“You can call me Kei, sir.” Across the table, Nanako winces, and Kei struggles to keep his smile in place.
Dojima tips his head back a bit. “... Watanabe, how did you meet my daughter?”
“She, uh, she visits Junes a lot, and that’s where I work.”
“How old are you?”
“S-seventeen,” Kei stammers, glancing at Nanako for reassurance. Slowly and with wide eyes, she shakes her head.
“That’s two years older than you, isn’t it?” Dojima says without turning his head, his stare locked on Kei.
Nanako juts out her lower lip. “Plenty of people date their senpai.”
“How many girls have you dated before?”
“Um, one?” To Kei’s side, Nanako’s brother shakes with silent laughter.
“One, huh?” Dojima laces his fingers together, leans forward, and spits, “How young was she?”
Then his head reels forward as Nanako smacks him hard. “Dad!”
“Okay, okay,” Dojima concedes, sitting back and rubbing his neck. “What can I ask him that won’t get me hit?”
“You can ask what our plans for tonight are.” Nanako nods. “That’s it.”
“Fine. You heard her.” Kei can’t hide the shudder that jolts through him. Satisfied, Dojima says, “What are your plans for tonight?”
He takes a moment to regroup, swallow a few times, and then, with his fingertips digging into the knees of his nice new jeans, Kei shakily answers, “We were going to wander around the shopping district for a while, and then...” His eyes dart to the eerily silent boy next to him. “And then get some dinner.”
“Sounds like a lovely evening,” Dojima says with no hint of love in his tone. “It isn’t nice out, though. November’s a cold month. Why don’t you go grab your coat, Nanako? We’ll keep Watanabe company while you’re gone.”
“Oh, sure Dad! But I don’t know where it is.” Nanako latches onto Dojima’s sleeve and jumps to her feet, dragging him up with her. “Why don’t you come help me find it?”
She storms out of the room with Dojima in tow, and Kei exhales. That went less smoothly than planned. You’d think a boy from the city would be able to handle situations like that diplomatically, but Kei’s not sure anything could’ve prepared him for how absolutely frigid Nanako’s dad’s eyes were. A sigh next to him makes him jump.
“Nanako talks about you a lot.”
Her brother smiles, and Kei’s muscles relax just a smidge. “You’re Souji, right? She talks about you a lot too.”
“Dojima’s just scared,” Souji continues, as if Kei hadn’t spoken at all. “Nanako means the world to us.”
Kei grins dreamily. “I... yeah. Yeah, she’s really something.”
Quick footsteps echo out from the back hall, and just as Nanako skips back into the room, Souji looks at Kei with calm eyes, gray like steel, and says just above a whisper, “If you hurt her, even Dojima won’t be able to find your body.”
“We’re leaving!” Nanako calls as she grabs Kei’s sweat-drenched hand. Kei tries to ignore the way that Souji’s goodbye wave feels more like a death threat. Like he’s slashing a throat. At least the cold air outside gives him an excuse to shiver.
Nanako drags him along at a fast clip until they round the street corner and her house disappears from view. Her hand, warm, snug against his, squeezes. “Sorry about that.”
“You know.” Nanako flips her bangs to one side with a quick jerk of her head. “Them.”
“Oh. Oh, don’t worry about it! I should’ve... made a better impression, I guess.”
“That’s not it. No matter what you did, they would’ve been like that.” She shifts in a little closer to him, their elbows bumping as they walk. “Sometimes, I wish they’d back off a little, but at the same time, I’m thankful. My family really cares about me.”
“I think I understand how they feel,” Kei blurts before he thinks about it, and his face burns so hot that the wind tingles on his cheeks. He’s afraid to look at Nanako – she’s freaked out, right? They’ve hung out with friends about a billion times before, but this is still their first official date. In the end, he can’t help himself. What greets him is Nanako smiling brightly, as if he’d just said the funniest thing in the world, her eyes crinkled almost shut and her face glowing like a nightlight against the dusky sky. Despite how quickly the words before came, he can’t muster up a single syllable now. But it’s okay; she talks for him, chirps, “Let’s go before it gets too dark,” and then wiggles her fingers between his and tugs him along towards the shopping district once more.
It takes him a couple minutes to recover completely, and it seems like the instant he’s comfortable with light banter again, a large man with hefty fists jogs up, hollering, “Nanako-chan!”
“Oh, Kanji-kun!” Nanako lets go of his hand and bounces up into the man’s waiting arms. Suddenly feeling unbearably cold, Kei watches him spin her around in a hug.
“You must be Watanabe,” a level voice says from so close by that Kei jumps. A petite woman, hands lost in the folds of her billowing trenchcoat, watches him as if he were a specimen in an experiment. “Detective Naoto Shirogane. I’m a colleague of Dojima-san’s.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Kei says with his best winning grin cemented in place. “I’m-”
“Kei Watanabe. I’ve done my research.”
