Chapter 4: Dinner
“I see… I wouldn’t force you then. To be honest, I hadn’t expected you to refuse this time around…”
Said section chief Odagiri with brazen disappointment.
Although I felt somewhat apologetic, there was a reason I couldn’t nod my head.
I was requested to go on a business trip.
In the past, I would readily accept, but now that Sayu was staying at my place, I couldn’t leave for a long period of time with peace of mind. The section chief had been surprised when I refused before, but his complexion seemed to change upon hearing my second refusal.
“Has anything happened as of late? Perhaps you’re not feeling as motivated?”
“No, nothing of the sort!”
“I feel the same way. Just looking at the way you work shows that you’re far from unmotivated. If so, then is there a reason you’re unable to go? If you could just tell me the reason, it would be a weight off my mind.”
The inquiry was expected, but it didn’t make it any less painful to deal with.
I had considered brewing up an excuse for moments like these, but I hadn’t expected to be requested again this soon so I’ve yet to put any real thought into it. It was careless of me.
“Perhaps you have a girlfriend or something of the sort? You could just tell it to me straight if that’s the case. And… it’s not like you’re married, but it’s not unthinkable to turn down the request for similar reasons.”
“Well, I don’t have a girlfriend-”
“Then what is it?”
Section chief Odagiri rarely raised his voice, but this time he seemed determined to not let me weasel my way out of this.
I was completely stumped.
I couldn’t tell him about the high school girl living at my place. However, I wasn’t shrewd enough to come up with an excuse in the heat of the moment.
After a few excruciating seconds of silence where the panic began to surface, a familiar face appeared from behind the section chief.
“Oh, section chief Odagiri, good work today.”
Mishima peeked her face from behind the section chief.
“I was going to ask Yoshida-senpai about work; were you in the middle of something?”
“I guess. It’s about an upcoming business trip.”
As soon as she heard that, Mishima opened her mouth exaggeratedly and let out an “Eh?”.
“Yoshida-senpai needs to go on a business trip?”
“Well, he refused though.”
“Of course Yoshida-senpai can’t go on a trip now!”
Mishima said in an awfully loud voice. Even I was surprised by the sudden declaration.
“Yoshida-senpai said that he needed to go visit his parents regularly this month. Apparently, his mom isn’t in good health…”
Saying that, Mishima gaudily placed a hand over her mouth.
“…Oh, was I not supposed to say that?”
Then, she abashedly tilted her head. Though her expression screamed that she was ‘abashed’, her gaze was clearly carrying a different intent.
‘Come on, hurry up and nod already’.
So it seemed to scream.
“Ah, yeah… well… I guess the cat’s out of the bag now.”
As I lowered my gaze and nodded, Mishima said ‘S-, Sorry…’ in a small voice and lowered her head.
Seeing Mishima and I in such a state, section chief Odagiri hurriedly waved his hand.
“I-, I see, if that’s the reason you could’ve just told it to me straight.”
“Yoshida-senpai is really devoted to his family, so he doesn’t want to use his family as an excuse in times like these.”
“Y-, Yeah I suppose…”
As if she had foreseen that I would stutter through my answers, Mishima continued to lead me through.
“If that’s the case then I will find someone else. Yoshida-kun, if you feel troubled about explaining your circumstances… It’s okay to tell me ‘there’s a situation with my family’ or something along those lines.
Section chief Odagiri, now carrying a different form of enthusiasm, looked me straight in the eye.
“You’re usually very serious about your work, so even if you can’t clearly explain your reasons, I wouldn’t doubt the validity of it. Just try to be forward with me next time, alright?”
“…Yes, sorry about that”
His display of good faith in me, despite Mishima’s completely fabricated lie, left me feeling guilty. Even so, I nodded meekly.
“Anyway, this is rather concerning. If you can’t go, then who can I call upon for this.”
Section chief Odagiri looked through the surrounding desk spaces.
“Endou is usually convenient for times like these, but he’s on another business trip right now.”
Endou was my teammate who had substituted for me last time I was asked to go on a business trip. His usual seat was vacant at the moment. If I remember correctly, he had gone northeast about a week ago, together with Koike, a coworker whom he got along with.
“Hashimoto-kun has a wife to care about and the newbies aren’t quite up to the task yet.”
