Karma should probably think things through more often. Statistically, it couldn’t hurt. He should know. He did the math once. Work had been particularly slow that day. However, that would require making an actual conscious effort to think, and Karma would much rather not do that. He ends up uncomfortably close to an existential crisis of what am I doing with my life, and how did I even get here and mom and dad were right, weren’t they each time he tries and—just, no.
Which—probably explains why he does what he does. Probably.
When the first customer of the day walks in, a boy with strawberry blond hair and a face that wouldn’t necessarily be unattractive if it didn’t look so sullen, it takes Karma a second to actually recognize him. “We serve coffee, I’m afraid we don’t carry remedies for whatever incurable strain of jerk you’re suffering from,” he says.
Gakushuu’s expression twists into something that Karma can really only describe as severely affronted. “I’m sorry?” he says.
“Whatever your deal is, Asano,” Karma says, slowly, “I think you’re expecting too much from the simple coffee bean.”
“I literally just need a cup of black coffee,” says Gakushuu. He’s not exactly glaring, but Karma gets the feeling he’s considering launching over the counter to decapitate him in one swift move anyway. Karma tends to have that effect on people. Judging by Gakushuu’s biceps, he might even manage it. He must’ve kept up the martial arts since their high school days.
“Do you really need to keep your life devoid of excitement pathologically enough that you won’t even let your coffee have some personality?” Karma asks.
Gakushuu laughs. “You didn’t really change since high school, did you?” he says.
“Why ruin perfection?” asks Karma, letting a smile stretch over his face wide enough to be annoying.
“Have you ever considered professional help?” Gakushuu asks, tone serious. “I’m sure that if you actually diagnose the problem, managing it would become much more doable.”
“Are you offering?” Karma asks, arching an eyebrow.
“I doubt your barista job is enough for you to afford my fees,” Gakushuu says.
“Aren’t you still studying?” Karma asks.
“A mere technicality,” Gakushuu says, glancing impassively at his fingernails. “We both know I’m good.”
“Do we?” Karma asks. “I mean, isn’t it a little concerning that you of all people would choose to go into psychology? There are easier ways to work through your daddy issues, you know.”
“I must assume you’re speaking from personal experience,” Gakushuu says. “Is this your belated teenage rebellion? Working in a coffee shop to piss off mom and dad?”
Karma scowls. “That’s none of your business,” he says. “Now excuse me while I go make your insipid coffee.”
“Oh, you bought a thesaurus, didn’t you?”
Karma bites his tongue. They might put up with a lot of the things he does here, but he has yet to push it as far as telling a customer to go fuck himself. He wants to, though.
He really wants to.
“Guess who showed up at work today,” Karma says, unceremoniously tossing his apron in the laundry basket.
Nagisa doesn’t look up from the depressing pile of books in front of him when he asks, “Did an entity of evil with the sole purpose of ruining your life manifest in front of you?”
Karma groans. “Worse,” he says. “Asano came in.”
Nagisa looks up. He looks like he wants to say something, and there’s something uncomfortably close to pity on his face. “Karma—,” he says.
“No,” Karma cuts off. “It’s not—about that.”
“You know,” Nagisa says, standing up, and that one time Rio set the food she’d been trying to cook for them on fire and Nagisa hadn’t moved flashes through Karma’s mind and—well, this really doesn’t seem like a Nagisa standing up kind of situation, but— “It’s fine if it is.”
“It isn’t,” Karma insists.
“Alright,” Nagisa says. “But I’m here if you want to talk about anything.”
Should he? Want to talk about anything? What would he even say? I’m pretty sure I still want to wipe that smug look off his face but I also kind of want—no, that wouldn’t work.
Karma sighs, plopping down onto the worn couch. “Thanks, Nagisa,” he says.
Nagisa pats his head.
“Oh, God why are you back?” Karma asks.
The door closes behind Gakushuu. “The charming staff is hard to stay away from,” he says, giving Karma a serene smile that only manages to make him feel frankly unjustified amounts of anger.
“One black coffee, coming right up,” he says, before Gakushuu has so much as taken a seat. The sooner he’s done, the sooner he leaves, and the less Karma has to stare at his annoyingly handsome face. It does horrible things to his blood pressure. He really thought he’d left the impulse to punch Gakushuu Asano for existing back in high school.
“You remembered,” Gakushuu says. “I’m touched.”
“Does anything actually get through all that ice around your heart?” Karma asks, reaching to tap at Gakushuu’s chest. It’s—firm. Damnit.
Gakushuu steps away. “Just make me my coffee,” he says. “Or is that too difficult for you to accomplish?”
“Can’t be harder than beating you,” Karma says, valiantly resisting the urge to stick his tongue out.
