“I’ve brought your drinks! The beers go to…?”
“Oh—you can just set them all down there together.” Henmi, who’d volunteered to order drinks for everyone, took over here and began to pass mugs of beer around to everyone. He was clearly the type to put himself in charge of manning the hotpot during winter. “Umm, Yukina-kun, you had…the grapefruit sour, right?”
“Yes, thank you.” Taking in hand the glass Henmi passed him, he set it on top of a coaster in front of his seat. A number of the female employees had been casting surreptitious glances his way for a while now; perhaps because he was used to it, the man himself didn’t seem bothered by it at all, but Yokozawa couldn’t help noticing it and it was seriously getting on his nerves. The seating areas were cordoned off by shoji doors, but the walkway area between rooms was only separated by a partitioning screen. They should’ve just sprung for a private room.
“Yukina—how much longer will the manager be?”
“He couldn’t really be sure, so he made sure to let us know to start without him.”
“Did he? Well then I guess we’ll get started. Umm, well—good work the other day, everyone. We’ll leave things brief for now and be a bit more thorough later.”
“Good work!” The four present raised their glasses and brought them together with a loud clink, gulping down their beers. The sensation of the liquid sliding down his throat felt amazing, and he could feel the discomfort that had been building up over the workday fading away.
Today’s drinking party was being hosted by Marukawa Shoten, and was meant to celebrate successfully ending the autograph event the other day. Those scheduled to attend were Yokozawa, Henmi, and Katou from Marukawa Shoten, and manager Okada and Yukina from Books Marimo. Unfortunately, no other staff members had been able to fit the party into their schedules, so it had turned into a rather cozy little affair. Okada, the guest of honor, was running late, so it really wasn’t all that different an atmosphere from a typical night out for drinks.
“Still, I’m quite glad the autograph event ended so smoothly!”
“It was all thanks to you and the others, Yukina-kun. We’re truly in your debt.” Henmi settled his palms on his thighs and bowed his head deeply.
“We were only doing our jobs, same as always. The fans were extremely well-mannered, so that helped a lot. Ah—but there was a bit of panic when we thought we’d run out of postcards!”
“Yeah, that was all my fault for not checking thoroughly. Sorry about that.” The postcards meant to be distributed as presents had run out in the middle of the event. Yokozawa had paled, panicking that they’d mistakenly ordered the wrong amount when they should’ve had plenty to spare, but when he looked around, he realized that one packet had been mixed in with presents Takanashi had received from the fans. Apparently it had been dropped into the box of letters and gifts when he’d tried to move it.
“Not at all—we should’ve been more alert to the situation. We really weren’t on our game then. But the sense of unity we felt when we found it was kind of amusing, now that I think back on it.”
“We can laugh about it now at least, so all’s well that ends well.”
There were always bound to be a few snafus in any event, so all that mattered was that they pulled it off successfully in the end. The reason they were able to sit here congenially conversing was because they’d gotten through the event without anything major going wrong.
“Sorry for the wait! I have here a salad of assorted seasonal vegetables, a seasonal sashimi platter, and…” The plates they’d ordered earlier were brought in all at once, and the tabletop instantly transformed into a bustling affair.
“How were the Nagoya and Osaka events? About the same number of attendees?”
At Yukina’s question, Henmi puffed his chest out as he took the opportunity to pass around the dishes. “We had quite the turnout at both locations, and nothing went wrong. Let’s see…I suppose there were more male fans at the Nagoya space compared with Tokyo, though.”
“You little liar—you almost got completely lost in Osaka Station, I heard! All confident you knew the way, and then you had to be corrected by the author herself!”
Henmi grew flustered at Yokozawa’s teasing retort, nearly dropping the serving chopsticks he’d just picked up. “Wh—where did you hear that?!” Apparently he’d been hoping to keep that event under the table.
“From Katou, of course. Lucky for you the author knew where she was going.” The reason they’d decided to hold an event in Osaka on the final day was because Takanashi was from the Kansai area and could return home immediately after she finished the autograph event, causing relatively little adverse effect on her work; it was for that reason that they’d put together such a tough schedule.
“Th—that was just, a misunderstanding, that was all. The arrow on the station map was difficult to read so…” Henmi muttered his excuse, blushing all the way to his ears in apparent shame at his mistake.
“Oh, so it was a misunderstanding, was it? You seemed pretty confident at the time…”
“Wai—you too, Katou-san?! Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, you know!” Henmi retorted, fists clenched as he was attacked from both sides.
“C’mon, don’t get so bent out of shape. We were just teasing.”
“Then please stop enjoying it so much!” Seeming to have realized that it only fanned the flames to keep protesting, he slumped to his seat and started to eat the food he’d gathered for himself all alone.
Watching Henmi pout, Yokozawa recalled a similar experience in his own past. “That reminds me, a long while back, there was one autograph event where not a single book we had ordered for the attendees made it to the bookstore we were at on time.”
Yukina’s expression darkened as he imagined the situation. “On the day of the event? That must have been horrible—what did you do?”
Begged thus for the details, Yokozawa reflected back on the past. The forecast had called for storms in the afternoon, and the skies had erupted in a deluge as soon as they had arrived at the bookstore. If they’d gotten there even ten minutes later, everything would’ve likely been ruined. “We had to haul over 200 books ourselves from a store that had some extra stock. Stacked a bunch of boxes onto a cart and then hopped on the bullet train, making it just in time for the event. I was covered in a cold sweat that time, definitely.”
“What happened to the books that were supposed to have arrived?” Henmi asked, seeming to be in a better mood now. Yokozawa recalled that that had been the biggest riddle at the time.
“Seems they’d been delivered to another branch by mistake and had been sitting around, unnoticed. It was exhausting finding out they were being shipped over just as the event ended.”
“I guess that sort of thing happens now and then, huh. Of all days for them to make an error in shipping…”
“Seriously, geez. But what happened to me was nothing really; sometimes you’ll wind up not having enough sales campaign goods—or having too much—due to mistakes in order volume.”
Henmi braced himself, wary of being teased even further by Yokozawa. “Well that certainly wasn’t me!” He looked like a small animal with his hair standing on end, but Yokozawa didn’t touch on this point.
“Yeah yeah, I know. I just tossed it out there as an example from the past.”
“Of course, you can always order more if you don’t order enough initially, but what about when you’ve ordered too much?”
“They’ll get used eventually, but we’ve still got a mountain stacked up in storage even now. You can’t just toss ‘em out, after all… Ah, but these kinds of stories are probably pretty boring for you guys to listen to.” No university student about to start a job search wanted to hear Yokozawa bitch about his job, surely, and Yokozawa attempted to change the subject—but Yukina shook his head.
“Not at all! I don’t get to hear stories from the sales staff all that often, so I actually find it quite interesting. Oh—well, maybe interesting isn’t quite the word, but if you don’t mind, I’d love to hear more.”
“Hmm, let’s see… You do hear about things going wrong quite a bit from salesmen on the road.”
At Yukina’s fervent request, Yokozawa trawled his memory for a story that might go well with booze, when Henmi raised his hand. “Ooh, I have a story I heard from a guy who joined the company at the same time I did! He was doing a sales run in Hokkaido, and when he took a turn in his car, a deer jumped right out at him!”
“Yup, a wild one! He turned the wheel to try and avoid hitting it—and slammed right into a tree! Had to call a tow-truck to come pick him up and everything. Sounds just like an excuse you’d cook up when you get in a wreck that’s your own fault, right? So no one believed him.”
“Yeah…I think I remember something like that happening myself.” You couldn’t exactly bring a claim against a wild deer, and he recalled how the guy had told the sad tale of having to pay for the repairs out of his own pocket.
“You’ll see them all the time in Hokkaido—deer, that is. I’m a Sapporo boy, so I never encountered any myself, but friends of mine used to see them a lot when they were little.”
“Huh—so you’re from Hokkaido, are you, Yukina? I could’ve sworn you were raised in Tokyo!”
“Yup—I lived there up through high school, then moved to Tokyo for college. I’m a 100% pure-bred Hokkaido man!”
