A clap of thunder jolts Makoto awake.
He clutches his pillow in a mix of fear and confusion. For a moment, he doesn’t know where he is.
He blinks, and it slowly comes back to him. He’s back home in Japan, in the little square room above the old convenience store.
The rain cascades down the familiar windowpane and stretches the street lights like molasses. He doesn’t remember the forecaster saying anything about a storm.
Another flash of lightning captures the row of neatly arranged capsule toys on the coffee table he had thrifted before becoming a con artist.
The apartment is at once familiar and unwelcome, like it belongs to a Makoto of the past that no longer exists. He never thought he’d be envious of his past self.
A self who never knew the story of his father, and who had never met Laurent Thierry.
Maybe that’s why he keeps coming back here when he can afford to stay anywhere else. He comes back to the decades-old tatami and the overhead light dotted with dead insects and the too-loud refrigerator because he can silence his phone and pretend that nothing had changed at all.
Makoto hazily remembers that the last thing in his fridge is an opened carton of milk before he’s asleep again.
The gentle rapping at the door pulls Makoto out of a dreamless slumber. The numbers on his phone glow 8:00am.
Two more knocks come.
“Mmh... just a second!” he shouts, voice cracking with sleep. He throws off his blanket and, blinded by the morning light filtering through the thin curtains, scrambles to pull on some sweatpants before padding to the front door.
Still disoriented, Makoto forgets to check the peephole before tugging the handle. The regret is instant.
“Good morning, Edamame.”
Laurent’s smile is easy, as if Makoto had been expecting him to show up on his doorstep at 8 in the morning, as if they shared a friendship as orderly as Laurent’s pressed twill pants and tailored coat.
Something like fury bubbles up in Makoto and he clutches the door handle with the urge to slam the door in Laurent’s face.
“I said I’m not interested,” Makoto mutters, eyes narrowing.
Laurent managed to reach Makoto on a single of several calls he’d made to him since the last con to ask him to join some heist he was planning in the United States. Makoto hung up the call midway through.
“It’s not about that, Edamame. I only wanted to talk to you—“
“About what?” Makoto snaps. The tone is biting enough to dissolve Laurent’s smile on impact. “I did what you asked. I played my part in your stupid revenge plan. Now go live your trash life and let me live my own in peace.”
Makoto sees Laurent’s eyebrows rise and his lips part to say something, but by then he’s already closing the door.
The door slams to silence on the other end. Only when Makoto takes in how fast his heart is beating does he realize that Laurent had called him by his first name. He waits, fists clenched at his sides. For what, he didn’t know. After a while, something shifts over the surface of the door.
“I’m sorry,” Laurent whispers, the words barely audible. “I didn’t realize what you went through.”
Because you only know how to use other people for your own convenience, Makoto thinks.
What comes out is, “I meant what I said. At the headquarters.”
“I can’t stand you.”
Makoto breathes out slowly through his nose. Before he can put together a response, his stomach growls pitifully. He clutches the shirt fabric there, knowing he’ll have to address whatever Laurent came here for before he can eat anything. Begrudgingly, he throws on a sweater and slips on his shoes.
He opens the door a crack just as Laurent pulls his hand away.
“You came here and said you’re sorry. Can you leave now? I need to eat breakfast,” Makoto says curtly, but he knows Laurent well enough that the man wouldn’t have lingered at his door if an apology was all he wanted.
Better to deal with whatever amends the asshole wanted to make now and never have to see him again.
“Can I treat you?” Laurent asks, and Makoto almost laughs at how predictable the request is.
Perhaps Makoto really was getting better at reading the blonde idiot. The realization unexpectedly ignites in him the same thrill of accomplishment he’d felt during the last con, when he’d briefly thrown Laurent’s plan into uncertainty.
He brushes the feeling aside, stepping around the older man and down the metal steps.
“I don’t know why you came here, Laurent,” he says without looking behind him. He hears Laurent’s footsteps fall into step behind his.
“I just want to make sure you’re alright.”
