Sojiro Sakura never judged a book by its cover, he’d learned that this was the easiest way for misjudgment of a person. So, when the announced teenage delinquent showed up as a quiet and nearly bland boy, Sojiro wasn’t immediately convinced by the harmlessness.
There was a saying that silent waters were deep and it seemed to fit his new charge well. Akira didn’t talk much, actually he wasn’t even around a lot, not in sight anyway. Sojiro wasn’t sure if he’d ever met such an unobtrusive teenager - save for Futaba, obviously.
If he was honest with himself, and he tried to be that, he worried about the kid upstairs in his attic. Sojiro had been prepared to fight with the teenager, scold him for getting into trouble or at least missing curfew. Instead Akira returned to the LeBlanc well before Sojiro planned to close up, when he’d been made aware that boss would be waiting for him. When asked what he did, the boy would tell him about studying in the library or training with a friend from school.
It didn’t sound like the boy was lying so he let him be.
A few days after Akira moved in, Sojiro was introduced to a little black cat that sat in the boy’s school bag. He wasn’t too thrilled about a pet in his store not only because of possible health violations, but the cat was cute but it also made Akira smile. Sojiro assumed the boy could use a companion in a strange city and caring for a pet might keep him busy.
Morgana, a really weird name for a male cat of all things, proved just as easy to live with than his owner. In fact, Sojiro never saw a lot of the furball, maybe that was why it took him embarrassingly long to notice that Akira smuggled it to school every day. Sojiro tried to tell the boy off for that, but he realized that it wouldn’t have had much use, and until now no teacher or Student seemed to have noticed the black cat sleeping in Akira’s desk anyway.
But that this was the one problematic thing the boy wouldn’t budge, that was surprising. Akira was a weird kid indeed.
By the time April came around the teenager had smoothly folded into Sojiro’s daily life. Apparently, he got really lucky when it came to his charges, because just like Futaba - but completely different all the same - Akira was pretty much self-sustainable. By now Sojiro was confident enough to allow the boy free reign in the cafes kitchen during afterhours and so far he hadn’t come to regret it.
Still, at times he felt a bit bad for how little he did for the teenager, so the decision for a new morning routine had happened completely on its own.
On school days Sojiro would arrive at LeBlanc a bit earlier than usual, just around the time when Akira woke up. He would prepare the coffee maker and start the little television while waiting for the drink to brew. Around then Morgana would sneak down the stairs and settle on the floor next to him, joining him in watching the news. Sojiro wasn’t sure how exactly the cat understood that he was fine to come down in the mornings when the café was still closed, but he didn’t question it.
By the time Akira made his way downstairs two cups of coffee were set on the counter and they would enjoy it in companionable silence while the cat wolfed down some breakfast of his own. Then, just in time for Sojiro to open up, Morgana would slip into the bag placed next to Akira’s chair and they would leave for school.
Sojiro would be lying if he said anything of that was a burden.
Maybe that was why he expanded their little habit to the school free days as well. Akira usually slept in on Sundays, even though it seemed as if he’d never stay up too late in the first place. One day during which the boy had cooped himself up in one of the empty booths, studying for the approaching exams, Sojiro paused in his cooking. He was busy cutting up vegetables for tomorrow’s curry when an idea hit him and he announced: “you know, if you stand up to a reasonable time you could have some of the curry for breakfast.”
Akira’s eyes betrayed the neutral expression he wore on his face, they clearly told the boss how startled he was. At times like this Sojiro wondered what kind of life his charge had left back in that little town that he called home. Was it normal there to be so independent with sixteen, content to be ignored by adults and surprised by random acts of kindness? Or was that just some trade Akira had obtained for his life as a delinquent? Whatever it was, it didn’t sit right quite with Sojiro.
Akira still didn’t show his face a lot outside of the mornings. Most of his studying nowadays was done at school or in the diner with his friends. It seemed as if the boy was always busy, always determined to make as much of the day as possible. But still, not once was Akira late despite Sojiro giving him a spare key in case it happened.
Sometimes the boss worried that the kid was stressing himself out, even before he took up not one but two part time jobs where he worked at a few times a week. In the evenings, when Sojiro cleaned up for the night he always listened to find out what his charge was up to. It seemed as if he’d never sit still, Akira even started to do some training in the attic if his grunts were anything to go by.
