Chapter 2

“Tsk…”

A mere few meters’ walk after leaving the comic shop, Yokozawa felt a small pain in his foot and tsked in irritation. Somehow, while walking, a small pebble had worked its way into his shoe apparently.

He paused and slipped off the shoe to remove the pebble. Balancing on his left leg, he turned it upside down to remove the foreign object and realized that the soles had been worn quite low.

Even though he performed maintenance on them at least once a week and had several pairs he wore on a rotating schedule, making the rounds like this almost daily as he was had done a number on the soles. Recalling that he kept a spare pair in his work locker, he decided to take the pair he was wearing by a shoe repair shop on the way home that day.

“Yet another expense…”

He set the shoe down gently on the asphalt and slipped his foot in, sighing as he considered the sorry state of his wallet. If he didn’t dip into his savings, he probably wasn’t going to be able to make it until payday. He’d had quite a good number of expenses to take care of this month, after all.

What with all the congratulatory gifts he had to pay out for his subordinate’s wedding and a friend’s baby shower and the like, and then having to replace his broken cell phone on top of making the rounds at the bars with acquaintances, he was barely scraping by with more than a week left to go until payday.

He’d been far too careless to go out and drink alone in this financial condition, even if he had just been dumped; there were limits to the appropriateness of getting drunk.

If he hadn’t gone into that bar…if he’d just gone straight home, he would’ve been able to avoid the annoying situation he now found himself caught up in. Even though he knew there was nothing to be done about it now, he still couldn’t help but regret his actions.

“………”

Takano had been his very first love.

Sure, there’d been a few people he’d dated upon entering university, but whenever they’d asked if he loved them, he’d found it difficult to respond to the affirmative with confidence. They’d been good friends, and he’d felt calm when he was with them, but he’d never felt any really overpowering emotions when he was with them. He’d often assumed that perhaps he just wasn’t the type to really fall in love at all—but right around when he’d convinced himself of that, he started to grow close with Takano.

It had been difficult, initially, to approach Takano, with his cynical attitude and self-abandonment complex. But on realizing that this was all simply a front to hide how lonely he truly was, he found he couldn’t leave the guy alone. On finally speaking to one another, they found that they actually shared fields of expertise and hobbies, and conversation sprang up naturally between them.

When they conversed, Takano’s pessimistic mask seemed to fall away, and he showed a smile more suited for someone his age. Yokozawa, so fascinated and charmed by this, gradually began to spend more and more time with Takano, growing apart from his girlfriend—perhaps at that point, he was already in love with the guy.

Then, one night, Takano had been in a particularly bad state, and on the heels of the drinks they’d been downing, they crossed a certain line. Even as he realized that Takano regretted it…Yokozawa confirmed his own feelings. He didn’t love this man as a ‘friend’, he was in love with him.

He had never remotely imagined that that very same love would be put to a stop in such a horrific fashion.

“Oh gosh, excuse me!”

“Ah, no, it was my fault.”

Caught up in his thoughts as he’d been, he’d run right into a high school girl carrying a paper bag from a bookstore clutched to her chest. She’d been engrossed in conversation with a friend and apparently hadn’t even noticed Yokozawa walking right towards her. She’d flushed, ashamed she’d let her mind wander like that, and then had run to catch up to her friends.

It seemed the girl and her friends had just come from the very same large-scale bookstore Yokozawa himself was heading towards, Books Marimo. He started walking forward again, thinking blithely to himself that it’d be nice if that bag was full of our books.

Today he was on a mission to test the waters regarding a campaign for an upcoming new release. While the best case scenario involved getting the store to agree to put out all of the previous volumes from the same author along with the new release, he understood that there were limitations on space to take into consideration. Convincing the store to permit them more space than other companies fell squarely on the shoulders of the sales department workers.

“Hm?”

The moment he stepped into the comics area of Books Marimo, he caught sight of a rather gaudy-looking employee putting together a display in a prominent position on the floor. He had a shiny, shimmering air about him that made him seem as if he’d just stepped off the pages of a shoujo manga title—and he was in charge of this section.

Yokozawa had been informed by the manager on a previous occasion that he only worked at the store part-time, primarily attending art school, and looking like some elegant prince, he not only had a gaggle of female fans following him about but was also rather well-versed in shoujo manga, which he was in charge of.

Apparently he’d always enjoyed shoujo manga himself, and the posters decorating the shelves were all garnished with his own passionate thoughts and recommendations, such that any series he promoted—no matter how small-time the magazine it came from—always sold like hotcakes.

Yokozawa had often caught sight of other salesmen from rival companies trying to push their wares onto him, but he always reminded them modestly that he was only promoting titles that he himself enjoyed, and the fact that they sold well was due not so much to his efforts but to the content of the books themselves.

