It was half past seven when the first customer of the day set foot in the Homra Coffee House, setting off the strategically placed bells at the doorway and stirring Yata out of the standing dose he’d fallen into behind the counter. He made an effort to straighten, the echo of Kusanagi’s last lecture still sharp in his mind, and forced a smile. “Welcome!”
The customer didn’t bother to look up from where he was folding his umbrella. Yata hadn’t even noticed it was raining out – it had been kind of threatening to when he’d rolled in on his skateboard at a quarter to seven, but he’d been tired enough as he walked through the motions of opening the shop that it didn’t quite register when it started.
There was no one else in there – yet – but the rush could start any second, and no one else was in until eight. He had to stay on his toes.
Having finished tucking his umbrella to his satisfaction, the guy who’d just come in stepped up towards the counter, raising his head to frown with irritable discontent, like the miserable weather had somehow been Yata’s fault. He was handsome in a kind of pale, slight way – all fine bones and slender limbs – with dark, haphazardly styled hair and clear blue eyes set in a face that looked like it belonged on the cover of a woman’s magazine offset by sparkles. Combined with the pair of old-fashioned wide-rimmed glasses, hunched posture, and unpleasant expression, it wasn’t nearly as impressive as it probably could’ve been.
Somehow, the guy’s appearance was striking, though. Yata wasn’t too sure what it was about him, but the set of contrasts was oddly fascinating. Wonder if he works near here or something. Homra had only been open for three months, so it was possible they’d just never crossed paths before.
The guy came straight up to the counter and deliberately looked down at him, from a height difference that was way too obvious even with the slouch, considering they were probably about the same age.
… All right, maybe he wasn’t so fascinating, after all.
“Large Americano,” the customer muttered at him, ignoring his initial greeting altogether and making no attempt to be even remotely pleasant. “Double. To go.”
Yata felt his eyebrow twitch. Oi… don’t take your bad mood out on me… He made an effort to control his annoyance, turning to grab one of the large to-go cups. “Coming right up!”
There was the ruffle of clothing behind him, along with the sound of an exasperated breath, but his customer said nothing.
Whatever. As long as he wasn’t bitching, they could just get this over with quickly and be done with it. Yata covered a yawn with his hand, going through the motions that had been painstakingly drilled into him when they’d first set up the machines and were getting ready to open for business. This kind of stuff – manual work, customer service – wasn’t bad. You got some annoying people, sure, but the work was the kind of stuff he was used to, and you couldn’t beat the company on the job.
Plus, Homra is just awesome!
He was proud of this place – all the work that had gone into renovating and cleaning and getting everything put together the way Anna had wanted it. Well, more like how Kusanagi had wanted it, since he’d done all the concrete planning, but it was Anna’s vision, and Yata was dedicated to seeing it through and making it a huge success. He owed her that much, in the end. She was the one who’d brought everything back together – through a lot of hardship and grief – and her strength and determination was his biggest inspiration.
It was something to keep him going through those early shifts, anyway.
“All right!” The drink was done; Yata pressed the lid into place and slid on the heat sleeve, smile feeling more real and less forced as he turned with the cup in hand. “One large double Americano, to – !”
The words died, smile freezing on his face as he took in the sight in front of him.
His unpleasant customer was standing with his jacket undone, the work shirt and vest beneath now plainly visible. And stitched onto the upper left side of the vest with unmarred precision and clarity was a symbol Yata had personally seared onto his brain with a vengeance.
Scepter 4’s Internet Café.
Open for business as of three days ago.
Less than a fucking block from Homra.
In other words, competition. Or, as Yata liked to think, the enemy.
The unpleasant revelation was still stirring around in his brain when the offender in question let out another irritated-sounding sigh. “What’s your problem?”
That was enough to snap him out of it. Yata scowled back, holding the drink out of reach behind the counter. “What’s my problem?” he repeated. “Hah! What’s your problem? Why are you even here?” Even as he asked, a thought occurred to him – he narrowed his eyes with flat suspicion. “Trying to steal our secrets already, huh? Well, fat chance of that, asshole – not on my watch!” He made a fist of his free hand and thumped it against his chest.
The frown on his opponent’s face deepened with a mix of incredulity and something like disgust. “What are you going on about?” He made an obnoxious clicking noise with his tongue, gaze flattening with annoyance. “Are you an idiot?”
“Yeah, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Yata straightened, trying to make up some of the difference in height with a little good old fashioned intimidation. “Nice try, thinking you can come in here and make a fool of Yatagarasu! I can see right through you!”
The guy just stared at him, expression going flat, and then heaved a sigh. “Like I said… an idiot.”
“Hah?” That nonchalant attitude was starting to piss him off. Yata moved to lean over the counter, curling his lip in a sneer and aiming a dangerous glare at his opponent. “You wanna say that again, asshole?”
He got a condescending look from above him – way too fucking high above him; this was seriously not fair. “Is this how you treat every customer?”
That actually gave him a start, because – hell – Kusanagi probably was going to be pretty mad if he found out about this, Scepter 4 spy or no. And the momentary hesitation on his part gave his opponent just enough opportunity to snatch the to-go cup from his now-uncertain grip.
“Hey – !”
The cup was swiftly propelled away from him as the guy turned to the side, dropping a small handful of change onto the counter from his other hand. “Based on the current tax rate, that should be enough,” he drawled, turning his gaze deliberately away from Yata’s furious glare. “Feel free to keep the extra if I counted wrong.”
