“Oi, Mikey. Don’t go crazy, all right?” Draken grumbled to his left, rubbing the back of his head. “Emma’ll kill you if you spend all your money on snacks again.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mikey said, waving him off, looking around the festival grounds and taking in the colorful lanterns strewn along the booths and stalls, a street of light in the humid summer night.
“I’m serious. Last time, she talked my fuckin’ ear off for hours, complaining about having to use all of her allowance on groceries for the both of you.”
Mikey glanced at him, a smirk growing at the corner of his mouth. “That’s only half the truth.”
“Huh?” Draken paused in the middle of the crowd. People took one look at the unusually tall, near bald teenager with a dragon tattoo sprawled across his stall, and formed a bubble of space around them with wary faces.
“Well, she did have to cover most of the cost for Gramp’s birthday cake,” he admitted, leaning closer to inspect the takoyaki stall on their left. He sucked in a lungful of salty, fried octopus slathered in batter before gesturing to the cook inside for one serving. “I paid her back for that last week, but she didn’t get to save as much for something special.”
“Special?” Draken reached over and handed the man a folded bill, glancing at Mikey from the corner of his eye. “A gift for your grandfather?”
“Hmm, was it?” Mikey trailed off, tucking a ball of takoyaki in his mouth and starting off on the street again. Draken followed, grumbling under his breath.
As if Emma would have spent three months saving up for Gramps, when the old man was perfectly happy with his favorite meal and a family afternoon practicing in the dojo. Premium tickets to the next Zephyr exhibition cost a pretty penny - he’d planned on treating Draken to a new paint job on his bike for his birthday, but if his sister wished to go all out, well. Maybe that would get the message at least a couple inches deeper in his thick skull.
“Maybe there’s some new guy she’s trying to impress.” Mikey mused, because he enjoyed the flash of constipation on Draken’s face and knew he’d sooner eat crow than ask further about it. “She’s been out and about more than usual.”
“Is that right,” Draken replied, stone-faced.
Mikey stifled a snort, turning away to hide his cheeks puffing up. A little jealousy might light a fire under his ass, hopefully. He hadn’t quite needled the reason for Draken’s hesitance toward dating or even just spending more time with Emma on their own, but eventually the guy would crack. In reality, Emma had picked up a part-time gig at a local shop to earn a little extra after school.
They toured around the festival for a while, testing free samplers and occasionally buying a full serving of greasy, deliciously fried fare, playing the myriad of games and challenges scattered around the street. Draken had cleaned up at the shooting booth, but Mikey had destroyed him three times at the ring toss, so their mutual jeering was relatively peaceful as they took another circuit through, a bag of variety snacks hanging from one arm and a soda in the other.
They were one round into scooping goldfish, sleeves hiked to their elbows, when a voice called over the hum of the crowd. “Mikey! Draken!”
Emma was pushing her way through the crowd, one hand held to the side of her hair to keep the gold pin in place. She’d drawn it up in elaborate braids, threaded through with at least five pins and pink ribbons, a feit that must have taken her at least an hour. She had on her favorite black yukata, adorned with bright yellow and orange flowers.
Mikey rolled his eyes. No wonder it’d taken her over an hour to join them.
“Emma, hey,” Draken said, lifting a hand and waving the small washi net, still crouched by the tub full of water and fish. He turned back and quickly scooped up another two fish, taking advantage of Mikey’s distraction to get ahead, but there was something deliberately casual in Draken’s expression that sent a thrill of mischief down his back.
“Finally,” droned Mikey, handing the net to one of the kids crowding around the tub. “I almost thought you were going to bail.” Probably the weakest lie he’d told in a while - if Draken had hitched a ride on an alien vessel, Emma would be commandeering the nearest rocket to follow him, twirl her hair around her finger, and pretend she’d run into him on the way to an intergalactic salon, or something.
She sniffed scornfully. “Some of us care about our appearance, rather than leave the house like a cat fresh from a fight with a vacuum cleaner.”
“Hilarious,” and because he’s a dick, he adds, “What, meeting up with your boyfriend before putting in some obligatory sibling time?”
Taken aback, Emma quickly darted a glance at Draken, who was still turned toward the goldfish tub, though his hands were completely still.. “No,” she bit out, before pressing her lips together. “Even if I was, it’d be none of your business.”
“None of your beloved older brother’s business? That’s cold, Emma,” he drawled, getting to his feet and brushing off his pants. “I guess I’ll be eating these all to myself then, as my only consolation for minding my own business.” He tugged the back of snacks out of her sticky-fingered reach.
She tried to grab a packet of macaron and growled, before turning her nose up at him. “Whatever. You’ve probably spent all your money anyway on games and dorayaki.”
