And this problem grew deep in him, the roots coiled just so; and upwards bloomed a flower that he couldn't depose. Over his tongue, his teeth, past his lips — the damned thing and its genus became known, and oh, it wanted. It wanted, and wanted.
It was a reprieve, Yuki thought, to breathe in the earthy character of Okamoto Floral. Against the familiar yet permeating smell of the financial district, where the tang of crowded bodies and thin impressions of smoke were permanent fixtures, the shop sat as a small haven some blocks away, on a street where the sleek-faced buildings dwindled and gave way to a quieter section of the city. The foot traffic low, the sky less obstructed. And while his first visit there had been cursory, just a suit buying something nice for his boss, it was on his return to the city that he felt self-aware of himself once again in the crowd. That vague nag returning to ask if he was visible after all.
He returned to the shop. He breathed in steady the dampened soil and unfinished wood shelves, lined with greenery and laminated tags taped to the edges, handwritten notes of the name and price. The whisper of fresh-cut flowers standing upright and wrapped in cellophane behind the checkout counter, just barely seen through the glare of the shop’s picture window by passers-by. The bursts of sweetness sneaking in from the neighboring bakery, lingering before settling at the door.
As he returned a fourth, fifth, sixth time, he found these were things he was getting used to. Beyond that, he had begun to associate these things with a small comfort that resided in the pit of his stomach. Something warm and easing amidst the chronic stress.
And that was a new feeling to him. To wake up on a Monday or Wednesday and feel slightly soothed by having something to look forward to. To go to bed those nights feeling a little more at ease, even if only for a short while.
It was Friday. Late April, deceivingly sunny as the weather still clung onto a chill. The early afternoon gave way to a light chatter livening the street as the lunch hour continued on. He had been standing at the shelf of peperomias in the far corner of the store, thinking vague and idle about if he should try to keep one, maybe finally make an attempt to brighten his apartment, when that ease was interrupted by what was becoming a lengthy stare into his back.
His shoulders tensed under the weight of it. It was a usual discomfort, but here — well, he hadn’t felt it since his first couple of visits earlier in the month, when the shopkeep and her assistant kept their eyes on him out of a mere curiosity of what he was there for. He hadn’t reacted to it back then. He was a stranger to them. It was a short visit, a brief browse and quick transaction, leaving with the slightest suggestion that maybe they would see him again. He hadn’t even given them his name.
Now, though, the sensation made him itch. And while he knew that it would be the assistant staring at him, with the shopkeeper gone on an errand and the welcome bell having been silent since he arrived, he still felt his brows flinch at meeting the other’s dark eyes lying flat against his own from across the shop, glazed yet unyielding as he continued his post at the cash register.
Kakeru Manabe was, in simple terms, a nuisance at worst and enigmatic at best. He constantly betrayed his lax posture with the force of his voice, dragging Yuki into conversation only to speak over him and change the topic in waves rolling too fast to keep up with. A friendly gesture from seller to buyer amped to a degree Yuki wasn't familiar with. Not that Yuki was a stranger to customer favoritism — he had been a regular at the corner shop just down the street from his apartment for years, collecting his breakfast and dinner and, until recently, his cigarettes from the same man who had probably been manning the counter before he was born — but since stepping into the shop a third time, Manabe seemed keen to fast-track the process. The natural line from stranger, to regular, to acquaintance, to friend, compressed between his hands and made jagged. All on his terms, all in record time. And though this behavior was off-putting, it was just another part of the store’s character. By far the least charming part of it, but, Yuki admitted, a part of it nonetheless.
So it was jarring to see Manabe across the store from him, leaning lax into his elbows as usual yet holding his stare in pensive silence. Yuki leveled a stare back over his shoulder to challenge the sensation, and watched as the serious demeanor cleared. With a jump in his brow and a short perk of his head, Manabe reached up to swipe his headphones down to sit on the nape of his neck, and he asked,
“What’s up? You need help?”