“Naoto-chan!” Nanako just about plows her over, and when the detective’s calm facade is broken by a light blush, Kei chuckles. “I thought you were out of town for a case,” Nanako laughs.
“Well,” Naoto says in an exhausted tone, struggling to regain her composure, “we came as soon as we were informed of the situation.”
At that, Nanako’s face twists. “Situation?”
“Uh, buh, yeah! Your fabric!” All three turn to stare at Kanji. “My mom, uh, she said that fabric you ordered came in.”
“For my skirt?” Nanako claps, then links her hands under her chin and rocks back on her heels. “It wasn’t there this morning! It’s really in now?”
Kanji bites his lip and deflates like he’s sprung a leak. “N-no.”
“Kanji’s endeavoring to be subtle,” Naoto sighs. “I’ll make no such gestures. How is your date, Nanako-chan?”
Kei can feel every single vertebra in his spine lock together as he waits for Nanako’s answer.
“It’s wonderful,” she says, and she weaves her arm around Kei’s elbow.
Naoto and Kei exhale their tension in unison. Kei only gets a moment’s reprieve, though – once he catches sight of Kanji, cracking his knuckles and looming like a monolith over him, mouth a stony line, every muscle in his body seizes up again. “I’m glad to hear that,” Naoto says. “I assume Watanabe has been a gentleman?”
Nanako flashes Kei a smile. In the head rush that follows, he almost misses hearing her answer, “The best.”
“Then we’ll leave you be. You do have our phone numbers, correct?”
“Call us if you require any assistance.”
“Or if you just wanna talk,” Kanji butts in.
“I will.” Nanako nods. “And you call me when my fabric comes in!”
Blushing furiously, Kanji pulls her away for another hug before he and Naoto step aside and watch them pass. Kei fights the feeling that he’s forgetting something until, at the next street corner, it hits him. He whirls around and shouts, “It was nice to meet you!” Kanji’s barks of laughter follow them as they continue on their way.
“So,” Kei says, swallows, continues, “who were they again?”
“Friends of Big Bro.” He can feel her shrug against his arm. “They’re like an extended family to me.”
“You’ve got a hell of a family.”
“You haven’t seen the half of it.”
Kei’s torn between answering, “I’m looking forward to meeting all of them,” and crying.
“Oh, hey!” Nanako tugs on his hand and points ahead with a grin. “It’s Rise-chan!”
Now that’s a name he’s familiar with. “Rise-chan? As in, cuter-name-for-Risette-Rise-chan?”
“Yeah! You didn’t know? I thought by now everyone knew this is her hometown.”
“I did.” It’s true. Knowing that the scrumptious Risette, star of his coming-of-age fantasies, spent a lot of time in Inaba was one of his few consolations when his parents announced the move. “I just didn’t know she was part of your family too.”
Anything else he might’ve said is cut off by a high-pitched wail of, “Nanako-chan!” Rise squishes Nanako against her, giggling wildly. “Oh, it’s been forever!”
“I’m glad to see you too, Rise-chan,” Nanako manages to say from somewhere snug in Rise’s chest. Kei folds his hands in front of him (not attempting to hide any... swelling that might be horribly embarrassing for either girl to notice, no, of course not), averts wide eyes from the scene, and forces a cough.
“Ooo, and who is this cutie?” Rise squeals, and she releases Nanako to grab both of his hands and spin around.
“He’s Kei, my... friend?”
“Boyfriend hopeful,” Kei says in what he had hoped would be an endearing tone but mostly comes out as cracked and pubescent.
With a shocked gasp, Rise whirls to face Nanako and shakes one sparkle-tipped finger at her. “Na-na-ko! Does your brother know about this?”
“Yeah, of course! He met Kei earlier tonight.”
“And what did he have to say?”
Kei suppresses a shudder and says through a clenched smile, “Caring things.”
Rise tilts her head to one side and, humming, traces Kei’s tense frame with an appraising gaze. “That sounds like Senpai,” she bubbles, straightening up and twining her fingers together behind her back. “He’s a really sweet guy.”
“Rise-chan?” Rise’s mouth drops open in a perfect o as she turns her head to look at Nanako, who’s shifting her knees against one another awkwardly. “It’s great to see you again, but if we don’t get going, we won’t have time for dinner before-“
“Say no more!” With a nod and a quick raise of her hands, Rise announces, “I’ll let you off the hook this time.”
Nanako exhales, relief washing over her face. “Thanks. I’ll come by and visit tomorrow, okay?”
“Sure sure! Oh hey, before you go – why don’t you run inside the tofu store? I’m sure Grandma could give you some treats to munch on while you walk.”
“Thank you!” Nanako and Kei chime in unison, and Nanako laughs, waving as she trots towards the store.
