Hiramaru stares at Aoki's name on the phone.
He has no idea how to work up the nerve to go on a...friendly outing with her. Are there certain procedures he should follow? Where should they go? What should they do?
He presses the direction keys on his phone, cycling through his short list of contacts and deliberating if he should call anyone for help. Most of them seem far more adept at social matters than him. But no, he has to manage this on his own - Aoki likes decisive men. At least, he thinks so.
He types out a brief email asking if Aoki is free on Sunday afternoon, asks about the status of her manga, and signs off with a note of congratulations on her serialization. He spends fifteen minutes deliberating on the emoticon to use, but eventually decides against a heart. He looks away from the screen, braces himself, and presses the "send" key. The moment his phone beeps, he glances at the screen just to make sure he sent the correct message to the correct person.
Then he realises he mistyped the title of Aoki's new manga. He frantically presses the "cancel" key, but it's too late. He pictures her throwing her phone against the wall in rage, or calling him to tell him that he is worse than a worm. He considers sending an apology, but he isn't sure what to say, so he hammers out a message to Yoshida asking for urgent help before remembering that Yoshida's attending a relative's wedding in Hawaii. He sends the message anyway, just in case.
Hiramaru spends the rest of the day watching DVDs of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and scribbling terrible, uninspired ideas for a new manga. He turns his phone's volume to maximum so he won't miss his new messages, but his phone steadfastly refuses to beep, consigning him to a life of loneliness and despondency.
In the late afternoon, while he's curled up into a ball and studiously trying to think of happy things to offset the looming darkness of his soul, his phone beeps. It's a message from Aoki, and she didn't mention his typographical error at all! She is truly a beautiful angel. She agrees to meet him, but asks what they'll be doing and where they should meet.
Hiramaru tries not to hyperventilate. He waits a few minutes so he doesn't seem too desperate, and replies that he'll drive to her place at 3 pm, and that he's a bit busy at the moment so he'll let her know about the details in an hour. He carefully avoids using the word "date", and types a smiley face at the end of the message, but he suspects that he isn't fooling anyone.
He then bolts to the Aoki Research Corner of his apartment and starts flipping through her manga, setting an alarm to remind him of his limited time. He flips through her manga with one hand, using the other hand to type queries into a search engine. The only common theme he detects in her manga is that she seems to adore cats. The fairies of the moon in Hideout Door ride around on a cat, the main character's best friend from A Time of Green Leaves befriends a stray cat, and whenever she draws street scenes she tries to include cats sitting on the dustbins.
Fifteen minutes left before his time is up. Hiramaru puts down the manga and starts typing cat-related queries into his phone's browser. He hopes no one ever views his browser history, as they might be under the impression that he wants to date an adorable cat.
There's a cat cafe nearby that doesn't require advance bookings, and it's open on Sunday afternoons. The website says that it's a "great date spot", with "many friendly and charming cats". Perfect. He can impress her with his sensitive side, and then they can...they can be more than friends who meet for tea. Maybe they can even have a meal there.
He cancels the alarm on his phone, writes a message about how he'd like to observe some cats for research and would like her to come along, and then goes off to clean his car.
Hiramaru has spent the morning looking through the personality profiles of the cats. Most of them seem fluffy and adorable, so Aoki will have a heartwarming experience there. It's nearly time to meet, so he puts on his best shirt and pants, makes sure his hair looks sleek, and spritzes a bit of light cologne on himself. He puts on his shoes and strides out of his apartment to his newest car. He's in such a good mood that he starts to sing along to classic rock on the radio. Today will be a good day, he'll make sure of it.
Aoki is waiting outside her house for him. Before she opens the car's door, he switches the radio station. The new station consists of jangly tunes and female singers crooning. It's largely unremarkable, but he thinks that it's the least likely to offend her.
They're halfway through their drive when the host of the show starts talking. The conversation topic for the day is apparently how irritating men are, and the show's host has managed to get through two minutes of complaining about the wishy-washy men in her life before Hiramaru gets irritated enough to lunge for the radio. He's about to switch stations, but he's struck by a flash of worry. What if it's too obvious that he's switching it based on his own insecurity?
He puts both of his hands back on the wheel and tries to ignore what is blaring out of the radio. He's too stressed to think of a conversation topic, and Yoshida hasn't responded to his twelve messages so far. He's probably getting drunk and flirting with the bridesmaids. He never thought he'd miss Yoshida's constant stream of messages, but Yoshida would at least give him some form of advice. Even the most useless advice would be good in this situation - Hiramaru feels like he's flying blind.