“Oh, have you seen some? We couldn’t find one.” Mikey narrowed his eyes on the surrounding shops. The stall must be tucked away, hidden somewhere - had they conspired to hide it from him after last year? “I’ll have to find it.”
“Seriously, Mikey?” Draken had evidently also given up his net and joined them a couple steps outside of the stall. “Didn’t you just eat three yakitori back there?”
“There’s always room for dorayaki. Anway, see?” He shook his wallet in front of Emma’s face. “Still mostly full.”
Emma scoffed, her hands on her hips. “You’ve been mooching off Draken, haven’t you? That’s the only explanation why you weren’t broke five minutes into the festival.”
Mikey tilted his head to the side, considering. “So? What’s your point?”
Her sandal stomped on the ground, turning up a tiny cloud of dust on her white socks. “Mikey!” At his benign smile, she tossed her hair over her shoulder, grabbed Draken’s hand, and said, blushing, “Let’s go before he eats a whole into both our pockets.”
“What? Wait - “ Draken hesitated, glancing between them, but allowed himself to be led away into the crowd. Before they vanished from view, Emma glanced back and winked.
Mikey only shrugged, laughing to himself as he set off down the street, arms behind the back of his head. He took better note of the crumpled bags and snacks tucked in paper as he went, and realized that, while there didn’t seem to be dorayaki as Emma had said, there were colorful taiyaki being tossed around in children’s hands or shared by couples.
He paused by a little boy, cramming the head of one in his mouth, crumbs smushed into his cheeks. “Hey, kid. Where can I get one of those?”
“Hrmph?” The boy stared up at him wide-eyed, chewing furiously until he could swallow. “What?”
Mikey pointed at the dessert. “That. Where’d you get it?”
He stared down at the taiyaki before narrowing his eyes at him with the clear-cut calculation of a child half-way through his cake. “What’s in it for me, if I tell you?”
Mikey grinned. “How ‘bout a fat lip?”
“Huh?” He scowled at him, holding his taiyaki away from Mikey as though concerned he would snatch it from his hands. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Tanjiro!” A girl had stepped back from the ring toss, hurrying over with an anxious expression on her face. Her hands tugged at the end of her braid, where the frayed edges of a ribbon stuck to her fingers. She took in Mikey’s crouched form before grabbing the boy’s hand. “Let’s find go Ryu-nii-chan.”
“Why?” asked Tanjiro, pouting.
She shot a glance at Mikey again before saying, “He’s good at this game - he’ll be able to win.”
“We don’t need him, Suzume!” Tanjiro shouted, thumping a tiny fist on his chest. A shower of crumbs vanished into the collar of his yukata. “I can do it.”
“But,” she mumbled, scuffing her sandals on the ground. “We’re out of coins. You used your last one, remember?”
The boy looked thunderstruck. He shoved the dessert into Suzume’s hands and began scrambling for his pockets. “There’s no way - but I - I definitely had five hundred left, I know it!” Seconds later, though, he was slumping forward, his mouth screwed up tight in a sour frown.
Suzume hesitated, before she nudged his shoulder. “Let’s go, okay?”
“Out of money, huh? That’s too bad,” Mikey interrupted, holding his chin. He hummed thoughtfully before he said, “How about this? I’ll win whatever prize you want from that stall, and you’ll tell me where you got the taiyaki from.”
Both children’s eyes grew very round. Suzume looked at the top right corner of the booth, where a stuffed Doraemon hung from a hook. “...whatever we want?”
Tanjiro caught her gaze. His hands curled against his chest for a moment before he turned that calculating look on him again. “Just one prize?”
Mikey nodded solemnly. “One prize, one secret location.”
Tanjiro stuck out a sticky, crumb covered hand. “Deal.”
Ten minutes later, he wandered down a corner off the main festival street, 500 yen lighter but shamelessly content as the ring-toss owner’s protests faded into the distance. He couldn’t hold back a slight grin as he remembered the look on the kids’ faces as, one by one, he’d tossed all three rings on the golden spoke in the far left corner with an easy flick of his wrist: pure, wild glee, even as the owner looked ready to spit blood.
Well, he’d promised to win one prize - that prize just so happened to be a three-for-one deal.
Tanjiro, sporting a brand new dragon hat, was more than happy to point him in the right direction for the taiyaki stall before taking off with his sister to show off their prizes. Suzume had offered him an adorable bow, her arms wrapped around the Doraemon plush, before toddling after him into the crowd. He’d offered to walk with them - they were pretty young to be walking around a festival on their own, however precocious the boy was, but their older brother had evidently stepped away to grab snacks from a nearby stall. Since they’d been able to point out the back of his head in line, he’d left them to their spoils.
