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a feeling like soaring

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As Kokone crests over the final hill of her journey, Café Alpha appears in her view, and with it, a smile on her face. Her day has been long, filled with deliveries in Musashino and Yokohama in the morning, and then the trip out to the country in the afternoon. With nothing but the soft put-put-put of her scooter to accompany her, her thoughts have flown ahead, toward her destination.

She pulls up beside the small building, parking her scooter alongside Alpha’s. There doesn’t appear to be any customers inside, but there usually aren’t whenever Kokone comes on delivery, or just to visit. She feels a bit of guilt for the selfish thought, but she’s glad it’s just the two of them today. She hasn’t seen Alpha for months.

Kokone bounds up the steps of the café. The sign saying Open is facing outwards and her smile grows brighter. She carefully pushes the door forward and peaks her head around the frame.

“Hello? Alpha?” And then she hears a cry of excitement, and Alpha is hurrying out from behind the counter.

“Kokone!” she cries, and envelopes her in a hug. “It’s been so long. Hasn’t it?”

“Months!” Kokone agrees. “It’s wonderful to see you again, Alpha.” She shyly tucks her hair behind her ear. “How have you been?”

“Oh, good, good,” Alpha says. She motions toward the small table by the window. “Sit down. I’ll get you some meiporo. Or coffee. Which would you like?”

“A coffee is fine,” Kokone says. She sits down and watches as Alpha goes behind the counter and begins her little ritual – grinding the beans, pouring the water over, adding a bit of milk and sugar as Kokone likes it. She pours herself a cup as well, but leaves it black. Kokone smiles as she brings both cups around the counter, and sits opposite her. She takes the warm cup gratefully.

“How have you been the last few months?” Alpha asks. “Been kept busy by your deliveries?”

Kokone takes a long sip of her drink. “Well… I’ve been busy, yes, but not so much with deliveries.” In truth, she’s taken a lot of time off from her courier work. Just random days here and there, but enough to add up. Shiba kept asking if she’d met a man, which had made Kokone laugh. “I’ve been doing research. Or, well, trying to.”

“Eh?” Alpha cocks her head to the side. “Is this the research you mentioned last time? Looking into robots and stuff?”

“Yes…” Kokone says. “I still haven’t found much though. Nothing really notable since I last visited.”

Part of her expects the conversation to move on, but Alpha keeps up a steady string of questions, about Kokone’s research, and her life in the last few months, face lighting up with even the small details. Kokone finds herself recounting little things that she hadn’t thought were big discoveries at the time, but all of a sudden seem important. She’d found a journal a few weeks ago, of someone from the old days whose spouse had worked with robots. There wasn’t a lot of answers there, but Alpha seems intrigued all the same.

“Kokone…” Alpha stops for a moment. “I’ve been wondering. You didn’t care about all this robot stuff until more recently, right?

Kokone picks up her cup to take another sip, before realizing she’d finished it minutes ago. She sets it back down again. “Well… no, not really.” She frowns. “You know, I never really thought much about how I was a robot, before. But… I guess I’ve been thinking about it more, ever since…” And then she stops, biting her lip. It was actually her first visit to Café Alpha that had created all these questions inside her, that have only risen to the surface as time has passed.

She blinks, not wanting to dwell on that first delivery. How open and welcoming Alpha had been. How she had left the café knowing they were friends, that they’d see each other again. How she and Alpha had that data transfer… She hurries her thoughts ahead. She can’t think about that, not with Alpha sitting so close.

“Anyway.” She clears her throat. “Enough about me. How are you? Anything new with the café in the last few months?”

“Oh, it’s all been the same,” Alpha says. “Ojisan and Taka and I went on a trip to the mountains last week, just for a day – but it was Taka’s first time out there. It was so beautiful, Kokone.” And then their conversation carries on, easily and with no particular direction.

Eventually, Kokone realizes that she’d come all this way for work and hadn’t even given Alpha her delivery. She holds up a finger to Alpha and hurries out of the café, then comes back in a moment later, carrying a box. “I almost forgot!”

