Stephen smiled and bowed to the class. "Thank you very much, class!"
"Thank you very much, Stephen-san!" the students said in unison, bowing back.
English was the last class of the day. And the first. And all the rest of Stephen's classes too. He had been a living tape recorder reciting sentences in his Australian country boy accent for a week. It wasn't quite what he thought he'd be doing with himself this year, but it certainly passed the time.
The students filed out in an orderly fashion into the crisp Japanese afternoon air. Some of the more diligent students bowed to Stephen who returned the bow. Groups of girls giggled as they filed past Stephen. He definitely heard the word 'kawaii' once or twice.
"So, Stephen-san," the teacher began. "How do you like Japan?"
"It's very nice," Stephen said. "Everyone is very polite and friendly."
His Japanese colleague suddenly winked. "The girls definitely like you."
Stephen ran his fingers through his blonde hair and chuckled dryly. "Yeah. Do they ever stop giggling, Mr Tanaka?"
"Some of them, never," Tanaka replied. "It is very strange for you, a woman who acts like a little girl, yes?"
Stephen nodded. "A bit strange. Back home we didn't even giggle that much in kindergarten."
Tanaka grinned. "So, how is Bianca-san?"
"We're just friends," Stephen said. "She's showing me around."
"Yes," Tanaka said. "But not your girlfriend?"
Stephen shook his head. "There's no chance of that happening." Not that he was about to say why.
"Oh, you doubt yourself too much, Stephen-san!" Tanaka said reassuringly. "She likes you very much!"
Stephen bowed to Tanaka. "Thank you. I will keep that all in mind."
"Yo Stevie!" Bianca shouted from outside. "Get your butt in gear, man. It's happy hour!"
Tanaka bowed back. "Good luck, Stephen-san!" He gave Stephen a thumbs up.
"As long as it's ok," Stephen said. "I don't want to impose." They'd hit the entertainment district at a fast walk, headed into the lights and the crowds. Stephen's height made him stand out in the crowd.
"You're not imposing, Stevie," Bianca said. "I give you permission to impose. Right now, you need to impose. I insist."
Stephen smirked. "OK. Where are you taking me?"
"Somewhere you can practise your Japanese with cute girls, of course. My method never fails!" Bianca smiled wickedly. She gestured to a strip club and winked. "Why don't we start in there? Erotic Japanese lessons, ooh." She waved her hands suggestively.
Bianca pointed to a sign that Stephen couldn't make sense of. He looked up at the dancers in the windows. One of them beckoned him over. "Uh, maybe not..."
"Ugh, come on," Bianca said. "They're Japanese girls. They won't bite."
Stephen winced. "Well..." He sucked in his breath. "It's not really the biting that's the problem." He suddenly felt very small.
"Huh?" Bianca nodded. "What are you saying?"
Stephen's voice lowered to a murmur. "I kind of swing the other way, you know?" He grimaced.
"Oh! You should have said something before!" She hugged him. "I had no idea! I mean.. I thought maybe but didn't want to come out and just ask because I didn't want to just presume, you know? God, I'm so sorry."
Stephen blushed. "Don't worry about it. But.. yeah.. that's how it is." He shrugged. Bianca was the first person he'd come out to since he got to Japan. Possibly ever.
She grinned and pulled out her mobile phone, standing to one side of the crowd. "OK. Let's see where we can find a place for Stephen to practise his Japanese with cute guys." She tapped at her phone's screen with her thumbs faster than Stephen could keep up.
Stephen looked over at her phone and saw she was texting someone, not searching the web. "Who are you talking to?"
"A friend," she smiled. "Someone who knows the scene around here." She put her phone away. "OK, she'll meet us there. Ikimashou, Stephen-kun!"
"What?" Stephen blinked.
"Let's go!" Bianca laughed, grabbing him by the wrist.
A short distance away in the trees of a dimly lit golf course, a tanuki concentrated with all his might. Suddenly there was a flash of bright orange energy and a ring of lightning began circling around him. He opened his eyes and raised his arms, where they became gigantic wings that flapped and swooped. He leapt into the air and sailed around in a broad arc, transforming into a mythical phoenix with flames trailing off his wings, swooping over the heads of the crowd of tanuki children watching the display. The children laughed and clapped their paws in delight as the bird whizzed back and forth over their heads, the crackle of ozone settling in the air.
"That's enough!" said an old tanuki approaching from behind then. All the tanuki children stood up obediently.
The bird landed and shook its head in offence. "I was just getting started!" it pouted.
"That's enough," the old tanuki repeated, forcefully. The bird leapt into the air, somersaulting and landing again in the form of a fat tanuki with a streak of white through its hair.
The fat tanuki cracked his back and scratched the back of his head. "I was teaching the young tanuki the eight transformations."
"Funny, all I saw was a big fat show-off!" the old tanuki said. The little ones giggled.
"Not at all!" The fat tanuki folded its arms. "Students should see how great their teacher is for their learning to be effective!" He turned to the children. "What do you say, kids?" The children nodded in agreement. "See? It inspires them to do their best!"
The old tanuki smiled grimly. "And how were you going to teach them, hm?" he said. "Show me how you were going to instruct them."
The fat tanuki unfolded his arms and nodded. "You, stand up." He pointed at a youngster somewhere in front of him. "Show me a transformation. Do your best!"
"I don't know any transformations," the youngster shrugged. "You're meant to teach me that part."
The fat tanuki nodded. "Of course. You may sit down." He cleared his throat. "Can anyone here show me a transformation?"
Their heads all shook. The old tanuki's grin broadened in the dusk.
"OK," the tanuki said. "I will teach you the first transformation." He paused. "But tomorrow. I'll teach you tomorrow. So that's all for today. Class dismissed."
The children got up and walked away with no small amount of confusion. The old tanuki stood and waited for the children to leave and cackled to himself. "You're not much older than those ones, you know. True, you have talent, but you're no master yet, and certainly not wise enough to begin teaching."
The fat tanuki scoffed. "Psh. I'll be the greatest transformation master that ever lived one day." He threw a chestnut towards his mouth.
"I don't doubt it." The chestnut was caught from the air by the old tanuki who gobbled it down. "But talent isn't everything," the old tanuki said. "I doubt you can teach any of those children much of anything right now. Of course, that's just my humble opinion."
"Huh," the fat tanuki scoffed. "That's right! It is just your opinion."
The old tanuki grinned mysteriously. "It is a shame I have taught you everything I can teach you, grandson. You have so many things left to learn." He walked away into the night. "I hope you do learn them."
The fat tanuki waited by his tree until the old tanuki was out of earshot and sniffed. "Can't be that many things, grandfather," he mumbled.
"More things than you know!" the old tanuki's voice boomed from behind the tree. The fat tanuki immediately yelped and cowered.
It was a few moments before he worked up the nerve to look around. Then he stood up and brushed the dirt from his fur. "Huh. I can throw my voice too, you know," he said, storming back to his den. "Twice as far as you, even."
Stephen noticed that the passengers around them seem to get stranger-looking the closer to their destination they got. Bianca finally yanked his wrist out of the subway car and led him up to street level again. She looked around for someone and waved. Stephen found himself face to face with the toughest-looking woman he'd ever laid eyes on, dressed in black.
"Is this him?" the woman asked. The pit of Stephen's stomach fell away in terror at the growl in her voice.
"Yes," Bianca replied.
"I'm St-," Stephen said. Their guide suddenly held up her hand to silence him.
"Stop talking," she said impatiently. Bianca and the guide exchanged a few bursts of unintelligibly fluent Japanese between them. Suddenly she looked at Stephen again. "You may speak."
Stephen squeaked and shook his head.
Cindy sneered. "Are you too afraid to speak to me, little boy?"
"Yes," Stephen replied.
"Good," Cindy smiled icily. "Come with me, everyone." She held her hands out and commandingly led them towards the sound of pounding drums.
The fat tanuki scratched the back of his ears and growled to himself. "Stupid grandfather making fun of me," he grumbled to himself.
He suddenly stopped in his tracks and sniffed the air.
"Mochi?" he said aloud. He sniffed some more and followed the sweet scent towards an empty bowl. He licked his lips and picked the bowl up. It was empty.
"Hmph! What good are you?" he said, throwing the bowl away. The bowl landed with a thump on the ground.
The fat tanuki jumped back. "What's that? Who's there?"
"It's just me, older brother!" the bowl said.
"Huh, it's you is it?" the fat tanuki said, recognising one of his younger brothers. "Did grandfather teach you the bowl transformation so you could come and trick me?"
"Yes," the bowl admitted. "I've been trying all week."
"Huh. That bowl transformation is easy. I can transform into a hundred bowls, no problem!" The fat tanuki narrowed his eyes. "Where's the mochi?"
"I ate it just before you found me."
The fat tanuki scoffed again. "Next time, leave some for your older brother!"
The bowl giggled and popped back into a tanuki shape before scampering away in a fit of giggles. The fat tanuki sat on his haunches and grumbled some more.
"Now I'm hungry."
Cindy had left after being misgendered by no less than three extremely drunk men and responding with an offended tirade that they weren't fit to lick her boots. The bartender, her friend, had asked her to leave because she was confusing his lesser able clientele. Before she'd left Cindy had warned Stephen to do his best tonight, or she would find him and make sure.
Make sure of what? Stephen wasn't sure. In his tipsiness he was somewhat curious to find out.
"Is it all just an act though?" Stephen asked. "I mean, I've never met a dominatrix before, and she's completely bloody terrifying. Are they all like that?"
"She's the best. Until she gets home, she maintains her intensity," Bianca said. "If she drops the act and one of her clients sees her being casual, it's never the same again."
"But have you ever seen her drop the act?"
"Almost, once," Bianca said. "But she said if I saw it, other people would see it in my eyes, and she could not continue after that." She held up a shot glass and downed it.
"Wow! That's dedication!" Stephen marvelled.
"I think I might even have a tiny crush on her." Bianca grinned. "Anyway, that's nothing. I have been told she will find you if you don't make the attempt to hook up with someone in the next five minutes." Bianca said.
Stephen coughed. "What? Oh, come on. That's too much pressure."
"Look, Stephen," Bianca elucidated. "You're in a foreign country, in a bar. Everyone's here for the same reason. You have permission to make an ass of yourself and strike out. You are not allowed to not try at all." She crossed her arms and affected a girly samurai voice. "Ganbatte, Stephen-san!"
"Sure," Stephen said to himself, downing another shot and clapping his hands. "Fine. You pick someone."
Bianca pointed out a tan-skinned leatherman looking tough at the bar. "How about him?"
"Ah, well, he'll turn me down, definitely," Stephen said. He got up from his chair and started sidling over.
"What are you doing?" Bianca asked. "I thought you said he'd turn you down?"
"Better to kick off with a short, sharp loss," Stephen said. "That way the evening can only get better." He wobbled over to the leather guy and sat down on the stool next to him to strike up a conversation.
Bianca folded her arms as the leather man shook his head. The two of them clinked their shot glasses and drank. The leather guy got out of his stool and wandered away.
Stephen ambled back. "I have no idea what he said."
"You didn't even try!" Bianca said. "Why didn't you squeeze his butt or something?"
"I can't just pinch a stranger on the arse!" Stephen laughed. "It'd give them the wrong impression. I'm not that kind of gay. I mean, guy."
"Scary Cindy will not stand for your excuses, Stephen," Bianca smirked.
A Spanish woman stopped by their table. "Hey," she said to Bianca. "You wanna dance?"
Bianca rolled her eyes. "Not really."
"Mind if I join you then?" the stranger asked. "You're a pretty girl."
Bianca and Stephen both shrugged and made room. The stranger signalled towards the bar for three whisky shots at their table. The bartender nodded.
"I haven't seen you here before," the stranger smiled. "I'm Cassie."
"Bianca. I'm chaperoning this little idiot."
"Oh? He needs a chaperone?" Cassie laughed.
"Well, I appreciate the moral support," Stephen nodded. "Who next?"
"What do you mean?" Cassie asked. Bianca explained the arrangement with groans and moans. Cassie smiled. "Can I pick this one?"
"I don't see why not," Stephen said before Bianca could say a word.
Cassie pointed out a cute-looking skinny guy at the bar in a top. "His name is Shiro. He likes having his earlobes sucked. Have fun."
"Sure," Stephen said, getting out of his chair and walking over.
Cassie whispered in Bianca's ear. "Shiro is like a little bunny rabbit. Your friend is as good as laid. Which leaves us..."
"Wouldn't be so sure about that, babe." Bianca watched Stephen talk to Shiro, who seemed excited at first, then a little weirded out, then more head shaking. Stephen shrugged. The two young men clinked glasses as Stephen left. Stephen's face was a baffled, wide-eyed shrug.
Stephen wobbled back to where Cassie was staring open-mouthed. "What just happened?" Cassie asked.
"He didn't like my accent," Stephen grinned. "Said it reminded him too much of Crocodile Dundee."
Cassie rolled her eyes back in her head. "Do you have a type, maybe?"
"Cuddly, cheerful and just a little bit magical," Stephen said.
Cassie smirked. "Good luck with that in a place like this."
The fat tanuki's stomach rumbled. Why did it have to be mochi? Now he couldn't stop thinking about it. His stomach went from a rumble to a growl.
"Shut up, you stupid stomach," the fat tanuki said aloud, thumping his belly and making a hollow 'pon!' sound. "I know we're hungry."
He thought to himself a moment longer.
"That's absurd! I can go buy mochi whenever I like! With red bean paste, even!"
He stood up and somersaulted into a chubby human. "I'm a transformation master and I'm getting oshiruko right now!" He snatched some leaves off a tree and turned them into money. "And nobody can stop me!"
He stopped dead.
"The ramen place is closer. I'll get a roast pork ramen instead."
He strode off in the opposite direction. Then he stopped dead again.
"Or maybe tempura? Yes. Tempura for the master."
"No. Ramen. Definitely ramen."
He turned again and kept walking towards the subway station. He breathed in and out with determination.
"There's some tasty thing or another in this direction, I'm sure of it!"
"Do you think Cassie over-reacted when I wouldn't give her my number?" Bianca laughed, shaking scotch out of her hair.
"I think just a little bit," Stephen giggled with a stagger. "Thanks for taking me out tonight, Bianca. Thanks. I really appreciate it. I have learnt a lot. Mostly.. mostly.. not to go back to that bar."
"Nope," Bianca said. "They're not letting us back in there anyway."
Stephen grimaced. "Cindy is going to straight up murder me."
"Hey, don't worry," Bianca said. "I'll make sure she knows you did your best."
"I did my best!" Stephen suddenly shouted, holding one hand up truimphantly.
Bianca tried to straighten Stephen up. "Stephen. Stephen. Look. Look. Stephen. Look at that guy."
Stephen looked up and saw the cutest guy he'd ever seen, eating tempura from a bowl on the corner like it was the best thing in the world. He momentarily forgot to breathe.
Bianca nudged him with one elbow. "Cuddly, cheerful, just a bit magical?"
"Definitely," Stephen said, swaying. "Definitely."
Bianca laughed. "Go and talk to him, you idiot!"
"No, I am way too drunk to talk to that guy." He stared wistfully. "I'd just blow it. He's probably straight anyway. Oh god, look at him!" He kept staring wistfully as the guy continued enjoying his tempura without a care in the world. "I am dying of cuteness here. He is murdering me. Call the police!"
"He is pretty cute, I guess," Bianca said. "Looks a little dumb though."
"That's what makes him so wonderful," Stephen said, barely whispering. "He doesn't know how cute he is."
"OK." Bianca straightened up. "Wave to him or I'm telling Cindy you bailed."
The fat tanuki gulped down the last chunk of tempura and licked his lips. He opened his eyes at the sound of laughter. Across the road, he saw a wobbly foreign man being supported by a slightly less wobbly foreign woman. He cocked his head curiously. The man had definitely been staring at him. He looked around. Nobody else to look at.
Had he messed up his transformation? He didn't think so. What made him so conspicuous?
The woman shoved the man. The man lifted his hand and waved drunkenly and yelled "Coo-ee!"
The fat tanuki raised his hand and waved back. "Coo.. ee?"
The fat tanuki did not understand why the man suddenly shouted and broke into a wobbly run, disappearing into the evening with the woman trailing behind him and laughing. He shrugged and walked back to his den, empty tempura bowl and chopsticks still in hand.
"Very strange," the fat tanuki said aloud to himself. He suddenly felt even more conspicuous, and began walking back to the subway as fast as his legs could carry him.
The next morning, Stephen found himself squinting at some words which flat refused to stay still.
He cleared his throat and wobbled on the spot. Come on.
"How do you do?" His voice sounded like it was a thousand years old.
"How do you do?" wailed a million lamenting banshees in front of him disguised as primary school children.
"Fine thanks, and you?" he said reflexively. Some of the children giggled.
The teacher squinted at him to repeat the sentence. He fought against every fibre of his being suggesting that he crawl under the nearest desk to die in peace and croaked out "How do you do?" in an even more unholy voice.
"How do you do?" cried a flock of angry harpies from beyond the seventh circle of hell.
Stephen failed to stifle a faint groan. It was going to be a long morning.
In a secluded grove across town, the fat tanuki faced a different challenge.
"OK! It's day two! Which one of you kids wants to learn from the transformation master?" he said, striding up and down like a pompous drill sergeant. "Which of you thinks you have what it takes? Hm?"
All of the little tanuki raised their hands and giggled.
"Huh! That's what you think!" the fat tanuki scoffed. "You must prove yourself to be worthy and show the proper spirit!" He walked up and down some more, looking sternly at the kids. "You!" he pointed. "Show me what you've got!"
The child stood forward and held up her paw, concentrating with all her might. A small dance of light emanated from its claw-tips. The other children made noises of quiet amazement and clapped their encouragement.
The fat tanuki scoffed. "Huh! That's nothing!" He pointed at another child. "You! Show me what you have!"
The other child shook its fuzzy little head and looked down. "Nothing. I don't have any magic, older brother."
The old tanuki chose that moment to reveal himself from behind the tree. "Would you like to learn some magic, granddaughter?" he smiled. The fat tanuki yelped and fell over again.
The child's eyes lit up. "Yes please!" she beamed.
The fat tanuki scoffed and brushed himself off. "How am I meant to teach if you keep interrupting me like that?" He bent over and looked the child up and down. "And you! What kind of tanuki doesn't know any magic at all? I have nothing to work with!" He scoffed again.
"On the contrary, you have all you need," the old tanuki smirked. "Let's make a wager."
"Oh?" the fat tanuki said. "What kind of wager?"
"I will give you a week to teach this little one some magic." The old tanuki raised an eyebrow. "I wager one bowl of mochi."
"I'd say it's worth two bowls of mochi!" the fat tanuki retorted. "And bean paste!"
"Why not three bowls?" the old man asked.
The fat tanuki's eyes lit up greedily. "Let's make it five bowls and I'll do it in only two days! And some sake! Nothing cheap!"
The old tanuki laughed. "Five bowls it is. So you're confident you can do it in only two days?" he said with a sly grin.
"Of course!" the fat tanuki said. He putting his hands on his hips and drummed his belly decisively with a loud 'pon'. "You are all my witnesses. I will teach little sister an amazing magic. You will be very impressed with her."
"And if you cannot?"
The fat tanuki scoffed. "No question at all I can do this. Name your forfeit."
The old tanuki held up an envelope. "What if I wrote one down already?" He produced a folded up piece of paper from behind his ear, then unfolded it and showed it to the children. They gasped and giggled with delight. "Don't tell him! Shh!"
"What does it say?" the fat tanuki asked.
"But why do you care what it says?" the old tanuki said. "You said it yourself, you have nothing to worry about. You are a transformation master, after all."
The fat tanuki stiffened up. "Of course! We have our witnesses. Let's get to work!" He took the young tanuki roughly by the paw and led her into another part of the grove. "Come on, little sister. First, we have to find some magic." The two of them disappeared slowly into the woods as the fat tanuki checked tree after tree.
The old tanuki stood with the children and shook his head. "What do you think, children? Will he do it?"
The small tanuki made murmurs of uncertainty.
"No, I don't think he will either," the old tanuki said. "He used up all the magic in the forest trying to impress you little ones." He cackled quietly.
"But do you really want him as a son-in-law?" one of the children asked. "He isn't very smart."
"Oh, he's smart enough to run away the second he finds out that marrying my daughter was his forfeit," the old tanuki said. "And I'll be ready for that too." He crouched down and looked at the children in turn. "That's why you must never try to trick old people, children. We're much trickier than you can ever be!"
The children giggled.
"Jesus, Stephen. You look like hell." Bianca sat down next to Stephen in the cafeteria. "Like, heckin hell. How did you get through the morning without dying?"
Stephen yawned. "I feel better since the hangover way to the sleep deprivation about half an hour ago." He was feeling incredibly judged by the pickles in his rice bowl. "I was thinking about that guy we saw last night, tempura guy. Thinking about him a lot."
Bianca raised an eyebrow. "Thinking about him vigorously and repeatedly?" She nudged him. "Sounds like someone's got a crush."
"Yeah," Stephen blushed. "I mean, I've never seen someone like that before. Literally my perfect guy." He couldn't stop smiling.
"Again, he looked a little dumb to me." Bianca laid some pickles on top of her rice. "But, hey, whatever floats your boat."
"My boat is well and truly floated," Stephen smiled. "I've never ever crushed on someone so hard." He stared through the fog of sleep deprivation into the mists of his imagination, that perfect guy standing there except this time he looks up and shoots him a knowing come-hither grin...
"Nobody ever turned your head like that at home?"
"Not really," Stephen said. "At least, I never had the nerve to start that conversation with anyone." He shrugged again, more shyly. "Back home everyone knew everyone, and during my degree I still kept to myself mostly because I didn't want to deal with this stuff." He looked at Bianca. "I don't know."
"Eh, who does?" Bianca shovelled more rice into her mouth. "Anyway, you've found your true love now. Although, you might never see him again. Hope you got a good look at him."
"Good enough." Stephen replied, smiling faintly. "He can be my happy little dream forever."
Bianca choked on her rice. "Ugh. That's the most nauseating thing I've ever heard." She nudged his shoulder. "And I love it. Good for you."
"Huh. No magic here either." The fat tanuki's paw rested against tree number eleven. He furrowed his brow. "Hoi, little sister," he said. "Did you happen to read the forfeit?"
"I did," the young tanuki said, following him obediently. "But grandpa said not to tell you, remember?" She brightened up. "What kind of magic are you going to teach me, older brother?"
The fat tanuki folded his arms. "I won't teach you any magic until you tell me my forfeit, little sister." He pouted childlishly. "I don't think it would be proper to teach you until this matter is resolved."
The little one was confused. "You said you could teach me."
"That's before I knew you were going to keep secrets from me," the fat tanuki complained. "Magic requires absolute trust between student and teacher. If I don't trust you, how can I teach you?"
The little one stopped in her tracks. "But I want to learn some magic, older brother." She looked up pleadingly. "Please?"
The fat tanuki folded his arms and grinned. "Then I would say that makes your decision even easier!"
The little one's expression became impertinent. "I'm still not telling you." She sat down on a nearby tree-stump and folded her arms. "You just better teach me some magic, older brother."
The fat tanuki sat down on the ground and folded his arms. "Or what?" he said, affecting his most samurai-ish voice.
"I don't really want to say." The little one's eyes narrowed. "Because I don't want to give you nightmares!"
The fat tanuki's steely expression cracked. "Oh no, is it really that bad?" he asked with widening eyes.
The little one's head shook slowly. "Worse!"
The fat tanuki gulped. "Don't make jokes, little sister."
"In fact, you should just run away now," the little one said. "I don't want to even think about what will happen to you. It gives me the creeps." Her face wore a mask of solemn pity.
The fat tanuki's bottom lip quivered. Finally he squeaked, "I think I feel more magic coming from over there." He pointed behind the little one. "Let's take a look. You go first, little sister."
The little one stood up and walked in front of the fat tanuki. "Why do I have to go first?"
"Because," the fat tanuki replied with a strangled sob. He cleared his throat and dried his tears on the back of his hand. "Lesson one is being able to feel the magic in the air. Just go that way. There's no time to lose!"
"Are you crying, older brother?" the little one asked.
"Of course I am!" the fat tanuki complained through sniffles as he stumbled through the forest. "You really scared me just now!"
Stephen's daze started to recede as the hot coffee worked its wonderful magic. He yawned and rubbed his eyes absently, then ambled towards the staff toilets to freshen up.
He found himself groggily fantasising about the tempura guy appearing from behind him and squeezing him, then rubbing his shoulders. What did he smell like? What did he do for a living? Was he gruff or softly spoken? Was he even Japanese?
What was his name?
He resolved that if he ever saw that guy again, he'd cross the road and start a conversation. And maybe ask him out. And maybe go to bed with him. And they'd fall in love and get married. And on their wedding night it would turn out that his cute husband was a magical creature, and they'd run away and be happy together.
He shook his head and washed his face with water. That was a nice daydream, he thought.
His phone buzzed. It was a message from Bianca. CINDY WANTS TO KNOW MORE ABOUT TEMPURA GUY FROM LAST NIGHT. MEET AFTER SCHOOL? :)
The fat tanuki was in a panic, running from tree to tree. "There's no magic anywhere. Nothing." He swore under his breath.
"Is it all used up?" the little one asked.
"Maybe!" the fat tanuki said, looking under rocks and smelling leaves. There was nothing. "I was really going to give everyone a show last night until that old coot showed up and ruined everything. It was going to be really something! I needed all the magic I could get my hands on!"
"Can't you share some of your magic with me?"
The fat tanuki shook his head, still darting around. He'd really used it all up. "Magic doesn't work like that. It takes time to come back when you use it." He looked around. "This part of the forest will take at least two weeks to recharge. Maybe three. It seems I really drained it!"
"Maybe you shouldn't be so greedy next time!"
He huffed. "Putting on such a great show takes a lot of magic, little sister! You would have told your children about it, and they would have told their children!" He thumped his belly with a 'pon'. "I'm still full of all that magic, you know!"
"But if you took all the magic, you couldn't have taught anyone else any magic even if you wanted to.. ?" the little one said, trailing off. "Is that why Grandpa promised you five bowls of mochi and sake? Because he knew you'd used up all the magic?"
The fat tanuki sat down. The old man really had him beat. He racked his brain. Was there anywhere he hadn't been?
"Shh. I'm thinking." The fat tanuki pointed in one direction after the other.
"Can you show me some magic while you're thinking?"
He brightened. "What would you like to see?"
"That's easy!" the fat tanuki said. He leapt into the air with a somersault and landed as a towering African elephant. The little one clapped as he bowed. "But how about the rest of Africa to go with it?" and with that he threw his trunk up into the air and changed the clearing around them into an African savannah with herds of gazelle and a pride of lions roaring in the distance. The elephant kneeled down and let the little one climb up his trunk. "Don't fall down! It's a long way!"
"I wish I could be an elephant too!" the little one said, hugging his huge hairy head.
"And I wish I could teach you!" the elephant said, looking around. "I really don't know where we can find some more magic before the end of the week though. Not without leaving the forest, and you're too young for that." The elephant looked around. "Maybe this way!" Africa faded back into the familiar trees of their home, and the elephant set off with the little one holding its ears.
Cindy met Bianca and Stephen at a ramen joint. She was accompanied by a skinny guy with a collar around his neck and a sketchbook. Cindy held the collar's leash in her right hand. "This is Slave. He can draw. Slave, you may say hello."
Slave bowed his head in deference.
"Slave, I said you may say hello." She yanked the leash.
"Konban-wa," Slave said, chastened.
"Very good, Slave," Cindy said. "Stephen-san, last night I have failed you."
"Oh, uh, no worries," Stephen started. Cindy held up her hand suddenly. Bianca grinned.
"I am not finished." Cindy paused a moment before continuing. "You have also failed yourself. Your imprecision is your failure." Cindy studied Stephen's face. Stephen nodded obediently. "Your Tempura Man! You will describe him to me. Slave will draw him. Then I will find him. I will make sure!"
Stephen waited bowed his head reflexively. "Thank you. I appreciate it."
Cindy was unmoved. "Do not thank me. Describe!"
It was getting dark. The fat tanuki had the little one on his shoulders. Suddenly, he felt a familiar crackle in the air. Like water in the desert. It was the one little piece of magic he'd missed, in what felt like a little underground brook.
"Time for lesson one!" he grinned. He helped the little one off his shoulders.
"What do I do, older brother?" the little one said.
He put her in the middle of where the magic was its strongest. "Stand very still and close your eyes." He pulled her arms out straight. "Hold your fingers out, like this." He splayed her fingers. "Listen for the magic in the air. It's very quiet. As quiet as a twinkling star." He sat. "Do you hear it?" He vocalised the sound of magic for her. "Shishikii, shishikii, shikishii.."
The little one shook her head. "All I can hear is older brother making shishikii noises."
"Don't listen with your ears, little sister," the fat tanuki said. "Listen with your whole body. Listen with all your vitality. Shishikii, shishikii." He matched the rhythm of the magic he could hear, and his voice slowly turned from a whisper to silence, just mouthing the word 'shishikii' over and over. He put his paws together and silently prayed she could hear it. It was faint even to him.
"I can still hear you, older brother!" the little one complained. "Stop saying shishikii."
He grinned. "That's the magic you're hearing, little sister! You have passed lesson one!" He got down on one knee. "Now, it's not much magic, but maybe we can teach you a little trick so I can get my five bowls of mochi."
"Is a little trick really worth five bowls of mochi?"
The fat tanuki exhaled nervously. "If my forfeit is as bad as you say it is, I will settle for an empty bowl of mochi!" He scratched his jaw in thought. "Let's see. A little magic. Something easy for a beginner... ah!" He stood up and raised his arm, concentrating very hard on his own store of magic, then with a flick turned it into the branch of a tree, complete with finger-leaves and bark.
"Very good!" The little one clapped at the transformation with delight.
"Yeah, maybe I can teach you this much with the magic we found here," the fat tanuki mused. He started to feel his swagger coming back. "I don't know why I doubted myself. I'm a transformation master. Masters have no use for doubt." He sniffed.
"Older brother?" the little one said. "Lesson two?"
The fat tanuki nodded. "OK. Lesson two. Pay attention now. This is where you draw the magic into your vital force so you can use it.."
Stephen winced as Slave copped another torrent of abuse from Cindy. She screwed up his eighth attempt at drawing the mysterious Tempura Man and fed it to him. Slave seemed to be enjoying this humiliation on some level, at least that's what Stephen hoped, because on the surface he wasn't enjoying it very much at all. A small crowd of onlookers had gathered to watch the show. The ramen chef meanwhile was too scared to ask Cindy to leave, even though the hold-up was costing him a small fortune.
"Idiot Slave!" Cindy said. "Eat your stupidity!" She seethed as he chewed the sketch paper up and swallowed it. "Start again!" She barked at him in Japanese as he sketched up to the point they'd got to. "Now, Stephen-san. You were saying?"
Stephen gulped. "Well, the body is perfect. The face, let's see.."
Someone at the back of the crowd complained they were getting hungry. Cindy growled the fiercest "SHUT UP!" in history and there was reverent silence.
Stephen hesitated. "Arched eyebrows.. n-no, not that arched.. a little more pinched in the middle. Full lips, a little pouty. Broad nose. A little overbite. Big forehead. Yes. More stubble. Yes. That's the guy." It wasn't a dead match but it was close enough.
The crowd wondered who this guy was. Cindy tore the picture out of Slave's sketchbook and held it up for the crowd. "If you know this man, bring him directly to me!" She repeated it in Japanese. The crowd's head were all petrified nods as she yanked Slave's leash and pulled him through the crowd.
"I do love that high-powered mutant," Bianca said as a hungry crowd of ramen eaters pushed past them to the counter.
Stephen's nerves were absolutely shot. He badly needed a drink after that. "I badly need a drink after that," he coughed.
"One, two, tree!"
The little one flicked her arm. Her fur looked barky in patches and the tips of her claws had turned green. She looked very proud.
The fat tanuki shook his head. "Not quite. Getting closer though!" He shook his branch-arm. "Concentrate on the leaves first, worry about the bark later. One thing at a time."
"Am I doing well, older brother?"
The fat tanuki smiled. "Very well!" he grimaced. "But we must keep practising! OK, again. Just the leaves. Ready? Like this." He held up his hands. "One, two, tree!" His fingers turned to leaves with a shake. "Now you try."
The little one grinned. "One.. two.. tree!" she said. Nothing appeared to happen, until she jumped up and down shaking her suddenly leafy tail around with glee. "I did it, older brother!"
"Ahh, that doesn't exactly count!" the fat tanuki said, sucking air through his teeth. "It's not proper transformation until you can exercise the proper control over it." He sat back on the ground and sighed. "Are you still feeling magical?"
"I guess so." The little one shook the leaves of her tail back into fur.
"Maybe let's sleep on it for tonight then," the fat tanuki said, inviting her onto his shoulders again. "When I was studying my transformations, it always came easier after a good night's sleep. That is my big secret!"
"That's a very lazy secret!" the little one laughed. She settled on the fat tanuki's shoulders and rested her arms on his head.
"Well, that's what makes it a secret, little sister," the fat tanuki chuckled. "Otherwise everyone would know about it!" They set off towards their den through the moonless night with the faint din of the city all around them.
Across the city, Stephen and Bianca paused at the corner where they'd seen the man eating tempura the night before. They were not nearly as drunk.
"Do you think I'll ever see him again?" Stephen asked wistfully.
"Don't worry about that," Bianca said. "If he's around, Cindy will get him for you. She's on a mission now."
Stephen smiled. "I almost feel sorry for getting the poor guy mixed up in this."
Bianca laughed. "She can be civil when she has to be." She held his wrist. "Come on, let's see if he's a regular at the tempura place. Maybe we'll even get a name."
"OK," Stephen said, suddenly blushing. A name? His mind raced. Could this beautiful boy have a mortal name?
The two of them crossed the road and went into the tempura joint where Bianca did most of the talking. Stephen couldn't pick up much of the conversation but he did catch the part where the server said he saw that guy from time to time, though not often. He never gave a name, just an order: shrimp tempura. And that was all he said.
Bianca instantly took to calling the mystery man Shrimpy, much to Stephen's sullen irritation.
The fat tanuki awoke the next morning in his den with a terrified yelp. He still had the after-image of being smothered to death by a hundred demonic children, all with the old tanuki's horrible daughter's face and screeching voice calling his name. The bright sun couldn't wash the image away quickly enough.
He flopped onto his back and groaned loudly. "I'm so sick of nightmares!"
"What nightmares, older brother?" the little one said from behind him.
The fat tanuki startled and yelped again. "Little sister!" He cleared his throat authoratitively. "Did I say nightmares just now? I meant pleasant dreams. I'm sick of them. Too much of a good thing."
"You definitely said nightmares," the little one said.
"But I'm not worried, so how can I be having nightmares?" the fat tanuki asked.
"I know what I heard, older brother." The little one walked around to the fat tanuki's front side and sat down obediently. "Shouldn't we be practising?"
The fat tanuki blinked. "What time is it?"
"It's the afternoon," the little one said. "You slept all morning."
"Hah!" the fat tanuki said. "That's what you think. Little sister, I'll be honest: you gave me nightmares that lasted all night and all morning! First they put me into a magical statue that I couldn't escape from, then they gave me to a hunter who was going to turn me into a hat, then it was an even worse hunter who wanted a money pouch, and then you all made me eat a whole barrel of.. yeuchh.. I don't even want to say it."
"Was it ginger, older brother?" the little one giggled.
The fat tanuki gagged. "Exactly! Horrible!" He winced and shivered at the thought of it.
The little one laughed. "Why don't you like ginger, older brother? It makes you feel good!"
"Please don't say that word again, little sister!" the fat tanuki said with a wheeze, putting his hand out. "But even having to eat a whole barrel of ginger wasn't as bad as the last nightmare I just woke up from."
"What happened?" the little one asked with wide eyes.
The fat tanuki spoke in a whisper. "I had to marry Grandfather's daughter and make lots of babies with her. It was the most awful thing I have ever seen." He smiled. "But that's too horrible to ever happen, right?"
The little one said nothing.
"But there's a lesson here!" the fat tanuki said, getting to his feet. "The lesson is this: there's nothing worse than when you don't know what you're meant to be having nightmares about. You spend all night guessing what you should be worried about when you wake up again, and you don't even know if you guessed right! This is why it is kinder to be specific about what horrible fate awaits someone." He dusted himself off. "Do you see the logic in it?"
The little one said nothing.
The fat tanuki kneeled down eye to eye with the little one. "You're not even going to tell me if my nightmares are on the right track, are you?"
The little one shook her head.
The fat tanuki grunted. "Fair enough. Now show me your tree." He stood up and back.
The little one stood to attention, holding out one arm.
"On three, now... one, two, tree!"
The little one shook her arm. Her hand was suddenly a perfect spray of green leaves, and there was even a little bark go with them.
"Much better!" the fat tanuki said, clapping his paws. "Show me your tail." She turned around and revealed a few stray leaves in her tail. The fat tanuki winced. "We still need to work on that part."
"I have been practising all morning, older brother!" the little one said.
"And now you must practise some more," the fat tanuki said. "Let's get to work!"
Stephen bowed to his class as the lunch bell rang. "Thank you very much, class!" he over-enunciated.
"Thank you very much, Stephen!" the class bowed back. The students filed out of the class in an orderly fashion, some stopping to thank him personally. One of them stopped and said something to the Japanese teacher, nodding Stephen's way. Stephen stood obediently and waited for the conversation to be over.
Bianca poked her head in the door. "Yo, Stevie!" she said. Stephen noticed her and shook his head, cocking it towards the teacher and student.
"Miss Bianca, please wait a moment." The teacher went back to chatting with the student in Japanese.
Bianca signalled to Stephen that she'd be waiting in the cafeteria. Stephen nodded. He hadn't been in this situation before. He wasn't sure what was about to happen. He could hear the conversation perfectly clearly but not understand a single word. Except 'cat'.
The student and teacher bowed. Then the student left. The teacher looked at Stephen sternly. "Kosuke-chan says he saw you quite drunk with Miss Bianca the other night. Is that possible?"
Stephen nodded. "It's possible. Bianca and I went out drinking a couple of nights ago. He would have had to have been out very late himself."
"He says he looked out his window very late at night and saw you vomiting in his garden."
Stephen cleared his throat. "Oh. Uh. Technically, that was Bianca. I don't remember vomiting for another couple of blocks after that." He smiled faintly.
The teacher let him have his smile for a few moments.
Stephen stopped smiling. "I'm sorry. It's just that.. uh.."
The teacher gave him a few moments. "What is it, Mr Stephen?"
Stephen was somewhat brainlocked by the thought of what the strict-looking teacher in front of him might do if he explained that the only reason he was drunk was so that he could work up the nerve to ask a series of strange men back to his place for interracial happy times (with optional Japanese lessons) so that a terrifying dominatrix wouldn't have to make sure.
"Mr Stephen?" the teacher repeated.
He decided to show some discretion. "I'm sorry." He bowed low. "I should set a better example for the students. Nothing like this will ever happen again. I promise."
"Please make sure," the teacher said. She returned his bow curtly and gestured for him to leave the room.
"OK, just the paw. One, two, tree!"
The little one flicked her paw. It was as leafy as ever. She flicked her tail. "I can't get the leaves out of my tail, older brother!"
The fat tanuki nodded. "It would be easier with more magic, that's for sure! But we can only work with what we have." He scratched behind one of his ears and breathed out. "And we can only get better with lots of practice."
The little one nodded. "Even if it's really boring?"
"Especially when it's boring, little sister." The fat tanuki yawned. "Especially when it's frustrating and you feel like you can't do any better. You have to do your best and keep going. And with lots of practice you get so good you don't even have to think about it. You just do it." He flicked his arm idly and made a tree branch with a sparrow on it. The sparrow chirped happily and flew away as the little one clapped. "Do you see? That is how you become a master."
The little one shook her head. "I don't see how I could ever become a transformation master."
