They’re leaving a client’s house, out in the suburbs, having helped her track down the jeweller who designed her engagement ring nearly thirty years ago. It’s late afternoon, still bright and pleasantly warm, and as they head back towards the station, they pass by a park. There, a group of children alternate between happy shrieks and moments of complete silence.
Seigi watches them for a moment.
“Darumasan ga Koronda,” he explains. Richard gives him Blank Look #6 ( You Said A Foolish Thing And I Will Wait Until You Explain It). “The child who keeps shouting that has to turn away while the other children approach - when they turn around, the others have to freeze, and if they’re seen moving, they’re out.”
They watch the children for a few moments more, as the lone child calls out before spinning around, causing the others to freeze in the most comical poses they can. After a while, Richard’s face shifts into realisation.
Seigi recognises two out of the three English words, but can’t parse the whole sentence.
“Obaa-san...ashi…?” Seigi cannot pull off Blank Look #6, so he adopts Generic All-Purpose Confusion, until Richard translates himself.
“It’s an English game, played at children’s birthday parties. Or at least, it used to be. It’s probably been replaced by computer games and YouTube by now.”
Seigi splutters out a laugh, as Richard shifts into Scowl #3 ( That’s Not The Reaction I Anticipated ).
“How does someone with such an angelic face manage to sound like such an old man?”
It shifts a gear into Scowl #4 ( You’re Laughing At Me But I’m Too Dignified To Show I Care ).
“When I asked you to stop your careless talk about my appearance, that wasn’t permission to insult me.” Only the tone of his voice gives away that he isn’t really angry at Seigi’s teasing. Richard shakes his head, one blonde curl wriggling as he does so.
They carry on to the station, and Seigi fights the urge to brush that curl back into place.
They’re in a client’s house. Richard has turned just in time to see Seigi with his hand clasped tightly around the upper arm of the client’s four-year-old grandchild. The child, who looks thoroughly confused by Seigi’s presence, has its hands clasped together, both index fingers pointing upwards.
Seigi is painfully aware of how this must look to his employer, who hadn’t seen the child sneaking up, and most likely didn’t know what fate was about to befall him. All he sees is his employee grabbing a small child and yanking him backwards.
“Kancho!” the child yells, wriggling out of Seigi’s grip. Thankfully, the child does not lunge for Richard, but instead darts out of the room, hands still clasped, its insistent cries of “Kancho! Kancho!” dopplering away through the house.
“What was all that?”
Seigi looks at the client, who can only shake her head and click her tongue.
“I’m so sorry, both of you. Shun-chan is...well, he’s a pain in the neck, if I’m honest. His older brother is supposed to be watching him today, but it looks like he’s got his nose stuffed in a book again and let Shun-chan wander off to amuse himself.”
Some time later, when they’ve left the house, Richard says, “Why do I get the feeling I had a very narrow escape back then?”
Through blushes and stammers and embarrassed hand gestures, Seigi explains what Shun-chan had been about to do. It makes Richard’s eyebrows lift higher than Seigi has ever seen, but it’s worth it for the pretty shade of pink his cheeks turn.
“I suppose I should thank you for coming to my rescue,” Richard tells him, making it Seigi’s turn to blush. “It will be late when we get back. Probably around dinner time. We should find somewhere to eat.”
It’s a surprisingly mild day in November, and as they leave the train station they pass a group of giggling teenagers sharing familiar-looking boxes amongst themselves.
Seigi checks the date on his phone. Sure enough, it’s the eleventh.
“You mean you haven’t heard of the Pocky Game?” he asks. “I thought you were Mr Culture.”
“What is so cultured about junk food?” It’s the first time he’s seen Richard turn up his nose at sweets, and Seigi almost loses his footing in surprise.
“It’s a game kids play,” he explains. “You hold a pocky stick in your mouth and someone else bites the other end, and you have to eat to the middle, and whoever breaks the pocky stick is the loser.”
Richard gives him Blank Look #6, but Seigi refuses to give in.
“I’m not kidding!”
“I was willing to suspend my disbelief sufficiently over the kancho incident, but that one is just ridiculous.”
He wants to plead his case, but the streets are busy and not the ideal place to yell about the Pocky Game to a man who’s already turning heads just by walking.
“I’ll show you videos online when we get back to the shop.”
Richard just raises an elegant eyebrow at him and continues. They almost make it back to the shop, but Richard suddenly hears the siren song of a sweet shop, and insists on stopping. Seigi waits outside, scrolling through his phone to find video proof that he isn’t making up the Pocky Game. Richard doesn’t take long, but he doesn’t say a word about his surprisingly small purchase in its plain paper bag.
He waits until they’re back inside the shop, his coat hung up and the door to the outside world closed, before he brandishes his phone at Richard.
“Look. Videos. People playing the Pocky Game.”
Instead of looking at his phone, Richard opens up his paper bag and takes out two boxes of Pocky. The regular kind and, because it’s Richard, one of the fancy limited edition flavours. Seigi can only stand there, feeling his stomach drop, as Richard painstakingly opens up the cardboard box and then the inner foil package to remove one slim stick of pocky.
“These things are far too flimsy,” he insists, easily snapping one between his fingers. “What you said would be impossible.”
“That’s part of the game,” Seigi counters, setting his phone aside. “You have to be slow and careful about it to keep from losing.”
Seigi has to stop and re-evaluate the frankly insane turns his life keeps taking on an almost daily basis. But this feels like a new level altogether. His boss, the angel among mortals, is standing in the main room of his Ginza jewellery shop, in his fancy three-piece suit, with a pocky stick between his teeth, eyeing Seigi like he’s challenging him to a shoot-out.
Pocky sticks at dawn. If that’s the way that Seigi is going to die, then so be it.
He squares his shoulders. Looks Richard in the eye. Steps close enough that the chocolate-dipped end of the pocky is almost touching his lips.
“You could just watch the video,” he tells Richard, wondering if it’s too late to claim a stomach ache and go home early.
“Prove it,” Richard growls, around the pocky stick.
Seigi takes a breath. Shuffles closer. Takes the pocky stick in his mouth.
He can’t take his eyes off Richard’s face, although the urge to let them flutter closed is strong.
He nibbles his way closer, feeling Richard do the same from his end. His hands are itching to rest on Richard’s shoulders, but that would be too much. Instead, he has to settle for leaning in with just his head, turning it slightly as Richard’s nose nears his.
Richard lets out a tiny puff of breath, and it’s warm and chocolate-scented, and Seigi is defeated. He ducks away, the stick snapping. What’s left in his mouth is dry, and scratches his throat when he swallows it.
When he looks up, Richard is wiping a smudge of chocolate from his lips. His tongue darts out to lick it from his fingertips.
“You know, you could have told me about the variant where two people joust with pocky and try to break the other’s stick.” He lets slip just the tiniest hint of a smile before he turns away and heads towards the office.
“You knew!” Seigi yells after him. He watches Richard’s retreating back for a moment, unsure whether to follow him or retreat to the bathroom to cry.
Just before he closes the office door, Richard turns to him for a second.
“I am Mr Culture, after all.”