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An Acquired Taste

Chapter Text

This sucks.

 

That doesn’t come as much of a surprise to you, as you’ve already started the day off on the wrong foot by sleeping through all of your alarms. Now you’re running late to work, not bothering to grab an umbrella despite remembering that the forecast was calling for rain today. You had no choice, as you barely had enough time to make it to the station. Luckily, Yongen-Jaya is surprisingly quiet in the morning, and most of the shops haven’t opened yet, so it shouldn’t take long to get to the station. However, that also means you’ll likely get to work with an empty stomach. At least, you would have had you not stumbled onto a quiet little café, simply named “Le Blanc”.

 

“Hey, it’s French, so the food’s gotta be good, right? Right?”

 

Driven by your mix of curiosity and hunger, you pushed the door open and tentatively walked into the tiny café. Fortunately for your wallet, the establishment was much less “bistro” and more “hole-in-the-wall”. The coffee shop had a couple of booths where customers could sit, in addition to the seats directly in front of the bar, where the owner stood as she just finished preparing a pot of coffee. The scent permeated throughout the building, filling you with warmth and a sense of ease. Noticing you standing at the entrance, drenched, the owner called out to you.

 

“Hey there! You’ll catch a cold if you just stand there looking like an idiot! Come on in, warm yourself up with a cup of coffee and a plate of curry.”

 

She smiled behind her oversized glasses, headphones resting around her neck, possibly playing the same soft, smooth jazz you heard on a loop in the cozy café. She certainly didn’t seem like your typical middle-aged Japanese woman. At least, you didn’t know that many with dyed their hair bright orange, especially tied up like that in such a messy bun. It gave her a very warm appearance, matching the sanctuary you found in the rainy city streets.

 

“You’re in luck, the morning rush is just about over”

 

“Yeah, but that’s probably because I’m running late”

 

“Well, you’re in luck. I just finished brewing this pot here. Have yourself a quick cup-then make like a tree and leave!”

 

You excitedly guzzled down the mix of tasty, grounded, roasted beans, not bothering with adding any sugar or milk. The warmth and rich flavor of the drink was enough to get you through the rest of the day. You slammed your money on the table and ran out the door, but not before bidding the eccentric woman goodbye

 

“Oh, and keep the change!”

 

 


 

 

A few weeks after your chance encounter with the little hole in the wall café and its unconventional owner, you had settled into a routine that added a sense of normalcy to the place. Every morning, you’d stop by Le Blanc on your way to the station for a quick cup of coffee. The shot of warm, rich, coffee paired with the shot of caffeine was the perfect way to kick-start your day. They say variety is the spice of life, so you also went out of your way to try the cafe's curry as well, which you found to be the definition of comfort food.  It didn’t hurt that the owner, who you later learned was named Futaba Sakura, was an interesting character in her own right. Her presence, much like the pairing of coffee and curry, was a bit peculiar-yet somehow you found that you came to appreciate her eccentricities.

 

"So I take it I'm not the only one who appreciates good deals on coffee and food?" you mused, taking another sip.

 

You watched the older woman's face scrunch into a scowl. Were she younger, it could easily pass for a childish pout. Actually, it still managed to pass as such, despite her mature, albeit quirky, appearance. 

 

"You mean you're not the only cheapskate who walks through these doors" he frowned, clearing the last booth for the day. "Speaking of, we're closing, or is that oh-so-wonderful coffee too good to finish?"

 

In the time that you became more acquainted with the cafe, the more familiar you became with the owner, who usually didn't mind your company after hours. Considering your tight budget, busy schedule, and empty stomach, you came to appreciate Le Blanc and it's owner. Last thing you wanted was to get on her bad side,"Hey, take it easy. It really is good! I'm just kinda curious about the clientele you get. I've seen a few...interesting characters come through here. It looks like you're on pretty good terms with some of them, too"

 

Amusement returned to the owner's face and she took a seat, her irritability being replaced with a more easy-going and slightly mischievous attitude. 

