Disclaimer - I don't own it.
Author's note - This little oneshot was written in response to a challenge made by Mage the Observer in The Scarlet Sky's forum. It was to write about the Fireworks Festival. And, as it was a summery challenge, I used it as an excuse to write about a summery pair, Kai x Ann. Just so you know, this carries on from my other Kai x Ann story Closing Time, but can be read alone.
As usual for a sweltering summer's day in Mineral Town, the Inn was like a ghost town. At this time of year, picnics at Mother's Hill or the beach were the prefered option of most villagers. Ann wasn't sure how she felt about the peace and quiet. Sure, it gave her time to really get stuck into all that cleaning that needed doing, but it was also kind of... weird. She adored the bustling atmosphere, the banter with customers, keeping busy at all times...
So, of course, when she heard the door creaking open, Ann almost broke her neck in her eagerness to get downstairs. All she heard while picking herself up off the floor, was the distinct sound of racous male laughter. Once her blushes had faded and she'd composed herself, Ann, too, ended up chuckling.
"Come to check out the competition, eh?" she asked her guest jokingly.
Kai grinned widely at Ann, his dark eyes glittering teasingly. "Oh, I think I've seen all I need to," he told her.
Ann gaped back at him. She didn't like being left speechless, but decided not to be drawn into his teasing. It wasn't that she couldn't find an answer - oh, she could find an answer to everything - but there was a sad twist of irony to their conversation of competition. She'd visited the Beach Shack on her birthday, a few days ago, and, while Kai was clearly a wondeful chef, he wasn't getting a lot of business. Her joke about the Inn being the competition wasn't really all that funny when it was so dangerously close to the truth.
Instead, Ann searched around for a way to change the subject. "I must say Kai," she began slowly, stumbling over her words, "your, um... bandana... is looking pretty nice today."
There was long pause, in which Kai could only stare at Ann. Blinking, he tugged at the purple material allowing a strand of black hair to fall across his forehead, and coughed, "Er, thanks. And, erm, are you okay?"
She nodded a little too enthusiastically. "Of course," she beamed, while her face grew just as red as her hair - no easy feat by any means. Ducking her head, Ann scuttled behind the counter in the vain hope of hiding her embarrassment beneath her Professional Persona. Ann almost hated Kai for this. For turning her into a blushing, stuttering mouse-girl, who could only squeak out brain dead comments.
Cliff had never had his effect on her. He was far too meek for that. Not that she even liked him in the first place. Or cared one teensy little bit that he was now dating Claire "Blondielocks" Tyler. No. Of course not.
"What can I get you, sir?" she asked Kai professionally, after he followed her up to the counter.
Kai twisted his head around and glanced over his shoulder. When he seemed satisfied that Ann was, indeed, talking to him, he said, "Sir? Me!?" He shook his head in mock sadness. "I don't think Rick would agree with you there!"
"Never mind Rick," Ann retorted, waving away his comment with a flick of the hand. "Now. What'll you have?"
"I didn't really come for food - " Kai began, only to wilt under the ferocity of Ann's ice blue eyes. " - Water," he finished hurriedly. "I'll just have water."
Ann guffawed loudly, as she slipped into the kitchen to fetch the beverage. While Kai gulped it down, she asked him, "So that's why you came over, huh? To see who serves the best water, us or you?"
In his haste to answer her, Kai choked on his drink and starting coughing painfully. A great deal of it dribbled unnattractively down his chin. "Oh, me definitely," he replied, his usual confidence dented somewhat by the coughing fit. "Because, you see, I serve it with a winning grin and a cheeky wink for the ladies." Needless to say, his cockiness was quickly regained.
A rather cruel smirk appeared on Ann's face. "And what if, say, Saibara orders it?" she questioned.
Kai blanched visibly at the thought, but just about managed to pull himself together. "I said ladies, Ann," he pointed out seriously. "And when was the last time you saw Saibara prancing down the street in a pink crinoline gown?"
The feisty barmaid let out a terrible groan and buried her head in her hands. "Don't!" she warned him. "Eurgh. I'm seeing it now, Kai. I'm seeing it now and, I've got to say, I'm not liking it."
"Well, you started it," he pointed out fairly.
Once Ann had recovered enough to stop shuddering in disgust every few minutes, Kai brought up an unexpected subject. "Know what day it is today?" he asked her quietly.
