“Here is your reserved table, Ms. Karan. Your waiter will be right with you.”
Shion’s mother nodded, graciously sitting down at the chair pulled out for her by the white-gloved greeter. Shion took his seat next to her, across from Yoming. Richard unbuttoned his blazer and sat on Karan’s other side, already discussing business, as usual.
“If you don’t invest in a fourth share, you could lose 10%, Karan. Try to see where I’m coming from.”
“Richard, I understand. Let’s not discuss this anymore. I haven’t seen my son in a month. Shion, tell me, how is university?”
Shion looked up from his lap, on which he’d been placing his napkin. He straightened his salad fork and took a sip of water. “Good. A new type of oak has been discovered, and we just received samples.”
Karan smiled, and Shion fidgeted with the cuffs of his shirt, pleased with his mother’s interest. He knew a smile from her meant she was proud of him for the work he was doing. Karan always found small gestures to convey the deep emotions she felt.
“This will be your last year, Shion?” Richard asked, snapping shut the pocket watch he’d been glancing at and looking up. His interest, Shion could tell, was less genuine and more professional. Everything about Richard was business.
“What are your plans for after school?”
“He’s been offered a position at a leading Botany research institute,” Yoming interjected, before Shion could reply. “It’s quite a high position too, isn’t it? For a kid fresh out of grad school?”
Shion blushed and glanced down, embarrassed. He shrugged.
Richard chuckled. “Humble, huh? You must be proud, Shion, cocky even, if you want to get places in the business world.”
“Where is this waiter? Usually they’re a bit more attending,” Yoming commented, looking around.
“I agree. It’s louder than usual here, too. I like a quieter atmosphere,” Richard criticized.
Shion refrained from rolling his eyes. Yoming and Richard were meticulous when it came to service, but then again, not many people who could afford to eat at the Onaji Hoshi didn’t have high taste.
“The view is lovely though, isn’t it?” Karan mused.
Shion followed her gaze and glanced out the high window behind them. The ocean sparkled back at him, blue sapphires littered with diamonds.
“It’s fine,” Richard commented mildly, seeming bored. Of course, the view wasn’t something they hadn’t seen before – the corner table at the Onaji Hoshi by this high window was one they always reserved whenever they dined here.
“I’m absolutely famished! Where is this waiter?” Yoming wondered again.
Shion looked away from the window. He didn’t mind that for once, there wasn’t someone by his side, asking him what he needed. It was nice, to have a break from the constant overly attentive offers of his maids and butlers. He wasn’t that hungry, either, not after the feast he’d eaten when he’d awoke, prepared as it was every morning by the prize-winning cooking staff. Shion had forgotten how rich the food was at home, after being away at university for so long, and could hardly stomach his five-course breakfast.
“It’s probably someone new. I heard the Sheng’s complained about the old waitress. Did you hear about the mishap with the bread?”
“Well, I won’t complain about losing that girl. She had such a strange accent.”
Shion tuned out the conversation of his mother’s business manager and her best friend and glanced around the restaurant. He hadn’t minded the waitress that usually tended to their table, but it seemed that Richard and Yoming always found something to complain about.
Shion sighed at the prestigious families seated around him, all in business suits or elegant gowns. He had grown up in this life, where glamour and wealth were accompanied by undertones of arrogance and disdain for others. Luckily for Shion, Karan didn’t seem swept up in the grandiose demeanor of her peers, and taught her son the same values that she said, of family, friendship, and love before wealth. Perhaps it was this alternate perspective that gave Shion strange feelings of discontent, that gave him the need for something more, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Although he couldn’t name exactly what was missing in his life, he suspected it was something that couldn’t be bought with the multitude of money at his disposal.
As Shion glanced around, a new face caught his eye, and he found himself lifting his head from where he had been resting it on his palm. Shion barely noticed his elbow slip off the table as he gazed at this person, who seemed to be walking straight at him.
It was a tall boy. Probably his age, maybe a few years older. His slim figure was outlined by the typical black waiter’s vest that came in at his waist, worn over a matching button down. The entirely black uniform only seemed to make his already pale skin seem even more translucent. His light skin, in addition to his slimness, would seem to make the boy appear sickly, but to Shion, there was a certain strength suggested about him, and Shion imagined that beneath his uniform, his body might be one of some sort of muscular leanness.
