Salsa's on the trail of a local killer, but why has he been shutting Taketo out of his investigation? Taketo wants answers, but he may not like what he learns. (slash!)
"Taketo-kun, good morning!" Maria Sugitani called as he entered her shop, Luna Rental Pet. Taketo could feel the snap of attention turn his direction, and the faint chorus of Taketo onii-san!/, /Taketo aniki/, /Onii-chaaaan! Then the wild barking cut loose, and the swarm was upon him, dogs of every shape and size, all of which had been running loose in the shop.
"Oh my! They're always so glad to see you," Maria said cheerfully. "They like you and Salsa-kun so much."
"Um, I like them too, Maria-san, but --" Taketo protested, pushing dozens of dog noses away from his crotch. "You guys, cut that out." Down? someone asked, and Yeah, down down down! was the shouted reply. "Hey, wait!" Taketo yelled, but it was too late -- behind him someone had rolled into his ankles, and he upended backward onto the floor. Yes! In an instant, he was covered with squirming, whining bundles of furry enthusiasm, and dog tongues were slobbering all over his face: Taketo onii-sama! Taketo-onii! But it wasn't as deafening as it could be; without Salsa's presence to amplify them into something approximating voice, the thoughts of ordinary animals were always faint to him.
"This really is my morning for spit baths," he said, fending them off. "Guys, what's with you lately? C'mon!"
"You guys," said a flat, feminine voice. "Leave him alone. Now." Taketo peered around a waving tail and saw for the first time that Mirei, Miya Kitahara's wild-half tabby cat, was sitting in the corner in her human form, sporting a shop apron. In one hand, she was waving a kitten, in the other a small feeding bottle that was now pointed at the assembled pack. All of the dogs hastily backed off, the chorus turning to hasty, apologetic /Mirei onee-chan/, /Mirei-sama/, /Onee-san/.
"Taketo, good morning," Mirei said firmly. Then she added, in a musing tone, "Salsa's not with you again? So you've made my Salsa unhappy today?"
"Not, not unhappy exactly," Taketo said, shrinking away. He was used to none of his thoughts being truly private around a wild-half, but Mirei's unholy admiration for Salsa could make life dangerous for anyone who crossed him. But at least Mirei's cat nose wasn't nearly as sensitive as a dog's. "We had a little argument, that's all."
"Oh," Mirei said, digesting that. "Is that all. When aren't you arguing?"
"Yeah, I guess that's true," Taketo said, still backing away.
Mirei turned her attention back to the great dane, one of Maria's more recent adoptees, who was looming over the pen of kittens. This huge dog, Taketo had heard, had been kept far too long leashed in a cramped, fenced area outside an apartment building; he'd taken to menacing the residents, and one day had even tried to attack his owner -- who'd immediately turned the dog over to Maria and walked away without a second glance. "No love lost," Maria had sighed. "But we'll do what we can to find someone who'll take better care of Pocchi-kun."
Unlike Maria with her perpetual optimism, Taketo didn't have high hopes -- the unsuitable name was the least of the dog's problems. He'd not only been subtly bullying the other pets of the shop, but he'd been taking far too much interest in the box of abandoned kittens Maria had brought in two days before. Salsa probably could have knocked some sense into him; but then, Salsa hadn't often been accompanying Taketo these days.
"Pocchi-kun," Mirei said pleasantly, "if you try to eat them, Mirei will eat you." She smiled at him prettily. The dog curled its lip: Thought hadn't crossed my mind. Taketo winced at his arrogant tone.
"Of course not," Mirei said, setting down the bottle. "Everyone loves kittens. In fact, I believe you're going to take special care of these kittens, aren't you?" She glared at the dog, hard: "Because you love kittens, too."
The great dane's expression went briefly panicked and stiff, then lapsed into slack-jawed. Kittens/, he thought. /Kittens are . . . special.
"Yes, that's right, they're so verrry special," Mirei crooned. She shot out a foot and handily knocked the huge dog off his paws. "And now they're verrry sleepy. They need a big, strong pillow to sleep on," she said, and began to pile the kittens on top of him. "Please don't move again until they wake up, Pocchi-kun."
"Uhhh," Pocchi moaned, drooling slightly as one of the kittens batted his nose, and piped Ma ma ma?
Taketo swallowed. Mirei's particular power could be terrifying. "I still don't think that's really the best way to reform someone's character," Taketo said, looking away hastily as Mirei's glare transferred itself to him. /Even though he had it coming/, Taketo had to admit.
"Yes, he /did/," Mirei said, agreeing with the thought. "Speaking of reforming characters, I need to talk to you about my Mistress -- Oh!"
"I'm back now!" Taketo had been saved by the chiming shop bell, as Miya Kitahara herself entered store with an armload of lunchboxes.
"Mistress! Welcome back!" Mirei shouted, scrambling up to hug her. "Let me take those!"
