Pairing/Group: Arashi; Ohmiya
Wordcount: 15,000. Epic.
Warnings: A couple of cameos and throw-away OC extras in the background.
Summary: A story of five guys, self-realization, determination, love and caffeine.
Notes: Coffee house AU for je_holiday 2009 (original post). This wouldn't have happened without aeslis. Many thanks to my beta team, articulation, g_esquared and oviparous. See if you can spot the references to T.S. Eliot, Saturday Night Live and Empire Records.
For primroseshows, you asked for "[R]oles! ... a story that deals with something developing. If there is conflict (and I hope there will be), I'd like to see it resolved. Happy endings please! It is Christmas." I hope this delivers. ♥
"Over second and third cups flow matters of high finance, high state, common gossip and low comedy. [Coffee] is a social binder, a warmer of tongues, a soberer of minds, a stimulant of wit, a foiler of sleep if you want it so. From roadside mugs to the classic demi-tasse, it is the perfect democrat." – The New York Times, 1949
When you walk into Johnny's, it feels like you've stepped into someone's home, with years and memories stitched into the corners and counter tops. Surfaces in warm woods, the mismatched chairs and tables are cozy and welcoming. The aroma of roasted Arabica beans permeates everything. The walls are covered in pictures of the owners, the staff, and their customers; they chart the history of the coffee house.
The place is sandwiched between a used book shop and a vintage clothing boutique. The neighbourhood is home to a mix of folks: people who have lived in the same houses for decades, families with two-point-five children, and power couples who send their dogs' cashmere cardigans out for dry cleaning.
Everyone knows Johnny's.
The first customers of the day are the men and women in their chic tailored suits and pin heels: in one hand is a briefcase or presentation folder; in the other, a steaming, extra shot cappuccino sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg, snug in its to-go sleeve. After the morning rush, the septuagenarians who can remember the day the shop first opened come in to take a break from their daily walk. In the afternoon, students fill the armchairs and tables after baseball and band practice to do math problem sets and English assignments.
It's the regulars that make it worth working at Johnny's.
"Suzuki-san, good morning! You're quite early today," Sho greets his first customer brightly at six o'clock. He pockets the key and holds the door open for the elderly man.
"It's morning all right, but I wouldn't say it's a good one. The wife is in a particularly foul mood today."
"Suzuki-san! What did you do this time?" Sho asks with a knowing tone, walking around the display fridge to the till. He reaches under the counter for a coffee mug. "The usual?"
"Nothing I haven't done before. I probably forgot to put the toilet seat down again or something." He chuckles darkly as he drops a couple coins into Sho's palm and takes his mug of black coffee. "I forget. You're not married, are you?"
"Not yet, no," Sho replies, closing the register drawer.
"Be thankful. It's one of my biggest regrets in life."
"All right, Suzuki-san," Sho laughs nervously. He's not sure if that was supposed to be a joke; the old man isn't known for his sense of humour. "Have a good one."
He watches Suzuki-san stand at the old vanity-come-condiment counter with a newspaper tucked under his arm, spooning Demerara sugar into his mug. Sho checks that the coffee filters for the two extra coffee urns ready to be brewed and that all the muffins and baked goods are out.
Opposite the espresso bar and cash register is the bean counter: twenty-one drawers with a chalk board on the wall reaching up to the ceiling above, listing all forty-two blends of coffee. Sho looks at the board and remembers that he has to tell Ohno to fix the smudges where some bratty teenager thought it would be funny to write "Yamada is an ass pirate" with their finger in the chalk.
Sho pulls out the staff binder from between the grinders on the bean counter and flips to the schedule. He looks at his watch and sighs, grabbing the cordless phone from its charging cradle. He keys in Aiba's cell number.
"Hrmrello?" is the groggy answer Sho receives after four rings.
"Aiba-chan? Hey, good morning. Sorry for waking you up."
"Hmff time s'it?"
"Umm, about half past six. What time did you get to sleep last night?"
There is the sound of rustling sheets and a faint curse on the other end of the line. "Maybe two, I think... Did somebody quit?"
"Yeah; Nino left me a note about it. I really wish he would tell me when shit like this happens. Or better yet, make these calls himself. This is part of his job isn't it?" Sho takes the muffled sound that Aiba makes for agreement. "I could probably handle the store by myself until Ohno-kun gets here at ten thirty, but you know how unpredictable Saturday mornings can be."
"Mmmyeah," Aiba chuckles and yawns.
"When do you think you can get here?"
"Hmm... Probably around eight. I'll jump in the shower." There's a deep inhale and it sounds like Aiba's trying to scrub the sleep off his face with his hand. "Well, I definitely could use the extra hours this month."
"Great. See you when you get here."
Sho hangs up the phone and takes a look at the schedule changes. He pulls off the post-it note with Nino's handwriting scribbled on it.
