It all started with the weird coffee maker that Hikaru's grandfather tried to give him at the beginning of his freshman year at university.
"It's called a moka pot," he had explained, handing over the clunky metal contraption. "All the other kids in your dorm are going to envy you for being able to make REAL coffee in your room. I used this same one back when I was in grad school and it got me through countless papers and a thesis. It's an antique, but it still works great."
The stout steel pot was shaped like an hourglass with flat hexagon sides and covered in scratches and dinged edges. Hikaru flipped it in his hands, looking for the power switch or an electric cord. "Umm... thanks Gramps, but I don't really drink coffee. I don't even know how this thing is supposed to work."
"You're starting college. You are definitely going to need coffee and this is better than wasting your money on the swill they serve at Starbucks. I'll teach you how to use it later!"
"Shindou-san, I think your phone's ringing!" A slim brunette girl with bright eyes bounded up the attic steps holding a cell phone. Her shiny blue nails perfectly matched the blue symbols on her shirt and skirt.
"Oh, thank you for bringing it to me, Akari. I'll take this downstairs."
Hikaru's grandfather left the attic and Akari crept over to Hikaru, who had just opened the pot lid and was gagging at what he saw.
"What is that? ... Is that for drugs, Hikaru?"
"Um, no, it's some kind of coffee maker that Gramps gave me. I know he's crazy about coffee, but this must be really old. There's all this brown stuff still stuck inside." Hikaru turned to her. "Wait, what are you wearing? Are you seriously going to become a cheerleader?"
"Yep, I can't wait!"
"That is so lame, Akari. Who does cheerleading in college?"
"Ugh, whatever Hikaru. You can't really criticize me when you've been bleaching your bangs the same way since middle school." Akari leaned over him and peered in. "What brown stuff? I don't see anything."
"Are you blind?? Here, look." Hikaru stuck a finger inside and tried to scrape out some of the crust. A burst of light and wind shot out from the pot, knocking him back. The smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the small attic. Hikaru shrieked.
"What's wrong?" Akari looked at him curiously. Hikaru frantically pointed at the ceiling.
A tall elegant man, no a gentleman, hovered over Hikaru's head looking delighted with himself. He was wearing a white waistcoat and breeches with violet embroidery and tall black boots. Hikaru gaped and remembered the paintings he had seen in museums of guys with white wigs. Hikaru couldn't tell his age, but his face was pretty enough to pass for a woman... was he wearing makeup?
The gentleman finished admiring his limbs and touched his black ponytail thoughtfully. In a soft puff of mist, it was replaced with a powdered wig.
I always wanted one of these. He chuckled. Hikaru screamed again.
"Okay, now you're freaking me out," Akari stood up and backed away. "This isn't funny!"
"You don't see anything? European dude in a wig floating in the air?? Right there!"
Akari paused and stared at him for several long moments. "... I'm going home, Hikaru. If you're taking stuff you shouldn't be, I don't want to know and also you should probably stop." She quickly disappeared down the steps.
Buongiorno! You can see me, can't you? I'm so glad to return to the world of the living! The ghost clapped his hands and twirled in the air. Hikaru stifled another scream and watched as the white figure slowly blurred into grey. He thought fainting from shock was something that only happened in movies, even as he felt himself crumple onto the floor.
Do not worry, I believe I am visible only to you. I exist in your consciousness.
Hikaru tightened his fingers around his mug and tried to look out the window casually, as if there wasn't a voice echoing inside his head and occasionally appearing as a cheerfully-costumed man who was currently floating behind the counter of the coffee shop and sniffing the machines with delight. His body passed through the busy baristas, who seemed oblivious except for a shiver now and then.
"Worry? Why would I worry, I'm just going crazy and seeing a ghost straight from a European period drama, that's all. I don't even watch period dramas. I don't know how my brain conjured you up."
The ghost floated back to him and smiled. At least he seemed like a nice ghost. Without thinking, Hikaru smiled back. The girl behind him frowned and buried her face behind her book. Hikaru quickly turned to the window again.
He had said his name was Sapiente Francesconi ("I can't pronounce all that. I'm just going to call you... Sai," Hikaru had flatly declared) and he lived in Venice, Italy in the 18th century. He had been a barista at a famous Venetian café and had become a ghost because he was apparently still really obsessed with coffee. Hikaru had trouble understanding this last part, but it wasn't as if anything else about this made more sense.
Caffè Florian and the quality of our coffee was renowned for drawing together the most brilliant literary and philosophical minds of my time. Lord Byron, Goethe, Rousseau, Gozzi, the Enlightenment satirist Giuseppe Parini, the writer and poet Ugo Foscolo and the poets and patriots Silvio Pellico and Giovanni Berchet all drank my brews as they discussed and shaped the future of human culture and civilization. In truth, I am surprised that I have not reincarnated back in Italy instead. There must be a good reason why you were chosen. Il tempo ce lo dirà..."
Sai sighed as he looked at Hikaru. Hikaru suddenly felt very inadequate.
My spirit could not rest before perfecting my skills. Imagine the revolution I could have helped to create had I mastered my craft!
