It had all started with a strange fax.
Ken had seen some odd things happen when fax machines were involved, there was no doubt about that, but mostly they had to do with a technical problem, like streaking, or too little toner left in the receiving machine. He had not yet, however, had a manuscript draft come through with part of it obscured by something like this.
He held the paper up to the light a little more - the square item frustratingly obscuring the last couple of speech bubbles on the last page of the manuscript seemed to have a shadow to it, more towards the bottom. It was undoubtedly a Post-It note.
He knew Yumeno Sakiko's handwriting at a glance by now, and this wasn't it. It was written by a real girl, carefully, almost nervously, but with consideration. He sighed and rested his forehead on one palm, applying pressure to his head. He knew exactly which girl this was, and she was surely becoming extremely desperate at this point.
"Miyamae-kun, what happened here?" one of the female editors asked, glancing at the sheet over his shoulder, "Something dropped into Yumeno-sensei's fax machine?"
Ken lifted his head from his hand, seemingly considering the top bezel of his computer monitor before turning to her, "That must be it, Yumeno has an ideas wall above his fax machine. It must have been from a brainstorming session. This isn't Yumeno's handwriting; it's a friend's, the girl that comes and does the beta work."
Ken obliged; this lady was one of the least aggravating co-workers he had.
She read it and smiled, "It's a good idea for a manga, don't you think?"
He sighed and shook his head, "For anyone watching in real life, this situation is super annoying."
She handed the paper back, unsure of what to make of his comment, "Well, Miyamae-kun, I guess you need to ask him to fax it again."
Ken leaned back on his arm again, this time looking at the suspended ceiling for an answer, "No, I think this time I need to take the matter into my own hands. It's gone on too long, and I'd hate to see it affect the quality of Yumeno's work."
The colleague departed, and just as Ken was gathering the mental energy to deal with this particular subject and Yumeno, Maeno's phone rang on the desk next to him. MIYAKO YUKARI, the caller display read.
Maeno had left for drinks with some girls earlier in the day, and Ken always felt sorry for Maeno's manga artists, so he picked up the phone, "Miyako-san, this is Miyamae."
"Ahh, Miyamae-san, I'm calling for Maeno-san, is he there?"
What do you think? Ken would have said, but Yukari was too nice a person for his sarcasm, and he'd noticed how hesitant she'd sounded, "No, he left a few hours ago. Can I help you?"
She sounded panicked, "I'm on my deadline, and he was coming to collect my manuscript tonight. Has he really gone out for drinks? He'll never make it here. Should I come to your office? I don't know, it's too late for a train home once I'm there--"
"Miyako-san, I'm coming to see Yumeno-san, it's no problem. I have to drive, so I'll collect your manuscript."
Now she sounded quizzical, "Miyamae-san, it's not Nozaki-kun's normal deadline, is it?"
She was bright, Ken thought, though he knew they regularly met up and talked about their editors, "No, it's something else. I'll tell you when I arrive, I might need your advice."
Yukari sounded excited by this prospect, and Ken hung up the phone feeling a little better about interfering with the whole ordeal. He let his sole few other colleagues know where he was going and when he'd be back, and then he descended the building to the employee parking.
He was glad to have afforded something a little better than his old kei car when he left college and started working at Romance Monthly. His sensible Civic was parked next to whatever flashy sports car Maeno had on finance this month - often left overnight in the car park as he went out for another party. It was strange how often he went out with girls, and how few long-term relationships he'd had.
No, it really isn't strange, Ken said to himself as he turned the key in the ignition. It really wasn't hard to see how he was never in a relationship. Nobody could put up with him; he was certainly more fickle than any girl, and such a self-centred drama queen.
Ken had to admit, he often worried that being around Maeno made him so bitter that he'd never find anyone, either.
He supposed, as he arrived outside the building that two of Romance Monthly's top artists lived in, that Yukari could probably just about have made it if she'd really made a good pace to her nearest train station, but that would probably mean a late night for her, and she'd no doubt worked hard to meet tonight's deadline.
