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He wants to hate the kid on sight. He's prepared to. The last thing he needs is some punk causing trouble for the cafe and messing with his customers, stealing Leblanc's funds or giving Futaba any more reasons to be terrified. Sojiro remembers what he was like at that age; there are a million ways for things to go wrong with someone who thinks they can take matters into their own hands, and very few where they go right.

In the worst case, if things really go south with the kid, Sojiro might get re-evaluated for guardianship of Futaba. Maybe. He doesn't know. He's not planning to find out. In any event, he can't afford for Futaba's relatives to get wind of this.

But the kid turns out to be soft-spoken and polite, not a single piercing or dyed hair or sloppy clothes. There's some sass in his replies -- he's not a wheedling sycophant out to wrangle favors -- but mostly mistrust. The kid's exactly as described: someone who thought about standing up to authority before realizing that said authority is more than willing to annihilate him without hesitation.

He's wary of Sojiro. To him, Sojiro must be just another adult who's part of the system letting him down. Indifferent at best; selfish on average. And, at the worst, completely willing to sacrifice him wholesale for any number of petty reasons.

He's probably entirely right.

It's Sojiro's own fault that he got suckered into the deal. February had been a slow month, even slower than normal, and fewer customers meant more time listening to each of them at length. One man had been particularly reluctant to go outside into the colder weather, talking on and on about this couple he knew whose kid had stuck his nose into a situation where he should have called the police instead. Confidence had been its own punishment. The results were unsurprising.

Normally, Sojiro might have sympathized. At the time, all he'd done was try to smother his resentment for the way the man was taking up counterspace for hours on a single cup. Offering free refills hadn't been such a good idea after all.

"These friends of mine, they don't know what to do." Swishing the remaining liquid in his cup, the man had sighed dolefully at it until Sojiro had moved to top it off. "They can't contest the court order to relocate. They're looking for a temporary guardian, but none of their friends can take him in, so they've widened their net to ask for anyone who can help. If they can't find one, they'll have to go with the first stranger who’s willing."

Sojiro had set the coffeepot back on the burner, hooking a cloth to wipe the counter down of any stray drips. "So?" he had groused. "Maybe he should have thought of that before picking a fight."

The man had leaned back, making his appeal directly now without pretense. "Their son's heart was in the right place -- he's not a troublemaker, it's just bad luck," he'd promised. "And there are people out there who take in kids only for the money, Boss. A lot of people."

The words had congealed like ice in Sojiro's chest. His lungs had tightened; his fingers refused to twitch.

"Yeah," he had finally replied when he could breathe again, staring at the dishrag and not seeing it. He could still feel how thin Futaba's arms were when he'd tried to pick her up from the floor, like bird bones wrapped in a layer of rice paper. He could still remember her trying to cry. "I know."

"Leblanc is a restaurant, not residential, so there's only a toilet and sink." That's another stone waiting to fall: if the authorities find out he's keeping the kid in the attic, they'll force him to move him into Sojiro's actual home, and then Futaba will probably barricade herself in her closet and never come out again for the rest of her life. "I've got you signed up at the bathhouse down the street. It's paid in advance each month, so don't think you can keep the money for yourself by skipping personal hygiene. Don't forget your wristband. It's only for early mornings, so if you want to soak for longer, you'll have to pay your own fee."

The kid is standing awkwardly in the aisle, as if he's not sure if he should sit or back away slowly yet. He’d come downstairs eventually after dropping off his school paperwork in the attic; Sojiro had waylaid him as he'd exited the restroom. "Thanks," he ventures uncertainly. "That's very kind of you."

"There's a laundromat right by the baths, and you'll get funds for that twice a month, including for your sheets -- same deal, anything extra's from your own pocket. Lunch, you'll get at school, you've got money from your parents for that. Dinner will be in the fridge, usually leftovers from the cafe. And I've got your breakfasts covered, as you know," Sojiro explains, and then scowls, exasperated. "What is it now?"

