4 Chapter 2

Today’s meeting to discuss sales policies had everyone on edge from the outset. Despite the air conditioner being on a low setting for purposes of energy conservation, the air still carried a chill to it, and with most everyone holding their tongues in this tense situation, the only one still continuing to deliver a thorough tongue-lashing was Kirishima Zen, editor-in-chief of Monthly Japun.

“This whole mess is all you people’s fault, so make up your damn minds—I’m sure this is just one measly work out of thousands to the company, but to the authors themselves, each and every piece they put out is a battle. Take things more seriously!”

All present were far too frightened to even look Kirishima squarely in the eye as he chewed them out. Perhaps because of how composed he usually kept himself, when he let his expression fall away, the guy was like ice—so much so that even Yokozawa was breaking out into a cold sweat, which meant that the others were surely shaking in their shoes.

Taking up his mantle as representative of the sales department, Yokozawa bowed his head low. “…We deeply apologize.” The entire reason that Yokozawa, widely known throughout Marukawa Shoten as the ‘Wild Bear’, was on the defensive from the get-go was simply because the blame lay entirely on the sales department’s shoulders.

They’d just realized their incredibly huge mistake only yesterday—several days earlier, an employee who’d been suddenly transferred to an affiliate corporation was apparently backed up with work. Given that everything that employee was involved with were issues that had needed to be handled long before, Yokozawa and the rest of his team had found themselves having to care of a mountain of post-processing.

Naturally, this wasn’t due to any error by Yokozawa himself—but nevertheless, the sales department’s ineptitude had clearly dropped the ball on this one, bringing down the entire department together.

To make matters worse, the head of the sales department had gone on vacation abroad the previous week, and as a result, despite there still being other sales department members superior to Yokozawa around, Yokozawa was the one in charge of comics sales and had therefore found himself shoved to the forefront of the battle.

They likely suspected that, given how close the two seemed to be, they might get off relatively lightly, but Kirishima wasn’t the type to lessen his attacks for something as simple as that.

“I don’t suppose there’s any use crying over spilled milk—so rather than reflecting on the mess you’ve made, focus on fixing it. For the time being, bring me a revised version of the sales policies by the end of the day.”

Doubting his hearing, Yokozawa turned the question on the man across the table. “By the end…of today?” It was next to impossible to completely review from the bottom up in half a day a series of sales policies that it had taken months to compile in the first place. And more so—there were more than a few matters they still had to take care of to correct the errors that had been made.

“You heard me. If we don’t get things in order by the time the new volumes are released, then there’s no point to this at all.”

At Kirishima’s frustratingly logical argument, the associates to Yokozawa’s left and right quailed, holding their breath.

“…I’ll take care of it, then.” Had this been an issue with himself, Yokozawa would have continued to exchange caustic words with Kirishima, but in an effort to save face, he had little choice but to duck his head and give in. He’d been shoved into the limelight like this with pleas from those around him not to make matters worse, leaving Yokozawa aching with frustration over having no choice other than to offer his half-hearted response.

“What the hell’s with that vague response? If you’re so ‘busy’ you can’t even take a few days’ vacation, you should have no problem taking care of this, right? You’re married to your work after all, aren’t you?” Kirishima pressed, watching Yokozawa swallow uncomfortably.

“………!”

“I’m asking you, personally. Can you do it—or can’t you? Which is it?”

“…All right then. I’ll be sure to have it to you by the end of the day, without fail,” he eventually relented, hands gripped into tight fists at his sides. His coworkers furtively released their collective breath, but this was a matter of personal pride on Yokozawa’s part now. There might be complaints later, but all he had to do was make sure to take personal responsibility now.

Plus—Kirishima wasn’t the type of man to make impossible demands. The very reason he was being so persistent on this matter likely had to do with the fact that it was Yokozawa sitting across the table from him.

Besides—Kirishima was right in this matter; if they didn’t make their move either today or tomorrow, the company would experience a significant loss.

