The moment he stepped out from the air-conditioned store, Yokozawa Takafumi’s entire body was wrapped up in sticky, heavy air. The hot days had been piling up since July had started, but today was particularly nasty. Only a few days before, he’d grown unable to bear it anymore and shifted his wardrobe to short-sleeved shirts for the summer, but walking around outside for any length of time had him dripping in sweat.
His suit jacket, draped across his left arm, hadn’t touched his body once the whole day, and while he was now free from the blazing sun with evening setting in, the humidity still made it difficult to breathe.
At this rate, he was worried how August would turn out; he was already fed up with this heat that was setting temperature records left and right this year.
“Man, I need a beer!”
“Yeah, let’s hit up a beer garden!”
A group of businessmen seemingly on their way home from the office passed in front of Yokozawa, their conversation a perfect lens for his own thoughts. Swallowing the temptation, though, he instead took out his cell phone and placed a call to the office.
“Yes, this is the Marukawa Shoten Sales Department.”
The perky voice of his subordinate floated over the receiver. Given the background noise, he was able to divine that most of his coworkers were still at the office. “Henmi? It’s Yokozawa.”
“Ah, excellent work today!”
“I just finished up at the book store. Did anything happen while I was out?”
“No, not particularly. How are things on your end?”
“Got ‘em to agree to help out with the fair. I’ll get you the details early next week. I don’t have anything else I need to get done today, so I’m gonna head straight home. Would you mind noting it on the board?” It was well past quitting time, and he didn’t have any drinking sessions scheduled with his superiors or clients.
“Well then, I’m off.” He cut the line with Henmi here and tugged on his tie to loosen it as he headed toward the station.
While he’d said he was heading straight home—he wasn’t actually heading to his own apartment, and as he snapped his phone shut, he suddenly remembered being told to call when he was through with work.
They were headed in the same direction, so Yokozawa didn’t really see the point, honestly, in meeting up halfway there—but it would be pathetic having to deny it when the guy inevitably teased him with a smirk, What, too embarrassed to head home together?, and he was left feeling undecided. With a bit of hesitation, he dialed up the number on his phone, and after a few rings, the line connected.
He always worried how best to start their phone conversations these days. Sure, he probably should’ve greeted the guy just like he would with any work-related call, but even that was still a little awkward for some reason. Naturally, he used polite speech, as expected, during meetings and the like—nothing had changed in the way they spoke to one another under such circumstances. But calling up Kirishima for a private conversation like this still left him with a sense of unease.
“Good work today. You finished?”
“Yeah; we actually finished quicker than I expected.”
The voice on the other end of the line was that of Kirishima Zen, the editor-in-chief of Monthly Japun. Kirishima was the managing editor for Ijuuin Kyou, the mangaka who gave life to Marukawa Shoten’s above-and-beyond bombastic sales hit, Za Kan. One couldn’t help but be impressed with not only his prowess as an editor himself but also as an editor-in-chief with the charisma to pull together a team of such individualistic editors. While Yokozawa did admittedly think the guy was occasionally too overeager when it came to his work, it was likely that very quality that had these fussy authors placing their utmost faith in him—and while Yokozawa had never been able to bring himself to say as much, he held the utmost respect for the guy when it came to his career.
People often said that God never granted anyone two gifts—but when it came to Kirishima, he’d not only been blessed with an immaculate work ethic but also equally pleasing packaging. With height to rival Yokozawa’s, a fresh, shapely face, and a decently balanced body, he possessed a youthful air that often made it difficult to peg him as the mid-30s he was in age—and Yokozawa had never, not once, seen him ruffled at work, always surrounded by an air of complete control. And lately…he’d started to realize how coolly and calmly beautiful that voice was that fell from those slender lips—irritating as it was, there was no arguing that that voice whispering by his ear went right to his hips.
…Still, the guy was far from perfect. In fact, if Yokozawa had to pick one thing he couldn’t stand, it would have to be that personality.
While he rarely showed it on the surface, Kirishima had some annoying little hobbies and was unabashed in the fact that, I love teasing proud people. Yokozawa had apparently been a target of such teasing and occasionally found himself being ‘toyed’ with. Still, despite knowing full well that he was simply being played with because of how he overreacted, Yokozawa’s undoing was his complete inability to keep a poker face in such situations.
Kirishima, to his credit, at least seemed to understand his limits, and he never made any moves or said anything to truly piss off Yokozawa, which essentially left Yokozawa as the perfect toy, finding himself unable to really get angry with Kirishima.
It had been five months prior that he’d first started to get close to Kirishima in this way. Before then, they’d never even spoken outside of work, and even now Yokozawa occasionally reflected how strange their current relationship was in that respect.
It had been a broken heart that brought him and Kirishima together.
After having his long unabandoned feelings soundly put to an end, Kirishima had appeared just as he was settling in to feeling sorry for himself. While there was still a lot he didn’t remember about that night, he believed it was because Kirishima had been there for him that he’d managed to get through it without completely snapping. It was mortifying now, remembering how he’d let himself get wasted to try and escape the pain—but he consoled himself by reminding himself that the fact that he could feel that way period was in itself a sign of how much he’d recovered.
“You certainly sound happy; did something good happen?”
The low voice floating over the receiver ghosted over his eardrum—speaking with Kirishima on the phone like this was…strange, almost like having the guy right there, whispering into his ear. He’d never felt like this in phone conversations before—and he couldn’t decide if it was because it was Kirishima speaking or the way he was speaking that was doing it. Plus—it was hardly something he could get another’s opinion on, so he couldn’t even determine if it was just himself left feeling this way or what.
“Actually—the shop was totally on-board with putting on that fair. It was all thanks to you that it went so smoothly. You really helped me out.” Indeed, the reason the shop had agreed to go through with it had been wholly because he’d been able to secure a firm promise of cooperation from the author regarding autographed books, illustrations to be used for goods, and new work excerpts—and working all of that into the schedule of the moody, dizzyingly busy author had been solely Kirishima’s doing.
Yokozawa knew that even if he hadn’t stepped in to ask for the fair, the work would have sold perfectly well—but as a salesman, his priority was always to sell more. Sitting around doing nothing when there was room for growth was just careless—that was how the salesman in Yokozawa saw it.
“I didn’t do anything; this is all happening because of the author’s cooperation and your hard work. Good for you.”
“All—all I did was what I was supposed to do.” People rarely praised Yokozawa like this. While he knew he worked twice as hard as anyone else and had the results to prove it, he probably wasn’t exactly the type of person who invited such compliments. But Kirishima tossed out comments like that without a second thought, so straightforward it actually made the other party feel embarrassed instead. Yokozawa wondered if he’d ever grow used to that aspect of his personality.
“Geez, haven’t I told you to just take your compliments like a man? Or what—do you want me to tease you, then?”
“Who the hell said that? Fine, whatever—I’ll take what I can get.” Why couldn’t he just say thank you? Sometimes he acted like a stubborn little grade-schooler—the realization of which did absolutely nothing to spur him into action, unfortunately.
Working hard was a given; it wasn’t as if he was doing this job because he craved recognition. Still…getting that recognition was kind of nice—and that it came from someone he himself respected? Even better.
“So what now? You coming back here?” Kirishima didn’t seem bothered in the least by Yokozawa’s contrary response, and while Yokozawa had often wondered if such reactions were because he could see right through Yokozawa to his true nature, he’d chalked that up to being overly self-conscious. It was likely simply a matter of not being worth the effort of pursuing to Kirishima.
“No; I’m heading straight home now. I can probably make it in about a half an hour…?”
“Then—how about we meet at the convenience store in front of the station by my place? I’m about to leave the office myself. You’ll probably get there first, so wait for me?”
Having decided where to meet, Yokozawa ended the conversation, arriving at the nearest station just as he turned off his phone. These days, he spent his weekends at the Kirishimas’ apartment, and while he didn’t much like the idea of overstaying his welcome, he found himself always nodding his assent whenever Kirishima’s daughter Hiyori would see him off with, “See ya next time!”
Yokozawa’s cat Sorata had been the reason he’d started spending so much time there; when Sorata had been sick, Hiyori had somehow been charged with looking after him, which had subsequently led to Yokozawa also finding himself in their care. Since then, Sorata had taken to Hiyori remarkably well, and now he was a permanent fixture in the Kirishima home; when he greeted Yokozawa at the door these days, he looked like he had the total run of the place.
After picking up a treat for Hiyori from the underground shopping area, Yokozawa headed for the train platforms, stepping into a car that was jam-packed with commuters headed home in the evening rush. Angling himself to keep the treat he’d just bought from being crushed, he managed to find a spot between two other travelers—and while it wasn’t a full car, it was fairly impossible to move without jostling anyone else, leaving Yokozawa feeling that it might have been more comfortable to be stuffed in a sardine can.
The air-conditioner was probably on, but given the sheer mass of humanity packed into the car, it was humid and suffocating. Yokozawa, being a good head taller than most others around him, had an easier time breathing, but it did nothing to change how hot it was. He reached up to grab hold of one of the bars hanging down from a strap to help keep himself from swaying with the train, and spotted a young woman standing just diagonal to him with a sullen expression.
Perhaps she was just feeling ill from the heat; she was clinging tightly to the railing next to the door, and her face was stiff. Reflecting that it would have been fine, likely, had she had just a little more room to breathe around her, Yokozawa only belatedly noticed the real reason the young woman looked so pale.
A man—a businessman, from the looks of him—was standing just behind her, leaning against her far more than could be naturally expected in such a situation, and with each sway of the train, he leaned in all the more, subtly brushing along her the hand he had casually settled at his side.
From Yokozawa’s angle, it was difficult to see clearly—and since he hadn’t obviously witnessed a crime, he wasn’t quite sure how to raise his voice—until he caught the man sliding his hand slowly along the young woman’s thigh.
“…Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” The moment he witnessed such a cowardly act, anger welled up within him, and he shoved aside the other passengers to twist the man’s hand out of the way.
“Wha—what’s the meaning of this?!” The car erupted into murmurs before immediately quieting down again, and the other passengers held their breath in silent watch as Yokozawa confronted the man.
Caring little about their gawking stares, Yokozawa narrowed his eyes and spit out, “That’s what I’d like to know. You were just feeling up this young woman, weren’t you?”
“Of—of course not! I’ll thank you not to make such wild accusations!”
“Then how about we ask her? If that wasn’t the case, I’ll gladly apologize—so? Did he touch you?”
“Yes, he…he did…” Her voice was little louder than a buzzing mosquito, but it was a clear confession, and she cut a glare at the man through eyes clouded over with fear and anger.
Now it was the man’s turn to flush pale, and perhaps having determined that things were about to get much worse with his victim’s confession just now, the man began babbling out stubborn excuses, eyes swimming. “The—the train was just really packed, and I accidentally touched her, that was all! I didn’t do it on purpose!”
