To CJ and Amayo of Bad Romances Scanlations - Thanks for all the fabulous No. 6 doujinshi translations! xD
It's cold out, even for a March day.
In the early hours of the morning, it was still dark out. But Karan could tell it wasn't going to warm up all that much for the rest of the day. With a large push broom, the aproned shopkeeper began the daily ritual sweeping of the sidewalk in front of her bakery.
We still haven't shaken off this winter chill.
Karan disliked the cold, yet she knew cool weather was good for business. Unlike the uptown elites of No. 6's past, most Lost Town residents had always worn only ordinary, non-temperature controlled clothing. So in addition to valued regular patrons, new customers would flee winter's gloomy freeze for Karan's cozy, sunny bakery; departing with fresh bread to warm bodies and raise spirits.
Today's Special… something to beat this cold… but what?
Like her son, Karan enjoyed habitual quiet solitude. However, when Karan Bakery nurtured the laughter of children, the gossip of students, and the secret indulgences and furtive future bestowals of young and old men and women; she felt fulfilled. Close to a year before, when her now 19-year-old son moved to the renewed Western District, the bakery took on even greater importance.
Sweeping complete, Karan returned inside and stowed away her broom. The sun was just beginning to rise and it was time to check on the last batch of bread. As usual, the baguettes were ready right when she was. Hair netted, head scarved, she gathered a number of long, thin loaves, carrying them to the front from the small kitchen at the back.
"Karan," a confident voice called quietly from outside with seeming certainty that she was near, though the glass door was covered with blinds, the display window was still shuttered, and she had barely made a sound.
The voice was familiar and not at all unwelcome, though unexpected. Karan hastily stood bunches of baguettes on their ends in large display baskets before rushing to the door, which she opened with a smile. "Nezumi! How nice to see you."
With a gust of chilly air, the dark-haired young man swept into the warmth and brightness of the bakery. He immediately offered Karan a grand bow with one arm extended elegantly to the side— a move exaggerated for comic effect.
"Shion sends his regrets." Next, the fine-featured youth shrugged, as if to say it can't be helped." He's taken to swimming in paperwork of late— dived in early to get a head start. Sadly, he'll be resurfacing too late to meet you at the appointed hour."
"I see. Well I'll be seeing him again soon, so that's quite alright." She beamed warmly at Nezumi. "Has the message been decided?"
"This." Graceful gloved hands presented a small slip of paper to Karan. The tips of her fingers grazed icy black leather as she took the note, which she raised to her eyes right away.
"Ahh. So they couldn't decide then."
"Well it's personalised, at least. I'll give them that." Karan laughed and brought a hand up to her cheek as she shook her head in wonder. What an eccentric birthday greeting she was to stencil in green tea powder on white chocolate icing for a special order matcha cheesecake. A message Inukashi and Shion took a good month to come up with. "Hasn't Safu made up her mind by now?"
The young actor instantly became Safu herself, one hand lightly resting its spread fingers against his chest: "I was born nearly twenty years ago in 2001, but I've only spent nineteen of those years alive. Both ages are acceptable."
"My, my." Karan shifted her hand from cheek to mouth to restrain her mirth. Nezumi couldn't possibly perform like this for everyone, could he? "Well that won't do at all."
"Your little boy was rather frustrated actually." He smirked. "And thus, two great philosophers of the West Block deliberated at great length in order to produce that."
"Oh dear," she sighed more out of amusement than concern. Then, although Karan had been enjoying herself, her cheerful expression turned apologetic; "But I'm so sorry, Nezumi. I expected Shion to visit later on— I haven't prepared the cake yet. Shall I drop by with it, this evening? I feel awful, though. You've come all the way out here for nothing now, haven't you?"
Cool as always, the tall youth retained a neutral expression. He opened his mouth to speak— but then closed it promptly, eyebrows raised, as Karan's face suddenly lit up.
"Wait, Nezumi. You know, I'm having trouble settling on today's Special. Think you can help?" Deep brown eyes shone above her sly smile.
At least I know you won't pass this up.
After a coy pause, an outwardly nonchalant Nezumi— his sangfroid betrayed by the slight tint to his cheeks— assented to an escort into the kitchen. Under the instruction to choose what 'warmed' him the most, he was soon sampling blueberry croissants, butterscotch cinnamon buns, and other candidates for the day's star position on the shelves. He sipped water between each taste like a professional.
Gloves off, earnestly assessing the baking, Nezumi's frankly icy air of amused unconcern had thawed somewhat, and Karan felt somehow relieved. So she was unnerved when he jumped back into his impossible-to-read act: "I daresay patrons will be pleased to purchase any of your handsome wares."
