The past two weeks had been chaos. Everything with Tsumugi’s daycare had run smoothly, but the rest of life seemed to be piled up and spike its problems at him all in the same wave. The dishes in the sink multiplied, the words swam in his eyes while he graded papers, and the excitement of exams was in full-tilt mode. Exams not only stressed the students out but the teachers tenfold. Providing the material in easy to understand ways wasn’t always possible. Kouhei wanted his students to equally succeed no matter how steep the hill to climb. Sadly, that was not probable no matter how many times he prayed.
Kotori had looked particularly washed out, stars circling her eyes after today’s lesson. Considering it was Saturday, the next day would give her time off to catch up on anything before asking questions.
But the real contender for stress had been Yagi.
“Want to go out drinking?” Yagi asked. For a man who on default was gruff, he sounded exhausted and raspy as though he had run a marathon.
“Work’s been that bad?” Kouhei asked. He leafed through his paperwork right after work. After it was organized, he snapped it shut inside his briefcase.
Yagi laughed a bit dryly. “You can say that. Anyway, how about the squirt? Can the Iida girl take care of her?”
“I’m not—“ A vision of Tsumugi flashed across his mind’s eye. He felt drawn to Yagi even more at that moment, wondering what had happened. “Now that I think of it, Tsumugi has a sleepover tonight.”
And the rest had been cemented in plans.
Kouhei was ready to take a breather. Usually, he wouldn’t be opposed to simply staying home and spending his time with Tsumugi, or using his time to perfect the recipes he and Tsumugi had recently learned with Kotori. It would be a change in pace to head out into the town for one night with a friend.
Shuffling came from the corner of the room. Kouhei was in time to see Tsumugi lift two stuffed animals, frowning at them, choosing which one wanted to go to the sleepover. She placed the orange kitty down on the couch and clutched the duck to her chest.
“Sorry, Mr. Kitty,” she told him. She knelt down and packed up the duck in an open pink bag carefully. “You went out last time. Mariko-chan likes ducks.”
“Tsumugi, do you need any help?” Kouhei asked. He looked through his wallet, making sure he had enough money to spend on alcohol and train fare.
“I have everything!” Tsumugi piped up proudly.
Kouhei smiled. He decided he would test her resolve on that matter “You have a fresh change of clothes?”
“The cookies we baked yesterday as a snack?”
Tsumugi pouted at the reminder. She reached under the bag, pulled out a pink toothbrush in a baggie, and dropped it in the bag. “Where is Daddy going tonight?” she asked, wholly changing the subject.
“I’m going to go out drinking with Yagi,” Kouhei explained. He recalled the wariness in Yagi’s voice from earlier that day when he had called to invite him along. “We’ll be out late, but don’t follow our example. Go to bed early with the other girls.”
Tsumugi rounded on him. She examined him, eyes narrowing. Something clouded her face like the dark outline of the moon across the sun while she drew an important conclusion. Kouhei watched her, lost for a moment at her curiosity, wondering what she had up her sleeve. She grinned mischievously.
“Like on a date?” Tsumugi asked seriously.
Every nerve in his body went on edge. Kouhei waved his hands. How on earth would Tsumugi decide that they were dating each other?
“Nothing like that!” he laughed. Kouhei honestly had no idea where Tsumugi would cook up such an idea. “We just need time to catch up on things.”
Tsumugi, however, did not appear convinced. She bit her lip and glared at him. Kouhei stepped back at the sheer intensity directed at him, baffled.
She sadly shook her head as if she understood a monumental secret that went straight over his head. “Oh, Daddy. You’ve been mean lately. :eaving your best friend alone,” Tsumugi sighed. But she perked up and nodded to herself enthusiastically. “But it’s okay, don’t be embarrassed. He really, really likes you. Trust me, I know. He’s mean sometimes but good. And I like him. I want Daddy to be happy!”
Before he could ask her anything else, Tsumugi zipped up her bag and pranced to the door. She waved at him to hurry up before she left him behind. She slipped on her shoes and raced out the door, giggling. The evening sunlight blinded Kouhei.
Even after they left the apartment, Kouhei’s thoughts buzzed in his head. He couldn’t get over her final words. She thought he was embarrassed? How could that even be possible? Of course Yagi liked him. He was one of his closest friends, and there was no way she meant he really, really liked him? Tsumugi might simply be teasing him for fun.
The entire notion of it shocked him far deeper down than Kouhei willed himself to admit. He had never expected to love anyone else after Tae. Taking care of Tsumugi had always been first priority: making her meals and carefully monitoring that she was happy.
But he wasn’t opposed to finding a new life with someone brand new. It would be a challenge, and he found comfort in the idea that he might for fall for someone who already knew Tsumugi. It would be difficult to play the whole romance game and introduce Tsumugi to someone he was dating.
