Akira had so many questions, he didn’t know where to start. All he could do was look at the kind of person Ryou had managed to become and smile. Who could have ever hoped to think the quiet, standoffish boy who would much rather sit in a corner with a book adults found hard to read would ever end up becoming a minor celebrity with his own (albeit scientific) online talk show? Akira had always known he did care, in his own way, and he had hoped that Ryou would find it easier to connect with people, but he couldn’t have even dreamed that Ryou would be running for him with such a wide, open, happy expression. (In his dreams, it was Ryou staring dumbfounded while Akira leaped for him.) The gun was a surprise, but then he’d probably always be a little strange, he did just come back from America, and he didn’t actually hurt anyone. He wouldn’t do that.
Even if he did hurt someone, he’d have a good reason.
After parking his car behind a warehouse, Ryou weaved effortlessly through narrow backstreets, Akira’s wrist loose in his hand. The sun hung low in the sky, casting an orange glow over the chipped gray of the buildings they passed. Despite the time, they encountered no housewives on their way back from grocery shopping, or children returning from school. They passed a supermarket that displayed a neglected assortment of fruit just outside, a single blank-faced employee milling about inside as if no one would even think to take one, or as if it wouldn’t matter. The aging owner of a second hand store rolled down its metal roller blinds early, leading Akira to believe it simply wasn’t any use to stay open any longer; the shelves inside were bulging with dusty merchandise nobody seemed to want to pick up.
Just past a decrepit laundromat as silent and empty as the rest of the streets they’d wandered, Ryou came to a sudden stop, causing Akira to bump into him due to his distraction. The tiny building in front of them seemed as run-down and lonely as everything else. The dark windows in the red lattice door gave the scene inside full privacy, and their surroundings were desolate, no sound but the wind whistling through weathered chimes. It sent a chill down Akira’s spine, but Ryou simply gave him a bright smile and reached for the door handle, and his objections were forgotten. He’d made his decision to trust Ryou long ago.
Entering with hesitant steps, Akira peered inside, letting his eyes slide across the scene he had entered. His eyebrows quirked up and he looked back at Ryou. This was the last place Akira expected him to take him to.
Ryou gave Akira a nod and a small smile as he moved past him and past the only other customer in the establishment - another boy from a different high school, sitting at the counter in quiet conversation with the similarly-aged barista - to take a seat in one of the booths.
It was a moderately comfortable bench, better than a lecture hall seat but worse than his car, and the café interior itself was similar, comfortable but of unremarkable quality. Both were clad in warm colors, reds and browns in soothing dark shades, lending the place a cozy, intimate feel. Three booths and four seats at the counter were all the tiny café had room for - Ryou must have had bathrooms bigger than that - and it was tucked in the ass end of an alley in the middle of nowhere. In other words, it was tiny and unremarkable, a description that seemed completely at odds with everything Akira knew about Ryou.
Then again, Ryou was friends with him, so who really knew?
“I thought we could catch up,” Ryou said, shocking Akira out of his train of thought. “It’s been a long time, and this place gets great reviews for its coffee.”
Akira stole a glance at the barista, his eyes filled with both disbelief and awe at the same time. If this guy was good enough for Ryou to compliment him, why was this place empty? Maybe it had to do with Ryou’s uncanny ability to find those undiscovered gems. Maybe Ryou had adjusted his demands to suit Akira’s likes. It could be any number of things, but one thing was certain: if Ryou thought Akira would like it, he would.
So he smiled. “It has. It’s really good to see you again.”
Across from him, Ryou’s expression changed, like a melting mochi ice cream, something soft already becoming practically mush.
The barista briefly interrupted his conversation to take their orders. He called over the counter, since the two meters across that separated them were hardly worth going all the way around for. Ryou ordered a strong black coffee, leaving the exact specifics to the barista’s discretion. He had the same dark glint in his eye as when he saw someone new, the same one Akira felt on him, piercing through him, that first time they met: a look that could strip skin off bones and left one vulnerable and bare. It was a testament to either the barista’s confidence or his obliviousness that he responded with no change in expression other than a subtle, almost catlike smile and turned his attention to Akira instead.
It was tempting to order the same thing. It would be a simple order, and Akira was sure Ryou would appreciate it if he showed some sign of having matured even a little after all the time they’d been apart, but it seemed pointless for looking cool if he was just going to dump it full of cream and sugar like he would. After all, when it came to pulling all-nighters after forgetting his homework until the last day, Akira would rather go for the sickly, chemical sweet of an energy drink, anyway. So a soda it was.
Before long the sounds of boiling water and the smell of freshly ground beans filled the air, and the barista was back to discussing school life with his other customer. He seemed to do some kind of chemistry with the beakers on the counter as he spoke, manipulating his tools with an effortless skill more similar to Ryou or Miki than anything Akira could hope to be capable of.