And of course, while it was true that boring books would never be picked up by the public anyways, it was equally true that there was no guarantee even interesting books would obtain any measurable readership. If you couldn’t get readers to stop and take a look in the bookstore, there was no chance of getting them to learn just how interesting a book really was.

This was why salesmen such as Yokozawa wore down the soles of their shoes traveling from store to store hoping to show off just how interesting their companies’ titles were. In doing so, they could make the first step in winning favor among those employees who worked with those titles on a daily basis.

“Welcome to—ah, it’s a pleasure to see you!”

Sensing Yokozawa’s presence, the worker in charge of the area, Yukina Kou, turned to him with a smile. While there was no obvious reason for him to treat Yokozawa with such courtesy, he seemed particularly dazzling today. Faced with someone like this, his faintly-colored eyes fringed in long lashes, there was no doubt that the high school girls Yokozawa had run into earlier had been made to buy as many books as their allowances would grant.

“Good work today. I need to speak with the manager; is he around today?”

“He went into the back a little earlier. Shall I call for him.”

“Please.”

Leaving him with a soft smile, he ducked around behind one of the registers and picked up an internal line. While he waited, Yokozawa took a moment to look over the display he’d been working on once more.

Apparently today’s theme was ‘First Loves’, and various titles under that theme, both new and old, were lined up together. Of course, Marukawa had several series displayed as well.

“…This sure takes me back…”

The book he’d picked up without thinking happened to be the very first title Takano had been in charge of, back when he’d first joined Marukawa. It had turned out to be the title that pulled a struggling author out of a long slump and had even been made into a movie. Since then, that same author had maintained a steady wave of popularity in Emerald.

Back then, Yokozawa had run himself ragged, desperately trying to promote the title, and in his off time he’d gone around to stores that the sales department people typically never set foot in, finding every spare moment he could to make sales calls. His hard work eventually paid off, though, and when the book took first place in the monthly sales rankings for the company, they’d shared a congratulatory drink together.

“He’ll be here in just a moment; would you mind waiting?”

“Sorry for the trouble. Oh—how are classes going? You always seem to be here when I drop in—you’re not slacking off, are you?” he casually questioned. Putting together displays like this and selling their books was all well and good, but the guy had to be busy with his art school lectures and projects and whatnot.

“Oh stop it, Yokozawa-san! It’s spring break right now. And I’ve got great grades, I’ll have you know, so there’s no need to worry.”

“Well, I’m sure you’re being careful about it at least. So how are this month’s sales going?”

“Honjou-sensei’s new work is doing rather well out of all this month’s releases. All the customers who buy the new volume wind up coming back the next day to buy the back issues, too.”

“That’s always a plus.” That the customers were going through the trouble to purchase previous volumes was a testament to the attraction in the newest volume. While the author herself was rather a dull sort, her manga was good. Yokozawa had been confident that if people would just read the story then the number of fans would increase, but it made him all the happier to have results actually proving it.

“And then there was Mutou-sensei’s work from last mo—ah, the manager’s here! You can hear the rest from him—I’ve got to get back to the display.”

“Got it—thanks for everything.” He waved to Yukina as he returned to the display setup before stepping towards the manager, who approached at a jog.

“Yokozawa-san! My apologies for the wait.”

“Not at all; I’m sorry to have called you away while you were busy.”

“Oh no, I was about to head back out anyways.”

The manager of Books Marimo was quite a manga fan himself and was in charge of the shounen manga section. Thanks to him and Yukina, the manga floor here held the best lineup in the whole city—and it was for that very reason that all of the publishing houses had their sights set firmly on this store.

But having a large selection also meant it was difficult for many titles to stand out, and the salesmen from each company worked tirelessly trying to get their titles positioned in prominent locations.

“Thanks so much for setting up that Za Kan corner last month. Thanks to your efforts, the sales went better than predicted, and we’ve had to commission an emergency reprinting.”

Hearing the results his work had helped bring about, the manager rejoiced as if he himself were responsible for the whole thing. “Really? That’s amazing! What with the movie coming out soon and all, I’m really looking forward to the upcoming events. Oh—that reminds me, when is the next volume of Za Kan going to be released?”

Yokozawa lowered his voice so as not to be heard by any customers nearby. “It actually hasn’t been announced yet, but just between you and me, the release date will be announced in one of the magazines being released next week, so feel free to make another dedicated display if you like.”

“Oh absolutely! Definitely!! Uwaa~ I can’t wait!! I just love Za Kan, you know! Of course I read it serialized in the magazine as well, but I always look forward to the cover and under-printing.”

