head down while she supports herself against the eucalyptus with both arms, her torso appealingly straight and tense, as I watch my seed drip down her cheeks, reaching her thighs and thankfully avoiding her center, I somehow regain enough mental power to think one last thing.
  
  Thank heavens Iroha"s lewd commentary wasn"t here to make this even more intense.
  
  ...
  
  Maybe next time we"ll call her.
  
  ***
  
  Wiping my seed off Shizu"s jiggling derriere with my tissues feels almost sacrilegious, as if I am destroying a work of art.
  
  That may be a bit overly dramatic. After all, I can always do it again.
  
  ...
  
  On second thought, wiping her is a marvelous thing and should be done quickly and expediently.
  
  "How long do you plan to take? I don"t feel dirty at all."
  
  "I am going to guess you didn"t purposefully set up such a wonderful line."
  
  "... You are terrible."
  
  "You sure? Well, I guess I will need to start practicing, though you seemed to enjoy it."
  
  "Wha-I didn"t-" And she looks at me with a grumpy face, finally deciding that yes, her derriere is as pristine as it is going to get without a shower, and she straightens up, letting her skirt fall down, covering her thighs and everything else that brings joy and light to a world where Konosuba still hasn"t announced its next season"s release date.
  
  "Stop pouting."
  
  "Right, sorry, it"s just..." I lift my eyes only to find that hint of impishness on her smile. Great. It is confirmed.
  
  Iroha is contagious.
  
  "Well, I guess I should-" I start taking her panties out of my pocket when a slender, far too graceful hand that just recently was sticky with my precum locks around my wrist.
  
  "Keep them," she says, her smile more nervous than playful.
  
  "Uh?" I coherently express my slight uncertainty at this unforeseen development.
  
  "Keep them, I... I never thought I... I think it will be... fun? A keepsake? But only for a while."
  
  "A while?" I ask, far more gracefully and coherently than she is coming across. Really, for an experienced teacher, she sometimes sucks at explaining things.
  
  Or sucks when she explains things.
  
  Or explains to Iroha how to suck things.
  
  Or...
  
  For fuck"s sake! I just had intercrural sex; I don"t need this hormone soup!
  
  "A while." Her eyes show some kind of determination. "Until you solve things with Yukino and Yui."
  
  What-
  
  Oh.
  
  Oh.
  
  "It won"t be long. I promise." And I take her hand as I pocket the, quite likely, most wholesomely offered pair of panties in recorded history.
  
  And her fingers interlock with mine, likely squeezing as she pulls me toward the light of the path we fled from mere minutes ago.
  
  "I don"t care, Hachi," she says, her smile radiant, beautiful, freer than I have seen in months. "I will wait."
  
  
  ===========
  ===========
  
  As it turns out, when Hachiman says it won't be long, he fucking means it. Couldn't let me stretch things out, could you? Do you think plot points grow on trees? Do you?!
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 13
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  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 13
  
  Pop quiz! Let"s say you are confronted by a being of incomprehensible power and values completely alien (when not outright inimical) to your own that tells you "Do you want to make a contract?" with a voice that is most definitely not wondering whether you want to build a snowman. What do you do?
  
  If your answer is "Run away screaming at the top of my lungs like a sane person," congratulations, you will forever remain unemployed.
  
  Society is built on contracts, on the willing acceptance of conditions inflicted upon those who sign them to the benefit of those who offer them. It is a fact engrained upon the collective unconscious of mankind that they are not to be trusted. Indeed , long before anime became enlightened as to the true horror from beyond the stars that lies at the heart of each and every contract, Westerners had long decreed that Faustian deals were never a thing one should engage in. Faustian is an ancient German word, by the way. I think it means "legally binding."
  
  "I am half-tempted to guess what you are thinking about," Haruno says, a few papers spread in front of her and a coffee cup partially hiding her sempiternal half-smirk.
  
  Because of course I decided it would be a good idea to do this in public. With witnesses and all that.
  
  "You have read far too much Sherlock Holmes if you think that"s even remotely doable." She quirks an eyebrow at that.
  
  "A fan of the classics, are you?"
  
  "Of course. Detective Conan, specifically." And she sniggers at my (half) joking reply.
  
  "Well, if you want to play my Watson... You first looked nervously as I read this letter, then, when I was only halfway through, you looked at me. You didn"t see any gesture of disapproval, so you allowed yourself to relax, which in your case always means retreating into your inner monologue, which is no doubt full of the references you only occasionally let yourself say out loud. In this case, the references should be about... deals? Maybe bargains? How am I doing so far?"
  
  "If all this is a prelude to telling me that we should become roommates who have a vaguely homoerotic relationship, wonderfully. Except for the part where we are different genders."
  
  She laughs. Of course she does.
  
  "Certainly, that is something we would need to work on. How do you feel about crossdressing?"
  
  "I feel that Ebina is currently wondering why her panties are so suddenly drenched."
  
  "Stop, stop! My penis can only get so erect!"
  
  ...
  
  What.
  
  "Oh, you don"t follow American animation? I need to broaden your horizons, dear Hachiman."
  
  "I think Japanese animation already has the market of women with erect penises perfectly covered, thank you very-what the Hell are you making me say?!"
  
  Oh. Sorry, Miss Waitress. I assure you we will both stop yelling about women, erections, and women with erections in your fine establishment. It"s classy enough it doesn"t deserve this kind of conversation. I mean, they aren"t even forcing you to wear a maid uniform and cat ears.
  
  Which reminds me, I still need to look at what a set of fox ears would cost...
  
  Also, Haruno, if you could stop laughing before red fades to purple, that would be swell. I need you alive for at least a couple more days, you know?
  
  "You are the only person that can make me go from British literature to crass penis jokes in five sentences. Congratulations, Hachiman, you just took another first from me."
  
  I don"t know what I am choking on, but it"s trying its best to murder me.
  
  Oh, it looks like my sense of propriety. I wondered where I had put it.
  
  "You are a dangerous woman, Haruno."
  
  "Hmmm... how is it that you would put it? Ah, yes: "praise me more.""
  
  And I look at her. At lavender eyes narrowed in mirth that sometimes goes beyond the surface, at lips in a sculpted grin that she adopts with far too much ease, at playful fingers tracing the rim of her cup with more grace than some dancers manage in their lives.
  
  "You are a better person than you pretend to be."
  
  "... Uh?" And, for the first time in my life, I have the almost religious experience of seeing her mask crack in something other than disgust and indignation.
  
  Iroha, where are your photographic ways when I need them the most?
  
  "You are still clothed, Senpai, give me some time to work!"
  
  Ah, certainly. Excuse me, I didn"t intend to hurry you.
  
  "Are you apologizing, Senpai? Do you intend to prostrate yourself before me so that you can beg me to magnanimously pardon you while I ponder what punishment would be appropriate to give you? I am sorry, Senpai! My knowledge of BDSM is far too narrow, and I can"t properly punish you at this time! Please, ask me again after I have had time to prepare myself and buy some candles!"
  
  Inner Iroha, I think Outer Iroha has been a bad influence on you.
  
  Also, I should answer Haruno before she stops blinking in what another (naïve and likely to sign contracts) person might call mild surprise.
  
  "You asked me to praise you. I rarely do, so be happy."
  
  And she leans back on her booth, sinking into the cushions at her back as she covers her face with the hand that isn"t resting on the table.
  
  "How are you still a virgin, Hachiman?"
  
  "Uh, well, you see..."
  
  Her hand drops, her eyes shoot wide open, and she looks straight into my eyes before a disturbingly wide smile settles on her lips. One that makes me think of the Cheshire Cat. If this was the Monster Girl Encyclopedia.
  
  Please, tell me this isn"t the MGE. I already have my hands full with a single kitsune descendant, I don"t need a whole tribe.
  
  "What? Senpai, are you saying you are so besotted with me you wouldn"t mind making love to a pile of identical clones of my cute self as each one of us ends up on their knees, begging you to cover our faces with rope after rope of cum? I am sorry, Senpai, but that"s impossible! Even if you were able to shoot so much cum in a single session, I would want it all for myself!"
  
  ... Dammit, Inner Iroha, I am trying to have a wholesome moment with the woman who is apparently a good enough Holmes cosplayer to manage half-telepathy; I don"t need you messing this up!
  
  Also, that Hyouka ending sequence... Hmmm...
  
  
  "How interesting." When an anime character says "interesting," or "amusing" with that tone? And with that grin? Time to run.
  
  To another world, if possible.
  
  Yes, even to Arifureta. I don"t care.
  
  "I don"t know what you are talking about." Deny, deny, deny.
  
  Her eyes go from the papers I offered her, to my reddening cheeks, to the way my body is squirming under her watchful gaze after her question has pushed me off-balance. I see her drawing the lines between the far too sparse dots, my eyes widen, and she nods.
  
  "... Did you just use this as a way to train me in mind reading like a fictional detective? Without a single word?" I don"t know whether I am more awed or terrified.
  
  "I just made it easy for you. Don"t think you are going to start managing it with women who are... more difficult." Her smile is dripping something. It would likely make a xenomorph flush with envy.
  
  "There"s not a single thing easy about you, Haruno."
  
  "No, there isn"t! See you tomorrow!" she says as she slaps a few bills on the table and prances out of the booth, papers held in an airy wave.
  
  "Hey! Wait, does that mean-"
  
  "Tomorrow!"
  
  ... And that, kids at home, is why you don"t sign contracts.
  
  Also, because they may end up with you having a salary and overtime.
  
  The risk is not worth it.
  
  ***
  
  The winter sun sets far too soon, its rays already casting everything in a dramatic red hue while the echoes of the school bell are still echoing. Like a bad writer trying too hard to set a melancholy atmosphere without proper setup, its light languishes through the windows of the Service Club, coloring all of us in tones suitable for a revealing flashback.
  
  Basically, the winter sun is the Zaimokuza of heavenly bodies (it"s even fat enough). Wouldn"t it be more natural to start things off with a more neutral, maybe even cheery atmosphere? What is this garbage with the weather perfectly reflecting the character"s circumstances? Haven"t you watched Full Metal Alchemist, you philistine? "No, it"s raining all right" is a classic for a reason!
  
  And now I have made myself sad. Damn it.
  
  "Why are we here, Hikigaya?" Yukino asks with all her usual cheerfulness. Oi, haven"t you heard about gap moe? How about you try some of that for once? It would lighten the mood.
  
  Yuigahama is fidgeting, the third angle on our far too regular triangle. I don"t know how we manage without marking our assigned spots on the floor, but it"s pretty impressive.
  
  Shizu and Iroha are to my right and behind me, trying not to look as uncomfortable as I am feeling.
  
  "Well, I think the technical term is to do a "Summation Gathering.""
  
  "... What?" Yuigahama does her best confused Yuigahama impression. Ah, it"s so relieving to see there still are pillars of the world that can be relied upon.
  
  "Sorry, Yuigahama, a certain someone has had me thinking about detectives since yesterday-"
  
  "That would be me!" Here is where I should think something like "Haruno interrupts me as she enters the room." Sadly, the proper phrasing is "Haruno Harunoes as she Haruns."
  
  There are subtle nuances that can"t be inferred without the proper terminology.
  
  Also, Yukinoshita is eyeing the windows of the room as if pondering potential escape routes. Ah, I wish I still was so innocent.
  
  "You were waiting to make a dramatic entrance," Shizu accuses, if an accusation carried more exasperation and exhaustion than anything else.
  
  "You can"t prove anything," she replies with a cheerful, dare I say foxy, smile.
  
  No. Iroha, no. No, Iroha. Don"t take notes. Please.
  
  "Well, if there are no further interruptions, I have gathered you all here to-" Oh no, you don"t. This is my scene.
  
  "I have gathered them here. And you. Somehow."
  
  "I told you I would see you tomorrow. That is, today. You need to press the initiative when you have it, isn"t that right, Shizuka?"
  
  Rather than answer in coherent words, Shizu splutters.
  
  She"s smarter than I am.
  
  "If I have to deal with you, sister, the least you could do is cut to the chase," Yukinoshita says while trying very hard not to massage her temples.
  
  Which must be quite obvious, because Yuigahama just took a step toward her, turning our triangle into an unseemly isosceles, and is patting her back.
  
  Ah, Yuigahama, your caring, empathic side is as prominent as always. It"s a pity you can"t wag your tail due to the unsuitability of your human vessel.
  
  "Right. That"s going to happen," I mutter. I will likely pay for this later, but at this point I don"t think my debt will be noticeably larger. "The reason I have gathered you here is to settle our bet. "Once and for all, winner takes all," remember?"
  
  "... What?" And her tone is suddenly as flat as her hopes and dreams. Also, her chest.
  
  "Shi-Miss Hiratsuka is here to act as a judge, because she started all of this, Ir-Isshiki is here because she is the one who made the request, and she needs to be satisfied with the solution." Oi, Shizu, stop glaring at me. Can"t blame me for a slip of the tongue after how much tongue I have slipped you. No, Iroha, that isn"t an invitation.
  
  "And my sister is here why, Hikigaya?"
  
  "Because I am a cheating cheater who cheats, Yukinoshita. Try to keep up, this is embarrassing."
  
  "Hikky! Don"t be rude." Yuigahama...
  
  Oi, why is everybody looking at her with pity? That is rude, you know? Everything you are implying is rude!
  
  I should know.
  
  "Right. If you would do me the honors, Haruno?" I ask, turning to my left before I, for the first time in my life after sealing my chuuni days, feel legitimate killing intent. This would have been so cool a couple of years ago.
  
  "Haruno?" Uh. Yukinoshita, this is scary. Your cutting glare is far too scary. You shouldn"t threaten people like that, you may get sued. It would be far better if you growled like an angry puppy. You know, like Yuigahama is doing.
  
  Also, Shizu, Iroha, maybe try not to facepalm in synchronicity. You are making it far too obvious that something is going on. You should be as discreet as I am.
  
  Tee-hee.
  
  "The kid earned it. Also, I kind of forced him to call me that, don"t be too hard on him."
  
  "Why?"
  
  "Because life is hard enough as it is for you, Yukino. Especially without any padding."
  
  ...
  
  Isn"t there a nice trench I can hide in for a couple minutes? I don"t even care if there"s a genderbent salaryman being pragmatical around.
  
  Yuigahama, stop trying to hide your Yuigahamas. The damage is already done.
  
  "Only you could be so vulgar as to even think bust size is an appropriate topic of-"
  
  There"s a loud cough that, somehow, manages to cut off Yukinoshita"s riposte. Shizu, once again, you are far too brave and gallant not to have your own theme song, one that is clearly not!Vangelis. With lots of sax and synthesizer.
  
  Also, maybe you should quit smoking. Just in case.
  
  "If we could get on with things without any further, gratuitous antagonizing, Haruno?" Oi, Shizu, your defense of your pupil is fine and all, but how do you think Yukinoshita will feel when her savior so prominently displays what she has been criticized for lacking? Yours is a cruel kindness, you know?
  
  Without even bothering to drop her grin, Haruno takes out her phone and calls...
  
  Well, kind of obvious at this point, isn"t it?
  
  "Yes? Yukinoshita household speaking." The barely familiar voice of Yukinoshita"s mother echoes through the room from the phone which is in Haruno"s hand, in speaker function.
  
  "Mother, it"s me. I am calling about the letter I gave you yesterday." And the older sister"s tone is suddenly all nice and formal, if slightly frosty. How Yukinoshita of you, Haruno.
  
  "Ah. Certainly."
  
  "Could you tell me what your decision is?"
  
  There"s a silence in which I should feel suspense. But I don"t. Haruno already drained me of all anticipation yesterday.
  
  "I will withdraw any objections to the prom." Shizu doesn"t react, Iroha covers her mouth with her hands, Yuigahama gasps, and Yukinoshita... She looks suddenly drained. Aimless. Just as expected. "I presume they are hearing this call?"
  
  "Yes, Mother." It is far too unnatural to hear Haruno sounding like this. It doesn"t even creep me out; I just dislike it on principle.
  
  "Then, young man... Thank you." And she hangs up.
  
  "What... What just happened?"
  
  "That, Yuigahama, was me winning."
  
  Yukinoshita takes a sudden step forward before she stops herself. Just before I am in her reach.
  
  I try not to grimace. That"s always been your problem, hasn"t it, Yukino?
  
  "What did you do?" Her tone is as flat as... as something lifeless. As someone who believed they still had a goal to reach for, only to realize at the last moment it was yet another mirage.
  
  "I just told you-"
  
  "No. No, don"t get clever with me, don"t hide your actions behind quips and self-serving reasoning. You want something genuine, Hikigaya? Then tell me what you did with my mother."
  
  There"s fire in the words. In their choice, their enunciation, even their meaning. But, in her voice? In the soft melody that could have held me captive with a single whisper not that long ago?
  
  Ice. Snow. Winter.
  
  And then Haruno clears her throat, and I feel a cold sweat run down my back.
  
  "Dear Ms. Yukinoshita." Oh, no. No, please, don"t.
  
  I turn from the empty eyes of one Yukinoshita to the glimmering ones of another. I don"t know which is worse. Because she"s holding a-
  
  "Didn"t you give it to her?" I ask, knowing it is far too late for me to question reality.
  
  "Of course. After I made a copy." There"s not a low whine being held back in my throat, and Iroha patting my back is completely unnecessary. That doesn"t mean you can stop, Iroha. "As I was saying... Dear Ms. Yukinoshita.
  
  "I apologize for my presumptuousness. You barely know me as someone you have come across in the street once and in the school"s staff room another time. It would be perfectly understandable if you dismissed this letter from someone who means so little to you.
  
  "I implore you not to do it. Because the one who knows me is your daughter. I am Yukino Yukinoshita"s friend, one of the three she has. Four, if you count her teacher.
  
  "You may wonder how someone as gifted as Yukinoshita, so clever, well-educated, and beautiful, has managed not to have more than three friends after two years in high school. This is actually a new development. A few months ago, she had none.
  
  "Yukinoshita is an extraordinary woman, and she doesn"t lack people who admire her, but always from afar, because she commands respect wherever she goes, but... she"s been hurt in the past.
  
  "I don"t know the specifics, but I know the result. I know she won"t allow people close, for fear of rejection. I know she will work herself sick, for fear of not living up to expectations. I know she won"t allow herself to be any less than perfect, for fear of seeing condemnation in the eyes of those who are close to her. And forgive my impudence, but I think that includes you. I think Yukinoshita is terrified of disappointing you.
  
  "Yukino is not Haruno. Both are extraordinary young women, far more talented than those who would be their peers, but where Haruno defies, Yukino fears. And the only times I have seen her lowering her façade, when she has allowed the ice to melt and show genuine emotion, it has been with Yui Yuigahama and Iroha Isshiki. Her friends. Those who have managed to push past this barrier she has put around her that allows her to go through the world without being touched by it. Yukino"s snow won"t be so easily stained, not even when she needs it.
  
  "Yuigahama has relentlessly pushed forward, never backing down when Yukinoshita tried to evade her, never allowing your daughter to refuse a hug, a pat on the back, a smile and a look of joy. Yuigahama Yui treasures your daughter in a way so forceful, so straightforward, that not even Yukinoshita can fool herself into thinking it"s not genuine. Yuigahama has managed to make your daughter feel and accept physical affection.
  
  "I... I am the closest thing your daughter has to a rival. We banter, play around with words and wit, never stating things outright, never allowing something straightforward to be said when it can be implied and hidden in something so opaque only the two of us can see through it. This very letter is the antithesis of everything your daughter and I are when we are together, and maybe that"s something regrettable, because it"s far too hard for me to write and tell you how much she means to me, and how much I hope I mean to her.
  
  "And Isshiki... She"s the Student Council president. The one who came up with the idea of the prom and then asked Yukinoshita, Yuigahama and me to help her organize it. Because Isshiki is one year younger than us, and we will graduate before her. And she, in her roundabout way that I am sure frustrates Yukinoshita to distraction, wanted to celebrate us, her friends. She wanted to offer us something before we went away. Because Isshiki will trick even Yukinoshita into feeling loved and accepted, and mask it behind a preposterous reason such as being crowned queen of the prom when it is her turn. And she"s the kind of girl who will lie and smile enthusiastically while working hour after hour each and every day on something your daughter won"t realize has been done in her name until we finally tell her and clue her in.
  
  "The prom... It"s not an excuse for teenagers to party unsupervised. It"s not a disreputable thing, something that will mar this school"s prestige. No. The prom is a gift, from Yukinoshita"s friend to Yukinoshita and her friends.
  
  "So, even if it was disreputable, even if it was objectionable, even if it was irresponsible... I would still implore you to allow us to hold it.
  
  "Please, allow your daughter"s friends to celebrate her.
  
  "We love her too much to let her go without saying goodbye."
  
  I would like to say silence reigns in the club room after Haruno reads the last word of my letter to her mother. Really, I would love to say it.
  
  But the truth is that I don"t know, because blood is roaring in my ears like in my worse social blunders ever.
  
  Answering somebody who was greeting another person? Believing a girl is talking about you being her crush? Having a girl refuse to take her eraser after you pick it up off the ground?
  
  Forget all about that! That is nothing, nothing! That was merely the initiation ceremony into the secret rites of embarrassment that I have finally witnessed with my own eyes! I was blind, but now I see! I have been reborn to the true meaning of mortification!
  
  "Senpai, breathe," Iroha gently whispers as she keeps patting my back.
  
  Ah, Iroha, you are a saint among women. Truly, your kind heart offers me refuge from the harshness of a world that-
  
  "Is... How dare you?!"
  
  Never mind. The world has found me. Your heart is useless, Iroha.
  
  Yukino is trembling right in front of me, a single tear trailing down her cheek as her aristocratically pale face finally shows me a smatter of color.
  
  Yui is holding her arm with both hands, almost pulling her back, a doubtful expression on her face. Also blushing.
  
  Oi, the one whose intimate, delicate confession just got mercilessly exposed is me, you know? I am the one who should be blushing like a maiden in love!
  
  Oh, wait, I am. Never mind, then.
  
  "Yukinoshita, calm-"
  
  "No. Not this time, Ms. Hiratsuka. Of all the things you have lied about to get your preposterous plans-"
  
  There"s a loud sound that echoes across the room.
  
  A slap.
  
  Why does my hand sting?
  
  "Hi-Hikky!" Yuigahama is horrified.
  
  "Wha-" Yukinoshita, shocked.
  
  "Finally..." Haruno... Wistful?
  
  ...
  
  I would better not think about that.
  
  "I didn"t lie." My voice is hoarse, as if I am pushing each syllable through some very uncooperative terrain. Gym class, for instance. "Each word in there? I agonized over it. I sweated over it, I cried over it."
  
  "You-you just-"
  
  "I told her the truth. The genuine truth. We love you, you goddamn brat!"
  
  And now she cries.
  
  Iroha leaves my side and helps Yui hold Yukino up as she bawls her eyes out, shaky hands covering a flushed face as her shoulders tremble in hiccupping, far too shallow breaths.
  
  Haruno elbows me softly and whispers in my ear.
  
  "How long had you wished to do that? Bet you I have been waiting far longer."
  
  It"s not a bet I am willing to take.
  
  Shizu steps between us, a glance at me showing a soft smile that I very dearly hope isn"t pride at having my tender heart mercilessly exposed right before I lost control and slapped the girl I"ve been crushing after since I laid my eyes on her in the most cliché anime introduction ever. Graceful girl delicately reading a book in an empty classroom while the sun frames her silhouette and her hair gently drifts in the soft breeze? Come on, God, stop being so unoriginal! Or at least copy better material.
  
  Can you do Jojo?
  
  "Yukino," Shizu holds the girl"s hands away from her face, and I can see her, Yukino Yukinoshita, mask finally shattered, a mess of tears and raw emotion on eyes that are no longer sheets of ice.
  
  She"s still as beautiful as ever.
  
  No. That"s a lie. She"s far more than she ever allowed us to see.
  
  "Yukino," Shizu repeats, holding her chin in a grasp I know is too gentle for all the strength she carries. "It"s over. Hachiman wins."
  
  And she smiles down at the distressed girl, more tenderly than I have ever seen her be while still fully clothed, before adding the final words of her verdict.
  
  "It was genuine."
  
  ***
  
  "So," Yukinoshita"s voice is still unsteady, still raw. "You have won."
  
  "Finally, acknowledgment," I say, right before Shizu buries an elbow in my side.
  
  Yukinoshita smiles at that. Whether in petty, proxy vengeance, or in something else, it"s hard to tell.
  
  Still, I am the man who has slapped Yukino Yukinoshita and lived to tell the tale. I shall fear no reprisal!
  
  Oh gods, I am going to die, aren"t I?
  
  Haruno, stop snickering. Let me face the Shinigami with some dignity. With a bit of luck, it will be one of the big-titted, shounen ones, and not the creepy weirdo in fetish gear.
  
  "Your mysterious plan was to write a letter to Yukinon"s mom? Why didn"t you tell me so, Hikky? You made it sound like something more complicated, and you said I would-"
  
  "Ah! I almost forgot something!" Seriously, Yui, ruin the surprise for me, why don"t you?
  
  "Uh? What"s that? This looks pretty wrapped up to me..." A look of confusion suits you far better, yes. Do that rather than ask bothersome questions.
  
  "The prize," I say, with as much smug pride as I can manage.
  
  Which, given the circumstances-which include a giggling Haruno-may not be up to my usual standards.
  
  "The... prize." Saying that Yukinoshita is looking at me doubtfully would be like saying Zaimokuza has a slightly unhealthy relationship with his thesaurus. Seriously, fatty, leave the poor book alone before I am forced to put the matter in the hands of the police.
  
  "You must follow one request, remember?"
  
  Immediately, Yukinoshita blushes, Yuigahama does the same yet with more flair, and Shizu and Iroha throw me two very sharp glances. Ugh.
  
  At least Haruno... Ah, no.
  
  Still giggling.
  
  "And what, pray tell, would that request be?" Seriously, Yukinoshita, I don"t know what you are thinking, but going by your blush, I believe you should give back all those doujins to Iroha.
  
  "Not much, just..." I glance between the two of them. The two girls I so naively thought I was in a love triangle with, when the reality has proven to be much more... geometrical.
  
  "Hikky?" Yuigahama asks, unsure after seeing me hesitate so long. And that tender look, that naked affection in eyes that are never guarded enough, is... Just what I don"t need right now.
  
  But... It was never about me. Not this.
  
  Even if we thought it could be.
  
  "Yukinoshita, my demand is simple," I clear my throat, and it"s not an affectation, "try to kiss Yuigahama."
  
  Silence follows my declaration.
  
  Actually, that"s a lie: Haruno is laughing her ass off.
  
  "Would you care to repeat that, Hikigaya?" A Yukinoshita who not only has embraced the ice, but started wearing thigh-high boots and dying her hair blue as she hunts down rebels asks me.
  
  "Hikky! Gross! Hikky-levels gross!" Oi, Komachi, what have you been teaching our puppy?
  
  "Senpai, if you want to see two girls-" Iroha is swiftly silenced by Shizu"s hand. Thanks, Shizu. Also, stop glaring at me like that; my poor heart can only take so much.
  
  "Try! I told you to try!"
  
  The ice goes from "mass murderer in the military" to, maybe, "far too angsty teenage hero with daddy issues." I mean, I am still about to get my ass kicked, but one of those two is more likely to leave witnesses alive.
  
  "You want to see me try to kiss Yuigahama, who is under no obligation to follow the whims of your over-active libido because she never was part of this bet?"
  
  "Yes."
  
  "Is this some kind of humiliation play? Are you going to record this?" I try very hard not to look at Iroha when she asks that. Still, no, I am not going to record it, so...
  
  "Just... Think of this as a prank if you need to. Try to kiss Yuigahama on the lips," Yui, stop blushing, for fuck"s sake! "And, if you really try, I will consider the debt settled."
  
  "... And that will be the end of it." There"s something buried in there, but I can"t afford to dig for it, even when I know she"s counting on me to do it.
  
  "That will be the end of our bet. Nothing more, nothing less." Take it, Yukino. Please.
  
  And she squares her shoulders, and, with an air of resignation that could mean far too many things, turns to her right to face Yui, who looks at me in sheer panic.
  
  Yukinoshita takes a step forward, Yui"s eyes widen. I nod.
  
  Another step, and I smile, encouragingly, just before Yui turns to face her friend.
  
  Yukinoshita pauses, her face melting from resigned indignity to vulnerable surprise.
  
  She takes the last step. They are almost touching, Yui"s eyes no longer seeking mine. Yukino"s lips tremble.
  
  Hesitatingly, unbelieving, Yukino leans forward.
  
  And Yui-wonderful, soft, caring Yui, the only one who could have stepped between two aggressively anti-social loners and turned us into something that could be mistaken for a love triangle, the only one who could hold us together as we thrashed, and clashed, and tried to drift apart...
  
  Yui doesn"t move.
  
  Wonder in her eyes, a smatter of pink on her cheeks, the beginnings of a smile on shiny lips, Yui, like she has always done, accepts Yukino.
  
  And their lips meet like they should have ages ago.
  
  It"s... tender, wondering. Both of them still have their eyes wide open, marveling at the other not backing down, not fleeing from this.
  
  Yukino, unable to believe she could be loved by her friend, much less in this way.
  
  Yui, marveling at her friend finally letting her in, much less in this way.
  
  It takes a lifetime of about five seconds before Yukino backs away, cheeks burning, tears once again brimming in her eyes, two fingers rising up to brush lips that I know will still linger of Yuigahama.
  
  "Wha-why-"
  
  And Yui steps forward.
  
  Her arms fly around Yukino so fast she even begins to struggle, but she is held, and Yui"s lips are the ones that push against her. It"s no longer so gentle, because it"s an overflow of feelings held back for far too long, for the sake of someone she believed too guarded to accept them.
  
  But now, now that Yui knows her affections are reciprocated and welcome...
  
  Well, she has always been the pushiest of us.
  
  As is clearly shown by how their open mouths are pressed so hard against one another, and by the way there"s movement under Yukino"s cheek that indicates...
  
  And now Yukinoshita"s moaning.
  
  Uh. May have to take notes.
  
  As I start to feel as if I am intruding and turn away toward the door to allow them their privacy, Yui"s eyes, never closed and attentive to Yukino"s each and every reaction even as the slight girl has almost fallen limp between her arms... Yui"s eyes meet mine.
  
  There"s a question there, an invitation, as her arm starts leaving Yukino"s back in an open gesture toward me that-
  
  I shake my head, swallowing back something I would rather not name.
  
  And there"s hurt in her eyes, but then she turns them toward the girl in her arms, and what"s there is so much greater than any pain she could ever feel on my behalf, that I-
  
  I leave the room, and Shizu, Iroha, and Haruno follow me.
  
  Goodbye.
  
  I love you.
  
  
  
  ==========================
  ==========================
  
  And... I should be joking about the next chapter here, but... Not today. Let me know what you think, guys. This one felt kind of special to me (if only because it actually went according to plan).
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 14
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  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 14
  
  When asked what features life lacks that fiction has, most morons-I mean, regular people, answer with the most inane of things: true love, superpowers, hentai physics (which are just a subset of the previous answer), or fair promotions based on demonstrable competence.
  
  They are missing the crux of the issue, what really sets fiction apart from reality: scene transitions.
  
  For instance, let"s say our heroes are rushing out of a planet while exchanging exciting laser noises with the villains hot on their heels, and they reach their spaceship just in time to get out of there and race the enemy to the rebel base under siege or to the time-limited sale on original merch from the first trilogy (a futuristic sword without any narrative purpose, as an idle, not at all pertinent, example). Fine, everything is as it should be. Unless you are in reality, and you then have to stomach three days of people dully staring at led displays that make no sense, going to a very uncomfortable bathroom, and making laser noises with their mouths.
  
  In fiction? Scene transition. Bam, you are right in the thick of things once again. Even if the thick of things is a tavern with a bartender with a thing for people in furry suits.
  
  Of course, scene transitions would be wonderful not only for teenage girls with short-skirted uniforms who don"t want to remember every detail of what happens every morning in the subway with all those men with black bars covering their eyes, but to maintain a consistent tone. Nobody wants to go from celebrating their birthday to miserably walking the dog under heavy rain just because the urinating machine has less sense than a common housecat.
  
  Yes, cats are superior. No, that doesn"t have anything to do with white-haired, big-chested cat-eared girls who go "nyaa" at the slightest provocation.
  
  Or, in a slightly more applicable case, nobody wants to deal with letting go of the first two girls he loved beyond a mere immature crush only to end up with... this.
  
  "Soooo?" Haruno"s drawn-out question is as much of an irritant as her sing-song tone or her wide grin. Which shouldn"t be a surprise, given that all three of those factors have certainly been calibrated for maximum effect by the same person. Or elder god disguised as a person. At this point, I"m not about to discard any reasonable hypothesis.
  
  
  "Haruno... Give him a break," Shizu tries to mediate. I don"t know how she manages to show half as much aplomb as she"s doing when she knows this particular Yukinoshita is certain to have a recording of her orgasming face on her phone.
  
  Note to self: learn to hack phones. It is quickly reaching the point where it counts as basic self-defense.
  
  "Really? I think he has more than enough stamina, from what I"ve seen from him." Shizu blushes up to her hair roots, I try not to choke on my spit (again), and Haruno smiles cheekily (that is, in one of her default settings).
  
  "Senpai! Just how many women do you intend to drag into your harem?!" And Iroha"s reaction just tops all of us off.
  
  Seriously, Iroha? Do you need to always take the spotlight? Couldn"t you learn some discretion from your ninja clan or something?
  
  "Uh... Why are you both facepalming? Senpai? Shizuka?"
  
  "Because, my dear Watson-I mean, Isshiki-while I certainly suspected what you three had going on after your adored Senpai"s lapsus back there-" Haruno points, completely unnecessarily yet dramatically enough, to the vague direction of the clubroom-more or less below us, seeing as we are on the roof, once again abusing Shizu"s staff privileges. Oi, Shizu, aren"t you ashamed of the poor example you are setting for me? What will you do if I grow up all twisted and corrupted, unsuited to find lawful employment? How will you take responsibility?
  
  "Lapsus?" Iroha interjects, proving once and for all that she has a true talent for the Watson role, and thus sparing me from a lifetime of being heterosexual (?) life-partners with Haruno. Fight on, Iroha; your sacrifice will be fondly remembered. And thoroughly documented, knowing you both.
  
  "When he slipped and almost called you both by your first names. And those suspicions were further clarified when both you and dear Shizuka tried to murder my cute little Hachiman here with your synchronized glaring after you thought he was about to ask something untoward of my dearest sister."
  
  "You are enjoying this far too much," I, unwisely, interject.
  
  "I let you have your own "Summation Gathering," the least you can do is to return the favor to your Detective Mistress."
  
  Don"t think about Haruno with a deerstalker cap, a corset, stiletto heels, smoking a pipe, and-dammit!
  
  And, going by her smirk and her empirically proven quasi-telepathy, she knows.
  
  Great. I didn"t know what to do with all this spare dignity. Glad to see it taken off my hands.
  
  "As I was saying before I was so... enthusiastically interrupted," Haruno. Haruno, stop. Please. And don"t lick your lips-oh, come on! "Back there, there were enough clues to supply a billiard"s club for the next ten years, but my dear Isshiki, you getting indignant about Hachiman adding someone else to his harem? That doesn"t leave much wiggle room, you know?"
  
  "Oh. I just thought you already knew," Iroha looks confused, and not even in her "head tilted down, knuckle dragging her bottom lip barely open" way. It"s... Bizarre.
  
  "What?" Not as bizarre as Haruno slowly blinking, but it gets close.
  
  No. That"s a lie. This day should be treasured and remembered. Quick, Iroha: do the thing!
  
  "Well, you are Shizuka"s friend, and obviously Hachi trusts you enough to give you that letter that he would likely commit suicide over before he let anyone else read aside from the people who were back there. Why wouldn"t they have told you?"
  
  "That"s... a good question." And now Haruno is giving both Shizu and me the stink eye. This is likely to have repercussions.
  
  Or, as Westerners obsessed with dialog-deprived undead would put it: "Haruno will remember that."
  
  "I wasn"t going to intrude on your friendship by spilling things before she"s ready to." There, nice and apparently reasonable. There"s no way Shizu could manage to get mad and resentful over me throwing her to the wolves for this. Not even if the wolf in question is an attractive woman far too smart and witty for her own good.
  
  I miss Spice and Wolf...
  
  "Oh, you bastard..." Shizu, I just monologed an explanation about why you can"t do what you just did. Bad Shizu. Bad.
  
  "No, no, when he"s right, he"s right. Care to elaborate, Miss Hiratsuka?" Ouch. Apparently, the Yukinoshita bloodline can be activated or hidden at will by its most experienced users. Yet another reason why the Sharingan is inferior.
  
  "I..." Shizu looks at me, her eyes widen, and she blushes. Then she looks at Iroha, her eyes widen even further, drop down to her own chest, and she reddens darker. Shizu... You just did a perfect example of what you shouldn"t do in front of a super-detective, you know? Thank the Heavens your yakuza days are behind you.
  
  I mean, the long coat, dramatic smoking, sports car, and overall manliness don"t leave much doubt as to your previous occupation. The martial arts don"t even come into it.
  
  "Well, that settles it. I am getting my favor repaid right now, Hachiman."
  
  And suddenly, I am yet again shoved against the wall by Haruno, her hands doing that weird thing that immobilizes my arms and presses my shoulders against unyielding concrete.
  
  And, once again, she kisses me.
  
  Just... Not on my cheek.
  
  Her lips are as soft as I could"ve expected, full and wet against my own as she presses forward so I open my mouth. Her tongue rushes in, tracing not only my own, but having her pointed end softly drag across my palate until I"m moaning in a way that I should be forcing out of Iroha, and I only notice my hands are free when hers reach up and tangle my hair, tilting my head just the right amount to get better access, to play with-
  
  And she lets go.
  
  Her eyes are lidded in something that is not only her usual mischievousness, a hint of something hidden and barely peeking out, glinting before-
  
  "Oi." Shizu"s tone is flat and definitive as her hand drops on Haruno"s shoulder with a meaty thud.
  
  Her face is devoid of expression, but her other hand is clenched in a fist so tight I could swear I heard it creak.
  
  And what was in Haruno"s eyes hides once again as she turns back with a radiant smile that would make me want to punch her, so Shizu may be-
  
  "That your payment?" she asks, and there"s a rumbling drawl there I haven"t heard before.
  
  "Oh, no. That"s my ticket." Haruno almost bounces, apparently uncaring of the genuine rage barely held in check.
  
  "A ticket, is it?"
  
  "Of course."
  
  Shizu"s fingers tighten over Haruno"s shoulder, the tips digging into toned flesh.
  
  "What for?" My girlfriend finally asks.
  
  "A fight. With you. What else?"
  
  And suddenly, Shizu"s grin is as wide as Haruno"s. And about as friendly.
  
  "Oh, sweetheart, you only had to ask."
  
  ... I would say I feel used, but first I will need to deal with a very confused penis that doesn"t quite know how to react to this whole sequence of events.
  
  Also, Iroha, stop recording with your phone, for fuck"s sake.
  
  ***
  
  On a windswept roof, with the reddening rays of a low sun casting everything in ochre and autumn, two fated rivals stand in front of one another, silently measuring each other, their duel already started before even the first movement has been made. They are both experts of their field, experience showing in their bearing in a way that a novice may mistake for casual, even careless, disregard.
  
  "Senpai, you are enjoying this too much."
  
  Shut up, Iroha, this is a battle that will decide the fate of the winner and condemn the loser to wander the Wasteland with an artful scar, damned to repeat their catch-phrase for eternity.
  
  Yes. I am the damsel in here. If Shizu ends up being Kenshiro, I may not even care.
  
  "You do realize your girlfriend is about to get into a serious fight, don"t you?"
  
  "Don"t exaggerate. I am sure they both are mature enough to-"
  
  "So. Till knockout?" Shizu says with a cool disregard that makes me shiver before she looks around her, her hands still in her pants" pockets. "Out of bounds may be a bit too much."
  
  Out of bounds. We are on the roof, of course out of bounds is "a bit too much!"
  
  "Naturally, the boxer would ask for a knockout. How barbaric of you." Haruno is still grinning, and only now do I realize that, today of all days, she decided to wear loose pants rather than her skirt. Of course this was premeditated. Likely had something to do with when she realized Shizu and I were waiting to consummate until-
  
  Dammit.
  
  "Not my fault you practice choreography rather than something actually useful." Shizu all but spits.
  
  "Oh, don"t be sour just because I can fight and look good doing it. Let"s split the difference: knockout or submission. Loser listens to one request from the winner."
  
  And Shizu gets into what my thorough knowledge of boxing easily recognizes as a hitman-style stance.
  
  ... Yes, I only know because of Hajime no Ippo. Not actually important right now.
  
  "Hey, this may be more serious than I am comfortable with," I try to interject before it"s too late.
  
  "Of course it is, Hachiman. You should know how serious I always am by now." Haruno, if that"s your way to try to induce an aneurysm on an unsuspecting victim, I must praise your efforts, ineffective as they may have actually been.
  
  Do I smell burned toast?
  
  "The brat"s been asking for it for far too long, Hikigaya." What happened to those needy "Hachis," Shizu? And should I remind you right before your fated rival takes advantage of the opening for extra dramatic tension?
  
  Never mind. This is ridiculous. I start walking to get in between them-
  
  Shizu rushes forward, her arm cutting the wind nearly at the same instant the sleeve of her white shirt snaps with a sharp noise as Haruno tilts her head to the side so my teacher"s fist almost brushes her ear.
  
  And suddenly I feel like a pitiful human whose strenuous training barely allows him to follow the movements of those leagues beyond his actual reach. At least I will always have baseball.
  
  "Oi. Seriously, you two, stop."
  
  Haruno twists to the side, her whole weight pivoting around the tip of her forward foot, and her shoulder slams against the outside of Shizu"s extended elbow, pulling her out of her stable stance right as Haruno"s left foot steps forward and her left arm goes around Shizu"s neck.
  
  "See? There"s something to learn from tradition, after all, my dear teacher."
  
  Shizu"s lip curls back in a snarl.
  
  "Aikido is newer than boxing, brat."
  
  "Oh? I guess you should know." Haruno"s grin turns even sharper as Shizu"s eyes narrow, and I know, just know, that they are somewhere my voice won"t reach them.
  
  So maybe I should stop trying. After all, words are worthless, aren"t they?
  
  Shizu pivots from within Haruno"s grasp and lands an elbow on her side, a liver shot if Haruno hadn"t been quick enough to drop her own elbow so that bone cracks again bone rather than exposed weakness.
  
  "Elbows? What would your trainer say, Shizu?"
  
  "That he"s glad I took his advice and finally learned some Muay Thai." Haruno"s eyes widen right before Shizu starts doing something with her feet likely too complicated for me to understand and-
  
  I hug them both.
  
  I mean, they were basically hugging each other already; I just join the pile.
  
  "Wha-"
  
  "Oh, Hachiman, how forward of you."
  
  "Woman, I am this close to filing a sexual harassment suit."
  
  "You are the one grabbing my body out of nowhere."
  
  "I never said I would win."
  
  "Hikigaya, what the Hell do you think-" Shizu tries to act all indignant with me as I hold her back tight against Haruno"s chest. She"s still royally pissed off, and likely to use that sharp elbow of hers.
  
  So I kiss her.
  
  Her eyes widen in shock right as my tongue invades her mouth, and I drag the hard point over her palate until I reach the back of her teeth and she moans.
  
  You see why the Sharingan is useless? Because learning things from your opponents is not a fucking superpower, but a skill.
  
  Right, maybe I shouldn"t go full hubris just because I have my Christmas Cake moaning and writhing between my arms as I press her body against a very excited Haruno who is rubbing an ass I hadn"t been able to fully appreciate until today right over a penis that suddenly isn"t that confused about this whole situation and-
  
  Screw it. Hubris is the natural response. The gods will just have to wait until they run out of popcorn.
  
  "Senpai... Only you, Senpai," Iroha sighs in resignation. Right out the corner of my eye, I can see her recording the whole thing, so I will add "hypocrisy" to your list of character faults to complain about. Oh, wait, already there.
  
  Truly, my diligence and zeal astonish even me, sometimes.
  
  When Shizu stops squirming in assorted, confused somethings, I finally let go of her lips and look into eyes that are clearly undecided on the merits of just slugging me a right hook.
  
  "What..." She takes a moment to gather herself. Which, really, is all I actually wanted to achieve. "What the Hell are you trying to pull?"
  
  "He"s trying to get you down from an unbalanced mental state so that you can properly calibrate your actions and not act out of a rage that would have made this far too easy a win." Haruno recites with a dull tone completely at odds with the soft, shapely derriere still pressing against me in a way that makes it a struggle not to bite my lip.
  
  "That. What the overly verbose thinking machine said."
  
  "That would be easier to believe if you weren"t still trying to make out with the both of us."
  
  "Shizu, if that"s all I was trying to do, I wouldn"t waste my breath talking. Also, Haruno, stop for just a goddamn minute, will you?"
  
  "Spoilsport..." She grumbles, her hips movements stilling. Yet not moving away.
  
  Damn it, Haruno...
  
  "Look, I don"t know what it is that you both need to work out of your system, but aren"t there safeties? Rules? Something you need to follow so that this won"t end in a hospital room?"
  
  And they both grumble. Like scolded children.
  
  ... Great. At least now I know that isn"t one of my fetishes. It looks like I am suited for a teaching position, after all.
  
  The horror.
  
  "Fine. Let"s try this again," Shizu finally manages and Haruno nods.
  
  Fantastic. I am the voice of reason.
  
  I feel these words should be accompanied by a lightning bolt and the sound of a scared horse. At the bare minimum.
  
  ***
  
  Shizu and Haruno stand in front of each other, this time in the proper stances of their respective styles, which I am far too much of a neophyte to properly identify, asides from seeing how Shizu looks like an unarmed fencer and Haruno like someone likely to slap you senseless. So, that clinches it: Aikido is for girls.
  
  "Again: no headshots or strikes to the face. Three minutes and you stop unless one of you surrenders before. And if you make me get in there again, I am going all out on the sexual harassment."
  
  "Brat, we"re going to have words after this."
  
  "Yes. And I fully expect some of them to be: "thank you, Hachi, for not letting me end either in the hospital or jail." Now, begin!"
  
  At my signal, Shizu tenses before relaxing herself into a bouncing rhythm, moving slightly back and forth on her feet, and Haruno seems to settle on waiting for something that will allow her to do whatever it is aikidokas are supposed to do. Choreography, according to Shizu.
  
  At my side, Iroha beams at me with what seems to be pride.
  
  It"s making me feel very weird.
  
  Before I can fully stop processing something I would rather remain unaddressed right now, Shizu dashes forward. Her left fist flashes a few times, but I can at least see that her weight isn"t behind her blows, so it is more of a probing thing, and-
  
  And Haruno catches her forearm on the third strike.
  
  The purple-haired girl smirks as her body shifts back, dragging Shizu"s now far too extended arm with her as she positions her other arm so that-
  
  And Shizu"s foot slides right between Haruno"s legs, so that her own movement trips her up, and they both end up rolling on the ground.
  
  They kick at each other and separate in seconds, Haruno just a bit faster in getting back on her feet, so she dashes forward, and Shizu sways to the side to avoid her stretched hand, but her long hair trails after her, and Haruno grabs it.
  
  The Yukinoshita smirks as she pulls on the black strands, Shizu"s head shooting back as pain-no.
  
  As a smirk of victory flashes on her lips.
  
  Almost faster than I can follow, Shizu"s hands take Haruno"s own, and she turns her body so that her whole weight twists a wrist that"s not up to the task of standing against so much pressure (no, that"s not a jab at your own weight, Shizu-I do not currently feel that suicidal). Haruno"s arm straightens, and Shizu twists it up before pushing forward from behind her, forcing her to take half a step that meets Shizu"s ankle. And Haruno trips as Shizu"s lock guides her to the ground.
  
  The end result?
  
  Haruno is lying on her stomach, her right arm outstretched and held by Shizu as she kneels on her back, a grin on her face to Haruno"s pained grimace.
  
  "So? Anything to say, brat?" Shizu taunts, barely restraining herself from tightening her grasp, if her vicious smirk is anything to go by.
  
  And Haruno looks back over her left shoulder, twisting as much as her abused joints allow her to, and drops everything from her face. The grimace, the discomfort, the smirk, the uncaring amusement, the clinical detachment, the disdain... Until there"s only that something that I almost managed to catch a glimpse of after her lips left my own.
  
  Raw, hurt, desperate. Genuine.
  
  "You were my first kiss."
  
  The words are barely above a whisper, almost lost in the whistle of the wind, and they are... They hurt. Just hearing them, just hearing that voice that has been dragged from somewhere that has remained hidden for years... Something clenches in my chest.
  
  Shizu looks as if she has just been slapped, recoiling from Haruno in guilt and hurt.
  
  And her grip slips.
  
  And Haruno snatches her sleeve and twists her body, throwing Shizu off her and to the ground.
  
  I don"t even know what happens afterward, only that there"s a whirlwind of focused motion and Shizu is now laying on her back, looking up at Haruno standing astride her, my girlfriend"s hand clasped and twisted between her two in a way that is almost tender for all that it also unyielding and relentless.
  
  Haruno isn"t smiling in triumph. She isn"t proud of a trick she just pulled, mocking in her once again proven superiority. She"s not being Haruno.
  
  She"s... Hurt. In a way I can recognize, her pain a shape I am far too familiar with.
  
  And I almost reach out for her.
  
  "I win." And those two words have never been so lonely.
  
  "You do." And Shizu"s eyes don"t leave hers, something buried in there that I...
  
  Haruno lets go of Shizu"s hand, and it drops limply atop her old teacher"s chest before she walks over her and away.
  
  When she reaches the door to the rooftop, she pauses. But doesn"t turn back.
  
  "Next Saturday night. Your house. I want all four of us to be there."
  
  And she leaves.
  
  Shizu lies back, her gaze lost in the drifting clouds as Iroha decides to finish her recording of the event, and I...
  
  When did I start thinking of Haruno as someone whose pain could hurt me?
  
  
  
  
  ============================
  ============================
  
  I promise next chapter has at least 33% less deeply disturbed women. It still has Hachiman, though.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 15
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  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 15
  
  There comes a point where one should stop stating the obvious. Harem trash is directed at male audiences. Action scenes are cool only as long as the animation budget can keep up. Fanservice is inherently gross when taken out of context and analyzed too deeply.
  
  Or, as is slightly more pertinent, men like fast cars.
  
  I mean, it"s not like there"s a cinematic franchise that amounts to about half the yearly Hollywood budget solely devoted to this concept. There"s also something about "Fury" in the title, but I"m sure that refers to frustrated girlfriends trying to drag their paramours to watch the much more creatively written romcom only scant meters away.
  
  And if men like fast cars, with the feeling of surging adrenalin at taking a curve at a speed that"s just a hair away from a guaranteed one-way ticket to the place where all extreme sports enthusiasts end up going to sooner or later, mixing said cars with beautiful women is a sure hit. Anime has famously displayed such scenes on more than one occasion, but maybe the more iconic one would be the one where the quasi-mother figure with a scandalous neckline and Daisy Dukes takes a traumatized kid out of a train station and outraces a giant kaiju with a series of driving stunts that are only slightly less dangerous than laser beams with a religious chorus.
  
  But there"s a disconnect there: the audience is thrilled by what"s going on, the mix of danger and sexual appeal activating all sorts of brain things too complicated for me to memorize (because foreigners love to use words with far too many consonants as a deliberate and targeted slight against us, the more sensible Japanese), yet the character that"s being used as a bland self-insert with barely enough characterization to make the fanservice more than a slide-show is shown as utterly terrified at seeing his life flash before his eyes, a life that"s at the beginning of the series and thus doesn"t include walking in on his albino coworker in the buff after a shower (yes, there are two albino coworkers, one male, and one female; pick your poison) so the impromptu recap is far less engaging than it would"ve been a few episodes down the line.
  
  To summarize? I"m currently feeling a deeper kinship with Shinji Ikari than I ever expected to feel when not in the presence of a passed-out redhead.
  
  No, Yui, this isn"t about you. Really.
  
  "Aren"t you going-" the wheels of Shizu"s car skid on the pavement as she takes a left turn as if she wants to get a bonus for artistic impression, "a bit too fast?" I finish asking as I notice that clutching the grab handle with a death grip for five minutes straight is doing wonders for my muscle definition. There are even a few veins popping out.
  
  In the rear-view mirror, Iroha shoots me a look of gratitude before she starts frantically nodding, a movement that she abruptly interrupts when her face goes a bit greener and she covers her mouth with her hand.
  
  Oi, Iroha, if you do that here there won"t be cutesy rainbows coming out. The censors in this series have been demonstrably lax so far.
  
  Also, shouldn"t you already be inured to motion sickness? That seems like a weird weakness for a ninja to have. Oh, wait, maybe it"s one of your charm points: the bad-ass kunoichi who pulls off a series of acrobatic stunts only to end up dizzy and leaning against the male lead.
  
  As if you needed any more-damn it.
  
  "Seriously, Shizu-" she accelerates that tad bit more, and I feel my body sink against the backrest as she manages to cross the street right as orange switches to red.
  
  I feel like this is the moment where I should do something dramatic, like grabbing the steering wheel. Except that, as my knowledge of driving only goes as far as knowing that I hate blue shells, the result would likely be far more dramatic than intended.
  
  This may not be the time to overshoot my goals, much as current events have conditioned me to do precisely that at every turn.
  
  Right as I"m pondering what last words to send to Komachi with my phone (it starts with "it would be a very nice gesture if you kept your chastity ever after as a memento of your brother, who, against any and all signs to the contrary, also managed to die a virgin"), the wheels screech and the safety belt (whose name seems slightly ironic presently, as it has become more of a "don"t jump away to safety" belt) digs against my chest. I think about complaining, but Iroha"s pained grimace convinces me I am not the one who has endured the worst of it for once, and should then restrain my very sober and thought-out critiques.
  
