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as bittersweet as...

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It takes five years, give or take, a whole lot of doubt and countless cups of coffee.

Adjusting to living a “clean” life doesn’t exactly come easy. There are reminders everywhere, intrusive little thoughts that sneak into his head and try to convince him that he really is more suited to a life of being a less-than-honest individual. He sees an asshole in a restaurant and thinks about how easy it would be to alter his receipt, adding a few zeros to the tip line to make sure the waitress is well-paid for the harassment she’s very professionally tolerating. Every cell phone in a back pocket practically waves at him. Everyone who ticks him off in a supermarket is an impulse away from having a product with a security tag slipped into their jacket. Erasing those itching urges from his mind takes time, too.

Sometimes, Makoto gets overwhelmed by self-disgust, guilt eating away at him when he remembers where the money filling his bank account comes from. He’s donated a large chunk of it, to organizations helping victims of human trafficking and charities that help fund legal defenses for those who can’t afford good lawyers. He’s still left with more than he’ll ever need, but, hey, he doesn’t want to give himself any excuse to return to a life of petty crime and cons just so he can afford a good cup of dark roast on a lazy morning.

He gives himself a goal and a dream and works his way toward it. When he’d been younger, there had been a café not far from his local station that his mother really liked. His memory of it is blurry, but he remembers wood-cabin walls and soft lighting and the type of warmth that is welcome even on the hottest summer day. He wants something like that, wants to fill it with the strong fragrance of roasted coffee and sweet bread, and have shelves made of Burmese rosewood that he’s lined with cat-motif embellished mugs.

He starts by traveling, first around Japan, trying coffees from local roasteries and tucked-away shops. He keeps a notebook that fills up way too quickly, until he finally gives in to the convenience of the digital era, making himself folders on his phone filled with photos and tasting notes, laughing when shop owners teasingly refer to him as a sommelier. Once he finishes touring the five main islands of Japan, there comes the question of where to head to next.

France is tempting, even though he’s still very uneasy with his French. Maybe he can enlist Cynthia’s help while he floats around Paris and from there, the rest of the continent is within easy reach. There’s also the U.S., wide and open, and there he can rely on himself. If he hits the West Coast, he might be able to tempt Abbie into a lunch date or two. That is, if her cell reception stays out of the no-service zone for long enough to make the arrangements.

The problem with going stateside is that, last he’s heard, Laurent’s working in Washington, D.C. He’s weaseled himself into a job as a diplomat or an interpreter or whatever the hell it is he does now. Makoto doesn’t bother remembering the details. Politics seems like a good fit for him: honest work on the surface, manipulation and mind games underneath. Makoto tries not to keep in touch. It’s a one-way effort.

Someone’s snitched to him on Makoto’s activities—Kudo, the fucking traitor—and so Laurent sends him recommendations. Makoto knows the blond bastard is probably smug as all hell thinking that his suggestion of a coffee shop is something Makoto actually took to heart, despite the fact that Laurent’s comments have nothing to do with it.

Laurent sends him articles, news clips, social media posts, all about little out-of-the-way coffee shops, about fairs and festivals, about popular new products that have been gaining attention here and there. Makoto knows he can just block his number and put an end to it, but… he doesn’t.

As much as he hates to admit it, the things Laurent sends him always manage to pique his interest, and he can’t stop himself from reading and watching and listening and driving himself crazy knowing that if he’s stupid enough to give in, he’ll end up suckered into another elaborate game that Laurent’s set up. So while he would love to check out the little roastery in the forested foothills of Yosemite or the historic Caffè Gambrinus in Naples, he stays far, far away.

If recommendations were all that Laurent sent, then maybe Makoto wouldn’t have such a problem in pushing him out of his thoughts. Except, every now and then, little packages find their way to the places where Makoto is staying. Makoto doesn’t know how he does it—how he knows—but he hopes that whoever gave Laurent a government job lives to regret it.

The first time he receives one, it’s handed to him by the receptionist of the hotel he’s spending a week at. He takes a single look at Laurent’s name above the return address and turns to drop the whole box into the trash can beside the counter. The receptionist casts him a curious look, her face soured, so he throws her a pleasant smile and moves on.

He does the same thing with the next few that find their way to him, because he knows better. He’s not falling for it again—for the tricks, the charms, the lines, the looks, the lies. He will not let curiosity get the better of him. He’s not risking it. So straight into the trash each one goes.

All it takes is one mistake, after all, one tug on the line that Laurent’s fishing with.

He’s in Toronto when he slips, having spent a good portion of his day at a coffee shop that has open black umbrellas hanging from its ceiling and its own roastery in the next town over. After the months he’s spent in Japan, using English all day is exhausting. Even the few cups of coffee he’d had in the afternoon aren’t enough to keep his mind from going fuzzy as he drags himself back to his hotel.

There’s mail for him, he’s informed when he walks past the front desk, and Makoto groans. It’s late and he’s tired and he doesn’t see a place to dump it anywhere in the lobby of the little boutique hotel. Begrudgingly, he takes the package up to his room, throwing it on the desk and making a promise to himself to chuck it first thing in the morning, before passing out on top of the bed.

Except morning comes with a dry mouth and the itch of grease in his hair. Makoto fills and turns on the electric kettle in the room, leaving it to boil while he goes off to shower. And then, as he sits with a towel wrapped around his waist and drinks objectively bad hotel-room coffee, he stares at the box on the table that mocks him with Laurent’s name.

What could the bastard possibly be sending him? Despite the messages he sends every week, he’s never once asked Makoto if he’s gotten his little boxes. He’s never even mentioned them. What the hell is it? What’s inside? What is so damn important that he keeps—

With a growl of frustration, he rips Laurent’s name off the package and the tape off the folds, and as soon as the damn box is open, it hits him. The fragrance is exuberant, flooding the room with notes of apricots and peaches and orange blossoms.

Makoto stares at the embedded gold-foil label and the matte-black box that contains Ospina Dynasty whole roasted beans, of the Grand Cru Classé variety. He knows he should just dump it, throw it in the trash and never look back. It’s a pretentious gift, a try-hard gift, a gift that screams of Laurent’s ego and effort. It’s not like Makoto can’t afford to buy himself coffee that costs eight hundred fucking dollars, so what the hell is Laurent playing at?

Makoto stares and he fumes and he considers sending Laurent a fuck-you message in the form of a video of the beans getting flushed down the hotel toilet, and yet…

He has a small, hand-crank grinder in his backpack and shitty coffee that he really doesn’t want to take another sip of in his paper cup.

And, well, it’d be a shame to waste good beans… Right?

Drinking the Ospina coffee is like drinking fine wine. The complex flavors swirl on his tongue, dancing with hints of chocolate and macadamia that meld with the fruity fragrance in a way that would have been impossible to comprehend after only one sip. The roast on the beans is French classic, leaving the body of the coffee lush and velvet-like. When his insult of a coffee cup is drained, a slow half-hour later, the aftertaste that sits perched on his tongue is crisp, clean, and refreshing. It’s left him buzzing—not from a caffeine-high, but from the thrill of something unfamiliar and beautiful, as if he’s just taken in a new lover.

He makes himself a second cup as he gets dressed, savouring it even more slowly and sighing over the warm, sweet wisps that come rising from the fresh brew. Now this is coffee…

He knows why Laurent’s sent it. Because no matter how generous Makoto’s bank balance is now, he’ll go an eternity before buying something so needlessly lavish for himself. It’s a bribe. It’s a bribe, trying to get him to reopen communication and Makoto is not falling for it. He’ll drink the coffee, happily at that, but he will not permit himself to feel as if he owes Laurent for it. It’s coffee, not a long overdue and groveling apology.

Later, while Makoto carefully reseals the coffee bag, there’s a moment of horror as he realizes exactly how many of Laurent’s gifts he’s thrown away. They couldn’t possibly all have been the same?! Not even Laurent would be so ostentatious, unless he somehow knew that Makoto hadn’t accepted any of the packages.

No, he is not going to think about it. He will not let his thoughts dwell on Laurent anymore than they already do. He will not permit that man to pull him back. The next time he receives a package it’s going straight into the trash again, he decides, where Laurent and his gifts belong.

Makoto holds onto the Ospina coffee and the week that follows, each day started with a fresh cup of the bold and aromatic brew, is the best that he’s had in a while.

From Toronto, he moves on to Montreal, dipping his toes into another test of his French skills. Conversations are broken and he needs to rely on the translation app on his phone an embarrassing amount of the time, until some frustrated worker snaps at him to just speak English. He’s tempted to snap back in Japanese, but resigns himself and carries on. Arguing isn’t worth the effort.

The coffee at the shop he visits that day is rather lackluster, a bit too bitter and a bit too burnt. He could have gone to a chain shop if he wanted that kind of disappointment. His thoughts keep drifting to the last twenty-five grams of the Ospina beans in his bag and from there to the one responsible for them being in Makoto’s possession.

He knows it’s a coincidence but he still glares at the screen when it lights up with a new text from the 金髪クソ野郎 himself. It’s not about the coffee, but it is—as it always is with him now—about coffee. The message comes with an online article attached, detailing a small event in Quebec City, a few days from now. It’s a workshop of sorts, showcasing how green coffee is processed and roasted. Under that is a short list of recommended cafés within the capital city, a couple of which strike Makoto’s interest.

Except how can he trust Laurent’s recommendations for a coffee shop and be sure it isn’t some ploy to pull him into another con? He’s asked Laurent for space and time before and gotten it—that is, until it was no longer convenient. Makoto has tried the whole going clean thing more than once already and it’s never stuck, but that was because there was a certain French bastard prying his way in. So this time, he’s not giving him the chance.

He keeps traveling, keeps moving, and purposefully avoids any place that Laurent’s mentioned because he knows the spiral too well now. A cup of coffee will turn into a conversation with a seemingly sweet barista and that’ll turn into a deal with raw sugar importers who are also smugglers and then he’s tied up in some walk-in freezer, his balls and his butt turning to icicles while Laurent’s off counting his future cash.

No, he’s had enough, Makoto tells himself as the stockbroker sitting at the café table next to his whispers angrily into a Bluetooth earpiece about transactions that sound an awful lot like insider trading. No, he’s not getting involved. The clean life. The honest life. The simple, boring life. That’s what he’s after. He’s not following in his father’s footsteps—he shoves away the prickling inklings of a scheme that would involve high-rise buildings, tailored suits, and a supposedly advanced AI program that could beat the markets…

Makoto leaves his coffee cup half-full and flees.

The packages from Laurent continue to follow him. The next one he gets, he doesn’t throw away. He means to, makes to, but then curiosity strikes like the devil. Inside is another brand, though not one that Makoto’s heard of. A quick Google search tells him it’s from the same roastery that had held the workshop in Quebec City, the one he’d skipped.

He doesn’t wait till morning this time, opening up the bag and filling his lungs with the rich velvet of the fragrance. The scent of it remains strong as he pours hot water over freshly ground coffee, his notes already open on his phone as he logs his observations. The coffee is sourced from Costa Rica and spreads the taste of figs, sweet cherries and a spicy snap reminiscent of gingerbread across his palate. It’s intense and it’s fantastic.

Makoto marks the Alejo Castro with a star and locks his phone, returning his full attention to the beverage. The Ospina brand is not one Makoto would care to keep in his coffee shop—it’s too over-the-top and would attract the wrong crowd—but this… Well, he can never tell Laurent about this.

Late summer turns to fall and then, as the air cools into winter, Makoto sneaks his way across the United States. He decides to avoid the East Coast after all, not wanting to “chance” an encounter, and has a grand time in the southern states. The people are friendly, the food is rich, and while staying at a share house, Makoto gets to experience the grand tradition of Thanksgiving. He’s bewildered by the practice of putting cranberry jam on roast turkey, but hey, Japan has its own assortment of foods that others would consider unusual. The sea urchin gonads and cod milt tend to turn tourists off, which is a shame, in his opinion.

Laurent’s coffees show up every three to four weeks, sometimes earlier, sometimes a little later. It’s not clockwork and Makoto finds himself wondering if he’s ever missed one. Not that he intends to ask. He doesn’t want to send Laurent any encouragement.

He does, however, realize the theme behind Laurent’s selections. Most of them are from the shops, fairs and events that Laurent includes in his weekly texts, sent to him after Makoto fails to heed his suggestions. The few odd ones out must be from places Laurent’s gone himself, the packages bearing custom stamps from Germany, Brazil, and Taiwan.

Makoto doesn’t know if Laurent is lucky or if he’s just a fool, but he likes everything that Laurent sends him, enough that he almost regrets skipping on the recommendations before. A few more of the selections end up starred in his notes, though he’s asterisked them for his own sanity. If he ends up with wall racks filled more with Laurent’s choices than his own, he’ll never live it down.

Makoto arrives in Arizona a few days before the new year and meets Abbie at a coffeehouse on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. He’s not sure why he’s agreed to hike several miles along the canyon in order to get to the plateau point from where Abbie wants to watch the first sunrise of the year, but it’s too late to back down now. There are a few more cafés around the canyon, so he splits his time between bone-breakingly long treks around the national park with Abbie—including an ill-advised hike down to the Colorado River—and far more comfortable sessions lounging in armchairs and humming over steaming mugs of coffee.

He stays in a restored wooden cabin and while he’s offered Abbie the bed or the sofa, she tells him to fuck off and camps out in a tent further down the way. She does barge in to use the shower and, although he’s absolutely fine with that, her last visit coincides with one of the lounge staff coming by his door to make a delivery. It’s not the fact that she answers the door in nothing but a towel and a glare in order to snatch the package from the unsuspecting worker that bothers Makoto; it’s the fact that she immediately sees exactly who it’s from.

“You told him you were coming here?” she asks, clicking her tongue as she closes the cabin door in the face of the stunned lodge staffer.

“No,” Makoto mutters, making a lame attempt to take it from her and finding no success. “He just always knows…”

“Change phones,” Abbie advises, turning the box over and giving it a shake. “He’s probably got a tracker on you.”

Yeah, he’s already considered that. He doesn’t want to think too deeply about it, and if gifts of coffee are all that Laurent’s suspicious knowledge of Makoto’s whereabouts yields, then maybe he’s fine with it.

“So, what is it?”

“Coffee…”

The look she gives him is incredulous, her expression alone driving an ice pick deep into the pit of his stomach. Yeah, yeah, he knows. He gets it. Letting Laurent in with anything is a dumb decision and her judgment is more than an effective reminder.

“Want me to bin it?”

Makoto dashes forward and grabs the box from her hands before she gets the chance to dropkick it to the bottom of the canyon, because he is not making that trek again.

“Wow,” she exhales, scoffing at his reaction. “That desperate, huh.”

He’s not desperate. His logic is that the coffee shops around the canyon have all sold the same supermarket-quality Italian roast that screams to be drowned in sugar and cream and a good cup of coffee would go a long way before a three-hour hike in the dark. “It’s just coffee.”

Abbie’s laugh is a bark and she shrugs her shoulders as she stalks off to get dressed. Her mutter of “You’re both so stupid it hurts” does not go unnoticed.

Makoto fumes and considers going to throw the package off a cliff himself, but at the same time, he wants to present his case for the defense. He sets water to boil and opens the box. The bag inside is a pastel green and bears the name of a grower from Honduras below the brand’s monogrammed M.

He measures and grinds the coffee beans, tipping them into a filter while he waits for the water to reach the ideal temperature. When Abbie comes back, she sniffs the air and lets out a huff. Makoto flips her the bird before she can say anything.

The coffee brews slowly. The fine-grind setting Makoto used keeps the hot water trapped longer and makes the coffee stronger, forming a dark pool into the bottom of the pot. Steam clouds the glass as they wait, listening to the steady drip, drip, drip that is akin to the first few drops of rain before an impending squall.

The aroma is smoky and warm, but the taste is bright with lime and white grapes, dancing a sweet acidity down Makoto’s throat. Abbie sits with her feet up on a chair, her knees tucked to her chest as she cradles her coffee mug between her hands and takes her first sip.

Makoto watches her reaction, smiling as she takes another small sip, blows across the surface to cool it, then gulps down a mouthful. “Huh…” she says after draining half the cup, her dark eyes staring down at the coffee Makoto’s made. “That’s good.”

He should feel victorious and yet all that comes is crushing defeat. Because Abbie’s confirmation means he can’t blame it all on delusions. “Yeah. Yeah, they always are. And that’s the problem.”

“How many has he sent you?”

“I’ve lost count.”

She rolls her eyes and takes another drink, sucking the coffee in through her teeth. “Have you told him?”

“No.”

“Have you talked to him at all?”

“Not a word.”

Abbie stares at him, her features twisted into a combination of scepticism and admiration. Then she laughs, tipping back her head as her shoulders shake. “Yeah, then good. Fuck him, let him suffer.” She grins and finishes off the coffee, before handing the mug back to Makoto in a wordless request for a refill.

Makoto tops off her mug, vindicated.

They finish the coffee and set out on their hike a while later, after Makoto makes them one more cup each. By the end of it, Makoto is pushing himself to keep up with Abbie’s pace, but they make the plateau minutes before the very first rays of sun creep over the horizon and cut the darkness with color. As he stands precariously on the edge with the world open and wide at his feet, Makoto claps his hands together as if he were at a shrine and prays for a good year.

A month later, he’s in Seattle because where else should a coffee lover end their journey when it comes to America? He skips the original Starbucks location and its hundreds of clones, making his way around the independent cafés that litter the city.

Two days in, Makoto sits inside an oakwood chair and stares at the mural of mountains and rice paddies on the walls of a modern café. He taps his foot against the sleek floor, bouncing his leg in irritation as he tries to figure out where and when he’s tasted the coffee that’s in front of him now.

He knows this flavor profile. He’s had it before, but it’s supposed to be a signature roast, a custom variety sourced by the shop, meaning he couldn’t have drunk it before unless—

All of his notes are organized, meticulous with details, and the slight madness he feels some days when making them finally earns its first payout. He searches by variety, by country of origin, then by roast, narrowing down the options until he hits it. An Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. The fragrance of the coffee is earthy, bringing forth the vision of a rained-on apple orchard through the combination of fruity and wooden notes. The tip of his tongue buzzes with the sweetness of honeydew melon, and the subtly bitter bite of green tea lingers on the aftertaste.

The description in his head matches his notes, word for word. There’s already a star by the name of the coffee, as well as an asterisk… It was one of Laurent’s gifts.

Makoto scrolls through his messages, going back weeks upon weeks, past all the lists and the video links and the photos until he sees it, the name of the very same café he’s sitting in. Laurent had recommended it to him months ago, while he was still making his way through Canada.

There’s a spark of anger in Makoto’s chest, though he isn’t sure if it’s justified.

How?

How is he doing this?

How is that blond fucking bastard planting all these seeds in his head and getting away with it, again?!

Makoto should have never opened that first stupid package. He should have chucked it, chucked them all, ditched his phone, and then blocked Laurent’s number on the new one for good measure.

Why does he keep doing this to himself? Why does he continue to allow Laurent to steal his way into his mind and his space and his plans and his life?

And why can’t he bring himself to march the cup of coffee back up to the shop counter and pour the whole damn thing down the drain? He’s paid for it already, so it’s his right to do whatever the hell he wants with it now.

Makoto buckles into himself, planting his elbows on his thighs and his face in his hands.

His anger at Laurent doesn’t change the fact that it is a frustratingly good brew and that he desperately wants another taste.

There’s a woman at the table across from him and she shoots him concerned glances, but he doesn’t give a single damn right about now. He types several rounds of messages to Laurent, varying from Fuck you, you fucking prick, fuck off and leave me alone to おい、金髪バカ野郎!俺はさ、あの時の刀を見つけたら、またお前を斬りつけてやるぞ to a plea to just stop sending him shit to a jumble of broken French and an ill-advised thank you. He sends none of them, tossing his phone into the chair next to him and muffling frustration into his sleeves.

Finally, after several long minutes of self-loathing and Laurent-loathing, he picks himself back up and straightens his posture. No. No, he’s not breaking down now. He’s not letting Laurent get to him. Laurent made his recommendation for this café months ago and Makoto hadn’t even planned on coming here, merely stumbling across it on his way to a different location. Laurent’s got absolutely nothing to do with this and Makoto will not delude himself into thinking he does. Even that blond bastard isn’t this much of a genius at manipulation.

He huffs out a deep breath, calms himself, and continues drinking the coffee. He might be on edge, jumping like a spooked cat with its tail puffed when a chair scrapes behind him, but he finishes his cup. His heart patters in his chest and he forces himself to stay until it quiets, ordering another serving of a different blend to tide him over.

Despite his nerves, the atmosphere of the café is laid-back and pleasant. Smooth jazz plays on the overhead speakers and natural light floods in through the expansive windows. It’s nice and it’s normal. His heart rate settles and nothing crazy happens, nothing goes seriously wrong. There are no explosions, no stunt planes, no elaborate lies to remember. No one approaches him to make idle conversation. There are no suspiciously suggestive posters on the walls or abandoned newspapers with intriguing articles spread out on the table beside him.

It’s a simple coffee shop and a simple cup of coffee, and even after Makoto leaves, that does not change. Not hours later, not days later, not at all.

He’s let his paranoia about Laurent get to him and perhaps it’s time to let it go.

The next time Laurent sends him a recommendation, it’s for a single shop that’s newly opening all the way down in San Francisco. It’s in an old factory building that’s been refurbished, with exposed copper-colored piping along the ceiling and red brick walls that remind Makoto of the Yokohama warehouses. From the promotional photos that Makoto sees online, it looks thrilling. There’s an opening day event planned, with guided introductions to their in-house roastery for the public, and Makoto is tempted.

He debates for days, talking himself in to and out of it on repeat. It’s stupid to go and it’s stupid not to go. He doesn’t want to be roped into another plot, but it’s not like he can live his entire life worried about Laurent’s influence. If Laurent keeps up his weekly texts, sooner or later, Makoto’s going to run out of “safe” coffee shops to visit.

He takes the Amtrak from Seattle down to Emeryville, using the long train ride to mull over the decision, before making his way across the bay into San Francisco. The coffee shop’s opening is the day he arrives, but he doesn’t go. Instead he treks into the heart of the city, to the few blocks cut out for the Japanese neighborhood where he drinks barley tea at a sushi bar owned by a Korean couple. It’s laughable, really.

