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there you find the gladdest play-ground, there the happiest spot to live

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“Daddy. Daddy. Daddy.”

Hitoshi punctuated each word with a tug on Shouta’s sleeve, and he carefully set the pile of papers masquerading as an essay on the table before turning to look at his son. “Yes, Hitoshi?”

“Kitty?”

“I don’t work at night any more,” he explained patiently for the thirtieth time. “Do you remember saying goodbye to Mrs. Furuya?” The three year old still looked crestfallen. Shouta hid a grimace. Typically he’d teach high school classes during the day while Hitoshi was at preschool, and then their next-door apartment neighbor would care for him while Shouta tutored at a cram school in the evenings. Mrs. Furuya was retired and happy to entertain the company-- her grandchildren lived two hours away by train, so she’d claimed Hitoshi’s shy, childish enthusiasm was the highlight of her day. She also had three large, obscenely fluffy Himalayan cats. More than once Shouta had picked Hitoshi up to see his son covered in cat fur and 100% delighted about it. He was still too quiet for a three year-old, but asking what he and the cats had got up to that day was a surefire way to start a conversation.

This had been a great routine for the past two years, shortly after Shouta had brought Hitoshi home, even-- but a few too many falls in a short amount of time had drawn Mrs. Furuya’s children’s concern, and they’d insisted she move in with her eldest son. Hitoshi had made a card to go with the farewell fruit basket, and Shouta had reluctantly taken an absence from the evening cram school.

Shouta had been trying to set aside money to pay the pet deposit and resulting monthly addition to their rent, hopefully by Hitoshi’s birthday, but the suddenly decrease in extra income had put an indefinite hold on that plan.

Instead, he pulled his son into his lap, perched his chin on soft purple hair, and suggested, “Maybe we can go to a cat cafe this weekend. They have cake.”

“Cake?”

“Mmhm. We’ll do it Sunday. Sound okay?”

“Yeah.”

Hitoshi snuggled back against his chest. Shouta smiled slightly and returned to his grading. Parenting didn’t always suck.

---

“Hitoshi. No.”

“Kitty!” Hitoshi wailed.

Shouta sighed. First the high-schoolers had completely bombed yesterday’s pop quiz so he’d spent the day reteaching its content in a vain hope that they’d listen, rather than sticking with his original lesson plan. Then Hitoshi had disagreed so strongly with another child at preschool, he’d actually started a fight, and then disobeyed his teachers the rest of the day, even skipping a nap. All Hitoshi wanted now was to pet a cat (which, Shouta couldn’t disagree with, but he still couldn’t afford that pet deposit yet) and was now throwing a rare, full-out sobbing tantrum as Shouta carried him up the stairs and past Mrs. Furuya’s old door to theirs. A migraine had been building behind his eyes all day and was now in full force. Was there something in the air today? Had a black cat-- well, if one had crossed his path, he’d have stopped to pet it, so that wasn’t it. Did he walk under a ladder? Break a mirror lately? Offend a spirit?

Shouta carefully set his messenger bag down and leaned it against the door-- goodness knows Hitoshi wasn’t going to cooperate, and he did need a hand free to dig out his keys. “Hitoshi. You’re fine. You need a nap and then dinner,” he repeated tiredly.

“Hey, hey, little listener! Why so sad?”

Hitoshi, blessedly, paused his sobbing at the new voice. Shouta took the chance to grab his keys before turning to look at Mrs. Furuya’s old apartment. “Oh. I didn’t realize they’d rented that out yet. That was quick.”

The man leaning against the door frame smiled. It was stupidly attractive, in the effortless way of movie stars and idols. His long blond hair was up in a messy bun, with his mustache the only sign of facial hair. His t-shirt was black, with the phrase Banana Dreamers across it in a lurid green that almost matched his bright eyes. Even his glasses looked designer, not like the cheap, dorky frames Shouta had given in and bought a few months ago.

Shouta was suddenly very aware of his well-worn clothes, two-day stubble, messy hair, exhausted bags beneath his eyes, and of course the grumpy purple toddler on his hip. Well, there goes any hope for my love life anytime soon.

“It’s hard to find something in a complex this close to, well, everything!” Their new neighbor laughed. “I’d been looking for something and this caught my eye last week, so I couldn’t pass it up! I’m Yamada Hizashi, by the way.”

Shouta inclined his head. “Aizawa Shouta. And this overtired child is Hitoshi.”

“Aww, what’s wrong?”

“Kitty?” Hitoshi sniffed, staring at Yamada suspiciously.

“Sorry,” Shouta muttered, fumbling on his keyring for their apartment key and turning the lock as he explained. “The neighbor before you used to babysit him and let him play with her cats. He’s only three, so he keeps forgetting she’s moved but still remembers which apartment is hers.”

“Ah. Poor little guy,” Yamada said sympathetically. “I’m afraid I don’t have any pets just yet-- I’ve been busy unpacking so nothing that exciting over here.”

“It’s not your fault. Like I said, he just needs a nap,” Shouta shrugged. Door successfully unlocked and opened a crack, he dropped the keys back in his pocket, leaned down to snag his bag, and straightened, all while mindful of Hitoshi.