Jin's name is crossed off the list of staff phone numbers with a thick magic marker line and the rest of his shifts are circled in red. Sho fishes for a pencil and writes Aiba's name neatly in the Saturday morning slot.
This is what happens when Shingo-san shows up and tries to act like the owner he's supposed to be. None of the people he hires ever last very long, and they're always the same type of person: pretty and simple. Apparently that's supposed to sell lattes. But there is a very good chance that they're also lazy. Though Sho had to give Shingo a little bit of credit – Jin lasted for a whole three weeks.
"Ninomiya-kun! What a delightful treat! I haven't had the pleasure of seeing you around lately."
"Murakami-san," Nino greets the elderly woman who ambles towards the counter and casts a desperate glance around for Aiba who is, conveniently, no where to be found. He suddenly remembers why he stopped working the ten thirty shift. "Ah, yes. Well, I've had to work evenings lately... and I'm usually stuck in the back doing paperwork. You know, managerial stuff."
"Then you probably haven't seen my granddaughter. She's gotten so big!" The woman goes on at length about her granddaughter's prepubescent beauty and Nino busies himself with making her drink. He pulls out the tea drawer and selects a bag of Earl Grey, wraps the string around the handle of the teacup and fills it three-quarters-full with piping hot water.
"You should really stop trying to set me up with your granddaughter, Ma'am. She's only, what, twelve? She must be so embarrassed," he replies with a tight smile.
"Nonsense; the girl can't stop talking about you. You're such a nice young man! I want to snap you up for her before you find another girl to settle down with."
Nino sets the teacup down on a saucer and slides it gently across the counter. "I don't think that's going to happen any time soon, don't worry," he says pointedly. "Do you need some help carrying that?"
"Oh, no. I'll be just fine." She tuts and pats his hand with a soft smile. The cup rattles dangerously in her trembling grasp all the way to her table.
It's then that Aiba reappears and slings an arm across Nino's shoulders. "Wow. She just loves you."
"Shut up. Where the hell did you disappear to?"
"I was refilling the beans like you asked."
"I asked you to do that—" Nino checks his watch, "an hour ago. You're such a dick." Nino shrugs off Aiba's arm and reaches for the filter basket, dumping the used grinds into the garbage bin. "She's trying to whore out her twelve-year-old grandkid. Isn't that just a little bit creepy?"
"It's a little bit cute. Come on, admit it."
"No, it really isn't."
"You know, when you stopped doing the ten thirty-to-five, she asked for you every day. She said that no one makes her tea the way you do."
"Like I said: creepy. I could get a monkey to make her tea and she wouldn't know the difference. She probably just wants me for herself as some kind of young trophy husband but setting her granddaughter up with me is more socially acceptable."
"But then you'd be in-laws. Isn't that illegal?"
"No, that's incest, dumb ass. But, ew, even if I was inclined, it would be like fucking my gra—ugh!"
Aiba guffaws as Nino shivers violently at the mental image he'd just given himself.
"Is this karma for giving Jin an ultimatum?" Nino wonders as he takes the two-percent pitcher out of the milk fridge. He checks the thermometer clipped to the side before pouring in more milk to steam.
"You made him quit?" Aiba asks, incredulous. "We don't have enough staff for you to be firing the ones you have unfounded hatred for. Matsujun's got exams coming up so you know he's going to be cutting back his hours."
"Yes, I know: I make the schedule. But I didn't make Jin do anything. I just told him that if he didn't like doing things the right way—"
"You mean your way?"
"Whatever," Nino snaps as he taps the pitcher on the counter to settle the foam. "All I said was that if he didn't like how things were done around here, he was more than welcome to find another place of employment. And so he said he wouldn't be coming in the next morning. Which is why I'm now working his Sunday shift. I never work on Sundays."
"Well, you better learn to like them or hire someone else soon. Before Shingo-san shows up on Thursday and exerts his authority as owner and does it for you. I think there's a stack of resumes in the folder."
Nino is complacent. He doesn't aspire to be more than he is and he doesn't desire more than he has because that just leads to disappointment. He isn't blessed with a rich family or happenstance. He started working at Johnny's when he was sixteen because it was the first place to offer him a job and he needed the money. And a job is all it is to him: a service performed for which he gets paid. His check is enough to help cover the bills at home and put a little bit away every month and that's good enough.
It's a well-known fact among the staff at Johnny's that if gainful employment was optional and the world had no monetary responsibilities, Nino would spend all his time at home with his video games and card tricks. He'd come and go as his moods moved him: eat when he got hungry, sleep when he felt tired. He'd focus his energy on plucking the strings of his guitar into chords and scribbling lyrics on scraps of paper.
And though Nino has no particular passion for coffee, he does take his job seriously. He is diligent in his own way, doing what needs to be done to keep things running smoothly. But he has no qualms about sharing his responsibilities with other people.