Shion startled himself with these thoughts. What was he thinking? Muscular leanness? He knew he should look away – he probably looked like some sort of gaping idiot, and his thoughts were starting to worry him. And yet, Shion was entranced. There was something about this boy, about the way he walked. Shion imagined he might make a good dancer – he had an elegance about him, in addition to that strength Shion sensed. And then…
Another step, and the boy was close enough for Shion to see his face. His hair was a deep raven color, most of it held up in a ponytail, though chin-length strands framed his cheeks and overgrown bangs covered his forehead. They stopped at his eyes, which were –
Shion gasped. Grey? Not a flat, iron-like grey, but a startling grey, like the ocean at night, when the water reflects the dark of the late hour and the moon shines a spotlight on its liquid surface. They were sharp and bright, and Shion thought he could stare at them for days and still not uncover a fraction of the secrets that seemed buried within them.
As he watched them, the grey eyes suddenly locked on his, and Shion felt his breath catch in his throat while his heart began to run a marathon. He wondered how he had become frozen in his seat, as if his limbs were made of stone, and thought he might never be able to move again, as long as those eyes were trapping his. The eyes narrowed, though Shion thought it was more in curiosity than anger. Less than a second later the boy’s face was expressionless once more, his eyes sliding to the right and releasing Shion’s. Shion felt his body go limp in his chair, and breathed deeply, hoping no one had been watching him.
His heart had not yet slowed when he heard a deep voice, and he looked up to see the grey-eyed boy standing before his table, staring straight at him. His racing heart, without warning, promptly stopped.
“Hello. My name is Nezumi, and I’m going to be serving you today. I’m aware that you are regulars at the – ”
“What was that? What did you say your name was?”
The waiter turned his grey gaze to Yoming, and Shion took the chance to rearrange his features into an expression he hoped appeared more normal than whatever he must’ve looked like before.
The waiter’s voice was deep, but quiet and calming. There was something… beautiful about it. In fact, looking at Nezumi – Is that what he had said his name was? – Shion realized that everything about him could be called beautiful.
Shion ducked his head as he felt himself blushing again, marveling at the strange vein his thoughts had taken.
“Nezumi? As in the sewer rodent?”
Shion glanced up, startled and ashamed for his mother’s manager, who was regarding the waiter with obvious amusement.
“Is there a reason for such a horrible name?” Richard continued, and Shion had the irrational urge to yell at him. Where was the decorum Richard usually acted with? But of course, decorum and respect were reserved for people of their class. For waiters, it seemed as though people of high class needed to show nothing but disdain.
The waiter, on the other hand, did not even blink. Instead, to Shion’s great surprise, a small smile spread across his lips. “Of course. Isn’t there a reason behind every name? Ah, but that is not the question I’m supposed to be asking, is it?” In a swift motion, the waiter conjured four menus, seemingly out of thin air. “I’m sure you know our menu well, but may I distribute these to you despite this?”
Without waiting for a reply, the menus were suddenly in front of each of them. Shion stared at his, wondering why it suddenly seemed so different despite being the same menu he’d looked at for years. Could it be because it had been held, for a brief moment, by the grey-eyed boy?
“What are we drinking today?” The waiter asked, resting his grey eyes on Karan. Shion noticed that the little notebook that servers usually wrote orders in made no appearance in this waiter’s elegant hands.
“The water is fine for me, thank you.”
“And you sir?”
“Hm, a brandy sounds good.”
“Okay. And what would you like?”
Richard didn’t even look up from his menu as he replied. “I’ll take your best scotch.”
The waiter nodded, seemingly unfazed by Richard’s flippant manner, and turned his eyes back on Shion. “For you?”
Shion stared. His hands had started sweating, and he wiped them on his pant legs. “I’ll have, umm, tea.”
For the first time, the waiter seemed caught off guard. “Tea?” he repeated, one of his eyebrows rising slightly.
