Hanamori sat watching little Shindo Yukika drawing in the sand with a stick. It was getting rather late and her father hadn’t arrived yet. It wasn’t unusual since her father was raising her alone and working. Shindo-san often didn’t arrive to pick her up until after dark. He usually brought food as an apology for making Hanamori stay so late. Truthfully, Hanamori didn’t mind. Yukika was such a serious child. He enjoyed being able to give her some of the one on one attention that she clearly needed. Shindo-san had mentioned that her mother neglected her, so Hanamori was more than happy to dote on her.
Hanamori stood up and approached her. “Yukika-chan, it’s getting dark. Let’s go back inside and wait.”
Yukika looked up from her doodle and nodded. She stood up and slowly dusted herself off, though she was as impeccably clean as a four-year-old child could be. As she walked towards him, Hanamori smiled and held out his hand. Her lips twitched from her usual serious expression and she shyly reached out to him. It had taken him months to get her to take his hand. Their relationship was a work in progress, but he was so happy with that progress.
“What do you want to do inside?” Hanamori asked, squeezing her hand lightly. “Play with some blocks or color?”
Yukika shook her head.
“Oh? Will you tell me? I can’t know if you don’t tell me,” he said as they headed inside. He led her down the bright hallway to their colorfully painted classroom where she stopped and looked up at him.
Her other hand was clenched into a fist as she gave him a serious look. “Will you read me a story?” she asked, looking ready for an inevitable rejection. A rejection that never came.
He smiled. “Of course I will. I’ll even let you pick it out! Go pick out the one you want and we’ll sit in the big bean bag chair ok?”
Yukika’s face brightened up and she nodded eagerly before running over to their book corner. Hanamori chuckled as he followed her at a more sedate pace. She had already picked one out by the time he arrived and dropped down into a large squishy beanbag chair.
“Join me?” He asked, patting the space next to him. Bean bag chairs were fun because you had to cuddle if you wanted to sit with someone in them. Usually, kids wanted to crawl all over him to get his attention, but not Yukika. She was so used to rejection from her mother, she didn’t try. She was the serious child that stood in the corner watching the antics of others longingly. But now it was just the two of them and she had his full attention. She bit her lip before nodding and walking over to the chair. Hanamori beamed as he pulled her in next to him. They both squished around a bit to get comfortable before he finally took the book and opened it. The story was about a lonely alien prince who just wanted to make friends. It really made Hanamori’s heart ache, but they were making progress. Soon, she’d have friends. He’d make sure of it.
They were just finishing up the story when Shindo-san appeared in the doorway. Yukika hadn’t noticed yet, so Hanamori finished off the story and closed the book declaring, “And they lived happily ever after!”
Shindo-san clapped his hands. “Wonderful,” he said.
Yukika perked up from her lax position next to Hanamori. She fought against the squishiness of the chair to get up and run over to her father. “Otousan,” she said, giving him a shy smile.
Shindo-san knelt down and hauled her into a hug. He might look like a serious man, but he was very affectionate with his daughter. It was clear that he felt guilty putting her in daycare instead of staying home with her, but he needed to make a living. It was hard for single parents.
Hanamori hauled himself out of the beanbag chair. He was regretting his choice as there was no graceful way to escape a beanbag’s embrace, but it had allowed him to cuddle Yukika, so it was worth it to look like an idiot in front of her hot dad. Once free of the chair, he put the book away.
“I’m sorry I’m so late,” Shindo-san said. “I have a large caseload and I was coming in from out of town tonight.”
“It’s all right. Yukika and I had fun waiting,” Hanamori said, turning and offering Shindo-san a bright smile.
Shindo-san was holding Yukika and wearing an apologetic look. “I didn’t have time to stop and get you a bento either.”
“Don’t worry about it Shindo-san,” Hanamori said, waving his hand in front of his face. “You don’t have to get me a bento every time you’re late. I’d rather you spent some extra money spoiling Yukika-chan.”
Yukika blushed at the mention of her and cuddled closer to her father.
“It’s something that I want to do,” Shindo-san said earnestly.
“I appreciate that you do, but it’s ok if you don’t,” Hanamori assured him.
Shindo-san shrugged. “I just don’t feel right about it. Perhaps you would like to join Yukika and I for dinner tonight?”