 

"Oh~, so you found someone special in my little hole-in-the wall coffee shop, eh? Interesting~" she mused, "So tell me (Y/N), who's route you planning on heading down? The Police Commissioner? The Hobo--I mean street artist? Perhaps the new PE teacher at Shujin?"

 

Thankfully, you just finished your cup. It would have been most unfortunate if you spat out your coffee in surprise all over the barista, who was also the young man under Futaba's care. 

 

"N-no! No, that's not it" you exclaimed, frazzled. Your elbows were stinging from slamming against the counter, "They seem like a rather..interesting group. I mean, that's a pretty motley crew of folks that all just happen to frequent the same shop"

 

She relented, smirking, "Maybe I'll introduce you sometime~~" 

Chapter Text

You woke to the alarm of your clock blaring in your ears, rushing you to wake and get ready for the day. Squinting at the clock, you attempted to make out the time in your sleepy haze, hoping to squeeze in a few more minutes of shut eye.

 

Sadly, you were on a tight schedule.

 

“Can’t afford to be running late….again“

 

You were quite unhappy to be rushing around through your morning routine. Fortunately, you usually found solace in your morning visits to Le Blanc. There usually weren’t that many customers at the café first thing in the morning, providing the opportunity to quietly and calmly sip your coffee as the sun rose.

 

However, when you opened the door, you could barely make out the jingle of the doorbell or the sultry vocals of what had become your favorite song. The regular ambience was drowned out by a cacophony of shrill squeals, giggles, paired with jovial, boisterous laughter.

 

Four students were crowded around the coffee bar, seemingly occupied with the owner and an unfamiliar face. You quickly recognized one of the students as Sojiro Sakura, the young man who was serving you coffee the other day (and almost got to wear it). He did not appear all that interested in whatever the others were fussing about, nor was his male companion, silently slouching off to the side.

 

The source of the racket primarily came from two female students fawning over whatever the stranger was showing off. Upon closer inspection, you noticed that the man was proudly displaying photos of a young infant, most likely a little girl based on the decidedly effeminate choice of clothing. The man at the center of attention, presumably the child’s father, noticed your presence and flashed a shark-toothed grin in your direction. You had to blink a few times to make sure your eyesight wasn’t damaged by that dazzling smile. While initially groggy, the sight of his wide grin jolted you wide awake as he now had your full attention.

 

Regaining sight, you recognized the man as Sakamoto-sensei, a regular. Well, he seemed to be around whenever you stopped by, despite not caring much for the taste of coffee. You both shared a mutual enjoyment of Le Blanc's atmosphere. Grin aside, it also struck you as odd that he would stop by so early, as you usually spotted him in the afternoons after all the schools let out for the day. You vaguely recalled Futaba mentioning his position at Shujin as the new volleyball coach and P.E. teacher. Many a dim twilight were colored by his beaming smile and tacky, although admittedly endearing, sense of fashion that reflected the man's personality perfectly. For as loud and unpredictable as he could be, he was surprisingly consistent with his own routine. He would burst into Le Blanc, and pull out his most recent photos of his child, proudly displaying them to the patrons. While you rarely interacted, due to his overwhelming presence, you came to regard him well. Sakamoto was an honest, kind, passionate and only occasionally obnoxious guy. One thing you knew for sure was that there was never a dull moment in the cafe when he was around. 

 

The girls and Futaba continued to squeal and coo over the photos, while the boys stood aloof and uninterested. You turned your attention to Sakamoto. Upon closer inspection, you couldn’t help notice some inconsistencies in his normally sunny grin. There was something sullen or crooked in his smile, as though he were forcing it, even his laughs sounded empty as if they were missing something.

 

His smile wavered as he noticed you in the corner of his eye, “Hey? Somethin’ wrong? You’re lookin’ at me all squinty” he frowned.

 

Snapping back to reality, you jolted back, nearly toppling over in your seat. He was close, too close! God, why did so many attractive people frequent this place? Maybe coming here wasn’t such a good idea after all.

