Akira knows he’s fucked up when Akechi gives Morgana a very deliberate once-over and says, “That’s a funny-looking dog.”
“Come again?” he tries anyway.
“I said, your dog,” continues Akechi. “Pardon my French, but it looks gravely misshapen. What breed is it?”
Akira’s spirit falters.
Akechi wasn’t wrong, per se, what with Morgana being unusually small and whiskered and clearly of the feline persuasion. Still, the cold delivery of the line had been wholly undeserving considering the amount of effort Akira had poured into his master plan of acquiring Goro Akechi’s phone number.
He supposes his friends would be begging for a dramatic narration of Akira’s irrefutable downfall later that evening. He closes his eyes and recounts the build-up leading up to the present moment.
It had been three months since Futaba’s father Sojiro had formally requested his help in manning the most desolate café in Tokyo city-prefecture. Eight, if Akira included the previous six months of slumming it behind the counter crafting 4-pumps-of-hazelnut-16-pumps-of-vanilla brews for Futaba. Those hadn’t earned him any pay, but they had earned him Sojiro’s attention, if only because his daughter was notoriously friendless and Akira was notoriously good at making friends.
Privately, Akira reckoned Sojiro felt sorry for him. Maybe he’d caught on to Akira dragging his feet each night before closing time, owing to the fact that Akira didn’t have a home to return to. Not one that could hold a candle to Leblanc, anyway, warm and safe and inhabited by the faces he held dear. Akira couldn’t remember the last time his parents had travelled down from the countryside to visit him in his unloved-and-unlived-in studio apartment.
So he’d snagged himself another part-time job, one in a line-up of several. On Mondays he worked at the flower shop. On Sundays he accompanied shit-faced patrons from Crossroads’ front doorstep to the apprehensive taxi drivers finishing up their graveyard shift. And Wednesdays Akira dedicated to memorizing the names, origins and flavour profiles of every single coffee bean Leblanc had to offer.
“Whoa, isn’t that Goro Akechi? From TV?” Futaba piped up one cold afternoon, roughly a month into Akira’s new barista stint.
She pointed at a good-looking boy holed up in the corner of the café. Sojiro barely spared the object of Futaba’s interest a glance. All that gave him away was a twitch of his furry eyebrows.
“Could be,” said Akira. He was too poor to invest in cable television.
A quick Google search under the bar counter told Akira that Goro Akechi was no ordinary teenage heartthrob; he had been deemed the teenage heartthrob by the majority of Tokyo’s under-18 population. Sojiro’s lack of concern did a 180. “You serve him,” he instructed Akira gruffly, distracting Futaba with another heaping plate of curry. “Keep him away from my daughter.”
Akira couldn’t imagine someone like Akechi would think twice about someone like Futaba. But he knew better than to tell Sojiro that.
Thus, a pattern established itself. Akechi came in once a week, usually towards the end of the afternoon and with his snow-white poodle in tow. Akira would say what can I get you?, and Akechi would say surprise me, with a lopsided curve of his mouth that suggested just how much he enjoyed Akira’s surprises. Akira would take a good long look at how Akechi’s tailor-made expression frayed at the edges. He thought about the effort it’d cost to maintain a smile whilst being coddled, cooed over and dismissed on live television, and felt gut-wrenchingly sad for the husk of a person trapped inside the Detective Prince’s shiny plastic exterior.
Luckily for Akechi, the café was no studio, and Akira was no pushy talk show host. If anything, he appreciated Akechi’s palpable misery. Thus Akira would prepare a cup of something, and with a nod and an earnest thank you, Akechi would carry his mystery blend over to one of the corner booths. The poodle always followed suit, its nails tapping dully against the linoleum.
Once seated, he’d open a book. Usually some sort of trashy thriller novel. Sometimes it’d be a whodunit-type of plot, the cover decorated with several men standing over a dead body. These details didn’t matter too much; Akechi never read past the first page.
After all, he was too busy staring at Akira for the entire duration of his visit.