It was truly a blessing having the employees be actual fans of the work in question. Compared with books stacked in a simple, orderly fashion, shelves stocked in shops that really were passionate about the titles always appealed in some way to customers. More than a few books that had never stood out despite being decent works were put on display with a simple promotional poster drafted by the employees and subsequently became hits.

“We’re always thrilled to hear you say that. I’ll be sure to let the parties concerned know that Books Marimo is doing their best to help promote the work.” With these words, Yokozawa suddenly recalled just who Za Kan‘s managing editor was and felt an uncomfortable chill run through him.

Ijuuin-sensei’s editor…was the editor-in-chief, Kirishima.

He started to regret for a moment what he’d just promised, but then realized that even if he avoided the guy, there was no escaping being dragged around by him.

“Please let them know that I’m always looking forward to each issue.”

“I certainly will. I’m sure the author will be more than pleased.” He pasted on a salesman’s smile, praying that the man couldn’t tell just how he really felt inside.


From that day on, the days when Yokozawa could get by without having to see Kirishima dwindled to nothing.

He hadn’t a clue what kind of enjoyment the guy was getting out of it, but practically every day Yokozawa found himself being dragged out for dinner. While rather shocked at first, those around him had slowly but steadily grown accustomed to the situation, such that nowadays he even found people coming to him wanting to know where Kirishima was.

However, while Yokozawa himself was also getting used to the setup, he remained perplexed, still not understanding what exactly Kirishima’s true intentions actually were. No matter what he asked, the guy was always evasive in his responses, giving nothing but vague, baseless answers.

And yet, so long as the guy kept a firm grip on whatever embarrassing photos he claimed to have, no matter how it irritated him, Yokozawa couldn’t afford to make any false moves.

He’d given thought to trying to steal the opportunity to grab Kirishima’s cell phone and delete the images himself, but the guy never gave him the chance, as if he could see right through Yokozawa and figure out exactly what he was planning.

Before heading back to the sales floor, Yokozawa took a detour to the 4th floor where the Emerald offices were to let them know how well the latest volumes were selling. As soon as he stepped off the elevator, though, he noticed the place was bustling with much more tumult than usual.

It was hardly a quiet place to begin with, but today it was downright noisy.

“What’s wrong?”

“Apparently Takano and Onodera shared a double bed on their business trip!!”

“What?!”

When he consulted the female editor standing nearest to him, she responded cheerfully, but Yokozawa couldn’t grasp her meaning in the slightest. Seeing the way his brows furrowed at her incoherent response, she proceeded to explain. “Due to a mistake by one of the girls in general affairs, they apparently couldn’t get a room with two twin beds. A rather cliched situation, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting~!”

It was hard to understand her through her excitement, but he managed to grasp the basics. Apparently Takano and Onodera had gone out of town on an overnight business trip together the day before. There, through some mistake when the general affairs personnel had reserved the hotel room, they’d been forced to share a double bed than the preferred twins, which were unavailable.

“Onodera-kun looks absolutely exhausted, and Takano-san refuses to say what happened that night! Doesn’t that seem fishy to you?”

“……….”

He had no words with which to respond to the boldly confident statement. When he turned to glance in the direction of the Emerald desks, Onodera was making a fuss, like always, and those around him were teasing him mercilessly.

“Ricchan, did something happen?!”

“What exactly are you implying by something?!”

“Sorry, Onodera, but Yoshikawa Chiharu has writer’s block, so I’ll be using that as a setup if it’s all right…”

PLEASE DON’T. And why are you holding a telephone receiver?!”

Putting aside Kisa, who was rarely serious to begin with, even the typically indifferent Hatori was digging into him. While Onodera had been rather prickly when he’d first joined the company, he seemed to fit in quite nicely now, a full-fledged member of the editing division.

Takano put a stop to the others’ teasing of Onodera as he flailed about. “Do what you want.”

“Takano-san!!”

“Ah…I think I’d like to hear the details of this one.” Mino joined in, going after Onodera.

“Me too!!”

“Sure! Onodera, let them hear all about it!”

“So? So? What’s the real deal, Ricchan?”

Casting a sidelong glance at Kisa, who still wasn’t letting up, Yokozawa moved to leave. There was no way he could be expected to get riled up with that lot. Just before departing the editing division, though, he caught the conversation of a group of women standing nearby.

“Well, it’s not impossible for a relationship to start from a coincidence like that!”

“Ooh, so—who do you think topped?”

“Takano-san, of course! Onodera-kun doesn’t look like the proactive type, after all.”

The female editors were watching the goings-on in the Emerald department with glee, tittering away in their own little fantasy world. Yokozawa recalled distantly that the editing division for Sapphire, Marukawa’s BL label, was also located on this floor.

