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Familiar Faces

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Leorio was beginning to think that if he ever lost it completely, it would be to the soundtrack of the shop’s one clicking ceiling fan. He could hear it over the espresso machine- or maybe he imagined he could, but it didn’t matter because it still drove him crazy. Sometimes it was quiet, and that contrast made it impossible to tune out when it started back up. The sound was worse when he was tired. He was always tired. Med school was hard, made harder by having to work part time to afford what his stipend didn’t cover. Just little things. Like food. A bed. Lights. At least he got free coffee from the shop, and if it nailed his eyelids to his eyebrows, well, so much the better for studying on breaks.

Outside the propped-open door, it was a quiet late summer’s afternoon, and Leorio leaned for a moment on his broom and drank in a patch of the warm light of golden hour. One of the benefits to living in a less urban area: unblocked access to raw sunlight. With the shop this still and the neighborhood lively with people returning home from work, it was possible sometimes for Leorio to remember what it felt like to be made of flesh and bone instead of caffeine and spite.

Right on cue, the ceiling fan began to tick.

Ripped from the moment, Leorio stifled a scream of frustration and yanked a chair out from the nearest table. He scrambled up from the seat to the larger, round surface, all memory of the healing sunlight gone as he muttered the worst swears he knew and jabbed the base of his broom around the bulk of the fan for loose screws, a dangling cord, anything to explain the clicking that he could either tighten or rip out.

It was only when the table tipped that Leorio realized he’d been too engrossed to mind his balance. He let go of the fan with a yelp and shifted his weight in a desperate attempt to steady himself, and blinked in surprise when it worked. He stepped down carefully and sagged against his broom in relief.

“Isn’t that a safety violation?”

Leorio shrieked and whirled, thrusting the handle of the broom like a weapon towards the voice.

The speaker was nobody Leorio had seen before, but that didn’t mean a lot in a college town. The boy looked close to his age, blonde, and thoroughly unimpressed. He was also in the process of a removing a steadying hand from the edge of the table. “I can’t see the menu,” he said. "Excuse me." He moved the broom handle with a finger and stepped easily around a disgruntled Leorio to contemplate the options above the register, hands at ease behind his back.

“You shouldn’t scare people like that,” Leorio muttered.

“You’re welcome,” the boy replied, unperturbed.

Leorio collected his breathing and slouched behind the counter to wait for the order.

After a long moment of consideration, the boy’s eyes settled on Leorio’s. The effect of the light on his irises stunned Leorio; they were objectively a dark, deep brown, but the rays spilling from the front window illuminated within them a deep, burning red.

Leorio blinked and scowled at the counter, rubbing sullenly at an old stain with his finger. Staring into people’s eyes like an idiot. How lovely.

“Do you offer tea…Leorio?” the boy asked, glancing at his name tag.

Leorio rummaged under the cabinet and set eight small jars on the counter with a little more force than was necessary. He smacked the switch on the kettle to start the boiling. Over the hum, he heard the fan begin to tick.

“Oh.” The boy looked pleased. “It’s wise of you to store the jars away from direct sunlight.”

Leorio scowled. “They’re under there because everyone wants me to babysit the steeping for them when I’ve got seventeen other orders coming in, and then they complain it’s oversteeped or too cold. People want it, they have to ask for it.”

The customer smiled slightly. “So I should count myself lucky that you showed them to me at all, then,” he said without guile.

“Just pick one,” Leorio grumbled, drumming his fingers against the house coffee vat.

“I’ll take the Oolong.” They watched each other for a long moment, and then the boy sighed and pointed to the appropriate jar.

Leorio measured the tea into a bag and reached for a sharpie. “Name for the order?”

The boy had been staring at the ticking fan with a contemplative expression; he moved towards it and called back over his shoulder as an afterthought: “Kurapika.”

Leorio scribbled his name on the cup with a frown of confusion. Why had he asked? There was no need to take down someone’s name when they were the only one in the shop. Old habits, he guessed.

While the water worked its way to a boil, Leorio returned to the textbook open on a clear spot of counter to pore over its contents. He heard a chair scrape in the lobby and rolled his eyes. Of course it was his luck that the guy would be staying.

The shadow of the tree out front rustled minutely against the wall as a cool breeze hushed through the front door, bringing with it the first hint of the oncoming autumn. A few stray napkins stirred in its wake and the corner of Leorio’s page lifted ever so slightly. Almost immediately, the words he had been reading began bouncing off of his eyes, refusing to sink in. He wanted to be outside. Leorio checked his watch and was pleased to note that he had a little less than half an hour to go.

The timer on the water dinged, and Leorio pushed himself up from tired elbows to finish up the order. He filled the cup as high as he dared and watched the leaves begin to unfurl in their bag before securing the lid with a snap.

“Order’s up,” he called, and returned to his book. Kurapika had been examining the ceiling fan as best as he was able without climbing on the chair, and he made his way distractedly to his cup of tea with an absent “thanks” before returning to his table. Leorio hoped the ticking would bother him into leaving, but it went quiet nearly as soon as he considered the possibility.

Twice, Leorio became aware of Kurapika studying him through the gap between the espresso machine and the bar, but he looked away before Leorio could definitively catch him at it. Infuriatingly, he had been reading the same paragraph for fifteen minutes with nothing to show for it. He slapped the book shut, checked his watch, and began checking for things to tidy up before shift change.

When he felt Kurapika staring again as he scrubbed down the stainless steel serving tray, he reacted. “Do you stare at everyone like that, or am I just special?” he snapped.

