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Paper Valentines
by Death Quaker
(author's notes at end)

Disclaimer: R.O.D the TV and related characters and concepts were created by Hideyuki Kurata and belong to Studio Orphee, etc. The text from You Know All of Me comes from the Read or Die manga, Volume 1, published originally by Shueisha and translated by Viz. I’m just borrowing and could not profit from this to save my life.

-----

A deeply inviting aroma spirited its way through the Sumiregawa condominium, promising richness, sweetness, and warmth. So tempting was the scent, it even roused Nenene from her few hours’ rest at the keyboard. She yawned, rubbing her eyes and then at the spacebar-shaped indentation on her forehead, sniffing at the air with muddled curiosity. It was too sweet to be coffee, wasn’t it? Ah, that was it. It was chocolate. That wasn’t quite coffee, but it was high on the list of “reasons to actually stand up” (the full list was as follows, in order of highest priority to lowest: coffee, fire, chocolate, fully armed military invasion, Paper Sisters breaking something, hot breakfast, evil construction crew attempting to uproot and steal away with the condo with her in it, and air raid).

She practically floated down the stairs, following the scent like a hungry cartoon kitten.

Anita and Maggie stood at the kitchen island; the former (already dressed for school) was spreading white icing on cooling cupcakes and then handing them to the latter, who was carefully decorating them with red icing squeezed out of a paper tube. Michelle was helping them by watching excitedly and humming. Technically, she was supposed to be helping them by putting the cupcakes in a box and wrapping the boxes, but at the moment, she was more involved in the humming.

It took a few moments for Nenene’s sleep-addled brain to come up with the equation that since yesterday was, she was 80 percent certain, February 13th, that would probably make today the 14th. Valentine’s Day.

“Ah,” Nenene said. “Gifts for your hordes of male admirers?” This was supposed to be ironic, but then Nenene wondered if maybe they did have male admirers. She was pretty sure Anita didn’t, except maybe for Junior. She was also fairly certain Maggie didn’t, unless she was sneaking out of the house when Nenene thought she was curled up in her closet reading, which seemed... unlikely. On the other hand, there were all the male shopkeepers in Jinbo Cho who gave Michelle discounts; even though she seemed to (probably intentionally) remain oblivious as to why, they possibly counted.

“It was Michelle’s idea,” Anita said, with a tone that she wasn’t quite sure she approved of it (though she did not seem to mind icing duty, as it involved sneaking tastes of the homemade frosting every so often).

Michelle smiled broadly, waving her hands about demonstratively. “I thought now that we are residents of Japan, we should take part in its national traditions!” She took a flattened thin cardboard box and attempted to assemble it, giving up on the normal way halfway through and commanding it into shape with her paper mastery. She began to pack up the cupcakes as she was supposed to be doing originally.

Nenene humphed. “The national traditions created by greedy candy making companies? Sure, whatever. Is there coffee?” The sleepy author looked around hopefully and found that yes, someone had kindly turned the coffee maker on amid the baking expedition. She helped herself.

“All the kids have been talking about it at school,” Anita said, adding ruefully, “and I made the mistake of mentioning it to Michelle.”

“I thought she could bring some for all her friends. And maybe a special one for Hisami,” Michelle said.

“Michelle!” Anita flushed. “You’re supposed to give the special stuff to boys.”

Without skipping a beat, Michelle made another suggestion. “How about Junior then?”

“Ooooh yeah,” Nenene said, leaning over to mutter in Anita’s ear, “I’m sure little Jun-Jun would love a taste of your cupcake.”

Maggie dropped her tube of icing. Anita turned even redder. “THAT’S DISGUSTING!” She retaliated by spreading a large chunk of icing on Nenene’s nose.

Michelle giggled. “Now now, Nenene hasn’t finished waking up yet. I’m sure she’ll feel suitably ashamed later.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Nenene said vaguely, wiping the frosting off her nose and licking it off her finger, idly noting musky-sweet overtones of white chocolate. She leaned over Maggie’s shoulder—on the side farthest from Anita—observing their work. “But there are a ton of cupcakes. Are you taking all of these to school?”

Michelle shook her head. “I’m taking some to the nice booksellers in Jinbo Cho.” Ding! “And a special box for Mr. Toto.”

“I didn’t realize you were into older men,” Nenene replied, raising a mischievous eyebrow.

The blonde laughed good-naturedly. “Of course not. I just thought it would be nice–he has been awfully generous to us you know. It’s, um... what do you call it? ‘Obligatory chocolate’?”

“So you say,” Nenene replied sarcastically. “Maybe you should bring him flowers too.”

“Maybe I should!” Michelle nodded, playing along and therefore keenly defusing the joke. Defeated, Nenene sipped her coffee in silence, careful not to spill any near Maggie’s work surface.

