Ren was used to his mother commanding him to turn up for a meal. It was her way of assuring herself that he was well, although she would never admit it.
Today, it was brunch on a terrace overlooking an impressive view. A table which was strategically located in a corner.
"You should let me pick the place one day," he teased as he sat down.
Keiko pursed her lips. "Never."
"Come on, mom. Don't you trust me taste?" Ren grinned.
She said enigmatically, "For today, we need a little privacy."
She looked past him and gestured to someone.
Ren's eyes nearly bulged when he saw who was walking towards their table.
After that eventful weekend, Ren had forgotten all about Kozuka.
However, Kozuka certainly didn't forget about him.
"What is he doing here?" he demanded in heated whisper.
His mother sipped her tea with nonchalance. "I received an interesting call from young Kozuka. He wanted to speak to me."
"About what?" Ren was incredulous.
"You, apparently." She gave him a pointed look. "So you may as well be here."
Ren glared but reined in his temper. His initial shock replaced by fury.
Kozuka was also surprised to see him. He bowed to Keiko and took a seat.
"I hadn't expected to see you here," Kozuka admitted with a smile that was too easy.
"Me neither," Ren responded coolly.
"Your concerns over the phone were unexpected," Keiko began smoothly. "I thought it would be best if we discuss it openly. It concerns my son's well-being, after all."
Suspicion crossed Kozuka's face briefly but then his eyes lit in understanding. Ren wanted to throw him over the rails if he could.
But he didn't want to give Kozuka the satisfaction of seeing how furious he was.
Ren took a leaf out of Shinobu's book and schooled his features into calm composure. The things one could pick up by living with a person for years.
"So, about this young man you were telling me about," Keiko leaned back and prompted.
Ren's mind raced when he realized where this was going. But he kept his mouth shut. For now.
Kozuka gave him an apologetic look and launched into a freaking sermon.
"It's not my place to say this. But as a family friend, I must. Kurosawa Shinobu's background is suspect at best. And I don't want him to take advantage of Fujiwara."
"What the hell is wrong with you." Ren was aghast.
Kozuka had the gall to look guilty. "I'm sorry. It's not pleasant but I mean well."
Ren's mother interrupted, "Background?"
"Yes, a few arrests in his youth," Kozuka replied.
"That was years ago. In high school," Ren clarified grittily.
"Also, he's an orphan," Kozuka added. "No way of knowing his parentage."
"That's not a crime in this country," Ren somehow managed to keep his volume down.
"I see," Keiko looked thoughtful. "And now?"
"He's a good person," Ren snapped. "And that's the end of this conversation."
His mother sighed.
Kozuka took it as a sign of disapproval on her part. "Employed but he keeps questionable company."
The man should write novels for a living. He could certainly weave a fiction.
"How surprising," Keiko murmured and lifted her cup again.
Ren nearly shouted at her. He couldn't believe that Kozuka had stooped to this level. Most of all, he was livid that his mother appeared to contemplate the lies fed to her.
He tossed the napkin on the table and stood up. "This is bullshit. I'm leaving."
"Stay," Keiko ordered. "You will want to."
She looked up at him and there was steel in her eyes. Ren glanced down and saw her hand clasped over his. Firm and warm.
"Please," she added.
Something was off. He sat back down out of confusion.
Kozuka sounded awkward and deprecating when he spoke again. "It seems that I have caused a friction. My apologies, madam. Should I leave-?"
"Not at all," Keiko's pleasant expression did not change. "Ren has always done things his own way."
Her phone on the table blinked and she opened it to read a message, whilst continuing in a conversational tone, "In fact, I expressed the same reservations about Kurosawa before. But Ren never did listen to me."
Ren frowned as anger began to well up again.
"Looks like you've always been headstrong," Kozuka gave him a glance. Ren shook his head in disgust.
"Perfect timing," Keiko murmured at the message on her phone. She put it down and addressed Kozuka again. "I appreciate you being this forthcoming."
Before Kozuka could say anything else, she continued, "But this ends here."
Ren was startled. Kozuka's face froze.
Keiko's voice hardened, "In fact, I won't tell your mother about this despicable behaviour. Poor Ayumi would be appalled."
"But I-" Kozuka protested, taken aback by the sudden turn of events.
"Mom," Ren looked at her in wonder.
She casted him a brief smile and averted her eyes beyond their table. "Ah, there he is."
Ren followed her gaze and saw Shinobu approaching them. He didn't give away any of his thoughts. But Ren knew every curve of that face and there it was, a tightening of his jaw at the sight of Kozuka.
Shinobu took the last seat available, across his mother and between Ren and Kozuka.
He glanced at Kozuka. Hostility was an understatement.
"Apologies, I'm late," he told Ren's mother. His gaze guarded, but steady and calm.
In any other circumstance, Ren would have been proud. Not many people could look in his mother's eyes and not waver.
Now he wondered if two of the most important people in his life (apart from Aunt Minami) was going to have a showdown.
"You have impeccable timing," she commented. A small nod of acknowledgement.
"Shin," Ren began, unsure where this was all going now. Shinobu simply reached out and held his hand on the table.
Kozuka exploded. "What's the meaning of this? I thought-"
Keiko cut him frostily, "This? The three of us are having a family meal."
Then to Shinobu, she added wryly, "All these years. It's about time."
Ren almost dropped his jaw. Shinobu stared at her, genuinely shocked. They gave each other a look which only amplified the momentous occasion.
A bubble of pride, affection and gratitude erupted within Ren.
Always a talkative one, he could only manage, "Mom."
She smiled, sly and pleased.
Shinobu recovered first and informed Kozuka coolly, "She did say it is for the three of us."
Kozuka glared at him and then the rest of them. He hissed, "You'll regret this. Inviting a nobody into your family."
Ren said sweetly, "As opposed to somebody with no sense of decency?"
His mother simply opened the menu and started leafing through.
Kozuka was too flustered to speak. He stood up and nearly toppled the chair. Without as much as a glance backward, he fled the terrace.
A stunned silence fell upon them. A few other diners gave them speculative glances.
Ren didn't care. He stood up and hugged his mother.
"You're the best!" he whispered.
"Enough," she admonished. "Don't make a fuss."
He obeyed but flashed her a boyish grin.
Shinobu watched them. As if he couldn't quite fathom the situation.
The enormity of the gesture from Ren's mother overwhelmed Shinobu. When he received the message from her in the morning to turn up, alone and without telling Ren, he believed that he was in for a rough ride.
Family. How the hell did he, of all people, manage to find that?
When he finally found his voice, Shinobu could only say quietly, "Thank you."
Keiko nodded. "You're welcome."
Ren nearly melted.
She cleared her throat and asked, "Well, what should we have, boys? The full set?"
"Definitely," Ren decided without hesitance.
He smiled at Shinobu, bright and joyous.
Felt his heart sprung when Shinobu returned it.
Eventually, his mother smiled too.
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