Crème de la Crème
Education and money, she considers. And coffee.
These four become her main objectives toward wanting to work here. She needs something set, something definite, to make her way in a country where the time is ten hours off and the currency is entirely different. To live here and get a better job in the future, she'll need to make it now. Somehow.
Since moving to Japan for college, Pony Tsunotori has found time to apply for a part-time job at UA Café.
She's mostly content there; the shop is beautiful and the drinks are delicious. Despite UA's success, it's a modest building, not too ostentatious, painted cream. The golden logo is proudly poised over the entryway, and the whole place is surrounded by bushels of violet lilac with long, thick vines that race up the walls toward the ocean blue bonnet roof, before slowly crawling back down — some finally sprawling themselves out on the staircase, others curling tiredly on the sidewalk, coloring it swirls of forest green.
Next door to it is the UA Pastries shop, and between the two branches of the UA Franchise is a dark and dusty alleyway, full of trash and literally just one specific oak tree, under which she finds lots of intriguing things among the large roots that split the road into large chunks of shattered pavement.
Things ranging from the mice that skirt around after high-class Creati Lady leftovers, down to the cats that pounce from wall to wall after said mice, all the way down to the boy with wild purple hair, who must work too hard and wake up late, but still somehow finds time to stand there, hands in pockets, and watch the cats for ten minutes (at the very least) before entering the shop for his morning coffee. To anyone watching, his tired gaze will somehow look fond as they trail after the kittens.
Pony is a relatively new employee at the café. She isn't used to being late so when she wakes up to realize that she'd dreamed her way through all five alarms, she foregoes all but the bags under her eyes as she rushes to work.
College is tiring. Work is twice as much. But work makes money and college makes for better work. However, college costs money too, so here she is, apron in hand. She barely registers the guy lazily leaning on the wall, tiredly leering into the alleyway beside it, as she drags her feet indoors. Sternly crossed arms and glistening orange hair are waiting for her inside. Pony clocks in with a weary sigh, still managing a wry smile for her supervisor.
"Tsunotori," the woman says, shaking her head in exasperation, "if you need less hours, that's fine. We can always ask for help from the employees at the pastry shop next d—"
"It's fine, Kendou!" Pony is a specialist at sounding cheery when she honestly feels like finding a hole to pass out in. Especially where money is involved. Tying her apron on, she grins brightly. Her unkempt hair and the bags under her eyes makes it lose some of its beam. "I'm jus' a bit tired. S'okay." She yawns.
Work is hard, but college will grind you into dust if you don't pay it off. Student aid can only get a girl so far…
Kendou quirks a brow doubtfully. Her eyes harden in a "tough love" way that seems motherly.
Pony's lips stay curved in a gentle smile. She appreciates it, but Kendou is not her mother.
A long moment passes before her supervisor sighs reluctantly, her loosely crossed arms falling to her hips. "If you say so…" she finally agrees. "But if I see any slack from you, your hours are getting halved." Her tone is curt and professional; her employees are important to her, just as they're important to her business. Her three-inch heels clack against the tile floor as she strides to the back, orange ponytail swaying behind her. One of the workers is slurping down the whipped cream again and Kendou needs to chastise him.
Pony blinks after her.
"Hey," a deep voice drags. "A large."
"Huh?" She glances up to see the weekday regular. Deep violet eyes stare right back at her. He has eye bags and a few strands of black fur on his gray sweater. She looks at him strangely. Did he too not get enough sleep last night? He directs a vaguely intrigued gaze back at her—or, at her horns, rather.
"Hitoshi Shinsou, was it?" she asks politely. Pony's already reaching for a sharpie. A large, extra cream on the original vanilla whipped cream over a steaming hot coffee with a shot of espresso: Hitoshi pretty much orders the same thing every day.
"Yeah…" He yawns. His eyes drift to the wooden left wall, probably thinking of all the pretty felines playing behind it, outside. Pony giggles. It's cute.
"One large, coming up!" Her voice is loud enough to get her coworkers in the back moving faster.
He and Pony, they make eye contact, wide black on still blue. Seconds pass with the sound of the whipped cream being gurgled in the background.
"Monoma, stop doing that!"
Hitoshi's eyes trail to the scene behind her. He seems not to care for what he's seeing, but Pony hears the familiar sound of her supervisor chopping Monoma on the neck. She giggles lightly because she can't really blame her coworker for it. Whipped cream is delicious.
Pony recalls the time when Monoma had her try some with him, and the strangely fond disappointment in their supervisor's gaze at their messy, laughing faces. Then she remembers the fact that Valentine's is a week away and that Hitoshi seems to favor whipped cream.