"Hah!" the fat tanuki scoffed. "We're having trouble even keeping the leaves out of your tail! Don't worry about becoming a master, little sister." He shook the tree branch back into his hand. "You will probably never be a transformation master as great as me even if you practise for a hundred lifetimes. But it means you can try extra hard on this one trick."
"I'll do my best, older brother," the little one said.
The fat tanuki held his little sister's paws and looked into her eyes pleadingly. "Please do your best!"
"Oh yeah," Bianca said, looking off into space. "I guess I did throw up on his cat that night." She shovelled rice and potato into her mouth. "I hate cats. I was probably aiming for it."
Stephen nodded. "Well, you should probably apologise to Kosuke. He seemed pretty annoyed about it."
"He started it," Bianca protested. "That little pervert is always staring at my tits." She adjusted her top. "Tit-starer today, subway groper tomorrow." She shovelled another mouthful of rice and pickles into her mouth. "I'm doing that little creep a favour whether he realises it or not."
Stephen cocked his head. "You should make a list of pets to throw up on, in that case."
"Already have one," Bianca smirked. "You ever get any starers?"
"Just gigglers," Stephen said. He picked through the onions on his rice with the tips of his chopsticks. "Lots of gigglers."
"Ugh!" Bianca said. "I bet they don't have a clue about you either."
"Nobody's mentioned it," Stephen shrugged. "I guess I'm passing."
"It just frustrates me, you know?" Bianca growled through a mouthful of pickles. "You so need to bring Shrimpy with you one day when you finally bag him. Just like Cindy did with Slave."
Stephen flushed bright red. "Oh my god, no! What? No!" He put his head in his hands at the thought of it. "You're awful!"
Bianca squealed. "And you're so cute when you're blushing, Stevie!" She slapped his shoulder and cackled. Her mobile phone buzzed. "One second. Cindy's checking in." She tapped her phone screen with her thumbs. "There." She went back to scoffing her rice.
"What did she say?" Stephen said.
"You're safe for now," Bianca said. "She hasn't found Shrimpy yet. But she tells me he also goes by the aliases Chashu Ramen and Oshiruko." Bianca raised her eyebrows.
Stephen blinked. "What's oshiruko?"
"It's like a sweet red bean porridge." Bianca patted him on the shoulder more gently. "Hey, at least you have the advantage of knowing which foodstuff he might lick off your quivering butt cheeks."
"Nhh!" Stephen blushed violently again, reflexively crossing his legs. "What is wrong with you!?" Bianca cackled.
The fat tanuki was in a panic. "You don't feel anything? No magical power at all?"
"No, older brother," the little one said. "It's all practised away."
The fat tanuki hung his head and kneeled down. "Get on my shoulders, quickly! We have to look for more magic." She obediently climbed on his back and they set off into the forest again. The fat tanuki yawned and stumbled.
"Be careful, older brother!" the little one protested. "Don't drop me!"
"I won't!" The fat tanuki groaned as he saw the old tanuki coming their way. "Oh, no."
"Hello there!" the old one waved with a smile. "How's it going?"
"Perfectly well!" the fat tanuki lied. "What about you? Do you have my five bowls of red bean paste and mochi yet? I don't want to have to wait when little sister shows you how great I am!"
"Oh, you'll get it," the old tanuki said somewhat mysteriously. "Little one, did you tell him his forfeit?"
The little one smiled. "I didn't tell him but somehow he had nightmares anyway."
The old tanuki burst out laughing to himself. "Hah! I'll see you two tomorrow!" And then he continued walking the way he was going, except that he had to stop and lean against a tree because he was laughing so hard.
"Grandfather is very happy today, isn't he?" the little one observed.
The fat tanuki scoffed. "It's quite inconsiderate of him to be in such a good mood." They continued walking towards the clearing as the shadows grew longer.
"No more for me," Stephen shouted over the din of the bar. He pushed the shot glass back towards Bianca and shrugged. "Two incidents in one week is not a good look."
"Oh, don't be so boring!" Bianca complained. "I promise not to throw up on any cats tonight."
"I'm still not a hundred percent after last time," Stephen complained. "Here, all the more for you. I'm not trying to pick up tonight anyway."
Bianca looked perplexed. "So what, now you know Shrimpy is out there, you're saving yourself?" She downed a shot as he winced. "How old fashioned of you."
"I just want a clean slate, OK?" Stephen shrugged. "Just in case."
She groaned impatiently. "Just in case what? Just in case you see him again, just in case you talk to him, just in case he happens to be interested, just in case you can convince him to come home with you for some fun? Let alone start a meaningful relationship with this guy?" Bianca sneered. "The odds are not in your favour, little man."
Stephen nodded. "I know, I just.. what if? I don't want any complications."
"Ugh!" Bianca groaned. "You're being painfully Stephen about this."
"He's around somewhere!" Stephen shrugged. "Cindy said so herself. He's got his regular hangouts." He scratched the back of his neck. "How does she know so much about tracking people down, anyway?"
Bianca smirked. "She used to work as a debt collector. They made her stop when she made a yakuza with an overdue electricity bill piss himself with fear."
"Holy crap," Stephen said. "Did the yakuza come after her?"
"All she'll say about it is that it made her realise what her true calling was," Bianca nodded. "And she's been the scariest thing around these parts ever since."
Stephen nodded. "I hope she's gentle with him."
Stephen scowled. "I'm not saying it."
Bianca teased. "Do you mean... Shrimpy Dream Boat?"
Stephen blushed again.
"It's gone from here now too! What could have happened?!"
The sun had long since set. The two tanuki had finally found the clearing but the familiar crackle of magic was not there to greet them as it had been before.
"Older brother, I'm tired!" the little one said.
"I'm sorry, little sister. We have to keep looking." The fat tanuki bit his lip. "I don't think I'll sleep tonight anyway. I can feel all kinds of nightmares waiting for me." He whacked himself on the head a few times to try to stay awake. It just made him feel dizzy. He yawned and complained.
"Older brother, can't you take me home and look for magic yourself? I promise when you find some I'll come right with you!"
The fat tanuki plopped onto the ground and sighed. "You're right. I should take you home." He looked at her again. "Are you sure you're all out of magic?"
The little one nodded.
"OK." The fat tanuki crouched down to let the little one up onto his shoulders. "But if you see any funny lights or hear any magic on the way home, we have to go and check it out. I hope you understand."
"I understand, older brother."
"Thank you, little sister."
The two of them trudged towards their den, and the whole way back they didn't see or hear a single bit of magic. On the way home, he showed the little one on his shoulders some more illusions and transformations to make the walk go quicker. It lifted both their spirits immensely.
"And of course being a transformation master, I can maintain all this even while I'm asleep!" the fat tanuki bragged. He'd just grown a pair of bull horns for the little one to hang onto. "When you come and wake me up tomorrow for instance, these horns will still be there! You'll see!"
"What about if you were a whole bull?"
"No problem at all for a master!" he replied. He leaned over onto on all fours and stretched himself out into the shape of a large black bull. "I will remain a bull all night to prove my skill."
The little one giggled. "You'll have to sleep outside though, older brother!" Her giggle turned into a laugh. "You don't have a bull-sized den."
"Ahhh! You tricked me!" the bull mock-complained over the little snorts and giggles coming from his back. "You must be a tanuki or something!"
The phone screen turned red. Wrong answer.
Stephen rubbed his eyes and muttered to himself. "Ugh, that was 'origin', not 'tree'. Missed the little thing." He exhaled and looked at the time. "Juu-ichi ji.. roku? No. Juu-ni ji. San. Yon? San." He groaned. "Bedtime."
Stephen turned his desk lamp off and snuggled under his bedsheets. The city's shouts and honks and roars echoed as noise against the windows. He still wasn't used to the noise.
He pulled out his phone, loaded up his movie library and started his childhood favourite movie playing. The room was momentarily flooded with blue, then in the darkness children began to sing...
(Mr Raccoon, Mr Raccoon, can't you play with me somehow..)
"How did you sleep, older brother?"
The bull yawned and opened its eyes to the afternoon sun and the little one. "I think even my nightmares were too tired to bother me." He yawned again and noticed the crowd of little eyes looking at him. "Can I come back now?"
The bull rolled over languidly and popped itself back into the shape of the fat tanuki. "See? I don't even have to be awake." He yawned. "I can be very tired and still hold everything in place."
One of the little ones pointed and laughed. "You've still got your bull horns, older brother!"
"Because we still need to find some magic!" the fat tanuki said, finding the little one he was looking for. "Hop on, little sister."
The little one stepped back. "Grandfather found some more magic for me while you were asleep! And then he showed me this!" She flicked her hand and turned one finger into a leaf. Her fellow cubs clapped politely as she held out her leafless tail.
"Hey!" The fat tanuki grinned and shrank his horns away. "If you can do a trick, that means I won the wager!"
The little one shook her head. "Grandfather says he taught me that trick, and you still need to teach me the rest, otherwise you lose the wager. And it's down to one bowl."
"That's fine too!" the fat tanuki said, suddenly energised. "You can keep your tail under control now, so the rest should be easy. Let's get back to work, little sister!" He hoisted her onto his shoulders and bounded into the forest. "Where's that magic, anyway? It might be useful in case we run out again."
"Grandfather said not to say so you don't use that up too," the little one said.
"Thank you very much, Stephen-san!" the class said, bowing in unison. Stephen bowed in response as the class filed out. He was starting to recognise familiar faces right now. There was less giggling in this class.
"How are you finding this so far, Stephen-san?" the teacher asked. "Not getting bored?"
Stephen shook his head. "Not yet, Ms Suzuki."
Suzuki-sensei smiled. "And Japan? Is everything OK for you here?"
"Very OK!" Stephen smiled. "Everyone's very friendly and polite!"
"Yes," the teacher said. "I hear Australian people are polite and friendly too."
Stephen's smile strained. "Sometimes." He tried to imagine how a Japanese teacher with heavily accented English would have got on where he came from. "Mostly, yes. But it is a different kind of friendliness. Everything is different in Australia."
"Ah so," the teacher nodded. "There you have koalas and kangaroos."
"And here you have raccoons!" Stephen smiled.
"Raccoons?" the teacher wandered aloud. "Oh, you mean tanuki! You must know a lot about Japan if you know about those!"
"What's a tanuki?" Stephen blinked. "Is that like a raccoon?"
"OK. Try again! One, two, tree!"
The little one's hands were a blaze of green. But still, her tail was full of leaves glowing in the light of the late afternoon sun.
The fat tanuki sat down on the spot with a thud and sighed. "Oh, little sister, you're killing me!" The fat tanuki rubbed behind his ears in frustration. "I don't remember even having this problem when I was learning! I just figured it out"
The little one pouted. "I'm sorry! I'm doing my best, older brother!"
"I know you are, little sister!" the fat tanuki said, adding a frustrated groan. "But so am I!" He groaned again. "I wish I could just give you my powers, that would make it so much easier!" He groaned once more, this time extra long. "So much easier."
Then the fat tanuki looked at the little one. And he grinned. Then he furrowed his brow. He'd have to be very, very careful with this.
"Little sister, you know how we play tricks sometimes?"
"Yes, older brother?"
"I need your help to play a trick on Grandfather. Watch this!"
The fat tanuki leapt into the air and when he landed, there were two little ones.
"But my ears don't stick out that much!" the first little one said.
"They do too," the second little one replied. She flicked one arm into a perfect tree branch. Then the other. She grinned brightly. "This might actually work!"
The first little one folded her arms and pouted. "They do not."
The second little one scoffed. "They certainly do. I'm very observant." The second little one waved the first little one away. "Now go and hide in the forest until I come and get you! I won't be long, don't worry!"
"What are you watching?" Bianca said. "Is it a cartoon?" She'd taken Stephen out for mochi at the place Stephen's crush frequented. Stephen had his phone on the table and was watching it intently while eating mochi off a wooden fork.
"Hm? Oh, it's my favourite cartoon from when I was a kid," Stephen said. "It's Japanese. I guess that's why I ended up here instead of Korea." He cleared his throat. "It helps calm me down."
"Oh," Bianca said. "Just wondering, most people keep porn on their phones. See?" She held up her phone and showed Stephen a video of two men engaged in acts of passion.
Stephen spat out his red bean soup. "What's wrong with you? Put that away!" He looked around nervously.
"Hey, I've been making you a playlist of stuff you can try with Shrimpy." Bianca huffed. "Anyway the sound's turned off. Don't be so prude." She put her phone back in her pocket and squeezed her mochi between her chopsticks.
"Well, OK. But still." He went back to chewing chunks of mochi off his fork and watching the cartoon on his phone, only looking up occasionally to see if someone familiar had walked through the door.
Bianca bit into the mochi coquettishly and drew a long sticky strand away from her chopsticks. She grinned as she chewed. "You're definitely cute when you're tense, Stephen."
"One, two, tree!"
The little one held up both of her arms proudly. They'd both become perfect tree branches with sprigs of leaves at the end. The little gathered crowd of tanuki clapped and cheered. The little one bowed modestly but couldn't disguise her smile.
"Well, it looks like your older brother came through after all!" the old tanuki laughed. "Where is he, anyway?"
"He's out looking for the most expensive sake in town!" the little one giggled.
"Well, I suppose we'd better wait for him to get back, then." The old tanuki smiled. "But he'll be back any minute, if I know him."
The little one smiled. "Aren't my branches good?"
"Very good!" the old tanuki said, testing the bark. "It's fun to finally know some magic, isn't it?"
"It is!" the little one smiled. "Magic is the best!"
"I know something even better," the old tanuki said. He pulled a container out of his pocket and opened it. "Ginger!"
The little one's smile froze. "Ginger's not as good as magic."
"Oh, quite the opposite! I'd say it's even more powerful than magic." The old tanuki took a slice of ginger and waved it around in front of the little one's nose. "Wouldn't you agree?" The rest of the tanuki watched with rapt fascination as the little one's eyes began to water and her lips began to curl.
"I guess it's pretty good," gagged the little one.
The old tanuki brought a slip of paper from behind his ear and grinned. "I suppose you remember this, granddaughter?"
"It's older brother's forfeit," the little one grimaced. "I wonder why you bring it up, since it's clearly not relevant just now."
The old tanuki unfolded it and held it in front of another little one. "Is it the same as before?" He grunted in assent. Then the old tanuki held it in front of the little one with the tree branches for arms. "Can you read what it says, little one?"
The little one's vision became blurry. "It says.. marriage.. to.. oh look!" She pointed behind the crowd. "Look over there! It's the hopping umbrella yokai!"
The tanuki clan all looked in the direction the little one had pointed. When the crowd looked back at where the little one had stood a split second later, she had vanished.
The old tanuki chuckled to himself. "Everyone, see if you can find your little sister. Take these." He handed out slices of ginger. "Make sure she doesn't turn up her nose at it."
"Do you need my help finding that fatso, father?" a large tanuki asked.
"No, daughter," the old tanuki said. "You stay here. I'll be back shortly."
The large tanuki smirked and punched her hand into her palm with an impish grin. "He'll be sorry when I catch up with him."
Bianca had been studying her phone for a few silent minutes before she finally said, "Look, Stephen. I have plenty of ways to spend my evenings which don't involve you. Just saying."
Stephen looked up from his carton. "What?"
"I mean, I can do without the silent treatment. Call me a bitch, whatever, just don't.. do what you're doing to me right now. I hate it." She folded her arms.
Stephen blinked. "Sorry, I'm having trouble keeping it together. I'm a quiet freaker-outer." He jiggled in his seat. "I've been going over in my head the first thing I'm going to say to him and everything just sucks. How do I even start?"
Bianca smirks. "That's all? Just use the old line about wanting to work on your Japanese with a native speaker."
"So how do I say it?"
Bianca nodded. "OK. Repeat after me.."
The fat tanuki had almost reached the edge of the forst when a huge stone nearly crushed him from above. He yelped and fell on his backside, watching the stone turn into the old tanuki. He immediately began to bow and scrape the ground as his grandfather advanced on him wearing his magistrate's hat.
"Grandfather, I can't marry your daughter! I can't even look at her, she's so terrifying!" The fat tanuki begged and scraped.
The old tanuki shook his head, stone-faced. "A wager is a wager. Unless you'd rather a worse forfeit."
"Nothing could be worse than that!" the fat tanuki cried. "I'd be raising cubs all day and night and covered in bruises with no time to master my magic at all!" He sulked. "I'm meant for greater things than geishas and bowls and horse crap pies!"
"Are you sure?" the old tanuki said.
"Of course!" the fat tanuki said. "Please, I'm begging you. Don't sentence me to marriage. Please." He bowed some more.
"Alright then." The old tanuki clapped his paws together twice. Two of the fat tanuki's brothers appeared from the darkness of the forest. One was holding a sentence. "Here is your sentence for getting caught - which, by the way, was shamefully easy. You will spend fifteen nights of exile as a human."
"Spend fifteen days as a human?" the fat tanuki considered, calming down. "That doesn't sound so bad."
The old tanuki slapped him over the head. "Quiet! Put your face back down." The fat tanuki did as he was told. "You will spend fifteen nights away from here as a human, with the humans, in the city. You must find accomodation and employment immediately. You may only use your magic to maintain the illusion of your humanity. No tricks! And you may not return here for a top-up."
The fat tanuki looked up. "This was all a big scheme to kick me out for a bit, was it?"
"If only to make sure we have enough magic for the necessities!" the old tanuki said, his smile disappearing. "We'll be living off worms and nuts and garbage for at least a week now that you've used up all the forest's magic! It'll take two whole full moons to get it back to where it should be!" He narrowed his eyes. "Frankly, you're lucky you're not being sentenced to spend two weeks as a stray dog!"
The fat tanuki winced and bowed lower. "Thank you, grandfather."
A grin suddenly suddenly crossed the old tanuki's face. "And if you cheat, or you fail to maintain your appearance, or you quit and come back early, or break any other rules specified in this sentence, you must marry my daughter and love her and have as many children as she desires." The old tanuki held out a quill for him to sign the document of sentence with. "It will be a lot of children."
The fat tanuki got up from his bow and dusted off the fur of his knees. "You don't think I'm going to make it, grandfather?" he asked skeptically.
"I don't think you'll be able to help yourself," the old tanuki said. "And we'll be watching you very carefully! No sneaking a nap in a fur coat!" he said, shaking his finger. "Honestly, I think you should make a list of your preferred baby names while you're away."
"Not likely! There's no chance I'll quit or cheat or do any of those other things!" The fat tanuki scoffed as he took the quill. He paused in thought. "In fact, let's forget fifteen nights." He crossed out the number 'fifteen' and wrote 'twenty' in its place. "There. That will give you more time to prepare the feast for when I get back."
The old tanuki lost all pretence of formality. "This is a sentencing, you idiot! Not a send-off party!"
"Perhaps I want the extra challenge," the fat tanuki said.
"Why not longer, then?" the old tanuki grinned. "If it's a challenge you want, what about twenty-five nights?"
The fat tanuki's voice caught in his throat. "Let's round it up to one whole month!" He crossed out 'twenty nights' and wrote 'one month', then signed the bottom of the document. "I'm off! See you at the next new moon!"
"Did you read all the way to the bottom?" the old tanuki asked.
The fat tanuki was still walking away. "Of course! Don't get arrested, no changing identity midway, don't reveal yourself to humans, all the obvious common sense stuff!"
"And the part about your human name?"
"My what?" the fat tanuki blinked. He ran back to picked up the document of sentencing and read the fine print at the bottom where his brother was pointing. He shook his head in disgust. "Now you're just being perverse! Did you get a fox to write this up or something?"
The old tanuki folded his arms and laughed heartily. "Enjoy your challenge, Ginger!"
The fat tanuki's brothers laughed as he shook himself grumpily into a human and crossed the road towards the bus stop. "Having to hear that terrible word for the next month. That's just cruel." He gagged again at the thought of it and rubbed behind his ears.
The fat man turned back towards the forest and saw three sets of beady eyes looking out at him.
He poked out his tongue at the cheeky tanuki and snatched some leaves off a tree angrily. "All this is giving me an appetite." He flicked through the leaves as they became banknotes and headed for his favourite mochi place.
The entire restaurant had tried for fifteen minutes to teach Stephen the Japanese for 'do you want to come back to my place to do a language exchange?'. Instead of a classroom of people following what Stephen was saying, Stephen was failing to follow what an entire restaurant of people were teaching him to say.
"OK," Bianca finally said. "Should this guy ever show up again, I'll do the talking. You pay for his meal or something." She leaned back in her chair. "You are lucky we live in the age of translation apps, Stee-chan."
"Leave me alone," Stephen said. He was back to watching his cartoon even more intently. If he could have crawled into that screen, he would have.
Someone shoved the restaurant door hard. Bianca suddenly sat upright.
Bianca pulled his wrist. "Stephen!"
"What?!" he said.
"Put your dumb cartoon away and get out your wallet. Quick!"
A familiar figure was ambling up to the counter. Stephen's eyes widened. His heart was ready to leap out of his chest and get on the first airplane back to Australia.
Bianca nudged Stephen's ankle from under the table. "Looks like he could use a friend, doesn't he?"
The fat man didn't look up as he ordered. "Oshiruko."
"Oshiruko!" the chef at the counter called to the kitchen. "Oshiruko!" they called back.
The fat man stepped back from the counter and looked down towards his feet. He looked around the restaurant. These were the people he'd have to fit in with for a whole month. He looked at his feet and his hands. A month like this. He already missed home.
There was a commotion off to the side. Two foreigners were eating mochi. One had been eating it with a fork. He tried not to stare at such a weird sight. He recognised one of them from the previous evening. He'd been very drunk.
The fat man went back to staring down at his feet and shuffling. He sighed. Fifteen days would have been so much easier. He didn't know if he could make it to twenty. He was pretty sure he couldn't go a whole month.
"Excuse me, sir?" he heard a woman next to him say. She spoke surprisingly fluent Japanese. "I'm sorry to bother you, but my friend here is new to Japan and he wanted to know if you would be interested in learning English in exchange for you helping him with his Japanese. He's from Australia."
The fat man looked over at the young blonde foreign man. The blonde foreign man was very shy and had a freckly face with tanned skin. The fat man bowed curtly.
"I'm sorry. I'm not interested in learning English right now."
"Oh, but knowing English is very useful!" the woman said. "My friend is a teacher with an English speaker exchange program, and he is very happy to offer you intensive English tutoring in exchange for your native knowlege of Japanese. Please consider it." She bowed.
"I want to learn English!" an old lady said from across the restaurant. "Will he teach me?"
The foreign woman snapped. "My associate is very busy with teaching. He can only make so many exceptions."
"I can make him pickles too!" the woman said.
"I don't care about your stupid old pickles!" the woman said under her breath.
The interruption gave the fat man some time to think. The old tanuki had seen through his disguise too easily. Maybe speaking a different language would throw him off next time? It would certainly help to pass the time.
The fat man turned to the foreign woman. "Miss, I've changed my mind. I've decided it's time for me to learn English. I have only one condition. I'm visiting from far away, so I need a place to stay. If your associate can help me in this matter, I would be much obliged." He bowed.
The foreign woman made a strange face and turned back to her associate.
Bianca's face was flush with excitement. "Give me your wallet and sit down, dude."
"Why?" Stephen said, doing as he was told. "What did he say?"
"He says yes, but he's from out of town so he wants to stay at your place."
Stephen squeaked and crossed his legs. "Oh my god..." He held his head in his hands. "I can't breathe. What is going on?!"
"Scootch over and make some room. I'll introduce you in a second."
"He says that's fine," the foreign woman said. "He wants to pay for your meal."
"Oh, thank you very much!" The fat man bowed to the both of them. "Sorry, but is your friend OK?" the fat man asked. "He's not choking on his mochi, is he?"
"He's fine," the foreign woman said. "He's been drinking."
The fat man bowed again as the foreign woman paid for his meal. "Ah, I remember you both now!" The fat man took another look at the blonde man who had turned redder than a tomato. "It really looks like he's dying. Are you sure he's OK?"
"He'll be fine. He's just nervous."
"Why is he nervous?"
"He's shy. He's never seen someone so big before."
"Oh," the fat man said, looking at himself. "I'm not that big, am I?"
"He also doesn't understand any Japanese. I've had a lot of trouble teaching him myself."
"Oh." The fat man scratched behind his ear. This again, he thought. "I don't know what I can do in that case. I seem to have trouble teaching people from scratch."
"That's fine too!" the foreign woman said. "Please. Let's talk it over." She gestured to the table where the blonde man was sitting. He avoided eye contact as he made room for the fat man to take a seat next to him.
Stephen couldn't place the scent of the man sitting next to him. It was definitely foresty. Trees. Leaves. Soil. Very good. And he was so soft. It was all he could do not to just pass out onto the broad, soft shoulders next to him like they were huge pillows. It was too much.
A big soft hand attached to the big soft shoulder suddenly appeared in front of him. He looked into big soft eyes above a big soft nose and a big soft grin.
"Stephen, for god's sake, snap out of it," Bianca hissed through her teeth. She kicked him sharply in the shin, making him squeak.
"Ouch! Sorry, what are we doing?"
"Introductions, remember?" she winced. "You'd be pathetic if this weren't so adorable."
"Oh. Uh. G'day! I'm Stephen!" Stephen grabbed the big soft hand and held it firmly.
"Stee-ban?" came the reply.
"Stephen," he repeated, more slowly. "Or 'Stee' is fine too."
"Stee," Stephen grinned. "And you are?"
"Ah. Sh-.. guh.. gghh!" The soft eyes squinted in apparent discomfort. A breath was taken. "Shouga. Shouga." He bowed his head.
"That was weird," Bianca remarked.
Stephen ignored her. "Shogga." He smiled, shaking the hand of his new housemate. "Nice to meet you!"
Shouga smiled and shook Stee's hand. His colour was looking a lot better, and Shoga very much appreciated how Stee's Japanese pronounciation was crappy enough not to instantly set off his gag reflex.
"Nice to meet you too!" he replied. Stee looked slightly dumbfounded.
Bianca murmured through her teeth. "It's the Japanese for 'nice to meet you'. Get your translator thingy out before he has second thoughts," Bianca said.
Stephen pulled out his phone and set the translate app to conversation mode. "It's nice to meet you, Shogga!"
A message appeared on the phone as Stee spoke. [Nice to meet you, calligraphy!]
Shouga grinned broadly. "I am very happy to learn English with you, Stee-san!" A waiter delivered the mochi to the table and more bows were exchanged.
Stephen read the message with a grin. [Mr Sutii, I am very happy to learn English with you!] Shouga had begun stuffing his face with mochi and red bean paste. He was a pretty voracious eater.
"That's great, Shogga!" Stephen replied. "I'm glad to hear it!" He grinned at Bianca. Shouga looked down at the phone and nodded, giving a thumbs up signal.
Bianca winced. "Stephen, it's 'shou-ga'. With a long o. Shoooouga. And really you should be calling him Shouga-san. You've only just met after all. Be polite."
Shouga read the text on the screen as he ate and swallowed his mouthful. "Honestly, Shogga is fine," Shouga said. "What's your name, by the way?"
"It's Miss Bianca."
"Thank you for making the introductions, Miss Bianca." Shouga bowed across the table.
"Thank you for helping my friend, Shouga-san."
Shouga gagged again. "Don't mention it."
Keys slid into in Stephen's front door an hour later.
"So, this is it, I guess," Stephen said, throwing open the door to his apartment. Shouga poked his head in and looked around. "It's not much. There's only one bed, sorry." Stephen tried to look regretful about that as he handed the phone over to Shouga.
Shouga looked at the text on the phone and huffed. "Doesn't matter. I can sleep anywhere." He handed the phone back to Stephen and walked around the apartment, looking carefully at everything. Counting the books on the shelves. One two three. Red yellow red. Counting the plants near the balcony. Taking note of the pots and pans in the kitchen. "Nice place!"
Stephen cleared his throat when he saw the translation. "It's really no problem to share the bed. I don't mind at all. Whatever you're comfortable with." He handed the phone back to Shouga and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
Shouga saw the translation and smiled. "OK," he said aloud. The text appeared. He fumbled the phone and accidentally pressed the text to speech button. The phone suddenly said "OK" in English.
"O-K," Shouga repeated, sitting down on the bed. He bounced to test it for softness. "O-K." He chuckled to himself and yawned. "This bed is really soft," he murmured to himself.
Stephen wasn't brushing his teeth. He was thinking of how the hell he'd explain to this guy, how he'd broach the subject, how he'd even begin to start to think about considering the very notion that maybe, just maybe, would cuddling up be out of the question? No. It was too soon. Wasn't it? Was he even that way inclined? He didn't ask. He didn't know how to ask. How could he ask?
"Bianca, what have you done to me?" he whined.
Suddenly he heard snoring. He looked out of the bathroom to find Shouga passed out on his back, completely unconscious, with Stephen's phone in his hand. A little bit of naked belly was peeking out from underneath his shirt.
Stephen prised his phone away from Shouga, then took a photo of him and sent it to Bianca, followed by the message: THANK YOU!
Stephen sat down next to Bianca in the common room before class with the biggest grin on his face. "Hi."
"Hello! How was your Japanese tutor last night?" Bianca asked, the picture of discretion.
"Good!" Stephen said. "He.. uh.. sleeps a lot."
"Oh. Did you even get a chance to.. practise your Japanese?"
Stephen shook his head. "No. He pretty much passed out the second we got home. He snores. I had to wear earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones in layers." He rubbed his neck.
Bianca winked. "Worth it for the view, right?"
"Oh yeah, for sure." Stephen grinned blissfully. "And after a while the slow rise and fall of his snoring felt like the sound of ocean waves."
Bianca shook her head. "You are so gone. Hah!" She slapped him on his thigh. It stung. "He might even still be there when you get home, if you're lucky."
Stephen blinks. "Oh. That's right. He doesn't even have a key. I guess he's trapped there."
"Maybe," Bianca smirked. "Hope you left some enrichment activities for him so he doesn't try to escape."
Shouga yawned loudly, then opened his eyes to see a white roof. He was definitely not in his nice warm den, although the bed he was lying on was quite comfortable. He rolled over and looked at the pillows. He smelled Stephen on the covers of the bed next to him. Just another human smell.
Shouga sighed to himself. "Day one." He noticed a note had been left for him over on the table.
It took Shouga a full ten minutes of squinting to make the note make any sense. It looked like it had been written by a school child with broken fingers. There were misspellings everywhere, some of the characters looked as though they'd been swapped around. It was really a mess. Something about food? A time of day, maybe?
"It is going to be very difficult to teach this person Japanese," Shouga thought to himself. Then he grinned. "It should pass the days even better than I thought!"
Shouga looked around on Stephen's shelf and found a pencil. He began on the first line, adding the extra character that Stephen had missed out of his name, and adding "teacher" for good measure.
"Shouga-sensei," he grinned. "I could get used to that." He yawned to himself again and suddenly felt hungry. "I shouldn't fix all these mistakes on an empty stomach."
Shouga plodded over to the kitchen and looked through the cupboards. There were lots of foods, but all of them had writing he didn't understand. He experimentally sniffed at one packet and discovererd it had something sweet inside. The picture indicated it was some kind of brown biscuit.
"Better not open up anything new," he thought to himself. "That would make me a bad guest."
Shouga moved along to a small jar of black stuff. He twisted the lid off and sniffed. His eyes instantly watered at how salty it was. He ran the tip of his finger along the lid to pick up some of the black paste inside it and experimentally put it on his tongue. It was incredibly salty.
"Who could ever get through a whole jar of this stuff?" he wondered, looking at the yellow label and the mysterious letters. Not knowing what the letters said was really starting to annoy him, since they appeared to be on all the things in the room. There was only a little bit of the writing he could actually understand.
He opened up another cupboard and was surprised to discover it was cold inside. "Ah-ha! I've heard of these!" he said aloud. He found some things with writing he could understand, along with some eggs and some bread. He rubbed his hands together and picked up one of the eggs, then cracked it open with his fingers and drank the insides in one gulp.
"Ueagh!" Shouga cried, doubling over. He held his head. "It's so cold! And stale!" He squatted down and rubbed the sides of his head. "Oh, that hurts." He squinted. "It's bad. Oh, it's bad." He tried to cheer himself up by chewing little bits of the eggshell, which at least wasn't as cold to eat. He slumped by the refrigerator and felt chilly, so he closed the box. "Not going back in there. I don't care how hungry I get." He looked over at a potplant sitting the corner. "I'll eat that plant if I have to. It'll be better than that black stuff, and warmer than the egg!"
The plant had nothing to say about it.
Shouga regarded the plant a little bit longer and sighed. "But Stephen will wonder how all the bite marks got into his plant. Then he'll know about me for sure." He rubbed his belly some more. "One mediocre egg will have to do for now. Back to Stephen-san's Japanese lessons."
Shouga hesitated. He opened the window and let the wind blow into the room. "You'll taste better if you have some sunshine and fresh air first, little plant." He put the plant in the middle of some sunrays. "Enjoy it while you can!"
The plant glowed appreciatively in the afteroon sun.
He sat back up at the table and continued munching eggshell, pencilling away at Stephen's note for another hour before finally correcting it to within an inch of its life. There were even more corrections on the note than there was note. Shouga had to use two extra pieces of paper just to explain how bad the note was.
"It would be better to start from scratch!" Shouga scoffed. "It would take fifty centuries to teach someone Japanese if this is where I have to start from."
He looked at the pot plant again and licked his lips. It was a juicy succulent, maybe an aloe vera. Definitely not a bad snack. He shook his head and tried to put it out of his mind.
He looked at the white cupboard and thought about the eggs in there. And the milk. He'd seen people cooking with eggs and milk in the restaurants he went to sometimes. Maybe he could cook something, he thought.
He stood up and looked around the kitchen some more, coming across a disused rice cooker in a bottom cupboard. "Hey hey! I recognise this! This is where rice comes from!" It had instructions printed on the side that he could read and a bag of moth-eaten rice inside it. He shrugged and thought to himself, "Moths aren't so bad. I'll leave them in!"
He stopped himself again. "Do humans eat moths?" He didn't mind the taste of moths himself, but what did people think of them? Wouldn't Stephen find it strange?
"I'll just say it's normal where I come from!" Shouga resolved. "I'm too hungry to pick the moths out anyway!" He took the rice cooker over to the sink. "Ah, I know this thing from the restaurants too!" He laughed to himself. "This human stuff is nice and easy!"
Stephen struggled to hold the rice between his chopsticks for the third time and frowned. "How do you do it again?" He shifted his grip with his fingers.
"You screw it up until you get it right, dude," Bianca said. "Come on, you promised me you'd go fork-free for one day this week! No anglo!"
"Yeah but I'm gonna starve," Stephen complained. "I never got to go to the Chinese restaurant back home."
Bianca's jaw dropped in mock horror. "You complete racist."
"To practise with chopsticks, I mean," Stephen complained. He scowled. "I know China and Japan aren't the same country. I'm not stupid."
"Oh! Speaking of stupid..." Bianca tapped away at her her phone. "I found this online after I saw you watching your cartoon last night. I thought you might be interested." Bianca showed her phone's screen to Stephen.
Stephen gasped. It was an animal onesie with an open face. "What is it?" he asked with swimming thoughts, chewing idly on rice.
"They're like cute animal pyjamas. This one's a tanuki." She looked at the picture, then looked back at Stephen. "You would definitely look cute in one of these."
"Tanuki?" Stephen asked. "Oh! Like a Japanese raccoon!"
"Exactly!" She grinned wickedly. "And Shouga might even squeeze into their extra-extra-large size, for extra-extra-cuteness. What do you think?"
Stephen blushed again and put his chopsticks down. He crossed his legs in a weak attempt to remain civil. "Bianca, why exactly are you helping me?"
"Whatever do you mean?" Bianca grinned.
Stephen exhaled. "I mean, what's your deal? Aside from the fact you enjoy making fun of me, what else is in it for you?"
"That's mainly it, Stevie," Bianca smiled sweetly. "You're getting a crash course in self-actualisation whether you like it or not."
"Self-what?" Stephen blinked.
Bianca talked past a mouthful of rice. "Every time I see you blush, I see your outer shell cracking to reveal your previously unknown squishy inner thoughts and feelings, and you learn a little more about yourself. Hence, self-actualisation. Becoming your actual self. See?" Bianca flashed her eyebrows while Stephen nodded with slow understanding. "You've been keeping yourself to yourself for so long that your crusty outer shell needs urgent expert attention. You're welcome, by the way." Bianca burped.
"I guess that makes sense," Stephen said. "I never knew about any of that."
Bianca shrugged. "Most people don't. I pity them." She gestured to Stephen's chopsticks. "Keep practising your sticks, foreigner."
Shouga cracked an egg into the bowl of hot rice and whipped it all together into a fluffy mixture. The albumen and yolk slid through the white grains and coated them with a glossy, sunny texture. Shouga licked his lips and grinned. "This is more like it!"
He walked over to the table with his bowl and chopsticks and sat down happily. He'd added another page of corrections to Stephen's note while the rice cooker was working its magic. Shouga wondered aloud, "Am I being too harsh?" He wished Stephen had written another note so he could get some idea of what his Japanese level was.
He held the bowl up to his mouth and glanced over at the aloe vera plant in the corner. "You're safe for today, little plant. You should hope Stee-san doesn't run out of eggs, though!" He shovelled the egg-rice into his mouth and groaned with pleasure. "This is the best egg-rice anyone has ever made. I'm sure of it. It's the best I've ever tasted. I bet Stee-san would love some too."
He picked a moth wing out of his teeth and grinned. "Crunchy little moths, yum!" He frowned to himself. "But what if Stephen doesn't eat the moths? They don't usually have moths in the stuff at the restaurant." He thought about the rice in the cooker with little moths and moth eggs in it. "I'd better pick the moths out for Stephen, just in case." Somehow he'd decoded that Stephen would be home after dark. "I've got plenty of time."
Shouga finished his egg-rice, put the rest of the moth rice into his egg-rice bowl, then set it all to one side. He then emptied the remaining rice out onto the table, got a fresh set of chopsticks and a clean bowl, and set to work. Each rice grain went into the bowl with a clink, each moth or moth larva went into his mouth with a crunch.
Clink. Clink. Clink. Crunch. Clink. Clink. Clink. Crunch. Clink. Crunch.
There was a knock at the door. The person on the other side of the door was speaking in Stephen's language. They knocked again. They definitely thought someone was home.
Shouga opened his mouth to reply, but realised he didn't know what he could say. In a panic, he did a perfect imitation of a cat's meow.
The person stopped knocking. "Is that a kitty-cat in there?" the voice asked itself. "Naughty cat!"
Shouga meowed again, then threw his voice out the window to make it sound like the cat had jumped out of the window.
The voice admonished the phantom feline. "That's Stephen's house! You shouldn't be in there unless you've been invited. Those are the rules!" The person took out a set of keys.
Shouga blinked. Was he not allowed to be in Stephen's apartment? Had he been tricked? What was going on?
The keys slid into the lock.
Shouga grimaced. "I have to remain human!" But if nobody knew where he had got to, did it matter?
"Gyah! Just this once!" Shouga said to himself, turning himself into a copy of Stephen's chair as the door opened.
The superintendent walked into the room. "Hello? Is someone in here?". He walked past the chairs to the open window, then poked his head out. "Where's that cat gone?" He hissed out the window to make sure it didn't come back, then pulled the shutter closed and put the plant back to one side.
Stupid human, Shouga thought. It'll taste more bitter without sunlight!
Somehow, the superintendent noticed that Stephen had two chairs. "Why does Stephen have two chairs? No wonder we're short on chairs all of a sudden."
Shouga found himself being dragged out into the hallway backwards as the superintendent complained aloud how heavy this chair seemed to be.
The superintendent locked the door to Stephen's apartment and dragged the heavy chair into the lift. He took a while to rest in the chair from all the effort, then dragged it all the way into the building's store room where he locked it up.
Shouga peeked up from his disguise and looked around. It was just old pieces of equipment and more chairs. He sprang back up into human form and put one of the chairs where he'd been, then began hammering on the store room door. "Hey! I'm locked in! Hey!"