He was already stepping away from the counter, pulling his umbrella from under his arm, as Yata snarled, “bastard!” at his retreating back. He didn’t bother to look back, snapping the object in question open one-handed while pushing the door out with his shoulder.
“You’d better not come back here!” Yata snapped after him, irritated at his own lack of control over the incident. “Hear that, you dirty spy? Don’t come back!”
The bells on the door jingled again as it swung closed.
The incident ended up being pushed out of his head entirely by the morning rush, arriving just before Bandou and Shouhei came in to help with the stream of customers. When Kusanagi arrived later on, he made his entrance pushing Totsuka’s wheelchair through the door as Anna held it, and the unexpected sight of that warm smile after a week of its owner’s absence pretty much ensured that Yata wasn’t thinking about annoying guys from Scepter 4 for the rest of the day.
“The specialist was really pretty – you’d have liked her, Bandou-kun,” Totsuka informed them, all casual cheer as usual. “Oh, and she had candy in her office, so maybe even Yata would’ve liked it, huh?”
“Come on, Totsuka-san!” he protested. “I’m twenty years old – don’t treat me like some kinda kid!”
“Ah, sorry, sorry!”
It wasn’t until the next day that the grumpy asshole from before came back into his head – right about the time that sad grumpy asshole came back into the coffee shop, actually.
They were just through the initial wave of the morning rush, so Yata was on auto-pilot when he turned at the sound of the familiar jingle, starting with a cheerful, “Wel – ” The word died on his lips as he set eyes on that awkwardly striking face again. “You!”
The guy’s thin lips turned down into a scowl; he clicked his tongue. “You again,” he muttered, clearly out of sorts, and slunk almost warily forward. “Do you work here every day or something?”
“Don’t act like I’m the problem, asshole!” Yata braced his palms flat on the counter, glowering up at his opponent. “You’ve got some nerve, showing your face here after that stunt you pulled yesterday!”
“Right. How dare I order and pay for a coffee.” That stupid drawling tone was back, along with the condescending look from behind those thick-framed glasses. “Are you going to actually serve me this time, or should I wait until someone with enough of a brain to handle it shows up?”
Hot anger was clouding Yata’s brain. “Listen, you – ”
“Yata-san!” Kamamoto’s voice interrupted, from the direction of the back room. When Yata glanced up at him automatically, he was standing just outside the door, glancing between the two of them with his eyebrows furrowed in alarm. “What’s the problem?”
“This guy” – Yata immediately turned back, lifting a hand to point accusingly at his opponent’s chest – “is from Scepter 4.” He spat that out with as much contempt as he could muster, waiting for the show of solidarity from his friend.
After what felt like an eternity – seriously, what was the fucking hold-up? – Kamamoto asked, in a tone of voice that was way too calm for the situation, “And?”
“What do you mean ‘and’?” Yata rounded on him, hands clenching into fists as he lifted them from the counter. “Those assholes are our competition, remember?”
Kamamoto shifted uncomfortably, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Yeah, but… Kusanagi-san…”
The guy at the counter clicked his tongue, in that obnoxious way he’d done before. “Can one of you two boneheads serve me already? I can feel my brain cells dying just standing next to you.”
“Ah… right! Coming right up!” Kamamoto straightened, moving for the till, but was forced to stop as Yata planted himself squarely in the way, hands braced on his hips.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, dumbass?”
“Yata-san!” Kamamoto protested, looking mildly distraught. “He’s a customer – Kusanagi-san’s going to have our heads if we – ”
The jingle of the door interrupted him; when Yata turned his head, it was in time to see Anna step into the building, followed immediately by Kusanagi. The older man blinked as he took in the scene in front of him, eyeing them curiously. “What’s going on here, boys?”
“K-Kusanagi-san!” Kamamoto looked abashed. “I was – this is just – ”
“Quit being so damn lame about it!” Yata snapped at him, and then faced his older friend – and boss – with determination. “Kusanagi-san, this guy is – ”
“Saruhiko.” Anna stepped forward before he could finish, turning a small but welcoming smile on the guy at the counter. “It’s been a while.”
He looked a little put-out when he met her gaze, but when he spoke, his voice had definitely dropped the hostile note. “Oh. It’s you, huh?”
Her smile gained another degree of warmth. “It’s nice to see you.” All at once, she leaned forward in a polite bow. “Thank you again for your help.”
He gave an almost imperceptible shrug, turning his gaze down towards the counter as if to avoid looking at her. “They pay me to do that sort of thing, you know,” he mumbled.
“I know.” She straightened. “Still, thank you.”
Yata had just barely managed to scrape his wits up from where they’d scattered across the floor by that point; he glanced between the two of them with shock. “Wait… You – you two know each other?”
“Fushimi helped out quite a bit with Anna’s inheritance struggle,” Kusanagi explained, lifting the hinged counter to cross over to the other side. “We would’ve been in quite the pinch without him – right, Fushimi?” He directed a friendly smile across the counter.
Yata rubbed at the back of his neck, feeling a little uneasy with the current development. Shit… I called him a spy and everything. This couldn’t be good. “Ah… I-is that right?” He risked a glance in the direction of his unfortunate customer.
Another one of those small shrugs followed; the guy was avoiding both of their gazes, tapping a finger on the counter with obvious agitation. “Like I said, it’s just part of my job.”