The kid's still immobile, blinking like he'd just been struck in the face and is still trying to register the pain. He glances down, then back up again at Sojiro, and says, inexplicably, "I didn’t think you'd feed me."

Sojiro exhales slowly. In that moment, he can tell: the kid's been wondering all day about what he'd do for a shower, about clothes, about staying alive. About being on his own, abandoned, having to camp out in a bare room with only electricity, a bathroom, and a kitchen sink nearby.

Sojiro had already guessed that the kid had probably started developing some trust issues with adults. Being one of them -- another person yelling about rules and punishments -- isn't his favorite thing in the world.

But Futaba's safety ranks above anything else, and Sojiro's not going to let himself get taken advantage of by some kid who still hasn't shown his true colors yet. The kid can hate him -- hate him back, rather. "Hands off everything else in the fridge," he finishes tartly. "That stuff's for customers."

He plans to hate the kid's cat, too. That doesn't last long. But an animal in a food establishment beats even a juvenile delinquent when it comes to losing said establishment, and Sojiro doesn't need to ruin his and Futaba's lives over a pet. Even if the pet is cute. And clearly hungry for food, which means Sojiro's got to feed it too now, since he can't trust anyone else to be responsible.

The cat is smarter than he expects because there's no mess in the cafe, no clawing of the booths. The litter doesn't get strewn everywhere, and the litterbox itself is always perfectly clean. And, somehow, the cat hasn't gotten itself lost at school, because really, who does that, bringing a cat to school in their bag and apparently stuffing it in their desk all day without some kind of disaster happening?

Since the cat is clearly a miracle cat, Sojiro doesn't feel bad about not hating it. It doesn't like to play with the apron ties he dangles near it, but that's probably for the best, because the last thing he needs is for the cat to get excited and jump all over the counters. Sometimes, after the cafe is closed and it's time to set the wash and final prep for the next day, the cat wanders downstairs and sniffs around his heels. Sojiro wants to try and pet it more, but he can't set a bad precedent, and besides, he's already making the kid watch for cat hair in the food.

The cat is smart, however. Probably smarter than the kid. One evening, Sojiro even gets it a toy mouse from one of the pet stores, as a reward for all the good behavior. The cat seems to like it well enough -- he can hear the meows and thumps from the attic as it plays around, knocking things over -- but the kid gets a strange expression on his face and asks, "What exactly did you buy?"

"Just a little catnip," Sojiro explains smugly, but doesn't get any further, because the kid's face has just paled to the point of grey, and he's running upstairs. "It doesn't hurt them!" Sojiro yells, over the sound of another suspicious thump. "They love it!"

All that trouble with the cat does remind Sojiro to ask, later that week:

"So, your cat -- Morgana, right? You make sure it's neutered?"

The kid can't be all bad, because his first friends are another delinquent -- great start, there -- but also a nice young woman named Ann. That's an improvement.

Then the kid takes up with an art student who looks like you could stuff a dozen meals down his throat and he still would need more -- Sojiro's not sure if that's a plus or minus, but he still feels the urge to feed Yusuke whenever he shows up -- and Shujin's Student Council President.

After that, the next thing you know, they're all in Leblanc most of the time. Which isn't that bad: they come to the cafe in waves, always polite to Sojiro and leaving their seats tidy when they're done. Sometimes, when the kid's already out for the afternoon, all his friends hang out and study in the far booth anyway. The student president is a pro at cramming; she lays out her books and notepads in order, plowing through chapter after chapter as if salting a battlefield. Sojiro sneaks free coffee and food to the artist kid, which is easy; Yusuke's too distracted to calculate the proper bill, and ends up perpetually astounded and proud of being able to eat a full meal for only a hundred yen. Anyway, Sojiro probably owes him for the painting. It's fine. If the cafe looks busy, other customers like it better anyway. It's fine.

Maybe it's not so bad. Sojiro has nightmares of the kids trying to spend their afternoons in his house next, but they've respected his personal life so far, so Futaba's still safe. And all of them look like they need a place to be, which is hard to ignore. A lot of kids have reasons to avoid their home situations, and it sounds like Yusuke doesn't even have a family anymore, let alone any sense of how to take care of himself. Makoto only has her sister; Sojiro can imagine what that's like.

