KeiichiroxZakuro. That's not a pairing you see every day, is it? Well, your eyes weren't deceiving you when you saw that label. This is my story for True Colours Alternate Pairings contest, and KeiichiroxZakuro is the only pairing here.
It was a pleasure writing this oneshot, it really was. It was really cool getting into Keiichiro's head (I'd barely glanced at him before) and I have to admit that I got quite attached. It's a shame so few people write about him, really. But anyway, writing this has made me fall in love with KxZ, a pairing I'd never really considered. It is my hope that you will feel something similar when you read this, even if you've never even glanced at the pairing before. If you come to believe the pairing is possible, or even probable, my task is complete. If I've failed, I hope that you enjoy it anyway XD
Oh, and I give my thanks to a someone who'll know who she is for reading this, practically fangirling over it and becoming a KxZ supporter despite barely knowing what TMM is XD Couldn't have done it without you ;P
I know this café entirely. I know every place within it as well as I do myself, perhaps better.
I sit every morning, sipping a sweet black coffee, on the elegant pink chairs in the café. It is a pleasant enough place, filled with soft furnishings and homely comforts, providing an apt cover for the building's true use even if the décor is somewhat saccharine.
I spend hours in the basement, watching the world through the glass of a monitor, waiting for disaster to occur. This secret barely-visited part of the building is so familiar to me now that the claustrophobia and fear the shadows invoked have disappeared completely. The dark silence is comfortable, but I must admit to feeling unsettled as I approach the computer, for the information it contains will probably send the Mews into danger again.
I even visit Ryou in his apartment, a place hidden away from prying eyes above the cafe. The Mews nor any one else, to my knowledge, have ever seen these private quarters, but my friendship with Ryou is so enduring and secure that he feels able to give such a privilege. His room is by far the most restful in the house, for it is where my blond accomplice is truly at ease, so I am too.
Yet, lovely though Ryou's bedroom is, it is his. It is a private place, a space in which I am only guest, so I can never feel truly relaxed. So, out of all these places, there is only one I can say I truly adore.
The kitchen. My kitchen.
It is more my home than the cold room I return to sleep in every night. Decorated in softer orange hues, rather bright pink, it is a warm and inviting room. Although decorated more simply than the café and less personal than upstairs, it is where I feel most at home. The airy, bright nature of the room coupled with the functionality of it all makes me feel purposeful and calm. I know my way around the kitchen. I know where to look for every ingredient there is, which cupboard doors squeak and which don't. I know every device, pot and pan, by name or, if they do not have a name, by purpose. The kitchen is the place in which I can truly relax, even when the pressure is on for me to cook. I can honestly say I don't mind the rush of getting those desserts to waiting customers, baking is so therapeutic that it never truly gets to me. If I am in my natural environment, using skills I have perfected, why should I find working tense? Besides, knowing that I can create a dessert that can compliment the mood of every consumer is reason enough to counter out the stress and make me want to work hard every day. If I can brighten the day and sooth the worries of at least a few customers, even only temporarily, I can feel I've achieved something.
Yet, the kitchen is more than just a canvas on which I can perfect my artistic works in the form of cakes. It is my realm. I am there so often, I'm sure the Mews consider me a fixture as essential to its function as the dish washer and blender. It's probably true. The kitchen is the room I watch the world, observing more than actively partaking in the activities that occur here. That is how I serve my friends best.
I see and hear everything that goes on. Unbeknownst to my comrades, I know more about their lives than they'd imagine, though not intentionally, I promise. Whilst whisking up my latest creation, I often cannot help but take note of the dramas that unfold in the room next door. In fact, I have learnt from observance alone to recognise the quirks and signs of emotion, particularly sadness, within each of my charges from watching them chat about those matters that bother them most. However, that is not my only skill. I can recognise the Mew's mannerisms with ease. I can distinguish who is passing the kitchen by simply listening to the sound of their footsteps. Purin bounds rather than walks, there's always a spring in her step. Timid, soft footfalls belong only to Lettuce. Mint simply stomps, she doesn't seem fond of practicing the light tread years of ballet has given her. Ichigo's pace varies but she is usually arguing with Ryou, humming loudly after seeing Masaya or making some noise that makes it impossible not to notice her.
But there is one person I can never see coming.
Zakuro. The model often comes to greet me when she arrives for her shift, tired from hours of posing and photo shoots. Yet, even tired, her tread is so silent and movements so soft and elegant, I often do not realise has entered the room until she mumbles a gruff greeting.