He gets Jun to do the ordering on occasion because Jun is organized to an anal retentive degree – that above all is what puts him at the top of his class at the university. In return, Nino doesn't mind if Jun uses the store after hours to write a paper or cram for a test when Aiba is entertaining a lady at the apartment they rent together.
Nino relies on Sho to open the shop, despite working late at the radio station every night. Even if there is an event that rolls into the small hours of the morning, Sho is unfailing and never late. Nino pays him back by sending him home early when there are no customers so he can get a couple more hours of sleep.
When Shingo-san complained about the cost of the take-out cups and Java Jackets, Aiba gave Nino the number of the supplier his parents' restaurant uses. Because Nino dropped the Aiba family name, he got a discount on top of the money he'd already saved the store. So Nino doesn't mind if Aiba brings in a new dish he's created for them (and the customers) to try; some of his creations are surprisingly delicious.
And Ohno: he's the one Nino can depend on to come in at a moment's notice when someone calls in sick. Ohno does his best to make time between his dance practices to switch shifts at the last minute. He never complains about staying late to do the annual inventory or cleaning up after Open Mic Night. He'll drop by to hang out when he's not even on the schedule, just because Nino asks him to. He could probably take credit for making Nino the manager he is: he trained Nino, after all—but he doesn't because that's just the kind of person he is.
The four of them are what make Nino such a good manager. It's not his impeccable leadership because he has none. The only reason he took the position was because Ohno didn't want it. It also meant a pay raise. But Nino's style of management has built a close-knit crew that relies on him as much as he relies on them. Without Nino, they all would have quit long ago.
The pair of couches wedged between the bean counter and the fireplace are popular with university students who spread out their mountains of notes on molecular biology and the Meiji Restoration. Tonight, Jun shares the space with another guy who's furiously typing on his laptop keyboard while it's quiet between sets.
"Jun-kun~ What are you reading?" Ohno sing-songs, leaning over the back of the sofa.
"It's a book about how to run a family business," Jun replies absently, holding up the thick volume so Ohno can see the cover. His mixed berry muffin is half-eaten and the foam of his cappuccino has already disappeared, the espresso gone cold.
"I didn't know your family had a business," Ohno says, confused. "Isn't your mom a teacher or something?
"Yeah, she is. It was the only class that would fit in my schedule and I needed three more credits to graduate this semester."
Ohno reads over Jun's shoulder for half a paragraph before blinking hard and rubbing his eyes. "Hmm... Looks complicated."
He gives up reading and reaches down to flick the switch inside the hearth to turn on the fire. Shingo's uncle installed the electric fireplace and handsome brick mantle when he renovated the building and started Johnny's, transforming an old curio emporium into a coffee house. The fire flickers to life, licking the fake log; it's a weak attempt at ambiance and the warmth it creates barely extends past the end of the coffee table.
"Would you help me collect the dishes?" Ohno asks sweetly.
"It's not that bad, really," Jun comments, sticking a scrap of paper into the book to mark his place. "The same principles apply to running any small business – you just have to deal with family bullshit on top of everything else. And you do know that I'm not working now, right? Please notice the lack of apron."
"I know, but you're here and Nino's tuning his guitar and I want to get them done before he starts his set." Ohno begs and puts a pout on his lips. Ohno and Nino are the closers tonight, as on every Open Mic Night. Jun, Aiba and Sho sometimes come to watch and always manage to get persuaded into helping just before Nino takes the stage.
Jun sighs and puts his textbook into his bag. "You should give me a cut of your tips for this," he says, teasing, and starts with his own plate.
Every third Friday of the month is Johnny's Open Mic Night. They push the table at the front of the store to the side and move the stools from the bay window counter to make a small stage. There are a few regulars who come to play, trying to make it in the music industry and will take any opportunity they can to get on stage. Others do it for the sole love of performing. It's horrendously amateur: all they have is one small hand-me-down amplifier, a single microphone and one of the track lights aimed down at the mic stand. Most of the performances are acoustic and sometimes improvised but the crowd is always enthusiastic.
Nino takes the final spot of the night every month. He always starts by thanking those who have performed and the audience for coming out to support their local talent while he perches on a stool.
He adjusts the guitar on his knee, tunes the third and fourth strings one last time before introducing the title of his first song. Jun loads the last few mugs into the dishwasher but waits to turn it on until Nino's finished playing. The house is packed tonight, which means they've made good money but that they're going to lock up much later than usual. The coffee pots haven't even been washed out yet.
Jun watches Ohno, leaning on the counter by the till with his chin in his hand, watching Nino's performance. Just like he does every month. It's a mid-tempo tune with a simple arrangement: a love song about long nights and imagined wintergreen kisses. Jun shakes his head and wonders how Nino doesn't see it when everyone else does.
Jun's asked Ohno before what's keeping him at Johnny's: working full-time at the neighbourhood coffee house isn't exactly a lucrative career move for anyone except the owner. What are the classes and rehearsals every other day for, if not for auditions? Why don't you focus more on dance? Jun's asked. All he got was a shrug for an answer and a shy glance in Nino's direction that spoke louder than words.