Meanwhile, the eldest Paper Sister filled the first box and topped it with a pink-wrapped lid; she waved her hand and a paper ribbon rose up and tied itself prettily around the box. She put it on the counter with the grin of accomplishment. “There you are, Anita! You should probably get going! You don’t want to be late for school!”

“Yeah yeah,” Anita muttered. She finished icing the cupcake in her hand and gave it to Maggie. She grabbed the box and her nearby satchel and was quickly on her way out.

“Give Junior a little kiss for me!!” Nenene yelled after her. The door slammed. “How about Hisami?” Loud footsteps echoed down the stairs outside.

“How about you, Nenene?” Michelle asked as she began filling more, smaller boxes with cupcakes. “Is any lucky fellow getting chocolate from you today?”

Nenene shrugged. She was still leaning over Maggie’s shoulder, watching Maggie carefully squeeze out amazingly delicate flowers and hearts. “I had a box sent to my new editor. You know, as thanks for not secretly belonging to a Chinese illuminatus planning to kidnap and brainwash me.” She sighed. “‘Course if it turns out he does, I’ll stick another box where the sun don’t shine.”

“Mr. Ono seems very nice,” Michelle replied encouragingly, as more bows rose up and whirled around the boxes at her mental command. “I’m sure he’ll be delighted.”

“Yeah,” Nenene said sardonically, “Along with the eight trillion boxes he’ll get from the company office ladies.”

“That’s all,” Maggie said, placing the last tiny heart-speckled cupcake on the counter. Nenene’s source of preoccupation gone, she yawned and drifted into the living room, placing her half-empty mug on the table and flopping on the couch. She then frowned as a thought occurred to her, sat up, and looked at Michelle. “Hey,” she said, a mild irritation furrowing her brow, “if Maggie made all the cupcakes, shouldn’t she get to keep some?”

Michelle wrapped up the last of her cupcakes and placed them all in a sturdy shopping bag. “Oh don’t worry about her! She’s got something else in the oven! Something special! Don’t you, Maggie?” Maggie blushed for some reason and muttered, “There was extra batter.”

The elder sister giggled with what Nenene perceived as a tone of mischief. “Of course, dear. Well, have fun, dears!” Michelle carefully hefted her bag of chocolaty gifts. “I’ll see you later this afternoon!” In a gush of blonde, Michelle was out the door.

Nenene called towards her as the door was swinging shut, “Give Mr. Toto a big sloppy kiss for me!” “Sure thing, dear!” The voice echoed down the staircase.

Nenene turned to Maggie. “So what is she plotting, anyway?”

Maggie shrugged, looking conscientiously at the flour-covered counter, making a vague “I don’t know” sound. “I think she just wants to go shopping for books.”

“Yeah, but since when did she need Valentine’s Day as an excuse?”

The tall cook shrugged again, quirking her lips into an almost-smile. “That’s Michelle. She likes to celebrate everything.”

“That takes too much energy,” Nenene sighed, leaning back against the arm of the couch. “Too much... energy...” Sleep deprivation took its toll soon enough, and Maggie was left to wait for her final baking project to finish alone.

-----

The school at lunchtime was abuzz with girls passing around chocolates to the boys (of both the “obligation” and the more sentimental varieties), and exchanging “friend-chocolate” with each other. Some brazenly presented their gifts to the boys, others shyly approached. Anita, summoning her usual confident, nonchalant air, handed out cupcakes to all of her friends and teachers alike, deciding that, as one of the local token foreign exchange students, she’d be forgiven a faux pas should she commit one. She even gave Tohru a cupcake, who accepted it without being too terribly rude.

Entering the library, she presented Hisami one; it was the only one fully iced and decorated by Anita herself, featuring the trademark smiling Mr. Froggie. As Anita shifted her box containing the sweets, she noticed she had two left and frowned, counting back to all the people she’d given treats to, wondering who she’d missed. She realized her fellow token foreign exchange student was nowhere to be seen. “I’ll be right back,” she said to Hisami, who had only managed to stutter out a thanks before Anita dashed off.

Junior, Junior... Anita pursed her lips, flushing again at Nenene’s horrible teasing this morning. Stupid Nenene. Of course that’s not why she...

Anita’s thoughts were disrupted as she noticed a sneaker dangling from the rafters. Junior liked to hide in high places. Without thinking of the propriety of the situation, Anita deftly climbed the bookshelves and jumped up to grab the rafter, pulling herself onto it, careful to keep the box safe. There Junior sat, watching students in the library, and those through the windows who had braved cool winds to do their precious exchanges outside, the way a natural scientist might observe animal behavior on safari. “I’ve been looking for you,” she said, just slightly annoyed. “How come you’re hiding?”

“I don’t know,” Junior said honestly. “It just seemed like a lot... going on. It’s a bit overwhelming, I guess.”