"Good evening, Keiichiro." Her voice is stiff, awkward.
I pause and serenely turn to her, a smile pinned upon my face.
When Zakuro first began her daily 'hello's, a grin would rise within me and plaster itself on my face quite naturally. I enjoyed Zakuro's company and this, coupled with the joy that she had spared the time in her busy schedule to acknowledge me fully, was enough to make me beam. Yet, after the first, second and third time she visited me, I began to dread these simple exchanges for a single reason.
The Zakuro I inevitably see when I turn around is not the dark-haired, womanly figure I see smiling naively on the cover of Tokyo's magazines. It is a gaunt, tired form, a girl with an icy face that gazes awkwardly in my direction. Her eyes are almost soulless, as if she has given all of her heart to the photographs that immortalise her image in countless people's minds. Empty. She is a shell, an unsmiling figure whose emotions are hidden so far beneath the surface that some interpret that there are none there at all
Chilling. It's hard to smile at such a person, but I would always manage one.
"Hello, Zakuro." I would purr in reply, "How was your TV interview?"
"Fine." she would murmur noncommittally, "I got harassed by fans at the TV station again."
I was always shocked by these blunt retellings. They were nearly always filled with horrors I could barely stomach hearing about, let alone imagine facing. Sharp tellings off by her boss for one misplaced word, articles published insulting her latest work, men looking to take advantage of her… the terrors never seemed to end, or even become less surprising with the passage with time.
Yet, somehow it wasn't just the content of the story that made them impact upon me. Sure, the stories were dreadful in their own right, but after a while you do come to know the tribulations of the famous…
It was the way they were retold that stunned me, time after time.
Zakuro always stated these things in such a matter-of-fact way, with such a look of blankness on her face, it took all my power to stop a look of disbelief from crossing my features. It was as if the happenings did not invoke any response from her, as if she was numb, unfeeling or lacking care. Or that was how it would seem to an unknowing onlooker. I knew this was not the case. The haunted, fearful or, often, downright fed up look in her eyes told me that, told me that these things affected her more than she cared to admit. It was in that moment my eyes reached hers, and this silent communication of her unhappiness was spoken between us, that I would have the urge to reach forward and hug her. I would desperately want, to the point of needing, to wrap my arms around her and keep her safe. To tell her it was fine… I was here. I wanted no more from her than an occasional smile. More than that, I wanted to find these people who hurt her so greatly, these 'fans' she gave her image and time to and scream at them for their mistreatment.
This time every day was perhaps the only time I would want to, rather than simply stand and watch, act. My passion almost consumed me, spurring me on to reach out and touch her… but luckily it never did. I was too scared of the consequences to do that. So, knowing that I could not act on either of my emotions, I would simply offer a few words of condolence.
"Well, I suppose they only want to see the beautiful lady they admire so much." I would say politely, "Not all of them have the pleasure of being able to see and speak to you, day after day, as I do."
A slight sparkle would enter her eyes and she would look slightly less vacant.
"What cake are you making?" The daily question was aptly designed to distract my attention away from our more painful conversation.
"Dark chocolate mousse, today." I would show her my unfinished work as I spoke. It mirrored my mood. Today it was a bitter day, tinged with a delightful but subtle sweetness.
She would nod, turning from me, "Be sure to save some for me."
Then she would leave, our exchange having been brief, deceivingly unimposing and bittersweet.
Well, that was how our exchanges started.
As the days went on, slowly they began to change. Although the format pretty much stayed the same, she would stay longer. She would elaborate on her day, and instead of grunting her replies to my questions, she would speak them in an increasingly casual manner. The glimmer of happiness my comments sparked in her eyes slowly spread to the rest of her features, her mouth would twitch into a slight smile. In fact, soon her iciness began to melt before I had even started speaking to her. She looked less burdened by the day, more serene and natural than I had ever seen her.
"Good evening, Keiichiro."
I whipped around to see her, a full-scale grin upon my face.
"Nice to see you, Zakuro." My tone aptly reflecting my glee, "Did the photo shoot go well?"
"It went fine, thanks," she nodded, grimacing slightly, "The photographer made me stand up all day and refused to let me eat lunch, but, apart from that, I'm peachy."