“If it wasn’t on purpose, how the hell did I manage to spot your hand from where I was standing? Sounds a little strange, doesn’t it? Either way—you’re getting off at the next station.”
“Like I said—there were reasons for—”
“—And I’ll be happy to listen to them. Could I get you to get off at the next station as well…?”
The train drew to a stop a moment later, and Yokozawa dragged the man onto the platform. However, while the passengers who’d ridden with them gave them a wide berth as they disembarked, the passengers from surrounding cars who had no idea of the situation began to flood in around them, and Yokozawa tried to drag the man to the far end of the platform so as not to obstruct the flow.
“Let me go—!!”
“Oww! Hey, WAIT!”
In the one moment that he let himself get distracted by the crowd around them, the man seized his chance, scratching harshly at the back of Yokozawa’s hand and throwing off the arm that held him fast as he made a break for it. Making every effort to lose himself in the crowd, he quickly faded further and further away from Yokozawa.
“You bastard—we’re not through yet!” Flustered, Yokozawa tried to chase him down, but he was thwarted by the crowd and quickly lost sight of the man. He tried to force his way through the crowd flowing in from the direction the man had disappeared, but it would be impossible to catch him under these circumstances.
“Shit.” He gave up attempting to chase down the groper and instead headed back to where he’d left the young woman. “I’m sorry…I let him get away.” Maybe he’d been a professional criminal, given how good he’d been at escaping. If Yokozawa hadn’t released his grip back then, the guy wouldn’t have been able to get away so easily, and Yokozawa silently reprimanded himself for being so naive.
“Oh, no! It was more than enough that you helped me! It’s pathetic, but I just couldn’t bring myself to raise my voice at him and…”
“Well you were scared, I’m sure. I only wish I’d noticed sooner.”
“No, no. Really—you saved me! Thank you so much!”
It was a bit unnerving the way she kept bowing her head to him, and given that he hadn’t even been able to apprehend the perpetrator, he didn’t feel as if he’d done anything particularly deserving of thanks. “C’mon, lift your head. You should probably let the station attendants know what happened. If you don’t feel up to going alone, then I can come wi—what’s wrong? Do I have something on my face?”
The woman, who’d been staring at Yokozawa, hesitantly asked, “I…I’m sorry if I’m mistaken, but are you by any chance…Yokozawa-san of Marukawa Shoten?”
He froze up when she pegged both his name and place of work. “I am… Have we met somewhere before?” There was no way he knew any women this young.
At his suspicious expression, the young woman immediately clarified, flustered, “Ah, I work part-time at Books Marimo! I’ve actually seen you several times…”
“Oh, I see.”
Being the leading large-scale book seller in the city, Books Marimo employed a number of workers, including part-timers. While Yokozawa mainly associated with the employees in charge of specific genres, with little interaction with the other employees, it wasn’t strange for those others to recognize him.
“Oh, I’m sorry! I’m Matsumoto—I mainly work the register, so we’ve never actually spoken…”
“Not at all, my apologies.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you from Yukina-kun! He told me you were a first-rate salesman!”
“D—did he now…” He was getting compliments left and right today, and being so exposed to something he wasn’t used to was throwing him off. Unsure of how best to respond, his reactions were coming off dubious. Though he was more than a little curious as to just what sorts of rumors were floating around the bookshop about him, he opted not to pursue the conversation.
“Again, thank you so much for today! Ah—umm, if it’s all right, please let me thank you properly some other time!”
“Don’t worry about it. I only did what I should.” Not to mention he’d let the perpetrator get away, which was hardly something worth being thanked over. He appreciated the sentiment, but it still felt awkward; however, despite his efforts to politely turn her down, Matsumoto was clearly not satisfied with leaving things as they were.
“But—I just can’t accept that… I mean, I can’t do much, but if it’s not an inconvenience…” She trailed off, clinging fervently to a please, and Yokozawa finally offered a suggestion of his own.
“Then I’d appreciate it if you’d just sell a ton of Marukawa’s books; that way, my rank will go up. But—shouldn’t we go make that report now?”
“Oh, right!!” She jumped right on to the new topic of conversation, relieving Yokozawa. He was naturally thrilled she wanted to express her gratitude, but he couldn’t bring himself to presume upon a younger woman in any way.
“Then, shall we go?” The platform had emptied of most people while they’d been conversing, and together with Matsumoto, they headed for the ticket gates.
“Damn, I’m late…”
He’d said he’d only take a half hour to get there, but nearly one hour had elapsed since he’d spoken to Kirishima on the phone. Accompanying Matsumoto to make her incident report to the station staff had taken longer than he’d expected, but after explaining the details of the incident, they’d been informed that he bore a strong resemblance to the suspect of other recent complaints, and that an investigation was currently underway. Such a base, cowardly criminal deserved to be caught as quickly as possible, and it made Yokozawa regret letting him go all the more, but there was little left to do besides leave it to the professionals.
Yokozawa dashed through the ticket gates and darted up the stairs, and as he drew close to the convenience store near the station, he found Kirishima waiting for him while reading at the magazine stand.
“Sorry I’m la—wait, what are you reading…?”
“Monthly Japun. This month’s issue is particularly good!”
“I already read the preview edition last week. And—you’re one of the people who make the damn thing; what’s the point of reading it now?” They checked all the nooks and crannies that readers would never even consider before sending it to print; Yokozawa could see no point in reading it at a magazine stand.
“I figure maybe I’ll notice something by reading it from a different angle from usual.”
“You think so?”
“Well—I’m at least satisfied there were no misprints. I’m gonna go buy some milk; wait here for me.” He returned the issue of Japun to its place and headed over to the drink area. Just when he’d thought the guy had a decent point…he’d been kind of shocked to realize he was just checking for misprints.
Waiting for Kirishima to finish checking out, Yokozawa swept his eyes over the magazine stand. Perhaps because it was the release date, there was a rather large stack of marriage-related magazines lined up with the words ’RE-MARRIAGE SPECIAL EDITION’ in large letters. The reason a magazine regarding marriage information piqued his interest now when before he wouldn’t have given it a second thought…may have been due to the silent pressure he was receiving lately from his parents.
More than half of his friends from high school were married now, and no small number of them had children as well. Every time he received New Years cards with pictures on them, he couldn’t help being surprised at how quickly everyone was growing up. His parents had probably mostly given up on their son who’d never had a serious relationship in his life. They weren’t pushing Yokozawa in any particular way, but he knew they felt a bit jealous every time a postcard arrived letting them know one of his friends had had a baby.
And he was all but certain that the reason he felt so guilty seeing his mother like that was because he knew fully well that he wouldn’t be able to paint for his parents the future he knew they wanted.
As he released a quiet sigh, Kirishima drew up behind him, having finished checking out. “Sorry for the wait.”
“Oh, no; I was the one who made you wait, after all. You should’ve just left me a message and headed home.”
“Nah, no big deal, seeing as I’d just gotten here myself—but did something happen? Your train wasn’t late or anything, right?”
“Actually, you see…”
Yokozawa belatedly spilled the full details of the situation as they left the convenience store and headed to Kirishima’s apartment. When he brought up the cowardly actions of the groper, Kirishima’s expression darkened into one of grim anger.
“That’s just unforgivable.”
“Right? And well, the blood rushed to my head and before I knew it, I’d grabbed the guy.”
“Sounds like something straight out a television show, yanno? And while I’d be happy for all those perverts to drop dead, I gotta admit I wish I could’ve seen your gallant figure~”
“If you’d been there, you probably would’ve made a move before I could and beaten the shit out of him before the police even arrived.” Kirishima could definitely seem pretty easygoing at first glance, but the fact that he was a father, with a daughter of his own, imbued him with a strong sense of justice. It was only after entering into a relationship with Kirishima in this way that Yokozawa really noticed how fired up he could get.
“Hey, don’t be rude—there’s no way I’d do something as stupid as resort to violence. I’d probably just give him a stern talking-to, to make sure he learned his lesson.” Yokozawa wondered in the back of his mind if ‘stern talking-to’ in fact meant ‘threat’, but he let it pass. “…Hey, what happened there?”
It wasn’t a serious wound, but it was hardly pleasant having Kirishima notice the proof of Yokozawa’s disgrace, and he tried to casually hide it—but Kirishima snapped out a hand and gripped him. “It’s just—that asshole pervert scratched me up when he bolted. I lost him in the crowd.”
When Yokozawa reluctantly explained the details, Kirishima’s expression immediately turned dangerous. “Fucking bastard… If I’d been there, he wouldn’t have had the balls to try and make a break for it. Make sure you disinfect that when we get home.”
A chill shuddered down Yokozawa’s spine at the cold words; it was hard to tell just how serious Kirishima was being right now. In a desperate effort to dispel the heavy atmosphere, Yokozawa blithely changed subjects: “Oh, so—the chick I helped out? Turns out she works part-time at Books Marimo. Apparently she’d seen me in the shop before, but I was kind of shocked to find out she recognized me.”
“Small world, huh.”
“Well, I was on my way home from Marimo, so I guess it wasn’t all that much of a coincidence.” He’d been a bit unsettled when she’d spoken his name, but on hearing her explanation, he could understand it. She’d probably just finished her own shift when Yokozawa had left the store. Given how much the sales reps for the publishing companies stand out, it was hardly strange for him to be recognized by unrelated store staff.
“If this were a manga—that’d be a big red flag, you know. You sure she didn’t fall for you?”
He let out a snort of laughter at Kirishima’s words. “Of course not.” He’d be in a lot of trouble if people were prone to falling for him just for that kind of thing. She’d simply been presuming upon his kindness in a difficult situation, that was all.
“She didn’t ask for your phone number or anything, right?”
“She didn’t. We just made small talk on the way back, like what’s selling well right now, her coworkers, that kind of thing.”
“You came here together?”
“Her nearest station was one station over. She’d just been through something traumatic—I couldn’t let her get on a packed train all by herself.” She’d seemed like a really quiet girl initially, but once she got started on a book she liked, it was hard to stop her. Perhaps she’d just been thrilled to learn that her favorite authors was also one of Yokozawa’s, but she’d seemed to enjoy herself quite a bit when giving her thoughts on the most recently released volume. It had just been a pointless little conversation, but if indulging her meant that she could forget what she’d just been through for even a moment, then it had been worth it. “She said she wanted to thank me, too, but I couldn’t let a girl younger than me do that kind of thing, so I just told her to make sure she sells a ton of Marukawa Shoten titles. The very model of a salesman, aren’t I?”
“Well I’m sure she’s enthusiastic in her work and all—but you said she worked the register, didn’t you? I’m sure she’ll do her best—but it’s hardly anything she has power over.”
At Kirishima’s incisive comment, Yokozawa clammed up—when he’d made the suggestion, he hadn’t thought about that at all.