“Huh?” Yuki shifted on his heel to better face him, as though doing so would help clear the confusion he felt settle into his forehead. “No, I— sorry?”
“Help,” Manabe repeated. He gestured loose at the shelf of houseplants. “You look confused about ‘em. Honestly, those ones are pretty easy, if you’re worried about killing them. They die if they’re overwatered, so they’re good for people who aren’t home a lot.”
Yuki’s shoulders eased. “Oh, I wasn’t—”
“Although, I never really got that. Like, getting a bunch of plants to pretty up a place that no one ever sees.” Manabe pressed his cheek to his hand, drawing his eyes to squint at the display of garden tools in thought. “I got a lady who came in yesterday who kept going on about business trips and bouncing between boyfriends and saying all this stuff that really just amounted to her using her place as somewhere to sleep and barely anything else, and I wanted to ask her, like, ‘Hey, what’s the point exactly?’ But, far be it from me to keep someone from buying shit, so she took her plants and went on her merry way. But, man, I really wanted to know.
“And then that made me wonder if she’s one of those people who adopts a dog or something just because they feel lonely, only to have to drop them at a pound because it pissed on their carpet once and they can’t deal. Pretty shitty, but better a plant than an animal, I guess. For all I know she’s just doing it to impress her new fling that she knows will only last a week anyways — her words, not mine. Kind of felt bad saying goodbye to those suckers, knowing their fate, but…”
He lifted his head to wave his hand idly before dropping his cheek back to his palm.
“Register’s not gonna cry about it, so I won’t either.”
Yuki gaped in the quiet that followed. Finally, he managed, “I wasn’t confused about the plant.”
Manabe brought his look back to him.
“I thought— sorry, I could feel you staring at me.”
Saying it out loud made him feel a bit irrational, but he stood practiced and still. Manabe, though, only shifted his hands to lay flat on the counter, and he leaned into them, straightening from his daydreaming slouch.
“What, like you just felt me staring?” he asked.
“I think most people can sense when they’re being stared at.”
“Mm, I dunno about that.” Manabe squinted short with skepticism, before directing his look away to check the time on the wall. “I think people like to think they’re being stared at, because they’re, you know, playing off of fantasies and stuff in their heads.”
Yuki felt his face pinch. Stepping forward to ease some of the distance between them, he stood instead in front of a display of ground-cover plants. He brushed his fingers over the short stalks of sedum, feeling the gentle prick of their needles before pulling away.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said.
“Have you never walked down a street at night and automatically thought someone could be following you? Not because you hear anyone, but just because it’s dark?” Manabe swept his eyes to the front door, peering down the street a moment before returning his attention to Yuki. “Or, have you ever stood in a shop having the most boring time of your life buying apples and thought, ‘maybe this could be like my romcom moment, and my true love is standing just behind me, checking me out, and he’ll whisk me away from my loveless marriage and-or corporate hellhole job,’ and you feel the stare, but you turn around and it’s just some old guy buying eggs, and he’s pretty much focused on just the eggs?”
How readily these scenarios came to his mind, Yuki thought. Though he reeled for a response, he realized Manabe said these things as though they were obvious, and normal, and Yuki found himself not for the first time torn over whether this was a general reality he wasn’t aware of or simply Manabe’s manner of viewing things. Two distinct arenas, as he was beginning to learn, but at times they became muddled in him.
He mulled an answer, until finally, he forced a breathy laugh and said,
“I think you watch too many movies.”
Manabe tilted his head from side to side. His face scrunched for a moment in stubborn reluctance.
“I guess. But, think about it — maybe all media’s here to do is build us all up to be paranoid and lovesick. Always thinking there’s eyes on us, living off their fantasies in the back of our heads just to pass the time. They know most of us are just bored, and, hell, that’s enough to snag some profit.”
He shrugged then, and with another cursory glance at the shop’s door, propped his elbows to the counter and settled his chin back into his palm. There was something oddly quiet in the gesture that gave Yuki pause, and finding himself at a loss for response, he opted to just watch the other man think.
