Actions

Work Header

Bittersweet Memories and New Beginnings

Work Text:

"You're late," Yagi grumbled as Kouhei walked into the kitchen, followed by the high school girl...Kotori-chan. "The gyoza's already done."

"Sorry," Kouhei said sheepishly.

"C'mere," said Kotori's friend Shinobu, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him away from the stove to let Kouhei finish up the cooking. "Man, you're dumb," she scolded him. "You don't understand anything."

"Huh?!" was all Yagi could say in response, stunned at being lectured by a teenager that he barely knew. And what the hell was he being scolded for, anyway? After all, he was the one helping out when Kouhei was supposed to be doing the cooking.

"Don't you want to let them be in their natural state?" Shinobu asked, pointing over to where Kouhei was flipping the pan of finished gyoza onto a plate while Kotori and Tsumugi watched anxiously. All three of their faces lit up with triumph and happiness when he completed the task successfully.

Shinobu smiled with satisfaction at their elated cries of "Wow!" and "Yay, we did it!" She held out her hand to Yagi, who hesitated for a second, then shook it.

So this is my job again, huh? he thought, with a sigh of resignation. He couldn't help feeling a bit like a third wheel, as he had when he'd introduced Kouhei to Tae...

***

He and Tae were classmates at culinary school, and one day after class she asked him if he wanted to have lunch with her.

"Thanks, but I'm meeting a friend today," Yagi replied.

"The one you feed your class assignments to?" Tae asked with a smile.

"Yeah, he's like my guinea pig," Yagi said. "He's not exactly a picky eater, but he doesn't have much interest in food. So if I manage to make something that he actually likes, I know it must be good."

Tae laughed. "You act all gruff, but you're really a softie deep down, Yagi-chan. You said once that your friend is a university student without much money to spend, so don't you use the taste-testing as an excuse to make sure that he eats right?"

"Since when are we familiar enough that you can call me 'chan'?" Yagi grumbled, but Tae just laughed again.

"Here, why don't you take some of my cooking, too? There's too much here for me to eat by myself, so share it with your friend."

"Why don't you come along and have lunch with us?" Yagi suggested.

"If I won't be intruding," Tae said.

"Nah, it's no big deal," Yagi replied. "I'm sure he won't mind." Kouhei was a little awkward around women, but Tae was pretty nonthreatening. She was cute (not that he would ever tell her that), but with a mischievous and tomboyish air that made Yagi regard her more like a little sister than a potential girlfriend.

"Okay then," Tae said cheerfully. "I'd enjoy the company, and I'd like to see if my cooking passes muster with your taste tester!"

So they went to a park near their school where Yagi had arranged to meet Kouhei. He seemed a little startled to see Tae, and she said, "I hope you don't mind my tagging along."

"Oh no, not at all," Kouhei assured her. "I'm just a little surprised, that's all. I'm very happy to meet one of Yagi's friends."

They found a bench to sit on, and Yagi and Tae divided their food among the three of them. Kouhei was a little shy around Tae at first, but then she asked, "Do you like to cook, Inuzuka-san?"

"Are you kidding?" Yagi said before Kouhei had a chance to reply. "In our high school Home Economics class, he once mixed up the salt and the sugar when we were making cookies. And then he had the nerve to say that he didn't think it was a big deal and were they really that bad. Ugh, those cookies were completely inedible!"

"You don't have to tell her all that, Yagi!" Kouhei protested, and Tae burst into laughter. Kouhei smiled sheepishly and began to laugh as well. After that, the ice was broken, and he was able to talk more easily with Tae, and soon they were all trading stories about their respective classes.

"So you're studying to become a teacher?" Tae asked. "You must really like kids."

"Not exactly," Kouhei replied. Realizing what he'd said, he hastily added, "I mean, I don't dislike them, but the reason I decided to become a teacher is because of a friend I tutored in high school who told me that I was good at helping people study. I didn't really have any hobbies or ambitions at the time, so it made me feel good to know that I was good at something, even if it was just something small. So, well...looking back, that's when I started to think that maybe I would like to be a teacher."

"I'm sure you'll be great at it, Inuzuka-san," Tae said, smiling warmly.

Still blushing, Kouhei quickly changed the subject. "And I'm sure you guys will make great chefs one day--this food is delicious!" He smiled and teased Yagi, "Maybe someday you'll be a famous gourmet chef, and I can say that you used to make bento lunches for me. Though probably no one will believe me."

Yagi knew that Kouhei was mostly joking, but answered him seriously anyway. "I'm not interested in becoming a famous chef at a four-star restaurant or anything like that. I'd like to run a small café or pub someday, the kind of place where people can go after work or school to relax. Of course I want to make delicious food, but it doesn't have to be anything fancy--just good, simple comfort food. Y'know, something like gyoza or curry or omelet rice..."

His voice trailed off as he realized both Kouhei and Tae were staring at him in surprise. "What?" he demanded gruffly.

"It's just that you sounded so mature just now, Yagi-chan," Tae replied.

"I never said you could call me 'chan'!"

Kouhei laughed. "I agree with Tae-san. I didn't realize you'd planned that far ahead into the future, but you've really thought things through...Yagi-chan."

