“Say, are you free Friday afternoon?” Rin jabs a fancy toothpick into the sandwich, passing it to the left.
Shima grabs the platter, balancing it deftly with one hand, “Yeah? Why?”
“Can you switch me shifts?”
“Uh, sure, I guess. What are you doing—”
“Thanks!” Rin beams, “I knew you’d have spare time.”
Shima shrugs, “Well, Okumura-kun, you see, I’m actually quite the busy person. I was going to go on a date—”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s okay, Shima. Someday.”
Shima shoves the platter to Yukio right as he comes back in, “Here, go take this, sensei.” He turns back to Rin, propping a hand on his hip, “What makes you think I can’t get a date?” He smirks.
“Quit your yapping,” Suguro hisses, shaking a canister of whipped cream furiously, “and move those hands, Shima!”
“Jeez,” Shima gestures an “OK” with his fingers, grabbing his notepad, “I’m just curious...why Okumura-kun is—”
“Get going already! And tell that dude in the corner to buy something or he’s got to leave.” Suguro frowns, “We’re not an internet cafe.”
Shima sighs, “On it.”
Rin gives the tempura a few jabs before taking it out, laying them on a sheet to soak up some of the extra oil. He plates it neatly with the tentsuyu and steps back for a second, admiring the bright, crispy batter as he snaps a quick photo. Then, he’s off to making the next order, slicing an egg salad sandwich into slightly uneven halves. Next is the croquettes, then the karaage, then the curry, and more and more orders flood in every minute.
Lunch rush is distressingly busy all the time, but today he doesn’t mind it too much.
Once in a while, he’ll think back to the farmer’s market and a little warm cloud of content will float in his chest for a few minutes.
He’s going to try asking her—
“Nii-san?” Yukio leans against the counter, straightening the pens in his little apron pockets, “I think it’s your turn for break.”
“Oh,” Rin glances up at the clock, “right. Suguro! Watch the curry, okay?”
Rin totters over to a table, slumping into the chair as he pillows his head on his arms, letting out a slow exhale. Maybe he’s tired after all.
Yukio comes over and fastidiously rearranges the salt and pepper shakers around the soy sauce container. “So, what are you doing on Friday?”
“You too?” Rin groans, “I’m going...somewhere.”
“Oh?” Yukio smiles, eyes alight with keen interest, “You’ve never asked to change your work schedule before. Is this important?”
Rin makes to swat at him, but Yukio leans away, barely out of reach, “It’s nothing, okay? Go bus your tables already, glasses.”
“If you say so, Nii-san,” Yukio pushes his glasses up, and the corners of his lips curve infuriatingly as he walks away.
What’s up with all of them today?
Except, before Friday has the chance to come around Shima gets taken out by the flu, so Rin ends up being assigned that shift anyway.
“Yo, Rin, why you lookin’ like a drowned cat today?” Shura asks, pumping way too much syrup into the latte, “I hear Shima bailed on you.”
“Nah, he’s sick,” Rin shrugs. “Tomorrow will probably be slow anyway.”
Izumo comes back into the kitchen, setting a stack of dirty plates next to the sink. She stretches her arms above her head, nabbing a stool to perch on. “I heard you were going somewhere though,” she poses casually.
“Hmm, not really. Wait a sec, you heard...from who?”
“Uh, no one in particular,” Izumo stares at her phone evasively. “...But I can take it for you, if you really need it.”
“Seriously? Izumo,” Rin breathes, “you’re the best! Hold on, I’m going to text her right now—”
Shura pounces, swiping his phone out of his hands, “Ooh, who? You going on a date?”
“Okumura-kun’s going on a date?” Paku leans over the counter, “With who? Do you have a picture?”
“Wait, Paku, the register, the register,” Izumo waves frantically.
“No—she, she,” Rin wipes his hands on his apron, “I haven’t asked yet.”
“Aw, good luck, kiddo!” Shura hands his phone back. “Where you going?”
“Not telling,” Rin sniffs.
“Come on,” Shura slings an arm around his shoulders, “Izumo wants to know too, right?”
“Huh? No! Why would I—”
“Spit it out, Rin! Ah wow, our little baby is growing up—”
“Shut up about it already!”
It’s just, one afternoon, when he’s sorting Yukio’s laundry out from his own, he runs his fingers over the gentle blue scrubs and it comes back to him in a dream-like bout of clarity.