“I mean, personally,” Manabe continued, the air in his voice returning to its usual elevated tone as he looked again at Yuki, “I just wanna be a cool rogue hero that pops in at the right moment and saves everyone’s shit all stealthy-like. Not a big name, just some cool rumor, you know? I could walk in the streets listening to people talk about all the rad stuff I did, and they just wouldn’t have a clue as I walked right by.”
Yuki raised a brow at him.
“Sounds productive,” he said.
“Like I said, it passes the time.”
A silence set between them. Yuki tapped a fingertip against the wooden table at his hip, staring down at the small plants. He dragged a finger through a spot of loose soil while, in the corner of his eye, he noticed Manabe sit on the wheeled chair behind the register and slouch in it.
“But anyways, the staring thing,” he started, rotating in lazed semicircles, “that’s good to know, because honestly sometimes I’ll just say your name like, twenty times and not get a single response out of you.”
Yuki stopped his finger. Looking again at Manabe, he forced his face into gentle confusion.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, sometimes I’ll go, ‘Kouta, Kouta, Kouta, Kouta, Kouta,’ and you’ll give me absolutely nothing! I couldn’t tell if it was just because you were ignoring me, or if you actually space out that bad. Either way, it kind of hurts my feelings — you’re the only person I’ve got to talk to here lately, and you really just leave me hanging to rot behind the counter with nothing to do.”
Yuki brought his hand to cup the back of his neck. A sheepish gesture, but he felt the warmth of his panic close in on his palm, and hoped it hadn’t flushed his face. He squeezed his neck lightly in an attempt to calm himself before returning his hand back to the display table.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, managing an embarrassed smile. “That’s rude of me. I guess I get lost in thought sometimes.”
“Oh, all the time.” Manabe kicked a foot up to rest on the edge of the cashier’s counter, pushing the rolling chair back and dragging it back in, anchored by the rubber sole of his sneaker locked against the dark mica. “But, now I know I just gotta stare at you long enough to make you turn around. Pretty easy.”
Yuki let out a slow breath to ease his chest.
“Why were you staring, anyway?” he asked.
Manabe shrugged. “Was just thinking. You were spaced out but, like, barely moving. Kind of freaky! I was beginning to wonder if you had just fallen asleep standing up, like maybe you were raised by horses or something. But, I should’ve known better.”
“You’re a space cadet, dude. It’s like you’re not even here sometimes. At least it’s more likely than the horses thing.”
Before Yuki could attempt a response, the jangle of the small bell affixed to the shop’s door stole Manabe’s attention. As Yuki followed suit, he was met with the shopkeep, returned from her errand and standing in the entrance somewhat windswept.
Manabe landed his feet back to the floor with a loud slap.
“Machi! Was wondering where you were. I was getting worried. Like, literally I was about to run out of here to go hunt you down. You really never know what could happen with all these dark alleys and stuff.”
“It’s the middle of the day,” Yuki countered. Manabe looked at him with a frown.
“And? Villains don’t disappear when the sun comes out.”
Kuragi shifted her thin coat off of her arms. Her brows twinged, but she stayed otherwise mum.
“Stop slacking, Manabe,” she said. He scoffed in turn.
“I’m not slacking. Look—” With arms spread out, he gestured wide to the shop before him. “Place isn’t burned down, or broken into, or infested with rats.”
She regarded him with an irritated look, but said nothing more. As she moved to turn down the furthest aisle, Yuki made a small noise, stilling her.
“Good afternoon, Kuragi-san,” he said.
She looked at him. As usual, her eyes weren’t cold, but they weren’t kind, either. She tended toward quiet and aloof; unlike her associate, she was proving to be a challenge to get to know, often working outside of the shop making deliveries and keeping much to herself otherwise. From what Yuki gathered, she was more the financial power behind the establishment, while Manabe took care of being the storefront’s personality.
