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Almond Blossoms

I.

Shinbi supposed modeling was inded a glamorous job. If you lived the life she was posing for. Though nothing in the world would make posing on a block of ice in a thin little mini dress glamorous. She didn't care if her blue eyes and blue hair made her perfect for the shoot, she was now chilled to the bone. It was winter on top of it. Somehow, she misheard the weather report. Her jacket was too thin, she didn't have a scarf, hat or gloves. She was just cold. She could have gone straight home but she was also hungry because she hadn't eaten anything all day. She wanted desperately to warm up somewhere, anywhere. It was evening and though there were many places to eat and get coffee, she wasn't interested in having her picture taken anywhere, not when her nose was so red and she knew she had to be deathly pale from the cold.

Shinbi could only think of one place that would provide warmth, food, and refuge. She walked up the stairs to Banjul the cafe she and her friends had frequented for years. She felt a little dizzy walking in like her mind was full of seltzer water. It was the sudden warmth after being so cold. She was met at the door by Hobin. Never before had he been a sight for sore eyes but he was that day.

"Hello again. Here by yourself?" he said. She nodded silently.

"You seem disoriented. Do you want to take my arm while I show you to a table?" he said. Shinbi shook her head and followed him. She didn't know if this was a form of brain freeze. She just felt like she couldn't move. She sat back in the chair she was shown to and though she felt the menu in her hand, she felt like she was locked miles away under the ice in the Arctic.

"Would you like the usual or do you need a moment to decide?" he asked. She looked up at him and squinted. She couldn't really see his face clearly.

"Mr...Hobin..." she said. She lurched forward and blacked out.

#

When she woke, she was in a rather sumptuous looking office on a divan. She thought perhaps she had stumbled into this dream model life she always posed in. She sat up but promptly laid back down. Her head was spinning. She stared at the ceiling. She had to be in Hobin's office. She knew very well that Tei liked to do the finances and such at his home office. She cuddled in the blanket spread over her, was there also a jacket? She ran her hand over it. If only she had this instead.of the jacket she had worn to the cafe. The door creaked open and Shinbi thought she'd see Zion or Hobin. Instead it was John, the cat. He jumped on the divan and pressed his small body against her chest. She held him and stroked his fur and he purred.

"Thanks for helping me keep warm," she said. She smiled a little. The door then fully opened. Hobin was there with a bowl.

"I sent John in first to see if you were awake," he said. There were probably a lot of things very strange about what he said. Shinbi registered all the possibilities but did not mention any of them or react to them.

"You must be hungry," he said. She nodded.

"I was going to eat this for my lunch. Obviously it's so late I ate something else instead. You need it more. Chicken congee. My mother used to make it when I was sick," he said. "It seems like you might be soon if you continue to dress so poorly in this weather."

"Miscalculation on my part..." she said and trailed off. John slipped from her arms and slinked toward Hobin. The cat rubbed his body against his legs as Hobin handed her the bowl of soup.

"Eat first, I'll make you a cup of hot water. Then if you're up to it, I'll give you some tea and biscuts."

Shinbi nodded and started to eat. It had been a long time since she had congee. Her white fingers had turned pink now that blood was flowing to them and they tingled. Hobin and John returned with the hot water. She bowed her head in thanks and he nodded in return and left her. She was no longer cold and hungry but now she was drowsy. She closed her eyes and and shivered a bit. She felt bad to sleep in Hobin's office. This was sort of his private area. She took long sips of hot water. She was just too tired to move.

The quiet in the room was quite the contrast to the shoot she had been at all day. There was shouting and lights everywhere. Shinbi felt a chill down her spine. It was done. They got all the pictures they wanted and then they'd air brush her into some farce of perfection. She had class the next day and she had to finish her homework. It was so warm here and so cold outside. She languished on the divan a bit more. She wondered of Mr. Hobin ever had to sleep here. It was quite long, possibly long enough to accommodate him if he had to stay at Banjul over night for any reason. The door opened again, this time revealing Eri and Tei. Eri had her bag with medical supplies and seemed fresh from her shift at the hospital. As in she looked exhausted.

