Thursday, January 18, 2018
I woke up one minute before my alarm and turned it off before the accursed thing could start making any noise. Strange. I never woke up on my own during the week, despite years of setting an alarm for the same time, and stranger still, I actually felt rested and alert. I hopped rather than crawled out of bed, making my way across the dark room to the bathroom where my workout clothes awaited me. Less than five minutes later, I was dressed and out the door for my morning jog, cell phone strapped to my arm and my favorite upbeat music filling my ears.
It was cold, but not bitterly so, even though last night's weather report had foretold biting winds, the kind that could knife right through the warmest of running gear. Instead, it was pretty much the perfect temperature for my winter gear, and without the slightest trace of a breeze in the air, it was almost too warm. I unzipped the front of my jacket as I ran, sneakers gliding effortlessly over the trail as I followed my usual path around the school island.
By the time I got back to the staff dorm, the glow of sunlight was beginning to warm the sky; not quite sunrise, though that would follow soon enough. I plucked the earbuds from my ears and twisted my arm to poke the stop button in my running app, eyes widening as the screen flashed a cheery message at me: New personal best pace!
"Impossible," I muttered under my breath. "The GPS must be acting up again..."
Still, I half-floated back to my room in a haze of contentment. It had been a while since I'd achieved a new personal best, and I certainly hadn't been trying for one. Even though it was probably a mistake, it still felt good to see that popup.
Better still was the text that was waiting for me after I finished showering and getting dressed. Good morning, Professor! I'm up early today, so I thought I'd send you a message! I don't really know what to say, though. Um... I love you! And I can't wait to see you today, and tomorrow, and this weekend... Haha, I don't really know what I'm trying to say. I'm just really happy! Oh, but I'm hungry from waking up early, so I think I'll go have breakfast now. See you later!
I shook my head, smiling. "Asahina, you're such an idiot..."
Today's going to be a good day.
I reached the staff room about fifteen minutes earlier than usual. That would give me enough time to print out the test papers for my afternoon class without having to spend some of my precious lunch hour on that mundane task. I pushed open the door and stepped inside, receiving a few sleepy nods and halfhearted waves of greeting from the other teachers. No one really went out of their way to talk to me, especially in the morning when everyone was still a bit tired, but that was fine with me. I wasn't much for small talk, especially before morning coffee.
I made my way to the coffee station in the corner, but before I could fill my usual mug, the door opened again and a cheery voice rang out. "Ah, good morning, Professor Sakaki! Don't drink that coffee, look, I brought you something nice!"
Ito... again? I turned around, raising one eyebrow as he rushed up to me, holding a large disposable cup in one hand and a small paper bag in the other. This was the third day in a row that he'd brought me coffee and a pastry in apology for giving me the cold shoulder all day Monday. Once was fine, but how long was this going to continue? I was going to get fat if I ate bakery treats every morning. Somehow I resisted the urge to sigh, and leaned in to murmur, "You don't have to keep doing this. I'm not offended."
"But I feel bad, I didn't understand the whole situation... I misjudged you." He was pouting. "Please, let me make it up to you at least a little bit."
That time I couldn't hold back my sigh, and I pressed the fingertips of one hand to my temple. "Ito, I appreciate the gesture, but this can't continue. I'm watching my diet and this stuff doesn't fit in."
For some reason, that made him smile. "Yeah, I know! That's why I got you black coffee with sugar free syrup and a low calorie egg white sandwich! The menu said there's a lot of protein in this one, so it should be okay for your breakfast, right?"
He looked so sincere and hopeful that I didn't have the heart to refuse, so I reached out and took the offered gifts without further protest. "Yeah, this should be okay. But this is the last day I'm going to accept something like this. It disrupts my meal plan for the day, and," I leaned closer, "people are going to get the wrong idea if you keep giving me stuff. I don't want any rumors flying around about how you're attempting to suck up to me, or that we're dating or whatever."
Ito's back stiffened, face turning red, and he blurted, "D, dating...?!"
Several chairs creaked as a few of our colleagues turned to stare.
Why did you have to say that so loudly?!
