Toshihiro waited for Nori to drag Youji away before he made his move.
If he knew his siblings as well as he thought he did, they’d be distracted with video games for at least another hour or two, giving Toshihiro plenty of time to put his plans into action.
He had a short window to strike and he couldn’t afford their distraction.
Toshihiro had thirty minutes before their dad came home from his patrol, which meant their father was alone. With no pressure from his mate, Toshihiro was sure to get an honest answer out of their father. Their dad often encouraged (“Bribe. He bribes him,” as Nori would say) their father to do things with his kids, so most of the time when he tagged along to an event, it was because their dad asked.
Due to their dad’s influence, Nori and Youji had convinced themselves that their father didn’t care, but Toshihiro knew better.
And he’d prove it by striking when their father had full opportunity to answer for himself.
Toshihiro waited for the sounds of guns firing from Nori’s favorite game on the other side of the closed door before he crept away from his brother’s bedroom. He snuck down the stairs with slow steps so that his brothers thought he’d gone back to his own room to do his homework like usual.
If they knew what he was going to do, Nori at least, would make a fuss and try to stop him.
That would ruin everything!
Toshihiro found his father in the kitchen, as expected. Their father loved to cook and nothing beat one of his home cooked meals. Even Nori liked his food enough to admit it was good. He’d never say it within earshot of their father, but he had said it—so it counted!
Toshihiro smelled dinner cooking on the stove and licked his lip as he watched from the doorway. His father stood at the chopping board, methodically cutting a large daikon into slices with the same precision and care he put into everything he did. A pot sat on the stove with a soup broth waiting for the daikon slices.
His father didn’t wear a smile on his face, but he did look serene in the afternoon light slipping through the window. Toshihiro swallowed and took a few steps into the kitchen, not wanting to disturb the mood, but knowing he had limited time to ask.
His father didn’t stop chopping as Toshihiro approached, but his back straightened enough to let Toshihiro know he’d been noticed.
“Did you need something?” his father asked, pushing aside the finished slices. He pulled over the next daikon and cut off the ends. He popped the smallest piece in his mouth and chewed. “If you’re hungry, dinner’ll be done in about thirty minutes, but you can have a slice of daikon if you want one.”
“No, I’m not hungry,” Toshihiro said.
He forced his legs to carry him further into the kitchen. He stopped behind his father and just enough to the side that he could see his father’s face. Toshihiro rubbed his index finger with his other hand and steadied his breathing.
He was twelve years old. He was an Alpha. He had no excuse to run away scared.
Keeping an eye on his father to gauge his reaction, Toshihiro said, “The Cultural Festival is coming up this weekend. Our class is doing a cafe with coffee and sweets.”
“It’s that time of year, isn’t it?” His father gathered up the finished slices and put them in a bowl and set it near the cooking soup broth. He didn’t look at Toshihiro, keeping his eyes locked on the next daikon to cut and the rest of his dinner prep. “You should tell Deku when he gets home. I think it slipped his mind that was coming up and I know he was looking forward to going.”
“He always comes,” Toshihiro said. He dropped his hands and swallowed, forcing the lump down his throat. “I wanted to know if you were going to come this year.”
His father stopped moving with the knife still on the cutting board.
Toshihiro grabbed the bottom of his shirt and blurted, “It’s our first festival in junior high and it’s bigger than our old elementary school festivals. My friend is really, really good at making cakes. I think you’d like them and I wanted you to see the cafe we’re going to make.”
His father didn’t answer. He kept staring at the cutting board and the sliced daikon with a frown. Toshihiro squeezed his shirt, dropping his head toward the floor. His stomach churned with nerves and the clear answer he’d gotten from so little a response from his parent.
His father didn’t want to go.
He really didn’t want to go.
Maybe Nori and Youji were right.
Toshihiro bit his lip, forcing himself to stay calm with slow breaths.
He wouldn’t cry in front of his father.
“Do you really want me to go that badly?” His father sighed and put the knife down. He folded an arm on the counter and put his other hand on Toshihiro’s head, forcing him to look up. His father smiled, but it felt sad. “Your old man’s not too good around other people these days. If I go, I’ll just embarrass you and your brothers.”
“You won’t,” Toshihiro said. He knew his father was weird for an Omega, but he wasn’t embarrassing. He was smart, good at cooking, and really observant. If an Alpha as amazing as their dad knew his mate was the best, everyone else should too. “You won’t embarrass us, I promise. I’d like it if you came, please.”
