It proves her motives have changed from what they were originally though... originally she would have wanted that signed... which while he might have if she asked him to here, and that would have met the original short term goal... it would possibly have alienated him going forward and made her feel she would owe him something still in compensation for what Motoko did...
I know what you're thinking, hasn't he gotten bored with this nonsense yet?
Well, not quite. I have more.
But because of the character limit the forum has in place, I have decided to split this monstrosity up into chapters.
Enjoy. If you can.
Art Pamphlet (Working Title)
By Lord Raa
Disclaim-me-do: This idea shamelessly steals from someone else’s story premise. I’d apologise but that would imply 1) I care, 2) I’m capable of remorse and 3) I’m deserving of forgiveness.
Tsuruko Aoyama was a confident woman. She was beautiful, she was intelligent and she was a skilled swordswoman. She was also from a wealthy family of high status.
Despite these advantages, she was also aware that there were people who didn’t have it nearly a tenth as good as the Aoyama family. Having seen this first hand had brought some humility to her and her family.
However, being in the upper echelons of Japanese society meant that some of their peers would often indulge in a spot of “conspicuous consumption”, with expensive foreign cars and publicity about their private art collections. While the Aoyamas would not call themselves social activists, they rarely displayed their wealth in such a garish manner.
But that was going to change, thanks to an encounter with an oafish young man from Tokyo.
Normally, she wouldn’t care that Nobuyuki Miura had just come into possession of an original Orateki sketch. Such things were very rare, and subsequently had great value.
Nor did she care that Miura was boasting about how the sketch had cost millions of yen. Not that Nobuyuki Miura was incapable of not boasting about anything he or his family had done.
The fact that Miura had declared that his private investigation team had uncovered some details about the elusive Orateki didn’t even bother Tsuruko that much, though she could understand why an artist would want to remain out of the public eye.
No, what had made Tsuruko Aoyama care about this recent purchase was when Nobuyuki Miura had shown her the sketch, it looked oddly familiar.
‘Where have I seen those rocks before...?’ the swordswoman pondered.
The sketch was of an arm outstretched, reaching up as to request help out of a hot spring.
It was then that she realised that there was another familiar aspect to the scene – an automatic handgun partially obscured by an apron lay on the ground nearby.
‘If that was a sword, it’d be something Motoko-han would do in case she encountered any perverts while she was bathing. Hang on, didn’t she say that her friend at the teahouse has a gun...’ Tsuruko’s jaw dropped open. ‘No, it can’t be! Could it?’
“Ah, I see you’re impressed with my network of art dealers, Aoyama-san,” Miura smirked.
“Indeed, Miura-san. Though, if it is a true Orateki, how did you acquire this? I was under the impression that he did his best to control the distribution of his work.”
“You can’t possibly expect me to reveal such things, Aoyama-san,” the odious man scoffed. “One does not ask a chef about the recipe for their signature dish.”
“My apologies, but you must understand the scepticism that the emergence of such a sketch would cause,” Tsuruko conceded.
“You make it sound like the availability of his work strictly controlled to maintain high prices, Aoyama-san. That said, it did take several months of hard work to get this.”
Keitaro was putting his tools away after a minor repair job on an outdoor tap when he saw Kitsune talking with Motoko and Naru.
“What’s up,” he asked as he noticed that they were looking over an article in a newspaper.
“There was this sketch that was sold for 6.5 million yen,” Kitsune explained. “I don’t know if you know much about art, but according to this article, that’s a lot for a pencil sketch!”
“Wow, 6.5 million yen for a sketch...” Keitaro whistled. “Kinda makes me wish I was better at drawing.”
“For that kind of money, I’d be selling one every month,” Kitsune added. “Think of how easy your life could be with that kind of regular income!”
“Perhaps, Mitsune-sempai, but part of the reason why this sketch went for so much is because it’s from a reclusive artist called ‘Orateki,’” Motoko countered. “It says that he doesn’t produce much, which is part of the reason why his sketches are worth so much.”
Keitaro blinked. “What was that artist’s name?”
“Orateki,” Kitsune repeated. “What’s up, Keitaro? You know him or something?”
“Err, definitely ‘or something’, Kitsune. Can I see the sketch that was sold?” the ronin asked, a bad feeling growing in the pit of his stomach.
“Yeah,” Naru said, handing the paper over.
The picture wasn’t the clearest, but it contained enough detail for Keitaro’s heart to start racing. ‘It’s mine...’
“Is something wrong, Keitaro? You’re looking pale,” Kitsune commented as sweat emerged on his brow.
“I... I think I’ll have a lie down,” the ronin said, his voice trembling. As he slowly made his way to his room, his mind raced over to where he’d last seen that particular sketch and when he’d drawn it.
‘That was done years ago, that’s Haruka-san in the hot springs... If she found out that I’d drawn her while she was in bathing, she’d kill me! But who could’ve found that sketch?’
In the Aoyama home, Tsuruko was thinking long about what she suspected about the identity of the artist Orateki. It was something that her parents had noticed.
“Is something wrong, Tsuruko?”
“I... I think I have a dilemma, Mother.”
“Deciding whether or not to go to Tokyo to tease your sister?” Mr. Aoyama asked, his voice disapproving, but there was a twinkle in his eye.
“No, it’s something... It’s hard to say. I don’t think it’s my business, so I’m reluctant to get involved, but...”
“But what, Tsuruko?” the patriarch asked, the twinkle disappearing from his eye.
“I... It’s something I think we should discuss in private, Father.”
“Very well, meet me and your mother in my study after dinner tonight.”
Akira Aoyama sat behind his desk finishing some paperwork on local planning permission when his wife and eldest daughter knocked on the door.
“Father,” Tsuruko said nervously as she took a seat.
Akira placed the pen in its holder as his wife, Tsukiko, closed the door. “Now, Tsuruko, please tell me what’s gotten you so troubled.”
“I... I take it you’ve heard of the young artist known only as Orateki?”
“Indeed, that bore Nobuyuki Miura was gushing about how he’d spent several million yen tracking down one of his sketches. What about him?”
Tsukiko mentioned that she wasn’t familiar with the name and asked to see some of his work on the computer. As she researched the artist, her daughter continued.
“I... I think I might have some ideas about his identity.”
Tsukiko read out part of his biography. “The origins of Orateki are shrouded in mystery, innuendo and bald-faced lies. The artist rarely puts his work up for sale, and never gives interviews. His work includes landscapes, portraits and still life, mostly in the medium of pencil sketches, however he has been known to try acrylics and oils.”
“So, it’s clear he values his privacy and is either controlling the price of his artwork by restricting supply or is wracked with confidence issues to the point where he thinks he’s not good enough to sell. I can see why you might be conflicted, Tsuruko,” Akira sympathised. “You’re curious about this, but you don’t want to upset him.”
“Yes, Father,” Tsuruko nodded. She took a deep breath. “I think I know where I can find him.”
“The private lives of artists is not something you would normally concern yourself with, Tsuruko,” the patriarch mused. “What is so different about Orateki?”
“He’s rated as one of Japan’s greatest artists,” Mrs. Aoyama read from the computer screen. “Apparently, the Emperor himself declared Orateki to be a national treasure and felt saddened at his retirement at such an early age.”
Akira blinked. “Oh, now I see your dilemma: Respect the artist’s wishes and keep his anonymity or help enrich the cultural heritage of the country?”
“Yes, Father. I don’t like the idea of interfering with a stranger’s personal life, but I can’t help but feel that less understanding people might try to exploit him.”
“Perhaps... Perhaps you could investigate, subtly, of course, and if your suspicions are correct, you could arrange some kind of protection for him?”
Keitaro was not in a good mood. The thought that one of his sketches had been sold for so much money filled him with loathing, like he was a fraud who’d conned people out of their money.
He wasn’t an artist, he was just a doodler. A mediocre doodler at that, and certainly not someone who deserved to be paid for their work.
The only upside to this fiasco that he could see was that he hadn’t profited from the sale and couldn’t be asked to reimburse the buyer when they realised what they’d been tricked into buying.
That realisation had cheered him up slightly, but that left the question of who had found the sketch?
Keitaro was sure that it was an older sketch, one from when he’d still been in elementary school. The fact that he hadn’t seen it since the summer he drew it suggested that it had to have been found before he moved in.
The fact that he wasn’t missing any of his recent sketches meant that the girls didn’t know he was Orateki yet, either. That was a big relief to him, the last thing he needed was to be accused of using his artistic talents to ogle naked women.
It was now that Keitaro was glad that he could lock the cupboard where he kept his art supplies. It was just a decision on whether or not he should destroy what he had or keep it, like he’d promised his grandmother.
It was yet another promise that seemed to be causing him trouble.
The next day, Keitaro wasn’t feeling much better than when he’d discovered that a sketch had been sold. He had managed to eat some breakfast, but only at the insistence of Shinobu.
He didn’t like upsetting the young girl; it was something that felt as wrong as profiting from his doodles.
The other girls also told him to take it easy that day. They’d seen how unwell he looked the night before.
It was good advice, as while rushing around would have distracted him from his current troubles, it would have made him sicker, causing him to miss more study time.
When the doorbell rang, he tentatively made his way to answer it, only to be beaten to the door by Motoko.
“Ah, hello, Motoko-han,” the tall woman greeted with a smile.
“A-Aneue? What are you doing here?” Motoko asked, clearly flustered by the surprise visit.
Tsuruko looked disheartened. “Oh, am I not allowed to visit my sister?”
“I... it’s not that, Aneue, I just...”
“Motoko, who’s this?” Keitaro asked.
“Keitaro, this is my sister, Tsuruko. Aneue, this is Keitaro,” Motoko said, unsure of her sister’s motives for an unannounced visit.
“So, you’re Keitaro?” the elder Aoyama asked, appraising the young man before her. ‘Glasses suggest that he reads or does a lot of close-in work. His hands aren’t that calloused, so he’s not likely to be a manual labourer. I guess he could be him.’
“I’m the manager of the Hinata Sou, Aoyama-san. And please, call me ‘Keitaro’.”
“Very well, Keitaro-san, but only if you call me ‘Tsuruko’.”
“If you insist, Tsuruko-san,” Keitaro bowed politely once again. “Would you like something to drink or eat?”
“Some tea would be nice,” Tsuruko smiled genuinely. ‘Well, he doesn’t seem like the monster Motoko-han protested about.’
As Keitaro left to make some tea, Motoko turned to her sister. “Aneue, why are you here? Tell me the truth.”
“I’m here on important business, Motoko-han,” Tsuruko said as she allowed her sister to close the door.
“W-what kind of important business?”
“The kind where someone could be in danger if my suspicions are right.”
“D-danger? What kind of danger?”
Tsuruko finally removed her shoes. “It’s complicated. I take it you read in the news about the picture Nobuyuki Miura recently bought?”
“The Orateki sketch? What about it?”
Tsuruko’s response was cut off by the return of Keitaro.
“Please, follow me, Tsuruko-san.”
