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As Bitter as Rye (As Sweet as Sugar)

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Caleb Widogast liked to think of his life as being not too dissimilar from the baked goods he made for a living.

 

Yes, there were the obvious differences (his life was nowhere near as sweet as his creations), but they operated on the same basic principle: things have to happen in a certain specific way, with only minor variations, in order to work successfully. One missing ingredient, or one component overdone, and you end up with a deflated souffle, or salt flavored cookies. Recipes existed and were followed for a reason, and only after you established a detailed understanding of the basics could you begin to experiment. And Caleb...well. He didn’t care much for experimenting these days. He had his routine, and he was satisfied with going about his life with as few surprises as possible.

 

Every morning, Caleb would get up at 5am and do the things that needed to be done in his loft. Fold the bed, take a shower, prepare and eat breakfast, do the dishes. He would make sure Frumpkin was fed, would spent the small amount of free time he allowed himself showering his cat with affection and playing with him before, at 6 o’clock, he would lock the door behind him, head downstairs, and start to work.

 

The Cozy Cat Cafe and Bakery didn’t open until 8am, but there was more than enough to do to keep him occupied until then. He would start by getting the ovens started, and if he helped them along a little in an effort to save electricity, well, there was no crime in that (and it helped keep his skills from becoming too rusty, but that wasn’t really important). He’d begin brewing coffee and setting up tables, putting out napkins and utensils and doing all the little simple things that would keep him from the part of his job he enjoyed the most.

 

With a small smile, he would pull out his books and his binder of recipes and menus, all planned out based on the time of year and available ingredients. He would pick out a few more complicated ones, the showstopper pieces that took more time and effort and were always, always worth it, along with a selection of easier recipes and cafe staples that ensured he would make enough to put bread on his own table, and not just on others. Once everything was planned out, Caleb would gather his ingredients and supplies, and he’d begin to bake.

 

There are those who would call baking an art, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. One needs to have an eye for the creative and an imaginative mind to bake, to create swans of spun sugar or lions out of loaves of bread. Presentation was key...but looks weren’t everything. He could create the most beautiful cake in the world, but if it tasted terrible, then what was the point? No, it was more important in his mind to get the science behind a bake right. Without careful measurements and precise baking times at the correct temperature, without things happening exactly as they should in a very specific way, where would he be?

 

He didn’t like to think about the answer very much.

 

Luckily, when he was baking, he didn’t have to think about heavy topics. All he had to do was focus on the mixing of ingredients, the kneading and rising of bread, the temperature of the oven. It was relaxing, it was time consuming, and it filled the remaining hours before he had to open the cafe. Sometimes, lost in thought or in watching an oven to ensure his wares didn’t burn, he would cut his timing a bit close and rush to set up his display cases and update the menu. But, like clockwork, every day by 8am, he would be set up and ready to open his doors for business.

 

Customers usually didn’t start coming in until around 8:30 or so (which was good, as it gave him time to continue working on baking and making the cafe look presentable), when a wave of young professionals grabbing their morning coffees and pastries would come in. After them would be the at-home parents, fresh from dropping their children off at school, coming in for their morning coffees.

 

Some days, it seemed like all he sold was coffee, with a cup of tea thrown in to spice things up. At least people were buying something.

 

At some point during the day, Jester was guaranteed to come in and buy more pastries than one person should responsibly eat. Not that he minded, it was good business and if he was being honest with himself, he enjoyed her company. She’d always give him a bright smile and ask about his day, what new recipes he was working on, what did he recommend...and in turn, she’d tell him stories about her clients at the tattoo parlour, some of her newest work, her latest date with Fjord, and the occasional story about the Traveller (though he always had to remind her to talk quietly about her unapproved god). She’d invite him out with her and Fjord, or with their other friends, and he’d always politely turn her down.

 

“I am sorry, Jester,” he would always say with an apologetic nod. “But I am needed here. Perhaps next time.” And she would pout, knowing full well that his response would be the same the next time she asked him to go out and have some fun, but she always accepted it and never pushed it too much.