He listened to his own heavy breathing as his father looked him in the eye. His expression remained hard to read—stuck somewhere between sad and frustrated. However, when he looked away, he ruffled Toshihiro’s hair.
“Alright, you win.”
Toshihiro straightened his shoulders and followed his father as he walked over to the fridge. He pulled a red pen out of the cup on the counter and Toshihiro grinned so brightly his cheeks hurt—the red pen was for his father’s schedule! It meant he was definitely going and not just adding it as a reminder for their dad.
“What day is it?” his father asked, hovering the pen over the calendar. “You said sometime this weekend, right?”
“Saturday,” Toshihiro said. He pointed at the date and his father wrote in red “Cultural Festival.” He circled it and when he put the pen back into the cup, Toshihiro hugged his father at the hip. “Thank you! It’s going to be really fun.”
“You’d better make sure I get a piece of cake,” his father said. He tugged Toshihiro off by the back of his shirt and set him down a foot away. “Go play with your brothers. I need to finish dinner.”
“Okay,” Toshihiro said. He skipped out of the kitchen and almost stumbled over the side table in the living room. Toshihiro ran up the stairs. “Yes!”
He couldn’t wait to tell the others their father was coming.
“You asked him to come?” Nori said, twisting his lip in a scowl. He tapped away on his controller faster to get the round finished and over with. Youji’s character struggled to keep up, and normally he’d go easy on the dweeb, but Nori didn’t want his attention split. Nori finished the game round and tossed the controller in the basket. “You’re such an Omega’s boy.”
“Like you don’t cling to dad every chance you get,” Toshihiro said, hopping on the bed behind him looking as self righteous as ever. Being the oldest by three minutes did not make him the boss. Toshihiro leaned forward and pointed at Nori’s face. “You’re just as much an Alpha’s boy, so I don’t see why you get to tease me.”
“Yeah, maybe I am, but our Alpha is the number one Pro Hero and cool,” Nori said. Youji moved over as he got up and finished putting away their video game stuff. He kept his head down, like usual, but Nori didn’t mind. This was between him and Toshihiro anyway. Nori crossed his arms and scrunched his nose. “I still don’t know what he saw in our old man to pick him out of everybody, unless it was just his looks. The guy sure doesn’t have anything else going for him.”
Their old man could cook and clean, but what Omega couldn’t?
“Don’t let dad catch you say that,” Youji whispered. A few strands of his hair fell in his eyes and he turned a game controller over in his hand before he dropped it in the basket. “Dad gets really mad when people talk bad about our old man.”
“Because he’s got a reputation to protect. People can’t think he doesn’t know how to make good decisions,” Nori said. Toshihiro scowled at him and Nori clicked his tongue. “But hey, maybe he felt bad our old man’s such a mess and took him in out of pity.”
Toshihiro nudged Nori’s shin with his foot. “Our dad liked our father when they were kids. Pity has nothing to do with it.”
“You’re so delusional it’s painful,” Nori said, shaking his head. “When are you going to give this up?”
“When you get it through your thick skull that he cares about us and stop giving him a hard time,” Toshihiro answered. He got off the bed and glared up at Nori. He might be the older one, but Nori was taller and he’d take what advantage he could get. Toshihiro crossed his arms. “I asked him to come and he said yes. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t be going out of his comfort zone to see the Festival.”
“Our old man doesn’t care about us,” Nori said back, putting some growl in his voice. “The only reason he agreed to go is because he knew you’d go whining to our dad if he said no and dad would make the old man go. He saved himself a step saying yes now. It’s the same thing as always.”
“No, he said yes on his own,” Toshihiro said again, the sides of his eyes watering. “That makes all the difference.”
“You’re an idiot.” Nori pushed Toshihiro back out of his space. “One of these days you’ll figure out the truth and don’t you dare go crying to me or Youji about it.”
“Don’t push me,” Toshihiro said back. “And stop saying things like that. Our dad doesn’t force our father to do things.”
“He does,” Nori said. He pushed Toshihiro again, hard enough to knock him into the dresser. “And I’ll push you if I want.”
“You’re such a brat,” Toshihiro said, growling.
He stepped away from the dresser and dashed forward to push Nori back, but since he saw it coming, Nori moved to the side to watch his brother smack into the wall. He hissed and held his nose.
