At the end of the day, it isn't Dobashi who brings everything tumbling down. That, ultimately, is what takes Kantarou by surprise.
Dobashi he had been prepared for. He had never quite had a plan, but Kantarou had always known that there was a possibility of her opening her mouth and exposing him. It'd been a constant threat: something which had both distressed and excited him. She had been, in her own way, a kindred spirit - a rival worthy of risking his job for.
But it is not Dobashi who forces Kantarou into the impossible situation he is now in. It is not even someone Kantarou knows, and that is insult on top of injury.
This is plagiarism, Kantarou wants to hiss the moment he sees the advanced copy of the new book they are due to be shilling to the clueless masses of print readers arrive on his boss's desk. Blatant plagiarism. Not even good plagiarism!
'Oh,' Miyake-san says, flipping through it. 'This is good. Hey, Dobashi, come here - look at this, this is your sort of thing, isn't it? Sweets? That one place you took me to, Reche-reche, it's in here, see-'
Dobashi hasn't seen it yet. Kantarou has the only other advance copy in his trembling hands. He'd stopped reading after the first few pages: had seen red, really. A haze of rage had settled over his vision after some trite line about how the rich taste of chestnuts had uplifted the so-called author from his deep depression, etcetera, etcetera.
It is all a rip-off. An awful, artless, undignified and sacrilegious act of theft. The so-called book is about the so-called author's personal journey of recovery from a terrible sickness through the sampling the best desserts to be found in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The author has framed himself as the Knight of Sweets. Every chapter bears an uncanny similarity to one of Kantarou's blog posts, though the wording has been cleverly changed so that it was unlikely to have tripped any plagiarism checkers right out the gate. How dare they; how dare-
'Buchou,' Kantarou hears Dobashi say, her voice faint. It snaps him out of it, and he watches her carefully. What is she going to do?
Dobashi looks upset. The fact that it is visible for Miyake-san to see is the interesting part: she is normally so good at suppressing her feelings. Kantarou sees anger and then confusion and then something else flash over her face, and for a moment he wonders if she is going to say anything. Defend him, or reveal the truth, or...
She looks at him. Kantarou forces his expression flat, but he blinks at her slowly. Once. Twice. Let me handle this. (How is he going to handle this? What is he going to do? It is his blog, damn it-)
'Nothing,' Dobashi shakes her head, turning back to Miyake-san. 'Do you want me to start putting together materials for an online campaign?'
Miyake-san gestures roughly in Kantarou's direction. 'No, we've got to start from the basics, get together a campaign. I'm giving this to the Oh-Great-Elite one over there; gotta keep him on his toes...'
Kantarou takes the copy home. He sits it on his dining room table and looks at it.
It stares back at him. The title, My Sweet Kingdom, printed in the advance copy's bland proofreading type, makes Kantarou want to scream. He tries to restrain himself: he needs to come up with a plan, not lose his cool and/or his mind. But the thing just sits there, and for some reason Kantarou can't tell himself that he should let it go, or come up with some better idea to expose this book for what it is, or-
He rips it to pieces. Page by page, Kantarou destroys the thing; defaces it and tosses the wrecked sheets into his wastepaper bin and then, only after his hands are red and the travesty unmade, does he feel like he can breathe again.
'It's my blog,' Kantarou says; no one's there to listen.
His phone beeps on a notification. Kantarou whips it out of his pocket: it's a comment on his latest post.
Are you okay, Sweets Knight?
Kantarou does not feel okay. What does he do? He could write a rebuttal on his blog, but why would his persona even know that this book is due to be published at all? A quick Internet search reveals that there is no news about it - of course there isn't, that's his job to generate that sort of PR. Kantarou bites his fingernails. What can he do? He could submit an anonymous letter - no, no, that wouldn't work either: Miyake-san would know that it was one of his own who wrote it, or - worse - that one of his own had leaked the copy. That would result in a fate worse than death; Kantarou shudders to think of what the department head might do to one or all of them.