On one particular night Sojiro walked the two blocks over to the LeBlanc to fetch the novel he had forgotten earlier and had looked forward to read in bed that day. He was mildly surprised when he realized that light spilled down from the stairs, as well as muffled voices. Akira did have a habit of talking to the cat when he was in his room, he actually seemed to talk to Morgana more than anyone else, but then Sojiro caught a female voice instead of the usual meowing.
Was Akira having a friend over? What was his classmates name again - Ann Takamaki?
He’d only seen the girl a couple of times around when they picked the kid up, usually accompanied by the Ryuji boy Akira had befriended early on, and she seemed like a nice girl to him. Still, having a girl over that late could paint a wrong picture.
“Thank you for requesting me again, Master. I’m looking forward to seeing you again.”
Sojiro froze behind the counter when the door to the attic opened and allowed him to hear the words more clearly. He only had a split second before a pair of footsteps indicated the woman leaving, apparently alone, and the boss needed to make a fast decision.
Upstairs the door closed again at the same moment as the boss got a first look on Akira’s guest. It was a maid.
“Isn’t he a bit young to call maid services?”
The woman nearly jumped out of her skin, but in her defense, when she turned around to him she caught herself quickly enough.
“I asked him the same thing the first time, you don’t need to worry, I don’t offer the special kind of services to minors.”
It took Sojiro a way too long moment to realize why that maid looked so familiar.
“While I’m glad to hear that, isn’t it still morally questionable to serve your own student as a maid?”
Kawakami seemed to blanche even under the makeup she had put on, so he decided to skip giving her a hard time and instead gather some more information.
“I won’t report you, I guess having a night job like this wouldn’t be that well received. But in exchange you might be able to answer some of my questions.”
An uncharacteristic sense of shame washed over the café owner when he listened to Akira’s teacher that night. It wasn’t because his charge had repeatedly called a maid service without him noticing, but because he apparently did so to have someone to talk to.
Kawakami had explained that most of the time she wasn’t even cleaning or anything on the nights when she was requested. More often than not she just shared some coffee with Akira while they talked about school or the life in Tokyo. A bit embarrassed the teacher even admitted that she used those times as a way to vent her frustration because Akira was quite a good listener.
Sojiro had swallowed thickly and inwardly added that new information to his observations of his charge.
Days came and went, Akira confronted Sojiro about his talk with his teacher that following week. Apparently, Kawakami had informed him about being caught the next time Akira called her and not during school hours. It might be a good thing that they kept their arrangement separate from their professional life, Sojiro mused.
The boy explained to him that he made enough money at his jobs to be able to afford ordering Maids and that Kawakami had the opportunity to rest a bit every now and then. Apparently, he tried to look out for his teacher so she wouldn’t collapse under the strain she had to put herself under.
Sojiro had problems hiding how touched he was.
At least Akira wasn’t lonely enough to request maids to feel better, so Sojiro wasn’t messing up too bad, was he?
To the surprise of not only Sojiro but his friends as well, Akira’s exam results were not only decent but actually fell into top ten of the second graders. If the boss had any doubts left about the kid being dedicated they would’ve vanished right then and there.
He still worried about the boy, maybe more than ever, because even though the time of intense studying was over, Akira seemed more tired than usual.
The boy had quit his job at the convenience store and instead spent some more time with his friends. That itself was actually a quite good development in Sojiro’s opinion, but since then it happened every so often that the boy returned home a few hours after school and went straight to sleep. When before he spent the evening hours for working out or even talking to the cat, he now only seemed to be able to drag himself upstairs and collapse into bed.
Summer break caused Leblanc to be even emptier than usual. A lot of Sojiro’s regulars were on vacation or visited family and students certainly had other places to spend their free time. But for some reason that didn’t seem to be the case for his charge and group of mismatched friends.
As the months flew by, Sojiro caught a handful of new additions to Akira’s social life. First there was the artist kid, who managed to balance being eccentric but kind of endearing anyway.
Yusuke wasn’t a Shujin student as the others, so Sojiro wondered where exactly they had picked him up, but like so often he didn’t ask. Instead he greeted Yusuke whenever he came in to look at the painting he had gifted the Leblanc with a while ago and fed the teenager some Curry. Obviously, the kid took the whole “starving artist” thing too literal.
The next addition was the Shujin student council president of all people. And not only that, Sojiro understood quickly that Makoto was prosecutor Niijima-sans sister in top of that. The boss didn’t comment and instead only asked if Akira was making trouble, partly to tease him and partly because it was still his job to keep an eye on him.