Somehow my mind decided on a course of action almost immediately, and I nodded. "That's right. If you ever need dating advice, you can talk to me any time, Professor Ito. You don't have to bribe me with breakfast. I'm happy to help." I flashed him a brief smile and went back to my desk, leaving him behind to figure out what had just happened.
Heh, that should take care of this problem...
Morning classes went smoothly, and since all my prep work for the afternoon classes was already finished, I had the rare opportunity to visit the cafeteria in person instead of using the online request system. The opportunity was so rare that I found myself standing off to one side to study the menu, unable to remember what the usual specials were for each day.
Just as I settled on the day's value-priced B set, a simple lunch of traditional Japanese staples, Sonoda popped up out of nowhere holding a tray that was loaded with specialty French food. "There you are, Professor Sakaki! I tried texting you, but you didn't answer. Good thing you showed up in person, or I might have ended up selling your lunch to someone else!"
I eyed the tray. "What is that, your fancy F set? I'd rather not use up a week's worth of meal tickets on one lunch."
Sonoda made a face. "How dare you compare this to the usual F set! This is today's special, limited to just five meals, and I saved one just for you!"
"You know I can't afford whatever price you're charging for that." Despite my words, I couldn't tear my eyes from the lavish food that was loaded on the tray, fingerling potatoes nestled around a crispy gravy-basted duck breast, with a side salad and generous chunk of what was surely a freshly baked baguette. And a mini chocolate lava cake. I bit my lip, trying not to stare.
"I'm telling you, not charging anything!" Sonoda scowled at me, reaching up with his free hand to pick at his braids, his usual bad habit when he was annoyed. "Look, this is my gift to you, in thanks for the good grade you gave me on the math test you handed back this morning! But if that's a problem or something, I'm sure Yuki-kun or someone else would love to have this."
Oh, so that was it. I shook my head, exasperated. "I didn't give you a good grade, Sonoda, you earned it. Now imagine how nice your final grade will be if you study that diligently for every test."
"You know," he grumbled, "for someone who's being given a nice freebie, you sure are annoying."
I shrugged. "I'm a teacher, it's my job to annoy the lazy youth." I reached out and plucked the tray from his hands before he could change his mind. Sonoda sighed, folding his arms over his chest, but I could see the hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. What a brat. You talk big, but you just want recognition and attention, same as all these other kids.
"I expect a thorough review via email before the day is over," he huffed.
I met his eyes and smiled. "Fair enough. Thanks, Sonoda."
My stepcousin's face turned as red as his badly dyed hair. "W, whatever. Just enjoy it, okay!"
He flounced back into the kitchen before I could respond. I snorted. Ah, youth.
Afternoon classes went by in a flash, with the students gnawing on their pencils and sighing as they completed their tests, the relative quiet giving me more than enough time to finish grading the morning's papers. In fact, I'd had so much free time that I'd managed to get my lesson plans in order and draft the custom homework I'd be handing out the following week to the hard and ultimate classes. By the time classes were over, all I needed to do was go print out the worksheets.
Better yet, I'll ask Ito to do it. Maybe getting some busywork from me will be enough for him to realize that there's no hard feelings...
I made my way to the staff room, humming under my breath in a ridiculous way that would have made Asahina proud if he ever caught me doing it. The thought of his cute face lighting up in a bright smile was enough to bring a smile to my own lips. Of course, Asahina couldn't understand the joy of getting things done ahead of time; over and over, I'd watched him scurry to complete homework that wouldn't have been a problem if he'd paced himself. Well, that was cute too.
That smile was wiped away in an instant when pulled open the staff room door and was greeted by a cheery, "Good afternoon, Professor Sakaki! I've been waiting for you!"
I considered, just for an instant, turning right around and leaving without a word, but my mouth was already moving, too conditioned by years of etiquette lessons in my youth. "Okazaki, why are you alone in the staff room? The very name implies that students don't belong in here, especially when there are no teachers present."
So much for etiquette lessons. You won't catch me mindlessly spouting polite greetings anymore.
Okazaki was unfazed by my harsh response, used to it after months of dismissive replies. "Since the door wasn't locked, I thought it would be fine to come inside. I've only been waiting," he paused to check his watch, "two minutes and fifteen seconds. Surely you'll forgive me that much."
