There was a girl staring at Shion from behind the bookshelves by the espresso bar. She was trying to be subtle and failing miserably, but Shion, being his oblivious self, had yet to notice her.
Nezumi, however, had decided six minutes was too long a time to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she was working up the courage to ask him for a drink. He then decided it was his responsibility to get rid of her if she wasn’t going to buy anything.
He left the desk, which gained a glare from the only other cashier, and walked over to where the girl had her nose hidden behind a copy of Lolita, her eyes tracing Shion as he bent to get more sugar out of the cabinet.
“Can I help you, miss?” Nezumi asked, not bothering to hide his impatience.
The girl jumped, barely concealing a yelp, and dropped the book. Nezumi caught it before it hit the floor. There were two cracks in the spine.
“Oh, uh,” the girl said. “No, thank you.”
Nezumi looked at her for a minute, then gazed pointedly at Shion, who was still, apparently, blissfully unaware the events occurring approximately twenty feet away. The girl blushed.
“Sorry,” she said. “I just- I need to-” Seeming to work up the courage, she blurted out, “Does he have a girlfriend?”
Nezumi stared at her so long she began to fidget.
“He’s dating someone,” Nezumi said finally.
“Oh,” the girl said, deflating a little. “Sorry. And- I’ll buy that book.”
Nezumi gave her the copy of Lolita back, withholding the Good, because you’ve dented it that was climbing up the back of his throat, and nodded to her. Once she had bought the book and left the store, he headed towards the espresso counter.
Shion looked up and smiled. He continued to fiddle with the coffee machine as Nezumi approached. “Afternoon, Nezumi. Business slow up at the checkout today?”
“You’re being stalked,” Nezumi replied. “That’s the third one this month. Stop being so damn friendly.”
Shion sighed and pushed some of his pale hair out of his face. “Maybe you’re just jumping to conclusions.”
“Shion,” Nezumi said flatly. “She asked if you had a girlfriend.”
Shion, who had been biting back a smile ever since Nezumi had appeared, lost the battle and grinned, not quite making eye contact as dark liquid poured into the plastic cup. “I don’t.”
“I told her you were dating someone.”
Shion’s smile grew wider. “True enough.” He slid the cup towards Nezumi. “Drink this and go back to checkout, you can’t leave Yamase by himself.”
Nezumi stared into the cup. It was cocoa, because he knew that Shion knew he didn’t drink coffee, and there were two small foam hearts floating on top.
He pointed them out to Shion. “Do you do this for everyone?” he demanded.
“Yes,” Shion said. “And I promise it doesn’t destroy the quality of the drink. You need to get back to work.”
“That explains a lot of things,” Nezumi said, taking a reluctant swig of the cocoa. “You’re teasing them.”
Shion frowned. “I am not! I was told to do it. Apparently it raises sales by six percent.” He couldn’t help but grin. “Isn’t that interesting? And also if you put smiley faces on receipts-”
“You are disgustingly airheaded sometimes,” Nezumi said, taking two more large gulps and tossing the cup in the trash. “Back into the fray, then?”
“You’re going to be,” Shion said, pulling off his apron. “I read to the kids now, remember? And then we can go home.”
Nezumi nodded, and began to head back to the desk.
“And instead of telling me to be less friendly, maybe you could try being courteous for a change,” Shion called after him. “That’s kind of the idea of customer service, you know.”
Nezumi turned around, gave him the fiercest scowl he could manage, and returned to the desk. The sound of Shion laughing managed to float over all the bookshelves and to the counter, leaving Nezumi to scowl at Yamase and all the customers and destroying Shion’s efforts to create a more personable environment.
“I still don’t think you needed to shout at that poor lady,” Shion called from the kitchen. “She didn’t mean to spill her coffee. She was elderly.”
“Forty-nine isn’t elderly,” Nezumi yelled back. “And I wasn’t shouting at her.”
“If I can hear you from the back of the store, you’re shouting,” Shion said, heading out of the kitchen and handing him a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup.
“Or maybe the store is just small,” Nezumi suggests. “Oh wait, it is. And also, it is not my fault. It is the fault of that damn espresso bar. I have repeatedly suggested that because it destroys merchandise, we should get rid of it, but I think they’ve created a recording that responds specifically to my voice.”
