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cookies without cutters

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Ushijima always got up after the first alarm. No hitting snooze, no whining or groaning as he sat up. He simply woke up at four in the morning, turned off the sound, and got out of bed. His best friend Reon said that only monsters got out of bed just like that. He wasn’t sure why that was, but he knew it wasn’t an offensive comment.

The only thing that really displeased Ushijima in the morning was missed phone calls from his mother. He never answered if he could help it. He knew that he’d have to deal with her eventually, but he didn’t want to listen to how disappointed she was because he’d left home, because of his lifestyle. He especially didn’t want to hear about it when it was still dark outside. As he prepared for his morning run, he left his phone in his fanny pack, and turned it to silent. 

Forty minutes and four miles later, Ushijima discovered that his water bottle was empty. He should have brought more with him—despite the lack of sunlight this early in the morning, it was still summer. The thick humidity choked him.

He could always buy more water from somewhere, except most stores weren’t open at 4:54 AM, and he couldn’t remember if there were any vending machines around. Another option would be to check the internet for places nearby, but the thought of looking at his phone made him a little nauseated. And home was four miles away.

Ushijima hoped he’d find a water fountain nearby. But instead, he found a bakery.

He hadn’t meant to find it—he probably wouldn’t have, if he was looking for it. It was wedged in the corner of the street like a bookbag in a crowded train. The sign above the door was sun-bleached with peeled paint; even with his eagle eyes, he could only just make out the word “bakery.” The only indication that the place wasn’t abandoned came in the form of a neon “OPEN” sign hanging in the window. 

A seemingly abandoned bakery on an empty street before sunrise with an all-too-inviting “OPEN” sign might have scared most people, but Ushijima was not most people. He simply stepped inside, paying no attention to the odd creak of the door’s hinges.

“Hello?”

The lights above him flickered, casting a faint white glow over the mismatched tables and chairs. There was nothing much to look at: a small display case of pastries, the menu over the cash register messily written in Sharpie, and a warm light that came from a back room.

“Welcome!”

A man suddenly popped up in front of him with a face that was completely white.

“You’re covered in flour.” Ushijima pointed out.

“Ah, sorry about that!” The man used his apron to wipe off his face, also shaking the white particles out of his hair, which was red and close-shaved. “I’m Satori Tendou, and this is my bakery. Not much, is it?” The comment was self-deprecating, but Tendou’s tone was light. Ushijima concluded that he was joking.

It was rare to see someone else so awake this time of the morning, with eyes wide and eager. Ushijima wanted to be friendly, so he had to choose his words carefully. 

“From the outside, it seems abandoned.” Everyone appreciated honesty. “Your lights are broken and you need to oil your door hinges.”

“I know,” Tendou sighed, looking out over the empty tables. “I just graduated culinary school and I wanted my own place. This was the only thing I could afford. Some old guy used to own it and he had trouble taking care of the building before he retired.” His eyes once again met Ushijima’s, a smile returning to his face like a boomerang. “Anyway! What can I get you?”

“One green tea please.”

The smile broadened, as though he meant it this time. “Great! How much sugar?”

“None.”

Tendou’s eyes widened. “None? Okay, what kind of pastry would you like?”

“None, thank you.”

“What!” He exclaimed, throwing his arms into the air. “I just told you my sob story and you’re not even going to order a pastry out of pity?”

Ushijima tilted his head. “I don’t normally eat pastries during my runs. Also, receiving pity is not a good way to conduct business.”

“Hmm.” He looked Ushijima up and down, as though looking for clues in his workout clothes. “I know just the thing for you to try.” Somehow, a warm ceramic mug was already pressed into Ushijima’s hand. “You take a seat.”

“I prefer to stand.”

“Just pretend to be a normal customer!”

He wanted to say that he was a normal customer, but instead obliged, planting his butt on one of the antique chairs. He was surprised to find that despite its stained cushion, it was free of dust and smelled faintly of fresh laundry. He sipped his green tea, feeling the ghosts of warmth where Tendou’s fingers had touched his, until the cup was nearly empty.

This time, he saw Tendou approaching. The patissier carried a tray full of pastries: cups made with paper-thin dough, carrying a sweet aroma.

“It’s filo pastry with cream and fruit. Perfect for a healthy guy like you.”

Ushijima didn’t normally gravitate towards pastries, but, well. They smelled really good, and he couldn’t deny that he was in need of some calories after his exercise. The protein bar in his fanny pack lay forgotten as he picked up a filo cup and took a bite. A cool, fresh sweetness filled his mouth, the flavor perfect for the early morning.

“Well?” Tendou asked, eyes sparkling.

“It’s very good.”

“Woohoo!” Tendou pumped a fist into the air. “That’s a victory right there. My whole day is made.”

He was once again confused. “Just because I said I liked your pastry?”

“Not just because of that,” Tendou shook his head. “I bake to make people happy. And you’re an honest person, so I can tell that you’re not just being polite.”

“I see.” He turned to the tray of pastries. “I will buy all of these.”

“All of them? They’re that good?”

