Character(s): Ukai Keishin, Takeda Ittetsu
When was it, exactly, that you realised you started to like him?
Was it those awkward, early high school days when your bangs were a little too short and your new uniform didn’t quite fit right? Sure, Ukai had chuckled at how the jacket didn’t sit neatly around your shoulders but that wasn’t it. His laugh had been charming but not quite the way you look back on it now. It didn’t yet have that glimmer. You’d gone back to the Karasuno Cafe a dozen times after that but back then, there was still that counter between you and he’d had better things to do.
Maybe it was later on.
Ahh, yes. That was probably it.
Your second year of high school, when you’d been walking home, backpack heavy from cram school and desperately wanting nothing more than to go straight to bed. You couldn’t, though; not with that nagging responsibility to not rest before the job was done. You’d taken a shortcut to the cafe that day. You went down that back alley; do you remember? The one with that lazy grey cat that was always sleeping on top of the fence.
You’d seen him further down the road but he’d been so absorbed in his cigarette that you worried about calling out his name. His hair was starting to get a little long, his bangs just long enough to hide his gaze from where you came to stand. You remember opening your mouth to say something, probably to comment on how he shouldn’t be smoking so young but those words had gone dry in your mouth when he’d looked up at you from the corner of his eye and smiled. That cigarette sat between his teeth, his body relaxed and lazy on that backstep and you could remember perfectly the wide grin as he plucked the smoke from his teeth and said your name.
That was it. The sound of his voice, so even and pleased, had been just a little clearer in your ears. The shine of his teeth, the tilt of his jaw and even the wisps of smoke as he exhaled through his nose had all seemed a little too high quality to have been anything else. If you thought hard enough, you could probably remember the smell of those cigarettes; they’d become as much a part of Ukai’s natural musk as anything else he wore. Was that when he started to pick up the habit? He’d been in his first year of university then, hadn’t he? You hadn’t thought of it then but he’d probably started smoking to cope with the stress. Ukai had never been a very good student; you could recall that from the long talks you’d had in the cafe during his break when he’d extend it just long enough to get his grandfather on his case.
“Keishin!” You could remember his booming voice from the backroom and watching Ukai jump in surprise. “Get your ass back to work!!”
You could never resist giggling; it made you strangely happy. You read into it – you always read into it – and hoped that those extra few minutes Ukai sat with you were because he liked talking to you and not simply that he was avoiding work. He’d always pass you that cheeky smile, the one edged in apology that didn’t entirely meet his eyes. “Sorry.” He’d often say. “Let’s pick this up some other time.”
You always made sure there would be a next time.
Back then, Ukai had an air of carelessness. Sure, his schedule was busy with university and the shop but you could always remember a sort of childish energy about him. It was relaxing. Even when you graduated and moved on to university yourself, those few minutes you’d have the time to talk with him as you got your coffee were enough to make you feel refreshed. All you needed was his presence and the weight on your shoulders felt a little lighter.
You had only hoped back then that someday, you could repay the favour. What you had in mind, however, had never been what happened.
You hadn’t pictured his grandfather getting sick.
The man had always been stubborn and gruff; he had seemed larger than even those who beat him in size. It was unheard of to think he would grow so weak and exhausted from illness that his voice no longer boomed from the backroom of the cafe.
It was truly a thing of fear to think something unseen could break a man once so strong.
Ukai’s presence became more frequent at the shop… but you could recall that was when the childish aura had begun to crumble. The bags under his eyes had gotten heavier, the slump in his shoulders stooped low and you heard his voice give more sighs than you could ever remember him doing. He dropped out of university and moved in with his grandfather to help take care of him; although you’d been upset to hear the news, you couldn’t help think that was an amazing sacrifice to make.
Not many people could make a decision like that. You thought it was commendable that Ukai cared for his family so deeply.
Then, on what had seemed like a perfectly ordinary day, the shop had been closed. Ukai Ikkei, his grandfather, had passed away. The family fell into mourning and the funeral held at the local temple. You’d gone to pay your respects but it was still difficult to think he wasn’t going to be around anymore. Your eyes had mainly been on Ukai, watching him with an arm around one relative or another. When he wasn’t busy dealing with condolences from friends of the family, he was busy with the ceremony itself. It had taken a while for you to even get the chance to talk to him but when the time came, you didn’t know what to say.
Most of the people who came had since faded from the temple grounds. Ukai and a few of his relatives lingered but soon even they felt it was time to let go.
Soon, it was just you and him.
