Part 8: House of Sweets ~un petit nid~ (8)
It was a Sunday during summer vacation, and the zoo was packed with visitors. There was a huge crowd in front of the popular lion exhibit, and the diminutive Rio could not see much of anything. Around them, children around Rio’s age had their fathers lift them up onto their shoulders, and Rio watched them with envy.
Kase was too embarrassed to copy the fathers and instead pretended like he hadn’t noticed anything, but Rio murmured that he would come back later and cheerfully went to see the flamingos. Even though Rio wanted to see the lions, he didn’t ask Kase to give him a ride on his shoulders, and Kase hated himself again.
“Wow~ The birds are so cute.”
Rio widened his eyes in front of the flamingos with their reddish-pink feathers.
“Hiro-kun, Hiro-kun~ The flamingos are so cute~ They’re so pretty~ Their legs look like they might break.”
Rio was all excited as he pulled out a sketchbook and crayons from his backpack. Rio really loved to draw, which was unusual for a little boy. He stood right at the edge of the fence and started drawing the flamingos that he saw.
Kase stood behind Rio to keep him safe and looked over at the sketchbook. Rio didn’t seem to be very smart, but he was a very good kid. And he was good at drawing too. Rio didn’t draw a childish image of what a flamingo looked like to him. He really took the care to observe what he was drawing, and anyone could tell that the picture was a flamingo.
Thirty minutes later, Rio finished drawing the flamingos, and they returned to look at the lion exhibit, but there was still a massive human wall blocking the view. This time Rio looked like he was about to cry, and Kase endured the embarrassment and lifted Rio onto his shoulders. Rio shouted “Wow” again with his mouth open wide.
“Hiro-kun, this is so high! Oh, there are the lions!”
Rio was just as excited as earlier as he pointed at the exhibit.
“You’re going to draw them later, right? So make sure you take a good look at them.”
“Yeah!” Rio answered back cheerfully. However, he chattered, “It’s so high,” and looked all around the area restlessly. He probably hadn’t really looked at the lions.
“Hiro-kun, you’re amazing. There were other kids on shoulder rides, but I was the highest.”
They had left the lion exhibit, but Rio’s excitement hadn’t waned in the least, and he propelled himself over to hold Kase’s hand. It surprised Kase, but he couldn’t bring himself shake the hand off. Rio’s hand was tiny, warm, and clammy. Kase felt a strange ticklish feeling as he walked, and then Rio’s child cell phone started ringing.
“Hello? This is Rio speaking. Oh, Uncle?”
Apparently the call was from Agi, and Rio answered, “Okay. Okay,” and nodded. Kase looked at the clock and saw that it was 5 pm, and he finally realized that it was about time to leave.
“Hiro-kun, Uncle Agi said that he’s picking us up by car,” Rio said after hanging up, and the two of them headed for the exit.
After exiting the gates, there was a black Mercedes-Benz parked right outside, and Rio waved his hand and said, “Oh, it’s Uncle Mutou’s car.” The door to the back seat opened, and Agi came out of the car. Kase didn’t think that he would be here already, and he rushed to let go of Rio’s hand.
“Hiroaki, sorry for springing such a last-minute favor on you.”
Kase purposely answered him curtly.
“And you two were holding hands. I’m glad that you were able to get along.”
His face instantly heated when Kase heard that Agi had seen them.
“U-Um, okay, I’ll be going now.”
Kase turned to flee, but Agi caught his arm.
“Wait, wait. We’ll give you a ride home.”
“It’s fine. I can take the train.”
However, Agi twisted the arm that he caught and pushed Kase into the car. The movements were light, but Kase had no time to resist them. Kase was a tall man at nearly 180 centimeters, and he wasn’t lacking in strength either, but Agi easily blocked all of his movements like that first time they had met.
“Hey, long day today.”
Mutou was on the other side of the spacious back seat, holding Rio in his lap.
“Sorry about your hard-earned day off, but there was something I really needed to talk to Agi about today. ”
Mutou was speaking quietly, but there was an air of intimidation about him, and Kase turned his eyes away in discomfort. Agi climbed into the front passenger seat, and Mutou’s underling, the driver, smoothly pulled away from the curb. On the way back, Rio talked about the zoo the entire time, and Kase felt at ease that he could just listen.
“Hiro-kun, thank you for today. I had so much fun.”
They dropped Rio off at home first. Rio kept waving his hand even after he got out of the car, and Kase reluctantly gave him a single wave back. It made Rio happy to see the wave, and he started jumping up and down as he waved both hands at him.
“He really clung to you the entire day, huh? So are you secretly good with kids?” Agi asked, turning his head back from the passenger seat.
