I don't remember exactly when it started, but sooner or later everyone has a breaking point. If I'm not fending off internal coups on my company or dealing with threats against my brother, it's the thousand and one other demands that people make on my time. Research and Development want me in the lab but Accounting demands that I intervene in their crisis with Finance, meanwhile the company lawyers hint at coming tax liabilities for the next year and I still don't know what my competition is up to. Even my little brother, whom I adore, constantly pesters me to spend more time with him, sharing his meals and listening while he prattles incessantly about school and his numerous friends. Everybody wants me for something, and nobody is willing to wait in line.
Like I said, we all have our breaking points.
I realized some time ago that for the preservation of my sanity I had to find somewhere to hide away from the rest of the world, to shelter me from its neverending cacophony of needs. And the place that I found was good, merely blocks away from company headquarters but several light-years away when it came to the peace and quiet it offered.
I swept into the bookshop and selected my usual from the magazine racks, then proceeded to the café for my drink. The whirr of the coffee kettles and hushed conversations between the other patrons was about as noisy as it got; it was tranquility. This shop was an oasis where I could relax and allow my thoughts to roam wherever they would without fear of interruption. It refreshed me and did wonders for my focus for the rest of the week, and when something works I stick to it.
So at precisely three o'clock every Sunday I retreat to my haven. No exceptions.
I made my purchases in the café: the international edition of the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the international edition of the Times (for the crossword), and a large cup of coffee. Black, no sugar.
And for three beautiful hours I did nothing but sit in the café and skim through the business news, pausing to read this and that, making notes in the margin when I thought something might affect the gaming industry or my company in particular, sipping my coffee and exercising my mind over the Sunday crossword. No one bothered me and I bothered no one. It was perfect.
- - - - - -
Coffee girl changed that. I don't remember exactly when that started either, I just gradually came to expect her about half an hour to forty-five minutes after I'd arrived. She too was a creature of habit, I suppose, and unfailingly she would collect a novel from the shelves, order a cup of coffee, and make herself comfortable at one of the miniature tables. Then for two hours she hardly moved a muscle, utterly and completely absorbed in whatever book she'd selected. I never saw her buy one.
She registered nominally in my mind only because something about her face looked a little familiar, but I couldn't be sure and anyway I didn't care. The outside world didn't belong here and I dismissed any musings on the subject as a waste of my time. But I did grow used to her. There was never a Sunday she wasn't there, sipping her drink and reading, just part of the scenery.
The first Sunday of June was the day that changed everything. It had been a particularly brutal weekend: after taking my brother to play mini-golf like I'd promised, tech rang with the frantic report that systems were crashing all over the building. When I arrived it was nearly midnight and we spent the next twelve hours painstakingly untangling the network until we could isolate the virus and eradicate it. I was sorely tempted to just go home after the ordeal, but in the end routine won. Yawning, I made my way to the bookshop and bought my usual, ready for a relaxing read and then a nap at home. I suppose because the early summer weather was so nice, not that I'd had much of a chance to notice, the café was more crowded than typical. When I made myself comfortable at the last empty table, I should have realized what might happen, but truthfully it never crossed my mind. I'd been coming too long, become comfortable with my unquestioned seclusion. I had no reason to think it would ever be any different.
Until someone cleared her throat. Deep in an analysis of Japan's international trade balance, I was caught unawares and my head jerked up. Coffee girl stood next to my table, fidgeting, and smiled bashfully when our eyes met. The idea of someone attempting communication, here in my sanctuary, was so unthinkable that I could only stare blankly.
It's ironic, when I think of all the bizarre incidents that have been thrown at me in my life, that this was what reduced me to speechlessness.
"Excuse me," she said softly, apparently not noticing my expression. "But it seems all the tables are taken today… and you're the only one alone. Would you mind if I sat here?" She indicated the chair opposite mine carefully, hands full with her book and drink.
It's funny how the simplest action can change everything. I could have told her to get lost. But the thousand nasty insults and threats that sprang automatically into my mind stayed there; they didn't belong in my quiet retreat. And yet without them I didn't know what to do. Indecisiveness paralyzed my vocal chords and, of all things, I shrugged.