Kouhei did his best to coax what Tsumugi meant out of her while they walked to Mariko’s house. Giggling, she ended up not telling him anything at all. Kouhei let it go. She was joking on the subject, anyway.
Yagi was waiting for him outside the izakaya. He held a cigarette tightly between his fingertips, pacing back and forth. His expression was wanly, haunted. Kouhei wasn’t really sure how to read that, but Yagi didn’t look at him right away, eyes towards the sky. Normally, he simply stood against the wall while he was waiting for Kouhei to meet up with him.
No wonder he had wanted to go out drinking.
“You look worse for wear,” Kouhei remarked.
Yagi paused mid-step. Dark eyes turned towards him. Something in that shadowy expression alerted Kouhei to feelings underneath. However, when Yagi raised his hand in a usual dismissive greeting, he thought that he was looking for a diamond in a sea of sand. He was putting too much stock into it.
“Yeah,” he said simply, snubbing his cigarette on a nearby ashtray. “Anyway, I’m starved, Let’s go in.”
They were seated inside of the izakaya at a table near the bar. Kouhei comfortably nestled himself down on his knees. Yagi followed suit.
Briefly, he wondered what Tsumugi would be eating for dinner. He hadn’t asked. The chocolate chip cookies would at least suffice. Perhaps he would make some for the class after their exams…
“Anything you’re in the mood for?” Yagi asked. He picked up his menu and inspected it closely.
Aromas of raw fish, vegetable noodles, and deep fried tofu enticed him. But one thing stood out; the potent, crispy chicken over from the next table. Kouhei’s mouth watered, picturing a checkered basket of chicken sitting right in front of him.
“Karaage,” he decided. “How about you?”
The flicker that passed over his face went away as soon as soon Kouhei saw it. He was about to protest for some reason. Yagi shrugged at the offer. “I’ll go for sashimi myself and see what it tastes like here.”
The placed the order and it didn’t take too long for their food to arrive. In the meantime, they talked about small things like where Tsumugi was for the night. Bottles of sake were placed next to the food. Yagi’s fingers twitched. He instantly went for it, pouring himself a generous glass. He poured some for Kouhei as well to his surprise. Yagi sighed in anticipation and clinked their glasses together.
“So, why are you so stressed?” Kouhei asked, taking one of the fried chicken pieces and nibbling on it.
“Ahh.” Yagi took an extra moment to savor the sake. Perhaps taking too long. He gulped it down, not even looking at his plate. It was peculiar. He usually was the first to start chowing down on his meal as well drink. “Been a rollercaster these past few weeks I haven’t gotten out of. Called an ambulance for someone at the restaurant the other day.”
“Are they alright now?” Kouhei asked, concerned.
“Yeah. Went and gave them a free meal card for the trouble.” Yagi’s face darkened and he grit his teeth. “Would have rather that incident be the end of it. Someone left me a freakin’ tip yesterday. Can you believe the nerve of that? Left me a tip!”
Kouhei winced. He couldn’t believe someone would do that, either. Yagi’s food was always delicious no matter what he made and he had a certified badge at taste testing his food to prove it. For them to tell him in such an off-handed way that he needed to do better and improve… “Sorry, that’s rude.”
Yagi gulped down one glass in one go. “But the worst was the mini fire we had in the kitchen.”
Kouhei followed in stride. The sake burned his throat on the way down in the best way possible. He choked a bit. “Did it damage anything important?”
Snorting, Yagi slammed his glass down and reached out for his sashimi. He ripped off a piece with his teeth. “Nothing came of it, but I still had plenty to clean up. That’s what happens when you get the rush crowd and there’s a moment of panic.”
“It’s not like you to not notice,” Kouhei said. When they had been college, Yagi had constantly told him to pay attention to the oven and not leave it unattended unless it was an emergency.
So much had gone on his life and Kouhei hadn’t talked to him for a while. Checking up on him more frequently might have to be in the cards for later.
Yagi didn’t answer, so he went on another tack.
“I know what you mean,” Kouhei said. “Sometimes I want a break from teaching, but I can’t always have it from the other teachers. Or something pops up and I’m behind on grading so many things…” He had so many people he didn’t want to disappoint.
“Sounds rough,” Yagi said. It was a simple statement. Kouhei heard the empathy in it.
“And I just want to go into hiding, knowing that the kids will glower at me as soon as I walk into the class room.” Kouhei chuckled. “They’re pretty much sick of hearing about what I have to teach them. The want their exams to be over with, you know?”
“Kind of like how you used to be on late nights and I brought you late-night fuel snacks?” Yagi guessed.
Kouhei shook his head. “It was hard, but I just did what I had to do. I wasn’t perfect but I tried.” He was being a bit modest, but he guessed he had been like that as well. It was hard to believe these days.