Now that Tsuruko was sitting next to her sister, Keitaro could see the family resemblance. It made the reclusive artist realise that Motoko was destined to become a beautiful woman. ‘Not that she’s not cute now.’
“So, Tsuruko-san, what brings you to the Hinata Sou?”
“It’s complicated,” the elder Aoyama answered. “I can’t go into too many details at the moment, but I am looking for someone.”
“I’m not sure what I can do to help, but you’re welcome to stay here,” Keitaro said as he poured three cups of tea and handed them out.
“Your offer is most gracious, Keitaro-san.”
Motoko nodded in thanks as she took her cup of tea. “Who are you looking for, Aneue?”
“This is one of the things that complicates matters. I’m not entirely sure who I’m looking for, but I do know it’s a man.”
Keitaro blinked. “There are millions of men in the Tokyo metropolitan area, so you’ll have to narrow it down a bit.”
“I do have some clues as to the man’s identity, but the man’s a cautious, secretive person. I’ll have to be careful about who I speak to so he doesn’t get scared and goes into hiding,” Tsuruko clarified.
“That does complicate matters, Aneue. I don’t suppose you can tell us why you’re looking for this man?”
“Unfortunately not, Motoko-han. As I said, this man is very cautious, he’s been in hiding for years.”
“Years?” Motoko repeated. “But you might never find him!”
“I know,” Tsuruko sighed.
“I apologise for being a bad host, Tsuruko-san, but I there’s something I need to do right now. And not only that, but I don’t even have a spare room ready for you at the moment. I will make one up for you tomorrow, though,” Keitaro insisted. He let out a sigh. “I feel like I’m the worst host in Japan.”
“Oh no, Keitaro-san, it’s me who should be apologising. I’m the one who appeared on your doorstep unannounced with a task that would make all but the most patient Buddhist monk weep with despair. I will share a room with Motoko-han for the duration of my stay,” Tsuruko said, bowing deeply. “I am grateful for your assistance in my search.”
“I accept your apology, Tsuruko-san.”
When Keitaro left to attend to his task, Tsuruko turned to her sister. “Motoko-han, there’s something I need to talk to you about. In private.”
“We can talk in my room, Aneue.”
In Motoko’s room, Tsuruko casually glanced around, looking at the decor. As expected, it was clean, but there was a distinct, almost Spartan lack of personalisation.
“I see you’re keeping your mind free from the distractions of pop idols and pretty boy celebrities, Motoko-han. I must say that I was slightly less disciplined on such things when I was your age.”
“Thank you, Aneue. What was it that you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Orateki,” the older sister answered.
“You’re trying to find Orateki?” Motoko asked in disbelief. “He doesn’t want to be found! Aside from that sketch Miura bought, he hasn’t released anything in over five years! Why don’t you tell me the real reason, Aneue?”
“I have, Motoko-han.”
The younger sister let out a small chuckle. “Fine, we’ll pretend that you are looking for Orateki. Why him? Why now? Why not something easier, like dark matter?”
Tsuruko was surprised, but not upset by her sister’s sarcasm. She took a deep breath before answering. “Because I think I recognised part of the sketch that Miura bought. And if I can track him down, I can ask him why he sold the sketch now.”
“I won’t tell anyone who you’re looking for, but I still think is a fool’s errand, Aneue.”
“Thank you, Motoko-han.”
Later that evening, Kitsune suggested to Tsuruko that she take a dip in the bath with her. While the ash-blonde was giving the pretence of friendship, she really wanted some embarrassing information on Motoko.
As the two voluptuous women stepped out to the pool of hot water, Tsuruko scanned the area for anything that looked familiar. The problem was that it felt too familiar – it seemed that there was a standard template for hot springs and the Hinata Sou conformed to it.
“Come on in, Tsuruko, the water’s fine,” Kitsune said as she slipped into the water up to her neck.
The swordswoman stepped into the water and smiled. “This is better than fine, Mitsune-san.”
“Please, I told you to call me Kitsune.”
“Very well, Kitsune,” Tsuruko smiled as she relaxed in the hot mineral water. After savouring the sensation for a moment, she looked at her bathing companion. “So, what is it about Motoko-han that you want to know?”
“Well, since you asked...” Kitsune smiled as she rubbed the back of her head. “I was always curious as to why she moved out here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have met her, but she never really told us the whole story.”
“There was some... friction at home. Motoko-han didn’t react too well to my husband. He was a good man, please don’t misunderstand, but looking back, it seems that Motoko felt he’d stolen me from her. Little sisters can be possessive like that.”
“I guess so,” the ash-blonde shrugged.
“I think the final straw for Motoko-han was when she accidentally walked in on us being intimate.”
Kitsune let out a small laugh at the mental image of the prudish Motoko accidentally walking in on a couple having sex.
“Yes, so she did try to impose a ban on sex, but when she tried to make the demand our father just gave her a look that told her that she had more chance of drinking the sea of Japan dry,” Tsuruko recounted, a smile gracing her own lips. “However, since it was clear that she was unhappy, our father decided it would be best if Motoko-han was allowed some more freedom.”
“So that’s why she came here,” the short-haired woman nodded.
“It’s why she came to Tokyo. We arranged for her to come to the Hinata Sou because of the hot springs you have here.”
“That seems weird that she’s only here because your family wanted cheap visits to a hot springs,” Kitsune mused.
“And why did you pick the Hinata Sou, Kitsune? Cheap access to hot springs? Or perhaps you moved in when you discovered that the manager is a single young man?”
“I was here before Keitaro took over, I’ll have you know,” Kitsune corrected.
“I was just teasing,” Tsuruko smiled reassuringly. She let out a sigh as the hot water relaxed her. “In all honesty though, I’m glad that she’s made some friends. She’s a nice person, but some of the boys where we grew up were rather... how can I put this?”
“Horrible, entitled rich kids?” the ash-blonde suggested.
“Well, I was trying to be polite, but you are quite correct with your assessment, Kitsune.”
“Is something wrong, Sempai?” Shinobu asked as she noticed that Keitaro was still out of sorts.
“I’m not feeling very well, Shinobu-chan.”
“Is there anything I can do?” the young girl asked, a blush forming on her delicate cheeks.
“No, I just... I’m under a bit of stress, so I apologise if I’m a little unsociable or short-tempered. Hopefully, it’ll be sorted soon,” Keitaro replied with a forced smile.
The ronin left before he could see the look of concern on Shinobu’s face.
‘I should speak with Haruka-san about Sempai...’
Haruka Urashima answered the phone as she finished counting the day’s takings.
“¬Y-yes. There’s... I...¬” the young girl stammered nervously.
“What’s up, Shinobu-chan?” the smoker asked as she left a float in the till. “Take a deep breath and tell me what’s wrong.”
“¬Sempai seems a bit unwell. It’s not a cold or anything like that.¬”
Haruka blinked in surprise. Keitaro was rarely ill, and Shinobu knew enough to know a cold when she saw one. “What do you mean? Is Keitaro throwing up?”
“¬No, but he doesn’t have much of an appetite. He looks really tired. He said something about stress, but I don’t know what do, Haruka-san. Can you come up and talk to him?¬”
Haruka sighed. She was tired, but Keitaro was family and he seemed to need some help.
Keitaro often displayed a “happy-go-lucky” attitude, but those who knew about his secret knew that he was often plagued by self-doubt and withdrew from social situations.
“OK, Shinobu-chan, I’ll be up in a bit.”
“¬Thank you, Haruka-san.¬”
A short while later, Haruka knocked on the door to Keitaro’s room. When there wasn’t a reply, she knocked again and announced that she was coming in.
Slowly opening the door to allow Keitaro the chance to hide anything that he didn’t want anyone to see, the smoker was surprised that Keitaro was lying on his bed.
‘Shinobu’s right, he doesn’t look great,’ she mused. “Keitaro, I’m coming in, is that OK?”
“I suppose so,” the ronin muttered, knowing that he probably had very little say in the matter.
Haruka shut the door behind her and sat down on the bed next to her cousin. “Are you alright, Keitaro?”
“What’s the matter?”
“Don’t want to talk about it.”
The smoker frowned before mentioning why she was here.
“Shinobu-chan was worried about me?”
“Yes, Keitaro. When she phoned me up, she mentioned something about stress.”
“It’s nothing,” Keitaro insisted weakly.
Haruka had decided that she’d had enough of Keitaro’s attitude and pulled him into a more upright position by his ear. “Keitaro, you tell me what’s bothering you. Now.”
“Ow, Haruka!” the artistic young man whined. “Fine. I had some bad news today.”
“An Orateki sketch was sold recently. This one was a ‘new’ sketch, never seen before.”
“Orateki?” Haruka blinked. “What? A new sketch? When did you put this up for sale?”
“I didn’t,” Keitaro replied morosely. “It’s one I did years ago.”
This changed things considerably. Keitaro had often felt that his sketches weren’t good enough for other people to see, but that was often because of what he considered to be his limited success with his paintings.
Not that the sketches that had been seen by art critics had been panned in any meaningful fashion.
But, as had been explained to Haruka, ‘you can’t tell some people’ and her cousin still laboured under the impression that he was a mediocre doodler that got lucky once.
She hugged Keitaro. “It’ll be alright, Keitaro. We’ll find out who sold the sketch and beat the money out of them.”
“And give it back to the buyer?”
“Why would we do that?”
“Because they were tricked into paying 6.5 million yen for it,” Keitaro admitted.
The smoker sighed. “Keitaro, do you know what market forces are?”
“Yes, I am aware of the basics of supply and demand, Haruka. What of them?”
“Just because I don’t have any sketches for sale, it doesn’t mean that anything I do will sell. Your stuff sells because it’s good. It goes for a high price because it’s rare,” Haruka explained. “No-one will hear about your secret from me. That’s a promise.”
“Thank you, Haruka-san,” Keitaro smiled.
After leaving her cousin to rest, Haruka sought out Shinobu to put her mind at ease.
“Is Sempai going to be OK, Haruka-san?”
“He will be, Shinobu-chan. He’s just feeling a little run down, that’s all,” the smoker replied with a smile. She glanced at the newspaper and saw that there was an article on a recent sale of artwork. “Wait, is this today’s newspaper?”
“Yes, Haruka-san. I was reading about that Orateki sketch,” Shinobu said, missing the look of concern on Haruka’s face. “Naru-sempai mentioned it to me earlier.”
“Hmm,” Haruka nodded as she scanned the article for details. “It doesn’t say who unearthed it, just who bought it and how much they paid for it.”
“Yes,” the Lolita chef nodded. “Orateki-sensei is so mysterious, no-one knows anything about him. He could be living next door to Motoko-sempai’s family for all we know.”
“That’s true,” the smoker nodded absently. She looked at the picture of the sketch that had been printed. ‘That’s definitely one of Keitaro’s.’
The following day, Keitaro was feeling a little better. There wasn’t a lot he could do about the sale of his sketch, but the promise of righteous justice on the person who’d stolen and sold it made things better.