"Oh!" she says enthusiastically, "There's a Valentine's special this week!" She whips a deep blue brochure out of her apron pocket and thrusts it in front of his face. Half of her is draped over the counter to reach him. Why is he so tall? "We're working in collaboration with the pastry shop next door to serve Premium Danish Coffee Cake!"
"Coffee cake," he repeats dryly. He glances at the clock.
"Premium Danish Coffee Cake," she corrects, nonplussed. Then, leaning in conspiratorially (while standing on her tip toes) Pony adds, "And they're topped with dollops of vanilla whipped cream!"
Hitoshi looks suspiciously unimpressed as his wry gaze briefly slides behind her. Kendou's heels are audibly clacking to and fro on the tile floors; she seems to have taken over the making of his coffee. He breathes in deeply and breathes back out very slowly. Pony smiles. His breath smells like mint.
"Valentine's Day doesn't interest me, so no thanks," he finally responds.
She halts. "Not even with the whipped cream?"
Hitoshi pauses, frowning. Pony's going to give him the benefit of doubt and assume that his eyebags are making him look more stern than he's actually being. "It's a couples' holiday; I don't need it."
Just because… because he's single? What about the whipped cream? "Are you sure?"
"Now, now, Pony. Don't pester him too much."
Oh, Kendou's done with his coffee.
Turning around to meet the supervisor's green eyes (and ignoring the sulking blond behind them), Pony gingerly takes the drink from the woman's hands and hurriedly sets it on the table, before using her sharpie to scrawl Hitoshi Shinsou on the side.
"Sorry!" she compliantly apologizes to him. But over the plastic cover, just under the straw that she lays atop, is the blue brochure titled: UA's Valentine Special! She slides his drink across the table; it's much too hot to cup her hands around.
He eyes her tiredly, before picking up his coffee, no problem, and dryly removing the straw and brochure from the top. "It's fine," he murmurs, shoving them into the pocket of his sweatpants with a soft yawn. He briefly retracts his phone to check the time. It's an iPhone encased by the design of a lavender cat. How cute…
Pony smiles cheerfully. "Shinsou," she starts, idly chewing on the end of her marker, "you're always out there, looking at the cats! Do you like cats?"
"They're not bad," Hitoshi says, removing the plastic cover from his drink. The steam coming off of it doesn't seem to affect him at all.
Pony waits for more from him, but he stays quietly drinking his coffee straight from the cup.
The walnut wooden grandfather clock on the wall displays the time as 8:25AM and Hitoshi inhales sharply when he notices. Under his breath, she hears him whisper: "Shit." Before easily walking out, hands in pockets.
He's stressed. She's not too sure how she knows it; it's not just the eye bags, no. It's not the wild hair either, unkempt like hers but in a more stylish way. But it's there — and she can see it clear as day without even knowing what it is. She can see how it melts away, just a little, with every sip of coffee.
"Have a nice day!" she brightly wishes, waving cheerily.
It's those little things, you know? Like how he calmly walks, never rushing or panicking. He's patient. It's how he consistently orders the same thing everyday. He seems so set, so determined.
It's enough to make a girl fall in love.
Hitoshi goes to the library every Saturday. It's rarely ever to study; his roommates just happen to be loud and annoying. Once there, he spends approximately forty-five minutes regretting the loans he had to take out for his dorm (he has night classes later, no time to waste). Then, he curses the sick humor of whoever is in charge of the dorming situations because:
1. Pairing him with someone so earth-shakingly obnoxious just because they share similar surnames has to be the most immature and disgustingly childish thing he's ever heard of.
2. Pairing him, and the primary annoyance, along with an explosively loud secondary annoyance just makes things ten times worse.
3. Life sucks when your roommates are dating. He can barely sleep at night.
So he sleeps now, when there's another quarter left to the hour.
He dreams of something like warmth and wakes up to the smell of honey and a yellow blanket around him.
There's also an UA Café employee across the table, reading a book on linguistics. It's the employee, the one with the horns. She has thick, black glasses on, and glances up over the rim of them when she notices him stir. It's sort of endearing.
"Shinsou, you're up."
Blinking blearily, Hitoshi slowly sits up. He wipes a line of drool off the side of his mouth, gazing at her in confusion. Without her nametag that he'd never really paid attention to, he has no clue what to call her.
"Pony," she introduces. "Pony Tsunotori."
He nods briefly, lazily glancing down at his watch. He'd gotten only thirty-five minutes of sleep in; the other ten that were due are probably being expended on this start of a conversation. He immediately begins calculating:
Later tonight, he'll spend the last ten minutes completing his due online homework while in the state of a lethargic sloth. This means he'll get either (1) less sleep in the morning and therefore won't be able to properly appreciate his cats and hot coffee, or (2) he'll oversleep and there'll be no cats or coffee to speak of.