“It’s possible,” Shion said. “I think you’ve made the exact same call twenty-three times and gotten the exact same answer twenty-three times. I don’t think it would be hard.”
“You could help me,” Nezumi said. “They take you seriously. Though I can’t understand why.”
“Maybe because I haven’t made twenty-three phone calls in the past three months requesting the same thing,” Shion said, smiling slightly as he brought the spoon to his lips. “Besides, I work there. It wouldn’t be smart to suggest we take down the place where I work.”
“I liked it better when you worked at the service desk,” Nezumi grumbled. “No one stalked you then.”
Shion’s head tilted back as he laughed. “I’m not being stalked.”
“You are,” Nezumi said. “And you need to stop being so oblivious to it, because you’re leaving it to me to scare them off.”
“You don’t have to,” Shion said. “I could-”
“No,” interrupted Nezumi, “because most of your stalkers take a long time to work up courage to even ask you for coffee. And because you are so spacey all the time you won’t notice they’re even there till they’re right in front of your face.”
Shion was frowning, staring into his soup for ten seconds before setting it down on the table. Nezumi had come to realize that this was always a bad sign.
“Nezumi,” Shion said, pulling his legs up underneath him on the couch and turning to face Nezumi. “Do you even like working at the bookstore?”
This was not the first time Shion has asked Nezumi this question. It wasn’t that Nezumi didn’t want to answer his question (well, mostly,) it was because he just didn’t have an answer yet.
“Don’t worry about it right now, Shion.”
Shion’s forehead was creased. “But Nezumi-”
Nezumi sighed loudly and eased deeply back into the couch, so that his left side and Shion’s right side were overlapping. “Shion,” he said. “Leave it. For now, anyway.”
The creases in Shion’s forehead eased away as his fingers wrapped around Nezumi’s, but his slight frown didn’t completely disappear.
Shion was close and warm under the blankets, pressed against him like this. Nezumi’s leg was snug around his hips and his nose was pressed lightly into the nape of Shion’s neck, and yet somehow Shion was still thinking about the bookstore.
It was frustrating, really.
“Nezumi,” Shion whispered. “Does it really bother you? Me working at the espresso bar, I mean.”
Nezumi sighed, a warm curl of breath against Shion’s neck, and felt vaguely rewarded when he felt Shion shiver against him. “Shion, go to sleep.”
“But I’m serious,” Shion insisted. “Because I’ll stop if you want me to. I know you don’t like the bar, and if it really bothers you, I’ll-”
“Shion,” Nezumi said, exasperated. “It’s not you working at the espresso bar that bothers me. It is exclusively the espresso bar and the people that stalk you as a result of the espresso bar.”
He felt Shion smile. “Are you sure?”
“Mm,” Nezumi murmured, pressing his lips to the first knob of Shion’s spine. “Just knock it off with the foam hearts. It’s misleading. Even if it does raise sales by six percent.”
Shion turned around beneath Nezumi’s limbs so they were face to face. “You’re just jealous,” he said, but he was smiling in a sleepy, easily amused way.
“That’s it,” Nezumi agreed. “I’m jealous. So stop it with the foam hearts.”
“Okay,” said Shion, leaning in to press his lips lightly to Nezumi’s. “I will.”
“Good,” Nezumi said. “So will you go to sleep now?”
“Okay,” Shion said again, eyelids fluttering closed. “Good night.”
Shion was funny in the way that once he decided to go to sleep, he did. Nezumi stroked his hair softly for a moment, pressed his lips to Shion’s forehead, and felt sleep begin to take over him as well.
“Night, Shion,” he said tiredly, before the dull shine of Shion’s hair faded to grey, then black.
It was two weeks later when the bookstore predicament became a whole lot worse.
Shion did keep his word, to his credit, but this did not stem the stalking in any significant way. There was a relatively tame amount of disasters involving coffee and upholstery/books, and business was soothingly small.
But then The Apocalyptic Event, as Nezumi referred to what happened, occurred.
“Shion,” Nezumi hissed, shaking him. “Shion, wake up.”
“Mm…what, Nezumi?” Shion muttered, rolling over in the bed to squint at Nezumi. “What is it?”
“Get up,” Nezumi said. “Our lives are about to be completely destroyed by the social media.”
“What?” Shion said. “Nezumi, is everything okay? Is anyone hurt?”
