Three cups of maple tea - A Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou fanfic.
For those of you who do not know this manga series, you have a treat in store. Sadly it has never been released officially in English language format although decent scanlations can be found in the Usual Places if you care to look.
All rights to YKK belong to Ashinano-sama of course. Email me with comments and complaints at my gmail account, name nojay1. Thanks.
She rested a finger lightly on the sign - Cafe Alpha - before pulling the door open and stepping inside. A bell jangled above her head and the slim green-haired figure slumped over the counter jerked upright, blinking the sleep from her eyes.
"Ah." She smiled brightly at the visitor. "Good morning, uh," she glanced at the window on the western side of the cafe where the sunlight was streaming in, "that is, afternoon. Welcome to Cafe Alpha. Take a seat, please!" She waved a hand at the empty row of tables along the window. The visitor looked around for a moment before selecting a chair and sitting down. The cafe was a little dilapidated, she could see. Rough repairs had been done, not too expertly, and there was still some unpainted wood here and there. The typhoon that had swept the area a year ago had hit the hilltop house and its attached cafe particularly hard it seemed. A glance through the window showed grass-rich fields sloping west down to the headlands overlooking the sea. She turned back to the figure behind the counter and smiled.
"What do you recommend?" she inquired.
"Ah." the girl scratched her head. "Well, we've got some fine coffee all the way from Yokohama." She stopped, a quizzical expression on her face. "I think. Uh..." She ducked down below the the counter and the visitor heard some rummaging noises and mutterings before the girl popped back up into view holding a limp cloth sack. She shook it experimentally."Yep. Still some beans left." Her smile was...
Caffeine. Not a good idea. "Anything else?"
The girl nodded. "We have barley tea, maple tea..."
"Maple syrup and herbs in hot water." the girl explained with a hopeful expression on her face, glancing down at the nearly-empty sack she was still holding. Her visitor quickly put two and two together and nodded.
"Maple tea sounds fine. I'll try it."
"Okay." The girl's smile lit up again. "Be right with you."
"And would you care to join me? You don't seem busy right now." She gestured at the chair opposite. The girl hesitated. "I don't bite, honest." She smiled reassuringly. "And I'd like someone to talk to."
"Okay." The girl busied herself at the counter, spooning and mixing and pouring, then brought a steaming glass cup around to the table, presenting it to her customer. She stood anxiously as her customer sipped the hot fragrant brew then relaxed as she nodded.
"Nnnn." She put the cup down carefully. "Very good." She looked up at the girl. "Sit, sit." The visitor's voice was a bit like Sensei's, the girl thought as she sat down; used to command.
The visitor watched the girl sit. She was a little clumsy in her movements, a little hesitant. She diagnosed shyness and insecurity with strangers and smiled again to reassure her.
"Cafe Alpha, eh?" She sipped her drink again; it was cool enough to enjoy now. "Unusual name, that."
"It's my name. I'm Alpha." The customer saw her face go slightly red as she looked down, somehow embarrassed at her outburst.
"It's Greek, isn't it? The first letter..."
"...of the alphabet, yes." Alpha broke into her explanation as her face lit up. "Nobody else knows that." She stopped for a second, then went on. "Except you." Another pause. "Are you... are you Greek?"
The customer laughed, then stopped at Alpha's obvious discomfiture.
"No. I'm just a student of many things, and it's one of those facts I've picked up over the years." She sipped again, then put the cup down carefully on the table. "It's a nice name though."
A faraway look came into Alpha's eyes. "Owner gave it to me." she said softly, glancing out of the window.
"Owner? Oh, you're a robot, aren't you?"
"Um, yes." Her face closed up.
"I thought so. Your hair is a giveaway, rather."
Alpha reached up to brush a wayward strand of hair away from her face. "The colour, yes?" Her customer nodded.
"Yes." She studied Alpha carefully. "Ah. You're one of the Alpha Seven series." She stopped and squinted. "But not an M three... Oh, sorry, I'm embarrassing you." Alpha was now bright pink from her neck upwards.
"No, no, it's OK." she said, waving her hand. "I don't mind, really." There was an awkward silence, which Alpha broke.
"I'm an M Two. An Alpha Seven M Two."
"I thought the M Twos were prototypes."
"Well, yes. They were, er, I am. There are another two. I think. M Twos. Err..."
"Why don't you make yourself some coffee and get me a top-up of the maple tea?" The customer pushed the empty cup over the table to Alpha, who started at the motion. She collected the cup and moved over behind the counter while her customer stared pensively out of the window at the scenery.
"Uh, I didn't hear your car pull up outside." said Alpha.
"Oh." She turned to the counter. "No, I walked up the hill. I spend too much time indoors and I took the chance to stretch my legs in the fresh air." She continued to watch Alpha as she concentrated on the job in hand, pouring boiling water from the kettle over the coffee grounds in the filter. There was something about Alpha's single-minded approach to her work that she felt she probably carried over into her everyday life. She smiled again; there were those she worked with who said the same thing...