Anita grinned. “You didn’t know what you’d do if some strange girl gave you chocolate?”

Junior tilted his head downward self-consciously. “I guess so.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to deal with it.” She unceremoniously placed a cupcake on his lap. “Not that... well, you know. Michelle made me bring them.”

“She did?” His cheeks turned slightly pink.

Anita rolled her eyes. “You don’t still have a crush on her, do you?”

“What? A crush? I don’t think so,” Junior replied, looking down at his shoes.

“I brought them for everyone,” Anita said flatly. “But I wanted to make sure you got one.”

“Thank you,” Junior replied quietly.

“You’re welcome. See? You do know what to say if someone gives you something. ‘Thank-you.’ Not really hard, and you can even say it in English and most people’ll understand. So, you gonna sit up here much longer?”

“I don’t know,” the boy said matter-of-factly. He paused, as if he was going to say something, but fell silent.

“What?”

“Um, nothing. Well, I mean, nothing’s wrong.” He ran his fingers through his hair. At his request, Michelle had cut it short over the summer, and without the length straightening his locks, he now had a slightly cherubic-curl effect crowning his pale face. He was always trying to keep the curls out of his eyes, but he wouldn’t let anyone cut his hair again beyond a minor trim.

“What’s on your mind?”

“It’s... I brought something for you.”

“Huh? For me?”

He reached into his jacket and produced a lavender envelope. “I realize boys aren’t supposed to give things in Japan but...”

“But you’re from Britain and I’m from Hong Kong. So?”

He tentatively held out the envelope to her. “Happy Valentine’s,” he said. “It’s just a card.” He shifted uncomfortably. “I just wanted to... I never got a chance to... to thank you. So I thought this would be a nice opportunity.” His cheeks were a little pink again, though Anita wasn’t quite aware, too interested in the card itself.

Anita sliced open the envelope with her finger, pulling the card out. “Thank me? For what?” The card featured two silhouetted, androgynous figures standing side-by-side, framed by flowers, and it read in English, “Happy Valentine’s Day to My Dear Friend.” It looked like it might have been printed in Europe, and she wondered when he’d bought it. Knowing Junior, he’d probably done something weird, like buy it before he’d ever met her simply because he found the idea of a Valentine interesting. She decided, however, that it wouldn’t do to be annoyed to receive a gift that may not originally have been meant specifically for her; she was still ultimately the chosen recipient, after all. “It’s a pretty card,” she said. She opened it. In his typical understated way, he’d only written “To Anita, Your Friend, Junior” on the inside in cramped, girlish lettering. “For... for being my first real friend,” he said. “If... if it weren’t for you I’d...” He blinked. “Well, I’d probably be Mr. Gentleman now.”

Anita shook her head. “No way,” she said. “No way could that happen; it just wouldn’t be right.” “Well, I’m not sure how. You’ve been very kind to me.” He frowned. “Except that one time you hit me. But even so...”

Anita laughed. “Well, I had to hit you. But that’s all in the past now.” She grinned. “And you’re welcome. And thank you, too. You’ve been a good friend to have.” The redhead clapped him on the shoulder playfully.

He smiled, but thought of nothing else to say, so regarded the heart-covered cupcake in his hand. “Do you want to share it?”

“Nah, I got extra,” she said, pulling the final cupcake out of the box. She saluted him with it. “They gotta be really good, Maggie made’em. It’s one of her favorite recipes.” She peeled off the paper and chomped in, and Junior followed her example.

Neither noticed they were being watched. Hisami, clutching a small, carefully wrapped box in her hand, had seen where Anita had climbed to. She gazed up at the two sitting alone in the shadows, impossible to reach, cheerfully digging into their sweets. The look on her face might have caused one to wonder if she had just been hit by an invisible truck.

-----

“Oh, thank you very much, Miss Cheung, that’s so thoughtful of you! Tell you what, come in on March 14 and I’ll give you 25 percent off all books in the store.”

Michelle clapped her hands to her face, beaming at the pudgy, middle aged bookstore owner. “Oh my, that’s so sweet of you,” she said, bouncing about a bit. “You really don’t have to, you know.”

“Oh please, I insist!” The owner tried not to observe Michelle’s bouncing too obviously.

“Oh, well, if you insist, then thank you very much! Please enjoy!”

“Of course I will! Did you make these yourself?”

“I helped make them! It’s a family recipe!” She grinned. “Well, I must be going, but do please have a lovely day!” She waved, bag of (increasing in quantity) books in one hand and bag of (decreasing in quantity) cupcakes in the other, and twirled out of the bookstore.

“A rather mercenary approach to Valentine’s Day,” giggled a woman not far from Michelle, standing by the store window. The blonde spun around to see an amused Nancy Makuhari, in a stylish black overcoat and shopping bag in hand.