The superintendent opened the store-room door to find Shouga looking at him angrily from the darkness. "Who are you? What are you doing in there?"
"I'm the inspector!" Shouga blustered, stepping out of the musty air.
"Which inspector?" the superintendent enquired.
Shouga was escorted out of the building by the superintendent in less time than it took him to make a mental note to never try passing himself off as a chair inspector ever again.
Tanaka folded his arms. "So you are gay, Stephen-san?"
Stephen felt even lonelier than usual in the empty classroom. He nodded. "Yeah. Is that.. is that OK?"
Tanaka laughed. "Sure! No need to be nervous." He patted Stephen on the shoulder. "It is OK!" He smiled warmly. "You have nothing to worry about."
Stephen breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr Tanaka." He bowed to the teacher. "You're only the second person in the world I've ever come out to."
"Oh!" Tanaka nodded. He paused. "I see what you meant now about Miss Bianca!" He laughed.
"She's the one who put me up to this," Stephen shrugged. "She says I need to work on my self-actualisation."
"Oh?" Tanaka hummed. "Self-actualisation, is it? I don't know this word." He tapped on his phone. "Ah!" He said the phrase in Japanese. "Very good, Stephen-san! That is a very important activity!" He bowed. "Thank you for teaching me a wonderful new word today!"
Stephen bowed reflexively. "No worries!"
Tanaka laughed and bowed again. "No worries!" he chuckled. "Have a good evening, Stephen-san!"
Shouga had lost track of where he was since he got chased away from Stephen's building for the fourth time by the superintendent. He didn't want the police on his trail. If he got arrested, he could all but expect the old tanuki to personally collect him from the police station in disguise and deliver him straight to his wedding.
Shouga grumbled to himself and looked for somewhere to be. Food came to mind. He was about to cross the road when he heard a voice from a nearby alleyway.
"Your grumbling always sounds the same no matter what you look like, brother," the voice said.
"Huh!" Shouga scoffed. He recognised one of his brothers. "So you found me again." He looked down the alleyway and didn't see anything obviously out of the ordinary.
"Of course!" the voice said. "We said we'd keep an eye on you, didn't we?"
"It's not like I made it hard for you." Shouga idly wondered if they'd seen his chair transformation earlier in the day. "So if you know where I am now, that's all there is to say!" He strode off down the road towards nowhere in particular.
"See you around, brother!" the voice said with an audible smile.
Stephen put his keys into the door and turned. "Shogga? I'm home." He opened the door to find an empty apartment.
Stephen put his bags of shopping down in the kitchen. He wondered if maybe Shouga was taking a quiet bath. The light was off in the bathroom. Not there.
Stephen looked at the note he'd left with Shouga's scribbles all over it. He knew I'd be back at five and I was bringing dinner, he thought.
"He probably just stepped out," Stephen said aloud. "He'll be back. He knows where I am. Don't panic. I wonder if one of these is a note about where he went." He ran his image translator over the hand-written Japanese. It had no luck.
He pinched one corner of his mouth at the bag of old rice. Was Shouga counting the rice? He noticed the moths in the bag of rice. "Well, this is no good." He dumped the bag of rice into his kitchen bin and looked around some more at the mess Shouga hadn't cleaned up.
It was then that Stephen noticed the bowl of moth-rice on the counter. His face screwed up with disgust and he threw that out too.
His fantasy man actually ate moths. He cringed and giggled, putting the shopping bags up on the counter. Then he took a photo of Shouga's notes and sent them to Bianca. SHOGGA IS GONE. CAN YOU TRANSLATE THIS?
In the middle of putting the shopping away, Bianca replied. CINDY SAYS YOU MAY HAVE OFFENDED HIM WITH YOUR TERRIBLE JAPANESE. SHE IS HUNTING HIM DOWN.
Stephen gulped. He sat down at the table and placed his phone in front of him, waiting for any news.
In less than a minute, he had started watching the movie again. Better to take his mind off whatever Cindy might be doing to his cute new housemate.
"Hey, you! Ramen-breath!"
Shouga finished his big slurp of noodles and looked behind him to see an angry lady dressed in shiny black clothes. The rest of the customers had parted to let her through. They were already familiar with her from a few nights ago.
Shouga turned around on his stool and slurped some broth the bowl. "What do you want?"
Cindy fumed. "You will show me the proper respect!"
Shouga scoffed. "Huh." He picked a piece of pork out of the broth and popped it in his mouth. "You're the one interrupting me!" He turned back to the counter and continued slurping away.
Cindy roared with fury. The rest of the crowd shrank back with terrified murmurs. One or two ran for their lives. Cindy slapped her riding crop down onto the counter next to Shouga with a loud whack.
Shouga neither flinched nor looked up. "Stop making funny noises and state your business, please."
Cindy lowered her eyes and growled, "I'm taking you back!"
"Good," Shouga said. "As soon as I finish my ramen, I will come with you." He slurped the broth some more and looked up at the ramen chef. "This is very good, chef! I may have to stay a little while longer to enjoy it properly!"
The ramen chef bowed. "Please, sir. The last time she was here, business was dead for days afterwards. She scared all my best customers away! I don't want to go broke!" He bowed to Cindy deferentially.
"No need to worry about her," Shouga said. "She's harmless." He chewed another piece of pork.
Cindy roared again and smacked the ramen bar with her riding crop hard enough to split the wood. The ramen chef winced.
"Oh, that'll polish right out," Shouga remarked nonchalantly. He slurped down the rest of the ramen and drank the broth. "You really know how to spoil someone's dinner, you know?"
"Move it!" Cindy roared.
Shouga threw money onto the counter. "Here's double what I owe you, chef! The ramen here is too good for you to be ruined by a crazy cow impersonator!"
Cindy shoved Shouga out the door with a snarl. She said something in Stephen's language.
Shouga smiled. "Oh, you speak Stee's language! Teach me some!"
Stephen opened the door to Shouga and Cindy.
"Shogga!" Stephen smiled. He bowed.
Shouga held up his hand in greeting. "Shut up, you idiot!" he beamed.
Stephen blinked as Shouga walked into the apartment. "Excuse me?"
Cindy grouched, fiddling with her crop. "Your friend wants to learn English. I teach him a few things." She narrowed her eyes. "Do not lose him again, Stephen."
"Hey, what za-hell?!" Shouga said cheerfully, looking at all the shopping. "I said shut up!" he smiled.
Stephen winced. "Couldn't you have taught him to say something nice?" Stephen said.
"I am not nice," Cindy scowled. She turned and walked away down the hall. Stephen shook his head and closed the door.
Stephen took out his phone. "Where did you go? I was worried."
Shouga held up his hand to stop Stephen talking. "Ah-ah." He walked over to the table and held up the note Stephen had left. "What za-hell?"
"Oh, I copied it off the translator app," Stephen said.
Shouga read Stephen's meaning off the screen and bowed his head. "OK, Steeban." He picked up all his hand-written notes and screwed them up. They would be absolutely no use. "OK."
"It's Stephen. Not Stee-ban."
Shouga furrowed his brow. He spoke into the phone. "Say it again. Slower."
Stephen looked down at his phone. "You mean my name? Stephen."
"Again." Shouga observed Stephen's lips intently. Was he doing something with his teeth?
Stephen started to feel self-conscious. "Stephen."
Shouga grinned and rubbed his top lip against his teeth. That's how he was doing it. "Ste-phen. OK!"
"That's right, Shogga. With a vuh sound. But more of an n. Stephen-n."
"OK." Shouga tried again. "Stephen."
"That's perfect!" Stephen beamed. "Very good!"
There was that sound again, Shouga thought! "Vuh-vuh-very good! OK!" he said, feeling the words take shape in his mouth. Just like any other kind of transformation, Shouga thought.
"Wow Shogga, you're a quick learner!" Stephen said as Shouga started unpacking Stephen's food from the cupboard. "What are you doing? Are you hungry?"
Time to learn how Stephen's language is written before he gets kicked out of the building again, Shouga thought to himself. He held up the weird jar with the yellow label from earlier in the day.
Stephen grinned. "Vegemite."
"Vegemite," Shouga nodded. He looked at the label again and pointed to the most prominent bit of writing. "Vegemite?"
Shouga shook his head and spoke in Japanese. "Please show me how your writing works."
Stephen blinked at the text on his phone. "Right now? English spelling is kind of hard, Shogga. I've had a long day."
"Please, Stephen. Just a few words. I am eager to learn." Shouga bowed to him. "Show me 'vegemite'."
"Fine." Stephen said, writing out the word 'vegemite' on a piece of paper, then running the tip of the pencil along the page. "Vvv-ehh-dge-ee-mm-eye-t."
Shouga pointed to the final e. "What about that one?"
"That last letter means this letter is an 'eye' sound," Stephen explained. "Otherwise, it would be an 'ih'."
The translator was suddenly having trouble. Shouga looked confused for a moment. He covered the last e of 'vegemite' with a finger. "Vege-mit..." Then he uncovered it. "Vege-mite? OK?"
Stephen's eyes widened. "That's right! Wow, you're really smart!"
Shouga grinned broadly. "That's right!" he repeated. He walked back into the kitchen and picked up the unopened package with the sweet contents. He studied the most prominent letters again now that he knew some of them. "Tim.. ?" he started.
"Tam!" Stephen laughed. "Those are Tim-Tams! Cripes, you are a seriously quick learner, Shogga!"
Shouga bowed, then looked at the rest of the words on the packaging. There was a lot of them. He tried to put together the words he'd heard Stephen say with the letters he already knew. He wondered how many of these symbols there were. Maybe twenty or so?
"Here," Stephen said. He slid a small poster about English spelling towards Shouga across the kitchen counter, and rested his finger on the word at the top of the list. There was a little picture of an apple next to it.
Shouga watched Stephen's lips as he said 'apple'. "Ap-ple," he repeated.
"Good!" Stephen pointed to the next word. "Bird."
"Bird," Shouga said, picking up Stephen's rounding in the 'ir'. He wondered if the English letters worked like Japanese letters cut in half.
"Very good!" Stephen smiled. "Car."
"Car," Shouga repeated. He mentally noted that the bent letter might make sounds go for longer. And yes, English letters were like half a Japanese letter. OK.
"Cereal," Shouga repeated. Was it the e which had changed the sound of the c? Maybe.
"Excellent!" Stephen smiled. "Chair."
"Chair," Shouga said, wondering if the h and the i made big changes to the c and the a. Another hypothesis.
"Awesome!" Stephen nodded. "Dog."
"Dog," Shouga repeated, noting that the g from 'vegemite' sounded different in this word the way that Japanese kanji sounded different in different words. He wondered if there was a pattern. Maybe the e? That made some of the letters come out different.
"That's great!" Stephen said. "Egg."
"Egg," Shouga nodded, noting that the e was like the first e from 'vegemite' but not the second. And the g.
Shouga's eyes narrowed. He muttered "bastard rotten thief stupid criminals" to himself in Japanese, too faint for the translator to pick up. He cleared his throat. "Fffox. Fox." That same trick with the lips against the teeth. The o was the same sound from dog. OK.
"Really good! Goat."
"Goat," Shouga repeated. The o and the a together make a different sound. Very good.
Stephen pointed to the next word. "Giraffe."
"Giraffe," Shouga repeated with a slight wince. There were extra letters all over the place there, but the g was back to sounding like it did in vegemite. The a was a different sound from before, more like a Japanese a. And there was that e at the end doing nothing. He decided whatever a giraffe was, he didn't like it.
"Hospital," Stephen said.
Shouga blinked. "Again?" He'd been too busy despising giraffes to watch Stephen's lips closely.
Stephen obliged. "Hospital."
"Hhhospital," Shouga repeated, getting his throat around the new sound. "Hospital."
"Oh, here's a good one. Ice cream!" Stephen grinned.
"Ice cream," Shouga repeated. That was a good one. The i changed, the e and the a together made the same sound as the e in vegemite, and finally he knew the letter for the r sound. He looked back at the bench and pointed: "Ice cream?"
"Yeah!" Stephen grinned. Suddenly he frowned. "Bugger! It'll be melting by now!" He leapt up and looked through the bags, then delivered the half-melted ice cream to the refrigerator. "Bugger!"
"Bugger?" Shouga repeated.
Stephen giggled. "Yeah, bugger. Like... bugger!" Stephen mimed being disappointed about something, moving his fist in a semicircle. "Bugger."
Shouga liked that word. It sounded like the word for 'stupid' in Japanese. "Very good!"
"Maybe we should put the rest of this stuff away," Stephen thought aloud. While he unpacked the shopping, Shouga looked down the list of words and wondered if he knew any of them already. He'd counted twenty six letters in total by the time Stephen came back to him.
Shouga grinned. "OK?"
Stephen nodded. "OK!" He pointed to the next word in the chart. "Japan."
That was the same sound as the g from earlier, Shouga thought, but with no e to be found. "Japan," he repeated, deep in thought...
Stephen's apartment was lit only from the street lights and his mobile phone.
Bianca had texted him. HE SERIOUSLY LEARNT TO READ THE ALPHABET IN ONE NIGHT?
Stephen texted back. YEAH PRETTY MUCH. I GUESS IF HE ALREADY KNOWS JAPANESE OUR ALPHABET IS NOT SO HARD. He looked across at the sleeping lump on the bed next to him. Stephen had gently rolled him over onto his side to stop him snoring. It had half-worked.
Bianca's message came back. SOUNDS LIKE YOUR BOY IS A BIG CUTE GENIUS
Stephen smirked and texted back. HE DOESN'T SOUND LIKE A GENIUS. HIS SPOKEN ENGLISH IS STILL PRETTY BASIC.
Bianca's reply didn't mince words. HEY YOU JERK CUT SHRIMPY SOME SLACK. GUARANTEED YOU WOULD SOUND LIKE A COMPLETE RETARD IN JAPANESE IF YOU EVER BOTHERED TO SPEAK IT.
Stephen giggled to himself. GOOD THING I NEVER SPEAK IT THEN RIGHT? LOL. He put his phone away with a yawn and snuggled under his sheets. Shouga's breath rose and fell with a slow rhythm that lulled Stephen off to sleep in no time.
Two floors up, Bianca deleted her reply of YOU DON'T DESERVE HIM. Too cruel, even by her standards.
"Who are you texting at this time of the night, Bee?" came a yawn from the bed next to her.
"Just that gay kid I've been spending time with," she said. "He can be such a little twerp." She put her phone down on her nightstand. "Sorry baby. I'm putting him away for the night. I'm all yours."
The Japanese man in Bianca's bed slid his arms around her and kissed her neck. "I'm glad, because I have some very urgent questions about conjugation."
"Oh?" Bianca smiled. "Well, it's a good thing I'm here to teach you." She kissed the man on the lips and sucked at them playfully.
"Then let's start with my favourite verb," the man grinned, loosening his belt.
Shouga felt an immense amount of control as he flicked the channels of the TV up and down. He'd only ever seen screens that just played whatever they liked. This screen was his now. All his. This was definitely worth getting up early for.
Stephen was packing books and other stuff into his satchel. "There's some DVDs in the cupboard there if you get bored of the TV. All of them are in English. Oh, you can switch between Japanese and English with these buttons, and subtitles with these buttons." He left a heavy book on the table. "This is a dictionary in case you need to look any words up. My family bought it for me before I came up here. You can have it for today."
Shouga watched the translator app do its work. "Thank you, Stephen!" he said in English. He held the phone up. "Can you get me one of these?" he asked in Japanese.
Stephen sucked air through his teeth at the words on the screen. "Ooh, I don't know. They're expensive. I could ask Bianca if she has one spare, but I think she'll just tell me to learn more Japanese." He shrugged. "She's getting a bit shirty about it."
"When do you want to learn some Japanese anyway?" Shouga asked.
Stephen grinned awkwardly. "Maybe this weekend? We'll see." He took his phone and showed Shouga the translation on the screen. Shouga's reaction was a non-committal nod and grunt. "OK. Have fun today, Shouga!"
"OK!" Shouga said. "Have fun, Stephen!" He pumped his fist, adding, "Ganbaruzo!"
"Thanks!" Stephen said. He bowed and closed the front door behind him.
Shouga's ears pricked up as he heard a familiar voice talking to Stephen from the hallway. The superintendent was talking to him. He winced.
The front door swung back open. Stephen was waiting to one side in the hall looking apologetic. The superintendent looked shocked to see him.
Shouga decided on a immediate charm offensive. "Good morning, sir!" Shouga waved, cup of tea in hand, as the superintendent barged in.
The superintendent locked eyes with Shouga and pointed. "You! What are you doing here?" He closed the front door behind him.
"I am the foreigner's private Japanese tutor," Shouga replied.
The superintendent frowned. "Oh? First you're a chair inspector, now you're a Japanese tutor. What about tomorrow? A fishmonger? A sumo wrestler, maybe?"
Shouga put his tea down and bowed to the superintendent. "I apologise for not being forthright yesterday, sir. Stephen and I have a language learning arrangement. He is teaching me English, I am teaching him Japanese. It's as simple as that." He bowed again.
"Arrangement or not, this is not a hotel," the superintendent barked.
Shouga bowed once more. "I'm ashamed to say I can't afford to stay in a hotel and I have no relatives living in this part of the country. I am forced to impose on Stephen's hospitality until I find alternative arrangements."
"Show me some of your English, then," the superintendent said. He switched to English. "Or out you go."
Shouga realised he'd have to go for broke with what he had. "Hey, what za-hell! Shut up, you idiot giraffe mother yellow chair!" he said in a mixture of Cindy's and Stephen's accents. Shouga bowed.
The superintendent blinked. "That was complete nonsense," he said in Japanese. He looked Shouga up and down.
Shouga gulped. Had he blown it?
The superintendent suddenly bowed. "Please don't be conspicuous. I understand your situation, so please understand mine in return." He hesitated for a moment, then added, "I also hope you are willing to do some odd jobs for me around the building now and then."
"Of course!" Shouga bowed low and long, closing his eyes. "Thank you very much, sir." He waited for the superintendent to leave. The superintendent said a few words to Stephen. Shouga cracked open one eye to see Stephen nodding, then smiling and bowing through a crack in the doorway. Stephen noticed Shouga looking at him and gave him a thumbs up. Shouga threw him a thumbs up back and grinned.
"I guess he's not so bad after all," Shouga thought to himself. He sipped his cup of tea and unmuted the television, then looked through the DVDs on the shelf for an English one. "Let's get learning."
Stephen sat down on Bianca's other side with a grin. "How's it going, Bianca?"
Bianca shrugged. "It's going."
Stephen waited for the amount of time it would take Bianca to ask what was going on, then told her anyway. "The superintendent said it was OK for Shogga to stay with me. So that's pretty cool."
Bianca shrugged again. "Yeah, pretty cool."
Stephen shook his head and smiled. "What's happening with you?"
Bianca shot Stephen a look which was a faint mixture of irritation and boredom. "What do you care? You landed your big fat seafood boy, good for you." She poked at her rice. "You're welcome, by the way."
Stephen frowned. "What's wrong?"
"Just having a day, Stevie," Bianca sighed. She stabbed her chopsticks into her rice and spoke without looking at him. "You've got your guy, maybe one day you'll actually end up making sweet chubby love. Hooray."
"Are you OK?"
She turned to face him. "Not really," she said. "Sorry for being in a mood. I'm not enjoying it either."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Stephen asked.
"Wait it out." Bianca smiled faintly. "And text me when your boy does something cute."
Stephen smiled. "I can do that."
"It's about Mabo, it's about the vibe," Shouga said, copying the scruffy man on the television. He had found a movie about a family that looked like Stephen, so he'd started with that one. They spoke a little differently to Stephen, but close enough.
"Vibe," he thought to himself. "What's vibe?"
He chanced to look over at the dictionary. He rewound the video a little bit and paused it when the subtitle showed up.
"Vibe," he said aloud. He tried looking it up in the dictionary but couldn't find it, though he did find another word that started the same: 'vibrate'. He wondered what vibrating had to do with whatever Mabo was, though to look at the word Mabo he'd expect it to sound like 'may-bo'. Why did it sound different?
He tried looking Mabo up in the dictionary and couldn't find anything like it. Maybe Mabo was a foreign name, Shouga thought. Otherwise, his name would have sounded like may-bo. He'd have to ask Stephen about it.
He started the video going again and kept watching the messy guy in the tie converse with the mystified older woman.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door and a woman with Stephen's accent was speaking to him. "Hoy, Stevo, you sneakin' home to watch 'The Castle' again? Feeling a bit homesick, mate?" she asked.
Trying to remain unconspicuous, Shouga tried to put on Stephen's voice. "Yeah, mate," he said.
The human on the other side of the door bought it. "Can I watch too?"
Shouga suddenly felt like an idiot. What to say? Finally, he replied, "Nah, mate."
The voice on the other side of the door souneded discouraged. "Righto, well.. you take care then, Stevo. Seeya mate!"
"Righto, seeya mate!" Shouga said as Stephen. He rewound the video to where she'd interrupted him and kept watching. He beamed at how inconspicuous he was being. If he played his cards right, the superintendent wouldn't even know he was here.
The superintendent chose that moment to walk through the door without knocking. "Are you ok, Stephen?" in English. He looked around. "Where's Stephen?" he asked Shouga in Japanese.
"Stephen is at school," Shouga replied. "You should really knock before you come in, sir."
The superintendent frowned. "Don't you have somewhere else to be? I don't want any trouble."
Shouga explained, "I apologise, but I am a very intensive learner, see?" He held up the dictionary and pointed to the screen. "This is my personal learning style."
The superintendent nodded. "Be that as it may, you were attracting attention from the hallway." He bowed. "I hate to ask, but would it be too much trouble for you to watch with the sound muted?"
Shouga scowled. "How am I meant to read and listen with the sound turned off? It is ineffective!"
"Nevertheless, please mute the sound if you're going to keep watching." The superintendent reached over for the remote and hit the mute button. He bowed and left Shouga alone in the room.
Shouga grumbled, tried to watch the rest of the scene and gave up. He pulled the dictionary over with a huff and started to look up words he already knew. He noticed yet another alphabet alongside the English words. What was that all about, he wondered.
It took him a few minutes to get it and when he did, he stood upright from the table with a triumphant grunt. "That's how you say the words instead of how you spell the words," he grinned. "Just like kana! Very helpful!"
The superintendent instantly banged on the door. "Quiet in there!"
Shouga grinned at the door and set to work silently pronouncing each word in the dictionary, starting with 'abacus'. Then he noticed a section where the edges of the pages turned blue. He opened it to find a description of how English fit together.
"Now this is the really good stuff!" Shouga grinned. And he began to read.
"There's a cat on the mat," Stephen said. The rest of the class could see he was a little crestfallen.
Mr Tanaka held up his hand to the class. "Stephen, perhaps you you could enunciate that properly please?"
Stephen nodded. "Sorry." He bowed. "There's a cat-t on the mat-t."
"There's a cat on the mat," the class replied.
The bell rang. Thank god for that. There was less giggling today as the children filed out of the class. Less bows.
Tanaka crossed his arms and made a show of sighing. "What's the matter, Stephen-san?"
"Just having a bad day," Stephen said.
"Miss Bianca tells me you found someone to teach you Japanese," Tanaka said. "I am happy to hear you have a Japanese friend."
Stephen couldn't hide his grin for long. "Yeah.'
Tanaka's eyes lit up. "Oh, more than just a friend?"
"I hope so," Stephen smiled. "His name's Shogga."
"Ah. Is it Shoga? Or Shouga?" Tanaka asked.
"The second one, I think."
Tanaka considered it. "A very unusual name. Are you sure it's not Shoji, Shoichi? Definitely Shouga?" Stephen nodded. "Perhaps it's a nickname! Do you know what it means?"
Shouga had moved to the window to enjoy the sunset to practice more words before he found that one waiting for him like a carefully placed rat turd. The English word for the rotten stuff which got him into this mess also reminded him of 'giraffe', which seemed right. Rotten things ought to have words that sound about the same, he reasoned. He rolled his shoulders around in a broad arc to release some of the stiffness from sitting and reading most of the day.
Stephen chose that moment to walk through the door. "Hi, Shouga!"
"G'day Stephen!" Shouga said in a perfect Australian accent. "How's it goin'?"
"Yeah, good!" Stephen replied without thinking. Then it hit him who he was talking to. "Wow! All that in one day?"
"Yeah!" Shouga said. He held up the dictionary. "Bloody good book!"
Stephen laughed in disbelief. "You can speak English after just a day of watching DVDs and reading my crappy dictionary? Wow!"
Shouga shook his head. "Didn't understand that," he said in Japanese. Stephen got out his phone and repeated what he said into the translator app. "Oh! I am a very quick learner but not that quick. I train very intensively!" Shouga grinned.
Stephen nodded. "I guess that's how it is for Japanese people, right?"
Shouga shrugged. "For some of us, yes," he said. "Anyway, I will keep reading dictionaries and watching your movies for now. Oh, did you ask Miss Bianca about the phone?" He rubbed his shoulders again.
Stephen shook his head. "No, she isn't really talking to me anymore."
"Ugh," Shouga said. "I really want one of these. They're so useful. Do you know anyone else who might have one we can borrow?"
Stephen shook his head. "Not really. Bianca was my only friend here."
Shouga grinned. "What about Cindy?"
"Cindy scares me," Stephen admitted.
"Oh, she's funny!" Shouga said. "Maybe I should ask her myself." He rubbed his shoulders. "My shoulders are sore from reading all day. I might go to bed early."
"You were reading this dictionary all day?" Stephen laughed. Then he suddenly got quiet. "Do.. do you want a back massage?"
Shouga read the text on the screen and nodded. "Oh! Yes please!" he said in English. He sat on the edge of the bed with his back to Stephen and lay down on his front. "Be as firm as you can. I can take it!"
Stephen's hands quivered as he read the put his phone down. He kneeled down next to Shouga on the bed and put the palms of his hands over Shouga's shoulders, then ran his fingers over the shoulder arches either the side of Shouga's soft neck. He gripped and rubbed Shouga's shoulders, finding his flesh almost impossibly soft.
Shouga let out a slightly uncomfortable moan. "Harder, Stephen. Come on, really put some effort in!" Stephen squeaked and leaned over Shouga's body, pressing all the weight he had into Shouga's flesh.
The thought entered Shouga's mind that he would really rather be getting a back-rub without having to maintain a transformation at the same time. He had to concentrate hard to make sure Stephen felt muscle and tendon and bone where he should feel muscle and tendon and bone, to keep up the illusion that there was a normal human being lying on the bed in front of him instead of a tricky forest creature. It was interfering with his ability to relax, definitely.
"Is that OK?" Stephen asked. His fingers were getting tired.
"That's more like it," Shouga said in Japanese, inhaling and exhaling peacefully. He felt himself drifting off to sleep again in blissful relaxation.
Suddenly, the rubbing stopped. Had he done something wrong?
"Could you give me a massage too, Shouga?" Stephen asked shyly.
"No worries!" Shouga grinned woozily. He rolled off the mattress and patted the spot where he'd been. Stephen lay down with his head hanging over the edge of the bed. Shouga handed Stephen his phone in translator mode. "This is a technique I learnt from my grandmother, an old family secret. Let me know if it hurts too much."
Shouga's hands took Stephen by the shoulders and delivered a brutally deep massage all up and down his back. There was deep forceful rubbing and squeezing, grinding knuckles and elbows into his joints and the back of his skill, chopping up and down his back, expertly isolating and carefully tending to each and every section of his body. It was exhausting and Stephen's eyes were watering afterwards.
"Finished!" Shouga said, dusting his hands.
"Oh god," Stephen moaned. It was pretty much all he could say. He'd hoped for a cute little back massage and received a tour de force of mind-blowing agony.
"Are you OK, mate?" Shouga said.
"I think I'm going to pass out," Stephen said. Which he did.
Shouga patted Stephen on the flank as he got up to make dinner. "Now that is what I call a back-rub."
"He's using grandmother's shiatsu on his little friend!" a construction worked observed. "I think he might have killed him, grandfather." He was perched on top of a building opposite Stephen's apartment block with an old toy telescope.
The older construction worker at his side chuckled. "It's meant to put you into a deep sleep." He wore a faint wrinkled grin. "After a long day out with the humans, it was the best feeling to get all of those shapes massaged out of you before going to sleep. I do miss grandmother's shiatsu. I'm glad someone remembers it." He patted his colleague on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's go home before it gets too dark."
Two round shadows bobbed undetected along the top silhouette of the building before disappearing under the dark shape's edges.
Stephen awoke with a groan. He looked up and found Shouga sitting on the bed reading the dictionary. "Good morning," Shouga smiled.
"Is it morning already?" Stephen said. "What time is it?"
"Half past eleven at night."
"Did I miss dinner?" Stephen said, getting up onto his elbows.
Shouga yawned. "I was waiting for you to wake up." His belly gurgled. "We can have a snack."
"You were kind of rough on me before," Stephen said. "I have never had a massage like that." His brain was still swirling. "I thought I was going to be sick."
Shouga leaned down and looked at the translation spilling onto the screen. "Sorry. Back-rub must mean something different in Australia to Japan." He was feeling quietly proud that he'd remembered all the different energy points and muscle groups that he'd been taught as a child.
Stephen staggered to his feet. "Well, maybe be a little more gentle in future."
"It is a shiatsu. Not tickling," Shouga complained dismissively.
Tickling would be fine, Stephen thought to himself. I'd love tickling. He stretched himself out and found that even though he was in a lot of pain, he was a lot looser than before. Looser than he'd ever felt. He gave a little grunt of approval as he stretched back and forth experimentally.
"You see?" Shouga beamed, in English. "It's good for you!"
"Mm!" Stephen grinned. "OK. I guess so." His imagination suddenly recalled a fantasy where he found himself changing into a tanuki under the influence of a magical spell. Maybe it would feel like he felt now. He blushed at the thought of it and ambled into the kitchen sleepily to look for a pre-bed snack. He decided on rice crackers and brought them back to the bed. "I feel really great now that I've moved around, actually."
Shouga nodded. "My pleasure." He took a rice cracker and chewed it thoughtfully as he read the dictionary.
Stephen pottered in and out of the bathroom to change into his pyjamas, then crawled under the sheets. His whole body was pulsing with sensation in time with his heartbeat. He had never felt like this in his life before. It had the same wooziness as being drunk, but with a blazing euphoria. The blood rushed in his ears. His heart thumped. He groaned and rubbed his cheek against the soft pillow. What was going on? What was happening to him? He felt the world falling away.
Shouga looked down from the dictionary, then looked back. He grinned to himself quietly and turned the page. "Sweet dreams," he said in Japanese, taking the packet of rice crackers away from him and picking up Stephen's phone.
Stephen moaned something indecipherable back at him, tumbling into a deep sleep.
"Shogga? Shogga... mmmhhh..."
Shouga awoke at the sound of his name. He looked over to see Stephen asleep and dreaming. He went to wake Stephen up, but then thought better of it.
"Touch me, Shogga... touch me there..."
Shouga's eyes widened. Touch him where, exactly? And for what purpose. He inched a little further away from Stephen on the bed.
Stephen murmured, "I want to be... a cute raccoon... like you, Shogga..."
Shouga got out of bed and headed straight for the dictionary. "Raccoon, raccoon, what is he talking about?" he whispered to himself.
"Make me a.. ruh.. oh... I can feel it... oh Shogga..."
Shouga furrowed his brow. "R... a... c... - here." There were two definitions. One was just the Japanese spelling of raccoon. The other felt like an electric shock up his spine.
"Tanuki," Shouga said aloud. He looked across at Stephen who was rubbing his hands together clumsily in his sleep.
"Paws.. I have.. paws... I love you, Shogga..."
Shouga couldn't decide for himself which was more disturbing. He sat at the table, unsure if he wanted to go back to bed. Or even stay in the same room. Or the same city.
Then he thought of the alternative. Screaming wife. Babies. Humiliation.
Shouga watched Stephen with bemusement as the sleeping man rubbed his torso sensuously. "You're lucky I am having such bad luck lately, Stephen." He waited in the darkness for Stephen's strange dream to end.
Stephen awoke the next morning with Shouga snoring away at his side, sleeping above his covers. He rolled his soft body over onto one side and the snoring subsided.
"God you're cute," he thought to himself.
He still felt absolutely amazing, if a little sore. He got up and had his usual shower. He wondered why he felt so different. Maybe that was the power of a good massage? he thought. He'd never had one so vigorous before.
Stephen started fantasising about Shouga again. He locked the door of the bathroom and turned the shower on. Mostly to mask out the sound of what he was about to do.
Shouga's massage had made him feel very good. And, to his delight, he remembered some dreams he'd had as well. Very good dreams.
He never remembered his dreams usually.
Shouga rolled back onto his back and awoke with a start. He looked around groggily, then turned his ears towards the shower. He listened closely, then very closely, then he realised what he was hearing and rolled his eyes. "Of course." He guessed this wouldn't be the last morning he heard it, either.
In the light of the morning, Shouga found his situation to have the stink of a set-up. He decided to stick it out with Stephen based on that hunch alone. He wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of watching him freak out and run away. He had made a mental note to find the fox who drew that document of sentencing up and make them suffer. He decided Bianca was the likeliest suspsect in all that.
Some common sense decisions had come to him the previous evening, however. Shouga had made up his mind that it would be safest not to even mention tanuki, to feign complete ignorance of tanuki, to forget he even was a tanuki if that's what it took. It was better not to even mention that he knew what he knew. Better to not even say the word. Better to act confused, mishear the word as something else if he could. Even if it made him look like an idiot. That small humiliation would be an easy price to pay.
He'd come to that conclusion at around three or four in the morning, just around the time he heard Stephen's sleep talking turn into strained little squeaks. He wondered what it could have meant until he saw Stephen kicking his legs like he was running along on all fours. Evidently, Stephen had become a tanuki inside his own dream.
Shouga began to wonder if the massage had done something to his new housemate, but concluded it couldn't have. But he couldn't be sure. It was a strange coincidence nonetheless. Magic didn't flow from person to person like that, surely, even if he was very magical.
Or maybe it was one of his brothers doing a possession on Stephen, just to mess with him. He couldn't decide.
Bathed in mid-morning sun, Shouga fluffed his pillow and rolled back over and fell asleep again. He scratched his belly idly.
"Day four," he mumbled to himself with the sun shining on his naked back. It felt very good.
He suddenly heard Stephen squeak loudly from the bathroom, then immediately stuffed his face into his pillow to muffle the sound of his giggled groans. He turned over in the bed and looked across the road into a construction site.
On one of the lower floors, something moved very quickly. Almost like it was something that didn't want to be seen. But maybe just a little bit.
Shouga blinked and a smile crept slowly over his face. "So that's what you're up to, grandfather."
From across the street, a cloud of dust was settling on the bare concrete floor over two sets of tanuki pawprints.
"Surely he saw you, grandfather," the fat tanuki's brother said.
"He was meant to," the old tanuki said. "He still has responsibilities, after all."
Stephen found it difficult to make eye contact that afternoon as Shouga tried to teach him Japanese phonetic writing.
"First sound," Shouga said. "Ah."
"Ah," Stephen mimicked.
"Now let's write it. Kakimashou!" He wrote the three strokes character for 'a' on the paper slowly. "Like this, like this, like that. Easy, isn't it? Now you try."
Stephen picked up the pen and looked at the character again. The paper seemed him like it was a thousand miles away through a dense fog. He gripped the pencil and started to write the first two lines of the character, then the pencil fell out of his hands.
"Hey Stephen!" Shouga said, shaking Stephen gently by the shoulder. "What's wrong with you today?"
"I am feeling really strange," Stephen said. "Like I'm going to burst or.. I don't know. I'm just full of really weird energy right now, you know?"
Shouga shrugged. "I don't know what you mean."
Stephen exhaled. "I had some really intense dreams this morning and I think they blew my mind a bit. A lot." He closed his eyes and rubbed his chest tiredly with one hand. "I'm just restless all over."
"What was your dream?" Shouga asked. May as well see if he's willing to talk about it.
Stephen looked at Shouga and blushed. "I don't want to say." Stephen lay down on the floor and writhed slowly.
He looks like he's in heat or something, Shouga thought.
"I don't know what's happening to me," Stephen swooned. "I feel like I'm full of weird magical energy or something." He started to make his little squeaks again and curl up in the foetal position with a dreamy grin.
"OK, I'll be back," Shouga sighed, standing up and walking to the door. He hesitated. "Try to write the rest of the letter ah if you can."
"Hoi! I know you're here! We need to talk!"
Shouga strode around the dusty construction site. He looked around and grumbled.
"Come out, grandfather!"
"What's the matter, grandson?" said a voice from nowhere in particular.
Shouga looked around for the source of the voice and scoffed. "Fine. If that's how you want to behave. I used grandmother's shiatsu on someone and now they're acting all weird."
"Of course they are! It's meant to get the energies flowing," grinned the voice. "The deeper and longer-held the desire, the stronger it comes on."
Shouga nodded. "I'm worried I might have cursed him or something."
The construction worker stepped out of the shadows. "Don't be stupid. It's just a really good massage. He'll be fine soon enough."
"Well, what can I do in the meantime? He's being a real handful!"
"Enjoy the show!" the construction worker giggled. "That's what we used to do in the old days."
"I'm more concerned about who is watching this show and who is performing," Shouga grumbled. "It's pretty low to possess a human in order to make a fool of a fellow tanuki. I'm sure it's not allowed."
It was the construction worker's turn to look surprised. "He's not possessed, if that's what you're implying. It's probably just the stress of being away from home."
"It's much more than that." Shouga sighed. "It's his dream to fall in love with me and become a tanuki himself. It's extremely awkward." Shouga looked at the ground.
The construction worker blinked. "Are you sure?"
Shouga nodded. "Yes."
The construction worker mused. "So he wants to be a woman as well as a tanuki?"
"No, just the tanuki part. He mentioned the kintama." Shouga shrugged. "Could I have given him this desire somehow?"
"Perhaps it is the other way around," the construction worker said. "He may have seen a tanuki-like human and decided to begin fulfilling his desires. Perhaps you didn't give it to him, but you're certainly inflaming it!" He chuckled at Shoga. "I always said if you didn't work on your subterfuge or it would get you into trouble somehow!"
"Well I see that now!" Shouga complained.
The construction worker stood dumbfounded for a few moments. "But why would he want to be a tanuki anyway? It's a very hard life."
Shouga grunted in agreement. "Harder than ever, I'd say!" He looked across to the window where he could see Stephen taking yet another shower. "I don't suppose you'd tell me if the foxes were involved. It's all too big a coincidence for me to..."
Shouga found himself alone again. He grumbled to himself as he made his way back out of the construction site and wondered what he'd come back to.
"Do I look any different?" Stephen asked.
"For the fiftieth time, no." Shouga was on his third bowl of miso. Miso usually helped him feel better. He calculated he would need maybe two thousand bowls of miso at this rate.
"Seriously, is my face any different?" Stephen chattered. "I swear I feel my nose growing. I'm itchy. Are you itchy? Is it hot in here? I feel so weird." He giggled to himself and headed back into the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror.
Shouga winced as he heard Stephen smacking his belly and saying 'pon' to himself. "What are you doing?" Shouga asked.
"Just checking something!" Stephen said. "Do you know anything about.. toonookis?"
Shouga swore to himself under his breath. "It's 'tanuki', you idiot." He raised his voice. "Come and finish writing the alphabet. It will take your mind away from whatever this is."
Stephen gasped from the bathroom. "Oh my god, I can feel it starting! I can feel it!" He giggled nervously.
Shouga groaned. "What is starting, Stephen?"
"I'm changing!" Stephen said. "I can feel it!"
"That's not possible," Shouga said, putting his head in his hands. "You're just.." He looked up a word in the dictionary. "You are over-stressed." He closed the dictionary again. "Me too, very over-stressed," he thought.
Stephen's excitement died down. "I'm over-stressed? What do you mean?"
Shouga walked towards the bathroom where Stephen was losing his mind. "You're away from home for the first time. You work six days every week. Your job is very.. uh.. repetitious." He leaned on the wall. "And you don't speak Japanese." He slurped the warm salty liquid and closed his eyes. "And your miso is becoming cold."