These women had likely long ago disposed of frivolous ideas like reality. They were able to rejoice over situations like this happening to other people precisely because it was fantasy. He found himself pondering dark thoughts about how, if he told them that Takano and Onodera really were in a relationship together, they wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to get excited over it like this.

“…Idiots, all of them,” he spit out in a whisper, and returned to the elevator he’d just left. Alone at last in the little box of a car, he sighed irritatedly. The wound in his chest that had at long last started to heal, little by little, began to throb painfully again.

Of course there was no way he’d get over being rejected like that in the little over a week that had passed since then. Returning in a dour mood the the 3rd floor, he found it steeped in a similarly unusual atmosphere. However, gone was the light-hearted mood from earlier, and instead everyone was frantically running about making phone calls.

“Henmi—what’s going on?”

The moment he noticed Yokozawa, Henmi let out a voice sounding as if he were about to start crying. “Yokozawa-san! Why didn’t you answer your phone?! I’ve been trying to reach you!”

“Ah—sorry, I didn’t notice… So?”

“It’s terrible! We’ve been fielding non-stop calls with questions about Za Kan—all wanting to know if the movie premier date and the cast information are true!”

“What?! How did that information get out already?! They weren’t supposed to release any information until the magazine goes on sale! Where’s the leak?!”

Yokozawa rolled his eyes as Henmi explained, “Apparently it was written on a fax we sent to one of the book stores…

“A fax for the book store?”

“It was passed around at the branch, and a reader happened to snap a picture of it and uploaded it online. Then it just exploded from there apparently.”

In other words, they themselves had ignored the information prohibition and given the information to one of the book stores ahead of time. And even worse—they hadn’t even realized it had happened until readers themselves had called to confirm. It was inconceivable for no one to catch this.

While many might think there was no reason to get so bent out of shape over information as insignificant as this being leaked, this was a promotional strategy that had been in the works since over a year before. One wrong move, and everyone’s hard work would be for nothing.

Yokozawa was in charge of checking all paperwork sent outside the company. There was no way he would’ve let something like that slip by. He quickly fired up his computer and opened the e-mail from Henmi, checking the document in question.

He let out a small gasp when he noticed the creation date listed in the file properties.

“…Ah…!”

That stormy day—the day he’d been rejected…even thinking about it now, he knew he’d been completely out of it that day. He’d been irritated at how pathetic he was, and even the smallest words from his coworkers had thrown him into a rage—everyone had been walking on eggshells around him. That in itself had irritated him even further, and he’d probably lost all ability to focus.

But no matter the reasoning, a mistake was a mistake. Making a simple error like this…he was setting a horrible example for his subordinates, given how he liked to walk around all high and mighty.

“What should we do…?”

“There’s nothing to do. Sorry—this is all on me. It’s not your fault. I’ll go make my apologies to the editing department.”

He’d have plenty of time to regret his actions later. Right now, he needed to go bow his head to everyone he’d inconvenienced, think of a way to resolve the situation, and plan how to proceed from here.

Biting back his self-loathing and turning around, the very person he needed to go and see most was standing right in front of him.

“Ki—Kirishima-san.”

“We need to talk. Come with me.”

“…Right.”

Kirishima brought him to an empty room reserved for small-scale business meetings. When the door shut behind them, locking them in the windowless room, he couldn’t help but feel a bit suffocated—probably because of his guilt.

“You probably know what I came to talk to you about, huh?”

“…I do. This was all my fault—I’m really, truly sorry for this.”

“To think that the great Yokozawa Takafumi would make a stupid mistake like this. You may talk a big game, but in the end you’re still human.”

“…….” It hurt, but he couldn’t refute it. Indeed, if he’d been in Kirishima’s shoes, he probably would’ve used even sharper language. There was no recovering from this even if he made an excuse. He could only sit here quietly and let Kirishima unload on him.

“…Does this have anything to do with why you went and got pissed out of your skull?”

“!!” His expression went stiff as Kirishima hit the nail on the head, but it was too late to try and hide his agitation now. Kirishima probably knew his suspicions were founded now.

“I’ll bet not a single one of your people would ever imagine that you’d let your personal affairs affect your work.”

“…Say whatever you want. I won’t fight back.” He seemed indifferent on the surface, but Yokozawa knew the guy had to be seething inside. Anyone would throw a fit if a year’s worth of hard work and preparation were all for nothing because of someone’s careless error. If he’d been in Kirishima’s place, he’d be a raging fire of fury.

That Kirishima wasn’t the type to act on his emotions could probably be chalked up to his age as much as his demeanor, but Yokozawa wished he’d just go ahead and let him have it, certain he’d feel better that way.