"'Course I do!" she answered, shocked. "Who doesn't?" In Ann's opinion, the Mineral Town Fireworks Festival on the 24th was without a doubt the best day of summer. Well... except for her birthday maybe. Though it was true that this year hadn't exactly been a hoot, until, of course, Kai came to the rescue with his legendary strawberry snowcones.
"Well?" Kai prompted, rousing Ann from her memories. "Are you going?"
"Of course!" Ann repeated, as though the traveller was mad to suggest otherwise. The sight of rainbow coloured sparks against a blackened night sky, sent shivers of excitement through her. "You know," she said thoughtfully, "Dad's always saying that the fireworks show could be a great money-maker."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, they'll be lots of people at the beach tonight," she explained. "And they might be hungry. Dad always thought that we could make a lot of money by opening on the Fireworks Festival. The only problem is that we're too far away. It wouldn't be convenient, and Dad's never been fond of the whole take-out idea, and... well... "
"What?" Kai was starting to look perplexed as Ann's voice trailed off. If such a thing were possible, a tiny lightbulb would have been hovering over her head at that precise moment.
It was perfect. Oh yes, she was quite the genius. Almost everyone would be at that beach tonight. And Kai's restaurant, which currently got very little business, was right there, right on site. Why, she wondered, had he never thought of it before? But never mind that now; she'd thought of it and that was all that mattered.
"Come on, Kai!" Ann chirped bracingly. She grabbed the startled boy by the arm and dragged him to the door. "Just wait until you hear this..."
It was usual for tensions to wind down when the sun set over Mineral Town. Tonight, one of the most fun nights of the year, was definitely the exception. As soon as that glorious reddish tinge appeared on the horizon, excitement began to mount with a feverish vigour.
Kai was stood inside his spotless kitchen, scrubbing at the already clean units and fretting that his baked corn was going to burn. Just outside, Ann had flung open the front door and was hanging a hastily written 'OPEN' sign on one of the windows.
"Are you absolutely sure about this?" Kai called through the shop to her.
Ann's reaction was to burst out laughing. "Don't you back out on me now!" she yelled back. When he didn't reply, Ann crept inside with what she believed was a more useful response. "Pull yourself together, Kai," she demanded, strolling into his kitchen and glancing around. "Holy cow! Is this place clean or what?" She suddenly developed a whole new respect for him. "I honestly can't see why you don't have any customers - "
Ouch. The second the words crossed her lips, Ann bit down on her tongue to stop herself from blurting anything else out. Good Goddess, she could be so annoyingly insensitive at times. She wanted to kick herself for that one.
Thankfully, Kai shrugged off the remark. "Me neither," he sighed.
"Just think how perfect this is," Ann continued encouragingly. "Tons of people here tonight. You, the only source of food for them. And summery food at that! I mean, who doesn't want snowcones and popcorn and pizza while watching a fireworks display?"
Kai nodded, but, to Ann's dismay, still looked a tad unconvinced. He tugged at his bandana again, this time out of frustration. "Well, yes," he agreed. "It'll be good for business, but... it's a hell of a lot of work, Ann."
She let out an indignant cough and rolled her blue eyes. "Well, what do you think I'm doing here? I didn't come here simply to watch you struggle." Ann twirled around demonstratively, her long braid whipping about and her old trainers squeaking against the tiled floor. "Ta-daa! Three times winner of the Annual Mineral Town Cook-Off at your service!"
"Impressive. Very impressive," he nodded, seemingly only a little fazed by Ann's unrelenting cheeriness. "How did you win three times, though? You only turned eighteen a few days ago."
Ann started counting down on her fingers. "Let's see... I won this year, of course. And last year. Oh, and once when I was twelve. It was the first time I entered and the Gourmet said he'd never tasted a better chocolate chip cookie. None of the other entrants could believe it. Even my own father was left speechless."
"Yeah. With pride, I like to think."
Kai went to open his mouth again, perhaps to convey another concern, when they were interrupted by the harsh sound of knuckles rapping on the counter. Kai dashed into the shop where Zack was waiting impatiently for him. "We'll be starting the display pretty soon, when people start turning up," the shipped informed them. He glanced over the counter, into the kitchen, with casual interest. "So... you're open, huh? Any chance you guys could rustle up some popcorn?"