“Um, y-yes please,” Shion stammered, feeling suddenly breathless. He had no idea why he’d asked for tea – usually he went for a rum and coke, as Richard had long ago instructed him that alcohol drunk in a respectful manner was a sign of class. Just asking for tea seemed childish, and Shion felt himself blushing again.
When the corners of the waiter’s lips turned upwards, Shion felt mortified. Could he have made a greater fool of himself?
“I’ll be back with your drinks and to take your orders,” the waiter said simply, giving a slight bow of his head. His bangs fell over his eyes as he ducked, and Shion was sure, in that moment, that he had winked at Shion before turning and walking away.
Shion reached for his water glass and nearly knocked it over, his fingers trembling. “Oh!” He looked up quickly, but Yoming and Richard were still immersed in their menus. Shion sighed in relief – perhaps his blunder had gone unnoticed – until he caught his mother’s eye.
“What?” he asked, as she had been smiling lightly, a knowing look in her expression.
“Nothing at all,” Karan replied, though in a tone that suggested she had seen much more than Shion’s act of clumsiness. It was almost as if she had seen his thoughts, had been able to read exactly why Shion’s fingers had fumbled over the water glass.
It was almost as if Karan could tell that the image of the waiter’s grey gaze had become plastered in Shion’s mind, for reasons he couldn’t begin to name.
Shion could not recall a single topic of conversation discussed during lunch. He did not think he took part in any of the discussions – Yoming and Richard could carry on conversations well enough on their own – and if he did, Shion highly doubted he said anything coherent. His thoughts were scattered enough as it was, and he wasn’t even sure what he had ordered, even while he was eating.
He had thought, after the waiter first walked away, that he had been overreacting. His stomach still churned, and it took a bit for his heart to restart, but Shion figured he was coming down with some sort of sickness. However, when the grey-eyed waiter returned with their drinks, giving Shion an amused smile as he handed over the tea, Shion could not deny that all of the symptoms from his strange illness were triggered by this boy.
Shion tried to explain his reaction to himself, but he could not. How could he rationalize such feelings, when he’d never felt them before? Shion tried to memorize every single thing he experienced – from the strange pounding spurts of his heart to the scattering of his thoughts to the clumsiness of his hands – so that he could relate them to Safu. She, after all, was the smartest student of psychology that he could name, and she might have a clear answer for his strange symptoms. If it wasn’t psychological, Shion made a mental note to make an appointment at a doctor.
It was somewhat of a relief when Richard insisted it was time to collect the bill, as he had a meeting to catch. Shion wasn’t sure how much more of this confusing reaction to the waiter he could take.
“So, Shion, you’ve been awfully quiet today,” Yoming observed, resting his chin on his folded hands and peering curiously at him.
Shion cursed inwardly. “Umm…”
“You seem to have something else on your mind.”
“Oh, I – ”
“Or should I say, someone else?”
Shion blushed and wished strongly that it was socially acceptable to duck under the table and stay there for a year.
Yoming laughed. “How long is it now?”
Shion looked up. “Wh-what?”
“Until the wedding? Two months?”
Shion blinked, then realized with a jolt that Yoming had assumed Shion was thinking about Safu. Why hadn’t he been thinking about Safu? Why was he wasting time feeling sick over this strange grey-eyed waiter?
“Oh, umm, yeah. No, three, actually. A month after we graduate,” Shion sputtered, trying to get his thoughts in order.
“Ah, of course. It’s mature of you two, to wait until after college. You must be excited, you’ve waited quite a while, haven’t you?”
“They were childhood friends,” Karan added, with a fond smile at her son.
Shion gave her a weak smile back. He was suddenly feeling rather restless. Since Yoming had brought up the wedding, he felt uncomfortably hot. Perhaps it was something he had eaten.
“Yes, I remember. She’s an interesting girl, isn’t she?” Yoming commented.
Shion nodded. He opened his mouth, meaning to attest to how smart Safu was, but for some reason his voice didn’t seem to be working, and he closed his mouth after a moment and settled on a jerky nod.