It was a few years ago, and the old man was at the hospital getting surgery for appendicitis. Rin had been hanging around the deserted lobby, trying to decide what to get from the vending machine. It was late, almost eleven at night, and he remembers she’d stormed—well, maybe not stormed, but she’d certainly been angry enough—out into the hallway, arms working furiously as she pushed her wheelchair to the side, slamming the door shut.
Then, she’d proceeded to settle in the corner, becoming incredibly small, nearly unnoticed.
Rin can’t seem to recall where Yukio had been, only that he wasn’t there.
It sucks, because Yukio is the type to know what to do, not Rin, never Rin.
Despite that, the two of them were in the lobby filled with heavy white noise of things Rin couldn’t be bothered to identify and amidst all that thick, anonymous noise, she’d begun to cry.
He hadn’t noticed at first. Another thing he can’t remember was what he was doing over there in the first place, and why he’d stayed for so long.
She’d started crying, with soft, restrained sniffles, like a movie actress; sorrowful, but not too unbearable.
Except, it wouldn't last.
Rin hadn’t had the slightest idea what to do. As her crying got worse, his fears came true and no one appeared to comfort her.
By now, he’d realized she wasn’t aware he was there at all. He's painfully ashamed to admit that at one point, he’d been resolved to just stand there and hope she’d calm down and leave.
She didn’t at all, and seconds dragged slowly, excruciatingly, to minutes. By then, his situation had progressively worsened as her crying turned ugly, as all and any type of crying eventually does.
It was then, that a helpful—if somewhat naive—idea came to him. He fed his crinkled bills into the vending machine and as the chocolate bar fell to the slot with a dull thunk, he heard her sniffle again, followed by a hiccup she couldn't manage to hold in.
He'd finally mustered the courage to walk up to her, prepared to give some kind of polite consolation, only to freeze up. So, like a totally useless idiot, he'd frantically dropped the chocolate bar in her lap, along with the box of tissues he'd snatched off the receptionist's desk, muttering a quick, “sorry" as he'd ran away, face burning with frustration.
It was, in general, a pathetic memory that he'd been reluctant to recall.
But now he thinks he understands what she meant by, “when we met before."
It’s really embarrassing that she still remembers that though.
He didn’t have the guts to ask over text because it’s...it’s not a date, but he doesn’t want to—it’s impolite to ask like that, and he—
Rin pretends to inspect an attractive radish. “Hey Shiemi?”
“Oh, I was thinking, you know, because this is the last week—er, are you busy on Friday? In the afternoon?”
“I uh, do you want to go somewhere? Like, maybe the botanical garden?”
He hears her sharp intake of breath and there’s a tormenting silence that follows it.
Then, as a quiet whisper, “...Sorry, Rin. I...I can’t go there yet,” she says, “um, does it have to be there?”
“No, not at all. Uh, where do you want—”
“Can we go visit that cafe you work at?” she asks abruptly, “Please? You’re always talking about it, so…I kind of want to see, you know? It sounds really nice.”
She smiles and before he realizes it, he blurts, “Sure, we should totally go."
Why does she want to go there of all places? He’s never going to live this down.
“Really? I’m so happy!” Shiemi clasps his hands and Rin feels the blood rush to his face—crap, he probably looks like the older sibling of one of those heirloom tomatoes right now—
“Thank you, Rin! I’ve been wanting to go for a while now,” she beams. “Ah, what should I order? I haven’t been to a cafe for so long.”
It’s okay, he tells himself. He’s willing to suffer through the embarrassment.
In all honesty, Rin’s heart is nearly bursting with happiness too. He’s just so, so glad she didn’t say no.
“Are you sure this looks okay?”
“Nii-san, I’m going to be late for my shift if you don’t hurry up. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind even if you showed up in your pajamas. Let’s go already,” Yukio replies unhelpfully, “please.”
“Tch,” Rin passes him the car keys, “this is a horrible idea. I shouldn’t have agreed to this.”
“I think it’s a nice idea though,” Yukio mentions, “going to the cafe, I mean.”
“Ah, wait, just drop me off right here. I told her I’d wait for her at the courtyard.”
Yukio smiles, “See you soon.”