Futaba was a surprise to say at least. But her becoming cautious friends with the rascals that had started to frequent the Leblanc and its attic over the summer was just the beginning. Akira, being the miraculous kid that he was not only helped Futaba out of her shut-in lifestyle but also was at her side when she battled her anxiety in daily life.
The first day of school Futaba was seeing him off alongside Sojiro even though the shop was already open and customers could arrive any given minute.
Akira was still hurrying through his days as if he was operating on deadlines. It wasn’t that he was rushing through his tasks, he wouldn’t have gotten so good at brewing coffee if he did, but there didn’t seem to be one second he didn’t put to good use.
Well, except for those times when he arrived back at the shop looking as if he was ready to keel over of course. Sojiro wondered if Ryuji and Akira were overdoing it with their training sometimes.
Morgana was still at the kid’s side whenever Sojiro saw him, the cat was yet to be discovered at school or all the other places you really shouldn’t bring a cat. It had been over half a year but Akira hadn’t gotten into trouble once. Maybe it was because the public was too busy arguing about those phantom thieves that had gained popularity over the last months to concentrate on anything else.
One night in the shop, Futaba had decided she wanted to eat her dinner with Morgana and Akira, so they all sat in a booth together, Sojiro wondered when he’d acquired a family.
He not only reclaimed a girl he thought of as daughter but also gained a son and a cat in the process.
The day he found out about his kids being involved with the Phantom Thieves Sojiro was angry.
Quicker than he was comfortably with, his inner assessment of Akira changed once again, and not in a good way. It took a breakdown from Futaba – as well as Akira’s easy way of helping her through it – until he could see clearly again.
Sojiro didn’t have to think about keeping the new knowledge out of his monthly report to Akira’s parole officer. After all, the kid wasn’t doing anything illegal, there was no part in the law about stealing other people’s cognitive hearts in another world.
“Why don’t you quit working for a while? I know you all won’t tell me what you’re up to but I’m not that stupid. You’re growing more exhausted by the day.”
Akira’s behavior had grown more understandable the more puzzle pieces about the group of thieves he could gather. For the first time in ages, Sojiro kept tabs on the daily news, keeping the TV running even if the customers didn’t ask him to.
Going into that Metaverse was draining in a way Futaba couldn’t explain. One night the boss had asked her while he warmed up some Curry for her, and she had offered a few more information about their second life’s. Either in that weird subway called Mementos or the palace of one of the corrupt adults, as soon as the kids returned to the real world the only thing they wanted was eat and sleep. Rebellion and fighting must take a toll on them after all.
Even Futaba, who had claimed that she wouldn’t really fight herself and be more than a navigator, was hit by fatigue upon returning. Sojiro understood and had let the girl eat, filing another detail about the Phantom Thieves away.
“It’s fine, it’s not really about the money anymore. Dr. Takemi offers us medicine for cheap and Iwai hooks us up with good weapons in exchange for some favors, so we’re mostly set on that front.”
Sojiro frowned and took stock of Akira’s usual slump paired with the growing bags under his eyes which weren’t quite hidden under his glasses anymore.
“So why don’t you quit? Everyone can see that you’re running yourself ragged. I can’t believe your friends can ignore that.”
It really didn’t sound like the kids to be that careless. As long as Sojiro could remember they had looked out for each other. Interestingly enough a guilty look flashed over Akira’s face, allowing the boss more insight than his words could’ve.
“There’s been rumors about some people who could use a change of heart. I’ll give my notice at Crossroads as soon as I’ve confirmed the information and went to Mementos. And as soon as I’ve quit at the bar I can drop the beef bowl job as well, because then I’ve got the evenings off when Yoshida speaks at the station Square and can see him there instead of waiting for him to come in for dinner.”
Sojiro blinked, mind reeling to keep up with the connections and reasons and plans. In the months since Akira’s arrival in Tokyo he had found so many people – he called them ‘confidants’ – to form bonds with it was hard to keep up with that. His teacher had only been the beginning and when Sojiro figured out that his underage charge was frequenting a bar in Shinjuku he already trusted him enough not to balk.
“Well, as long as you don’t immediately pick up the next job like the last time it should be fine.”
Akira smiled and headed upstairs, accompanied by the triumphant meowing of the cat.
November was right around the corner and there was not a lot the boss could be shocked by. Normalcy was therefore greatly appreciated and that’s why he found himself being happier to see patrons than he’d been in quite some time.
Either Prosecutor Nijima was busier these days, or it was because of Futaba’s reintroduction to society, but she didn’t come around for coffee anymore. In her place Akechi, the famous high school detective, highly celebrated earlier that year but quickly drowned out with scorn and hatred afterwards, visited more often.