I brushed past him and set my things down beside Ito's computer, shaking the mouse to wake it up. "I have work to do, Okazaki. The other teachers will be here soon, you can't be in the way like this."
"But I have some very important math questions, Professor, no one else will be able to help me with this! I've been waiting for your expertise all day, so please!"
I didn't have to turn around to know that Okazaki was standing with his hands clasped in front of him; the whiny, pleading note in his voice made that perfectly clear. I fought back the urge to sigh. The boy was brilliant, I didn't doubt that, but his mind was utterly wasted on occult nonsense and pseudoscience. It was far more irritating than someone like Chiba, a complete idiot who made no effort to improve himself, and who frankly didn't seem to have much capacity to improve. What Chiba did have was self-discipline and a strong work ethic, even if it wasn't directed at academics. I could respect that. I couldn't stand Okazaki's misuse of his gift.
I turned around to face the boy, struggling to hold back my irritation. "Okazaki, I'm not interested in helping with your club activities. I thought I'd made that perfectly clear."
We both jumped as the door banged open, revealing the tall, slender form of the only student in the school who was more annoying than Okazaki. "Ahhh, there you are, Oka-chan!"
"J, Joker-san...!" Okazaki's smile froze on his face. "What are you doing here?"
Jokawa stepped into the room, twirling the end of his ponytail idly around one finger. "Why, of course, I'm looking for you, Oka-chan." He glanced at me with a sweet smile that didn't match the piercing gaze of his single blue eye. "Hello, Professor Sakaki. Nice pop quiz today, very tricky. And the same week as a major test, too. Just as I'd expect from someone like you."
If he expected me to get defensive and ask what he meant by that, he was going to have to deal with being disappointed. "We'll see if you still think it was nice once you get your grade back."
"Heh, as long as I beat Eiji, it's fine." His eye went to Okazaki. "Come on, Oka-chan, you promised to tell me some of your new stories today. Surely you didn't forget about that? Or the fact that Professor Sakaki isn't going to help with your communication device, because he's an adult and adults are too busy for stuff like that."
He glanced at me again, daring me to say something. I just snorted, bending to write a note for Ito. If Jokawa wanted to drag Okazaki away and save me from an afternoon of his pathetic begging, I certainly wasn't going to voice any sort of protest.
Professor Ito, please print one copy of each file in the 'homework' folder. Leave everything in my mailbox when you're done. I paused for a moment, then added, Thanks. -Sakaki
"Joker-san, please give me just one minute to ask Professor Sakaki a question!"
"Nope. You're coming with me." Jokawa linked one arm forcefully with Okazaki's, offering me a cheery wave as he pretty much dragged the much smaller boy from the room. "Byeee, Professor Sakaki. Don't forget to grade our quizzes before the next class!"
As if I ever take more than a day to grade anything.
Still, I'd been rescued from Okazaki's ceaseless babbling. And if I was quick about it, I could escape the staff room before Ito or any of the other teachers showed up. I set down my flash drive on top of the note and hurried from the room.
However, I barely had time to walk to my office and greet Kasahara, who had been waiting patiently for fifteen minutes, before my phone buzzed, reminding me that Thursday afternoon was already reserved for my weekly meeting with Dr. Matsuoka.
"Damnit," I grumbled, staring at the popup.
"Professor Sakaki, what is it?" Kasahara's brow creased in concern. "Something from the board?"
Of course he'd assume it was the board. They'd been giving us nothing but trouble recently, pushing back against every little suggestion we made. It was simply an extinction burst of bad behavior from overgrown brats who were used to getting their way, but knowing that didn't make things any less aggravating. The only thought that kept me from losing my sanity was the unchangeable fact that there would be new elections at the end of the school year, and all of the Sakaki Group spies and supporters would be cut out like the cancer they were.
"No, Kasahara, nothing to worry about. I forgot that I have a standing appointment on Thursday afternoons, that's all." I glanced at the worktable, which was already covered with papers. "Sorry to chase you out, Kasahara, but I think you should go work in your own office. If you stay in here by yourself and someone comes by, it will look suspicious."