For just an instant, Kurapika looked taken aback before his calm demeanor slipped back into place. Leorio felt a grim kind of satisfaction, and he studiously ignored the very small aftertaste of regret.

“Your ceiling fan,” Kurapika began.

“Broke,” Leorio grunted.

“When?”

Leorio was caught just enough off guard by the urgent undercurrent of this conversation to answer truthfully. “Boss said it wasn’t like that til I started working here.”
Kurapika nodded, looking troubled.

“We close in five,” Leorio said as he sorted rags and mugs into their proper places.

“Right,” said Kurapika. He stood, his hair just enough in his eyes that Leorio only had the line of his mouth to guess his thoughts. He shook his head. Why was he guessing this guy’s thoughts anyway?

“Shut the door on your way out,” he said. Kurapika hesitated, then moved the brick out of the way with one shiny shoe. As the door crept towards the jamb, Leorio took a deep breath and called, “and thanks for earlier, I guess.” Kurapika’s shadow against the door paused for a moment, then he turned the corner and was gone.

The ticking had stopped once more, and the air in the coffee shop suddenly seemed eerily still, as though the customer had taken some kind of previously-unnoticed ease with him. Ridiculous, Leorio thought, looking around for his wallet. He generally kept it on the desk to keep it from sliding out of his pants when he crouched and bent and stood for hours, but he spied it on the floor behind the counter and shook his head as he tossed his green work visor onto the hook with his name. He slipped the wallet into his pocket, stepped outside, and locked the door. The afternoon had not yet faded fully into evening; it felt like it had been waiting for Leorio, and he smiled in spite of himself. He couldn’t wait to get to the nearby restaurant for an outdoor table take advantage of this last hour or so of daylight.

He was halfway though the alley when he heard the unmistakable sound of a gun cocking as a cool voice spoke from the shadows. “I know this looks bad, Leorio, but I need you to be very quiet and put your wallet down on the ground.”

Leorio’s hand went instantly to the switchblade in his pocket, flicking it open with practiced ease before turning to face Kurapika. Leorio didn’t grow up on the streets of a major city to not know how to handle himself in a fight. He let his joints go loose, dropping into a fighting stance.

“I knew there was something weird about you,” he said. He ignored the gun, and ignored even more the part of himself that whispered that the calm ones were the scariest. They wouldn’t miss. “You chat up all of your marks before you rob them?”

“Please, Leorio,” Kurapika said. The words were quiet, earnest, and it confused him.

“What the hell do you think you’re going to get from a student?” he scoffed.

“I told you,” Kurapika said. “I know it looks bad, but you’ve got to put the wallet down.” This time Leorio definitely picked up on the urgency that had been present when he’d asked about the ceiling fan.

He squinted at Kurapika. “You being put up to this?” he asked. A car whooshed past the alley, but they clearly saw nothing. This town was small enough that a crime happening in broad daylight would be noticed by anyone who happened to see it. Perhaps he could stall until someone did see them.

“Leorio, we don’t have much time, and you wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” said Kurapika. He tightened his grip on the gun. “Please,” he repeated.

In the end, it was the “we” that did it. It wasn’t a mocking choice of words; something in that word communicated that they were on the same side.

“Ah what the hell. You’ll get ten bucks and a punch coupon for Manny’s, just so you know.” Leorio pulled his wallet from his pocket and watched Kurapika carefully as he set it on the ground. He expected Kurapika to relax, but if anything his face hardened as he stared at the simple leather.

“Please stand back,” he said. Leorio realized he was still holding his knife. He had no plans to jump the guy when he moved for the wallet, so he shut it and backed up. “Open that back up,” Kurapika said, and before Leorio could process what had just been said, his arm lowered and he began firing.

“What the fuck!” Leorio pressed himself against the wall as Kurapika fired three, four shots into the wallet, which leapt with every shot. On the fifth shot, the shrieking started. Leorio watched in horror as something began to ooze from within its folds, spilling onto the ground and writhing in on itself. Kurapika put another bullet into it, but it kept pouring slowly out onto the pavement. It was black, so black that Leorio’s eyes had trouble focusing on it, and it was beginning to rise off the ground when Kurapika’s gun clicked, empty. He reached into his breast pocket, but Leorio lunged and jammed the blade of his knife as far into the mass as he could. For a desperate moment, his hand disappeared into the black and his had the very real fear that he’d just lost it forever—how will I write my essays?—but then the thing began to convulse, still shrieking, then it split down the middle and disintegrated into a stinking pile of sludge. Leorio remained in a crouch, staring at the thing in horror, and didn’t even protest when Kurapika gripped his arms and hauled him to his feet.

“Best not to be so close until it’s all the way gone,” he said.

“Hunngnh,” Leorio replied.

The thing continued to shrink in on itself until finally, it was the size of a quarter and smoking faintly. Kurapika slipped on a red leather glove and withdrew a small jar from his pocket. He nudged the disc inside and screwed the lid on tightly, satisfied. He tucked it back into his jacket and bent to retrieve Leorio’s wallet. It was intact, but when Kurapika opened it there was nothing inside.

He winced. “Sorry about that, Leorio. They pull whatever they can around them like a shield when they know they’re in danger and it gets…used up.”

Leorio had recovered most of his motor skills and was in a deep squat, fingers splayed over his face. “What the fuck was that,” he said quietly.

Kurapika hesitated, and then took one of his hands and hauled him to his feet. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll buy you dinner and explain.”

“Yeah, food, okay,” Leorio said, standing a little straighter. “Food, and then explanation.”

Kurapika smiled then, and it was probably the adrenaline making him loopy, but Leorio thought it looked fantastic on that serious face. “You got it,” he said.