“In any case, I’m sure your wedding will be beautiful. Karan has put quite a lot of her funds into it,” Richard said, injecting himself into the conversation with a tone that suggested Shion’s mother’s placement of her funds had not been approved by him.
Before anyone could reply to this, another voice joined the discussion. “Did I hear someone mention a wedding?”
Shion looked up so quickly his neck cracked. He rubbed it with the back of his hand as his gaze was again caught by the grey-eyed waiter’s, who had returned to their table.
“My son is getting married,” Karan replied proudly, to this stranger.
The waiter’s gaze flickered for a moment, a strange expression crossing his features that was too quick for Shion to read, before his lips formed a cordial smile.
“Thank you,” Shion replied, but he couldn’t help but notice that the smile turning up the corners of the waiter’s lips reminded him of the business smiles he’d seen by the likes of Richard, men whose emotions – a nonfactor in the business world – were thrown in simply for courtesy, and were even more fake than their obligatory concern for each other’s personal lives.
“We’re ready for our bill,” Richard said flippantly, holding out his hand. Shion felt ashamed for him. He never liked how Richard treated people of other classes, but for some reason, his treatment of this waiter seemed especially rude.
Or was it that Shion was just noticing it more because it was this waiter?
“Here you go. I hope you all enjoyed your meals.”
“They were fine,” Richard remarked mildly, throwing three silver coins into the waiter’s hand. “Let’s go.”
Shion got up hastily, but tripped over his chair leg. Blushing, he stared down at the table so he wouldn’t meet the waiter’s eye again. On the table was the bill Richard had just thrown down. Shion could see that it read exactly three silver coins.
“Come on, Shion,” Karan beckoned.
Shion followed her, and made it to the door of the restaurant before he had a realization. “Richard!”
Richard turned, waiting by the car an attendant had pulled up for them.
“Three silver coins. That’s how much the meal was.”
“Overpriced, I know. Especially as my trout was cold.”
“No, I just mean, well, you paid three coins…”
“Isn’t that how it works? Or should I have given two and a few bronze coins, to teach them to cook trout properly?” Richard asked with a smirk.
Shion shook his head, aghast at the thought. “That’s not what I…What I mean to ask is…What about the, err, the tip?”
Richard regarded Shion with a look that Shion could only read as pity.
“Shion, you tip good servers. Our waiter was much too slow when we first arrived. How else will he learn, if we pay him a tip for bad service?”
“But – ”
“Shion, I have a meeting to get to. I’ll teach you how to treat these kinds of people in the car. Come on.”
These kinds of people? Shion couldn’t take it any longer. He whipped around, ignoring his mother’s call, and stomped back into the restaurant, right back to their table by the corner.
The waiter had been replaced by a bus boy, who was cleaning the dishes. He turned as Shion approached.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“I-uh… I’m looking for a um, a waiter…”
“Who was your waiter? Did you sit at this table?”
“Yeah, we just left. His name was – ” Nezumi, as in the sewer rodent.
“Nezumi? That’s who it was, right? Of course, this is usually Ann’s area, but I’m pretty sure Nezumi was covering her shift.”
“Yes, that was his name.”
“You were his last table. The shift he took actually ended a half hour ago, but he refused to leave halfway through a customer.”
And Richard repaid him with no tip? Shion felt suddenly hot, deep within his stomach, and his hands clenched into fists against his will. He looked down at them, surprised. Why was he acting so strangely?
“So he left?” Even Shion’s voice sounded strange, harsh and rushed. The bus boy’s eyes widened slightly.
“Well, yeah. Why, was his service unsatisfact – Hey! Where are you going?”
Shion was running. He had to leave the restaurant, but not through the main exit where his company awaited. He headed to the back, where he thought the kitchens were, and spotted a black door marked “Employees Only.” He crashed through it, marveling at the sudden adrenaline pumping through his veins. Perhaps he was coming down with an unusual type of fever.
“I’m sorry, sir, I think you’ve gone through the wrong – ”
“Is there an exit out of here?” Shion interrupted the alarmed waiter who’d started talking to him.
The waiter looked confused. “Well, you can just use the door you came through, if you turn around – ”
“No! I mean, an exit to get outside!” Shion shouted. Why was he shouting?