The section chief looked towards the seat beside me. Hashimoto had been quietly working there a moment ago, but perhaps noticing section chief Odagiri’s approach, he had left whilst escaping my notice. I considered Hashimoto to be my reliable partner, but in these situations, far from that. For better or worse, he was a man that placed his personal risk first and foremost.
An awkward silence fell between section chief Odagiri, who was out of options, and me, the culprit of this situation. Then, an unexpected person broke the silence.
“Excuse me Odagiri-san, could you come here for a moment?”
Called out a dignified voice from a faraway desk.
I turned to see Gotou-san, who raised a hand as she smiled in the direction of section chief Odagiri.
Both the section chief and I were brought to a halt. It was rare that Gotou-san would call out to someone at the present time of day.
The section chief quickly came to his senses. He nodded in acknowledgment and headed over after saying “I’ll be right back” in a low voice.
Gotou-san was my superior, the figure who anchored me to this company, the subject of my unrequited love, and, speaking of which, the one who had rejected me.
Since I was in charge of project delivery and she was in charge of human resources and management, we rarely had any opportunities to interact with one another. Despite that, I would still see her often as we worked in the same office.
As I absentmindedly stared at Gotou-san, who gestured as she spoke to section chief Odagiri, I was suddenly poked on the sides of my stomach.
The culprit was Mishima, who had gotten right beside me while I was zoned out. Without turning to face me, she whispered.
“Yoshida-senpai, you should really prepare an excuse for times like these.”
She was evidently talking about the business trip.
Though the spontaneity of her intervention had caught me off balance, she had saved me nonetheless.
“Thanks for that.”
I said softly. Mishima huffed with slight embarrassment and shook her head.
“I’m sorry for saying that your parent’s unwell on the spur of the moment. It’s a little immoral.”
“No, it’s fine… I probably couldn’t have thought of a better reason myself anyway.”
“I mean, it sort of feels wrong to push a lie onto someone else, that sort of thing.”
I cast a sidelong glance towards Mishima.
Although she was a junior who I had to monitor closely due to her lackadaisical tendencies, in moments such as these, she would show proper manners and a firm sense of obligation.
“This is about Sayu-chan isn’t it?”
And, though it felt as though the fact would slip from my mind on occasion, she had met Sayu.
Amongst the people at the company, only Hashimoto and Mishima knew of Sayu’s presence. Knowing my circumstances, she had gone out of her way to lend me a helping hand.
“Anyway, I really appreciate it.”
Hearing that, Mishima stared at me fixedly and said.
“Now you’re just being shameless.”
“But Yoshida-senpai, you only got out of that situation thanks to me, a little something is the least you can do.”
“I’ll treat you to dinner sometime.”
“It’s a promise okay? Just the two of us!”
“I’d be problematic if you brought someone else when I’m treating.”
Then, tightly balled her hand nodded exaggeratedly.
“It’s in times like these where I’ve got to earn some Yoshida-senpai points.”
“Those are some shady sounding points…”
I said with a faint smile. At the same time, I saw section chief Odagiri and Gotou-san turn to look at me in sync, which made me jump. Gotou-san smiled and tilted her head while the section chief nodded his head repeatedly before walking over. It seems like they were done talking.
“Gotou-san has arranged for an employee from another branch to go on this trip. That’s a load off.”
“Ah, really… That’s great news.”
I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief.
Not leaving Sayu alone was my highest priority, but I did not intend to trouble my superiors to achieve this. Although I had no choice but to refuse, the thought that my refusal had led to the present situation weighed heavily on my mind.
It seems that Gotou-san had noticed what was happening and decided to help out. I should go thank her in person later, that’s the least I can do.
With this thought in mind, I took a glance at Gotou-san, only to find her gazing back. I felt the urge to avoid this exchange of gazes, but I felt a mysterious resistance along the lines of ‘I lose if I look away’ that was preventing me from doing so. Continuing to gaze at one another, Gotou-san smiled and gestured to me to come over.
It was such a sudden yet natural gesture that I hadn’t quite registered it. As I continued to blankly stare at her, she furrowed her eyebrows in puzzlement and beckoned me over once again. It was only then that I finally noticed that she was calling for me.
Poking me with her elbow once again, Mishima nodded in the direction of Gotou-san.
“She’s calling for you.”
“Ah, is she?”
“Geez, is there anyone else over here that she would call for… You should probably hurry on over there already.”