The boy was an in Sojiro’s opinion nearly perfect customer, he was quiet and unassuming and even if he always stayed long he always ordered coffee to go with the passing hours. A nice kid who reminded him a lot of Akira sometimes, and as to confirm that feeling the two of them bantered playfully whenever they crossed paths.
Maybe Sojiro should’ve seen it coming then, the inevitable inclusion of the detective to the Phantom Thieves. But despite the friendliness between the regular and the boy in the attic, that step felt oddly out of place, since even now Akechi openly opposed the group on TV. But what did he know, so Sojiro didn’t inquire further and just silently watched as the month went on.
Ironically, it took Sojiro six months and a good pinch of police brutality until he stepped into the attic again. Apparently, he had been there more often back when it was only a storing place and not the bedroom of the boy he was caring for. Looking back now it didn’t seem like he did the right thing, then. But regretting past actions was never too helpful going forward, so the boss shook those thoughts off and concentrated on the kid resting on the bed.
While not unheard of, brutality in the ranks of those whose job it was to protect wasn’t uncommon. Regardless if it was the police, teachers or guardians, those who were met with trust could easily exploit the weakness of those in need. Still, seeing the limp body that was Akira came as a shock.
“Well, at least he isn’t dead” the more bitter part of his mind suggested.
It might’ve been a close call though.
Prosecutor Nijima and Dr. Takemi were allies Akira was lucky to have. He certainly owed them his life just as much as his friends and the crazy plan they had thought of.
The night the TV broadcast claimed the Phantom Thieves’ Leader’s suicide was the first night Akira was invited over to Sojiro’s house formally. To be honest, without the doctor’s help he wouldn’t have been able to bring the kid the short distance over to his home in the first place. Even after most of the drug had been cleared out of his system, Akira wasn’t able to walk on his own, mind clouded with pain among other things. Sojiro didn’t doubt that the time of his arrest changed the boy.
Akechi didn’t join any Phantom Thieves meetings anymore and Sojiro hadn’t seen him as a patron in the shop either. When he asked Ann who came downstairs to gather some drinks for the rest, her face was shadowed with something Sojiro couldn’t quite interpret. Later on, Futaba explained to him briskly that the boy had been the one to betray them and get Akira arrested.
Oh, and he’d also tried to murder Akira while he was in custody and frame it as a suicide.
Sojiro didn’t know what to do with this development.
Interestingly enough neither of the kid’s seemed to actually hate the detective for what he’d done, not even Akira himself. To be fair, the boss doubted the boy would hold grudges against anyone despite what they did to him, Akira tended to be so nice it bordered to unhealthy.
The drama around Akechi came to a halt with his sudden death. If It wouldn’t have been for his ties with the Phantom Thieves themselves he would have been as clueless as the rest of the public. For a while people wondered what the detective was doing, but after a shockingly short while they seemed to just forget about him. Maybe Sojiro would’ve as well, if he wouldn’t have known him personally.
As it was he was confronted with a group of distraught teenagers – and a cat – who had been a few steps away from the boy getting murdered by himself of all people. Makoto was the one who explained, voice monotone and detached, that Akechi had been used and manipulated by the father he just wanted to be praised by. That the boy had schemed and manipulated and killed on his father’s orders until he realized that it would be futile. Akechi has had a second plan, one to overthrow Shido when he was at his peak, but that would never happen.
The Thieves had reached out to him, but the tiny chance they’ve had had been yanked away from them with a single bullet.
Those kids just couldn’t catch a break, could they?
It turned out that Sojiro had adopted five more kids along with the two he got actually paid for. Even after Akira’s third and last arrest they kept coming into Leblanc like it was some kind of home for them. Well, Sojiro mused, it seemed like one of the last secure and quiet places left in this city.
Surprisingly, it took a bullet through a god’s head and a kid in solitary confinement for Tokyo to slowly turn back to normal. In Sojiro’s opinion the public was way too willing to forget the hell that had broken lose on Christmas day, they were too willing to forget a lot of things, actually.
The weeks without Akira joining them for breakfast took a lot getting used to, not even Morgana was there anymore to keep Sojiro company. Futaba had tried to drag herself out of bed, but after the third time she had fallen asleep on the counter, he told her that she shouldn’t bother.
It took worryingly few months to get used to someone, all in all, even if they were as quiet of a person as Akira had been. Sojiro tried to visit the boy but had been declined. But he’d been allowed to see him over the feed of a security camera on the day he testified to the older Nijima. It hadn’t been enough.