“…Geez, stop looking like a little kid who just got caught playing a prank. I just wanted to have a little fun with you.”

“…A little fun…?”

“I’m telling you I’m really not mad. Though you have kind of made things difficult for me. As long as you feel bad for it, I suppose that’s enough. But you’d better not make the same mistake twice. Your standing would never recover—remember that.”

“But—what do you mean ‘that’s enough’? We can’t exactly take it back, you know!” It was impossible to recover information that had already been leaked. Yokozawa felt himself growing even more flustered than the ever-composed Kirishima.

“Then—why not just play it up as an advance marketing ploy?”

“Advanced marketing?”

“Say you leaked a little info to get people excited. Everything works out nicely then, don’t you think? We’ve gotta get sales up on the magazines and comics too, after all, so I’ll just have the people in my office tell whoever calls up the editing department that the full details will be available there. Thankfully, none of the really big points got out, so for now, I’ll have the author and the anime development people accept it.”

Yokozawa was absolutely dumbfounded at Kirishima’s suggestion. He’d never imagined that the editing people would be the ones to come up with a plan to fix this mess.

“…Wait, are you…covering for me?”

“What else does it look like? Be grateful—oh, and that’s another one you owe me.”

Truthfully, he’d really wanted to avoid racking up any more debts with Kirishima, but now was not the time to fall prey to his own pride and obstinance. He had to take care of the mess he’d created first, and he nodded to Kirishima.

“It was my fault. I really…do feel terrible about this.”

“If you really feel bad, then try being a bit cuter about it.”

“Huh?” Despite his earnest apology, Kirishima was now suggesting something he didn’t understand at all, with a completely serious face.

“It’s ‘I do apologize.’ Go on—try it out.”

He got goosebumps at the revolting tone the guy used, and more than Kirishima’s tone being disgusting, there was no way that Yokozawa could be expected to say it cutely given his voice and looks. Unable to stand it anymore, Yokozawa snapped, “Who the hell is saying that?” Kirishima released a laugh at the shout, and Yokozawa felt his irritation returning at this attitude. “Stop laughing!”

“There you go—that’s more like it! Everyone around you falls apart when the wild bear acts all depressed.”

“…Huh?” Had he been…trying to cheer Yokozawa up? The moment he realized this, his face went red. He was humiliated that the guy had not only noticed, but gone out of his way to make him feel better.

Realizing, though, that he was the one at fault, he couldn’t exactly gripe at the guy to mind his own business. Growing all the more uncomfortable with the situation, he had no choice but to keep his mouth shut.

“Anyways—for now, tell the other guys down in sales that I really bitched you out. You can pay me back by selling twice as many new and back issues of my series as usual.”

Twice as many? Who the hell do you think I am? Even if you didn’t ask, I’d still sell more than that!” With this harsh retort, the uncomfortable feelings from before blew away.

“That’s the spirit! Ah—right right, come grab a bite to eat with me after work today. And make sure you’re ready to go by 6, no matter what.”

“…Fine.” The fact that he’d gone out of his way to emphasize a time seemed to imply he had some sort of plan in the works. But given Yokozawa’s weakened position, he didn’t have any choice but to go ahead and accept the invitation anyways.


“So? Just where are we off to today?”

“You’ll find out when we get there. Today I’m gonna let you eat the best food in the entire world, so look forward to it~”

“Huh?” was Yokozawa’s indifferent response to Kirishima’s better than usual mood. If they were going to just have dinner, anywhere was fine, really—and yet Kirishima continued to lead them away from the station. After work, they’d boarded the train and ridden for a good 20 minutes before disembarking, only to continue walking even further with no goal in sight.

Yokozawa had dug into his work with the intent to clear his reputation and wound up finishing everything he’d planned for the day by 5:30. Just as he was reflecting in annoyance that this made it seem like he was actually looking forward to his plans with Kirishima, he received a text from the man himself.

/Looks like I’ll be a little longer, so wait for me at the station. If you manage to get done early, buy three green tea-flavored Bavarian cream puffs./

Despite being quite puzzled by the message, Yokozawa did as asked, but he still didn’t know what he was supposed to do with this thing he held in his hands now. Was Kirishima going to eat them, perhaps? But—thinking back on their meals together so far, he hadn’t seemed particularly fond of sweet things in the least. There was the possibility that he just thought liking sweet things didn’t suit him, and so he’d hidden it, but it was impossible to be sure.

“We’re eating in this residential area?”

