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Bitingly cold air and Leblanc's bell were Sojiro's first signs of an intruder. He had just finished wiping down the fridge; streaks of his reflection grimaced on the chrome. He hadn't bothered to flip the sign to closed after Futaba and Ann had left, not expecting anyone to stop at a cafe so close to midnight. The television -- volume dialed down to a low buzz -- was set to a news broadcast, interspersing shots of Tokyo Tower with reporter commentary as the New Year countdown simmered in the background, so he couldn't even pretend Leblanc was abandoned.

"You still open?"

The cloth went into the bleach tub and Sojiro came around the kitchen corner, trying not to reveal a scowl. The customer was a man about his age, half-shaven with a military-grade coat that looked like it had been put through its paces. Jeans tucked into boots, two piercings. The tattoo on the guy's neck made him think yakuza, which Sojiro tried to dismiss as mere prejudice until he spotted the pair of ear protectors perched on the guy's hat. High quality ones too, Sojiro was guessing, remembering pairs like that from when he was in the government -- the kind that would block out gunfire, but leave normal speaking volumes intact. They required batteries, or something extra like that; too expensive for a fashion statement. There were still plenty of legal reasons why someone might be casually wearing a pair, but Sojiro wasn't betting on them.

At first, Sojiro thought about throwing the guy out on principle -- but hell, it was New Year's Eve, and he didn't have the heart. Futaba was still getting sniffly over Akira's imprisonment when she thought he wasn't looking. There had been enough hostility in the world for the year.

"If you want basic coffee, I can handle that," he compromised, nodding towards the counter as he reached for a French press, bypassing both the siphon and the percolator. "Give me a few minutes, and I'll get it brewing."

Despite the offer, the man lingered cautiously by the entrance. "You sure?"

So the thug did know how to be circumspect. Sojiro found himself relaxing; at least he wouldn't get a nightmare customer tonight, fussing over a four-hundred yen cup. "I'll be staying up anyway. Have to wait for the kids to get done with New Year's, so I'll be making some for myself one way or the other. Do you have family out tonight?"

Slowly, lured forward by conversation, the man drifted closer inside until he finally slid onto a chair. He didn’t remove his jacket or hat -- didn’t leave his back to the door either, which left him craning his neck as he watched Sojiro set up the water to boil "They doin' hatsumode?"

"Tomorrow, I think. Tonight they're in Shibuya. I hope they're not going to try and fight through the crowd in the square -- it looks like there's barely even standing room."

Small talk had the intended effect: the man's shoulders started to relax, and he rested his arms gingerly on the counter. His hands were weathered and nicked, with one finger that looked slightly crooked, as if it had been broken and reset clumsily. "My son's got school friends that're way too excited 'bout the whole shrine trip at midnight business. Meiji's too crazy for me. I ain't a fan."

"I can't blame you," Sojiro sympathized. The kettle was starting to heat nicely; he deliberated over the beans, and then picked a dark roast, automatically trying to match the cup to the customer. "Leave that to the people who enjoy standing in the cold and getting elbowed in the ribs. I do my visit on January 2nd, like a reasonable person who needs regular sleep."

He served the first cup cleanly, at just the right steeping time for a full flavor. It wasn't a bean that would benefit from additives, but he set the sugar and cream out anyway, and was pleased when they went untouched. The liquid was hot, but the man took a careful sip regardless, making a satisfied noise in his throat.

Sojiro was busy pouring the second cup for himself when the guy spoke up.

"I had another reason to come by, actually." Now his attention was entirely off the coffee and onto Sojiro; his grey eyes were hard, evaluating every stray motion that Sojiro made. "My part-timer, he's gotten himself into some trouble recently. I don't know much 'bout the kid, but I heard he works here too. I was hopin' you might have some info."

Sojiro lowered the French press slowly, catching a drop on his fingers as he tilted it upright. So. Akira had been getting into trouble with actual criminals after all -- not just the ones he'd changed with cognitive psience. Sojiro wished he could say he was surprised. As it was, he found himself impressed. The kid really went all-out.

"What's your name?" he demanded. Niijima could confirm the details afterwards, if necessary.

Predictably, the man hesitated. Then he nodded, plunging ahead. "Iwai. Munehisa Iwai. My store's the airsoft shop down in Shibuya, Untouchable. You?"

"Sojiro Sakura. And I'm here, as you can see."

They stared at one another in mutual wariness, still feeling the other out. Sojiro didn't expect the guy to sniff around his home, but he didn't plan to be intimidated on principle either, even though Iwai had done nothing openly aggressive yet. And if Akira had worked for Iwai too, well -- when Sojiro had started thinking of the kid as being any kind of moral barometer, he had no idea, but Iwai couldn't be that bad.

Maybe. This was Akira, after all.

Iwai, surprisingly, deferred first, lowering his gaze as if to yield to Sojiro's home territory. "I got nothin' on the prosecutor who's on the Shido case," he explained. "Or how my part-timer's doin'. I found some leads, but nothing solid yet. It ain't good for me to sniff around directly, so I'm askin' you to clue me in."

"He's my part-timer too," Sojiro replied, trying and failing to not feel possessive. Then, because the last thing Akira needed was for him to antagonize a possible supporter, he sighed. "Shido's prosecutor is Sae Niijima, who's also on our side. She's not in it only for career advancement -- she intends to see Shido held to account. That's why the kid turned himself in."

Our side. He barely knew anything about the guy, but already Sojiro was looking for hope. They might as well be in it together. Akira needed all the friends he could get.

"We don't know how to get him out yet," Sojiro continued. It was a relief to talk freely; some of the details might only spook Akira's friends, especially Futaba. He'd dropped the ball long enough. The least he could do now was act as a source of reassurance for kids who needed him to be strong in their lives. "Akira's under arrest thanks to breaking his probation. His criminal activities are being considered independent of Shido's case either way, even though they make him a key witness for the prosecution. But since it's his second offense, if we can clear the first set of allegations, it may be enough to pull him out and set it back to just one conviction. He'll probably have to do another year of probation, but that's better than being locked up. This kid," he sighed, shaking his head. "Once you have a criminal record, it never goes away."

"Yeah," Iwai said, and if there was any lingering doubt in Sojiro's mind about the man's history, it was destroyed by the strained resignation in his voice. "It doesn't."

The muffled noise of shouting trickled in through the conversation; the countdown was ticking closer on the television. The crowd was an unrelenting mass of people in the square, faces and clothes blending together, victory signs being flashed at the camera. Sojiro didn't see any of the kids, but he imagined they'd be trying to avoid anywhere with a camera crew.

"Just drives me crazy," Iwai said eventually, watching the revellers. The frustration on his breath was a match for Sojiro's own. "I know I'll make it worse if I get too involved, so I've gotta stay away, but what else'm I supposed to do? I owe that kid too much not to pay him back."

Whether it had been Iwai's heart that had been changed, or someone else harassing him, Sojiro didn't know -- but he didn't have to in order to understand the weight of a debt. As much as Iwai might be trouble, it was hard not to sympathize with the guy. Sojiro leaned forward and refilled both their cups, but this time when he set down the press, he made sure to catch Iwai's attention before he spoke. "You're not alone in that, believe me. We want to see him released as much as you do. I... have him to thank for my daughter’s life."

Iwai's mouth firmed into a flat line, and he nodded once, a sharp motion that dipped the brim of his hat in a bow. "Then I'm glad I came to you." His eyes darted back to the television, and then he straightened, rolling a shoulder to loosen it. "I'll get outta your hair before your people come back. Kaoru thinks I'm workin' late at the shop anyway."

"Stay until midnight at least, and watch the fireworks here," Sojiro encouraged, waving at the television. "You've still got some time. With all the crowds tonight, the trains will be packed. My daughter," and he couldn't help the small burst of warmth in his chest whenever he said those words, "wants to make it back all by herself, so I can't afford to nod off in case she needs me to pick her up partway. What about you? Need to grab your son?"

His reward for the question was a faint smile from the man: a slight, private expression that softened all the menace that Iwai wore like a second layer of skin. "Nah. Kaoru wants to get a hamaya, and the lines'll be nuts for omikuji. He said he'd draw one for me, too, even though I don't think it works if you're not the one shakin' it. It'll be at least two a.m. before they get outta there, so he said they'll crash at a manga cafe until the morning trains. It's not the first time, so I'm not too worried." His gaze flicked down to his cup, and then he nodded, grudgingly. "The coffee's good, so... thanks. Haven't rung in the New Year with company since Kaoru got old enough to demand his own shrine visits."

"Holidays can be a lot better with someone else around," Sojiro acknowledged. He checked the kettle and set it to heat for a second pot before leaning back against the counter. "Happy New Year," he offered, lifting his half-full cup.

"Happy New Year," Iwai replied, saluting him back.

It was strange to be the one closing up Leblanc again, the cafe quiet and attic uninhabited, but it wasn't as bad as it had been before. Thanks to the past year with the Phantom Thieves, the shop had transformed completely. Leblanc had been both Sojiro's haven and trap, as much as his home had been for Futaba. It was a place that Futaba had never dared come to, and he had lingered there frequently, rather than go home and face closed doors and empty hallways. Other nights, he had hurried to close down the cafe, worried over prolonged silences on the phone -- if something had happened to Futaba, or if something would happen to him, and she would be stuck at home slowly starving because he'd had a heart attack and no one had gone to check in on her.

Now, Leblanc was a comfortable second home. Futaba had breakfast with him in the mornings, and visited regularly throughout the day whenever she felt inclined. She had a bigger support network now: he could rest easy knowing Ann and Makoto were nearby, along with the rest of her friends.

Which was a good thing, when the police came and insisted on personally escorting Sojiro to the station to get interrogated.