Why did she seem so displeased?
Acknowledging Mishima, who looked at me undisguised jagged glare, with a few nods, I walked over towards Gotou-san’s desk.
“Is something the matter…? Why didn’t you come over immediately?”
“Well, I wasn’t sure that you were calling for me.”
I replied to her playful jest with my honest thoughts. Gotou-san chuckled as she sat back down on her seat.
She had great posture. She leaned her body at a slight angle, bent her knees, and straightened her back as she adjusted her seating relative to the desk. My eyes had reflexively followed the entire string of movements.
Due to the rainy season, it was a little humid even in the air-conditioned office. The company was an early-adopter of the Cool-Business guidelines, so there were a considerable number of employees that wore only a dress shirt for their top; those that did included both Gotou-san and myself.
So, as she leaned to sit into her chair, thanks to her open first button, I was able to see down her collarbone, which I quickly turned my eyes away from.
“S-, So… why did you call me over here for?” I awkwardly asked.
After taking a glance behind me, she pointed at her own computer screen.
Feeling something amiss, I quickly turned to look behind me, where I found my gaze meeting that of Mishima’s. It was no coincidence, rather, she was looking over here and brazenly not working.
Scowling, I gestured with my fingers pretending to hit a keyboard. After showing a barefaced and resolute scowl of her own, she stuck out her tongue before turning to face her own monitor.
“Haha, seems like the two of you are getting along”
“I’d say otherwise…”
Gotou-san laughed after witnessing the exchange. I felt a little embarrassed.
Returning my focus to Gotou-san, she again pointed towards the screen.
I moved in a bit closer and looked at the screen. Their screen showed an open Word document with the words ‘Are you free today after work?’ written on it. After confirming the contents on the screen, I borrowed her keyboard and added: ‘How about dinner then?’.
I’ve been dining out with Gotou-san more often as of late. It was obviously something to be joyful about. However, judging by the way she had invited me, this seemed as though it would be a repeat of the time where we had gone for barbecue. I vividly remember being interrogated by her about whether or not I had a lover. It had been a struggle. Though I was happy that Gotou-san would spare her private time for me, that remained as a somewhat bitter memory.
That being said, being invited to dinner by her is no less than a bout of fortune. It wasn’t like I had any excuse with which to refuse. Plus, I wasn’t the type to refuse a superior’s invitation without reason.
“Sure, I can go.”
The bitter memory weighed on my mind even as I nodded.
“Really? Alright, then I’ll mail you the details during lunch break.”
Gotou-san said in brief with a bright smile.
“Okay.” I replied to make it seem as much as a ‘work conversation’ as possible.
I then followed with an “Excuse me” before quietly leaving her desk area.
As I turned around, I saw Mishima swaying her head about in an affected manner, but I decided to leave her be.
Returning to my desk, I found that my neighbor Hashimoto had returned. He carried an innocent look on his face.
“You sure took your time.”
“My stomach hurt real bad.”
Hashimoto, who replied shamelessly, showed an implicative smile.
“Like you’re one to talk. Didn’t you just get yourself a date with Gotou-san?”
“It’s not really a date or anything…”
“So you don’t deny that you weren’t talking about work.”
He continued to tease me despite knowing full well what was going on. It honestly grated my nerves.
Having successfully avoided the section chief, Hashimoto returned to his work in an aloof manner. Setting him aside for now, I needed to inform Sayu about tonight’s arrangement.
I took out my phone and sent a brief message.
‘Sorry, Gotou-san invited me out for dinner today, so I’ll be back after that.’
I could’ve probably worded it a little better, but since I was in the middle of work, I sent the message straight away, being as concise as I could.
Casting a sidelong glance in my direction, Hashimoto remarked with a blatantly mischievous tune.
“Oh, are you messaging your wife?”
“Cut it out man.”
The meat I placed on the net immediately made a sizzling noise.
Once I observed that the bubbles on the surface of the meat shrink, I used the tongs to flip the meat over.
“Mm, that smells positively delicious.”
Gotou-san sat across me. Her eyes seemed to shine with excitement.
For our outing, we decided to revisit the grilled meat restaurant that we had eaten at previously
Seeing that the once-pink meat had fully changed in color, I pressed lightly on the body of the meat using the tong. I could feel the tenderness of the meat through the fingers holding the tong.
