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“Futaba, was all of this really necessary?”, Akira groaned, watching his adopted sibling staple rainbow paper hearts all over the walls.
“Sojiro said I was allowed to~”, Futaba sing-songed, enthusiastically smashing the staple gun against the wood. 

Akira winced at the force of the impact.

“I doubt Sojiro allowed you to destroy his walls in the process. Seriously, cut it out. And those candles surely are a fire hazard, I’m pretty sure he would never...”
“You underestimate me, bro. Sojiro would never say no to me. Especially…”

She got down from the chair she was precariously balancing on, put the staple gun on one of the tables, and poked him in the chest.

“... especially when it's for doing something to take care of you .”

It was a quiet end of day at Leblanc. All the daily customers were gone, and the light from outside had a glowing orange quality that filled the cafe with a tranquil and warm atmosphere.
It didn’t prevent Akira from shivering at Futaba’s snarky words.

“I can very well take care of myself.”
“Yeah, yeah. Tell that to all of us who had to deal with your moping for months now.

Akira pouted.

“Listen. I just got out of a three-year relationship. It takes time. I’m fine .”

Futaba let out a huge sigh and threw her arms in despair.

“Akira, damn it! She left you one year ago . You're 21, you live in a cafe with your cat and you still mope at night. You need to move on now!”
“I moved on! I’m alright. I have great friends, I live in a great place, I love my job. And can’t you consider that maybe I just like living alone with my cat? I don’t push you out to meet people.”
“Yes, but I don’t sigh dreamily every time someone cute enters or leaves Leblanc. And I don’t spend my evenings watching sappy romcoms with my cat. And I don’t look up “where to meet new people in Tokyo” late at night when I think no one is watching.”
“Futaba, for the last time, would you please stop checking my navigation history?

Futaba cackled at Akira’s dejected face.

“I will when you stop being such an easy target. Just encrypt your data, Akira, it’s not that hard and you’ve got to be cautious! Will you ever learn? Anyway, my point still stands…aaaand here, my job is done!”

Futaba proudly completed her decoration work by taping a big, pink fluo heart on the door.
Akira took in the whole setting. Leblanc was as cosy as ever, and the candles on each table did make the place even warmer. The hearts were a little too much, but he would have to tolerate them. It was just for tonight. No matter how long "tonight" would be.
On the counter, taped fairy lights enhanced the cheesy notice that Futaba had put up a week earlier:

“WEDNESDAY 16
SPEED-DATING NIGHT

1000 yen entry fee.

First coffee offered!
Don’t bring friends: they’re already waiting for you here.

Come in and register for a night of meetings as spicy as our curry!”

Akira cringed at the reminder of Yusuke and Futaba’s brainstorming over the notice. Thankfully, Yusuke had at least made the whole thing visually acceptable--despite his appalling punny touch.

“How many people registered?”
“Nine. Ten, if we count you! And we do count you, of course. That’s the point after all. If other people end up finding love, it will just be collateral damage.”
“...collateral damage. You really have a way with words, don’t you?”
“Eh. I’m not the one trying to smooth-talk everyone with a pretty face.”

Akira startled.

“I don’t---”
“Yeah, yeah, Mister “our coffee may not be as hot as you but be careful not to burn yourself”.”
“I never---”
“Your charm skills are lacking and it shows. Now get ready to meet the love of your life.”
“You’re way too enthusiastic about it all. I know you organised the party, but are you even going to host?”
Me?”

Futaba snorted. 

“As if. As soon as people start to get in, I’m out. But don’t worry, I’ll still be monitoring everything like a pro.”

Akira cast a dubious glance at the camera he knew was hidden beneath the frame hanging on the wall.

“More like spying everything from afar like the gremlin you are… oh, don’t mwehehehe me like that, please.”
“Don’t worry your pretty airy head, Sojiro will be here soon to serve S-tier coffee to every desperate lover like you. As for the hosting…”

As if on cue, the door slammed open.

“HHEEEEELLLLOOOOO FELLOW LOVERS! IT'S GONNA GET FLAMING HOT IN HERE!”

“Oh my god.”

Akira groaned, pinching his nose in annoyance.

“You had to gather everyone to make it even worse, didn’t you?”
“Come on, dude, why the long face? We have to help you find true love, right?”
"No one finds true love through speed dating, Ryuji."
"Neither of you know a thing about true love, dumbasses. You're both messes. Now come on, Akira, go change out of this stupid apron and put on your best dating clothes!”

Akira had half a mind to retort, but figured it would be useless considering who his opponents were. He pouted again, wordlessly took his apron off, folded it and put it back in its closet, then stomped up the stairs.
He didn't have a door to slam, so he just stomped a bit louder when he reached the top.

"YOU'RE SUCH A KID", Futaba yelled from downstairs, unamused at his antics. Morgana, who was napping on the couch of the attic, was unamused too: taken by surprise at the sudden violent noise, the cat jumped and hissed at him.
Akira sighed.

"Oh, don't begin, you. We both know very well who'll be the biggest flirt tonight."
"Mrow."