“Well, we’re grateful anyway.” Kusanagi moved to lift the counter before Homra’s underage owner could just duck under it – he’d been trying to cure her of that habit for a month now without much success. “But I’m guessing you’re not here for a social visit?”
Another one of those annoying tongue clicks was the initial response. “Can I just get my coffee?”
A light touch on Yata’s wrist had him jerking a bit; he turned a startled gaze down at Anna as she looked up at him meaningfully and said, “Misaki.”
“A-Ah… right!” He shook his head a bit, managing to look back up at his customer with a sheepish sort of smile, hoping it would count as something of an apology. “Sorry. Large double Americano, to go?”
Honestly, he mostly expected this prickly guy to kick up a fuss about his earlier rudeness, so it surprised him when all he got was a flat, unimpressed stare, and the clink of change hitting the counter.
At least he’s not ratting me out… Still, the behavior was kind of unnerving. Yata turned, skin prickling up as he felt that unfriendly gaze settling on his back while he grabbed the cup and started making the drink. He’d never been so aware of any customer before – but then, this situation was weird as hell. He didn’t really know what to make of this guy, with his contrasting appearance, condescending looks, pointed insults…
And then the lack of interest in reporting Yata’s bad behavior.
Yeah. Definitely weird.
The drink was transferred across the counter with a certain amount of awkwardness. Yata felt a bit of an unfamiliar tingling shooting up from his hand where it brushed against those pale, slender fingers. He looked up and met his customer’s cool blue eyes for just a second – a second of almost uncomfortable clarity – and then the guy was turning away, heading for the door without so much as a ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’.
Rude bastard. Yata made a soft ‘ch’ under his breath, tearing his eyes from that thin, hunched back and trying to shrug off the weirdness.
Kusanagi had called that guy ‘Fushimi’, and Anna had said ‘Saruhiko’. So… Fushimi Saruhiko.
He was definitely going to remember that name.
It turned out to be another three days before he saw Fushimi again. Yata worked the closing shift the next day – Saturday – and Homra had limited hours and a skeleton staff on Sunday, so that was his day off – which he ended up spending on the latest Empire of Death game installment, almost by accident (chasing down achievements was too goddamn addicting).
As a result of that, he was feeling more than a little fuzzy-headed as he went through the motions of opening the shop, and when Fushimi walked in as the first customer of the day, his initial reaction was to freeze up and just blink at him.
Fushimi’s eyes went flat when their gazes met; he clicked his tongue. “Oh, it’s you.”
The phrase came out a lot more irritated than when he’d said something similar to Anna – not that Yata was keeping track or anything. “What, you’re here again?” He frowned back, feeling a little twinge of annoyance at the openly displayed logo on Fushimi’s vest. “Don’t you work at that Scepter 4 café?”
Fushimi raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “They must pay you quite a bit to stand there and state the obvious.”
“Shut up!” Yata snapped back, snatching up a large to-go cup from the stack. “I mean, you work at a café – don’t they have coffee there?”
He could hear Fushimi approach the counter. “The coffee there sucks.”
Yata paused at the espresso machine, half turning to raise an eyebrow himself. “Is that really something you wanna go around telling the competition? Don’t you have any loyalty to your workplace?”
“Not really,” Fushimi responded, in that dull drawling tone. “It’s just a job. Besides, we’re an Internet café, not a coffee house. People don’t go there for drinks.”
That was news to him. Yata grunted in acknowledgement, absorbing that fact as he prepared the rest of the drink. To be honest, he hadn’t really known what an Internet café was – he’d just kind of assumed it was like a regular café, but with computers. Or something.
No way was he admitting that to this guy, though.
Still, there was something he needed to get off his chest. “By the way,” Yata said, pausing again in order to turn and face Fushimi again, mentally bracing himself as he did. “Sorry for… before.” It was kind of a struggle to get out the words, especially now that he was faced with that apathetic stare, but he couldn’t just leave it without saying anything. “And thanks for not – y’know – ratting me out.”
Fushimi’s frown deepened; he made that tongue clicking noise again. “I didn’t do that for you,” he muttered, gaze shifting off to the side. “I didn’t feel like standing around talking uselessly, that’s all.”
Figures. Yata turned back to the machine, feeling strangely dissatisfied with the exchange. “Well, whatever – thanks anyway.”
There was a lengthy moment of silence, during which Yata finished mixing the drink, trying to ignore the prickling feeling at the back of his neck that seemed to indicate that he was being watched. For some reason, Fushimi set him on edge. He couldn’t quite put his finger on why, but it was making him nervous, and he wasn’t sure if he liked that.
I’m probably thinking about it too much. He reached for the lid and sleeve, determined not to let the feeling get the better of him. Not like we get rude assholes from our competition in here every day, right?
“Hey,” Fushimi said suddenly, breaking into his thoughts unexpectedly, “you – Misaki. Does this place – ?”
Yata had to count himself lucky he hadn’t had the drink in his hands, because if he hadn’t spilled it everywhere when he spun furiously back around, he definitely would’ve crushed it when his hands clenched into fists. “Where the fuck did you hear that name?”
Fushimi stared at him blankly for a brief second, then raised his eyebrows. “Did I touch a nerve?”
“Look, asshole…” Yata lowered his eyebrows into a glare, trying to throw every ounce of malice in his body into it. “Don’t ever call me by that name, got it? I don’t know where you heard it, but get it out of your head right now!”