“It’s ready.” I said as I picked up the meat with my tong.
Then I moved the meat to the plate that Gotou-san lifted toward me with her two hands. Then she laughed in a slightly childish manner.
“Hehe, thanks. It’s no wonder you’re called the meat magistrate.”
“It’s an exaggeration, really.”
In front of each of us was a beer glass. We had already taken a toast, so each of these glasses were missing a few gulps worth of its contents.
As we continued to dine while talking about trivial topics, my stomach gradually inflated, as did my nerves.
“So, what’s the occasion?”
Gotou-san rarely initiated the most important piece of the conversation of her own accord. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary and I was used to it. I had waited out in hopes that this occasion would be an exception, but I had to admit my defeat in this battle of persistence.
She tilted her head in response to my question.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I was thinking that you wanted to talk to me about something, since you called me out in the middle of work and all.”
She showed a troubled expression for a moment before pouting her lips.
“Oh, you figured out?”
‘You made it too obvious’ I wanted to curse. Though I felt somewhat irritated, seeing her playful expressions made my heart jump. They do say that the one who falls in love is the subservient one.
“Can’t really say I figured it out…”
“Hehe, I guess.”
She then placed a piece of meat into her mouth, which she chewed at a light place. After a loud gulp, she peered right into my eyes and tilted her head.
“Why did you refuse to go on the business trip?”
I had seen it coming from a mile away, but even then, I still flinched from the question. The moment I flinched was also the moment where I was no longer able to retreat from answering this question. With how intently she was gazing at me, there was no way that she wouldn’t have noticed my change in expression.
“I said this before, but I’ll say it again. I’m not criticizing you for refusing; our company doesn’t have a mandatory business trip policy, so you’re free to accept and refuse as you see fit.”
That’s true. This company was a startup which in its short lifespan had racked up a multitude of achievements under its name, including becoming publicly-traded. As such, company culture tended to shy away from what the younger generation would call ‘old-fashioned’ policies. Examples of our company’s policies included flexible lunch hours – any time from 11pm to 3pm, as well as flexible working hours. The point that Gotou-san mentioned, that ‘our superior’s orders are not compulsory’, was another example of this.
I believe that our company’s success was largely a result of employees, such as myself, not having to deal with such institutional stressors.
“So, this question is purely one of personal interest.”
I vaguely responded to acknowledge what she said.
“I did ask you about this… last time… when we went out for barbecue.”
She suddenly began to fumble over her words. As I turned my gaze back towards her, I found her bashfully looking down at the table.
“Didn’t you say that there was nothing going on between Mishima-san and you…?”
“This again? There’s really nothing between us…”
“But haven’t the two of you been going for lunch together more and more often!?”
“We’ve just been getting along better…better…? No, it’s more like she’s become attached to me… Well it’s hard to really put my finger on it, but I guess that we’ve had more chances to interact with one another as of late”
“Okay then, for argument’s sake suppose, suppose it’s really as you say.”
She gestured as she spoke with a strong tone and increasing vigor.
“Haven’t you been going home on time a lot more recently?”
“L-, Like I said, I just wanted to get more sleep.”
“I’m not buying that. You always look away when you say that.”
“B-, But I’m not lying…”
Except I am.
She briefly glanced at me before letting out a sigh. She then continued slowly and steadily.
“You probably hadn’t paid it any mind.”
She prefaced what she was about to say.
“Yoshida-kun, haven’t you been using your phone during working hours a lot more recently?”
I could feel my stomach twist as she said that. Could she possibly have been paying attention to that as well? Noticing my change in expression, she waved her hand.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not reprimanding you or anything like that. I know that you’re not playing games or anything like that.”
I meaninglessly responded. She continued with a dry smile.
“From my perspective, a subordinate of mine who had never touched their phone during working hours has suddenly started to use it habitually… Doesn’t that act mean that there’s now someone you need to contact regularly?”
“That’s… a possibility.”
Though I neither confirmed nor denied the implications, the exceedingly elementary logic she presented was impossible to refute. There was no point in dragging this out, so I obediently nodded my head.
“That’s why I’m very curious about this… Oh, would you also like a refill?”
Hearing my answer, Gotou-san pressed the button to call the waiter over with a broad smile. Once the waiter arrived, she concisely described “May we get a refill for our two beers please?” before nimbly gathering the two empty glasses and handing it over to the waiter.
