Under the care of the Kirishima household, Sorata bounced back such that he was unrecognizable as the same cat from before. Yokozawa had feared at first that he might be nervous in a new house, but he quickly warmed up to both Kirishima and Hiyori. And while it was nice that Sorata was able to get all the attention he wanted whenever he desired, he seemed now to be even more needy than he had as a kitten.
While Yokozawa honestly regretted involving Kirishima in all of the ruckus just because of his hasty conclusion, he couldn’t help but be relieved that there really had been nothing wrong with Sorata in the end. If it had been too late to do anything…Yokozawa probably wouldn’t have been able to recover.
Maybe Sorata really had just been lonely. Animals disliked being left all alone any more than humans, after all. Seeing Sorata playing with Hiyori without a care in the world, Yokozawa deeply regretted all the days he’d been late in coming home.
Still—it wasn’t as if he could purposefully reduce his workload, and he was doing his best now to arrive as early and leave as early as possible, even if it was a mere ten minutes either way.
“…Mornings start pretty early around here anyways.”
Wake-up calls were early in a home with a child in it. Hiyori liked to come bursting in and leap onto Yokozawa’s chest before his alarm clock went off, and despite taking heavy damage to his midsection, this was Hiyori, so he could hardly get mad at her, leaving him no choice but to get up without complaining.
While his staying here with Sorata had been an unwilling concession initially, now that a week had passed, he found himself growing accustomed to his life here. In the bathroom, set up alongside a child’s-sized toothbrush was a blue toothbrush that Hiyori had picked out for Yokozawa.
After washing his face, Yokozawa wandered into the living room, where Hiyori pounced upon him holding a hairbrush in one hand. “Oniichan! Do my hair!”
“What’ll it be today?”
“Hmm—we’ve got P.E. today, so put it in a ponytail! Oh—and I wanna wear this, too!” In the palm of her hand, Hiyori held a scrunchie that Yokozawa had bought for her. She appeared to be quite fond of it and had been asking him to put it in her hair every day.
“All right then, sit down.” Yokozawa had started helping her do her hair after seeing Hiyori reading a magazine and fretting over wanting a cute hairstyle like her friends. She’d apparently been trying to do it herself when she couldn’t have her grandmother help, but she’d unfortunately not been very successful.
Yokozawa had always been skilled at delicate operations, and so was able to quite easily give Hiyori the hairstyle she wanted. Since then, he’d been in charge of fixing her hair almost every day. She’d been particularly thrilled the time he’d given her an elaborate braid that had been the envy of all her friends at school.
“You sure are a lot more skilled than you come off.” Kirishima watched in admiration as Yokozawa attended to Hiyori’s hair, the other freeloader Sorata curled up on his lap.
“You’re just really unskilled is all. Learn to at least do your own daughter’s hair, geez.”
“Hey—I can’t help it. Whenever I try, it always winds up looking like crap.”
“Don’t make excuses. If you can typeset a manga, you should have no trouble learning to fix hair with a little practice. Hiyo—it’s not too tight, is it?”
“Nope, just fine!”
He finished the ponytail off with the scrunchie. “All right, then—you’re done. Go check in the mirror.” Yokozawa felt he’d actually gotten quite good at this by now. He was rather fastidious by nature and found he had a knack for accomplishing these tasks that required dexterity and focus.
“Thanks, Oniichan!” Hiyori turned a bright smile on him and then darted into the bathroom. Watching her flit away with a pleased expression, he poured himself a cup of coffee and took a seat at the table.
“Here—you take milk in yours, right?”
Kirishima passed him the milk set out on the table. While Yokozawa preferred his coffee black, he’d taken to enjoying his morning coffee with milk since hurting his stomach once. While it may have been a futile effort, he tried to be as careful as possible, considering that he led a rather alcoholic lifestyle.
Watching Yokozawa sip his cooled cafe au lait, Kirishima commented idly, “Like this…we’re kinda like a couple of newlyweds, huh?”
Certain he’d misheard, Yokozawa furrowed his brows and returned, “Huh? Did you say something?”
“I said, this reminds me of life as newlyweds. I’m the papa, and you’re the mama.” He pointed back and forth between himself and Yokozawa, face serious.
