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Conquered and Crumbled

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"Coach!" Eiji nearly dropped the tray of cake he was carrying, but he righted himself and placed the plates in front of the women at the next table with only minor rattling. He even managed a decorous smile before turning to the only father he'd ever had, grin erupting on his face.

"What are you doing here?" He beamed. "Do you want some cake?"

The older man covered his mouth and cleared his throat. He yanked the chair out from the nearest empty table, wincing at the screech, and lowered himself into it. Scanning the room, he said, "Just some tea, please. And... do you have a couple of minutes to talk?"

"Sure! No problem." Eiji dashed off.

Tachibana, sensing intrigue, sidled up and leaned against the wall, arms crossed. "Come to check up on him?" He raised an eyebrow.

The other man waved a hand in protest. "No, no, it's just that -- "

Eiji returned and set the teacup and pot down on the table with a clatter. "Go away, old man! I'm trying to talk to Coach!"

The coach waved Eiji into a seat and looked up at Tachibana. "I won't take too much of his time, I promise. Is it okay...?"

Tachibana shrugged. "Just don't slack off too much, Eiji, or you'll regret it!" He pushed himself off the wall and went to check on the other customers.

Coach cleared his throat then and said, "You seem to be doing well here. I'm glad. But that's not why I stopped by." His brow wrinkled as he said, "I'm retiring."

Eiji's jaw dropped. "Retiring? But why?" He leaned forward, hands on the table. "Are you sick? Oh no, you're not dying, are you?"

A choked laugh in response. "No! No, I'm fine, I promise. Just getting a little old. All you boys are a lot to handle, and I thought it might be nice to spend some time relaxing for a change."

"I don't have any money to give you now, Coach, since I'm not boxing..." Eiji's face crumpled.

Coach shook his head. "You're always so generous. Thank you. But I'm selling the gym."

"What?" Eiji leaped to his feet. The customers at the next table stared.

Coach patted him on the arm. "Sit down, sit down. Someone's going to buy it -- "

"Who?"

"Another boxer," Coach said, tapping Eiji's arm again until Eiji sat down. "He's going to run the gym. And he's paying me enough money to make it worth my while." Taking a sip of tea, he said, "Besides, he's getting older too. He wants something to make him money when he can't box anymore. Not everyone can start baking cakes, you know.” He smiled.

Eiji sat for a moment, eyes wide.

"Are you all right?" Coach asked after a minute.

Eiji blinked. "When? When is this all happening?"

Coach coughed into his hand. "In a month, actually."

"What? So soon!"

"Once I realized that's what I wanted to do and found a buyer for the gym, I didn't think I should wait." Coach finished the tea and set the cup carefully back on the saucer. "The new owner wants to take over the gym right away."

"Do the other guys know?"

"They're all right. A little nervous, but... they've seen me slowing down lately." One shoulder lifted in a shrug.

"Are you having a party?"

"A party? I didn't think about it. It seems a bit arrogant."

"It's not! I'm sure lots of the boxers would want to give you a party! I'll bake you a cake!" Eiji thumped the table.

Tachibana strode over and gave Eiji a sharp look. "Time to get back to work!"

"Okay, okay," Eiji said, standing up and taking the cup and teapot. "Coach, tell me when the party is, okay? I'll bake you the perfect cake, I swear!" He flashed another grin as he left.

**

The thing about Eiji was that he knew how to work. Not that it surprised Ono; boxing was hard, and being a good boxer was even harder. Long after Ono was ready to go home for the day, Eiji would be in the kitchen, experimenting with some new combination of flavors. Ono knew that Eiji sometimes came down from his apartment during the night to use the oven too.

So when he saw Eiji frowning over bits of paper and staying late again, amassing great piles of bowls and baking trays on the counter, he didn't think it was anything unusual.

After a particularly frantic day, Ono had been halfway out of the kitchen when Eiji, oblivious to anything but the medley of ingredients in front of him, gave a little howl of frustration. "It still isn't right!" He clutched his hands to his head.

"Kanda-kun?" Ono inquired. "What are you working on?" His eyes widened as Eiji blushed.