Morgana copiously shunned him and started grooming himself, before crossing the attic to go down and welcome the guests.  
Akira sighed again at Ann’s cooing at Morgana, and dived into his small closet, looking through his various outfits to try and figure out what could qualify as "best dating clothes".

He hadn't dated in over four years. He hadn't even attempted to--and even when he dated Makoto before they officially got together, they usually went out in their school uniforms.
Digging in the shelves of folded clothes, behind his usual daily wear, he found nicer outfits that brought back fond memories. Wasn't this jacket a present from Makoto ?.. Never mind, maybe not the best choice for tonight.

He never resented her for leaving him for Haru. To be honest, he'd kind of called it a few months before she actually did, and he considered himself one of their best supporters. People didn't understand, they thought that he should be upset, but he and Makoto had always been very open on the fact that even though they loved each other, there might come a time when they would have to split ways. It was just unfortunate circumstances, really--when he finally managed to get comfortable with the idea that maybe it could last, Makoto had rekindled with Haru, whom she had fallen out of touch with since high school but really wanted to reconnect with. Akira knew the impact Haru had had on Makoto back then, and he was happy to see them both get so close, until… well. He had called it, and really, Akira was happy for them. Haru was the sweetest girl he knew, and Makoto deserved someone that sweet. 

Sure, he sometimes missed the long night conversations, and having someone to share his everyday life and to rely on no matter what, and the physical proximity that being in a relationship allowed, but he still had amazing friends, and he liked his job which allowed him to meet new people every day, and it wasn’t that bad to move back in the attic, and he did enjoy the long night conversation he had on his own while watching a movie with his cat napping on his lap...

...alright, so maybe he was a bit lonely sometimes. Still, he could meet someone on his own terms whenever he wanted, right? Was all that fuss really necessary?

After more digging, he finally settled on an outfit that was both casual and comfortable. He didn’t want to dress to impress; he just wanted something that looked nice without being a hassle to wear. He was sure Ann would have some pieces of advice for him anyway.
He quickly put on his selection: a tightly-fit black sleeveless turtleneck top, a white shirt over it with rolled-up sleeves--he wasn’t all comfortable with going down with bare shoulders; it was October after all-- and casual dark blue jeans. He picked up black zip-up boots with just enough heels to make them stand out but not enough to make them provocative, and after much pondering, elected to wear a leather armband on his right wrist and a cat-shaped ring on his left ring finger. 

When he stepped down the stairs, Ryuji and Ann were busy getting things prepared, and Futaba only gave him a dubious look. Not that he expected much more anyway. He frowned.

“I’ve done my best, Futaba.”
“Well, I… guess some people could be into it?”
“Futaba. You’re aroace.”
“Doesn’t mean I am blind. Take these dumb glasses off.”
“I need--”
“We all know you don’t need them. Damn, and that’s why Makoto left you for Haru. Where are the guts you had when you were the biggest prankster in high school, Joker? You’ve lost your touch.”
“Gee, thanks, you’re really doing marvels for my self-confidence here.”

Ann turned to them and giggled.

“You two are so cute. I’m pretty sure you’re still Joker inside, Akira, you just have to learn to let it out again. Futaba is right though, you really don’t need the glasses. And this top really highlight your chest, it’s a good choice, so why do you want to hide it with the shirt?”
“Nah, come on, it’s looking super good this way” Ryuji came to his rescue. “Maybe the shirt is a bit too much but it’s a good look to start the evening, and it’s nothing he can’t take off, right?”

Ryuji winked and Akira hated himself for thinking Ryuji was rescuing him. There was no way he’d take the shirt off now. 

“Let me do your hair and make-up, and you’ll see, they’ll all be swooning over you fast enough!”

Akira let Ann lead him to his fate, and when she finally released him, after spending way too much time fussing over him in Leblanc’s cramped bathroom, Ryuji welcomed him with a whistle.

“Now we’re talking. Dude, you rock that eyeliner, and these highlights on your cheekbones give you cheeks one will wanna cup until they leave a permanent hand print on them.”
“That’s… oddly specific, Ryuji.”

Ryuji shrugged but Futaba peeped in before he could add anything.

“Okay, that’s the right Joker look. Even I can admit you kinda look like a bishounen. Kinda . They’ll probably be all over you; don’t mess up, bro. I’ll be watching. And don’t you DARE think of putting these glasses back. Actually, give them to me. Now.”

Akira pouted but handed the glasses. Futaba pocketed them.

“Alright, time for me to make like a tree and leave. I trust you to do your worst, guys.”

Akira had no doubt they would. 

*

Akira had made it a point not to check the other participants when they got in, focusing rather on how grumpy Sojiro looked as he set the coffee cups on the counter and prepared a tiny bell and a timer. Well, it was nice to see he wasn’t the only one who got unwillingly dragged into this whole ordeal.

Conveniently enough, there were five tables and ten participants. He sat at the table farthest from the door, and set his gaze on the flame of the candle that was dancing in the dimmed light of the room.