“Wow, mad parent skills. I’d break my back if I tried that!” Yamada said with a chuckle. Shouta smiled slightly before he could think better of it.

“You get used to it. Have a good night, Yamada-san.”

---

From then on, whenever they passed in the halls of their apartment building, Yamada seemed to go out of his way to strike up a friendly, if often brief, conversation. He was as annoyingly charming as he was attractive, and even Hitoshi sent him a shy smile after a few weeks. Shouta wasn’t sure what their neighbor actually did, but he clearly enjoyed life and had seemingly endless enthusiasm for it. He kept odd hours, too, and whenever Shouta was up late or particularly early he’d hear the scuffling in the hall that meant Yamada was coming or leaving. Shouta had never actually ventured out to greet the neighbor during those moments, but the temptation was there. Especially when Yamada did things like lean on the other side of Shouta’s grocery cart and beam.

“Aizawa-san! I was hoping to run into you soon! I just got some awesome news at work! We should go out for drinks to celebrate!”

Shouta blinked. Hitoshi, ignoring the adults and seeing his chance, tried to sneak a third package of nori into the cart. Without glancing down, Shouta gently replaced it to the shelf. Two was plenty. “Congrats. My babysitter is out of town, though. Sorry.” Of course he’d get asked one of the weeks Nemuri was traveling for work. Hitoshi trusted few adults, so an impromptu babysitter was out of the question. Shouta ignored the pang of longing at having an adult social life. One of the sacrifices of single-parenting. He’s worth it, though. Besides, in a few year Hitoshi would be going to school for longer days and want to stay over at friends’ homes-- Shouta would get his socializing in then. It was just a matter of waiting.

He was entirely caught off guard when Yamada replied, without missing a beat or dimming his smile, “Then I can come to your place! You host, I’ll bring the beer, and Hitoshi-chan can go to bed on time!”

That sounded… really, really nice, actually. Still, Shouta hesitated. There had to be a catch-- most people wouldn’t willingly come over and drink when they had to be mindful of a sleeping little kid-- several potential dates early on had ended quickly or straight up never happened when the other person had actually thought about everything entailing dating a single parent-- and here Yamada was, practically jumping at the chance.

Not that it was at all a date.

Still, the man had been nothing but friendly to both of them. Maybe it wouldn’t be a total disaster.

“Sure,” he agreed after a moment. Why not? “What day works for you?”

If possible, Yamada’s grin got a few watts brighter. “Awesome!” He exclaimed. “I’ve got work tonight, but I’m free tomorrow evening if you are?”

He nodded. “Sounds good. Just knock any time after eight.”

---

“... I guess it simply goes to show that buttons come and buttons go. But do we cry?”

“G’ness no,” Hitoshi replied sleepily. His eyes had been shut for the last two pages, and he'd snuggled deep into the thick blankets after being tucked in before story time.

“We keep on singing.”

Story finished, Shouta closed Pete the Cat and His Groovy Buttons and replaced it on the shelf next to Hitoshi's bed. “Good night, Hitoshi.”

Hitoshi murmured something that might have been a ‘night daddy' before heaving a sigh and completely falling asleep. Shouta double checked that the night light was going strong (the weak initial bulbs had burnt out on them twice -- always in the middle of the night and immediately making Hitoshi wake up screaming-- before he'd started buying the multi packs of the better quality bulbs) then, with reflexes born from raising an infant to a toddler, slipped out and shut the door soundlessly.

It wasn't always so easy to get Hitoshi down, but when he stuck to the routine instead of acting like, well, an overtired toddler, it was much easier on both of them. Shouta could get a little quiet time for his own sanity before heading to bed himself, and they'd wake up early with a decent amount of sleep and good attitudes.

Well, he amended, heading to the door as the first quiet knocks sounded against the wood, at least Hitoshi would get a full eight hours.

“Aizawa-san!” Yamada greeted brightly, keeping his volume low as he breezed in with a case of beer in hand. He was dressed casually but still looked way too high class for Shouta's simple (but clean! There weren’t even any toys or books in random spots— he’d checked!) apartment, but he tried to push that thought out of his mind. Yamada had been the one to suggest this, after all. “Wow, that was quick. I wasn't sure if you'd hear me or still be wrestling Hitoshi into bed. I know my younger sisters would make it a two hour process for my parents to put them to bed on a good night!”

“He has those nights,” Shouta readily allowed, “but most of the time he falls asleep after three stories. Even better if it's Pete the Cat.”

Yamada chuckled warmly. It was a nice sound. “Doesn't surprise me. I loved Dr. Seuss myself. Have you tried The Cat That Lived a Million Lives yet?”

Shouta snorted. “I don't want to traumatize him, Yamada-san.”

“Psshh. Softy,” Yamada teased, throwing Shouta a wink. “A little emotional trauma is good for kids!”

Shouta accepted a beer and led the way to the comfortable couch, collapsing on one end. “You're not the one who'd be dealing with the tears every time we come across a stray.”

Yamada laughed and took a seat on the other end of the couch, relaxing into the plush cushions with a hum. “He's such a cute kid! Make sure you remember that when you have to deal with him in high school.”

