“No voting for yourselves,” Izumi reminded them as the room filled with nothing but the sound of scribbling pencils.
“There’s no way this is going to end well,” Tsuzuru muttered under his breath. “Twelve whole hours of bossing the entire company around…? That kind of power would go to anyone’s head.”
“Would it go to yours?” Citron whispered back at him teasingly.
“Oh, absolutely. A hundred percent. Not a doubt. I’d be the worst human being to all of you if I won. So much of my repressed rage would come flooding to the surface."
Citron laughed, and then stopped laughing when he realized Tsuzuru was being serious. He quickly crossed out Tsuzuru’s name on his ballot and wrote down Sakuya instead.
“Thank you for the warning.”
Tsuzuru handed his slip of paper out to the Director as she went around to collect them. She handed the pile, including hers, to Sakyo, and then sat in her chair to the side.
“Are all the votes in?” Sakyo asked.
He sighed and began to dig through the slips of paper. “Alright. I reiterate that this is a foolish competition, and I’m not sure how Miyoshi convinced us to go through with it. But I’m sure that by now, I’ve made my position on this clear. Let us begin.”
Sakyo marked a tally on the board. “One vote for Izumi Tachibana.”
Light applause from all around. The Director frowned a little.
“That seems unfair,” she said. "I’m not even an actor. Masumi, was that you?”
“Yes,” he said immediately, unashamed.
She sighed and gestured for Sakyo to continue. “Keep going.”
“Another vote for the Director.” Sakyo held up the next one and scowled. “Who the hell wrote Kamekichi?”
Itaru held up his hand. “That was me.”
“He’s the hardest working member of our company in your eyes?” Yuki asked him in disbelief. “He hasn’t been sober before four PM since last Wednesday."
“The guy hands me granola bars when I ask him to, alright? I'd give him a vote during the prime minister elections too."
“You are insufferable as always, Chigasaki, job well done on keeping yourself consistent.” Sakyo looked at the next slip and paused. He looked confused. “One vote for…”
His brow furrowed further.
Sakyo waved Omi over to help him sort through the slips.
“Let’s tally them ourselves instead of reading them out loud,” he muttered. “This can’t be right."
Banri rolled his eyes and tossed his hands into the air, but didn’t say anything else. The company waited patiently. Sakyo, for some reason, appeared to be counting the votes over and over again like something had slipped from his comprehension. Omi leaned over and murmured, “No, no, they’re adding up right.”
“This is ridiculous.” Sakyo straightened and smacked his clipboard with the back of his hand. “In first place with six votes is... Ken Sakoda.”
They heard clambering in the hall signaling his arrival before the door even opened. Sakoda burst through, pinwheeling his arms to stop himself from hitting the ground after a slight stumble. He shot back up straight and held out a palm.
“Didja guys say my name?” Sakoda asked brightly. “Anyone need me to go on a snack run?"
Sakyo blinked very slowly and then rubbed his forehead. He tread forward and clipped the gold-and-blue ribbon on Sakoda’s chest.
“Congratulations, Sakoda,” he said. “You’ve won the company’s contest.”
Sakoda’s jaw dropped.
Itaru glanced up. Back down to his phone. “Pogchamp.”
“I DID?” Sakoda asked, showing the tip of each sharp tooth in his smile. “That’s sick! Like a lottery or somethin’? Do I get a washing machine?”
“No, no washing machine. You do get to tell…” Sakyo took in such a slow breath and rubbed his forehead again. “Everyone in this company what to do for the next twelve hours.”
Izumi nudged him in the back of his calf with her sneaker.
“Tell him what the contest was!” she urged.
Sakyo clicked his tongue. He fixed his glasses. “We’ve run a poll amongst the company to decide who the hardest working member is. It seems that, although you aren’t officially affiliated nor contracted with MANKAI company, you’ve won.”
Sakoda gasped. “You’re kiddin’!”
“I am not.”
“Aw, guys, that means a lot!” Sakoda said, turning to the company and waving. “No clue why though. Who voted for me?"