  I am such a considerate person.
  
  "So, finally decided not to commit triple suicide?" That doesn"t count. It"s not a complaint; it"s legitimate curiosity.
  
  Shizu, rather than answering, leans her forehead against the steering wheel for just a moment before getting out of the car.
  
  And then she walks to the railing of the promenade and just stands there. Her coat and long hair sway in the winter"s breeze, and, in front of her, a sea for which night has already dawned extends in deep, rippling darkness toward a horizon that falls below the line where the sky is still blue. At our back, the sun is setting between tall crystal towers that only sporadically show us lit windows.
  
  And then she takes out a cigarette, lights it, and takes a long drag that sets the tip cherry red before letting slow, lazy whorls of purple smoke dissolve in the air around her. And the image is complete.
  
  This is Shizu in her natural habitat: a frame out of a movie with rough men and rougher whisky where, if someone talks about romance, it"s only to cry about loss and regret. It"s so beautiful and powerful that I should not be able to do anything but sit here, in the co-pilot seat, and look at her until the cigarette turns completely to ash.
  
  I should, but it"s been long established that I don"t care overly much for what I should do, so I release the belt and open the door, stepping out of the car to walk to her before something happens that makes the image far more real than it should be.
  
  And then I walk back to the car and get Iroha, whose legs are slightly shaky. Really, Shizu, contain yourself; I still haven"t managed to make my foxy junior unable to walk straight.
  
  Oi, Deep-voiced Bastard, not the time.
  
  But I"m taking notes.
  
  Also, it may not be the time to be overly conscious of her body heat seeping into me as I support her with an arm around her waist.
  
  So, after a false start and with one extra passenger, I arrive next to Shizu in time to see her pull another deep drag of fascinating smoke that curls out of the corners of her lips.
  
  I mean, the things taste like something Komachi would have tried to feed me when she was still learning how to cook, but I can"t deny the visual appeal.
  
  The beautiful, melancholy woman doesn"t hurt either.
  
  Oh, shit, am I turning into one of those freaks who likes to look at sad girls in the snow? If I was going to fall so far, I shouldn"t have let go of Yukinoshita.
  
  Too soon, Brain?
  
  Yeah. Yeah, too soon.
  
  Also, if that room smells like lilies tomorrow morning, I won"t be surprised at all. Yuigahama, please air the place after ravishing the Yuki-onna who doesn"t have an oral fixation with lollipops.
  
  (And thank the Heavens for that-my willpower only goes so far, as Shizu can already attest to.)
  
  Speaking of which...
  
  "So... planning to ignore us much longer?"
  
  "I told you I needed to think, didn"t I?" she almost bites out.
  
  "Yeah. That"s why we got into the car before you could start it. I feel I shouldn"t be explaining such easily understood concepts." Iroha, don"t elbow me just for stating the obvious. It"s not like I"ve told you that men like fast cars.
  
  "We need to have a talk about boundaries."
  
  "As long as we"re talking."
  
  "Brat, you really like to get in my face, don"t you?"
  
  "Can you blame me? I have such lovely memories associated with doing precisely that. To both your faces."
  
  And now the both of them are blushing, even as Iroha buries her face in my side. Fine, I"ll give you this one, Deep-voiced Bastard.
  
  "You are impossible..." she says with an exasperated sigh.
  
  So I grab her chin and, without letting go of the unsteady Iroha, pull Shizu to me.
  
  "I thought I had already taught you better. Not impossible: inevitable," I whisper against lips set in a thin line before I take them.
  
  Like I did right at the start of all of this, what seems like ages go even if it was just last Wednesday.
  
  Gently.
  
  Probingly.
  
  Lovingly.
  
  Until the thin line blossoms into full lips that press back against my own as her hand tangles with my hair once again. Her breathing deepens, and I don"t even mind that much the almost perfumed aftertaste of her tobacco, and her breathing comes in sharp pants that aren"t muffled by-
  
  Uh... Right, that second breathing is not Shizu.
  
  I open my eyes to see Iroha looking right at us, her blush having taken a different shade and shape, something that just highlights her open eyes and barely separated lips that shine in the almost amber cast of the streetlights turning on around us.
  
  I let go gently of Shizu and look into her eyes, steel mellowed into something... Not yielding. Not quite, but definitely less cutting than a moment ago.
  
  And the arm surrounding Iroha shifts until my hand grabs the hair behind her head, and I pull her up to us.
  
  Iroha"s light, nearly luminous honey almost ripples as she looks quickly between the two of us, and I keep staring at Shizu until she gives me a small nod and a barely-there, yet still playful, smile.
  
  So I turn to my side and...
  
  Iroha, unlike what one would have expected from her constant attempts to be seen as more mature than she already is, tastes of cherry lip gloss.
  
  Is this my type? Am I attracted to women who use makeup far too juvenile for their image? Is this something I should be wary of if Komachi starts wearing-
  
  And Iroha jumps up against me, and I can think no more about any stupid things that may distract me from her.
  
  We hold her up between us, Shizu"s and my arms enough to bring her to my level as she turns her head and enthusiastically drives her tongue into my mouth, her own arms embracing my neck until she"s pulling herself up and her legs surround my waist, Shizu"s help now only required to make sure I don"t fall to the ground due to the inherent danger of having a girl simultaneously use me as a climbing pole and, going by her moans and energetic movements, a release for years of pent-up lust.
  
  Oi, Iroha, this is your first kiss. Shouldn"t this be a tender and emotional moment?
  
  "You already plastered my face with what felt like a shower of your semen, then had me prepare your other woman for a date in which I am pretty sure you did something far lewder than that. Be thankful I"m not dry-humping you."
  
  Oh, right. Sorry, Inner Iroha. Also, shouldn"t this have been a perfect opportunity for one of your "I"m sorry, but that"s impossible" speeches?
  
  "You want me to come up with a clever, cute, and foxy speech while my brain is swimming in enough chemicals to make it a supervillain breeding ground? I"m sorry, but that"s impossible, Senpai. If you want me to be able to focus enough to come up with something witty and clever, you"re first going to help me deal with this frustrated mess I"ve been brewing since you made me cum with your foot after I sucked your cock straight out of another woman"s gorgeous breasts. Now, shut up and kiss me silly, you bastard."
  
  Right. Sorry once again.
  
  "Less apologies, more tongue."
  
  Well, when Inner Iroha is right, she"s right.
  
  I switch my arms so I"m helping support Iroha"s weight by the very practical and not at all lewd method of grasping her ass under her skirt, the soft flesh not as toned and shapely as Shizu"s, but soft in way that makes me squeeze her until her moans turn deeper and she starts grinding herself against my pants. Her hands claw against my nape and back, and I can feel Shizu shift us so she"s embracing both of us and sandwiching Iroha between our bodies. Iroha"s chest is flattened against my own, and I decide to finally go on the counteroffensive as my own tongue invades her mouth, and I do to her the palate trick I just learned from Haruno, her fingers twitching when I reach the spot right behind her teeth.
  
  And then our tongues finally entangle, rubbing against one another as our lips pressure shifts and makes us glide, and rub, and caress.
  
  I am holding Iroha as much as she"s clinging to me, and her body is as much as I ever fantasized when I felt too weak to resist the temptation of imagining what it would be like to have the cheeky girl under my own body. And now I"m no longer ashamed of those moments of weakness because...
  
  They were so inadequate.
  
  Because yes, her body feels as good as I envisioned, her tongue as nimble and agile, her perfume just the right note that I had already noticed all those times she stuck uncomfortably close to me after cutely pulling on my sleeve.
  
  Her body is marvelous: soft and yielding, delicate and full, the curves that draw the eye every bit as enticing to the hand.
  
  But that"s her body. And Iroha is so much more.
  
  Energy only slightly leashed by the traces of hesitance she always pushes herself to ignore. Enthusiasm that should no longer be there after having been rejected by her first crush, yet is every bit as burning as I ever saw her display when chasing a man who has such awful taste he may enjoy American Godzilla. And...
  
  Not something inherent to her, but... In a way...
  
  Because I told her, didn"t I? That each person offers something unique, that what I have with Shizu can not be equated to what I would"ve had with Yui or Yukino. And so, what I have with Iroha is ours and uniquely so. Something I can only have with her and she with me.
  
  And... It"s effervescent, enthusiastic in a way that makes its shape hard to grasp, but...
  
  The warmth, the joy, the tenderness, the acceptance, the need...
  
  This is...
  
  I shouldn"t feel so bashful at thinking it. I really, really shouldn"t after everything else.
  
  So, there it goes:
  
  This is Iroha"s and mine...
  
  Damn it, Hikigaya, get a hold of yourself.
  
  This is... our love.
  
  And it"s so much better than any fantasy I ever came up with about finally managing to shut her up.
  
  I finally let her go, my open eyes catching Shizu"s tender expression right before I see Iroha"s eyes widely open, a smile that is neither sly nor fake, a joy that I feel mirrors my own, because it"s that much greater at being shared.
  
  But that only lasts for another moment before she turns her head back and kisses Shizu.
  
  My mind shortcircuits at the display of Iroha"s exposed neck and Shizu"s wide-open eyes. Our teacher shifts, and I-
  
  Deep-voiced Bastard, I think this is your time to shine.
  
  My hands (regretfully) abandon Iroha"s bouncy derriere as my arms surround the both of them in a mirror of Shizu"s. And then I grab her nape and push her against Iroha to a muffled sound that could be a protest, but I really don"t think it is, as my other hand grabs Shizu"s own ass (as marvelously toned as I remember) and press her hips forward, pushing Iroha and I closer together.
  
  Then... Well, it seems obvious that Iroha just pushed her tongue past Shizu"s lips, going by the way her eyebrows just shot up to meet her black hair as her eyes went cross before she closed them.
  
  And I have two moaning women in my arms, one of whom is still rubbing herself against the front of my pants.
  
  Can"t let Komachi do the laundry. I mustn"t feed her yandere tendencies.
  
  Then Iroha opens her eyes and leans back, a soft smile gracing her lips.
  
  "Thank you," she whispers.
  
  And Shizu look at her, still dazed.
  
  "You are welcome."
  
  ***
  
  The three of us are leaning on the handrail, our forearms resting on the painted metal that is not only cold, but wet with sea breeze.
  
  "So, I feel like I should say something..." I finally break the silence.
  
  "Of course you do," Shizu says with what I hope is fond exasperation.
  
  "Go ahead, Hachi, not like I could ever stop you." And Iroha shoots me an impertinent smile from Shizu"s other side.
  
  Right. She"s the one who couldn"t stop me. Of course.
  
  I think this is grounds for a defamation suit.
  
  Instead, I will just take a far more drastic measure.
  
  So I walk around Shizu and take Iroha"s shoulder, making her spin to face me even as I keep her pinned against the handrail. From the corner of my eye, I catch Shizu"s amused smirk as I keep Iroha"s eyes nailed to my own with the intensity of my expression (or make her wonder whether I"m finally going to push her to the sea below, one of those).
  
  "I love you," I tell her.
  
  "Wh-what?" she lucidly replies.
  
  I kiss her with no hesitation, pressing my body against her with every bit as much intensity as she did to mine a minute ago, and her right thigh rises to encircle my waist as a moan vibrates against my chest.
  
  I lean back, her breathing quick and shallow, and look into eyes lidded with something that still has a bit of confusion and disorientation.
  
  "I love you," I repeat.
  
  "Sen-Hachi, I-"
  
  And I kiss her.
  
  My tongue invades her mouth and traces every spot, taking a page out of Yui"s book as I keep my eyes open to check any and all reactions as Iroha"s hands clutch my shirt under my open coat and her body undulates under mine, her small size allowing me to engulf her, to take up her whole world.
  
  My lips barely leave her own, ragged gasps warming my wet chin as her eyes open enough for me to stare into them with so much intensity that she tries to shy away even as a flush raises up from her neck.
  
  "I love you," I whisper the words as if setting kindling on fire.
  
  "You better give her the answer he wants to hear, Iroha, or he"s going to keep escalating." Shizu"s tone carries a hint of laughter with it.
  
  "That... doesn"t sound that bad." Iroha"s trembles.
  
  "No. No, it doesn"t."
  
  So, under the watchful eyes of my first lover and the anxious ones of my second, I lean back down and devour Iroha until her knees give up and I have to hold her upright for the second time of the day.
  
  It looks like I won"t be needing to keep those notes after all, Deep-voiced Bastard.
  
  ***
  
  The cold is not that bad, but it"s intense enough that we are now sitting inside Shizu"s car with the heating turned up. We still have a good view of the inky sea, and this has the added advantage of stopping me from reducing Iroha to a mewling mess. Again.
  
  Basically, Shizu ended up dragging me to the car before the Deep-voiced Bastard could deliver the coup de grace.
  
  No, I don"t know what he would"ve done, but it would more than likely have ended up in a public indecency sentence.
  
  Iroha is still a flustered, flushed, stuttering mess.
  
  I consider it one of my best attempts at a confession.
  
  "Were you deliberately trying to break her?" Shizu asks me, and Iroha eeps.
  
  "Just trying to clear the air."
  
  "That"s what they are calling it nowadays, uh?"
  
  ... There"s no way to answer that quip without getting myself into far more trouble than it"s worth.
  
  "Uh-hu."
  
  Shizu throws a weird look at me until she realizes my conundrum and smiles reassuringly. And clenches the steering wheel hard enough to make the leather squeak.
  
  "Why?" Iroha whispers, and I could kiss her just for that lifeline.
  
  Aside from all the other, completely pure and chaste, motivations for such an act.
  
  So I turn around, avoiding Shizu"s eyes like her hair has become a herpetologist"s wet dream, and nail Iroha down with my gaze once again.
  
  "Because it"s true. Because we have been skirting around the issue for quite a while under an excuse that could"ve gotten you hurt if it went on for much longer. And because we need to make some serious decisions."
  
  "I-"
  
  "Also... I want to hear you say it." And now I"m the one who"s blushing and almost stuttered. Great.
  
  I would say I need more practice, but, quite frankly, I don"t think practice of all things is my current issue.
  
  And Iroha looks stunned, her eyes searching mine for something before her smile blooms once again, something warm, and honest, and-
  
  And now it"s back to the usual sly smirk.
  
  Damn it, I know where this is going.
  
  "I"m sorry, Senpai, are you trying to hit on me? Just because you have forcefully taken my first kiss and then got carried away, left me breathless, my knees shaking, do you think I would readily accept your insistent confession?" She shakes her head slowly enough that the gesture comes across as theatrical and condescending. "I"m sorry, Senpai, but just because we are engaged in carnal relations doesn't mean that I"m ready to give my heart away to you just like that."
  
  Just what the Hell did I expect from-and there"s a small hand grabbing the front of my shirt from the backseat.
  
  I twist around, and Iroha"s face is almost touching mine.
  
  "So, I hope this will be the last time I"ll have to reject you, Senpai." Her eyes almost glow inside the poorly lit car. "Because..." She kisses me. Softly, tenderly, probing, like a first kiss between lovers should be. "I love you. Hachi."
  
  ...
  
  "You are lucky I promised Shizu my first time because I"m just this close to coming back there and-"
  
  And a hand chops my head.
  
  "Oi, brat, hold it in your pants. I"m not about to clean you out of leather seats."
  
  "We could always catch it in-"
  
  "No. No, Iroha, we aren"t going to-when the Hell did this become my life? I shouldn"t be talking two teenagers out of-"
  
  "One of those teenagers has promised his virginity to you; you don"t have the high ground here, Shizuka."
  
  "Ah, that was, I-I didn"t-"
  
  "I still have the panties you gave me, you know?"
  
  "Hachi! That was private!"
  
  And Iroha leans forward, her arms circling Shizu"s neck as she bites the older woman"s ear.
  
  "Oh? Keeping secrets from your girlfriend?" I don"t think I have ever appreciated her foxy tone as much as I"m doing right now.
  
  "My what?"
  
  "We both made a man cum together, and we just kissed. Do you have a better word?"
  
  "I, uh, maybe, I-what?" Oh, broken Shizu may have her own appeal. Especially with Temptress Edition Iroha clinging to her as she tries to get back the ability to speak like a coherent human being.
  
  "I"ll be taking that as a no. So, you are my girlfriend, Shizuka, and that means you don"t get to act like I"m the horny, our of control teenager when I know for a fact how much you enjoy-"
  
  "That was private!"
  
  What? What was? Is this another lily garden? Am I going to have to study botany?
  
  "Well, I don"t like keeping secrets from my boyfriend, so... Unless, of course, I would be keeping a secret for my girlfriend."
  
  And Shizu looks panicked between the two of us before she sinks into a sulk, her hands lifeless on the steering wheel.
  
  "You two are both awful brats who enjoy too much playing with a maiden"s heart."
  
  "You shouldn"t badmouth your boyfriend and girlfriend, Shizuka," Iroha singsongs.
  
  And Shizu grumbles.
  
  "Fine. You are my boyfriend and girlfriend. Happy now?"
  
  "Ecstatic!"
  
  "Does that mean you"ve finally given up on your dumb plan to act as an intermediary to get Iroha and I together so you could slink out of the picture?" I finally interject.
  
  And my two girlfriends slowly turn to look at me in a way that would make owls take notes. After learning to write just so they could take notes.
  
  "What?" Iroha asks in a dull tone.
  
  "How?" Shizu asks in a shaky one that makes Iroha turn sharply toward her.
  
  And I sigh. Really, do I need to explain everything around here? At times like this, I miss having Haruno around.
  
  Which is, of course, part of the problem.
  
  "Iroha, you just had the misfortune to get involved with two people who take great delight in sacrificing themselves and their happiness at the altar of a greater good. I"m sorry to tell you after you"ve already invested yourself in us, but we are deeply broken and flawed, and will take advantage of you to hopefully keep us healthily selfish. So, please, when you notice Shizu about to do a dumb thing like, I don"t know, get the man she fell in love with to have sexual relations with a younger girl after having explicitly told him that he shouldn"t go out with her and should, instead, date a younger girl, well..."
  
  "Hachi, that"s not what I-"
  
  "Not deliberately. Of course. Now tell me-and Iroha-that you didn"t think that would be for the best if it were to naturally happen."
  
  There"s a flash of hurt in Iroha"s eyes, but she knows me. Far better than Yui ever did, and, in some ways, better than Yukino.
  
  She has seen that part of me, understood it, accepted it.
  
  And, despite what one would expect from the foxiest, strongest junior, never taken advantage of it.
  
  So I trust her. Not because trust is a part of love, but because it"s the first thing that was born between the two of us.
  
  So, when the hurt gives way to determination, I know I"ve made the right choice.
  
  "Listen here," she twists Shizu"s head back until their eyes meet, and I don"t think I"ve ever seen Shizu so hesitating with someone other than me. "No more dumb things. We three are together. That was Hachi"s rule, I"ve accepted it, and you definitely will. If any of you come up with another idiotic, self-sacrificing stunt, I want to be informed-and I have veto power. Are we understood?" And the question is meant for the both of us, her sharp eyes making it clear enough she means every word.
  
  I may have been wrong. This wasn"t the right choice: it was no choice at all.
  
  Now, to see whether Haruno could choose.
  
  
  
  ===============================
  ===============================
  
  So, next week is another unwinding chapter with therapist Komachi doing what she does best (that is, desperately needing a therapist of her own after being inflicted with dangerous levels of Hachiman). It also has a conversation with Zaimokuza, in case anyone cares about how those look from the other side.
  
  It's a bit on the shortish side, but I'm thinking about doing a short interlude next week. I'll see how that fits in.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 16
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 16
  
  The Power of Friendship.
  
  Yes, it deserves the capital letters.
  
  The Power of Friendship is one of the pillars of the Shounen genre. When one first hears about it, it"s easy to envision some heartwarming scene where friends gather their strength and push each other to further limits, maybe collaborating in a special combination attack that manages to take down a villain none of them could have managed to touch on their own.
  
  Though, in the immortal words of Kaguya Sama"s Narrator (who also deserves the capital letters): But that is a lie!
  
  The Power of Friendship is not the power of friends; it is not even the power a group of friends gather together. No, the truth, as is quite often the case with the Shounen genre, is far more sinister: it is the power one takes from their friends.
  
  Think about it: let"s say the protagonist is on another planet, getting the stuffing beaten out of him by an alien real estate overlord. The battle is desperate, and he, as the main character, is at this point at a level none of his friends from earlier in the series can ever hope to reach. Things are getting quite dicey, because if he"s the strongest and yet so thoroughly outmatched, what hope is there? So, his friend from when the original series was actually fun and creative enough to merit all the hype (that didn"t derive from fancy haircare products) jumps in to throw one desperation attack that manages to enrage the villain enough that it gets him killed. The friend, not the villain. Obviously.
  
  This is, by no means, an unusual scenario that should catch the main character by surprise. Indeed, this very friend has quite a friendly acquaintance with Saint Peter (because, apparently, Christians are all so high class that they need a dedicated usher into Paradise). Still, with the ease of long practice, this death manages to dredge up a rage that the complete and utter slaughter of his own race didn"t quite entice. And then he yells just long enough to make it clear this is a bit worse than stubbing his toe on the coffee table, gets a rush appointment with his most trusted hairstylist, and is now up to the challenge of making the evil alien rethink his aggressive purchasing strategies.
  
  That is but one application of the heartwarming nature of the Power of Friendship: having a friend gruesomely die for your sake will increase your own strength to the very convenient level of being able to handle the current crisis with ease.
  
  And if you think that was a cherry-picked example, I"d better not mention the time almost all of the cast managed to get themselves killed while he was taking his sweet time coming back from a year-long spa treatment...
  
  So, for reasons pure and not at all self-serving nor cruel, I"m now calling Zaimokuza.
  
  As the phone rings ominously like some kind of church bell from some anime with more budget than original ideas, I rethink today"s events. And yesterday"s events. And the other day"s events. And... well, I believe the pattern has already been established.
  
  Basically, aside from all the Standard Male Gait Number Two inducing scenes, I believe I"m justified in feeling a bit freaked out at the fact that it is now official that I have two (two!) girlfriends who are not only aware of each other, but of me. Yes, they know they are my girlfriends; this is not another passage from my Dark History.
  
  Which... It may take some getting used to.
  
  There"s also the fact I just managed to get my two first loves to make out with each other and, as far as I"m aware, stopped Iroha from recording Yukinoshita"s thorough defloration. Frankly, I wouldn"t bet on it. Iroha is far too Iroha to ever be sure she"s not watching from the ceiling.
  
  So, what is it that people who freak out at a sudden change in their lives do? Call their friends. Like a regular, sane, human being who isn"t involved in an illicit romance with his teacher nor been watched and recorded with said teacher by two different girls, isn"t contemplating whether a third girlfriend will be one too many, and-
  
  For fucks sake! Pick up the phone already, you damn fattie!
  
  "Yes? Blademaster General Zaimokuza speaking."
  
  "... Are you seriously still answering the phone like that?"
  
  "Hachiman! My kinsman! What is it that my devoted vassal would ask of me at this late and not at all too inconvenient hour?"
  
  "Zaimokuza... If you are trying to sarcastically tell me it"s too late and you"d rather speak at another time, you"re going to have to put in some actual effort. It"s a bit hard to discern irony from your Zaimokuzaness."
  
  "No! Not at all, if my bonded brother requires my help, the mere abyss of time shall be no more than a slight hindrance! I shall cross the rivers of Chronos to fight by your side, much as you waded through the Stix to be reunited with me in this life!"
  
  ... This shouldn"t be reassuring. And I hate myself a little bit more when I feel my shoulders loosen.
  
  "Right. Well, I was calling you because I felt I could spare some suicidal brain cells and maybe I could consult-"
  
  "Is he dying?" A muffled voice that doesn"t belong to Zaimokuza comes from the phone. And my shoulders are currently as loose as the jaw of someone about to be punched by a manly protagonist who wants his friend to be brought back to his senses after yelling at him to "clench his teeth." I feel I may have been a bit unclear on how loose my shoulders currently are. They aren"t. At all.
  
  Also, it seems like friendship, pain, and Shounen are irrevocably intermingled.
  
  "What? My Lady Minami, how can you ask such a thing! My sworn kinsman just called me to-"
  
  "Ask him if he"s dying. If anyone at all is dying."
  
  "Uh... Hachiman? Do forgive my impertinence, but is anybody dying?"
  
  My innocence. And the part of my brain that makes vivid pictures. It"s a double suicide.
  
  "Not... that I"m aware of."
  
  "Ah. He says nobody is dying as far as his prodigious insight is capable of discerning."
  
  "Good. Then hang up and go back to what you were doing."
  
  "Lady Minami! How could you ever ask me to desert a friend just to-kyaaa!"
  
  Sagami. On the one hand, I owe you a blood debt for your mercy at silencing the end of Zaimokuza"s line. On the other, I owe you the other kind of blood debt because of what you just inflicted on my poor, thoroughly abused yet still functional after accidentally reading far too many Fat Bastard doujins (that is, more than zero), imagination. I do believe they cancel each other, but as I"m a firm believer in the foremost principle of humanity that is pettiness, I may rethink this position at some point in the future. Likely, when Shizu gets distracted enough that I can raid all of her alcohol.
  
  "No! Lady Minami, I shall stand firm-"
  
  "Of course you will; that"s precisely what I"m counting on-"
  
  I hang up the phone.
  
  After no more than three seconds, Zaimokuza calls back.
  
  I hang again.
  
  And again.
  
  And again.
  
  It... It looks like he finally got the message.
  
  Oh gods, he just sent me a message!
  
  Right. Right. It looks like the Power of Friendship cuts both ways. Either that, or Zaimokuza is actually the main character of his own series and my current state of distress will only be fuel to push forward his training regime, romantic entanglements, or training regime through romantic entanglements-no! Brain, why?! What did I ever do to you?!
  
  "You tried to memorize and categorize all the different Fate timelines and continuities."
  
  And I already apologized for that!
  
  "If apologies were enough, we wouldn"t have lawyers, would we?"
  
  Ah, Brain-chan, how utterly cruel, petty, and despicable of you.
  
  "Praise me more."
  
  That"s what I was doing. But as I currently am in even more dire need of reassurance and tenderness, I think maybe I should stop talking to you.
  
  "Oh, you"re smarter than you look."
  
  Praise me more.
  
  "That wasn"t-"
  
  Sorry, not listening. I am now thoroughly engaged in the prospect of being nursed back to health by the little sister to end all little sisters.
  
  Who is taking her sweet time answering my insistent knocking.
  
  "Yes?" she finally asks, her face visible through the narrow stretch of light that her ajar door is letting out into the corridor.
  
  "Komachi? Can I ask you to get a lap pillow?"
  
  "..."
  
  "..."
  
  "Is this a sex thing?" Her face is twisting with enough disgust to be featured in a series with gorgeous animation yet no plot whatsoever about girls showing their panties. Note to self: kill anyone who looks like a casting director.
  
  "No! Well, yes, but not about my sex-"
  
  The door slams in my face.
  
  I really should think things through before opening my mouth, shouldn"t I?
  
  "No, please. That sounds like too much work for me. Just keep committing social suicide or whatever it is that you do. You know, enjoy your healthy hobbies."
  
  It is not very reassuring that you don"t even know what my daily life actually looks like, Brain-chan.
  
  "Sure, sure, let"s say I don"t. Whatever makes you feel better. I love that rush of dopamine that comes with self-deception."
  
  Brain-chan, I"m starting to think you may have a secret alliance with Body-chan to overthrow me.
  
  "And who would be feeding you all those treasonous thoughts, uh?"
  
  "Are you just going to stand there, looking at my door creepily?" Komachi"s voice interrupts my dia-monologue from the other side of said door.
  
  So, gathering my courage, I open it just a bit.
  
  Unlike what anime has trained me to expect, a pillow doesn"t come flying at me. Neither does a knife, so I will take that as a win.
  
  "I... sorry, I just wanted to talk, but Zaimokuza... I called... Girlfriend... Kissy noises-gah!"
  
  I feel this should be explanation enough.
  
  And going by Komachi"s pale face, it may be.
  
  "Mr. Chuuni has a girlfriend?" I hesitatingly nod. "And you interrupted them with your phone call?" I reluctantly nod. "And you now understand the deep trauma your recent actions have inflicted on your poor little sister?"
  
  I cross my arms and ponder things for a moment. Then I waggle my hand.
  
  Komachi sighs from where she"s sitting on her bed, then stretches her legs and pats her thighs.
  
  I try not to beam.
  
  Then I lie down on a mattress that should be precisely as soft as mine yet obviously isn"t because my parents" favoritism is consistent even in these matters.
  
  Understandably so. Who could blame them.
  
  And then I lay my head upon thighs no other man shall ever claim.
  
  ...
  
  Not like that.
  
  "Hey, not my fault you are perpetually stuck on the gutter setting. I only adapt to frequent stimulus."
  
  "You really need to stop getting so riled up by stupid things like these..." Komachi murmurs as her fingers thread through my hair and I feel at least a bit of tension evaporate.
  
  It"s... We usually aren"t that physical, it"s something she has grown out of, and I"m far too used to being the gross older brother to ever ask for it, but... I admit something about the past few days, about showing and being shown affection through contact and warmth and skin... It"s not even about the sex, just... The connection.
  
  And I remember quite a few times where I held Komachi while she cried, or she sat on my lap to watch a TV show, or we cuddled together while we slept during a long trip...
  
  And I miss that.
  
  It"s inadequate, improper, and all sorts of things. She"s a grown girl who"s already turning quite a few heads, and she shouldn"t be spoiling her gross older brother like this. She would be mortified if any of her friends ever learned about it, and-
  
  "If you"re gonna keep making that face, I don"t know why I should bother. At least be more considerate with your sister and her devout efforts to earn more Komachi points."
  
  I look into eyes that were never like mine, into the spark and mischievousness and earnestness I always lacked.
  
  And I smile.
  
  "Thank you, Komachi."
  
  And I close my eyes and let myself rest.
  
  ***
  
  "So, what was that actually about?" Komachi asks with feigned nonchalance.
  
  "Isn"t Zaimokuza being an actual sexual being enough trauma to-"
  
  "No." And she stabs me with a finger. Being comfortably seated next to her on her far-too soft mattress (seriously, this discrimination is reaching levels unheard of), I am wholly unprepared to defend myself against her treasonous attack. Well played, Komachi; I"ve recently learned that calling out your attacks and expecting people to fight fair is a spectacularly bad idea.
  
  "Fine! Fine! Darn it, no need to rearrange my internal organs."
  
  Komachi is staring at her finger.
  
  "Are you... hard?"
  
  What.
  
  "No."
  
  "Uh, I mean-" she looks up from her finger and sees my, presumably, dead eyes before apparently making a connection. "No! Gods, no, not like that! Gross! So gross! Hachiman levels gross!"
  
  Ah, that"s more like it.
  
  "Then what-"
  
  "Your sides! It"s hard, and not like-ugh. You just had to make me think about that."
  
  "You"re the one who said Zaimokuza having sex was not reason enough to seek solace from a carelessly cruel world."
  
  "Mister Chuuni is not my grossther!"
  
  "Oh, that one"s new. Good job; I like the portmanteau."
  
  "Thank you!" Her face brightens, and her smile shows me enough teeth to flash, yet not enough to be worried for my life. A happy medium that seems to elude most of my female acquaintances these days. "Only the best for my big grossness!"
  
  "That one"s just lazy."
  
  "Like you!"
  
  "Oh. Good point."
  
  "I know-wait a second, are you doing this just to distract me from talking about your actual problems?"
  
  "Uh... It"s not so much that I don"t want to talk about it, but that you may not want to-"
  
  "Is this a sex thing?" She asks with what I believe is starting to resemble practice.
  
  "... Partially?"
  
  And Komachi buries her face in her hands.
  
  "Fine. Talk. I"ll just pretend it"s the plot to some overly convoluted harem romcom."
  
  "Yeah, that"s basically what I"ve been doing."
  
  "And how"s that working out for you?"
  
  At that question, I go over the past few days, and... Well, I do have two girlfriends.
  
  "Surprisingly well."
  
  "Then your cute little sister will make an effort and do the same-"
  
  "No. That is forbidden. You are not to think about-"
  
  "Regarding you. I"m going to do the same regarding you. Seriously, you"re worse than dad at times."
  
  "Ah... right. Sorry."
  
  There"s a pause before she starts fidgeting. It may be interesting to see how long she can keep up the whole thing with covering her face.
  
  "Well?"
  
  And I sigh.
  
  "I managed to get Yukino and Yui to kiss. They"re presumably in a relationship right now." At this very moment, if I know anything about Yuigahama"s tendency to overdo things and the earlier kiss was anything to go by.
  
  And her hands drop.
  
  Wow, I"m good.
  
  "You what? They what? Reality what?!"
  
  "So, I think I managed to fulfill my promise?"
  
  "When I asked you to take care of Yui, I didn"t mean for you to hitch her up with your hypotenuse!"
  
  "Oh, it seems like your trigonometry studies are going all right."
  
  "Don"t you patronize me-"
  
  "And your vocabulary is also-"
  
  And another finger-stab. Really, it"s my fault for not wearing protection.
  
  Not like that.
  
  Also, I should ask Shizu what the Hell am I even-
  
  "Right, so, you... Couldn"t you just have made things clear? Told them you were with another person?"
  
  There"s a silence that comes between us. Familiar, even if I have only felt it on one other day before. Something that is not quite expectation rustling like dry leaves at the beginning of winter, like the ominous-
  
  "What. Is. It."
  
  And I sigh.
  
  "Two."
  
  Komachi, having recklessly forgotten what shelter she found behind her fingers, looks at me, her face as devoid of expression as her eyes of light.
  
  I check the room for kitchen knives before elaborating. Yes, we are in her bedroom. No, I don"t think I"m being overly cautious.
  
  "Two persons. I am... Both Shizu and Iroha are my girlfriends. And their own girlfriends. With each other, I mean."
  
  Komachi looks straight at me, then turns away and curls herself around her pillow.
  
  I have the urge to pat her back, but I"m kind of attached to my hand, and I don"t want that to change.
  
  "So... From voyeur to girlfriend. Is that all?"
  
  "I... may have managed to convince Shizu to drop her stupid plan to make me ditch her for a younger girl."
  
  "By getting a younger girl to also be with her. Brilliant. As expected of your cunning plans, brother."
  
  "I don"t think any other man has ever been as caustically berated for being in a consensual menage-a-trois."
  
  "If you have to say it in French, assume it"s not normal."
  
  "And since when have I been normal?"
  
  Komachi stills before she uncurls and resumes her seated position by my side. Then, still avoiding my eyes, she turns and...
  
  She hugs me.
  
  "You don"t have to be..." she murmurs against my chest.
  
  "Komachi?"
  
  "You don"t have to be normal. It"s not you. Never was. I just... I just love you the way you are, and I don"t want you to ever stop being the tender, gentle, devoted brother that you are. And if that means you are going to be tender, gentle, and devoted with two women who are smart enough to see that in you... Then I"ll be happy. Grossed out, but happy."
  
  At those words, at something that she has implied quite a few times but very rarely said, I...
  
  I try not to tear up, because no matter what she says, a big brother crying just because his little sister says a few cute lines will be too gross even for her tolerance levels built up over the years.
  
  But I shut up and hug her, cradling her against me, enjoying her warmth in all the ways I can feel at the moment.
  
  It"s only after quite a while of quiet cuddling that I finally force out the words that have been on my mind since her last line.
  
  "It may actually be three women..."
  
  The finger stab is completely expected. The bite on my arm isn"t.
  
  ***
  
  After quite a while of apologizing, explaining, and promising not to inundate the world with mini-Hachimans that will then go on to self-replicate with other unwary women, I leave Komachi"s room far more at ease (even if slightly more bruised) than when I came in.
  
  At the cost of her irreparable trauma. It looks like the Power of Family works as well as the Power of Friendship.
  
  So, as is my habit at this point, I decide to indulge in a bit of self-sabotage.
  
  I take out my phone and call one of the very few numbers in my contacts.
  
  I wait, the electronic notes grating on my nerves.
  
  After seven tones, I hang up.
  
  Because Haruno isn"t picking up. Just as I expected.
  
  
  
  ====================
  ====================
  So, obviously, after an ending like that there'll be another Haruno interlude next week. That's on top of the regular update, because I don't want to induce my readers to destroy their liver in some kind of bizarre mirror-neuron phenomenon (or, well, due to actual alcoholism). So look forward to a double update in seven days.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 16.5 - Haruno Can"t Get Drunk
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  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 16.5 - Haruno Can"t Get Drunk
  
  It may come as a surprise that some of the best whiskies in the world are brewed in Japan. Suntory Holdings Limited, for instance, has even managed to snatch the title for the best whisky in the world with a very memorable sherry-cask-aged single malt.
  
  I know the heir to the company. Mother introduced us at a gathering of... family heirs, what else? Nice enough guy, didn"t even brag about his father"s company and managed not to get offended when I didn"t even touch the whisky on offer at the party. I usually don"t go for the hard stuff unless I"m feeling particularly up to it.
  
  Also, I didn"t want to get his hopes up about getting some next-generation heirs out of me.
  
  Still, the fact remains: some of the best whisky in the world is brewed in Japan.
  
  Which is why I"m downing my fourth glass of Glenmorangie.
  
  Stupid.
  
  My phone rings again. It"s Hachiman.
  
  Again.
  
  So stupid.
  
  I could"ve proceeded with the plan, just have Shizuka accept my terms as the loser. Or I could"ve lost, accepted her win, and moved on.
  
  I could"ve done plenty of other things. It"s not like I"m limited in options.
  
  But I didn"t. No, I had to go for the stupid, "genuine" thing.
  
  And I lost control.
  
  I could"ve... Could"ve...
  
  It"s a single malt, too, but this one is aged in an oak cask. It"s a bit fruity, far softer than one would expect from straight whisky, but I still feel the burn down my throat. Especially now that the ice is gone and I haven"t bothered to replace it.
  
  I don"t care what some snobs say: I prefer my whisky slightly watered down, even if only with the tiny amount of half-melted ice.
  
  But... I don"t feel like getting up.
  
  The last time I got drunk on this sofa, I was mellow. Melancholy, yes, but also drowsy and relaxed after a release that I felt had been a long time coming. So I took my wine and experienced it, seeing each and every way it interacted with my senses.
  
  Now I take my glass of eighteen-year-old Scotch and swallow a large gulp out of it. It"s room temperature, and what should be smooth and sweet goes down harshly. But I"m already at the point where there"s that slight separation between sensation and thought, and I can only feel a detached curiosity over my urge to cough it up.
  
  And that"s what I should have felt as Shizuka managed to once again shatter my expectations. Because she now cross-trains, of all things. Can"t even plan a single fight with the insufferably unpredictable woman...
  
  So I should have felt curious, taken the time to analyze what she actually got out of those few lessons, seen what kind of tricks she had up her sleeve, and teased them out with a few probing atemi strikes. I didn"t need to rush, to go straight for a too tempting finisher by grabbing her hair when I know all too well nobody serious about fighting leaves it that long Not without taking some kind of precaution.
  
  She didn"t tie it in a ponytail before the fight, didn"t put it in a rushed updo. She let it down, waving behind her with every swaying motion.
  
  And I was stupid enough not to see it for the lure it was.
  
  It"s... hard. It"s hard to know when people are clever. Because they usually don"t see what is glaringly obvious, so it"s hard to take into account that they can see something I don"t. But Shizuka...
  
  I should"ve known.
  
  I should"ve accepted it.
  
  But... It was going well. Hachiman did everything I expected out of him and more, managing to get even the brat a chance at a happy ending and-
  
  He slapped her.
  
  Oh, that was just precious! The look of absolute incredulity on her face even as he himself didn"t quite know when his body moved... That mental video file is going in the family album.
  
  Belatedly, I feel the smile tugging on my lips, the cheer slowly spreading through the haze of the alcohol.
  
  And my phone rings.
  
  It"s Hachiman. Again.
  
  I... I"m tempted to pick up, to hear his voice, his sarcastic barbs, his earnest concern, his bewildered reactions at my teasing, the way his breath caught as I pushed him against the wall, the way he looked at me as my lips caught his, how his body felt against mine when I-
  
  I hang up.
  
  I had it all planned out.
  
  When has that ever worked out for me?
  
  No, really, when has that done anything but spoil things? The plans work, they do, but what do I get out of them but the ever-growing distaste for predictable puppets? When have I ever gotten anything that I actually, truly wanted out of one of those schemes?
  
  I lost my virginity to one of those, just to see how it felt.
  
  It felt empty. Unsatisfying at a level that I didn"t understand until I was weak enough to take Shizuka"s lips, to confess to my first love, to feel, actually feel what it"s like to meet the body of someone you love with your own, to welcome them into your own, accept them as they accept you until it all turns out to ashes and burning disappointment as they stop being the person you love even if you still love them, because they failed, but they still were there when it counted, and I could not have made it without her, I would still be trying to fit inside a mask until either the mask or I broke and that kiss, that damned kiss that promised so much that it couldn"t ever give me-
  
  Can"t get drunk, but I can very well try.
  
  So I drop the empty glass on the sofa cushion, and I take the bottle by its neck before taking a long, burning swig out of it.
  
  I consider for a moment whether to wipe my mouth with my sleeve. I finally decide not to bother.
  
  Thoughts are murky now, disconnected, slow in coming. It lacks the precise clarity, the sharpness of my mind that I also lacked this afternoon on that red-tinted rooftop.
  
  She was my first kiss.
  
  And I told her, the words as much of an attack as anything I had done up to that point. But them being an attack doesn"t make them any less true.
  
  Hachiman was my second.
  
  Am I... Yes.
  
  I am crying.
  
  The man who broke my sister"s heart even as he mended it by sacrificing both of his first loves. The man who took my own first love and a cheeky young thing I need to learn how to handle. Such a greedy, selfish, giving, selfless man.
  
  The room is spinning in that way that goes backward whenever I focus, and I feel like I"m sinking into the couch. I lift my hand and look at my waving fingers, the action somehow far more amusing than it has any right to be, and I laugh even as tears blur my eyes.
  
  Because Hachiman Hikygaya would have been within my grasp just a few days ago. Not even a week.
  
  And I pushed him toward Shizuka, a woman he won"t ever betray.
  
  A woman who will never take me.
  
  A sob tears through my throat, intense enough that I feel it through the alcohol"s numbness.
  
  I... may be a little drunk.
  
  Because I didn"t even hear the door to Yukino"s apartment open, and now I"m confronted by the shocked faces of my younger sister and her new girlfriend as they stare down at me from behind the couch"s backrest.
  
  "Sis-sister?! What-" The brat starts to say before she shuts up and rushes to the other side of the couch, kneeling beside me and taking my face between her hands.
  
  If she kisses me, she will be my third.
  
  I wonder what face Hachiman would make if I told him?
  
  Yui takes the bottle out of my limp grasp and looks at me with worry.
  
  "Yukinon, I"m gonna get a glass of water for her," she says, trying not to fret.
  
  "Right. Right, thank you... Yui." Aaaand there"s that cute blush.
  
  "You two are adorable together," I manage to say without a pronounced drawl. Yui yelps and Yukino"s hands stiffen on my cheeks.
  
  "Sister...?"
  
  And I grab her shoulders and drag her down to me, her face resting over my chest as I kiss the top of her head.
  
  "You know, I always was kind of jealous of Hachiman and how he ranted about his little sister."
  
  "Sister, I don"t think-" and there"s that hint of frost and affront in her tone that has been missing since her defeat. I didn"t miss them at all.
  
  "I always wanted to brag about you, you know? Tell him you were the cutest one, that I wanted to coddle and spoil you rotten."
  
  "I-" Yes, that uncertainty suits her far better.
  
  "I"m sorry, Yukino. Mother always said I was a genius at everything, but that was a lie. There"s something you are much better than I am at, and it always made me angry that you didn"t even notice, that you didn"t even try to take advantage of it, stuck on your stupid, childish competition with me." It takes effort to push the words out. Some of it is due to the alcohol.
  
  "Sister... stop teasing me, I never was better at-"
  
  I grasp her head and turn it, forcing her to look at eyes ugly with dried tears that are about to renew themselves.
  
  "No. No, you were. You are. You are so much better than I ever will be, even if you are still leagues behind normal people."
  
  "What are you even saying?" And there"s that confusion again, that part of her Hachiman managed to drag out, the part that had been buried for years. I could love him just because of that.
  
  And Yui enters my field of view at just the right moment, as if I had planned for it.
  
  Except that I hadn"t. And so it works.
  
  I kiss Yukino"s forehead and turn her head to the bewildered girl by our side.
  
  "You are so much better at being loved, Yukino..."
  
  And I smile, and laugh, and cry.
  
  And, for the first time in years, prodded by the girl who"ll have to deal with my sister"s overabundance of failings and frailty, Yukino hugs me.
  
  And my little sister comforts her older, drunk sister.
  
  Yet another thing I owe him.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 17
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  Author's Note: This week I posted two chapters back to back. Make sure to read the previous one (it's about Haruno) before reading this. Things will make slightly more sense that way.
  
  
  
  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 17
  
  There"s an old Zen tale about a student meditating atop a mountain, probably with the top of his robes undone to show his well-sculpted physique that is a requirement for monks of all religions (that is, if manga has taught me anything-that guy from Berserk was ripped... and now I made myself sad).
  
  Right. A minute of silence.
  
  ...
  
  Moving on.
  
  As I was saying, the gym-obsessed ascetic is meditating upon the deepest mysteries of the cosmos, such as whether egg yolks or chicken breasts will contribute more to his gains, when his old master, who probably has an unhealthy obsession with women"s undergarments, approaches him and asks him a question. The tale doesn"t specify which one, but let"s assume this time it isn"t about the disappointing sale of tickets for the Falling Trees" concert after their last going-away tour.
  
  "Disciple Dude-bro," he begins with a solemn tone, "what is the best advice you could give to someone just starting out on their journey toward muscle illumination?"
  
  And Dude-bro, taken out of his deep contemplation on dietary supplements, ponders his master"s question for quite a while. He goes over his teachings, everything he has learned, but also tries to go beyond, to infer something further than he"s been taught, because, despite the panties-related shenanigans, he respects his old master that much.
  
  Disciple Dude-bro may not be that smart.
  
  "Push-ups, sit-ups, and plenty of juice," he finally answers.
  
  And his master smiles proudly at him, in a way that"s slightly less disturbing than when he walks by the nearest high school.
  
  "Well done, Disciple Dude-bro. I am proud of your progress."
  
  Then he leaves, and Dude-bro is proud of his achievement before going back to his deep meditations on the best way to turn eating into a disgusting chore.
  
  The tale doesn"t end here, of course, because that would just be far too straightforward for anything with "Zen" in the description. No, it needs to go ahead and screw with your mind like a Haruno-related incident.
  
  So, the next day, Dude-bro is pondering whether more reps with lower weight would really be that detrimental to hypertrophy when his master walks by once again.
  
  "Disciple Dude-bro," he says once again, "what is the best advice you could give to someone just starting out on their journey toward muscle illumination?"
  
  "Push-ups, sit-ups, and plenty of juice," he immediately answers, wondering whether senility and its symptoms can really be staved off with rigorous exercise.
  
  "Wrong!" his master yells, furthering his doubts about whether it"s finally time to call that nursing home.
  
  "But, master, that was the answer I gave you yesterday, and you said-"
  
  "That was yesterday"s right answer," the master interrupts, with a smug smile that clearly tells Dude-bro he"s been planning that for weeks.
  
  What we laymen who are not initiated into the mysteries of jock-monkhood usually take away from this tale is that Dude-bro cannot get stuck on one single answer, that his comprehension needs to progress apace with his experiences, that the world is an ever-shifting, chaotic mess, and no single solution fits any and all problems.
  
  Except violence and friendship-inducing punches, I guess, but even those can apparently get turned around by a sufficiently traumatized Yukinoshita scion.
  
  That is, all of them. Apparently.
  
  "Hikky?" the girl on whose delicate shoulders I"ve dumped at least half my load of Yukinoshita-related issues intrudes upon my thoughts from across the desk at our club.
  
  Luckily, it is readily visible to anyone with eyes to see that her shoulders have been getting anime-style training for years.
  
  "Sorry, Yuigahama, I-"
  
  "Yui," she says, a childish, mulish pout on lips that-down.
  
  "Ah, I mean-"
  
  "I suggest you comply, Hikigaya. She"s relentless when she sets her mind on something," Yukinoshita adds from her gardener"s side.
  
  Yes, the room smells like lilies; why do you ask?
  
  "Oh, I bet you know how relentless-"
  
  "Hikky!"
  
  "Hikigaya!"
  
  And now I have two blushing, stuttering, angry women glaring at me.
  
  It"s nice to be back on familiar ground.
  
  "What? I just meant that you are already calling her Yui. What did you think I meant, Yukinoshita? Uh? Is there something improper going-"
  
  And she slaps me.
  
  ...
  
  What.
  
  "There," she says with a smile that couldn"t be more satisfied if she was surrounded by disturbing panda plushies in the middle of a cat café, "now we are even."
  
  And I can only remain on my seat, looking at the standing, imperious Yukinoshita as her dark hair almost floats around her before settling while her arm remains stretched toward me.
  
  So I grab it and pull her across the desk.
  
  "Wha-" she begins to panic.
  
  Then I hug her and laugh.
  
  She fidgets, trying to get out of the uncomfortable position I"m keeping her in, stretched across the desk as I hold her, but then Yui rushes to my side and hugs us both, and she also starts laughing.
  
  Yukinoshita never joins in, but she relaxes between the two of us, a soft, enchanting smile on her lips.
  
  It"s been almost a year in the making, and I nearly managed to screw it up beyond repair more than once, but here and now, even with everything that"s going on, I"m happy to just let go and enjoy a hug with my two friends who are very much an item and definitely and forever beyond my grasp.
  
  And this is the kind of pause I needed to get my head back in working order.
  
  Because what"s life if one can"t stop to smell the lilies?
  
  ***
  
  "So..." Yukinoshita is once again seated in front of me, still flustered yet trying to fake her usual poise, "Hikyga-"
  
  "Hachiman," Yui interrupts.
  
  Well, at least she didn"t say "Hachi."
  
  Yukinoshita looks to her left before her shoulders slump in defeat.
  
  "Ha-Hachiman..." she says, with a tiny voice that wouldn"t be out of place on Saika"s lips.
  
  ...
  
  Thank the Heavens she didn"t pull that off a week ago.
  
  "Yes?" I ask with a not-at-all dry throat. Because I can already feel Shizu"s yandere senses tingling, and I can"t ever be sure that Iroha isn"t watching.
  
  "You... wanted to talk? With us?" she finally seems to regain her bearings. Slightly.
  
  ""Want" may not be the right word..."
  
  "Don"t be mean, Hikky."
  
  "Yuigaha-"
  
  "Yui," she interrupts with a beaming smile. That may have a bit of an edge.
  
  "Yui," I promptly reply. Because let it not be said that I"m not a faster learner than Yukinoshi-Yukino.
  
  This will take some getting used to.
  
  Yes, I"m aware of the irony.
  
  "Oh, oh! I should stop calling you "Hikky," though. How about Hachi?"
  
  And I choke. Again.
  
  If this turns into an erotic auto-asphyxiation thing, I"m going to be very pissed.
  
  "Hachi? What"s wrong?" Yuiga-Yui asks as she reaches across the desk to awkwardly pat my back.
  
  "I... That"s... Could you call me any other way?" I implore.
  
  "Uh? Why? Do you have a problem with "Hachi?"" Please, Yui, those eyes of yours are too pure! Don"t ask me that with those eyes!
  
  "Yes, do you have a problem with "Hachi?"" Please, Yukino, those eyes of yours are too sharp! Don"t ask me that with those eyes!
  
  "I... Not exactly a problem, but..."
  
  "Does this have to do with my sister?" Yukino! Stop trying to make me develop an erotic auto-asphyxiation fetish! I have enough with my exhibitionistic fetish!
  
  Wait, do I-
  
  "If you don"t answer in the very next few seconds, I am going to assume the worst possible answer, Hachiman." Right. I may be an exhibitionist, but I definitely am not an M. Time to get that sense of self-preservation working.
  
  "... You are kidding, right?"
  
  Brain-chan, this is not the time to dawdle; we need to get Self-Preservation-kun in working order.
  
  "Oh, gods... Fine, you gather the seven dragon balls, and we"ll see what we can do."
  
  Surely, matters are not as grave as you"re implying?
  
  "Let"s just say he pulled a Krillin. Or that you definitely haven"t looked in the mirror lately. One of those."
  
  Right, you may have a point.
  
  "Hachi-" Yukino starts, the temperature of the room dropping several degrees.
  
  "That"s how my girlfriends call me!" I burst out.
  
  Oh, Self-Preservation-kun. That"s where you were buried.
  
  Nice of you to save a spot for me.
  
  "Your what?" Yukino accuses.
  
  "Your what?" Yui chokes out.
  
  Well, at least it"s not me that"s being choked...
  
  "Yet."
  
  Shut up, Brain-chan. No wonder I never pay you any mind.
  
  "I... Uh... Where to start..."
  
  "At the plural." Hey, Yukino, I hear sexual release does wonders for homicidal impulses. How about you let Yui-
  
  "Yes. The plural sounds good." Oi, Yui, shouldn"t you be more cuddly and puppy-like? Also, totally unrelated question, did you get your shots? The one for rabies, specifically?
  
  "Uh, you see, I am given to understand that in certain countries-"
  
  "We are in Japan. Not certain countries."
  
  "One could argue that Japan is a certain country-"
  
  "One could discover how weak a defense sophistry is. Physically."
  
  "Yukino, no need to threaten him. I"m sure Hachi will be straightforward and sincere with the both of us after what he did yesterday, won"t you, Hachi?"
  
  "Yui, did I ever tell you you have a scary smile?"
  
  "Don"t be silly! I"m a cheerful, simple gal who"s never in a bad mood. I"m a nice girl! And you love nice girls, don"t you, Hachi?"
  