Meanwhile, Ann broke down the rules to every participant.

“Remember, you all have seven minutes. As soon as the bell rings, the conversation is over! Then you fill in the paper, saying whether you’d like to see the other again or not and why. You can talk about anything during the seven minutes, but you’re not allowed to give away personal information or trade personal contacts. Play by the rules, and once you’ve seen all other nine people, give us your papers back! We will gather them and do the matchmaking, then we'll send you the contacts of the people you were matched with according to your personal appreciation. Now, everyone, please take a seat, and let’s begin. GET READY TO HAVE YOUR HEART STOLEN!”

Ann giggled, Sojiro begrudgingly rang the bell, and someone sat in front of Akira who finally deigned raise his gaze. He took a deep breath, tried to summon his high-school confident self, and put on his warmest smile.

“Hi, I’m Akira.”

As it turned out, the first seven minutes were just as terrible as he expected them to be. Akira almost got bored to tears by the first woman. She was sweet, but they didn’t share much in terms of hobbies or passions, and it was hard to get in the mood of sweet-talking. He really felt out of place, and she was ill-at-ease.
Desperate for a topic of conversation, she awkwardly pointed to his hand, trying to salvage the situation with any casualty she could find.

“I… like your ring. It’s a really… cute and interesting choice of jewelry.”

Akira chuckled.

“Yeah, I’m kinda married to my cat.” 

Way to break the mood. She shuffled awkwardly, but then he pointed to Morgana, who was strolling by the cafe, and called for him to come. Morgana meowed and jumped on the couch beside him.

“This is Morgana. My cat. We took him in so he could chase the mice away from the cafe.”

She brightened up instantly.

“He’s so cute! Can I pet him?”

The last three minutes were spent playing with Morgana, and it was quite a relief when Sojiro finally rang the bell. The woman picked Morgana up and scrambled to another table. 
Akira checked the “not interested at all” box on his paper. He expected her to do as much; no heart would be broken yet. 
Called it that Morgana would be the biggest flirt tonight...
He sighed and shook his head, his carefully groomed hair slowly falling back into the usual mess it was in. He still wasn’t sure what he was doing here. Sure, his friends meant well, but...

“Alright, everyone filled in the papers? Good, get ready for the second one.”

He didn’t have any more time to ponder his legitimity to be here in the first place. The second woman sat and, well, she was way more interesting than the first one, he had to admit. Her bold choice of colour for her clothes was a thing; that blue would blind anyone. And her eyes... her eyes were a marvel. They shone like gold nuggets and Akira had to confess he was slightly entranced. There was an aura of mystery around her, but he felt somehow drawn to her...

...and then she opened her mouth and Akira discovered some people could have a personality --as in, an even weirder one than Yusuke. Or Futaba. Or both Futaba and Yusuke at once.

Wow.

She was boisterous .

She spoke very fast and enthusiastically of human connexion and new experiences and of how fascinating this all was . She spinned words of human quest and the immensity of the world and do you believe in fate and she moved her hands excitedly and Akira could just watch her, amazed, nodding.

Then she suddenly stopped and eyed him with an intensity that made him squirm.

“You… could have been someone very, very exceptional. In other circumstances.”

Wow, gee, thanks. Akira looked at her, dumbfounded, wondering whether he should ask for clarification, but ended up giving up. He was about to change topics when Sojiro rang the bell.
As she moved, he realised he hadn't even had the time to ask for her name. He wrote “girl in a blue dress” on the paper, and hesitated before checking the box that said “would like to stay in touch as friends”.
She had been interesting after all. She might be a bit too much of a handful as a companion, though. Plus, one of the human connexions she seemed to value so much seemed to already weigh heavily enough on her mind.

“Third one, people! Get ready!”

Akira smoothed the paper and straightened his back, ready to face the person who had just sat in front of him, before realising that he was, actually, not ready at all .

On the other side of the table, shuffling awkwardly while trying desperately not to meet his gaze, was his high school homeroom teacher.

“...Miss Kawakami?”
“...I knew this was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have come. Oh my God, this is so awkward.”

He had a hard time trying to convince her that it wasn’t because, to be honest, it was indeed awkward. Despite having left high school three years before, Akira was anything but ready to face the mere notion that he could have something with his former teacher. 
There was a beat of silence, during which they both very cautiously avoided to look at each other.
Then Kawakami let out a deep sigh.

“Alright. You’re an adult now; we’re both adults. The circumstances are unfortunate but considering where we are now... please call me Sadayo.”
“Uh… right. I’m… Akira.”

She laughed nervously.

“Yeah, I remember that. The awful student who seemed to never listen to my lessons and kept on joking around, but always ended up with top grades. You were so frustrating to deal with. I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive you for the confetti box in the teachers room. I think they’re still picking up confetti from there three years later.”

Akira laughed at the memory.

“It wasn’t even my idea! Futaba planned for everything. I just enacted her plan. Honestly, she was even more of a criminal mastermind than I was.”