It's Shingo's ritual to come every Thursday to collect the money from the safe and deposit it into the bank himself. One of the closers – usually Nino – makes a run to the bank every afternoon to change large bills into coin for the float and to deposit the money. It makes Shingo think that he's actually involved in the running of his business. He saunters through the door and takes a cursory glance at everything, but he's there so infrequently he wouldn't be able to tell if anything had changed. He flips through the binder and scans the schedule, looking important, and suffers idle chat with whoever is working and any customers who recognize him.
This week, he brings in the brisk February chill with him, stalking across the coffee shop trying not to meet anyone's eyes. He clearly wants to get in and get out and that, more than the sudden drop in temperature, makes Sho shiver.
"G'morning, Shingo-san. You don't usually come in until after I've left," Sho notes from the doorway of the store room. Shingo is kneeling on the floor under the cluttered desk – Nino's "office" – spinning the dial on the safe.
"I have a meeting this afternoon on the other side of town so I thought I'd swing by a bit early to collect the deposit. How was the Open Mic last week?"
"I couldn't make it but I heard there was a great turn out—one of the biggest we've ever had. We might have to start doing sign-ups a week in advance."
Shingo grunts his acknowledgement and takes the deposit bag out of the safe. He unzips it to check the contents, all the earnings from the previous day, and then asks suddenly, "Can you get everyone in here for a meeting? There's something I want to tell you guys and I only want to say it once." He sounds hesitant and Sho can't imagine why.
"Uh, sure. When did you have in mind?"
"As soon as possible. I'll come in after hours; just let me know when." Sho steps out of the door frame to let Shingo pass, deposit bag tucked securely under his arm. "Can you make me a decaf wet capp to go?"
Sho watches Shingo leave and thinks he isn't the most forthcoming of people—Shingo is infamous for his negativity, but there was regret in his voice. That's something Sho is sure Shingo never feels. It's suspicious. But it isn't his place to question the guy who signs his pay checks. Whatever it is, it'll have to wait.
"Hey Sho-chan," Aiba chirps, coming in the back door with his motorcycle helmet in hand. "Anything weird happen today?"
"Nothing except for Shingo-san showing up early. He just left."
Aiba halts in the middle of flipping through the pages of the binder and gives Sho a curious look. "That is weird."
"He said he wants to have a meeting. Sounded important."
"It must be. The last time Shingo-san himself called a meeting was... never." Aiba finishes flipping to the schedule. "Well, I have ten minutes before starting. I'll be in the back."
It's nine minutes later according to the digital clock on the credit card machine when Sho hears a sudden gush of water and yelling that is distinctly Aiba's. Sho leaves his customer standing at the counter with her hand full of change with a deeply apologetic look on his face.
The rug in the back hallway squelches under Sho's feet and the linoleum is dangerously wet – as is Aiba, who is trying to stop the fountain spraying out of the pipe behind the toilet with his hands.
"Help me, Sho-chan!"
"What the hell did you do?!"
"Nothing, I swear! It wasn't my fault! Just turn it off!" Aiba shouts over the surge of water, his fringe dripping into his eyes. Sho tries in vain to stay dry and reaches down to turn off the water supply to the toilet. It doesn't help.
"Where is the central water main?" Sho yells over the geyser.
"I don't know!"
"I don't know either!"
"Well, go look for it!"
"Help me! The washroom won't stay any drier with you deflecting the spray in here."
It takes ten minutes to find the water meter outside the back door. It takes another five to pry the top of the green plastic box open with a flat-head screwdriver to reach the shut-off valve. Their clothes are sodden and their shoes make little puddles when they stand in one place for too long. There is an inch of water on the floor and they've taken all the blue towels and dirty aprons from the laundry hamper and used them to keep the water from seeping underneath the fridge. The walls of the bathroom are streaky and the ceiling has droplets clinging to it, threatening to pull off the paint when they fall.
They find a plumber's business card tacked to the bulletin board over Nino's desk, but he can't come in until the following morning. They can't turn the water back on and without water, they can't make coffee or run the dishwasher. And without coffee, there's no point in staying open.
Aiba peels off his button-down shirt and flips the open sign in the window before pulling the blind down on the front door. "I guess we should call Nino and Oh-chan and tell them they don't have to come in."
"Oh, no fucking way. Nino is coming in and he's going to help us clean up this mess," Sho growls, kicking off his shoes. He sits on the coffee table directly in front of the fireplace in an attempt to get warm. "You know that pipe has been leaking for weeks but he's been too lazy to call someone to look at it. And tell him to bring some clothes; I don't want to catch pneumonia."