Mercifully, the roads are not congested, and they reach the cat cafe in a few minutes. Hiramaru parks the car, and Aoki steps out. He follows suit, trying to forget everything that the show's host said about how women hate indecisive men.
"Ah, I didn't know this cat cafe was so expensive," Aoki murmurs, staring at the sign in front. "The other one I went to was cheaper." Her purse is half-open, and she's probably checking how much money she has.
"No matter, I'll pay for it! After all, you're being so generous by coming here to help me with research for my next manga!" Hiramaru gallantly proclaims, striding into the entryway of the cafe.
"What is your next manga about, Hiramaru?"
"...I haven't thought about the details yet...I thought I'd just observe some animals before coming up with the concept. Yoshida says otters are getting monotonous." He's actually telling the truth, although it pains him to admit it. While he might be decent at drawing beautiful women, he can't seem to bring himself to draw a human main character.
Hiramaru sinks into a state of quiet despondency about his future as he pays for the two-hour couple package. As the cash register chimes and the cashier hands him a receipt and two number tags, he has a sudden flash of panic. He wonders if Aoki has noticed that he is paying for the couple package and will get angry at him for presuming that they are a couple. He considers buying two individual packages too - but what if Aoki thinks he is flaunting his wealth and has no monetary sense? He shreds the receipt, tosses it into the dustbin, and hopes that Aoki will never ask him about the details.
They both take off their shoes and put on their number tags. Aoki stows her handbag in the provided locker, and they both take turns to wash their hands with antibacterial soap before walking into the main area. They're surrounded by young couples and office ladies, and every table of people is striving to get the attention of the cutest kittens.
Aoki ignores the grey tabby kittens, and bends down to stroke a large cat. It looks like Tama from the website, described as a "fat and lazy gentleman cat, charming towards ladies". Tama is an orange Manx, and resembles a large furry basketball. Hiramaru is completely prepared for this situation, having viewed countless videos of adorable kittens online. He knows just how to approach a cat, and has learned how to scratch them so they roll over in an endearing manner. Hiramaru stoops down and attempts to stroke Tama, but it hisses and starts to rake its claws across Hiramaru's pants. Hiramaru hastily retracts his proferred hand before Tama proceeds to devour it.
Hiramaru takes two steps back to show he's not a threat, but Tama follows him, fluffing up in rage, ready to tear his pants into ribbons of fabric. A growling meow escapes from its throat, and its hind legs tense up, poised to leap onto Hiramaru. Hiramaru tries not to think about his sensitive body parts getting shredded beyond recognition, and prepares himself for an ignoble death.
Aoki steps between them, shooing Tama away, and grabs Hiramaru's hand, leading him to an isolated table near the back of the cafe. Tama wanders off, forgetting about their existence.
Hiramaru looks down at their linked hands, and tries not to blush - he is a grown man, he should be used to physical contact with women by now. While he tries to forget about his momentary embarrassment, Aoki flags a waitress down and orders tea for both of them. She glances at Hiramaru, then at the menu, then adds that they would like a slice of lemon cheesecake.
Hiramaru's head hurts from panic. Aoki loves to read and write romance manga, she must like strong men - none of Aoki's heroes have ever been attacked by something as stupid as cats. Perhaps there is a way to regain his sense of dignity. What did those websites say about impressing your date? Why can't he remember? Why won't Yoshida reply?
He clears his throat, tries to breathe normally, and they end up talking about manga until the cake arrives. Hiramaru doesn't really have favourites, but he knows enough about other manga to hold up his end of the conversation. Aoki likes series that involve minimal violence and have excellent portrayals of friendship. They both try to avoid talking about each other's previous manga series, since cancellation is a painful subject for both of them, but Aoki slips and mentions Otters 11.
"Ah, I don't like violence normally, but...when Hamada the otter was exploited by the evil CEO, and Otter 11 punched through the wall during the board meeting and gave that speech about justice, I wanted to cheer! I really admire the way you structured that arc."
Hiramaru opens his mouth, then shuts it. He can't say "I didn't even plan the structure, I just drew whatever I felt like in a fit of desperation", it would be insulting to her, so he forces himself to graciously accept the compliment when all he wants to do is insult his lack of skill. He comments on her excellent drawings instead, and it's a honest compliment - her poses have become much more dynamic over the course of time, and her composition has improved since Hideout Door. She's much better than him in that area, his fight scenes are still criticised for being too stiff despite months of practice. She mentions a few shounen manga series that she uses for reference, and he makes a mental note to buy every volume so they can have another topic of conversation.