 

“Ah-it’s nothing!” you insisted, waving your hand reflexively in front of him. Looks aside, his mood definitely shifted, although you couldn’t shake that off-kilter feeling from his almost rehearsed cheerful demeanor earlier. You were normally the type to keep to yourself, opting to stick to the bar and chat with Futaba before heading off to work. However, you knew that Sakamoto was a good person. He was well liked by the students and was an all-around nice guy, albeit somewhat clumsy and loud. The thought of him carrying on like this did not sit well with you. You had to say something, anything.

 

Well, here goes nothing.

 

“A-actually, I couldn’t help but notice you didn’t seem like your usual self”

 

His eyebrows jumped, as he was taken aback by your insight

 

“Really?” Futaba interjected, “Ryuji seems like his normal, doofy self, to me”

 

“H-hey, c’mon! I’m not that -”

 

“No, something’s definitely off about you” You insisted

 

Silence

 

The students became aware of the awkwardness, and filed out of the café

 

“H-hey!” Futaba shouted after them, “You didn’t finish your….” She trailed off, watching the teens abandon their plates and cups, “Damn kids…”

 

With Futaba occupied, you became acutely aware of the situation you were now in. Panicking, you attempted to pacify any incoming conflicts “I’m sorry! It’s just—You’re usually in such a good mood when you come here, but this time, you seem….I don’t know—different”

 

For once, he fell silent, eyes darting around nervously. He was had.

 

“Y’see…That’s…I mean…” He trailed off

 

Checking the time, you quickly hatched a plan. While you barely knew him, his worried expression elicited all of your compassion, your pathos, and you suddenly wanted nothing more than to help out in whatever way you could.

 

“Hey, we’re probably both going to be late to work. Tell you what, next time you’re here, why not talk about it? I’d be more than happy to lend an ear”

 

Surprised, but relieved, he smiled

 

“Yeah, I’d like that”


 

Even though it was getting late, you had never wanted a cup of coffee more in your life than after you got off work. You were worried about Sakamoto, but you weren’t so sure you wanted to stay up all night hopped up on caffeine after your heart-to-heart with the high school gym teacher.

 

“Hey (Y/N)” Futaba greeted, “What will it be?”

 

After a moment of registering the owner’s voice, you quickly replied “Some curry and a cup of coffee—Decaf, please”

 

The brunette turned to you, spoon shoved in his mouth. He seemed surprised, but his presence confirmed that he wanted to take you up on your offer.

 

“Uh-hey! (L/N), right? You come in here a lot these days”

 

Struggling for a response, you blurted “Yeah, same to you”, seemingly on auto-pilot.

 

Seriously, “Same to you?”, way to set the scene.

 

Leaning in his chair, he seemed at a loss for words. Surprising, considering his normal volume and enthusiasm.

 

”So…” he trailed

 

“Right!” you exclaimed, snapping your fingers, “That thing from this morning”


“Y-yeah, I didn’t think anyone would notice” he smiled wryly, scratching the back of his head, “Sorry for askin’, but why’d you ask to talk to me? I mean, we barely know each other”

 

Uh oh, he’s right. “W-well, like I said, I see you come around here a lot, and you get along real well with the owner-”

 

As if on cue, a flash of orange hair passed by the both of you as the owner darted from the kitchen, “Keep me outta this route!” Futaba interjected

 

“No! It’s not like that!” You snapped defensively “I’m trying to have a conversation here”

 

“Oh, doth thou protest much, friend?” she mused. Sensing the mood of the situation, she poured your coffees, set your plates on the bar, and left to attend to the rest of the café, “…..Alright, but no R18+ stuff! You’ll freak out the other customers”

 

Frowning, you mumbled “We’re your only customers” as you stirred your curry in an increasingly testy manner.

Recalling your reason for this meaning, you took a quick bite of your meal and readied yourself. Turning your attention to Sakamoto, you fumbled, trudging on in your line of thinking.

 

“T-that’s right! You’re like, one of the only people I see around here in the afternoons. After getting out of the pit of despair---Er, I mean” you stopped, stammering. Cut it out, (Y/N), you’re trying to cheer him up. Quit being such a downer!