Michelle rubbed the back of her head. “Well, I couldn’t just let all these lovely fellows who’ve been so nice to us be ignored. But I can’t stop them if they feel obligated to return the favor with a discount or complimentary book on White Day, or whenever... Isn’t it supposed to be rude to refuse a gift so kindly offered?”

“Mercenary,” Nancy replied in a hushed whisper, and then asked in a more normal voice, “how many bookstores do you have to go?”

“Just the last one–Toto Books.”

“You actually expect a gift from him? He’s pretty smart, you know.”

“Oh no! He’s done us so many favors, I just thought it would be nice. Maggie made double chocolate ones just for him. Where are you headed–want to come along?”

The dark haired beauty smiled. “Sure.”

The two set off up the street, heading towards the building with the “secret elevator” to Toto Books.

“Do you think Junior will get any chocolate today?” Michelle asked blithely as they walked along. Nancy smiled softly. “Probably. Though he seemed awfully nervous today.” Her eyes sparkled. “You know he got Anita a Valentine’s Day card?”

Michelle emitted a long “oooh” that started low and quickly achieved high-pitched “squee” proportions. She clapped her hands together. “Oh, how adorable!”

“Not that I think he has any grand intentions with it, honestly, but it is cute...”

“He’s had a hard life,” Michelle said sagely, coming down from her euphoria. “It’s great that he does anything like that. It... it’s so wonderfully normal, isn’t it?” She shrugged. “As for grand intentions, he’ll figure out what he wants eventually. Same with Anita. They have a lot in common, really.”

Nancy pursed her lips in thought. “They’re very different in other ways. Anita’s far more confident.”

“Well, Anita’s probably more naturally outspoken, and she’s had support from a family longer. But Junior has you now.”

“And you.”

Michelle laughed over-dramatically. “But that’s not the same-”

Nancy cut her off with a sigh, raising an eyebrow at the blonde’s melodramatic denial. “Michelle, I know you’re smarter than you usually pass yourself off to be.” She stopped and looked at Michelle dead-on. “For me, for so long… I really was out of my head—I’m still finding my way back—but I know who I am now. And the New Mata Hari knows the ‘playing innocent’ game when she sees it, so don’t try it with me. Don’t deny things that aren’t true—and don’t deny the influence you’ve had.”

Michelle blinked, and her expression grew more serious. “I’m not being deceitful. It isn’t the same-”

“But he still looks up to you, and he still admires you a great deal. You were willing to provide him a maternal role when I wasn’t, frankly. You were probably the first adult who really cared about him and showed it.” The former spy’s crimson eyes grew soft and distant. “Part of me is still jealous of you, Michelle, because I think you impressed upon him in a way I never will.” “You’re still his mother,” Michelle replied. “And I’m not. You are more important to him than anyone else in the world.” She said this decisively, as if there were no further argument, but she added a breath later, “But then, I guess we’re all family now, aren’t we?” She brought her effervescent grin to the surface again. “We all need each other in some way. But don’t discount yourself, please. Look! We’re here.” She took Nancy by the arm and practically skipped inside.

-----

Maggie dutifully pulled the “special” project out of the oven on time, having forced herself to practice icing design on sheets of wax paper to avoid the temptation of reading–and therefore getting too absorbed to notice when the timer went off. It was a small, perfectly round little cake, made from the batter leftover from the cupcake project, using a favorite recipe Maggie had found in an old used bookstore back in Hong Kong. She let it cool and frosted it with the homemade white chocolate icing that fortunately Anita had not eaten all of, and then lifted her decorating cone filled with the red icing–to find herself at a complete loss. A number of designs and phrases crossed her mind, none of which seemed quite right. She bit her lip, and drew one line—which could have started the curve of the hiragana for “ne” or could have begun a Roman M. Or any number of characters. She stared at the near-blank cake helplessly.

“I think you’d know better than anyone. Some things don’t really require words.”

Maggie jumped, and Nenene wondered how the woman who could catch bullets with a single sheet of paper and not blink once in surprise was the same woman who could be startled and blush at the drop of a hat by a friend’s interjection...or, for that matter, the same woman who could agonize over just the right thing to decorate a cake with.

“I’m sorry,” Maggie said. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“Well, you were biting your lip and staring quite loudly. I’m surprised the neighbors aren’t complaining,” Nenene replied dryly. “Is this your ‘special’ cake Michelle mentioned?”

Maggie’s blush deepened. “No! I mean... yes, it’s the... I mean, not that... I thought I’d make it for...”