“That’s the only name I caught,” Fushimi drawled back, blandly. “Unless you count that ‘Yatagarasu’ nonsense. I’m not calling you that.”
The pit of annoyance growing within Yata seemed to expand exponentially. “The name is Yata, okay? Got that? Yata!” He twisted his lips into as fierce a scowl as he could manage.
Fushimi met his glare evenly, seeming to turn that bit of information over in his head, and then his mouth turned up at the corners.
It was the first smile Yata had seen on his face so far, and it made his stomach do a little flip. Not so much in a good way. That didn’t look like a pleasant smile, actually. Somehow, he had a bad feeling…
“If you say so,” Fushimi answered, almost breezily. “Can I have my coffee now?”
Yata eyed him suspiciously for another second, then turned to retrieve the almost-forgotten cup, fitting it with the lid and sleeve before turning back to set it on the counter. He expected Fushimi to just drop his change again, like the first two times, but apparently this time he didn’t feel the need, because he waited for Yata to ring it through the till and read him the total before holding out his hand and dropping the coins directly into Yata’s waiting palm.
It was a surprisingly normal interaction, actually. Yata relaxed a little. “Thanks.” Sliding back into customer service mode, he added automatically, “Have a nice day.”
Fushimi made a noncommittal sound in response. “By the way,” he said, carefully pulling the coffee back from the counter, “does this place do deliveries?”
“Huh?” Yata blinked, a little startled by the question. “Deliveries? Of what, coffee?”
“That is what you sell,” Fushimi pointed out, in that irritatingly condescending tone. He didn’t bother to wait for further response, turning to head for the door instead. “Well, never mind if you don’t know.” As he was pushing through the door, he turned his head, offered that same smirk from earlier, and added, “See you, Misaki.”
Yata’s thoughts screeched to a halt. He was recovering from the shock, rage tinting his vision with red and starting to sputter out a furious, “Hey – wait, you – bastard – ” when the door swung shut.
The jingle of the bells as it closed sounded almost like mockery.
“I don’t care what you say – that guy is an asshole!” Yata seethed, furiously scrubbing at the coffee stains on the front counter that were left from the last rush. “Who the hell just goes ahead and does something like that after you ask them not to, huh?”
Kamamoto shrugged. “Well,” he started, “you were kind of rude to him when you noticed he was from Scepter 4, right?”
“What’s this?” Kusanagi asked sharply, pushing through the door from the back room.
“N-nothing important!” Yata turned to shoot a discreet glare at Kamamoto, who looked properly abashed. “Anyway, I don’t see what’s so special about that guy! He barely even said anything when Anna was going out of her way to thank him.” He slid the cloth off of the counter, crossing his arms over his chest with a sharp, frustrated exhale. “And he’s always talking in this super slow voice, like he thinks he’s better than everyone. It’s annoying!”
“Fushimi, huh?” Kusanagi looked a bit amused. “Well, he’s a pretty closed person, but I think it’s more that he has some trouble expressing himself. He did help us out of a tight spot, after all.”
That was a story Yata hadn’t asked about yet, and honestly, he was kind of curious. Still… “He said that was just his job, right?”
“It’s not just that,” Anna piped in; when he glanced down to where she was standing just behind Kusanagi, her expression was earnest. “Saruhiko worked very hard for us. He put all of his best effort into it, and didn’t stop even at night.”
Kusanagi spread his hands with a little shrug. “There you have it. I get the feeling praise makes him uncomfortable, is all.”
“By the way, Kusanagi-san,” Kamamoto cut in, before Yata could find something to respond to that with. “I’ve been meaning to ask about that ‘work’ you mentioned. I thought that guy worked at the Internet café just down the street.” He scratched his head. “I wouldn’t think a place like that would do the kind of things you were talking about.”
“He probably had a different job before that, dumbass,” Yata cut in, impatiently. “They just opened like a week ago, right?”
“Well… yes and no.” Kusanagi pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, tapping one loose. “Truthfully, Scepter 4’s been around a lot longer than that. The café bit is probably more of a sideline – and an excuse to give them a physical base of operations.”
Okay, that… actually sounded kind of cool, Yata had to admit. Reluctantly. “So, what, they’re like spies or something?” Maybe he’d actually been right about Fushimi, after all. Sort of.
“Not exactly.” The rest of the pack was tucked back away; Kusanagi reached for his lighter instead, setting the unlit cigarette between his lips. “They’re… hm… I guess you could call them a sort of cyber services unit. They take the kinds of jobs that call for counteracting hackers and uncovering forged documentation or records. Probably a number of other things, too.”
Anna tugged at his arm as he raised the lighter. “Izumo.”
“Right. Sorry.” He lowered it again, a sheepish sort of smile spreading on his face. “I’m still too used to smoking inside.”
Back in the days of the Homra bar… Yata felt a little pang at that, but brushed it aside. Those days were in the past – and they’d been good days, but now was just as good, in its own way. Anna’s Homra was a Homra he could proudly help support, rather than ignorantly enjoying a carefree lifestyle like before.
The current situation was worth everything, in the end.
And, supposedly, Fushimi had played some part in that. “Well, I guess that guy’s not a total creep,” Yata admitted, grudgingly. The undercover cyber agent thing was definitely cool, too. When he thought back to Fushimi’s initial appearance in the shop, with his tall, slender good looks all totally undermined by his terrible personality, somehow that extra piece of knowledge seemed to click.