At night, he burns a hole into the heel of his left sock from how much he paces across his hotel room floor, talking himself in circles. Go, don’t go—what does it matter? He’s already here, when he’d meant to be on a flight down to Mexico. He doesn’t need to stop himself from doing the things he wants to do because of Laurent. In fact, he shouldn’t. He’ll go. He’ll straighten out his spine and march in there like he’s got nothing to fear, because he really doesn’t. Everything’s all in his head, all of it, and he needs to push past it. He’ll go.

Except he doesn’t.

He walks himself up and down the street, one block over, hands shoved into his pockets and chin tucked into his scarf. Apparently, his inner turmoil makes enough of a scene that a cop car pulls over, flashes its lights and speakers him over. Makoto makes the excuse that he’s waiting on a girlfriend who hasn’t shown up and the cop buys it, giving him a sympathetic glance and a warning before driving off.

In his head, he can hear Abbie’s voice calling him pathetic and, frankly, he agrees. After another hour of beating himself up, he texts her, gives her a CliffsNotes version, and asks her what he should do.

Her reply is simple: You’re a moron.

Again, he agrees.

Rather than going up to the coffee shop, he stomps his way down to the piers, eats crab and clam chowder, and sulks as he flicks through the shop’s Instagram account. There’s a custom hashtag and he browses that, too, seeing photos from people smarter than him, who went to the opening yesterday. It looks brilliant and, again, he’s missed it.

The following day, Makoto ducks into the red brick building without missing a step and confidently strides up to the counter to order himself a drink. Not the one that Laurent mentioned in his text—how would he even know what was good here—but something else altogether. He’s decided to try a new approach today, putting attitude and mind over matter. His hair is slicked back and he’s put on pressed trousers and a designer jacket, whims he’d purchased yesterday in a flailing attempt to do anything to keep himself from spiraling.

He’s not sure if he likes the look but, hey, anything that’ll get him over his conviction that he’s somehow being set up. It’s like playing a character, and he’s managed it before. Not well, perhaps, although he does think his skills improved after a few go-rounds.

When his order is called, Makoto picks up the ceramic cup from the serving area and gives his thanks to the barista, finding a seat on the long black cherry counter spanning the far wall. He pulls up a stool and warms his hands on the sides of his cup, taking in the caramel-like smell of the smooth medium-bodied roast. The first sip is… fine. Nothing special. Flat, one-tone, and a bit disappointing, really, compared to the coffees he’s become accustomed to. He takes another taste, letting the coffee mull on his tongue for a fraction longer. Hmmm…

Setting the coffee cup down on the counter, Makoto leans back and glances around the coffee shop. He does like the industrial-chic feel of the place, and the roastery in the back keeps the bricks warm while the streets outside nip with the chill of winter. It would have been perfect for the moment, if the coffee were better.

His gaze wanders, then halts, caught on an unbelievable line.

Makoto closes his eyes and sighs with deep resignation, because who, who else would be seated on the other end of the counter, all blond hair and blue eyes and pastel pink suit—who else but Laurent?

Chapter Text

Maybe it’s not Laurent. Makoto is in San Francisco; there are bound to be handfuls of handsome Europeans around, lounging in coffee shops on their lunch breaks. Except, he would recognize that flare of blond hair and that air of confidence anywhere. And then when he turns, casting those wicked eyes straight at Makoto, he knows he’s lost this round.

How long has it been? A year? Yeah, must have been a bit more than a year. Laurent is the same as before. It’s not as if a year would change him. He looks good—no, not good, that’s not what Makoto means, he means… Ahh, fuck it. Why does he even bother? Yeah, good. Damn good. Laurent always looks damn good, whether he’s laughing or smirking or pissed as fuck thinking one of his schemes has gone awry.

There are a few routes Makoto can take. The smartest and simplest would be to turn his tail and run, head straight to the airport and hop on the first flight out that will put at least five thousand miles between them. He has his wallet and his passport on him—everything else can be replaced. No hesitation, no doubts, no passing Go. He can throw his phone into the gutter on the way.

The next best option is more petty and involves knocking over the cup of coffee that’s sitting on the counter in front of Laurent directly into his lap, and following that up by pouring his own coffee out on top of it. It would be a hell of a lot more satisfying, too, and he could stalk out immediately after. Then head to the airport.

Makoto, like the fool that he is, goes with the third option. He grabs his coffee and yanks himself to the far end of the counter, slamming the cup down next to Laurent hard enough that the ceramic clinks and draws attention from the other patrons. Not that he cares. If enough people are watching, maybe someone will end up with a video of Makoto punching the French bastard in the face again. He indulges in that memory often, and an accompanying visual would be the gift that keeps on giving.

“What the hell are you doing here?!” Makoto hisses, digging his fingernails into the meat of his own palms so as to stop himself from immediately latching onto Laurent’s collar and shaking him within an inch of his life.

“Nice to see you, too, my little soybean.” Laurent smiles at him and Makoto hates it. Hates the way it quirks up only one side of his mouth, hates the faint crow’s feet that crinkle the corners of those sunrise blue eyes. Laurent’s voice carries through the café like smooth velvet, stirring the taste of Ospina coffee from way in the back of Makoto’s mind and causing his gut to churn in response. “It’s been a while. You look like you’re doing very well. Have you been enjoying your travels?”

“I know you’re aware of all my travels, you prick.”

Laurent raises an eyebrow but his expression remains unchanged, unfazed by Makoto’s less-than-tender choice of words. “I didn’t think we left off on such bad terms. You were fairly sweet to me the last time I saw you. Are you really so upset with me?”

“Why are you here?” Makoto asks, ignoring Laurent’s question like his own had been.

“The dear president is in town for a summit. Don’t you follow the news? Or were you hoping I came by just for you?”

Makoto opens his mouth, then promptly shuts it. He hasn’t paid any attention to American politics, mostly because he doesn’t care and only partially because he didn’t want to catch an accidental glimpse of Laurent. “Then why are you here?” he repeats, because even if Laurent has a convenient excuse to be in the city, the fact that they are in the same café is by design.

“Even the most dedicated of workers get a day off.”

He’s not going to get a straight answer. Again, why does he bother? Makoto sighs and takes a drink from his cup, grimacing at both his companion and the subpar drink in his hands. “You know, this coffee sucks.”

Laurent’s chuckle dances next to Makoto’s shoulder and Makoto refuses to look at him because the last thing he needs is to see that damn smirk again. “Is that so?”

“Yeah.” It’s for the better, though, isn’t it? Knowing that even Laurent is fallible. “Why’d you tell me to try this place?”

“What did you order?”

“The house blend.”

“Then there’s your problem,” Laurent replies, his cadence light with amusement and tinged with expectation. “That’s not the one I recommended.”

“I wanted something different.”

Laurent hums as he leans into Makoto’s space, sliding the cup of coffee toward the back of the counter before replacing it with his own. “Try that instead, my sweet coffee bean.”

Makoto doesn’t know whether to laugh at the new nickname or to scowl at it, but he doesn’t pick up the new cup that’s been set in front of him.

A minute passes and Laurent sighs heavily, his disappointment evident. Makoto waits for the web of persuasion to come, laced with pleasantries and more terms of endearment, and yet he gets the opposite. Laurent rises from his seat, adjusting the fit of his pink jacket as he takes a step back. “Well, perhaps next time, then.”

“Wait—” All of that, a year’s worth of coffee packages, location tracking, and mountains upon mountains of messages, and Laurent is giving up that easily? Or was Makoto meant to protest and insist that he stay, to give himself the illusion that this “chance” encounter continues on his own terms? “That’s it?”

“Unfortunately, there’s a flight that’ll be waiting for me. If you’re not bored of your coffee hunting yet, I’d be remiss to let it leave without me.” Laurent grants him another smile, only this one does not reach his eyes. “I hope you’ll invite me for a cup of coffee some other time, Edamame.”

And just like that Laurent leaves—actually leaves—sweeping out of the coffee shop like a blond spectre. Makoto sits stunned, turned to a statue on his stool. The churning is back, upsetting the pit of his stomach as he tries to process why the hell he’s angry at Laurent for leaving. Because he’s wasted Makoto’s time and isn’t even sticking around to own up for it? Because he thinks he can waltz in and out freely, without consequence or care for the effect he’s having on Makoto’s peace of mind? Or what? What exact clusterfuck of reasons is Makoto angry for?

Makoto glares at the cup in front of him, filled to the brim with the coffee selection that Laurent had recommended. After how many times he’s considered dumping Laurent’s coffees, this really would be the ideal time to do it. Yet he waits, waits until the steam fades from his own cup and he’s certain that Laurent is not going to come striding back in to catch him in the act.

Reluctantly, Makoto lifts the cup to his lips and drinks.

And oh.

Oh, that’s why. Oh, he despises Laurent even more now.

While the aroma is laced with the weight of dark chocolate, the taste on his tongue bears the sweetness of blueberry jam that’s been topped with cardamom and cinnamon, as prominent as if he’d stirred the spices in himself. He craves a pastry to go with it, something buttery but not over-sugared that’ll layer well with the bold flavors.

There’s only one issue with it and it’s the fact that the coffee is cold. There’s not a degree of warmth left in it, like it’s been sitting there for a long, long time.

Makoto doesn’t know what that tells him, or else he doesn’t want to acknowledge it. Instead, he departs from his seat and returns to the shop counter, ordering a fresh cup of the Ethiopian Harrar that Laurent had left for him.

It’s upsetting. It’s upsetting as Makoto sits in the café and drinks the good coffee that Laurent recommended. It’s upsetting after he leaves, heading out into the cool San Francisco streets, and it’s still upsetting when he lies in the middle of his hotel bed at night, staring up at the ceiling as he tries to figure out what the hell is going on.

Because Laurent left, Laurent actually left him alone in the café with nothing more than a cold cup of coffee and the tone of melancholy. So then… What? There’s no con? No tricks, no deception, no power of suggestion guiding Makoto back into the snares of more dangerous hijinks? The lists and the coffees that Laurent sends him, is that really all they are? Laurent’s made his reparations with his past; is he actually trying to do the same with Makoto now? It’s just like the blond bastard to show up unannounced and then leave Makoto with more questions than answers.

He should have at least swiped Laurent’s phone and used it to figure out how the hell he was tracking Makoto, but that would have meant getting closer and Makoto did not want a clearer smell of that sandalwood cologne clinging to his skin.

Huffing out his frustration, Makoto flips onto his stomach and pulls a pillow to his chest, burying his face into the feathers beneath the case. Mexico is too close. He doesn’t want to be anywhere that might share a border with Laurent. Eastern Europe might be nice… Anywhere that’ll get him far, far away and overwhelm him enough that he won’t have enough room left in his head for Laurent.

Instead of Europe, he changes his mind at the airport and picks up a ticket to Istanbul. It’s a thirteen-hour flight and Makoto manages to sleep for most of it, having tossed and turned and fretted the whole night before. When he lands, he’s fairly rested even if his back and his bum are sore, and he does wonder why he didn’t upgrade to business class for such a long haul, like—no, don’t think about him—like someone always insisted on doing.

He spends a few days walking around Istanbul, trying both the cafés pushed upon tourists and the ones flooded with locals, hidden down alleys and positioned on street corners flanked by time-tested apartments. His last stop is tucked away in the Grand Bazaar, quiet without the bustle of crowds but loud with its decor.

The Turkish coffee he orders is served on a golden tray, with a glass of water and a small, single square of lokum. It’s thick and foamy, with a hint of the herbal, woody-resin of the mastic tree. The sweet that pairs with the coffee cuts through the bitterness as it sits on his tongue, and for a moment, Makoto questions why he’s doing all of this. But then the owner bustles over, speaking with loud, accented, engaging English about how they don’t often see Japanese tourists. The distraction is welcome.

From Istanbul, Makoto treks west into Greece and the city of Thessaloniki. A number of coffee shops there double as bars and clubs, and while the combination of craft beer and coffee is not one he’s considered before, it’s not one he opposes. He stops by a place called The Blue Cup, that from the outside looks like it would be a restaurant serving seafood and on the inside, splits itself between cocktail bar and specialty coffee brewery.

Their menu is a bit convoluted, obviously tailored to the dedicated coffee drinker, and Makoto takes note to simplify his own when he drafts it so as not to intimidate someone more casual. He chooses a brew method and beans from Kangocho, a settlement in Kenya. The flavors and aroma are bright and intense, juicy with notes of cherry and red currant. A breeze flows in from the nearby sea and tousles his hair as he drinks. As soon as the cup is drained, he turns to the woman behind the counter and asks if she knows where he can go next.

It’s two whole months before he gets a new message from Laurent and by then, he’s in Prague and wondering when one will come. There’s no mention of the reason behind the radio silence—maybe Laurent had been waiting for that invitation—and yet again, all it contains is the name of a single shop. Makoto looks it up online and sees that the coffee they serve is exclusively from their own roastery. It’s tempting. The location is nice, too, centered between two large parks and a number of museums, looped by the canals of the Vitava river. It’s ideal for an afternoon date in the early days of spring.

Makoto ignores the suggestion and goes elsewhere.

The day before he’s set to leave Prague, the hotel receptionist hands him a package. Laurent’s name isn’t on it, but the name of the coffee shop he’d suggested is. Makoto takes it to his room, unpacks it, and starts on the routine he’s established with all of the other gifts prior. This time, the coffee is in a gold-foil bag and though the label is written in Czech, he can figure out that it’s been sourced from Colombia. He waits for the coffee to fill his cup as he pours hot water over the grinds set into a filter and questions why he’s okay with letting Laurent in like this, yet again.

A mix of hibiscus florals and kiwi fruit frolics over a nutty butteriness that’s as fascinating as it is unique. It’s different, but he doesn’t dislike it, and the more he drinks, the more he warms up to it. The next day, he skips taking his scheduled train and finds the café.

The floor is tiled and there’s a black-and-white wall mural depicting the process of making coffee, from fruit to cup. Built-in shelves are lined with more golden bags of coffee. It’s clean and it’s modern, though there is the added kitsch of red-lacquered swing seats suspended from the ceiling. Rocking back and forth on one of them might be a detriment to the goal of drinking and dining without making a mess, but Makoto can’t help feeling that it’s exactly the sort of chaos Laurent would get a kick out of.

He sits in one of the swing seats by the window, planting his feet firmly on the patterned tile to keep himself from swaying back. As always, Makoto snaps a photo so he can log it in his notes, capturing the cup of coffee and the ropes of the swing on the other side of his small table. The crispness of cider wafts up from his cup, and this time, it’s jackfruit and lime and the sour-sweetness of tamarind that accents the coffee. He likes it.

Maybe it’s the pleasant weather, the relaxed atmosphere, or the hot coffee warming him from the inside out, but a spur of generosity flashes through him. Makoto opens his messenger app and sends the photo he’d taken to Laurent. The regret is instant, punching him in the chest as soon as the upload wheel stops spinning. Makoto hurries, clicking unsend and confirming the warning notice that comes up. He’s too late. He sees the read notification that pops up in the millisecond before the photo vanishes.

Fuck. Well, with a bit of luck, there’s still a chance that Laurent did not see or else realize what it was. Makoto types out a cover, texting the excuse of “Sorry, meant to send that to Abbie.”

The reply he receives back, barely a moment after, is simple and short: “Try their raspberry tart.”

Makoto does not respond. He locks his phone and scoots it aside, and he certainly does not send Laurent another photo of the raspberry tart that he does go back to order. Blissfully, no more messages come, at least not until a week later, when he arrives in Budapest to a new list of recommendations.

Half of Makoto is convinced it’s best to keep ignoring Laurent, while the other half mocks him with the fact that he hasn’t been doing a good job of that. It’s impossible to deny that he’s liked all of Laurent’s contributions to his coffee quest, but pride is fickle. He floats back and forth, fooling himself into thinking that either choice matters when, in reality, he knows he’s already given in too many times.

One of the coffee roasteries on Laurent’s list is a place that Makoto had bookmarked in his own research. It has a robin-egg blue color scheme and birdcage-enclosed lamps that hang from the ceiling, and parrots painted onto concrete walls. Makoto sits outside next to the graffiti flanking the wood-shuttered windows and admires the synagogue across the street as he drinks a medium-roast sourced from Peru, roasted hazelnut and milk chocolate tones flirting on his tongue.

It’s brilliant and yet Makoto finds better later that same day, at a little cottage-looking restaurant a few blocks from his hotel. Coffee isn’t their specialty, but they roast their beans in very small batches, specifically for each order. The wait is more than worth it, as the smell of caramelizing sugars in the beans fills the room, their open kitchen close enough that Makoto can hear the first crack of the roasted coffee beans splitting with the heat.

There’s a cat sleeping on a chair in the corner, stretching and curling back into a ball when Makoto finally receives his cup of coffee, almost half an hour after he’d placed his order. The aroma is sweet and the flavor is heavy with figs and wild berries.

Before he pays, he plucks a hand-painted mug from a little display next to the register, adding it onto his check. It’s white with calico spots, and a little face that resembles the cat still dozing in the chair. He’d picked up other mugs already, one in Turkey and another back in California, all with cats on them. He’s not done traveling, there are still places he wants to see before he dedicates himself to the real work, but the physical reminders of his goal are good things to have on hand.

From Budapest, Makoto heads to Vienna. He’s in the city for less than twenty-four hours before another list arrives from Laurent. The time he spends considering his options is equivalent to that of one cigarette; as he puts it out in an ashtray, Makoto sends Laurent a response.

It’s his own choice for a café he wants to visit, one that isn’t anywhere in Laurent’s suggestions. The message is not an invitation. Makoto doesn’t give him a date or time or anything that Laurent might interpret as solicitation. Just the name of the café and nothing more.

Makoto does wait three days into his stay in the city before heading there himself, spending the rest of his time bouncing around coffeehouses recommended to him by locals. From his seat inside the café, he can see a neo-Gothic church and the park that borders it, the sun high and warm as it shines through the windows. A view like that outside his own café would be a dream. Perhaps not a gothic church, but a small inari shrine with bright orange torii that would attract curious, wandering tourists.

He’s two cups of coffee in when the whirlwind comes sweeping through, and Makoto has to bite the insides of his cheeks to keep his satisfied smile from showing. Laurent’s always so put-together and yet now, when he sits down across from Makoto, his cheeks are a bit flushed and his hair is slightly more ruffled than usual.

“Did you catch the first flight out?” Makoto asks him, wishing that he had his own tracer on Laurent, so that he could have had a hot cup of coffee waiting for him the moment he’d arrived.

“Which answer will earn me more bonus points?” Laurent replies, his voice strained with a breathlessness that he’s doing a lousy job of trying to conceal.

Makoto doesn’t give him an answer and leaves his chair, letting Laurent calm his undoubtedly racing heart while he goes to purchase another cup of coffee. When he returns, Laurent’s lavender tie is seated more squarely and the sparkle in his blue eyes is vivid.

“Are you finally getting bored?” Laurent says as Makoto retakes his seat and slides a brimming cup across the table to his companion.

“Try the coffee.”

Laurent listens and drinks, and that on its own is a blessing. Makoto had grown so used to being pulled like a kite on a string, but if he’s the one holding the spindle… Well, he needs more time to figure out how he feels about that.

The coffee he’s ordered for Laurent is a bourbon and blue mountain variety, and from his seat, Makoto can smell the bergamot citrus. The tasting notes that will be spreading across Laurent’s palate are of marmalade and stone fruit, juicy and smooth. Laurent smiles after his first deep sip, then sighs. “Mmmm, guess not.”

“I’d say that I hate to disappoint you, but I’d be lying.”

The way Laurent chuckles in response has the nape of Makoto’s neck prickling.

He hasn’t really planned on what he wants to say, despite having known there was no way that Laurent would not show up. Luckily, carrying conversations with ease is one of Laurent’s talents and all Makoto has to do is ride on his words as Laurent spins him tales, reciting stories about the last time he visited Vienna.

“That one didn’t end so well, though,” Laurent admits, his tone still fond regardless. “Ended up with a knife in my side.”

From a few other accounts Makoto’s heard from Laurent over the years, that seems to be a common trope. Then again, Makoto’s lost count of the number of times a loaded pistol’s been pointed at his own head and that’s far more concerning. “How many times have you been stabbed?”

“I can show you and have my count my scars, if you’re interested.”

Makoto channels Abbie as he hums and says, “No thanks.”

Regrettably, Laurent doesn’t look too upset by the rejection.

The conversation shifts, Makoto letting another curiosity get the better of him as he asks Laurent about his work. Not whatever scheme he’s got going or con he’s plotting, but the supposedly honest job he’s getting a paycheck for back in D.C.

“It’s this and that—I promise you it’s not very interesting,” Laurent tells him, not saying much. “You could watch the news, my dear soybean. Might catch a glimpse of me, on occasion.”

Makoto isn’t that curious. Instead, as their cups of coffee empty, he sets his phone in front of Laurent. “Delete it.”

Laurent does not ask what he means, nor does he feign innocence. Instead, he exhales with reluctant acceptance and takes the device in hand. “So, this is not a date?”

“Stalking isn’t charming, Laurent.”

“Then, will you at least text me back? I’m desperately lonely with you so far off all the time.”

Makoto is certain that if Laurent wants company, intimate or otherwise, he’s more than capable of finding it. “When did you put it there?”

Laurent is mute for too long and when he does answer, he doesn’t meet Makoto’s eyes. “During the last job. Before they took you all out on the ship. Believe me when I tell you it was Cynthia’s idea. She wanted to make sure we would know where you were in case… in case we needed to get you out.”

So much for lone wolves, yet again. Makoto guesses he can appreciate the sentiment, even if the context is not one he wants to consider. “Thanks.”

A quiet settles over them after that and it’s not a comfortable one. There’s too much there, too much crushing bitterness, sour like burnt robusta beans. Makoto regrets asking and turns his gaze out the windows, toward the church that looms there, dark with the clouds now concealing the light of the sun.

Finally, it’s Laurent that breaks the tension. “Have you had a Viennese coffee yet, my bean?”

“The type with all the cream?” Makoto shakes his head. “I wasn’t sure of the best place to go.”

“May I take you, then?” Laurent asks, the rigidity in his shoulders falling away as he leans back in his chair. “Tomorrow, perhaps? I know a wonderful place for a lunch date.”