The interview didn't go as well as he'd hoped when it came to deflecting questions. It had been even worse for the investigators, which was Sojiro's only comfort; he hadn't given them anything they could use, which had shown in how their questions had turned more and more pointed. Even so, he kept reviewing and re-reviewing his words, wondering if there had been anything that could be twisted to serve them. The smallest slip-up, the slightest hint -- even his body language could be distorted into a completely different message in the right hands.

Iwai had some choice phrases when he found out that Sunday, stopping by again in hopes of better news.

"Coffee," he suggested, shaking his head towards the wall of jars stacked as neatly as munitions, organized by strength.

"Coffee," Sojiro agreed, and pulled out the Suntory whisky from the locked cabinet in the kitchen.

The next morning -- as Sojiro was carefully nursing a headache -- Futaba scampered into Leblanc for breakfast and slid onto a bar chair, clutching a cracker the size of her hand. "You're friends with Gecko Man too, Sojiro?"

"Gecko -- hey, don't ruin your appetite," Sojiro protested, and then frowned. Somehow Futaba must have seen Iwai visiting the cafe, though he wasn't sure why she'd be out that late in the evening. "You're talking about Iwai, right? You know him?"

"Mmmhmm," Futaba answered around a mouthful of crumbs. "All the Phantom Thieves did, sure. He sold us all kinds of things."

"Young lady, you need to explain to me just how many criminal elements you've been around," Sojiro tried to order sternly, but she giggled and snapped off another bite.

"He's not dangerous! Much. Do you like him, Sojiro?"

Sojiro snorted. "He seems fine enough," he answered automatically, and meant it. It was obvious by just talking with Iwai that his son was the center of his world. Sojiro had only known the man for a short time, but that much, he could already swear by. "We're just working on Akira's situation, anyway."

"Mmmhmmm," Futaba hummed again, looking at him over the rim of her glasses, in the exact same way Wakaba had used to whenever she thought she knew better. "His son's adopted too, did you know? So he gets full achievement points from me. He's like a parallel dimension you, Sojiro. We're both his real-life coffee shop AU!"

Sojiro winced at her delight, feeling his temples give another warning throb. "Eat," he ordered sternly, sliding her plate towards her. "And don't worry about Iwai. He's just checking in on Akira. That's it."

Even though Sojiro hadn't been called back yet by the investigators -- he was expecting at least another few rounds of grilling -- Iwai stopped by that Thursday evening, only an hour before closing. "In case you got pressured again," he explained with a shrug, already sliding onto a chair without waiting for an invitation. "They back off you yet?"

There was half a pot left in one of the presses; Sojiro wrinkled his nose at it and started up a fresh round instead. "It's too early to tell," he admitted. "It's probably for the best if they are focused on me. The less pressure on the kids, the better."

Iwai snorted, cracking one of his knuckles absently. "Any of 'em get rough with you, Sakura, remember their face. I'll make sure to take their teeth out one by one, in front of a mirror so they can watch."

"I'll keep that in mind," Sojiro replied dryly, and toggled on the brew timer. "Niijima's sister -- one of Akira's friends -- says she's making progress in finding the witness in the first case. They're hoping that might fully overturn that particular conviction. The evidence for the second one is... overwhelming." That, and if they invalidated Akira's actions as a Phantom Thief, they would invalidate his testimony as well. Cognitive psience still couldn't be proven in court. Ironically, they had Shido to thank for that, destroying so much of Wakaba's research. "Niijima thinks that if there's enough to put Shido away on testimonies that don't require Akira's actions as a Thief, then most of the property destruction might be argued. However, the rest of the charges aren't so lucky. Breaking and entering into Madarame's place was documented in a call, and they can't get around the broadcast. Everyone saw that."

Iwai considered the list with a professional frown, ticking off points between fingers decorated with a legacy of tiny nicks. "The first one's gotta get thrown out, then," he finally announced, matter-of-fact. "You can live off the second."

For his own peace of mind, Sojiro didn't question Iwai's expertise. Instead, he checked on the French press, and filled Iwai's cup first when it was ready. The second cup went for himself, and he took his time pouring, hesitant to speak -- but unsure who else to ask.

"What I'm worried about right now is if he gets a third offense. If that happens, it doesn't matter if one of the cases gets cleared -- the kid will still have at least two to his name. That's what they were trying to get out of me during interrogation." Sojiro found himself shaking his head despite his best attempts to stay calm; knowing what the officers had been looking for hadn't made the verbal traps any easier to dodge. "The police have a grudge against him, and that's dangerous. If anything goes wrong while he's in solitary, if he gets in a fight even in self-defense --"

"He won't." Iwai's eyes were hard. He glanced at Sojiro, and it was hard not to flinch under the intensity: grey as cold as gunmetal, and just as ruthless. "No one's gonna mess with him. I promise. This's the part you can trust me on, Sakura. I'll get it taken care of.”

Sojiro exhaled slowly, reassurance creeping into his bones. "Thank you," he said, grateful twice over. That was a worry he hadn't wanted to share with the kids or Niijima; he'd had to swallow his fear alone. "I owe you one."

They started an unspoken vigil twice a week after that, with Iwai stopping by an hour before closing, sometimes staying to finish his coffee even after Sojiro flipped the sign. By next Sunday, there hadn't been any new developments with Akira's case -- only a few days after Iwai's last visit -- but the man came by anyway, and Sojiro already had the cafe closed a little early just in case, and it made sense to talk like usual. It also made sense to offer Iwai some of the extra curry that Sojiro had made for his own dinner, because there was no use letting fresh food go to waste. Plus, Sojiro had stepped up to having one of the coffee siphons ready, and if he was going to go through all that effort, he might as well show it off. No reason to turn Iwai away.

They took over the middle booth, the curry fresh and steaming. Sojiro added a minimum of brown sugar to both cups, making an exception in sweeteners for that particular bean; Iwai had started letting Soijro flavor his coffee for him, saying he could recognize an expert. Without anything new for Akira, work filled in the conversation instead. Iwai's customers were different from the cafe, but the same personality types persisted: casual novelty-seekers, regulars who didn't haggle, and dilettantes who liked to pretend that an attitude was sufficient substitute for knowledge.

They both dug into the meal eagerly as they spoke. Iwai complimented the coffee, and listened attentively as Sojiro explained the history and usage of the siphons, asking interested questions about the mechanisms. Then, out of curiosity, Sojiro opened his phone to a picture of Futaba. "My daughter says she knows your shop. Do you remember her?"

Iwai leaned forward. "Yeah," he said after a minute. "She came by once with Akira to help pick up some jackets. They didn't stay long and she seemed kinda nervous, so I didn't get an introduction. Didn’t know she was your girl."

Sojiro nodded. "She's my daughter," he emphasized sharply, though out of pride and not from feeling any threat. Iwai was dangerous -- it was impossible to miss the casual aggression the man radiated, even at rest -- but he always treated Sojiro's space respectfully, particularly when it came to Futaba. Immediately, Sojiro swiped to another photo and tilted the phone back towards Iwai. This shot had Futaba running down the street while wielding a stuffed lobster; Ann had taken it and sent it along with video.

"Looks like she's gotta lot of spirit," Iwai acknowledged with a lift of his eyebrows, and Sojiro appreciated the avoidance of the usual adjectives, ones that would have made him automatically suspicious of child predators: cute, adorable, darling. "Older than mine, yeah? Here, this's Kaoru," he offered in kind, trade for trade, and started paging through his own collection.

They passed phones back and forth in comfortable banter, sharing comments about places or various ages, accidents and achievements. Iwai even had a few baby pictures of Kaoru; judging from the fuzziness of the resolution, the man had literally taken pictures of the photographs rather than scan them in.

"Hey," Iwai said after the fifteenth pass. "Add me to your contacts. That way you can text me if anythin' comes up with Akira, or if you got any other questions I can help with."

Sojiro sighed, already thumbing to set up a new entry despite himself. "I don't keep guys on my phone," he grumbled out of habit, but Akira was already in there, and really, what was one more.

It turned out that Iwai was right about his number being useful, because it made it that much easier for Sojiro to text him when Sae dropped by with good news.

Akira might be able to get released next Tuesday, he sent Iwai immediately, right after updating the kids. Sae doesn't want to tell him until she gets confirmation, but she thinks it's guaranteed.

When Iwai showed up on Sunday night, he was grinning hard enough to crinkle his eyes. "Shit," he marveled, slapping the counter. "I can't believe it! I wanna, but -- I was afraid the kid would get stuck in there for years."

"It won't feel real until I see him," Sojiro admitted. He added another scoop of rice to the plate and slid it over, already reaching for a coffee mug. "What about you? I imagine you'd want to see him yourself right away. Do you want me to bring him by your shop?"

"Kid's got enough people to catch up on. I'm just his -- one of his -- part-time bosses." Despite the assertion, however, Iwai grimaced, shifting his weight in his chair. Finally, he relented. "Yeah. I do. After he's had time to unpack and get readjusted. Lemme know, and I'll text him to come by the store."

Sojiro filled a second plate for himself, and then joined Iwai on his side of the counter, taking a deep, appreciative breath of the coffee before having a victory sip. "I'm glad we got him out so fast. It’s only February, but it feels like forever."

"Could've been, too," Iwai warned, but then just shook his head again, grinning. He paused after his first bite of curry, however, long enough that Sojiro also stopped, wondering if the spices were off. "Hey, speakin' of February. You got big Valentine Day plans? It's gonna be quiet for me -- Kaoru'll be out for the evening, and the shop'll be dead. All the collectors who get custom jobs as gifts, their jobs get finished way in advance, so there won't be any last-minute rush orders."

"My evening's empty," Sojiro admitted. "It's -- look, you get it. Futaba comes first."

"Yeah," Iwai acknowledged, finally digging into the rest of his meal with sweeping curves of his spoon. "Anyone I'd date, the second they'd say something about me spendin' too much time with Kaoru 'stead of them, or try to take over parentin' him -- it'd be over. Done."