Still, he wasn’t ever going to admit to thinking that guy was cool. Not in a million years. “He’d better not use that fucking name again, though!”
Kusanagi shot him an amused look. “Fushimi didn’t strike me as the casual type,” he commented. “You should be flattered, Yata-chan – it sounds like maybe he’s taken a liking to you.”
“Huh?” Somehow, that comment set off a little spark of feeling in his stomach that spread out to his skin in prickles. Yata crossed his arms defensively, twisting his lips into a sneer to cover it. “No way! That guy’s always so damn pissy whenever he comes in here.” He could still clearly see the dismissive glances and hear that reluctant muttering; somehow, it made his blood feel like it was boiling. “Seriously, it’s like he goes out of his way to be as annoying as possible.”
“Ah, I see.” Kusanagi was giving him that look – the one that meant he knew something Yata didn’t, but he wasn’t going to come out and say it. “He’s been in a few times, then?”
He didn’t really see where this was going. “Yeah, three times now. So what?”
The door chime went off before he could get an answer. Yata turned automatically to the counter again, starting on his greeting before he’d properly looked up. “Hey, welcome to – “
The rest of it kind of fell out of his brain when he took in the pair at the door: a tall man with dark hair, glasses, and a confident smile on his face; and a woman with neatly styled blond hair, business-like attire and a stern expression. They were a striking couple, but that wasn’t the part that grabbed his attention. Both of them were wearing expensive-looking blue blazers with a very familiar logo emblazoned clearly on the front.
It wasn’t like he had a reason to kick up any kind of fuss over it, even if Kusanagi hadn’t been standing right there, but the sight still gave him a little twinge of irritable discomfort. “ – Homra,” Yata finished with considerably diminished enthusiasm, eyeing the two of them warily as they approached the counter.
“Good afternoon,” the man responded, pleasantly enough. Still, somehow both his gaze and tone had Yata’s hackles up, and he wasn’t sure why. “I’m afraid I’m not here for a hot drink today – perhaps later, if time permits. However, my intention is to speak with your superior.”
My what now? The way this guy talked was weirdly formal. Yata furrowed his eyebrows, tossing a dubious glace towards where his older friend stood. “Uh…”
“I heard.” Kusanagi stepped up beside him, leaning a hand on the counter. His expression was wry. “Something I can help you with, Munakata?”
“It’s my hope that this will be a mutually beneficial suggestion.” The man – Munakata? – smiled placidly back. “Although perhaps it would be best to discuss this with Kushina-san and yourself in private.” He inclined his head politely towards Anna.
Kusanagi shifted back to set his hands on his hips, and glanced in the same direction. “What do you think, Anna?”
Her face was indecipherable, but she gazed steadily back at the newcomer. “I’d like to hear what Reisi has to say.”
“That’s what I figured.” Kusanagi sighed, smiled a bit ruefully, and then moved to the side again, lifting the hinged counter and waving a hand towards the door that led into the back. “Come on in, then.”
“Please pardon the intrusion.” Their visitor stepped confidently through, following Anna into the back room. The woman strode after him, back straight and pace brisk.
Kusanagi lowered the counter. “Try to avoid the back room for a while if you can, boys,” he instructed, already moving to push through the door himself.
There was a moment of what would have been silence, if not for the buzz of conversation from the customers seated at some of the tables.
Yata glanced at Kamamoto, who looked about as confused as he felt. “What the hell do you think that was?”
He got a shrug in response. “No idea.”
There was no way this had something to do with Fushimi, right? Yata turned his frown on the door, trying to figure out if there was some connection he’d missed. “Wonder if that guy’s his supervisor or something…”
“What’s that, Yata-san?” Kamamoto had apparently moved to pull up the spare cups from under the counter while his attention was diverted. “Didn’t quite catch it.”
“Never mind.” There was no point thinking about it too much – anyway, he didn’t care about that guy, right? Yata straightened, deliberately not looking at the door again. “You restock and I’ll finish cleaning.”
It ended up being another half hour or so before that Munakata guy and the woman who’d come with him emerged from the back room, followed by Kusanagi – although with Yata’s curiosity tugging at him the whole time, somehow it seemed longer. He was prepping drinks for a group of college students when they finally did come out, so he caught it when the woman paused and said, in a voice as cool and stern as her appearance, “I should have the first batch of orders to you by eight tomorrow, so make sure you have someone ready.”
“Not a problem, Seri-chan,” Kusanagi responded easily. “We’ll be good to go on our end – any time you are.”
“Is that so?” She sounded more than a little skeptical. “You’re sure you don’t need me to send someone to pick them up?”
“I think our guy can handle making several trips – it’s not all that far, after all.”
The woman let out a short, sharp breath. “Still…”
“Awashima-kun,” Munakata interjected, polite and confident. “I believe we can leave this in Kusanagi-kun’s hands for the time being. Please reserve your complaints until after we’ve had a chance to see how the process works.”
“Appreciate the show of confidence.” Somehow, that easy tone didn’t sound quite as easy any more. Yata looked up in time to catch the sharp smile Kusanagi directed at Munakata.
“Certainly.” Munakata returned the smile with perfect calm. “I look forward to working with you.” His gaze shifted, meeting Yata’s for a brief instant.
Fuck. Yata jerked his head forward again, fumbling for the lids.
The two left as he was finishing up with the customers, and by the time he’d dealt with all of that, Kusanagi had retreated to the back and Fujishima had arrived – just ahead of the lunchtime rush. The rest of the shift went by rapidly after that.