  ...
  
  "Dear Komachi, if you are reading this, I"m no longer among the living. If it"s not too much to ask, I would prefer that you smash my hard drive to pieces before burning it and scattering its ashes over Hayama"s clique. Also, if you are so struck with grief that you decide to take up the cloth and devote your life to God in a remote monastery, that would be nice, but make sure not to go to any place where nuns wear short skirts. That way lies madness. And fat priests."
  
  "Is there anything I can say that will get me out of this room alive?"
  
  "The truth," Yukino states with finality in her tone. That is, like usual. "Well, maybe. It depends on said truth," she reluctantly amends.
  
  "Right..." Seeing no other way out of this, I take a deep breath and... "I"m going out with Shizuka."
  
  There are two sets of confused eyes blinking at me in eerie synchronization. Somehow, I would rather not imagine how this level of harmony has been achieved.
  
  Not now, at least.
  
  Not with an audience.
  
  "Shizuka? How did you meet her?" Yui hesitantly asks.
  
  ...
  
  "She actually introduced herself."
  
  "Oh. How brash of her," Yukino disapproves. "And where did this meeting take place?"
  
  This can"t be happening...
  
  "Here, at school."
  
  "Ah. A younger year? Iroha"s friend?" Yui asks, still trying to make sense of things.
  
  "You... could say that." Shizu, stop being so happy. It"s unbecoming.
  
  "Have I... seen her?" Yukino frowns.
  
  "Yes. Quite often. With Iroha, even. Yesterday, for instance." I could be more obvious. I don"t know how, but I"m sure I could be.
  
  And now the two of them blink once again as shock gives way to-
  
  "What the Hell-"
  
  "Hikigaya, what are you even-"
  
  That.
  
  "It"s the truth! You can ask them-her! Well, you can, but not in public, for obvious reasons, so, maybe try to be a bit discreet, because this is a bit of a delicate situation and-"
  
  "You can"t go out with your teacher-!"
  
  "-And I would appreciate it very much if you didn"t scream that at the top of your lungs, Yukino!"
  
  And there"s a shocked gasp.
  
  "How... how long?" Yuigahama asks.
  
  And I sit down after seeing Yukino"s screamed admonishment had made me stand up. What"s with this girl and making me move without realizing it? Is this the fabled "my body moved by itself?" Is a weird old man going to ask me to eat his hair? Do I need more fiber in my diet?
  
  "Not... not that long. Since last week."
  
  There"s an awkward pause, which is weird because the growing sense of familiarity makes it a bit hard to call her awkward. How about we get on a first name basis already, Pause-chan?
  
  "And... the plural?" Yukinoshita asks, apparently unwillingly.
  
  And I shuffle a bit on my seat.
  
  "... Iroha."
  
  "How did that even-" Yui starts to ask.
  
  "I would rather not tell. Komachi"s traumatized enough already."
  
  "Wait, you told your sister?" Yukino asks, with a weird emphasis on the line.
  
  "She wanted to know. I resisted as long as I could."
  
  "What does that even mean-"
  
  "Yui," Yukino looks at her after laying a finger on the flustered girl"s lips. Oi, the lily garden is one thing, but at least don"t flaunt it in front of me, "I really don"t think we want to know."
  
  "You don"t," I, fighting against my very being, agree with her.
  
  "I wasn"t talking to you." Ah, there"s that frostiness again. I almost missed it.
  
  "I mean, I wish that was the only sister involved-"
  
  And suddenly I"m stretched on top of the desk, Yukino having grabbed my tie and looking at me with ice so cold it actually burns.
  
  "Explain," she demands.
  
  And I do.
  
  Wait for me, Self-Preservation-kun. I shan"t be long.
  
  ***
  
  Yukino is rubbing her temples, and Yui is rubbing Yukino"s shoulders while shooting me a glare from time to time.
  
  "Only you could manage to get my sister involved in something like this..." the defrosting yuki-onna mutters.
  
  "It... wasn"t on purpose," I say while sheepishly rubbing the back of my neck like anime has taught me to do in such circumstances.
  
  Oh, wait, no, these aren"t precedented circumstances.
  
  Great, I can finally contribute to Zaimokuza"s trainwreck of a career by giving him an original idea for a light novel series. Let"s go with "I tried to eat my Christmas Cake, but ended up choking on my impromptu harem."
  
  Fuck, I would read that.
  
  Zaimokuza must never know.
  
  "Hikky... I don"t think that"s any better..." Yui mutters, at least having given up on her "Hachi" offensive now that she knows what it actually entails.
  
  Clever girl.
  
  I should start carrying treats.
  
  "Right... I agree with you on that. Still, Yukino, about your sister-"
  
  "You break it, you fix it."
  
  "... I think it came pre-broken. The warranty-"
  
  "I am afraid any and all purchases are final. If you are unhappy with our service, I could always refer you to our manager. My mother."
  
  "... Yukino, why do you hate me so?"
  
  "Hate? I am entrusting the fate of my dear sister to you; what more proof of my affection do you need?"
  
  I look at Yukino"s unyielding gaze for a moment before turning my eyes up to the soothing -no, Yui also seems set on melting my internal organs with her mind.
  
  Yui, I"m afraid your talents lie elsewhere. You are much better at hardening than softening. Ask half our class.
  
  ... A bit more than half, going by your gardening talents.
  
  Well, time to take a deep breath and... Let it flow.
  
  "Do you really mean that?" I ask Yukino, my head tilted down, my eyes intense on hers, my voice deep.
  
  This isn"t even my final form.
  
  "Uh?" Not even final, but I still manage to startle Yukino without physical violence.
  
  I think I may have leveled up at some point.
  
  "Do you mean it?" I repeat, syllables slow and precise, yet with an underlying growl. "Do you trust me with Haruno? To handle her as I see fit?"
  
  And she freezes, caught in my eyes, and I hear Yui swallow.
  
  "I..." Yukino flushes, put on the spot, "I... Maybe?"
  
  "No. No, that won"t do. Because once I decide, I will go ahead and do it; that"s the way I work, the way I am. You, of all people, know that. So, once again, Yukino Yukinoshita, do you trust me to handle Haruno Yukinoshita and whatever"s wrong with her and my own girlfriend?"
  
  Yukino swallows, still unable to look away from me.
  
  "I... do," she finally whispers.
  
  I smile, and I reach across the desk before caressing her cheek.
  
  "There, was that so hard?"
  
  And she flushes, embarrassed at-
  
  Oh.
  
  Yui is staring daggers at me and cutely growling, Yukino is breathing heavily, and-
  
  Right.
  
  Deep-Voiced Bastard, it seems you shall remain a forbidden technique. You are too strong to carelessly unleash.
  
  "I swear this is Platonic!" I almost yell in a panic.
  
  Incidentally, Platonic does not mean homosexual, Zaimokuza.
  
  And Yui grabs my sleeve in her iron grasp as I"m about to take my hand away from the rapidly overheating yuki-onna.
  
  Then she leans down and puts it on top of her head, making me move it till I"m petting her hair.
  
  And she smiles at me, a pleased flush and easy smile under the shadow of my hand.
  
  "I know. We"re friends, aren"t we, Hikky?" she states rather than ask, her warm eyes beside Yukino"s hesitating ones, their cheeks mushed together without a trace of the taller girl pulling away as both of them look at me with not even a hint of rejection.
  
  And I swear I don"t choke back a relieved, happy sob.
  
  
  
  =============================
  =============================
  
  So, next week Hachi will try to have a rational, calm talk about Haruno with Shizu and Iroha. Or course, everything will go according to plan and no curveballs at all will be thrown. Would I ever lie to you?
  
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  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 18
  
  Today, Hikigaya sensei is going to teach you all about the battle planning scene.
  
  The battle planning scene is something that, while not present in every action shounen, can be a fundamental part of the narrative. Of course, blond aliens who just scream a lot rarely, if ever, feel the need to plan much more than just deciding by which time-multiplier-slash-gravity-multiplier are they going to commit suicide, I mean, train their bodies to reach new limits. But when the characters have less straightforward capabilities, such as, for instance, the skill to reverse causality for a single attack or reverse genders for unlimited waifus (works), a scene where the main characters discuss how to approach their new challenge can be vital.
  
  Mostly, so that the very confused player feels like he has a tenuous grasp on what the Hell"s going on and doesn"t think his continuous trips to the feline-themed dojo are random bullshit.
  
  They are, of course, but it"s important that players don"t think so.
  
  Moreover, as a scene archetype, it introduces plenty of opportunities for character interaction, development, and fanservice-I mean, for the protagonist to get into cooking battles with the tsundere and yandere.
  
  ... And now I want to play a Fate game with Shokugeki no Souma Servants. The CGs can be directly lifted from the anime.
  
  Still, the main drawbacks of such a scene are, as Zaimokuza would put it, manifold. Scratch that: as Zaimokuza would put it, they are as plentiful as the laments of the Valkyrie on the blood-red battlefields of spellcheck (translator"s note: "Valkyrie" means "beta reader"). For one, they can erase tension if the plan decided upon goes off without a hitch, but they can also feel like boring exposition heaping upon itself. That is precisely why, more often than not, some unexpected element is introduced into the mix so that viewers will be thrown out of balance and proper pacing can be reestablished without a panty shot.
  
  A good example of how a battle planning situation can be thrown off the rails would be, for instance, to have the handsome, clever, downright saintly protagonist visit his two paramours (his stats are so good that he deserves them, damn it) only for them to-
  
  "Iroha, lock the door!"
  
  "Done!"
  
  Right. That.
  
  ...
  
  All right, let"s summarize: I have left my (very straightforward and not at all confusing and laced with mixed feelings from all involved parties) meeting with Yui and Yukinosh-Yukino (yes, still getting used to that particular relationship upgrade). Of course, that wasn"t enough emotional drain for the day, so I immediately headed to Shizu"s apartment to have a proper planning session regarding how we are going to tackle Haruno"s issues in a way that will hopefully not involve actual, physical tackles-not holding my breath on that one.
  
  Then I sat at her table to partake in Iroha"s always plentiful bag of snacks and Shizu"s shitty teabags (I"m in love, not taste challenged), only for them to smile weirdly at one another and... Do this.
  
  Whatever the Hell this is.
  
  "I feel I should warn you that it"s very unlikely my parents will ever pay you any ransom. In fact, they may demand you pay them damages if you ever intend to let me go."
  
  "The fact you can say that with such a straight face is either very impressive or very disturbing," Shizu comments, her hand already raising for a customary temple rub.
  
  "At least he didn"t add anything about how his sister would fetch a much better price..." Iroha says, scratching her cheek in cute discomfort.
  
  You know, I never quite got the appeal of bullying cute characters, but...
  
  "Of course not! No matter how high the ransom, what kidnapper would ever be so foolish as to let go of the treasure that is Komachi?" Really, that is just basic economics: there"s plenty of money, but only one Komachi, so supply and demand are unfairly skewed in her favor.
  
  "Senpai, I"m going to be mad."
  
  "Iroha, you are as confusing as ever."
  
  "How can you be so smooth at times and then pull off cringe like this is completely beyond me..." Shizu"s temple rubbing intensifies.
  
  Right, every woman I"m having sexual relations with is already annoyed. Mission accomplished; time to sip my tea with eyes half-closed and faux British poise.
  
  "So," I add after a short sip that allows me to pretend this isn"t something most supermarkets would refuse to ever disgrace their aisles with, "why am I currently locked in with you?"
  
  Or, as an American superhero obsessed with online personality quizzes and trench coats would put it: why are you locked in here with me?
  
  Really, dude, chill: it"s usually butterflies. Or two bears dancing. Or a human split in half.
  
  All right, the thing can get pretty creepy, I admit it.
  
  It seems that, while my own personal monologue on how disturbing both superheroes and personality assessment tools can become in the hands of Westerners, Iroha and Shizu have been maintaining a non-verbal communication that has ended up with Shizu sighing and Iroha triumphantly smirking. Somehow, I feel like this perfectly encapsulates the relationship we three will have going forward.
  
  "Hachi..." Shizu seems like she"s gathering her strength after calling out my pet name. That and blushing slightly in a way that has me tighten the reins on my Deep-Voiced Bastard transformation. No! Too strong! This power shall remain sealed in my Tyrant"s arm!
  
  ...
  
  Zaimokuza must never know.
  
  Also, Iroha, stop elbowing Shizu. It makes her jiggle, and that, in turn, weakens the seal.
  
  "Hachi," she starts once again, "what did you want to do today?"
  
  "Uh, isn"t the male the one who"s supposed to not pay attention and have things naggingly repeated at him?"
  
  "Indulge me," she replies with an eyebrow twitch. It looks like the temple rubbing is as efficient as ever. That is, not at all.
  
  "Well... I just got Yukinoshi-Yukino"s permission to deal with Haruno as I see fit, so I wanted to talk with you two about how to proceed now that-"
  
  Shizu"s finger is pressing on my lips. This has produced two reactions in me: the need to annoyedly tell her that she shouldn"t ask if she"s going to interrupt my answer and the desire to suck on it and tease her with my tongue.
  
  I indulge on the second.
  
  "Eek!" And now she"s cradling her hand, the slight blush from earlier having come back with reinforcements.
  
  Also, Iroha is very visibly holding back her laughter.
  
  "You are despicable," my teacher finally says, her cheeks still as red as the kaio-ken aura I very dearly hope she never develops.
  
  "And you"re delightfully cute when you act all embarrassed like this." Uh. My voice isn"t deep right now. Weird.
  
  Ah, well, I"m sure this won"t have any unforeseen effects going forward.
  
  I mean, Shizu overheating is definitely not unforeseen.
  
  "Hachi," Iroha"s soft voice intrudes, likely having taken whatever passes for pity on Shizu in the kitsune"s emotional spectrum (some form of smug superiority, I"m sure), "what we both are trying to say is that... You don"t need to do this."
  
  What?
  
  "What?" Oi, Brain-chan, no hijacking my vocal cords. I already have enough with one entity doing that.
  
  Also, why are you two both sighing and rubbing your temples? Are you already that deeply connected? Have your menstrual cycles synchronized? Is this a blood-red Lily Garden-
  
  Ugh. Gross. Hachiman levels gross.
  
  "You just... kinda broke up with your first two loves. It"s all right for you to take time for yourself. Hell, it should always be all right for you to do that," Shizu tries to clarify.
  
  "Where was this attitude when I "forgot" to do my assignments?"
  
  "If you hadn"t done the air quotes thing, I may have actually given you a pass."
  
  "Tee-hee?"
  
  "No. No "tee-hee." And if you"re trying to kill my libido, that"s a very good way to do it."
  
  "Are you really sure that"s-" I start to growl.
  
  Oi, Iroha, why are you suddenly covering my mouth with your hands? Am I being canceled today? Is this what this constant censure is about?
  
  "Senpai... No. Not that voice. We need to have a conversation, and that"s going to derail things like always."
  
  What do you mean, "that voice?" It"s not like I-
  
  Oh. Stupid seal. That will teach me to go to the cheap temples.
  
  "Right..." Shizu adds, with seemingly no small relief. "So... I give up. Iroha? Please?" Oh, Shizu"s puppy eyes. It"s rare to see them outside of a ramen shop.
  
  Quick, Iroha, do the thing!
  
  "I... guess I could try to explain things?" she says with a great deal of reticence. Also, bad Iroha, folding to Shizu"s spoiled habits is not "the thing." The thing should always involve a camera!
  
  Still reluctant, Iroha pushes me till I half raise and get my chair away from the table.
  
  Then she plops down on my lap, her cheeks reddening, her smile foxy.
  
  ...
  
  All right, I may accept this as another "thing." We may need to agree on proper nomenclature to avoid misunderstandings in the future.
  
  "So, Hachi, what Shizu and I are trying to get at is that... You have a problem."
  
  "You may need to be slightly more specific."
  
  "Right..." her butt wiggles a bit, as if trying to make herself more comfortable. I bite my lip. "The problem in question is that... About Haruno, what did you intend to do?"
  
  "Uh, that"s what we are here to decide?"
  
  "Don"t lie to me. We are here to talk about it so that you can see how we feel about it, and then you will decide what plan better suits the objectives of all involved parties."
  
  "I feel like that"s a very convoluted way to rephrase what I just said."
  
  "You would... So, tell me: how do you feel about it?"
  
  "... Uh?"
  
  "You heard me," the small girl whose bottom is firmly planted on my lap says before she grabs my cheeks and forces me to stare straight at her, "how do you feel about it? The sister of a girl you loved just tried to pull a stunt because she"s still in love with one of your girlfriends. How do you feel about it? Are you angry, indignant, hurt?"
  
  Is her voice slightly... growly?
  
  "I... am not? I think, I... I saw her hurting, and that"s a pain she"s been carrying for quite long, and-"
  
  "And you want to solve it," she whispers, eyes still boring into my own.
  
  "Of course I do." I reply, my voice more uncertain than I expected.
  
  "Why?"
  
  "Because... I just told you, she"s hurt and-"
  
  "No. Why. Why you, why us, why should you care if another girl has some form of unresolved trauma? Why should you involve your girlfriends in her troubles, why should you push yourself so much for her sake, why do you care if Haruno-"
  
  "She"s my friend!"
  
  "Is she? Isn"t she just playing with you for her amusement? Hasn"t she outright made a move on your girlfriend in front of you? That doesn"t sound like a friend to-" Iroha"s hands burn on my skin, but not as much as the blood heating up the sides of my neck, as the blurry-
  
  "She is! I... care for her, I do! I don"t know if I would even have managed to get together with Shizu if she hadn"t pushed me!"
  
  There"s a gasp from the other side of the table, but honey eyes are consuming my world.
  
  "That was her choice. Just as it was to rile Shizu up by kissing you without your permission, just as it was to try to pull off a plan that only failed because she lost control. Those are things she did by herself, for herself, and you-"
  
  "She"s hurt! I need to fix it!"
  
  And then another hand gets between Iroha"s, and slender fingers clutch my chin before pushing me up to meet blue, almost grey eyes atop honey ones.
  
  "People can"t be fixed, Hachi," she says.
  
  And I don"t think she"s ever said anything more hurtful to me.
  
  I... I struggle with what to say, how to say it, because this goes against everything I have worked so hard for through the past year, against everything I"ve accomplished as a part of the Service Club, but words flee from me while warm, tender blue holds me with more compassion than I would expect after such a line.
  
  There"s no derision, no reproach. No disgust.
  
  Shizu"s still looking at me with love, even after saying that.
  
  And then Iroha"s hands pull me down, and her lips meet mine in a kiss that"s hungry, almost desperate, and Shizu"s arms surround me from the side.
  
  It"s... I don"t respond, not quite, beyond surrounding the girl in my lap with my own arms, pressing her warm, soft body against mine, and letting her lips comfort me while my mind whirls in confusion, still unsure about what"s actually going on, because it felt like they were rejecting me, my efforts, but they do it while... While doing this.
  
  So... I may be mistaken?
  
  I guess there"s a first time for everything.
  
  "Are you sure you want me to start on that?"
  
  Shut up, Brain-chan. Nobody asked you.
  
  ***
  
  The three of us have now moved to Shizu"s suspiciously gray sofa (the one that looks custom-made to hide ash stains and cigarette burns), and I have the very novel experience of sitting in the middle of two attractive women who are cuddling me.
  
  Komachi must never know.
  
  In my hands, there"s a can of Max Coffee. Iroha bought it for me, and Shizu hid it until the conversation reached the point she thought I would need it.
  
  ... Do they have a walkthrough? Is the Hikigaya Dating Simulator doing well in the charts?
  
  "You always do this, you know?" Shizu says from where her cheek is pressed against my chest.
  
  "Seriously, Hachi. Forcing an innocent maiden like me to pull something like that..." Iroha"s voice drifts from my shoulder. Her fingers are interlaced with Shizu"s over my lap.
  
  "Forcing you to do what, exactly?" I ask. Mostly because it"s one thing I can latch onto that doesn"t seem related to this tangled mess of thorny feelings.
  
  "Act like you! Do you even know how hard it was to do that weird thing with my voice dropping as I kept talking and pushing?! How do you manage to do that without bursting into embarrassment-fueled flames?" Her cheeks are now red once again, her voice slightly sulky, and her fingers tight around Shizu"s own.
  
  Which... Yeah, makes sense.
  
  "It"s a forbidden technique, Iroha. You aren"t ready for it; your training is far too lacking."
  
  And now she has gone utterly still.
  
  "My... what?"
  
  "Your training in the ninja arts-"
  
  And now she"s sitting astride my lap, the hand that isn"t clutching Shizu"s like a lifeline grabbing my collar.
  
  Also, I no longer have my comforting can of Max Coffee.
  
  I consider this unforeseen theft proof enough of my theories.
  
  "How the fuck do you know about that?"
  
  "... What?"
  
  "The-the ninja... stuff! How?!"
  
  ...
  
  "I actually thought it was more likely you were a kitsune, but, well, given your propensity for hidden voyeurism, "kunoichi" also made sense..."
  
  "... What?"
  
  "Iroha... He doesn"t know what you"re talking about. Neither do I, for that matter."
  
  "... Oh." And now her cheeks are crimson red. Really, this must be the most erotic face she could make in front of a vampire.
  
  Have I mentioned that she"s sitting astride my lap while blushing and twisting her body in embarrassment the very same day I discovered how appealing bullying cute, foxy, sometimes bratty, and often smug girls can be?
  
  Heck, she"s only missing a fangy grin, and I think those would be disturbing in real life. My lower body certainly agrees that it"s not a vital component.
  
  "Eek!"
  
  Right. I think she gets the idea.
  
  Just before Iroha jumps away from my bodily reaction (perfectly natural, healthy young man, blah, blah, blah), I grab her hips and pull her down.
  
  I am not trying to get her to rub herself against me, but... I am not not trying.
  
  "Now..." I start, my voice maybe slightly deeper than usual, "what"s this whole ninja business about? Do I need to check you for hidden weapons?"
  
  "Senpai is... a pervert," she says, still wiggling in a very counterproductive manner if she actually has an issue with that.
  
  "Iroha, I caught you about to masturbate in public while Shizu had my cock down her throat-ouch." Truly, the finger-stab should also be a forbidden technique. It may actually be a counter for the Deep-Voiced Bastard. Also, Shizu, good thing you trim your nails.
  
  "That... That was in the heat of the moment!"
  
  Oh, in stereo. Nice.
  
  "I"m not complaining. To either of you."
  
  "Of course you wouldn"t," Shizu mutters.
  
  "I feel like we"re getting away from the very important topic of one of my girlfriends basically confessing to being a trained killer."
  
  "I haven"t said anything remotely implying that!"
  
  The line is expected.
  
  "Shizu? Anything we should know about?"
  
  The speaker isn"t.
  
  "Ah... Force of habit. Sorry. Iroha, ninja, trained killer, yes. Makes sense."
  
  "It actually doesn"t," I carefully point out.
  
  "Right. That"s what I meant. Anything to confess, young lady?"
  
  Iroha is looking at Shizu with her weird awe once again, so I guess it falls to me to not let the subject go like any rational boyfriend would do at this stage.
  
  "What do you mean with "force of habit?""
  
  And she groans.
  
  "It"s... It"s embarrassing, all right? Some... people think I"m some kind of ex-mob boss or something just because-" she interrupts herself and gestures at her usual ensemble minus jacket and coat. That vest is still far too stiff, by the way-I mean, I love what it does with her waist and pushing up her breasts, but it"s far too intrusive for... Oh, she comes with a built-in anti-NTR barrier! Nice!
  
  Still, this may not be the best time to tell her how many times I"ve imagined her as a protagonist in a yakuza film.
  
  "Right. Dumb people saying dumb things. Now, back to the ninja thing-"
  
  "It was a fantasy! A fantasy about watching you two while you convinced her to let me watch! There, I said it, now can you leave me alo-hmmph!"
  
  The "hmmph," of course, is the part where I smash my lips against hers and shove my tongue through them.
  
  After about half a second, her body is pressed against mine, and her hips are swaying over my lap, grinding down on me.
  
  After about half a minute, I let her go, her breathing coming in short, rushed gulps of air.
  
  "There, good girl. You can share your fantasies with us any time you feel like it."
  
  Honey eyes try to focus on my own dead-fish ones as Iroha"s delightful bust goes up and down with each loud breath.
  
  "So... unfair..."
  
  And Shizu snorts.
  
  "That"s what you get for imagining me getting fucked unconscious until I agreed to let you watch, brat."
  
  Ah, Iroha"s overheating. Maybe she needs liquid cooling. Last time worked well enough.
  
  ... I may actually be a pervert. Who knew.
  
  "Really? Really?!"
  
  Shut up, Brain-chan. Nobody asked you.
  
  Also, while you distracted me, Iroha managed to escape and get off my lap before getting off in my lap. I"ll never forgive you, Brain-chan.
  
  Though her cute, excited, frustrated, embarrassed face is... Just how many fetishes do I have, damn it?!
  
  "Anyway," she forces herself to say, "conversation. Not over."
  
  "Ah, do you want me to take over? You look a little... flustered," Shizu tells her from where she"s resumed cuddling my side, though her hand is not lying on my lap at this time. This may be for the best, but sure feels like the worst.
  
  "Yes. Thank you."
  
  "Right..." Shizu, that knowing grin is also quite... distracting. "So... I don"t even know where to start."
  
  "Could it be at the place where we already discussed whatever it is you"re trying and failing to get at, and you both agreed to let me handle things-"
  
  "No."
  
  "Shizu, don"t you know that faking accepting feedback is a vital skill to climb the corporate ladder? You"re never going to be able to get a better salary than a teacher"s job like this, and then how will you be able to afford two deadbeat significant others-I mean, two caring, loving, house caring partners?"
  
  "You aren"t going to distract me with the almost overwhelming urge to rub my knuckles on your scalp, brat."
  
  "Darn it."
  
  "Right. This may be a good starting point: you always see other people as things to solve, as problems that-"
  
  "I know that," I interrupt, my voice suddenly lacking all playfulness.
  
  "You do?" And that"s not confusion on hers. More like... disaffected curiosity.
  
  "Of course I do. I don"t call myself a "Monster of Logic" just for the sheer chuuni."
  
  "Oh. That"s surprisingly self-aware."
  
  "I-"
  
  "The chuuni part, I mean." And now her face is right in front of mine, smug smirk fully on display.
  
  I wonder if I can pull off the same tactic I just did with Iroha...
  
  And she kisses me.
  
  Soft, slow, languid, a rush of sensation effervescently traveling up my chest as the very tips of her fingers caress the side of my neck.
  
  ...
  
  What was I thinking about again?
  
  "Hachi..." she breathes the word right against my still wet mouth, and I almost whimper, "I love you. We love you," and the words are still new enough my breath catches. "And loving someone means you don"t want to see them hurt. So, you understand how people act, how people are, but... you need to understand yourself."
  
  "Haruno-"
  
  "Haruno"s been hurting for years, long before she met me. It"s not your fault, neither your responsibility."
  
  "But I have to-"
  
  "You don"t. You don"t have to do anything. Nobody would think less of you if you didn"t."
  
  "That"s not true, everyone-" And Iroha turns my head.
  
  She"s still flustered, her breathing still a bit ragged, but... Now her eyes burn for entirely different reasons.
  
  "You think I lo-love you because of what you"ve done for me, Senpai?"
  
  Out of balance, I nod.
  
  "Well, you are right," she nods, face deadly serious. "Because you"re gentle, and caring, and helped me without expecting anything, so I started to see you in a different light. That"s how it started."
  
  Which is... About as expected? I mean, it"s as basic a plot as you can get: the helpful senpai who inadvertently charms his junior by showing her his reliable side-
  
  "It"s also how it almost ended," she adds.
  
  "What?"
  
  "Do you know who"s helpful and always ready to do what I ask him to do without ever asking for anything in payment? Tobe. Tobe is. Kind and nice to a fault, always ready to lend a hand-"
  
  "I will murder him-"
  
  "You will do no such thing. Now, if you can not be an idiot for about five minutes, let me get to the point: I love your kindness. I hate the way you hurt yourself."
  
  And I remember the reproach on Yui and Yukino"s faces that night I confessed to Ebina, the absolute unfairness of it all, that they would attack me just after I-
  
  "Look at me. Senpai, that night you stayed with me after I got rejected? It meant the world to me. It was enough to get me through the next few days. Every time you carried my bags for me? I could feel my heart melt a little bit. But... If it hadn"t been you, if it had been someone with a worse sense of humor, or slightly dumber, or who didn"t get me, understood who I was underneath..." her voice catches, "underneath. If it had been someone other than you, I would just remember it fondly. I"m not so shallow as to fall for someone just because they are kind to me."
  
  And she swallows, her eyes trying to get away from my own against all her struggles until she finally closes them. And then she continues with a shaky voice.
  
  "I love you. Because it"s you. Because of who you are. Not because of what you do."
  
  And she crumbles against my chest, my arms and Shizu"s automatically going around her.
  
  "You dumb, unfair, idiot Senpai."
  
  Still awestruck, almost in shock, I pat her hair, my palm effortlessly gliding over the silky, thin strands.
  
  "Call me Hachi," I say, almost as a reflex.
  
  And she snorts.
  
  ***
  
  We rest there, in silence, for quite a while, long enough that I think I should call home to say I may get there a bit late.
  
  Completely worth it.
  
  Because feeling them resting against me, feeling their warmth, their softness, their... trust... That"s not something I ever expected. The closest I have felt to this is being with Komachi, having her physical, tangible affection like I did yesterday. But Komachi is my sister, and her love is... Something that I don"t take for granted, but that I expect, that I feel is not unnatural. A sister should love her brother, even if just a little bit.
  
  Iroha and Shizu... They don"t owe me anything. Iroha has made that clear enough.
  
  And if they owed me something... They would love me in spite of it.
  
  Which is quite a bewildering notion.
  
  "I"m still going to help her, you know?"
  
  And Shizu sighs.
  
  "Of course you will. This wasn"t about that."
  
  "Then... What was it about?"
  
  And Shizu and Iroha lift their heads from the spots of warmth they have left on my body and exchange a look, before nodding to one another.
  
  Then they each grab one of my hands and pull me up before more or less dragging me to a closed door. That Shizu opens.
  
  Beyond the door, there"s a glass cabinet displaying Gundam models and anime figurines, and a bookshelf with glass doors occupies a whole wall, filled top to bottom with manga volumes.
  
  There"s also a big bed.
  
  This is Shizu"s bedroom.
  
  And there"s a tripod with a camera in the corner.
  
  "I... I promised you I would be your first. I don"t want you to be obsessing about another woman when I... You know." Shizu"s hand grasps mine so hard it almost hurts, and her voice wavers with every hesitant syllable.
  
  "And you promised you would show me about... about sex, Senpai. Hachi." Iroha"s palm is sweaty, and I"ve just discovered I don"t think that"s gross in the slightest.
  
  "So... We know you won"t leave Haruno alone. But we want you to know it"s not something you owe anyone. That you can let go, that you can... Just be... with us. Without... Without needing to solve anything or earn our affection. You can just... Share. With us. With me." Shizu"s head is turned down, her eyes stealing glances at me from beneath her wild bangs.
  
  Something clenches in my chest at the same time as another thing relaxes for what feels like the first time in my life.
  
  I pull on their hands and gather the both of them in my arms, the scent of their respective shampoos filling my head as I try not to tremble.
  
  I am panicking, and at peace, and eager, and absolutely terrified.
  
  Also, I really need to call home and tell them I will be late.
  
  Sorry, Komachi, it looks like your despicable brother is about to pile on more trauma on you. Please make sure to use this as the foundation for your ever-growing hate for the opposite sex.
  
  But stay away from Yui. No lilies for you.
  
  
  
  ====================
  ====================
  
  So, that's why I got delayed: because I absolutely had to do the next chapter justice after building up to it for so long. Hope you'll tell me if I managed next week. Or, well, right now, if you feel up to it and can afford to. Thank you for reading, regardless.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 19
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 19
  
  Imagine a generic trash harem manga.
  
  Right, let me rephrase: imagine any harem manga. I admit the first line may have caused undue stress due to every harem manga being generic trash. It"s unfair to make anyone sift through the genre in search of anything remotely resembling either quality or, Heavens forbid, originality.
  
  Now that we"re all on the same page, we can start analyzing the pattern: an everyday man with absolutely no attractive qualities beyond having the kindness of the average middle-schooler (a trait that, we"ll admit, may as well be a superpower in his given setting) is surrounded by a number of girls desperately throwing themselves at him, showing him their lingerie in ever more unlikely "accidents," and making him take frequent trips to the hospital either via punch-fueled air-delivery or through erections so intense they actually bleed out of his nose (through an emergency release valve that anime anatomy has wisely installed up there to avoid undue, dangerous pressure on the far too vulnerable, oversized ocular orbs-proof that anime, contrary to the real world, adheres to intelligent design... well, semi-intelligent).
  
  So, we have a group of sexually attractive people regularly interacting, desperately wanting to "interact," and then we get to the conclusion. And what do we get?
  
  The fated girl (usually the first one, because she has more screentime) and the protagonist exchange a soulful glance, close the distance, and, with no fireworks interrupting... they kiss.
  
  And that"s it.
  
  A minimum of three seasons with as many OVAs, enough sexual tension to heat up the Cold War, plenty of girls clumsily trying to show him their favorite color via impromptu Victoria"s Secret"s fashion shows, more accidents in the communal hot springs that can be explained by any paranormal investigator... And they just kiss.
  
  Personally, that"s why I always felt eroge (or, at least, some eroge) was more honest. A kiss may signal the beginning of a relationship, but it"s still on probationary grounds. As long as the couple keeps bashfully looking at each other while failing to hold hands, that is no more than puppy love. Going further than that... It feels more momentous, more definitive. It"s...
  
  Well, it"s important enough that, when sex happens in a story, usually the story is about sex.
  
  And all that entails.
  
  Because, as Shizu turns her body to the side, more bashful than I would expect after everything we have already done, and starts unbuttoning her vest while Iroha keeps fiddling with the tripod-mounted camera...
  
  Well, this is about sex. It"s explicitly about sex. About my first time.
  
  And... All that entails.
  
  Namely, the woman I love offering to give herself to me.
  
  I... I think I"m about to faint.
  
  "Hachi?" she asks with none of the sultriness she displayed when teaching Iroha how to give a striptease and a fair bit of anxiety on her expression.
  
  "Shizu?" I answer, my eyes drawn to slender fingers playing with the last button of her stiff vest, already parted by the released pressure of her bust.
  
  "I..." she hesitates. Swallows. Looks away. "Do you... Do you want this?"
  
  I look at her. At this gorgeous woman who-
  
  No.
  
  I look at her. At this woman who has done so much for me-
  
  No.
  
  I look at her. At this woman I love.
  
  Yes.
  
  I take two steps forward, and my body almost brushes against hers. She still isn"t looking at me, afraid in the same way I"ve so often been, not showing it in the same way I so often haven"t.
  
  I take her hand away from that last button, my fingers interlacing with hers.
  
  I take her chin and gently raise her face until her eyes meet mine.
  
  "I love you," I say once again, for what feels like the first time, as heat keeps building up over my chest and my shallow breathing makes the words come out in an airy gasp, almost a whisper if whispers were so rushed, so intense, they felt like they took a year of memories with them when they left you.
  
  And I kiss her.
  
  Her lips are soft, the taste of artificial cherries once again masking that of her skin, and I linger on them, not even daring to have my tongue peek out of mine. Her scent fills my head once again, but this time it"s indefinable, beyond compare. There"s no trace of lavender, jasmine, or any other thing beyond... Shizu. She smells of Shizu, and that fills my world.
  
  I finally separate, somehow feeling like I should be taller, towering over her, when in truth I"ve had to pull her down to me, to have those trembling, watery eyes looking down at me.
  
  "That"s not a yes," she finally says, her own voice filled with marvel and a slight wavering that makes me desperately want to wrap her in my arms.
  
  "It"s not," I agree, but I rush to continue before she can be hurt by a stupid misunderstanding, "because I need you. "Want" is too weak a word for what I feel for you."
  
  She stares at me, a disbelieving smile trembling on lips I could never deny.
  
  "You idiot... You are going to make me cry."
  
  So I hug her, getting on the tip of my toes so I can cradle her against me, my head over her left shoulder, my face buried in her hair, my mouth beside her ear.
  
  "If this is the only time I"ll make you cry, I"ll be the most fortunate man who ever lived."
  
  Shizu shudders against me, and her breathing comes out in short, watery tremors.
  
  I keep hugging her, rocking back and forth on my stretched calves.
  
  And I never want to let go.
  
  ***
  
  I let her go.
  
  I"m sitting on Shizu"s bed, Iroha by my side, and the owner of this piece of furniture has excused herself to the bathroom, making my sappy thoughts cruelly short-lived.
  
  "You are too dangerous, Senpai. It"s a good thing you have the two of us to keep you in check," Iroha teases me as she pokes my sides.
  
  ... I mean, I think she"s teasing me. She may have actually properly assessed the threat my sealed transformation poses to an unsuspecting world without convenient reset buttons in the shape of properly numbered collectibles that a dragon may feel slightly offended by.
  
  Balls. Heh.
  
  Oi, Shenron, what does it say about you that you"re willing to grant a wish to anyone who will fondle your balls? Is it so lonely in-
  
  "Stop ignoring me..." Iroha says with what, now that I look at her, turns out to be a pretty cute pout.
  
  Right, and I"m supposed to be the dangerous one. Your foxy, ninja ways are as cunning as ever, my sworn vassal.
  
  I"m going to milk that little fantasy of hers until she begs for mercy.
  
  Then, of course, I"ll keep doing it. It"s not like she"s likely to hand me another weakness like that in the near future, so it"s my moral obligation to exploit it as much as possible and not let even an ounce of embarrassment-fueled blushes and cute, frustrated pouts go to waste. Recycling is good for the planet, you know?
  
  "Like I could ever ignore you," I finally say, making her look at the floor with a pink tinge on her cheeks that makes me think how bad of an idea would it be to actually release the seal on-
  
  "Sure seemed like you could, five minutes ago..." she ends up grumbling.
  
  "Are you... jealous? Because you know I-"
  
  "No! Well, a bit, of course, because she"s going to be your first, and she"ll always be, but..." she trails off, fidgeting, still refusing to look up at me.
  
  So, like she did to me not even an hour ago, I cradle her cheeks between my hands, the peach fuzz gliding over them so soft yet intense a sensation I almost stop just to savor it, and gently turn her head toward me.
  
  "But?" I ask her, for once inviting rather than demanding.
  
  She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath before opening them.
  
  And light, shimmering honey once more fills up my whole world.
  
  "But you"ll be my first. And you"ll always be."
  
  I don"t know who hugged who, just that we are holding one another, our bodies tightly pressed, warmth once more rushing over my chest.
  
  "Always," she mutters right beneath my jaw, her hot breath searing yet soothing.
  
  "Always," I answer, not knowing quite to what, yet agreeing nonetheless.
  
  I kiss the top of her head, my hands wanting to explore the body I"ve yet to learn, but...
  
  "Soon," she says.
  
  "Don"t force yourself. I"ll wait as long as it takes."
  
  She burrows her face on my neck, a trace of wetness from her lips almost making me shiver.
  
  "Oh, I"m sure the wait will be an ordeal... Not like you have someone else to entertain you, is it?" And there"s a chuckle in her tone, but...
  
  "Iroha, if you don"t want to be here, you don"t have to-"
  
  "I do. It"s... I"m not forcing myself. I... I may not love her like you do, but I"ve seen enough of her to understand how you love her, why you love her, and... And I may not love her like I do you, but..."
  
  "But there are different kinds of love, each unique to the person you share them with."
  
  "It"s very pretentious to quote yourself, Senpai."
  
  "Really? I would"ve thought I just saved you the embarrassment of doing it yourself."
  
  "How magnanimous of you. Now I"m looking forward to recording your face when Shizu finally decides to put you in your place."
  
  "Oh? And who"s going to record your face when I put you in yours?"
  
  "Senpai! Not that voice!" she says, leaning back so she can look at me with reproach as she weakly punches my chest.
  
  I kiss her lips, and we both laugh.
  
  "Never change, Iroha."
  
  "You want me to remain as I am forever and ever so you can keep enjoying your youthful, cheeky junior? I"m sorry, but that"s impossible, Senpai. I"m planning on having you change me, after all."
  
  And I look at her, at that smile that...
  
  She kisses the top of my nose and gets up, disentangling herself from my arms.
  
  "I better get the camera ready," she whispers.
  
  "Wasn"t it ready before? Wait, you recorded that-"
  
  "Of course I did. Shizu will want to look at it for years."
  
  Remembering the tearful, happy face of my teacher, seeing how she came undone with relief, joy, and... and something that feels indecent to so casually mention right now...
  
  "I want copies."
  
  "Way ahead of you."
  
  There"s a knock at the door, and Iroha rushes behind the tripod.
  
  Suddenly, my throat is dry, because there"s only one other person in this apartment, and it"s a bit ridiculous that she would knock on her own bedroom"s door, but that"s so utterly Shizu I can"t even-
  
  "Come in!" Iroha cheerfully calls out.
  
  And, before I"m ready for it (as if I ever could be), the door creaks open.
  
  She"s there, in the middle of the opening, as if it was made for her, as if the whole house had been built just to frame her silhouette in this very moment, the light coming from the living room shining through her hair, tracing her outline in warm tones.
  
  And she"s wearing... Oh, gods, I"m...
  
  Iroha lets out a low whistle. I sympathize.
  
  Because Shizu is wearing dark purple lingerie. An embroidered bra that pushes her already impressive cleavage together and upward, lacy panties that are almost transparent letting her creamy skin peek through except in one vital place, and...
  
  Garter belt.
  
  She"s wearing a damn garter belt that"s holding up fishnet stockings.
  
  Stockings that dig just enough into her thighs to showcase the softness of the flesh beneath before the elastic bands are stopped by the toned muscle. That show a diamond pattern of purple over ivory, that...
  
  Garter belt. A fucking garter belt.
  
  This is so unfair...
  
  "I... How do I-" Shizu"s shy fidgeting is interrupted by Iroha frantically raising and shaking two thumbs up in the periphery of my vision.
  
  I agree. Wholeheartedly.
  
  So maybe I should say as much?
  
  "Thank the gods. I thought I would"ve to force you."
  
  Oh, Brain-chan. You"ve been unusually quiet.
  
  "Not much blood getting up here..."
  
  "You are absolutely stunning. You"re so incredibly gorgeous I can"t even come up with a sardonic way to tell you how much. You"ve incapacitated me. You win this round, Shizu."
  
  "I"ll make a note that I only need to spend a fortune on lingerie to get you to shut up for once. A price worth paying," she answers with a wry tone.
  
  "Oh, I absolutely agree..."
  
  "Is this foreplay? Is this how you two get in the mood?" Iroha intervenes.
  
  "Hardly," Shizu says.
  
  "Well, "hardly" may be the right word..." I clarify.
  
  "Hachi!"
  
  "What? I"m just saying, taking my pants off won"t be easy after seeing you like this."
  
  "You"re absolutely impossible..."
  
  "And you"re impossibly beautiful. We make a good couple."
  
  And suddenly, I have a blushing Shizu right in front of me, her hands on my cheeks.
  
  "You talk too much..."
  
  "Then shut me up."
  
  And she does.
  
  Her lips press against mine just a moment before our mouths open and... And something flows. Something beyond warmth, because it has too much fire, something that feels like it will consume me, leave me spent after it passes and takes a part of me with it.
  
  Something that... will change me.
  
  Shizu presses forward, and I fall back on her bed, the mattress yielding under both our weights as she follows me down, our tongues entangled and not letting go.
  
  My hands start unbuttoning my collar, and hers untuck my shirt. We don"t rush, our twisting kiss not allowing us to do so, but soon we meet in the middle and the piece of clothing falls open.
  
  Then she takes my belt, and she finally leans back, looking down at me.
  
  "Are you sure you want me to-"
  
  "Shizu... I need you." And there"s that flash of happiness that carries a trace of sadness with it, too many hurtful memories-
  
  So I grab her shoulders and drag her down to me.
  
  "Are you sure you want me? Because you"re gorgeous, beautiful, loving, kind, smart, funny, witty, special, and I-"
  
  "I"ve never wanted it as much as I do now," she breathes out, her tone shuddering.
  
  I turn us over and I crawl back, standing at the foot of her bed, looking down at her.
  
  I shrug my shoulders and let my shirt glide down my arms.
  
  I"m exposed to her eyes, my naked upper body on full display.
  
  And I don"t see rejection, apprehension, hesitation...
  
  No.
  
  I don"t even see hunger. Just... wonder.
  
  Under her unrelenting watch, I undo my belt. Then my zipper. My button.
  
  I... I have to put some effort to get them past my uncooperative obstacle, but then my pants slide down.
  
  My boxers aren"t up to the task of hiding how much I"m reacting to Shizu, and she certainly notices as her eyes travel up and down my body. I am just standing there, in front of her, looking at-
  
  Her arms twist behind her back, and I can hear a soft snap before the marvelous bra slackens.
  
  She leans up, her elbows supporting her weight, and smiles at me before shrugging her shoulders.
  
  And her bra falls down.
  
  I"ll never get tired of this sight.
  
  Her marvelous breasts are once more offered to me, displayed beneath teasing lips. Her nipples are erect.
  
  Then she hooks her thumbs at the sides of her panties, which I just notice she"s wearing over her garters, and her hips sway languidly, each movement from side to side accompanied by a slight lowering of the elastic fabric bunching up.
  
  She stops when there"s only a line of stretched purple blocking my sight of-
  
  I look up at her, and she"s biting her lip, an impish smile teasing me while her hands remain still. Then her eyes lower from mine and get stuck on...
  
  Oh.
  
  Slowly, I hook my own thumbs at the sides of my boxers, and Shizu"s smile widens. As slowly as she did, I bend down, the elastic band following my movement until it gets stuck on... Well, what else?
  
  Shizu takes a sharp breath, and I feel stupidly flattered.
  
  I look back at her, and she"s completely and utterly still. Then I bend down further, feeling the strain as something else is bent further down, and she leans forward, her panties once more sliding down her hips.
  
  My member finally makes it out of my underwear, bobbing in the air. And Shizu falls back on the bed, but her legs travel up. She"s lying down, her hair sprawled around her, her long, toned legs pointing straight at the ceiling, the new angle leaving that backside I"ve so quickly grown fond of completely bare, and something else in the middle of soft thighs glistening in the soft, diffuse light of this bedroom with purple-gray walls.
  
  Behind me, Iroha gasps as quietly as she can while I swallow reflexively.
  
  Then I hurry to take off my socks, because there"s absolutely no way I can possibly make that even remotely sexy.
  
  "Good. Didn"t feel like pointing it out."
  
  Unfortunately for Brain-chan, before I can properly get into a quipping battle with him, Shizu starts rolling her panties up her legs. They are barely more than a stretched line of purple when they reach her knees, by the time they arrive at her calves, they are so scrunched up they visibly dig into the yielding curve, and then she bends her left leg until her thigh is pressing down against her wonderous chest, freeing it from the piece of fabric, and the lacy panties unroll as she... dangles them from the tip of her right foot.
  
  Wordlessly, for once in my life, I approach her, and she lazily lets her dainty foot turn from side to side, as if teasingly denying me something.
  
  I reach forward, and she stops moving. Then I take the offered panties.
  
  "If you keep these, you"ll have to return the others," she says.
  
  And I remember.
  
  A promise made in silk, after I covered her with my seed in the middle of a park, the scent of dark earth not near enough to cover what we had just done.
  
  "I have them in my jacket," I say before I can stop myself.
  
  She looks straight at me, her eyes far too focused, too intense.
  
  "Later. I want you to show me later." And then her right leg drops slightly down, her foot resting over my chest.
  
  My hands reach up to her ankle without requesting any input on my part. The silky feeling of her skin is broken up by the smooth threads digging into it, adding variety to already entrancing perfection. And then my fingers slide down.
  
  The shape of her, the toned muscles, the graceful curve of bone under skin, the way she shivers at my touch...
  
  I"m so glad Iroha is recording this.
  
  Her offered panties drop on her bed, and both my hands reach her thigh.
  
  I lean forward, her foot sliding up my body, and I lay a kiss on the taut muscle of its arch as it reaches my face. Then I let it go past my head, smooth skin gliding over my shoulder as I keep leaning forward, leaving a trail of kisses down the marble-worthy limb until my hands reach the very edge of her fishnets.
  
  I look at her, my face right past her knee, my breath washing over skin I know to be almost too sensitive, and I see her swallow.
  
  Then I smile, and she bites her lip.
  
  I keep moving forward, her leg on my shoulder a gentle guide, almost a suggestion, and my fingertips trail over her, making her gasp at my light, teasing touch over a few spots that I burn in my memory.
  
  Then I reach her hips, and I very carefully avoid that shimmering place I know to be even more sensitive than what I"ve already teased.
  
  My arms slide beneath her thighs, my fingers digging on top of them, and I kiss that spot on her inner thigh that Haruno has watched me tease before, the place that always makes her twitch. And she does.
  
  My smile widens.
  
  She falls down on the bed, her elbows leaving the mattress as her hands go to my head, her fingers tracing deep, soothing lines over my scalp.
  
  "Are you sure you"re a virgin, brat?"
  
  "Well... Technically, at least."
  
  She snorts, a chuckle following that makes her eyes crinkle close in merriment.
  
  And then I finally lean forward all the way and taste her.
  
  She gasps, my lips drenched with her excitement, and my tongue makes it past my lips and into hers. I trace her shape, her opening, my tongue pointed yet slow, careful, methodical.
  
  She throws her head back, one hand leaving my scalp so she can bite on her knuckle, and I almost cheer.
  
  Then I lick up, finding that nub that is all but begging to be nibbled, and take it between my lips before I suck on it as my tongue circles it.
  
  And... well, I will never say this out loud for no less than a double-Yukinoshita interrogation, but...
  
  The alphabet trick works.
  
  My tongue keeps changing directions over her, stimulating different spots at different speeds and intensities, all the while my eyes are fixed past her parted breasts to look at her head twisting side to side, at the glimpses of her face as she whimpers around her knuckle.
  
  Also, she has shaved very recently.
  
  Nice.
  
  So I keep at it, enjoying her surprisingly mild flavor, but not half as much as every little sign I get that she"s enjoying this, enjoying me-
  
  And her hand clutches my hair and pulls me up.
  
  I can feel my chin"s drenched as I look at her, at the wild look in her eyes as the saliva-slick hand squeezes her breast, her fingers digging in, making the soft shape balloon up.
  
  "Enough..." she all but rasps. "Enough. I need you."
  
  And then I"m crawling up the bed, her legs invitingly parted around me, until my face is above hers.
  
  And she licks my chin.
  
  "Don"t want to get my face sticky," she explains with a shy smile. "Not yet." And her smile turns slightly sharper.
  
  And her legs wrap around me.
  
  I"m right at her entrance, the heat of her sex wafting up to mine, my precum already dribbling down my shaft.
  
  "I..." I look at her-as if I could look at anything else-and suddenly remember something that may be kind of important. "Protection?"
  
  I don"t want to ask, because I don"t want to break this moment, this flow of events where everything seems to naturally follow all that preceded it. A mirror of our own relationship in the way we finally got here after... Everything.
  
  After I met her.
  
  After I realized the bossy, carefree homeroom teacher had a tendency to play favorites.
  
  After I discovered I was one of her favorites.
  
  After... A year. A year of my life changing, everything spiraling out from the moment she decided to take me beneath her wing, to show me a place where I could belong, people I could love and be loved by, learning about...
  
  Well, what else?
  
  Something genuine.
  
  "I have an IUD," she says, shy, as if ashamed by the fact.
  
  I drop down on her, and kiss her.
  
  My shaft is gliding over her folds, slick with both our juices, her breasts mashed by my chest, her legs wrapped around my waist, her hands buried in my hair.
  
  Our lips touching.
  
  I open my mouth and nibble on her lower lip until she parts them with a moan, then I let my tongue seek hers out, circling her before retreating into my mouth, inviting her to follow.
  
  She does.
  
  We dance like this for a while. My erection is stiff to the point it makes our movements awkward at times, but I"ve no other desire than to keep enjoying her skin gliding beneath mine, to let that fire between our chests grow, to keep tasting air that"s gone through her before entering me.
  
  After what feels like ages, I push up with my arms, her face beneath mine begging during the moment it takes her to regain her soft, inviting smile.
  
  "I"m glad you do. I want to feel all of you during our first time."
  
  And she smiles, a trace of fear of rejection once again leaving her at the simplest of gestures, at these little things I keep luckily stumbling on.
  
  Once again, I swear to keep doing them until the day there"s no more fear, no more doubt. And then I"ll keep doing it, because why waste good habits when you"ve already built them?
  
  "How energy-saving of you. I approve."
  
  I"m flattered you do, Bain-chan. What about the naked, delicious Christmas Cake between our arms?
  
  "Oh, that I definitely approve."
  
  Then you"re going to love what comes next.
  
  "Shizu," I tell her as I slide a hand beneath her nape, my fingers massaging the twin lines of muscle, "I love you. I"ve loved you for longer than it took me to realize. And I"ll keep loving you, this wonderful, beautiful you, until the day I die."
  
  "You can"t promise that. People change, drift-"
  
  "I can. If there"s a Hachiman Hikigaya that doesn"t love Shizuka Hiratsuka, it will no longer be me."
  
  Then I grasp my shaft and guide it between slick folds. And push forward.
  
  She accepts me effortlessly, her mouth open in a silent circle as her eyes show twin trails of tears once again.
  
  I stop halfway in, my teeth clenched at the intense feeling of her, of the pressure, the heat, the... Everything.
  
  "Guess I"m no longer technically a virgin," I say with an almost rueful smile.
  
  Her arms tangle behind my neck, and she drags me down until my weight once more rests on her body. Then, with an unsteady voice, she whispers into my ear:
  
  "Not over yet."
  