They sat in companionable silence while they ate, letting the television hum in the background. Iwai had been taking off his hat and coat all the time now whenever he came by, ear protectors nestled on top like a yellow punctuation mark. He had relaxed enough to start sitting more naturally at the counter as well, though that had translated into a sprawl, boots splayed on the foot rail and threatening to kick Sojiro's shoes half the time.

Sojiro polished off his coffee first, and morosely confronted his options. "I'm sure Akira will have plans, though. I'll probably close the cafe down early. Someone out of all his friends is going to want to see him. The kid has so many people sweet on him, I'm surprised he hasn't broken more hearts by now."

Iwai nodded, scraping the remainder of his curry clean. "Pretty sure Kaoru's got just regular school buddies to hang out with. Every time I ask him if he's got his eye on anyone special, he just tells me to stop puttin' condoms in his schoolbag. They're useful for all kinda things, but he doesn't believe me." He took the last sip of his own mug, and set it down hard. "Hey, you wanna grab a drink that evening? Or -- whatever," he clarified quickly. "Seems kind of a downer to spend the time tryin' to stay outta the way of everyone else."

"Maybe. I don’t know Futaba's plans either," Sojiro hedged, but the idea of automatically inviting himself to his daughter's possibly non-free time only opened up to all manner of embarrassing possibilities. "Food wouldn't be bad. All right. I'll let you know."

As it turned out, Sojiro completely forgot.

Akira's release completely dominated the week. Sojiro had been thinking of it on his calendar in such big letters -- Akira's Release -- that when Valentine's Day actually did roll around, it took him entirely by surprise. All his energy had gone towards preparing Leblanc and the attic space, making sure the linens were clean, getting the kid's bath pass renewed, stocking the fridge with snacks that he remembered Akira liking. He'd been so pleased to have Akira back that he'd forgotten it wasn't just another typical day at the cafe; seeing the kid with an apron on again, wiping down the counters as if he'd never left, had made Sojiro so relieved that he hadn't had time for any other thoughts.

He then proceeded to forget all throughout the morning and lunch hour, with its rush of special coffee requests that completely ruined the natural flavors -- caramels, fruit syrups, chocolate -- and then through the early evening when couples filled up the booths. His lack of awareness lasted right up until he asked Akira if the kid had anything set up -- and then, well. It was better for Sojiro to clear out and give them some space after all.

The cat promptly disappeared into the maze of back roads, ignoring Sojiro completely. So even cats had dates.

I dropped the ball, he texted Iwai guilty. Forgot it was the 14th today.

Iwai's reply came back just as Sojiro had started to edge away from Leblanc, realizing that hovering in front of the door would put a serious damper on whatever Akira was doing inside. Kid's back, right? That's where your brain is. Don't sweat it.

Sojiro was torn between relief and wondering what to say next when Iwai's next message came in, saving him from having to ask if Iwai had already decided to do something else with his evening.

You still interested? C'mon by.

Iwai, it turned out, had a weakness for jidaigeki movies, particularly for chanbara; he had somehow grabbed a pair of tickets to a showing of one of Mifune's older works in one of the smaller theaters, with only a few screens and cramped seating. Even for a black-and-white movie, the theater was still packed. They ended up in the highest row, all the way in the back. The overly dramatized fights weren't Sojiro's first choice, but Iwai loved it, clenching his fists and grinning at each firehose-powered spray of blood, and eventually Sojiro found himself smiling too, following the plot haphazardly around each of Iwai's stifled cheers.

It was a short enough film that there was still time in the evening after it ended; Iwai was riled up by the action, eagerly going through the fights one-by-one with Sojiro as they meandered along the streets, checking for any restaurants that still had available seats. They ended up in one of the okinomiyaki parlors, taking one of the back tables while couples filed in and out around them; Sojiro attempted to argue about Mifune's best works with the limited knowledge he had available, while Iwai, smirking, enacted vengeance by folding Sojiro's okinomiyaki batter into an omelette.

The winter weather was brisk around them by the time they left, navigating through people still rushing to make their dinner appointments, or already heading to hotels. As they approached Shibuya Station, Sojiro gravitated towards one of the designated smoking areas, automatically sliding a cigarette out of the pack with practiced fingers. He offered a second one to Iwai, but the man shook his head.

"Quit four years ago," he explained, tapping his half-gnawed lollipop stick. "Realized the last thing I wanna do is catch cancer and die on Kaoru."

Sojiro lowered the lighter just as it had begun to warm up his cigarette. "I'd wondered what that was all about," he admitted. Iwai had a point, overwhelmingly so: Sojiro should be worrying the same thing about Futaba. She would never forgive him if he wasted away on a hospital bed; he would never forgive himself.

But the cigarette was familiar and reassuring, and Sojiro stared glumly at it as the tiny wisp of smoke died before it had even begun to fully light.

"Hey," Iwai said, catching his attention. "Quittin' was one of the hardest things I've ever done, okay? It's not easy. You want help doin' the same?"

Sojiro hesitated.

Then he resolutely dumped the cigarette into the ashtray sand, and shoved the remaining pack roughly at Iwai. "All right. Do me a favor, and stop me when you see it happening. But I'm not using candy, all right? My dentist hates me enough. Do toothpicks work?"

Iwai rocked back on his heels, the pack disappearing into a pocket of his coat. "Funny thing about those," he started conversationally. "I heard a story about a guy who knew a guy who got real fucked up once 'cause he was chewin' on one right when he got his face slammed into a wall. Scraped the roof of his mouth up and got jammed in his throat when he swallowed." Iwai whirled his finger in a circle around his neck. "Not very pretty."

Sojiro stared. "'A guy who knew a guy.'"

"What kinda fucked-up world this is, right?" Iwai shrugged, and then grinned, switching back lightning-fast to a long scrutiny of the nearby storefronts. "Okay, so no candy. You sure? It's cheap by now," he added, jerking a thumb towards the rows of windows. There were pink and red stickers everywhere, hearts strategically positioned to coax young women into spending all their money on financial romance, and a few more modest displays to pave the way for buying obligation chocolates. "Only guilt chocolate left at this hour."

"I'm not buying my own Valentine's Day chocolate, Iwai."

"And when was the last time you got any? Shit, when was the last time either of us got any? Look, gimme your lighter, I can't trust you out here with it," Iwai demanded, sticking out his hand and waiting until Sojiro dutifully dumped it into his palm with a sigh.

Smirking, Iwai disappeared into the storefronts, leaving Sojiro to stamp his feet and huddle closer to the station to keep out of the February wind.

When the man finally returned, the smugness on his face could have warmed a thousand commuters. "There ya go," he announced, placing a slim paper bag embossed with gold cross-hatching in Sojiro's hands. "Somethin' to keep yourself busy 'stead of smokes."

Inside the bag was a handful of fancy lollipops, each as big as walnuts, ribbons curling around their plastic hoods. Their colors were glaringly bright, promising to dye unsuspecting tongues in a variety of neon rainbows. The labels on the sticks featured cartoon kittens in various hues, probably to explain each flavor; Sojiro could only wonder how long it took Iwai to find something so horrifyingly cute.

Underneath them all, however, there was one more thing rattling around: a small square box that had been striped in gold and black dots, subdued enough in comparison to the lollipops that it could almost be entirely overlooked.

Chocolate. A four-piece set -- and a good brand, even with a discount sticker still on the corner. Sojiro could smell the sugar just by lifting the box out; he'd had honmei chocolates that had looked worse than this.

"Asshole," he retorted -- but smiled.

The thing about routines was that Sojiro liked them for a reason: they kept things stable. When Iwai texted him about coming by on Sunday, even though Akira was living and working full-time in Leblanc over the spring break, Sojiro accepted automatically before he realized the potential conflict.

Akira's staying in the attic again, he sent back, unsure why it made him hesitate. Not wanting to disturb the kid's evening, probably, by having company over in what effectively functioned as Akira's basement. No reason to keep Iwai from saying hello, especially when Akira had gone back to helping out at Untouchable once a week, but Sojiro found himself strangely reluctant to let those two worlds overlap; the time he had with Iwai existed in a bubble all its own, unobserved by anyone else. You want to eat somewhere else instead?

They started circling through the local diners, small hole-in-the-wall places that had custom menus and house specials numbering in the dozens. The weather wasn't warm enough to take leisurely strolls -- something to do in June, Iwai suggested, and Sojiro agreed -- but Shibuya had enough that were close to train stations and parking lots that they could drive if they needed to, picking radiuses based around stops. Iwai knew a million of them, it seemed; Sojiro had him beat when it came to coffeehouses, however, since he liked keeping tabs on the competition.

Iwai -- Munehisa, really, they'd slipped to first names somewhere along the way, though Munehisa refused to call him Boss, which made perfect sense considering the man's history -- had a lot in common with him. They complained together about legal systems and bureaucracy, and from there Sojiro crossed into the subject of adoptions, curious about the man's experience. Futaba had been right: Munehisa was a single father, just like him, who had taken in Kaoru all on his own. Kaoru didn't have any living relatives, but there had been just as many hassles to go through, because that meant Munehisa didn't know Kaoru's medical history either. Instead, he'd had to guess at any family history of allergies or heart conditions or diabetes, and there'd been one really bad night where Munehisa hadn't been sure if Kaoru had been going into shock after a bee sting, or had just worked himself up out of fear into full-blown silent hysteria.

Sojiro hadn't had to raise Futaba from infancy, so he'd nodded along and ordered rounds of fat nikuman for dinner while Munehisa talked about baby formula and diaper rash and having to walk for hours in circles in his apartment to try and get Kaoru to sleep, singing broken pieces of half-forgotten nursery rhymes and making up words for the rest.