“Everything is certainly not all right,” Nezumi said, pushing his bangs dramatically out of his face. “We are about to fall apart at the seams, and you are going to miss it because you aren’t getting out of bed.”
And with that, he grabbed Shion by the wrist and pulled him to his feet, more or less carrying him to where the TV was.
“Nezumi, I can’t hear the TV,” Shion said, wiping at his eyes with the heels of his hands.
“I know,” Nezumi said. “I muted it. It’s too painful.”
Shion couldn’t help but groan. “So can you just tell me then? And also, what time is it?”
“How can you focus on such things as the time when the world is collapsing?” Nezumi said, collapsing onto the couch in the most dramatic manner possible. “And you say my priorities are out of order.”
“Nezumi,” Shion said impatiently. “what is going on?”
“There is,” Nezumi said, gesturing towards the TV, “is a news story about us.”
Shion blinked. “Us?”
“Well, not us specifically,” Nezumi admitted. “Us as in the bookstore.”
Shion’s eyebrows rose. “Really?”
“Yes,” Nezumi moaned. “We’re a featured story. Prime time news. This is terrible.”
Shion’s eyes widened in alarm. “Is everyone all right? Is anyone hurt? Is the shop all right?”
“No, no,” Nezumi said distractedly. “If only. No, the store and everyone is fine.”
“So what’s terrible?” Shion raised an eyebrow skeptically. “And is it really prime time or are you exaggerating?”
“Shion, just because it had to wake you up does not mean it’s some ungodly hour,” Nezumi said, rolling his eyes. “And it’s terrible because this means the bookstore will become popular, which means there will be a lot more people, which means, in essence, that we are screwed.”
Shion stared at him for a minute, then closed and opened his eyes several times. “Nezumi, it may just be because it’s early, but I’m really having difficulty understanding why this is such a terrible thing.”
“Shion,” Nezumi said patiently. “Clearly you don’t understand that being employed a small bookstore is much better than a large bookstore. Small means less people, which means less coffee mess, more space and time to read, and less human interaction.”
Shion lit up with understanding. “Oh,” he said. “I get it. You’re worried about the books, aren’t you?”
“Actually, there’s really nothing I’m not worried about right now,” Nezumi said, his fingers slightly splayed across his forehead, his eyes closed. “Shion, I don’t think you’re fully appreciating how terrible our lives will become after this.”
“I’m probably not,” Shion agreed. “I’m not that worried, though. You shouldn’t be either.”
“I’m going back to bed, Nezumi,” said Shion. “I’ll probably care about this once I’m better rested, so don’t wake me up again. I suggest you go back to sleep too.”
And he hurried out before Nezumi can bemoan the news story much more.
The impact struck them the minute they returned to work the next Monday.
There was a small set of cars waiting outside the bookstore. There were people sitting in them, books in their laps and iPods in their ears, gazes occasionally flicking to the CLOSED sign on the door. They perked up when they see Nezumi and Shion coming, but sunk back into their seats when the sign on the door doesn’t flip as they enter.
Nezumi cringed, quite visibly, at the sight of them.
“Oh, Nezumi,” Shion sighed. “You shouldn’t be upset.”
“Yeah? Why not?”
“Because they’re excited to come here,” Shion said. “Isn’t that why we work here? To spread the enjoyment of books, or something like that?”
“Maybe that’s why you work here,” Nezumi grumbled, pinning on his nametag as Shion pulled his apron over his head. “I work here so I could read and get paid for it with minimal interruptions. And now that plan’s completely shot.”
Shion smiled and shrugged. “Oh well.”
“Oh well?” Nezumi repeated incredulously. “This is all the sympathy I get for my long suffering? Shion-”
“Nezumi, please,” Shion said, and he was serious now. “Please be nice to the customers. We want them to like it here.”
“Do you define ‘we’ as you and the other employees excluding myself, or ‘we’ as in you and me, because-”
“Nezumi,” Shion said. “Please. It’s important. To me.”
Nezumi gave a very deep sigh, but it was through the sigh that Shion knew he was surrendering.
“Fine,” he said. “But-”
Not wanting to hear the conditions, Shion squeezed his hand and all but ran for the espresso bar.
Nezumi heaved another great sigh and flipped the CLOSED sign.