Katou, who’d until this point only been listening to the conversation, slowly opened his mouth. “If we’re discussing Hokkaido now—I’ve got a story, too. A guy who went there on a business trip was using a map he’d gotten from his predecessor on his way to a bookstore—but when he got there, neither the road he was supposed to take nor the shop itself were anywhere to be found, he was really confused. Said it felt like someone was playing a joke on him.”
“So…the store had gone out of business or something?”
“Probably; you always hear that it’s tough managing a business in the boonies. But—I mean, I can understand the shop not being there anymore, but do roads tend to just disappear?”
“Who knows…maybe it was covered in snow or something? Then you could easily get lost like Henmi over here.”
“Wai—now you’re in on it, Yukina-kun?!” Henmi’s shoulders slumped at being used as the punch line, and he seemed to give up the fight.
Everyone soothed Henmi, who’d unthinkingly been rising to his feet, and pushed drinks his way. The guy couldn’t hold his liquor well and was already starting to get a bit carried away. Just as Yokozawa was reminding himself that if they weren’t careful, Henmi could turn into a rather foul drunk, Henmi changed the subject.
“That reminds me, Yokozawa-san—how’d you get to become so close with Kirishima-san? You used to hang around mostly with Takano-san before, didn’t you?”
“…We just happened to run into each other at a bar one night, and when we started a conversation, we realized we had a lot in common, that’s all.” Sure, that was leaving out a lot, but not one bit of it was untrue. He just…wasn’t spilling any unnecessary details.
Henmi wasn’t quite satisfied yet, though. “What bar? Take me with you next time!”
“Why the hell do I have to drag you along? If you’re there too, it’ll just seem like an extension of work—no thank you.”
“C’mon, it’s fine! I’ve been thinking it’d be nice to have a chat with Kirishima-san! He’s so cool and great at his job, and he’s raising a kid all on his own—don’tcha think that’s amazing?? I hope I can be as competent a guy as Kirishima-san someday!”
Seeing Henmi mooning over Kirishima this way, eyes sparkling, Yokozawa snorted a laugh. “Yeah right, good luck with that. It’s impossible.” It was no easy feat to get to Kirishima’s level—not only for Henmi, but for anyone, himself included.
“You dunno if it’s impossible or not! Gimme another 10 years and maybe I’ll be married with a kid of my own, working even harder than I am now! Ah—wait, are you perhaps jealous, Yokozawa-san??”
At Henmi’s probing question, Yokozawa nearly spit out the beer he’d been chugging. Coughing roughly, he dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. “Wh—who the hell would be jealous…?!”
“Oh come on, Yokozawa-san, it’s all right! Don’t worry—I still look up to you, too!”
“Eh? Ah—oh, oh yeah…” Realizing he and Henmi had been looking at the targets of jealousy from completely different angles, Yokozawa calmed down. Shit, this was bad for his heart. Henmi could be pretty thick most of the time, but he could also occasionally show a flash of painful insight; you couldn’t underestimate him.
The shame of being mistaken as jealous grated, but he’d only be digging himself even deeper if he attempted to correct the misconception. He swallowed whatever he wanted to say and blankly stuffed a piece of fried food into his mouth.
“Looks like everyone’s drinks are getting low—shall we order some more?” Yukina opened the menu, taking the atmosphere into account. “I think I’m going to have another beer. What about you, Yokozawa-san?”
“Hmm…guess I’ll have some shouchuu.” When he indicated a famous brand from Kyuushuu, Katou ordered the same thing. After having the servers clear away the empty glasses and dishes, they ordered some more food as well.
Yokozawa was finishing off the last of the salad by himself, when Yukina started, “That reminds me… Matsumoto-san keeps asking me when you’re going to come around again, Yokozawa-san. Seems she still hasn’t gotten to thank you.”
“Ah—geez, I told her she doesn’t have to thank me. Just tell her she doesn’t have to worry, would you?” He appreciated the gratitude, but it felt awkward having her continually fawning over him. Maybe it was their gap in ages leaving them with a gap in how close it was appropriate be.
“You should tell her that kind of thing yourself—I mean, it sounds like she wants to see you, after all.”
“Huh?” Yokozawa furrowed his brow at Yukina’s comment. He couldn’t fathom why on earth this girl would want to go out of her way to see him, and laughter bubbled up over the confused expression on his face.
“Like I said—I think she likes you. You’re pretty thick sometimes, aren’t you, Yokozawa-san?”
“Yukina-kun, are you serious?!” Henmi launched himself forward, desperately curious. He seemed ready and raring to turn Yokozawa into a subject of conversation now, possibly as revenge for earlier.
“Well she’s never outright told me as much—but in all likelihood, yes. I have pretty good instincts for things like this. You seem pretty intimidating, Yokozawa-san, but underneath, you’re actually really well-grounded and kind. Aren’t you popular at your office?”
“‘F course not!” he snorted, laughing off Yukina’s suggestion, and reached out his chopsticks for a block of deep-friend tofu. When the server arrived with their extra drink orders, he grabbed his glass and set it before him.
“Are you sure you just haven’t noticed that people like you? What do you think, Henmi-san?”
With the ball lobbed his way by Yukina, Henmi settled in to think, a pensive expression on his face as he hunched his shoulders. “I dunno… He’s just as scary even around the office, and women tend to steer clear of him. But—I guess that hasn’t been the case as much lately, huh? He’s in a better mood these days, and I feel like more and more people are inviting him out for drinks.”
“Geez—have these kinds of conversations when I’m not around, would you?” He openly gaped at Henmi, who was innocently blabbing the kinds of things you usually would say behind someone’s back.
When he directed a sharp glare in the guy’s direction, Henmi promptly apologized. “Ah—I’m sorry! The booze left me a little loose-lipped, I guess. But…what’re you gonna do? When you think about it, the fact that she knew about you even before the incident…means she was interested in you, right?”
Turning a curt expression toward Henmi, who was staring at him with eyes filled with curiosity, he returned sharply, “I’m not gonna do anything!”
“But she’s a college student! You don’t have a girlfriend now, right?”
Kirishima’s face immediately popped into the forefront of his mind, and his agitation nearly bled onto his face—but he hid it by bringing his glass to his lips. “Why the hell do I have to discuss my private life with you?”
Still, Henmi pressed on. “Eh?! Wait—so then you do have one?!”
“God, shut up. And anyways—what does her being a college student have to do with anything? This isn’t some shoujo manga, you know; she wouldn’t fall for me over some stupid thing like that.”
As he was arguing with Henmi, Yukina put in his own opinion. “You think? I think it’s quite amazing when someone saves you when you’re in a bind. You can fall in love with someone for the most seemingly inconsequential of reasons.”
“…You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”
A careful smile bloomed across Yukina’s graceful features. “Well, no more than anyone else.”
“And hearing it from you…makes me strangely want to agree.”
It was advice from someone younger than himself, but there was a strange weight to Yukina’s words. There was the fact of course that they way he spoke didn’t sound like he was teasing, but it also sounded like he’d been through something like this before as well. Still, he didn’t want to continue this conversation any further, and he forcibly put the matter to rest. “Well, whatever—this conversation is finished. It’s rude to just put words in her mouth when she’s not here to defend herself.”
“Yeah, you’re right—we’ll just let the two of you work things out on your own…”
“Huh?” He cut a sharp glare at Henmi who didn’t seem to know when to quit. No matter how many warnings he tossed out, the guy just didn’t quite get it, so he was understandably fed up with it by now.
“Oh, nothing at all! Ah—sorry, could we get another beer over here??” Henmi flagged down a passing attendant in an attempt to dispel the atmosphere in the room, downing the rest of his beer in one gulp. The guy wasn’t exactly a heavyweight when it came to drinking, and Yokozawa was just starting to truly worry if Henmi would be all right at the pace he was going—when the man of the hour finally showed his face.
“Sorry for the wait!”
Henmi quickly turned the discussion to the newly arrived lifeboat. “Hey! We’ve been waiting for you, Manager!” Yokozawa sighed at how out-of-hand the guy was getting—then raised his face to glance up when Okada continued, sounding slightly apologetic.