Makoto picks up and drains the last few drops of his cooled coffee, casting a smile over the rim of his cup. “I’m not that bored, Laurent.”

Laurent chuckles again, warmly, shrugs and gives in.

There’s a thrill to leaving Laurent in the café, similar to the rush he’d felt when he’d had Laurent on the tip of a katana—the surge that comes from control. From manipulation. He doesn’t let himself dwell on the thought, avoiding the reminder that he’s a con artist, through and through. He’s coming up on a year and a quarter; no need to throw away his sobriety chips now.

The next day, he follows an online travel guide to the best cup of Viennese coffee in the city, on his own. Perhaps it’s cruel, but he sends a photo of it to Laurent and receives a broken heart in return. He doesn’t have time to gloat or feel sorry, however, as a moment later he gets a photo back, featuring the same order from a different café all the way on the other side of the city. When he asks Laurent how his is, the reply is one he should have expected.

It would have been better if I were with you.

Makoto leaves him on read, hoping he feels some shame over how hopelessly bad that line is.

He keeps traveling, spending a few weeks in Italy, then going through Switzerland up to Germany and Belgium. Despite being asked twice now, he isn’t bored. Each good cup of coffee is new and inspiring.

And yet, not having Laurent’s lists and gifts of missed-opportunity coffees following him everywhere is… strange. He keeps expecting them, even inquires at the reception desks of the hotels he stays at before checking out to make sure a package hasn’t come in. None do. Laurent does send him messages and they’re still coffee-related, but they’re less tailored. A good number of them are about things based in America, so Makoto guesses that Laurent’s turned to gathering local news now that he’s no longer able to track Makoto like a lost dog.

From Brussels, the next logical destination is Paris. Temptation is there again, telling him to ask Laurent, but how much ground can he give before the cliff collapses out from under him? He asks Cynthia and she, in turn, tells him to ask Laurent.

He’s not asking Laurent.

He’s not.

He refuses.

He doesn’t care if Laurent knows Paris better than anyone, doesn’t care if his own French is still miserable and an absolute hindrance in the City of Lights. Google-sensei has gotten him through every other country thus far; he doesn’t need a smooth-talking, hopelessly romantic polyglot trying to convince him that Paris is for lovers. Makoto can feed himself layers of croissant with strong espresso, thank you very much.

Five days into his trek around Paris, Makoto’s gotten his wallet stolen and he hasn’t found a single cup of coffee worthy of noting in his phone. Either he’s losing his touch or he really is getting bored. That or after months and months of painstaking groundwork, Laurent’s plan is finally coming together.

Makoto messages Cynthia again and begs her to tell him where he can find a decent café or roastery. A few hours later, he gets a response, but it isn’t from Cynthia. She’s ratted him out. Makoto’s list of trusted contacts decreases by one, again.

Laurent tells him to go to a shop in the 19th arrondissement that’s only open on Saturdays, with the text arriving on a Sunday. Makoto’s suspicious, but Laurent delivers a few more suggestions that end up satisfactory, and a week later, Makoto is at the Belleville Brûlerie, drinking a divine brew that has delicate notes of fruits tropicaux et de sucre de canne. Even with his weak French, that is simple enough to understand.

There’s no surprise at the end, no new case he’s pulled into, no blond Frenchman waiting for him outside the doors as he leaves. Shocking, he knows. Makoto departs Paris without fanfare, but with a couple of new cat-themed coffee mugs he’d managed to find during his time there.

Maybe, just maybe, he can send Laurent a real invitation. He contemplates on the questions of where and when and why, until he arrives in London and his sympathy crumbles.

His first few days are met by rain and the gloom of murky clouds, and it pours as he meets Cynthia in the coffee shop nestled inside the lobby of his hotel. Summer’s approaching, though the London chill has a jacket and scarf draped over the back of her chair as she waves to Makoto.

She’s alone.

Makoto picked the hotel he’s in because the coffee shop has its own roastery out by Victoria Park, meaning their beans are fresh and the brew is quality. He’s ordered a different variety each morning and has yet to be disappointed. Yesterday’s cup had the aroma of lychee and lemon curd, with the licorice-like bite of star anise lingering in the finish. Today’s tastes of bramble jelly and custard cream, well matched to the scone he requests at the counter to nibble on with it.

Cynthia copies his order and gives an impressed murmur after her first sip, in a way that makes him bubble with pride even though he’s really got nothing to do with it. They talk about the weather, then about Makoto’s travels and about where he’s thinking of opening his own little shop. He hasn’t decided yet, his thoughts drifting between Tokyo and Paris, with no real good reason for why the latter keeps sticking in his mind.

That’s when Cynthia asks him about Laurent and all he can do is shrug, not knowing what there is to say. She mentions something about a job in Zürich, quickly skipping on when Makoto casts her a confused look. He doesn’t need to ask for clarification to know what she’s let slip. Of course. Of course they hadn’t stopped. It’s funny, how it stings and makes his chest go tight, even though he’s specifically requested not to be invited.

“How’s Kawin?” he asks near the end of his coffee, his gaze directed into his cup. “Thought, uhhh… Thought maybe you’d bring him…”

“He’s good!” Makoto does not need to look up to hear the cheer in her cadence. “Finishing up his summer term at his university. Doing well in his classes and making lots of friends, from what I can gather. He’s still a bit quiet, but I do think his English is already better than yours.” Her laugh is a delight, though it fades off into the strained quiet that comes before words of conflict. “He just… He’s busy, you know, and he—”

Makoto doesn’t want to make her lie for him. “He didn’t want to see me.”

“Now, that’s not it—”

“No, I understand.” Not like he can blame the kid. “If I were in his place, I wouldn’t want to see me either.” Makoto can’t imagine what it would be like, sharing specialty coffee and a warm pastry with the person who had literally auctioned him off. It doesn’t matter what excuses or explanations come after—there are not enough reasons in the world to make up for that.

The rain outside wanes as if to mock him, taking away the dark and heavy droplets more fitting for the mood.

“That wasn’t your fault.”

Makoto scoffs and pushes the empty cup away from himself, the saucer scraping violently against the wooden tabletop. “You really think that?”

“It was the job, Makoto,” she says his name with emphasis, reaching across the table to take his hand. He pulls away before her fingertips can brush his own. “You did what you were supposed to do.”

“If I hadn’t—”

“What?” Cynthia interrupts, firmer. “You can’t live in the if’s, you know that. Laurent and Abbie did and it almost destroyed them both, but look how they are now. Did Abbie tell you she’s taking ballet classes again, between all those rocks she’s off climbing? Don’t torture yourself thinking about how things could have gone differently. We—”

She pauses as a couple walks by their table on their way to the coffee counter, leaning in and dropping her volume as she continues. “You’re the one who made sure we got the kids out. Do you really think things would have been better without you there, grabbing all the documents and making sure we could track them all?”

“They wouldn’t have—”

“No, you wouldn’t have.” She doesn’t let him get a word in edgewise, shutting him down the moment he opens his mouth. “This isn’t about Kawin, or Laurent, or anyone else. No one blames you but yourself. How long are you going to do that for? Years? Decades? Is your need to compete with Laurent that strong, even when it comes to your own misery?”

Makoto doesn’t have an answer for her.

He’d referred to Cynthia as a big sister once and, like a big sister, she leads the conversation astray when the silence sulks on a moment too long to be comfortable. They talk about the weather again and Makoto’s plans for the rest of his time in the city, before Cynthia drifts back to talking about her charge. This time, Makoto doesn’t draw the attention to himself.

“All the hobbies in the world and he goes with painting, can you believe it? He even asked if I’d model for him the other day. I think he’s doing it to spite me.”

Makoto smiles and lets a bit of tension out from his shoulders. To him, she might seem like a big sister, but there is something else in seeing her acting as a mother. She does drop a comment, laughing about how a few of Kawin’s university buddies had referred to her as “a fit fox” before her proud expression turns crestfallen when she has to explain the British slang to him. He agrees, though; she absolutely is “a fit fox.” The assertion earns him nothing more than a crumpled napkin thrown at his face.

Once the rain lets up, they head out and stand on a street corner as they wait for the lights to turn so they can head their separate ways. The red turns green, and Makoto doesn’t move. “Hey, uhhh… There was a tracker on my phone and Laurent said it was your idea? From the last job?”

“It was. Laurent had faith that you’d be fine but I… I worried.”

“Right.” So Laurent had told him the truth. “Thanks. For watching out for me.”

“Yes, well, you usually make that your job.” Cynthia smiles at him, strands of her bonfire-red hair caught by the wind. “He’s not that bad, you know. His methods are a bit unorthodox and messy and he is a sleaze, but we’re all in a better place than we were before we met him… Don’t tell him that I said that.”

It’s funny, how they’re all keeping little secrets from Laurent. Makoto knows that Abbie’s grateful to him, too, for pulling her off the streets, though she’d shank them both before she admits it.

Abbie’s also the one who told Makoto to forgive himself, but words parry poorly against heavy memories. It’s a lot easier to let go when Cynthia isn’t still in view as she walks off and down a London street, headed home to the evidence of Makoto’s corruption. When he’s alone, there’s reasoning and rationale, the knowledge that he had gotten himself through the two months clinging to the belief that he was only playing a role and that somehow—somehow, at some point, Laurent’s scheme would catch up to him. He’d made it through the job grasping for any semblance of a family, only to have it stripped away from him repeatedly in the makings of a convoluted revenge plot where he’d been cast as a side character. For Laurent’s sake, Makoto hoped it had been worth it.

He’s got two stops planned on his tour but the rest of the day, all the coffee that drowns his tongue tastes burnt and bitter, as if the beans had been roasted long enough to char. When night falls and the rains return to patter on the windows, Makoto sits on the edge of his bed and mulls.

He knows why he’s doing this, this perpetual trip around the world. It’s not about the coffee. If it were about the coffee, he’d be down in South America or in Africa, where the fruit grows and the suppliers are. He’s not concerned about the language barrier or his lack of knowledge, because he could always hire a guide, could always learn, could always trip over his own two feet while rushing headlong toward a dream and then keep going when he does slip up.

It’s about how he can’t stop running, because the moment he stops, it’s all going to catch up to him. Because the moment he stops, it’ll hit him that he became the very thing that he hated most and there’s no coming back from that. Stopping means fighting, it means facing himself, and why do that when life on the run consists of good food, decent hotels, overpriced cups of coffee and a damned Frenchman who refuses to stop pursuing him? It’s easier to run.

But it’s not enough, is it?

There’s anger that still boils inside him, wrecking the pit of his stomach like a bad brew, but the human need to press on is powerful. In the end, wasn’t it all for the better? Did it matter how messy the methods were, if the results were ideal? They got the money, got the kids, and crippled an international trafficking ring. Pretty good deal for a small part of his soul, right?

When morning comes, Makoto feels hungover, his head splitting and his body sore. His pillowcase has dried overnight, but it’s marked with small, circular splotches, so he turns it over before grabbing his phone. It’s been left uncharged, barely holding out with three percent of the battery, and that’s all Makoto needs to dial the number.

It rings once, twice and then—

“Good morning, my little soybean. What a pleasant surprise.”

That’s not what he needs right now. Rage burns through his aching chest at the sweet, elated musicality of Laurent’s gorgeous voice. “Come here,” he mutters and hangs up, letting the drain of the battery kill the device completely.

Let the blond bastard figure it out on his own.

It’s still raining off and on, and at some point, Makoto finds himself wandering outside without an umbrella. It’s approximately nine hours after he’s woken up that his phone rings, its cheerful chiming cutting through the gloom he’s harboring.

He laughs drily when he answers, because the first thing that Laurent says is “I’m here.” What kind of respectable government job does he have, that lets him fly the coop at a single beckon? Whatever. Not like Makoto cares.

It’s too late in the evening for coffee and Makoto’s already running on fumes. He meets Laurent at a restaurant a few blocks from his hotel, and the churning is back the moment he sees him. Laurent has no right to look as good as he does straight off an international flight, his skin fresh and his black suit free of creases. He smiles, expression fond and full of relief, but the usual gleam of mischief isn’t swimming in his eyes.

They sit at a table for two with unfilled burgundy wine glasses between them, and as Laurent places orders for them both, Makoto thinks he’s made a mistake. The restaurant is too full and the table is too small. If he shifts his feet forward, his muddy sneakers will knock against Laurent’s polished loafers and that’s the type of contact he’s been dodging for years.

Laurent doesn’t try pulling lines. He sits with his elbows on the edge of the table, hands linked in front of him as if he’s compensating for a touch left unoffered, his gaze set on Makoto as he waits. He’s been waiting for years, though, hasn’t he? Ten or twenty minutes will hardly make a difference.

The waiter pours sauvignon blanc into the burgundy glasses and neither of them make a remark. Laurent is served his sea bass, while Makoto mutters his gratitude when the spatchcock is set in front of him. He’s never heard the word before, but it’s a game hen that’s been split down the center, bones and innards ripped out before grilling. In that moment, he’s just as hollow.

“Why’d you recruit me?”

Unlike Makoto, Laurent’s picked up his knife and fork, delicately cutting into his fish. “I thought that’d be obvious by now.”

“Just answer my questions for once, please, Laurent.”

“Wasn’t it because you were Japan’s finest con man?”

Neither of them actually believe that to be true. The title’s laughable. It was back then and is more so now. “That’s bullshit.”

Laurent eats the way he does everything else: smooth, sauve, confident. The fork never touches his teeth and he clears his mouth with the wine before answering. “It’s because of Oz, then, isn’t it?”

Yeah, that’s the obvious answer. While Makoto would have preferred for it to be anything else, the truth is undeniable. It’s not because he was scouted as a brilliant and promising con artist, scraping his way through life to a little notoriety. It was because Laurent had already fucked up Makoto’s life once, before he’d even met him.

“Do you talk to him?”

There’s a softness to Laurent’s tone that doesn’t fit him, the fragility of a question asked by a man already walking barefoot on broken glass.

Makoto picks up his wine glass and swallows down half like he’s chugging cold coffee. “No. Not really.” His father has made attempts to reach out and Makoto’s taken his calls, although neither of them ever have much to say. He would have thought there would be a lot to talk about, between their shared prison sentences and their apparent inability to resist a good con. Getting over a lifetime of abandonment and lies, however—that takes time. “Did you really think that plot of yours was gonna solve things?”

“No one ever said magic was perfect.”

If his father really was the wizard that everyone kept regarding him as, perhaps he could have cast a better spell, because Makoto is quite disillusioned. “So what? You two thought you’d take the opportunity to bring us back together and… what? That’d fix everything? Absolve all the mistakes?”

“I must admit, I was more focused on my own absolution.” Laurent’s knife and fork clang against the plate when he sets them down, the force behind the action restrained but present. “Our mistake cost you your family. I thought reuniting the two of you would be the least I could do.”

The least he could do was an understatement. Of course, Laurent had been too wrapped up in his ghosts to consider the picture outside his regret-stricken walls. He’d given Makoto an out at the beginning; that should have been enough, right? No caution, no context, just one opportunity before springing the happy reunion. They all really had so little faith in his acting skills, huh…

The more Makoto dwells on it, the tighter he balls his fists in his lap. He doesn’t care if the whole plot was concocted by his father; Laurent’s the one who threw him to the wolves. Laurent’s the one who reeled him in and then refused to give him the decency of an honest warning. “Your idea of making amends was making me believe that he was scum, that he betrayed me, then having me shoot him?”

“You already believed that,” Laurent asserted, his gaze fierce. “Would persuading you with words have made any difference? Would you have believed me if I told you a story about how he ended up in prison simply because he was trying to protect his partners in crime? And if you did, would that have mattered?”

“I—” No. No to everything. It wouldn’t have changed a thing. Makoto wouldn’t have bought it—he’d barely bought it when it had come from his father’s own mouth. The reason behind the sentence did not matter to him, because either way, it was a result of the Great and Powerful Oz caring more for his tricks than he did for his family. It didn’t change the fact that after his sentence was over, he’d fled back to Shanghai, for the same reason. “You could have tried.”

“Wasn’t it a relief? Didn’t it feel good, to let out all that anger?”

Laurent asks the question, but it’s not for Makoto’s benefit. He knows why Laurent’s asking, what he’s asking. If Laurent’s unsatisfied with his work and his rules, he only has himself to blame. The perfect opportunity to kill Liu is never coming by again.

“I felt like shit,” Makoto spits back, pushing his wine glass further away because he’s afraid, if it’s within reach, he’ll snap the stem. “I thought—fuck, I know how you work. Cynthia and Abbie, I thought they’d be okay. I knew you’d have some fucking trick up your sleeve with them, ’cause there’s no way those two were going down without tearing someone limb from limb, but—”

Not in that moment. Later. It had all processed days later, the conviction that they had to be alive. That there was no way Laurent would abandon them—would abandon him. He’d raided his brain for ideas about bulletproof vests and blanks and bribes, for anything else plausible or fantastical, only for the weeks to pass and for him to remain alone, cared for only by a cruel woman who was kind to him and made him think, in broken desperation, that maybe this was fine.

It was sick.

It was sick and it was twisted and Makoto didn’t know how he was meant to be okay with any of it. “All I wanted was a goddamn explanation and an apology. Not… not to kill him.”

“Then go demand it.”

What fills the space between them isn’t quiet. It can’t be. They’re surrounded by the noise of a bustling restaurant, of conversations lighter than theirs, of relationships better than theirs. Wine is poured and drunk, and utensils clink against dessert plates. Laurent’s sea bass is half gone while Makoto’s meal is untouched. He considers getting up, considers leaving, but then he’s back to running away from what he needs to face.

He’s never going to get anywhere like this.

They leave the restaurant together, with two glasses of white wine sploshing in Makoto’s stomach. He’s left the bird on his plate, carved and empty, stripped of its heart. It’s a waste, like so much in life.

Makoto walks to the corner, hands in his pockets, the street still wet from the earlier rain. The colors from the street lamps and crossing lights shimmer, reflecting in puddles and windows. Laurent, for once, doesn’t come chasing after him. Instead he looks toward Makoto from a cab’s length away and offers a smile that’s miserable enough to shatter the most resolute of stones.

“For what it’s worth, my darling bean, I am sorry. Broken people have the bad habit of breaking others, so that they aren’t suffering alone.”

“Are you still broken?”

“I’m trying not to be,” Laurent says and shrugs, too casual for the conversation. “If you’d let me.”

It’s tempting, just like everything else about Laurent is tempting. But Makoto shakes his head and takes a step back, toward the crosswalk where a red light glows. He needs to fix himself first. “I’ll call you sometime, okay? When I can…”

Laurent lets him go, and after he returns to his hotel, Makoto breaks down for the second night in a row.

In the morning, he can’t enjoy his coffee. It’s good, he knows it’s good, but it’s difficult to care about the syrup-like aroma and write about butterscotch tasting notes when his mind is heavy and his stomach is weak. Next on his list had been a skip across the channel to Dublin, but when he reaches the airport, he can’t find the motivation to check in. He’d run from Tokyo with unfinished business and has kept running, and yet it’s the opposite of what he needs to do. His passport is nearly full anyway, pages loaded with entry and exit stamps, and soon he’ll need a new one. It’s time for a break. The coffee can wait.

The flight he boards is a long one.

Makoto can’t recall the last time he was “home.” The name plaque on the outside walls has faded, but it’s been recently cleaned and has a dull gleam in the late morning light. After his mother’s passing, he had resolved to abandon it, but life has already proven it has a way of not listening to his wishes.

He doesn’t bother to knock, the keys jingling in his hand as he digs them out. Inside is cleaner than he remembers. Stacks of old newspapers that contained articles about his father’s arrest are missing, perhaps thrown out or else hidden away. A photo had been added to the family shrine and Makoto kneels in front of it, offering a prayer.

The day passes, Makoto using up the time by going through old photo albums pulled from the shelves and then through documents he found in the spare room, evidence of the amends his father has been making. With the sunset comes the sound of the front door opening and closing, followed by the quiet recitation of “Tadaima” said to no one in particular.

It has been over a decade since Makoto has called back, “Okaeri.”

His father comes into the living room, dressed in a dark suit much like the ones he’d worn in court when Makoto had gone to see him work as a kid, a briefcase in his time-worn hands. Surprise melts from his tired face and he sits down on the tatami floor across from Makoto, welcoming him home as well.

The coffee house that Makoto used to visit with his mother is no longer there, the cozy building torn down and replaced by an ever-illuminated convenience store. He finds a part-time job elsewhere, learning hands-on how to roast coffee beans and chat up customers without the intent of swindling them before the end of the transaction. Between shifts, he helps his father slog through the mountains of paperwork that remain, spending hours upon hours at government offices, pushing residence and registration and adoption documents through.

He smokes on his breaks, sweating with the heat and the humidity while listening to the droning of the summer cicadas, then goes home to terse conversations and uncertain terms. He can’t say their relationship is good—it can never be good—but over the months that flow like molasses, it gets a bit better.

Tokyo experiences its first snow late into January, on the day that the last kid in their care is officially granted a new family. Makoto waits outside, across the street from the courthouse, watching from a distance. He hasn’t seen any of the kids off, hasn’t met with any of them or their prospective families because it’s not his place. They don’t need to know his involvement, and the knowledge they’re all going to be fine is enough for him.

He’s asked his dad what he plans to do next, now that their dirty business is settled, and is placated: the Great Oz intends to keep going. There’s more to be done, and there will always be more to be done.

When Makoto gets to his job at the coffee shop that afternoon, he sits out back and smokes into the winter chill, breathing in and exhaling deeply, until his lungs and his head are thoroughly fogged. Before starting his shift, he throws the pack of cigarettes and his lighter into the trash, then rinses his mouth with a new brew that they’ve just gotten in that day. It’s nutty, with the smoky wooden essence of a crackling flame in a fireplace, spreading warmth and an ache through his chest.

He asks for time off from the owner as they close up shop at the end of work hours and the next morning, he’s at Haneda with a blank passport in hand, a ticket to D.C. tucked between the pages.

Chapter Text

Makoto leaves the biting, melting slush of Tokyo and arrives to more of the same in D.C. It’s cold and it’s gloomy, and his sneakers are soaked through a single block into his walk, the abysmal discomfort of wet socks and frozen toes sending him fleeing back to the hotel room he’d barely checked into. Not the best of starts, though it’s appropriate as he’s come flying in with no plan and no plot, not even daring to hope that luck might carry him.