It’s a little chilly today, and as Rin sits on the stone bench, he rubs his arms, tugging his coat a little higher. The sun’s nowhere to be seen and he wonders if it’ll snow soon, with how white the sky has turned.
There’s a soft click-click that draws his attention and his jaw drops as he spots Shiemi.
Her hair is pinned into a messy bun with a few strands framing her face today and as always, she’s dressed in a kimono, plus an enormous pastel pink puffer coat. She’s really pretty, but she’s always pretty anyway and—more importantly, there’s something else that’s different—
“Wha— Shiemi? You’re on crutches?” Rin jogs over hastily, and he marvels that incredible moment when he looks into her eyes and she’s, she’s a lot taller? “Wow, wow, wow, you—did you walk all the way over here?”
Her cheeks are flushed as she smiles proudly, “Just from the curb. My mother dropped me off. I’ve been getting better though! The doctor said I’d be able to walk all on my own soon!”
“Whoa, that’s super cool!” Rin gushes, “Holy crap, that’s amazing! Shiemi, you’re amazing!”
What the—his vocabulary right now—crap is he saying? Can’t he say something better? He sounds like an elementary-schooler, and all he can think of saying is cool—
“Uh, what are we waiting around for, let’s go then?”
“Yeah,” she says, breathes coming out in warm puffs as they stroll over to the cafe. He’s really happy for her—he never even imagined she’d be able to walk, let alone really, really soon.
Was that part of what she meant by, “I can’t go there yet” or was it something else?
It feels like every time they talk, he wants to get to know her better, like the more he learns, the more interested he becomes.
Rin reaches for the door, determined to open it for her, when it swings open by itself. “Welcome to True Cross Cafe,” Yukio says, smiling way too widely.
“It’s nice to see you, Shiemi-san.”
Rin’s brain stutters to a halt, then proceeds to short-circuit. “What? You know each other?” Rin asks incredulously as Yukio ushers them inside. Rin makes for the counter, but Yukio sets a hand on his shoulder, seating them at a table instead.
“Yeah,” Shiemi nods shyly, “Yuki-chan’s always at the hospital.”
Yukio sets two menus down, whipping out a pen, “May I get you anything to drink?”
“Why didn’t you tell me,” Rin hisses at him, “you knew each other? What are we, a sit-down restaurant now? Where’d these menus come from anyway? Don’t expect me to tip you for this—”
“Wow, I don’t know what to pick,” Shiemi laughs, “ah, I haven’t really had coffee before. What do you think I should get, Rin?”
Rin looks down at the menu, trying to collect his thoughts, “Depends on if you’re okay with bitter stuff, I guess. We’ve got tea too.”
“No, it’s okay!” Shiemi says resolutely, “I’m going to get coffee today.”
“Might I suggest,” Yukio points to the menu, “our White Chocolate Hazelnut Latte? The savoriness of roasted nuts dresses the bitter tang of our beans quite well. Along with the white chocolate, which adds a hint of sweetness, it’s a delicate balance to the depth of our other sensations. I believe you’d like it, Shiemi-san.”
“Sure, that sounds great! Could, could I get that then?”
“Of course, and for you?” Yukio prompts.
“I’ll just have Iced Coffee,” Rin says, smoothing his thumb over the corner of the menu, “er, actually, make that Dutch Coffee.”
Yukio nods, scribbling onto his notepad, “Allow me to confirm, I have one White Chocolate Hazelnut Latte and one Dutch Coffee. Will that be everything for you today, or would you like to keep the menu in case you change your mind later?”
“Um, maybe let’s keep them for a bit?” Shiemi asks.
“Absolutely,” Yukio clicks his pen, “I’ll have your orders in just a minute.” He reaches over to the next booth, “In the meantime, please enjoy our complimentary meringues.”
“Wow, Yuki-chan is amazing. He’s so cool and mature,” Shiemi sighs, “I wish I could be like that with customers.”
Rin plays with a napkin idly, “Yeah.”
It’s not a date, so he shouldn’t feel peeved that they’re sitting here, complimenting Yukio...but he does anyway.
“Have you known each other for a while?” Shiemi inspects the meringues, picking one up delicately.
That’s what Rin wants to ask, really, but he’ll grill Yukio about it later. “We’re twins.”
Shiemi looks up with a dumbfounded expression and Rin wants to laugh a little at her surprise, “Really? You seem so different!”
“Well, we’re fraternal,” Rin shrugs.