“Oh, sorry—I brought along an extra; is that okay?”
“Of course, by all mea—” He swallowed his words at the end when he realized that it was Matsumoto that Okada had brought with him.
“I—I’m really sorry, barging in on your gathering like this. I’m really…out of place, huh?”
“Not at all, not at all! Having a girl here will make this an even livelier get-together, so we’re thrilled! Oh—oops, does that count as sexual harassment?” With the sudden appearance of the person they’d just been gossiping about, Henmi was in high spirits. He was patently teasing Yokozawa, who was beside himself with anxiety.
“Henmi, pipe down. Isn’t it a bit early for you to be letting the booze go to your head?”
“I’m not drunk yet~! Ooh, Yukina-kun, scoot over, scoot over!”
“Oh, sure—Matsumoto-san, you can sit over here.”
“Eh? Oh no—I’ll be fine on the end here!”
She tried to stop them, but those around him seemed to have the same idea and vacated the space next to Yokozawa. He wanted to tell them to cut out the unnecessary actions, but fumbled the attempt, and pursing his lips, he fell silent.
“Umm, then…please excuse the interruption…” She was clearly nervous, but hesitantly settled herself between Yukina and Yokozawa. He turned a sharp glare at all who were regarding them coolly from across the table, but did nothing more to exert his authority for today.
He typically would’ve yelled at them to cut it out, but with Matsumoto right there, he couldn’t bring himself to raise his voice.
“Oh, so what’ll you have to drink?”
Okada, seated directly across from Yokozawa, passed a drink menu to Matsumoto. “Hmm, I think I’ll have a beer myself…”
“Th—then could I get a ginger ale?”
Taking in her expression as she shyly voiced her order, Yokozawa couldn’t deny that there might be something to Kirishima’s and Yukina’s suggestions. Kirishima had warned him not to do anything that might make her fall for him, and he’d laughed it off at the time as utterly ridiculous, but maybe it wasn’t so ridiculous at all…
He couldn’t be sure just what type of ‘like’ this was…but it was clear she had some measure of feelings for Yokozawa.
“One beer and one ginger ale, is it? I guess I’ll have another beer myself; what about you, Yukina-kun?”
“I think I’ll have whatever Yokozawa has.”
“Gotcha. Excuse me! We’d like to make an order here!” Henmi, seated nearest to the aisle, put in their orders, and they brought the room back to order. When the drinks arrived, they raised their glasses in the second toast of the evening.
“You were still working this late in the evening?” Given that she was seated right next to him, he couldn’t exactly ignore Matsumoto, and he therefore started an innocent conversation with the clearly nervous girl.
“Oh, no—I actually finished a bit before, but a sempai was showing me how to do something, and so it got late and… But still—because of that, I got to come here this evening, so I suppose I was lucky in that sense.”
“Well—eat and drink as much as you want. Everything’s covered as an expense tonight, so don’t hold back; feel free to try things you wouldn’t normally eat.”
“Thank you; I’ll take you up on that offer, then.”
He turned a sharp glare at Henmi, who was leering suggestively from across the table, and brought his glass of shouchuu to his lips. Truthfully, he was starting to lose track of how best to keep some distance between himself and Matsumoto—what was ‘normal’? He couldn’t tell at all right now. While he had no intention of doing anything suggestive, he had to be careful of his unconscious words and actions.
“What’re you drinking there, Yokozawa-san?”
He breathed a sigh of relief when Okada called out to him from across the table. Perhaps he’d realized he was worrying about something. ”Shouchuu. It’s quite easy to drink and leaves you feeling refreshed.”
“Then I think I’ll have that next!”
Readjusting his posture as if clinging to a life raft, Yokozawa repeated his thanks. “Okada-san, we are truly grateful for your taking care of us the other day. Thank you so very much.” He bowed his head deeply, but Okada just waved him off.
“We’re the ones who should be thanking you! I’m glad we requested that autograph event even though we knew it was likely useless. Just between you and me—I was sure we’d get turned down! It seemed she hadn’t appeared in public ever before, so we figured she didn’t like that sort of thing.”
“Actually, a lot of us at the office had the same feelings. But we decided to confirm, just in case, and sounded her out. She wasn’t very on-board with the idea at first apparently, but she did genuinely seem to want to meet her readers.”
“I see. Apparently there were a few customers who’d just been passing through on the day of the event who became interested in her works, and her previous works are in quite high demand now. I even put in an order for more stock before coming here tonight.”
“Really? That’s wonderful. I find it a fascinating series myself as well, so I really do want it to sell more.” If they’d been able to reach even customers who’d previously never been interested in her works, then it was definitely a success as a sales event.
“It’s getting more and more exciting with each new volume, isn’t it? I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen next, so I’m really looking forward to next month’s installment.”
“As am I. I can’t wait for next month’s issue.”
Katou, seated next to Okada, cut in here with a smug expression on his face. “You’d better look forward to it! Next issue’ll blow your socks off!” He likely couldn’t hold himself back from commenting on the very work he himself was in charge of.
“So what happens next, then? Come on, just give us a little hint!”
“If I did that, it’d take away some of the fun of reading it yourself! But I will say this: an unexpected character makes a return, and I really think all of the fans will be thrilled with it.”
Okada grabbed his head and groaned at the stingy spoiler. “Wow, seriously?? Now I’m even more curious!”
“Well when you’ve read it—be sure to let me know what you think! I’m really curious as to how readers will react this time.”
“Careful—you tell me to discuss it and I’ll discuss it til you’re sick of me!” Okada tossed back fervently, hand gripped into a fist. While many who worked at book stores were avid readers, Okada was quite a bookworm, well-versed in shounen manga of both the present and past.
“How are the other new releases doing? I don’t get a really bad sense myself, but it does seem a bit irregular.”
“Hmm, yes, well while there are some that are doing a bit more poorly than expected, sales are going quite well overall, I think. I get the feeling that the female-oriented campaigns going on right now are doing particularly well. Perhaps we’ll see another bump in sales by next weekend.”
“We can only hope!”
Most of the publishing market was doing relatively poorly at the moment, and the sales and editing departments were both trying anything they could in an effort to achieve even a small increase in sales. No matter how amazing the work, there was no way to let the world know that fact if they couldn’t get anyone to read it.
“And also…ah, yes. I know it’s not your area, Yokozawa, but the Sapphire novels also aren’t doing bad. Oh—and Yukina’s renewed the display on the tabletop, so please come check it out.”
“Well then—I’ll be in to look around the beginning of next week, so I’ll see you then. I’ll probably be able to give you some more news then as well, so I look forward to it.”
“You can ask some over-the-top things now and then, so I’m a little worried—but I’ll be waiting with bells on!” he returned laughingly.
“Thank you for the meal.”
“Not at all—quite the contrary, thank you for coming out with us tonight. I look forward to working together further in the future.”
The drinking party was finally over; they’d started out discussing work, but as everyone got a bit of booze in them, the conversations devolved into ones of little worth. Okada in particular had been quite excited to discuss books he’d read recently. Yokozawa greatly enjoyed speaking with him, as they shared similar tastes.
Perhaps he’d unconsciously been avoiding speaking with Matsumoto in that sense as well, troubled with how best to interact with her. He rarely had the chance to speak with younger women, so he wasn’t exactly clear on just what to say.
With how far apart he and Hiyori were in age, there was no problem—but he couldn’t imagine the things that female high school and college students thought about. Once Hiyori reached that age, maybe he wouldn’t be able to understand her either…
“Whoa—are you all right, Henmi-san?” Katou’s worried voice reached his ears, and he turned to find Henmi staggering to his feet. He was finished for the evening.
“‘M fiiiiiiiine, jus’ fiiiiiine.”
“How exactly is this fine? You’re pissed out of your skull.”
Henmi’s lips pursed at Yokozawa’s comment. “‘M not drunk at all!”
But Yokozawa had no intention of wasting his time listening to the ramblings of a drunk. On top of his unsteady footing, his speech was slurred as well. Yokozawa wasn’t exactly inexperienced in this field, but why did they always feel like they were never drunk enough to be drunk?