With a short once-over, she said, “Afternoon, Ito-san,” and with that was quick to turn away her gaze and resume her task.
Yuki followed her with his eyes until she disappeared behind the shelves crowded with foliage and planters. There was the metallic squeak of the backroom door opening, and with her voice raised yet still, she called, “Did you start the order we got this morning?”
Manabe slouched again behind the counter. Though he gave Yuki a withering look, Yuki directed his eyes to his watch instead. It was high time to go.
“Well, I guess I’ll leave you to it,” he said, and with a short wave he made his way to the door. Before stepping out, though, he paused, then threw a final look to the other man, saying, “I might come back about the plants in the back there. They sound manageable.”
“Don’t abandon me.”
“Earn your pay, Manabe. I’ll see you later.”
The door shutting behind him cut off the other's stringing whine. He squinted against the afternoon light as he bore left, returning in the direction of the financial district.
Once he hit a shaded spot, he stilled at a quiet storefront. He slid his phone from his pocket, typing a memo to himself.
20 April — Seventh visit to Machi Kuragi’s shop. Her errands continue to be typical, but have picked up in volume (normal for season?). Errands seem to be mostly delivery, though visits to vendors are semi-frequent (**follow-up with C-group on validity). Still difficult to make conversation; reserved, but this in itself isn’t suspicious. Relationship with Manabe remains unclear, though seem to be more than associates.
The assignment was straightforward enough: get more information on Hashitano Corporation’s CFO, Eiji Kuragi. Ascertain if the shop his daughter runs is a front for his private dealings, and if so, what for. Report back and cease contact with the subject unless otherwise directed.
Dealing with unruly associates was standard. There was the option of settling things face-to-face, or playing the long game and handling things through indirect means. The latter was usually reserved for the ones who could afford to keep their cards close to their chest, where the extent of their businesses were hushed under long lineage and savvy practice. Obtaining information through backchannels — past clients, weak-willed associates, personal acquaintances — became necessary for leverage. Of course, the more issues they had with a single associate, the less potent these exploits became. Anything after the first couple major threats usually fell short.
What exact issues Akito had with Kuragi this time, Yuki couldn’t say. He had been involved in past assignments that dealt with him, all of them miniscule grievances that the Sohma family head either took as personal attacks or warped out of proportion. And while some of these matters had been considered serious enough for Yuki’s superiors to step in and handle themselves, his own ranking as second lieutenant in the family’s hierarchy had left him in charge with much of the rest.
He had only met Eiji Kuragi once, during the initial dealings that ensured the protection of his side businesses from rivals and the authorities. In return, the Sohmas received a cut of the income, on top of a standard monthly insurance fee. This had started out as a cordial partnership; a year later, though, as it shook under Akito’s claims of backstabbing, unmet dues, or whatever seemed to fuel his paranoia in the moment, Yuki often found himself meeting with Kuragi’s middlemen to settle the drama. Offering apologies on the family’s behalf that Akito would never himself utter, smoothing over the carnage in whatever way was most applicable. Mitigating the threats of putting their trust in a different organization, if only to keep Akito’s fury at bay and to, frankly, keep people alive.
(Of anything, that was his main goal. Not to keep the Sohmas in this single strand of business necessarily, but just to make sure that no one else died because of his own mishandlings. He refused to have another repeat on his record. That was the only thing keeping him tethered — refusing another accident, refusing to fail again at a negotiation. Success kept Akito calm. Success kept Akito away from him.)
His assignment to gather information from Kuragi’s daughter came as a bit of a surprise. Aside from being a more long-term assignment, the job seemed suspiciously low-risk, and it was strange that Machi Kuragi had so far been an unused source. They had managed to gain information on Kuragi in the past through direct questioning of previous workers and clients, but this assignment was far more covert. When Kureno, the headquarters’ chief and Akito’s mild-mannered attendant, had briefed Yuki in the beginning of March, he passed along Akito’s instructions without so much as mentioning the word interrogation or outright suggesting blackmail. Yuki didn’t ask; Kureno wouldn’t have an answer for him.