“I'm a high school teacher. He'll know better than to cross me by then,” Shouta said dryly. He sipped at the surprisingly good beer as Yamada raised his eyebrows in interest.

“Really? What do you teach?”

“Ethics. Theoretically I have a full homeroom as well, but if they show no promise I won’t teach them, and they miss the credits and background for the university or job they want. End of story. It's been a while since I had a whole class make it through the year.”

Yamada's brows went higher. “No mercy approach, huh?”

Shouta frowned faintly. “It's not that. If they have potential or willingness to learn, I’m glad to teach and hopefully invest in the next generation. If they're just hoping for an easy pass or recommendation letter, I'm not going to waste both our time. It would reflect badly on both of us, in the end.”

“You mean you wouldn’t want to lie and have it in writing that a real jerk student was a teacher’s pet?” Yamada said teasingly. “There must be a lot of angry parents out for your blood for failing their golden child!” Shouta shrugged.

“What about you?” He asked, hoping to get the topic away from himself. “You mentioned you had some good news at work-- what do you do?”

“Oh! Uh, a little bit of everything, really,” Yamada said, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “I have a weeknight as well as a weekend radio show, which I handle pretty much everything for, and do some DJ work and modeling on the side… But! I’ve been trying to break into the music business, too, and a record label finally picked up my demo and signed me! We signed all the contracts yesterday, and I managed to convince them that yes, I know what I’m doing and should totally have the creative rights and freedom-- not some run-of-the-mill idol here-- but they win by getting to attach their name to it. Got a sweet signing bonus and everything, so I might be able to take some time just to focus on that.”

While none of the career choices surprised Shouta (they seemed to fit Yamada well, actually), doing all of that at the same time sure did. “That’s quite a load you have there.”

“Yeah…” Yamada sighed, looking pensive. “Don’t get me wrong, I love every second of it. Definitely deal with a lot of fake smiles and jerks, but that’s any job, right? And the honest people you meet more than make up for it. Like, you’re good people, Aizawa, but Todoroki Enji? Total dick. His high-school ethics teacher wasn’t as moral as you. Wonder what he thinks of his former student turned asshole police chief? I’d take All Might on my show and in the station any day!”

Shouta was still caught off-guard from being called good people and let a chuckle slip. “Can’t say I disagree. It’s gotten more dangerous out there. ‘S why I tried to move as close to Hitoshi’s preschool as possible and try to take the most public ways to work.”

“Exactly!” Yamada snapped finger-guns at Shouta with a grin. “It’s pretty close to my agency and the station is only one train stop away. Also, the neighbors aren’t bad.” He winked.

Shouta felt himself flush and immediately hated himself for it. He took a longer sip of his beer and hoped it could be blamed on the alcohol. It was a nicer brand than he usually indulged in, after all. “Pretty sure you won’t win Hitoshi over until you have a cat,” he warned. Yamada considered this.

“Would cat onigiri work as a bribe? I’m a pretty rad cook, when I find the time.”

“He’d probably insist on making it with you,” Shouta informed him. “He loves to help with that stuff.”

“We can do that next time, then!” Yamada said enthusiastically.

“Next time?”

“Well, yeah. Two cool guys who have fun hanging out and live nearby? Friendship’s only logical, Aizawa!” Yamada said with a decisive nod.

“I guess.”

“Call me Hizashi, then!”

Shouta inclined his head with a rare smile. “Shouta.”

---

It became a weekly habit to have Hizashi over for drinks, and occasionally for dinner as well. Once in a while Nemuri even offered to babysit so they could leave the confines of the apartment. Of course, that wasn’t without a lot of teasing to have fun on your date, Shouta-kun! Which was ridiculous. Hizashi was undeniably attractive, funny, charming, and genuinely smart, but he was that outgoing with everyone. Once he’d dragged Shouta out to meet his friend Iida Tensei, and was every bit as enthusiastic as normal. He was pretty sure he did that with all of his friends. So Nemuri could make all the sly comments and hints she wanted, Shouta resolved, approaching the penthouse to pick up Hitoshi with Hizashi in tow after one such night hanging out. Eventually she’d fixate on something else to tease him about. She’d been doing it since high school, after all.

“I almost wish I’d held out for something like this,” Hizashi said admiringly, following Shouta past the front desk and into the elevator. “Penthouses take forever to hit the market, though, and my lease was up so I couldn’t wait any longer. Maybe one day!”

Pressing the button for the top floor (Nemuri had refused anything less), Shouta absentmindedly wondered how well-off Hizashi was, to say such a thing so casually.

“It’s open!” Nemuri’s muffled voice called when they knocked. Shouta led the way into the swanky, tastefully decorated dwelling until they came to the main living room. Nemuri and Hitoshi were both bent over the kotatsu. An abandoned, mostly-empty bowl of popcorn was next to the TV, which was playing the My Neighbor Totoro DVD menu on a loop. They each had paper and crayons set up in front of them, and an assortment of finished works were strewn across the table. “We’re making a Totoro family now,” Nemuri explained. Hitoshi nodded. Neither looked up. “We already did you because the smile matches, you weirdo, and now we’re trying to see who has the best Hitoshi design.”