“Sorry, I should’ve been the one to order… thanks a lot.”
“Don’t sweat it, it’s not like we’re out on company dime.”
Hearing that, I decided against the formality of needless persistence.
I noticed the implications behind her words – that we should talk without concern for our positions.
Gotou-san murmured before sending her gaze forward.
“What is it?”
I didn’t need to ask for clarification to understand what she meant by ‘it’. Why did I refuse to go on the business trip? Who is it that I’m contacting? All her questions were packed into this ‘it’.
My mouth opened, then closed once more.
I never intended to tell anyone other than Hashimoto about Sayu. However, due to a series of coincidences, Mishima had also come to learn that Sayu was staying at my place.
Given that and Gotou-san’s persistence, was there a point in hiding it from her any longer?
“Here are your two beers.”
The waiter quickly put down the two glasses on the table, said “enjoy”, then left as quickly as he came to service another table.
I gradually arranged my thoughts while observing Gotou-san pull one glass towards herself and push the other towards me.
Before divulging about Sayu, there was a point of discomfort that I wanted to clear up.
The feeling was a little hazy before, but now I could put it into words.
“Could I ask something before I explain?”
Gotou-san briefly lapsed into puzzlement before tilting her head and replying.
“Sure, go ahead.”
I understood her question as well as the suspicions behind that question. However, there was one point that I just couldn’t understand.
“Why are you so concerned about what I’m doing?”
A while back, I had noticed that she had been paying close attention to what I had been doing. Back then, I had rationalized that ‘she pays a lot of attention to her coworkers’. However, this time around, I was convinced that her observations were clearly beyond the level of simply ‘paying attention’.
It didn’t doubt in the slightest that she cared for her coworkers. I’ve seen her walk around the office on occasion to make it easier for others than had business with her to approach.
Yet, I didn’t think that this level of detail was plausible if she paid equal levels of attention to everyone in the office.
Thus, although I didn’t want to be excessively self-conscious, I came to the conclusion that she must’ve been paying extra attention to me.
I was the subject of heartbreak after 5 long years of unrequited love, yet, she was paying extra attention to me. I couldn’t quite shake the sense of incongruity.
With that weighing on my mind, I felt that it would be a bit unfair if I were to divulge my secret without first clearing that up.
“If you don’t want to give an answer, don’t force yourself.”
And perhaps that weight had been heavier than I had imagined it to be.
“But if you will not answer my question, I will not answer yours.”
I said in an overbearing manner unthinkable for my usual self.
Gotou-san stared at me, her eyes blinking in surprise. Then, her lips curled into a smile as she sighed.
She then took a large gulp of beer as if to buy herself some time. Seeing that, I remembered that I had yet to take a drink from my now refilled beer, the bubbles of which had already dropped by around a centimeter. I quickly took a slurp from my beer, basking in the exhilarating sensation going down my throat. Then, I ruminated over my overbearing statement just now.
“So there are times where you can be assertive like that…”
She seemed to blush a little as she said that. Why did she blush at such a moment?
“I’ll admit it, it’s true that I’ve been paying close attention to you specifically. I’d be hard pressed to deny that.”
She continued, little by little. However, the expression she bore while she did so was a little strange. It lacked her usual composure. She cast her eyes away from me and onto the table, her face flushed.
I remained silent and awaited her words.
She nodded to herself and finally looked me in the eye.
“Uhm, if you could, try not to be too surprised by this… Well, I would think surprise is a given.”
“Uhm, so the reason why I’ve been looking at you so closely.”
Looking at her expression, I understood that she intended to give me a straight answer. The way she carried herself right now was far cry from her usual composed and unreadable self.
She took a deep breath in, then a deep breath out. She looked at me with resolve, her face somewhat flushed, then said.
“Is because I love you.”
She loves me? Did she say that?
My train of thought was immediately derailed.
No way. That can’t be right. Didn’t she reject me a few months ago saying she had a boyfriend already? Did they break up?
That doesn’t make any sense.
Even if she had broken up with her boyfriend, isn’t it too soon turn her sights to me?
My mind quickly became congested.
In the end, the only output I could muster from my mouth was–
That was all.
 Literally translated as Cool-Biz, a campaign by the Japanese Ministry of Environment encouraging companies to set their air conditioners to hotter (more environmental) settings and for people to wear lighter clothes.