He passed the sixth floor on the stairs, where he'd have to come back down to Yumeno's apartment. He glanced down the corridor at it - the front light was on, and he watched a boy with red hair leave the apartment, though he didn't see Ken, and they didn't cross paths.
The floor above, directly above Yumeno's apartment was where he was going. He smiled slightly - Yukari had a few little plant pots outside her door for more of a feminine touch. At least there were no tanuki out here.
"Miyamae-san, thank you so much for coming, I don't know what I would have done," she gushed as she opened the door to him.
"Miyako-san, please, it can't be your fault when your editor who should be collecting your manuscript is the one that lets you down. You've done all the work here."
She was quick to invite him inside, where he tried to not be visibly affected by the tanuki that were so clearly everywhere, and he even sat on the sofa and accepted a cup of tea from her, though declined the cake.
Yukari rummaged on her desk in the corner and then launched herself back over to the table where Ken sat, slapping a manila envelope down on the table, "This is the manuscript! Please take good care of it."
"Would you like me to take a look at it?" Ken asked, noticing it was sealed.
She shook her head, "It's okay, I don't think you'd like it. You know Maeno."
"Hmmm," Ken said in agreement.
Yukari clapped her hands together, "So, Miyamae-san--"
"Ken," he offered.
"Ken-san, then, what else did you want my help with? I certainly owe you that."
He nodded, and he pulled the folded last page of the manuscript draft from the pocket of his jacket, "What do you think of the girl with the ribbons, did she write this?"
"Sakura Chiyo-chan?" Yukari asked, taking the paper. She read it and her eyes grew wide, a giggle even escaping her lips, "Yes, this is most definitely Chiyo-chan. I guess Nozaki-kun still has not even the slightest clue. This is from his wall where he and his friends were thinking up ideas for that short story competition next month. She must have put it up there and hoped he'd notice it eventually."
"It fell into the fax machine, he probably still hasn't seen it," Ken sighed.
Yukari passed the paper back to him, "It's cute how much she likes him, isn't it funny how a shoujo manga master doesn't get it when romance is right under his nose?"
"I'm not sure Sakura-san thinks it's funny any more," Ken suggested. "So, I wanted to show him this and maybe confront him about it. As his editor, concerned for his work, you know."
Yukari nodded seriously, "Of course, even though Nozaki-kun doesn't know Chiyo-chan's real feelings, they are close friends. If she got upset - and I don't know how she isn't upset after all this time already - he'd still notice and be worried about her. And I'm sure you're impressed by the beta work, too."
Ken nodded, "So, Miyako-san, you think he will listen to me?"
"Yes, definitely. I know he probably comes across very strange, but he means well - he really looks up to you, Ken-san."
The weight of the situation started to dawn on him, "And, do you think he feels the same way about her?"
She shrugged, "As a mangaka, I think there are three possible situations. I think first, there's the situation where he knows, but he's too nervous to make the first move. Then there's the second one where he doesn't realise, but when he finds out, it dawns on him that she's always there, and what he feels for her is more than friendship. And then there's..."
"Go on," Ken said, looking slightly pained.
"Well, what if he thinks they're already dating and she's the one that doesn't know?"
Ken covered his face with his hands and groaned, "God, that's so like Yumeno. I hope that isn't it." She laughed, and he smiled too, pushing his teacup back across the table towards her. "Thank you for the tea, and your manuscript, and the advice."
She picked it up, "You're welcome, Ken-san, I hope it goes well."
He thanked her, and he departed her apartment for the one below. He sighed heavily, then drew his shoulders back up and stretched a little. This had to be done. This definitely had to be done.
As he went to press the buzzer, the door parted at the seam and he came face to face with the girl herself, red hair adorned with the same ribbons. If Ken knew that Sakura wore them only because she was convinced it was the sole way Nozaki could identify her, he wouldn't be surprised even in the slightest.
"Ah, Ken-san! Hello. I don't think Nozaki-kun is expecting you...?" she trailed off, looking a little nervous.
"Sakura-san," Ken acknowledged her, "No, this is a surprise visit because I was already running an errand to Miyako-sensei's for Maeno."