  Then she does something I guess you need a couple of martial arts classes to learn (or that my mind is far too preoccupied with other stimuli to process), and I"m lying on my back, looking up at blue eyes still wet with tears that belie the smug grin beneath them,.
  
  Also, tits.
  
  I mean... I"m only human, you know? You can"t expect me to ignore such astonishing examples of hopes and dreams. They are as full, as firm as I remember from when she wrapped them around me while Iroha sucked on my tip till I-
  
  From the corner of my eye, I can see Iroha still behind her camera. She"s not even masturbating, her clothes still on except for her jacket, and I don"t know whether to be disappointed by that fact. Seeing me looking at her, she raises over the tripod and looks at me with a smile far more tender than any I"ve yet to see from her. Her eyes are glistening, and she wipes them with her sleeve.
  
  "Love you," she mouths at me.
  
  I smile at her, the heat around my member just as intense as the one rushing up my chest. Then Shizu sees me smiling at something behind her, and her pleased flush intensifies with something else added to it. Slowly, she turns to look over her shoulder, her hands on my abdomen keeping her steady even as I feel her corkscrew around me.
  
  "You... Did you get all of that?" Her voice hitches, her throat presumably raw.
  
  "You are beautiful. Both of you. Together," Iroha answers, her own voice unsteady with something that contains more happiness than I ever hoped to hear from her.
  
  Shizu melts, yet more hidden tension fleeing her body as she starts to process our girlfriend"s comment.
  
  And I grab her hips and pull her down as I push up.
  
  She throws her head back, her long hair flying with the sudden motion, and her open mouth lets out a yell that sounds sweeter than anything I"ve ever heard before.
  
  Oi, ever thought about becoming a voice actress, Shizu? I"m sure there"s a certain genre for which you"d be very suited.
  
  On the other hand... Mine.
  
  "You... You aren"t supposed to-" she starts to gasp, her eyes once again looking down at me.
  
  "Don"t worry. I"ll be gentler when it"s Iroha"s turn," I answer with... dare I say it?
  
  Right. A deep voice.
  
  "That"s not at all what I was going to-"
  
  I push up once more, and a gasp cuts off her line.
  
  "Oh? How inconsiderate of you, Shizu. You"d want me to be this rough with your cute, little girlfriend? Are you so eager to see her disheveled face as she"s overcome by-"
  
  "Senpai!" I turn my head to the side and see her. Iroha, face almost crimson, panting, gasping.
  
  Grabbing her breast.
  
  "This... Senpai, this isn"t about me..." she finally finishes.
  
  "No," I agree, "it"s about us."
  
  And I reach up, grab Shizu"s neck, and pull her down into a searing kiss.
  
  Her body presses down on mine, light enough that I can distinctly feel each entrancing curve, soft enough that they mold against me, firm enough that I can feel each shiver running through her.
  
  Her hands grab my hair, and she keeps me down as she raises her head enough to glare down at me.
  
  "I"m not your plaything, brat," she says, sapphire glimmering with inner fire.
  
  I thrust up, and her eyes clench shut as I grind my hips when our pelvises mash against each other.
  
  "You are. And I"m yours."
  
  Her eyes shoot open, and her hands go to my shoulders, pushing down as her body arches up in a display that will be forever sealed in my memory-and Iroha"s flashcard.
  
  Is that tripod nearer than it was a moment ago?
  
  Also, her blouse is now undone.
  
  Good.
  
  My eyes go back to Shizu"s, and she clenches around me.
  
  "That"s a good lesson to take away, Iroha: sex can be many things. Intense, emotional... playful." She bounces her hips once, and I can feel her ass slapping down on my thighs. "You can play roles: domination and submission, exhibition..." Her arms leave my shoulders and travel up her body, gliding over her hips, her sides, her breasts, until they tangle on her hair and raise it up, her whole torso and neck twisting in a graceful display that makes me throb inside her. "Plenty of things. As long as you have permission."
  
  She glares down at me for a moment, and then her lips sharpen into a grin.
  
  "And Hachi just gave me permission to play with him."
  
  Her hips corkscrew once again, and she raises and falls with every turn, my hands desperately clenching her gray, cotton bedspread that I very dearly hope isn"t hiding any ash stains.
  
  I mean, my sense of smell is currently far too engaged with other... stimulants to bother with tobacco.
  
  "I... think I need an adult?" I uncertainly ask.
  
  "Oh, you certainly do," she smirks, and drops down with enough strength we bounce on the mattress.
  
  Her eyes close once again, her absolutely maddening lip-biting once more shown to me for my full enjoyment, and I...
  
  Let"s just say that the Sharingan may still have its uses.
  
  Shizu is lying beneath me, her wrists clasped in my grip, her arms over her head lifting her breasts so they quiver with each shallow inhalation.
  
  She opens her mouth, possibly to make a sly comment.
  
  I shut her up.
  
  My hips push forward as deep as I can go, and I grind our bodies together as she whimpers, her head twisted to the side as if offering me her neck.
  
  I lean down, and I take it, my tongue traveling up its side, lingering on a little nook right in the middle of it that I decide to suckle when I hear her sudden gasp, her arms going limp in my grasp.
  
  I nibble the skin around the sensitive spot, occasionally sucking on it as my hips move slowly yet forcefully, grinding atop her every time I bottom out.
  
  Then I get so distracted, so utterly absorbed by the beautiful woman beneath me, by the sweet notes I can wring out of her, that my grip slackens and her arms snake out of my hands.
  
  Then she wraps her arms around me, holding me, clutching me, and her legs do the same until I"m wrapped in the body of the woman I love in all the ways that matter but one.
  
  "I"m so close," she whispers, and I can feel something almost snap at the words.
  
  Then she kisses me, the last critical bind she could hold me with, and my hips almost blur.
  
  Our lips are mashed against each other, the brusqueness of the motion not allowing our usual gentleness but compensating with even more hunger. Our moans and whimpers get lost between our bodies, little more than a rumbling vibration in our molded chests. A wet, slapping sound fills the room.
  
  I can barely spare enough attention to see a naked Iroha adding her own contribution to said wetness, but Shizu is all too encompassing for me to get distracted right at this very moment.
  
  She clenches once more around me, but this time there"s a rhythm to it, and her body holds me tighter, almost stopping my movements.
  
  Then her legs weaken, and I almost get entirely out of her body.
  
  And I suddenly push forward, fully surrounded by her warmth, and that thing that had gone taut mere moments ago finally snaps.
  
  I feel a torrent of fire go out of me, jet after jet lost within Shizu, within her accepting embrace, each twitch of my body accompanied by further release and by her own clenching spasms as her nails dig on my back to a point that borders with pain without crossing over to it.
  
  Her lips finally leave mine, her head buried back on the bed with all the strength her taut body holds, her eyes clenched shut, her mouth a tight line.
  
  She shakes once, twice, thrice.
  
  And we fall down.
  
  We are limp, sweaty, gasping for breath. Weak.
  
  Fulfilled.
  
  There"s a dragging sound, and a naked Iroha plops down on top of us.
  
  I think about making a sarcastic comment, a joke that lightens the mood.
  
  I think about telling them both how much they mean to me, to repeat once again that I love them, that I forever will, no matter in which way I may do it in the future.
  
  I think about a lot of things, but they are sluggish, slow thoughts, and Shizu is tenderly petting my hair while Iroha"s languidly kissing my cheek.
  
  So, surrounded by their warmth, their embrace...
  
  For once in my life...
  
  I let go.
  
  And the last thing I feel right as I fall asleep with a smile in my face...
  
  "I never thought I-"
  
  I don"t know who the voice belongs to, nor the end to that line. I probably never will.
  
  But there"s no loneliness in it. And that"s enough to make my smile that much lighter as I finally fall into a rest that"s been delayed for too long.
  
  
  
  ==================
  ==================
  
  Do you know what this means? It means that I can no longer joke about Hachiman still being a virgin! And It only took 93k words!
  
  ... I can't believe I've written a Hobbit's worth of words about a socially maladjusted boy trying to have sex with his sexy teacher.
  
  Zaimokuza must never know.
  
  Also, for those curious about the aftermath, it's already available on my €3 Patreon tier. Or you can just wait until I get around to actually moving the plot forward.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 20
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 20
  
  The morning after.
  
  The morning after is a situation anime has woefully neglected to instruct its devoted fans on, most likely inferring (correctly) that anime fans will scarcely need such guidance.
  
  Ouch. Why do I hurt myself so?
  
  Still, the ultimate consummation of anime romance is usually a kiss, and sometimes not even that, what with how bashful we Japanese are about public displays of affection and how most romantic confessions happen on some suitably public dramatic location (the airport looks to be a staple for Westerners, yet they don"t share such qualms, so they are free to bother everyone around them with a sloppy, barely hygienic kiss that sometimes will even get the-likely related to Iroha-bystanders to cheer on), and no kiss ever has required a morning-after scene. All of this is no more than an excuse, really: they just don"t have the balls.
  
  Which is a bit weird, seeing as said kiss-less confessions sometimes happen after three seasons filled with fanservice and a little sister character whom viewers are halfway convinced isn"t blood-related.
  
  Still, there are shows where it happens. Where there is actual sex, and the couple is left to interact and have actual, human contact afterward, to sort out their feelings for one another and set on a heartwarming future together.
  
  That mostly happens in hentai, though. In regular anime, the closest thing we usually get is the sex-less morning after.
  
  Due to a series of contrived circumstances, typically involving accidental inebriation of a minor or a very convenient fever (bonus points if the protagonist developed said fever while pushing himself past his limits to reach some unattainable goal related to the promise he made to the romantic lead-which is all kinds of wholesome and tender rather than a red flag the size of Eva-02). The usual setup is that one of them will fall unconscious, and the other will stare like a stalker for a bit before their disturbing daydreams turn into disturbing actual dreams. Then the girl (usually, and to more easily defuse accusations that should involve the police) will sleepily crawl beneath the bedcovers of the boy. And whoever wakes up first the morning after will have a freakout, wondering what it is that they don"t remember from the night before.
  
  What they don"t remember is that, when you aren"t used to sharing a bed with another person, you will very rarely go through the whole night without waking up at times. Something that should have been obvious, but that anime, maybe purposefully to make sex seem more appealing and help fight against our steadily declining birth rate, has neglected to inform me of.
  
  It"s... A strange discovery, to wake up in the middle of the night, in a room that isn"t mine, and have a brief moment of disorientation soothed by the slender, toned arm draped over my chest and the petite mouth drooling on my shoulder from the other side.
  
  It"s not like I didn"t need a shower already.
  
  Like we need a shower.
  
  Because Shizu"s and Iroha"s scents are stronger than ever, in a way that I would never find unpleasant, but that it is very noticeable.
  
  And, noticing it, reveling in it, I drift back to sleep.
  
  The next time I wake up, I"m on my side, holding Shizu"s body from behind. Her hair has gotten into my mouth, and I twist my head just enough to get it out without waking her.
  
  The arm trapped between her and the mattress beneath is numb, tingling.
  
  I look behind me and barely make out a sprawled Iroha, her mouth undignifiedly open in a way she would never allow me to see while awake.
  
  I smile. And fall back asleep.
  
  The last time I wake up, there"s a grey morning light coming from beneath the curtains.
  
  I"m lying on my back, staring at the ceiling. My right arm is beneath Iroha, curled up next to me, her mouth once again drooling on my naked chest.
  
  My left arm is beneath Shizu, her back sticking to my body as much as humanly possible.
  
  The room is filled with our combined scents. I definitely need a shower.
  
  My body is filled with their warmth. The shower can wait.
  
  And so can I.
  
  So I lie there, in the middle of two bodies that have already entangled with mine, after sharing a vulnerable night with each other.
  
  We are also naked beneath the sheets, and I can feel how similar yet different their bodies feel against mine. How Sizu"s fit form is barely disguised by her yielding curves. How Iroha feels just that much softer, how her body is slightly warmer than Shizu"s.
  
  And, weirdly enough... It is not erotic. Not at all.
  
  It"s... a different mindset, something I didn"t expect, but that also seems obvious in hindsight. Because nudity is thoroughly contextual, and... This is a very different context from last night. There"s no Shizu wavering between her seductress and insecure personas, no Iroha staring wide-eyed at me while I have my first time with our mutual girlfriend, no-
  
  Ah. Right. That is erotic.
  
  Just... I"ll just lie here, enjoying their closeness, and pretend I"m not trying to lift the sheets with an indirect application of mental power.
  
  ...
  
  Note to self: don"t think about having sex with Shizu in her stupidly sexy garter belt and fishnets while Iroha fingers to us if I want to idly ponder about how tender, romantic, and non-sexual lying in bed with my two very naked lovers surprisingly is.
  
  Yet another thing that should"ve been obvious in hindsight.
  
  Also, I need to pee. Badly.
  
  Repressing a sigh, I proceed to start the very laborious process of getting my arms back from the two girls who have laid claim to them without waking them up.
  
  I feel like this should level up my subterfuge skill.
  
  ***
  
  Shizu"s pantry is as disappointingly bare as I expected, which, as is according to expectations, shouldn"t be disappointing, yet it still manages to be. A paradox that she seems to embody far too often when it comes to anything that should make her suitable for a traditional marriage.
  
  Luckily for her, that just suits my househusband role perfectly, so, in a way, the disappointment is actually encouraging.
  
  I feel like I"m getting more confused by the moment, but I could"ve sworn I had an actual point.
  
  So, while I look for it, because it is utterly unthinkable that the always focused Hachiman Hikigaya would have gone off on a random tangent for no actual reason while his head is still stuffed full of pink cotton-
  
  "Don"t push it. I"ve got a Dark History to revisit right here."
  
  I"m sorry, Brain-chan, you"re right; I shouldn"t ever give you such tempting targets while knowing with the utmost certainty we can engage in mutually assured destruction at any given time.
  
  "Mutual? Oi, brat, there"s nothing mutual about-"
  
  I"ll offer to be Zaimokuza"s beta reader.
  
  "... I"ll be good."
  
  No, you won"t.
  
  "No, I won"t, but at least I"ll pretend. Now, what are we cooking?"
  
  Well, as much as I would rather prepare miso soup so that I can cutely ask Shizu to eat my miso soup every day-
  
  "Wouldn"t she be the one who should ask to eat it in that scenario?"
  
  She should be the one cooking it and me the one asking, so I"m a bit confused about the proper protocol. I am guessing the number of reversals is irrelevant after a certain point. Anyway, I would love to play that skit, but she"s woefully out of stock-if she"s ever had any-and the closest to a traditional Japanese breakfast I can make with what"s in this kitchen is instant ramen, so...
  
  Eggs and toast.
  
  With some luck, I can get Iroha to run to school with the toast dangling out of her mouth while yelling she"s going to be late.
  
  Which... Ah, dammit, what"s one fetish more?
  
  So, the toaster is... Straightforward enough I don"t think I"ll serve them charcoal, and the eggs are...
  
  I don"t think I"ve ever fried eggs. How hard can it be?
  
  The answer, I find out, after a disappointingly short fade to black, is "not very."
  
  Damn, I was hoping for a disaster scenario, with the open kitchen blackened by smoke as something purple and mosaiced asked me if I wanted to make a contract while I comically ignored it.
  
  The actual result is three eggs with a not solid yolk and some crispy brown around the edges. So, I guess I"m better at cooking than I thought.
  
  Komachi must never know.
  
  And... Well, there"s a carton of orange juice to round up the cliché, so...
  
  Managing to find a tray somewhere near the (surprisingly impressive) oven, I put the three dishes with eggs and toast on it, as well as three glasses full of orange juice that I"m sure have nothing to do with the vodka bottle I found in one of the cupboards.
  
  A remarkably full cupboard.
  
  I feel like I would be even more impressed if I knew enough about alcohol to know whether those are expensive brands. The whisky shouldn"t be. It sounds Japanese.
  
  Anyway, I balance the tray on my right hand like a stylish waiter who"s actually a cross-dressing female butler, I open Shizu"s bedroom, and...
  
  Oh.
  
  They must have tossed around after I left, because the sheets are now around their waists, and Shizu is cradling Iroha"s head to her chest with a somewhat protective look on her sleeping face. I don"t know what face Iroha"s making, for obvious reasons, but if she hasn"t asphyxiated (an actual concern, in these circumstances), it should be somewhat happy.
  
  I mean, mine would be.
  
  They look so... I mean...
  
  Damn it. I"m beginning to understand why Iroha keeps taking pictures of every little thing. Also, I may be the kind of parent who treats his child"s first month like a National Geographic documentary.
  
  ... Note to self: don"t think about what kind of parent I may be the morning after shooting Shizu full of... Well...
  
  Hypothetical little Hachimans.
  
  "She has an IUD, remember?"
  
  Oh. Right. Thanks, Brain-chan.
  
  "Don"t worry. Stress hormones are bad for me."
  
  Right. Well, I should...
  
  Taking a page out of Iroha"s handbook, I furtively slide along the ground, making as little sound as I can manage, before I deposit the tray on a bedside table that"s so suspiciously empty it"s obvious Shizu cleaned it up before my... visit.
  
  ... Right. Let"s stick to "visit." If I ever say "booty-call" out loud, Komachi may hunt me down on sheer principle.
  
  And... well, I mean, the food"s getting cold, but...
  
  How are you supposed to go about waking up two... you know?
  
  "Girls you want to have as much sex as physically possible with just in case heart-shaped pupils are actually a thing?"
  
  I"m pretty sure they aren"t.
  
  ""Pretty sure" sounds like there"s margin for hypothesis testing. Very involved hypothesis testing."
  
  ... You"re a devious opponent, Brain-chan. You always strike directly at the weakest point without any regard for honor or fair play.
  
  "Praise me more."
  
  "Hn... Uh, good morning?" Shizu asks as she wearily blinks after Iroha"s disturbed breathing does wonderful things for her pillowy (in more than one sense) breasts.
  
  She blinks a couple of times, her eyes slightly crusted over. Then they shoot wide open, and she blushes.
  
  Which any reasonable spectator may have guessed had something to do with the younger ("-er" being key to my continued survival) girl motorboating her chest in slow motion, but, for some reason, she"s looking straight at me.
  
  And that blush looks dangerously close to someone who has something lodged in her throat rather than anything related to emotional cues designed to make the male lead cluelessly scratch the back of his head.
  
  Also, she"s making a sound somewhat akin to a kettle and shaking Iroha awake.
  
  "Wha-" Iroha"s cute, sleeping voice is cut off by Shizu sharply pointing at me, and she turns her honey eyes toward me and-
  
  Freezes. And blushes scarlet.
  
  It"s interesting to see that they both can manage to blush down to the top of their respective breasts. You know. In a purely academic sense.
  
  "You"ve never been this interested in academics."
  
  I"ve never had such outstanding teachers.
  
  "Shizu is literally your homeroom teacher."
  
  She"s much better one-on-one.
  
  "Uh... Something on my face? I mean, asides from it being my face, which I would be grateful if you didn"t think it automatically qualified it to be described as "something.""
  
  They are still staring. As I uncomfortably reach to scratch the back of my neck, they audibly swallow in a synchronized manner.
  
  Then Iroha stretches over Shizu to the other bedside table.
  
  And grabs her phone and turns around to take a picture of me. Which shouldn"t surprise me at this point.
  
  The acute squealing sound somewhat does.
  
  "All right, seriously, what is going on?"
  
  "Hachi..." Shizu says, her voice very deliberate and with the careful enunciation I would expect from her after one too many beers. "What are you wearing?"
  
  I blink. Then look down.
  
  Well, I"m wearing the white apron that was in her kitchen, because frying eggs is somewhat hazardous for the...
  
  Naked...
  
  Skin...
  
  I"m wearing a naked apron.
  
  With deliberate slowness, I raise my eyes and look at Iroha, who seems particularly engrossed in her impromptu photoshoot. I also very deliberately ignore the burning sensation on my cheeks, neck, and collarbone that may indicate I share a particular trait with my girlfriends I was just admiring a moment ago.
  
  "Iroha. Delete that."
  
  "Never!"
  
  I somewhat expected her to answer like that. What I didn"t expect was for Shizu to grab the smaller girl and toss her behind her, acting as a defensive barrier between the paparazzi and I.
  
  That"s a scary look in her eyes.
  
  "Copies," she says, grim determination in her voice that could only be highlighted by a cigarette with a burning ember on its tip and an exhalation of smoke accompanying the gruff sound. Also, a stylish Italian hat. And now I know what to get her for her birthday.
  
  "Obviously," Iroha replies as she keeps shooting from beyond my reach.
  
  I"m pretty sure anime never prepared me for this.
  
  ... Maybe I should rewatch Shokugeki no Souma.
  
  ***
  
  Taking off the apron seems to be enough to stop Iroha and Shizu"s alliance from escalating to something I fear to speculate upon.
  
  "Right. "Fear." That"s how the kids are calling it nowadays."
  
  Going by the birth rate? Likely.
  
  Anyway, I"m now sitting on the bed once again, a girl on each side, and a tray of breakfast precariously balanced on my lap.
  
  Which is somewhat nearer to what I expected the morning after to be like, except...
  
  "Sooo good," Shizu mumbles, a spread of crumbs already showered on the bedcover as she takes another bite of the crispy edge of her egg.
  
  "It"s a fried egg, Shizu. Flattering, yet-"
  
  "Hmmm~" Iroah keeps making noises I don"t want to hear from her when she"s not bound to the bed and-down.
  
  "You both are ridiculous. Fried eggs and toast! I couldn"t screw this up if I tried!"
  
  "Mastery of the basics is the mark of a true expert," Shizu says with her best battle-manga teacher voice.
  
  ...
  
  Down.
  
  Oh gods, I can"t have a fetish for that! How unfair is it that she keeps pressing all my buttons?!
  
  "Says the naked apron man."
  
  It was an accident!
  
  "Dude, I know what your subconscious is like. There are no accidents."
  
  "Mom always says it"s the easiest and the hardest thing to cook. For fancy dishes, you only need to follow the recipe, but for the simple things, you need to have a good eye, an instinct-"
  
  "Are you two trying to turn this into a cooking manga with people time traveling after eating bread?"
  
  Shizu nods happily, still munching on the latest piece of toast. Iroha looks at me like she doesn"t know whether I"m kidding.
  
  Oh, sweet summer child...
  
  Anyway... Yeah, the eggs are pretty good.
  
  Nothing like what Komachi makes, but I think her character type gives her a racial skill related to seasoning food for her brother.
  
  OP. Imouto is too OP. Plz, never NERF.
  
  "So..." I begin. And stop.
  
  Shizu looks at me. Iroha looks at me.
  
  Oi, you know loners are bad at coming up with conversation topics, don"t you? Why are you leaving me to struggle with this while you enjoy the breakfast in bed your inadvertently fetish-wearing boyfriend brought you-
  
  Oh.
  
  Yeah, that checks up.
  
  "I"m going to be honest: I"m struggling to come up with something to say, because some part of me thinks I need to discuss what happened last night-"
  
  "You don"t," Shizu cuts me off.
  
  "I... don"t?"
  
  "Hachi," Iroha continues from my right side, exchanging a glance with Shizu that leaves me a bit confused about their silent communication because as far as I know they aren"t fated rivals that share an innate understanding of each other"s fighting styles and communicate through spectacularly choreographed fights. "I mean... we can talk all you want about it if you want to, but... it doesn"t have to be a big thing? You already communicated plenty during it."
  
  "I..." And I remember.
  
  Eyes that asked and allowed, touches that urged and delayed, breathing ragged, sounds sweeter at times and places, and a warm, accepting feeling that...
  
  And now the tray is wobbling.
  
  Iroha quickly grabs her glass of orange juice, and Shizu grabs both hers and mine.
  
  And...
  
  They both giggle.
  
  Which I should be embarrassed by, but... There"s no... Nothing in their laughs that feels against me. It"s... Warm.
  
  Like last night.
  
  And so I let myself laugh.
  
  Shizu kisses my neck right where it meets my shoulder, and Iroha half-hugs me after leaving her glass on the table.
  
  "I love you," I say. To both of them.
  
  "We know," they answer.
  
  We pause for a second, just touching each other, just feeling... close. I can"t even explain how much this silence that doesn"t scream at me to fill it means to me, this quiet sense of... something fitting.
  
  Belonging.
  
  "I would love to do something about that," Shizu finally says. "But we should get ready to leave before long."
  
  "That means no shower-sharing for you, Senpai."
  
  "For me, uh? Does that mean-"
  
  "Senpai, are you asking me to have a shower with your other lover so you can peek on us washing each other"s bodies? To watch as warm water makes our skin glisten, as white suds get momentarily caught in the more intriguing places of our bodies before being washed down so that nothing is hidden and you can see without any obstacle how our hands massage each other, delicately rubbing our flesh so that it becomes clean, pure, ready for you to taint it once again with your seed? That"s impossible, Senpai! I"m sorry, but that just won"t happen. You have too much stamina to finish before we have to leave, after all."
  
  It"s the smile that does it.
  
  The words have made me go from happily trying to set up my own camping tent with the sheets to trying not to proclaim that my drill is the drill that will pierce the Heavens, but that smile, that impish little thing that always punctuates her little speeches since she discovered how to turn them into a weapon against my very self-restraint...
  
  I grab the tray just as it tilts to the side and pass it to Shizu, who takes it without any protest; then I turn over and, with my arms stretched and on my knees, get over Iroha.
  
  She"s still smiling, still defying me with that foxy grin, and the flush quickly spreading down the sides of her neck only makes her even more appealing.
  
  "I won"t take you right now. Because I love you and want to make this special for you, to wait until the day you are ready and ask me for it, and I don"t want our first time together to be a rushed thing when we both need to go to school. I want you to feel loved, and secure, and special, because you are. Because you deserve all of that and more I"m not sure I can ever give you."
  
  Her eyes are shining now, and her grin has turned into a smile that, if I"m not kidding myself, has a bit of dopiness in it. Something that makes my own face struggle to remain serious and decisive.
  
  "But, Iroha, you should"ve already realized that, when that time comes? Each and every single one of these little speeches will be on the back of my mind. And I"m going to make you scream for every one of them."
  
  She licks her lips before biting them, her chin tucked in, then her arms surround my neck, and she pulls herself up, her chest pressed against mine, her mouth right beside my ear.
  
  "Why do you think I keep coming up with them... Hachi?"
  
  My heart pounds, our naked bodies too close, her heat rising up to meet me-
  
  And Shizu pokes my side.
  
  "Down¸ lover boy."
  
  "If I go down, there"s a very real possibility I will-"
  
  "You know what I mean!"
  
  "Oh, right."
  
  I turn to the side as Iroha lets me go, and Shizu promptly plops down the tray with what remains of our breakfast over my erection.
  
  "Now I wish I had relentlessly teased you before we... you know."
  
  "You did."
  
  "Uh?"
  
  "Seriously? Do I really need to remind you?"
  
  "I don"t have the slightest clue what you"re talking about, brat."
  
  I look at her, and she really looks like she believes what she"s saying.
  
  Fine.
  
  I raise my voice a bit, making it as acute as I can go without outright pantomime, then I raise my hand so the first joint of my index finger touches my lower lip in a pointlessly cute display that would have Komachi voluntarily undergo an experimental procedure by the American government to graft physics-breaking metals to her bones just so she could get the merciful effect of the trauma-induced amnesia, and then look at Shizu with my head lowered and...
  
  Well, what else?
  
  "Take me! Take me! Take me!"
  
  She flushes red before burying her face in her hands, Iroha looks at us with endearing confusion that would make Yui proud, and I laugh.
  
  The morning after turned out not to be such a big deal, after all.
  
  Just as not expected.
  
  
  
  
  =======================
  =======================
  
  Well, this was warm and fluffy as expected. Which should be enough to last you all until next week--unless you feel like you need your fix right now, in which case... Well, you know where to go.
  
  (And thank you if you do. Really. Couldn't push this hard without you.)
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 21
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 21
  
  There are, fundamentally, two types of stalkers in anime. The first one is a girl who is obviously cute, though she may frequently be shown with bags under her eyes, a hunched posture, or some other sign of an unhealthy lifestyle that would obviously make someone with idol-grade looks a pariah in high school, because, obviously, her teenager classmates are all mature enough to look past a physique that wouldn"t look out of place in a gravure magazine cover and judge her exclusively on the merits of her personality. Teenagers, after all, are widely renowned both for their deep insight into the character of others and for their clear decision-making skills that are never at all influenced by raging hormones demanding a chance at a teen pregnancy. Source: me.
  
  Still, the poor stalker girl who has been shunned by her peers for years on end and thus has fixated her sights on the sole male student who ever deigned show her kindness (or, at the very least, indifference) will turn out to be a gag character whose deep trauma, inability to healthily show affection and socialize, and clear signs of suicidal ideation hijinks will never fail to make the audience chuckle. Because humans are bastards. Source: the internet.
  
  I mean, there are also the cases where she turns out to be a yandere, but that is usually treated as wholesome, heartwarming romance. Especially if the heart in question ends up in the microwave.
  
  So, that"s the first type of stalker in anime: a moeified character-type who rarely wins the waifu wars, but that usually has quite a few devoted supporters among a fandom who find the idea of a girl obsessed enough with them to actually look in their direction once in a while refreshing enough that they don"t care overly much about the downsides (such as, you know, actual physical danger).
  
  Then there"s the second type. The male one.
  
  This stalker-type (who is vulnerable to both electric types and poison types, as long as the second ones use the move called "pepper spray") will usually have a very limited, yet vital, role in the story. Namely, having the shit beaten out of him by the actual love interest of the stalked girl so that the hero can earn enough affection points to get the handholding CG, the depraved bastard.
  
  So, it is pondering this clear example of unhealthy double standards in the anime industry that I wonder whether I should have tried crossdressing (with or without Totsuka"s help, because it feels rude to assume) before I...
  
  Damn it.
  
  Does standing around the entrance to Haruno"s college really count as stalking?
  
  I mean, on the one hand, being at a place you know a girl will go to after she refuses to answer your calls or messages after your last kiss does sound like textbook stalking.
  
  On the other hand, I"m doing this with the best of intentions! It"s for her own good! I"m worried about her wellbeing! I swear I"m not guilty, mister policeman!
  
  ...
  
  Also, the security guard is giving me some odd looks.
  
  Oh! My phone"s ringing! Excellent, now I"ve got an excuse to break eye contact with the one person whose job description probably involves beating up people who try to do what I"m trying to do.
  
  "Are you still there?"
  
  Ah, Iroha, how sweet of you to worry about me!
  
  "Because she told us to meet up on Saturday, so aren"t you worried about looking like a stalker just because you couldn"t wait a couple of days?"
  
  Ah, Iroha, how your keen insight on my mental weaknesses hurts me!
  
  "I don"t see why we need to wait when we know there"s a problem we could do something about," I reply.
  
  "How about because she asked us to wait?"
  
  "... If I say I know better, will it come across as the kind of thing a controlling, borderline abusive boyfriend would say?"
  
  "I mean, if you have to ask..."
  
  Ouch.
  
  "Are you with Shizu right now?"
  
  "Ah! And now you"re trying to control who I spend my time with! How despicable, Senpai!"
  
  "You really want me to freak out, don"t you?"
  
  "Well, if I had to pick a reaction I want to get out of you..."
  
  "Stop. The last thing I need is to make weird faces in public. The security guard is already looking at me like I got into the women-only passenger car while having my face dramatically shadowed."
  
  "We need to work on your ability to communicate with people outside of your weird, disturbing subculture."
  
  "Oh, I don"t know, I seem to communicate quite well with you already..."
  
  "Now who"s the one who should stop it? What is it, Senpai, do I play along and keep the flirting going until you need to get into a toilet stall before you can walk upright again, or..."
  
  "... Or. Definitely "or." Really, I can"t afford to "react" to you, Iroha."
  
  "Oh, fine, I won"t say a single lewd word more. But you owe me a special favor."
  
  I sigh in relief, wondering whether there"s any safe answer I can give her after such a line. She was dangerously close to making me... "react," and I really shouldn"t tempt fate by adding a last quip that-
  
  There"s a new message.
  
  An image.
  
  Knowing that it is a very bad idea, my finger hovers it before I lose the battle against my will (or my actual will wins the battle against the impostor sitting upon a fake throne-battles at the center of the mind are confusing). Well, basically, I press on the damn message.
  
  On the screen of my phone, Iroha appears in a shot framed so she"s only shown from below her eyes to about the middle of her belly. Her pink cardigan and white blouse are open, and her baby blue bra is loose enough the faintest pink at the edge of her areolas can be seen above the cups that are enticingly separated from flesh I know to be so soft my fingers feel like they are being drawn in at the lightest touch. Her clothed right arm is resting right between those same breasts, her pointer finger extended so it draws her bottom lip down, and her tongue extended to lick the very tip of it.
  
  ...
  
  Exact words. When dealing with foxes and other creatures from folklore, it"s important to remember any deals made will need to account for the exact phrasing. Asking for more wishes will just get you the suggestion box from the nearest restaurant.
  
  Asking for a bigger cock also offers far too many horrific possibilities to consider.
  
  And not even that can get me to avoid adopting Standard Adolescent Male Gait Number Two. You know why.
  
  "Damn it, Iroha..."
  
  "Tee-hee~"
  
  Fuck. Of course she can pull that off; what else did I expect?
  
  Also, I refuse to check whether the security guard has changed the way he looks at me after my lapse in judgment. It would be far too disturbing to see him surrounded by a petal shower and blooming roses. I"m sorry, Security-san, but this is not that genre. And if it was, Totsuka definitely has seniority.
  
  Also, also, is that a woman with dark hair tinted purple at the tips?
  
  "Oi, Haruno," I say, my voice barely loud enough to carry. Because, apparently, having graduated from my technical virginity doesn"t mean I am suddenly able to speak out in public.
  
  She turns to me, confirming the identity of the woman as the Elder Yukinoshita (not the "elder," that"s her mother-Haruno qualifies for the capital letter). Then her eyes widen, and she clasps the strap of her bookbag.
  
  Then she starts running.
  
  Of course.
  
  So, also of course, I start running after her.
  
  And the security guard runs after me.
  
  Everybody"s running! How wonderful! See, people? We Japanese are a society that cares about health concerns and never wastes a chance to exercise and remain in good shape. The only ones that don"t have a hentai tag devoted to them, and the description isn"t very flattering.
  
  "Are you sure this is the time to be quipping?"
  
  It"s how I deal with stress, Brain-chan, in case you hadn"t noticed.
  
  "Really? Because I think Iroha would"ve been quite happy with helping you deal with stress if you hadn"t-"
  
  Not the time!
  
  "Hey! You! Stop!"
  
  Wow. Such creative dialog. I can tell you"re going to become a main character after this, Security-san. An audience favorite.
  
  "Aren"t you going to try to explain?"
  
  If I keep running while he talks, I"m not the one wasting my breath.
  
  "Oh? Are you that confident in your stamina?"
  
  Shizu didn"t have any complaints.
  
  "Right. "Not the time," my non-corporeal ass."
  
  Look, I would love to compliment you on your non-corporeal ass to help you shore up your self-esteem problems, but Haruno just ducked down an alley, and I think I should pay attention.
  
  Like, at this very moment, because she wasn"t that far when she started running, and I am almost there, and-oh gods, it"s an awful idea to chase Haruno down an alley after losing sight of her for even a second, isn"t it?
  
  "Whenever has that stopped you?"
  
  Thank you, Brain-chan. I really needed to hear your heartfelt encouragement.
  
  "I wasn"t-"
  
  Regretfully, I"ll never know what it is that Brain-chan "wasn"t" because, just as I slam my foot down and pivot to get into the alley, Haruno"s arm shoots out, grabs my wrist, and twists it in a way that ends up with me having my back pressed against the wall and she immobilizing my two arms.
  
  Ah. How nostalgic.
  
  "What is going on-?" the security guard, future audience favorite, starts to ask right as he enters the alley, only to quickly shut up when he"s confronted with Haruno practicing her weird body control techniques on me.
  
  Ah. A man smarter than I am, certainly.
  
  "I have it under control," Haruno says, the first words I hear from her since... Well, since the last day she did this to me.
  
  "Are... Are you sure, miss?" the man asks with evident reticence, his Japanese upbringing torn between doing his job to the letter and not sticking his nose in other people"s private affairs that may or may not involve marital violence.
  
  "Certain." And the tone should bother me, as cold and precise as it sounds, but the fact she hasn"t met my eyes pisses me off quite a bit more.
  
  "Ah. And you... sir?" Oi, what"s with the hesitation on that "sir?" Anything you want to say to my face, you punk?!
  
  Oh, look at that; it seems my delinquent initiation is progressing along quite nicely.
  
  "Everything"s all right," I finally settle on. Though maybe the fact I don"t even bother to look his way and keep searching for Haruno"s eyes isn"t that reassuring to the middle-aged man.
  
  Silly Security-san, don"t you know that being actually middle-aged automatically disqualifies you for any protagonist slot in most mangas? Even the grizzled, scarred veteran from the last war against the Demon Lord is usually in his early twenties.
  
  Maybe anime characters just age faster? That would explain all those steamy romances with girls in middle school who have access to actual lingerie.
  
  Also, Shizu, stop flaunting your superb lingerie taste. I have only so many brain cells to burn through.
  
  "You"re telling me..."
  
  "All... All right then. If there"s any trouble, just scream, miss."
  
  "I"ll be sure to do that," Haruno replies, her tone still cold.
  
  Security-san hesitates for a while but ends up turning around and walking away. Because, of course, seeing the guy he thought was a stalker, and thus his ticket to earning protagonist points, being handled by the girl whose points he presumably wanted to earn is enough for him to drop the subject.
  
  Despite what Haruno"s doing being, you know, technically assault.
  
  I think. Laws are weird. I mean, apparently, you can"t even use your superpower to defend a schoolmate from an actual serial killer. Really, it"s preposterous.
  
  Also, said fight happened in an alley.
  
  ... Oi, Haruno, you aren"t carrying any knives, are you? And you aren"t prone to giving weird speeches about what being a real hero means, are you? I mean, you have an actual nose. A cute one.
  
  ... Stupid hormones.
  
  "So, going to let me go any day now?"
  
  "I don"t know, are you going to keep chasing me if I do?" She still isn"t meeting my eyes.
  
  "Ah, so your solution to my following you when you didn"t want to be anywhere near me is to grab me and not let go. Is this another one of your genius insights that I"m too baseline to get?"
  
  Her fingers dig into my wrist. I"m sure there are pressure points in there or some other nonsense.
  
  "You really need to learn when to shut up."
  
  "You really need to learn when to have a normal talk."
  
  And she laughs.
  
  It"s... not a nice laugh.
  
  "That"s so rich coming from you."
  
  "Hey, it takes one to know one."
  
  "Does it?" I am about to reply, but her grip tightens once more. She"s still looking to the side, her eyes hidden beneath expensively cut bangs. "Do you really think we"re at all alike, Hachiman?"
  
  "Not at all, Haruno." And that isn"t the answer she expects, because her grasp on me slackens
  
  So I twist my arms and grab her own wrists.
  
  This would"ve been a golden opportunity to reference the Saint Seya line about the same trick not working twice on me. But this is the third time.
  
  Still, as I push the startled Yukinoshita scion against the wall in front of me, I need to suppress the grin fighting its way to my lips. Not because I don"t want to brag, but because I"m not feeling particularly suicidal.
  
  And looking at the girl I am pressing against the side of this alley, as her eyes finally meet mine...
  
  Startled, open.
  
  Hurt.
  
  No. Any urge to brag vanishes.
  
  "I"m not like you. I can"t ever be." Her lips thin, and her eyes narrow. "But I am also not unlike you."
  
  She pauses. Her mouth softens.
  
  "You"re so infuriating," she finally says.
  
  "I really hope you don"t think this is a world-shaking revelation."
  
  "Smartass."
  
  "Maddening woman."
  
  "Impossible man."
  
  "Siscon."
  
  "Look who"s talking."
  
  And I laugh.
  
  All right, it"s more relieved than actually amused, but... It"s a start.
  
  Haruno doesn"t join me, though the wry smile lets me know she more or less feels the same. I hope.
  
  "So, planning on letting me go any time soon?"
  
  "Depends. Are you going to run away?"
  
  "I feel like, if I did and you tried to stop me, it wouldn"t reflect very well on your character."
  
  "I... I"ve been worried sick all day."
  
  "I know. I"ve got a phone full of missed calls and messages that tell me as much."
  
  "Then why-"
  
  "Why won"t you get the hint?" Her tone is back to that disaffected coldness, but her eyes...
  
  I can see it. The same thing I caught a hint of as she left the rooftop, as she walked away from the person she obviously never stopped loving. The woman I love.
  
  And... Just minutes before that, when she tried to goad Shizu into a fight she believed she could never lose, when she kissed me... I saw something else in her eyes, in the lavender that"s so much warmer than her sister"s ice blue, yet still so much frailer than I thought, because lavender"s a flower, and they are as beautiful as transient and-
  
  Damn it.
  
  I lean down, and kiss Haruno.
  
  It"s... I don"t know what it is. It"s not the enthusiastic response I get from Iroha, nor the slowly awakening passion I get from Shizu as her reticence melts. It"s not... No. It"s Haruno.
  
  She doesn"t melt into it, doesn"t push back, doesn"t affirm. She accepts me, almost daring me to advance as she remains there, taking my lips and-
  
  Ouch.
  
  "You... bit me?"
  
  There"s a flash of rage over her eyes, and suddenly my right wrist hurts, and my face is pressed against the brown wall.
  
  "And you"re surprised?" her voice whispers to me from behind my left ear.
  
  ... All right, I"m going to count this particular technique as its own attack, so this is technically the first time it"s worked against me, not the fourth.
  
  "Is this really the priority right now?"
  
  The only one I can handle.
  
  "Ah, right. Carry on, then."
  
  "Yes?" I finally ask.
  
  "You really don"t know me that much, do you?"
  
  "I feel like this is the time where I should give you a speech about how much I actually do know you, but, well, I"m kinda preoccupied with the uncertainty about ever regaining proper use of my right hand, so..."
  
  "Oh? This should be good."
  
  Fuck.
  
  Right, right, what do I know about-ah, screw it. This will never work if I plan for it.
  
  "We both love the same woman," I begin, and her grasp slackens, but not that much. Just... enough not to hurt. "And we were alone before we met her. Different. Isolated."
  
  "You are projecting."
  
  "Establishing common ground. There"s a difference."
  
  "You do love your wordplay, don"t you?"
  
  "About as much as being able to scratch my nose by myself, so, if you would-"
  
  "You just kissed me without my consent, Hikigaya. Be grateful I"m giving you the chance to talk yourself out of it."
  
  "You kissed me without my consent. In front of my girlfriend. Whom you planned to steal."
  
  "I-that"s not-"
  
  "And if that wasn"t your plan, you wanted to share, so I don"t see how returning your kiss is that-"
  
  "I needed time to think!"
  
  "You wanted time to hurt yourself!" And she lets go. And recoils.
  
  So I twist back, grab her shoulders, and slam her against the wall.
  
  Though maybe I shouldn"t keep doing that. The neighbors are bound to complain.
  
  "You wanted time to feel rejected, to agonize over everything that went wrong, everything you could"ve done differently. You wanted to feel sorry for yourself, alone, unwanted, a mistake. You wanted to be what you were before you discovered you could ever be something other than the sad, sorry, lonely-"
  
  And she kisses me.
  
  This time, she"s demanding, consuming. Her tongue goes past my lips, tangling around mine, dragging me into her mouth, her hands grabbing my hair with enough force to make me flinch, her body pressed tight against mine, her leg hooked behind my thigh.
  
  "You talk too much," she finally says, her face flushed and her breathing shallow.
  
  "Maybe if you picked up the damn phone, I wouldn"t-"
  
  "You aren"t earning any points with being so pushy, Hachiman."
  
  "At least you"re back to calling me that."
  
  She stops. Looks at me.
  
  I see nothing in her eyes, because she doesn"t want me to.
  
  "What do you actually want?"
  
  And this time, it"s my turn to pause and reflect while she seeks my eyes for any clue.
  
  Because... I just don"t know.
  
  Shizu and Iroha tried to tell me, to force me to accept it, but I kept pushing, because I need to, I don"t know, I just...
  
  Yui kissing Yukino.
  
  That was... Bitter. Letting go of them, knowing it was for the best, fighting for a happiness I knew I wouldn"t be a part of, but...
  
  I, I also...
  
  "I want... I want the people I love to never be hurt."
  
  The cold, efficient gaze breaks. And I see the familiar shape of a pain I know too well.
  
  "... You really are dangerous, you know?"
  
  "That"s rich coming from you... Haruno."
  
  We remain silent, just looking at one another. I don"t know when I near her face, feeling the warm air from her breath rushing over my skin. I don"t know when I close my eyes. I don"t know who kisses who.
  
  It"s... different. There"s no strength to it, no struggle, we just...
  
  Like lazy waves washing over sand, effervescent surf fading away just right before it"s renewed, the kiss goes from her to me, never demanding, just... Accepting. Just taking whatever the other is willing to offer.
  
  I... My lips close over her tongue, suckling on it for a moment as she retreats, then gliding over her closed lips. Her mouth opens again, and I enter it, her tongue greeting me before pushing me out, all in slow motion, the movement reflected on our bodies, on her hands raising from my hips to my shoulder blades, her fingertips pressing along the edge of bone, something releasing I didn"t know was in there.
  
  I don"t know who stops it, but her hands are still on my back and mine on her waist.
  
  "So. You love me," she says. And there"s the edge of her usual mocking tone, but I can tell it"s frail, like an empty eggshell about to be crushed.
  
  "I do."
  
  She looks at me, the pain still there, even if pushed aside.
  
  "What does that even mean?" she asks. And that"s proof enough that Haruno Yukinoshita understands me better than most.
  
  "I don"t know."
  
  And she laughs.
  
  ***
  
  We both are leaning on the wall, our shoulders touching.
  
  "I can"t believe you pulled all that off just to end it with that wishy-washy line."
  
  "I can"t believe you even needed to ask."
  
  She pauses, her fingers twitching in a way that makes me think she wants to reach for a cigarette.
  
  "I didn"t. Not really."
  
  I look up at the patch of sky I can see between the tightly packed houses, already dark with the beginning of winter"s early night, like I want to see purple whorls of smoke drifting up before fading away.
  
  "I know."
  
  We let the moment pass.
  
  "It"s all Shizu"s fault," she says.
  
  "Obviously," I agree automatically.
  
  "I mean, where does she get off, seducing her students left and right?"
  
  "With her ridiculous white coat flaring out dramatically in the wind."
  
  "And her sharp clothes, like she"s dressing up for a mafioso dress rehearsal."
  
  "And that stupid sports car-how does she even afford that?"
  
  "I have absolutely no clue." She shakes her head. "Oh, and the way she always manages to walk like she"s getting into the right position for a backlit shot!"
  
  "Right! Purple smoke trailing from her hand, highlighting every gesture? Come on! That has to be on purpose!"
  
  "And then she goes and gets whatever trash ramen is nearer instead of going for a classy Italian!"
  
  "And gets drunk till she"s helpless and babbling!"
  
  "And starts spouting that "genuine" thing!"
  
  We pause after she says that. And we nod.
  
  "All her fault. We are completely blameless in this whole mess," I say. Haruno nods. Again.
  
  For emphasis, I guess.
  
  That"s how blameless we both are.
  
  The silence this time is a bit less strained because, as ridiculous as it sounds, we both fell in love with the same woman for pretty much the same reasons, and... Well, if movies have taught me anything, that makes us either sworn enemies or brothers in all but blood.
  
  Komachi must never know.
  
  "So, what was your actual plan when you came here?" she ends up asking, more curious than inquisitive.
  
  And I sigh. Because I don"t think she"s ready for the answer.
  
  "I had no plan."
  
  "... What?" See? The poor girl looks like Yui has just told her how she plans to mind break her little sister.
  
  Note to self: keep an eye on Yukinoshita and any signs of heart-shaped pupils she may display.
  
  "It"s... been brought to my attention that I see people as problems to be solved-"
  
  "Which you already knew."
  
  "Which I already knew. But... You aren"t a problem. I think the problem may be all the people in your life who have seen you as that, as something to be fixed, to be-"
  
  "Stop. Don"t go there."
  
  "Sorry... What I mean to say is that I... I care about you. I don"t quite know how, nor-screw that, it doesn"t matter. What matters is that I just... I just wanted to talk to you, to the girl I love, no matter in which way."
  
  And she ruffles my hair.
  
  "You are adorable," she says.
  
  "And you"re insufferable," I say as I try to get my hair back in order.
  
  She leans back against the wall, looking at the same patch of naked sky I was looking at a moment ago.
  
  "And you love me just like that."
  
  So I rest my shoulders against the same wall, feeling her warmth along my right arm, and let myself relax as my eyes drift up.
  
  "Yes. Yes, I do."
  
  The purple-lined clouds drift by.
  
  We remain still.
  
  And, for just a moment more, we hesitate to depart.
  
  
  
  
  ========================
  ========================
  
  Well, who could've guessed? Hachiman engaging in deliberate, direct, social confrontation rather than mellowing out with his girlfriend after having sex. A shocking turn of events, I know. It certainly stretches credibility. How out of character.
  
  "Oi."
  
  Shut up. It's a miracle I get you laid.
  
  Also, speaking of miracles, he may even survive next chapter.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 22
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 22
  
  There"s a turning point in almost every anime production. A crossing of the Rubicon, as Zaimokuza would put it, after which things can no longer be the same. It is something that broadcasts a great change to the audience in the most unsubtle way possible.
  
  It is...
  
  Sorry, the matter is of grave importance, and I hesitate to even bring it up. Allow me to gather my strength.
  
  It is... The recap episode.
  
  It is the episode where the animation budget has hit such a low point not even Koreans can work with it, and so the studio has to resign themselves to recycling clips from old episodes-also known as Naruto"s go-to. Sometimes it will be masked as a necessary step to allow the audience to take stock of what"s already happened and properly process it, but, more often than not, it will just start a downward spiral from which there"s no hope of escape, with every future conversation being haunted by a flashback waiting to happen. Also known as Naruto"s other go-to.
  
  Seriously, everyone had a traumatic past in that series. Ninja therapists must be rolling in the dough. Unlike baker therapists-those are rolling in pseudo-hentai and time travel.
  
  To add insult to injury, sometimes the studio will even bother putting a sepia tone on top of the recycled clips, as if proudly proclaiming their material hasn"t been renewed since the Showa era (or whenever it was that they did use actual sepia tones-I don"t know why that is even a thing).
  
  Still, at least it"s better than the ending of the Evangelion series.
  
  ... Slightly.
  
  "So... Where were you yesterday?" Komachi says, in a pointless transition to my impending, and completely unwilling, flashback sequence.
  
  "Ah, you know, Zaimokuza-" Ouch. That is a sharp gaze. At least it has too much emotion and too little smile to be actually yandereish.
  
  I think.
  
  I hope?
  
  "Fly, you fool!"
  
  Oh, a reference to that thing Record of Lodoss War plagiarized. Nice, Brain-chan.
  
  "Not referencing anything! I live in your skull, and I don"t need extra ventilation!"
  
  Surely, you"re exaggerating-
  
  "Gack!" I eloquently protest Komachi grabbing my necktie and pulling me down to her level, in front of the impassioned flames burning in her eyes-
  
  "Oreimo."
  
  "Gah!" I masterfully display my discomfort at Brain-chan"s admonition. Also, at Komachi dragging me to the sofa.
  
  I swear to Fushimi, if she sits on my lap to keep me from running away, I"m forcing her to frame our birth certificates and hang them up in her room.
  
  Thankfully, she doesn"t. She just forces me to sit down and then sits on the armrest, perpendicularly facing me.
  
  I think she"s trying to say that she has the high ground.
  
  "Speak," she orders.
  
  "Uh... I mean... Didn"t this go quite badly for you the last time you tried?"
  
  Oh, she"s flushing. Cute.
  
  "Tha-that won"t happen again! Just tell me where you actually went last night, brother!"
  
  "Seriously?"
  
  "Seriously!"
  
  "Like Majikoi? You know, "Love Me Seriously?""
  
  Komachi looks at me askance before slowly dragging her hand down her face.
  
  "Please tell me you didn"t make a joke with your sister about the title of an eroge. A bad, forced joke."
  
  "It"s also a comedy anime."
  
  "... Based on an eroge."
  
  "A very good eroge."
  
  "That... That doesn"t make this any better."
  
  "It doesn"t have an incest route?"
  
  Ah, there they are, those dead eyes of hers. I almost missed them.
  
  "And you still wonder what happened to Sense of Self-Preservation-kun..."
  
  ... Suicide?
  
  "Let"s just say he wasn"t aptly named."
  
  "Brother, Komachi"s going to start hitting you. She doesn"t know when she"ll stop."
  
  "That seems fair," I answer, my voice measured and calm.
  
  Then I get up and run up the stairs.
  
  "Stay still and take it like a man!"
  
  "That"s not what Shizu said!"
  
  "Agh!"
  
  Taking advantage of the stun effect I just masterfully applied (and people say status effects are garbage), I dive into my room and close the door behind me, leaning on it with my whole weight.
  
  Seconds after, the knob turns, and I"m almost thrown into the room.
  
  Ah, right. She"s the athletic sibling.
  
  "Let me in so I can inflict untold violence upon you!"
  
  "That doesn"t sound like my cute, dumb, younger sister! There are too many complicated words in there! I refuse to allow access to such an obvious impostor!"
  
  "Insulting my vocabulary won"t earn you any leniency!"
  
  "Seriously, have you been talking to Zaimokuza? What"s up with that?!"
  
  "Who did you think I would call after you told me to tell our parents you would be spending the night at Mister Chuuni"s?!"
  
  The door rattles once again, the vibrations traveling through my shoulder.
  
  Yes, I can certainly see why Sense of Self-Preservation-kun is no longer among us.
  
  "All right! Fine! I"ll tell you!"
  
  "Too late! Now"s time for revenge!"
  