 

The afternoons were usually quiet. There would be a small rush of students going to afternoon classes, and at least twice a week there would be a group of older gentleman coming in and playing schafskopf right up until closing. The parents would come by in the afternoons, sometimes with their children in tow, begging for a sweet treat of some sort after a long day of classes. But apart from the occasional phone order or catering request, business slowed to a trickle in the afternoons and by the time he closed up shop around 5, he usually only had one or two customers in the preceding hour. Caduceus would usually swing by shortly after closing to pick up any leftovers (and on some days, there were a lot) to bring into the Outersteads. Sometimes, he’d ask Caleb to accompany him.

 

“You’ve got quite a few fans down by the walls,” he’d say with that gentle voice. Caleb would shake his head and decline, and Caduceus would never push him for a reason, simply nodding and taking the bags of breads and tortes off into the night.

 

Even with customers gone and the cafe closed, his business wouldn’t truly end for a few more hours. There were tables and countertops to clean, dishes to wash, inventory to do and upcoming menus to prep...and of course, finances.

 

At the end of the day, Caleb would divide up the profits into a few different sections. Money for utilities, money for groceries and supplies...all the things that needed to be paid for to keep the business running. Then there was the Nott Fund, the money that went into caring for Frumpkin, and finally, surplus profits. By the time he got to money for himself...well, there wasn’t much there.

 

That was fine, though. He’d lived on far less, and as long as he had enough to keep the cafe up and feed himself every now and again, then that was enough. It would have to be enough.

 

He’d been told, time and time again, by both Jester and Nott, that if he advertised a little more, he’d make more money. Update his website, maybe join up with a social media site...do something to make people aware of the bakery. Hell, even if he just spruced up the front of the shop or put up a nice display, more people would notice his shop.

 

That was the problem, though. If they noticed the shop, they would notice him.  There was always that risk...no, it was better this way. He would get by on the predictable bursts of activity, and on the kindness of his friends telling people about the cafe. It was enough.

 

Once the money was counted and divvied up and locked away, he would go back upstairs to the loft he lived in, locking the door behind him. He’d have a simple dinner, curl up on the couch with Frumpkin and read until the words blurred together. And then, Caleb would go to bed, to repeat it all the next day.

 

It was not the kind of life he’d ever pictured for himself as a child. It was not a life of glory, it didn’t further the greatness of the Empire, nor did it do anything to make him look more desirable in the eyes of anyone. But it was his life, and his alone. He was in control of his own fate here, and if he was destined to live out the rest of his days in obscurity in a bakery that barely managed to break even, then he welcomed it.

 

His life was simple, and it went like clockwork, every single day. Even the small variations in his schedule were predictable to a degree. Caduceus would drop off his weekly supply of tea twice a week. Three days a week, Nott would help out in the afternoons, while Luke would do his homework at a table near the window. At the end of the week, he would take a half day, closing the shop at noon and using the rest of the day to catch up on errands before going and having dinner with the Brenatto’s in the Tri-Spire. He would have the same conflict with the same guards trying to enter the rich district of the city, the conversations would hit more or less the same beats, and then he would return back home, the cycle to begin again in the morning.

 

Yes, Caleb liked the predictability of his life. It was safe, it was secure, and it was not something he saw changing anytime soon.

 

----

 

One of the positives that he’d found to the predictable patterns of his customers (or lack thereof) was that it gave him time to bake the things he truly wanted to, and not simply the things he knew would sell.

 

Caleb loved bread. It was something he made every day, soft loaves of white and wheat that sold easily and quickly, swirled loaves of rye for sandwiches he’d sell in the shop during lunch, rolls and buns to accompany the sandwiches and salads. He enjoyed making those. The feeling of kneading and pounding dough, of watching the dough rise, shaping and forming it, the color it took as it slowly baked in the oven...yes, he loved bread. But those breads, the ones that sold, that one could get anywhere in Zadash, those were not his breads.