Makoto scoffs. “Suddenly started caring about how you treat other people?” he asks scornfully. There’s silence behind him, unbroken as they walk down a street blanketed with soggy rust-dyed leaves and past a damp wooden playground. The autumn chill starts to bite at his nose and ears. As Laurent’s footsteps steadily follow behind him, Makoto can’t deny how strange the situation is.
Out of all the zipcodes in the world, Laurent showed up on his doorstep. Alone. After calling him weeks prior to explain the job he put together in the US and inviting Makoto to play a central part in it, outlining Makoto’s role in great detail (as Makoto pretended not to listen).
The unusual call put Makoto on edge. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Laurent only gave him all that information and dropped by as a part of some grander strategy, to soften him up, to prime him for some upcoming scheme he’d already be too deep in by the time he could even think to refuse.
He growled at the thought and spun around to face the taller man. Laurent looked lost in thought himself, enough that he seemed surprised to see Makoto glowering up at him. The younger man wasted no time streaming his thoughts into words.
“I’m done being strung around by you,” Makoto says bitterly. “And you following me around and offering to buy me breakfast after everything, without telling me why you’re even here... It’s creepy as hell! What are you after?”
Laurent shrugs. “I told you, I came by to make sure you’re okay,” he replies evenly.
“Bullshit!” Makoto cried, startling a pair of uniformed schoolgirls walking down the street. Laurent looks, infuriatingly, unaffected by his outburst. “All you’ve done is take advantage of me! For years. I don’t—I don’t even know you!”
The distain in his tone is palpable when he adds, much more quietly but with his gaze perfectly level with the taller man’s, “Don’t want to.”
Laurent doesn’t respond, but Makoto thinks he sees him swallow. Good, he thinks.
In the pocket of strained silence, Makoto hears the sound first.
It’s almost imperceptible, a cry they would have otherwise missed. A string of them follow, and Makoto is grateful for the excuse to break off the conversation.
“What was that?” Laurent mutters quietly.
Makoto tip-toes toward the noise, which seemed to come from a bush on the corner of the paved road. Thankfully, the cries don’t stop—they almost guide Makoto to them.
Ducking down, Makoto bends his head to peek through the glossy leaves, blinking when he spots the round patch of fur that certainly didn’t match its surroundings. He hesitates before reaching in and cupping it in his hands.
“What is it, Edamame?” Laurent asks gently, stepping closer to the younger man. Makoto turns around, revealing the small grey kitten cradled against his chest. Its bright turquoise eyes contrast sharply with the monotone color of its fur.
They watch it shift around in Makoto’s palms like they’re both thankful for a refuge from revisiting their earlier conversation.
“I should put it back,” Makoto finally says. “Its mom will come looking for it.”
“She won’t, I’m afraid,” Laurent replies solemnly, and Makoto shoots him an incredulous look.
“Look at her.” Makoto does. “She’s dirty,” Laurent mutters, reaching out his thumb to brush some dirt off of the kitten’s head. It doesn’t come off. “It must be days since she’s last eaten.”
Makoto goes quiet. “I’ll go clean her up and give her some milk,” he declares suddenly. He pulls the kitten into his chest and turns on his heel.
“Wait! Edamame!” Laurent calls after him. Makoto rolls his eyes and looks back.
“You can’t feed cow’s milk to a kitten,” Laurent chuckles, tucks his hands into his pockets, as if this is basic knowledge. Makoto wants to punch him. “It’ll make her sick. Kittens need to be fed a special kind of formula made just for them.”
Makoto’s studies Laurent for a moment before letting out a sigh. “Fine. Then you go get whatever formula you’re talking about and I’ll take her home.”
“Alright,” Laurent replies with a raised brow, but Makoto’s back is already turned.
What’s taking so long
Laurent is standing in line at the supermarket with his phone in one hand and a basket full of dairy products in the other.
I’ll be back soon, he types. How’s the kitten?
Three people in front of him check out before Makoto responds.
He smiles at the short reply, the period at the end of it that invited no reply from Laurent.
It was true, the kitten was unusually small, most likely the runt of the litter. And very young. Laurent realizes with a mix of relief and discomfort that had Makoto not found her, she might not have made it another night. She was still in that uncertain window of frailty, but Laurent knew Makoto’s compassion would be the kitten’s fighting chance—he knew the second Makoto clutched her to his chest when he mentioned her mother was probably not coming back.