  Fuck, what would Haruno do?
  
  "... Wait, you really expect me to have an answer to that question? Oh, you are adorable."
  
  I know, Brain-chan, but now"s not the time to delve into an elaborate analysis of my superlative charms.
  
  "The fact you really believe that-"
  
  I have two girlfriends, an unspecified, older girl on kissing terms, and I maneuvered my two former first loves into ending up with one another.
  
  "... Oh gods, you"re about to become insufferable."
  
  Praise me more.
  
  Also...
  
  Just as the knob turns once again, I step aside, and Komachi barrels into the room, too fast and uncontrolled to account for me hugging her and throwing us both on the bed.
  
  So, now I have my younger sister immobilized against the mattress, her face almost smothered by my pillow, my own body pressing down on hers.
  
  ...
  
  If dad saw this, I would be dead.
  
  I don"t think he would even be that surprised. Just... resigned. Lethally resigned.
  
  "... Brother, Komachi has elbows," she manages to bite out despite my pillow"s best attempts at silencing her. You have failed me for the last time, pillow-chan.
  
  "Very cute and dainty elbows that I"m sure my adorable sister won"t-ouch!"
  
  "Let go!"
  
  "Not until you calm down!"
  
  "And how am I supposed to calm down while you"re holding me like this?!"
  
  "Lie back and think of England?"
  
  That... may not have been the right answer.
  
  Mostly because of the all-consuming pain radiating from the core of my being as a thousand unborn Hikigayas scream as they are erased from the time continuum.
  
  When I finally open my eyes, I"m cradling the remains of the family legacy while in the fetal position.
  
  Komachi is looking down on me.
  
  There may actually be some regret in her eyes, but if that"s the case, she"s making an effort not to show it.
  
  "Ready to talk?" she says as she cracks her knuckles, Ryouga Hibiki style.
  
  ... With the fang and everything.
  
  ... I need Rule 63 Ryouga fanart.
  
  "Why do you insist on suffering?" I finally ask, my voice at that high note that would allow me to dub most shounen heroes. The screechier ones.
  
  "Why do you insist on hiding the obvious from me?"
  
  And... Damn it, how come I"m the one feeling guilty now?
  
  "Fine... I spent the night at Shizu"s," I finally confirm.
  
  The mattress sinks, and Komachi is sitting right in front of me, her head turned so she can still look down on my unworthy self.
  
  "And?"
  
  She"s blushing.
  
  ... No. No, I refuse. That does not compute.
  
  "Komachi, are you asking me for details about my sex life?"
  
  The blush just intensified. I hope it"s with blinding rage.
  
  "I mean... It"s not like I have that many people I can talk to about this..."
  
  It isn"t rage. Gods, why? Why isn"t it rage?
  
  "I... I am not sure what I can tell you-"
  
  "So you did it?"
  
  I don"t answer. I mean, other than choking on my own saliva and loudly coughing while trying to regain my breathing capabilities without resorting to an impromptu tracheotomy.
  
  Komachi pats my back with a resigned air on her face.
  
  It"s not very reassuring.
  
  "This room has a window. Just saying."
  
  Are you telling me to jump to uncertain salvation or to throw my captor through it?
  
  "Yes."
  
  "So... Was Iroha involved or-"
  
  Gathering my untapped reserves of strength that have been recklessly cultivated through my (mostly off-screen) training arc, I shut Komachi up with my hand.
  
  I hope she doesn"t bite.
  
  ... Not like that!
  
  "Dear sister. My adorable, cute, younger sister. The holder of far too many Komachi points. You aren"t asking me that."
  
  Her eyes are a bit wide. I guess she"s impressed by my physical prowess or my deep voice-damn it!
  
  I let go as fast as I can.
  
  Something between my legs reminds me I may not be up for quick movements, but the few sanity points I still have urge me to push past the limits of my body and surpass-oh gods, too much shounen. Never mind, I"ll just rest my back against the cool, soothing wall and pretend the world doesn"t exist.
  
  "I mean... You can"t blame me for being curious." The world, in turn, insists on continuing to exist.
  
  World-chan, I"ll have you know that"s very unsporting of you. Almost every worthy opponent will respect the unstated rules of combat and allow for an undefined pause where no time"s passing so that the planet that will blow up in five minutes actually takes fifty-three minutes and three seconds to give Greenpeace nightmares for years to come. There have been studies made.
  
  "I can, in fact, blame you."
  
  "Well, you shouldn"t."
  
  "Komachi, you just made sure you will never become an aunt. Any male you care to query on the subject will agree with me that that grants me a certain leeway with how much spite I"m allowed to throw your way."
  
  "I"m sure Taishi-"
  
  "Keep talking. I"ll just add it to the pile."
  
  Komachi grumbles and lies back, her legs dangling off the bed, her head resting on my stomach.
  
  "I just... I trust you, all right? And I can"t really ask anyone else. Please?"
  
  ...
  
  "You could"ve started with this and saved us both the physical violence."
  
  "You could"ve agreed like a rational human being and saved me the spike in blood pressure."
  
  "No, I couldn"t have."
  
  She sighs. Then she chuckles.
  
  "Does it... really hurt that much? It was kind of an accident; I wasn"t aiming... there."
  
  Then it"s my turn to sigh. I definitely don"t chuckle.
  
  "It"s fine. It just hurts, but it doesn"t feel like it"s... you know. Damaged."
  
  "You can always ask Shizuka to-blegh. All right, not ready for that kind of joke."
  
  "Yet you insist on asking."
  
  She shuts up for a moment, and I can see her face settling on... not determination. Not quite. But something close.
  
  "I do," she finally says, her voice barely above a whisper.
  
  I look at her, at the warm weight resting against my belly, and I ruffle her hair.
  
  "Fine. You win. But you aren"t getting any Komachi points in quite a while."
  
  She smiles at me, turning her head under my hand, and I know she knows that"s a lie.
  
  ***
  
  The conversation is... Not quite like I expected.
  
  There"s barely any gagging, for starters.
  
  "So... Iroha was there?"
  
  "I mean... I didn"t focus on her, for obvious reasons, but-"
  
  "What obvious reasons?"
  
  "It was Shizu"s night."
  
  "But Iroha was there."
  
  "She"s... part of the relationship. I didn"t even think about excluding her."
  
  "But you can do... things without all three of you?"
  
  "Yes, I mean, I"ve gone on a date with Shizu. As you already know." Heh, I always wanted to say that line. Take that, Captain Exposition.
  
  "But that was before she was also your girlfriend. What was she, a study partner?"
  
  "... I fear any answer to that question will come back to bite me in the not-so-far-away future."
  
  "Oh, you are learning. Having two girlfriends has done wonders for you."
  
  "Haruno-"
  
  "I"m not ready to even guess at that."
  
  I sigh, once more letting my fingers thread through Komachi"s hair as she keeps staring at the ceiling while using me as the lumpiest pillow she"s ever had.
  
  "Yeah. Me either."
  
  "... You saw her today, didn"t you?"
  
  "How did you-"
  
  "Because you couldn"t let yourself enjoy a full day after losing... you know. You needed to do something for her, as some kind of atonement for being happy."
  
  "You really shouldn"t speak with Zaimokuza."
  
  "I know! Komachi"s poor brain hurts! What do you do to take care of yours after speaking with him, brother?"
  
  "Not. A. Word."
  
  "I fear Brain-chan wouldn"t want me to reveal her secrets."
  
  "... Brain-chan?"
  
  "You fool! You"ve doomed us all!"
  
  "Forget it, just your gross brother being gross."
  
  "Ah. That fits."
  
  "... You"ve earned my begrudging respect."
  
  And I only had to call myself gross to my cute, adorable, completely blood-related-
  
  "That didn"t last long."
  
  "So... What did you talk about?"
  
  "I... I told her I loved her."
  
  "Wha-"
  
  "Then she asked me what that means."
  
  "Why-"
  
  "And I told her I don"t know."
  
  "..."
  
  "Komachi?"
  
  "And they say I am the dumb sibling."
  
  "I was just being honest."
  
  "Then tell her you need time to figure things out! Don"t pull out the "love" thing just like that!"
  
  "She understood!"
  
  "No, she didn"t! Nobody would-"
  
  "We kissed!"
  
  Komachi twitches under my fingers. Then, slowly and deliberately, turns to me, uncaring of the hand being dragged by her movement.
  
  "You. Did. What."
  
  "We... Kissed?"
  
  "After... After having sex with Shizuka, you went and kissed Haruno-"
  
  "She knows."
  
  "What."
  
  "I... I called earlier. Told her everything that happened and wasn"t a violation of Haruno"s privacy."
  
  "... What did she say?"
  
  "She expected me to do something like that. Said we still need to have a talk. All of us."
  
  "Didn"t... Didn"t she get into a fight with her the last time she..."
  
  "It"s... complicated."
  
  With a groan, she leans back and stares at the ceiling.
  
  I don"t stop patting her head. Just in case.
  
  "I just wanted some healthy gossip, a bit of a hint about what... that is actually like. I didn"t sign up for love polygons."
  
  "You could always talk with Yui and Yukino."
  
  "Have they-"
  
  "I won"t ever ask. But"s it"s Yui. So yes."
  
  "How are you so sure?"
  
  "... Have I told you Haruno is currently living in Yukino"s apartment?"
  
  "... Brother, have you ever thought about writing soap operas?"
  
  "Not until about a week ago."
  
  "And?"
  
  "I don"t want Zaimokuza to feel bad. Maybe after his next rejection letter."
  
  "So you can rub it in?"
  
  "Obviously."
  
  She chuckles. So do I.
  
  I mean, it"s the expected thing to do, isn"t it? A buildup of tension that"s released by a timely joke? That"s surely healthy and not a way to avoid tackling the actual problems-
  
  "I don"t think I"ve ever been in love," Komachi says. And I stop laughing.
  
  I stop everything, actually.
  
  "It"s... I know I"m still young, but I look at you, at how much you have started pushing yourself since... Since you kissed Shizuka, and... I"m kind of jealous? I know I always tried to set you up with Yui or Yukino, but... I don"t know. You are in love. It"s a bit-"
  
  "I"ll always be there for you, Komachi."
  
  She closes her eyes, and her breathing slowly steadies.
  
  "I know," she whispers. "I know, but... Maybe you shouldn"t have to? Not if I"m holding you back-"
  
  "Never. You"ve never been anything but good for me, Komachi."
  
  "You never pushed yourself like-"
  
  "Don"t be an idiot. Why do you think I know how to cook?"
  
  "Yes, but... But not with others. You suffered by yourself, alone, and didn"t reach out-"
  
  "And I could go through that because I had you. I didn"t hide from the world because I used you as an excuse: I could stand the world because you were in it. I love you. Always have. Always will."
  
  "... You use that word far too lightly."
  
  "Or not enough." I lean down and grab her beneath her arms before dragging her up, spooning her before whispering in her ear, "I love you, little sister."
  
  She stills for a moment, before she relaxes and leans back, her body trapping our warmth against my chest.
  
  "And I love you, grossther."
  
  I smile and kiss her hair.
  
  Then, like the not at all siscon I am, I close my eyes and enjoy having my sister near me.
  
  ***
  
  Through some unspoken agreement, Komachi leaves to prepare dinner without mentioning any single detail about the diabetes-inducing scene that just transpired between us. Once again, fraternal telepathy proves it was a good perk to invest in. I mean, it was that or gaining strength when suffering radiation poisoning, and that only seemed marginally useful on character creation.
  
  If I had known I would be born in Japan, I might have given it a bit more thought.
  
  Still... Well, we talked about quite a few things and...
  
  With a sigh, I grab my phone.
  
  Going through my still quite short list of contacts, I let my finger hover over a name and, with a resigned sigh, I press it.
  
  I"m half expecting to hear the ringtone from the ceiling.
  
  "Senpai?" Iroha"s voice answers without anything in my room suspiciously shifting, proving that she has, at the very least, learned the sophisticated stealth skill of putting her phone in silent mode.
  
  It doesn"t look like much, but one only needs to purchase a ticket to the movie theater to discover how dreadfully underused such a skill is. The true mark of a master.
  
  "Hey, Iroha, I was wondering..." I, uncharacteristically, dither.
  
  "Yes. Totally unheard of."
  
  Shut up, Brain-chan.
  
  "See? That"s the problem: I tend to do that, and look where it gets you."
  
  "Yes?" Iroha asks me, a bit of a nervous note on her tone.
  
  "Would you..." Come on! Just man up! Where"s that social bulldozer now?!
  
  "Would I?"
  
  Deep breaths. It"s not that hard.
  
  Correction. It shouldn"t be that hard.
  
  "Phrasing. Also, you just missed a golden opportunity to add "after talking with Komachi" at the end of that line."
  
  ... You don"t even care how many lines you cross, do you?
  
  "Praise me more. Also, Iroha"s waiting. And her breathing speed seems to be approaching dangerous levels."
  
  Right. Right. I just have to-
  
  "Would you go out on a date with me?" I blurt out, the words almost jumbling together.
  
  Though I guess she understands the question.
  
  Mostly because I feel like I just lost a few decibels of audition in my right ear.
  
  What is it with my girlfriends and squealing over the phone?
  
  
  
  =========================
  =========================
  
  Certainly! What's up with that? Is it the true mystery of the Cakeverse? Is it the clue that unravels everything underlying the borderline paranormal events that surround Hachiman since he stepped into the Twilight Zone? Find out in next week's chapter!
  
  Though the answer is "likely not" with some shades of "what are you even talking about?" Uh. Spoilers, I guess.
  
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  Spoiler: My Ongoing Stories
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  Agrippa, Dec 17, 2021Report#772Like+ QuoteReply
  [template], Alienbruchacho, Go0s and 154 others like this.
  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 23
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
  So as I pray, Unlimited Keystroke Works!
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 23
  
  For decades upon decades, romance manga has revolved around a single question: will they or won"t they?
  
  It"s faintly ridiculous, seeing as, more often than not, said question revolves around the lead and the first person with a compatible sexual orientation they meet, who, just because of said chronological advantage, will be far more developed than any subsequent character who may try to challenge them for romance supremacy.
  
  Yes, it is almost a law, and not even an unwritten one, that "first girl wins," but so does first boy, first shikigami, first alien, or even first cursed animal (I think, I never finished Fruits Basket). Therefore, their subsequent adventures and misadventures always feel somewhat disingenuous, geared toward a resolution that very rarely strays from the tried and true formula. In this regard, romance is fairly akin to shounen, and thus it is no exaggeration to say that shounen is the true romance of men.
  
  Of very manly men who may prefer other rather manly men, if Jojo is any indication.
  
  But flamboyant, well-muscled, prone to copious amounts of violence men (and one girl) aside, the problem with the formula is, for those of us who absorb fiction in such amounts as to being able to claim that it is a part of our lives as significant or more so than quite a few others more socially accepted (such as, for instance, academic pursuits and the relationships one is expected to foster through them)... the problem is... Well...
  
  That they always end shortly after the damn confession.
  
  Oh, sure, we have followed the damn indecisive couple through at least four baseball tournaments that always climax with someone shedding frustrated tears because they won"t reach the Koshien, we have seen them overcome whatever politics separate their races in a Romeo and Juliet transparent ploy, we have seen them struggle to make the last cultural festival truly special and a fitting farewell to their years spent together while they tried to pretend they wouldn"t like to tear each other"s clothes off... And then one of them finds the courage to ask the question, the other says yes... And that"s it.
  
  And we are supposed not to rage at the sheer inconclusiveness of it all.
  
  Admittedly, most otakus won"t ever reach that stage, never mind whatever comes after, but shouldn"t the industry we have entrusted our social development to give us at least a couple of hints? I don"t know, is there an Afterstory I can buy if I pretend I"m legally an adult? Some sort of OVA that only circulates through the shadiest parts of Comiket? How the Hell am I supposed to proceed after the girl says yes?!
  
  "Breathe, Hachi," Shizu says from my side, her long hair streaming with the erratic wind that rushes through the roof of the school at noon, one can of something that should be alcoholic to complete the image in her hand.
  
  "I... Uh, I mean, it"s not like I"m nervous or anything..." Great. Fantastic performance. I should add a few stuttering "bakas" in there for good measure.
  
  "You in blonde twintails is something that I will never be able to erase from our dark history."
  
  It hasn"t even happened!
  
  "The mere notion is traumatic enough to qualify."
  
  Shizu snorts, and, for a terrible moment, I"m half-convinced she just figured out what I"m thinking.
  
  "Were you this much of a wreck before our date?" she asks, in part assuaging my fears, but mostly because she just replaced them with some new, terrible ones.
  
  "I..."
  
  "Is that a yes?"
  
  "... Komachi may have been there to help me pick out my clothes."
  
  "Your... Your sister knows?" Oi, what"s with that slight flush? That"s dangerous, you know? You can"t pull out something like that in public. I won"t be responsible for anything that happens.
  
  "So, like usual?"
  
  Certainly. Eluding responsibility is one of the key skills needed to prosper in corporate culture. The other is avoiding corporate culture.
  
  "There"s very little I can add that won"t result in you saying "praise me more," is there?"
  
  "Hachi, I asked a question."
  
  "Sorry, I was distracted by how tempting your thin blush is and how it just makes me want to reach out and-"
  
  And I have a hand covering my mouth and a somewhat more reddish Christmas Cake staring at me with wide eyes.
  
  Let"s see... Yep, my throat feels like I"ve been trying to imitate that guy who acts like you can dress up like a super sentai villain and not only be a good guy, but broody and respectable.
  
  Also, a bat.
  
  Heh. Westerners.
  
  "You need to learn how not to do that while in public," she admonishes me between short breaths.
  
  "You need to learn that physical contact with a beautiful woman is not quite the best way to curb my urges," I try to reply through expressive eyebrow movements.
  
  The fact she blushes even more makes me think that either my eyebrows are far more expressive than I thought or that I"m really sending the wrong message. Well, it may not be quite the wrong message...
  
  But the important thing, the actual point of the communication, is that she takes her hand away before I grab her wrist, kiss her palm, lick between her fingers-
  
  "S-stop looking at me like that."
  
  "Stop being so goddamn adorable, erotic, cute, and beautiful all the time."
  
  And she kisses me.
  
  All right, it"s just a peck on my cheek, but I"m still kind of giddy about it.
  
  "You really are the worst..." she says with a smile that twitches whenever she tries to suppress it.
  
  "Of course I am; how else would I have dared to reach so far above my station?" And, well, my voice may be a tad deep. Like, you know, the Mariana Trench or some other puddle.
  
  "We are at school..."
  
  "That didn"t stop you last time."
  
  Oh, now she"s overheating! Great, it seems I"ve actually managed to find a way to avoid having a conver-
  
  Shizu clears her throat loudly, covering her mouth with the fist that isn"t clenching a can of coffee until the aluminum creases and looks at me seriously.
  
  "So. Your sister."
  
  Damn it.
  
  I lean my back against the railing, my elbows over it, and I look upward to the sky in a gesture that I"m pretty sure I haven"t copied from Shizu but that I may as well have.
  
  I may need to ask Zaimokuza to lend me his trench coat.
  
  And about twenty pounds of chuuni.
  
  "She asked. I tried not to tell her, and then she played dirty."
  
  "Dirty?"
  
  "She was hurt by me keeping secrets from her."
  
  Shizu looks at me from the side, her left elbow quite near to mine as she leans sideways on that same railing.
  
  Then she chuckles.
  
  "Only you would say that was playing dirty."
  
  "It worked when I didn"t want it to. Thus, it"s dirty."
  
  Then she leans over me and kisses my forehead, leaving me slightly more confused than giddy.
  
  "I didn"t say it was a bad thing. Just a "you" thing."
  
  "I have never been quite clear on the difference."
  
  "No. But we are."
  
  And now my cheeks are burning. Ah, karma, you truly are as spiteful as I always thought. Don"t you have some magical girls to traumatize or something?
  
  "Which kind of brings me back to my question..." I try to recover and hopefully distract her from my reaction.
  
  Given the way she smiles, a mix of soft and coy, I don"t quite manage.
  
  "You just dangled relationship gossip about me to your sister, Hachi. It"s going to take a bit more than that to make me let it go."
  
  "Oh? Well, I guess I could-"
  
  "A bit more, not that much more. Now, spill."
  
  I sigh and look back up at the drifting clouds, mostly trying to see whether their cognitive enhancement effects are as dramatic as some ninjas may have you believe.
  
  "I told her everything." Apparently not.
  
  "... And?"
  
  I sigh yet again, mostly because there"s a limited repertoire of expressive breathing patterns that fit the current situation, and I don"t feel like hyperventilating.
  
  "She... was worried."
  
  She pauses, considering.
  
  "In which way?"
  
  And I pause, not considering, because that"s something I"ve already done plenty of times.
  
  "She thought it may be too complicated for me, that it"s my first relationship, and everything about it is far more than a socially maladjusted teenager should be able to easily deal with."
  
  "And-"
  
  "And she"s right, of course. Because I"m not dealing with it: we are. You, Iroha, me. That"s the trick, isn"t it? We cover for each other. It"s not something I have to solve. Not anymore."
  
  Arms still embarrassingly stronger than mine surround me and pull me against her, tight enough that I can feel her body yield even through her anti-NTR barrier.
  
  "You never had to," she whispers.
  
  "I know. Now I know. And I owe it to you."
  
  My breath doesn"t quite hitch throughout the line, but it"s a near thing.
  
  And when she kisses my lips and absolves me from speaking any longer, I feel as loved and grateful as relieved.
  
  ***
  
  "You can"t be serious," Yukinoshita says with a tone that implies more hope than statement of fact.
  
  "I tried to ask Shizu, but we got sidetracked..." I reply, rubbing the back of my head in regretful, somewhat bashful, anime character pose number five.
  
  Yui is resting her face on her folded arms. Over the table. Moaning like she"s trying to audition for a remake of The Ring.
  
  "Hikigaya-"
  
  "Call me Hachiman."
  
  "I"ll call you trash, and you"ll be happy to hear it."
  
  "Yukino, I shouldn"t have to remind you so often that I"m not an M. No matter how much events may suggest otherwise."
  
  "That"s a relief, then I can call you a disgusting pig in human form without fearing you sexually harassing me in return."
  
  "I feel that repaying harassment with more harassment is only fair."
  
  "If society was ever to adopt your idea of fairness-"
  
  "Would you two stop flirting? If you want to cheat on me, at least do it when I"m not around," Yui sulkily adds as she lifts her head so it"s her chin that rests on her arms.
  
  ...
  
  I"m not even sure she"s joking.
  
  Going by Yukino"s blush, she isn"t either.
  
  "Uh... Morality aside, I"m afraid I already have my hands full with a single Yukinoshita scion."
  
  "Tell me about it..." the "not quite as upbeat as she should be" girl has the gall to drawl.
  
  And Yukino seems to be choking on... air? Is that a thing? It must be, because that color on her face can"t be something a humanoid with a functioning respiratory system should be able to manifest.
  
  "Just say she"s blushing and gaping like a fish."
  
  But that"s boooring...
  
  "How"s Haruno, by the way?" Yui asks, still pretending her girlfriend isn"t struggling between life and death by her side.
  
  "Oh, you know, subverting the very laws of rationality, mocking the foundations of polite society, possibly entertaining a blind god with mad pipes. Same old, same old."
  
  "... Does making me feel dumb feel like flirting to you? I think it may be, now that I have some perspective."
  
  "Wha-I"ve never done that!"
  
  She tilts her head to the side, and her sleeves don"t let me read her face well enough.
  
  "Hikky... I know you think what you just said is true. And that worries me."
  
  "Uh... I... I apologize?"
  
  She stills, and Yukinoshita seems to regain some of her autonomous functions.
  
  "For what?" she inquires, the casual edge to her tone as genuine as a main character"s death before the final arc.
  
  Gods damn it.
  
  "Do I really have to do this right now?" I plead with her.
  
  "We are friends, aren"t we?" she condemns me.
  
  I clench my teeth, close my eyes, and pinch the bridge of my nose.
  
  This is what I get for coming to the Service Club with an urgent request...
  
  The fact that it was about a date with Iroha is totally unrelated and doesn"t reflect on my judgment at all.
  
  "I"m sorry if I ever made you feel anything but welcome and cared for. You are one of my best friends, one of the persons I value most in the whole world. Yukino and I may share some common ground through interests you don"t have, but... It was always you, Yui. It was always you and the way you understood emotions like we didn"t. The three of us... we wouldn"t have lasted without you, your efforts, your empathy, your heart. And, when I say I love you, it is not hyperbole, because that"s the only word that can fit even a single part of what you made me feel since the day I met you and you tried to be sneaky about your damn charcoal cookies that you managed to turn into-"
  
  There"s a sobbing girl hugging me.
  
  This shouldn"t be something I"m used to.
  
  "You always talk too much," she mutters against my chest.
  
  "You asked for it. Literally," I answer, patting her back.
  
  Then Yukino, hesitatingly, almost trembling, lays a hand on our shoulders.
  
  "I... I"m sorry too. And what he just said... I don"t deserve-"
  
  So quickly I start to wonder if Iroha has a more veteran practitioner to look up to, Yui turns around and drags Yukino into our shared hug.
  
  "You do. You deserve everything I can give you. And I won"t let go until you believe it. I promise," the girl everyone underestimates fiercely whispers.
  
  I look down at the two girls between my arms, at a future that never was...
  
  And I smile.
  
  Really, what else did I expect to happen?
  
  ***
  
  "Hachiman! Has thou come to ask your liege for the support only the wisdom of the-"
  
  "Hanging up."
  
  "Whyyyyy-"
  
  "Tone it down, chuuni," Sagami tells him.
  
  And Zaimokuza, miraculously, heeds her words-damn it.
  
  "Of course. Do forgive my exuberance, I"m still getting used to this whole "indoor voice" notion. Such a bewildering concept..."
  
  I look at Zaimokuza holding his chin, his head at a carefully rehearsed angle that makes the sun glint off his glasses.
  
  And at a redhead who seems to have developed a taste for the kind of jewelry one would see in mangas with people with long black coats and blacker wings since the last time we spoke.
  
  Looking at him fondly.
  
  As he sketches a complicit smile that lets me know just how much of what just happened is an in-joke between two people who definitely spend far too much time with each other.
  
  "I"m scared. Hold me."
  
  I"m trying, Brain-chan, but my skull isn"t cooperating.
  
  "... What just happened?" I, against every instinct in my body that lies buried in an unmarked, shallow grave that nonetheless still has room in it for me (Self-Preservation-kun, you were too kind for this world), ask as I try to relax the fingers digging into my scalp.
  
  "I have no idea what you"re talking about," Sagami replies, her tone as frosty as an aspiring Yukinoshita.
  
  I look helplessly at Zaimokuza, hoping against hope that he will provide some modicum of sanity-
  
  I avert my eyes before it"s too late.
  
  "Ah, so you can learn."
  
  "Anyway, I... Gods damn it. I need advice."
  
  "Of course! How could the wisdom of this humble servant of the Lord of Battle, Harems, and Battle Harems serve you, my liege?"
  
  "Wha-battle harems? I don"t have a battle harem!"
  
  "MMA Shizu, aikidoka Haruno, kunoichi Iroha-"
  
  That last one is mere speculation!
  
  "Oh, please."
  
  "You don"t? How would you define your relationship with the demon Yukinoshita-"
  
  "Very close enemies."
  
  "The hound Yuigahama-"
  
  "More like a puppy."
  
  "And the assassin Hiratsuka?"
  
  "No comment."
  
  Sagami, stop looking at me like that. You should know by now all of this is no more than a flight of fancy from your chuuni buddy. You know how he is. Completely out of touch with reality. Really, me, gathering a harem? Preposterous.
  
  "You"re sweating."
  
  I"ve noticed.
  
  "Also, Shizu-Mrs. Hiratsuka may get upset if you go around insinuating she"s some kind of yakuza princess. She"s kind of sensitive about it."
  
  "Sensitive how?" Sagami asks.
  
  "I think some ex-boyfriend-"
  
  "You"re awfully informed about your teacher"s love life."
  
  ...
  
  Shit.
  
  Right, right, this is salvageable. Just turn this awkward pause into the kind of dragged-out silence you would make when someone says something glaringly stupid.
  
  "... I dare you to find someone who has spent more than twenty minutes with her and doesn"t know at least one traumatic story about a bastard ex of hers."
  
  That should do. Also, ouch. Sorry, Shizu.
  
  "... Yeah, I guess that"s true. The woman has no filter."
  
  I look from her to Zaimokuza.
  
  Then from Zaimokuza to her.
  
  Then I repeat the cycle, to some confused looks from both of them.
  
  "Really?" I finally say.
  
  At which Sagami seems to get what I have very explicitly insinuated, looks at her mountain of a-I"m going with boyfriend, but only because I don"t want to delve into more esoteric vocabulary-and flushes.
  
  I hope that with embarrassment.
  
  My mind is not ready for any other possibility.
  
  "Right. Right..." she mutters.
  
  ... I"m feeling a certain sense of kinship with the insufferable girl.
  
  "Yes. Certainly. Now, I apologize for intruding on your sketch rehearsal or whatever the Hell it is you"re doing, but... if I could borrow Zaimokuza for a second?"
  
  "Why?" she asks with as much distrust as is reasonable to direct at me.
  
  How refreshing. I kinda missed this.
  
  "It"s... somewhat personal."
  
  She narrows her eyes at me, then looks at the wide smile on Zaimokuza"s face (wider than usual, I mean), and nods.
  
  "Sure. Just make it quick."
  
  "I"ll try to make my personal life inconvenience you as little as possible."
  
  "That will be appreciated. By someone."
  
  And, before I can reply to that, she turns her back on me and struts into the distance.
  
  ... I feel there"s a lot going on here, and I"m not sure I want to know what.
  
  "So! My oldest comrade, my soul companion, my patron-"
  
  "You can say "friend," Zaimokuza."
  
  Oh, shit.
  
  I said it.
  
  You see, there"s a reason why I rarely show the chuuni open affection, asides from it being gross, inconvenient, and a good way for people to lump me in with the likes of him-
  
  "Tsundere."
  
  Fuck off.
  
  "My kinsmaaaaaaan!" Zaimokuza Zaimokuzas as he lifts me off the ground with a bear hug.
  
  This is mortifying.
  
  "Let. Go."
  
  "Ah! To have one such as you so openly proclaim the bonds that tie us from beyond the-"
  
  "I will bite you."
  
  "He may be contagious."
  
  I thought that had already been thoroughly documented.
  
  "Such fierceness-"
  
  Right, I won"t bite him.
  
  I will, instead, poke him right below his ribs.
  
  With a sharp hiss, Zaimokuza lets go and begins rubbing his side.
  
  Which, seeing as my fingertip kind of hurts...
  
  "How the Hell are you this hard?"
  
  "That"s what she-"
  
  "Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Nope. Forget I asked; I"ll strive to do so for the rest of my life."
  
  "Ah, such an enviable dominion of thine own mind! Truly, only a warrior among warriors-"
  
  "Zaimokuza, I will bite you."
  
  He stands across from me, the wind rustling his trench coat, his fingerless gloves... doing absolutely nothing, but they are still worth remarking upon.
  
  "Very well, state your terms, Hachiman, that I may render assistance upon-"
  
  "I have a date," I burst out.
  
  And he freezes.
  
  Before a grin that wouldn"t be out of place on a cat-themed monstergirl splits his face.
  
  "Ah! Tell me, is it the demon Yukinoshita-"
  
  "Don"t even joke about that. Yui"s scary when she wants to be. Anyway, I need to get something ready, and I don"t know what to do. It"s kind of urgent."
  
  "Urgent? What is the timeframe for this mission?"
  
  "Uh... A couple hours-"
  
  "What the fuck?!"
  
  That isn"t Zaimokuza.
  
  No, it"s a stomping redhead charging right at me who looks a bit... Livid.
  
  It... kinda matches her earrings? Is that a thing people do? Match jewelry to their temper? Oi, Sagami, why-
  
  Why are you grabbing my tie?!
  
  "You didn"t prepare anything for a date that"s almost about to start?! Do you know how that girl will react after spending days thinking how-"
  
  "I asked her yesterday!"
  
  "Do you know how that girl felt after being pressured on such short notice?! A single day to prepare?! What kind of moron-"
  
  "Ah, my Lady Minami, I fear Hachiman may have just acted rashly and decisively, as befits a God of War when confronted by a prize-"
  
  "If you imply girls are a prize to be earned one more time, we"re gonna have words."
  
  "I assume on Zaimokuza"s part those will mostly consist of "no," "no, please, stop," "have mercy," and other things that wouldn"t be amiss in a Nana to Kaoru live adaptation?"
  
  Sagami turns slowly from her punching bag to me, eyes smoldering rather than flashing.
  
  It"s... Maybe an improvement?
  
  "I"m gonna give you a pass for the reference, but if you ever even try to guess at what the chuuni and I may get up to behind closed doors again-"
  
  "Nah, nah, nah! Can"t hear you! I"m preserving my remaining sanity at the top of my lungs!"
  
  And she stomps on my foot.
  
  "Motherf-!" I eloquently express my feelings regarding her display of physical affection as I jump up and down on my remaining, working foot.
  
  Zaimokuza, stop looking at her in awe. The girl"s a menace.
  
  "Now, listen here, you little, dead-eyed punk. You"re going to give that anonymous, deluded, clearly mentally ill girl a good time that makes up for the terrible fate karma has saddled her with, or my name isn"t Minami Sagami-"
  
  "What the Lady Minami wishes to convey is that she"s grateful for the advice you gave me for our first date, and she intends to return the favor."
  
  "That is not what I wish to convey."
  
  "She also would like to offer her heartfelt apologies for inadvertently overhearing our private conversation."
  
  "... Fine," the hellion mutters.
  
  I look from the overly jovial Zaimokuza to the almost pouting mutilator.
  
  Zaimokuza beams, Sagami sulks.
  
  ...
  
  I think I need an adult.
  
  ***
  
  It"s fifteen minutes before the agreed-upon meeting time, and I"m sitting on a circular bench surrounding a tree in front of the station"s exit.
  
  The sun has already set, the month being what it is, and only the throng of people walking by keeps me from complaining about a cold wind reddening the tip of my nose so that I, instead, am forced to complain about the throng of people being noisy and intrusive. It"s a heavy burden I shall bear with the dignity afforded my station as-
  
  Damn it, Zaimokuza!
  
  I mean, I"m just letting the time pass idly by as I...
  
  Follow Sagami"s instructions.
  
  That, honestly, aren"t that different from the instructions I gave Zaimokuza what feels like ages ago, but I guess it"s easier to see things clearly from an outsider"s perspective.
  
  Also, my foot no longer feels that sore, so that may contribute to my increased mental focus.
  
  I"m tempted to take out my phone and fiddle with it, but sudden flashbacks of Sagami and her lecture about being attentive and focused on my date even if the girl in question isn"t (to my knowledge) already there-
  
  I should elevate a prayer for Zaimokuza"s wellbeing. To his patron deity? Myself? How does that even work?
  
  Oh, Hachiman, thou who looks down on pretty much everyone, allow your wayward vassal to safely traverse the battlefield of love that is war-
  
  Right. My cheeks are burning too intensely for this to be healthy. Either I have incurred divine wrath, or I shouldn"t ever poke at my dark history ever again.
  
  Like any healthy Japanese youth, I should strive to bury my trauma and pretend it doesn"t exist.
  
  Like the world.
  
  That suddenly disappears as something fluffy and warm covers my eyes.
  
  "Guess who, Senpai?"
  
  I swallow, my heart suddenly accelerating at the warm, velvet voice caressing my left ear.
  
  "It"s not like I know too many kunoichis, you know?"
  
  Iroha"s gloves slide away (white wool, soft and fuzzy like a teddy bear that hasn"t had the misfortune of being handled by a child), and I"m confronted by honey eyes and pink lips set in a slight pout.
  
  "You could"ve tried to play along, you know?"
  
  And I see her.
  
  She"s wearing a cable-knit, beige sweater that reaches down to her knees, clinched to her waist by a braided strip of leather. Her open coat is a tan color with a white furry collar, and...
  
  She"s wearing dark leggings and calf-high brown leather boots.
  
  It"s... It"s not the overblown display that Shizu wore for our date, but I can see the traces of a careful hand applying very subtle makeup, the way streetlights seem to dance over her glossy lips, the expectation-
  
  Right. Right, I better say this before Sagami manifests from the ether to beat me up.
  
  "You look beautiful. You are beautiful."
  
  Iroha"s smile widens, and a bit of a natural flush shines through her foundation.
  
  And I just want to hold her and never let go.
  
  
  
  =======================
  =======================
  Next week, Hachiman goes on his second date. That is all. Surely nothing eventful would happen and he will manage to pass the time as a regular teenager going out with his completely sane and not at all a trained assassin girlfriend.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 24
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 24
  
  A mirrored situation is one of the most ham-fisted, direct ways for an author to establish that a moment is about to highlight a change in circumstances for the characters involved. Let"s say a shounen hero shrugs on the uniform left behind by his martial arts master who was murdered by a time-traveling cyborg (yes, this is still about martial marts, no I don"t know how), the next sequence will be guaranteed to involve the following: a two-page wide stretched panel of the master facing his assassin, taking his signature stance while the villain in question makes the kind of face that makes people ask you to leave the playground before the police gets involved, and, below that, there will be basically that same panel, but this time it will be the protagonist taking the stance. While his master had a resigned expression, sometimes highlighted by a treasonous drop of sweat, the disciple will instead showcase either cool confidence or righteous rage, depending on whether said mentor was the parental substitute figure or the sadistic bastard whose training methods would land most of his students in the ICU.
  
  That last one will also be avenged, because it"s part of the protocol, but it"s quite clearly implied in the subtext that the main cast spent a whole week celebrating his demise, and most of the shounen power-up comes from the hellish trials involved in overcoming their hangovers.
  
  ... Does Shizu get a lot of zenkai boosts from that? Is that why Haruno was caught off-guard?
  
  Also, why is there such an insistent tugging on my coat"s sleeve?
  
  Ah, right, because Iroha is looking away from me, the red of her cheeks peeking just above the scarf she"s tugging up to inefficiently cover them. The scarf and gesture combination, though, are paradoxically terrifyingly effective at making my own cheeks burn.
  
  "Here?" she finally asks, her voice a bit lower than usual.
  
  I look up at the ominous pillars in front me, at the steel clawing at the very Heavens as if to tear them down, the glint of moonlight silver spiraling to the darkness above.
  
  At the very gates of Destiny itself.
  
  Or, well, Destinyland.
  
  Yes, it"s an amusement park. You don"t know the horrors this place holds for a loner like me. So many school trips where I was forced to sit alone in a ride for two, and... And...
  
  "Yeah, I can"t come up with anything other than that."
  
  Still, it should suffice to claim the place has left an indelible wound upon my very soul that flares up at its mere proximity?
  
  "... Note to self: don"t converse for extended periods of time with Zaimokuza right before going on a date."
  
  Or at all?
  
  "Or at all."
  
  The tugging on my sleeve remains insistent, so maybe I should cut this short, enjoyable as it"s been, Brain-chan.
  
  "Flattery won"t get you anywhere."
  
  Thank the Gods for that.
  
  "Yes," I finally answer. "Here."
  
  Iroha turns her head just the bare amount to look at me askance.
  
  "I"m not paying for my ticket-"
  
  I flash her my phone, where an incriminating video-I mean, where a QR code for two entrances to the park is shown.
  
  She sighs.
  
  "Fine."
  
  I guess that"s the best I am going to get.
  
  ***
  
  To be honest, this wasn"t, at all, what Sagami ended up suggesting. She wanted me to do something simple, not to stress Iroha or push my expectations on her, to focus on making her feel relaxed and at ease. She definitely didn"t want me to make a grand gesture like she already knows I"m far too prone to.
  
  So, it is with the added pleasure of completely ignoring well-meaning, sensible advice that I step into Destinyland with a sleeve-clutching Iroha by my side.
  
  "So... Panda Attack?" I say, trying to break the ice.
  
  "Yukino"s favorite ride?" she replies, invoking the ice maiden herself to rebuild it ASAP.
  
  "... Right. Any suggestions?"
  
  She turns around, presumably taking in the whole place. We are at a concrete plaza right by the entrance that allows us to see not only the far too dense packs of riajuus going about their strange mating rituals, but also the most prominent rides this place has to offer. The roller coaster where one shoots oddly misshapen pandas, the roller coaster where one falls down a waterfall, the rollercoaster where one gets on a roller coaster...
  
  There are quite a few roller coasters, is what I"m saying.
  
  And Iroha doesn"t seem like she"s quite enthused by the idea of getting in one of them.
  
  "How about the Ferris wheel? I know it"s a traditional ender, bonus points if there are fireworks or the car gets stuck, but it should let us better see if there"s anything interesting going on," I finally suggest.
  
  Because, apparently, it"s my duty to take the initiative and make sure my date is comfortable and doesn"t feel pressured, and I should have planned for this, and-shut up, Inner Sagami. Don"t you have a chuuni to get bothered with?
  
  "Don"t you mean-"
  
  I know what I said. Even if the mental image hurts me so.
  
  "The Ferris wheel sounds... fine? There isn"t much of a queue," she says right before she starts pulling on my sleeve to the aforementioned ride.
  
  Which... All right, it"s adorable, and it"s triggering far too many instincts that, at their worst, may end up with me dragging her away while squealing "moe." So, let"s not do that.
  
  Instead, let"s wait awkwardly and without too much conversation going on until a woman dressed in a red vest that is not up to Shizu"s standards ushers us into a lone car.
  
  She sits in front of me.
  
  Not by my side.
  
  ... Have I already screwed up so badly?
  
  "If you need to ask..."
  
  "So... Why here?" Iroha asks as she looks through the window and pointlessly shows me her breathtaking profile highlighted by-down.
  
  "I... It was kind of short notice? And the only romantic location I could come up with through my limited experience on the subject in any medium that doesn"t involve people whose eyeballs could be used as flotation devices?"
  
  She snorts. Victory. Self-deprecation has proved its usefulness yet again.
  
  "Maybe next time don"t make it so short notice?" "Next time." Right, that"s a relief. Time to stop being so contrite.
  
  "Ever heard of the foot in the door technique? Keep the pressure up and don"t let them even think about how faulty the product you"re offering is."
  
  "Right, that"s not what the foot in the door technique is-"
  
  "I"m talking in practice, not theory-"
  
  "And even if it was, do you think I"m the kind of girl who would hesitate to slam the door on your foot if I felt like it, Senpai?"
  
  ... Right. Back to being contrite.
  
  "The last thing I"d want is for you to feel like you have to-"
  
  "I know. I know, you... you don"t have to tell me. I asked you... about that... because you made me feel safe, didn"t I?" she says, hugging her pointlessly big handbag to her chest.
  
  ... All right, the first order of business is to stop using the word "pointlessly," the second is to stop getting entranced by Iroha"s mastery of the cute anime girl body language. One of these tasks will be swiftly accomplished without any undue complications.
  
  Mindful of not moving too fast (physically; as far as "emotionally" goes, that ship has already sailed), I stand up and crouch down in front of her, the car swaying gently when I do so. Then, I pull my ace in the hole move, the "gently grab her chin and tilt her head up to make her look into my eyes" technique that has been barred in all but the most ruthless underground tournaments in Bangkok, and wait a moment while she swallows in sudden nervousness.
  
  Also, to try and think what it is that I"m going to say.
  
  ...
  
  "Don"t look at me; I"ve got nothing."
  
  I was hoping your feminine insight into this particular issue-
  
  "First: I am thou, and thou art I. Second: selfcest is a trash fetish."
  
  Agreed.
  
  "Hey!"
  
  "Iroha," I start before the fight with Brain-chan gets bloody. Also, to see if I can come up with something when I hit the ground running. "I am... I am honored you trusted me like that, even if part of me will always suspect it was a pointlessly-" Damn it! "A pointlessly elaborate plot to gather more videographic material for your personal library. But... It"s... We are far past that point. It"s not just about trust, no matter how much I"ll always value that from you, it"s about me being... Ah, damn it all..."
  
  "Senpai?" she asks, her chin still held, her eyes never straying even as they seem to quiver, and her lips open the tiniest amount to let out the breathy word.
  
  "You are too moe! You are adorable, and I want to pick you up and cuddle you and squeal in an embarrassingly high-pitched voice! You make me want to act like a creep, because you are just that cute! How the hell do you expect me to manage a serious confession when you keep looking at me like that?!"
  
  ...
  
  "... I"ve got good news."
  
  Yes?
  
  "We are high enough the jump should be immediately lethal."
  
  Ah, good news indeed.
  
  Also, there"s an unexpected lack of violence or foot-stomping, given the current situation.
  
  And Iroha"s... giggling?
  
  "Senpai... Hachi... I... I can"t! I just can"t!" she tries to speak, but she keeps cutting herself off as the giggles become something a bit louder and less dignified.
  
  ... Well, as far as the last thing one sees before their demise, Iroha holding her belly as she tries not to laugh her head off is pretty good. Much better than Yukino with a hacksaw, or my father deciding he wants Komachi to officially be an only child, for instance.
  
  "Hachi..." Ah, she seems to be calming down. I guess that"s the cold rage after the hysteria has passed. "Your confession to me involved kissing and making me kiss another woman-"
  
  "Making you kiss Shizu?"
  
  She has the grace to look embarrassed.
  
  "It was implied-"
  
  "The Hell it was. You grabbed her and pushed your tongue into her mouth like-"
  
  "Would you let me finish? Right. Thank you. As I was saying, your confession to me involved you kissing another woman right before my first kiss. We are already past the point of a "serious confession," whatever you think that is."
  
  "Ideally, something without one of us dying right before confronting the final boss."
  
  "... You better not think the final boss is Haruno."
  
  "Well, if the black cape with impractical pauldrons fits..."
  
  "I don"t even know what I was expecting..."
  
  "To look to your left and get your breath stolen by the romantic, gorgeous view of Chiba by night?"
  
  She looks to her left, where moving lines of cars turn the streets of my city into a dance of fireflies and the sea by night becomes a darkness always hinting at unseen motion. The night sky is clear, the moon an elegant crescent, and Orion is bright enough to shine even above the bonfire of glass buildings beneath it.
  
  Or, at least, that"s what I think she"s seeing right now, because I can"t take my eyes away from her face, from the way her rueful amusement turns into soft wonder and appreciation, from the slight turn of her lips, the languid fall of her eyelashes. From Iroha.
  
  I love her. I know that. I knew that.
  
  It"s still... It"s still somewhat new that I"m in love with her.
  
  ***
  
  Something about our awkward, stuttering conversation in the Ferris wheel seems to have improved her mood, because the rest of the date goes far more like I envisioned: Iroha drags me by my sleeve, her energy far more effusive than mine, and we visit every colorful stand she lays her eyes on.
  
  "I"m not buying you a Pan-San plushie," I try to put my foot down at one of the said stalls.
  
  "Why? You bought one for Yukino!"
  
  "Precisely,"
  
  "Oh? Is my Senpai denying his current girlfriend something he did for his old flame? How is that fair, Senpai? Why does she get special treatment?"
  
  "She"s currently Yui"s girlfriend. I suspect every day is special treatment day."
  
  "Lucky her..."
  
  Iroha cuts herself off and looks at me. I, as a properly educated Japanese man, look at her with all the poise that line needs to be faced with.
  
  "You... Yuigahama? Lilies?" Hey, at least my nose isn"t bleeding.
  
  I mean, all that blood is currently very confused, trying to decide to which of my heads it should rush.
  
  "She"s... eye-catching."
  
  "Did you... You know, before Shizu and you?"
  
  And she clears her throat, obviously uncomfortable with me asking such an intimate and intrusive question in such a place. The "she" in question, though, is not Iroha, but the currently half-blushing, half-glaring daggers at me clerk of the stall.
  
  Also, maybe the mother of the kid looking at me in awe who was standing behind us.
  
  So I grab Iroha"s sleeve for once and drag her out of there.
  
  We stop when we reach a place that should be safe from line-of-sight attacks, what with the trees providing cover and the bench looking quite sturdy. Something that is proven when Iroha slumps bonelessly on top of it to once again hug her handbag, only adding burying her face in her hands as a variation to her idle animation.
  
  "Only you, Senpai, can get me so embarrassed without even meaning to," she says.
  
  "You"ll fit right in with my family."
  
  She shoots me a look through her fingers at that.
  
  "I think we are going to need a few days to unpack all that you just implied, and I don"t feel like starting in the middle of our first date."
  
  "I think your optimism is inspiring."
  
  "Senpai... We really need to teach you how to do this whole thing, if you"re going to be taking three different girls out."
  
  "Experience is the best teacher?"
  
  "Right. So we need to get you to the point where you can get a date to last long enough that you get experience out of it."
  
  "Is that a euphemism?"
  
  "Is that your way of telling me you really would like me to stomp on your foot?"
  
  "Why do people keep assuming I"m an M?"
  
  "Gee, I wonder why..."
  
  And the cheeky, strongest junior looks up at me, her mocking exasperation just giving way to a burst of laughter I share in.
  
  It... feels good.
  
  So I guess that"s why I cut it short by sitting next to her and laying a (hopefully) comforting hand on her shoulder.
  
  "So... You and Yui?"
  
  "... We really need to get you to learn how to handle delicate subjects."
  
  "By attacking the weak point for massive damage?"
  
  "Oh gods, that"s what you"ve been doing... And it"s been working."
  
  "Why would I do it otherwise?"
  
  "Because you like committing social suicide?"
  
  "You know me so well..." I say, fluttering my eyelashes dreamily.
  
  And she jabs me with her fingers.
  
  "I do. I certainly do." Oi, is there any hidden meaning behind the way you associate knowing me with inflicting treasonous violence upon me?
  
  "Right," I mutter instead. "So... Yui is eye-catching."
  
  "I"ve been in a room with you both. I know you agree."
  
  "Oh, I"m not arguing about that, just... When did you realize this?"
  
  "I..." Iroha fidgets, her arm bumping into mine as she tries to find either the words or the courage. "I don"t really know. I mean, girls have always been... I couldn"t like them. Not with the way they treated me just for standing out a bit, while boys were always trying to be kind and useful, so... It wasn"t until you three that I managed to get some girl friends. And then you got me an actual girlfriend, and... I started noticing, but maybe it wasn"t that I noticed, but I... acknowledged? And maybe it"s not so much that I now like girls or that I finally realize I do, but that it"s just that some people are special enough for me to... you know. Notice? Does that make any sense?"
  
  "It does. And even if it didn"t, as long as it did for you, that would be all that mattered."
  
  "Will you stop trying to get me teary-eyed with every damn conversation? It"s getting kinda stale."
  
  "Will you stop pouting so cutely whenever you try to berate me? It sends some really mixed messages."
  
  "Not a chance. I like mixed messages."
  
  "I"d noticed..."
  
  She laughs once again, and she stops hunching over her handbag and lies back, relaxing against the bench"s backrest before sliding to the side and resting her head on my, suddenly quite warm, shoulder.
  
  "But... It"s not... I thought I would panic, or something, you know, the first time we went to Shizu"s home to "practice?" But I... It was so natural, and it felt just right to have her there, beside me, after she tried to guide me, help me... I think that"s when I gave myself permission to like girls. I could"ve done it before, with Yui or Yukino, but..."
  
  "But our teacher has a knack for corrupting her students," I finish her sentence in the only way that makes sense and will allow her to escape Shizu"s wrath when she slyly points out it was me who said the incriminating words.
  
  Then I slide my left arm around her shoulders. Because I"ve watched too many movies.
  
  Iroha burrows herself against my side, letting out a pleased sigh, and lays her left hand on my chest in a way that makes what is beneath her fingers beat that much faster.
  
  We remain like this, in this private corner of this very much public place, seeing the occasional couple walk past this dark recess away from the main road. I remember a time when I would"ve bitterly envied them and cynically pointed out how their shallow enjoyment of youth wasn"t...
  
  I don"t even know how I would"ve continued. Just that it didn"t make any sense back then, and it certainly doesn"t now that I have this gorgeous, witty, foxy girl cuddling next to me.
  
  "... I don"t think I like girls, after all," she murmurs after I brush an errant strand of hair behind her ear.
  
  "You don"t?" I ask, only to keep he talking.
  
  "No. No, I think I like people. I think I like Shizu, and you, and maybe I could learn to like somebody else. But... It"s who they are, not..."
  
  "Not what they are."
  
  She nods, her chin digging into my chest.
  
  "Is... Is it like this for you, Senpai?"
  
  And... I think about it. I think about it while I hold a pretty girl"s shoulders and caress her hair, mindful not to ruin her no doubt strategically and meticulously prepared style that I"m unable to discern from her regular, already attractive bob.
  
  "Yes. No. I don"t know. I... I like pretty girls, but... If I try to think about kissing someone I"m not... I don"t know, connected with? If I try to fantasize about someone like Miura it just... doesn"t work? It"s one thing if it"s fiction, because then I insert myself into the existing relationship, but with a regular person-"
  
  "Senpai, I wasn"t asking you about how you masturbate..."
  
  "Uh... Right. Sorry about that."
  
  The silence this time is a bit less comfortable. Also, I don"t pet her hair. Just in case she bites.
  
  "So, did you?" she asks after I try to think of a way to escape this situation.
  
  "Did I what?" I ask in turn. Because, apparently, we have yet to find the dragon balls that will allow us to bring Self-Preservation-kun back to life.
  
  "Masturbate... thinking about me?"
  
  ...
  
  Once again, the strongest junior manages to hit me by surprise. Which isn"t a surprise at all. Yet somehow is.
  
  So I take a deep breath and look down at expectant, honey-colored eyes that always seem to glow in low light.
  
  "Like I was about to lose access to the internet," I finally say, because what else can I tell the girl who trusted me before loving me?
  
  And she smiles her foxy smile and raises up to leave a barely chaste peck on my cheek before whispering in my ear.
  
  "Me too."
  
  And I decide this bench is very comfortable indeed, and we are in no hurry at all to leave.
  