"I didn't say you could call me 'chan,' either," Yagi growled, feeling both pleased and a little embarrassed by his friends' praise. "And I don't know if you can call it a career plan, exactly. It's more like...I dunno, wishful thinking."

"Well, I definitely think you'll be running your own café someday," Tae told him.

"What about you, Tae-san?" Kouhei asked. "What's your goal...or dream, if you prefer? To run a café like Yagi? Or maybe to go to Europe and study French cuisine?"

"Actually, I didn't enroll in culinary school because I wanted to become a professional chef," Tae said, more hesitantly than usual. "I mean, I think I'd enjoy working with food when it's time for me to find a job, but the real reason is...well, because of my mom. She was a great cook, and she would always make these cute bento lunches for me when I was a kid. And I'd come home after school and sit down to a delicious dinner with my family in the evening. It's not just that the food was tasty...it was like she was showing her love through her cooking. Eating Mom's meals made me feel safe and happy and comforted. Even if I was having a hard time at school or whatever, it made me feel like everything would be okay. So I want to provide that same feeling to my own family someday." She blushed deeply and added, "I guess that sounds kind of silly, doesn't it?"

"Oh no, not at all," Kouhei said earnestly. "I think that sounds wonderful! I'm sure someday you'll be a great wife and mother, and your family will be happy that you put so much care into their meals." He blushed as well, and they both sat there red-faced, staring into each other's eyes with silly, sheepish grins on their faces. After a long silence, they both burst into laughter and suddenly began chattering away like old friends about random things: their classes, their favorite foods, and humorous anecdotes about their families. It was probably partly out of nervousness and embarrassment, but they also seemed to have genuinely made a connection.

However, they had completely forgotten that Yagi was there, and he sat there next to them feeling like a third wheel. Who could have predicted that shy, awkward Kouhei and outgoing, tomboyish Tae would hit it off so well?

He leaned back against the bench with a disgruntled sigh, then looked over as they laughed at some joke Tae had made. Their faces were animated with happiness and an almost giddy sense of excitement.

"Oh, Yagi-chan, I'm so sorry!" Tae exclaimed a few minutes later. "I forgot that you were here!"

"How rude," Yagi replied.

"Don't sulk, Yagi-chan," Tae said lightly. "Here, have this onigiri as an apology."

"I don't want--" Yagi started to say, but his protests turned into a muffled "mmph!" when she shoved the rice ball into his mouth.

He made a show of glaring at Tae and Kouhei balefully as they burst into laughter, but thought to himself, Ah well, as long as they're happy, I suppose it's fine.

***

Yagi smiled at the memory. Kouhei and Tae had of course fallen in love and gotten married, and he had catered the food for their wedding reception, and even made the wedding cake. He had protested that they should have a bakery do it, but Tae had insisted that she was confident that he would do a good job. Kouhei had smiled and said it would be fine, although he'd been so head-over-heels in love with Tae that he wouldn't have cared if the cake had tasted like cardboard as long as Tae was happy.

Despite Yagi's apprehension, the cake had turned out fine as both Tae and Kouhei had predicted. He had been proud of the simple but elegant three-tiered cake he'd made according to Tae's request: chocolate with white buttercream frosting, decorated with buttercream roses, and topped with a little fondant bride and groom that Tae had made herself.

"Hey Yagi-chin, what're you daydreaming about?" Shinobu's voice demanded, startling him out of his reverie.

"Who're you calling 'chin'?" Yagi retorted, sidestepping her question. "Show some respect to your elders."

She just laughed and ignored him, saying that they should make some boiled gyoza to take advantage of the homemade skins. Not wanting to be outdone by a smart-aleck teenager, Yagi also volunteered to make gyoza chicken wings. Well, he'd been planning to do that anyway, but he took some satisfaction in Kouhei's and Tsumugi's looks of admiration as they watched him cook.

When they all sat down to eat, he watched as father and daughter exclaimed over how good the food was, smiling and laughing as they chatted with the schoolgirls. It was the first time he had seen Kouhei looking so happy and carefree since Tae's death, although he'd done his best to stay positive for Tsumugi's sake.

Tsumugi also looked happier and more at ease. Perhaps due to her youth, she was resilient and had mostly carried on like normal, still able to have fun with her friends and get excited about that Magi-Girl show she loved. But naturally her mother's death had affected her too, and it had been heartbreaking to see her trying so hard to be "a good girl for Daddy's sake". It was why he liked to spoil her a little on the days that he looked after her.

I guess it's all right then, if cooking with that high school girl makes them so happy, Yagi decided.

***

Still, it bothered him that Kouhei hadn't come to him first for help, and one day Yagi finally asked, "If you wanted to learn how to cook, why didn't you ask me instead of one of your students?"

Kouhei gave him a startled look, then replied, "The idea never occurred to me until we ran into Kotori-san at her mother's restaurant. I'd never really cooked before, and honestly, it was all I could do to keep things together after Tae was gone. I was so busy with all the things that she used to do--the laundry, the housework, getting Tsumugi ready for school--that there was no time to think about cooking lessons. Though in a way that was good, because if I'd had too much time to think, I would have completely fallen apart."

"I know it was rough on you," Yagi said quietly.