But they both got to laugh about worrying over puberty. It was Munehisa's turn to listen as Sojiro described his series of failures in trying to order the right bra sizes for Futaba without making her and store clerks uncomfortable, and then it became a natural discussion to talk about getting the right sizes for the rest of her clothes when she wouldn't come out to try anything on. Sojiro had left piles of shirts and pants folded outside her door, and dutifully sent back the ones that didn't fit right, trying to guess at why certain ones had passed the test.

He talked about the challenges of shoes, and then about trying to get remote health care options -- Futaba had refused the dentist and regular physician checkups, and even though she needed glasses, she'd refused to get her eyes measured yearly too. Sojiro had done all the research he could about testing for symptoms at home, looking up resources for hikikomori parents. He rambled on and on about favorite foods, and giving Futaba access to his credit card so she could order things online, and how one physician had given him nightmares of Futaba getting scoliosis because she was sitting at the keyboard so much, so when Dr. Takemi had started coming by the cafe, he just started asking her everything instead.

And then, somehow -- as if Munehisa had reached in and opened him up wholesale, taking out every memory and moment with the care of a surgeon -- Sojiro found himself talking about everything about raising Futaba, everything he had kept penned up inside himself for the last three years without being able to check with another parent, or hear how it might sound like to someone else. Fear of being proven a bad father had kept him mute; he’d had a million fears of doing things wrong. When Futaba had withdrawn, he'd believed they were all true.

The two of them ran out of time each evening. Even meeting twice a week, he and Munehisa never had any shortage of conversation, because every time Sojiro would mention something, Munehisa would go off about a similar story, and then they'd be at it until midnight again.

"Kids're hard," Munehisa chuckled one night, not unsympathetically as they finished up noodles and dumplings at a streetside ramen bar. Cool March air trickled through the shop curtains, ruffling the fabric with each breeze. "Even though Kaoru's old enough to do things on his own, I'm still convinced I actually screwed him up completely. He's gonna develop kidney problems when he's twenty, and it's 'cause I didn't make sure he hydrated enough when he was a toddler." The man stretched out a hand towards the soy sauce; Sojiro got there first, batting Munehisa's fingers away and refilling his saucer for him. "Or I didn't make sure he got enough calcium, and that's why he's got so many cavity problems, and then all his bones are gonna shatter 'cause they'll be brittle -- "

"Enough," Sojiro groaned, but he was laughing too now; those same relentless fears were less terrifying now that he could talk about them out loud. "You don't need to get my paranoia started on that either, okay? Sheesh, Munehisa," he continued, snatching the last dumpling despite the other man's yelp of protest. "What force in this world was crazy enough to let us be responsible for kids?"

Munehisa lifted his chopsticks warningly, making a mock snap at Sojiro's face. "I'd beat the shit outta it if it tries to stop me. No fucker's getting between me and my kid."

They got caught up in trying to navigate Shujin's website on their phones after that, cursing tiny buttons and scrollbars as they hunted for class information on their screens. When the alarm for the last train buzzed on Munehisa's phone, it took them both off guard; Munehisa checked the time and cursed.

"I'll give you a lift," Sojiro offered, the suggestion coming easily, his stomach full and content and in no inclination to hurry. "You're not out of the way."

"You sure?" Munehisa hesitated, double-checking the screen again. "I can sleep at the store. I've done it before, don't make yourself tired for work 'cause of me."

"I run a cafe," Sojiro reminded him dryly, gathering up the bill. "Don't underestimate my ability to make a strong cup of caffeine when I need it."

When he finally made it back home -- Munehisa's apartment wasn't a long drive, but the streets were twisty enough that he'd had to use his phone to navigate back -- Futaba was still awake, taking advantage of the television's bigger screen to watch one of her shows. As he peeled off his coat, she burst out with a long, sing-song giggle, and then darted down the hall before he could remind her about regular sleeping schedules.

"It's nice to see you getting out more often with people your own aaaaage," she yelled over her shoulder as she went, and he groaned, resisting the urge to yell at her for staying up too late.

Futaba wouldn't let it rest, however. If she had been waiting for a chance for revenge for all the times he nagged her, she was relishing it now.

"Don't stay out too late with your friend next time," she chirped over breakfast the next day, wagging her spoon in mock sternness at his nose. "Call me if you think you want to sleep over!"

"Young lady, I'll have you know --"

She leaned forward, perching on the counter chair so that she could pat his hand conspiratorially. "I'm just glad to see you happy, Sojiro. I worry about you getting older with just me to take care of you."

When he tried to protest again, she rolled her eyes. "It's okay, Sojiro," she said, in what was probably meant to be a reassuring tone and sounded like anything but. "I ship it."

Though he had no idea what Futaba was imagining, Sojiro had to admit that it was good to see Munehisa. The man had a sense of humor that was easy to relax around, and easy to match. And easy to want to incite -- as menacing as Munehisa could be, Sojiro had prodded at the man's edges often enough that he no longer really noticed it anymore. Whenever they were out together, he'd started becoming surprised at worried glances from other pedestrians. Munehisa might walk like a predator, but Sojiro had lost all fears of provoking him.

On March 14th, he texted Munehisa early in the morning. Are you free tonight? Can you swing by, usual time?

He got a reply back almost instantly, paired concern and confusion in that order. Everything ok? Then, It's Tues??

He sent over reassurances, and then made sure everything was prepared, counting down the hours to his plan.

When Munehisa came in, shoving the door open and instantly glancing around the cafe in case there was someone crouching underneath a table, or wielding a coffeepot as a weapon, Sojiro was ready. He waved Munehisa over to the counter, and waited until the man was seated before he set the slender box carefully on the countertop, where it lurked in all its pristine, white-ribboned glory.

It wasn't extravagant chocolate -- but it wasn't cheap, either. He'd made sure to get a high-end brand from the confectioner's, and had been lucky to reserve a limited set as well. He couldn't let himself get outdone by Munehisa, he'd reasoned. Just on principle.

"There," he announced. "It's your White Day gift."

Munehisa's reaction was an amazed stare. “What the hell,” he stated, blankly, and then choked on an incredulous laugh, badly enough to enough to bury his face into his hand while his shoulders heaved.

Sojiro snorted and reached over to take the chocolates back -- but Munehisa was faster, and scooped the box closer to his chest. "These taste like curry, we're over, got it?"

"Look, chocolate is a key ingredient in a number of very sophisticated curry recipes," Sojiro retorted, but Munehisa was already unwrapping the container, his weathered fingers dancing over the ribbons. Once he got the lid free, he lifted it with studious precision -- as if dismantling one of his own weapons -- to reveal two rows of perfectly-shaped white and dark chocolate spheres, alternating like a gameboard. Each one was cradled in a small nest of shimmering paper.

But instead of acting impressed, Munehisa only paused, and then arched an eyebrow with exaggerated skepticism. "You store-buy these, Soji?"

He had. Everything about the packaging made glaringly obvious. But now that he'd been called out on it, Sojiro found himself stubbornly rising to the bait. "Are you saying I'm not a good enough chef to do handmade?"

Munehisa smirked, shooting him a mocking glance. "I dunno. You gonna tell me you make your curries all from packets next?"

"Oh, that's it," Sojiro snapped, and finally lunged for the box.

But Munehisa had already snatched the chocolates away. He skidded back safely from the counter, grinning like a lunatic.

The next logical choice, of course, was for Sojiro to bolt around it and come after him.

Which turned out to be a critical mistake. Munehisa was in far better physical shape, and it was child's play for him to catch Sojiro with his left arm and pin him to his chest while holding the box safely out of the way with his right. Sojiro tried to grab the container anyway, but his entire torso was locked down in Munehisa's grip, held tight against the other man's body; he couldn’t get his right arm free, couldn't get any leverage to try and wrestle back, so all he could do was push hard against Munehisa and feel the man refuse to yield.

Try as he might, he couldn't unseat Munehisa's balance. He managed to force the man to stagger backwards into the counter -- knocking two of the chairs aside with a screech on the tiles -- but stopped there, lacking the strength to either advance or retreat.

"You're gonna spill your precious store-bought chocolate," Munehisa kept taunting, waggling the box at him between bouts of breathless laughter. "That how you treat real cooking?"

"You ungrateful bastard," Sojiro growled back, and tried to jab him in the ribs with an elbow.

They both winded themselves early, panting against the counter for support. Sojiro thought a few times about rallying back to the fight, but every time he started to tense his muscles, Munehisa tightened his arm warningly and held Sojiro in place.

They stood there, lungs heaving, pressed closely together until both of them could breathe normally again, and Munehisa let his arm fall away.

Finally attempting to regather his dignity, Sojiro stepped back, smoothing down his hair. "Well," he said grudgingly, "you can share it with Kaoru if it's not that good."

"You fucker," Munehisa enunciated slowly, letting the smile come back to his face. "Pour me some of that coffee. I'm gonna eat all of this right now."

Their conversations had moved on naturally after Akira's exoneration, focusing instead on the upcoming school year, and all the terrors that that involved. Shujin Academy had been both Futaba and Kaoru's choice, and though Akira had attended the school, Sojiro had left most of the details up to the kid's teachers to sort out. Futaba had been out of the system for years; he had no idea what to expect, or to prepare her for.

He and Munehisa focused completely on school preparation once Akira had departed, trying to cram a lifetime of parenting expertise into too-few weeks. There wasn't much time left in the spring break until the academic year started in April. Together, they researched uniform costs, club activities, and trip fees; Munehisa complained about the facilities, while Sojiro had deep suspicions about the integrity of the school's computer systems, particularly the ones that controlled the grades. Munehisa picked up a yearly train pass for Futaba as well when he bought Kaoru's, and Sojiro picked up some extra food for Kaoru's lunches. They both compared budgets and options, and started stacking up the lists of options for university scholarships, since that was the next impossible mountain coming faster and faster towards them.