  At least until a certain something goes down.
  
  ***
  
  We manage to ride a few assorted roller coasters, and Iroha gets me to buy the photos at the exit of each of them, no doubt lamenting not having had the chance to install her own, superior, surveillance system before our visit. She"s having fun, and I"m having fun, two circumstances that manage to surprise me by themselves, never mind in conjunction, but...
  
  Well, it"s soon time.
  
  Because I did have a plan before coming here. One that made Sagami"s eyes sparkle and Zaimokuza boisterously chuckle (a combination of words that is fundamentally Zaimokuza if ever there was). So I am pretty sure it"s a terrible plan already.
  
  When has that stopped me?
  
  So I have, according to the plan, discreetly maneuvered our path so that, at this very moment...
  
  "Ladies and gentlemen, the Destiny Parade will begin in five minutes!" the announcer"s cheerful voice informs those of us who hadn"t been waiting for just such a line.
  
  At my side, clutching my sleeve, Iroha freezes.
  
  She"s hunched over, protecting herself from a memory. From the last time she was here.
  
  From the last time she came with me... and quite a few other people.
  
  Among them, the boy who rejected her confession when she slyly maneuvered them to be alone during this very parade.
  
  That was the day that I stayed with her on the train, the two of us alone as she cried her heart out, lamenting the loss of her first love, lamenting how I"d convinced her to look for something genuine, only to be refused the chance to discover it.
  
  And I could hate Hayama. I could.
  
  But... It wouldn"t have been genuine if he"d accepted, would it? And it would be the height of hypocrisy to hate someone for adhering to my ideals.
  
  "So, we despise him, don"t we?"
  
  Like American Godzilla.
  
  "Good."
  
  "Senpai, I-"
  
  I hug her to my chest, and she shuts up.
  
  And the Destiny Parade starts marching down the road, a spectacle of music, colorful costumes, carriages, and fireworks.
  
  That doesn"t hold even an iota of my attention.
  
  "I was on the other side of the parade, with Yukino and the others, that day," I tell her, low enough that I hope my words will only reach her.
  
  Iroha buries her face on my chest, her hand clutching my sleeve with far more strength than she usually does when she cutely demands my attention.
  
  "I saw you. I couldn"t hear the words, couldn"t know what you were saying, but I saw you." I take a deep breath, Iroha"s head moving with my chest. "And you were incredible."
  
  "I didn"t-"
  
  "You did. You were so brave, so... beautiful, as you laid your heart out, as you showed your feelings."
  
  "He didn"t care-"
  
  "He did. I... Hayama and I aren"t friends. Probably never will be. But we understand each other. I know how hard it was for him to reject you. He cared. A lot."
  
  "Then... Then why..."
  
  I grasp her chin and make her look up at me. Her eyes aren"t wet, but her face tells me it"s only a matter of time, and I hate myself a bit more for having planned to make her go through this.
  
  I just... I just hope it will be worth it.
  
  "Because he wasn"t in love with you. And... That"s something you can"t force. Something you either feel or don"t. You can come to care for someone, learn to love them, but that is not the same as..." I swallow, tempted to lose myself in luminous honey that looks at me as if I"m about to hand her the answer to a question that has tortured her for too long.
  
  I really hope I am.
  
  "The same as what I feel for you. And I think I started falling for you that very day, that moment I saw your courage, your strength, your-"
  
  "I cried my eyes out right after that. You had to comfort me-" her voice trembles, a hint of self-deprecation that I cannot abide in it.
  
  So I don"t.
  
  "And that"s what I loved the most. That you were strong enough to risk so much, to be hurt this much. That you... That you decided to keep going, to keep being you, Iroha, the one who-"
  
  "I asked you to take responsibility..." Her voice wavers.
  
  And I, looking at trembling eyes, at parted lips, swallow and try to steady my own.
  
  "And I will. Always."
  
  Then I raise my arm and grab her hand so she lets go of my sleeve, and, as her eyes turn incredulous but right before they turn to hurt, I grab her freed hand, our fingers interlaced.
  
  Then I lean down and, with fireworks going off in the distance that cannot distract me from what is right in front of me, I lean down and kiss my girlfriend right where she was rejected for the first time.
  
  And with my whole body, my whole soul, I try to tell her she won"t be rejected ever again.
  
  She kisses me back.
  
  With how thorough she is, I think she gets the message.
  
  
  =============
  =============
  Happy New Year, everyone! May your deadlines be met, and your chapters not balloon to almost nine fucking thousand words! Or, well, whatever it is that you think is good for you. Maybe a new dog. Dogs are nice.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 25
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 25
  
  Throughout anime history, there have always been iconic lines. Sequences of words so utterly perfect that the impact they leave on an impressionable mind can be still felt years after the fact-especially when said impressionable mind is an aspiring writer unable to stop spewing line after line in the most cliché manner imaginable while trying to capture even an ounce of the original"s power.
  
  But let"s not talk about Boruto.
  
  The iconic line is rarely something that occurs on purpose. More often than not, even if it is written to be dramatically highlighted in some way (music, angle, fanservice), the writer didn"t set out to put forward something that would still resonate years down the line. Sometimes, it"s even on accident or for reasons completely contrary to the original intent, such as somebody seriously claiming that "people die when they are killed" with nobody laughing in his face or taking the poor, brain-damaged lad to the nearest hospital so he can get the care he obviously needs. Sometimes, the reason behind the impact of the line is something so utterly ridiculous as somebody writing with all seriousness "all according to keikaku." Keikaku, of course, means that unpaid labor gets predictable results.
  
  But there are those lines that are genuinely powerful, that do leave a mark on fans and manage to transcend the bounds of the original work until they become a part of the culture. Lines like:
  
  "This isn"t even my final form!"
  
  "You are already dead."
  
  "A dropout will beat a genius through hard work."
  
  "Go beyond the impossible and kick reason to the curb!"
  
  "My body moved on its own before I could think!"
  
  And, of course, the most devastating of them all:
  
  "I don"t want to go home tonight."
  
  It"s a dangerous line. It can cause the tender heart of a young male maiden to flutter erratically with the sudden rush of whatever the Hell it is that Iroha-
  
  No, seriously, seeing her look up into my eyes, once more pulling on my sleeve as we exited the train station, and...
  
  Luminous honey almost shivering under the glint of streetlamps, pink lips glossy after she licked them, a trembling note on her voice as she said the words...
  
  I... I don"t really know if we"re doing the right thing.
  
  I am pretty sure, though, that at that point, I couldn"t have denied her no matter how hard I tried.
  
  And... well, I actually didn"t try, did I?
  
  Because... She"s my girlfriend. She told me she wasn"t ready, and I"ve respected that, but she also wanted to be involved when I finally did it with Shizu, and I, again, respected that. But...
  
  I want her.
  
  It"s hard for me to admit these things. I can accept my feelings, I can easily push my love on her (at least, as long as I know it"s reciprocated), but... my desire? My selfish need to hold her body against mine and take pleasure from her even as I give it to her? It"s...
  
  All right, let"s try this again.
  
  As much as the eroge genre has helped lonely teenage boys the world over experience the purest form of romance that actually has some satisfying payoff, there"s an underlying concept behind those games that is, to put it mildly, harmful when unconsciously assimilated. That is: that sex is a reward for an achievement.
  
  You manage to successfully navigate the dialog tree? Bam, here"s a CG for you with a level of lewdness adequate to your progress through the story. You beat the secret enemy in one of those RPGs that will never get a console port? The follow-up sequence will leave you either uncomfortably squirming in your seat or rushing to wash your hands. And the less said about Illusion games, the better-mostly because they obviously gave up on the script being an important part of said games a long time ago, and so only images can be used to properly convey what they are actually about.
  
  And that leaves the young, impressionable otaku feeling that sexual pleasure is something he has to earn. It"s not something to be shared, equally desirable for all those involved, but something the girl offers to the boy when he"s become worthy. For the boy to reach for it, to somehow demand it, imposing his own desires on the young girl he loves and wants to protect, and will never, ever hurt, no matter what, and for him to risk her wellbeing by pressuring her or-
  
  Right. This isn"t working.
  
  I lie back on on the frankly impressive bed of the love hotel Iroha and I rushed into a few minutes ago. The red duvet is softer than anything that isn"t related to tender lips that sometimes leave a hint of tobacco has any right to be, and there"s a mirror on the ceiling that at once intimidates and intrigues me. The lighting is soft, the shadows blurry, the colors warm.
  
  Also, the mattress is, obviously, far better than mine. Again.
  
  ... I think I know what I"ll be spending my first paycheck on. Or, well, the money Shizu will generously apportion to her househusband so that he can properly take care of the ever-growing family-and no, that doesn"t mean kids. Not the way we are going.
  
  "Just breathe."
  
  If it was that easy, I wouldn"t be stringing one monologue after another and conjuring the personification of my Brain to keep my thoughts from... I don"t even know.
  
  "She asked for this. She wants it."
  
  But what if she just feels pressured? What if she actually thinks she needs to do the same things Shizu has, or the things she suspects Haruno will do? What if she thinks she has to do something she really isn"t ready to do because she fears my love for her is conditional and she has to earn-
  
  "What if you stopped freaking out by yourself and told her?"
  
  ... It"s a crazy plan, Brain-chan, but maybe it can work.
  
  "Right. Par for the course, you mean?"
  
  Certainly.
  
  With a sigh that has as much to do with resignation as with doing a sit-up before raising from the bed, I stand up and... Approach the bathroom door.
  
  The bathroom door Iroha entered about twenty minutes ago. Because she "needed to get ready."
  
  I"m pretty sure there"s nothing in there that requires twenty minutes to get in working order, so I may not be the only one freaking out at our impromptu... Whatever this is.
  
  "Iroha?" I ask, knocking on the frame of the door (wood painted in a soothing crème that nicely contrasts with the maroon walls with silver filigree while matching in both design and color the skirting board-oh gods, I can"t believe I"m paying the bill for this place).
  
  "... Senpai?" she asks in turn, with a tone that doesn"t inspire much confidence in the hopeful notion that she"s as eager as she can be and I"m unnecessarily worrying over nothing.
  
  "Are you... No, that"s a stupid question. All of them are, so I won"t ask anything."
  
  "What?"
  
  "That"s also a stupid question. Look, let me... let me just get something off my chest, OK?"
  
  "Is there anything at all I can do to stop you?"
  
  "Probably not," not while you are dressed and in another room. "So... here"s the deal: I"m freaking out."
  
  "... What?" She repeats, uncharacteristically monosyllabic. Maybe she"s trying something new? Is it another language? I don"t know, do they speak English in What?
  
  "I... Look, I just... I want you to know... Damn it: I love you, right?"
  
  "Are you asking me?"
  
  "No, no, I... I mean, kinda? I love you. That is a certainty. But I don"t know what you think it means when I say it to you."
  
  "Do you want me to get the dictionary?"
  
  "I have enough with one Zaimokuza, thank you very much. What I"m trying to say is that... It isn"t conditional. I started falling for you long ago, and I never stopped, and... And I don"t need this. I want it. You are incredibly attractive, and the idea that someone like me would ever be... intimate with someone like you is still baffling, but... But as much as I want to hold you, what I don"t want is to hurt you. I"ll wait for as long as it takes, years if you want me to, because what I love about you is not... this. Not that I won"t love this when the time comes, I"m sure I"ll be ecstatic, but not if it has even a chance of hurting you, of pressuring you into-"
  
  "Senpai," her voice is slightly surer as she cuts me off, "if you laugh, I"ll never forgive you."
  
  And then the doorknob turns, and-
  
  The bathroom is quite luxurious. Tiled marble, I would guess, and the bathtub looks to be big enough to fit three people, as long as they are as friendly with each other as the setting would imply.
  
  Oh, there"s also Iroha. Standing in the middle of the door.
  
  Looking at me.
  
  Head tilted down, eyes shining through her bangs.
  
  Yep, it"s a very nice bathroom. I wouldn"t mind living in a house big enough to have one like this.
  
  "Well?" a slightly impatient girl asks. A girl who"s looking at me through her bangs.
  
  And blushing.
  
  Probably in embarrassment, but I wouldn"t discard anger.
  
  "Senpai, I told you not to laugh, but being completely silent is not much of an improvement."
  
  Right. Right, my life is in danger.
  
  So, as any rational person would do when their survival is on the line, I decide to analyze the current threat.
  
  "Is that what we are calling this?"
  
  I am open to suggestions.
  
  "... I think I"m going with "hallucination.""
  
  And, as I look at Iroha dressed in a very, very short red yukata that doesn"t even reach the middle of her quite exposed thighs, the sleeves tied up with a black tasuki sash that matches the thin obi circling her waist, look at the long, white tabi socks with a red drawstring that reach above her knees and provide me with an exceptional instance of zettai ryouiky, look at the (apparently) lacquered vambraces covering her forearms, and the fricking forehead protector-
  
  All right. Yes. My girlfriend is either about to tell me the secrets of her hidden clan of kitsune kunoichis, or I am in one of those dreams.
  
  Seeing as I am still dressed, I am guessing the former.
  
  Or, at the very least, I"ll pray that Komachi won"t try to wake me up this morning.
  
  "Well?"
  
  Funny thing, I have stopped being single just a few days ago, and I already recognize that tone.
  
  I mean, I still don"t know what I"m supposed to do about it, but... progress?
  
  "I"m not laughing!"
  
  Judging by the sound her palm makes when it meets her face, I would say my progress, laudable as it is, still has some room for growth.
  
  "Senpai... I will give you one more chance," she says. And then she holds her arms behind her back as she leans forward in a way that makes the open front of the yukata offer some very interesting perspective into what it usually should hide, smiles when she feels my eyes nailed to her always fascinating cleavage, and does a slow twirl that manages to flash a lot more thigh than I thought she would be able to before shooting me a look over her shoulder and cocking her hips in a way that manages not to make me miss the sight of her barely covered breasts.
  
  I swallow and lick my abruptly dry lips.
  
  "So... Lord Hikigaya, does this humble vassal please you?"
  
  My eyes go from her round ass to eyes that are gaining confidence by the second.
  
  Suddenly, my throat feels a bit... scratchy.
  
  "Isshiki... is this really the way you should address your liege?" Oh, you can do chuuni roleplay, Deep-Voiced Bastard? How unexpected. It really wasn"t even my final form.
  
  Iroha seems to think my newest transformation is actually plot-relevant and not just yet another palette-swap, because she shivers.
  
  And turns around to face me.
  
  And drops on her knees.
  
  And... prostrates herself.
  
  ...
  
  I don"t think being this hard is healthy. Surely, there may be some risk of internal hemorrhaging? Maybe a stroke?
  
  "I apologize, Lord Hikigaya. Please tell this lowly kunoichi how she can make up for her impudence."
  
  ... Fuck. Now I"m harder.
  
  I walk around Iroha, deliberately slowly, making sure my first step lets her see my feet stopping right in front of her face before I circle her. Well, half-circle, because I have a visceral need to stop when I"m behind that perfectly shaped, gorgeously displayed, barely covered, raised behind.
  
  I lean down, and I lay my fingertip on the silky fabric just below her exposed nape before I slowly trail it down across her spine. She fights not to arch her back, and the slight movement is even more devastating when translated to the swaying below her waist, so the slow, deliberate touch ends with me grabbing her right ass cheek and she letting out a short gasp.
  
  "Is this how you are supposed to guard me? What would happen if we were to be ambushed by Hiratsuka?"
  
  "I... As long as I"m close to my Lord, I will be ready to act."
  
  ... I"m pretty sure it would be a bad thing if I just raised the bottom of her yukata, grabbed her hips and-
  
  "Yes. Bad. So, sooo bad..."
  
  Stop sounding so needy, Brain-chan. It"s making me confused.
  
  "Stop teasing ourselves and do something about the writhing girl who may stain the carpet at the rate she"s going."
  
  "That"s very commendable of you, Isshiki."
  
  "Thank you, my liege. This one is unworthy of such praise."
  
  "That"s for me to decide, isn"t it?"
  
  She shudders, and the soft flesh beneath my fingers tenses.
  
  "As is everything else," she adds, and I have to restrain myself from picking her up and-
  
  Right. Breathe. We have the whole night-or longer, if my delinquent blood rages once again. And what could be more delinquentish of me than skipping classes because I"m banging my cosplaying girlfriend silly in a love hotel? If hentai has taught me anything, nothing.
  
  Also, if hentai has indeed taught me anything, this isn"t cosplay, and Iroha will have some topical aphrodisiac smeared inside her that will drive me crazy with lust as soon as I enter her.
  
  Which, at this point, I would think frankly redundant.
  
  So, before I get carried away by a La-Blue-Girl-worthy scenario, I (reluctantly) let go of springy, curved flesh and stand up to walk in front of her once again.
  
  Iroha waits for me to do... whatever it is she thinks I should do. I"m frankly a bit baffled that she just tried to recreate this fantasy of hers without giving me at least a few more clues about what it was supposed to entail aside from her masturbating to Shizu and I...
  
  Hmmm... That could work.
  
  "Look at me, Isshiki." My voice is... well, deep is an understatement, but I also try to make it commanding and... I don"t even know if I manage.
  
  Though seeing Iroha go from prostrating herself to sitting in a proper and prim seiza, her knees close together, her back straight, her head turned so she can look up at me...
  
  Her eyes wide, her mouth open, her cheeks flushed, her breathing quick...
  
  Fuck.
  
  Fuck.
  
  "Give it a minute, and that should be literal."
  
  "Did you mean what you said?" I ask her, my arms crossed in what I hope comes across as an imperious gesture rather than sullen.
  
  "I..." she looks into my eyes, and the hands on her thighs clench the thin fabric of her yukata. "I do, my Lord. Everything shall be as you-"
  
  "No. Not that. Did you mean it when you said you would always be ready to act as long as you stood by my side?"
  
  And she smiles.
  
  It"s... Wide. Pure. Radiant. It even makes me feel bad at having an erection when confronted by something this... this...
  
  I don"t even know. I would say angelic if angels had animal ears.
  
  "Yes," she almost whispers.
  
  It"s a struggle not to let a dopey grin replace my royal countenance.
  
  "I"m glad, Isshiki. Because that means you"ll always be ready to act."
  
  "My liege...?"
  
  I reach out and caress her cheek while she keeps straining her neck to look into my eyes.
  
  "You are never to leave my side. From now on, that will be your duty: to be beside me, to watch over me, to be there when I need you... And I"ll always need you."
  
  She closes her eyes and leans forward, resting and rubbing her face on my legs as I"m forced to go from caressing her cheek to patting her head.
  
  "Yes. That is the most joyous duty I could have ever imagined..."
  
  ... On the one hand, my heart feels like it just turned to mush, and I want to stay like this forever.
  
  On the other, I really, really want to pick her up, throw her on the bed, and-
  
  "Iroha, I-"
  
  She"s unzipping me.
  
  Her left cheek on my right leg, her eyes intent on what her hand is doing, Iroha slowly lowers my zipper before she cups an erection that"s almost touching her face, my pants straining with the damn thing.
  
  "Let me... Let me show you how devoted I am to my duty, my Lord."
  
  ... I don"t think I"m about to argue with that.
  
  She undoes my button and belt and separates from me just long enough that she can drag both my pants and underwear down to my knees.
  
  Once again, Iroha is kneeling in front of me, staring at my erection.
  
  I don"t think I"ll ever get used to it. Surely, I will need plenty of practice to acclimate to the notion. Yes, this is strictly therapeutical.
  
  And, going by the way she"s looking at it, she still will need plenty of... acclimation.
  
  She shifts beneath me, and my cock is resting along her maddeningly soft cheek as she closes her eyes and, with her nose almost touching my pubic bone... takes a deep, long inhalation.
  
  She moans after she does.
  
  "Shizu was right..." she mumbles in a dreamy voice that-
  
  Something snaps inside my head once again. I really hope those are a renewable resource.
  
  "Iroha, I"m about to-"
  
  "Record me," she says as she opens her eyes and takes something out of the obi that so far has done more to highlight her cleavage than to keep the yukata closed.
  
  With a practiced gesture, she does something on the screen and hands me her phone, the camera app open.
  
  I take it without even thinking, and the screen shows me Iroha shyly smiling up at me from beneath my cock.
  
  "I... I want it recorded. A memory of it. Of the first time I... pledged myself to you." Her eyes are glittering, and her mouth stretches in a wider smile before she lays a single kiss on the very tip of my cock.
  
  "Keep this up, and it will be a very short video."
  
  She giggles, and once again I marvel at the fact that a girl laughing while doing something sexual with me doesn"t trigger any kind of trauma. No, it"s... it"s so freeing, so... I don"t have words for it, not plural. Just a single one: genuine.
  
  Of course.
  
  And thankfully.
  
  Her kiss resumes, and a timid tongue peeks out to take the small drop of clear fluid that"s already accumulated. She makes a show of swishing it, her cheeks bulging alternatively, and I have to restrain myself from dropping the phone and just grabbing her head and-
  
  "Hn!"
  
  As it turns out, there was no need for any of that, because Iroha just engulfed me.
  
  She has about half of it inside her mouth, and she has enough room to have her tongue actively work me up and down. Her hands are resting on my thighs, and she makes another show of pushing herself back until only the very tip remains trapped by her lips, the rest of my member glistening with her saliva.
  
  ... I"m never watching porn of other people ever again.
  
  Then her fingers grab me, and she pulls herself forward before deciding she doesn"t have an adequate hold and embracing my legs. She pulls herself forward, and then, her chest pressed to me, she starts bobbing back and forth just with her neck.
  
  She"s... accelerating faster than-
  
  "Iroha! Stop!"
  
  She does.
  
  My member buried in her mouth, her eyes looking up at me in soft wonder, the corners of her lips curling up enough that I can make out her smile even through the intrusion.
  
  She hums cheerfully, and I stop myself from thrusting my hips forward and stretching out her throat around my-down.
  
  "You are far too used to striving for the impossible and managing it."
  
  I would say "praise me more," but I really don"t even know how I do it.
  
  "Luck is a skill, you know?"
  
  Ah. Iconic anime lines, my only weakness.
  
  I mean, asides from cheeky girls whose cheeks are stuffed with my dick, apparently.
  
  "Lean back," I say, my voice deep enough that she closes her eyes in pleasure before obeying and freeing me from her lips with an exaggerated smack.
  
  And then licking said lips.
  
  And then licking said dick while looking up at me through her eyelashes.
  
  ...
  
  She"s really making this kinda hard, you know?
  
  "Like fucking diamonds."
  
  "Stand up, Iroha."
  
  And that"s the first flash of reluctance I see from her since I started giving her orders, but she gives me a last peck before raising on her shapely legs and-
  
  Oh, fuck.
  
  Did you have to make my cock slide along your cleavage, Iroha? Was that really necessary?
  
  Apparently, it must be. Or at least that"s what her sly grin tells me when I shoot a reproachful glare at her. Then she makes a cute, confused moue, touches her glistening lips with her finger, and pushes her cleavage together with her arms.
  
  "You know what you are doing to me, don"t you?"
  
  "What? I"m just following your orders and showing my loyalty, Lord Hikigaya. What else do you want from me?"
  
  "... Take this."
  
  I push her phone into her hands and grab her in a sudden bridal carry that has her squealing in delight.
  
  ... I would like to omit the part where I forget my pants are currently at my knees and I almost trip the both of us to the ground, but I manage to stop in time for Iroha to giggle rather than screech as I try to shake my legs free of the treasonous clothing while holding her aloft.
  
  My training arc is showing results, but I really wish it would do so in a less embarrassing manner.
  
  Finally, I carry her to the bed and lay her on it. Iroha is pointing her phone at me so intently that I can"t help but linger while undoing the buttons of my shirt, trying to make a bit of a show of it. There"s only a couple of things that make me feel the action is somehow inadequate: the first, that I won"t ever capture the effortless grace Shizu displayed the first time she stripped for us, and the second, that I have a rigid thing waving through the lower opening of my shirt that feels slightly... unwieldy.
  
  "I bet Iroha will be perfectly suited to wielding it."
  
  Yes. The prowess of kunoichi with any manner of blades is widely renowned.
  
  "Yep. That"s what we were thinking about. Certainly."
  
  Right. What we are definitely not thinking about is how I am standing naked at the side of the bed while Iroha keeps filming me with a grin that stretches up to her ears.
  
  All right. Take a deep breath. It"s not like I have a paralyzing fear of how others perceive me and that I have felt horribly unattractive since puberty started. Not at all. I am perfectly secure in both my body and natural charm, and Iroha moving the camera up and down isn"t making me-
  
  Fuck it. Time to focus on her.
  
  With hands that I pretend are steady and firm, I raise the yukata-
  
  "You... aren"t wearing any?" I say.
  
  Iroha blushes a bit harder and shakes her head.
  
  "I thought... You would like it better like this?"
  
  Right. On the one hand, I"ve been denied the panty shot to end all panty shots, on the other...
  
  Iroha"s wet thighs spread in front of me as I kneel between them, and the parted yukata allows me to see she has shaved in preparation for today. Her pink folds almost match the color of her lips, but they redden a bit on the inside. So I...
  
  Well, it"s only fair, isn"t it?
  
  I lean forward, close my eyes, and take a long breath, swallowing as much of her scent as I can, letting it overwhelm me, permeate my thoughts, my instincts.
  
  I take another breath, and a dainty hand grabs my hair.
  
  "Senpai... That"s embarrassing," she says with a voice that manages to cause a drastic drop in the national reserve of things that can be snapped inside my head.
  
  So, not bothering with the sharp tug I feel with my action, I dive forward until my lips meet her sex and then make my tongue stiffen as I drag it up along the wet opening.
  
  And the tug changes directions toward her as Iroha lets me hear those sweet, intoxicating moans I"ll always yearn for from today on.
  
  My hands travel beneath her knees, and I wrap my arms around soft thighs before opening my eyes and looking straight up at her as I shift my lips and surround the erect clitoris that"s so easy to find given the way she grinds it against me. When I do, Iroha"s sharp gasp nicely complements the wide eyes I can see behind her phone, and I keep looking straight at her as she gives up any measure of self-control and her hips sway up and down, accompanying my insistent motions as she closes her eyes and makes the sweetest face I"ve ever seen from her.
  
  My cheeks seem to be slick with the wetness of her thighs, and that simple fact, for some reason, makes me smile in a way I never knew I could. It feels animalistic. A satisfaction welling up in my chest that has far too much to do with hunger being sated.
  
  Iroha"s eyes open once more, and she finds whatever it is of me that can be seen while I keep kissing, licking, and nibbling at her. Her fingers on my scalp clench.
  
  "You don"t even know what you"re doing to me, do you?" she gasps out, her voice raspy.
  
  I don"t. I don"t, but I can only wish it"s about a half of what I hope I could.
  
  I suck on her, harder, and her eyes clench shut with a sharp moan.
  
  "I-Senpai, I"m going to-"
  
  And I stop.
  
  Or, well, I slow down.
  
  She moans beneath me, almost plaintively, and I keep slowing down my tongue and lips. It"s not even because of the sheer relief my overworked jaw feels, though that helps.
  
  And, when I finally do stop, I linger on her, keeping the contact, the soft, intimate caress that"s born just of being alive and touching, our bodies not quite immobile even as we stop trying.
  
  Then I lean back, but I"m close enough that my warm breath makes her shudder.
  
  "Do you really want me to go ahead?" I ask her.
  
  Her fingers let go of my hair and trail down to caress my wet cheek.
  
  "More than anything... My Lord."
  
  I smile at her, softer this time, and untangle my arms from her legs before crawling up her body on knees and elbows until we are face to face, until she has to take the phone to the side and film us in profile.
  
  She"s... looking up at me, luminous eyes shining with golden honey, something wet at the edge of her eyelids that may be emotion, or lust, or just being overwhelmed.
  
  She"s... so beautiful it takes my breath away.
  
  Which may account for how long I"ve gone without saying anything stupid.
  
  "I love you," I say.
  
  "I love you," she answers as she shifts her hips and her sex makes contact with mine for the first time.
  
  I slide forward, letting the underside of my member glide along her folds until I press down on her clitoris and her jaw clenches.
  
  "You just swore you"ll always be by my side."
  
  "I... Senpai, I"m... It"s the fantasy. Just a fantasy, right?"
  
  "Of course. But I have my own fantasy, Iroha. Do you want to know what it is?"
  
  She looks up at me with surprise, and she nods after a moment lost in whatever it is she finds in my eyes.
  
  "My fantasy... Is that Iroha Isshiki, my cute, foxy junior, the most cunning girl I know, will look up at me after I say I love her, that I will always love her, that I will never leave her side for as long as she wants me there, and tell me she feels the same. It"s a kinky fantasy, I know, but do you feel like you can play along with it?"
  
  Her eyes open in wonder, and that slight welling of liquid in her eyes gets a bit thicker as she nods.
  
  "Then here it goes: Iroha, I love you. I have told you many times since I allowed myself to do it for the first time, and I have meant it each and every time and in each and every way. You were my friend before I fell for you, and I loved you then. You were my partner-in-crime before you were my lover, and I loved you then. You are my girlfriend, and I love you now. You will be something else, something more in the future, and I"ll love you then." I take a deep breath and push back on my own something welling on my eyes as I caress her hair, smiling as my fingers drag along the coarse fabric of the ridiculous forehead protector. "I... I want that. I want that future. With you. And I"ll do anything I can to get it."
  
  Her arms go around my neck, and she drags me down, my face at her side as she rains kisses on my left cheek.
  
  "Senpai... Hachi..." she finally says, her shaky voice letting me know the wetness I feel on my cheek has little to do with her glistening thighs. "Do you know what they say? They say that men always want to be a woman"s first, but women..." she turns my head and kisses me. Hungrily, almost desperately, yet with no rush, taking every second to convey how much of her she"s offering to me. "Women are different, Senpai. Women want to be a man"s last."
  
  She smiles at me. At the man she"s picked to be her first.
  
  At the man she...
  
  "Does that mean, about Haruno-"
  
  She slaps my chest and grunts cutely.
  
  "It means I don"t want you to ever get over me. I don"t want you to forget me, to leave me. I don"t care if somebody else joins as long as we are all... I just..."
  
  I caress her face and kiss her forehead, letting her take her time.
  
  "I would reject her if you told me to, you know?"
  
  "I do. I really, really do, even if I don"t know how or why, or how come I"m not even surprised and just trust you to... Will you do what I ask? Not to forget me, not to get over me and decide I was just-"
  
  ""Just" isn"t a word that applies to you. You are far too much. And I only reserve the right to forget about you if Shizu-induced cranial trauma catches up with me in my old age."
  
  She giggles and slides down until she cradles her face on my chest. Which is a bit hard to manage, given I am the one above her, but I still feel something melting inside of me as she tries.
  
  So I surround her with my arms and roll on the bed until she"s lying on top of me, looking like a kitten in search of comfortable warmth.
  
  She stays like that for a bit, just rubbing her cheek on my naked chest while I try to ignore the way her shifting thighs keep torturing my hard member beneath her-wait a second.
  
  "You are doing that on purpose, aren"t you?"
  
  "I don"t know what you are talking about."
  
  I smack her (jiggling, bouncy) ass, and she lets out a cute yelp as she straightens on top of me.
  
  And traps me beneath her (not toned, yet perfectly curved) belly. She even manages to slide me between the yukata and her.
  
  "I think you do," I say as I make myself twitch below her.
  
  It sinks a bit, and I bite my lip not to groan at the mental image that conjures.
  
  "Oh, that?" Her tone is as innocent as she isn"t. "Well, a girl has a right to get some revenge, doesn"t she?"
  
  "I"m pretty sure you"re teasing yourself worse than you"re teasing me. Mostly because of how much you enjoy teasing me."
  
  She pauses and finally looks up, meeting my eyes for the first time since she dragged me down to avoid me seeing hers.
  
  Her makeup is slightly smudged, the thin eyeliner showing she definitely cried throughout our latest emotional rollercoaster.
  
  She"s smiling shyly, and the combination makes me twitch beneath her, this time without any conscious input.
  
  "I... You left me right on the brink of it, you know?" she finally says.
  
  "I thought it would make things easier on you. You know, getting you ready."
  
  She nods, some nerves showing through.
  
  "It will. It will help, but... do you still want to? I didn"t ruin the mood-"
  
  "You? I was the one who mentioned another woman-"
  
  "Right, but that"s you being you. Me getting all emotional and crying..."
  
  I hug her to me and drag her up my body until I"m whispering right at her.
  
  "Do you really think seeing something genuine from you would ever drive me away?"
  
  She smiles. Wide, pure, radiant.
  
  And I feel a bit guilty that I"m still so hard beneath her.
  
  "I... Do you really want me, Senpai? Knowing everything, how greedy I am, how much of you I"ll want after this?"
  
  I slide one hand up and grab her neck while another shifts her yukata so this time I"ll get a more complete knowledge of that ass I"ve so often found myself following as she bounced away.
  
  She gasps and shifts on top of me.
  
  "I just have a question for you, Iroha, one last thing that may make me stop before we are both a sweaty wreck..." she looks down at me and holds her breath as I stretch the dramatic pause. "Do you have any condoms?"
  
  She stares uncomprehendingly for a moment before she bursts out laughing.
  
  "Sen-Senpai! That"s not fair! I shouldn"t be laughing like this right now!"
  
  "Well, do you? Because it will be kind of hard to find an open pharmacy at this time, and I really don"t-"
  
  She shuts me up, which isn"t something I"m quite fond of, but she does it with a searing kiss that leaves my brain swimming in happy juices and borderline hypoxia, so I"ll forgive her this one time.
  
  "I"ve been on the pill since I first had a period. Mom said it helped with the pain," she finally says, her lips brushing mine with every sound that leaves them.
  
  "You mean I can-"
  
  "Come inside me until it looks like I have a baby bump?"
  
  "That"s not how I would have put it-"
  
  "Oh? What is it, Senpai? Do you want me to beg you to get me pregnant with your seed? To have you fill me to the brim time after time until I can barely drag myself to the shower and watch all the excess sperm run down my legs, knowing some of it remains inside me, its warmth signaling I have a baby, your baby, growing inside me, marking me as yours forever and ever? I"m sorry, Senpai, but that"s impossible. It will take some time for the pill to wear off, after all."
  
  I look up at her, my face set in something that should be horror.
  
  She looks down at me, her smug grin showing me how much she understands the way she just made me feel.
  
  "Not until after college," I mutter, my throat far too dry.
  
  "Wanna bet?" she says as she pushes herself up with her hands on my chest and the yukata perfectly frames her bare breasts even though the obi is still firmly tied beneath them.
  
  She takes my cock and swings her hips so I once again glide along her folds as she bites her lip and lids her eyes.
  
  She"s...
  
  "No. I don"t take losing bets."
  
  Her grin gets a bit warmer, and she shifts, taking my tip to her entrance.
  
  "Senpai, I don"t know how to tell you this, but... prepare to lose."
  
  And she sinks.
  
  For... about a millimeter.
  
  I mean, the wet heat kissing my tip is still maddeningly pleasurable, but, somehow, I don"t feel like I"m losing.
  
  "Are you-"
  
  "I"m fine."
  
  "If you need more time to-"
  
  "You almost made me cum with your lips and tongue. There"s been plenty of time."
  
  "Uh, I mean... I was trying to make you ready, but I may have... forgotten something?"
  
  She looks at me with a deadpan that sharply contrasts with the fact she just tried to impale herself on my cock.
  
  "What did you forget, Senpai?"
  
  "To... uh... right, this is horribly embarrassing..."
  
  "... Senpai," she growls.
  
  "I didn"t... stretch you out?"
  
  Once again, Iroha facepalms. I really hope this doesn"t turn into a kink for her.
  
  "Right. Right, you just... stimulated me."
  
  "Yep."
  
  "And I... should take it slow."
  
  "Certainly."
  
  "And-oh gods! My phone! How much have we missed?!"
  
  I look to my side, where Iroha"s phone is lying face down on the bed and...
  
  Right. I don"t know why this is so important to her, but at least I"ve got good news.
  
  "Iroha, look above you."
  
  She does.
  
  And then she sees me smiling at her through my reflection on the ceiling mirror.
  
  She then sags with relief, which is a very weird thing to do when I"m barely poking at her insides.
  
  "That"s such a relief..." she mutters.
  
  And I may not know why this matters so much to her, but... well, I know it does. So I"ll just have to take the damn thing and frame my gorgeous girlfriend as she"s about to try and keep burying my cock inside her tight body while wearing a sexy cosplay version of a kunoichi costume.
  
  I know, I know. I"m a saint. I expect the Catholic church to announce my miracles to the world and make an exception for my not being Christian shortly after my death. It"s the least I deserve.
  
  I mean, they apparently have combat exorcists and nuns dressed like strippers. Having a Japanese, vaguely Buddhist guy and half Shinto practitioner saint wouldn"t be the weirdest thing they have done.
  
  Also, maybe I should try to think of some other thing. Distracting myself may prove vital so that Iroha"s first time doesn"t end prematurely, but at the very least she shouldn"t have a reason to suspect I"m thinking about A Certain Magical Index while she keeps straining her legs not to-
  
  "Hn!"
  
  Fuck! She"s tight!
  
  "Hachi... Hachi, you"re too thick," she moans as almost the whole of my head pushes inside her.
  
  "Just... Just breathe. Relax. We are in no hurry."
  
  "But... But I want you. I want you so much, and you"re so close, and it"s driving me mad, just knowing if I let go-"
  
  "Ah! Iroha! You"re going to hurt yourself!"
  
  I feel her clench around me before she drags herself up, and cold air greets me.
  
  "It could be worth it..."
  
  I reach up with one hand to caress her cheek, and I catch a glimpse of it in the phone screen.
  
  "Nothing, nothing is worth you hurting."
  
  She smiles, and my heart breaks just a little bit before mending in a new way.
  
  "You are," she says.
  
  She leans down and kisses me, her hands tangling on my hair as her hips shift and-
  
  I keep recording us from the side as my left arm wraps around her waist and holds her steady against me.
  
  Then I bend my legs, shift my hip, and push.
  
  Iroha shudders above me, her breasts flattened on my chest as I slowly come out of her until I"m barely inside her.
  
  Then I push once again, feeling her spread around me, giving me a bit more than she gave me the last time, and she bites my lip as she clenches her eyes.
  
  I do it again, and her whine is something that almost makes me lose control and forces me to keep pushing, but I manage to draw back. And then I push again.
  
  She drops her head beside mine, and I feel her bite the pillow.
  
  Again, and she shudders, chasing me down when I back away.
  
  Again, and she throws her head back, eyes still closed, and moans.
  
  Again, and I"m fully inside her as she gasps, her neck trembling with unreleased tension.
  
  Without moving inside her, I take her nape and pull her to me.
  
  "It"s all in, Iroha. You did it. We are one."
  
  Her eyes shoot open, and there"s something frantic in them, something I haven"t seen before.
  
  "Always?" she asks, her voice tremulous.
  
  "Always," I answer, my own awed.
  
  And then she kisses me, her tongue invades my mouth, and her hips sway with far more strength I thought she had.
  
  "I love you," she says as she leans back and stretches upright, her whole body on display, the yukata more a frame than anything else.
  
  "I love you," I answer as I grab her above her hip while she drops her whole weight on me.
  
  And she clenches her eyes shut, throws her head back, and laughs.
  
  It"s... It"s almost hysterical, a release of something rather than an expression, and it shifts with every bounce, with every energetic motion that has her breasts doing a mesmerizing dance in front of me. Then she raises her arms, her fingers splaying through her hair, the skin of her chest pulled taut by the gesture, and the laughter shifts to moaning, to gasping, to wordless, pleasured cries.
  
  I shift my legs and met her movements with my own strength, our bodies crashing into each other, her insides clinging to me each time I pull away, as greedy as she herself is.
  
  "Senpai... Senpai... You don"t know how this feels..."
  
  "I..." A grunt escapes me before I can continue. "I think I have a pretty good idea."
  
  "No! No, you don"t, you don"t know what you are doing to me, how you are making me feel, how... I don"t want this to end, but I want to feel you finish inside me so much!"
  
  "Iroha, don"t tempt me, I"m already on a hair-trigger-"
  
  "Then do it! Fill me! Not only with your... your thick, hard, fat cock-fill me with your seed, make me regret taking the pill, make me feel as if-"
  
  "Call me Hachi," I growl at her.
  
  And she clenches around me, stops moving, and drops on my chest.
  
  And keeps twitching.
  
  ...
  
  Oi, isn"t this what the guy"s supposed to do? When I argued for true gender equality, this wasn"t what I had in mind. I"m pretty sure Kazuma would also be pissed.
  
  "Iroha?" I ask as tenderly as I can while caressing her hair.
  
  "Let me... Let me rest for a bit... Hachi."
  
  Aaaand that made my cock twitch.
  
  Which she must have felt, given the short giggle.
  
  "I swear if you fall asleep with me still inside you, I"m never going to let you live this down."
  
  She chuckles. Yet doesn"t answer.
  
  ... I sigh and prepare to fall asleep in the weirdest position I ever imagined.
  
  "That"s a lie, Senpai. You are too much of a softie to do that," she murmurs dreamily.
  
  I groan. She"s onto me.
  
  And then a lazy arm snakes from between the both of us, and she pushes herself up a bit, just enough to once again look me in the eyes, even though hers are glazed, slightly unfocused.
  
  "Besides, I"m just going to do something you"ll love."
  
  And her grin inspires equal parts thrill and anxiety.
  
  ***
  
  She... She has a tripod for her phone. Of course she does.
  
  Said phone is resting on the wooden bedside table, having been carefully positioned to frame Iroha"s face as she grabs the sides of said table and bends over, her naked body swaying side to side, her round bottom shifting with the sinuous movement of her legs.
  
  Her sex bare and on display.
  
  I"m behind her, and she shoots a sly look at me over her shoulder before looking back at the phone.
  
  "Shizu, she begins, "I"m sorry you weren"t here for this. I know it looks like I planned everything, but... I wasn"t really sure until a moment ago. I love Hachi. Love him so much it"s hard to even think about, but I still didn"t know how ready I was for this. And then he opened his big mouth and... You know how it is. How he is. I"ve fallen for him far too much."
  
  She pauses and takes a deep breath. Her seductive movement has stopped.
  
  "I don"t know how ready I am to do it with a woman. I want to. I want you. But... it feels a bit different, somehow, and I... I trust you, a lot, more than almost anyone. I recorded my first time not just for me, but because I missed you here and wanted to show you. So... This one is for you. My second time with Senpai inside me."
  
  A deft hand travels between her legs, and she spreads herself open.
  
  "Are you sure you-"
  
  "Senpai... Fill me with your cock. Make me your woman. Again."
  
  And I... well, it"s not like I"m about to refuse such an invitation.
  
  So I grab my member and put the tip right at her entrance before she pushes herself back with an arm that trembles just a tiny bit.
  
  She"s far easier to move in than minutes ago when we started doing this.
  
  She"s still incredibly tight, and I moan as I feel myself bottom out inside her, the tip of my cock pushing against something at the end of her.
  
  She holds still. Very still.
  
  "When I said he was big and you said "more than enough," Shizu? Yes. More. Definitely more."
  
  ... Yet again, I feel that snap that signals I may have to go to a neurologist before my twenties.
  
  And then I grab Iroha"s slender waist, my thumbs touching in a way that makes me feel incredibly turned on at the mental image of my member being inside her, going through the open circle my hands are drawing on her body, and pull her back.
  
  Slowly. Very slowly, yet with so much strength...
  
  "He"s... He"s ridiculously gentle with me, stopping me when I try to do too much, too fast, not quite taking the lead, but playing along with what I feel comfortable with... And it feels so good, Shizu, he feels so good... But you already know that, don"t you? Because I filmed you. Your first time together. And you were so beautiful when he bottomed out inside of you-"
  
  I push forward until I"m once again pushing on that spot at the very end of her sex, and I see the muscles on her back dance.
  
  "Oh gods! He"s-my fingers never reached where he does, and I don"t know how to get used to it, or if I ever will. I just... I love him, Shizu, and I don"t know how much of that this is, but my body feels so complete when he"s inside, like something I had been waiting all my life for, and-"
  
  I want to hear more. I desperately yearn to listen to Iroha keep reciting how much she loves me, desires me, craves me. It"s... It"s something I didn"t know I needed, but I do.
  
  But... I also need her.
  
  So I switch from slow, careful, measured movements to something a bit more forceful, and-
  
  Fuck.
  
  "Yup. Precisely."
  
  "Hachi! Hachi, keep going!"
  
  Her cries spur me on, and, sooner than I thought, I feel myself going actually fast, her ass trembling with each impact as her fingers clench and unclench on the bedside table"s edges.
  
  Then I go harder.
  
  She feels like liquid fire around me. Like something that should burn me and leave only ashes behind, yet her heat only nourishes me, only makes me focus even more on her, on her sweet moans, her cries for attention, that attention she always demands from me and that she now feels I"m finally giving to her. She"s... She deserves everything I can give her, everything I can take, everything I-
  
  "And! And, future me! When you look at this? When you look at Hachi behind me, ramming his cock deeper and deeper into my little pussy? When you finger yourself silly once again, remembering how it felt right before he filled us with his cum while he fucked our legs numb? Kiss him! Kiss him like I wish I was doing right now and remember it was at this very moment that he marked us forever, that he branded us-"
  
  And I come.
  
  I roar as my hands shift from her waist to her hips, and I push against her with all my strength, as I feel her clench around me while I spurt again and again, as I empty myself inside Iroha, inside my girlfriend, inside the girl I can never forget, and she arches her back and stays unnaturally still, trembling around me and inside my hold on her.
  
  I stay still, feeling small tremors from time to time that make me saw the tiniest amount in and out of her.
  
  And she finally turns back, looking at me over her shoulder once again, her face showing me a smile so utterly pure I can only think it"s a shame I didn"t try to cover it in my cum as I finished.
  
  ...
  
  Note to self: the corruption tag is real, and Iroha may be the cutest, thinnest fat bastard ever.
  
  
  
  ==================
  ==================
  Well, we are more or less back on track for a regular update schedule now that the relaxing holiday season is over. Hope this update lives up to my own hype, because next week's will be a more run-of-the-mill chapter (denouement--it's a thing that I sometimes remember to do). Let me know what you think!
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 26
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 26
  
  Succubi.
  
  Everybody knows what succubi are like in their anime incarnations, and some will even admit they know what they are like in their doujinshi versions. And what they are is an almost ideal example of how otaku culture processes Western myth.
  
  You have a noble king that founded the most celebrated group of knights around the world? Prepare to have said king genderbent and ahegaoed. You have a fearsome dragon, the king of monsters (if we include Godzilla as a subspecies)? Well, get ready to see it either wearing a maid outfit or being trapped inside a boob-obsessed, screaming moron.
  
  You have nightmarishly hideous demons who steal men"s seed while they sleep so that Hell itself can use it to impregnate unwilling women?
  
  We have eccentrically colored women with weird sclera, cute horns, and a penchant for getting inadvertently tamed. Bonus points if it is a mainstream manga, because then the pitiful thing will even get to be frustratedly celibate.
  
  Admittedly, they more than make up for it in more "cultured" works, as then they are allowed to have sex from time to time, and sometimes even be in non-monogamous relationships. Not that often, but you know how conservative sex demons can get.
  
  Still, it is on these works that a succubus can truly show their fearsome and most potent of skills.
  
  "Seeenpai, I"m soooore..."
  
  Not complaining the morning after.
  
  "I know."
  
  "But I"m really, really sore."
  
  "I know. Mostly because you already told me. A... few times."
  
  "I"m sore because of you."
  
  "Yes. You"ve already told me that as well. I should point out I apologized the first few times."
  
  "Because of the way you thrust your stupidly thick cock inside me with no regard for my frail maidenhood."
  
  "I also apologized for that. I didn"t even remind you you were the one jumping up and down on top of me until the fifth time."
  
  "And then you grabbed me from behind and rutted me like an animal..."
  
  "You made me grab you from behind. There"s video evidence."
  
  "Gasp! Senpai, I wouldn"t call the police on you for something like this! Who do you take me for?"
  
  "Well, that"s a-"
  
  "I mean, I obviously would call Shizu or Haruno first."
  
  "... Fine. What do you actually want?"
  
  The girl who has been resting her head on my naked chest since I woke up looks at me, a radiant smile stretching from ear to ear.
  
  "Say you love me."
  
  "I love you."
  
  "... You are supposed to act bashful about it and make it seem like I"m forcing you to confess."
  
  She"s pouting.
  
  It"s... doing things to me.
  
  So I get out from underneath her and, as she yelps, I pick her up in a classic bridal carry (also known as the pre-kabedon kabedon), and she squeals half in delight and half in whatever it is that foxes try to express with their screeching.
  
  I"m not an expert in folklore, and I"m not about to ask Zaimokuza.
  
  "Senpai! You brute, what are you trying to do to your cute little junior?"
  
  "I was thinking about bathing you and pampering you until you stop feeling the need to act like a spoiled little sister character."
  
  "... I"m sure you know all about those."
  
  "Don"t be ridiculous: Komachi isn"t spoiled. That would be a character flaw, and she doesn"t have those. It"s her only character flaw."
  
  "... Ever heard about Russell"s paradox?"
  
  "No, but if you want to rant a Haruhi Suzumiya monologue at me, I"m going to have to ask you not to do it while naked and in my arms. My self-control only stretches so far."
  
  "A Haru-what?"
  
  "Never mind. You"ve successfully curbed my libido."
  
  Yep. She definitely has. Now, if she could stop looking up at me with that adorable moue that makes me want to-
  
  Right. Bath. That"s a place I want to get to.
  
  The fact it will allow me to soap up Iroha"s wet skin as I-down.
  
  "Yeah. I don"t think that"s going to work."
  
  Mind over matter, Brain-chan. I"m sure you can do it. Ganbare.
  
  "I find your excess of faith disturbing."
  
  Do or do not; there"s no try.
  
  "That may explain how much of your homework manages to never reach a teacher"s desk."
  
  Certainly. I did not, so there wasn"t a try.
  
  "That sentence makes me hurt."
  
  I know: you are in my skull. Also, about that request, you know, the one involving the verticality of a certain appendage-
  
  "We just thought about homework and convoluted grammar. I"m afraid there"s no further recourse I"m willing to sink to."
  
  None at all?
  
  "Zaimo-"
  
  Right. None at all. How unfortunate.
  
  "Senpai? Are you really going to..."
  
  Iroha is fidgeting.
  
  Seeing as I"m still holding her in my arms, that"s a very noticeable fact.
  
  And, when I look down at her, there are quite a few other noticeable things.
  
  Her cheeks are ever so pink under the muted light coming through the slit between the curtains, her hair is still in disarray, a few strands plastered to her forehead, her breasts as enticing as when she was bouncing on top of me, her thighs rubbing each other...
  
  And her face has this shy smile, her eyes wide and bright...
  
  I rise her body, lean down, and kiss her for the first time since I woke up to her nagging.
  
  I almost lose my balance, and I try to keep my eye on the bathroom door as I finally start walking to our destination. Along the way, I manage to bang my shin on a chair that really shouldn"t have been in the middle of the room, and I only avoid falling down by crashing my shoulder on the wall with a, mildly disturbing, wet crunch.
  
  I lean back, and the smile has grown.
  
  It"s totally worth it.
  
  "Open the door. My hands aren"t free," I ask her.
  
  "Oh? So you mean there"s nothing you could do if I wanted to do something with my hands?"
  
  "I could drop you to the floor?"
  
  "... You really don"t know how to play this game, Senpai."
  
  "... Game?"
  
  She stares at me, sighs, and opens the door.
  
  Then goes back to rubbing her cheek on my chest like Kamakura when Komachi isn"t available, and he needs his food bowl refilled.
  
  ... Are foxes supposed to do that? And does this mean I should have ordered breakfast before the bath?
  
  Anyway, I step into the marble-tiled room, relieved that the lightbulbs" glare is muted through frosted glass, and, with some maneuvering and trying not to slip, I lay Iroha inside the bathtub before taking the showerhead, aiming it away from her, and waiting for the water to heat up.
  
  "Are you really going to...?"
  
  "What?"
  
  "You know, I can wash myself."
  
  "You"ve been all but demanding I pamper you since you woke me up, don"t play coy now."
  
  "I"m not playing coy; I"m flustered! Can"t you tell the difference?!"
  
  I aim the shower at her face, and she flails and sputters.
  
  "Senpai!"
  
  And now she"s wet, angry, flushed, and naked.
  
  ...
  
  Heh.
  
  "Ah! You are smirking! How dare you try to drown me-"
  
  This time, I do it mid-line.
  
  "Senpai!"
  
  Uh, she may not have been that sore, after all, going by the way she just jumped to try and steal my only weapon away from me.
  
  Which, predictably, ends up with the whole bathroom splashed. Thankfully, it"s a Japanese design with a drain in the corner, so I don"t have to feel guilty about the poor staff having to take care of it. Also, this is a love hotel, so I"d better not think in too much detail about how a little bit of water is possibly the most delightful surprise the cleaning staff may have to deal with throughout the day.
  
  And, well, maybe I shouldn"t focus too much on the water, seeing as Iroha"s and my wrestling has, somehow, ended up with me straddling her naked body and she looking at the obvious reaction she naturally causes in me as the abandoned showerhead keeps letting out warm water that makes her breasts sparkle in very eye-catching ways.
  
  "... I"m not that sore," she mutters.
  
  "I know," I rasp out.
  
  "So you really were playing along?"
  
  "After I got over my initial panic."
  
  She chuckles, either at the words, the deadpan I use to convey them, or at my penis waving hello at her. One of those three.
  
  "That"s a relief. I didn"t know how to make it more obvious."
  
  "Maybe by not telling me how sore you were in the first place?"
  
  "... We really need to teach you how to talk to women."
  
  "I know perfectly well how to talk to women. It"s speaking with women that gets me in trouble."
  
  She sighs.
  
  "Not being a nitpicky pedant may be a good starting point."
  