Kawak...Sadayo chuckled.

“I should have guessed. Well, you both truly left an impression. Your whole group did, actually. You were like… mischief walking. I still can’t believe you ended up together with the president of the students concil!”

Akira winced. Sadayo caught his expression and guilt shadowed her face.

“Ah, I’m sorry… If you’re here now, it must mean…”

Akira shrugged.

“Yeah. We… broke up. A year ago. She fell in love with someone else and I… encouraged her.”
“You encouraged her?!”

There it was, the usual reaction. After explaining so many times, he had come to know his answer by heart. 

“There’s no use fighting for someone’s love when it’s gone. We would have both ended unhappy and guilty. I just wanted her to be happy. She is now.”

Now he just had to wait for the good old “but you could/should have…”. He sighed and braced himself, but Sadayo’s eyes only softened and she smiled to him.

“You’ve… always been an exceptional person, Akira. I hope you find the right one for you. You deserve to be happy too.”

Akira didn’t know what to think of it all. He’d never seen his former, always bored-and-tired-looking teacher with such a soft smile on her face. It was his turn to shuffle awkwardly.

“Thanks, Miss Ka… Sadayo. I’ll do my best. And you…”

She let out a small self-deprecative laugh.

“Well, I’m here, aren’t I? Still the same old Miss Kawakami. I’ve got most of my life together now, though, and loneliness has become a bit too heavy to bear. So I just… thought I’d give this whole speed-dating thing a try. Looks like I’m the oldest in the room, though, along with the owner of the cafe. It’s a bit awkward, maybe I should just go… Ah well.”

Akira was about to try and comfort her when Sojiro rang the bell. Sadayo stood and gave him a last smile.

“I’ll probably come back here to have coffee, it’s excellent. I’ll be glad to chat more with you, Kuru...Akira. As friends, though, if you don’t mind.”

Akira nodded. They were not meant to tell each other what they’d write on their paper, but then again, they also were not meant to know each other beforehand , right? He checked the box “would like to stay in touch as friends” and prepared for the next person he would meet.

Ann’s cheerful voice spread through the room.

“Alright everyone, get ready for your next meeting; maybe they’ll be the love of your life!”

Akira set aside the paper and raised his head to meet the gaze of the new person who sat before him. The love of his life, uh?..

“...Ryuji. What the hell.”
“Listen, DUDE, I HAD TO TRY!”

Ryuji threw him a defiant glare, as if daring him to comment further, before deflating and sighing.

“It’s so weird though, have you seen Kawakami’s here ? But damn, there’s another girl, she’s a true babe. I barely understood anything she said, but she was awesome. I hope I can meet her again.”
“...what about me?”
“Are you kidding, dude? You’re my best bro. We can spend seven minutes trading advice on how to deal with girls, but there’s no way I’m kissing you tonight. Or you know, ever.”

Akira allowed himself a cheeky wink.

“Don’t act like you never did it before. Maybe I am too much for you to handle, Mister Sakamoto?”
“Oh effin… DUDE! IT WAS A DARE! You and Futaba will never let me live it down, will you?”
“Mmmh. And I doubt Ann will either. You’re a good kisser, actually, you know? You and me could be...”

Ryuji groaned.

“Stop right here.”

Akira smirked.

“So, Sakamoto, care to tell me how fast you can be?”
“You know what, Kurusu ? I’m just going to cross my arms and wait in silence until the seven minutes are over.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”

Ryuji crossed his arms.

“I would.”
“Ryuji, I’m not even sure the word “silence” is part of your dictionary.”
“...I think I preferred when you were moping over your failed relationship.”
“Remember that, the next time you’re part of organising an event to try and play matchmaker for me.”

Ryuji pouted.

“Not everything is about you. I could have found someone too. Who knows, maybe that babe from earlier…”

Sojiro rang the bell.
Akira shot him a dubious look. Had it really been seven minutes? Ryuji scrambled away to the next table, and Akira didn’t even bother writing his friend’s name on his paper.
That whole evening was starting to look like a huge waste of time. Not that he expected much more of it anyway. 
He had to admit, though, that the tiny peak of curiosity he felt every time the bell rang, wondering who would be the next person, was nice enough. If only he wasn’t disappointed everytime…

“Hum… Hi?”

Akira jumped. He hadn’t heard Ann’s voice starting the new session.
When he turned to face the new person, his eyes widened a little and trailed on the figure before him.
The new girl had very soft features, like a doll. Her eyes were framed by long eyelashes, enhancing the deep green of her irises. Her long, black hair looked smooth, and its silkiness seemed emphasized by the red traditional ornament she had elected to adorn it with. Her clothes were casual enough but still did a good favor to her overall features. 
Despite her uncertain smile, her gaze looked soft and kind.
She was beautiful.
Akira gulped.

Okay, so maybe this evening wouldn’t be a complete waste of time in the end? Who knew? Maybe he wouldn’t make a complete fool of himself?

“Sorry, I… uh… Hi, I’m Akira.”

The girl chuckled.