As he made his way to the breakfast table, he caught sight of Tsuruko practising with her younger sister.
Thoughts of capturing Tsuruko’s beauty entered Keitaro’s head as he watched the Aoyamas spar. After she knocked Motoko to the ground he shook his head. ‘No, I’ll never be able to do her justice. I should stick to landscapes and still-life.’
“Out of the way, Keitaro!” Kaolla Su shouted as she pushed the hapless young man to one side. “It’s breakfast time!”
“Oh, sorry, Su-chan,” Keitaro apologised. He quickly followed the young princess to the dining area, hoping that no-one had seen him looking at Tsuruko and got the wrong idea.
At the table, it was noticed that Keitaro was still not his usual cheerful self. The residents exchanged looks and it was Kitsune who decided to help lighten the mood.
“So, Keitaro,” she drawled. “How much do you reckon you could get for a sketch of me?”
“What?” the ronin asked, surprised but the question.
“Well, I know that you like to draw. I’m not saying we’d get Orateki prices, but surely it would be worth a few yen?”
Keitaro laughed nervously. “I...”
“What about it, Keitaro? Wanna draw me like one of your French girls?” the ash-blonde asked, striking a pose that drew attention to her impressive chest.
“Kitsune, you shouldn’t be like at the breakfast table,” Naru chided. She didn’t approve of her friend’s flirtatious behaviour, but it was nice to see Keitaro brought out of his funk.
“You’re right, Naru,” Kitsune conceded. “We’ll discuss a modelling contract later. What’s the going rate for a nude model?”
‘Kitsune knows that’s not what I meant!’ Naru seethed. She shot a glance at Keitaro, who seemed to be willing the earth to open up and swallow him. ‘That’s not his usual embarrassment at Kitsune’s teasing... Something’s different...’
Motoko also noticed this difference in Keitaro’s body language. ‘Maybe Haruka-san had some bad news for Keitaro? He said he’s not feeling very well...’
The young Aoyama’s eyes widened as her reading of the situation reached its logical conclusion. ‘Keitaro’s seriously ill!’
Disclaim-me-do: Football is good at filling those empty evenings between birth and death.
After breakfast, Motoko took the opportunity to visit Haruka at the teahouse to confirm her suspicions. She thought that finding out the truth was the least she could do, after all there had been countless misunderstandings since Keitaro’s arrival at the Hinata Sou.
As the kendoist entered the teahouse, she saw that Haruka had just finished a telephone conversation.
The displeased Urashima looked at Motoko and forced a smile. “Good morning, Motoko-chan. What can I do for you?”
“I... it’s about Keitaro...”
Haruka blinked once, but maintained her poker face. “What about Keitaro?”
“I... you came over to visit last night,” Motoko said. “Normally, Keitaro’s almost indestructible, but he wasn’t feeling very well yesterday or today...”
“I see,” the smoker nodded. “Look, we all have our off days. Keitaro’s been under a lot of stress lately, it’s just taking its toll on him”
“This doesn’t seem like stress,” the kendoist replied. “At least, he’s never acted like this before...”
Haruka shook her head. “I’m sure that Keitaro will pull through, he always has done in the past.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“What’s this, concern for Keitaro?” Haruka teased, hoping to change the subject. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that you were starting to like him...”
Motoko’s face turned pink. “I... You’re as bad as Kitsune!”
“Where do you think she got it from?” the smoker grinned. Her expression turned slightly more serious. “Look, Keitaro is just... It might just be stress, it might be something more.”
“What if it’s something more?”
“Then we’ll deal with when we know what it is. In the mean time, don’t treat him like he’s made of glass, but equally try not to hit him. Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so. What should I tell the others?”
“That it’s stress,” Haruka replied. “That’s all we know at the moment.”
Back at the Hinata Sou, Tsuruko Aoyama was looking at some documents about the local area when she saw that Keitaro seemed to be wandering around in a bit of a daze.
“Keitaro-san, is something the matter?”
“I don’t know. Something doesn’t feel right,” the ronin answered. “I’ve got a bit of a headache.”
The swordswoman noticed that Keitaro was rubbing his temples. “I’m not a doctor, but I’m led to believe that pain in your temples is indicative of tension.”
Keitaro walked over to where Tsuruko was working and sat by the table. “That’s probably it.”
“Would it help to talk about it?”
“I don’t know. Probably, but I’m not comfortable talking about it,” replied the ronin. “It’s a complicated situation and we only met yesterday.”
“I understand,” Tsuruko nodded. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
The pair sat in comfortable silence for a moment before Tsuruko turned to Keitaro. Her keen vision picked out various details about him, appraising him.
The signs of a poor night’s sleep, a loss of appetite and a look of general dishevelment all pointed to the conclusion that Keitaro was unsettled about something.
“Keitaro-san, I... I wouldn’t normally suggest this to someone I’ve only just met, but would you like me to help you relax by giving you a neck rub?”
“What about your search?”
“I’m still not sure where to start,” Tsuruko admitted. “Besides, it’s the least I can do to repay your generosity as a host.”
“Please, I insist. You never know, I might gain some insight as to where to begin my search.”
Kitsune was feeling bored. It was far too early to start drinking, but she was light on work, and there seemed to be too much month at the end of the money. The TV guides didn’t hold much in the way of potential for entertainment.
That left the ash-blonde with only a few options: lock herself in her room for some “alone time” or see what Keitaro was up to.
Naru was a friend, not a way to relieve boredom, like Keitaro.
Well, Keitaro might have been a friend, too, but he was different. He was Keitaro.
He was kind. He was understanding of people’s foibles. He never gave up.
‘He’s kinda cute when he gets flustered,’ Kitsune mused idly. She stopped in her tracks. “Where did that come from?”
“Where did what come from?” Motoko asked as she approached her friend.
“I was just...” the short-haired girl paused and decided to filter her response slightly. “I had a train of thought that seemed to miss several stops and end up somewhere highly unexpected.”
“So, where have you been?”
“I was talking with Haruka-san,” the kendoist answered. She looked around nervously. “It... it was about Keitaro.”
Quick as a flash, the resident troublemaker smirked and fired off a question, hoping to purge the notion that she was thinking about Keitaro in a romantic fashion. “What about him? You’re not going to ask for an omiai, are you?”
“No!” Motoko replied, scowling at Kitsune. “It was something serious. Like how he’s not been feeling well lately.”
Kitsune blinked. “What do you mean?”
Motoko took a deep breath. “I... I think Keitaro might... that he might be ill. Like organ failure ill.”
The ash-blonde’s jaw dropped open. “But... But Keitaro is so...”
“Yes, I know,” the kendoist said, her eyes feeling rather mistier than she would have expected. “Haruka-san thinks it’s just stress, but I don’t know. He’s been stressed before, but he’s never been like this.”
This changed things for Kitsune. If Keitaro was actually ill, then teasing him with a flash of cleavage or easily misconstrued comment was in exceedingly poor taste.
If he was stressed, it was far worse than anything they’d seen before and who knew what could happen if Keitaro snapped. She didn’t think that he’d lose all self-control and molest someone, but he could do himself some harm.
“I... I think we should have some tea,” the short-haired vixen suggested.
Tsuruko frowned in frustration as she tried to work out some of the tension from the muscles in Keitaro’s shoulders.
‘How can a man have so much tension in his muscles?’
“Is something wrong, Tsuruko-san?”
“No,” Tsuruko replied. “While I expected you to be tense, I didn’t think that I was in danger of dislocating my thumbs, Keitaro-san.”
Keitaro winced. “I’m sorry, Tsuruko-san. I didn’t mean to be such a bother to you.”
The swordswoman frowned. “That was a joke, Keitaro-san.”
The ronin sighed. “... I’m an idiot. I’m sorry, Tsuruko-san, I really am. I’m just distracted.”
Tsuruko moved to sit face to face with Keitaro and took his hands in hers. “It’s clear that ‘something’ is bothering you. Talking about your concerns can help. Now, I understand that it’s a private matter and that you don’t want people to know the details. I deal with certain aspects of family business that are in the same vein, so don’t think that I’m trying to pry into your personal affairs.
“If it helps, we can use ‘buffers’ or ‘filters’ to obscure some of the details. You know like how some anecdotes start with ‘a friend of a friend...’?”
Keitaro sighed. “Maybe.”
“And do not forget that an air of unfamiliarity can help people discuss their problems. I have known that people feel that they are too close to someone to talk about to about their problems.”
“Part of the problem is that this is a big thing. Or at least, it is to me.”
“This affects people around you doesn’t it, Keitaro-san?”
“Yes, yes it does.”
Outside the office, Naru Narusegawa had overheard a small part of the conversation between Tsuruko and Keitaro. She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop on the two, but curiosity had gotten the better of her.
She’d heard Keitaro confirm that what he was concerned about affected people around him and leaned in to better hear when she slipped and pushed the office door fully open.
Keitaro froze as he saw the auburn-haired girl fell into view. “...”
Tsuruko turned to look at the intruder. ‘This does help explain why Keitaro-san is having difficulty talking about personal matters.’ “Is there something we can help you with, Narusegawa-san?”
“Ah, there it is,” Naru said, hoping she’d covered her actions with a spot of clumsiness. “No, I’ve found what I was looking for. I’ll leave you two alone.”
The Toudai-bound girl smiled nervously as she slipped away from. This was something important that the others needed to know about.
In the kitchen, Motoko was pouring tea for her and Kitsune when Naru walked in with an unusual look on her face.
“Is something the matter, Naru?” Kitsune asked.
“I... Think I need a cup of tea.”
“OK, I’ll get you a cup,” Motoko said, rising from her chair as Naru sat down.
“Also,” the auburn-haired girl said, her eyes darting between her two friends, “there’s something I think we need to talk about.”
“Join the club,” Kitsune smiled wanly. She wrapped her fingers around her cup, savouring the warmth. “So, what’s your big talking point?”
“I think there’s something going on with Keitaro.”
Motoko paused in the pouring of the tea. “I... I think I know what you mean, Naru-sempai.”
When all three of them had their cups, it was the kendoist that spoke up.
“I take it you have noticed that Keitaro has been feeling unwell lately. Added in to the fact that Haruka-san was concerned enough to visit, I... there’s no easy way to say this. I think that Keitaro-san is seriously ill.”
Normally, Naru would have scoffed at such a suggestion. Keitaro was as close to invulnerable as you could get without being in a manga series. But that was before she heard his words to Tsuruko.
“I think you might be right, Motoko.”
“What makes you say that, Naru-chan?” Kitsune asked. She’d already heard Motoko’s reasoning, but wasn’t entirely convinced.
“I didn’t mean to, but I overheard Keitaro talking with Tsuruko-san,” the bespectacled girl said, somewhat apologetically. “I got the impression that what was making him feel bad was going to affect people around him.”
Motoko took a breath to steal herself. “I... I think that’s the case, too. I spoke with Haruka-san earlier to, and she said that Keitaro is just feeling a little stressed. I’ve seen people suffering from stress before, and I’m not saying that this isn’t a stressful situation for Keitaro, but this feels different.”
