Shion tried to ignore the soft noises near his feet. He had to pay attention; the meeting was running late already, and there were still some topics they hadn’t covered for today.
“Ssh, Tsukiyo,” he hissed under his breath. It earned him a confused glance from the No. 5 representative next to him, but at least Tsukiyo now quieted down. Seconds later, however, the mouse scurried up his lap. Shion quickly dropped his hand to stop Tsukiyo from moving up, and he was rewarded with a small capsule pushed between his fingers.
Very carefully, he opened it up and read the message inside.
Won’t His Majesty grace us with his presence on this memorable day? You have ten more minutes, Shion. –N
Shion thought he did a good job containing his smile, but he got yet another side glance from the No. 5 representative, along with a raised eyebrow. Where were they, now? Ah, right, the new school curricula. Nothing to grin like an idiot about, that was true.
It wasn’t like he could help himself. It had only been a week, after all.
Shion managed to excuse himself eight and a half minutes later. Not like he’d been keeping count, of course.
Nezumi had returned the week before, fulfilling his promise from that day four years ago.
It had been September 7, Shion’s twentieth birthday. The weather had been lovely for the time of the year, summery and warm and completely ignoring the empty, cold feeling that had gotten a hold of Shion after he’d opened his window to the empty skies. There hadn’t been a cloud in sight.
Despite it being his birthday, he’d still had meetings he couldn’t get out of. Shion didn’t return to his apartment until later that night after having dinner with his mother. Karan had just cast him a sympathetic look when he’d excused himself and said he wanted to get back early.
A strong wind had struck up in the evening, and Shion had rushed to his room to close the windows as he remembered the incident with the expensive vase several weeks before. It wasn’t until after he’d shut them that he realized how close he was to giving up hope completely.
Of course, it was that very moment that the curtain moved despite the lack of wind coming in through the window.
“Happy birthday, Shion.”
The owner of the voice was almost an ethereal appearance, only lit from behind by the lamppost outside and mostly cloaked in darkness. But as he turned a little, the light was reflected in so very familiar and so very grey eyes.
Shion had stared in silence, reluctant to believe what his senses were screaming at him.
At last, Nezumi had cleared his throat, smirked a little. “Y’know, I would have hoped you’d have gotten a little common sense in that brilliant brain of yours. Stranger danger, Your Majesty. You never know who might crawl in through your bedroom window at night.”
Nezumi was an amazing actor. Yet his voice had sounded just a little less secure than he seemed to have intended, just a tiny, raw edge to the sarcastic words that had given Shion the final nudge. Though his memories had never let him down in picturing Nezumi clear as day, he couldn’t have made that up. The words, maybe, but not their delivery.
He had all but stumbled forward, hurried to throw his arms around Nezumi, repercussions be damned. As Shion had pressed himself against him, burying his face in his shoulder, he had felt Nezumi’s arms around him in return. “It’s been four years,” Shion managed to choke out.
“You’re – you’re really here. You are, aren’t you?”
“Yes. It was a vow, Shion. I fulfill my promises.”
Shion had squeezed him even tighter in response, assuring himself of this reality. He had started trembling involuntarily, but for a short moment, he’d swear he wasn’t the only one.
And just like that, the cold was gone, and the emptiness was finally filled.
That night had been exactly a week ago now. Shion still had trouble sometimes believing Nezumi was truly back, and what was more, had every intention to stay. He’d effortlessly gone through auditions at the new local theatre, landed the lead, and went to rehearsals during the day as Shion was off for his committee work.
Of course, things weren’t magically perfect between the two of them. They still had many, many things to talk about, major issues that Shion was frankly finding himself ignoring for the moment. It couldn’t last, of course. They would have to talk, and it was going to be rough. But for now, just for a while, he allowed himself to enjoy the moments he spent in his apartment, which he no longer occupied alone. Nezumi had initially claimed the guest room the next day, but had miraculously managed to kick Shion out of his own bed somewhere during the following evening. The second night, Shion had woken up from one of his nightmares, but for the first time, he hadn’t had to face them alone anymore. Nezumi had wordlessly embraced him, held him close until he’d stopped shaking. The third night, Shion had returned the favour.
After the note Tsukiyo had delivered, Shion had honestly suspected Nezumi waiting for him outside the building. He was mildly disappointed to see this was not the case, but that instead, another company of three was waiting for him. Or four, actually, counting the dog that his little namesake was clinging to, accompanied by Rikiga and Inukashi.
“Uncle Shion!” the kid yelled enthusiastically, running at him so quickly Shion could only barely catch him from tripping.
“Hey, calm down! We saw each other the other day, remember?” Shion said, kneeling in front of the boy and settling him down properly. “No need to hurt yourself.”
“Happy birthday!” The boy beamed at him and presented him with a small, hand-picked bouquet of flowers, the stems snapped from the little boy’s tight grip on them.
Shion smiled and ruffled his hair. “Why, thank you! These are lovely.”
“I told you it’s not his actual – oh, whatever. Just give him your weeds.” Inukashi had walked up to Shion as well, giving him a scolding glance. “You’re cutting it real close with your ten minutes, Shion.”