  "The first hurdle is too high. This game is rigged. I refuse to play."
  
  She smirks beneath me, circles my neck with her arms, and pulls herself up until her wet breasts are pushing against me and her mouth is beside my ear.
  
  "I"m really glad you aren"t a player, Senpai."
  
  ... You know, there comes a time when one wonders whether there"s an end to the number of things that can snap inside one"s head. The answer, apparently, is "not as long as the foxy junior keeps looking for them."
  
  "And... I"m not that sore," she adds with a purring voice that makes every non-wet hair in my back stand up. Then lowers herself and winks.
  
  ...
  
  "No."
  
  But-but-
  
  "Don"t make me repeat myself, young man."
  
  She"s right here! And asking for it! Like, actually asking for it, not creepy "asking for it."
  
  "Right. And you know perfectly well what you have to do for her own good."
  
  ... Killjoy.
  
  "Praise me more."
  
  "Iroha, you don"t know how much I want to bend you over the edge of the tub, grab your hips, and-wait, no, let me start again: Iroha, if you keep looking at me like that, you"ll definitely be sore by the time I"m done with you-I mean-"
  
  "Senpai..." She keeps looking at me, her cheeks redder than pink. "I"m ready for-"
  
  "Agh! No! School! Class! On time!"
  
  "... What? Do you... want to do it at school? I mean, I guess we could, but I would rather not do it at the top of the stairs; that"s too exposed-"
  
  "No! Yes! I mean-damn it, I really, really don"t want to say this, but... we can"t be late today."
  
  "... Senpai, are you saying you value more your attendance record than doing it with me one last time this morning?" Uh... I"m pretty sure that"s the kind of tone that implies the wrong answer will not only end the relationship, but quite likely void any life insurance the victim had due to reckless endangerment.
  
  "I... You know I don"t, don"t you?" Reluctantly, she nods. All right, I passed the first stage of the boss battle, now let"s hope she doesn"t pull a Sephiroth for the second stage. "It"s just... we are involved with Shizu, and if we both start acting suspiciously, it may draw unwanted attention."
  
  "You mean like somebody recording you getting a blowjob in public?"
  
  ... I don"t know how she can look this innocent while naked, wet, and saying what she just did. I really don"t.
  
  "Yeah... Like that."
  
  "Ah. Yeah, that may be bad."
  
  "Really bad."
  
  "It may add another member to the harem, and we don"t have many open slots."
  
  "... Are you really trying to give me a stroke?"
  
  "Well, I was offering to stroke you, but if that isn"t in the cards..."
  
  I sigh, drop my shoulders, and take a deep breath.
  
  Then I drench her face with the shower once more.
  
  Her spluttered rage is kind of therapeutic, actually.
  
  ***
  
  "You are the worst," Iroha says for the umpteenth time as she rests her back on my chest and keeps making very distracting noises while I shampoo her hair.
  
  "I know. Mostly due to your very thorough instruction on the subject," I reply, making sure to get her behind the ears-the extra moaning that elicits not being a factor, at all, in my conscientious job.
  
  "Do you have any idea how it makes me feel to have you reject my advances like this?" she grumbles as her derriere (that"s, currently, the best word for the soft, petite thing) settles once more in my lap.
  
  My already pretty crowded lap.
  
  "Not at all, but I"m pretty sure you are about to correct such an oversight."
  
  "Of course! It is my duty as your girlfriend to mercilessly point out your many inadequacies so that your self-esteem is too low to ever think about leaving me."
  
  "That sounded too realistic to be a joke."
  
  "Ah, you are learning."
  
  "Reluctantly."
  
  "Very well. Since you seem to be receptive to my lessons at the moment, Senpai, I will explain to you exactly how it makes me feel that you would tell me it"s more important that we get in time to school than you getting to shoot me full of your sperm once more." The mini-speech is punctuated with an extra wiggle that almost manages to make it so the last part comes dangerously close to passing.
  
  "Please, impart your instruction upon this unworthy vessel, Isshiki-sama."
  
  "I like your spirit-broken just the way I like it."
  
  "If you expect me to be surprised or shocked, you underestimate how much we know each other."
  
  "Flattery will get you everywhere. Or it would have if you didn"t have morals and self-restraint."
  
  "One of my many failings."
  
  "Certainly. Now, as to how it makes me feel that when I"m wet and naked beneath you and asking you to make love to me, you have the presence of mind to tell me it"s a bad idea... It makes me fall for you all over again." She looks up, a blob of foam sticking to my chest as she turns, and flashes me a smile that makes my heart clench.
  
  And then I hug her, clutching her to me from behind.
  
  "Drop it," I all but plead.
  
  "Senpai?" Her tone seems... a bit bewildered.
  
  "Don"t... Don"t be like this, not right now. I love you, I adore you, I can"t even begin to think of how it would be to not have last night have happened, so... I love your sense of humor, and I love our verbal sparring, and I always look forward to those little speeches that never fail to leave me at the brink of a heart attack, but... But this morning, after last night... Can the jokes wait? Just for a few hours?"
  
  She tries to turn around and look at me, but I"m holding her too tight, and she finally slumps against me.
  
  "Senpai, are you asking me to be completely open and not use humor as a familiar routine to frame our conversation? Are you asking me to be... To be as direct and straightforward as you are? To be completely defenseless while I process losing my virginity to the man I love? I"m sorry, Senpai, but that"s impossible. Because if I stop joking and bantering for even a second, I feel like there"s this damn inside of me that will burst, and I don"t know what it"s filled with, but I will start crying, and I don"t want you to see my ugly, weeping face, and... And look what you made do, Senpai..."
  
  I open my arms just enough for her to turn around and cling to my chest, her eyes filling with tears right as she starts sniffling, and then I hug her as tightly as I can once again, my own tears coming right behind hers.
  
  "I"m sorry," I say through an awful blubbering.
  
  "You aren"t... You love these mushy scenes," she accuses.
  
  "I do. I... I"m... I feel so close to you that any distance hurts, and I just..."
  
  "I asked you to have se-to make love to me again. How did you think I felt?"
  
  I kiss her head and end up spitting a blob of awful-tasting foam.
  
  She laughs while crying, which is a sound I never knew I would enjoy.
  
  Then she settles back, and my arms relax around her as we slide down the tub until she"s lying on top of me.
  
  "Can we... stay like this? Just for a while, not doing anything?"
  
  I plug the tub and open the faucet.
  
  "Why do you think I brought you to the bath?"
  
  "Because you wanted me to shut up about being sore."
  
  "... That was a bonus."
  
  She turns around until her body is completely stretched over mine, her chin on my chest.
  
  "I... I"m sorry. I didn"t want to cross a line with that," she says.
  
  "I know."
  
  "And I"m really used to joking with you."
  
  "Don"t apologize for that, Iroha. I understand. I was just... extra touchy."
  
  She wiggles on top of me, and a certain part of me complains.
  
  "I know," she says with her foxy grin shining through slight tear tracts and suds.
  
  ... I never thought of myself as a superficial man. I always felt at least a bit of pride at seeing through appearances, valuing the heart of the matter, the essence of character.
  
  But I can"t help but notice my girlfriend is beautiful enough she can make my heart race with the slightest turn of her lips.
  
  ***
  
  Leaving the hotel and taking the train home is a bit of a jarring experience. None of us thought about taking our uniforms and schoolbags on a date, so we can"t go directly to school, which means...
  
  That we are saying goodbye.
  
  "It"s only for a little while," I say.
  
  "School starts in about an hour," she answers.
  
  "Right."
  
  "Right."
  
  ...
  
  We are still holding hands.
  
  "So, I kinda left my bike parked here last night," I comment.
  
  "Thoughtful of you."
  
  "Thanks."
  
  "Except for the part where you biked to our meeting spot, and so you would have sweated along the way."
  
  "... I thought you liked my smell."
  
  "I"m not giving back that shirt, Senpai. You may as well give up on it."
  
  "Shizu gave me her panties, and you steal my shirt. I feel there"s an imbalance in the relationship."
  
  "I"m sure she"ll also be stealing a shirt or two once she gets the chance."
  
  "I mean, it"s kinda cold today..."
  
  "You are about to go home and change your clothes."
  
  "Right."
  
  "Right."
  
  ...
  
  Our fingers interlace.
  
  "This is ridiculous," I point out.
  
  "It is," she agrees.
  
  She squeezes my hand.
  
  "It"s as sappy as those couples who go "hang up first,"" I comment.
  
  "I bet you would hang after the first request." She rolls her eyes.
  
  I squeeze back.
  
  "You know me so well..."
  
  She looks up at me.
  
  "Not half as well as I want to..."
  
  I lean down.
  
  "We have a lifetime to learn."
  
  She kisses me.
  
  "It won"t be enough."
  
  I smile my sappy smile, and Iroha"s foxy grin turns into this dopey, adorable thing with the corners of her lips quivering.
  
  "I really should get going," I say, my words brushing past those very lips.
  
  "You should."
  
  I don"t.
  
  ***
  
  "Do I want to know?" Komachi greets me as I barrel through the door, sweating like I rode my bicycle so fast a policewoman eyed me suspiciously.
  
  Which I did. Hence the sweating.
  
  I start taking off my drenched clothes as I run to my room, then at the last minute decide I really need to go through the bathroom at least long enough to wash my armpits. It turns out Iroha stealing my undershirt may have been a blessing in disguise.
  
  "No, I don"t think I do," Komachi mutters.
  
  I would answer, but it seems she"s finally developing a properly working sense of self-preservation, and I"m overcome with envy.
  
  
  
  ==============
  ==============
  So, after all this, I'm sure you're all wondering the same thing: what will the topic of next week's monologue be? And in which convoluted way will I tie it to the actual chapter? Am I currently resorting to just picking up random words from the dictionary at this point or is there a method to the madness? Find the answers to all these questions and more in the next installment of All Right! Fine! I'll Take you!
  
  (Some marketing experts would have me remind you that this chapter was seen a week early by my supporters on Patreon, that it only takes €3 per month to do so, and that I'm making less than minimum wage at the moment, but, really, we all know the monologue thing is a more pressing issue.)
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 27
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 27
  
  Usually, if someone said something like "Heroism is a lie," we would be forgiven to assume the line-spouter is wearing a black cape, gigantic pauldrons, and probably sipping red wine like a pair of homoerotic mass-murderers (one of whom says actual Mass). It is a line that expresses contempt for high ideals, that sets one against the very heroes they decry, and that will probably get you punched in the mouth by a kid who yells "Plus ultra" and behaves as if amphetamines are too tame of a supplement.
  
  It is, of course, a true line.
  
  Because what lies at the heart of heroism?
  
  Is it altruism? Courage? The willingness to go above and beyond? Overpowered cheats?
  
  No! It is... the secret identity!
  
  From people with colorful pajamas to girls wearing fetishized school uniforms, the most renowned heroes across the whole of fiction engage in a subterfuge designed to have them go through boring high school scenes-I mean, to protect their loved ones. That is, the loved ones who are only plot-relevant when kidnapped by the week"s villain, because, after a while, every single relevant member of the cast will have one power or another. So, the secret identity is a tool for the hero to lie to those he allegedly loves but doesn"t consider worthy of joining the party to level up.
  
  It is a constant lie, a deception that, no matter how much one strives to believe in the alleged good intentions motivating it, will cause a schism between those in the know and those who don"t. It is an act of constant, petty cruelty, a barely disguised sneer at those deemed unworthy of carrying the secret. Heck, it may even be morally catastrophic when one identity of the hero is dating someone who doesn"t have romantic feelings for the other identity-it may even be as despicable as an 80"s romantic comedy!
  
  And it is an act those we admire the most, those who are written to be aspirational figures, ideals to strive for, engage in constantly!
  
  So, if the supermen and short-skirted women of fiction, those who are usually beyond reproach, engage in this frankly monstrous practice, why should I, a mere mortal, be held to a higher standard?
  
  "Nice speech. Now come up with something she may actually buy."
  
  Yuiga-Yui is staring at me like she knows I"m hiding a treat in my breast pocket but also knows I don"t plan on giving it to her. I don"t think there"s a lot I could say that would dissuade her from her path.
  
  "I mean, I"m pretty sure-"
  
  That would dissuade her and not get me into further trouble.
  
  "Are you going to keep stalling until the end of recess rings, or are you going to start talking? Because only one of those means I don"t drag Yukinon in here to-"
  
  "Yui, as much as I"m sure you"re already used to dragging Yukino around to wherever you please by now, I would appreciate it if you didn"t use your finisher right off the bat. Let me build up my power meter for a bit, will you?"
  
  "I"m just asking how your date went!"
  
  "Shush!" With composure envied by the likes of Ryouga Hibiki trying to make romantic overtures, I look around me as calmly and methodically as someone who is about to have a heart attack. At least Yui cooperates by being silent-
  
  Oh.
  
  I mean, yes, I"m covering her mouth with my hands, and her face has reddened up to the tip of her ears, but no one can blame me! It was a practical, decisive move that possibly saved both our lives!
  
  "Say "El Psy Congroo.""
  
  El Psy Congroo!
  
  "Good. Now say: "Zaimokuza is the best writer I"ve ever-"
  
  Brain-chan, you"ve gone too far.
  
  Also, it looks like staring in frozen horror at Yui after a few seconds of making sure no one had overheard us in this little corner a few meters away from the tennis courts is no longer a viable tactic, because she just grabbed my wrists and is taking my hands off her mouth.
  
  She must be pissed: she hasn"t even licked them.
  
  "Hikki, there"s no one around here. Stop panicking so much," she says, as calmly as...
  
  Uh. It looks like she"s actually calm.
  
  I mean, aside from the fact her face is, at the moment, a bit redder than her hair.
  
  Orange hair.
  
  ...
  
  All right, her red face is redder than orange, which is a good thing, because if her face was orange, I would worry she was thinking about getting into politics.
  
  Yes. Everything"s good.
  
  "Are you going to tell me, or do I really need to drag Yukinon in here?"
  
  Maybe not that good.
  
  "What have I ever done to you to deserve such treatment, Yui?"
  
  She arches an eyebrow.
  
  The other one is twitching.
  
  ... I guess that"s fair.
  
  "Fine!" It, as usual, isn"t. "It went... I guess, on average, it went well?"
  
  "Average?"
  
  "It means that when you add every value and divide by-"
  
  "I know what average means!"
  
  "Oh, I guess Yukino"s tutoring is paying off?"
  
  "Hikki, I got into this school, you know?"
  
  "Komachi also has."
  
  "Are you... Are you saying your sister is dumb?"
  
  "She keeps asking questions that make me think so."
  
  "... Like?"
  
  "Like how my date went last night-ouch."
  
  Yui retrieves her pointed finger from its resting place about an inch into my side and looks at me with a radiant smile that I"ve learned to fear over the past few days.
  
  Since Monday.
  
  And this is Friday.
  
  Oh, how time flies.
  
  "Right. So, I am at least as smart as your sister, and I"m asking you how your date with Iroha went. Are you going to tell me, Hikki?"
  
  On the one hand...
  
  "Are you going to get mad?" I finally ask. Because what has dignity ever done for me? May as well behave like a contrite kid afraid to face his parents after deciding to artistically express his creativity all over the walls of the living room.
  
  "... Seriously?" Yui asks in turn. Mostly because she must be checking whether this is still the same reality she woke up in this morning, which would be a dire concern for her, in case she landed in one where she still had to mind break Yukino all over again.
  
  "Look, it"s just... There"s this whole unsaid thing hanging around us, and-"
  
  "You mean that we are in love but not together?"
  
  ...
  
  "Uh?"
  
  "Uh?"
  
  Brain-chan, that isn"t helpful!
  
  "And you"re surprised because? Also, never mind! What the fuck! That wasn"t in the script! She wasn"t supposed to say that! Not before ten years had passed, and we were all getting drunk at a party, remembering how dumb we used to be, and then we would say something sappy, and she would say how she used to have this huge crush on us, but she"s so happy we managed to steer Yukino and her together, and we would look into her eyes and sigh with relief before getting one last drink and walking home, the winter air making our breath drift away in white puffs until we opened the door and Shizu greeted us, asking how it went, and we would smile and say, "Just as planned," and she would laugh and-"
  
  You... seem to have given this a lot of thought.
  
  "What the Hell do you think I did when we couldn"t sleep all through last week?!"
  
  Think about Shizu"s-
  
  "Aside from that!"
  
  "Hikky?" Yui asks with a soft voice that manages to cut through my increasingly frantic inner dialogue.
  
  She"s... fidgeting. Her blush is now pink, and she has a slight pout, looking at the concrete slab beneath our feet.
  
  ... Right. I made sure someone took care of Yukino, but I never...
  
  Carefully, as if petting a skittish animal that I don"t expect to wag its tail at me, I lay a hand on her shoulder and wait for her to look at me, her warm eyes uncertain as they meet mine.
  
  "I love you," I say, the words no easier to say even with how much practice I"ve recently had.
  
  She keeps looking at me, her expression unchanging, still that mix of fear and apprehension.
  
  Then she steps forward and lies her head on my chest, burying it on my shirt till I can no longer see her eyes.
  
  "Thank you," she whispers.
  
  I take a deep breath and hug Yui like we are in another world, another time, and she doesn"t have another girl I love to take care of, and I don"t have two girlfriends and one enigma.
  
  "No. No, Yui, thank you."
  
  Her arms wrap around me and tighten.
  
  And I wait till none of us breathe shakily.
  
  ***
  
  We are sitting on the steps between the school and the yard, in that spot I discovered long ago that was reserved for a loner like me to learn how the wind blows so thoroughly I could bet a tennis match on it.
  
  Which is a bit ridiculous, now that I think about it. Didn"t I have anything better to do? Like fantasizing about how to get Miura to grovel at my feet-
  
  "Stop. That"s how you end up with a harem."
  
  Do you mean I don"t-
  
  "Everyone has a distinct personality, reciprocal feelings, and you aren"t brain-damaged. No. It"s not a harem."
  
  I could argue the last point.
  
  "I could start visualizing what Sagami and Zaimokuza do when-"
  
  Brain-chan, you are the foremost example of a healthy brain I"ve ever come across. Nothing you do is flawed in any way, and even your threats display a supreme knowledge of-
  
  "I wasn"t sure you"d admit it," Yui says.
  
  "Fuck. All right, save the groveling for later. This needs actual focus."
  
  I"m scared you are actually able to even think such a thought.
  
  "I... I didn"t think it was fair of me to do it, but... you deserve the truth," I tell her.
  
  She keeps looking straight ahead, letting me see how beautiful-how much I"ve missed by not looking directly at her.
  
  "The truth?"
  
  "That... That I love you. And Yukino. And, in another world, another-"
  
  "Don"t say that. Please. Just talk about this one. The one we"re in." Her voice is soft. Pleading.
  
  Heart-breaking.
  
  I swallow back something bitter and nod. She still isn"t looking at me.
  
  "Sorry. I... I am a mess. I didn"t even know I could fall in love like this, much less with so many women at once, but... I know Yukino and you. I know how... how hurt she is-"
  
  "No, you don"t." And now she looks at me with a burning intensity that would make me take a step back if we were standing.
  
  "You are right; I apologize: I suspect how hurt she is. How she"s unable to understand that people love her-"
  
  "Was," she says with a quiet determination that...
  
  "Thank you." It"s the only answer I can give her.
  
  "It"s what you asked me to do," she says, still not smiling.
  
  And I sigh.
  
  "That... wasn"t fair of me."
  
  I look at the sky, at the clouds lazily drifting through winter blue, and I can"t help but remember ice shattering after I slapped Yukino-
  
  "It wasn"t," Yui interrupts. "So... why did you do it?"
  
  "Because... I promised. I promised Haruno that if Yukino cried, there would be someone to take care of her. I promised Komachi that I would take care of you-"
  
  "You haven"t."
  
  "Haven"t I?" I look back at her, and I allow a slight smirk to surface.
  
  It wouldn"t be me if I didn"t irritate the women I love.
  
  "... Not really."
  
  "Yukino. On a silver plate."
  
  "That"s not taking care of me! That"s making me responsible for the girl you-damn it, Hikki."
  
  I pat her head. Mostly because I"m reasonably sure she"s in an awkward position to bite me.
  
  Komachi has taught me well.
  
  "Even if... Even if that was true... Was it only because-" she hesitates to ask, and I don"t want to let her.
  
  "I made the promise, Yui-I. It wasn"t what Haruno asked me to do, but what I was willing to offer her."
  
  "And Komachi-"
  
  "She said, "Promise you will also take care of Yui?""
  
  She swallows and closes her eyes.
  
  "And you said...?" Her voice is tiny, and I pat her hair.
  
  "I said... "That was always the plan, Komachi.""
  
  She remains silent, breathing slowly as I caress her hair, as sunlight keeps glinting off moving strands.
  
  She really is beautiful.
  
  Even with her Yuigahamas covered by her arms.
  
  "And you took care of me... by making me take care of Yukinon."
  
  I keep looking at her, at a face that keeps fighting to remain tense.
  
  "Not... quite. I-I hoped it would work like that, that you two would finally be together without me making a mess of things, but..."
  
  Her eyes open.
  
  I forget what I was going to say.
  
  Because this is one of my two first loves. The girl I let go of. The one I couldn"t have as I kept walking the path I found myself in.
  
  And I don"t regret it, not at all.
  
  Not when I remember Shizu"s quivering smile when she finally allowed herself to be with me. Not when I remember hugging a sobbing Iroha this morning.
  
  But.
  
  But a part of me, even if it treasures what I have...
  
  A part of me wonders.
  
  About a world where the three of us met, and there was nobody else. A world where we could"ve made Yukino understand that she was loved and valued by the two of us, where there was no need to frame things to have one person exclusively devoted to the task of making the regal, slender, gorgeous mess of a human being learn that she could be... That we all could...
  
  It"s a petty part, but I"ve always valued pettiness, you know?
  
  "I never knew what love was until I met the two of you," I finally say.
  
  She straightens and turns to face me.
  
  Her arms raise.
  
  Her fingers tangle through my air.
  
  She pulls me to her, and I let her move me.
  
  "Hikki..."
  
  Her eyes tremble as much as her voice, and her breath washes over my lips. She"s near, too near, and her scent, that scent I never caught more than a slight whiff of, drowns me with sweetness, warmth, and a hint of something like cinnamon and pine smoke.
  
  My heart thunders in my ears, and I stop breathing.
  
  "Hikki, I..."
  
  She leans forward. Just a bit, just a tiny bit.
  
  And right as I think to stop her, to lean away...
  
  She kisses my cheek.
  
  And then we hug once more, ragged breaths escaping us as if we had just run another school marathon with Hayama being an idiot to the girl I think he likes.
  
  "Friends?" I ask.
  
  "I... we already said that."
  
  "We did. Before this. So, Yui... Are we friends? Can we be friends? Please?"
  
  She pauses, her breath softening.
  
  "Not if you keep trying to hide things from me."
  
  ...
  
  "You know, I"m pretty sure Batman has dated a few women who didn"t know he was-"
  
  "I will call Yukinon, Hikki."
  
  "... Fine. Fine, what do you want to know?"
  
  She smiles a tiny bit. Not her usual exuberance, not even close, but... there"s a spark of it. Something that could grow if we let it, if we nurture it.
  
  And I so desperately want to do just that.
  
  Then she takes a step back, her fingertips dragged along with the movement, lingering on my cheeks for just a brief, aching moment.
  
  Her touch leaves me, her scent fades, and the smile grows even as the spark doesn"t.
  
  "How did it go? With Iroha, yesterday?"
  
  I sigh and, for once, allow myself to smile something that"s just a tiny bit fake.
  
  Fake it till you make it, isn"t it?
  
  "It started as an unmitigated disaster."
  
  "... How did you even manage that?"
  
  "I brought her to Destinyland."
  
  And then I see something that will make the annals of history, an unprecedented event that will forever puzzle future scholars, something that may shake the very foundations of the world as we know it.
  
  Yui Yuigahama facepalms at me.
  
  "How could you be so-so stupid?! You"re the smart one! The one with the weird, twisted plans that always work! How could you do that to the poor girl?!"
  
  "It worked! It just... took a while."
  
  "What the Hell do you mean it "took a while?!""
  
  "I... Confessed while the parade was going."
  
  "... What."
  
  Yui"s hand finally drops from her face, and I can see her dull eyes staring at me in a very familiar-oh. Komachi.
  
  So, there"s a universal indicator of sanity loss. Good to know.
  
  "I..." Come on, this is a matter of survival! "I told her that I started falling for her at that very moment, when I saw how strong she was, how much she risked... And she told me she had asked me to take responsibility for making her do that, for making her look for something genuine-"
  
  "She spied on that?!"
  
  "Uh, Yui, if you get mad at Iroha for spying on things, I"m afraid you"ll keep getting angry for... quite a while."
  
  "What is that even supposed to mean?!"
  
  I look at Yui as I remember a yukata-clad girl prostrating herself in front of me, pledging herself to me.
  
  My cheeks are burning.
  
  "... Nothing," I say with a voice that may as well be gravel with the way it makes my throat feel.
  
  "Hikki, you just promised not to keep secrets from-"
  
  "She fantasizes about being a kunoichi!"
  
  "What."
  
  Yui looks at me with sheer-
  
  Uh. She"s not looking at me.
  
  In fact, she"s looking a bit... behind me.
  
  "Seeenpai? Is there something you want to tell me?"
  
  Oh Heavens above, she gets skills through kinky roleplay!
  
  "I"m pretty sure that"s not what"s going on, but I would suggest doing a little cooking test before and after a naked apron if you survive-"
  
  "Yui is emotionally blackmailing me into telling her all my secrets or she won"t be my friend!"
  
  That"s it: when in doubt, throw someone else under the bus.
  
  "Your secrets are not my secrets, Senpai."
  
  "I"m pretty sure we share some secrets."
  
  "And those are mine, Senpai. It says so on the prenup."
  
  "The what?!" I"m not panicking. Mostly, because I think panicking would be quite a pleasant, relaxing to do right about now.
  
  "You really shouldn"t fall asleep with so many easily signable documents nearby-"
  
  Due to my shock, horror, and absolute believability of her claims, I, ignoring everything Greek mythology has taught me, turn around.
  
  Iroha is smiling.
  
  It... kind of has an edge.
  
  "... Are you limping?" Yui asks.
  
  The edge shatters as Iroha blushes, fidgets, looks at me, away from me, pokes her fingers, bites her lip, and basically emotes in absolutely every way that could make my heart beat a little faster.
  
  As far as assassination techniques go, this one is quite nuanced. Great aesthetics, and being personally suited to the target really adds some extra flair. Full points.
  
  "She didn"t say "You are already dead.""
  
  Don"t be nitpicky, Brain-chan.
  
  "... Oh gods, just how bad do you have it?"
  
  "Just a bit... sore..." Iroha manages to answer Yui"s question. Barely.
  
  I turn back just in time to see my friend"s face about to burst into flames.
  
  "I... Really? That big?"
  
  Iroha hesitates. Then nods a tiny bit.
  
  ... Is this a stroke? Am I having a stroke?
  
  "I"m pretty sure I would notice that."
  
  Shut up, Brain-chan. You"re unreliable while you"re having a stroke.
  
  "And-" Yui keeps asking, once again proving that, after the first time, people get weirdly fixated on keeping up with their sanity loss.
  
  "I"m leaving," I interrupt. Because, apparently, I"m not like most regular people.
  
  "Oh, that"s a surprise."
  
  Praise me more.
  
  "Wha-" Yui starts.
  
  "No, you don"t," Iroha follows.
  
  "If you"re going to gossip about my sexual-my sexual something, I"m leaving you to do it in peace where I don"t feel like coming up with ways to commit suicide via auto asphyxiation-"
  
  "Is that a fetish you-" Iroha begins.
  
  "Not even remotely interested in trying to find out. I must have some limits."
  
  "I"m not quite so sure about that, Senpai-"
  
  "Right. Leaving. Right now." I stand up and start walking away. My survival instincts working this well is a very fortunate fluke, and I should take advantage of it while it lasts.
  
  "Hikki, don"t you-"
  
  I whirl around to face Yui, proving, once again, that Self-Preservation-kun is still quite a ways from returning to the land of the living. He must be on that weird dragon road with all the yellow clouds.
  
  Ganbare, Self-Preservation-kun, I"m sure the cockroach god will help you surpass your limits. They weren"t that great to begin with.
  
  "What?" I finally ask the girl with the face set in a rictus of shock, though in a gentler way than the abrupt monosyllabic would suggest.
  
  Yui hesitates, her eyes going from me to the weirdly pleased Iroha.
  
  "Talk to you later?" she finally asks, that spark from before steadier, a bit brighter.
  
  Without even realizing it, I smile at her.
  
  No longer fake.
  
  Because we may have made it.
  
  "Of course. That"s what friends are for."
  
  Then I turn around and leave my girlfriend talking to my girl friend about how she gave me her virginity last night.
  
  I"m... pretty sure Iroha is about to learn a lot more about Yukino than Yui"s about me, though.
  
  ... No, I"m not jealous. That"s what spies are for: to gather intel.
  
  
  
  ==================
  ==================
  So... Any bets on whether Yui will try to steal Iroha for the garden? I mean, ninjas are rogues, and every party needs a skill monkey.
  Well, every party that doesn't answer the question "Do you have any ranks on Seduce?" with "No, but I've got +15 to Intimidate."
  I need new players.
  
  Speaking of new things! The new chapter is already up on Patreon, and I can proudly say it's the most meta chapter yet. Seriously, it's like a real-time documentary of my slow fall into noticeable madness.
  
  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 28
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
  So as I pray, Unlimited Keystroke Works!
  Joined:Feb 26, 2018
  Messages:1,808
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 28
  
  There comes a point of no return in any serialized story that makes the author look at the flashbacks, filler episodes, beach episodes, hot springs episodes and think they no longer cut it. No, the plot has taken on a life of its own, an unstoppable momentum, and the end is approaching fast enough that even the most anti-Zaimokuzarial editor cannot complain. The end is nigh, the tension growing, the character arcs cresting like a wave about to crash down on the totality of the unaware cast.
  
  Readers know things are about to change forever. They keep turning the pages as frantically as the author himself wrote them.
  
  And then comes the only thing that could come. The only conclusion that will satisfy absolutely everyone without any kind of dissent. Not even a little flame war to keep the cold away in the cruelest of winters. No, everybody knew at an instinctual level that it was coming, and so, the realization can"t be anything other than fulfilling.
  
  Yes, it"s the point where the plot grinds to a halt.
  
  It"s the Ninja World War, Namek about to blow up, the fucking Tournament of Power taking 48 never-ending minutes-I mean, the examples are plentiful, and none of them carry any kind of negative connotation.
  
  All right. Fine. The audience may get a bit pissed off, but who cares about them?! Does nobody think of the characters?! Does nobody think about the poor harem lead being finally forced to decide in the most unsatisfactory, anticlimactic way possible that will not surprise anyone who has kept count of the screentime of the haremettes? Why should the poor, saintly guy be forced to resolve a situation that could be stretched for about two seasons worth of material in the hands of the Kishimotos of the world? Why make him go through such anguish, such stress-inducing deadlines that would make any non-Bakuman trained mangaka cough blood like a sick anime girl suffering from Generic Malady Number Two?
  
  (Generic Malady Number One is, of course, being a mysterious albino wearing artful bandages and having a shower scene, of course. Yes, that"s two "of courses," but really, of course the conclusion should"ve been obvious. Of course.)
  
  "Brother... Are you really sure you should be drinking coffee?"
  
  "It calms me down."
  
  "It"s your fourth can."
  
  "It calms me down in increasingly diminishing returns."
  
  "You... Have you seen what you did to the other cans?" Komachi"s tone holds a hint of alarm. Just enough that I look down at the kitchen table.
  
  ... Is that origami? Aluminum origami?
  
  "I can only say that making a thousand cranes out of Max Coffee cans would be far too expensive for your current savings. Especially after spending a whole night at a place that charges by the hour."
  
  Right. A project for another time.
  
  "Are you..." Komachi starts.
  
  She stops when my head snaps toward her with all the alacrity that the power of milk, sugar, and unhealthy amounts of caffeine rushing through my veins grant me.
  
  Yes, the Ultra Instinct Theme is playing in the background.
  
  Also, I just heard the sound of my hair snapping after the movement. Truly, I"ve finally mastered shunpo.
  
  "You"re mixing your references."
  
  As usual.
  
  "... I"m not so sure."
  
  "Are you... all right?" Komachi finally asks, apparently finally accepting my rapidly increasing abilities and completely sensical and justified power-ups.
  
  "I"m secretly dating both my teacher and the Student Council president, who were unavailable today, and all three of us have a meeting scheduled tomorrow with Haruno to decide how the Hell we will handle our relationship going forward. Both Shizu and Iroha have told me I can do whatever I want, and I haven"t been able to have a discussion with either of them about it because I keep getting sidetracked by relationship stuff and sex, and I took Iroha"s virginity yesterday, and oh gods, she bet she could convince me to get her pregnant before we finish college, and I"m pretty sure that was as much of a joke as when I swear I"ll murder Zaimokuza if he dares call me the Lord of Battle, Harems, and Battle Harems aloud ever again and-"
  
  There"s a palm covering my mouth. For a brief moment filled with terrible clarity, I contemplate biting it.
  
  Then I remember I may be contagious and that the world isn"t ready for a werehachiman Komachi.
  
  Also, those fangs of hers promise immediate and painful retribution.
  
  "You are forbidden from drinking any more coffee until you meet Haruno," she says, about as calmly as can be expected, given the circumstances. "Also, you did what?!"
  
  I raise my eyebrows and pointedly look at the biological gag silencing me like I"m a mage in a Final Fantasy game and I could have had the chance to be useful.
  
  She, grudgingly, removes her hand.
  
  And wipes it on her pants.
  
  Oi, dear sister of mine, are you implying anything?
  
  "She... Iroha... After the date we..."
  
  "No. Details."
  
  "Weren"t you asking about it the other-"
  
  She looks at me with eyes that have seen not only too much, but also too often and without censor bars. These are eyes that think Bible Black is charmingly old school, eyes that don"t even blink at the NTR tag, eyes that would make Yuno Gasai blush.
  
  Wisely, I shut up.
  
  "Self-Preservation-kun?! Is that you?!"
  
  "Can"t I at least finish my can of-"
  
  "Ah. Never mind."
  
  "Brother, you"re vibrating."
  
  "That"s what she-"
  
  "I"ll bite you."
  
  Apparently, coffee gives me precognition.
  
  With a dejected sigh, I allow Komachi to take away the last can of my life-infusing beverage, my mana potion, my elixir, my tincture, my-
  
  Is she drinking it?!
  
  "Ugh, I don"t know how you can drink something so sweet-"
  
  "Take that back! You take back any disrespect toward the best product that the land of Chiba can offer its tired masses of-"
  
  In hindsight, I maybe shouldn"t have wagged an imperious finger in front of my little sister"s face while yelling like a maniac.
  
  Because she bites me.
  
  Ouch.
  
  "Did that shock you out of it?" she asks, her voice calm on the surface.
  
  Of the Moon. Or maybe Jupiter, but certainly not on the surface of this planet.
  
  "Maybe? I at least realize I would like it very much if you didn"t develop a taste for human flesh." Wait, can she turn into a werehachiman if she"s the one that bites me? Or will that make me into a werekomachi? And would that be overpowered enough to get me my own isekai series?
  
  What am I saying? Of course it would. The harem wouldn"t stand a chance.
  
  "Right... So, basically, you are about to need urgent medical intervention because the consequences of your actions are about to catch up with you, and tomorrow is... whatever you call a meeting between a guy, his girlfriend, his secret lover, and the girl nobody knows what label to put on."
  
  "I"m impressed, Komachi. That was masterfully done exposition. Have you thought about getting a job as the girl who starts the conversation by saying "as you all already know?""
  
  "Have you thought about trying not to annoy the only person who"s currently willing to put up with your impending anxiety attack?"
  
  "No. Currently my brain is set on repeating over and over again "oh gods, what the fuck am I going to do.""
  
  "Hey! That"s not true; I"m also coming up with snarky asides!"
  
  That doesn"t help!
  
  "It doesn"t help you."
  
  Ah. Certainly. Carry on, then, Brain-chan.
  
  Also, why is there a hand on my shoulder? Should I be scared?
  
  "Brother, how about we... go play some game? Something brainless and with flashing colors?"
  
  I look into Komachi"s eyes. They are filled with both worry and a barely suppressed urge to strangle me.
  
  It"s a familiar look.
  
  "Right. Thank you." I nod and get up, my chair scratching against the tiled floor before I remember to lift it.
  
  "Don"t mention it. Just... Don"t pick Kirby."
  
  "Hovering is a perfectly valid strategy!"
  
  "If you don"t want to play! Spending half the game out of reach of any opponent shouldn"t be an option!"
  
  And then we fall into the familiar argument. How she should at least don"t try to pretend she isn"t always picking Link because she likes men in skirts, how I"ll never, ever again play her with no items on Zero Destination, no matter how much she complains, and...
  
  All right, it"s a bit relaxing, even if the impending date is still weighing heavily on my mind. Because... I don"t know.
  
  I just kinda wish I had more time. To prepare, to think, to talk... Just... Time.
  
  Even if it was because of a fucking flashback.
  
  Still, at least I"ve got a loving, kind sister that is willing to provide me with some breathing room and a way for me to forget about the weight of the world on my shoulders for a little while.
  
  I know I"m not the best at showing it, at telling her, but... I"m really grateful. Not just for this, but for her existing, for all the times I came back here and had someone to take care of, to make me feel like I did something of value, something worthwhile. For being my little sister.
  
  And so, I sit down on the couch beside her and boot up a game that"s old enough we may be able to sell it for more than it cost us when we pooled our Christmas money together.
  
  And then I pick Kirby.
  
  It"s worth the bite.
  
  ***
  
  Shizu"s Side: First Love
  
  "Come on, I see the way he looks at you," Miki nudges me with her elbow, playing once again to her tomboy persona.
  
  Seriously! She has the freckles over her nose, the slight tan, the bob cut... The works.
  
  She even wears spats beneath her skirt!
  
  Also, she"s looking at me like... Ah, right.
  
  Ken.
  
  "I think you"re just seeing what you want to see, Miki."
  
  She rolls her eyes. No, really, she even laces her fingers behind her neck and looks at the sky while she does it, her schoolbag hanging off her wrist. She could only be more thorough if she was munching on a stalk of wheat.
  
  I surreptitiously look around, but apparently, the street is maintained enough that no vegetation has broken through the asphalt.
  
  Drats.
  
  "Yeah, sure. Because that"s just what I want to see: a guy drooling over your boobs."
  
  I"m not blushing.
  
  Also, I"m not hugging my chest protectively.
  
  And I"m definitely not glaring at my best friend for, once again, indirectly complaining that the boob fairy hasn"t yet visited her.
  
  "You"ve got spectacular legs. Stop fixating on these; they make boxing very awkward."
  
  "Oh, sure, it"s boxing that I think about when you keep your rack bouncing all over the place." She waggles her eyebrows.
  
  "Well, it"s definitely boxing that I think about when you keep sexually harassing me."
  
  "Ever told you you"ve got a one-track mind, Tsuka?"
  
  "Just about once per day."
  
  "Well, consistency is important. That"s what your trainer always says!"
  
  I grumble a bit at her, once again, quoting Mr. Tanaka"s advice at me in a way that proves that I definitely should get a few more hobbies, if only as a smokescreen.
  
  And she, of course, grins at me over her small victory.
  
  At least that will get her to stop talking about Ken"s fixation on my... chest.
  
  ***
  
  I look up from the thing on my tray the school"s cafeteria tries to pass off as food.
  
  In front of me, Ken nervously waggles his fingers. At his side, Miki"s smirk threatens to split her face in two.
  
  I"m very tempted to help it.
  
  "Hi there... Ken." Right. At least I didn"t stutter.
  
  The brown-haired bookworm with square-framed glasses fiddles with his ponytail self-consciously and sends me a small smile.
  
  ... Miki, I dare you to mouth "doki doki" at me once again. I double dare you.
  
  I don"t care that you"re the star of the track team; I can catch you.
  
  "So, Ken here says he"s been reading Berserk lately-"
  
  "Have you finished the Golden Age arc?!"
  
  ... Miki, stop laughing. Ken, don"t run away.
  
  Please.
  
  "Uh... Not yet? I think? Is that what the flashback is called?"
  
  "Right. Yes. The flashback. That made up about the totality of the anime."
  
  "There"s an anime?"
  
  ... I"m starting to think Ken may not be as much of an otaku as I was led to believe.
  
  "Kind of a classic, though the animation budget was nothing compared to what we see nowadays. But the dramatic use of stills to compensate-" stop talking, stop talking, stop talking-
  
  "She really gets into these kinds of things. If you want to interrupt her, just tell her boxing is not a real martial art."
  
  "It so is! Come on, like Mike Tyson wouldn"t beat up about every karateka you"ve ever known! They even put him in Street Fighter!"
  
  "See?" Miki says. And Ken chuckles.
  
  ... I"m not blushing.
  
  "So, you are into games too?" he asks.
  
  "I mean... mostly arcade stuff. And a few JRPGs. And DDR, but that also counts as arcade stuff, because I"m not getting one of those into my room anytime soon..."
  
  He chuckles. Again.
  
  ... Am I doing something right or wrong? Because I don"t feel like I"m doing anything right.
  
  Miki"s smirk isn"t helping.
  
  "Hey, that sounds like a lot of fun! Why don"t we all go to the arcade after class?" she says.
  
  "Oh, that, uh... Yes! That sounds pretty good, doesn"t it?" Ken asks. And looks straight at me.
  
  And I eep.
  
  Then I remember to breathe and nod.
  
  ... Stop. Laughing. Miki.
  
  ***
  
  I stare at my phone in sheer disbelief.
  
  "Miki says she can"t come. Club stuff." There"s also a wink emoji, but I"m not about to read that part out loud.
  
  Ken scratches the back of his neck nervously and finally makes eye contact.
  
  He has... Fine, they are brown eyes. Normal brown eyes.
  
  Except they are this dark tone, like aged wood, and have an almost reddish tint that makes them stand out, and-
  
  Gah! Right. Breathe and look cute.
  
  ... How the fuck am I supposed to do that?!
  
  "I mean, if you want to do this another day, I understand it could be awkward without Miki-" he starts to say, his eyes never leaving mine.
  
  "No! No, I mean, if anything, it"s Miki: she would make things awkward. And laugh about it. A lot."
  
  "Heh. Sounds about right," he smiles, and...
  
  It"s a normal smile, Shizu. Breathing should still be on the schedule.
  
  "Yeah..."
  
  The word trails off, and we just stand there in silence for a while until a pissed-off kid pushes me aside to get to the Virtua Fighter machine.
  
  And we laugh.
  
  The rest of the... date? Is it a date if we were both tricked into it?
  
  Right. It is. Because I say so.
  
  The rest of the date goes well enough. We spend more money than we should, and I sweat a lot more than I should"ve had while on a date (yes, it counts) by playing maybe a few rounds too many of DDR, but I wanted to show off, and, well, it looks like Ken certainly has some difficulty not looking at my... bounciness.
  
  Uh. These may be more useful than I thought.
  
  Anyway, the point is that my first date goes well enough, and I don"t stutter too much, nor get caught looking at his butt while he takes his own turn at jumping around with the DRR thing, and...
  
  It"s... Nice.
  
  Really nice.
  
  So, the next time Miki "tricks" us into going to get some ramen, I let myself accept.
  
  And so does he when Miki decides the three of us should go to the pool. For a very particular definition of "three."
  
  It is at the pool that I realize two very important things.
  
  One: the boobs are definitely an advantage.
  
  Two: for a bookworm, Ken has a very nice body.
  
  It"s not like he has a hidden cache of muscles to deploy, but the clearly defined line straight down the middle of his belly keeps catching my eye, and the way his skin glistens with the water...
  
  Right. Hormones. They are a thing.
  
  Which I guess it"s one of the reasons for me to kiss him right before I jump into the train back home.
  
  On his cheek! His cheek!
  
  My heart keeps beating like a drum all the way back home, my face burning whenever I so much as raise my eyes from my lap, and it"s only after I get back to my room that I have the courage to take my phone and check my messages.
  
  "I had fun today. Thank you. I can"t wait to see you again."
  
  I squee so hard my mom gets into the room to ask me not to watch horror movies during the day.
  
  It may be the most embarrassing way for her to learn that I have a boyfriend.
  
  ***
  
  I don"t have a boyfriend.
  
  "Hey, these things happen," Miki says, sounding perhaps a bit sad, embarrassed, and guilty.
  
  That is, completely unlike Miki.
  
  "It"s just... I don"t know. I liked him. A lot. And I thought he liked me." I gesture around, not sure what to point at in the park we are cutting through. Maybe at the falling leaves. Autumn really came sooner than I expected.
  
  "He does. Did. Whatever. I"ve known the guy since we were kids, and he couldn"t shut up about you, Tsuka, I swear." Her voice is almost pleading.
  
  "Then... Then why?" And I"m not crying. Not really, but my eyes itch a bit, and I wish it was spring so I could blame the pollen.
  
  Maybe the dust from the path? Nah, it rained yesterday. Still not dry enough.
  
  "I... I don"t know. I know why he liked you-I mean, you are you, but... maybe he realized you two weren"t that compatible, after all?"
  
  "But how? How do people know they are or aren"t? How do you decide if he"s the one or just someone who looks like it, and is there even a way to, to-"
  
  Miki grabs my shoulders and spins me around so I face her.
  
  "If I knew? I wouldn"t have set you up with the moron who-damn it, Tsuka, you"re smart, gorgeous, and have incredible boobs. If I was a guy, I would be pinning you to a tree and making out with you until the cops came to arrest us."
  
  "I... I don"t think they can arrest you for making out-"
  
  "The way I"d do it? Oh, yes."
  
  And now I"m blushing.
  
  A lot.
  
  "Miki, I..."
  
  She looks at me. Just looks at me, at my lips barely open, at me licking them, at-
  
  She lets me go.
  
  "We"re going to be late," she mutters.
  
  I nod.
  
  And we go to school.
  
  And my heart keeps beating far too hard until I remember Ken broke up with me.
  
  
  
  ===================
  ===================
  So it begins. Shizu has been, for quite a while, a bit outshined in her own story as I withheld her reactions and thoughts from the readers. It was partly a consequence of Iroha and Haruno so aggressively grabbing the spotlight, but it was also somewhat intentional, as Hachiman himself isn't privy to some of what makes our favorite Christmas Cake tick. Starting from this chapter, this changes, and I hope by the time we reach Haruno's confrontation everything will--well, that would be telling.
  
  As usual, this chapter was seen a week early by my supporters on Patreon, who can now read the continuation of Shizu's flashbacks and Hachiman's freak-outs.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 29
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 29
  
  In recent years, there"s been a scholarly debate about a moral concern that has repercussions that may affect society as a whole. The question that"s been posited is the following: is it wrong to try to pick up girls in a dungeon?
  
  It is not, as some may claim, a frivolous matter. Even if it has been explored in a way that some may find distasteful due to the common prejudice against gratuitous fanservice, paper-thin excuses for a quasi-masturbatory power fantasy, and best girl being out of the race before it even starts, the matter at hand is still of the outmost gravity.
  
  Because what is a dungeon, if not a place to reveal one"s deepest feelings?
  
  How many times have we witnessed a group of battle-forged friends share their hidden fears before confronting the final boss?
  
  How many times has a protagonist woken up in the middle of the night to talk to the romantic interest while looking at a sea of stars while the campfire crackled behind them?
  
  How many times have those recently reaffirmed bonds been the key to defeat the last boss after they cried out, for the last time, that this wasn"t even their final form?
  
  Thus, claiming that it is wrong to pick up girls in a dungeon is tantamount to claiming that it is wrong to conquer the dungeon itself, that the ties that bind the hero"s party have no right to exist. That the Demon Lord should win.
  
  And so, to all that hold a spark of courage in their hearts, to men who long for the romance of adventure, to all those who think they wouldn"t die of dysentery in less than a month if they were to be transported to a fantasy world, there"s only one possible answer:
  
  It is rightful to pick up girls in a dungeon.
  
  In fact, it is the very duty of the hero to wake up right in the middle of the night before the final battle and take the white mage or princess in diguise"s hand and...
  
  "Will you send the fucking message already?"
  
  ... Well, I was going to, but somebody decided to ruin the mood.
  
  "..."
  
  Fine...
  
  Sighing, I let my hovering thumb travel the critical distance toward its fateful destination: the "send" button.
  
  "You up?"
  
  It may not be the height of my skill with the written word, but at least it isn"t Zaimokuza tier.
  
  "Really?" Shizu immediately answers.
  
  Just as expected.
  
  "Just as expected, my non-corporeal ass. You"ve been sweating bullets for fifteen minutes."
  
  Expectation makes me nervous. Being right is a terrible burden.
  
  "... You don"t even know what you just sent, do you?" Shizu enigmatically inquires.
  
  "A message? Not in a bottle?"
  
  "... That is code for a booty call, Hikigaya."
  
  ...
  
  "Don"t look at me. My experience with texting mostly involves ignoring the chuuni."
  
  Right. Right. Of course.
  
  "Hachi? You still there?"
  
  ... I think I should answer.
  
  "Are you having a stroke or something? Should I call your sister?"
  
  I mean, sure, why not. My secret lover calling my little sister in the middle of the night sounds like an excellent idea. I was thinking it was time for a new trachea, anyway.
  
  There"s the chime of another message while I debate what to-
  
  It"s a picture. Of Shizu"s button-up pajamas being clearly no longer buttoned up.
  
  The top is parted, leaving her cleavage completely bare, the flaps of clothing draped so only the very edge of her areolas peeks from beneath the lilac satin.
  
  "There. I remembered your rule. Now, are you there, or do I really need to call Komachi?"
  
  "No, please. The last thing my sanity needs is for her to walk in on me while I try to wrestle down a gigantic erection."
  
  "... Always so flattering."
  
  "Woman, if you want clever wordplay, maybe you should let me have some blood available to properly fuel it."
  
  There"s a moment of silence that I do not use to look back at my growing collection of Shizu pics.
  
  "Because you"re a moron. Mostly."
  
  Also because I really want to be able to answer her, and I"m not that good at typing one-handed.
  
  "You always make me laugh."
  
  "I hope this isn"t a comment on my skills as a lover."
  
  "Well... I mean..."
  
  "Ugh! Too strong! The attack is too strong! Soul-based strikes shouldn"t be allowed!"
  
  "I mean that making me laugh is part of what makes you such a good lover."
  
  "... You aren"t helping with that whole "giant erection" thing."
  
  "Oh, I"d like to think I am helping."
  
  I can"t help the soft smile on my lips as I read it, as I imagine her warm, soft voice, that tender way she looks at me when imparting hard-earned wisdom on a surly, cynical teenage boy.
  
  And I wonder once again how did I ever manage to get so lucky.
  
  "Hey... I wanted to talk about tomorrow," I finally send her.
  
  "... I don"t."
  
  "Why?"
  
  "It"s... I don"t want to have a plan, to have something to stick to. I want... I don"t know. She"s my friend, Hachi. I just... I"ll listen to what she has to say."
  
  Her message has taken some time, and I can tell there"s been a few rewrites as the "typing" icon kept appearing and disappearing from my screen. And it may be that she doesn"t know how to say what she"s thinking or that she doesn"t know herself what to think.
  
  "If that"s what you want, I"ll respect it (as if I have any choice), but... Is that really what you want?"
  
  The pause this time is longer, and it takes me a lot not to interrupt, not to pester her with another message while she keeps writing and deleting whatever answer she thinks I want to hear.
  
  "No. I want things to be simple, easy. I want there to be no tomorrow, to have Haruno be a normal, happy girl who wasn"t stuck on me for years. I want not to have to hide my boyfriend and for my girlfriend not to keep pestering me about the video of how she lost her virginity. But... We can"t always get what we want. And, sometimes, we want more than one thing at the same time."
  
  I feel a stab in my chest, and I start to write a reply immediately. As usual, Shizu"s texting speed far surpasses mine, though.
  
  "So I want to have you and Iroha. I want the complicated, hard thing we have. I want this to last. I want you to love me as much as you say you do. I... I want to keep crying incredulous tears. I want you to be here, with me, hugging me in that oblivious manner you have of melting my heart."
  
  My breath catches in my throat, and I cannot even delete the inadequate, obsolete words of my last message as I keep rereading what she sent me.
  
  "I want tomorrow not to come. And I want tomorrow to be over. And I want you to solve every little problem my old student has, and I want her not to have problems to solve, and I want to hug her, and punch her, and... And I don"t even know. But I think I don"t want to know. I want to see her and feel it. Not to decide beforehand."
  
  I don"t know what to tell her. Because I understand, even if I think it"s wrong, even if I think the three of us should"ve had a long talk, to settle on some common ground before we let Haruno break in front of us-because if I know something about Yukinoshitas, it"s that sharing emotions without something shattering isn"t an option for them.
  
  But... It"s Shizu. And it"s been years for her, even if it"s only been days for me. She has a right to decide how to approach this, even if I think she"s wrong-especially if I think she"s wrong.
  
  Another chime. Another message to bring me out of my inner monologue.
  
  Another image.
  
  She"s lying on her side, half her face hidden by her draped hair, her chest naked even if partly hidden by her crossed arm.
  
  And she"s smiling.
  
  It"s soft, warm, caring.
  
  And sad.
  
  "I love you, Hachi. Now, let me get back to freaking out and not sleeping."
  
  I swallow, reading and rereading her words until I send her the only possible answer.
  
  "I love you, Shizu. And I look forward to not letting you sleep for years to come."
  
  I close my eyes, and get ready to toss and turn for quite a while, because bothering Iroha about this would seem like a betrayal of Shizu"s request, and-
  
  "Jerk. Double entendres are a thing."
  
  Wha-
  
  Oh.
  
  "Well, I definitely am also looking forward to that."
  
