My Government-Issued Girlfriend Can't Be This Cute!
A cherry-topped, ice cream parfait gazed up at me from the white cafe table. Potent aromas from grounded coffee beans coiled around my nose as soft jazz lulled me into tranquility. Streams of people outside the nearby window waltzed along while the setting sun oozed down.
I fiddled with the cold spoon between my fingers, eager to get my mind off things.
I'd clocked out from work hours ago, after coworkers tried consoling me for what occurred with the senior DeLightful today. Now I dawdled at a sweets cafe that tripled as a pastry shop, patiently waiting for a bit more time to pass.
There was zero chance I'd let myself return home in the miserable, quivering state I wallowed in earlier. Asagiri would pepper me with questions, and most of all, I didn't want her worrying. That's why I didn't tell her about the DeLightful couple at the movies or even hinted about how nihilistic I actually was.
I can only imagine her reaction if she learned my horniness was just a facade I kept up as a wall to separate people from the real me. Well, I am perpetually horny, but it'd be nice if I could hide it better.
I'd lied and texted Asagiri earlier that I went shopping with a coworker again, so she could eat dinner without me. How did my girlfriend feel always being alone in that big house though? I was sure she's content just lazing around, but subjecting her to the same loneliness I'd experienced felt wrong. Maybe another date sometime would brighten both of us up.
An attractive, red-haired woman clinging onto her prized boyfriend walked by me. The door with an attached bell rang loudly as the couple huddled outside.
Asagiri . . . I stared at the vacant chair in front of me and let loose a sigh.
Footsteps. My head turned to the side: a tall, lanky man with perfect facial features and beige hair blessed the air around us. Short bangs he nudged to the side radiated an American rock star vibe that complimented his baggy pants and decal, black t-shirt.
"Ah, Nishikata, it is you. Cozy surprise," my head manager said.
"Ka-Kamikawa? What are you doing here?"
He gestured to the colorful, to-go box hanging from a handle under his hand. "Father asked to pick up pastries on my way back from work. You know how insatiable his sweet tooth is."
His dad, Sir Kamikawa, was the owner and former manager of Kamikawa Books where I worked. When his son had gained enough experience as assistant manager, Sir Kamikawa retired and left most of the store's responsibilities to the Kamikawa currently standing in front of me.
"Oh, how's your dad doing?" I said. "Been a while since he's dropped by the store."
"He's sublime, thanks for asking. I'm a bit more curious about your condition though."
He smiled and raised his pastry box towards the table's vacant chair, as if asking permission to sit.
"P-Please, go right ahead!"
"Many thanks!" Kamikawa lowered his to-go box and slid into the chair, attracting the attention of at least two nearby women.
My manager, while gorgeous, had little fashion sense and just wore whatever he'd read about recently in books. Some days he'd rock gothic, other times punk, sometimes wild western or skater—personally, I thought he looked best in our store's white dress shirts and blue aprons. The combo matched his kindred, humble demeanor well.
"So," he started, "have you decided if you'd like to take tomorrow off? It's really not an issue considering all you endured today."
"Ah. I'm still kinda processing things, so I'll text Asada tonight and let her know how I'm doing."
His sweet, caramel eyes tried reading my face. "She might give off an attitude sometimes, but in a weird way, that's how she conveys she's worried about someone."
Wow, she must worry a lot then. The sarcastic thought amused me. "Asada and I can go back and forth, though yeah, she's still someone I respect."
"Same. Father acknowledged her to replace me as assistant manager after all."
"How long has it been? Two years? Time sure does fly."
"Mhmmm." Kamikawa opened up the pastry box and pulled out a fruit-stuffed strudel. "Would you like one, Nishikata?"
"Oh, I'm fine! Crammed full of ice cream right now."
"Suit yourself." His gleaming, white teeth bit down on the treat. He quickly chewed and looked back towards me. "Also, I heard Mogami was the one that swooped to your rescue today. Sorry I was busy in the office room when everything happened."
"No biggie. But yeah, Mogami did me a solid and handled things professionally. No wonder he almost became assistant manager."
Kamikawa went in for another bite. "Maybe I was a little biased since I've known Mogami since high school, but I was indeed rooting for him; not to discredit Asada though. Father was simply still just a bit weary of him for such a promotion."
All of Kamikawa Book's current seven employees were its original staff, apart from Summers who filled a vacancy after Sir Kamikawa retired. We'd been in business for four years and not one person had been fired or quit, which showed the love management gave us, and vice-versa. Everyone in our little family knew each other well.
Only Mogami and Kamikawa's exact history together remained an enigma to us all. And I was curious.
"Yeah, I heard your dad only hired Mogami because you insisted on it. Did something happen between them?"
"Nothing at all." His face turned listless. "Father just remembered Mogami's previous tendencies, so some misunderstandings still lingered even a decade later."
I could tell the topic made him uneasy. Both Mogami and Kamikawa were 30 years old and had been acquainted since their early teens. That was the extent either of them had been willing to divulge of their pasts.
"Ah, sorry. Probably pried more than necessary," I said. "I'm always causing some sort of trouble, huh?"
"No trouble! There's just topics Mogami is better suited for explaining, if he ever feels comfortable."
"Probably not any time soon then."