“…But, she might get her own section some day,” he returned spitefully. Sure—if she worked there long enough, she could feasibly be placed in charge of somewhere other than the register. Even if it wasn’t a comics-related area, so long as she promoted Marukawa Shoten’s books, that was enough.
“Sure—she might do her best if it’s for you.”
He furrowed his brow at the insinuation in Kirishima’s words. “What’s that supposed to mean? If you’ve got something you want to say, come out and say it!” Maybe it was just his imagination, but Kirishima’s manner of interaction seemed a bit different from usual today.
“…It’s nothing. Geez, I’m starving! C’mon—Hiyo’s waiting up for us, so let’s get going.”
“Hey—don’t try to change the subject!”
“What do you think we’ll have for dinner tonight?” Yokozawa was left unable to pin down the source of his misgivings when the subject was quickly changed. Granted, it was hardly rare for Yokozawa to find himself at the mercy of Kirishima’s conduct in this manner, and if he picked fights over every little thing, there’d be no end to it. That he changed the subject so abruptly meant Kirishima didn’t want to discuss the matter any further.
It was hard to get a grasp on Kirishima’s feelings, given that he so rarely let himself get ruffled, and Yokozawa released a small sigh at Kirishima’s profile, a perfect poker face.
“Hiyo—you’re sleepy, aren’t you? I’ll finish up here, so you head on to bed,” Yokozawa urged, standing in the kitchen washing dishes before handing them off to be dried by Hiyori.
“I’m still okay! There’s only a little bit left, so I’ll stick with it til we’re done.”
“You’ve been yawning like crazy for a while now—don’t push yourself. You’ve got your eyes half-closed already.” As he pointed this out with a laugh, Hiyori reached up and rubbed her eyes—but a child’s fatigue can’t be dispelled so easily, and she let out another great yawn.
“Aah…AH!” Hiyori immediately looked embarrassed at the reflex she hadn’t been able to hold down, and the adorable way she tried to hide her open mouth with both hands slapped to her face drew more laughter.
Hiyori had just entered the 5th grade at school this past Spring, and given that she was the child of a single parent, she was generally remarkably well put-together; however, when she made a face like that, it was clear how much of a child she still was.
“I’ve got this handled; go get Sorata and head to your room.”
“Mmmkay, then would you mind?”
“Sure, leave it to me. I’ll make sure everything’s put away, so don’t you worry.”
“Okay! G’night, Oniichan!”
Hiyori ran over to pick up Sorata, who’d been curled up on the couch, and wobbled on unsteady feet into her room. Yokozawa watched her leave with a soft smile before setting the last of the dishes into the dish rack.
“Now then…” He wiped down his wet hands with a towel and replaced the dishes Hiyori had already dried into the cupboard in the dining room. Sliding the glass door shut on the case, Yokozawa’s eye was drawn to the small, simply designed altar next to the cupboard.
It was a shrine for Kirishima’s dead wife, Sakura.
He’d heard that she’d died after her health declined following Hiyori’s birth—nothing more, and he couldn’t possibly ask further, either. The lovely woman in the pictures he saw looked just like Hiyori—in one, she was situated next to Kirishima, grinning brightly, as she held a tiny newborn Hiyori in her arms in a hospital room.
He knew they still left flowers for her, but beyond that, he’d never heard a word about her from Kirishima’s mouth—which was only natural, but he couldn’t fathom what on earth he had in common with the woman smiling in the picture frame.
He didn’t want to press about Kirishima’s past, of course, but…seeing this shrine day after day now, he couldn’t help the nagging curiosity.
It had bugged him ever since he and Kirishima had grown closer in their relationship: why had he picked him?
They’d interacted occasionally at work whenever Yokozawa had been involved with one of his comics projects, but that was all there’d ever been. They certainly hadn’t been close enough to ever go out drinking together, and any time they passed each other in the halls at Marukawa, they’d simply given the most basic of greetings and moved on. If they’d never run into one another in that bar that night when Yokozawa had been trying to drown his sorrows…he wouldn’t be here frequenting Kirishima’s home like this—and when he thought about it like that, it left him feeling…strange.
Kirishima had once told him that it had been because he saw something of himself in Yokozawa—but even so, would you usually get this involved with someone just on those grounds? He couldn’t count the number of times he’d tried to ask Are you really okay with it being me? The one thing that had always given him pause before voicing his concerns…had probably been because he was deep down, honestly afraid of what Kirishima might say. He couldn’t put his finger on what exactly he was afraid of, but the doubts and questions stuck in his chest like tiny little fish bones.
“What’re you doing spacing out over there? The bath’s open.”
Yokozawa snapped back to himself at Kirishima’s voice calling out to him. “Oh—right.”
“You did the dishes? Thanks.”
“You fed me; it was only natural. Plus—Hiyo was helping me out until just a minute ago; if you’re gonna thank anyone, thank her.”
“Is she asleep now?”
“Yeah; she looked exhausted, so I told her to head to bed.”
“In Hiyo’s room with her.” When he’d been living at Yokozawa’s place, Sorata only ever curled up in bed on cold nights; but here, no matter how sweltering the night, he always slept with Hiyori. He must really like her…
Kirishima swiped a beer from the refrigerator and took a long swig—he was probably thirsty from the bath. “You want one, too?”
“No, I’ll get one after my ba—wait, never mind. Go ahead and give me one.”
“Here ya go.”
He just felt like drinking right now, for some reason. Taking the can Kirishima had passed him in hand, he settled down onto the sofa. He wanted to flush away some of these feelings of doubt and despair with the power of alcohol.
Pulling the tab, he lifted the can to his lips—but tonight, he couldn’t enjoy the refreshment of liquid pouring down his throat, instead left with only a bitter aftertaste on his tongue.
“It’s been so damn hot lately, every day… But that just makes the beer even tastier.”
“Ah—hey, don’t just turn down the temperature because you feel like it!” Kirishima had settled beside Yokozawa and taken up the remote control to the air-conditioner, setting the temperature down a few degrees.
“C’mon, I just got out of the bath—it’s fine. It’s like a furnace in here…”
He pulled up his t-shirt and let it flap against his skin—and Yokozawa shuddered at the soapy scent that wafted up, scolding Kirishima to hide his agitation. “Hey, don’t sit around with your hair all wet—you’ll soak the sofa.”
“You’re starting to gripe at me as much as Hiyo…”
“Whose fault is it I feel like I have to?”
“Yeah yeah, I do apologize~” He shifted forward, looking extremely put out, and started to dry his rumpled hair with the towel he’d had hanging around his neck.
Yokozawa’s heart did a flip in his chest at the sight, and for a moment—he found himself staring, captivated…because it reminded him so starkly of the moment that had started this whole relationship.
To be fair, their ‘beginning’ had been a few hours before that moment, seated next to one another in an izakaya, but Yokozawa had no clear memories of that evening. Waking up in an unfamiliar business hotel, he hadn’t believed his own eyes when Kirishima had stepped out of the bathroom.
He had never been so shocked in all his life—and while it had eventually come out that they hadn’t done anything untoward, a dozen wild theories had run through his mind in that single moment. How far had they gone, who’d been on bottom—he’d been so frustrated with his inability to remember anything. And then to have the events of that evening used as fodder for a threat? He’d been out of his mind.
Sure, he could look back on it now and actually find it somewhat amusing, but there was no telling how many years of his life he’d lost from that incident.
“Another few weeks and Hiyo’ll start Summer Vacation, huh… Guess that’s something only kids can do—take a whole month off. Maybe I’ll take a vacation too—hit up a summer resort. I’ve probably got enough paid vacation saved up…”
“Oi—if you took a month off, they wouldn’t be able to get out that rag of yours or any of your comics.” Of course Yokozawa would’ve liked to take a long vacation himself if he could, but he worried he do nothing but think of all the work piling up the whole time, and the thought of having to deal with that mountain of work set his stomach to curling uneasily.
People spoke often of the symptoms of ‘workaholics’—but Yokozawa thought that definition simply branded him a typical salaryman.
“Nah, it’d be fine; they’d manage without me somehow. My subordinates are top-notch, after all. Actually—they’d probably be able to work more comfortably and put out a good product without someone hovering over them.”
Yokozawa jolted at Kirishima’s idle commentary—he was making these suggestions in a laughing manner, but it certainly didn’t sound like he was kidding. “Hey—tell me you’re not actually seriously considering taking a month’s vacation, right?”
“It’d certainly be nice to get away. Oh—what time are we leaving in the morning?” The next day they were planning to go to a movie together that Hiyori had been wanting to see, with lunch and shopping on the schedule afterwards. It’d been a while since Yokozawa had been to see a movie; anytime there was a film he was interested in, the run was over before he knew it.
“Well we’ve got our seats reserved, so if we leave around 9, we should be fine, I think. But then—Hiyo’s an early riser…”
The starkest change he’d experienced since spending this much time around a child had been in his lifestyle rhythm. Hiyori was an ‘early to bed, early to rise’ sort, and even on Sundays, she was up by 6. She generally was considerate and let them sleep in, but she couldn’t be left alone without even any breakfast. Once Yokozawa had started making a point to wake up early with her, being an early riser even on the weekends had become part of his daily routine.
“Shall we make it an early evening as well, then? Hiyo’ll pitch a fit if we oversleep.”
“You really don’t drag your ass out of bed on your days off, do you?” Despite the fact that weekdays saw him rising even earlier than Hiyori, on his days off, Kirishima could sleep through even the vacuum cleaner being turned on in his own room. On days when they had plans, Hiyori would typically have to pull off his comforter and yell into his ear to wake him up.
“My switch just won’t flip on when I know it’s a weekend, that’s all—though, I’m sure I could find it in me to wake up if you were to give me a kiss…?”
“Sure you could.” He cut Kirishima a cold glare and downed his beer. Kirishima liked to gauge his reactions to comments like this—and while Yokozawa had initially overreacted to the idle banter, he’d finally recently learned to just let it slide over him.
“Hey, yeah—why don’t we sleep together now and then?”
“Wha—who the hell would do that?” Kirishima had whispered the suggestion just into his ear, and Yokozawa nearly spit up his beer. Fighting down a choking cough, he settled the can safely on the table and raised his voice, red-faced, at Kirishima, who only laughed at the display.
“I’m honored you’re this worked up over the very idea.”
“I’m—not worked up!”
“…What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing~” Kirishima stood, a mysterious little smile on his lips, then reached forward and ruffled Yokozawa’s hair.
“Hey—cut that out! I’m not a kid—I said stop that!”
Yokozawa watched as Kirishima returned to the kitchen with his can in hand, combing his fingers through his hair in an effort to reset the mussed locks. “…Reflex, my ass.” Despite his age, the guy could really act like a child sometimes—no different from the boys wanting to catch Hiyori’s attention by purposefully teasing her.