Hanamori blinked. Did Shindo-san, the “hot dad” that he’d been making a fool of himself over for months, just ask him out to dinner?
“What do you think Yukika?” Shindo-san asked his daughter. Yukika nodded and Shindo-san smiled. “You’re all finished here right?”
“Yes, I...I just have to sign Yukika out and close up for the night,” Hanamori said. Luckily, he’d gotten all of his other cleaning and tasks done when the other teachers were still here. As usual, he was the last one to leave because he stayed with Yukika.
“Then please join us. Yukika wants spaghetti tonight, so we’re going to Jenny’s Family Restaurant.”
“I want a meatball too,” Yukika said quietly.
Shindo-san smiled down at her and kissed her on her head. “Of course. Spaghetti and a meatball, with lots of cheese on it.”
Yukika nodded and looked at Hanamori. “Do you like meatballs?”
Hanamori nodded. “I love meatballs.”
“So you can have meatballs with me,” Yukika said.
Hanamori swallowed hard. There was no way he could turn down this invitation. “Of course I’ll come. I’d love to have meatballs with you.”
“You can have whatever you want,” Shindo-san offered.
Hanamori shook his head. “No, meatballs and spaghetti sounds perfect. Let me get my things and we can go.”
“Of course. Yukika, let's get your things too.” Shindo-san turned and headed over to the cubbies where the children kept their things.
Hanamori wanted to fan himself as he watched Shindo-san walk away, but he needed to focus. He quickly found his bag and made sure he had everything in it. He hung up his apron on its peg and headed for the classroom door. Shindo-san and Yukika were waiting in the hall. Hanamori turned off the classroom lights and closed the door. Then they all headed for the genkan to collect their shoes. Once outside, Hanamori locked the building and turned to Shindo-san.
“I don’t have my car today, I hope you don’t mind walking,” Shindo-san said.
“Oh no, it’s not a problem. I walk a lot. Helps me keep up with the kids,” Hanamori said.
Shindo-san smiled and looked him over. “You do look very fit,” he agreed.
Hanamori blushed at the compliment and the sweep of Shindo-san’s gaze. He hoped the streetlights didn’t give him away. “Th-thank you,” he mumbled.
Shindo-san just continued to smile, a smile that turned Hanamori’s legs to jelly on a regular basis.
After a minute of silence, Hanamori decided that it needed to be filled. “Yukika-chan, do you know the song about a meatball on top of spaghetti?” he asked as they walked.
Yukika shook her head.
“I think I should teach it to you. Everyone should know the song about the meatball on top of spaghetti.”
“Ok, just listen to me,” Hanamori announced before clearing his throat. “On top of spaghetti! All covered with cheese, I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed!”
Yukika gave a little giggle snort and Shindo-san grinned as Hanamori continued to serenade them about meatballs. At the end of the song, Shindo-san clapped and Hanamori gave a big bow. “Thank you, thank you. Now I’ll need Yukika-chan to help me sing it again.”
“I don’t remember all the words,” she said shyly.
“That’s fine. I remember them. I’ll help you,” Hanamori said.
“I’ll help too,” Shindo-san offered.
Hanamori beamed at him before he began belting out “On top of spaghetti” again with Shindo accompanying him and Yukika slowly chanting along. By their third attempt at singing, Yukika had mastered all of the words and could sing it without prompting.
“And don’t ever sneeze,” Yukika sang, swinging her father’s hand back and forth.
“I promise not to sneeze on your meatball,” Shindo-san said, grinning.
“Thanks, otousan,” Yukika said.
“Look, I see the Jenny’s sign! Meatballs, here we come!” Hanamori announced, pumping his fist in the air
They made good time getting to the restaurant and soon they were nestled inside at a booth in front of the window. Yukika sat next to her father and Hanamori sat across from them. Hanamori had a hard time dealing with the fact that he was sitting across from the hottest single dad ever. Too bad he was probably straight. After all, he’d been married and had a daughter. Not that Hanamori ever asked intrusive questions like that. His job was to take care of Shindo-san’s daughter when Shindo-san had work. The poor man had enough trouble dealing with the other mothers that dropped their children off at school. They were constantly flocking around him making thinly veiled innuendos. There was no way that Hanamori was going to act like some desperate housewife.