  ***
  
  Shizu"s Side: First Time
  
  Hiro is...
  
  Well, he"s sleeping. So I guess not everything I knew about sex was a lie.
  
  Brushing his black hair out of his face and not laying a kiss on his forehead, I slip out of bed and take my phone before going to the love hotel"s toilet.
  
  Then I call Miki. Because I most definitely am not calling Mom.
  
  "Tsuka? Do you even have any idea what time it is-" She sounds sleepy, slightly miffed.
  
  "We did it." I... don"t know how I sound.
  
  "Are you all right?" She"s instantly awake. Alert.
  
  And I lean on the white-tiled wall and slip down it, my naked back dragging over the surface.
  
  "I don"t know, I..."
  
  "Did he do anything? Where are you, Tsuka? I can get there in-tell me where you are, and I"ll tell you how long it"ll take me to get there!"
  
  She sounds so frantic, so scared, I...
  
  I chuckle.
  
  "It"s not that, Miki. I just... I didn"t think I would feel like this."
  
  There"s a pause on the other side of the phone, and I can almost see her lying back on her bed, draping an arm over her eyes as she allows herself to calm down.
  
  "Tell me. Tell me everything until you know if you"re all right."
  
  And I do.
  
  I tell her about being happy Hiro and I ended up at the same college, about having maybe a couple of drinks too many at the party for the freshmen, about finally kissing him after all the awkwardness of last year.
  
  I tell her about him getting handsy and me not minding it that much.
  
  And then we kept seeing each other on campus, and... Well, she knows this part, but I feel the need to tell her all over again. To tell her about me having my first proper boyfriend since Ken, and...
  
  And I really wanted things to work.
  
  So, when he asked, and when he asked again... I...
  
  "You should"ve told me," she says. And her voice is hiding a kind of hurt I barely understand.
  
  "I should have," I agree. Because I know. I know how stupid it is for me to hide this from my best friend, to only tell her after I"ve already made a mistake, something I can"t take back.
  
  "You don"t love him."
  
  "No. No, I really don"t."
  
  We stay in silence, the tiles starting to warm up beneath my naked body.
  
  "Did... Was it..." She doesn"t know how to ask it, but...
  
  "You pervert." And I smile. For the first time in the past hour, I smile.
  
  "That"s not it! I-damn it, Tsuka, you know I-"
  
  "I know. I do. Thank you, Miki."
  
  "... For what?"
  
  I take a deep breath. Her voice, her presence, even if at a distance, has calmed me down a lot, and I no longer feel like I"m about to freak out or shut down or both; I just... I just feel like...
  
  "For being you. My friend. With me."
  
  She doesn"t answer, and I can all but see her looking at the phone with that miffed look she gets when she thinks I just said something blindingly obvious.
  
  "I love you, you know?" I prod her.
  
  "Of course you do. I am amazing."
  
  I chuckle.
  
  "You are. You really are."
  
  "... Are you sure you don"t want me to pick you up? Where are you?"
  
  "I... At a love hotel near the station, but... no, thank you. I shouldn"t leave him alone just because it wasn"t what I hoped."
  
  "... What did you hope for, Tsuka?"
  
  I close my eyes, and I feel a bit of a sting. It"s not the almost hysteria of minutes ago; it"s a far calmer thing, but it"s also so much bitterer, so...
  
  "That I"d love him. That my first time would be magical, and I"d feel so close to him, and I would stop feeling like this... this defective girl no one can love, and I... I didn"t feel like that, Miki. I still feel like-"
  
  "Tsuka. No, please. You"re amazing. You"re smart, and beautiful, and have a sense of humor, and incredible boobs-"
  
  I snort at that. I shouldn"t have.
  
  I rush to get a bit of toilet paper to wipe my nose and sit on the toilet beside the bathtub, which is colder than the floor was but still far more comfortable.
  
  "Always with the boobs," I finally say.
  
  "You practically shove them in my face! If you at least were shorter, they wouldn"t be at eye level!"
  
  "Start wearing heels."
  
  "Start wearing cleavage!"
  
  "... That doesn"t make any sense."
  
  "Not from your perspective."
  
  And I snort again, and, again, I wipe my nose.
  
  "I should go back to bed. He may wake up."
  
  "Wait, he fell asleep? Right after?"
  
  "According to movies, it"s the expected reaction."
  
  "... Are you sure you just didn"t drain his-"
  
  "There wasn"t any draining!"
  
  "Yeah, sure. I believe you. I mean, there"s no way the overly enthusiastic Tsuka, who doesn"t realize people haven"t been going to the gym their whole lives and regularly trains with pro boxers, wouldn"t know Hiro"s limits."
  
  Right. And now I am blushing.
  
  "It didn"t take him long enough to get that tired."
  
  "Alas, poor Hiro. At least he died with a smile on his face."
  
  "He isn"t dead."
  
  "Really? Quick! Call an ambulance! There may still be a chance!"
  
  "Miki, I"m about to get mad."
  
  "You"re so sexy when you"re angry."
  
  And I laugh. I don"t snort, I just laugh, and this time I don"t need to wipe my nose.
  
  "Thank you," I finally say after too long. After laughing till my belly aches and I no longer feel like I"m holding something back, something far too bitter to swallow.
  
  "Hey, what are friends for?" she says with that soft almost whisper she uses on the rare occasions when she isn"t even thinking about joking.
  
  "I don"t know, Miki. I think you"re far more than just a friend."
  
  We both remain silent for a while, just listening to the other breathing, knowing there"s someone on the other side of the phone that will always be there, no matter what.
  
  Knowing I may not love Hiro, that my first time will forever be not what I hoped it would be, but... That I"m still blessed. That I still have something precious most people won"t ever know exists.
  
  "Love you too, Tsuka," she finally says.
  
  And...
  
  "Yes. Yes, I do."
  
  I smile.
  
  And my chest hurts, and my nose stings just a bit, and there"s an itchy line on my back that tells me letting myself drag my body down a wall while naked wasn"t my best idea tonight, but...
  
  There"s also this warmth, this tender thing, this precious feeling...
  
  "Now let me go back to sleep. Or give me the goddamn address so I can come pick you up."
  
  I don"t laugh. I just smile.
  
  "Thank you, Miki."
  
  She pauses.
  
  "Anytime," she finally says, almost a mumble.
  
  And I hang up on my best friend and go back to a bed that has what in a few days will be my ex-boyfriend.
  
  
  
  
  
  =============
  =============
  Sorry about the delay. Ugh. This whole week. Well, here's the chapter, I hope you all enjoyed it as much as Hiro did--too soon? Right. Too soon.
  As usual, the next one's already on my Patreon for my supporters, who may start to hate me if I keep throwing tragic shit at them.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 30
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  Agrippa
  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 30
  
  As sacrilegious as it is to even consider it, I must admit there"s something about anime that irks me to no end. An irreconcilable difference with my worldview that feels utterly bewildering, seeing as said worldview can be essentially summed up as "I read this in Shounen Jump, so I love it, and this other thing sounds like work, so I hate it." It strains my psyche to try and reconcile this single facet of otaku culture passed down through the generations with my actual experience.
  
  That is, anime says it"s bad to talk about someone behind their backs.
  
  Preposterous, right?
  
  I mean, it"s like some kind of conspiracy. A single comment taken out of context will inevitably be heard by the person in question at just the precise moment to cause the most drama per syllable. Confiding with your best friend about your relationship woes? Suddenly pegged as a cheating asshole. Pondering how to make sure that your comrade survives long enough to get an overdue power-up? The moron will throw himself into a suicidal charge to prove his strength next chance he gets. Talking about the harem as a whole? Main girl will feel she has a moral obligation to cede her position to worst girl-who may actually not be that bad, seeing as she doesn"t have a martyr complex to delicately handle with kid"s gloves.
  
  Yes, I"m still proud to be a hypocrite. Why do you ask?
  
  Moving on, if we are to believe the teachings of anime, and especially rom-com, one must never, ever, speak about someone they believe not to be in hearing range. Which is outrageous, because how else is someone going to let out the unhealthy amounts of vitriol that get accumulated through regular human interactions? By not being the kind of person who keeps holding grudges and thinking the worst of others in the first place? Preposterous! May as well aim straight for Nirvana and skip the whole hassle.
  
  I mean, this is healthy, right? Saying out loud the things you cannot tell the other person face to face (if even for the slightly selfish reason of preferring one"s face remains unbroken) is a pillar of society! How else would wage-slaves survive through the day if they weren"t allowed to collectively plan how to best eradicate their boss"s soul from the cycle of reincarnation? By exerting their collective power to make reasonable demands to improve the workplace? Come on, have you actually read any manga? We aspire to working conditions that lesser cultures would deem crimes against humanity.
  
  I blame the shounen "go beyond your limits" bullshit. Honestly.
  
  Yes, truly, my arguments are unassailable. Anime, as much as it pains me to say so, is wrong, and I"m right.
  
  "I"m freaking out, Senpai," Iroha"s latest text blinks on my screen.
  
  "Unlike I, a pillar of serenity only people who eat things that would make goats barf and live on mountaintops can aspire to," I send her back in this latest round of definitely not talking about Shizu and Haruno.
  
  "I"m pretty sure I can still make you freak out, Senpai."
  
  "You overestimate your power, apprentice. Go bother some grasshoppers for a while, or punch a wall. One of those should grant you inner peace."
  
  There"s a couple of moments of radio silence that I use to stretch out on my bed and try not to think about how I never get up this early on a Saturday.
  
  Though, technically, it"s arguable whether I actually am getting up after the night I"ve had...
  
  Oh, new message from my fellow freak-outer.
  
  It"s an image.
  
  Of a pregnancy test.
  
  ...
  
  "What the fuck?!" I yell into my phone as soon as Iroha picks up.
  
  "Told you," she singsongs.
  
  "We did it once-well, we did it a single day! You said you were on the pill! I can"t be a father yet; Komachi would kill me!"
  
  "... Nice to see you"ve got your priorities straight, Senpai."
  
  "And-and I don"t even-do I get a loan? Do I start working? Can we live at Shizu"s or would she freak out too? No, no, she probably would let at least you stay, I"m the one who messed up, but I don"t know what kind of job I can get right now that would let you have the baby and still go to college, because you aren"t dropping out, not because of me, and oh gods, can we get married already? I"m not having our son be a bastard-"
  
  "Senpai... That"s the first result on Google when you look for a positive pregnancy test."
  
  "What?"
  
  "A joke, Hachi. A. Joke."
  
  "So you aren"t pregnant?"
  
  She sighs. Loudly.
  
  "If I tell you you just made me want to have your babies even more, does that make this whole thing worse or better?"
  
  "What."
  
  "Your... your first reaction-after thinking about your sister, which we may have to talk about at some point-was to ask me to marry you."
  
  I lean back on my bed until I rest my head on my pillow, my heart still thundering in my chest, but at least my breathing is somewhat normal. You know, for a steam locomotive.
  
  "I... isn"t that normal? Expected?"
  
  "You wanted to get a job, Senpai."
  
  "Oh gods, I did..."
  
  "... I don"t know whether to get mad that you think that"s more intimidating than getting married or giddy that I actually know you this well."
  
  I take a deep breath before I manage to think how to answer.
  
  "You"ll never joke about being pregnant. Ever again."
  
  There"s a silence on the other end of the phone. When it stops, Iroha sounds as shy as I"ve ever heard her be.
  
  "I..." she pauses, and I can picture her face settling in determination. "I accept, Senpai. Hachi."
  
  "You... accept?"
  
  "I"ll marry you."
  
  ...
  
  "Are you trying to give me a heart attack, woman?!"
  
  "I mean, it would be romantic-"
  
  "No! Dying because of a phone call is not romantic! It"s just plain moronic! The traffic police keep saying so!"
  
  She laughs, and I can"t keep the wry grin off my face.
  
  "Seriously, though, I"ll be legal to marry in-"
  
  "Iroha, as much as I love you, could we agree to only have one life-changing conversation per day? Pretty please? Haruno already scheduled for today"s slot."
  
  "Fiiiiine. But I"m telling Shizu you proposed to me first."
  
  "... I don"t even know how to address this."
  
  "With a ring?"
  
  "... I"m going to hang up."
  
  "Ah, so typical. As soon as you think you"ve got me in the bag-"
  
  I hang up.
  
  "This will come back to bite you."
  
  I"m about to rename you to Stating the Obvious-chan.
  
  "Fine, but I"ll rename you to "Not Even Noticing the Obvious-kun."
  
  ... Fair enough.
  
  Also, do you think we could go back to sleep for at least a little bit before the whole-
  
  New message.
  
  Of course.
  
  "Senpai, on second thought, I think I must refuse your proposal. Do you really think I"ll be okay with marrying you just because I love you so much I can"t even begin to think about what my life would be like if you left? That you"ve changed me, turned me into a different woman from the girl you first met? That taking my first time and holding me in your arms until I fell asleep, incredulous that I could do so with the way my heart kept beating in utter joy, would be enough to sway me? I"m sorry, but that"s impossible, Senpai. I won"t accept your proposal. Not until you bend the knee and look me in the eye."
  
  ...
  
  "Your smile looks ridiculous."
  
  Probably.
  
  "... I"ll try to come up with a way to have a multiple wedding."
  
  Thank you, Brain-chan.
  
  ***
  
  Shizu"s Side: First Mistake
  
  "Really? Takeda?" I ask Miki.
  
  "Hey! The poor guy just asked; no need to act like you stepped on something best left unidentified."
  
  With a slow, deliberate gesture, I lower my hand and leave the piece of dried squid on its plate.
  
  "What?" she has the gall to ask, still munching on her roasted green peas.
  
  She kinda looks like a hamster, with her cheeks bulging all cute like-never mind.
  
  "I was eating."
  
  She raises an eyebrow.
  
  "No. You were adding some solid to your liquid diet," she says, pointing at my beer.
  
  And at the three empty bottles beside it.
  
  ... The waiter isn"t being as diligent as he should be while serving two young, stunning ladies, if I say so.
  
  "Same difference. You don"t want me to barf my beer before it"s gotten a chance to make me want to barf."
  
  She stops munching her peas and glares at me.
  
  "I"m eating," she protests.
  
  I beam at her.
  
  And she throws another balled-up napkin at me.
  
  Which may account for the waiter mostly leaving us alone when we aren"t demanding a refill.
  
  ***
  
  I"m very drunk.
  
  Miki isn"t much better, though we boldly advance through the darkness of Chiba Port Park with our arms around each other"s shoulders, boldly defying whatever adversity may come. We will defeat it with the power of friendship!
  
  And being a boxer and a Sports Science student, respectively.
  
  But! Power of friendship!
  
  "Stop yelling, you shounen-obsessed moron," Miki hisses at me.
  
  I turn to the side, and her red face is right in front of mine.
  
  Well, not really. She"s a bit below mine.
  
  Fine, she"s almost at the level of my breasts, and she may be straining her neck in her attempt to glare me up, but that"s an awful description. It"s much better if we can glare at each other without any height disparity like equals-no, wait! Goku and Vegeta!
  
  "You"re very good at the whole "surly eternal rival who"s actually the eternal best friend,"" I tell her, satisfied that she even has the distinctive hairstyle needed for a proper character. I mean, it"s mostly her old bob, but she"s let the back grow out, and now it"s a bob with a braid.
  
  I don"t know why she keeps wearing it like that when it makes it so much easier for me to grab her by it.
  
  "This is another dumb shounen thing, isn"t it? It is always another dumb, shounen thing."
  
  "Oh, come on! Rival characters are a classic, you can"t tell me you don"t like Ranma and Ryouga-"
  
  "Aren"t those two... boyfriend and girlfriend?"
  
  "Well, yeah. In my head."
  
  "What."
  
  I look at her uncomprehendingly for a moment.
  
  "You... haven"t watched Ranma?"
  
  "I mean, it"s not a sports manga."
  
  I groan.
  
  "Miki... It"s a classic! One of the foundations of martial arts and rom-com manga! It invented and classified more tropes than I can list off-hand!"
  
  "Martial arts and rom-com?" That sounds violent."
  
  "Oh, you have no idea..."
  
  She looks at me in that weird way she sometimes does when I"m thinking about something she doesn"t know too much about. Which means mostly manga.
  
  And boxing.
  
  And... No, I guess that"s about it.
  
  But really! She should already be an expert on those two things, given how much I"ve told her about them! Well, time for Hiratsuka-sensei to give her another lesson.
  
  "Right, you see, Ranma"s cursed to turn a girl when wet with cold water, and he goes back to being a man with hot water. Ryouga"s this guy who used to go to school with him, but Ranma left on a training trip to China, and Ryouga followed him there to settle a duel they had, and there"s where Ranma got cursed, but he accidentally cursed Ryouga too."
  
  "Wait, so the two of them turn into girls? That... seems interesting."
  
  "Oh, no, he turns into the cutest little piglet, and that leads to all sorts of misunderstandings when Ranma"s fiancée adopts him as a pet without knowing he"s a guy."
  
  "Ranma has a fiancée? Then why do you say he and Ryouga-"
  
  "Ranma has multiple fiancées. His father was a scumbag-it"s a whole thing. But! The thing is that there"s a lot of magic in the setting, and the love rivals keep coming up with love potions and the like that always misfire, and never work properly-until Ryouga accidentally uses one on Ranma! Who goes utterly ballistic trying to bed him, and switches to his girl form when Ryouga rejects him, and even plans to let him ravage her after teasing him, and they have this antagonistic chemistry that no other character has, and, and... Why are you looking at me like that?"
  
  We have, for reasons that obviously have nothing to do with our current level of intoxication, wandered off the paved path and ended up beneath the trees of the park. The streetlamps barely reach us, and the shadows cast by the sparse canopy play over Miki"s face as she stares up at me, her lips barely open-
  
  "Have I ever told you how you look when you get so enthusiastic about a silly, stupid manga about transgender martial artists with a rape fetish?"
  
  "I... Don"t think the subject has come up before?"
  
  "Beautiful."
  
  "Wha-"
  
  Miki gets on her tiptoes, her eyes lidded and her head tilted.
  
  The world slows down, and it"s not just because of the alcohol.
  
  Her chest presses against mine, her heat reassuring in the night"s chill, her hands on my shoulders.
  
  And this is Miki. Miki, who always jokes about sexually harassing me, makes inappropriate comments about my breasts, who"s... Always been there.
  
  Miki, who set me up with my first boyfriend and listened as I freaked out after my first time.
  
  Miki, who I love more than anyone else aside from Mom and Dad.
  
  She"s wearing lip gloss. It barely has any color; it"s just enough to make her lips shine in this light.
  
  She"s drunk.
  
  I am drunk.
  
  We... Girls sometimes fool around, don"t they?
  
  Her lips reach mine, and something sparks up my spine.
  
  My arms surround her waist as I push her up and against me, as I tilt my head down to feel her more fully, to-
  
  We stumble, and I end up trapping her between my body and a tree.
  
  My eyes drift closed as we move our heads together in a slow, languid motion. My hands travel up her back, and I cradle her neck as I tilt her head back and my mouth opens.
  
  So does hers.
  
  She tastes like beer and snacks. Like I taste.
  
  There"s also a hint of... cherry lip gloss.
  
  I lick her lips, moistening them as she moans into my mouth, and our tongues meet for the first time. My mind goes blank, and I know it has very little to do with the alcohol, that this is just the effect Miki has on me now that we have finally done...
  
  Something.
  
  What are we doing?
  
  Miki"s hand travels up the front of my body, up my white button-up shirt, and finally gropes those breasts she"s always going on about, and she squeezes them just right. Not roughly like Hiro did, not too gently like Ken would have. No, she"s possessive about them as she applies just enough pressure that my breath catches on my throat, and I bite down on her lip as gently as I can while my eyelids flutter, and my other hand dips from her back to that spectacular ass she has, briefly groping the firm globes before I raise her skirt and go back to doing it without too stiff clothing disguising the warm flesh.
  
  I"m moaning into my best friend"s mouth, and she"s doing the same.
  
  Then I shift, my leg going between hers, and I feel something warm press into the front of my thigh, and Miki gasps and-
  
  "Sorry!" I say, leaning back even as my body screams at me not to do so, even as I still feel her lips pressed to mine, the ghost of her hand fondling my chest, the faint taste of cherry lip gloss-
  
  "What?" She blinks up at me, something like a haze clinging to her eyes.
  
  "Sorry, I-I got carried away."
  
  She blinks again.
  
  Then laughs.
  
  Miki has always been boisterous, unreserved. Her laugh is the kind that gets some nasty glances from time to time, because she"s never cared too much about regulating the volume.
  
  This time... It"s loud, yes.
  
  But...
  
  "Hey, don"t worry, Tsuka. We are drunk. These things happen. At least I finally got acquainted with the twins, right?"
  
  She"s smiling. Broadly. Cheerfully.
  
  And I wish I was sober enough to know why it does feel so wrong.
  
  ***
  
  My head"s killing me.
  
  "Drink plenty of water before going to bed," they said. "Get enough sleep, and it shouldn"t be a problem," they said. "You"ll wish you would die, or, at least, that everybody who wants to get an early start on a Sunday would-preferably quietly," they didn"t say, but most likely were thinking it.
  
  With a groan and a muttered litany of curses directed at Ms. Honda and her obsession with radio exercises (and refusal to get a hearing aid), I get off my bed and drag myself to the bathroom.
  
  Well, my old bed. And my parent"s bathroom.
  
  It"s so weird not living with them anymore...
  
  Mostly, because my room is still my room, and everything"s precisely the same, except for the little things that aren"t, such as the toothpaste brand, as I never realized Mom still bought the same orange-flavored one from when I was a little kid just for me, and-
  
  I"m rambling. Internally rambling.
  
  This can"t be healthy.
  
  Still, I think I could get used to this minty thing that...
  
  Ugh. Not my thing. Still, if I could get used to beer-
  
  Beer. Miki.
  
  Fuck.
  
  I wash my face with cold water until my skin reddens, and I feel halfway alert. Right, I need to deal with this.
  
  Whatever "this" is.
  
  Thoughts racing through my head, I walk down the stairs, and-
  
  Dad"s cooking me breakfast.
  
  "Hey! How"s my little champ doing!" he yells as obnoxiously as he can.
  
  Because he knows I went drinking last night.
  
  Jerk.
  
  "You can"t do anything to me that Ms. Honda hasn"t already done-fried eggs? Really?"
  
  "You need the proteins!"
  
  I glare at him.
  
  He chuckles.
  
  And I sigh.
  
  I swear, he"s the most infuriating man in the world.
  
  I sit down at the kitchen table just in time for him to hand me a plate with toast, bacon, and eggs.
  
  ... What happened to miso soup? Is something light and nutritious no longer allowed?
  
  He also gives me a glass of orange juice.
  
  Freshly squeezed.
  
  ... Fine. I love him to pieces.
  
  He still pisses me off.
  
  I take a sip of the juice, which does weird things to my tongue and the aftertaste of the toothpaste, but I manage to get rid of the sensation after the second sip, and my stomach starts settling.
  
  Maybe enough for a bit of bacon.
  
  Though I should probably start with the toast.
  
  "What"s the matter?" he says from the other side of the table.
  
  "Uh? What do you mean?"
  
  He raises an unimpressed eyebrow.
  
  "Shizu, you"re eating your breakfast properly rather than complain about me being whatever it is you"d want to complain about while hungover. Spill it."
  
  I look at him with all the sad puppy eyes I can muster.
  
  "Do I have to?"
  
  He claps a broad hand on top of my head and ruffles my hair.
  
  "Only if it makes you extremely uncomfortable and, or, embarrassed," he says with a grin.
  
  And I kick his chin from beneath the table.
  
  His smile twitches for a moment, but he struggles to keep the damn, infuriating smile in place.
  
  Stupid martial artists and their stupid tolerance to pain...
  
  "Fine," I grumble.
  
  He takes the hand back and looks at me expectantly.
  
  And keeps looking.
  
  And looking.
  
  And-
  
  "Miki kissed me!" I finally blurt out.
  
  "What?! Like, on the cheek or-"
  
  "Lips! And tongue! Far too much tongue!"
  
  "I"m not equipped to have this conversation-"
  
  "And, and-I don"t even know what it means! Because she said we were drunk, but she had this weird smile, and I think she was hurt, but I apologized for groping her butt and pushing against her-"
  
  "I"m definitely not equipped to have this conversation!"
  
  "But maybe she thought I didn"t like it! And I don"t even know! Because I liked it! But she"s Miki, and I don"t want to screw things up, and I didn"t even think I liked girls, so maybe it"s just her, or maybe we were drunk, and it would be better to pretend nothing happened, and-"
  
  "Your mother is going to owe me big for dealing with this-"
  
  "And she was the one who kissed me, and groped my boobs, and-"
  
  "I can"t do this while sober-"
  
  "And I don"t want to lose my best friend!"
  
  And I start crying.
  
  Dad runs around the table and hugs me to his chest, and I keep hiccupping as I feel so much anxiety and fear running through my veins that I start to shake, and I keep thinking about Miki always being there for me and maybe suddenly not. Maybe being disgusted with me for taking things too far, or being sad that I rejected her when I didn"t mean to, or maybe throwing up when she realizes she kissed a girl when she"s never told me she liked them, and-
  
  Dad"s patting my back. Caressing my hair.
  
  "You won"t lose her. Not for this. The two of you are basically sisters, Shizu. It"s gonna be all right."
  
  "But... But sisters don"t kiss."
  
  "If your manga has taught me anything-"
  
  I poke him right beneath his ribs, and he yelps.
  
  "Not. The time."
  
  "Sorry, sorry..."
  
  I let him hug me and cradle me to his chest, his broad hand drawing calming circles on my back.
  
  "You really think it"s gonna be all right?" I mutter without leaning away from his (slightly wet) shirt.
  
  "I... I can"t promise, Shizu. People... Have I ever told you about Mike?"
  
  "No?"
  
  "Right. He"s an old friend of mine. We used to be inseparable, but... one day we just drifted off. We barely keep in touch nowadays."
  
  "Just like that? For no reason?"
  
  "Well... There"s the thing about how he used to date your mother..."
  
  And now I lean back.
  
  And glare up at him.
  
  He has the gall to nervously rub the back of his neck.
  
  "You stole your friend"s girlfriend, and you still keep in touch?"
  
  "Well, he, I... we kinda used to also date?"
  
  ...
  
  "I can"t have this conversation while sober."
  
  "That"s what I said!" he cheerfully exclaims, daring to even pretend he sympathizes.
  
  So I kick his shin again.
  
  "What the Hell, dad? Were you three... at the same time?!"
  
  "I mean, your mother is very-"
  
  Kick. Kick. Kick. Spin dash.
  
  Ah, wait, that last one isn"t real.
  
  "Look, the point is," he says through gritted teeth, "that relationships are complicated, especially when you mix friendship and sex and whatever else you can throw in. And sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don"t, but... there"s a chance. Just make sure you know what you want before you talk to her, because you can both hurt each other a lot if you aren"t clear on things. If you want a friendship and try for romance... it won"t end well, Shizu. So, think about that kiss, about what you felt when Miki-ugh, can"t believe I"m even saying this-when Miki groped you. Were you... Is that what you want? Not in general, but with her?"
  
  I think about it. About Miki"s taste, about her touch, about...
  
  About Miki.
  
  Who"s always been there.
  
  And it terrifies me that someday she may not be, but...
  
  But if there was a chance she would? Not only like she"s been up to now, but.. but in the way... In...
  
  Soft, braided hair held between my fingers as I take her lips, delicate sighs that turn to moans, her body pressed against mine...
  
  Fuck. I"m blushing.
  
  "I... I think I want to try," I finally admit.
  
  Dad looks down at me, a sad smile on his face and something that feels like pride in his eyes.
  
  "Well, if you"re at all like your mother, Miki"s going to enjoy-"
  
  "What the Hell are you telling our daughter, dear?"
  
  His hands go rigid on my back, and Dad"s face pales before he turns around.
  
  And, knowing the two of them far too well, I grab my breakfast and run for cover.
  
  ***
  
  I"m about to throw up.
  
  I... I"m early. Far too early. We agreed to meet twenty minutes from now.
  
  Just through text. Said there was something I needed to tell her, that I wanted to do it in person.
  
  I didn"t have the nerve to call her, and I"m still beating myself up over it.
  
  Because... Because I really want to look her in the eyes before I commit, before I tell Miki I think I"ve been in love with her for years, and I never quite realized how much she means to me, but if she"s willing to try, we could-
  
  "Tsuka!" a cheerful voice calls out to me from behind, and I turn around to-
  
  She... isn"t alone.
  
  She"s here with Takeda.
  
  "Man, I"m so glad you agreed to meet up! This guy here"s been talking my ear off about how much he would like to get to know you," she continues, still her bubbly, energetic self.
  
  Takeda looks bashful. He"s obviously made an effort: he"s wearing a nice button-up shirt and slacks rather than his usual cringey shirts with moe trash and jeans. He"s shaved, pulled his hair into a ponytail.
  
  He cleans up nicely.
  
  And Miki keeps talking enthusiastically, doing her best to lighten the mood and play matchmaker.
  
  And she doesn"t meet my eyes once until the moment she leaves.
  
  
  
  
  ========================
  ========================
  See? Not everything is about shitty boyfriends! Yay! Variety!
  
  ...
  
  Yeah, I also felt like somebody is using my heart as a speedball. I promise it ends in the (already on Patreon) next chapter--which accounts for part of the delay this week, because, gods, was this thing hard to write.
  
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  Threadmarks: All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 31
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  Agrippa
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  All Right! Fine! I Will Take You! - Chapter 31
  
  Westerners have a saying-or is that a proverb? Maybe a song? Meh, who cares. Anyway, the important thing is that some Westerner, at one point or another, said that one is the loneliest number.
  
  Which is stupid.
  
  Aside from the fact that numbers aren"t able to feel loneliness, what about Zero? Isn"t that, by definition, far lonelier than one? He even ended up committing a very convoluted form of suicide involving his best friend-slash-slash partner, you know?
  
  But, still, there"s a kernel of truth in the saying (or proverb, whatever). It"s, by definition, a loner"s natural state to be by themselves. To be one-and not even among many. And that brings us to the most misunderstood and tragic figure in otaku culture: the Demon Lord.
  
  Because we all know the drill. We can easily picture a scene repeated over and over through the multiverse as the plucky band of heroes reaffirms their bonds right before confronting someone who, at the start of the story, had literal legions beneath them. Had loyal lieutenants, subordinates.
  
  And all of them have been massacred one by one or, in some cases, convinced through violent psychotherapy to switch sides.
  
  That is the truth of the Demon Lord: someone who amassed followers, only for them to be taken away. Someone who never enjoyed true loyalty and warmth, because the most interesting characters beneath them will inevitably betray them.
  
  The Demon Lord is alone, and the supposed heroes are a bunch of assholes who will gleefully rub in their face that they do enjoy comradery, friendship, and even romance (or something spicier, depending on the genre). They are also likely to go off on a speech about how they will prevail through the power of friendship, basically bullying the poor guy and inflicting extra mental damage just because they can.
  
  Bonus points if they declare they will punish them by the Power of the Moon. At that point, the sadism isn"t even disguised.
  
  "Senpai!" someone whose sadism was never disguised yells from behind me.
  
  I turn around on the almost empty sidewalk of the street leading to Shizu"s apartment and see an exhausted Iroha carrying what looks to be half a convenience store"s worth of snacks and drinks.
  
  ...
  
  I wonder if this would be an acceptable time to make an exception to our little tradition?
  
  The swift glare that answers my unstated thought quickly disabuses me of that notion. How silly of me to think my occasional kindness was under my control and not something that would be taken for granted once offered.
  
  With a very visible sigh that only makes her scoff rather than shrink in very deserved shame, guilt, and other things I would rather Iroha not felt in the middle of the street, because I"m afraid of her reaction and the likely police charges for public indecency, I approach her and her very loaded bags.
  
  This serves a dual purpose: it reinforces our already established dynamic, signaling to the audience that the basis of our relationship remains untouched despite all the changes we both have gone through over the past few days, and shows the results of my training arc when I don"t topple over after grabbing something that could"ve saved a small village from starving through the winter.
  
  I"m sorry, Villager-san. Apparently, the future is not only far more comfortable than the past, but also relentlessly mocks your senseless sacrifice. It"s almost like the future is a CEO.
  
  "Good morning?" Iroha says with a hesitation that...
  
  Oh. Right.
  
  I haven"t greeted her yet.
  
  "Good morning, sweetheart."
  
  And now she"s flushing and stammering. Uh. Women.
  
  "Never, ever, say that out loud."
  
  Gee, Brain-chan, you don"t need to get so touchy. Is this your time of the month?
  
  "... I give up. Self-Preservation-kun is never coming back."
  
  "What did you just call me?" Iroha says, her tone tremulous.
  
  "Sweetheart? Would you prefer honey? Sweetie? Dear? Bae? I mean, you keep using "Senpai," like it should require a firearms license, it"s only fair that-"
  
  Apparently, Iroha doesn"t care about fairness.
  
  Which isn"t much of a surprise, all things considered, but I certainly never expected that to result in her shoving her tongue down my throat just to silence me.
  
  Which... Still a better way than what Komachi will likely do to silence me after today"s over.
  
  Note to self: hide the kitchen knives.
  
  Other note to self: these bags are too heavy for me to do anything other than stand here and take it. Which may denote a certain degree of premeditation on Iroha"s part.
  
  As expected, the foxy, cunning junior is too foxy and cunning.
  
  And sly.
  
  And looked far too good in her kunoichi cosplay.
  
  And I shouldn"t be getting a raging erection in the middle of the street, much less when both my hands are too busy to be shoved down the pockets of my pants to properly assume Standard Adolescent Male Gait number Two.
  
  She"s learned the secret behind my technique and designed an inescapable counter! I"ve finally got proof that she"s actually a kunoichi!
  
  From now on, I shall carefully monitor my ceiling before I try to masturbate.
  
  "There!" she finally exclaims as she drops down from her liplock. "And don"t ever call me any of those stupid things ever again."
  
  "So... I should call you the non-stupid things?" I answer, my breath not at all disturbed by having had my throat blocked for the past while.
  
  And my cheeks aren"t burning while I keep a stoic, deadpan glare on my face.
  
  Not at all.
  
  Kyaaaa.
  
  Iroha arches an eyebrow, the light, pink dusting across her nose catching my eye before she smirks.
  
  "Obviously," she says.
  
  And then steps around me and starts walking the last few blocks still keeping us away from Shizu"s apartment, her hips swaying with every step in a way that makes her skirt fly from side to side, twisting around smooth thighs that peek right above black stockings...
  
  Oh dear Heavens, she"s doing that on purpose.
  
  "... Are you having a stroke? Of course she"s doing that on purpose: kunoichi training includes seduction tactics."
  
  ... Once again, I find your logic unassailable, Brain-chan.
  
  "Of course you do. Now allow your male instincts to drag you behind that pert ass and follow her to wherever she wants you to follow."
  
  You know you"re making this sound a lot more pleasant than what is likely to happen, don"t you?
  
  "... Yeah. Come on, you"ve got a lonely Demon Lord to slay."
  
  Right. By the power of friendship.
  
  ***
  
  Shizu"s Side:
  
  Takeda, to no one"s surprise, doesn"t work out.
  
  Miki"s there to console me after the breakup, but if she realizes why I"m really crying when the night"s over, she doesn"t give any indication.
  
  Then comes Honda. Nice guy. Fit, smart. Handsome.
  
  Or so the other three girls he was stringing along must have thought.
  
  I don"t call Miki that time. Because the last thing I want, need, is to see her pitying face when... when we could"ve...
  
  We could"ve at least tried.
  
  What was the point? Was it to preserve our friendship? To pretend we both were normal?
  
  We weren"t. I never was. Never will.
  
  I"ll always be...
  
  By the time Hisao comes around, there"s a bit of a joke running around our circle of friends. A joke about how much of a joke my romantic life actually is.
  
  So I try to put in the effort, to be a good girlfriend, do the things expected of me.
  
  He drops me because I"m too clingy.
  
  And the joke grows.
  
  It could be worse. They could be saying I am a loose woman, throwing myself at the first guy who says something vaguely kind to me. Almost as if I was desperately trying to find someone who allows me to be in the same room as my best friend without feeling this aching void in the middle of my chest, someone who will let me feel the warmth I used to take for granted, because I didn"t know what it meant, and now it"s too late, because it"s been spoiled, and I-
  
  Kagome is the first to marry.
  
  I spend most of the wedding trying not to call her husband Inuyasha.
  
  Then the alcohol starts flowing, and I fail. At least thrice.
  
  He keeps staring at me with that dumb look on his face that makes me wonder how on Earth this guy doesn"t get the reference, but Kagome"s shitty taste in men is not my problem.
  
  No. Mine is a slightly more pressing issue.
  
  Hideo steals from me after being to my apartment a grand total of three times.
  
  He begs me to take him back, and I get detained at the police station the whole night.
  
  "Tsuka? Are you all right?" Miki"s the one who picks me up. Because I was drunk, and sad, and angry, and I didn"t want Mom or Dad to see me like this... and a weak part of me wanted Miki to. To have her see me at my lowest. To see what her kindness, or her cowardice, has done to me.
  
  She looks worried, anxious.
  
  And hesitates to hug me when the police officer lets me out.
  
  "Yes. I already sobered up," I tell her, a strained smile on my face. And my eyes don"t stray to her arms rising just a tiny bit before dropping down, that hug of hers dying before it ever reached me.
  
  She rummages through her handbag and pulls out a pack of Band-Aids with-
  
  "Are those... are those Precure Band-Aids?"
  
  "Shut up. Give me your hands."
  
  I do on reflex, and she takes them gently before realizing she hadn"t actually pulled the bandages out of the package, so she awkwardly does so with one hand and pulls off the protective paper with her teeth before carefully pulling them across my scrapped knuckles.
  
  At least I remembered not to punch his skull. Breaking my hands would"ve been a shitty way to end the week.
  
  Miki keeps staring at my hands now that she"s holding them between two of hers.
  
  I"m aware of the police station just a few paces behind me. Of the likely gazes thrown my way.
  
  And I"m far more aware of my best friend touching me for far longer than she"s done since we got drunk more than two years ago, so the disapproving police officer doesn"t even rate.
  
  "Miki..." I start to say, without even knowing how the line will end.
  
  "I"m going out with Maeda," she says, still looking at my hands in hers. Still not looking at my eyes.
  
  I"m quite used to getting punched in the gut, so I don"t react.
  
  "He"s a nice guy," I finally say.
  
  "He is," she agrees.
  
  And, two years later, I"m at their wedding, getting teased by Sakura, Hitomi, and Himawari at being single at the event.
  
  I smile and laugh along with them, and I even manage not to punch their noses flat.
  
  Miki looks radiant.
  
  Happy.
  
  And I wish her all the best.
  
  But not where I can see her.
  
  ***
  
  Japanese.
  
  They got me to teach Japanese.
  
  I"m wearing a lab coat, you morons! What do you think I actually specialize in?!
  
  Deep breaths, Shizuka, deep breaths. This is just another hurdle to overcome on your way to being a self-sufficient, adult woman who has no prospects of ever becoming a housewife.
  
  ... That sounded a bit more motivational and far less depressing before I actually finished the thought.
  
  Right. Head held high. The damn brats smell fear, so just stroll in, flash them a winning grin, and start doing what I"m about to be licensed to do by an educational system that obviously didn"t look too closely before promising me my degree and the power to mold the future minds of this country.
  
  ... We are all doomed.
  
  ***
  
  "You don"t want to do this, Sayuri," I tell the damn brat surly sitting on the floor.
  
  "What do you care? You"re just here for a few months, then off you go," she answers. Which is a weird thing for a teenage girl to say, because this is about her, not me. And her future doesn"t depend on how long I"ll stay in this school, finishing the required student teaching part of my degree.
  
  So... Abandonment issues.
  
  Yeah. It"s not like I have any experience with those, is it?
  
  I sit down beside her, my back against the wall in the kind of posture I haven"t... How long has it been since I was a surly teenager myself?
  
  ... Let"s shelve that question for later.
  
  "Look, I won"t tell you you can"t drop out, because you obviously can. I won"t tell you you can"t make a living without graduating, because that"s also not true. But I can tell you you don"t want to make a life-changing decision for something that will pass on its own."
  
  "I-" she starts to retort. And then realizes she doesn"t know how.
  
  This is the girl who had nearly perfect scores on all her compositions.
  
  "Boys are stupid at this age. Guess what? So are girls. So are you. Because you"re damn smart, you"ve got a way with words that most people need to train for, and yet you"re about to throw it all away just because you don"t want to see his stupid face. And that"s moronic, Sayuri, and I bet you could give me about ten better synonyms for how mind-bogglingly farcical this whole thing is if your head wasn"t stuck on a breakup that will pass-"
  
  "He was my first!" she yells into my face, her cheeks red, moisture in her eyes.
  
  Then she realizes what she"s done, and starts backing away.
  
  Which is when I grab her collar and pull her to me.
  
  "And you wanted him to be your last. Because that"s the fantasy, the story all of us swallow whole about finding the right person and just fading into our own happy endings. Well, guess what, Sayuri? It doesn"t work like that. You"re young, and you"ve got years ahead of you to learn how dumb this whole thing was, and to make mistakes that will make you look on this one fondly. So be glad you didn"t get pregnant, or got an STD, or something even worse, because this? Having your heart broken? That"s the best you can get out of a relationship that just ended."
  
  She gapes at me, utterly shocked.
  
  And right as I start to panic about losing my job (and degree!) for harassing a stupid student into not dropping out, she collapses forward and cries into my chest.
  
  Hesitatingly, as carefully as maybe I should"ve approached this whole thing from the start, I place my arms around the wreck of a girl and pat her back.
  
  "Things get better, Sayuri. But only if you don"t make them worse yourself," I whisper.
  
  And I feel the stab in my chest at my own words mocking me.
  
  ***
  
  My third school.
  
  This is my third school.
  
  And they still hire me to teach Japanese.
  
  Maybe if I start wearing a hakama, they"ll switch to having me teach English? There must be a pattern in here I am not getting.
  
  Speaking of hakamas...
  
  Haruno"s latest homework sits on my desk, taunting me with a take on the first page of the newspaper that all but screams a parent having actually done it for her, because no mere sixteen-year-old uses this kind of language and has this kind of insight. Hell, I can see a few of the compositions that have been obviously done by parents hoping to give a slight boost to their children, and they don"t compare.
  
  Except... I have listened to Haruno. I"ve seen the way she speaks, and I"ve got a couple of her exams in here.
  
  The style is hers. So is the vocabulary.
  
  And the insight... No. That isn"t hers.
  
  Because she"s used to hiding it, and here she slipped.
  
  I sigh as I rub my temples.
  
  This is going to be a headache, isn"t it?
  
  ***
  
  Helping Haruno may be one of the unambiguously best things I"ve ever done.
  
  The girl still has a sharp tongue that she doesn"t care to hide anymore, but it"s honestly refreshing to go out for a drink with her now that she"s no longer my student and I can speak more freely with her.
  
  And every time she lets out a snide comment that would be perfectly innocent if one didn"t know her enough, every time she doesn"t bother hiding a wit and outlook that I had to help her dig out from behind a porcelain mask that never fit, there"s this... this burst of joy...
  
  Damn it, I"m mushy.
  
  I"m blaming it on the beer.
  
  So I toss the last bottle of it in the first trash can we pass by. Mostly because it was already empty, though. The damage has been done.
  
  And I"m ranting, because I feel comfortable with her, but also because I"ve had the brilliant idea of walking at night through Chiba Port Park, and even after all these years, my mind is desperately looking for a distraction, a way not to think about a drunken kiss with Miki that ended up with my best friend married and me being a mess.
  
  A distraction. That"s all I want.
  
  And I find it.
  
  Because Haruno"s kissing me.
  
  And her lips are tender, her tongue gentle, her scent far more subtle than it should be after having spent the night at the same smoke-filled bar I"ve gone to, and her body is as soft as I guiltily imagined after that one conversation on the rooftop, because it was wrong, so wrong of me to think about her like that back then, but now...
  
  Now she"s an adult.
  
  Like me.
  
  And there"s nothing stopping me, nothing to tell me I can"t let myself drown in the most loving kiss I"ve felt in years, nothing that stops me from enjoying something...
  
  Genuine.
  
  I place my hands on her shoulders, and, as gently as I possibly can without changing my mind, I push her away.
  
  The words come out of my mouth. I tell her about wanting a family, about wanting something I cannot have with another woman.
  
  This is what I don"t tell her:
  
  "She was my best friend, and, even if I didn"t understand it at the time, my first love. And we could"ve remained friends if we didn"t step across that line. I could still have Miki. I could still wake up in the middle of the night knowing someone would pick up the phone if I needed her to. I could still have that kind of love, even if it wasn"t the other kind.
  
  "And I am a wreck, Haruno. I am a mess, someone who can"t be trusted with your heart, not with the way you are, the way you"re still recovering from a childhood that makes me want to punch your mother"s face till my knuckles split open.
  
  "And I... I want you. I want this. I want you to want me.
  
  "But I don"t want you to resent me.
  
  "I don"t want you to look back on this day years from now and think about the teacher who took advantage of you, the one who molded you to her ideals and then dragged you down to her level. I want you to be happy. To live the life you could have without me around.
  
  "And maybe I"m being a coward. Maybe I could fight for this, but I don"t even know if I want to, because I love you, but I don"t know how, because I didn"t even think this was possible, so I...
  
  "I don"t know if I love you the way you say you love me, and it isn"t worth it to destroy you just for a maybe.
  
  "So I won"t be genuine. Because I know you. I know that if I said all of this, you"d take it as a challenge and just keep digging, and I"m afraid of what you may find at the end, so...
  
  "So I"ll lie to you. I"ll disappoint you. I"ll get you to give up on me.
  
  "It shouldn"t be hard to do."
  
  ***
  
  I bury myself in my job.
  
  I still go out with some friends from time to time, still even get Haruno to drink the occasional beer just to check on her (but never too many beers, and never where we"re alone), still keep myself busy at the boxing gym.
  
  Still go on disastrous dates.
  
  But I mostly get involved in my students" lives, try to maybe vicariously make up for my failure with Haruno.
  
  I like to think I make a difference. That all of my mistakes at least let me see them in others, that I can help. That I can be good for them.
  
  Some think I am. I get grateful letters that always warm my heart, even if the pride is mixed with that hint of shame. Shame at what I went through to learn what I needed to teach them, and shame and not being better at it, at the girl I failed who"s still my friend, even if a bit more distant now that she"s disillusioned with me.
  
  And then I read the list of students that will begin this year, and I see another Yukinoshita.
  
  "Great," I announce to my empty room, from my gray sofa chosen for its capacity to hide ash stains, "just what I needed: more trauma to deal with."
  
  ***
  
  Yukino Yukinoshita is precisely what I expected of her after getting to know her through Haruno.
  
  Because her older sister may be a lot of things, but unobservant isn"t one of them.
  
  She"s also not one to mince words.
  
  Still, the girl is not yet my problem. And, knowing her, she wouldn"t appreciate me approaching her before I have an actual excuse to do so.
  
  And so I watch. I watch as she isolates herself. I watch her classmates not do anything malicious, but also not do anything else.
  
  And I prepare for when she jumps to my year, because if there"s a thing that I owe Haruno, one that could maybe come close to making up for what I did to her, it would be healing her sister.
  
  ... Nice to know your expectations are still grounded and realistic, Shizuka.
  
  ***
  
  He"s insufferable.
  
  Worse, he"s deliberately insufferable.
  
  He knows perfectly well what he"s doing whenever he tries to pass off one of his incendiary spiels as science homework, the frustrating, malcontent, Unabomber in training son of a bitch-
  
  Right. Calm down. Deep breaths. That last one was uncalled for.
  
  He isn"t called Yukinoshita, after all.
  
  ... Wait just a second-
  
  ***
  
  All according to keikaku.
  
  No, seriously, I"m about to buy a bag of chips and eat every single one of them dramatically just to celebrate.
  
  I mean, getting the two traumatized, maladjusted, misanthropic teens in the same room and forcing them to work together just to see the sparks fly? Right, some may call me irresponsible for that one.
  
  But having the disturbingly normal and social girl join them in the start of an obvious love triangle?
  
  Come on! This is gold! This is perfect beyond not only my expectations, but my hopes and dreams-which are plentiful enough, thank you very much.
  
  Now, if forcing them to engage with their peers, relate to other students" everyday problems, and keep a grounded, Yui-shaped perspective near them at all times doesn"t manage to get those two idiots to at least learn how to fake being functional human beings, I don"t know what will.
  
  ***
  
  I"m getting too involved.
  
  He"s... He"s just so...
  
  Frustrating. Yeah, that word fits him too well in far too many ways.
  
  Because he"s smart, and witty, and observant, and he sees a world very few people see, and he reminds me too much of Haruno even if they also are completely different, and...
  
  And he"s hurt, and I keep seeing it, keep seeing that vulnerability he isn"t showing anyone else, and that"s far too dangerous, because I know I have a thing for trying to heal others, but he"s...
  
  He could grab me and drag me down, and I would never even notice, because I"d be too busy trying to heal him.
  
  Because there are wounds that I want to mend, and there are others that I need to-
  
  I wish I could talk to Haruno about this.
  
  She would understand. How could she not, when I basically did the same for her at his age? But also... she would understand.
  
  And I don"t want her to. I don"t want her to remember those days, draw parallels and connections, and finally understand what I tried to hide from her that night at Chiba Port Park.
  
  So, I"ll have to deal with Hachiman Hikigaya on my own like I did with Haruno Yukinoshita at the time.
  
  How hard could it be?
  
  ***
  
  He cries as I hug him.
  
  He cries as I try to give him the missing piece of the world he never knew he yearned for.
  
  He drenches my vest, and I smile gently down at him, even as every tear stabs through my chest.
  
  All in the name of something genuine.
  
  Sometimes I hate that word.
  
  ***
  
  A prom, of all things.
  
  They"ve managed to stage their final showdown around such a ridiculous concept, such an American thing to do, that I"m not even surprised. Hachiman and Yukino wouldn"t quietly leave this school if at all possible.
  
  Hell, I am legitimately relieved none of them have staged a terrorist attack like in that Great Teacher Onizuka episode.
  
  ...
  
  I"m a much better teacher.
  
  Also, he did karate. I could conceivably beat him.
  
  You know, in a ring, with a referee.
  
  No kicks allowed.
  
  ...
  
  Well, at the very least, I lost my virginity before he did. Hah, take that, fictional teacher against whom I"m suddenly comparing myself for absolutely no sane reason.
  
  Aside from my potentially terrorist students, I mean. Those are a very sane concern. By which I definitely don"t mean that either of them are sane, obviously.
  
  I wonder how contagious they are. Iroha seemed like a halfway normal girl until they got their hooks on her...
  
  ***
  
  I was being stupid. Silly.
  
  Just another dark joke about dying alone and unwanted. I do plenty of those. Some are even funny.
  
  So, me crying out "Take me! Take me! Take me!" should have just merited a frustrated groan, an exasperated glance, some dry humor.
  
  Not...
  
  Not...
  
  Hachiman climbs over the coffee table after having loudly banged his shin on it, and he maneuvers my body so I end up on his lap, and everything is a blur of moans, and yearning, and maybes, and would it be so bad if...
  
  Because he wants me. And I"ve always wanted to be wanted.
  
  But... It"s more than that. It"s having this infuriating man (boy!), this... this wounded, prideful, smart, funny, witty, observant...
  
  It means so much more, to be wanted by someone you want to want you.
  
  So much more when you know he"s not... not like others. When you know what he values the most, that he would never lay his lips on me if he didn"t mean it.
  
  So much more when he growls my name, when he shortens it to "Shizu," when he says "mine" in a voice that sends shivers down my spine, when his hands travel through my body, claiming it, showing me how much he desires me, how he would make his claims true as he marked me as irreversibly his...
  
  So I beg him. I beg him in interrupted pleas, in moans and sighs that barely carry syllables, let alone words, and I finally manage to beg him to stop.
  
  He does.
  
  Hurt. But not confused. Just resigned.
  
  Something inside me melts.
  
  I tell him about the nurse"s office, about privacy, and light returns to his eyes before he leaves, his erection embarrassingly (and pleasingly) obvious.
  
  And then he leaves me alone, and I"ve got every intention of following him, chasing him down, and giving him what I implicitly promised.
  
  But the minutes pass, the haze fades, and, with every step that takes me nearer to the nurse"s office, a bit of my sanity comes back.
  
  And I remember Haruno hurt beneath the lights of Chiba Port Park, imagine Hachiman looking at me like that...
  
  And, like a coward, I turn and leave.
  
  And then I get drunk and cry my heart out.
  
  And Haruno finds me.
  
  Who else would?
  
  ***
  
  I just sucked a student"s cock inside the school.
  
  And was caught by another student.
  
  ...
  
  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
  
  ***
  
  He"s infuriating, preposterous, ridiculous.
  
  And has just melted my heart.
  
  Because... He"s Hachiman. The laziest student I"ve ever met, and even worse: the kind of smart, lazy man who is just methodical enough to be able to get away with being lazy.
  
  As a teacher, I should be crying out in sheer frustration.
  
  As a woman, I feel like a hummingbird just decided to nest in my chest.
  
  Because... The laziest man I"ve ever met just decided to start exercising for my sake.
  
  And it"s...
  
  Not Ken. Not Hiro, Not Takeda. Not any of the others, who definitely were far worse than mere youthful mistakes, ever wanted to... Improve.
  
  For my sake.
  
  For me.
  
  So I get carried away, because that"s a thing I still do after all these years, and get him to my home so I can teach him how to properly exercise, and maybe I push him a bit too far, but then Haruno calls me, and he takes advantage of the moment, and I end up...
  
  Haruno just saw me get the best orgasm I"ve had in years.
  
  ...
  
  Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!
  
  And I saw her! I know what she was doing while Hachiman finger-fucked me! And she showed the both of us without