“Katou—you’re headed home the same was as Henmi, right?”
“Well, yes, but…wait, you don’t mean for me to take him with me, do you?!”
“Sorry—I’ll leave him in your care.”
“Can’t we just…leave him here?” Katou pressed, expression dejected. He probably hadn’t expected to draw the short straw.
“Ask him yourself.”
“‘F you’re worried ’bout me, ‘m juuuuust fine!” Henmi sounded completely and utterly confident in himself—and Katou let out a long sigh.
“Thanks for taking care of him.” He clapped Katou on the back as he attempted to steady the wobbling Henmi, then grabbed a cab for the pair. Ensuring that they got into the car safely, he opened the passenger-side door and called out to the driver, “Please take them—and Katou, I want the change back for this.”
“Ah—thank you very much.”
He watched the taxi speed away, one job done for the time being, then turned back to Okada and Matsumoto who he’d kept waiting. “My apologies for the wait.”
“Nah, I should be apologizing to you—I might’ve given Henmi-san a bit too much to drink.”
“It’s probably only enough to give him a bit of a headache tomorrow.” He glanced over to Yukina, who was looking on worriedly. “What about you—you okay?” He seemed to have only ordered sours and other light beverages most of the evening, but he’d still drunk quite a bit.
“Yes, I’m quite all right. I took you up on your offer and had a lot to eat.”
Yukina’s unconcerned response invited laughter—just as he’d professed, he’d eaten quite a lot for one person. It left one feeling full just watching him; Yokozawa had had that kind of an appetite at one point, but nowadays it would destroy his stomach. “Well, if you enjoyed yourself, then that’s all for the best.”
“Well, shall we part ways here? You’re on the subway, aren’t you, Yokozawa-san? And you as well, right Matsumoto?”
“Ah—well, yes…” At Okada’s question, Matsumoto nodded meekly.
“Well then, could I ask you to take care of Matsumoto here? I’m a little concerned about letting a girl go home alone at this hour.”
Yokozawa somehow managed to stifle the agitation that threatened to show on his face. “Oh—ah, yes, of course.” He’d figured this might happen, given that they were using the same train line. He had no place being surprised by this turn now of all times.
“We’re headed the other direction, so—thanks for this evening!”
Okada and Yukina took their leave, leaving Yokozawa alone with Matsumoto. An uncomfortable silence settled between them—but maybe Yokozawa was the only one who felt awkward and nervous right now; after all, the reason he was so unnaturally aware of the situation was because Kirishima’s warning was flitting around inside his head.
“Ah, umm—I…really, I can go home by myself…”
“There’s no need for us to part ways when we’re going the same direction. Look—the train seems to be arriving, let’s go.”
Fighting against the oncoming crowd, they hurried down to the platform—but the train had just left.
“Aww, we missed it…”
“Looks that way…” According to the time table, they had a bit of time before the next train arrived, and Yokozawa ground his teeth in frustration at his bad timing. Unsure of whether or not a conversation would last in such an empty space, he brought his feet to a stop before a random boarding position marker.
With Yokozawa unsure of just what to talk about, the deafening silence continued—and Matsumoto turned out to be the first one to dispel the awkward atmosphere.
“Umm…so, I’m sorry for having to be included in the festivities today.”
“Nah; not like you even ate enough to merit an apology.”
Okada, heavy drinker that he was, drank enough to kill a man, and Yukina’s appetite had made his eyes bug out; but Matsumoto’s bill for the evening had been a tiny thing comparatively.
“Please let me repay the favor next time—I still haven’t gotten to thank you for the other day, after all.”
“Ah… Listen, about that—please just don’t worry about it, all right? You did a great job helping out at the autograph even, so we’re even now, see?”
Matsumoto’s expression clouded over slightly, and Yokozawa figured he must’ve hurt her feelings somehow. Desperately trying to figure out how to support her now, he continued, “You really were a great help, by the way. With the event, of course—but with Hiyori as well; thank you.”
“Oh no—it was nothing, really. I just stayed with Hiyori-chan, and she’s such a well-put-together girl I’m sure she would’ve been fine without me. You seem quite close with her, Yokozawa-san.”
“Ah—well, I suppose.” Maybe this hadn’t been such a great topic to bring up after all. If Kirishima had been in his shoes, he probably could’ve come up with any number of meaningless, innocent topics to discuss, but for Yokozawa, it was useless.
“Do you…like children, Yokozawa-san?”
“I guess I’m okay with them.” Despite his outward appearance, he’d hardly ever found himself hated by children or animals. It suited him more to approach children seriously than to feign niceties with adults.
“I was so surprised—your expression completely changed when you were speaking with Hiyori-chan. And—Kirishima-san surprised me as well! He’s so stylish, like a model almost. Marukawa Shoten employs so many attractive people—I’m jealous.”
“Yeah, like—that managing director you see on television and in magazines all the time is really cool. And the editor who’s always chatting with Yukina is adorable… Oh, I suppose it’s not very polite to refer to someone older than me as ‘adorable’ huh!”
“‘Editor’…? Oh—if you’re talking about that guy, he definitely could pass as a college student couldn’t he…” At Matsumoto’s description, a face rose in the back of his mind—if she was describing him as ‘adorable’ it could only be that baby-faced guy. Yokozawa had been surprised himself when he’d realized the guy was actually older than him as well.
The editing department of shoujo manga magazine Emerald was definitely stuffed to the gills with attractive men. Even authors signed with other magazines knew about their famed looks, and no small number of female authors attended parties simply in the hopes of catching a glimpse of them.
There were rumors that they hired based on looks, but it was, in truth, sheer coincidence that brought such a good-looking group together. There was no way anyone would ever hire an editor based on what they looked like. He wasn’t sure on what basis other businesses hired, but perhaps the fact that one particular department stood out just left that impression.
“It’s probably just that the ones who stood out during hiring happened to be good-looking. After all, you say that kind of thing—but don’t you think Yukina back there’s a hell of a lot easier on the eyes?”
He couldn’t help tipping his hat in admiration to those sickeningly sweet facial features that could put an idol to shame. Apparently no small amount of customers dropped by the shop solely to catch a glimpse of him.
“Hmm, I guess I’m kind of…used to Yukina-kun? I can definitely appreciate that he has a beautiful face, but he’s almost…too beautiful.”
“That just means he’s not your type, doesn’t it?”
Matsumoto chuckled softly at the conclusion he proposed. “Probably so.” Her chuckles continued for a few moments further before she fell silent again.
Yokozawa once more groped for an idea on how to draw out the conversation that had died, but nothing came to mind, leaving him no recourse but to curse his inability to make small talk. They’d already talked up a storm about books earlier, so he was all out of topic suggestions.
Pets—that would be a safe enough topic; but then, he’d pushed people away more than once or twice talking about his cat, and self-conscious about appearing too much like a doting parent, he decided it better to avoid that topic. As he frantically scoured his mind, though, Matsumoto threw out a question that sent him for a loop:
“Yokozawa-san…do you have a lover right now?”
The moment the word ‘lover’ fell on his ears, Kirishima’s face rose in his mind’s eye. It wasn’t as if he was about to blurt out his thoughts, so there was no logical reason for him to panic, but his pulse still quickened.
He supposed there was nothing wrong with calling their relationship one of ‘lovers’. It left him feeling a bit uneasy, but there really was no other more appropriate word for it.
Glancing at Matsumoto, he noticed her expression was quite anxious. She’d attempted to phrase it in a casual manner, but she’d probably really had to work herself up for it.
“Oh—a guy like you must have a wonderful lover, huh! I’m sorry, that was a really weird thing to ask…” She seemed to have mistaken his silence for offense, hastening to correct herself.
He could’ve tied everything up and ended the conversation right there with a simple It’s fine, I wasn’t offended.
But while he typically avoided saying unnecessary things at all costs in an effort to keep anyone from finding out about his relationship with Kirishima…it wasn’t in his best interests to keep quiet right now, he felt.