It takes several hours to clean the disaster. Aiba has to run to the Greek restaurant a few doors down to fill up buckets of water so they can wash the dishes and coffee pots. Sho thrusts a mop into Nino's hands as soon as he arrives and leaves him to take care of the lake in the hallway while he finally starts the regular closing duties. Ohno is commandeered into wiping down the ceiling and walls and borrowing a fan from the bookstore to dry the washroom.
When Nino finally calls Shingo to report the burst pipe and sudden closure, they expect him to be livid at the expenditure and loss of revenue. But all they get is a short sigh and orders not to bother opening the shop in the morning. "He says to be here at noon tomorrow. He's coming in to talk to us," Nino says, puzzled, when he hangs up the phone. "I don't know why. It's just a plumbing problem, nothing we haven't dealt with before."
"Oh, like that time when that boy dropped all his Hot Wheels cars down the sink drain?" Ohno asks.
"And then it took an hour to pull them all out of the U-bend," Sho remembers. "That was fun."
After the risk of slipping on the tiles is eliminated and they are sure another leak won't spring up, Aiba gives Sho a ride to the radio station. Nino and Ohno are left to finish closing the shop and to call Jun to inform him about the change in the schedule.
The next day is bleak when they all assemble, and Shingo and the plumber are already there. Ohno arrives first; he figures it's best to be early and he's never been a good judge of time, even though his house is the closest to the store. Aiba arrives next with Jun on the back of his bike. Cheeks wind-chapped and his toque is pulled down over his ears, Jun is grumbling about getting a full-faced helmet too.
When Nino comes in, he goes straight to the espresso machine in hopes of something rich and dark to wake him up. Shingo barks from the doorway not to touch a thing and Nino moans, flopping down on the couch to pillow his head on Ohno's thigh. Jun glances up from his textbook as Ohno starts to poke Nino in the cheek, eliciting whimpers about it being too early.
Sho is the last to arrive. "Sorry I'm late, guys. I stopped by the bakery and got some breakfast for everyone." He sets a plastic bag full of savoury breads on the coffee table and starts passing out cans of coffee. "Ooh, and they're still warm."
"The good news is," Shingo says after seeing the plumber out, all business, "that it was a complete accident so I won't be docking any of your pay. The plumber said the pipes had all frozen during the snow storm last week and then that one cracked when they started to thaw. He just had to replace the one small section and luckily, he had the materials in his truck. It was bound to happen, this place is old."
"So it didn't have anything to do with the leaky toilet?" Nino sits up, putting on an innocent face.
"No, that was just a broken seal. You could have fixed it yourself with plumber's tape if you had been bothered."
Nino turns and sticks his tongue out in Sho's direction.
"Oh yeah, Nino, that's real mature."
"That's enough out of you." Shingo takes a swing at Nino with the plumber's receipt. "I don't pay you the big bucks to procrastinate until things start falling apart. So because you didn't call the plumber like you should have, you're going to be repainting the bathroom."
Nino sinks back into the couch scowling. Just what he needs: more work. Maybe he can entice Ohno into helping.
Shingo pulls a chair up to the coffee table. They don't have a clue why they've been called in for this and wait for the boss to start. They know he doesn't like to linger in the store so when he doesn't get right down to business, it puts them on edge.
Aiba nudges Sho with his elbow. "So, what's the bad news?"
"This place has been around for a long time," Shingo says heavily, taking a deep breath. He looks at the pictures on the mantle, wringing his hands. There's one of his father and uncle drinking lattes at the counter by the window; one of his mother, a teen-aged Shingo and the new bean counter; the original storefront from over a decade ago. "But no one ever stays here for very long. I think you five have worked here the longest of all, after my uncle. Each of you have put more hours into this place than I ever have."
"Tell us something we don't know." Nino says warily. He watches Shingo survey the walls and the furniture and all the memories in Johnny's. He glances at Sho who looks at Jun; Ohno exchanges a confused look with Aiba at Shingo's sudden sentimental streak. It's unnerving the way Shingo avoids looking at any of them.
"Starbucks has made me an offer for this place and I'm going to take it."
It's like a car accident, abrupt and out of nowhere.
"As in the corporate coffee chain giant, Starbucks?" Jun asks, coffee can halfway to his lips. "You're going to franchise?"
"No, they want to buy the building. They want this location so they're offering to buy me out."
"An offer—what, you're getting rid of Johnny's?" Aiba's face loses a bit of its colour.
"The shop will still be here, but it'll just be under a different name."
"And completely different management." Sho cracks his knuckles, apprehensive. "It won't be Johnny's anymore."
"You all know this is just a side business for me. And the apartment upstairs has been empty for a few months now; no one is interested in living there. The store makes enough to break even so I don't have to pay anything out of my own pocket but there isn't enough profit to bother keeping it, especially with no tenant upstairs. It's not worth it."
Ohno stares at the woodgrain of the coffee table, his brow furrowed as he processes what this means. He and Nino will have to find other full-time jobs, which are few and far between as the economy continues to slip. He knows that much from reading the business section over Jun's shoulder. Sho has his radio job, Aiba has his parents' restaurant. Jun can apply anywhere when he gets his degree, or choose to go to grad school.