The staring did not bother Akira. What he did mind was the radio silence that ensued whenever Akira tried to reciprocate: heart-shaped latte art in his coffee (Akechi sipped without looking), flirtatious small talk (which worked on everyone but the detective), flat whites on the house (Akechi paid regardless). No matter what Akira threw at him, Akechi would stubbornly stick to the script: come in, pine wordlessly from across the room, finish his drink, and be on his merry way. More often than not he’d make a sharp left after he closed the door behind him. Headed for the local park, judging by how fast his poodle’s tail started wagging as they left the building.
The sight of Akechi’s dog rekindled some kind of fierce, crazed determination hibernating deep within Akira’s chest. He acquired an ancient VHS copy of 101 Dalmatians from the old man selling scrap down the road and pushed it hurriedly into the video slot of his TV that same evening. Alone in his matchbox apartment and desperate to tie up the game of cat-and-mouse he’d gotten himself stuck in, Akira drew his knees up to his chin and watched Pongo the cartoon dalmatian wind his leash around Roger and Anita’s legs, pulling them within a hair’s breadth of each other.
Of course. Akira had a Pongo of his own, too.
The plan was set into motion the following Monday. Akira purchased a cat harness and wrangled a yowling Morgana into it. Then he travelled all the way to Yongenjaya and strolled up to Akechi perched on the most secluded bench in the dog park, where the boy was feeding his poodle artisanal sausages under the shade of an oak tree.
“You’re Goro Akechi from TV,” he’d said. Eloquently.
Akechi had frowned at him.
“It would appear so,” came the response. Reluctant, as if he was already plotting his escape from the conversation.
Akira put on his best disarming smile and deposited Morgana onto the ground. His brain scrambled for another opener.
“I’m Akira Kurusu from, uh. Leblanc. I make you coffee sometimes?” Fuck! “You’re walking your dog.”
“How observant of you to notice.”
“I’m walking mine too. Can I join you?”
“Feel free,” said Akechi, with all the resentment of someone who hardly ever got the chance to feel freely. Maybe taking the edge off after a busy afternoon of showbiz was precisely this to Akechi: ogling a teenage boy for weeks from the other side of an empty coffee shop, then pretending you wanted nothing to do with him once he approached you. Rejecting his mutual interest in the middle of a suburban dog park.
Akira was having none of it. Which led to their current predicament: Akira sitting silently next to Goro Akechi From TV on a bench in the middle of nowhere, western Tokyo. Fiddling with Morgana’s harness handle. Getting made fun of for his piss-poor attempt at establishing contact.
‘A gravely misshapen, funny-looking dog.’ Well. Akira couldn’t exactly argue.
He shifts his focus back to their present situation, in which Akechi is examining Morgana with some apprehension. His cat stalks tight circles around Akira’s legs, glowering up at the pair of them.
“Mona’s a rare toy breed,” Akira manages, after what feels like a century.
Akechi looks up. Akira takes the opportunity to detangle Morgana’s leash from around his knees.
“I see,” says Akechi flatly.
Akira points at the dog guarding Akechi’s feet. He’s seen it dozing off under the table at Leblanc plenty of times, but its appearance and demeanour still amaze Akira. He doesn’t think he’s ever come across an animal quite so stuck-up before.
“What’s its name?”
Akechi offers him a thin smile. He reaches down to scratch the poodle between its ears. Its tail thumps a steady, politely muted rhythm against the dirt, happy to bask in the attention.
“This is Robin Hood.”
“You named it Robin Hood?” Akira asks, aghast. “Robin for short, right?”
“No, just Robin Hood,” Akechi says. He’s stopped smiling. “She is a respectable dog, named after a respectable character. Calling her by a nickname would defeat the point.”
‘Respectable dog’ strikes Akira as an oxymoron. He doesn’t like dogs much. All the ways in which people bent over backwards for them, doted on them endlessly, played ball with them, cuddled up with them on the couch after a long day… Ryuji Sakamoto from school checked all those boxes for Akira. What was the point of dogs, really? They smelled bad, barked incessantly, and required potty training. He could think of better things to do with his time.
Akira imagines Robin Hood to pose an exception to the rule. The dog looks as smart as her owner. She sits up tall and self-assured; by her poise and grooming, he guesses her to be pedigree. Her fur has been sheared into various peaks and curves, different from a poodle’s natural silhouette. It makes her resemble a Greco-Roman-whatever hero, triumphant and sleek and carved out of marble. Akira means to tell Akechi this.