You hadn’t even been sure he knew you were still there. You’d been standing idly by, trying your best to stay out of the way out of respect for the family but when it was just the two of you, you had nowhere left to stand out of sight. You’d gathered your nerves, walked over to him…. but somehow all the words you’d thought of up until then felt dry on your lips. They sounded like clichés; they suddenly seemed like they might do more harm than good. You worried that maybe you should have brought something, anything, an ice breaker to close that distance you couldn’t seem to step over when:
“I just bought this pack this morning.” Ukai’s voice sounded foreign, the tone edged with the emotion he had done so well at concealing. His hand pulled the pack from his suit jacket and you could see from where you stood as he pulled the last one from the box and pocketed the empty pack. Digging around in his pocket, he soon pulled out his lighter and the cigarette grew bright between his teeth.
The inhale sounded shaky from where you stood. The exhale sounded hollow and exhausted.
No ice breakers came to mind.
You had lingered in silence beside him a moment, eyes forward before Ukai looked up at the sky and gave a single laugh. “I can still hear his voice, telling me to quit sucking on those cancer sticks. He never did like the smell of ‘em. Said I’d be gone before he was if I kept it up.” He takes another drag and let’s the smoke escape his lips in a steady stream. “I can’t believe he’s really gone. I thought for sure that old man would outlive us all.”
You looked over at him, watching the smoke rise into the air and disperse before your own gaze was settled on the sky. “He certainly tried, didn’t he?”
Ukai gave a breathless laugh, flicking the ashes from his cigarette. “That he did. He never did do anything easily. Stubborn right to the end.”
“…. He lived a full life.” You replied, smiling up toward the passing clouds. “If a person’s life can be measured by anything, it’s by the lessons they leave behind for the people around them. Never give up, work hard for what you want, don’t shy away from responsibility…. he was a practical man.”
You’d looked over at Ukai then and found him staring over at you with a bit of a curious expression. He blinked once before looking down at his smoke. “Never was very good at listening to him.”
You couldn’t help it; you’d chuckled in response. “You wouldn’t be yourself if you had. I’m sure he knew that. What matters now is what you do with the lessons he’s taught you.”
Ukai seemed to contemplate that a moment, sliding a hand into his pocket while the other brought the cigarette to his lips. “Hmm. Well, I never really had any plans for myself. Just kind of… went where I was needed, ya know?”
“And? What about now?” You’d asked. “Where do you go from here?”
“Well… I was thinking maybe I’d stick around; see about taking over the café. None of my other relatives are close by and it’s not like I ever finished university to do much of anything else. Besides,” A small smile finds its way to his face. “I kind of like it here.”
Staring over at him, fond smile on his lips as he pressed his smoke to them again, something in your chest had burned. There seemed to be a different kind of aura beginning around him; something more solid and defined. Underneath all the grief, the exhaustion and the uncertainty….. there was peace.
And it was right then and there, standing with him in the middle of a graveyard with cicadas in your ears and the scent of tobacco that you knew – you loved him.
You always had.
What about you? When was it that you’d first realised you’d liked him?
He’d always been a pretty amusing kid. He’d been the picture of uncool. His clothes never seemed to fit right, his glasses were always too big for his face and his hair was always so unruly, you often wondered if he ever even bothered to comb it.
There hadn’t been anything particular that you could point to in the beginning. He’d been nothing more than a customer at the shop, then a regular and then a friend. Somebody you could comfortably spend your lunch breaks with, talk about everything from the weather to girls and somebody you could invite out for a drink after work (once he’d been legal, anyway).
Looking back, you sort of realised that Takeda had always just… been there.
Maybe that was part of the reason you wanted to hang onto the café. There was such a history there, of people who had been going to it for years and had dedicated their loyalty to it. You didn’t have the heart to take that away from anyone; even when you had entertained the thought, all you could think of was your Grandfather standing over your shoulder with that permanent scowl of disapproval he always seemed to wear.
Even if he wasn’t around anymore, you’d reasoned, the old man was still alive as the foundation of that shop. You had to be the one to keep it running; you just had to. Your Grandfather had been a proud man. He’d never forgive you for skipping out on such a responsibility.
With that resolve in mind, you’d opened up the shop and went about business as usual.
What you hadn’t counted on, however, was how difficult it was without anyone to turn to for guidance. Usually whenever you had a question about the books or orders, you had just asked the old man. Now whenever you opened your mouth with a question and turned to ask, his absence was a painful reminder that you were now on your own.
This was your café now; you were solely responsible.
However, responsibility didn’t make up for a lack of knowledge and suddenly it seemed that owed bills were in the red, employees were leaving left and right and stock was becoming increasingly difficult to keep on the shelves. Soon enough, you could only afford to stay open on week days… then only until the early evening…. then afternoon.