She happily took this to indicate acceptance and dropped into the chair, either not seeing or not understanding the shocked horror that must have been all over my face. The Wall Street Journal and the Times were spread all over the table so I could browse the one while I eyed the crossword on the other, but it didn't seem to bother her that I made no move to clear her a space. She set her cup on what was left of the table's surface and started thumbing through the pages of her book, looking for where she'd left off, and all the while I could only stare aghast.
I didn't want her here. This was my table, in my bookstore, where I came to be alone so people couldn't hound me with their thousand and one demands on my time. How dare she invade my personal space like this? Why hadn't I just told her to go?
It was too late now, I could hardly say anything now that she was in the chair. But how was I supposed to relax and read my papers if I had to worry about someone sitting at my table?
Unable to believe that I'd been trapped like this, I sulked and glowered at her. Hardened business executives have wilted under my glare but she didn't even look up, wispy strands of her hair falling across her face as she sipped at her drink. My day had officially been shot to hell, and I briefly considered just leaving. But no, this was my table first and I'd be damned if I let some waify teenage girl chase me away. I came here to relax and god damn it that is what I would do.
I returned to the trade article, hesitantly, half-expecting my concentration to just be interrupted when she grew bored and tried to chat. But there was only silence at our table and I finished browsing the Journal, and moved on to the Economist. I scanned a few interesting articles, made a couple notes, and started in on my crossword puzzle.
By the time I'd filled in the majority of the clues, I'd completely forgotten she was even there. When her chair legs scraped against the floor, the uncharacteristic noise was so unexpected that I looked up again. I don't know if my expression showed annoyance or not, but she offered me a timid smile of apology and stood.
"Thank you. Have a good evening."
I still hadn't spoken a word to her but she did not seem unduly disturbed. She merely nodded and left the café, tossing her empty cup in the trash as she went. I thought then that I could finish the rest of my time here in peace, but when I glanced at my watch I learned it was quarter 'til six and I needed to get going as well. I felt another spurt of irritation, but it wasn't as bitter this time. In fact, I was surprised that the time had passed so quickly. She'd never made a sound.
- - - - - -
It was a variation in my beloved routine, I thought, and dismissed it from my mind as soon as Monday rolled around again. The week blurred past with its usual jumble of company crises, interspersed with the occasional snatch of quality time with my brother. No more grueling than most, but stressful enough that I breathed a real sigh of relief upon arrival at the bookshop. I did notice warily that most of the tables were taken, but they weren't all occupied and I settled contentedly into my favorite spot with my coffee and papers.
One article on currency values and five crossword clues later, a loud burst of laughter cut through my concentration and I looked up. Several tables away, a biggish group of teens had gathered and were laughing and chattering rather loudly, drawing more glares of disapproval than just mine. Outsiders such as these occasionally invaded the café, disrupting the quiet, and although their obnoxious presence was thoroughly annoying we could all take comfort that they never stayed for very long. The problem was that they'd camped out right next to the last available table, taking all but one of its chairs for their own use. Coffee girl looked helplessly at the undesirable seat and then around the café, as if hoping that one last spot might miraculously appear, and our eyes met. I stiffened, and knew there was nothing welcoming about my expression, but she smiled tentatively anyway in mute appeal.
Not again, I griped inwardly. I don't want to share my table, I didn't come here to share tables. I came here to be alone! But then, I wouldn't want to sit next to that noisy group either. Am I so completely inhuman that I'd force her to do that?
While I was caught up in my unexpected internal conflict, she approached my table as silently and unobtrusively as the week before.
"Excuse me… do you mind?"
Yes, actually I do. But there are times that even I'm not proud of my unreasonable callousness. And so I will allow you to share this table, but understand that I don't like it.
I conveyed all this through an indifferent shrug and sharp nod toward the empty seat, and the smile of gratitude lit up her face. If she expected a returning smile then she would be sorely disappointed; I quickly buried myself back in the Economist before she was tempted to try anything like a conversation. Her behavior was orderly enough last week, but now she might think we're on the verge of true friendship or something and try to bond.
Apparently I needn't have worried. She set her cup by the Times and fell into her book almost instantly, clearly entranced. If the cover was any indication then it was one of those silly fantasy novels that are such a waste of time. I rolled my eyes and for the first time noticed that it wasn't coffee at all in her cup. I wasn't sure what it was, but it was pale and foamy and undoubtedly some kind of girly drink. How typical.
