Disclaimer: I don't own Gakuen Alice.
AN: This chap's a little late, but I've been a bit busy. Exams came up and I think I might fail Math and Science. Forgive me! Oh, I noticed this has quite some hits, and some alerts too, but very few reviews. To those quiet readers out there, please send me a review so I know how I'm doing. It's the last chapter anyway... *grins* Thanks so much to those who reviewed: SonyaShulen (I was able to reply to your review-thank you so much again), pwenie (here's the update! :D), jusme (thanks for that review!), BlossomCutie (I've read Stargirl a long time ago, and now that I come to think of it, it IS somewhat similar! But I do love that story. Thanks for your encouraging review!), and especially to my first reviewer, ChicCuteness! Virtual cookies to you guys! Anyway, long chapter ahead, so on with the show—
The Cookie Fairy
I didn't head home that night. Father won't let me in, anyway; if he did, he'd just get the car keys from me before kicking me out. So instead, I left my phone, kept the Lamborghini with me, and crashed at Ruka's. His mother was my godmother, and she was more than delighted to have me stay, even whining that I didn't visit her enough. Normally I shied away from her pinching and squeezing and cooing, but since I relied on her hospitality for shelter and food, I took it all in stride like a man would, and was able to stay for a week now.
Father never once asked around for my location during that time.
For all my apathy, this piece of knowledge—that he didn't care for me as much as I thought he did (and that isn't very much, mind you)—stung me, even if I tried convincing myself that I didn't need his concern.
"Honestly, has no one ever told her that Halloween doesn't happen in the middle of July?"
My attention immediately went back to the conversation at hand. Snickers and snorts rippled around the table exclusively reserved for us at Café Alice, as Sumire daintily stuck her nose up in the direction of her object of derision.
Who else would it be?
"She probably thinks Halloween is the middle of July," Koko sniggered.
"Why is she not in the asylum yet?" Mochu said, wrinkling his nose. "She might infect those kids with her insanity."
"Mochu," Ruka said, "Insanity isn't contagious."
That was so like Ruka. He never said a bad word about anyone, even if you'd think hanging out so much with us rich, spoiled kids would influence his pure perspective of the world. He lacked backbone, though—whenever shebecame the topic of conversation, he refused to mock her with us, but he won't defend her, either.
Kind of like me right now.
"It is when you're talking about her," Mochu gibed. Again, snorts of agreement resounded around the table, and contemptuous looks were once again thrown her way. I, on the other hand, kept quiet still, and took a sip of the latte served to me. I was still confused as to why I didn't want to join in—after all, I had been the one who came up with Kooky Fairy as her nickname—and as to why I didn't want to step up for her, either, despite knowing that they—we—were all so wrong about her.
When Sumire started a conversation on Luna, our second favourite person to pick on next to her, I sneaked a glance outside the café. She stood about a few meters from the door, dressed up in her fairy attire with little children circled around her and tugging on her ribbons, begging her to stoop down to hand them the little dolls she held in her hands. When she ran away instead, the children let out indignant, muffled cries and ran after her, squealing. How she managed to run around dressed like that with a basket dangling down her forearm was beyond me, but she didn't look the least bit encumbered by those—her smile was as radiant as ever, and I could almost imagine her rolling laughter as well.
The children obviously loved her, and it wasn't only because she gave away free cookies. They were attracted to her laughter and her warmth—her inner beauty—and though they're still young, they seem to be so perceptive of the calibre of someone's character. I've never seen children gravitate to Sumire like that, if you know what I mean. Don't get me wrong—Sumire's my friend, and she's a spunky, fun girl, but she could be terribly nasty and judgmental. Just like the rest of us.
"Natsume?" Ruka's voice brought me back to them. "Are you okay? You're pretty quiet."
"Yeah, Natsu, what's wrong?" Koko chimed in. "You've been off since last week."
Several faces quickly turned to look at me, some crumpled in false concern.
I kept my face carefully stoic and waved them off. "It's nothing. Just replaying a few gameplans in my head."
"Oh, cool! That new play coach showed us will totally knock Morimoto off their sissy feet!" Koko immediately exclaimed, jumping up his seat and shoving a fist in the air. The discussion diverted away from me to soccer, which the boys discussed heatedly while the girls rolled their eyes in a way that said, Boys will be boys.