Yagi eyed again in that way that Kouhei was starting to get used to this evening. It was a glance fill of amusement with bitterness underneath. “I seem to think about it differently.” It was so quiet that Kouhei wasn’t sure if he had actually heard him right.
They sat in silence for a bit after that. Oddly to Kouhei, Yagi still didn’t go after his food. He had stated he was hungry, hadn’t he? But that wasn’t what Kouhei found the most interesting.
Yagi continued to guzzle down sake. Cup after cup. He lost track of the number of pours and sips. It had to have been three so far. Kouhei’s brain already felt fuzzy. On the other hand, Yagi’s face had loosened up, and his cheeks started to glow a light shade of red. When he was drunk, he wasn’t quite as gruff and stoic. The signs were starting—he tended to be the kind of open-ended drunk not so anchored within himself. Kouhei wasn’t sure if he would ever get used to it. Nonetheless, it was better than seeing him gloomy and upset at his misfortunes.
It wasn’t until he ordered shoshu that he began to get suspicious and worry about what was on his mind. The liquid easily fell into the next cup, and he downed that as quickly as the rest. The strength of it gave him an extra glow to his face than even the sake had. “Really hits the spot after so much pressure,” Yagi murmured pleasantly.
There were cracks in this whole thing. Yagi didn’t get this drunk straight out of the horse race. He was more responsible and prone to drink slower.
Kouhei decided he should say something. Yagi usually didn’t drink quite this much on the rare occasions they went out and had a good time. “Don’t you think you’re overdoing it a bit?” he asked, hoping the concern in his tone voice showed.
Incredulous, Yagi poured more sake in his cup.
“’Course not!” he yelled a little too loudly. “We’re jus’ havin’ a good time, aren’t we? I have a lot of drinking to catch up on after the stressful and heartache!”
Heartache…? Oh, probably his anger at the tip.
Kouheis supposed that was true. That was the reason he was there with him. But Yagi downed and downed more of the amber liquid in front of them greedily. Kouhei lifted his glass full of sake to his lips but still watched him in action, mesmerized.
“’Sides, we may never come back here,” Yagi said. He grinned toothily at him. Kouhei frowned at him, confused, so he elaborated, “I’m a bit jealous you’re eating so much of the chicken. Is it really better than what I made for you as a token of my love for you?”
Kouhei felt like a bombshell had exploded in his face.
Ice ran down Kouhei’s spine in shock. He blinked, the words bouncing off he as soon as they were fired. He didn’t know how to quite process that immediately. Yagi didn’t take them back. Instead, he took a long shot of his drink without stopping for air.
“That’s the ticket,” he murmured, hiccupping. “You know it’s good shoshou when it burns real good.”
He was still lost several paces behind.
“Y-you what!?” Kouhei sputtered, coughing. The woman at the bar gave him a concerned look, but he pounded his chest, bringing himself back to life.
Yagi shrugged. He didn’t seem like anything was holding him back. “I like you, man. I have to spell it all out for you?” he said. He laughed good-naturedly. “I suppose I gotta tell you; you haven’t even noticed that I’ve missed you these past few weeks! Haven’t called… I know we didn’t talk for a while again but I thought I’d give you space. Waiting aroun’ like a girl waiting for the guy to call.. Didn’t ya ever realize it? When I used to cook you meals in high school and college for you? Just so you wouldn’t starve?”
The expression on his face should have showed how much he had noticed, eyes wide. He hadn’t known that he felt that way. Was that why he had been so distracted the last few weeks? “I didn’t want to impose on you, but I didn’t think you made—“
“All the time, I thought, ‘He doesn’t even bring a good lunch! Wass that, a whole lunch of rice and cheap convenience store sushi?” What was that about, does he want to be a lonely bachelor the rest of his life?’” Yagi’s head tilted back, and he stared at the ceiling. “So I thought, I’ll take care of him, since he can’t take care of himself. I’ll be the person he needs in his life! I’ve liked him since high school. Maybe he’ll notice me in college. He’ll fail if he doesn’t get the nutrition he needs to study properly!”
The sake turned a tidalwave in his stomach, and he felt like he had been unhanded on his head. But it wasn’t as much of a shock as the first time, and dots started to connect in Kouhei’s brain. The warmth in circling through his veins increased. But there was a warmth in both his body and cheeks that he didn’t think was alcohol induced. He stood to his feet, wobbling a bit just so he could look Yagi in the eye. “Wait, you mean… You did that all because you…” Kouhei didn’t know how to say it. The complexity of how far this had gone on astounded him
“Well, yeah,” Yagi said far easily and finally met his gaze. His eyes were glossed over. He roared with laughter. The sound of his voice was hoarse but jovial. “Didin’cha wonder why I cooked so much food chicken for that Christmas dinner that one year when we were in high school? I wanted you to say, ‘Yuusuke! ‘mma goin’ eat all of it, because it’s so deliucheous! Cook more for me from now on.’ But you only ate a little bit and ate too many sweets.”