Stephen looked out of the bathroom shyly. "So all this is just a reaction to stress?"
"That's right," Shouga said. "Sometimes this happens when a person is over-stressed and gets a strong massage. Physical pain allows the expression of mental pain." He stood and bowed apologetically. "I didn't remember."
Stephen thought about it. He giggled. "Oh my god. You're right." He put his hands up to his mouth and tears started to form in the corners of his eyes. "It's all stress. You're so right." Shouga guided him back to the table. "I am incredibly over-stressed right now."
"That's right," Shouga said. "Eat something. It will help."
Stephen opened his arms. "I need a Shogga hug first."
Shouga sighed. He thought about all the weird stuff that Stephen had said during his dream, but it would have been too cruel to ignore the bloodshot wet eyes and quivering lips in front of him. "OK."
No sooner had Shouga lifted his arms up that Stephen flopped onto Shouga's chest and began to sob. He felt Shouga's soft arms envelop his body and squeeze him in a mountain of flesh. Stephen felt engulfed and protected in Shouga's embrace and rested there for a long time, sniffling occasionally and nuzzling his shoulder.
"I'm so scared," Stephen finally said, throat full of tension.
"Why scared?" Shouga asked.
Stephen sniffed. "Just everything." He turned his head and put an ear to Shouga's soft chest. He looked into Shouga's equally soft brown eyes. "I feel so helpless here. I don't know what I'm doing."
"I will help," Shouga smiled. He squeezed extra tight. "You are doing fine. OK?"
"OK," Stephen said.
"Daijoubu," Shouga said. "Try that one."
"Dye-jobbu," Stephen repeated.
Shouga couldn't help but giggle at Stephen's pronounciation. "We'll work on it when you're feeling better." He patted Stephen on the shoulder and exhaled. "For now, just relax. Dee-eep breaths."
Stephen felt the rhythm of Shouga's breath from his chest and closed his eyes.
Shouga released him from the hug and sat him down at the table. "Come on. Have some miso. It will perk you right up."
Sat at the table, Stephen suddenly felt as cold as ice away from Shouga's warmth. "Do you maybe want to watch a movie later?"
Shouga lay awake again while Stephen murmured in his sleep, quieter this time. All the way through the movies and even now, he wondered if the hug had gone too far. Stephen definitely needed something, and Shouga felt bad just putting him back in front of his miso like that. But with the way Stephen felt towards him, Shouga felt it only fair to maintain a little distance.
At least, Shouga was assuming that dream chatter was anything to go by and not just crazy dreams. He wished he had a way to know for sure beyond just asking outright.
He yawned and continued reading to the end of the grammar chapter of the dictionary, then closed it with a pop.
"OK. Time to sleep on all this."
He put the book down, then looked at Stephen's sleeping head. He briefly pondered creating the illusion that he had a set of whiskers and a black snout which would tickle for a moment then vanish as soon as he woke up, but decided against it. It was against the rules, after all.
Something in the apartment creaked. Shouga looked up. In the gloom he thought he saw something move on the bookshelf. He stood up with a groan and walked over.
To his bemusement, Shouga found a Buddhist tome of sutras and prayers sitting on the shelf alongside Stephen's collection of DVDs. He picked it up and leafed through the heavy book, read a few prayers to check they were OK, then placed it back on the shelf as quietly as he could.
"Good to see you, brother," he said. "You have all the pages right, but your choice of book doesn't fit here at all."
The book hissed back. "It's the only book I know, brother!"
Shouga fetched the the dictionary and slid it onto the shelf next to the Buddhist tome. "Here, read this one. And no stealing any treats while we're asleep!"
He walked back over to the bed, was quietly overjoyed at his own discretion not to prank Stephen with a half-awake tanuki face given that he was being spied on, then he turned off the bedside lamp and went to sleep.
Tanaka found Stephen in the common room. "So, how was your weekend, Stephen? Are you healthy?"
Stephen exhaled. "Well, it turns out my friend knows some kind of Japanese massage that makes you have a minor nervous breakdown." He shrugged. "But I'm actually feeling a lot better now that it's all out of my system. Much.. uhm.." He didn't mention the five or six hours where he thought he was going to transform into.. not a raccoon. What was it? A tee-nokey? "Looser! That's the word I was looking for."
"Oh, fascinating!" Tanaka said. "I've never heard of 'nervous breakdown massage' before. Did he tell you anything else about it? Is it Chinese, perhaps?"
"Just that his grandmother taught him how to do it." Stephen rolled his shoulders around. "Everything is still aching but deep down I feel much better." He shrugged. "I guess I had a good weekend, on the whole!"
"It sounds like you have a very good friend," Tanaka nodded. "Well, let's get to class!"
"OK!" Stephen grinned. "How was your weekend, by the way?"
"Just fine!" Tanaka answered, without elaborating any further.
"Yellow," Shouga said, pointing at the second-last word on the list.
"Yellow," the Buddhist tome repeated.
"Zebra." The book paused briefly. "So is that it? Not even thirty characters? Huh." He blinked. "And every single English word in this other book?"
"Not all," Shouga said. "But lots of them. But be sure you get the pages with the blue edges one hundred per cent correct. Otherwise the words are no good to you. And none of this will help you speak very naturally, so be careful of that." He was explaining how the pronounciation key in the dictionary worked when there came another knock on the door.
Shouga didn't even bother to pretend he was someone else. "Yes?"
"It's the superintendent."
"Please come in," Shouga said, picking up both the books and putting them back on the shelf. "What's the matter?"
"I have some chairs to unload," the superintendent said. "Please come with me."
"OK! No problem!" Shouga said, bounding over. "Let's go then."
"I appreciate it," the superintendent said. "Right this way." The door closed behind them.
A little hand reached out from the Buddhist tome and turned to the first page of the dictionary.
"Abacus," it murmured to itself.
Stephen didn't expect Bianca to sit down next to him, let alone with a box of fancy chocolates, but that's exactly what happened to him that lunchtime.
"So, I wanted to apologise for being such a bitch before," Bianca said. "I guess I was a little bummed that you found your guy, like.. you even said to Cindy it felt like I was breaking up with you." She slid the chocolates towards Stephen and grimaced. "Cindy suggested these."
"Oh," was all Stephen could say. "Sorry, I really landed you in it, right?"
"You sure did, Stevie," Bianca laughed. "She was not happy with me at all."
"In a bad way or a good way?" Stephen giggled.
"Let's say she's not big on broken hearts," Bianca nodded and smiled. "Speaking of big, how's your big boy?"
"He's wonderful," Stephen smiled. "He's absolutely wonderful."
"Cute, cuddly and magical, as requested?" Bianca noticed a different expression in Stephen's face. Less starry-eyed, more wistful and appreciative.
Stephen nodded. "Yeah. I'm having dreams about him and everything." He blushed.
"Looks like you've gone from crush to actual love there, Stevie," she nudged him. "Be careful though, OK? I am expert in these matters. Men are all garbage. Just pick a garbage that stinks the least to you."
Stephen smiled. "I guess so." He patted the chocolates. "Thanks for these. Do you want one?"
"Thought you'd never ask," Bianca said, tearing the wrapper off. "Oh, dibs on the caramel!"
"Bags the turkish delight!"
"So where are you from, Shouga? Somewhere in Japan, I take it?"
Shouga froze. Damnit. He hadn't figured all this out yet. Of course the superintendent was going to give him the third degree. "Well, my family is originally from around here, but my grandmother moved our family away up to Hokkaido for the cooler weather." He unloaded another stack of plastic-wrapped chairs off the truck onto the storeroom floor and rubbed his sleeve against his forehead. Was he making too much sweat? Nobody seemed to say anything.
"So your family is from here originally. Do you have maybe distant relatives living around here?"
"I don't know for sure," Shouga said. "My grandmother said they all moved somewhere else and they lost touch." And that's the truth, Shouga thought, strictly speaking.
"But you can find out, surely." The superintendent said. "I was happy for you to stay a couple of days, but please remember your living arrangements with Stephen are ultimately at my discretion. I have to know you're not taking advantage of anyone's good will here." He counted the chairs on the ground.
"Of course," Shouga said. He strained and lifted another stack of chairs onto the ground. The superintendent counted that stack too. "I think that's the last of them."
The superintendent smiled. "Unfortunately, they have sent us the wrong chairs. I just noticed this now. Could you put all of these chairs back on the truck for me, Shouga?"
Shouga blinked. "You only just noticed now?"
The superintendent shrugged. "The light in here is a little dim, so I only just noticed that the chairs are coloured light brown instead of the peach we ordered."
Shoga read off the label on the plastic wrapping. "The label says peach though, superintendent."
"Yes, so clearly their shipping department was not paying attention." He patted the chairs. "You'd better load them back up, just in case. I'll call to make sure." He diasppeared out of the storeroom and left Shouga to it.
Shouga looked around at the twenty piles of chairs he'd just unloaded. He grumbled to himself. "Peach, light brown, who cares. It's just a c-h-a-i-r."
Stephen sighed and turned the key in his door. He almost hoped Shouga wouldn't be at his place so he didn't have to face him. It had been a small mercy that he'd managed to get ready for school without disturbing him. But now, the conversation about the previous evening.
The apartment was empty.
Stephen dropped his bag on the kitchen counter. The bathroom door was open and the light was off.
The window was still open. Stephen closed it and scratched the back of his head in confusion. Had he run off again?
Stephen heard Shouga and the superintendent walking up the hall chatting amongst themselves amicably in Japanese, followed by the sound of the keys turning in the lock.
Shouga grinned and walked into the apartment covered head to toe in dust and filth. "Good evening, Stephen!"
"Hi," Stephen said. "You've been busy?"
"Very busy," the superintendent said. "Your friend volunteered to help me with my work today."
Shouga bowed. "I hope that's OK. He had a lot of chairs to move."
"Well, I hope you had a fun day!"
"Lots of fun, yes," the superintendent smiled. "Have a pleasant evening." He closed the door behind Shouga and walked away.
Stephen began to say "What hap-" when Shouga held a finger to his mouth, waiting for the footsteps to grow sufficiently quiet. Stephen took his phone out of his pocket and got the translator started.
Shouga led Stephen towards the window, opened it to let the traffic noise in, and whispered, "The superintendent made me unload chairs and load them back on a truck all day for no good reason."
"Why would he do that?" Stephen asked.
"I don't know!" Shouga replied. "He's really mean to me. Maybe he thinks I'm a criminal on the run or something."
Stephen hesitated. "Are you?"
"No!" Shouga said in English. He switched back to Japanese. "Just keep an eye out for me, OK? He's up to something. I know his type."
"What is his type?"
"He's like a fox," Shouga said. "Very sneaky, always scheming something."
"He sounds like Bianca," Stephen grinned.
Shouga grinned brightly. "Yes, just like Bianca!" He sniffed. "I'm going to take a shower and get this dust off me. Then let's go out."
"Where do you want to go?"
"Anywhere without superintendents," Shouga said. He grinned and went into the bathroom, then closed the door behind him.
Stephen grinned. Somewhere without superintendents where two guys could relax after a hard day. Bianca might know a place.
Shouga washed the dirt off his face and checked himself in the mirror. He wasn't sure whether his nose was too big or too small. He turned side-on and looked at his belly from both angles, then his hands and feet. Then he checked his ears and chin.
"All looks pretty good to me," he thought.
He ran the water in the shower and suddenly noticed a loofah hanging on the stand. He didn't remember seeing it there before.
"So, another disguise?" he said aloud. He saw the loofah twitch slightly. "Well, maybe you don't know what one of these is for, so I'd better show you." He started lathering his shoulders and hair up with a wicked grin.
When he went to pick up the loofah, it had turned into an ornamental candle. "That's a much better disguise. Nobody's going to scrub themselves with a candle." He placed the candle gently next to the basin and bowed. "Although you might get lit on fire." A flame leapt from the top of the candle and the smell of spring fragrance entered the room. "Very good! Keep that up for five minutes while I get clean and then I'll let you outside."
The candle bowed. Shouga grinned.
"Who were you talking to?" Stephen said.
"Just myself," Shouga said, drying his hair. "I like to talk to myself when I'm thinking. I was thinking about our friend the superintendent, actually."
The corner of Stephen's mouth cracked a smile as he read his phone. "Oh?"
"Do you know much about him?" Shouga sipped some miso.
"I've only been here for a week or so," Stephen shrugged. "He's friendly."
Shouga smirked and shook his head. "Friendly to foreigners, maybe. He seems to treat his fellow Japanese like dirt." Maybe he could use that to his advantage, he thought.
"Oh right, like someone who's happy to eat Chinese food but makes fun of Chinese people when they're not around, like the thing with their eyes?"
"What thing with the eyes?"
"You know, this thing." Stephen put his fingers next to his eyes and pulled the skin back like they used to do when they were schoolkids. He added the gibberish they used to use to mock Mr Lao at the Chinese restaurant as he chased them out of kitchen when they tried to steal his big knives. "Sorry, I guess that's a bit racist." Stephen went quiet and looked into his bowl of miso.
Shouga slurped his miso in silence, unsure how to react. He gave a non-committal shrug.
Stephen's phone buzzed with a text message. "Oh, good." Shouga recognised Bianca's name in the English writing. "Bianca's coming down to get us in a second. She's bringing a date!"
There was a knock at the door.
"Literally a second, I guess."
"I'll get it." Shouga put his miso down on the counter and opened the door. He found Bianca and a stoned-looking well-dressed guy with spiky hair behind her. "Konbanwa, minna-san."
"Boys." Bianca said. She gestured behind her. "This is Takusan."
Shouga giggled at the pun. "Takusan nani ka?" he asked in Japanese. Lots of what?
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Bianca flirted.
Shouga raised his eyebrows.
The three of them hit a bar. Bianca was out on the dancefloor grinding alongside Takusan who seemed to be experiencing life in slow-motion for most of the evening. Shouga and Stephen hung back at their little table. They'd found the translator completely useless in the din of the nightclub.
"Do you like this?" Shouga asked, gesturing around at the noise and lights. He had a shot glass of cheap, strong sake. He was having trouble summoning up the will to drink it. "It's very.. too much."
"Not really," Stephen said. "But we're out of the apartment."
Shouga nodded. "Yeah. No more chairs." He held up his shot glass and clinked it against Stephen's. "Kanpai."
"What was that?" Stephen asked, sitting up and leaning in.
"Kanpai!" Shouga grinned. "You say kanpai before you drink."
Stephen's eyes sparked with recognition. "Oh! Like 'cheers' or 'get one up ya'."
"What?" Shouga asked. "Say again?"
"Get one up ya!" Stephen laughed, clinking his drink.
"Get one up ya!" Shouga repeated, chuckling. "Now you say mine."
"I've already forgotten it," Stephen giggled. "Sorry!"
"Yeah, sure," Shouga said, drinking his glass. He noticed two giggling Japanese women make their way over to his table.
"Can we sit with you?" they asked Shouga.
Shouga shrugged. "You might be bored." He gestured to Stephen. "He only speaks English and I'm already teaching him Japanese."
"You don't look like a Japanese teacher," one of the girls rebuffed. "Young men learn Japanese better from young women. It's a fact." She waved at Stephen. "Hai! Hawayu!"
"What's goin' on?" Stephen asked.
"She wants to teach you Japanese," Shouga said in English. "She says women are better teachers for men."
Stephen frowned and looked at the women. "I've got my Japanese teacher right here. Go away." He curled his arms around Shouga's bicep and snuggled up.
Shouga stiffened up in his chair and tried not to look shocked. "You heard him," Shouga said in Japanese. "We're together. Buzz off."
The women looked disgusted. "You're in the wrong nightclub, you sissies."
"I'm actually very manly!" Shouga grumbled loudly, watching them leave. Stephen was still snuggled up on his bicep.
One of the bar staff was at their table in a flash. "I'm sorry. If you two can't control yourselves, we'll have to ask you to leave." He bowed apologetically.
"Who said anything about losing control?" Shouga said. Shouga beckoned the bar staff closer. He whispered, "We're hunting small time criminals here, people who prey on foreign exchange students. He's my bait for the night." Shouga winked.
"We don't have any criminals here," the bar staff said.
"That's why this is a perfect place to catch criminals," Shouga replied. He slid the shot glass over. "Just act normal, OK? We'll be moving along to the next bar shortly."
The bar staff narrowed her eyes. "Please tell your partner to calm down in any case." She clinked the shot glasses together in her hands and removed the from the table.
Shouga patted Stephen away. "Stop squeezing me." Stephen didn't stop.
Shouga explained the situation to Bianca afterwards as they were walking through the night markets. "We probably can't go back to that place again. I told them we were undercover police on a stake-out."
Bianca laughed through her tempura. "That's hilarious!" She turned to Stephen. "Did Shouga tell you what he said?"
"He said you were undercover cops on a sting," Bianca grinned. "Oh well, you didn't seem to really like that place much anyway."
Stephen shook his head. "My ears are still ringing." He hugged up to Shouga's side in the chill of the evening. "And we pretty much got kicked out for a little snuggle. Bit bullshit."
"Yeah, double standards are garbage," Bianca commiserated. She nudged Shouga and switched back to Japanese. "You seem like you enjoy quiet stuff too. Maybe you should show him around a bit yourself. It might inspire him to learn Japanese a bit more."
Shouga blinked. "What should I show him?"
Bianca made a big gesture with her hands, scattering a few stray crumbs of tempura out of the container she was holding. "I don't know, man! You're Japanese, you know your own country. Start with the stuff you like and then maybe you'll get some ideas on what he might like." She shrugged. "Why not take him to your favourite restaurant?"
"We've already been to that place," Shouga said.
"So take him there again and this time teach him Japanese with the menu, you idiot."
Shouga nodded. "They'll already be closed though."
"Then take him tomorrow night," Bianca said. "Duh! Call it a cultural date."
Shouga blinked. "But we're not dating."
Bianca patted Stephen on the shoulder. "You should probably tell him that." She grinned and looked at Takusan. "Aren't they sweet together?"
"He looks like a tanuki holding a big sake bottle," Takusan observed through his intoxication. He started singing, "Tan-tan-tanuki no kintama wa.."
Shouga reflexively muffled Stephen's ears with his chest and shoulders. Stephen snuggled into his warmth even more and made a happy noise.
Bianca pointed off to one side. "You should get a photo!" There was a little photo booth.
"Oh! Yes!" Shouga remembered he'd been meaning to. He left Stephen and walked towards the photo booth, patting his pockets for money.
Bianca cleared her throat. "Forget something?"
"Oh, of course. Just joking, Stephen." He yanked Stephen over towards the photo booth and shoved him in.
"What are we doing?" Stephen asked, confused.
"Just a little thing I want to do," Shouga cleared his throat and concentrated. "Excuse me, but I must keep a serious face."
The countdown appeared in front of him. Shouga held his expression as neutrally as possible. He looked forward, then to the side, then to the other side. Then forward again except Stephen snuck a kiss on his cheek for the last shot.
Outside, Bianca squealed. "Oh my god! You look so surprised! That's too cute!"
Shouga rubbed the wet patch where Stephen had kissed him. Stephen was blushing again. "Sorry, Shogga. Just jokes."
Shouga grinned. "It's ok. It was a funny joke." He sighed through his nose. At least it's not a crazy tanuki wife. She definitely wouldn't stop at kisses.
The old tanuki's daughter protested. "I still don't understand why can't I come out and help you keep Shouga on the straight and narrow? I'm not exactly bad at transformations myself." She chewed a roasted chestnut. "It's sexist. That's what it is."
The old tanuki laughed. "He's spotted everyone we've sent in so far. He even found me. He is very perceptive, after all."
She wasn't finished sulking. "Well, I hate that you're using his fear of me like this. How do you think that makes me feel? I'm not that bad, am I?" She looked around at her ten children. "Kids, do I scare you?"
They shook their heads. "No way, mum. You're great!" one of them said.
"See?" she said. "I'd be a good wife to him."
"He doesn't want a wife," the fat tanuki's brother said. "Right now he has a little human husband to take care of."
"What?" the daughter blinked. "Shouga is so scared of me that he'd rather have a little human husband instead of a strong tanuki wife?" She scowled. "That's absurd!"
"Maybe that's not just fear, daughter," the old tanuki said. "Sometimes that's just how it works out. Shouga is being true to his nature for the first time."
The daughter scowled even more and snapped a chestnut in half with her sharp back teeth. "I don't see it, dad." She protested. "Let me go and see them with my own eyes."
"If it will convince you, perhaps."
Stephen sat up in bed the next morning and rubbed his eyes. He patted Shouga's sleeping shoulders. "Shogga is sleeping in, as usual," he thought to himself. He yawned and shuffled towards the bathroom.
Brushing his teeth, he noticed that Shouga had stuck the photographs from the previous evening to the bathroom mirror. Stephen grinned in delight at the last image in particular, where he planted the kiss on Shouga's cheek.
"Oh my god!" he thought. "His face is so cute!" He grabbed his phone and snapped a photo of the photo, then sent it off to Bianca. LOOK AT THIS! HE PUT IT ON THE MIRROR!
He could barely keep the toothbrush in his mouth from grinning so hard. His heart was bursting with happiness as he spat his toothpaste into the basin. He noticed the ornamental candle.
"Oh, what's this? A candle?"
He picked the candle up and looked at it curiously, then placed it back on the basin-top. "Shoggy must have bought it." He winced. "Shoggy doesn't work. Showie, maybe?" He turned the shower tap on and disrobed. "Shodel. Sho-ster. Shoggo." He got into the shower and put his head underneath the stream of water, lathering shampoo into his hair.
The candle picked that moment to giggle "Shou-chan!"
"Hm!?" Stephen opened his eyes at the sound of the voice and instantly felt the sting of shampoo in his eyes. "G'aah!" He turned the hot water down and rinsed his face with cold water.
Shouga was watching another language movie from the bed when a tanuki nonchalantly wandered out of the bathroom, lay on the bed and helped itself to a rice cracker.
"What are you doing?" Shouga asked, shocked.
"I'm having a rice cracker, brother," the tanuki said. "What are you doing?"
"I'm wondering whether to make gold leaf," Shouga grumbled. "Don't you feel ashamed for flaunting your magic in front of me while I'm stuck like this, brother?"
"You are being punished," the tanuki crunched. "My feelings are irrelevant." The tanuki watched the screen. "What are you watching?"
"Another of Stephen's movies."
"What's this one about?"
"There's a man with a hat and a large knife."
With no warning at all, the superintendent barged in. "Shouga, it's time to earn your keep again." He paused. "What's this?"
Shouga held out the rice crackers. "Rice crackers. Do you want one?"
"No, I mean that," the superintendent said, pointing past Shouga to where the tanuki was lying.
Shouga turned around and found an ornamental candle in the bed with him. "This?"
"Yes," the superintendent said. "Why is there a candle in the bed with you?"
"Why would there be a candle in the bed with me?" Shouga asked. "That's a silly thing to have in a bed. The bed would burn up."
The superintendent scowled. "So why is there a.. a.. ?" and he gestured to the small rubber toy in the bed where he saw a candle before.
"What? This?" Shouga said, picking up the small animal. "It's a squeaky toy." He squeaked it a couple of times. "It's for Stephen."
"Why is it in the bed?"
"It's a surprise," Shouga said. "I was looking for the best place to hide it. Why, where do you hide squeaky toys for your lover?"
The superintendent's face began to turn red. "Don't change the subject! Switch that off and come with me, right now!"
Shouga did as he was asked. "Is it more chairs today, superintendent?"
"We'll see," the superintendent said. "We'll see."
Tanaka grinned. "So this is Shouga, is it?" He cradled Stephen's phone carefully.
"Yeah," Stephen blushed. "This is him."
"He's got a very serious face, hasn't he?"
"Not always," Stephen grinned. "He's making a serious face there. He's very disciplined."
"It looks like he's taking a mugshot almost," Tanaka observed. "Like an identification photo. Except that last one. You got him!"
Stephen grinned. "I got him a beauty!" He took his phone back from Tanaka and it accidentally swiped to a photo of Shouga sleeping in with his belly poking out. Stephen blushed bright red and put his camera in his pocket.
Tanaka bowed apologetically. "Let's begin the class."
Stephen rubbed his shampoo eyes. "Yes, let's start."
Shouga grumbled. "I hate chairs."
"Stop complaining," the superintendent said.
"Did you at least check the colour this time?"
"Yes, the colour is fine. Now, once you unpack the chairs in the basement, I need you to deliver an extra chair to each apartment."
"Each apartment?" Shouga clarified. There must have been at least a hundred.
"And you can't leave any chairs lying around the hallway, so you have to deliver and install them individually." He handed Shouga a skeleton key for all the rooms. "We have to have all the chairs out of the basement by the end of the day, so get started."
Shouga thought about it. "Wouldn't it be more efficient to take a few chairs up at a time.. ?"
"One chair at a time!" the superintendent said. "This is how it's done! Get to work."
Shouga sniffed and ripped the plastic off a stack of chairs. "Alright then." He pulled the top chair off the stack. "Here I go. Shouga's Chair Delivery." He pressed the button for the lift.
"Ah-ah, you have to use the stairs," the superintendent said. "We have to keep the lifts free for the residents."
Shouga sighed. "So many rules." He carried the chair up the stairs sideways.
"Shouga!" waved a stout woman from across the hall. "Oi, Shouga!"
Shouga's mouth dropped open. "Oh no."
The woman began to fuss. "Why are you carrying a chair, Shouga? I thought you'd be in a classroom. Why are you doing manual labour? It's beneath you!"
The superintendent's voice rang out over the emergency PA. "Hoi! No slacking, Shouga!"
Shouga called back. "Sorry, superintendent!" He turned back to the stout woman and hissed. "Is this grandfather's idea of a cruel joke?"
"I wanted to see you!" the woman said, hugging Shouga around the head. "I miss my big guy!"
Shouga put his chair down to make it easier to fight back when the superintendent physically appeared from the stairwell. "I said no slacking! Those chairs won't deliver themselves!"
"Hoi!" the woman said, stepping in front of him. "Who are you to talk to him like that?"
The superintendent stopped in his tracks. "Who are you?"
She rolled up her sleeves. "My name's Mimi. Why are you treating Shouga like a common dogsbody, huh?" She stepped forward. "What's your problem?"
Shouga shrugged. "My cousin is very protective of me." Mimi flinched.
"Your cousin, huh?" the superintendent said. "Well, Cousin Mimi, Shouga has a lot of chairs to deliver, so maybe you should come back after work."
"Nonsense!" Mimi said. "I'll pitch in! It doesn't sound that hard."
The superintendent looked at Shouga who flashed him a scared look as though Mimi would not let up until she got her way.
"Fine. You explain it to her. I'll meet you in the basement with a key." The superintendent disappeared.
Mimi waited until he was gone, then flashed a fierce look back at Shouga. "Cousin?!" she hissed.
"You're some kind of cousin to me, aren't you?" Shouga said. "I don't know. Anyway, this is what we're doing." He knocked on the door and said, "Chair delivery!" in English. He mimed listening for the response. None came, so he let himself into yet another messy apartment. He put the chair at the table, then walked out again and locked the door behind him.
Mimi blinked. "And you're doing that all day?"
"Why don't you just hide the chairs and say you're all done?" Mimi said. "You can do that."
Shouga accompanied his sister down the stairs. "It's forbidden as part of the conditions of the wager. No mischief, no fun, just stay looking like this for a month."
"That sounds so dull!" Mimi said. "And you're putting up with these conditions why?"
"So I don't-" Shouga started to say. "Just because. It's a test."
"Say it, Shouga," Mimi said, lowering her voice.
"There's nothing more to say," Shouga said.
Mimi scowled. "You don't want to marry me. That's the reason, isn't it?" She slapped Shouga on the shoulder. "All this little foreign husband stuff is just an act, I'll bet!"
Shouga stopped walking and rubbed his arm. "Is that what they're calling Stephen back home?" he grimaced. "He has a name. They should be more polite."
Mimi softened. "But is that the reason? Are you really not interested in marriage? Cubs? Fatherhood?" She rubbed his arm dotingly. "I'm sure the two of us could grow to appreciate one another, in time." She tried a coquettish smile and nudged him from the side. "What do you say?"
Shouga's determination to see out the month suddenly felt a boost. He continued down the stairwell at speed. "Please understand that it's also my pride as a transformation master on the line. A month straight is unheard of!"
"I've heard of it! You and your transformation," Mimi scoffed. "I saw your face that night when you read the forfeit, you know. I think you're just scared of adult responsibilities! You're just a big child, Shouga." She waited for the gagging sound. She didn't get one.
"Disappointed?" Shouga smirked. "I've been working on it."
"Well, in any case I very much want to meet this Steeben," Mimi said. "I need to see the two of you together with my own eyes. For my own curiosity." They reached the basement where the superintendent was waiting.
"I hope you two had a pleasant chat," the superintendent said. "Mimi, I forgot to ask. You do speak English, don't you?"
Mimi narrowed her eyes. "No. Why?"
The superintendent made a pitying noise and sighed. "I'm very sorry. This job requires an English speaker in case we have to deal with residents directly. I should have said so before you came all the way down here.
Mimi blinked at Shouga. "You speak English?"
"I speak a little English, yep," Shouga replied in Stephen's accent. He switched back to Japanese. "I'd speak even better English if my study didn't get interrupted all the time." He scowled at the superintendent.
Mimi nodded. "I see. Steeben must be a very good teacher." She hummed. "I'll come by again after work."
"Enough talking. More delivering!" the superintendent said. "Cousin Mimi, please come back later." He gestured to the stairwell out of the basement and bowed curtly.
"Six o'clock should be fine," Shouga said, loading up another chair and walking up the stairs. "Come on, I'll show you out." He gestured with his head up the stairwell.
Mimi joined his side and fumed quietly. "You might not be able to make mischief right now, but I can and I will." She looked back at the basement and her face cracked a wicked grin.
Shouga grinned and bowed. "Please amuse yourself." He felt something hit him on the back of the leg and cleared his throat. "You're poking out." He gestured behind them.
"What?" Mimi said, noticing her tail was showing. "Oh!" It suddenly vanished.
"Beginner mistake," Shouga teased.
"What did you say your name was?" Stephen asked for the sixth time since meeting Mimi. They were waiting in line at a well-reputed soba restaurant.
"Mimi-chan," Mimi replied. She read her words off the screen and saw "Miss Mimi" appear. "This little device is very clever," she remarked.
"It is," Shouga said. "We'd have nothing to say without it." They jostled with the other patrons in the line. It was getting too noisy for the translator to work.
Stephen typed a few words on his phone, hit translate and held it up for Mimi to see. IT'S REALLY CROWDED HERE. I'M NOT USED TO IT.
"Crowds are goooood!" Mimi said into the phone.
"We'll get to sit down soon, Stephen," Shouga said. "I can see some people leaving."
A few moments later, the three of them were sat down at a table. A waitress came to take their drinks order.
"Two sake," Shouga said. The waitress nodded and looked towards Stephen.
"Just some water, please," Steven said in English. Mimi cleared her throat loudly and gave him a look. Stephen looked down at the note cards that Shouga had written up for him. Water. Water. "Aw mee zoo.. koo dah sigh?"
The waitress repeated 'o-mizu' and left.
Shouga and Mimi both clapped with delight. "Well done, Stephen!" Shouga added. "See? You can do it!"
Stephen sighed with relief. "Can you guys order for me, though?" He shrugged. "I don't even know what this is."
"Soba," Shouga said. "Like ramen, except more brown."
"Huh," Stephen said. He looked around and fidgeted.
"It's a little noisy in here for him," Mimi quietly observed to Shouga. "He really doesn't like it, does he?"
"We won't stay long then," Shouga said. He noticed Stephen watching them chat amongst themselves. "Sorry, Stephen. My cousin is expressing her concern for your discomfort."
"Thank you," Stephen said. Shouga cleared his throat and pointed Stephen to his notes. Stephen shuffled the cards. "Um.. ah-ree-gah-taw?" Mimi smiled and bowed, offering a little clap and a thumbs up.
"He speaks Japanese like he's been hit over the head with a rock," Mimi asided sarcastically. Shouga made a face.
Stephen frowned. "What did she say?"
"Here." Shouga wrote out a note for Stephen and handed it over. "Say that."
Stephen squinted. "Dah-mah-reh Mee mee chun."
Mimi guffawed and slapped Shouga on the shoulder. "Stop making him say awful things to me! He doesn't even know what that means!"
"What?" Stephen said, a faint grin creeping across his face. "What did I say?"
"She just said your Japanese was terrible, so you told her to shut up," Shouga said.
Stephen covered his mouth in shock. "Oh my god! I'm sorry." He fumbled through his cards. "Gaw-men na-sigh. Gaw-men na-sigh." He bowed his head.
"Oh It's fine! Shouga was playing a trick!" Mimi said. "How do I say it's fine in English? He's upset now. Look what you did!" She really punched Shoga this time.
The waitress came over and bowed apologetically. "I'm sorry to say this, but please stop punching him and lower your voice." Stephen looked baffled at Shouga. Shouga rubbed his arm and shrugged.
"I'll punch him if I feel like it," Mimi scowled. "Where's our sake?"
"I can't bring your sake until you stop punching him. We do not serve alcohol to violent people here. It is our restaurant policy." The waitress bowed again and left them alone.
"What?" Mimi said. "What kind of policy is that?"
Shouga grumbled. "Shut up and behave so we can have our sake!"
Mimi slumped in her chair. "Fine. No more punching."
Stephen brightened up. "Did you just tell Mimi to shut up again? And something about sake?" he asked. Shouga nodded and grinned. "I heard it!" Stephen beamed. "Wow, I'm learning Japanese!"
"Very good, Stephen!" Shouga smiled.
The next night, after another day of delivering chairs, Shouga took Stephen out for sushi.
"Aw-mah-kah-seh, aw-neh-guy-shee-muss," Stephen read off the card, sitting at the counter. The sushi chef nodded and started his work moulding rice around this and that. Stephen watched with fascination at the subtle little motions. "That's amazing." Shouga cleared his throat and pointed to one of the other cards. Stephen exclaimed, "Soo-goy!" The chef smiled and bowed.
Shouga grinned and watched the sushi maker. "I hope tonight is more quiet for you."
Stephen nodded. "Yeah. Sorry. Mimi was a bit much on top of everything else."
Shouga smiled. "She can be very.. hm.." He searched his mind for the right word. "She is very big." He held out his hands. "Really just huge."
Stephen giggled. "Do you know if she made it home OK?"
"Yes, she made it home just fine," Shouga said. He'd heard her talking with her father in the construction site late into the evening. "I think she wanted to spend some more time with me." He expected she hadn't seen the last of her at all.
"Is she OK with the two of us?"
Shouga tilted his hand to and fro. "Mimi is a little bit old-fashioned. That is why she wanted to meet you."
Stephen gulped. "I feel judged. Does she approve?"
Shouga sipped his drink. "I don't know." The first serving of sushi appeared in front of them. "Ah! OK." He turned to Stephen who was wincing a little. "Come on. Try it."
"But it's raw fish."
"Raw, yes," Shouga said. He slid the bowl of soy sauce over. "This might help." He dipped the sushi into the soy sauce and ate it in one gulp.
"But it's raw fish!" Stephen said.
"OK. Close your eyes," Shouga said. He picked the sushi up and rolled it in the soy sauce. "Open your mouth wide." Stephen did so. Shouga put the sushi in Stephen's mouth. "Chew it." Stephen winced some more as he chewed, then the wince disappeared. "Hm. It's not so bad." He chewed some more and swallowed. "It's different."
The sushi chef resumed working after the strange display and shook his head. "You are a terribly good friend," he muttered to Shouga in Japanese with a grin.
"I'm teaching him Japanese through the medium of food," Shouga said, a little louder. "It is my own personal technique. I recommend it!"
One of the more inebriated elderly patrons cackled. "You must teach a lot of people to get so fat!"
Shouga hurriedly wrote something down on a card for Stephen and passed it over.
Stephen read out the car. "You must have.. an ugly wife.. to get so drunk!" Stephen said in his weird accented Japanese. The rest of the restaurant erupted into laughter.
The drunk looked annoyed for a moment. "Does he even know what he's saying?"
"He would kill me if he knew," Shouga asked.
The drunk old man furrowed his brow. "Disrespectful," he muttered. "And she's not that ugly."
"Ah, you deserve it," said the heckler's friend in Japanese, picking him up from his seat. "Sorry for the trouble, everyone." They pottered out of the sushi bar past Stephen and Shouga. The heckler's friend patted Stephen on the shoulder. "Sugoi!"
Stephen smiled and bowed. The next sushi had just hit the trays in front of them.
Shouga went to dip the sushi in the soy sauce. Stephen blushed. "No, it's OK. I'll do this one for myself." He grinned at Shouga. "Now close your eyes and open wide!"
Shouga grinned. "One time is enough." He ate his own sushi without playing.
Stephen chuckled in light disappointment. "OK." He ate the sushi. It didn't taste as good.
Bianca grinned. "Wow, you're going out every single night?"
"Yeah!" Stephen said. "Officially they're a way to practise my Japanese, but he hand-fed me some sushi last night, so.. you know." He blushed and sipped some lemonade. "They're a little bit date-flavoured. But I'm definitely learning Japanese, so the cover story is good."
"Oh? What Japanese are you learning?"
"Just building up my confidence, mainly," Stephen shrugged. "He hands me these cards with stuff written on them phonetically and I say the words."
Bianca thought it over. "I guess that's one way to do it. You must really trust him not to write anything too awful."
"I'm starting to expect it," Stephen giggled. "I'm pretty sure I called someone's wife ugly last night. I definitely told his cousin to shut up the night before that."
"Oh, he has a cousin?" Bianca said.
"Yeah, her name is Mimi. She's super noisy. I prefer Shouga."
"You have made that abundantly clear," she grinned. "So, have you two.. you know.."
Stephen shook his head. "It's weird. He's hugging me one second, then distant the next. We sleep on the same bed but we're separate. I'm considering buying a plush toy to curl up around, even."
Bianca smirked. "He's taking this whole Japanese teacher thing really seriously, isn't he?" She flashed her eyebrows. "You know, he might not even be gay. That's always a possibility."
"I've acted pretty weird around him though," Stephen said. "I mean, he's still around so.. I guess it must be OK with him? But still." Stephen shrugged. "I don't know."
Bianca shook her head. "If that's what you want, you'll have to make the first move, Stevie. Some people are non-initiators." She chewed some rice. "The key with this is to find the balance between patience and respect. I mean, it's your first relationship, and it sounds like he doesn't realise what you're actually up to."
Stephen sighed. "But.. well.. you know I'm super hot for him, right?"
Bianca grunted in the affirmative with a mouthful of rice and pickles. "You have said as much on many occasions how hot you are for teacher, yes." Bianca grinned. "It also sounds like you have a real friendship with him. That's not nothing!"
Stephen looked into his rice. "But what if he's.. you know.. what if he never feels the same way about me?"
"Given how he came into your life, that's almost a given." Bianca patted Stephen on the back and mussed his hair. "See how much complicated things get when you're not upfront with people?"
"Well, I still want to learn Japanese." Stephen chewed another mouthful of rice from the tips of his chopsticks and sighed. "Why shouldn't I have a tutor I like?"
"At least you can eat with chopsticks now," Bianca observed. "Did he teach you that?"
"He did!" Stephen beamed.
"Shouga the miracle worker!" Bianca teased. "Praise Shrimpy!"
Shouga looked at the photographs on the mirror and turned his head this way and that. "Hmm. Nose is a little off." He squeezed half a millimetre off the tip of it, then twisted his body back and forth. "Everything else looks OK here." He grinned. "Eight days straight and still going strong!"
He looked around for the ornamental candle, hoping he could brag to it. It had gone.
"Hm. No visitors today?" he blinked. "That's a shame."
He wandered back out to the main room of the apartment and looked around. Right amount of books, the right amount of plants and bowls. Nothing out of the ordinary.