"I never thought I was capable of cooking anything beyond the basics," Kouhei continued. "You know, rice using the rice cooker, and maybe toast and scrambled eggs. So I was making do with convenience store bentos and prepared frozen foods. But then I noticed Tsumugi wasn't eating as much, and that she was so happy with a simple bowl of home-cooked rice at the Iidas' place. So I decided then and there that I'd have to learn how to cook in order to keep Tsumugi smiling."

"I get that part," Yagi said. "But once you decided that, why didn't you come to me?"

His tone of voice came out a little more accusing than he had intended, and Kouhei said earnestly, "But you've already done so much for us, Yagi! I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't been there to help me look after Tsumugi."

"Looking after the kid's no problem," Yagi replied gruffly, feeling a little guilty now that he'd made Kouhei feel guilty. "I like spending time with Tsumugi; it's no chore. You know that you can come to me for anything, right?"

"Of course," Kouhei assured him with a warm smile. "Actually, I might have come to you for help if Kotori-san hadn't said that she wanted us to learn how to cook together. Her mother is away on work a lot, and I think she was lonely, always eating dinner by herself. But she's a good kid, so she doesn't want to complain and make her mom feel bad."

"You're such a softie," Yagi said, feeling better about the whole thing now. It was probably silly to have gotten worked up about it, but he'd been a little hurt that Kouhei had turned to someone else for help instead of relying on his best friend--and Tae's friend, too. He had complained a lot about how insolent she was, but he'd secretly enjoyed arguing with her, and in their own way, he'd been as close to her as he was to Kouhei.

It was a little ironic that Kouhei thought that Yagi was going out of his way to help him, when in truth, it was the other way around. He missed Tae, almost as much as Kouhei and Tsumugi did, and helping them for Tae's sake helped Yagi to ease his own grief. Maybe it wasn't so much either one of them helping the other, but more like they were mutually supporting each other.

"I'm not a softie," Kouhei protested. "It's natural to be concerned about one of my students. I realize that cooking with her is a bit unorthodox, but both her mother and my Principal approve--"

"It's fine," Yagi laughed, cutting off his stream of excuses. "I know you're not up to anything inappropriate with her--"

"Of course not!" Kouhei said indignantly.

"And more importantly, her mother knows it," Yagi continued. "So it's fine, as long as you and Tsumugi are happy. But if you ever do want some cooking tips, let me know."

"Now that you mention it, I could use some help," Kouhei said thoughtfully. "Tsumugi's birthday is coming up and she wants a Magi-Girl themed party. I found some Magi-Girl paper plates and cups and napkins, and some little toys for party favors, but I'm not sure what to do about food. She says she wants a cake that's all pink and fluffy like Mister Gali-Gali. That might be a little beyond my skill set, so I was thinking of ordering it from a bakery, but..."

"No, that won't do!" Yagi exclaimed, suddenly feeling fired up. "I'll make Tsumugi's cake, and plan the rest of the menu, too!"

"Are you sure?" Kouhei asked, a little doubtfully.

Yagi scowled at him. "Are you insulting my skills?"

"That's not what I meant," Kouhei said hastily. "I know you're more than capable of handling it--you catered my wedding, after all! But you're busy running the café--are you sure doing the birthday party won't be too much work for you?"

"Ah, it's no sweat," Yagi reassured him. "I have a couple of good part-timers who help out when it's busy, so they can cover for me. Hmm..." He rubbed his chin as he mulled over ideas for the birthday menu. His knowledge of Magi-Girl was a bit sketchy, but Tsumugi talked about it all the time, and he'd seen a few episodes here and there when he'd baby-sat her. And he certainly knew what Mister Gali-Gali looked like, since Tsumugi carried the stuffed toy with her everywhere.

"Yagi?" Kouhei asked, breaking his train of thought. "Are you okay?"

"I was just mulling things over," Yagi replied. "I've already got a few ideas."

"I'm sure whatever you come up with will be great," Kouhei told him.

"Of course it will," Yagi said, pretending to be offended. "Was there ever any doubt?"

"None at all," Kouhei laughed. "I'll leave everything in your very capable hands."

***

As it turned out, he didn't entirely leave everything in Yagi's hands, though it wasn't due to a lack of trust, Kouhei explained when they met a few days later at Yagi's café.

"It's a special event in Tsumugi's life, so I'd like to take an active part in preparing a special meal for her."

Yagi grinned and asked, "How do you manage to say something like that without sounding completely sappy?"

"Come on, a father is entitled to be a little sentimental about his only daughter," Kouhei protested.

"I suppose so," Yagi conceded, still grinning. "I figured you'd say something like that, so I came up with a fairly simple menu that we should be able to handle together. Kids like finger foods, so I decided on chicken nuggets, onigiri, and veggie skewers. We'll make the nuggets from scratch, so it'll be healthier than the stuff you get at the fast food places, and we'll cut the veggies into cute shapes to make them appealing."

Kouhei nodded. "Tsumugi has already done that, and it does seem to make eating vegetables more fun for her." He smiled ruefully and added, "Although she still won't eat bell peppers."