The side-street was tucked around an ostentatiously large fried chicken book, where a crowd of nearly fifty people were waiting in line. The sizzling of the oil hissed through the conversation of the crowd, second in sensation only to the fragrant smell of the frying meat and marinade, tempting him to peak into the corner at the bundles of golden, crunchy clouds. He resisted though, put off by the long line and the small mountain of fried food already sitting like lead in his stomach - besides, he was on a mission.
Two stalls down, sandwiched between a chocolate banana stall and another shooting game, was the promise land: the taiyaki stand. He sidled up to the front, his gaze drifting over the banner at the top: taiyaki bursting out of a small wave next to the bright red words: Hanagaki’s Catch of the Day .
“Not bad,” he murmured, before glancing around. The booth seemed empty, but for a small bell on the counter. Mikey reached up and poked the top three times.
“Oh! Just a second!” The voice called from the back of the booth. A moment later, a young man stepped through the back flap, heaving a large cooler in his arms. He had on a bright blue happi coat, half falling off his shoulder and bunching at the elbow, a simple t-shirt on underneath. After setting the cooler on the ground, he straightened back up with a sigh and wiped his forehead on the back of his arm. “Sorry for the wait.”
“It’s fine,” said Mikey, staring bemusedly at the boy’s bleached blond hair.
“Since there was a break in the rush, I grabbed another round of filling. We’d hit the dregs of our red bean,” he was saying, washing his hands in a nearby utility sink. “Can’t go without the classic, right?”
He dried his hands on the towel tucked into his pocket before stepping up to the grill. Blue eyes, just a shade lighter than his coat, greeted him enthusiastically over the counter. “What can I get you? First one’s on the house, since I made you wait.”
“Really?” Mikey smiled, anticipation building. “Then a red bean to start.”
“You got it!”
He lifted a large bottle of batter and squeezed out two hefty portions into two of the molds, deftly painting the inside of the fish with practiced hands. The grill sizzled on contact, emitting the faintest smell of sweetly-baking batter. The guy then turned and propped open the cooler with his knee. A tub was lifted from inside, the container clear, the thick red bean paste clearly visible and full to the brim. He cracked the lid, fished out a generous dollop for both sides, and set the tub to the side. Sweeping the batter back into his hands, he filled in the matching side on the grill plate before snapping them together with a twirl of his wrist.
“There we go, should be about a minute.”
Mikey licked his lips, one leg bouncing as he stared at the grill. It’d been too long since he’d last had taiyaki - at least four days, and that had been a store-bought version. Nothing could beat fresh taiyaki from a street market. He checked his watch after several moments. 36, 35, 34, 33 …
“Uh.” He glanced up. The other guy was watching him, his expression sheepish. “Are you that hungry?”
“No.” Mikey checked his watch again. 20 seconds.
“You’re just,” he hesitated, “that excited for taiyaki?”
Mikey shrugged, forcing his leg to stop jumping in place. “It’s my favorite.”
Something about that statement resonated with the guy, because his whole face trembled for a second before he was leaning over the grill again, his eyes shining, “It is?”
Not sure what to make of this, Mikey nodded back slowly.
“Isn’t it? Isn’t taiyaki the best?” Beaming, he shrugged his happi coat back onto his shoulders and turned around to showcase his family name on the back. “My family’s been perfecting them for ages now! It’s the perfect dessert to showcase Japan’s traditional cuisine, while also an excellent vessel for exploring new flavors!”
Ten seconds, his brain supplied, but Mikey’s interest was well and truly peaked. “New flavors? Like what?”
“Lots of things! Last week, I was experimenting with a mango cream filling. Dad agreed to make it the special for the week - it sold out within the first two hours at lunch time. I had to make double the batch after school so we’d have enough for the next day.”
Mango cream. Mikey’s mouth watered at the thought.
“We’ve got matcha and red bean flavored, custard cream, chestnut paste, sweet potato, banana and chocolate - “ In the middle of this, the guy reached down and opened the grill plate. Perfectly golden cakes steamed up at him, fluffy treasures with soft edges and a slightly red belly. He pulled a long wooden stick from below the counter and flipped the edges slightly, testing their bake, before he pulled a folded cup from the shelf to his left and slid one taiyaki inside. “We have several savory kinds as well, if you’re interested. I’m working on a curry one this month - it’s based on a chinese curry bun recipe from my grandmother.”
He wrapped the end of the cup with a napkin before holding it out. “Careful, it’s very hot.”
“Thanks,” Mikey replied automatically, disregarding any warning to take a bite from the nose. It was hot - almost too hot, even for him, but the slight discomfort faded immediately as molten red bean oozed over his tongue, sweet and creamy and earthy, cushioned by fluffy cake as soft and lightly sweet as a buttery pancake. He closed his eyes.