The cake arrives, and the waitress places two forks on the plate. Hiramaru turns to tell the waitress that they only need one fork, but is stopped by Aoki waving her hands at him in a frantic gesture of negation.
"...do you want...to share this cake? I don't think I can finish it." Aoki is beet-red and she can't bring herself to look at Hiramaru, twirling a lock of her hair around her finger. She looks like she's about to explode from embarrassment.
"Of course...of course I would!" They both sit there, unwilling to be the first one to lift up their forks. Aoki looks at the cake, then takes a sip of her tea. Hiramaru breaks the tension by cutting into the cake with his fork.
The slice of cake wobbles, then flops over to land on its side.
Hiramaru gazes at the fallen cake in mute horror, then puts his laden fork into his mouth before he can change his mind and run out of the cafe. The cake is tart and sweet. Aoki, bless her angelic soul, doesn't even comment on what just happened. She cuts the horizontal cake with her fork, and takes another bite out of it. They eat the cake in silence, and Aoki wipes her lips with her napkin, leaving a slight lipstick stain on the white fabric. It's odd - Aoki usually wears lip gloss, but today she seems to be more dressed-up than usual. Could she be meeting someone after this outing? Did she want to share the cake because she was worried she would be too full for a later dinner date?
Just as Hiramaru starts to worry about the future of their friendship, a gigantic black-and-white cat wanders up to them and meows loudly, demanding attention. It proceeds to circle Hiramaru's chair and rub itself against his pant legs, utterly unperturbed by Hiramaru's tiny squeak of terror.
The cat is mostly white, with black patches on the top of its head and around its eyes. It looks like Azami from the website, a "standoffish lady-cat, unfriendly to most people". Hiramaru hesitantly reaches down to pet it, and it purrs like a buzzsaw, butting its head against his palm. Azami flops over, exposing its white underside to both of them, and Aoki leaves her seat so she can rub its tummy. Hiramaru crouches down too, and they take turns stroking the cat.
"Ah...Hiramaru, do you like cats?"
"Otters are more relaxing to draw...but cats are interesting too." Hiramaru mentally congratulates himself on saving the conversation from utter failure. "Do you like cats?" Hiramaru glances at her expression, then resumes petting the cat's soft fur. Its eyes are scrunched up in sheer delight and it's rolling around, so he must be doing something right.
Aoki looks slightly reluctant to reply, but does so anyway. "I read a shoujo manga when I was seven, and the main character had a pet cat. Ah, I know it sounds stupid, but the way the mangaka portrayed the cat's body language made me want to learn how to draw. I'm more fond of other animals now, but I still really enjoy drawing cats." Aoki's cheeks are bright red by now, and she's staring at the cat so she doesn't have to meet Hiramaru's eyes.
"I don't think that's stupid at all. There are far worse reasons for learning how to draw." Hiramaru decides against using personal examples in this situation.
Azami's fluffy tail twitches, its eyes grow lidded, and it slowly drifts off to sleep, its mouth curved in the cat version of a smile. Hiramaru scratches behind its ears, but it's completely unresponsive. Aoki reaches out to smooth its fur back into place, smiling softly at Hiramaru.
Tama the cat picks that moment to ambush Aoki from behind. It leaps onto the back of her sweater, but her sweater is so thick and woolly that its front claws get snagged. Aoki shrieks in surprise, and the cat is clearly displeased at this turn of events, because it starts moving around, flailing its hind legs and attempting to get a steady foothold on Aoki's back. Hiramaru doesn't have enough time to think and get lost in self-doubt, he just moves, remembering the dozens of videos about carrying cats. He cradles Tama's hindquarters, extricating its front claws from the thick wool and getting it away from Aoki. Tama is enraged, possibly because its ambush was thwarted, and it turns its feline fury towards Hiramaru's hands, raking them with its sharp claws. Hiramaru is forced to set the cat down, but it yowls and moves towards Aoki again. Hiramaru acts as a shield, standing between Aoki and the demon cat as they both back away to the exit.
Aoki seems relatively unscathed, and Hiramaru's hands are the main casualty in this situation. He washes his hands with anti-bacterial soap, and tries not to wince in front of Aoki, even when the soap gets into his fresh cuts.
They put on their shoes and he gets out his wallet, ready to pay and go home to sink into a depression, but Aoki stops him just as he's about to set his money down. She pointedly asks the cashier to get the manager.