It was good to have Munehisa's help, Sojiro admitted. It was good just seeing Munehisa; the twice-weekly visits gave him something to look forward to, and a new reason to experiment with curry recipes. He'd started getting a little light-headed and distracted in the afternoons, too; probably from trying to worry about the cafe while also constantly looking at the clock, smiling lopsidedly for no good reason. It wasn't like he got that many customers late in the evening, so he adjusted the hours both days. Munehisa said it wasn't a problem to come by a little earlier either, so Untouchable must have had the same kind of traffic.

Munehisa was comfortable to be around. Mostly. There were times lately that it felt like Sojiro's brain ran out of things to say, because it would just plain stop working. It was all he could do during those moments to drink his coffee and beam at the table like an idiot, while Munehisa’s voice rambled on, rough and easy nearby.

There was one time it happened when Munehisa wasn't even around: a Friday afternoon after the lunch rush, when the cafe was deserted and even the news stations had nothing better to do but repeat the weather. The sun was rich through the cafe windows, pooling across the booths like warm honey. Sojiro should have been wiping down the tables. Instead, he just kept sitting in one of the counter chairs, hands loose in his lap, letting the time slide by while he thought about last week's conversations and what he would cook on Sunday.

He kept trying to motivate himself to get up, but nothing succeeded. There wasn't any urgency to move. All Sojiro could do was sit there and smile as the afternoon stretched on, feeling like he was caught in a single, perfect moment forever.

Futaba and Kaoru's first day at Shujin left them both a bundle of nerves.

Futaba had refused to let Sojiro drive her -- she was taking the train to Shibuya to meet with Makoto, she could do it on her own, realllly, Sojiro -- and he'd had to relent at last. Munehisa closed the shop early at midmorning to come over to Leblanc; Kaoru hadn't been on hiatus from classes, but it was a new high school, and Munehisa had his own concerns.

Which translated into hunching gloomily at the counter, and chaining lollipops one by one, barely touching his coffee. "What if he gets bullied about his scar again?"

"He's the only one from his class going to Shujin, right?" Sojiro tried to remember if that would be good or bad. "I hear enrollment dropped because of that scandal with the sports teacher last year."

"Oh yeah, the child molester. I remember hearing 'bout that."

They both brooded in silence for a bit. Then, without any change in intonation, Munehisa remarked, "If another one turns up, I'm gonna shoot 'em."

Reasonably, Sojiro should protest, considering Munehisa's likely ability to carry out that threat, but what actually came out of his mouth was, "Good idea."

The morning customers were a partial distraction. Sojiro didn't mind them as much as he might have, since his phone was stationed by Munehisa, who was double-checking compulsively for text alerts every few seconds so that Sojiro didn't have to. Even so, he kept thinking of nightmare scenarios with Futaba needing space, or the other students not understanding and trying to pressure her, or Futaba getting surrounded by the crowd during assembly and having a panic attack.

"Look," Munehisa kept trying to reassure him. "It'll be fine. The kids'll text on their lunch break. Futaba's got your bento, and you even made one for Kaoru. We'll play some cards, you can tell me more about the long, long history of espresso, and they'll be out in no time."

But Munehisa was obsessing over it too. Sojiro could tell. Instead of working on the magazine reviews and bills he'd brought along with him, the man kept glaring at the doorway every time a particularly loud pedestrian passed, fidgeting visibly in his chair. His fingers tugged and retugged at his hair, straightening where the rim of his hat should have been.

"Stop that," Sojiro ordered as Munehisa unwrapped yet another lollipop and started to worry at it. "That stuff's bad for your teeth."

Munehisa blinked, startled, as Sojiro reached towards his face; he didn't flinch as Sojiro took hold of the stick and tugged insistently. But it wasn't until Sojiro finally shifted his hand to press the backs of his fingers firmly against Munehisa's mouth in an unspoken command that the man relented, opening his jaw and letting Sojiro pull the candy out.

Shaking his head, Sojiro wrapped the lollipop in a paper napkin and tossed it in the trash. "I'll make you a cup of Blue Mountain. It's some of the best beans I've got. That's what you should be having."

Munehisa was still staring at him, as if Sojiro had just spoken in fluent French, or whipped out a knife to clean his nails with. "Yeah," he answered, voice rough. He cleared his throat. "Yeah. Go ahead. Give it to me. Gimme whatever you want."

By the time summer rolled around, Munehisa finally gave up all attempts at hiding his history with the yakuza; it had been the worst-kept secret that Sojiro had ever seen. He'd already come to that conclusion a long time ago, and had gone through an entire repertoire of skeptical facial expressions whenever Munehisa had tried to be evasive. The bullet hole in the man's jacket didn't help, either.

They were out for beers at one of the corner bars in Roppongi when Munehisa had stopped talking around the subject and mentioned his former clan outright. Work had been the lead-in; he'd been focused all week on a batch of gun modifications, adjusting them to replicate the same noise level as an actual firearm. Good for real-life training, he'd said, but smirked when Sojiro commented on law enforcement standards.

But then, oddly, Munehisa had watched Sojiro expectantly afterwards, as if any disapproval might actually mean something -- as if Sojiro's opinion held any weight, or was something he wasn't eager to risk.

Sojiro simply lowered his glass, and leveled a frank stare at Munehisa. "Are you doing anything that would get Futaba hurt?"

To his credit, Munehisa didn't answer immediately. No one with any sense could make such promises without being aware of unexpected disasters; anything could come out of the woodwork when you had a history, whether it was yakuza or government. "No. I'm not takin' stupid risks. I follow the rules. These people'll always be my clan, but they ain't my entire life either." He started to tack something onto that, then paused, closing his mouth while he rolled the words around in his mind. "I... got somethin' different for that now."

"Then there's no problem." Sojiro considered the remainder of his beer and lack of concern in equal measure. Somehow he'd gone from being wary of even the slightest hint of trouble to allowing a retired thug to come into his cafe twice a week, and regularly go out for dinner. Akira's bad influence, maybe. After the Phantom Thieves, everyone else probably seemed harmless. "Anyway, you know I used to be government," he pointed out. "You're not holding it against me."

His fingers went on autopilot, pulling out the pack of cigarettes -- then he caught himself as soon as he took a drag and exhaled it out, glancing over at Munehisa through the cloud of smoke. "Shit," he apologized, stubbing the cigarette out in the ashtray even though it'd been barely touched. "Sorry."

"S'ok." Munehisa waved his hand, attempting lightheartedness, but his eyes were fixed on Sojiro's mouth. Then he wet his lips and laughed, wrenching his eyes away. "You go on and light up."

"I asked you to stop me, right?" Sojiro asked, but Munehisa was still acting strangely, tapping his fingers against his glass, looking everywhere but him. "Munehisa, are you feeling all right?"

The man was wound up. When he finally made eye contact, his tongue darted out against his lips again, a flicker of pink as he inhaled deeply through his mouth, watching Sojiro, then looking away. "Yeah, it's just -- I was thinkin' about cigarettes. How you can taste 'em on someone's mouth if they've been smokin'. How it tastes when you -- after I quit, I used to -- shit," he broke off, and stood up, fumbling in his pockets for cash. "Look, I gotta go. I've gotta walk this beer off."

"If you're drunk, I can drive you home," Sojiro offered, frowning, but Iwai dumped several wadded bills on the table, and waved at Munehisa dismissively.

"Not too drunk to take the train."

Late that night, Sojiro's phone finally hummed.

Sorry, the text read. My fault for drinking too much. Didn't mean to let it hit me that hard.

Sojiro exhaled. Don't worry about it. You get home ok?

Wasn't any trouble.

A few minutes went by as Sojiro stared at the screen, wondering what else to ask, and then Munehisa prompted him first. Listen. I've been taking up a lot of your time lately. I should give you more space. Gotta let you take care of Futaba, right?

Sojiro read the words twice before they made any sense. Tell me if something's bothering you, Munehisa, he sent back. We're both adults here.

Which was true. Except that Sojiro hated the reminder that adults were just overgrown kids a lot of the time, still messing around and making mistakes and not knowing how the hell to deal with people who were acting like something was wrong and refusing to talk about it. He was feeling it now too: queasy and unsettled and twenty years younger, and irritated by being that way. He was an adult. He shouldn't have to be staring at his phone past midnight, counting the minutes as he wondered if Munehisa had passed out or given up and gone to sleep.

It's for me too, Munehisa finally replied. I need to get my shit together and my head on straight.

Munehisa's breakdown was contagious, apparently, because his jitters crossed over to Sojiro without any definitive cause.

On Monday, Sojiro's phone chimed with a text from Munehisa cancelling their Thursday night in advance -- with an apology, citing something with Kaoru -- as well as the Sunday after that. After that, it went quiet: Thursday went by again with only a brief Sorry, tonight's crazy, my fault, and just another plain Sorry, as if Munehisa had started to type something longer, and had slaughtered the thought mid-sentence.

Left with nothing to go on, Sojiro found his own thoughts trying to fill up the space. He made extra food for Kaoru's lunch by accident, and ended up having to send it along with Futaba in case she had a school friend with an appetite. He checked his phone too much, half-wondering if Munehisa would text him some more questions about Shujin Academy or ask him questions about home-schooling or just the random comments that they'd grown used to bantering back and forth, tiny check-ins that seemed completely mundane until they'd stopped.

How're the customers? You use carrots in the curry today? Some guy came in looking for a semi-automatic slingshot, what the hell are they even teaching kids these days.

I got coffee from the place down the street, tasted like shit. Nothing like yours.

Yours tastes better than anyone else's, Soji.

The only leads were beer and cigarettes, neither of which had caused problems in the past. Specifically, the taste of cigarettes -- which Sojiro knew by heart, both on himself and on other people. They tasted awful, in his opinion, as did people's spit after smoking, but nicotine cravings were serious problems. Addiction wasn't anything to laugh at.