There was a colourful, dry sarcasm to her words in addition to the cold her voice never went without. The content of the story, I could see, still bothered her despite her more cheery way of wording it. As usual, I offered my few words of comfort in an aim to lighten her mood.
"Well, that photographer needn't be concerned. You're not going to get any less stunning if you don't follow his ridiculous eating and exercise plan. I should know, I feed you cake every evening." I chuckled, "Should I suppose you want a slightly larger slice tonight?"
I winked at her, indicating to the pale yellow cake mix.
Amusement glittered in her eyes, her lips curving upwards slightly,
"And what would it be today?" she asked, genuinely curious.
"Victoria Sponge." I said casually, "It's a traditional British dessert I've wanted to try out for a while. It's jam and butter cream sandwiched between light sponge. I've heard it's perfect for a summer's day."
She nodded, "Sounds nice. I'd love some, Keiichiro."
And then she left, on cue as always.
Yet, although she became progressively more relaxed in my presence, she never did quite look like the girl who grinned wildly in her on-screen appearances. The cold, distant aura she gave off eased but never disappeared. Although not entirely empty, when we spoke she never looked half full. However, as we came to know each other better, the iciness slowly failed to faze me, I took it to be an essential part of her. The chatty, enthused on screen model, I supposed, had never been her natural state anyway. Though quieter, subdued and harsher in tone, this was Zakuro… and I felt honoured to see her this way.
With the introduction of these few minutes in late afternoon to each day, I began to look forward to things. My mind… well, I had always preoccupied it with the hour-to-hour tasks I carried out when baking, but with Zakuro's presence I began to think a little more of the day ahead. I planned for the future, learnt to time more than just the oven. My thoughts began to focus more upon Zakuro as the days went on and, although it was absolutely disastrous for my desserts, I delighted in it. I enjoyed knowing she was there. I knew she would always appear eventually every day, even if there were a delay. It was all predictable, safe.
Progressively presented with a human, rather than a ghost, my own mood further improved. I would delight in seeing her. I loved watching her become unburdened, almost happy in my presence, and knowing I was the cause of it. It made me happier than serving a cake to someone ever had. Soon I came to plan my entire day around our small chats and, at night, I'd lie in bed reflecting upon the half smiles and words she had given me.
Yet, one day those half smiles stopped. One day she was happy, smiling in my company, the next she was withdrawn and wore a frown that simply wouldn't shift. It was intensely worrying, and after two days of compensating for her lack of will to talk, I decided I needed to do something to cheer her up.
I would bake her a cake in time for our daily conversation. That was it. Instead of gliding through the door to see a work in progress, she'd see the finished product with her own sample already set out for her to try. What effect this would have on her, I had no idea, but I hoped it would gain a positive reaction. I hoped that she would break out of her melancholy and show me a sign of humanity again.
That day she reacted with astonishment and she smiled. She actually smiled. The sight of her made my heart soar and it took all my energy not to grin madly, it pleased me that much.
"You made it for me… for when I got here?"
"You're always so tired after work, Zakuro." I tried to hide my grin of contentment. I didn't succeed, "I thought a piece of orange cheesecake might give you the energy to serve the customers."
She looked dumbfounded, as if unable to find what to say. She gazed at me quizzically, almost suspiciously, as if she believed this act of kindness was meant to puzzle or hurt her. After a moment of pure discomfort, she simply gave up on replying and took to silently eating the cake. Though she was silent and showed no outward signs of delight, her eyes glowed with happiness and she ate with such leisure that I knew she was revelling every mouthful.
Halfway through Zakuro paused and put down her fork, turning to me with a grimace on her face.
"You make wonderful cakes, Keiichiro," she said simply, "but you work too hard. You never take a day off… you must get sick of working every day of the week."
Her voice was hard, so blunt it could be taken as genuinely meant to insult, but I knew her well enough to know that it was not deliberate. I was used to braving the sharply worded comments for it was Zakuro's natural way of speaking. The pauses, however, were abnormal. She never usually hesitated. She usually emitted confidence; uncertainty was just not something she portrayed. I hastily summarised that she was thinking about her words more than normal. But why?
"Oh, don't worry about that." I answered warmly, hoping to sooth away any worries she might have, "I love baking. Yes, it's physically exhausting but it makes me happy and it's always worthwhile. It relaxes me, so I don't ever feel the need to take a break." I mused, before adding, "But thank you for your concern, Zakuro."