“Just keep your mouth shut and follow me.” Kirishima ducked inside a rather normal-looking apartment building. He opened the autolock with a passcode and headed for the elevator. Maybe there was a restaurant operating out of one of the rooms here? He couldn’t even begin to imagine where they were going, but seeing as Kirishima had instructed him to just shut up and follow along, he couldn’t ask any more.

“Well, here we are!”

“This is…?”

The building seemed to be set up as a family-type housing complex, with each section cordoned off by a small gate that came up to about waist-height. In the entryway of the room they’d stopped in front of, there was a light-blue child’s bike leaning against the wall. The questions started piling even higher in Yokozawa’s mind at the sight of this item that seemed absolutely steeped in personal lifestyle-ness.

Yokozawa shifted his gaze around, trying to see if perhaps the restaurant’s name was written anywhere. He finally noticed a nameplate underneath a carelessly hung up jump rope—Kirishima.

“This is—your place?”

“Yup. It’s not very tidy—but there’s at least enough space to have dinner, so don’t worry.”

He never would have imagined that he’d be taken to the guy’s home. Kirishima opened up the gate into the front entryway with a key he pulled from his pocket and called out towards a room where a light was on, “Hiyo, I’m home!”

“Welcome back! Oh, do we have a guest, Papa?”

Papa?!” His voice rang out shrilly at the unfamiliar word. He glanced back and forth at the man and little girl before him, comparing them. They didn’t look alike in the least, but the gaze which Kirishima wore now was gentler than Yokozawa had ever seen him look at anyone else before.

It seemed the bicycle out front was his daughter’s. If one thought about it, this whole situation wasn’t all that strange, but perhaps because he already had an initial impression of Kirishima, Yokozawa had never fathomed the possibility that Kirishima was a father.

“What, is there a problem with my being a papa?”

“I—no, that’s…not what I meant…”

Standing before them, prim and proper, was a little girl of about ten, her hair up in a ponytail. Her big brown eyes were fringed with long lashes and looked like they were going to overflow with every blink, and her rosy cheeks were round and full.

Yokozawa had been, suffice it to say, shocked when he found he’d been taken to Kirishima’s house, but even more surprising was the fact that he had a daughter this old. Seeing Yokozawa’s hesitation, Kirishima introduced the girl.

“This is my daughter Hiyori; she’s ten years old. And this man here is Yokozawa; we work in the same company. He may look like this—but he’s still in his 20s, so don’t go around calling him ojisan or anything, ‘kay?”

“Got it! Can I call you ‘Yokozawa-oniichan’?”

“Uh…sure…”

Hiyori then proceeded to give a proper greeting to the still befuddled Yokozawa, bowing her head shortly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Kirishima Hiyori! Thank you for always taking care of Papa!”

“Ah—yes, I’ll be taking advantage of your kindness tonight. I’m Yokozawa Takafumi.” Caught up in the moment, Yokozawa gave his own proper introductions.

Seeing how impressed Yokozawa was with how well she handled herself for her age, Kirishima jumped in with, “Hiyori—he doesn’t take care of me. I’m the one who has to take care of him.”

“Papa! Don’t say such childish things!”

“Geez, it’s just a joke! Oh—right, Yokozawa? Don’t you have a present for Hiyori?”

“Huh? Ah—oh, this?” Apparently the green tea-flavored Bavarian cream puffs he’d been made to buy earlier were for Hiyori. When he held the bag out for her at Kirishima’s prompting, her expression instantly brightened.

“Uwaah!! Green tea-flavored Bavarian cream puffs! I love these! Thank you, Yokozawa-oniichan!!”

“Oh—I’m glad you like them.”

“I’ll put them in the fridge for now, then we can each have one for dessert!”

She cradled the paper bag to her chest as if it were a precious item. Seeing the way Yokozawa watched her with a smile on his face, Kirishima sought his agreement on the situation with an unusually gentle voice. “My Hiyori’s pretty cute, huh?”

“Geez, Papa! Stop sounding like a stupidly doting dad! I’m going to finish up dinner preparations—so have a beer or something while you wait!”

“Yes ma’am~”

Hiyori flushed at Kirishima’s words and fled into the kitchen. Even Yokozawa couldn’t help grinning at the sight.

“I’ll admit—she’s so cute I never would’ve pegged her as your kid.”

At his words, laced with thinly veiled sarcasm, Kirishima shifted his features into a pleased expression one wouldn’t have imagined him capable of given his usually cool demeanor. “She takes after her mother. I’m never letting her get married.”

Even Kirishima became a typical doting parent once safely behind the walls of his own home, apparently.

Yokozawa found himself grasping for a response, faced for the first time with Kirishima’s fatherly side. ”So…what about your wife? Is she out shopping or something?” He had only just now considered the fact that there was a wife involved. Wearing a wedding ring, and with a daughter to boot—that meant there had to be a mother around somewhere.