“What do you think it is, Motoko?” Naru asked.
“I think Keitaro is seriously ill.”
“What about you, Kitsune?”
“I don’t know,” the ash-blonde replied, looking at her tea. “I mean, Keitaro’s not acting like he normally does. But if something was really wrong with him, Haruka-san would have told us.”
“Maybe they’re waiting for confirmation?” Motoko suggested. “And that they want to know how severe the situation is before they tell us?”
“That would make sense,” Naru nodded in agreement. “It would stop people from panicking if they heard that Keitaro’s got cancer or whatever it is.”
Kitsune looked at her friend. “What do you mean, Naru?”
“Well, let’s say that it is cancer for the moment. Despite the catch-all term, there are many types of cancer. And I don’t mean lung, skin and all the rest. There are types and stages of cancer, from having pre-cancerous cells to late stage terminal cancer. Different things cause different types of cancer and some types are more serious than others. It could be that Keitaro’s got skin cancer, which is very treatable if it’s caught early enough or it could be something more serious, like lung, bowel or liver cancer.”
Motoko frowned as she took in the information that had been laid out before her. “I don’t think that Keitaro has been coughing enough to suggest that he’s got lung cancer.”
“Agreed,” Naru nodded. “So, what do we do?”
“Carry on as normal,” the short-haired girl answered. She paused for a moment. “Well, maybe not ‘as normal’ as normal, but we don’t tell him what we think is going on and we keep him from getting too stressed.”
“That makes sense,” Motoko nodded in approval.
Tsuruko was beginning to understand part of the reason for Keitaro’s tension. There was an important, but private, issue that he need to discuss and there seemed to be a distinct lack of privacy in the Hinata Sou.
“Keitaro-san, I apologise if I’m being a bit too forward, but may I make a suggestion?”
“Yes, of course,” the ronin smiled politely.
“The matter that is causing you such trouble... it’s clear to me that in order to discuss it to help resolve it, you require some privacy. Privacy is the one thing that the Hinata Sou seems to be lacking in. I noticed that there’s a teashop not far from here, would you be more comfortable talking to me there?”
Keitaro rubbed his neck. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk about his problem. Sometimes, by just talking about what you need out loud to someone, you can find the answer. However, the issue in question had brought him a lot of bother in the past.
“I...” he made the mistake of looking Tsuruko in the eye and found his resolve crumbling. “Only on the promise that you don’t tell anyone.”
“I will take your secret to my grave, Keitaro-san,” Tsuruko replied bowing deeply.
“Alright then, why don’t we visit the teashop?”
Haruka looked up from her magazine when she heard the door to the teahouse open. She wasn’t in the habit of reading magazines while at work, but today was a slow day.
At first glance, it looked like Motoko had decided to return for more answers to her questions about Keitaro and his current mood. Haruka was about to dismiss the kendoist when she saw that it wasn’t her, but Tsuruko.
The smoker narrowed her gaze for a moment, but it softened when she saw that Keitaro was with her.
“Welcome to the Hinata Teahouse, what can I get you?”
“A private table and some of your finest tea,” Tsuruko replied.
Haruka cast a glance at Keitaro, who nodded once, before smiling in reply and gesturing to the table the offered the most privacy. “This way, please.”
When they were seated with their tea, Tsuruko smiled reassuringly at Keitaro.
“Now, Keitaro-san, where do you want to begin?”
“I...” the ronin took a deep breath. “This is difficult for me. I’m not used to talking to people about this sort of thing.”
“Because... because I found it easier to keep it a secret,” Keitaro admitted. He looked around the teahouse and saw that it was still empty. He sighed. “I... A few years ago, I did something that some people thought was good.”
“You’ll have to be more specific, Keitaro-san. ‘Something’ could mean almost anything: bakery, acting, writing.”
“I was something of a budding artist. A couple of my early sketches were popular with my teachers, but the weight of expectation almost crushed me so I nearly gave up drawing completely.”
“But you didn’t,” Tsuruko surmised.
“It made my family proud of me. All of them, including my grandfather. And he was a stern person.”
The swordswoman nodded in understanding; she certainly knew what it was like to have a family member that was hard to please.
“I wanted to keep drawing, because it made them proud of me, but the pressure of being known as an artist stopped me from being able to draw or paint. It was my grandfather who gave me the solution to this problem: that I use a different name for my works.”
“Did it help at all?” Tsuruko asked as she poured the tea.
“It did for a while. I even managed to sell a couple of paintings, but when I had to focus on my studies to get into Toudai, I found that what little work I could get done just wasn’t as good as the paintings I sold.”
Tsuruko sipped her tea. “This is excellent tea, Keitaro-san.”
Keitaro sampled the tea that had been poured for him and smiled. ‘Haruka’s brought out the good stuff.’
“I think I can understand why you were reluctant to draw Konno-san when she suggested it at dinner last night. You’re lacking in confidence when it comes to your artistic talents and don’t want to offend anyone,” the swordswoman nodded.
The artist nodded.
“So why would you keep your artistic history a secret, Keitaro-san? The need to focus on your studies would be an understandable reason for not drawing or painting and you wouldn’t feel so stressed about your talents.”
“There’s one detail I haven’t told you, Tsuruko-san,” Keitaro admitted. “And that’s the pseudonym I used. Before I tell you, you do remember that you swore to keep this a secret.”
“I will take this secret with me to my grave, Keitaro-san. Even if this promise shortens my life.”
Satisfied with the reply he’d received, the ronin took a deep breath. “I am Orateki.”
Tsuruko’s eyes widened. She never thought that she would actually find and meet the famously reclusive Orateki, let alone discover that her little sister was staying under the same roof as him.
“Yes. But remember that you promised not to tell anyone.”
“Who else knows about this?”
“You and my family. That’s it and I want to keep it that way,” Keitaro urged. “I don’t need the distraction from my studies.”
“Studies? As in the ones to pass the Toudai entrance exams? But you’re Orateki, you could walk into the art department of any college in the world and get a scholarship, hell they’d probably even pay you to study there just for the prestige of being associated with you.”
“But I don’t know if I want to study art,” the artist shrugged. “I’m not bad at it, but I don’t think I love doing it enough for it to be my job. As for why I didn’t tell anyone, we’ve only just met and you’re trying to push me down this path and whenever I force the art, it’s never good enough.”
‘That explains why he never took any commissions...’ “I apologise, Keitaro-san. I did not intend to force you into doing anything you didn’t want to.”
“It’s OK, Tsuruko-san, I’m just still not used to talking about this. I hadn’t even given it any thought lately.”
Haruka approached the table. “So, have you told her your secret identity, Keitaro?”
She saw the frown that Tsuruko was casting at her. “Well, it was either that or Keitaro’s thinking about asking for permission to date your sister.”
Tsuruko’s stern look softened considerably. “Indeed, Keitaro-san has told me about his alter ego. I must say that he isn’t quite what I imagined. Artistic types do have a certain reputation...”
“You don’t mind if I sit with you, do you?” asked the smoker.
“Not at all, Haruka-san” Keitaro smiled.
“And artistic types certainly do have a reputation. There were people who started a band when I was in high school just to pick up girls,” Haruka said as she placed a cup on the table and helped herself to some tea.
“How long have you known that Keitaro is Orateki, Haruka-san?”
“I helped him pick the name. A better question is what are you going to do with what you’ve learned today?”
“I promised that I would take this secret to my grave and I intend to keep that promise,” Tsuruko answered truthfully. “However, I must confess that it pains me to see people waste their potential.”
“That’s what my grandfather said, too,” the artist sighed. “Not that it matters much, I haven’t been inspired to draw anything for a while now. It’s finding that sweet spot where you have inspiration, motivation and the opportunity to be creative.”
“Maybe you need a new muse, Keitaro,” Haruka smirked. “How do you feel about drawing Tsuruko-san?”
“I did give some thought to doing something like that before breakfast, but I don’t think I could do Tsuruko-san justice,” Keitaro replied apologetically.
Tsuruko blushed lightly at the thought of being the subject of an artist like Orateki. “I would be honoured to be a model for Keitaro-san.”
“See Keitaro, we always told you that you just needed confidence,” the smoker beamed. “Of course, any portrait of you that Keitaro produced could never be put up for sale...”
“I would never dream of trying to profit from Keitaro-san,” the swordswoman replied, aghast at the implication.
Haruka’s cast a steely look at Tsuruko. “Recently, someone sold one of Keitaro’s sketches without his knowledge. I just wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. But since we’re all clear about this, you can now go off and do some arty stuff.”
Motoko was surprised to see Tsuruko follow Keitaro into the kitchen. “Aneue?”
“Ah, Motoko-han,” the elder sister smiled. “I have something important to tell you. Keitaro-san and I will be spending some time together today and we are not to be disturbed.”
“I’m deadly serious, Motoko-han. Short of our lives being in serious peril, we are not to be disturbed. Is that clear?”
Motoko swallowed nervously. ‘I’ve never seen Aneue like this before. Not even with her husband...’ “Yes. I’m not sure I understand, but I’ll make sure that you’re not disturbed.”
“Good,” Tsuruko smiled. She turned to Keitaro. “Shall we take something to drink in with us?”
It had taken Keitaro a while to get back into drawing after his artistic sabbatical. He’d started by doodling with a pencil, making shapes that could have been anything.
Then he’d had an idea for a sketch and started making outlines of a window.
That had intrigued Tsuruko, but she knew better than to interrupt the artist as he worked.
‘This isn’t the same as asking why I’d be using an oilstone as opposed to a whetstone,’ the swordswoman noted. She realised that she was staring at him and turned her attention away as to not put pressure on Keitaro.
After a few minutes, Keitaro looked at what he’d drawn and frowned.
“This isn’t quite right...”
“Let me see, Keitaro-san,” Tsuruko said as she reached for the drawing.
It was of a long-haired figure standing before a window looking out for some unknown reason. She couldn’t tell whether it was because this person was waiting for a particular someone to return home or if this person was standing guard.
“I...” Keitaro shrugged. “I can’t put my finger on what’s wrong with it.”
“The figure is too androgynous,” the swordswoman replied. “Perhaps if you made it clear as to their gender, it would have more impact. Like a woman awaiting the return of her man.”
Keitaro took back his picture and considered Tsuruko’s words. ‘She’s right, it needs an implication...’
Taking an eraser, he cleaned up a few lines before adjusting the subject of the picture to give the figure more feminine curves.
“I think this I better, but I’m still not happy with it,” the artist said, preparing to screw up the sheet of paper.
“No, please, don’t destroy this,” Tsuruko pleaded. “I think I can understand why you might feel that it doesn’t meet your standards, but that doesn’t mean that I want to see it lost forever.”
Keitaro looked up. “Really? But I could do so much better.”
“Just because a newer model of car is better, it doesn’t mean the manufacturer should seek to destroy all the previous versions of that car,” the swordswoman countered. “What if you had a face in the picture...”