Hitoshi tsks quietly. His entire circadian cycle is on the line here.
"Did you know you talk in your sleep?"
Pony is giggling softly. It chimes like a bell. He suddenly doesn't really mind being woken up anymore. In fact, the definition of the word "circadian" slips his mind.
"About cats," she continues, "and coffee, and cotton candy. It tastes good, doesn't it?" Her eyes drift skyward in thought. "I love cotton candy. I like cats too. You also said somethin' about chocolate and horns, and then about roommates." Pony's going off a mile a minute when he just woke up. Hitoshi blinks tiredly. "I didn't really get it, but it was kinda cute! You mumbled like a baby…"
He has no clue what she's talking about either. Sleeping talking? (Well, about cats, he'll admit to, but — cotton candy? Horns? What the heck?) He never remembers his dreams. So he changes the subject:
"Is this yours?" In reference to the velcro blanket draped over his shoulders. He doesn't really need it — the library isn't cold at all — but it smells like he's covered by a dollop of honey doused by hot cocoa. So that she doesn't get the wrong idea and ask for it back, Hitoshi wraps the loose corners around himself.
Pony gets him loud and clear. "Yeah!" It's as clear as her growing smile. "When I was coming over, I brought it from back home."
"Why did you come, anyway?" he asks, glancing at the book in her hands.
She closes it gently, eyes flickering to the title. "I came to the library to study, and I came to Japan for the same thing." She clarifies, "I meant that I brought the blanket from home."
Her voice is gentle but strong, thickly shrouded in her accent. It's a pretty accent.
"America," he infers. She'd brought the blanket from her home in America.
She nods, chirping after him, "America!"
"I see…" Hitoshi watches her smile grow and grow, before halting like something had hit it. Then she looks away and her face ever so slightly reddens, her big black eyes blankly blinking at the wall. Her lips curve into a more formal expression; a pleasant smile that gives off a "Can I take your order?" kind of vibe, and then it leaves. He idly wonders what she'd look like if it stayed and grew more; if she were to wear an ear-to-ear grin without holding back, what would it look like?
Then Pony's hands abruptly fly up to cover the bottom half of her face, almost startling him out of his seat. He quickly grabs onto the table just in time, frazzled. "What th—"
"Is there something on my face?" she interrupts frantically. Her voice is kind of muffled thanks to the trembling hands covering her mouth.
"What?" he intelligently says.
She's turning cherry red. What did he do wrong? "I didn't eat a lot this morning before coming, but I still might not have cleaned up well," she says in a shaky voice. She's nervous. Her thick-rimmed glasses are even sliding down her face, but she doesn't seem to notice…
His eyes are locked on hers, processing her words slowly. After having just been woken up, before being enchanted into this confusing conversation, Hitoshi feels that the bags under his eyes have gotten heavier. He's sleepy. He languidly lets his eyes droop and indolently drags himself back into his seat.
She still looks embarrassed at something, watching him slump over his folded arms on the table. He's still tired, still confused.
Yawning widely like a cat, he reaches for the ends of the blanket once more. "…What?" he drawls. Just to appease the worried expression she's now been wearing too long for his liking.
"I…I have food on my face, right?" she hesitantly asks. "What were you looking at?"
"I was looking at—" your lips, because you should smile more. Hitoshi stops to reconsider. "I'm not sure," he says instead. "There's no food on your face, though. I was thinking to myself." Not quite a lie.
There's silence for a long moment. His face is turning pink, isn't it?
If that's what her eyes are now lingering on, she doesn't say it. Instead, she giggles. She giggles and giggles until it spreads and he's forced to huff with a smile too. Her lashes are sparkling with mirth. She laughs until her breath comes shallow and says in a winded tone of voice, "Silly me!"
He wonders too, mildly amused, what was she so worried about?
Pony bashfully smiles (that UA Café employee smile, with reserve) and reopens her book on linguistics. Then she catches his violet gaze and says, "I apologize, Shinsou," between hushed tee-hees, "we're in a library."
Hitoshi has never really minded silence so when he catches her drift, loud and clear, he engulfs himself in the thick blankets once more. The quiet is comforting, somehow. He hears her flip through crisp pages.
The placid smile doesn't leave his lips as the smells of chocolate and honey carry him back to sleep.
As per norm, Hitoshi starts out his day near the cats in the alleyway.