"But it's not like you actually do anything around here," Nino says, petulant. "All you do is sign the checks and make sure the bills I forward to you get paid. Half the time, you send one of us upstairs to fix whatever needs fixing. We do all the work and you reap all the benefits."
"Nino, don't—" Ohno places a hand on Nino's shoulder but he shrugs it off.
"I'm not angry. I'm just telling it like it is."
"And you're right. I don't do anything around here. And I'd rather not bother with any of it anymore." Shingo leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "You won't lose your jobs if that's what you're worried about. I talked to the regional head of Starbucks and they promised they would extend offers to all of you without question. It's the least I could do for you after all you've done for my uncle. And me."
"When are you closing the deal?" Jun asks. At times like this, Nino can appreciate Jun's meticulousness, wanting to know how much time they have left. It feels like he's been left on the roadside, stranded in some wasteland without a map.
"In two weeks. They're drawing up the paperwork now. We'll close the store and then they'll start renovations. Nothing has been finalized, but in any case, we'll be open for business as usual for another couple months."
"Yeah," Ohno sighs. "Business as usual."
The front door slams behind Nino by some atmospheric trick of the warm air inside and biting cold outside. His nose is buried in the scarf around his neck and the hood of his jacket is pulled up to cover his ears, his hands jammed deep into his pockets. He looks miserable and it's raining outside. That's almost worse than snow: you can brush the white crystals off your shoulders and out of your hair and the festive crunch under your feet makes you forget how you can't feel your toes anymore. But the rain makes the streets slick and sloppy, it seeps into your clothes and your body and clings. Even sitting by the fire with a cup of extra hot chocolate won't warm you up.
A day like this calls for something stronger.
"I thought you had a date," Aiba says as Nino dumps his bag on the couch.
"Date?" Ohno echoes. He's weighing out beans for tomorrow at the bean counter. His pace slows.
"It wasn't a date. Move." Nino elbows Aiba out of the way so he can reach under the counter for a tea pot. It's not a proper flask, but it'll do. "It was supposed to be a meeting."
"But? It feels like there's a ‘but'."
"But he stood me up."
"Oh." Aiba purses his lips.
Nino sets the tea pot of hot water down on the coffee table with a small mug. He sits on the edge of the couch and produces a bottle of brown sugar shochu from his bag. "I didn't even want to go—"
"—but am I really so... I don't know. Awful? That he wouldn't even call to make up some pathetic excuse about a sick second-cousin-once-removed that needs emergency medical attention and an ‘I'll call you' which we both know he doesn't mean and leave it at that?"
"That sounds pretty elaborate, Nino," Aiba says, not following.
Nino glares at Aiba as he screws the top back onto the bottle. "Not helping." He swirls the hot water and shochu in the mug a few times before bolting down the drink.
"Why did you even agree to go then?"
"I don't know; he was Sho-chan's senior—some guy at the radio station and we got talking about my music and stuff and then Sho suggested we get together or something; he made the date already and I just couldn't say no after that."
"So isn't it a good thing?" Ohno asks without taking his eyes off the scale in front of him. "That he didn't show up. Since you didn't even want to go. Even if it was to talk about your music..."
Nino leans back into the sofa cushions and takes another sip of his drink. He sighs as it warms him up inside the way only thirty-percent alcohol can. "It just sucks to be rejected before you're even given a chance. I didn't think my reputation preceded me that much."
"What, your reputation as an asshole or a whore?"
"You're the asshole," Nino jokes, shoving Aiba off his perch on the arm of the couch. "How can I be a whore when I can't remember the last time I had a date? I can't even think of the last crush I had."
"Hey, you don't have to like someone to fuck them."
"You would know."
Aiba shrugs, a sly grin on his face. "I can't help it. It would be criminal to turn down the ladies."
"Right." Nino's lips finally curl into a grin. He gulps down the last of his drink and reaches for the bottle again.
"Did you like the guy? After meeting him just once." Ohno snaps the lid back onto the bean container and leans on the counter, crossing his arms.
"Not really. I mean he was nice, and maybe I could have liked him eventually but, I don't know. Not enough to be all sad about being stood up. And it wasn't a date. At least, I don't think it was. It's just the principal of the thing."
Ohno nods and the tension leaves his mouth. It's subtle but Nino sees it. As Ohno walks towards the espresso bar to start cleaning the groups, Nino lunges for one of his apron strings.
"Oh-chan! Have a drink with me. It's no fun drinking by myself."
"But what about the close—"
"Screw the close. It's seven o'clock on a Monday and there's no one here."
"We're almost done and Nino, the store is still open—what if a customer sees us?"
"No more questions. What's Shingo-san going to do, fire us?" Nino does have a point. "I'm still the manager. You have to do what I say."