Keitaro, who had reached for his drink, paused for a moment. “You might be right, Tsuruko-san...”
The artist took a swig of his drink. “Yes, the sketch needs a ‘personal’ touch. I... I feel bad asking this of you, Tsuruko-san, but can I use your likeness in this sketch?”
Tsuruko felt a sense of pride swell within her. “If it helps you, Keitaro-san, then you may use me as a model for your art.”
Keitaro’s second sketch took a lot longer to reach a point where he was willing to show it to Tsuruko.
He’d gone with the same theme of waiting for someone, only this time it was clear that it was a woman that was staring out of the window.
There were hints that it was Tsuruko in the picture, but the obvious details that could be used to identify her were missing, hidden by shadows.
“I... I didn’t want you to be embarrassed by being in one of my pictures...” Keitaro said, babbling slightly when he saw the questioning look on his model’s face.
“I’m not embarrassed to be in one of your pictures, Keitaro-san, far from it. I was just expecting a more traditional image, that’s all.”
“I thought about that, but part of me feels that even though I’m still trying to get back into the habit of drawing again, I didn’t want to go with the what was expected. I... it felt too easy to do that,” the artist replied.
Tsuruko pondered that response for a moment before nodding. “Yes, I think I understand what you mean. Like it could be falling back into a bad habit.”
There was a knock on the door. “I’m sorry to bother you, Sempai, but dinner is ready.”
“I haven’t lost track of the time like that in quite a while,” the swordswoman mused, small smile forming on her lips. “I think we should have something to eat.”
“Yes, I’m feeling hungry now,” Keitaro smiled.
The Hinata residents weren’t quite sure what to make of the fact that Keitaro had entered the dining room with Tsuruko. On the one hand, they were glad that he seemed to be much happier than he’d been for the past couple of days, in fact it was like he was back to his old self.
However, there was something not quite right with the fact that Tsuruko was also looking happy.
When Motoko had mentioned to the others that her sister would be spending time with Keitaro that afternoon and had told her not to disturb them, it had tempting for Kitsune to make a comment about two adults wanting to be alone.
And had their landlord not shown signs of illness earlier, she certainly would have made salacious comments.
Instead, she smiled politely at the two as they took their place at the table.
Keitaro turned visibly self-conscious at the attention. To him, attention had always led to pressure and he did not handle pressure well.
Shinobu was concerned for her Sempai, but didn’t want to cause offence by speaking out of turn when it came to Keitaro and her desire to care for him. Not to mention Kitsune’s habit of teasing her about her desire to nurture the hapless ronin.
“Don’t tell me you’ve lost your appetite already, Keitaro-san,” Tsuruko’s words may have been chiding, but her smirk told everyone that her in the room that she being playful.
Motoko wasn’t sure what to make of this. She remembered that her sister had a habit of teasing and playing with people, but that tended to be only with people she liked.
“...” the younger Aoyama cocked her head to one side as she looked at the body language of her sister and the young man she’d taken a seat beside. ‘Aneue likes Keitaro? But... it’s Keitaro?’
Motoko’s mind started to race. Why would she like him? Tolerate him, yes, of course. But this isn’t like some of the people they had to make polite conversation with at a dreary social function.
There was only one conclusion: there was something going on between Tsuruko and Keitaro. It was up to Motoko to investigate.
Disclaim-me-do: Science gets more fun when I get a bigger gun.
After dinner, Tsuruko looked at Keitaro’s latest sketch again. It was good, but it still felt a little impersonal.
Had she been offered the sketch as a gift before she’d gotten to know Orateki, she’d have accepted it without hesitation. But then, that was before she’d modelled for him.
“Keitaro-san,” she said slightly nervously, “I... I feel uncomfortable asking you this. I feel like I am being most ungrateful saying this, but could I have a... a more personal picture?”
“You want a portrait? Are you sure?”
“Yes please, I would consider it a great honour, Keitaro-san.”
Keitaro blinked. it had been a long time since someone had tried to commission him for a portrait. Admittedly he’d shied away from the public eye for most of that time, but it was still a bit surprising to him.
At least it was until he realised how indebted he felt towards the swordswoman.
‘If it hadn’t been for Tsuruko-san, then I wouldn’t have done anything other than mope around feeling sorry for myself after that sketch had been sold...’
“If you promise not to sell it, Tsuruko-san.”
Tsuruko felt her heart soar. “I promise on my life and the honour of my entire clan, that I will not sell this image, Keitaro-san.”
“Then we shall start your portrait tomorrow, Tsuruko-san. I... is there any particular style or setting that you want me to draw you in?”
“I... I think that I might have to see if I can find something a little more flattering than my gi and hakama,” Tsuruko replied, a slightly naughty thought popping into her head.
Tsuruko smiled as she approached her sister.
“Aneue, why are you smiling like that?”
“No reason, it’s just that I might need to borrow some clothes. If you’ve got anything that might fit me,” the widow answered.
“Why do you need some clothes?” Motoko asked, her brow furrowing. “What’s going on, Aneue?”
“You sound like a teenager who’s trying convince their mother to let them go out to meet a boy,” the younger sister said disapprovingly.
“I’m not going out to meet a man, Motoko-han,” Tsuruko said. After a moment, a thought occurred to her. “But if you won’t let me borrow some clothes, then I’ll just have to do this thing naked.”
Motoko placed her book down. “Aneue... I don’t need to know every detail of what you’re planning, but I want to know what’s going on.”
“I can’t tell you, I promised on my life. But I suppose that you’ve made my decision for me. Don’t feel bad, because I think it might actually work out better this way,” the older sister smiled before heading to her room.
Something was definitely different about Tsuruko today. It had been something to do with Keitaro, Motoko was sure of it. But what?
She had wanted to investigate, but her plans had been curtailed by the insistence that she and Keitaro have some privacy after dinner.
Was it something to do with Keitaro’s health or did Tsuruko have other plans? And if she did, what could they be?
Tsuruko couldn’t have found Orateki already, and Keitaro just wasn’t the sort of man who would interest her romantically speaking. Even if Tsuruko had been alone for a few years now.
That left one possibility. “Aneue is planning an omiai for me!”
Kitsune and Naru were watching the end of some mildly interesting TV programme on baking when Motoko entered the room.
“Is something wrong, Motoko?” Naru asked, turning her head to face her friend.
“I... I’m not sure how to say this, but I think my sister is planning something.”
Kitsune turned the TV off when the credits started to roll. “We’re all planning something to some degree, Motoko, so you’ll have to be a bit more specific.”
The kendoist nodded. “Aneue..., my sister just asked me if she could borrow some clothes.”
Naru blinked. “What? Why?”
“Well, she didn’t say.”
The ash-blonde smirked at the first thought that entered her head.
“What’s so funny, Kitsune?” Naru asked, frowning as she recognised the expression on her friend’s face.
“Well, it sounds like Tsuruko is on the prowl for a new man.”
“She said she wasn’t,” Motoko insisted.
“Then perhaps it’s a woman?” the troublemaker grinned, knowing full well what effect her words would have.
“You make it sound like you’d prefer that possibility,” the auburn-haired girl countered.
Kitsune’s face fell.
“Not so funny when you’re the one being teased, is it?” Naru smirked triumphantly. “But in all seriousness, Tsuruko-san is a grown woman who knows what she’s doing.”
“Yes, but I think she’s...” Motoko took a deep breath. “I think she’s planning an omiai for me and Keitaro.”
“What makes you say that, Motoko?” Kitsune asked. “Why would she make that kind of arrangement?”
“She’s spent a lot of time with Keitaro since she got here.”
“Sounds more like she’s interested in him herself,” Naru countered. Suddenly she felt a little uneasy about that comment.
Keitaro might have been a clumsy idiot, but he wasn’t a bad person. He put up with a lot of stress being their landlord, manager and general helpful person. Whether it was being a shoulder to cry on or a punching bag when she felt angry, Keitaro was there for them.
Having Tsuruko come in and win his heart felt... wrong for some reason.
Not that Naru Narusegawa would ever admit to having such feelings for a man like Keitaro. He’d have to earn her affections.
A course that the hapless ronin was already on.
“But you don’t know my sister like I do,” Motoko insisted. “Keitaro’s not her type. He’s... Keitaro...”
The short-haired resident shook her head. “OK, let’s assume that Tsuruko-san isn’t interested in Keitaro for a moment. What makes you think that she wants you two to get engaged?”
“... I shouldn’t tell you this, but I had my family look into Keitaro’s background after he took over the running of the Hinata Sou,” the kendoist admitted.
“Oh, and what did you find?” Kitsune asked, not sure if she should disapprove of Motoko’s clandestine behaviour or be impressed with her initiative.
“Keitaro will, if he graduates from Toudai, inherit the Hinata Sou. That’s in addition to the bakery that his parents own.”
“So, Keitaro will be wealthy. I suppose that he might make a better suitor than some of the horrible, entitled idiots your social circles attract,” the short-haired girl nodded in approval.
Naru shrugged. “Even so, I’m not sure your sister would want you to get engaged to Keitaro just yet. He’s not even managed to get into Toudai, never mind graduate!”
That comment might have sounded cattier than Naru had planned, but it did still mean that she could guide Keitaro down the correct path. It wouldn’t do for her boyfriend to study a subject that wouldn’t allow him to get a proper job, after all.
“Aneue knows how to play the long game, so perhaps she’s just preparing things. She might want to stop others from getting ahead of me.” Motoko sighed. “I.... You know, I think you might be right, but if Aneue isn’t planning an omiai for me, then she’s still planning something.”
Naru and Kitsune suddenly felt a little relieved that their friend wasn’t about to be engaged to Keitaro. But only because she was still too young for such a serious relationship.
At least, that was what they told themselves.
“And the biggest worry about this is that she wouldn’t tell me.”
“That’s because I’m sworn to secrecy, Motoko-han,” Tsuruko chided from the doorway.
“Aneue!” Motoko squeaked in surprise. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to hear that Keitaro is going to inherit his parents’ bakery. For the record, Motoko-han, I was not planning an omiai for you. But if you’d like me to, then I can discuss things with Father...”
“I... no, but I...”
“So you don’t like Keitaro that way?” Kitsune teased.
“No! I mean.... Well, no!” the kendoist protested, her face turning red.
“That’s good to know.” Tsuruko’s smile grew. “I’ve got something planned for tomorrow, so I’ll turn in now. Good night.”
After breakfast, the following morning, Keitaro was nervous, but also mildly excited about his planned course of action.
This was going to be a challenge – he’d not taken on a commission in many years, even if this was more of practice run than anything else.
The subject was Tsuruko Aoyama; a beautiful woman by anyone’s standards and she wanted him to draw her. But what was the best pose to capture her beauty?
He wanted to do her justice, but he didn’t want to be disrespectful. Not only would it fail to dispel the reputation some of his tenants had of him, but it might anger a woman who knew how to wield a sword with deadly effect.