Yesterday, the plump tabby had a litter of kittens. He'd been ten minutes later to his morning class than usual to give her ample support and a slice of ham when she was done. Today, all eight of them are curled up on each other in a warm huddle as they sleep. He notes that the other strays are absent this morning and the mother cat is further away from the sidewalk than usual.
Deciding that they'll need privacy for a proper sense of security, he silently enters UA Café twenty minutes early. The scent of vanilla and coffee greets him gently, along with the lively bustle of the workers behind the front counter. The low murmurs of already present customers is barely noticeable when he goes up to make his order. The slow song that the radio is playing is in English. He vaguely recognizes some words: Wise men say only fools rush in—and etcetera. Hitoshi easily agrees.
When the horned barista catches sight of him from behind the counter, he decides to take a seat by the window. It's the closest seat to the counter that's empty. Hitoshi idly gazes outside at the cars passing under the morning sun. He registers a few more words of the song. English courses have always been kind to him; he likes to think he has something like an affinity for understanding others.
Like a river flows surely to the sea—and what he clues in as probably some kind of pet name. Hitoshi shrugs, nonplussed. His English courses don't teach pet names, so whatever.
Pony's smile is wobbly when she comes with his drink in a light pink tumbler decorated with glistening silver swirls. This time, she'd made his drink herself. He'd stole a few glances and had seen her gliding to and fro behind the counters, shifting around her coworkers. The container's probably brought from home too because Hitoshi is either color blind or the café's colors are solid blue and glimmering gold—and not bright pink.
The sweet smell of his coffee permeates the air; it wafts over to him – it smells a bit too sweet.
Hitoshi's violet eyes flicker to the drink in her small hands. The top is clear, showing off a deep brown liquid whirling slowly on the inside. Three white marshmallows are serenely floating on the surface of it.
A few seconds pass in silence. He's gazing at it blankly.
"Here…!" She goes to hand it to him. To give him steaming hot chocolate that he didn't order, that costs half the price of his usual. And he'd already paid. A deadpan look sweeps across his face as he looks back up at her. Why are Pony's eyes squeezed shut? Why is she shaking? Her cheeks are flooded red; her head is bowed. Why?
He kind of really doubts that she'd forgotten what to bring. She's American; her accent is heavy, her eyes are wider than his, and her face is more round; she's naive to the cultural norms and a lot of social cues. But she isn't a total airhead. He literally orders the same thing everyday…
Trembling, she snatches up the whipped cream from her apron pocket to hastily scrawl a thick white heart on the surface of the drink, and he watches the edges of it bubble and spread.
A few more tense seconds pass by.
The employee nervously glances up at him through her light fringe.
Hitoshi briefly glances at the clock on the wall. As fun and as cute and as happy-go-lucky as she and this entire ordeal are, he has to be at class in ten minutes and, unless he plans to doze through whole thing, he'll need his actual order.
"… I ordered a large with an espresso," he drawls.
"I—I know!" Pony cries. "Tetsutetsu is making it in the back but i—! But… but it's Valentine's Day, you know? An' I…" Her hands are trembling with anxiety and her cheeks are bright pink, like cotton candy. "I'm always working—or in school, s…so I couldn't give you real chocolate or anything, but…"
Hitoshi blinks. He does a double-take and then takes a look again. The drink still has a foaming white heart in the middle. She's still there, gripping the tumbler tightly.
He thinks like he can hear her heart pounding – or maybe that's his…
"Chocolate?" he repeats.
If he's hearing things right, then she's giving him hot chocolate as a replacement for the regular chocolate that she's been too busy to get him. For Valentine's Day, that is. She'd wanted to get him chocolate for Valentine's Day. Is this a confession? A love confession? What is this? Is his face on fire or is he losing his mind? One or the other, which is it?
"Yeah, Sh—Shinsou…" Pony looks like she's going to pass out.
He sort of feels like he will too.
"Hitoshi," he corrects, scratching the back of his neck. His eyes are averted, firmly set on the golden clock. "My name is Hitoshi." He gently takes the tumbler from her small hands, a frosty shiver racing up his spine from where his fingers brush against the back of hers.
The grin that slowly spreads across her face is a beam bright enough to light his world. Who would've guessed?
The weeks that go by are all pretty much the same.
Hitoshi Shinsou is just a specialist at working tired, plain and simple.
In the mornings, he fights it by drinking UA Café coffee signed off by pretty faces that wish him good luck. In the afternoons, he goes next door to their business partner, UA Pastries, and indulges it by buying a slice of cake or pie and then sitting in the alleyway between the two shops, under the oak tree where the cats are.
These days, she's there with him.