“I’m purple,” Hitoshi informed them solemnly. Shouta knelt down and started collecting the posters into a neat pile to make it easier to take home. Hopefully he had enough free magnets to hang them all on the fridge.

“Don’t forget to make Totoro Hitoshi fluffy,” Hizashi replied seriously. “That’s the most important part!” Nemuri’s head whipped up.

Holy sh—” Shouta glared, and she obligingly changed tack mid-sentence, “—iitake mushrooms. Yamada-san! I didn’t realize you were Shouta’s new neighbor! Geez, I would’ve at least got up to open the door if I’d known he brought someone. How’s your album going?”

Hizashi grinned. “Hey there, Kayama-san! And no worries. It’s going well! We’ve got just about everything recorded, and officially starting the post-production and mastering next wek, so it’s making pretty good progress!”

Shouta found Hitoshi's bag and began carefully sliding the completed drawings in next to the customary snacks, toys, and emergency change of clothes. "Hitoshi, can you help pick up the crayons, please?"

Hitoshi reviewed his current work with a critical eye, nodded, and passed it to Shouta. "Done. Pick up?"

"It's very nice," Shouta agreed. "We can hang it up when we get home. Let's get the crayons on the bag too, now."

Hitoshi began using sweeping motions to drag all the crayons off the side of the kotatsu and into the waiting bucket that had been shoved aside until then. Nemuri nudged Shouta as she helped. "Sho! If I'd known you and Yamada were friends I'd have invited you to my last event night at the club! Then at least he'd have someone to talk to when I was busy!"

Hizashi chuckled. "Your openings are always a riot, Kayama-san! It's not your fault all the boring business guys cornered me last time. I was smiling, right?"

"Yeah, but your eyes said you were praying for death," Nemuri snorted. "I want people to have a good time at Midnight, not have yo think about work."

"I probably wouldn't have gone anyway," Shouta pointed out reasonably. "Not my scene."

"Boo! You just gotta get a few gin and tonics in him, Yamada, then if you're lucky he'll--"

"Thanks for staying with Hitoshi," Shouta interrupted. "Hitoshi, give Aunt Nemuri a hug goodbye, then we're leaving."

---

Shouta's phone was buzzing the second he unlocked his apartment door. He silenced it, then turned to Hizashi. "Thanks for going with me to pick Hitoshi up. The company was nice."

Hizashi brightened. The questionable hallway lighting gave some slight color to his expression. "Yeah, it was! And no problem; anytime, really. Hey, uh, weird question, but how do you feel about video games? Because I was thinking next Sunday we could check out a cool arcade my coworkers were talking about and man, nothing takes you back to those irresponsible teenage years like DDR amirite but obviously if you hate the very idea that's cool too we could try that new buddy hero movie or something--"

"Hizashi."

"Hm?"

Shouta tried his best to convey with a patient smile that Hizashi's rambling wasn't off putting or annoying (as he'd admitted to fearing before), nor did the suggestion of changing up their routine offend him. Hizashi was getting pretty close to Nemuri levels of being able to read him, though. "Sounds fine to me. I might be a little rusty, though. Let me make sure Nemuri can cover though-- I'll text you?"

"Oh! Yeah! Just let me know what she says!" Hizashi grinned. "I better not keep you any longer, though-- dont want to interfere with bedtime. Goodnight, Hitoshi-chan! 'Night, Shouta!"

A while later, Shouta ran through a mental checklist as he changed into pajamas. Hitoshi was safely tucked in. Hizashi had left. Door was locked. Night light bulb had been replaced last night, so it was good for another two months or so. Now he could check his phone and see who’d texted.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, it was Nemuri.

Nemuri: Youuuuuuuu have a lot of explaining to do, mister.

Me: ???

She must’ve been waiting for his reply, because he’d barely pressed ‘send’ before she sent a followup.

Nemuri: You didn’t say this “Yamada” was Yamada HIZASHI

Me: so?

Nemuri: shouta. honey. babe. Why are you like this.

Nemuri: everyone listens to his shows. Put Your Hands Up! is like an all-ages show that i KNOW your students listen to and Banana Dreamers is his friday night show for adults that the kids still listen to but won’t admit it. Homeboy’s on billboards everywhere. He’s supposed to be putting out an album and there are thousands of preorders sold out already. He came to my last club opening and was almost entirely the reason we were at capacity ten minutes after we opened the doors

Nemuri: THAT yamada hizashi

Me: oh. none of that really came up

Nemuri: because u live under a rock u hermit

Nemuri: so when is a good time for me to give him the shovel talk?

Nemuri: followed by, of course, exchange of blackmail on u >;)

Nemuri: just whenever you guys come back from your date or do I need to make an appointment?

Me: no

Me: we’re not dating

Me: seriously.

Nemuri: ????????

Nemuri: why not????

-—

A few weeks later, setting a plate of toast in front of Hitoshi and handing him a (very dull, plastic) knife and the open jar of jam, Shouta decided he might as well go for it.