"Mirei," she said, blushing, "but they're not heavy." Then she noticed Taketo: "Oh, Taketo-kun, good morning!" she said, surprised. "I didn't realize you were working today!"
"Good morning, Miya-chan," he said. "I was supposed to come yesterday, but I had to reschedule."
"Salsa's not with you?" she said, looking around.
"Not today," Taketo said, sweating lightly under Mirei's intense scrutiny.
"Well, this works out nicely though," Miya said. "I got a few extras today in case a customer came in over the lunch hour and wanted to stay longer."
"Oh my!" Maria had joined them in the front, and was now saying, astonished, "Pocchi-kun! I had no idea he was fond of kittens!" She dropped to her knees to rub the great dane's ears and praise him lavishly for being such a good dog today. "Oh, this is adorable," she burbled.
"The kittens are, even if their bed isn't," Mirei said in a satisfied tone.
"Taketo-kun," Miya whispered, "Mirei didn't, did she?"
"She totally did," he said.
"Not again," Miya sighed. "I'll talk to her."
Taketo tied on his own shop apron, and repaired to the back room of the shop to get started reorganizing Maria's untidy inventory of supplies. "Everybody out," he shooed at the milling throng of pets who'd insisted on piling after him -- all the dogs, several cats, and a ferret. But Taketo-onii-saaan . . . "Go out front. C'mon, you want families, right? No one's going to notice you if you're hiding back here," he said.
"Get out there you slackers, and be cute for your supper!" Polynesia squawked at them, flapping into the room and coming to a landing squarely on Taketo's head.
"Polynesia," Taketo suggested, "maybe you should go oversee their efforts?"
"Ho, you're not working either, are you?" the parrot accused. "Get crackin'!" He leapt down to Taketo's shoulder and nipped him firmly on the ear, ignoring Taketo's yelps of pain. For the next half-hour, Polynesia swooped about the room from shelf to box to his shoulder, critiquing his paperwork and barking orders as his personal on-site supervisor.
It was a relief when Maria came through the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron. "I'm just getting more water for the rabbits' cage," she said. "Don't mind me, Taketo-kun."
As she filled her pitcher at the sink, Maria said, elaborately casual, "So, Taketo-kun, how is your Onii-san doing this week?"
Taketo blinked. "He didn't call yesterday?"
"Ah, well, yes, Onii-san called," she admitted. "He wasn't very . . . " she chewed on her lip, "oh, how do I put this? He seemed a little incoherent."
Taketo smothered a laugh. His brother's thought processes always collapsed into rubble around Maria. "He's busy with work this week," he said.
"So he said," she said, with a moue of disappointment. "He also canceled our regular drinking party this week with Karasuma-sensei." She added, sadly, "And I was so looking forward to it. I was going to bring Pocchi-kun and Faithful-kun and Momo-kun with me this week. Onii-san loves dogs so much, I know he'd want to meet them."
Taketo choked. "Uh, Maria-san . . ."
"Oi," Polynesia muttered in his ear, "your brother, isn't he the one who --?"
"Hush," Taketo said quickly. "Maria-san, he'll probably have more time next week, but he might be tired. Smaller pets might be all right." /And no dogs ever/, but he couldn't tell her that.
"Yes, that sounds like a good idea," she said. "Pets are so wonderfully therapeutic. Still, I wonder if this work schedule Onii-san's been keeping isn't going to interfere with his love life. We three definitely have to get together next week."
"Eh?" Taketo said, straightening.
"Well," she said, tone practical, "if he doesn't invite Karasuma-sensei over more often, Onii-san will never succeed in getting his attention, will he? Onii-san is so shy!" she said, sighing. "I want to support a resolution for his unrequited love."
Not this again. "Maria-san, I'm pretty certain my brother isn't interested in Karasuma-sensei. Trust me."
"Taketo-kun," she said, "I know such things are difficult to understand -- well, yes, even for me, but . . . Well, one day, you'll see that love can be truly blind." She raised her arm to make a muscle: "Yes! I sincerely believe we must support Toshifumi-san's decision! Let's work hard to help him!" With that, she announced brightly, "And now, on to the rabbit pen!"
She swung open the door to the closet and walked into it.
Toshifumi-san? Taketo blinked. After a few moments, he peered into the closet after her.
She'd come to a complete halt a few steps inside and was staring blindly at the bottles of cleanser on the shelf. Taketo sighed, setting aside his clipboard. He leaned into the closet, snagged the back of her apron and gently tugged her backward into the room. Then he repositioned her until she was pointed toward the front of the shop, and placed the pitcher of water into her hands.
"That's right," he agreed, "the rabbits."
"Rabbits?" She blinked, confused. "Yes, the rabbit pen! I'm going to give them water!" she said cheerfully, striding mechanically toward the front of the shop where the rabbits were currently occupying pride of place that day in the window.
