“Excuse me… pardon me… excuse me…” Mitsuo Shiozu was late. Again. Hasu-chan was going to kill him. Again. He dodged and twisted and ducked, narrowly avoiding the crowds of shoppers while managing to keep hold of his own package. A pale old man wandered out from the end of an alley and Mitsuo ducked out of his way with a quick apology before he realized that everyone else was walking right through him.
Oh great, another ghost. Mitsuo ignored him and continued to dart through the crowd as fast as he could politely manage. He should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. A voice followed him down the street.
“Wait! Wait! You can see me? Please come back….”
“Sorry, don’t have time right now,” Mitsuo shouted over his shoulder, leaving some startled pedestrians in his wake. He turned the corner and picked up speed, and didn’t let up until he reached the temple.
Hasunuma met him at the gate but instead of greeting him with a kiss, he looked suspiciously down the road. “You didn’t run into any ghosts, did you?”
“Haha. Of course not. I’m being careful, don’t worry,” he panted, handing over the bag of fresh plums he’d picked up to make up for his tardiness. He was doing his best to be careful. He carried fresh charms with him every morning and didn’t speak to strangers…mostly… came straight home after school… more or less. It wasn’t his fault that he had been sprayed with water on his way past the florist shop this afternoon and his charms had gotten wet and that maybe the ink had run a little and that they kind of maybe didn’t work the way they should.
“Hm,” was Hasunuma’s doubtful reply, his eyes scanning the street one last time. Mistuo plastered on his brightest smile and threw his arms around his boyfriend. They’d been together long enough that Mitsuo knew how to distract Hasunuma quite thoroughly. The subject was dropped and his lateness was not even mentioned. The plums were forgotten.
The next day, Mitsuo took a slightly different route home from school. It might take a bit longer but he didn’t want to run into that ghost again. It was tough now that he and Hasunuma had graduated and didn’t spend every day together. He was studying even harder now, taking extra classes to try to get into university while Hasunuma was in a program – all the way on the other side of town – to become a physical therapist. Mikuni had been great and let them continue to live at the temple, but even so it hardly seemed like they had enough time together.
“Um, excuse me.” It was that voice again. From yesterday. He looked around in a panic. His charms were new and he noted that the ghost was hovering a few arm-lengths away and looked a bit pained.
“Please help me,” he said.
Nonononononooooo. “I really can’t,” he said, pointedly not looking at the figure hovering by his side.
“Please! It’s been years! You are the first…”
“NO!” shouted Mistuo, putting his hands over his ears. He’d promised Hasunuma he would not get roped into another ghost’s problems.
“Please! I don’t have much time…”
“No!” Mistuo tried to ignore the sadness and desperation in the man’s voice. He tried not to look when the man floated in front of him – his hair flecked with grey, crow’s feet at the corner of his kind eyes.
“Please…” Mitsuo walked through him, hands still clapped over his ears even though it did not prevent him hearing. The man groaned as the charms pushed him away, but a few moments later he drifted back as close as he could get. “I only want to cook something!” Mitsuo stopped in his tracks, and the man quickly swooped around to face him, looking pathetically hopeful.
“Yes, yes. Please – just one dish.”
That didn’t sound so bad. What harm could that do? And the old man looked sort of sweet. Then Hasunuma’s skeptical countenance swam into Mitsuo’s vision and he shook his head.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. I promised my… someone, that I wouldn’t get involved with ghosts anymore.”
The man’s face fell, and before he could renew his pleas, Mitsuo ran away as fast as he could.
He was out of breath when he reached home, but Hasunuma didn’t ask about it – only scanned the road with a frown on his face. “You’ve got your charms on you, right?”
“Of course, silly.” Telling his overprotective boyfriend about the harmless old man would only upset him for no reason. It wasn’t like Mitsuo was going to help the guy out or anything. Hasunuma need never know anything about it. “I was just getting some exercise,” he said to explain his panting. “Gotta keep in shape so I can keep wearing you out in bed.”
“You wearing me out? Who was the one who…” Mitsuo shut him up with a kiss.
Through a series of elaborate routes, Mitsuo managed to avoid the ghost for the next two days, but on the third, the man was waiting for him as he left the school grounds. Mitsuo looked around desperately for a place to hide and settled for diving behind a bush. It didn’t help.