Nenene’s nap had strengthened her enough to have a shred of mercy, and she’d gotten her kick from surprising Maggie to begin with. Letting her be further flustered served no purpose. “Hey, hey. Relax. I’m not interrogating prisoners of war here.” She gently laid her hand on Maggie’s arm, which did not help Maggie’s flushed cheeks recolor, but she stopped stuttering. “So. Michelle made you make this ridiculous load of cupcakes for her and Anita, and you had some extra batter, which you pondered about turning into a cake. And you thought maybe you’d share it with me since I am supposed to be home writing today, because you are a nice, generous person. And Michelle, being a total spaz, started burbling about giving the cake to me on Valentine’s Day and suddenly made it seem like a huge deal, rendering you completely nervous over nothing, ultimately manifesting in an acute case of cake decoration anxiety.”

“More or less,” Maggie mumbled after a few moments. “But Michelle wasn’t trying to be mean…”

“I know. Michelle was being cute but she was overdoing it. And you know I love a good opportunity to tease you miserably, so you feared for the worst.” Nenene smiled, looking up into the younger woman’s eyes. “But come on, would I be that cruel?”

Maggie shook her head. “Sorr-”

“And none of that!” Nenene said, placing a finger over Maggie’s mouth. “No sorrys when cake is involved. Now, put some of those cute little flowers you were making before on it, and I’ll get some tea and some forks, and we’ll have some cake together. I’m starving.”

Maggie smiled, her shoulders dropping as her imagined crisis was averted. Her smile broadened a little as she noticed something new about her friend. “Um... Nenene?”

Nenene turned from the drawer. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s just...”

“What?”

“You still have a little bit of frosting on your nose.”

-----

Upon taking in Hisami and where her gaze led, Tohru immediately jumped into action, doing what he did best. He looked up at the rafters and shouted. “Hey, King! These cupcakes taste like old cheese!”

“What did you say?”

The insult had the desired effect: in a series of small jumps, Anita fluidly bounced her way to the ground.

“Stop showing off, monkey-girl,” he muttered, and then added more loudly, “And I said these cupcakes taste like old cheese!”

“They taste like chocolate to me,” Junior said matter-of-factly, having appeared behind Anita without anyone quite noticing how he’d gotten down.

Anita shook a fist in Tohru’s face. “How dare you insult my sister’s cooking?”

“Oh, and so you’re too lazy to make them yourself!”

“Tohru! Anita! Please!” Hisami was nearly in tears.

Tohru blinked. It was so easy to get carried away. He shook his head. “Anyway, I just… had to… um… stupid monkey girl!” He humphed, looking pointedly away from Anita. He saw Junior standing in confused silence behind her. “Hey, Junior—let’s get away from these stupid girls. I... I need your help with my English homework.” He grabbed a corner of Junior’s sleeve, trying to tug him away.

Anita rolled her eyes. “Maybe he can teach you manners, too, while you’re at it.”

“Um… all right.” Completely bewildered, Junior followed Tohru into another part of the library.

“I do not understand that kid,” Anita said, shaking her head. “Anyway—oh, I’m sorry, Hisa—I said I’d be right back, didn’t I? I just wanted to make sure Junior was okay. I was afraid maybe some girl had frightened him off.” She frowned. “Are you all right, Hisa? Hey, were you going to give that to someone?” Anita noticed the box in her hands.

“It…” Hisa looked at the box. “It’s for you,” she said very softly, holding it forward.

“Well, thanks,” Anita said, accepting the box. “Lunch is almost over, so I’ll save these for later, okay?” She carefully tucked the package under her arm, noticing Hisa seemed to be taking a great deal of interest in her own shoes. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yeah…”

“This day seems to cause a lot of stress in some people,” Anita said, scratching her head. “I don’t understand what the big deal is. I mean… we’re only in 8th grade. We’ve got years ahead of us to find boyfriends and girlfriends and stuff. It should just be for fun.” She frowned. “Some guy wasn’t mean to you, was he?”

“No!”

Anita made a fist. “Was it Tohru? ‘Cause if-”

Hisami shook her head vigorously. “No, no it wasn’t him. Though he shouldn’t have yelled at you like that.”

Anita shrugged. “He does that. As long as he’s stopped picking on you, I don’t care if he yells at me. I mean, everyone says he likes you, so he shouldn’t be mean to you.”

“Yeah…” Hisami sighed.

Anita stretched one arm behind her head. “Maybe he’s always poking at me because you and I spend so much time together. But if you want to spend time with him, I don’t care. You might as well be upset with me for being friends with Junior.”

Hisa blushed slightly. “That… that would be pretty silly, wouldn’t it?” She paused. “Anita?” “What?”

“You… you’re not interested in having a… special someone in your life right now?”

Anita shook her head. “My life is complicated enough,” she said with a rueful smile. “So I’ll figure that out when I have to. Besides, I’d rather spend my time with my friends right now. Like you.” Anita reached for Hisami’s hand. “Come on, the bell’s about to ring.” Hisa could do nothing but squeeze Anita’s hand and follow her out of the library. The dark-haired girl sighed, discovering her heart wasn’t quite as broken as she thought it perhaps ought to be.