"Well, one thing at a time," Yagi chuckled. "Since it's her birthday, we won't try to make her eat peppers. As for the cake, I found this." He proudly displayed a novelty cake pan that he'd found at a kitchenware shop. "It's supposed to be a cloud, but it kind of looks like Mister Gali-Gali, doesn't it?"

"With pink frosting and a face added on, sure," Kouhei agreed. "This is great, Yagi! I'm sure Tsumugi will be thrilled."

Pleased, Yagi continued, "And I had one more idea--how about making sugar cookie wands as party favors? We can make star-shaped cookies and stick them on extra-long lollipop sticks. It won't look exactly like Magi-Girl's wand, but I think the kids will still like them. We can decorate them with icing and sprinkles to make them more fancy, or if you don't mind the mess, the kids can decorate the cookies themselves."

"I think a little mess at a birthday party is inevitable," Kouhei replied. "As long as the kids have fun, I don't mind cleaning up after them, but I should ask Kotori-san for permission first."

"Permission?" Yagi asked in confusion. "Why would you...oh."

Kouhei smiled apologetically and said, "I was planning to have the party at home, but Tsumugi wanted to invite Kotori-san and Shinobu-san. The two of them plus Tsumugi's friends, not to mention you and I, are too many to fit comfortably in my apartment. So Kotori-san offered to let us have it at the restaurant. I didn't want to impose, but her mother assured me that it was fine with her."

"Ah well," Yagi sighed. "I should have realized it would work out this way." He knew that Tsumugi adored Kotori because she talked about the older girl all the time, and the whole point of the party was to make Tsumugi happy, after all. "That's fine," he said, trying to look on the bright side. "It'll be easier to do the cooking there than at your place, anyway."

"You're a good friend, Yagi," Kouhei said gratefully.

"Hmph," Yagi snorted, in an attempt to hide how touched he was by Kouhei's words. "As long as you realize that."

***

Since the baking was the most time-consuming part of the menu, Yagi made the cake and cookies the night before the party, after the café closed. He reasoned that way they would have plenty of time to prepare the lunch dishes in the morning.

Kouhei tried to thank him profusely the next day when he arrived at Megumi, but Yagi brushed it off with a casual, "It's no big deal. Consider it part of my birthday present to the squirt."

As if summoned by his words, Tsumugi ran towards him shouting, "Yagi-chan!" His arms were occupied with holding the cake and cookies, so she settled for throwing her arms around his legs, nearly causing him to topple over.

"Argh, watch out!" Yagi cried. "Unless you want me to drop your birthday cake on the floor!"

"Sorry," Tsumugi said, instantly releasing him. "Where is it? I want to see!"

"It's not ready yet," Yagi said sternly. "It still needs to be frosted. But let's cook the rest of the food first."

He was not at all surprised to see the two high school girls there; it was Kotori's mother's restaurant, after all.

"We thought we could help with the cooking," Kotori said, staring at him with a look that was both eager and a little anxious.

"Nice to see you again, Yagi-chin," Shinobu added with a grin.

"Be respectful to your elders," Yagi replied, more out of reflex than any expectation that she would actually listen to him. Similarly, his glare had no effect on her, though it made Kotori look more anxious.

Feeling a bit guilty for intimidating the girl, he said in a gentler voice, "Thanks, we can use all the help we can get." She smiled in relief, and her earnest attitude suddenly reminded him of Kouhei.

Well, like draws to like, I suppose, Yagi reasoned.

"I've already started a pot of rice," Kotori said shyly.

"Good, then we can start on the chicken nuggets," Yagi said briskly. "Kouhei, can you handle mincing these chicken breasts?"

"I'm on it," Kouhei replied confidently.

Yagi raised an eyebrow, but just nodded and turned to Shinobu. "Ponytails, you chop the celery into small pieces, about six millimeters square," he ordered.

It was a deliberate attempt to needle her, but she just saluted him and said, "Yes, sir!" She smiled cheekily, but obediently began chopping the celery, so he had no reason to scold her--not that she'd listen, anyway.

"What about me?" Tsumugi demanded, tugging at the hem of his shirt to get his attention. "I want to help, too!"

"You can work on the veggie skewers," Yagi said. "Your dad told me you helped cut carrots into cute shapes before. We'll slice some cucumbers and carrots, and cut them into hearts and stars with these cookie cutters. Then you can put them on these skewers along with some cherry tomatoes." He produced a package of the kind of plastic food picks that were commonly used in kids' bento lunches. They were usually topped with cute shapes or animal faces, but he had managed to find some official Magi-Girl picks at the same store where he'd bought the cake pan.

"It's Mister Gali-Gali!" Tsumugi squealed delightedly. "They're so cute!" She saluted Yagi and said, "I'll do a good job, sir! I've done it before, making ham and veggie skewers for our picnic lunch."

"You're a bad influence," Yagi told Shinobu, but he couldn't help laughing at the very serious and determined look on Tsumugi's face. "Okay kid," he said, patting her on the head. "I'll leave it up to you." He turned to Kotori and asked, "Can you slice the carrots and cucumbers for her?"