 

His breads were milchbrötchen, sweetened with raisins worked into the dough and shaped to look like little kitties, fresh out of the oven just in time for breakfast. Sonnenblumenbrot and kürbiskernbrot with a healthy layer of seeds on top and worked throughout. Hearty dark breads, made of mixtures of rye and and oat and barley, truly sour sourdoughs, pretzels with coatings of seeds and salt.

 

His bread was pumpernickel.

 

Once, years ago, in a life that was no longer his, he would help his mutter make pumpernickel bread. It was a process that took up a whole weekend, and as a child, it had always been difficult for him to remain patient, especially after the bread was done and they were waiting for it to mature. Mutter always said that the wait would make it taste better, and when, after four days of mixing and baking and waiting, when he got to taste that first slice...it was worth it. She was right.

 

She was always right.

 

Caleb’s bread never tasted as good as the one in his memories. The recipe was different, some of the ingredients were harder to get, it wasn’t his mutter’s hands mixing the dough and laughing while he frowned and glared at it, trying to make it rise faster...no, his bread wasn’t as good. But it was acceptable, and other people seemed to like it well enough. Still, his version was just as time consuming as the one from his youth, and because it took so long to actually bake, it wasn’t something he could make on a regular basis. He’d tried speeding up the process with a careful combination of Hasten and Slow spells, hoping to cut down on the time needed to make a proper pumpernickel…

 

…It was not something he would be doing again, to put it simply.

 

But, the past week had been quieter than normal, and that meant he didn’t have too feel too terrible using one of the ovens for a longer baking project. Fewer customers meant fewer things he had to make, which was a double edged sword, but Caleb was determined to look at this positively.

 

To make a proper, Zemian style pumpernickel, and not one of those sad brown loafs that were sold all over the city under a false name, required a few things in addition to time and patience. A good sourdough starter, a great deal of rye...and in Caleb’s case, a very good friend to watch the front of the cafe while he worked.

 

Nott was under no obligation to work for him, and yet there she was, always helping out with things at least three days a week. He still couldn’t understand why she would put herself out like that...she had her own life, her own family and job that took up most of her time. She had a son , why would she want to spend her free time helping him out?

 

And yet...here she was, always looking out for him, helping him with his business, texting and visiting constantly and generally doing her best to make sure he was taken care of. She was a marvel, and he didn’t understand what he had done to win her friendship or her loyalty, but it was a precious gift, and one he would cherish as long as he lived. And, someday, he would find a way to pay her back for all she had done for him.

 

Caleb had mentioned to her the previous weekend while helping her do dishes that he’d been getting an itch to make pumpernickel again. “It has been some time,” he’d said, smiling a little to himself. “And I have a feeling that things will not be picking up again immediately, so I may have some time to do it. I would just need to plan around the customers I do have.”

 

Nott hummed, passing him a dish to towel off. “Sounds like a plan. What days were you thinking of doing this?”

 

“Well, I was going to see how the week went before starting…”

 

Nott sighed, putting down a dish and giving him a stern look. “Caleb. When do you want to do this?”, she said, before her stern gaze shifted into a small smile. “I know you like making this, and you’re always making things that everyone else likes...and you know I’m here to help you, with whatever you need. So...when did you want to make your fancy complicated seed bread?”

 

Caleb was silent for a moment, before shrugging his shoulders in defeat. He really couldn’t hold up when faced with Nott’s ‘Mom Voice’, as Luc called it. “I was going to prep the levain tomorrow night, based on how business goes during the day. If the beginning of the week is slow, then the rest of the week will likely be as well, so--”

 

“So you’ll be putting this in the oven on Whelsen?”

 

“...Ja, that would be the plan.”

 

Nott nodded. “Then it looks like I’ll be working for you on Whelsen, Caleb!” She hopped down from the stepladder she’d been standing on, patting him on the leg with a smile before heading towards the door. “I’ll let Yeza know, and see if Luc wants to come by after school. That’s his early day, after all…” And before Caleb could argue or protest, she had left left the room, leaving the rest of the dishes to him. And that had been that.