“Yata-chan,” Kusanagi approached him as he was hanging up his apron, “this is probably a given, but make sure you bring your skateboard in for tomorrow, would you?”
“Yeah, of course!” It wasn’t like he went anywhere without it. Yata raised an eyebrow. “Why’d you ask?”
“Anna’s agreed to a little business arrangement.” Kusanagi offered him a shrug and a smile. “You’d be up for doing a few deliveries through the day, right? It’s probably more your thing than working the counter, anyway,” he mused, almost as an afterthought.
That sounded about right – being able to get out and feel the wind on his face was better than most things, especially serving customers. Yata straightened, not having to force the real surge of enthusiasm as he grinned back. “Leave it to me, Kusanagi-san!” Something kind of nagged at him, though… Deliveries, huh? Where had he heard that before? “Wait, what am I delivering?”
“Coffee – or, well, depends on the orders, but you get the idea.” Kusanagi frowned thoughtfully. “We should have enough of the travel trays. Anyway, you’ve got pretty good balance, right, Yata-chan?”
“Delivering coffee?” Okay, that definitely sounded familiar – he distinctly remembered being asked about coffee deliveries at some point. Someone with a condescending tone and a bad atti –
Wait a second…
“Hold on – Kusanagi-san…“ A terrible suspicion was growing fast in his head. “This place I’m delivering to – it’s not actually – ”
“Hm? I figured you’d have guessed by now.” Kusanagi smiled at him, as if there was nothing at all wrong with any of this. “It’ll be Scepter 4.”
Scepter fucking 4. Again.
The earlier enthusiasm felt like it was draining off of him at record speed. Yata stared back incredulously, dread taking root at the pit of his stomach. “Are you serious? You’re joking, right?”
“’Fraid not.” The smile took on a bit of an amused edge – although what could be funny about this situation was beyond Yata. “You can probably guess from what I said earlier that brewing hot drinks is not their specialty. They figured it’d be more convenient for the customers if they could order from a place that provides a little more quality.” He shrugged again, spreading his hands. “That’s why their boss paid us a visit earlier – to set the whole thing up.”
“What the hell kind of café – wait, what?” Yata blinked at him, his earlier thoughts derailing. “That guy is seriously their boss? Like, the main boss? The head guy in their spy team or whatever?”
Somehow, he’d kind of pictured someone a little cooler. Maybe with an eye patch or scars or something. That Munakata guy seemed like an overly polished office worker of some sort.
“That’s the guy,” Kusanagi confirmed. “Seri-chan – ah, I mean Awashima; that’s the woman he was with – is second-in-command, and Fushimi is third.”
“Huh? Third?” Yata couldn’t help but gape at that. The image of an unpleasant expression on a very attractive face flashed back through his head, and somehow the combination of that and third-in-command of a secret spy team gave him a weird little shiver. He deliberately shrugged that feeling aside. “They put that asshole in charge of people? What are they, nuts?” He scowled, a little irritated with the way the knowledge seemed to click with what little he knew of Fushimi. “Anyway, isn’t he, like, my age or something?”
Kusanagi met his gaze evenly. “Yata-chan… you’re third in the line of command here, aren’t you?”
That little bit of truth always caught him off-guard. “That’s different! It’s not like we’re some kind of high-tech underground spy team, right?” On edge and defensive, the next words were out of his mouth before he could think to hold back. “Anyway, with Mikoto-san – ”
“Yata.” The sharp warning in Kusanagi’s voice was enough to halt him in mid-protest, even if that gaze hadn’t turned serious on him. “Don’t bring Mikoto into this. You know why he’s not getting involved with us.”
The old edge of an ache throbbed dimly somewhere in Yata’s chest; he fought the urge to look away from the solemn, almost saddened expression on his older friend’s face. “Yeah. I got it.”
It wasn’t like he was going to forget his resolve. Mikoto may have been his hero, but right now, Anna was most important. This was where he was needed the most, and he wasn’t about to waste time with regrets. Maybe there was something he could’ve done to change things back then if he’d tried to understand the people around him better, but dwelling on it now wouldn’t help.
Kusanagi’s expression softened a bit. “Good.” He patted Yata on the shoulder, and the corner of his mouth turned up just slightly. “Go on ahead, and we’ll see you tonight if you’re coming back.”
Yata managed to summon up a grin at that, feeling his mood lift again. “For sure!”
When it came to Homra, he was always coming back.
His first delivery to Scepter 4 ended up having to be made in two stages; there were more drink orders than he could carry without danger of spilling them all. All in all, though, it wasn’t too difficult for someone like him. Yata coasted along at a comfortable pace, balancing the full travel trays without too much trouble.
Hopefully I can just drop these things off at the front and not have to deal with that guy or anything. The thought of seeing that pale, condescending face again was twisting in his stomach like it was trying to form knots.
There was a folded sign on the sidewalk up ahead, and Yata drifted to the other side before he’d reached it. Strangely, it didn’t seem to have a store logo or an advertisement on it – just a simple, printed message. He was going too fast to read it all, but he caught the words at the top as he went by: “Daily Challenge”.
Also, the unit it was sitting outside of was for rent, and the front window was dark and empty.
It was kind of cool, though – a mysterious challenge from some unknown source. Yata grinned a bit to himself, kicking off the ground to gain more speed. He wasn’t one to let a challenge pass him by, so maybe he’d take a look on the way back. As long as it wasn’t some kind of stupid math problem or something, it could be fun.