“Yes.” Ushijima unzipped his fanny pack to reach for his wallet.

“No, no.” Tendou shook his head. “These are on the house.”

His brows furrowed. “But you should be paid for your hard work.”

“You sure are the honorable type.” Tendou smiled. “How about instead, you pay me with information? You haven’t told me your name.”

“Ah, my apologies. I’m Wakatoshi Ushijima.”

“Nice to meet you, Wakatoshi.”

Ushijima didn’t know why, but he didn’t mind that Tendou used his first name. Maybe it was the way he said it, with a genuine fondness and a gentle lilt to his voice at the end. Maybe it was the way Tendou smiled, so wide that his eyes squinted shut and his cheeks formed apples. Whatever it was, it made Ushijima feel warm in a way that had nothing to do with the rising sun.

What he did know was that he had to go back. The next day, he did. After completing his morning run, he went home to collect a toolbox and some buckets of paint, then made his way back to the bakery on the earliest train.

“Do you have a ladder?” He asked by way of greeting.

“There’s a ladder in the back.” Tendou said, leaning against the counter. “What are you going to do with it?”

He held up a paint bucket. “Repaint your sign.”

Tendou straightened. “Wakatoshi, I can’t afford to pay you.”

“You gave me free pastries yesterday.”

“They weren’t free—”

“You can bring the ladder outside.” He said, heading out the door to set up his supplies.

A few moments later, Tendou appeared. “You seem very handy.”

He set up the ladder, climbing up with his paint. “I’m a carpenter.”

“Why a carpenter?” Tendou held on to the bottom of the ladder, keeping it steady. Then, in explanation: “I told you why I bake.”

“I enjoy it. And my father is a carpenter.”

“Oh, that’s nice! Do you have a father and son shop?”

“No.” He dipped his brush in more paint. “He moved away when I was young. But he once said that if I liked working with my hands, then he would be happy.”

“I see.” Tendou watched his hands as they worked. “What about your mom?”

“She wanted me to be a doctor. I rarely speak to her.”

“So it’s like…” Tendou paused, humming. “Like you’re cookie dough. And she had these cookie cutters ready when you were born so she could shape you. But you want to be your own shape.”

The next thing he could think to say was that he was not a cookie, he was a person. Which made Tendou laugh, a sound that made his cheeks warm not in embarrassment, but from something else he couldn’t place.

“Didn’t you leave the oven on?” He didn’t want any of the pastries to burn, and Tendou’s hard work to be wasted.

“Yes, right. I’ll be going then.”

Ushijima let him go, working carefully with a paintbrush until he felt the sun beating down on his back. He hadn’t done much, he’d only repainted over the existing sign. Just as he got down from the ladder to admire his work, a cup of iced green tea was held out to him. 

Of course, the person holding out the cup was Tendou. “It looks amazing.”

Ushijima said nothing, gulping down the green tea. He’d never thought to drink it cold before. It was good.

“Come inside and get out of the sun.”

He did, but some part of him still felt warm.

 

 

Ushijima visited Tendou’s bakery every day, as often as his schedule would allow. When he couldn’t make it in the mornings, he’d try to come during the afternoon. (Tendou was very surprised to see him the first time he came in near closing, commenting with a smile that he was missing his fanny pack.) Over the course of the month, he helped Tendou fix up the bakery: oiling the door hinges, repainting, fixing the lights. Slowly, more customers milled around the display case in the mornings, more trays carried steaming ceramic cups.

On one of his days off, Tendou convinced him to tag along to a thrift store to pick out some new furniture and paintings for the walls.

“I think it’ll be okay if it looks like the chairs are supposed to be mismatched.” Tendou said that morning, inspecting the different secondhand chairs. He looked almost strange, but still very nice, in street clothes instead of his normal white apron. “It can be like an Alice in Wonderland kind of theme. What do you think?”

He thought of how whimsical Tendou was, how he whipped up new pastry recipes out of leftover ingredients and made them taste gourmet. How his presence was so colorful even when his white apron was caked in white flour. “I think it suits you.”

“Exactly! And if we repaint the chairs, they’ll go perfectly with the pastel walls…”

And just like he’d been deemed ‘Wakatoshi,’ somehow, he was now part of ‘we.’

But he didn’t mind.

 

 

When Ushijima wasn’t helping Tendou out at the bakery, he was tending to his own business. Most days, he’d be in his workshop until late into the evening, sketching chair designs, cutting wood, or staining tables. He had a good team, but the work itself was generally solitary. And you definitely didn’t want to lose focus when dealing with big automatic saws.

He often took his blueprints home with him to think them over in the quiet of his apartment, but he didn’t usually notice that he was alone. That night, as he sat by himself at his kitchen table, he noticed. 

There was an order for a custom crib. One with flowers carved into the bars, to be painted white, pink, and green. On both sides, initials were to be embedded into the wood. He imagined that it would make its recipient very happy. It would probably be for a little girl whose parents loved her, who wanted her to sleep in something that was pretty, something just for her, even though she wouldn’t remember it as an adult, unless it was reused or she saw it in photographs.

