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an acquired taste

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   Ryuji never liked coffee.

   His mother used to make three cups a morning. Black and two sugars for his father. Mostly milk and three for Ryuji, as soon as he was old enough. Half a cup and one for herself.

   She’d nurse it quietly as his father sang the praises of black coffee over breakfast. Each sentence was punctuated with a booming laugh, and the speech always wrapped up with a slap on Ryuji’s back and a promise that he should start drinking it soon, too. Ryuji smiled weakly over his own mug, which stayed as untouched as he could get away with.

   When his father left for work, Ryuji’s mother would quickly top her mug with milk and wink at him before knocking the whole thing back in one gulp. Gasp, a-pleh, a satisfied clunk back onto the table.

   “Disgusting,” she’d announce, and he’d giggle as she got up to grab him some juice.

   After his father walks out forever, his mother makes two cups a morning for two months. Then she stops.

   Ryuji had always liked green tea better anyway, he tells her, and doesn’t shudder at the bitterness until after she looks down at her breakfast with a sad smile.

 


 

   “Man, I’m thirsty,” Ryuji sighs. “You got any soda?”

   Akira opens the fridge. “Nada,” he says. “Milk?”

   “Just by itself? Pass.” Ryuji makes a face. “I guess it’s too cold for that stuff anyway. Hot chocolate?”

   “We’re out.” Akira winces. “That was a lie. Don’t know how to make it.”

   “C’mon, what kinda café is this?” Ryuji chucks a coaster at him, and they both watch as it flutters uselessly to the floor. “It’s just powder and water.”

   “Not here. I gotta do it right or Sojiro yells at me.” Akira looks dolefully at the coffee beans. “I could make you coffee.”

   “Is that all?”

   “No,” says Akira. “I could also make you coffee with these other beans.”

   “What’s the difference?!”

   Akira waves helplessly. “Beans,” he says. “I’m new.”

   “Fiine,” Ryuji sighs. “This better be the best coffee in the world, ya hear?”

   “You bet,” says Akira, fetching some beans at random. “I’ll pour all my love and experience into this cup.”

   When Ryuji takes his first gulp, it’s all he can do not to cough and spray it across the counter. Akira glances at his face. It’s scrunched and inscrutable.

   “Good?” he asks hopefully.

   “Next time,” Ryuji chokes. “More experience, less love.”

   Akira dubiously sips at his own cup. He gags. “Copy that,” he says in a strangled voice. “My bad. Let’s go get soda.”

   “You’re buying.

 


 

   Ann gives him a Look when he grabs the candy off the hook. “Really?” she asks.

   “Hey, don’t judge me,” says Ryuji. “We can’t all be models. A guy’s got needs.” He holds up the bag. “Sugary needs.”

   “Obviously I get that,” Ann grumbles. She holds up her own basket. It’s piled high with more sweets than Ryuji buys in a month. “I mean, that’s coffee flavoured.”

   “Yeah,” Ryuji mutters. “So?”

   “So?” Ann prompts. “Don’t you hate coffee?”

   “I mean, yeah,” says Ryuji. “But, I dunno? I’ve kinda been craving it lately, I guess.”

   Ann squints at him. “Ryuji Sakamoto, getting weird cravings,” she says. “Don’t tell me. You’re pregnant!”

   “What the hell!” he yelps, and punches her in the arm as she erupts into violent giggles. “Don’t be an idiot! I’m allowed to eat whatever I want, okay?!” He casts her a petulant look as she stuffs her fist into her mouth to keep from laughing again. “Besides, the sweets ain’t that bitter, so shut up.”

   “Sure,” says Ann. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell the baby daddy.”

   “God! You can buy your own damn crepes today.”

   “Aw, cmon! Ryujiii!”

 


 

   “Something smells nice,” Skull remarks, and everyone immediately turns to stare at him. “What?!”

   “We’ve been in Mementos for two hours,” says Queen.

   “We’re inside a cat,” says Panther.

   “So?” demands Skull. “I mean, it’s clearly not Mona –”

   “Hey!” Mona protests.

   “– but somethin’ smells good! You can’t tell me you guys don’t smell anything!”

   “Besides cat?” asks Fox. “No, nothing.”

   “There’s also sweat,” adds Panther. “Is that what you’re into, Skull?”

   “Of course not!

   “It could be curry,” Queen says. “I mean, you are sitting next to Joker.”

   “Do I smell that much?” wonders Joker.

   Skull considers. “I mean, sure,” he says, “but isn’t there somethin’ else?”

   “Coffee?” Mona suggests.