“It’s a bit awkward, isn’t it? This is the first time I take part in a speed-dating event. I’m Hifumi.”

Hifumi… the name rang a bell.

“Aren’t you Hifumi Togo? The… shogi queen who never lost a match in years ?”

Hifumi’s eyes suddenly lost all softness, replacing it with a fire that was a little too familiar for Akira, even a year later.

“It’s against the rules to ask for personal information.”
“Oh, oh, right, I’m sorry. I, hum, let’s start again. I’m Akira, nice to meet you. I like, uh, I like… cats and coffee.”

His phone pinged. He didn’t check it. There was no need: he already could almost hear Futaba’s voice in his head. Smooth, nerd. Really smooth.

Hifumi’s eyes went back to her initial kind expression and she chuckled again.

“And I’m Hifumi. I like shogi.”

Figured. Well, now he had the confirmation that the shogi queen was just as impressive in real life as newspapers said she was.

“So… What… what are you here for?”

Her eyes narrowed at him with a dubious look. Damn, she really had an expressive face.

“The same thing as you, I suppose? I was lonely, and I’m looking for a partner. I can be quite competitive… It’s hard to find someone who can match me. And, well… Yusuke-kun told me I should maybe try this event, because his friends were organising it and…”
“Oh! You’re a friend of Yusuke!”

There was so much to unpack with what she just said. Akira didn’t know Yusuke was a friend of Hifumi Togo, the shogi queen, who happened to be gorgeous and seemed to be very much single and was looking for someone to match her. Akira would have really liked to know earlier that she would be coming so he could prepare better. He kind of resented Yusuke at this precise moment. Now he was acting stupid in front of someone rather interesting, who might have…
Hifumi’s eyes narrowed even more.

“We said no personal information.”
“But you jus… Okay, alright, I’m really sorry.”

She simply laughed.

“You’re easily impressed, aren’t you?”

She was cute and cunning, shy and assertive, straight to the point, a good balance between modest coyness and blunt honesty, with a hint of delicate and a massive amount of pretty.
She was way out of his league.
Plus the look in her too expressive eyes…

“You remind me of Makoto.”

He winced as soon as the words left his mouth. His phone pinged multiple times in alarm. 
Yeah, Futaba. I know. Foot in mouth. I know.
Hifumi gave him a questioning glance, clearly at a loss.

“...Makoto?”
“Oh, hum, that’s pretty embarrassing. She’s… my ex-girlfriend. We broke up last year and now my friends are desperate to help me find someone who’d share some time with me.”

Yeah, right, Akira, nothing like oversharing about your ex at your first date.

“...I see.”
“It’s a long story. Yusuke may be involved. I’m sorry he dragged you into this. I… still hope the coffee is to your taste? I work here. I’d… be happy to serve you another cup if you like it. Someday.”

At least it was nice of Hifumi to look more embarrassed than judgemental. 

“I can appreciate a good cup of coffee, but I confess I’m more of a tea-drinker.”

Akira winced. He knew rejection when he heard it. Time to push his chance? Who knew… Maybe...

“I feel like we got a wrong start, but I’d really like to know more about you. I, hum, I don’t know how to play shogi, but I play chess. I’m not a really good strategist, though. I’d need someone to teach me.”

Makoto used to try and teach him. She gave up--he never got better.

Okay, so maybe he wasn’t 100% over Makoto yet. But they’d been together for over three years! They said it took at least half the time of your previous relationship to be over it. He still had six months to go, and then maybe he could start dating again without looking like an idiot in front of any pretty, clever, interesting girl because they reminded him of his ex? 

Hifumi was about to answer something when Sojiro rang the bell. Akira would have really liked to hear what she was about to say then, but she shook her head and stood.

“Well, I’ll… see you around, Akira.”
“Yeah, I… hope so. I wish you a good evening, Hifumi.”

It was hard to keep the dejected tone away from his voice. He gave her a last, hopeful smile as she went, and promptly wrote her name and crossed “would meet again” on his paper, penning down “I’m such a dumbass” beside the printed text. Surely Ann would understand when she’d review everyone’s papers and play matchmaker.
While Ann announced the next round, he took some time to check his messages--predictably, all from Futaba, who had concluded with a mere “Dumbass.”
He took a picture of his paper and sent it to her along with a short “I know”, before turning to the next...

“...Mishima, what the fuck .”
“Listen, dude... I HAD TO TRY.”

Mishima threw him a desperate look, as if daring him to comment... before deflating.

“It’s so weird though…”
“Yeah, I know, I have seen Kawakami, and yeah, I’ve met a couple of beautiful girls, Mishima, I’m sorry but do you even like boys.”

Mishima lowered his eyes and muttered.

“How should I know. I've never had anyone like that.”
“But you’ve already fallen in love, right?”
“I… uh… I’m not sure?”
“Mishima, are you aromantic?”
“How would I know?
“You’ve never fallen in love. Have you ever felt any kind of desire towards someone?”
“I… well, I don’t know. Can you be in love with the idea of love? Like, Makoto and you were such a power couple in high school. I was such a huge fan. Relationship goals and all. But I’d never have broken you up! I mean, not that it matters anyway, if you’re here, but…”

Mishima’s face was growing redder.

