The shop doorbell rings, followed by the expected entrance of Haruka's very first – and most sharp – costumer of the day.
He doesn't have – and doesn't want, really – to raise his eyes to know that a girl with a long ponytail just entered his coffee shop and it's making her way to one of the tables, bowing her head for him as quickly as her notions of good manners allow her to, a gesture that Haruka doesn't return. She doesn't seem to expect him to, and settles down on a table without making an order.
That doesn't bother Haruka any more than it would if a fly had entered his shop instead; some people like to come in just to sit by and read, and he was pretty aware his coffee wasn't that great anyway. If that was a mackerel shop, well, things would be different – but for some reason, the idea sounded weird to everyone, even though Haruka knew that was the one thing that city was missing.
It's the same thing every day. That one girl would enter his shop at 8:00 A.M sharp, wearing her usual baggy, gray jogging clothes, her hair color standing out a little bit too much, at least for the Protocol rules; people weren't allowed to dress with vibrant colors, so why could they have vibrant, raspberry-colored hair? When Haruka first complained about this to Makoto, he just laughed and said the Protocol couldn't force people to change their natural hair color – despite already forcing people to wear non-revealing, boring-colored clothes at all occasions –, but Haruka was pretty sure it was impossible to be born with that weird hair color. Either way, it wasn't his problem, as long as police officers didn't appear at his coffee shop trying to arrest a girl for having an unusual hair color; it happened before with people wearing bright-colored clothes, you never know.
She was now analyzing one of his napkin holders – the one placed on her table, to be precise -, and picking a few random napkins, something he'd seen her doing so many times he couldn't even force himself to feel a little curious. She seemed to notice his eyes wandering off in her direction and quickly glanced at him, to which Haruka responded by returning his gaze to his empty coffee machine. Staring at a random person – especially one of the opposite gender – could get people in jail under the accusation of flirting (or even thinking of flirting, which was just as terrible as the act of flirting itself, according to the Protocol), and the last thing Haruka needed was to be thrown in jail for something he didn't do. He had witnessed Makoto in the verge of being arrested just for acting too gentle with random strangers too many times, so he knew a few things about how to behave himself around others (and how not to, with Makoto being the greatest example). And, differently for Makoto, he couldn't care less about random strangers.
Distracted by his memories of all those times Makoto got in trouble with police officers and Nagisa offered his help to come up with prison break plans ("Don't worry, Mako-chan! I know a few things about picking locks and all that stuff!"), Haruka almost didn't notice when the girl pulled her cellphone out – as she'd always do -, studying the screen with a serious, focused expression as she scribbled something in one of the napkins. Ignoring her as he'd always do, he decided to occupy himself grinding coffee beans, finding a hazy comfort to his mind in the sound of beans turning into grounds. His eyes wandered through the gray walls, occasionally observing the people in the street through the glass doors – a mass of gray, neutral people, dressed in a way that made them all look the same, little parts of a giant dead worm making its way through an equally gray city.
That was happiness, the Protocol said. That could never hurt or feel unpleasant, and Haruka agreed. The world was free of every single sickness, including the deadliest one, the one who crawled upon people's skin without their consent or knowledge and fooled their senses, their thoughts, their very essence – a sickness that made people irrationally stupid and reckless, masked behind kind, nervous words and a funny sensation in the belly.
It's a feeling, some people would say in the past. It's a feeling, and it's human, and It's the source of all good.
Ever since the feeling was banished, though, the world had never been more peaceful.
Quickly as she came, the girl grabbed her things and made her way out of the coffee shop, soon becoming just one more part of the gray mass of people that sprawled through the streets.
His napkin holder looked like it had just been violently attacked by a hundred angry manatees.
Haruka sighed. It was still early in the morning, but he decided to call Makoto before he forgot about it. Who cares about Makoto's sleeping schedule? No one.