-----

Michelle and Nancy arrived in Toto Books, to discover the owner’s tiny sales desk absolutely buried in flowers and chocolate—and he was surrounded by a squadron of six chattering old ladies from around the neighborhood, all urging him to open their package first. The old calico cat in his lap eyed them all very warily.

“Oh well,” Michelle sighed lightly. “I suppose maybe if we shop around a little, the crowd will die down.”

“Mmm hmm,” Nancy replied. She smiled softly at the horde of romancing grandmothers, chuckling to herself. “How cute,” she thought wistfully.

Michelle danced up the cluttered aisles, pulling this and that book off the shelves, already absorbed in the joyful ritual of book shopping. Nancy saw she was about to pirouette into another elderly woman and called out, but it was too late. The woman let out a small cry, and Michelle fell over, and a small parcel in the woman’s hands went flying—fortunately to be caught by the agile Nancy.

Michelle stood up, apologizing profusely and pinching her cheek in remorse. “I’m so sorry, ma’am... hey, aren’t you Ms. Shiro, who runs the coffee shop upstairs? How come you’re down here at this time of day?”

“To deliver this?” Nancy held up the parcel—wrapped in delicate white paper, with beautifully made homemade flowers decorating the top. “It looks like it wasn’t damaged,” she said, holding it out to Ms. Shiro. “I hope whatever’s inside is okay.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the old woman sighed wistfully, looking up at the other ladies surrounding Mr. Toto. “I’ll never get it to him. And even if I did, he’d never notice.”

Nancy and Michelle nodded to each other, new purpose igniting a spark in their eyes.

“We’ll help you,” Michelle said.

Ms. Shiro shook her head hopelessly. “No offense, but if you young ladies try to get his attention, he’ll definitely never see me.”

“Trust us,” Nancy said, applying a finger to the side of her nose. “I’m very good at not being seen, when I want to be.” She looked at Michelle. “I’ll need a distraction.”

Michelle nodded. She looked around, particularly examining the pile of gifts on Mr. Toto’s desk. “Leave it to me,” she replied. “Now, Ms. Shiro, I’m going to need you to stand in the middle of this aisle here. And don’t move. And smile! This is a wonderful day!”

Ms. Shiro attempted a feeble smile and stood where she was told, unable to resist the force of Michelle’s effusiveness. She looked around. “Wait, where did that other young lady go?”

“She told you—she’s good at not being seen.” Michelle smiled. “Now stay there.” She went behind another bookshelf, and reached for a wad of receipts in her pocket. Pulling them out, they formed her signature paper longbow. She looked around, waiting—and then nodded when she saw a hand thrust itself straight through the bookshelf, ghost-like, and give her the thumbs up.

Michelle reached back, more receipts becoming an arrow, aimed, and fired—right into a large heart-shaped balloon adorning one side of his desk. The balloon exploded with a glorious bang, and the ladies screamed at the noise and scattered (as did the poor cat). The arrow immediately burst into paper confetti, snowing down upon the desk and the area around it, giving the scene a surreal, dramatic ambience.

Mr. Toto looked up through the cherry petal-like falling paper, to see Ms. Shiro standing nervously in the center aisle. He then felt a light weight on his lap that was not his cat returning to him. He looked down, blinking as he glimpsed what seemed to be a slender phantom hand disappear after depositing the carefully decorated Valentine box on his lap.

He examined the box curiously and read the tag upon it. “Goodness me,” he said, looking back up at Ms. Shiro. “I hope these are your almond and chocolate cookies, Ms. Shiro. I’ve been looking forward to them all year.” He smiled his half-toothless smile. Ms. Shiro nervously smiled back, blushing.

“I... I made them just for you,” she said.

“Is that so? How thoughtful,” he replied warmly. “How about we share them over some tea, after I close the shop?”

A collective sigh was heard as the other scattered grandmotherly suitors hung their heads, defeated, and left the bookstore. Ms. Shiro smiled the smile of one being presented a miracle on a golden platter. “Tha-that would be lovely, Mr. Toto. I’ll see you then.” She nodded and shuffled out to the elevator; her old feet did not move fast, but her shoulders were held higher and she seemed a much more vivacious woman for it.

Nancy appeared behind Michelle, who watched the whole thing from the next aisle over. The blonde’s eyes shimmered with joy.

“Mission accomplished,” Nancy whispered to Michelle.

Her partner in matchmaking nodded. “We should probably go now.”

“You’re not going to deliver your cupcakes?”

Michelle shook her head. “I think Mr. Toto’s had enough gifts today. And he got the most important one.” She giggled. “We can take home the cupcakes and enjoy them.” She shouldered her bags and started to head for the elevator.

“Ms. Cheung,” Toto called out, not even looking at the two ladies as they approached the exit. “Don’t forget you need to pay your monthly tab soon.”