“Ha! Look at you,” Nori said. He put his hands on his hips and smirked. “You’re just as pathetic as our old man. No wonder you like him so much.”
“Shut up!” Toshihiro yelled back. He growled again and his breathing picked up. Nori threw his arms up to catch his brother when he took a swing. “Stop saying bad things about him!”
“No!” Nori elbowed Toshihiro in the chest and shoved him into the wall with a smack. “Wake up and just admit you’re wrong.”
“You’re the wrong one!”
Toshihiro pushed with renewed strength and threw Nori away from him hard enough that he smacked into the bed. It hit the wall, denting the plaster and he shook his head out as his back smarted. Toshihiro made a jump for him—
“Oh, no you don’t!” The old man yelled. He yanked Toshihiro back mid-attack by the collar of his shirt and grabbed him around the chest. The old man turned on his “Alpha” voice and pointed at the floor between Nori and Toshihiro. “I don’t know what this fight is about, but it stops right now.
“Especially for you,” the old man said, shoving Toshihiro into the hallway behind them with a hand on his chest. “Your pupils are slitted. Go calm down in the bathroom. Now.”
Toshihiro curled his fingers in, glaring at Nori around their old man’s side. “But he—”
“I said now!” The old man left no room for debate with a pointed finger away from Nori’s bedroom. “I’ll check on you in a minute.”
Toshihiro lowered his head and submitted to their old man. He clenched his hands into fists and stomped away, his eyes watering once more.
“I did not need this today,” the old man said. He turned back into the room and pointed at Nori. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” Nori crossed his arms and sat on his bed. His felt sore in a few places, but he could get Youji to look at it later. “I’m fine.”
“Good,” the old man said. He spotted Youji frozen in the corner and turned to him. “What happened?”
Youji shrugged and looked away. He sat on the floor and whispered, “I don’t know. A fight?”
The old man rubbed between his eyes, pinching hard on the bridge of his nose. “Stay out of trouble. I’m going to make sure Toshihiro calmed down.”
“Whatever,” Nori said.
The old man shut the door behind him as he left and Nori sprawled out on the bed. He glared at the ceiling. Stupid old man. Nori had the fight handled. He didn’t need any help to deal with crybaby Toshihiro.
“You should really stop picking fights with him,” Youji said, his voice quiet as a whisper. “He could really hurt you.”
“Why? Because he’s an Alpha and we’re not?” Nori asked, glaring at Youji. He was supposed to be on Nori’s side. “I can take him!”
“Not if he goes wild,” Youji said. Nori glared harder and he put his hands up. “Just something to keep in mind.”
“He’s a crybaby Omega’s boy,” Nori said. He rolled over on his bed to face the wall. The new crack stared back at him and he kicked the wall. “Being an Alpha doesn’t change a thing.”
Youji didn’t say anything and wandered to the door. He checked the hall before disappearing into his own room.
Nori grabbed his pillow and screamed into it.
“So what’d he do?” His father guided Toshihiro to his room by the back of the shoulder and sat him at his desk chair. “You don’t usually humor his need to pick fights.”
“Nothing,” Toshihiro said, staring at the table. He didn’t want to say it. Their father knew Nori didn’t like him, but telling him the extent of it was too cruel. Toshihiro put his hand on the back of his neck and kept his gaze down. “He got on my nerves.”
“I don’t believe that,” his father said. He ruffled Toshihiro’s hair and huffed. “But maybe you can talk to your dad about it. Deku’ll be home soon and I am telling him about this.”
Their father always let dad do all the big decision making.
“I’m going to finish dinner,” father said. “Stay out of trouble for the rest of the night.”
His father shut Toshihiro’s door and he put his arms over his head. The shame of falling for Nori’s goading bubbled in his chest.
Toshihiro heard the door open downstairs and the call of his dad coming in for the night. He looked up at his pin board and the family photos he’d tacked up. In the one in the center, when his dad and father were new parents, his father had a soft, affectionate smile on his face as he held Nori next to their dad with Toshihiro and Youji in his arms.
Their father had loved the three of them then.
He had to still love them now.
Toshihiro got up from his desk and left the bedroom. Nori had said their father only agreed to come because he knew their dad would force him to go later, but that was wrong. Their dad hadn’t made father go to any of the other Cultural Festivals, so there was no reason to believe he’d make his mate go to this one.
But it wouldn’t hurt to ask and make sure.
Toshihiro refused to leave any room for doubt.