So he could imagine why Munehisa might have tried to get his fix any way he could in the past. His mind painted the picture easily: Munehisa leaning forward to kiss someone, fingers cradling their head to keep them steady while he licked the taste out of their mouths. Munehisa's mouth hungry and insistent, the taste of his tongue slightly cloying with the aftertaste of those damned lollipops. Munehisa with his scar-flecked hands fisted in someone else’s shirt, pulling at the fabric desperately --

Shit. Sojiro blinked, coming back to himself, his hand still poised with the rag above the booth table. He had no idea why he'd been thinking about -- vividly thinking about -- some guy kissing someone else. It must have been because he had touched Munehisa's mouth while getting the lollipop from him; the sensation must have lodged somewhere in his brain. Or when he had been pinned by Munehisa during that horseplay on White Day. Or Munehisa's arm resting against his whenever he helped with the washup, navigating around each other in the small kitchen space. Or that time Munehisa had wanted to show off one of the handgun models he’d been working on and had slid into the booth beside Sojiro, draping against him while he eagerly pointed out all the detail work.

Or any of it, all of it combined -- all the small ways their personal space had gradually eroded until only now, when Munehisa had stopped, was it obvious. Sojiro didn't even know if he'd been imagining Munehisa kissing some hot woman or not because he'd only been thinking about how Munehisa would have looked, how he would have sounded --

What the hell.

Sojiro threw the rag towards the bleach stack; it unfurled midway and fluttered rebelliously across the edge of the sink. There was no excuse for whatever midlife crisis he was undergoing now. None.

And then in the bathroom the next morning while he was shaving, he thought about Munehisa doing the exact same thing, shirt off and boxers loose. How Munehisa might be rinsing off the stray foam from his neck, hands wet, fingers slick. The lean lines of his body, even with age decaying the muscle, the low, needy groan as he slid one hand lower --

And then Sojiro splashed water on his own face to snap out of it, because now, he was fantasizing about another guy getting off. It wasn't like he was a prude -- Sojiro had seen too many things in his life to start judging what other people did in the bedroom -- but he liked to think he had pretty good self-awareness of his own desires, and men had never once come up on the radar before. He didn't even have the excuse of hormones at his age. He didn't have the excuse of a celibate sex life either, because he’d had occasional hookups now and then with his dates, agreed in advance to have no strings attached.

He tried thinking about other men at random, picking strangers off the television just in case there was even more about his sex drive that he'd been clueless about -- but Munehisa's face kept replacing theirs. Then he tried looking specifically for guys with Munehisa's build in case he had a type, and that just triggered Sojiro's imagination to get even more elaborate, as if his mind didn't care what capacity he was thinking of Munehisa in, so long as the man was present somehow.

Which meant that Sojiro spent far too much time imagining Munehisa's eyes closed, brow furrowed, intent and hungry. Munehisa with his hands spread wide, braced back against Leblanc's counter as he arched and gasped: his eyes closed, fingers clenched, losing control by increasing degrees until he shook apart underneath someone else's mouth. Or of Munehisa tangled in the sheets at night, inhaling sharply while a hand wrapped around his cock -- or Munehisa just being in bed, what his face might look like in the morning before he was fully awake, the lines of his expression unguarded. Blinking sleepily, reaching up to cup someone else's jaw in his palm, and murmuring, Hey there. G'morning, you.

Thankfully, Futaba seemed to have ignored his crisis of sanity. School had filled up her calendar enough that she didn’t have the same amount of computer time as she would have liked, and she’d been looking at ways to jury-rig her phone to fix the gaps.

Sojiro scowled through his empty calendar, not coming any closer to figuring out how to solve things.

He tried to search for 'men kissing' on his phone to see if it would break his fixation, but the autosuggest went crazy and started pointing him at all kinds of photography sites, and more than a few actual porn ones. He tried typing in some of the other options, and gave up when the security apps Futaba insisted on having him install started throwing warnings, and didn't try again.

After that, he thought he had managed to sneak completely past Futaba's radar, but she squinted at him over breakfast one morning. "Did you and Geko-hisa get into a fight because you're a crappy kisser, Sojiro?"


"He hasn’t been around, you two haven't been texting, and you're in a super grouchy mood." She ticked off the points and shrugged. "Also, your browser history."

Sojiro instinctively clutched his phone.

"It's okay! I like Iwai!" she continued, just as Sojiro was trying to figure out how to install parental controls on the entire internet. "He's really cool! I already investigated his history when we started buying guns from him -- "

"Started buying -- "

"And Geko-hisa's done some seriously crazy things in his past, but that just means he's leveled up to being a really awesome party member by now! He's like that OP long-range attacker you get right after clearing a major dungeon who comes pre-equipped with the best gear until the DLC, except you could have really used him right at the start with that one terrain map, but that would have trivialized the content. Sojiro, don't make that face at me."

Time prompted the issue for them both, because as the next Sunday evening crept closer and closer, Sojiro finally bit the bullet and asked the question first. You up for tonight?

It took several hours before he had a reply -- hours which could have been explained by anything from a stubborn customer to time with Kaoru, to Munehisa having blocked Sojiro entirely in an extreme effort for space. But, finally, as the afternoon started to wane, Munehisa replied. Yeah. My fault for being tied up. Curry like usual?

Sojiro tore through the grocer's in record time, juggling the dinner prep between evening customers. After the last one left, he immediately flipped Leblanc's sign to Closed just in case of stragglers, and surveyed the cafe.

The curry was bubbling -- one of his better recipes, the fresh ginger from the market was definitely key -- and the tables had been wiped down. Everything was clean. The napkins were rolled; the silverware was set out. The ashtrays were polished and shining.

The ashtrays.

At which point Sojiro promptly panicked, grabbed all the ashtrays off the tables, and flung them into the kitchen sink in a firestorm of metallic shrieks. The standing ashtray started to tip over when he tried to scoop it up; he shoved it between two of the kitchen shelves and mentally cringed at the sand that spilled out. His cigarette pack almost followed along, but he recovered at the last minute and stuffed it into the nearest cabinet, along with his lighter.

He heard the knock a few moments before the jingle of the bell. Even though the door was unlocked, Munehisa hadn't simply pushed his way through like normal; as he stepped inside, he slid his hands into his pockets, as wary as the first time he'd ever set foot in the cafe.

Sojiro kept one elbow on the counter like a shield, trying to miraculously turn the gesture into a casual lean. "Hey, good to see you," he said, wondering how badly he had flubbed the effort completely.

Munehisa didn't waste any time. "Sorry again," he announced immediately, pulling off his hat and coat. His ear protectors clicked as he gripped them by the band. He stood there for a moment with it all in his hands, as if unsure if he should put them back on immediately to leave. "I... had some stuff goin' on for the last couple weeks. Shouldn't have dropped off like that though. Nothing you did."

Sojiro waved it off with forced nonchalance. "Don't mention it. We were supposed to look at scholarships last time, right? Let me dig them out."

He was half-terrified that he wouldn't be able to keep it together -- that he would blurt something out, or try to drag an explanation out of the other man -- but Munehisa seemed just as hesitant to start a conversation. They both said little as Sojiro served the coffee. Munehisa immediately clutched his cup in both hands and drank while it was still hot, as if he could scald his voice completely away and never have to worry about answering questions again.

But the familiar pattern of spice and caffeine helped: halfway through the meal, Munehisa finally cleared his throat and spoke.

"S'good," he said appreciatively through a spoonful, reaching for his mug to wash it down. "Missed havin' this."

"I'll send some extra with you so you can have it for lunch this week," Sojiro found himself replying automatically, and found some of the tension seeping out of his bones when Munehisa grinned.

Something still seemed off about the evening, however, even as they resumed the tedious work of researching loans and grants. Halfway through brewing another pot, Sojiro realized the difference with a jolt -- Munehisa had left his lollipops at home. He hadn't reached for one all night. Like a truce, or a prolonged apology, Munehisa was doing his best to avoid the subject of smoking entirely, much as Sojiro had scrambled to hide the ashtrays, unwilling to jeopardize their relationship a second time.

The situation meant just as much to Munehisa, Sojiro realized. He’d never seen the man without a piece of candy before.

Munehisa also wanted to set things right.

Reassurance washed over Sojiro like a long soak in the bath, loosening knots in his shoulders that he hadn't even realized were tight. He relaxed into it gratefully, allowing his nerves to finally start slowing down. Nothing had changed. Things would be fine.

"I've been savin' for Kaoru's college since he was still a baby," Munehisa was saying, leaning back in the booth and eyeing the spread of papers with marked lack of enthusiasm. "Sure doesn't feel like much when you look at costs these days. Kaoru says I should put it all towards retirement instead. He doesn't get it -- I started the shop to take care of him, not the other way around."

"I've barely had any time to save up for Futaba," Sojiro admitted, equally daunted by the lines and lines of financial comparisons. "It makes more sense to get her the computer parts she wants now, when she can learn so fast with them. I don't want to stifle her."

Munehisa scratched the back of his head with his pen, scowling down at the numbers arranged in disheveled marching order on his notebook. "Here," he said, searching through the papers and shuffling one sheet out from the bottom stack. "These're some of the newer grants I found this week. Kaoru'll have to study more to qualify, but I bet Futaba could pass the tests, no problem."

Sojiro took the page and flipped it around, scanning down the qualification criteria. "Futaba keeps saying that she doesn't need to go to university," he remarked, mentally ticking off each line. "She claims she'll just write a few software programs that will make her independently wealthy, and then build herself a tower to live in."

"Sounds like Kaoru. He keeps sayin' he only needs to learn business management so he can take over the store. But the store’s a pain in the ass, I don't even wanna run it." Munehisa dropped his pen with a clatter, holding up his hands in surrender. "But what else can I do, right? Not like I'm gonna be sittin' in an office somewhere. What about you? Leblanc temporary, or you lookin' to have someone take it over someday?"