"Are you all right, Shinbi!" Eri said as she knelt by her side and took her hand.

"I'm fine," she said. Eri didn't listen and took her pulse immediately. She then took her temperature and asked a few questions.

"You're not running a fever but you said you didn't eat all day until Hobin fed you?" Eri asked.

"Yes. I am fine otherwise," she said.

Eri shook her head, "No way. You might be developing a cold now because you didn't dress well or eat today and that shoot you were on was too cold. Tei and I will drive you home."

"Thank you," Shinbi said. She wasn't going to debate that too much. She hadn't been looking forward to walking home. Eri helped Shinbi to stand and once she was sure she was on her feet, let her walk toward the exit. Hobin was there and Shinbi looked around the cafe. It was nearing closing time and it was rather empty.

"Thanks for calling me Mr. Hobin," Eri said. "We'll take her home."

Hobin had John in his arms and nodded thoughtfully while scratching the cat's head.

"Wait right here," he said. Shinbi watched him as he disappeared toward his office. Tei and Eri whispered to each other, but Shinbi didn't think what they were saying was important to her. She shivered at the thought of going outside in that cold, but she'd bite her tongue and make it the few feet to the car. Hobin returned with a coat, scarf and gloves.

"Oh, are you joining us?" Tei asked.

"No," Hobin said flatly. He held the jacket open and Shinbi stared at him with wide eyes.

"Well, come on. Let me help you put it on," he said. She bowed.

"No. I'm sorry I inconvenienced you and slept in your office. But I can make it to the car," she said. Hobin sighed and put the coat over her shoulders, leaving her with no choice but to put her arms through the sleeves.

"Now these," he said holding out a pair of gloves. She took them without meeting his eyes. He handed her the scarf and hat and she put them on.

"Zip up the jacket. Don't make me do it for you," he said. She was now quite embarrassed and couldn't even look at him. She felt completely incompetent.

"Somehow, you manage to make Mr. Hobin's oversized coat look adorable, Shinbi," Eri said. Shinbi kept her eyes on the ground. Being pretty did not make her feel less stupid.

"Are you saying it doesn't look good on me?" Hobin said.

"Well, Mr. Hobin. I can't compare the way it looks on an old man like you to the way it looks on this lovely young lady who is a model, I might add," Tei said. Hobin crossed his arms and Shinbi bowed again to get them to stop teasing him.

"Thank you for helping me. I'm sorry for bothering you," she said.

"No bother. You're a loyal customer, the least I can do is help you when you faint in my cafe," he said.

Eri took her arm and started to lead her down the stairs. Shinbi glanced over her shoulder at Hobin who waved good bye. She smiled and went along with Tei and Eri.

#

The next morning Shinbi woke up feeling like her body was tied to the bed with ropes. She struggled to even sit up and her throat hurt so much. She got up and slapped her homework together as best she could, now glad she had enough foresight to finish most of it before the shoot. She brushed her teeth and got dressed in a hurry. Perhaps most people thought models dressed well all the time. Well, the only difference for Shinbi was that she owned a lot of really nice clothes but she'd just kind of throw things together and hope they looked all right. Her appearance was not all that important to her. She reached for her own winter coat but she had an idea. She put on her own coat in her bag for later and put on her own hat, scarf, and gloves. She put on Hobin's coat and headed for the bus.

She had a few minutes of peace before she was followed around by the paparazzi. She pulled her scarf over her nose and mouth both to hide her face and disguise the coughs that slipped out. She didn't acknowledge them and they just wanted pictures of her to make up stories. So long as they weren't too scandalous she didn't think much of it. They were always speculating about her weight and bust size. Hobin's coat was the perfect armor today. It didn't fit her perfectly and fell to her knees. For at least the morning her body was hidden and her own, not something to be examined by others. Though she supposed people would speculate she was pregnant or something. When she went back to her normal coat later, that could be dispelled.

When she finally got on the bus a few people took pictures but most had seen her often enough to no longer be star struck. Shinbi wondered how she could thank Hobin. He didn't need a new coat obviously. Though it didn't fit her, she could tell by the cut that it fit him perfectly. Something coffee or tea related? No, he probably had it all.