Had the employee at fault been one of Yokozawa’s subordinates, this sort of stupid mistake would never have occurred in the first place—but he couldn’t go about bad-mouthing the errors of a superior for one thing, and for another, the person at fault had previously shown himself to be rather proficient at his job.

Given his impressive ability to spin a conversation, though, most everything around him was enveloped in a hazy smoke. It had only been recently that it had come to light that he’d been pushing off his work onto unsuspecting newbies on the side, playing up everything as his own doing. On top of that, there were rumors of financial discrepancies as well.

Yokozawa and his group hadn’t been made aware of why the man had been transferred, but it likely had to do with a pile-up of such incidents. Really, they were actually late to realize all that had been going on, and regrets of if only we’d realized sooner simply strengthened as more came to light.

Yokozawa had commended himself for rising through the ranks to take on responsibilities overseeing comics sales over someone above him in both age and years employed at the company—but considering everything now, he couldn’t discount the possibility that his superiors had simply realized that these duties couldn’t be entrusted to that man.

The moment the meeting ended, everyone scattered like spiderlings, likely eager to remove themselves from this atmosphere as quickly as possible. Yokozawa would have liked to have done the same, but he still had a piece of his mind to give Kirishima.

With a glance to ensure that they were alone in the meeting room now, he called out, “Kirishima-san,” to the man still seated across from him.

“Hm?”

“A word, if you don’t mind?” Despite having already ensured that the door was shut, he kept his voice low in case anyone was still dawdling outside the room. He absolutely could not have anyone else in the office overhearing the conversation they were about to have. Taking a small breath, he hazarded, “I really…am sorry for this issue happening, and you’re perfectly within your rights to berate me for it—but I’ll thank you not to bring your personal issues with me into the meeting room.”

“Ah, so you noticed, did you?” Kirishima scratched the back of his neck almost purposefully, shifting his gaze off to the side. His expression now showed absolutely none of the cold indifference he’d worn only moments before, and feeling a sense of relief at this fact, Yokozawa allowed himself to release a sigh.

“Like hell I’d miss it.” Thankfully, it seemed no one else in the room had noticed, but Yokozawa had fully grasped the subtle jab Kirishima had delivered.

The whole married to your work ridicule had likely been targeted in response to Yokozawa arguing just the previous day that it would be difficult for him to manage to take a few days off together.

Several years prior, Marukawa Shoten had instated a system where one had to submit an application in advance to be able to take vacation time, with everyone submitting their desired days off and subsequently being notified of their fixed vacation interval. Kirishima had suggested that they align their days off and go on a family trip together, but Yokozawa had no clue when he’d be able to tear himself away from the work he was dealing with right now, so he’d had to turn the guy down for the time being.

Yokozawa had taken over much of the responsibilities that the transferred employee had been in charge of, and there was little hope of him being able to put everything in order in only a few days. Plus, when they’d visited the matter of taking a vacation yesterday, they still hadn’t even learned about the issue they’d just been discussing in the meeting only moments before.

“Well, you look so cute when you’re in trouble—I couldn’t help myself.”

“Don’t think you’re getting off with ‘I couldn’t help myself’!”

Of course, the only reason Yokozawa was able to have such a frank discussion with someone who was technically his superior was purely because of the secret relationship they were currently engaged in. While he hadn’t confessed as such to a single soul, certain matters had led to the two dating for the past few months, and despite being unable to shake the sensation of how unbelievable their situation was, it was nevertheless the unadorned truth.

“It’s your fault for being so cold~” Kirishima pouted when Yokozawa unthinkingly raised his voice, and the unbecoming expression only served to further irritate.

It was likely that no one had ever entertained the notion that the charismatic editor-in-chief who managed to control his brigade of individualistic editors could behave in such a childish manner—and Yokozawa had lost count of how many times he’d wished he could just snap a picture and flash it about the office to prove as such.

With a fit body and height enough to him to compete with Yokozawa’s 180-plus centimeters, no one could dispute how handsome he was. He had a calm atmosphere about him exceeding his 30-some-odd years of age, and the voice issuing forth from his slender lips was beautiful with its low, gentle timbre.