Memories flooded back to Kouhei. He recalled that the food had been cooked with a tender, loving care, but he hadn’t put stock in it past Yagi’s skillful cooking. Everything he made was top-notch. Tae had been to that party and their friends, too, but he hadn’t even known that the party had been for him in Yagi’s mind. The food had been for everyone.
Kouhei fell back to his knees. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he stared at the glass in his hand, wondering how he should handle this. Wondering why a part of him was… happy?...
The sound of rustling made him freeze. Black eyes were looking straight into his. The sour-sweet scent of alcohol was on his breath. His breath ghosted over Kouhei’s face, Yagi’s hand flailing to hold onto the table and give himself leverage from falling over to the side. Kouhei blinked at his brashness, stunned, gripping the glass in his hand tighter.
“’t ‘kay?” Yagi asked. And then he was even closer, and Kouhei saw the way his unfocused eyes locked on him and only him in the dim room. The dividers blocking their view from the other tables suddenly felt all the more necessary in that moment.
For a beat, Kouhei didn’t know what he was asking. After going off to describe his feelings in-depth his mind was still reeling. He didn’t know if he could return Yagi’s feelings the way he wanted to, or make him feel better about being too busy to spend time together. It had always been that way ever since taking care of Tsumugi had become the number one priority in his life. She was his number one.
But hadn’t he suffered enough if he had waited so long to tell him this? Confessing over alcohol was like cheating for him to know. Why should he make him go on and on for a long time to come if he wasn’t worried about the outcome? After all…
Yagi always took care of Tsumugi and did what he could for her, too. Kouhei had long since realized he snuck her little treats, or took her to fun places while babysitting for her. Sometimes when he had the chance to teach her about cooking and Kotori wasn’t there. He was always patient with her despite that learning from him was quite the adventure. Kotori had declared him “a tough cookie on the surface but has sweet filling inside” after she had realized that Yagi wasn’t any kind of threat to Tsumugi.
But his own feelings didn’t answer the lingering question. Now, the circuits connected.
Kouhei nodded, numb, adrenaline racing through his veins. He couldn’t take his eyes away. His throat was too dry to convey his agreement despite the shots of sake he had drunk. He clasped a hand on his sleeve, feeling like he should run, although comfortable where he was. He hadn’t quite felt that way ever since he had kissed Tae for the first time.
Their lips met. It was rough and a bit sloppy, but the alcohol on Yagi’s lips tasted like crackling fire. But it wasn’t that which made Kouhei amazed: Yagi’s eyes were perfectly determined and confident, unlike the lazy expression he normally wore, the brooding air he had been exhibiting since they had met up extinguished. This truly was the answer.
Tsumugi’s warning came back to echo in his ears and her nonchalance at the fact that Yagi liked him. Just what had they talked about before? Did Yagi have a heart-to-heart with her about his feelings, and Tsumugi had decided it was okay? She had seemed one-hundred perfect convinced. Why hadn’t he noticed that this had been going until now?
Lost in thought, Kouhei jumped a bit when the shock of Yagi’s hair left his field of vision. Yagi’s leaned forward and crumbled against the table, almost hitting his face straight into the sake bottle in the middle. Yagi slumped over and one of the shot glasses on the table toppled over to the floor. The shoshu in the glass spilled across the polished wood. He breathed heavily and groaned, clutching at the edge of the bar for support. And then he fell asleep.
The bartender turned and gave Kouhei a patient look from the nearby bar. It took Kouhei a second to realize that he wasn’t being kissed any longer. Laughing nervously, he nodded that he would pay for the trouble they had caused. But his eyes were drawn back to Yagi’s collapsed form and the redness to his cheeks. Most of all, the peaceful expression that had settled there in his stupor.
is that what it had been? Had he been so stressed over his feelings for him? After all, he did look a lot happier like that, and he didn’t think it was the alcohol’s doing that lulled him into that security.
He thought back to Tae. He had thought no one in his life would make him as she had. She had been the one with the infectious air, not him. She had been someone that he could rely upon. But when he looked down at Yagi he felt the exact same thing. Yagi had always been there with him and taken care of him. While he had to think about this (as well as how to get him home in his inebriated state) the tingling on Kouhei’s lips felt like it belonged.
Tsumugi wasn’t worried. Why should he be?
Kouhei lifted his glass and sipped at his sake slowly. It was a thinking pose, a moment to mull over it all. He didn’t know if he could be as patient as Yagi had been waiting for him. Still, that was a bright future he didn’t think he would mind being a part of.