The waitress came by to take their order and Yukika solemnly ordered her kid-sized spaghetti and meatballs.
“What do you want to drink?” Shindo-san asked Yukika.
“Apple juice please,” she said.
“Ok. Spaghetti and meatballs with apple juice.” Shindo-san stroked Yukika’s hair.
“And I’ll have the large steak meal with the loaded baked potato and vegetable of the day,” Shindo-san said. “I’ll have water to drink please.”
The waitress nodded and looked at Hanamori.
“Ah, I’ll have spaghetti and meatballs also. And an iced tea.”
The waitress told them she’d return with their drinks before slipping off to get their orders in.
“How was school today?” Shindo-san asked Yukika.
Hanamori smiled as Yukika gave a little summary of their day. It was interesting hearing about their day from Yukika’s perspective. Once she was done with her story, she picked up the crayons the waitress had given her and started scribbling on her placemat.
“How was your day Shindo-san?” Hanamori asked.
“Long. On top of my regular workload, I had a long meeting out of town today. I’m just happy to be back home with Yukika. I don’t like going out of town, even for day trips anymore. It was different before when someone was home. At least, I thought it was.” Shindo-san sighed.
“You’re doing a good job,” Hanamori promised. “Yukika-chan is very smart and she learns things quickly. We have fun when we wait for you, so you just do your job and don’t worry about us.” He smiled at Shindo-san.
“You are too good to us,” Shindo-san said.
Hanamori laughed. “No, I’m not. Really, it’s my pleasure. I promise.”
Shindo-san just nodded, clearly at a loss for words.
The waitress returned with drinks.
“How was your day Hanamori-san?” Shindo-san asked. “I’ve heard Yukika’s version, but what about yours?”
“Hers was very accurate,” Hanamori said, fiddling with his straw. “There were a few little tussles with the boys and some crying here and there, but nothing a few timeouts and well-placed hugs couldn’t fix.”
“I’m sure you give wonderful hugs,” Shindo-san said.
“He does,” Yukika agreed, looking up from her drawing.
Hanamori blushed even more. There were no dark shadows to hide his blush in the bright dining room of Jenny’s.
Thankfully, Shindo spared him further embarrassment by asking him about his hobbies outside of work and they fell into a discussion of likes and dislikes in food and how to get stubborn children to try new things. Hanamori felt like he was really getting to know Shindo-san as more than just the Hot Dad. It was nice. Really nice.
Their food soon arrived and Shindo helped Yukika to cut up her comically large meatball into smaller pieces.
“Oh no,” Hanamori said. “I think I might have to sneeze!”
Yukika gave a little squeal and reached for her meatball.
Hanamori gave an exaggerated sneeze that had the three of them laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
“Good save Yukika-chan. Now your meatball can’t get away,” Hanamori said as he began to slice up his own ridiculously large meatball. Apparently, Jenny’s really took American sized portioning to heart.
“You’re silly, sensei,” she said smiling at him.
“Why thank you. I take that as a great compliment,” Hanamori said.
Shindo-san smiled at him and Hanamori smiled back. He looked down at his food and began to twirl spaghetti up on his fork. This meal wasn’t good for his heart, simply because his heart was trying to beat out of his chest every time Shindo-san smiled at him. And Shindo-san was smiling a lot. Hanamori took a big bite and hummed in appreciation. After he swallowed, he looked at Yukika. “Is it good?”
Yukika nodded. “Mmm!” She agreed, shoving a piece of meatball into her mouth.
“I’m glad you got what you wanted,” Hanamori said. “How about you Shindo-san?”
Shindo blinked as he was addressed. Hanamori tilted his head as he realized Shindo-san had been staring at him. Did he have something on his face? He lifted his napkin to wipe his mouth, just in case he got sauce all over himself. Yukika was eating her messy spaghetti with impeccable neatness. Trust him to be the one to get sauce all over himself.
“Sorry, I was spacing out,” Shindo-san said ruefully. “This is what I needed, I only had a quick vending machine lunch today.”
“Maybe I should start making you bentos,” Hanamori joked. “You need to take care of yourself after all.”
Yukika paused in her eating. “Could I have a bento?” She asked.