I inwardly thanked Koko for his quick sidetracking. He was my other best mate and he probably knew I had problems that I didn't want to tell them just yet. He'd needle them out of me soon.
For all his fierce loyalty, I hoped that I'd never have to tell him.
Later that day, after eating platefuls of dinner at Mrs. Nogi's insistence (godmothers always seem to think that their godchildren are too thin), Ruka called me into their massive parlor. From the slight nuance in his voice, I immediately suspected something was wrong.
"Natsume," he said, his blue eyes wide in trepidation, his clutch on the cordless in his hand tightening, "Your father's on the phone. He wants to talk to you."
My emotions were in immediate tumult. Damn. He knew where I was all along. "Tell him I'm not here," I responded gruffly.
Ruka shook his head. "I told him. He doesn't believe me. He knows you're here, Natsume. And he demanded to talk to you."
That was my father, alright. Demanding instead of asking.
I sighed. Ruka gave me an apologetic look as he handed me the phone, and I willed my hands not to shake in fear of his wrath. I tried to be a man, rebelling to show him that I was capable without him, but now I was like a child again dreading a spanking. "Father," I said into the receiver.
"Natsume," he greeted me, just as curtly. "Why didn't you tell me you've been living on the Nogis' hospitality for a week?"
His question confounded me. I thought he knew from the start where I'd be, but from his phrasing, it seemed that he found out only now.
"We aren't beggars, Natsume," he added sternly. "And stop your immature act. Come home now." And then, he said, so softly that I almost didn't catch it—"Please."
The line went dead.
I stared at the phone, dumbfounded. He hardly ever used "please" anymore. In our company and at home, he didn't need to—people stumbled over their own feet scurrying to follow his orders, whether asked politely or not. He was the authority, and whatever he said was virtually law.
Yet, he had used please. To me, of all people.
In a few moments I was saying my profuse thanks and goodbyes to the Nogis for their generosity and to Ruka for understanding. Then, I was already on the Lamborghini driving home. And I couldn't help but chuckle sarcastically, thinking, Maybe please really is the magic word, after all.
When I stepped out of the Lamborghini and onto freshly trimmed lawn, I saw Father sitting on a porch bench still dressed in a rumpled business suit. His tie, though, was undone, and he held his head in between his hands.
The position I saw him in now was so different from my mind's picture of him that I had to do a double-take to make sure that this dishevelled man before me was indeed my father, and not some chauffeur or personal assistant that had been fired.
I stood about three meters from him before he finally—and very slowly—raised his head to look at me with bloodshot eyes. "Natsume," he acknowledged. Despite his appearance, his voice still managed to remain cool and unattached, like it always was. But that didn't mean I was less alarmed by his appearance. Something really awful must have happened for him to ask me nicely to come home, only to see him like this.
"Father," I replied, my pitch and tone of voice mirroring his. "Is something the matter?"
He stood up and closed in the distance between us, his tall, lean frame an ever-intimidating sight. He regarded me once, taking in my clothes, and said in a low, firm voice, "Why didn't you come home that night? I left for a month-long business trip that Saturday afternoon, and I hurry back home after a week when Nina informed me that you haven't come home once—not even for food or clothing—and that you left your phone behind."
My response was automatic. "I'm sorry, Father. It was foolish of me. It won't happen again," I replied, my head bowed as a sign of reverence, but mostly I bowed my head to hide the surprise in my eyes. He didn't realize I was gone, but then I didn't know he was gone, either.
Father surprised me by placing both his hands on my shoulders. "Look at me, son."
I did as I was told, again out of habit.
"You know that I'm proud of you, right, son?"
His eyes, once always piercing and critical, regarded me with a gentleness that I never knew he possessed. After a few seconds of blanking out from the shock of his statement, the weight of his words settled in, and my mind reeled with the impact they created on my emotions.
"If I never told you, Natsume, I'm sorry," he continued, the gentleness in his eyes now lacing his voice. "You know I don't like expressing my emotions. But I'm really proud of you, son. I'm really proud of you."