“How would you feel about Hizashi going to the cafe with us today?”

Hitoshi’s brows were furrowed in concentration as he spread the jam. It was good motor skills, and they had to clean up a lot less than when he’d first started helping with little tasks like that. Shouta knew he had a small, proud smile on his face every time his son showed yet another sign of how far he’d come. “’Zashi too?”

“Yes. Would that be okay?”

“Cake?”

“Yes. We’d still get cake.”

“Kitty?”

“Yes. We’d still go to the cafe. Hizashi would just come with us. Do you want to show him the cats?”

Jam successfully, if slightly haphazardly, spread mostly on the toast, Hitoshi replaced the knife in the jar and set it on the table. “Yeah!” He said confidently, sending Shouta a rare, bright smile. Shouta returned it and sipped at his coffee. He slipped his phone out of his pocket, thankful he’d remembered to throw it in there— if he got up from the table for any reason during a mealtime, no matter how briefly, Hitoshi would follow. Once distracted, it was nearly impossible to get him to sit back down, much less actually eat.

Me: r u busy today

He took another sip of coffee and a few bites of breakfast before his phone buzzed.

Hizashi: nothing big! What’s up???

Me: taking hitoshi to cat cafe. Want to come along

Me: dont worry I asked him first and hes fine with u

Hizashi: oh good his is the hardest permission to get he’s a good judge of character y’know

Hizashi: let me finish up here and I’ll be over in like 20??? Or when are you planning to leave??

Me: 20 minutes is fine we are still having breakfast

Hizashi: are you actually eating real, normal people food though or is it one of those gross jelly protein things

Shouta snorted.

Me: eggs and toast is for sundays. I dont have time on school days

Hizashi: at least you make sure toshi eats smh where’s the self care here

Hizashi: kids these days

True to his word, Hizashi knocked twenty-five minutes later. As they were literally in front of it, putting on shoes (or waiting for Hitoshi to put on the velco straps after they’d figured out which was the correct foot for which shoe. More motor skill practice. This was why he didn’t have time to cook himself breakfast on school days.), Shouta opened it before the second knock.

“Good morning! What’s the plan?”

“Good morning. We’re almost ready. The better cafe is a little ways off— three stops by train. We usually walk down to the station and try to be back in a couple hours. Sometimes we’ll try to do errands and then go to the cafe as a reward,” Shouta explained. Seeing that shoes had been secured, he leaned down and adjusted Hitoshi’s scarf. “Ready?”

Hitoshi was completely fine with this addition to their Sunday routine. He alternated between holding Shouta’s hand and holding Hizashi’s as well, yelling with delight when they lifted him up and swung him between them. Hizashi had a soft smile on his face the whole way, and Shouta had to hide a similar one in his own scarf. When they entered the cafe, Hitoshi was practically vibrating with excitement.

“’Zashi! Look!”

“What’s up, little listener?”

“Kitty!” The second Shouta flashed his membership card (it was a hell of a lot cheaper than going without, with their frequent visits) and the hostess let them in, Hitoshi darted to where he’d already spotted his favorites. The older, fluffy cats greeted him with lazy meows and chirps. Hizashi chuckled as Shouta led the way to a booth— off to the side but still with Hitoshi well within eyesight.

“This is the highlight of his week, huh?” Hitoshi flopped down on the floor and buried his face in one of the cat’s fur. “He’s so cute.” Shouta nodded and passed him a menu.

“It makes him happy. He doesn’t ask for a lot of toys or even that many treats, so this is the one way he gets spoiled. Here— Hitoshi usually gets the apple crumble cake, but everything is pretty good. I can buy, since we were the ones to drag you out and all.”

“What a gentleman!” Hizashi teased. Shouta scowled and hoped vainly that he wasn’t blushing. When Hizashi turned to flag down a waitress, he buried his nose in his scarf. Honestly. Sometimes Hizashi would just say shit like that and it was different than when Nemuri would offer a deadpan comment, because while they were both his friends, only one managed to actually fluster him. Argh.

“So I’m sure you get this question a lot,” Hizashi said after they’d ordered, watching Hitoshi play with the cats with a smile playing on his lips. “But how are you honestly a high-school teacher and single parent to a little kid? I don’t know how you keep up, seriously! And that’s coming from my workaholic self. Are you secretly Batman?”

Shouta hummed. That was the most diplomatic poking at Hitoshi’s background he’d ever heard, and he could easily skip past it. This wasn’t a nosy old biddy coworker asking, though. Hizashi was his friend. “I got my degree just after high school, and despite all the problem children there are occasionally classes that make it all worth it. Hitoshi is technically my nephew. I only had one sibling-- my sister, who had Hitoshi until he’d turned one. His biological dad ducked out after she was in an accident, because he didn’t want the responsibility himself. The lawyer didn’t get a hold of me right away, so he spent a few weeks in foster care,” Shouta scowled at the memory. “The system is a crapshoot at the best of times, and when I went to pick him up it was pretty clear it hadn’t gone well. I raised enough hell to make sure they lost their license, but Hitoshi is still a bit behind in his speech and has issues socializing. They have him in speech therapy at preschool, and the rest I try to just… deal with as it comes up, I guess.”

