My Government-Issued Girlfriend Can't Be This Cute!
"U-Unfortunately, we can't haggle prices," I politely told a rambunctious customer. The long, front counter of our bookstore was all that separated me from another stressful workday.
"Look! Look right here!" The older gentleman in a salaryman suit pulled out his smart phone again. "The book costs 200 less yen on Bamazon! Why are prices inflated here?"
Then why don't you just buy it there instead? "We can't price match, but if you'd like, I could look for alternati—"
"It's just 200 yen! What's the big deal?"
I glanced at Summers beside me and tried pleading with my eyes for help. However, she was occupied with her own backed up line of customers. My other coworkers scattered around the store appeared to be avoiding the scene all together.
This guy probably earns more money than me, but he's complaining about pocket change? I summoned all my strength to avoid breaking decorum. "If you'd like to raise a complaint, I can pass it along to my manager."
"Nah, forget about it." He rolled his eyes and finally relented. "I'll just take my business elsewhere."
Please do. "We apologize again for the inconvenience." After a quick bow of my head, the old man grunted and walked out the glass door.
If I wasn't dealing with DeLightfuls at work, I was dealing with occasional dickheads. In my personal dictionary they had a nickname: Bargain hunters. These were folks who were only interested in buying something at the cheapest price possible just to resell it later at a higher price. It's a common phenomenon over in America where bargain hunters would raid garage sales and buy anything that's under market value.
The thought reminded me of my blonde, American coworker Summers. She was still manning the cash register next to me handling a large line. We were wearing identical uniforms consisting of a white dress shirt and a navy-blue apron. However, her body's voluptuous proportions stretched both her apron and her jeans to their absolute limit. What do they feed girls over in America?
As she finished serving her customer, Summers had an opportunity to peer in my direction. It was like an angel peeking from behind clouds after a stormy night.
"Good job, Nishikata!" she whispered with a heartwarming smile, and waved for another customer to come up.
Ba-dump. Even after Asagiri became my girlfriend, Summers still held a special place inside me as the first woman to help me move on from Noriko. Summers' beauty was no hidden secret, and her bodily curves were something only western genes could replicate. However, these days it was more difficult to talk with her—not because of drama, but due to my complicated relationship with Asagiri. She was just a subsidized girlfriend, not someone I had true commitment to, which made me conflicted over deciding if I should still try hooking up with other women. Asagiri herself said it was fine, but I still had the freedom to choose.
Oh, crap! Before I realized it, my eyes had been gazing towards Summers while she helped someone else. I sloppily waved for the next customer in line, hoping no one noticed my trance.
A young boy wearing a baseball cap came up to the counter. In his small hands was a copy of Dragon Sphere Z—a popular manga that'd recently surged in popularity thanks to new anime seasons.
"This please!" He placed Dragon Sphere Z on the counter while his passionate eyes burned with excitement. "It's the newest volume! I gotta have it!"
Wow, Dragon Sphere Z still working its magic even decades later. Just as I was about to greet him, another small figure in the distance caught my eye. Huh?
With a large box full of books in her hands, Asada eyed me down from across the store. Even from this distance I could tell her legs were wobbling, overburdened from the box she carried. Her facial expression had a confusing mix of both annoyed and sad.
Wait, how long has she been watching? Tell me she didn't see me gawking at Summers earlier! I'll get scolded for slacking off!
But no such thing happened. Asada simply sighed and retreated into her Lifestyle book's aisle.
Ehhhh? For some reason, I felt even more ashamed of her disapproval than usual. There wasn't any point lingering on it though, and I spread a big smile to help my little customer.
"So, what do we do with it?"
My tall, handsome manager Kamikawa looked towards a character's cardboard cutout. We were in our cramped stockroom which was overflowing with fields of wholesaler packages. Barren stock shelves were in desperate need of restocking, while the employee break table was being used as a makeshift box encampment. Every area needed attention, but with how busy our shop floor was, Kamikawa could only spare me and Nemoto to address a minor predicament.
"Let's try dragging it over here." I grabbed the lifesize cutout and placed it beside our wide window. Open blinds gave it a nice dose of natural sunlight.