Michelle laughed nervously. “Of… of course. But let’s not worry about such materialistic matters now! You just have a very happy Valentine’s day!” She paused. “Oh, and Nenene sends you a big sloppy kiss!”

“Please thank her for me,” he said nonchalantly, stroking the cat who had returned to his lap now that the hullabaloo had passed. “Have a good day. And you too, Ms. Makuhari. Give my best to Yomiko.”

The women waved and entered the elevator.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” sighed Michelle. “Love springs eternal indeed! It knows no age and lives on in the heart forever!” She clutched her hands to her heart.

Nancy sighed. “You really think that?”

“Sure,” Michelle said.

The elevator slid open, and they made their way to the street. Nancy’s eyes seemed a bit unfocused. “I want to believe… I mean, that was really sweet,” she said, clasping her hands together. “But sometimes... with the things that we’ve seen..." Her eyes went distant again, perhaps half-remembering a so-called romance that certainly did not end so happily. "I wonder if it’ll all lead to a happy ending…”

“It will, eventually, I think.” Michelle shrugged. “Life gets complicated and painful… but see what just happened? Where it all seems hopeless, love blooms anew again.”

Nancy raised an eyebrow. “But you’re not in any relationships.”

Michelle shrugged. “I have my books and my family and all I need right now. And if anyone wants to sweep me off my feet…” She clutched her hands to her chin and giggled. “Well, I’ll just enjoy it when it happens.”

“And if they end up hurting you?”

“Then Anita will probably kill them before I can even react,” Michelle replied lightly. “And Maggie will discretely dispose of the body, and that will be that.”

“I guess there’s something to be said for familial love too.”

“Absolutely.”

Nancy giggled. “Are we back to our earlier conversation?”

“I think so.” Michelle sighed. “Oh, dear, but it’s getting late. Anita will be coming home soon—and that means Junior will be coming home to you and—” She stopped. “Oh, say, where is Yomiko, anyway?”

-----

Yomiko Readman sat on the floor of one of her many dusty, book-crowded rooms, leaning up against a bookshelf. Next to her head on the shelf was the framed photograph of a tall, kind-faced man with a patient smile, wearing the very same huge, black-rimmed glasses Yomiko always wore—her first love and mentor, Donnie Nakajima. She clapped her book shut—it was an English translation of Like Water for Chocolate.

“And that’s done,” Yomiko sighed, gently touching the sides of her glasses. “One more book—the one we always read together on Valentine’s.” She touched her glasses briefly and then reached for a tattered—and even slightly scorched—copy of Nenene Sumiregawa’s You Know All of Me. -----

With clean nose and full belly, Nenene licked the last bit of frosting off her fork. She stretched back into the couch and smiled a satisfied cat’s smile. “That was good.”

“Thank you,” Maggie said softly. The tall young woman stared at her own fork self-consciously, but allowed herself to be somewhat inwardly pleased that Nenene had enjoyed the treat. The plate which had borne the little cake was now bare save for some crumbs Maggie thought she’d leave out for John Woo later on, along with some seed and other things that might be delicious to a pigeon. He was a helpful male, after all, and ought to get his obligatory Valentine’s treat as well.

Nenene took a notepad and pen off the living room table and eyed the barely-scribbled upon paper without much enthusiasm. “I should outline the next few chapters.”

Maggie reached into her sweatshirt pocket. “I’ve got a book to read,” she said.

Nenene sighed at her notepad. “I was up till 4 writing.”

“I know,” Maggie said. “That’s when I got up to bake. I thought I heard you.” She cocked her head towards Nenene. “Maybe you should just take a break today.”

Nenene smiled. “Dunno,” she said. “I’m fueled on chocolate now.” She grinned kittenishly again. “You’re quite a little homemaker, you know, when you’re not catching bullets and summoning paper dragons.”

Maggie smiled just slightly, looking not at all bullet-catchy or dragon-summony. She was far too shy and vulnerable, with her cheeks going pink again—and was therefore, instead, irresistibly cute. With a “rrrrrrrrph” Nenene shifted her weight, flopping her head against Maggie’s shoulder. Maggie reflexively jumped a little, lifting her arm, and Nenene seized the opportunity to plant her head just so, forcing the taller woman to place her arm around Nenene’s shoulder.

“That’s nice,” Nenene said, nestling into Maggie. “Just right.”

Maggie was audibly silent.

Nenene shifted her eyes towards Maggie’s red cheeks. “What?”

“Nothing,” Maggie squeaked quietly.

“Are you uncomfortable?”

Maggie considered this a moment, and her corners of her mouth finally lifted upwards, just a little. “No,” she said. “I’m fine. Really. This is… nice.” She shifted a little and dared to squeeze Nenene to show her that really, she had no desire to leave this position now that she was in it.