I smiled kindly but Zakuro's lips remained in a hard line. I'd forgotten how she was when she completely lacked warmth towards me and I was suitably frightened and bothered by the experience.
She returned to her pudding.
I resisted the urge to study her movements for, concerned though I was by her obvious melancholy, she wouldn't appreciate my standing over her. She was much too independent for that. I returned to preparing my next dessert, greasing the pan and filling it with cake mixture. I was preoccupied for some moments and it was not until the two tins, filled with fruitcake, were in the oven that I paid attention to Zakuro.
When I turned to her again, she had pushed back her plate. Her slice was half eaten, seemingly abandoned in the middle of a mouthful. Instead of eating, she had taken to simply sitting there, staring into space with her head supported by her hands.
"Is everything ok, Zakuro?" Concern laced my voice. It wasn't like Zakuro to sit and do nothing. She never did that. She was always so restless despite her permanent tiredness. It was the listlessness her eyes showed, though, that prompted me to enquire as to why she was in poor sorts.
Zakuro didn't turn her head. "I'm fine." Hard, but strangely feeble.
That made me yet more anxious. How I wished that her face was as telling as the rest of the mews, that I could read her mind! I knew something was wrong, that was obvious, but not what. Usually I'd drop the issue, avoiding prying for fear of upsetting her. Yet, her eyes had held such a severe lack of light these past few days that I felt incapable of doing so. Regrettably, my concern made me continue.
"Excuse me for persisting, but something is wrong, Zakuro." I uttered quietly, "I can tell that."
"Stop, Keiichiro." she ordered weakly.
"Forgive me, Zakuro. I can't. I can't bear seeing such a wonderful woman upse-"
"Shut up, Keiichiro." Her voice was alarmingly forceful. I stopped in my tracks, frightened the rise in tone and wary of rousing any negative emotions. However, as I watched her lapse, yet again, into a state of passive defeat, I knew I could never bear letting the matter rest.
"Maybe if you shared it with me, I cou-"
"No," she whipped around and glared at me, "I don't want to talk about with you, Keiichiro."
She stood up abruptly, her eyes fixed on mine. The anger in them had come on so suddenly that it smothered me instantly. It was a silent anger; one that was so controlled it seemed freakishly abnormal, for it seemed she was strangely unfeeling even in her rage.
"Stop prying into my life, get on with your cakes and leave me alone."
After uttering those cold, sharp words, she left me. She just turned and walked away. I was left shivering at the chill that invaded my body, fear preventing me from following her. I was so scared of venturing out, of stepping over the silent boundary that separated us, that not even my concern could drive me from the safe base of my kitchen.
Zakuro stopped visiting me after that.
She just… stopped. No warning, no explanations. She simply never returned to me. She no longer came and spoke to me about her issues, she didn't even acknowledge me. She blanked me entirely as if our fragile relationship had never even existed. As if she didn't want it to exist.
Yet, I waited for her. I believed that it was just a phase. Perhaps she simply felt unable to face me, knowing she would concern me or maybe she needed to sort her mind out without hassle. Whatever it was, she would surely settle down. She'd become hospitable again and her grudge with me would fade. She'd come back to me if I only gave her space. I was certain she would. Certain. And then things would be back to how they were before.
I survived a week in her absence before the doubts began to nag at my delicate hope.
By the second week, my faith itself began to fade, replaced with a dark pessimism.
By the third, I despaired. I was filled with a deep sorrow and anxiety that even immersing myself in my job couldn't seem to shift.
Every time my thoughts lingered on the subject of her, my heart would sink. I would think of all that I'd lost, of my utter stupidity at pushing the boundary of our relationship. Then I would realise, again, just how upset her absence made me. It was a profound melancholy that was ever-present in my mind.
Without Zakuro, I still had my kitchen. I had my baking. I had my job, my world and all other relationships. I was still the grateful, graceful servant, the man who listened and watched life safely from the sidelines. Little had changed. Yet, now, life would still never be the same again for she had completely shaken up my world.
I had never yearned for friendship, not since Dr. Shirogane's death. I had been content to stand on the sidelines of every event in life, good or bad. I was content with pleasant yet formal relationships, ones a typical servant makes. I didn't want any more. I'd crossed the line into friendly love before, with Ryou's parents, and I'd paid for it profusely. I didn't crave anything more. It had been enough to make cakes, to apply myself to a task with the express wish of bringing joy to others. It didn't matter if they never thanked me for it. It was worth it simply to make someone's day.