A lazy, drowsy voice made a human-like sound on the other side of the line. It could've been Makoto, or it could've been a dying whale. Haruka decided to believe it was just Makoto.
"Hey. Are you coming in the afternoon?"
"-And you remember that tall girl from our Physics class? The one with the funny accent."
"Mhmm. What about her?"
Nagisa grinned, as if he could feel Makoto's interest in what he was about to say, even though his interlocutor's attention was focused on the money he was silently counting behind the counter.
"The police got her. I don't know the details very well, but it seems they found out she had-" He made a pause, trying to build some suspense and grinning again at the process, all of it going unnoticed by Makoto, who apparently was having a better time counting money. "-a boyfriend."
Suddenly, it was as if Nagisa had dropped a gas bomb in the ambient, and Makoto jumped on his feet, eyes wide as the horror painted white every inch of his face. Next to him, Haruka had his face buried in the counter, and didn't bother to mirror his friend's deep exasperation.
Quickly but carefully, Makoto glanced around, as if he was expecting armed men to jump out of the walls and throw Protocol pages at their faces before arresting them.
"N-Nagisa!" He reprimanded in a terrified whisper. "Don't say this stuff out loud! Haruka has costumers in here!"
"I was just telling you what I heard! Are we breaking the law now by simply talking about other people breaking the law?!" He sounded indignant, but Haruka could tell he was having his fun in seeing Makoto nervous.
"Just… don't… say this kind of word!"
"Okay, okay! Don't panic. Mako-chan, you need to learn to be as calm as Haru-chan. Look at him." He pointed the dormant figure of Haruka. "He doesn't even care."
"He probably didn't even listen to you." Corrected Makoto.
"Tall girl from Physics class got a boyfriend. And then she god arrested for it." In his defense, Haruka recited the words in a tedious tone, calmly raising his head as Makoto freaked out for the second time in a row.
"Can you stop saying this word?! It's- it's wrong! What will people think of us?"
"Says the guy who gets In trouble with the police for smiling at everyone." Haruka retorted without losing his composure.
"I'm not- I won't- I'm working on it, okay?" An exasperated sigh came from Makoto, and he tossed the money back in the cash register. "You guys are making me nervous. I'll have to count all the money again."
Nagisa grinned at Haruka, who allowed a little smile of complicity to show up on his face. Almost every afternoon, Nagisa and Makoto would come and visit Haruka's coffee shop, mostly to help him with running the café during the busy hours, which could be translated as Makoto doing Haruka's work as Haruka and Nagisa did nothing relevant at all. It was weirdly comfortable for Haruka, and he just kept watching as Nagisa talked more.
"But, you know, I'm curious about what'll happen to her. We never hear much of people who get caught. Do you think they kill them?" Nagisa's eyes glittered with curiosity, which seemed to make Makoto a little uncomfortable.
"I… don't think so." He was still whispering, and it reminded Haruka of how drug-dealers would speak in bad action movies. "There are surgeries, right? To fix what's wrong with people's brain and such, I think."
"Yeah, but these are expensive, aren't they?" Nagisa frowned; he seemed genuinely interested in the subject. "Rei-chan talked about injections. Like, a therapy or something, so they won't make the same mistake again. But it doesn't sound too effective to me… I should ask more about it to Rei-chan."
"Who's Rei-chan?" Makoto asked, eyes on the money he was counting again. His eyebrows were furrowed.
"Ooh, that's right, you still don't know him! You weren't here when I brought him over. Haru-chan knows him, though! Isn't he nice, Haru-chan?"
"Dunno." Haruka mumbled in a distracted tone, watching the people around the café; some heads were turned towards Nagisa, probably because of his constant use of "-chan", something that made people incredibly uncomfortable these days (and could be just as troublesome as Makoto's innocent smiles to strangers).
"He's really smart! And he thinks a lot! He's really nice, too, but don't say that to him, or it'll get to his head." He laughed loudly, and more people looked at him, some of them looking genuinely annoyed. "I'll bring him over next time so you can meet him. And then we can talk about injections for curing people and all that stuff!"