“Oh!” A smile lights up Alpha’s face and she stands up. She takes the package carefully and brings it to the counter. “Thank you!” And then, almost to herself, “Is this what I think it is?”

She sets the package on the counter and opens it carefully, standing on her tiptoes to peer inside over the cardboard flap. Kokone watches, unable to tear her eyes away from the way Alpha goes from curiosity to recognition to excitement.

She hefts some sort of appliance out of the box and holds it up, beaming at Kokone. “Look! It’s for the café.”

Kokone leans forward, taking in the unfamiliar machine. “What does it do?”

“It’s a panini press,” Alpha says. “I heard about them, when I was last in Yokohama… a shop owner knew someone who could order it for me. I’ve never had a panini, but they used to be popular in certain areas of the world…” Then, she laughs suddenly. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to try one though. The shopkeeper said they usually are made with cheese and meats.”

Kokone laughs softly. She can imagine Alpha, caught up in the idea of an old human tradition, wanting to discover more without really thinking it all through. “Well, maybe they’ll be popular among your customers. I’ll try one,” she adds. Though she still doesn’t really know what a panini is.

Alpha sets the press down, looking happy. “Yes, good idea. Once I figure out how to make them, that is…” She trails off, deep in thought. Then she looks up at Kokone. “Was that the only delivery?”

Kokone nods. “Yes, that’s all. But I was hoping to stay the night if that’s alright. It’s a long drive back and it’s already late…”

Alpha bobs her head, still deep in her thoughts. “Yes, of course.” There’s a pause. “No messages, then?”

Kokone can’t help the blush that spreads across her face. She’s not even sure why, really. Maybe because it feels just a little like Alpha saw into her thoughts earlier, when she was thinking about her first delivery and message here.

Maybe Alpha knows that there are days when Kokone can’t stop thinking about that moment.

“Erm. No… No messages.”

“Ah. Right.” Alpha turns away, placing her new machine into a proper place behind the counter. And is it just Kokone’s imagination, but does she seem disappointed? Something inside Kokone seems to go faster, like a heart beating.

“What would you say if I did have a message?” The words are out of Kokone’s mouth before she can think them over.

Alpha jerks her head up. “Do you have a message, then?”

“Um. No. Just…” And this time, Kokone does think her words over. There’s a part of her that always weighs her options, thinks a little too hard before making a choice. She doesn’t think this is wrong, or bad, but ever since meeting Alpha, this piece of her has gotten a little smaller. She lets it grow big inside of her now, though. “Just, you seemed sad when I said there wasn’t anything else. Are you expecting a message?”

Alpha rubs at the nape of her neck. Her face is unusually neutral. “Eh, no, not really. But it’s been a while since I heard from Owner… not that he often sends anything.”

Oh. Right. Of course she’d be disappointed that no word had come from Mr. Hatsuseno. She probably didn’t think much of Kokone’s first message transfer, not like Kokone did.

Except…

Except, Alpha had been so nervous to do a transfer. And afterwards, she’d had to lay her head on the table, a blush in her cheeks so red that Kokone could practically feel a heat coming off her. Almost like she was overheating like a real machine. Kokone had thought about this moment a thousand times, so much so that she could practically feel grooves being created in her mind, like a worn-out record. In the moment – it had seemed like a big deal to Alpha.

And even though Kokone hadn’t shown it, it had been… huge, for her. She remembers how bright the world had seemed afterwards, emotions bubbling inside her and overflowing into excited words that she’d had to shout over the roar of Alpha’s scooter. It’d made her feel human. For the first time ever, she’d understood their quick emotions and easy way about the world. It was part of the reason why she can’t keep away from Café Alpha.

Kokone knows she should let this go, but – she doesn’t. Instead, she clears her throat. “His last message to you… it affected you, didn’t it? Afterward, it took you a while to recover.”

Alpha blinks. “Yes…” she says slowly. “His message, it was very special.”

Kokone keeps on looking at her, and Alpha glances up to meet her eyes. She continues. “The whole process, it was so new, and I wasn’t expecting…” She pauses. “It felt different than I was expecting, I guess.”

“Different?” Kokone has to press her lips together – to keep herself from asking for more.