Kase was embarrassed and turned his head away.
“Haha, don’t get so embarrassed. You’re surprisingly cute.”
“…Who are you talking about?” Kase muttered.
Agi laughed again like something was funny. Kase sensed Mutou silently observing the two of them, and he ended up just looking out the window.
“Is the road closed ahead?” the driver wondered out loud as the car slowed down. After dropping off Rio, they were headed to Kase’s apartment building, but for some reason there was a traffic controller at the corner just before the place. A firefighter ran over and told them that there was fire up ahead with fire trucks blocking the road and that they should take a detour. Kase took a look and saw that there was smoke coming from the direction of his apartment building. His heart shook with an awful feeling.
“Where’s the fire outbreak? I live up ahead here.”
“The fire broke out at Green Apartments. It’s pretty fierce, and we’re preparing to spray—”
Kase jumped out of the car before the firefighter could finish his words.
Kase could hear Agi’s voice, but he was too panicked to deal with him. It was his apartment building. His apartment would be ruined if they hosed it with water. He didn’t care about his household belongings. But more importantly—
Kase pushed his way through the crowd of people to reach his apartment building, where firefighters were preparing to release their hoses on the fire. He tried to slip past the curious onlookers to enter the building, but he was stopped from behind.
“What are you doing? You can’t enter right now!”
“I live here! Let me go! There’s something important in my apartment!”
Kase tried to pull himself free, but there were two people holding him back. He struggled and shouted “Let me go,” but he was restrained on both sides and couldn’t move. Let me go. Please let me go. Those were the only words that he could say.
Agi appeared from the crowd of people. “Hiroaki, what are you doing!?”
“The shirt!” Kase shouted without thinking.
Agi had rushed over, and he frowned at Kase skeptically.
“The shirt… The shirt is inside… nghh.”
What was he even saying? They were nonsensical words to anyone who heard him. However, Kase’s head was filled with panic over the shirt that he received from his ex. Without it, he would—
“Is it something that important to you?”
Kase nodded desperately. Anything else could burn. As long as that shirt was safe—
“What apartment number is it? Where do you keep it? What does it look like?”
“304. It’s yellow. It’s hanging on the wall in the back of the room.”
Kase somehow got his explanation out with his tongue tied in knots, and Agi slipped out past Kase.
“Hey, you! Stop!” shouted the voices of the firefighters.
Kase turned in his surprise and saw the back of a broad figure disappear into the building filling up with smoke. The onlookers clamored over what was happening. Kase watched dumbfounded as firefighters chased after the figure inside.
After about five minutes, Agi and the firefighters came out of the building. Agi was covered in soot over his face and clothes, but he held the lemon yellow shirt firm in his grip.
“Is this good then?” Agi held out the shirt while he coughed.
Kase gingerly reached for the shirt and hugged it to his chest.
“Th-Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
He lost all strength and crouched down to the ground. He was glad. He was glad it hadn’t burned. It was the sole thing of warmth that he had. As long as he had this. As long as he had this one thing—
“Don’t take such reckless actions! We could have put more people at risk in order to rescue you!”
Agi’s apologies overlapped the firefighter’s angry shouting. Kase finally realized what a dangerous thing he had made Agi do. When Kase raised his head, Mutou appeared from the crowd of onlookers.
“Agi, what is all of this commotion!?”
“Oh… I just went to get something he left,” Agi answered as he dusted himself off.
“You ran inside a burning building!?”
Even Mutou widened his eyes.
“Now, now,” Agi said, trying to pacify him. “There are some things you can never get back if they burn.”
“Something you can never get a back? You mean a stupid piece of clothing?”
Mutou stared down at Kase, who hugged the shirt as he crouched on the ground.
“It’s taken the form of a shirt, but for him, it’s something much different.”
Mutou clicked his tongue in irritation.
“…It’s because he’s similar to Yuzuru, isn’t it?”
Agi said nothing as he maintained his smile.
“How long do you plan to keep hanging onto the past? Are you thinking you’ll lighten your guilt by looking after him? Chise has already put it behind her, but you’re the only here who keeps—”
“I feel terrible for what I did to you. That I couldn’t keep my promise and left.”
“If you feel terrible about it, then come back.”
“It’s impossible for me.”
“Let’s discuss this another time. Yeah, sorry to keep imposing on you, but give me a ride to my place. Hiroaki is coming too.”
Mutou scowled at Agi. There was a furious anger on his face, but he turned around and said, “Fine!”
“Hiroaki, let’s go.”
Agi heaved Kase up to his feet. Kase watched in a daze as the crowd parted for Mutou with just the force of his presence.