It was a rather dull joke, and Yokozawa couldn’t bring himself to laugh, instead deepening the furrow between his brows. “Stop saying weird things like that.”
“There you go again, blushing.”
“I’m not blushing!” He understood perfectly well that Kirishima only teased him because he got riled up like this, but he couldn’t let it go. When he failed to keep his emotions in check and moved to turn the tables on Kirishima, he caught Hiyori’s voice.
“What’s going on?? What’re you talking about?” Apparently she’d gotten curious hearing Kirishima raise his voice in laughter and poked her head into the living room, her backpack in one hand.
“I was just telling Yokozawa how nice it’d be if he’d be our mama.”
Yokozawa stiffened at Kirishima’s words. “Oi, don’t say weird things to a kid!” He hadn’t expected the guy to bring that kind of thing up in front of Hiyori of all people.
Hiyori tilted her head, following up with a logical argument: “Eeh?? But—Yokozawa-oniichan’s a boy! If he was going to be anything, he’d be a papa!”
To keep Kirishima from butting in with any more useless commentary, Yokozawa quickly changed the subject. “Hiyo—forget your dad for now and finish getting ready for school. It’s almost time for you to meet up with the others, right?” At Hiyori’s school, children living in the same area all gathered in the mornings and traveled to school together. If a student was late, they ran the risk of being left behind.
“Really? I’d better hurry! Ah! I haven’t packed my gym clothes yet!!”
“They’re in a bag in the genkan. And—make sure you wear your sneakers today, not the red shoes!” Yokozawa had taken the liberty of preparing her gym clothes the night before after checking her schedule.
Watching Yokozawa skillfully directing Hiyori, Kirishima stifled a laugh and muttered, “…Yeah, you’re definitely suited to be a mama. You’re more maternal than most of the mothers around here, even.”
“Zip it!” He could feel himself growing weary from his habit of blurting things out unnecessarily, and he made a sour expression at Kirishima’s observation.
“Excuse me, Yokozawa-san? I’ve put together the stockpile information for the manga print-run decision meeting at the beginning of next week, so could you please check it?”
Suddenly called out to while he was focusing on his computer screen, Yokozawa snapped back to the present. When he glanced up, he found Henmi standing beside him holding a sheaf of papers. “Sure—I’ll take a look later. Oh, that reminds me: things were pretty rough last month. Does it look like there’ll be any trouble for next month?”
Print-run decision meetings were meetings at which decisions were made regarding how large a print-run to have for a particular title. There, the sales and editing departments and the distribution center gathered together to decide how many books to have printed based on an author’s previous works and survey data.
The distribution centers were in charge of stockpiles, and always tended to lowball the figure, whereas the editors, who worked hand in hand with the authors themselves and had helped make the books themselves, threw out jokingly high figures.
“No, I think it should be fine this time! The back issues being ordered are all works that have been shown to sell well, so I don’t foresee any titles that should cause trouble.”
“That’s good, then. We’ve never had one of these things go smoothly, though. Who the hell do they think is out there actually selling the books?”
He personally believed that figures the sales department drew up were the most realistic. They were the ones who had a feel for the stores that distributed their titles, and all of their suggestions were made upon comparing the figures with past data as well as other parameters. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t understand the feelings of the distribution center—who didn’t want to stockpile too many titles—or the editing department—who had high hopes for the titles they’d worked so hard to bring to life—but there was such thing as an ‘appropriate volume’.
Granted that sure, for every title that was an explosive hit and wound up selling far better than expected, there was always one that turned in disappointing sales figures, rarely did such a difference come into play.
“That’s true… The distribution center rarely agrees with our suggestions, after all.”
“Well, that’s tough shit for them.”
Henmi gave a bitter smile and rubbed between his brows. “I really wish we could have a nice, quiet meeting for once, though.”
“No such thing with those guys in the meeting.”
With his concentration broken, Yokozawa decided to take a break, and after saving the file he’d been working on, he put his computer to sleep. Clasping his hands together and stretching, he felt his joints creaking. He’d been sitting at his desk in the same position for so long, he’d gone stiff all over. While this was usually about the time he’d head home for the day, it didn’t look like that would be possible any time soon today.
“Sorry, I’m gonna step out for a bit.”