This was going to be the biggest challenge Orateki had ever undertaken.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Keitaro said, preparing several pencils and a sketchpad.
The door opened and Tsuruko stepped in. She was wearing her normal gi and hakama; something that Keitaro felt a little disappointed in. Not that the swordswoman didn’t look good in her choice of outfit, but because she had mentioned something about choosing a more flattering outfit for her portrait.
When Tsuruko locked the door, Keitaro became more nervous than excited.
“I’d rather we weren’t disturbed while you draw me,” the widow said before walking to the window. She looked around, checking for the potential for people to look into the room.
When she was happy that there weren’t likely to be any interruptions, Tsuruko sat down before Keitaro. “So, how do you want to draw me?”
“I... I don’t... how do you want me to draw you?” Keitaro stammered, not knowing how else to respond to the question.
“Well, I had planned to be dressed in something a little more elegant, but that wasn’t possible,” Tsuruko answered, a hint of sadness in her voice.
“Perhaps we could go with a sketch of you inspecting your sword?” Keitaro suggested. “I think it would look good. It could be intimate, but also tasteful.”
Tsuruko nodded. Tasteful was always good, as it was a hallmark of Orateki’s work. But a hint of intimacy would also mean that she could indulge in a spot of one-upmanship with Miura. Not that she was that sort of person petty enough to do so, but the thought of him spluttering with rage as he saw that Orateki had created something new just for her made her smile.
“Please, tell me how you want me to sit.”
Holding a pose for two hours was beginning to take its toll on Tsuruko. She coughed politely to get Keitaro’s attention.
“I apologise for interrupting you, but would it be possible for us to take a break?”
Keitaro blinked. He’d gone into a trance, focusing on the careful placement of pencil strokes on the page. Shaking his head, the artist blinked again and asked Tsuruko to repeat her question.
After glancing at the clock he apologised. “Yes, we should take a break. I am sorry, I didn’t realise that much time had passed.”
“May I take a quick look?” the swordswoman asked as Keitaro placed the sketchpad on the floor and stretched.
The ronin looked a little nervous, but decided to acquiesce to the request. “OK, but remember that it’s not finished, and I have only just gotten back into drawing after a lengthy break.”
Tsuruko nodded as she received the sketch. She looked at the image, marvelling at the way Keitaro had captured the perspective of her inspecting the edge of the blade.
“It’s beautiful, Keitaro-san,” she said breathlessly.
“I don’t know... Like I said, it’s not finished. I think it needs some more shading,” Keitaro replied.
Tsuruko decided that it would be best if they took their break and allowed their eyes to rest for a bit. She rose to her feet, but winced as she felt her leg cramp up.
“Are you alright, Tsuruko-san?” the artist asked, concerned that his request to draw Tsuruko had caused her to be hurt in some way.
“I will be, I just need to stretch my legs,” the swordswoman smiled. She took a step, but nearly fell to the floor.
Keitaro rushed in and caught her. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you to sit in that position for so long,” he babbled apologetically.
“It’s fine, Keitaro-san. I just need to walk this off.”
“At least let me help you to the kitchen.”
Motoko was trying not to be obvious about being outside Keitaro’s room. It wasn’t like she didn’t trust him or felt that her sister was in any way in danger it was just...
Well, Keitaro had been “off” for the past few days and it was unsettling. Though, if she wasn’t mistaken, Tsuruko had been in better spirits that morning than she’d see for a long time.
‘Keitaro does seem to have a calming effect on people...’ the young kendoist froze. “Wait, where did that thought come from?”
She heard the door open and did her best to blend into the wall.
What she saw next was a surprise – her sister, a prime physical specimen, was limping, leaning against Keitaro.
‘What were they doing? I didn’t hear anything that suggest they were...’ Motoko thought with a blush.
Keitaro continued to look forward as he helped Tsuruko towards the kitchen and so missed Tsuruko looking over her shoulder and smiling at her sister.
‘Oh Motoko, you poor fool. If only you had been less angry and more understanding...’ the widow thought. ‘Still, your loss is my gain.’
Motoko looked puzzled until she realised that the door to Keitaro’s room was still open. The kendoist glanced inside. ‘Of course, if the door’s open, then there shouldn’t be anything private on display...’
Ducking inside the room, she was surprised to see some paper and pencils on the table. ‘I don’t remember Keitaro being an... wait, didn’t Shinobu-chan once mention that she’d seen him sketching?’
Motoko looked at the sketches in more detail. The top most one was of her sister.
“This is good...”
“What’s good?” Kitsune asked. “I see you couldn’t keep away either. So, what’s Keitaro been up to?”
“I... I found this,” Motoko said, pointing to the sketch of Tsuruko examining a sword.
“Why’s Keitaro drawing your sister?”
“I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”
“Do you really want to blurt out your question, Motoko?” Kitsune asked. “I mean, you did start searching his room. Keitaro has been under a lot of stress lately.”
“... You’re right, Kitsune. I can’t just ask him why he’s been drawing my sister,” Motoko conceded. “What should we do?”
“You could ask your sister,” the ash-blonde suggested.
As Keitaro and Tsuruko started to prepare a light lunch, Motoko entered the kitchen.
“What is it, Motoko-han? Are you here to give Keitaro your blessing to date me?” Tsuruko teased.
Motoko blushed heavily at the implication, as did Keitaro. It was just as the widow had hoped.
“Well, I’m glad that you approve of Keitaro, Motoko-han. I know that I’ve only known Keitaro for a short while, but there’s something about him that appeals to me.”
“Because he can draw?” the younger sister blurted out.
“You saw my sketches?” Keitaro asked, his stomach knotting.
Tsuruko glanced at Keitaro and decided that this was not helping to rekindle Orateki’s desire to start working again. “They were in his room, Motoko-han. You should have respected his privacy.”
“I didn’t mean to barge into his room. I was worried about you.”
“Why? I’m a grown woman, Motoko. I can make my own decisions. I wanted Keitaro to do a sketch of me and he graciously agreed.”
“But he’s Keitaro...”
From the doorway to the kitchen, Kitsune watched on as Motoko managed to make things even worse. ‘What are you doing, Motoko?’
“Oh, well, I’ll destroy the sketches then,” Keitaro replied. His appetites for food and art suddenly disappeared. ‘At least I’m not disappointing anyone who’s paid for anything.’
“Destroying what, Keitaro?” Kitsune asked, finally making her presence known.
“Keitaro agreed to do a sketch for me,” Tsuruko explained.
The ash-blonde remained neutral when the situation was clarified, but gave a fake pout. “I thought you were going to draw me, Keitaro? You know, like one of your French girls? We were going to make some money.”
“He still could, but Keitaro’s not going to do anything if people don’t start respecting him. You wouldn’t stand for it if Keitaro went through your things every time he was bored or curious, so why should he stand for it when you’re curious or bored?” the swordswoman said.
“Why are you defending Keitaro?” Kitsune asked. “You seem rather enamoured considering that you’ve only known him for a short while. Is there something we’re not being told?”
Keitaro swallowed nervously.
“Yes,” Tsuruko replied with mirth sparkling in her eyes. “But you are not ready to learn the details.”
“Are you planning to marry Keitaro, Aneue?” Motoko blurted out.
The older Aoyama smiled. “I wouldn’t say planning, but I’m not ruling it out.”
Kitsune frowned. Sure, she thought that Keitaro had his issues but he did have some potential. Inheriting the Hinata Sou, his kindness and if his artwork could find a buyer, would all outweigh his clumsiness and obsession with Toudai and that ‘promise girl’ of his. Plus he was kinda cute.
“What makes you think that you can just sweep Keitaro off his feet?”
“This,” Tsuruko smirked as she gathered Keitaro up in her arms and ran out of the kitchen.
Ten paces from the kitchen, Tsuruko could feel something that was wrong. The circulation had not yet returned to normal and she felt her leg give way under her weight.
The swordswoman stumbled and the pair landed on the floor with Tsuruko’s face mere centimetres from Keitaro’s.
“I’m sorry Keitaro... I...”
Kaolla Su skipped up to them. “What’re you doing?” she asked in a sing-song tone.
Keitaro became flustered as he tried to explain the situation.
“I tripped,” Tsuruko explained calmly as Motoko and Kitsune approached the scene.
“Normally it’s Keitaro who lands on people,” the princess shrugged. “Though, your hands are on the chest, like how Keitaro’s usually end up.”
The widow looked down at Keitaro’s panicking face. “Oh, really?”
“Aneue, what are you doing on top of Keitaro like that?” Motoko asked.
“Well, if they were naked, I’d say they were about to do the cowgirl,” Kitsune replied. “Now, I get that Keitaro’s a good guy, who’s got some serious potential, but I can’t say I’d do him in public.”
“Dogging isn’t my thing, either,” Tsuruko added. She lifted herself off Keitaro and rubbed her leg in an attempt to improve the blood flow. “I am sorry for landing on you like that, Keitaro-san, but it was my leg that gave out on me.”
The swordswoman turned to her sister. “I was sitting still for a long time while Keitaro-san drew me.”
“It’s my fault,” Keitaro insisted as he got off the floor. “I should have picked a better pose for you. Something that didn’t hurt you.”
“I forgive you, but please don’t destroy the sketch.”
“But...” The artist’s protests died in his throat as Tsuruko gave him a look that started off pleading to his better nature before turning sultry, almost suggesting that there could be an incentive to continue with their arrangement.
“Alright, Tsuruko-san, I won’t destroy the sketch. But I want you all to know that if you don’t allow me my privacy, I won’t do any more sketches for anyone.”
“It’s a deal,” Tsuruko beamed. “Now, I believe we were getting some lunch before we started being silly.”
Motoko was not sure what to make of her sister’s behaviour towards Keitaro. At first, Tsuruko had been polite and somewhat vague about her intentions.
It was understandable after all. Orateki had managed to evade the limelight for a number of years without so much as a leaked doodle surfacing and as such, trying to find him was something of a fool’s errand.
But Tsuruko had seemingly abandoned this task in favour of spending time with Keitaro.
Not that there was anything wrong with spending time with Keitaro; he was a good person, despite his ‘accidents’ and occasional lechery.
Not that Kitsune seemed to mind too much about that kind of attention. The ash-blonde always felt flattered by it, occasionally commenting how it made her feel like a woman.
Motoko herself had felt that such things were an unnecessary distraction from her training and her studies.
But Motoko would admit, under duress of course, that it was nice to feel desired by a decent man who had the potential of Keitaro. The sketch of her sister showed that Keitaro had an eye for detail and a creative spark that many people lacked.
Motoko idly wondered if she could get Keitaro to draw her. She shook her head as it occurred to her that she might be perfectly fine with it being more along the lines of what Kitsune had suggested rather than that of Tsuruko’s sketch.
What was going on with Keitaro? Was Keitaro was just finding out that he needed to unleash his urges?
If so, better that he draw than those urges take a more...physical turn.