However, while he remained forever unruffled despite what troubles cropped up in his work, he exhibited a surprisingly wide range of emotions in private—so clumsy he couldn’t even peel the skin off an apple, and yet prone to intense jealousy as well. Perhaps the only ones privy to that side of Kirishima were his family and Yokozawa.

“And it’s not like I could help any of this—after flailing about the way we did yesterday over this matter, if I don’t handle it, you’ll be the one catching hell for it.”

“Work and play are separate matters.”

“Says the guy who just mixed them superbly five minutes ago?”

“Did I…?”

“…Geez, you…” Yokozawa’s brows furrowed deeply at Kirishima’s insistent, illogical quibbling, and he massaged his temples.

The issue at hand had come to light just as the pair had been heading home the previous evening, right as they’d been discussing the matter of taking vacation time for their trip. Yokozawa had had little choice but to turn down the invitation, leaving Kirishima in a foul mood.

After receiving the call, Yokozawa had left Kirishima behind and promptly returned to the office, where he’d remained with his coworkers until well into the evening checking and rechecking documents, all the while unable to get ahold of the employee in question and winding up having wasted their entire night.

“I’m sorry but just—can you wait on this vacation thing at least until everything settles down here? I can’t just drop everything and run off on a trip right now.”

“Yeah yeah, I know. …Dammit, I can’t believe that asshole—running off and leaving everyone else to clean up his shit…” While he might have understood the situation, it was obvious he couldn’t contain his displeasure. His irritation with Yokozawa seemed to have just been blow-back from this matter in general. “All right; I’m gonna head back to my division and sort things out with my people, so get back to your desk and sit tight—though I’m sorry to say I probably won’t be able to let you off early tonight.” Really, though, the one who needed to be apologized to for her father having to stay late with overtime was Hiyori. “Oh—also, just put together a report on the status of everything for me some time tomorrow. I’m sure there’re a lot of things you’ve got to discuss, so just send me what you’ve got before you leave tonight.”

“Huh?”

“I’ll talk with the editing team and see if we can’t help out somehow, then call you later. Just ring up my extension if you need to ask anything; I’ll make sure I’m available.” The rapid-fire delivery left Yokozawa bewildered. Was he just imagining things, or was this completely different from what had just been discussed in the meeting?

“But, earlier you said you wanted…”

“Nah, I was just blowing off steam with your sales people—I mean, my editors have to figure out how to explain this to our authors now, you know? Plus with your boss out of the picture, you people needed a fire under your asses. I’ve noticed some of them spacing out lately, after all. Sorry I took it out on you.”

“Oh…no, that’s…really, it’s fine.” He’d been caught off guard, hardly expecting Kirishima to actually apologize, and just as Kirishima had pointed out, he couldn’t deny that the tension between them had eased by several magnitude.

“I just didn’t want them thinking that they could put you up there and things would just magically work out somehow. They’re way too reliant on you, you know.”

“………!” Yokozawa gaped, finally realizing what exactly had put Kirishima into such a foul mood. He’d obviously adopted the attitude he had with full knowledge of what had been going on around Yokozawa, and while his personal feelings had undoubtedly come into play in his irritation with Yokozawa, he must have been feeling equally frustrated with the fact Yokozawa had been put up there as a punching bag.

“Also—my mother’s taking care of Hiyo tonight, so you don’t have to worry about things at my place.” Kirishima’s parents lived only a stone’s throw away, and it was thanks in large part to their help that he’d been able to raise his daughter while still managing a vibrant career. His mother was a good-humored, bright woman, treating Yokozawa with all the kindness in the world despite his shamelessly making himself at home—and while he’d never met Kirishima’s father, he’d heard that, unlike his son, he was a rather quiet sort.

“All right then; I’m sure I’ll be staying late as well, so I’ll just head straight back to my place when I’m finished. Mind looking after Sorata for me?”

“Sure, I’ll take good care of him. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate—but I’m counting on you.”

“Leave it to me—just who do you think I am?”

“Then I’ll expect great things from you—Takafumi.”