"Oh, Futaba says she has a plan for that too." Pleased by the total he'd come up with, Sojiro folded a corner of the paper and set it aside in the pile to keep. "She's going to make Akira come back and be a permanent barista, and if he's already got other goals, she'll sabotage them online. I mostly think she’s kidding."

Munehisa's chuckle was sympathetic. He reached for the French press and refilled his cup, carefully winding it around the table so as not to spill on the paperwork. "Be nice to have the kid here full-time."

"That's assuming he didn't have ideas of his own for his life." Automatically, Sojiro checked the level in the press, and then the color of Munehisa’s brew. Darker than the man usually liked at this hour; he'd want it tempered. "Here, let me get you some cream."

"Sit down, I can do it myself." Munehisa was already getting to his feet. "You've been standin' all day, right? I know where the fridge is. You go ahead and rest."

It sounded like a good idea. Sojiro's feet were sore, even though business had been slow. Relenting to the suggestion, he relaxed against his seat and flicked through a few university profiles, completely unworried -- until he realized that Munehisa's path would take the man directly past the sink.

Groaning inwardly, he rubbed his face while the noises from the kitchen echoed quietly through the cafe.

Munehisa, however, took pity on him, and didn't make a comment as he returned with a small pitcher of cream, adding a liberal dollop to his cup. "I should prolly get goin' after this," he said reluctantly, swishing the liquid around without making any hurry to finish it off. "Gotta see what Kaoru thinks about the testing schedule for these."

A dismayed grunt escaped from Sojiro's throat before he could cut it short. "Do you still want to come by this Thursday?"

At first, Munehisa frowned. He started to shake his head -- sending an unexpected clench through Sojiro's stomach -- and then wavered, visibly fighting against his own judgement. Bit by bit, his expression softened, sliding through a grimace and then finally a helpless half-smile. This time, when he shook his head again, it was accompanied with a dry laugh for even trying to resist. "Yeah. Yeah, I do. If you're up for it."

"I am."

Afterwards -- the coffee running low, and the clock running late -- Sojiro walked Munehisa to the door to let him out. The summer air was warm, trickling past them both as Munehisa lingered, his hand propping the door open. Cafe lights outlined him against the soft dusk of the night. Insects darted against the bulbs, beating their wings in tiny arcs, like moths masquerading as city fireflies.

The corner of Munehisa's mouth had turned up. He said nothing, but only stood there in the evening hush, watching Sojiro quietly.

With a blink, Sojiro realized he was doing the same thing back.

"Thanks," he said eventually, not moving to close the door.

Munehisa was equally immobile. "Sure."

They were both saved from further embarrassment by the singing of Munehisa's phone; the man grimaced, fishing it out of his jacket pocket. "Hey, Kaoru? Yeah -- yeah, I was just leavin'. No, I'm not gonna miss the last train again." He gestured to Sojiro silently, mouthed a goodbye, and Sojiro shook his head ruefully as he locked up the cafe at last.

Things settled down after that. Munehisa didn't skip again; Sojiro scheduled his own errands carefully around the days they had reserved together, and permanently adjusted the cafe hours to give them more breathing room in the evenings. He'd been ignoring all his dating anyway to make time for Munehisa, and hadn't minded at all. It had been rewarding to relax with someone who fit so easily into his life, who was happy to complain about the news with him and trade rotten customer stories, or argue about old movies while they wandered down the narrow streets, summer evenings wrapping warm around them.

His runaway libido calmed down too, now that he wasn't having to replay conversations to figure out what might have happened. Or rather, it calmed down, but didn't stop; Sojiro still got derailed at unpredictable intervals, usually when he caught himself watching Munehisa over dinner. Sometimes Munehisa would stretch and spread his arms along the back of the booth seat, and Sojiro would discover that his mouth had gone completely dry. Sometimes it was just in the way that Munehisa would laugh. And there was one time where Munehisa had made an off-handed remark about calling him Boss, his voice gone low and gravely, and Sojiro had been extraordinarily glad for having an apron on because that had somehow gone straight to his dick in ways he didn't even understand yet.

It especially didn't help that Futaba had started trying to text him what she thought were helpful internet links. Otherwise, things were back to being the same.

Except they weren't. It took a while for Sojiro to notice, but Munehisa was too careful whenever he visited. He didn't make any sudden movements whenever he was in Sojiro's physical space, holding his elbows close to his sides as if afraid he might accidentally brush up against Sojiro's body. All the casual contact they'd fallen into had stopped completely. Munehisa didn't suggest bars anymore, and when they did have dinners out, he always stopped drinking after half a beer. Instead, he watched Sojiro cautiously, as if afraid he would say or do the wrong thing even while sober, but unable to stop himself from looking anyway.

In dozens of ways, Munehisa was giving Sojiro plenty of room, treating the situation as if it was something he could break with a touch -- and Sojiro knew what that behavior meant.

He knew, because he'd been the one doing it with Wakaba years ago.

Every day had been good around Wakaba. Every time Sojiro saw her, he'd felt like things were right in the world -- as if, no matter what happened, they'd figure it out together. Marriage had never been expected; Sojiro had known better than to think formal documentation could create a relationship all on its own. What mattered was that the other person was there in your life, and making everything better for it.

He'd be lying to himself if he thought he hadn't been feeling that way with Munehisa, too.

Their evenings had stretched longer and longer throughout the months, spilling over onto their phones during the week. They had talked about local business organizations and school plans, had thrown up their hands together in shared frustrations about bureaucratic red tape. They had both worried over ramifications of adoption statuses on the family registry. There was still an entire roadmap behind Munehisa's hands that Sojiro hadn't heard yet: stories behind each tiny scar, the finger that hadn't healed right, the marks that must be elsewhere on the man's body.

Munehisa had even been his reminder to finally stop smoking as much. Sojiro had managed to get down to only a pack a week, and then one a day, and then even start to skip a day or two if Munehisa was around in the evening to help take his mind off things. Sojiro’s recipes had started to branch out as well -- Kaoru had the appetite of a healthy teenager, but not the nutrition for one. One time, Kaoru had had a late night scheduled for cram school, and Munehisa had extra work at his shop as well, so Sojiro had packed up dinner for them both and dropped it off at Untouchable that morning. Munehisa's face had lit up like the sun at the sight of those two bento boxes.

Each of those encounters seemed so minor on their own. But when Sojiro tried to tally them up, all he could do was find more and more of them already embedded into every part of his day, like roots coming out of the earth: threaded through so deep that you could pull handfuls and handfuls out, and still never find their source.

All the things he did with Munehisa now were things he could see himself comfortably doing for the rest of his life.

The day that Sojiro realized that, he stayed at Leblanc late after closing. The television was off; he didn't need the distraction. Instead, he set his coffee on the bar, and put the cigarette pack to his left, watching them both as if they might miraculously give him an answer.

After Wakaba had died, Sojiro had spent the last few years shoving everyone else away. He'd been a coward with Futaba, a coward with Akira -- a coward with every single person he might have had the slightest connection with, keeping them at an arm's length with Leblanc as a shield. He'd specialized in choosing a certain kind of person to date: women who weren't looking for anything serious either, and never continued past a month. None of them were like Wakaba -- daring, defiant of expectations -- but that had been on purpose. It was a reliable cycle of dinner, a movie, some flowers. Light conversation about personal interests, or maybe current events. Limited conversation about Futaba, if she was even brought up to begin with.

They'd all been shallow relationships. Sojiro hadn't let himself get anywhere near someone who might have risked more. He'd been happy to cut things short, to promise to keep in touch and never follow through. He'd forgotten names without any regret. Losing Wakaba had been agony; he'd never wanted to go through that a second time. Keeping his guard up meant he wouldn't have to. He'd put his walls up everywhere he thought mattered.

But here he’d been so confident that he knew his own tastes completely, so experienced with his own desires that he'd be able to see anyone coming from miles away and prevent them from getting closer -- and meanwhile, Munehisa had slid right in on his blind side, fitting into all the places in Sojiro's life where he'd needed company, and Sojiro didn’t even know what the hell to do anymore except act like a kid again, starting over from ground zero.

Stepping back in the game seriously meant not screwing up. And it was bad enough that Sojiro had lost his opportunity with Wakaba; he didn’t even know for certain that Munehisa was even attracted to him like that. All Sojiro had to go on were guesses, possible projections of Sojiro's own libido onto Munehisa's actions, as well as clumsy interpretations of himself. For all he knew, it might not even be sexual desire on either side; nothing was outside the realm of possibility. Cats talking, for instance. He still wasn't certain he should believe that one.

He thought about searching for, 'how old to become bisexual' on his phone before he remembered Futaba, and also how infinitely stupid that question was.

"What would you have done, Wakaba?" he asked, setting down his phone with a click on the counter. "What would you have done for the old me?"

He sent the text that week, knowing how much it sounded like a red flag. Let me know if you can stop by the cafe on Saturday after close. I want to ask you about something.

Neutral enough, a warning without being an outright demand to talk. Still too dramatic for Sojiro's liking. He was still scowling at his phone when the reply came in.

I'll be there.

He couldn't help his nervousness; he smoked two cigarettes back-to-back that afternoon before he could stop himself, burning through them fast. It was a bad idea -- after weaning himself down, now the nicotine felt like it tipped his nerves the wrong way, wound up and smoothed over at the same time. When he started to instinctively reach for a third, he forced himself to take the entire pack and shove it in one of the cabinets, and then stared at the clock on his phone, wondering if it was too late to take the invitation back. To take everything back. To take everything away.

The bell jerked him out of it.

"Hey." Munehisa's voice at the door: still soft, still careful. He lingered there, wary, like a predator sensing an even greater danger on the horizon in the form of stormclouds or a mountain's rumble. "Everythin' all right?"