Nenene’s gaze met Maggie’s—frankness and spunk meeting warmth and a sort of bashful honesty. Between the two, how could a truth not be spoken? But no words were needed. Not really thinking about it at all, Nenene impulsively lifted her head and softly, lightly kissed Maggie on the chin, just to the side of her mouth.

Then, before either of them would really process that beyond what it was, the author turned her head, still snuggling into Maggie’s shoulder, and began scribbling on her notebook. Maggie pulled a tattered Fitzgerald paperback out of her pocket and immediately fell into the prose. And they were together, cozy, and doing what they loved best, and it was, indeed, just right.

-----

Even if the unhappiness of the whole world were crashing down on us at this moment...

“Yomiko! Yomiko, where are you? Michelle invited us to Nenene’s for dinner!”

...if you let me be with you, you would understand me.

“Yomiko? Yomiko? Are you okay, Yomiko?”

Nancy Makuhari’s head emerged through the door to Yomiko’s little room, looking at her wide-eyed. “Are you all right?”

“Of course,” Yomiko said. “I just have two more sentences to read.”

“I ran into Michelle, and she invited us to Nenene’s. Shall we go?”

“Of course,” Yomiko smiled. Nancy returned the smile and nodded, pulling herself back through the door. Yomiko could hear her hum through the hallways. She seemed so young, Yomiko thought, and yet she was so much more knowing than she had been before. Much more like her older “sister,” but of course, at the same time very much her own person. And that was exactly how it should be. She was glad Nancy was befriending the others, and Yomiko’s heart warmed at the thought of them all once again around Nenene’s table, with the laughter and the arguing, and all the people she loved the very most in the world.

That is all I need to be eternally happy.

Yomiko gently pushed the leaves of the book shut and blissfully hugged the tattered tome to her breast. “‘No one can stop us now.’”

-THE END-

-----

AUTHOR’S NOTES

The Japanese tradition for Valentine’s Day is for women to present men with gifts of chocolate. As I understand it (from searching through that “reliable” source of information known as the Web), the purposes of these gifts vary, from “obligation chocolate” one might give coworkers and employers, to chocolate meant to indicate more serious affection. Girls often exchange chocolates with their friends of both sexes as well. Again, this is as I understand it, and I could be a little wrong—but the joy of writing this piece is that it’s written largely through the perspectives of women foreign to Japan as well (the Paper Sisters, lovely Hong Kong natives as they are), so my faux pas are theirs. Still, if I have seemed to have put something ridiculously out of place, do let me know.

(As an aside, the Japanese also celebrate “White Day” on March 14, where men who have received Valentine’s chocolate are to reciprocate with gifts of white chocolate. That’s why the store owner is telling he’ll give Michelle a discount on that day.)

I can’t remember how I came to be inspired for this story. I think I was reading about Japanese Valentine’s celebrations for some reason, and pictured an ecstatic Michelle whirling about Jinbo-Cho giving chocolate to all the book clerks, hoping for discounts in return. Other parts filled in afterward... of course it would be Maggie who made the chocolate, and she’d give some to Anita to bring to school, and so on. I started this fic in November or thereabouts, intending to have it finished by February for the actual holiday. I then completely forgot about it for two months, woke up on Valentine’s Day, and suddenly thought, “Damn! I have to finish this!” The original draft of this was posted to fanfiction.net at 11:54 pm, 2/14/2007. This is a revised and hopefully much improved version (and finally posted to the rest of the world exactly one year later, minus a couple hours).

As you can see, the source of my inspiration for this fic was not particularly romantic, and maybe it’s a little odd that for a Valentine’s Day fic, the core focus of the story is not necessarily romance. Sure it’s there, and the start of some and end of others is sprinkled in throughout, but it’s not exactly what I’d call a typical “love story.” But see... the beauty of R.O.D is that while there’s not a lot of romance in it (and if you stop to think about it, much of what does exist is horribly ill-fated), R.O.D is brimming over with love. R.O.D is all about relationships and love, from varying degrees of platonic friendship, familial love, crushes, “flattered fancies” (to borrow a phrase from L.M. Montgomery), devotion, hero-worship, and, overall, absolutely death-defying loyalty. It’s also about surviving the pain of lost relationships and trying to heal the rifts created when those occur.

So the goal of this fic is to pay tribute to all the wonderful kinds of relationships I’ve seen in the mangas, the anime videos, and the TV series. To do otherwise would defy the purpose of writing this homage to Mr. Kurata’s stories that I love so much.

And that is ultimately it: this story is a romance. It is my love letter to the world of R.O.D, and it is signed very affectionately yours—

Death Quaker


Death Quaker's Realm All original creative materials © 2005-8 R. Pickard. Read or Die, R.O.D. the TV and all related concepts were created by Hideyuki Kurata and are ©2003 Aniplex/Studio Orphee.
Contact: mistress@deathquaker.org