At this, he realized—Kirishima being a married man…meant that he’d been cheating with Yokozawa the other night, hadn’t he? Despite the fact that Yokozawa hadn’t really had any choice in the matter, he most definitely did not want to face the guy’s wife right now.

Then, just as his chest started to throb with the pain of guilt, Kirishima responded, surprise evident in his voice, “…Wait, you didn’t know? I don’t have a wife.”

“Huh?”

“And—just so you know, we didn’t get divorced. She died of illness, before Hiyori was old enough to even remember her.”

“…I’m sorry. That was really insensitive of me to ask.”

Kirishima probably spoke so casually of the matter because he didn’t want to make Yokozawa feel uncomfortable. He’d probably been asked that same question a dozen times over before, after all.

“It’s not a big deal. It all happened around when you’d just entered the company anyways; it’s not strange that you didn’t know.”

And suddenly…things made a lot more sense. The reason he always left work early—except for just before the end of a cycle—despite being the editor-in-chief, and always came in to the office early…must have been because he was coordinating his work schedule with raising his daughter.

“Geez, use your head; do you really think I’d have cheated on my wife with you?”

“Well I couldn’t tell—you’ve still got your ring on after all!” It was humiliating the way the guy saw right through him like that—but it was Kirishima’s fault for not explaining properly and making Yokozawa read too much into the situation in the first place.

At this implication-laden complaint, Kirishima came back with an unexpected response. “…What, are you jealous? If you want me to take it off—all you have to do is ask. I just wear it to keep authors from asking stupid questions.”

“I never suggested that!” Yokozawa wished the guy would stop assuming he was jealous. He felt like an idiot for feeling sorry for Kirishima in the first place now.

“Come on, you don’t have to blush.”

“I’m not blushing.” As he found himself getting worked up dealing with Kirishima teasing him, Hiyori stuck her head out into the genkan, having now finished preparing dinner and grown tired of waiting for them.

“Papa! Yokozawa-oniichan! Dinner’s ready! How long are you two going to hang around in the genkan?”

“We’re coming—just wait a minute. Come on, don’t keep Hiyo waiting.”

“You’re the one who started a conversation here!” he snapped at Kirishima’s comment dripping with feigned innocence. Following behind Kirishima, who laughed him off easily, they proceeded into the living-dining area.

All around the room, the walls were decorated here and there with Hiyori’s drawings and paintings. Combined with the soft pastel walls, it was an atmosphere worlds away from what Yokozawa had imagined of Kirishima.

“What does she do when she’s here alone?”

“My parents live nearby, so if I have to work late, she stays with them. My mother comes over from time to time and makes dinner, too.”

“Why not live with them?”

“If I did that, I’d wind up just sponging off of them for sure. Living this far away is just right, as I see it. Ah—you can sit over there.”

When they reached the table, they found a pot full of delicious-smelling curry. Provoked by the scent, Yokozawa recalled that he was absolutely famished. He hadn’t had anything since that afternoon, when he’d wolfed down a riceball he’d bought at a conbini while making his rounds.

“Yokozawa-oniichan, do you want a beer? Or oolong tea?”

“Have a beer. You’ve got the day off tomorrow, after all. If you drink too much, you can just spend the night.”

“I’ll pass, thanks. Could I get some oolong tea?”

“Eeh?? You should spend the night~!”

Yokozawa’s chest hurt at the pitiful face Hiyori directed at him, but he was rather reluctant to stay the night at Kirishima’s place. To keep things from worsening, he quickly used his pet cat as an excuse. “I’ve got a cat waiting for me at home. Maybe next time?”

Hiyori’s eyes brightened, and she latched onto the word cat. “You’ve got a kitty?! What’s its name??”

“Sorata. He wasn’t really my cat at first, but well, some things happened. He’s over ten years old now, though, so he’s an old cat. You like cats?”

“Yup!! I love them! You’re so lucky… I want a pet cat, but Papa always says I’d never be able to take care of it…”

“Hey, I never said you couldn’t have one. I said I didn’t mind so long as you think you could take care of it properly on your own. I’ve got a hard enough time taking care of myself, after all.”

Taking pity on Hiyori’s unhappy expression, Yokozawa couldn’t help issuing an invitation: “Then—would you like to come over and see him sometime?”

“Can I??” An excited expression blossomed on Hiyori’s face. It was a smile that felt like the sun in Spring, just as her name suggested, and Yokozawa felt his heart warm just from looking at it.

Getting closer to Hiyori…meant his relationship with Kirishima would deepen as well. He knew it wasn’t wise to get any more deeply involved with the guy, but he found himself willing to do most anything when faced with someone as cute as this.