He doesn’t know where to find Laurent, where to start looking. Laurent’s always been the one hunting him, making Makoto feel like a rat in a corner. But now that the maze is open before him, he wants to go crawling back to familiarity. Makoto hasn’t been in contact with Laurent since leaving London, the messages on his phone unopened. They’d stopped coming a couple of months prior, the steady trickle after their dinner slowing over the weeks that followed before fading away completely. Like a masochistic fool, Makoto had still checked for a new one every morning, because the feeling of being forgotten was worse than the one of being remembered.

Makoto doesn’t know what he expected of D.C., but it’s more quiet than he’d imagined. No long parades of black towncars, no groups of bureaucrats gathered outside government buildings in pressed suits drinking from chain-store paper cups, no massive protests clogging the lawn in front of the capitol building. Maybe if he’d arrived on a Friday, or in fairer weather…

The museums he wanders through don’t ask him for a ticket and he ends up in front of the Hope Diamond, in awe of how brilliantly it glitters in the light and how few people are in the room with him. He’s a con artist, not a heist man, but there’s a question that tickles the back of his mind when he sees a security guard yawn and check the smartwatch on his wrist. Makoto shoves his hands into his pockets and walks away, separating himself from the beautiful gleam of a bad idea.

Half an hour later, he’s buying himself a suit in a department store, a pair of gloves and a tie much better than the one Laurent had picked out for him years ago set atop the register. He really should have left back then. Taken the chance at escape, dodged Eddie’s men at LAX, and jetted back to Japan without caring for the bet and the insistent need to prove himself. That three-hundred-thousand yen and his pride had cost him a hell of a lot more than they were worth. Then again, it had been fun, hadn’t it? In the end, he’d gotten to wipe the smirk off Laurent’s face for a full minute and that was priceless.

The coffee shop he slips into reminds him of an airport lounge, from the cooler full of quick bites against the side wall to the blocking of the round tables at the center. There are countless tins lining the shelves, different colors on the labels denoting different blends. Makoto’s order is a single origin from Serra Negra and the first mouthful washes the chill straight off his bones. It’s a medium roast with a full body, the aroma sweet and creamy like butter while the flavor profile is rich with dark chocolate.

His mind drifts to the coffee he had brewed for them back in LA, on that first job. It’d been decent, though perhaps too acidic. Not the type of coffee he would purchase for himself now, but then, his only goal had been to put enough caffeine into his system to keep himself awake while he waited for Abbie to doze off. His plan hadn’t exactly worked out though, had it?

The notes of toasted almond in the coffee work well with the ebbing warmth and Makoto considers buying one of the tins off the shelves. Laurent would like it. He’s a fucking nut himself, so it suits him, along with the depth and the superficial sweetness. The problem is that Makoto still has no idea where to find the object of his lingering frustrations. Not like he can go around asking, staking out the front of various government buildings. He doesn’t even know what name Laurent’s going by in this city. His best bet is to ask Cynthia; she’d give him the address without making it into a drama. Then he could send Laurent the coffee and leave it at that…

But that’s stupid. He hasn’t come out all the way to D.C. to mail a package and split. He’s not Laurent; he doesn’t want to play the long con. And it’s not like he can trust anything that comes out of the French bastard unless he witnesses it for himself, either—he wants to see the look on Laurent’s face when he tries the coffee that Makoto’s picked out for him. Maybe he’ll think the taste of toasted almonds is a dose of cyanide. That would spice up any reunion.

Makoto knows he’s making this difficult on himself for no reason. He has Laurent’s number on his phone and months’ worth of unanswered messages. Just fucking text him, coward. The worst that can happen is that he doesn’t get a reply. After half a year with no contact, it’s possible that Laurent’s changed phones, changed jobs, changed countries.

If Makoto doesn’t get a reply, it’s not the end of the world. He’s not even sure what he’s doing here or why he’s come. Making amends, right? Forgiveness and acceptance comes before movement forward. It’s something like that. He’s gone through atonement with his father and himself—in part, at least—so up next is Laurent. The why and the what and the how, he’ll figure that all out later.

Before he leaves the coffee shop, Makoto purchases a silver tin and slips it into the bag holding his new suit. He doesn’t text Laurent.

Doesn’t call him.

Doesn’t stake out government buildings.

He frets and he frets, trying to figure out how the hell he’s going to approach the problem that is Laurent. He stretches out his own agony, not wanting to fumble through a weird and unnecessary jumble of words over the phone or send some awkwardly crafted message that he then has to wince at while he awaits a reply. Makoto frets for so long that he leaves himself with only one evening before his return flight, still undecided.

It’s stupid. He knows it’s stupid. He knows he’s stupid. So, finally he does something stupid and simply texts Laurent his hotel address, while pacing in the lobby and chewing on nicotine gum.

...Who even drinks coffee at night?

He waits and he waits and he thanks fuck that seemingly no one in America smokes anymore, because if he were back in Japan, he would have already grabbed the nearest salaryman. It’s a goddamn hour before the message he’s sent is read and another fifteen excruciating minutes until he sees the dots of a reply being written.

He waits and he waits, and he nearly throws his phone against the wall when the dots disappear and no message comes. Laurent is doing this on purpose, surely, driving him mad in revenge for six months of silence. Although Makoto refuses to believe that he deserves it, maybe he could be convinced—and the message comes. Short and sweet and absolutely reworded a million times before it’s been sent, just like Makoto’s had been, because there is no way it’s taken so long for Laurent to text back a simple, “Now?”

Yes, now. This is the only chance Makoto is giving him, the only one he’ll permit himself to grant because letting Laurent in is surely akin to inviting in a vampire. Makoto will have his neck bared and his soul lost to good looks and dumb charms and words too pretty to come from such a filthy mouth.

Half an hour. It’s another half hour before Laurent comes striding in the front doors of the hotel, his blond hair flecked with melting snowflakes and the tips of his ears bitten pink. Makoto had readied himself for a suit, for pastels, for sleek black with a flag pin on his lapel, but what he gets is Laurent in a midnight-blue knit turtleneck and long coat, his appearance perfectly suited for a night of romance on the town and lacking only a bouquet of long-stemmed roses. Why is it that Makoto always notices, always pays so much attention after their long stints apart? The purple polo, with too many open buttons flashing collar bones and skin on Cynthia’s island. The smart suit with cufflinks and lavender scarf in Nice. The pink in Makoto’s little apartment and the pink in the café, both too light for the occasion. He hates that Laurent always looks so good and hates himself more for noticing.

“Hello, my sweet bean,” Laurent greets him with a purr that rattles Makoto’s ribcage.

It’s wrong. Makoto should be the one greeting and flustering him. He’s the one who has flown all the way here, he’s the one who sent Laurent the invitation, he’s the one who should be in control. Makoto turns and stalks off, relishing the flash of confusion that crosses Laurent’s face. At the elevator doors, he jams the button and then glances over his shoulder, back to where Laurent’s been left standing atop a patterned rug at the center of the lobby. “You coming or what?”

Laurent doesn’t rush but he does come at the call, standing a foot apart from Makoto as the elevator doors slide and close them in. Makoto says nothing, his eyes up on the rising numbers as he tries to breathe through lungs that feel like they’re infected, his chest tight and head spinning. Laurent’s presence isn’t suffocating but it’s ubiquitous, surrounding Makoto like the honeyed scent of his cologne.

His heart pounds as he unlocks his room door and when Laurent steps in behind him, close enough to send his skin prickling, Makoto jumps away, putting distance between them. He whips around to face Laurent, holding his hands up in front of him. “Don’t think this is—You know, like that! It’s not! I just—” What? He just what? “—I wanted you to try this coffee.”

“Oh. Of course.”

It’s an awful excuse and an awful explanation and Laurent would know better than to let him get away with it, and yet he does. He takes a seat on a chair Makoto pulls out for him and sheds his coat, wearing a smile and patience as he waits.

Makoto takes his time, because if he rushes, he’ll screw things up. The electric kettle is filled with distilled water and as it boils, Makoto opens the silver tin and measures out a portion of the roasted beans inside. He grinds them slowly, tipping them into a filter, the scent of coffee already unfurling and spreading through the room. The pourover takes a few minutes, and a few more to cool enough to drink, Makoto filling a second cup for himself after passing Laurent a mug filled with rich, black coffee.

“You’re not trying to poison me, are you?” Laurent asks, blowing steam from the surface of his drink.

“What if I said yes?”

Laurent responds by taking a sip. “Mmmm, not a bad way to die.”

The nihilism is still there, then—that’s good to know.

Makoto sighs and sits on the edge of his hotel bed, joining his companion in indulging in a good brew too late in the evening to be conducive to sleep. As he drinks, he wonders if it’s always been so tense between them. He thinks back to the car in LA, the casino in Singapore, the balcony in London. Yeah, yeah, it has, hasn’t it? Well, maybe not tense, but there’s always been tension. Competition. Drive. Makoto’s been trying to best Laurent from the very beginning, while barely keeping up. Now that he’s managed it once, what more is there? Is there a point in carrying on?

With Laurent before him, somehow, the coffee tastes different. Not better, not worse, but it’s a note more bitter. Perhaps the water was too hot or he’d ground the beans too fine or the filter was the wrong type. Or perhaps it’s just Laurent, bleeding in.

“Did you get your explanation?” Laurent asks, after a few minutes that drag on too long.

“No,” Makoto admits and it’s the truth. No, he hadn’t, but it did not matter. No explanation would ever be good enough, for either of them. It wasn’t important anyway. An explanation wouldn’t change anything; it would only come off like an excuse and serve to do nothing more than frustrate. “But I got my apology.”

“Was it enough?”

“I don’t know.” That’s his choice to make and he’s still on the edge, asking himself what is the use of staying angry. “Maybe.”

Laurent hums as if he understands and takes another drink, one deeper that’ll spread the heat through him and leave the sweet richness of butter lingering on the back of his tongue.

Makoto struggles to find a topic, asking Laurent about his work and getting nothing of substance back. This and that, he’d said before, and his response this time doesn’t do much more to expand on it. When Makoto presses on, he gets a smile and a glint based in blue, his answer the one that he’d missed out on last time.

“If you’re really so curious, I may be in need of a getaway driver not long from now.”

“What kind of government job requires a getaway driver?” Makoto scoffs, dubious.

“The secret kind.”

“No thanks.” He’s not bored. He’ll work at the coffee shop a bit longer, then he’ll resume his hunt. He’d skipped over Asia last time and there are still places he wants to see before the real research starts. Singapore will be nice without the threat of death by plane crash or royal bullet, as will all the island clusters surrounding it. Vietnam and Taiwan both grow their own coffee, and he wants to sample it before moving on to the larger farms of Ethiopia and Guatemala.

“Then where are you off to next?”

The first thing that springs to mind is a coffee that had been sourced from a village in Thailand, that bit at his tongue with its spice and citrus, soothing the aftertaste in caramel. “Still thinking about that.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll only follow you if you ask me, soybean.”

“I thought I was a coffee bean now.”

“You can be both.” Laurent leans back, relaxing against his chair. “Which one do you prefer?”

The nicknames Laurent’s given him have always been annoying. Edamame. Soybean. They’re based on that initial mispronunciation of his name, and Makoto has long realized the reason for the stumble was that Laurent would have expected him to go by Ozaki as well. At least being called a coffee bean is based on his interests and not a lame mistake, though admitting that he doesn’t resent it would be an error in judgment. Instead, he asks another question, one that’s been plaguing him for years. “...Why do you like me?”

“What’s not to like about you, my little soybean?”

“I’m serious, Laurent.”

Laurent sighs and drops his blue gaze, watching the wisping curls of steam rising from his cup. Makoto knows better than to expect an answer that isn’t brushed off with jokes and flirtation, but he hopes for enough tidbits of veiled truth that he will eventually be able to figure it out on his own.

“Of all the people I’ve met and cheated, I don’t believe that I’ve ever encountered a genuinely good person,” Laurent says, casting half a smile at his coffee. “Until you.”

There was the joke. Makoto laughs drily, drowning a more biting dismissal into his drink. “I’m a con.”

“Everyone has their flaws,” Laurent shrugs, turning the cup slowly in his hands, bit by bit until he’s back to the same spot where he started. “That does not change the fact that, time and time again, you put others above yourself. Why do you think I put you in that role, out of anyone else? I could have found a better Mandarin speaker. A more experienced con man. But I knew that you were the only one who would have made sure that everyone would make it out. And I don’t just mean our team... Who else could I trust to screw things up for the better?”

“Why didn’t you just plan for it then?”

“Oh, my dear Edamame.” Laurent looks up, his smile wide and his eyes dull. “When have our schemes ever gone according to plan? Chaos is more reliable.”

That much is true. Makoto does have a way of screwing up their plots, for better, for worse, or for a combination of both. It has worked out, though, hasn’t it? Even if that way of thinking is the same as Laurent’s, the fact they are all still breathing is a testament. “You keep doing this to yourself, you know. Why do you chase people who want nothing to do with you?”

“You’re here with me now, out of the blue, and you’re gonna tell me that you want nothing to do with me?” It’s Laurent’s turn to laugh, turning up his face to look across the room at Makoto. “My dear bean, every time you tell me you’re gonna live a nice and quiet life, but the moment you’re near me again, you let yourself get stuck. There’s never been anything stopping you from leaving and yet you stay. How should I take that, if not with a grain of hope?”

“What makes you think I stay for you?”

“If it were for the money, you wouldn’t try so hard to convince yourself you don’t want to be involved.”

“Could be for the thrill.”

“Am I part of that thrill?”

Makoto shoots him a glare, clicking his tongue in irritation. Laurent is a thrill in the way that jumping out of the Marina Bay Sands without a parachute had been a thrill, punching his heart into his throat and a eulogy onto his tongue. “I’m not interested.”

“And clearly, I’ve decided that I’m fine with that,” Laurent replies, raising his nearly empty coffee cup in a mock toast. “You break my heart every time you leave, so what’s one more time? Or a hundred more? It’s good just to see you, Edamame.”

“Yeah.” Makoto wishes it were that simple. Let Laurent live on in his unrequited pining, pretending he’s unaware and that it doesn’t matter. That it doesn’t seep through him, contaminating his thoughts and his dreams and his memories. He can’t put on a suit and look into a mirror without thinking of Laurent’s hands on his shoulders, without picturing the smirk behind him and feeling the blaze on his cheeks. “Yeah, sure thing, Laurie.”

A beat goes by and Makoto inhales sharply, the sudden strength of Laurent’s eyes on him stifling.

“Laurie?”

Makoto’s slipped and there’s no clawing his way back. He blames Oz. It was Laurie this, Laurie that, always Laurie in the few stories they exchanged over take-out dinners and simple home-cooked meals. It’s grating, how fond his father is of Laurent, and how he’s not afraid to admit it. It had left Makoto quiet, on more than one occasion, wondering if Oz had talked about him the same way, rattling off achievements like a proper father. “That’s what he calls you. My dad.”

“You’re talking to him then?”

“Yeah. We’ve…” He’s not sure if reconnected is the right word for their relationship, as it stands.

“Made up?”

“It’s a work in progress,” Makoto mutters, pushing himself off the bed in order to go refill his cup. The coffee is black and it’s strong, but Makoto doubts he’s going to get much rest anyway. Let the dawn come and carry him back to the airport and the recycled air of a too-long journey. He’ll feel more at home six miles off the ground.

As he pours coffee into his cup, his shoulders slump and he closes his eyes. He’s not sure what he came for, but it can’t be this. “Sorry I asked you to come here for this.”

“It’s fine. Like I said, it’s good to see you.” Laurent drains the rest of his coffee and stands, setting the cup aside. He picks up his coat, draping it over his arm, and tucks the chair back under the table where it belongs. “I’ll leave you to your travels. Maybe call me, like you promised?”

As Laurent takes a step toward the door, Makoto drops his cup too close to the edge of the table and nearly loses it to the floor, scrambling to push it back. He lunges, grabbing the knit sleeve of Laurent’s sweater. “Wait, I didn’t mean—”

Laurent pauses and they’re balanced on a tightrope, without a safety net. Tipping too far in either direction spells the end.

“We’re always leaving and—” And what? He has no answer, not for Laurent, not for himself. “Arghhh, I don’t know. Never mind. Forget it. I just… I wanted to—” He drops Laurent’s sleeve, unable to finish, unsure of what he means to say.

That seems to be all Laurent needs, because he nods and sets aside his coat. “Will you make me another cup of coffee?”

“Yeah.” That much, Makoto is sure of. “Yeah, let me start over. I can make a better one for us both…”

Maybe it’s confidence that does it. Resolve. The process is the same as before. Boil, measure, grind, pour, relish. The process is the same, but the result is different. The coffee is bolder, more fragrant, sweeter. This time when Laurent takes a sip, he hums and the corners of his mouth crack upwards. Success.

It takes a few awkward starts that fizzle out before they find even ground in talking about coffee, Makoto recounting a story or two about the cafés he liked most amongst all those he had visited so far. He drifts, once Laurent asks him what he wants for his own café, muttering about log-cabin walls and cat-themed coffee mugs and an English menu to help out tourists.

“You’re really gonna do it,” Laurent muses, his tone light with wonder as his lips purse around the rim of his cup. “Café owner Edamame.”

“Sounds better than ex-con Edamame,” Makoto replies, leaning back against the pillows he’s stacked against the headboard of the bed. “I like it. Seeing people smile after they drink good coffee. It’s nice.”

“You really didn’t like any of our adventures? At all?”

He’s probably crazy to think so and crazier to admit it but, “Yeah.” Not while he was living through them, thrashed around in a Hollywood-style car chase or sweating through his suit as Cynthia raised the planned bid by tens of millions of pounds, but now that all is said and done, he doesn’t regret them. “Not the last one. Never the last one. But the others… They were kinda fun.”

Laurent’s smile spreads and even if it isn’t a result of the coffee, Makoto doesn’t glare it away.

“Do you have a name in mind? For your café?”

“Haven’t really thought about it yet,” Makoto says, linking his hands behind his head and supporting the back of his neck as he stares up at the ceiling. It’s white, unblemished, the rivets uniform with no patterns of interest to be found. “...The Coffee Bean.”

The short laugh the suggestion earns has him cracking a grin.

“Not really,” Makoto clarifies, in case Laurent thinks he’s serious.

“I like it. It suits you.”

It kind of does. He can leave it on the back burner, like warm milk, simmering steadily until it comes time to stir it into consideration. Makoto keeps going, picking his words carefully as he mindlessly browses photos on his phone, of the cafés and coffees he hopes to draw his inspiration from. Talking to Laurent has always been tricky, though never difficult. He’s used to having his guard up, listening for the trap, for the play, yet this is his territory and Laurent’s the one who’s listening.

Makoto lingers too long on the little restaurant in Budapest, the one that had roasted his beans in a wok and had the cat curled in a corner chair. It’s that atmosphere he wants to capture, relaxed and homey, like a countryside family getaway from a generation past. As he flips through the photos he took, Laurent asks, “May I see it?”

Makoto relents and Laurent is at his side, too close yet again as he sits on the other side of the bed and leans in to look at exactly what Makoto's been describing. It’s a mistake not to put distance between them, because not long after Laurent’s fully on the bed beside him and Makoto’s keenly aware of the mere millimeters separating them.

Somehow, talk of unconventional roasting methods turns into location scouting. Makoto compares available lots he finds on Japanese real estate sites with ones Laurent finds on French ones, as they bounce virtually between Tokyo and Paris as fast as the hotel’s Wi-Fi will permit. When that quest runs dry and the coffee at the bottom of their cups grows cold, Laurent starts to spin visions of a little café in Brussels long shut down, his words familiar and fond.

The artificial light of the room lamps is too muted, Laurent’s voice too lush, the hum of the heater too rhythmic, and Makoto’s eyes grow heavy. It’s only a moment later, or so he thinks, that he’s lifting his lashes to the dark. He fumbles, finding his phone fallen next to his hip, and presses the power button.

The screen is too bright, making him squint until he can dampen the blue light flooding from it. At the center of the display, the time reads half past three a.m. He groans and turns onto his side, then freezes. Laurent is there beside him, asleep facing the wall, as far to the edge of the bed as he can be without falling off. His shoes are gone, presumably kicked to the floor, but he’s still fully dressed, the top of the turtleneck disappearing beneath the building mess of his hair.

Makoto pushes himself up by a fraction and, on the nightstand, he spies Laurent’s phone and a small figurine, the evergreen caricature of a daimyo won from a gachapon too many years ago.

It would be so easy to move, to shift, to tuck himself against Laurent’s back, his face buried into blond hair. There’s no way he’ll be rejected or pushed back, no way there’ll come a murmur asking him to stop. He can see himself being enveloped by Laurent’s long limbs, as if he’s being taken in by some suspiciously pleasant spider trying to trap him in a web that he’s already been struggling to escape for far too long.

He’s slept beside Laurent before, sharing the king-sized bed in Singapore and nodding off against him on flights and long car journeys. It’s not unprecedented, but Makoto’s never initiated contact. Reaching out would mean leaning off the tightrope, and he’s not sure if he can trust Laurent to catch him when he falls.

So, he doesn’t.

He stays tucked into himself on the far right of the bed, squeezing his eyes shut as he silently shouts at his mind to shut up, shut up, shut up, and shut down for the rest of the night.

When morning finally comes, it’s tortured and dizzy, the sun invading through the cracks in the curtains. Makoto crushes his face into the pillow, clinging to the fringe of sleep and finding it again as the faint rustling of movements echoes behind him. He awakes again, some time later, and finds that Laurent’s already gone, with only the indents in the pillow and bedding left as evidence of his presence. Well, that and the two mugs on the table, empty and cold.

The silver tin of Brazilian coffee remains on the table; Makoto’s forgotten to tell Laurent it was meant for him. He knows why he’s disappointed.

What was it that he’d said to Abbie, back when she’d needed the same reassurance? You’ve already forgiven him.

Yeah. Yeah, it’d been something like that.

Makoto drags himself from the bed, showers, then goes down to drink the coffee at the hotel breakfast bar, barely able to tolerate how sour it is on his tongue.