He enveloped me in a tight, fatherly hug. I stood still for a long time—or it might have been a few seconds, but it felt like a long time—processing what just happened. And when my mind was finally able to comprehend that Father was hugging me and praising me and finally appreciating me, an unfamiliar wet sensation pricked at my eyes.
Tears. For the first time in twelve years, there were tears in my eyes. I dared not let them fall. Now that he admitted that he was proud of me, I didn't want to disappoint him with my tears, my weakness.
But when he pulled back, his eyes were wet, too.
After my reconciliation with Father, he made more effort to know about my life outside my duties and got to know my friends. He pressured me less and trusted my decisions more, and thus I had more freedom than I ever had before to do what I wanted, like take up swimming and art classes (no, I didn't think art is for sissies like my friends do). That was why, two weeks after I had re-established Father's trust in me, I asked permission to visit a friend an hour away with the Lamborghini.
It was strange that Father readily agreed, and even stranger that I just called her my friend.
Just like the last time, she and Izumi received me with their usual hospitality, giving me so much to eat and laugh about that I was reluctant to go home. I was so different there from whom I really was with my friends that if they saw how I talked and acted before the Yukihiras, they wouldn't recognize me as Natsume Hyuuga. I suspected that this difference in my personality stemmed from the Yukihiras' obliviousness to my reputation, so I felt no pressure in living up to what other people expect me to be. They gave me a new slate, a new chance to reinvent myself.
From that day onwards, I visited the Yukihira household every Saturday at four o'clock in the afternoon, rain or shine, unless I had a game. But I still turned up after it, anyway.
On the fifth month of my weekly visits there, I watched her bake her SSFCB (Sunday Smiley-Faced Cookie Batch—she loved to make acronyms of the strangest things). She messed the kitchen up, as usual, and bits of chocolate chips, M&Ms, strawberry frosting, and leftover batter stained the neat, beige counter like streaks of paint on canvas. Her used baking utensils found themselves their own homes in cookie pots, under clutters of plastic, or in the empty cupboards overhead. Though she never returned them to their proper places, she always knew exactly where she left them.
Suffice to say, it was never boring to watch her bake. And it was also never boring to talk to her, either.
"Five," she said, dropping globs of batter on a waxed cookie sheet. "Definitely five."
"Wrong," I smirked, in reply to her guess of how many girls (girlfriends, flings, one-night stands) I've had. "Thrice that number."
She frowned. "Braggart. You're lying."
"Am not. Do you think so little of my charm?"
She chuckled as she slid the tray into the oven and kindled the flame under it before setting to work on another batch. "Maybe I thought more of your character. But I was obviously wrong."
"I don't sleep around, if that's what you're implying," I said, feigning hurt. "And I treat those girls well. Ask any one of them and they'd have nothing to complain about me as a lover." One of the bowls with leftover cookie batter caught my eye, and seeing my chance, I made a grab for it.
"I doubt tha—hey! No stealing my cookie batter!" she cried, snatching the flowery ceramic bowl from my hands with lightning speed that I didn't think was possible for humans. "Remember KR1: Whoever bakes gets the leftover cookie batter."
KR stood for kitchen rules—and yes, she had actually briefed me on them before she let me watch her bake. Thankfully, there were only five, but sometimes she made rules up along the way. Most of the time, I forget them all. The only one I remember is KR1, because she's ridiculously possessive of her cookie batter, and though I knew what it tasted like already, I still found amusement in trying to rob it from her clutches.
"But I helped you reach for the sugar," I pointed out. "And I brought you the eggs. Shouldn't I get a reward of at least two fingerdoses?"
A fingerdose was one of the many silly words she coined, which meant one swipe of the finger to whatever is being measured—in this case, the batter.
"No," she said sternly. "In this house, our kitchen is like its own dependent nation. You have to follow the laws governing it if you want to maintain peace and order."
I snorted at her hyperbolic analogy. "You're such a dictatress. No wonder you never had a boyfriend."
"And I'm proud of it," she beamed, stuffing the second tray into the stove, while still clutching the batter. "Besides, the rules are pretty simple. It's not my fault you can't seem to follow them."