“………!” Yokozawa felt a shudder ripple through him when Kirishima fixed his gaze squarely on Yokozawa as he stood, and the casually delivered use of his first name left him feeling shaken. No matter how he might consider himself well-composed, he could never keep up appearances in front of Kirishima. It was frustrating beyond expression how he felt like he was some schoolboy with his first crush—but those feelings of unease flickered away only a moment later.

“Geez, this really was the worst timing. Suppose it can’t be helped, though—we’ll just have to save this for later.”

“—?! Don’t just grope people’s asses in passing!” Kirishima’s flirtatious gesture completely ruined the moment, dispelling any warmth that had cropped up in his chest. He slapped Kirishima’s hand away and took a few steps back to ensure the guy couldn’t cop any further feels.

“What’s the big deal? I’m just playing grab-ass with my lover—oh wait. You’re married to your work, aren’t you?”

“Enough already!”

At Yokozawa’s raised voice, Kirishima released a loud guffaw. Despite knowing it was never going to happen, he really wished the guy would stop toying with him like this. Sometimes it was next to impossible to tell just how much of Kirishima’s words and actions were joking—was he actually that laid back, or only feigning as such? There was no telling.

Regardless, it did nothing to change the fact that Yokozawa hadn’t a clue how best to respond at times like this.

“Ah…” Just as he released a sigh, he recalled suddenly that he’d had something he’d meant to discuss with Kirishima—he’d meant to take care of it the evening before, but with everything going to shit like it had, he’d missed his chance.

He opened his mouth to speak—but just at that moment, the sound of Kirishima’s ringtone echoed through the meeting room, and he quickly snapped his mouth shut again. If it was a call regarding work matters, it wouldn’t do to get in the way. He’d really wanted to get this out of the way before Kirsihima returned to the editing floor, but it seemed he’d missed his chance once again.

“Yes, Kirishima speaking. Ah, Kyou-san. What’s the matter? It’s rare for you to call me on my cell phone.” It seemed the person on the other end of the line was Ijuuin Kyou, author of the explosive hit best-selling manga of Marukawa Shoten, Za Kan. Kirishima had been his managing editor for a number of years now, and while most authors tended to change up editors with the passage of time, Ijuuin alone was different. Yokozawa didn’t quite understand the particulars, but he knew at least they’d been paired together since before he’d even joined the company, so it had to be quite a long time.

Ijuuin seemed to have the nasty habit of going completely off the rails whenever a deadline approached, and Kirishima was the only one who could control him at that point. At times hurling furious reproachment, at others, simply humoring him—but always managing to drag a manuscript from him somehow. It wouldn’t be overstatement to call him a ‘beastmaster’ in that sense.

Authors tended to be a rather quirky, individualistic bunch by nature, but rare were the ones who were extraordinarily difficult to work with—with the rather famous literature author Usami Akihiko sitting squarely at the top of the pack. While Yokozawa had never borne witness to his temper firsthand, he’d heard his managing editor’s complaints through hearsay plenty of times.

For so much effort to be put into obtaining manuscripts from these people, their works must be extremely fascinating—and hiding this unseemly side from the readers themselves was one of the jobs of the publishing company. Yokozawa himself as well firmly believed that the company should do its level best to keep the dirty parts of the publishing business out of the public eye.

While authors and the works they release were understandably different beasts altogether, if an author were to come off too intense or severe, they ran the risk of their work not being properly received by the readers. And after all, readers had a right to enjoy the work as purely and simply as possible.

“I’m sure I can manage to make some time tomorrow, so I’ll head over myself. That ought to be quicker. How’s your schedule?”

Yokozawa couldn’t make out Ijuuin’s voice over the phone, but he could infer his disposition from Kirishima’s half of the conversation. As an editor and author who’d worked together for so long, the pair seemed not simply work associates but true partners. Maybe that trust that lay between them let them show their weak sides to one another and approach any issue with frank discussion. They’d probably…gotten through a lot together, that way.

He’d often heard of Kirishima’s flawless ability in the workplace, but it was only recently that he’d actually started truly paying attention to him when he was ‘on’. Given how long they’d known each other, this sort of interaction was to be expected, but when he considered that Ijuuin, in all likelihood, knew a side of Kirishima that he didn’t…it left him feeling strangely depressed.