“Wait – that message was from Nezumi, right?”
“Yeah, the damn rat sent us one, too. To check and make sure you don’t spend all of your non-birthday in some boring-ass meeting.”
As if on cue, Cravat poked his head out of little Shion’s pocket, squeaking happily. Inukashi scoffed. “Yeah yeah, whatever. Off you go, tell the bastard we’re on our way and we’ll see him soon.”
Shion caught the undertone in that and sighed. “Please don’t punch him again, Inukashi.”
“Why, will you do it for me?” Inukashi flashed a toothy grin. “Fine, fine, I won’t. Don’t you dare tell me the asshole didn’t deserve it, though.”
Nezumi’s meeting with Inukashi hadn’t exactly gone over smoothly last week, that was for sure. Inukashi had barely given him the chance to say as much as ‘hi, missed me?’ before all but pummeling him into the ground, calling him every name under the sun and then some.
And okay, maybe Shion could have reacted a little quicker in pulling Inukashi away, but he wasn’t going to tell Nezumi that.
“I’ll tolerate him today. Let’s say it’s my present to you.” Inukashi took little Shion by his hand now. “Come on, let’s go, both of you. Don’t want to miss out on your mama’s cakes.”
Shion meekly followed, as did Rikiga, who hadn’t uttered a word since they’d met up, and was fidgeting with the giant bouquet of red roses he was carrying and that was evidently not meant for Shion.
Inukashi caught his gaze and sighed. “Never mind the old geezer, he’s been like this all day. Wondering what to get your mama for her birthday and even coming tome for advice, I’m asking ya.”
“She loves flowers, I’m sure you will be fine,” Shion told Rikiga with a smile, which made him beam at once.
“You think? I mean, of course there is not a flower in the world that could compare to Karan’s beauty…”
Inukashi groaned. “Save the pretty words and move it.”
Lili opened the door to the bakery for them, and she seemed to had grown yet again since the last time Shion had seen her. She was helping out from time to time in the bakery, sometimes accompanied by her mother, as Renka had been coming over more and more often after the birth of her second daughter. And sure enough, Renka now showed up as well.
“Oh, welcome back, Shion,” she said with a smile. “Come on in, they’re waiting for you in the back.”
Shion still felt a little uncomfortable around Renka and Lili. No matter what, Yomin was still family to them, a brother and an uncle. But Renka never mentioned her brother, at least not with Shion present. Lili on the other hand seemed way too caught up in being a cooler older sister to her little sister and little Shion lately. The latter had come over to the bakery with Inukashi when Lili had been helping Karan out with the muffins, and she had instantly taken a liking to him. Dogs were currently her favourite animals, next to mice.
Lili now pulled Shion in by his hand, dragging him past her mother into the bakery. “We’re making cherry cake!”
“Now, Lili, you spoiled the surprise.” Karan stepped out of the back of the bakery, her smile brightening when she spotted her son. “Hello, Shion. It’s been a while.”
“Just a couple of days,” he argued, which was the truth, though he hadn’t come over alone last time.
Karan just smiled again and pulled him in for a quick hug. “Sometimes a mother just misses her son. Happy belated birthday, Shion. I figured you might still be in the mood for cherry cake.”
“Always.” He hesitated for a short moment. “Mom, today…” His sentence trailed off as there was a movement behind Karan.
“I forgot to ask, how long do – oh.” Nezumi appeared now, wiping off his hands on – wait, he was wearing an apron? “Well, about damn time. I was starting to think I’d have to come over and drag you out there myself.”
Shion just smirked. “Were you helping out my mother?”
Nezumi rolled his eyes in response. “Evidently.”
“Wearing an apron.”
“Your observation skills will never cease to amaze me. And this is in fact your apron, if the embroidery in the back is to be believed. I would dare argue I wear it better, though.” Shion didn’t think his expression changed much, but Nezumi still raised his eyebrow. “What.”
Nezumi was here, in the bakery, helping out his mother. There was something strangely normal about it. Just as normal, actually, as the fact Shion would really like to wrap his arms around him, which was exactly what he did, despite Nezumi’s protests.
“Oi! Gross, Shion, I’m covered in batter –”
“We’ve been worse,” Shion muttered, which came out more seriously than he’d intended.
For what it was worth, Nezumi loosened up a bit and pulled him in a little closer, hands indeed slightly sticky with batter. “Idiot.”
Karan’s soft coughing next to him reminded Shion they weren’t alone. “I’ll give you two a moment.” She quickly squeezed her son’s cheek, and he didn’t have the heart to tell her he wasn’t a little boy anymore. “The cake is almost ready to be served, and the muffins should be ready in five more minutes. Oh, and Nezumi, I do like those mice of yours, but you should try to keep them out of the batter. Much like your fingers – don’t think I didn’t see that.”
Shion looked up just in time to see Nezumi flash an almost sheepish grin back at her, and smiled. “Is that why I haven’t seen Hamlet yet?”
“He stuck around here, seems to like your mama’s voice when she’s talking to him. And her baking.”
“Hm.” Shion leant back a little so he could properly look Nezumi in the eyes. “You shouldn’t keep sending the mice around for messages, Nezumi. They’re getting old.”