"It's not my fault that you're selfish," I countered. She grinned and took a swipe of batter on her finger, before licking it clean off and smacking her lips for good measure, just to taunt me. But this proved to be a very wrong move on her part, as an idea formulated in my mind.
"You know," I said with a sly smile, "I know how to steal some of that stuff."
She rolled her eyes, obviously disbelieving, but said, "Oh, yeah? Do tell."
"No," I grinned. She pouted. "I'd rather show."
And with that, I kissed her.
At first, I thought she didn't want to be kissed, because she didn't throw her arms around me and kiss me back passionately, like most girls would. But after a few moments, it dawned on me that perhaps she had never been kissed before, and aside from this being her first time, she was caught off guard. So I kept the kiss chaste, pausing only to run my tongue over her cookie-batter-stained lower lip before breaking the contact.
Cookie batter had never tasted so delicious.
When I voiced this out, she looked stunned, and blinked her large brown eyes once. Then her innocent gaze turned accusatory. "You stole my batter!"
"It was with your consent, so I didn't steal it," I smirked. I wondered though how she could think of this after that kiss. Did she feel nothing? I knew my kisses were amazing—every girl in Alice Academy heard of it, and some have tasted for themselves—so why does she seem so unaffected? Besides the slight flush on her cheeks, nothing else betrayed her feelings after the kiss.
"Yes, you did steal it," she insisted, crossing her arms over her chest. Her cross facade, though, was slipping, and the twitch of her lips indicated that behind it she hid an impish smile. "And you know what they say about the things you steal."
Intrigued, I asked, "Do I get punished?"
She shook her head, tut-tutting. And, her reply would never fail to amuse me for the rest of our time together.
"No, silly. You have to give it back."
Well, how could I say no to that?
Exactly a month after that—our month-sary, as she called it, though I found the occasion unnecessary—was Morimoto Academy's annual Baker's Fair. Our school was invited to drop by the event after class hours, and we were even allowed to give comments and suggestions on the goods, provided that they were well-rounded critiques. She never mentioned it to me, but I knew that she expected me to drop by her stall, and my original plan was to do so. But Mochu suggested that we all drop by the Fair, and surprisingly everyone agreed.
I tried to persuade them that she wouldn't be worth our effort. I was the leader of our group, after all, and most of the time they listened to me; but I was outnumbered this time. Sumire was in a particularly vicious mood that day after a humiliating comment from Luna about her bag being fake, and when she was in this sort of mood she needed a large amount of sweets to restore her temper, so she insisted to go as well. And wherever she went, Koko and Wakako followed.
When we arrived, they immediately headed to Anna Umenomiya's stall. She was the prodigy culinary student that Morimoto prided in, and her goods were always unique and affordable.
But as they fussed over which pastry to buy—as if they couldn't afford to buy her whole stall—I slipped away and went to look for her stall.
It wasn't hard to find. When I spotted a shimmering pink banner with ribbons in the distance, and little children crowding around the front, I knew right away that the stall was hers. True enough, there she was, giving away free bite-sized smiley-faced cookies to a child.
When she saw me, her luminous eyes crinkled and she smiled a smile so bright that the sun seemed to draw light from it. "Natsume! You came!"
I rolled my eyes. "No, I just saw the free samples you were giving away. I thought I might have some."
She pouted. "Well, you're not going to have any. They're reserved for the kids."
"Don't be selfish," I smirked.
"Don't be greedy," she said in reply.
"Mikan-nee, I don't mind sharing with 'nii-chan," a small voice spoke up.
She looked with surprise on a silver-haired boy, who wasn't more than five. "Are you sure, Youichi? That's the last cookie you're having for today."
The little kid nodded, and with a little of her urging, he went over to me and handed me the cookie shyly. Uncharacteristically touched by the gesture, I knelt before him and accepted his cookie with as much solemnity as he had relished it. "Thank you, Youichi. My name's Natsume."
"Nat—su—me," he repeated, staring at me with his curious eyes. "Natsume."
I ruffled his hair and smiled. "Yeah. You got it." To her, I said, "What do you know, the kid likes me."
She laughed. "Well, so do I!"