The waiter blinked quizzically, then pointed to the back. “If you keep walking, there’s a door at the very end of the kitchen. But technically, customers aren’t supposed to – Wait!”
Shion was already running, and slammed out the back door, finding himself in an alleyway. He glanced down both sides, but it was completely empty. He was too late.
Shion slumped against the wall of the alleyway, catching his breath. If he really wanted to pursue this, he’d have to pick a direction and follow it, hoping he was right. But should he continue? Shion wasn’t really sure what he was doing, standing there in his dress clothes, leaning against a wall, catching his breath as he tried to track down a waiter just to give him a stupid tip. Shion wasn’t even sure that he had brought any money with him.
He was just digging his hand in his jacket pocket when the back door slammed open next to him, making him jump.
“Right, tonight then, see you,” a familiar voice called back through the door, before the owner of the voice stepped out, coming face to face with Shion.
The waiter blinked at him, his grey eyes widened in surprise. After less than a second, however, his features were composed again, and his expression sported a smirk. “I think you’ve lost your way, sir. Shall I help you back?”
“No! I followed you!” Shion breathed.
One of the waiter’s eyebrows rose. “You did?” His smirk grew in a way that irritated Shion. “Was my service so unsatisfactory that you had to give a personal complaint?”
Now that the waiter was so close to him, Shion could see that he was indeed his age. Shion thought this would make him less intimidating, but that was unfortunately not the case.
Something, however, was changing. Just looking at the calm grey eyes, Shion felt the fire in his stomach begin to quell, and no longer had the urge to yell. He blinked as he realized what had come over him. Anger. He had been angry. Shion couldn’t remember the last time he’d been angry – truly angry – and wondered why such a reaction had erupted in him over this grey-eyed waiter’s tip.
“Uh, no, that wasn’t it at all,” Shion mumbled, suddenly feeling foolish over his haste. Richard, Yoming, and his mother would be waiting for him, wondering why he had run off so quickly. As it was, Shion wasn’t quite sure why he had tried to follow this boy. “I, uh, I – we forgot to give you this.”
Shion closed a fist around his pocket’s contents and held his hand out to the waiter. The waiter peered at his palm, and his expression grew – if it were even possible – more skeptical.
“Why are you offering me a bronze coin and a mint? Did my breath reek so horribly?”
“What? No! Oh, I thought I had more,” Shion mumbled, even more embarrassed. He closed his fist and jammed his hand in his pocket, but on second thought, pulled back out just the coin. “This is all I have on me right now, but I can return with more, if you’d give me your – ”
“More bronze coins?”
Shion felt his blush deepen. “Silver too!”
The waiter took a step back and held up his hands. “Why are you giving me your pocket money? I don’t need charity, I can assure you, I’m – ”
“No!” Shion protested, feeling more mortified by the second. “It’s not charity, it’s, it’s your tip.” Shion ducked his head, ashamed.
“Yes,” Shion replied, still staring at his shoes. “We, er, forgot to give you one, so – ”
“Forgot, did you?”
Shion looked back up. “I’m incredibly sorry! I can’t apologize enough!”
“You already have.” The waiter contemplated Shion for a moment, his grey eyes seeming to x-ray him. Shion wondered what the waiter saw, with such a calculating gaze. “Keep your money.”
“But, I don’t need it!”
The grey eyes flashed, and Shion had the sudden urge to run in the opposite direction. The waiter’s amused expression immediately changed to one of wrath. “And I do?”
Shion stared, horrified. “No, that’s not what I – ”
“I already told you, I don’t need your charity, and I don’t want your pity money. I know I’m just a poor kid in your high class standards, but just because I don’t have your mansions doesn’t mean I don’t have every once of dignity that you do – no, double that. I will not grovel at your feet so you throw me money, Your Highness.”
The waiter whipped around and began to stride away, and Shion was struck again by his elegance as he watched him leave, his mouth hanging open in shock.
“Wait!” Shion called, once he found his voice again, but the waiter did not turn around, and Shion watched him walk out of sight, leaving Shion with his hand outstretched, a single bronze coin still shining in his open palm.