   Skull sniffs again.

   “Wow, I guess,” he says. “That’s so weird. I used to hate that smell.” He cuffs Joker over the head, and Joker grins at him. “I guess you make it work, dude.”

   “Well, I’m glad we solved that mystery,” says Queen.

   They drive in silence for another few minutes before Panther pipes up, “Is nobody going to comment on the fact that Skull just said Joker smells good?!”

 


 

   “What can I get you?” asks the barista.

   “Large cappuccino, please,” says Akira. He offers Ryuji a sheepish smile. “Don’t tell Boss. I don’t actually like black coffee.”

   “God, you weenie,” Ryuji scoffs. He turns to the barista. “Small mocha?”

   Akira blinks. “You’re ordering coffee?” he asks. He pouts. “So it’s just my coffee you don’t like?”

   “You nearly killed me!” Ryuji protests. He fidgets with his wallet. “I mean, I still don’t like the stuff? But I dunno. Lately I’m curious.” He shrugs as he hands over the money. “I figured I might as well give it another try. And mocha’s like, mostly chocolate, right?”

   “Yeah,” says Akira. He grins. “You weenie.”

   “Shut your damn face.” Ryuji shoves Akira into the condiment bin and sends a stack of lids cascading to the floor. “Shit. I’ll pay for that.”

   “Don’t worry about it,” says the barista hastily, eyeing the dozens of loose coins in Ryuji’s wallet.

   “You can pay for me,” Akira grumbles, getting to his feet, and Ryuji throws some yen at him.

   When Ryuji takes a tentative sip of the mocha, he only makes a partially disgusted face.

   “Okay?” asks Akira.

   Ryuji shrugs. “Maybe?” he offers. “I guess the flavour’s alright, but it doesn’t smell as nice as Leblanc.” He takes another drink and scrunches his face up further. “Bleh, they didn’t stir in the chocolate. It’s just a slimy clump.”

   Akira laughs. “I can make those now,” he says. “I’ll get you one next time you come over.”

   “Holding you to that!”

 


 

   “I’m kinda glad it started raining,” Ryuji sighs. “Not really in the mood to go running today.”

   “Everything okay?” Akira asks sympathetically, slamming Ryuji’s character into the ground and slashing him multiple times with a sword.

   Ryuji jams a few buttons and dies. “Now it’s not,” he grumbles. “Just tired, I guess. Nice to veg out and game.”

   “It’s relaxing.” Akira frowns. “Stop killing me, that’s violent.”

   “Then don’t blow me up!” Ryuji tosses his controller down into the blanket nest they’ve constructed with a groan. “Man, I can’t focus.”

   “Clearly,” Akira smiles, and ducks when Ryuji chucks a stray manga at him. “Stop throwing things at me.”

   “Not ‘til you stop bein’ a dick!”

   They laugh together for a short, languid moment. Akira slumps into Ryuji’s side and tugs absently at the quilt under his knee. “Tired,” he says.

   “Me too.”

   “Not just today,” says Akira. “I’m tired of everything.”

   Ryuji looks at him. From this angle, he’s just a black mop.

   “Me too,” he says again, and Akira sighs, sinking further into Ryuji’s lap. “Dude.”

   “Tired,” Akira complains, and Ryuji rolls his eyes. He grabs a pillow from the corner of the nest and hugs it to his chest.

   “Some fearless leader you are, huh,” he mumbles. Akira hums in agreement. “Seriously. You doin’ okay, man?”

   “I’m fine,” says Akira. “It’s just a lot.”

   “Yeah.”

   “Don’t tell the others.”

   “I won’t,” says Ryuji. “You know they wouldn’t mind, right?”

   “Sure,” says Akira. “But everyone needs a rock, you know?”

   “You reckon you’re ours?”

   “Tell me I’m not?” asks Akira, and Ryuji sighs and shakes his head.

   “Sorry you got saddled with it, dude,” he says. “Ain’t fair, but it just turns out you’re the best at this kinda stuff, you know? No way we could do what you do.”

   Akira smiles. “Aw,” he says. “Thanks.”

   “Someone’s gotta butter you up to get all this shit done,” Ryuji says in a muffled voice.

   “Mm. Might as well be you.” Akira looks up and frowns. “Are you smelling my pillow?”

   “What? No!” Ryuji sends the pillow flying like it’s developed an electric charge. “I’m just holding it! Don’t be weird!”

   “You had it all the way up to your face,” Akira points out. “You had your nose buried in it.”

   “H-hey! Shut up!”