He nodded. "Yes, I agree. I've already had a few questions about why I come to your office so often. I was thinking, maybe you should come work in my office from now on instead. After all, it wouldn't be strange for the assistant director to go to the director's office, especially at this time of year."
I held back a sigh. He was right, of course, but I didn't fancy the idea of hauling a mountain of paperwork back and forth every day until the end of the school year. "I hate to admit it, but you're right. If any of this stuff," I motioned toward the table, "can stay in your office, let's leave it there. Maybe we should make copies... no, then we'd lose track of the most recent drafts..."
"Ah, Professor, don't worry about that. I'll take care of moving the papers and decide what can stay and what needs to be transported. I have a good idea of which proposals you're still working on and which ones are finished." Kasahara stood and began sorting through the mess on the table. "Don't worry about me, I can take care of this."
My phone buzzed again, and I scowled at it, annoyed that it was sending a another reminder so soon after the first notification. My stomach tightened as I realized it wasn't a meeting reminder, but an email with the subject line re: BL School proposal, sent from my brother's work email.
"Great," I muttered, tapping the icon and steeling myself for rejection.
The Sakaki Group board members will vote to accept the proposal to reinstate the unconventional talent scouting process at Bell Liberty, if and only if the following conditions are met:
- Two scouts are appointed - one from the Sakaki Group and one from the Suzubishi Group.
- Each scout has the liberty to choose up to five students.
- Chosen students must be approved by at least 60% of actively voting board members.
My eyes widened, and after a glance at the header to confirm that he'd been copied, I said, "Kasahara, check your work email."
He made a face as he pulled his phone from his pocket, but after a moment, his sigh of disgust morphed into a quiet gasp of surprise. "Wait... they're actually going to accept one of our proposals? And after the new board members are appointed, way more than sixty percent will be semi-decent people who actually care about developing talent..." He glanced at me, his warm smile lighting his eyes. "Professor, you were right, submitting this one first was the right thing to do. If we can build on this, get them to accept more of the proposals--"
I held up one hand. "Kasahara, I know you're excited, but don't get ahead of yourself just yet. Remember, we're stuck with this board for a few more months, and we may have to wait until next year to get anything more substantial through. But this is a good start."
"Agh, Professor, you really are too much of a realist." Kasahara was practically grinning. "Let me dream a little. For the first time, I really feel like we can accomplish some of the things that Brother dreamed about!"
"Not just Nao," I reminded him with a soft and somewhat bitter smile.
"Oh," Kasahara's mood dampened immediately, and he lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry, Professor, I..."
No good. I couldn't discourage him, even unintentionally. I stretched out one hand, tentatively patting his shoulder, and he looked up again, eyes wide. "Kasahara, you don't have to apologize. I know I still have a lot of work to do in order to truly earn your trust. So--"
I was cut off by another buzz from my phone, and I snatched my hand back from Kasahara's shoulder, chest heavy with the irrational fear that the acceptance had been rescinded. Instead, it was a reminder that I was five minutes late for my appointment with Matsuoka.
Kasahara looked a little flustered as he asked, "Oh, didn't you have a meeting?"
Heh, maybe this is luck too, being rescued from an awkward situation.
"Yeah, I'm already a bit late. I'd better go. I'll come to your office afterward, so if you run into any trouble," I motioned toward the stacks of paper, "leave it for me to handle."
"Right." He waved me off. "See you later, Professor."
"You're ten minutes late, Professor," Dr. Matsuoka greeted me without turning around. After a brief pause, he added, "You don't smell like smoke, so what was the delay?"
I rolled my eyes, knowing he couldn't see me. "In case you hadn't noticed, we're nearing the end of the school year. There's a ton of work to do for the student selections and other board nonsense, I can't keep track of my other appointments right now. If you'd like to call the director and confirm that I was just speaking with him, I'll wait."
The doctor's chair swiveled around with a squeak. As expected, he was completely unruffled by my snippy response, the usual calm smile on his face as he responded, "Now, now, there's no need for that, Professor Sakaki. I know you and Kasahara-kun have been very busy recently. Maybe this isn't the best time to tease you about anything."