When Futaba offered to hack into the security system so that he could keep watching, Sojiro declined. There was no need to invite further trouble, especially not when they had just started to figure out how to help Akira.
Instead he told the girl to show him the video footage from the interrogation in November. He didn’t ask why she had acquired it, and he didn’t ask if she’d watched it. There was no need for pointless questions anymore.
That night Sojiro borrowed Futaba’s Laptop, she hadn’t been willing to copy the data on something or even watch it with him. After the boss had gotten through the security footage he understood why. He didn’t manage to get any sleep that night.
Akira was set free just in time for Valentine’s day. To the public eye he didn’t look any different than he had before Christmas, but Sojiro saw the pale skin and the even more slender frame. But most importantly he wasn’t blind to the pain that lurked in the shadows behind those glasses.
It was the first time the man hugged his son and every cell of his being ached with regret when the boy clung to his frame as if he was drowning. But Akira wasn’t drowning anymore, Sojiro would make sure of that.
The end of probation arrived without any more problems, thank whomever, after all the kids have had enough trouble that year for a life time. Still, Akira didn’t seem to share the euphories of his friends, he was still quiet, even more so after the trauma he endured.
By now Sojiro understood the kid well enough that he didn’t need to ask what was wrong.
“I have to leave soon.”
They exchanged a long glance, the knowledge of their time together coming to an end. The nineteenth looming over them like an executioner’s blade, unyielding and daunting all the same.
“You haven’t finished studying everything there is to know as a barista yet. I’ll be insulted if you don’t come back to finish what you’ve started. You know I don’t like wasting my time.”
Despite his following words, there’s silent hope in Akira’s eyes.
“Coming to Tokyo to make coffee after school seems a bit unrealistic, doesn’t it?”
“After all that happened, you’re concerned about realism of all things?”
The boy smiles, slender fingers dancing around his empty cup absently. Upstairs the door screeches, announcing Morgana’s arrival before he takes a seat next to Akira. Even though Sojiro still can’t understand what the cat says and apparently never will, he is pleased by his presence nevertheless. At least now Akira will be able to take one of his closest friends back to his hometown, that thought helps a bit, knowing that the kid won’t be alone.
Sojiro sat on Akira’s usual seat, thumbing through the report the boy had written through all those months just as he’d been told the year before, when the message arrives. It’s from Futaba, unsurprisingly.
The kids had picked Akira up on his way to the train station and according to the plan ushered him into the minivan they had roped Sojiro into renting. And who was he to deny the boy the sendoff he deserved?
That morning Akira had said his good byes to his confidants, only carrying Morgana’s bag with him. All his other things had been sent home already, to wait for his arrival. Sojiro had been the last person to visit, against all logic of course, because it led to Akira coming back to Leblanc after visiting his teacher on Aoyama-Itchome. But Sojiro didn’t complain.
A bit reluctantly he abandoned the notebook to take a look at his phone only to realize that she sent a photo.
Sojiro’s heart clenched tightly, Akira looked happy. Apparently, the surprise road trip was a success, because for once the boy looked truly free. The open car roof tousled the black hair and made him look so much younger than the boss had ever seen him. Maybe it was due to the lack of those glasses as well.
He wondered if anyone had commented on their disappearance, because he hadn’t. Hadn’t needed to.
The phone chirped again, another photo, this time from the whole group. Sojiro didn’t question how the seven kids had managed to squeeze into the car, but they looked pretty content. Morgana was sprawled out on Akira’s lap grinning in a way no catface should be able to. He was coping surprisingly well with his prolonged cat-hood, all things considered.
‘Have fun. And tell them not to text while driving.’
‘yeah yeah >D’
Sojiro grinned despite himself, and contemplated to send another text, but decided against it. There wasn’t anything left to say. At least nothing that couldn’t wait until the kids return. The man abandoned his phone again and continued reading.
Today he allowed himself a break, but starting tomorrow he was going to be pretty busy. Well, he could always rope the kids into helping out as long as they were on school break. Maybe he could even convince Haru and Makoto to come over after their entrance exams. After all, surely, they wouldn’t leave it to an old man to renovate the entire attic by himself, would they? Especially not when it was a gift for Akira.
Sojiro was certain the year would pass by quickly, most notably because the boy’s first scheduled visit was in May already.
Who would’ve thought his life would take a wild turn after he quit his government job and instead worked at a sleepy coffee shop?
Reality was the weirdest fiction.