“I don’t mind, but…I’m not sure if your papa will agree or not.”

“Papa?? Can I go see the kitty at Yokozawa-oniichan’s house??”

“Hmm, I dunno… I suppose that’ll depend on your grades from third semester.” Kirishima issued his conditions to Hiyori, who’d begged him in the sweetest voice she could muster.

“Geh…ah, okay…I’ll do my best…”

“It’s simple enough, isn’t it? All you have to do is raise your math grades.”

“Maybe you find it simple, Papa, but it’s hard for me!” Apparently Hiyori wasn’t all that good at math, and she made a face of disgust, as if being forced to eat something she disliked.

Taking pity on her, Yokozawa offered, “Then, would you like me to teach you?”

“Really?! Could you help me with my homework later?? There’s one I can’t understand no matter how hard I try!”

“Okay then—it’ll be my thanks for dinner.”

Watching Yokozawa and Hiyori making their arrangements, Kirishima couldn’t help popping in with, “Can you even teach?”

“Of course I can; I was a home tutor part-time during college.” Of course, all of his students had feared his grueling, demonic way of teaching, but given that their grades went up nevertheless, he’d been well recommended by all of their parents. And he’d only been particularly hard on the ones who weren’t putting forth any effort anyways; there was no sense in buckling down on someone already doing their best.

“Okay! It’s a date then, Oniichan!”

“Right right.” He executed a pinky-promise with her little, twig-like finger, honestly fearful that if he put even the slightest force into it he’d break it.

“Oops! I forgot to put out the salad! Wait just a minute!”

“All right—don’t drop the plate running, though!” While she was in the kitchen, Kirishima commented amusedly, “Geez, you wouldn’t expect it, but you’re really good with kids. Don’t tell me—animals like you too, huh?”

“That’s cause animals and kids both see people for who they are on the inside.” He hadn’t ever been around any other animals, so he couldn’t be sure, but he at least had never met a dog or cat that didn’t like him. The ones who were always too afraid to even approach him were always adult humans.

“You do realize that by saying that you’re admitting that you’re scary at first glance, right?”

“Shut up.” He knew perfectly well that he had an intimidating mien and equally intimidating voice—but it wasn’t as if there were anything he could do about it. If he smiled too much, it would probably just make others uncomfortable, and using an ingratiating tone was just unthinkable.

“Well—it’s nice that you and Hiyo seem like you’ll get along. Made it worth it bringing you here. Feel free to get closer with her.”

“You sure you want that? What if I come up to you later and tell you Hiyo and I are getting married?”

“Hmm, yeah…you’re gay, after all. It’d wind up being an unrequited love for Hiyo then, huh… Ah well, such is life.”

“I told you: I’m not gay—”

“Geez, I’m starving! Hiyo~ we’re gonna start on the curry, okay?”

“Okay! There’s lots left over, so eat as much as you want!”

“Here, you too. Itadakimasu!

Having his rant cut off by Kirishima left him feeling a bit of indigestion, but he was too hungry for that to be a problem, so he quietly picked up his spoon without comment. “…Itadakimasu.”

He dug into the roux and rice together, lifting a bite to his mouth. The roux contained chicken, carrots, potatoes, and a bit of quail egg. Perhaps it had been made to suit Hiyori’s taste, for it was a sweet flavor that was steeped in a cozy gentleness.

He could cook for himself perfectly well, but since joining Marukawa, he’d found less and less time to cook at home. Snacks were easy enough to make, but he tended to eat his meals almost wholly outside. Even though he knew it was bad for his body, it was more troublesome than anything to worry about it, so he couldn’t bring himself to spend the time in the kitchen.

Back during college, although he hadn’t had much money, there’d been a certain someone at his side whom he had to make sure ate properly. So every day he’d made meals which were perfectly balanced nutrient-wise. Thanks to that, he’d grown quite skilled in the kitchen, but nowadays he was rather rusty.

“Papa, Yokozawa-oniichan, how’s my curry?” Hiyori sounded a bit worried, toddling in from the kitchen carrying the salad.

“Delicious. Yokozawa—Hiyo’s special curry’s pretty tasty, huh?”

Yokozawa couldn’t help the small chuckle that escaped him at Kirishima’s expression. Their coworkers and authors they worked for would probably never imagine that Japun‘s editor-in-chief could look like this. Keeping his shoulders from shaking, he nodded. “Definitely the best in the entire world.”

At Yokozawa’s words, Kirishima smiled broadly. “See? Just like I told you.”

“Thank goodness! Oniichan, eat as much as you like, okay??” Hiyori was even happier than Kirishima, and her smile lit up her whole face.