“I only found out just barely that you two knew each other,” he adds, trying to keep his tone casual.
“Yeah, that’s such a nice coincidence. I suspected you worked at the same cafe, but I never thought you were the one Yuki-chan always talks about.”
Yuki-chan. Are they really close or something?
“These meringues are so intricate! I can’t believe they’re cats,” Shiemi laughs.
Just like that, his mood lightens, and Rin finds himself easing back into their familiar rhythm. “Yeah, Konekomaru makes the best desserts. Here,” he grabs the menu, “I’ll tell you about the cakes. You said you wanted to try some before, right?”
Shiemi nibbles on the meringue, eyes shining with barely-withheld anticipation, “They all sound so good, I can’t decide. I love the feeling of this place. It’s so cute and cozy! This menu is quite pretty too.”
Rin glances over the menu. It looks like Paku's handwriting. “Yeah, I didn’t even know we had these—”
“That’s because we didn’t,” Yukio sets Rin’s glass down in front of him. “It was their idea, to make menus for you two,” he smiles. “Your Dutch Coffee. Please enjoy. Shiemi-san, our barista will be bringing your latte shortly. I hope you’ll like the surprise,” he says, heading to the next table.
RIn shrugs again, “I guess Yukio must have realized, and told them. It’s slow right now, so they like to do stuff for customers,” he waves a hand like you know, but she really doesn’t.
Yukio must have blabbed about his plans. Now they’re doing all this extra fancy stuff like these menus and free meringues—
“It’s mostly just Suguro though,” Rin gestures with a hand lazily again, “he’s an overachiever in everything. None of us can even keep up with him.”
“That sounds like so much fun,” Shiemi props her hand under her chin. “Have you all worked here for a while then?”
“Yeah,” Rin waves as Suguro comes over, “are you going to do your cool thing?”
Suguro smirks, “Better tip well, Okumura.” He nods politely at Shiemi, “Please forgive our idiot if he ever says anything stupid. He means well.”
Shiemi giggles a little, but soon, she's leaning on the edge of her seat, watching as Suguro shapes a pair of puffy white rabbit ears out of foam. He dots two eyes and an x for a mouth with a flourish, grinning proudly, “Enjoy!”
“Wow, thank you!” Shiemi claps cheerfully. “This is so amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“No problem,” Suguro waves, “see you around.”
Rin sips his cold, cold coffee and it still feels like fire through his veins, and he’s sort of...really proud and really warm right now. He’s so grateful, that she’s happy.
“So, let’s pick out a dessert!” Rin smiles.
It’s kind of dumb, but he feels a little like he’s in a dreamy version of Cinderella or whatever silly princess story, only all the parallels are wrong and neither of them have a stepmother, and there’s nothing actually magical about this—
He wants to stay here, with her, with the people most important to him. He wishes the time would go a little slower.
After about ten minutes, neither Shiemi nor Rin can decide, and they force Yukio to pick for them. He does so without any hesitation, glasses glinting merrily, and Rin suspects he and Izumo have been scheming this whole time. Both of the choices seem like stuff she would pick, even if she’d deny liking cute things.
Yukio whispers something in Shiemi’s ear that makes her look at Rin, then they share a grin as he saunters off.
Rin’s definitely going to grill him about this later.
Shiemi spends a whole minute taking pictures of her bumblebee cake roll and Rin’s panda mousse cake. Initially, she’s super hesitant about eating it, like her latte, but once she does it disappears with frightening speed, despite how daintily she does everything. He ends up sharing his panda with her too.
They usually take turns playing whatever music in the cafe, but today, he can tell it’s all Izumo’s refined piano pieces, mixed in with a few of Suguro’s enka. It’s quiet and nice.
It’s easier to talk here, unlike the market, and he wants to remember the words and inflections to her voice, latching on to each and every sentence.
Rin talks about the happiest parts of his past, growing up in the monastery surrounded by the kindest people. He glosses over some of the fights he used to get into but is still a little proud of, his first job that he totally screwed up on, that weird period of time when he worked in the mall making ice cream, and funny antics Kuro gets up to. She laughs at all the right moments, and he laughs too.
The cafe gets gradually emptier and soon all the other guests are gone, so his laughter gets louder, freer and his heart likes to skip beats every time he manages to make her laugh.