No, no, no. This is a dead end. There are only two options: tell Miyake-san the truth and stop this madness now, or watch the abomination get published and write a likely useless rebuttal afterwards.
Kantarou puts his head into his hands and moans.
Sleep doesn't come easy. Kantarou tosses and turns and gets tangled up in his sheets and stares at the ceiling and counts sheep, but nothing helps.
The clock on his nightstand reads a grim 01:24. Kantarou has work, the worst possible kind of work, tomorrow. He sighs and gets up to get dressed. Maybe a walk will help.
Kantarou ends up wandering the streets of his neighbourhood in a half-daze. It's a chilly October evening, and every street he crosses puts him in a wind tunnel that whips cold air against him. Tokyo late on a working night is an odd place. The city never really ever goes to bed: there is still the occasional drunk or NEET stumbling around, late-night service workers moving about, young people and old people and people with too much on their minds.
Another wind tunnel, and Kantarou curses the fact that he'd only put on a thin coat. He's a twenty minute walk from his apartment now, and in dire need of some warming up. He spots a sign for a small bar or izakaya just ahead that is still open, a midnight diner of some sort. Kantarou hurries towards it. He lets himself in through the rickety wooden doors, shivering slightly and grateful for the warmth once inside.
'Welcome,' greets the master from the bar as Kantarou enters.
For such a small outfit, this place has quite a few people in it. Kantarou awkwardly bobs a few perfunctory bows at the patrons ringing the bar: they all have the look of regulars. It's a mixed crowd and a far cry from the patrons of the fancy sweet shops he's used to: a few okama past their prime, a salaryman or two like himself, some office ladies, a few lowlife looking types. Kantarou eels his way into the far corner.
The master does not bother him for an order, but Kantarou looks around for a menu out of habit. There isn't really one. 'Do you have something warm?' he asks, rubbing his hands together.
'Food or drink?' the master asks. Kantarou appreciates that he has a deep, calm voice; it fits the place.
It would be too much to ask for a dessert, Kantarou thinks. 'Food,' he says. He hadn't any appetite for dinner, but now he suddenly feels ravenous.
The master nods and disappears into the kitchen. Kantarou can sense the others watching him discreetly, but no one engages him in direct conversation. He's grateful. Kantarou listens in on the white noise of the master working in the small kitchen in the back while he warms up.
Five minutes later and the master returns with a small bowl of ochazuke. Kantarou inhales the smell of it gratefully: the umami scent of green tea blending in with the homely, familiar one of rice. He takes a bite: the flakes of salmon are nothing to write home about on paper, but tonight, right now, this is the comfort food he needs. The sharp tangy bite of sour plum that follows is just as good.
He eats quietly, focusing on the food, but Kantarou can't quite block the rest of the patrons out.
'Master,' one of the OLs calls out. 'Do you have anything sweet tonight?'
'Hmm,' the master rumbles. 'It's not right for the season, but someone did drop off a few tubs of ice cream yesterday. Clearing stock; I didn't want it to go to waste.'
'Ice cream?' the OL asks. It's not kind of weather for something cold...'
Kantarou can't help himself. He'd seen a vending machine right outside, and he has a craving of his own now that he's done with his rice. 'If you don't mind me saying,' he interrupts. Everyone looks at him curiously. 'But I think I can do something with the ice cream. Wait a moment, please.'
He heads outside, digging into his jacket pocket for loose coins, and gets two cans of hot coffee from the vending machine. It's not quite espresso, but it's dark roast and beggars can't be choosers. Kantarou comes back in and asks the master to make up a few bowls of ice cream, then cracks open the cans and pours the coffee over the scoops of vanilla.
'Affogato,' he tells the others. 'Try it.' He pushes the first bowl to the OL who'd wanted dessert.
'It's... surprisingly good! The coffee and the ice cream go together. Thank you...' she looks at him expectantly, waiting for a name.