What he says instead is, “She looks like dango on a stick.”
“It’s called a Scandinavian trim,” Akechi replies, rather tersely. Akira is chipping away at his saintly reservoir of patience. “Do you take an interest in poodle cuts?”
“Funny you should mention that. I have a number of side hustles,” Akira says. He makes a scissor cutting motion with his index and middle finger. “I work at a dog groomer’s on Thursdays. Drop her off at our boutique sometime, I’ll fix her up for you.”
“No thank you,” says Akechi. Robin Hood, possibly sensing her owner’s newfound hatred for him, raises her head and shoots Akira a well-earned glare. “She’s in no need of fixing.”
“Positive. Robin Hood is a great deal more attractive than your ‘dog’.”
Akechi’s fingers stutter in mid-air. Air quotation marks. The nerve.
“Okay, suit yourself. Does she participate in any competitions?”
“Breed shows, mostly. Obedience trials on occasion.”
“That’s cool. What kind of tricks can she do? Mona might not be a looker,” Akira ignores the nipping sensation at his heel, “but he’s extremely intelligent. He yowls at seven on the dot every morning. I haven’t missed a day of school so far.”
Akechi stares at him, nonplussed. “She’s trained to do all the basic commands and then some.”
“Does she fetch?”
“If you ask nicely.”
“Why in God’s name would I teach her that?”
Akira picks at his fingernails. “Just wondering if she takes after her owner, since I’m the only one making any effort to keep this conversation alive and kicking.”
“You—” says Akechi hotly, the dam of his composure crumbling. He straightens his spine as if he’s about to rise from the bench and take off into the air. Then he settles down again, barely. His left hand balls up into a fist in Robin Hood’s coat, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe she was his therapy dog. “You approached me!”
“Akechi, every single time you come into Leblanc, you stare at me long enough for your coffee to go cold,” Akira parries. “Sorry for pestering you about your dog. I was just hoping to get some answers.”
“Well, leave Robin Hood out of it. And I don’t stare.” Akechi’s face reddens. Evidently he wasn’t expecting the curveball of owning up to his favourite café pastime. “Besides, I was looking at the other barista. Not you.”
“You go for older men? I’ll be sure to tell Sojiro.”
“No! I… I was thinking about picking up a figure-drawing class. I was studying his proportions.”
Akira has been serving Akechi long enough to know he was most definitely lying, considering how Akechi’s eyes glazed over at the sight of anyone who wasn’t Akira. Didn’t matter what they said or who they were. He looked just as put-off by each and every bright-eyed fan begging Akechi to sign their iPhone and/or body part of choice.
But not around Akira. Never around Akira. All Akechi did was smile at him fleetingly, shyly, and leave him increasingly larger tips under the receipt on the table.
Akira found this very flattering indeed.
Akechi is shuffling away from him. A small bundle of keys falls from his back pocket. Akira helpfully points at it; Akechi refuses to look at him.
“You can study my proportions if you want,” suggests Akira, all benevolent generosity. “Or I can babysit your dog for you when you’re due for another transpacific Jimmy Kimmel interview. Let me give you my business card.”
Akechi appears very panicked, suddenly. This time he actually does stand up. Akira and Robin Hood follow suit simultaneously. The poodle places her bulky frame in between them, acting every bit the bouncer Akechi probably should’ve hired to get rid of thugs like Akira.
Morgana’s tail whips up dust at the perceived disrespect. Robin Hood turns up her wet button nose at him.
“That’s enough. You cannot come over to my house,” Akechi says slowly, spelling it out for Akira, “and you cannot babysit my dogs. I’ve got to go. Please don’t ever talk to me again.”
Akira chuckles nervously. Akechi’s hand hovers over his coat pocket as though he’s about to summon fifteen sleeper agents to tackle and sedate Akira. He really hopes this isn’t the case. “Relax, I never mentioned visiting your house. You could bring her over to mine? But, uh, I realize how that must’ve come across—know you have your reasons for privacy and all, being the most famous teenager in Japan, and—”
By the time he blinks away his train of thought, Akechi has vanished. Akira catches the last of Robin Hood’s voluptuous Scandinavian trim-tail disappearing behind a bush, and then he is left alone with nothing but Morgana and the ramifications of his own actions to keep him company.