"Oh, don't be jealous," I smirked, inwardly happy at her first open confession. "You have a place in my heart."
"And you in mine, as well." She rummaged around and brought out a heart-shaped cookie that spelled my name. She gave me an impish smile. "Happy month-sary!"
I had to smile at that, and I said, "Well, I brought you a better gift." I took her quirk of the brow as a sign to continue. "Myself."
She smacked me on the arm. "You're so full of yourself."
I wagged my finger at her. "No insults in front of the kid."
She sighed in fond exasperation. "Well, Youichi, where's your Mother?" He pointed to a nearby stall. "You better return to her before she starts worrying about you," she cautioned.
I grabbed a jar of mini-cookies from her stall, and despite her protests, I handed it to the kid Youichi. "Here, kid. Take it. It's my gift."
His eyes widened at the sheer volume of cookies in the thing, and before he gave me a hug around the legs before he took it. "Thank you Natsume-nii! I love Mikan-nee's cookies!"
"Who doesn't?" I heard her tell me in an undertone, and when he was gone, I turned to her and said with a bite of the treat she gave me, "Well, who's full of herself now?"
Just as she was about to reply, Mochu and the rest suddenly emerged from nowhere. Their eyes almost fell out of their sockets when they saw me standing in front of her, eating her cookie.
"Natsume!" Sumire choked. "Is that—you?"
I rolled my eyes, surprisingly unashamed at having been caught. "I was trying out new stuff, that's all."
"Hello!" she greeted them with her usual cheer. "Would you like to try some cookies?"
Wakako frowned. "What are these, smiley-faced cookies?"
"We're not kids, you know," Mochu sneered.
She was oblivious to the antagonism in their tones. "Well, my friend said smiley-faced cookies make people smile. So I'm trying the concept out. I'd really appreciate feedback."
I gave her a secretive look before telling them, "They're pretty good."
Their jaws dropped at my straightforward statement. They were used to me rebelling against the rules and challenging the norms, but I bet they never expected I'd never do anything as radical as this. Even Ruka seemed astonished, but he was the first to recover.
"Well, maybe I'll try one..."
"Sure!" she chirped. "I have free samples. Mini-smiley-faced cookies. I get a lot of requests for them."
"Because you do it for free," Sumire said in an undertone.
She heard it, though. And instead of denying it, she laughed that rich, rumbling laugh of hers. "Yeah, I guess. It's really popular among the kids. They keep pestering me for it every week."
They all stood there, stunned at her frankness and sincerity. Eventually Ruka declared the cookies to be delicious. Koko and Mochu tried them next, then Wakako and Kitsu, then finally Sumire said she wouldn't degrade herself by taking samples—she would buy a cookie and see if it'd be worth her money.
It turned out to be, because she bought three dozens of it after. She had also developed some rapport with her as well, when Mikan commented how stylish her bag was. When Sumire asked her if she thought it was a genuine Coach bag, Mikan responded, "What does it matter? It goes with your outfit and it fits all the stuff you can buy. I couldn't have chosen a better bag for shopping purposes."
Good thing that finally sated Sumire's earlier anger against Luna.
Mochu, Kitsu and Wakako apparently still wouldn't warm up to her, though. They left shortly after Sumire bought a cookie, saying that it tasted worse than dirt. I couldn't blame them—old prejudices die hard. Besides, she didn't take their comments to heart.
I stood back for awhile, watching Koko devour more of the free smiley-faced samples with Ruka, and Sumire chatting with her like they were old friends, smiling and laughing like she had never really done with us before. I remembered shy Youichi's declaration of love for her cookies, and the other children's smiles while they played with her; I remembered the elderly people's tears of appreciation whenever she handed them her home-baked goods; I remembered the almost worshipful gratitude of the homeless beggars on the streets whenever she handed them a small bento for lunch and a smiley-faced cookie for dessert. And I thought, Her friend was wrong.
Smiley-faced cookies don't make people smile.
AN: Yes, it's officially finished. Pardon the errors in grammar and structure; I rushed this because I felt so guilty for updating late. I'll revise it again sometime in the future if I have time again. Please tell me what you think. This is your last chance to critique this work, so please review! THANK YOU EVERYONE!