But again, her thoughts took an unexpected twist – would it be so bad if she was the focus of such urges? After a moment’s thought, Motoko felt that she could handle being the focus of Keitaro’s sexual desires, if only to protect her friends.
“Now I’m getting as bad as Kitsune,” the kendoist chided herself.
But if Motoko was beginning to see Keitaro as a potential mate, then it dawned on her that her sister was also coming to the same conclusion.
Could it be possible that Tsuruko was making a move on Keitaro? It would explain her flirty behaviour and it had been a while since her husband, Kenji, had passed away.
Tsuruko Aoyama was a grown woman, someone who could make her own decisions. So why should it matter to Motoko who she picked as her new partner?
Why should she care that it was Keitaro?
Was it because Tsuruko was just riding in and picking him up after he was feeling vulnerable?
It did feel that she’d been “gazumped” by her own sister.
And if the Aoyama family had one thing going for it, it was a strong urge to correct injustice.
‘Maybe I should accidentally tell Keitaro why Aneue is in Tokyo?’ the kendoist thought with a devious smile.
Fortunately for Tsuruko, Keitaro had finished the bulk of the sketch and she could take a more relaxed pose as the artist added the details.
The widow looked over and saw that Keitaro’s hands were adding in all manner of contours to her face and body. She felt flattered by the depiction.
There was a knock on the door, causing Keitaro to freeze in panic. He looked around for a place to hide his sketches.
“It’s alright, Keitaro, you don’t have to hide your work,” Tsuruko said in a reassuring voice.
“But... you’re right, I’m being paranoid,” said the artist. He let out a sigh before turning to the door. “Come in.”
The door opened to reveal Motoko Aoyama carrying a tray of cold drinks. “I thought that you might be a little thirsty.”
“Thank you, Motoko-han,” Tsuruko smiled. “Though, you shouldn’t be so worried about Keitaro. I can look after myself, you know.”
“I know, Aneue,” the younger sister acknowledged as she took up a seat next to the table. She started to hand out the lemonade to her sister and landlord.
“You didn’t have to bring us drinks, Motoko,” Keitaro smiled nervously as he moved his drawing away from the drinks.
“I felt that I owed you an apology for my actions,” Motoko replied, her head bowed in shame. “I... I’m sorry, Keitaro-san.”
The young man felt a little awkward at the display of humility before him. He liked Motoko and not just as a person, but also as a young lady and didn’t want to see her suffer any indignity. But this apology was a reminder of his work as a once popular artist who rested on his laurels for far too long.
He didn’t deserve that praise then, and he certainly didn’t deserve it now. But he knew that accepting this apology would make things easier for Motoko and himself.
“I accept your apology, Motoko,” he smiled. After a moment he realised that Motoko was still seated and show no immediate signs of moving. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“I thought that it would be nice to see the creative process in action,” the younger swordswoman answered.
Although Keitaro nodded in understanding, Tsuruko was more sceptical of her sister’s motives.
Not that she could blame Motoko, she’d thought about Keitaro on a number of occasions since her arrival at the Hinata Sou. The young man had seemed troubled when she first met him, but now that she’d seen him relax, she’d warmed to him.
Nice, polite, talented, good prospects, the only thing that seemed to be a negative was his reluctance to live up to his potential as Orateki.
“By the way, Aneue, how far did you get on your search?”
“Search?” Keitaro repeated.
“Yes, Aneue came to Tokyo to find someone,” Motoko explained.
“Oh yes, I remember now,” the artist nodded.
“Something more important came up,” Tsuruko said, narrowing her eyes at her sister.
“I thought finding this person was important. While it’s not like you to give up so easily, I can’t say that I thought your chances of finding Orateki were very high to begin with.”
Keitaro froze. “S-sorry? Who were you looking for?”
“Aneue was looking for Orateki,” Motoko replied with an innocent smile on her face.
In contrast, Tsuruko’s face promised a great deal of suffering for her sibling. “Thank you for the drinks, Motoko-han, your presence is no longer required.”
“Oh, but I haven’t learned anything of the creative process yet.”
The widow saw that Keitaro was still in shock and so took it upon herself to convince Motoko to leave. “It’s time for some practice. I’ll be back soon, Keitaro-san.”
Motoko didn’t have time to gulp nervously before Tsuruko had whisked off for some more training.
Disclaim-me-do: Ladies, don’t be fooled. Sometimes, your knight in shining armour is just a retard in tin foil.
Motoko had found herself knocked to the ground repeatedly in the space of three minutes.
“Come on, Motoko, I’ve seen houses of cards made by drunks stay up longer than that,” Tsuruko taunted.
“I’m not ready!” the younger sister protested.
“It is a fundamental law of combat that your opponent will attack when they’re ready, and not when you are. Get up and we’ll go again.”
Motoko blinked. Her sister’s reputation for pushing people to be their best was well known, but this was borderline sadistic.
“I said get up!”
Reflexively, the kendoist jumped to her feet and fell into a basic Shinmeiryu stance.
Again, Tsuruko burst into action, taking the younger Aoyama by surprise and knocking her to the ground.
“I see you’ve been slacking on your training, Motoko. I will have to correct that lapse.”
“What did I do to deserve this?”
“Oh, I think you know, Motoko.”
“... I’m sorry, Aneue.”
“Why did you say it?”
“Why. Did. You. Say. It?”
“I... didn’t mean to upset Keitaro, I just...”
“Just what?” Tsuruko demanded. “Oh I get it, you like Keitaro. Well, you’re never going to get anywhere with that timid attitude. How was he supposed to know you like him? You’re so prickly and stand-offish. A man like Keitaro needs to feel safe before he can open up. He’s a sensitive soul.
“Acting like a some badly written tsundere is only going to cause him to push people away.”
“It wasn’t like I was beating him up for no reason.”
“But you were beating him up. If you’ve damaged his hands, Motoko...” Tsuruko’s implied threat was left to Motoko’s imagination.
“I’m sorry,” the younger sister bowed remorsefully. After a moment, a thought occurred to her. “Wait, there’s only two reasons why you’d abandon your search for Orateki so quickly. Either you’ve fallen in love with Keitaro or you’ve found...”
Tsuruko’s lightning fast reactions came to the fore as she slapped a hand over her sister’s mouth. “If you breathe even one hint of a word of this to anyone, you’ll be back home before your feet touch the ground. Do you understand me?”
Motoko nodded enthusiastically.
“Good. Now, I’ve got to go to Keitaro and make things better.”
Keitaro could feel his stomach somersault as he considered what he’d just learned.
How long had Tsuruko been looking for him? How much of her behaviour had been an act to get close to him?
Who else knew that he was Orateki? How much did Motoko know?
Could he trust Motoko to keep his secret?
If the others knew he was Orateki, what could he do? Where could he flee to?
The knock on the door curtailed further questions and Tsuruko let herself in. Once the door was closed, she fell to her knees and touched her forehead on the floor.
“Please accept my apologies, Keitaro-san. It was never my intention to mislead you or attempt to trick you. It was blind luck that you happened to be the person I was looking for.”
“But what am I supposed to do now?” Keitaro sighed.
“My offer of support would have been made regardless of your reputation, Keitaro-san. That you are... him, is immaterial. However, there is something else you should know.”
“Motoko has an idea about your alter ego.”
“Crap. This is exactly what I wanted to avoid. I can’t tell anyone, or they’ll keep pressuring me. I don’t handle pressure well at the best of times, that’s why I’m a third year ronin,” Keitaro admitted. “The more people know, the more pressure they’ll be. And the more pressure, the harder it is to draw, paint, sketch, whatever.”
As Tsuruko looked up, Keitaro continued his piece.
“The longer it takes for something to come out, the more people expect things, creating more pressure. Soon, the people who dislike what I do will start up again, saying I was a flash in the pan. I can’t win.”
The swordswoman frowned. Keitaro would never win with that line of thinking, but maybe, just maybe with some help, he could see things differently.
After all, even the greatest painters in history had their critics: da Vinci rarely finished anything, Caravaggio would get into brawls at the drop of a hat and a great many of them were unfaithful to their wives.
But what would the best way to get Keitaro off this path of self-doubt and possible self-destruction and back onto a way to more fully realise his potential as an artist?
Tsuruko’s answer was a delicate blend of carrot, stick, diplomacy, outright flattery and, if need be, sexual favours.
“Keitaro-san, if I may...”
Keitaro looked at Tsuruko, still kneeling and felt a pang of guilt. “You shouldn’t be the one apologising like that. It should be me. I... you’re the one with dignity. I’m just some idiot who can move a pencil about better than some.”
“Then let me help you, Keitaro-san. I can’t guide your hand and I might not make a good muse, but I can be your model and I can help you with your day to day life. I might even be able to help you with your studies.”
Keitaro perked up at that idea. “I... I would like that. But what will we tell the others? I don’t want them to know who I am, and you’re too important to help a nobody.”
“I’ll think of something, Keitaro-san,” the swordswoman said with a warm, genuine smile. “Now, let’s see where you got to with your latest drawing, shall we?”
The artist nodded, showing Tsuruko the current state of the sketch.
“You know, Tsuruko-san, this isn’t as bad as I’d feared. Not good enough to sell, but better than I expected. At this rate, I might have something someone would want to buy before the end of the year.”
Tsuruko’s nod was somewhat absent as she looked over the image of her inspecting a sword. To her, it was something to be treasured, regardless of its creator.
Kitsune noticed that Motoko was looking a bit pale after her impromptu training session.
“Is everything alright, Motoko? You look a bit... well, you look like Keitaro after he landed face first into Naru’s laundry.”
The kendoist winced at the mention of Keitaro. “I... I was just taken aback by Aneue’s training session. It was more advanced than I was expecting.”
Kitsune shrugged. She could tell that there was something that Motoko wasn’t telling her, but deemed it unimportant.
“Speaking of Keitaro, how’s he doing? He was a bit upset during lunch.”
“Keitaro’s.... It’s... I...” Motoko struggled to find the right words to describe the situation. “I’m not sure what I can tell you.”
“I don’t know if that sounds serious or sordid,” the ash-blonde smirked. “Your sister does seem to like Keitaro a lot...”
“You’re the one who wanted to pose nude for him,” the kendoist shot back.
“You’ve got a lot to learn about flirting with men, Motoko,” Kitsune said.
“OK, so offering to pose nude for a young man is flirting,” Motoko conceded. “What do you call carrying someone off?”
“That’s usually that start of some kind of sexy role-play game.”
“Then Aneue is in love with Keitaro!” the raven-haired woman exclaimed. “She’s trying to steal him away from m- uh, us!”
Kitsune shook her head. Motoko was just like Naru when it came to jumping to conclusions. “You really think that your sister came up to Tokyo to steal Keitaro? A man she met for the first time a few days ago?”
“Well, the other option was that she found Orateki,” Motoko replied absently.
The ash-blonde blinked. The more that she thought about it, the more she realised that it was possible that Keitaro was the legendary Orateki.
Keitaro was shy and defensive about his drawings. Orateki’s last publicly released artwork was five years ago.