Ryou cocked his head to get Akira’s attention as soon as that of the other people was off of them, and the look he gave pulled on Akira like a black hole. “Get a phone.” His jaw was set, the corners of his mouth angled slightly downwards. Ryou had always been intense, but rarely with this much intent behind it, to the point a light sweat broke out on the back of Akira’s neck. “I couldn’t track your GPS, so I had to track the girl’s.” The girl?
“You know Miki-chan?” Ryou’s face was still save for a minute twitch in his eyebrow, a tell-tale sign that he found the question not worth answering. “How did you-?”
“Get a phone,” Ryou simply repeated.
“Alright, alright...” Akira sighed and rested his chin on his arms, folded over one another on the table in front of him. It was pathetic to admit, but the idea of such a concentrated bundle of technology scared him. When he watched Miki use hers, barely looking as she keyed in an impossible button combination, the menus upon menus she effortlessly navigated; if he tried, he’d probably just drop it and make a fool of himself. And an even more insidious fear lurked under the surface: Akira didn’t have many friends. What if-
“I’ll call you.”
Akira’s eyes widened and a light blush hit his cheeks. He averted his eyes, unsure how to react to how Ryou managed to say just the right thing to soothe his insecurities, or the thought that he would go to such lengths just for him, as well. Ryou wasn’t the type of person to lie or say he’d do things he wasn’t fully prepared to, after all. Maybe he would have called earlier if Akira hadn’t stubbornly refused to get a personal phone - they’d had practically no contact since Ryou’s adoption. But then again, maybe not, because Ryou must have been incredibly busy all those years, and he wasn’t the kind of person to waste time and energy on frivolities, either.
It was hard to resist the temptation of being able to talk to Ryou any time he wanted, but who’d bother with a phone only to have fewer numbers to call than fingers on a hand? A compromise would have to do.
Akira waved off the suggestion with a sheepish smile. “You could just call the Makimura house for that...” Especially if he knew Miki anyway.
“In this day and age?” Ryou sighed.
Akira was about to retort, but the barista came to deliver their drinks, and whatever objection he had got lost in the excitement. The coffee smelled good, if nothing else.
Ryou observed it with the same intense look as before, even as he thanked the boy and his mouth twisted into his usual polite smile. Akira’s own smile was wider and more genuine, not in the least because of how this interaction showed him this charming, successful Ryou was no different from the Ryou of his childhood that had trailed behind him to scrutinize any newcomer before he’d approach. When the barista returned behind the counter and disappeared to wash some dishes, judging from the sound, and it was just the two of them again, Akira’s smile softened into something nostalgic and fond.
For a moment there was just silence; the soft sound of suds in the sink and the clink of clattering ceramic the only thing that echoed in the otherwise completely quiet café. The other customer was completely forgotten in the atmosphere of two old friends reconnecting after a much-too-long time. Akira stirred his soda with a straw with a dopey smile still on his face, but that was fine because Ryou smiled too, when he picked up his cup and inhaled deeply of its aroma.
“I missed you,” he said as he peered over his cup, giving Akira a look so impossibly warm, Akira thought he might combust. His chest filled to bursting with the pride of knowing his blank-faced, emotionally distant friend could manage expressions like these now.
And he looked good, happy. The way the corners of his eyes and tiny mouth crinkled up, creating just the slightest hint of dimples in his cheeks; how the light hit his pale eyes and made them seem like the ocean sparkling on a clear, calm day; his relaxed pose, straight and proper but without any tension making him seem stiff. He looked like the subject of a Renaissance painting, maybe an angel sent by God to aid mankind. That would suit him.
“I missed you, too.”
Ryou gave him a smile that outshone the sun as a matter of response.
His reaction to the coffee was a unique one as well: a satisfied sigh. Ryou had never seemed anything other than annoyed by food before, so this must be an incredible cup of coffee.
“Is it that good?”
“That boy has some skill, I suppose.” It must have been the best cup of coffee Ryou had ever had.
Akira didn’t exactly like coffee, but if it was really that good... “Can I try some?”
Without a word, Ryou set the cup down in front of him. “I’m curious what you think,” he said when Akira raised it to his mouth.
He took a sip and immediately shoved the cup back towards Ryou, his face contorted in disgust. “It tastes like it hates me!” That was an understatement. Somehow he felt like he’d been punched in the face. The liquid attacked his tongue until the only taste that existed was pure bitter, and drew moisture from his mouth in a way Akira hadn’t even realized was possible. Akira didn’t understand how such an evil concoction could exist. “How can you drink something like that?”
“It stimulates the nervous system, making one more alert and open to new ideas.”