He didn’t expect Makoto to include him in her care, too.
At a little before 10am, the apartment door creaks open and Laurent steps inside, letting in a billow of brisk air with his arrival that mixes with the looming scent of tobacco inside the apartment. He frowns and pulls off his shoes at the genkan, leaning against the wall for support. There’s a small cardboard box in the corner of the room adorned with printed persimmons—a purple sweater had been tucked inside. The kitten isn’t in it, Laurent noted. As he sets down the groceries next to the kitchen sink, Makoto is also nowhere to be found.
“In here.” The proximity of the voice startles Laurent, and he notices for the first time that the small apartment unit includes a comparatively large bathroom, fiberglass tub included. He steps just inside the wooden doorframe where Makoto is squatting on the tile floor with his back turned, pink plastic bathroom slippers on his feet.
Makoto must have heard him come in because he says, triumphantly, “She fooled us.” He grins and presents his hands to Laurent, who leans forward to get a better look.
For a second Laurent wants to ask if Makoto had found a second kitten, because the animal in his hands is as white as snow, save for a single band of grey on the top of her head.
“She’s wearing a crown,” Makoto whispers fondly. Laurent watches as he gently cradles the kitten back against his chest and brushes her back with the damp rag wrapped around his index finger.
Crouched beneath the soft rays of sunlight filtering through the wooden window slats and spilling across his chaotic chestnut hair and dark lashes, Makoto looks almost angelic, and Laurent’s breath catches in his throat.
He composes himself with carefully practiced ease, smiles brightly and says, “She looks like feline royalty. Good work, Edamame.”
Makoto absently hums in approval.
“What is that stuff, anyway?” Makoto asks from his spot next to the cardboard box where he sits cross-legged, chin in hand. Beside him, the kitten is busily exploring the loosely-knitted sweater on shaky legs, tail up and twitching.
“Goat’s milk, a few egg yolks, a dash of water, and some full-fat yogurt. The recipe for kitten nutrition par excellence,” says Laurent, drawing out the French phrase. He’s standing in the kitchenette he’d invited himself into, mixing together the ingredients in one of Makoto’s worn bowls he’d found on top of the refrigerator.
“Oh,” Makoto replies, dumbly. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realizes he could’ve researched the recipe himself. For some reason he didn’t quite understand, he hadn’t.
“By the way,” Laurent adds without looking behind him, “I picked up some coffee on the way back. You should drink it before it gets cold.”
Makoto’s brows furrow before he spots the neatly folded paper bag and coffee cup on the far corner of the table. It was from an expensive corner coffee shop, one Makoto walked by every day when he still lived in Japan but wouldn’t have dreamt to set foot in then. He grabs the paper bag and casts a furtive glance at Laurent’s back before looking inside.
“Thanks,” he mumbles, taking a large bite of the freshly-baked blueberry scone before he can stop himself.
Even lukewarm, the coffee is of unmistakably high quality. The cup is empty by the time Laurent walks over to him with a small bottle of formula cupped in his fingers.
“Here we are,” he says cheerfully. Laurent had long shed his overcoat and he’d unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt. The necklace usually hanging from the blond’s neck, the long gold chain and adorned ring that Makoto had never, ever seen Laurent without, is curiously absent.
He pulls his gaze away just as Laurent lowers himself down next to him to rest on his stomach. Makoto doesn’t own any floor cushions, and he suddenly feels strangely inhospitable seeing Laurent sprawled out like this instead of with his legs crossed on some expensive hotel couch. Laurent doesn’t seem to mind the lack.
“You’ve never fed a kitten before, I assume?” Laurent breezily asks. Makoto shakes his head. Smiling, Laurent reaches into the tattered box to gently pry the kitten from the sweater she had hooked her claws into. She mews and displays a row of impossibly small teeth as Laurent gingerly places her into his other hand.