"I wonder where everyone's gone?" Shouga wondered to himself. He scratched his head and settled down to watch the rest of the crocodile man movie in bed. The second the sound went on, the superintendent barged in without knocking. "Hoy, Shouga. More work for you! Boxes to move, come on!"
Shouga grumbled and got up from his bed.
"Hey Shouga, where are you?" the superintendent said, looking around the flat.
"I'm right here, superintendent," Shouga said. "Are you sleepwalking or something?"
"Shouga? Hoi!" The superintendent started to check everywhere Shouga could be hiding, including the bed. He even rolled Shouga to one side to check if Shouga was hiding underneath him. "Where could he be?" he muttered.
Shouga blinked. "What's going on?"
The superintendent turned around and marched out the door. Shouga suddenly caught a flash in the shape of a tanuki holding onto his back. Her arms and paws were covering the superintendent's eyes and ears. She flashed a thumbs up and wink at Shouga, then vanished again.
The superintendent spun around again, looking directly past Shouga. "You can't hide from me forever, you criminal freeloader!" He closed Stephen's door with great resolve and thumped away.
Shouga spat out a giggle. "Mimi is on the case!" He rewound the video a few minutes and kept watching. "I truly pity that guy." For a fleeting moment, he wished he could tell Stephen what was going on. He'd love it. Then he sighed to himself. "Maybe not in this lifetime."
"Oh, I know this place!" Stephen said. "It's where we met!"
"That's right," Shouga said, pulling the curtain aside. "Good evening!"
The ramen chef recognised them instantly and looked worried. "You can't be here!"
"Why not?" Shouga said.
"You're a bad omen!" the ramen chef complained. "First one of you shows up, then she shows up with you!"
"Who are you talking about?" Shouga grumbled.
"Her!" the ramen whispered in slow motion. "Ka-no-jo-u..."
Stephen recognised the word for 'her' and guessed the rest from his terrified expression. "Oh, he's talking about Cindy!" Stephen smiled brightly. "She's not with us tonight."
"What did he say?"
Shouga held up his hand. "Please, I will have him say it. He needs to practice." Shouga said, scribbling something on a card. He handed it to Stephen.
Stephen read the words slowly and steadily. "The demon made other plans tonight."
The ramen chef's expression went from apprehension to laughter. "That's amazing! OK! Please sit down."
"Chashu ramen!" Shouga said without missing a beat.
"Chashu ramen!" Stephen repeated.
"Two roast pork ramen," the chef called out.
"What did I say to him?" Stephen said, nestling on his chair.
"OK," Shouga said, getting out his pen. "This part means 'tonight'. This part means 'make other plans'. This part means 'demon'."
"So I told him tonight a demon made other plans?" Stephen said. "Wow. The order is all different."
"That's right," Shouga said. "A little bit backwards from English, I think."
Stephen grinned. "You're a great teacher, Shouga."
"I am glad you are learning now, Stephen!"
"If I keep learning like this I'm going to get fat though," Stephen blushed.
Shouga laughed. "You get fat like me? Hah!"
Stephen got a look in his eye and made a happy little squeak that Shouga recognised all too well from Stephen's post-massage freak-out. Shouga made a mental note not to ever mention that ever again.
"Maybe I could put on a little more weight though," Stephen said. "I am a bit skinny."
Shouga nodded. "Then I know where we are eating tomorrow!"
The superintendent barged into Shouga's room. "Hey, Shouga!"
Shouga didn't look up from the television or pay him attention.
"So you're here today, huh?"
Shouga looked up. "Oh, you can see me today?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean.. uh.. you walked right past me in the street the other evening while I was out with Stephen," Shouga lied. "It was very rude of you not to acknowledge us."
"When was that, exactly?" the superintendent said.
Shouga stood up and looked at the superintendent. "Ah. Maybe I'm mistaken. Maybe it was some other superintendent. What are we doing today, anyway?"
"We're fixing the plumbing. I need someone to go down to the basement and take care of a broken sewerage pipe."
Shouga gagged. "Call a plumber then."
"I don't need a plumber to clean up the mess, do I?" He grinned. "Come on."
Shouga could smell the foulness getting worse and worse as they got down to the basement. The superintendent opened up the basement door and the stench was overpowering. He shoved Shouga into the room. "The mop and bucket is in the usual place. Knock twice when you're done!" Then he closed the door and locked it.
Shouga gagged and retched. "Oh, this is the worst. It can't be legal, what he's doing here."
"Is that you, Shouga?" came a whisper on the air. Suddenly the stench disappeared. "What are you doing down here?"
"Dealing with someone else's mess, apparently."
"Oh. He sent you in here, did he?" said the mist. "Maybe he should deal with his own problems." The wet filth strewn around the burst pipe started to recede and make its way back up the wall, crawling into the pipe like an octopus.
Shouga shrugged and knocked the basement door twice. The superintendent opened the door and held his breath. He looked around and took a sniff. "How did you fix it so quickly?"
"Don't ask me," Shouga said. "I'm not a plumber." He walked up the stairs nonchalantly. The superintendent walked into the basement and looked at the pipe. It looked perfectly fine again.
"What's going on here?" the superintendent wondered. The pipe creaked, sending the superintendent running.
"How was your day?" Stephen asked, looking around the little restaurant. The ambience of this restaurant was all cheering crowds, eerie ritual singing and wooden sticks banging together.
"It was OK," Shouga grinned. "I ran into my cousin again. I think she's helping the superintendent too."
"Oh. That's nice of her. You get to see more of your cousin, I guess."
Shouga grinned. "Yes. She likes working in your building. It's fun for her."
The chef walked out of the kitchen with a steaming bowl of chanko-nabe and laid it on the cooker in front of Stephen and Shouga. "Itadakimasu!" he said, bowing to them both.
"Thanks!" Stephen grinned. Shouga served him out some of the stew. "So this is what sumo wrestlers eat?"
"That's right. This is sumo food."
Stephen looked at it. "I expected it to be a lot more unhealthy." He sniffed at it. "This looks like something my mum would make."
"Sumos eat a lot of chanko-nabe and drink a lot of beer with it. Then they have a nice long afternoon nap to make sure it all turns into fat."
Stephen grinned. "That's the big secret, is it?" Shouga grinned and nodded. "Is that your secret too?"
Shouga shook his head. "No. I'm not a sumo." He patted his belly. "Just a fat man."
Stephen grinned. "I should definitely be eating more of this, though!" He tried to wolf it down but it was too hot. He spat out a big chunk of meat and fanned the front of his mouth. "Ow. Burnt my mouth."
Shouga groaned a little to himself and ladled himself out a bowl of stew. "Yes. Don't be in a hurry."
Shouga heard the superintendent barged into Stephen's apartment the next morning. "Hey! Shouga!" He didn't recognise this apartment. It wasn't Stephen's.
Shouga looked up towards the ceiling and grinned. "Oh, Mimi. You're going to break his little mind."
Shouga heard footsteps walking down the stairs, down two flights of stairs. He heard keys in the door in the apartment beneath him, and the door swing open.
Then there was a scream and a lot of fuss and apologising from the superintendent. He closed the door again and muttered something to himself.
More footsteps. Another door being unlocked and being opened much more softly.
Shouga wondered how much longer Mimi would keep doing disorientation magic on the poor superintendent.
The apartment door opened very gingerly, then the superintendent peeked in. "Oh there you are, Shouga!"
"Here I am!" Shouga said. "Sounds like you were having some trouble finding me there!"
"Nonsense," the superintendent said. "Do you think I don't know my way around my own building? Hah!"
"I think the lady you walked in on downstairs is probably wondering that," Shouga replied. He paused the video.
The superintendent went white as a sheet. "You heard that?"
Shouga nodded. "Maybe you should be more polite about how you open doors around here."
"Don't tell me my business!" the superintendent said. "Come on, I have some more boxes for you to put in storage. They're very heavy boxes today."
"Can't wait," Shouga yawned.
"Arigatou!" Stephen said, bowing his head as two bowls of noodles were delivered to their table.
"You don't need to say that," Shouga said. "They're just bringing food."
"I'd say it back home," Stephen said. "It's polite."
"OK," Shouga said. "It's not a big thing. It makes you look like a foreigner."
"I can live with that," Stephen shrugged. "What do you call this?"
Shouga started to explain. "Oh, it's ta-" - he looked at Stephen, then looked at the two bowls of tanuki-style udon noodles in front of them. There were little chunks of batter on them. "Sorry. Uh. Brain-freeze."
"Uh.. they are.. tenkasu udon." He wrote it down on a card and passed it over to Stephen.
"Ten-ka-soo oo-don," Stephen said. "I like the little bits of batter. Nice and crunchy!"
"Me too!" Shouga grinned. "Better eat them quick!"
"Hoi," an unseen fellow noodle patron corrected him. "That's not tenkasu udon. It's tanuki udon."
Shouga's stomach dropped at the thought of Stephen's tanuki fixation being inadvertently triggered. Hopefully the crunch of tenkasu drowned it out.
Stephen cocked his head. "Is everything OK?"
Shouga shook his head. "Sorry, I'm just remembering the last time I had tenkasu."
"Tanuki," the annoying patron corrected him again.
"Shut up," Shouga winced. Stephen must have heard that.
"Tanuki?" Stephen asked. "Like the raccoons?"
"Don't listen to him," Shouga said. "He's drunk."
Stephen smiled and ate the meal much more slowly, a definite twinkle in his eye. Shouga was not sure he liked that twinkle at all.
Shouga turned around and came face to face with one of his brothers, disguised as an old man. "How is it that you don't know it's called tanuki udon, young man? It's right there on the menu."
Shouga grumbled. "I know what it's called just fine, but I cannot say that word myself." Shouga said. "It attracts trouble." He sniffed sharply and went back to his meal.
"Is that so?" the old man said, turning back to his own food with a grin. "Very curious."
Stephen blinked. "Someone you know?"
"Not quite," Shouga said. "How are your noodles?"
"Very tasty!" Stephen said. Shouga grinned and wrote down the word for tasty on a card, then passed it over to Stephen. "Aw-ee-shee dess-neh."
"Oishii!" Shouga agreed. He smiled. "Now, is there somewhere you'd like to go tomorrow for your day off?"
Stephen smiled shyly. "I haven't thought about it. I was hoping to just laze around the apartment a bit and watch movies, if that's OK by you?"
"Hmm," Shouga said. "Perhaps we can do some more Japanese lessons at home."
"Oh, I know! We can watch my favourite movie! That's got Japanese in it!"
"Ah, yes!" Shouga said. "Your favourite movie, of course!" He tried not to reveal the incredible pit of dread forming in his stomach.
"Please come out of the bathroom, Shouga."
During the opening of 'Pom Poko', Shouga had dashed into the bathroom and locked the door at the first sight of an animated tanuki on the screen. He wondered if the shriek was a bit too much at first, but it seemed to have sold the illusion. As had the preceding ten minutes of frightened sobbing.
"I'm very sorry, Stephen. I didn't realise what your movie was about." He made a point of sighing. "It's not possible for me to watch it."
"Because it's about tanuki?"
"Stephen, please don't say that word!" Shouga said. "It's very bad luck!"
"But it's just a movie!" Stephen said. "It can't hurt you!"
"Please, Stephen," Shouga said. "Please don't make me watch it."
Stephen sniffled from the other side of the door. "OK. We don't have to watch it." Shouga heard the sound from the television switch off.
He put his head between his legs and sighed. "Thank you, Stephen." He unlocked the door.
Stephen found Shouga sitting on the toilet with most of a toilet roll unravelled and torn up on his lap. "Aw Shouga. I'm sorry. I had no idea."
"It is not your fault." Shouga made big sad teary eyes at Stephen and pouted. "My family has a superstition about them. I do not know the exact reason but even as young children we were taught to be very wary of them. We do not even say their name." He looked down at the pile of toilet paper and started bunching it up into handfuls.
Stephen leaned against the basement. "That's awkward."
Shouga nodded. "Very awkward, yes."
"I was going to ask if you knew any stories or songs," Stephen said. "Maybe that would help me learn some more Japanese." He looked hopeful.
Shouga shook his head. "Sorry, Stephen. I can not risk it." And by risking it, he meant he couldn't risk Stephen having another tanuki-inspired turn. "Perhaps we could find somewhere else for you to learn Japanese?"
"I really wanted a day in to unwind, though," Stephen said. "My head is feeling a bit full."
Shouga nodded. "I understand." He noticed that the ornamental candle had returned to the basin. He scratched his jaw in thought. How long before his silly story gets back to Mimi, he wondered. "Let's enjoy one another's company, then. Maybe there's something on television?"
The usher sang out the name of the fighter in an eerie, drawn out melody.
"His voice is going," Stephen said. "I bet it would if he had to sing all those names all day." He passed the phone across to Shouga who had a bowl of pork rinds balanced on his belly.
Shouga read the translation and nodded. "He's making a go of it though!" He handed the phone back to Stephen and switched to speaking english. "We call that 'ganbaru'. Do your best!"
Stephen watched attentively as the sumo wrestlers got up onto the platform and started doing their stretches and clapping. "What are they doing now?"
"Something to do with gods, probably," Shouga said, switching back to Japanese. "Any time anyone does something that looks weird, gods are probably involved."
Stephen read the translation and cackled aloud. "You're not religious?"
"Not especially," Shouga said. "I'm very practical."
"But you're superstitious about.. them?" Stephen said, with more than a little skepticism creeping into his voice.
Shouga cleared his throat and nodded. "That's right. I'm from a very superstitious family." He realised what he was saying. "I suppose that makes me a little bit religious, perhaps." He put a pork rind into his mouth in the hopes it would either shut him up or make him a little bit smarter.
The sumo wrestlers squared off, then got up. Banners walked around the edge of the circle on the platform.
"What's going on now?" Stephen asked. "What's happening with the banners?"
"I don't know," Shouga said. "I mainly know about food." He offered Stephen a pork rind.
"I thought sumo was like the national Japanese sport," Stephen said, passing on the pork rinds. "Didn't you do any in school?"
"Not really," Shouga said. "I only went to a little school in a village. In Hokkaido." He realised he knew nothing about Hokkaido aside from a poster he walked past. He hoped Stephen knew even less.
"What was it like?"
"Oh, lots of trees," Shouga said. He took a second to remember what was on the poster. "Different-sized trees. Mountains. Streams. Birds. Lots of nature and stuff." He changed the subject. "How about you?"
"Oh, pretty typical small Australian town really," Stephen shrugged. "No mountains. Not really that many trees. No streams. Lots of stars at night though."
Shouga nodded. "It sounds nice."
Stephen sighed. "Nice isn't the word I'd use." He looked over at Shouga with a happy grin. "This is much nicer."
The sumo wrestlers met at the centre of the platform with a bone-crunching thud, eliciting an 'oof!' from Stephen. One of them sidestepped quickly and guided the other to the ground. It was all over in seconds. They got up and bowed to one another, then left the ring. The loser was clearly wobbling.
"What? Is that it?" Stephen said.
"That's it," Shouga said, listening to the commentary. "He won by pushing his opponent to the ground."
"Wow, not even best of three," Stephen observed. "That's brutal. The guy who lost looks concussed."
Shouga looked at the phone for the translation. "He does."
Stephen suddenly asked. "Do you think I'd look good if I looked more like a sumo wrestler? I think I'm a bit skinny."
Shouga cleared his throat. "What do you mean?"
"Do you think I should try to put on some weight?" Stephen asked. He looked at the attention the wrestlers were getting from their female fans. "I don't know." He shrugged his shoulders and poked his belly.
"Why do you want to put on weight?" Shouga asked.
Stephen blushed. "I think big round bellies look cute."
"Oh, you want to look cute, huh?" Shouga smirked. "I've got a big round belly. Does that make me cute?" he joked.
Stephen blushed really hard. "A bit."
Shouga suddenly went white as a sheet. Was that flirting just now? "Uh. I'm sorry, Stephen. I only meant that as a joke." He bowed his head in apology.
"It's ok," Stephen said. Shouga could see how disappointed he looked. It wasn't OK.
None of this was OK, Shouga thought to himself. What was he even doing here? Aside from teaching someone Japanese.
"A family curse?!" Mimi laughed. "You told him our family was cursed by tanuki?" She laughed and slapped him on the shoulder, nearly dropping her coffee and falling off the wall she was perched on.
"I had to tell him something!" Shouga said. "He gets very strange around anything related to tanuki. At one point I thought you'd possessed him to play a trick on me!"
"Not me!" Mimi said. "I wouldn't do that to you, husband." She grinned cheekily.
Shouga sighed at her teasing. "Please don't call me husband. Not yet at least."
"Oh?" Mimi elbowed Shouga in the ribs. "Coming around to the idea, are you? Have you started picking out names? Maybe we should call one of them Stephen after your little friend!" She chuckled wickedly.
Shouga smiled sadly. "You know, I hate to say what I'm about to say but it has to be said." He suddenly, without warning, hugged her tightly. "I'm glad you're here, cousin."
Mimi found herself unprepared for this tenderness. "What's come over you, Shouga? This is a very different side of you."
Shouga squeezed his cousin and sighed. "I'm homesick. And I'm bored. And I have to keep going with this thing for a whole month."
Mimi nodded. "Well, that's what makes it a punishment." She hesitated. "I did think a month was very strict."
"I'm ashamed to admit that I demanded a month," Shouga replied. "It was only going to be fifteen days originally."
Mimi's jaw dropped. "What?"
Shouga looked off into the distance. "I was trying to challenge myself." He let out a bitter little chuckle.
Mimi's eyes filled with tears of laughter as her lip quivered. "That's the most Shouga thing I've ever heard." She snorted and slapped him on the shoulder again. "You really don't know when to quit, do you?"
"I'm getting a better idea now," Shouga said. He rubbed the welt on his shoulder. "How is it that you always manage to slap me in the exact same spot? It's agonising. I have bruises on top of my bruises."
Mimi grinned, then sipped her coffee. "If it's truly making you miserable to stay away for so long, I can always have a word. It's not like I signed any documents to say you were my husband, after all. It's at my discretion in the end."
Shouga bowed. "Thank you."
She mulled it over some more. "Honestly, if you're going to complain about a few bruises, you're probably not up to the job anyway," she smirked. "You're better off with your little man upstairs, you big softy."
Shouga blushed. "Speaking of little men though," he said. "How's your other husband coming along?"
"He's having pie for lunch," Mimi said. She slurped her coffee. "At least, he thinks he is." She clicked her fingers. Suddenly there was a piercing shriek from the top of the apartment building.
"The old surprise pie!" Shouga chuckled. "Where did you find horse crap around here though?"
"I had to improvise," Mimi replied. "It's mostly dog crap. Still does the trick though. Oh look, here he comes!" They hid and watched the superintendent run to his balcony and retch violently over the side.
"Thanks, cousin," Shouga smiled.
"You're welcome, cousin," Mimi beamed. She sneered at the human. "That's right! You're full of crap, aren't you?"
"Back again!" Shouga returned to the apartment with some okonomiyaki and omelettes. The sumo was still running. He took one out of the okonomiyaki sticks out of its package and offered it to Stephen. "Here, try this. It's heaven on a stick."
"Thanks." Stephen looked a little anxious. "Did you hear someone screaming just before?"
"I think so, yes. Nothing to worry about." Shouga settled back onto the bed. "They just ate something weird." He grinned to himself.
"How do you know that?" Stephen said.
"I saw them throwing up off the building," Shouga said. "It was the superintendent. Don't worry about it."
"He sounded really upset," Stephen persisted. "I'm a bit freaked out."
"Freaked out?" Shouga said, reaching for the translator app.
"Yeah, scared! Freaked out!"
"But you're OK, right?"
"Not really!" Stephen said. "Why are you so calm about this? He's been poisoned!"
Shouga settled down onto the bed. "Someone probably wanted some revenge. He's a jerk."
Stephen looked at Shouga. "Do you know something about this?"
Shouga shook his head and ate a bite of okonomiyaki, looking straight at the TV. "Not me."
Stephen's brow creased with concern. "You're not very convincing." He put the okonomiyaki down. "How do I know this is OK to eat?"
Shouga offered Stephen a bite of his okonomiyaki. "Here."
Stephen took a bite and chewed. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously and chewed, eyes fixed on Shouga. "This is really good," he finally said.
"I know," Shouga said, taking another bite. "That's why I bought two each." He grinned as Stephen started eating his okonomiyaki. "You want to put on weight? I can also help with that." He patted his belly and it made a hollow drumming sound.
Stephen stopped eating. "What was that noise?"
Shouga looked wide-eyed. Damnit. "I think it was the TV."
"It sounded like a drum," Stephen said.
"Then.. uh.. I need to go to the toilet!" Shouga declared, getting to his feet. "You'd better open that window and stand back, Stephen. It's not going to be pretty!" Shouga strode into the toilet purposefully and closed the door behind him.
Stephen blinked. There was the sound of loud breaking wind. Then a smell crept under the door and Stephen gagged, running to the other end of the apartment and picking up a fan from the bookcase.
"I found a fan!" Stephen said. "Tell me when to stop!" He fanned the air furiously towards the window. "Augh! You're ruining the food!"
The sound of the city at night drifted in through the window, mixed with the evening television. The light danced across Stephen and Shouga's eyes as they watched from bed.
Stephen sniffed. "I can still smell it a little," he gagged. "That was really putrid."
"Sorry," Shouga said. "Next time I'll just fart straight out the window. I hope I don't kill any birds though."
Stephen giggled as the translation scrolled up. A commercial with a cartoon tanuki came on. Shouga put his hands over his ears and screwed his eyes shut, humming loudly. When the commercial finished, Stephen tapped him on the shoulder. He stopped humming and kept watching.
"How do you even cope with this stuff when you're outside?" Stephen asked.
"I don't even think about it anymore," Shouga said. "It's just how I live my life."
Stephen nodded and sighed. "Do you think it'll ever be different?"
Shouga shook his head. "No. My grandmother is very strict."
"What about Mimi?"
"Mimi.. well.." Shouga hesitated. "It's only us men who need to worry in my family. Women aren't affected so much."
Stephen hummed to himself. "Sounds like reverse discrimination to me."
"That's just how some things are," Shouga shrugged. He burped up his okonomiyaki a little bit. "Excuse me."
Stephen burped even louder. "Sumimasen," he added with a giggle. Shouga reached over and smacked him playfully on the belly.
Stephen rolled over and blushed. "Pon," he said to himself quietly so Shouga wouldn't hear.
It was an Australian-themed lunch that day. Bianca sat herself down next to Stephen with a sausage on a piece of bread slathered with tomato sauce. "So, this is the fabled democracy sausage."
"That's right," Stephen said, eyes rolling up into his head. "Oh, this is amazing."
"It's a sausage on some bread, dude." Bianca blinked. "It's like a lazy hot dog. Speaking of lazy..." She gestured over to some plates with hundreds and thousands sprinkled over slices of white bread. "And what's that cheap-ass unicorn bread?"
"Fairy bread," Stephen grinned. "We used to have it at birthday parties when we were kids."
"It's like a sugar sandwich," Bianca laughed. "That's not cuisine, dude."
"Have some of the pavlova or something, I don't know." Stephen said. "Let me eat my democracy sausage in peace."
"So, speaking of sausage," Bianca winked. "How's your boy?"
"He's fine," Stephen said. "Actually, well, maybe not so fine. Have you ever heard of a tanuki family curse?"
"Nope," Bianca said. "Why? Is Shouga cursed?"
"He seems to think so," Stephen said. "He won't even say the word tanuki."
"Huh," Bianca said.
"And given that my favourite movie of all time is about tanuki, that makes it kind of hard for me," Stephen explained.
Bianca nodded and took another bite of sausage. "Huh," he said with a full mouth.
"I mean, it's OK, really, I have to respect his religion and everything."
Bianca shook her head. "No you don't."
Stephen blinked. "I don't?"
"Not if it's that important to you," Bianca said, swallowing a chunk of bread and meat. "If it's an insurmountable point of difference, then you may as well just bid him adieu and find yourself another hostage I mean teacher." She took a large bite. "Mmm. Tastes like constitutional monarchy."
Stephen frowned and turned away from Bianca back to his food. "I'd really rather not have to do that, though." He took a small bite and chewed thoughtfully.
"By the way, who's your prime minister this week?" Bianca giggled.
The superintendent burst into the room. "Shouga, I need you for something! Come with me!"
"Oh?" Shouga said. He marked the page of the dictionary he was on, then closed the book. "Are you feeling better today?"
"I'll feel a lot better when you help me catch the perpetrator of this crime!" the superintendent said. "I want you to review some surveillance video for me."
"I don't know how to review surveillance video. You'll have to show me."
"Of course," the superintendent said. "Follow me."
Shouga was led to a tiny, cramped guard room that smelled like rotten tuna and wasabi. He sat down in front of a bank of surveillance monitors.
"Now pay attention." The superintendent spoke rapidly. "This button to go forward. This button to go backwards. This button pauses. Don't touch anything else!"
Shouga nodded. "I understand. How do I go back and forth quickly?"
"Too bad for you those buttons are broken," the superintendent smirked. "You'll need to watch for four or so hours until you catch a glimpse of the perpetrator. I want you to make very thorough notes about comings and goings as well." He gestured to Shouga's right where there were some pens and a writing pad.
Shouga complained. "Don't you have a computer to do this?"
"Of course I do. He's sitting right in front of me." The superintendent smiled. "Be thorough, and let me know when you've found the culprit!" He patted Shouga on the back and closed the door behind him.
Shouga immediately protested. "Hey! Don't close the door! It stinks in here!"
"But that's why I'm closing the door, Shouga! To make sure the bad smell doesn't get out!" the superintendent laughed. "Leave it closed and get on with it!"
Shouga grumbled loudly and sighed. He looked down at the shuttle controls on the desk and grimaced. "Let's get on with it then." He pressed play and the images leapt to life.
He saw a door open and paused the video. He picked up a pen and spoke as he wrote. "Six-fifteen. Blonde lady leaves from room 10-3." He unpaused the video and the blonde lady resumed walking out of her room, down the steps. She hesitated for a second, then walked back up the steps and back into her room. Shouga sighed and paused the video again. "Six-sixteen. Blonde lady forgot something in her room." He unpaused the video and looked at the monitors glumly.
Stephen came home to an empty apartment and immediately switched the TV on. Or tried to. He saw that the TV was unplugged, and the power plug had been bundled up with sticky tape and paper.
He found a hand-written note attached to the bundle. He read it aloud: "Working late for superintendent. Please leave this unplugged. Teriyaki in fridge is from Mimi. Itadakimasu!" He dropped the end of the plug.
"Where could he be this time of night?" Stephen said. He dialled the superintendent's number and tapped his feet. It went to voicemail. He frowned.
He got his teriyaki dinner out of the fridge. The rice had been moulded into the shape of a little fat animal with wide eyes and a happy grin. "Oh, it's a tanuki!" he giggled. "That's so sweet of her!"
Mimi grimaced. "Cousin, you look like hell. Did you know it's two in the morning? Go back to Stephen. He's probably missing you." She sniffed. "What's that smell?"
Shouga could barely keep his eyes open. "I'm almost done here." His notes were growing more and more messy, but they were finally counting down to the second where the superintendent's pie turned out to be something entirely different. He pressed play and counted down. "Three, two, one."
Mimi grinned happily at the sound of the superintendent's shock and horror coming out of the monitoring system. She clapped her hands. "That was a good one!"
"I didn't see you anywhere either, cousin," Shouga said. He stretched his neck and got out of his chair. "Well, I'm glad that's finally over with."
"Oh, I'm just getting started with him," Mimi said. "It's bad enough that he's getting you to do his bitch work. Going through security footage until all hours of the morning when you should be in bed? That just won't do." She licked her hand and smoothed it through her hair. "Leave him to me."
"I have a favour to ask before you go," Shouga said.
"Please lead me back to the room so I can rest my eyes on the way," Shouga said. He put his hand on Mimi's shoulder and closed his eyes. "And no bumping me into walls or not warning me when we get to stairs. I've had a long day."
Mimi smirked. "Fine." She put her hand atop her cousin's and started leading him directly towards a potted plant.
Stephen had knocked on the superintendent's door at seven the next morning after Shouga had trod dirt and bits of plant into the apartment in the wee hours of the morning. He found the superindentent in his station watching a morning news show.
"I'm not a fan of whingeing, superintendent," Stephen said bright and early the next morning. "But it's no good for me having Shouga coming and going at all hours of the night when I've got work the next morning." He trembled a little bit. "No more late night shifts, OK?"
The superintendent nodded and bowed. "I understand, Stephen. It was a special exception." He gave Stephen a knowing look. "How much do you know about your tutor though?"
Stephen blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Do you know where he's from? What his background is?"
"He said he's from a village in Hokkaido," Stephen said.
"And what was he doing down here?" the superintendent asked.
Stephen shrugged. "I don't know. Eating, mainly." He began to realise how little he actually knew about the person he slept next to every night.
"You know what I think?" the superintendent said. "I think he's not who he presents himself to be." He nodded. "I've seen their type before. There's not much I can do yet except encourage him to be honest, but if I were you I'd make it very clear that if he's not above board, you'll call the authorities."
Stephen frowned. "You reckon he could be dodgy?"
The superintendent held his hand up. "I'm not saying that. But his behaviour makes me wonder if he isn't some sort of a con man. Please be careful. This could affect other residents of the building as well, of course." He cleared his throat. "If I seem cruel to him, I am just doing my duty to expose a potential criminal. So far, my suspicions have not settled one way or the other."
Stephen's frown was joined by narrowed eyes. "So you're deliberately being mean to him?"
The television behind the superintendent flickered and sparked.
"I'm already bending the rules for you by letting him stay, Stephen," the superintendent said, standing up. "I don't have to, but I wanted to make sure you settled in. You looked like you were having trouble, so I made an exception." He paused for effect. "I can easily un-make it."
The television sparked and flickered again. The superintendent checked behind him.
Stephen looked at the ground. "I'll talk to him after get back from school. See you later." He slung his backpack over his shoulder and plodded away towards school.
The superintendent watched Shouga leave with a smirk. The television buzzed and switched off.
"How many more boxes," Shouga asked. "I'm tired." He'd unloaded one box after another into the storerooms for three hours without a break. He was sure these were the same boxes he'd been loading and unloading beforehand.
"Oh, you can stop whenever you want," the superintendent said, tapping a clipboard with a pencil.
"Really? Great!" Shouga said, putting the box down where he stood and stretching. "See you later!"
"As long as you leave and never come back." The superintendent stopped tapping. "Do you understand?"
Shouga picked the box back up and kept on his way without hesitating. "No. I don't." He stacked the box in the corner. "I don't understand. Why don't you just come out and say it?"
The superintendent tucked the clipboard under his armpit. "You're pretending to be something you're not, Shouga. You have a nervous energy that makes me very curious." He drew himself up to look at Shouga nose-to-nose, a really good stare. "What are you hiding?"
Shouga's eyelids relaxed. "I'd rather move your stupid boxes." He walked back to the truck and shuffled another cardboard box towards himself. "I can't stop you from amusing yourself, naturally."
The superintendent grinned. "I'm sure you can appreciate I have seen a few criminal types come through here, trying to prey on young naive foreigners." He counted on his fingers. "Pickpockets, con artists, even scary sex perverts."
"Oh, you know Cindy?" Shouga grinned, putting the box down in the corner of the store room.
The superintendent blinked. "How do you know Cindy?"
"I've only met her once," Shouga replied. He cocked his head in reminiscence. "She was very rude. I liked her." He walked back towards the van and slid another box towards himself.
"You just have an air about you that I find hard to trust, Shouga," the superintendent said, placing his clipboard on the back of truck. "As a resident under the English program, Stephen's lodgings are his own to do with as he pleases, within reason." He watched Shouga drop off another box and return to the truck for the next one. "It is fair to say you have kept up your end of the deal to remain inconspicuous." He drew up behind Shouga. "But I wonder if inconspicuousness was part of your plan all along."
"My plan?" Shouga said, turning to face the superintendent. "What plan is that?" He leaned on the tray of the truck.
"I don't know," the superintendent replied. "But I can play these silly little games as long as it takes for you to make up your mind."
"Then I will explain my plan." He held up three fingers and counted the reasons off. "Help Stephen to learn Japanese; learn English intensively with Stephen's help; put a roof over my head. This is my whole plan." He grabbed another box, locked bloodshot eyes with the superintendent briefly, and continued stacking boxes.
"How is your English going, anyway?" the superintendent said, switching to crisp educated-sounding English.
"With all these interruptions, it's not so good," Shouga replied in Australian-accented English.
"And still, you have learnt a lot in just a few days," the superintendent mused. "You must be some sort of language-learning prodigy."
"What did you say?" Shouga asked in Japanese.
The superintendent switched back to Japanese. "I said it appears you're not as stupid as you look." He gestured to the truck. "There will be another one in half an hour. Keep unpacking." He walked away, then stopped. "Where's my clipboard?"
"I don't know," Shouga shrugged. "Did you bring it with you? I don't remember seeing you with it." He leaned on the tray, putting his hand right next to the clipboard.
The superintendent looked around, then left the storeroom with a grumble. "Don't touch any more boxes until I find my clipboard! Don't move from that spot!"
Shouga waited for the storeroom door to close, then heard a hiss from the corner of the room. "Magic is a breach of your sentence, brother! I'm telling grandfather!"
"I don't care what you tell him, brother," Shouga replied. "I'm sick of loading boxes without knowing what's in them." He snuck a look at the clipboard by his hand, flipping idly through the pages. "Nothing much in here, except that he's very anal. The serial number of every box is noted." He thought about it a bit longer. "He'll probably notice if one of the boxes goes missing, too."
"Is it all the same stuff, brother?" said the voice.
Shouga grunted. "It feels like it. Not very heavy, but definitely a lot of it. I've unloaded and loaded more than a few trucks of these boxes, all alike except for the serial numbers. And no way to take a box out of the room without being seen by that stupid camera." He smelled the edge of one of the boxes. "Whatever it is, it's been wrapped up in plastic." He frowned.
"I said stay still!" came the superintendent's voice from the ceiling speaker. "Hey! Where did you find the clipboard?"
Shouga shrugged at the camera and pointed to the exact place on the tray where the clipboard was.
"What's the matter, Stephen?"
Stephen hadn't stopped looking at Shouga since he'd come home. Hadn't given him a moment's peace, even. Shouga had responded to this cooling of attitude at first with bemusement, but was becoming more unsettled as dinner finished.
"Is something the matter?"
Stephen put down his chopsticks and leaned his chin on his hand. "I had a little chat with the superintendent today about you coming in late last night."
"Oh?" Shouga said.
"He said some stuff which got me thinking," Stephen said. He studied Shouga's wide-eyed face looking for some kind reaction. "Got me thinking a lot, actually."
"Hm!" Shouga grunted. "First time for everything." He cracked a grin.
Stephen's face broke into its own grin. "Stop messing around! I'm serious." He smiled. "He says you're always looking worried, like you have something to hide."
Shouga scoffed. "Yes, because when I see him I want to hide myself!" He grinned brightly. "Do I look worried to you now, Stephen?"
Stephen shook his head. "Not really. I remember you used to look more worried. Today you just look tired." He leaned forward. "You've got rings under your eyes, even."
Shouga swallowed his mouthful of rice with slightly wider eyes. He hadn't had a chance to do a mirror check before the superintendent had woken him up. "Unfortunately I start to look ugly when I get very tired." He looked into his rice.
"And there you go looking worried again," Stephen observed. "What's with that?"
"More superstition," Shouga said. "Sorry." He continued eating rice.
"How can having rings under your eyes be superstition?" Stephen asked.
Shouga sighed and bowed his head. "I do not want to say. You will think it's silly."
Stephen shook his head. "I promise I won't laugh."
"And then he said if any male in his family gets rings under his eyes, a tanuki can claim his soul and exchange it with the Devil for sake." Stephen crunched on a corn chip at the school's Mexican lunch. "That's a bit shithouse, right?"
Bianca nodded. "Never heard that one before." She loaded up her soft shell taco with lettuce and put too much hot sauce on it. "Maybe it's some cultural thing to make sure everyone gets a good night's sleep?"
Stephen reflected on it. "I guess, but.. wouldn't it be less psychologically damaging to just tell people to get a good night's sleep?"
"Not if you've got a point to make," Bianca said. She rolled up the taco and bit into it. Its contents scattered all over the ground. "Mmm! I missed these."
"How's Takusan, anyway?" Stephen asked.
"Who?" Bianca said. "Oh, him. Forget him. He's completely last week. This week it's all about my boy Ichiro." She pulled out her phone and showed off her new catch.
Stephen blinked. "He looks like a sumo wrestler, except with shorter hair."
"That he was!" Bianca grinned. "He couldn't hack all the hazing from the other wrestlers so he ran away." She turned to Stephen. "I've never been with a chubby guy before. You and Shouga got me all curious."
"Oh," Stephen grinned. "So, how do you.. uh.. like it?"
"Well," Bianca said. "I don't know how it is with you and Shouga, but after I gave him some pointers the sex is pretty amazing now. The guy's got some serious stamina." She took another bite of her taco and dropped even more of it on the ground.
"Right," Stephen nodded, not expecting to hear details.
Bianca swallowed part of her mouthful of taco. "Plus he does all my washing and cleaning and cooking too, so.. bonus!" She chewed. "You and Shouga getting along OK still?"
Stephen ate a corn chip and nodded. "We're not even snuggling in bed yet."
Bianca put her taco down on the table in front of her in disbelief. "What the hell, Stevie? Are you still holding onto your dumb fantasy?"
"He just needs time," Stephen replied.
"Then initiate something," Bianca groaned. "I told you you'd have to take the lead."
Stephen sighed. "Yeah, but.. I'm afraid he'll say no."
Bianca grunted with frustration and looked around for something. "Uggggh!" She picked up her taco and squeezed it between her fingers. "Damnit! Die, you stupid taco!" She threw the taco on the table with a splat. "That's how mad I am at you right now!" She pointed at the mangled mess of tortilla, red beans and salad. She stormed away towards the women's toilets.
"Bianca?" Stephen said.
"Too mad, Stevie!" she shouted back, slapping the door open and leaving taco sauce smeared all over the door.
Shouga groaned loudly as he shifted more boxes. "I feel like hell, cousin."
"That's how grandfather said you'd be feeling." Mimi was hiding out of sight of the camera, straight underneath it. "He said you'd be about ready to drop by now. Like an empty bottle."
"I'm not coming back," Shouga said. "I'm staying here with Stephen until the month is done."
"You'd really rather stay here and suffer than come back to the forest to marry me?" Mimi said. "That's very extreme of you."
Shouga grunted. "I feel a certain solace in the fact that extending my sentence will be the dumbest thing I ever do." He dropped another box on the stack and staggered back for another one. "That means I have to see it all the way out, otherwise I can't learn from it."
Mimi rolled her eyes. "You're being unreasonable."
"It takes unreasonable hardship to reach an unreasonable fool," Shouga said, slumping on the side of the truck. "As long as there's a part of me that wants to keep going, I have to persist until I'm all used up." He staggered over to the wall where Mimi was standing, smoking a cigarette.
"So because you're an idiot, you feel you need to push that idiocy to breaking point?"
Shouga nodded and panted. "Uh-huh." He screwed up his eyes. "This headache just won't stop. I feel weak."
"Holding this form so long is sapping your vital forces," Mimi said. She slapped Shouga's belly. There was a hollow thud, like a dry tank. "You're out of magic. It's not worth it." She took his wrist, ready to carry him.
Shouga shook his head and pushed her away gently. "If I can make it to the full moon tomorrow, I'll be OK."
"If." Mimi said. "This isn't just a question of holding this form either, cousin. This could be choosing whether you live or die." She bit her lip. "Do you really want to put yourself through this?"
Shouga flopped his head downwards. "Yes. And I'll make it to tomorrow night. I have to."
Mimi nodded. "In that case, I know of a technique that may help. It's-"
The superintendent's voice came over the PA. "Hey, Shouga! No slacking! Keep loading those boxes!"