Kirishima had been on-target—his refuting the accusation had been little more than show, but he was hardly objective enough to own up to the fact that these kinds of things grated on him 24-7. It would’ve been nice if he could bring himself to be as honest as Hiyori, but it was next to impossible given his long-cultivated contrary personality.
He finished off the rest of his beer, then stood to toss out the empty can—and found Kirishima bent over inspecting the contents of the refrigerator. “What’re you looking for? You don’t plan on drinking more, do you?”
“Just checking expiration dates. We should probably stop by the grocery store on the way back tomorrow.”
“Don’t buy too much; you wind up loading your cart with too much crap when you go shopping.” He liked to buy in bulk just because something was cheap, or snap items up without considering it well. In that respect at least, Hiyori was much more level-headed.
“Not like I can help it—I don’t do any cooking, so I dunno my limits.”
“I’m surprised you managed to make it this far.”
“Well it was mostly thanks to my mom and Hiyo—Hiyo’s a lot like her mother, really reliable, so that helped.”
“…Ah, I see.”
The very word sent a chill shuddering through his chest. Maybe what Yokozawa was feeling wasn’t simple worry or apprehension…but guilt. A guilty conscience brought about by sitting in places a wife ought to sit, having a smile turned to him that ought to be turned to a wife.
Sure, it wasn’t like he’d stolen Kirishima and Hiyori from his wife; still—it was clear that the place he was standing right now…was not the place he was meant to be.
“Well, whatever; I’m sure things’ll work out if I just leave the shopping to Hiyo…Yokozawa?”
“…I should be asking you that. What’s with you today? You’ve been spacing out a lot—you’re not coming down with something, are you?”
“I’m fine—I was just out making my rounds today. I’m probably just tired.” Brushing off the worry with a pithy response, he crushed the can still in his hand and tossed it into the recycling bin.
He understood well that these feelings weren’t ones you ought to keep to yourself, but he didn’t have the courage to confess the concerns curdling in his chest just now.
“Well—don’t push yourself. It’s admirable, being gung-ho and all, but if you exhaust yourself it’ll be for nothing.”
“Yeah yeah, I know.”
“How about we pick up some nice meat tomorrow? Gotta build up your strength so you don’t keel over in this heat.”
“Meat, huh… I haven’t really been in the mood for meat lately though…” Perhaps it was because of the heatwave, but he hadn’t had much of an appetite period. He’d never experienced any change in his appetite because of the seasons before, so maybe he really was getting older.
“What’s a young guy doing spouting shit that makes him sound like an old man? You’re too young to get hit with metabolic syndrome just yet!”
“Oi, what’re you—!” Kirishima slipped his arms around Yokozawa from behind and tucked his fingers under the hem of his shirt to lift it up.
“Juuuust checking to see if you’ve got a little paunch or anything yet.”
“Well, you’ve checked.” Kirishima looked down from where he had his chin resting on Yokozawa’s shoulder as Yokozawa batted away the hand Kirishima had creeping down under his hem and readjusted his shirt, stuffing the hem firmly into the waist of his pants so Kirishima couldn’t get a grip again. “And stop hanging all over me when it’s sweltering.”
“C’mon, don’t blush~”
“I’m not. I told you: it’s hot.”
“Mmm, that reminds me, it’s been quite a while, huh… How about I make you even hotter?”
“What the hell are you thinking of doing? You just suggested we ‘make an early night of it’!” He still wasn’t used to being touched by Kirishima; it wasn’t that he disliked it, but any pleasure was overshadowed by the shame and awkwardness it brought with it. Plus—Hiyo lived here; he could hardly be expected to get it up under such conditions.
Kirishima gave little thought to Yokozawa’s hesitation, though, and began to loosen Yokozawa’s belt, slipping a hand below the waist. “It’s fine…just a little?”
“Hng!” He couldn’t help the stupid sound that leapt from his lips when Kirishima suddenly wrapped his fingers firmly around his cock. If he didn’t keep his voice down at this hour, Hiyori was sure to wake up. “You—idiot, cut it out!” he hissed in warning to Kirishima, who seemed to be quite enjoying himself, but the guy seemed to have no ear for listening. With his hips locked in a tight hold, Yokozawa had no way to escape easily.
“I’ll take care of you quickly, don’t worry; besides, you’re about to get in the bath, right? So who cares how sweaty you get…”
“That’s—not the point—!”
He grabbed Kirishima’s arms and tried to pry them loose, then froze up at the casually offered threat: “Keep squawking and you’ll wake up Hiyo.”
“Sticks and stones.” The amused tone to his voice was clearly because he knew Yokozawa couldn’t fight him, breath ghosting over Yokozawa’s neck with each and every word he spoke.
The fingers wrapped around him began to move lewdly, and Yokozawa grit his teeth, fighting back the breaths and sighs that tried to spill from his lips. The body heat resonating through him from behind and the scent of the shampoo wafting into his nose only served to further arouse Yokozawa’s elevating temperature.
Kirishima drew out long, gentle strokes, fingers kneading the crown in circles. The slick slide of fingers over flesh revealed how wet he was now, and while he hated to own up to it, he had to admit: Kirishima’s fingers were amazing.
“See? You’re getting hard…” Kirishima whispered, pressing a kiss just behind his ear.
“Don’t…need your…fucking commentary…” But the truth of the situation being so clearly presented set his mind to boiling over. Any time he found himself in Kirishima’s embrace, he felt like he’d suddenly reverted to being a pubescent teenager. Everything he’d experienced in all his years seemed meaningless, leaving him with little else to do but give himself over to being trifled with. He couldn’t help but think of the moments when he fought back with his naturally unbending nature as being simply another way that Kirishima played him. “Why…do I always…have to be the one…”
“Not like I can help it; if I didn’t make the first move we’d never do stuff like this. Leave you alone and you’ll sit there blabbing about nothing but work or Hiyo or Sorata. Try considering the mood a little now and then.”
“That’s—” But he clammed right up at the way too on-the-nose comment. He’d never been good at setting the mood—or having it set for him, either. The unease and awkwardness always reared its head first, and he wound up not being able to go through with it.
“So…why not just leave it up to me, then?”
“Don’t…spout shit I can’t under—ah!”
Kirishima fed more force into the fingers stroking Yokozawa, leaving Yokozawa to slouch forward instinctively, and he reflexively dug his nails into Kirishima’s arms wrapped around him to steady himself in the position.
“If I recall correctly…this is one of your good spots, right?” Kirishima slid a finger roughly along the underside from root to tip, sending a jolt through Yokozawa’s abdomen, and he bit back the moan that nearly spilled out.
He turned a glare at Kirishima, grinding out in response to his brazen comment, “Haa…ah! H—ow…the fuck is this…setting a mood…”
“I was just making sure is all… But well, I can see the answer’s rather obvious.”
Kirishima leaned in and softly nibbled at his earlobe, making his shoulders give a short jerk. “…!” A tongue laved along the outside of his ear before dipping inside briefly, and the slippery sounds just next to his eardrum sent shivers down his spine.
“…Don’t you ever let that guy lay a finger on you again.”
The words were delivered in a voice much deeper than Kirishima had been using before, and Yokozawa instinctively dropped his gaze down to the back of his hand. It seemed that Kirishima had been concerned with the scratches beneath the bandage Hiyori had applied even more than Yokozawa had been. Faced with such an unexpected display of possessiveness, Yokozawa’s temperature shot up and his senses sharpened, leaving him suddenly pushed to the point of no return.
“You sure about that? If I stop, you’re the one who’ll regret it.”
Kirishima kneaded the crown with his fingertips, and a moan worked its way free from Yokozawa’s throat. “—Ah! Hng…ah…!” Pushed to the breaking point, Yokozawa could no longer keep his voice down.
“Stop being so stubborn—just sit back and enjoy.”
“Shut…up…” Being lectured as if he were a child riled him up like nothing else—but while Kirishima’s calm and composed manner pissed him off, he was already too far gone to turn back now. He’d tried to grit his teeth and bear it, but the rising tide of pleasure was stripping him of his reason, leaving him to drown helplessly in the peaking sensation.
“You don’t have to fight it—come on, come.”
“Hng…a—ah!” He crested over at Kirishima’s prompting, dirtying his pants and the hand gripping his cock and leaving his head, which had been burning feverishly, once again cool.
Kirishima dropped a soft peck to his cheek, offering praise meant to irritate Yokozawa who’d only just come back to his senses. “There’s a good boy.”
Yokozawa snapped at the comment that left him feeling like little more than a child being rewarded, raising his voice with, ”You…” He couldn’t help the way this arrogant side of Kirishima pissed him off. Maybe it was simply confidence that came with age, but having it shoved in his face like this got on his last nerve.
He wanted to tell the guy off a bit more, but as he slowly recovered his composure, he grew ashamed of being made to look like he was the only one getting worked up over this, and his face slowly started to heat up again.
Kirishima turned an unruffled expression in Yokozawa’s direction as he rinsed his hand off in the sink. “Bet you feel refreshed now, though, right? I’d like to ask you to return the favor—but we can save it for next time.”
“Who the hell said anything about returning a favor?”
“Shh! Keep your voice down.”
“…!” Kirishima held up a finger and made a gesture to signal turning the volume down, and Yokozawa immediately remembered where they were; if Hiyo woke up, they’d have to fumble some excuse. Yokozawa bit his tongue, intent on not digging his grave any deeper than it already was. He hated running away with his tail between his legs, but it seemed the wisest course of action at the moment. “…I’m taking a bath.”
“Just—enough of your lip!” Kirishima just laughed merrily at Yokozawa’s comeback, and Yokozawa grudgingly admitted to himself that that personality of Kirishima’s was probably the reason he could never bring himself to genuinely hate the guy, despite the irritation bubbling up to a boil inside.
But the sticky, slick sensation was raw and unbearable, and Yokozawa took off for the bathroom at a jog in an effort to dispel the unpleasantness.
The weather had been bright sunny skies without a cloud in sight since that morning, and the sun shone down mercilessly, as if attempting to burn to a crisp all in its path and sending the temperature skyrocketing.
The reason Yokozawa was decked out in a tie despite it being his day off was because he had work today: an autograph event was being held in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka to celebrate the reprint of a title running in Monthly Japun. While the plan had originally been to only hold the event in Tokyo, the schedule turned brutal in an attempt to hit up all three cities in only two days after the author expressed a desire to meet as many fans as possible and the shops put forth their eager requests in the same vein.
It was always a blessing when the authors offered their support of their own volition; having such back-up from the creator translated to real eagerness to get the job done on the part of the sales team.
“But geez it’s hot…”
It seemed a lot of school kids had already started their summer vacations, and the streets were full of youngsters decked out in light summer wear. Biting back feelings of jealousy at the sight of so many enjoying their youth, Yokozawa turned his feet to the location of the first autograph event: Books Marimo.