The question of what the catch was remained at the front of his mind as he researched Kuragi’s daughter, a name he only barely recognized from previous dives into the man’s personal and business life. For one reason or another, Machi had never been directly involved in these attempts to collect private information about her father. On record, she appeared to live and work independently of him, despite being his first-born. Twenty-three years old, living alone in an innocuous part of the city, her moderate apartment practically unnoticeable in the shadow of her family’s wealth. The extent of her contact with her parents was unknown, as was her contact with the Kuragi heir, her thirteen-year-old brother Masaru. From what Yuki could gather, she kept her life separate from her family’s reputation, to the point of what looked like estrangement. On the other hand, there was the possibility that she did this in order to act as an underhanded asset to her father, an operation unbeknownst to the Sohmas and, thus, validation for Akito’s paranoia.
The risk was that no one really knew what her relationship with her father entailed. While the end result of his assignment was a potential win-win — either she was separated and could be a good asset for incriminating information, or she was, in fact, assisting in an undisclosed operation, meaning Akito’s credibility wouldn’t be further damaged — getting to the point of revealing either required patience and tact. It was a delicate act of gaining trust and bringing out the truth without bullying it out of her.
Despite that, Yuki had planned for this to be a short assignment. He had done a number of these espionage jobs in the past, at varying levels of intensity in both what was being obtained and what lengths he had to go to to secure an identity. Some were difficult in both areas, the rest difficult in one or the other. This one seemed… simple, in comparison. An explainable identity, with hardly any need for alteration to his own personality. A job that would probably only require a few basic discussions to determine where Machi sat in relation to her father.
The bulk of it, he figured, was a matter of putting himself on her radar over a month or two, to present himself as a possible acquaintance, and get to know her through friendly counter talk and lunch dates. Steer the dialogue to encourage her to speak of her father. Play as though he didn’t so much as know the name Eiji Kuragi, and play as though he weren’t Yuki Sohma. In his mind, the whole operation wouldn’t take more than a few months.
What he hadn’t planned for was Machi’s distant and silent disposition, or her penchant for appearing rather impassive towards the goings-on around her. He hadn’t planned to only manage a few sentences to her over the span of five weeks, all of which being some form of hello and goodbye, and didn’t expect her to be wholly uninterested in moving their dialogue beyond that. While he had successfully gotten himself on her radar, little else had been accomplished.
She was a challenge. But, despite his frustrations, he was finding himself to be curious of her. To stay so singularly tracked, as though in her own world while she took care of errands and orders, to be so engrossed in her work that pausing to talk hardly seemed possible… Well, it made him wonder. Maybe a tad suspicious, too.
He visited Okamoto Floral an eighth time in the beginning of May, as the end of Golden Week signaled the return of life to the business district. Under the guise that Kouta Ito was a person who went on vacations, thankful for the week long break from his desk job, Yuki tried to return to the shop with some semblance of ease keeping him light in his shoulders and on his feet. In truth, he had spent the last week at the Sohma headquarters, dealing with the fallout of one of his subordinates suddenly going rogue in the middle of an assignment. While Kouta Ito was lounging serene at his parent’s lakeside villa, Yuki had undergone three days of little sleep, and spent the remainder of the week doling out reprimands and figuring out logistics to salvage what had been compromised.
He was, to put it mildly, exhausted. So it was a relief to step into the shop and find himself eased of Manabe’s nonsensical greetings, and instead see Machi filling his spot behind the register. She was crouched before the day’s lineup of small bouquets to be delivered, her clipboard balanced on her thigh securing a jagged pile of blue forms. As she dipped her head to inspect the arrangements, double-checking them against the orders, her face was partially obscured by her ashy hair skimming over her shoulders. Still, Yuki recalled that look of concentration she held during the rare times he saw her in the store, and imagined much was the case here.