They were all in there in two minutes flat.
“Well,” Shion said airily, collapsing on the couch and rubbing absentmindedly at the just hours-old coffee stain on his jeans. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Nezumi gave him the nastiest look Shion could ever remember receiving, which was quite impressive because he has received dozens of nasty looks through the years. Nezumi’s hair has fallen slightly loose, which was something Shion has never seen before.
“Don’t talk to me,” Nezumi said, dragging himself to the armchair and dropping into it backwards, so that he was facing away from Shion. Shion waited for a moment to see if he would turn around, and, deciding that he wouldn’t, stood up, stretched, and made his way to the kitchen.
“I’m going to make dinner, Nezumi,” Shion called into the other room. “Is there anything you want?”
“For the bookstore to vanish off the face of the Earth,” Nezumi called back. “Preferably to another uninhabitable planet where coffee and people do not exist and books cannot be harmed.”
Shion inspected the cabinets. “I think we’re out of that,” he called. “I’ll have to pick some up this weekend. Anyway, are chicken wings all right?”
Nezumi gave a sort of grumbly groan from the other room, which wasn’t a no. Shion popped the package of chicken wings in the microwave.
“It’ll be ready in five minutes,” he called. “Do you want to continue to bemoan our wretched fate or do you want to help me set the table?”
Nezumi gave another loud groan, which served as an answer to Shion’s question. He sighed and headed to the pantry to find some plates.
Dinner was ultimately silent, with Nezumi picking at his food and gazing at the plate as if it held the answer to ending the daily torture that had become the bookstore, and Shion knew better than to try to say anything, or (God forbid) cheer him up.
Nezumi buried himself in the blankets while Shion was getting ready for bed, and Shion had to work very hard to burrow his own place into the sheets.
“Nezumi,” he murmured.
“Not talking anymore,” Nezumi said. “Sleeping.”
“But it’s important. And also, make room.”
“No,” Nezumi said.
“No you’re not going to make room, or no you’re not going to talk to me?”
“No,” Nezumi repeated.
Shion sighed and nudged a little further into the blankets. “Nezumi, come on.”
Nezumi groaned vaguely, but by doing so he made more room in the blankets. Not one to waste opportunity, Shion pressed himself as close to Nezumi as possible.
“Nezumi,” he said, “we don’t have to keep working at the bookstore. I know you don’t like all the new people. Or the espresso bar. If you’re unhappy, we can always go back to working at the bakery. My mom could use the help. She’s offered, you know, if anything ever goes wrong with the bookstore, and she’ll pay us the same and-”
“God, shut up,” Nezumi groaned, pulling the covers over both their heads. “You realize that I actually am trying to sleep, and not just lying here with my eyes closed for shits and giggles?”
“Shion,” Nezumi said, in a tone that was barely less malicious than a hiss, but Shion decided that was only because he was intensely tired. “I don’t want to stop working at the bookstore.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Shion insisted. “And neither would my mom, I swear. And we would still get discounts on books, I checked online, so you wouldn’t-”
“Shion,” Nezumi interrupted. “I don’t care about inconveniencing your mama, or the discount on the books, and I especially don’t give a single shit about the damn espresso bar.”
Shion was tired too, but he was doing his best to fight it, and he looked up at Nezumi through half-lidded, slanted eyes. “Nezumi, you don’t have to-”
“Look,” Nezumi said. “Virtually every job requires dealing with people. And though I have an unfavorable opinion of people, I’d rather work with people and books than people alone. And besides, who’s going to keep an eye on you then?”
Shion gave a little smile at that, and burrowed closer to Nezumi, closing his eyes. “I’d be all right.”
“You?” Nezumi said incredulously. “You’d be eaten alive.”
“By the bookstore patrons, I’m sure,” Shion said, yawning. He opened his eyes again, looking up, carefully, at Nezumi. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Nah,” Nezumi said, one hand in Shion’s hair, the other around his waist. “As long as you shut up about it.”
“Okay then,” Shion said, and began to doze off, but not before leaning up a little, at Nezumi’s slight tug of his hair, to press his lips lightly to Nezumi’s.
“So now let me sleep,” Nezumi said. “You’re annoying as hell, you know.”
“Yeah,” said Shion vaguely, and, head tucked under Nezumi’s chin, fell asleep.