"It's... it's for Coach," Eiji said. "He's retiring. He says he's too old! Which is stupid. He could still beat up half the boxers out there. I thought I would make him something! To say thank you," he trailed off, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter there in the kitchen. "It's just not going very well." He nodded at the chaos around him, every surface already covered with some baking implement, a half-empty bowl, or a baking tray. "I guess I'm not very good yet at coming up with recipes."

Ah. It all made sense now.

"The guys are throwing him a party," Eiji continued. "So I'm making a cake! Should be easy, right? I make cakes all the time!" He shook his head vigorously, pulling at his hair again. "It can't be any old cake, though! Especially 'cause Coach doesn't even like cake!"

Ono let the door to the kitchen slip shut, coming over to lean on the counter across from Eiji. "He does like cake," Ono objected. "He ate one of the first cakes you ever made and he liked it, don't you remember?"

"I know! But that was just one cake! I bet he still doesn't like other cakes. So this one has to be really good to impress him!" Eiji's eyes were wild. "And I've been trying, but I can't..." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I can't get it right."

Young patissiers needed so much reassurance sometimes, Ono thought. He'd been the same way, too often unsure if he was headed in the right direction or doing something completely wrong. Eiji would be a fantastic patissier, if only he could learn to trust himself.

"When is the party?"

"It's next week!" Eiji shrieked, hands on head again. He slumped. "I'll never get it right by then."

"Let's take a look at what you're doing."

"But... but... I want to do this recipe myself!" Eiji looked torn between gratitude and panic.

Ono gave a gentle laugh. "Of course you want your special gift for your coach to be just perfect. All great patissiers collaborate, Kanda-kun. It doesn't mean they don't have any good ideas of their own. It means that these ideas become bigger and worth pursuing more when they are shared with other people." He met Kanda's eyes, trying to project as much serene confidence as he could. "Sometimes we all need a little help with inspiration. I promise you, the end result will still be a cake only you could make."

He went and got changed back into his work clothes. The boys at Lolipop would have to wait a little longer.

**

Eiji had gotten some brains knocked out of him. All that boxing. Still, Tachibana acknowledged that he had good ideas once in a while, and his voracious, embarrassing appetite for sweet things came paired with a startlingly sensitive palate.

"What are you trying today?" Tachibana asked, peering down at Eiji's notebook on the table. His handwriting was terrible -- not that Tachibana had any room to complain.

Eiji snatched the notebook away, snapping it closed, clutching it to his chest and growling, "It's not ready yet, old man! Leave me alone!"

Tachibana shook his head. "You're trying too hard, Eiji." He twisted his lips. "Trust me, I know."

Eiji deflated. "But... now that I don't have boxing money to give Coach, there isn't any other way for me to say thank you." He shrunk back, as if he hadn't meant to say so much.

"I think you've already said thank you a thousand times to him. I think he knows it." The kid's devotion was touching, Tachibana had to admit.

"That doesn't mean I shouldn't say it again!"

Tachibana shrugged and returned to the cafe.

"He's obsessed," Tachibana told Ono, gesturing back to the kitchen, where Eiji was now stirring up another experimental batch of batter.

Ono peered in at Eiji with the fond look of someone who just couldn't bear to criticize. "He's just nervous. That coach is the only father he has. Of course he wants to get it right."

Tachibana snorted. "You're too easy on him."

"Maybe you're too hard on him."

"No way! That kid is tough. Stupid, but tough. He needs more people to give him hell." Tachibana shrugged again and went to wipe down some tables. What did he care? Some of Eiji's recent experiments had made their way out into the glass-fronted case at the front of the cafe, promoted as seasonal, very limited edition specialties. Eiji, having abandoned the recipes as unsuitable, got sulky if asked to recreate them, but a calm request from Ono usually got him started again.

And they sold and sold. Sometimes women wanted to meet the chef who invented the recipes. Then they'd coo about how young Eiji was, to be so talented, leaving Tachibana torn between an almost parental pride and jealousy.

An increased coterie of people connected to the boxing world had been coming through Antique's door of late. Some of them were Eiji's old roommates. The first time they tumbled in, a contradictory bundle of young musclehead attitude and embarrassment at going to a cake shop, they gave Chikage a story about being there because of how good Eiji smelled. Tachibana didn't understand it either, but he was willing to overlook it because they spent money. And they didn't bust up the shop or start trouble. Once in a while Ono got dizzy looking at their biceps, but that never lasted long; boxers weren't really his type.