“Please,” the old man begged, peaking around the foliage, “this is my last chance. I just need your help tonight and I won’t ever bother you again.” Mitsuo resolve wavered. If it would only take the one night, then he wouldn’t have to keep avoiding him and acting all jumpy and having to distract Hasunuma with sex which was frankly starting to get tiring and he had an exam coming up and…
“Just one dish?” he heard himself asking. The man perked up considerably.
“Yes, yes. Just one. A masterpiece!! I was a chef, you know – a great chef – but the night I was going to make my greatest masterpiece – my ultimate creation – for the most important food critic in the country, I died. Heart attack. Can you imagine? The stupid thing just gave out and there was nothing anyone could do. I felt so betrayed.”
Mistuo, who was being jabbed in the spine and several lower spots by branches, abandoned his hiding spot. “So, you want me to cook this one dish for you and give it to this critic guy and I can go on my way?”
“Yes, yes. It will be simple.” A warning bell went off in Mitsuo’s head but he ignored it. He had to get rid of this guy so he could stop having sex and pass his exam.
“Nakamura,” he said eagerly. “Nakamura Shinji.” Mitsuo introduced himself in return, then took the charms out of his pockets, and with one last impression of Hasunuma’s exasperated face, tossed them away.
“Oh, thank you!” Mr. Nakamura gushed and threw his arms around his benefactor. Before Mitsuo could even shout a protest, he was outside of his body, watching Mr. Nakamura run off down the street. Hasunuma was going to kill him.
“Wait, wait!!” he shouted when he caught up to him. “My house is that way.” He pointed in the opposite direction for emphasis.
“We need to go to my kitchen,” his rogue body exclaimed. “Well, my restaurant’s kitchen. That’s where Mr. Shigeta will be tonight at 11 o’clock. We have just enough time to get everything ready.”
“Your restaurant? Where is that?” The ghost didn’t answer him – just kept running.
“A HOST CLUB????” Mistuo tried with all his might to fight his way back into his body and get it away from there, but Mr. Nakamura was stronger than he looked.
“Of course,” the ghost said, hooking a right down the alley. “This is where I worked for the last twenty years of my life.”
“You said you were a chef!”
“I was. And this ,” he said with pride, opening up a nondescript door, “was my kitchen.” He disappeared inside and Mitsuo had no choice but to follow him.
Inside there was the hustle and bustle of chopping and steaming and sizzling. A large man looked up from a pot of soup with an annoyed glare.
“Who are you?” he demanded gruffly.
“Don’t you recognize me??” the ghost Mitsuo answered.
“No. Should I?”
“It’s me – Naka….” He trailed off as he caught sight of Mitsuo waving his arms frantically. “um, hara… Nakahara – I’m the new dishwasher.”
“I don’t know anything about that.” Nakamura blinked up at the man with Mitsuo’s lost-little-boy eyes – the very ones Mitsuo used to get Hasunuma to stop studying and take off all his clothes.
“Hey! Hey!!! You stop that!” Mitsuo shouted at the body thief, but it was too late. The soup-stirring man had already gone all wibbly and sent Nakamura over to the sink.
Over the course of the next hour, Mitsuo watched and hovered and glared and threatened but nothing could get Nakamura out of this body. Instead the ghost pretended to wash dishes while he secretly gathered ingredients from various parts of the kitchen. As things began to pick up with the evening crowd coming in, he had to turn his attention to the mass of dishes that were piling up. Someone shouted and pointed, and Nakamura ran over to an overflowing trash bin, pulled the bag out and headed out to the alley.
Mitsuo was just about to renew his demands when a black figure swooped out of the darkness and enveloped his body. With a familiar tug and swirling sensation he was back in his body looking up into the concerned eyes of his boyfriend.
“Ha…Ha…Hasu-chan. Hehe… How did you find me?? You brought more charms, I see. That’s… that’s great… I can explain….It’s not what it looked like… It … it was an accident.”
Hasunuma smiled and kissed him on the tip of his nose. “Let me guess… Some ghost talked you into helping him and he ran away with your body and took you to a host club.”
“Um, well, now that you put it that way it sounds kind of…”
Mitsuo was about to protest when Hasunuma ruffled his hair then patted his ass. “Why don’t we go home and you can tell me all about it.” Over Hasunuma’s shoulder, the ghost of Mr. Nakamura was hovering despondently.
“Please….” he begged. “This is my last chance… Mr. Shigeta is retiring this week. He’ll never get to taste my masterpiece…”
Mitsuo looked at Hasunuma then at Mr. Nakamura then back at his boyfriend then back to the ghost. It was easy for Hasunuma to tell him to forget it – he didn’t have to hear the ghost’s voice, didn’t have to see the sad eyes desperate to make peace with his life and move on. His gaze fell back on his boyfriend, who sighed.
“I recognize that look. You’re still going to help him, aren’t you.”
“Yeah. It’s just for tonight. Don’t worry – all he has to do is cook this one dish…”
“My MASTERPIECE,” Nakamura corrected.
“…and we’ll be done.”
“If you do the cooking and he directs you, then I have no problem with it. Just don’t let him take over your body again.” He looked stern which always made Mitsuo rebellious, but then his look softened and he pressed a kiss to Mistuo’s neck, just below the ear – the spot that turned him to absolute jelly. “Please?”
Mitsuo breathed out unsteadily and managed a rough “Okay.”
Hasunuma stepped away and turned in the general direction of the hovering ghost. He opened one side of his jacket to reveal a wall of charms. “You got that, Mr. Ghost? Hands OFF.”
Nakamura floated back a few feet and held up his hands in protest. “Yes, yes, that’s fine. Just put those away!”
“He agrees,” Mitsuo said. “Now you just wait here, and I’ll be back at 11.”
“Eleven?? That’s three…” Mitsuo disappeared back into the kitchen before the protest was finished.
Mitsuo had just managed to sneak a chicken into a marinade when a hand fell onto his shoulder.
“What are you doing here?”
Mitsuo felt his heart sink. He scrambled to come up with a reason to explain his presence as he was turned around to face a tall, handsome man in an expensive black suit.
“You are supposed to be out front.”
“I … I am?”
“Yes – we are swamped with clients. What are you doing washing dishes?”
“I…I…” The man tore off Mitsuo’s apron impatiently and looked him over, his eyes warming as they took in the boy in front of him.
“Well, well, well,” he smiled. “You are much cuter than Kanaka said you were.” He unbuttoned the top two buttons of Mitsuo’s shirt and ran a hand through his hair, mussing it up artfully. “I might not want to share you.”
“Share? Who’s Kenji?”
“The owner,” the ghost hissed in his ear as Mitsuo tried to fend off the man’s octopus hands. “That’s Toto, the manager.”
“Oh…yeah…right… Mr. Kanaka….”
“He promised me someone new, but he’s outdone himself, I must say!” With that the man propelled him gently but firmly out of the kitchen and out into the club.
“I’ll just wait here and keep an eye on things…” Nakamura said as the door closed on him.
“There’s no time for that,” Toto hissed as he guided Mitsuo over to a young man in a rumpled business suit sitting at the bar. “Don’t mess this up – he is our best customer,” Toto growled in his ear. It tickled and Mitsuo was still rubbing it when that reached the new man.
“I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. You wanted our newest employee and here he is.” He paused when he had no name to introduce. Mitsuo supplied his own name but he was too busy trying to think of a way out of this which did not involve Hasunuma finding out and killing him that he didn’t listen to the customer’s name.
Before he knew it they ended up at a secluded table in the corner and the man was saying “Call me Kenji.”
Mitsuo just blinked at the man, his mind totally blank. Then the man’s face broke into a genuine smile and it turned out he was handsome, if a little tired looking.
“Your first time, huh?”
“Wha….?” Mitsuo felt himself turn red as images of his and Hasunuma’s “first time” streamed through his mind. He could never look at a pineapple the same way again.
“As a host? Don’t be nervous. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“Um…I… uh…” The man just laughed, which made Mitsuo even redder. He could handle this. He was an adult now. Nothing to worry about.
“So…” Mitsuo said, his voice cracking a little. “You, um, come here a lot then?” Kenji chuckled and took a sip from his drink. Mitsuo eyed his own with distrust. The last thing he needed now was alcohol.
“You could say that,” Kenji said, a sad smile on his face. “I kind of grew up here.”
“You what?” There were age limits for type of work, Mitsuo was sure.
“Not like that,” his client explained. His gaze grew far away and he sighed. “My dad worked here – in the kitchen. I used to come here after school and study till all hours of the night. When I was still small enough he’d carry me home on his back.”
Mitsuo managed to forget all the trouble he was in while listening to the man talk. He had a soothing voice and told some very funny stories about hiding under tables and surprising unsuspecting hosts or boorish clients who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. It almost sounded like he was trying to protect the boys who worked here, which didn’t make sense if he was now their best customer.
“So why do you come here now?” he asked. Kenji accepted a plate of onigiri from their server and turned back to Mitsuo.
“It sounds stupid, but I miss the place.” Mitsuo looked around the dark room with its strangely intimate yet impersonal décor and made a face. Kenji smiled, looking a bit embarrassed. He poked at an onigiri with a chopstick.
“And I guess I miss my dad. He died about five years ago. I was away at university at the time. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. Last time I talked to him he was so excited – he had finally perfected his “masterpiece” and was going to get to serve it for the great Shigeta Miyamoto.”
Mitsuo almost choked on his drink. Kenji kindly patted him on the back until he stopped coughing.
“Anyway, they still use some of his recipes here and even though they don't always taste quite as good, sometimes I can pretend he’s just on the other side of those doors, cooking something just for me.”
Before Mitsuo could figure out how to respond, a shadow fell over the table and a warm, honeyed voice asked, “Mind if I join you?” Mitsuo’s eyes widened in panic, especially as he realized Kenji’s hand was still on his back.
“Ha…Ha… Hasunuma!” The person in question slid into the booth beside him, draping his arm possessively over Mitsuo’s shoulder.
“Oh dear,” Kenji said with a hint of amusement. “Is there something I should know?”
“That’s what I was going to ask,” Hasunuma answered. Mitsuo had great fantasies of the floor opening up and swallowing him, but the fates failed to indulge him. So he figured he’d go straight for the most important thing.
“What is your favorite dish?” he demanded of Kenji.
“What?” they both asked in unison.
“Your favorite dish? The one you miss most of all – the one that never tastes right even when you come here.”
Kenji looked confused but apparently didn’t mind indulging lunatics.
“That’s easy. Curry rice. Nobody makes it like dad did.”
“Great! That’s great! I mean … um… I’ll be right back…. Hasunuma will keep you company.”
“Can’t talk now,” he said clambering over his boyfriend’s legs. “Don’t go anywhere,” he ordered Kenji. The young man raised his eyebrows in surprise but didn’t object.
“Does he do that a lot?” Mistuo heard Kenji ask Hasunuma. A loud thud was all he heard in reply. He’d have to remember to check Hasunuma’s forehead for bruises when they got home.
He found Mr. Nakamura fretting by the deep fryer. “It’s about time!” he shouted crossly. “I need to start the jus.”
“Mr. Nakamura, you need to make a different dish.”
“What?? Are you an idiot????? This is my MASTERPIECE!”
“I think you should make curry rice.”
“Wha…. Hahahahahahaaha.. That is a good joke young man, but now we must get to work. The finger peppers are on the third shelf on the right in the refrigerator.”
“I just met your son – Kenji. He’s outside.”
“My son? My SON? HERE? What is he doing here? He is supposed to be working hard and making me some grandchildren, not loafing about in a place like this!”
“He misses you,” Mitsuo explained. “He misses your cooking.” For a moment Nakamura looked like he was going to protest again, but then a strange, pained look crossed the ghost’s face.
“He’s here?” He drifted away through the dining room wall and Mitsuo crept to the door and peeked out. Kenji was telling another story and Hasunuma was trying to listen politely while keeping an eye out for his troublemaking boyfriend. Mitsuo caught his eye and gave him the thumbs up signal.
“What are you doing here again?” Toto’s voice came from behind him, followed soon by a hand on his shoulder. A hand that slid around to cup the back of his head, the thumb caressing the skin behind his ear.
“Um… I … Kenji…”
“Mr. Nakamura,” Toto corrected.
“Um, right, he wanted some pickled onions,” he exclaimed.
“Oh he did, did he…” Toto said smoothly. It was only then Mitsuo remembered that pickled onions and anal sex were inextricably linked and he wanted to kick himself repeatedly but it was too late and…
“Is there a problem here?” It was Hasunuma’s voice again. Smooth as silk, as usual. Toto looked over at him, angry at first but then with something else. It had better not be lust, Mitsuo thought, his blood beginning to boil.
“No problem, sir,” Toto answered, assuming Hasunuma was a client. The boy always did look older than his age.