Hanamori looked at her and smiled. “Of course. Next bento day, I’ll bring you a bento. And one for your otousan too.”
Yukika beamed at him.
“Thank you,” she said, before going back to her spaghetti.
“Thank you,” Shindo-san echoed her. He hadn’t even tried to turn down the offer. After all, he didn’t want to deny Yukika anything she actually wanted. Neither of them wanted to break her little heart.
“It’s not a problem,” Hanamori said. Their school made lunch for all the children and they only had bring your own bento days on special occasions. On those occasions, Yukika often had store bought bentos. But Hanamori was already making plans to go all out for a cute character bento for his favorite student. And if Shindo-san “accidentally” got a few heart shaped carrots in his bento box, well, it was just an accident.
“You really are too good to us,” Shindo-san said again.
“Don’t be silly, I like seeing you guys happy. Yukika has the best smile.” Hanamori grinned.
Yukika gave him a shy look and he beamed. She seemed unable to stand the full wattage of his smile and she pressed her face into Shindo-san’s side.
They both chuckled and resumed eating. Hanamori laid off the compliments so Yukika would keep eating. All three of them managed to clean their plates. Hanamori sat back with a sigh and rubbed his stomach.
“Well, I’m stuffed,” he announced.
“No room for dessert?” Shindo-san asked.
Hanamori groaned. “That does sound very tempting, but I don’t know if I have the room.”
“We could all share something if you don’t mind,” Shindo-san suggested.
Hanamori felt a little lightheaded at the thought of sharing food with Shindo-san and he found himself nodding, perhaps a little too eagerly. “Did you have something in mind?”
“Well, Yukika likes pancakes, so that dessert apple caramel pancake stack seems like a good choice. Then everyone can have a pancake.” Shindo pointed to the dessert featured on their paper placemats.
“That sounds delicious. It’s got apples and caramel and pancakes and ice cream. Do you want that Yukika-chan?” Hanamori asked.
Yukika nodded firmly. “Please.”
“All right,” Hanamori said, clapping his hands decisively. “Let’s get that.”
Shindo-san smiled and waved down their waitress. She cleared their empty plates and soon returned with a lovely little stack of apple pancakes covered in baked apple slices and caramel with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Hanamori felt his mouth watering as the plate was set down on their table. They were handed extra plates since they were sharing. Shindo-san took charge, doling out a single pancake from the stack to each person with a little bit of all of the delicious toppings. Yukika got the large plate with the pool of caramel on it, but Hanamori certainly wasn’t going to begrudge a four-year-old girl a little extra sugar.
“Thank you Shindo-san,” Hanamori said, accepting his plate.
“You’re welcome,” Shindo-san said, smiling at him again.
Hanamori’s heart fluttered and he blushed as their fingers touched. He picked up a spoon and used it to cut a mouthful of pancake. He made sure he had some apple, caramel, and ice cream on top before popping it in his mouth. His eyes widened. “Mmm!” He quickly chewed and swallowed. “This is delicious!” He declared.
Shindo-san nodded. “It’s got a good balance.”
“I like the apples,” Yukika added.
“Me too. Even though I’m full, I can’t stop eating this,” Hanamori said, quickly taking another bite. But the pancake was small, and soon, he had eaten it all. He was left to mournfully scrape up the last little bits of the caramel and ice cream. “That was so good,” he said, popping the spoon back into his mouth, sucking on it for a moment before he set it back on his plate.
He watched as Yukika finished up the last bites of her dessert, then stared longingly at her empty plate. She had a bit of ice cream on her cheek and it made Hanamori smile. Usually, she was meticulously clean. She’d come out of the spaghetti dinner unscathed when even he had gotten a bit of sauce on himself. But here she was being a regular happy kid who got a little messy. He picked up his napkin and reached forward to wipe her cheek. “Look at me Yukika-chan,” he said.
Yukika looked up and tilted her head back as he wiped at her cheek. “Did you get it?” she asked, lifting her hand to touch her face. She made a new smear of caramel on her cheek with a bit that had been on her finger.
“Ah!” Hanamori chuckled as he reached back to wipe off the second streak. It was more stubborn, so he gave his napkin a quick lick before cleaning off her cheek.