He didn’t actually know what type of family the crib would go to, or what kind of building it would be in. Maybe a house, a mansion, an apartment. But wherever this crib was going, it was going to a home.

As Ushijima began going over the design, he realized that he had no idea what his own baby crib had looked like. It was probably something his mother had ordered, plain but expensive, appropriate for her family’s status. She’d never used any of the furniture that his father had made.

What did the furniture in his own apartment look like? He leaned over to look at the legs of the kitchen table. Like everything else his hands made, it was perfect. The shape was symmetrical, the finish was smooth, and the color matched all of the other furniture in the apartment. So why did it seem...incomplete somehow?

As he sat upright, his eyes looked over the top of his table. Papers neatly stacked, his now-cold mug of green tea settled on a coaster. 

He had the odd feeling that the table was missing a hot plate of food, or a sprinkle of white flour.

 

 

After a while, there was nothing else for Ushijima to do in Tendou’s bakery. He had fixed everything that could be fixed, painted and repainted, and (with Tendou’s assistance) mopped and dusted. He’d been paid in pastries, more than he’d ever eaten in his entire life. And now when he visited in the mornings, the bakery was already full of customers. 

“I’m glad your business is doing well.” He said over his usual cup of green tea, accompanied by a chocolate croissant.

“It’s all thanks to you.” Tendou said, though something in his voice was strained, something in his face seemed to twitch. “You know, Wakatoshi, I never did get the chance to thank you properly.”

“But—”

Tendou interrupted him by holding up a hand. “I don’t want to hear about how a few croissants was enough payment for you. Because it’s not enough for me! Let me make you dinner.”

Normally, he would have declined. He would have said that good work and strength were their own rewards. But instead, he said, “Okay.”

 

 

Ushijima had no idea what to bring to someone’s house when they were making you a “thank you” dinner. He thought that maybe he shouldn’t bring anything since it might override Tendou’s hospitality (should you bring a “thank you” gift to the person making a “thank you” dinner?). But it also felt rude to not bring anything.

So he did what he usually did when he was confused: he asked Reon about it. After listening to all of the details over the phone, Reon advised him to buy a bouquet of flowers.

“And make sure that the flowers are red.”

His nose had wrinkled in confusion. “Why red?”

“Because that’s the color you give to the person you like.”

Ushijima considered this to be good advice, because he certainly did like Tendou and enjoyed his company. In preparation for his visit to Tendou’s apartment, he bought a bouquet of red camellias from the farmer’s market and added in some wild daffodils he’d found in a patch of grass. He didn’t know much about flowers, but they seemed pretty enough. And he hoped that Reon wouldn’t mind if some of the flowers were yellow: they somehow reminded him of Tendou.

As Ushijima walked towards Tendou’s apartment, he was surprised to discover that his heart rate was escalated. He wasn’t doing a lot of physical activity, so that couldn’t be the reason. Was he...nervous?

That was silly. There was no reason to be nervous. Tendou had prepared food for him plenty of times before, in the bakery. And they’d been alone for most of those occasions. So why was now different?

He didn’t have much time to think about it. Seconds after knocking, the door swung open.

“Wakatoshi! Come in.” 

Tendou wasn’t in his usual white apron covered in flour: it was a pink Hello Kitty apron with splotches of red sauce. Ushijima felt that he didn’t look half as good in his own clean button-down shirt.

A beautiful smile spread over Tendou’s face. “Are those flowers?”

To anyone else, he wouldn’t have sounded different. But Ushijima found himself struggling to speak. “Yes.”

“You’re so sweet,” Tendou said, grabbing a vase for them. “Have a seat in the kitchen. I’ll make you some green tea.”

Tendou’s apartment reminded Ushijima of the bakery. It was small, but colorful: the rooms were impossibly narrow, but painted in different colors. The sitting area had green walls and scattered rainbow pillows. The kitchen was yellow and...impressive.

“I know,” Tendou said with a laugh upon seeing his expression. “I decided that my apartment could be the biggest dump as long as I had a good kitchen.”

“It’s nice.” The appliances were new and polished, including the oven. He sat at the kitchen table, per Tendou’s direction. As he watched Tendou work, and listened to rants on anime that he hadn’t seen, the warmth of the oven spread over his skin and filled his nostrils with delicious smells. He felt so happy and peaceful that he could have fallen asleep.

The thought made him sit upright. How could he fall asleep at someone’s house? He didn’t even know Tendou that well; it had only been months since they’d met. And yet he never smiled the way he smiled in Tendou’s presence. His own empty apartment was more foreign to him than the bakery...

Everything made sense.

“I like you.” He said the thought out loud as soon as it occurred to him.

A blush settled over Tendou’s cheeks. “—Wakatoshi.”

“Satori.”

This, for some reason, only made Tendou more flustered.

“I like you too.” He set two plates down on the kitchen table. “Now eat.”

As they ate and talked, Tendou’s free hand found his. Between steaming food and fragrant flowers, flaky pastries and shy brushes of fingers, Ushijima knew that he’d found his home.