Mimi narrowed her eyes and shook her head. "I'll check in on you at dusk, OK? I'll tell you the technique in a bit. Take a break." She made herself look like Shouga then stepped out into the camera's view and began shifting the remaining boxes to the truck.
Shouga looked at himself in the mirror. His skin looked blotchy. His eyes were definitely growing darker underneath. He could barely keep his nose from drooping down his face. Maybe he wouldn't make it to tomorrow. Maybe he'd have to give up.
He steeled himself and looked in the mirror. "Get it together! It's twenty-four hours!" He slapped the basin. The ornamental candle flinched. He bowed his head. "Sorry to scare you."
"Are you feeling alright, older brother?" the candle asked.
"I feel pretty bad," Shouga admitted. "But I'm not ready to quit." He tottered to the shower, ran the water at an icy cold temperature, then stepped underneath it. "No quitting! Nghhgh!"
"Shouldn't you take your clothes off first, older brother?"
Shouga was already murmuring the mantra that Mimi taught him to help him focus his last reserves of energy. He felt himself grow stronger and more energised.
Stephen came home for the evening. "Shogga? Is that you?"
Shouga's eyes blinked open. He felt so good after the meditation that he walked straight into the apartment, dripping wet. "Stephen!"
"You're soaking wet!"
Shouga walked across the stiffly with a big grin on his face leaving a trail of dripping water and hugged his friend tightly.
"And freezing cold! What on earth are you doing!?"
"It's an old family technique for fatigue!" he said, wide eyed. He went to the freezer and began gnawing on an ice cube. "Revitalising cold! I feel great!"
"You look awful," Stephen remarked. "What do you want for dinner?"
"Nothing, thank you!" Shouga said. "I'm going straight to sleep! Please do not disturb me!" He picked up a pillow, walked back into the bathroom, sat in the empty bath and fell fast asleep.
Stephen blinked. "Shogga?"
Shouga began snoring.
"Shogga? Are you serious?"
Shouga kept snoring.
"Shogsy, everything's wet."
Shouga continued snoring.
Stephen mused to himself. "Cute, cuddly, a bit magical, and completely nuts." He smiled despite being soaking wet. "What am I going to do with you?"
The old tanuki smiled warmly. "So, he's going to stick it out for the whole month?" He looked across the street to Stephen's apartment building as the waxing moon rose behind it.
"He is. It's like he's trying to forcibly exorcise a demon from himself." The old tanuki's daughter sighed. "It's unsettling."
"I'm happy to hear it," the old tanuki said.
"What?!" the daughter gasped. "Father, he's having trouble holding himself together. You haven't seen him up close."
"He'll be fine," the father replied. "His problems were always more to do with wisdom than skill. And what about you?"
The daughter shook her head. "He's not the same person now." She smiled. "I liked him very much when he was big and bold and brash. He was much more fun. Now I see how hollow it all was." She considered it. "I don't think he's even who he thought he was."
"The mud is being washed away to reveal the stones," the father smiled. "As I hoped it would."
The daughter considered it. "I'd have said it was crap, not mud."
"So you're not interested in taking him as your husband?"
The daughter shook her head. "No." She considered that too. "But I'm still going to tease him anyway." She grinned wickedly.
Shouga's eyes blinked open. He saw daylight coming from under the bathroom door.
He sat up from the bath as wrinkled as a prune, and blinked again. There was a towel on the toilet bowl next to him. He reached out and grabbed it, then towelled himself off and got to his feet.
He looked in the mirror. He'd gone back to being blotchy-skinned and dark under the eyes.
"Ugh. This again."
Shouga pulled off his sopping wet clothes and turned the shower on as cold as it would go. He stepped back into the flow of water and recited the mantra Mimi had taught him. He felt the rush of energy through his body again, then looked at the mirror. Blotchiness gone, eyes back to how they were.
"OK. Hopefully it lasts a bit longer this time now that I'm naked."
Shouga heard the door to the apartment open. "Hey, Shouga! Time to move boxes!" the superintendent shouted.
"I can't move boxes today," Shouga replied without poking his head out of the bathroom. "I'm taking a religious holiday for the full moon." He felt himself start to pass out and propped himself against the doorway.
"What religious holiday is that?" the superintendent said.
"The full moon religious holiday," Shouga replied. He waved at the ornamental candle to get its attention. "I have it marked here on my calendar," he said. The ornamental candle dutifully rolled itself out into a hangable calendar with that day's date circled in red. Shouga held it out of the doorway for the superintendent to see.
"Let me see that!"
"Don't come too close, superintendent! I'm naked!"
"Then put some clothes on!" the superintendent complained. The shouting had drawn a small and mystified crowd in the hallway.
"I can't! It's part of the religious holiday! I have to be naked and cold and wet all day or it's very bad luck!" Shouga felt another wave of fatigue and saw the blotches coming back onto his skin.
The superintendent scoffed. "I've never heard of this religious holiday. Come on. You're just making excuses."
Shouga turned the shower on again and started reciting the mantra. He felt the energy return again, but dreaded the thought of having to do this all day.
The superintendent scoffed. "That's no mantra I've ever heard of. You're just making it up."
He shut the shower off and checked. Skin back to normal. Through the dripping water, Shouga heard murmurs outside his door.
"Please!" Shouga said in English. "Please do not attack my religious beliefs!"
"I don't care about your stupid religion!" the superintendent said.
"Hey! Supe!" came a voice from the hallway. "Are you religiously persecuting that man?"
The superintendent turned around to see a cleanly presented American student in a white shirt. "He's making it up!"
"I know a Buddhist mantra when I hear it!" the American student said. "I'm telling your boss that you're a filthy religious persecutor!" The crowd of students nodded in agreement and raised their voices.
The superintendent blinked. "But-"
"Your ignorance of this man's religious practice is no excuse to mistreat him!" the American continued. "This is his holy day! Who are you to deny him that?" The crowd got even more animated. "Are you going to try to take my Bible off me next?"
The superintendent stammered again. "But-"
"I'd leave right now if I were you," the student said.
The superintendent bowed. "Please enjoy your day off, Shouga," he coughed.
Shouga heard the superintendent leave the room. He heard footsteps approaching the bathroom door.
"Happy naked holidays, pal!" said the American student, unseen. "Hope you don't get too shrivelled in there."
"Thank you for your kindness," Shouga replied. "Have a fine day."
The door to the apartment closed. Shouga immediately got back into the shower and recited the mantra more slowly under lukewarm water, just to keep himself ticking over until the full moon rose or Stephen came back.
Stephen's voice was panicked and clipped the phone speaker. "Bianca! Have you seen Shouga? I can't find him!"
"Huh," Bianca said. "Everyone in the building knows where he is except you, seemingly."
"He's locked himself up on the roof. Mikey said he said something about moon-bathing, it's a religious ritual, blah blah blah," Bianca said. "Mikey helped him up there, even."
"Sorry, Stevie. Looks like he's frigid and crazy."
"Don't say that!" Stephen said.
"I keep telling you to break it off, dude." Bianca complained. "I'm getting tired of repeating myself."
"He could be in trouble!"
"Then go check on him! Sheesh!" Bianca hung up.
Stephen bolted up the stairs to the roof and saw a blonde man standing guard at the door. "Hey, you can't go through there."
"What? Why not?"
"Because.. wait, are you with the cuddly guy?" the man asked. "What's your name?"
"I'm Stephen. What's going on?"
"Stephen!" the man smiled. "I'm Mikey. Uh, he said he might be a little spaced out but not to worry. Then he told me to wait for you. He said you'd be the cute one."
Stephen blushed. "He actually called me cute?"
"Well, not in as many words. He gave me a description, I kind of interpolated from there." He laughed. "Sorry, I'm being a rotten little flirt." He handed Stephen a plastic bag of what looked like mushrooms. "Enjoy tripping balls with your boy under the full moon."
Stephen blinked. "Are those.. magic?"
"They sure are!" Mikie said. "They're legal here. One or two should be nicely low-altitude for a beginner. Oh, by the way, if you think that you can fly, always try taking off from the ground first." He unlocked the door to the roof and swung it open. The night air streamed into the stairwell. "Have a very pleasant evening."
Stephen blinked. "You were waiting until I showed up?"
"Yeah," Mikie said. "I was kind of curious to meet you." He winked. "Go on, he's waiting. His cousin said she'd be by to check on him in a little while. Apparently this goes all night."
Stephen walked through onto the roof and heard the door lock behind him. Shouga was lying face up on a big blanket that covered a good portion of the roof, performing some sort of ritual breathing as the moon crested over the hills. Other than a small rag over his crotch, he was completely naked. Stephen quietly wished that rag wasn't there.
Shouga sleepily noticed Stephen approaching and turned his head. "Oh, hello." He tried to choose his next words. "I'm sorry for being strange. Please forgive me."
Stephen smiled and sat down on the blanket. "It's fine. I've always liked that about you." He held up the magic mushrooms. "Did you take some of these already?"
"Yes," Shouga grinned. "It is part of the ritual. Please have a couple."
"Are they safe?"
Shouga laughed sleepily. "Of course. I don't want to hurt you."
"I'm not going to freak out and jump off the building or anything?" Stephen said, opening the bag and taking a couple of mushrooms out of it.
"No," Shouga said. "You are safe right here with me and the moon." He felt the fizz of moonbeams against his skin and felt his reserves of magic stirring.
Stephen hesitated. "OK." He put two of mushrooms into his mouth and chewed them, then nodded resolutely. "So, what now?"
"Lie down next to me here and I will show you," Shouga smiled blissfully. "Like this. Breathe into the stomach. Very slowly." He breathed into his belly, drawing in the magical energy of the moonbeams, held it, then exhaled the air through pursed lips. "You see?"
"I don't understand why you're naked though?" Stephen said. He made himself comfortable on the big blanket.
"I am very traditional when I perform this ritual," Shouga said. "Breathe with me." Both of them drew a big breath and held it.
Stephen was the first to exhale. He felt dizzy. "It's like pulling cones."
Shouga let his breath out slowly. "Less talking and more breathing, please."
They drew another breath together.
The hallucinations had come on subtly but surely across the night sky. The noise of Stephen's vision that was usually a faint multicoloured snow slowly arranged itself into pulsating neon circuits which throbbed across his field of vision, never staying still, always shifting silently. He felt heavy, warm and profoundly content.
"Are you ready, Stephen?"
"I think so," Stephen replied, blinking softly. The mottled white disc loomed over his bare chest and legs.
"Then let us receive the moon."
Shouga recited a low, soft chant that seemed to make the whole universe vibrate. The pulsating colours leapt in time with the rhythm of it. The fizzing energy that had taken residence in Stephen's consciousness suddenly began to swirl and dance, like Shouga had reached down and began manipulating a pool of fluid with his hand.
"God this is trippy," Stephen grinned, mouth open in amazement.
Shouga continued the chant with his eyes closed. The moonbeams had become bright and strong enough that his skin began to crackle with magic. He stopped chanting and took a deep breath, pulling it in through his lungs and every pore of his skin. Then he held it, waiting for as long as he could to let the magic mix with his vital forces. Then he breathed out.
"Whoaaaa!" Stephen said as a shower of moon-coloured sparkles rose off of Shouga's skin like embers. "I want to try that."
Shouga rolled his head to one side. "OK." He took Stephen's hand. "Let's do it together. Here's what you sing." He said the five syllables of the chant clearly and slowly. Stephen repeated them with unusual proficiency. Shouga fleetingly wondered if he should have just taught Stephen more Japanese while high on drugs. "When I say breathe, imagine your entire being like parched ancient sand soaking up the rain."
"OK," Stephen nodded. Parched ancient sand he knew well. "Say when."
Shouga counted down, then both of them sang the chant. The moonbeams seemed to brighten even more intensely in Stephen's eyes, and all around his body he felt like some sort of crackling dew was settling on his skin. He could hear a crackling sound through his ears and lips and skin. The dew seemed to get heavier and heavier, until it was almost suffocating.
Shouga stopped singing the chant. "Now breathe with your whole body!"
Stephen breathed in and imagined he was sand in rain. The dew seemed to soak into him, through his skin and lungs. It penetrated down into him, soaking into his very core like a sponge, and there it rested, vibrating and humming and mingling with his muscles and bones and blood until it was hard to tell the difference.
"And out," Shouga said, exhaling.
Stephen released his grip and breathed out. Suddenly the bright embers he'd seen rising out of Shouga rose out of his own body and danced across his skin before popping like bubbles. "It's like little fireworks," he laughed in delight. "I see why you do this now. This is great."
Shouga smiled sleepily and nodded. "Very refreshing." He breathed in and out slowly by himself. The magicless ache in his bones and muscles was already subsiding, replaced with the same buzzing potential he'd felt when he'd taken every last skerrick of magic he could from his home for his little show. He closed his eyes in forgiveness of his former self and said a prayer for the suffering he'd induced.
Stephen watched the dance of colours reappear in front of his eyes and looked through the psychedelic light show to the glowing orb of the moon. He smiled and wondered if this was one of those memories he'd never forget.
"The meditation calls for a hundred moon breaths in total," Shouga smiled. "Let's keep going."
"I'm ready," Stephen grinned.
The moon brightened as they chanted.
The superintendent stormed up the stairs to the door leading to the roof, recognising Mimi waiting near the door. She was wearing overalls and a handkerchief on her head, and she had a thermos of coffee and a dictionary for company.
"Good morning, superintendent," she said, not even looking up from her coffee. "A little late for you to be skulking around, isn't it?"
"That's none of your business," he snapped. "What's this I hear about people on the roof?"
"What's this about you abandoning your post to play with your silly boxes, more like it?" Mimi shot back. "I've been around your building all day repairing taps and fixing televisions and doing all your work for you." She looked up from the magazine. "Apparently I look the part."
The superintendent blinked. "Why would you do a thing like that?"
"I'm asking myself that very same thing!" Mimi said. "All the residents said you told them you'd call a plumber and a TV repairman and all sorts of people to deal with these problems. It was just a few minor repairs. I even used your own toolbox to take care of them." She folded her arms. "I'm sure your boss would have some words to say about it."
"I am the boss!" the superintendent protested. "Let me past!"
Mimi put her foot across the doorway. "You go and get some rest, little man, before you have a spill on those stairs." She shooed him away.
He hesitated at the threat. "What did you say?" He leaned in closer. "Are you with-"
Mimi slapped him across the face and hissed. "Not another word! If you can't maintain even a slight semblance of normality, we will find another box man! And you know what that means!"
The superintendent gasped and cried out at the same time.
"Now get out of here!" Mimi hissed.
The superintendent bowed and ran down the stairs as fast as his legs could carry him, simpering quietly.
Mimi looked back at the dictionary and grinned. "Now I'm extremely curious to know what's in those boxes." She read the next word. "'Droo-py'. Oh, I like that one!"
"How many is that?"
"What do you mean?" Shouga asked. The moon had visibly passed across the sky. Both he and Shouga had begun to glow and fizz faintly.
"How many moon breaths?" Stephen asked. "Is that a thousand yet? I lost count." Stephen's being felt to him like the inside of a neon light tube, but much nicer.
"It's not precisely a thousand," Shouga smiled. "Just as many as you can manage." He stretched his arms and legs out in a big X and moaned quietly. "I can manage a few more."
Stephen looked over at the cloth across Shouga's genitalia and prayed for a moment it would slip off. It didn't.
Shouga turned his head towards Stephen. He looked down towards the cloth and smiled. He suddenly lifted the cloth up for a moment, grunted, and plopped it down again. "Nothing much to see, is there?" He chuckled.
Stephen laughed. "I can't believe you just did that."
Shouga laughed back. "I can't believe you are interested in seeing it!" He yawned.
Stephen blushed. "Did.. did you want to see mine?" he asked.
Shouga giggled. "I have my own if I forget what one of those looks like." He rolled his neck around. "Ready for another breath, Stephen?"
Stephen trip had suddenly turned. "Shouga... I'm feeling weird." The pleasant heavy feeling began to feel more like an unpleasantly heavy weight, crushing his vital force. "What's happening?"
"Shh, Stephen," Shouga said. He put a soft hand on Stephen's shoulder. "It's just a little bump. It happens sometimes." He stroked Stephen's face with the back of his hand and intoned a soft lullaby in Japanese.
Stephen found the edge of the fuzzy blanket and rolled himself up in it, snuggling up against Shouga's side. Shouga smiled. "That's OK, Stephen. I will keep singing. You can rest." Stephen felt the glow and crackle of his being return under the soft blanket.
Shouga began to chant again as Stephen closed his eyes and fell into a well of thoughts illuminated by bright sparks.
"How many did you manage?" Mimi asked, closing the door to the roof.
"Oh, I never count," Shouga said. He was holding Stephen in his arms, wrapped in the same furry blanket he'd been lying on. Stephen was fast asleep.
"You're looking better," Mimi said.
"I'm feeling better. Twice as good as when I left," Shouga grinned. "I hope they got a good full moon ritual in over at the forest as well." He looked down at Stephen. "I think he enjoyed himself, too."
Mimi sniffed him. "He's full of magic."
"Yes," Shouga said.
"And naked," Mimi added.
"We were both pretty stoned, cousin," Shouga yawned, plodding down the steps.
"Not worried what might happen?"
Shouga shook his head and yawned. "Still pretty stoned, cousin."
Mimi nodded. "That explains why you're walking around an apartment block naked with your naked little friend, both wrapped up in a blanket stretched out of your testicles." She fluffed the newspaper she'd been reading into a blanket and threw it over his shoulders. "Go and get some rest."
Stephen woke up in a daze.
Shouga was lying on the bed next to him, snoring. At least that was normal. He looked a lot better. Certainly not blotchy or disoriented.
He found his phone where there were texts waiting for him. He pawed through the messages groggily. Mainly they were from school wondering where the heck he'd got to. He checked the clock on his phone. It was eleven o'clock. He suddenly sat up with a loud yip and rushed into the bathroom to get ready as fast as his feet could skitter across the floor.
When he got to the mirror, he froze. A pair of round eyes set in a black mask belonging to a fluffy head stared back at him in shock. He looked down at his feet. Paws. Hands? Paws. He looked around and found a fluffy tail poking out behind him. It was too shocked to wag.
He took off his pyjama top and only found himself covered in more fluffy fur. He took off his pyjama pants and rummaged around his crotch. Everything had changed down there too.
He looked at himself in the mirror again. His tail loosened up and started wagging with excitement. Then it stopped wagging.
"Wait," Stephen said aloud. "This is probably just the drugs and I'm probably hallucinating. Or dreaming." He looked at Shouga's sleeping form and decided to risk waking him up.
"Shouga?" he called.
"Mmmhmrm?" Shouga said.
"Can you wake up for a second and help me with something?"
Shouga yawned and forced his eyes open. "What is it, Stephen?" He rolled over and sat up, suddenly confronted by the sight of a fellow tanuki in the bathroom. He affected a sleepy expression. "Is something the matter?"
"Do I look OK?" Tanuki-Stephen asked.
Shouga shrugged. "You should put some clothes on, I guess." He yawned. "We're not moonbathing anymore."
"Huh," Tanuki-Stephen said. "So, nothing out of the ordinary?"
Shouga shook his head. "Not really. Except the naked part." He crawled out of bed towards the kitchen. "Did you want some breakfast while I'm up?" He racked his brains for what to do in this situation. Shiatsu? Chant? A sudden shock?
"I don't know if I'm going to have time," Tanuki-Stephen said. "I'm really late. I think I'm still tripping a bit too."
"Oh, ok!" Shouga nodded. "That explains it then."
"What's that?" Tanuki-Stephen asked.
"Your eyes are still a little wide," Shouga observed.
Tanuki-Stephen looked at his big raccoon-dog eyes in the bathroom mirror and grinned brightly. "I guess so." His tail really started to wag at that. "Honestly, I'm seeing some weird things right now."
"Maybe you need to stay home today?" Shouga asked.
"No, I really have to go to work," Tanuki-Stephen insisted. "I'm going to have a shower first though. I'm feeling a little hairy after last night."
Shouga bit his fist so as not to scream. Then he remembered. "Wait, before you have that shower!"
"What is it?"
"Just remembered," Shouga said. "Turn around." He pressed up against Tanuki-Stephen's body from behind, said a quick chant, then jabbed his fingers deep into Stephen's solar plexus between the bottom of his ribs. The magic shot into Tanuki-Stephen's tail, which Shouga expertly detached with a quiet pop.
Stephen, suddenly human again, doubled over on the bed and coughed as Shouga threw the magical tail behind one of the pillows. "Augh!" He suddenly felt very naked, like he'd been shaven all over. He looked at his arms and found only skin again. "That felt rotten."
"All back to normal?" Shouga asked.
"Yeah," Stephen coughed, looking at his hands. "I think I preferred tripping."
"A sudden shock to that nerve bundle resets everything," Shouga said. "You'll be fine after a very hot shower." He guided his friend over to the shower and patted him on the back. "I'll make breakfast."
Stephen continued to cough. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something fuzzy behind one of the pillows of the bed as Shouga closed the bathroom door.
"Have fun last night on the roof, Stevie?" Bianca grinned over a plate of spaghetti.
"Definitely," Stephen smiled. "We even got in some naked hugs. Not complaining there."
"Oh good," Bianca said. "So you've finally seen one another naked and had a cuddle. That's the kind of progress I like to hear."
Stephen smiled and shrugged. "Two guys living together, it's stupid it took so long."
"Of course, you were both high as a kite so it doesn't really count," Bianca shrugged. "The standards are different when people are high on something." She twirled pasta around her fork. "I've done some fun and messed up stuff under the influence. That's how I know Cindy."
"I did wonder about that," Stephen nodded. He looked up at the trees. "I never noticed how nice these trees are." He walked over and ran his hand over the bark curiously.
"Could you be less obvious about coming down off something there, sport?" Bianca said, looking around.
"Oh, did you find a bug?" said a familiar voice. "I love bugs!" Suddenly Mikey appeared on the other side of the tree. "What kind is it?" He whispered, "Just play along."
"Oh, I think it was a big blue one," Stephen said. "It might have just been a piece of plastic."
"I haven't seen one of those before," Mikey said. "Are you sure it wasn't purple?"
"I didn't get a good look at it," Stephen smiled. "Maybe I'm wrong."
"Maybe," Mikey said. "Keep me posted!" He patted Stephen on the shoulder and went back to his lunch.
Stephen made his way back to his pasta bowl and sat down. He looked into the pasta bowl where there were a lot of squiggly lines.
"That was nice of him to cover for you like that," Bianca finally said. "You should dump Shouga and have sex with that guy to say thank you."
"Yeah," Stephen said, slightly disoriented.
Bianca nodded to Mr Tanaka approaching their table. "Oh-oh, Tanaka's doing his serious walk."
Shouga retrieved Stephen's tanuki tail from behind the pillows and regarded it thoughtfully.
"You shouldn't be here, tail," Shouga said to himself. "You're a mistake."
He looked at it a while longer, then gyaahed in irritation. With a shake he turned it into a banana-shaped fridge magnet, then he stuck it to the refrigerator for safekeeping.
"Of course, I have no control over who you associate with out of hours, but I must strongly advise you not to bring yourself into disrepute by openly participating in intoxicated pagan rituals," Tanaka said.
Stephen nodded and bowed. "I understand, Mr Tanaka. It will not happen again."
Tanaka nodded. "You must not let him lead you astray, no matter your feelings for him!" He leaned back. "I hope I have made myself very clear on the matter."
"Absolutely, Mr Tanaka," Stephen said, bowing again.
"Now that we have that unpleasantness out of the way," Tanaka said. "I am very curious about this moonbathing stuff. You say your boyfriend is from Hokkaido?" Stephen nodded. "I suspect he may be following his family's cult. Is there anything else unusual about his behaviour, perhaps?"
"He's deathly afraid of tanuki." Stephen could only imagine how Shouga would have reacted if he'd actually transformed into a human-sized raccoon dog.
"Ah," Tanaka said. "There usually is some such fear mixed in with the other rituals. It's more normal to despise foxes, because they're much worse, but I suppose it depends on the cult." He nodded. "Perhaps you can repay your friend's kindness by encouraging him to adjust back into normal society?"
Stephen cocked his head to one side. "Well, I mean, his beliefs are his own business." He shuffled on the spot. "I don't know if I'd be comfortable with that. I wouldn't know where to begin."
"Perhaps some exposure therapy would be good," Tanaka said. "Maybe you can accompany him to one of the tanuki shrines and act as moral support."
Stephen shook his head. "He won't even say the word tanuki. There's no way I can take him to a shrine."
Tanaka nodded. "Wow. That's pretty extreme, isn't it?" He rubbed his temple. "Well, please be supportive of your friend. It can't be easy for him, acting normal with all these weird superstitions to deal with. Please use your best judgement."
"Thank you. I will." Stephen suddenly liked Tanaka just a little bit less.
"Now. Back to business. I think you're settled in long enough that it's time for you to start helping me with the lesson plans." He presented Stephen with a ring-bound guide to lesson planning. "Please do your best, but come in early tomorrow so we can go over your work."
Shouga somehow convinced Stephen to go out for tempura despite the fact that he had work to do at home for the first time. Maybe it was Shouga's bouncy energy or the fact that he didn't want to be in the same building as all those people who knew he'd been moonbathing naked on the roof with his crazy pagan boyfriend.
Not that most of them seemed to care. Mikey especially seemed to be into it. A few of the more adventurous residents asked Stephen if they could join in next full moon. Stephen said it was pretty intense and he'd have to ask Shouga about it.
But on the whole, he felt pretty good. Especially that whole vivid tanuki hallucination earlier in the morning. That had to be a sign of something.
"Shouga," he said. "I wanted to talk to you about something."
"OK?" Shouga said, crunching tempura with a big grin. "What is it?"
Stephen put the translator app between them. "It's about your superstitions. I'm not sure they're doing you any good."
Shouga looked at Stephen and crunched his tempura more slowly. "What do you mean?" He swallowed. "Didn't you like the moonbathing?"
"I loved the moonbathing. It's just.. other things." He shrugged.
"You can tell me," Shouga said. "I'm a grown-up."
Stephen sighed. "I just feel like when my favourite movie in the world is about something you're completely forbidden from even speaking about, well.. I have to ask, how come that's the way things are?"
Shouga thought back to the Stephen he knew two weeks ago. That had not been the Stephen he'd pulled a tail off of. That Stephen was gone. And the Shouga who knew that Stephen was gone too.
Shouga shook his head. "I don't know why that's the way things are. But now you mention it, I don't think that superstition does me any good at all." He smiled at Stephen. "I'd like to try to overcome that superstition, if you will help me." Shouga bowed.
Stephen smiled brightly. "I'll help you any way I can, Shouga."
"You are an excellent friend, Stephen," Shouga beamed. He felt a little bit sorry that this game would be up, but there was no point to any more. "I'll call my grandmother tomorrow and ask her what to do."
"OK," Stephen grinned. "We'd better get back. Lesson plans are waiting."
The next morning, Mimi knocked on Shouga's door as he was watching a movie about weird-looking people in cars driving around the desert. Shouga opened the door to discover Mimi in workwear holding a toolbox. She closed the door behind her.
"Why are you all dressed up?" Shouga quipped.
"I've got the superintendent thinking I'm a spotter for the gang that's responsible for your stupid box work," Mimi said with a wink. "That's why he's leaving you alone. He's doing all the loading and unloading by himself for now. I'm doing all the work he's been slacking off with. I think I'm getting pretty good at it, too!"
"Are we any closer to knowing what's in those boxes?" Shouga asked.
"Nope," Mimi said. "It'd look suspicious if I opened one, because I should logically already know. And if you opened one, well, it would look just as suspicious because you and I are cousins." She tapped a spanner on her lips in thought. "What about Stephen? He's a neutral party. And we can trust him."
Shouga sighed. "It would put him in danger. The secret would be out."
Mimi nodded. "Give him the choice." She hauled the toolbox over to the sink and took a look at it. "Which one's the leaky tap?"
Shouga blinked. "Oh, the hot tap. It's been like that since he moved in."
"Seal's probably rotten," Mimi said, opening up the cupboard and turning off the water supply. "Get me a towel so water doesn't go everywhere, OK?"
Stephen was up at the table squinting at his lesson plans for the second night running. Shouga was watching television and rocking back and forth a little bit. The orange evening light shone in through the windows, giving the room a pleasant glow.
"Hey Shouga?" Stephen asked. "What was hard about learning English for you? Like, where did you get stuck?"
"Nothing much so far," Shouga said, looking at the television blankly. "English is easy for me. There's just a lot of words to learn." He scratched his chin. "Maybe I will.. no.. maybe I would like.. uh." He squinted and broke out in a broad grin. "Saa!"
"You big liar," Stephen giggled. He picked up his lesson plan and wandered over to the bed. "It's fine if you're struggling with complicated sentences. I can hardly judge you."
"Yes. When I put words together, sometimes I have trouble," Shouga smiled. "I can understand you OK. I just need to listen more and learn the patterns. It's all patterns. I'm good with patterns." Patterns of syntax, patterns of bark on trees, he thought to himself.
"Oh! Did you talk to your grandmother about the thing?"
"Oh," Shouga said, bowing his head. "I wanted to wait until you were home again, then I forgot. I'll do it now." Stephen handed Shouga his mobile phone.
Shouga faced out the window and put the phone to his ear. Then he waited for a moment. "Hello? Grandmother. It's Shouga-kun. I want to break our family's curse once and for all. What must I do?" He nodded and grunted. "OK. Please take care of yourself, grandmother. Goodnight."
Shouga handed the telephone back to Stephen with both hands and bowed. "Thank you, Stephen."
"Your grandmother speaks English?" Stephen asked.
Shouga hesitated. "Yes. She was a geisha."
"Oh wow!" Stephen grinned. "That sounds fascinating! Maybe we could pay her a visit some time?"
Shouga shook his head. "That is not advisable. She... smells very bad." Shouga held his nose.
"I dunno, Shouga," Stephen smiled, putting the phone back into his pocket. "I've smelled some very bad things while you've been here."
"Worse than that," Shouga said. "Because she smells so bad, she must live by herself up in the mountains. The bears are disgusted by her smell too so they leave her alone. They call her Old Lady Fox-dung."
Stephen giggled but looked Shouga in the eye. "You're just making that up, aren't you?"
Shouga bowed his head. "Yes. Just joking. I hope that's OK." He giggled.
"You had me going there!" Stephen grinned. "Good effort though! You'd fit right in back home."
Shouga came up from his bow. "Grandmother told me that I must make peace with our enemies," he said. "She suggested a visit to a tanuki shrine."
Stephen's eyes suddenly brightened. "They have those?! I don't have school tomorrow. Let's go then!"
Shouga bowed. "Let's go together." He smiled.
"What's with your friend?" a passing Akibahara tourist asked.
"He's trying to break a generations-old family curse," Stephen replied.
"Oh wow! Good luck with that!" the tourist said.
Stephen and Shouga's legs were both aching from the journey through the city, but they found the Yanagimori Shrine and entered through a gate. Shouga had kept a close eye out for tanuki statues the moment they'd left their building. He made a point of stopping and bowing at each tanuki statue he saw, intoning a short prayer.
Within the grounds of the shrine, there were little offerings here and there and a few tourists and locals straggling around.
Finally they made it to the modest altar of the tanuki shrine. Two tanuki statues stood guard.
Shouga bowed his head. "I have come to ask you to lift the curse on my family, o-tanuki." He got down on his hands and knees and bowed before the shrine. He hoped nobody recognised him. "Please. We have suffered long enough." He repeated himself in Japanese. He pulled Stephen down. "Bow like me. Come on."
Stephen got down on all fours on the stone ground and joined Shouga in bowing. "Please leave my friend's family alone, tanuki." They'd begun to draw a crowd.
"Onegai shimasu!" Shouga said. Stephen repeated it.
"Maybe it is time," said a disembodied voice in Japanese. The crowd murmured in disbelief.
Both Shouga and Stephen looked up. "What?" Stephen gasped. He looked down and found a folded piece of paper between his hands. He leaned back onto his knees and opened the piece of paper. "What's this?"
"It's instructions," Shouga blinked. "We'll need to get moving!" He bowed again and ushered Stephen out of the shrine area.
"Shouldn't we go to the other shrine?"
"No, that's the fox shrine," Shouga said. "Foxes are rubbish."
"I feel like an idiot," Shouga said. "This has to be an elaborate prank." He tugged at the tanuki onesie he'd bought on the way out of Akibahara and tried not to look conspicuous at the side of the road. There was a view out over the hills as the other side of the road dipped down into a small valley.
Stephen giggled. "Come on. We might meet some actual tanuki!" He bounced around on the balls of his toes, wiggling his tail around. "Anyway, we've got these cool tanuki outfits. That's something." He drummed the inflatable belly of the suit to make a plastic-sounding 'pon' sound.
"What do you expect if you meet a real life tanuki?" Shouga asked. "I am interested."
"I don't know," Stephen admitted. "I mean, I don't know if I really believe in the whole magical raccoon thing." He smiled. "It's just that movie that got me started into a lot of things."
"Oh? Your tanuki movie?"
"Yeah," Stephen grinned, puffing. "Did you know I have a degree in fine arts?"
"I didn't know that," Shouga said.
"Well, I saw that movie when I was young and it just made me think.. that's what I want to do with my life. If that movie can break my heart for something happening in a completely different country, that's my kind of magic." He shrugged. "Most of the other reason I came up to Japan was to make enough connections to get into the animation industry here." He shook his head. "I'm not sure that's what I want to do anymore, but.. you know. It got me out of the house." He grinned.
"Say if tanuki were real, though," Shouga said. "What if you had one standing right in front of you one day?"
Stephen stopped bouncing around with excitement. "I don't know." He shrugged. "I guess I've thought about it a lot. Nothing seems to really.. I don't know.. I don't know what I'd say."
Shouga nodded. "OK." The headlights of a black car swept across them. The car suddenly steered hard to the left of the road and flew into the darkness. It disappeared into the undergrowth.
"Did you see that?" Stephen said, wide-eyed. "What do we do?"
"I don't know," Shouga said. Suddenly a police siren and lights lit up down the street, illuminating the two tanuki suits.
"Bugger," Stephen said.
"Very bugger," Shouga echoed.
Stephen didn't look up from his lap, except to stare around the interview room balefully. He rubbed the skin where the police had handcuffed him and trembled, despite the warmth of his tanuki costume.
Shouga, in the next room over, had his head down on the table. He was thumping it rhythmically and swearing to himself. Like Stephen, the police had left him to sweat for a few minutes.
The doors to the interview rooms opened and closed simultaneously as two identical-looking policemen walked in and sat down.
"What were you doing in the middle of nowhere dressed as a tanuki, hmm?" the police asked, one in English and one in Japanese.
"My friend was trying to deal with his family's tanuki curse," Stephen replied. "We had instructions to dress like this and go to the place where you found us, then there was an accident."
Shouga didn't respond at first, leaving his forehead on the table, then he looked up. He smirked at what he saw. "You wouldn't know anything about any instructions, would you?" he asked the interviewing officer.
"Where did you receive these instructions?" the policemen asked.
"At a tanuki shrine in Aki.. uh.. Akibahara," Stephen responded.
"At Yanigamori," Shouga smirked. "But you know that already, don't you?"
"And why did you see fit to follow those instructions?" the two police officers asked.
"Because.. I don't know. Instructions don't just appear out of thin air, right?"
"Maybe your friend planted those instructions," Stephen's interviewing officer said. "Maybe he brought you out here to be his accomplice for a crime? Or worse yet, maybe he was going to murder you?"
Stephen blinked. "What? Why would he do that?"
The interviewing officer leaned back with a smile. "Give it some thought. What is more likely? That he made up this whole tanuki curse thing as a way to gain sympathy and make you vulnerable to his will, or that there are real tanuki and a real tanuki curse and all of this is as it seems?"
Stephen nodded. "He wouldn't hurt me like that."
"So we can rule out murder. Why else would he be here then?"
Shouga was more direct in his response. "Because I wanted to see where they'd lead to." He grinned. "How long have you two been skulking around Akibahara?"
"For a year or two now," Shouga's arresting officer smirked. He looked Shouga up and down. "You know what you look like, don't you?"
"An idiot," Shouga nodded. "Believe me, I've had a lot of time to reflect on my decisions recently."
In the other room, Stephen was trembling uncontrollably. "Am I going to get deported for this?"
Stephen's arresting officer's face gave nothing away. "Well, that's not for us to decide. If you co-operate, I'm sure the authorities will be lenient. Prison is not easy for young foreigners such as yourself." He sat back and sipped his coffee. "We'll have to corroborate your stories' details, of course."
The policemen knocked on the walls of the cell simultaneously, signalling it was time to switch over.
"Is that it?" Shouga and Stephen asked.
"Just one moment," the arresting officers said. "Excuse us." They left the interview rooms.
Stephen went back to looking around and rubbing his wrists. Shouga had a big grin on his face. He hoped Stephen wasn't freaking out too much.
"And now for good cop," Shouga said.
Two much kindlier identical looking police entered the interview rooms, bowing awkwardly and bringing some warm coffee. They sat down and looked kindly at Shouga and Stephen.
"Sorry about him," they said. "He's a little grumpy tonight." They pushed the coffee forward.
Stephen accepted it with a bow. "Arigato."
Shouga smirked. "Are you the same guy or a different guy?"
Stephen's interviewing officer bowed politely. "This shouldn't take much longer."
Shouga's interviewing officer squinted and then hooted with laughter before clapping his hand over his mouth to stifle the sound of it.
In the other room, Stephen blinked. "The other guy seems to have cheered up a bit."
"Yes, he has probably seen the same thing I saw," the interviewing officer said enigmatically. "Your friend's costume has a tear in an embarrassing place."
Stephen suddenly looked interested. "Oh?"
Shouga grumbled. "It's not that funny."
Shouga's interviewing officer giggled. "It definitely is that funny." He wiped a tear from his eyes. "Why don't we relax for a second while your little friend sweats for a little longer?" The arresting officer popped out into a shaggy tanuki with a beard. "Who is he, anyway?"
"He's my language tutor," Shouga said. "We have a reciprocal arrangement."
"Then why did you bring him out here?"
"Because I came up with a terrible cover story about a tanuki curse on my family after I got kicked out of my forest for a month," Shouga said. "You know how it is. You do one stupid thing and it just leads to more stupid things."
"Oh," the bearded tanuki smirked. "You must be Shouga."
Stephen looked around nervously. "The other cop thought my friend might have brought me out here to murder me." He searched the cop's eyes. "Is that a thing that happens in Japan?"
"Oh, not at all," the officer smiled. "Although, if your companion is part of that tanuki cult from Shikoku, sometimes we hear things."
"He's from Hokkaido," Stephen said.
"Oh, no," the officer said, suddenly looking worried. "The very worst of the Shikoku tanuki cult broke away to live up in Hokkaido. They're a very deceptive lot. Very dangerous. I'm glad we found you when we did."
Stephen looked terrified. "Oh no. Not Shouga." Tears started to well in his eyes.
The kindly arresting officer got up and kneeled next to Stephen, taking one of his hands and pressing it between hi own. Then he sighed. "Stephen. You're safe here from that dangerous criminal."
"Thank you," Stephen sobbed.
"You don't have to worry about him anymore," said the officer.
"Hey," Shouga said. "I can hear Stephen crying. What's going on?"
"Oh, we're just having some fun," the bearded tanuki said. "We'll let you both go in a second." He giggled at the sound of Stephen's crying. "We're just making up some stuff about you being a dangerous murderer. It's just nonsense."
Shouga's facial expression turned dark. "Stop it."
"Why should we? He's just a foolish human," the bearded tanuki scoffed. "Are you attached to him or something?"
Shouga slid back the hood of his tanuki costume and fixed the bearded tanuki with a penetrating glare. "I'm currently under a sentence which means I'm not permitted to use my magic or do anything that might get me in trouble." He leaned up over the table. "Please don't make me break the conditions of my sentence."
The bearded tanuki stood up and went nose to nose with Shouga. "Perhaps I don't care about your sentence, Shouga. Perhaps I think it's silly you have a human friend."