She didn’t so much as turn her head to him when the bell clattered at the entrance. In a final attempt to look refreshed and like Kouta, he took the moment to force his shoulders to relax, before rapping a knuckle gently against the door jamb to announce himself again.
“Good afternoon, Kuragi-san.”
Her hand froze over her clipboard mid-stroke. He wondered if he had startled her out of her focus, and had an apology waiting on his tongue until she turned her head to look at him. Expression smoothed, revealing little as usual. She gave him a once-over that made him feel as though she was reminding herself of who he was, and she set her eyes on his for the barest moment before returning to her task.
She didn’t move to get up. Yuki almost didn’t know what to do with himself, having gotten used to her dashing away on errands as of late, or Manabe readily taking his attention, but he stepped further into the store and wandered slow to the wall display of seed packets that he had practically memorized from browsing in visits past. It was a versatile spot — lending him the position of his back facing the checkout counter and Machi behind it, giving her the space he assumed she wanted, while also being close enough to be easily heard without having to speak beyond a casual tone.
He reached forward to tilt the packet of leek seeds, skimming his eyes over the front.
“Did you have a pleasant holiday?”
Silence. After a stretch, he wondered if Machi hadn’t heard him after all, but as he turned on his heel to face the shelves of succulents to consider instead, he heard a quiet response.
“It was fine.”
He looked through the shelves to where she was behind the register. He could just glimpse the back of her head as it peeked over the countertop, the half-knot messily tied at the crown stilled as she paused her task.
“Oh?” He thumbed the tag for the onzuka cacti, bringing his eyes back down to the odd plant but keeping her in this peripheral. “Did you do anything fun?”
He hummed. “That’s a shame. You didn’t close the store at all, then?”
“...I didn’t.” She shifted somewhat, her head dipping entirely below the counter’s edge before returning. She didn’t rise from her spot. Yuki thought she was going to continue, but as another stretch of quiet separated them, he realized that the responsibility of the conversation returned to him.
“I suppose that makes sense,” he said. “It seems to be more of a corporate holiday. Although…”
He stepped further down the aisle, crossing his arms loose across his chest as he meandered. In the middle aisle, the misters started with a low hiss.
“…I’m sure Manabe threw a fit,” he concluded. “Speaking of, I’m surprised I haven’t seen him.”
“For the whole day?”
The misters turned off. He stepped into the middle aisle, looking over the plants now left with a gentle sheen. Ahead of him, Machi finally rose, her back to the store as she stood looking out the window into the street turning busy with the main afternoon rush.
He knew that she would decline an invitation to lunch if he asked. But, he figured he needed to leave the suggestion with her now rather than any later.
“Have you eaten yet?” he asked.
Her shoulders tensed under her sweater.
“No,” she said. “I will, but…“
He waited for an indication that she would continue. When she didn’t, he said, “Well, maybe we can do lunch together sometime.”
At that, he had expected her to say nothing, or maybe a short and simple rejection. Instead, she turned fast and harsh to look at him, and his attention snapped away from the display of plants to look back at her. She looked somewhere between shocked and confused, as if he had just insulted her. He raised his brows at her in turn, just as taken aback by her response.
“I mean,” he started, feeling the nervous rush as he thought of how to neutralize, “not today, of course. Just sometime in the future, if you ever feel up for it.”
The look she held didn’t dissipate. Yuki wasn’t sure that his own expression had calmed, either. They stood there in an odd standoff for what felt like much too long, and while he knew that to say any more on the matter would just make it worse, with how she was looking at him, he felt he had to say something to clear the air.
He opened his mouth to try again.
The little bell fixed to the door jangled, interrupting him. He looked, and Manabe stepped in, chipper and not yet aware of the tense air that had formed in his absence.