   “You’re weird. Pillow sniffer.” Akira bats lazily at Ryuji’s arm. “Want a mocha?”

   Ryuji ponders. “Sure, why not,” he says. “Dunno why, but I’m kinda in the mood for one now.”

 


 

   “Dude, finally.”

   Akira stumbles down the stairs, yawning. He smiles sleepily at Ryuji, who reaches over to muss his hair up even more. “Hey. That’s carefully crafted bedhead.”

   “I can’t believe you’re still in your pyjamas. It’s noon.”

   “We can’t all be morning people.” Akira looks hopefully at Sojiro, who shakes his head.

   “I don’t approve of your sleeping habits,” he sniffs. “I’m not making you coffee. That would make me an enabler.”

   “I don’t go to sleep late, I just… sleep late,” Akira whines, but drags himself behind the counter to make a coffee. “Ryuji, want one?”

   “Pass,” says Ryuji. “I gotta agree with Boss. I’ve been here like an hour already. We said we’d hang out yesterday!”

   “Sorry to keep you waiting.” Akira yelps as he scalds his hand, and Sojiro turns away, rolling his eyes. “You know, you can just come upstairs and wake me up.”

   “No way, never again. You’re grumpy as hell in the morning.” Ryuji looks ruefully at his hand. “You scratched me last time.”

   “That was Morgana.”

   “It was not!” Morgana yowls, leaping up to the counter. “Akira, at least eat something before you have coffee.”

   “I’m not awake,” Akira protests as Morgana nudges open the fridge.

   “Hey, tell the cat to stop letting all the cold air out.”

   “Cat,” says Ryuji helpfully, “stop –”

   “I’m not a cat! And I heard!”

   “I like being down here anyway,” says Ryuji. “Boss has some pretty good manga on the shelf. Plus, it’s a nice atmosphere.”

   Sojiro glances at him, considering. “Wanna do some advertising for the place, kid?”

   “I ain’t wearing a poster board anyplace, if that’s what you’re askin’,” says Ryuji, and Sojiro sighs regretfully.

   “It’s a coffee shop, though,” Akira points out. “It smells like coffee.”

   “Yeah?”

   “Don’t you hate it?”

   “I only don’t like drinking it,” Ryuji protests. “The smell’s fine. It’s actually kinda nice.” He wrinkles his nose. “I guess this place just does it right?”

   “Poster board’s ready anytime,” says Sojiro, and Akira snickers at Ryuji’s face.

   “Sure you don’t want a mocha?” he asks, holding up a second cup.

   Ryuji deliberates for a minute before shrugging and hopping up to the counter. “Eh, why not,” he says. “Gotta help you practice, amirite?”

   “Do you ever make him actually pay for his drinks?” Sojiro asks Akira, who shrugs.

   “Take it out of my paycheck,” he says.

   “You don’t get a paycheck.”

   “Give me a paycheck, and then take it out of my –”

   “I ought to throw you out of here,” Sojiro grumbles, and Akira grins.

   “Free mocha coming right up,” he says to Ryuji, who’s already halfway through guiltily taking out his wallet.

   “Put that back,” Sojiro says. “It’s on the house. Don’t worry about it.”

   “I can –”

   “Eh, you don’t drink much coffee anyway,” says Sojiro. He smiles, wry. “Maybe the free drinks’ll turn you on to it and you’ll become a real regular, who knows?”

   Ryuji laughs. “Not likely, Boss. But go wild with the free stuff! Who’d I be to say no?”

   “A decent patron,” Morgana suggests, and Ryuji shoves him off the counter.

 


 

   Ryuji flinches as the warm air of the café hits him. The entry bell is still tinkling behind him when the door closes.

   Akira turns to greet him, only to reel backward. “Jesus, Ryuji.”

   “Hey,” Ryuji gasps, very aware that he’s dripping all over the floor. “What’s up?”

   “What’s up!” Akira throws a tea towel at him and skitters out from behind the counter. “Hold on, I’ll get you a proper one. Take off your jacket!”

   Obediently, Ryuji shrugs off his soaked hoodie and holds it up with a plaintive look on his face. “Um, where do I –”

   “Anywhere,” Akira calls from somewhere upstairs, so Ryuji gingerly drapes it over a booth and tries to ignore the puddle it leaves on the leather seats. He rubs the tea towel over his hair as Akira shouts, “What are you doing here?”

   “I dunno,” Ryuji snaps as Akira appears on the staircase again. He gestures to the torrential rain outside. “I don’t exactly wanna go out there again.”