"Perhaps I should send my cousin Mimi over here to explain the situation."
The bearded tanuki's expression changed from smug resolve to surprise. "You're Mimi's cousin!" He leapt over the table. "Could you introduce us?"
Shouga blinked. "You actually want to meet her? On purpose?"
"I've always wanted to meet her! I've heard stories! Wow!"
Shouga looked disturbed. "But she's a maniac."
"Some of us are into maniacs," the bearded tanuki grinned, waggling his eyebrows.
Shouga blinked again, speechless.
The bearded tanuki stepped back to the wall and banged it three times. "Time to come clean!" He squeezed himself back into the shape of the first policeman and giggled. "Well, clean-ish."
"We are part of a sort of tanuki performance group," explained the two officers a couple of minutes later. "We are inspired by the legends of the tanuki to play tricks on people." They bowed. "I hope we didn't upset you too much."
Stephen chuckled through drying tears. "I think you went a little too far."
"Our apologies," the officers bowed deeper. "We didn't mean you any harm."
"You gave my companion a bit of a scare, you know," Shouga said. "I definitely think you should make it up to him." Stephen sniffed and leaned on Shouga for warmth. "It's not like he was out here trying to remove a family curse."
"Ah yes, the tanuki curse!" the grumpy-looking officer said. "Well, as we are experts in all things tanuki, we can of course advise you on the removal of curses." He rummaged around in his pocket and held out a silver coin. "Here, keep this coin on you." He offered the coin to Shouga. It was an old coin with the image of a tanuki stamped into it. "This should protect you from any family curse."
"And you," the kindly officer said. "You should have a coin too, to let any tanuki know to take it easy on you." He handed over another coin, very much like Shouga's. Everyone bowed at the exchange of gifts.
Shouga folded his arms. "But if you're proper tanuki, you'd try to trick us, right?" He broke the coin in half to reveal it was made of dung. Stephen gasped, then grinned and broke his own coin. He sniffed it and gagged, giggling.
"I can't believe you gave us poo coins," Stephen laughed.
The grumpy-looking officer smiled. "It seems you're too clever for us." He laughed and threw up his hands. "Oh, go on! You prayed at the shrine and everything, I'm sure it's all fine now. You'll know soon enough if it didn't work." Both of the police officers chuckled.
"Let's hope it did, then," Shouga said.
"And here's a real coin for your troubles," the kindly officer said. He handed over much heavier metal coins to both Shouga and Stephen. "We give these out to people as a token of the evening." It didn't look as ancient, but the weight felt right. "Thank you for meeting us."
At that moment, Bianca drove up in a car with a chubby-looking guy at the wheel. "Hey, guys!" She waved out the window, then ran over to greet them both. "You got arrested together doing something completely stupid dressed like cute little idiots! I'm so proud of you!" She hugged them both tight. "Come on, let's get you home." She poked her tongue out at the police officers as she bundled the boys into the back of the car.
"Bianca says you got into a little trouble last night," Mikey said at lunch. "Police were involved, or so she said."
"Yeah, kind of?" Stephen smiled. He took the tanuki coin out of his pocket and twirled it between his fingers. "More like very elaborate pranksters."
Mikey raised his eyebrow. "What's your tutor got you into now?"
"Getting rid of a family curse, as it happens." He spun the coin between his fingers. "It was Mr Tanaka's idea. He says there's a lot of superstitions where my tutor comes from but it's all just psychological." He kept spinning the coin. "He asked for my help. It's just moral support, really."
"And you got arrested," Mikey said.
"Not exactly," Stephen said.
"Wearing animal pyjamas," Mikey continued.
"That part, yes," Stephen giggled.
Mikey smiled and shook his head. "Are you normally like this? Taking drugs, moonbathing, getting mixed up with tanuki cultists?"
Stephen shook his head. "Not really."
Mikey hesitated. "Are you enjoying yourself, though?"
Stephen thought about it and nodded. "Yeah. Sure."
Mikey pressed further. "And you're not.. missing out on anything in the meantime?"
Stephen scratched his head. "I mean.. well.. maybe?" He leaned forward onto the table in front of him. "I mean, it'd be nice if.. you know.. things moved in that direction."
"But he's not interested," Mikey said.
"No," Stephen said, sighing. "It used to drive me crazy but.. well.. I've come to accept it, I guess." He shrugged. "He cares about me, but it's a good friendship."
"Don't you sleep in the same bed?"
Stephen blinked. "Well, yeah, but I'm not going to kick him out of bed for not being interested in me that way, am I?"
Mikey stood up and patted Stephen on the shoulder. "Maybe think about that one a bit harder, Stevie."
Stephen blinked. He said it back to himself again, and looked off at nothing in particular. Then he looked back at Mikey. Then he put his chin on his arm and exhaled, deep in thought.
"I mean, it'd be rude to kick him out of bed. Right?"
Shouga took a deep breath. "OK."
"So, are you ready to watch it now?" Stephen said, turning the DVD for Pom Poko over in his hands. "Are you ready to take the next step in clearing yourself of the curse?"
Shouga nodded. "OK. Please. Let's watch."
Stephen inserted the disc into the player and set it going.
Approximately ninety minutes later, Stephen had cried his usual bittersweet tears but Shouga was a very conspicuous blubbering wreck. Stephen had had to tell more than one concerned visitor that they were just watching a sad movie.
"It's not fair!" Shouga howled.
"They're so cute and sweet!" Stephen sniffled.
"I feel so awful for them!" Shouga wailed.
"Who would do that to them?" Stephen sobbed quietly.
Shouga chose to collapse onto Stephen's shoulder with a pillow and cry. He cried much harder than he thought he would, and he didn't need to put on an act, and not just because this dumb little movie got to him.
He wanted to pour his heart out about how he knew the old stories, how things used to be that way, how it had all been different until the forests were cut to pieces and paved over, how development didn't stop until it was too late and it was all his family could do to make sure their little patch of forest didn't go the same way as all the other stuff. He missed the taste of chestnuts and persimmons. He missed his family.
The encroachment of humankind had been so much harder than the movie made it out to be. There was so much less left to protect. He sobbed harder.
He wished with all his heart could just come out with it all because he knew that Stephen, of all people, would hear him.
"Wow, Shouga," Stephen sniffed, patting the back of his head. "You're really upset."
"I'm sorry," Shouga said through the pillow. "I'm so sorry."
"It's ok," Stephen said, putting an arm around him and squeezing him close. "It's a sad movie. You can cry if you need to."
I'm sorry I can't tell you the truth, Shouga thought. I'm sorry I can't be straight with you. I'm sorry I don't feel the same way about you as you feel about me. I'm sorry I haven't made you better at Japanese by now, even.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," was all Shouga said. He sniffed, lifting his head, then looked directly into Stephen's eyes with an honest heart.
For a split second, Stephen saw through Shouga's magic.
Stephen blinked. "Whoa, flashback." He smiled. "I think I just had a flashback." He grinned to himself. "Wow." He slumped back.
"Are you OK?" Shouga asked.
"I think so," Stephen said. He felt a wave of bliss wash over him like a breeze, then it faded away. "Yeah, I think so." He smiled and looked at Shouga.
Shouga grinned back, secretly hoping that split-second lapse didn't count. He noticed a Japanese flag on the back of the video case. "Oh, this is a Japanese movie, right?"
"Yeah," Stephen said. He chuckled through tears. "I've never actually watched it in Japanese." He pressed a couple of buttons. "Are you game to watch it again though? You were pretty upset just now."
Shouga nodded and smiled through tears. "It was good upset." He found a pad and paper, then took the remote. "Let's begin."
The movie started to play. Voices sang out: "Tanuki-san, tanuki-san..."
Shouga paused the video. He sang it again: "Tanuki-san, tanuki-san.. what does it mean?"
Stephen grinned. "Mr Rac.. Mr Tanuki, Mr Tanuki?"
Shouga nodded. "Also Mrs Tanuki, but yes." He unpaused the video. The voices sang on: "Asobo ja nai ka." Pause.
Stephen shook his head. "I mean, I know it means 'can't you play with me somehow'. I just don't know how it means that."
Shouga nodded. "OK." He cleared his throat. "Asobo means play." Stephen nodded. "And.. hmm... ja nai ka.." He thought about it. "If I say 'Stephen ja nai ka', I am asking 'Isn't Stephen there?', do you see?" Stephen nodded. "But if I say 'Asobo ja nai ka?', a person understand would understand it means 'will you play with me?', do you see?"
Stephen nodded and grinned. "It's implied."
Shouga nodded. "Yes. Japanese is often implication. When I speak English, I feel like I must over-explain everything to sound correct. It is explicit."
Stephen nodded. "OK." He repeated the song. "Tanuki-san, tanuki-san, asobo ja nai ka?"
Shouga bit his lip and swallowed before he sang the reply without thinking. "That's right."
The image of an animated tanuki appeared on the screen. Shouga suddenly started weeping again and buried his head on Stephen's shoulder.
"OK, we're turning this off now," Stephen laughed, hugging his friend close. "Come on, stop crying."
Shouga blinked away his tears. "Sorry. Do you know any other Japanese movies by heart?"
Stephen giggled. "Not as well as that one." He picked out a copy of 'Seven Samurai'. "My dad gave me this when I left. He said it's a classic."
"OK," Shouga sniffed. "Let's work on that one. Hopefully it's not too long."
"Four hours!" Stephen yawned. "We'll never get through that movie with Shouga stopping it every few seconds, seriously."
"You should watch Yojimbo instead," Mikey said. "It's a brisk hundred and ten minutes. I'll lend you my copy. I hear Tanaka put you on lesson planning?"
Stephen yawned again. "Mmmhmm!" he said. "I hate it."
"I don't mind it," Mikey said. "Why don't you get Shouga to vet your ideas?"
"Because Shouga's some kind of language prodigy. He's already pretty much fluent in English after.. I dunno.. three weeks?"
"Three weeks?" Mikey shook his head. "No way. That's not possible."
"It is," Stephen said. "It's rare, but sometimes people have an incredible capacity for language learning. I looked it up because I didn't believe it either." He pulled out his phone and showed Mikey a wikipedia page. "There was a guy called Ken Hale who had the same ability. He might have even learnt Japanese."
"So what's he doing slumming it in student accomodation when he could be doing geniusy things?"
Stephen shrugged. "It's not like he doesn't study his guts out, man. He's always watching movies or reading my dictionary. Half the time in conversations if I say something in a weird way he'll get me to explain it. He's just a really curious guy."
"Curious is the right word," Mikey said with a shrug. "Well, if you ever lose your taste for curious, there's plenty of other adjectives around."
Stephen smiled. "I don't think there's much danger of that."
Mikey shrugged. "Well, can't say I didn't try. See you around, Stevie."
"It's Stephen. Only Bianca calls me Stevie."
"What does Shouga call you?"
"No pet name?" Mikey teased.
"No," Stephen said. "He doesn't really do pet names."
"More's the pity." Mikey sauntered away. Bianca wandered by and gave Stephen a look, pointing with both fingers at Mikey. Stephen shrugged innocuously. Bianca stared to the heavens in frustration for a second, then walked over.
"What is wrong with you?" Bianca said.
"What do you mean?" Stephen asked.
"Why are you giving Mikey the cold shoulder, you big tease? He's so into you."
Stephen blinked. He looked at where Mikey had walked off to. "I guess he's a bit into me, isn't he? Maybe a little too into me."
"Compared to Shouga, sure," Bianca said. "What's stopping you? Go tap that, Stevie."
Stephen shook his head. "I'm not tapping anything."
"Well that's plain to see," Bianca said. "I mean, you know that Shouga's never ever in a million years going to make a move. And it's clear enough you've stopped thinking of Shouga that way too. You don't have that sad, horny look in your eyes anymore. The two of you are never in a million years going to get intimate."
Stephen blinked. "We've been intimate plenty of times. He was crying on my shoulder through most of Pom Poko last night."
"Hush!" Bianca grunted and held up a finger. "That is adorable and sweet but that's not what I mean. I mean physically intimate."
Stephen groaned. "You don't mean physically intimate, you mean we're never going to have sex." He scowled. "I don't think about that anymore. He's my friend."
"So, logically, if he's your friend, it's not technicaly cheating if you hook up with Mikey, right?"
Stephen narrowed his eyes. "What exactly is it with you getting me to pop my cherry?"
"Well, for one, it's starting to drive me crazy," Bianca closed her eyes. "And the other part, I can't tell you that right now." She shook her head. "I mean, I should but it's.. you won't get it."
Stephen searched Bianca's face. "Something happened?"
Bianca nodded. "Yeah." She hesitated. "I really don't want to talk about it."
"I understand," Stephen said. "I guess I should thank you for booting me up the arse when I needed it."
Bianca nodded. "Yeah, you really should. Consider this a very hard boot up the ass towards Mikey. Trust me. If I'm reading your situation right, Shouga won't care."
"Did you know you have an admirer, cousin?" Shouga grinned. He'd found an English language book on Stephen's shelf which he'd begun attacking with a highlighter.
"I have lots of admirers," Mimi said. She'd stopped by Stephen's flat for something to eat. "Which one are you referring to specifically?"
"He's from a forest out east of here, I think. He even asked me to make an introduction."
Mimi continued chewing. "Continue."
"He says he likes it when women are rough on him," Shouga shrugged.
Mimi stopped chewing. "He likes it?" She blinked. "Is that allowed? I'm not sure if I'd like it as much if someone liked me being mean to them."
"You should meet Scary Cindy," Shouga said. "She's made a whole living out of that kind of thing."
Mimi nodded. "I've heard of her." She grinned slyly. "I might even know a thing or two about her that we could have some fun with."
"Oh?" Shouga grinned.
"Not so long ago, someone very much fitting her description was out in the forest conducting some kind of ritual to try to give herself magical terror powers." Mimi winked. "The foxes found her and frightened her out of there pretty fast before someone even worse showed up."
"Worse than foxes?" Shouga asked.
"There's definitely worse stuff out there than foxes," Mimi said.
"Bet it smells better than foxes."
Mimi smirked. "Oh, by the way, I asked grandfather about your little lapse of concentration." She sighed. "He says if that's happening, you're too close."
"Too close to Stephen?"
Mimi nodded. "He said the sentence still stands, although by now he has no idea why you're even bothering anymore and unofficially you're welcome back any time. But it's probably time to cut your ties with Stephen if you want to keep this endurance run of yours going."
Shouga heard a tone in her voice and scoffed. "You think it's silly?"
"Not really," Mimi said. "I couldn't do it. I've heard of other tanuki going for a week, sometimes even a month like you're trying to, even two months, even years on end."
"Years!?" Shouga said. "I feel like such an underachiever."
"That tanuki got married though," Mimi said. "She had something to stick around for. There was purpose. You're just going through motions. So of course you won't last as long. You don't need to."
"Years," Shouga mused. He wondered how someone would even do that.
"She was in love," Mimi said, answering her thoughts. "She fell in love with a hunter - pretty kinky, right? - and they started an orphanage because she couldn't have children of her own, blah blah blah. It's all very sweet. I think the orphanage burnt down after they died though."
"Years," Shouga said aloud again.
Mimi suddenly poked Shouga hard in the forehead with her chopsticks. "Hey, Old Shouga! Climb back into your grave and leave New Shouga in peace!" She poked again. "Get back in there, I say!"
Shouga smiled. "Thanks." He rubbed the marks on his forehead. "A month is still pretty impressive though, right?"
Mimi held her chopsticks at the ready. "Don't make me poke you again, cousin." She poked him anyway.
Stephen and Shouga exchanged glances with one another over dinner.
"Do you miss going out?" Stephen asked.
"A little," Shouga said. "It's nice to stay in. I prefer the quieter company." He smiled. "It's much nicer than being hassled by police and drunk old men."
Stephen smiled. "It is." Shouga noticed a sandess in his eyes. "Yeah."
Shouga sat back from his meal. "What is it, Stephen?"
Stephen sighed and shook his head. "When I first met you, I thought.. well.. I thought things might turn out different between us." He sighed. "I'm kind of into you, you know."
"Into me?" Shouga said. "Do we need the phone again?"
Stephen shook his head. "I mean, I liked you. I wanted to be with you because I thought you were really cute."
Shouga grinned. "I know I'm cute."
Stephen giggled and blushed. "Stop. You're making this really hard." Shouga shrugged cheekily. "What I'm saying is.. more what I'm asking is.. did you ever feel that way about me?"
Shouga shook his head. "No. I care about you very much, Stephen." He concentrated, trying not to let another flash happen. "But not because you're cute."
"Am I cute though?" Stephen asked.
"Not as cute as me," Shouga teased.
Stephen tried to shake off the teasing and took a deep breath. "There was never any chance we'd end up being more than just friends," he said, as much by admission as confirmation.
Shouga shook his head again. "It never crossed my mind to think of you that way."
Stephen hesitated. "And no part of you misses having the kind of relationship that involves kissing, cuddles, sex? You're fine without it?"
Shouga nodded. "I'm just fine without it."
"Not with anyone?"
Shouga shook his head. "Not with anyone." His face wore a strained smile, but in his head he was scrambling to find a lie, or a half-truth, or anything he could use to create some distance between him and Stephen. Even just a stupid joke. He was being worryingly honest again. Mimi was right. They'd gotten too close for him to want to maintain the illusion in his heart. "But I still care very much for you, Stephen."
"Well, I'm not like you," Stephen said. "I think I need all that stuff, even if you don't."
Shouga nodded. "I know." He smiled. "I knew it for a long time. I'm glad that we can be honest about it."
Stephen finally said what had been on his mind. "Shouga, what are we doing here? Really?"
"Running away," Shouga said. "You?"
Stephen blushed. "I.. don't know if I'm ready to tell you the whole truth." Stephen leaned forward. "What are you running away from, Shouga?"
"An arranged marriage," Shouga replied. "And myself, a bit," The vagueness was helping. "I needed to leave the worst parts of myself behind." He bowed his head. "You have helped me to do this, Stephen. More than I can ever tell you. I won't ever forget that. I hope one day I can make it up to you."
Stephen smiled. "OK, I guess if I'm going to be vague, you're allowed to be vague too." He held Shouga's hand. "I'm glad I could help, though." He blushed. "I am also extremely envious how quickly you picked up English. Maybe even a little bit suspicious."
Shouga shrugged with a shy grin. "I promise you, I really have put in the effort with learning your language. No tricks at all."
"No magic?" Stephen winked.
"No magic. Just hard work," Shouga nodded. "Although, magic is hard work too." He cleared his throat. "Probably." He felt the distance between them grow again.
The superintendent barged into Shouga's apartment. "Hoi, Shouga! You're back on box duty again!"
Shouga got up from bed and yawned. "I almost missed your stupid boxes."
"I need two sets of hands to load up today," the superintendent complained. "Get a move on!"
"My cousin won't be impressed about this at all," Shouga said. "Are you sure about this?"
"She's waiting for us in the store room," the superintendent said. "She's looking very mean today."
Shouga suddenly grinned brightly. "I'll be right down!"
"That's the last of them," the superintendent said. "Please pass along my apologies to your associate that we weren't quicker about it."
"Sure, why not," Mimi said. She gestured to Shouga. "Cousin, you're with me. It's time you moved up in the world. Hurry up!" Shouga hopped into the cab of the truck with an excited grin.
"Him!?" the superintendent said. "But-"
"Shut up!" Mimi said, slamming the door of the truck. "You'll stay where you are until you learn your place, little man!" She threw the truck into gear and sped off with a squeal of tyres and the smell of smoke.
Shouga looked around at the road behind them, then at Mimi. "So, are we finally going to get to see what's in these stupid boxes?"
"Nope," Mimi said. "I'm going to tell you, because we're going to deliver them."
"Actually deliver them?" Shouga said. "Is that safe? I thought this was all part of some organised crime thing."
"Oh, it's most definitely criminal," Mimi said. "You'll see." She slowed down at a set of traffic lights and grinned broadly, tapping the steering wheel to an inaudible rhythm.
"Why are you so happy?" Shouga asked.
"What's the one thing in the world you hate more than ginger, cousin?"
Shouga looked back towards the boxes, then at Mimi, then smelled the cab of the car carefully. "Oh no."
Mimi laughed. "You got it!"
At lunch, sitting next to Mikey, Stephen suddenly resolved to go for broke. "Do you think I'm cute, Mikey?" Bianca began to chew her rice more slowly.
Mikey blinked. "Uh, sure?"
Stephen took a deep breath and said nervously, "Is there any possibility the two of us would.. you know.. get to know one another?" Bianca immediately spat out her mouthful of rice all over the table.
"I guess," Mikey said, unperturbed.
"I mean with all the usual implications of getting to know one another?"
"It could happen," Mikey grinned.
Stephen nodded. "OK. I was just curious." He went back to his food, trying not to let a sly grin creep too far across his mouth.
Mikey ate a mouthful of rice, looking off into the distance.
There was the sound of chewing and chopsticks tinkling gently against ceramic bowls.
Bianca stood up from her spot. "Are you deliberately winding me up here, assholes?" she complained loudly.
"I'm just asking questions," Stephen said.
"I'm just answering the questions he's asking," Mikey added.
"Stop being so casual!" Bianca yelled. "If you're into one another, just.. you know.. do the thing!" She brought her hands together demonstratively in stressful claws.
"I think she wants us to do the thing, Stephen," Mikey said.
"I don't know, Mikey," Stephen said. "I feel a little bit rushed into it."
"Well, take your time, it's no big deal."
"It's not fair to keep you waiting around, though." Stephen shrugged.
Bianca growled and stormed into the women's toilets where she continued growling and making a fuss for all to hear outside.
Mikey laughed. "We got her."
Stephen giggled. "We got her so good." He noticed Mikey's smile again. "Also, for the record, you're pretty cute yourself." He shrugged. "Just so you know."
"I know," Mikey smiled. "I think it's more important you know how cute you are."
Stephen grinned and blushed. "Thanks." Hs wriggled in his seat. "Do you want to come out for dinner some time? With me and Shouga and Bianca, all four of us?"
"Well, why not just the two of us?" Mikey asked, turning on the charm. "I'm free tonight."
Stephen screwed up his face. "Maybe next time. You should meet him anyway." He shrugged and got up from his seat. "Tonight's good, though. I'll text you."
Bianca was still growling in the toilets. Stephen hammered on the door. "We're going out for dinner tonight. Want in?"
"Yes! I hate you! Aarghgh!" Bianca shouted from behind the door.
"Normally I don't like foxes," Shouga said. "This is a pretty cool setup, though."
"Isn't it?" the fox said, wandering around the little warehouse. "Every time I see another one of these little balls tinkling out of our machinery, it makes me very happy." He picked up a tiny metal ball and threw it to Shouga. By the time it landed, it was a stuffed tanuki toy. He grinned.
A fox worker behind him was ripping open the boxes they'd brought with them. Stuffed toys emptied onto a conveyor belt, magically transforming back into tiny ball bearings as a fox priest murmured an incantation. Another fox behind him crossed off particular boxes from a clipboard.
Mimi nudged Shouga's shoulder. "Clever, isn't it?"
"Of course, if tanuki weren't so lazy they could have made a start on this kind of thing long ago," the fox said. "It's not like you lack the skill to do it, just the will and the wits. Leave it to your older brothers and sisters to think strategically while the younger siblings fiddle-faddle around aimlessly."
Shouga bit his lip and tried not to rise to the bait. "We all have our strategies in life, fox." He looked around at the machinery. "Some are made to last longer than others."
"Oh, we're quite safe here," the fox smirked. "All the right pockets have been lined."
"Well, aren't you just a fluffy little yakuza," Shouga said. "And I do like the way you torment that superintendent."
The fox rolled his eyes. "If you had any sense at all, Shouga, you'd be pleading to join forces with me. Mimi's already on our payroll. We can always use another shapeshifter in our ranks."
"Sorry," Shouga said. "This is not for me." He bowed again. "I'll maintain absolute discretion, of course."
"Of course," the fox said. "Mimi said you probably wouldn't be interested anyway." The fox threw a bundle of money Shouga's way. "For previous services rendered, plus a little extra. Go and live it up."
"How can you even afford this?!" Bianca asked silently, walking with them into the swankiest modern restaurant she'd ever seen. It was immaculately polished glass and marble, neon lights, very expensive and fashionable.
"My cousin fixed someone's toilet today and got a huge tip," Shouga grinned, looking similarly fancy. "I don't want to say too much but you'd be surprised what goes on in that building. Anyway, it's her treat."
Mikey slipped his suit jacket off and looked around in amazement. "This is crazy." There were gold statues, a fountain, an expansive-looking bar, all somehow very low key yet solid. "I'm surprised this place isn't louder though."
"Mimi said this place had a good quiet atmosphere," Shouga said. "It's known for it."
"Kuroyama party, private room?" the maitre d' confirmed. Shouga nodded. "Please, this way. Try not to disturb the other guests."
They shuffled quietly past the great and mighty of Japan. Bianca heard the occasional murmur from the other diners as they wandered past, but tried to keep her composure. They were led to a private room off to one side of the restaurant with a Western-style dining table and their own personal DJ.
"This is Hiro," the maitre d' said. The DJ bowed. "He will be providing your music and lighting as you eat this evening. Please feel free to make whatever requests you like. He can also run the karaoke system if you wish."
Bianca gasped. "Karaoke?!" Hiro nodded and bowed. "Oh my god. I haven't done karaoke in ages."
"I've never been," Stephen admitted.
"Do you like karaoke, Shouga?" Mikey jumped in.
"I've never done karaoke either," Shouga said. "I'm not from the city."
"Where does your name come from?" Mikey asked.
"Kuroyama? Actually, it is a recent change," Shouga said. "After my family moved to Hokkaido, we wanted a fresh start. I don't even remember what our original family name was."
"How come?" Mikey probed. "What happened?"
Shouga bowed. "I'd rather not say." He flicked an eye towards Bianca.
Bianca definitely picked up on it. "No, please, don't hold back on my account. I love grubby little family secrets."
Shouga hissed through his teeth uncertainly. "Well, this is meant to be a happy occasion, and how we came to live up in Hokkaido is a very unhappy story." He started to fill in the details while he stalled. Police? Violence? Some kind of affair? What had he already let on? Geisha grandmother? Wait, did he lie about that or did he come clean about it... ?
Stephen put his hand on Shouga's wrist. "Don't worry about these two, Shouga. They're just being stickybeaks."
Mikey spoke to Shouga in Japanese. "So how's that tanuki curse going?"
Shouga bowed with a smile and replied in English. "The curse is all taken care of. Stephen was a big help."
Mikey nodded. "Glad to hear it," he said.
Bianca looked over at Mikey. "Maybe we should stick to a language we all understand?"
"I heard you picked up English pretty quickly," Mikey continued on in Japanese. "You're pretty impressive for someone who's only been learning, what, three weeks?"
"I'm a quick learner," Shouga replied in Japanese. "I have studied very hard."
"So what else are you good at?" Mikey said, trying to read Shouga's face.
"Sorry to interrupt," Stephen said. "Shouga, how do I tell someone to knock something off if they're being a jerk again?"
"You say 'da-me'," Shouga said, without breaking eye contact with Mikey.
"No no," Bianca said. "This is how you say it." She smacked the table hard enough to rattle the cutlery. "Da-me, Mikey-kun! Nan-da yo!?"
"I'm just asking questions here," Mikey said, shrugging.
"Seriously Mikey, either speak English or get lost," Bianca said. "You're being an asshole."
Stephen frowned. "Yeah, Mikey."
Mikey stood up. "Should have got yourself a better Japanese teacher, am I right?" He shot a look at Shouga, picked up his jacket and left the room. "See you guys at school."
Bianca groaned. "Seriously, Mikey?" No reply.
Shouga nudged Stephen. "Be careful of that guy, Stephen. He has a temper."
Bianca nodded. "Yeah, never seen him like that before. He's usually much nicer."
Stephen shrugged. "Still cute though." Shouga chuckled.
"Well, Mikey might have a bug up his butt, but wanna karaoke with you guys, so I'm staying." She picked up her phone and started texting. "And I know for a fact it's someone's night off, so Mikey's loss is her gain." Bianca chuckled to herself.
"Who are you inviting?"
Bianca leaned back and waved. "Yo, Hiro. Got any death metal?"
Cindy had unleashed the most bowel-loosening growl into the microphone that the three of them had ever heard.
Bianca shouted, "Yeah! Rip it up, bitch!"
With absolute focus, Cindy drew back her breath and repeated the feat once more as metal guitars and drums hammered and screeched away.
"She is bloody amazing," Stephen laughed, adding a 'whoop!' of his own. Shouga nodded his head. He wondered..
It was coming to the end of the song. Shouga sat back where Stephen couldn't see, and quietly waited for Cindy's last roar.
Cindy breathed in for the last scream. She unleashed her roar, but it came out as an even more demonic pants-shitting sound than the four of them expected. It just kept going on and on. The light in the room seemed to darken. A choir of hungry souls began to peek through the utter horror of Cindy's shout. Even Hiro looked shocked as the song drew to a close.
Cindy didn't drop a beat. She stood up and handed the microphone back to Hiro roughly, then strode back to the table forcefully and sat down while her companions looked on in astonishment.
"How the hell did you do that?" Bianca said, slack-jawed.
"Witchcraft," Cindy said. "I have communed with demons. Sometimes they grant me their powers." She bowed her head. "It is your privilege to witness such an event."
Shouga nodded. "Very impressive." He bowed his head. "Thank you, demons."
"Oh. You are also a believer?" Cindy asked.
Shouga nodded. "Of a sort." He bowed.
"So you're actually a witch?" Bianca said. "That's super hardcore."
Cindy nodded with uncharacteristic modesty. "That is true. You have seen this for yourself." She looked at Stephen. "As have you. Are you convinced of my powers?"
"It's definitely given me something to think about," Stephen bowed.
Shouga stifled a giggle and patted Stephen on the shoulder. For someone who woke up literally transformed into a tanuki not more than a few days ago, Shouga thought, it must take him a while to convince him of anything.
"What is it that you find funny, exactly?" Cindy asked Shouga in Japanese.
Shouga responded in Japanese. "It's a private joke. I didn't mean to offend you." He bowed his head curtly.
Bianca clicked her fingers in Cindy and Shouga's faces. "Hey, come on, we talked about this already." She switched from Japanese to English. "No keeping Stevie out of the conversation just because Shouga's a terrible Japanese teacher."
"Well." Stephen cleared his throat. "To be fair, he helped me get my confidence up, actually speaking to people. So it hasn't been a complete loss."
"Speaking of confidence," Bianca said. "Come on. You're up. Go." She gestured towards the karaoke space.
Stephen smiled bashfully and nodded. "OK. I don't think I've had enough to drink yet, but OK." He walked up to the microphone stand and looked down at the monitor.
Shouga clapped. "Carn, Stephen!"
"Carn?" Bianca laughed.
Stephen chuckled. "It's Australian for 'get on with it'."
"Carn Stevie, ya drongo!" Bianca shouted in her best Australian accent.
Shouga felt something being put into his hand. Then he saw Cindy heading for the door. He looked at Cindy's business card. It had her address on one side, and on the other side a short note scratched into it with a toothpick. He put it into his jacket pocket.
"Going somewhere, Cindy?" Stephen said.
Cindy turned and bowed, silently bidding them farewell.
"Guess so," Bianca said. "She's not much for pleasantries, that girl." She looked around. "Do you really think she's a witch? That was pretty freaky."
"It was," Stephen agreed.
Bianca turned to their host and addressed him Japanese. "Hiro, was that part of the karaoke system?"
Hiro shook his head. "I cannot account for it." He looked visibly disturbed.
"Do you want something to calm your nerves?" Bianca asked in Japanese.
"Please," Hiro said. He gratefully accepted a shot of brandy.
Shouga giggled to himself. "I've never met a real witch before."
"I have to say, Shouga, you're taking this quite well," Bianca observed.
Shouga bowed his head. "Let's just say my family has something of a reputation." He gestured to Stephen. "Please, sing us a happy song."
Stephen blushed. "OK." He whispered to Hiro, who nodded and started tapping away at his controls. "So, in my now completely redundant fantasy where Shouga and I ended up as lovers, this would have been the song I seduced him with. Screw it. No use letting it go to waste."
Bianca laughed. "Lay it on us, Stevie. Show this heartbreaker what he's missing out on."
An eerie, sensual sound called out over a slow, pulsating electronic bass line, joined by a shuffling drum beat.
Stephen closed his eyes and sang along tenderly. "Put it on.. 'n don't say a word. Put it on.. the one that I prefer.."
"Bet he thought he'd get you into a tanuki gimp suit," Bianca giggled quietly to Shouga in Japanese.
"Shh!" Shouga said, watching Stephen sing.
"I think Cindy's got one," Bianca added.
"Shut up," Shouga said.
Stephen reached the bridge and opened his voice up. "Something so sim-ple, something so trivial, makes me a happy man, can't you understand?" Stephen opened his eyes and stopped singing at that lyric. He grinned bashfully in Shouga's direction.
Shouga half-grinned in return and shook his head with a shrug. He clapped his encouragement.
Bianca clapped louder. "Keep singing, you dumb horny fool!"
Stephen tore into the second verse like a drunk pub rocker on his third bottle of vodka. "Put it on! I can feel so muuuuch!"
"Woo!" Bianca shouted. Shouga laughed.
"Put it on! I don't need to touuuuch!" Stephen yowled gleefully. Lyric by lyric, he continued tearing his foolishness and regret to pieces, encouraged harder and harder by Bianca and Shouga's laughter and cheers.
By the time the song faded out, Stephen was panting and giggling. He took a slightly unsteady bow and rejoined his friends at the table for another drink.
"So, would that have actually worked?" Bianca giggled.
Shouga shook his head and grinned. "No. But I'm sure it will work on someone some day." He giggled.
"Your turn, Shouga," Bianca said, waving him up to the microphone.
"I'm a little embarrassed," Shouga said. "I don't really know any songs. Part of my family's cult. We were taught never to sing in case it attracted tanuki."
"You're still worried about attracting tanuki?" Bianca said. "I thought you said you were all good."
"I mean I never learnt any songs," he shook his head. "We didn't even have a radio."
"Then we'll teach you a song!" Bianca said, lurchingly. "No excuses! Everyone must sing!"
Stephen flopped into bed. "So, your family was sent up to Hokkaido for being witches?"
Shouga laughed. "So much curiosity just before bed!" He giggled, still a little drunk. "It's not a bedtime story."
"OK, but will you tell me all about it soon?" Stephen grinned.
"I'd love to," Shouga said, starting to feel himself slip again. "Well, I will tell you what I can tell you."
"So, who were you going to be married to?" Stephen said, looking at Shouga hopefully.
"Oh, that I can tell you right now," Shouga said, clearing his throat. "I was being made to marry Mimi"
"Mimi?!" Stephen laughed in disbelief. "I see why you ran away. She's like a tornado crossed with a bulldozer." He handed the phone over. "In case you don't know what those are yet."
Shouga read the text on the phone. He remembered bulldozers. Too many of them. "Yeah." He handed the phone back and sighed. "And when I refused, I was sent away to grow up."
Stephen nodded and swallowed. "Me too."
"So, you wanted to be with me because I reminded you of a tanuki?" Shouga said.
Stephen blushed and nodded. "Yeah. Cute, cuddly and a bit magical."
"Do I still remind you of a tanuki?" Shouga asked.
Stephen closed his eyes and blushed. "Yeah, but you're better than some imaginary story." He smiled happily. "I'm glad I met you."
"I'm glad I met you too," Shouga said. He heaved a big happy sigh.
Stephen sniffed. Shouga sighed and looked down.
"If you want someone more than just a good friend, Stephen, that's ok." Shouga nodded. "If that's what you need."
Stephen's cheeks were suddenly wet with tears. He rolled over and buried himself into Shouga's chest and sobbed. Shouga hugged him close.
Shouga growled and rolled over. "What do you-"
Mimi grinned. "How was dinner?" she asked in the superintendent's voice.
"Strange," Shouga said, sitting up and scratching his belly. "We sang karaoke. Also, I might have broken my sentence conditions again."
"Oh?" she asked, switching back to her own voice. "What happened?"
"I couldn't help myself," Shouga grinned. "Cindy was singing with such intensity, I gave her performance a little bit of enhancement."
"Did you just?" Mimi grinned.
"She claimed afterwards that she was a demon summoner, but then she gave me her business card and left mysteriously." He held it up. The kanji for "demon" was scratched into it along with a question mark.
"Hm!" Mimi said, sitting down. "That does seem like you've revealed yourself, doesn't it?"
Shouga nodded. "Everything seems to point towards me coming home soon before things get too weird."
Mimi smiled. "Why don't you go and pay Cindy a visit anyway? It's still a question mark, after all. And until she asks you whether you're a tanuki directly, well, that's still fine."
"And what about making a naughty little illusion like that?"
Mimi shook her head. "Nobody except you is taking this sentence seriously anymore, you know." She made big eyes. "Your little brothers and sisters miss their big silly uncle very much."
"How would it look if their silly uncle didn't bear out his punishment in full?"
"Yes, yes, everyone's very impressed at your resolve," Mimi groaned.
"I don't mean that," Shouga said. "I don't care if anyone's impressed." He smiled. "I want to make sure Stephen's OK before I go."
"You're better off just disappearing, Shouga," Mimi said, patting him the shoulder. "It'll hurt, but it's the better option for everyone."
"As opposed to what?"
"You are so close to telling him everything, aren't you?" Mimi said. "Think about what that means for the rest of us, if you open your heart to him entirely."
Shouga nodded, then a smile crossed his face. "Do you have a couple of hours to watch a movie, perhaps?"
Mimi grinned. "I can make time! I love movies! What's this one about?"
"You'll see," he said, putting Pom Poko into the DVD player. "This is Stephen's favourite movie in the world." He switched the language option over to Japanese and hit play.
Mimi laughed with delight at the tanuki song at the beginning. "It's about tanuki! Oh, this should be fun."
Stephen cleared his throat behind Mikey at lunch. "Hey, party-pooper."
Mikey didn't look up. "Hey."
Stephen sat down next to him uninvited. "What's going on?"
Mikey shook his head. "I feel like an idiot." He looked at Stephen. "I really screwed things up last night, didn't I?"
Stephen shook his head. "Not really. I mean, you gave it a good shot but we invited Cindy around after you left and got the party started again. So, you know, don't beat yourself up or anything."
"I mean, I screwed them up with you," Mikey said. "I'm sorry. I just.. when I get nervous, when there's something I don't know, I just ask a ton of questions."
Stephen grinned. "You were trying to make sure I was OK. I understand."
Mikey said. "It's still.. it was pretty rude."
"I know," Stephen said.
"And Shouga's definitely not on the level," Mikey said.
"Nope," Stephen said. "But I haven't been on the level with him entirely either, so, you know, fair dos to him."
"How were you not on the level with him?" Mikey asked.
"Well, for one thing I didn't tell him the language exchange thing was a cover for the real reason I wanted to be with him," Stephen said. "Our entire relationship was based on mutual dishonesty."
Mikey blinked. "So.. he moved in with you because you told him you wanted to learn Japanese, where all you wanted was a big Japanese guy to be horny over?" He shook his head. "Wow, Stephen. I guess we know the real tanuki in that relationship, and it's not Shouga."
"What do you mean?" Stephen said.
"Tanuki are renowned liars," Mikey said. "They even have an expression in Japanese for when someone's feigning wide-eyed innocence - it's called a tanuki face."
Stephen looked down. "I guess I did lie to him a bit. But if I hadn't lied, we wouldn't be friends now."
"The end justifies the means?" Mikey asked. "See how that one plays at the Pearly Gates."
Stephen shrugged. "It's a good thing I'm an atheist, then."
Mikey chuckled. "I can't say the same. I guess we'll see who's right, won't we?"
Stephen let himself smile. "Hopefully not too soon."
Mimi sobbed onto Shouga's shoulder as the end credits of Pom Poko scrolled up. "It's so unfair!" She flung her furry snout into his chest and wept.
Shouga sniffled. "It's rotten! Completely rotten!"