“When caring for a kitten this young, it’s helpful to envision yourself as her mother,” Laurent explains, slipping into the same tone of voice he used to explain the fine details of a con. “You are, after all, filling her very important role.” The kitten is much smaller than Laurent’s hand, but Laurent handles her with the care of a glassmith tending a work of art. He lifts the nipple of the bottle to her mouth and she latches on immediately. Makoto is mesmerized.
“Wow, she drank right away!” he said, grinning at the way the kitten’s ears twitched as she suckled noisily.
“I suppose luck was on our side. It does usually take a while for them to catch on,” Laurent replies, watching the kitten eat with a lopsided smile. He tips his head back to glance at Makoto through messy blond bangs. “Shall I transfer her to you?” he asks. Makoto stiffens.
“Wha—N-now?” Makoto squeaks, but Laurent is already placing the kitten, bottle and all, into his palms. The kitten drinks on as if the exchange hadn’t happened.
Satisfied, Laurent lays back to lay his head on his elbow. He watches Makoto’s mouth pull into a frown as he tries to copy how Laurent had angled the bottle earlier. For a long time, the only sound in the room comes from the kitten noisily eating between them.
“Hey, how do you know how to feed these guys, anyway?” Makoto asks without looking up. “Did you con some old cat lady or something?” He grins, pleased with his own joke.
“My mother—“ Laurent says quietly, and Makoto’s blood runs cold. When he looks up, Laurent is tracing one of the crudely-printed cardboard persimmons with his finger. “We raised a small litter together when I was a boy.”
The comment is unexpectedly intimate, and Makoto can’t get his mouth to form words.
“I’m—I’m sorry,” Makoto manages. He doesn’t know whether to add that he’s apologizing both for the dumb joke and for bringing up what are probably painful memories, so he says, “My mom really liked cats. But she was allergic to them, so we couldn’t have any.”
“Yeah—wait, what?” Makoto blinked. Laurent shifts his gaze to Makoto. His blue eyes are glassy and soft.
“Your father told me,” Laurent replies almost too easily with a small smile.
Makoto looks away as if the comment burned him. The last thing he wants to talk about, especially with Laurent, is his father. But a part of him—a nagging feeling of emptiness that had followed him each day since their last job—knew that only one other person in his world had truly known his mother, and that asking him about her could keep pieces of her alive. Immediately, he’s struck with a strange mix of pity and guilt that, for Laurent, no such person existed.
Laurent snaps him out of his thoughts with a click of his tongue. “Careful, Edamame,” he gestures toward the kitten still suckling way in his hands. The bottle was nearly empty. “You’ll have to burp her all night if you let air get into her belly.”
At Makoto’s questioning look, Laurent explained that, just like human babies, kittens should be burped after each feeding, and that they needed help going to the bathroom at this age (You didn’t think a mother cat’s job was easy, did you, Edamame? Laurent teased). Makoto decides to write down his words to help him remember. When he glances at them later that afternoon, the full page of dark ink looks worryingly sparse.
It was early evening by the time Makoto had successfully fed, burped, and toileted the kitten under Laurent’s encouraging praise.
“Well,” Laurent sighs, stretching his arms dramatically as if kitten care had utterly exhausted him, “Looks like my work here is done.” Makoto’s feet move almost on their own as he follows Laurent to the front door. Makoto stands there, watching the blond slip on his coat, fold down the collar. Laurent’s movements are uncharacteristically slow as he pulls the thick wool into his slim waist, like he’s purposefully lingering. He catches Makoto’s shadow on the front door and turns around.
“You alright?” he asks.
“Can you stay?” Makoto blurts before he can stop himself. He wants to slap himself at how desperate he sounds, nearly begging Laurent to abandon his precious con.
The seconds tick by and Makoto is ready to backpedal on his request as Laurent raises an eyebrow, the surprise in the tilt of his head frighteningly genuine. “Why, Edamame? You were doing a great job—“
“Because!” Makoto almost shouts. Laurent is quiet. Makoto looks over at the cardboard box, the ball of white fur inside. “I just—what if something happens to her and I can’t help?”
Laurent studies him for a long time, his expression unreadable, before he slowly curls his fingers around the door handle. Just as Makoto opens his mouth, he hums and says, “I’ll be but a moment.”