It was hard to imagine that womanizing, muscle bro harboring a shy side. Even so, I didn't consider Mogami a bad person and actually liked his company. Perhaps Kamikawa just used a wrong choice of words to describe whatever they went through.
My manager nibbled the last bits of his fruit strudel and wiped his lips with a napkin. "Anyway, I should get going before Father raids the cookie jar."
"Oh! If you'd like, I can treat you to one of these parfaits! They're really good!"
"Thanks but no thanks," he said as he stood. "You probably came to this out-of-the-way cafe to avoid running into coworkers, so I'll get out of your hair now."
Well he's not wrong. "Guess I'll unwind some more before heading home then, haha."
Kamikawa picked up his pastry box and gave me a wave. "Holler if there's ever anything on your mind, I'd be happy to hear you out, you're part of our family after all."
"Yeah. Thanks for putting up with me all these years." I gave a slight bow.
"Mmm! Take care then!" He unintentionally commanded every nearby woman's attention as he walked out the door with a jingle.
Huh, that reminded me: If Kamikawa's dad has a big soft spot for sweets, I probably know someone else with a cataclysmically bigger sweet tooth.
I rolled my beige flannel's sleeves up my arms again. Wasn't sure why but that seemed like the go-to style for these shirts. With a huff I slung my backpack back over my shoulders and headed for the front register, wallet in hand.
A dark ceiling and an even darker room enveloped me. My eyes had since adjusted to night and could faintly make out the game posters taped above as I lay in my bed.
Azure Mane . . . It was one of my favorite gacha games, about girls racing on horses atop huge aircraft carriers. Ever since I snagged my job at a bookstore though, I'd been reading more than gaming or even watching anime. Before Kamikawa Books, I'd just work wherever would hire me with only a high school diploma. Mental trauma from the Noriko incident alongside years of perceived alienation made it tough to socialize normally, and even harder to hold a steady job.
But maybe all I needed were some eccentric coworkers to help bust me out of my shell: Asada and Kikuchi, Mogami and Kamikawa, Summers and Nemoto—if it wasn't for them, I'd definitely be just a memory by now. Noriko's sudden reappearance a year ago ignited old scars, especially with news she was married. Combined with failing to keep my promise to her and the realization I’d accomplished nothing in life, only led to the downward spiral towards darkness that Asagiri ultimately dragged me out from.
I'm good at keeping myself awake at night, if nothing else. I sighed and pulled the blanket over my head, attempting another try at sleep.
Two soft knocks suddenly tapped on my door.
"Huh?" I sat up. "Asagiri? Is that you?"
"Yeah." Her soft voice hummed from the other side.
"Do you, uh, need something?" We both went to bed an hour ago, what's going on?
"Can I come in?" she timidly said.
Sure! "Sure?" There are two sides to every man.
My door crept open and a sleepy Asagiri in pink pajamas appeared. Snuggled between her left arm was a plushie of Bubbly the bee girl.
"What's up?" I said, confused.
She closed the door behind her. Without a word she ambled towards the computer chair and rolled it beside my bed. Under glimmering moonlight, Asagiri's sapphire eyes glided into view as she shimmied onto the chair.
"Something the matter?" I asked.
She gently shook her head. "Nuh-uh. I just wanted to see you."
"See me?" Kind of an awkward time. "About what?"
I saw her lips curve into a smile. She scooted the chair closer and relaxed her upper body on my bed. "Those fruit-stuffed strudels you brought me today were really good. Sorry I acted sassier than usual and didn't thank you."
"Oh that, don't worry about it. I'm used to your personality by now."
I waited to be dealt a witty retort, but nothing came. Instead, Asagiri's hand snaked across the bed and found mine, enveloping it. We linked like a real couple once again.
"But there is something I'm worried about," she said.
Her eyes tried finding mine in the darkness, while hers remained in moonlight. "When you came home from work, you looked a little gloomy. Did something happen today?"
Huh? I swear I'd calmed down by the time I got home. How did she still pick up on anything? "N-Nothing happened. Well, I guess I did get blown out by a coworker I was hitting on though, haha."
Her face soured for a second, but she relaxed herself with a sigh. No words.
"Hmmm? Asagiri, if you don't really want me to try finding a real girlfriend, just ask and I'll stop. I'm more than happy with you even if we're just playing pretend."
"What guy would be happy with just this?" I felt her hand squeeze mine. "You want sex but—I can't—I just can't give you that. Sorry for being selfish."
I gently squeezed her hand back. "Nah, I'm the one that had selfish thoughts when you first showed up. Besides, that legal stuff I read aloud said not to have any expectations, right? So don't get upset about not keeping me happy like it's your job."
Her mouth opened as if to speak but cut itself off. She stretched forward and fully laid her head on my bed. "Well whatever. I'll just spend the night with you like this then; that way you can at least brag you've slept with a woman before."
Ignoring her roast, my mind raced to compute a reply:
Option 1: 'You don't have to do that for me, Asagiri!'
Option 2: 'Wanna hop on the bed and just snuggle then?'
But I ended up going with just silence. We continued holding hands as I got comfy and curled myself to give her head more space.
"Not gonna say a lame comeback?" she asked with a giggle.
In that darkness I couldn't read her face, but I hoped she could read the bliss on my own.