A sudden silence fell over the room, and Kouhei and Shinobu cast worried looks in Kotori's direction. "Yagi," Kouhei said hesitantly, "I think maybe it would be better if--"

"It's okay, Sensei," Kotori interrupted, smiling calmly. "I can use this." She reached into a kitchen drawer and took out a nylon child-safe knife. Seeing Yagi's look of confusion, she explained, "I cut myself badly when I was small, and I've been scared of knives ever since. But I want to learn to cook, so this is my first step in overcoming that fear."

"I have a knife like that one, too," Tsumugi said cheerfully. "It's safe, so I won't get hurt."

Kouhei and Shinobu let out quiet sighs of relief as Kotori began cutting the vegetables. Since everything seemed to be back to normal, Yagi went over to mix the batter for the chicken nuggets.

"Seems like you continue being a teacher even after the school day is over...Sensei," Yagi murmured as he separated three eggs. He set the whites aside and mixed the yolks with some water and flour.

"Not exactly," Kouhei replied, flushing slightly. "I mean...I'm glad if I'm able to be of some help to Kotori-san, but she's helped me and Tsumugi as much or more than I've helped her."

"Heh heh, you sounded like a real teacher just now, Sensei!" Shinobu laughed good-naturedly.

"Nobody asked you, brat," Yagi retorted, but Shinobu just stuck her tongue out at him and went back to chopping the celery.

"It's fine, Yagi," Kouhei said, obviously trying to play peacemaker, though Yagi wasn't really angry. "There are times when I've wondered if I'm really doing a good job as a teacher, so I'll take that as a compliment."

"If you say so," Yagi replied skeptically.

Changing the subject, Kouhei asked, "Is the chicken minced finely enough?"

"Yeah, looks good," Yagi said. "Put it in this bowl, then beat the egg whites and mix them in. After that, mix in the salt, pepper, and celery. In the meantime, I'll start heating the oil to fry it."

By the time they were ready to make the nuggets, Kotori and Tsumugi were done with the veggie skewers and came over to watch.

"I want to help!"

"I suppose it's okay," Yagi said, looking down at Tsumugi's eager face. It didn't really matter if the nuggets weren't perfectly shaped, as long as they were more or less the same size. "You scoop up some of the chicken mixture with a spoon like this, then dip it in the batter, and cover it with breadcrumbs.

"I can do that," Tsumugi declared, and she did well enough, though with a bit more mess than was necessary. But spilled breadcrumbs and drops of batter could be cleaned up easily enough, and it was a small price to pay to see her having so much fun. The older girls joined in, and seemed to enjoy it almost as much as Tsumugi did.

"Oil's hot enough," Yagi said after checking the temperature. "I'll go ahead and start frying the nuggets."

He had assumed that Kouhei wouldn't be comfortable with deep-frying, but to his surprise, Kouhei said, "I can fry the nuggets if you want to work on the cake or the onigiri."

"Are you sure?" Yagi asked doubtfully.

"Daddy's made fried chicken," Tsumugi told him proudly. "And doughnuts, too! It was a little scary when the oil popped, but Daddy did a good job."

Kouhei blushed and smiled, looking embarrassed but pleased. "Honestly, it was a little scary at first, but I can manage okay now."

"Wow, you really have been taking these cooking lessons seriously," Yagi said. "It's hard to believe that you're the same guy who could barely manage to boil water for a cup of instant ramen!"

"I could boil water!" Kouhei said indignantly, and everyone burst into laughter.

While Kouhei cooked the nuggets, Yagi and the girls moved on to the onigiri. "But not just plain old onigiri," he told Tsumugi. "This will be Yagi's special Gali-Gali onigiri."

"Really?" Tsumugi gasped, staring at him wide-eyed.

Kotori looked almost as eager, and Shinobu smiled and said, "This I gotta see."

"First, I'll mix a jar of salmon flakes into the rice," Yagi explained.

"Ooh, now the rice looks pink!" Tsumugi exclaimed.

"Right, then we shape the rice into balls," Yagi said. "You guys can help."

Soon they had a platter of pink rice balls, but as Tsumugi pointed out doubtfully, "They don't really look like Mister Gali-Gali."

"Be patient; we're not done yet," Yagi scolded gently. "We'll take some slices of ham and cut out little triangles for ears, and circles for noses. You can poke holes in the 'noses' to make nostrils. Then we'll use this nori punch to cut eyes out of sheets of nori."

"Oh, I've been wanting to get some of those," Kotori said. "They come in different shapes, and you can make all kinds of cute little faces with them."

"This is just like making a collage in art class," Tsumugi said excitedly.

"Pretty much," Yagi agreed, and they settled down to assembling and putting together the parts to turn the onigiri into pig faces.

"Done!" Shinobu said with satisfaction. "They really are cute. You can come up with some good ideas, Yagi-chin."

"You don't have to sound so surprised," Yagi grumbled. "And stop calling me 'chin'."

Next up was the buttercream frosting for the cake. After working on the onigiri, Kotori seemed more at ease around him, and asked if she could help. "It doesn't involve any cutting, so I should be okay," she said with a slightly sheepish smile.

Yagi shrugged and said, "Sure, why not? It's a simple enough recipe."

So he let her take over, standing by and instructing her as she used a mixer to beat the softened butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, a little milk, and a few drops of red food coloring. She did fine, and the girls oohed and ahed as the thick mass of butter and sugar turned into soft, fluffy peaks of pink frosting.