Leblanc's a good place for them, then. Plenty of less safe areas for high-schoolers to hang out. Sojiro's just making sure they don’t end up anywhere worse.

The kid turns out to be easier than Sojiro expected. Independent. Good at school. Fills out his activity log routinely. Takes care of himself, and even signs up for a few part-time jobs to get his own spending money. A fine hand at making coffee, too, which makes Sojiro regret not hiring him full-time in the cafe from the start.

He finds himself easing up on the kid despite himself, finding ways to make sure the kid's provided for without making it too obvious. Some extra food in the fridge, after he noticed the kid scraping the plate clean in the mornings and still looking ravenous. A little spare cash in the budget; a few rewards for coming in at the top of the class. Fresher sheets and a better pillow, claiming they were donations from social services. Heavier blankets set aside for winter and fall, when the temperatures will drop.

Little things, really. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Sojiro gets his regular check-in from the probation officer twice a month by phone. He knows the drill: they only call. They rarely come by in person, not unless someone makes a formal complaint, or there's some other reason they want to put pressure on the child's guardian. Even then, it can be a struggle to get actual action taken; there are some good, honest people in domestic affairs, but the agencies as a whole accept most cover-ups. Sojiro had been lucky that Youji hadn't bothered at the time to fake it.

As for the child in custody themselves, there's no way for them to call for help. If no one cares to actually investigate their living situation, anything can happen to them.


"Yeah, I've got him set up with the laundromat still." The cafe is quiet; the lunchtime rush is over, with no one lingering for afternoon coffee. Sojiro finishes his cigarette and stubs it out. "He doesn't need any fresh uniforms, so I'm guessing he's not getting into any fights. His parents said they'd send his winter clothes soon, so I'll be on the lookout for that."

The man on the phone is full of conspiratorial sympathy; it makes Sojiro's skin crawl. "You're an exemplary role model, Mr. Sakura. You know, you don't have to go the extra mile just for a juvenile with a record. In fact, it'd probably be better if he has to learn all of this on his own. I'm sure his parents coddled him too much, and that's why he ended up like this. No one would think twice if you made him handle things himself, you know."

Sojiro watches his hand close slowly on the counter, making a fist of its own accord, knuckles white.

"Nah," he says, keeping his voice light. "I'm only doing what I have to."

As it turns out, Sojiro has nothing to worry about when it comes to Futaba getting introduced to the kid, or the whole mess of noise that the kid's brought with him as friends. Or rather -- he has a lot to worry about once the kid starts walking directly into his house, enough that he panics and rethinks the entire arrangement so fast that he's almost reaching for the phone. But concern over Futaba keeps him distracted, and that ends up being for the best.

Because the kid's effect is miraculous. Futaba comes out of her room. She comes out of the house and into Leblanc and starts saying hello to other people again. And Sojiro had been growing more and more afraid with each passing day that she'd never leave the house forever, that maybe there was something he should be doing and, instead of helping her -- the only person who could -- he was the one holding Futaba back. That she'd never recover, and it's all because he hadn't figured out the right things to do. That he'd been spending all his time simply hoping the world would magically turn itself around, pretending it's out of his hands.

It turns out, the kid is that hope.

The first night that Futaba spends in the living room with him -- chattering away about the latest anime she's been watching and wolfing down spoon after spoon of ice cream -- Sojiro feels like he can't string two sentences together through his relief. He marvels at her energy, letting his own ice cream melt into a tepid pond, and wipes at his eyes whenever she's not looking. Once Futaba's finally tired herself out, he collects the bowls, and she clings to his hip in a hug before heading for the bath.

It's the first night in a long while that he goes to sleep smiling.

Everything's better after Futaba's out. It's obvious that the kid's getting up to something -- that all the kids probably are -- but they're giving Futaba the support she needs, and every day that Futuba comes down to Leblanc of her own accord is like a gift that Sojiro still doesn’t feel he deserves. As long as they're not doing anything obvious, he can overlook it.