There had been a crippling fear that the entire café was going to cave out from under you. You’d tried your best, you really did, but it seemed like your best just wasn’t good enough and now you were trying to figure out what to tell the old man when you eventually had to face him again.
Then, just like all those times before, there was Takeda. A small briefcase tucked under his arm, listening to you pour out your woes over the rim of a pint glass and it was like he had been there all along.
“I’ll help you, Ukai-kun.” You could remember him saying. “We can bring the café back if we work together!” His voice had been so clear through the haze of alcohol but when you’d looked up at him, there was no hesitation to be found on his face.
That was the Takeda you knew; unwavering and unrelenting.
You’d always thought it surprising that so much drive and stubbornness could reside in that tiny form.
Yet still, that hadn’t been the moment you knew you liked him. That had come after; when you’d sat down in the empty café one weekend, due bills and messy account books spread across the tables. How you’d watched him go through each statement carefully, writing in his notebook as he picked apart each payment and product order. It all seemed to fall into place as he scribbled notes on each page, calculated expenses and balanced the budget.
The squirrely kid you once knew, the one you’d crack stupid jokes with on the back steps of the café, was gone. In his place resided a grown man, mature and experienced who seemed to know exactly what he needed to do in life.
It was then, you remembered, that you thought he was cool. It was then, you recalled, that you knew that you liked him.
Love, though, that took a little longer.
Quite a few dates, in fact.
Takeda has asked you out one night, face red and body language stiff but you could remember him standing taller than he ever had and he never once looked away in embarrassment. It was unnerving to be faced so directly… but after a few nights of soul searching and awkward days as he eagerly awaited your answer, you’d finally conceded.
You did feel something, after all, you just hadn’t been sure what that was.
It took a while to figure it out but Takeda never pressed the matter. He’d long confessed his feelings but you’d always respond to such grand words with a kiss or a fond, “I know.”
You’d thought it unfair, at first, that you could carry on like this. That Takeda would spend days in your shop and nights in your bed and yet you still couldn’t muster up those words you knew he was waiting for you to say. They felt heavy in your throat and you’d never been very good with words or feelings.
There had been all the right signs. Everything you had pictured ever wanting out of a relationship, you could easily see having with Takeda. Even as your main focus was the cafe, even as you worked together to breathe new life into the shop you were dedicating your whole life to, it was hard to picture him anywhere else but by your side.
It wasn’t until that one day – yes, that day. It had been a Thursday, you think. Yes, a Thursday, because you had been working on payroll for the following day. It was after hours; summer breezing through the open window. The office had been quiet and you’d been passing a little time with having your hands rested neatly on the hips of your boyfriend. The kiss had been soft, his lips warm against yours and you could remember the gentle sound of birds outside the window. The sound of his breath between each kiss was content, the atmosphere surrounding you both had been so relaxing that you remembered wanting to simply curl your arms around him and doze off right then and there. Leaning against the desk, Takeda had leaned into you, one of your hands coming up to trace the notches of his spine beneath his shirt when he’d whispered lightly against your lips for what felt like the hundredth time.
“I love you.”
And there had just been… something there. Something about the way the room felt with him in it, how those birds outside seemed to sound a little more pleasant and even how his skin had felt beneath your fingertips in that moment. How the confession settled in your stomach, then your chest, then your throat and what had felt so heavy before suddenly didn’t seem so unmovable after all.
“I love you too,” fell from your lips and suddenly it was like the world gained an extra layer of colour. Takeda had pulled back, eyes wide and grin bright as the both of you seemed to take in the fact that a response had finally been given. Butterflies erupted in your stomach and Takeda couldn’t stop plastering your cheeks and forehead with excited kisses. The laugh had broken from between your teeth before you could stop it and you nudged your forehead against his with a chuckle. Your arms wrapped around his hips and his went around your neck and when you squeezed him against your chest, you knew for certain that you couldn’t picture your life without him… and you never had to again.
Within a few years, you were engaged, then wed and your new life as the freshly married man was complemented by the returned success of the Karasuno Cafe. Things were finally picking back up, the pieces you’d been worrying about crumbling through your fingers a few years ago had found a new home and soon you were enjoying the life that had been laid out before you.
You’d managed… and you hoped that if your Grandfather could see you now, you’d finally get to see what his grin of approval looked like.
You were happy… and you’d hoped you’d finally made him proud.
FIN ★ ☆ ★ Constructive critique always encouraged! You are welcome to leave a review below; no account required. I am eager to hear from each and every one of you!