The sun is setting, painting the sky jaded shades of gold and orange that spread into violet the higher he looks to the clouds. There's a dusty gray stray playing under the propped up leg that he's leaning his elbow on. It swats at his rising hand as he bites into the carrot cake.
Call it filthy, whatever. He's tired and home is so far away.
He's twirling a finger, leading a black kitten by the nose until it gets dizzy. Its fur is shimmering by the purple streetlights like the feathers of a raven under the sun.
"Need me to bring you?" The voice of the woman with the clipboard, orange hair, and large hands. Footsteps. People are passing the alleyway. Hitoshi rests his head back on the wall, waiting.
The café had closed.
"I'm okay!" Her light voice, light footsteps, and the sound of the door swinging open.
"Pony, are you sure? It's not safe to walk alone at night," the lady says pensively. There's the clinking of her ring of keys that jingle with every step. He'd seen them at her hip before. "I really can bring you if you'd like, it's no trouble."
"Yeah, Tsunotori! Since you're so scared, it's no trouble." That's the taunting voice of the blonde who devours whipped cream like his life depends on it. Hitoshi is mostly indifferent, but feels vaguely irritated. It isn't like he enjoys waiting for his morning coffee when there's an 8AM class to be at by 8:30, but he very selectively chooses where to invest his time and energy, so spending them on an argument over whipped cream seems counterproductive.
Pony Tsunotori's gentle gasp echoes from beside the alleyway. "I'm not scared! It's okay!"
"Are you sure?" From the blonde.
He can picture her clenching her fists, her wide and earnest eyes. That's what she does in the mornings before entering the shop, puffing out her chest in determination. She holds her breath till her face turns red and squeezes her eyes shut, before confidently exclaiming that she can do this.
"I can do this!"
Hitoshi cracks a smirk.
"Alright then…" says the supervisor. Kendou, was it? Hitoshi faintly registers that her voice sounds satiated, just a bit. It does until she snaps: "And, Monoma, no one was talking to you! Pipe down and get in t…" Her voice fades with the distance. The sound of two car doors opening, then closing, and an engine starting to run.
He pays them no attention past that.
The black kitten catches his finger with a claw. It yowls in victory, licking a crumb that he'd missed from the cake as he furrows his brow, patiently waiting.
Ah, there she is.
Pony practically skips from around the corner. There's a bounce in her step as she slips into the alley like she belongs. After catching sight of him tucked in the crevices of the oak tree's roots, a handful of dozing kittens sprawled across his lap, she nears him bashfully. The sparkly, orange bracelet on her wrist jingles. Pony scoops up the black one with fur like a raven, settling beside her boyfriend neatly, tightly, just the way he likes it. She's so warm.
After working for hours, she's much more chipper now at dusk than she ever is in the early mornings, when the cat drags her in. Ironic, but Hitoshi prefers it like this. He's not complaining.
The reflection of a shooting star skates across her eyes. He gazes at them for a moment, warmth pooling in his face. Her hair is up. She's really pretty
Hitoshi had a dream last night; for some reason, he remembers it clearly.
It seemed less like a fantasy, and more like a vision. Like a distant memory.
The distance starts here, where they sit, and it ends somewhere in the future. Maybe in four years, maybe five. Maybe the distance started dwindling down when they first met at the café and maybe it'll end the day they both have graduated. Then the distance will be gone, and he'll have arrived at what he'd dreamed of. This chimera will manifest before him.
Maybe, just maybe.
From his dream, he recalls a shimmering ocean of white and cream surrounding her, embracing her tightly in swirls that went all the way down to her heeled feet, ending in a mermaid tail, bareback, beautiful.
A chocolate cake dotted by roses of whipped cream on a glimmering white table so clean that it sparkled under golden chandeliers. She had a pearl knife in one hand, cutting right through it, and his hand hovering over hers lightly.
Her fingernails were painted pink. A silver headdress veiled her horns.
He woke up and laid there for minutes to hours til his 8AM class had passed and she'd already worriedly called his phone ten times and about not showing up for his morning coffee.
Hitoshi breathes softly. He doesn't know if he'll ever forget that dream. He kind of hopes he doesn't. Not until it becomes real, anyway.
Just like then, like in his dream, the sky is a flowing ocean of stars.
It's the same. The weather is cool, but they're warm
Hitoshi cradles her in his arms.
Neither of them are proper romantics, holding each other in the darkness between a café and a pastry shop. He rubs a finger along the base of her horn in a circular motion. Pony nuzzles into his embrace.
"I love you."
Silence rings like a bell and fills his ears and spins his head. Ah, dammit.
"…Hitoshi?" She hums, leaning in. "I love you too."