“Sorry for bringing that up. I don’t even exactly know what I expected by coming here.”

Akira deadpanned.

“Mishima. Would you like to date me?”

Mishima’s eyes widened, his blush only growing, and he promptly shook his hands in front of himself in a negative gesture.

“No no no! I mean, you’re nice and all, but…”
“And would you have liked to date Makoto?”
“No! I mean, uh… She’s… scary? But everyone is. I’m not sure I’d… date, I don’t know, listen, I just don’t know. I guess I’m just… kinda lonely? And seeing you together was... inspiring, I guess? But I don’t want to kiss and all. Gross.”

Akira’s phone pinged. He quickly checked, not really bothering to keep appearances when the boy before him wasn’t even sure what he wanted. The message wasn’t addressed to him anyway. He sighed.

“Futaba says, and I quote, ‘Tell the NPC to check his phone for the invite I’m sending him. Private chan, fully secured. Asap. There’s a lot to unpack here.’ You’re the NPC. And I agree with her. She’ll probably be able to explain better than I do.”
“But I never gave Sakura-chan my phone numb… oh.”

Mishima’s phone pinged and he scrambled to grab and check it. His face went even redder than it was before.

“...okay. I’ll… do it.”

Ping.

“...right now. Alright.”

Mishima sighed as he slowly got up.

“This evening was a disaster.”

Despite strongly agreeing with that statement, Akira shrugged and tried to sound as convincing and encouraging as possible. Considering the conversation he was about to have with Futaba, Mishima would probably need it.

“You said it yourself. You had to try. It’s brave of you to have done so.”

Mishima’s face brightened up.

“You really think so?”

Sojiro thankfully rang the bell.

“Oh… Well, Kurusu, see you later!”

Again, Akira didn’t bother writing down Mishima’s name on his paper. He did message Futaba to thank her for what she would do to help him, and to ask her that please, could she stop spying on this disastrous evening, it was embarrassing enough as it was.
Futaba answered with an emoji sticking its tongue out.
Akira was going to hyperventilate if he kept sighing so much.

“Alright, get ready! Here we go for seven more minutes!”

Ann’s voice was way closer than before. When Akira raised his head from his phone, he realised that was because she was sitting in front of him.

“Okay Ann, Ryuji and Mishima I somehow could get, but you? What the fuck, Ann, you’ve got a girlfriend already!”

Ann giggled.

“I know, right? And she’s so gorgeous and awesome, I love her so much. Nah, listen, I’m just checking up if everything is going alright.”

Akira groaned. That seemed to be enough of an answer for her. She nodded with a knowing look.

“Yeah, I know, not every participant can be to your taste. But…”

She lowered her voice in a conspiracy tone.

“I’m actually here to tell you... The next guy you’re going to see? Get ready .”

Akira almost gave her a sarcastic answer about how he had already been very ready before facing Mishima and Ryuji and could we talk about the whole former teacher disaster or how he would have liked to know about the shogi queen being here … but as if she’d read his mind, Ann narrowed her eyes and frowned.

“I’m very serious. I won’t forgive you if you mess this one up.”

Akira gulped and nodded. That was the Ann he didn’t want to anger, alright.
She suddenly brightened up and gave him a huge smile.
Damn.
Akira was glad Ann was his friend and not his enemy.

“Good! Now let me tell you about my awesome girlfriend for the remaining five minutes!”

And so she did. 

Akira was slumped on his seat, his head resting on the table, while Ann was still chattering about how beautiful and perfect Shiho was when Sojiro mercifully rang the bell.
Akira didn’t move. He didn’t even look at the paper.
How many more people was he going to see? How many was it already? He had lost count. This evening was way too long.
Ann had said something about the next participant. Akira didn’t have his hopes too high, but he also really didn’t want to anger Ann. He’d better try and do his best.
He straightened his posture,  bracing himself for whoever would sit in front of him. As Ann claimed again “Get ready!”, he raised his head, ready indeed to meet the stranger’s gaze, and…

...and he actually wasn’t ready.

Akira gaped.

He really wasn’t ready at all .

Eyes of a deep brown, almost red-tinted, met his gaze back and he could feel them detailing his face--he suddenly felt very self-conscious. He poked his finger at his glasses in a reflex to try and smoothly avert his eyes. 

Except Futaba still had his glasses.

...Okay. He could do that. He had already badly messed up once tonight, but he could speak with this beautiful stranger with a perfect face and long chestnut hair properly kept in a low ponytail. He could absolutely keep a straight face while chatting with this handsome guy whose torso was perfectly fitted in a dark red shirt that had the first three buttons popped open, allowing the shadow of the fabric to fall on an inviting, silky white chest and oh my God okay I can’t do that sorry Ann.
He was gazing. He was so gazing and he had to stop gazing. 
His finger was still on the brink of his nose, though, and Futaba still had his glasses so he couldn’t hide behind them.