 

A sound from the front of the shop brought Caleb out of his memories and back into the present. He looked across at the oven, where a strainer full of boiled rye berries was draining and cooling, before glancing back down at the mess of flour and sourdough starter before him. Though he hadn’t started mixing yet, there was flour all over his front and bits of rye in his hair (somehow). Sighing, he moved away from his bread to peak a head out to the front of the store, looking around. Everything seemed fine...there was a couple having coffee by the window, the schafskopf players were set up near the back, there were a few people milling around with pastries...Nott was at the register finishing up with a customer, everything looked fine...until he saw her hop down and head for him, an indescribable look on her face. It reminded him a bit of Frumpkin, right before the cat presented him with a lovingly killed murder present.

 

“Is...is everything alright, schatz ?”

 

Nott nodded, a smile creeping onto her face. “Jester just texted. She’s coming by in a little bit, and she’s got a surprise .”

 

Ah. Well, that did nothing to ease the sudden onset of nerves he felt. “That’s...good to know, I suppose. Did she give you any more information beyond that?”

 

How nervous should I be for this ‘surprise’ , he thought to himself. His concerns must have been clear on his face, because Nott’s smile softened. “She didn’t, but you know how Jester is. If it was something bad, she’d be forward about it, and you know how much she loves this place. She wouldn’t do anything too weird here.”

 

Somehow, that didn’t do much to ease his concerns. He opened his mouth to...to protest or ask for more information or something to alleviate his nerves at what Jester, funny and kind and colorful and loud Jester, could possibly be planning as a surprise, but before he could say anything, Nott was forcefully shoving him back through the door into the kitchen.

“No no, no arguing! You go make your fancy bread, I’ll keep things running up here. Don’t worry about Jester, you’ll probably like whatever she’s planning!”

 

“Bu--”

 

“Go make your bread, Cay!” And with one final shove back into the kitchen, Nott left him alone with his increasingly confused and concerned thoughts.

 

Jester was one of his most valued customers and a dear friends, but her surprises could be a bit much at times. For every unexpected book or journal she bought ‘just because you like books so much, Caleb, and look, there’s kitties on the cover!’, there was an unexpected attempt to give him a tattoo or set up him on a date or, at least once, a surprise shave. She was unpredictable, chaotic, and while he liked her, that was not an element he needed too much of in his life, not now. Not when things had been so good for so long.

 

Quickly, Caleb walked over to the oven, grabbing the bowl of rye berries and walking over to the incomplete dough, dumping them in unceremoniously before grabbing more seeds and some maple syrup, adding them into the mess before starting to slowly work the mixture together with his hands.

 

Mutter never kneaded her bread with her hands, the way Caleb did. She always folded in the ingredients slowly with a spoon, mixing them together gently at first, and then with more force as the mix began to get firm and sticky. And maybe that was why her bread tasted so different, so much better than his, but Caleb preferred to do it by hand. He liked the feeling of the dough, liked being able to help it take shape and work it into a new form. And, of course, kneading dough was an excellent way to relieve stress.

 

Working the dough, he didn’t have to think about the problems that came with surprises and chaos. He didn’t need to worry about something happening that would radically change the fragile foundation of his life, he didn’t need to let his mind jump to the worst case scenario. That all of this was temporary, it would end and it would end badly, the mistakes of his past finding where he’d squirreled away and tearing down his most recent attempt to rebuild his life.

 

This was Jester . Jester didn’t always think about the consequences of her actions, but she always meant well and everything she did, she did with the best of intentions. She wouldn’t do anything to hurt him, she didn’t have a cruel bone in her body...this was just his fear, corrupting what was probably a perfectly pleasant, innocent surprise.

 

Everything is fine, Caleb thought, all his focus on the dough working through his hands. You are safe, you are secure. Everything is fine, this is Jester. Focus on the bread.