What does Laurent want? Just to fuck him, like Abbie had said years back in LA? That’s a hell of a lot of work for what might not even be a good lay. Or is it a whirlwind romance? Dating? The occasional carnal rendezvous in country number nine? To settle down with a small café, a cat curled in the corner, and a ring on his finger? Or is Laurent just a masochist that gets off on pining away, knowing he’ll never snag his catch? Whatever it is, Laurent must have the patience of a saint. Then again, knowing how many years Laurent had spent planning and awaiting his revenge, maybe that isn’t far from the truth.

The more important question is what Makoto wants. Why he bothers coming back to Laurent. He can’t really claim that he’s been tricked into it this time, or the time before that, or the one before that…

Makoto catches his flight and when he’s back in Japan, he gives his two-week notice to the café owner. He doesn’t go “home” but to the little apartment he’s been paying rent on all this time just in case he needs somewhere safe to flee. Once the two weeks are up, he’s back on a plane, jetting across the ocean to Bangkok.

It takes a few days to settle back into his old patterns of hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop. He makes sure that all the coffee he drinks is locally sourced, grown in Thailand by Thai farmers. One of the cafés he finds is a minimalist second-floor loft that offers specialty lattes that have been smoked with hickory wood chips. It’s unique and it’s modern, but Makoto prefers the single-origin brew he orders after, the beans sourced from a village in the mountains an eight-hour drive from the metropolis. The coffee tastes of forest honey and brittle, the aroma rich with the sweet heartiness of black cherries. At the bottom of his cup, Makoto finds rejuvenation.

From Bangkok, he travels east into Cambodia, where he stays out of the cities and instead finds solace in tiny shops where the owners and locals don’t speak English, where he can’t read menus or understand the words shouted at him, and where the coffee is strong and rich. He gets lost too many times, but it’s always welcome, even if it takes him a couple weeks more than expected to arrive in Vietnam.

Makoto makes it to Ho Chi Minh City. After a tortured hour of nausea and a stabbing tightness in his chest, he wrenches himself back to the airport, unable to stand it. Maybe—maybe one day. The guilt is still there now, like lead in his stomach. He doubts it’ll ever go away completely and he does the only thing he can in that moment: he dumps the full contents of his wallet into a nearby donation bin claiming to help local youth, then withdraws the limit at an ATM and stuffs those bills in, too. He jitters for the entire two-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, rejecting the cabin attendant’s offer of coffee when she walks by.

The city is warm and the sun shines brightly overhead when Makoto finds his first stop. A small and simple coffee roaster, with white walls and oak furniture. Makoto sits at a short and narrow table meant for coffee cups and laptops, loving how it directly faces the shop’s front counter. He can watch the staff prepare his order, a Bolivian caturra that’s juicy with blood orange and plum. Midway through his drink, he asks if there are any places nearby that roast domestically grown coffee and—after a few minutes of ummms and errrrs and Google searches—he has himself a list.

First on the list is a chain coffee shop, something Makoto has tried to avoid till now, but he gives it a try. The white coffee there is smooth and hides a hint of caramel. Apparently, the beans have been roasted with palm oil and the creamy color comes from the condensed milk that has been mixed in. It’s a sugar rush compared to the straight black brews Makoto is accustomed to, but it’s easy to understand how such a treat could become addictive. He takes a photo of the branded cup and, after only a moment of consideration, sends it to Laurent.

There’s no message to go along with it, no cliché “Wish you were here.” The photo is enough. The time difference means it’s a few hours before morning hits D.C. and his message is seen. Laurent doesn’t respond immediately. Instead, it’s around eight in the morning eastern time that Makoto gets a reply, a photo of Laurent’s hand wrapped around a takeout Starbucks cup.

Makoto takes the insult personally.

<< Starbucks? Really?

>> Then come back and brew me something better

Writing to Laurent is more of a challenge than talking to him. Text exchanges means Makoto has too much time to brew and doubt himself. He’s not flying back to the States just to serve Laurent better coffee, no matter how much he dislikes the bitter Italian roast in the picture. A quick online search yields what he’s looking for and before he can let that doubt settle in, he sends his response.

<< There’s a summit in Singapore next month. Will you be there?

>> Has my sweet bean actually started watching the news?

Makoto glares at his phone. He shouldn’t have asked. Forget it. Never mind. He shouldn’t even be thinking about the gourmet boutique inside the Marina Bay Sands that had warm pastries, good coffee, tall stools and morning lighting that had made the sunrise blue of Laurent’s eyes pop the last time they’d been inside it.

>> Yes, I’ll be there.

<< OK

He doesn’t bother with more than that and Laurent doesn’t bother to ask. The next day, Makoto gets a new list of recommendations curated by Laurent, of little shops and roasteries for Makoto to visit, but it’s too late. He’s already left the city.

After a week spent wandering the city of Ipoh, Makoto visits a coffee grower for the first time. Seeing coffee as it starts, fresh and bright and full of color, is inspiring. The cherries that congregate on the branches turn from a pale lime green to a cranberry red to a plum purple. He’s shown how the fruit is picked and spread out to dry under the brilliant sun, and then the hulling machines that shake the husks off the week-old cherries. The last stage of the grading is done by hand, sun-tanned women tossing out beans that are damaged or over-fermented, missed by the sorting machines. Makoto has no idea how to go about actually sourcing coffee from a farm like this, but it probably starts with asking questions and shaking hands, so that’s exactly what he does.

A couple of days later, he’s in Jakarta and after that he skips across to Manila. He sends Laurent another photo, capturing the café he’s sitting in and the cup of a home-grown red bourbon variety that fills his mouth with brown sugar and candied orange rinds. Before the end of the day, Laurent sends him another list.

The first location listed makes Makoto blink, convinced he’s misread it because it says “barber café.” He doesn’t search for photos, taking a cab to the address listed, and arrives at an industrial barbershop with whitebrick walls and two menus: a barber menu and a coffee menu. He has his hair cut while he sips at a house blend espresso that has notes of jasmine and toffee. It’s weird and it’s wild and he loves it enough to send Laurent another photo, this time featuring a reflection of his new trim and the coffee cup in the barber’s mirror.

What he receives in return is a flurry of heart-eyed emojis and a comment of “Ah, la plus belle pousse de soja!”

Makoto doesn’t know whether to laugh or to send him a middle finger emoji, so he does both.

A day later, he visits another stop on Laurent’s list. The roastery in Quezon also has white bricks along the back wall, though they’ve been mostly painted over with a boldly-colored mural. There are Broadway-style lights over the bar, and the menu has cocktails and milkshakes on offer as well. Makoto asks for the Mt. Apo medium roast and gets a cup that smells of toasted sugar and tastes of walnuts and tablea chocolate.

He adds the coffee to his starred list and marks it with an asterisk, which he then goes back and deletes a few minutes later. If he really likes the coffee, why should it matter to him or to anyone whether it’s one that Laurent recommended? Before he leaves, he buys a bag for himself and a bag for Laurent, since he didn’t keep Makoto’s intended gift of nutty Brazilian coffee in D.C. Makoto can convey the same message with a gift of nutty Filipino coffee instead.

It’s April before he even knows it, but the three days of waiting in Singapore for Laurent to slip away from the summit feel like he’s holding his breath for spring in the dead of winter. Not that it makes any sense, since Singapore in April is already hot and humid. He sweats in his shirt, leg bouncing nervously as he waits in a wooden café chair along a street of townhouses that remind him more of Europe than Asia.

When Laurent finally shows up—he’s on time; Makoto had been early—he’s in that pink Hawaiian shirt that sends visions of Asakusa, of Hollywood, of a private island paradise, all flashing through Makoto’s mind. How many years has Laurent worn that damn thing for and why does it still look flawless? Or is it that everything looks flawless on Laurent, from tacky prints to pressed tuxedos?

Makoto’s foot catches on the leg of the chair as he bolts up, as if he needs to stand to greet Laurent. He’s not a dignitary or royalty or someone Makoto’s vying to impress, he’s just…

“Hey.”

“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting long, Edamame.”

Not that long. Fifteen minutes, half an hour, maybe a full hour. He hadn’t known what else to do with his morning, his palms damp and his head buzzing. “No,” he manages to croak out and gestures awkwardly to the table he’s taken for them, trying to will his pounding heart out of his throat before it chokes him.

Luckily, a server comes by the moment his butt reconnects with the chair, taking their order and sparing Makoto a minute to breathe. He’s nervous, he shouldn’t be nervous, why is he nervous—and Laurent is staring.

It’s not obvious at first, but Laurent’s gaze keeps darting to him in a manner different from the usual, inquisitive rather than lovesick. Makoto tries to ask about the summit, even though he’s really not that interested, and Laurent replies like he’s reading off a script written for Acting 101. Through the whole odd exchange, Laurent keeps staring, his blond lashes angled down and his brows furrowed.

Their coffee arrives with breakfast, a smoky praline full city roast with a ham and cheese croissant for Laurent and a bacon and egg sarnie for Makoto. He’s two bites into his sandwich before he snaps, unable to figure out what the hell has Laurent so captivated. “What?! Did I forget to put on pants? Am I sweating so much that my nipples are showing? What is it?!”

“Is that…” Laurent clears his throat, blue eyes back on Makoto’s chest, “...mine?”

Oh.

Yeah.

That.

Fuck.

His shirt. Or rather, Laurent’s shirt. Dark blue with pink fronds, a bit too large on Makoto and certainly too comfortable. He’d forgotten all about where it was that he’d gotten it from. “Uhhh, yeah. It was… it got mixed into my stuff, back when… back on the boat, after the—the Tokyo job.”

“And you’ve been wearing it?” Incredulousness doesn’t belong in Laurent’s voice. It’s foreign and unfamiliar, difficult to recognize. “All this time?”

“I’m sorry, do you want me to take it off?” Makoto retorted, huffing into his coffee.

“Well, if you’re offering.” Laurent winks and Makoto sputters, barely avoiding inhaling hot liquid into his lungs.

“Pay for breakfast and maybe I’ll consider it.”

“Sounds like a bargain.”

“But you’re not getting the shirt back.”

“It looks better on you anyway.”

Makoto laughs, half in doubt and half in conviction. He lets Laurent guess which as he smirks and says, “I know it does.”

Against all odds, breakfast is splendid. Makoto doesn’t take his shirt off, but Laurent does pay and after they’re done, they wander, headed in the general direction of the resort by the bay, pulling up memories along the way. Laurent tells Makoto about how the night before the final race, they nearly lost Kudo after he’d been pulled off a blackjack table, accused by hotel security of counting cards. Makoto listens with his jaw slack because it’s the first he’s heard of this, and he wonders what else he’s missed when away from the team.

They make it to the river and follow it down, their pace leisurely. Makoto mentions drinking beer with Clark by the infinity pool and how even before the last race, he hadn’t felt right cheating him. Sam had been vile and deserved worse than being left broke, but all Clark had really done was put too much faith into the family he had left at his side. That was a familiar sting. Though he does suppose their con had worked out for the better, leaving Clark free to set out on his own. Last that Makoto’s heard, Clark’s still flying in air races—fair ones—with Lewis as his coach. That’s a happy ending, right?

“You know, he had a bit of a crush on you,” Laurent says while looking out at the sparkling water.

“Huh? Who?”

“Clark.”

Now it’s Makoto’s turn to have incredulousness flood his tone. He stops midstep and wheels around to look at Laurent, who has a pleased smirk painted across his lips. “Clark?!”

“Is that so hard to believe?”

“Yes?” Makoto had lost count of how many women Clark had hanging off him anytime he wasn’t in a plane. Four in the pool, two in the lounge chairs, probably a few more waiting in his bed. And they’d all been gorgeous, the type that would be featured in the giant posters outside of the luxury brand stores all around the resort. “When did you even talk to him?”

“When he helped us with Abbie. You should have heard him fawn.”

Makoto would admit they had gotten along well but that didn’t mean Clark had a crush, of all things. “I think you’re projecting.”

“Did you call him handsome to his face or was that an opinion you just shared with me in private?”

Scowling, Makoto considers how much of a scene it would make if he shoves Laurent into the river. They’re not on a job so the extra attention won’t jeopardize anything. Then again, Laurent’s in the country on political business and Makoto doesn’t want to cause an international incident. “Are you jealous?”

“Of course.” Laurent’s easy admission is just like him, too casual about everything while his words dig their way under Makoto’s skin and take root around his nerves. “You spent so much time with him, and he was always calling you Makoto. So sweetly, too.”

Makoto’s about to question how Laurent knows this before remembering how many conversations Laurent had listened in on through the bugs they had worn, when working on the setup. If Laurent’s jealous about Clark using his first name, then that’s on him. It’s not like Makoto had forbidden it. “You’re the one who calls me soybean.”

“Do you hate it?”

He did. At the beginning. Laurent’s mispronunciation of his name had felt like a slight, like the mannerisms of a self-important foreigner who did not feel the need to bother. Over the years it had taken to understand the cause behind the confusion, though, with both Cynthia and Abbie’s contributions, he’d grown kind of fond of it. No one else calls him Edamame and Laurent’s the only one who says “soybean” with so much fondness laced behind the endearment. Now, it’s like a mark of belonging. Edamame of Team Confidence. A toast to a short career and a long retirement... Right?

“No.”

Laurent’s smile, when it isn’t put-on and manipulative, is gorgeous. His lips pull away from his teeth and push up the apples of his cheeks, making the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes fully visible. Makoto really needs to stop noticing, stop thinking about it, stop admiring.

The Singapore sun pulls beads of sweat to their skin and Laurent’s blond sideburns have collected the droplets, yet even with damp strands of hair plastered to his skin, Laurent continues to be a vision. It’s frustrating, how he’s always so put together, even in the heat and humidity that should have melted his European good looks.

Makoto forces himself to tear his eyes away, continuing down the river, the triple towers of the resort looming just ahead. He doesn’t know why he says it, why he goes back to a topic that could have easily been left behind, but as he slips his hands into his pocket, he mutters, “Clark’s not my type.”

“Oh?” There’s no surprise, Laurent’s reaction obligatory.

“Yeah.”

“Then what is your type?” Laurent asks, casting Makoto a sidelong glance. “Abbie?”

“Abbie’s cute,” Makoto admits freely. He’s glad she’s kept the shorter hair, it suits her personality. Feisty and fiery and ready to kick any ass within her reach. He loves Abbie, even if their meet-cute was punctuated by her nearly dislocating his jaw and then stringing him up on the Hollywood sign. “But…”

“But?” Laurent presses.

Makoto’s not giving in that easily, narrowing his eyes at Laurent’s stupidly handsome face. “What do you think?”

Laurent doesn’t answer and that’s for the better. They reach Marina Bay and the resort and while they continue to aimlessly wander down memory lane, Laurent starts looking at his watch. Civic duty calls.

Separating is strange. Makoto’s used to their goodbyes being definitive or dismissive, but here there’s a question hanging in the air that neither of them ask. Makoto bids him good luck with the rest of the summit, and Laurent says that he’ll send another list of recommendations if Makoto tells him where he’s headed next. Before Laurent can turn away, however, Makoto stops him. There’s weight in the eye contact, blue meeting brown, loaded barbells dropped onto the center of the tightrope. Makoto’s leaning back and trying not to slip.

“...What job are you working now?”

Now there’s surprise, Laurent’s lashes lifting, his sharp jaw flexing at the hinge. It lasts for a moment, replaced by a smirk faster than it had come on. “Are you asking because you’re done hunting coffee, my sweet bean?”

Permission. Laurent’s asking permission. He isn’t pulling Makoto in with wool over his eyes, isn’t baiting him in so he can jerk the line and catch Makoto on a disguised hook. Laurent’s actually waiting.

Rather than lie, Makoto is the one who leaves without giving a response, waving as he walks off. He hears a scoff and a chuckle, and by the time he glances back, Laurent is gone.

A month later, Makoto is in New Zealand on the greenest of hilltops, drinking a Colombian Castillo that tastes way too similar to all the others he’s had. It’s fruity and full-bodied and maybe, just maybe, he is getting bored after all. If he wants to convince himself otherwise, he needs to move on.

He spends a week location-hunting in Tokyo and then decides it’s not a good idea. There’s too much risk of having the wrong person recognize him and he’d rather not end up at the bottom of Yokohama Bay, serving himself up as fresh sashimi to the octopi and sea urchins that thrive there.

Instead, he heads back down to Okinawa, thinking it fitting to end where he started—a toast to a new beginning. He leaves Naha behind, renting a car for himself to drive slowly up the coast, searching for an outlook. There’s no neo-Gothic church or orange torii gates, but eventually he finds a spot that feels right.

The building is a bit old and needs work, but the back deck has a view of the beach and inside there’s enough room for him to roast coffee beans and still have space to spare. He’s near enough to a resort hotel that he’ll get foot traffic from curious wanderers, and far away enough from the cities that it won’t be just American tourists coming through, the wives and friends of the occupying military. He buys it without bothering to negotiate.

The great thing about having more money than sense is that he doesn’t need to worry about loans or drafting up convincing business plans. He takes things at his own pace, hiring an interior designer and some carpenters and channels Sarah Winchester. The summer is warm and it’s wet, and he spends it scraping his coffee shop together. His search history fills with DIY articles and video tutorials, and slowly it all comes together.

Makoto makes an Instagram page to promote his little café-to-be as it goes through its transformation, posting his progress. Cynthia is his first follower, Laurent his second, and after that, he gains more from the locals that pass by and make conversation with him as he stands outside in a sweat-soaked shirt, with a tea towel tied around his forehead and a glass of freshly brewed iced coffee in hand.

As summer crawls by, the photos on his account change from an old but sturdy building to one that’s been stripped bare to that of a cottage with log walls and rustic lanterns for outdoor illumination. The pictures he doesn’t post online sometimes make their way into Laurent’s inbox, in exchange for the promise that Laurent never sends him a photo of a Starbucks cup again.

On his breaks, he starts following American politics and, on the rare occasion, he catches glimpses of Laurent on the news. At some point, late into the heat of July while he’s awaiting delivery of a coffee roaster, there’s a news story about some scandal stemming from secretly recorded footage from a fundraiser. In the background of the video, Makoto sees the low-resolution but undeniable form of a handsome blond in a smart suit, not far from the side of the American president. He’s curious, of course he is, but he’s been doing so well at not falling into any more of Laurent’s schemes. Then again, how many times has he promised to call Laurent and not followed through?

Phone in hand, Makoto dials the number. It’s late in D.C., but Laurent still answers on the second ring, his voice rough with sleep as he says, “Hello, my darling soybean.”

“Super PACs, Laurent, really?”

A pause is followed by a soft, rumbling chuckle and the faint rustling of sheets. “Is that really why you’re calling me?”

“Do you want me to say it’s because I missed the sound of your voice?”

“Mmmm, that’d be a much better reason for waking me up, my dear.”

Makoto doesn’t really know what to say or how to ask, so maybe feeding Laurent a line like that would have been the better approach. “I saw you on the news here… Is it smart, messing with people like that?”

From the other end of the line comes a sigh. “I was only there to support our esteemed president.”

“Our?”

“You know what I mean.”

Yeah, he does. Makoto leans back against what will one day be the main counter of his coffee shop, transferring his phone from one hand to the next. “You’re not doing anything dangerous, are you?”

“Is my sweet Edamame worried about me?”

“I have concerns.”

“You could always come here and help out, keep an eye on me.”

“I’m busy.”

“With your adorable little café, yes. Are you happy with it?”

“Yeah.” He is. It’s new and exciting, and it’s keeping his hands and his mind more than full. “Just… don’t get yourself killed. Or arrested. I want you here for the opening.”

“Well, unlike you, I’ve never gotten caught.”

Laurent can’t see his scowl but Makoto makes sure he hears it as he tsks in irritation. “Always a first time for everything, Laurie.”

“I sure hope so, Makoto.”

It’s odd, hearing his name in Laurent’s deep timbre. The sound of it echoes, vibrating in his head and his chest, even after the conversation is long over.

The calls become a bit more frequent after that, and from the things that Laurent says, the news clips Makoto sees, the messages he still gets from Abbie and the tidbits from Cynthia, he starts piecing together their con. He doesn’t ask to confirm, not wanting to get drawn in, but he gets the rough idea. He has his own work going on, his own plot. Letting himself get distracted by the fantasy of cheating corrupt politicians will only lead him back to trouble.

Come fall, the only thing missing from his shop is the coffee. Makoto digs out his passport, locks the door behind him, and sets out for South America.

He’s no expert on sourcing coffee, not even a beginner, but everyone starts somewhere. The extensive notes he’s kept are a good guidance point, giving him an idea of where to go for exactly what he’s looking for.

His first destination is in Guatemala, at the base of a mountain northwest of the capital city. Makoto knows he doesn’t want to buy from big corporate farms that sell to the world’s chains and thus value quantity more than quality. What he wants is a cup of coffee that’ll put a smile on any face, that’ll make a hardened criminal stumble and that’ll produce a considerate hum from any self-proclaimed coffee hater. That’s something worth getting a little lost for.

The coffee farm is at the end of a long and winding road that leads to a red clay house surrounded by pine trees and native flowers. Makoto has been foolish, coming up without a translator or a guide and without warning, riding more on fate than planning. He’s stopped by a worker and after a failure to explain himself in his extremely limited and abysmal Spanish, he’s gestured in.

As he learns later, the owner of the farm has three sons and, by a stroke of luck, one of them speaks English. He’s laughed at and is told that his approach is unconventional, but it leads into a conversation, a tour, and an invitation to stay for a little while to watch their operation and see if it’s the kind of place he wants to invest in. So, he does. And it is. The workers seem well-paid and well taken care of, the business is a family one, and the coffee that Makoto drinks there has thrill sparking through him like the very first hit of strong caffeine.

When he leaves, a week later, it’s with paperwork detailing payments and export processes. He forwards it to his own father, who passes it off to a lawyer acquaintance that specializes in international trade, and just like that, Makoto has the makings of his own coffee. The fact that it’s Laurent he tells first, with a photo and a caption in caps lock, doesn’t escape him.