“Oh. Wow. I’m so sorry.” Hizashi said softly.

Shouta shrugged. It still stung, thinking of Ami, and probably would for a while. He had a collection of photos to be eventually put in a scrapbook for Hitoshi. While his son didn’t really remember his mom, Shouta was sure he’d want to eventually, and would make every effort to provide as much information on Ami as he could muster. For now, it was still very much a one-day-at-a-time sort of thing. Especially now that Hitoshi was a toddler.

“Poor Hitoshi. He’s been through a lot for just a little guy. He’s lucky you stepped up!” Hizashi remarked sincerely. He met Shouta’s gaze warmly. “You’re such a good dad, Shouta! Right, ‘Toshi-chan?”

Hitoshi had seen the waitress leave the kitchen and start walking toward their table, and obligingly paused his playdate to scootch in next to Hizashi. “Huh?”

“You have the best dad ever, right?”

“Yeah!” Hitoshi immediately cheered. Shouta flushed.

“Don’t corrupt him!”

---

“So he went to a cat cafe with you in some miraculously-sudden time off, tries to bring Hitoshi out of his shell but respects your parenting, thinks your sense of humor is great, and hangs out with you at least once a week. How much more obvious can one man be, Shouta.”

“You’re overthinking things, Nemuri,” Shouta sighed. He buried his nose in the long, soft scarf. Hitoshi was wearing a matching one, though child-size. It had been a gift from Nemuri last New Year’s, and she had almost cried when Hitoshi couldn’t stop hugging her in thanks and tried to wrap it around both of them. “He’s just… friendly. That’s just how he is.”

“Even for the living embodiment of human sunshine — second only to my sweetheart nephew, of course— he’s a whole lot more than friendly, Shouta. You clearly haven’t been paying attention to how he watches you,” Nemuri sighed on the other end of the phone. Shouta wrinkled his nose.

“That sounds creepy.”

“Oh, shut up!” Shouta could hear the eye-roll. “Just give him a chance, okay? You’re interested, right?”

“Of course.” It wasn’t even necessarily the casually stunning looks, either— Hizashi had an engaging enthusiasm and passion for so much, and his thoughts and opinions meant conversation was always a pleasure. But anyone with two brain cells would be attracted to Hizashi. That didn’t single out Shouta at all.

“Ah-ha—”

“He’s not interested. End of story,” Shouta interrupted firmly. “We’re here, so I’ve gotta go. I’ll text you later.” With that, he hung up on Nemuri’s frustrated scream, replaced his phone in his pocket, and looked down at Hitoshi. “Are you ready?” Hitoshi nodded. “If you don’t feel comfortable, just tell me, okay?”

“Okay,” Hitoshi answered in a small voice. Shouta held in a sigh and led the way down the walkway to Plus Ultra Daycare’s front door. Though small, it had good reviews on the local parenting forums, a user-friendly website, and (hardest to find on a daycare’s site, typically) rates laid out in plain language. In a stroke of luck, he discoverd it was far cheaper for a potty-trained toddler versus a year-old infant, and he could swing it with his average hours from the cram school and have a decent sum left over. This was already an improvement over the first daycare they’d toured, which seemed great aside from being three times his current weekly paycheck. It remained to be seen if Shouta was comfortable with it, though— the two inexpensive daycares they’d checked out had given him the distinct feeling that they were more about having as many children as possible, regardless of the teacher-child ratio. The condescending attitude change and remarks when he’d explained that he was a single parent hadn’t helped, either. Plus Ultra had mentioned that they only took as many children as they had room and teachers for, and outright reserved the right to refuse due to avoid overburdening their teachers in big, bold text. Hopefully it wouldn’t be a total disaster.

With that optimistic thought in mind, he knocked.

“Oh! You must be Aizawa-san!” The woman who greeted them had most of her hair pulled up in a practical bun, a pink apron that proclaimed Plus Ultra!!!! and a warm, motherly smile. She appeared quite young, with laugh lines the only sign she was out of her teens. “Come in! I’m Midoriya Inko; welcome! Is this your son?” She ushered them in cheerfully. “Hitoshi-chan, right?”

Hitoshi peered out from behind Shouta’s legs warily. Midoriya, if possible, softened further.

“Oh, what a cutie! Just look at that hair! I’m sure you’re a real sweetheart for your dad, huh? My son is right around your age— would you like to see some of the kids? They’re very nice. Right now they’re playing in the backyard, but you don’t have to go out if you don’t want to,” she reassured. Aizawa inclined his head.

“Lead the way, Midoriya-san.”