 

 “I mean, after finishing up work, it’s nice to see someone so friendly, you know? It’s a nice change of pace. I’d hate-”

 

In truth, you thought the doting dad thing was somewhat corny and obnoxious. But after a day of having everyone at work either giving you the cold shoulder, or having your boss breathing down your neck, you felt relieved to enjoy a meal with someone with a much sunnier disposition. It didn’t help that you didn’t exactly get on with your co-workers. It wasn’t that they were mean, per se. You simply had trouble fitting into social situations. That may have been what drew you to Le Blanc in the first place. It didn’t hurt that he wasn’t half-bad looking, either. You remember the first time seeing him, you thought he looked like a dog personified as a man. His enthusiasm, affection, loyalty, and candor made him feel less like an acquaintance and more like a friend.  

 

“I’d hate to see a friend suffer alone like that”

 

He tilted his head in confusion, “We’re…friends?”

 

You stammered, shocked that you actually said something so cheesy out loud, “I-I mean, you and I talk and drink coffee together and stuff. Isn’t that what friends do?”

 

Nice save, dork

 

Regaining composure, you continued “So, tell me…What’s going on, friend?”

Attempting to seem more calm and casual, you lifted your cup and pressed your lips to the rim. Slowly, you sipped your coffee as quietly as you could, savoring the rich flavor. Stay calm, stay calm.

 

He narrowed his eyes for a moment as he took a sip of his coffee, saturated with packets of sugar stacked in a messy pile next to his cup. Although skeptical at first, he relented “If I’m bein’ honest, a lot. Mind if I vent for a bit?”

 

You leaned in, interested “Vent away”

 

He took a deep breath; chest puffed out, and let out a deep sigh, “T’be honest, I’m runnin’ on fumes right now” he frowned. He looked as though he were about to slam his head into the bar until he slowly put his head down, occasionally lifting it to lightly bang it on the counter. Eventually he stopped, letting out another worn-out sigh. It was much easier to see that he was at his limit, now that he let his guard down. You could have sworn there were some fumes puffing out in that sigh. Like a cloud of fatigue being released.

 

“What’s up?”

 

“Well, it’s just…Everything…Teachin’, coachin’, parentin’. I thought I could handle it all just fine, as long as I pushed myself and did the best I could, but…”

 

His eyes were downcast, as he stared at the floor tiling, “Thing is, normally my Ma looks after Rika while I’m at work. But she fell the other day, and now the hospital bills are pillin’ up. I’d hire a sitter, but I’m flat broke.” He frowned, kicking at imaginary pebbles on the linoleum.

 

“I see” you said quietly, staring into your reflection in the cooling brew poured for you an hour ago. Although, it seemed like forever as you absorbed everything he just laid out in front of you. Hearing his plight, you couldn’t help but remember your parents, and the nights they left you alone due to work emergencies. You were lonely, but as you grew you came to appreciate the time, attention, and affection they gave you.

 

“I’m sure you’re doing your best, and I’m sure your family knows and appreciates that as well” You reassured him, although unsure if it was appropriate to bring up family. He neglected to mention his father, and from what you gathered, the child’s mother had either passed or wasn’t in the picture, at least not anymore. While you managed to coax him into talking to you, it was probably for the best that you avoid opening that can of worms.

 

As you spoke, you saw the tension release in his shoulders and expression. His face didn’t return to the same upbeat mood you had grown accustomed to. Instead, his eyes softened as he smiled “Anyway, thanks for listenin’ to me ramble” he smiled, leaving his payment on the counter, “You’re real nice, y’know that?” he turned as he approached the door. The surprising soft, warmth of his eyes as they focused on you were too much. You couldn’t leave well enough alone. You had to do something.

 

Quickly, you bolted out of your seat and grabbed the sleeve of his shirt as he was about to leave through the doorway, shouting “Ah! Wait!”

 

Surprised, he jerked back, “Y-yeah?”