“I’m obvious,” Azami said simply.
“You truly, truly are,” Sakyo muttered under his breath. He narrowed his eyes at the rest of them. “But who else filled his name in?"
Izumi raised her hand. “I did."
The Director smiled behind her hand at the incredulous look on Sakyo’s face. “I mean, after last Saturday…"
She should have checked the weather before going to the grocery store on the opposite side of town. She should have. No matter how good the sales on eggs and chives had been. And even if she hadn’t? She should have been able to gather from context clues that the day would be a little sweltering. Everyone else in the company had left in short-sleeves and hats.
But still, the fact that the day had been cool when she’d walked into the grocery store, and was now vibrating with heat, seemed unnecessarily cruel.
Izumi clenched her jaw and stepped out into the blazing hot sun. Nothing to do but walk through it.
Izumi turned around, recognizing the voice. “Sakoda?”
The young man jingled the little bell at the front of his bicycle as he got closer.
“I heard you went out for groceries!” he called. “But I got worried because the heat was aboutta become awful. Ken Sakoda, here for the rescue!"
Izumi chuckled. What a sweet gesture. “That means a lot, but I don’t think I can ride on someone's handlebars for twenty minutes anymore."
Sakoda hopped off. “I know! I just thought ya’d like some company, is all. You can put the groceries in the basket so at least you don’t have to carry them."
His back suddenly straightened and he patted his baggy pants. He rummaged through one large pocket and then took out a collapsible umbrella.
“I even brought a parasol for ya, boss lady!” Sakoda crowed proudly. “All fancy and cool, right?” He straightened and tapped his chest twice with his fist. “Becomin’ more like a gentleman like the big boss man every day, if I do say so myself."
Izumi laughed again and ruffled his hair. “You sure are.”
“BOSS LADY!” he cried, jerking away. “You’ll mess up the gel! C’mon, it takes time to look this fresh every mornin’!”
Izumi decided, as she put the groceries into Sakoda’s basket, that she wouldn’t tell Sakoda today that Sakyo had more or less the same reaction to head pats. Although his style was more “you’re being such a brat” and scowling. She didn’t know which of them would be more embarrassed upon finding out.
Sakoda flicked the switch of the umbrella on and let the shade fall on both of their heads. Then he reached into his other pocket and took out a water bottle.
“For you!” he said excitedly. “So you don’t die from heat stroke while we walk back."
Izumi smiled a little harder as she unscrewed the cap. If she’d called Sakyo and asked him for a lift from the grocery store, he probably would have said yes. But the drive back would have been filled with nothing but chastising and warnings to look at the weather for future visits. And Sakyo would have never brought her bottled water. Maybe a reusable bottle filled with iced tea, but not a bottled water.
With that in mind…
Izumi snorted to herself, almost choking on the drink.
“Hm?” Sakoda asked, tilting his head to the side. “What’s the joke?”
“Naaah, tell me, I like jokes! C’mon, Boss Lady!”
Izumi just knocked the back of her finger on Sakoda’s forehead. “I just think you might be more of a gentleman than him already, honestly.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Say, what kind of curry do you want tonight?”
Sakoda perked up. “Anythin’ with lots of meat, to be honest!”
“Consider it done.”
“…I had to, pretty much,” Izumi finished. She waved at Sakoda. “Thanks for the help again.”
Sakoda scratched the back of his head, although he preened at the praise. “It was nothin’, really.”
“I’m going to kill him,” Masumi announced, getting to his feet.
Tsuzuru sighed and reached up to grab him by the sleeve. “Masumi, no.”
“It’ll be a duel to the death.”
Masumi sat, although looking very disgruntled. He suddenly glared at Tsuzuru.
“I peeked when you wrote the ballot,” he accused. “Why’d you vote for him?”
So there were bad days, right? And then there were Bad. Days.
Tsuzuru was currently living through the hell that was the latter.
Late alarm. Coffee spilled on his shirt. Stumbling into the lecture hall a few minutes late and having everyone peer at him for an agonizing forty seconds before they looked away, back to the front of the room. The world-ending realization a whole two hours into the day that his jeans were inside out.