“Oh, call me Inko! Midoriya makes me think you’re talking to my parents!” Inko laughed. They passed a few open doorways on the way, with Inko stopping to give a brief summary of each one as they went. “That’s the infant’s room, where Shuzenji Chiyo has the couple one year-olds we take. Littler ones need more hands-on care but Chiyo-san is such a pro and has decades of experience— most of the kids call her Grandma Chiyo. I have the two and three year olds in these rooms, and the older kids are with Bakugou Mitsuki on the other side of the hallway. The babygates are too tall for the kids but we get used to just stepping over them and can be on the other side in a flash. They have different needs and schedules, and simple lessons based on their age range. As you can see, we have plenty of toys that focus on getting kids to use their imagination, and we try to stay away from technology, especially when they’re so young. We’re not a full preschool— but you mentioned Hitoshi-chan already attends one of those, so in those age-groups we mostly try to provide a safe space for kids to unwind after preschool, nap, and play safely while their parents are working or at school themselves.” She explained. “It’s not as fancy as, say, Asagao Early Academy, but we’re definitely a tight-knit family. A lot of the kids end up staying friends even after they graduate to elementary school!” She opened the babygate to let them into the kitchen, then slid open the sliding glass door against the back wall. “And here’s the playground!”

Shouta was impressed. A large, wooden privacy fence surrounded a well-groomed and frankly giant backyard. A blonde woman was coaching a group of older children in the sandbox, each armed with a small bucket of water and a shovel. Roughly twenty younger children were running, shrieking, and giggling happily as they played on the assortment of simple playground equipment. An older woman was sitting on one of the benches beneath a tree, a sleeping baby on either shoulder and eyes carefully scanning the toddlers. Her gaze landed on Inko and Shouta for a moment, before she called out to the kid playing on the slides.

“Izuku! Someone’s looking for you!”

“MOMMY!” One small boy, messy hair and bright grin bearing a striking resemblance to Inko, shrieked, tearing away from his friends and tackling Inko’s legs. She laughed and patted his head, turning to speak to Shouta.

“One of the perks is that Mitsuki and I get to bring our sons to work! Izuku, this is Aizawa Hitoshi and his daddy.”

Izuku held out a hand to Hitoshi gravely. “Hi, ‘Toshi-chan. Do you wanna be best friends? I have a lot and I love ‘em all. Sometimes Kacchan is in the club even if he doesn’t wanna be, but Aunt Mitsuki says that’s just Kacchan. Come slide with us!”

“Maybe later, Izuku,” Inko said with a chuckle. “You can go back to playing.” The little boy let out a whoop and ran back to rejoin his friends. Inko shook her head. “Sorry if he overwhelmed you, Hitoshi-chan! Izuku is very friendly.”

“I can see that,” Shouta said dryly. Inko just smiled proudly.

“Do you want to play with the other kids, Hitoshi-chan? No? That’s okay. Maybe next time! Let’s take you and your dad to my office, then.” A small room off of the kitchen served as the general office, and Inko dug around in a filing cabinet before producing a sheet which she passed to Shouta. “Here’s a copy of the schedule we try to stick to, in case you wanted to drop in at a certain time. Parents are always welcome! We do take the children’s safety very seriously, of course— aside from the privacy fence, only those personally approved by you get to pick up or even visit Hitoshi. We’re very strict about ratios, obviously. You can send a snack or meal depending on how late you’ll be— we close at seven thirty, so depending on your household routine you might want to feed them dinner at home or just send them to bed after a long hard day of playing— and once a month we have a pizza and ice cream party. Any questions?”

“Do you have a pen and the enrollment forms handy?”

“Of course!” Inko beamed. “Welcome aboard, Aizawa-san, Hitoshi-chan!”

-—

“Shouta! Hitoshi-chan! I brought Hotto Motto!” Hizashi practically sang out, bursting into the apartment when Shouta opened the door. “Healthier than convenience store takeout, with none of the prep time! Hitoshi-chan, you like chicken, right?”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Shouta said, blinking. Hizashi shrugged and waltzed past him to the kitchen table.

“I wanted to! I know you haven’t had time to make something for yourself and not just for Hitoshi since picking back up at cram school. Those protein pouches don’t count! Besides, pretty sure it’s my turn after you burned literally everything last week.”

Shouta rolled his eyes. “If someone hadn’t been distracting me—”

“The cat videos were for Hitoshi-chan, not you!” Hizashi retorted.

The playful banter continued through the impromptu dinner. Shouta counted it a win when even Hitoshi finished most of his food with zero fussing or pouting; a rare feat for any young child but Hitoshi in particular. Hizashi tidied up the dishes and trash while Shouta hustled Hitoshi into pajamas, a teeth-brushing, and finally into bed. Inko had mentioned that they’d been doing a lot of outside games that day, and as a result he barely made it three pages in before passing out. Shouta waited until the snores started in earnest before putting the book down, though, and when he did so he was surprised to see Hizashi leaning in the doorway. It was almost a throwback to their first meeting, though Hizashi’s expression was much more thoughtful and fond.

“You’re such a good dad,” he remarked quietly. Shouta shrugged and stood, gently replacing the book on the shelf and heading out of the room after checking the night light. He ignored the “aww” from Hizashi at that— if he’d been woken up by bloody murder screaming because the stupid bulb burnt out, he’d be just as vigilant.

“I’m trying.” It was the same response every time someone commented on his parenting, but Hizashi shook his head.