'Ametani,' Kantarou says. 'It's a pleasure to meet you all.'
They echo the sentiment. The master makes everyone a bowl apiece; someone gets a few more cans of coffee. It's almost rowdy, and good.
'You know your desserts, Ametani-san,' the master says to him when Kantarou gets ready to go. 'Come back any time.'
Kantarou spends the next day trying and failing to come up with the start of the marketing campaign for the book. By late that afternoon, Miyake-san is on his case in blustering bewilderment.
'This isn't like you, Ametani,' Miyake-san says, brows furrowed as he looks over the grand total of nothing that Kantarou has produced. 'Are you sick? If you're sick, you shouldn't come into the office - at least wear a mask!'
'I am not sick,' Kantarou protests, but then realises he has no better excuse. 'I am sorry that I am taking so long to come up with something.'
The four o'clock sun is low in the sky and casts their whole floor in an orange light that makes the place seem Showa-esque, somehow. Miyake-san's face does not help. 'You know, Ametani,' the man says. 'Sometimes you work too damn hard. Go home.'
Kantarou has never known Miyake-san to send someone home early. 'Buchou?'
'You heard me,' Miyake-san says, waving a sheaf of papers at him. 'You're useless like this. Go home.'
Kantarou goes home, feeling wretched. Dobashi has left another few comments on his blog; he leaves them all unresponded to. This is the worst sort of concern: the sort he can't acknowledge.
Earlier that day at work, Dobashi'd cornered him in a quiet corridor, looked him in the eye, then said, 'I can tell buchou that the new book has material blatantly stolen from a popular sweets blog. He does not have to-'
'I have no idea what you are talking about,' had been Kantarou's response. He'd fled, mind white-out with panic, and Dobashi hadn't bothered him again.
Kantarou wishes, now, that he hadn't done that. Trapped by his own choices, he scrolls up and down the blog's homepage and feels terribly alone. His work, his sweat and blood, has no one to defend it.
He can't sleep that night either, but at least today he has a destination in mind and a warmer coat.
'And then he tries to punch me, but the guy misses - he hits the pachinko machine and BAM!'
Kantarou freezes midway through pulling the door of the midnight diner open. Miyake-san is seated right in the centre, a jug of beer in hand and pink in the face. 'BAM!' he shouts again, animated. 'And the pachinko machine - I mean, you know those things are made to withstand bomb attacks, but this one explodes, it spits out the little balls everywhere and the staff are running around trying to get everything in order but it's a flood, is what it is. I try to make a run for it.'
'Do you make it?' someone asks, entranced. 'Did you get out before he beat you up?'
'He didn't beat me up, but only because he didn't have to!' Miyake-san roars with laughter. 'See, I tried to leg it for the door, but I slipped on those stupid little pachinko balls and then it was me going BAM. My arm was in a cast for a month because I fractured it trying to break my fall. Good story, though - ah, Ametani!'
It's too late to back out now. Kantarou stares at his boss, who grins back at him in inebriated conviviality. 'Buchou,' he mutters.
'Don't call me that when we're not at work,' Miyake-san declares. 'Never seen you here before.'
'I just found out about this place the other day,' Kantarou demurs. He edges inside. Why is he being tormented like this? Is this karmic justice for all the times he's skipped out of work?
'Give him a beer, master,' Miyake-san nods in his direction.
A beer materialises in front of Kantarou. He toasts his boss and drinks from it glumly.
'It's good to see you relax and go out,' Miyake-san says, immediately contradicting the sentiment behind his earlier statement of don't call me that when we're not at work. 'The job got you down, Ametani?'
'Not... really,' Kantarou says, staring at his beer.
'I don't think I've ever seen you like this. What, don't like sweets or something? Do I need to give this project to Dobashi?'
'No!' Kantarou cries out, pushing back from the bar abruptly. All it gets him is a sore head as he hits himself on the low ceiling. He cradles his aching head as everyone fusses, and this is the worst possible outcome - how - why - 'No,' he says, 'I'm fine, I'm fine and don't give this to Dobashi, please.'