“………”

It felt odd, like there was something stuck in the back of his throat and if he opened his mouth carelessly, a dejected sigh would come tumbling out. Try as he might to remind himself that it was just Kirishima’s author on the other end of the line, the atmosphere between them which he had no business penetrating left him feeling oddly alienated. He really must be off, today, to be this worked up over a simply work-related phone conversation.

He understood fully well how petty he became in matters of love—that was exactly what made him so irritated with himself.

“…I’m heading out.” The conversation didn’t seem to be about to end any time soon, and without waiting for Kirishima’s response, he quickly took his leave.


“What am I gonna do…”

In the end, he hadn’t gotten to talk things over with Kirishima, and while sure, there was still time before matters became urgent, he couldn’t take things lightly.

After taking his leave of the conference room, Yokozawa found himself loath to immediately return to the sales floor and instead headed for the break room. Despite knowing that everyone was waiting on him back in Sales, he needed to take a short breather. He’d be working all the way up until the last train tonight, after all, so what did it matter if he was another 10 or so minutes late?

Thirsty, he felt around in his pocket for some change and purchased a coffee from the vending machine, deciding to return to the sales floor after he’d finished it. After briefly considering stepping out for a smoke as well, he spotted a familiar face.

“You taking a break, too?”

“Ah, yes.” The tired face that greeted him here was that of the right-hand man to the editor-in-chief of Emerald, Hatori Yoshiyuki. Yokozawa was more than used to seeing these people exhausted in the midst of their monthly war zone, but he was sure this wasn’t that time of the month just yet. Had he met with some sort of trouble.

Despite being posted in the editing department, which was never fussy with its dress code, Hatori wore suits to the office—a style of dress that perfectly suited his personality—and while he was nearly as unsociable as Yokozawa himself, he was perfectly mannered with his authors, very often earning him affection and admiration beyond that typically owed him in a working relationship. While such attentions could themselves become another ‘war zone’ of sorts, he seemed to be very shrewd in dealing with his authors and appeared to be handling his job with aplomb.

Even though the editing department worked on a flextime schedule, Hatori always arrived at the same time every day and remained in the office late into the evening—and he flawlessly managed to support his audacious editor-in-chief to boot. That hard-working personality of his suited him well for sales, and Yokozawa had on occasion scouted him for his own division over drinks, but he’d been turned down flat.

“You don’t look so good. What’s up?”

“The anime development for one of the series I’m involved with had all but been decided, but just moments ago it was forced back to the beginning.”

It was rare to see someone like Hatori so dejected. Yokozawa had heard that one of his series was being serialized as an anime—naturally, the sales department had been drafted to start support preparations, and they would soon put in an order for reprints of the series involved.

“Things must’ve been pretty far along if they’d already notified the author; why on earth would they…?”

“It seems the company involved with the development took a pretty hard hit with a previous girls-oriented work they turned into an anime, and because of that, they’re taking a, ‘proceed with caution in matters involving works aimed at a female market’ stance, apparently. So now they want to rethink the plan altogether…”

Yokozawa was familiar with the previous work the partner company had experienced a loss on—of course, given that it wasn’t a Marukawa title, he didn’t quite know all of the details, but apparently on the original mangaka’s internet streaming talk show, their editor had made a guest appearance and had a pledge to make an anime version squeezed out of them. Given that the announcement had been made in such a public venue, there was no choice but to go through with it. Yokozawa had no clue how much, if any, of the story was real—but since then, that company had banned any unnecessary appearances in the media.

“Yeah—but with that work, it was probably too much of a risk to try and make it into an anime. Famous though the author may have been, the work itself didn’t really have the presence yet to support multimedia, and while it might have been marketable as a live-action story, it really wasn’t suited to being animated, y’know.”

No matter how amazing the finished product was or how high the praise from viewers, if they couldn’t bring in the sales with the package deal, there was no getting back the money invested. In the world of sales, dipping into the red was an automatic failure.