Akira awkwardly scratched his nose and quietly took a deep breath before putting on his best smile, trying to cover the slight bi panic he’d just undergone.

“Hi. I’m Akira, nice to meet you.”

So far so good. Now, catching that guy’s name, because he knew that he somehow knew him , and could guess that the other knew that he knew him and…

“You’re… the barista, aren’t you? Shouldn’t you be standing there instead of sitting in front of me?”

Oh. He had a smooth voice. He definitely knew that smooth voice. It ordered a plain coffee to go every morning in this very cafe. It may or may not have fueled some of his daily fantaisies. 
It almost distracted him from the fact that the other hadn’t given him his name, pointing to the counter and low-key insulting him instead. 

Wow, this whole speed-dating thing was really going swimmingly well. 

He kept a--slightly more forced--smile and lightly shook his head.

“Nah, Boss is dealing with the customers tonight. I’m meant to be here. I, uh, I suppose I may have spawned the idea for the whole event. Kinda? Unfortunate circumstances.”
Unfortunate circumstances , uh?”

Akira winced. The memory of his complete failure to communicate with Hifumi was still very fresh: he wouldn’t fall into this trap. He wouldn’t mention his ex-girlfriend. It was fine. It was just a funny evening and his friends were just making fun of him and that was exactly what he was going to answer.

“Yeah, my friends grew tired of witnessing me moping over my break-up from last year so they decided to force fate and have me meet new people to make me forget about my ex.”

It was a good thing Futaba was busy explaining stuff to Mishima, because he pictured the message.
Task failed successfully. Abort mission. Dumbass.
He laughed nervously.

“Sorry. It’s a little awkward, and definitely not a good conversation starter.”

Good. Now don’t give him time to react, change topics, quick.

“So...you’re that detective that passes by during the morning shifts to grab coffee to go, right?”

Akira mentally high-fived himself. Change of topic: success. Trying to know more about the other: success. It wasn’t like he ogled him every morning when he handed him his order, after all.
The other guy answered him with a warm smile and a pleasant--maybe too pleasant--laughter.

“Yeah, Miss Nijima gave me the address. Your coffee is really good. I’ve grown quite addicted.”

Akira froze.

“Miss… Nijima?”

The other’s smile fell a little, as if annoyed that Akira would focus on this detail instead of having the intended reaction at his pleasant laughter.

“Sae Nijima, my coworker.”
“Oh! Sorry, I just… know another Miss Nijima.”
“Oh right, you must have been to high school with her sister, right?”

He knows.
At this rate, Akira was sure it was all a terrible machination.
Ann had invited this guy knowing that Akira was eyeing him every morning, and this guy had witnessed his despair over Makoto every morning in the past year. There was no way Sae Nijima had never told about her sister’s disastrous ex-boyfriend.
There was no way he didn’t know.

Or maybe it was just that his own mind was trying to make yet another disaster of a date and he was seeing evil everywhere.

After all, that detective-guy in front of him had registered for the speed-dating event.
He had even dressed up specifically for this event, because he sure as hell had never seen him in these clothes before. He would never have allowed him to leave the cafe if he…

Okay, wow, Akira, get a grasp.

His thoughts got interrupted by the silky voice.

“Ah, sorry. I know the rules said no personal information. My apologies if you feel like I went too far.”

The pleasant smile was back, but Akira didn’t miss the new, mischievous spark in these reddish eyes.
He was not sorry at all.
He gulped.

“It’s no trouble. We already bent the rules after all, since I already know that you work with Sae Nijima and that you’re a detective who seems to be able to make good deductions, and you already know I’m working here. Fair and balanced, alright?”

Akira allowed himself to smirk.

“There’s one thing that seems unfair, though… You know my name, but you still haven’t given me yours, Mister Detective.”

For once, Akira felt smooth and confident.

That guy knew he would find me here when he registered. He knew I was single. He knew what he was doing when he chose these clothes and he knew what he would say when he would come and…
I wonder if he did the same for everyone.
Oh my god did he do the same for the other people here.
Akira had to ask Ann. But for now, he mostly had to finally catch the other’s name. He still didn’t know. The guy was a regular customer and he didn’t even know his name. He knew his usual clothes, and he knew his burning eyes and his ridiculous tie, but he had been seeing him every morning for so long and he still didn’t know his name.

The other smirked too and was about to answer, when a shriek erupted from the table behind them.

“FIRE!”
“Oh, my! So these are what they call burning passion! That heat is amazing! What an experience!”

All chattering had stopped in the cafe and everyone stared at the table where the woman in blue clothes was excitedly clapping her hands in front of the fallen candle and the wooden table slowly catching fire. Hifumi was standing beside helplessly, trying to calm down the other woman. The others were just dumbstruck, Ann at a loss for anything to do. The bell laid abandoned on the counter. Sojiro must have gone in the kitchen to grab the fire extinguisher.
Then Morgana started hissing, and the other participants started yelling, and the flame reached one of the obnoxious stapled hearts on the wall, and Akira realised what was happening.