   “In Yongen,” Akira amends, biting back a retort. He shoves a towel at Ryuji and plonks some spare clothes on the table.

   Ryuji pauses before setting down the tea towel and peeling off his tank top. “I dunno,” he repeats. Unsure how to towel himself off with Akira watching him, he turns awkwardly to the side and starts patting randomly. “I… don’t exactly wanna go out there again.”

   Akira seems to remember himself and graciously turns away. “You can use the bathroom,” he says. Ryuji nods and grabs the clothes.

   A few minutes later, he emerges. He looks down at himself and makes a face.

   “Looks good,” Akira offers.

   “Smells like you,” Ryuji shoots back, and winces. “Forget I said that?”

   Akira offers Ryuji one of his patented invisible smiles. “Coffee?”

   “Yeah, why not.” Ryuji slides onto a barstool. “Sorry.”

   “What for?”

   Ryuji gestures lamely around the café, and then gestures lamely at himself. “Yeah,” he says.

   Akira shakes his head helplessly. “No?”

   “I dunno,” says Ryuji. “I dunno. Bad, weird day, I’m… I dunno.” He shrugs. “Didn’t know where else to go.”

   “You don’t have to apologise for coming here,” Akira points out. “We’re open.”

   “Dripped water all over the floor,” says Ryuji. “Don’t pay. Yelled at you?”

   “Didn’t take it personal.” Akira pauses, completed coffee in hand, and closes his eyes. “This isn’t a mocha.”

   “Oh.”

   “Sorry,” says Akira. “Stuck in my head. I’ll remake –”

   “No, don’t worry,” says Ryuji. “It’s cool.”

   Akira peeks at him. “I was going to make one for myself anyway,” he says. “I’ll make you another one...”

   “It’s cool,” Ryuji says again. “I don’t mind.”

   “You sure?” Akira asks.

   “Yeah,” says Ryuji. “Uh, three sugars.”

   “You got it.” Akira reaches across the counter for the sugar. “Want to tell me what’s wrong?”

   “Yeah,” says Ryuji. “I mean, yeah, I want to.”

   “You won’t?”

   “Kinda can’t,” says Ryuji. “I don’t… really know.”

   Akira gives him a long look.

   “Yeah,” he says quietly, and Ryuji figures he gets it.

   He takes a sip of the coffee.

   “It’s good,” he says.

   “Yeah?”

   “Yeah,” says Ryuji, and gives him a small smile. “Thanks.”

   Akira returns the smile. Then he busies himself making another. “You can hang out here tonight,” he says in a voice identical to his light, offhand, ‘it’s cool bro, whatever’ voice.

   Ryuji doesn’t buckle under the unheard weight; shoulders it, just barely. “Thanks,” he says quietly.

   “Where’s your mom?”

   Ryuji hadn’t told him that his mom was away. “Business trip.”

   “Home tomorrow?”

   “Picking her up in the morning.”

   Akira nods.

   “Can I tell you it’s going to be okay?” he asks.

   Ryuji shrugs. “Can if you want,” he says. “I mean, I know that. Like – I know it prolly will be.”

   “The problem’s right now,” says Akira, and Ryuji nods. Akira finishes making the second coffee and wanders out to sit beside Ryuji.

   “Aren’t you meant to stay behind the counter?” asks Ryuji.

   Akira shrugs. “No customers right now.”

   “I’m a customer.”

   “No paying customers right now,” Akira amends, and Ryuji laughs. Akira shoots him a look. “Want to try and figure out what’s up?”

   Ryuji looks down into his coffee.

   “I dunno,” he says. “Maybe I want to know? But, like?”

   “Sure,” murmurs Akira.

   Ryuji shifts. He’s starting to regret coming here. His bad mood had begun to evaporate when he stepped over the threshold of the café, but it was now condensing into something different and raining all over Akira’s clothes.

   “Kinda,” he says, in a voice so quiet he’s not sure he means for Akira to hear at all. “Kinda, can’t figure out what I’m feeling. Kinda can’t figure out – what I’m feeling, about what I’m feeling? And – um, I kinda can, and, maybe, like, it scares me a little.”

   “What’s it about?”

   “You,” Ryuji says without thinking, and immediately balks. The coffee spills over his hand a little. “Shit.”

   Akira, slightly wide-eyed, grabs a napkin. Ryuji goes to take it from him, but Akira reaches past and dabs it over the spill on Ryuji’s hand.

   They stay that way for a moment after the coffee is gone.

   Then Akira removes his hand. Ryuji feels cold.