Entering the familiar storefront, he found his subordinate Henmi had already arrived and was helping prepare for the autograph event, which was to be held in a space near the stairs on the first floor of the building. A table had already been set up, and the area was decorated with congratulatory bouquets from the editing team and friendly authors.
Giving his greetings to the employees he knew as he passed, Yokozawa drew up close to Henmi, who was busy with the preparations. “You’re here early, Henmi.”
“Ah, good morning, Yokozawa-san!”
“Morning; I see you weren’t late today.”
Henmi’s expression turned sour at the tone of admiration in his voice. “What do you mean ‘today’? That’s mean, Yokozawa-san! I’ve only ever been late once, and that was back when I first joined the company! How long are you going to keep bringing that up?”
“Oh, is that when it was?”
“Yes that’s when it was!”
He couldn’t help teasing Henmi like this when the guy got riled up so easily—and he briefly considered that perhaps this was how Kirishima felt when he teased Yokozawa, a thought that left him feeling strange.
“Well, enough about you—when did Takanashi-sensei say she was arriving? Katou was supposed to go pick her up from the hotel, right?”
“Takanashi-sensei’s actually already here—seems she was too nervous and couldn’t stay put. I’ve already briefed her on the schedule, so I had her go on up to the waiting room upstairs.”
“I’ll go and give her my regards, then.”
Today’s autograph event was to be attended by Katou, the author’s managing editor, and Hitomi from the editing department, and Yokozawa and Henmi from the sales department, with the book store providing a few staff as attendants as well.
Customers with numbered tickets were to be lined up 30 minutes before the event was to start, but perhaps because they just couldn’t wait, a number of fans were already milling about the store, as if they started lining up too early, they’d get in the way of other paying customers.
After a brief chat with the employees on the floor in this vein, Yokozawa headed up to the waiting room. He turned down an offer of guidance, as he’d been here a dozen times before, and piled into the elevator with Henmi.
“I assume you remembered the postcards we’re giving out as presents, yes?”
“Of course! They came out looking quite nice despite the fact that we had them drafted at the last minute!”
The author had drawn up an illustration in the spare moments of her busy schedule with a personal message to the fans, and that drawing had been turned into a postcard that would be distributed as a present to the fans here today.
As they drew up to the door to the waiting room, Yokozawa pulled on his jacket and knocked sharply. At the Come in! that followed, he stepped inside. “Sorry for the disturbance.”
“Ah, good morning, Yokozawa-san.”
Waiting inside, he found the store manager Okada, the star of the show Takanashi, and her managing editor Katou plus Hitomi along to provide support.
Perhaps because it was her first autograph event, Takanashi seemed rather on edge. He’d heard that, contrary to her rather dynamic writing style, the woman herself was quite low-key and shy, and when he’d brought the suggestion for this event to Katou, he’d admitted, “I dunno if she’ll agree or not…” It seemed she’d wavered quite a bit over whether or not to go through with it, but eventually decided that if she was going to do it, then she wanted to meet as many readers as she could.
Yokozawa made his way over to her, reminding himself to be as unintimidating as possible, pasting on his salesman smile as he spoke. “Are you Takanashi-sensei? My apologies for the wait. I’m Yokozawa, of the sales department. Thank you so much for attending in this sweltering weather. We’re extremely grateful you’ve fit us into your busy schedule.”
Takanashi stood quickly, sending her chair screeching back across the floor and bowing her head deeply. “Th—thank you very much from my side as well! I’m sorry to trouble you all in this manner.” Her tiny hands were trembling as she took Yokozawa’s business card.
Katou stood beside her, speaking up in an effort to calm her down when he caught the worried expression on her pale face. “Come now, there’s no need to be so nervous! Quite the contrary—the fans coming here today will be a lot more nervous than you, so just pull yourself together!”
Hitomi offered his own input to bolster Katou’s comment. “Do you really think any of your fans are scary people? They’re fans of your work, so they all must be wonderful people!”
“You certainly have a lot of eager fans! The tickets for today’s event sold out in a flash, and even as we speak some of them are downstairs milling about the store because they couldn’t wait!”
Henmi’s report seemed to do more harm than good, and Takanashi’s expression clouded over even further. “Th—they are?! Oh man, what do I do…now I’m even more nervous…”
Henmi’s simple-minded character typically helped the situation as a mood-maker, but today it seemed to have backfired.
“What do you think you’re doing worrying her even more than she was, Henmi?”
“I-I-I-I-I’m sorry! I honestly didn’t mean to…!”
“Oh, no no! It’s my fault for getting nervous!”
Takanashi seemed even more flustered at Henmi’s efforts to apologize, and Katou shakily attempted to calm her down. “Let’s just—take a seat and calm down. There’s still some time before the event starts, after all.”
Just as everything was flying out of control, a knock came from the door. “Sorry for the interruption, but I’ve brought some drinks for everyone!”
The dashing figure that stepped through the door was none other than the figurehead employee of Books Marimo, Yukina Kou, and the room fell silent the moment he appeared.
“…Ah, did I have bad timing?” Yukina cautiously regarded the quiet onlookers, and the almost comical delivery immediately eased the tension in the room, the stiff expression on Henmi’s face waxing into one of relief.
“No, actually you had great timing!” With thanks given, everyone else took their seats again.
“Well, I don’t really get what I did, but I’m glad to have helped!”
Yukina was as sparkly as ever, glittering enough to match the sun blazing outside. Rather than an ‘idol’ air, he seemed blessed with the form of a ‘prince,’ and was working part-time here while devoting the rest of his time to his work as an art student. He not only boasted a number of ‘fans’ among the female customers with his unparalleled looks and easy manner of interaction, there was no one else in the shop who could compete with him when it came to knowledge of shoujo manga. While he’d supposedly gained most of his knowledge after starting to work part time at the book store, it seemed he’d always been a casual fan of shoujo manga.
Using his innate skills, he drafted expert-level displays for the storefront, and the POP displays as well were composed of his enthusiastic thoughts and recommendations—it wouldn’t be a stretch to say there were many titles that were selling as well as they were solely due to Yukina’s recommendations.
He’d earned the trust of the sales reps from a number of publishing houses, and it seemed many of them sought his advice on promoting sales.
Perhaps he was going to help out with the autograph event today; things would certainly go smoother with a trusted individual like him on hand.
“So—where shall I set these?”
“Thanks, Yukina-kun. Could you put them all on the table here?” At Okada’s suggestion, Yukina began to remove a number of PET bottles from the plastic bag he’d carried, lining them up neatly.
“Will you have something, Takanashi-sensei? For cold drinks we have some tea or mineral water, or if you’d prefer something warm, we have coffee and red tea as well.” Yukina threw a soft smile in the still-nervous Takanashi’s direction, and as expected, she gaped wide-eyed as she took in Yukina’s appearance.
Yokozawa could hardly begrudge her shock; the first time he’d ever met Yukina, he couldn’t fathom why someone with his looks was working part-time in a book store of all places.
“Ah, umm, th-then, could I have some tea, please?”
“Is green tea all right? Here you are.” He neatly wiped the bottle free of condensation and passed it over to her, and Takanashi’s expression eased a hair as she thanked him.
Katou, seated next to her, promptly raised his hand. “Ah, could I get some water too, then? It was sweltering outside and I’m parched!”
“By all means, help yourself.”
“…Yukina-kun’s so rude to me.” Peals of laughter erupted as Katou slumped in place, dejected. Yokozawa cast a glance over at Takanashi, finding her hiding her giggles behind a hand to her mouth; her nerves seemed to have completely dissipated, relieving Yokozawa.
“Oh yeah—so is Kirishima-san not here yet?”
Just as he’d been about to settle into an empty seat, he jolted to attention at the unexpected name from the store manager’s mouth. His expression nearly twitched involuntarily, but he made as if to rearrange his chair and casually inquired of Henmi, “Kirishima-san…is coming today?”
“From what I hear, yes. Were you not aware?”
“I—I suppose not.”
Most of the meetings to discuss the upcoming event had involved only Katou; he’d completely forgotten that Kirishima would be attending as well. He was the editor-in-chief, so there was no way he wouldn’t at least show his face at an event within the city limits.
Yokozawa knew he simply needed to keep a calm, unruffled expression on his face, but running into Kirishima outside of their private lives always left him with a strange nervousness. Reminding himself that displaying agitation only increased suspicion, he somehow managed to maintain a poker face.
Katou took out his cell phone and scrolled down the screen, checking for incoming messages. “He texted me earlier saying that the roads were crowded and he was running a bit late. I’m sure he’ll be here before the event gets started, but I haven’t received any updates.” Just then, a knock came from the door.
Yokozawa braced himself for Kirishima’s possible arrival, but the person who entered turned out to be a store employee.
He thought he recognized her—it was the young woman he’d saved on the train the other day. If he recalled correctly, she’d said her name had been Matsumoto. She’d mentioned mainly working the register, but today she’d left her station and was perhaps going to be helping out with the autograph event.
“I’ve brought some coffee!”
“Eh? But—Yukina-kun already brought everyone drinks…?”
At the manager’s words, Matsumoto colored in shame. “EH?! He did?! I—I’m so sorry! This was totally unnecessary huh…” She’d perhaps meant it as a thoughtful gesture, but her timing had been off, it seemed.
Taking pity on Matsumoto as she stood there, shoulders slumped, Henmi raised a hand. “Well, since you’re here—could I get some coffee? I was just thinking I’d like some! Yokozawa-san, you’ll have some too, won’t you?”
“Oh—sure.” It was hot outside, and he truthfully would’ve rather had a cool drink, but taking into account the atmosphere of the room, he nodded his assent.
“Then how about you pour some for everyone?”
“Of course!” As she passed around cups to everyone, she drew to a stop before Yokozawa. “Umm, thank you so much for the other day, Yokozawa-san…!”
He grew flustered, not having expected her to bring up the events from before in front of everyone else. “Oh—no, I just really only did what anyone would’ve done. You don’t need to worry about it.”
But neither Henmi nor Katou were the type to just let something like this slide. “What do you mean ‘the other day’?” As expected, Henmi cut right to the quick of the matter.
He could feel their gazes on him, bubbling over with interest, but he glanced away and let brushed off the question. “None of your business.”
And then Matsumoto spoke on his behalf, her words slightly muffled. “Oh, the other day, Yokozawa-san saved from a pervert on the train.”
Yokozawa massaged his temples—fucking perfect. She probably thought she’d been helping him as he seemingly struggled for an answer, but it only wound up fanning the flames of curiosity even further.
“Wow, really? As expected of Yokozawa-san! What a cool guy~!”
“It was nothing, really. I even let the culprit escape.”
Hitomi nodded his agreement. “Still, that sounds amazing! You definitely don’t want to let guys like that get away with it, but you so rarely actually notice what they’re doing.”
He’d been certain they’d all turn the display into fodder for banter, and at the expected response, Yokozawa’s expression soured. “All right, that’s enough of this discussion.”