“I’m back,” he called, far too loud for the small space. “Sorry it took me a million years, forgot how damn crowded this place can get once all the suits come back from vacation. Look, though, I got you something to repent, so I think you can forgive me for the holdup, yeah?”
He tossed a paper bag onto the counter, stepping in further before leaning against its short edge. Machi snapped her look away from Yuki, turning again to face the line of bouquets set against the window. Yuki shifted his expression back to something he hoped looked calm before the other man could see him properly. Manabe’s attention, though, was turned to Machi.
“Geez, you’re acting weird. What, did someone just confess to you or something?”
She stood quiet and tense as she slipped a form from the clipboard. He waited for some sort of response, but seeing that he wasn’t going to get one, sighed and buried his cheek to his hand, elbow set against the countertop.
“I mean, I don’t think that would be so terrible — you can have a life outside of this place, you know. Meet some nice people, get wasted on a Friday night like the rest of us. Maybe even go crazy and, I dunno, do one of those weekend raves. I know a place.”
Yuki huffed a laugh through his nose.
“That sounds terrible.”
Manabe slapped his hand down on the counter, head perking as he turned to look at him.
“Oh, Kouta! Didn’t realize you were here. Long time, no see. I was just telling Machi here that she needs to get a life.”
“So I heard.”
Behind the counter, Machi dipped out of sight before snatching one of the bouquets, signaled by the harsh crinkling of cellophane under her grip. She rose to reveal a new sharpness that had formed in her posture.
“I’m going,” she said, low and curt as she took long strides towards the door.
She was gone. As the door clacked shut with another faint jingle, Yuki felt himself deflate a little. Manabe looked from the door to him, then back to the door, and back to him. Jutting a thumb over his shoulder in Machi’s general direction, he asked,
“So what was that about?”
Yuki meandered closer to him, leaving the display table behind. Manabe straightened himself, only to turn and hop onto the counter, letting the heels of his sneakers kick against the siding with a dull thud. He reached back to grab and root through the bag he had returned with.
“Well, you did just tell her that she needs to get a life.”
“Nah, that wasn’t it. I tell her that all the time, and she usually just tells me to shut it or stop bugging her. That—” He gestured again at the door with a jut of his chin. “—was different.”
Yuki tucked a strand of hair behind his ear and sighed.
“I think it was my fault,” he said. “I mentioned maybe going out to lunch together sometime.”
The crumpling of the bag ceased. Manabe sputtered a laugh.
“Oh, wow. Hah! So she did get a confession. No wonder she looked freaked.”
Yuki’s face pinched in annoyance. “It wasn’t like that.”
“Well, she sure as hell seems to have taken it that way. Ah, well.” He waved a dismissive hand, before returning it to the bag, plucking out a bit of pastry. “Don’t worry about her. It’s not your fault.”
Yuki returned his gaze to the spot in the street where Machi had disappeared. He was still taken aback by her response, and just how quickly she left the moment Manabe returned.
He leaned a hand into the counter, where Manabe continued to tap a heel against the front, vague and off-beat to the song playing quiet over the store’s radio.
“If I didn’t know better,” Yuki started, frowning, “I would think that she—”
“Doesn’t like you?” Yuki looked at Manabe, tilting his head up somewhat to meet the other’s eyes in his elevated position. With the silent confirmation, Manabe shrugged. He spoke around the thumb risen sideways to his mouth, voice mumbled a moment as he scraped off the remnants of the treat with his teeth. “Eh. I don’t think she dislikes you, but she’s shy, I guess. I dunno, she’s always been kind of weird like that.”
“You mean, since you started working with her?”
Manabe huffed a small laugh. He wiped his hand on his jeans. “No, I mean she’s always been like that.”
That piqued Yuki. Childhood friends, then, or maybe just a vague knowledge of one another throughout their years of schooling. He moved to ask further, but Manabe was quick to diverge, his face forming something like a pout as he asked,
“Man, speaking of her, why have you never asked me out for lunch, huh? We’ve been talking for like, weeks already.”