“Again, thanks,” Kei says. An enthusiastic shout greets Nanako as she slips in the front entrance, and Kei shakes his head. “I can’t believe how popular she is.”
“Obviously you understand the appeal.” Rise nudges him, grinning at the heat that floods his face. “Let’s see... Nanako Watanabe. Hm. Sounds nice, don’t you think?”
With a roll of her eyes, Rise sighs, “I hope you know if you break her heart, I’ll be forced to break something of yours.”
Kei hangs his head. “How many more of you are we going to run into tonight?”
“I know you’re a good actress. You can stop now.”
“Look, mister,” Rise huffs, jabbing him in the shoulder, “I’m just looking out for someone important to me.”
“I don’t doubt that.” Kei rubs his face with both hands and peeks, exhausted, at her through his fingers. “But just now, you knew my family name without me telling you.”
“Oh. Okay, you got me.” She giggles with no sign of remorse, and to Kei it sounds like the cackling of a demon. “So we set you up. I still want to know your intentions,” Rise continues. “How serious are you about her?”
“I’ve met her dad, her brother, a giant, a detective, and now you, and I’m still here.”
Rise smiles genuinely at that. “Good point.”
Kei stands and watches the entrance, silent in the fading daylight as he waits for Nanako to return and make everything bright again. He can feel Rise lean against his arm, and when that doesn’t stir any physical reaction in him, he’s more sure than ever that asking Nanako out is the best decision he’s ever made.
“Sooo,” Rise coos, “Nanako Watanabe does sound good, doesn’t it?”
“This is our first date. I’m not going to think about things that could scare her off.”
“Always thinking about Nanako-chan’s feelings. That’s so cute! What a romantic.”
Jamming his hands in his pockets, Kei grumbles, “It’s hard to be romantic when I’m being threatened by half the town.”
“Let me give you some advice.”
Kei glances at Rise and gets a little dizzy from the bounce of her hair as she nods giddily. It’s impossible to tell whether she’s playing with him or not. This might be the stupid choice, and he knows very well he could end up regretting it a lot later, but he opts to hear her out.
“Gifts are nice and all, but what matters most is paying attention to her. Any dork can send flowers. How many know what sort of movie she’d like to see without asking her, though? It’s all about being sincere.”
For the first time this evening, the tears threatening to shatter his delusions of macho-manliness aren’t out of fear. “That’s reassuring to hear. She’s one of my best friends. Caring about her I can handle.”
“Kei-kun!” Nanako runs up with two large plastic bags, packed to the brim. “Do you like ganmodoki?”
“Yeah, I li-”
“He LOVES it,” Rise interrupts, and when Kei’s jaw locks in place and the color can’t quite decide whether it wants to drain from or rush to his face, her smile just grows.
Nanako casts him a worried look. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, he’s just hungry,” Rise says with a flip of her hand. “Silly boy didn’t want to rush you, so he didn’t say anything.”
Without a word, Nanako shifts both bags to one hand, rummages around in one, draws out a ganmodoki, and holds it out to Kei. “Eat this,” she orders, but it’s with a smile. “I think I have every type of tofu ever in here if you want something else, but there’s the most of this.”
“T-thanks,” Kei stutters, and he silently extends gratitude as well to any gods who might be watching over him for granting him enough control over his body to eat the fritter.
“That should give you enough energy to make it to dinner,” Rise says. Tapping her chin, she looks up and off, as if contemplating her next line. “Say, why don’t you two go to Souzai Daigaku?”
Kei scoops both bags away from Nanako, and when she opens her mouth to protest, he offers her a ganmodoki and says, “Please.” Then, he turns his attention to Rise, searching her actions for any signs of treachery. “Do they have any specials today?”
“I don’t think so. But.” She pauses and throws a wink his way. “It shouldn’t be too crowded. I doubt anyone would interrupt your meal there.”
Twenty minutes later, Kei curses both his trusting nature and Rise’s flawless acting.
“I hear your grades are very good, Kei-kun,” Yukiko says, stirring her noodles with her chopsticks absently. “Have you given any thought to college?”
Kei struggles to swallow his mouthful of beef quickly before he answers. “No, not yet. I mean, I know I’ll go, but I don’t really know where or what I want to do right now.”
“I see.” She doesn’t even bother putting on a fake smile to temper the harsh judgment evident in her eyes. For a second, Kei wishes armor for the soul existed. He’s not sure how that would work, but it seems like he could really use some. Kei shakes his head and tries to focus only on his meal.
“Don’t worry about it,” Chie says, and she points her skewer of beef at him to emphasize her words. “I wasn’t completely sure of what I wanted to do until halfway through third year, really. It’s fine to keep your options open.”
The elbow Yukiko lodges in Chie’s side was probably meant to go unnoticed, but Kei catches it. He also catches Chie’s quick hiss of, “What? He’s a nice kid!”