"It's never a good time," I sighed, irritation defused by his mild reply. The doctor could be a pain sometimes, and honestly, it was time to stop with these weekly meetings, but there was a soothing air of calm about him that made it hard to stay frustrated with him for too long. Even if he's full of the usual cryptic non-answers that therapists seem to love. "Anyway," I continued, "I told you, I quit smoking at the beginning of winter break."
"As I recall, Asahina-kun was spending at least part of the break with you. Is his presence keeping you motivated?"
I sank into my usual seat, knowing that there would be no escape from the doctor's ceaseless questioning. "I guess. He doesn't bother hiding his dislike of it. I've been meaning to quit for a while. It helps to have reminders and support from someone who's concerned about your health."
The doctor smiled. "I'm concerned about your health as well."
"Thanks, but I don't think that's necessary. You know I never get sick." I perked up a bit, remembering something. "Actually, speaking of health and such, I had a new personal best on this morning's jog. Probably had something to do with the weather being warmer than usual for the middle of January."
For some reason, Dr. Matsuoka started in his seat, and he spun back around in his chair and began frantically clicking the mouse. "Middle of January... wait a minute... I forgot! Hold on a moment!" He leapt up from his chair and disappeared behind the large cabinet, and I heard the sound of rummaging from that hidden part of the nurse's office.
What on earth is he doing?
He returned a minute later with a narrow white box, offering it to me with both hands. "Here you are, a birthday gift from me and Hiroya. Sorry it's late, I completely forgot until you mentioned the middle of January."
I accepted the box, not bothering to hide my surprise. "That wasn't necessary, I didn't get you anything for your birthday. That was a few months ago, wasn't it?" And we're not exactly personal friends. Why on earth did you do this?
"Yeah, it was." He settled back down in his chair, leaning forward eagerly. "Well, there's no point in waiting to see what it is, right? Your birthday's already passed, after all."
"Well, that's true." The box wasn't wrapped, so all I had to do was lift off the lid. Inside was a ceramic sake set for one, pure white overglazed with a light violet-blue, with a stylized iris motif painted on one side. I carefully lifted the small cup from the padded box, turning it over to examine it from all sides. Though the appearance was simple, I'd seen and used enough ceramics to know that the set was a few steps above the usual tourist souvenirs. "This is a quality piece." I glanced up at the doctor. "I don't know what to say. Thank you. I haven't done anything for you that would warrant such a special gift."
He shook his head with a smile. "I wouldn't say that, Professor. I don't know the details, but from various things Kasahara-kun has said, it sounds like you had a rather active role in keeping this school from closing. And you've been supporting him ever since. So this is thanks from both of us for protecting our place of employment, and from me for helping Kasahara-kun."
"I haven't done anything for Kasahara except offer a bit of advice. He's the one who's decided to take on extra responsibility and get serious about being director of this school." I settled the lid back onto the box. "If you want to thank anyone, thank Asahina... or Nao. Kasahara's been motivated by the notes and plans he left behind."
Dr. Matsuoka caught my eye. "You too, right?"
I looked away with a sigh. "Don't keep doing that. You know I don't like talking about Nao."
"Sorry. I thought it would be fine, since you mentioned him first." His chair creaked as he shifted into a new position, crossing his legs the other way. "If I may push my luck, I think he'd be proud of both of you. And I feel like there are good changes coming at this school."
I considered mentioning the email from the board, but kept quiet; knowing my brother, that tentative acceptance could be withdrawn at any moment. It was best not to go sharing anything until the matter was completely settled. "We'll see once the new board members are elected. Hopefully we won't run into a different kind of opposition from whoever's nominated by the Suzubishi Group. The last thing I want to do is waste another year fighting over nonsense like budget considerations or the perfect teacher-student ratio or whatever."
Dr. Matsuoka snorted. "That sounds like about as much fun as budget discussions at Bell Labs."
"Heh, I guess Yoshizumi also has to deal with the consequences of shortsighted business practices."
"He's always complaining about it," the doctor confirmed. "Mm, sorry to change the subject all of a sudden, but Kasahara-kun's working by himself now, isn't he? I've been thinking, maybe we should suspend these chats for the rest of the school year so you two have more time to focus on the school management."