The kid hasn't asked for help yet, so Sojiro figures it can't be too serious. Whatever it is.

Leblanc continues to thrive under everyone's presence. Sojiro gets used to at least one of the kids being around, with occasional overlap as people study or take a break on the way to other places. Inevitably, there are scheduling mix-ups, which he gets to be privy to as well.

One Sunday, Ryuji's the victim, plunging in through Leblanc's door with enough force to send the bell bouncing. "I'm here!" he announces, to Sojiro's bemused lift of an eyebrow. "Wait, is Akira still asleep?"

Sojiro continues to placidly wipe down one of the siphons. "He left hours ago with Yusuke. Did you two have plans?"

Ryuji gapes. "I thought we did! Hang on," he interrupts himself, scrolling through his phone. Then he slumps, enthusiasm visibly deflated. "Oh, man. I must've just dreamed it. I thought there was a whole conversation! I guess it's better than just sending 'you ednth'," he concludes, squinting at what must have been a failed autocorrect.

The siphons finished, Sojiro leans on the counter and considers. "Tell you what. Futaba went through some of her old manga the other day and pulled out some for the bookshelf down here. I don't know what’s good, but if you have a sense of what customers might enjoy, I'll trade you lunch in exchange for sorting through them. Deal?"

"Seriously? That would be awesome! Hey, you think Futaba wants to join us?"

Sojiro shakes his head and turns away to hide the laugh. "Go ahead and ask her. You want soda or juice?"

In September, the cafe starts to pick up in the evenings, people gravitating to the hotter temperatures and flavors of curry now that summer's over. All the news stations are filled with chatter over the Phantom Thieves, and equally filled with counter-replies from pundits. Everyone has an opinion, and wants everyone else to hear it.

But the weekends are quieter, with people wanting to get out and enjoy the last of the weather before it starts to turn poor. The student president is the only customer one Saturday after school, so Sojiro brews a pot special for her -- a mild roast that can be nursed for hours without upsetting the stomach -- and checks the fridge for sandwich ingredients she might like.

"Hey, Makoto," he calls over to her. "Do you have any recommendations for clothes for teenagers these days?"

She glances obediently up from her homework, but her expression turns perplexed almost immediately. "Are you looking for ideas for Futaba?" she asks. "I could make a few suggestions, but I'm not really an expert on her style. Maybe Ann...?"

"No. This is for Akira." Which sounds strange to say, but Sojiro bulldozes ahead anyway. "His parents are trying to plan ahead for Christmas, so they're thinking money and some clothes, but don't know what's popular." He fishes out the bread from the fridge, and shrugs. "I told them 'socks and underwear,' but they wouldn't bite."

The president doesn't respond right away. She glances down, setting her pen aside as she considers his words. "So his parents really do care," she says eventually, very softly. "I'm sorry -- he just... he doesn’t talk about them much."

Sojiro snorts at her surprise, rolling his eyes. "Of course they care. I wouldn't be giving him back to them otherwise."

He planned to hate the kid. He really did. There was no room in his life for anyone other than Futaba; the last thing Sojiro needed was an actual criminal making things worse for them both.

But none of that matters months later, when the kid turns out to be breaking the laws of physics along with the courts. And all the kid's friends -- Futaba's friends, too, along with Futaba -- end up being the Phantom Thieves terrorizing Japan, all because of the number of adults who'd turned into pieces of shit after gaining power. The news stations have it wrong: the kids aren't a pack of delinquents acting out for fun. They've chosen a course that puts themselves at ground zero for retaliation, because the alternatives had been that much worse.

It's just like domestic affairs: when no one cares enough to investigate, the kids have nowhere else to turn to. Anything can happen.

Anything did.

Sojiro had had plans. And none of them matter, not a single one, because months later in January, Sojiro's sitting in an interrogation room saying over and over again how Akira Kurusu is a model student with perfect behavior -- the best he's ever known, an example to look up to-- because he'll be damned if he lets them take his kids away.