"Wow, look at you," Aiba says, crossing his arms. "Shock me, shock me, shock me with that deviant behaviour."
"Hey," Nino retorts. He knocks back a shot of shochu and brandishes his mug in Aiba's direction. "I never said I was a role model."
There's only an hour left until they can lock the door so they do shots every time a customer comes in. When that gets boring because no one wants to buy coffee on a Monday night, they watch the foot traffic outside the front window. For every cute girl, Aiba takes a shot. For every cute boy, Ohno does. They make Nino drink every time because he's the only one not working. The make it through the rest of the close without much trouble – until Aiba drops the tiny (and very expensive) screw that holds the filter in the espresso machine. Nino stands by laughing as Aiba and Ohno lift the mats and sift through the piles of coffee grounds on the floor looking for it.
When they lock the door and draw the blinds, they've made it more than halfway through the two-litre bottle. Nino is flushed and giggly, he can't sit straight on the couch without tipping to one side. When Ohno takes a seat next to him, Nino leans bonelessly against his shoulder. Ohno takes a deep breath and stretches, moving his arm to rest on the back of the couch; it's more comfortable for Nino in case he falls asleep and Ohno can absently play with Nino's hair.
Aiba hops over the back of the other couch, satisfied with a hard day's work.
"So when was the last time you saw some dick, Oh-chan?" Aiba asks, ever tactful.
Ohno tilts his head and thinks, fingering the stubble on his chin. "I can't remember."
"Then, maybe you and Nino should get it on. If neither of you can remember, it's been way too long."
Ohno chokes on his drink.
Nino chuckles whimsically, "I can't do that! He's my best friend. It would be weird, wouldn't it? Right, Oh-chan?"
Ohno doesn't comment but Nino is drunk enough not to notice.
But he does notice the way Aiba is watching him – watching them – his eyebrows raised like the suggestion is simple logic, like saying the sky is blue. "Well then, who do you write all those love songs about?"
"I don't know. I just write them." There's something he's not getting and he feels it there, at the tips of his fingers, shapeless but tangible. He doesn't know what it is, but it's warm and comfortable. His addled mind can't make sense of it so he shelves the feeling for later.
"Do you really want to work for a corporation?" Jun's taping up a notice beside the store's event calendar, thanking the customers for years of loyalty but after a long and fraught decision making process – Jun scoffs at that – the owner has decided to close the doors of Johnny's for good before Golden Week in April. Shingo left a note on the schedule that morning: Starbucks has the papers drawn up and the signing is set for two week's time.
"I already do," Sho answers, refilling the sugar packets on the condiment counter. "The radio station eats enough of my soul with all the sponsorship and ass-kissing. I don't really want to work for another."
"I hadn't really thought about it," Nino replies. He's come in early to do the week's inventory, shipping receipts and order slips cover the table in the back corner. Ohno's there too, sipping green tea, waiting for his shift to start.
"I've looked into Starbucks. They might be kind enough to let you keep your position, Nino, but there will be rules. And lots of them. No more coming in late and then hiding in the office ‘doing paperwork'," Jun says, crooking his fingers. "And I bet they won't let you do it out in the open where you can talk to us."
"They'll make sure you follow the recipes and limit your free drinks, which I know will really hurt," Sho says. "And I don't think they'll like you taking muffins and coffee beans home because you're too lazy to buy groceries."
"As long as they sign my checks every month, I'll do whatever they tell me to. I can adapt."
"You'll conform to a dress code?" Sho asks askance.
"I think I can manage pants and a t-shirt every day."
"No more Open Mic?"
Nino opens his mouth to reply but has no sharp retort: the take-over of Starbucks means the inevitable end to their Friday night tradition. Sho continues: "I know it's your baby. It was for wholly selfish reasons that you asked—begged—Shingo-san to let you do it; you're lucky it really caught on. You wanted an outlet. I don't think you can bear to give that up."
Before Nino can formulate a remark, Jun cuts in. "What if you bought Johnny's, Nino?"
Nino stares at Jun blankly. "Excuse me?"
"What if you bought the store from Shingo-san? Then you could do whatever you wanted – you'd own the place."
"I got that much." Nino gives Jun a withering look. "And with what money would I buy it?"
"Oh, please. We all know how you squirrel away every yen you make. You still live at home with your parents so you can get out of spending money on rent. You probably have enough."
Nino covers his mouth with his hand and the tips of his ears turn red.
"Do we even know what the offer is?" Ohno asks.
"Nino, are you serious?" Sho puts both hands on the table and leans across into Nino's personal space, staring him down. "This is the perfect chance for you to get out of here. If the only reason you're fleetingly thinking about the remote possibility of owning this place, just so you can have an Open Mic whenever you feel like, you should be considering pursuing your music seriously. You're so talented; go pro."
Nino laughs. "Who are you kidding, Sho-chan? I'm not good enough. I think your friend at the station made that clear."