Alpha just shrugs. “Oh, you know, it felt very strong. The words of the message, and the emotions in the message too. I suppose.”

This time, it’s Kokone who blinks. “Erm. What emotions in the message?”

Alpha laughs a little, waving her hand in front of her face. “Oh, you know. You must have felt it, as the message carrier.”

Kokone shakes her head. “I can’t ever see the messages I carry. But… I’ve never heard of a message composed of emotions. Only ever words, or pictures.”

Alpha stares at her. “But… I felt…” Then she stops, staring at the café’s floorboards. And something inside Kokone goes quick again.

“Was… was that your first time, then? Having a message transfer?” She speaks slowly, softly, not sure how to say what she wants to say outright.

“Yes,” Alpha says. “Was it yours?” And then she shakes her head. “Sorry, being silly. You’ve done it a lot, haven’t you?”

Kokone nods. “Yes, I’ve had quite a few transfers.”

“Has anyone sent you a message?”

She nods again. “Just a few times.” And, anticipating Alpha’s next question – “I’ve never felt any emotions in them.”

Alpha frowns. “I don’t understand… what was I feeling then?”

Kokone stands up, very suddenly. Alpha’s head jerks up, eyes widening, and for a moment Kokone regrets the sudden movement. She doesn’t let herself sit back down, though. And she doesn’t let herself hold back the words she’s desperately wanted to say since Alpha said the transfer felt different. “I. I think I felt something too,” she blurts out. “I’ve never – but afterward – it also felt different, compared to my other messages.”

Alpha looks at her. “It did?”

She nods. “I don’t understand,” she says softly. “I don’t know what changed.”

Alpha pauses. “Is that why… your research…” And Kokone understands what she’s asking. She wonders how Alpha can see right through her so well.

“Well. That’s maybe what started some of my questions,” she murmurs. Alpha just nods. And then turns around and disappears into the kitchen.

For a moment, all Kokone can feel is worried. The silence in the café creates something loud within Kokone, until she’s gripping the back of her chair in one of her hands. She wishes she could ask Alpha – well. She doesn’t know what she’d ask. Only that she has questions.

But a moment later, Alpha reemerges from the kitchen. She’s carrying another two mugs, this time filled with meiporo. She sets them down on the table, the one that Kokone’s still not sitting at. Kokone’s eyes follow her.

“Well…” Alpha pauses. “We both seem to have questions.”

Kokone doesn’t say anything.  

“In the kitchen, I remembered something Sensei said to me, a story she told.” Alpha picks up their now empty mugs, then moves to set them on the counter. She stands still, back to Kokone. “She’s a scientist and back in the old days, she worked in a lab. She’s told me about her experiments, how they had to do them over and over again to test theories and understand them…” Then, she turns around and her gaze doesn’t skirt away from Kokone, and suddenly – Kokone understands. Her face goes bright red.

“You… you think we need to recreate the moment to… to understand it.”

Alpha nods quickly, then blushes. “Er, that is, if you’re okay with that. Just to see... if it feels different again.”

“I’m okay with it.” Kokone tries not to sound too eager, and has no idea if she’s successful. “Um. For research.” She clears her throat. “Oh. But I don’t have a message to give you.”

“Can’t you just… create one for me?”

“Oh.” Kokone wonders if her brain is working properly. Of course she can create a message for Alpha. “Right now?”

Alpha’s face gets redder. “Well, we could do it later, if you want.”

“No!” Kokone says that way too quickly. “I mean, I can do it now. If you want to.”

Alpha just nods.

“Alright. I’ll, um, create the message then.”

And it’s simple. She closes her eyes and it’s like she’s standing in a room, empty except for a desk with a pen and paper on it. She steps over and composes a quick letter, and puts the note into an envelope. Then she walks out of the room and into an open field. The sky above is a clear blue, and the long grass sways in a wind that she can’t feel on her skin. She walks down a small path and places the envelope in a mailbox, closing the door carefully. The red flag flicks upward, without her having to touch it.

When she opens her eyes, she’s still standing in the café, Alpha’s eyes on her. She grows warm. “Um. Ready.”