Yukika whined. “Sensei.”
“Sorry, I got it now,” he said, sitting back.
Shindo-san was giving him a soft, amused look.
“Don’t say I’m too good to you again,” Hanamori whined.
Shindo-san chuckled. “I wasn’t going to. I was going to compliment your parenting instincts.”
Hanamori blushed. “Well, I’m with them all day. And I’m with them because I like them. I could have been a company man or something, but I really like kids.”
Shindo-san nodded. “And kids really like you, so it’s a good fit.”
“Thank you for saying so. Lots of people like to say that I’m wasting my life, but it makes me happy.”
“You’re not wasting your life at all. You’re doing what you love, working with children. And you’re helping to raise a new generation. Kids like Yukika here will go on to do amazing things, and they’ll look back fondly at time spent with you reading stories and learning songs about meatballs.”
“Well,” Hanamori said, fighting down the blush from so many compliments. “Songs about meatballs are important life skills.”
Shindo-san smiled. “Of course. She can’t pass them on to her children if she doesn’t learn them.”
“Tousan, I’m sleepy,” Yukika said.
“I’m sorry honey. Let’s pay the check and head home,” Shindo-san said.
After the check was settled, they were back outside. Yukika was settled on her father’s back where she drowsed lightly.
“Which way are you headed?” Shindo-san asked.
“I live in an apartment not far from the school,” Hanamori said. “So I’m heading back that way.”
“I’ll walk with you part of the way. We’re not too far from the school either. I chose it for its location to your school and the train,” Shindo explained as they began to walk.
“Yeah, there were cheaper places farther out, but the location made it worth it,” Hanamori said. “I have a bike, but I don’t want to spend an hour biking to work because it was cheaper in the boonies.”
Shindo-san chuckled. “I’m sure you look right at home on a mommy bike,” he teased.
Hanamori snorted but didn’t deny it. “Don’t make fun of my mommy bike. It makes grocery shopping easier. I put my groceries in the basket and pedal home.”
“I didn’t think you actually had one,” Shindo-san said. “I figured you’d have a racing bike or something.”
“Nope. I have a nice green denchari with a basket on the front. I usually walk to work, because I’m so close, but if I’m tired, I take my bike. And anytime I need to go shopping, I hop on and head to the store,” Hanamori explained.
Shindo nodded. “I haven’t ridden a bike in years,” he admitted.
“Maybe you should get one, so you can Yukika-chan can go riding together,” Hanamori said. “There are some nice parks in the area you could ride around.”
“I’m sure she’d like that. I might have to look into it,” Shindo-san said.
Hanamori smiled. He paused as he realized they were in front of the school. “Oh, we’re here already. Well, I’m heading that way. I’ll see you two in the morning.”
Shindo-san nodded. “We’ll be there. Be safe walking home.”
“You too. You have precious cargo after all.”
“I will be. Thank you for coming out with us,” Shindo-san said.
“Oh no, thank you for treating me. I really enjoyed it. It was fun,” Hanamori said.
“Good. Perhaps we will be able to tempt you out again,” Shindo-san said, smiling.
Hanamori blinked. He hadn’t expected that. “That sounds nice. I like spending time with Yukika-chan,” he said.
“And she likes spending time with you,” Shindo-san assured him. “She talks about you a lot.”
Hanamori smiled. “She’s a great kid. I’m glad she’s doing so well.”
“Me too. Good night sensei. See you in the morning.”
“Good night Shindo-san. Sweet dreams Yukika-chan.” He waved as Shindo-san bowed to him, then headed off in the direction of his house. Hanamori watched them walk down the block. Shindo-san turned and waved before turning a corner.
Hanamori released a great shuddering sigh. That was too much like a date for his poor heart to handle. And Shindo-san had mentioned doing it again! While he was excited, he was also nervous to get his hopes up. It was a terrible idea to fall for one of his student’s parents, but the problem was, he had fallen long ago and the only thing left to do was manage his hopeless crush. He gave himself a quick slap to the cheeks. “Get a hold of yourself Shun,” he muttered. Easier said than done. He took off down the street, running to his apartment at top speed, a small excited sound barely passing his lips as he tried to burn off the excess energy. This probably wasn’t a date, but maybe next time would be. He could dream right?