"Yeah... this is really interesting and all, but I don't understand what it has to do with me. I don't know any of those people and I don't even like coffee."
Oh, Hikaru! Hikaru felt his stomach lurch as the contents of his cup churned inside him in response to Sai's anguish. But you promised!
"I know, so stop doing that!"
I’m sorry, it’s not intentional!
After the fainting incident at his grandfather's house, Hikaru had a few weeks to get acquainted with his new friend. Classes had started and it wasn't exactly easy trying to meet new people while pretending he didn't hear voices in his head, but Sai did come in handy during the intro literature and history courses.
Meanwhile, Hikaru needed a part-time job and Sai was desperate to be around coffee, so it made sense to look for work at a coffee shop. Sai had made him sample the coffee from all the cafés in a ten block radius around the school and begged him to apply to this one. They all tasted the same to Hikaru.
This place was really something though. Hikaru could tell why Sai liked it. Somehow, Sai didn't seem out of place here. Japanese coffee shops tended to look the same: brisk, clean, friendly, and a bit utilitarian. Café Meijin had elegant wood-paneled walls with giant watercolor paintings and thick padded armchairs by the windows. There was a comfortable murmur of conversation and sense of time standing still. Hikaru slumped down and tried to let the easy warmth of his armchair and the coffee soothe his frayed nerves.
A young man with long, dark hair pulled into a neat ponytail came over to Hikaru, carrying a clipboard. He was wearing a bright purple argyle sweater vest and Hikaru couldn't tell if he was being ironic or just genuinely had terrible fashion sense. "Hello, I'm Touya Akira. It’s nice to meet you."
Hikaru hastily sat up and beamed. "Hey, you were in my orientation group! So you're a freshman too!"
"Yes, I am," Touya said with a smile.
"I guess you're here to apply for a job too. This place is pretty popular, huh?" Hikaru gestured to the packed tables and long line at the counter.
"Well actually, I work here. Sometimes it's not this busy," Touya chuckled. "I'll be interviewing you today. I'll ask you some questions first and then we’ll do a hands-on test. How does that sound?”
"Oh... sure," Hikaru said sheepishly.
Touya took a seat across from Hikaru and clicked his pen. "So, can you tell me about your previous barista experience and your brewing strengths and weaknesses?"
Hikaru looked down at his hands and over to Sai, who was eagerly sitting cross-legged on top of the table next to them.
"I haven't practiced a lot yet, but I’m probably pretty good at it."
"You’re probably good, but you haven’t practiced?”
Hikaru glanced at Sai again. “Yeah, I think I really understand the spirit of coffee.”
“Okay then… well, we prefer skilled baristas, but we're willing to train sometimes too. Can you tell me why you would like to work at Café Meijin?" Touya sat back with an indulgent and expectant smile.
Hikaru wasn't sure what he wanted to hear.
"... It's the coffee shop closest to my dorm?" Touya and Sai winced simultaneously. Evidently that wasn't the right answer.
Touya clicked the pen shut and decisively laid it on the clipboard. "It's clear you aren't quite familiar with our establishment and frankly, I'm a bit surprised. Café Meijin received two stars in the Tokyo Michelin Guide and we won Roaster of the Year from Asahi Shimbun last year. Have you even seen our online reviews??"
Hikaru admitted that he had not. He was also starting to feel queasy, probably because Sai was softly banging his head against the wall next to him.
He didn't do much better on the rest of the questions. Finally, they went behind the counter.
"I'm going to prepare an espresso for you and ask you to describe it to me. Afterward, I'll watch you prepare a drink. That will be the end of the interview."
Hikaru watched as Touya deftly heated a small cup, wiped out a small basket attachment from the espresso machine, and began grinding the beans. His hands moved like a magician's with smooth precision and confidence over the various levers until a steady stream of chocolaty liquid eased into the cup. Hikaru couldn't help but admire his skill while noticing the complete change in Touya's demeanor. His eyes darkened with focus and any hint of a smile was gone, but when the timer sounded, it flickered back on. Hikaru's heart was thumping erratically, probably from all the coffee he had been drinking for Sai.
"Here you are."
"Wow, you seem really good at this! I thought you were new here too!" Hikaru blurted. Touya blushed.
"Of course he's good at it. He's the Meijin's son," said a tall man in a white suit who had suddenly appeared behind Touya. Hikaru blanched under the gaze of his clear blue eyes.
"Meijin is a real person? I thought it was just the store's name."
"Meijin is what they call my father. He owns this shop. And this is Ogata-san, one of our store managers."
Ogata sniggered. "He doesn't even know who your father is? He's the Barista Champion of Japan! Why is he even interviewing here?" Touya gave him a look.
"Shindou, try this and tell me what you think." Touya handed him the small cup.
He took a cautious sip. It was better than what he had tasted in the past, but he couldn't tell why.
Very impressive! Sai remarked. Especially for his age.
"What should I tell them, Sai?"