If Keitaro was Orateki, then it would explain why he failed the Toudai entrance exams twice before arriving at the Hinata Sou: He could have been working on some drawings or paintings.
Keitaro didn’t handle pressure very well, and there was a significant pressure that came with being an artist of the renown of Orateki.
Kitsune knew that she had to investigate further, but would have to tread lightly. Naru or Motoko would barge in and demand to know the truth.
Keitaro would either deny it convincingly or buckle. If he buckled, there was no telling what he might do. He could destroy every last sketch in the house and vow to never draw again.
No, Kitsune would have to use finesse to get to the bottom of this mystery.
And even if she was right and Keitaro was Orateki, what would she do with that information? Keitaro valued the anonymity he currently had, revealing his identity would be a massive betrayal.
Would anyone believe her, anyway? Countless con artists had pretended to be famous anonymous artists before, why would they believe her just because she had some sketches that were a bit like Orateki’s?
“I’ll tell you what, Motoko, give me a few days and I’ll see what I can find out. I have few tricks up my sleeve.”
“All right, Kitsune.”
Keitaro sat back, looking at the sketch before him. He wasn’t completely satisfied with it, but there wasn’t much he could to improve upon it without starting again.
He handed it over to Tsuruko. “There, it’s as good as I’m going to make it.”
Tsuruko looked over the sketch and smiled. “It’s beautiful, Keitaro. Thank you.”
The artist breathed a sigh of relief that his first piece was well-received. It turned into a smile when Tsuruko said that she was happy with it the way it was.
“You’re welcome, Tsuruko-san. Just... I... is it alright if I don’t sign it?”
“It’s a sketch from a friend, that’s all anyone needs to know about it. I will treasure it for as long as I can see,” the swordswoman gave a genuine smile.
“Thank you, Tsuruko-san,” Keitaro smiled back. He let out a yawn. “It’s been a while since I’ve drawn anything like that. I’d forgotten how tiring being ‘creative’ can be.”
“Why don’t you take a nap? Get some rest before dinner,” Tsuruko suggested
“Yeah,” the artist nodded before heading to his bed. He slipped his glasses off and within moments of closing his eyes, he was asleep.
The swordswoman smiled before gathering up her prize and leaving Keitaro to get some rest.
Kitsune was thinking about things. Ever since her latest conversation with Motoko, she’d been increasingly curious about what Tsuruko’s intentions towards Keitaro actually were.
It was possible that Tsuruko had fallen in love with Keitaro. Keitaro certainly had a certain charm. But was he charming enough to win someone over after only a few days?
The ash-blonde recalled the wistful way Tsuruko had talked about her husband, implying that he was no longer around. If it had been a while, then Keitaro could be seen as a breath of fresh air to the people Tsuruko normally encountered.
But Motoko had often mentioned that Tsuruko was capable of much cruelty and mockery, so it was possible that she was just having a bit of fun.
Kitsune could not deny that there was fun to be had with Keitaro. A bit of flirting here, a cheeky bit of innuendo there and there was plenty of entertainment to be had.
It was almost certain that Motoko’s first conclusion that Tsuruko was there to arrange a marriage was incorrect. The rich, noble clans that the Aoyamas belonged to certainly had their eccentricities, but seducing a potential fiancé for a sibling while investigating him was pushing it.
So what was the other possibility that Motoko had suggested? That Keitaro was Orateki.
Could it be that Keitaro Urashima was the famous Orateki?
While Keitaro certainly had more artistic talent than most people Kitsune knew, he never acted like he was a famous artist. But then, Orateki never really acted like he was a famous artist, either.
He was always filled with doubt, like Keitaro.
He was uncomfortable being the centre of attention, like Keitaro.
Pure coincidence, the ash-blonde told herself. The similarities between Keitaro and Orateki were the same as Shinobu and Orateki.
“Except that Keitaro clearly has secrets,” she said aloud.
A thought entered Kitsune’s head and she picked up a pencil and a piece of paper. She wrote out Orateki’s name in hiragana and started to rearrange the syllables.
“Of course it’s not making any sense, it’d be too easy,” she laughed at her own foolishness. Glancing at her empty teacup, Kitsune decided that it would be a good idea to have a drink.
Getting up to stretch her legs would be a good idea, she didn’t want to have them cramp up like Tsuruko’s did earlier.
Opening the door to her room, she noticed that Tsuruko was emerging from Keitaro’s room with a broad smile on her face.
If it wasn’t for her relatively pristine appearance, she would have hazarded that the reason for her smile and the faint snoring from Keitaro was an adult encounter.
But there had been no sounds of lovemaking, so unless Keitaro was between Tsuruko’s legs while she silenced herself by biting a pillow, they hadn’t had sex.
Then Kitsune noticed the piece of paper that was clutched tightly to the swordswoman’s chest.
‘That’s the sketch Keitaro did...’
Surprised by the words, but not startled, Tsuruko turned to face the buxom young woman. “Hello, Kitsune. What can I do for your?”
“Can I see your picture? I’m curious as to how good Keitaro is,” the short-haired tenant smiled.
“You can look, but you can’t touch,” the swordswoman warned as she turned the image to face Kitsune.
“Keitaro’s pretty good,” Kitsune said after letting out an impressed whistle. “So, how much did that cost you?”
“It cost me nothing.” Tsuruko pulled the precious artwork to her chest. “But it’s priceless. It’s important to learn the difference between value and cost.”
The ash-blonde could feel the air turn a little chilly with Tsuruko’s comment.
“I didn’t meant to cause offence, I was just curious as to what Keitaro’s commission rates are,” Kitsune insisted. ‘Not even Haruka’s this protective of Keitaro.’
“Keitaro-san is not currently taking commissions, Kitsune.”
“Fair enough. Fancy a drink before dinner? Maybe a quick bath, too? ” the ash-blonde said, flashing a winning smile at the stern-looking swordswoman.
“That’s not a bad idea. Let me put this somewhere safe and I’ll join you,” Tsuruko smiled back, completely changing the atmosphere around them. ‘If she’s with me, she won’t be bothering Keitaro-san.’
Motoko saw that her sister was walking towards the bath with Kitsune.
“Ah, there you, Motoko. Why don’t you join us in the bath?” Tsuruko asked with a warm smile. “I think you need to relax more, especially after your earlier training session.”
“I...” Motoko was trying to think of a reason not to use the bath, especially after Kitsune had promised to investigate Tsuruko’s plan, but was wilting under the glare she was receiving from her older sibling. “I guess I can take the time.”
“Good. Grab your things and join us in the bath.”
Motoko snapped to attention and scurried off to her room for her bathing supplies.
The older Aoyama turned to Kitsune. “I think it might be nice to get to know Naru-san better while we’re all in the bath.”
“Naru’s out at the moment,” the ash-blonde shrugged. It was clear that Tsuruko was planning something, but what?
“You’ve taken quite the shine to Keitaro, haven’t you, Tsuruko-san?” she said.
“There’s something about Keitaro-san that I find uniquely interesting,” the swordswoman replied with a smile on her lips.
Kitsune was now understanding why Motoko felt the way she did about Tsuruko. The older Aoyama was polite, witty, kind, but there was a deviousness that was unsettling.
‘I’m going to have to keep an eye on you, Tsuruko Aoyama...’
Tsuruko cast a critical glace over Kitsune, pondering what the situation with her and Keitaro was.
‘Keitaro wouldn’t have been feeling so down if they were an item. He might not have the motivation to draw, but he’d be feeling better about himself. If they’d been an item and had a breakup, then things would have been a lot more tense and awkward around here. But that would explain Keitaro’s depression...’
Motoko arrived to hear her sister ask, “Kitsune, tell me, were you and Keitaro dating at all?”
To be continued....
There, you're now all up to date with this thing.
As for the questions of when will we see more next and what will happen next, I cannot give you an answer. I might get bored and start writing something else.
I know it's been nearly a year, but what can I say?
I'd apologies for the brevity of this update, but things have been weird for me over the past year.
By Lord Raa
Disclaim-me-do: Logic is no match for good beer.
Motoko Aoyama was not prepared for her sister's question to Kitsune. Though she felt a little relieved when she heard the reply.
“Keitaro and I aren't dating.”
She knew she shouldn't have felt relieved at hearing that, but there was something reassuring to know that Kitsune wasn't having a secret relationship with Keitaro. Not that Kitsune was known for the honesty of her comments.
“I see,” Tsuruko said, a smile forming on her lips.
That comment, however, caused Motoko's relief to rapidly dissipate.
'So Aneue does like Keitaro...'
“Ah, Motoko-han, you've returned,” the widow said, looking over her shoulder. “We can start to relax in the bath.”
The trio relaxed in the hot water wordlessly for a few minutes before Kitsune spoke up.
“So, Tsuruko-san, what are your intentions for Keitaro? You have been spending a lot of time with him lately.”
“To assist him,” the swordswoman answered, her eyes remaining closed. “Why? You said you were dating him, didn't you?”
“I was worried that you might be trying to force your sister into an arranged marriage, that's all,” the short-haired woman replied.
Tsuruko opened her eyes and looked at her fellow bathers. “I don't think that we need to marry Motoko-han off just yet. It's not like we're living during the Warring States, after all.”
Motoko was struggling to relax after that last exchange. Marrying Keitaro wasn't the worst thing that could happen to her, but there was something off-putting by the way her sister was getting close to him. If she was to have a man, she would have him all to herself.
At least, that was how she saw marriage.
“And what are your intentions for Keitaro, Kitsune?” Tsuruko asked.
'Oh, I see what you're trying to do here,' the ash-blonde mused. “Well, I don't know yet. Why? What's it to you?”
“He's quite charming when he's not crippled by self-doubt. I might ask him out on a date myself.”
“You want to date Keitaro?” Motoko blurted out.
“Is it so wrong to want some companionship?” the swordswoman asked, preparing to feign tears.
“No, but you're just swooping in here like you're trying to steal Keitaro away from us!”
“Stealing Keitaro away? Wow,” Tsuruko said looking towards the heavens. “I can't say that's what I had in mind when I came to Tokyo, but I won't deny that it's an idea with merit. Of course, it's not what Keitaro wants, so I may have to put the plans to bundle him into the back of a van on hold.”
Kitsune smirked as she saw Motoko get flustered. “Well, I can certainly understand that. I hear that when men are scared, they can't perform properly.”
Motoko's face turned scarlet.
“We're joking, Motoko-han,” Tsuruko said. “Our personal feelings for Keitaro aside, we do care about him. I know what I would do if things were solely up to me, but they're not, so I have to either adapt my plans or walk away. It's part of being an adult.”
“I.... yes, of course, Aneue.”
“I'm glad we've gotten this cleared up. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to make arrangements for a suitable picture frame. The sketch Keitaro-san did is precious to me.”
By this point, I'm wondering how much does Tsuroko think she can mess with the girls before something happens. Do they get jealous, angry & defensive, or realize who the bigger shark happens to be? :evil: