Her name was Madeleine, for the cake.
She ordered two strawberry sponges, the sort you sold off as shortcake (it was a common baker's common lie, to the population), and her voice – it was homemade whipped cream, dollops of it, soft and fluffy and sweet. Her laugh was the sound a spoon makes when one taps the burnt sugar glaze on crème brulée: melodious, bright, clear, crisp, sudden.
It was the fifteenth of February. And you looked up from boxing three pink vanilla éclairs to see the owner of that whipped cream voice and she was there, coffee fur and chocolate eyes, staring at the cake behind the glass like it was Fyora-sent. A smile on her face, like this was all she ever wanted. And your heart melted like ice cream cake did in the sun.
The Lupe that stood behind her had a name, too, and it was Francis.
He was spotted, a mottled mess of blacks and whites and oranges. Two triangles of white, sharp and shining, peeked out from his muzzle, a heavy contrast to his grey-brown fur. He was broad-chested, heavy-pawed, and nearly two times larger than yourself.
The pang in your heart was neither jealousy (it was tamer), nor fear (you were stupidly confident).
It was injustice – for it was indeed an atrocity that such a Xweetok such as her should be spending all her sunsets with one such as him. But you and she were strangers in a world where true love was a thing only heard about in faerietales.
When you handed her the box of sponges your fingers touched: her fur was finely sifted flour, powdered sugar before it's sprinkled.
She returned half a week later, after much pacing and hoping and worry and panic and too many broken eggs.
You were in the kitchen, layering puff pastries, and a burst of white fluff appeared by your side in the form of Chantilly. And in her lilting, lovely voice, she told you that there was a girl at the counter who wanted to give you her thanks.
The custard bowl tipped over and landed on Chantilly's shoes and you told her you would give her an extra paycheck but by that time you were running.
She was as pretty as you remembered, all cocoa and caramel and untainted clover honey.
And she thanked you so much for those two little cakes and when she had finished talking you stood silent, open-mouthed, staring – you had tried to taste every syllable of her white whipped cream voice and the taste and the texture was making your brain turn slowly but surely to frosting.
She bought another strawberry sponge and two cookies along with it.
You did not see her for a month, and you had given up almost all hope when she turned up again.
It was early in the morning on a Tuesday – the sun had barely risen and you were still rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. You walked in from the kitchen and saw her, there, kneeling down with her paws and her nose to the display case, surveying the rows of confections Chantilly had baked two hours earlier with nothing but awe in her chestnut eyes.
You stopped for a moment, then, and just watched her, an inescapable smile crossing your face. The joy you saw in people's eyes when they smelled what came out of your oven, the delight when they bit into a tart, a pie, a doughnut that you'd made with your own paws – it was worth the late nights and early mornings, Marie's backtalk and Castor's clumsiness. It was worth layering croissants and filling pies and icing sheet cakes and it was even worth burning your fingers when you did not have the time to search for your oven mitts.
She looked up and saw you, hastily stood up and dusted herself off, and to this day you regret the loss of the feeling – it was the warmth of fresh chocolate-chip cookies, all fuzzy and fragrant and full. You had no time to pretend like you weren't just staring.
Casually you mentioned that you hadn't seen her in the shop for a while. Francis has been on a trip, she said, and then she stopped as if she'd just said something she shouldn't have, and you saw her pupils contract to pinpoints in her fear.
You frowned. Then her expression returned to normal, and she acted like her fumble had never occurred.
She took home a box of Palmiers and a strawberry sponge and said she'd back in a fortnight exactly.
You heard in her voice and saw in her eyes that if she did not return then, she would not return ever. And part of you shattered as you saw her tail disappear through the door and out onto the street.
A little less than two weeks later you stood in front of the island in the middle of the kitchen, the one where you usually worked. In fact, the ingredients before you were nothing new. They were simple, familiar – eggs, milk, flour, sugar; the basics, nothing complicated. Your spatula and your whisk were to your right, two bowls of thin steel rested at your left. You did not need a measuring cup for what you were about to do.
Yes, it was not as if this were anything you'd never done before – it would have been easy to go through the motions like you had a thousand times prior. Normally you'd make the sponge in batches, with an electric mixer and trays rather than a separate tin. You just wanted this one to be special. You wanted this one to be hers.
For five minutes you stood, overwhelmed by the thought of it all.
Then you whisked your sugar and your eggs, folded it into the rest of the ingredients, poured your affection into the batter in the same way you poured the milk. She filled your mind and your heart and your every breath and your chest grew heavy with the weight but the sun was pouring through the window – it was bright and blurry and the beams were caught in your tangled web of thinking, filling you up to the brim with sunlight.
Sixteen minutes after you finished, the smell of cake filled the room, warm and sweet, and you pulled your tin out of the oven and set it down gently on the counter. It would take ten minutes to cool and you leaned back against the wall, crossed your arms. You felt brighter now, somehow lighter, like the strange pressure in your chest had been – not removed, really, but expanded, filled with air that increased the volume and not the mass. It was in every bit of you from the tips of your ears to your toes instead of smothering your heart. And it felt beautiful.
You whipped the bowl of cream yourself and frosted the cake, cut the reddest strawberries you could find and put them on as if they would crack like eggs if you pressed too hard.
That next day, you took over the counter from Marie and let her bake the day's confections. You did not trust her for a second, of course, but you were willing to lose one day's profit if it meant seeing more of her.
Your heart was broken by eight in the evening, when you turned the sign on the front door so that the moon shone down on the painted word Closed.
You sighed to keep the tears from your closed eyes and put your forehead to the glass as if standing there just a little bit longer would make her appear.
And you truly thought that it would. You had your paw pressed against the door for hours, whispering your hopes and prayers to no one in particular. She would come. Any moment now she would rap her dainty knuckles on the glass and apologise for being so late; she would sit with you in the kitchen with her chocolate eyes sparkling in the moonlight and eat the strawberry sponge you'd made for her the day before, talk to you about everything and anything and you'd tease and make her laugh her crème brulée laugh; you would.
Just one last time, you begged, feeling tears stream down in rivers, and your chest screamed for air even though your breaths were heavy. Let me hear her whipped cream voice just one last time.
You pounded a fist against the glass and knew that she would not return.
You fell asleep from exhaustion when the sky began to grey, with your head against the door and the fur on your cheeks matted with tears. You awoke a few hours later when Chantilly opened the door and nearly pushed you backwards; she gasped and helped you up and asked what you had been doing on the floor.
The weight on your heart was massive and strangling, every breath you took hurting like there were needles in your lungs. You had been burned many times before, from cake tins and oven fires and too-hot caramel, but this time flames licked you from the inside and ate away at you and you felt your veins being overcooked and turned to blackened rubble, ash that was unrecognisable.
You simply shook your head at Chantilly as you stepped back towards the kitchen, still staring like a dead man out the glass pane of the door at the few early risers walking down the sidewalk. How the world could keep on spinning when she was gone, you did not know.
The sponge cake was still on the counter in the kitchen, pretty but stiff and inedible by now.
You stared at it, numb, and then turned back.
Chantilly, you said, slowly, quietly. Would you like to own a bakery?
Yes, sort of, she said, perplexed.
Into her paws you pressed the shop keys that were on the display case. She had her own copy but you did not want to see them again.
She stared at them, speechless, and by the time she looked up to express her bewilderment you were out the door in the chilly April air.
You were not the only one who never saw her again. She had disappeared from the world entirely, and according to records, she had never existed.
But you knew that her name was Madeleine, for the cake.