'Okay, okay,' Miyake-san says. 'Then, what, are you sick of the work?'
Kantarou would normally protest - he knows all the right words, learned how to play the system a long time ago. But tonight, in this place, he finds he can't quite produce them. Miyake-san looks at him shrewdly. 'You know, Ametani, I've been around the block a few times. You're a good salesman. A hell of a good salesman. But you don't believe it, do you?'
'Believe... what, sir?' In sales? Who believes in sales?
'The books,' Miyake-san says, blunt. 'You don't believe in the books. At least, you've never given a single damn about them, until this one. This one's got you tongue tied.'
Kantarou shrugs; anything else would be damning. The rest of the patrons, all three of the other people there, are studiously examining the grain of the wooden bartop.
'Please don't allow this book to be published,' Kantarou manages finally, an agonising lifetime of silence later.
Miyake-san doesn't say no, doesn't shout or gesticulate. 'Give me a reason,' he says instead.
Kantarou winces. 'It's… not the right thing to publish.'
'Is there something wrong with it? Do you think it's gonna flop?'
'No,' Kantarou shakes his head. 'Just… Please don't publish it.'
His boss doesn't say anything to that. Miyake-san throws back the rest of his beer, and thumps the mug onto the table before digging in his wallet for some yen. 'I'm going to give you a week to tell me why,' he tells Kantarou as he puts down some bills. 'Otherwise, I'm giving this to Dobashi. You get me?'
Kantarou nods. Miyake-san waves a hand, then stumbles out of the bar and into the night.
Kantarou spends a long while looking at nothing, but then a plate of mapo dofu appears in his vision. He looks up to the master nodding at him. 'On the house. You look like you could use something different.'
He doesn't sleep that night. He tries coming up with hairbrained ideas the next day - take up Dobashi on her offer to intervene, and be held hostage by her forever? Invent a marketing campaign so terrible that the book flops, and ruin his own reputation in the process? By the third day, Kantarou's barely able to function in the office. Everyone notices. He has to do something, but he can't quite think of what. He stays late on the fourth night trying to come up with a campaign so that he at least has a backup plan, but nothing presents itself: neither a solution nor any clever sales lines.
It's nearly one in the morning when the door to the office opens. Kantarou starts, looking up. It's Miyake-san.
'Get your coat,' his boss grunts. 'Let's take a walk.'
Kantarou silently follows Miyake-san's lead as they meander the empty streets of the business district their office building is in. There's no one around this part of town at this time of night.
'You know,' Miyake-san says, not looking at him as they trundle along, 'a lot of people think I'm stupid.'
'You're not stupid,' Kantarou says, rote.
'I'm not stupid,' Miyake-san agrees. 'I wondered why you freaked out when you saw this book. I read it, even though to me it's boring new-age shit - if I was dying it wouldn't be sweets that made me better, but to each their own, I guess.'
The streetlamps stripe the pavement ahead of them as they walk from shadow to light and back again. Miyake-san taps out a cigarette and starts smoking. 'So I did a little research. Turns out that all the "stops" on his "journey through life" line up with this crazy sweets research blog. It's plagiarised, isn't it? The whole damn thing. Why didn't you tell me anything? Afraid of looking girly for reading a sweets blog? That's a dumb reason.'
'That is a dumb reason,' Kantarou agrees, mind blank.
'Glad you know it,' Miyake-san nods firmly, blowing smoke off to the side.
He says nothing to Kantarou for quite a long while after. They walk for ten, twenty, thirty minutes, until Kantarou's feet start to ache. The neighbourhood changes, and he realises that Miyake-san is taking them back towards that bar. It's another forty minutes on foot away, at least, but Miyake-san doesn't stop.
Kantarou's mind is almost calm by the time the two of them, sweating under their jackets, reach the bar. It's clear three in the morning and they're the only people there when they get in.