Ann clapped Kai on the back excitedly. "Aye aye!" she said, jumping to attention and achieving a weird look from both of the men. Her face flooding scarlet, she darted back into the kitchen, calling to Kai over her shoulder. "Come on, chef, work to be done!"
What Ann didn't see was the knowing wink Zack tipped Kai. She also missed the emphatic shake of the head Kai replied with. And, most importantly, the way his tanned cheeks burned all the while.
Soon, as people started arriving at the beach, the atmosphere became electric. The air buzzed with anticipation, which quickly grew into curiosity when the crowds noticed the very much open Beach Shack. If she hadn't been rushed off her feet by order after order, Ann would have sat down and proudly reflected on the pure brilliance of her idea.
In the moments before the display was due to start, a familiar blonde farmer wandered into the shack. Two pairs of blue eyes met, when Ann glanced up from the counter. "Oh hi, Blon - er, Claire," she greeted the girl.
Claire smiled and brushed a strand of fair hair away from her face. "Hello Ann. Please can I have some cotton candy for myself and a cherry snowcone for, um... Cliff?" She said the last word with such trepidation that you'd have thought Ann was about to whip out a rolling pin and beat her senseless.
Surprisingly, Ann had no such thought. Or, for that matter, a rolling pin to hand. Deep down, though, she found that she truly didn't mind about Cliff and Claire. Not anymore. And she kind of, sort of felt, well... happy for them. It was really weird.
The pair stood in silence, until Kai rushed into the room with her order. "Here you go. One cotton candy and one cherry snowcone."
"Thanks," Claire grinned, counting out her gold and handing it over. With a parting wave, she headed for door - only to turn around at the last minute. "Oh, and Ann?" she said, looking significantly at Kai. "It's nice to see that you've moved on."
For the first time in her life, Ann was left properly speechless. There were a number of things wrong with that statement, she thought indignantly. A) She couldn't move on, as Claire put it, because, don't forget, she didn't even like Cliff in the first place, and B) - "Bye, Claire!" Kai shouted suddenly, interrupting Ann's thoughts with his far too loud proclaimation. Claire exited with a shrug, while Ann was now staring at Kai as though she'd only just noticed him.
"What the - ?" She was cut off yet again, this time by a piercing whistle followed by an ear-splitting explosion. The inside of the restaurant flashed neon green for the briefest moment. Suddenly, all thoughts of Claire and Cliff and Kai vanished from Ann's head, and she dashed out onto the crowded beach.
Kai was right behind her. "Wow... " he murmured, awed, his head craned upwards as bright green sparks seemed to rain down across the sky.
The beach darkened as the firework faded, only for it to be lit up again just seconds later. This time it was flooded with a rich, ruby-red colour. As she watched, Ann felt a shiver of excitement rush through her. She wanted to bounce about like a little kid again, but she couldn't; not when everyone else was paired up and taking it seriously. Holding hands and so on. Like couples did. In fact, with the exception of her and Kai, just about everyone was clasped together by the hand.
The two cooks sat together on the step outside the Beach Shack. They watched the remainder of the display in relative, comfortable silence, and, unlike everyone else, there was no hand-holding between them. Not yet.
Just before the show was due to finish, Kai leant forward slightly to whisper in Ann's ear. "Thank you," he said softly, as she squirmed at the sensation.
Ann twisted around and pulled a jokey face at him. "Oh, it was no problem," she frowned. "You know how I love cooking. Besides, you helped me out on my birthday, remember, so I think this makes us even."
It looked, for minute, as though Kai was going to argue against that. There was a tiny pause, before he laughed instead. "Sure," he agreed. "We're even. High five, then?" That was more like it, Ann thought happily. Grinning, she slapped her palm against Kai's. And he held on. Just for second, just for a tiny, insignificant second. But in that second it was almost like they were holding hands. Like couples did.
Only they weren't. Not yet, anyway. As Kai ran inside, a little while later, muttering something about "cleaning up", Ann was left on the step with her thoughts. Now, her new feelings about Cliff and Claire didn't seem so weird anymore. Sure, they weren't technically a couple... yet. But Ann had a good feeling about the whole thing. And, for guy with a great sense of humour, a passion for cooking and cleaning, she felt as though she could wait forever.