“My friend Kenji and I just found out that Mitsuo can cook his favorite dish, and we asked him to demonstrate. We hope that isn’t a problem.” Toto glanced over at Kenji who smiled and waved politely at them. Toto cleared his throat.
“No, no, of course not. Go right ahead, Mitsuo,” he said patting him on the ass. Mitsuo gulped and hurried away praying no one was about get hit.
At least this way he could cook out in the open without getting tossed out. Now he just needed to convince Nakamura to give up on his masterpiece.
The ghost floated in a few minutes later. “He’s so grown up now,” he said wistfully. “He’s an architect, you know. Was on the team that designed Nakatomi Towers. He’s going to be famous one day. Well, we’d best get back to the chicken.”
“But Mr. Nakamura,” he said once they were alone in the fridge, “you should be cooking for him – not some stupid critic who won’t even know it was you.”
“It doesn’t matter that if he knows my name – just that he tastes it and knows it was the best dish he’s ever eaten.”
“Until the next great chef comes along. Kenji comes in here every week to eat the food you used to make. But they can’t get it right. It’s close but it’s not yours.”
“Who is more important? Mr. Shigeta or that boy you used to carry home on your back?” The ghost looked desperately around the cooler, his eyes darting from the peppers to the potatoes.
“Isn’t Kenji your masterpiece?” The old man looked at Mitsuo and then back at the potatoes, his face breaking into a grin.
“That he is, my boy, that he is! Now, help peel some of those, and then we’re going to need to make a roux and, oh dear, what TIME is it?”
It was just after eleven when Mitsuo put the finishing touches on the plate of curry. The rest of the kitchen staff gathered round.
“Smells good, kid.”
“Yeah, you might actually have a future as a chef one day.”
“It kind of reminds of old Nakamura,” one of them said. A few others agreed.
“He always did make the best curry in town – even though they never put it on the menu.”
“Then how do you know?” a young prep cook asked.
“He made it for his boy all the time. And we always got the leftovers.”
Another man laughed and patted his stomach. “Curry night was always my favorite.” Nakamura gazed around at the group in amazement.
“I had no idea. I thought…. I thought…”
“It’s not always the flashy dish that wins the prize,” an older man said. They nodded their heads in agreement.
“Well, kid,” the soup man said. “You going to stare at it all night or serve it?”
“May I?” Nakamura asked quietly. Mitsuo didn’t even have to think about it.
“Of course,” he replied softly. The old chef slipped into Mitsuo’s body and carefully picked up the plate. Mitsuo headed straight through the wall to the table where he found an elderly gentleman had joined the pair he'd left there.
“That was you??” the new man laughed. “I was never so startled in all my life!” Kenji dropped his face into his hands and groaned.
“I was only six,” he protested. “I can’t be held responsible for things I did when I was six.”
“Still,” Hasunuma added unhelpfully, “a slug snake could give any man a heart attack when he’s not expecting it.” Kenji groaned again. All three looked up at the sound of a voice clearing.
“Ah… Kenji… this is for you.” He placed the dish in front of his son and Mitsuo could see the moment when the scent hit the young man's nostrils. His eyes widened in shock and he lifted the chopsticks with trembling hands. Almost reluctantly, as if he feared disappointment, he took a bite. His eyes glistened.
“How did you…”
Hasunuma leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Don’t ask too many questions. Just enjoy it.” Kenji seemed accept this and took another bite, ignoring the tear that had managed to break free.
“Well, now. And how was little Mitsuo’s treat?” The smarmy voice of Toto was accompanied by the roving hands.
Mitsuo was a little unclear afterwards exactly what happened next. He remembered Nakamura shooting out of his body like a rocket, and something that sounded like a thump or a thunk, and he thought he apologized to someone, and then a hand was tugging him along, but he clearly recalled the grey-haired man saying “this is the best curry rice I’ve ever tasted” and Kenji calling him Mr. Shigeta. And then he was out on the street and Hasunuma’s arms were around him and they were hustling down the road as if they were running from wolves.
“See, Hasu-chan. There was nothing to worry about!” Hasunuma groaned and pulled him into the nearest alley.
“What am I going to do with you?” he complained.
Mitsuo slid his hand under Hasunuma’s shirt. “I can think of a few things.” What could it hurt? His book bag was back in the restaurant kitchen so he wasn’t going to get any studying in tonight anyway.