A few young women, girlfriends of boxers, maybe, or ex-girlfriends of boxers or maybe just boxer-girlfriend-hopefuls, came in to titter about the Idol of the Ring, excited to eat anything that Eiji had a hand in making. The most recent failed recipe, raspberry tiramisu cupcakes, had been a spectacular hit.

To label the cakes failures was inaccurate, but they were ones that, for one reason or another, Eiji had rejected. "Too sweet for Coach," he'd said about this one. "He doesn't like sweet things." Tachibana, in a remarkable show of restraint, had avoided asking why Eiji was baking him cupcakes then.

"Not too sweet, not too rich," became Eiji's refrain. That meant no chocolate, apparently; one of the first concoctions he abandoned was a lime ginger chocolate cake. "Besides," Eiji had sniffed, "chocolate is too easy."

So he wanted subtle. And slightly different. Tachibana didn't care; this outpouring of creativity was great for the cafe. As far as he was concerned, the longer Eiji took to develop the perfect recipe for his coach, the better. Except for the shorter fuse as the day of the retirement party drew near.

It wasn't like Eiji's temper had ever matched the sweet things he adored, though. And he and Eiji were like gasoline and a match: never a good pair. Still, Tachibana was glad to have an ex-boxer upstairs as live-in security. For all Eiji's mouthing off (and for all Tachibana's bluster), having a kitchen assistant who followed the patissier's lead, adoringly, without question, was convenient in a lot of ways. Even if it made Ono a little uncomfortable.

"Nooooo!" came a howl from the kitchen, followed by some rough language in French. A couple of customers looked up. Tachibana gave them a bemused smile and a shrug -- Isn't it adorable, the awkwardness of culinary genius? Don't worry about it at all -- and entered the kitchen, just managing to avoid slamming the door open.

"I didn't pay for French lessons for you to learn how to swear," he warned.

"It's too sweet," Eiji moaned, hands pulling at his hair. There was a baking tray in front of him and unsurprisingly, the air was thick with sweetness. Well, this was a cake shop; why should Eiji be surprised?

**

Sensei had given Eiji some good suggestions the other night, but stopped short of creating the recipe for him, which left Eiji feeling both abandoned and trusted. Right now what he had was a coconut-ginger cupcake that very badly needed something else. They'd tried lime, but something about it felt a little too typical.

He'd thought of coconut as something that, if handled right, wasn't too overwhelming. And then ginger; it was versatile and most people liked it, as long as you were careful. Eiji cringed as he remembered the first time he made a ginger-pear cake. He hadn't thought there could ever be too much ginger. His heartburn proved him wrong. After that he'd been a little wary, but he liked the flavor too much to give it up.

A few days after they'd tried adding lime to the cupcakes, it came to him. He stood up in the bath and shouted, "Grapefruit!" Towelling off, he staggered, almost tripping on the hem of his pants, to the table in the front room, grumbling, "Paper, paper," as he dug through the mess there. "Grapefruit, grapefruit, grapefruit," he muttered until he managed to commit it to writing, terrified he'd forget it as suddenly as he thought of it. He ran out after that, managing to find a few rather sad specimens of the fruit from the nearest supermarket as they were closing for the night.

The next morning, he woke up hours before the sun, without even needing his alarm. It probably didn't even really count as the morning or the next day, he thought muzzily as he gulped down some tea. There was still time before Ono would need the kitchen for the day's baking. He should be able to get at least one batch of the revised recipe mixed up before then.

Eiji took the first tray out of the oven as Ono bustled through the door and exclaimed, "Kanda-kun! You figured it out, then?"

Ono smiled and took a deep breath. "Grapefruit," both of them said at the same time. Eiji flushed. Of course Ono would be able to tell without Eiji having to tell him!

"When they're cool, may I try one?"

"Of course," Eiji managed, flattered and terrified at the same time. Ono had, many times, tasted his baking. It wasn't something he got used to, though. Eiji still quailed at letting Sensei harm his delicate tongue by tasting one of Eiji's creations, sure to be closer to one of those turd-cakes Eiji used to eat with Coach than the delights that Ono could bake.

"Of course I want to! I think this could be a great success," Ono said as he went to get started on the choux for the day.