 

He worked the dough, putting all of his anxieties and fears into the dough until they slowly faded away, the dough firming up in his hands as he repeated to himself over and over, everything is fine. You are safe, you are secure. You are in control of your destiny.

Eventually, satisfied that he’d worked the pumpernickel dough enough, he stepped back and sighed deeply. He’d probably overworked the dough a little bit, but it seemed to be well mixed and firm, and ready for the first rise. Caleb nodded to himself and allowed a small smile to creep onto his lips. Even overworked, it would still be a good bread, and, perhaps more importantly, he’d managed to get rid of the worst of his anxieties into the dough. “ Ja... that will be a happy little loaf, I think,” he said to himself, giving the dough a small pat before setting it aside to rise in a small bowl. It would be a little while before the first rise was done, and even longer before it would be ready to go in the oven. Luckily, there was always something to be done, and with Nott manning the front, Caleb had the time to do things, for once. He could work on planning out menus for the next few days, there was still that coffee ring to make that he knew would sell well, and if there was time he could start on a batch of krapfen for Jester. After all, surprises could go both ways.

 

Hm. He wondered if he could tweak the recipe to incorporate a little cinnamon...Jester was always saying his pastries needed more cinnamon, and she wouldn’t be expecting him to actually change a recipe.

 

Worries forgotten in a brief burst of unexpected creativity, Caleb continued to smile to himself as he went back to work.

 

---

 

He was about halfway through the making of krapfens , two different kinds of dough now stuck to his apron and hands and his hair, when he heard the door of the cafe being loudly kicked open. He blinked, sighed, and put the half cut out dough down. There were only two people who entered the cafe like that: Beauregard and Jester. And given that Beauregard had been gone for several days now on ‘work stuff’ (not that anyone knew exactly what it was she did)...

 

“CAAAY-LEB!”

 

Ah. Definitely Jester then.

 

Nott poked her head in through the door, grinning. “Guess who’s here to see you?”

 

“Ah...let me think. It cannot be Jester, can it?” he said, deadpan even as the corners of his mouth threatened to turn up. Nott rolled her eyes, gesturing him to follow her out to where Jester was waiting. The blue tiefling was leaning against the counter with a wide smile, which only seemed to get bigger as Caleb entered the front of the store.

 

“Hi, Caleb!! How are you doing today?”

 

“Ah. Hallo, Jester, it is lovely to see you as usual,” he said, walking towards the front of the counter. Jester leaned over it and gave him a quick hug before pulling back and taking a long look at him.

 

“You know you have dough in your hair, right?”

 

“I am aware of that, yes.”

 

“Just checking! Sooo...what’ve you been making today?” Jester continued to grin and lean over the counter, trying to peek into the kitchen in the back. “Anything iiinteresting? Like bear claws? You should definitely make bear claws someday, Caleb, they’re really good and I’d totally buy, like, 12 from you. And only you, because I still think you’re the best baker in this city and everyone should come here and the fact that they don’t is, like, a crime.”

 

Caleb chucked softly. What had he been worried about? This was Jester. She was as bubbly and cheerful as normal, and whatever surprise she’d brought couldn’t be bad.

 

“Well, I am sorry, but I do not have bear claws...but I am working on a batch of krapfens special for my favorite customer,” he said, his mind at ease as Jester lit up and giggled, jumping back from the counter.

 

“Aw, Cay-leeb, I’m your favorite? I mean, I know I’m your favorite but you never say it!! Oh! I have a surprise for you, by the way! I promise, I think you’ll reeaally like it.” Jester rocked back on her heels and leaned her head towards the front door, before yelling something in Infernal, causing his few patrons to wince slightly, one of them shooting Jester a dark look.

 

Several things happened at once. One of the patrons, the man who’d glared at Jester, got up and walked over to the counter to complain, gesturing angrily at Jester, who puffed up in irritation before going on the defensive. Caleb had almost been inclined to agree with the man (Jester did tend to be very loud, even more so in particularly quiet places), until the man’s scowl deepend and he gestured angrily at Jester.