“No, you are,” he said firmly. “Give yourself some credit, Shouta.” Shouta wished he had a scarf to bury his face in. Nemuri always gleefully told him he blushed easily, and he could feel the heat rising. It only got worse when Hizashi continued, “Hitoshi’s turned out great, and it’s pretty clear how much you adore him. Those aren’t unrelated, y’know.”

“Shut up,” he snapped half-heartedly. He was not flustered. He grabbed a couple beers from the fridge and tossed one to Hizashi, collapsing on the couch next to him. “That’s entirely to do with Hitoshi just being a good kid. It’d be really hard to screw him up.” Hizashi looked like he wanted to argue, but Shouta cut him off by grabbing the remote and turning on the TV. “You don’t work tonight, so is it gonna be a superhero flick or some English movie tonight?”

Hizashi only hesitated for a moment before replying. “Superhero movie, because I know your English is shit and the subtitles usually aren’t great.”

Shouta shoved him but turned it on anyway. Hizashi was quiet for a while after that. When he next spoke up, it was after they’d settled into a comfortable sprawl and were leaning against each other. Shouta was actively fighting to keep his eyes open, beer only half-finished but safely set off to the side. Hizashi was very comfortable, despite his willowy form. He also tended to wear soft sweaters as the weather grew colder, and that felt really damn nice against Shouta’s cheek.

“Your future girlfriend is gonna have a hell of a time breaking your self-depreciating habit,” he remarked. Shouta gave a half-shrug.

“Well,” he drawled, “Not that I can even find time to date nowadays, I think they’d have a worse time trying to turn me straight.”

“Oh. Good.” That was a weird response, but before he could question it Hizashi continued slowly, “so if I asked you out, you’re saying there’s a chance?”

Shouta considered this. It was hard to think over the sound of his own heart completely flipping out, but that was fine, he could totally be a rational adult about this. “A better chance than most, probably.”

“Hm. That’s pretty good odds,” Hizashi said thoughtfully. “Hey, Shouta, I think you’re awesome and super hot, wanna go out with me?”

Play it cool. He really shouldn’t have started buying that beer Hizashi liked. It had a higher alcohol content and being vaguely tipsy was totally not helping. “I know you see hotter all the time at work,” he pointed out in a tone he hoped was reasonable. “But. Yeah. Sure.”

“Nah. Besides, you’re hot inside and out,” Hizashi dismissed. He sounded like he was smiling, but Shouta didn’t dare move to check. “Next question! Would you be totally opposed to me kissing you now?”

Shouta gave in and lifted his head to meet Hizashi’s gaze with a smirk. He was smiling. “What are you, a middle-schooler?”

“I’m polite, thank you very mu—”

He shut him up with a kiss. Hizashi didn’t hesitate to kiss back, deepen it, tongue slipping cleverly into Shouta’s mouth and sliding against his own. Shouta heard a muffled whimper that he vaguely registered as his, and Hizashi hummed smugly in response. Shouta finally reached up and wove his hands into that stupidly soft, gorgeous hair. Hizashi shifted them so he could wind both arms around Shouta and pull him close. Shouta went willingly. He’d probably go willingly wherever Hizashi wanted, in that moment— across the country or into his lap; didn’t matter. Eventually they pulled away just enough to breathe.

“Wow,” Hizashi said dazedly. They were both panting. “I have no idea how you managed to stay single, especially when you kiss like that.”

“I don’t put out on the first date,” Shouta teased. Hizashi grinned.

“That’s fine; I’ll just have to make sure there’s so many dates, then,” he said, that smug note back in his voice. He buried his face in Shouta’s dark hair and sighed happily. “Holy shit it is as soft as it looks. I wondered!”

Shouta felt his face darken further. “Shut up. Are you sure about this, Hizashi? I’m not an easy person to date,” he warned, ticking off the reasons on one hand. “I put Hitoshi first and parenting takes up a lot; teaching is practically a 24-hour job with all the grading and planning even outside the classroom, and I’ve been told repeatedly I’m not exactly an easy person to get on with on a normal level, much less in a relationship.”

“I already like hanging out with you so much, Shouta. I’m sure dating you will be just as much fun,” Hizashi pulled back just enough to give him another one of those soft smiles. “You’re worth the effort!” He said confidently. “Besides, I can help the parenting part not be so... single? If you want? Just let me know how to help and I will!”

Unlike all the empty promises from when he’d first adopted Hitoshi, Hizashi clearly meant it. Shouta imagined having someone-- no, Hizashi by his side. Hizashi juggling work and home and Hitoshi with him. Having Hizashi as a partner in parenthood. Hizashi joining them for meals, or even cooking with them. Their routine of hanging out would get to continue, but possibly result in more kisses. Getting to further know the likes, dislikes, background, and personality quirks that made him, well, him. A warm swell of relief and affection washed over Shouta at the potential in their future.

“So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on getting Hitoshi-chan a cat for his birthday?” Hizashi asked, beginning to comb his fingers through Shouta’s naturally unruly hair. Shouta smiled and settled back against his chest. “They can even live at my place if it's easier, but it would definitely be his to cuddle anytime. I can give you a spare key to my apartment in case I'm out or asleep and he's got those ‘gotta pet a cat,’ feels?” He ended hopefully.

“Perfect.”