The grin faded as the blue and white logo of Scepter 4 came into view; Yata slowed his pace, rolling to a stop in front of the building and shifting his burden a little so he could free a couple of fingers to lift his skateboard.
The complex wasn’t any bigger than Homra’s from what he could see, but the appearance was totally different. Kusanagi had gone for a more old-fashioned look – kind of like his bar, back in the day – with a dark chestnut door and awning, little red accents here and there and the name embossed in gold. There were a few wooden tables outside, enclosed in a short metal fence, and the atmosphere – both inside and out – was friendly and warm. Scepter 4 was modern and elegant: slim lines and accents everywhere, an elaborate painting and engraving job imprinting the logo onto the building itself, and delicately paned glass on both the door and the single, large window, which you couldn’t see into.
It looked like the kind of place people with money went to.
Don’t see what all the fuss is about. Yata made an effort to soften the scowl that had spread over his face while he’d considered the place, shifting his burden yet again to try and manage the large metal door handle. Cool air wafted out as he fumbled it open.
“Welcome!” a brown-haired guy in a collared shirt and the trademark logo’d vest greeted him, from behind a desk just beyond the entryway. He offered a friendly-looking smile, but his posture was all professional and polite.
Seriously, looks like it’d be a fucking drag working here… “Yeah, hey.” Yata raised the trays, feeling a little ridiculous now that he was standing here in this fancy-ass place in his shorts and T-shirt. Maybe he should’ve brought his apron or something.
Whatever – it’s not like I’m here to work for them.
“Oh, you’re from Homra, right?” The guy at the desk was still smiling, so the clothing probably didn’t matter anyway. “Just wait one moment, please.” He reached down and plucked a handset from his belt, pressing a button and bringing it to his ear. “Lieutenant, the delivery is here.”
Lieutenant? This place was weird. Yata took a second to glance around at the rest of the room, kind of curious despite himself. It didn’t look at all like any café he’d ever heard of. The lighting was a kind of white-blue, which mixed well with the marbled flooring and the combination of blue, white, and silver on the walls. There were paintings hanging around the room, fine art or something – Yata wouldn’t know one way or another – and the round cubicle desks with the sleek-looking monitors at them blended in with the décor so well he’d have thought the whole thing was built that way.
Hell, maybe it was. He wouldn’t doubt it at this point.
Along the back wall, there was a large line of bookshelves, tall and black and elegantly carved – and packed with books. There were a few armchairs strategically placed near them, and then a small nook with a counter, where another uniformed worker was standing at attention. Just beside that was a door – probably leading into some kind of back room, like they had at Homra.
There was an unnatural sort of hush hanging over the place, even though it was nearly full. As if everyone in the room were holding their breath.
Yata shifted on his feet, a little uneasy. This really wasn’t his kind of place at all.
He didn’t have much time to dwell on that, though, because the door at the back swung open, and the person he’d been hoping not to see stepped out into the room.
It felt like all the little hairs on the backs of Yata’s arms stood up at once; his stomach twisted up, and he had a sudden rush of nerves at the sight of Fushimi’s face. There it was: the usual half-bored eyes and tiny frown that had somehow burned themselves into Yata’s memory – but a memory still couldn’t quite compare to the original, right in front of his eyes.
Fuck, of course he’d be the one to come out here… Yata scowled, more irritated at his own reaction than at whatever twist of fate had led to him having to deal with this on his first delivery. He wasn’t sure why he let this guy get to him so much. It was bugging the crap out of him.
Fushimi looked up and met his gaze, and something small and strange seemed to ignite in his belly.
There wasn’t a lot of space to think about the weirdness, though – Fushimi’s expression shifted barely a second later as he recognized Yata, settling into a blend of irritation and… something else, unrecognizable. “Seriously?” he muttered, just barely loud enough to be heard even with the lack of chatter in the room, and clicked his tongue. “Are you the only person who works at that place?”
Yata glowered back at him. “I’m the one who can get here fastest, jerk – deal with it.” He held up the drink trays meaningfully. “Here – coffee, as ordered.”
Fushimi stepped over to him without bothering to hurry, his gaze sliding to the objects in question almost lazily. Without the coat, Yata could see now that he was wearing a white button-up shirt under his vest, with the collar turned up and the sleeves pulled back from his wrists. His dark blue pants were fitted. Well fitted. He was really thin, Yata noticed. Tall and thin. Lanky. Or something.
Not like it mattered. “Come on, take ‘em.” He pushed the trays forward a bit, impatiently. “I’ve got more to bring, so – ”
“Are they labeled?” Fushimi interrupted him, in a kind of hateful drawl. He lifted his gaze back up to meet Yata’s. “A tray full of random drinks wouldn’t do us any good if we couldn’t match them to customers, would they?”
“Of course they’re labeled – the hell do you take us for?” Yata scowled back, thoroughly irritated now. “We used those stupid codes you guys messaged over, see?” He shifted one of the trays so the printed ‘C3’ on one of the cups was visible.
Fushimi barely spared it a glance. “Ah.” He raised his eyebrows condescendingly. “The cubicle number, you mean.”
Yata shot him a disgruntled glare. “How’d you expect me to know that, huh? Come on.” He held out the trays again. “Just hurry up and take ‘em already.”