It was spoken with a low, roughened voice, almost indecipherable and completely unlike him. Probably because he was uncharacteristically nervous right now.
“Eh…?” Perhaps she hadn’t heard him, for she glanced up with question in her eyes, and Yokozawa swallowed the lump in his throat and clarified:
“If you’re asking if I’m in a relationship with someone—then yes, I am.”
It was the first time he’d ever told anyone about his relationship with Kirishima. Sweat broke out across the palms of the fists he had clenched at his sides.
“Oh—of course you do!” Her voice was slightly trembling, but Yokozawa pretended not to notice. “Do you mind…if I ask what sort of person they are?”
“…Someone I greatly respect.”
Yokozawa himself was shocked at the words that slipped from his tongue so easily—they must have been his true feelings. Sure, Kirishima could piss him off like no other, but Yokozawa trusted him even more than that, looked up to him.
However, he had absolutely no intention of ever letting the guy know as much—and truthfully, he’d never meant to let anyone else know, either. Overwhelmed at how he’d said such embarrassing things with a straight face, Yokozawa felt his face grow warm. He could hardly pass this off as being because he was drunk now, and he found himself struck with the overwhelming urge to flee the scene.
“Uwah!” He’d shoved his hands into his pockets, feeling unable to keep calm, and gripped his cell phone tight in one hand—when it suddenly began to vibrate.
“Sorry, it’s my phone.” He’d been utterly shocked, having completely forgotten he’d set it to silent mode. He covered up the embarrassing yelp he’d given with a cough, then checked the incoming call screen.
It was Kirishima. Why the hell did he have to call at now of all times? For a brief moment, he considered ignoring the call, but given the late hour, he might have had some urgent reason for calling.
“Sorry, let me just—Yes? This is Yokozawa.”
“So you finally decided to pick up? Where are you?”
He dropped his voice as low as possible, all too aware that he was having this conversation right in front of Matsumoto. “About to get on the train. Did you need something, calling at this hour?”
“Not particularly—just wondering what time you were coming home. I’m bored without Hiyo here.”
Oh right—Hiyori had mentioned going to the country and spending the week with her maternal grandparents. Several years back, Hiyori’s grandmother and grandfather on her mother’s side had returned to her grandfather’s hometown and were living there now, apparently. They occasionally sent local delicacies to Kirishima’s apartment.
“Did you forget? I told you I had a drinking party tonight with the bookstore staff and I’d be late with it so I was going back to my place, remember?”
“Ooohhh…that was today huh…” Yokozawa had made sure to let him know his plans for today ahead of time, but it seemed to have slipped his mind.
“Yeah, so that’s how it is. Sorry—but I’m leaving Sorata in your care.”
“He’s sleeping in Hiyo’s room. By ‘bookstore’—you mean Books Marimo, right? Was that chick from the other day there too?
Yokozawa furrowed his brow at the unexpected close questioning from Kirishima. He almost sounded like he was interrogating a child who’d broken curfew. “…That’s none of your business.” He could hardly explain that the very girl Kirishima had warned him not to encourage was standing right next to him, and his response turned sharp.
If he confessed that they’d been drinking together up until just a few minutes ago, Kirishima would’ve returned him the shocked reply of, “You’re so naive,” without a doubt, and just as he was cooking up a lie, Matsumoto suggested hesitantly, “Umm should I…give you some privacy here?”
She probably felt awkward, thinking she was intruding on a private conversation. Naturally, no matter how Yokozawa tried to keep his voice down, she was going to catch some of their discussion standing next to him as she was. Still—he couldn’t deny the bad timing of it all.
He was grateful for her consideration, but this might have just made things worse. Fighting the urge to massage his temples, he responded shortly, “No, you’re fine—I’m almost finished here.”
“It looks like it’ll still be a bit more before the train arrives so—I’m going to get a drink.” With that, she darted off towards the vending machines. Kirishima on the other end of the line had probably heard her.
“…That girl you’re with right now—is that her?”
“We were heading the same direction.” He couldn’t help that it sounded like an excuse.
It was true that they were heading in the same direction, and they’d be separating at a station on the way, so it wasn’t as if they were purposefully together right now—and it was pretty damn annoying to have that brought into question. Quite the contrary, he had no reason at all to feel guilty.
But Kirishima’s voice sounded distinctly displeased. “Didn’t I just warn you against this? Did you forget how I told you not to thoughtlessly encourage her?”
“I—I didn’t forget.” His voice wavered a bit on the end—mostly because the situation had escalated just how Kirishima had predicted it would. She hadn’t exactly confessed to him, sure, but that line of questioning just now had been close enough. Nevertheless, he returned sharply, “It’s nothing for you to be concerned with.”
“I wonder about that. You’re utterly oblivious, so there’s no telling what you’ve said or done.”
“Then what the hell do you want me to do? How am I supposed to be careful of something I’m not even aware of?” His ire rose with being treated like a child this way, and his voice grew harsh.
“Well you could start with not being alone with her, like I said!”
“God you’re fucking annoying. It’s none of your damn business who I associate with. Besides—” Yokozawa turned the tables on Kirishima’s egotistical suggestions, “—you’re one to talk!” Yeah, maybe he hadn’t been as careful as he should’ve been, just like Kirishima was accusing, but he was hardly the only one failing in that respect.
He knew that there were plenty of women around Kirishima who had feelings for him, and Kirishima was friendlier with them than he was with Yokozawa, even inviting them out for dinner.
“Our situations are completely different. There aren’t many who’d get serious over a single father, but they might get serious about you if you’re nice to them.”
“It’s not different at all. You know, you’ve also got—” He knew there were several female editors who seriously had feelings for Kirishima. But—he couldn’t bring himself to admit as much, and cut himself off in mid-sentence. “…Forget it. The train’s coming now; I’m hanging up.”
He ended the call before Kirishima could finish, then powered down his phone. Slipping his phone casually into his pocket, he released a deep sigh.
It felt like they’d done nothing but argue with each other lately. Tiny things that typically wouldn’t have bothered either of them now irritated, and they unthinkingly lost their tempers with one another. They were like a couple of rebellious teenagers. Yeah…that was exactly what they were like.
While he was busy being utterly disgusted with himself, a tone sounded announcing the arrival of the train. “Ah…” He suddenly remembered that he wasn’t alone here, and when he glanced about hurriedly, Matsumoto appeared, pale and apologizing.
“I—I’m sorry, was there a misunderstanding because of me…?”
The irritation in Yokozawa’s voice would’ve made it clear to any eavesdroppers that he was fighting with the person on the other end of the line. No matter how far away she’d been, it couldn’t be helped that she’d overheard given the quiet of the empty platform.
Truthfully, though, the reason they’d gotten into it with one another had been due to issues between the two of them, and it hadn’t been Matsumoto’s doing in the least. “Sorry; you shouldn’t have had to hear that. It happens all the time between us so—don’t worry about it,” he awkwardly explained to Matsumoto, who looked on apologetically.
Though while he’d brushed it off as something that ‘happens all the time,’ Kirishima’s attitude had been a bit worrisome. He’d thought about it before as well—but Kirishima seemed strangely sensitive about Matsumoto. He’d never received that sort of warning before, and Kirishima considered himself to be quite the gentleman—there’d never been any issues in the past when they’d walked home with any of their female coworkers.
He couldn’t imagine that Matsumoto had possibly done anything that could be construed as rude to Kirishima—and even if she had, Kirishima wasn’t the type to fly off the handle over such a trivial matter. Considering that, Yokozawa concluded that he must have done something without realizing it—he just couldn’t figure out what.
None of this made any sense—and he found himself grappling more with confusion than anger.
His stomach felt a little queasy; this didn’t bode well. Stress-related ulcers were common enough among salarymen, and perhaps he’d grown cocky because he’d been doing relatively well lately.
“I think I drank too much…”
He’d let the booze flow a bit more freely than usual tonight simply because it had been so enjoyable discussing books with someone as knowledgeable as Okada. One reason he’d gotten dragged along by Okada’s enthusiasm and increased his own rate of drinking. Maybe he should hold back on the booze for a while. If he got seriously sick from this, it would take a while to recover fully.