"Doesn't sound very exciting" said Makoto with a small and somewhat nervous laughter. After finally counting all the money, he returned it to the cash register and glanced at Haruka. "Are you going out to buy dinner or you have food on your house already?"
For a second, Haruka stared at him.
"I know how to cook, mom."
The unexpected irony made Nagisa laugh again.
"Oh, Haru-chan is having none of your motherly skills! A true independent member of the post-Protocol society!"
"I was just- I was-" Makoto sighed nervously. "Well, if you need anything, I'm going to buy food for me later."
"I'm fine. Besides, I don't want to get arrested for going out late at night."
"Oh, crap! You're right!" Checking his wrist nervously, Makoto bit his lip. It was only 4 P.M, but he was acting like they were only a few minutes away from midnight. "Do you mind if I go now? I still have to buy a lot of stuff and help my mom with the siblings…"
"I don't mind." He shrugged.
"Don't smile at the ladies, Mako-chan! Oh, and don't smile at the guys as well!" Nagisa shouted playfully as Makoto rushed out of the coffee shop, earning a few horrified glares from the costumers and a nervous whimper from Makoto, who probably wanted to melt into the floor and never be seen again. Nagisa laughed again, and Haruka couldn't help but admire a little his careless, free attitude, not caring that at least twelve pair of eyes were looking at him in the same way they'd look as a dangerous dog ready to purposely bit people and infect them with a few different diseases. He turned back to Haruka, a ghost of laughter still playing on his lips.
"Well, I suppose you still want my amazing help with all these costumers, right, Haru-chan?"
"Sure. Just try not to scare them so much."
Nagisa laughed once more, an alien sound between those gray, naked walls.
To say that Haruka was startled was an understatement.
It was nearly 8 A.M, and the morning was especially cold and comfortable for him; nothing wrong with that. Soon, he knew he'd hear the doorbell ring and a girl with a long raspberry-colored ponytail would enter, bowing wordlessly to him before taking a seat, as she did every day in the exact same hour.
At some point, the door was opened with a bit more of violence than necessary; if it wasn't for this, Haruka would've probably never raised his eyes from the counter. But the loud sound caught his attention, and he looked up, expecting to find the very same girl of every day with her gray jogging clothes and silent manners-
Except she wasn't that tall, and that-
That's not her. That's not a her. It's most definitely a him, this time.
Stupidly, the first thing Haruka notices are the teeth. It's a small detail, but a relevant one – he never saw such sharp teeth before in his life, and he's quite impressed with them, staring a little too much at the stranger's mouth before he realizes how weird that is, and raises his eyes.
Raspberry hair, he notices, but it's different; this guy's hair is shorter, but long enough to almost touch his shoulders, and a bit messier too. He's around Haruka's age, dressed all in black and gray, in accordance to the Protocol, and has a fluffy scarf around his neck that destroys any possible intimidating technique he wanted to use on Haruka. His figure is not aggressive, Haruka thinks, but he has sharp, annoyed eyes, and use them to look at Haruka, who can't help but feel a little challenged, like he just signed up to enter a glaring contest. He stares back with equal intensity (or so he hopes), and this seems to throw the stranger a little off balance, making him avoid his eyes reluctantly and glare at the empty tables instead.
When he's done with his glaring, seeming to realize the tables won't glare back at him like Haruka did, he decides to use his voice.
"Did anyone come in before me?"
The question is thrown at Haruka without hesitation or embarrassment, as direct as Haruka himself would be if he was wearing a fluffy scarf and looking for someone.
Which didn't mean he was going to be direct with his answer, of course.
"Why do you ask?"
The question didn't seem to please the stranger, making him use his favorite glare once again.
When he spoke again, his voice sounded contained, but his eyes were still a little too glued on Haruka.
"…I'm looking for someone. And you better help me."