He spends more time than he’d intended visiting too many growers—two months in, while he’s in Peru, Laurent calls him and asks him if his Spanish is getting any better, to which Makoto concedes with an exasperated no—and settles on three. He agrees to purchase decaf and espresso beans from a woman in Bolivia that grows her coffee in the shade of apricot and plum trees, and black honey-processed coffee from the central valley of Costa Rica.

Makoto’s back in Japan for his birthday and waiting for him at the doorstep of his coffee shop is a neatly wrapped package with a customs sticker from America, Laurent’s looping signature signed on the line. He takes it in and unwraps it on the main counter, picking up the card laid atop pastel pink tissue paper.

I hope they’ll find a happy home in your café, my sweet coffee bean. Wishing you the best of birthdays. —Laurie

The gift is a pair of coffee mugs designed with two cats sculpted into the ceramic; when put together, they appear to be nuzzling, their tails forming the handles. Smiling, Makoto rinses and dries each one, then sets them together on an empty shelf behind the counter. He has more to unpack, from all of his travels, but they will do for tonight. Slipping his phone from his pocket, he snaps a photo and sends it along with his gratitude.

They’ve become too common, the calls and the texts, the early morning responses and late-night chats about nothing important. Makoto talks about his shop and his coffee and Laurent complains about the length of the American election season and they both dance around the topic of the real job Laurent’s working. It works, though, so much so that whenever they go too long without contact, Makoto gets the same ache that gnaws at his chest whenever he smells tobacco, like a gaping wound he’s struggling to fill with everything but.

As the last month of the year approaches, Makoto works through the last of his preparations. He perfects his roasting techniques, develops his menu, hires staff, readies some local marketing and yet he still feels like something is missing. There’s an emptiness that rings hollow and he isn’t sure if it’s a spot unfilled on the shelves or if it’s simply the uncertainty that comes with finally launching into the honest life he’s claimed to be pursuing.

One of the girls he’s hired mentions that it would be good to have a woody and warm brew as a house signature, matching the taste of the coffee to the atmosphere of the café. Makoto latches onto the idea and flies off on one last quest, his destination in the heart of Ethiopia where coffee is said to have been born. He thinks he knows exactly what he’s looking for and yet, while he finds the coffee he’s after, the feeling doesn’t go away.

It takes thirty-five hours to get from Addis Ababa to Okinawa. The first flight out of Ethiopia goes to Frankfurt, where the layover is a tormenting eight hours. At least it lands in the morning, so he ventures into the city and comes back around noon for the eleven-plus hours it takes to fly to Haneda, where another long layover leaves him groggy and tired and cursing the lack of anything but a damn Starbucks in his terminal.

The bus from Naha Airport to the stop nearest his café takes a rough two and a half hours, and by the time he drags himself inside and upstairs to the living space above the shop, he’s beyond drained. It’s the first day of winter and a light rain drizzles in the darkness outside his windows, not nearly loud enough to fill the quiet surrounding him.

There’s a habit he’s developed in moments like this, when his thoughts and his doubts are too loud inside his head. He calls Laurent.

It rings and it rings and when it goes to voicemail, Makoto hangs up, dropping his phone next to his pillow. He shucks off his shirt and his pants, collapsing onto his bed and draping his forearm over his face. If Laurent is still in D.C. then it will be morning for him; Makoto has long memorized the time difference. Maybe he should mail Laurent a formal invitation, with fancy card stock and gold foil lettering, as a joke. He’s planning to have the opening just after the end of the New Year holidays and before the Coming of Age weekend. Doing it during the break would bring in more of a crowd but he’s hoping for a quieter start, with less of a chance to feel overwhelmed and like he’s in over his head.

Cynthia has already promised to come, with Abbie telling him she’ll do the same whenever she finds the time to spare. He knows a few of the locals who are excited, neighboring businesses that have been counting down the days until they’re able to formally congratulate him. However, when he closes his eyes, the only person he can picture strolling through the door of his café, letting the little bell above it chime, is Laurent.

Makoto wonders if he’d wear a suit for the occasion and come in with flowers in hand, purring out a greeting with his usual sap. He can imagine the deep roll of Laurent’s voice, the curve of his smirk as he takes in what Makoto’s built up around them. And then, there would be the width of Laurent’s hands wrapping around one of those cat-patterned mugs, the heat of his cologne mixing with the depth of the freshly roasted coffee.

How much simpler would Makoto’s life be if he could actually force Laurent out of his thoughts? If he could stop thinking about him, stop striving to best him, stop falling for him? The blond fucking bastard.

Exhaustion hums through his bones and he turns over onto his side, curling in on himself as he slides a hand between his legs, palming himself over the fabric of his shorts. His coffee shop is situated on the west coast of the island, meaning that at sundown every day, the beach is bathed in color—the same shades of purple and pink that had lit up Laurent’s skin after their first goodbye, years ago by the sparkling waves and warm sand of Cynthia’s island. He’d asked Laurent to wait for him then and got a promise in return. He’s still waiting, isn’t he?

Beside his head, Makoto’s phone vibrates, displaying Laurent’s name. He swipes to accept the call, leaving the device lying there on speaker. “Hey.”

“Has my sweet bean made it home?”

“Yeah. Finally. I never want to fly that far again,” Makoto groans. Combined with the time it had taken to get from the coffee farm to the airport, it had been a full two days of travel.

“Should have gone first-class, like I told you.”

“If you want me to say that you were right, keep dreaming.”

Laurent’s chuckle is a reverberating comfort, soft and sweet as it floods him, like the blanket he has yet to tug over himself. Makoto pushes into his own hand, thighs tensing around it and stomach pulling taut.

“Is it still warm there?”

“It’s definitely not sweater weather,” Makoto replies, his eyes falling shut as he lounges in the deep melody of Laurent’s voice and slips his fingers beneath the waistband of his shorts. His teeth sink into the meat of his bottom lip to muffle a quiet sigh as his hips shift of their own accord. “How about over there?”

“I’m hoping for a white Christmas.”

Makoto remembers the snowflakes glimmering in those dark blond lashes and the bright pink of along Laurent’s cold-bitten cheeks. God, he’d been beautiful in that knit sweater with a full smile on his lips when he’d walked into the D.C. hotel lobby and seen Makoto waiting for him. “I’ve never seen snow on Christmas…”

“You could let me take you somewhere. New York. Moscow. Berlin. We can drink mulled wine and watch the twinkling lights. You liked Budapest, didn’t you? Their Christmas market is incredible.”

“Yeah?”

Laurent continues on, spinning visions of illuminated craft stalls made of linden wood and of ceremonial advent candles. He talks of glazed goose legs, of sour-cherry marzipan, of raspberry schnapps and blackcurrant rum. Makoto imagines thick scarves and woolen mittens and the type of chill in his toes and his fingertips that can be chased away by a hot drink and a charming smile.

The lull of Laurent’s voice has Makoto’s hand moving, pushing, stroking until he bites his lip hard enough that the skin breaks and fills his mouth with copper. A gasp escapes him as his muscles spasm and he clenches his jaw, resisting the urge to whine out Laurent’s name in a vulgar complaint.

“Eda—”

“Shut up,” Makoto spits out, not wanting to acknowledge the lilt of recognition in Laurent’s tone. “—or just, ahhh, keep talking.” It’s an awful contradiction, but Laurent doesn’t call him out for it or demand that he explain himself. Instead, he carries on the subject with only a short hitch on an inhale and the background clang of what might be a belt buckle.

It doesn’t last long. The conversation breaks down without either of them admitting to it, Makoto losing himself to a restrained and muffled groan he can hear through the speaker of his phone. He shudders as he comes, biting the corner of his pillow. Before his heart rate can settle and sense can set in, he says, “I want you to come... Here, for the opening. It’s—it’s in a couple of weeks. Please, Laurent.”

There’s a tense pause, like Laurent’s holding his breath and then, “You know that all you ever have to do is ask.”

Chapter Text

The morning of his opening, Makoto is a mess. The day starts with him over-roasting the first batch of coffee beans, his head spinning, and continues with him chipping a mug and ripping a trash bag, all before the sign on the door has been flipped. Two hours in, his hands are still shaking, but he hasn’t messed up an order even though there’s far more of a turnout than he expected.

His dining area is filled with locals, with a few spilling out onto the back porch despite the weather. It’s not raining but it’s murky and a bit chilly, though he supposes the hot coffee and warm pastries balance it out nicely. The owner of the bread shop he’s partnered with comes by, checking in on him and offering words of encouragement. Her shop is on the other end of their small peninsula and she was the one who reached out to him, a couple of months prior. She buys his coffee beans and he sells her pastries. The little, handwritten cardboard label in front of each one lists a recommended coffee pairing, something a surprising number of customers have remarked on and heeded.

The two hires helping him that day—an older woman whose youngest had just left home for college and a student taking a semester off—both have café experience and are keeping him grounded in the madness. A few tourists filter in from the resort across the street, and a couple of the construction workers who had put the shop together for him stop by around lunch. Not long after that, a storm comes whirling through and her name is Cynthia.

Makoto barely has time to react before she’s sweeping in, pulling him from behind the counter to wrap him in a second-long embrace and then dropping a large and heavy gift into his arms. He’s at a loss for what to do but at that moment there are no customers waiting at the counter, so he sets it down and unwraps it.

It’s an oil painting in an antique frame, with bold layered strokes crafting the image of a foamy, steaming cappuccino in a classic white cup. Makoto’s judgment of art is as flawed as his French and he can’t begin to recognize the signature scrawled in the bottom corner, but the painting itself is gorgeous.

“It’s from Kawin,” Cynthia tells him, the smile on her lips saying more than her words. “He’s pretty good, don’t you think?”

Good didn’t begin to describe it. Makoto takes a break so he can run upstairs and get what he needs to hang it on the back wall, far enough away from the espresso machine that the steam won’t damage the canvas but centered enough that every customer who comes in will be able to admire it.

“Guess you don’t hate artists anymore, huh,” he says to her once they step back to gaze upon the new addition to his café, causing her to laugh.

“Not since you painted for me.” She winks and goes back around to the front, placing a coffee order for a cappuccino just like the one in the painting. Makoto rings it through the register as on the house.

Somehow, Cynthia’s presence in his café is calming. She stays for a couple of hours, chatting with the foreign tourists sitting at one of the outside tables, her laughter ringing like a melody. The crowd thins with the afternoon and by sundown, only a few people have lingered to watch the sunset with cooled cups in hand. Makoto sends his shop staff home with profound thanks for a successful launch, the register full and the pastry display empty. He wipes down the tabletops on his own, his thoughts buzzing with things he wants to change already, like rearranging the furniture so there are more seats by the windows and perhaps offering 100-gram bags of coffee for sale.

With the chairs flipped up on top of the tables, he sweeps the floor and thinks that maybe a Roomba might be a good investment for his time, something he’ll have to research later. Maybe it’s a good idea to give himself a month, or at least a couple of weeks, to observe more carefully how his business goes and what might be best to play with. Otherwise he’ll trap himself in a perpetual loop of miniature changes.

He’s just finished washing the last of the dine-in coffee mugs, hands wet with soap bubbles clinging to the webs between his fingers, when the bell above the door chimes cheerily. Makoto twists at the waist, throwing a smile over his shoulder as he begins to call out an apologetic “We’re closed” but he doesn’t get to finish it. The words fall off his tongue and scatter across the swept hardwood floors, rolling to a halt at the feet of his tardy customer.

Standing in the doorway, wearing the weary expression of a long journey and with a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers in hand, is Laurent.

Makoto’s been run too ragged throughout the day to think about the lack of a blond creating havoc inside his little shop, but now that Laurent is here… He looks homely, like the autumn-leaf brown of his sweater and polished leather boots are made for the warmth inside Makoto’s café. It’s disconcerting how he fits in like a well-worn glove, so much that panic swells in Makoto’s throat and tempts him to throw Laurent out, pointing at the clearly marked business hours outside. But, well, he’d asked him to come, hadn’t he? Maybe it’s better this way, in the quiet.

“I realize I’m a little late,” Laurent says, an apologetic smile on his pale pink lips. “Will you forgive me? I heard people in Japan gift flowers for opening days and I wanted to make sure I brought some.”

“Yeah,” Makoto says, because Laurent isn’t completely wrong. The gift of flowers for shops and businesses is a common one. Outside of Makoto’s front doors, there are arrangements of white and purple orchids. One is from his father, another from the real estate company, and a third from the city office. They’re formal and specific to the occasion, all with ribbons reading out notes of congratulations on them. Quite a step away from Laurent’s bouquet of daisies and carnations, which Makoto is certain he had purchased without realizing that they’re meant for family graves. “But, not like that.”

“Then, seems like I have two apologies to give.”

Makoto still accepts the flowers, making Laurent chuckle when—lacking a vase—he cuts the stems short and plants them in a glass coffee pot instead. He makes Laurent wait while he finishes closing his café, though of course Laurent doesn’t have the good grace to sit still. He wanders, glancing through every limited nook and cranny, smirking at the mugs displayed on the shelves, driving Makoto crazy with his attempts to see how the roaster works until he gets what he wants and Makoto relents, saving the last couple of tasks for later.

He doesn’t know what to expect and there’s no air of ease, the both of them hanging off an unspoken topic. There’s distance, there’s tension, neither of them taking the first step toward—what? What is it that they’re supposed to be moving toward?

Makoto thinks of coffee, thinks of a walk along the beach, thinks of Laurent making him flush with a confrontation over their last conversation, but what Laurent mentions is Cynthia wanting to see them for dinner and, after a pause, that’s where they head together.

The resort across the street has fine dining and there it’s easy to lose apprehension to the menu and Cynthia’s expert way of filling the gaps in conversation. They eat good seafood and talk about Makoto’s travels and his café, and she and Laurent talk about their “adventures” without going into too much detail. Makoto wants to ask about D.C. and about what it is they’re planning there, but curiosity has done him in before.

Rather than let himself fall into the trap, Makoto laments Abbie’s absence and not a minute later, Cynthia has her on the phone. Nostalgia pushes at the space between Makoto’s ribs. It’s only Abbie’s voice and not her scowl that completes the table, a stark reminder that it’s over for his time in Team Confidence and that he was the one who wanted it to be over. He’s gotten his wish: his coffee shop and his quiet life, and that should be enough.

So, what is it that he’s missing?

After dinner, Laurent walks him back to the café. Their steps are slow and Makoto’s shoes scuff against the concrete. The air has gone cold with the night and the breeze off the ocean, and yet he can’t feel the chill while he’s at Laurent’s side.

They linger on the wooden steps of Makoto’s café, underneath the glowing lanterns and in front of the smiling orchids. Makoto’s halfway to asking Laurent to stay, to come in—just for a cup of coffee, decaf, for as long as it lasts, doesn’t matter if it’s an hour or until morning, only he can’t find the words.

And Laurent doesn’t ask. He hesitates, for a moment, but he doesn’t lean in and doesn’t step forward. He doesn’t close the distance that they’ve left between them. Instead he turns on his heel and, with his hands in his pockets and out of reach, he leaves Makoto on the doorstep with nothing more than a soft bid goodbye.

Makoto stands there and watches Laurent disappear, then treks up to his bed alone and hollow. Disappointed. He knows why.

Is that good? Is it good to admit to himself that he wants more of Laurent, more of his maddening presence, more of his sweet cologne fighting with the scent of roasted coffee, clashing through Makoto’s sanity and sensibility? And does it matter? He’s not going to ask Laurent to retire and come join him in living in a little café by the sea, where it’s already just a touch too quiet for Makoto’s loud thoughts.

His double mattress is firm when he falls onto it, the amount of space on either side of him telling him things he doesn’t need to know. Makoto stares at his phone, Laurent’s texts open on the screen. The letters blur as Makoto argues with himself, unable to make a choice one way or the other, until he falls asleep with his phone in hand.

Makoto doesn’t rise with the dawn but close enough. He rinses off his grogginess in the shower and chases it down with a cup of strong Guatemalan coffee that has notes of ripe apples and ginger snaps. The clouds outside are still dark and his floor is cold against the soles of his feet, so he slips into a thick pair of socks and a warm sweater before heading downstairs to put on his apron.

He roasts coffee in the quiet, the caffeine doing little to penetrate the fog in his head. The bell on the door, however, does, ringing well before he’s actually open. “I know your Japanese isn’t great, but even you should be able to read my business hours,” he speaks before he looks back, aware that there’s no one else it could possibly be.

Laurent’s wearing pink again, the shade matching the color of his lips as he strides into the café as if he and Makoto were sharing ownership of the place. The flowers he’d brought the evening before are next to the register, still blooming. Makoto had changed their water before doing anything else.

“I wanted to be a little selfish,” Laurent replies with a smile that says he knows he isn’t going to be thrown out, as he slides up to the counter. “And to offer to make you a cup of coffee.”

“I’d rather not risk any accidents on day two,” Makoto answers, even though the nape of his neck prickles at the thought of Laurent brewing coffee, his large hands firm on a kettle and drip, his face framed by fragrant steam. “What would you like?”

“Anything you want to give me.”

That doesn’t really help him. For as many cups of coffee as they’ve shared over the years, Makoto isn’t sure what type Laurent prefers. He knows that Laurent typically drinks his black, yet he’s also caught him slipping in a cube of sugar on more than one occasion. A couple of questions narrow the field, with Laurent saying he prefers a darker roast with a bite of bitterness. One of Makoto’s Ethiopian varieties works well for that.

He roasts the coffee beans to the second crack and grinds them finely. The aroma that lifts from the pourover is of cinnamon, with the taste of honey wine to tickle the tips of their tongues. Makoto won’t say he’s deliberate with his choice of mugs, though he does choose the matching pair he had been sent for his birthday. He joins Laurent at one of the café tables, holding back a smug smirk when Laurent practically purrs through his first sip of coffee.

“I wanted to tell you that I absolutely love the name you’ve gone with,” Laurent says, his blue eyes up on the blackboard Makoto has hung on the back wall, chalk listing the menu and that day’s specialties. At the top is the name Makoto has chosen, decorated with coffee branch illustrations on either side. Sweet Bean Café. English is trendy and the words are simple enough for locals and domestic tourists that aren’t great with the language.

“If you start teasing me for it, that coffee is ending up in your lap.”

“I’m being genuine,” Laurent laughs, holding his hands up in defense. “Sweet bean. It’s perfect.”

They both know there’s a touch of Laurent’s influence in the name, even if it goes unaddressed.

Makoto doesn’t know what it is about sharing coffee, but conversation flows smoother. The tension from yesterday has faded into a thin veil and Makoto doesn’t resist laughing when Laurent springs up to help him accept the delivery of pastries that comes by, his heavily accented Japanese confusing the girl from the bread shop enough that she throws Makoto a bewildered look. That serves as evidence that at least others are able to resist Laurent’s odd charms.

After she’s gone and Makoto tends to the delivery, Laurent remarks on the flowers outside, noting Oz’s name on one of the sets of orchids. “Your father and I worked a job once that involved orchid smuggling. Mob boss in Ireland that had a fondness for them and wanted a particular one stolen from a rival across the channel. Ended up paying us twenty million for a synthetic copy.”

Makoto’s memories flash to a warm day in March, more than a decade prior. His father had returned from a “business trip” abroad with a weird yet wonderful flower, claiming it was a gift for his wife, whose birthday he had missed. The orchid had remained in their living room for years after that, until Makoto had thrown it out following Oz’s arrest. “Did my dad talk about his family? Between all your jobs?”

“Constantly.” Laurent chuckles without a smile. “I did tell him that if he spent as much time at home as he did talking about you, then he wouldn’t complain about a strained relationship…”

The problem with wanting to believe Laurent about his father is that Laurent and Oz are both liars. Then again, so is Makoto. Like father, like son, huh? “So, you’ve been hearing stories about me since I was a kid, meanwhile I don’t even know if you’re actually French.”

Laurent’s blond lashes flutter and his mouth quirks, forming the lopsided grin that always works a bit too well. “Born in France to a French father and a Belgian mother. He passed while I was still young, and my mother took me back to her hometown. After she joined him, I went to my grandparents, but they weren’t in the best condition to raise an already tragic soul. Anything else you're dying to know?”

Tons. On their first day together, Laurent had told Makoto that he knew everything about him and now Makoto is aware of exactly how true that was. Meanwhile, Makoto’s only just confirmed how Laurent prefers his coffee. He goes with the cliché question and asks for Laurent’s favorite color, and the answer is one he should have expected since Laurent wears it constantly. And… what else is there? Makoto knows Laurent likes red wine and seafood, though not together. He knows Laurent alternates between classical music and French pop when working through plans for jobs. He knows Laurent likes sleeping with his feet peeking out from under the covers, and that sometimes he whimpers in his dreams and clutches at his pillow far too tightly. He knows Laurent is a con and a cheat and a flirt and that he’s had Makoto in the palm of his hand from the second he’d swapped their wallets. Yet, at the same time, it’s Laurent who now comes to Makoto’s every beck and call.

Of all the little details that Makoto has yet to learn, all the secrets and stories of Laurent’s past, there’s really only one that really matters. Normally, Makoto isn’t one for reopening old wounds, but Laurent’s lost the privilege of exemption with all the shit he’s pulled over the years. If they’re ever going to move beyond an awkward shuffle around each other, they need to have a bit more confrontation.

Makoto leaves his coffee mug on the table and stands, taking the step and a half separating him from Laurent. His fingers grasp onto the folds of Laurent’s collar and he tugs at the fabric to check underneath. He had noticed, back during their goodbye at a Tokyo dock, that the gold chain Laurent had always worn appeared to be missing, and it is. The ring is gone too and Makoto has a fair guess at what Laurent’s done with it. Perhaps it really has been replaced by that cheap green figurine Laurent now carries in his pocket.

His fingertips skim Laurent’s collarbone before Makoto pulls back. “You really loved her, didn’t you?

Laurent doesn’t answer immediately, but the strain in his tone when he does is minimal. “More than I can say.”

“Why?” Maybe it’s a stupid question and maybe he’ll get a stupid answer, but from how Oz had told the story… Well, Laurent’s version is sure to be different.

Laurent laughs at that, shrugging his shoulders as his gaze travels across Makoto’s little shop before settling back on the owner. “Why not? Who can explain love? She was wild and she was beautiful. She lifted me out of my gloom and reminded me how ridiculous life could be. I got swept up. What else did I need?” Laurent smiles at him, soft and teasing before he asks, “Have you ever been in love, my sweet bean?”