But the other reason he’d had so much to drink this evening…had been due to none other than Kirishima. Even now as he struggled to determine what was the cause of his foul mood, he still couldn’t come to any firm conclusion.
He released the umpteenth sigh of the night and stepped off the elevator, trudging down the hallway toward his apartment on exhausted feet—when he noticed a large figure standing in front of his door and instinctively braced himself.
“Welcome back.” Kirishima uncrossed the arms he’d had settled over his chest and turned Yokozawa’s way.
“Sh—shit, don’t scare me like that. Do you have any idea what time it is? What if I’d thought you were a burglar or something and called the police? Tell me if you’re going to come over.”
He hadn’t expected to have to see the guy tonight, and was suitably agitated for it. When he babbled his questions at Kirishima, he was returned a sighed response of, “My call wouldn’t go through.”
“…!” At the pointed response, Yokozawa immediately recalled that he’d turned off his cell phone. He regretted his one-sided rejection—but at the same time, he was left wondering why Kirishima had felt he needed to pursue the matter tonight and not some later point. He coughed away the awkward atmosphere and purposefully changed the subject, “Well—I assume you must have some reason for having come all the way over to my place, yeah?”
Despite the questioning, he did distantly suspect that the reason Kirishima was here was probably to do with their conversation earlier—but the response Kirishima returned was not what he’d been expecting.
“I just wanted to see your face.”
“Huh? What the hell does that mean? You can see me anytime. Geez, I can understand you’re a little lonely without Hiyo there, but get a grip on yourself.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Then explain yourself—and, you’ve got my key, right? You should’ve just let yourself in.” He’d given Kirishima a key case as a present on his recent birthday, and after being begged for a spare key, he’d grudgingly given it over a few days later.
And yet—Kirishima had never used that key even once since receiving it. After all, they spent most of their days together at Kirishima’s place, and Kirishima had never had any reason to visit Yokozawa’s room before.
“Would you…not have minded if I’d gone in on my own?”
“I can’t go barging in uninvited without the owner of the apartment around, can I?”
“Well it’s not like I care all that much if it’s you… Whatever, get inside.” His neighbors were going to complain if they hung around outside talking, so he unlocked the door and guided Kirishima inside. The air in the room, closed off all day, was warm and close.
Kirishima removed his shoes, expression frozen in a sullen grimace—it was the first time Yokozawa had ever seen him so low-key. Unsure of just how to approach the guy, Yokozawa kept his comments innocent and inoffensive. “I’ll just…turn on the air conditioner.”
“You want something to drink?”
“No, I’m fine.”
He couldn’t read Kirishima tonight. Even at times before when he’d grown short in his responses under the weight of uncomfortable tension between them, he’d never so boldly displayed his displeasure as he was now.
The distance between them couldn’t last with this silence. He opened the door to the refrigerator and pulled out a large bottle of barley tea, pouring a glass for himself and downing it in one gulp to help shake off the buzz of the alcohol.
Glancing out of the corner of his eye, he found Kirishima inspecting Yokozawa’s room, which he was visiting for the first time. Before, when he’d had Kirishima bring him by his apartment after Sorata’s hospital scare, Kirishima had waited for him in the car. It was a bit discomfiting having his private space so thoroughly inspected, but there was nothing he was embarrassed about Kirishima seeing.
“Pretty empty apartment you’ve got here.”
“All I do when I get home is sleep; it’s plenty good enough for that.”
Novels often depicted images of dreary rooms so sparse they could be mistaken for model rooms for display purposes only, but Yokozawa’s apartment was even worse. His bedroom consisted of merely a bookcase and his bed, and in his living room were a low table, a television set, and Sorata’s sleeping mat.
“You sure you shouldn’t just move in with us? Sorata’s already living there, after all.”
“Are you an idiot? I can’t do that—if I did, I’d have to notify the company. And what would I tell my parents?”
While he may have been spending more time at Kirishima’s place, it was quite a tall order to suggest they live together. There was the problem of how best to explain it to the people around them, but more so there was the issue of Yokozawa’s feelings on the matter. If they had been two people of the opposite sex dating, there probably wouldn’t be any of these niggling, annoying details to worry about. Hell, if Kirishima had been dating a woman, they probably could have even considered the possibility that he’d remarried.
“Oh yeah… I guess so…” Kirishima muttered, almost to himself, and pulled out a chair from the table, casually settling into it. Unable to stand around the whole time in the kitchen, Yokozawa took a seat across the table from Kirishima.
Takano always used to sit in this seat. He’d sit here, petting Sorata on his lap, while he waited for Yokozawa to finish cooking dinner—and when Yokozawa set down a meal for two before him, it had filled the whole table.
“‘S that where Sorata usually sleeps?”
“Usually. He sleeps in my bed in winter.”
“For having such a hefty attitude, he sure can be needy sometimes.”
“That’s how cats are.”
“He’s just tsundere—like you.”
“Who’re you calling a tsundere?!”
Did Kirishima actually intend to just continue this meaningless conversation? He was growing irritated with the way Kirishima sat there, refusing to get to the heart of the matter, when Kirishima tossed out a surprising question.
“How…do you feel about me?”
“How do I…why would you ask something like that right now?”
“Then when should I ask you? The only things we ever talk about are Hiyori, Sorata, or work. Can you even remember the last time we talked about each other?”
“That’s…” They hardly even discussed anything to do with one another. Yokozawa used the excuse that there was just nothing to discuss, but really he was just cut off at the pass by embarrassment and hesitation, leaving him without the courage to bring up any topics. So he wound up taking refuge in talking about Hiyori or Sorata.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to know more about Kirishima—quite the contrary, there were dozens of things he wanted to ask.
It had been sheer coincidence learning the guy’s birthday, and he knew almost nothing else of the guy’s basic stats. Hell, Kirishima’s subordinates probably knew him better than Yokozawa did.
But there was something he needed to do before he learned any of that: if he couldn’t do something about that lump lodged in his throat, he was never going to be able to face Kirishima properly.
Utterly at a loss for words but steeling himself nonetheless, Yokozawa started, “…That’s not what you came to talk about, though, is it? If you want to continue our conversation from before, then why not just do so?”
“…Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Probably?” Irritation rose within him at the inability for their conversation to progress; did the guy seriously intend to avoid this discussion now of all times? Fed up with the irritation, Yokozawa had reached his limit. “All right—I really don’t understand why, but did you have some problem with my going home with that girl? What sense was there in purposefully taking different routes when our destinations were in the same direction?”
“You have a point.”
“You go out drinking all the time with girls from the office, don’t you? So why the hell are you pissed at me?”
“I’m not pissed at you.”
“Then does that mean you just don’t trust me?”
At this rebuttal, Kirishima’s eyes widened a hair, gaze wavering, and the next words from his mouth were spoken as an evasive excuse. “I never…said I didn’t trust you…”
“It’s just the same as if you did, though! When it comes to you, I…” He swallowed the half-voiced words—he didn’t want to voice his feelings right now, not with this timing, and he fought back the urge to unleash all of his frustrations and irritation.
No matter how much the guy tossed him around or how his life became disturbed for it—he trusted Kirishima because he was Kirishima. And yet for all that, now he was met with distrust?
Facing each other like this, it was frightening how strongly Yokozawa feared he might say something he didn’t truly believe. He stood in place and turned to put his back to Kirishima.
“Don’t touch me…” He slapped away the hand that had come to rest on his shoulder—only to find himself next met with a strong grip as he was forcibly turned around. He opened his mouth to protest the abrupt action, but instead swallowed thickly at the piercing gaze he was met with.
Seizing the moment, Kirishima snapped a hand out and grabbed his lapels, tugging him forward. The uncharacteristic roughness brought their teeth clattering together, and Yokozawa could only gape wide-eyed at the devouring kiss forced upon him.
All thought processes ground to a halt at the sudden assault, but when a tongue thrust its way roughly into his mouth, he snapped back to his senses.