But Zakuro… Zakuro had made me want more. She'd wound her way into my life without me realising it and had become someone I cared for deeply. She was no longer a charge or a friendship borne of promise, as the Mews were, she was someone whose presence affected my own life. A reciprocal bond. And, for once, I didn't even think about disallowing it. I wanted it. I wanted more from her than a respectful acquaintanceship; I wanted friendship, a union where we were both fully involved. Where we both gave and took, where I gained things from her. I wanted to get involved, emotionally and physically, irregardless of how unsafe it was.
That realisation struck me just as I was dropping off to sleep late one evening, opening up a well of emotion within me that I didn't know I possessed. I fell into a depression that made me feel unable to breathe.
It was terrible, realising this now when nothing could be done about it. Now she was gone and I had lost the relationship I desired. I lamented heavily, wishing with the whole of my heart that I could fix what had gone wrong.
That was when a sudden epiphany cut through the sadness. The shock of it forced a sharp intake of breath. I blinked in surprise as the answer came as I lay drowsily on the edge of sleep. I marvelled at how sorrow began to fade. As I lay there, I was filled with an overwhelming peace and happiness, all brought on by one single realisation. I could not help but smile.
I had been wrong. I could do something.
The next day, I could barely contain a grin when Zakuro entered the café. It was perhaps the only time in my life that I had ever seen her composure slip, and I have to admit that it was amusing to behold, despite my nerves. I can't say I blame her for her surprise, though. It must have been a surreal moment for her, seeing the cake chef sitting upon a pink chair as a customer would, eating one of his own creations. She came to a standstill in the middle of the room, simply studying me with a look of surprise etched on her face.
I smiled naturally, "Hello Zakuro. How was the photo shoot?"
I ignored her confusion and progressed instantly with our traditional conversation starter. If I were to keep her here, I needed to get her attention quickly. Her face was still gaunt, perhaps more so than the last time I'd dared to stare directly at her, and I could tell that she was drained of energy by the way she moved. In this mood her patience was, most probably, short. I'd have to be careful.
Zakuro looked bemused, "It was fine. How come you're sitting out here?"
I chuckled. It seemed I shouldn't have worried; the wonder of my being out of the kitchen was enough to grab her focus. It was nice to hear some warmth in that voice again and to watch her eyes sparkle after such a long time. It almost lulled me into a false security, something entirely fatal. I knew that, although she was shocked into curiosity and good-humour, these positive signs would wear off. Her voice was still gruff and icy, so I remained uneasy.
I pointed to the chair beside me and waited patiently until she sat down before offering my reply.
"I thought I'd take a break for once." I swallowed, ignoring the nerves that niggled at me now she was actually there beside me, "It's midweek so Ryou was comfortable with closing the café for a few hours," I chuckled to myself, "He was probably happy I suggested it. It means he gets a few hours away from Ichigo."
Zakuro nodded passively. I could see she was already drifting into the state of numbness I'd watched her go around in for these past two months.
I pushed a plate of cake towards her, hoping to lure her back from it. She stared at the sugary treat for so long, I was sure that she was going to refuse, but eventually she accepted it. There was a disturbing element of reluctance in the gesture and she ate wearily.
"It's a lemon drizzle cake today, Zakuro." I murmured softly.
Zakuro blinked, nearly choking on her piece of cake. She obviously hadn't expected me to keep up our usual formula.
"I thought you might enjoy eating the piece I saved for you out here for once."
Zakuro swallowed, looking at me sceptically.
It was easy to see from the look on her face that she wasn't questioning me on why I thought she'd rather not sit in the kitchen. She was asking me something larger than that; she was questioning our whole relationship. Encoded into that query was a measure of confusion about my motives and an adequate amount of insecurity. I knew then that she didn't know why I why I was doing this for her, why I was pursuing her at all.
Her eyes were locked with mine, gaze strangely softened by an emotion I couldn't quite make out. However, her voice was strangely suspicious;
"Keiichiro, you give me all this and I never give you anything back."
What she said was untrue. Even if she never fed me delicious things or brought me presents, she still came and spoke to me. Gifts wouldn't make me any more fond of her than I already was.
However, this sudden suggestion that she had no worth worried me a little. It made me wonder if it was feeling like this that had caused Zakuro's avoidance of me. I had felt the urge to smooth over the situation.