The table behind him was burning.
Burning .

His cafe was burning.
The place where he lived was burning.

So maybe Akira didn’t really think it through at the moment, but when he’d think back of it later, he could proudly said that he acted like a hero.
He promptly took off his long-sleeved shirt, and went to try and extinguish the fire by promptly covering it. 
He was hot. He would probably get second-degree burns on his arms at least, and the sweat on his face had surely ruined Ann's beautiful make-up work, but when Sojiro came back with the fire extinguisher, Akira was already proudly standing by the table, the fire long gone.
He would take some time to mourn this shirt later. It was a worthy sacrifice.

Especially when he felt the weight of someone else’s gaze on his back. He swiftly turned and caught the stranger’s eyes trailing on his bare shoulders. 

Uh.

Maybe he should have listened to Ann and removed that shirt earlier.
Like, before half a table had become charcoal black. 

Oh well.

Sojiro wasn’t happy. Ann was embarrassed. They decided to call the whole evening off and Ann picked up everyone’s papers and promised that she would send the results of her matchmaking later, but for now they had to close down shop and salvage what was salvageable.

Everyone but Sojiro, Akira and Ann scrambled off to the door. Sojiro and Ann started arguing about the damages. Akira just stood and sighed. 
That evening had been even more of a disaster than he expected. And just when he thought his luck had finally turned.

“Akira?”

From the door, the smooth voice of the detective called him, and maybe it lit up a small spark of hope in Akira while he was promptly putting off the candles on the remaining tables.

The detective had lingered in front of the door, a daring gleam in his eyes, and was holding out his hand to him.

“I know we’re not meant to trade personal information, but since our seven minutes were shortened, it feels only fair to bend the rules a little more. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind. You seem to be quite the gambler, after all.”

He handed a card to Akira, then turned away and promptly left the place while Ann and Sojiro’s screaming match intensified, not giving any time for the barista to unpack what he had just been told.

A little dumbstruck, Akira lowered his eyes to the business card he’d just been given.
One name, some professional information, and a number that seemed to have been hastily penned down on it.

Detective Goro Akechi, uh. 

Goro.

That was a nice name.

Not paying any attention to Ann and Sojiro anymore, Akira picked up Morgana, went up in his place-- his heroically salvaged place, at the cost of his shirt --and promptly added the detective’s information in the contacts of his phone.

*

Ping.

It was seven in the morning--way too early considering the events of the evening before--and Akira was only preparing to open the shop when his phone received a new message.
Did Futaba ever sleep?

akira
i can see u pining
from all the way across this camera to my room
its painful
send him a message

So maybe Akira was actually totally not preparing to open the shop, instead wondering when Ann would be done with the matchmaking so he could find an excuse to contact Goro again.

It’s against the rules. Ann hasn’t finished the matchmaking yet.

dont act like ur lawful good u chaotic disaster 
he gave u his number
hes waiting for ur message

What if Hifumi wanted me to message her too?

 

bro
don’t play stupid with me
u saw what happened w/ shogi girl
i saw u and it was painful
also i saw u when u saw him
and i also saw how he looked at u
send him a message ffs

Futaba, did you plan for it all?

maybe
maybe not
ull never know
now if u dont write him right now im sending him a message 
on ur behalf
from ur phone

Akira’s list of contacts suddenly opened without him having touched the screen. He just watched as the list scrolled to Gs.
Another notification appeared on top of it.

do it. now.

You’re awful.

love you too, bro
even if you’re a dumbass

Akira took a deep breath and started typing.

Hey, this is Akira. I know the matchmaking hasn't been completed yet, but I wanted to say I’m sorry about yesterday’s… flaming incident.
The table has been salvaged, and we’ll be open today.
I’ll be glad to give you your morning coffee on the house when you come pick it up to make up for the incomplete seven minutes.

The few minutes that separated his messages from a hypothetical answer felt like hours. He almost started rambling about how much he hoped to see him soon but was thankfully interrupted by a new notification.
Not Futaba this time.

Hello, Akira. It’s alright. 
What did you call it last night? Unfortunate circumstances, right?
You seem to attract them.
I’ll be glad to take you up on your offer, though.

Akira took a deep breath and, feeling bold, pushed his luck. Goro had registered for the speed-dating event, he had looked at him like that, and he had answered rather fast, after all.

And if I offer you to allow you to try the curry on the house one evening so we have more than seven minutes this time?

I could consider it.

Akira pumped his fist in the air.
Small victories.

For what it’s worth, the flames made your eyes glow in a very fascinating way.

I said I’d consider it. Please don’t make me reconsider before I even gave you a proper answer.

A new notification covered his messaging app.

Dumbass.

Wow. So Futaba knew how to use proper punctuation when needed.

Love you too, sis.
Thx.

Akira pocketed his phone with a dumb smile on his face, and went back to opening the cafe, eagerly waiting for his new favourite customer to come and pick his on-the-house coffee to go.