 

Collecting your thoughts, you arrived at a solution. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea, but it was an idea nonetheless, “Well, it’s just that I have some PTO days I’ve been meaning to use, and the schedule for next week hasn’t been made yet, and I figure I could maybe take some night shifts so…”

 

You trailed off, sheepishly lifting your gaze to meet with his, “Maybe I could look after Ri-your daughter, for a bit. Just until your mother recovers”

 

His face lit up at the proposition, “Oh, that’d be great! But, payment-”

 

“It’s on me, Sakamoto” you sharply cut him off, waving your hand to relieve any tension, “A favor from one friend to another”

 

He grinned, relenting, “Sheesh, you’re making me out to be a pretty crappy friend (Y/N). You’re listenin’ to my problems and offerin’ to help free of charge. Alright, you got yourself a deal” He reached out, ready to shake on it.

 

Gripping the man’s hand, you exclaimed “Great! Oh, let me give you my cell.”

 

As you shuffled through your bag, he tapped you on the shoulder, smiling “Oh, and one more thing.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

His smile widened into that familiar grin you were used to seeing around Le Blanc, “Friends don’t go around callin’ each other by their last names. Call me Ryuji”

 

Shaking his hand, you grinned “Alright then. I’ll see you tomorrow, Ryuji”

Chapter Text

“Are you okay?”

 

Squinting, you lifted your head from the table as your gaze met Futaba’s. The coffee shop owner had just walked back in, cigarette in hand. She quickly put it out in the ashtray by the door before walking over to you. The bijou bistro owner seemed enormous as she looked down at the pathetic sight before her.  

 

“Yeah” you rasped, blinking. She nearly blurred out into a haze of orange, black, and green in your sleep-deprived eyes. “Why? Is something wrong?”

 

“You look like you’re gonna start shooting lazers out of your eyes or something. Why are you squinting so hard?”

 

You stretched, hearing a “pop” in your back before you let out an exhausted yawn.

 

“Ahh-It’s nothing. I just….” You trailed off, looking at the notes spread across the table.

 

You couldn’t afford to sleep. You needed this article otherwise your boss would kill you. This normally wasn’t an issue, as you had all kinds of topics to cover. However, you recently fell into a bit of a slump. It was as if you had used up all of the topics sitting around in your head and were scraping the bottom of the barrel just to find something, anything worth writing a few pages on. What you needed was something that the average person would be interested in reading in a magazine or newspaper. You were desperate for something to really draw people in, some sort of eye-catching story to stop them from aimlessly scrolling to read your latest post on the company’s website.

 

Assembled in front of you were photos, pamphlets, and all manner of event and sight-seeing paraphernalia. Tourist traps and hotspots shared room at the table with births, deaths, marriages, and a random scandal here or there. At this point, someone important needs to do something interesting or you might as well look for another job.

 

The spread of papers was interrupted by a cup of coffee on a saucer and a plate of curry puffs. You looked up again to Futaba, glasses fogged from the steam as she grinned.

 

“You might wanna refuel then. Can’t work on an empty stomach, right?”

 

“Yeah, thanks…H-how much?”

 

“On the house. You’re gonna need it.”

 

You smiled at Futaba before both of you returned to your work. Pushing aside several papers, stacked haphazardly next to you, you pulled out your laptop, set it down next to your meal and got to work. The scent of coffee beans and a medley of spices filled your nostrils, simultaneously putting you at ease and motivating you to get to work.

 

Almost as soon as your laptop finished booting up, the familiar jingle of the bell in the doorway drew your attention. You lifted your gaze from the start screen to spot two figures. The first figure was a young man who appeared to be wearing some variant of the Kosei High School uniform. However, what really caught your eye was the man walking in beside him, speaking to the youth in an amused tone.

 

He appeared to be around the same age as Futaba, although she didn’t appear to have walked out of a samurai film like him. His thin, dark hair trailed behind him as he nearly glided through the café to take a seat at the bar.

 

I swear, there must be something in these beans or something. The people who come in here run the gambit from cute to drop-dead gorgeous.

 

Your head spun from the visage of the radiant ronin as he sipped his coffee. How would one describe such a sight? Anachronistic? Yes. The perfect subject for a career-boosting article? Also yes.