Groggy, hungry, and quietly enraged, Tsuzuru trudged off several hours later towards the dormitories.
Whatever, he told himself, even as frustrated tears pricked in the back of his eyes. Truly, whatever. He’d had worse days. He would get back to the dorms, take a bath and eat a delicious dinner, possibly both at once so he could go to bed earlier. The bad day would be over for a good one following. He kept telling himself this.
That was when a lining at his shoe split and the sole gave away. Tsuzuru stumbled.
Stumbled hard enough to pitch off the slight hill and go rolling.
Might as well, he thought to himself blandly as he tucked in to avoid getting hurt.
The flap of his messenger bag swung up. The contents flopped out, scattering along the riverbank.
Like, of course.
Because, sure, why not.
Tsuzuru got up. And then realized that the folder he’d been clutching in his arms for the extra security was nowhere to be found, except, there it was, bobbing in the water of the river right beside him. It continued bobbing, like going nooooo, ahhhhhhh, don’t wanna drooowwwnnnn, oblllguugblgrgb, before it disappeared under a slightly harsher lap of current.
Why not, universe. Why not screw with him a little more.
Tsuzuru squatted down with his knees together and pressed his face into his palms. He’d get up in a few minutes, collect himself, go and get his folder. But for just this moment, he would allow himself to have a small breakdown. A frustrated sob bubbled in his chest, ready to slip out his mouth.
“Yoooooo, you’re Minagi, ain’tcha?”
Tsuzuru started in surprise, whipping his head to the side. Sakoda hopped off of what appeared to be a cabbage delivery truck and marched on over.
“Is this what you actor guys do in your free time?” he asked curiously. “Sit by the river and get all emotional? I saw that Sakuma guy from your troupe do the same thing a few times.”
Sakuya came to the riverside to cry and get his emotions out? Well, that was a bit of information Tsuzuru would tuck away to check in on him more often.
For now, though, he just gestured weakly to the muddy river. “Dropped my folder in there.”
Tsuzuru hung his head between his knees and groaned loudly. “What a pain in—”
Splosh, splash, splosh.
He snapped his look up to find Sakoda plunging through the shallow river without a care in the world. He bent down, began to swipe his hands left and right underwater. When he made contact with something, he grabbed it and held it up. Tsuzuru’s mud-streaked (but thankfully waterproof) folder got hit with the setting rays of the sun.
“I found it!” Sakoda called. “This is it, right?"
Tsuzuru forcefully reminded himself to shut his mouth.
“Y-Yes!” he managed, getting to his feet. “You really didn’t have to do that, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean that I wanted you to—“
Sakoda dropped it on the ground to let it dry out a little, and then sat to get his socks and shoes back on. “Nah, it would have been a mess if you lost it, right?”
“It would have been a really big nuisance, that’s for sure…”
“Then that’s great!” Sakoda lifted his chin to smile with all his teeth at Tsuzuru. “It would have sucked ass if you lost all your hard work. I have no clue how you manage to write so much stuff all the time, least I could do is try to protect it when I gotta.”
Tsuzuru curled a hand over his chest and swallowed dryly. His heart quivered. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it, nerd.”
“Okay, watch it.”
“I had my reasons,” he said carefully.
He really, really owed Sakoda for that moment, after all.
“I-I voted for Sakoda as well!” Muku announced as he bravely held up his palm. He lowered it quickly to fiddle his thumbs. “I just think he’s very… cool, and he deserves a reward for all his hard w-work…”
After all, Ken had been the one who to offer him a piggy-back ride all the way back to the dorms when his leg hurt. Muku figured that there was value yet in a shoujo manga plot that revolved around a delinquent actually being a long lost prince to a forgotten kingdom, yet still having his purity of heart preserved no matter his outer appearance. And if no one was going to publish that, then by god, Muku would start looking into art programs when he hit college.
“I’d be the fifth vote, then,” Azuma said.