 

“Bloody devil-spawn, ruining everything with their devil language…”

 

Things devolved quickly from there as Nott hopped up on the counter to defend her, drawing ire and anger her way...which led to Jester going on the attack, and all three of them getting into a shouting match while Caleb could only look on from behind the counter, his attempts to break things off waved off by Nott as she argued with the customer.

 

It was into this sudden burst of chaos that, laughing and talking on their phone, walked in the most vibrantly chaotic, bright, colorful, stunning tiefling that Caleb had ever seen. And he knew Jester, so that was saying something.

 

The noise of the argument in front of him seemed to fade away as he looked at the tiefling, their voice rising above the yelling to cut straight through to him.

“I know, Yash, but once she gets an idea in her head...well, you try stopping her!” the tiefling said with a wide grin to the unseen person on their phone. “I think she just wants me out of her apartment so she and Fjord can have more alone time, if you know what I mean…No, I know, I do want out of the house just as much as she wants him there, an--oh. Oh, jeez. Yash, I gotta go, I think Jessie is fighting with some guy in the bakery. Love you, and tell Zu I said hi!”

 

Putting their phone away, Caleb got a better look at the tiefling as he watched them walk over towards the counter, stepping between Jester and Nott and the irritated patron with a bright, carnival-esque smile on their face.

 

Lavender skin, dark purple curls, horns adorned with gold and silver jewelry that sparkled and caught the light.  Peacock feathers were climbing up their neck, and for a brief moment, Caleb wondered how far the feathers went. How many more tattoos they had. They were a cacophony of clashing colors and patterns; from their red satin bomber jacket to their cosmic leggings, their violently purple high-top sneakers and their glittery crop top (‘'My Personality is Gorgeous Too!’, it said, and Caleb wondered how true that was, and why he wanted to find out), nothing about them seemed to match or coordinate in any way...and yet, everything about their attire worked. Everything about them seemed to work.

 

They were, without a doubt, the most interesting person Caleb had ever seen in his life.

 

He’d completely lost track of the argument in front of him, taking in every detail about this colorful stranger, and it wasn’t until he felt a hand on his arm that he jumped back a bit, coming back to reality to see Nott staring at him with a look of mild concern.

 

“Caleb? Are you okay? We lost you there for a second…” Nott said, voice soft. “I’m sorry about that guy, I should’ve known he’d be trouble when he asked if ‘there was a human he could talk to’ on his way in. Ass...anyway, Molly took care of him.”

 

“I’m reaaaally sorry about yelling, Cay-leb…!” Jester piped up from where she stood next to the purple tiefling, who gave Caleb an amused smile. “I just got really excited, because...well. Surprise! This is my cousin, Molly!! He’s the surprise! He’s still new in town and since you never come and hang out with us, you’re the only one he hasn’t met yet, so I thought, why not bring him to you?”

 

The lavender tiefling ( Molly, his name is Molly ) laughed, a soft, lilting sound, holding out a hand to Caleb with a grin. “Mollymauk Tealeaf. Molly to my friends, though, and I’d like to think that we’re going to be friends.”

 

The world tilted slightly. Caleb hesitated for only a moment before reaching out and taking Mollymauk’s hand with a small smile.

 

“Caleb Widogast. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mister Mollymauk.”

 

Molly grinned and laughed again, and in that moment, in spite of all logic and reason, the part of him that impulsively added cinnamon to recipes rushed to the forefront. For the second time that day..for the second time in a long, long time, he decided to listen to that part of him. Caleb decided that he would do anything to make Mollymauk laugh and smile like that again.

 

“Molly’s looking for a job, Caleb! You should totally hire him, he watches all the baking shows with me, and if he worked here I know you’d get a ton of customers!”

 

Ah. Well then...perhaps it was time to get more help in the bakery...


( Your recipes for this chapter:
Pumpernickel
Another pumpernickel
Pfannkuchen )