As such, the timing for seeking an anime development for a work was extremely important. One false move, and everything turned pear-shaped.

“They’ve now scrapped plans for a second season, it seems. The investment company won’t front the funds for something that can’t sell.”

“Well, they’ve got to earn back the money they’ve spent so far—they’re probably planning control measures while the wounds are shallow. Seems to me we just got caught in the crossfire of their understandable attempt to stall a second season for the other work.”

“That likely was a large factor, yes.”

“Still, they’ve got to be screwing with us if they’re trying to compare that disaster with this work. The themes are completely different, and the only common point they have is the fact that they’re both oriented toward a female market, right? It sucks having them single-handedly decide whether it’ll succeed or not.”

Any work Hatori was involved in was bound to receive rave reviews, after all. Although Yokozawa had voiced his displeasure in a mere fit of irritation, Hatori gaped at him in shock.

“Yokozawa-san, you…read my works?”

“Huh? What the hell’re you saying? Of course I do! I always read anything I’m trying to sell. Admittedly it was a little dull initially, but after I read the second volume, I finally got what the author was going for.”

He didn’t have the time to read everything Marukawa released, but he made sure to read up on things he himself was going to be involved in selling.

He’d actually never read shoujo manga before entering the workforce—he’d rejected the genre as little more than romantic drivel, but on actually sitting down and flipping through a title, his perception changed drastically. He was reminded of the fact that interesting reads were interesting, regardless of genre.

Of course, he did occasionally come across contents that were embarrassing to read, but that was likely the intention. Among Hatori’s managing works in particular, the titles by Emerald cash cow Yoshikawa Chiharu tended to be full of sensitive, emotional material.

Perhaps the delicate balance between serious and gag-filled scenes was what kept readers coming back for more. They weren’t left feeling depressed even after reading a relatively serious chapter, and giving it a comedic touch meant you could include light, heart-warming scenes as well.

“Thank you very much.”

“And hey—don’t beat yourself up just because they don’t seem interested. Take it somewhere else; it’s a good series, so I’m sure things will work out. Make ‘em regret turning us down.” He paused. “So…what exactly is it that’s got you so worried?”

“It’s just…the author was so happy that the anime development had been decided. I was wondering how best to break the news to them—but it’s just as you suggested, Yokozawa-san. I’ll start looking for somewhere else to bring up the discussion.” He seemed to take Yokozawa’s advice and started thinking things over—from the looks of things, that weary expression from before seemed to have completely disappeared.

The editor-in-chief of Monthly Emerald, Takano, was famous for his flashy, daring way of working, but the flawless reliability of his second-in-command Hatori was nothing to sneeze at. He was a strategist who was always sure to extensively research anything he was involved in, several steps ahead of the pack in everything he did and never making any moves until everything was in position. Yokozawa had no doubts that the company would soon regret passing over this work of Hatori’s.

“By the way—is everything all right?”

“What’re you talking about?”

“I simply heard that something’s gone horrible wrong.” It seemed the disaster in the sales department had made its way through the rumor chain around the office. While it was to be expected—they hadn’t made any attempts to stifle gossip, and really, Yokozawa was of the mind that any errors ought to be handled with cooperation from the entire company. However, he hadn’t thought news would travel quite that fast.

The employee who’d been transferred had dealt primarily with comics marketed to men, and while it was hardly appropriate to use the phrase, “thankfully”, it seemed that none of the titles or projects involving Emerald’s editing department would be affected by the fallout.

“Things will work out somehow, of course.” Covering up for the errors of others was no easy task, to be sure, but this wasn’t a situation they couldn’t recover from. They had a number of options available, and the very reason Yokozawa had chosen to involve himself was because he had the confidence he could sell more than initially projected. Sure, it would take some time, but everything would work out fine if he just passed on taking a vacation this year.

“Then…are you perhaps worried about something else? You simply don’t seem in quite your usual spirits.”

“…That perceptiveness of yours really grates sometimes, you know?”

“I do apologize.”