Guy glanced at him. “May I ask why?”
Azuma blinked when he realized he heard a light tapping on his window. Strange, seeing as how the room was on the second floor.
He shut Homare’s most recently published book and went to the sill, pushing lightly upon the frame. Outside, he could see a shocking head of blonde over a purple jacket. It was Sakyo’s boy, wasn’t it?
“It’s late, Ken,” Azuma called down. “You should head on home quickly.”
“Shhhhh!” Sakoda shushed, finger pressed against his mouth in alarm. “Boss would kill me if he knew I was out so late again.”
Indeed, Sakyo would. As much as he stressed he wasn’t coddling Sakoda or that he wasn’t the boy’s father, he sure knew how to give a scolding when he knew the youth was out and about after the streetlights turned on.
“Why are you here?” Azuma asked, slowly crossing his arms and smiling. The story would hopefully be amusing.
Sakoda just shot him a toothy smile Azuma could see even from all the way up he sat. “I got an idea and I couldn’t wait for tomorrow. Boss says you’re napping in the day a lot anyways and I wouldn’t wanna disrupt ya!”
Sitting on the second floor with someone gazing up at him under the moonlight. What, was Azuma back in his twenties?
“I prefer ballads if you’re planning on serenading me any time soon,” he joked smoothly.
“Nothing, Ken. Is there anything you need?”
Sakoda suddenly held up a rope. “Catch!”
He flung the knotted end up into the air towards the window. Azuma blinked and thanked his reflexes for working properly when his palms jerked out to nab the rope. Sakoda made a pulling motion. And so Azuma did.
Straining himself only slightly, Azuma reeled up the short length until there was a small basket in his hands. He blinked at the potted yellow chrysanthemum, along with a few Belvita crackers.
“My giftbaskin’ skills are still a work in progress!” Sakoda loud-whispered, hands cupped around his mouth. “But keep takin’ care of the Boss for all of us, Azuma. You rock!”
Azuma’s already gentle gaze softened further as Sakoda shot him an enthusiastic thumb up. And then the young man turned around and began running off down the street towards his own apartment. He gazed down at the chrysanthemums and gave them a sniff. How sweet. What a good boy. Sakyo really was so fortunate.
“And I’m sure none of us need to ask who that sixth vote was,” Izumi said loftily, fingers linked behind her back.
“I don’t appreciate what you’re accusing me of,” Sakyo shot right back.
“I accused you of nothing, good sir, but your defensive nature is sure curious.”
Sakyo pursed his lips, fixed his already-straight glasses once more, and then dropped the argument. A battle surrendered was better than one lost, after all. “I didn’t know he would have received others. Moving on; what would you like to do with this victory of yours, Sakoda?”
Sakoda made a noise of thought, inhaling through his teeth and crossing his arms.
Suddenly, he plucked the medal off his chest and handed it right back to Sakyo.
“I don’t really think this is it, chief,” he said, face serious.
“‘Chief,’ now?” Sakyo muttered under his breath. A little louder, he asked, “What are you getting at?”
“Just a sayin’, Boss!” Sakoda laced his fingers behind his head. “I mean, it’s not really about who’s the ‘hardest workin’ member,’ right? Because we all gotta do our own parts! You guys are the actors and I’m just gonna keep on bein’ the Ken Sakoda all of you guys can rely on when you need me. So it’s not just me! We’re all the hardest workers!”
He shot them his trademark, shark-toothed beam.
“That’s why we’re the best theatre company Veludo Way’s ever seen!” he said with utmost pride.
Azami suddenly looked away, trying to sniff quietly so as not to get attention.
But Muku was right next to him and immediately asked, “A-Are you okay?”
Azami blinked hard and fought hard to keep his face neutral. “He’s just such a good guy, Muku. Ken’s a good guy."
“He really is, I know."
Sakyo exhaled softly and patted Sakoda’s shoulder once. “You really are growing up so quickly.”
“Ah? What’s that, Boss?”
He took his hand away. “I said nothing. Remind me to add a bonus to your next paycheck.”