“It’s not my fault if you’ve been spoiling them until they get fat and slow.” Nezumi was just brushing it off, and Shion let him for the time being. He didn’t want to think about the implications too much himself, either, after all. “Now come on, I didn’t slave over those muffins for nothing. Time to celebrate your twentieth birthday as yet after sufficient delay, Your Majesty.”
“Oh, and whose fault is that, hm?”
“I will take no such false accusations.” Nezumi’s hands spoke a different tale, as they’d cupped Shion’s face and forced him to maintain eye contact, which was something Shion was by no means objecting. He really didn’t think he’d grow tired of seeing those grey eyes any time soon, or ever. Not when they were so close, not when the harshness was gone and Nezumi was looking at him like…
Then Nezumi kissed him, and Shion’s brain stopped thinking entirely for an impressive couple of seconds. It wasn’t their first kiss since Nezumi had returned, but Shion was still getting used to it that it was something they could do now.Kissing. And not for saying goodbye and promises of reunion, either, as Nezumi had told him with a deep sigh the first time it had happened, that night a week ago on Shion’s actual birthday.
It was still new, but another thing Shion doubted he’d ever grow tired of.
He grinned when they parted. “Was that a happy belated birthday kiss?”
“Shut up before I punch you.”
“Inukashi will punch you right back if I don’t, I suspect.”
“I’m not above kicking your ass out if you think you’re being funny, you know.”
“Kicking me out of my own birthday party? That’s a bit cruel.” Shion grinned again. “Inukashi just missed you, face it.”
“Like a pain in the neck, I’m sure. Much like how I missed the mutt.” Nezumi released him now, brushing off some remnants of batter he’d left on Shion’s cheek. “Come on, the cake’s waiting.”
“Priorities, I see. Just a moment.” Shion quickly left Nezumi’s side to find his mother, who had gone into the back to check out the muffins in the oven. “Mom?”
“Yes, Shion?” She straightened at once, sweeping a loose stray of hair from her face. She looked tired, and Shion felt a pang of guilt.
“Are you sure this is okay? I mean, it’s really your birthday today, so…”
“Oh, Shion.” She sighed. “I’ve had plenty of birthdays, it’s fine. As long as you are happy, it’s enough of a birthday present to me. It’s good to see you smiling so much again, Shion, I’ve missed it.” She brushed his cheek again. “Join your guests, I’ll be right there.”
“Okay. Oh, mom? Do you have a spare candle here?”
Karan must have guessed why, considering the sad smile she gave him. “Sure. In the top drawer, over there.”
It was busy in the bakery, despite it being after hours. Lili had now seated herself between little Shion on one hand, and Karan and her brother Riko on the other hand, and was talking animatedly to all three of them. All four kids were no strangers to the bakery, and Shion knew how much his mother liked having them over. Renka sat close to the quartet, with Lili’s little sister next to her, who was ogling the cherry cake on the middle of the table with large eyes.
Shion passed Rikiga and Inukashi on his way to the side table, just in time to hear Rikiga call out to his mother and see him presenting the bouquet.
“Oh, Rikiga, you shouldn’t have!”
“But for such a beautiful lady as yourself…”
Shion shook his head with a smile as he found the side table he’d been looking for. It was nearly empty, save for a framed photograph and a small vase of flowers, which Karan always refreshed when Shion didn’t have the time to do it himself. He touched the cold glass covering the photo of the girl he’d spent so much of his time with, the girl he hadn’t been able to save.
“Hello, Safu.” Shion sighed, then reached for the candle he’d taken with him. He thought of something to say to her, but really, all he could think of was ‘you should have been here, too’. And she should have been, of course. He didn’t like the finality of that sentence. He didn’t like how even this little act of lighting a candle for her, to have some way of pretending she was here, still cut so deep and still hurt. But he wouldn’t forget, he would never forget Safu. If he was spending today with the people he cared about most around him, she would have to be there, too. That was the end of it.
Shion must had stood there for a while, as a hand circling his wrist shook him out of his musings.
“Hey.” Nezumi’s voice was close to his ear, a soft murmur. “You’ve been keeping your promise, you know.”
“Hm.” He could only hope he had. It was the least he could do.
Shion thus ended up celebrating his twentieth birthday a week late, with a lot more people than he’d been counting on. The cherry cake was of course delectable, and the muffins had come out delicious as well, despite Nezumi and Hamlet having supposedly ruined at least half of the original batter. Hamlet did eventually show his nose, snuggling happily close up to Karan with a noticeably full belly.
Shion softly laughed at the usual bickering between Inukashi and Rikiga, at the kids getting along so well and having a great time, though Karan and Renka probably wished that didn’t involve a food fight with bits of muffin thrown through the bakery. He’d help clean up the mess later.
Though he loved the company, he was especially grateful to have one person by his side in particular.
He seized Nezumi’s hand under the table after a while, and he wasn’t shaken off.
“It’s been a week,” Shion said to him under his breath, as Karan divided the last bits of cherry cake between the two of them.
“The first week,” Nezumi corrected.
And maybe those were some of the most meaningful words that evening.