Since he’d started living with the Kirishimas, he’d held back on having even a single cigarette after leaving work every day. But for that reason—the number he’d indulged in during the day had spiked.
He stood from his seat, tapping his vest pocket to ensure his cigarettes were there. On their floor, there was a smoking room bounded on all sides by clear walls—in the ever-expanding environment of non-smokers, it was a bit shameful to still be indulging.
“Maybe I should kick the habit myself…” Even as he muttered the words to himself, he knew it was just lip service. He understood full well that this was doing nothing but damage to his body, but he just couldn’t help it. During work, he’d always find himself reaching out for one, and he kept his smoking at home to a minimum out of consideration for Sorata. Cigarettes weren’t just a luxury item for Yokozawa—they were the quickest way to relieve stress.
For now, though, he’d need at least one smoke to help him finish up his quota for the day, so quitting would have to come at another time. Telling himself he’d just keep it to the one cigarette, he stepped into the break area.
Yokozawa stopped short when he realized who was already standing in the smoking room. He didn’t even need to see the guy’s face; just by his posture he knew immediately who it was.
It was indeed Takano smoking alone. He probably had some black coffee in the mug on the counter he was leaning against, too. Despite being told time and again that black coffee was bad for his digestion and would leave a sour taste in his mouth, Takano always took it black when Yokozawa wasn’t around, refusing to even sweeten it with milk.
Perhaps he was pulling some overtime as well tonight. Takano may have been a terror to his subordinates, but he was even harder on himself. He’d at first been worried about having subordinates who were older than him, but he’d quickly realized that he had no choice but to do his job as befit someone standing at the top of the ladder, and so he loaded himself down with at least twice as much work as anyone else.
“…He looks exhausted.” Takano would never show his weak side before others, reserving any complaints and worries for Yokozawa’s ears only. The comfort of knowing he was trusted so deeply…may have been one of the reasons he’d never been able to give up on his feelings.
Simply seeing that back facing him, Yokozawa felt the feelings he’d meant to toss aside come welling back up again. He’d loved him—loved him so much, loved him more than he could help. And he’d known that it was a one-sided love, so he’d kept quiet and simply enjoyed being able to be by his side.
Yokozawa had been the one to ask for time to let everything settle—but he knew that time alone couldn’t resolve this. He’d thought that the wound from being rejected had started to heal…but even now he could feel it throbbing painfully and realized that he still had not been able to give up his lingering affections for Takano.
What had changed from before, though, was that now…there was no hope left. That was the only difference.
Fighting back the urge to just leave, he took a step forward and pushed on the clear door, calling out in a calm voice, “Hey, Masamune. You taking a break, too?”
“Yokozawa…” Takano turned around, eyes wide and gaping like a fish.
Yokozawa had worked hard to keep from having to speak with Takano outside of meetings or work-related projects, so it had truly been a while since they’d been alone like this. He’d been afraid that he’d be a lot less eloquent when it came to this, and he felt relieved that he’d been able to pull it off rather naturally. “Doing okay?”
“More or less, yeah.”
He’d tried to start a conversation, but just like that, it had fallen by the wayside. The reason they couldn’t keep up a conversation like before was likely because they hadn’t really come to any understanding between themselves yet.
“How’s Sorata doing?”
“Energetic as ever. He’s such a fatass, I can’t keep up with him.” It was bad enough that Kirishima spoiled him, but Sorata was always begging for more treats. Hiyori, on the other hand, was unexpectedly strict in that respect, and kept an eye on them in place of Yokozawa.
“…So you sure seem to be close with Kirishima-san lately.”
Yokozawa’s heart skipped a beat at the eerie timing that made it seem as if he’d read his mind. “We’re not close; he’s just dragging me around is all.”
Takano’s expression grew suspicious as Yokozawa’s ambiguous response. “Really? Why don’t you just turn him down if you don’t like it, then?”
“It’s not—it’s not like that, it’s just…”
If he spilled the details of how he’d gotten close with Kirishima, Takano would eventually realize the pitiful state Yokozawa had been in when he’d been rejected that night—and above all else, he definitely did not want that known.
But it was almost as annoying having Takano think he was just merrily flitting about with the guy as well.