There was a brief second’s pause, and then Fushimi reached out – finally – to take the drinks from him. “I guess you’re right – an idiot like you wouldn’t figure it out even with a chance to look at our setup.” He dipped his head a little, the hint of a mocking smile tugging up the corners of his mouth. “Would you, Misaki?”
There it was again. That knot of annoyance tightened up almost unbearably just beneath Yata’s chest. “I said not to use that name, asshole!” The outburst earned him a few startled looks from some of the patrons, and he could feel an edge of heat rising on his cheeks, making him self-conscious enough to lower his voice for the rest. “It’s creepy as hell, so cut it out!”
“Is it?” Fushimi’s tone was almost aggressively unconcerned. He lowered his eyelids, gazing back at Yata through a veil of surprisingly long lashes. “Or maybe you’re just trying to compensate for something… Misaki.”
The unexpected strike lit a fire in Yata’s belly, banishing the awkward restraint from earlier. “Shut up!” he snapped back, balling the hand that wasn’t still holding his skateboard into a fist and drawing himself up as much as he could. “I don’t wanna hear that from Mr. Act-like-a-gloomy-asshole-to-avoid-human-contact, anyway! You wanna talk about compensating for something, how about your pissy attitude, huh, monkey?”
He’d kind of had that insult on the back-burner in his mind – a combination of the name ‘Saruhiko’ and a commercial that turned up on his TV not long after they’d met, with a monkey mascot cheekily referred to as ‘O-Saru-san’. If anything, once it flew out of his mouth like that in the heat of the moment, he expected Fushimi to mock him for being a childish idiot – so he was bracing himself for that, and almost missed the way his opponent’s eyes widened in surprise, an audible intake of breath following the crude insult.
There was a brief but somehow very noticeable pause.
The majority of the anger that had clouded Yata’s thoughts evaporated in a hurry; something about that startled expression made him feel like his chest was constricting briefly. He released his fists, struck with sudden uncertainty. “H-hey…”
Fushimi’s gaze abruptly flattened; he clicked his tongue, frown deepening, and turned aside as if to indicate that he was done with Yata. “Start distributing these,” he said, thrusting the trays at the greeter, who was still standing awkwardly at the counter beside him. “I don’t have any more time to waste on idiots today.”
That kicked off the irritation again almost instantly; Yata scowled. “That goes double for me, asshole!”
Fushimi half turned, shooting him another condescending look. “Didn’t you say you had more drinks to deliver? You’d better hurry, or you’ll look even more incompetent than you already are, Misaki.”
“Fuck you!” Yata snarled back, glaring, and hefted his skateboard so that it was tucked under his arm instead of dangling from his fingers. “Damn monkey!”
This time, the insult barely seemed to register; Fushimi offered him another of those little mocking smiles, hummed low, and then turned with a kind of unruffled cool and strode back across the room without even acknowledging it.
Yata scowled after him for another second, and then made a soft, frustrated ‘ch’ and turned sharply towards the door.
Fuck that guy!
His head didn’t start to cool until after he’d made it back to the sidewalk, tossing his board onto the pavement and hopping on before it even settled. It was nearly summer, but the recent rainfalls made the air crisp, and feeling it blast his face and plaster his shirt to his body was satisfying.
In his mind, he could see Fushimi lowering his lids and smiling, almost as clearly as when it was happening for real. Yata’s heart was like thunder in his chest, and he clenched his teeth, restless irritation surging through his veins and crawling all over his skin. There was a tension in his brain that matched his body perfectly, and he didn’t know what to do to find a release. He could barely stand it.
I fucking hate that bastard…
With all the excitement, he’d pretty much completely forgotten the folded sign from earlier, so he nearly missed it on the way back, barely catching himself in time to step back on his skateboard and come to a halt. The motion had been automatic – kind of like hitting an ‘oh, right’ stop button – but Yata found himself looking up just the same, interested in spite of everything.
Hell, he needed an outlet, so why not?
‘Daily challenge’ was printed in bold text on the white background – and beneath that, inside a sleeve, was a large poster card with smaller print. It read, ‘Do something nice for someone you don’t get along with’.
“Huh?” Yata furrowed his eyebrows, frowning at the card. What kind of challenge is that? It wasn’t what he’d been expecting, that was for sure – somehow, when he thought of daily challenges, he thought of strength or endurance tests. Like… climb an impossible mountain or something (not that there were any mountains around here, but whatever, it was the idea of it).
This one seemed like… kind of a letdown, really.
“Something nice for someone I don’t get along with”, huh?
Immediately, Fushimi’s face came to mind – not that it had been far from his thoughts anyway – and Yata scowled. He lifted his foot to let his board fall back down and hopped on again, kicking away from the sign without looking back.
Seriously, there was no way he could do something nice for that guy. Yata quickened his pace, hoping the extra speed would clean up some of the restless energy still lurking around in his body. Anyway, it wasn’t like Fushimi actually had things he liked, so it was probably impossible, right? His frown deepened, eyes narrowing a bit as he propelled himself towards Homra. He barely even knew the guy, so what the hell could he do that would count as ‘something nice’?
“Large Americano. Double.”
Come to think of it, Fushimi hadn’t stopped by to pick up a coffee, had he?
“I don’t have any more time to waste on idiots today.”
Too busy to get a drink, huh? Somehow, Yata felt the smallest edge of triumph forming within him; he couldn’t help but smirk a bit. Heh. Got this.
It probably couldn’t count as a victory, but it still kind of felt like one.