There’s a sweeping feeling in his chest, something close to elation but softened at the edges with this familiar comfort, this perfect specimen of his favorite dessert. A sense memory, old and weathered and precious, drifted to the front of his mind: another humid night not unlike this one, holding his sister’s hand as they held onto the back of Gramp’s yukata, necks craning back to stare up at him, tiny hands sharing one large, freshly baked taiyaki.
He couldn’t believe he had been content to eat stale, dry, store-bought versions for so long - they were fakes, bitter facsimiles.
Mikey finally opened his eyes again and met the harried gaze of the taiyaki cook, a slightly shaking cup of water held out over the grill.
“Are you okay? Did you burn your mouth?” He winced in sympathy. “Here, this should help. I wish I could offer you ice, but - the temperature in here with the grill, well - “
“Your family makes these?”
“Oh - yeah, we have a shop in Shibuya, not too far from the Parco. It’s just called Hanagaki’s, not ‘The Daily Catch,’” he said with a short, almost nervous laugh. “That’s what we’ve always called the stall, though. My grandfather started this one. Must’ve been fifty years ago.”
Mikey took another burning bite, considering the other boy for a moment. “What’s your name?”
“Me? Ah, Takemichi. Hanagaki Takemichi.” He smiled and offered a polite bow.
“Hmm.” He chewed as slow as possible, allowing the red bean paste to fully saturate his taste buds, unwilling to finish it off so quickly. “Takemitchy, huh.”
“Eh?” The other boy froze, his lips moving soundlessly as though to correct him.
Mikey ignored it. “I’ll have to visit your shop. Sounds like it’s close to my school.”
“I go to Mizo Mid,” said Takemitchy, lifting the batter bottle. “Want another?”
“What flavor this time? As I mentioned, we’ve got the classics like red bean, custard cream, chocolate, chestnut. I brought the mango as well, to see if I could get any feedback from customers. Then, there’s the secret flavor.”
Mikey froze, the tail of the fish the last remaining bite in his hand. “Secret flavor?”
Takemitchy nodded. He glanced around, narrowing his eyes at the drowsy man falling asleep at the shooting stall, before leaning forward. Those bright blue eyes reminded Mikey of the sky from that afternoon: clear, open, and endless. “Sweet potato purin.”
Mikey stared at him.
“Don’t spread that around though,” continued Takemitchy, his voice lowered to a loud whisper. “I’m not actually finished with the recipe, so dad forbade me from handing it out to customers. But if it’s on the house, then you’re not technically a customer, right?”
“You made it?”
“Yep!” He gestured slyly back at the cooler. “Taiyaki is actually my main job at the shop. Dad handles the other desserts and the candy - I make most of the cakes and traditional sweets. Since we’re only a couple hours from closing the festival stall, I thought I’d see if anyone wanted to sample it. You interested?”
Mikey swallowed thickly, the ghost of that sweet red bean haunting his mouth. He stared into the cooler, wondering what other secrets laid inside, before he turned to Takemitchy. He leaned on the counter, chin nestled into his palm, and smiled. “Yes.”
“Nice!” Takemitchy pumped his fist as though Mikey were doing him a favor, rather than the other way around. Cute. “Which one?”
“All of them.”
“I - wait, what?”
Mikey pulled his wallet from his pocket and dropped it on the counter next to his elbow. Brushing his hair back, he leaned further onto the counter and settled in to watch Takemitchy make as many taiyaki as his money or stomach could sustain. He trailed his gaze over the slight sheen of sweat on his tanned skin, slim shoulders and waist, surprisingly strong-looking arms. Talented, quick hands.
“Really?” Takemitchy asked again, his eyes wide.
“As many as possible,” he replied, tilting his head to the side and giving him a heavy-lidded look. “Starting with that secret flavor.”
“Will do!” Takemitchy shouted, excitement bursting at the seams. He set about pulling another tub from the container, the faintest blush on his cheeks, smiling from ear to ear as though he couldn’t help himself.
When Mikey took that first bite, the sweet, nutty rush of sweet potato blending with a salty-sweet and gooey center of caramel, folded into a cool, mild pudding that had somehow survived the heat of the grill and the perfectly baked cake on either side, he searched up Hanagaki’s on his phone and pinned the location to his favorites, making note of the easiest route after school or from the temple they usually held their gang meetings.
He didn’t know why the thought hadn’t occurred to him before. Since that first, perfect bite of taiyaki at six years old, he had become committed to a hidden agenda in his life: he’d find the best taiyaki available, and he would eat it all the time.
What better way than to trap himself a taiyaki baker?
“Yeah? Want another?”
“Yes. By the way, do you happen to make dorayaki at your shop as well?”
“Sure, all the time. Why? Is that another favorite?”
“You’re my new favorite.”
“Eh? What was that?”
“Oi, Mikey! The hell were you? We’ve been looking all over for you. Emma’s sandal broke - let’s get out of here.”
“Securing my future prospects.”
“.... the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”