   “Can I take it back,” he says, knowing he can’t. “I didn’t – I didn’t mean it. Like that. I didn’t mean –”

   “Did I do something?” Akira asks quietly. His eyes are downcast.

   Ryuji laughs, uncomfortable. “Of course you did,” he mumbles, aware that this is not at all what he wants to say but unable to do anything to change it. “Dude, you did everything.”

   Akira looks too dejected to flinch, but he still flicks his eyes up to meet Ryuji’s before letting his gaze flit away again. “Can you tell me?”

   “I –” Ryuji frowns, five million things going on in his brain at once. “I. No. It’s – how could I – man, don’t make me – you know I’m not any effin’ good at words, but you –”

   “Are you angry with me?”

   “No,” says Ryuji, relieved that Akira’s finally given him an opportunity to untangle the mess he’s still weaving. “No. Sorry. Sorry, I can’t do words – that’s not what I meant –”

   “Then are you –”

   “You didn’t do anythin’, man,” Ryuji says, “I mean, you didn’t do anything wrong, that was my bad –”

   “But then what do –”

   “It’s just you! Everything you do is effin’ –” Ryuji stops with a frustrated growl. “Can you keep a secret?” he demands.

   Akira blinks. “Of course,” he says, and Ryuji kisses him.

   It’s a long moment before Ryuji seems to remember himself, and he pulls away so violently that he almost topples off the stool. “I’m sorry,” he stammers. “I’m. Shit. I’m so sorry. That’s not why I came in here, I swear –”

   “Ryuji –”

   “I’m sorry. I – Jesus, what the hell was that –?! I – god, I’m s- I’m such, I don’t know where that came fr-”

   “Ryuji.

   “-om, oh my god, dude. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean –”

   “Ryuji!” and Ryuji finally stops babbling and looks Akira in the face.

   Akira looks a little pink.

   “I don’t mind,” he says.

   Ryuji opens his mouth, and closes it again.

   “I didn’t know I was gonna do that,” he croaks.

   “It’s okay.”

   “That wasn’t why I was upset,” says Ryuji. “You weren’t why. I promise. I think. At least, it wasn’t at first.”

   “I know.”

   “I wasn’t really upset about it,” Ryuji says meekly. “Just scared how you’d think.”

   “Don’t be scared.”

   “Can I at least pay for the stupid coffee,” Ryuji mumbles, and Akira laughs out loud.

   “Two hundred yen,” he says. “Friends and family discount.”

   “You’re making that up,” Ryuji mutters, yanking out his wallet. Akira smiles, but doesn’t say anything. “I for real had a bad day.”

   “Did that make it better?”

   “No,” Ryuji snaps. “Now I’m just confused and you might hate me.”

   “I don’t hate you,” Akira says. “I gave you the friends and family discount.”

   “I just came here on instinct,” says Ryuji. “I didn’t even think about it. Just – bad day, and I hopped on the train and – it’s raining, and I just – like – didn’t even think to wait in the station or anything, I just started runnin’ –”

   “You should carry an umbrella.”

   “It’s like there’s nowhere else I could even go,” says Ryuji. “I thought. Like, naturally. Just – drawn here, or somethin’.”

   Akira gazes over the counter at the beans. “Maybe you’re getting a taste for the coffee here,” he says.

   Ryuji swallows. “Yeah,” he says. He raises his cup to his lips again, and Akira does the same. “That must be it.”

   They sit in silence for a while. Ryuji drains his cup and stares into the dregs.

   “That was good,” he says.

   Akira nods.

   “I could prolly go for another cup sometime,” says Ryuji.

   “It’ll keep you up all night,” Akira says.

   Ryuji grins. “S’okay,” he says. “Sounds kinda good to me.”

   Akira smiles.

   When Akira kisses him again, Ryuji huffs a laugh and grins against his mouth.

   “What,” breathes Akira, grinning too.

   “Nothin’,” Ryuji mumbles back. He shifts to pull Akira closer. “Tastes like you, s’all.”

 


 

   Ryuji greets his mother at the station the next morning with two fresh-brewed cups of takeout coffee.

   “Latte, one sugar,” Ryuji announces, and presents her with it. “I know it’s been a while, but – um, just try it. It’s good.”

   His mother accepts it with a surprised smile. She takes a sip. “It is good,” she says curiously. “I thought you didn’t like coffee?”

   “I didn’t,” says Ryuji. He grins at her, thinking of the extremely grumpy, extremely non-morning person who’d gotten up early (with minimal scratching) to make two cups at his request. “Guess it’s just an acquired taste.”