"That's good," Yagi said, and Kotori turned off the mixer. By this time, Kouhei had finished with the chicken nuggets, and came over to watch, as fascinated as the kids were, as Yagi scooped the frosting into a pastry bag and covered the cake with large swirls of frosting to imitate Gali-Gali's fluffy pink wool. He still wasn't entirely sure if the creature was supposed to be a pig or a sheep, or some weird hybrid of both.

"It's all pink and fluffy like Mister Gali-Gali," Tsumugi said happily. "Are you going to make a face like we did with the onigiri?"

"Exactly," Yagi replied. "Well, maybe not 'exactly'...unless you want ham and nori on your birthday cake."

Tsumugi wrinkled her nose at the idea and said, "You're being silly, Yagi-chan."

"I don't know, that could be an interesting combination," Shinobu said with a straight face.

"Now you're being silly, too, Shinobu-chan."

"You can have ham and cake, then," Yagi said. "As for the rest of us..." He placed a round pink sugar cookie and two triangle ones on the cake to make Gali-Gali's nose and ears. "I made these out of the scraps of dough left over from the cookie wands. And for his eyes..." He stuck two pieces of round, flat chocolate between the nose and ears, then added nostrils to the nose with a little tube of black decorating icing.

Tsumugi clapped her hands together in excitement. "Now it really looks like Mister Gali-Gali! Good job, Yagi-chan."

She gave him a thumbs-up, and Shinobu copied the gesture, saying, "Yeah, good job, Yagi-chin."

"I don't need to hear that from you," Yagi said sourly.

Kouhei laughed and patted him on the shoulder. "But you really did a great job, on the cake and everything else. I can't thank you enough."

"No problem," Yagi said gruffly.

Just then, the first of Tsumugi's friends arrived, and she ran over to greet the girl and her mother.

"Is it that time already?" Kouhei asked anxiously.

"Everything's done except for the icing for the cookies," Yagi told him. "I'll finish up while you guys get the party started."

The rest of the guests--two more little girls and a boy--arrived shortly after, and Kouhei and Shinobu herded the kids into the next room to play some games. Kotori stayed behind to clean up the kitchen while Yagi made a royal icing out of powdered sugar, egg whites, and water.

"You really put a lot of thought into the party menu," Kotori said. "Tsumugi was thrilled, and I had a lot of fun helping with the food, even if I can't do much yet."

"You were a big help," Yagi said, privately admitting to himself that she was a good kid. "Kouhei and Tsumugi both seem to be having fun with the cooking lessons. You must be a pretty good teacher, because I never thought Kouhei would be able to make meals that didn't involve sticking frozen food in a microwave."

"Oh, it's not me, it's my mother's instructions," Kotori said hastily, blushing deeply. "And I've been learning a lot along with them."

"Are you intending to take over the restaurant one day?" Yagi asked.

"W-well, I've thought about it," Kotori stammered, still blushing. "I mean, I'd like to, but I know I have to be able to use knives if I want to cook for a living."

"You seem to working on that," Yagi said, recalling how she had chopped vegetables with the child's knife. "It's okay to take things one step at a time."

Kotori smiled at him gratefully. "I'm not ready to use a real knife yet, but I think I can work up to it someday. I...I think I've gotten a little braver, working with Sensei and Tsumugi-chan."

Yagi wondered how he'd ended up giving her advice when Kouhei was her teacher. But he supposed they had something in common, since both he and her mother ran restaurants. "If you're serious about taking over the restaurant, you can talk to Kouhei about your options. I guess you're at the age where you'll be thinking about college or vocational training soon."

"Did you study cooking after high school, Yagi-san?"

"Yeah, I went to culinary school," he replied. "That's where I met Tsumugi's mom, actually." He smiled wryly and added, "I guess I ended up playing matchmaker for her and Kouhei, even if it was by accident."

"Really?" Kotori exclaimed, eyes widening in surprise. "I didn't know Tsumugi-chan's mother went to culinary school. But I guess that explains why she was able to make such delicious meals. At least, they sound delicious from the way that Tsumugi-chan and Sensei describe them."

"Yeah, she was a great cook," Yagi said with a wistful smile. Then, because it felt awkward to be getting all nostalgic with a teenage girl he barely knew, he added, "But not as great as me!"

Kotori laughed, and the mood lightened as Yagi had intended.

Lunch was a rousing success: the kids loved the chicken nuggets and onigiri, and even ate all their vegetables.

After they were done eating, Yagi brought out the star-shaped cookie wands. He had tinted the icing pink and blue, and let the kids choose the color they wanted and spread it over the stars.

Predictably, the little boy--Mikio--chose blue because pink was "too girly". He seemed to find the whole concept of Magi-Girl wands to be "girly," but when Tsumugi huffily told him, "Well, you don't have to do it if you don't want to," he quickly changed his mind.

"A cookie is still a cookie," he said pragmatically.

"Maybe you can think of it as a wizard's wand, instead of a Magi-Girl wand," Kouhei told him kindly.