“Aww, c’mon! Let’s talk about it a little—” But Henmi’s objection was cut off by another knock on the door—and just as Yokozawa rejoiced that he’d been saved, he shuddered at the words of the employee who’d poked his head inside.
“Apologies for the intrusion—but Kirishima-san has arrived.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
A more than familiar figure swept into the room on the heels of the employee who’d shown him the way. Unable to stand the awkward atmosphere, Yokozawa slid his chair backward and made a futile attempt to hide behind Henmi. He was sure that if Kirishima turned his gaze to Yokozawa straight on, he’d wind up doing something stupid.
“Good morning, Kirishima-san. We’ve been waiting for you!”
“Sorry for that, Katou. So this is Takanashi-sensei, huh? It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’m Japun‘s editor-in-chief, Kirishima.”
It seemed this was their first meeting, and Kirishima rattled off an easy self-introduction. Glancing to check whether or not Takanashi had been rattled anew, faced with the editor-in-chief, Yokozawa noticed her cheeks flush red as she stared openly at Kirishima.
It was easy to forget, given that most of Japun‘s authors were male, but just as with the editors of Emerald, Kirishima’s popularity with female authors was rather famous. It was said that a number of female authors attended the once-a-year party thrown by Marukawa just for a chance to see them.
Takanashi was likely taken with Kirishima’s looks, which lived up to the rumors. The female editors often gossiped that he could make a living in the fashion or gravure model industry, but today he seemed to have taken particular care with how he presented himself.
“It—it’s a pleasure to meet you! I’m Takanashi… Thank you for always looking after me!”
“Thank you for your efforts today. My sincerest apologies for my late arrival.”
“Oh, not at all! I heard you were stuck in traffic—was everything all right?”
“Indeed; I was panicking a bit there for a second, but I’m glad I managed to make it in time.” His gentle smile would’ve seemed absolutely perfect to anyone looking on—it was clear he comported himself with full knowledge of how his onlookers viewed him. His coworkers had probably never so much as given thought to the fact that he gave great loud belly laughs, mouth wide open, at home.
It irritated Yokozawa to no end how Kirishima feigned congeniality here. Sure, as a working adult, it was hardly a rare thing to smile amicably with your clients and coworkers, and if Yokozawa let himself get worked up over every little thing, there’d be no end to it—and yet, despite knowing this, his heart still wavered in such moments as now.
“And actually, I’ve brought someone with me—would you mind if I introduced them?”
It seemed he’d arrived with someone else—perhaps he’d brought along a part-timer to observe?
“By all means—another member of the editing team?”
“C’mon; get in here.” He ignored Takanashi’s question and called out to whoever was waiting outside, but they seemed hesitant to enter.
Kirishima seemed to be caught up in a discussion with the person, but Yokozawa couldn’t quite catch the other’s voice from where he stood—and after being all but told to snap it up!, they finally appeared.
“Pl…please excuse the intrusion…”
He’d thought it strange that Kirishima seemed to have his gaze settled rather low—until the nervously bashful face that showed itself from the other side of the door turned out to be that of Hiyori.
He never would’ve thought he’d see a face like hers here of all places, and as he stood there, shocked speechless, Kirishima began to introduce Hiyori to everyone. “This is my daughter Hiyori; go on, greet everyone.”
“It’s—it’s nice to meet you. I’m Kirishima Hiyori. Thank you for always taking care of my papa… Umm, I brought some treats for everyone, so please enjoy them!”
The treats she held out had probably been picked up by Kirishima. She seemed rather nervous standing there under the gazes of the whole room, fidgeting bashfully as she bowed her head, and at the sight of this, all of the adults in the room were immediately put at ease.
“I never knew you had a daughter this old, Kirishima-san!” The adults all began extolling their praises at once, tossing out questions left and right, and Kirishima didn’t seem to mind this one bit.
“Wait—I didn’t even know you were married! How old are you now, Hiyori-chan?”
Yokozawa wanted to warn Hiyori not to get too close to Yukina when he turned a smile her way, but he couldn’t afford to make a scene here, and instead pushed his chair back a bit further to keep her from spotting him.
“I’m ten years old.” It was adorable the way she ducked her head bashfully when responding, but Yokozawa was beside himself with panic.
“Just entered 5th grade this year. She’s cute, unlike me, right? I didn’t wanna leave her downstairs by herself, so I dragged her along with me. Actually—she’s a huge fan of yours, Takanashi-sensei. She’s bought all your comics and even got a numbered ticket for today’s event all by herself in secret. She was planning to come here today without telling me even!”
“Wai—Papa! Don’t tell them that!” Hiyori flushed brightly, ire rising at Kirishima blabbing her secrets in front of an author she respected, but the other adults in the room evidently thought it adorable.
“C’mon, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You used your own allowance to buy the comics, didn’t you? Saying you wanted to support the series on your own.”
“Yeah yeah, I’ll shut up now. But—since you’re here, tell her yourself.”
“M—myself?! What do I do…what should I say?” Kirishima gave her a little push with a Go on, placing Hiyori in front of Takanashi, obviously unsure of herself. Her hand trembled where she gripped the sleeve of Kirishima’s shirt, seemingly nervous, and her eyes as she glanced up were clouded over with a thin sheen of tears.
“Just say the same thing you’re always thinking—whatever you’re always saying to me.”
“Hiyori-chan—you buy my books yourself?”
“I do! I always really look forward to them! Umm, well, I’m cheering you on, s-so please do your best…!” Her words tumbled out in a rush, cheeks stained red, but she still managed to get her thoughts out.
Takanashi seemed moved, hearing such words directly from the mouth of a real fan, and her eyes were shining just as Hiyori’s were. “Thank you so much, Hiyori-chan.”
While not many could make it all the way to an autograph event, fans Hiyori’s age weren’t all that rare. Takanashi’s works appealed to a wide range of audience ages, with a good half of them being female fans, and while they hadn’t taken a precise count, it seemed that most of the fans here today were women, according to those in charge of taking attendance.
Comics were a form of entertainment that youngsters could enjoy with their own earnings. Yokozawa himself had gone out to buy manga magazines, his allowance gripped tight in one hand, when he was young.
He recalled distantly that Kirishima had once mentioned that he put his whole self into creating works that children could lose themselves in—perhaps having such an enthusiastic reader closer to himself than anyone else had been one such reason he felt that way.
“Well you can’t stand around here being nervous with such an adorable fan cheering you on with her whole heart! You’re about to meet a lot more fans shortly, after all!”
Takanashi nodded sharply at Katou’s words. “Indeed. I’ll do my best today and tomorrow!” From the look on her face, the anxiety and nerves from earlier had completely dissipated.
“You’ll do your best—only for the autograph event?”
“Oh, of course I’ll work hard with my manuscript as well!”
The atmosphere in the room lightened with the laughter that followed, and when Yokozawa let himself get drawn into chuckles as well, Kirishima spoke up, addressing him, “By the way, Yokozawa—just what on earth are you doing? There’s no way in hell your huge self can hide that easily.”
“…!” He’d somehow convinced himself that he wouldn’t be noticed, but Kirishima had nonetheless spotted him, it seemed. Reluctantly correcting his posture, he kept his eyes averted and gave his greetings. “…Good morning.”
“Eh? Oniichan?” Apparently Hiyori hadn’t noticed him. She must not have noticed anyone else in the thrall of meeting her beloved Takanashi. Her eyes went wide as she stared at Yokozawa.
Henmi grew agitated at the single word from Hiyori’s mouth, and without even looking, Yokozawa could tell clearly that everyone was looking at him. He thrust an angry glare at Kirishima in an attempt to communicate that he’d tried not to stand out precisely because he had known this would happen, but the expression he received in return was one of self-satisfaction.
“So you’re close with Hiyori-chan then, Yokozawa-san! I see—you’ve been spending a lot of time at Kirishima-san’s place lately, haven’t you?”
At Henmi’s comment, Katou cut in, “Oh yeah, now that you mention it, that reminds me of Kirishima-san showing me a picture of Yokozawa-san cooking someth—”
“One more word out of you and I can’t be held responsible for what happens—got it, Katou?”
At the sharp glare that dared him to say anything more unnecessary, Katou got the hint and immediately grew quiet. “Oh uh, I don’t…really remember the particulars actually…”
It wasn’t as if he’d done anything embarrassing, but it certainly hadn’t been like him, and he therefore didn’t want to be a topic of conversation to people who had no business discussing it.
“C’mon, there’s nothing to hide, Yokozawa; everyone here knows perfectly well that you come over to my place and eat dinner all the time. You’re close friends with Hiyo here too, right?”
At Kirishima’s prompting, Hiyori nodded strongly. “Right!” While Yokozawa typically would’ve found the display endearing, just now he was desperate to keep them from spilling anything carelessly.
“Hmm, but still…Yokozawa-san’s an, ‘Oniichan’ huh…”
“You gotta problem with that?”
“No, not really, I just—wow!” Yokozawa hadn’t wanted to put on a scowl in front of Hiyori, so instead he kicked the leg of Henmi, who’d spoken suggestively, under the table. Kirishima simply looked on at the display in amusement for a moment before finally swooping in to save him.
“Hiyo—isn’t it about time for you to be heading downstairs?”
Hiyori grew frantic when he showed her his watch. “Ah, you’re right!” Without her noticing it, the time had rolled around to start lining up as printed on the numbered tickets.
“Still got that ticket you received earlier?”
“Yup, I put it in my wallet! I’m gonna head down then, Papa!”
“Can you make it down on your own? You want me to go with you down to the first floor?”
“I’m fine! Geez, you’re such a worrywart, Papa!”
Matsumoto watched the father-daughter argument, extending her hand. “Ah, I’m headed downstairs as well, Hiyori-chan—shall we go together?”
“Would you mind? I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
“Not at all; I need to get going myself. Well then, I’ll take Hiyori-chan and be off! C’mon, Hiyori-chan, let’s get going.”
At Matsumoto’s prompting, Hiyori nodded eagerly. “‘Kay! Umm, sorry to have disturbed you in this busy time!”
“I’ll see you later, Hiyori-chan.” At Takanashi’s parting words, Hiyori left to room with a beaming expression. Her steps seemed unsteady as she toddled out, likely because she was so excited, but with Matsumoto with her, there was probably nothing to be worried about.
“Hiyori-chan certainly seemed thrilled to meet Sensei.”
Yokozawa responded idly to Henmi’s comment, “Sure did. That was the first time I’ve ever seen her so nervous, but I guess that just shows you how much she looks up to her.” He’d been shocked when Hiyori had shown up, but her innocence had helped calm the whole room. Maybe that had been Kirishima’s intention from the get-go, bringing her here.
“I apologize for the disruption, Sensei. Thank you so much for humoring my daughter.”