Still, when he clamped his mouth shut, unable to come up with an effective excuse, Takano seemed to not care much at all and easily changed the topic. “That reminds me—I tried calling your apartment last night, but I guess you got home really late that evening.”
“Oh—no, I wasn’t home last night. Sorry if it was an emergency.” Given that he’d just professed that he wasn’t close with Kirishima, there was no way he could reveal that he was staying at the guy’s place. He knew that he wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding his discomfort, but Takano seemed even more oblivious to his feelings than usual today, and so he didn’t call Yokozawa on it.
“It wasn’t urgent or anything, so don’t worry. Were you at your parents’ place or something?”
“Ah, yeah… Something like that.”
When Yokozawa’s business trips coincided with particularly hectic times in the editing department, leaving Yokozawa unable to ask Takano to look after Sorata, he would often ask his parents to look after the cat.
Right now, all of the sales department personnel—Yokozawa included—were quite busy, and he usually would’ve asked Takano to watch Sorata right about now. Maybe he was worried that because of what had happened between them, Yokozawa was avoiding asking him for any favors. Takano fell silent, a pained expression on his face. “………”
He hadn’t intended to get the guy worked up, but it seemed his attempts at supporting the conversation had only served to make things worse. At a loss for words, he could only patiently endure the heavy silence between them.
It was Takano who broke the tension first. “…I’m sorry.”
“Masamune?” At the sudden apology, Yokozawa let his mask fall for an instant, but quickly stiffened his expression again, straightening up.
“I…thought a lot about it on my own, and realized I was in the wrong. I was always going to you for advice and taking advantage of you. I realize that was…pretty insensitive of me.”
How long had he been thinking about this, to bring up these words now? Going out of his way to make the first move himself, he was worlds away from Yokozawa, who always ran away from the important topics like this.
He loved this straightforward aspect to Takano. He’d always been self-defeating and cynical in his way of thinking, but that was all just a front to protect his fragile, easily hurt heart. Perhaps that was why Yokozawa had been so strongly drawn to him.
But what of Yokozawa himself? He’d consulted Takano as a close, personal friend time and again, but he’d never been able to truly tell him how much he’d loved him until the very end.
Steeling himself, he took a deep breath. “Seriously. You’re the editor-in-chief of a shoujo manga magazine! Learn to read between the lines a little, will you?” He pasted on an easy smile, pretentious. It was the most honest thing he could say for Takano right now.
Even if their love could never be, he wanted to stay Takano’s companion. He would probably never find someone he felt so comfortable around again.
“I’m not bothered by it anymore—so, sorry. For saying weird things. Let’s get a drink together again some time.”
At Yokozawa’s words, the tension visibly eased from Takano’s shoulders. “…Yeah, sure.”
“Though I’ll probably be busy for some time yet. There’s an anime production in the works, so I’ve got a lot on my plate. Oh—I just remembered there was an urgent project I need to do. I’m heading back to the sales floor. It’s Friday, so I’ve gotta get it all wrapped up today.” He knew it was a pathetic excuse to say he just remembered, but he needed something to wrap up the conversation.
“Sure—gimme a call when things settle down.”
Takano probably saw right through him. Still—taking this excuse at face value was for the best for both of them. “I will. See you later.” Tossing back a final smile as a bluff, he turned and left. If he spent any longer around Takano, his carefully crafted mask was going to slip off and shatter on the ground.
“Oh, that reminds me.”
“…Give my regards to Onodera.”
Waving one hand at Takano’s reply, he left the smoking room. What sort of face was Takano making right now? He was curious, to be sure, but he didn’t dare turn around, instead continuing straight forward.
Without realizing it, his tightly gripped fists had left nail marks in his palms.
While he’d left Takano professing a need to finish some work, he couldn’t bring himself to return to the sales floor just yet and instead slipped out onto the outside emergency stairwell looking for a place to be alone.
The sun was already setting, leaving the sky dyed in the colors of early dusk. This was also a designated smoking area, but in a season such as this, few were those who would come out here only to be battered about by the north wind. It was an ideal place if you wanted to be left alone, though.
He released the tension that had been building up in his shoulders from nervousness and exhaled softly. He’d been able to talk with Takano more calmly than he’d expected—and yet, at the same time, it had made him remember all of the lingering affections he still held for the man.