"Please don't fret about that." I said softly, "Your presence is payment enough for me, Zakuro."
I had expected her to smile at my flattery, or perhaps chuckle as she occasionally did, but instead she seemed caught between bitterness and exasperation.
"That shouldn't be a payment, Keiichiro. It should be a given. You don't need to raise me up on a pedestal just because I'm famous." There was a hint of a sigh in her voice, as if she was tired, but her tone remained the same.
It was my turn to be surprised. I'd… I'd never considered that my words might seem like that to her…
"I… Ok." I said, trying to get my head around this new information. "I won't. I'll flatter you because you're a beautiful and independent lady instead. Is that acceptable?"
That one broke Zakuro out of her shell. She even very nearly smiled. It was a beautiful sight, the first sign of happiness I'd seen in a month.
However, almost as soon as it appeared, it faded again, just as it had last time. As if her joy had been crushed beneath a wave of depression, her smile disappeared and she was left looking as cold as she was before. It was disturbing seeing how her feelings could vanish so quickly, but this time it was only worry for her that consumed my mind. I wasn't scared of her now, I had no reason to be. Zakuro was all bark and no bite, she always had been, and any fear I had of her bark was dwarfed by my care for her. She was in pain and I couldn't stand seeing it.
Zakuro went back to her cake, her head dipped submissively, her face turned slightly away from mine. She was trying to distance herself, I could sense it, but I really couldn't fathom why.
As we sat in an uneasy silence, I came to the conclusion that I had two choices. One was to let her be and allow our agreed unwritten rules to dictate how I could act, meaning I would never know what was wrong, or I could simply ignore the recipe and go on instinct alone.
"What's going on, Zakuro?"
It terrified me, asking her that. I feared what she would say, what she would do…
Zakuro's body sagged instantly, "I don't want to talk about it."
I swallowed laboriously. My heart beat loudly and I became ridiculously anxious. The atmosphere, previously ambling along quite nicely, had been suffocated of all humour, leaving a hostile silence in its place.
It was within those few seconds that my worst fears were realised. Without glancing at me, Zakuro slowly raised her body off the chair…
She was going to leave me.
I watched her get to her feet. I watched her stretch her back. I watched her wander forward. All as if in a daze, I passively watched these things occur.
However, as I gazed upon her, something broke within me. I found myself getting up and rushing forward, reaching for her. Before I had even had time to register my urgent desire to keep her here, I grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
"No, Zakuro." I didn't even realise it was me speaking these words until after I'd spoken them. I… I truly hadn't known how desperate I'd been feeling until I heard my voice. It was strong… forceful even.
"I…" Shock had etched itself on Zakuro's face.
"Don't leave me again, Zakuro." I croaked frantically, "I won't let you run away from me again. I…I care about you too much."
With that, I found my senses and wondered how exactly I'd gotten into this situation. My breath caught in my throat as I realised what I was doing, the gravity of the situation. I had pursued her… I'd stopped her going. I'd acted. And that wasn't all.
I was touching her.
For the first time ever, my flesh was against hers as I grasped softly onto her arm. Our first ever physical connection, a true bond in flesh. It was such an insignificant act but it stunned me so entirely that it took my breath away and, for a moment, I felt quite dizzy.
However, when I glanced up at Zakuro's face, the elation disappeared again. She looked utterly tormented, so absolutely divided on what to do. I could see she was still trying to retain her dignity, her mouth creased horribly in an effort not to give away any emotion. She was summoning up the courage to leave, to pull away and leave me behind again. Yet, something was stopping her. A dreadful weakness had entered her eyes, an element of uncertainty in her gait.
Then, all of a sudden, she simply gave up. She let her body fall from her well-maintained model's stance to one of a submissive girl. She sighed heavily, looking down at the floor.
"I've been through hell, Keiichiro." Cold, blunt. "Pure hell. I'm used to things going wrong but…"
She wavered, gazing at me. Not daring to breathe, I looked back at her. I'd never seen a trace of anxiety within her before and now it was strong upon her face. It would have been easy to assume it was just because of her poor circumstances, but somehow I knew that her nervousness came from talking to me about these worries. I tried to beam her my comfort through my gaze, not daring to move lest I scared her away.
Zakuro shook her head, as if to clear her mind, before speaking again.
"Some idiot gave my personal details to the public." She breathed, her eyes fixed on the floor, "Fans are stalking me everywhere I go. At work, with friends… they're even camping outside my home. I'm going to have to move. I'm exhausted and tired of it."