"Oh no, Maria-san, please don't step on the turtle!" came a cry from Miya in front.
Maria's reputation for matching people with compatible pets was unrivaled, but her own personal relationships tended to be a shambles. Partially that was Taketo's brother's fault, he knew. "Right. He says it's none of my business, but if he doesn't do something soon," Taketo muttered to Polynesia, "I'm going to take drastic measures."
"Ha, manly initiative. I approve!" Polynesia said, smacking him with a wing.
"Ow," Taketo grunted.
The rest of his day went by as it usually did, and Taketo was relieved to have the busywork to distract him. But, by the time he was hanging up his apron, he'd returned to considering the problem with Salsa.
That was when Mirei finally pounced.
"Taaaakeeeetoooo!" she said, backing him into the corner.
"Mirei," he said, "I was just going home, I really need to --"
"You really need to ask out my Mistress -- my, my /sister/, I mean," she corrected herself hastily, as Maria walked in to join them.
"Taketo-kun," Maria said, "isn't it time for you to leave now?"
"Yes!" Taketo agreed, sliding along the wall. "I was just going!"
"After he talks to me," Mirei added smoothly, snagging him by the tail of his jacket and hauling him back.
"Fine, fine," Maria said, "I was just checking in case you'd lost track of time. I'm sure Salsa-kun's waiting for you."
"I'm sure he is, too," Taketo said, not sure of it at all.
"We'll only be a moment, Maria-san," Mirei insisted, smiling innocently and wrestling him into the back room.
/No, Maria-san, don't leave me/, Taketo wept to himself, as Mirei shoved him against the wall.
"What's with the sobbing?" Mirei said testily. "I just want to talk to you." She glared at him, eyes wide. "You really want to talk to me, don't you?"
"That doesn't work on me," he reminded her.
"Hmph. There's always a first time," she said.
/That's what I'm sort of afraid of/, Taketo thought, sweating lightly. "Listen, Mirei --"
"No, you listen. My Mistress likes you!"
"And I like Miya-chan," Taketo assured her. "She's a terrific person. It's just --"
"It's just what? If you like her, then why haven't you asked her out? Coward," Mirei snapped. She grabbed Taketo's collar in her fist, and began to smack Taketo's face back and forth, saying. "She's been waiting . . . for you . . . to ask her out . . . on a date! I'm sure of it!"
"You are?" Taketo said, cheeks stinging.
Mirei frowned. "I . . . I am, yes. I'm sure. That's what she wants."
"You've asked her, then," Taketo said.
"I don't have to ask," Mirei said. "She's my Mistress -- I /know/."
Mirei and Taketo both froze. Mirei looked cautiously behind her, and cringed. "Mistress?"
"Mirei," Miya-chan said, astonished, "what are you doing back here?"
"Nothing!" Mirei said. "I was just having a little chat with Taketo." She stepped back hastily and began to yank on his shirt to straighten it out.
"Mirei, you're not trying to . . ." Miya flushed a deep, painful shade of red, and slumped. "Not again."
"Mistress," Mirei said, horrified. "No, I just wanted to give you, I mean, it's not what you're thinking . . ."
Taketo took pity on her. He cleared his throat, "Uh, Miya-chan, really she just wanted to talk to me again about all of us going out clubbing next week."
Mirei stared at him, and Miya looked up. "What?" she said. "All of us?"
"Um, yeah," Taketo said, shooting Mirei a significant look. "Or as many people as I can find who are home for break. A, uh, friend of mine from out of town is staying over at my place right now, and I promised him that we'd take him out. I'd mentioned it to Mirei before you showed up this morning, but we hadn't really discussed it yet."
"Oh," Miya said, blushing and raising a hand to her cheek. "I've never been out to a dance club before."
"Never?" Taketo said, surprised. Then he recalled that Miya had only regained her sight a few years before; she'd yet to shed most of her reclusive habits, in spite of having a radical extrovert like Mirei for a cat. "Would you like to go, then?" he said.
"Well," she said hesitantly. "If, if Mirei wanted to go . . ."
"Mistress!" Mirei said, eyes shining. She clutched Miya's hands. "I want to go with you! Anywhere you want to go!"
"But I don't know what to wear to that kind of place," Miya said diffidently.
"I'll take care of it!" Mirei said. "Mistress, please leave it to me! You'll look totally hot."
"But everything you wear is so . . . so tight and revealing, Mirei," Miya said, blushing. "I couldn't possibly --"
"I'll let the two of you work it out," Taketo said, backing off. If Miya went along, they definitely needed Mirei as her bodyguard, he thought. "The guy we're taking is a little under the weather right now, but he should be feeling better by next week. We can settle on an evening later, okay?"
"Rose," Mirei purred, wrapping her arms around her, "would look so sexy on you, Mistress. Off the shoulder."
"Oh, Mirei. Do you think so? But I don't know . . ."
Taketo slipped out of the store and headed for home.