They spend the rest of the afternoon drinking way too much coffee and Yukio keeps bringing them other tidbits to try, like candied strawberries and macarons and a really bitter tea mix and sort of malformed fish-shaped marshmallows and cookies hard as bricks.
Shiemi talks too, about how her grandmother taught her everything related to gardening, to medicine. Her face is really, really red when she admits she’s terrible at cooking. All the things she makes are healthy, but inevitably taste like grass. She talks about liking rain and being afraid of fuzzy whitish-green mold and the darker shades of the color purple.
Rin asks about her kimonos and she swats at his arm lightly when he laughs at her for her answer.
He’s laughing so hard he’s almost crying at this point, and his stomach kind of aches from how much coffee and food he’s had, so he escapes to the restroom.
When he comes back, he finds Yukio in his seat, along with Izumo, and Suguro and Konekomaru and they’re just casually talking about carpet squares? What? What, is everyone here today? Why does he have to be friends with such nosy people?
The cafe’s pretty much empty at this point and Konekomaru produces a deck of cards from nowhere. Their tiny table is soon cluttered with all the day-old pastries and cakes—cut into twelve miniature sections courtesy of Izumo, some more of the bitter tea they’ve started using like penalty shots for losing, a really random bag of wasabi peas, a box of matcha pocky—raided from Paku’s secret stash because she’s on an actual date, very old rubbery mochi, also really random blueberry cheesecake kit-kats.
Shiemi is brilliant at Old Maid, yet somehow terrible at Go Fish. Well, everyone’s terrible at Go Fish because Suguro wipes the floor with all of them. Then they teach Shiemi how to play Scum, but with a bunch of extra rules and crap so it’s like she’s part of the team already. Rin suspects they go way easy on her, or Yukio’s cheating somehow because she gets out right after him every time and Izumo and Suguro are cutthroat for third place and Rin’s been scum four times in a row now.
It’s getting late though. When Shiemi’s phone rings like the twelfth chime on their little party, Konekomaru gives her a takeout box with a bunch more desserts and lots of numbers are exchanged with promises to meet again.
As they sit on the bench by the curb waiting for her mother to pick her up, soft white snowflakes puff about in the air, swept around by the wind.
“Thank you, Rin,” Shiemi cradles the takeout box to her chest. “I really had a lot of fun today,” she smiles.
“Yeah, me too,” Rin grins. “I—”
He sneezes suddenly, and Shiemi sets her takeout box aside hastily, “Here, do you want my coat?”
“What? No way, I can’t take your coat,” Rin protests vehemently. “Besides, it wouldn’t fit—”
“But you’re walking back to the cafe, right?” Shiemi urges, “When my mom comes, I’ll give it to you, so promise me you’ll wear it! You’ll catch a cold,” she insists.
“Uh, okay,” Rin relents. It’s dark, and...whatever. Her coat looks really warm anyway. He’ll just drape it like a pink puffy cape. No problem.
“Really though,” Shiemi smiles, reaching a hand out to catch a few of the cotton-like snowflakes, “I’ve never had this much fun. I’ll remember it forever,” she says, eyes narrowing with promise, “and ever and ever.”
Rin laughs softly, “What are you talking about? We’ll have lots more fun from here on out, got it?”
The searing glow of car headlights sweeps across the quiet courtyard and Rin takes the box from her, so Shiemi can stand.
It looks hard, really hard when she walks—it’s so effortless to him that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch her. Some part of Rin wants her to take it easy, because it looks hard.
But she’s gritting her teeth and edging forward like an enormous pink penguin and he doesn’t ever want to tell her to give up on anything, especially not this. So, he holds the box, and they walk the distance of about twenty steps to the curb like climbing a mountain or scaling a barbed wire fence and all he can do is give her a high five at the very end as her mother opens the door.
“See you again soon, Rin!” She leans out the window, “Thank you!”
“Yeah! See you soon!” Rin yells, clutching the really warm pink coat like some fluffy animal, standing at the curb, watching her pumpkin—no, it should be kabocha—carriage amble away into the snowy blur.
He should be the one saying, “thank you.”
This is the happiest he’s been in a while too. He has everyone to thank for that, and most importantly, he has Shiemi to thank for this incredible lightness in his chest, like he’ll float away any minute now, just from how happy he is.
He wants to go to that botanical garden with her someday.