“Oh,” Alpha says. She doesn’t move though. “Um. Should I…?”

Kokone stares. “Should you… what?”

Alpha laughs, nervous. “Sorry. How should we… do this?”

“Well…” Kokone becomes very aware that they’re both still standing, of all the space between them. How can it feel like this entire situation is happening so quickly, but time is moving at a snail’s pace?

She decides to sit again. “Maybe we should be the same way we were before? To be, um, scientific?”

Alpha bobs her head. “Oh! Yes. We should recreate the moment as best we can.” She steps toward the table again and carefully moves the full cups against the wall, just under the window. And then she sits across from Kokone. The window is open, just as it was on Kokone’s first visit to Café Alpha, and the sun is shining brightly. There’s no one around for miles and miles – not Ojisan, or Takahiro, or Makki, or any of Alpha’s other friends. Just the swaying grasses and the sound of birds singing. Kokone realizes suddenly that the room and field inside her mind, the one she wrote the letter in, look very similar to Alpha’s home.

Alpha is looking at her, expectant. This time, she’s not shying away or pulling back. And she takes Kokone’s hands without any prompting. “Ready?”

“Yes,” Kokone says, and is surprised at how little hesitation she feels when it comes down to it. She’s thought about their last transfer so often, she would have guessed that she might’ve given herself nerves about their next time. But it feels… natural.

And then Alpha leans forward, and Kokone leans forward, and the sun warms her cheek as their lips meet. Alpha’s mouth feels soft underneath hers, and opens instantly. Up to this point, Kokone was all too aware of the hardwood table under her elbows, the rigid chair behind her back – but when Alpha’s tongue brushes hers, it all floats away. All she can feel is Alpha, and a burning sun at the core of her, and – and –

She forces herself to stay still. A transfer requires a continuous touch of their data ports, until it’s complete, and it takes every part of her to hold her tongue against Alpha’s, to not lick into her mouth, to not pull back just slightly to kiss at her lips, to not

Kokone realizes something. And feels very stupid with the realization. She pulls back as soon as the transfer is complete, and the burning sun at her core seems to be heating up every cell of her body. Alpha – Alpha’s eyes are still closed, her cheeks a light pink, her hands still gripping Kokone’s. Kokone gently pulls them back too.

Alpha opens her eyes. They look at each other.

“I got your message,” Alpha finally whispers.

Kokone can’t even remember what she wrote exactly. Something silly. Hello Alpha, I liked your coffee today, I can’t wait to try a panini. She doesn’t really care. “Did you… feel an emotional transfer?”

Alpha doesn’t say anything for a long while. And then, “You know, I don’t think I felt one that first time. I think… I felt something else.”

“Oh?” Kokone can’t think of anything else to say.

“I think… that feeling. It was from inside me. Um.” Her hands curl into fists, just slightly. Kokone wants to take them again, and smooth out her fingers. “Did you… did this transfer feel different again? To you?”

Kokone makes a decision. She reaches across the table and takes just one of Alpha’s closed fists, and slides her own warm hand into it. Palm to palm, holding it gently. Alpha starts. But doesn’t pull away.

“Yes,” she finally answers. “It felt different, just like before, like the last time we transferred. And Alpha,” she squeezes her hand. “I realized why.”

Alpha stares at their hands, then looks up into Kokone’s green eyes. “Why?”

Instead of answering, Kokone stands up. She comes around to the other side of the table and looks down at Alpha. Her bangs are in her face, a few strands dangling in front of her eyes. She tucks one behind her ear. Gentle. Slow. Alpha doesn’t move. Not even when she lets her hand rest against Alpha’s cheek.

“Alpha,” Kokone says. “Can I kiss you?”

And Alpha lets out a soft breath, the corners of her mouth turning up slowly. “Yes,” she says, but she doesn’t wait for Kokone to do it – she pulls her downward, and this time…

This time, Kokone could swear that there’s some sort of emotional transfer, because she can feel Alpha beneath her, her breath and eyelashes and soft mouth – and there’s a soaring inside her, like flying, that she knows Alpha is feeling too.