Makoto isn’t sure if he can answer that question. “Makes you do stupid things, huh?”

“Oh, the stupidest.”

Like agreeing to con human traffickers, under the guise of it being one last job.

“It’s pretty awful, if I think about it.” Laurent leans back in his chair, sipping the last few mouthfuls of his coffee. Makoto’s already refilled their cups once. “I did want to tell you, I had the same thought when I met you as I did when I met her… She scammed me too, you know. Nothing like your clumsy attempt and certainly more traumatic, and maybe it’s that stupidity coming in but the first thing I thought when I saw both of you was, ‘Ah, how beautiful.’”

It’s a confession, isn’t it? Like saying the moon is beautiful when looking anywhere but the sky. Makoto bites the inside of his lip, then laughs. “That’s a pretty bad line, even for you.”

“Can’t fault me for trying.”

“I can when I think you can do better.”

“I would have preferred to sweep you into my arms and carry you to bed as I said it, but I think you’d punch me for it.”

“Probably.” Makoto’s supposed to open his doors in just over half an hour and his workers are likely only a few minutes out. Reality comes on as fast as his thoughts, because a moment later, the bell on the door chimes and the student ducks his head as he enters, greeting Makoto.

Makoto breaks away from Laurent to give instructions, sighing at himself for stalling so long. When he comes back, Laurent’s outside, his fingers playing with the ribbon on the orchids from Oz.

He can’t call it heartbreak, but there’s a pang in Makoto’s chest when Laurent mentions a flight at noon, saying he could only escape for the weekend. Before Laurent leaves, he takes a deep breath, his ocean-blue eyes set on Makoto.

“...Do you want to talk about that call?”

Right there, on the wooden stairs leading up to his café, where his staff are waiting inside and with Laurent seconds from departing?

“No.” Not here, not now— “Not yet.”

A short, half chuckle tumbles from Laurent’s throat and he nods with understanding. “Of course. Not yet. I’m used to waiting for you, my sweet bean. Feel free to call me again then, anytime.”

Makoto watches Laurent cross the street, his hands in his pink pant pockets, blond hair stirred by the morning breeze. What Makoto needs to do, for both their sakes, is delete Laurent’s number.

He doesn’t. He won’t. He’ll call again. Because Laurent makes him do stupid things and Makoto... Well, he’s not done being foolish.

As the weeks roll by, business stays decent. Waking up early every morning to prep his shop reminds Makoto of his prison routine at first, but he shoves the thought out of his mind, refusing to let it pervade. He practices latte art and gets good at the hearts, keeping himself busy between the lulls. The shop makes enough for him to cover his expenses, but there are also days that seem far too quiet, even when customers are filtering through.

He keeps up with the news and the madness of the U.S. election season, unable to stop himself from hoping to catch glimpses of Laurent. Once he really starts paying attention, it’s odd how much he sees him.

They keep swapping calls—not like the one before, Makoto doesn’t allow the conversation to get that far—but it becomes a habit for Makoto’s Friday evening to conclude with him talking to Laurent while he cleans his shop for the weekend crowd, helping Laurent to get through his early morning routine. Before long, he actually begins looking forward to them. They've become comfortable.

Midway through March, Makoto dares to inquire about the con again. He can hear the smile in Laurent’s voice as he’s asked if he really wants to know, the invitation to join rolled up in a purr. It takes too long for him to answer.

No. No, he doesn’t want to know. No, he doesn’t want in.

He has what he wants now, his café, his honest life, everything he’s been working toward for years now.

So, why’s he so damn curious?

Abbie comes by in April, drinks what feels like half the coffee Makoto has in stock, then demands to see some cherry blossoms. It’s too late for the flowers in Okinawa, so Makoto closes his shop for a day and they fly to Sendai. Hanami is really meant to be done in a group, with picnic blankets, open cans of beer and shochu, and homemade bentos. They buy onigiri and canned coffee from a convenience store, then sit on park grass below a tree in full bloom. Makoto wonders what the cherry blossom petals would look like caught in unruly blond hair.

“Laurent’s working a con in D.C.,” Makoto says near the bottom of his can of bitter black so-called roastery coffee. “I know Cynthia’s in on it.”

Abbie doesn’t deny it. She doesn’t react beyond her blank stare, as she waits for him to continue.

“Are you helping him, too?”

She scoffs, treating Makoto like he’s asking a stupid question—probably because he is. “Yeah. What, hasn’t he asked you yet?”

“Multiple times,” Makoto admits, wondering what the hell their plan can be if there’s still room for him in it so late in the game. “I just…” He stops, unsure of what excuse to give. “You know… I don’t know if I want to—it seems like a bad idea. Whatever he’s planning.”

“You don’t get a say in the plan if you’re not part of the team,” Abbie says, rolling her eyes. “If you wanna complain, go and fucking do something about it.”

“But it’s Laurent...”

“Then stop being such a goddamn virgin and fuck him already,” she snaps and shuts him up.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe he should. Maybe that’ll finally disillusion him from whatever weird hang-up he’s stuck on, the sense knocked into him by a French cock. Then he’ll be free to let it all go and live his life the way he intends to.

The next day, he’s back in his café and Abbie’s on a plane headed to D.C. Makoto doesn’t follow her, like he probably should. He waits. He waits and he waits, and he stops taking Laurent’s calls, not wanting that bastard’s smooth, sweet voice resonating in his head.

This has to end somehow.

Makoto throws all his focus into his shop. He cancels his television subscription to the international news channels and stops reading Laurent’s messages. Cold turkey. He’s quitting cold turkey, just like he did with the damn cigarettes. He’s gonna stop thinking about how every coffee that has the aroma of pralines or hazelnuts reminds him of Laurent. He has to stop imagining that every chime of the door bells will come with a bouquet of the wrong kind of flowers. He should throw those stupid pair mugs away. Instead, he shoves them to the back of the shelf and leaves them there.

His café does well enough that he hires a couple more workers. One of them is a cute girl in her twenties, who also works part-time at the resort. She has tan Okinawan skin and a sweet smile, and sometimes she asks him to go out for drinks after they close up the shop together. Somehow, even after weeks, he’s yet to agree.

By May, Makoto gains a few regulars. There are two old women who come by every other day right when he opens, always ordering the same pastries and same coffee, as well as a fisherman who stops by on his way in from his daily catches. Makoto’s latte art gets better—he can make roses now. A stray cat starts coming by, sitting on his patio before he opens and after he closes. He doesn’t dare give her a name, but he buys her cat food and takes her to a vet, to make sure she’s fixed and vaccinated.

Makoto’s not sure what he’s waiting for. The hollow cavity in his chest is still present, no matter how many times he chooses to ignore Laurent’s name on his phone. He can’t, he won’t, he refuses, because if he lets himself break down once—then what? That’s a question that’s too big to ask.

He has time, he thinks.

Laurent said he’s used to waiting.

And if one day Makoto is too late, that’s something he’s going to have to accept.

It’s the first day of summer when Makoto realizes his mistake. The sun is up bright and early at half past five, stirring him awake. Makoto doesn’t get a chance to get out of bed before his hands are shaking, his heart throbbing in his throat as he desperately tries to load the video on his phone, while also grappling for the television remote. Both process at the same time.

It’s chaos. Of course it’s chaos. Every news station in Japan is looping the footage, and Makoto’s ears buzz as he hears screams and shouting coming from the device in his hand and across his room. The video loops again. There’s applause, then there’s gunfire, then the screams. Again. Applause, gunfire, screams.

There’s been an assassination attempt on the President of the United States of America.

And somehow—somehow—Laurent’s been shot.

Makoto forgets what he needs, forgets what’s sensible. He crashes out of bed onto the floor and scrambles, throwing open drawers to try to find where he’d thrown his passport months ago. It’s there—somewhere, does it matter where—and then he’s grabbing the clothes he had worn last night, shirt and pants hanging halfway out of his laundry basket. He finds his wallet and his keys and then he’s out the door, not knowing whether he’s bothered to lock it behind him.

He’s not waiting for a damn bus, there’s no way he’s gonna put himself through that agony. Makoto sprints up the short hill to the resort and throws himself into the first cab he sees, stunning the driver with his breathless request for Naha Airport. The drive is longer than an hour and Makoto can’t sit still.

He tries to call Laurent, but it doesn’t go through. Of course it doesn't, why would it? He calls Cynthia, then Abbie, Kudo, Shi-won, none of the fucking bastards are answering. Even his father’s phone goes straight to voicemail, making him swear and ball his fists.

The news is flooded with the video on loop, of Laurent shoving Razzie out of the way after the first gunshot, of the barely distinguishable spray of blood, of the chaos—but there’s nothing useful. All the reports, in English, in Japanese, in Mandarin, in French, they’re all focused on the president and not the stupid fucking blond who had taken the shot for him. Laurent’s name is nowhere, and Makoto doesn’t even know what else to look for.

It’s part of the con, right? It has to be. But if it is, it’s fucking idiotic. How can they fake something like that, it’s impossible… Laurent’s not fooling the secret service and he’s not sneaking tens of con artists into a government hospital in convincing lab coats and—fuck, Makoto’s mind keeps flashing back to the image of Laurent crumpling to the ground, still in the split moment before he’s lost in a flood of black suits.

Makoto takes the first flight that he can and it’s still twenty-seven-fucking hours of nonstop anxiety. Naha to Haneda to O’hare to Dulles. At every layover, there’s no new call in his history, no text in his inbox, and no news about Laurent. The president is unharmed, apparently, saved by one of his men, and that’s all that anyone is saying. As much of a fan Makoto had been of Razzie’s movies, in that moment, he doesn’t give a fuck about the president.

He doesn’t know how he makes it through immigration, nervous and unsure if his ESTA is still valid, but they let him through on the lie that he’s visiting a friend, so it must be. But when he finally, finally arrives in D.C. he has no idea what to do or where to go or who to ask.

While Makoto stands in the arrivals lobby and desperately tries to Google the most likely hospital, he’s struck with the realization that this might be it. The end. If it’s not part of the con—or if it’s part of the con gone wrong—then that means there’s the possibility that when he does find Laurent, it might be too late.

That’s what he gets for waiting, isn’t it?

For stretching things out and leaving words left unsaid and tension unchallenged.

Hopelessness has a bitter taste and Makoto refuses to let himself drown in it just yet. No one in America takes cabs anymore, but he gets one into the city and the driver’s about to turn into a hospital drop-off zone when Makoto finally receives a text. It’s from Cynthia and it’s the address of a different hospital, along with a note that Laurent’s “holding on.”

What the hell does that mean?

They hit traffic on the u-turn and Makoto’s damn close to kicking the cab door open, convinced he can run there faster. He sends Cynthia a hundred texts, maybe less, maybe more, but she doesn’t respond to any of them. Makoto thinks all the times he’s had a loaded gun pointed at his skull made for torturously long moments, yet a cab drive cursed with red lights and people who don’t use turn signals is infinitely worse. At least with the gun to his skull, he’s the only one who’s dying.

When the cab finally rolls to a stop, Makoto shoves a handful of bills at the driver and leaps out, stumbling over his own feet as he rushes inside the building. He doesn’t know where to go, where to look, the English signs are blurring in his rush, someone shouts at him to stop running, and then he’s grabbed by a security guard and told to calm down.

He does. He’s calm, he’s calm, he’s calm, he promises.

He’s calm.

He’s calm.

He’s—

Cynthia.

“Edamame!”

Makoto twists out of the guard’s bruising grip and rushes to her, his chest tight, his heart rate uncountable, his tongue balled at the back of his throat. “Laurent…”

She casts him a smile, but Makoto can’t read it. It’s not full, it’s not brilliant, it’s just there, a put-on reassurance that tells him nothing. Her fire-red hair is in a high ponytail, shiny and full but she doesn’t exactly look well-rested. “Let’s get you signed in. I think you should see for yourself how he’s doing.”

What the fuck does that mean?!

Cynthia shows him to the visitation counter and signs his name into a log, clipping a small white badge to his shirt before waving for him to follow. Makoto never liked hospitals. His mother had been in and out of them with her heart issues when he was a kid and he had always worried that one day, she wouldn’t be able to leave. Being right isn’t always a good thing.

American hospital beds aren’t like the ones in Japan. They’re bigger, newer, with more plastic than metal. Usually when Makoto had visited his mother, she had been sitting up, ready to cast him a smile the moment he entered. Laurent’s not sitting up and he’s not smiling, slumped unconscious in the bed. There’s a monitor next to him, tracking his vital signs. From a glance, they seem steady. His blood pressure is a tad high, but maybe that’s just from all the red wine he and Cynthia drink. If he had been at risk of bleeding out, it should be low, right?

“Did he really get shot?”

“Oh, there’s no faking this one,” Cynthia tells him, leaning against the back wall. “Surgeons dug the bullet out of him yesterday.”

The bandages wrapping Laurent’s upper torso and left arm are a stark white, crisp and clean against his pale skin.

“I think they have him on the good pain meds, so he might be dozing for a while,” Cynthia says, gesturing to a stool in the corner. “If you want to stay with him and see if he remembers you when he wakes up.”

Makoto doesn’t think that’s funny.

He’s ready to sink down and hang himself over Laurent, gripping onto his hand like the image of a grieving widow, but he doesn’t want to be dramatic. He does sit, watching Laurent’s blond lashes and parted pink lips until Cynthia departs from the room and the illusion of sleep breaks. Laurent’s blue eyes flutter open, focused and bright, and his lips curl into a smile. “And here I thought she’d never leave.”

It takes everything Makoto has to not punch Laurent squarely in the chest, bullet wound be damned.

Blond.

Fucking.

Bastard.

Makoto’s gonna throttle him. He’s gonna kill him. He’s gonna rip the pillow out from under his head and suffocate him with it.

“Did you fly straight here to be by my side?” Laurent asks, his grin so wide and smug and beautiful that Makoto wants to slap it right off his face. “How romantic.”

He’s not staying for this. Is he kidding? Is this funny? Is it all a joke?!

Makoto kicks the stool back and begins to stomp out, ready to throw himself straight back onto a plane and finally block Laurent’s number. His hand is on the door handle when Laurent calls out and makes him pause.

“You’re the one who stopped talking to me, Edamame. How can you be mad at me when you wouldn’t let me warn you?”

So it is part of the fucking job. Laurent’s staged a hit and got himself shot for a con. Makoto’s actually going to kill him, since the bullet didn’t do the job.

“And no one else could fucking tell me?!” Makoto shouts, rounding back at Laurent as he searches for something that he can use to beat the so-called patient without attracting too much attention. “I’ve been calling everyone! Texting everyone! And no one can spare a fucking minute?!”

“You have to realize, we’ve all been a bit busy.” Laurent sighs, using his right arm to push himself up in the hospital bed. “And we’re going to be watched like hawks for a while. So, maybe keep your voice down just a little, my sweet coffee bean? I would have messaged, even though you’ve been ghosting me again for no apparent reason, but regrettably my phone somehow went missing in the scuffle.”

Yeah, sure, somehow. That means it’s been professionally disposed of, with no hopes of recovery even if an ace investigator did manage to locate the burnt and broken pieces. Reluctantly, Makoto slinks back to the stool and sits down next to Laurent, glaring at his bandages. He can’t play any of this off, since it’s obvious from the state of his clothes and his messy hair and tired face and the sheer timeline that he’d abandoned everything so he could see Laurent. After years of setup that thus far haven’t been centered in trauma, however, maybe Makoto can afford to cut him a break.

“Did you really stage an assassination attempt?”

“Of course not, my bean, that would be moronic.” Laurent waves his good hand as if he’s about to pull off a magic trick. “We staged me getting shot, in a manner that everyone else has assumed to be an assassination attempt.”

Makoto can’t distinguish the difference. “Does it matter, if everyone thinks the president was going to be shot?”

“Yes, because in the very unlikely event that this does get tracked back to us… We’re expecting a full pardon.”

“How—”

Laurent is wearing his shit-eating grin, absolutely delighted. There’s only one reason he can possibly be so confident.

“The fucking president is in on your con?!” Makoto hisses, unsure if it’s possible for his jaw to drop lower than the floor.

“We’ve gotten quite close over the years and he’s dearly looking forward to finishing his term so that he can return to making movies.”

There’s not a strong enough swear in the world to adequately convey what Makoto is feeling. “And to think, I was actually worried about you…”

“I did offer to tell you the plan on multiple occasions,” Laurent reminds him, his tone more pleased by the minute. “And Cynthia’s an excellent shot. I knew she wouldn’t miss. You have no one to blame but yourself for your worries.”

“Cynthia?!”

“Kudo’s aim turned out to be god-awful and Abbie would have aimed for my head,” Laurent says with a chuckle, winking at Makoto. “If it makes you feel better, my darling soybean, I wanted it to be you. Thought it might help you get rid of whatever bitterness you’re still harboring toward me.”

He’s insane. Laurent is actually insane. “What, as if that worked with my dad?”

“You did keep his flowers.”

“I kept yours, too,” Makoto snaps, though it isn’t the defense he’d hoped for. He’s been played once again, but Laurent is right. What Laurent denied him in their previous cons was communication, yet when it had been offered, Makoto had shut it down. His cluelessness and his shock are his own fault. “You know that you’re actually going to get yourself killed someday.”

Laurent shrugs with one shoulder, his blond lashes fluttering in Makoto’s direction. “If you’re so concerned, then wouldn’t the best way to keep me safe be to stay with me and help me plan less dumb ideas?”

Makoto laughs. “How dumb is trying to con an entire country?”

“A few hundred million… Maybe half a billion in dumb. But we don’t have it yet so be a darling bean and give me a kiss good luck?”

Makoto wants to punch him, with his fist and with his mouth. He matches Laurent’s smile and places his hands over Laurent’s. His usual cologne is missing, there’s no product in his hair, and the bandages and hospital sheets suit him less than suits or Hawaiian shirts, but he’s as frustrating and as handsome as ever. Makoto wiggles closer, the plastic rail of the hospital bed digging into his stomach as his gaze settles on Laurent’s mouth.

Laurent’s bottom lip is fuller than the top. Makoto reaches up, running the pad of his thumb across it. He can’t feel the warmth of Laurent’s exhales on his skin, because Laurent has gone stock still and breathless. The color of Laurent’s eyes is that of warm tropical waters that are waiting for Makoto to plunge in. He leans in until he’s so close he can practically taste it and whispers, “Finish your job first.”

With that said, Makoto shoves off and stalks out of the room, leaving Laurent grinning like the idiot he is. He finds Cynthia and then calls his staff, telling them that he’ll be back sooner than anticipated. Up till now, he’s managed to keep himself out of the mess Laurent is weaving and he’s not handing Laurent his win that easily. Let him finish. Then, if Laurent’s not in prison for treason, they can talk.

Two months later, as Makoto steams milk for a latte order, there’s a breaking news story about how the accounts of the super PACs supporting the president’s re-election—which had been flooded with proceeds following the supposed attempt on his life—have been stripped bare, leaving a number of corporations, lobbies and politicians angry and confused. Makoto bites the inside of his cheeks and continues to serve coffee with a smile.

In November, Razzie loses his re-election which means that, come the new year, Laurent will be out of a job. Makoto gets a call on the morning of January 20th, like clockwork. He can’t believe they’ve actually gotten away with it, but he could say the same about all of their cons.

“A few of us are getting together on Cynthia’s island. Let’s call it a reunion of sorts. Will you come?”

This time, Makoto doesn’t hesitate with his answer.

Chapter Text

It’s funny how Cynthia’s island is always a fond memory whenever he thinks of it, despite the fact that his first time on it he had awoken believing he had witnessed Laurent and Abbie’s double murder being paid off in a far too casual transaction. He shouldn’t like it. He should resent being tricked into sabotaged planes and staged abductions, but that’s a summary of his entire experience with Team Confidence. It’s screwed up, but he can’t help letting himself get drawn back in. Maybe it’s because he’s screwed up, too.

Makoto arrives late, one of his flights delayed by weather. The beach is quiet, as is the house, and it seems he’s the first one to get there. He dumps his bag in one of the smaller guest rooms and wanders to the kitchen where he discovers he’s not alone after all.

“Hello, my little soybean.”

After all their years of circling one another, Makoto still doesn’t have a nickname for Laurent. “Blond bastard” doesn’t quite count. He has time to figure it out, to let it come naturally. Unless Laurent is planning on taking another bullet for a payout of a hundred million sometime soon—then Makoto won’t bother.

“Where are the girls?” Makoto ducks around Laurent, who is sitting on one of the high stools at the breakfast counter, a laptop and a cup of coffee beside him. There’s a half-filled pot in the corner, though the liquid inside is lukewarm and gives off the slightly sour perfume of burnt robusta beans. Good for a caffeine kick, but Makoto can most definitely do better.

“Not sure,” Laurent replies and sets an elbow on the counter, cradling the side of his face in his hand as he casts a gaze that’s a bit too soft at Makoto. “I thought they’d be here. You’re not opposed to some alone time, are you?”

“When you say it like that, it sounds like you’re responsible.”

Laurent shrugs, not bothering to offer a defense or a denial. Not that it matters, since Makoto won’t believe him either way.

The house is quiet enough that Makoto can hear the sound of the waves outside, washing up the sand of the beach with a slow and steady lull. Laurent’s gaze hasn’t wandered; it’s still focused on him. There’s a barely noticeable quirk to the corners of Laurent’s mouth and he blinks slowly, like a housecat offering affection.

Makoto sighs and roots through the cabinets, gathering what he needs. An iron skillet goes atop the stove and a baking sheet is set on the counter. He finds a wooden spoon and then mutters for Laurent to wait there, while he shuffles back to the guest room and grabs a container from his bag.

Laurent watches him with quiet curiosity, his smile persistent but he lets Makoto work. Once the skillet is hot, Makoto dumps the contents of the container into it and carefully roasts the beans.

It’s an olive branch of sorts, or at least, that’s how he intends it. He’s spent months tweaking his recipe, inspired by the desire to create his own signature blend and the question of “why the hell not?” Half a year of combining different varieties, testing roast levels, questioning his sanity, and he thinks he might finally have it. Laurent’s probably not the best person to go to for an honest opinion, but he’s also the only person Makoto wants to ask.