“What?” Yuki felt his face fall somewhat. “Oh, I didn’t think—”
“That I wouldn’t want to? Please. I would live inside lunchtime if I could. It’s like a nap, except you get to eat.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“What doesn’t make sense is that you don’t wanna do lunch with me! I mean, come on—”
Without warning, Yuki’s hand was taken in both of Manabe’s, clutched like a prayer. He was stilled by the other’s stern yet eager eye, dark with an intensity he only seemed to save for the most mundane things.
“I think we’re ready to go to the next level,” Manabe decided.
Yuki leveled a stare at him before snatching his hand away. “I think I’m too afraid to know what you’re like in public.”
“Ugh, you wound me.” His hands dropped empty to his lap. “Next week, then?”
Though it would have been easy to laugh and say no thanks, something conflicted inside Yuki at the invitation. Part of him wanted to say fine, to placate him and avoid the inevitable haranguing. Part of him even wanted to say yes, because if they were going to talk so much during the lunch hour, then they might as well have actual lunch. Maybe it wouldn’t be a disaster to speak outside of the shop. Maybe the food would even keep Manabe too busy to talk much.
And then part of him said no. No, because Manabe was already like this inside his place of work, and it was a scary thought to wonder what he would be like outside of it with the seller-customer barrier fully lifted. No, because things were fine as they were, with their meetings strictly kept to the store, the only place where he — where Kouta, he determined — would allow this sort of thing, this odd relationship that had formed.
And no, because that was just the thing. As difficult as it was to admit to himself, Yuki had unwittingly started forming an acquaintanceship with him, this person adjacent to who he was supposed to be getting to know. Initially drawn by the wily assistant’s hand, Yuki had made no motion to move away from Manabe’s idealistic prospects of friendship. He had doubted it, yes, but within that inaction he now found himself on the tails of a whirlpool he hadn’t even realized existed.
And that was just too much of a liability. Furthering this relationship outside of the shop could only make things worse.
So, instead, Yuki could only impart him with a “we’ll see,” followed by a vague mention of needing to return to work. Manabe waved him off, leaving him with a knowing “see you next week.” As he returned to the streets more readily shrouded by high-rises, he pulled his phone out to tap out another memo. Brow furrowed, but breathing steady.
9 May — Eighth visit to Machi Kuragi’s shop. Some headway made in dialogue with her, though she continues to be distant. Mentioned the possibility of lunch together in the future, response was negative, but not a no. Manabe indicated that this was normal for her (seems to be more reclusive than initially believed). Also indicated that he and Kuragi have known each other for many
He stopped, suddenly, at realizing what he was about to type.
Manabe. He was, quite possibly, Yuki’s only key to learning more about Machi, and in turn, her father. Though Machi only expressed a plain annoyance towards him, they spoke to one another with some ease — an ease that came from knowing each other, Yuki now knew, for what sounded like a long time. It wasn’t just the dialogue between coworkers, but something further and more personal. While Machi would never reveal much, Manabe was, in contrast, an open book. No, with how he spoke so freely of things, he was the entire library.
And depending on just how far back their relationship went, it was possible that Manabe had some new information on Eiji Kuragi himself. A very minute possibility, Yuki placated, and not one to get excited over. But it was possible.
Yuki knew it was convoluted, having to consult the backchannel to the backchannel. But it wasn’t entirely unusual, and it was what he was being offered. And as far as offers went, this wasn’t the worst one.
And he really almost said no to having lunch with him.
His neck felt hot with a growing annoyance with himself for nearly slipping up so violently. He hurried the remainder of the memo before resuming his walk to his destination: a nondescript corner some blocks away from Okamoto Floral, where a car was waiting to transport him back to the family headquarters in the neighboring city. There, more work awaited him.
There, he had to think.
Also indicated that he and Kuragi have known each other for many years. They are not lovers. Past romantic relationship seems unlikely. Future discussions with him about Kuragi to be scheduled.