He knew full well that there was absolutely nothing to hope for, but the fact that he loved Takano had not changed one iota.
“If I could forget it that easily, I wouldn’t be in this situation, would I…” he reminded himself, taking his cigarettes out of his vest pocket. Biting one between his teeth after tapping it out with a finger, he lit up using a lighter decorated with an anime character from one of Marukawa’s own titles.
Behind him, there was the sound of an iron door opening, and for a moment he stiffened in apprehension, but when a familiar voice called out to him, he was relieved.
“You’re like a high school brat trying to sneak a smoke under the teachers’ noses.”
He knew the voice belonged to Kirishima without even turning around. He didn’t even need to ask how he’d known Yokozawa was up here; he’d probably seen Yokozawa head out onto the emergency stairwell and had followed him up. Perhaps he’d thought it suspicious that Yokozawa would go out of his way to find some place to be alone, or perhaps he’d seen him and Takano interacting. He wouldn’t have come up here to bother him during business hours without a reason.
“If you’ve got something to say, spit it out.” He leaned back against the landing’s railing, cigarette held in his teeth.
Kirishima drew up beside him and leaned against the railing himself. “I’m trying to think of something right now. Gimme a cigarette.”
“I thought you quit.”
“Sometimes even I wanna do something bad for my body.”
Yokozawa pulled out the cigarette case he’d just returned to his pocket and passed it to Kirishima.
“These are some pretty weak smokes you’ve got. Gimme a light, too.”
“Do it yourself.” Yokozawa moved to pass him the lighter as well—but Kirishima just reached forward and grabbed onto his necktie, jerking him close to bring their faces together.
“Nah, this’ll do fine.”
Yokozawa dropped his gaze so their eyes didn’t meet at this close distance—and in doing so, he found himself staring at Kirishima’s lips. They were thin, well-suited to the wry smiles he liked to give out. He wondered idly how many others knew how wide Kirishima opened his mouth when he laughed loudly; and surely no one else in the editing department would believe that despite the way his fingers delicately held a cigarette, he was actually quite clumsy.
“…Finally got it lit.”
The few seconds it took for the cigarette to catch had seemed immeasurably long. Kirishima took a long drag and then easily released it, opening his mouth quietly. “…Are you all right?”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Don’t play dumb. Something happened with Takano, didn’t it?”
“It’s not polite to spy on people.”
“If you didn’t want people seeing you, you shouldn’t have made that face in a public place.”
So he had seen them together… He’d turned his back to Takano, but Kirishima must have noticed his expression from outside the smoking room. “…And what kind of face was that, exactly?”
“You know full well—that’s why you’re out here in the first place, right?”
“If that’s the case, then what the hell are you doing here?” He could feel his anger rising at Kirishima who continued to poke at all his sore spots, no matter how hard Yokozawa tried to keep them hidden. To keep him from noticing this, he took a drag on his cigarette—but for some reason, no matter how much nicotine he took in, today it just wasn’t giving him the relief he sought. “Sorry, but I really don’t feel like being your plaything right now. Please leave me alone.”
He was without a doubt completely exposed right now. If this kept up, he wouldn’t be able to keep Kirishima from seeing a side of Yokozawa he didn’t want to expose.
“If I did that, though, you’d just get depressed and go and deepen that furrow between your eyebrows. And just when I’d finally managed to get it to disappear, too. Well—I suppose it wasn’t that easy a job, though.”
“What are you…”
And that was when he realized it: he’d been so drunk, he’d lost all memory. It wouldn’t have been strange at all for him to have let slip that Takano had been the one who’d rejected him. This guy had just been pretending not to know.
Perhaps that had been why he’d dragged Yokozawa all over then: to keep him from dropping any deeper into depression. Indeed, he hadn’t been alone with Takano just the two of them until today—and that was all because he’d spent every free moment he had…with Kirishima. His vision swam with shock and confusion at the realization that…he’d been being protected all this time.
“I never would’ve pegged you for such a meddling type.” Even his sarcastic quips were softened by the quaver in his voice. He couldn’t bring himself to put up the brave front he’d managed with Takano earlier.