"And this is his favourite movie ever?" Mimi asked, tears flowing freely. "He enjoys feeling this awful about what happened to us?"
"It's true," Shouga said. He sighed and sniffled. "Did I tell you after we went moonbathing, the next morning, he woke up completely transformed and I had to yank his tail off to change him back before he left the apartment?"
Mimi sniffed and laughed through her tears. "What did you do with the tail?"
He pointed over to the refrigerator. "It's the banana."
She nodded and got up from her spot, shaking herself back into her human self in a work uniform. "I'll talk to your grandfather about it." She wiped at her eyes. "It's his call."
Shouga bowed. "Thank you."
"Now, tell me how the hell you maintained your human look all the way through that film?"
"Transformation master, Mimi," Shouga said.
She shook her head in disbelief through drying tears. "You'll be lucky if you remember how to change back. That can happen too, you know."
Shouga was taking a warm bath when Stephen walked into the apartment. "Konban-wa, Stephen-kun," he called out from behind the closed door.
"Konban-wa, Shouga-kun," came the tired reply. "Let's not make each other cry tonight, OK?"
"Sounds good," Shouga grinned, relaxing.
Stephen sat down at the table and unloaded his lesson plans. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the refrigerator. He smiled at the little banana. He assumed Shouga had bought it for him and just put it there as a funny little gift. He looked at the bathroom door.
He heard a knock at the door. "Hello?" Mikey said from the other side. "I got pizza, interested?"
Shouga heard Mikey's voice and grinned. He'd love pizza.
"Uh, I'm busy with lesson plans right now," Stephen said.
Shouga frowned and put his hands over his eyes. "Just go," he whispered to Stephen in his absence. "Get it over with."
"You can bring them up with you," Mikey said through the door. "I've been doing these plans for a couple of years now. I can practically do them in my sleep."
"OK. I'll have to get Shouga out of the bath though," Stephen said.
Shouga bit his fist. Leave me out of this, he mentally screamed. He heard a knock at the door. "Do you want to come up to Mikey's for pizza?"
"Just go, you idiot," Shouga said in Japanese. He cleared his throat. "I don't like pizza that much. But you should definitely go."
Stephen felt a knot in his stomach. "Are you sure you're going to be OK?"
Shouga nodded. "I'll be fine. You go and have fun with your friend. Don't worry about me."
Stephen opened the door. "Shouga, I'm scared. What if he tries to.. you know.."
"Do you like him?" Shouga asked.
"I guess," Stephen said.
"And he likes you?" Shouga said.
"He seems to," Stephen said.
"So go and find out," Shouga smiled. "I'll be here when you get back. We can talk about it."
"You won't feel bad if something happens between us?"
Shouga shook his head. "I will feel bad if something doesn't happen between you because you're worried about me. Just go." He waved Stephen away. "You've already seen me naked, stop hanging around." He grinned and leaned back in the bath.
"OK, Shouga says he's good to stay put in the bath," Stephen said. "One second."
The apartment door opened and closed.
Shouga was lying in bed watching a movie about a talking pig when Stephen walked back into the door with an armful of folders, looking slightly ruffled. The grin on his face was a mixture of relief and disbelief. And something else.
"How was the pizza?" Shouga asked.
"There was no pizza," Stephen said. "We got up to his place and one thing led to another."
Shouga tried not to make a show of sniffing the air as Stephen sat down on the bed. "So.. are you alright?"
Stephen nodded. "Yeah." He smiled awkwardly. "It's weird. I feel like.. I understand myself for the first time." He looked off into space. "And it's just.. complicated. I don't want to talk about that just now."
"Is that why you're back down here?" Shouga asked.
Stephen laughed a little bitterly. "This still is my bed!" he giggled. "I did want to talk to you, though." He rolled over. "Friend to friend."
Shouga nodded. "OK. Friend to friend."
Stephen sighed. "OK. Full disclosure time. The reason I even wanted to meet you in the first place was because I thought you were cute. And because you reminded me of a tanuki, which, Mikey tells me, is probably not the ideal thing given tanuki are meant to be complete liars. Anyway, it wasn't just.. that. There were other things involved."
Shouga nodded. "You wanted me to turn you into a tanuki too?"
Stephen's expression switched to astonishment. "How could you know that?"
"You were talking in your sleep," Shouga said. He shrugged. "You made little tanuki noises, even. You were very cute."
Stephen blushed. "You heard all that?"
"I heard all that," Shouga nodded.
"What about the curse? Why didn't you just bolt there and then?"
"You called it a raccoon," Shouga shrugged. "I didn't know what you meant."
"Oh god, and there that one morning after moonbathing where I was still tripping balls and I actually thought I was a tanuki, and you did that Heimlich thing on me." he laughed. "I was obsessed."
"A little." Shouga grinned. There was that distance he needed. The lie to maintain.
Stephen sighed. "Was that family curse thing even true?"
Shouga thought about it and shook his head. "No. I'm not from Hokkaido either. I'm from a little village much closer by. My grandmother's been dead for many years now."
Stephen frowned. "So you could have watched Pom Poko with me any time?"
Shouga shook his head and sighed. "I still would have found it very difficult to watch. My sorrow was very real. My family has gone through similar upheavals and it still hurts to think about it."
Stephen nodded. "I understand." He sighed. "Shouga, if none of that was true, what do I even know about you?"
"Probably nothing," Shouga said. "Well, maybe you know what I like to eat, you know one other person in my family, but that's about it. And you know what I look like naked."
"Is Shouga even your neal name?"
Shouga shook his head. "No. The truth is that when I got kicked out of my village, I had to use it as my name as part of my sentence, because they know I can't even stand the sound of it. But I wanted to prove how strong I was by staying out as long as I could bear to. It was stupid."
"So what's your real name?"
"Don't have one," Shouga said. "Back home they just call me 'fat'. Or 'older brother'. Or 'grandson'." He grinned. "It's very unconventional." He sighed and looked at the ceiling wistfully. "I miss it."
"Can you go back?"
"Do you want to?"
"Some day," Shouga said. "But I want to be gone for the whole month. That way, maybe the moon won't notice that I left and everything will be OK."
Stephen chuckled. "So are you, like, moon-worshippers in your village?"
"Something like that," Shouga grinned. "I would like to show you one day." He looked over at the banana on the refrigerator. "It's very poor but very beautiful."
"Let's do that breathing thing again," Stephen said. "That felt amazing. Show me."
"OK," Shouga said. "Close your eyes. Breathe in through your belly. Hold. Breathe out. Let's do it."
They meditated on their breath until they fell asleep.
Stephen woke up. He checked his hands. Still human. Damnit. He did feel very relaxed after the meditation though. He got his lesson plans together, grabbed a bit of cold omelette from the refrigerator, and headed out the door.
Shouga kept snoring.
The little ornamental candle hopped off the basin with a clatter, and a tanuki wandered out. It pushed against Shouga with its paw to wake him up.
"Brother?" the tanuki said.
"What is it?"
"Can I go home now?"
"Sure," Shouga yawned. "Find Mimi, she'll take you home."
"Did I do well, brother?"
"Very well," Shouga smiled sleepily.
"I hope one day I'm as good as you," the tanuki said.
Shouga opened his eyes and looked down at the expectant tanuki. "There will always be someone who can last longer or throw their voice further or whatever. Just do the best you can with the right ideas in your heart."
"How do I learn the right ideas, brother?"
Shouga yawned again. "I'll let you know when I figure it out." He pointed to the counter. "Go and make yourself a bowl and I'll have Mimi collect you."
"So that's that? No jealously, envy, anything like that?" Bianca asked at lunch. "He's cool with you seeing Mikey?"
"Happier than Mikey is about me spending time with Shouga," Stephen said. "Although, for the record, the Hokkaido thing turned out to be more fibs." He drank some lemonade. "Can't say I'm surprised."
"So you're both rotten liars," Bianca grinned. "You deserve one another."
"I kind of maybe told him some other stuff, like, why I wanted to go with him in the first place. He was unnervingly cool with that too."
"Maybe he just doesn't want to hurt your feelings," Bianca observed.
"You think he's really hurting?" Stephen asked.
"I would be," Bianca said. "But I'm not Shouga. If you're being so honest, why not ask him?"
"Hey, cutie," Mikey said, appearing and rubbing his finger tenderly along the tops of Stephen's ears. Stephen blushed. "What you talking about?"
Bianca looked at Mikey. "I heard about last night. I am disappointed there was no pizza."
"Come on!" Mikey scoffed. "It was just a line. Stephen should be used to getting lied to by now by his other squeeze. It's like 'come up for a coffee'. What coffee?"
Stephen folded his arms. "Seriously?"
"You're cute when you're all self-righteous," Mikey grinned. "See you again tonight so you can try again. I might even have pizza this time." He slunk away.
Bianca blinked. "Wow."
"Yeah," Stephen said. "Wow." He shot Bianca a look. "This is your fault, by the way."
"My bad." Bianca shook her head. "Maybe we should send Cindy after him?"
"Forget that," Stephen said. "I know someone even better than Cindy."
"Were you not there the other night when Cindy turned into Satan?"
"Cindy's a professional," Bianca said. "What we need is someone unscrupulous."
"Mimi!" Shouga said.
"Yes, Mimi! I can't believe you're still here!" Mimi complained. "I thought Stephen had moved on. Have you seen Cindy yet? Come on, Shouga! Why are you lying around here all day?"
"This bed is really comfortable," Shouga said. "And I haven't finished learning English yet." He gestured to the sequel to the movie with the talking pig. "At least let me get through all of Stephen's movies first."
Mimi shook her head. "Fine. So I talked to grandfather about Stephen, and he says.. maybe. He'd have to meet him first to make sure. You've got reservations at a tea house tonight. Bring the guy. Grandfather asked me to ask you about the web of lies you've tangled yourself up in to keep everything consistent."
"We've been untangling our webs a lot lately," Shouga said. "There's basically nothing to admit except what I am."
Mimi blinked. "How did you get away with that?"
"Oh, he told his own lies too," Shouga said.
Mimi grinned. "He's pratically one of us already, isn't he? Maybe I should adopt him?" she laughed.
Shouga laughed along, then said, "Don't you dare. Oh." He gestured to the bowl on the table. "That one wants to go home now. He gets full marks."
"Yes, that bowl."
"This is just a bowl," Mimi said. They heard a knock and a playful giggle from the cupboard.
"Well, that settles that," Shouga said. "Full marks with honours!"
Cindy's doorbell made no sound, just a faint glow as it was pushed. It was down a discrete alley to the side of an unmarked, shabby-looking metal door.
"Yes?" came Cindy's voice through an unseen intercom.
"It's the demon," Shouga said.
"The demon," Cindy said. "Ah, yes." Her voice became more brtual. "You're late." The door clicked open. Cindy appeared behind it in a dressing gown. She stood to one side and allowed Shouga to enter, then closed the door behind him.
Before Shouga knew it, Cindy was bowing on the ground beneath him. "Mighty demon," she quivered. "You have come at last."
Shouga cleared his throat. "Yes, it's me."
"Whom do I have the honour of addressing?" Cindy said, still prostrated.
Shouga blinked, then summoned up his most demonic voice, adding a touch of the unearthly for good measure. "I am the demon Shouga. Rise, my dark maiden, and gaze upon my majesty."
Cindy drew herself up to Shouga's front and looked him in the eyes. "Your lordship's countenance is most agreeable." She bowed her head and strode further down the narrow passageway. "I hope what I am about to show you pleases you."
"For your sake, I hope so too." Shouga strode majestically and proudly behind Cindy as she opened a door, only to come face to face with the most terrifying dungeon he'd ever seen. Extreme acts of violence appeared to have been committed with every sharp or spiked instrument imaginable. There were hooks, blades, spikes and all manner of other blood-spattered pieces of torture equipment lying around. Shouga was pretty sure he saw a fingernail in the floor.
If the blood hadn't obviously smelled of something sweet instead of actual blood, he'd have made his excuses and run like hell that very second.
"Very impressive," Shouga said. "What is it you need me for?"
"I am a merchant of terror," Cindy said. "Weak, foolish people come to me because the terror excites them very much. Lately, my customers have said they feel they could be even more terrified. And I must not disappoint them." She pulled back a curtain showing an electronic console and a video feed of the dungeon. "I have been using this primitive equipment to give the illusion of your mighty presence, but it is not enough. It has come time that I require the real thing." She bowed. "You showed yourself during karaoke. And I remember you from many nights ago when you had taken this foolish-looking form. You did not fear me." Her lips curled slightly. "Now I understand why. You had no reason to fear me, because you have chosen me."
Shouga nodded. "Of course." He strode up to the equipment and pressed a button experimentally. The lights suddenly dimmed and a shredding, terrifying scream pierced the air. Shouga stood absolutely still until the panic had left him.
"Very good," he said, nerves completely shattered. "Perhaps I can assist you in scaring these fools half to death." Shouga strode around. "But I will need somewhere to stay."
"If it pleases you, my lordship, you are welcome to sleep beside me and give me unearthly nightmares of despair."
"A couch will do just fine," Shouga said. "I will return when I'm able." He bowed regally and showed himself out.
Back in the alley, Shouga drew a deep breath and sighed. He began the race back across town to get ready for his dinner.
Shouga and Stephen bowed as they came to the tea room, and crawled on hands and feet to the mats by the side of the table. A waitress poured tea out into cups for them and bowed, then let them be.
"Grandfather's always late," Shouga said. "Don't worry about it." Stephen nodded.
"I'm never late," Shouga's grandfather said in Japanese. "You're simply a little early." He bowed curtly to Shouga and Stephen, then took his place. "Good to see you, grandson. And you, Stephen."
Stephen recognised his name and bowed.
"Is everything going OK?" his grandfather asked.
Shouga nodded. "I miss home, but I wanted to help you make your decision about this one tonight."
The grandfather nodded. "Whether we should reveal ourselves to him, you mean?"
Shouga nodded. "That's right."
Stephen grew visibly nervous about the opaque conversation happening around him and cupped his tea in his hands. There was the occasional laugh, the occasional smile, the occasional sucked teeth and many grunts of 'un', 'uun', 'so desu ne'.
"Daijoubu," the grandfather finally said, getting up and leaving. He patted Stephen on the shoulder. "Omedetai," he smiled, before disappearing.
Stephen looked around at the departing old man in confusion. "That's it?"
"That's it," Shouga said. "He comes and goes as he likes. Let's go home."
"Where were you last night?" Mikey said at lunch the next day.
"I was out with Shouga, having tea with his grandfather. It was nice."
"Well, you could have called!" Mikey complained. "I was worried!"
"Sure, worried," Stephen smirked.
"Well, look, if you're not around tonight, forget it," Mikey said, storming off. "I don't appreciate being having my affections played with, OK?"
Stephen shook his head. "That attitude.."
Bianca appeared out of nowhere with her lunch. "Wuh-oh, trouble in paradise?"
"Mikey's a bit of a prick, isn't he?"
"He's just horny," Bianca said. "Don't worry about him. One good blow job and he'll be purring like a kitten. I'll give you some pointers."
"Yeah," Stephen said. "About that..."
Bianca blinked. "What is it?"
"Well, OK, so.. Mikey and I fooled around," Stephen said. "And.. well.. maybe I underperformed at the time, and he's being really mean about it."
"Who said you underperformed?"
"Well, with me it was almost just.. you know.. instantaneous. And I couldn't do the same for him," Stephen sighed. "I'd never been with anyone before and it's just.. yeah. In the end he got sick of me figuring it out and he finished himself off." Stephen shrugged. "I'm not proud of it but there it is."
Bianca sighed. "Jerk move."
"Yeah," Stephen said. "My first time fooling around and I blew it."
"Your honest to god first time?"
Bianca smirked. "Don't worry about it, then. First time's always hopeless." She kissed Stephen on the forehead. "Mikey's coming on too strong for you?"
Stephen nodded. "Yeah."
"Do you want help?"
Stephen shook his head. "It's OK. It's all part of the learning experience, right?"
"I want to see him!" Mikey complained. "Where is he?"
"He's not here," Shouga said from the other side of the closed apartment door. "Go away."
"You don't even love him, you bastard!" Mikey said.
"You're being melodramatic," Shouga said. "Everything was going fine until you showed up."
"I know what you are, Shouga. I knew since the second I met you," Mikey said. "I'm going to get you."
"Oh, go and get yourself," Shouga said. "Then get yourself again some more. Maybe get your mother while you're at it." That brought fists pounding on the wooden door.
Shouga waited for the sound of footsteps, then looked over at Stephen. "Are you OK?"
Stephen looked visibly shaken. "No. I'm not OK." He looked up tearfully. "He's gone way too far."
There was another, calmer knock at the door. "Hoi, Shouga," said Mimi. "Why's the door all broken?"
"We had a visitor," Shouga said. "Maybe our visitor should have his own visitor."
Mimi opened the door. "Perhaps you're right." She closed the door. "Oh, Stephen! I'm glad you're here. Just the person I wanted to see." She picked him up into a standing position and looked at him. "Let's get a fresh look at you, alright." She walked around him, pointing, holding up her fingers to make sure she had the proportions right, then grinned. "I'll be back in a little while." She smiled. "Incidentally, that big idiot won't be bothering you anymore."
Stephen looked at Shouga. "What's she going to do?"
Shouga grinned. "Take care of her friend."
Mikey heard a knock at the door. "I'm sorry."
Mikey opened the door and found Stephen waiting there, looking sheepish. "I'm sorry." He walked in and looked down.
"You should be, you stupid little flirt," Mikey said. He started undressing. "You still owe me for the other night."
"I'm sorry," Stephen said, sitting on the couch, looking down with his hands on his knees.
"Well, it's a good thing I can forgive and forget, isn't it?" Mikey said. He pulled Stephen's lips over to his and began to kiss them roughly, unbuttoning his pants with his other hand. He panted. "You taste a little different tonight."
"I'm sorry," Stephen said, looking up and shrieking with the face of a horrifying demon. Before Mikey even had time to scream, Stephen leapt onto Mikey and locked dark, quivering lips over his. Thick black tentacles slid around Mikey's body, crawling under his clothes and finding bare skin. Suddenly Mikey felt as though he was being crawled over by a million spiders, and he got one last flash of Stephen's jet black eyes suddenly being joined by a hundred more tiny black eyes opening hungrily all over his body.
"Ha ha ha, I'm sorry!" Stephen shrieked, before Mikey found himself shrieking and alone in his room with no pants on.
Mimi knocked on Stephen's door. "Let me know if he tries anything again," she told Shouga in Japanese. "He probably won't. Just tell him you're sorry. It'll be fine."
Shouga looked at Stephen and flashed his eyebrows. "Told you she'd take care of it."
"What did she do?"
"You definitely don't want specifics," Shouga said. "Let's work on your Japanese."
"No, I do want specifics," Stephen said, pulling away. "Why are you being so vague again? I thought we were past this."
Shouga squinted and smiled. "If you can just wait until tomorrow when we go out to my village. Then I can tell you. No more secrets."
Stephen's eyes lit up. "Oh wow!" He sighed. "I'm not going to sleep at all tonight, am I?"
"Probably not," Shouga said.
"Can Bianca come?"
"No, just you," Shouga smiled. "Oh, and we'll need to go shopping before we get there. They're putting on a feast for us where everyone brings something. We should eat pretty well!"
Stephen grinned. "I'm glad you stuck around."
"Well," Shouga winced. "I'm technically going back earlier than I said I would, so.. there might be something I have to do. Some ritual or penance to fulfil. I hope they're not too rough on me." He shrugged. "Anyway, it's either that or spend the next few days at Cindy's place scaring people in her dungeon. I think I just want to go home now."
"Well, I hope I still get to see you around," Stephen said.
"Oh, you probably will," Shouga said. "We're friends now, after all!"
They were walking through the misty morning air along an old road which ran by a forest. The forest looked more vibrant to Shouga since he'd left. It made him ache to see more friendly faces again.
Stephen was struggling along with half of his own kitchen. "Is it normal to have to bring all this crockery?"
"They asked me to bring some along," Shouga said, walking along the path. "Did you bring your special magnet?"
"Sure," Stephen said. "It's right here in my pocket with the coin."
"Good good," Shouga said, stopping at a small opening in the trees. "OK, here we are." He hesitated, then stepped into the forest. "Close enough."
The trees ruffled. "There you are, brother!" came a voice. "Back early?"
"That's right," Shouga grinned. "I brought food and my friend with me."
"Doesn't it just kill you, coming home before a month is up?" the voice teased. "That doesn't sound like a transformation master to me,"
"I missed home," he smiled.
The voice was shocked. "Who are you and what have you done with our poor brother?!"
Shouga turned and gestured to Stephen. "Come on in. They're just playing around."
"What?" the voice said. "Who's this human? Does he even speak Japanese?"
"Namae wa Stee desu," Stephen bowed. "Yoroshiku onegai shimasu."
"He's very polite," the voice observed to himself. "Does he know anything other Japanese?"
"Not really," Shouga said, continuing to walk into the forest. "Come on, Stephen. It's not much further."
They came into a clearing and Stephen was amazed to see a table set out with a huge feast. Every kind of fried food, tempura, mochi, and many others that Stephen had no idea about. His next question was to wonder where everyone else had got to.
"I don't understand," Stephen said. "Where's your village?"
"We're standing in it," Shouga said. "It's kind of open-air."
Stephen put his plates and food down. "But where's your house?" he asked.
"Over there, in one of the trees. We sleep a little rough."
Stephen looked around. "This isn't like any kind of village I've ever been to."
Shouga smiled and pulled out a box. "I wanted to give you a present. It's just a little tanuki, a souvenir." He presented the box to Stephen carefully. "Please open it."
Stephen smiled and received the box. "Arigatou gozaimasu, Shouga-kun." He opened the box carefully, then looked inside it. There was only a little bit of tiny writing in it. Stephen had to put his eye right up to the box to read it.
"Fooled you!" the writing said.
Stephen grinned. "Shouga, what are you--"
While he was looking in the box, the village had come out to say hello. The tanuki village.
Stephen recognised Mimi and Shouga's grandfather, until they transformed into two merry-looking human-sized tanuki in front of Stephen's eyes and bowed to him.
Stephen cracked a slow smile. "Where's Shouga?"
"Behind you," Shouga's voice said. Stephen turned around to come face to face with Shouga holding his banana magnet. He shook the magnet out into a tanuki tail. He presented it to Shouga with both hands. "Your real tanuki present."
"Is this really happening?" Stephen said, uncertainly. "Am I flashing back again?"
"Like I said, no more tricks," Shouga smiled. He turned Stephen around. "Why don't you put your tail back on?"
"My.. tail?" Stephen said, looking down at it with wonder.
"He doesn't know his own tail, children," Mimi said to the tanuki kids. They giggled amongst themselves.
Shouga rolled his eyes, took the tail out of Stephen's hands and pressed it into his back. "Come on, the food's getting cold."
Stephen suddenly made a surprised, raspy squeak, and felt himself filling up with the same warm magic he'd felt that morning after the moonbathing. "Shouga, what's happening?" The tail behind him started to come to life, wagging, and he felt his being become very indistinct. With a sudden spasm of reality, Stephen found himself in the body of a tanuki again. He looked around at the village, who clapped their hands and cheered.
"Shouga?" Stephen said. "I'm.."
"One moment!" Shouga leapt high into the air, then somersaulted and landed back on the ground as a fat, happy tanuki. "Me too!"
Stephen gasped and hugged him. "You gotta be kidding me!" He blinked out tears and laughed. "I can't believe it. You bastard." He laughed as everyone else crowded in for a hug.
"For helping this big fatso to realise his potential, and for your hospitality and friendship, we thank you." The old tanuki and the rest of the village bowed their heads towards Stephen. Stephen bowed his fuzzy head in their direction, feeling his ears flop a little against his dense fur.
There was a silence. Beady eyes looked Stephen's way expectantly.
"Itadakimasu," the fat tanuki whispered through the side of his mouth.
"Itadakimasu!" Stephen said with a smile. Everyone at the table cheered and started to pass out food amongst themselves.
There was a rustle in the trees behind them, and another tanuki popped his head out. "I'm sorry. Is this Mimi's village?"
Mimi stood up. "Who wants to know?" she barked.
The tanuki popped out. "I'm sorry to interrupt. Oh! A feast. I hope it's not too forward of me but I hear you're looking for a husband. I would like to enquire if the position is still available." He bowed.
Mimi walked over to the tanuki stranger and put her hands on her hips impatiently. "You've got a lot of nerve just barging in on a feast like this." She smacked him over the head. His reaction was a nervous, almost-too pleased giggle. She narrowed her eyes. "Oh. It's you. Shouga told me about you."
"I hope you liked what you heard," the tanuki stranger said, bowing.
Mimi cracked a smile. She hit him over the head again. He giggled even more. She guffawed. "You're perfect!" She swept him up in her arms and carried him away into the forest. "Don't wait for me!"
The tanuki stranger waved to Shouga happily from over Mimi's shoulders. Shouga waved back.
"Do you know him?" Stephen asked.
"That was one of the police from when we got arrested, remember?"
"Agh!" Stephen laughed. "You guys are everywhere!" He giggled. He bit into a slice of radish and screwed up his face. "Ugh. No. Not having any more of that." He hunted around and found something long and noodly. He picked it up in his chopsticks. "What's this?"
"Try it," Shouga said. "See if you like it."
Stephen put it in his mouth and chewed. "Hm! Not bad." He swallowed it and went for another one. "What is it?"
"It's worms!" Shouga laughed. "You're eating like a proper tanuki too."
Stephen beamed. "Wow. I really like worms!" He wriggled and smiled. "How's this even possible, Shouga?"
"Magic," Shouga shrugged. "Maybe the moon heard you. I don't know. My grandfather might know." Shouga leaned across the table. "He says he wants to know how he got turned into one of us, grandfather."
"Only the moon knows!" the old tanuki laughed. "And the moon isn't telling anyone!" He poured some more sake for Stephen.
"Can I do magic while I'm like this?" Stephen suddenly asked.
"Hm!" Shouga said. "Well, let's see now. Everyone, Stephen wants to try some magic!"
"Teach him to become a phoenix!" one cub giggled.
"No, teach him to turn into a cow!" another cub laughed. "I like it when you turn into a cow, older brother!"
Shouga shook his head. "Don't you think we should teach him a little thing to start with? That way he won't feel discouraged."
"Like the tree branch?" his little sister said, standing up. She turned her arm into a tree branch as Shouga had been trying to teach him. She showed there were no leaves in her tail. Shouga clapped.
"Even easier than the tree branch," Shouga said. He bowed to his little sister. "I apologise for that. I should have started you on smaller trick."
"That's right!" the little sister said. The other tanuki laughed.
Stephen smiled. "What's going on?"
"Here, watch," Shouga said to Stephen. He turned back to the table again. "Everyone, let's start by making a leaf," Shouga said. He flicked one finger of his hand, and found himself holding a leaf. "There. Everyone try that. On three, OK?" Everyone held their hands out. "One, two, leaf!" There were magical little puffs around the table as everyone found themselves holding different tree leaves.
Stephen laughed. "Wow! Is that what you're going to teach me?"
Shouga nodded. "Yes. Now, magic doesn't come much easier. If it's in you, you can do this. It might take a few tries, but do your best."
Stephen nodded. "OK. Leaf."
Shouga counted. "One, two, leaf!" Stephen shook his head. "OK, try again.. one, two, leaf!"
Stephen shook his head again. "I don't know what I'm meant to be doing, Shouga." He laughed. "Teach me properly!"
Shouga nodded. "Just.. reach into your memory of leaves. The leaves from trees from when you were young. Reach into your memory and then find yourself holding it in your hand. This is the essence of magic."
Stephen nodded. "OK. I think I understand." He felt a strange energy stir in his abdomen.
Shouga smiled. "OK, good." He began to count again. "One, tw-"
Stephen flicked his hand and found himself holding a gum leaf in his hand. He laughed with disbelief.
"Leaf!" Shouga said, clapping along with everyone else at the table.
Stephen smelled the leaf and gasped. "It's a real gum leaf!"
"Very good!" Shouga said.
Stephen experimentally put it between his lips and blew on it like a kazoo. This sent the village's cubs into a frenzy. "I want one too! Make me one, older brother!"
"You'd better make some more leaves for them," Shouga said. "They might get rowdy."
Stephen laughed and popped another gum leaf out of mid-air, handing it to an enthusiastic cub. And another leaf, and another leaf. He laughed. "Shouga, I'm not even a tanuki, how can I be doing this?!"
"Isn't this what you wanted, though?" Shouga asked with a grin. "To be a tanuki all along?" He winked.
"Yeah, but..." Stephen trailed off. "Yeah, it was!" He conjured more gum leaves and handed them out to the waiting cubs.
"See? All you had to do was ask nicely," Shouga grinned.
"Show me how to play the leaf like you, older brother!" one of the cubs asked. The cubs crowded around him expectantly. Stephen looked up.
"Show them how to play the leaf," Shouga said, patting him on the shoulder and joining his grandfather. "Before they get feisty."
"Oh, ok, sure!" Stephen said. "Here, like this." He held the leaf across his lips and blew air over it. A few of them got it straight away, and soon all of them got the hang of it. They started a little gum leaf band.
"Drum your belly, older brother!" one of them said. "So we can dance and play!"
"What?" Stephen said.
"Pon pon!" Shouga explained, tapping his belly. "Try it!"
Stephen smiled and breathed in, blowing his belly up, then he tapped it like a drum. "Ponnn!" The cubs laughed as he started to build up a rhythm and they began to dance and toot their gumleaves.
The old tanuki chuckled and nodded, bobbing his head to the drumming.
"So, be honest," Shouga said, sitting down beside his grandfather. "Is this your doing?"
The old tanuki smiled wryly, sipping his sake bowl. "What if it is?" he muttered. "What if the moon and I had a quiet word to see what a fool this one might make of himself, chasing his silly dreams to his logical conclusion?"
Shouga laughed. "He's having the time of his life, grandfather."
"I know," the old tanuki said. "It's actually quite disappointing, isn't it?" They looked over as Stephen had begun to develop a surprisingly complicated groove. "He plays his belly drum very well, doesn't he? Like a natural."
"He does," Shouga smiled. The sound of drums and gum leaf kazoos rang out through the forest.
"And what about you, not lasting for the whole month, as you were quite sure you would? And not being the centre of attention?" the old tanuki said. "It doesn't bother you at all?"
"No," Shouga said. "It bothers me that Stephen's Japanese is still so weak. I definitely failed him there." He smiled. "In a way, I'm glad it was so hard for me. It taught me a lot about patience. He deserves his place here tonight."
"And any other night," the old tanuki said. "Perhaps we don't have to turn all of our human friends into tanuki, but perhaps we could benefit from a few more friends in that part of the world." He chuckled. "And, of course, keep the rest of those uppity monkeys guessing."
Shouga nodded. "That part can definitely stay the same." He looked at the smiling tanuki drumming his belly and laughing surrounded by happy little children. "He makes a good older brother, doesn't he?"
The old tanuki nodded. "As I said, quite disappointing." He stood up from the feast table and patted the fat tanuki on the shoulder. "Don't forget you've still got your forfeit to carry out."
The fat tanuki nodded. "Of course, my forfeit." He looked up at his grandfather. "What's my forfeit now?"
"Teaching your new brother the rest of the magic he needs to know," he chuckled. "You don't want him to get caught, do you?"
"No, but I can just pull his tail off if I have to," Shouga said.
His grandfather shook his head. "Not anymore. Good luck, Ginger!" He pottered back to his den with a chuckle.
"He got me again," the fat tanuki said, shaking his head. He looked over at his brother, the smiling tanuki drumming away on his belly. He grinned. The smiling tanuki grinned back.
It was after midnight when Stephen arrived back at his apartment. He locked the door behind him, then yawned and walked into the room. He put a little straw bag on the ground. A tanuki hopped out of the bag and looked around, sniffing curiously.
"Alright," Stephen said in Japanese-accented English. "We're home. It's safe to come out now."
The tanuki stood up on its hinds legs and blew itself up into the smiling tanuki. "I'm sorry. I'm finding it hard to even want to turn back into my old self."
Stephen shook himself into Shouga and nodded. "I understand. But don't leave it too long, OK? You don't want to go to your job looking like that."
Stephen nodded. "OK."
"Try again for me," Shouga said. "Think of lesson plans and the people you work with. Think of that Stephen."
"I don't want to be that Stephen," the smiling tanuki said. "I'd rather hang out in the forest playing my belly and eating worms than do another lesson plan."
"Not every day in the village is a feast, you know," Shouga reminded him. "You already know what happens when you hold onto an impractical fantasy like that, don't you?"
"Only half of it comes true?" the smiling tanuki grinned.
Shouga chuckled. "You got lucky! Come on, tempura is better than worms."
"What about worm tempura?"
"Have you ever had worm tempura?"
"Brother," Shouga said, hands on his hips. "Do as you're told, please."
The smiling tanuki's eyes lost a little of their mischief. He nodded. "OK, lesson plans, Bianca, Mr Tanaka, back at home." He felt the energy in his belly begin to build, and he spun around.
Stephen found himself standing in the room with his clothes covered in leaves and dirt. "There. I'm back." He smiled.
"Very good, brother," Shouga said. "We'll make a proper tanuki out of you yet!" He ruffled Stephen's hair. "And I still have to teach you Japanese."
"You know I'm not a quick learner though, right?"
"You're a very slow learner, yes," Shouga grinned. "Except the drums. You picked that up pretty fast."
"Not really. Mum was a music teacher," Stephen grinned. "I always liked percussion. I was going to ask to join the taiko club at school but Bianca wanted to make sure I had sex first for some reason." He nodded. "She was probably right. Oh, you never told me what Mimi did to Mikey. Or the superintendent. Not that I'm complaining about either."
"Well, for Mikey she pretended to be you, then she turned into a goblin and gave him a big scare," Shouga grinned. "The superintendent though-"
"Ooh, can you teach me to turn into a goblin?" Stephen grinned. "Just in case Mikey comes back?"
Shouga laughed. "Japanese first, goblin transformations later!"
Bianca grinned at Stephen the next day. "You're looking.. sprightly?"
"Yes I am!" Stephen beamed.
Bianca nodded. "Have a good day with Shouga?"
"Yes I did," Stephen said, crunching tempura batter. "I got to hang out at his village a bit. Put some old drumming skills to good use. Taught the kids how to play gum leaves. They've practically adopted me."
"Ah-huh," Bianca grinned. "Any cute guys there?"
Stephen shook his head. "No. Lots of kids, a few of Shouga's brothers and sisters, Mimi, Mimi's new husband, their grandfather... that's about it. It's only a little village."
"No grandmother then?"
"Nope," Stephen grinned. "That was more lies." He shrugged.
"So is Shouga going to stick around?"
Stephen laughed. "His grandfather still wants him to teach me Japanese, believe it or not. That's his punishment for running away from his arranged marriage with Mimi. I think he's got some kind of arrangement with Cindy on the side too."
Bianca blinked. "What kind of arrangement?"
"He mentioned something about helping out in her dungeon from time to time," Stephen shrugged. "I don't want to know."
Bianca grinned. "What I know is that you haven't tried my failsafe Japanese method properly yet." She slurped some tea. "We still need to find you a cute Japanese tutor."
"I've got a cute Japanese tutor," Stephen said. "What you need to help me with is a boyfriend who's not insanely jealous of my cute Japanese tutor."
Bianca put her chopsticks down. "Oh, come on, that's a very tall order, Stevie."
"Excuse me," came an educated-sounding British voice. "Is this seat taken?"
"Help yourself, dude." Bianca and Stephen moved over to let the stranger sit between them.
"Sorry, I don't mean to be rude," the stranger asked. "I overheard just now that you might be gay, so, I thought, what the hell, go for broke, right?" He laughed nervously. "Did I hear right?"
"You did!" Bianca said. "This is Stephen. You're Chris, right?"
"That's right," the stranger replied. "I mean, normally I wouldn't be this forward or open but the only other gay fellow I know around here is Mikey and I've met his type before. Far too predatory." He shook his head. "I'm amazed you managed to put him off, actually. He seemed really into you."
Stephen nodded. "He's a bit of a virgin-hunter, that one." He looked across at Mikey who was eating his lunch as far away from Stephen as possible. "I feel.. sorry for him." He saw Mikey shiver.
Damn, Stephen thought, Mimi must really have done a number on him.
Chris cleared his throat. "Anyway, so, unlike Mikey I'm not a bastard and if you're interested in getting together some time, going out for coffee, that kind of thing, I'd love to.. uh.. do those things too. With you." He handed over his card. "Sorry, I'm not usually this forward."
Stephen grinned. "Yes, I will definitely give you a call. Thanks."
Bianca squealed and tapped her feet on the ground in excitement. "You're so awkward and sweet! I want you all for myself!"
Chris gestured back towards Bianca. "I'd better get going before she explodes. Sorry to bother you! Talk to you later?"
Stephen nodded. "Yep, retreat to a safe distance." He watched Chris leave and giggled at Bianca. "Stop it!"
"You stop it!" Bianca sniffled.
A few weeks later, they found themselves walking down a forest trail in the cool afternoon air.
"The forests here are so different to back home," Stephen said, looking around. "Such a different smell." He heard the sound of magic crackling in the air, and breathed it in.
Shouga nodded. "It's very damp." He grinned. "It's good to walk in the forest, isn't it?"
Stephen nodded. "Very good!" He breathed out.
"What are you two saying?" Chris asked Stephen, gripping his hand.
"Yeah, you two," Bianca added. "Leaving Poor Stupid Chris out of your conversation again." She grinned. "Good to hear you speaking more Japanese though, Stevie. What's your secret, Professor Shouga?"
Shouga grinned. "I made him stop using his phone and we only speak Japanese at home now. If he speaks English at home, he has to do a forfeit."
"Ah, punishment-based immersion!" Bianca said. "Also good. What kind of forfeits?"
"Whatever work Mimi has going," Shouga grinned. "She saves the worst stuff for Stephen's forfeits. It's a bit mean but it's very motivating." He winked.
"Ah, the forfeits aren't so bad," Stephen said in English. He grinned. Turn into a bowl for fifteen minutes. Turn into a statue for fifteen minutes. Turn into Chris's loofah while he takes a shower without giggling or tickling him. He wondered if Chris even suspected anything. "They're a good challenge!"
"Whatever happened to the old superintendent anyway?" Bianca said. "Did they finally catch him stealing underwear?"
"He was stealing underwear?" Chris asked.
"Ooh yeah," Bianca said. "I didn't have to go looking for lost underwear ever again when he disappeared and Mimi took over. Her husband looks like a pantie-stealer though, doesn't he?"
Stephen laughed. "Maybe." Definitely.
Bianca shook her head. "Men are such frickin garbage."
"Ah, who cares what happened to that idiot anyway," Shouga said. "Let's not talk about him. It's too nice a day."
They walked along the path some more and enjoyed the sounds of the forest.
"So, you're still living together?" Bianca asked in Japanese.
Shouga nodded. "Yeah. I have to keep an eye on him."
It was Stephen's turn to complain about secret conversations. "Stop talking about me," he smirked.
"What are they saying?" Chris laughed.
"They're being parental again," Stephen said. "Oh look!"
A family of wild tanuki crossed the track up ahead of them and stopped to look at the group. The four of them stopped walking and crouched down, so as not to scare them.
"Cute!" Bianca whispered. The tanuki cubs took a few curious steps towards them before the mother told them to be careful.
Shouga glanced back behind Stephen and noticed his tanuki tail poking out, gently wagging. He hissed, "Hoi! Daikon-kun! Tsukideruna!" Stephen gulped and pulled his tail back into his body.
Bianca giggled. "He really is a slow learner, isn't he, cousin?" she whispered.
"Don't call me cousin, fox," Shouga grumbled.
Here's the first draft of the tanuki story I wrote in late October 2018. It's a comedic fantasy romance where a tanuki in human form moves in with a foreign exchange student who has a hardcore tanuki fixation!
This is a first draft of the novella, all 63,000 words of it. Hope you like it!