Her voice was dull, even lacking the ice that gave it it's flavour. The words came in a rush, made up of individual statements that just happened to form a just-about-cohesive speech. It was as if she was too tired to even make impassioned vocalizations about her irritation.
I swallowed. I'd always tried to separate the celebrity Zakuro with the Zakuro I knew. I'd always been so careful of avoiding reading the distasteful so-called 'gossip' magazines that might feature 'exclusive information' about her life. I didn't need, or want, know about this other half of her life; if I needed to know something about her I would simply ask. And I never had. I prefered to imagine her as the uncomplicated kind but sharp-tongued girl I spoke to each evening. Yet, this news grudgingly directly linked the two Zakuros in my mind in a way that disturbed me. I couldn't believe, or even begin to grasp, how the Zakuro in front of me could be prey to such treatment. How did she manage? I couldn't imagine what it was life for her. To be hunted in her own home, to have no private space or life… it was such a vile idea. To say I felt sorry for her would be an understatement.
"The media have also been fed lies about me."
In the midst of my thoughts, she had uttered that string of words utterly out of the blue. It was that statement truly sent me into shock, making me unable even to feel pity. My heart had lurched horribly and I openly, but not consciously, gawped.
She ignored my expression, continuing in her dejected manner. "Someone very close to me decided that they'd had enough of me. They whipped up some fake stories about me and sold them to the media, just like that. Now I'm front-page news. Every front page. And my reputation is tarnished forever."
The idea was so devastating; it took a few minutes to dawn on me completely. All the while my heart was slowly diving deeper into sorrow. It was horrifying. I did not envy her for the world she lived in, a dreadful world filled with ridiculous concepts like reputation, scandal and revenge. The pressure of it all… it had to be overwhelming. And it was another world she lived in. My universe was simple, filled with icing, oven gloves and gossip. Hers involved stylists, diets and the media. We couldn't be more different. No wonder Zakuro had made snide remarks about my way of life. I hid away in my quiet corner while the world passed me by, she lived out in the open, the centre of the fashion universe. And, on top of all that, she was a Mew.
It was perhaps, at that moment, I realised just how pitiful my life had become.
She was just a girl… just a normal girl. How did she cope with all this?
Zakuro just stood there with her eyes gazing into the distance, looking lost. I couldn't get my head around it all. But it made so much sense. The numbness, the overwhelming sadness… her lack of trust in me. She didn't trust anyone right now. How could she?
No wonder she hadn't wanted to share her life with a cake chef.
"I could never do that to you, Zakuro." I mumbled absent-mindedly. "I really couldn't."
Zakuro turned to me, and I could see from the look on her face that she was not convinced.
I stared at her face, watching the frown and watery eyes that made her seem so unlike the celebrity she was. If I hadn't known her, I couldn't have imagined that this girl could be one of those idolized figures that appeared in magazines. She was too sad, too utterly lost and helpless to be someone others lusted to be, or to have. Yet, despite the tears, I couldn't help noticing how pretty she looked. She looked infinitely more beautiful than she'd ever been, giggling girlishly, in TV interviews or in blown up images. The general public saw a representation, a caricature not a person. Here, I was seeing a human, with a human smile and imperfections. Even crying, she was so, so much better than the girl she had to pretend to be. I felt privileged to know her this way and so, in just a second, I knew I didn't care that she didn't trust me. She might be hostile, blunt, cold and sceptical towards my every move, but I still treasured her.
"I care about you too much to betray you like that, Zakuro." I reinforced softly, "You're not a celebrity to me, I'd have nothing to gain from that but misery. You are simply Zakuro, that strong-willed woman I enjoy talking to and look forward to seeing every day. It is your company and affection I seek, not money or some kind of media attention."
I swallowed laboriously, leaning forward slightly in my chair.
"I know you're hurt, Zakuro." I whispered softly, my eyes fixed on her features "I wish I could do something to help… but, being a cook, all I can do is offer you a consolatory cake… and offer you my friendship."
My heart was beating rapidly now, I felt dizzy with adrenaline. There was no fear now. None at all.
"It doesn't matter to me what reputation you have. It doesn't matter to me that you're not the girl on those magazines. I know that person underneath, at least I think I do, and I… I like her." I inhaled heavily. "And I'd still adore her company."