I raised one eyebrow. "That's surprising."
"Well, to be honest, we've run out of things to discuss on a weekly basis. Asahina-kun seems the same as usual, and I'm pleased with the effort you've been putting into our meetings." Dr. Matsuoka sighed, folding his arms over his chest. "This doesn't mean that I fully support your relationship, and I do expect you to come speak with me if I decide I need to check in with you."
I bit my tongue to keep a harsh response from slipping out, taking a few seconds to collect my thoughts before nodding my agreement. "That sounds fair." More than fair, honestly, if it meant that I wasn't chained to a weekly meeting that didn't accomplish much of anything.
The doctor mirrored my nod. "Good. And... could I possibly ask you to keep an eye on Kasahara-kun? Despite everything I've tried, he still hasn't opened up to me. I don't want to push him, but I also don't want him to slip back into his protective shell after coming so far recently."
That's a fair price to pay for my freedom. "Sure, I see him often enough that I'll notice if he starts getting moody again. Though I won't be ratting him out if he decides to trust me with something that's on his mind. The best I can do is nudge him in your direction if I feel that simple advice isn't enough. I trust that will be acceptable?"
The doctor looked like he wanted to say something, but in the end, he just nodded. "Yes, that's fine. I wouldn't ask you to betray his confidence." He glanced at his watch. "I won't keep you any longer, Professor. Oh... and a belated happy birthday."
"Yes, thank you." I patted the box lid and stood. "I'm sure this will get plenty of use."
After that, Kasahara and I worked together in his office until a couple of hours after sunset, using the time to revise the talent scouting proposal as my brother had demanded, and to put the finishing touches on several others that were waiting. On the way back to the staff dorm, I stopped by the cafeteria to pick up the order I'd placed earlier, a light meal of ochazuke with a mixed vegetable salad on the side. Sonoda had complained bitterly at my refusal to take any of the fancy almond cookies he'd prepared that evening, scowling as I'd informed him that the only dessert I needed was a few cups of sake.
Are you sure you're not an alcoholic?
"What an annoying child," I muttered, grinning at the memory of his dramatic complaints.
My apartment was one of the two nearest the entrance to the staff dorm, director and assistant director naturally receiving the most convenient and largest living areas. The usual security guard greeted me as I stepped inside the dorm, hurrying to open the door for me.
"Do you need help carrying your things, Sakaki-san?"
"No, I'm fine." Every day, the same question and the same response. Well, he was just doing his job.
"Understood. If you need help bringing in the box that was delivered to your room earlier, please don't hesitate to ask me for assistance." And with that, the man nodded his head and returned to his station, leaving me to wonder what he was talking about.
A box? I don't remember ordering anything recently...
But sure enough, there was a large, unmarked cardboard box sitting to one side of my door. I eyed it suspiciously as I swiped my badge and nudged open the door to my room, stepping inside just long enough to drop off my food and the sake set before returning to examine it more closely. It was definitely addressed to me, with the full school address and proper apartment number, but there was nothing on the box to indicate who had sent it. In fact, there was no information about the shipping company; had it been dropped off by a private courier, then?
I bent down, tugging at one of the holes that had been cut into the side of the box for use as a handle. The box was surprisingly heavy. I pulled harder, and it inched along the carpet with a faint but unmistakable clink and rattle of carefully packed glass.
My eyes widened. This can't be... he didn't...
I dragged the box into the apartment's entryway and dug my car key out of my pocket, using it as a makeshift knife to slice the tape at the top. When I pulled back the flaps, the overhead lights glinted off a dozen identical glass bottles. I recognized their distinctive shape immediately; the famous and impossible to obtain Suzu no Ne sake that was produced in very limited quantities every year by the Suzubishi Brewing Company.
A handwritten note was taped to the inside of one flap.
A small token of my gratitude. -Kazuki
"You're an idiot, Suzubishi," I muttered, straightening up and glancing at the white box on the entry table, then back at the case of sake.
Well, I know how I'll be spending the rest of the evening...
~ end ~