She smiled, far too cute a smile, he thought, now he looked at her properly, "Well, Ken-san, I'm sure he'll be pleased to see you," the smile disappeared and she looked aside, "He's always pleased to see you. Anyway, I have to go get the train, have a nice evening!"
"And you, Sakura-san."
He watched her disappear down over the stairs, then knocked on the door that Sakura had left ajar, "Yumeno-san, excuse me."
The tall seventeen-year-old appeared at the door in an apron, shocked, "Ken-san! I'm not ready!" He hastily ditched the apron over the kitchen counter, and Ken heard it drop to the floor unceremoniously, "Can you give me time to tidy up?"
"No, sorry," Ken said, "May I come in? This is important."
Nozaki was apparently lost for words, and then followed up with, "Please," and a half-hearted arm-wave into the living room.
"I don't see what needed tidying up," Ken said, sitting down at the table and producing paper from his pocket. He turned to look at the fax machine, sitting under leaves and leaves of paper stuck to the wall, "Yumeno-san, is it conceivable that you might be missing a Post-It note from the wall, that might have maybe fallen into your fax machine?"
Nozaki frowned, convinced that this was a trick question, so he tried the answer, "Maybe?"
Ken unfolded the final page of the latest draft, "We need to talk about this one."
He gingerly took the paper from his editor and looked at it, "Ah, I'm sorry, I could have faxed this through again if you'd called."
"No, Yumeno-san, that doesn't matter right now, I need you to read the note."
A smiled appeared on Nozaki's face, and Ken thought they were in the clear until he said, "Of course, this is one of Sakura's ideas. I don't think it would work for a short form."
"Yumeno-san." Ken said, his patience well and truly tried, "That's not a story idea she's pulled out of thin air, that's how she feels."
Nozaki looked at the note again, then back at Ken, and flatly said, "I don't understand."
Ken snatched the paper back in frustration, "Yumeno-san, this girl is spending time with you hoping you, a mangaka famed for knowing girls' hearts, will notice how she feels about you. I don't know why, because if I'm honest, you are really doing yourself zero favours right now with your obliviousness, but there it is, she likes you, and I've no doubt everybody but you knows about it."
"I--" he stuttered.
"You need to talk to her." Ken said, "Now, I'm done. You can resend me the last page by fax while I'm on my way back with Miyako-sensei's manuscript."
Autopilot seemingly engaged, because he trundled slowly back over to the fax machine and pulled out the latest page. He pulled off the offending Post-It note, well sealed to the paper by the fax rollers, and considered it for a moment. After propping the page up in the input feed and hitting the autodial key for Ken's machine, he returned to the table and gently placed the note in the middle.
"Thank you, Ken-san."
"Alright," Ken said, standing and returning to the door, "I'm sorry if I was harsh. I definitely was harsh. But you need to talk to her."
He was sure he could almost hear the cogs turning in Nozaki's brain, but was also sure he'd try to engage him further if he stayed, so he excused himself and departed through the hallway.
No sooner had he reached the outside of the apartment, that the red-headed girl appeared again, out of breath and looking flustered, "Ah, Ken-san, hello! I had to come back because the train station has been closed for the rest of the day due to some kind of commotion and I don't know what to do now."
He hadn't really asked for her story, but he felt kind today, and he asked, "Where do you need to go, Sakura-san?"
"Oh, my parents and I recently moved into the new district on the green line, do you know it?"
Ken thought about this, and then he said, "That's hardly out of my way on my drive back to the office. I'll take you." He nodded towards the door without waiting for her reply, which would no doubt be assurances that she was okay and that he was too kind. "In return, you have to talk to him. You have ten minutes. I'll be in the white Honda down there with the engine running."
She looked slightly afraid and apprehensive now, and she nervously said "Thank you, Ken-san," and let herself back into the apartment.
Ken stood for a second, leaning on the balcony wall and considering what a nice neighbourhood this was, especially for a high schooler living on his own. He must have gotten lucky with the rent.