"How kind of you to say, Nezumi." Karan leaned into the name, as if to remind the 19-year-old of who he is.
Won't you just relax and be yourself around me?
Before long, she was pouring out some hot cocoa for the boy at the dining table, directly from a pot on the stove. Having heard from her son how picky Nezumi could get about his coffee, and how indifferent he was toward surely every variety of tea in existence, Karan offered the cocoa instead. He had been awfully quiet as she heated the aromatic blend of milk, cocoa powder, and chocolate shavings. She noticed a peculiar expression on his face when she finally placed the drink in front of him.
"It's time to open up. Think about it some more and I'll ask what you think when I get back, alright?" She smiled warmly at him again.
Nezumi was oddly enchanted by the steaming mug. "…right."
It's as if he's seen a ghost… I knew it!
The smiling storekeeper slipped outside again to release the shutter over the shop window. Squinting in the sun's warm glare, she sported an air of pride, mentally congratulating herself on her accurate intuition.
Nearly ten years ago, from the very day they arrived in Lost Town, Karan spotted puzzling changes in her twelve-year-old son's behaviour. And one of the most reliable times she could witness young Shion turn wistful, even sighing for Nezumi, was when mother and son shared mugs of hot cocoa.
She had concluded then that Shion and the one he longed after must have gone out somewhere for hot chocolate. But now, Karan had a new hunch that perhaps the memory was made inside their old home in Chronos. To think her hot cocoa induced this proud boy to feel nostalgic about his past with her son! The thought warmed her heart.
On the way back to the kitchen, Karan picked one more sample, on impulse. Momentarily, she placed the new contender before her guest. "Try this?"
After one bite of the plain flat brown square she had presented him with, Nezumi's grey eyes widened in an almost comically childlike fashion.
"That brownie was made with the same cocoa you're drinking."
At those words, the youthful performer's features softened. Not a trace remained of the mocking, self-assured smirk typically frozen on his face. Instead, his lips curved into a tiny, sentimental smile. It was the first time Karan felt certain that she was seeing truly genuine feeling on the young performer's face.
"Could it be you're remembering someone, Nezumi?" She smiled knowingly. "Maybe from the past?"
Cheeks flushed at his sudden exposure, Nezumi settled his gaze on the brownie itself, speaking with rare tenderness: "Yeah. His hair… and eyes… were the same colour."
Her smile now radiant, Karan briefly held back tears before perking up again. "What do you think, then?" she prompted; "For today's special."
He answered with quiet certitude: "I think we have a winner."
The first customer of the day was entering the store.
"Great! Just in time, I think." Karan put on a cheerful grin. "Wait right there, Nezumi. You've been so... obliging. I want to give you a little reward to take home."
Whenever given the run of the bakery in the last year, Nezumi gravitated to cherry cake either in place of, or in addition to anything else. The chestnut-haired woman made sure to package some for him to take home to Shion, along with a couple of cocoa brownies. Then, Karan asked Nezumi another 'favour.'
"You know, this past winter was my first without Shion since old No. 6 fell... I forgot to reduce the amount of dry cocoa mix I always prepare! Spring's coming, and there's far too much left for me to drink all by myself…"
Nezumi's smirk was back with a vengeance. Yet now it seemed to have a certain fondness to it. Oh well, he's clearly seeing right through me.
"Would you mind… taking some home with you? You know, to share with Shion?"
Nezumi had re-equipped the emotional armor he'd let down earlier, but no longer exhibited the exaggerated theatrics. Only a warm and sincere "Thank you."
"That's a yes, then?" she beamed.
He grinned, speaking softly. "Yeah. You're Shion's mama, alright."
Oh my, what is he saying? That we're bad liars? Well, no matter, Karan mused, letting out a good-natured laugh.
You're like a son to me too, Nezumi.
As she tended a growing trickle of customers, Karan caught Nezumi shooting her a quick salute. Rays of sunlight streaked in around the mature young man as he exited through the front door and onto the brightening street, goodie bag in hand.
She was wrong. The morning had already warmed up considerably.
The worst of the winter chill is over, after all.
A/N: I hope you enjoyed this fic! ^_^;
Anyone wondering what's going on that birthday cake? I'm tempted to write Safu's birthday as a setting for a new ShiNezuShi one-shot. (I'll write more Inukashi & Safu later on.) If you liked this fic, but wonder how my post-story got the way it is, keep in mind this is the second sequel to my reunion story Waiting. The first was The West Block.
Thanks for reading.
Feedback is very highly appreciated!