Zakuro was still. I had no idea how she was feeling… or if she had even heard me. I continued onwards nevertheless.
"I know this might be difficult for you." I said warmly, "but I can wait. I can wait for you to be ready. I ask nothing of you, I don't require anything… all I want is to know you. To see you smile and be happy and the person you really are…"
I trailed off, finding myself shaking.
"That's all I want."
After my speech, I remember the room falling deathly quiet. It had been overpowering and, as a result, I felt entirely conspicuous. My head spun. Nerves ate at me. Yet I was peaceful. I had done what needed to be done.
I looked at her face, trying to determine what she felt. She was still there at least. She hadn't run away, which was a relief. But she was unmoving beside me and her features betrayed none of her thoughts. That was cause for concern
I waited for her to speak. I urged her to speak.
After a few moments of waiting, I turned my head away. Regret began to sting me as I realised how silly I had been. She wouldn't want my friendship… I was no one to her. Just a cake chef.
I pulled my hand away. I'd allow her to go without wording herself. Payment enough for my idiocy, for my putting her in a difficult position like that.
Then she moved.
As I stood in a daze, she slowly wrapped her arms about my waist. She pressed herself to me, her chest moulding with mine as she grasped me softly. Exhaling gently, she tucked her head beneath my chin. She held herself there.
I blinked, unable to fathom what was happening.
This was Zakuro. This was Zakuro. Zakuro was hugging me.
I gasped silently, feeling the warmth of her embrace and the tickle of her silky hair on my neck. The contact took my breath away.
"You've always been here for me, Keiichiro" Her voice was muffled as she buried her face in my shirt, "In the worst times… when I was at my worst. I've needed that. I…"
She struggled with the words, halting mid-sentence.
"Thankyou, Keiichiro." She eventually managed, her voice soft and entirely genuine.
Her hand moved from my waist down to my hand and she grasped it gently. She leant her head on my shoulder. I took her invitation and entwined my fingers around hers, moving my other arm to grasp her to me.
It is now three weeks after that climactic evening.
Zakuro still visits me every day and I still look forward to it. Except, now the formula is well and truly retired, only bought out on the odd occasion for nostalgia's sake. We do something different each evening. Some nights, we eat cake and drink coffee, others Zakuro tries her hand at painting (she is still persisting with 'giving' something in 'return' for my cakes) but mostly we just talk. Sometimes we stay in the kitchen, other times the café. We haven't ventured outside the café yet, neither of us wish to risk causing a stir in the media by being seen together, but we will. Some day.
Ryou and the Mews do not know about our connection yet. I hate hiding such a thing from them, but it is only right. We're worrying about ourselves first, about building that confidence in one another, before informing them of things. Neither of us are comfortable yet. Zakuro is trying to learn to trust and I not to follow the repetitious pattern I've been using for as long as I can remember. Once the fear of this new venture has passed and we feel we can rely upon one another, the Mews will know… and, if it ever gets to that point, the public will too.
These past few weeks have been terrifying. Filled with experimentation and timid steps forward, things haven't always gone right. We've bickered, we've disagreed… we've even fallen out. But I know it's ok because, really, it's the only way of doing things. I've tried to use a recipe for success all my life in an attempt to keep everything the same, and I know now that that's impossible. Life is not something you can use a recipe book for, the ingredients that make it up are not within your control. You can try and live your life one way, limit yourself to what you know, but you'll never accomplish anything new, just like in cooking. So now, I simply go with the flow, add elements to the mixture I've never dared to before.I don't even glance at my tried-and-tested formula now. Do my trials always work? Definitely not, but I'd rather brave the bad in an aim to find the good than stand still all my life.
What is it we share now? An alliance, a friendship or a romantic relationship? I can safely say it isn't the former, but I could not say which of the other two it is. The relationship between Zakuro and I is not clear-cut. Neither of us maintain the illusion that that is the case, nor do we push for any more than we are. It would be truly wrong to label ourselves in such a manner anyway. We are what we are, two people tentatively taking steps towards creating a bond they both desire, but only at their own pace. All I know is that I care about her deeply, that I want her to be truly happy. And, though her lack of skill with words prevents her from saying so, I know she feels the same. One day we might feel able to admit these things to each other and everyone else, but until then we'll simply enjoy each other's company in whatever form it takes.
There we go :) We're done! I don't think it was the typical one shot or pairing fic, but I hope it was fun to read anyway.
Thanks for reading!