The cashier nods, and steps behind a curtain. The manager is a man in his late forties, and he reminds Hiramaru of his old colleagues, except even more unctuous and obnoxious. He begins to talk to them, and his tone is fawning and servile, but behind it, there's an implicit accusation that they were the ones at fault and shouldn't expect any compensation. Hiramaru points out that the cat's claws were untrimmed, and that fierce cats should not be interacting with the public in the cat cafe, but his confidence is flagging - this encounter has probably ruined Aoki's impression of cats for life. He'll be lucky if she even talks to him after this. The manager launches into an elaborate story about Tama's life and temperament, and Hiramaru considers slamming down the money just to shut him up.
Aoki's eyebrow twitches. She clears her throat.
"The cat could be the reincarnation of an emperor and it wouldn't matter to us! It scratched my...friend's hands and ruined my sweater, and there is no way at all that we are paying full price after that!" She slams the number tags down on the cashier's counter, and the manager looks taken aback. Hiramaru stands there in shock. No one has ever been this angry on his behalf. Aoki's tirade continues, mixed with threats of going to the newspaper and the local authorities. Eventually the manager agrees to compensate them for their meal.
Aoki unlocks her locker and grabs her handbag, glares at the manager, then stomps out of the cafe, slamming the door behind her. Hiramaru follows in her wake, taking long strides to keep up with her pace. She's amazingly fast even with heels.
After walking a good distance away from the cafe, Aoki stops in her tracks. She seems almost surprised to see Hiramaru a few steps behind her.
"Um. Are you all right?"
"I...did I just shout at the cafe manager and threaten to call the police?"
Hiramaru reluctantly nods. Aoki groans. "I'm so sorry, I just...got so angry at the way he was treating us. I know that's no excuse, but..."
"It's okay, really," and the words feel unfamiliar on Hiramaru's lips, because he's never had an occasion to comfort someone before today. He remembers the shoujo manga that he's read as research, but a hug would be too inappropriate, so he pats her awkwardly on the shoulder. She doesn't seem to mind his clumsy attempts to make her feel better, and he can feel her body gradually relaxing, her shoulders losing their tension. The scratches on his hands are still red and swollen, but he can ignore that for now. "I can do my research somewhere else. Thank you for standing up for me."
Aoki nods distractedly, and starts rummaging in her bag, fishing out her phone. She flips it open, glances at the screen, then at him, and tucks the phone back into her handbag.
Hiramaru braces himself for the inevitable brush-off, the clever excuse, the "sorry, but I really have somewhere else to be at this point in time". He withdraws his hand from her shoulder, and sticks it into his pocket. He should have known better, it was stupid of him to even get his hopes up. If he could go back in time he'd prevent himself from ever sending that first message to Aoki, or he'd just prevent himself from ever picking up that volume of Shounen Jump and deciding to become a mangaka. Or maybe prevent himself from ever being born. All the options sound increasingly appealing.
His train of thought is interrupted by Aoki clearing her throat delicately.
"Um, are you free next weekend, Hiramaru?"
Hiramaru stares mutely at Aoki. There is absolutely no way that he heard her say that. He tries to think of something eloquent to say, but his mind is completely blank. Everything he knows about the universe is wrong.
She starts fidgeting with a frayed thread on her sweater. "I was thinking...since you weren't able to do any research today, we could go to the zoo and look at animals...they have a new jungle exhibit, I think." She twists the thread around her finger, almost as if she's trying to cut off its blood circulation. "Maybe on Sunday? We could go in the morning."
"It's okay if you say no, I just thought, you know -"
"Sunday is fine! Sunday is fantastic!" Hiramaru pulls out his phone, and enters the appointment into his empty calendar. His hands are shaking with excitement, but he manages to press the right keys, even if it takes much longer than normal. He practically feels like dancing, but he decides not to celebrate prematurely.
Hiramaru takes a deep breath, steeling himself, and musters all his courage for the line he's been practising ever since their first outing.
"Shall we make it a date, then?"
"A d-date?" This time it's Aoki's turn to be taken aback.
"A date." He meets her eyes, looking completely serious, and tries not to let his nerves show. Her stunned look is slowly, gradually, replaced by a smile, and she nods in enthusiastic agreement. He lets out a sigh of relief.
He knows he'll probably be a nervous wreck by next Sunday, and he needs to come up with an actual manuscript and needs to figure out how he's going to tell Yoshida not to follow him on his dates. There are at least ten things to worry about at the present moment, and the number will only increase with time.
But right now, Aoki is smiling at him, and it feels like the best day of his life.