That seemed to pacify Mikio, and he joined the girls in decorating their stars with an assortment of colored sugar, sprinkles, and silver candy beads. Kotori and Shinobu joined in, and everyone seemed to be having fun, laughing and admiring each other's creations. Tsumugi waved her wand around, shouting, "I'm Magi-Girl!"

"Settle down, Tsumugi," Kouhei urged as some of the sprinkles that weren't stuck securely to the icing went flying. No harm was done, though, since Kotori had laid down a sheet over the tatami mats to protect them.

"Here, let's put the wands in plastic bags, so your friends can take them home as party favors," Kotori said gently, and Tsumugi calmed down and obeyed with only a little reluctance.

"Maybe it's time for the birthday cake," Yagi suggested.

Mikio had been staring at his wand as if he were contemplating eating it now instead of taking it home, but looked up eagerly at the mention of "cake".

"Yes, cake!" Tsumugi said, instantly forgetting about her own wand.

Kouhei brought out the cake out, topped with six lit candles. Everyone exclaimed over how cute it was, much to Yagi's satisfaction.

If I didn't have the café, I could have made a living as a caterer. Although I'm not sure I'd want to do birthday parties on a regular basis for kids who aren't sort-of nieces or nephews to me.

They all sang "Happy Birthday" to her, and waited expectantly for Tsumugi to blow out the candles. However, she paused for a moment, her brow furrowing with a look of intense concentration before she took a deep breath and finally blew them out.

"You got them all at once, Tsumugi--good job!" Kouhei praised her, and everyone applauded as Tsumugi smiled proudly.

As Kouhei sliced the cake, he asked, "What did you wish for?"

"It's a secret," Tsumugi replied. "But I'll whisper it to you."

Kouhei bent down so that Tsumugi could cup her hands over his ear and whisper into it. "I see," he murmured, smiling at her tenderly, then continued cutting and passing out the cake.

Yagi was about to retreat to the kitchen when Tsumugi waved at him and called out, "Yagi-chan, come eat birthday cake with us!"

"Me?" Yagi asked, startled.

"Yes, let's all eat together," Tsumugi replied. "Yagi-chan made the cake and cookies, and all the other food," she informed her friends. "Me and Daddy and Kotori-chan and Shinobu-chan helped, too."

The other children stared at Yagi in awe. "The cake is so cute," one of the little girls gushed.

"It looks just like Mister Gali-Gali," agreed the second girl.

The third girl said shyly, "It looks really nice, like it came from a bakery."

"Yuka-chan's mommy makes cakes, so she knows a lot about them," Tsumugi said smiling at her friend, who blushed and smiled back at her.

Mikio said, "I always thought baking was only for girls, but that's pretty cool."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Yagi said dryly, and sat down at the table, the others making room so that he and Kouhei could squeeze in between them.

"Happy birthday to me!" Tsumugi said happily, and dug into her cake.

It was a little weird, eating cake with a bunch of little kids, but it was gratifying to see how much they were enjoying it. Besides, Kouhei and the high school girls seemed perfectly at ease, so Yagi shrugged and ate a bite of cake.

"It is good, if I do say so myself."

"Modest, aren't you, Yagi-chin?" Shinobu snickered, elbowing him in the side.

"Well, he has reason to be proud," Kouhei said, perhaps trying to head off an argument. "It really is a splendid cake."

"Aw, it was nothing," Yagi mumbled, feeling embarrassed now.

"Haha, now you're trying to be humble, Yagi-chin?"

"It's ten years too early for you to be calling me 'chin,' brat," Yagi retorted, but couldn't help but smile. In an odd way, both Shinobu and Kotori reminded him of Tae: he saw Tae's cheerful, cheeky attitude in Shinobu, while Kotori was more like the Tae who wanted to create a loving, comforting home for her family. In hindsight, it was no surprise that Kouhei and Tsumugi got along so well with the girls.

After the cake was reduced to crumbs, Tsumugi opened her presents, which were mainly an assortment of Magi-Girl goods, except for the gifts from Shinobu and Kotori. Shinobu gave her a toy vegetable and knife set that included a wooden knife and cleverly made wooden vegetables that could be sliced in two when the knife separated the velcro that held the pieces of the vegetables together. Tsumugi squealed with delight and seemed to have even more fun "chopping" the vegetables than she did playing with her new Magi-Girl toys.

She was equally delighted with Kotori's gift, a toy baking set that included bowls, pans, cookie cutters, a mixing spoon, and other paraphernalia that were small enough for a child but could actually be used to make real cookies and cakes.

"Kotori-chan, thank you so much!" Tsumugi exclaimed, flinging her arms around the older girl in an impulsive hug. "Can Daddy and I come over and bake something with you one day?"

Kotori returned the embrace, sincerely if a bit awkwardly. "Of course, Tsumugi-chan, that's why I got it for you. If that's all right with you, Sensei?"

"As long as it's okay with your mother," Kouhei replied.

"Mom already told me it's fine," Kotori assured him. "She says that she's glad that I'm not alone when she's away on work."

"Can we come tomorrow?" Tsumugi asked eagerly.

"Tomorrow's a school day," Kouhei reminded her. When she looked disappointed, he added, "Maybe next weekend if Kotori-san is free."

"Next weekend is good," Kotori said. "We've made a cake once already, so how about cookies this time?"