Indeed, his sharp-mindedness was troubling at times; he seemed on the surface not to care much for other people’s problems, but any time someone’s mood turned foul, he was quite skilled with playing mood-maker and turning the atmosphere of a room on its head—a testament to how sensitive he was to the world around him.

Yokozawa had actually been worrying about Hiyori’s birthday, which was to take place at the end of this month. Apparently it was tradition for her to invite friends over every year and trade presents together, and while typically she greeted friends with something store-bought like chicken or sandwiches, this year Yokozawa would be flexing his muscles in response to her fervent request: “I really want you to cook for my birthday this year, Oniichan!”

The subject had come up when, rather than fussing over a present on his own, he’d directly asked her what she wanted—and she’d replied thusly. It hardly a tall order, simply cooking a meal for Hiyori, but given that this was a meal for a birthday part, he had to be sure to please all of her friends as well. What on earth was he going to make?

Perhaps because she’d been raised largely on her grandmother’s cooking, Hiyori’s tastes ran quite refined, but he hardly expected the other children to be the same. He’d really have to go all out and prepare quite an extravagant feast.

From an outsider’s perspective, this likely seemed stupid to get so worked up over, but for Yokozawa, it wouldn’t be overstating the matter to suggest that this was one of the more important moments of his entire life. The pressure not to embarrass Hiyori in front of her friends weighed heavily on his shoulders.

He’d initially considered consulting with Kirishima on the matter, but then decided against it. There was little to be gained from asking for help from a guy who couldn’t cook anything more complicated than rice porridge, after all. But if he’d hazarded to consult with any of the mothers in the office, rumors would spread around the company before he could blink, without a doubt.

“Well if there’s anything we can do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask. We’re always imposing on you, so it’s the least we can do,” Hatori offered anxiously, likely having grown worried when Yokozawa had fallen silent in his thoughts.

“Oh—no, really, I’m fine. I’ll make sure this matter doesn’t affect your people. It’s more of a personal matter that’s occupying me—” He snapped his lips shut, realizing that he was about to treat Hatori as his own personal Agony Aunt, and distantly recalled something he’d heard a while back. “Hey, you’re…pretty handy in the kitchen, aren’t you?”

“I wouldn’t call myself ‘handy’, but I can handle myself,” he responded to Yokozawa’s sudden question, expression curious.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Takano say you put professional chefs to shame. Did you train somewhere?”

“Hardly; I simply helped out my mother in her work in the kitchen, so it all came to me quite naturally. Then in college, I started living on my own, so it became more of a necessity than a hobby. But why the sudden curiosity?”

“Oh—I just, I cook for myself as well, but my repertoire’s pretty limited. I was just wondering what you might recommend…” He could hardly just come out and ask the guy, so he turned the conversation in a general, vague direction—but perhaps he’d been too pointedly obvious in doing so. Still, it was less suspicious than being overly hesitant and obsequious, he reminded himself, and openly posed his question.

“I tend to browse recipe sites and purchase cookbooks and cooking magazines, myself. I’m quite biased in my tastes, so I try to sample a number of different recipes.”

Yokozawa blinked several times in quick succession, surprised at the unexpected response. “Huh, so even you have likes and dislikes…”

“Ah, well…yes, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I overtly dislike anything. No more so than most, at least.”

Was he just imagining it, or did Hatori look a bit awkward here? Maybe he just didn’t want people to know he was a picky eater. Choosing not to pursue the matter any further, Yokozawa offered his gratitude. “Thanks; I’ll take your advice under consideration.”

“I hope I’ve been of some help.”

Yokozawa hadn’t considered consulting a cookbook until Hatori had brought it up—in part because Marukawa Shoten didn’t really offer much in the way of books marketed to housewives, but surely he could find some compilation of party recipes at most any bookstore if he just looked. With this problem at least solved, he felt his mood lighten. “All right then—guess I’ll get back to work!”

Crushing the now empty cup of coffee he’d been drinking, he tossed it into the garbage and started getting pumped up. First he’d take care of the problem in front of him, and then he’d start planning the party menu. “I’m heading out, then,” he offered with a light wave and left the break room behind him.

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