“Your greatest accomplishment in life, I’m sure,” Gakushuu says.
“Yeah, it’s right next to winning those claw grab games at the arcade,” Karma says. “I still have the bear. It’s pink. I named him Mister Pinkbert.”
“That’s—actually a little impressive. I could never beat those things,” Gakushuu says. He sounds—almost amused and that—well. That’s probably not an excuse for Karma not to constantly antagonize him. Right? “Why Mister Pinkbert though?”
“I was five,” Karma says. “I didn’t exactly have much logic behind it other than oh, look, a pink bear.”
“That’s cute,” Gakushuu says.
Karma pauses mid-coffee prep. “Did—did you just call me cute?” he asks.
Gakushuu goes very still. “I—I mean I’m sure you were a lot less obnoxious at age five,” he says, cheeks darkening at an impressive speed.
“Not really,” Karma says, carefully capping the coffee. “I bit people a lot back then.”
“Well, um, I suppose that—from a purely objective viewpoint, of course—you are,” Gakushuu says.
“I’m what?” Karma asks, placing the cup on the counter. Gakushuu reaches out to take it, and there's a millisecond where their hands brush. Karma can feel his own cheeks heat up.
“Cute,” he says.
“Nagisa, what does it mean when the devil himself calls you cute?” Karma asks, throwing the door to their shared apartment open.
Nagisa smiles at him. “You had fun at work today?” he asks.
Inexplicably, Karma gets the sudden urge to hide. “If your definition of fun includes Asano’s obnoxious face,” he says, bending down to tug his shoes off.
“It doesn’t,” Nagisa says. “But I get a feeling yours might.”
“I swear, if you’re about to wink—,” Karma says, looking up.
Nagisa laughs. “Do I need to?” he asks.
“I just—I mean I can’t stand him, but he’s also kind of nice to have around? When he’s not being an absolute jerk?” Karma says.
“You know he’s not like that with anyone else, right?” Nagisa asks.
Karma turns to face him. “What?” he asks.
“I mean,” Nagisa says. “He’s generally a lot more laid-back with the rest of us.”
Karma’s eyes narrow. “Have you been having weekly brunch with Asano or something?” he asks.
“No,” Nagisa says, a little too slowly. “But Rio and Kaede have.”
“You’re kidding,” Karma says. “Please tell me you’re kidding.” He takes a deep breath, and walks over to the calendar hanging on the wall. “Is it April? Did I miss something?”
“I’m—not kidding,” Nagisa says. “We’ve—we kept in touch. He asks about you. I’m a little surprised it took him this long to show up, actually.”
“He asks about me?” Karma repeats, halfway to their snack cabinet. He’s in dire need of their emergency cheese Pringles right now.
“Asks like how’s my arch-nemesis doing?” Karma says, reaching to grab the box.
"Asks like… I think he misses you, honestly,” Nagisa says.
Karma stares. Nagisa shrugs. Karma stares some more. “Look,” he says, “I’m sure if you two just sit down and talk it out like responsible adults, it’ll be fine.”
Karma laughs. “Have you met me?” he says, bringing a potato chip to his mouth.
“You can be really mature when you want to,” Nagisa says.
“What makes you think I want to?” Karma asks. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I intend to take this with me, and watch bad soap operas until I’m too numb to process the reality of the fact that I exist on the physical plane. If you hear any wailing, it’s the cat.”
He’s already closing his bedroom door when he hears Nagisa say, somewhat resigned, “We don’t have a cat, Karma.”
Well, they should really get one, then.
Fridays are especially busy. Too many overworked college students who think caffeine is a good long-term substitute for sleep running on their last bits of willpower. Karma doesn’t blame them. If he had anything resembling a work ethic, he’d rely more on coffee too. But he usually just sleeps through his morning classes. Then again, he’s majoring in philosophy, so he’s pretty sure it counts as an alternative approach to studying. Or it will when he finds a way to bullshit the value behind it to his professor, anyway. Something about freedom of choice and proof of individualism. He’s not too worried about it.
“Good morning. Welcome to Grind it Out. What can I—Asano?”
“Wow, you are capable of being professional,” Gakushuu says.
“It has been known to happen,” Karma says. “But if you’re going to order another black coffee, my soul is going to leave my body.”
Gakushuu smiles. It’s small, but it’s an actual honest smile. It makes look young, for once. Karma almost forgets they’re the same age, sometimes. But not right now. Right now, he just thinks he’d like to see that smile more often. “We can’t have that, now can we?” Gakushuu says.
“Nope,” Karma says, stifling the urge to smile back. “We absolutely cannot.” He gets to work on making something. “You’ll like this,” he tells Gakushuu’s bemused face. “Trust me.”