Something for John? No, it had to be for Hobin. Unless...Shinbi got an idea. She pulled her scarf back over her nose to hide her smile.

#

Class went well, though she had trouble disguising her coughing. Afterward, she headed to the fashion wing to see Soi. Soi was wearing glasses and stooped over a sewing machine. Shinbi walked over and rubbed Soi's back.

"Don't sit like that. It will ruin your back," she said. Soi looked up at her and tore off her glasses.

"I have a bone to pick with you!" she said jabbing them in her direction.

Shinbi blinked rapidly as Soi fished for her phone. She held it up and showed her the picture from a website on her screen.

"What is the meaning of this! Why are you wearing such a large jacket?" Soi said.

Shinbi raised an eyebrow. She didn't expect them to have the pictures up that quickly. It had only been a few hours.

"It was comfortable. I don't like people seeing the shape of my body all the time," she said.

"Ugh...I want men to see how hot you are so they know how much they don't deserve you," Soi said.

"The world doesn't work that way," Shinbi said.

"Do you still have it so I can burn it?" Soi said.

"Don't burn it. It's not my coat."

Soi furrowed her eyebrows, "Not your coat?"

"I needed a heavier coat yesterday so I borrowed it from someone," she said.

"I see," Soi said.

"I need to get him a gift so I can say thank you. Will you come with me?" Shinbi asked.

Soi's eyes widened, "Him?"

Shinbi nodded. She wasn't expecting Soi to squeal quite so loudly.

"Can I know who it is? Is he hot? Do you like him? When did you guys start--"

"It's just Hobin. I fainted at Banjul yesterday and--"

"You fainted? Why didn't Zion or Eri tell me!" Soi cried.

"Eri is probably sleeping from her long shift at the hospital, and Zion probably went straight to work before you even woke up," Shinbi said.

"Yeah, but someone could have told me! Tei didn't even tell me. The nerve. Are you all right?"

"Clearly."

Shinbi didn't want to say that her throat was hurting very badly and that she'd been stifling coughs since they started talking.

"Fine. And you want to get Hobin a gift?" Soi said.

"Yes. I know what I want to give him."

"So why do you need me?"

Shinbi pressed her lips together and lowered her gaze. She didn't now how to explain why she wanted Soi with her. Soi took her hands.

"I understand," she said. "Wait a few minutes."

Shinbi went outside and leaned against the wall. A few people took pictures of her. She saw them but did not react. She was too busy feeling unsettled. Hobin must think she was so stupid. He helped her but he had to condescend to her. Shinbi was unaccustomed to feeling embarrassed. She didn't know why she was. She supposed Hobin was someone she respected a bit and didn't want him to think of her as a silly, thoughtless model. She met eyes with the girl taking a picture of her at the moment. The girl blushed and ran off and Shinbi looked down at her boots.

Like everyone else. I'm just a soulless doll to him, she thought. She scratched that. She'd rather he believe she was soulless than stupid. Now things were ruined. He had to think she was an airhead. She could at least amend it so he could think she was a grateful airhead.

Soi came out and took her friend by the arm.

"Are you ready?" she asked. Shinbi nodded. She hoped things would go well.

#

Shinbi almost didn't want to go into Banjul but she walked up the stairs at Soi's prompting. She really hated this feeling of embarrassment but she also really liked the atmosphere at Banjul and the coffee there. So she swallowed her pride to reclaim peace in a place she loved. Zion met them at the door.

"Hey guys! Good to see you!" he said. He kissed Soi on the cheek and she giggled.

"I have such an affectionate boyfriend," she cooed. Shinbi was unmoved by the scene as it happened so often the cuteness was lost on her.

"Where is Mr. Hobin?" she asked.

"In his office," he said. Soi's expression changed to one of anger.

"That's right! You didn't tell me Shinbi fainted while she was here last night!" she said.

"I'm sorry. You were sleeping when I came home and when I woke up. I couldn't wake you when you looked so cute," Zion said. Shinbi raised an eyebrow. Zion was getting really good at staying out of trouble with Soi.