Another steaming glass of maple tea appeared in front of her as Alpha slid into the other chair, a cup of black coffee already on the table. The customer watched, amused, Alpha counting under her breath as she ladled five spoons of sugar into her cup.
When they both had sipped their drinks, she stretched out her hand over the table to a surprised Alpha, who took it gingerly.
"My name's Director." she said as they shook hands.
"I direct... things." She laughed quietly. "My workmates gave me the name, and it stuck."
"Ah." Alpha was clearly puzzled, but her innate politeness prevented her from enquiring further. The silence stretched on as the light outside slowly faded. Director noticed the reflection of their two faces in the darkening windowpane; they were both staring out at the twilit landscape with similar expressions. She wondered briefly if the others ever caught her with that expression on her face when she looked down at the land far below Taapon, then looked away deliberately. Their faces were just a bit too similar, like mother and daughter. Even Alpha might have noticed eventually, and she didn't think it wise to enlighten her "daughter" about herself.
"You get your coffee from Yokohama then? I thought it was flooded out, pretty much."
"Ah, yes..." Alpha fiddled with the cup. "The roads around are pretty bad but..." The conversation flowed between them, Director prompting Alpha now and then and expertly distracting her from asking the wrong sorts of questions of herself.
After the third cup of maple tea was finished, Director stood up, startling Alpha who had been staring out the window at the bugs dancing in the light. She put some Kanagawa Nation coins on the table.
"This will cover the maple tea and the coffee, yes?"
Alpha nodded as she scooped up the money. "I'll get you your change in a second."
"No, don't bother. I'm going on a long trip soon and I'll not have the chance to spend it." Alpha's expression grew flustered. "Think of it as payment for some pleasant conversation, OK?" Alpha nodded reluctantly.
"Well, OK, but the next cup of maple tea is on the house when you come back, right?"
Director nodded. "I'm going to be gone for a long time, Alpha."
"That's all right, Director-san. I'm a robot. I'm good at waiting." Her smile was back, and Director suddenly wished she could take Alpha with her, but no. All she could do was hold that smile in her memory and leave before the tears came, before regret made her do or say the wrong thing. It had been a mistake to come, but...
She was far enough away from the cafe in the darkness that when she turned back to look one last time (I promise!) that her tears were not visible to the figure who stood in the doorway silhouetted against the light, waving goodbye.
By the time Director got to the shuttlecraft hidden in the ruins a kilometre from the cafe she had recovered her customary composure. She stripped naked in the airlock, discarding her clothing and tossing it outside. With luck Alpha or someone else wouldn't discover it until it had disintegrated as it was designed to do.
With both doors closed the airlock turned into a decontamination shower which Director made thorough use of, lathering antibacterial soap liberally through her long fine hair and across her skin. She gargled a poisonous-tasting mouthwash and spat before finally rinsing off and drying herself roughly.
At last she opened the inner hatch and dressed in fresh clothes before sitting down in the pilot seat. She thumbed the comms panel into life and a few seconds later the speaker crackled.
"Nice to know you're back, Director."
"Nice to be back home, Taapon." She let the ambiguity of that statement hang.
"When will you be taking off, Director?" She finished rubbing her hair dry and tossed the towel into the back of the small compartment before answering.
"I'll give it an hour or two. I'd prefer it if the locals were all asleep and didn't see anything."
"We're swinging over you soon so let us know and we'll get ready to receive you."
"No hurry. I'll be in quarantine for a week anyway once I'm back."
"Plenty of time to catch up on your reading, hey?"
"Yes, something like that." Her fingers were busy on the unfamiliar controls of the shuttlecraft. She couldn't use the mouthcord for initial takeoff but she'd use it later in the flight and especially for the tricky rendezvous to come.
"Did you get to see the people you wanted to see?" She had had to lobby hard to make this one trip - of all the people on board the giant Taapon she was the most irreplaceable for its operation and survival. She shook her head.
"No. Not enough time." Not enough courage, really. She had stood outside Sensei's house for almost an entire afternoon without being able to go up to the door and knock. She had watched Ojisan sleeping in front of his gas station before turning away satisfied with that sight. She had reserved the best for last knowing that Alpha would not know her on sight as the others might have, would have, and it... it was sufficient. She sighed. "I'll be with you soon enough, Taapon."
The flare of light from the shuttlecraft's engines was seen by only one person, if the Misago could be called that. She found the launch point more by smell than anything, and poked at the pieces of clothing abandoned by Director. They smelled... her nose wrinkled. Old. And then she was off, down towards the beach and the water, the strange events forgotten already as she thought about fish. Above her, in the darkness Taapon moved towards a rendezvous before a journey and Director Alpha Seven M One wept one last time.