“I was thinking journalism could be fun,” Kei says quickly. “I like hearing people’s stories. Y’know, finding out the truth behind things and making sure everyone stays informed.”
Between Chie’s smile that declares him a kindred spirit and Yukiko’s stunned, finally honest wide eyes, Kei figures he must have said something right. Inwardly, he whoops with joy. “How’s your dinner, Nanako-chan?”
She looks up from her beef bowl (identical to his, and the fact that he’s dating a girl who will eat beef bowls with him warms his gut more than the food does) and grins.
The rest of dinner goes relatively smoothly. Kei ends up eating more than he planned on, but he couldn’t let Nanako show him up, could he? And Chie was just asking for a war over the last cube of sponge cake. He couldn’t let the meal end on a boring note. After Chie accepted him, Yukiko loosened up a lot, too. It did creep him out a bit when she started giggling madly over some stupid pun he thought up. Chie and Nanako seemed unphased by it, though, so he can only assume that’s just how she is. Rise might’ve set them up to be chaperoned, but it turned out more like a double date than anything else. Somehow, the fact that Chie and Yukiko became comfortable enough around him for it to work out that way makes him just as happy as the fact that halfway through dessert, Nanako found his hand under the table and wouldn’t let go.
So when Nanako suggests they swing by Junes before they call it a night, the prior horrors are so far from Kei’s mind that he agrees without thinking. He offers Nanako his free arm, the one without bags brimming with tofu hanging from it. She holds his elbow, humming the Junes theme airily, and he asks in a laugh, “You two coming?”
Chie shrugs and looks at Yukiko. “What do you say?”
“I say it’s been a pleasant evening,” Yukiko says, “and we should let them finish it just the two of them.”
“Well okay then! Do this again sometime?”
“Of course,” Kei says as Nanako nods enthusiastically next to him.
Yukiko smiles, a calm arc of the lips that makes Kei picture zen gardens and still ponds. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“Me too!” Chie says. They turn to walk away, waving over their shoulders, but Chie stops abruptly and shouts, “Watch out for Yosuke in Junes. He’s supposed to be in on this too.”
“Thanks for the warning!” Kei shouts back. With a thumbs up, Chie spins back around and she and Yukiko walk off, their voices a low stream of sounds that Kei thinks sounds happy. He sighs. “You think Yosuke will hassle me a lot?”
“I’ll beat him up,” Nanako says, and she sets her mouth in a thin, determined line.
“Won’t your brother be sad if one of his friends has to face your unstoppable fists?”
“Yosuke’s different. He’s practically my brother too at this point.”
“Ah. Fair game.”
Nanako grabs both of his hands, meets his eyes coolly, and says in an intensely serious tone, “It’s a little sister’s right.”
The first person they meet when they walk into Junes is, of course, Yosuke. Nonetheless, Kei has to fight back a triumphant laugh; Yosuke’s on his cell phone, so engrossed in a conversation that he only waves at them distractedly as they walk by. Kei and Nanako get as far as the cereal aisle (where they make jokes about the corny names – corny, get it? – and end up hanging on each other for support as they laugh) before Yosuke catches up to them. The phone’s still pressed to his ear, but he covers the mouthpiece and says quietly, “Nanako? I’m supposed to tell you to give your brother a call.”
She breaks away from Kei and peers at Yosuke, her face crinkled with confusion. “Huh? Why?”
“Sorry, I don’t know, but it sounded important.”
“Shoot. I’m going to find out what’s going on, okay?” Nanako bounces up on her toes to plant a kiss on Kei’s cheek, then pulls out her cell phone and walks away, dialing. Hand pressed to his reddening face, Kei dazedly watches her go. It takes him a moment to notice that Yosuke’s still standing next to him, and another few moments after that before he catches what he’s saying.
“No, Teddie’s not here. He’s on the other side, looking for the kid’s TV. Just in case.”
Other side? TV? Kei tries not to stare too openly, but Yosuke’s half of this conversation is just too weird to ignore.
“Uh huh.” Yosuke laughs. “She’s listening to it ring. I can see her.”
A few feet away, Nanako scowls at her phone and redials.
“I’m watching out for her, partner. Don’t worry. Oh, he’s standing right here.”
Yosuke looks up then, locks eyes with Kei, and even though he sees a thousand of Yosuke’s grins at work every day, this particular one chills him to the bone.
“Do you want to talk to him?”
Pulling the phone away from his ear at last, Yosuke shakes his head. Kei knows he shouldn’t stay. If he values his life, he should get out now, just run away and never look back. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches a flash of Nanako, stomping her foot as she waits and waits for Souji to answer. She bites her lip. Kei just sighs.
Yosuke holds the cell phone out to him. “Sorry, Kei. It’s for you.”