Then he realised that he probably looked like he was listening in on the conversation, and he started to slowly descent the stairs, looking down each set of doors. Each apartment had some sort of character, really, except for Nozaki's. It was tidy to the point that it was completely devoid of anything interesting, nothing that gave away his personality. One-dimensional.
Ken sighed, fishing through his pockets for the keys, and then sliding into the driver's seat. The engine came to life and he fiddled with the radio to pass the time.
Somewhere deep in the sound options, there came a knock at the passenger window, and a face almost as red as the ribbons in her hair accompanied the greeting hand. Ken wasn't sure what was about to happen, holding his best poker face as he unlocked the doors for her.
She dropped her bags in the footwell between her feet, and sat with her knees pressed together, staring at them as if her life depended on it.
"Well," Ken said after what felt like a full moment of silence, and then he was interrupted.
"Ken-san, I'm so sorry, I don't mean to be rude! What did you, um, what did you talk about with Nozaki-kun?"
Ken took the car out of gear and pulled out the original draft page again, "I talked to him about this."
Sakura's hands were shaking as she took the folded paper from him, and she unfolded it as if she thought it would explode. He heard a light gasp come from her, and then she turned to him, "I'm an idiot, Ken-san."
"What happened?" Ken asked, the colour no doubt visibly draining from his face, the way the girl looked so scandalised.
"I thought it would stay on the wall and he'd notice it one day, I didn't think I'd inconvenience you so much with this!" Her grip changed, becoming more comfortable, "But, I'm glad it did, I guess. I'm glad it came from you."
"It sounds like it's been...challenging," Ken offered.
Sakura laughed almost bitterly, "I have three Yumeno Sakiko autographs, from three previous times I've tried to confess. And then every time I think he knows how I feel, he goes back to normal immediately afterwards."
"How did he become a romance author?" they both said almost in unison, followed by Sakura laughing and Ken catching himself looking amused in his rear-view mirror. He should let himself enjoy the conversation; Sakura was easy to talk to.
"So, thank you, Ken-san, he said that he had always wondered, but now you gave him a reality check, he's happy, and we should see how it goes now we're both done dancing around the truth."
Ken steadied his hands on the steering wheel to gather his thoughts, and said, "Well, I'm glad it's done," he turned to look at her, "And I hope he doesn't treat you as reference material, now I've done this. I've known some mangaka in my time, Sakura-san."
"Well..." Sakura said, looking a little shy, "If he does, I guess it's possible that Suzuki and Mamiko might have their first kiss in a coming issue."
Ken was not the sort of person that knew what to do with this information coming from a sixteen-year-old girl, so he put the car into first gear and started to pull away, then muttered, "We're going to have to have a conversation about pacing."
His passenger giggled, and the rest of the journey was spent in a comfortable silence. Ken didn't mind the gentle tap of her mobile phone keys, given she'd had the courtesy to switch it to silent, meaning he could still hear the radio humming gently in the background.
She spoke to give him brief directions to her parents' house, a new build with three bedrooms and a tidy little garden out the front. Ken saw a woman looking suspiciously out of the front window as Sakura opened the door, but those concerns could wait.
"Thank you so much, Ken-san, for the lift and...you know." She looked like she wasn't sure what to do with herself, "I could hug you, but we don't really know each other."
Ken leaned towards the open door with his right hand, "Then, we'll shake."
She smiled back and shook his hand, "It was nice to properly meet you, Ken-san."
"Likewise," Ken said, and then nodded towards the house, "I'll go before your mother says something."
Sakura looked at the house with alarm, gently closing the car door and running up the path, "Okaa-san, it's okay!" and with that, she was gone.
Ken nodded to himself as he reached the end of the road, thinking that his good deed for the day was done, but of course the day of an editor was really still quite young. This realisation dawned on him as he noticed his mobile phone ringing, and he cringed at the name illuminated on the car dashboard. Maeno.
"Miyamae-kun, I know you're still working, so you can come and get me! I'm at the same bar as before, it's wonderful! I'll be outside in fifteen minutes."
"For fuck's sake," Ken muttered with all the bitterness he could muster, slamming the hang up button on the steering wheel.