There’s a second where something like uncertainty flickers through Gakushuu face, but then he just says, “As long as you promise not to poison me.”
Karma does smile, then. “And miss out on seeing your pretty face scrunch up every other day when I make you mad?” he says. “Not a chance.”
Gakushuu flushes. “Was—was that your version of a pick-up line?” he asks.
“Depends,” Karma says, handing him a cup of probably 90% whipped cream, “did it work?”
Gakushuu looks down at the cup. Looks back up at Karma. “Did you want it to?” he asks.
Karma swallows. “Maybe,” he says.
Gakushuu brings the cup up to his mouth and takes a sip. “Not horrible,” he says.
“That’s the worst yes I’ve ever received,” Karma says.
“Well,” Gakushuu says, taking another prim sip, “that’s the worst way I’ve been asked out.”
“I hate you so much,” Karma says. He’s smiling so wide his face hurts.
“The feeling is mutual,” Gakushuu says.
Karma walks in whistling.
Nagisa looks at him like he knows. Which—considering Rio’s track record, he probably does. “You look better,” he says. Which is Nagisa’s way of saying are no longer stuffing your face full of cheese Pringles even though you’re lactose intolerant while crying at bad TV. Karma appreciates it.
“Yeah,” he says. “I asked Gakushuu out.”
Nagisa blinks. “So you two finally worked things out?” he asks, cautious in a way that confirms it’s not the first time he’s hearing about this.
Karma shrugs. “Not really. But I’ll date him so hard.”
“Please tell me you didn’t make dating him into some sort of competition inside your head,” Nagisa says.
“I didn’t make dating into a competition inside my head,” Karma says dutifully.
Nagisa gives him a look.
“I kind of did?” Karma says.
“Karma,” Nagisa says.
“It’ll be fine,” Karma says.
Nagisa’s head hits the desk.
“You look really nice,” Karma says. Gakushuu’s not dressed up by any means, but the ripped jeans suit him. He’s got on a plain white t-shirt, and he looks—good. Less like he’s come to hand you an eviction notice and more like an actual college student.
“Thanks,” Gakushuu says. “Did you actually bring me flowers? I’m impressed.”
Karma hands the roses to him. “Figured I should say sorry,” he says. “I kind of—pounced on you, the first day you came. You didn’t deserve it.”
Gakushuu rubs at the back of his neck. “Yeah, well,” he says, “I wasn’t always the nicest to you. You had your reasons to doubt my motives.”
Karma laughs. “You know,” he says, “once, back in high school, Rio told me she thought that was our—and this is a direct quote—weird little courting ritual.”
“It kind of was though,” Gakushuu says, looking pensive, “wasn’t it? Remember when we had to do that math project on the history and development of trigonometry and almost killed each-other?”
Karma shudders. “That was horrible,” he says. “You fell asleep on me that one time we met up after school, and then you started pathologically avoiding me. I was actually a little sad.” (He’d eaten two pints of double chocolate-chip ice-cream on his own, but some things are better left unsaid.)
“Oh,” Gakushuu says. “That.”
“Yeah,” Karma says. “That.”
“I was—,” Gakushuu gnaws at his lower lip. “I was embarrassed,” he says. “Back then I—I didn’t like how I—how I felt around you. My heart started beating faster, and my hands would get all sweaty and—I fell asleep on you, for God’s sake.”
“Oh, my God,” Karma says. Then again, just for good measure, “Oh, my God.”
“What?” Gakushuu asks.
“I wanted to ask you out,” Karma says, probably a lot louder than strictly socially acceptable. A few people turn to look at them. “I was sad because I was thinking about asking you out. And then you started avoiding me and I thought I’d read the whole thing wrong. Poor Nagisa listened to so many excess sugar fuelled rants about you.”
“Oh, my God,” Gakushuu echoes, putting a hand over his face. “We’re so stupid.”
“We really are,” Karma says.
“I’m sorry,” Gakushuu says. “I like you.”
“I like you too,” Karma says, taking a few steps closer. “A lot. Even though you have horrible coffee taste.”
“Hey,” Gakushuu says. “I ate whipped cream for you.”
“And that was very sweet of you,” Karma says, and cups his chin. Gakushuu’s answering groan twists into a laugh against his mouth. Gakushuu’s lips are soft, and he tastes a little like strawberry lip balm and— “I can’t believe we could have been doing this two years ago,” he says. “That’s very poor time management on your part.”
“I hate you,” Gakushuu says. They’re still sharing a breath.
“Anything I can do to change that?” Karma asks.
Gakushuu hums. “I could think of a few things,” he says.
Luckily, Karma has a pretty good idea what they are.