"Whatever," Nino cuts him off with a wave. "I'm over it. It wasn't in the cards."
"But if he bought the store," Jun says, thinking out loud. "He could work as much or as little as he wanted, just because he felt like it and not because he had to. And he'd be making money the whole time regardless so it wouldn't matter. He'd be free to focus on his music."
"Jun, you and I both know that he'd be in here socializing with Aiba-chan and Ohno-kun all the time. And exercising his dictatorship over all the new staff. That's not focusing."
"But he does that now and he still writes and plays."
"You know it's not the same as—"
"Guys! I'd really appreciate if you didn't argue about me while I'm sitting right here. Even if I wanted to, I'm not good enough to get a record deal. And I don't have the money to buy Shingo-san out, so let's just drop it."
Sho and Jun both try to argue their points further but Nino won't hear it. "Just let it go. Things are fine the way they are; I'm doing everything I want to and that's good enough."
He gathers up all the paper on the table with a huff, puts his pen between his teeth, grabs his coffee and goes into the store room. Ohno pouts quietly into the murky green depths of his mug.
After Sho's and Jun's argument over Nino things aren't the same. It's like a fault line waiting to slip every time Sho and Jun are in the same room. Everyone notices and it makes Nino change the next week's schedule so that they work as few shifts together as possible. The last thing they need is someone getting assaulted with the bean scoop during the morning rush. Aiba mentions that Jun has been throwing himself head first into his studies; there are so many textbooks and case studies, flow charts and spreadsheets scattered all over their apartment, he's considering moving back into his parents' house for the time being. The time being until Starbucks moves in.
Nino has been willing to roll with the punches and keep living his life, writing songs and grinding coffee, but he knows he can't keep on the way he is. He's known since Shingo called them all in that miserable February morning but now it feels real. Fast approaching and unstoppable. He isn't ready yet for change; he doesn't know if he ever will be.
"Hey, Nino, can I talk to you?"
Nino looks up from the pay stubs on his desk. Jun is standing awkwardly in the doorway, hands full of bean containers.
"If it's about me buying the store, Matsujun, you can forget it."
"Just—hear me out. Please."
Nino takes off his glasses, tossing them onto the desk and folds his arms across his chest, grudgingly ready to listen. "Five minutes."
Jun sets the stack of containers down and starts digging around in his bag. "My application for graduation got approved: I'm getting my degree in April. School is finally over. And I see all my classmates getting ready for their new jobs and internships, or more school. I don't know what I want to do yet but I know it isn't that."
"Congratulations, but what does that have to do with me?"
"Doing all this work, all the exhaustion and stress, just so I can go and work for someone else? I can't think of anything worse." Jun pulls up an empty stool and hands Nino a small book. Nino eyes him warily, taking it out of the worn plastic sleeve. It's Jun's bank book, his name in messy eighteen-year-old scrawl across the front.
"It's all the money I've been saving for my graduation trip. If you take that, and what you have, you should have enough to make Shingo-san an offer."
"No! I can't take this—you've been saving up for four years. You wanted to go surfing in Australia," Nino tries to press book back into Jun's hand but he refuses.
"Australia can wait. A chance like this, to have my own business before I'm twenty-five... It's too good to pass up."
Truthfully, Nino had been thinking about what Jun and Sho said. He'd never imagined "after Johnny's." He knew he wouldn't be making cappuccinos for the rest of his life but his train of thought ended there. Even if he did have the talent, he's unconvinced that he could break into the savage music industry.
"Do you really... do you really want to own a coffee shop?" Nino asks, haltingly. "Is that what you want to do?"
"I don't know. Why not?" Jun shrugs. "If we hate it, if it doesn't work out, we can always sell."
Jun bounces his leg subtly, something he only does when he's nervous (which isn't very often), watching Nino flip through the pages of the bank book. Nino stares at the numbers until they start to swim in front of his eyes, trying to ignore Jun's hovering.
"I can put all the crap I learned in business school into practice," Jun continues with all the persuasive arguments he has, "Put that three million yen piece of paper to some use. We've been working here for six years; you've been managing for three. We can do this." Jun squeezes Nino's shoulder. "The only thing that will change is the amount of money being paid into your bank account every month. You could even be a silent partner and focus on your music if you wanted," Jun adds belatedly, seeming to have remembered the conversation with Sho.
Nino can feel the infectious optimism, Jun's belief that this is going to work out. "If this fails, we have nothing."
"But Shingo-san said we're breaking even. We won't go under."
Nino remains silent, rubbing the pages of the book between his fingers, considering. Jun holds his breath. "This isn't going to be a gold mine, but at least it will be ours. We can improve on what we have, what works. I'm asking you: please think about it. For me."
All Jun's points are sound; they know this business, they know how things work, and they can easily learn the little that they don't. Nothing will change unless they want it to.
"Okay, Jun. Let's do it."