I grunted disdainfully, half hoping she would rise to the bait and we could argue, thus giving me a chance to chase her away. She gave no indication that she'd heard me, however, eyes flicking rapidly over the pages and completely immersed in the story. Well, there was something to be said for her focus. But I can focus too. I returned my attention to the Journal and together we read in absolute silence for the next two hours.
At twenty 'til six, she closed her book and emitted a tiny sigh. "Thank you," she half-whispered. "Have a good evening."
- - - - -
Coffee girl flitted through my thoughts a few times that week, inscrutably. In my life there's never time for reflection, it's always about the here and now. But occasionally, slogging my way through a morass of paperwork or some tedious negotiation with labor, she would pop into my mind and break my flow of concentration. That in itself was plenty annoying, but it bothered me still more that I couldn't understand why. Something set her apart from all the other moving faces in my world.
I couldn't pin it down, the difference, and that Sunday I waited in almost restless anticipation for her to appear. I knew it the moment she set foot in the café and without thinking I sat up in my chair, tracking her with my eyes. She might have even felt the look; she turned her head slightly and our gazes locked. I don't know what my expression looked like, I wasn't even sure what I was thinking, but she smiled briefly and made her way to the coffee bar. The café was half-empty today and I knew she would get her own damn table. I could finally read my papers in peace. Right?
Well, I hadn't really had a problem the previous two weeks. And I'd hardly looked at them since I arrived today, too busy waiting for her. Everything was backwards, the routine of my relaxation time was disintegrating and it was all her fault.
"Konichiwa," she murmured softly, yanking me abruptly out of my thoughts. Fantasy novel in one hand, foamy drink in the other, she paused by my table with a touch of uncertainty in her smile. She was waiting for me to provide direction; I could reply with a curt nod that would send her on her way and that would be the end of that.
For the first time I spoke.
It would seem I can't even extend an invitation without phrasing it like an order, and the image of a dog whisked through my mind. Dog… Something tugged at my subconscious, but then she obediently dropped into the chair and it fled. It probably wasn't important anyway, and my mind was too occupied anyway with this new development. I had asked her, in so many words, to join me. What the hell?
"Thank you." She spoke so quietly, I almost had to strain to hear her in the quiet café. Without another word she opened her book and wrapped herself up in the story.
That was the difference. Out of all the rotating sycophants and would-be mutineers at work, production suppliers and product buyers, consumer duelists and futile challenger duelists, that persistent bunch with multiple personality disorders and even my own brother, she was the only one to make no demands of me. All she wanted was a chair and some quiet. And that was something that I understood.
Coffee girl sensed my acceptance after that, or so I'd like to think. Anyway, from then on she helped herself to the seat at my table without pestering me for permission. At most she would greet me with a simple hello, at the very least a friendly nod when our eyes initially met. I would nod too, or if I was feeling particularly amiable I might grunt a response.
Nothing else had changed, I still read the business news and she her precious books with nary a word between us. Of course I wondered why. I wondered why I tolerated it and I wondered why she did it at all, contenting herself to share my cluttered table when most of the time she had her pick of empty ones. I never cleared any space for her, but it clearly didn't matter; nothing mattered once that book was in her hands.
I flicked the odd furtive glance her way sometimes while she was reading, watching her eyes move rapidly across the page. Her pace was impressive even to a speedreader like myself, and she devoured a thick novel roughly every three weeks. But no matter how breathlessly immersed she was, she never failed to pack it up at precisely 5:40, bid me a good evening, and leave as quietly as she'd arrived. But it didn't happen without a tiny and rather wistful sigh, and a final caress of the book before she stood. She didn't want to go, that much was obvious, and I wondered too what her obligations were in that other world out there.
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Disclaimer: I do not own these characters
I'm a big Seto/Serenity fan, but this is my first venture into the Yugi-oh fandom and I'll admit right away I don't know everything about the series. I left the country when they were still just partway through the Battle City arc, and I have only a vague idea of what happened after that. This fic is not meant to coincide perfectly with canon events, so let's not bother with corrections. All I'm assuming here is that Seto is finished with high school and is now a full-time CEO.
This is no smack on existing S/S fics, but a lot of the plots out there seem to revolve around the idea of Kaiba targeting Serenity simply because she is Joey Wheeler's little sis. I think the two have plenty of stuff in common besides that, so I figured I'd try a story in which he doesn't know quite who she is. We'll see if it works. Let me know what you think.