Sai happily volunteered his thoughts at length and with enthusiastic hand gestures, but Hikaru could only catch fragments of unfamiliar words. Meanwhile, Touya and Ogata were starting to give him the now familiar side-eye as he waited for his invisible friend to finish talking. He needed to say something quickly before they started thinking there was something wrong with him.
"The, um, crema is really nice. It's the right color, apparently. This is actually the best coffee I've ever had so far. It tastes really strong, but not bitter."
I said so much more than that, Hikaru! Tell them what I said!
Hikaru glared at Sai and faked a cough to cover it. Then, in a fit of inspiration, he grabbed a bowl of sugar nearby.
"Actually, if it were me, this is how I would improve it." Hikaru smirked at his own ingenuity as he ladled a big spoonful into the small cup and stirred it in. "I would probably use a bigger cup too so I could add some milk. And maybe some hot chocolate powder. Ahhh, now that's a lot better!"
He didn't notice the looks of horror on Touya, Ogata, Sai, and even some nearby patrons' faces until he put the cup back down.
"Hot chocolate....powder..." Touya wheezed, looking like he might need a shock blanket.
HIKARU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! APOLOGIZE RIGHT NOW!
"Geez, I'm sorry! Did I say something wrong?" Hikaru attempted a small laugh. "Well, it's just coffee right? Something to wake you up in the morning?"
Touya had that dark intense gleam in his eyes again, but this time he seemed like he would throttle Hikaru across the counter if there wasn't a burr grinder in the way.
"No, it is not just coffee. Feel my hands." Touya grabbed Hikaru and forced him to trace the pattern of calluses under his joints. Hikaru was weirded out by how surprisingly not weird that was. "I've been training with my father since before I was tall enough to reach the machines without a step stool! Properly brewing coffee requires a painstaking balance between science and artistry. And one day, I will surpass even my father and become the World Barista Champion."
Sai was floating in frantic circles around the coffee shop, causing a ripple effect of shivers through the patrons. He draped himself dramatically across the espresso machine and started wailing pitifully.
Che pasticcio! I wished so deeply to be here! It reminds me so much of Caffè Florian! Hikaru, why are you ruining everythingggggggg?
Hikaru felt the bile rising in his throat. In a moment, he would be puking right in the center of this packed coffee shop. He had to think fast.
"Hey, you said I had to make you a drink too, right? I can make you something amazing, I swear! I actually love coffee!" Hikaru stammered. Sai raised his head and looked at Hikaru in relief.
Yes! Yes, I'll help you make a drink that will surely impress them and redeem you!
Touya twitched. Ogata's sneer curled even further and he laughed.
"You know what, kid? Sure. Let's see what other great ideas you have."
"He's such a snake, Sai, with creepy snake eyes," Hikaru hissed mentally. "I don't think I really want to work here."
Please just try. You promised. Hikaruuuuuuuuuu.
"OKAY, OKAY STOP WHINING! And tell me what to do."
Just relax. I'm going to possess your body.
"WHAT!?!" Hikaru yelped aloud, startling several patrons. This elicited side-eyed glances from Touya and Ogata yet again. "Sorry, there was a mosquito by my ear."
I’m kidding! But follow my instructions EXACTLY. Pick up a demitasse, the small cup.
Thus began a very strange game of Simon Says, or rather Sai Says. Hikaru walked over to the looming, almost pristinely maintained manual espresso press in the corner, causing Touya to raise an eyebrow. He squinted and groped at the machine until he pulled the lever to heat the cup briefly. He felt like he was having an out-of-body experience while watching his hands stumble mechanically through Sai's instructions.
Wrong button! The other one!
You must grind the beans finer than usual.... yes, stop there!...
Good, tamp just a bit more. Now look carefully to check that it is as level as possible...
Here is the crucial part. The speed at which you pull the hand press must be faster than usual. On my count... start!... now, stop! Stop! E voilà! Bravo, Hikaru!
Finally, Hikaru handed Touya the tiny cup filled with an even tinier bit of espresso and let out a relieved breath. All that work for just a tiny bit of espresso?!?
Touya took the cup, started to raise it to his lips, then stopped and put it back down. His face was lowered and his shoulders were trembling.
"What's wrong? Why aren't you drinking it?"
"I know what it's going to taste like!" Touya spat out. "You’ve obviously never touched an espresso machine in your life before today. You insulted my drink and you have ridiculous hair. There is nothing you can prove to me."
Hikaru was incensed. Now he felt insulted, even though it was true that he'd never used an espresso machine before. "You’re one to talk about ridiculous hair! And even my grandpa wouldn't wear that sweater. I didn't even want to work for you guys anyway! I'll take my skills elsewhere and make even better coffee than you, Touya!"
Touya scoffed. "Now you want to be my rival? You'd never catch up to me. I feel more threatened by a jar of decaf Folgers."
Hikaru grabbed his backpack and stormed out of the shop. He strode angrily down several city blocks, not caring where he was going.
What now, Hikaru?
He finally stopped in front of a small coffee shop and read the sign: Honinbrew.
"Now it's time to get a job. And this time, I promise you they'll try your coffee."