“Those aren’t coffee,” Laurent observes after a few minutes, leaning over the counter to steal a better look. “What are you making?”

“It is coffee,” Makoto corrects, as the air grows warm and rich with the fragrance. “It’s a blend of coffee beans and soybeans. A Sweet Bean specialty.”

“Soybean coffee?” Laurent chuckles. “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

“Are you gonna turn me down?” Makoto challenges, continuously moving the beans so that they roast evenly, the color changing from green to blond to a quickly darkening caramel.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Laurent replies and empties the last few sips of his cooled coffee. “Blow me away, my sweet bean.”

That is his intention. However, the issue with roasting beans like this is that it is a process. As soon as the color is a rich dark caramel, Makoto takes them from the heat and spreads them out to cool. Laurent slips from his stool and wanders over, leaning in to give them a curious sniff. He hums in a neutral manner, tone without criticism or approval. There will be no satiating of curiosity until the beans have cooled enough to grind and that won’t be soon.

Outside the glass doors of Cynthia’s beach house, the constant resonance of the waves beckons. Makoto’s been too busy with his café to enjoy the sparkling waters of Okinawa but perhaps here and now he can permit himself a moment. The roasted coffee and soybeans are scattered across a baking sheet, radiating heat. There’s no use standing and staring in wait.

“Gonna be awhile before I can grind those,” Makoto says, slipping his hands into his pockets. “You wanna… Uhh, I’m gonna—take a walk. Out there. Till they’re cool.”

Laurent chuckles, reading Makoto like a picture book. “Is that a clumsy attempt at an invitation?”

Makoto scowls and doesn’t answer, though neither does he protest when Laurent follows him out. They make it down to the waterline before Laurent stalls and abandons his shoes and his socks, encouraging Makoto to do the same. He does, letting his toes sink into the fine sand, warmed by the sun and cooled by the sea.

At first, it’s quiet between them like it usually is. Wherever the others are, they’re not here and the longer it stays that way—without a hint of a buzzing engine or painted metal wings breaking through clouds—the more convinced Makoto is that he’s been tricked into a getaway for two. Maybe that’s fine, though. Maybe it’s what he wanted but has been too hesitant to ask for.

The house is no longer in sight by the time Laurent speaks up, asking Makoto about his café.

It’s good. He enjoys it. He likes the locals that stop by regularly, likes the teens who come in to study in the corners and chat at the tables. He likes the tourists who are always thrilled to learn he speaks English and who never remark on his accent, happy and loud as they talk about how much they’re enjoying Japan. “I think I have a cat…”

“You think?” Laurent asks with a chuckle, his long stride stunted to keep pace with Makoto.

“She’s been hanging around for a while. Comes every day and sticks around if there aren’t too many people.” He has to admit, he’s grown attached to the tabby.

“Have you named her?”

“That’s the point of no return, isn’t it?” Once he does, it’ll be official and there’s still too much he’s unsure of.

“You’ll still have to introduce me the next time I come to visit.”

“Yeah…”

Yeah, he can do that. He’s recently gotten a new variety of beans shipped in from his supplier in Ecuador, and while he wasn’t fond of it on the first try, he’d discovered it made for fantastic iced coffee. His first thought, when he tried it, was that it would be the type of coffee that Laurent would like.

It says a lot—that all his thoughts keep coming back to Laurent.

They turn and make their way back, with the sun sunk halfway to the horizon. Makoto drifts closer to the water, his feet leaving prints that are soon washed away. Laurent’s match his and are erased just as quickly.

When the beach house comes back into view, Makoto slows and then halts, his gaze on the bright colors painting the sky. He doesn’t know what to say, what to ask, if here is the right time and right place to step over the line and send himself plummeting.

“How is it that you still like the ocean?” He would think, after what Laurent’s lost out on the water, that there’s no way it could be a place of comfort.

“It’s not the ocean that troubles me,” Laurent answers, tipping his head to the side as he smiles gently at Makoto. “It’s the idea of being left adrift alone. Being on a boat or standing on the beach with you, there’s no risk of that.”

Makoto doesn’t quite understand, but then again, they both have their own ways of dealing with the past. He has his café and Laurent has his tricks. Somehow, they’re making things work.

“There’s only one thing here,” Laurent sighs heavily, “that I find unfortunate.”

The lament is put-on, Makoto knows that it is, but he still asks. “What’s that?”

“That you’re not the type to take my hand and dance with me.”

Makoto’s laugh is short and bewildered. He checks over his shoulder just in case, but there’s nothing and no one else there. It’s just the sand and the surf and the sunset, all for the two of them, genuinely alone. “Here?”

“Why not?”

“There’s no music,” Makoto points out. “And no reason.”

“There’s the music of the waves,” Laurent responds, gesturing at the scenery around them. “The birds in the trees, the wind on the sand. It doesn’t need to be serious. No one has to know.”

He can’t figure out if Laurent is joking or if he’s serious. With Laurent, it’s likely to be a combination of both. “Like you said, I’m not the type.”

“Well, you can’t be sure until you try.” Laurent’s signature wink isn’t going to convince Makoto, no matter how hard he tries or how charming he thinks he is. “I could take your hand and show you how. Swing you around and have us trip over our feet. Kick up the sand and get far too wet until we’re laughing, and you’re having enough fun that you try and dip me.”

He can imagine it and he can imagine it all going wrong. “I’d dip you straight into the water.”

Laurent smiles like the setting sun. “Sounds like a blast.”

“Maybe another time,” Makoto dances around the conversation. “Come on… I think the coffee will have cooled enough.”

They pick up their discarded shoes and trail up to the house together, Makoto biting back a grin when Laurent starts humming Disney love songs, providing the music for them. He’s not going to dance, no matter how many soundtracks Laurent goes through. But he also doesn’t tell him to stop.

The beans are warm to the touch, but Makoto is too eager to wait any longer. He has a small hand mill with him into which he tips his custom blend, cranking the lever slowly to ensure an even grind. They have nothing but time, so Makoto doesn’t rush, letting the mix of bourbon coffee and Japanese soybeans steep in kettle-boiled water.

Mugs are pulled from the overhead cupboards and Makoto fills them, careful not to let any precious drop spill. The steam carries a rich, earthy fragrance. He takes the mugs to the breakfast counter where Laurent is sitting in wait once more. The laptop is on and from the angle he’s at, Makoto can just make out the display behind the privacy screen. Graphs, roles, story lines, dates. Laurent’s working on the makings of a new job.

“When are you going to stop?” Makoto asks as he slides the cup of coffee into Laurent’s hands. “Retire? Settle down?”

“I thought that’d be obvious,” Laurent answers with a gentle smile, the tips of his fingers skimming the backs of Makoto’s hands as he accepts the coffee. “When I find home.”

Home might be more than Makoto can offer, especially since he isn’t sure if he’s found home himself yet. But coffee—coffee he can give with confidence.

He lets Laurent take the first sip, watching him blow steam off the surface and press the edge of the mug to his lips. Makoto doesn’t know what he’s expecting. A smile, perhaps. A purr. A compliment. The little hum that Laurent’s given in response to all the previous cups of coffee that Makoto’s made for him. What he gets is a look, tropical eyes meeting his, the corner of Laurent’s mouth quirking in amusement.

“What?” he asks, glancing down at his own cup with concern. Laurent says nothing and instead waits with expectation for his companion to try what he’s created.

Makoto notices too late that Laurent hasn’t swallowed. To describe the coffee as bitter would be an insult to the word. The moment the taste hits his tongue, he sees Laurent’s jaw clench and his lips purse, and as hard as he tries to pretend that it’s fine, it isn’t. It’s vile. Makoto’s created a monster and within seconds they’re both sputtering. Makoto rushes to the sink to spit out his mouthful while Laurent takes the insultingly effective route of coughing into his cup.

“It took you a few years but you’ve finally decided to poison me, I see,” Laurent rasps and slides the mug as far away from himself as he possibly can.

Makoto dumps the coffee and rinses the mug out thrice before topping it off with water so he can wash the taste out of his mouth, groaning and laughing at the same time. “I promise you, I thought I had it this time.”

“Soy coffee,” Laurent chuckles, then shudders briefly, as if the flavor still clings to the back of his throat. “Oh, my sweet bean, did you really think it was going to work?”

“Hush,” Makoto snaps without malice, wondering if he should spare them both the continued misery and run for toothpaste and brushes. “I saw your face. You thought it was gonna be good, too.”

“I think that might be the most awful thing I’ve ever tasted,” Laurent says with absolute wonder, slipping off the stool to go rinse his mouth. “And I’ve drunk instant coffee in economy before.”

“Uhhh, where did I go wrong…” Months of trials, all to go backwards. “The others weren’t this bad, I swear.”

“We’re all blinded by the illusion of greatness at some point,” Laurent chuckles, taking mercy on Makoto by dumping the rest of the soybean abomination down the drain. “I wouldn’t give up that easily.”

“Or I can just go with a regular soy latte.” That would be simpler and likely easier to play with until he’s happy. Latte art of a soybean should be straightforward and be unique enough to present as his signature. Or he could simply top it with a single roasted soybean and call it a day.

“But everything else you’ve made has been amazing,” Laurent protests, leaning against the counter with a smile split wide across his lips. Blue eyes sparkle with inspiration, too excited to belong to a man that’s nearly been incapacitated by a bad brew. “How many of our schemes have almost failed only to be saved by you at the last moment? You know much more than me about all of this, but there may still be salvation. Not all blends are designed to be drunk black, right? A bit of milk, a bit of sugar. Lighter roast? Or some honey to mellow out the bitterness. Is it Vietnam where they roast the beans with palm oil? Or was it coconut oil? They add the condensed milk—”

Laurent’s rambling and Makoto’s barely listening, unable to contain the urge to laugh. Anyone else would have simply told him it was bad and stopped at that. But Laurent’s looking at the sink with a hint of lament, like he’s wanting to try out each of the ideas already so that Makoto can find the right steps to creating his specialty. His lips move in a rush and his cadence holds the same sweetness as when he’s talking about a job he’s newly concocted, presenting the plan with proud conviction.

“Hey, Laurent.” Makoto steps in, his feet shedding beach sand with each movement, leaving grains all over Cynthia’s polished hardwood floors. “Shut up.”

Once, in a dream, Makoto had watched himself weave his fingers through Laurent’s hair. In that world, he’d somehow convinced himself that the blond strands were silken and thin. They’re not. They’re thick, made firm by product, and absolutely perfect for seizing hold of. So is Laurent’s mouth, even if in this moment it tastes of the bitter mistake that is Makoto’s coffee.

There’s a second of pause and of shock, of disbelief, and then Laurent’s arms are around him, his mouth kissing the sigh of relief straight off Makoto.

Maybe it’s a bitter mistake, too, but the fact that he’s here is evidence enough that Makoto’s already given in.

The kiss is an earthquake. It shakes through him and everything that follows is the tsunami that comes crashing through after, sweeping him away and stripping him of all sense and reason. It’s been building for years, for a decade, for longer. Since Makoto made the grave error of getting into that cab and falling for all of Laurent’s tricks to follow.

They break but don’t pull apart, still so close that Laurent’s stuttered breath warms Makoto’s skin.

“Eda—”

“Shut up,” Makoto repeats, not daring to open his eyes. He doesn’t want to move away. If he does now, he might never allow himself to come back. “You get one chance. Don’t ruin it.”

Laurent chuckles and the sound rumbles through Makoto, transferred like a purr against his lips. He cups Makoto’s face in his hands and kisses him again, sweeter than Venetian coffee. It’s almost too soft, too gentle, and as soon as he has that thought, it changes. Laurent lifts him and sits Makoto on the countertop, so that he can slide himself between Makoto’s legs and pin their bodies together.

Instead of leaning up, Makoto is now leaning down, his grip dropping from Laurent’s hair to his collar. He chases the kiss, sucking Laurent’s lower lip into his mouth and smiling when the response he earns is a hushed swear. Everything else has been a competition between them; why not this, too?

He drinks in the heat of Laurent’s tongue and groans when hands wander lower, dipping under the cotton fabric of his shirt to find goose-bumped skin. Laurent presses in, the pressure near bruising as the kisses descend into the haste of desperation, like they’re making up for lost time. Laurent’s mouth covers every millimeter of his, his hands wrapping around Makoto’s waist, holding them steady.

When Makoto finally lets his own hands slide down, mapping the dips and curves of Laurent’s chest, Laurent smiles against his mouth. “If you’re doing all this to pick my pockets, I’m afraid I don’t have much on me at the moment.”

If Makoto wanted to empty Laurent’s pockets and his bank account, he’s pretty confident that he’d manage. “What part of one chance did you not understand?”

“Then tell me, how far am I allowed to go?”

Makoto doesn’t answer. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t know, though it’s more likely because he does. Either way, he’ll never match Laurent’s talent for smooth lines and easy flirtation, but Makoto’s always been better at actions than words.

He meets Laurent’s smug gaze and sharply jerks him back in, pulling on blond hair as he crashes their lips together again. Laurent groans and Makoto can practically feel his knees go weak, Laurent’s weight leaning onto him. He pulls again and Laurent’s moan vibrates on his tongue, wanton and deep. Suddenly Makoto’s discovered a new addiction.

He only has the upper hand for a moment—in the next, he’s swept into Laurent’s arms and carried, biting back a yelp of surprise and the urge to laugh. They don’t move far. Makoto is dumped onto the center of the king bed that’s always been reserved for Laurent, the mattress bouncing beneath him. He doesn’t put a stop to it, doesn’t protest even if he does throw Laurent a glare just because of how damn smug the bastard looks right before he covers Makoto’s body with his own.

Outside the bedroom windows, the last rays of the setting sun have set fire to the ocean.

Neither of them was ready for this, it seems. There are no condoms, no lube, but they’re both too eager to stop pulling at each other’s clothes. Despite all the teasing and jokes, Makoto’s not a virgin even if Laurent’s touch makes him shiver like one. His mouth sends sparks firing through every nerve ending as it trails up the expanse of Makoto’s throat, teeth and hot exhales stimulating the sensitive spot beneath his ear, making his toes curl.

He tips up and catches Laurent in another kiss, heat coiling in the pit of his abdomen. They fumble, feet catching on sheets, kisses haphazard and voices hushed. Laurent’s mouth is on Makoto’s throat, thighs between his legs, and his hands wound around their cocks, stroking together. It’s maddening.

Laurent’s body is broad and firm. Like this, Makoto can see all the scars that he’s overlooked. The round mark of a bullet just below Laurent’s left shoulder, the jagged white lines marking stab wounds above his stomach and across the curve of his hip. There are more, smaller ones, and Makoto wonders if each comes with the story of a con. He’ll find the courage to ask later, when their mismatched movements aren’t building pleasure on every stroke.

It’s Laurent who comes first, with Makoto’s name on his tongue. Not his mispronounced nickname, not some derivative endearment, not his family name. “Makoto” almost sounds out of place, unfamiliar, but so is all of this. Laurent pulls Makoto over the edge with him with the expert stroke of his fingers and the depth of his kisses, until all that’s left is the aftertaste of surrender lingering on the back of their tongues.

There’s a haze that follows. Makoto delves his fingers into Laurent’s hair rather than address it, losing all of his questions on Laurent’s tongue. When heartbeats slow, they try again, calmer, less frantic, finding a rhythm that works. Makoto comes again, muttering Laurent’s name like it’s the only one he’s ever known. And Laurent clings to him, as if letting go would mean floating out into the unknown depths of the sea, lost to the blue and the chill and the loneliness.

Makoto doesn’t let go. He lets Laurent thread their fingers together and they stay, wrapped in their mistakes and all the time they’ll never get back.

The morning, when it arrives, is slow. Makoto lies in Laurent’s bed, bare under the sheets, and wonders what the hell he’s done. There’s a little green daimyo on the nightstand behind Laurent and the light streaming from the windows is soft, making the blond strands of Laurent’s hair glow. Close and calm like this, Makoto can pick out the silver speckled in, the resting laugh lines by Laurent’s eyes helping to betray his years. It’s infuriating that Laurent manages to age like a fine wine, more striking now than he had been when he’d picked a wallet out of Makoto’s pocket.

Perhaps, though, that’s just Makoto’s hopelessness coming through.

The sun warms Makoto’s back and Laurent stirs, his lashes lifting to flood Makoto with a sea of blue. It’s too late to slip away now but Makoto’s always been the one raising the stakes, swapping out prices and pilots and cases and getaways, each time on his own whim. Laurent never told him no, never made him stop. And Makoto’s always come crashing back, unsure of why it is he’s given in. There’s only one real reason that makes sense.

“Good morning, Laurie.”

Laurent smiles and hums, stretching beside Makoto. “One night together and you’ve stopped calling me a bastard? If I had only known it’d be so easy.”

“Mmmm, no,” Makoto says and entwines his fingers with Laurent’s sleep-mussed hair, tugging him in so that he can fit his mouth over Laurent’s. The response is a purr and the unhurried slide of Laurent’s tongue against his own. Laurent’s face is rough with morning growth, and the scratch of his facial hair on Makoto’s skin makes the nape of his neck prickle. “I still hate you.”

Laurent laughs and rolls onto him, mouth curled in a wicked grin. “And I definitely believe you.”

This is what he’s wanted, isn’t it? The gaping hole in his chest, in his life, in the coffee shop, clawing out and desperate to be filled? It’s the world’s cruelty and fondness for ironic humor that dictates why it had to be Laurent.

Laurent’s breath dances across his face, warm lips meeting his own again and again. It’s so easy to let himself be swept away by the careful yet coaxing fingers splaying over his stomach, the rush of his blood taking any lingering caution with it.

They shower together, Laurent pushing his cock between Makoto’s thighs as his hands stroke him to fulfillment. Laurent’s mouth on his neck and his shoulders is hotter than the steaming water, and the air is filled with the scent of satsuma mandarins and the music of their kiss-hushed groans. It’s too much and not enough, all at once. Makoto never expected Laurent to be so gentle, but he supposes, even after all these years, there’s still a lot left for them to learn.

Finding the right point to start a conversation isn’t simple. So Makoto brews them coffee—without the added burnt and acrid soy. These beans are from Costa Rica and the flavor is a meld of sour star fruit, sweet yellow plum, and the semi-bitter bite of almonds. As they steep and the filter drops fresh, fragrant coffee into the pot, Laurent loops his arms low and loose around Makoto’s waist, holding on once more.

“Tell me if you want me to let go.”

If only.

Makoto leans back against the firm expanse of Laurent’s chest and sighs. “Are you still broken?”

“Aren’t we both?"

Yeah.

The guilt and nightmares might have faded, but they aren’t gone for either of them. There’s a lifetime of picking up the pieces ahead, and the question is whether Makoto wants to do it alone or together.

The coffee that he pours for them, at least, is so good that it could be healing. Laurent hums when he drinks it, smiling at Makoto over the rim. As easy as that, Makoto has his answer.

They’re halfway through their cups when company arrives. Abbie and Kudo crash through the front door, with Shi-won trailing in not long after. All of them are loud, talking over one another, half in jest and half in argument.

“Sorry we’re late!” Cynthia sings, taking off her straw sunhat as she enters, bringing up the rear.

Someone used the wrong passport and nearly got us all detained,” Abbie explains, spitting glares in Kudo’s direction.

“Memory’s not what it used to be,” Kudo laughs, sheepishly rubbing the back of his neck. “But it all worked out, huh… Thanks again, Cynthia.”

Cynthia winks and then pats Makoto on the back in greeting as she passes him to go settle in. Kudo and Shi-won dig drinks out of the fridge and crash on the couch, while Abbie beelines for the remainder of the coffee. She tops off a mug and nods at Makoto in thanks, before her gaze narrows.

“...Are you wearing Laurent’s shirt?”

He is. Makoto’s wearing pink with purple flowers, and Laurent’s ridiculously wide grin is more than enough to prove it.

Abbie doesn’t let him deny it, rolling her eyes as she stalks off with her cup of coffee. “Ughhh, just let me know if there’s any chair or part of the sofa I should avoid.”

Makoto watches her go, then watches Kudo spill beer on the rug as he and Shi-won toast their cans together. Kudo scrambles to clean it before Cynthia can catch him, hushing both Shi-won’s and Abbie’s mocking laughter. Astonished, Makoto turns to a softly chuckling Laurent. “There’s actually a reunion. I thought you set me up again.”

“Please have a little bit more faith in me, my darling soybean.”

Perhaps he should.

Catching up with everyone is good. There are no big resolutions to retire, no declarations of going straight from now on, but everyone’s got plans of their own. Abbie mutters an admission about her participation in a few amateur rock-climbing competitions, and Cynthia adds that Abbie already has one ribbon under her belt. Kudo and Shi-won argue about franchising a chain of samgyeopsal restaurants in Korea. Makoto learns that over the past couple of years, Cynthia’s been doing theatre auditions in her spare time. No luck, she laments dramatically, stating her intention to put that dream on hold once again. She’s gonna put her money into West End productions instead, surpassing a reliance on luck by buying power. Makoto thinks she’d make a great producer.

The only one who shrugs off talk of the future is Laurent.

Makoto doesn’t sleep in Laurent’s bed that night, but the next day, they arrive at the transfer airport together. It’s too early for either of them to check in, so they sit in a departures lobby café, sharing a croissant and less-than-stellar cups of coffee. Laurent, dressed in a suit and with his laptop out in front of him, looks far too much like a respectable businessman. Without asking, Makoto has an idea of what he’s working on.

He reaches over and closes the laptop with a definitive click. “I’d like to propose to you a different job,” Makoto says, remembering how, far too long ago, he’d tried recruiting Laurent as his assistant.

Laurent locks eyes with him and grins. “Where?”

“In my café.” Makoto’s loved Laurent’s coffee recommendations every time they have been offered and, from the beginning, the one person he’s wanted in his shop has been Laurent. It could work. Laurent can draw lovesick hearts in the latte art and teach the regulars how to play mahjong on his breaks. They can name the cat Delilah and, day by day, figure out how to continue living.

“I’m going home, Laurent. Come with me,” Makoto says, offering his hand.

Laurent doesn’t hesitate to take it.

It has taken five years, give or take, for Makoto to give Laurent his chance. Maybe it’ll be worth it. At the very least, with Laurent at his side, he’s always been far from bored.