Their tongues brushing together drew a series of throbbing shudders, but Yokozawa’s anger won out over anything else. Irritated that the guy seemed intent on simply shutting him up with a kiss, he bit down hard on Kirishima’s lip and shoved him away.
“Cut it out!”
“…!” Kirishima wiped away the blood oozing from his lip with the back of his hand, staring at the ground and leaving Yokozawa unable to tell just what his expression was.
Yokozawa could taste iron in his own mouth. “…Leave.” The danger latent in the voice he all but had to wring from his throat surprised even Yokozawa himself. “I said get the hell out of here.” He raised his voice at Kirishima, who stood there in silence, and turned his back again.
If he let Kirishima leave right now—he would regret it, without a doubt. But despite that conviction, he couldn’t bring himself to take back his words.
After a too-lengthy stretch of silence, Kirishima spoke up quietly. “…All right. I’ll leave for today. I’ll look after Sorata, too, so…don’t worry about that.”
All the fierceness he’d shown in their kiss had completely dissipated, making Yokozawa wonder what the hell that had been and leaving him even more distraught and confused at Kirishima’s wavering attitude.
At length, he caught the sound of faltering footsteps fading away, followed by the sound of the door to the genkan opening, then closing.
…He’d done it again. The moment he found himself alone, all of the regret came crashing down upon him. Why—why couldn’t he ever manage to say how he felt?
“I’m not a fucking teenager…”
Quite the contrary—a kid probably would’ve been better able to express himself. As you matured, maintenance of vanity and conscience towards appearance became more and more important, until it was hard to tell what was and was not your true feelings.
He hadn’t wanted to fight—he just wanted the guy to understand. But then…maybe that had been the hardest thing to ask for.
“…Dammit.” He let out a short curse and gripped his hands into tight fists, digging his nails into his palms.
“Shit…is my stomach still not better yet…?”
Yokozawa stalked up the hill toward the office, rubbing his stomach which was throbbing with pain. It had been cloudy all morning, providing welcome relief from the piercing rays of sunlight they’d had to bear for days on end, but the humidity made up for it by shooting up, leaving the air feeling like it was stuck to his skin.
He and Kirishima had been in ‘cold war mode’ since the previous Friday, with the anxiety and awkwardness keeping Yokozawa well at bay and away from Kirishima’s apartment. It was a small fortune in the midst of everything that Hiyori was spending some time with her maternal grandparents right now. He didn’t want her to see them fighting, nor did he want to have only superficial conversations. He’d toyed with the idea of picking up Sorata and bringing him home, but that would still require he go to Kirishima’s place. He eventually deemed that it would be less stressful for Sorata to stay there than for him to be with Yokozawa and his irritated self.
He’d been royally pissed off at the selfish things Kirishima had said that evening—but now that he’d had some time to calm down and tried putting himself in Kirishima’s shoes, he was able to understand a little how Kirishima had been feeling at the time.
Yokozawa himself had been irritated whenever he’d seen Kirishima going off drinking with female coworkers, and equally pissed at the way Kirishima brushed it off with the assurance that no one would ever get really serious over a single father. Regardless of the outcome—any lover would naturally wish for their partner to be more careful with how they comported themselves.
Looking at oneself from an objective perspective was difficult for anyone—and it was only natural to get pissed off if someone didn’t listen to your warning. Kirishima probably saw Yokozawa as a danger—the differences in their ages probably led to a huge difference in life experience. Still—he desperately wanted the guy to just trust him.
And that…would require a serious discussion. The more time that passed, the more distance grew between them, and that frightened Yokozawa. And yet—he still couldn’t bring himself to take that first step.
“God this is throwing me off my game…”
He always turned into a complete and utter coward in the face of the person he loved—which just showed how very strongly he was drawn to Kirishima.
Maybe it was just like Kirishima had accused: that he was predisposed to be dependent on others. The more someone needed him, the more strongly he was drawn to them, and even though he was utterly unable to honestly accept those proffered affections, he still sought them desperately and was comforted by them.
But his feelings when it came to Kirishima were more than that—he never would have expected to reach this age and experience a quickening of his heartbeat he’d never felt before or feel so exhilarated. All of his previous romances had been nothing but pain; feelings of possession and hostility growing within him and eventually depriving him of any composure.
It had been fun, being with him—but maybe that had mostly been due to their close friendship. Now, as if a demon had been exorcised, he finally found himself able to calmly assess his surroundings. Maybe that ‘love’…had always been doomed to fail.
“Oh, Yokozawa-san! We—welcome back!”
“…What’s with you lot and those weird expressions?”
As soon as they saw Yokozawa’s face, the expressions on the employees who’d been standing near the entrance to the building grew strange. When he stepped inside, the girls at reception threw cautious glances his way.
This…felt very familiar. Without a doubt, it meant that there was a distasteful rumor being passed around about him. God he hoped it wasn’t too terrible…
He should probably take some stomach medicine once he reached his desk. With a sigh, he lined up to wait for the elevator and caught the conversation of the editors standing in front of him.
“Did you hear? Apparently Yokozawa-san was caught walking alone with a woman! Seems he went home with a part-timer working for a bookstore!”
“Seriously?! If she’s a part-timer, then that’d make her a college student probably, right? Man, sales people are so lucky, getting to have encounters like that…”
At their inquisitive expressions, Yokozawa was struck with another wave of deja vu, and deepening the furrow between his brows, he continued to quietly listen to their conversation.
“Yeah yeah—she’s a college student! And apparently really cute, too. Yokozawa-san comes off really straight-laced, but you can’t underestimate him, huh!”
He’d initially thought it ridiculous to engage them, but if he didn’t clear up this misunderstanding right now, even more rumors would likely start up.
“I didn’t go home with her. We just had a drinking party to recognize their help with an autograph event. Our homes only happened to be in the same direction by coincidence.”
“Eek—Yokozawa-san!!” The two paled as they whipped around to face him.
He cast a cool, calculating gaze between them and asked, “Any other questions?”
“Nope, we’re good! Oh—I just remembered I wanted to take the stairs today! I’ve been getting a little soft around the middle lately, after all.”
“Oh—th-then I’ll go with you! I’m getting kinda pudgy myself!”
With forced laughter, they both turned and headed in the opposite direction. “Hey—the elevator’s here now!”
“By all means then, take it yourself!” They jogged off, flustered, in the direction of the stairs. He couldn’t believe they had the balls to converse about something they’d be embarrassed for the subject to overhear in the office of all places.
But if he went out of his way to make excuses, that would only prompt even more rumors. It seemed he had no choice but to wait for the excitement to die down. “…Dammit, where’s the leak?”
Even if someone had seen him walking with Matsumoto, it was illogical that anyone would be able to divine her background just from that; which meant that someone had spilled her details. And there were only two possible suspects in the entire company who could be responsible.
He took the elevator up to the sales floor and headed for his desk, when one of the suspects called out to him unconcernedly, “Ah~ Yokozawa-san! Someone’s the subject of a lot of gossip this morning~”
“Come with me.”
“Eh? Huh?” It pissed Yokozawa off even more that the guy seemed so genuinely perplexed. Dragging Henmi into the kitchenette area, Yokozawa proceeded to interrogate the thoroughly frightened man.
“What did you say?”
“Wha—what do you mean, ‘what’?”
His voice deepened at the clearly confused Henmi. “Don’t play stupid when you know fully well what I’m talking about—are you the one who started that damn rumor?”
“Of course not! I would never do anything like that!!”
He didn’t miss the way Henmi’s expression stiffened for just a moment, and he hardened his glare and pressed, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure! Just…when some of the girls from the editing department asked who you’d gone home with, I told them it was a girl who worked at Books Marimo and—OWW!” Before Henmi could finish speaking, Yokozawa dropped a fist onto his head. While he may not have started the rumor, it was clear if he’d mentioned it to just one person, it would spread throughout the entire company.
“So you are the leak… Shit, you’ve really done a number on me here…”
“All I did was tell the truth!”
Yokozawa turned his cold gaze to Henmi, rubbing his head and still trying to excuse his actions. “Can you honestly tell me you weren’t at least a little curious yourself?”