Takanashi shook her head as Kirishima bowed his thanks again. “Not at all! Thanks to her, my nerves are completely gone now. I feel like I can get through this event calmly now. I’ll have to thank her properly later…”
“Please just relate those feelings of gratitude to the fans who you’ll meet today and tomorrow. They’re all coming here with the same thoughts and emotions as her, after all.”
At Kirishima’s words, Takanashi’s expression changed to one of realization, and she nodded firmly. “I shall, then. I’ll do my absolute best today!” Hiyori’s words from before seemed to have been delivered on behalf of all fans; she hadn’t done anything particularly special herself—and that was exactly what Kirishima had wanted to relate to Takanashi.
Increased sales invariably indicated increased numbers of readers, but it was difficult to really understand the situation via numbers alone. Granted, even the number of people she would meet today and tomorrow was limited, representing only a small percentage of her whole fan faction, but just by exchanging a few words, she would be able to grasp their thoughts and feelings.
Holding an autograph event wasn’t simply about selling goods and delivering fan service; it was a way for authors to directly interact with their fans and to experience just how much these people of all ages and walks of life enjoyed the works they created.
As Yokozawa extended a hand to take up the now-chilled coffee before him, the phone to the waiting room rang, and from Okada’s conversation after he picked up the receiver, it was clear the call was from the staff on the first floor who’d been busy with preparations.
“Well, could we ask you to get ready now? It’s a bit early, but it seems most of the customers are already here.” At his words, everyone stood in place, and Yokozawa’s gaze locked with Kirishima’s for just a moment as he pulled back Takanashi’s chair to escort her downstairs—but Yokozawa quickly turned his head and glanced away.
Kirishima was a hard man to ignore; anytime they found themselves in the same room, Yokozawa couldn’t help how conscious he was of the guy. But if Kirishima ever realized just how often Yokozawa let himself get swept away, there was no telling what he’d say.
They were both working right now, he reminded himself, and he made an effort to keep a cool, calm demeanor. The way he found himself acting like a teenager with a crush sometimes was mortifying.
“What’s wrong, Yokozawa-san?”
“Nothing. Just—get going!” In an effort to hide his discomfort, he slapped Henmi roughly on the back when he turned to regard Yokozawa curiously.
“Oww—what was that for?! Geez…”
He ignored Henmi’s cries of protest and boarded the elevator belatedly, keeping his face resolutely turned away from Kirishima, who looked on with a knowing gaze.
The autograph event went over with great success, Takanashi’s interactions with her fans being uneventful from start to finish and leaving the time flying by in a flash. Watching the readers receive their autographs, eyes shining, it kind of left you with the urge to try even harder in your job—and thanks to that, Yokozawa found himself free of the fatigue that came with having to work on a weekend.
Given that there was another event scheduled for that evening in Nagoya, Takanashi had dashed off with Katou and Henmi, leaving Yokozawa behind to take care of the clean-up.
“Aaand…there we go.”
He arranged the cardboard boxes full of presents from readers into a single stack; given that it was far more than could be toted home by hand, they’d decided to ship the boxes to Takanashi’s home. He could bring the posters used to decorate the event home with him for now and just return them to the office the next morning.
He was sealing up the boxes with a roll of tape he’d received from the store, when a voice called out to him from behind. “Excellent work today, Yokozawa-san. I’m glad everything ended successfully; here, for you.”
Yokozawa gratefully took the proffered paper cup from Okada. “Ah, thank you. You took wonderful care of us today.” While he didn’t feel tired, his throat was dry as a bone, as he hadn’t had a moment’s rest to have a drink since the event started. He downed the chilled carbonated beverage in one gulp, refreshingly drawing away the sweat that had coated his body.
“We could say the same to you; we’re incredibly grateful that Takanashi-sensei even autographed a copy of her book for us to display in the storefront.”
“She was thrilled herself, getting to meet everyone—after all, she rarely gets to directly interact with not only the readers but also the bookstore employees. She said it was a great encouragement, getting to see where her books are sold.”
“Then all the effort was worth it to have her say such wonderful things. Please give her our regards.”
“I will indeed.” He gave a firm nod—but shuddered at the name that popped up in the comment that immediately followed.
“That reminds me—has Kirishima-san already left? If he’s still around, I’d like to greet him once more.”
“Ah, he went off to search for his daughter a while back. He mentioned something about going on some ‘expedition’ and headed off to check around the store. I’m sure he’ll be back once he’s found her.” He delivered his thoughts, making a concerted effort not to let his agitation show on his face. Getting this flustered at the mere mention of the guy’s name? He had it bad. He’d never thought himself this weak to such unexpected occurrences.
“I see—then it’ll probably be a bit longer, huh. I’m going to take my leave for now, but when he gets back, could you have someone come find me?” With that, Okada dashed out of the waiting room as well. He’d been hanging around helping out with the autograph event all day, so he probably had a lot of work piling up.
His phone buzzed from his back pocket, and on checking the sender, he realized it was an e-mail from Henmi letting him know that they’d safely made it onto the bullet train. Relieved that they’d been able to board right on schedule, he responded with notice of Okada’s comments. Now all that was left was to pray that the events in Nagoya and Osaka went off without a hitch.
“Let’s see then…now I need to…” Running through a mental list to see if he hadn’t forgotten to do anything, he realized he’d forgotten to paste the address label onto the boxes to be shipped. He glanced around the room for the slip he distinctly recalled writing the address on earlier, when Matsumoto poked her head hesitantly inside.
“Ah, umm, good work today.”
“Oh, yeah, you too. You really helped out today; thanks.” He recovered his posture to thank her, as she’d helped keep the line up and guide the fans.
“It was my first time helping out with an autograph event, but I’m glad I was able to be of assistance. So, umm…”
She seemed to have something she wanted to say still, but appeared hesitant to actually voice it, and Yokozawa patiently waited for her to continue. She opened and closed her mouth again several times before eventually steeling herself and raising her head. “Umm, do you…still have work after this?”
“Huh? Oh, no—I’m done for the day.”
“Do you…perhaps have some time, then? If it’s all right with you, I’d like to—”
But Matsumoto was cut off by Hiyori dashing into the room as she launched herself at Yokozawa, wrapping her arms tight around his waist. “Oniichan!”
“Hiyo…you done with your ‘expedition’?” She seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed exploring the bookstore. Taking after her father, she loved bookstores and libraries and was an enthusiastic reader of not only comics but also picture books and fairy tales.
“Yup! I saw eeeeverything from the very top floor down! There’s so many books here, it’s amazing! You done with work now, Oniichan?”
“Yeah, I’m finished.” He could just leave the sealed up boxes here.
“Really?? Then let’s go to the planetarium together!”
“I don’t mind—but have you asked your papa?”
“Yup! He said he’d take us! And he’s gonna take us to get some tasty cake, too!”
Truthfully, Yokozawa had very little interest in the planetarium, but he had no objection if Hiyori wanted to go.
Suddenly recalling here that Matsumoto had seemed about to say something earlier, he glanced her way, but she just waved her hands before herself with a forced smile. “My talk can wait—it’s fine! Please go to the planetarium with Hiyori-chan. If I recall correctly—they’re doing some limited time summer-only program there, aren’t they?”
At Matsumoto’s question, Hiyori nodded with a bright smile. “They are! I thought I might do my summer research project on constellations, and Papa told me about the planetarium.”
“You’re already thinking about your summer project? You only just started summer vacation.”
“Well if I don’t get it out of the way, I can’t play without worrying about it!”
“Smart girl.” He couldn’t help admiring her ethic from the bottom of his heart. Yokozawa had never been the type to leave things til the very last moment, but he had generally spent the first half of summer vacation playing to his heart’s content.
“Oh, Yokozawa—you done cleaning up?” He wasn’t sure what the guy had been doing, but Kirishima entered the room a few moments behind Hiyori.
“I’ll be done after applying this label… Where were you just now?”
“Ran into Okada just outside so we had a little chat. What—you bothered that I was talking to someone else?”
“I didn’t say a damn thing like that!” Kirishima’s leering teasing caused him to forget they were in public, and he reverted to the typical speaking style he used in private.
“That’s awfully suspicious, you getting so riled up. So Hiyo—will Yokozawa be joining us at the planetarium?”
“Good, then—let’s get some dinner while we’re at it. You don’t mind, do you, Yokozawa?” He purposefully draped one arm over Yokozawa’s shoulder, and Yokozawa brushed the arm away with a shudder. He might have been dressing it up as a joke, but touching the guy in public was just asking for trouble.
“Hey—cut that out!”
Despite realizing fully well that Yokozawa was on edge, Kirishima continued with an air of feigned innocence, “Aww, what’re you blushing for?”
“I’m not blushing! I’ve still got work to do here so just—sit your ass down and wait patiently with Hiyo.”
“C’mon, play along would you?”
“You know—I’m not here to play games.”
Matsumoto had been watching their exchange quietly, when a repressed giggle found its way out of her mouth. At the sight of her chuckling with shoulders shaking, Yokozawa ground his teeth. “You certainly seem close!”
“We’re really not—” “—Frighteningly close.”
Kirishima interrupted Yokozawa’s unthinking attempt at an excuse with a smile, and apparently thinking the bold confession nothing more than a joke, Matsumoto let out an even greater laugh.
Kirishima seemed to be making nothing but suggestive statements today—perhaps he was just in the mood to see Yokozawa agitated at the comments—and no matter how loudly Yokozawa voiced his displeasure, it only seemed to backfire.
He was simply grateful that Matsumoto had laughed off the whole display. If she’d twigged to their relationship, he’d be too mortified to ever step foot in Books Marimo again.
“Something the matter?”
He gave up on voicing his complaints, instead tossing out with a sigh, “No, nothing.”
The sky outside the car window was stained a pale violet. Today had perhaps felt quite a bit shorter than usual in large part because he’d spent most of it with Hiyori.
“Not really; just was noticing that the sun had finally set.”
On leaving behind Books Marimo, Yokozawa and the Kirishimas had dropped by a cafe touted to serve delicious cakes before heading to the planetarium, after which they went shopping to grant Hiyori’s wish for new clothes and enjoyed dinner in the restaurant district before heading home.
It was always a pleasure to see Hiyori enjoying herself, but he never would’ve imagined that taking a girl shopping could be this utterly exhausting. He tipped his hat to all the fathers who managed to work every weekday and still dedicate their weekends to doting on their families.
“Good job being our luggage carrier today, by the way.”
“It wasn’t a big deal, but hanging around inside that world of pink was just… Why the hell do women have to take so long shopping?”
“That will forever remain a mystery to me.”
The back seat was stuffed with dozens of paper bags full of casual clothes, treats for Sorata from the pet shop, and Hiyo herself, fast asleep after a tiring day.
“And of course the culprit herself seems to be off in dreamland.” Watching her sleep peacefully somehow made Yokozawa feel at peace as well.