"Yeah, but what does that do?" Nemoto on my side said. White hair and perpetual bags under his eyes made him look like he'd pass out any moment.
"She's the main girl from Sailor Sunlight, right?" I said. "Well, maybe some sunlight on her would help us brainstorm what to do."
Sailor Sunlight was the leader of a magical girl squad that represented different celestial elements. Being the leader, Sunlight's design was the most extravagant: Long, flowing blonde hair with sunflower petals weaved within her strands. Her alluring sailor uniform consisted of a short, burgundy skirt coupled with a matching bow around her chest. In her hands was a golden, glistening staff tipped with a large ruby on top that gleamed with magical energy. She was striking a heroic pose as if ascending to fight in the sky.
"Hmmm . . . Sunlight sure does look a lot like Summers now that I think about it." Kamikawa in deep thought rubbed his chin. "Blue eyes and everything. But anime girls have always had a more western aesthetic than Japanese, so it makes sense.”
I glanced up to try meeting Kamikawa’s sand-colored eyes. He was the tallest among us, around 190 centimeters tall, which made me feel somewhat small next to him. Short, well-kempt, light brown hair that looked akin to a model's was his main tool towards being a bonafide chick magnet. He even rocked our apron uniform like a champ. Not that I'm jealous or anything, probably.
"Summers would probably ask us to keep Sunlight in here forever," I said, "but we already have enough clutter as it is."
"She did say we could do whatever with it before she went home early," Kamikawa said. "The publisher who sent this as promo material gave us free reign after the promo period as well. Any ideas then, you two?"
Nemoto behind us ambled towards Sunlight and got on one knee. He examined a scrawl towards the cardboard character's feet. "This is signed by her voice actress. If we sell it online, we'd probs get big bucks."
"Rejected." Kamikawa crossed his arms into an X shape. "The publisher might not work with us again if they see we're trying to sell their gift. Could be a litmus test."
"Figured as much," I said. "Returning it probably wouldn't look good either."
"What about donating her to some charity, or something?" Nemoto got back up to his feet.
"Hmmm maybe, but I'd hate to see them try pawning her off later on."
"Tough choices." Nemoto's monotone voice drifted towards me. "I think Nishikata has another idea though."
All of my coworkers knew I was a huge anime fan, but only Nemoto knew how bad my obsession was—at least on a surface level. He'd been to my waifu room once before and was the only coworker besides Kikuchi to have visited my home in general. But unfortunately for him . . .
"Yeah, no." I crossed my own arms into an X shape. "Don't have room for a lifesize cardboard cutout in my room. She is cute though."
"Guess she's going to the dump then." Just as Nemoto slid Sunlight under his arms, Kamikawa gave him a light bonk on the head. "Ow—I guess."
"No dump, no charity, no returning, and no selling," Kamikawa said with a hint of annoyance. "Let's keep brainstorming."
I actually really would take her home, but Asada and Summers would think I'm even weirder than they already do. "We could ask the publisher for advice, maybe?"
"Oh, good idea." Nemoto said. He put down Sunlight beside a stock rack. "Let's ask why they don't just mass produce her—a signed Sunlight cutout for everyone that wants one, free of charge of course."
"Slow down there, Stalin Jr." I chuckled. "Do you wanna crash the value of someone's signature?"
"That's the idea, yeah." He itched at his nose. "It's not fair someone has something everyone else wants."
Totally not me every time I see someone with a real girlfriend. "W-Well, if we're being serious, we could just draw lots and give it to a crew member . . . can't we?"
Kamikawa behind us was still deep in thought. He glanced up at the white ceiling as if answers were written up there. "Yeah, but like I said—I don't think any of us really want her. What about you, Nemoto?"
"Hmm, me?" Nemoto pointed at himself. "I'm more of a gamer than an anime fan. My folks would shun me for bringing this over anyway."
"Understandable. That still leaves us in a pickle though." My tall manager looked down at his blue apron. It was decorated with little pins and trinkets all his workers had gifted him over the years. Every employee at Kamikawa Books decorated their aprons with whatever they desired: Kikuchi's apron had patches she made from her son's drawings, Mogami's had promo pins from his gym, Summers' had memorabilia from America states, Nemoto's had pins from video game pre-orders, and mine had a few trinkets from comic markets. Only Asada left her apron completely blank for some reason.