The master takes one look at them, produces two beers, then disappears to go wash dishes in the back.
'It was me,' Kantarou says to his beer. 'I wrote the blog.'
'Skivving off work to do it?' Miyake-san asks.
Kantarou winces, but doesn't deny it. The game is up, anyway.
'I think,' Miyake-san declares, 'that it isn't really work you're skivving off.'
Kantarou looks up and over. 'What?'
'Look,' Miyake-san says. 'Pull that blog up on your phone. You're faster than me; I'm an old man and I don't like these weird screens. Come on.'
Kantarou does as Miyake-san asks and hands his phone over when the blog loads. Miyake-san squints at it myopically, but then reads aloud. 'The pee-teet fours of this pateesseeyre are divine,' Miyake-san declares. Kantarou winces at the pronounciation and at the second-hand embarrassment of hearing his own writing voiced. 'And then you go on for three, four paragraphs about how and what and why. There are strings of katakana here I have no idea how to read, Ametani, but you know what you're doing. You love this stuff.'
Kantarou does. He loves sweets. It's silly, perhaps, and for all his life it's been something only he and a hundred anonymous people on the Internet have known, but he does. It's just not the kind of thing you tell anyone.
The master comes back. He puts two bowls in front of them.
'What's this?' Miyake-san asks. 'Coffee and ice cream? That's weird.'
'Ametani-san invented it,' the master says.
'I didn't invent it,' Kantarou objects quickly. He's sensitive to the idea of anyone thinking he would want to take credit for something someone else has done. 'It's a -'
'Don't need to know the history, though I'm sure you could give it to me,' Miyake-san interrupts. He takes a hulking spoonful of the dessert and eats it. 'This is good stuff. Weird, but good.'
Kantarou eats some of his own, not sure how to feel about any of this.
'Point is,' Miyake-san says, tapping his spoon against the side of the bowl to make Kantarou look up. 'There's skivving from work, which is bad. But there's also skivving off from your passion. That is worse. The worst, actually.'
Kantarou opens his mouth. 'Yes sir,' he says at last, a weight off of his shoulders. 'Do you want my resignation?'
Miyake-san bursts out laughing. He laughs so hard he has to wipe tears from his eyes and he's half-bent over the table. 'You know,' he says, 'you're a smart guy. I bet you're thinking, "what am I going to do if I quit?" How are you gonna pay for all your fancy par-fetes, hm? You're that kind of a person. You're wondering.'
Kantarou is wondering.
'Funny thing is,' Miyake-san goes on, smug and sly, 'there is this book deal for this Kingdom of Sweets. It's advance copy right now, you know, so the author might have a lot of edits to do. The whole thing could change and really screw up the poor marketing department, but that's the thing with advance copies, eh?'
Kantarou stares at him. Miyake-san's face is half-hidden by his beer, but Kantarou is sure he's looking at the author of the thirty ways you can cure yourself of cancer by having Mont Blancs on Saturday and anmitsu on Monday.
'You didn't write it very well,' Kantarou shouts. He stands up. He hits his head again. He's dizzy. 'Do you even know what a Bavarian cream is?!'
When people finish their day at work and hurry home, that is when the midnight diner's day begins...
'Welcome,' the master calls out when the door to the diner slides open. 'Oh, Kantarou-san. Good to see you again.'
'Master,' Kantarou greets him, then introduces the lady he's brought along. 'This is a colleague of mine, Dobashi.'
She bows politely. 'Pleased to meet you.' The master notices that she has a sharp look about her.
'She and I will be working together on our next project,' Kantarou continues. 'There may be some late nights. Dobashi-san is taking on an editorial role, and she has exacting standards.'
'Ah,' the master nods. Kantarou means something else, he's sure: whatever it is, it seems good. He smiles at them both. 'Two affogato, then?'
'Please,' Kantarou inclines his head. 'And thank you.'