Akira let his head roll back and exhaled noisily, a noise somewhere between a chuckle and a sniff. “So you don’t even like it?”
“I didn’t say that.” Ryou wrapped his long fingers delicately around the cup. “It’s something of an acquired taste, but once you get used to it, you start picking out the details like the specific flavors of different beans, roasting technique, water temperature...” He put the cup to his mouth again, letting the brew sit on his tongue for a few seconds with his eyes closed. “And this cup seems to be a house blend, brewed specifically to bring out the more subtle flavors while ensuring the caffeine has maximum effect... I do believe our barista was trying to show off.”
Ryou’s face had returned to the blank blandness Akira remembered from his childhood, though with a hint of a smile dancing around his eyes. Typical, Ryou being able to dissect a situation from little more than a glance, or in this case a sip.
“You’re way too cool...” Akira sighed and he shook his head with the fond resignation of someone used to being far surpassed by a loved one. And it was true, wasn’t it? Ryou had become someone who could do anything, even interact with other people. In fact, judging by his podcast, “Professor Ryo’s Science Lab”, Akira would be surprised if anyone could possibly measure up anymore. “Oh, but that reminds me, I was wondering.” The next look he gave Ryou was of someone trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube using nothing but their eyes. “Why anthropology? I always thought you didn’t like people.”
“Why do you run?” Ryou shot back instead of answering, his gaze fixed on Akira with that flesh-rending look that could pierce anything.
“Ah... Well, I do track, so...” Nothing visibly changed in Ryou’s stare, but something in it compelled Akira into silence.
“Yes, I’ve seen your times. They’re unimpressive.”
That caught Akira by surprise. Did Miki show him? But why? She always said running was about having fun and challenging yourself, so did that really make any sense?
Ryou spoke again before Akira could fully finish his line of thought. “So I ask again: why do you run? The human ability of movement can never reach that of dogs, cats or birds, and even compared to other humans, you fall short. So why do you run?”
Akira frowned. Did Ryou really not understand? “It’s not about being the best,” he explained, slowly since he didn’t have his exact reasons clear even to himself. “I just like doing things with friends, and when I run, I don’t have to think about what I’m doing, as long as I keep going forward... So I run because... it’s fun.”
The cold, calculating look in Ryou’s eyes faded, replaced by another glint of humor as he gave a few slow, deliberate nods. “As I expected. It’s not unlike the reason I study humans,” he said with a smile. “Humans make no sense. They are selfish, unpredictable and cruel, taking pleasure in destroying that which they don’t understand, even one another. And yet, they are kind, altruistic and generous, even when it is in direct opposition to their own best interest.” He spoke slowly, his soft voice warm and smooth. Akira didn’t think either of them had blinked at all since Ryou’s eyes locked onto his with that magnetic stare of his. “Any other species would have left that cat to die, or eaten it. It would have been the most logical action to take. Only a human would try to save it, regardless of the likelihood of success. Logically, you would have faced greater emotional distress the longer it suffered, so I thought...” Ryou shook his head. Maybe he understood that even now, the memory of that time still wrenched at Akira’s heart.
“Over time, I’ve come to understand that many times the actions that seem logical in my mind, are unthinkable in that of other people and I started looking for ways to make sense of it all. The reasons humans have empathy; the reasons they choose not to use it; all the things that don’t make sense. As long as I keep studying, even if it’s something that does not come naturally to me, I will make progress.” His eyes widened as if he realized something, and at long last he tore them from Akira’s. They landed on his cup, their stare incredulous but not a fraction less intense. “In a way, much like the coffee, I think I’ve come to enjoy it.”
The café’s quiet atmosphere shattered like glass from an outburst of laughter that escaped from Akira’s mouth. The other customer turned his head at the sudden noise but Akira barely even registered it, fully focused on trying to calm himself, to stop the pangs of pain in his chest and stomach from his interrupted breathing.
Ryou gave Akira that half-lidded look of impatient expectation he’d always had when Akira thought he knew something Ryou didn’t and wouldn’t tell him right away.
“You’re still the same Ryou,” Akira said, breathless with a fond smile. Knowing that for all the waves Ryou had made in his field, due to his age, his personality, his talk show; that underneath that charming façade he was still the same people-shy boy that had always trailed behind Akira lit a fire in his chest he couldn’t fully explain.
Ryou merely gave him a flat look. “I would think so.”
“I just mean that you’re still not good with people. I’m glad.” An awkward chuckle escaped from behind Akira’s lips as he became aware of how rude that sounded. “No, I mean, not that I’m glad you’re kind of awkward!” He reached over the table to pat Ryou’s hand in a soothing gesture, leaving it there with just the tips of their fingers touching. “It’s just a relief that you’re not perfect...”