Kamikawa pinched a large pin in the shape of Texas that Summers gave him a while ago. He fiddled it between his fingers before speaking. "Maybe we should just wait and see what Summers says tomorro—"
"Oh, hold up!" Nemoto's eyes lit up with a rare occurrence of enthusiasm. "Actually, can I take Sunlight please? I have a friend who's a huge fan of hers who'd probably love it as a gift."
"Friend?" Kamikawa said. "I mean, I don't mind, as long as they promise not to sell it."
"Yeah, thanks! I'll make them swear!" Nemoto bowed at a harsher than needed angle. "And sorry for suddenly demanding a favor."
Kamikawa's face blushed a bit. He'd always had trouble receiving compliments or words of thanks, even from close friends. Perhaps he was too modest for a man, but there was no denying a blush enhanced the appeal of his effeminate face.
"Most fans of Sailor Sunlight aren't guys though," I interjected. "There a chance this friend of yours is a girl?"
"Don't worry about it," Nemoto said with attitude. He brushed aside his bangs to reveal both of his silvery eyes. "At least they bother playing with me in their free time."
I felt a sting of guilt in my chest, knowing he referred to me playing games with him less often these days. "W-We can hit up Semtex sometime soon, promise!"
"Whatever," he said as walked to the shop floor door. "I gotta organize my shelves so I'm heading back out. I'll leave Sunlight in here for now if that's ok."
"No problem!" Kamikawa said. "We've spent enough time debating over cardboard cutouts. Let's go make dad happy!" He pumped his fist into the air.
"Y-Yeah." Both me and Nemoto awkwardly pumped our own fists high up. It was an old technique Kamikawa's father utilized to help motivate employees through stressful days. Crowds outside in the shop had thinned since earlier, but the hectic day was still not over.
As Nemoto would say, we continued to "slave" on.
"Good job, everyone." I was back in my regular clothes as I held our entrance door open. A soft hue of twilight outside indicated the end of my work shift.
"It's not like I needed you to hold the door open for me or anything," Asada said as she strolled by me. She was wearing a cute, black, shirt dress over her faded jeans. We both had backpacks slung over our shoulders that contained our aprons and other work necessities.
"Sure, sure," I replied. Just as I was about to let the door go, Nemoto in casual clothes emerged from behind one of our distant bookshelves. He walked at a brisk pace while he carried Sunlight's cardboard cutout under his arm.
"Wait up," he waved to me. Nemoto said goodbye to our late shift coworkers before he reached the door and walked out. "Thanks. Lugging this home is gonna be a drag."
"You're the one that wanted it."
"Not for me; for someone else, remember."
"Sure, sure." Deja vu. Then, from behind the cash register inside, Kikuchi waved her fingers in a "toodaloo" gesture towards me. We were too far apart to talk, but she appeared to word 'See you soon' with her lips.
Urgggg . . . I remembered I still needed to visit her this Sunday. Me and Asagiri agreed to get our measurements for cosplays Kikuchi promised to make us. Normally I'd be elated for free cosplay, but needing to enter the den of a thirsty cougar did not feel wise.
I let the door close behind me and walked outside. Our bookstore was situated in an outdoor, horseshoe-shaped shopping plaza with idyllic vistas, including a small park with a lush garden in the center that helped attract continuous crowds throughout the day. Each shop along the plaza had an emphasis on glass fronts that helped emanate a modern aesthetic. In particular, the glass front helped our store show off our dozens of colorful bookshelves we held inside.
"Oh by the way," Nemoto beside me said. His spare hand typed something on his phone. "Not sure why I bother asking, but are you down for Semtex this weekend?"
Ah, crap. "F-Funny thing, I'm actually gonna be busy all this weekend so gonna have to pass."
"Oh come on man." Nemoto's tired eyes finally glanced up at me. "You've been blowing me off for the past couple of months. We barely play anymore."