“I surprised even myself. I couldn’t just leave you alone though; maybe because you reminded me a bit of myself from a long time ago.”
“Hmph, and just what part of me is like you?”
“The way you spin your wheels on fruitless efforts and always wind up getting the short end of the stick.”
Yokozawa grimaced at Kirishima’s perfectly on-point comment. Indeed, it was exactly as he said: particularly with regards to his actions since Onodera had turned up. Each and every thing he’d said and done had done nothing more than force the pair to reconfirm their feelings for one another. All of his efforts to tear them apart had only served to bond them even closer, bolstering his position as a spoiler.
No matter how skilled his dexterity, it had no effect on his actual life. He knew better than anyone else that he utterly failed at all the essential parts. But—he never would have pegged Kirishima as the same type.
“…As if you’re anything like me.”
“I’m getting on up there in years; it’s just a mask. It’s only that I’m good enough at it that you greenhorns don’t notice. But on the inside—we’re really not all that different at all.”
Yokozawa couldn’t tell if he was being truthful or just trying to cheer him up, and Kirishima continued to speak when he didn’t respond. “You’re really pure-hearted; one wouldn’t know it from looking at you. You’re always taking that first love of yours so seriously, even though nothing ever came of it, and putting on airs to keep from hurting him.”
“And what makes you so sure it was my first love?”
“Because you blurted it out while you were drunk—but then, anyone can tell just by looking at you. If it wasn’t your first, you wouldn’t suck this much at being in love with someone.”
“………” He couldn’t help wondering just how much he’d spoken to Kirishima that night. That he had hardly any memories of it continued to worry him.
Unable to keep calm, he quickly pulled out his pocket ashtray and put out his cigarette. If he didn’t do something different right now, he ran the risk of saying something he would regret.
But Kirishima continued to bombard him with conversation, heedless of his attempts to calm himself. “I’m going to say something—and you’re not going to like it—but what you’re feeling? That’s dependency.”
“Wha—?” His mind went blank, and he couldn’t grasp what he was being told. Or rather—it wasn’t that he couldn’t understand, but that his mind was flatly refusing to comprehend it.
“‘I’ve got to be by his side, I’ve got to support him, I know him better than anyone else’. Thinking that way is just the underside of wanting someone else to do that for you.”
He wanted to be needed, wanted to be supported, wanted desperately for someone to know him better than anyone else did.
Having his ugliest secrets exposed, he felt all the blood rush to his head. “What the hell do you know?!”
Kirishima maintained a cool mien in the face of Yokozawa’s raised voice, and the difference in their composure only served to underscore how pathetic Yokozawa was.
“Reactions like that are proof that I hit the nail on the head. If you’d never realized it before—think it over now. Why did you love him in the first place?” That calm, remonstrating voice of his was so damn irritating.
“You sure talk big for someone who doesn’t know anything about me! I’m fucking tired of your meddling—so stop trying to manipulate people just because you think you know better than them!”
Yokozawa realized that he’d just said something horrible in a fit of anger—but he had no clue how to stop these feelings from bursting forth.
“…Yeah, you’re right. I…realize that I don’t know everything about you.” Yokozawa felt a stab of pain in his chest at Kirishima’s sad smile. It was different from the pain that he’d felt when he’d been rejected—because this time, the pain sprang from a deep sense of guilt.
If he didn’t apologize right now—their relationship would never recover. But despite this sense of urgency, the words he next spoke were completely the opposite of an apology: “Just—get the hell away from me! Don’t come around me anymore! I don’t want to see your face ever again!”
At this, there was a silent pause—after which Kirishima spoke shortly, “Fine, then.”
“I don’t have an ash tray—would you mind getting rid of this for me?” He passed the shortened cigarette back to Yokozawa and turned on his heel, leaving behind Yokozawa and disappearing back through the iron door into the building.
He’d done exactly what Yokozawa had asked—so why did his chest hurt so much?
He opened his mouth for a moment to call for him to wait—but hesitated. Yokozawa was the one who’d run him off; he had no right to try and stop him. He didn’t even know how he would’ve tried.
While he warred with himself, the large iron door slowly slid shut again, closing with a loud slam.
To Yokozawa, it sounded like Kirishima’s rejection incarnate.