"Yay!" Tsumugi said, instantly cheering up. "I can't wait!"

Her friends' parents arrived to pick up their offspring soon after that, and the party came to end. Tsumugi's friends waved goodbye to her and left, clutching their goody bags and chattering to their parents about how much fun the party was.

Yagi stayed behind to help Kouhei and the high school girls with the clean-up. Tsumugi pitched in without being asked, even though she had several new toys that she was eager to play with. However, she clearly admired and liked to imitate Kotori, which apparently turned cleaning from a chore into a fun activity.

The cleaning would probably have gone more quickly without her, but Kotori and Shinobu patiently encouraged her, and didn't seem to mind when her well-meaning attempts at helping slowed them down.

Still, between the five of them, they got the cleanup done relatively quickly. Tsumugi was reluctant to leave and bring her birthday celebration to an end, but was coaxed along with the reminder that they would come back and bake cookies with Kotori next weekend.

Appeased by that promise, she politely said goodbye to Kotori and Shinobu, adding, "Thank you for letting me have the party here."

"You're welcome, Tsumugi-chan," Kotori replied. "It was no trouble at all. I had a lot of fun today."

"Me too," Shinobu said with a grin. "Thanks for inviting us to your party!"

"Will you come back and make cookies with us, Shinobu-chan?" Tsumugi asked.

"Tsumugi," Kouhei said, "we shouldn't impose on--"

"Sure, I'd love to," Shinobu replied. "Sounds like fun!"

"And you too, Yagi-chan?" Tsumugi asked, looking up at him hopefully.

"Uh...I have to run the café," Yagi said, slightly taken aback. "But I can come by for a few hours if it's after the lunch rush is over."

"Anytime is good with me," Kotori said, looking over at Shinobu, who nodded. "Just have Sensei let me know what time we're getting together."

Still feeling bemused, Yagi left the restaurant with Kouhei and Tsumugi, who waved and called back, "Bye-bye Kotori-chan, Shinobu-chan! See you next week!"

They headed back to Kouhei's place, with Yagi holding Tsumugi's hand, since Kouhei was loaded down with the bags holding Tsumugi's presents. But Tsumugi was worn out after a day filled with excitement, and it wasn't long before she started yawning and her steps slowed down to a crawl.

"Maybe I should carry her," Kouhei said.

"Nah, you've got your hands full," Yagi replied. "I can manage." So he hoisted Tsumugi up, carrying her piggyback style with her little arms wrapped around his neck. In a few minutes she was fast asleep, her head lolling on his shoulder as she snored softly.

"She's not too heavy, is she?" Kouhei asked apologetically.

"It's fine," Yagi reassured him. "I lift sacks of rice at the café that weigh more than she does." Of course, he usually wasn't carrying those sacks home with him, but she didn't really weigh that much, and there was something comforting about Tsumugi's small, warm body resting against his back. He didn't even mind the wet spot that was forming on his shoulder as she drooled slightly in her sleep.

Maybe this is kind of how it feels to be a dad, he thought, as a wave of tenderness washed over him. He understood now why Tae wanted to build a loving home for her family, and why Kouhei would do anything to make his daughter happy.

He chuckled, and Kouhei asked, "What's so funny?"

"I was just thinking how amazing it is that you, the guy who couldn't even boil water when we were in college, is making delicious meals for his daughter," Yagi replied. "You didn't really need my help for this party, did you? I bet you could have managed fine on your own."

"No, you really were a big help," Kouhei insisted. "I can do some basic meals, but you came up with all those creative ideas for the Magi-Girl themed treats. And anyway, Tsumugi was really happy that you were here today."

"By the way, what did the squirt wish for?" Yagi asked curiously.

"I was a bit worried that she might wish for something impossible, like for her mom to come back," Kouhei said.

"She's young and doesn't fully understand the concept of death, but I think she knows enough to know that Tae isn't able to come back," Yagi said quietly.

"I guess you're right," Kouhei said, smiling sadly. "Anyway, it was a relief that her wish is something fairly easy to fulfill."

"So?" Yagi asked impatiently. "Don't keep me in suspense--what is it?"

Kouhei laughed, the air of melancholy lifting as he smiled fondly at Yagi. "What she wished for is for us to keep cooking together: she and I, Kotori-san and Shinobu-san, and of course, you too, Yagi."

"Why am I tacked on like an afterthought?" Yagi grumbled, but he was moved enough that he had to quickly blink away a few tears.

"You okay, Yagi?"

"Fine; just got something in my eye," Yagi replied gruffly. Kouhei wasn't fooled, judging by his mischievous smile, but said nothing to contradict Yagi.

"If that's what Tsumugi wants, sure, I'll help out with the cooking lessons whenever I can," Yagi said. "And you guys are welcome to stop by the café during off-hours, and we can practice there, too." He looked away and added, his voice turning gruff again, "You can bring the high school girls if you want."

"Thanks, Yagi," Kouhei said, his words simple but heartfelt, and they continued walking home in companionable silence.

Yagi thought that if there was an afterlife, Tae would feel comforted to know that Kouhei and Tsumugi were doing well. And he thought that she would be both pleased and amused to know that it was cooking that had drawn them all closer together.