"Yeah," Sojiro said, waving Munehisa in -- and pulled out the rest of the whisky from the kitchen, coming around to set it on the table besides the two glasses he had already laid out. "Come in and lock the door."

Munehisa watched him lay out the whisky with the same enthusiasm as a man memorizing a map full of landmines. There was plenty of ice in both glasses to temper the alcohol's bite; Sojiro wasn't naive enough to think that getting inebriated would help either of them produce a serious conversation. Being flat-out wasted didn't make you speak honestly -- it just made you drunk, and passing out wouldn't solve anything.

But Sojiro's nerves were shaky, and being a little buzzed would make him rethink physically fleeing the room, at least. That, and if either of them needed an excuse to bow out, they had it; he still wasn’t sure he could do this. Any of it.

Courage was looking more and more like a fool's choice.

As expected, Munehisa cleared his throat, his eyes lingering over the bottle. "I should prolly skip the booze -- "

"It's for me too,” Sojiro said, and meant it, Munehisa's own words echoing in his throat.

Munehisa swore softly under his breath. Then he closed his eyes for a long moment, and flipped the top lock on the door behind him. He crossed the distance in a few quick steps, hesitating before pulling off his coat, and then slung it on his side of the booth.

Sojiro waited until the man had settled himself before he took the seat across from him. The first taste of whisky stung; he resisted the urge to finish the whole draught. "All right, Munehisa," he began, amazed at the calmness of his own voice. "What's been wrong lately? I could be mistaken, but somehow, I don't think that's the case. We both know something's happened. And I can't figure out it out for sure, which means if I messed up, I need some help in understanding it. I can't fix things otherwise.”

Munehisa didn't answer at first, fixating on his own glass. He took a tentative sip, barely touching the rim to his lips, and then another one, deeper. Finally, he pulled in a strained breath, and answered.

"Look. You're a pretty stand-up guy, Sojiro. You take good care of Futaba. Akira too, when he was here. Plus all those kids -- and we both know how much they needed it." Munehisa paused again, and then downed the rest of the first round hard, refusing to look at Sojiro. Ice clattered in his glass as he set it down; it had had barely any time to melt. "You left your job for your kid, came out here and started your life over all for her. That ain't easy. Your taste in movies is shitty," he continued, unable to resist the routine jab, "but otherwise, you're pretty fuckin' amazing. You got a good head on your shoulders and don't let people give you any shit. Life's done just about everythin' it can to you, and you're still not a complete asshole."

"Complete," Sojiro scoffed, resorting to humor like a shield, but Munehisa plowed through the deflection.

"You're a good person, Sojiro," he repeated slowly, one of his hands curling into a tight fist on the table. "I don't wanna fuck this up. And I know I'm about one centimeter from doin' exactly that, and it's gonna happen unless I keep an eye out. So, please. Just let me do that.

The entire conversation was already agony. Sojiro scoured his thoughts for a lifeline, but everything either felt numb or excruciating. "I don't want to ruin things either, Mune."

"Shit, Soji." Now Munehisa had stopped looking at him entirely; he refilled his own glass and downed half of it again without pausing. "Then let's not talk about it."

Sojiro could hear the offer clearly. Sweep everything under the rug. Keep it at arm's length. Pretend it never happened, and keep running away from whatever it was they were both going through -- run away forever, as long as it took, until it became no longer an issue. Permanently.

Did you ever feel like this, Wakaba? he wondered.

"Munehisa, I'm going to say this outright, because we're both too old to dance around it." The words were harsher than he liked; he tried to gentle them, but didn't know how. "Are you interested in me?"

For a second, he thought Munehisa was going to get up and walk out; the other man shifted his weight, glancing towards the exit as if hoping a bus would plow through the neighborhood and take him with it. "This shit doesn't get any easier when you're older, does it."

"I don't think it gets any easier even at ninety." Step-by-step, Sojiro forced himself to keep breathing, keep talking, even with all the temptation to stop. "But people in general aren't easy. If they were, we both wouldn't have our kids, because they'd have had good homes long before us. You and I know that quality people are rare. And when we get them in our lives, they're worth keeping."

With that, Sojiro paused, and then forged ahead; every word felt like an heated iron rod coming out of his mouth, burning his throat. "Look, Mune. It doesn't bother me if the answer's yes. I want you to know that. Everything good you just said about me -- hell, I should be saying it about you. I wouldn't be having this conversation right now if I didn't want to -- "

His voice faltered, failed around trying to find the verb that would come next. Didn't want to. Didn't want to -- do everything, everything that he'd been thinking about over the past few months, and even in the time before that. Didn't want to keep talking to Munehisa in ways he’d never talk to anyone else. Didn't want to watch Munehisa’s lazy smirks, Munehisa sticking his boots up on all the chairs while Sojiro yelled at him about dirt. Didn't want to see what Munehisa would look like on weekends and early mornings while still half-asleep, or to spend the rest of his life hearing the man's dry commentary on every part of the day.

Because he did.

"Shit," Munehisa said again finally, breaking the silence with a rueful laugh. He rubbed the back of his neck, his fingers sliding over the tattoo. "I didn't know how much that meant 'til you said it."

Breathing seemed like an afterthought now; Sojiro was dimly surprised that he was even still alive. The words had lodged into his chest, working against the tight knot of concrete that had replaced his heart.

"That's fine," he said quietly. "Neither did I."

Munehisa's other hand was still resting on the table. Touching it seemed too sudden -- as if the gesture would fracture the moment and send them both walking away -- so Sojiro compromised by reaching out and covering Munehisa's glass with his palm, an unspoken gesture to cut off the alcohol. Everything was out in the open now. There wasn't any excuse to escape.

After a moment, Munehisa shifted his hand. He tilted his wrist, wrapped his grip loosely around the glass. Their hands were almost touching -- were touching, Sojiro's fingertips to the web of Munehisa's thumb, Munehisa's knuckles close to Sojiro's littlest finger. Every point of contact between them felt hot enough to sear, burning new scars to add to Munehisa's own.

Then Munehisa carefully lifted his thumb, and let the rough pad of it move in a slow whisper across the backs of Sojiro's fingers, rolling like a wave hesitant to disturb even the smallest grain of sand.

Sojiro was unable to look up from the table after Munehisa finished; his skin felt branded and aching, hypersensitive to every current of air. None of their casual contact had ever been like this. Now that Sojiro was aware of it, he could see the promise waiting there, so immense that if he reached just once for it, he would never be able to keep things at an arm's length ever again.

He didn't know how he could endure it if Munehisa touched him a second time. He didn't know how he could endure it if Munehisa didn't.

His hand shifted of its own accord when Munehisa leaned back, pulling his fingers away; with the proximity broken, Sojiro could start to think again. The other man seemed equally shaken, taking long breaths as he tried to find his voice to speak, and then only managing to exhale slowly, a thousand words lost in hesitation.

Finally, Munehisa looked up, finding Sojiro's gaze and holding it without flinching.

"Maybe I'm a coward, but I don't know all the right steps for somethin' like this either," he admitted. "And it ain't nobody's business but ours. The one thing I do know is that I want this. Whatever you're good with -- I want it, all of it." He wet his lips nervously, and then nodded sharply. "So... let's figure this out as we go along. You okay with that?"

Sojiro didn't let himself waver. "Yes."

The effects were instant: Munehisa closed his eyes in relief. For the first time since coming in that night, a smile started to creep over the man's face, softening the tension that remained.

"It's a deal, then," he said, glancing down at the half-finished glasses on the table. He slid out of the booth, his jeans squeaking along the plastic. "Lemme grab us some water, before we get any bright ideas about our livers."

Sojiro was too slow to catch Munehisa's hand -- too slow or too stunned, he wasn't sure. But his voice did the trick: "Wait."

Avoiding public affection was a habit that society had drilled into Sojiro since childhood -- but, hell, it was nighttime, it was almost past last train, and no pedestrians would be on the street looking into the windows of Leblanc. It was, like Munehisa said, no one's damned business but their own.

He stood up as well, scavenging the dregs of his courage, and stepped forward enough to grab a handful of Munehisa's shirt and pull him closer. Despite everything they’d said, he was still half-afraid that the other man would yank himself away -- but Munehisa relaxed as Sojiro leaned in, and his mouth was waiting, there and ready for the taking.

It was rougher than anyone else Sojiro had ever kissed before. Munehisa's lips were thinner, harder, and the stubble scraped his skin. The unfamiliarity sparked a fresh wave of panic, starting small but growing rapidly as Sojiro wondered if his beard would be a problem for Munehisa, or if Munehisa's stubble would be for him, or if they'd both somehow snap out of it and realize that they weren't compatible after all, that this couldn't possibly work before it had even begun.

Then Munehisa took the lead, his hand coming up behind Sojiro's head and pressing him closer, hungrily, and all of Sojiro's fears completely shorted out and died because it was so unbelievably simple that he didn't know why he’d ever worried about it at all. This was Munehisa's need for him, Munehisa's desire, raw and desperate and real. It had been packaged in every touch, every laugh, every smirk he had ever shared. All the jokes, the late nights -- every time Munehisa had missed the last train and had had to catch a ride home while complaining in Sojiro's car. Everything.

In all of these ways, Munehisa had been saying Sojiro's name over and over, and Sojiro had been saying his back.

They stopped for breath at last, Munehisa's fingers still cradling the back of Sojiro's neck. At first Sojiro wondered if he had really been as bad as Futaba had implied -- but then Munehisa made a soft grunt, pulling Sojiro possessively against him with his other arm, and showing no signs of letting go.

"You taste like cigarettes, jackass," he said, laughing, closing his eyes as he rested his forehead lightly against Sojiro’s temple.

Sojiro chuckled, and tipped his head forward, leaning into Munehisa's weight. "You taste like candy."