Eiji almost hoped Ono forgot about the cupcakes, but mid-morning he politely reminded Eiji that he wanted a taste. Eiji had eaten one himself, earlier, and was cautiously pleased, but he would pitch them all in the garbage if Sensei didn't like them.

Nothing for it. Eiji handed one over. Ono took a bite; Eiji's heart stuttered as Ono nodded. "I think you've gotten it now, Kanda-kun. You still need to perfect this, but I think the flavor combination is the right one."

Eiji's stomach leaped. With that benediction he could surely move forward. "I thought maybe the grapefruit flavor could be stronger. Do you think I should add more zest?"

Ono adjusted his glasses and bent down to look at Eiji's scrawled recipe. "Perhaps more of the juice instead -- it was just a little dry..."

Eiji nodded, giddy with relief, and began taking notes.

**

Balloons and streamers were draped across the equipment at the gym; the festive decorations looked awkward, as if whoever arranged them had never attended a party before. Eiji, carrying two trays of the cupcakes, bit his lip, more nervous than he ever had been before stepping in the ring.

When he told Tachibana that he didn't care what people thought about him having no parents, it was true. But boxing was comfortable because it was the sort of unruly, uncouth future that was expected of someone like him, no matter how much he did genuinely enjoy it.

Becoming a patissier? He hadn't even known what the word meant when Ono first used it. Making delicate pastries with French names -- killing himself to learn French -- having people talk about him working in Paris someday... that didn't happen to a kid like him.

So he was still holding his breath, waiting for the dream to dissolve. Not that he'd mind if he woke up tomorrow with a repaired retina. He'd head straight back to the ring. Probably.

But this, more than Paris, more than the stupid French lessons, felt like his real test.

"Tell me about this," Coach prompted, looking at the cupcakes. "They look very fancy." A few other boxers, clustered behind him, made little desperate noises, fingers twitching.

Eiji cleared his throat, but his voice squeaked anyway. "It's coconut grapefruit ginger. I... I made the recipe for you especially. Because you don't like sweet things."

"That's not true!" Coach said. "I've eaten your cake before! It was delicious!"

Eiji gave a jerky motion, something between a nod and a squirm. "Yes, but would you have eaten it if it wasn't mine?" Gesturing towards the tray, he said, "That's why I made cupcakes. They're very trendy right now, but they're also good because they're smaller, so they won't be as overwhelming. They're topped with a simple grapefruit reduction, because I didn't want anything too rich. The flavor is milder but still sweet, with a little punch from the ginger." He shoved both of his hands behind his back to hide the fact that he was trembling.

"I'm sure it's delicious," Coach said. That just made Eiji more nervous: was he steeling himself to not like it? Did Eiji sound too arrogant when he described it all?

Coach took a cupcake, handling it as if it were made of glass. He lowered his nose to it and inhaled gently. Eiji winced: did it smell strange? Unappealing?

Eiji waited, mesmerized by Coach's jaws working as he took the first bite. Coach swallowed and said, "Delicious! Even better than the other one. You're right, it's not so sweet, but it's still powerful." He took another bite and, mouth full, added, "Thank you for making it for me!"

Eiji's knees went weak. The other boxers swarmed the tray, each grabbing a cupcake. He cared less what they thought, but it was still gratifying as they all made faces like Coach. "We'll all smell so good tonight!" one of them said.

Later that night, returning home with the empty trays, Eiji nearly stepped on Ono, sitting at a table in the darkened cafe.

"Sensei!" he yelped. "What are you doing here?"

"Oh, I didn't have as much fun at Lolipop tonight as I thought I would," Ono replied, "so I thought I'd stop by and see how your party went. Did your coach like the cupcakes?"

"Yes! I'm so relieved!" Eiji let the trays down onto the table with a thud. "It's all thanks to you, Sensei!"

"No, no." He saw Ono shaking his head in the dimness. "I just helped you figure out an idea you already had. I'd like to start selling the cupcakes next week, by the way."

Eiji gasped. "Really? Are you sure?" Even though they'd been selling his recipes for a while now, it would never stop feeling like a big deal. Especially this one, so tricky, and so very vital that he got right. "Coach will be so happy to have his cupcakes at the cafe!"

If having Coach and the other boxers appreciate his cupcakes was one test, suddenly he felt like he'd passed another one. That night he slept soundly for the first time since Coach announced his retirement.