“Geh, well…” Given the way his eyes were dancing about, he likely couldn’t entirely refute Yokozawa’s accusation. He was actually quite fond of Henmi’s utter inability to easily lie, but at times like this, his irritation with the guy won out over his admiration.
“One of these days—I’m going to e-mail the entire company one of your deepest, darkest secrets.”
“Hey—wait, don’t do that! You’re—you’re joking, right?”
“Who knows.” Of course he was joking, but he let the guy think he was just saying so for revenge. He knew it was a rather childish response, but he could probably get away with this much at least.
“Wha—what do you mean my ‘deepest, darkest secret’?!”
“If I told you, it’d lose all meaning.” In truth, he knew no such secret of Henmi’s—but everyone had at least one or two things they didn’t want anyone else to know about. If you told someone you knew their secret—they’d surely be able to think of what that might be.
It was probably Kirishima’s influence that had him pulling pranks like this lately on Henmi. Maybe the guy was starting to rub off on him from spending so much time together.
Leaving Henmi behind, cradling his head in the kitchenette, he headed back to his desk—when he ran into his superior leaving a meeting and looking quite distraught. ”What’s wrong? It’s still quite early for you to be back, isn’t it?” It was a full half hour before the meeting was scheduled to end as indicated on the scheduling board. Usually these things went over time, so something must have happened.
“No, we’re stumped. I don’t really get why myself, but Kirishima’s in a rather foul mood today. You’ve been pretty close with him lately, haven’t you? You know anything about this?”
He shuddered at Kirishima’s name being tossed into the conversation so casually. “Oh uh, no. No clue.” Actually, he had one hell of a clue, but there was no way he could spill that it was ‘probably because he’s fighting with me’.
Still, for Kirishima to be in such a bad mood that even those around him were starting to notice—that was a big deal, and was likely why his superior had been so shocked by the display.
“He seems really on-edge; now I’ve got a stomachache from feeling like I had to walk on eggshells around the guy. You had some medicine in your desk, didn’t you? Mind if I get some from you?”
“Oh, not at all.” He pulled out a drawer and passed over the packet of stomach medicine he kept on hand. While he was at it, he dropped a dosing packet for himself into his pocket, making a mental note to take it later. “So how did the meeting go in the end? You were supposed to bring up that proposal in today’s meeting, weren’t you?”
“Oh—that went perfectly fine. Actually—we were able to wrap things up much more quickly than usual. Seemed like everyone was in a, ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ mood, and no one raised a fuss about it.”
“Ah, so that’s why the meeting ended so early.” It was great that the agenda item had passed, but he couldn’t stop worrying about Kirishima’s attitude. It was highly likely that his foul mood stemmed from his anger and frustration with Yokozawa, and the sense of responsibility made his chest hurt.
“What’s the matter? You look quite serious…” Henmi asked concernedly, having just arrived after him. It was as if his flustered demonstration from before had never even happened. Yokozawa couldn’t help being jealous of the guy’s ability to so easily switch gears.
“Seems like that measure passed successfully in the meeting.”
“Seriously?! That’s great! But then—why do you look like that?”
“Don’t ask me…” He didn’t have it in him to explain just now and took off for the kitchenette again. Bringing up Kirishima now would just dig his grave even deeper.
“I’m gonna go take some medicine as well,” their superior added, slouching forward slightly as he rubbed his stomach and left the room. It must’ve been a really tense meeting.
“Geez, what’s going on with everyone?!” Henmi voiced his displeasure fretfully, finding himself left all alone.
“Damn he’s late…”
He’d passed the time waiting by playing with Sorata, who had completely settled into his new living arrangements, but even now, past 10 o’clock, Kirishima still wasn’t home.
They had to have a serious discussion today. Yokozawa had steeled himself and headed straight to Kirishima’s apartment after work had ended, as he hadn’t been able to track the guy down at the office. He’d poked his head into the editing department a few times, trying to find the proper timing for them to have a conversation, but unable to bring himself to barge in on Kirishima when he seemed to busy, he’d eventually given up.
He’d tried to convince himself the timing was just off, but if he’d really wanted to call the guy out, he knew he could have. No matter how busy he seemed, even Kirishima had to take breaks once in a while, and he could’ve invited him out for dinner if he’d wanted.
What held him back…was the fear that they’d wind up going at each other’s throats again like before. He knew full well how low the boiling point of his emotions was—and when it came to Kirishima in particular, he lost his ability to listen to reason.
The first thing they needed to talk about…was probably what had happened on Friday. There was a high probability that the juicy gossip Henmi had carelessly leaked had found its way into Kirishima’s ears. If he had the wrong idea—Yokozawa would clear that up…and confess what he and Matsumoto had been talking about that evening.
He’d prepared the flow of conversation in his head, as if drafting a presentation for a meeting, ensuring everything was to go as efficiently as possible, but he couldn’t accurately predict Kirishima’s own thoughts, and it was throwing a wrench into the works. If he just looked at the situation from an objective perspective, he should be able to think of something—but despite continuing to tell himself this, it just wasn’t that easy.
There were sides of Kirishima that Yokozawa didn’t know, and he had no clue just how pissed the guy was, actually. Maybe he would be tired from work and wouldn’t want to have any annoying discussions. Maybe they should wait until things had cooled off a bit more.
But the more Yokozawa thought about it, the more confusing the whole situation became.
“You haven’t heard anything about his schedule, have you?” He really must’ve been stressed out if he was sitting here asking questions to someone he knew couldn’t give an answer. After staring up at Yokozawa for a few long moments, Sorata jumped over to his little cushion and curled up to settle down.
When Hiyori was around, no matter how busy he’d been, Kirishima had always made sure to return by a certain time—but today he had no particular reason to rush back. Maybe he planned to pull an all-nighter, even. Yokozawa had thought about making him dinner, but if Kirishima had eaten out, the ingredients would’ve been wasted. Not feeling much like making a meal for one, he’d settled in and dazedly watched some television, but he hadn’t been able to follow the plot of the suspense drama he’d started watching halfway through and none of the characters had left much of an impression on him. Picking up the remote, he flipped the channel to a news station.
As the announcer reminded viewers that it was now 11 PM, Yokozawa let out a soft sigh. “…Guess I’ll head home.”
After waiting all this time, he slowly stood in place. It would be too much to ask Kirishima, exhausted when he finally returned home this late, to make time for the two of them to talk. He could still make the train if he left now—and besides, he couldn’t calm down enough to bring himself to spend the night in a house without its proper owner around.
“Sorry, Sorata. I’m headed home for today. You gonna be okay by yourself?”
Sorata raised his head at being addressed, but then closed his eyes again, looking tired. He was probably a lot more comfortable here than when he’d been living with Yokozawa.
“…Yeah, you look just fine,” he returned with a bitter laugh at the way the cat always took things at his own pace, and picked up his briefcase from the coffee table.
His deliberately slow pace with preparing to leave…was because he still held out hope that Kirishima would show up here at the last minute. Even if they couldn’t have a proper discussion—he still wanted to at least see him.
But they didn’t run into each other in the genkan, nor in the hall, nor on the elevator. As he stepped outside of the complex, he turned back and raised his gaze to Kirishima’s room, then scratching at the back of his head, he set off for the station—when a cold drop of something fell onto his cheek.
He thought it had been his imagination for a moment, when another drop landed on the palm he’d extended and turned upwards and a warm southern wind wrapped around him. They’d said on the news that it was supposed to start storming on the morrow, but it seemed the rainclouds hadn’t been able to wait until dawn.
“…Just my shitty luck, huh.”
Why did it have to start raining now of all times? He wanted to take the issue up with the sky, but it would’ve been futile. He could’ve gone back for an umbrella, he reasoned, but he just couldn’t bring himself to go back to that apartment right now. It would probably only lightly sprinkle for a while yet, so if he made a break for it, he could get home before it really started to pour.
“Can’t be helped…” he muttered to himself, and scuffing his shoe over the asphalt before it grew wet enough to change color.
It always seemed to rain on days he felt like crap—probably karma at work—and with that thought in the back of his mind, he charged along the path toward the station.