"May I see Mr. Hobin?" Shinbi said.

"Um...sure, I'll ask him to come out," he said. Shinbi had hoped to be able to see him in his office away from the eyes of people but this was good enough. Zion seated them at a table first. It was only a few minutes before Hobin came out.

"Hello, ladies. Oh, you're back so soon. I thought for sure you'd be under your covers with a fever," he said to Shinbi.

She shook her head, "No. I went to class today and everything. I wanted to return your things."

She held up a bag with his coat, hat, gloves and scarf inside. He took it with a slight smile.

"Thank you," he said.

"Were you cold today without them?" she asked.

"No. I have other coats to wear. I'm glad you dressed better today," he said.

"And...I bought a gift for you and John. For keeping me warm," she said. She held up two small boxes. He took them both. He opened his first.

"Black on black paisley silk bow tie. Very nice," he said. It was the second box that had her a little nervous. He opened the top and his face became completely blank. Shinbi thought she had the corner on expressionlessness, but he was infinitely more unreadable.

"This is for John?" he said.

"Yes," she replied. He took it out with his index finger and thumb, a white collar with a bow tie. He looked at her with narrowed eyes before he bit his lip and snickered. That snickering slowly turned into boisterous laughter. Shinbi was nervous at first. She had never really seen Hobin display much emotion but she found herself laughing as well. Soi and Zion on the other hand were dumbfounded into silence.

"Oh, god! I need to turn on my video camera! Mr. Hobin and Shinbi are laughing together! Eri and Tei will never believe us when we tell them!" Soi cried.

Hobin calmed down and Soi was disappointed that she only caught the tail end of their laughter.

"You guys!" she whined.

Hobin shook his head.

"Thank you, Miss. I shall treasure my gift and I'm certain John will treasure his. I'll be serving you today. What will you have?" he asked.

"Hot chocolate!" Soi said.

"Just black coffee," Shinbi said.

"Right away," he said. Zion shook his head as he watched Hobin head to the counter to make their drinks.

"I have never seen him laugh that hard. Ever. It's like you have magic powers, Shinbi!" he said.

Shinbi didn't acknowledge anything. She honestly had no idea what his laughing meant. Did he now think she was a stupid, grateful, funny model? What did he even think of her? Zion took a step back in fear as he watched Hobin.

"Oh, god, he's smiling while he's working! Shinbi, you've unleashed a monster!" he said. She turned and looked at him. She didn't see anything different about him.

"I've got to go work before something bad happens. I don't know what this means!" he said. Shinbi was glad she wasn't the only one confused. If Hobin was indeed smiling, did he think she was a pretty, dumb model who did dumb things to make him laugh? This gift thing might have back fired. Maybe she shouldn't have gotten the gift for John. It was a terrible mistake.

He returned with their drinks. He set her coffee a bit farther from her.

"Before you drink that, you might want to drink this first. It's good for a sore throat and soothes coughing," he said setting a cup of tea in front of her. Shinbi looked up at him.

"You've been holding in all your coughs, I could tell by the way your shoulders trembled," he said. Soi blinked rapidly and Shinbi looked down at her hands.

"Really? Shinbi you have that much control? You've been sick this whole time?" Soi shouted.

"Thank you," Shinbi said softly and obediently sipped the tea to distract herself. Soi scolded her and Shinbi did everything she could to keep from crying. He knew she was getting sick. She had never been so mortified in her life. She forced herself to calm down. Hobin was just another person. It didn't matter what he thought. She drank her tea and coffee and went home after with no incident.

When she got home she leaned her back against the door and let a coughing attack get the better of her. She slid to the ground covered her mouth. She couldn't hide it from him. He knew. What did he think of her? Why did she even care?

Shinbi did something she hadn't done in a long time. She curled up on the ground and cried. She was probably running a low grade fever and Hobin thought she was stupid and incompetent. Hobin wasn't exactly in her circle of friends but he was close enough that she'd hope he would know better. But she didn't make things better by doing stupid things. She crawled into bed and cried herself to sleep, which didn't help with the stuffy nose and coughing.
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