“Well, she had quite an exciting day after all. Sorry to drag you around with us so much—you didn’t care about going to the planetarium, did you?”
“At least I got a nice nap out of it.” He’d given in to the sleepiness that had stolen upon him the moment the lights went down and had spent most of the viewing in dreams. The reclining chairs were so comfortable he’d been able to sleep remarkably well, and Hiyori had been shocked when she’d woken him up after the video had ended.
“The story setup was actually pretty interesting; wasn’t dull like in the past, and had a nice soundtrack, too.”
“Does Hiyo think it’ll be useful for her research project?”
“Yeah; she’s going off to stay with her maternal grandparents from next week, so she’s gonna do some stargazing using everything she learned today.”
“I see… So she’s going all by herself?”
“She seems to not be worried about it; excited as anything to ride an airplane, even. I think I’m more nervous at the prospect of being left alone in that apartment without her.”
“I suppose so.” Yokozawa was no one’s father, but thanks to Hiyo, he was getting an excellent taste of what it was like to be one. Seeing her off in the mornings praying that nothing happened to her, feeling relief wash over him when she was there in the evenings to welcome him back—even once, when she’d pathetically apologized to him for the braid he’d plaited coming undone after the boy sitting next to her had pulled on it, he’d seriously considering going to teach the little punk a lesson.
“I guess kids grow up without their parents knowing it, huh…” She even sometimes said things that made the adults around her react in shock, and Yokozawa recalled that even at her age, he hadn’t been nearly as mature. “Still—she was planning on coming to the event alone—even reserved a ticket for it herself, right? It bowled me over when you brought her in.”
“Seems the reservation instructions were printed in the magazine. Told me she called them in secret and everything.” She was already in 5th grade, so she had no trouble riding the train by herself and even calling a bookstore to reserve a ticket. Still—it was nonetheless shocking that Hiyo had managed to go through with it all. “She’s just like you in that respect. Like—the way you put your thoughts into action, you’re full of surprises…”
“Actually—I didn’t even know about her plans until last night, myself. She was asking me details about my plans today, so I turned it back on her and she confessed the whole thing, saying it would’ve been embarrassing to run into me at the event space so she was just doing a little investigating. Damn but it was adorable.”
“Why would it’ve been embarrassing?” What could possibly be shameful about meeting an author you liked? Yokozawa couldn’t understand her logic at all.
“Well even though I’d told her I wasn’t the managing editor, she still knew that I was involved with it through work. Maybe she found that embarrassing? She’s about ready to hit that second rebellious age, after all.”
“I can’t see her ever being the rebellious sort, honestly.” Hiyo loved Kirishima so much her friends often teased that she was a daddy’s girl. She’d never adopt any attitude that might be construed as ‘rebellious’ and had an honest, intelligent personality.
Kirishima laughed, shoulders shaking, as Yokozawa cocked his head in confusion. “Wow, you’re a full-fledged doting parent now. — There’s no such thing as a child who doesn’t go through some rebellious period. When she was little, she turned every single thing into a fight; it was horrible.”
“Even though she’s as good a kid as she is now?”
“She can be pretty damn stubborn; she won’t budge an inch if she doesn’t want to do something. And she’s as mouthy as me—so I actually lost my fair share of verbal fights.”
“I guess when you put it that way…” He now recalled that Hiyori often scolded Kirishima for his lazy ways. He’d assumed it was just a product of her upbringing, but perhaps it was actually part of her innate personality.
“Though she’s sweet as anything when it comes to you.”
“That’s because I don’t do anything to get her on my ass.”
“I always knew you were the mothering type, but I never would’ve thought Hiyo’d take to you as well as she has. Now I’m worried one of these days she’s gonna come up to me and declare, ‘I’m gonna marry Yokozawa-oniichan!’”
Yokozawa snorted softly at the confessed worry. “And what would you do if she did?”
“I’d have to tell her she wasn’t allowed. I’m not letting her get married—and I’m not letting you, either.”
“What the hell is that?”
“That’s all I can tell her for now, isn’t it?” He was…actually kind of relieved at the response. He’d had misgivings that Kirishima might actually tell Hiyo about their relationship, but he seemed not to be interested in being that open just now.
“Well, you don’t have to worry—her father complex is dyed-in-the-wool. If Hiyo brings home any boys…I guarantee you they’ll be just like you.”
“If she brought home anyone like me, I’d kick ‘em out at the front gates. I’d never accept anyone like that.”
The sight of Kirishima so miffed was so amusing, Yokozawa couldn’t help his shoulders shaking. He was usually so unruffled in everything he did, but when it came to Hiyori, he turned remarkably on-edge.
“Then just what kind of man would you accept for her? I bet you’ll be hiding in a corner sobbing when she gets married.”
At his teasing comment, Kirishima fired back, “Like hell; I’ll be bawling my eyes out at the ceremony. And you can laugh all you like—but what about you? You look like you’d be worse off than me.”
“Well sure, I might get choked up, but I’m not the type to cry in public.” He was laughing this all off—but at the same time, he was kind of shocked that Kirishima had gotten it into his head as a given that they’d still be together that far in the future.
For Hiyori to be getting married…that would be at least another 10 or more years from now. From an outsider’s perspective, the only thing they had in common was the fact that they worked for the same company. Attending a ceremony such as that would require they be quite close.
“I’m not so sure about that… You say that now—but you’ll probably be wailing when the time comes.”
“The hell I will,” he sniped back, feeling battered on all sides by the unexpected display of Kirishima’s feelings.
“Fine; then let’s make a bet—on whether or not you cry at the ceremony.”
“That’s a pretty far-off subject. And just what are we wagering?”
“I’ll think of something eventually.”
“Geez, you really make some over-the-top suggestions sometimes.”
There was no telling how their relationship would develop in the future. Still—Yokozawa could do his level best to work…and make this last as long as possible. He’d spent quite a bit of time lately focusing on the past, but Kirishima’s words left him feeling just the tiniest bit hopeful.
“…By the way, I wanted to confirm something.”
“Was that girl with the glasses the one you helped out on the train the other day?”
“H—how did you know?!” He was shocked at the sharp observation—after all, the guy hadn’t been there when Matsumoto had blabbed about the incident, and from the way he spoke, it didn’t seem as if he’d heard it second-hand either.
“Anyone could tell. You’re the only person thick enough not to notice the way she was mooning over you. She’s got it bad for you, it’s obvious.”
“The hell she does,” he snorted at Kirishima’s disenchanted manner of speaking, but the gaze Kirishima returned was shocked.
“Wow, you really are oblivious. You don’t think she wanted to invite you to dinner or something? She said she wanted to thank you, didn’t she?”
“…Oh…” At his comment, Yokozawa suddenly remembered—when Hiyo had charged into the room, Matsumoto had been asking if he was free for something. And after he’d saved her on the train, she’d been adamant that she wanted to thank him, so perhaps she’d been trying to bring that to fruition then…
“Well, maybe it’s for the best you didn’t notice. You probably would’ve tripped over your own words if you’d realized how she felt about you.”
“Not true? Can you really say that?”
Asked so pointedly, no—he couldn’t deny it. He had no way of being sure whether or not he would’ve been able to keep calm if she’d overtly shown interest in him as Kirishima was suggesting.
“I’m sure you’ll run into her again around the store—but just make sure you don’t go getting her hopes up, you sexy beast. Don’t do something stupid like unwittingly wind up all alone with her.”
“What’s that supposed to mean—’get her hopes up’?”
“She’ll start thinking maybe something could happen if you’re too nice to her.”
“That hardly ever happens, I’m telling you. She’s just attached to me a little, that’s all.” He could understand girls going a bit loopy over guys like Yukina, but that would never happen in a million years with someone like himself. It was obvious she was grateful to Yokozawa, but he couldn’t imagine she’d possibly fall head over heels for him.
“Well if it were me, I’d fall for you in a flash.”
His face lit up at the casually muttered comment. “…Don’t suggest she’s got the same bad taste you do.”
Kirishima sighed deeply at the self-deprecating comment Yokozawa snapped out to hide his embarrassment. “Geez, can’t you do something about your inability to properly judge your own self-worth? Haven’t you realized that more and more chicks have been inviting you out lately?”
“It’s not really any different from be—”
—fore, he’d been about to protest, but cut himself off. Sure, there’d been quite a few invitations through Henmi open to the entire sales department, but there had definitely been an increase lately in invitations directed at Yokozawa personally.
“Maybe you haven’t noticed it yourself, but the atmosphere around you has changed quite a bit. Lots of chicks make comments about how you’re easier to talk to now.”
“Yeah right—and even if that’s the case, what exactly do you expect me to do about it?” It was helping nothing having all of Yokozawa’s faults simply pointed out for examination, so he pressed directly in an attempt to force him to get to the point, “Just what are you trying to get at here, anyway?”
“In short—while I’m thrilled if your changing like this was my doing, I don’t like that it’s making you more popular.”
“Wh—what the hell is that?!” A chill rippled through him when Kirishima delivered the words with such a serious expression. He caught himself unthinkingly staring at Kirishima’s profile, but the guy didn’t seem to be teasing him this time.
“You’re the one who told me to say it.”
“Yeah, but…” Unable to offer any further retort, he pursed his lips and fell quiet. Sure, he’d said for him to spit it out, but he never would’ve expected that to come out of his mouth. And he couldn’t gripe about it either, seeing as Kirishima had neither been teasing nor berating him.
This must have been what they meant by ‘digging your own grave’.
“Don’t blush over something like that after all this time. Though I’ll admit, it’s part of your charm.”
“Whatever just—shut up.”
“Yes sir~” The corners of Kirishima’s lips quirked up when Yokozawa raised his voice in irritation. The look he got on his face, like watching a child throw a temper tantrum, truly grated, but at least he settled for simply chuckling and didn’t say anything further.
“!!” When silence had settled over the inside of the car, they could hear Hiyo talking in her sleep in the back seat, and the soft voice brought Yokozawa back to himself. Their conversation just now had not been appropriate to have in front of her. They’d been lucky she’d been asleep, as they wouldn’t have been able to explain themselves if she’d happened to overhear them.
To keep from any further unnecessary conversations from starting up, Yokozawa grew quiet, feigning sleepiness, and settled his head against the glass, eyes shut.
Kirishima’s voice was soft and secretive as he hazarded, “You going to sleep?”
Fine—let him think so. He remained silent in tacit affirmation, and barely caught the quiet chuckle that followed. It was hard to tell if he’d really been fooled, or if he was only humoring Yokozawa.
“…!” A hand stretched out slowly and gently ruffled his hair, and he desperately bit back the voice that nearly slipped out unthinkingly. His heart was thudding, echoing through his chest with such fervor that he was sure Kirishima could hear it. He hardened his features to keep his agitation from showing, praying that his feigned sleep wouldn’t be found out.