Can't exactly mention it's because I'm busy dealing with Asagiri now. "Sorry. Just things have been coming up more often lately."
"If I didn't know you better, I'd worry you actually got a girlfriend," Nemoto in his monotone voice said.
Asada, who had been on her phone standing around, suddenly perked up. She tucked a lock of black hair behind her ear as if to help hear the convo better.
"Me? Girlfriend?" I replied, somewhat fluttered. "No way. You know I'm too weird for something like that."
"Hoh?" he said. "Yeah, you noticed it too right, Asada? Nishikata's been acting real weird lately."
Wait, no! Don't bring her into this! Asada was the one person who might've been smart enough to figure everything out. I'd already raised her suspicions months ago when I brought over Asagiri's homemade lunch, and a bit after that Asada met Asagiri herself under the cover of a customer. The slightest shred of new evidence had a definite chance of blowing my government-issued secret.
"Humph! Like I care!" Asada loudly said. "He can have a girlfriend or whatever and it wouldn't bother me one bit!"
"If he gets a girlfriend though, he might ask for more days off."
Her ear twitched on hearing that. Another incriminating piece of evidence was indeed the fact I'd been taking more days off. Usually, the shop needed six out of seven employees to properly operate. If someone called in sick or took a scheduled day off, that coworker's duties get pushed to everyone else. Since every employee was separated into either the early or late shift— late shift arrived two hours late and left two hours late—an early shifter missing meant only two employees would open the shop. Late shift consisted of Kamikawa, Mogami, Summers, and Kikuchi, while the early shift was just me, Nemoto, and Asada. It was a unique system that functioned well overall and allowed everyone to be full time employees.
The three of us stood in an awkward silence while Asada formulated her reply. Her cheeks started becoming a rosy pink before she turned away. "Like I said—I don't care! I'm going home now! Humph!"
Our loli assistant manager stomped away and took a paved path towards the plaza's exit.
"Wow, she was in a better mood than usual," Nemoto behind me joked. "I'd probably have a better chance of asking her to play than you at this point."
"Sorry again," I modestly said. "Maybe ask Mogami?"
"Mogami doesn't work Thursdays, and you know he takes forever to reply to texts. Might as well just ask him tomorrow."
Crushing. Guilt. It wasn't like I didn't want to play games with Nemoto. He was the first coworker I really bonded with because of our similar hobbies, and he reminded me a bit of myself in high school. But ever since Asagiri moved in, I felt obligated to give her most of my free time. Don't most guys choose to spend more time with their girlfriends than their friends eventually anyway?
"Well, it doesn't matter," Nemoto continued. "I found someone new to game with a while ago."
"Oh? Is it the friend you're gonna give Sunlight to?"
He tucked his phone into his pocket and got a better grip on Sunlight's cutout under his arm. "Maybe. Maybe not. If you actually played with us, you might be in the loop."
"I'll—uhhh—let you know when I can spare some time, haha." I'm literally completely booked this weekend! Noriko's coming over Saturday and I'm visiting Kikuchi the next day! Not that I can tell him any of that!
Nemoto sighed and looked towards the distant, ornate water fountain in our plaza's large garden. It resembled the fountain in my local park, and similarly always had small amounts of people relaxing around it. The setting sun made gushes of trickling water almost sparkle.
"Guess I'll head home then," Nemoto said in a more dispirited tone than usual. "See ya' around, Nishikata."
With that, my friend lumbered away with a huge cardboard cutout under his arm. I watched him until he disappeared into a small crowd, drawing other curious eyes as he went.
And then I was left alone with my thoughts.
Welp. Got a long train ride home to get to. I checked my phone for any new messages: nothing. Occasionally, Asagiri would send me lovey-dovey texts while I was working to help motivate me through tough days. Her presence in my life had been more blessing than curse, so in a way, I worked hard for her sake. That alone was enough motivation to handle any rude or bargain hunter shoppers. But after all the recent close calls, who knew how much longer I could keep our secret. What would everyone besides Kikuchi think? What would Asada think? Wait, why am I thinking of her of all people?
I gripped my backpack's strap and continued my way to the train station. A long, complicated weekend soon awaited me.
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